- Paperback: 224 pages
- Publisher: Back Bay Books; First Edition first Printing edition (January 29, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0316085251
- ISBN-13: 978-0316085250
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #33,976 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Boys of My Youth Paperback – January 29, 1999
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Jo Ann Beard beautifully evokes her childhood in the early '60s, a time in which mothers continued to smoke right up to labor, one's own scabs were deeply interesting, and Barbie dolls seemed to get naked of their own volition, knowing that Ken would be the one to get in trouble if they were caught. Beard's memories of the next 30 years are no less sharp and wry, powered by antic melancholy, perfect juxtapositions, and "the push of love." When she was little, "the words of grown-ups rarely made sense," and even now, with the exception of her best friend and a few colleagues, not much seems to have changed.
In the title story, Beard and her best friend, now 38, still spend forever on the phone, an activity they perfected in junior high and that is now possible thanks to an office WATS line. Hindsight easily renders their seventh-grade ex nihilo obsession with a "ninth grader extraordinaire" foolish, along with most encounters with the boys of their youth. But their current relations with men are really no less absurd, as they realize while listening to Beard's latest possibility leave an answering-machine message: "I don't know whether to faint or kill myself. Elizabeth laughs unbecomingly. I put both hands around my own neck. We are no longer bored."
The Boys of My Youth is filled with family picnics, small celebrations, and fragility. Beard knows that her teenage efforts to "have a better personality" were as futile as her later attempt at "practicing being snotty, in anticipation of being dumped by my husband," but that doesn't make her any less fond of her younger self. And she has the same affection, and irritation, for her family, who slowly emerge in story after story. In "Waiting," she and her older sister try to keep calm as their mother is dying: "I hold two fingers up to remind her of how much longer she needs to keep this up, to pay attention. She holds up one finger, guess which one, to remind me of who's the oldest, who's the boss. I would love more than anything to slap her."
There isn't a weak piece in this collection, which includes the world's most perfect description of the agonies of having your hair washed--at age 3--and the ecstasies of one encounter near the Mexican border. "The car is a boiling cauldron. The coyote stands scruffy and skittish, like a wild dingo dog I met once, who bit everything in sight, wagging his tail like a maniac. Eric slides the camera to me and puts a hand on my arm. He whispers in my ear. I nod. I love dogs better than anything else on earth, next to cigarettes and a couple of people."
Beard often edges from serious laughter to high seriousness and back again. "The Fourth State of Matter" is perhaps the book's standout, a narrative about space physicists; invading squirrels; a beautiful, dying dog; a "vanished husband"; and, alas, a seminar turned 12-minute massacre. On November 1, 1991, she leaves work early and passes by the disappointed graduate student who will later that day gun down eight members of the University of Iowa physics depart. Her piece is complex and heartbreaking, a master conduit of emotion and information. As always, Beard knows the rich value of the minor ritual. Earlier, she had recalled playing "Maserati" with her collie: "I'd grab her nose like a gearshift and put her through all the gears, firstsecondthirdfourth, until we were going a hundred miles an hour through town. She thought it was funny." After "the newslady" finally confirms her colleagues' deaths, "Maserati" again figures: "We sit by the tub. She lifts her long nose to my face and I take her muzzle and we move through the gears slowly; first second third fourth, all the way through town, until what has happened has happened and we know it has happened." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
These 12 autobiographical sketches are linked by the theme of romance and the au-thor's painful disillusionment with it. One story, "The Fourth State of Matter," selected for The New Yorker's 1996 fiction issue (June 24/July 1), tells how the author happened to escape a co-worker's fatal shooting spree. With a remarkable eye for detail and the past, Beard writes of her earliest memory, a childhood attachment to a doll named Hal, Barbie dolls that didn't know what to do with Ken, eluding a would-be attacker on the highway, and her divorce from a husband who preferred to look at himself in the mirror than at her. Her conversational style puts the reader, for example, right on the handlebars of her sister's bicycle: "No. Yes. Around the corner, clipping a parked car. Sewer grate. Here comes the sewer grate. Hard to describe how skinny my legs are, except to say that one of them fit perfectly down the sewer grate." Beard's work has also appeared in Story and other publications. The current title will be of interest to public and academic libraries.?Nancy Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, N.C.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
But of course Beard remembers, and tells, in this 1998 non-linear collection of linked personal essays. They're coming-of-age essays, where growing up is as likely to occur at thirty as at thirteen or three. Each age is rendered perfectly, as are the characters and the 1970s-80s period details of small-town Midwest.
Among the boys of Beard's youth are Hal, that beloved d-o-l-l her mother's oldest sister bullies her mother into throwing away; teenage boys who mostly ignore her at backwoods parties; her father who drinks and disappears for weeks at a time; Eric: boyfriend, husband...; and a school-shooter where Beard works in the University of Iowa physics department. There are girls, too -- aunts and cousins; her older, nemesis sister; her mother who smokes on every page; a lifelong best friend she consults while writing these essays.
I love these people and their settings; I've read Beard's novel IN ZANESVILLE, and the first half feels exactly like these essays. I love her writing and look so forward to more.
What lies within the cover is a collection of short stories, jumping back and forth between Beard's adult and younger life. Although her focus is on the males in her life, whether it be a male doll when she was a kid, her father, or a lover, she also describes those in her life that were female. It's a delicate tale, but faced with a lot of courage to bear open some of her inner demons, emotions, and mistakes.
Although she details on how to be human, a facet often not easily captured, this was not the most compelling of stories. Don't get me wrong, I was engaged and curious about her tale. However, I was not unable to put it down or set it aside or to think of other things, such as her quality of writing while reading. I wish I could give half stars, and for that I might have depleted just a half, but c'est la vie. And before everyone shakes their finger at me for being mean towards a personal tale, it's also extremely feminist at times. It can, therefore, be a bit oppressive towards a male audience or an audience, such as myself, who is not so geared towards feminism.
Don't let such a minor mishap get you down. This book is a keeper. It's an easy read, her writing is always poetic, and worth the time, the money, and the emotional burden.
Beard knows her stuff. Her essays are extremely poetic. A scene at her grandfather's funeral includes this observation, "I'm too big to sit on a lap, my legs are stiff, and now my heart has a grandpa in it." Beard uses lyrical structure fluidly in many of these essays. "Cousins" runs two parallel narratives. One of Beard and her cousin, the other of their mothers, who are sisters. The result is a reinforced understanding of the closeness between the women. She is a sensory writer, and employs unusual images that are vivid and unique. In a scene in "Cousins" Beard describes herself in utero as "the size of a cocktail shrimp," in another essay, the rivers are the color of bourbon.
If you are looking for a lurid, sensationalized, book that tells all the dark dirty secrets of a writer as s/he overcomes a particular obstacle, I would look elsewhere. This book does not follow the traditional arc of a coming of age tale. It is not one book length narrative, but 12 separate essays. They are not all as captivating in intensity as "The Fourth State of Matter." But thank goodness life is not always that painful. I admire the alchemy though, of taking a life and rendering its moments and phases as artfully as she has done in this book.