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'The Lacuna,' Kingsolver's Vacant Return

It's been nine years since Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, has released a new novel -- but is The Lacuna worth the wait? Critic Maureen Corrigan says this personalized perspective on the Red Scare in Mexico reflects the hidden meaning of the book's title: vacancy.

06:02

Other segments from the episode on November 3, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 3, 2009: Interview with Mary Karr; Interview with Daniel Pauly; Review of Barbara Kingsolver's novel "The Lacuna."

Transcript

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Mary Karr, Remembering The Years She Spent “Lit”

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mary Karr, is best known
for her memoir "The Liar's Club," which was on the bestseller list for
over a year. It was about growing up in a small town in Texas, with a
mother who had a psychotic break and often behaved monstrously. Karr's
new memoir, "Lit," is in part about how Karr almost became what she
feared most: crazy and monstrous like her mother.

"Lit" describes her early years as a writer, wife and mother. Her
marriage was falling apart, and her drinking interfered with being a
good parent. Actually, Karr's drinking was interfering with just about
everything. To stop, she went to support groups, where people urged her
to seek a higher power. She found one, and much to her surprise, she
became a committed Catholic. Karr is a professor of literature at
Syracuse University.

Mary Karr, welcome back to FRESH AIR. There's a short passage from the
opening chapter of "Lit" that I'd like you to read for us. And this
chapter is actually a letter to your son, who is how old now?

Professor MARY KARR (Literature, Syracuse University; Author, "Lit"):
Twenty-three.

GROSS: All right.

Ms. KARR: (Reading) However long I've been granted sobriety, however
many hours I logged in therapist offices and the confessional, I've
still managed to hurt you - and not just with the divorce when you were
five, with its attendant shouting matches and slammed doors. Just as my
mother vanished from my young life into a madhouse, so did I vanish when
you were a toddler. Having spent much of my life trying to plumb her
psychic mysteries, I now find myself occupying her chair as plumb-ee,
and believe me, it's a discomfiting sensation.

GROSS: That's Mary Karr, reading from her new memoir, "Lit." And your
reference to being a plumb-ee is that your son had asked you to find a
video, a family video that you had made of your mother talking to you
and telling you her version of her psychotic break. And he wanted that
video for a documentary class that he's making. Apparently, he's kind of
wedded to his own video camera. So would you tell the story of this
video and of your mother's psychotic break?

Ms. KARR: Oh, boy, Terry. You really know how to start off.

GROSS: Yeah, let's start with the cheerful stuff.

Ms. KARR: Let's start with the cheerful stuff. I guess it was before I
was in school, my mother dragged all our toys out into the backyard and
threatened to kill us with a butcher knife, and then – us being my
sister and I. Then she was, like, hallucinating that she had killed us
and there was blood all over the room. And she called the family doctor.
And when you do this in a small, Texas backwater, I mean, people show up
pretty fast.

There were firemen and doctors and ambulances and police, and so it was
a big, traumatic moment. And then she checked into what we called the
Mental Marriot. You know, they put her inpatient for a while, not
surprisingly.

So that scene opens "The Liar's Club" and is a kind of pivotal,
traumatic scene. It's definitely a nadir in my family history. It's, you
know, let me - again, I've said it a million times. My family was not
always that chaotic or that bad, but it was a very bad time for us.

GROSS: So what was it like for you playing that video back? How long had
it been since you had watched it?

Ms. KARR: Oh, I probably had never watched it, would be my guess. We
decided - when I was cleaning out her house to move her closer to my
sister - we decided to go through a bunch of family albums. So she could
name people we'd never met because she was an only child and had very
little family, and she could – so I was doing a videotape of that, and
in the midst of that, I ask her about that night that she threatened to
kill us and what it was like.

And then flash forward however many years, 45 years, and there's my 22-
year-old son in a documentary class, who has dredged up this video of my
mother talking about this scene. And he said to me, I can't believe how
strange it was. And I said, well, honey, you know that story. It's
family legend, that night. It's not like it was a big secret. And he
said yeah, but she told it like it happened to somebody else. I mean,
that's really crazy.

Like, you know, he always saw his grandmother as just this funny, old,
white-haired lady, but he never really got the ways she could have been
dangerous, even though she showed him a pistol in her purse when he was
eight years old, you know, which he reported to me. He was such a
tattle-tale.

So, yeah. So he's doing this, and having never read any of my books, a
conscious decision on his part, he read the opening description of "The
Liar's Club." So, you know, my mother had this complicated, beautiful,
crazy mother that she painted. And I have this complicated, crazy mother
that I write about. And now my kid has this complicated, crazy mother -
i.e., me - and he's got footage.

