The Liars' Club: A memoir

by Mary Karr

Paper Book, 1995




New York : Viking, 1995.


The author, a poet, recounts her difficult childhood growing up in a Texas oil town.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
“When it was published in 1995, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, as well as bringing about a dramatic revival of the form.” So says Barnes and Noble in the first line of their summary of Karr’s first memoir. But it was the publication of her recent memoir, Lit, that sparked my interest and made me go back and start at the beginning. Now, I can’t wait to get my hands on Lit.

Karr tells her story of growing up in the white hot desert town of Leechfield in southeastern Texas in the early 1960’s with her sister Lecia and her parents. In many ways, it’s typical of other memoirs I’ve read, particularly Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, in that each author led a life like no one I ever heard of. Yet, this type of memoir is published frequently enough to make me think that this may be the norm, and I’m the odd one with a childhood bereft of crackpot parents who didn’t drown their sorrows in booze and leave me and my siblings to fend for ourselves on the mean city streets.

Because of course Karr’s parents, Charlie Marie and Pete, do just that. And Mary Karr, who considers herself first and foremost a poet, tells the story of trying to survive under these conditions. And she tells it with such humor, wit, and irreverence that she had me laughing out loud at the escapades without ever feeling real sorrow at her plight. She lived through one apocalyptic childhood and yet it is her love for her family that shines through it all. Right away on page 43 she wants you to understand just how bizarre her life is:

“The four of us tended to eat our family meals sitting cross-legged on the edges of that bed. We faced opposite walls, our backs together, looking like some four-headed totem, our plates balanced on the spot of quilt between our legs. Mother called it picnic style, but since I’ve been grown, I recall it as just plain odd. I’ve often longed to take out an ad in a major metropolitan paper and ask whether anybody else’s family ate back-to-back in the parents’ bed and what such a habit might signify.”

A good part of the story centers on the Liars’ Club that Mary’s dad is a part of: a bunch of Texas oil workers who regularly get together to drink beer and swap tales, trying to out-do each other in the whopper department. Of course, so many people in Mary’s life lie to her that the Liar’s Club is a metaphor for most of the characters in the book that have anything to do with her during her young years. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
I finished this book a week ago, and have tried to write something about it a few times, but failed to come up with anything that would do justice to this vivid memoir of growing up in an industrial town in east Texas in the nineteen sixties. I bought this book long before I joined LT, began it and then set it down and forgot about it, maybe because at the time I expected more shocking revelations in the book. Mary's parents, a oil worker and a deeply unhappy artist turned housewife, had a loud and volatile relationship, amplified by booze, but they did their best and loved their children and I needed an additional ten years or so to appreciate the damage that parents can do, when they love their children, but have their own dramas to attend to.

Karr's voice is matter of fact as she describes her upbringing, in which she lived in the loudest house on the block, the one that most kids aren't allowed to play at. She came out swinging, always ready to fight at a moment's notice. She loves her father, only to watch him distance himself from her, as fathers at that time did as their daughters aged. She had a more complicated relationship with her mother, who was stifled by the life she led, haunted by events of her past and overwhelmed by family life. Her mother's mother comes to live with them, a bitter old woman dying painfully of cancer and determined that the girls be beaten into obedience. Karr's mother, nursing her mother, caring for two small children and suffocating in the narrow confines of her life, behaves more and more erratically, until her actions blow the family apart.

The Liars' Club reminded me of both The Glass Castle and Let's Pretend This Never Happened and while the ending seemed a little too tidy, I have already gotten copies of the other two volumes in her memoir and I won't wait years to read them.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
I’m not a big fan of memoirs, but this is one of those genre defying books that I’m so glad I read. The Liar’s Club is the true story of Mary Karr’s childhood. From a small dusty town in Texas to a mountain home in Colorado, Karr and her sister grow up with their rough father and glamorous mother; both of whom are usually too focused on their own lives to bother with their children much of the time.

Some of Karr’s descriptions are so visceral. I felt like I could smell her grandmother’s bad breath and feel the anxious fear she had when something bad happens. Karr has a way of crawling in under your skin and making you feel everything along with her.

Though it was written after this one, I was reminded so much of The Glass Castle. It shares many of the same themes: bad parenting, having to make the best of what you have, etc. Like that book, this one never feels like the author is whining, though Karr went through more than enough to justify doing just that. Instead it feels as though she is telling a story, but that she’s had to distance herself from the pain in some ways in order to survive.

