30 Book Challenge: Book That Changed My Life, Book that is Most Like Your Life:
I agree with fellow blogger Beverly Penn on this one: all books have some impact, whether great or small. However, Mary Karr truly touched me with her honest and funny story. I completely related to her small-town roots contrasting with attempts to be smarter, more capable, richer-anything but the person she had grown up to be.
I was laughed, cried, empathized, questioned, and was inspired. I saw that a person with experiences so similar to my own had benefited from placing together the broken pieces of a life she felt was in shambles. True, no one may care or want to read it. But even if it’s just for therapy, Karr’s memoir inspired me to write one of my own. That is some powerful stuff!
Mary Karr writes an impeccably gritty an familiar memoir about growing up, family,academia, marriage, addiction, friends, tumultuous relations with her mother and personal growth as a follow up to her previous successes, The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2000) with Lit (2009). She starts with an apology to her son for her mistakes as a mother, while at the same time mentioning that by watching an old tape of his grandmother’s antics, she is certain he is on the verge of understanding her. Now, with this memoir, she hopes to provide him the full package, an explanation, or at least a regrettable timeline of her missteps. In recalling her darkest days, thoughts, and relationships, Karr exposes to the world what few, even in the form of a memoir are willing to show. There is a blatant and unapologetic honesty regarding much of her past and background that is necessary to complete such a daunting task. At the same time, she admits just how difficult it is for her to acknowledge her own role in the problems she faces- it’s easier to blame luck, parental influence, and the privileged rich society surrounding her at all turns. It isn’t until she turns into a helpless drunk, like the mother she never wanted to become, with no hope or pride remaining, that she decides to allow others to help before all is lost.
There are several reasons Karr composes an excellent memoir. One of the most key aspects of her authority as a writer comes from her lack of inhibition. For instance, she begins recalling her troubles as she lies -on the verge- of passing out- smack on the floor in the apartment she shares with her husband, Warren, and their toddler, Dev. A list of her on-going current issues follows. Despite the seriousness of the scene, as with many others in the text, Karr allows humor to shine through the pain of the memory, commenting on the noise from ‘the landlords, The Loud family…Double- dog damn them(8).’ Included in the rant on the issues which have lead her to her current state, ‘Problem four-minor but ongoing-I’m just a smidge further in the bag tonight than I’d planned on (9).’ While Karr does sometimes reflect that she feels shame and guilt while the actions and emotions in the text take place, she writes without leaving anything to the reader’s imagination. It is obvious; then, that painful though it may be to reveal her most shocking secrets to the world, it is necessary and even therapeutic.
There are moments when thoughts all people have at some time in their life come to the surface. They are intimate details one thinks but never considers revealing. Most of these minor details with large meaning are exposed in discussion about her relationship with Warren. Her willingness to admit what so many others will not: that Warren turns away just when she begins a sexual fantasy that might bring them closer. She answers what the reader might want to ask a close friend face-to-face, something Karr must have asked herself a million times: How could Warren not know about her alcoholism? She writes, ‘How did Warren miss all this? Maybe he conks out, or maybe I’m a sneaky bitch (205).’ Karr works hard for several years to come clean for herself, her son, and others in her life working to keep her sober and sane. Always in the back of her mind is the nagging notion-she must become something, someone relevant.
A large part of her problem stems from not being able to let go of anger and resentment about her family, the past, and where she comes from. Surrounded by Ivy Leaguers and esteemed writers she would give just about anything to become, her life in Cambridge only makes her feel more inadequate than she did living in Texas with her alcoholic parents. In Leechfield, she always knew she could not stay and did not belong. In Lit, Karr admits there is much she doesn’t know, but one thing she can use to her advantage is her knowledge of literature. The more she learns and grows academically, the more she believes she can earn the right to surround herself with those born into the privilege much like her husband with family money, Warren Whitbread.
Using famous quotations from literature and verse, Karr traces her life’s journey through her struggles to the place she currently resides: a place of at least, a bit more peace and sobriety than where she began. Indicating her alienation from her place of birth and lack of direction, the memoir, not mistakenly entitled Lit, begins with a passage from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” it reads: Passage Home? Never. Yet through her poetic words and vivid story-telling, Karr makes it known she is a fighter and maybe she can find a piece of home in her heart at last. Despite her mother’s erratic; and, yes, some might venture to insert the word crazy here, behavior, and Karr’s tendency toward making poor decisions, when Karr hits rock bottom she finds one path for redemption.
Her only way out? As suggested by friends and acquaintances in her addiction group meetings, the only certain way to remain in recovery is to find a higher power. Don’t think spit-fire Karr didn’t argue that point for years, but eventually the most desperate will try anything. A fellow counselor explained to her, ‘We often strap on the God mask of whoever hurt us as children. If you’ve been neglected, God seems cold; if you’ve been bullied, He’s a tyrant. If you’re filled with self-hatred, then God is a monster-making inventor (368).’ Finally Mary could find a way to accept that her own issues were getting in the way of accepting a higher power-any form of spiritual energy. She needed to take responsibility for her own life.
Each chapter heading includes a literary quotation that has influenced Karr’s path through life. Her last chapter begins with a line from “Paradise Lost” by John Milton: ‘Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell.’ This isn’t just a way for her to live her life. The way of acceptance she has come to find by letting go of her anger and realizing she makes her own hell is a way for others to see they make their own heaven or hell in this life as well.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Mary Karr also writes award winning poetry: List of her titles on goodreads
Abacus (1987), The Devil’s Tour (1993), Viper Rum (1998), and Sinners Welcome (2006)
NPR Books interview with Karr, except from Lit included