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.
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.
Jo Ann Beard's first collection is utterly compelling, uncommonly beautiful. Life in these pages is an astonishment.
Beard remembers (or imagines) her childhood with an uncanny lucidity that startles. -- The New York Times Book Review