Mary Karr 1955-
(Born Mary Marlene Karr) American poet, memoirist, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Karr's career through 2001.
With the publication of her memoir The Liars' Club: A Memoir in 1995, Karr, already a respected poet, became a critically acclaimed, best-selling author. The Liars' Club remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year and won Karr the 1996 PEN Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction. The Liars' Club, which takes place in a small industrial East Texas town during the mid-1960s when Karr was eight years old, conveys a strong sense of place and effectively evokes the powerful emotional climate of a family circle characterized by alcoholism, mental illness, and strong passions. Critics applauded Karr's use of narrative voice, inflected with the colloquial speech of East Texas and the unique perspective of a precocious young girl. The Liars' Club inspired a spate of memoirs written in the confessional mode. Cherry: A Memoir (2000), Karr's sequel to The Liars' Club, portrays Karr's adolescent years of intellectual and sexual awakening. While Karr is best known for her memoirs, her body of publications includes three volumes of poetry—Abacus (1987), The Devil's Tour (1993), and Viper Rum (1998). Karr has won the Pushcart prize for both her poetry and essays.
Karr was born January 16, 1955, in Groves, a small town in East Texas located in the Port Arthur region, known for its oil refineries and chemical plants. Although she has given the town in her memoirs a fictional name, her writing clearly evokes the social and cultural milieu of this region. Karr's father worked in an oil refinery while her mother was an amateur artist and business owner. Karr's sister, two years her elder, is a key figure in her memoirs. Karr developed an early interest in literature; she told a Publishers Weekly interviewer that, at the age of eleven, she wrote in a notebook that her ambition was “to write poetry and autobiography.” Upon graduation from high school, she traveled with a group of friends to Los Angeles, where she immersed herself in the lifestyle of the California hippie and surfer counter-cultures. Later that year, she enrolled in Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, but left school after two years to travel. Her political involvement in the anti-apartheid movement led her to meet African American poet Ethridge Knight who became an important influence on the development of her poetry. Karr eventually entered graduate school to study creative writing, and earned an M.F.A. from Goddard College in 1979. Among her mentors at Goddard was Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy's Life served as a major influence on Karr's own writing. She also studied with noted poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. Her first publication was a poem that appeared in Mother Jones magazine. Karr moved to Boston in 1980, where she held various jobs in the computer and telecommunications industries while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1983 she married poet Michael Milburn, with whom she had a son, but the couple divorced in 1991. Karr has worked as an assistant professor at several colleges and universities, including Tufts University, Emerson College, Harvard University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches in the department of English at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.
The Liars' Club and Cherry are set in the fictional town of Leechfield, Texas, based on Karr's home town. The events of The Liars' Club take place during the years 1961 to 1963, when Karr was seven and eight years old, recounting the traumatic events she experienced during that period in the context of her dysfunctional family life. The novel's title refers to the local American Legion pool room and bar, as well as the back room of a bait shop, where Karr's father and other local men socialized in their free time. Karr asserts that her father was the best storyteller, a skill Karr effectively developed in her own right. Karr's mother, an alcoholic and mentally unstable woman whose artistic and intellectual interests were stifled by small-town life, once burned all of the family's possessions and called the local police station to report that she had killed her two daughters, a confession that turned out to be untrue. Against this chaotic emotional backdrop, Karr reports being raped by a neighborhood boy at the age of seven and sexually assaulted by an adult male babysitter at the age of eight. The Liars' Club explores themes of truth, lies, memory, confession, and storytelling, a set of terms that overlap and merge as her memoir develops. The trope of the “liars' club” thus comes to encompass everyone who has ever told a story or recalled a personal memory, based on the idea that personal perspective belies the possibility of ever conveying objective truth. Cherry, the sequel to The Liars' Club, follows Karr's adolescent years. Cherry has been referred to as a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, in which Karr develops a sense of individuality distinct from her family. While some of the most powerful scenes in Cherry are concerned with Karr's sexual awakening, it is also a memoir of her intellectual awakening and development as a budding writer. The first half of Cherry is narrated by Karr in the first-person voice; the second half of the novel, however, switches to a second-person narrative address, thus suggesting that her own personal experiences as a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s were characteristic of an entire generation of adolescent girls.
