Vote It Up: Book Blip

January 27, 2010

The Loaded Metaphor

Lit: A MemoirI'm moving slowly through my re-reading of Lit, so I may not make my memoir/week goal.  My pacing isn't due to the drudgery of re-reading a book (which I rarely do, despite the number of books on my shelves), but rather to the careful attention I am giving to Karr's words.  She isn't a word smith, but a word master, word queen, word empress.  Can I share an example or three?
"Such a small, pure object a poem could be, made of nothing but air, a tiny string of letters, maybe small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  But it could blow everybody's head off." (p. 59)
or this one . . .
"Writers had heretofore been mythical to me as griffins - winged, otherworldly creatures you had to conjure from the hard-to-find pages they left behind.  That was partly why I'd not tried too hard to become one: it was like deciding to be a cowgirl or a maenad." (p. 49)

or my favorite . . .

 ". . . I was seventeen thin and maleable as  coat hanger wire, and Mother was the silky shadow stitched to my feet that I nonetheless believed I could outrun." (p. 33)

 But, Karr has to be this poetic.  Never mind that, yes, she is a published poet.  Karr's life is so full of potholes that she has to use language to smooth over the trauma:  oft-psychotic mother, alcoholic father, repeated sexual abuse, poverty, as well as her own tangos with alcoholism, mental breakdowns, and divorce.  What is lovely about Karr, in Lit no more-so than in The Liar's Club and Cherry, is that she balances her hardships not only with gorgeous words, but with hard-ass words too.  Upon entering her future husband's family estate for the first time she notes her effort to repress a ghetto "Damn!"  She can hurl expletives with the surliest drunkard in the bar (pun intended).

While I haven't reached this part of the book yet, I feel I must amend my earlier explication of the title.  Karr departs mid-way through the book on an unlikely spiritual quest.  The self-avowed atheist reluctantly begins twelve-stepping, but stumbles mightily over all of the God-talk.  At her young son, Dev's, simultaneous request to attend church, Karr samples religions like a blue plate smorgasbord. I believe that the third meaning of the title could refer to the spiritual light that flipped on during Karr's sojourn.  It could be the light of epiphany, the gift of sobriety.  Or it could just mean books, who knows.

The first quarter of the book begins where Cherry left off in late adolescence and we accompany Karr through her college, grad school ("poetry camp") and black-out drunken episodes.  She finds a father-figure mentor, Walt, a psychology professor at her Minnesota liberal arts school who helps her find work and therapy and a poetry mentor, Eldridge Knight, who helps her writing improve from cliched and unintelligible to published.  Summarizing the content feels cheap.  Read the book!  Read along with me and share comments.  I'll comment next on the middle section, Karr's marriage, motherhood, and crazy alcoholism.

Here's a nice interview Karr did with Terry Gross about writing Lit.


  1. I've read two chapters so far. The first chapter was well written and interesting, but a bit harrowing with non-stop tension. By the second chapter though I've about had it with her "woe-is-me" and "I'm-too-poor-and-uneducated-for -this-world" byline. She doesn't break up the endless misery with any sense of humor or distance. My sympathy has been worn out. She's not the only scholarship kid to ever go to college, nor the only one with abusive and alcoholic parents. This is *just* as bad as Julie and Julia's navel gazing pro forma only better written.

  2. Hey, i read two more chapters last night. They get better. Her sense of humor improves as does her perspective on her dilemmas. I am reminded though about an interview of Primo Levi I read in a book I think I gave away in the 60s about how "If This is a Man" was fiction, not non-fiction because in essence THEN if you wrote a story from your memories it's fiction, even if the events in the story are true because you can't write about the past without fictionalizing it if you use a narrative, or something like that. This is clearly the case with her, she doesn't really remember all these vivid details you quote above, but boy are they pretty. It's still fiction. I guess this is the point of your program being "creative" non-fiction - it's fiction-ish?

  3. Okay, so this is an issue with all CNF, Sarah. No one can recall exact conversations from 20 years ago. But, what memoirists and essayists attempt is to recreate the truth of the moment. Writers may create or embellish conversations or colorful details, but if it is true to what they remember happening, then it is reliable enough. Karr admits that her ex-husband would tell a different story than she tells, but this is HER story, so she tells it from her perspective, her embellishments.

    What readers, writers, and scholars take issue with is out-right lies. That is what got James Frey in so much trouble. He made up half of the events in his so-called memoir. Karr has not. It all happened.

    Perhaps you should read The Liar's Club before proceeding with Lit because I feel you are missing part of the gravity of her situation. She sums it up in two pages at the beginning of Lit, but I can't disagree with you more: she isn't not navel-gazing or self-pitying. Karr has a wicked sense of humor and humbly acknowledges how lucky she is that she survived her childhood and alcoholism to achieve success as a writer. Sure, plenty of people rise above poverty and abuse, but her story is fascinating because her mother is so crazy (again, read The Liar's Club) and she, herself, was so out-of-control. To rise from her "squalor" to teach at Harvard, win the PEN-Faulkner and publish 3 best-sellers is a huge accomplishment.

    Is CNF really where you want to spend your time? You seem very put out by this genre.

  4. Every book needs to be able to stand on its own. If you can't read a book and appreciate it without reading a predecessor, it's not much of a book.

    Fiction-ish is fine. If This Is A Man is one of my all-time favorite books, and I take it as gospel, though I know it's recreated. I appreciate Levi's honesty about that though. As I said, the chapters after her college experience are much better.

    I think her accomplishments are huge no matter what her background.

    I would expect you as the expert to be more critical than I.

  5. Well, I think Lit definitely can stand on it's own, but I think to appreciate the full gravity of her story, starting at the beginning is sensible (plus, I recommend The Liar's Club to anyone who appreciates good writing; I LOVE that book).

    While I appreciate you calling me an "expert," I also feel like I'm more forgiving of the authors we've discussed thus far. You seem irritated with them so early on. It's like what I said about Elizabeth Gilbert: you either hate her or adore her. I get the sense you would hate her. I met many people who find her unbearable, but I just don't see it. Her suffering is familiar, universal in many ways. As for Karr, her suffering is NOT universal; her family is a mess and I think she does some serious soul-searching in Lit. I like how honest and open she is about being an "asshole". No sugar-coating here.

    Hopefully, I'll have time to read this weekend and get caught up.