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review 2018-01-08 14:20
"The Liars Club" by Mary Karr
The Liars' Club - Mary Karr

The Liars' Club is steeped in a strong blend of Texas scenery [oil rigs and nutria rats], sounds ["He's not worth the bullet it'd take to kill him"] and it's stifling stickiness as much as it is run through with the horrors and trauma Karr experienced as a child. 


What is worth the price of admission though is Karr's writing. She draws on the rhythms and turns of her Texas dialect to craft sentences that are evocative and unexpected. And they always serve the story, from the heat of a Texas summer to the smell of her stepdad's breath the whys of the story and the imagery of it are always linked in ways that make for a really engaging book. Even in framed stories, anecdotes her father is telling at the bar and she is passing down to us, his shape and movement, the intrusions of his friends in the titular "Liars' Club," add to the story in a way that is more than just a painted background on which to picture the story.


Karr's story is full of sweet, heartfelt moments, absurdity, humor and trauma.  It's easy to picture a very different book with the same material, but the way Karr structures her telling moves the trauma away from the center of the story. It makes the book about her family and not what has happened to them, and also makes those moments more impactful. 


"That afternoon, for the first time, I believed that Death itself lived in the neighboring houses. Death cheered for the Dallas Cowboys, and wrapped canned biscuit dough around Vienna sausages for the half-time snack."


If you've heard about the book you may have heard about the more lurid incidents, her mother threatening her with a knife, for instance. These scenes are major parts in the story, but they never feel central in the way they might in a tell-all by the subject of a story that got national media attention, or a book that will get made into a typical Lifetime-style movie. For one, you don't see them coming. The only one she forecasts in detail is the night with the knife, but there are several other deeply disturbing incidents throughout the book. The story about the knife itself arrives suddenly at the end of one of Karr's long chapters. Others kick off chapters. At least one comes suddenly in the middle of the chapter.


It's a shock to read at times, but may be the healthier way to write. We are so used to building to such dramatic moments, but there is no inevitability to an assault, or an emotional breakdown, sometimes things just happen. It's terrible, but it's also a way of keeping your own story. Karr is not a sum only of these abuses, she's also her father's storytelling, her mother's erudition, a take-no -shit-attitude and much else besides. Which makes it more appropriate when Karr ends years later with her family still together. Her mother who held the knife, her father who got too drunk, Karr and her sister, sharing their traumas and the many other experiences that make up their lives. I think a hopeful note is the tendency for the ending of memoirs, but it rings true here because throughout the book Karr has always seen through the worst times as a bug not a feature.


If you've not gotten onto The Liars' Club yet, I highly recommend it. It's a straight shame I hadn't moved sooner to read Mary Karr after hearing her interviewed and reading and excerpt from The Art of Memoir. 


Side note: I picked up my copy of Mary Karr's memoir in the last indie book shop in San Antonio [Twig Book Shop at the Pearl Brewery if you're ever in town]. I try to find local bookshops any time I travel and buy something of local interest. I have trouble explaining my intentions sometimes — I'm more interested in fiction or memoirs that happen to be here than the local "Images of America" installment — but it starts a conversation and leads to some unexpected treasures.

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review 2016-10-29 00:00
The Liars' Club
The Liars' Club - Mary Karr I loved this book and I don't usually go for memoirs, especially ones claiming dysfunctional childhoods on the jacket, but this was a rare exception. Very well written, excellently paced, witty and sarcastic and ironic made this enjoyable to read and made uncomfortable subjects bearable, even comical. I'd love to read more by Karr and I'd love to see her write fiction (if she hasn't already). Overall great read, easy 5-star rating and I don't give those out liberally but this was well deserving. I'd recommend this book to anyone...it was an excellent, quick read.
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review 2016-05-25 00:00
The Liars' Club
The Liars' Club - Mary Karr This is an incredibly sad book and I found myself having to stop after small chunks just because it was too depressing to continue. But it's also extremely well-written and I see why Mary Karr is seen as the master of memoir. Her ability to remember details draws you into the story, almost like you are present while the scene is actually happening.
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text 2015-09-26 18:14
An Evening with Mary Karr
The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr

This post was originally published on the blog of BookPeople, the best bookstore in Texas.


Over the last few years, I have been to a number of events at BookPeople, where I come to grow in my journey as a reader and a writer. Now, as I bookseller, I am thrilled to be even more a part of this community, and a part of the discussions brought to us by acclaimed authors. 


I was delighted last week to see Mary Karr, who came to talk about her latest book, The Art of Memoir.



It was a packed floor of about 300 people, many of whom have a deep affection for her bestselling and critically acclaimed memoirs (such as The Liars ClubCherry, and Lit). I also found many writers in the audience, who, like me, aspire to write a memoir one day. 


