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A searing and exhilarating new collection from the award-winning author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville , who “honors the beautiful, the sacred, and the comic in life” (Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winner for The Friend ) When “The Fourth State of Matter,” her now famous piece about a workplace massacre at the University of Iowa was published A searing and exhilarating new collection from the award-winning author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville , who “honors the beautiful, the sacred, and the comic in life” (Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winner for The Friend ) When “The Fourth State of Matter,” her now famous piece about a workplace massacre at the University of Iowa was published in The New Yorker, Jo Ann Beard immediately became one of the most influential writers in America, forging a path for a new generation of young authors willing to combine the dexterity of fiction with the rigors of memory and reportage, and in the process extending the range of possibility for the essay form.   Now, with Festival Days, Beard brings us the culmination of her groundbreaking work. In these nine pieces, she captures both the small, luminous moments of daily existence and those instants when life and death hang in the balance, ranging 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 triumphant, celebrated pieces of short fiction.   Here is an unforgettable collection destined to be embraced and debated by readers and writers, teachers and students. Anchored by the title piece––a searing journey through India that brings into focus questions of mortality and love—Festival Days presents Beard at the height of her powers, using her flawless prose to reveal all that is tender and timeless beneath the way we live now.


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A searing and exhilarating new collection from the award-winning author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville , who “honors the beautiful, the sacred, and the comic in life” (Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winner for The Friend ) When “The Fourth State of Matter,” her now famous piece about a workplace massacre at the University of Iowa was published A searing and exhilarating new collection from the award-winning author of The Boys of My Youth and In Zanesville , who “honors the beautiful, the sacred, and the comic in life” (Sigrid Nunez, National Book Award–winner for The Friend ) When “The Fourth State of Matter,” her now famous piece about a workplace massacre at the University of Iowa was published in The New Yorker, Jo Ann Beard immediately became one of the most influential writers in America, forging a path for a new generation of young authors willing to combine the dexterity of fiction with the rigors of memory and reportage, and in the process extending the range of possibility for the essay form.   Now, with Festival Days, Beard brings us the culmination of her groundbreaking work. In these nine pieces, she captures both the small, luminous moments of daily existence and those instants when life and death hang in the balance, ranging 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 triumphant, celebrated pieces of short fiction.   Here is an unforgettable collection destined to be embraced and debated by readers and writers, teachers and students. Anchored by the title piece––a searing journey through India that brings into focus questions of mortality and love—Festival Days presents Beard at the height of her powers, using her flawless prose to reveal all that is tender and timeless beneath the way we live now.

