Monday, January 17, 2011

LIT by Mary Karr

If you like Anne Lamott's nonfiction, you'll love Lit. If you find Lamott's essays just a teensy bit irritating, try Lit anyway - you may like Mary Karr's approach better. If you've never heard of Lamott, this genre - kickass spiritual memoir - may not be high on your wish list. But there are other reasons to read Lit ...

Lit - what does it mean?

When I first saw the title of the best-selling 2009 memoir, I figured it had something to do with literature, as in Mary Karr is an important poet in contemporary American lit.

I quickly realized that it also had a lot to do with alcohol, as in Karr couldn't function unless she was lit.

Toward the end of the book, I saw that it could also refer to light, as in Once Karr accepts the universe, and God, and love, she sometimes feels lit from within.

Two chapters into Lit, I already knew why it was named a best book of 2009 by the New York Times, "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 MonitorSlate, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Seattle Times." Another chapter or two, and I couldn't put the book down.

Admittedly, as memoir, Lit has two strikes against it. Only a tiny percentage of memoirs submitted to publishers ever become books (an editor once told me that when she sensed a memoir coming over the transom, she hid under her desk), and most published memoirs go out of print quickly. Memoir is an extremely difficult genre to get right. Our own stories, endlessly fascinating to us, rarely appeal to a broader audience. But Mary Karr's memoirs - this is her third - are lit.

Take, for example, her description of inner light, which I summarized so prosaically above. "Every now and then," Karr writes,
we enter the presence of the numinous and deduce for an instant how we're formed, in what detail the force that infuses every petal might specifically run through us, wishing only to lure us into our full potential. Usually, the closest we get is when we love, or when some beloved beams back.
Such lovely writing would have made this book a succès d'estime even if almost nobody ever bought it. But Karr is not just a poet, she's also a story teller and the creator of unforgettable characters. Her mother, for example:
Maybe any seventeen-year-old girl recoils a little at the sight of her mother, but mine held captive in her body so many ghost mothers to be blotted out. If my eyelids closed, I could see the drunk platinum-blond Mother in a mohair sweater who'd divorced Daddy for a few months and fled with us to Colorado to buy a bar. Or the more ancient Mother in pedal pushers might rise up to shake the last drops from the gasoline can over a pile of our toys before a thrown match made flames go whump, and as the dolls' faces imploded so the wires showed through, the very air molecules would shift with the smoke-blackened sky, so the world I occupied would never again be fully safe.
I could go on and on, pointing out Karr's Texas diction, wacky humor, eye for detail, and flashes of insight. You already know her story is about bad parenting, substance abuse, recovery, and conversion; I could add that it's also about depression and divorce and kind mentors and writing. But why describe dinner when food is already on the table? Put down the menu, pick up the fork, and dig in.

Though if you still need convincing, here are three fine reviews:


Luci Shaw said...

LaVonne, I read Lit last year, then went back to Karr's two previous chronicles, wonder-struck by the human capacity for survival through liquor and drugs and bad company, and the persistence of God in getting through to her. I met her last year and heard her tell her story. I takes some courage to be as transparent as she is about her past life. Humility is another attribute in this gifted woman.

LaVonne Neff said...

Luci, you're absolutely right. She manages to write memoir without being self-absorbed - not an easy trick. I look forward to reading the first two also.

Sam Van Eman said...

LaVonne (and David), welcome to The High Calling. Make yourself at home there.

Thanks for this review. I don't have a nose for knowing what's what in the memoir genre, so I appreciate your clear recommendation. I remember hearing Lauren Winner mention the book several times at a writer's retreat, which brought the book to my attention, but I can't remember her take on it.