Karr's poetry, like her memoirs, has been described as confessional, due to the frank revelations of self-doubt and dysfunctional family that are a common subject of her work. The settings of her poems are primarily of the same working-class East Texas milieu that is treated more extensively in her memoirs, and a number of the characters and incidents related in her poetry are revisited in her memoirs. Karr's erudite references to classic literature are worked into her poetry juxtaposed against personal experiences of a hardscrabble childhood in her blue-collar hometown. Her poetry is characterized by brevity, clarity, meticulous detail, and careful attention to metrical form. She has developed a personal style of using the three-line stanza in many of her poems. The poems of Abacus are introspective reflections on personal relationships, love, friendship, and self-questioning. The Devil's Tour grapples with broader struggles of human existence and consciousness, exploring themes of death, mortality, evolution, and existential angst, as well as parenting and family relationships. The recurring motif of skull imagery in Devil's Tour invokes the themes of mortality and introspection. The poems in Viper Rum include reflections on Karr's personal life, her relationship with her parents, her struggles with alcoholism, and an awakening to religious sentiment. Karr's polemical essay “Against Decoration,” originally published in 1990, is included at the end of Viper Rum. In “Against Decoration,” Karr launches a critique of the neo-formalist trend in contemporary poetry, which she faults for lacking in emotion and clarity. Karr argues that, “[t]o pay so little attention to the essentially human elements of a poem makes a monster of poetry's primary emotional self, its very reason for being, so that the art becomes exclusively decorative and at times grotesque.” Commentators have noted that Karr's own poetry generally lives up to the aesthetic standards she espouses in “Against Decoration.”
Karr has been lauded for her savvy storytelling, lyrical prose, vivid, sensual detail, emotional honesty, humor, and ability to capture the colloquial speech of small-town East Texas in her memoirs. She has been noted for her frank yet nonjudgmental portrayal of her father and mother, which effectively expresses both the love and the pain associated with each parent. Many reviewers have commented that themes of sexual abuse and dysfunctional family are handled by Karr without the bitterness, self-pity, melodrama, or sentimentality that characterizes many confessional memoirs. Cyra McFadden has observed that Karr “is blessed with a sense of humor that allows her to see whatever happens to her, good, bad or terrible, as just one more example of chaos theory at work.” The Liars' Club is undoubtedly Karr's most highly regarded work. Reviewers admired her use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club, which convincingly portrays the perspective of a young girl. M. Joy Gorence observed that Karr's narrative voice in The Liars' Club expresses “the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.” The Liars' Club also earned admiration for being skillfully written, powerfully expressive, and entertaining to read. Cherry, while generally liked, has been judged by a number of reviewers as flawed in its use of narrative voice. Such critics felt that the first-person voice in the first half of the story is effective, but the abrupt shift to second-person voice in latter half constitutes a serious flaw in the narrative. Karr's poetry, while not attracting a wide popular readership, is highly regarded by critics. Her use of language has been consistently praised, especially her formal meter capturing the rhythms of everyday speech, her evocative imagery, and her meticulous attention to detail. As with her memoirs, critics applauded Karr's ability to express strong emotions and describe poignant situations without lapsing into melodrama or sentimentality.
SOURCE: Karr, Mary. “Against Decoration.” In Viper Rum, pp. 49-72. New York, N.Y.: New Directions, 1998.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in Parnassus magazine in 1991, Karr expounds her opinions on modern poetic techniques and presents a critique of contemporary neo-formalist poetry, arguing that it lacks both emotion and clarity.]
Decoration abounds in contemporary poetry, much of it marching beneath the banner of neo-formalism. Actually a mix of strict form and free verse, the new formalist poems juggle rhyme, meter, and various syllabic and stanzaic strategies. In the last ten years, the movement has generated a rush of anthologies, such as Robert Richman's The Direction of Poetry: Rhymed and Metered Verse Written in the English Language since 1975. Richman, the poetry editor of the neo-conservative New Criterion, selects not only distinguished writers such as the late James Merrill, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht (all of whom, by the way, have served as chancellors for the Academy of American Poets), but also from the forty-something generation that includes Michael Blumenthal, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Brad Leithauser, and Rosanna Warren. This book produced one outraged notice by poet-critic Ira Sadoff, who in an issue of The American Poetry Review called neo-formalism “A Dangerous Nostalgia,” linking it to the...
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SOURCE: McFadden, Cyra. “There's No Lie as Big as the Truth.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 July 1995): 1, 12.
[In the following review, McFadden discusses the themes of lies, truth, memory, and storytelling in The Liars' Club.]