30 review for Festival Days

  1. 4 out of 5

    Kristina

    Festival Days, the latest book of essays and stories by Jo Ann Beard, is a difficult, emotional, harrowing read. Do not step into its pages lightly. It is a book primarily of loss—loss of life, loss of love. The words on the pages are beautifully, deliberately written, but they are painful. Humor is present, but it is dark and sad and when I laughed, it was because I recognized the pain the character was experiencing because I, too, had experienced something similar. I would like to thank Hachet Festival Days, the latest book of essays and stories by Jo Ann Beard, is a difficult, emotional, harrowing read. Do not step into its pages lightly. It is a book primarily of loss—loss of life, loss of love. The words on the pages are beautifully, deliberately written, but they are painful. Humor is present, but it is dark and sad and when I laughed, it was because I recognized the pain the character was experiencing because I, too, had experienced something similar. I would like to thank Hachette Book Group for sending me this complimentary copy. The title, Festival Days, is misleading. One glance at the beautiful, atmospheric cover featuring bird cages hanging from wires strung with lights against an overcast gray sky should be one clue that this is not a book about a week of parties. The second clue is the small snippet of a poem quoted before the essays begin: “One of these days/I’ll look at your face and find/The sad detailed imprints/Of the festival days.” This is a collection of creative fiction, or fictionalized nonfiction. Beard has taken events from her life and the lives of others to create these essays/stories. She writes very stream of conscious—one thought or image leads to another thought or image and the images and thoughts circle back on themselves and repeat. As each thought of image repeats, Beard also manages to move the story forward. “Last Night,” the first essay in the book, is beautifully told but really fucking sad. Seriously. Beard doesn’t mess around—she hits readers right in the throat. It’s her warning: if you can’t take this, stop now. If you’re brave, you move onto “Werner,” the story of a man whose apartment catches fire and to survive, he has to risk death and jump: There was no oxygen between the particles now, no way to negotiate anything out of it. The opposite, in fact; if air equaled life, then non-air equaled death, but this was a step beyond—it was non-air with poison.In the stopped, strangled moment that followed, another thought burst loose and hung there, pale inside the black swirling column.He would have to jump.Five stories was too far to fall; he’d never survive it. He’d done it once long ago, a forty-five-foot drop, not onto concrete but into deep, still water. The bridge over Fall Creek, east of Eugene, a wood trestle built into bedrock, the surface of the water below tense and glittering, huge smooth boulders on either shore, his striped towel and white T-shirt draped over one; he would claim them after the jump, when the next guy was standing there poised to sever his spine. He had looked down at his feet, which seemed delicate at that height, wet sneakers sagging. Somebody hollered, “Hey, Werner,” and then an obscenity, and others laughed. He thought he heard sympathy in the shouts, but that was useless, the sympathy of men (19). The story is tense—while Beard dips in and out of Werner’s head and he’s debating the jump, calculating his odds of survival and linking images to events in his past, the reader is frantic with worry. But if you read too quickly, you miss the story. So you read as fast as you dare, hoping he’ll be okay, hoping his cat will be okay, but suspecting no one will emerge unscathed—including yourself. “Cheri,” the next story/essay, is based on one woman’s decision to kill herself rather than allow the cancer that’s overtaken her body to slowly and painfully finish the job. Cheri and her family contact Dr. Kevorkian, aka Dr. Death (if you remember this from news stories from the late 1990s), and he agrees to help her. This story contrasts sick, dying Cheri with healthy Cheri and her journey from one state of physical being to the other. A lump in her breast is discovered by a technician during a routine mammogram: And that’s how everything changed, not with the pronouncement, even, but with a woman’s disengaged expression. The room was engulfed in a tinny silence as she worked, arranging Cheri like a mannequin, folding her against the stainless steel, placing an arm up here, a breast in there, sending her home. Once, a long time later, when Cheri’s life was passing in front of her eyes, she caught a glimpse of it again—saw the bright yellow cartoon feet of the technician and then saw her own naked left arm, in slow, muted motion, rising obediently to embrace the machine (42). If you are a woman, this scene holds a particularly vibrant familiarity, the mundane (and somewhat ridiculous) squishing of your breasts between two plates of glass, holding your breath, and knowing that everything will probably be fine, there’s no way you have cancer…right? This essay/story (difficult to know what to call these finely worded gems of pain) is actually one of my favorites from the book. The author imbues Cheri with a dark sense of humor and I admire her bravery in the face of death…if that’s the right word. Cheri decides to keep living until she decides to die. I don’t care for “Maybe It Happened.” I see what Beard is doing—one possibility leading to another possibility, maybe this happened, then maybe this happened—but used as device to tell an entire story (even a very short one) got on my nerves. It’s probably