Mary Karr, Lit | Lit by Mary Karr

The triple meaning of Mary Karr’s memoir title — ”lit,” short for literature; ”lit,” slang for drunk; and ”lit” as in lit from within by a spiritual glow — tells you all the ground that’s covered in this radiant, rueful, rip-roaring book.

As someone who knows Karr primarily through her prickly, precise poetry (I highly recommend 1993’s The Devil’s Tour), I wasn’t sure how much this book overlapped with The Liars’ Club — that is, until Karr helpfully notes that she summarizes her first memoir in five pages of Lit. Everything else here is fresh hell and heaven.

To say that Lit is primarily about the author’s alcoholism is like saying Mad Men is primarily about Brooks Brothers suits. Alcohol just provides material for Karr’s true-life yarns about being a young mother in a quietly miserable marriage, struggling to make it as a writer, and finding success in the material world once she gets sober enough to buckle down and work at it. Inspirational? Yes, if your notion of inspiration can include such vinegary bits as Karr’s Christmas wish list: ”This year I’ve asked for a crock pot, but I secretly long for a Smith & Wesson.”

Karr writes about her binge drinking and her long struggle to accept the methods of Alcoholics Anonymous with a rare vividness, humor, and candor. She’s similarly wary of adopting a spiritual life, because, as she says, ”I’m a habitually morbid bitch.” You’ve got to love a woman who surrenders to both AA and God while clinging to that self-knowledge. And although it may not sound as dramatic, Karr also documents her journey through the jungle of academia? as both student and teacher?in the same wry but ferocious way.

Early on, Karr takes note of her tendency to self-destruct: ”I keep setting fire to my life.” While I wouldn’t want her to melt down completely, I hope she’ll maintain the fiery clarity that makes Lit warm enough to burn a hole in your heart. A

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