Mary Karr: Lone Gunman for the Truth Book Review

The Art of Memoir

Mary Karr

Harper Collins

229 Pages

09/15/2015

24.99

978-0-06-222307- 4

 

Move over Bird by Bird, the time has come for a new writing classic and Mary Karr’s, The Art of Memoir could be it. Karr comes well-armed with three best-selling memoirs: Liar’s Club, Lit and Cherry. Her other credentials include thirty years of teaching the stuff; she has taught the likes of Cheryl Strayed (Wild) and Koren Zailckas (Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood). The Art of Memoir is a perfect combination of readability and structural advice, including an appendix with over two hundred reading recommendations. In this book, Karr will lasso your heart and won’t let go until you share her joy of memoir.

Karr writes with a distinctive tough girl vernacular filled with vibrant metaphors: “Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard.” She goes on to explain that what sets memoir apart from other genres is its simplicity of form, “One event follows another. Birth leads to puberty leads to sex.”

This book is intended to inspire both readers and writers of memoir. Karr selects real-life examples from the likes of Michael Herr to Maxine Hong Kingston to Nabokov. Karr received a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry in 2005 and it shows. Her pages are filled with poetic language:

“So enchanting is the atmosphere Nabokov conjures in my brain that reading him almost rewires it. I lift my face from a folded-down page to find colors brighter, edges sharper. Trash I glimpse on my otherwise shoddy street—a ticket stub or lipsticky cigarette butt—come across as souvenirs from some intrigue that dissolved right before I looked up. The world becomes a magic collage or mysterious art box à la found object assembler Joseph Cornell. And it works every time you reread—miraculous widget for perceptual transformation.”

Karr describes herself as a “lone gunman for the truth.” Some of her longer chapters are devoted to this quest, such as the eighteen-page chapter titled, “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader,” and another ten pages describing the attributes of “Hucksters, the Deluded, and Big Fat Liars.” She explains:

“No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.”

A whole chapter is spent defending Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss. Harrison’s memoir is about an affair she had with her preacher father. Literary critics tried to debunk her book by saying it was based on lies. Both Karr and Harrison began their writing careers in fiction but found that it was too difficult to mask true events. In Harrison’s case she likened writing her difficult memoir to chemotherapy. Karr champions not only Harrison’s prose but also highlights the inequalities between men and women memoirists. She goes on to say that “rather than vilify her, critics should’ve given her a medal for public service.”

Mary Karr teaches literature at Syracuse University. Her tone is like an encouraging teacher: “much of what I say may well apply to writing novels or poems of love letters or bank application of parole board pleas—in short, any kind of scribbling.” Her shorter chapters with numbered lists include personal writing advice such as, “I skip the dull parts,” and “start with a flash forward that shows what’s at stake emotionally.” In the chapter, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr says, “write longhand letters to your complicated characters, or even the dead.” She also advises you to memorize poems and keep not only a writing journal but to keep a reading journal with descriptive quotes.

In a chapter on “Why Memoirs Fail” Karr goes on to say, “another way a crap memoir fails is if the narrator fails to change over time. Characters who don’t transform or who lack depth become predictable.” Here she stresses the importance of finding your own voice. A voice needs to be “distinct enough to sound alive and compelling.” About discovering her own voice Karr claims, “It’s ironic that the very redneckese I’d spent some time trying to rise above wound up branding my work like hot iron on a steer’s ass. Without borrowing from Daddy’s voice—

without the grit and grime of where I’d grown-up—I’d been playing with one hand tied back.” Karr’s memoirs emerged from growing up in a small town in Texas that she gave the imaginary name of Leechfield.

Karr uses concrete examples from both well-known memoirs and from her own work. She devotes a whole chapter to explaining her process for revising her memoirs Cherry and Lit. Here she provides some useful technical advice, “ask yourself if you aren’t strapping your current self across the past to hide the real story.”

The author set out to write this book as a “Theory of Everything About the Form,” and I believe she has inadvertently achieved this goal. While Anne Lamott’s, Bird by Bird provides inspiration and encouragement to be a writer in general, Karr’s book is targeted for those in love with both reading and writing real-life stories.

“A great voice renders the dullest event remarkable,” says Karr. If this is the case, then she has succeeded in creating a book about writing memoir as readable as her own previous memoirs; her voice rings clear as a triangle bell at dinnertime, calling you in for some grub. Later you just might linger over dessert to discuss your love of memoir.

( This is my secret desire to have Mary Karr invite me over for dinner.)

Shhhh…..

Photo from Mary Karr author website.

See link below

https://www.marykarr.com/

 

 

Unwanted Advice From Strangers

There is nothing that irks me more than the unwanted advice that some people feel compelled to give complete strangers, unprovoked.

