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“A stunner. . . . These stories bring their first person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated.” —Los Angeles Times
“In just a few pages, Jim Shepard’s short stories do the work of entire novels. . . . Short story writers almost never get described as ambitious . . . and yet there’s no better word for Jim Shepard, who thinks big and writes short, without a doubt the most ambitious story writer in America.” —The Daily Beast
“If ventriloquism is a lost art, Mr. Shepard has found it. In these 11 short stories he shows he can move the lips of anyone: a special-effects designer on a Japanese film, a 15th-century French accomplice to dozens of murders, a retired American soldier reeling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then there’s Mr. Shepard’s realistic staging, nailing entire worlds together with teeming, precise detail.” —The New York Times
“Shepard’s cataclysmic renderings are both terrifying and awe-inspiring. . . . Sublime.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“You Think That’s Bad is potent enough to stamp Shepard as one of this generation’s short story masters. . . . Shepard’s language is precise, the scope of his research impressive, and he taps obscure historical events to terrific and terrifying effect.” —The Oregonian
“Each one of these eleven stories stands out for its masterly fusion of technique and subject. . . . What voices!” —San Francisco Chronicle
“There are few writers today with more artful gifts for active, authentic description. Shepard doesn’t pick one or two ‘telling details’; he propels the reader through whole bravura paragraphs of them. . . . His fine contrivances of cerebration and feeling can remind one of Richard Powers at his best. And his preference for historical questions, 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.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Each of the eleven stories . . . is heartbreaking and true, and not one is less than perfect. . . . One of the most perceptive, intelligent and fearless writers of fiction in America today.” —Michael Schaub, “Books We Like,” NPR
“So good, so meaty, so brilliant, that you will want to read [these stories] over and over, unearth the subtle notes, try to understand what drives people to do what they do. . . . Here’s the next book that you’ve been waiting for.” —The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“I'm hard-pressed to think of any author who can match Shepard for variety of subject matter, or anyone else with such an instinct for balance between a character's emotional conflicts and the task at hand. . . . These eleven stories may be set as far afield as 15th century France and Holland in the not-so-distant future, but each one shares the dark heart of the human condition at its core.” —Scott Ditzler, Kansas City Star
“The ‘contests’ of Doctorow’s historical figures and MacLeod’s melancholy protagonists seem humdrum compared with the travails that occur in Shepard’s kaleidoscopic universe. His genius resides in his omnivorous curiosity and imaginative inventiveness. . . . Shepard’s stories have the strangeness and bell-like clarity of truth. . . . Shepard has realized a vision of literature that is, in its sideways fashion, legitimately unique.” —The Washington Post
“Dark and slyly funny.” —Vanity Fair
“Exhilarating. . . . What we need is not a writer who can make the past relevant, but rather a writer who can show us that it already is.” —The Boston Globe
“Shepard is the only short-story writer I have ever read whose collections come with bibliographies as a matter of course. . . . Humor is Shepard’s . . . constant; It humanizes his larger-than-life protagonists and helps keep his stories from becoming research papers. Though he has an obvious camaraderie with George Saunders, Karen Russell, and other leading lights of the absurdist-fabulist school, he is ineluctably a realist writer.” —Justin Taylor, Bookforum
“[Shepard] is our leading miniaturist of massive catastrophe, the Jon Krakauer . . . of the MFA set.” —Slate
“Overwhelming, intense, involving—even frightening. . . . Shepard is genuinely taken with his subjects, and he describes their lives in a rich and exciting style.” —Portland Mercury
“Impressive. . . . These aren’t ‘write what you know’ stories, and Shepard gets credit for a wide-ranging collection that wrings poignancy out of every subject it touches, from the search for subatomic particles to the construction of Mothra.” —The Onion’s A.V. Club
“Another masterpiece. . . . Shepard packs so much history and empathy into each story.” —Time Out Chicago
“Time, distance, nationality and profession pose no barrier to Shepard, who combines research with imagination to produce startlingly well-written stories that reaffirm the expansive possibilities of fiction.” —The Miami Herald
I live in Washington, D.C., a town full of sharp people who furrow their brows when asked if they read fiction. Nonfiction is their bag -- not all that made-up stuff. They want to learn something when they pick up a book. Putting aside the argument that gaining insight into the human condition might do our thought leaders more good than reading another policy brief, the other appropriate response to this objection is to shove one of Jim Shepard's books into their hands.
