The Beauty of Their Youth: Stories
by Joyce Hinnefeld
Wolfson Press/American Storytellers Series, 97 pages
reviewed by Beth Kephart
Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver
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Some attributes of the fine short-story writer, as noted and further refined while reading Joyce Hinnefeld, who also happens to be a fine novelist (read her In Hovering Flight, if you haven’t already had that pleasure):
To be precise and precisely patient.
To enter quickly into the whole world of the thing with a minimum of explanation and a surfeit of knowing.
To arc toward the kind of surprise that does not shatter the hidden rules of the story.
To make of language something vital.
There are five Hinnefeld stories, four of them previously published in literary journals, in The Beauty of Their Youth, a release from the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. One is about the legacy of a “pool of desire.” One is about the accessorizing of a family crime. One is about the tragedy of idle desires, another about an artist and his elastic resume, and another about a mother and daughter on a trip abroad and the reverb of the personal past. The stories take us to Bucks County, PA, inside the pages of a Carson McCullers book, toward Everglades gators and gun shows, through the annals of art, across parts of Greece and Rome—a tour of landscape and psyche that is seamless, self-assured, quietly inventive. Hinnefeld doesn’t break her own spells. She doesn’t remind you that she’s writing.
While every piece in this collection is mesmerizing in its way, I wish to highlight the two bookends. “Polymorphous,” which opens the book, is launched by a first paragraph that contains a thousand seeds but remains rooted in a single patch of earth. Everything that is to come is augured here: Joan’s relationship with herself, Joan’s relationship with her neighbor, Joan’s relationship with her world, Joan’s relationship with time. It’s worth quoting in full, for what it teaches us about Hinnefeld’s method, which is to say her artfulness with encapsulation and the care she takes to be thorough but not didactic :
By the time she was 20, with a little baby and a household to run, Joan had already started to seem like some sort of local exotic to her friends from high school, home from college on their breaks. All because she canned her own vegetables and sewed her own clothes and breastfed her son, at a time and in a place where those things wouldn’t come back into fashion for a good while. Now, forty years later, she still gardened and canned and sewed. She’d even gone back to school and finished her own degree eventually, with a nice and useless and exotic major in English. But by now the things that made her colorful in the eyes of her friends and neighbors was her weekly outing with her eighty-year-old neighbor, a gay man named Richard Meredith.
Richard and Joan are prickly friends. Richard’s own exotic past contains complicated secrets. A pool of desire in that Bucks County land percolates with still-unanswered questions. History wields power over both these characters and they wield power over each other, the ebbing and flowing of which provides the tension in the story.
In “The Beauty of Their Youth,” a mother and her 20-year-old daughter travel to Greece and Italy—the mother with hopes both of strengthening the bond with her daughter and of revisiting the people and places she remembers from an abroad summer years before. Fran, the mother, is both claiming and reclaiming, in other words, whereas Miranda, the daughter, is determined to see this new-old world through her own eyes. When the two meet up with Fran’s long-ago lover (in Greece) and long-ago friend (in Rome), Fran is confronted with a new and unwelcome version of the mythology she’d webbed around her youthful adventures. She is forced, as Hinnefeld writes, to reckon with some of the ways she’d not been trusted, some of the ways the world hides the most human parts of us from view:
There were things you didn’t post, Fran thought now, wide awake at three AM. Often the most important things, the things that had indelibly shaped your life. Your family’s secret history. Your marriage to a junkie. Your daughter’s slow, sure drift away from you. Your husband’s thoughtless and fleeting affair all those years ago. And your chronic thoughts of leaving him.
