Book Review: Mary Karr’s Lit Reviewed by Tracy Kauffman Wood

by Tracy Kauffman Wood on May 26, 2010

catnav-book-raves-active-3Post #49 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Raves – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Reviewed by Tracy Kauffman Wood

Are we our mothers? At our worst and at our best, it looks as though we are. This is what I have gleaned from Mary Karr’s most recent memoir, Lit: A Memoir.

The poet Mary Karr has been called one of the best memoirists of her generation beginning with the publication of her first memoir, The Liars’ Club: A Memoir, in 1995. She followed up The Liars’ Club with the infinitely personal yet universal Cherry. In Lit: A Memoir, Karr continues her life story through a failed marriage, a path of self-destruction and renewal in a way that is believable and that tugs at the reader to root for redemption from the “git go,” in Karr’s East Texas parlance.

Because of the young life we were privy to in The Liars’ Club, this woman/child has become our own. We see her bad choices coming and going. We know where she has been and we’re dying to see where she will take us, not to mention what her mother will have to say about it and what Mary will heave back at her. Here is what mother and daughter have to say about parenting:

“I don’t do kids.

I sputter, You had four of them, Mother.

Nobody helped me with mine

Bullshit. Daddy took me everywhere.

She rolls her milky eyes toward the light fixture, saying, Here you go with that my sainted daddy shit. Your sister and I both wonder why he got a big pass for doing nothing whatsoever.

He paid every bill.

We lived in absolute squalor.

He worked at an oil refinery, Mother. Did you fail to notice that?

Ragging on Daddy is Mother’s de facto response to any complaint about our upbringing. She deftly pawns off her own failings on the desolation of her marriage.

So she bitches that Daddy had been offered promotions but wouldn’t leave the union. And I counter that she’d been a Marxist when they married, and we dwindle into those niggling definitions until my fury boils over, and I lunge with the biggest weapon in my verbal sheath. I remind her that Daddy had never stood over me with a butcher knife.

I say it with a forceful little puff of air so that the fact lands in her like a curare dart. All talk exits the room. We face each other in this vacuumed-out bubble, and part of me knows it’s a pathetic fact that not trying to murder me was all he had to do to win the better-parent prize.” (p. 198)

We learn in this account that Karr was encouraged to write the memoir that became The Liars’ Club, after having dinner with the memoirist Tobias Wolff (author of This Boy’s Life: A Memoir, Karr’s graduate school professor) and his agent. When Toby asks about Mary’s mother, Mary regales the diners with the details of her mother’s latest romantic misadventure. This leads the agent to suggest, “You should write a memoir.” She hands Mary her card. We should all have such “shithouse luck” or grace, as Mary calls it.

Karr also shares some profound advice for the writer of memoir, courtesy of Tobias Wolff:

“Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit…Tell your stories, and your story will be revealed…Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.” (p. 248)

Karr notes that these were hard things for her to come by, but offers them to the reader for what they may be worth. I think these are grand morsels to savor.

In any great memoir, we are asked to witness the evolution of the writer’s relationship with herself and her loved ones. In this one, Mary Karr has also found religion. Although not heavy handed, she attributes prayer with helping her appreciate and forgive the enigmatic mother who has given Karr strength, weakness and so much material to work with. Karr confesses at the end:

“Without God, any discomfort makes me capable of attacking with piety the defenseless- including a frail, confused old lady who’s lost her home of fifty years. And it’s for this type of realization that God – in His infinite wisdom – created mirrors. I put Mother to bed and catch a glimpse of us as I pull the covers up to her chin. I’m saying I’m so sorry, and she’s claiming to understand.” (p. 380)

Intrigued with Lit? Here Mary Karr talks about her memoir:

Note: If you prefer reading books on the Kindle, then this link will take you to Amazon’s Kindle version of Lit.

Tracy Kauffman Wood previously reviewed Mary Karr’s The Liars Club. Click here to read that review.

Tracy Kauffman Wood is a professional photographer and is currently writing a memoir. You can follow her at:

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