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The New York Times bestseller, now available in paperback—Mary Karr’s sequel to the beloved and bestselling The Liars’ Club and Cherry “lassos you, hogties your emotions and won’t let you go” (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times).

Mary Karr’s bestselling, unforgettable sequel to her beloved memoirs The Liars’ Club and Cherry—and one of the most critically acclaimed books of the year—Lit is about getting drunk and getting sober; becoming a mother by letting go of a mother; learning to write by learning to live.

The Boston Globe calls Lit a book that “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." The New York Times Book Review calls it “a master class on the art of the memoir” in its Top 10 Books of 2009 Citation. Michiko Kakutani calls it “a book that lassos you, hogties your emotions and won’t let you go” in her New York Times review. And Susan Cheever states, simply, that Lit is “the best book about being a woman in America I have read in years."

In addition to the New York Times, Lit was named a Best Book of 2009 by the New Yorker (Reviewer Favorite), Entertainment Weekly (Top 10), Time (Top 10), the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, Slate, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Seattle Times.

386 pages, Hardcover

First published November 3, 2009

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About the author

Mary Karr

44 books1,881 followers
Mary Karr is an American poet, essayist and memoirist. She rose to fame in 1995 with the publication of her bestselling memoir The Liars' Club. She is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.

Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants, to J. P. and Charlie Marie (Moore) Karr. In her memoirs, Karr calls the town "Leechfield." Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner.

The Liars' Club, published in 1995, was a New York Times bestseller for over a year, and was named one of the year's best books. It delves vividly and often humorously into her deeply troubled childhood, most of which was spent in a gritty, industrial section of Southeast Texas in the 1960s. She was encouraged to write her personal history by her friend, author Tobias Wolff, but has said she only took up the project when her marriage fell apart.

She followed the book with another memoir, Cherry (2000), about her late adolescence and early womanhood. A third memoir, Lit, which she says details "my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic," came out in November 2009.

Karr thinks of herself first and foremost as a poet. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and has won Pushcart prizes for both her poetry and her essays. Karr has published four volumes of poetry: Abacus (Wesleyan University Press, CT, 1987, in its New Poets series), The Devil's Tour (New Directions NY, 1993, an original TPB), Viper Rum (New Directions NY, 1998, an original TPB), and her new volume Sinners Welcome (HarperCollins, NY 2006). Her poems have appeared in major literary magazines such as Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly.

She is a controversial figure in the American poetry "establishment," thanks to her Pushcart-award winning essay, "Against Decoration," which was originally published in the quarterly review Parnassus (1991) and later reprinted in Viper Rum. In this essay Karr took a stand in favor of content over poetic style. She argued emotions need to be directly expressed, and clarity should be a watch-word: characters are too obscure, the presented physical world is often "foggy" (that is imprecise), references are "showy" (both non-germane and overused), metaphors over-shadow expected meaning, and techniques of language (polysyllables, archaic words, intricate syntax, "yards of adjectives") only "slow a reader"'s understanding. Karr directly criticized well-known, well-connected, and award-winning poets such as James Merrill, Amy Clampitt, Vijay Seshadri, and Rosanna Warren (daughter of Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Penn Warren). Karr favors controlled elegance to create transcendent poetic meaning out of not-quite-ordinary moments, presenting James Merrill's Charles on Fire as a successful example.

While some ornamentations Karr rails against are due to shifting taste, she believes much is due to the revolt against formalism which substituted sheer ornamentation for the discipline of meter. Karr notes Randall Jarrell said much the same thing, albeit more decorously, nearly fifty years ago. Her essay is meant to provide the technical detail to Jarrell's argument. As a result of this essay Karr earned a reputation for being both courageous and combative, a matured version of the BB-gun toting little hellion limned in The Liars' Club.

Another essay, "Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer", was originally published in Poetry (2005). Karr tells of moving from agnostic alcoholic to baptized Catholic of the decidedly "cafeteria" kind, yet one who prays twice daily with loud fervor from her "foxhole". In this essay Karr argues that poetry and prayer arise from the same sources within us.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,432 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
September 28, 2023
Like Ron Rash and Thomas Hardy, Mary Karr writes dense, image-rich language with a poet’s flair. This is not stuff you speed-read past. Slow down, take a sip from whatever you’re drinking. Maybe read that paragraph again. Make sure there are no visions left behind. The language is a major part of the great value here. The other is the content of the story.

Mary Karr - image from her site

Lit refers not only to Karr’s affection for the written word, but to her level of sobriety. Her memoir shows us a life lived under the burden of a growing alcohol abuse problem. There are degrees of course, as she descends from occasional use through steady use to can’t-get-through-the-day-without addiction. There is a family history of course, depicted in greater depth in her prior memoirs. The core element of this story is how she hit bottom, then found the strength to survive her ordeal and then crawled out from under her load with the help of fellow substance abusers and a belief in a “higher power,” whatever that may be. That was quite a journey for someone who had been a devout atheist. Whatever one’s view on the existence of such “higher powers,” Karr’s road to such a belief is a compelling one.

Like Kaylie Jones’ memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Karr’s story is compelling for the things she learned, the people she met and the journey she traveled. It is also a luminous piece of work by a top-notch writer at the height of her powers. Lit indeed.

Review first posted - 2009

----------Hardcover - 11/3/09
----------Trade paperback - 9/29/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Karr’s personal, FB, Twitter, and Instagram pages

Items of Interest
——A fun, upbeat item by Karr, from LitHub- Mary Karr Thought Her Whiting Award Call Was a Prank and Hung Up
——Promo vid for the book
34 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2011
On its funniest and its most harrowing pages, Mary Karr's Lit reminds me of Augusten Burroughs's Dry; both sarcastic, heartbroken protagonists are helplessly addicted to alcohol, romantically incapacitated, and surrounded by saccharine morons. In moron-land, Karr escapes mental institution bureaucracy in time to attend a literary reception in her honor by using guile. The institute's Nurse Ratchett "has a tendency to bring up penis envy every session, and I swear that this time, when she does, I'll confess to my intense longing for a dick of my own, for in most places that pretend to value honesty, I've usually found that sucking up is an underrated virtue given how well it works." Both Karr and Burroughs start going to AA meetings with anthropological distance. They resist and mock the moist-eyed AA hand-holders, but both eventually give in.

For me, maybe because I finished the book on a spring day in the Cherry Esplanade of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Lit is about softening; softening to God, to the present moment, to Love, to Whatever-It-Is. As cherry blossoms fell around me, as children knocked over empty garbage cans, as subscribing members of the garden perused an exclusive sale under a white tent, I felt a perfect softening. My eyes left the last page. I pressed some of the pink blossoms into the book before heading to class.

Seven days after I finished Lit, I checked out some plays from the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. It was breezy and blue out, so I decided to walk to school, twenty-three blocks south. An old, big church on 59th Street was covered in scaffolding. A flyer under the scaffolding caught my eye. On the second floor of the church's parish center, in twenty four hours, Mary Karr would be giving a talk for a priest's radio show.

I went. The thirty chairs were mostly filled by the time the event started, but attendance was by no means generous. I sat in the front row. She talked about her very down-to-earth relationship with prayer, with church doctrine, and with love. I asked the only secular question of the evening: could she speak to her state when she sits down to write? "My state when I'm writing? Terror. Uh, constant disappointment and self-loathing. Mixed with, uh, yeah, dread. A lot of dread. That's my state. Maybe one other question?"

At the book signing, I told her about accidentally seeing the flyer.

"God is calling you," she said with mock import. Neither of us seemed like we belonged in a church, but here we were.

She said to me, "It's an interesting conversation we're all having."

Profile Image for Olive Fellows (abookolive).
613 reviews5,004 followers
March 14, 2023
Objectively: beautiful writing, tons of personality, an intriguing story of fractured family relationships and finding wholeness.

Subjectively: I just didn't enjoy it like I was hoping to.

