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The Liars' Club brought to vivid, indelible life Mary Karr's hardscrabble Texas childhood. Cherry, her account of her adolescence, "continued to set the literary standard for making the personal universal" (Entertainment Weekly). Now Lit follows the self-professed blackbelt sinner's descent into the inferno of alcoholism and madness—and to her astonishing resurrection.

Karr's longing for a solid family seems secure when her marriage to a handsome, Shakespeare-quoting blueblood poet produces a son they adore. But she can't outrun her apocalyptic past. She drinks herself into the same numbness that nearly devoured her charismatic but troubled mother, reaching the brink of suicide. A hair-raising stint in "The Mental Marriott," with an oddball tribe of gurus and saviors, awakens her to the possibility of joy and leads her to an unlikely faith. Not since Saint Augustine cried, "Give me chastity, Lord—but not yet!" has a conversion story rung with such dark hilarity.

Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live. Written with Karr's relentless honesty, unflinching self-scrutiny, and irreverent, lacerating humor, it is a truly electrifying story of how to grow up—as only Mary Karr can tell it.

One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2009

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
…searing…[Karr] has written a book that lassos you, hogties your emotions and won't let you go. It's a memoir that traces the author's descent into alcoholism and her conflicted, piecemeal return from that numb hell—a memoir that explores the subjectivity of memory even as it chronicles with searching intelligence, humor and grace the author's slow, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes painful discovery of her vocation and her voice as a poet and writer…the book is every bit as absorbing as Ms. Karr's devastating 1995 memoir, The Liars' Club, which secured her place on the literary map.
—The New York Times
Valerie Sayers
If the first two volumes of her memoirs strutted, this one proceeds more modestly: Karr is full of regret, but she's also as funny as ever on the subject of her own sinning. Although these pages sometimes strain for effect…the language often captures, precisely, the tension between the intellectual and the emotional, the artistic and the spiritual. This is a story not just of alcoholism but of coming to terms with families past and present, with a needy self, with a spiritual longing Karr didn't even know she possessed. It sounds as if she was hellish to be around for much of the time she describes here, but she is certainly good company now.
—The Washington Post
Susan Cheever
You always knew Mary Karr wasn't telling you everything. There were tantalizing hints of adult life in her two coming-of-age memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry. But Lit is the book in which she grows up and gets serious, as serious as motherhood, as serious as alcoholism, as serious as God. And it just makes her funnier. 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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Currently an award-winning, best-selling memoirist who described herself as an "on-my-knees [Catholic] spouter of praise" in a 2007 New York Times blog interview, Karr (The Liars' Club; Cherry) narrowly escaped a troubled upbringing and early adulthood that included alcoholic, psychotic parents, being raped as a child, and her own descent into alcoholism. She describes hitting rock bottom—an event that marked her transformation into the mother she was trying to escape—and her subsequent conversion to Catholicism in addition to the maturation of her writing style. The writing here sometimes seems affected, but her tale is riveting, her style clear-eyed and frank. That Karr survived the emotional and physical journey she regales her readers with to become the evenhanded, self-disciplined writer she is today is arguably nothing short of a miracle, and readers of her previous two books won't be disappointed. VERDICT This latest installment of Karr's autobiographical saga is essential for fans of lurid, meaty memoirs. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/09.]—Megan Hodge, Randolph-Macon Coll. Lib., Ashland, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed poet and bestselling memoirist Karr (English Literature/Syracuse Univ.; Sinners Welcome: Poems, 2006, etc.) deftly covers a vast stretch of her life-age 17 to her present 50. The author picks up where her 2000 memoir Cherry left off-escaping her toxic childhood in small-town Texas for the California coast. Quickly bored, and realizing it was a mistake to turn her back on higher education, Karr secured loans and sought the book-lined security of the college campus. Most of the scenes that unfold from here, unlike those from her eccentric childhood, are more familiar: the college student desperate to manifest her intellect; the poor country girl trying to prove to her rich WASP dinner hosts that she's worthy of their son; a sleep-deprived new mom with a pot roast to cook; the AA newcomer who thinks she doesn't really have a problem; the sinful skeptic arriving at faith. The difference, though, is the way in which Karr renders these stories. She still writes with a singular combination of poetic grace and Texan verve, which allows her to present the experiences as fresh, but she also brings a potent, self-condemning honesty and a palpable sense of responsibility and regret to the narrative. These elements were necessarily absent from her previous memoirs, in which there were plenty of adults to blame; she is writing from a significantly different place now. Her confessional of outrunning her past only to encounter the same monsters, before being saved by prayer and love for her son, is richer for it. Karr also provides fascinating anecdotes from her experiences as a writer, especially her time at Harvard and the emotional publication of her universally praised debut memoir, TheLiars' Club (1995). Will ring as true in American-lit classrooms as in church support groups-an absolute gem that secures Karr's place as one of the best memoirists of her generation. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
