I just finished Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and called myself to task for considering a review. Then I wrote it anyway.
Oh, well. In expressing some positive and negative reactions, I’ll have a mosquito’s impact on a tortoise’s back as far as Karr’s sales go. And I like her, too, even though I don’t know her. Voice will do that. You read a book for a stretch and suddenly feel as one with the character or, in this case, the first-person author and professor.
The opening of my review touches on the problem. Here it is:
It’s always hard to judge a book read in fits and starts. When you’re busier than usual, you pick up your book-of-the-moment at odd times. And even if you end every day like I do — reading in bed — the busyness of your life often leads to an early date with Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep. Thus, another start ends, only now in a sleeping fit.
Writing this review and rereading it, I’m torn. If it’s true that you put someone’s book at a disadvantage due to circumstances during its reading, is acknowledging it good enough? Or should you recuse yourself from writing a review?
From the perspective of the author, I’d say, “Leave it alone, clown. What if it were your book?” From the perspective of a reader, I’d say, “Good books overcome all odds. They break and suck away the foundation of resistance, like the incoming tide on a previously-stalwart castle of sand.”
You see the problem.
If you’re interested in Karr’s book or have read other stuff by her, what follows is the rest of the review. Yes, as a writer or wannabe, you can get something out of it no matter what you write — poetry, stories, essays, or novels. There’s that. And, as a reader, you will be treated to some good inside stuff on quality memoirs out there because Professor Karr teaches memoir, both the reading and the writing of the genre.
Me, my memoir-reading is pretty lame. I’ve got work to do on that count. And I didn’t much like Speak, Memory (though I love the title!), the Vladimir Nabokov memoir that Karr reveres above all else. Oh, well. Back to busyness. And to reading! The finish, then:
I rallied at the end of Mary Karr’s book, however, taking the last 100 pp. by storm. It helped. My 3 stars began to lean four-ish. It’s a short book, for one thing, and seemingly wears three hats. At times it wants to be a “how-to” book on writing, written by a professor (Karr) who teaches memoir writing at university (Syracuse, I believe). At times it wants to be literary criticism, going off on certain memoirs and their merits. It even ends with a long (and I do mean long) list of “must-read” memoirs.
And finally, at times it is straight-up biography or memoir of memoir-writing Mary. Here’s me writing Liar’s Club. And me waving as I write Cherry. Here I am again, this time Lit up. With it comes background information of the writer at work and at war (or peace) with the subjects of her memoir: Mom, Daddy, Sis, Hubby, lover, tinker, tailor, soldier, spy.
One thing Karr makes clear is the power of voice. If you can’t establish voice in your writing, stick to your day job. Despite the identity crisis in this book’s somewhat scattered approach (at times it feels like the syllabus of her course itself… “OK, class, where the hell was I when we last met? Whatever. Today I’ve decided to talk about…”), Karr’s voice comes across in spades. One annoyance, however, is her decision to call sensory details “carnal.” Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s an old movie that I never saw but heard plenty about in my youth (Carnal Knowledge), but “carnal” seems all wrong in the list of requirements for good writers (“Class, you must think carnally!”).
Oh, well. My problem, maybe. If you’re writing a memoir or considering it, worth a look. If you’re a Karr fan, why not? But me, I was left ambivalent.
P.S. Of all the memoirs she discussed at great or not-great-enough length, the most intriguing to me were Frank Conroy’s _Stop Time_ and Michael “Now a Buddhist” Herr’s _Dispatches_. I plan to check both out at some point, thanks to Mary’s quotes.