Click here to hear more of my thoughts on this book over on my Booktube channel, abookolive.

Profile Image for Meike.
1,592 reviews2,822 followers
April 22, 2023
I know, I know: Mary Karr is a renowned memoirist, but frankly, I was pretty bored by this tale of alcoholism, redemption, and Catholic conversion (and I'm a Catholic myself). Karr gets married, drinks too much, she gets sober, her marriage breaks down, she finds God, the end. The language is very precise and matter-of-fact, but I don't see what's so topically interesting or poetically riveting here.

The notoriety of this third part of her biographical project is rooted in the fact that it mentions her abusive affair with David Foster Wallace, who is a very minor character here, and portrayed as an insecure Midwestern dude with major issues (which, you know, he was). Karr later a) spoke up against the mystification of this impulsive, violent mess who happened to also have been a genius (both things are true), and b) was extremely upset that her having sex with him a couple of times in the 90's is by some perceived as her main contribution to literature (which I get, but hey, she also wrote about it herself and thus turned it into a topic).

Mary Karr certainly does her thing and good for her (and many others who love her art), but this is not my kind of writing.
Profile Image for Christin.
195 reviews8 followers
December 13, 2009
Few writers can live up to the verve of a triple pun title: lit as in literature, lit as in intoxicated, and lit as in spiritual enlightenment, all three of which are seamlessly blended together in Karr’s characteristically wildly exuberant, utterly compelling, and shrewdly observant prose. She has a wonderful love of the epigram, which I admire greatly being a lover of epigrams myself. My favorite thusfar: “They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years--to use a soul-rending Horatian inflection. The years are passing, my dear, and presently nobody will know what you and I know." - Nabokov, Speak, Memory . Full disclosure: the only fan letter I have ever sent in my life is to Mary Karr, after having the pleasure of meeting her when she came to Bryn Mawr.

One of my students once asked me when I had first decided to go to graduate school, and what I told her about was the day Mary Karr visited my memoir class with Karl Kirchwey. As I recall, when she came in, the two of them were having a debate about T.S. Eliot's notes to The Waste Land and whether they were legitimate or a joke. So, Prof. Kirchwey asked Ms. Karr what she had thought of a lecture (or maybe it was a conference) she'd attended on the issue, and she rolled her eyes heavenward and said with a laugh, "Karl, don't piss down my leg and then tell me it's raining." I cannot overstate my awe. Karl, God bless and love him (and I do too, really), is reserved (cool as a cucumber is his natural state), erudite (I do not exaggerate when I tell you the man has read everything in the original and if anybody is wise to ol’ T.S.’s intentions, it’s Karl.) and patrician (referencing bodily functions of the lower orders seemed a shameful obscenity, for a minute, I was embarrassed on her behalf), and in my relatively sheltered little Bryn Mawr life up to that point, I had never met anyone who was confident and articulate enough to disagree with him, much less in such bold as brass terminology. This woman was living up to the hype like gangbusters. Over the course of her visit, she went on to enrapture me with verbatim recitations from sources as diverse as Wallace Stevens’ “Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” and Shakespeare’s King Lear . She also seemed touched by my comment about her own sense of tragedy in her early work as really resonating with my understanding of trauma, grief, and sacrifice as Roman Catholic, admitting that she was a convert later in her life, a raucous story she details in Lit . Mary Karr was genuinely engaged with literature as a motivating and moving art form. It was like a bookish tent revival, and I was experiencing a conversion of my own to the church of the academia. I had never before met someone who so adroitly combined an ambitious intellect with a fierce, suffer-no-fools personality.

And I decided at that moment, "I have not lived an interesting enough life to write a truly compelling memoir, but maybe I could go to graduate school and become smart and sassy enough to debate T.S. Eliot with Karl Kirchwey." So, that is what I did, and I owe that decision and so much more to Karl Kirchwey and of course, to Mary Karr. Bottom line: GO FORTH AND READ HER.
Profile Image for Lorna.
721 reviews420 followers
March 18, 2022
Lit, the third book in the trilogy of memoirs by Mary Karr preceded by her beloved memoirs The Liar's Club and Cherry. It was a beautiful, but disturbing and at the same time such an uplifting book as we are part of the struggles of a woman's shattered life as she searches for her place in the world where she struggles to fit her values and explore her spiritual self. Mary Karr is faced with coming to terms with her destructive life coping mechanisms pitted against the faith that she had railed against since she was a child. But at one of the most poignant moments of the book, as she finds herself contemplating her death, she checks herself into a hospital to help her through the passage of the dark demons that are threatening her. If one has read the previous books, we know that there is a lot of trauma and tragedy that precedes this breakdown. Where alcohol managed to take off the edges previously, Mary Karr realizes that as her tolerance has increased, so has her drinking.

One thing that rang so true throughout this book is the love that Mary Karr has for her son, Dev. No mother could read about her nuzzling her baby's soft folds of skin without just melting in her love for this child. It is in this relationship between this struggling young mother emerging from this traumatic childhood to parent this beautiful baby boy. I think Dev should get a lot of credit as he is very perceptive as well as a loving child.

"As a new mother, I used to cup my son's downy head with wild tenderness and marvel at his heavy slump in my arms, and for the few moments his china-blue eyes fixed on mine before they closed, it was as if the sky had been boiled down and rendered into that small gaze. Those first months, I fed him from myself. And doing so felt like the first true and good act I'd managed in my whole slipshod life."

"But humming through me like a third rail was poetry, the myth that if I could shuffle the right words into the right order, I could get my story straight, write myself into an existence that included the company of sacred misfit poets whose pages kept me company as a kid. Showing up at a normal job was too hard."

The Prologue of this book will center you as to what lies ahead as Mary Karr writes an open letter to her son.

"I was empress of that small kingdom and ruled it all weathers. Sleet, subzero winds, razor-slicing rain. I'd just slide a gloved hand over my tumbler, back hunched against the door. I defended my time there like a bull with a lowered head, for that was the only space in the world I had control of."

Each chapter is opened with a beautiful passage from many different books that had significant meaning for the author. And such a poignant segment of the book is when, Mary Karr, actually following the lead of her son, is led to Catholicism. When she was struggling with her sobriety, she was given the St. Francis prayer which became a part of her bedtime ritual with Dev in the form of call and response. I say, Where there is hatred, let me sow, and he shouts out, Love. I say, Where there is conflict, and he hollers, Pardon.

I have loved this entire trilogy. Mary Karr is such a talented writer and award-winning poet that has given us such a riveting, humorous and humbling series of memoirs. What a legacy she has left as she has so eloquently written about her hardscrabble upbringing in the Gulf Coast of Texas to where she fought to find her place in the sun! Brava Mary Karr.
Profile Image for mark.
Author 3 books42 followers
December 16, 2020
Who is Mary Karr? A memoirist—this is her third. She is now 57 years old. She is a professor of literature at Syracuse University. She is a published poet. She is a single mother. She is famous—given credit for the huge increase in the popularity of the memoir as reader fodder and consequently rich, presumably a 1%er. She is a “free-willing” Catholic and a practicing alcoholic in recovery. In other words – Believes strongly in the power of God & prayers, and sober and attends AA meetings. She is white, petite, attractive, intelligent, and educated. But I still don’t know who she is. Which, to me, is the take away from Lit. After reading Lit, I think I have a better understanding of who Mitt Romney is than I do Mary Karr; and Romney, a current candidate for US president, is not even ever mentioned in the book. However, his “type” is. Karr was married to a man who is described like the man Romney exhibits – boring, rigid, structured, proper, competent – born into wealth and seemingly void of personality … which Karr isn’t.

I, as reader, get glimpses of her personality – open, funny, angry, sad, and mostly unstable and unsure, i.e., a typical “poet.” A poet who got lucky and turned her misfortune (neglectful parents/parenting & child sexual assault victim) into gold, and then attributes that to the hand of God and the program (Alcohol Anonymous) which, to me, adds another component to her personality – that of weakness, or – very low self-control. In other words, a typical “addict.”

