Cover image for The notebook of lost things
The notebook of lost things
Staffel, Megan, 1952-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Soho Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
231 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Library
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A novel about the power of love. Helene is forty-one; she enjoys sex with Harry, owner of Better Days, the local bar. But she will leave him if he cannot, just once, rise above the mundane and use his imagination so she can love him. Stella knows she loves Darryl, her high-school classmate, but her depressed, impoverished, weight-obsessed mother has to be her priority. And William Swick loves Uta, Helene's mother, loves her still although she died in a car accident two years earlier. On the anniversary of this death, each of them learns a lesson about the grace bestowed by love.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

This fresh and lucid tale about the denizens of a small New York town is sure to be Staffel's breakout book. It's autumn in rundown Paris, New York, and Helene and William are quietly mourning Uta's untimely and accidental death. A native of Dresden, Germany, Uta not only survived the apocalyptic firebombing, she managed to bring her two young children to this unlikely sanctuary. William, a book dealer and the town's only dwarf, took the destitute refugees into his home and experienced tenderness he'd thought impossible. Helene, Uta's daughter, now 40, inherited her mother's fortitude and earthiness. She looks after William, her surrogate father, and conducts a pragmatic affair with Harry, an impervious bar owner. Stirred by the golden melancholy of the season, she goads Harry into paying more attention to the world around him, leading to his discovery of the truth about the troubles of a lovely high-school student and her mentally imbalanced mother. Staffel's unusual characters are magnetic and her images surprising and resonant. And her prose is so silken and seamless, her novel flows like one long exhalation as she astutely traces life's cycle of coalescence and disintegration. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The intensity of Staffel's graphic first chapter, in which one of the protagonists guillotines a chicken, stands in contrast to the rest of this mild novel dealing with death and renewal among a group of sympathetic, small-town characters. It's been two years since the death of Helene Hugel's mother, Uta, a German survivor of the Dresden bombing. At the age of 39, Helene is still living in the once-prosperous farming town of Paris, N.Y., with "Uncle" William Swick, who took the family in when they arrived in America after WWII and later became Uta's lover. Searching for meaning in her own life, most directly through her habit of "inventing mysteries" or elaborating stories about ordinary people and events and persuading her boyfriend, Harry, to play along, Helene finds a notebook in which Uta catalogued her memories of the things she lost in Dresden. What little the reader sees of the notebook text is intriguing, but Staffel diminishes its impact by interweaving Uta and Helene's history with a substantial subplot featuring Stella Doyle, an impoverished Mexican-American teenager with an obese, alcoholic mother. Desperate about her mother's condition, Stella pawns the kitchen appliances and takes her to Chicago for acupuncture weight-loss therapy. The two plots don't quite fit together, even if the characters are connected by a few degrees of separation, but Staffel (She Wanted Something Else; A Length of Wire) deftly and tenderly weaves her cycle-of-life theme into an affecting narrative. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One At the farm on Eastern Road where Helene lived with William Swick, October was the month for killing chickens. Chicken death was the right activity for an October afternoon when the last of the insects buzzed in the high grass and the air was filled with leaf dust and drifting seeds. The afternoon sun slanted down over the hillside and even though it was warm, it was a distant, equivocal warmth because in the rot and sludge at the surface of the earth there was a trickle of something cold that overnight would get even more sluggish as it slipped into the medial stage between liquid and ice.     In the human world, things were more definite. There was the same slow ceaseless movement from one condition to the next but against the abruptness of certain human events, it was easy to overlook. Two years ago in October, Helene's mother had died. One year ago in October, her brother, Gunter, had packed his belongings and driven to San Francisco. That left only her and William Swick--her "Uncle" William--to occupy the big drafty house and somehow fill the portion of land on Eastern Road between the two bridges, a distance of a half mile that used to be hay field and pasture and now was uncut grasses.     After her mother died, Gunter had been the one to kill the chickens. Now the job came to her. Gunter did ten chickens on four days, preferring to get it over with quickly. She did one a day for as many days as it took. That way it became ordinary. She could think as she handled the bloody carcass, sift through the problems. There were always problems. The first and most pressing was her boyfriend, Harry, who in the month of October had turned fifty-seven, eighteen years older than she was. She thought he was contemptible. Were he to have a heart attack suddenly, she would be relieved. And yet ...     She caught a hen behind the chicken shed and as she held it in her arms she watched the black chicken eye taking in the hills and trees around them. Under her fingers, she could feel the pumping of its heart. She told the hen that one day she, Helene, would also die and she knew she would be just as scared as the hen was. She carried it to the patio and laid her head across the guillotine and locked her neck into place with the metal bar so it couldn't wiggle out. It would be the same for her one day, she told the chicken. She also wouldn't want to leave the earth that had surrounded her for so many years with this thickness of sounds and smells and textures. Just like the chicken's eyes, her eyes would roam the brown fields because it hadn't been enough, and what little there had been was so full and real and overpowering that it seemed inconceivable that it would end. How could it possibly?     