She is unflinchingly honest about what happened in her life. No matter what sort of light it shines on her family. There were so many parts that left me with my mouth hanging open. I led an incredibly sheltered childhood in comparison and never had to experience any of the horrors described by the author. Yet somehow the book doesn’t just feel like a dinner with Debbie Downer. Instead it’s a glimpse into a foreign land where a gun-wielding mother isn’t too far from the ordinary.
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LibraryThing member deldevries
Rambling, disjointed, and generally uninteresting memoir. Strange family life of course with the obligatory crazy stories. Not impressed.
LibraryThing member she_climber
I really wanted to like this book but I just couldn't get into it. I continually flashed back to Glass Castle which has a similar premise but there really is just no comparison. Moving on.
LibraryThing member InDreamsAwake
Perhaps if I had read this when it first came out or perhaps if I had read it before such classic memoirs as The Glass Castle, Falling Leaves, Angela's Ashes, and Blackbird then maybe, maybe I would have liked Liar's Club better. But there were many parts of the book where I found myself asking, "So what?"
There were some moments of intriguing writing and some horrifying things did happen to her- which is not to say that a memoir has to be all about horrifying events, just that the overall story needs to be well told and I just didn't feel that all the parts of this story were well told and it got tedious at times.
Actually, the reader discovers that the mother had an incredibly heartbreaking story herself and perhaps she should have written a memoir.
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LibraryThing member TerryWeyna
I don’t know what made me pick up this memoir one afternoon; I was sitting on the couch and it was right at eye level and I realized I hadn’t read a memoir in a while, and next thing I knew I was halfway through it. It pulled me right in, this story of a girl growing up in the poorest part of East Texas in a crazy family with an educated, intellectual, artistically-oriented mother and a completely blue-collar, beer-drinking, hard-working father. Every moment feels absolutely authentic. It is told with that open-eyed, taking-it-all-in-ness of childhood, when what one lives feels normal no matter how odd it may be in the retrospect of adulthood. The Liar’s Club is a small masterpiece.… (more)
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Like many other memoirs, The Liars' Club is the story of a disorderly childhood in small town America. Mary Karr's father, a refinery worker, keeps food on the table but grows more and more distant as his little girls grow up. Her mother self-medicates bipolar disorder with jelly jars full of vodka. What makes this memoir stand out from the pack is Karr's unique narrative voice. Her prose is so steeped in the rhythms of East Texas that it's hard to hear the words in your head without a Southern twang. She is such a masterly re-creator of dialogue that each family member is a fully-formed character whom we come to know as well as Karr herself. For all these virtues, I didn't think The Liars' Club was as good as The Glass Castle, another memoir that tackles the same themes. Where The Glass Castle excels at show-don't-tell writing, Mary Karr draws back at times to analyze her experiences. She's not whiny by any stretch of the imagination, but it took away from the immediacy of the book for me. With few references to Karr's age or the passing of time, the book is also a little disorienting because it's hard to tell how much time has elapsed between the events of the story. Although I'd pick up The Glass Castle first, this is still a good read if you're looking for an interesting story free of self-pity.… (more)
LibraryThing member aliceunderskies
Have I ever mentioned that I hate miserable childhood memoirs? Well. I do. O customer-who-recommended this to me, never again will I read a book on your word. New York Times, you may be on the outs as well. Because the only thing worse than a miserable childhood memoir is a substance abuse memoir (see: NYT pick-of-the-year Lit) and there is nothing so intrinsically glorious about Karr's style to make wallowing in her sad past worth my time or effort.… (more)
LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
Reading the reviews of this book I see most praise it for the way it is written, for its ability to evoke local colloquialisms, for its exceptional character development (even though it is largely non-fiction), and as “wickedly funny.” It is this last description I take issue with. I didn’t find it funny at all, in fact I found it thoroughly unpleasant.

I’m not usually one to wallow in the dysfunction of others, particularly when it has no resonance for my own life. While I do agree with the humorous observation that the definition of a dysfunctional family is any family with more than one member, I don’t find experiencing that dysfunction at all enjoyable. The only reason I read it is because it was next on my list of books to read. It didn’t really make me want to read the sequel, or to see the movie that is in production.

This work is an autobiographical-”ish” description of the childhood of the author, Mary Karr. As we move from one unpleasant event to another we are introduced to her alcoholic parents – a loving but sometimes inattentive father, an oversexed, mentally ill mother, a controlling, somewhat bossy sister – and other supporting characters. The whole work is beautifully written, really well organized in a sort of linear, non-linear way (best way I can describe it), and in fact, I agree with most of the praise it is getting…except that I did not find it funny, or enjoyable.

My skeptic-alarm went off in a few instances while I was reading this. First, the author is recounting events that occurred when she was a small child. While she does note places where her memory is not exact, she remembered an awful lot of detail for being an 8 year old kid…hyper resolved descriptions of scenes, and verbatim descriptions of conversations. I certainly don’t have that kind of recall. I’m not saying the author is deliberately making things up, but I can’t help but believe there is some exaggerating going on. Second, with the exception of a couple of vignettes she seems to go out of her way to gloss over anything pleasant or uplifting that might have happened to her. And those instances where she did you just knew it was a prelude to something horrific.

I can see why writing this book would be cathartic for Mary Karr, and I can see why it would be popular with those that might have had some of the same experiences, which I think probably accounts for its popularity. As a work of literature it deserves the praise it received. Since my life resembles nothing like what she experienced I mainly found it an unpleasant trip through the dysfunction of another family.
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LibraryThing member ElizabethAndrew
I've just reread THE LIAR'S CLUB as part of a creative nonfiction class--it stands up well to a second look. Karr is a deft, gritty narrator who milks drama from even the smallest moments and portrays true drama without sensationalizing it. For memoir writers looking for models, Karr is an excellent teacher. She doesn't shy from depicting the dark, even horrific, qualities of her parents and still manages to make us love them as much as she does. She explores the fickle nature of memory without letting her exploration detract from the story itself. Her structural choices--a beginning that flashes forward to the middle and then three chronological chunks in time--show writers how well-selected memories can function well together without any need for the author to account for missing years. Most of all, she shows us how a powerful personality can infuse every word and thus delight the reader.

