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Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment "The Fourth State of Matter," one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover editio Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment "The Fourth State of Matter," one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman's life -- from childhood to marriage & beyond -- & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.


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Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment "The Fourth State of Matter," one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover editio Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment "The Fourth State of Matter," one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman's life -- from childhood to marriage & beyond -- & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.

30 review for The Boys of My Youth

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nicole Harkin

    Everyone loves this book. No one writes bad reviews of this book. The Boys of My Youth is Jo Ann Beard’s only book to date. Everyone is right. The book is amazing, but I am going to tell you what I did not like about the book. Beard’s descriptions of childhood are just too well done. While reading them, memories of your own childhood bubble up. And not just the good memories, but also the memories that sting, the memories you thought were gone. And really, as you are reading the book, she flits ar Everyone loves this book. No one writes bad reviews of this book. The Boys of My Youth is Jo Ann Beard’s only book to date. Everyone is right. The book is amazing, but I am going to tell you what I did not like about the book. Beard’s descriptions of childhood are just too well done. While reading them, memories of your own childhood bubble up. And not just the good memories, but also the memories that sting, the memories you thought were gone. And really, as you are reading the book, she flits around in time. You really don’t have any idea what she is doing, until your bathwater is past its prime temperature, and you are still in the water trying to finish the book. You read that last line and it all comes together: this is a book about the end of her youth. You get it finally. She has described for you what growing up means, as though you have never done it. Finally, I really don’t like the cover. I suppose it is a photo of a child’s bed. I would have done something different, but the different idea is not coming to me. The book was published in 1998 and I must say, she needs to publish another book. I mean really people.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    Published in 1998, The Boys of My Youth received much acclaim and elevated Jo Ann Beard's reputation in the memoir/essay genre. Her most well-known essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," first published in The New Yorker in 1996, offers an incisive look into tragedy, grief, and the gift and curse of time in relation to oneself and one's relationships. I also appreciated her essay "The Family Hour"; when Beard has a plot, she can write well and weave cool insights into the framework of her stories. Published in 1998, The Boys of My Youth received much acclaim and elevated Jo Ann Beard's reputation in the memoir/essay genre. Her most well-known essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," first published in The New Yorker in 1996, offers an incisive look into tragedy, grief, and the gift and curse of time in relation to oneself and one's relationships. I also appreciated her essay "The Family Hour"; when Beard has a plot, she can write well and weave cool insights into the framework of her stories. But, perhaps because of my own preferences, I found most of this essay collection meandering, unfocused, and lacking a point. I suppose that those who want essays that come across as nostalgic representations of childhood, family, and growing up will appreciate The Boys of My Youth. However, I prefer more unified and pressing memoirs that interrogate the self and the society surrounding the self, such as Appetites by Caroline Knapp or The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison or Hunger by Roxane Gay. Either way, I appreciate Beard for adding to the popularity of the memoir/essay genre, as she helped pave the path for the books and writers I list above. Maybe my opinion of this book will change as I age, and maybe it will not.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    This book taught me a lot about reading and writing: that is, what I want to read and what I don't want to read; what I should write, and what Jo Anne Beard shouldn't. The ambiguous, vague touchy-feely pieces on her family were Important Because They Happened to Her. In a very, very negative way. The piece "Coyote" particularly stands out as one that I absolutely had to skim over. It must have been laborious as hell to write, because it was laborious as hell to read. I'm not a courtesan. I don't This book taught me a lot about reading and writing: that is, what I want to read and what I don't want to read; what I should write, and what Jo Anne Beard shouldn't. The ambiguous, vague touchy-feely pieces on her family were Important Because They Happened to Her. In a very, very negative way. The piece "Coyote" particularly stands out as one that I absolutely had to skim over. It must have been laborious as hell to write, because it was laborious as hell to read. I'm not a courtesan. I don't have time. On the other hand, some of these essays hit me, hard. The essay on the (I don't want to spoil it) physics magazine--I was a struggling writer! I was WORKING at a PHYSICS/biotech magazine! In the city! It could happen to me! The essay about traveling through Florida and getting caught on the road by a trucker in Alabama. Wow. When Jo Ann Beard has a plot, she cannot be stopped. The problem is when, to put it plainly, she doesn't. (This falls under the "I don't care about your childhood. Especially when book reviewing is being outsourced across the USA" category.) Everyone thinks their own is more interesting. Isn't it human nature? We care about our own childhoods--in fact I, like 90% of college educated people, just permanently destroyed a novel based on mine. We care about creating our OWN selves. And we have the means (papers, computer, time) to do so. Modern times necessitate that a story provides more. Right?! Several essays in this book do so. If I could rip them out, I wouldn't be giving them away to my little sister.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brendan