GROSS: So this must have gotten you thinking, because this certainly got
me thinking about the difference between a videotaped episode and an
episode remembered through writing. Now, granted, what your mother was
telling you on videotape is something she remembered, and who knows how
accurately she's remembering her own motivations and her own memory.

Ms. KARR: Right. She was psychotic, and she - you know, once she told
me she'd been drunk for a week, and once she told me she hadn't had a
drink. So who knows, who knows?

GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. But have you been thinking about the difference
between, like, video and memoir?

Ms. KARR: Oh, absolutely. I think what memoir gives, and I think one
reason there's been a renaissance of interest in the form is it gives
the inner life of the participants. It - a video camera can't capture my
mother's history in an eye-blink. It's very reductive. You know, we live
and die by these visual images, as though they're fact. In fact, they
don't tell what anyone's motivation was or what they were thinking.

I mean, my mother tells this story as though killing us were a very
benevolent thing. Like, she says, I see these precious little girls, and
I think how hard it is to be a woman and they're treated so badly. So I
just thought I'd kill you. I mean, it's like she's saying I thought, you
know, I'd give you a haircut. And that…

GROSS: She thought that she'd kill you before the world damaged you.

Ms. KARR: Right, right. And, you know, that's what my son found so
peculiar was her demeanor, that she was so blithe about it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Karr, and she's just
written her third memoir. It's called "Lit." It's a follow-up to her
first two memoirs, "Liar's Club" and "Cherry."

One of the things I'm interested in, you talk about money a little bit
in the book because your husband, Warren – is that his real name?

Ms. KARR: That's not his real name.

GROSS: It's not really.

Ms. KARR: I offered my ex-husband, I said you can either vet these
pages, or I can give you a pseudonym. And he said I prefer the
pseudonym, which I don't blame him, you know.

GROSS: Why was that the choice, vet the pages or pseudonym?

Ms. KARR: He's just a circumspect person. He's a WASP, for goodness
sake, and I just wouldn't want to parade - you know, writing about your
divorce is never a pretty - it's never a pretty story, and I just wanted
to give him the chance to be anonymous, which I - knowing him, I
presumed he would take, and indeed he did. So…

GROSS: Right, okay. Well, you know, you describe it in the book, how,
like, you're from this real kind of hard-scrabble kind of background,
and he was from, you know, a very prosperous family. You went to meet
the family, and they had this mansion that was named.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: It had a name to it, like a baronial-sounding name, and it
was right next to the Hitchcock estate out on Long Island. And they had
polo ponies, you know, and tennis courts. And we passed through these
wide gates, and I said to my then-boyfriend, is this a subdivision? And
he said no, this is my house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you have really different views of money. Like, your idea was,
like, we need money. What do we need to do to get it? And his idea was
more like I never, ever want to be in the position where I have to ask
my parents for money.

Ms. KARR: Right.

GROSS: And you couldn't really understand that, like, why not? If they
have the money, why not?

Ms. KARR: You know, I just – it was like – if you had lowered me, you
know, onto an island with the peace-loving Tasaday, I would’ve fit in
better than I did with those WASPs. But boy, did they look appealing to
me, Terry. They just looked like such a solution, those people.

I remember getting there, and everything's so organized, and at one
point, I remember we were at this long, glossy table with maids, and
there was a cook in the kitchen and a pantry as big as a bowling alley.
And at one point, we run out of asparagus and the maid is sent to fetch
more, and you can hear the cook bellow: Tell him if he ate like a normal
man, it would have been enough asparagus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: No one's face alters a whisker. I'm looking around the room,
and it's like this icy fog rolls across the table, and I think my, Lord.
These people have found the solution. This is it. I mean, this is the
anti-venom to the snakebite of who I am, is the ability to ignore what's
happening.

GROSS: Now, you went to couples therapy while you were married and
having trouble in the marriage. And I'm interested in that in the sense
that as a memoirist, you are always telling your point of view of the
story, and in couples therapy, you're hearing, like, the other person's
point of view. You're getting their version of the story. And I'm
wondering if that was kind of revelatory to you in any way to hear, in
this kind of theoretically neutral setting of a therapist's office, your
husband's version of your story.

Ms. KARR: Oh, I don't think I was able to actually hear my husband's
version. I mean, I think, you know, I was drinking to avoid hearing my
husband's version. I was making so much noise - one interesting thing
about that therapist was I sent her the chapters about the marriage.
Even though my ex-husband didn't want to look at them, I wanted her to
just see if they seemed fair or, you know, another person who knows him
I sent the pages to. So I don't – I think I made it pretty clear that I
was, you know, I had my fingers in my ears and I was going na-na-na-na-
na.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: You know, I just - I was – I mean, one – you know, the book
is about lit because it's about all the ways I lit up or lit out, first
with reading and books - I mean, booksellers and librarians and shrinks
and teachers saved my life, and then with liquor. And so I went to
couples therapy, but my participation in that I'm sure was – I'm sure I
didn't hear much.