Here's a sample:

Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don't mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn't quite fill it in.

Oh--one last thing I admire about this book. Karr tells such a good story I often found myself wondering whether she was pushing memoir's boundaries by making up details. But her title, her great admiration for her father's capacity to lie, and the layers of behavioral lying she explores with her family make lying a unifying theme of the book. And so I'm willing to forgive her for stretching the truth. In fact, I suspect by stretching the truth she's written a truer story.
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LibraryThing member debnance
Very bleak childhood of a girl in Texas. She grew up just down the road from me. Very sad.
LibraryThing member readingrat
Mary Karr gives us a disturbing glimpse into three separate years of her life when she was growing up in a disfuctional family.
LibraryThing member EllenH
The book is described as "between howling misery and howling laughter and the reader vears toward laughter"......Not for me Mostly just misery, pretty sad misery.
LibraryThing member estellen
I loved every minute of this book and the author's crazy family. She writes with humor, venom and strength - her personality shines through, as well as the love she feels for her much-divorced mother and dangerous father.
LibraryThing member amyfaerie
One of my favorite all-time books of nonfiction. Karr is funny and irreverent--I wish she was my best friend!
LibraryThing member Poprockz
This book never bored me. If time allowed I would've read it in one reading.
LibraryThing member mzebra
I typically love reading memoirs but this one was very difficult to read. The book is very grim and dark. Her father is a very important figure in her life and works hard to keep the family together. Her mother has bouts of depression and other disorders. Her older sister seems to be the sane and logical one of the family, staying calm under fire and always there for the family no matter what. The story line covers Mary's years growing up in the early 60's and revisiting her family in the 1980's. The story starts to get good right before the gap in the decades.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jenners26
Growing up in a hard-scrabble town in Texas, Mary Karr's family life was marred by alcoholism, violence, and mental illness. But oddly enough, you don't end up pitying her, and she doesn't pity herself either. A fierce love for her family comes through loud and clear. For me, the most vivid parts of the book was her mother's mental illness and ensuing insanity and manic depressive episodes. The author brings you right into the room with her as her mother goes on a rampage, and you end up feeling a child's confusion and love for a mother she can't understand. Both parents come off as monstrously selfish but, deep down, you know they love their kids. It is a tribute to Mary Karr and her siblings that they survived their childhood and even flourished.… (more)
LibraryThing member abirdman
Brave, frank, funny, heartbreaking, self-deprecating and very, very smart. This is a great memoir that should define the genre. Read everything by Mary Karr because she's the real thing.
LibraryThing member peacox
Karr's writing pulls the reader through scene after film reel scene of her tumultuous childhood. Over the entire range of emotion in The Liar's Club, and it is a great range, her ability to tell a compelling story stands above all else. It's vivid imagery, skillfully crafted dialog, and nearly all encompassing illusion of intimacy make this book a must read for anyone interested in memoir.… (more)
LibraryThing member vkb1
Without a doubt this is a powerful memoir, and it has been said that it is, in fact, the mother of the recent spate of memoirs. Mary Karr can turn a phrase like no one's business, but I don't know if I received the full impact of her story because of the tell-all age in which we now live. I appreciated LIT more, and this may be a product of my current life stage.… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
I’m a sucker for memoirs! Okay, let me rephrase, I’m a sucker for top-quality memoirs. Ms. Karr’s book contains elements of all my favorites, [The Glass Castle], [Running With Scissors] and [All Over But the Shoutin’], but with her own dark edgy style. On the back cover, it describes the book as “wickedly funny” but for me, it was no laugh fest. This is a very tough, almost brutal look at Karr’s unusual and twisted childhood. Her early years, being raised in East Texas and then a couple tumultuous years in Colorado.
The Centennial State never looked so forbidding. There are also some horrific descriptions of child abuse but I need to point out, that this is not a completely bleak tale, there are wonderful moments with Karr’s father, a hard-drinking but hard-working man, who reminded me of Rick Bragg’s grandfather, Charlie and these precious snap-shots, add some well needed sunshine. Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member mahallett
this should be 2 chapters in a longer memoir. she thinks her childhood was interesting but doesn't really make it so. her parents are terrible parents and boring like most
drunks--they drink and act out.
LibraryThing member ChicGeekGirl21
Like a feverish dream (or nightmare), Karr's first memoir unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness style which captures what it's like to be a child growing up in a spectacularly dysfunctional household. Karr's gullibility, loneliness, fear, and audacity will be recognizable to many people--even if they had relatively happy childhoods. What struck a chord with me was Karr's relationship with her older sister, Lecia. Being an older sister myself, I know that having a sibling can be one of the best things and also one of the worst things about growing up.

If you like this book, I'd also recommend checking out Cherry, Karr's follow-up memoir about her adolescence.
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