    William H. Gass, that curmudgeonly king of American letters, proclaims with enormous exasperation that that “the perils of the present tense are pronounced.” In his 1996 essay, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” he shakes his finger like a schoolmarm and scolds, “What was once a rather rare disease has become an epidemic.” And sounding like our elders in Washington, who wonder where in the world the outrage went, he woefully concludes that “if there is an academic prose, this prose is coll William H. Gass, that curmudgeonly king of American letters, proclaims with enormous exasperation that that “the perils of the present tense are pronounced.” In his 1996 essay, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense,” he shakes his finger like a schoolmarm and scolds, “What was once a rather rare disease has become an epidemic.” And sounding like our elders in Washington, who wonder where in the world the outrage went, he woefully concludes that “if there is an academic prose, this prose is collegiate.” Well. Now enter Jo Ann Beard, a Quad Cities native and graduate of the University of Iowa Program in Nonfiction Writing, whose 1998 collection, The Boys of My Youth, is gleefully, seemingly tauntingly, composed in the present tense. “Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake,” begins her essay “Cousins.” A page later: “It is five a.m. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water.” And not even a page later: “It is nine o’clock on Saturday night, the sky is black and glittering with pinholes, old trees are bent down over the highway.” In Beard’s writing, time splashes its way downstream, taking with it the bits and pieces of what she admits to be the “blistering, stupefying boredom” of her everyday existence. She, in turn, becomes like one of the fish she describes, who restlessly combs the depths until she discovers something interesting. Then, “the skin of the lake twitches suddenly” and her “fish springs loose into the air” and “drops back down with a flat splash.” It’s an enticing metaphor for not simply the everydayness of our everyday lives but for the possibilities of beauty that, in our own humility, we sometimes overlook. And an unwavering faith in the moment, in the end, makes our mortality all the more uncomfortable. By the end of “Cousins,” that fish has transformed into a twisting baton, which “rises miraculously, lingers for a moment against the sun, and then drops back down,” and, finally, through the fading eyes of a dying mother, her mind muddled by morphine, becomes something of both. This time, however, it refuses to come back down. In essay after essay of The Boys of My Youth, the fleeting becomes forever and the timeless timeful, as Beard scrunches the memories as varied and far apart as a nighttime tantrum in her crib and toking up at a Clapton concert into the infinitely tiny speck of her called now. The result? As much as any more celebrated memoirist who dwells exclusively in retrospect, Beard gives us herself in all its tantalizing particularities -- friend, daughter, cousin, colleague, wife, divorcee, incurable wiseass -- while also managing to carve out a voice, a spirit, that is unmistakably unified. Read my full reviews here: http://bit.ly/2eb5K4X || http://bit.ly/2fC1bWM

  5. 4 out of 5

    Melanie

    This dark and luminous collection of personal essays is worth reading if only for the essay entitled "The Fourth State of Matter", first published in The New Yorker in 1996. The heartbreaking essay is probably one of the best that I have ever read, both for its deep humanity and the elegance of its stylistic structure. I won't even tell you what it's about for fear of ruining any part of it. Jo Ann Beard is a ridiculously gifted writer and her recollections of youth (she is especially remarkable This dark and luminous collection of personal essays is worth reading if only for the essay entitled "The Fourth State of Matter", first published in The New Yorker in 1996. The heartbreaking essay is probably one of the best that I have ever read, both for its deep humanity and the elegance of its stylistic structure. I won't even tell you what it's about for fear of ruining any part of it. Jo Ann Beard is a ridiculously gifted writer and her recollections of youth (she is especially remarkable when evoking early childhood and adolescence) are haunting, delicate and raw. She is a little bit less efficient when recounting the days of adulthood, probably because the ardor and yearning of early years have given way to self-doubt and disillusion. I am astounded that this delicate and incredibly perceptive author has not written more books by now and am surely hoping that she is diligently toiling away at her writing desk out there, somewhere, right now. PS: I owe the discovery of this book to the wonderful and riotously entertaining trio at the Literay Disco books podcast (you can follow their thread on Goodreads). Thank you!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Chris

    One of my all-time favorites. Jo Ann Beard writes like a friend -- does that make any sense? Or maybe it's her writing style that just makes me *wish* we were friends. I first read this book for a memoir writing workshop, and I immediately realized that this is exactly how I wish all my own writing could turn out. Her collection of essays is just spot on -- in tone and character and so much wonderful detail. A particular stand-out for me is the story 'The Fourth State of Matter,' which -- withou One of my all-time favorites. Jo Ann Beard writes like a friend -- does that make any sense? Or maybe it's her writing style that just makes me *wish* we were friends. I first read this book for a memoir writing workshop, and I immediately realized that this is exactly how I wish all my own writing could turn out. Her collection of essays is just spot on -- in tone and character and so much wonderful detail. A particular stand-out for me is the story 'The Fourth State of Matter,' which -- without fail -- turns me into a weepy mess every time I read it. So unbelievably sad but I'm amazed by Beard's ability to capture feelings and relationships and put them on paper so beautifully.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Scarpa

    Just finished my annual reread of this, one of maybe ten books I'd rather die than be forced to live without. I stand by what I've said for a long time: there may be writers who write better books, better essays, better stories, better poems, but NOBODY writes better sentences than Jo Ann Beard. [And, for my, .02, no one writes better essays than Jo Ann Beard, either. Not even close.] Every single essay here feels like a lifetime achievement, a life's work. To single out any one is silly. JAB is Just finished my annual reread of this, one of maybe ten books I'd rather die than be forced to live without. I stand by what I've said for a long time: there may be writers who write better books, better essays, better stories, better poems, but NOBODY writes better sentences than Jo Ann Beard. [And, for my, .02, no one writes better essays than Jo Ann Beard, either. Not even close.] Every single essay here feels like a lifetime achievement, a life's work. To single out any one is silly. JAB is hysterical and she is devastating and she makes me want to write.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Emi Bevacqua

    From the preface author/narrator Jo Ann Beard rambles to us, in no particular order and in an obscure jumble, about the boys of her youth -- and also her family and friends and pets, and a random wild animal. For the first quarter of the book I didn't know if she was autistic, senile, or hallucinating. She's in a crib, she's grown, she's a kid, she's at her home, she's at her grandma's, she's unborn, she's a teen; she is Kansas, she is Kansas, she is Kansas, she is back in Iowa, she is growing u From the preface author/narrator Jo Ann Beard rambles to us, in no particular order and in an obscure jumble, about the boys of her youth -- and also her family and friends and pets, and a random wild animal. For the first quarter of the book I didn't know if she was autistic, senile, or hallucinating. She's in a crib, she's grown, she's a kid, she's at her home, she's at her grandma's, she's unborn, she's a teen; she is Kansas, she is Kansas, she is Kansas, she is back in Iowa, she is growing up in Illinois, by this point I didn't even care. I figured if she can't be bothered to be coherent I'm not going to put effort into understanding what for example, is "the jawline of an angel", or how a car door is "coat hangered shut", or how ones feet can possibly look "like they belong to a stranger with too much time on their hands". I don't understand why everybody else likes this gobbledegook so much.

