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What We’re Reading: The Boys of My Youth

2015 July 30
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whatwerereading-header0316085251.1.zoomThe Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown & Company 1998)

Okay, I know. I’m late. Late in getting around to a book that stared me down

from the top shelf for the last year and late to a title that’s been high on my list for much longer. With that confession, I’m here to insist that y

ou add Boys of My Youth to the top of your queue. Hell—just drop what you’re doing and grab this halting collection of non-fiction stories.

Beard sets the tone for The Boys of My Youth with the brutally self-conscious voice of her adolescent self in “In the Current.” Though her role in the story is purely observational, even objectifiable, pre-teen Jo Ann is not simply a witness. In fact, this opening story asks the reader to notice how the mind and the heart of the point of view make a story what it is.

I just stand there, embarrassed to be noticed by a teenager. I hope my shorts aren’t bagging out again. I put one hand in my pocket and slouch sideways a little.

Though she is shorebound in the riverside scene, she is actually in the very current of the story—the tragic action melts behind the caustic discomfort of her experience. The story ends:

I look down. My shorts are bagging out.

Over and over again in this collection, throughout various ages and stages, Beard explores the content of her life with deeply self-aware subjectivity. The result is an answer to a question I’ve been musing over for some time… where is the creativity in non-fiction? It’s not just beautiful syntax and drool-inducing sentences; here especially, Beard delivers memory with hard-hit line drives to deep left field. I’m left chasing the red laces of truth across a turf of careful recall and daring transparency.

Seriously, interwoven within captivating stories about a coyote loping across a desert landscape or two cousins losing themselves ala Thelma in an out-of-the-way 80s dancehall, are lines like these:

The steel guitar comes overtop of it all, climbing and dropping, locating everyone’s sadness and yanking on it.

As readers, what can we do with sentences like these except pause for a moment, and take in what good writing can do to illuminate all the yanking we’ve been through ourselves. The deep, terrible sadness that flounces through these stories as a sun hat on a confident, sun-kissed human, walks with a good-humored partner, poking fun whenever possible. In the most well-known story in the book, “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard’s dogs assist the emotional development of the speaker, especially in moments like these:

“I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” I say while putting on my coat. I use my mother’s aggrieved, under appreciated tone. The little brown dog wags her tail, transferring her gaze from me to the table, which is the last place she remembers seeing toast. The collie continues her ghoulish sleep, eyes partially open, teeth exposed, while the Labrador, who understands English, begins howling miserably. She wins the toast sweepstakes and is chewing loudly when I leave, the little dog barking ferociously at her.

These light moments keep the attentive reader afloat. And the reading itself is easy; the pacing matches a the way a curious mind peers into the past. ‘What was that?’ you can almost hear Jo Ann asking as the stories reach well into childhood, deeply into how she became. In so doing, Beard never lets the writing slip away from the work of the storytelling. Actually, her prose catches me off guard again and again. How many times have we read about a lake scene? Seen it plastered as the backdrop to some dewey cliché in the foreground. Somehow, Beard makes it new in “Cousins.”

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. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish strings loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.

The panoramic view here is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s valley landscapes. Beard spares no detail and each simile and metaphor is both economical and fresh. And to think, she’s describing her mother and aunt while she and her cousin are in utero! That’s another thing about these stories, the author’s sense-memories and intuitive memories (such as the lake scene depicting her mother and aunt) complement each other, creating a mirage-like reading experience where reality and imagination trip over each other in a clumsy but affable fox trot.

The Boys of My Youth is my book of the summer. Yet somehow, I know I’ll be referring to these maddeningly affective passages all fall, winter, and spring.

What book has been calling your name lately?



Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: The Goods

2014 October 17
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The Writing Life

If you read my review last week, you know I was pretty impressed with Tin House’s Summer Writers Workshop this past July. Not only did I develop creative relationships and get some great feedback on my work, but I also left with a *few* reading suggestions. Okay, the reading list is ABSURD. But if you’re anything like me, and you believe that reading will improve your writing, then lists like these from people I hold in high regard are like gold. And so, I share the wealth:

Campbell McGrath – Capitalism (Wesleyan New Poets)

Campbell McGrath – American Noise (Ecco Press)

Campbell McGrath – Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press)

          I have become a complete disciple of Campbell McGrath. No other voice (that I’ve found) encapsulates the identity of this nation, in this millennium, with as much subtlety, poise, and formal consideration as McGrath. 

Charles Wright – Bloodlines (Wesleyan Poetry Program)

D. A. Levy – Suburban Monastery Death Poem (Crisis Chronicles Press)

Dawn McGuire – The Aphasia Cafe (IFSF Publishers)

Derek Walcott – The Schooner Flight

Derek Walcott – Omeros

          My workshop group spent a good deal of time considering form. Omeros is an epic poem in terza rima, and our conversation of Derek Walcott, also led us to Edward Kamau Braithwaite—another poet attending to the African diaspora.

Edward Dorn – Gunslinger (Duke University Press)

Edward Kamau Brathwaite – The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford University Press)

Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Mother Poem (1977)

Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Sun Poem (1982)

Ellen Bryant Voigt – Kyrie (W. W. Norton & Company)

Gwendolyn Brooks – “We Real Cool” (originally published in The Bean Eaters [1960])

          With Kevin Young as my workshop leader, sound and music were frequent topics in conversation. Poems like “We Real Cool” are concise examples of precision and rhythm in a poem. 

Jim Harrison – Letters to Yesenin (Copper Canyon Press)

Jo Ann Beard – “The Fourth State of Matter,” in The Boys of My Youth (Back Bay Books)

          Jo Ann Beard was a faculty member at the workshop. I haven’t read The Boys of My Youth yet, but if her prose is half as wise as her lecture was last summer, I expect to be blown away. 

Julia Story – Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books)

June Jordan – “Poem About My Feelings”

Karen Volkman – Spar (University of Iowa Press)

Kevin Young – Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf)

Larry Levis – Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Matthea Harvey – Modern Life (Graywolf Press)

Maurice Manning – The Gone and the Going Away (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Muriel Rukeyser – “Effort at Speech Between Two People” (originally published in Theory of Flight [1935])

          Enjoy this poem here!

Natalie Diaz – My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press)

Paige Ackerson Keily – My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta)

          Come on! With a title like that (My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer) how could you NOT want to dig into this book of poetry?!

Rochelle Hurt – The Rusted City (White Pine Press)

Sally Wen Mao – Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books)

T. Crunk  – Living in the Resurrection (Yale University Press)

Ted Berrigan – The Sonnets

          I admit, bashfully, that I did not know Ted Berrigan’s name before this summer. A “late Beat,” Berrigan became famous for The Sonnets, reissued by Grove Press in 1966, and influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

W. S. Merwin – Finding the Islands (San Francisco: North Point Press)

Walid Bitar – 2 Guys on Holy Land (Wesleyan Poetry Series)

Wallace Stevens – Harmonium

Yusef Komunyakka- Copacetic (Wesleyan New Poets)

The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press)

There you have it! Now I know what you’ll be reading this winter so… see you next spring! Speaking of which, if at any point between now and then you decide this workshop might be right for you, get your application in for the rolling admissions process. Scholarship applications are due March 25, 2015.