Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Peculiar Company

Because Thanksgiving is less than 48 hours away, it seems like we should we be talking about what we are thankful for.

On this dark Tuesday night, with my husband out for dinner with some guy friends, and my kids sitting glassy-eyed in front of the TV, their tummies full of thawed-out, frozen-pizza, I thank God (and I do believe in some combination of Him and Her) that my kids are healthy, our extended family is gathering around the table in a couple of days, the sun still shines and women writers keep recovering from their substance abuse problems long enough to write beautifully about them.

I just finished reading Mary Karr's Lit, which I started reading last Thursday and finally put down this morning. (In between, I fed my kids a few meals, taught two classes, and bought a turkey.) I know I have talked about books on this blog before but they were written by my friends, so take those plugs with a grain of salt. This book, Lit, is one of the best books I have ever read and I don't know Karr at all. I have to admit I never read The Liar's Club, Karr's break-out memoir from 1995, and I have never read a line of her poetry. I don't know anyone who knows her. But I have read about her work for years and finally, when Lit came out, I read so many great reviews of the book in so many places that I thought, I have to buy it, right away, even if it's overpriced in hard-cover and heavy to schlep around. (I also have to confess that I bought The Liar's Club in in paperback a couple of years ago but the print was small and to my shame, I gave up after a couple of pages.)

Two days after I ordered Lit, Amazon delivered it to my door. The first few pages didn't thrill me so I flipped through the book and jumped to page 71, the chapter where she meets her fancy, Harvard-educated, he-is-a-poet-and-eventually-he-will-be-my-handsome-but-unhappy husband. From that page on, I couldn't put the book down. Here are some of my favorite lines:

"My first therapist's name was---I shit you not---Tom Sawyer." (p. 61)
"How dare you cease to Daddy me so soon..." (p. 115)
"Maybe, I think, I do belong among that peculiar company." (p. 195)
"I can interrupt my death for lunch, right? Writing the suicide note makes me feel good enough to have lunch." (p. 262)
"With scads of costly professional help, I gave up pining for maternal behavior long ago." (p. 357)

And so on. Karr is brilliant. She's also far from perfect and owns up to a lot of crap that most of us would rather forget about (or fictionalize.) She's ashamed of the poverty she grew up in, and her education at the school she calls "Lackluster College." She is full of self-doubt and self-loathing, gets into a fight on a train and takes her good looks for granted. She's hard on her ex-husband, bitchy to her Mom, hostile to her in-laws, in love with her Dad and easy on her son. She is an alcoholic who initially shuns AA and a lapsed Protestant who turns her back on prayer. Eventually, she nurses her baby, divorces her husband, stops drinking, has a nervous breakdown, checks into a mental hospital where she meets women who specialize in hurting themselves, starts writing decent poetry, falls in love with David Foster Wallace, breaks up with him, finds an agent, sells her first memoir and becomes a devout Catholic.

Karr blames some of her bad habits on her narcissistic painter mother who married seven times, and her oil refinery alcoholic father, who drank and drove and shared his booze with Karr in the car. But Karr takes full responsibility for honing the bad habits she learned as a girl and letting them wreak havoc on her adult life. This would all be terribly depressing were she not so funny, harsh, honest, imaginative and poetic. Eventually, AA saves her, as do a priest, a nun and praying in front of a toilet.

Okay, I am partial to confessional poets, particularly if they're women with children. There's a lot of mental illness in my family and I want to know how women write insanity and bad habits out of their systems---or try to. (I love Auden and Yeats but they never struggled with the demands of parenthood and if Yeats did, mea culpa, I missed that poem.) In college, I gobbled up Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. A few years ago, my cousin introduced me to Sharon Olds, and I read The Father and Strike Sparks in two days. Mairi MacInnes's Clearances managed to be painfully honest and lyrical about how hard it is to write when you're running a house and raising kids. I have shamefully never read any of Anne LaMott's novels but I loved Traveling Mercies and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. There are lines in Carrie Fisher's' Wishful Drinking that are even funnier than Karr's Lit, but the book is much too short so not as satisfying. (And Fisher, funny and sharp as she is, is no poet, and seems to have forgiven her mother for her shortcomings, which Karr, bless her frozen little heart, hasn't quite done, and her mother's dead!)

Don't get me wrong, men write nice memoirs too. Call me a sucker but James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard were great reads---my husband and I could not put them down the summer we read them as truth. Philip Roth's Patrimony is memorable and endearing (it was nice to read that Roth actually loved his parents). James McBride's The Color of Water is disturbing and funny, and Nabokov's Speak, Memory is lush and gorgeous, if a little intimidating (you only have to be Russian and brilliant to write like him.) I also really liked Anthony Swofford's Jarhead and Calvin Trillin's Remembering Denny.

Still, I love it most when the girls tell their tales. Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle, is fantastic. Until today, I thought it was the best memoir ever. Other great reads include Nora Ephron's I Feel Bad About My Neck (probably will be a movie some day starring Meryl Streep), Judith Jones' The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (she doesn't regret not having kids, mothered her writers and resigned herself to cooking for one after her husband died ), Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss (spare, shocking, not for the faint-hearted), and Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place (lovely and sappy---she doesn't blame her parents for anything!)

Still, my hands-down favorite is Mary Karr's Lit. I envy anyone with plans to read it this weekend.

Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. Have you read Mary Gordon's memoirs about her father and her mother (not about her own parenting, but also about a difficult childhood transformed into art)--and I love her novel "Spending," about an artist who's also a mother. I think Anne LaMott writes much better nonfiction than fiction...

    Happy Thanksgiving, Laura!

  2. I will check out Gordon's memoir. Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. That is very high praise! Better than Jean Wall's Glass Castle? I loved that book. I will put lit on my list!
    Thanks for the recommendation!