Mira Bartók: The Memory Palace & Jenny Lawson: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen
Photo courtesy of flickr/david_shankbone

Before I’m allowed to purchase a single t-shirt on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “on-trend” website, StyleMint, the twins bombard me with a series of photos designed to help them understand my “Style Profile.”

For a girls’ night out — would I wear skinny jeans or a mini skirt? For retail therapy – would I hit H&M or Neiman Marcus? For my day off work — sun dress or boyfriend jeans?

The whole process throws me into a mild panic. I am such a fashion disaster that a friend once suggested I simply burn my entire closet and have someone else pick my wardrobe.

But I muddle through the Olsen twins’ Proust Questionnaire, and the Full House girls finally label me “Classic Chic” (read: boring) and offer me a series of up-the-middle t’s designed, clearly, for their least fashion-forward customers.

Similarly, and for no good reason other than I happened to read them consecutively in the past couple weeks, I’m going to say “Bartók or Lawson?” could likewise define your own memoir “Style Profile.” (I’m guessing the Olsen twins and these authors have never been mentioned in the same breath before).

Anyway, Mira Bartók’s The Memory Palace (Free Press), which won the National Book Critics Circle 2011 autobiography award last month, is an elegant and harrowing literary endeavor about the artist’s coming to terms with her schizophrenic mother. Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) is an hilarious – if somewhat rickety – ride through Lawson’s redneck childhood in the Texas outback.

Which memoir would you choose to read?

Bartók’s The Memory Palace lays its erudite ambitions right in its title, which refers to a mnemonic device introduced in ancient Greece and elaborated upon by a 16th-century Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci. The strategy involves affixing each memory to an image, and then placing each memory/image in an imaginary palace in one’s mind. Bartók uses the mnemonic as an overarching structure for the book.

“My mind was full of so many pictures — with each one I could build a different room, each room could lead me to a memory, each memory to another. Since I knew what Ricci didn’t at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same.”

One of the first images Bartók chooses to “place” is a moment in 1964 when she’s five-years old and living in a second-floor flat on the west side of Cleveland. Bartók recalls standing in the bedroom she shared with her sister and hearing a “low, gutteral sound followed by chattering and laughter.” Bartók wants to hide but doesn’t know why. Tiptoeing into the living room, she finds her mother, the former piano prodigy Norma Herr, in her underwear, stumbling around and speaking in strange voices before beginning to spin wildly, holding a long shiny knife and making slicing motions through the air. Mira sees the open windows next to the living room and wonders if her mother will jump.

Mira Bartók
Photo by Doug Plavin

“I don’t know how it ends, this scene – the beginning of knowledge, the knowledge that I have a secret I must keep from the outside world.”

As Herr slips into madness, her interactions with her daughters become increasingly violent until Bartók and her sister both decide to change their names and sever contact. Over the next few decades, Herr alternates between shelters and homelessness as Bartók keeps only loose tabs on her mother from a remote distance. Bartók’s guilt over abandoning her mother in her sickness percolates throughout the narrative.

“People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Bartók is later told.

But Bartók – and the reader – find scant comfort in this sentiment.

The slipperiness of memory is a theme that lies at the heart of much memoir, but memory issues loom even larger for Bartók, who at the age of 40 sustained a brain injury in a car accident that left her with partial amnesia and cognitive difficulties. Seven years later, in 2006, Bartók was put in contact with her mother for the first time in 17 years after a nurse tracked Bartók down. Rushing along with her sister to their mother’s hospital bedside, Bartók discovered that her mother was dying. Bartók also discovered keys to a storage unit filled with notebooks and keepsakes.

Bartók’s memoir brews during the process of sorting through the storage unit and tending to her dying mother. Childhood artifacts evoke tattered memories, which Bartók renders with an artistic sensibility. Bartók judiciously refrains from overloading her narrative with violent episodes – just a peppering of images of a small child facing a gun-toting grandfather and raging mother are enough to provide the heartrending picture. And although Bartók’s meditation on memory does not strike one as particularly original or acute, the mnemonic structure provides a lovely vessel for her graceful contemplation of family tragedy.

Switching gears (much too abruptly), now — no one has ever called Jenny Lawson graceful.

The Bloggess,” as Lawson is known to the millions who follow her blog each month, hit it big last year with her post about “Beyoncé,” a giant metal chicken she purchased (on sale!) at a discount store to get back at her husband, who refused to allow her to buy towels (he thought they had enough – duh). In retaliation for the towel restriction, Lawson stationed the enormous chicken (made from oil drums) at her front door, then rang the bell and hid around the corner to watch her husband’s reaction from a safe distance. In her post, a photo shows the five-foot, rainbow-colored chicken facing a closed front door with the caption, “Knock-knock, motherfucker.” The post, titled “And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles,” went viral with 300,000 clicks in 24 hours and has now been read by more than two million.

