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40 Books to Read Before Turning 40

The manual for making your first four decades the most joyful, wise and stress-free of your life.
Lit by Mary Karr
Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D

Lit

400 pages; Harper
In the letter to her son that opens Mary Karr's irresistible memoir Lit, chronicling a decade of motherhood, alcoholism, and a long, skeptical slog toward faith, she writes, "Any way I tell this story is a lie, so I ask you to disconnect the device in your head that repeats at intervals how ancient and addled I am." With trademark wit, precision, and unfailing courage, Karr recounts her aspiring years, between the day her school principal warned her that "any girl aiming to become a poet was doomed to become...no more than a common prostitute" and the day, decades later, when her larger-than-life mother would be "born into the ziplock baggie of ash my sister sent me...with the frank message Mom ½, written in laundry pen." Isolated by motherhood, and losing badly her battle with the bottle, Karr takes advice where she can get it: from Henry James, who said, "Be kind, be kind, be kind"; from a halfway-house schizophrenic, who tells her to "go quietly and shine"; from the young doctor who, after Karr's breakdown, likens going to God to breaking 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." And though her first prayers are full of doubt, embarrassment, and hesitation—"Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard"—she eventually surrenders to the idea that "I was made...not to prove myself worthy but to refine the worth I'm formed from, acknowledge it, own it, spend it on others."
— Pam Houston

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