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The Girl's Guide to Homelessness

Brianna Karp's memoir charts a sadly unremarkable journey

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The Girl's Guide to Homelessness

By Brianna Karp
352 pages

In January, New York Times staff editor Neil Genzlinger begged for a moment of silence "for the lost art of shutting up."

Genzlinger, who reviews everything from film to theater to books for the Times, bemoaned the fact that oversharing has become so commonplace in the digital age that everyone who's experienced a profound moment feels entitled to capture it in a memoir.

"There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment," he wrote. "Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended."

But the line between unremarkable and memoir-worthy was never sharp to begin with - it's fuzzy, and because taste is subjective, it's never really fixed - and the publishing world has further muddied the field by vomiting out so many memoirs in recent years. So when books like Brianna Karp's The Girl's Guide to Homelessness: A Memoir, an engaging and entertaining book published by Harlequin last month, are released, it can be tough to decide upon which side of the line they belong.

In 2008, Karp, a 23-year-old administrative assistant living in Orange County, Calif., lost her $50,000-a-year job working for Kelley Blue Book. She quickly found herself running out of money to pay the rent and moved in with her abusive Jehovah's Witness mother and spineless stepfather. Things turned ugly quickly - if they hadn't, there wouldn't be much to write about here - and Karp's mother threw her out on the street. With nothing but her dog, some belongings and a used 30-foot travel trailer she inherited from her deceased father, she drove to a nearby Walmart (the company had a loose policy that allowed travel trailers to stop in its parking lots for the night), where she settled in to ponder her next move.

"Brianna Karp will change the way you think about homelessness," declares the press release for her book. "She is educated, has worked for a living since adolescence, has never done drugs, isn't mentally ill. … Karp tells the at once harrowing and hopeful tale of how anyone can become - and survive being - homeless."

Indeed, Karp does share some of the intimate details of life in a Walmart parking lot - you have to go to the gas station down the street to pee, you have to sit in Starbucks all day to get Wi-Fi, you don't get to shower as often as you'd like - but her experience is, sadly, not extraordinary. Karp says her reason for writing the book was to put a new face on homelessness, but the economic recession this nation has been trying to climb out from under for the past several years has already done that job for her. Sadder stories than Karp's are broadcast on TV and written about in newspapers almost daily, and when it comes to memoirs, middle-class homelessness is well-trodden ground. (See Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America, Michelle Kennedy, 2005; Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, Janice Erlbaum, 2006; Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard, Liz Murray, 2010).

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