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/

 

 

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

The Best We Could Do- Graphic Memoir

I managed to squeeze in a bit of reading with a very busy schedule. This is why sometimes I appreciate graphic novels- when you feel like you wish you could read more but find after very long days you may not have as much brain power as you might like.

I really enjoyed Thi Bui’s first illustrated memoir titled The Best We Could Do. I think a friend of a friend recommended it, which is sometimes the best way to find an interesting book.

There is no way to feel removed from this story, it begins with a picture of the author’s stomach as she is in labour for the first time. It explores her fears of not only being a new mother but the worry that her child might be adversely affected by  “the demons” of her families past. She explores the question, will her own child be free of all the detritus that comes from a history of loss and war?

Bui’s novel is beautiful to hold and look at, the pages and colours she has chosen make the book feel like you are looking at vintage photographs.  The author interviews her family to draw out their painful stories of what it was like to grow up during times of famine and war and what courage it took to get on a boat to escape your home country.

Thi Bui gains not only stories from Vietnam but gains empathy for her mother. A hard lesson learned for many daughters.

 

 

 

Book Review- The Stranger in the Woods The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

I have just finished a very compelling biography written by Michael Finkel- The Stranger in the Woods- The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. It is a fascinating account of the life of Chris Knight, a man who made the choice to leave his home town and family to live alone in the woods for almost thirty years. To survive he stole food from the cabins and camps within walking distance from his hidey hole in the forest. He never started a fire, for fear of being discovered and only traveled at night and often in the rain when he thought he would least likely be spotted.

Knight is described as a lover of books– he is well versed in the Tao Te Ching. He enjoys stories like Robinson Crusoe or war history books. He read whatever stolen books he could lay his hands on. He rigged up an antennae and listened to late night talk radio, classic rock and classical music. Oddly enough he enjoyed listening to Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. Because he was so elusive, he was dubbed the North Pond Hermit or sometimes the Hungry Man.

 

There are also many interesting tidbits in this book on the history of hermits.  In Europe during the Middle Ages the people who wanted to live away from society  were called anchorites- they were often bricked into tiny dark cells and were taken care of by the church. Pursuers are explained as people who escape human contact to write, philosophize or create art. Finkel peppers this story with some scientific explanations  as to why some people may be more prone to avoiding society- there are studies that prove genetics could be part of the factor. Low levels of oxytocin mixed with high quantities of the hormone vasopresin may cause a person to need less human interactions.

I felt the author was suggesting that people like Knight are not a total anomaly- every other country seems to have a place or name for these kinds of people. It was also interesting to read about the completely different reactions the local residents had about Knight. Some hated him, while others were more accepting. One  enterprising man tried to leave him a pen and paper to offer him food or anything else he required so that he wouldn’t have to steal. Although the word hermit in our culture has a bad connotation to it- after reading this book I have a new perspective on hermits. Now I will think of someone who may have an intellectual bent and a close commune with nature.

One of the best insights into Knights soul ( I think) is when Knight explains how he decided it was best not to have a pet, so he wouldn’t have to compete for food with it. Instead he reveals how he was very fond of a shelf mushroom that grew slowly along side his campsite.

This book is a gentle account of a man who knew that the only peace he could find for himself was to be left  completely alone in nature. A feat that seems close to impossible in our modern day world.

Click below for one of the many songs about Chris Knight

http://wickedfunny.tv/maine-music-video-we-dont-know-the-north-pond-hermit/

Want to understand Chris Knight better? Here is a link to The Tao Te Ching

http://www.with.org/tao_te_ching_en.pdf

Memoir- Born A Crime

Reading in my nubby bathrobe

Lucky for me I keep finding memoirs that are un -put -downable. This week I have thoroughly enjoyed the memoir Born A Crime –Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah.

I realize I have been limiting myself to women’s stories, so I was pleasantly surprised when I was completely drawn into this book. It is a story of a young man growing up in South Africa during the tail end of Apartheid- a tough subject that he manages to explain with small  humorous essays. He starts from the beginning when he is a small child and his mother is always chasing after him and once throws him out of a moving minibus. He is still running as a young man, to escape the rage of a violent stepfather.

I laughed and cried all the way through this book.  He explains how when they had a really tough patch in their lives their family had to eat Mopane worms that he explains are ” spiny, brightly coloured caterpillars the size of your finger—they have black spines that prick the roof of your mouth as you’re eating them.”

I enjoyed learning about all the eleven different languages in South Africa which he describes as the Tower of Babel. He also explains how difficult it was for him to live as a child who is half white and half black in a country where it is deemed illegal to  “have illicit carnal intercourse between Europeans and natives.” This was called the Immorality Act of 1927- thus the title of this book- Born a Crime. I had to wonder for a long time why Trevor’s mother would have chosen to have a child under such difficult circumstances, then I realize perhaps it was her small rebellion against a whole regime.

Trevor’s description of his mother was the most compelling part of this story for me. How going to church every Sunday was an escape for her- and no matter how Trevor tried to get out of going to church, his mother made it a non negotiable part of their lives.

The author explains how he was always hoping his mother would leave her abusive relationship. Later in life he realizes how it is not such a simple a thing to escape domestic violence, especially in a country where beating your wife is not considered a criminal offense. This part was frustrating for me to read, and I noted that this was a difficult point for the author to grapple with as well.

Trevor explains that although he grew up in a world of violence, it was his mother’s strong influence that he believes set him on a different path. I loved his mother from beginning to end. The author cleverly weaves his stories in with hers in a loving and honest way.

Men are what their mothers made them.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

http://www.trevornoah.com/