Publishers Weekly
Karr performs her brave memoir about alcoholism, getting sober, and getting God in a confident Texas drawl. Readers familiar with The Liar's Club, Karr's account of her childhood will find parallels--her descent into alcoholism differs from her mother's addiction only in the details. Karr revisits her past with rare candor and humor, recounting her role in the disintegration of her marriage to “Warren Whitbread,” the reserved scion of a fabulously wealthy family (whose other members are deliciously skewered here), and her most shameful moments (leaving her feverish toddler to take a long swig from the bottle of Jack Daniels stashed in the oven). When Karr undergoes a hard-won spiritual awakening through the combined efforts of AA; her spiritual director, Joan the Bone; and a stay in the “Mental Marriott,” listeners will be cheering. A Harper hardcover. (Mar.)
“Lit matches its predecessors in candor and outstrips them in insight.”
Body + Soul
“Mary Karr sparked a memoir revival with The Liars’ Club—now she’s back with Lit to describe how she turned those early troubles into literary gold.”
“A brutally honest, sparkling story.”
Redbook Magazine
Vanity Fair
“Mary Karr restores memoir form’s dignity with Lit.”
Pam Houston
“Scrappy, gut-wrenching. . . . Irresistible. . . . [Written] with trademark wit, precision, and unfailing courage.”
Michiko Kakutani
“Searing. . . . A book that lassos you, hogties your emotions and won’t let you go. . . . Chronicles with searching intelligence, humor and grace the author’s slow, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes painful discovery of her vocation and her voice as a poet and writer.”
Samantha Dunn
“Karr could tell you what’s on her grocery list, and its humor would make you bust a gut, its unexpected insights would make you think and her pitch-perfect command of our American vernacular might even take your breath away…. [Karr] holds the position of grande dame memoirista.”
Susan Cheever
“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.”
Melanie Gideon
“As irresistible as it is unflinchingly honest. . . . With grace, saltiness and profanity galore, Karr undeniably re-establishes herself as one of our finest memoirists and storytellers.”
Rebecca Steinitz
“Dazzling. . . . Lit reminds us not only how compelling personal stories can be, but how, in the hands of a master, they can transmute into the highest art.”
Ken Tucker
“[A] radiant, rueful, rip-roaring book. . . .Warm enough to burn a hole in your heart.”
Carmela Ciuraru
“There isn’t a single false note in Lit.”
Bob Minzesheimer
“A redemptive, painfully funny story.”
Michelle Green
“Karr movingly depicts her halting journey into AA, making it clear her grit and spirit remain intact.”
Valery Sayers
“Karr’s sharp and funny sensibility won me over to her previous two volumes, but what wins me over to Lit is the way her acute self-awareness conquers any hint that hers is the only version of this story…. Karr is as funny as ever.”
Steve Ross
“With this third book Karr has managed to raise the bar higher still on the genre of memoir.”
Beth Greenfield
“[Karr] continues to delight with her signature dark humor and pitch-perfect metaphors delivering large doses of wit and painful insights. . . . There are plenty of memoirs about being drunk, but this one has Karr’s voice-both sure-footed and breezy-behind it.”
Elizabeth Foy Larsen
“Mary Karr has never lacked for material. But she’s always delivered on the craft side, too, with her poet’s gift for show-and-tell.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
In 1995, a poet by the name of Mary Karr helped change the landscape of publishing, making memoir the mountain every writer wanted to climb, because from its heights one could survey literary fame and sizable royalty checks. This she did with The Liars’ Club, the energetically written -- if at times suspiciously too-vividly recalled -- personal history of growing up in a Texas backwater with a dizzy nutcase of a mother who liked to hit the sauce (and occasionally other things) a bit hard. The author’s recipe of colorful episodes of destructive behavior retold in down-homey locutions, childish pain revisited from a distance that allows for reader-friendly humor, was so winning it inspired many others to join the Sin Sweepstakes. Still, no one rules the genre of misconduct autobiography quite like Mary Karr.

In Lit, following on Cherry, the sequel to The Liar’s Club that tells the story of her adolescent years, we have a Kunstlerroman that braids three narratives (each of them expressing a variant meaning of the word “lit”): Karr the writer of literature; Karr the survivor of a marriage that burned to the ground; Karr the suicidal drunk who got sober, and sane, by finally recognizing her higher power.

Her success at this type of self-portraiture depends on making the reader relate to the emotional universality of a life lived very specifically. Yet that is also the source of a slight unease: how loose a rein is the storyteller’s hand giving fact? While many of us have trouble recalling what we had for breakfast, the plausibility of Karr remembering entire meals eaten a quarter of a century earlier -- along with enough detail (taste, temperature, smell, sound) to pack full the trunks of three volumes of memoir -- is, if not suspect, at least proof that the best personal histories are neither fiction nor nonfiction, but their own beast.

