Rebecca's Reviews > The Art of Memoir

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
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it was amazing
bookshelves: memoirs, writers-and-writing, read-via-edelweiss, best-of-2015

(4.5) I haven’t read Mary Karr’s memoirs, but I certainly will after reading her masterful survey of memoirs old and new. During her Texas upbringing full of alcoholism and abuse, “a first-person coming-of-age story, putatively true, never failed to give the child me hope that I could someday grow up and get out of the mess I was in ... Every memoirist had lived to tell the tale.” Over the last decade memoirs have rapidly become one of my favorite genres. I read them for a cathartic effect similar to what Karr describes, but also out of sheer curiosity: how have other people found purpose in and made sense of their daily lives? No matter the outward differences between us, I can sense a deep parity between myself and almost any autobiographical writer.

I would recommend this book to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on. Plus there’s an appendix of recommended reading that looks like an incredible resource and will surely bloat my TBR even further.

This is a very readable and quotable book: Karr has been teaching memoirs at Syracuse University for years now, so she’s thought deeply about what makes them work (or not), and sets her theories out clearly for readers at any level of familiarity. Here’s one quote, from the very end of the book, in which she gives us an idea of how important memoirs can be:
I still feel awe for us ... for the great courage all of us show in trying to wring some truth from the godawful mess of a single life. To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind. ... None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one and by one.
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Reading Progress

August 2, 2015 – Started Reading
August 2, 2015 – Shelved
August 2, 2015 – Shelved as: memoirs
August 2, 2015 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing
August 2, 2015 – Shelved as: read-via-edelweiss
August 24, 2015 – Finished Reading
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: best-of-2015

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Gisela (new) - added it

Gisela Excellent review, Rebecca! Thank you! I, too, am a big fan of memoir these days - and I also love books about the writing process, so this one is a definite must for my Want to Read list.


Renee Spot on review! I’m in your camp on this one 👍


Rebecca Renee wrote: "Spot on review! I’m in your camp on this one 👍"

Thanks, Renee!


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