The interesting question to me, which she doesn’t get into, is why her and not her sister. Karr takes the easy way out – the hand of God is what is going on here on earth. God’s plan, etc. and so on, and you (I, anyone) is powerless i/r/t control over our Self and our behavior. Our only recourse is submission to God via prayer. Without God and prayer we are all doomed. This bothers me.

Mary Karr, in her own words, became a serious alcoholic and pretty much used the fog of alcoholic stupor as a coping mechanism for what was a rotten life (= devoid of love and affection) but was able to use her good looks and intelligence to pretty much get whatever she thought she wanted; but, and also, lacked any real communicative skills of intimacy and self regard to get what she really wanted and lacked (= love & self-worth). [Not unlike many of us.] Karr was/is still a victim of her being neglected in childhood by an alcoholic mother and a dim/dull father. Which is not all that uncommon throughout the history of humans, regardless of which parent is the dimwit and who is the alcoholic. Sans a good enough beginning – having your basic needs met, including the emotional and psychological – a person’s health and well-being suffer, and consequently other people and things you interact with will also suffer. Money can make things easier (eg. Karr’s husband/Romney) but money doesn’t necessarily make for a well-adjusted human who, at the least, does no harm.

This (all three of Karr’s books) is THAT story. What bothers me is that Karr still doesn’t get it and hides behind poetry, albeit good and entertaining poetry. She abuses metaphor.

For example:
Like two shots from a nail gun.
Like a rattler under a rock.
Like a shot bird.
Like flower to sunbeam.
Like a prisoner.
Like a squeezed rubber doll.
Like fence pickets.
Like linked hot dogs.
Like a black box over the eyes of a porn star.
Like he’d bring up a wart or goiter I’ve secretly taken off.
Like a burglar with the house silver.
Like playing cards spread against the slate sky.
Like he’s been stabbed.
Like a circus diver into a bucket of water.
Like a horn trying to break through.
Like a sick calf to be liberated from the cart.
Like he’s being abducted.
Like a rabbit through chicken wire.
Like a nuclear blast.
Like a maggot.
Like four-legged beasts reared back.
Like smoke siphoned up with a hose.
Like a bird on a wire.
Like bullets from a Kelvar vest.

ENOUGH! I don’t want to know WHAT IT is LIKE – I want to know what she thinks and feels … who she is and why she does what she does. She avoids any real introspection and reflection and inquiry … the things I want to know.

I was married to an alcoholic, not unlike Karr as she describes the behavior at its worst. I was young and uneducated at the time; and I divorced the girl and, even with all the current technology, have not been able to find her. Last I saw her she was eight months pregnant (not by me), said she had quit drinking, and said she was happy. That was 34 years ago. I am a huge “aficionado” of David Foster Wallace, a writer, genius, and former lover of Karr’s, who killed himself before Lit was published. Karr writes about their relationship – a little. They spent time together in AA and a half-way house that Wallace writes extensively about in Infinite Jest. I want to know what Karr thinks and feels about him and THAT!

Here’s how she refers to Wallace:
Some kind of genius, David.
Bandana’ed David.
Big-footed David.
Uber-logical David.
Philosohy David.
Ponytailed David.
Prodigy like David.

Then they have a fight and he leaves and that’s the last we readers hear of him, from her. Surely she read Infinite Jest. Its influence on her writing is apparent, but she says nothing. Surely she knew he hung himself, but she says nothing. Okay … but she does tell about the fate (subsequent deaths) of two other, only incidental, recovery ‘friends.’ Seems to me she really is “crazy.”

Lit is like a submarine sandwich without any meat—lots of tasty bread, vegetables, flavor and spice – but no meat.

Karr says she’s going to write a how-to book about memoir. (After all she’s famous and rich for her efforts.) I, like Mary Karr, “teach” people about writing and I assure you this: If Karr were in my class I’d allow her to write however she wanted, I’d encourage her to find her voice, but I’d also challenge her as to what exactly she was trying to say – to speak more clearly. Prose and poetry are not the same. I’d suggest she forget about God and her mother and her son and money and fame. I’d suggest to Mary Karr she get a dog, or a cat – and tell them the story. And to maybe even have a drink.

Who is Marry Karr? Answer: An angry and funny woman. All her prayer and fame and money hasn’t dealt with how angry she is. (To be fair, neither has all the shrinking she’s had.) She’s made a fortune writing about her abuse and neglect. Prayers answered, she asserts. I see her explanation as one of many possible ones, and one that does not really do much for her or anybody else, except those who profit (= $$) from it (= established institutions). She still has all that anger inside her which erupts from time to time and which could be seen as really, really funny and turned into a fantastically, hilarious, stand-up comedic routine (eg. The train scene.). Or a great novel (It could be that Wallace wrote Infinite Jest to seduce her.). Her mother could have been a victim of past-life bleed through (See my essay “Reincarnation.”). Who knows? What if she had done something different than she did i/r/t her relationship with Wallace? What might we be reading today? What if they had worked things out? But what do we get … God’s plan and prayer.

Here’s a thought: Child neglect and the sexual abuse of a child is a really, really bad thing that some children don’t “get over.” And I’m not buying it as part of God’s plan, or the Devil’s work, and that the only remedy is to be “saved” via God’s love. No matter how well Karr can write – that’s a vague and weak story.
Profile Image for Howard.
1,288 reviews80 followers
September 11, 2023
3 Stars for Lit: A Memoir (audiobook) by Mary Karr read by the author.

Before reading this I thought I’d read a book or two by Mary Karr but come to find out this is my first book by her. I have a couple of her books on my TBR list and now I’m wondering if this was a poor choice for me to start with. The tone of this memoir just didn’t work for me. I generally enjoy learning about artists lives but not this one so much.
Profile Image for Julie Davis.
Author 4 books272 followers
August 1, 2016
Note - I read this for a book club. Not my choice. I do like memoirs, just not this sort.

Mary Karr/Lit fans are a fiercely loyal group. And super intolerant of anyone who doesn't love her sort of memoir. I get it. Oy veh. Can we all just move on? Not going to reiterate any more the above two points in my comments section.

Original comments/review below.


Reading this for my book club.


If there is a genre I hate, it is that of addicts telling their life stories ... yes, even when they come out Christian at the other end. Just like a bad movie made for Christian purposes, an angsty book told for Christian purposes does nothing for me. First give me good art (story) I say, then worry about what else is in it.

It isn't that I don't have sympathy for the people themselves, it is that their books inevitably seem to be all about them (me, me, me ... angst and self loathing ... then repeat).

I know, this makes me sound harsh. But there you have it.

The only thing worse than that?

Tell it in stream-of-consciousness (which around our house, we call "lazy writer's syndrome").

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Lit.

So yes I have a very bad attitude going in and after reading the first four pages I was consciously reminding myself that some book club members read 400 pages of Assam & Darjeeling who never have read fantasy before.

Therefore, I manned up and soldiered on. For another four pages. I didn't want to actually weep aloud so I stopped reading.

And then I recalled one book club member who skimmed Assam & Darjeeling in 20 minutes and kept insisting that she'd "read" the book ... but she had so many other books she was reading that she didn't have time to properly sit down with this one.


But ok, everyone loves her and we have good manners (unlike this commentary, I realize) and so we politely agreed to her fiction.

Which opened the gate for me to do the same. Almost.

I managed to page through and find where Karr actually goes to her knees to pray and gets a bit of response ... and will pick up skimming from there. Although the next meeting isn't for a few weeks. So there's no need to actually rush into this or anything (yes, I also enjoy procrastinating in my spare time ...)

Full disclosure ... I haven't read the first 200-250 pages. It is just that is the spot from which I am taking the plunge. As quick a plunge as possible. The book club is Monday so I've got to begin skimming now!