just me and maybe if I read it again in the future I’ll appreciate it more. Maybe. “The Tomb of Wrestling” resembles “Werner” in that something very bad is happening in the present requiring the character to take action, but the character’s thoughts circle back to past events and images. These memories then loop back to the present. This one is also a tense read but with a less definitive ending. After reading, I had a whole lot of questions which are doomed to remain unanswered. “Close” is the author discussing the art of writing. I liked this essay because (for the most part) I agreed with her. Her writing thoughts are similar to thoughts I’ve had regarding writing, what I’ve learned from taking writing classes (and despite taking writing classes) and what I’ve learned about writing by writing. There’s nothing new under the sun, Beard writes (and then admonishes the reader against using clichés). In order to create something new, “we have to have insights, which means we have to think, and that means we have to work to create art out of life, to bring something new to each sentence, a surprise for the reader. Not in a pyrotechnic way, but through intelligence, through our powers of imagination, and through the rigorous refusal to waste a reader’s time” (134). She thinks learning to write comes from reading, not from having your work critiqued by a teacher or editor or peers. I agree with that 100%. If you don’t read, and don’t read extensively, how can you learn to write? How can you learn dialogue? Character development? How a story is constructed? I’ve learned so much from reading good books (classics), popular fiction, and I’ve probably learned the most from terrible books—books so badly constructed I could pull them apart, see how the author lazily stitched everything together, and understand why the story and characters are unconvincing and flimsy. Beard agrees: “Learning to write comes from reading, both the work of published writers and of our peers, and from using one’s powers of insight and creativity to analyze what one reads and figure out why it works when it does and what is missing when it doesn’t…Because a good essay—for that matter, a good short story, memoir, novel—is about ideas, that’s how it elevates itself beyond and above its nominal subject to illuminate something universal. Literature instructs, which means the writer has to be wiser and more knowledgeable than the reader…Making art is in fact difficult, is supposed to be difficult. Writing school isn’t any easier than med school; it’s just shorter” (135, 138-139). “Now” is Beard putting herself directly into the essay; using stream of consciousness to string together one impression/image/thought to another. I’d call it controlled or selective stream of consciousness because while the essay does flow easily, Beard also tells the story of her father’s life and death and the speech she is supposed to be writing and while she’s telling you this, she (tongue in cheek) writes: “I don’t know how long this should be, but I could keep going forever, linking one thought to the next, one image to the other. Ha—I can see the faces three weeks in the future and the collective look of horror at the idea that the speaker’s sheaf of papers might be endless, self-perpetuating. The sheaf is not, but the story is. And I hope you’ll notice also that there is no story. It’s simply thinking, focused thinking, with words attached to memories attached to images and the images linked to form the elusive, still-blurry idea at its core. I can’t yet separate it from the background” (186). “What You Seek Is Seeking You” is my second favorite story/essay. It’s the story of two people meeting but before they do, you learn about them separately. It’s probably the lightest and most non-dark humor writing in the book. Loss and a haunting sense of sadness are not completely absent (this wouldn’t be a Beard essay otherwise) but if you want to dip your toe in to check the emotional water, this is the one with which to start. “Festival Days,” the last story in the book, is rather grim. It’s the story of a woman dying and her last journey abroad with friends? Sisters? The relationships are a bit hazy to me. If you’ve read them all consecutively, as I did, you may be a bit traumatized by the time you get to this one. It’s long and the story of the women traveling in India reminds the narrator (the author?) of people and events from her past, particularly a man she is no longer with, a man named M. This man and a woman named P.R. are connected to the narrator and her memories of them (good and bad) surface and repeat during this trip to India. There are also repeated images of unpleasant, apparently mundane cruelties of life in India. I found them very painful and disturbing and skimmed those few paragraphs. “Festival Days” is the most difficult story to read in the book, maybe because it’s the last and by the time I got to it I was a bit exhausted by the stream of consciousness writing and the sadness of the stories. While I did take breaks between the stories, I suggest to future readers: if you are finding yourself disturbed or worn out, maybe read this book over two months. Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days is a haunting, painful but beautiful read. It doesn’t waste your time with flippant nonsense (although you may wish to engage in some flippant nonsense when you’ve finished it). It is, despite its deceptively simple and fluid imagery, well-crafted. If you are looking for a challenge, I recommend this book. I also recommend her (much) earlier novel, In Zanesville. It is painfully funny and full of the horrible truths of youth, but won’t leave you traumatized.