GROSS: My guest is Mary Karr. Her new memoir is called "Lit." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Mary Karr, author of the bestselling memoirs "The
Liar's Club" and "Cherry." Her new memoir, "Lit," is about her marriage,
the birth of her son, her divorce, her drinking, and how she found
sobriety.

After you started drinking, you realized eventually that you had a
problem. One of the ways you realized that was when you nearly killed
yourself in an accident and when you started to think about killing
yourself.

So you know, you checked yourself into a hospital, you decided to get
help, you started going to meetings, and at meetings you were told to
pray and to find faith, and the person telling you this said you might
find sober people who don't pray, but all the happy ones have some kind
of regular meditative or spiritual practice. What was your reaction when
you were told that?

Ms. KARR: Oh, I was just – I'm a big eye-roller. You know, I come from a
family of eye-rollers, and I mean the degree to which I'm an unlikely
religious person – first of all, let me say that talking about spiritual
activity to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio.
You know, like, I'm saying look, whee, isn't this great? And I know I'm
going to sound slightly addled from time to time so – there - you know,
the degree to which I was cynical about prayer - you know, I remember
people giving me these one-day-at-a-time, these Boy Scout slogans, you
know, that like they put on big felt banners like from the jamboree, and
God, I just – I couldn't imagine – I couldn't imagine praying.

It was like – I think I say in the book, it was like pointing at a stump
and saying fall in love with that or pointing at a mannequin and saying
talk to that. It was insane to me. It was beyond crazy.

So I thought faith was a feeling. My intellect told me this was insane.
The only way I was able to do it was through practice, and you know, I
think I mentioned this before with my last book of poems, "Sinners
Welcome" - someone challenged me to pray on my knees, morning and night,
every day, and this was after I nearly drove into a piece of concrete
and I'd been trying to get sober and not really listening to the ways
you're supposed to do it, and somebody said pray on your knees every day
for 30 days and see if you stay sober, and in the morning say, you know,
help me stay sober, and at night say thanks for helping me stay sober.

And I just saw it as, like, self-hypnosis or like talking to yourself,
talking to some higher self or higher part of yourself.

GROSS: Remember that video we were talking about that you made of your
mother in which she described to you her psychotic break and why she
thought about killing you and your sister when you were very young?

Ms. KARR: Right.

GROSS: Okay, in that video you describe her as wearing a florid robe
that would suit a Wiccan priestess.

Ms. KARR: Yeah, she was very into all kinds of voodoo stuff.

GROSS: Yeah, so I was wondering, like, what are some of the, like, more
unusual, like, spiritual practices that she tried on for size when you
were young?

Ms. KARR: Oh my God, I mean, well, she did yoga in like 1962. No one was
doing hatha yoga but my mother was, and breathing exercises. And you
know, she went briefly to the Christian Science church. She went to
theosophy meetings. She – you know, she was very interested in Buddhism
for a long time.

You know, eventually the Episcopalians got her. I mean, who knew that a
group that sort of organized and white and everything would get my
mother, but she took instruction, she became Episcopalian, I mean, very
strange to me. But I became Catholic. After my nervous breakthrough I
eventually became Catholic, but – and I would have laughed myself cock-
eyed if you'd said I was going to become Catholic.

GROSS: Was your mother's spiritual searching going on when you were
young and living with her, or is that later in life?

Ms. KARR: I would say intermittently. My mother was so capricious. I
mean she was really like a little kid, you know, she – so she might get
excited about yoga for like a weekend. It wasn't like, you know, she
would embrace anything whole – I mean she was married seven times,
Terry. You know, she was iffy about everything. She was iffy about us.

You know, she – I told my sister, I said, didn't you feel sort of like -
I just did an interview for Paris Review, and the interviewer asked me:
Was your mother – did your mother really, was she like a stage mother to
your being a writer? He said, like Mozart's daddy? No. I mean, we were
like lizards in a terrarium that, like, every couple weeks she'd tap the
side of the glass to see if we were still alive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: She wasn't that interested in us, but…

GROSS: That's a horrible…

Ms. KARR: Well…

GROSS: It's a great image. It’s a great image.

Ms. KARR: It wasn't a great childhood, but my sister agreed, so you know
- but you know, my mother, you know, but she also saved me. I mean, she
got sober. My mother was sober. My mother was sober and…

GROSS: When did she get sober?