I imagine it was the next best thing to taking Karr’s coveted seminar course on memoir writing at Syracuse University. She clearly cares about fostering other writers. She also hopes that through her latest work, her fans will become better readers of literature.


The talk offered valuable lessons about the craft of writing memoir, but also laughter, and practical advice about self-care and the value she finds in daily prayer and meditation. 


I was touched by the authenticity of the evening. We heard from Karr about her chaotic family life as a child, about the first boy that she kissed, and stories from sessions with her therapist. 


These topics became the subjects of her memoirs: over the years, she’s written about discovering her womanhood, her recovery from alcoholism, and the salvation she found in Catholicism. 


What draws Karr to the memoir form is the possibility for self-invention. After all, we become ourselves by telling our stories, she said. For Karr, stories have been a way to bond with people as she’s gone through life. 


I told Karr her talk was especially valuable to me because of where I am in my own journey: I recently found that helping others tell their stories was a step in freeing my own writing voice (my first book is a collection of essays from people who stutter.


Voice is critical to the memoir form, according to Karr. It took her 20 years to develop the voice that she would use in her first memoir, The Liar’s Club. She expects that readers and writers all have “things that have happened in this life that we are trying to make sense of.” 


“I think the most privileged person in this room or any room suffers from the torments of the damned,” Karr said. “There is no way to be alive and not have your heart broken.” 


A strength of memoir is that it allows for self-improvement. 


“The most heartbreaking things for me have not been the bad things that have been done to me, but the bad things I’ve done to other people,” she said. “Those are the things that haunt us, right?” 


And these are the things that keep her writing. 


I was intrigued by Karr’s response when an audience member asked her if she will ever try her hand at fiction. 


It’s not her nature, she said. She believes whatever gifts God has given her, they gravitate toward the nonfiction form. And, she pointed out, very few of the great nonfiction writers she admires are also great fiction writers. 


Memoir gets a bad wrap, often overlooked as “the province of weirdos and film stars,” she said. But there are great memoirs by many of her heroes–writers such as Maya Angelou and Elie Wiesel–that endure as literature; these are the kind of books she hopes to see more of as a result of her new book. 


A woman stood up during the question-and-answer portion and said she grew up in the same southeast Texas town as Karr. Karr confirmed the stories that were told about her. She missed 81 days of school in the sixth-grade; she was usually at home reading. At other times, reading was “socially sanctioned dissociation” from what was going on in her surroundings.


Another audience member asked Karr if a formal education is necessary to achieve the success she has. 


“I don’t have one,” Karr reminded the audience. “I never finished college. I’m uncredentialed.” 


She then added, “I think you need a heart.” 


I can’t wait to read Mary Karr’s new book. Signed copies of The Art of Memoir are still available in our store and online.

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review 2015-06-01 14:25
Book 52/100: Lit by Mary Karr
Lit: A Memoir - Mary Karr

I read this because Cheryl Strayed recommended Mary Karr on her Dear Sugar podcast -- and when I read all the descriptions of Karr's book, this one appealed to me most because it deals with Catholic spirituality.

The Catholic spirituality part is interesting, although it is not as much of the book as I expected it to be -- comes very near the end. The rest is a memoir of Mary's journey to sobriety. And although memoirs should be able to stand alone, I kept feeling as if I was missing something but not having read her earlier, best-selling memoir(s). I couldn't really find the source of her angst, even though clearly she had had a difficult childhood, which seems to have included sexual assault and alcoholism. But unfortunately, this was one of those books that just made me feel frustrated with the narrator, and when I feel this way about a memoir, I come away feeling like I'm pretty much a horrible, judgmental person.

The most interesting parts of this for me were her relationship with her husband, his family, and their son. In particular, the class differences between her husband and herself -- her husband came from a very wealthy family but eschewed all that to be a poet, so the two of them lived just above poverty level for most of their relationship. Unfortunately, she is intentionally vague about most of this, particularly the way their relationship dissolved -- perhaps to protect their privacy, or perhaps because she truly doesn't remember much of it, as she claims.

Although Karr is a graceful writer, there are stumbling blocks where something that might have worked in her primary medium of poetry doesn't work so well in prose. In particular, I got hung up by her frequent use of a backwards sentence construction along the lines of, "Black, it was," which may have perhaps been okay on the page, but in the audiobook version, just sounded like random Yoda-speak.

And this is, unfortunately, one of those cases where I feel like it behooves me to warn potential readers away from the audiobook version. Karr reads it herself, and her voice is pretty monotonous, which makes the whole memoir feel more cynical or depressing than it has to be.

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