  9. 5 out of 5

    C

    I liked these a lot and would recommend them. Some of the essays here are just so nice to read. (Skip Coyote though; as one wonderful gr reviewer put it, “It must have been laborious as hell to write, because it was laborious as hell to read. I'm not a courtesan. I don't have time.”) While the overly-dramatized, overly-neat memoir style seems slightly dated, it is really satisfying for an essay to have a cohesive narrative and Jo Ann does it well. (The post-modern “I think this happened but I ca I liked these a lot and would recommend them. Some of the essays here are just so nice to read. (Skip Coyote though; as one wonderful gr reviewer put it, “It must have been laborious as hell to write, because it was laborious as hell to read. I'm not a courtesan. I don't have time.”) While the overly-dramatized, overly-neat memoir style seems slightly dated, it is really satisfying for an essay to have a cohesive narrative and Jo Ann does it well. (The post-modern “I think this happened but I can’t be sure because humans are fallible and life is a concept and none of this means anything!” essay gets kind of wearing after a while, am I right?) It was also nice to read this collection after reading so much Didion, whose unapologetic (to her credit) privilege can just be way too much (see first paragraph of Blue Nights, ugh). Ps. Please let me know if you read this, so we can talk about it!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Simon Smith

    This is a very strongly written memoir. Beard does several things that writers are NOT supposed to do. She's a rule breaker, this one. It's mostly written in present tense (big no), it's really "workshoppy" (uh-oh) and it leans toward melodrama about illness and dogs (run for the hills!) But fuck that noise. This is an honest, heartfelt, humorous look at what it's like to be neurotic woman writer with a whimsical voice and an astute ear for dialogue. Not hooked? There's mass murder, too. Put tha This is a very strongly written memoir. Beard does several things that writers are NOT supposed to do. She's a rule breaker, this one. It's mostly written in present tense (big no), it's really "workshoppy" (uh-oh) and it leans toward melodrama about illness and dogs (run for the hills!) But fuck that noise. This is an honest, heartfelt, humorous look at what it's like to be neurotic woman writer with a whimsical voice and an astute ear for dialogue. Not hooked? There's mass murder, too. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Obsesses over Books & Cookies

    i hate when i read a sample on amazon and those first few pages are so good but when you get the book in your hands you find that each subsequent page is a little more literary than you thought...read: blah, or uppity or just fanciful. Not that it's bad at all. I understand all the accolades Beard received and I LOVED Inzanesvile but this one i couldn't read more than half. I just hoped the next essay would be better but it was just more poetic stuff. Boo! i hate when i read a sample on amazon and those first few pages are so good but when you get the book in your hands you find that each subsequent page is a little more literary than you thought...read: blah, or uppity or just fanciful. Not that it's bad at all. I understand all the accolades Beard received and I LOVED Inzanesvile but this one i couldn't read more than half. I just hoped the next essay would be better but it was just more poetic stuff. Boo!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Heather Elton

    I didn't get the hype of this book at all. I was half reading...half day-dreaming the entire way through...and the day-dreaming was usually about my "to do" list and nothing about the boys of MY youth. Many great reviews on this book so many have enjoyed it but just wasn't my cup of tea... I didn't get the hype of this book at all. I was half reading...half day-dreaming the entire way through...and the day-dreaming was usually about my "to do" list and nothing about the boys of MY youth. Many great reviews on this book so many have enjoyed it but just wasn't my cup of tea...

  13. 5 out of 5

    Angela Blount

    On the whole, his was a pretty erratic read. The author jumps around from memory to memory in her small-town Midwestern life without anything this reader could call a logical cohesion or progression. Half of the time, these short stories almost feel more like tangential modern poetry than memoir essays. The most gripping and memorable of these was, hands down, her memory of a horrific act of workplace violence that the author narrowly avoided. While seeming somewhat unlikely, the author's recoll On the whole, his was a pretty erratic read. The author jumps around from memory to memory in her small-town Midwestern life without anything this reader could call a logical cohesion or progression. Half of the time, these short stories almost feel more like tangential modern poetry than memoir essays. The most gripping and memorable of these was, hands down, her memory of a horrific act of workplace violence that the author narrowly avoided. While seeming somewhat unlikely, the author's recollections of her still-in-crib childhood motivations and impulsive thought processes are both amusing and endearing. (Though, I did wonder a bit at their significance to the work as a whole.) Much of the collection has a meandering feel that doesn't seem to resolve or intertwine with the rest. Which is, of course, the author's right in narrative non-fiction. This reader's most prominent lack of connection over this book centered on the teenage and adult versions of the author. Beard has a detached, stoic sort of style, which translates well with scenes involving her younger self being high—yet, doesn't seem to provide insight into her mental inner-workings while sober. Readers who enjoy reading autobiographical works as a way of getting to know the author and their perspective more intimately may walk away from this collection with that particular desire unfulfilled.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    Have been promising myself to read this and not just because of her name! And it is wonderful, memoir written like fiction, yes, about the boys of her youth but also ones set in her adulthood as she goes through separation and divorce, and in The Fourth State a terrific low key account of (view spoiler)[ a shooting spree carried out by a disaffected student at the place where she worked (hide spoiler)] . Didn't quite get on with 'Coyotes' (partly set in the head of a coyote), but the rest were d Have been promising myself to read this and not just because of her name! And it is wonderful, memoir written like fiction, yes, about the boys of her youth but also ones set in her adulthood as she goes through separation and divorce, and in The Fourth State a terrific low key account of (view spoiler)[ a shooting spree carried out by a disaffected student at the place where she worked (hide spoiler)] . Didn't quite get on with 'Coyotes' (partly set in the head of a coyote), but the rest were delicious and happily stunning, the girl learning to whistle, taking drugs in bars, being stalked by a driver on an empty highway.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa

