Book reviews by D.G. Kaye
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Sunday Book Review – The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Book reviews by D.G. Kaye

I recently read Mary Karr’s – The Art of Memoir and today I’m sharing my review on the book from my perspective as a memoir writer. Although it wasn’t one of my favorite reads on the topic it certainly has its merits.


The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr



Credited with sparking the current memoir explosion, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club spent more than a year at the top of the New York Times list. She followed with two other smash bestsellers: Cherry and Lit, which were critical hits as well.

For thirty years Karr has also taught the form, winning teaching prizes at Syracuse.  (The writing program there produced such acclaimed authors as Cheryl Strayed, Keith Gessen, and Koren Zailckas.) In The Art of Memoir, she synthesizes her expertise as professor and therapy patient, writer and spiritual seeker, recovered alcoholic and “black belt sinner,” providing a unique window into the mechanics and art of the form that is as irreverent, insightful, and entertaining as her own work in the genre.

Anchored by excerpts from her favorite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience, The Art of Memoir lays bare Karr’s own process. (Plus all those inside stories about how she dealt with family and friends get told— and the dark spaces in her own skull probed in depth.) As she breaks down the key elements of great literary memoir, she breaks open our concepts of memory and identity, and illuminates the cathartic power of reflecting on the past; anybody with an inner life or complicated history, whether writer or reader, will relate.

Joining such classics as Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, The Art of Memoir is an elegant and accessible exploration of one of today’s most popular literary forms—a tour de force from an accomplished master pulling back the curtain on her craft.



My 4 Star Review:

Critically acclaimed memoir writer, Mary Karr, writes about the art of writing memoir as an instructional guide for memoir writers demonstrating how to extract the raw self out of our stories to bring them alive in our words. The information she shares is to aid in helping writers project their stories to help readers capture the essence of our stories by painting a picture of physical reality of situation and characters. Karr emphasizes the elements which should be included in a memoir that give a reader a carnal feel for all the senses.

The author refers to points about speaking in reflection with backstory while staying in the present and breaks down the crucial elements of writing memoir by using examples from some of her own writing as well as by depicting passages from the works of other memoir writers to convey story and style.
She shares lists about what to include in memoirs that will help readers be taken into a story while reminding to project the inner gruel of a story.

I felt the first part of the book jumped around between parts of the author’s life and too much focus on stories about other books she used to demonstrate her examples which began to bore me. The second half of the book had more practical information.

I can’t say this was one of the best books I’ve read on memoir writing, although I certainly couldn’t discredit credentials of this talented author. I did get a lot more about writing memoir from books by William Zinsser – Writing About Your Life, Stephen King – On Writing, and Bill Roorbach – Writing Life Stories.


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D.G. Kaye is a nonfiction/memoir writer, who writes from her own life experiences and self-medicates with a daily dose of humor.


    • dgkaye

      Thanks for visiting Sal. Yes, she is an amazing memoir writer, so this book was a bit different from her. Thanks for the compliment Sal. <3 xx

  • hilarymb

    Hi DG – interesting book and thanks for letting us see the blurb, as well as giving your feedback. I like the blurb’s quote: “Karr emphasizes the elements which should be included in a memoir that give a reader a carnal feel for all the senses.”

    If one has led a spectacular life – then we can write it all down and let it hang out … but if we’re writing for ourselves, our family and perhaps friends – then probably the simpler the better … but finding the voice is what I feel is the essential.

    Interesting – thank you … cheers Hilary

  • Jacqui Murray

    Good review. I’ve seen this myself–where an author with all the creds in the world doesn’t quite resonate with how I read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • robbiesinspiration

    A very honest review, Debby. I am writing my Mom’s memoir but I hadn’t really thought about reading up on how to go about it. I think I will read Stephen King’s book. I have heard so much about it and I love his books. Have a great day.