I must say that I enjoyed the last part of the book fairly well. It didn't make me want to go back and read the beginning of it, but I have rarely read a better description of one's interaction with God than the last part of the book. So in the end, I am glad that I read the bit that I did. I'll be curious to see how everyone else liked it.
Profile Image for Jen Knox.
Author 25 books478 followers
December 8, 2009
Karr's hard-edged poetic voice made The Liars' Club one of my favorite books. In Lit, the voice is just as searing and lovely but perhaps not as consistent. The childhood digressions--nods to her previous works--were the weakest portions of the narrative, but they were brief; moreover, they were easily forgiven when bookmarking transcendent scenes such as one in which a group of illiterate women remind the author of the universality of good poetry. I highly recommend this book to all readers, but notably writers and anyone consumed by art. This is a book for writers and artists, from a poet known for her prose.
Profile Image for jo.
613 reviews497 followers
February 7, 2017
it's entirely impossible to give this book less than five stars because it's an obvious masterpiece of narrative, heart, and language. unlike other memoirists who put it all out there, though, mary karr doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel and come up with the miserable, putrescent dregs that caused her to be so miserable and, also, to drink (two different predicaments, though i suppose the latter cannot happen without the former). she talks many times, pretty much from beginning to end, about being a sort of lifetime therapy goer, but what she and her therapists talk about she doesn't tell us. maybe it's all in her previous books, but that would seem unfair.

this is very funny book. mary karr is just hilarious. this may grate on people. it didn't grate on me. but you have to tell the truth. you have to give us more than "i became an alcoholic" and "i stopped being an alcoholic." look, this is not a shallow book, but i never quite got what terrible pain had taken hold of mary karr that wasn't willing to let up its rusty jaws. it clearly had to do with her childhood, but in this book we get an absent and eventually forgiven mother and a much beloved if idiosyncratic father.

i can imagine that, having gone through the torture of recounting her childhood in two other books, karr may not want to do it again here. i get that. but that doesn't do much to make me feel satisfied. i know she is in pain but i don't feel the pain. i don't understand the pain. i feel we are not told about the pain.

not that telling about one's pain is easy. but if you want a good memoir you have to get to the bleeding dregs, otherwise you are going to wow but not entirely satisfy readers like me.

the second part, karr's tussle with god and her final finding of a good relationship with him, grabbed me by the throat, not in a good way. i just could not read these parts without seeing myself in three particular occasions i won't mention here, praying to god within an inch of my life and getting silence back. i felt rageful beyond tolerance. i am still a believer (like karr, a catholic) and practice my faith the best i can, but i think i've been spitting mad at god for a good 10 years at least, and while this book made me see this rage for the first time (a very good thing), it did nothing to give me reasons to seek reconciliation.

one must, of course, see the hand of someone loving and attentive in the good things that happen to one, especially if one has prayed for them. you can't pray for things then claim the deity you prayed to had nothing to do with them once you get them. but as i read about all the little and big signs of god's love that came to karr, i couldn't help thinking of all the nothings i have felt from god in a good long while.

and then i felt guilty. maybe i don't pray enough (i don't). maybe i don't pray the right way. maybe i should pray pray pray. there is a lot in this book about prayer.

but i don't want the books i read to make me feel guilty. i stopped praying for things because i kept getting fresh cow patties in the face. so fuck this shit, mary karr. i'm going to keep on living my faith the way i can, right now, as a spitting mad and disappointed believer/lover, and i'm going to think of you as being more enlightened and advanced on the spiritual journey than i. i tried, mary karr. i really tried. if people are better at giving it all up to god than i, then good for them. i can't. not now.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,273 followers
June 7, 2021


This is the third (and, as at the time of this review, the last) of Mary Karr's sequence of memoirs.

"The Liars' Club" is still my favourite, although this volume comes close. While the former reveals much about Mary Karr's approach to writing, the latter is more didactic in tone, being focussed on the methods by which she recovered from her depression and alcoholism (via a half-baked Catholicism).

The "Lit" of the title has two meanings: one relates to being lit, or being inebriated; while the other relates to being or witnessing something that is illuminated.

We're meant to infer that Mary's way out of alcoholism was illuminated by God (or Christ), a higher power for the purposes of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

"Twist in My Sobriety"

This is the part of the book to which I related least. Mary believes that prayer helped her to recover, and if she thinks that is true, then who am I to question her? This type of belief might also have worked for other recovered alcoholics, but so what?

I question whether to achieve sobriety, you have to start believing in an imaginary friend (God/ Jesus Christ), the Catholic Church, and its dogma and rituals. The question is the extent to which Mary's belief could apply to others (including you and me). Surely, Catholicism can't be the solution for Jews and Protestants?

I can't help speculating that one woman's cure might be another man's poison.

I'd prefer to believe that Mary wrote herself into a state of rehabilitation, if not necessarily into sobriety. Writing might be the way to discover and create your self (as well as your parents and family). Arguably, I want to believe that Mary was her own illumination. The problem is that this conceit would be my (secular humanist) fiction, rather than her lived experience and memoir. I'm kind of disappointed that, if her view prevails, there's one less secular humanist in the world.


Having passed through her teens in "Cherry", "Lit" is more concerned with the time from 20 to 40, which embraces her early writing career, marriage, parenthood and divorce. "Lit" was published nine years after "Cherry", not that it necessarily took her nine years to write. These other aspects of life obviously consumed a lot of her time and attention, not to mention that she discarded a total of about 1,200 pages of draft, before starting again on two occasions.

Anyway, by the time this volume was published, Mary was approaching 50, and her son (referred to as Dev) was approaching 20. Mary's mother had also been dead ten years, aged 80 at the time of her death.

In a way, the memoir is an attempt to establish a commonality (in Catholic terms, a communion) with her mother, so that Mary and Dev might avoid the familial conflict that had driven Mary (and her mother) into depression and alcoholism. Mary recognises that:

"However long I've been granted sobriety, however many hours I logged in therapists' offices and the confessional, I've still managed to hurt you, and not just the divorce when you were five, with its attendant shouting matches and slammed doors.

"Just as my mother vanished from my young life into a madhouse, so did I vanish when you were a toddler. Having spent much of my life trying to plumb her psychic mysteries, I now find myself occupying her chair as plumbee..."

Ironically, this volume could equally have been titled "Plumb", in malapropian contrast to "Cherry".

The Odyssey

Mary Karr compares her (writer's) journey to the story of the Odyssey:

"In Odyssean terms, I'd wanted to be a hero, but wound up - as Mother did - a monster."

Home is where the family is, so, paradoxically, we must both escape and return to it:

"Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us."

She must finally replace the "burnt-out lightbulb I fail every day to change", so that Dev's path into the future of his life might be better lit or illuminated.

This might also constitute a reason we should read this memoir/these memoirs of lived and lit experience - so that we can escape the behavior we share with Mary and her Mother (not to mention a notorious tattooed maximalist outlaw I'll call Red Bandana).

Mary Karr's memoirs of a sexually active outlaw writer could almost persuade you that she is more heroic than monstrous (at least, at heart). On the other hand, she might just be anything but tame.

"What hell do we have that we didn't construct?"

Profile Image for Sara.
140 reviews44 followers
July 12, 2011
The experience of reading this book is one of being swept so effectively into someone else's experience that I have to give it a five. Pick it up, lie down on the couch, and if you've ever been an aspiring writer, a member of a psychotic family, a lover of poetry or even just an avid reader, you'll be as absorbed as ever you were in Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre. East Texas girl overcomes horrific childhood but has to kick her alcoholism to become best-selling memoirist is just as gripping as Jane finding love but needing to overcome Rochester's bigamous impulses, or Anne finding a home in Prince Edward Island once she starts getting a grip on her habit of living only in daydreams.

Karr delivers us what we want the most: a tale of upward mobility and material success that is also the tale of moral reform. Little Mary had the discipline to live through a psychotic mother, stop drinking and trust God, thus she is now a wealthy author living in Manhattan. I confess to having eaten up every last spoonful.