    I read just read this for my Creative Writing class in college and fell in love! Reading Jo Ann Beard's memoir was like spreading butter. Sounds weird I know, but the writing quality and word choice just flows so smoothly and naturally. She goes into such great detail creating this images of the simplest things. Her word choice makes you think, "Wow those words are exactly how I would describe that if I could think of the perfect way to say it." There are so many lines in the book that I just ch I read just read this for my Creative Writing class in college and fell in love! Reading Jo Ann Beard's memoir was like spreading butter. Sounds weird I know, but the writing quality and word choice just flows so smoothly and naturally. She goes into such great detail creating this images of the simplest things. Her word choice makes you think, "Wow those words are exactly how I would describe that if I could think of the perfect way to say it." There are so many lines in the book that I just cherish, one of the lines so much so that the tattoo I am getting tomorrow is a take on one of her lines. This piece just hit me in the right way.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Sevitt

    Quite the most spectacular collection of essays I have come across. The writing is outstanding, the truths manifest and unflinching. There were moments here, as the author recounts the last days of her mother, that I was reminded of Knausgaard's precision memory, but, of course, these essays predate his series by 20 years. I don't know when I will read anything this good again, but I will keep looking. Quite the most spectacular collection of essays I have come across. The writing is outstanding, the truths manifest and unflinching. There were moments here, as the author recounts the last days of her mother, that I was reminded of Knausgaard's precision memory, but, of course, these essays predate his series by 20 years. I don't know when I will read anything this good again, but I will keep looking.

  17. 5 out of 5

    JSou

    These seriously are some of the best essays I've ever read in my life. I can't even say how much I loved this book, and now Jo Ann Beard. What a fantastic writer. Every single essay in this collection made me laugh AND cry. Thank you, Mike Reynolds for such a wonderful gift. (I finally read it! ) These seriously are some of the best essays I've ever read in my life. I can't even say how much I loved this book, and now Jo Ann Beard. What a fantastic writer. Every single essay in this collection made me laugh AND cry. Thank you, Mike Reynolds for such a wonderful gift. (I finally read it! )

  18. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    This book makes me giddy, I love it so much!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jody Forrester

