The Truth-Teller’s Club

How long have I been examining memoirs to see what I learned?

I just went and looked up the answer. I started these at the beginning of January of this year. It feels as if I have been doing it longer, but that is still over a half-year. So I must have written at least 26 memoir review posts!

How is it that I haven’t yet written about Mary Karr’s books? I will admit that my omission has been on purpose. I find it so daunting to talk about her books. She is the memoir writer I most look up to, both for her first memoir The Liar’s Club and for the trilogy (The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit). 

When I first started reading memoirs on purpose, I read Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. They were both stories with narrator voices that appealed to me and both about the experiences of little girls growing up in trying circumstances.

These two writers unintentionally persuaded me that I had a story to tell, as well.

Mary Karr’s book is a great one to use as a model for a coming-of-age memoir. If I were teaching a course in that type of memoir I would certainly use The Liar’s Club as a text.

To say that Karr’s story is that of a girl and her older sister growing  up with alcoholic parents would be to greatly simplify and reduce a great work of art.

Since I could spend days writing this post (and I can’t do that and you wouldn’t have time to read it anyway), let me focus on a couple of points.

The book opens with 7-year-old Mary being questioned by her family doctor in her family home. Something is terribly wrong. He’s very gently asking to examine her, but she’s formed her nightgown into a protective tent. Karr’s descriptive powers and use of figurative language create scenes for the reader to actually inhabit with the narrator/protagonist. She knows just how to suck the reader into her life in a small blue-collar town in Texas, circa 1962. She goes on to use this method, as well as flash forwards and flashbacks, to tell her story. She also centers the narrative around certain years in her life, rather than trying to cover her entire childhood. And she introduces her father’s storytelling to add texture and an enhanced viewpoint to the story.

Karr also plays with tense in this book. For example, in the middle of the book, she describes her mentally ill mother as looking on one particular day like Anthony Perkins in the movie Psycho. But she’s not content to just make the analogy. Instead, she says:

Mother’s back to me in that rocker conjured that old Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho she’d taken us to in 1960. In the end, the crazy killer was got up like his nutty old mother with a gray wig. He rocked in her personal chair. Mother turned around slow to face me like old Tony Perkins. Her face came into my head one sharp frame at a time. I finally saw in these instants that Mother’s own face had been all scribbled up with that mud-colored lipstick. She was trying to scrub herself out, I thought. Sure enough, the scribbles weren’t like those on an African mask or like a kid’s war paint. They didn’t involve the underlying face that much. They lacked form. No neat triangles or straight lines went along the planes on the face. She looked genuinely crazy sitting in her mother’s rocker with the neatly ruffled blue calico cushions in front of that blazing stove with the smell of charcoal fluid and her own face all scrawled up bloody red.

And from that moment on, Karr switches scenes and tenses at the same time, “Then we’re in the lavender bedroom I share with Lecia.”

If you don’t watch for the tense shifts you won’t notice them, but they add intensity as if a camera is zooming in and out of the subject.

If you haven’t read The Liar’s Club, what in the world are you waiting for?!



Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

39 responses to “The Truth-Teller’s Club

  1. Wonderful introduction to this book! I’ve heard of it, of course, but never read it. Have to add it to the list.

  2. Great review, Luanne. Would you like to be my agent? 😉

  3. Luanne, I’m glad you’re starting to delve into the Liar’s Club. It’s so rich, a whole blog could be devoted to it. I love the passage you explore and how Karr says what is and is not in this passage. You’re observation is spot on about how Karr doesn’t attempt to just write everything that happened in that part of her childhood, rather she seems to follow thematic threads in each book though they are defined by different times in her life. I am indebted to you to introducing me to Mary Karr’s work a while back! Thank you! – Renee

    • Renee, I love the idea of a blog devoted to The Liar’s Club! So rich. Every page yields material like I worked with in this post. The way she structured the book around several years is fascinating. I can’t think of another book that does it quite like that. Hah, you’re welcome. I would love to introduce her work to the rest of the world that hasn’t read it yet!

  4. As you know, I only recently picked up Karr’s work although I’ve intersected with her writing on and off over the last few years. I cannot wait to delve into The Liar’s Club. I am embarrassed that it has taken me this long to explore her work.

  5. I haven’t read The Liar’s Club, Luanne, but your thoughts on it and that extract have definitely enticed me.

    • Andrea, oh, you will love it, I’m sure. After you do read it, please come back and tell me what you think!! Have a lovely rest of the week!