Death was all around her, and yet Helene needed to rehearse it once to herself before she could kill the chicken. So she thought of how frost had killed the squash and tomato plants in the garden whose tall, luxuriant foliage in August had draped over the other vegetables. The goldenrod in the field, at first a brilliant yellow, was now gray and brown. The leaves on the skunk cabbage, thick and green in the spring, had shriveled up and turned the color of smoke. All around her there were endings, diminishments. And yet, a creature wanted to go on.     The chicken cackled. Without hesitation, she brought the blade down. The head tumbled off and the body tumbled over into her hands. Then it picked itself up and ran about, still cackling, the blood spurting out of the ragged hole where the head used to be, the wings flapping up and down uselessly. It was only nature, only the muscles' inability to stop doing what they had been doing every second of every day since the beak had made the first crack in the shell and the grand movements began. Helene ran after it, scooped it up, and held it against her apron until it was still. Then, holding the feet, she dunked it in the kettle of hot water to loosen the feathers. She pulled it out, dripping water, smelling of blood, and tied it to the maple tree, which looked like a molting chicken itself with half its leaves on the ground and the other half still hanging off its branches. In the early days, she would hold the chicken in front of a log on the ground, Gunter would keep its neck down between two nails with a stick, Uncle William would swing the ax, and her mother, appearing at the end with the kettle of hot water, would pluck and clean the carcass. Now, with Gunter in San Francisco, her mother someplace behind the curtains of the visible world, which the chicken was just now stepping through (no doubt pecking as it always did), and Uncle William down at the bookstore, dressing a chicken was a one-woman operation.     She made the first slit with the point of her knife. The skin squeaked as the metal sliced through the layer of flesh and outside air rushed into the sealed space of the chicken's cavity. She lifted the skin up, a flap with a thick yellow lining of fat, and put her hand into the warm insides. So hot. It was just what Harry said when he first entered her. "You're so hot." Yes, she'd tell him dreamily, yes. Carefully, she felt around the intestines and gently lifted them up into the sunlight. Against the yellow October afternoon the blue-gray guts spilling down onto the mass of feathers seemed out of place. The liver was lovely, though; she set it and the heart aside for Uncle, who was ignoble enough to crave another creature's organs. She supposed he would want the gizzard too, which she broke off from the intestines and set aside. Not even Uncle William would eat the lungs, curiously flat and insubstantial organs that she had to scrape out of the chest cavity. The other chickens moved around to the barn side and, seeing her on the patio, came running over. One of them would find the head and carry it around proudly to show it off, then in private peck at the closed eyes and the lumps of dried blood. The others would eat all the scraps that had fallen under the tree, everything except the feathers, which the wind, just now rolling down the valley, would lift up and scatter. * * * In the kitchen, Helene rinsed out the bird. She got the butcher knife from the drawer and cut off the feet. These she scrubbed with the vegetable brush, keeping them under water to flush out the dirt. They were bright yellow and leathery. She handled them with respect because even though the chicken's soul was no longer present, she believed that was where it had resided. She laid the feet between the legs and slipped the bird into a large plastic bag.     Her soul was in her cheeks, which turned red in cold weather, or at sex, or with booze. Her deepest feelings rode in her cheeks, which grew splotchy, giving her away when she was going to cry. Harry's soul was in his back, where he couldn't see it.     Outside, the chickens were still pecking in the puddle of guts. She emptied the kettle and turned it upside-down next to the house. The rope remained on the tree year after year and the guillotine stayed out until the end of the month, when Uncle William would scrub the rust off the blade, oil the hinge, and wrap his invention in a flannel sheet for the next season. The wind stirred up the feathers lying on the ground and ruffled the grass. The leaves lay under the maple like a huge yellow skirt, but they were too heavy with dew for the breeze to move. They mirrored the sun, which spotted the cement patio and made the peeling clapboard on the house look beautiful. The gutter that had fallen off last winter was still on the ground and the section that would probably fall off in the first autumn storm dangled from its one hanger. But the disrepair of the property was only a part of the general swelling up of nature on a parcel of land where cows hadn't grazed for many years and neither a tractor nor a chainsaw interrupted the constant drone of insects. The hills lifted up on either side of the house. Their wooded slopes had always been too steep for the tractor and in the days when Uncle William was a boy and his father managed the farm, there were always a couple of workhorses to skid the logs out of the forest. But the horses were gone now, the barn had settled into the land, and one day it would lean too recklessly into the arms of the wind and then it would collapse, scattering a century's accumulation of hay dust.     Helene watched the sun riding up the sky in the East towards noon. Past the curtain behind recognizable things, past the sun and the barn and the hillside, were the chickens she had killed so far and her mother and all the other dead she didn't know about. In the West was San Francisco where cars and trucks rumbled across Gunter's path. She and William were the only ones left here in the center. Copyright © 1999 Megan Staffel. All rights reserved.