Like Shepard's last book, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2007, You Think That's Bad is an astonishing collection of stories whose varied settings, characters, and themes are the result of a hell of a lot of research. This is evident in the extensive list of source materials that Shepard provides. (Or perhaps flaunts. Well, who cares? He deserves some credit for combing through the Municipality of Rotterdam's Waterplan 2 Rotterdam.)
All eleven of these stories have appeared elsewhere, one as a stand-alone novella, the others in magazines including the stalwart New Yorker and newcomer Electric Literature. Even ardent fans of the short story must concede that, when reading an author's output of several years at a sitting, the plots and characters tend to bleed into each other, with perhaps two or three truly memorable tales. That's not a hazard when reading Jim Shepard. You Think That's Bad includes stories that feature a hydraulic engineer working in the climate-changed Netherlands of the near future, where water is overwhelming the country's dike system; a young Swiss researcher who becomes obsessed with studying the instability of snow after his brother dies in an avalanche he believes he may have caused; the Japanese special effects guru who took inspiration for the movie monster Godzilla from the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a peasant boy of the 1400s pressed into the service of a sadistic French nobleman who kills children for pleasure; and a group of Polish climbers who defy the elements, and their wives, to scale mountains in the middle of winter.
Many of the 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. The mystery of motive propels these stories along, the crystal transparency of Shepard's language only emphasizing his characters' inscrutability. As a character who's run off life's rails says in "Boys Town," "I never know what I'm going to do next." Shepard's characters often seem as puzzled as everyone else about why they do what they do (or, at least as often, why they don't do what they should be doing).
"Netherlands Lives with Water," the story set in Rotterdam not many years hence, is a standout in a book of standouts. (It appeared in last year's edition of Best American Short Stories.) In this tale, Shepard strikes a hair's-breadth balance between gathering apocalyptic events and the fraying marriage of the reticent narrator and his wife. It's impossible to read Shepard's account of how storms breach the city's water defenses without thinking of the recent tsunami and the nuclear reactor disaster in Japan -- a country that, like the Netherlands, has staked its future and its infrastructure on the calculations of supposedly infallible engineers. This is the sort of somber intersection between life and art that should give those who scoff at fiction real pause.
And the story includes one of the most devastating descriptions I've read of a failed relationship between two people who have long loved each other:
We went on vacations and fielded each other's calls and took turns reading Henk to sleep and let slip away the miracle that was there between us when we first came together. We hunkered down before the wind picked up. We modeled risk management for our son when instead we could have embraced the freefall of that astonishing Here, this is yours to hold. We told each other I think I know when we should've said Lead me farther through your amazing, astonishing interior.
Romantic relationships in Shepard's stories don't fare too well, generally because his male characters are constantly disappointing women who expect more. (With the exception of "The Track of the Assassins," which imagines intrepid traveler Freya Stark's early expedition to find the stronghold of an esoteric Shia sect, Shepard's central characters are men.) He elaborates on this theme whether offering glimpses of the personal life of Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects master who conjures Godzilla even as he grows increasingly aloof from his family, or a particle physicist who, in his wife's estimation, possesses a "capacity for certain kinds of curiosities and [an] apparent incapacity for others."
Shepard only strikes a flat note when he turns to modern stories that focus directly on the failure of human relationships, without the foreground of an Alpine slope, a climate in freefall, or a particle accelerator. Take "In Cretaceous Seas," which begins promisingly with a spine-tingling description of the predators who swam the Tethys Ocean millions of years ago. But the ocean turns out only to serve as a metaphor for the ill-lived life of "this guy -- we'll call him Conroy, because that's his fucking name," who's "been a crappy son, a shitty brother, a lousy father, a lazy helpmate, a wreck of a husband." The story catalogues his sins for a couple of pages, and then it's over-and-out. "Boys Town," about an army vet living with his mother, though more fully realized, is another how-low-can-he-go? tale.
Shepard has done some brilliant work in this vein. "Courtesy for Beginners," about a boy's summer camp trip from hell, and "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," about a high school football player out for blood to impress his estranged father, both of which appear in Like You'd Understand Anyway, are memorable tales of male self-abasement. In fact, he's done this kind of thing so well already that perhaps he should start debating whether to do it at all any more.