Memoirs inhabit the middle ground between truth and fiction. They can't stick to the facts, and only the facts, because we don't remember past events as clearly as we remember how we felt about them, which is a different kind of truth. And sometimes, as in Mary Karr's memoir about her East Texas childhood, the events themselves are so bizarre, no novelist could get away with them. Who'd believe a grandmother so cruel that when she dies of cancer, 8-year-old Mary has to restrain herself from singing, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”? An alcoholic mother who's been married seven times and as a hobby of sorts—she's bored to tears with small-town Texas—keeps trying to kill off her immediate relatives?
The Liars' Club is even more of a hybrid than most memoirs, in that it reads like a surrealist take on Little House on the Prairie. You don't always believe the narrator, in whose family lying was an art form. Sometimes a revelation seems too near or a remembered emotion rings false—though funny as hell—as when the 8-year-old Karr watches her mother set fire to her rocking horse, along with most of the family's other possessions, during...
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SOURCE: Donaldson, Scott. “Mary Karr Recounts Her Tough East Texas Childhood.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1995): 3.
[In the following review, Donaldson applauds Karr for her vivid storytelling and brilliant use of narrative voice in The Liars' Club.]
Getting students to write openly and honestly about their childhood isn't easy. Some of them simply back away. No, nothing has ever happened to make them feel deeply. They've never been angry or embarrassed or jealous or ecstatic. Solid Americans all, they even deny knowing about guilt. Others go in the opposite direction, and rather than simply recounting the tale that brings the emotion to life, they keep repeating how awful or wonderful it was when grandfather died or they won the French horn contest.
Mary Karr belongs to another category entirely. She neither shies away from the truth nor erects signposts to guide her readers' reactions [in The Liars' Club]. Instead, she lets her story speak for itself. It's one hell of a story, and she tells it vividly.
The bulk of her memoir covers the years 1962 and 1963, when she was 7 and 8 years old and growing up in Leechfield, a swampy East Texas town where the water moccasins flourished and the oil refineries and chemical plants gave off a rotten-egg smell.
Karr's daddy—he called her “Pokey”—worked in the refineries and was a strong...
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SOURCE: Wood, Gaby. “What Did It Matter Who I Was?” London Review of Books 20, no. 19 (19 October 1995): 39.
[In the following review, Wood examines the characteristics of confessional memoirs, arguing that the lies told in The Liars' Club are primarily “tricks of memory.”]
Richard Rayner's The Blue Suit is a memoir, a work of non-fiction. In it his father dies several times: of cancer, in a car crash, missing presumed drowned and, finally, of a heart attack. He makes guest appearances in between, as a sick man in Scotland, as a diplomat in Australia, as a stepfather. These events all form part of a story, a sort of Arabian Nights of the confessional, in which Rayner admits his real life to his girlfriend (‘one confession veiling the next’), and the whole truth turns out to be a narration of the lies he has told.
The first of Rayner's untruths squirms into our heads like one of those children's stories which are intended to show how dangerously lies can escalate. He is at a boarding-school in North Wales when a friend mentions a newspaper headline. ‘The headline was WHERE IS JACK RAYNER? It said that lots of money was missing as well. Is that your dad?’ Rayner thinks for a minute about how he might stick up for his father then says: ‘No … That's not my dad. Must be someone else.’ But in all fairness, the first lie was cast by the father...
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SOURCE: Young, Elizabeth. “Wrecked in Texas.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 375 (20 October 1995): 39-40.
[In the following review, Young commends The Liars' Club as a “extraordinarily vivid and beautifully written” memoir, noting that the work transcends the traditionally “salacious” subject material of the American memoir.]
Intellectuals are as prurient as anyone else. They are just as interested in murder, sex and disease but they don't much like to admit it. They scorn tabloids and talk shows. Egg-head voyeurism is catered for in up-market biographies and films that focus on the scandals of the Bloomsbury Group, Anais Nin, Henry Miller and their like—or in books whose concern for the ecosystem, the homeless, the missing or addicted enables the educated to wallow guiltlessly in repulsive descriptions of Ebola disease, true-crime atrocities or appalling deprivations.
Mary Karr's memoir, [The Liars' Club,] which arrives accompanied by sheaves of ecstatic US reviews, is the American equivalent of this salacious material for high IQs. The themes of the book are those bloody chunks of blue collar confession that make up the Oprah Winfrey and Ricky Lake shows. The book is replete with insanity, violence, neglect, alcoholism, lost children, strokes, cancer, child sexual abuse (twice) and multiple marriage.
This intends no disrespect to Karr,...
