The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

I first read Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” for school, just a year (or so) ago, during one of my post-bacc courses at Western Washington University. I was floored. If you are unfamiliar, I strongly recommend that you read nothing about the essay, but dive in blindly as I did. You can read it here.

Or you could read this book, a collection of autobiographical essays including that one – which floored me again, even when I knew what was coming, and read differently this time around, of course. It is one of the best, but by no means head-and-shoulders from the rest of the essays. I took pleasure in this read, which wanders through Beard’s childhood and adulthood, jumping in time while focusing on certain characters here and there. I am coming to appreciate a certain balance in my reading for school, which I found here and which is sort of rare: I enjoyed reading this book, even while I was able to keep my eye on the craft side of things, recognizing the beauty in how it was done.

I feel like Beard has a certain tone in common with Haven Kimmel. They both tell childhood stories with the perspective of the time – that is, a child’s perspective – in a way that can be so funny. Beard is a little more self-effacing and wry, and occasionally somber, where Kimmel almost never breaks the construct of that humorous, wondrous sense of discovery and exclamation. But there is a sense of the absurd to the child’s POV, a sort of “oh my gosh, I had no idea the world had this in it!!!” that is just joyful and playful and funny and fun, that they both hit, in slightly different ways. I love that. Part of this, too, is that Beard often writes (especially, I think, earlier in the book) in the present tense, as if these things are just happening now, which gives that feeling of immediacy.

Overall, she shifts quite a bit between tenses and perspectives. She can be very conversational, as when she digresses to give background information and then comes back to the action at hand with a sort of “but anyway, I was telling you about…” kind of phrasing. She also refers to the writing of this book as it’s happening, especially in the final, title essay “The Boys of My Youth,” which shows her struggling to put the thing together, calling an old friend to consult on the details even as she’s sharing those details with us in the essay. I enjoy that transparency to the writing (as a writer, obviously, but also as a reader). As I’ve just finished this book, I have a feeling that it progresses from an innocent early childhood (the preface is a pre-verbal memory) to a more jaded adulthood (we finish with a divorced woman leery of new relationships). Looking again, the essays do progress in chronology; but within each there are huge jumps in time, so we see previews and flashbacks, too. It’s an interesting structure: subtle, but effective. A memoir in essays, and not the first of those I’ve read this semester, which is no mistake; it’s probably the kind I’m writing. Of special interest to me is the essay “Cousins,” a profile of Beard and her cousin Wendell, close friends, told in a series of anecdotes spread over many years, and out of chronological order.

One potentially troubling thing needs noting: Beard is comfortable with a certain amount of imagining in her nonfiction. Probably more comfortable than I am. I remember this objection being raised to “The Fourth State of Matter,” when I hadn’t caught it myself; she includes scenes where she was not present, but I guess I’d assumed she came by the information from other sources, where a closer look shows that to be in some cases impossible. I noticed it even more here, like when she describes in great detail a scene involving her mother and aunt, which took place before the author was born. I don’t know. The generous part of me wants to believe this scene was described to her (in detail! repeatedly!) and she filled in only some minor details (what color pants; what the sky looked like, because she came to know that same sky). But I’m not sure that’s true, and my personal code for nonfiction makes me a little uncomfortable with the possibility that she put her mother and aunt in that flat-bottomed boat, recklessly imagining. Discovering that Annie Dillard had no cat, as described in the opening paragraphs of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, made me crazy. If she made up a whole cat of whole cloth, what else has she fabricated?! Here, I guess I’m feeling a bit more forgiving, perhaps because it’s a bit more obvious that Beard was not there when her mother was in that boat, pregnant with baby Jo Ann. (Dillard gives no clue that there is no cat.) But it’s not going to be my way.

This is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read this semester. Easy-reading, entertaining, lovely, finely crafted but accessible.


Rating: 8 bananas.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray

Early in my reading, I was ambivalent about this book, although I cannot now remember why. Did her writing get stronger as the book progressed? Did her vision & thesis take shape and grow on me? Was I just in a mood? By the end, I felt friendly towards the narrator and the book.