Hinnefeld writes empathetically. She writes, too, with lacerating emotional economy. In between she layers in the world—its reflective surfaces, its values, its artistic traditions, its gators, the secrets that are suppressed until they aren’t.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of nearly thirty books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, a widely published essayist, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. A memoir in essays, Wife | Daughter | Self, is due out from Forest Avenue Press in February 2021. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
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The Beauty of Their Youth: Stories by Joyce Hinnefeld Wolfson Press/American Storytellers Series, 97 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver Some attributes of the fine short-story writer, as noted and further refined while reading Joyce Hinnefeld, who also happens to be a fine novelist (read her In Hovering Flight, if you haven’t already had that pleasure): To be precise and precisely patient. To enter quickly into the whole world of the thing with a minimum of explanation and a surfeit of knowing. To arc toward the kind of surprise that does not shatter the hidden rules of the story. To make of language something vital. There are five Hinnefeld stories, four of them previously published in literary journals, in The Beauty of Their Youth, a release from the Wolfson Press American Storytellers series. One is about the legacy of a “pool of desire.” One is about the accessorizing of a family crime. One is about the tragedy of idle desires, another about an artist and his elastic resume, and another about a mother and daughter on a trip abroad and the reverb of the personal past. The stories take us to Bucks County, PA, inside ... Read the full text
SOJOURNERS OF THE IN-BETWEEN by Gregory Djanikian Carnegie Mellon University Press, 90 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver In his new heartbreaking and affirming book of poems, his seventh, Gregory Djanikian writes past complexity toward the elemental and the binding. He unites the “beautiful and the raw,” plays no tricks, displays no tics, exploits nothing but the moment and the thought that accompanies it. He finds the reader wherever the reader is, then webs her into his space and time, a place where a hand run along the back of a cat returns “the animality of my own skin/the trees in slanting light,/ the blue sky breathing its blue/down to the greening fields.” (“What Is a Cat But a Voice Among All the Other Voices”) In Djanikian’s space and time, the end may be near, it may be hastening toward us, but it is still, as yet, a yonder. Sojourners of the In-Between is organized into five escalating parts. It’s a little noisy in the opening pages, full of harbingers and yelling priests, a street corner mime, the clink of wine bottles, a stained tablecloth, “The world’s blips and pings, street traffic,/glass clatter, hammer clank…” ... Read the full text
DEGREES OF DIFFICULTY by Julie E. Justicz Fomite, 300 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Many years ago, as a feature writer for a magazine, I spent weeks visiting with a family whose oldest son communicated not with words but with his body. He said yes or no, go awayor come near, I don’t want it or I do by hurling himself toward gestures of acceptance or disdain. He was a beautiful boy, nearly adolescent, larger than his mother who was struggling now to control his outbursts by setting him into a warm bath or hugging him close and overwhelming to his father, who had left his job so that he might try to build a school that was just right for his own son and others. This family was among the most extraordinary I’ve ever spent time with—full of love, chasing hope, unwilling to give up on this first-born child of theirs, and yet so devastatingly exhausted. I thought a lot about this family as I read Julie Justicz’s novel Degrees of Difficulty. Here the child at the center of the heartbreak is third-born Ben, born with damage to his twenty-first chromosome, an “omission in the blueprint” that has ... Read the full text
RUBY & ROLAND: A NOVEL by Faith Sullivan Milkweed Editions, 256 pages reviewed byBeth Kephart Books recalibrate our imaginations. They expect us to make room, to put on our nearest pair of shoes and walk the hall, the street, the cornfields, whispering to ourselves and to the wind. When Faith Sullivan began writing what has become known as her Harvester books—novels like The Cape Ann and The Empress of One and Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse—she invited readers to join her in a fictional Minnesota landscape, then gave them many reasons to return. Sullivan’s Harvester is a palpable place. Its people are relatable and real. They carry burdens and they engage in kindness. Their bones bend with the hills. Now midway into her eighties, Sullivan is still finding, within Harvester, commonplace stories of everyday appeal. Her new book, Ruby & Roland, begins not in Harvester, but in Illinois, where Ruby Drake is living an idyllic childhood with a childlike mother until her parents are killed in an accident. The orphan moves in with one family and then with another, packing tokens of her youth and holding memories near. It is at the Schoonover farm, in Harvester, that Ruby becomes who she ... Read the full text