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SOURCE: Hubbard, Kate. “Unhappy in Its Own Way.” Spectator 275, no. 8730 (4 November 1995): 49-50.
[In the following review, Hubbard compliments the “extraordinary vividness” of Karr's writing in The Liars' Club.]
To say that The Liars' Club is a memoir of a dysfunctional Texan family is both true and also reductive. The facts are harrowing—madness, alcoholism, sexual abuse—yet their narration, which crackles with wry humour, affection and defiance, is not. It is fired by a kind of fierce honesty, a determination to shun the comforting lies of memory and the lies which shrouded Mary Karr's childhood. Eschewing self-pity and blame, she tells it straight.
Home was Leechfield, a swampy, evil-smelling Texan oil town. Karr's father was an oil-worker and hunter—‘the proper blend of outlaw and citizen’, free with his punches and his affection, the star-turn of the ‘Liars' Club’, the so-called group of oil-workers who gathered to spin tales and drink salted beer. Karr Senior's stories of his own childhood, which resonated through that of his daughter, are reproduced here, mannerisms and inflexions intact:
His mother wore an enormous bonnet like a big blue halo, so he'd always introduce her by fanning his hands behind his head, saying Here Comes Momma.
Later, inevitably, when bed-ridden...
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SOURCE: Harmon, William. “Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr, Mary Karr.” Southern Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1997): 150-55.
[In the following review, Harmon discusses The Liars' Club in conjunction with Karr's poetry and literary criticism, arguing that The Liars' Club “may become a classic.”]
To get at the notion of four Mary Karrs—critic, poet, memoirist, and metacritic—let's start in 1991, when I was visiting the poet Robert Morgan near Ithaca, New York. Bob asked if I had seen an essay called “Against Decoration”—by a Mary Karr—in the current Parnassus. Smug with one-upsmanship, I crowed and barked simultaneously: “I've already written her a fan letter!” I had felt I could do such a thing because I also had an article in that Parnassus and had, in earlier issues of the journal, taken a few shots at the same targets she scored against. She was teaching at Syracuse, which isn't far from Ithaca, and for a minute we felt like doing something quixotic, such as calling her up and arranging to meet for a round of Evian and literary chat. But we had to be content to let a fan letter do the job.
I have just reread “Against Decoration” and can say that for me it has lost none of its liveliness or acuteness. The essay, striking hard against Amy Clampitt's preciousness and Helen Vendler's praise for Clampitt,...
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SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. “Doing Daddy Down.” Commentary 103, no. 6 (June 1997): 38-41.
[In the following essay, Powers examines The Liars' Club in conjunction with other contemporary American memoirs that focus on father-daughter relationships. Powers praises Karr for “grafting her story to our oldest literary roots.”]
When I was a child, there were times when I thought my mother should leave my father. Children only slowly get a feel for the limits on action: if, I reasoned, my parents still had checks in their checkbook, then why could they not write one to purchase a new car (or bike, etc.)? If my mother sometimes felt as much pain as she clearly did because of my father, then why could not she and I, and later my sister and brother, simply move to Anaheim (one of my dream destinations, home of Disneyland and near movie studios that I hoped to crack) and start over again? My mother, so I thought, would find a new husband (someone powerful, with connections to movie studios), and life could resume afresh. In pursuit of this goal I used to write letters to the Chamber of Commerce of Anaheim and Burbank concerning housing and jobs.
I am shocked now at how quickly I seized on divorce, on abandoning my father, as an escape-hatch from pain. Among my own kind—that is to say, white Southern Catholics—divorce was so uncommon that the closest I came to knowing about it was...
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SOURCE: Gorence, M. Joy. “Growing up in America.” English Journal 86, no. 5 (September 1997): 98-9.
[In the following review of The Liars' Club, Gorence commends Karr for her vibrantly descriptive language, candid storytelling, and adept handling of sensitive issues.]
Perhaps the cover or the title on the book attracted my attention to The Liars' Club. Perhaps it was the compact size of the book or the size of the letters on the page. Perhaps it was the opening lines, “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark. I was seven …” Whatever it is that makes us decide to read a book, The Liars' Club enticed me to take it along on my vacation.
On the first page Mary Karr takes us with her on that fateful night when the sheriff rescues her and her older sister, Lecia, from the chaos of her mother's breakdown. Through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Karr gently reveals her life as the youngest of two daughters barely surviving in a Texas town on the Gulf Coast. Despite the drinking of her parents and the unconventional home life she experiences until her grandmother appears on the scene, she accepts and loves both of her parents with their frailties and faults.
