Book Review: Lit by Mary Karr

“Well, drinking is like the butcher knife. You have to put it down before you can let God in. It’s like you have to break up with the guy who’s beating the crap out of you before you can scan the room and find the nice guy who’s got a crush on you.”

That’s Mary Karr, author of Lit, quoting a friend’s argument as Karr pinwheeled her way through alcoholism towards health. Lit is the third installment of Karr’s self-examination, but my first foray into her work.

Well-written, insightful, gripping and engaging, Karr weaves a great story with a unique style. I found the story itself a bit flat through the first quarter of the book, but the intimacy of the dialogue and descriptions of her flirtation with alcohol captured me. And thank God I hung on, because by the time Karr quits flirting and crashes headlong into a full-bore affair with booze, I couldn’t look away. My heart was completely engaged. Lit weaves a story that, at its core, is so honest about the human condition that there are no villains or heroes, no winners or losers running amuck in and out of her life story. There are only humans, fraught with frailty, honest and true. Good and bad, both / and. This memoir resonates with aromatic truth. I felt like I knew these people; they were my own uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors.

To my surprise, the story amps up as Karr begins to detail her self-described “journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic”. I did not pick this book up because of any anticipated spiritual impact or the jolt of confirming joy I feel when I dig into a typical come-to-Jesus story. I had no idea that Karr ended her journey embracing Jesus, and the fact that it caught me off-guard made it that much more powerful.

I found myself unexpectedly, profoundly moved,  as it unfolded; Karr depicts her struggle with letting go, with relinquishing control, accepting herself and those around her as they are. Her journey rings of truth, and of a deeply personal faith journey with more resonance than the stuff I often read in “Christian” circles. Here is a woman who was dragged, kicking and screaming, to the cross – and chose to stand up and fall into the arms of Jesus. Still cursing, wrestling, running – but there.

This is a real book, powerful and pivotal. I saw much of myself in Mary Karr’s honest self-discovery. Highly recommended, for anyone who has struggled with addiction, and for any female who finds herself wondering sometimes who she really is, and what it might take to find out.

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