Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr — 432 pgs

Book CoverIn this third memoir by famed author Mary Karr, the author explores in vivid detail her slow crawl out of alcoholism, the abandonment of her past and her evolution into a modern spiritual being. As a young woman, Mary longs to be a poet. A free spirit, Mary chafes at the strictures of society and finds herself moving far from home in her quest for an enriching and fulfilling life. Subsisting on meager cash, Mary finds herself working at a string of semi-serious jobs, gradually upping her alcohol consumption in response to the difficulties in her life. During a stint as a student, Mary meets the impossibly intelligent and handsome Warren and discovers in him a kindred spirit. As Mary runs forward to her future with Warren, she makes conscious decisions to leave her past behind: a past that is filled with distant alcoholic parents, mental illness and neglect. But the past doesn't fit neatly into a box, and as Mary runs from one set of circumstances, she ends up straight in the arms of another variation of the life she is trying so hard to leave behind. As Mary and Warren make a life for themselves, she discovers that they are not evenly matched. Mary is as temperamental and volatile as Warren is quiet and uncommunicative. After the birth of her son Dev, Mary finds herself slowly sliding into the realm of serious alcoholism. One night after the unthinkable almost happens, Mary takes the steps to leave alcohol behind. Though it is not easy for her, Mary's biggest difficulties lie in the acceptance of a higher power she does not believe exists. Struggling against poverty, alcoholism and the spiritual nadir, she relates the circumstances of her life that have brought her to this point, realizing with gradual clarity that the God she is so struggling against has her right in the palm of His hand. Funny, honest, and at times very sad, Lit is the memoir that fans of Mary Carr have been waiting for: a glimpse into the heart and soul of one of America's most compelling authors.

This is my first time reading a memoir by Mary Karr. Though I have heard a lot about both her and her books and even have her other two on my wish list, I had never had the experience of sitting down and getting to know this praised author through her writing before. At about the halfway point in this book, I wanted to stop reading and go back and read both of her previous books, The Liar's Club and Cherry. I found myself wanting to know so much more about her and the things that led up to this final book, and though I will be reading them out of order, I went out and got a copy of each of her other memoirs. Just knowing that they are patiently waiting for me makes me happy.

Mary Karr has the ability to render her memories in clear detail, without overdoing it, and one of the things I most appreciated about this book was the way that she, at times, allows for flaws in her interpretation of the things she is chronicling. She relates her story clearly but also tells the reader in no uncertain terms that the emotional slant she puts to some events may have only been her feelings in the heat of the moment and does not reflect what time does to alter these memories. I liked this a lot. Too often, I read memoirs that rely on past interpretation to be infallible and sometimes I wonder how much of the anger and disappointment of the past colors the perceptions of the author's tale. In order to avoid this, Mary comes at things from several angles, interjecting in her own story the traits and emotional states of the others she comes into contact with. This makes her tale much more informed and well rounded and creates a certain trust between the reader and herself.

I also liked the fact that she doesn't fall into the trap of villainizing everyone but herself. Often, Mary admits that she could be a beastly companion and mother, and that although she tried to be as altruistic as she could, she sometimes failed miserably. That she was honest enough to admit this made her appear to me more human and fallible and made me realize that often the way we see ourselves is just as important as the stories we tell. She freely admits that had this story been told from the pen of her husband, the reader would probably not like her very much at all, but for the most part, I felt that she was able to see herself and her actions without the rose colored glasses that often hang on the nose of authors telling their life stories.

I felt a real affinity for Mary's spiritual search because, in essence, a lot of it mirrored my own problems with spirituality. She speaks of not being able to find the God that is right in front of her face and talks at length about her antipathy towards humbling herself in prayer. Mary is a free thinker and somehow feels that religion is the opiate of the masses, a phrase that I have uttered on many occasions. Her gradual involvement in worship felt very real and heartfelt to me and I loved the fact that she learned that to embrace God was not the same as erasing her sense of self and her individuality. It made me joyous to see her embrace prayer and for her to realize that her prayers were being answered.

There were also a lot of sections about her love of poetry and her struggles to become a poet of acclaim, her struggles to be a good mother to her son, and her heartache over the dissolution of her family. In these sections the book became like a prism that reflected the secret parts of her heart. Karr has a way of opening herself onto the page and becoming someone that you can deeply care for, both in her brokenness and in her healing. I think the sections that dealt with her early family life were those that resonated with me the most. It is a mighty thing to see a child's unswerving love for parents who have consistently done her wrong. Her spirit of forgiveness was mammoth, and although she did a much better job raising her son than her parents did with her, she never shot forth with recrimination and bitterness for all she had suffered.