As Karr unveils her life as a young child in the 1960s, she does so with the innocence of a young child but with the understanding of an adult.
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SOURCE: Jordan, Barbara. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Chicago Review 44, nos. 3-4 (1998): 213-17.
[In the following review, Jordan applauds the level of detail and complex imagery in Viper Rum, characterizing Karr as “an exceptionally fine poet.”]
The cover of Mary Karr's recent Viper Rum—a dead snake coiled in formaldehyde—gives clear warning to anyone looking to find rhapsodies on butterflies or the vagaries of autumn. This poetry eats that kind of poetry, Karr might say. Her last book of poems, The Devil's Tour, featured a medieval scene where two skeletons hold, above the head of a coy maiden, a mirror that reflects a skull; beneath, a caption reads, “Hither you come, behold what you are, what you will be, or were. … ‘Know thyself.’” In Viper Rum, Karr looks deeply into that mirror from a new perspective; however, that skull—ubiquitous in all her poems—continues to function as memento mori and as an imaginative space in which Lucifer's soliloquy about the mind as its own place (one of Karr's favorite passages) resounds like a protective charm that's kept the world at bay.
Fans of Karr's best-selling memoir, The Liars' Club, might expect that Karr's poetry would be a grim business, having read of her Texas childhood at the mercy of adults who were themselves buffeted by madness and...
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SOURCE: Kitchen, Judith. “Against.” Georgia Review 52, no. 4 (winter 1998): 755-72.
[In the following essay, Kitchen contrasts Viper Rum with several recent poetry collections, asserting that Karr's verse stands up favorably to the literary values she presented in her critical essay “Against Decoration.”]
For the past week, I've seemed—even to myself—to be against everything. Well, not quite everything, but a lot more than usual. I've been against little things: the way you can never—ever—get a real human on the phone when a company has voice mail; the people who don't like the color of the new lampposts where I work; the way the bank can't give me an answer because the computer is down; a student who told me to please print my comments on his papers because he can't read cursive. I've been against bigger things: the other side of the “argument” I've had with a university press about “gender neutral” language; the fact that not one of my students has read, or will be asked to read, Moby-Dick; the rudeness that has crept into ordinary conversations. And I've been against really important things: lying under oath; our country's failure to act when innocent people are being massacred in Kosovo. It's not that I'm going through a cantankerous period; I've been a bit cantankerous all of my life. But the accumulated effrontery of contemporary life seems to have caught up...
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SOURCE: McDowell, Robert. “Expansive Poetry.” Hudson Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1999): 792-802.
[In the following essay, McDowell discusses the emergence of the “Expansive poetry” or “neo-formalist” style in a selection of poetry volumes, analyzing Viper Rum within the context of Karr's critical essay “Against Decoration.”]
More than a decade has passed since the anthologies Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman, and The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman, made the first ensemble attempts to recognize a change in our poetry: the renewed interest in form. It has been ten years since the special issue of Crosscurrents (1989), edited by Dick Allen, gave the name Expansive poetry to the writing of a number of poets, most of them in their thirties, who argued for more accessible poetries, including the use of form and story, and honest, clear, critical prose that illuminated texts for general readers.
Since then the early Expansive poets, and others of their generation with whom they share common ground, have published more than a hundred books of poetry and criticism, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper essays and reviews. All of this work has served many useful purposes, not the least of which was giving the lie to the claims of some critics (who seldom bothered to read the writers they were criticizing) that...
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SOURCE: Ullman, Leslie. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Poetry 173, no. 4 (February 1999): 314-16.
[In the following review, Ullman asserts that the poems in Karr's Viper Rum effectively address “the persistent and unanswerable questions of the human condition” through themes of family, religion, faith, and death.]
Mary Karr's third collection [Viper Rum] probes, without sentimentality or loss of vitality, autobiographical material she has handled in previous collections and in her celebrated memoir, The Liars' Club—a hard-drinking father whom she holds close ten years after his death, a once-volatile mother now subdued by disease and the ravages of too many party nights, and her own failed loves and difficult passage into and out of the realm of drink. The matrix from which her poems arise, even though many of them deal with places and people from the present, is flavored by references to her hardscrabble origins in a Texas refinery town on the Gulf and to the colorful, self-destructive forbears whose demons she has inherited.