Ms. KARR: She was in her 60s. It was right after…

GROSS: And how old were you?

Ms. KARR: It was right after – I think it was right after I married. I
mean, she fell off the wagon at my rehearsal dinner. I write about it in
the book. It's the night we're going to the Ritz-Carlton with all the
WASPs. My father-in-law has had a tab there since Harvard Law. So it's
the Boston Ritz. We're having a rehearsal dinner. I'm lying with my neck
arched up in a sink and I smell marijuana in this beauty salon where I'd
taken her to get her hair done, and I think: mother. I mean, I think:
mother. And sure enough, my mother gets gunched out of her mind with her
hairdresser in the alley, smoking pot, gets her hair jacked up like a
transvestite.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: Really, it looked like a big topiary, and then – and then at
the actual dinner says to my father-in-law that she'll paint him in the
nude and fix anything he needed fixed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: I mean, this – my mother fell off the wagon at my rehearsal
dinner. So shortly after that she got sober and was sober until she
died, almost 80, so more than 20 years. So yeah, I was in my early 30s.
And it's interesting - it's almost like she got sober right about the
time my drinking picked up. I say it's almost like our genetic code owed
the universe some really wretched alcoholic. I stepped into the slot as
she left it.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you write in your book that I
think relates to what you were saying about the pain and fear that you
grew up with. You write: When you've been hurt enough as a kid, it's
like having a trick knee. Most of your life you can function like an
adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and
grief and the hurt-defeated self can bloom into place.

Ms. KARR: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I write
about - you know, for me one of the moments of revelation, for me
evidence of God – which, by the way, my editors took a lot of evidence
for God because I sounded, and they were right, you know, I think I
sounded like, you know, one of those, you know, send me a dollar and put
your hand on the TV screen and I'll heal you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: I think I did sound a little nuts a couple of places. But when
I was doing the Jesuit exercises, the Ignatian exercises, praying to see
my sinfulness in all its ugliness, part of that during that time, during
Lent, when I was praying about that, I was moving my mother and cleaning
out the house where I grew up.

And then she blew up at me. Obviously she was 70-some years – she was
stressed and scared, and I launched into her, boy, and I was her for a
minute. You know, I bloomed into this fire-breathing lunatic, and it was
horrifying to me. It was horrifying. And you know, I apologized to her,
she was fine about it. But really, it was just really grotesque and
awful.

And I had been given by my spiritual director, who is this Franciscan
nun, these two passages in the Bible, three passages in the Bible, and I
open up my mother's childhood Bible and the first one I find is marked.
It's Psalm 51, and it's marked in blue chalk. This is her little – she
had this since 1927, she had this thing. And the second one is also
marked, and there are no other marks in the Bible.

But for me a coincidence like that would just be evidence that there is
a force for grace, a force for good that is very specifically interested
in me, and if I open myself, or I say to myself at each moment, you
know, where is the good in this, where is the God in this – but it's
hard to do that. I would rather – I don't know why it's so hard to do.

GROSS: Because it's hard to do?

Ms. KARR: I think because my big smart brain wants to think that it runs
everything. I mean, honestly, that's what it – even though I know that
when I pray, and I try to live in this kind of surrendered, more-present
state, everything is better.

GROSS: Mary Karr will be back in the second half of the show. Her new
memoir is called "Lit." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

insert xxx1230

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Mary Karr, author
of the bestselling memoirs, "The Liar's Club" and "Cherry." Her new
memoir is the story of her early adulthood, her marriage, the birth of
her son, her divorce, her alcoholism, and how she found sobriety and
faith. The memoir is called "Lit."

Each chapter starts with a poem or an excerpt of a poem.

Ms. KARR: Right.

GROSS: And some of the poetry that you’ve chosen - you’ve chosen
wonderful poems too - excerpts.

Mr. KENNY: Thank you.

GROSS: And some of them are really bleak and - for example, I offer this
one by Alan Dugan. It’s an excerpt of his poem or maybe it’s the whole
poem. I'm not sure which, but it's called "Love Song: I and Thou."

Ms. KARR: It's an excerpt.

GROSS: So this song is basically about needing a partner for self-
destruction. It goes: This is hell, but I planned it, I sought it, I
nailed it, and I will live in it until it kills me. I can nail my left
palm to the left-hand crosspiece but I can’t do everything myself. I
need a hand to nail the right, a help, a love, a you, a wife.

GROSS: What's the relevance of that poem to your life? Like, who are you
in this poem?