This was an amazing read that had both spirit and flavor, and Mary Karr surely knows how to tell a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats and frantically flipping pages. The book had a remarkable feel of both a confessional and an accounting, and in the author's very capable hands she takes readers right along with her in her journey through life. I would definitely recommend this book both to readers who relish a good memoir and to those who are interested in matters of spirituality. I know that I will be enjoying more from this author, for she has won me over with both her candidness and forthright writing style.

About The Author

Mary Karr is an award-winning poet and best-selling memoirist. She is the author of Lit, the long-awaited sequel to her critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling memoirs The Liars’ Club and Cherry. A born raconteur, she brings to her lectures and talks the same wit, irreverence, joy, and sorrow found in her poetry and prose. A sought-after speaker, Karr has given distinguished talks at prestigious universities, libraries, and writers’ festivals, including Harvard University, Oxford University, Princeton University, Brown University, Syracuse University (“On Salmon Rushdie” with Salmon Rushdie), the New York Public Library, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Folger Library (Poetry Society of America/Emily Dickinson Lecture), The New Yorker Literary Festival, PEN/Faulkner, and the Festival of Faith and Writing. Karr welcomes conversation with her audience and she is known for her spirited, lively, and engaging Q&A sessions.

Connect with Mary:

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Wednesday, July 7th:  Book Club Classics
Monday, July 12th:  Rundpinne
Wednesday, July 14th:  Nonsuch Books
Thursday, July 15th:  Fizzy Thoughts
Thursday, July 22ed:  The Girl from the Ghetto
Tuesday, July 27th:  Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Wednesday, July 28th:  Chefdruck Musings
Thursday, July 29th:  Raging Bibliomania
Friday, July 30th:  Chick Lit
Monday, August 2nd:  The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, August 3rd:  Absorbed in Words
Wednesday, August 4th:  Sasha and the Silverfish
Thursday, August 5th:  Tales of a Capricious Reader

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


bermudaonion said...

I love memoirs, when they're done well and it sounds like this one is. I can't wait to read it.

Jenny said...

I've heard such great things about The Liar's Club. I remember my babysitter when I was young reading it. It's always great to read a memoir by someone who is insightful and can acknowledge their own faults. Sounds great!

Jenny said...

I love it when a memoirist (is that a word? my browser thinks not) can be honest about herself and her family members. It makes an enormous difference to me in how I think about a writer when I know that she is trying to be honest and recognizing that she is flawed and her views subjective. I read part of The Liar's Club, but Lit sounds so wonderful that I think I need to go back and read it and her second book properly.

Hannah Stoneham said...

I am always interested in life writing of all sorts but this sounds particuarly interesting. Are you familiar with the idea of the wounded healer? I think that it is something that would interest you.

Thanks for sharing


Amy said...

Wow. Sounds like a powerful and moving book. I can see why you want to read her other two books. I can appreciate how you mention her honesty about possible flaws - I find that annoying in memoirs too when everything is presented as pure fact. Great review!

Anonymous said...

I haven't heard of Mary Karr, but will now take a look-see at the bookstore today. Thanks for the review.

S. Krishna said...

I haven't read this book yet, but want to. I want to read the first two first!!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I really enjoyed The Liar's Club and have Lit on my shelves. She is unique as a memoirist in that she IS incredibly good at being open and self-critical; very devil's advocate. I think I would very much like her in real life. I wonder if she would let me buy her a beer (or a coke)?

Anonymous said...

You make a good point about how she develops the trust of the reader. I never doubted her honesty, unlike some author memoirists.

Steph said...

You make this book sound so relatable, even though it talks about some rather extreme situations. I love how you were able to connect with parts of Karr's story - so often memoirs can feel self-indulgent, so I think it's a rare writer who can make her story transcend its original confines. You've definitely piqued my interest on this one!

Darlene said...

I don't read a lot of memoirs but this one sounds like one I would like. I think this book mirrors some of the things in my family and my life and it would be interesting to read it. I'll have to check into the first two books. Thanks for the great review.

Suko said...

Very thoughtful review! I have not read any of her work but wish to now. To be honest, I am not always enthralled by memoirs, but this one sounds exceptional. The fact that the author presents herself in a realistic manner says a lot about the quality of this memoir.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I love memoirs, but I don't think this one would be for me for some reason??

You wrote a fabulous review Heather!

Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

At first this didn't seem like a book I'd enjoy but your review has convinced me - it sounds fantastic!

Thanks for being a part of the tour - I really enjoyed your review.

Melissa said...

I think this one sounds really good, but I have her other 2 books somewhere in my house and I really hate to read things out of order.

Aarti said...

I've also read nothing by this author before, but I am not sure she appeals to me. You did very well describing how her spiritual quest is *not* what one would expect, but still, I am always very nervous about books that tackle the religious question...

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