But this is a quibble. You Think That's Bad is an exciting collection of stories that show what the form can be. They cast light on particulars so concrete that they call up the love, hate, despair, and -- most starkly -- alienation that we all feel, a feat of alchemy that's rarer than it ought to be in fiction. These are stories that even skeptics who want their books to be about something will appreciate.
--Sarah L. Courteau
Q: Please Look After Mom is written in four distinct voices: a daughter, a son, a father, and finally "Mom" herself. Why did you decide to structure the novel in this way? Which voice came to you first?
A: Human beings are multi-dimensional. But what we know about our mothers doesn't always tell the whole story of who they are. I wanted to show a 'Mom' who was a complex and profound human being. As it was impossible to do this in a single person's voice, I needed multiple narrators. In the novel, the voices of the daughter, son and father are narrated in the second person, "you" and the third person, "her". It's only the mother who uses the first person. I had in mind the fact that, when a woman becomes a mother, she no longer gets to speak or sometimes even think in terms of that “I”. Of the four different voices in the book, the mother's is perhaps the most vivid and powerful. When I was writing it, it felt as though my mother's hand had held—even gripped—my authorial hand, so that she could tell her own story.
Q: This is an extremely personal novel, and readers will undoubtedly think about their relationship with their own mothers while reading. Did you draw on your relationship with your own family while writing the book?
A: My own family relationships do in fact make up the background, but the episodes in the novel were invented, or altered from reality. My own mother for example, thankfully, has never gone missing. But, speaking at a symbolic level, many mothers of our generation, I believe, have gone missing or remain neglected.
Q: Has your mother read this novel? If so, what did she think/say to you about it?
A: That she was proud of me for having written it.
Q: In Please Look After Mom, you beautifully describe many elements of Korean culture—the Full Moon Harvest, the food, clothing, etc.—that most Americans may not be familiar with. Are there any traditions that you are particularly excited to share with readers here?
A: The novel's various aspects of Korean culture came up naturally as I was describing the everyday life of the ‘Mom' character. The Chuseok holiday, or the Full Moon Harvest, in Korea is similar to Thanksgiving in America. On that day, family members all over the country return to their hometowns. In order to show gratitude to our ancestors, offerings are prepared from the season's harvest. We also pay our respects at their gravesites. On a clear night, you can see the full moon on Chuseok. There's a popular saying that translates roughly to, "May your life be as plentiful and full of joy as a Chuseok night." It expresses the sentiment that the person's life will be as bright as the full moon during the harvest festival. Last year, I got to spend my first American Thanksgiving in New York. I was invited to have dinner by a friend who'd been living in New York for a long time. Turkey was served, of course, and I had a wonderful time sharing the meal with my host's family. Just as Americans celebrate the day over turkey, Koreans spend Chuseok sharing songpyeon, or half-moon shaped rice cakes, with their families. I was delighted by the similarities between the two holidays. Dining with someone, especially these days, isn't simply a matter of sating one's hunger—preparing a meal with someone and dining under the same roof is of course a way of connecting. You can drink tea with just anyone, but to dine with someone shows how close you are to that person. In my book, ‘Mom' is always preparing warm meals, often to send them to family members living out in the city. I wanted food to play an important role in my book—a symbol of warmth that can't be expressed with words. I wish I could prepare for my American readers the many Korean dishes that appear in Please Look After Mom, so that we could share them together!
But, moving beyond food, Korea has a number of beautifully elegant Buddhist temples, such as Hwaeomsa, Pusoksa and Haeinsa, and seowon (a kind of Confucian academy) such as Dosanseowon and Byungsanseowon. These are sacred and quiet spaces, containing the spirit and culture of the country. You should definitely pay them a visit if you are ever in Korea. If you have an interest in music, try listening to pansori, Korean traditional music, which contains a different resonance than Western harmonics, and expresses a distinctly Korean sorrow and humor.
Q: Your novel is being published in many countries and people around the world are identifying with the characters you have depicted. What are some of the universal truths of the relationship between mothers and children that you explore in the novel?
A: The line by Mom when she finds her mother's soul ("Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life?") expresses, I believe, a universal truth. When I'd written that sentence, I felt that the work was complete. We all need mothers, regardless of who we are. Even those who are currently mothers!