Ms. KARR: You know what's interesting? Well, I'm the speaker, of course,
but you know what's - well, I'd like to be God but I'm not. But I - and
it's, the poem's called "I and Thou," of course, after Martin Buber's
great, in which the thou is God, right, and so he's speaking both to his
wife and to God. But I can't believe you think that's bleak. It seems to
me accurate. I mean what hell do we occupy that we don’t construct? You
know, what idea about yourself have you ever had and pursued with a
vengeance that was ill-fitting for you and that you’ve railed against? I
mean for me, all - I mean, I didn’t want to stop drinking. I didn’t quit
drinking because I wanted to stop drinking. I wanted to keep drinking
and you know, doing other things.

I want to do all these things that aren't particularly good for me. My
hells are pretty much self-constructed, don’t you think? I mean don’t
you think everybody's are sort of? I mean the whole idea of hubris in
Greek tragedy, thinking you’re as big as the gods, that's the source of
all tragedy and to me that's the nature of needing help to crucify
yourself.

GROSS: I'm not sure I agree with what you say, because I think a lot of
hell is external in the world and not a function of your own, you know,
of your own will or your own construction. Although, I do think that the
frame of mind you take to that hell can affect how you experience it and
survive it.

Ms. KARR: You know why I put all those quotes in, Terry?

GROSS: Why?

Ms. KARR: Because I was so cut off from books and I thought, I was very
afraid - I'm very afraid of failing. You know, I kept Samuel Beckett's
quote, "fail better" above my desk. Because I loved this...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s in the book too.

Ms. KARR: Oh good. Yeah. I threw away like two batches of over - of like
500 pages. I threw this book away twice. And I had such a sense of
failure as I wrote it and the tones being wrong - everything being
wrong. And I thought, you know, if I put all these good quotes in there
maybe there will be somebody who will find these great books to read
because I really tried to select from writers who had saved my life. Who
had illuminated me or made me feel less lonely. So even though some of
the quotes I think are extremely bleak, I think when you’re in a bleak
mind frame, it’s comforting to know other people have felt that way and
survived.

GROSS: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: Yeah.

GROSS: Absolutely. Now you said you wrote this book, what, two or three
times and you kept throwing it away.

Ms. KARR: Three times.

GROSS: Three times.

Ms. KARR: Three times.

GROSS: So was this one harder to write than the others?

Ms. KARR: It was so horrible.

GROSS: Why was it harder?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: Well, because I'm the one being culpable.

GROSS: Oh, all right. Okay. Yeah.

Ms. KARR: But I'm writing about my son's father.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KARR: You know, initially I wrote it and he was a complete angel and
I was a wretch. Not in - it's not that the events changed, but just
tonally or the slant. And that's what I mean about memoir as opposed to
video, giving the inner life of a book. And, so I threw that away in
August of '08 and in January of '09 I threw away another 500 pages in
which he was all evil and I was all good.

Oh, also the other reason I threw - I've been encouraged to write about
my prayer, like the actual practice of what I did, which I mean I pray a
lot compared to secular people, but compared to people that actually
know about prayer, I'm a total neophyte. So you know, I put in all this
stuff and I, you know, it was so tedious. Oh, my God. They wanted some
instruction book or something. And - so I threw that away and I threw
away all the stuff about Warren Whitbread(ph) and my marriage. And it
was January of '09 and I was inconsolable because I had no idea how to
start over. I was weeping. I walked around in my bathrobe for three day
and called out for (unintelligible) and made obscene gestures at the
rafters. And there are a couple people I call at such times like sort of
the way would call - the president would call the - push the red button
- I'd call these people. So I called Don DeLillo and DeLillo sends me a
postcard that says write or die. And I think I sent him one back that
said write and die with and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: ...underlined. And then I also called Robert Hass, who was my
teacher - a poet. He's poet laureate in Berkeley - he teaches at
Berkeley. I called Bob and I was like - I was weeping. I thinking I was
weeping and really feeling sorry for myself and really without faith of
any kind. And I said to Bob, you know, I'm afraid that I've written a
really bad book. I'm going to write a bad book - bad.

And he said well, you know, if it's bad you’ll write a book that has
some good sentences in it. And then he asked me something - something
like what a Jesuit once asked me: What would you write if you weren't
afraid, in a way, which I never really know how to answer. But Bob said
what are you afraid of losing? Are you afraid of losing your position in
the community or your status? I'm like, absolutely. Yeah. I'd like to
lie and say I don’t care, but yeah. Sure, of course. I want people to
invite me to speak at places. I want to sell books, of course. But most
of what I'm afraid of losing is that I was afraid that I wouldn’t be
able to have the conversation with other writers. That I would be sent
back to the farm-club dugout.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: And I wouldn’t get to talk to people like Bob Hass and Don
DeLillo. Honest to God, that's mostly of what I was afraid of. And so,
anyway, I somehow had to surrender again. It's a weird thing. It was
spiritual process for me to - surrendering how the book would be
received.

