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Lit

Mary Karr tells the story of her failed marriage, her struggles with alcohol and mental illness, and the peace she finally found in prayer.

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Mary Karr has published four acclaimed volumes of poetry, but she’s most famous as a memoirist – particularly for her 1995 award-winning bestseller “The Liars’ Club,” which was followed by “Cherry,” a reminiscence of her adolescent years. Karr’s latest memoir is Lit, which recounts her failed marriage, bouts with alcoholism and mental illness, and her unlikely conversion to Roman Catholicism.

No reader could be faulted for suffering from Memoir Fatigue Syndrome, considering how saturated that genre has become. Everyone in our reality television-infested era, it seems, has a story to tell. What distinguishes Karr’s book from most others, however, is her mordant humor and exceptional writing. Throughout, her descriptions are startling and poetic: the sound of her infant son’s cough in the night “pierces the heavy sleep that wraps my skull in sodden layers of papier-mâché.” And each day of sobriety feels like “a gray tundra I wade across.” The grievous legacy of her parents is described in similarly stark terms: “Daddy was steady and stayed. Mother was an artist and left. Those two opposing colossi tore a rip in my chest I can’t seem to stitch shut.”

Karr had her first blackout at age 17, and by 21 knew that she had “an appetite for drink, a taste for it, a talent.” Yet even then she found that “[h]umming through me like a third rail was writing.” Karr became a poet (albeit a struggling one) and at graduate school met the man she’d marry, a fellow poet. She came from a hardscrabble Texas background; he came from an East Coast blue blood family. Known in the book as the pseudonymous “Warren Whitbread,” he’d attended prep school, was a star student of Robert Lowell’s poetry seminar at Harvard, and came from a blue blood family.  (The fish-out-of-water story of her first encounter with his stuffy parents is hilarious.) Their dynamic was troubled from the start.

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