Self Storage: A Novel

Overview

Flan Parker has always had an inquisitive mind, searching for what’s hidden below the surface and behind the door. Her curious nature and enthusiastic probing have translated into a thriving resale business in the university housing complex where she lives with her husband and two young children. Flan’s venture helps pay the bills while her husband works on his dissertation, work that lately seems to involve more loafing on the sofa watching soap operas than reading or writing. The secret of her enterprising ...
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Self Storage: A Novel

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Overview

Flan Parker has always had an inquisitive mind, searching for what’s hidden below the surface and behind the door. Her curious nature and enthusiastic probing have translated into a thriving resale business in the university housing complex where she lives with her husband and two young children. Flan’s venture helps pay the bills while her husband works on his dissertation, work that lately seems to involve more loafing on the sofa watching soap operas than reading or writing. The secret of her enterprising success: unique and everyday treasures bought from the auctions of forgotten and abandoned storage units.

When Flan secures the winning bid on a box filled only with an address and a note bearing the word “yes,” she sets out to discover the source of this mysterious message and its meaning. Armed with a well-worn copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that she turns to for guidance and solace, Flan becomes determined to find the “yes” in her own life. This search inward only strengthens her desire to unearth the hidden stories of those around her–in particular, her burqa-clad Afghan neighbor. Flan’s interest in this intriguing and secretive woman, however, comes at a formidable price for Flan and her family.

Set during the year following the September 11 attacks, Self Storage explores the raw insecurities of a changed society. With lush writing, great humor, and a genuine heart, Gayle Brandeis takes a peek into the souls of a woman and a community–and reveals that it is not our differences that drive us apart but our willful concealment of the qualities that connect us.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Advance praise for Self Storage

“A novel of passion and consequence, identity and accountability. I love the narrator, her children, her wild ride, and this truly American story of getting mad and getting wise.”
–Barbara Kingsolver

“If you doubt that a deadly serious thread–also somehow all but laugh-out-loud funny–can connect the pillage of metal storage units, the fierce devotion of family, the rape of human sensibility, and the pursuit of art, read Self Storage by Gayle Brandeis. Or better yet, just take the hand of its greathearted and deeply bewildered heroine, Flan, and hang on for the ride.”
–Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of Cage of Stars

“The personal and the political collide in Gayle Brandeis’s complex and witty new Self Storage. [The] novel illuminates the way we define our loved ones, our neighbors, and ourselves.”
–Amanda Eyre Ward, author of How to be Lost

“Gayle Brandeis’s marvelous new novel is a rare thing: a story of love, marriage, and friendship that stirs our most tender emotions without manipulation or bathos.”
–Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits

“Beautifully written and warmed with wit, this is a bold, brave meditation on both the family and the whole family of man.”
–Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls in Trouble

“Deftly plotted and engagingly told, Gayle Brandeis’s new novel is a suspenseful, thought-provoking, and inspiring exploration of what it means to be a sensitive and thoughtful human being living in George W. Bush’s America.”
–Adam Langer, author of Crossing California