But I wonder. Can a narrative of spiritual reform also be a narrative of material success? I haven't got the slightest doubt that Karr experienced a real spiritual reform. She tells the story of her drunkenness without a trace of defensiveness or self-excuse. She struggles to forgive her mother, and if the tone of all three of her books can be believed, she succeeds. After reading all three memoirs, *I* have trouble forgiving her mother. She was a dangerous and impossible woman. Reading Karr's memoirs makes me humble, makes me want to try to be a better more forgiving person myself. It's just that the logic of "I started to pray, and then God gave me a fellowship. And a book contract. And a best-seller" is very far from the life stories of saints and mystics from whom Karr draws her own spirituality. Those biographies usually go "I started to pray and then God asked me to give up all my worldly wealth, and now the church has set the Spanish Inquisition after me." Karr may be a reluctant Catholic, but this memoir is more aligned with the Protestant tradition of a Christianity of prosperity.

Still, the book is lusciously written, engaging, and offers the hope that we can all become, with a little bit of grace, better selves, while keeping our senses of humor. It is a book worth reading.
Profile Image for britt_brooke.
1,333 reviews97 followers
August 31, 2017
"Why is it that everyone else is traffic?"

I listened to this on audio read flawlessly by the author. Something about it coming directly from her mouth, her Texas drawl still slightly present, really enveloped me. Her writing is raw. The descriptions, lovely. She is rough, bold, and smart. I like her.
Profile Image for Alexis.
Author 5 books25 followers
December 31, 2013
Warning, craft review! Karr employs or deploys a number of craft strategies and techniques that I examined in order to rip-off for my own writing. I whittled down the many to these few:
• Prologues as context, anchoring (and/ or launching?) points
for both writer and reader, and how the prologues determine
the economy of explanation throughout the book;
• Management of present- and past-self narrators, for story, for
suspense, and other effects;
• Cognitive entry points (the deft turns-of-phrase Karr uses to
access—or to seem to access and thereby weave in—memory);
• Use of parenthetical statements as a device for interrogating
her own memory, calling bull shit on herself, and/or adding
another layer of subjectivity.

With the prologues, we encounter an open letter to Karr’s son, which answers the vital narrator questions outlined by writer David Mura (in a presentation I attended at the Stonecoast Residency) (Who? To Whom? When? Why?) The reader is immediately oriented. Perhaps just as important, these prologues also locate the writer—provide her with narrative marching orders. If she should forget, Karr’s prologue can remind her of who is telling the story, to whom, when, and why. And as writers, we do forget: we get bogged down in minutiae or umpteen other concerns and forget the larger shape of our stories.

In the first prologue, “SIDE A: NOW,” Karr launches the ‘I’ into a place of intimacy, closeness, truth (no bullshit), tenderness, and regret; she’s writing to her son, and as a result, the narrator’s calibrations are finely tuned in the way that only family can hear them fully. And yet, the reader is not left outside because Karr knows that, as Joyce observed, the universal is rendered in the particular, or in this case, a universal pain is rendered in Karr’s idiosyncratic voice—Texas-shit-kicker-cum-Harvard-poet.

We are invited eavesdroppers. Contextualizing the book in this way (as letter to son) also forces Karr to write from a place of love and tenderness. It forces a level of honesty beyond Karr’s obvious honesty and snarkiness—into emotional honesty that isn’t clever or well-spoken. It is in these moments when I stop marveling at the writer and take in the human being; for example, while visiting the sober house, the narrator finds herself confessing deep, clichéd fears: “For some reason, my eyes well up, and I find myself saying to women I just met, I’m afraid I’m not a good mom”(242). Writing the prologue to her son keeps the narrator accountable to this level of emotional honesty. At a minimum, it keeps the bar high.

Also clarified by the prologue is the economy of explanation. The audience for the prologue is an intimate, and someone to whom she is making amends. I don’t know if anyone ever asked Karr if she thinks of Lit as a 9th step of sorts, but I’d be interested to hear her answer. Answering the narrative questions serve to clarify the story. This is a story of redemption and self-definition from mother to son, and why and how the mother tells it, is to free them both. If ever Karr got unclear about who, what, when, to whom, and why, she could just look at this line, which I see as the underpinning refrain of the book: “Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us” (6).

Of course the book is her own journey to get free—of her family story, of her own alcoholism—to get home. I think all writing is about going home—we go deeper inward to bring truth outward.

I admired, too, the way Karr seamlessly threaded both her present and past narrative selves--whether with a sentence or a paragraph, or sometimes just a phrase. She makes such a transition at the end of the second chapter, right after her so-called college “interview” in which being fondled is the price of admission. We are in that scene, and then we are out, with a spry-witted turn: “With his trembling and sweaty hand, he cupped first one breast, then the other, saying, By God, they’re real! Such was the interview that landed me in a school far beyond my meager qualifications” (32). Seemingly all at once, we are firmly in the past moment, then we are looking back on it, and then even looking forward from it.

When she first meets Walt, Karr manages well the tension that can be exploited with narrator. The past narrative self doesn’t know that he’s a good guy, but the present narrating self does: “My department collects strays, he said. Stop by my office tonight. We’ll see what we can find. But during the day, the prospect slid back and forth like a BB. Why did he want to see me at night? Leaving my library job, I faced sparse snow on the ground, scraped at by winds like straight razors” (37). What menacing! But Walt proves harmless.

Karr manipulates this tension frequently, and by quick turns, so as to keep the energy of the story up without seeming like a predatory narrator.

Another example (and one of my favorites) comes when she and some other drunks are car-pooling to an outside meeting and she suspects the driver is drunk. (This is known as a commitment in and around Boston, meaning the group is committing itself to serve another group, but when I first heard it, I immediately thought commitment, as in to be committed…to a nuthouse.) She captures AA so wonderfully, with such humor and depth and reverence, I want to read it through once more just for that. As she steps into the car, her present narrating self smells juniper, a hallmark of gin, but she talks herself out of her instincts. Fumblingly, he lights a cigarette, and the present narrating self declares, “This, I think, is as drunk a motherfucker as I’ve ever seen, fixing to steer the car I’m in. As a kid, I was trained to give the shitfaced room” (230). They end up driving to the meeting hall, with the reader still in suspense; the reveal comes a few pages later (the narrator was right!) when they find the drunk motherfucker passed out under a tree.

I’ll make my last two observations quickly, but I want to note them at least. Karr maneuvers her thinking with either physical objects or with cognition itself as a tangible object, wherein she holds the thing or thought in her hand, her mind, her gaze, and uses it as a Chutes-and-Ladders-esque entry point into some other thought, memory, scene, or image. Right off, in the prologue, she regards a videotape while thinking of her son’s leaving: “So after you’d gone, I played it—maybe for the first time all the way through. It’s a summer afternoon in a yellow kitchen we’ve yet to remodel.” She drops us right into the scene.

She does it again in the next prologue by using the red camera eye as an entry point. She uses a triangle of a book page (Lorca) a bit later on, as a vehicle for thought, for movement into memory. It’s a device of Nabokov’s, his inimitable madeleine cookie moment from Speak, Memory, and Karr uses it just as expertly, as a mode of transporting the reader and as a pivot point for reflection.

Finally, I admired how Karr used a parenthetical third narrator. I have been attempting this, without being fully conscious of it in my own work, particularly in managing information I learn later from third parties or from court documents. It adds so much depth to Karr’s already rich voice, and it did so leanly—in these seeming asides. But the asides by virtue of their repetition begin to take on weight, and because their function changes—from true aside to longer note, they begin to seem like highlighted grafts of language. They begin to function as another lens of subjectivity, which ultimately makes her narrator all the more reliable.