  2. 5 out of 5

    AED

    Wow, if this woman isn't a genius of writing no one is. Jo Ann Beard's people come to life in both fiction and non-fiction, and the book makes a good case for letting go of hard lines between the genres. The thinking here is exquisite, the laughs are frequent and loud, and the tears are cleansing. THIS IS A GREAT GREAT BOOK. Wow, if this woman isn't a genius of writing no one is. Jo Ann Beard's people come to life in both fiction and non-fiction, and the book makes a good case for letting go of hard lines between the genres. The thinking here is exquisite, the laughs are frequent and loud, and the tears are cleansing. THIS IS A GREAT GREAT BOOK.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Vincent Scarpa

    "I'm wherever here is." ("Festival Days") A perfect collection. Fans of JAB's who have been diligent about always picking up a magazine featuring new work from her will find that nothing has gone uncollected here, and there are even a few new essays — or "nonfiction stories" as the publicity copy reads — to round out the rest. It's worth waiting until March of next year, I swear it. "I'm wherever here is." ("Festival Days") A perfect collection. Fans of JAB's who have been diligent about always picking up a magazine featuring new work from her will find that nothing has gone uncollected here, and there are even a few new essays — or "nonfiction stories" as the publicity copy reads — to round out the rest. It's worth waiting until March of next year, I swear it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rennie

    I love her, but these are uneven, as opposed to The Boys of My Youth where each piece is consistently outstanding. And it’s unfair to constantly compare an author’s work to one work that was so incomparably amazing, and I know that’s what happens with her, but it’s hard to avoid. I was surprised that the author’s note opens with an explanation that there are several stories among the essays, and how these things intermingle and why it matters or doesn’t here. I read some interviews and articles I love her, but these are uneven, as opposed to The Boys of My Youth where each piece is consistently outstanding. And it’s unfair to constantly compare an author’s work to one work that was so incomparably amazing, and I know that’s what happens with her, but it’s hard to avoid. I was surprised that the author’s note opens with an explanation that there are several stories among the essays, and how these things intermingle and why it matters or doesn’t here. I read some interviews and articles around it and I’m just not on board. Yeah, fact and fiction intertwine, of course, but the reasoning doesn’t work for me and I wasn’t as impressed with the craft of it as some other writers praising are. I dunno. If you’re a fiction reader there’s certainly more appeal there, but I like when she writes about herself, and does that weird thing she does where time bends backward and forward and in on itself, and she loops in lots of different thoughts and scenes and memories and lapses into steam of consciousness until suddenly you realize how emotionally affected by whatever was the story underneath it all. She does that here and it’s amazing and everything I’d hoped for. Interestingly, she does a good bit of writing about writing here, and I think that might be part of the problem. She’s a slow, careful writer, and doesn’t put out work because you want her to, only when she has something profound to say, it seems like. Nit what I expected but still her, so still good. A little favorite: “Him a man, and me just me.”

  5. 4 out of 5

    Ciara

    I call this collection, "Jo Ann Beard doing whatever the hell she wants." As she should.✨ I call this collection, "Jo Ann Beard doing whatever the hell she wants." As she should.✨