  6. These are some of my favorite books! The Liar’s Club must surely be in my top 20. Sooooo goood!

  7. Wow…great review, Luanne! Karr might suck the reader in, but you sucked me in and made me really want to read this memoir with your fantastic review. If I have to buy another Kindle, I’m sending you the bill! 🙂 xo

    • Hehehe, I haven’t even bought myself a Kindle, Jill! This is one amazing book, though. You want to make sure you read this one!

  8. I haven’t read The Liar’s Club, but I love that excerpt. I think I’ve got the book somewhere in my bookshelf (it’s just a matter of finding it!) 😀

  9. It’s now on my list …

  10. It’s at the top of my next up list! Thank you for this excellent post, Luanne.

    • Yes, every memoirist needs to read this book–especially anyone writing about their childhood, growing, and/or family. Let me know after you’re done, Lynne!

  11. The Liar’s Club sounds like a must read although one of those books that I might have to gird my loins for as it sounds very emotionally intense. I’m doing light summer reading right now – sort of. Just finished “The Language of Flowers” which has a memoir feel to it. Now onto a mystery by Craig Johnson.

    • S, it’s intense, but it a read you will love! it won’t be too oppressive because of her writing style. As soon as fall hits (August where you are, right? ;)), get hold of a copy!!!! Enjoy the light stuff this summer. That sounds fun!

  12. The passage which you quoted from the Liar’s Club is amazing. What an example of great writing. I also like that she shifts tenses and as you said, without noticing…not an easy thing to do.
    Sounds like a writers writer. I’ve just added her to my TBR list. Thanks, Luanne. Your reviews are always so inspiring. 🙂

    • Carol, she is a writers writer. You won’t be sorry for adding the book to your list! I love pulling out passages from her book and looking at them because there is so much rich stuff like this all in one fairly thin book!

  13. What in the world am I waiting for? Where has this book been all my life, already??? I MUST read it, thank you so much for this fantastic review Luanne. This spoke to my heart in so many ways, not least of all because as I write my memoir of a specific three year period, I flash back to my childhood and my alcoholic dad as it tells part of the story and where it is relevant in those parts (even though the story isn’t about my dad). I also flash forward from the main story I’m telling as it happened 34 years ago. As I bash out my first draft and go back and forth, I wonder how it will read when it comes to editing. I wonder if my story is of any interest to anyone. I wonder if I can really do this. Reading this here I am more inspired than ever to keep going, to keep writing and also to keep reading, as I surely will The Liar’s Club. Oh I wish I could come over right now and sit down with you and talk memoir all day long 🙂

    • Oooh! (she squealed) I’m so excited to hear how much the description of this book speaks to you and to your writing, Sherri!!! Yes, you simply have to read it!! I wish you could come over here too (or maybe I should come there as it’s 112 degrees here!) and we could talk memoir all day long and drink that wonderful sounding Pimms you wrote about :). Have a lovely holiday while you’re unplugged.

  14. I have to admit I am not sure I will get to this until winter, Luanne! Summer, children and being outdoors all ‘pull on me!’ I have remembered from the past, someone else’s reviews on this one, but yours was very good.Your review made the book really enticing, though. The theme is a serious one, which means it is a ‘winter book.’ I read light-hearted mysteries, humorous and romantic books in the summer. Sort of like how magazines call them, “beach reads.” I feel like you have written more than 26 reviews, Luanne. It must mean there were a lot of your own stories to tell, which made me feel like I had read more. The sum total of both combined are included as “part of the mix.” If that makes any sense at all! Ha ha! Enjoy your weekend, Luanne! ~Robin

    • It’s serious, but Karr has a ton of humor in the book, and it’s such an engaging and engrossing read. You won’t want to put it down once you start. So put it on your list for fall, Robin, and enjoy it!!! Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend :). xo

  15. You’ve only been reviewing memoirs weekly since January?? You have such a flair I assumed you’d been at it for ages! It’s been months since I’ve been able to read a review of a memoir without saying to my self: “I wonder if Luanne has read this one . . . ” So now you know – I think of you on a regular basis!

    • Hah, they didn’t even start out to be reviews. I was just finding what I learned by reading a memoir. Still doing that! But I guess the byproduct of that is that I’m talking about these books that I love!!! So funny, Shel, re thinking of me when you read a memoir review! I think of you when my husband puts the TP on the wrong way 😉 and other matters of more importance regarding my interpersonal relations!! You’re an inspiration!

  16. Well, dang, I just went ahead and ordered a copy 🙂

  17. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    I love this book too. My mentor, Rebecca McClanahan, used to use excerpts to teach about the different types of dialogue, including what isn’t being said. You make me want to go back and read it all over again!

  18. Wow Luanne it sounds powerful and I will put it on my reading list. Thank you. Great review as always. I can rely on your talented observation skills, to deconstruct the genius of the writer.

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