You Think That's Bad: Stories Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Mar 22 2011
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"Stories so good, so meaty, so brilliant, that you will want to read them over and over, unearth the subtle notes, try to understand what drives people to do what they do." -- Sarah Willis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Why isn’t Jim Shepard more famous? A finalist for the National Book Award, he is best known for his obsessive and fearless plundering of the trunks of history, [and here] he summons a gallery of real and imagined anti-heroes.... With empathy, intelligence, and a wit that finds its mark like lightning, Shepard explodes and re-creates the reader’s notions of reality, like a word-wielding Zeus, transporting us light years beyond what we think we know of the world." —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair ("Best Books of 2011 You Haven't Read")
"A short-fiction master, [Shepard] here pushes into new territory, giving us 11 stories about characters at the end of their endurance: contradictory, foolishly brave (or bravely foolish), clinging to hope beyond the point that hope is any longer a reasonable alternative." —David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“Each one of these eleven stories stands out for its masterly fusion of technique and subject.” —Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
“[Shepard’s] kaleidoscopic . . . genius resides in his omnivorous curiosity and imaginative inventiveness. [His] stories have the strangeness and bell-like clarity of truth [and] the execution is so sure-handed that the reader is drawn in with complete and effortless authority.” —Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post
“Nobody writes stories like Jim Shepard. They’re cool and sophisticated with an irresistibly wayward humor. At the same time, they’re not afraid to stake everything on moments of pathos.” —Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier
“Immersive, visceral . . . [Shepard’s] writing is so good it’s borderline gaudy.” —Jacob Schraer, Portland Mercury
“Shepard’s prose never fails to be devastatingly handsome, accreting hard particles of technical description and tough-mouthed man-talk before reaching a lyrical climax . . . He’s our leading miniaturist of massive catastrophe.” —Jennifer Schuessler, Slate
"Remarkably inventive. Shepard moves seamlessly across a wide-ranging fictional landscape with verve, irony and humor . . . [You Think That’s Bad] ranks with the best short story collections of the past 40 years, which puts him in the heady company of such masters as John Cheever, John Updike, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.” —William Hogan, Albany Times Union
“Potent enough to stamp Shepard as one of this generation’s short story masters . . . [His] language is precise, the scope of research impressive, and he taps obscure historical events to terrific and terrifying effect.” —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Oregonian
“Shepard has traced his own odd line through contemporary fiction engaging everything from historical figures to the most outrageous landscapes of the imagination . . . These stories bring their first-person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and depsairing at once . . . A stunner.” —David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“The stories in You Think That’s Bad are powerful reminders that institutions cannot be considered apart from the individuals who populate them. Armies, empires, corporations, and film crews shape the lives and dreams of countless millions, even as their own fates are made or broken by a few visionary leaders or disobedient drones . . . Shepard finds fascinating ways to consider how the global and the personal are inextricably intertwined, and he never commands less than your full attention . . . Magnificent.” —Justin Taylor, Bookforum
“An exciting collection of stories [that] cast light on particulars so concrete that they call up the love, hate, despair, and—mostly starkly—alienation that we all feel, a feat of alchemy that’s rarer than it ought to be in fiction . . . Many of these stories explore extremes of human endurance and endeavor (and the consequent toll on human relationships), though a few plumb the other depths to which Shepard is an expert guide: human underachievement.” —Sarah L. Courteau, Barnes and Noble Review
“Beautifully written . . . What keeps you reading this eclectic and eccentric collection of stories is the emotional truth of the characters, and their doomed efforts to connect to the people in their lives they love most.” —Ann Levin, The Miami Herald
“Exceptional . . . Shepard reminds us that the short story is an art form unto itself, one that he has mastered in his own elegant and expansive way.” —Scott Ditzler, The Kansas City Star
“If ventriloquism is a lost art, Mr. Shepard has found it . . . he can move the lips of anyone: a special effects designer on a Japanese film, a 15th-century accomplice to dozens of murders, a retired American soldier reeling with post-traumatic stress disorder. [He nails] entire worlds together with teeming, precise detail.” —Susannah Meadows, The New York Times
“Stunning . . . Cinematic . . . Shepard’s cataclysmic renderings are both terrifying and awe-inspiring. There’s a word for that too—sublime. —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Jim Shepard, who thinks big and writes short, [is] without a doubt the most ambitious short story writer in America . . . In just a few pages, [his] short stories do the work of entire novels in capturing different places and times . . . In every story, Shepard sets his imagination (and ambition) at full throttle. In every story he lets his fancy run . . . A welcome reminder that fiction needn’t be a walk around the precincts of a writer’s experience.” —Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“Beautiful, essential . . . [Shepard is] one of the most perceptive, intelligent and fearless writers of fiction in America today . . . Each of the eleven stories in his new book is heartbreaking and true, and not one is less than perfect . . . [his] evocation of catastrophes both small and large, real and fictional, is an amazing study in contrast and loss, and it’s exquisitely written.” —Michael Schaub, NPR
“A master . . . Shepard’s taut, high-concept, research-dependent fiction covers a bracing, career-long range of hobbyhorses and obsessions . . . And his preference for historical quests, for real people’s big gestures, may help keep American short fiction from falling asleep in the snug little precincts of its usual subject matter.” —Thomas Mallon, The New York Times Book Review
"Excellent . . . brutal, funny, cerebral [and] further proof that Shepard is one of the most catholic writers in America . . . It's exhilarating just to make that list [of his characters], to recall the variety of forms and subjects and voices. And it's even more exhilarating to see what Shepard does to and within these forms, how he can make Blackwater-esque jargon funny, how he can make the end of the world and the end of a marriage equally terrifying, how he can show that we're closest to people when we're hurting them . . . In Shepard's hands the sense of doom is often transformed by the biting wit and his deep affection for his characters and their fates." —Brock Clarke, The Boston Globe
