The pieces in this collection, from the author of The Boys of My Youth, range from the death of a beloved dog to a relentlessly readable account of a New York artist trapped inside a burning building, as well as two pieces of short fiction.
In a world increasingly lived online, there is a grounding comfort to Jo Ann Beard’s refreshingly analog voice. This isn’t to say her writing isn’t relevant or that her language doesn’t wow. Beard’s power comes from phrasings and insights that aren’t just screaming for likes. Few writers are so wise and self-effacing and emotionally honest all in one breath ... Over the course of nine beguiling pieces — which seamlessly meld observation and imagination — she effects an intimacy that makes us want to sit on the rug and listen ... If obsession is a writer’s fuel, Beard is powered by the 'beautiful and stupid' acts of hanging on and letting go. Every line builds thematic texture, instructing us on how to read, and what to take from it all. Seemingly unrelated phrases advance Beard’s ethos. Festival Days is 'brutal and routine,' a meditation on the 'dirt-colored scraps of hide and humanity' ... Beard flawlessly captures the fluidity of time. A minute becomes an eternity. Linearity collapses like a fallen souffle ... Beard imagines her way into anything...If her essays read like stories that’s because she is less concerned with cold accounts, and drawn more to detail and interiority and the choices people do and don’t make ... Invention allows her to excavate a deeper truth ... Beard navigates the darkness with her signature wit.
... ferocious ... what, exactly, are we seeing? This question nipped at my heels throughout this book, even as the writing propelled me forward ... When a piece of writing is autobiographical, or semi-autobiographical, or memoir-adjacent, as many of these essays appear to be (not only those written in the first person, but also a couple that feature a character called Joan), the questions it provokes are: Why insert this distance here and not there? What does the similar but not identical name allow her to say — and us to receive — that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise? These questions act not as obstructions but revelations. They invite us to peel away some of our certainties, defenses, blinders ... But when this casualness — is it casualness? We might as easily call it daring, or radical empathy, or resistance to over-scrupulosity — is applied to another person’s story, it provokes a different set of questions. Why weren’t the reportable facts enough? What has been gained — aesthetically, morally, spiritually — and what has been lost by mingling the real and the invented? ... This is not censure masquerading as inquiry. It’s a testament to Beard, a towering talent, that she pulls off what might otherwise seem an act of egoistic insouciance to deliver a book as forceful as it is fine, leaving us both awed and unsettled ... What’s unsettling isn’t just her flouting of the distinction between fact and fiction. It’s her themes — often loss, violence, destruction, death — as well as her forms. Even before we understand what’s happening, we may find ourselves bracing for a blow ... A premonitory energy, an inchoate awareness, powers us along like a perfectly modulated engine, barely audible but filling every line with tension, the tension of knowing we’re heading inexorably toward the unknown. Sometimes she’ll break things up with humor (there’s a killer bit, the funnier for being hypothetical, about a poet and a prose writer catching ducks). Sometimes she’ll shake things up by having the encounter to which the essay is building turn out to be sweet. Sometimes she seems to practice a kind of augury that involves throwing wildly disparate items into the air, then trying to make sense of them once they land. Occasionally she slides into such elliptical allusiveness ... it’s as if she couldn’t care less whether we’re following along or not. But in every one of these pieces, her method does its work. Perhaps instead of an essayist we should think of her as a poet-naturalist, wedding intuition and observation, and forming from this union something unaccountably yet undeniably real.
Beard is so good at what she does ... In Beard's book, writing works like compound interest, each experience building on the last, which built on the one before, till 'nothing new'— all the dying dogs and aging friends, abandoned houses and abandoned women (and cancer, which pervades this collection)—is something new, something more, and 'very moment of your life brings you to the moment you're experiencing now. And now. And now.'