Come and Get These Memories: Daniel Handler Gathers Evidence in 'Why We Broke Up'

With Valentine's Day lurking around the corner, lonely hearts might be particularly pleased with the latest book by Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, the man who popularized malaise for the grade school set.

Handler's book, Why We Broke Up, is the arty-angsty sturm und drang teen novel by the author of the doom and gloom tongue-in-cheeky A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Paired with Maira Kalman's illustrations, the book takes the form of a letter that accompanies a box that lands -- thunk -- on the doorstep of an ex-boyfriend. Min, a high school girl, has packed up the debris of their brief love affair and has dumped the whole box back into his life. Two bottle caps, the stolen sugar, a comb from a motel, a protractor, movie tickets, a condom wrapper -- each item tells a tale and each tale is illustrated by a drawing.

Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, two artists who bring humor and quirk to their work, will discuss their new collaboration -- among other stuff -- as part of the City Arts and Lectures series tonight (Friday, February 3, 2012).


Kalman, who is widely known for her narrative art, will also be interviewed for a West Coast Live radio program, which will be broadcast live on Saturday, February 4.

Her work appears, among other places, in The New Yorker and The New York Times. She wrote two monthly columns for The New York Times, "The Principles of Uncertainty" and And The Pursuit of Happiness, which is the artist's year-long investigation of democracy and how it works. The exhibition of her narrative art, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) opened at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco last year. In addition to Why we Broke Up, she has recently illustrated a new edition of Food Rules by Michael Pollan. (Food Rule # 1 is Broccoli.)

While Kalman's whimsy recalls the cartoonery of Roz Chast, Lemony Snicket's gloomy disposition is very much in the vein of Edward Gorey. And Gorey -- for you fans of Goth-based mirth-misery -- will have his would-be 87th birthday feted on February 22 at the Cartoon Art Museum Bookstore with a special evening of Gorey-themed entertainment.

For those not attending the City Arts and Lectures talk tonight, or if teen heartbreak doesn't speak to you, you can still opt into the desolation commiseration (and/or schadenfreude) of romances gone awry; Handler has created an online complement to his book called The Why We Broke Up Project, which invites users to share their (succinct) break up stories.

Users are asked to group their break-ups into categories: "I Can't Believe You Said That;" "I Cant Believe Your Wore That;" "I Can't Believe That's What You Thought;" "I Just Can't Believe It;" and several other categories. One "I Can't Believe You Wore That" post, for instance, is "I knew I had to break up with Ann Rosenberg after she chose a teal dress for the prom. I had never heard of teal. Also, I was gay." This from Brian Selznick, author And illustrator of The Invention Of Hugo Cabret.

Another favorite: "The boy I loved didn't know I existed. Then again, he was obsessed with Camus, so he didn't know if any of us existed."

If posters are very lucky, Handler will comment on their break-ups. One person posted: "I didn't wash the dishes apparently... oh and you slept with someone else." Handler responds:

"Temptations are like dirty dishes. There are some who leave them alone, scarcely noticing how many have piled up. And there are some who must do them right away."

Sure, the Why We Broke Up "project" is mainly an online marketing campaign. But it's a refreshingly edgy respite to those fuzzy "how we first met" stories. Meanwhile, for those whose love lives are still hunky dory -- you can user-generate your happiness live at Marines Memorial Theater, every February 14 in the audience-inspired improv How We First Met. But Lemony probably won't be there.

Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman appear tonight, Friday, February 3, 2012 at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit

All illustrations by Maira Kalman.