Book Discussion: “Lit” by Mary Karr

In a gravelly, ground-glass-under-your-heel voice that can take you from laughter to awe in a few sentences, Karr has written the best book about being a woman in America I have read in years.

–Susan Cheever, New York Times Book Review

“Lit,” by Mary Carr, is the third in her series of memoirs that began with “The Liar’s Club.”

And this, from Bookmarks Magazine:

“Reviewers agreed that while Karr’s memoir could have succumbed to the pitfalls of the addiction-recovery memoir, it rises above the genre. Juicy, evocative, confessional, poetic, and often darkly humorous, Lit recounts Karr’s dark past in an intimate, easy style. While critics considered Lit a seamless addition to her previous memoirs, some expressed surprise that it takes a religious turn. A few also commented that the memoir is tamer and less dramatic than Liar’s Club and that it contains some abstract sections about Karr’s relationships. But in the end, Karr—one of our finest memoirists—remains ‘unswerving in her determination to face the past and, if possible, transcend it’ (San Francisco Chronicle).”

So, have you read Lit? Please, join the conversation below.

Listen to Karr’s 9/25 broadcast on Readers & Writers


  1. Ellen Rocco says:

    Here’s Betsy Kepes on “Lit”–Betsy is a member of the book club team–and many of you know her as our regional book reviewer.

    Thoughts on Mary Karr’s LIT
    September 17, 2012
    Betsy Kepes

    Before I get too far into this piece, I have to admit that memoir is not what I usually reach for when I’m choosing a book. If I’m browsing in a bookstore it is almost always in the fiction, or “literature” section. I do like a good biography now and then and some well-written history or popular science but novels are my staple reading. I like getting lost in a good story.
    Mary Karr, however, pulled me right into the pages of her latest memoir, Lit. I knew of her book The Liars’ Club, though I haven’t read it. What I didn’t know is that she is also a poet and has published at least two collections with a “good” press. Once I knew that, I could see that the amazing images and figures of speech she uses on every page of Lit are an extension of her poet’s mind.
    I think a good memoir is like a good novel—the reader enters the life of the memoirist. I certainly was there with “Mare”. I didn’t even stand outside the book enough to say, “No, Mary, don’t do that”, except when her alcoholism began to rage. And for me, a person who is not drawn to alcohol, her descriptions of its allure helped me understand what it must be like for friends and family I know who struggle with this addiction.
    The book did begin to drag for me when Karr started to find God. I actually was interested in how she’d go from being a complete cynical atheist to a practicing Catholic (the trend in my family is in the other direction) but I don’t think she has quite found the words to describe her conversion. For me, Anne Lamott is better at explaining in print the joy and relief she has found in organized religion and God. I shy away from books that start to seem like they belong in a Christian bookstore. I realize that is my own myopia, but it is there.
    As a writer, I loved the way almost every one of Mary Karr’s sentences had enough zip and energy to wiggle off the page. She either works extremely hard at rewriting and rewriting or she has an amazing, poetic imagination that can come up with endless metaphors and similes and all those things we learned about in English class.
    After flipping through the book, here’s a random selection of Karr’s words, phrases I find particularly astonishing:
    “Mother’s recovery dovetailed with the start of my own years’ long binge, for from that day forward, I drank in increasing amounts, as if our gene pool owed the universe at least one worthless drunk at a time.”
    “Those WASPs down so much sauce—the sober mind observes—that Warren wouldn’t know a dipsomaniac if one hit him in the head with a polo mallet.”
    “We exist as a pair of profiles gliding past each other. If a laser had sliced each of us cartoonlike down the middle—half of each falling away—we may not have noticed the missing half for days.”
    “He’s [Dev, her young son] holding a matchbox car, studying me with the intensity I no doubt brought to my own mother, whose invisible engines of misery could—at the slightest spark—ignite and blast her off into the stratosphere.”