Years ago, I recall standing waiting for my sister in a small town in Jamaica. A man of whom I did not know or later care to know, walked up to me looked me up and down and said something to the tune of “you should not gain any more weight.”

I was mad, fuming mad. But found that I had no witty come back especially as I was holding back a few tears.

It is not until now: twenty four years later that I finally have something to say.

(That’s how slow I am on my witty retorts.)

I just found an old home movie of myself dancing around the living room to Rosemary Clooney’s Come on a-my house, with my baby doing circles in a floppy sunhat and a pink feather duster. This movie compelled me to realize some hard truths.

So here it is, my reply to this unwanted advice from a complete stranger.

Dear Jamaican man:

 Although I was upset at the time. I’ll admit you were right. I haven’t looked so good since that time I was standing in the foyer sporting some unattractive cornrows with a sunburnt scalp wearing my favourite flowing 90’s flowered dress. The fabric pulled tight around the hips.

 Soon after, when I returned to Canada, I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter while attending the memorial for the grandmother that she never met. I struggled with losing the weight from baby number one but lost it and then gained it again after baby number two. But looking back at this home movie I see that  I still managed to dance around the living room in my bare feet, large behind swaying behind me. I still managed to work two part time jobs while raising my children. I chopped kindling every other day in winter; fat arms wobbling. For years I still managed to walk the dog or drag out the garbage bins to the curb,  or at Christmas time still made my perogies from scratch. ( I know the homemade perogies did not help.)

So yes strange man in Jamaica… you were prophetic in your unkind words. I am thinking that if you yourself are still alive, I imagine that you are most likely portly and bald too. I picture you sitting somewhere alone in a wheelchair without any friends because of your penchance for telling people what you think, unprovoked and often cruelly. 

But in this particular case, man with the unwanted advice;  I must say, you were right. I have never looked so luminescent as that time that I was standing in the shade on a hot day in Jamaica waiting for my sister,  eating a small green banana that I had just bought from a little boy off the side of the road.  I stood there, eyes feasting on the glittering ocean, completely unaware that I was about to start a family, my wonderful little family that still loved me through the years, fat ass and all.

 

Birthday Magic

I had a kind of magic that only happens on birthdays… the Gabriola friends of the library had a book sale at the community hall over the weekend. Imagine, a room filled to the brim with books for sale that I could peruse for hours.

( I am writing this a month behind… but what can I say? I was busy reading.)

It was a beautiful sunny day when we drove down to the south end of the island while enjoying the plethora of wild rose bushes that were lining the ditches. The first day I forgot my glasses but I was pleased to find out that they had a little container of reading glasses set out to use. My husband and I were pleasantly surprised at the selection. Rick got some great building books, such as How to Build Shaker Furniture and Make Your Own Electric Guitar and the very popular Camping and Wilderness Survival book (2nd edition)  because you never know when you might need it, especially if there is an earthquake.

I myself was mainly stuck in the memoir section ( no surprise ) but when I wandered to other sections was pleased to find Emily Carr’s Book of Small and a copy of the screenplay for My Dinner With Andre.

One of my best finds was an old copy of Anne Tyler’s, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I am pretty sure I read it years ago, but I have only a ghost of a memory of reading it. But this time, I couldn’t put it down. I was mesmerized as I lay next to my snoring husband late into the night with my neck kinked and my fingers chilled from clutching the tiny paperback with yellowing pages. This surprised me, because I have not been reading much fiction these days.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant appears innocent but will sideswipe you with the author’s complex portrait of each member of the Tull family.I was hooked right away when the story begins, “While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.”  It is told from the different perspectives of each member of the family. Tyler is a master of writing about family in all of their misery and joy and ordinariness. Here is an excerpt from the ( good) son that impressed me: “How plotless real life was! In novels, events led up to something. In his mother’s diaries, they flitted past with no apparent direction.”

I loved this bit because this is how this novel was laid out, with no apparent direction.

Some of Tyler’s descriptions leapt off the page.  Such as his mother’s” small black pumps, seemed like quivering, delicate ultrasensitive organs.” Or ” She remembered the feel of the wind on summer nights— how it billows through the house and wafts the curtains and smells of tar and roses. How a sleeping baby weighs so heavily on your shoulder, like ripe fruit.”

Ah, I could read her words forever. I think I am going to forget about it again for another fifteen years and rediscover it again. I will have this blog post as a reminder.

Now before you go out hunting for this classic that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize or ask to borrow my copy, I must warn you I love intimate portraits of regular families.

Actually as I was reading Homesick Restaurant, I was reminded of A Spool of Blue Thread which I also loved to pieces. It took me about thirty pages to put two and two together and realize it was the same author. It is interesting that I am drawn to her writing from 1982 equally as much as her writing from 2015 when A Spool of Blue Thread was published.