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Flan Parker is floundering: her sweet but hapless husband, Shae, is procrastinating on finishing his dissertation, their young children are running wild, and the beloved yard sales she holds in their University of California-Riverside student housing cul-de-sac are under fire from the housing office. Then Flan becomes fascinated with her Afghani neighbors, particularly the wife, Sodaba, hidden beneath a burqa. When Sodaba, pulling into her driveway, accidentally runs over Flan's daughter, racial tension in the community is heightened. The unlikely friendship that develops between Sodaba and Flan in the accident's aftermath sparks its share of trouble as the FBI begins investigating Sodaba's husband for suspected ties to terrorism. Flan is an endearing, juicy character: well-intentioned, less than perfect, with a love of the old and faded (the ancient copy of Leaves of Grass she totes around and frequently quotes, for instance). Unfortunately, the inevitable political discussions (the book is set in the summer of 2002, and fears of another 9/11-style attack run rampant) are unsatisfying and banal. Brandeis, a winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction (described as "in support of a literature of social change), clearly wants to provoke social reflection. The book is most powerful when focusing on small, intimate moments. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Brandeis (The Book of Dead Birds, winner of Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize) has written a paean to Walt Whitman's Song of Myself. Protagonist Flan supports her family by going to self-storage auctions and selling the contents of the storage units; her husband is a graduate student struggling to finish his thesis. Although their housing complex includes families from many nations, their Islamic Afghan neighbors are treated as outcasts, particularly when Sodaba accidentally hits Flan's daughter with her car. Despite this incident, Flan helps Sodaba go into hiding when she faces deportation. Meanwhile, themes and snippets of Whitman's poem appear throughout the novel, as Flan and her family struggle to find their authentic selves. Parts feel forced, such as when the stereotypical white middle-class woman accuses the Afghan couple of being terrorists, but readers will identify with Flan's quest to go beyond the daily grind. Recommended for most libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/06.] Amy Ford, St. Mary's Cty. Lib., Lexington Park, MD Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An agreeable, if somewhat routine, novel of a young woman attempting to bring order and meaning to her life, from the author of The Book of Dead Birds (2003). Flan (short for Flannery) has an unusual occupation-she attends auctions at self-storage units, buying the contents of the unpaid lock-ups. She bids only on the small stuff, units filled with boxes of knick-knacks and old clothes, ten-dollar investments she sells at her Saturday yard sales. It's not much, but it supplements the lean lifestyle of her family of four-husband Shae, a doctoral student, who bores Flan with his endless quoting of Baudrillard, and their two young children, Noodle and Nori. Living in student housing, Flan enjoys the excitement of an international life by proxy-her friends and neighbors are research fellows and doctoral candidates from all over the world, which includes the Afghan couple across the way, a man and his mysterious burqa-wearing wife Sodaba. Set in the months after 9/11, their presence is a constant source of curiosity, and for some, anger borne of racism. Flan watches Sodaba at the community pool swimming in her burqa, sees her skittering into her house to avoid the neighbors, and wonders why she wants to wear that big black thing in America. Though Flan is characterized by the author as bright (she was set to go to Reed College before she met Shae), part of the novel's misstep is that she seems a bit of a dim bulb. She spends much of her time searching frantically for her kids, until tragedy finally hits-while Flan and Shae are indisposed, two-year-old Nori leaves the house and is hit by none other than Sodaba, driving without a license. As Nori lies in a hospital bed, Flan decides to saveSodaba from deportation (and maybe death) while fending off Child Protective Services for being an unfit parent. All the while, Flan draws strength from reading her mother's old copy of Leaves of Grass, which saves her in more ways than one. A bit too tidily resolved to be wholly convincing, but a pleasant read nonetheless.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345492616
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,086,076
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.93 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Gayle Brandeis is the author of the novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, and Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Part One

"Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

I celebrate myself

Sorry. I just can’t do it.

Walt Whitman starts “Song of Myself,” the greatest poem in the world, with those three words. I wish I could follow his lead, start the same way, but I can’t. The words sound tinny in my own voice—arrogant, wrong. Maybe someday I’ll be able to say “I celebrate myself” freely, even joyfully, like he does, but I’m not there yet.

Whitman’s book saved my life. Leaves of Grass saved my ass. If it wasn’t for that book, I might be in jail right now. If it wasn’t for that book, I wouldn’t be writing this one.

I have to admit, it’s a bit intimidating to write under Whitman’s long and illustrious shadow. I suppose I could try to picture him in his underwear. It worked for Marcia Brady when she gave her big speech (not that Whitman was in the audience at Westdale High). I have an advantage: I’ve already seen Whitman naked. A series of photos by Thomas Eakins from the early 1880s—“Old man, seven photographs.” Whitman’s name isn’t mentioned, but I can tell it’s him. Others have thought so, too. He was pretty cute for a sixty-something-year-old. I love how his belly pouches out just a little, the way my daughter Nori’s does over her diaper. I love the way he cocks one hip to the side—a little peevish, a little saucy. I love seeing him stripped bare.

I guess I have to strip myself bare here. I have to unload all that happened these last few months. If I write it down, there’s a chance I’ll begin to understand it.

One image keeps coming back to me. An image of Sodaba, my neighbor from Afghanistan, hunched inside the storage locker. The front of her burqa was flipped up off her face; it hung down the back of her head like a nun’s habit. She was turned slightly away from me; tendrils of hair were plastered against the side of her neck. The wide plane of her left cheek was slick with sweat. That was the first time, the only time, I saw any part of her face. I never learned the true shape of her lips or nose, the full scope of her eyes—just that wet expanse of skin before she realized I was there and pulled the veil back down. The skin of her cheek looked so smooth. It gives me chills to think about it now.