  2. Phil LaMarche says:

    Spend ten minutes with any of the Karr memoirs and you will quickly be reminded that you are reading, first and foremost, an award winning poet. I am not telling you anything that the critics have not already claimed for years when I say, This woman can write a sentence. Cobbling together a diction that feels as comfortable with the high-brow classics as it does in a booze-soaked West Texas VFW, and blending it with equal parts beauty, love, and black humor, Karr’s voice is something of a revelation in today’s divided America. She loves poetry and guns. She’s a wildly well-read academic and a devout (it’s not wine it’s blood) Catholic. What’s great is that you don’t have to agree with Karr to appreciate her story, and you don’t have to feel bad for her or even like her—she will win you over with the telling of the tale.
    I have heard Karr say, “Writing memoir is not a shit eating contest.” After the shock and laughter subsided she went on to explain that the person with the roughest, most miserable life does not automatically win the memoir game. Instead, what is important is the craft, the art of the narrative. And while for years people have been (rightfully) gushing over the poetry in her prose, what has often been overlooked is the carefully paced structure of Karr’s memoirs. When we think about writing memoir, it’s easy to conclude, Well, you start at the beginning and go… you know… to the end. But a good story is hardly ever that simple to construct, and with a careful look at Karr’s ‘Lit’, with its non-linear ebb and flow through time, you will see the tinkerings of a meticulous mechanic, carefully pitting each tiny cog against the teeth of its larger, grinding counterparts, building steam, building momentum.
    While Karr’s structure is something to admire, seems somehow dangerous to talk about memoir like this because once you start talking about construction, it’s an easy leap to orchestration and you quickly find yourself with questions about what is ‘real’ and ‘true’ (Especially in this world of the post James Frey debacle). But Karr is well out ahead of the reader on this front and throughout the writing of ‘Lit’, Karr constantly reminds us not only of the dubious nature of memory, but of the artifice that we find ourselves in. At this point in Karr’s career, (three memoirs deep), she is a master of the form and she feels free to poke and prod at the curtain, unafraid of revealing the wizard behind the façade. She tells us at the outset of the book that her son probably has a better memory of many of the events, and throughout the dissolve of her marriage she reminds us of how her mind probably mistreats the memories of her ex-husband and that his side of the story would probably be drastically different.
    So if her version is not absolutely 100% ‘true’, one might grumble, what the heck is it? Which leads to a better question: What is memoir?
    This is something that we could spend the rest of the year discussing on this board, but for the sake of brevity, let’s consider what Gore Vidal wrote, “…memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” In Vidal’s view, the memoirist is similar to the Impressionist painters, (perhaps unavoidably) leaving the fingerprints of their minds on the worlds they attempt to recreate. Here we teeter at the edge of the wormhole of subjectivity and endless philosophical discussions on Truth, and Reality, but let me stick to the point and simply say this: thankfully, Karr’s canon is no simple catalogue of events, instead we get her life as seen through her own eyes, and lucky for us, Karr’s lens is that of a natural poet and an industrious story teller.

  3. I will look the book up on Barnes and Noble. This could be a great read. I am waiting for one now,Sylvia Beach about her life with the book store Shakespeare and Company and the people that used the store as a meeting place, Hemingway, MacLeash, Gertude Stein.

  4. Dale Hobson says:

    Here’s what Readers & Writers team member Chris Robinson is saying about Reading Mary Karr.

  5. Ellen Rocco says:

    Book Club teamster, John Ernst, starts the discussion here:

    Anyone who has read Mary Karr’s previous books (The Liar’s Club and Cherry) knows that she writes with fire and ice.

    Here the title is a play on her dedication to literature and her struggle against alcoholism. Trailing the dark memories of her nightmarish Texas upbringing and her dysfunctional biker/surfer adolescence, this book deals with a maturing Karr as she enters higher education, begins writing seriously, marries, has a child, publishes a book, copes with the deaths of both parents and with divorce, and fights against drinking and suicide. A full plate for anyone.

    What is compelling about Mary Karr’s writing is her no-holds-barred honesty and her refusal to back away from harsh judgments – most of all of herself. (Her treatment of her ex-husband is so scrupulously fair that one suspects it of doing him too much justice.)

    Through this dark subject matter flashes of humor spark continuously. Karr’s diction is fresh, slangy, direct. She is a poet, and her prose has the whippet-spare quality of no word wasted. This is a book that grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you up, and leaves you altered.

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