One striking example comes as Karr sits prostrate before a toilet bowl, having just checked herself into the bin. It’s characteristic Karr to be self-conscious about such a moment, and she is, and further she acknowledges this self-consciousness on the page, in a sort of screenplay aside that appears in parentheses: “(Vis-à-vis God speaking to me, I don’t mean the voice of Charlton Heston playing Moses booming from on high, but reversals of attitude so contrary to my typical thoughts—so solidly true—as to seem divinely external. And quiet these thoughts are, strong and quiet. View it as some sane self or healthy ego taking charge, if you like. By checking in to the hospital, I’ve said in some deep way uncle, or—as they said in my old neighborhood—calf rope, referring to an animal hogtied in a rodeo arena. I’ve stopped figuring so hard and begun to wait, sometimes with increasing hope, to be shown)” (276).
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books969 followers
November 29, 2009
A writer's writer, Mary Karr's work will appeal to poets, fans of the literary scene, self-help first-person horror story aficionados, and lovers of words. Never was the map to hell so gloriously recounted as this one. And the way she nails the logic and rationalization of alcoholics is spot on. If you've ever talked your way into "just one more" and lived to regret it, you'll find some mirrors among these well written pages. What follows are some excerpts from the book:

Karr writes of her first poet/mentor, Etheridge Knight: "He was lumbering and black, with a scraggly mustache and a soul patch under his chin. His jaw was lumpy and uneven, with patches of white skin edged in pink -- ragged and tear-shaped, as if acid flung in his face had eaten away his color."

On her own poetry: from p. 53

"What I wrote was mostly unintelligible, except for one bit about a suicidal dog. The first line went, alliteratively enough, Don't do it, dog.. The stuff I was fighting to avoid sometimes slipped out in vague disguise: a kid raped, a lost father, a woman on the shock treatment table But because I refused to use sentences -- just strung phrases willy-nilly -- nobody understood it anyway. The word cerulean, I believe, was used.

"It's experimental, I argued to the baffled readers arranged on Etheridge's furniture.

"It's in-fucking-comprehensible, he shot back."

Most enjoyable is the description of the mentally-handicapped women she worked with. She'd read two poems to them every day -- one classic and one horrid. Without fail, even if it were challenging as hell, the classic was picked by the women 80% of the time. It's a heartwarming and touching sequence. Then back to Etheridge's critiques of her poems:

"It drove him crazy how I'd stick in fancy names and references I thought sounded clever. Etheridge used a pen to poke the fedora back on his head. Looking at me with bloodshot eyes, he asked with frank curiosity, Now why is a little girl from Bumfuck, Texas, dragging Friedrich Nietzsche -- kicking and screaming -- into this poem? Like you're gonna preach. You ain't no preacher, Mary Karr. You're a singer.

"When I bristled that I'd been a philosophy major in college, he said, And that's all you're telling anybody. What you took in college. You're pointing right back at your own head, telling everybody how smart it is. Write what you know.

"But according to you, I don't know squat.

"Your heart, Mary Karr, he'd say. His pen touched my sternum, and it felt for all the world like the point of a dull spear as he said, Your heart knows what your head don't. Or won't."

Good stuff. Really. Read it.

Profile Image for Nan.
73 reviews2 followers
March 7, 2010
A big messy book with a lot of good things and a lot of annoying things. Karr overwrites with a vengeance, throwing 2 metaphors into one sentence when none would have been a lot better. There's a this-is-me-warts-and-all-stream-of-consciousness thing that she does that is apparently engaging for a lot of readers, but I tended to find her on the narcissistic side. Somewhere in this 400 page monster is a great 200 page memoir dying to shed some poundage.

What I did like about the book was her honesty about her struggle to deal with God as a necessary entity in her recovery, and that her struggle had a positive outcome. After all the legalistic and sour atheism at the top of best seller lists, it was nice to read about someone talking about prayer and belief in a non-disparaging way. Karr does do an annoying thing where she almost continually apologizes for her belief and for praying, but I realize I do the same thing myself, so I learned something as well.
851 reviews
July 26, 2011
Okay - I know this author has won awards and I am supposed to have thought this book was wonderful, but I didn't. I swear I could hear her thumbing through the thesaurus to find words we do not use in normal conversation. Keep in mind she is a poet by trade, not a nonfiction writer, so the disjointed nature of her autobiography is to be somewhat expected. Yes, she did have a hard life as a child and her alcohol abuse made her less than a great mom but I had a hard time not telling to her to grow up and get on with it already! Yes, I talk to the authors in my head as I read. After all, we each have our own experience/discussion with a book and its author! :-) With that said, depression and alcoholism impair a person's ability to function normally and Karr is raw in her description of her own unhealthy behaviors and that of her mentally unstable mother and other family members. My heart went out to her son and ex-husband as I read her memoir as loving someone this disfunctional requires a great deal of fortitude! I also read this one for a book club and we don't self select what is read. I keep reminding myself that this is why I joined - to be exposed to books I would not find on my own. :-)
Profile Image for Linda Gao.
99 reviews1 follower
July 14, 2015
A complete drag, I didn't realize there was MORE in Karr's life to warrant a third memoir. She somehow managed to make dating David Foster Wallace boring.
Profile Image for Joseph Sciuto.
Author 8 books134 followers
April 9, 2022
After reading Mary Karr's "Liars' Club" and "Cherry," the first and second memoirs in the trilogy, I didn't think it could get any better. I figured, "Lit," the final memoir, would be just as awe inspiring and breathtaking as the previous two, but my God, was I wrong. "Lit," was even better and if one puts all three together you have what I call an amazing collection and if I was an English Professor teaching about the art of the 'memoir' this is the collection I would have my class read.

"Lit," explores the underbelly of alcoholism, the struggle to recover, and eventually the spiritual enlightenment of living with the disease but not falling prey to its lingering demons and temptations.

Ms. Karr, a distinguished poet, who uses poetry throughout the memoirs, reaches the highest levels of honesty which is a hallmark of all great poets from Dante, Byron, Keats, Poe, Elliot, and Yeats.

The great editor, Maxwell Perkins, thought that poetry, was the apex, the summit, of all the writing forms; and considering that Mr. Perkins, "The Editor of Genius," was Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe's editor is saying a lot.

Ms. Karr's story is horrid, but in the end with the guidance of her son, sister, counselors, priests, nuns, the ghost of her father, and friends she does reach what Dante called "Paradiso." The final book in his great trilogy, "The Divine Comedy." She might not reach the highest sphere, but with the help of her guides (Beatrice in "Paradiso") she comes, to a certain extent, very close to the inner enlightenment and glory of God...to the concept of a Higher Being.