Janisse Ray grew up on a junkyard in south Georgia, one of four children. Her family was strictly religious, rural, somewhat isolated, and their lives were simply furnished for both religious and financial reasons, although they were not painfully poor: “We never ever lacked food, but we had few treats.” This book is an essay collection that is two things at once: a memoir; and a naturalist’s description of a nearly-vanished landscape–an elegy. The chapter/essays alternate between Ray’s personal and family story, and the ecological side. In reading this was a little less obvious to me, because I would argue that the ecology bits include some personal, and vice versa; but the table of contents makes this structure clear and intentional: the naturalist chapter titles are italicized, like Latin names of species would be. This is what the title is telling us, that it is both ecology and cracker childhood, and also the ecology of that childhood, and of the cracker people (one of the ecology essays is titled “Crackers,” as they are themselves one of the species at work in the system).

Ray’s homeland was once a longleaf pine forest, and that diverse ecosystem (and the pine savanna that wanders through it) is endangered and precious to her, now, but her upbringing did not emphasize it. The discovery of her homeland as a natural ecosystem, and its loss almost before she knew it, came later. As interesting as her childhood is, and the ecological part too, that young-adult awakening was perhaps the most compelling part of this story for me; maybe that’s part of why it became most appealing to me late in the book, when the awakening is told.

I learned a lot about a place and an ecosystem, and I enjoyed the personal memoir. I was especially fascinated by the strict religion that did not allow girls to wear pants, jewelry or makeup; had them cover their hair to pray; forbade holidays, ball games, parties, television, newspapers, dating, sports, on and on. This stuff is so far from my personal experience as to feel exotic, or weird, so I read it with that added curiosity we feel when we encounter the foreign. And it made Ray’s experience at college so compelling: alcohol, rappelling, skydiving, and simply swimming (something her family’s dress code never allowed), oh my! The parallel discovery, as I’ve said, is of nature as a subject for study, admiration or even just notice. She observes that she had a grandfather who loved the woods, but that her father couldn’t take the time; and a culture of people working to just get by didn’t have the energy to hug trees. It’s a sad story.

Ray does some lovely writing. I love the parallel of restoring a junkyard to a natural ecosystem, and restoring a ’58 Studebaker (with parts, presumably, to be found in the junkyard). I love this grandmother: “Her skin was soft and loose, and her face wrinkled in a beautiful way that showed she had always liked to smile. Her eyes, behind silver glasses that matched the soft halo of her hair, had life in them.” There are several noteworthy characteristics to this book. Its subjects were new to me, at least: that is, the place, the ecosystem, and the upbringing or culture. Its structure is interesting. I’m not sure why it grew on me so slowly, but grow on me it did.


Rating: 7 gopher tortoises.

Queen of the Fall by Sonja Livingston

queen-of-the-fallThis is a memoir in the form of collected essays about girls, their experiences and generally a girl’s coming-of-age in New York state in the 1980s and ’90s. The whole book accumulates into something greater than its parts, which is a trick I love. Livingston’s writing is beautiful on the language level as well as in subjects and connections drawn. Her essays include lots of braided pieces, and a fairly heavy emphasis on having babies: avoiding having them too young and yearning for them later.

Livingston’s life is told not as a cohesive story, but in a series of observations and reflections – and anecdotes, but the autobiographical anecdotes feel in service to the reflections, not the other way around. The essays move well beyond Livingston’s autobiography, including studies of women distant to her own experiences: characters from Hollywood movies, television shows, history, the Bible. (Susan B. Anthony, the Virgin Mary, Ally McBeal.) There are also lots of girls and women she does know: her sisters, her mother, a niece; a bride from her childhood neighborhood, Judith Kitchen (briefly, Livingston’s writing instructor), girls she served as a school counselor, a woman she meets at a laundromat. As the subtitle points out, female characters are the unifying theme of this book. There are three sections, unnamed but with epigraphs at their start. They essays they include appear to be in chronological order, although this book in no way feels like a start-to-finish sort of narrative.

I’ve observed examples elsewhere (essays by Jessie Van Eerden and Rebecca McClanahan, Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure) of an author using a single image, object, phrase (etc.), or a structure, to help apparently disconnected stories hold together and achieve a single effect. I’m particularly interested in this book for the way it holds together without quite such an easily identified unifier. To put it another way: Livingston does not quite promise (or deliver) a book “about” herself, her own life, her mother, or anything so straightforward. Instead she muses on “girls and goddesses,” and while I think this book is about herself and her mother and the women in her community, she has plenty of room to roam away from those topics; and the essays that roam still feel like they fit. This is the trick I want for myself: to write about more than just the one thing and still achieve a cohesive collection.