THE WAY THROUGH THE WOODS: ON MUSHROOMS AND MOURNING by Long Litt Woon translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland Spiegel & Grau, 292 pages reviewed by Beth KephartPurchase this book to benefit Cleaver When I read memoir I want: something to crack and something to rise, something to arc and something to stream, something to move across the page and, as it does, to move me. I bought Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning for the promise embedded in the premise. How would Woon make her way back into the world after the shocking, sudden death of the fifty-four-year-old husband with whom she had spent all her adult years? What do mushrooms have to do with recovering from such a loss? Does anybody ever actually recover? Woon, who moved to Norway from Malaysia as an exchange student at the age of eighteen and stayed because of her love for her husband, Eiolf, is not, as it turns out, interested in the literary fissures and expansions and movements that generally interest me. Her prose, as translated by Barbara J. Haveland, is determinedly straightforward, lavishly undecorated, direct and directly to the point. Her ... Read the full text
ART CAN HELP by Robert Adams Yale University Art Gallery, distributed by Yale University Press, 88 pages reviewed by Beth Kephart Purchase this book to benefit Cleaver “[I]f you begin with an idea you’re usually beat before you start,” writes Robert Adams in Art Can Help, as he tries to imagine Edward Ranney photographing the Canyon del Muerto, and, so, here I begin, having been holding this slender silver volume in my hand all afternoon, interrupted only by the sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower and the smell of some ambient spray paint. (A long sentence, a beginning.) The book marks Adams’ attempt to dissuade his readers from Jeff Koons-style glitz, which is to say “imitations that distract us or, openly or by implication, ridicule hope.” We are reminded of the power of art, Adams suggests, by studying art that is real. The work of Edward Hopper is here in these pages, as are the images of Eugene Buechel, Ken Abbott, Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, and others, but if you are already concluding that this is a book of pictures and captions, you’d be wrong. This is a book of eclectic wisdoms and collegial awe. “I am asked with ... Read the full text
THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO by Carlo Collodiillustrated by Attilio Mussino translated by Carol Della Chi MacMillan (1926), 401 pagesreviewed by Beth KephartThe Oldest, The Newer, and the Four Pinocchios The Pinocchio in the book on my lap is not the persistently gullible feather-in-his-cap Disney version with the Jimmy Cricket conscience and the wish-upon-a-star existence. My Pinocchio—La storia di un burattino—comes from the mastermind himself, the Italian serialist Carlo Collodi, born Carlo Lorenzimi, who didn’t start writing for children until late in life. He’d been in the seminary as a young man. He’d volunteered in the Tuscan army. He’d written satire, translated fairytales, and by the 1880s, it would seem, he was primed for his most memorable creation. You don’t have to stretch to note the parallels that dominate our news cycle. Donald J. Trump was prefigured more than 130 years ago. If Disney’s Pinocchio is an affable, pliable ingénue who was reconfigured, according to the lore, to look more like a boy than a puppet, Collodi’s is an anti-hero—a wooden thing with barely any ears who mostly can’t see beyond his own nose, no matter its current proportion. He is persistent, insistent, impossible, exasperating, willfully obtuse, a ... Read the full text
THE JUNCTURE INTERVIEW by Beth Kephart For many years, my husband, William Sulit, and I have collaborated on projects for corporate America—annual reports, commemorative books, employee magazines. When corporate America changed—when the cultures shifted, the ideals, the relationships—we began to explore a new idea, a company we could create and manage as our own, a company through which we could define the quality of the product and the nature of the conversation. We have called that company Juncture Workshops. Through it we offer memoir retreats, a monthly newsletter, and video essays that showcase the work of memoir masters and offer ideas and prompts. As with most things, of course, it all sounds easier than it has been. Here we provide a behind-the-scenes look at our memoir-steeped lives, post video production. ◊ STORY: They would need a teleprompter. They would need a script. They would need umbrella lights, an iPhone mic, a steady camera, an army of tripods. They would call this thing that they had made their Juncture memoir shorts (and here those things are: www.udemy.com/the-stories-of-our-lives/learn/v4/overview). Lessons on writer’s block. Lessons on illness. Lessons on time, or nature writing, or the kitchen. They would twine Mary-Louise Parker and James Baldwin, Abigail ... Read the full text
