What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Living in "The Memory Palace" -- Review and a Giveaway!

The author of The Memory Palace really isn't named Mira Bartok -- that's the name she chose to live under in order to escape what amounted to harassment from her schizophrenic mother, a highly gifted by highly troubled woman who ended up living on the streets, in contact with her children only via a post office box. It isn't until Norma is dying that she, Mira and Mira's sister are reconciled -- and Mira begins to revisit her childhood, trying to understand how and why she could reach the point where effectively abandoning her mother became the only rational choice.

As anyone who has followed my reading on this blog or elsewhere knows, I'm no fan of memoirs. Far too many of these things are designed to make their authors look like heroic survivors of some kind of bizarre trauma, and come across to the reader (or at least, this reader!) as both self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. Wandering through BookExpo in May 2010, I ended up chatting with a publicist for Bartok's publisher, who urged me to run out and buy a copy of the book as soon as it was published early this year. Being an obedient kinda person (well, sometimes...) I did as I was told, however warily -- and then discovered a remarkable memoir that acquired a position on my "top books of the year" list.  Bartok could have written a "poor, poor pitiful me" book -- and certainly had plenty of material to draw on. Instead, what she produced is an elegant and beautiful narrative, filled with a kind of poignant sadness.

What made this book distinctive? Well, let's start with Bartok's tone. She recounts her childhood history, including an occasion during which her mother attacked her with a broken bottle and cut her throat, with what I can only describe as a kind of dispassionate eloquence. You, the reader, feel Bartok's pain -- not just the physical pain of the assault but the emotional pain of not being able to rely on and trust her mother. Even when the violence wasn't present, Norma's illness left her paranoid and delusional, and her two young daughters end up sharing those fears. Eventually, Mira and her sister break away, travel, build careers and lives for themselves -- but they can never shake free of the early experiences that Bartok captures so vividly.

The way Bartok chose to recount her story also helped it transcend the memoir genre. It's literally a "memoir", a book about memory, from her mother's struggles with memory and reality to Bartok's own battle to regain and cling on to memories of her life, including her mother. She adopts an old technique, from which the title of the book is taken, imagining a memory palace, a place filled with objects that are tied to specific memories. Wandering through that palace, she can tap into the memories at will. Some of those memories are painful, but despite that Bartok is careful to portray her mother's reality as well as her own, quoting liberally from journals and letters, and marveling over the disparate objects from her dysfunctional childhood that she finds squirreled away in a storage locker.

How could a child deny her mother for nearly two decades? Read this book, and your question might change in nature. How, rather, does a child who endured such a difficult youth and adolescence find the strength and wisdom and compassion to return and re-evaluate those years? That's what Bartok has done, in admirable fashion. The result isn't always easy to read or comfortable, but it's emotionally honest, beautifully recommended and, by me, at least, highly recommended.


The best news of all is that, thanks to the publishers, I have one copy of the new paperback edition of this book (just out today) to give away to a lucky follower, chosen at random. To win, either comment below or send me an e-mail at UncommonReading@gmail.com, telling all of us (or just me) what books have made you reconsider genres that you'd previously felt uninterested in or alienated by -- and confirming that you're a follower of this blog. I'll pick one winner from all the e-mails and posts on Friday at midnight!


Courtesy of the publishers, here are some excerpts from a Q&A with the author of The Memory Palace. If this doesn't convince you that this is a book you should read, well, there's no hope...

Q: Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you?
A: I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace—on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.

Q: This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share?  
A: Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying. 

Q: Though this is a story about the lasting bond of parental love, it’s also very much about the unreliability of memory. What message did you most want to convey to readers about these subjects?
A: I never intended to get across any kind of message when I wrote the book. I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with traumatic brain injury (TBI), the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir (and you know who I mean!) but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. Oh, if writers only read a little more science, I’d be so happy! Anyway, I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself.

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace?
A: I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister, or friend.  I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc., will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted, and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food.  How is that for a happy ending?

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: How has it been sharing your story with others?
A: It’s been quite surprising. I had no idea this story would impact others the way it has. I am extremely moved when people come up to me after a reading with tears in their eyes, telling me that they have a mentally ill family member or they themselves have a brain injury. I am particularly happy when people tell me that the story inspired them and also challenged their assumptions about those less fortunate than themselves. And I am also quite pleased when someone gets the dark humor that comes up from time to time in the book. Believe or not, some passages are actually funny. As my grandma used to say, “Ya gotta laugh to stop from crying!”


  1. Dear Suzanne,

    I just came across your amazing review of my book and I wanted to thank you! Oddly enough, I am also not a big fan of memoir. At readings while on book tour, people keep asking me what are the memoirs I love to read and I always have to say, well, I guess I read a lot more poetry, graphic novels, fiction and weird science books than I do memoir. Anyway, thanks for writing such a lovely and authentic review.
    Best Wishes,