    Jo Ann Beard Interviewed by Michael Gardner JoAnn Beard is a graduate of the Nonfiction Program at the University of Iowa. JoAnn Beard served as a visiting writer to the MFA program at Saint Mary's College of California in the fall of 2003. MG: This is the first year that the nonfiction genre exists in the MFA Program at Saint Mary's College and will also be the first year in which works of nonfiction will be included in Mary Magazine. In developing my ideas about the genre of nonfiction, I couldn Jo Ann Beard Interviewed by Michael Gardner JoAnn Beard is a graduate of the Nonfiction Program at the University of Iowa. JoAnn Beard served as a visiting writer to the MFA program at Saint Mary's College of California in the fall of 2003. MG: This is the first year that the nonfiction genre exists in the MFA Program at Saint Mary's College and will also be the first year in which works of nonfiction will be included in Mary Magazine. In developing my ideas about the genre of nonfiction, I couldn't think of anyone I would rather sit down with for our inaugural interview because I feel that your work represents all that nonfiction writing can be and yet your essays dare to defy a traditional categorization along genre lines. Whether it is fiction, nonfiction, or creative nonfiction, your work is easily described as uniquely your own. How do you feel about the labels behind the art of writing? JB: I spend a lot of time with writers who really think about genre, and I spend a lot of time in academia. Academia, it sounds like a nut. But if you get out into the real world of readers as opposed to writers and people who teach writing and study writing, nobody really cares as much about what is nonfiction and what is fiction. Or at least they are more accepting of work that falls into the gray area between the two. And I could never define what nonfiction is, just as I can't (or won't) define what I do. In fact, I don't really care - usually - what category any particular piece falls into, and I certainly don't try - again, usually - to direct it into a specific genre. I don't want to put those kinds of parameters on my writing. MG: What is the impetus behind trying to categorize writers? Putting an essayist in the category of creative nonfiction or a novelist in the category of historical fiction. Is it just trying to decide what shelf to put a book on? JB: I think it is. It is partly that and that matters, of course, to the people who make books and who sell books. But it is also that the academy really has a tendency - not in MFA programs but in English Departments - to leach the life out of everything they touch. In fact they remain much more interested, for the most part, in writers who are dead and can't defend themselves than they are in writing and reading and creating work that is current (and vital). I really do believe that the academy kills its young, or at least tries to defang them. MG: I first became familiar with your work through the collection, The Boys of My Youth, which explores the complexity of familial relationships as well as close friends. You capture the romanticism of an imaginative childhood and succeed in extending those themes into adulthood when the stakes seem much heavier and betrayal, divorce, and death enter the picture. Whether it is the excitement of a first boyfriend or the tragic death of a best friend, the writing is tremendously smart and always moving in creating the endearing persona of the narrator, JoAnn. Much as been said about the critical success of The Boys of My Youth, and now a few years have passed. To what extent is JoAnn Beard the writer of that collection somewhat unrecognizable to you in terms of your development and evolution as an artist? JB: Well, frankly not all that much has been said about the critical success of The Boys of My Youth, but thanks for saying that. I thought I didn't write that way any more but then found out recently that that voice had crept back in while I wasn't paying attention, and suddenly there were Jo Ann and Elizabeth, the old best friends, appearing on the same bill again. MG: What is the normal gestation period for a piece you are writing? Whether it was an essay from Boys or a current project? JB: It takes me a while to write anything, because I first have to think about my topic, then I have to avoid it, then I have to think some more, then I have to avoid some more. That can go on for anywhere from months to many-months, and when the actual writing time comes, it can go on for months or years, depending on how difficult the untangling of the ideas is. Recently I wrote a brief memoir type of piece that only took a couple of months, with lots of time off for good behavior between writing sessions. I told myself I was writing for a 13-year old audience, and it seemed easier somehow, although it turned out that the piece was more about 13-year olds than it was for them. MG: I think part of the response to Boys was readers felt an immediate connection to the persona of JoAnn Beard in those stories, similar to the intimacy between friends. As is the case with autobiographical writing in many cases, readers really feel as if they know you. Partly, I think, because the relationships examined in the essays seem so familiar to readers. For example, cousins, boyfriends, best friends, mothers, sisters, dolls, or dogs are explored in many humorous and easily identifiable ways. How did you deal with issues of privacy because of that familiarity with readers? JB: I never felt that I revealed things about myself or my past that I didn't want people to know about; I keep lots of things private, don't subject everything, or nearly everything, to that kind of public or semi-public scrutiny. So therefore I didn't feel exposed or vulnerable in that way - the character JoAnn in that book was part me, part who I wished I had been, part who I would be. It was who I would've been then with the knowledge that I have now. MG: Who is the present Jo Ann, as a writer and a person? JB: Interestingly, I found that old Jo Ann persona again, in the writing of the memoir piece for the (supposed) young adult audience. I thought that Jo Ann had grown up and wandered off, but she came slouching back again. I think it was partly because over the holidays I went through an old box of slides from my parents' attic, and saw my younger self in all her spindly glory-doing cartwheels in the living room, kissing the family's old terrier, hiding her pale face from the camera, and, in an all-time favorite...looking very miserable and defiant in soup can curlers and fluffy slippers. MG: I think the success in creating the character and personality of JoAnn in that book is really a testament to your craft. One of the definitions I love about the personal essay comes from "The Volcano of Self" craft of nonfiction course by Marilyn Abildskov. It is a definition that was passed along to her from her mentors at the University of Iowa as well. She offers that the definition of the personal essay is an essay with personality. How do you understand the personal essay? JB: I think Marilyn is brilliant and I have stolen so many of her lines over the years and used them in my teaching. I totally agree with her definition. MG: The essay, "Family Hour" in Boys explores the context of your father's destructive alcoholism and yet it is not an essay about an alcoholic. You begin the essay with a very funny, very touching moment of a boundary dispute between young sisters. How do you approach the large topic of alcoholism and avoid taking sides? JB: Maybe it is all in the timing. By the time I started writing that essay, my father had stopped drinking for a number of years. He sort of spontaneously quit drinking after my mother died. He said he 'lost interest in it.' Which is really pretty interesting if you think about it. And so, I was writing it from a safe distance. My father was a really, really wonderful person and it was a clear case of someone who had an illness, and the illness was alcoholism. So even though he was a tough drunk for many years when I was growing up, he was never not a nice guy. That makes a difference, because he was not an abusive person. My parents always made it clear to their children that we were loved. So I was really very lucky in a way that some kids aren't. It is all part of how I became who I am, and I am fine with who I became. My father had his own life to live and he is only beholden to his children to a certain degree; he was acting out his own drama and living his own destiny. As a 48-year old woman, I can't sit around complaining that my dad was a drunk and look at what it did to me. I turned out fine. To some extent! MG: The essay, "Cousins" explores the dynamics of the coming-of-age into adulthood by entering the close relationship between you and a female cousin. Yet, it is also the story of the death of your mother to cancer. There is a beautiful lyric image that begins the piece of a fish wallowing beneath the water and later another image of a silver baton hanging in midair. At the end of the piece, these images coalesce into the one central visual theme and effectively carry the minutes surrounding your mother's passing. Tell me about the writing process involved in these scenes and the craft surrounding this particular essay. How do you engage the central plot of the story between cousins and sisters and use it to build single images on the sentence level? JB: I was very much writing that piece about the relationship with my cousin, or cousins actually because the cousin character is a composite of two different cousins. I made up the baton thing and I made up the fish thing. But actually, my sister was a baton twirler when she was a little girl and even though I made it up I sort of reclaimed it from memory as well. My parents and my aunt and uncle were rabid fishermen so that