A lovely book to read simply for the experience; also thought-provoking; also plenty to think about from a craft perspective. Win-win-win.


Rating: 8 olive trees.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison

two-or-three-things-i-knowThis is a lovely, very brief but powerfully feeling memoir by the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which I have not read.

It offers a look at the author’s life, and of the women in her extended family: chronological, but otherwise loosely attached to events, more musing and reflective than reportorial. Allison jumps in and out of time, so although events take place in chronological order, it’s not a straightforward start-to-finish narrative. She also includes family photos, and thus reminds me of Judith Kitchen’s Half in Shade. (This one came first.) Allison is concerned with the challenges these women have faced, and how they’ve handled them, with attention to place, culture, feminism and lesbianism; but family relationships are central. Her second-person address repeats “Let me tell you a story…” and weaves in the title line. This through-line provides another unifying tactic, like those I saw in essays by Van Eerden and McClanahan (here). Like Queen of the Fall (review coming up on Friday), Allison also offers some thoughts, and inspires some thinking, on women’s experiences and place in the world. Specifically in this book, that is the world of poverty-stricken Greenville, South Carolina.

At under 100 pages, this is a super-quick read; maybe too quick. I flashed through it in an evening and am left unsure of what I learned, although I enjoyed the experience. The good news is that a reread would be quick to do, too.


Rating: 7 quarter-miles.

The Last of Her: A Forensic Memoir by Kim Dana Kupperman

“Have a good life,” my mother wrote in March 1989, at the bottom of page four of her nineteen-page suicide letter.

This is a really good beginning, in that it certainly grabs my attention.

the-last-of-herThe Last of Her is Kim Dana Kupperman’s investigation into her mother: who she was, who she wasn’t, why she went. Full disclosure: Kim is a visiting faculty member in my MFA program, and one I’m looking forward to working with.

This mother, Dolores, was a serial liar. She told many, many stories of her own personal history, leaving a real challenge for her only daughter in tracking that history. Kim was 29 when her mother killed herself, apparently to escape being busted for insurance fraud. It took some decades before she was ready to do the work that this book communicates: the research, the travel and the reconsidering of past crimes. Those are literal/legal crimes (Dolores was a junkie, a con artist, an identity thief, and apparently guilty though never convicted of assaulting a [pregnant] romantic rival with a hammer) as well as psychic ones, including mistreating and manipulating her daughter. The adult Kim eventually finds sympathy for this flawed and damaged woman, but it is quite an (understandable) journey to get there.

As a piece of creative nonfiction, The Last of Her is intriguing. The Preface deals heavily in birds, as Kim sketches the trauma of her mother’s suicide and then describes visiting the gravesites of family members she never knew. A few more birds season the rest of the story, although they do not end up playing as large a role as I expected. This lent a feeling, for me, of something larger and less knowable than human nature; not supernatural, but something of the mystery of the natural world, which is often absent (or mere scenery) in human stories.

This is also very much a memoir, not of Kim’s life or Dolores’s, or Kim’s memories of Dolores (although there is some of each), but of Kim’s study of her mother years after her death. In other words, this is the story of her research, including her reading of her father’s giant “Secret File” about Dolores and the custody battle she lost. I am drawn to this kind of story: the story of finding the story, that transparency. Kim’s tone keeps some distance, almost austerely observing the 20-something daughter to which this thing happened. It’s a remarkable piece of writing, on the sentence level (of course). I will also say that the chapter headings (quotations from a wide range of literature) quite baffle me; I need a guide to those.

This is a memoir about a sensational event that never approaches sensationalism, expertly crafted like a long poem, with precise emotional tone. A good study. Keep your eyes open as well for Kim’s (earlier) essay collection, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, and the work of Welcome Table Press, where she is founding editor.


Rating: 7 phones hung up.

The Spider and the Fly: A Reporter, a Serial Killer, and the Meaning of Murder by Claudia Rowe

A journalist with trauma of her own exchanges a torrent of letters with a serial killer in this absorbing, suspenseful memoir.

the-spider-and-the-fly

Claudia Rowe is a careworn reporter in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when a local man confesses to the rape and murder of a series of missing women. The case has journalistic potential, but there is more to the story. As Rowe and killer Kendall Francois communicate in letters and phone calls and during prison visits, the journalist’s life goes into a tailspin. Her boyfriend leaves, taking their dog; she moves to the woods and lives in a barn like a hermit. As her obsession with Francois grows, Rowe delves into her own past, a troubled childhood and damaged relationships leading to what she sees as a lifelong fascination with brutality.