In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, out this week, Lawson recounts her childhood in West Texas, where her dad created a taxidermy shop in a back shed and her mom was the lunch lady in her school cafeteria. “My dad was always rescuing animals, and by ‘rescuing animals’ I mean ‘killing the mother, and then discovering she had babies, and bringing the babies home to raise them in the bathtub.’” One of which, a raccoon the family dressed in home-sewn Jams and named “Rambo,” enjoyed turning on the sink faucets and washing random things (Lawson considered turning him into a tiny butler). One day, though, Lawson’s sister bopped Rambo on the nose and the racoon flipped out, jumping on the sister’s face, as Lawson recollects: “He grabbed on to her ears like he was some kinda horrible raccoon mask, and he was hissing and looking right into her eyes, like, “I WILL BRING YOU DOWN, BITCH,” and my sister was screaming and flailing her arms and it was totally awesome.”

The sheer volume of Lawson’s rapid-fire comedy about her childhood is truly impressive, but unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Lawson she was writing a book and not a blog, and the writing can skew toward sophomoric babble, such as, “I wish I were joking about that, but I’m totally not” or “All of this will be fixed by my editor by the time you read this anyway, so really I could write anything here.”

Jenny Lawson
Photo courtesy of the author

I’m not saying a book can’t be brilliantly and hilariously casual, but I get cranky when a book-length memoir reads like a high school kid’s text message. Then again, Lawson has the ability to buy my love (mostly) back with not only some deeply personal — and tragic — moments, but also with the delightful absurdity of her anecdotes.

Consider Lawson’s entirely juvenile yet snicker-worthy recounting of an argument she had with her husband about the proper receptacle to use for barf: “He was all, ‘Vomit bowl? Who uses a vomit bowl?!’ and I was all, ‘I use a vomit bowl. Everyone uses a vomit bowl. You keep it near you in case you can’t make it to the toilet,’ and he was all, ‘No, you use a trash can,’ and I was like, ‘You sick fuck. I’m not throwing up in a trash can. That’s totally barbaric.’”

Reading Lawson’s memoir is similar to what I imagine it would be like to ride in a monster truck – a wildly bumpy ride with brief moments of hair-raising thrill, where you find yourself wearing a huge shit-eating grin despite the fact that you’re also thinking, “Holy fuck, I’m riding in a monster truck!”

So anyway, which book would I choose to define my memoir “Style Profile”? The elegantly intelligent Bartók or the hilarious hayseed Lawson?

There’s room, of course, in my bookcase for both.


Jenny Lawson will speak tonight in a conversation with Soleil Moon Frye at 7:30 in a Writer’s Bloc event at the Writers Guild Theater.

Cheryl Strayed: Wild

It was not so much a call from the mountains as a view from the gutter that led Cheryl Strayed to embark on a three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

After the death of her beloved mother and the fraying of her once close-knit family, Strayed had begun a downward spiral in her life that included serial adultery, heroin addiction, and divorce – all by the time she was 26 years old.

Like most rash pronouncements made from the depths of despair, Strayed’s decision to get her life together by hiking a trail that runs along contiguous mountain ranges from Southern California through Oregon and Washington was utterly preposterous: although she had helped tame a plot of land in the Minnesota north woods as an adolescent with her family, and she had camped a bit, she had never once strapped on a backpack and slept alone in the wilderness.

As you can imagine, Strayed made more than a few missteps along her trek.

Strayed tells the story of her momentous hike in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, out this month from Knopf, and it’s Strayed’s unflinching portrayal of her many monumental blunders – both on and off the trail – that makes Wild such a courageous and captivating memoir.

Strayed, a well-respected magazine writer who is also the author of the novel Torch (2006) as well as the popular “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, waited nearly 20 years to write her hiking memoir – and the result is an artfully-rendered narrative that not only amusingly retraces her steps along the PCT, but also skillfully assimilates significant moments from her pre-trail life.

Strayed was 22 years old when her dauntless mother, a woman whose love was “full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned,” was diagnosed with lung cancer. Strayed’s mother, a single mom who had left Strayed’s abusive, biological father when the children were young, was the kind of woman who would entertain her kids with sugar-water spiked with food coloring, who scraped her pennies together to buy a beloved horse, and who (with a second husband) purchased a plot of rural land in Minnesota and brought her kids to help build a house on it. “It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her.”

Strayed’s mother died less than two months after being diagnosed, and Strayed was inconsolable — “I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal.”