GROSS: On just on a practical note, I'm thinking how terrified your
publisher must've been when in January of this year you were starting
from scratch more or less with your book.

Ms. KARR: Well that's - I had 120 pages. Oh my God, the phone calls - my
agent. My agent. I mean my - people - when they give you money Terry -
you know this. When they give you money they're extremely interested in
when the book will be done. They give you money up front and then they
stand there and they tap their foot and look at their watches and are
like: Come on, come on.

GROSS: Well, they want to publish it at a certain time. It's in the
catalog probably. It's ready to be promoted.

Ms. KARR: Exactly.

GROSS: Everything's in gear and there's got to be a book and...

Ms. KARR: And I'm nine years behind the last time I did this and they're
saying, where's the momentum, you know, and I'm like look, if this book
is meant to be read, it'll be read. Now they don’t think that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: You know, they don’t think that God's in charge of whether
people buy my book or not, but I kind of do. You know, I kind of - I
know God wanted me to write this book. That doesn’t mean he wants it to
be a bestseller, you know? But something about surrendering a lot of
that stuff, it just - it quiets the fear in my head. It just quiets it.

GROSS: Now you’ve said that your son has not read your memoirs.

Ms. KARR: No.

GROSS: A lot of other people have. So it's...

Ms. KARR: Isn't that lucky for me?

GROSS: I doubt it's a lack of curiosity because he sounds, from what you
write about him, like he's a really smart, curious person who's also
interested in documentary form and has done his own share of documenting
his world with video. So is it an act of like self-protection, do you
think, to not read it? Or is he protecting...

Ms. KARR: You know, I...

GROSS: ...you from his judgment of your book or - what do you think?

Ms. KARR: You know, I think he knows all the stories in all the books. I
never wanted him to hear something from someone else. So, for instance,
he didn’t read "Liar's Club" because I'm sexually assaulted in it and I
think it would've been very - it's one thing to know your mother was
sexually assaulted as a child. It's another thing to read it described.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KARR: Same thing with "Cherry." I said to him, you know, in this
book I'm dating my high school boyfriend and, you know, we have sex and,
you know, that's one of the things that happens in the book. And I
didn’t want his friends to say your mother had sex with her high school
boyfriend. You know, I just - and he said, yeah. I figured as much. You
know, I'm not an idiot. So this book, of course, he was alive for a lot
of this book and he's heard many of these stories. So I think he doesn’t
- I think he wants to experience my history from me, not as a work of
art. He knows the degree to which for me these things are works of art.

However, again, I think one reason I wrote this book is to explain to
him the inner machinations in my head when I was being an incredible
pain, I'm sure, in his you know, two-and-a-half-year-old butt. But I
think he knows the story so I think when he's older he'll read the
books. He still sells them - gets his friend...

GROSS: He still sells them?

Ms. KARR: Oh, he gets his friends to buy them all the time. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: You should buy my mom's book. They're real great.

GROSS: So he wants them reading about your sex life and them reading
about you being sexually abused?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KARR: No. No. I think he - no, he has a sense that I'm respected for
what I do. I think he has a sense of respect for what I do.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. KARR: I think these, you know, I think it's actually...

GROSS: Well, it's certainly something to be proud of. I mean anyone who
has a mother who writes like you should want their friends to read it.

Ms. KARR: Well, there you go. But, yeah, he's a young filmmaker. He's
curious. He said in high school, I don’t want to read these books until
I'm older. And I said that makes sense.

GROSS: Mary Karr. Her new memoir is called "Lit."
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The Perils Of Overfishing, Part 2

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

These are hard times for fish lovers and for fish. Yesterday on our
show, marine ecologist Daniel Pauly warned us about how industrial
fishing, with the help of trawls as large as six jumbo jets, is
depleting stocks of fish and changing the ecosystems of the oceans. As
areas get fished out, industry boats move to deeper waters and more
remote areas. Pauly says we're now at the last frontier of fishing,
although, not all experts are as pessimistic. Today, we're going to hear
suggestions about what fish to eat, which fish have the highest mercury
content, and what about farmed fish?

Pauly is a professor at the Fisheries Centre of the University of
British Columbia and principal investigator of its Sea Around Us
Project.

Let's start with his suggestions about how to prevent more fish stock
from being depleted. He opposes subsidizing fisheries because, in his
opinion, this can be an incentive to continue overfishing. And he
supports creating areas where the stock can recover and replenish
themselves - marine protected areas or sanctuaries.