THIS IS THE STORY OF YOU by Beth Kephart Chronicle Books, 256 pagesreviewed by Rachael Tague When I sat down to read Beth Kephart’s newest novel, This Is the Story of You, its title and cover art caught my attention—personal, serene, then chaotic. I read the first line of chapter one—Blue, for example—and fell in love with the writing. A quarter of the way through the book, I adored each character, and connected with Mira, the narrator and protagonist. Kephart’s mesmerizing writing, wonderful characters, and themes of strength and endurance thrilled me from beginning to end. Mira Banul is “medium everything—blond, built, smart.” She lives on Haven, where “We were six miles long by one-half mile…We were The Isolates. We were one bridge and a few good rules away from normal. We were causal bohemians, expert scavengers, cool.” Haven, a tiny island on the East coast, is a vacation destination in the summer. At the end of the season, the year-rounders return to their school in a refurbished bank and rule the island after-hours. Mira’s best friends, Eva and Deni, have done everything together for as long as they can remember. They work together, study together, compete together, and ... Read the full text
HANDLING THE TRUTH: ON THE WRITING OF MEMOIR by Beth Kephart Gotham Books, 254 pages reviewed by Stephanie Trott It is a rainy Tuesday in January and I lace up the new cherry-red boots before heading out the door of my warm little warren. Through the stone-laden campus, across the slippery streets of town, and onto the train that will take me into the city. I am in my final semester as an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College and I still have not learned to buy shoes that fit my feet — I dig into the walk through West Philadelphia, burdening myself with blisters that will not heal until the first flowers have shed their petals to spring. Stumbling onto the porch of the old Victorian manor, I step into the most challenging, inspiring, and rewarding fourteen weeks I’ve yet experienced: I step into Beth Kephart’s Creative Non-Fiction class. Flash forward one and a half years later and I am standing on the back steps of my first apartment, wearing shoes that (finally) fit and hooting jubilantly at the tiny brown box in front of me. I hug the cardboard to myself as though I could absorb the details ... Read the full text
DR. RADWAY’S SARSAPARILLA RESOLVENT by Beth Kephart illustrated by William Sulit New City Community Press, 190 pagesReviewed by Michelle Fost When I lived in Philadelphia, I sensed its history underfoot. One pleasure of Beth Kephart’s lively new historical Philadelphia novel is the strong fit of the writer’s project and the story she tells. In Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, Kephart looks at material from the past that we might consider lost to us and demonstrates how traces of that past stay with us through research and writing. In her story of William Quinn in 1870’s Philadelphia, too, much has been lost. As fourteen-year-old William goes in search of what has been taken from his family and as he thinks about what he is missing (including a murdered brother and a father in prison), we see that a great deal of what is loved can be recovered. William internalizes his brother Francis’s voice and can imagine what Francis would say to him at an important moment. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent shines as a novel about grief itself, suggesting that in thinking about what we miss, we keep what’s missing alive. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent opens with a haunting ... Read the full text
CHICKEN DANCE by William Sulit & Beth Kephart Digital 3-D DesignA conversation between a writer wife and her artist husband, in a quest to understandImportant Subject: A chicken BK: You spend hours in your garage studio (among the ghosts of a skinny car, in the shadow of night visitors, within walls yellowed by old fuels) fiddling with electronic pencils and twinned screens, and you come up with ... a chicken? Why a chicken? How did your chicken begin? WS: It began with a sphere about the size of a golf ball. I'm sure electrons are involved but what is really being manipulated are vertices. This chicken was really a way to test 3D printing technology (color and all). No lofty idea—just that as someone who works with 3D "art," I wasn't going to leave that stone unturned. BK: And I thought I had married into lofty. Didn’t you promise me lofty? Okay, then. You began to pull and poke at this thing, began to manipulate these vertices. The computer can’t resist you. There isn’t any tactile feel to this material, no smell, nothing that gets your hands dirty. Do you still consider this art? Because, at the very ... Read the full text
SCRABBLE by Beth Kephart I said it would be nice (look how simple I made it: nice) not to be marooned in the blue-black of night with my thoughts, I said the corrugated squares of the downstairs quilt accuse me, I said the sofa pillows are gape-jawed, I said there are fine red hairs in the Pier 1 rug that will dislodge and drown in my lungs, I said I can’t breathe, I said, Please. It wasn’t hard. But you were asleep by then, west to my east, uncorrupted by the plain and the soft of my imagination, the occasional and wire whipped and cruel: you couldn’t be touched; you wouldn’t stir; you. I broke and I climbed out and I climbed through and I climbed down into the blue black red threads and sat until a fat clack cracked the hollow between the walls and I knew that it was the long-nailed scrabble of a squirrel or the procrastination of the fox or the wolf that is my thoughts. That was the first night after. Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of fourteen books, most recently Small Damages, named to many best-of-year lists. Three new books are set to be ... Read the full text