Sunday, October 16, 2016

Staff Audiobook Review: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
I don't know why it has taken me almost twenty years to notice the essay collection The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard and read (or, rather, listen to) it. First published in 1998 to a loud chorus of high praise, the book led to Beard's being awarded both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Award.

The collection constitutes a patchwork memoir. At the time of its publication, it drew most attention for one piece, previously published in the The New Yorker. That essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," is a meticulous and heartbreaking narrative of the 1991 mass shooting at the University of Iowa by a disturbed physics graduate student, which claimed six lives, including the shooter's, and left another victim paralyzed from the neck down. The narrative of that horrific event is woven into finely-grained depictions of the author's own domestic woes: a dying dog and dissolving marriage. It makes for a poignant weave that in no way diminishes the relative magnitude of the shooting.

Jo Ann Beard, a graduate of the University of Iowa and of Iowa's MFA writing program, was an editor of the physics department's academic journal at the time of the shootings and very close to several of the victims. She had left the office early that day to tend to her old, ailing pet. At home, her phone soon began ringing off the hook. In her essay, which, like all the essays in the book, is precisely detailed, wryly but not inappropriately funny, and strikingly well-written, Beard conjures the tragedy in such a vividly authentic way that I listened, heart in throat, grieved for the victims, and glimpsed the scale of the incident's extensive collateral damage.

Other essays breathe life into Beard's early childhood, adolescence, high school and college beaus, and her ultimately failed marriage. She presents her life in a non-linear way, each essay forming its own discrete story. Beard is a master of the exquisite detail and one has to wonder at her powers of recollection and suspect some poetic license in the telling. Usually I'm pretty particular about strict truth in the memoirs I read, but this book is so artfully written and profoundly affecting that I was willing to park my skepticism at the door.

Her masterful handling of a seemingly infinite number of precise details results in one stunning piece after another. Her mother, especially, is finely-wrought and we see exactly where Beard gets her cleverness and wry humor, which are powerful mechanisms in a book that depicts so much dysfunction, disorder, death, and divorce. As I listened, my heart's pangs were frequently accompanied by my laughter. I've rarely experienced such a seamless blend of humor and sorrow.

The author reads this audiobook and does a serviceable job. She sounds a little hypnotized, but she has written a hypnotic book so maybe it's fitting. And her deadpan delivery of very funny material only accentuates the humor. Jo Ann Beard is one sharp woman and I highly recommend this audiobook.

~Ann, Adult Services 

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