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    Well, this was lovely. I am a Jo Ann Beard superfan since Boys of My Youth, and this collection of (mostly) essays hit me exactly right. “Werner” and “Cheri” will stay with me for a while, but the piece I can’t get out of my head is “What You Seek Is Seeking You,” one of two fictional stories in the collection. I won’t spoil it, but it’s equal parts delightful and melancholy, and I would happily read an entire book about its characters. I’ve missed Jo Ann Beard so much.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    I guess it was Toni Morrison who said "write the book you want to read," if that book doesn't seem to exist yet. "Festival Days" is the book I wanted to read (though didn't know it) as well as write, but as luck would have it, I didn't need to because Jo Ann Beard already wrote it. A tremendous group of essays (maybe some are stories, fiction) which reminded me how much I love reading books of well-written essays. Joan Didion's work from the 60s-70s like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The Whi I guess it was Toni Morrison who said "write the book you want to read," if that book doesn't seem to exist yet. "Festival Days" is the book I wanted to read (though didn't know it) as well as write, but as luck would have it, I didn't need to because Jo Ann Beard already wrote it. A tremendous group of essays (maybe some are stories, fiction) which reminded me how much I love reading books of well-written essays. Joan Didion's work from the 60s-70s like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "The White Album" are also books of essays and are what made me want to write in the first place. I haven't written essays yet. Maybe I will. (So far just fiction, and one memoir.) But for the reader, these are what I'd call real page-turners, from the one that drew me to the book (an account of escaping a fire, the insanely unbelievable, yet true "Werner") to the title story, "Festival Days," which effortlessly weaves a trip to India with the death of relationships and a close friend, and so much more. "Maybe it Happened" is a terrifying account of a home invasion attack on a single person home alone - which does seem so real and raw it can't be fiction. But I don't know. In the last year, I have remembered a lot of my dreams, which for me is a bit unusual. Maybe it's the pandemic, but they're infused with anxiety/longing about things past, present and most of all, future. I find that Beard's stories often have this random dreamlike quality to them, and her gift is making a universe that's so rich with the connections. Or maybe it's because we're both Boomers, the same age (if a detail in one of the stories, she being 8 when Kennedy was assassinated, as I was, is true) and there is more past now than future - and the awareness of that colors it all.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Julie

    Breathtakingly wonderful essays and stories. Beautiful writing without that self-conscious, trying too hard, MFA feel to it. I want to read it straight through again. I borrowed this from the library but will purchase my own copy now. How have I never heard of this author before? Trigger warning: several stories deal with grief, cancer, hospice.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Tara Sullivan

    The stories in this book will stay with me for a long time. Gorgeous, heartbreaking prose.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Billie Hinton

    I discovered Jo Ann Beard’s rich, riveting work when a writing teacher assigned her essay The Fourth State Of Matter, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1996. That essay so wowed me, I couldn’t wait to read more. This forthcoming book, Festival Days, is a potent treasure, jammed with perfectly-observed details and a rhythm that tumbles forward like a song. Beard chronicles the commonplace and the unusual with equal beauty. Her ability to make time do what she wants is impressive. She can make i I discovered Jo Ann Beard’s rich, riveting work when a writing teacher assigned her essay The Fourth State Of Matter, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1996. That essay so wowed me, I couldn’t wait to read more. This forthcoming book, Festival Days, is a potent treasure, jammed with perfectly-observed details and a rhythm that tumbles forward like a song. Beard chronicles the commonplace and the unusual with equal beauty. Her ability to make time do what she wants is impressive. She can make it drag, while simultaneous pulling the reader forward, in The Tomb of Wrestling, and pushes it into quick leaps as if choreographing a fast-paced dance in the title piece Festival Days. As she so often does, each piece, and the collection as a whole, come to a smashing final beat, more than the sum of its parts, both separate and connected. A beautiful book, highly recommended.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Diane Payne