was a very familiar thing to me-the way they fished, the way they talked about fishing, and even my own disapproval of fishing. I was always looking at it from the point of view of the fish, which my parents did not understand and thought I was a pain in the ass, which I might well have been. But in the writing of that piece I got to a certain point in it and I just stopped writing because I couldn't exactly think of where it should go. I was at the end of a scene and there was nothing to follow. I waited for several months and nothing followed. My friend, Mary Allen, in Iowa City said, 'I am going to help you get to the end of that piece.' She put me in a state of deep relaxation on her sofa, and guided me through the essay, section by section, taking me on a visual journey through it. I saw my mother in a housedress, I saw my aunt with her, and I had a sudden realization of what was lost when my mother died - I saw that the party was going on without her, she had been forced out. We were all still alive and she was dead. When I explained to Mary what I had seen, it all came together just like that, I sat down realized the final scene would be the two mothers in the hospital, waiting for the death. I didn't need to say one other word about the cousins because, really, the sisters are the cousins are the sisters. The real story is that my mother didn't get to live anymore. Mary helped me figure it out. It is another story about how difficult the writing process can be. When you lose inspiration you are out at sea and there is no one there to help you. Yet I had a friend who was willing to help me get there. MG: Wow. JB: It's wild, isn't it? Only another writer would understand. MG: In the essay, "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow," you reported on the life of a mother choosing Dr. Jack Kervorkian's help with doctor assisted suicide following a years long battle with cancer. The facts are there and yet you imagine your way into the woman's head in those last few moments before her death, so the reader has the experience of a first-hand account of the heartbreaking story. To what extent did the epiphany you had about your mother not being around for the rest of the party inform your writing about a mother dying and the daughters she left behind in "Undertaker"? JB: That is what it was all about. And I do think that I have experienced some loss in my life, but a fairly typical amount. But experiencing loss of a loved one through a protracted illness a step in life that you resist and resist and resist and resist and then it happens no matter what you do and along the way it transforms you into a different kind of person. Losing my mother was the transformative experience in my life, and so in every piece that I write, every piece, it's that knowledge and that transformation that I am writing about. It is not the nominal subject matter, but I can pinpoint in every essay I've written the moment when my own mother drifts through it. A reader might not find it, but it is there. For instance there is a piece called, "The Fourth State of Matter," which is about the deaths of other people in my life, but the pivotal moment of the essay for me is when I walk out of the house and look up into the sky and my mother drifts past, trailing tubes. That is the core of the piece for me, honest to God, there it is, there she is. MG: That particular essay, "The Fourth State of Matter" deals with the tragic shootings at the University of Iowa in 1991 and yet manages also not to be an essay about murder and violence in the American workplace which was just then entering the national discourse. It is about the humbling death of a beloved dog and the decline of a marriage, but even about the positive and uplifting intimacy between friends. One of the men who was killed that day was your supervisor Chris Goertz. Incorporating the title of the essay you write, "Plasma is the fourth state of matter. You've got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma. In outer space there's the plasmasphere and the plasmapause. I like to avoid the math when I can and put a layperson's spin on these things. 'Plasma is blood,' I told him. 'Exactly,' he agreed, removing the comics page and handing it to me." It is a beautiful, touching moment in a friendship and reveals insight into the narrator's persona by what section she reads in the newspaper, as well as the intimacy with which these two people understand one another. How much distance did you need from the experience to tell the story? How much time passed between the writing and the events that transpired in real life? JB: Well, the events transpired November 1, 1991. I left Iowa City in 1993 and I began writing the piece in 1994 so lets say a handful of years. But the important thing for me is that I didn't aim to write that piece. I was writing a piece called, "The History of Dogs." If I was going to write about the history of dogs then it was going to be about the most famous dog I owned which was my collie dog. So I was writing this piece about that and the dog's death which was just a few weeks after the events at Iowa. Writing about the dog I realized I had to write about the divorce because it all happened at the same time. Suddenly in the midst of the essay, I found myself writing about work, which was an important part of how I survived my divorce. I had to realize at some point that I was making my way toward November 1. Even realizing that, I kept thinking it was still a piece about my dog. Then I got to November 1 and it was the same way in the essay that it was in real life, which is that suddenly an explosion occurs and nothing is the same. I had to accept the fact that the essay wasn't going to be about the history of dogs. It was going to be about the other thing. I had backed into it because I didn't want to write about that, for a variety of reasons. Not just that I wasn't ready, but there are ethical issues involved when you write about an event like that. There are living survivors, and families of murder victims who would have to read it and feel the pain of re-living their own experience while reading about mine. MG: In the essay, you enter the mind of the murderer, Gang Lu, the man responsible for fatally shooting several of his colleagues and later, himself. How difficult was that for you as a writer? JB: It was a very confusing and disorienting event, not only because people that I knew and cared about were murdered, but someone that I knew and cared about turned out to be the murderer. It really shifted what I thought the world was and what friendship was and what was possible. So yes, it was very difficult. It was hard not to be really angry with Gang Lu for the vileness of his actions. I didn't like visiting the inside of his head, I didn't like seeing myself through his eyes, for various reasons. Survivor guilt is very, very real and imagining my own role in how he felt and thought was unpleasant. But it is my job as a writer to do that, to at least imagine it, and even if I don't write it, I am obligated to go there and figure it out. I very deliberately ended the piece with Chris Goertz's voice, because I didn't want Gang Lu to get the last word. MG: Also in "The Fourth State of Matter" you touch on your nonexistent writing career at the time and yet, in many ways, that piece made your writing career more existent after the essay appeared in The New Yorker. Is that something you would agree with? JB: Yes, I would say that is absolutely true and that's again another thing that makes me feel funny about it. But, it is what it is. I regret that it's how my book got published, although I feel sure Chris Goertz wouldn't have minded me writing about it. He was an artist - a playwright - and very pragmatic in that science-minded way. MG: In an article from The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates suggested that, "Memoir testifies perhaps to our desperate wish that some truth of the spirit be presented to us, though we know it's probably invented. We want to believe. We are a species that clamors to be lied to." Do you agree? JB: Well, I like the way that sounds. I guess I do agree with her, but I could also contradict her by saying that we are all searching for truth as well. My job as a memoirist, a nonfiction writer, a fiction writer, and an essayist all rolled into one, is my job to make sense out of something - not to make things up, but to make sense out of experience, which for me sometimes requires drawing from all different quarters (i.e. making things up). Sometimes I have to say, 'Okay, these things happened. How can I make this into something that should matter for a reader who doesn't know me?' MG: A tough question posed to young writers is, "Why do you write nonfiction?" My response is because it is the hardest thing I know how to do. It is agony and yet I can find nothing better for me, that challenges and stimulates me in those ways that are both painful and rewarding. JB: Right. That kind of essay writing that Joyce Carol Oates is talking about where you pull it together and make something brilliant, it is like a high-wire act. When it works, you are flying through the air and you land safely on the platform. When it doesn't work, you go plunging down to the net and have to climb back up and try it again. It really feels like that, when I have worked and worked and worked on an essay and I am in the final home stretch and that's the moment. I say moment but honestly those are the months, when it all has to come together and that is when you are flying through the air and you are going to try and make it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. As my friend Mary advises me sometimes, "Maybe take another run at that ending." for rest of interview, go to http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/external/Ma...

