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Growing up in west Texas in the 1960s, Mary Karr learned to bite, curse and harden her soul against a terrifying childhood. Just recently she published a sweet and funny memoir about it all. Karr is a poet, and no one less than a poet could have made this story sing.

Both Karr's parents were alcoholics. Her mother was married a half-dozen times and was suicidal. Karr and her sister, Lecia, spent too much of their childhood pouring liquor down the sink and listening at the bathroom door for sounds that might indicate their mother was slitting her wrists. If family life was scary, so was the outer world: Karr was sexually molested twice before she was 9 years old.Her book is called "The Liars' Club," which refers to her father's social group. They were a bunch of oil workers who regularly got together at the American Legion hall to drink and tell stories. She was the only child included in these outings.

The title of the book has two meanings. It is a tribute to the men, especially her father, who taught her about loyality. "Liars' Club" is also a metaphor for her family's life. In writing this book and in telling the truth about her own life - and forcing her mother to tell the truth, too - Karr sets them all free.

This is a powerful and amazing story. Throughout the narrative, Karr describes how her child's mind shut down when life was simply too much to bear. The description would make you cry except your heart is so uplifted by her strength, wisdom and writing style.

Here is a selection from the book, a description of the German market in Antelope, Colo., in 1963, as seen by Mary Karr when she was 8 years old:

The first time I pushed open the heavy door that set the huge cowbell overhead banging, I was horrified to look up and find all those fragrant, inert hunks of meat in blood-colored casings swaying over me. They reminded me of some medieval etchings I'd seen in one of Mother's art books - dozens of heretics hung by the Spanish Inquisition. The bodies had swung off this giant scaffolding in some town square and just twirled, rotting in the breeze, arms falling off, eyeballs popping out. The guy who owned that market was named Olaf, no less. He ran the place with his twin sister, Anna. They were both about a hundred years old, their arthritic spines seeming to curve them more deeply in on themselves every time you went in. Each cast a shadow like a bulbous question mark on the scuffed and streaky linoleum.