Profile Image for Patrick O'Neil.
Author 10 books145 followers
April 20, 2011
Lit: A Memoir, Mary Karr's journey through alcohol, and alcoholism, takes the reader into her life; marriage, drinking, childbirth, drinking, teaching, drinking, writing, drinking, family, drinking, failed marriage, drinking, getting sober, drinking, really getting sober, not drinking, finding god, mother's death, and finally more god – was well written, entertaining, informative, and as always with Karr's writing – self centered and self depreciating – which I'm not complaining about, as she pulls it off quite well. I love her folksiness, her down home Texas twang, her bad girl persona, even if at times it comes off an act. However what left me cold, making the last 50 pages hard to get through, was Karr's proclamation of all things god – which was actually more god than I knew what to do with. Not that I'm opposed to others want/desire/need for god. If it works for you by all means go with god or any other deity/religion that helps. I just had the overwhelming feeling I was getting recruited – which is how I feel whenever I'm in the presence of a zealot. Suddenly I'm thinking that maybe I should be praying to the holy trinity so that my car doesn’t breakdown, my assistant teaching job isn't phrased out due to the economy, or I finally get that as of yet elusive book deal – just like Mary did – yes, she attributes it to god. And then I find myself thinking I'm missing out here. I need an edge, a piously holy edge with the Big Guy looking out for me. Then I wake up and remember that most authors' success is a crapshoot, like winning the lottery. And it's not always about how well you write, but more who you know, where you've been published, where you teach – that you belong to the club, that seemingly elusive literary club. Which is why the publishing industry is in the mess that it is. It's an outmoded nonworking business model. And just like the music industry's complete rearrangement, the publishing world is scrambling to reinvent itself. Okay, how did I get here reviewing Lit: A Memoir? Apparently I can never just shut up and stay on subject – so yeah: Mary Karr writes beautiful prose. Her imagery, dialogue, and structure flawless. She tells her story and we, the reader, are all the more richer for it.
Profile Image for Cherylann.
558 reviews
August 19, 2010
I read a lot of memoirs. There's something about peering into someone else's life that gives me a chance to pause and reflect on mine. Lit was no exception. It appears to be brutually honest, although it may not be since it's based on the recollections of an alcoholic. However, Karr does not paint herself to be a saint for having gotten herself into recovery or blame her past for her descent into alcoholism and depression. There were times as I read that I didn't want to read anymore. I wanted to put the emotional weight of the book down. But I kept reading. I wondered about how her family felt as she wrote her first memoir - because after all you never can write strictly about your life; the people who orbit around you become part of that story so whose story are you writing? Karr answers those questions. And at points, I believe, she does acknowledge that this is not her story. This is a book that will stay with me.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,439 followers
Shelved as 'skimmed'
April 23, 2015
This makes me want to drink in the daytime...and seems to be giving me permission.
Profile Image for Kaya.
Author 10 books116 followers
December 23, 2009
Suspect the world does not need another review of Mary Karr’s newest memoir, but I do have some scattered thoughts on it. I feel, however, that they must be prefaced by multiple caveats, which may be the scattered thoughts in disguise. Caveat one: I’ve not read any of her other books. Have seen occasional poems of hers in magazines. Caveat two: She studied with a poet I also studied with, who makes a couple of appearances in this book as she begins to ascend into the poetry firmament. Caveat three: Much of this book is about poetry and the journey toward being a career poet, an occupation I’ve abandoned (fodder for a different blog entry/essay, but much of what Dan Nester writes here is true for me as well), so I tend to view that part of her story with a jaded eye. Caveat four: It’s a recovery story, and I’ve never had a serious problem with alcohol; aside from some typical twentysomething years of social binge drinking, I grew up to be a teetotaler. That being said, I do come from an alcoholic family, so I’ve witnessed quite a bit of what she describes. Caveat five: The book was loaned to me by my friend Father A, who’s a Paulist priest and someone I have a deep admiration for. Lest I sound like Ann Lamott, who always seems to be quoting her “priest friend”, I’ll just say that Father A was a writing teacher in seminary and reads a lot of interesting things. And finally, caveat six: I was working at a bookstore around the time the big wave of memoirs began, and I’ve been appalled by some of the terrible writing that’s come out of this genre and the Augusten Burroughs, “I’ll write five memoirs before I’m fifty!” megalomaniacal style of rubbernecking, navel gazing memoir (no, they are not all like this, but you know what I’m talking about). However, I’m particularly interested in female writing about spirituality at the moment, so I’ve been trying to overcome my memoir-phobia in order to read some sublime stuff (Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness, Theresa of Avila, Hildegard Von Bingen, etc) and some utterly appalling, smug, irritating, trite anti-feminist crap (Ahem, Eat, Pray, Love. Michael K over at Dlisted refers to that one as “Queef, Fart, Poop”, which just about sums it up for me).

Karr is clearly a better writer than Elizabeth Gilbert, and no matter how much I can’t get into some aspects of her book, she can turn a phrase and tell a story — which ought to be plenty enough for a memoir. The thing about this book, however, is the sense of weariness about the enterprise (and this may be my misinterpretation having never read her other memoirs). There’s a kind of steady narrative interruption throughout where she stops in order to have a flashback, but these often feel like retreads of stories told elsewhere, and that’s again coming from someone who hasn’t read said stories before. Nonetheless, the vividness of some things here is irresistible, and I like the fact that she’s hard on herself; real writers are really fucking hard on ourselves, and in my experience we don’t really like ourselves all that much, which she gets. After recovery, however, Karr starts praying — I’m totally fine with that — but she also starts loving herself, and gets a great job (tenure track!) and publishes books (interestingly, she does the same thing I complained about in regards to Julie and Julia and says “blah blah you’re not a writer until you publish a book”, then repeats several times that the book was ignored, although it lead to accolades, tenure, better publication of her next book, meeting famous writers et cetera; I was confused about this part of the narrative). She has a torrid affair with David Foster Wallace (though her writing about it doesn’t feel exploitative — I had to re-read her description of him a couple of times before the faint ping of recognition went off), she becomes a responsible mother, forgives her own mother for being insane and drunk, and so on. It feels like a rather pat “happy ending”, and dampened my enthusiasm for the book. Her conversion story only takes up less than a forth of the whole thing, and she seems to have picked Catholicism kind of randomly — she complains the Episcopal church wasn’t heated enough in winter — and it’s kind of bunched together version of what must have been a pretty significant experience for her. I found myself liking Mary Karr the writer more than Mary Karr’s book, if that makes any sense. Perhaps it just needed a more merciless editor who might have trimmed down some of the digressive passages, but as much as the writing itself was compelling, much of the story left me a little confused.

Profile Image for Rick.
778 reviews2 followers
July 24, 2014
Shitfaced. As I read the early pages of Lit, I thought Shitfaced would make a better title. With characteristic candor, it’s the word Karr uses more often to describe her drunken state. But I was wrong. For some part of this, her third memoir, Shitfaced would have worked quite handily but eventually you come to realize this is more than a memoir about the journey from addiction to recovery and it becomes a story about faith and love. The deeper journey calls for the warmth and reach of lit, with its different meanings (drunk, an abbreviation for literature, illuminated).

As she did with The Liar’s Club Karr tells her tale with tart humor and a predator’s eye for the weakness in herself and all of us, not to be mean but to pay truth to human nature and open the door for compassion. She is generous in her gratitude to her sister, a professor named Walt, her son, Tobias Wolff, Wolff’s agent, Thomas Lux, and numerous folks (professionals and recovering addicts both, most particularly a woman named Joan) who helped her rescue herself. She seems not unfair to her former husband—though coldly unforgiving to his family—and almost apologetic to her post-recovery lover David Foster Wallace. Her mother and father, particularly mother, are sources of continued anguish, regret, but also inspiration and strength. And mom, crazy or no, drunk or sober, is funny. (“Didn’t you just get out of some place?” Karr’s mom responds to David’s declaration that he will marry her daughter after a month of dating. Mean but funny.)

But the larger story is the author’s migration from cynical non-believer to practicing Catholic. The conversion wasn’t one of those “I drank myself til I fell gutter bottom and there Jesus lifted me up.” Karr reaches sobriety without soliciting or accepting the aid of a higher power. After she has been sober for several years, she takes her son on a tour of religious options in response to his curiosity, bringing along a paperback to keep her company when the service fails to engage. For some reason, something clicks in the Catholic liturgy and the congregation of practitioners she encounters. There is something random and not institutionally specific about the tour—“Most places get just one visit. The Hebrew that mesmerizes me at the conservative temple frustrated Dev [her son:], who likes the Reform service, though it sometimes sounds to me—with its talk of Middle East strife—more political than spiritual. While I adore the hand-clapping gospel music of the Baptists, the anti-gay diatribe is tough to swallow, ditto the long service.” Surely there are reform synagogues where politics is less front and center, as well as Baptist congregations that don’t beat the anti-gay drum, just as there are long Catholic services, some even with their own anti-gay sermons. Karr’s spirituality, though, is less rooted in theological and institutional dogma than in prayer, contemplation, and fellowship. It’s helped also by small blessings and mini-miracles of coincidence. Critical to this skeptical reader was that Karr remains the same sensual, sharp-tongued, funny person after her conversion as she was before.