  20. 4 out of 5

    Karen Brown

    Wow. I am so late to the Jo Ann Beard party (this was published seventeen years ago!) Her prose is spare, yet beautiful. Her voice is intoxicating and you'll find yourself devouring every single essay. I briefly considered skipping her piece entitled "Coyotes", solely because I had loved every single preceding story and didn't want to change the upward trajectory of my experience. The title seemed to indicate that this wasn't in my wheelhouse. That would've been a big mistake. Her description of Wow. I am so late to the Jo Ann Beard party (this was published seventeen years ago!) Her prose is spare, yet beautiful. Her voice is intoxicating and you'll find yourself devouring every single essay. I briefly considered skipping her piece entitled "Coyotes", solely because I had loved every single preceding story and didn't want to change the upward trajectory of my experience. The title seemed to indicate that this wasn't in my wheelhouse. That would've been a big mistake. Her description of a particular saguaro cactus - "At the very top of the saguaro a crista has formed over some kind of damage. The scar blooms out, hard and dark green, like the tiny head on a giant. I step over the debris at the base and arrange myself with arms out, bent at the elbow. The cactus is very old and very tall; up close it is hard and weathered and looks important; a cactus emeritus." The next passage is long and concludes the piece. "The tent is completely dark. I am floating on the ocean in a canoe, each dip of the oar pours out a panful of light, beneath the surface small silver minnows hover like aircraft. My big collie roams along the shore, following the boat, whining low in her throat, stamping her white paws against the sand. I row toward the beach, casting light behind me, and she begins to bark. I am awake suddenly in the darkness. Outside the tent is the padding of feet, around and around, a swift turning, a pause. There is something in our campsite, trying to get our food. Eric startles and wakes, I touch his hair, breathe into his ear. The paws turn again, there is loud panting, the low whine, and then a series of barks and yelps, a prolonged terrible howl. It is deafening and wild, I can feel him out there, conjuring hysteria out of the dark. A long, plaintive keening, and suddenly it ends, drifting off, carried away from us. We are breathing low and shallow, resting on our elbows. When the reply comes he joins in, barking first and then crying, pitched high then low, the howl of loneliness and communion. It is lunar and eerie, the pleading of the cold, dead moon to the blue and green revolving earth, the call of sister stars across years of space, the cry of every child who has lost her mother. Now it is coming from every side, the beautiful wailing; they are swarming over us, gray and brown ghosts, distant relatives. In our green cocoon, we move closer to each other, hands, faces, knees. The walls of the tent press down like skin, the air thins out and becomes ours again. inside the narrow landscape of the tent, hills and valleys realign, adjust themselves, realign again with whispers. The coyote runs, straining to reach the others, a quarter mile away, over the crest of the ridge. They are waiting for him in the darkness, in the burning desert with its lifted arms of cactus. In the dark tent, on my smooth ocean, inside my mind, he is there already, gray and golden like the desert, like the moon, moving among them in the clearing, feeling the thrust of snouts, the padding of many paws, the push of love." Reading this book was a wonderful experience. Now, onto "In Zanesville."

  21. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

    So good. SO GOOD! It took me about 50 pages to get in to the groove, but then I never wanted it to end.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Cassie (book__gal)

    Every once in a while as a reader, you come across a writer whose work feels so palpable. The kind of writing that gives you that slight lump in your throat, the hairs on your arms stand up just a bit straighter because you know exactly the indescribable feeling that she is describing so well. This is the way Jo Ann Beard writes about childhood, divorce, love, family, loss. ⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣ The Boys of My Youth is a collection of essays that act as snapshots of Beard’s life, from infancy to midlife. Ofte Every once in a while as a reader, you come across a writer whose work feels so palpable. The kind of writing that gives you that slight lump in your throat, the hairs on your arms stand up just a bit straighter because you know exactly the indescribable feeling that she is describing so well. This is the way Jo Ann Beard writes about childhood, divorce, love, family, loss. ⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣ The Boys of My Youth is a collection of essays that act as snapshots of Beard’s life, from infancy to midlife. Often weaving moments of childhood into the harshness of adulthood, Beard demonstrates how to expertly marry the poetic and the straightforward when writing about real, so very real, life. I can sometimes get frustrated when writing is too flowery when talking about ordinary topics like childhood best friends or matrimonial hardships, but Beard’s prose goes off without a hitch; I admired not just the content of her stories, but how she wrote about them. I’ve read that some people thought her writing style made her reserved and not fully forthcoming, but I believe it actually made her more likable and realistic to me because she doesn’t let her ego overtake her, which can be a struggle in memoir writing. She might not let anyone else off the hook, but she doesn’t let herself off either. To put it plainly, her writing is absolutely stunning. ⁣⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣⁣ Some of these stories will stay with me for a long time, especially Cousins, Waiting, The Boys of my Youth, and of course, The Fourth State of Matter. Even if you don’t read this book, at least find a copy of The Fourth State of Matter online. Shoutout to T Kira Madden, author of Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, for this recommendation, I’m so glad I picked it up. I only wish Jo Ann Beard had a larger oeuvre.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Donna Everhart