But that’s not where I want to start.

I want to go back to my normal life, before her life collided with mine. Back when I had more simple things to worry about—my kids’ lunches, my husband’s TV addiction, the auctions I attended each week.

The auctions. Of course. I could celebrate my self-storage auctions. That is something I think I could do.

This is how the auctions work.

You get one minute with a flashlight.

The auctioneer breaks open the padlock with a blowtorch or bolt cutters, and you get one minute to stand in the doorway of the storage locker. One minute to peer inside and decide whether the wrinkled black trash bags, the taped cardboard boxes, the bicycle parts and beach chairs and afghans that reveal themselves in your mote-filled path of light, are worth your while.

You learn to trust your intuition. You learn to listen to that ping inside your gut that tells you to bid. You learn to look for the subtle clues—the shopping bags with a Beverly Hills address, the boxes marked fragile with a sharp black marker. You learn to avoid certain smells—mold and mildew are no good; you’ll probably end up with a bunch of old sweatshirts and socks that someone put in the wash but never bothered to dry properly, just left them to rot in plastic sacks. You develop a sixth sense for the smell of jewelry, the smell of electronics. TVs emit a hot, charged smell, even if they haven’t been turned on for years, while diamonds smell blue, like sweet cold water.

You try to remember that you’re bidding on someone else’s misfortune. Someone who couldn’t pay for their storage locker, who let it lapse into lien. You try to remember that you are benefiting from someone’s sadness, someone’s failure, that the money you’ll gain from this merchandise will come from someone else’s loss. You try to remember that there was a self who first put these items in storage, a self who one day planned to take them all back, a self who will miss these photo albums and brittle swim fins and frames filled with dried beans. But you push this all aside when the auctioneer says “Bidding will start at one dollar,” and your own self muscles its way to the front, and your own hand flies into the air.

I lifted my chin. Just the slightest tick. A few centimeters at the most. A small tilt of the head, a concurrent yet subtle lift of the brow. I wanted to see how small I could make my movement and still be noticed by the auctioneer. The auctioneer standing on a step stool in his Hawaiian print golf shirt and cargo shorts, the auctioneer with his Ray-Bans and poofy hair, saying “TendoIheartententengoingoncegoingtwice . . . ,” his mouth looking too solid to go so fast. Then he said “Sold to Flan Parker for ten dollars,” and I felt like I had been granted superpowers.

Early in my auction career, I waved both arms to bid. Soon I shifted to one flailing arm. Then one calm arm. Then a single hand. Then a finger. Then the chin. I thought maybe I would get to the point where the auctioneer would notice my pupils dilating, and that would be that.

I fanned myself with the auction list and gave my two-year-old daughter a sip of water. I wished I had been granted superpowers to keep us cool. The year 2002 was one of the hottest on record so far. Even the palm trees seemed to be drooping in the hundred-degree early-June weather. Everything at EZ Self Storage seemed to be drooping, not necessarily because of the intense Riverside heat. It was an older self-storage complex, and the owners hadn’t done much to spruce it up over the years. Like most self-storage establishments, it consisted of row upon row of low, rectangular buildings fronted with a series of garage doors. The walls were all unpainted cinder block, gray and crumbly-looking; the roll-up doors had probably been bright yellow at some point, but now were dinged and hammered into a dull, bruised shade. The asphalt on the ground was cracked and pitted, shot through with weeds. I wondered who would want to store their stuff in such a decrepit place.

I looked into the unit I had won. I couldn’t wait to find out what was inside one particular JCPenney’s bag. The plastic sack looked blocky, like it was full of transistor radios. Possibly bricks of gold.

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine.

