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Book Review: Lit by Mary Karr

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Lit by Mary Karr is a harrowing and riveting memoir of Karr's life from late adolescence to adulthood as she tries to escape her past and recover from alcoholism. Karr takes us into the mind of an alcoholic in a way that is at once horrific and beautiful for the language she uses to describe the most horrific events is heartbreakingly beautiful. Her poet's love of images and words can be seen even in descriptions of vomiting over the toilet or nearly crashing into a concrete barrier.

She begins the story with a tale of going on a road trip to California with a bunch of drugged up surfer types. As she tires of wallowing in their filth, she strikes out on her own, only to be picked up by a guy on meth who terrifies her so much that when the car stalls, she throws herself down a hill to escape. The incident prompts her to give up her wandering and enroll in college.

This is the pattern of her tale, a one step forward, two steps back tale of recovery. Just when Karr seems to be on the right track by, for example, marrying a wealthy fellow writer, she slides back down into despair again, usually as the result of a few drinks too many. Her marriage, her writing successes are all tempered by the undercurrent of her alcoholism which keeps her not just from enjoying her success but also from achieving it. Even when things are good, we are led to believe and she believes that they won't be good for long. And often they aren't. She has binges that lead to near-death accidents and at one point, considers suicide and checks herself into a mental hospital. The good things seem few and far between.

Karr is honest enough to admit, even in hindsight, when she's completely messed up and is amazingly blameless at times toward people who've obviously caused her great pain, especially her ex-husband, Warren. As a reader, you want her to succeed, but you also get mad at her for being her own worst enemy. The clear-eyed way she looks at her own life and is able to give us a picture of what went through her head to make her do the things she did is remarkable.

The book was honestly hard to put down because even though I knew she was going to pull through since the book itself is proof of that, from page one, I wondered how she was going to do it. How does one go from getting smashed with your mother the day before freshman orientation to being a steady, accomplished author? Most of us, I dare say, wouldn't make it. Religion, albeit a subdued form of it at first, is one of the things that helps her make it. It is this part of the book that I was most uncomfortable with, being a non-religious person myself, but Karr is as honest about her own difficulties with religion as she is about her alcoholism. She acknowledges its role in helping her recover without giving it all the credit.

As a writer myself, I especially enjoyed her descriptions of her love of writing and of the writers she met along her journey. I think Lit will appeal to anyone who's struggled to get where they are today or who enjoys a story of triumph of very great adversity.

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