3.5 178
by Mary Karr

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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—

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Melissa Holbrook Pierson
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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Lit 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 178 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found this book even more far-reaching and important than The Liars Club! It is one of the most candid and useful memoirs having to do with recovery that I have encountered...and I am sixty-four years old. Mary Karr is honest, skilled and most interesting as she describes relationships and events in her life. I am so grateful that I took the chance and purchased this wonderful book! I would have missed so much otherwise! Fred Lippert
harstan More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating memoir as writer Mary Karr obviously has come a long way. In Texas her parents were alcoholics who when sober were psychotic, but when drunk were beyond the fringe. However, much of that period is in her previous autobiographies The Liars' Club as a preadolescent and Cherry as a teen. Instead Ms. Karr picks up her saga in her late teens and takes it to her current age of fifty years old. She left for college on the west coast, but though bored tried to desperately to prove she belonged at school and with her boyfriend's affluent parents. Like her parents she turned to alcohol to numb her past so those demons would not harm her present. When she became a devout Catholic Ms. Karr feels that changed her emotionally so that she can feel good about living inside her skin as even Harvard failed to give her the inner confidence of belonging she desperately sought. Well written with incredible insight and yet filled with self deprecating humor, Mary Karr explains her obsessive human need for self actualization and acceptance. Ms. Karr's third memoir looks deep at herself seemingly even more so than before; perhaps because this time the adult cannot use the unintended consequences of the shield of a child (The Liars' Club) or a teen (Cherry ) to garner empathy from her readers. This is a winner of a courageous person overcoming her roots to make it in her mind. Harriet Klausner
JiminAk More than 1 year ago
Having read "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry" I had great expectations for "Lit", which were fulfilled. Karr's bitter honesty about her self appraisal, her life, and desires keeps your nose in the book. I had no idea that Karr had carried this tremendous weight for so long. Hats off to her, and hope her telling of this difficult story releases some of her demons she has kept at bay for so long. This book will significantly effect many who read it.
jnetb More than 1 year ago
Anyone who read The Liar's Club and Cherry has probably already bought or borrowed a copy of Lit, Karr's their memoir, which takes her from college to marriage, parenthood and divorce. A genetic donation from her alcoholic parents lands her in a mental institution, which she survives. Her son's curiosity about religion awakens her own, somewhat begrudging, faith. Karr is an entertaining, yet earnest storyteller, as exemplified by the book's title, meaning someone drunk on booze or literature or both. She records conversations and event details more clearly than most people living in a fog of liquor. The grace and vigor of the writing could only from from Mary Karr, poet and Texan.
Scarla More than 1 year ago
It may seem as though the memoir genre has been thoroughly strip-mined, but "Lit" is by Mary Karr -- the progenitress of the category -- and is just as bone-deep honest and moving as her first autobiographical volume, "The Liar's Club". It's a must read for anyone in recovery, or has struggled with addiction, not to mention co-dependency issues. And if you think your family is bizarre or disfunctional, this book is definitely for you. Karr's gifts as a poet shine through in this book -- I've been recommending it to everyone I know.
JBT22 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. The writing in particular was outstanding. I don't normally find myself reading memoirs but Lit almost seemed like I was reading a novel. This is my first time reading Mary Karr and I now want to read The Liars Club.
Edgar_Winston More than 1 year ago
Lit is Karr's third memoir, and it's her best. That's saying a lot, as her first, The Liars' Club, pretty much set the standard for the contemporary memoir. She is witty without being overly clever. She is moving without being sentimental. She has startling insight into what it means to be a mother, a drinker, an ex-drinker, a catholic, a writer, but most of all, a human. This book is better than the slew of memoirs that come out each year because it doesn't depend on the shock value of its content. As some other reviewers have pointed out, there are memoirs that have lower "rock bottoms" and crazier events. Those comments miss the point. We don't read memoirs (at least I don't) for an accounting of extraordinary circumstances, but for an extraordinary accounting of common human experience. Lots of us have dealt with alcoholism, spirituality, motherhood, etc. But few of us have Karr's gift for metaphor, her insight into what makes these experiences important, her ability to simultaneously take us on a journey through memory while taking apart and examining the machinery through which we remember. Karr's self-narrative is also about the ways in which we create ourselves through memory--and this makes it universal. I'm an avowed atheist, and I was moved by Karr's journey out of alcoholism and towards God. She is not preachy and Lit is not a "woe is me" pity party. She is a brilliant story teller who can write a sentence like nobody's business.
Terry_M More than 1 year ago
This is the hard one, the adult recollection of an adult's embarrassing failures. Mary Karr confronts her alcoholism and explains the faith that saved her - perhaps an unpopular point of view now among academics, but that it is what it is makes it a better read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There unfortunatley are a million Marys but few that can put it to words and creat a story. I could not put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DO NOT GET THE BOOK!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don't waste your money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldnt finish the book. Lacked a sense of purpose from the start.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I woudn't waste my time on that book! It was to edgy kept going off topic and too depressing!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
justluvbooks More than 1 year ago
Karr's portrayal of the characters in her life is honest and believable. Her choices of words & phrases make this memoir, to me, as her descriptions of people, places, and events make you feel as if you are with them always as the story unfolds. I appreciate her honesty and candor, as well as her ability to be so imperfectly human. It is beautiful. Only a poet could incorporate such depth and precision into the imagery and emotion of a book...thanks Mary! I related so well to your dry wit and crippling cynicism, as well as your ultimate resurrection.
DorothyB More than 1 year ago
I am a fiction writer and when I turn to nonfiction, a book only has a few pages to prove its worth. 'Lit' taught me more about life and writing than most novels can. Karr's writing is beautiful; I am envious of her prose. But more importantly, that mastery of craft informed how much I cared about the narrator and her story -- and it is a moving story you won't soon forget.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book, I couldn't put it down. I also enjoy her other two cherry, and liars club.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How many times have you said that you could write a book about your family? Well somebody did. The result is a page turner that will remind you that you are not alone in how chaotic family life can be. For anyone who still feels bound by their anger, guilt, hurt or pain from their family, I also recommend "When God Stopped Keeping Score." I thought that the book was just about forgiveness, I soon learned, it was about so much more than that. I was about how you should deal with friends, family and yourself and more importantly, how to keep these relationships strong when things go wrong. Having read it, I feel like a better person. Maybe it is because this book spoke to me and not down to me. I have read a lot of books that was written like I didn't know anything. What the author of "When God Stopped Keeping Score" does is talk to you like a friend. I needed that. You will understand why when you read it. "When God Stopped Keeping Score" is available here on
soccermomRV More than 1 year ago
Long, sometimes grueling account of a woman's struggle with herself as well as those around her. Her descent into alcoholism and loss of connectedness to her son and husband is painful to read. She does not spare herself in her self-appraisal.
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