“Good work,” said Mr. Chen-the-elder, a dapper junk-shop owner and fellow bidder. He patted me on the shoulder and ruffled Nori’s white-blond hair. The auctioneer folded up his step stool and put his clipboard under one arm, his red three-foot-long bolt cutters under the other. The crowd of eight or so of us rambled after him to the next garage door, the last unit of the day, a ten-by-fifteen, most likely out of my league. I just went for the “Flan lots,” as my auction cronies had dubbed them. No big-ticket items, just modest assortments of boxes and bags, things I could easily carry to the car myself while pushing Nori’s stroller. I was usually able to get them for the opening bid. Most of the bidders weren’t interested in the small stuff—they wanted the furniture, the appliances, the big-money pieces; most of them were dealers with pawnshops or stalls in antiques stores. My yard sales were small potatoes. The lots full of antiques could start at over $100 and could go to several hundred, cash only, but they were still a steal. People generally earned back at least twice what they paid in auction once they sold the goods; sometimes they earned back ten times the amount. Sometimes more.

The lot on the block was full of instruments—a drum kit with amendz written on the front of the bass drum in electrical tape, a couple of guitars plastered with stickers, a stand-up bass, a saxophone, all set up like the band had just left to get their requisite groupie blow jobs. A few beer bottles and a couple of towels were scattered over the concrete floor. The storage unit had obviously been a rehearsal space. How could a band let all their instruments go into lien? Maybe everyone died in a Central American bus crash; maybe their wives had nagged them into giving up their rock ’n’ roll dreams.

Nori struggled to get out of her stroller. I had augmented the buckle with a complicated knotting of twine to thwart her escape attempts. Nori had become quite the little Houdini lately; it was getting harder to restrain her.

“Tigars, Mama!” She pointed to the guitars. I tried to hush her; the auction was about to start. I wasn’t very successful—she screamed at the injustice of being trapped in her small canvas seat. The auctioneer raised his speeding voice.

Mr. Chen-the-younger, a slightly shabbier version of his father, lifted a finger when the bidding reached $250. Yolanda Garcia gave her bouffant-fluffed head a quick tilt to the right when it got to $375. Soon after, Norman, the crusty old swap-meet man, shouted “Right here” over Nori’s cries of protest, lifting both of his veiny hands.

“Sold to Norman for $425,” the auctioneer bellowed. “Good going, everyone.” He shot Nori a slightly reproachful glance. “I’ll meet y’all in the office for payment.”

It was an easy transaction for me—ten bucks for at least a dozen bags and boxes. I couldn’t wait to bring them home and crack them open.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. How does the excerpt from the Marge Piercy poem that serves as the epigraph to the novel set the stage for what follows? Why do you think the author chose this particular passage?

2. At self-storage auctions, Flan bids on objects that used to belong to other people, and, in many cases, were important to those people. How do objects inform our sense of identity? Do you believe some part of our selves is stored within the ephemera of our lives?

3. Do you have any experience with self-storage facilities? Did the novel change your impression of secondhand goods?

4. When Flan first meets Julia, she fantasizes about kissing her. Later, she has other fantasies about sexual encounters involving women and men with whom she comes into contact. Are these feelings the result of Flan’s frustration with her relationship with Shae, or is something else happening?

5. Is Flan right to help Sodaba? Can you imagine other ways of helping her than the ways Flan chooses? What would you do in Flan’s position?

6. How does education—both formal and otherwise—affect the characters in Self Storage?

7. Flan and her family experience communal living of a sort in their family student housing neighborhood. How do their living arrangements impact the events of the novel? Have you ever experienced a similar sense of community?

8. Are Shae and Flan responsible parents? Do they become better parents over the course of the story?

9. What role does motherhood play in the novel? Who are the strongest maternal figures? The most surprising?

10. Were you familiar with the work of Walt Whitman before reading Self Storage? If so, did the excerpts here—and the role Whitman plays in Flan’s life—change your impression of him? If you were not familiar with Whitman’s poetry, are you inclined to read more of it now?

11. When Flan finds a piece of paper with “yes” written on it inside a box, it leads her on a quest to discover the source of “yes” in her life. Is her quest successful? What is the source of “yes” in your own life? Have you ever thought of the word in this way?

12. Self Storage takes place in the year following the 9/11 attacks. How has America changed since that day? How does the novel reflect that change?

13. When Flan decides to sell her copy of Leaves of Grass, do you think that means that she has moved beyond her need for Whitman, that she is free of him? If not, how might Whitman continue to play a role in Flan’s life?

14. At the end of the novel, Flan fears that she is about to be arrested and perhaps “disappeared” by the government for her role in spiriting Sodaba to safety. Are her fears justified, or does running away represent an opportunity for Flan to change her life? Do you view this ending as hopeful, or ominous?

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