    • dgkaye

      Thanks Robbie. I recommend every writer read King’s book. Although it’s not geared toward memoir, it’s a great book on writing in general. I would highly recommend William Zinsser’s 2 books – Writing about Your Life and On Writing Well

  • olganm

    Thanks, Debby. Books about writing are notably difficult, because they either connect with you or they don’t and I imagine that will be even more the case for books about memoir writing. Thanks for your recommendations too (I’ve read King’s book but not Zinsser’s).

    • dgkaye

      Thanks Olga. I agree with you about writing books. But there are many good ones out there. I love all Zinsser’s books on writing. 🙂

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Interesting review, Debby, and I don’t think it’s that uncommon for books on writing to connect on some levels and disconnect on others. I usually am satisfied if there are a few “aha!” ideas, and then, the rest I let go. 😀

    • dgkaye

      Hi Lisa. I too loved Bird by Bird. Yes, memoir writing can make many of us apprehensive when it comes to writing about family. I know that angst well. 🙂 x

  • elainemansfield

    I enjoyed this book but didn’t know all her literary references and got bored with them sometimes. 4 stars feels right.

  • jeanne229

    Wow, I couldn’t agree more. I expected a lot out of this book, but immediately I found her style of writing a little … distracting? I admit I didn’t finish it, but do plan to get it out again. Liars’ Club was a book I read when I was researching memoirs. As for William Zinsser, I absolutely love him. I have his On Writing Well, Writing About Your Life, and Inventing the Truth. And yes, Stephen King, the concise guide to memoir! I also thought Judith Barrington’s From Truth to Art was great. Thanks for the great review!

    • dgkaye

      Hi Jeanne. Thanks so much for chiming in here. It seems as though we’ve read many of the same books and share the same opinions! Yes, I’ve read 2 of Barrington’s books also, and I concur. Thank you for visiting. 🙂

  • Sarah Brentyn

    I have this and read parts of it. I liked those parts but haven’t finished it. *cringe* Also, I’m not a memoirist and don’t read writing books on the subject. So I’ll go with your review. It’s honest and nicely balanced. 🙂

    Have a lovely week!

    • dgkaye

      Hmm, I’m not sure I can say writing memoir isn’t difficult. It depends what context. Memories don’t always flood out. Many times they have to be pried out and there still has to be some semblance of a structure. And not to mention writing a memoir can be very painful. I know you’ve written both so certainly you’re entitled to your opinion. Perhaps it’s different for every writer. 🙂

      • Stevie Turner

        Perhaps. I just found it easier writing the memoir than the other books. I suppose because the plot was already there and I didn’t have to think too much about what to write.

        • dgkaye

          Well you are blessed Stevie. And I loved your memoir. For many of us the memories don’t subside but choosing what’s relevant to our stories and sometimes writing through the pain can be emotionally distressing. 🙂

  • Liesbet

    I recently read this book as well, Debby and I agree with your review. It came highly recommended and praised on Amazon, so I gave it a try. I enjoyed reading it, but did not learn much from it and did not like the approach of her using phrases and examples of successful writers. “Your Life as Story” by Tristine Rainer was much more useful to me, as a budding memoir writer. Her hands-on approach and exercises gave me great insight in the memoir writing process and provided some ideas for themes.

  • Annika Perry

    Debby, with your experience in this field I value your opinion on this book a lot. Your review is honest and sincere, finding much good as well as understandably highlighting some overall short-falls. Many thanks for sharing.

    • dgkaye

      Thanks for reading Annika. I would never want to tell anyone not to read a book but reviews are supposed to be helpful from a reader’s point of view. And since memoir is my field, I thought it was my obligation to review the book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good book, but I don’t feel it’s the go to book for writers who are seeking to learn about writing memoir. 🙂

    • dgkaye

      Thanks Kev. It’s imperative to be honest in reviews to allow others to form their own opinions. If I dislike a book because it’s poorly written I don’t like to review at all as I have a hard time making others feel slighted, even though constructive criticism could be helpful. With this book, it wasn’t poorly written, it was informational but it was misleading as what we could expect to learn from it. 🙂

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