Thank you world for having a book sale for my birthday. And thank you for letting me find Anne Tyler’s classic novel again.

Want more magic?  My new favourite podcast is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast where she interviews authors. Sit back and enjoy listening to inspirational writing tips in an easy going conversational style. It is like eavesdropping on friend’s discussing their problems while Gilbert offers up wonderful advice.

This podcast stemmed from her non-fiction book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

See the link below:

https://magiclessons.libsyn.com/

 

 

Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows: Book Review

I was lucky enough to attend a meeting of one of  Gabriola Island’s many book clubs called The Random Reads. I have been in various book clubs over the years but this is the first group that allows you to read and discuss whatever book you like.

It was my first time at this sort of meeting so I wasn’t entirely sure the protocol. Seven people sat in a tiny living room and took turns sitting on the bed in the middle of the room when it was our turn to discuss our book choices.

I decided to talk about my recent find at the Gabriola Library stacks titled, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal.

The small plastic blue thumb sticking out of the top of the book was an effective signal from the library staff that it was a recommended read. I’ll admit that what really drew me to the book was the intriguing title.

After reading this saucy book I had to laugh at the back jacket’s claim that it is a page-turner your commute will thank you for. I would not advise anyone to read erotic stories on a commuter train!  Glamour UK also notes that this book tackles serious themes with a light and funny touch. This is the whole book in a nutshell.

Set in Southall London the story unfolds at a local writing class where the main character Nikki is hired to teach English and grammar skills to Punjabi widows. Nikki is a young woman searching to find her place in the world caught between the pulls of her traditional Sikh family and growing up in modern London culture. It spirals into a class of sharing erotic stories and the many adventures that ensue.

This book gives a voice to women in a world where people ” Take no notice of those widows. Without their husbands, they’re irrelevant.”

Here is an excerpt from one of the erotic stories written by a woman who is trying to choose between two scrawny suitors over tea.

“It was already too far-fetched. This bony, awkward boy would never have the strength to lift Sunita onto the bed. His fingers would be stiff as sticks and he would jab them into her- she knew this from the feverish, impatient way he dipped his biscuit into his tea. He wouldn’t know the last thing about fondling a woman either. He would pinch and twist as if tuning a radio.”

After the character, Kulwinder read one of the erotic stories she found she could reconnect with her husband again.” She even dared to think that it was worth living the rest of her life for, this closeness with another human being.”

This story is brimming with unique characters such as Steve with the Racist Grandfather and Tarampal a young widow who blackmails people for money to keep their secrets.

My main complaint is that there were a few too many things going on in this book. The main character was dealing with the loss of a parent while searching for true love. There was also the quest for women’s rights, the pros and cons of arranged marriages, the subject of mourning the loss of a child, abusive parents and the effect of extremist groups on a community.

Besides these shortcomings, this book is still worth a read. It will transport you to another world; to a group of women from Southall London and their exotic saucy stories.

I don’t believe there is another book like this anywhere.

 

 

Book Review: In-Between Days

Book Review In-Between Days by Margot Fedoruk

 In- Between Days is part of a trend of graphic memoirs written by women that deal with the topics of disease and how it affects their lives from a very personal level.

When Teva Harrison was first diagnosed with terminal breast cancer at the tender age of 37, she found that writing and drawing helped her deal with many psychological aspects of her prognosis and treatment. This memoir is the result of her therapy. Although this book has received many accolades, it is mainly the unique graphic hybrid format that is its main strength. And of course, who doesn’t want to read a book with a mermaid on the cover?

A quick read, this book is a combination of primitive black ink drawings accompanied with short essay- style musings describing different aspects of living with metastatic cancer. Harrison tells her readers wisely that hope is dangerous but crucial – this sentiment seeps out of the pages. Like the title suggests Harrison has the desire to have a normal life, she wants to exist in the times that are in-between the bad days of cancer.  In the chapter “Seeking” Harrison explains poetically, “I walk the thinnest lines. So thin it cuts into the balls of my feet.”

Harrison touches briefly on an array of subjects like sex and religion with grace and humour.  For instance, in the chapter titled, “Homework,” Harrison explains that after the voluntary removal of her ovaries, early menopause causes her to have difficulties with sex.  She is advised by doctors to masturbate as “homework.”  Her chapter discussing religion is aptly titled “And Then What.” In this essay with accompanying comic strip, Harrison bravely reveals that she is a rare specimen – a stage IV cancer patient that does not believe in God.

Harrison uses the literary device of directly addressing the audience in many of her comic panels. For instance, in one illustration as she is lying, sushi-like, while vacuum sealed to a radiation bed. Harrison appears to look directly at her audience as she asks the technician to take a photo for her husband. In one panel she holds a microphone like she is doing a stand-up comedy routine about cancer.