Professor DANIEL PAULY (Professor, Fisheries Centre, University of
British Columbia): The U.S. actually is doing this. In California, there
is a system of marine-protected areas. Parts of Alaska also are not
going to be exploited, and so that is very positive message. And in
Hawaii - the Northwestern Hawaiian Island – there, stocks of fish can
recover and repopulate the areas that are being fished.

The scientists tell you how much can be fished in a certain area. Listen
to them. In most fisheries, once the scientists have said 10,000 tons
can be fished there, the politicians say oh, we have to have 20,000 ton
exploited because of social consideration. And this result in one year
or two years of happiness so to say, but after that the stock goes and
then it costs even more to maintain the fisheries that are being helped
that way.

GROSS: I love fish and you’re painting a very grim picture of our fish
future. Let's talk about eating fish. You complain in your article that
we continue to eat fish as if it were a sustainable practice. And you
say eating a tuna roll at a sushi restaurant should be considered no
more environmentally benign than driving a Hummer or harpooning a
manatee. So you’re saying we shouldn’t be eating fish or we shouldn’t be
eating certain fish or shouldn’t be eating as much fish.

Prof. PAULY: There’s a big debate about that. And I’m not sure what I
should answer because on one hand I very much sympathize with a notion
that we should regulate our consumption to reflect our values. That’s
one thing. On the other hand, no fishery has ever been managed based on
consumption patterns. They get reasonably managed when the government
intervenes and say you should catch so much and we’re going to have a
surveillance program, we’re going to have an observer on board to make
sure that you do the things that you said you would do. Without a
compliance and surveillance program, you cannot regulate fisheries, and
our problem’s linking the good intention of consumers with these
surveillance programs.

GROSS: So in other words, good intentions of consumers - if I eat less
fish, it’s not going to stop the fisheries from continuing to fish out.

Prof. PAULY: That’s the question I have. This is like I separate the
paper from other garbage and I do all the good things and I drive a
Prius. But I don’t fool myself that it is going to – it’s my
contribution to global warming. This is a big problem. It can be
addressed by big powers and the big power is the government. I think we
must act as citizens and not only as consumers.

GROSS: As consumers, I think about myself here - I mean, I eat a lot of
fish and I love like salmon and founder and tilapia.

Prof. PAULY: So do I.

GROSS: Yeah, catfish is really good. And do you prefer as a consumer
yourself choosing one fish over another because of your knowledge of
which fish are depleted?

Prof. PAULY: Certainly. I – here I live in British Columbia and I eat
wild-caught salmon as opposed to farmed salmon. And…

GROSS: Can I stop you there? Why is that? You know, I go to the store
and I always figure like farmed salmon, well, they’re not going to run
out because - they’re not going to be depleted because they’re farmed. I
mean, they’re just restocking the supply and, you know…

Prof. PAULY: Yeah, but to produce one pound of salmon, you need three
pounds of other fish that are ground up and fed to them. The food that
they eat is made out of other fish that are ground up. And these fishes
are perfectly edible. They are anchovies, sardines, herrings, mackerels
and so on that are caught elsewhere. That’s the first reason that people
are not aware about farming. Fish farming cannot produce fish when it
produce the equivalent of lions that need to be fed gazelles to produce
their bodies. Fish farming is not producing fish. It’s consuming fish.

GROSS: Hmm.

Prof. PAULY: At least when it is the farming of carnivorous fish, of
fish that eat other fish. On the other hand, when you eat a catfish,
catfish are fed soy meal. Soy meal is a vegetable matter and you end up
with a net fish production, but not with salmon.

GROSS: So farmed catfish are - eating that is better environmentally
because…

Prof. PAULY: Yes.

GROSS: …you’re killing fewer fish.

Prof. PAULY: Yup.

GROSS: What about tilapia?

Prof. PAULY: Tilapia are herbivorous animals also. They consume algae
and to the extent that is not fed with fishmeal, as sometime happens,
tilapia are environmentally very friendly.

GROSS: What other fish are environmentally friendly?

Prof. PAULY: Mussels, if you will count the shell fish. All bivalves -
all oysters, mussels, clams and so on – are feeding at the bottom of the
food web. They are good things.

GROSS: Do you think about mercury when you eat fish?

Prof. PAULY: Now, mercury comes from a consumption of fish on the top of
food web - carnivores. And carnivores enrich the pollutants that
accumulate in the bodies of the prey, and they are the worst
accumulators of (unintelligible) and PCBs - and mercury is one of them.
And a dish like sushi or sashimi that in Japan was a festive dish that
you ate from time to time has become something that some people eat
regularly, even daily. And that is high risk - especially for pregnant
woman, for example.

GROSS: Health-wise, are we better off eating smaller fish?

