The Boys of My Youth

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Overview

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 ...

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The Boys of My Youth

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Charles Taylor
The voice that emerges from Jo Ann Beard's collection of autobiographical essays is comfortable with itself, and it puts the reader at ease, too. Beard is companionable, casual, serious about the things that matter without ever being self-serious, sharp without being cruel, compassionate without going soft....Reading The Boys of My Youth is like going to a party or a barbecue where you hardly know a soul and winding up spending the entire time having a great conversation with someone you just met.

We've become used to memoirs that are public demonstrations: half self-pity, half flagellation. But saying that Beard's own life is her best subject does not mean that it is her only subject. Encountering material that you know could have fallen into the leaden style of recent memoirs -- her father's alcoholism and a horrible episode where Beard's co-workers at a science magazine in Iowa were killed by another co-worker (she had left work early that day to nurse her ailing collie) -- makes you grateful for the matter-of-factness of her approach. Beard's dad's drinking is simply part of her childhood; she sums up the effect of the sudden intrusion of violence by calling the day of the shooting "the last day of the first part of my life."

But those episodes are anomalies. Beard is just as affecting, just as evocative, on the ordinary things that make up the bulk of the book, childhood as well as adulthood. What marks The Boys of My Youth as an exchange between reader and author is the way that Beard's ability to evoke the textures of her scenes works on you to unlock your own memories. Here she is writing about a night when she and her sister have been left home by themselves: "My book has me terrified. I want a bottle of pop really bad but it's in the refrigerator. I can picture it in there keeping a severed head company, blood dripping, pooling up on the Tupperware containers, seeping into the vegetable bin. My mother should watch me better and not let me read books like this, but if I do, my sister should go out to the refrigerator during a commercial and get my pop for me." That kind of evocation is exactly why we refer to the talents of certain writers as gifts. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Moments of profundity abut glimpses of life at its most mundane in this vividly realized collage of episodes from the author's life. The 12 personal narratives collected here, five of which are reprinted from magazines, unfold more thematically than chronologically. "Cousins," for example, explores kinship and female bonding, while the title piece confronts the difficulties and pleasures of women's relationships with men. This scheme allows freelance writer Beard to juxtapose childhood episodes with scenes from her adult life in a manner that illustrates how our past experiences continually inform our interpretations of similar situations later in life. An ongoing concern of this collection is the way people establish connections and how these connections are broken through divorce, death and other forms of separation; themes like the endurance of friendship and kinship are also explored. Beard's self-scrutiny is painstaking and free of self-absorption, and her keen eye for details grounds each episode in its historical moment.
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," 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." -- Nancy Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, N.C.
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," 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." -- Nancy Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, N.C.
Newsday
Jo Ann Beard's first collection is utterly compelling, uncommonly beautiful. Life in these pages is an astonishment.
Laura Miller
Beard remembers (or imagines) her childhood with an uncanny lucidity that startles. -- The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316085250
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 1/29/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 193,947
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Reading Group Guide

1. The thread that binds the stories is--despite the book's title--Beard's relationships with her female friends and relatives. Why do you think Beard called her book The Boys of My Youth?

2. Discuss the order of the stories. Did you like moving back and forth between Beard's adulthood and her childhood? How did it affect your reading of the childhood stories to know about Beard as an adult and vice versa?

3. How did you react to "Bulldozing the Baby," the story in which Beard's mother throws out her doll and then lies to Beard about it? Do you have similar childhood memories of knowing things that your parents didn't think you knew?

4. The publication in the New Yorker of the story "The Fourth State of Matter" marked a major turning point in Beard's career as a writer. She said in an interview: "It's painful to be a writer. . . . There's truly not room for everybody to make it -- all those writers working as secretaries. . . .The reason I made it is because I wrote a story with six murders it. . . . I haven't come to terms with that." Do you see evidence of Beard's ambivalence in the story itself?

5. "The Fourth State of Matter" was published in the New Yorker's special fiction issue, and many booksellers wanted to display The Boys of My Youth in the fiction section of their stores. What makes this book so much like fiction? How is it different?

6. How would you feel if a member of your family wrote a memoir in which she told personal stories about you and the other members of your family? Should a writer be able to publish stories that portray family members in an unflattering light? What if a family disagrees with the author's version of her life story?

7. Is it acceptable for a writer to take creative license in writing an autobiographical story, particularly if the story describes events from the author's infancy or early childhood?

8. From the information in various stories, piece together a picture of Beard's marriage. Why does the aftermath of the marriage seem to be more important to the author than the marriage itself?

9. Animals figure prominently in many of Beard's stories. What does her relationship with animals say about her? What is the role they play in her life?

10. Many reviews of The Boys of My Youth focused not just on the quality of Beard's writing but also on the content of her stories, with reviewers offering their own interpretations of Beard's childhood. Is it fair for reviewers to comment critically on Beard's life, or should they focus only on her prose style and narrative skills?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2012

    Great writing!

    Most interesting!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 12, 2011

    beautiful.

    a perfectly lovely heartbreak of a book. highly reccomended.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2005

    Wonderfully Captivating

    Just like my headline says, Beard captivates readers with a dual sense of self, luring them in with rich language and powerful descriptions. One of my favorites is: 'My aunt....grins..., big teeth in a friendly mouth.' Pick it up!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2004

    A Realistic Look at the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Real Life

    Jo Ann Beard's collection of autobiographical essays, The Boys of My Youth, is a look at real life events, some seemingly minor and others monumental, that teaches the reader to look back and remember the things that have shaped your life. She writes in a way that, no matter what the situation-tragic, silly, or otherwise-one can relate to what she's talking about. Whether the reader has been through the same thing or not, Beard brings the reader into the moment and makes him or her understand Beard's feelings. Her writing is honest and witty. I found myself laughing outloud and calling friends to read to them a specific section of an essay and end up reading the whole thing and sometimes others. Beard's essays range from devasting experiences to light-hearted memories of her youth, young adulthood, and beyond. Her voice and description bring not only humor and honesty to her essays, but also a vivid image of each scene that she is talking about. Beard's style of sectional writing and tying different scenes together at the end is so effective that as a reader, I never wanted to put the book down.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted December 30, 2009

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    Posted September 18, 2013

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    Posted March 2, 2012

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews

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