This book is a mixed bag of ink drawings and small personal essays that is completely open and honest. Many of the chapters of this book feel as though they were written primarily for a magazine-style format; the result is extremely short chapters that scrape the surface of her experiences. I’ll admit I wished for a bit more of the nitty-gritty aspects of her life with cancer.  For instance, in discussing her relationship with her husband there is a feeling of holding back. I wanted to know the details: what sort of ugly fights did they have and if they didn’t fight, then why not? I did feel that some of Harrison’s observances feel cliché: for instance, when describing her time at the mermaid parade in Coney Island she concludes, “dreams can come true if we only make them.”

If Teva Harrison’s intention for writing this book was to start a conversation about a difficult subject, then I believe her job was very successful.

Teva Harrison died at the tender age of 42 on April 27th, 2019 in Toronto.

If you are searching for more of this style of writing on the subject I suggest The Story of my Tits by Jennifer Hayden.

For those who are drawn to this style of memoir read Tangles by Sarah Leavitt. Tangles explores a daughter’s account of her mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

 

In-Between Days by Teva Harrison

House of Anansi Press Inc. 2016

163 pages $19.95

Lorna Crozier: Badass Poet with Sweet Words

I was lucky enough to have caught Lorna Crozier’s talk about writing and risk held at the Vancouver Island Conference Centre in Nanaimo on May 3rd. It was part of the four-day event put on by The Federation of BC Writers.

She began her talk by quoting Margaret Atwood who said that in some countries writers and poets are killed for their words. But in Canada, no one hardly bothers to read poetry or to take their words seriously. This was not quite true as the Dodd’s Narrows room had to be opened up to accommodate the multitudes of people who came to hear her speak on a warm Friday afternoon in May.

From her perch on the podium, through hot pink-framed glasses, she read with precision, emotion, and humour. She only wavered for a moment, holding back her tears, giant heart-shaped necklace swaying, as she talked about the work of her late partner Patrick Lane who died only a short time ago, on March 7th of this year.

 She claimed you should not stop creating when you are old, to make room for younger less experienced poets. Why should the old be silenced? Isn’t there more to learn from someone with years of living experience? She also brought up the point, why should an older poet be expected to only write poems that are proper and dull? At least that’s what I got from her one hour talk that was set out in 15 stanzas or parts.

She told of how her poems on penises from years ago had her banned from winning an award ( at the time) and how she got hate mail about it. But since then, of course, she is draped in awards. She explained how she worried about her poem about sex between two old lovers would get more hate mail but people loved it and still do. She read it to the audience peppering it with real-life anecdotes, how Patrick said, we’re not as feeble as your poem claims.

She told the story of writing her truth about her family’s life with a drunk father, thinking that the anthology wouldn’t do very well, but of course, it sold thousands of copies and eventually was read to her mother’s congregation. 

But even so, Crozier explains how important it is to write about what you need to say.

Those are the risks that are important for a writer. Crozier is someone who has taken countless risks and it has only worked in her favour. 

Here is an excerpt from the internet which I noticed is not always accurate with certain words that spell check always seems to want to change.

I am pretty sure Crozier’s words are a skink’s blue tongue but I found that there was a version where it said a shrink’s blue tongue which made me laugh and also didn’t sound so poetic.

What The Soul Wants 2
 
The electric in eel. One rib from any kind
of whale. A moon snail’s thick grey neck.
Garlic Scapes. A dear companion. A skinks
blue tongue. Think of all the blue things
it could say.
What the Soul Doesn’t Want
by Lorna Crozier

Freehand Books, Calgary, c 2017,
ISBN 978-1-988298-12-2, $16.95 paperback
 I can tell you what this soul wants
poetry
by Lorna Crozier.

Here is a saucy note from the bottom of Crozier’s author website:

QUESTION: What does this poem mean? ANSWER: What does a foot mean?—What does a tree mean?—What does a cat mean?

Lorna Crozier’s author website

Link to poetry online

BIO-

An Officer of the Order of Canada, Lorna Crozier has been acknowledged for her contributions to Canadian literature, her teaching and her mentoring with five honourary doctorates, most recently from McGill and Simon Fraser Universities. Her books have received numerous national awards, including the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry. The Globe and Mail declared The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things one of its Top 100 Books of the Year, and Amazon chose her memoir as one of the 100 books you should read in your lifetime. A Professor Emerita at the University of Victoria, she has performed for Queen Elizabeth II and has read her poetry, which has been translated into several languages, on every continent except Antarctica. Her latest book, What the Soul Doesn’t Want, was nominated for the 2017 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. In 2018, Lorna Crozier received the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives on Vancouver Island with two cats who love to garden.