Lit
by Mary Karr


Harper, 2009. ISBN 978-0-060-59698-9.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 03/22/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

I ought to go and pour out the cooking sherry at the back of the kitchen cupboard before I go any further in this review. Alcohol so permeated the life of the young Mary Karr and so permeates the pages of over half of this book that it has permeated my mind. Right now, I don't want the stuff in the house.

Let me point out that Mary Karr makes it clear in the remaining pages that life without alcohol is good. But the spector of alcohol haunts every page as it must haunt her life.

This is the third memoir Karr has crafted, and she offers the same mastery and riveting storytelling talent that captivated the readers of The Liars' Club.

Karr continues the tale spun in the two earlier books. She incorporates the early years of her life so that the reader who has hasn't read her earlier books feels the continuity and yet she does not belabor the story to the point that readers who have read them are bored by redundancy.

Lit is a story of determination, talent and foolhardiness. The bright youngster from a troubled home in East Texas has a drive that is incredible and a talent that shines. Lit begins with the start of Karr's seventeen-year-old student days when she drives to her new school with her mother, sharing beers and One Hundred Years of Solitude. When both awake badly hung over, the mother nurses the daughter with a screwdriver. A rough start, but a poet emerges. And mother sobers up and becomes an important if unpredictable part of Karr's own sober life.

Karr lives through years of chaos but manages to marry and become a mother and teacher while hitting the bottle. Despite her drinking, Karr's talents are so prodigious that she is recruited into a highly desired faculty job at Syracuse University. When Karr is in a mental hospital following an attempted suicide, she is awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. When things start turning upward, they really turn up.

Lit is fascinating. It looks not only at Karr's relationship with the bottle, but at her coming to terms with all aspects of her life: the strain of teaching, motherhood and writing while hanging on to a fading marriage; loving a troublesome set of parents who inspire while they frustrate; the stalwartness of a strong sister; the need for and discovery of the Catholic faith; and most of all, her love of language.

The latter is always there. Mary Karr could tell any person's story and enchant the reader with the beauty of her words, but when this talent is combined with clear emotion, absolute unblinking honesty, and deep love of her own life, the final product is a star among memoirs.


Mary Karr is a born-Texan, longtime New Yorker and citizen of the world. She is Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University and now lives in New York City. The mother of a son, she is the winner of many prizes and the author of two additional memoirs and four books of poetry. Become a Karr fan on Mary's Facebook page and learn more about her on the Harper Collins website.

(See another review of this book, here)

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