    I was mesmerized by the writing style of Jo Ann Beard. She did a magnificent job capturing her youth, really her life in general, from the time when she was about three up through adult years. I laughed out loud as some of her descriptions of her relationship with her mother, her aunts, friends, siblings. She wrote often saying, "We" this, or "they" that. She might be referencing herself for "we" or maybe her and her doll, Hal, or someone else, but it was so uniquely done. Her voice in these sto I was mesmerized by the writing style of Jo Ann Beard. She did a magnificent job capturing her youth, really her life in general, from the time when she was about three up through adult years. I laughed out loud as some of her descriptions of her relationship with her mother, her aunts, friends, siblings. She wrote often saying, "We" this, or "they" that. She might be referencing herself for "we" or maybe her and her doll, Hal, or someone else, but it was so uniquely done. Her voice in these stories comes through and takes a reader right into her head, and how she thought of situations throughout her life. One scene with her doll, Hal, is absolutely hilarious. Jo Ann had "experimented" with Hal by putting him in the tub. He now lay soaking wet in a sodden mass on the floor. Her mother came in to wash her hair and evidently Jo Ann, at three, hated having her hair washed and threw a hissy fit. Her mother, just as determined and resolute "brass knuckled" her head in the towel after it was all over and then swatted her on her rear end. Here's a snippet to show how she captured her voice and actions at three years of age. "The bathroom ceiling had sparkles on it. The dog-in-the-boat stain was still there. Hal was wadded up inside a towel on the floor. I unrolled him and we lay on the bath mat together, panting quietly. They had manhandled us." I could go on and on, but with that five stars, you can tell, I loved her writing!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Christine

    'The Boys of My Youth' is a memoir written through a collection of essays. The narrative is not linear and I enjoyed the shifting timeline and her overall writing style. The strongest chapters were Fourth Side of the Matter (recalling a horrific workplace incident) and a chapter written about her being followed in her car in the south (frightening). Without question, these sections were 5/5 stars. For the most part, I enjoyed the sections written about her childhood but her adult sections (exclu 'The Boys of My Youth' is a memoir written through a collection of essays. The narrative is not linear and I enjoyed the shifting timeline and her overall writing style. The strongest chapters were Fourth Side of the Matter (recalling a horrific workplace incident) and a chapter written about her being followed in her car in the south (frightening). Without question, these sections were 5/5 stars. For the most part, I enjoyed the sections written about her childhood but her adult sections (excluding the ones noted above) that focused on her deteriorating marriage didn't grip me. I never felt like I really understood her as an adult person (this could also be a result of the disjointed narrative). There were also a few sections that I hated, like Coyote, which I ended up skimming because it was so boring. Overall, I liked this. I would certainly recommend certain chapters to people. Grade: 3/5

  25. 4 out of 5

    Luann Ritsema

    This book of essays is one of my favorite all-time reads. Beard has a particularly Midwestern voice, in my opinion (I grew up in Illinois) and that identification really struck me. Some of the pieces continue to haunt me years later. Very occasionally I've seen something of hers in The New Yorker - but I've been waiting and hoping for another book for a long time. I highly recommend this. In fact, I think I just talked myself into rereading it. This book of essays is one of my favorite all-time reads. Beard has a particularly Midwestern voice, in my opinion (I grew up in Illinois) and that identification really struck me. Some of the pieces continue to haunt me years later. Very occasionally I've seen something of hers in The New Yorker - but I've been waiting and hoping for another book for a long time. I highly recommend this. In fact, I think I just talked myself into rereading it.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Strickland

    I bought this book after reading the perennial essay recommendation, "The Fourth State of Matter," and the whole collection is great. There are a few where I just don't understand how her memory is so clear, for instance when recounting incidents that took place when she was around three years old. That makes me a bit suspect of how many liberties are being taken, but in any case, every essay in this collection is good and reads like it could be fiction. I bought this book after reading the perennial essay recommendation, "The Fourth State of Matter," and the whole collection is great. There are a few where I just don't understand how her memory is so clear, for instance when recounting incidents that took place when she was around three years old. That makes me a bit suspect of how many liberties are being taken, but in any case, every essay in this collection is good and reads like it could be fiction.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Kathleen

    There are some stunning beautiful passages in this memoir/essay collection - maybe too many. Beard's writing is so crafted it's actually exhausting. I wish she's relax and tell her story and trust herself not to work so hard. There are some stunning beautiful passages in this memoir/essay collection - maybe too many. Beard's writing is so crafted it's actually exhausting. I wish she's relax and tell her story and trust herself not to work so hard.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Gloria Savatsky

    I have no idea how this book has such a high rating. The writing is fine but there is nothing to draw the reader in. The story is jumbled at best. The best part of this book is the end. As in, I am relieved to be done.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Desiree

    Self-involved, bad writing, boring stories. As a fan of memoir/ narrative non-fiction, I was disappointed by this book.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Amy

    I thought the writing was good, sometimes quite good, but I found most of the stories a little tedious.

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