“Exceptionally imaginative [and] highly original…There is so much knowledge, insight, feeling, and artistry in each engrossing Shepard story, he must defy some law of literary physics.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred
“Jim Shepard is a shapeshifting wizard: in some stories he seems to be a historian on hallucinogens; in others a scholarly purveyor of speculative fiction. Whether he’s writing about the past or the future, Shepard combines a wild imagination with a stunning gift for mimesis. You Think That’s Bad is his best collection yet.” —Jay McInerney
“Shepard’s elegant, darkly-tinged stories of love [offer] humor in unexpected places.” —Publishers Weekly
“Shepard translates the world for us. I felt so grateful reading this book because he has metabolized, thought about, researched, learned, gleaned, and understood so many complicated aspects of the world we live in. And not just our world now but past worlds, new worlds, internal worlds, external worlds. He is a time traveler with insight, and we are just plain lucky to have him bringing back these treasures.” —Aimee Bender
“Shepard’s talent is so various and canny he can write about seemingly anything and make it thrilling to us. His writerly eye is acute. His instinct around a sentence is virtuosic and masterful.” —Richard Ford
About the Author
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three previous story collections. His stories are published regularly in such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Zoetrope: All-Story, Playboy, and Vice, among others. “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” from this collection, appears in The Best American Short Stories 2010. “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You,” also from this collection, appears in PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011. He lives with his wife and their three children in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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Other writers to often settle for remaining in their comfort zone; by contrast Shepard stand out for bold leaps in genre, style, and voice, bringing his empathic spirit to topics few others would tackle. . Consider his novel, "Project X," which pushed past the shallow moral outrage that followed the Columbine tragedy and explored a school shooting from the perspective of the perpetrators. Indeed, in addition to his deep research, his black sense of humor, and his gift for characterization, it is his deep pathos, his easy rapport with the exotic, which chimes through this author's work.
The string which binds the stories in//You Think That's Bad// is that empathy ladled onto our common existential tragedy - sure you are alone, struggling, and going to die, but at least we're all in it together. We all want to understand and to be understood. All of us want to be loved. Not that many of us - or Shepard's characters for that matter - achieve these goals. Many, perhaps most, of those inhabiting these stories aren't particularly nice, indeed they often range from the damaged to the outright cruel, but they are all in their own way familiar, even while being impossibly alien.
Real life explorer Freya Stark flees her egomaniacal mother, whose machinations have led to her sister Vera's death, to search the Persian wastes for Alamut, the lost citadel of the Assassins. The creator/effect artist of Gojira (Godzilla) must balance his troubled marriage, post-war Japanese culture, and the pain of his past against his need to create something unique. As Papua New Guinea tries to kill a soldier in World War II, he struggles with a love triangle back home, one leg of which is his own brother. A peasant in 15th Century France finds himself bound in service to the infamous child murderer, Gilles de Rais.
Part of the delight in Shepard's work is how he helps us inhabit these dispirit milieus, to get to know and feel for these distant characters, even as he deftly layers in an array of fascinating details. Ever wonder about how the Netherlands will manage to hold back the ocean against global climate change? Might you be curious to learn that the Godzilla costume was so broiling that the actor needed to be removed from it every fifteen minutes and that each time over a cup of sweat was drained from each boots? Or perhaps you're curious what it is like to be married to an engineer working in the black world of secret military research?
Yes, Shepard answers all these questions and more; he is a sort of time-hopping sorcerous prose genius with a gift for research. Yet he isn't a writer who feels the need to batter us with facts. Settings and factoids always, always here work to uncover a sense of something true and universal, even as they aid in his telling of a great story. More than anything that may be the source of Shepard's genius, the ability to take the most alien of people in the most unimaginable places and demonstrate how, despite vast chasms of distance and time, we are all far more alike than we are different. We struggle, we strive, and we all enjoy a great tale when it is well told. On that last score, few writers can hold a quill or a candle to the great Jim Shepard.
If you're a reader who looks for more from fiction than a good yarn, Shepard is your man. In "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" Shepard takes you to a scientific station "on a wind-blasted slope of the Weisssfluhjoch 3,500 meters above Davos" where four "Frozen Idiots" are studying the conditions that turn Alpine snow from a ski trail into an avalanche. He goes back to the mountains again, this time to the Himalayas, in "Poland Is Watching." His protagonist is a Pole who sets out for the summit of Nanga Parbat in the dead of winter because the challenge of climbing it in good weather doesn't count for much in his book. You will cringe from this authoritative story of the incredible hardships and risks involved.
"Gojira, King of the Monsters" couldn't be more timely or more realistic. It is a story built around the Japanese fear of a nuclear disaster, cast in this case as a monster created by nature in retribution for man's many assaults on planet earth. Shepard writes here with the strength of detail and insight which Haruki Murakami brought to "Underground," his remarkable account of the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack and its effects on the Japanese psyche.
As the collection's title, "you think that's bad, " tells you, these stories are gritty; tough emotional going in places, peopled by men, women, boys and girls you would as soon lived in the next block over if not on the other side of town. Their redeeming qualities are not what set them apart; it is their self-centeredness, their indifference to family and friends, their willingness to sacrifice others for their own satisfactions.
If I missed anything in this collection, its the absence of a story on the lighter side like "Batting Against Castro" from Shepard's first published collection. It is about a pair of loopy ex-major league ball players trying to make their way back to the bigs by playing in Cuba. They don't make it there either, but it was great fun reading about their effort.
He writes short stories that you wish were novels, and then realize they're perfect the way they are. Reading Shepard in always time very well spent.
Jim Shepard has been kind enough to take you there. Savor every one of these stories.