Prof. PAULY: Yeah, certainly. The anchovies, for example, they are very
tasty and they don’t bioaccumulate the pollutant that we talked about.
So both in terms of taste and in terms of health, eating small fish is
better for you.

GROSS: What are the small fish should we be thinking about?

Prof. PAULY: Well, herring, sardine, anchovies, for example. In fact, in
Europe if you go as a tourist to Germany, you will have (unintelligible)
herring, herring in various forms, or in Spain and Portugal you will
have all kind of sardines. And these fish are excellent.

GROSS: When you eat sardines, are they in a can or are they fresh?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PAULY: They can be in a can, they can be fresh, they can be
grilled. In Spain they eat a lot of grilled Sardine.

GROSS: Daniel Pauly, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. PAULY: You’re welcome.

GROSS: Daniel Pauly is a professor at the Fishery Center of the
University of British Columbia and principal investigator of its Sea
Around Us Project.
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‘The Lacuna,’ Kingsolver’s Disappointing Return

TERRY GROSS, host:

Social activist and bestselling author Barbara Kingsolver’s books
include “The Bean Tress,” “Pigs In Heaven,” “The Poisonwood Bible” and
“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” Kingsolver’s long-awaited new novel is
called “The Lacuna.”

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: “The Lacuna” is Barbara Kingsolver’s first new novel
in nine years. Interest in it is unusually fierce for a work of literary
fiction. Last month the news broke that Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target are
engaged in a price war against booksellers over the hot late-fall/early-
winter releases. All but one of the blockbuster books in question are
works of genre fiction — suspense and horror stories by the likes of
James Patterson, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.

“The Lacuna” is the only literary novel caught in the crosshairs of this
sales skirmish. Kingsolver deserves kudos, if only because she seems to
be single-handedly keeping consumer zest alive for the literary novel. I
wish I could say she also deserves kudos for writing a spectacular work
of fiction, but to tell you the truth, it’s just at best so-so. In fact,
as a piece of historical fiction it has a lot in common with those
conventional works of genre fiction that Amazon and the big box stores
are hawking at those bargain prices.

A serious problem with “The Lacuna” is telegraphed in its striking
title. Lacuna refers to a gap or something that’s absent. The motif of
the crucial missing piece runs throughout the novel but the thing
unintentionally missing here is an engaging main character. Our hero,
Harrison Shepherd, is an accidental onlooker to history buffeted by
other people’s plans and passions. As he tells a friend late in the
novel, what we end up calling history is a kind of knife slicing down
through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge, but most
people won’t even stand close to the blade. I’m one of those. I don’t
bend anything.

The passive Harrison was born in the U.S. to a dim American father and a
firecracker of a Mexican mother who’s eternally on the prowl for a
richer husband. In 1929, when Harrison is 12 years old, his mother snags
a big Mexican landowner and she takes her son to live on her lover’s
estate. Adrift, Harrison spends his days swimming and learning how to
cook from the kitchen staff.

When he runs into the artist Frida Kahlo at the local market, Harrison
goes home with her and puts his dough-rolling skills to use by mixing
plaster for Kahlo’s husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. Eventually, Lev
- Leon Trotsky - moves into the household and Harrison becomes his
secretary as well as a witness to Trotsky’s assassination by one of
Stalin’s agents. Later, as a young adult living back in the States,
Harrison is targeted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities
because of his past association with revolutionaries.

Throughout all the artistic, political and erotic turmoil swirling
through the Kahlo-Rivera household, Harrison has kept a diary which is
published posthumously and composes the novel we’re reading.
Kingsolver’s aim here clearly is to give us the bystander view of
history - the perspective of the ordinary Joe rather than the key
players. As Frida Kahlo declares to the young Harrison, greatness is
very boring. The politically incorrect truth is, however, that
ordinariness often times is even more boring. Harrison is so pallid, so
retiring that it’s very hard to stay for extended periods in his
company, and seeing history unfold from his wan point-of-view isn’t all
that illuminating.

Neither are the actual newspaper accounts of Trotsky’s assassination and
the Red Scare that Kingsolver includes here — accounts that break the by
now not-so-startling news that official history contains lies. When
masters of post-modern historical fiction like E.L. Doctorow or Don
DeLillo or even, arguably, Toni Morrison shake up received narratives
about the past, it’s with the intention of making readers see something
fresh, something larger, even mythic, in familiar events.

Kingsolver stops short of that ambition and instead swerves off in an
old-fashioned sentimental direction, inviting readers to feel affection
for the Zelig-like Harrison and a life not quite lived. I admit it, I’m
mystified. To me, “The Lacuna” is an all-too-appropriate title for a
novel that just feels altogether vacant.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver. You can download podcasts
of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on
Twitter at nprfreshair.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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