Like the “sinus-opening chile” her father taught her to make, Karr's poems work with strong stuff, juxtaposing faith in family and God, at best a “chosen blindness,” against the unavoidable and sometimes grotesque aspects of carnal life. Unflinchingly, many of the poems reveal people in states of utter ruin from which...
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SOURCE: Selinger, Eric Murphy. “This Personal Maze Is Not the Prize.” Parnassus 24, no. 2 (2000): 77-116.
[In the following essay, Selinger offers a critical reading of The Liars' Club within the context of the prose memoir genre and in conjunction with Karr's poetry volume Viper Rum and her literary essay “Against Decoration.”]
Five years ago, with The Liars' Club still reeling at the view from its lofty perch on the Times bestseller list, Mary Karr offered the readers of Parnassus “A Memoirist's Apology.” What was she apologizing for? Not the book's success—it could scarcely have been published when the essay was composed. Nor, Lord knows, did she need our forgiveness for anything in the book: the portraits of her haunted mother, or her rough and tender father, or herself. Rather, like John Henry Newman facing his Anglican past in Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Karr needed to explain to her first audience, lovers of poetry, the course of a conversion. How had she turned from a would-be poet of history (however ill-known), of philosophy (however vague), and of cities she had rarely seen (we'll always have Paris) into an autobiographer? Given the Great Awakening afoot in poets' memoirs—nearly thirty, by my rough count, have appeared since 1994—her testimony bears a closer look.
Karr opens with the usual charges against taking...
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SOURCE: Churchill, Sue. Review of Viper Rum, by Mary Karr. Southern Humanities Review 34, no. 1 (winter 2000): 97-100.
[In the following review, Churchill expounds on the recurring thematic motifs in Viper Rum and analyzes the impact of Karr's struggles with her aging mother, the death of her father, and alcoholism on her verse.]
In her first book of poetry, Abacus (1987), Mary Karr spoke as a “distant, contemporary cousin” of Diogenes and used the persona to broaden the implications of her experience. In Viper Rum, Christ replaces the Greek Cynic, and Karr's life becomes a contemporary testing ground for Catholic thought and symbol. The twenty-nine poems of Viper Rum, billed as a “continuation” of her bestselling memoir, The Liars' Club (1995), describe Karr's middle-aged struggle with alcoholism, the death of her father, and the deterioration of her mother. To label Viper Rum confessional and read it primarily as autobiography, however, is to sell it short. The shock of Viper Rum, and its real power, comes from the intensity of Karr's dialogue with Catholicism and her re-vision of Christian teachings.
The poems of Viper Rum depict the contemporary pilgrim's progress outlined in “Lifecycle Stairmaster.” Their central theme is incarnation. Karr's “Christ's Passion” and “The Grand Miracle” offer fairly...
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SOURCE: Karr, Mary, and Wendy Smith. “Mary Karr: A Life Saved by Stories.” Publishers Weekly 247, no. 40 (2 October 2000): 52-3.
[In the following interview, Karr discusses her literary career, her memoir Cherry, and her assessment of the memoir genre.]
Mary Karr says she had one complaint when The Liars' Club was published in 1995. Karr's account of her childhood in Port Arthur, Tex., buffeted by the stormy interactions of her hard-drinking parents, was the critical hit of the season, praised by reviewers for its gallows humor, hard-won compassion, earthy yet elegant prose, and for a gift for storytelling the author had obviously inherited from her yarn-spinning daddy. General readers loved the book, too, flocking to Karr's readings and buying enough copies to keep The Liars' Club on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
So what was the problem? “It was #2 forever … under Reviving Ophelia, God help me,” recalls Karr. Exaggerating her indignation at being stalled behind Mary Bray Pipher's pop treatise on “saving the selves of adolescent girls,” Karr claims jokingly, “I decided: You want teenage girls? I'll give you teenage girls!” The result is Cherry, a memoir just published by Viking that continues Karr's story through 1972, the year 17-year-old Mary left home for Los Angeles in the company of six fellow...
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SOURCE: Marlantes, Liz. “Youngest Member of Liars' Club Keeps Telling Truth.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 225 (12 October 2000): 20.
[In the following review, Marlantes argues that Cherry both captures and mirrors adolescence perfectly through its portrayal of boredom, loneliness, and self-consciousness.]
Adolescence is an ambiguous stage of life. Less free and innocent than childhood, less settled and secure than adulthood, it hangs between in a kind of limbo. Cherry, Mary Karr's second memoir, not only captures this neither-here-nor-there phase perfectly, it mirrors it. The book itself seems to serve as a transition piece between The Liars' Club, her wonderfully funny and searing account of early childhood, and some future, as yet unwritten, work.