Lit is a very fine memoir and deserves a place next to her superb The Liar’s Club, as well as between the two Wolff brothers’ memoirs (The Duke of Deception and This Boy’s Life) and Kay Jamison’s The Unquiet Mind. All of them are wise, unflinchingly truthful, funny and compelling, inspiring and generous in their sharing of life stories that rise to the level of art. Presently I will retrieve Cherry, Karr’s second memoir, from the-to-be read pile. She is too good company to be kept waiting.
Profile Image for Ciara.
Author 3 books359 followers
September 14, 2012
i'm not sure what to say about this book. i LOVED the liar's club & was so excited to read cherry, the second in her memoir trilogy. & even though that book is about coming of age adolescent girlhood, the kind of thing i love to read, i found it depressing (even more than ! or in a less appealing way or something), & the writing was too "poetic" for my tastes. therefore, i procrastinated for ages before cracking this book, the third of the memoir trilogy, open. i knew it was about mary's experiences becoming an alcoholic after her son's birth & her long road to recovery. addiction/recovery memoirs aren't really something i have a great interest in, & i was anxious about four hundred pages of fanciful/depressing prose about a subject to which i am indifferent. i checked this book out of the library & actually didn't start reading it until it was already overdue--& i NEVER accrue late fees! i devour books the second i bring them home! so this was a departure for me, to be sure.

anyway, once i started reading, i really enjoyed the book. it was far superior to cherry, maybe even better than the liar's club, until about 300 pages in. & that is when mary converted to catholicism. wow. did not see that coming. did not like. i mean, good for her, she seems to have gone into it with her eyes open & it's a meaningful & satisfying aspect of her life. but it weirded me the hell out. part of what i find difficult about writing about recovery (especially the twelve-step method, which seems to be pretty much the only thing that works for a lot of people) is all the talk of "higher powers" & "spirituality". far be it for me to begrudge a recovering addict any tools that will help them to get better, & if they find religion in the process, that's their own personal business. but it's not something i'd necessarily choose to hear about, you know?

the other thing that was weird about this book is that it seemed to me that a lot of mary's problems could be traced back to some kind of PTSD from growing up with a crazy mom who tried to kill her. it seemed like a lot of her experiences with alcohol were some form of self-medication. & yet, mary was bound & determined to sustain a relationship with her mother. she writes about her mom attending her wedding & getting high & causing a bit of a ruckus. she writes about how she didn't drink at all when she was pregnant, & invited her mom up after the baby was born to help out with the first few weeks, & how her mom basically enabled her to fall of the wagon & start drinking again. i guess if mary's made her peace with this kind of shit, it's not my place to cast aspersions, but i don't talk to my family, really, for a reason, you know? it's just kind of difficult to sit & watch people make self-destructive mistakes. though, she's a highly-acclaimed published author & i'm not, so i guess she's doing something right.

bottom line: i really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that it contained several elements that made me wonder WHY i enjoyed it so much. i wish i had better answers...but i'd still recommend it.
Profile Image for Dana.
115 reviews33 followers
June 21, 2016
Mary Karr is a poet. This is a memoir. This is prose. But also poetry.

I have underlined and dog-eared a page in every chapter of this book. It's been essential to my well-being in the past month. Is it pretentious to say that? I'm saying it. This was a healing book to me. I read it at a time when I didn't know how much I needed it but I did and it delivered.

It's starts out Texan and funny, raw and melancholy (Mary Karr's early life is hilariously awful but actually quite tragic), then it delves into her alcoholism and depression which are heavy and heartbreaking and dark it invokes the same hollow-eyed fear of the halfway house scenes in Infinite Jest which she by the way actually stayed in as an in-patient. She takes you through it, unflinching, unapologetic and you taste her fear and desperation and although the text is triggering she still conveys it so poetically it breaks my heart a little. The last third of the book is her survival and spiritual transformation.

I did not expect this book to take me on the spiritual journey it ended up providing. It's in no way preachy or anything like that. Karr's struggle to accept the notion of the higher power, to pray, to give thanks, to kneel, to let go...it's all so personal. It hit really close to home.
Profile Image for Amy.
525 reviews37 followers
August 21, 2020
A Tour de force. Hands down one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Mary can write exceptionally well and she doesn’t hold back, with a wrenching honesty that kept me captivated the whole long listen. As I did the audiobook, I loved having her be the narrator and don’t think I would have listened if it was anyone else. I highly recommend if you like memoirs. I have already recommended this book to one of my friends where sobriety has been a big part of their journey, and I definitely think anyone who struggles/struggled with alcohol or other substances, would get a lot from hearing her story.
Profile Image for christa.
745 reviews286 followers
November 28, 2009
Mary Karr's third memoir "Lit" is her own personal VH1 Behind the Music-style story, picking up the tale around where "Cherry" ended and stumbling into the place where "The Liars Club" became something Karr could sign in bookstores for fans in a line that winds around the block.

First she has to shake the drink.

Early scenes find Karr perched on a back porch, a drink in one hand, a baby monitor in the other, simmering in a boozy stew of self-loathing. She didn't want to drink this much, or maybe she had even vowed to quit that day. She's gone from East Texas to California, to a college she cutely calls Lackluster located in St. Paul. There she develops an electric response to writing poetry, and makes the sort of friends who encourage her, lend her money, offer to adopt her and otherwise keep her pointed north. Fun fact: At one point she is named Poet In Residence of Minneapolis, which she calls "the most dubious post I ever held." Karr marries another poet with Ivy League roots who was born into a lawyerly legacy and a home that has more than one wing. They maintain a boho lifestyle in the early parts of their marriage. Karr bridges the gaps in their upbringing by being smart, spinning a great yarn, and being interested in literature.

Their relationship goes off the rails around the time their son -- Dev, at least the III -- is born. Karr's husband, whom she provides with the fictitious name Warren Whitbread, is busy with work and school; Karr is planting satellite booze reservoirs in laundry baskets and closets. When the "I want to kill myself" impulses get too heavy, she is admitted into a posh "Mental Marriott" as she calls it, to begin healing.

God-pushers are the bonus gift that come with Alcoholics Anonymous, and at first Karr pushes back. But when she begins dabbling in prayer, she experiences situations that she believes are sort of mini miracles which strengthen her conversion. She receives a grant; An agent damn-near begs her for the book proposal that will eventually become "The Liars Club." After cross examining a priest dozens of times, Karr commits to the Catholic church.

Karr is just such an amazing, meticulous writer. Her roots in free form poetry are so strong that you don't even want to blink and miss one iota of one sentence. Every word is adding something extra awesome to the natural way she has with telling a good tale. She also has a skilled ear, cataloging fantastic quotes from friends, like this one from her friend John: "Justs as there's a woman for every man, no matter how ugly, there's a magazine for every poem."

I wish I was a big enough person that I could have treated the bits of this memoir that include David Foster Wallace with a leveled shrug. Like he was just some guy from AA who wore a red bandana and heavy boots and wrote Karr lengthy handwritten letters complete with footnotes. Unfortunately, I'm exactly the kind of person who would subscribe to a magazine called "Hot Literary Couples," and so Karr's brief, albeit heated, relationship with DFW left me in the dizzy sugar rush I get from watching "The Hills."

I'm not alone in this gooery. Google Mary Karr, and a suggested add to the search is David Foster Wallace.

She keeps a cool distance from him in her writing, the relationship remains balanced between make outs and break ups and never mentioned his tragic end. It is very controlled and void of a gushy rewriting of history, which, considering the circumstances, is pretty incredible. It took going outside of "Lit," and reading the essays she wrote about DFW after his death to see that there remains a tenderness for him.

For as much as I love Mary Karr, there were parts of this book that were so similar to the books of Anne Lamott that are shelved in the religion section. Writers, alcoholics, sassy single mothers, finding God, all while surrounded by friends who drop Yoda-esque nuggets of wisdom and serve as on-call support. I had to take the image of Karr I was carrying in my head, and mentally remove the dreadlocks.
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