As in her previous efforts, Lit is plumb crammed with tough stuff, drinking and cussing and vomiting and hurting of all kinds. She shakes a sort of glee off it, and her audience applauds, because we all approve of flinty-spirited girls who instead of crying in the face of abuse, stick a thumbnail under their teeth while standing their ground with a squinty-eyed (but cute) determination. And whether or not she was that full of piss and vinegar as a child, Karr the grown-up writer is self-aware enough to deftly arrange for that approval. She keeps the loping gait of backcountry rhythms in her patois (she is a poet, after all), whether by artifice or nature it is hard to tell, but easy to guess: “I padded out of my room to ask Lecia was she coming to bed” (from Cherry); it’s just not the same to write, “to ask if she was coming,” and it’s not as easily likable. Because no matter what she reveals here -- primarily the crime of drinking on the job as a mother -- she remains likable.

In so being, she takes aim at her youthful self as black-clad scrivener of woeful verse, aching to be gone from her dreary oil-town past. And she hits the red center of the target when slinging arrows at the family of Warren, the man she marries, a blue-blooded Eastern litterateur. (Of her father-in-law’s reaction to the child they eventually had, she writes: “[H]e seemed to eye Dev’s festive ramblings as he might have a cockroach’s. He once made the boy cry by calling him -- beyond my earshot, of course -- an ignorant little crud. ” Then, in perfectly emblematic Karr style, she adds, “Dev’s teary response, which Warren reported -- You’re a big fat man with a red nose -- proved Dev had enough Texan in him to take the patriarch in a verbal tussle.”) One gets the idea her ex-husband and his family will not find their portraits as humorous, or as sympathetic to the author, as will her readers, who by this point have pitched all their tents in her camp.

The book is not only slingshots and spitballs, of course. Karr has a flair for inserting the meaningfully evocative into her story, but in the right proportion, as a fine chef knows how and when to add the seasonings that will heighten flavor without overpowering a dish. Such a (dare I say it) poetic moment is the one that takes place in a cab on the way to her rehearsal dinner: “I take no comfort in sharing anxiety with my once towering, powerful mother, for any ways we favor each other feel distinctly unbridal. I show her my throat, adding, Make me smell like you.” Karr knows exactly how to deploy these striking images, sparingly, whether or not they actually occurred. One does not ask of a poem if its facts are straight.

It is the third strand of this tale, however, that breaks the literary bank. She has set herself a high bar with the religious conversion tale, certainly; as with writing convincing sex scenes -- the action that defies words -- how one came to see the One True Light lends itself poorly to entertainment. Reading of it can only make you feel like you should get converted too.

Blame it on the Twelve Steps, perhaps. She could not have gotten clean without the program -- she tried on her own, with the usual results, and then she tried not to try, but finally the wisdom, sanity, and caring of her AA compatriots broke her resistance -- and thus she would not have written this book. But the opportunity comes at the cost of the high luster to which she customarily polishes her prose; here it becomes instead discursive, a letter of explanation directed at her family (sometimes literally: “Thanks, Warren, for...”). She credits the career breakthroughs that enable her to rise from penury, not to mention poetry -- first a Whiting Award, then a chance meeting with an agent who presses her to turn a failed autobiographical novel into the memoir that becomes a bestseller -- to her growing acceptance that there is a god who is responsive to supplication.

If preaching to the already converted, this will seem like a foregone conclusion, but the only thing the rest of us have to go on is her say-so. And say-so belongs in another genre of work; essay, maybe, or apologia, but not the rollicking storytelling Karr has trademarked. Indeed, she seems a little defensive, for tough-talking intellectuals are not supposed to become church-going believers -- especially not Catholic ones -- and so the book ends with the small whimper of insular experience, not the bang of universal identification.

For a minute there I found myself wondering just what exactly it is about the tunnels and byways of one person’s very particular emotional life that can make the best memoir so satisfying to read. It is, after all, her individual history, her upbringing in a place we will likely never know, with its depressing VFW bar and its grade school and its arguments behind closed doors. Then I realized that in the end, we all have only these few things: love, loss, family, family love lost. We may prefer not to look. But when a good writer does it on our behalf, she lends us her courage for the duration.

Thank you, Mary Karr.

--Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses, and Black Beauties, and The Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060596989
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/3/2009
  • Pages: 386

Meet the Author

Mary Karr

Mary Karr is a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry. She has won Pushcart Prizes for both verse and essays, and is the Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University. Her previous two memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry, were New York Times bestsellers.

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