Chasing violence and fear has led her to a serial killer who can seem like a big teddy bear as well as a disturbed predator. Rowe yearns to understand where a man like this comes from, how a murderer is made, and the intricacies of race and class in Poughkeepsie and beyond. She puzzles over Francois’s family home, so stuffed with rot and detritus and denial that decomposing bodies went unnoticed. What she learns is that Francois may not be a riddle she can solve.

The Spider and the Fly is a work of personal exploration, as much about Rowe’s growth as an individual as it is about Francois’s crimes. The reflective tone and dogged probing into the ugliest of human behaviors enrich this blend of true crime, memoir and suspense. Looking into darkness, Rowe gains some understanding and some release.


This review originally ran in the February 7, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 cans of grapefruit juice.

reread: She Got Up Off the Couch by Havel Kimmel

You’ll recall that I really loved this book when I read it in 2013. (First review here.) I reread it recently as part of my first semester reading list (see new tag here, many entries to come!). Students’ reading lists are individual, created by the student and faculty advisor together, so Katie Fallon and I came up with my list as a team.

couchI loved this book again. Havel Kimmel’s mother is far from perfect; she struggles to hold herself together and care for her children and family in a way that her society deems correct; she appears ill-kempt. But in the course of this book, in Kimmel’s youth, she also learns how to drive a car (and buys herself one), enrolls in college and goes on to graduate school, gets a job as a teacher, and goes through a divorce. She struggles, but she keeps it together, accomplishes these large goals, and as this book’s existence shows, her youngest daughter loves her very much through it all. In other words, she’s our favorite kind of hero: challenged, imperfect, but eventually victorious against long odds.

So, a great story. But more than a great story, because Kimmel also presents it cleverly, with enormous humor (even when terrible things happen, like fifth-grade Kimmel’s double compound fracture with shattered bone extruding through the skin) and the kind of detail that makes the whole thing alive to her readers without ever feeling overloaded with descriptions. How does she do it? This is what I’m here to learn on this read. Because my stories are only as great as they are – I can’t control that part – but I can control how I tell them.

I’m still learning this kind of reading, how to read for the craft, to take it apart and see how it works. But here are some things I see:

  • Kimmel’s book is about her mother. The title and Preface make that clear. But many chapters hardly mention her, or don’t mention her at all. Much of Kimmel’s story characterizes mom Delonda without even touching on her. Who she married, what her children and family do when she’s not around, where she isn’t – all these things serve the development of Delonda, which I think is really cool.
  • Kimmel is hilarious. (Here, I don’t have much hope for myself; I’m afraid I’m missing that funny bone…) In the incident I mentioned above, the double compound fracture etc., she uses a totally hilarious doctor to add much of the humor in that scene. Was her doctor really that hilarious? I don’t know. Maybe she was gifted a comic doctor; or maybe she knew how to write his dialog to play that up.
  • Her POV rarely departs from that of the child she was in each scene. She stays in the past tense, but her conclusions, what she sees and what it means to her, stay in character. This often yields humor, because her audience knows more than her narrator does. It can yield poignancy in a way that is just honest without being precious. And it plays up the few moments when adult Kimmel comments on her past: these are rare enough that we pay extra attention.
  • A few chapters take unusual formats. There are lists; a transcript of an audio recording; rules of a game she plays with her friends. This kind of formal play (that is, playing with form) can be dangerous – it can distract, or call attention to itself, as in ‘look how clever I am’ – but I think it serves her well here. For one thing, it’s used sparingly. For another, the formats really do feel like they contribute to the narrative she wants to tell. I think a transcript of an audio recording is a great idea, because it’s in the moment. It’s real.
  • I spent some time focusing on the short chapter “Brother” that biographies her much older, and therefore mostly absent brother Dan. It’s a little bit of a departure from the rest of the book, in tone as well as subject, and I found it a charming encapsulated profile.

This is just the beginning of what I have to learn from Kimmel. Exciting, right? If you haven’t read her work yet, you obviously have my recommendation. I love everything she’s written, in fact, as you can see here.

Stay tuned for more reading-list musings to come.


Rating: still 9 lines to be close-read.
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