    Jo Ann Beard's collection of thought-provoking essays and stories stay with you long after reading them. I've read much of her work, and the mention of dogs and lovers seemed familiar (probably read some of them in literary magazines earlier) and made me curious if this was a new dog, a new lover. The final story, which is the title of the collection, felt not only like an intimate tribute to her friend, but as a reflection of herself, and on this grey first day of a new year, made me think of t Jo Ann Beard's collection of thought-provoking essays and stories stay with you long after reading them. I've read much of her work, and the mention of dogs and lovers seemed familiar (probably read some of them in literary magazines earlier) and made me curious if this was a new dog, a new lover. The final story, which is the title of the collection, felt not only like an intimate tribute to her friend, but as a reflection of herself, and on this grey first day of a new year, made me think of travels, lovers, friends, and how this collection provided me with much companionship during this rather isolated pandemic.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    The essays/stories in this collection are striking, memorable, exquisite, that kind of thing. The writer's stock-in-trade is a third-person interpretation of stream-of-consciousness (think a third-person Mrs. Dalloway). The narrator is telling a story, factual or partially factual, in real time, punctuated frequently with flashbacks to other times in the protagonist's life. These lookbacks to childhood and other significant memories have the feel of life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments, in no s The essays/stories in this collection are striking, memorable, exquisite, that kind of thing. The writer's stock-in-trade is a third-person interpretation of stream-of-consciousness (think a third-person Mrs. Dalloway). The narrator is telling a story, factual or partially factual, in real time, punctuated frequently with flashbacks to other times in the protagonist's life. These lookbacks to childhood and other significant memories have the feel of life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments, in no small part because the characters are facing death, but it is not clear if it is the storyteller or the character who is their source. While beautifully wrought, the memories interrupt the flow of what, in several of the pieces, are tense and intense stories of survival in life-threatening conditions. My desire to know if the hero lives or dies pushed me to speed through passages that beg for close reading. I can't call this technique a flaw; I can say it creates a sense of necessity to read the stories a second time. I don't know when I've read anything better than this book. It's a read, read, read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kate

    I have been waiting for a new Jo Ann Beard essay collection for what seems like ages. I still remember the day I read The Fourth State of Matter from The Boys of My Youth . I was meeting a blind date and made him wait until I finished. That essay is still the gold standard but there are several good ones here, including Cheri, which had me sobbing and Werner, a gripping story about a man in a burning building which, like most of her essays, weaves about ten different stories into a quilt of an e I have been waiting for a new Jo Ann Beard essay collection for what seems like ages. I still remember the day I read The Fourth State of Matter from The Boys of My Youth . I was meeting a blind date and made him wait until I finished. That essay is still the gold standard but there are several good ones here, including Cheri, which had me sobbing and Werner, a gripping story about a man in a burning building which, like most of her essays, weaves about ten different stories into a quilt of an essay. It seems ornery to say that there were a few that fell flat, mostly because they were a bit too rambling (though not the essay about writing rambling essays, which is great).

  14. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    I super-love Jo Ann Beard, and these were amazingly written, but cumulatively it was just too much for me right now. Her strength is weaving the present with the past using these really incredible snapshot memories, but the present in most of these essays was really traumatic. My favorite was The Tomb of Wrestling.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Honey Rand

    More extraordinary writing from the extraordinary writer who gave us The Fourth State of Matter. Stories fiction and nonfiction and even a few about writing are in the book. They vary in length and subject matter, though death and distress seem to dominate. This is also a book about choice. And, today, like never before, it is relevant. This audiobook was well-narrated.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Robyn

    Notable Books #15

  17. 4 out of 5

    Holly

    Riveting. And the ducks! And the hospice. So sad and true.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    This is just a brutal and beautiful piece of writing.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kerry

    Beard is the most incredible talent. I'm in awe every time I read her. Beard is the most incredible talent. I'm in awe every time I read her.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    Highly personal, often painful, essays and stories. The titular piece brilliantly conveys the agony and mortification of loss.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sara

    Beard is a wonder. My review, in Washington Post’s Book World: https://t.co/hx7oN0HU8c Beard is a wonder. My review, in Washington Post’s Book World: https://t.co/hx7oN0HU8c

  22. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    This collection was a mix of 2-3 star stories/essays and 4-5 star stories/essays = average 3.75 stars. Good, not great overall.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jenny

    3.5 stars rounded up. This is a HEAVY read, especially the last story. If you have recently experienced loss (pet, loved one), I'm not sure this is the book for you right now. 3.5 stars rounded up. This is a HEAVY read, especially the last story. If you have recently experienced loss (pet, loved one), I'm not sure this is the book for you right now.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Megan

  25. 4 out of 5

    linda rubin

  26. 5 out of 5

    Mad Percolator

  27. 5 out of 5

    Julie

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jay Littman

  29. 5 out of 5

    Anna

  30. 5 out of 5

    Eliana

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