For Strayed, the loss sent her life into a tailspin, and she began to cheat on her sweet, faithful husband, Paul, whom she still loved. Strayed’s sexual “straying” amounted to more than just a few casual affairs – one could probably call it a full-blown (pardon the pun) sex addiction. “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. . . . I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again.” During one five-day bender that included three different men, she had sex with a massage therapist who gave her a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. (Not to be flip, but one wonders how Strayed received so many offers of sex. For her solo hike on the PCT, she stowed eleven condoms in her pack. I won’t say if she used them).

After revealing her infidelity to Paul (which ended their marriage), she took off from their home in Minneapolis for Portland, hoping to leave her troubles behind. Instead, she found a punk-haired young lover who got her pregnant and addicted to heroin. In the mornings, she sobbed over her squalid surroundings, but in the afternoons, she returned from waitressing with a wad of cash for more drugs.

Strayed was rescued, mercifully, by the heroic Paul, who drove her out of Portland and back to Minneapolis. Sobbing, one day, over the “sick mire” she had made of her life, Strayed suddenly remembered a book she had recently noticed on a store shelf – The Pacific Coast Trail, Volume I: California. “The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face.” Strayed began to see hiking the California-Oregon-Washington portion of the PCT (which actually runs from Mexico to Canada) as a way to save her soul.

For the next few months, Strayed soberly prepared for her journey: “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had ever made my life ridiculous.”

In short order, up on the trail, Strayed found herself ridiculous again – her pack (which she began calling “Monster”) was so ludicrously overweight she could barely lift it. At one point, Strayed watched one of her (too small) hiking boots sail over a cliff into oblivion. And one night, after camping too close to a reservoir, she woke up covered with tiny frogs.

Strayed’s memoir works simply because she is such a charming travel companion. Even hiking solo on the PCT she manages to befriend dozens of other hikers who have read about her on the trail’s register books, and who begin to refer to her as the “Queen of the PCT.”

What must have been so endearing for those she met along the trail – and what remains so relatable for readers — is Strayed’s humble ability to find herself absurd. As with most memoirs of floundering, we are delighted because we have been there — we recognize ourselves in that lost woman in the woods, and we are thankful to have her chart of the wilderness.


Cheryl Strayed will speak with L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum at a Zocalo Public Square event at MOCA on Wednesday, Apr. 4 at 7:30.

Dan Chaon: Stay Awake

Imagine watching a car wreck, over and over again, in slow motion.

Such is the nightmare ensconced in Dan Chaon’s perturbing new collection out this month, Stay Awake (Ballantine).

Violence looms in each of the stories, buzzing up to the surface along with the repressed memories that keep Chaon’s (predominantly male) protagonists on the brink of sanity. Cars wreak the most havoc, continually tumbling into the darkness and crumpling the bodies of their careless drivers. But Chaon finds other methods of maiming his characters as well — fingers are repeatedly severed, a drunken girl falls out of a tree. And no one sleeps.

In the opening story, “The Bees,” a young boy’s night terrors escalate just as his father’s horrific, hidden history returns like the tide. The father, Gene, a former alcoholic, spent years terrorizing a previous wife and child before finally abandoning them in a drunken rage that ended in a car wreck. Gene’s new wife, Karen, doesn’t know the extent of the hideousness Gene inflicted on his ex- family, but Gene’s secrets threaten to destroy them all.

Throughout, Chaon meditates on the desire to escape death: “even when our death is imminent, we carry the image of ourselves moving forward, alive, into the future.” Hence, all the car trouble – autos are like an extension of the body, their forward movement a metaphor for our desire to continue to be propelled forward, even as we’re dying.

The primary method of propelling yourself into the future, of course, is by having children. “You want a child because it is a link in the bridge that you are building between the past and the future, a cantilever that holds you, so that you are not alone.” Chaon’s stories explore our relentless and reckless desire for procreation; they also turn the spotlight on all the suffering children left in their parents’ temerarious paths. Chaon’s parental characters are selfish, blind predators, capable of instilling incredible fear and unspeakable violence – children are taken on terrifying roller coaster rides, or left in abandoned houses, or worse.

In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” college-dropout Brandon continues to live at his parents’ house even after his parents commit suicide in their bedroom. In “I Wake Up,” a couple adopts a foster child, Robbie, after their own child has died. Robbie’s biological sister, Cassie, then begins prompting Robbie to remember their biological mother’s heinous acts.

Chaon is the author of the novels Await Your Reply (2009) and You Remind Me of Me (2004). In Stay Awake, he delivers the kind of short story mastery he showed in Among the Missing (2001), a finalist for a National Book Award.

If you have children of your own, you will read Stay Awake at night with one eye on their bedrooms. You will wait anxiously as each story delivers up its deliciously unnerving morsel of trepidation. Then you will creep into your children’s rooms and – against all reason – promise to keep them safe.


Dan Chaon will speak at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, April 21-22 at USC.