Cherry picks up where The Liars' Club left off when Karr is 11. We meet the same scrappy, uninhibited little girl from the previous book. She asks Violet Durkey point-blank why she was not invited to her sleepover party. Violet explains she was only allowed to have five girls—and then lists six. Enviously watching a pack of shirtless boys ride their bikes on a hot afternoon, she peels off her own shirt and rides through the streets, shocking the neighbors.
But Karr also gives early indications that she has entered a new, less childlike phase. Right away, she homes in on...
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SOURCE: Oates, Joyce Carol. “Pilgrim's Progress.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 17 (2 November 2000): 30-2.
[In the following review, Oates presents a critical reading of The Liars' Club and Cherry within the context of the memoir literature genre. Oates praises both works but observes that the narrative in Cherry is not as powerful as The Liars' Club.]
My memory of eight surreal months in Beaumont, Texas, in 1961-1962, overlapping minimally with the time span chronicled by Mary Karr in The Liars' Club (1995) and in her new sequel to that best-selling memoir, Cherry, is almost exclusively visceral. When the air is saturated with chemical smells—sickly sweet, acrid, like toxic-waste cherry syrup with a nasty undertone of sandpaper—you find it difficult to contemplate loftier subjects. Airborne pollution from oil refineries in this devastated East Texas landscape near the Louisiana border and north of the Gulf of Mexico, known without irony as the “Golden Triangle” (Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange), must have been close to the edge of human endurance; yet the area's sense of itself was unfailingly upbeat, optimistic.
These were “boom times” for Texas refineries. Luridly apocalyptic sunsets (flamey-orange, bruised-plum-tinged-with-acid-green) were admired as aesthetic bonuses—“In't the sky gorgeous?” Urban areas technically...
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SOURCE: Sayers, Valerie. “Tattletale.” Commonweal 127, no. 19 (3 November 2000): 27-8.
[In the following review, Sayers comments that, though Cherry avoids many of the pitfalls of contemporary confessional memoirs, the volume's narrative voice is ultimately flawed.]
Mary Karr has now written two narratives of her childhood, which can stand as Exhibits A and B in the Case of the Contemporary Memoir. Past evidence suggests that we are a nation of first-person narrators, confessing our own sordid histories while we peek in on the neighbors' stories. We don't often invoke our right to privacy—on the contrary, we're ready to spill all—and we certainly don't seem overly concerned with the privacy of lives that have intersected ours.
The literary memoirist may operate on a slightly higher plane than the talkshow exhibitionist, but faces the same dangers: the seductions of self-justification, self-aggrandizement, self-absorption, self-delusion. I am happy to report that in both accounts of her early life, Karr's writing tends toward the generous impulse, not the selfish. She gives her all in language, empathy, and forgiveness—but she is not above a little titillation. Both memoirs rely on a sexy, suggestive narrative come-on, yet their conclusions about sex and all human intimacy are thoughtful.
Karr's first memoir, The Liars' Club, was a long-standing...
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SOURCE: Shulman, Alix Kates. “Hungry for More.” Women's Review of Books 18, no. 3 (December 2000): 19-20.
[In the following review, Shulman argues that, despite some problematic elements with the narrative voice in the volume's second half, Cherry is an admirable and “worthy sequel” to The Liars' Club.]
The plot is an ordinary plot: American girl traverses the tricky terrain of adolescence. First bra, first pimple, first love, first kissing game, first date, first real kiss, first period, first smoke (marijuana, it being the late sixties), first betrayal, first run-in with the principal, first sex. Familiar territory: in its key events Mary Karr's school life in 1960s hardscrabble Texas is remarkably like mine in 1940s suburban Ohio, with a cherry's “market value” surprisingly unchanged.
But Cherry is no ordinary book. Karr is a poet, high on language. She won't permit her prose to be violated by a bland verb where a live one will do, and if the right word doesn't exist, she'll make it up. The true hero of this memoir is Karr's slangy, muscular, free-wheeling prose: the English language goes wild with arousal and submits to her will as Karr takes any liberties she likes—flamboyantly ending sentences with prepositions, inventing words, ingeniously tying every episode to the gradual loss of innocence and testing of power that is adolescence.
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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Citizens of Somewhere Else: Memoir and the Place of Place.” Georgia Review 55, no. 1 (spring 2001): 162-69.
[In the following essay, Pinsker examines a selection of recent memoirs, including The Liars' Club, and comments that a strong sense of place is a key element to a successful memoir. Pinsker additionally compliments Karr's “deliciously vernacular voice” in The Liars' Club.]
Krochmalna Street in pre-World War I Warsaw … Leechfield, Texas, in the 1970's … an Alexandria, Egypt, that abides in the imagination—these are the times and places that fuel the respective memoirs of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mary Karr, and André Aciman. Unfortunately, their books arrive at a time cluttered with accounts of how X was victimized and how Y managed to survive. Indeed, that is why the place of place serves as a useful way of distinguishing these artists from the anybodies with a lurid story to spill on an afternoon television show or between the pages of a tell-all volume.
“I would not have been different,” Singer once told me, “if I had been born a Frenchman or a Chinaman.” Why so? Because, Singer insisted, he would have been uncomfortable anywhere, with the same questions that first occurred to him growing up in Poland, and that continued to haunt him in America, still pressing on his consciousness: Why are people born? Why do they suffer?...
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SOURCE: Bristow, Jennie. “Teenage Confessions.” New Statesman 130, no. 4543 (25 June 2001): 51.
[In the following review, Bristow describes Karr's Cherry as “an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas” but comments that the story lacks a compelling plot or unifying element.]
Mary Karr tells us, on page 25 of Cherry, that her ambition aged 11 was to write poetry and autobiography—the exact literary path she later followed. When a pre-pubescent decides to make a career in memoir-writing, autobiography clearly ain't what it used to be.
Karr fits well into the great confessional-writing craze of the late 1990s. In the modern memoir, what you have done counts for less than what you feel; there are book contracts out there for all highly strung emotional literates. Ghost-written lives of the already famous have been replaced by diaries of the unknown anorexic or abused child.
To her credit, Karr does not peddle the straightforward “victim lit” of many of her contemporaries. Her prizewinning memoir The Liars' Club recalled her childhood; Cherry, the sequel, is an amusing, warm account of growing up in late 1960s Texas, with an unorthodox but loving family, poetic aspirations and bucket-loads of recreational drugs. If Karr's lack of trauma is refreshing, it is also the problem with her book.
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SOURCE: Woods, Vicki. “Escaping from the Boondocks.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 42-3.
[In the following review, Woods offers a mixed assessment of Cherry and observes that the central subject of the work is not sexual awakening but rather an intellectual awakening.]
The fin-de-siècle fancy for novelised memoirs is still going strong—and very harrowing they are, too. Millions of people have read Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and his sequel 'Tis, and the desperately gloomy A Boy Called ‘It’, and the sharply post-post-modernist A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Why though? Why? I can understand why the books are written (for closure, darlings, closure: the holy grail of modern America. There's nothing like a good sharp pen for writing of your childhood wrongs). But it's less easy to see why they're read so voraciously. Maybe we're all so smug and cheerful about our own dear home lives that we need to wallow in other folks' misery now and again, for balance.
Mary Karr's new book Cherry is the long-awaited sequel (publisher's blurb) to her dazzling memoir of five years ago, The Liars' Club, in which she described her extraordinary life as an eight-year-old in Leechfield, a horrible oil-town in the swamps of east Texas, where oil-rigs clanked day and night and Agent Orange was manufactured....
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Arguelles, Ivan. Review of Abacus, by Mary Karr. Library Journal 112, no. 15 (15 September 1987): 84.
Arguelles offers a mixed assessment of the poems collected in Abacus.
Barber, David. Review of The Devil's Tour, by Mary Karr. Poetry 164, no. 3 (June 1994): 164-67.
Barber commends Karr's lyrical craftsmanship, vivid description, and expressive language in The Devil's Tour.
Joughin, Sheena. “No Place Like Home.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5127 (6 July 2001): 25.
Joughin praises Karr's use of a first-person narrative voice in the opening half of Cherry, arguing that the technique evokes “the edgy displacement of adolescence.”
Pinsker, Sanford. “The Landscape of Contemporary American Memoir.” Sewanee Review 111, no. 2 (spring 2003): 311-20.
Pinsker offers a critical reading of contemporary memoir writing by American authors, citing The Liars' Club as one of his prime examples.
Yardley, Jonathan. “Hardscrabble Lives.” Washington Post Book World 25, no. 25 (18 June 1995): 3.
Yardley asserts that The Liars' Club is a strong and skillfully written confessional memoir, calling the work “the essential American story.”
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