Q:One theme that runs throughout the novel is that of personal dreams versus sacrifice for family. Do you feel that this struggle is different for older and younger generations?
A: There's that old saying that God couldn't do everything himself, so he created mothers. No matter how much society advances, there's bound to be some gap between a woman's desire for self-actualization and her need to give of herself for her family. Of course, the situation has improved a great deal, but the dilemma persists. It still holds that one person's development comes from someone else's care and sacrifice: nothing and no one can replace a mother. I think humankind has been able to sustain itself because, at its center, there's this entity called, “Mom.”
Q: You are now an extremely well-known and widely respected author in Korea. Has this fame dramatically changed your life, and your experience of being a writer? What kind of responses did the novel receive in Korea?
A: I published my first work of fiction in a Korean literary journal at twenty-two. From age sixteen to thirty, I was always working. I went to high school at night and worked during the day for a company that made stereo systems. When I was in college, I would tutor children, write and do research for the school newspaper, and read to those who'd suddenly gone blind. Even after my first book was published, I worked all sorts of jobs, any really, that would allow me to write: an editor at a publishing house, a writer for a classical radio station or for magazines, etc. My experience at these jobs provided vivid material for when it came time to write. But it was when I was about to turn thirty, when I published my second book, that people began to really pay attention. It was totally unexpected. The book was a collection of nine stories, and within six-months after it was published, 300,000 copies had been sold. It was the first time that a short-story collection had done so well in Korea. Everyone was surprised. For the next twenty years, my readers have stayed with me for every book I published. Thanks to their support, I have been able to live a life of great freedom, and to devote all of my time to writing. This was a dramatic shift for me. Writing and my personal life became like two sides of the same coin. Whatever I was experiencing at a personal level in Korean society, I tried novelizing to the most truthful and powerful extent possible, and my readers seemed to actively engage with my work and sympathize with it. Even today, I write a little every day without being tied down to anything else. I only feel free when I'm writing, and the best way I know how to give back for this invaluable freedom is to write in a way that engages people—and will make readers curious about what the next work will be like!
Q: Although this is your first book to be published in English, you've written numerous other works of fiction. When did you first begin to write and what topics were you drawn to?
A: I'm the product of my mother's influence. My mother would look so happy when she saw me reading a book. I started out reading to bring more happiness to my mother, who always looked so tired. Even before I was ten, it was my dream to become a writer. I began writing fiction on my own when I was in high school. Of course, it was an exercise more than anything. I wrote in any form I wanted—stories, essays, poems—pieces where often, the beginning didn't even fit with the end. I was a young girl who'd moved to Seoul from the countryside. I lied about my age to get a job at a company. Back then, South Korea was an industrial society and not yet a democracy, and there were disputes between the workers and the company, demonstrations almost every day. Hearing cries of protest from outside, I would lay out my notebook on the conveyor belt and write. Writing was what got me through those years; five years later, I formally made my debut as a writer.
I wrote, wanting to produce a work that expressed human beauty and its almost magical strength even when confronted with the most tragic situations. I wanted, too, to write about respect and compassion for life. Now that I am older I have these same hopes. But I also hope that after they read my works, readers will be seized by the longing to remember and see again someone they'd forgotten, or some aspect of life they may have overlooked. Whenever I see people drowning in suffering and sadness, I feel a strong compulsion to return to my writing. I would like for my work to in a way play a maternal role, of standing by those who feel sorrow, whether it is of social or personal origin.
Q: Tell us more about your writing habits. When and where do you like to write?
A: I like best to write from 3 in the morning till 9 in the morning. I like the feeling of writing in darkness and working myself, little by little, towards light. One of my habits as I write is that I often wash my hands in cold water.
Q: Is there a message that you hope readers take away from Please Look After Mom?
A: I'll point you to the novel's epigraph, by Franz Liszt: “Love, so long as you can love.” And I'd hope you'd remember, and realize again the plain truth that your mother was not born that way, that she too had to become a mother. Taking the time to think about your mother might also mean taking the time to think about yourself. If anyone wants to call his or her mother after reading this book, it would please me very much.
Q: Lastly, you are living here in the U.S. this year, studying at Columbia. What have you enjoyed most about living in New York?
A: I'm very much enjoying the tremendous variety of culture New York has to offer: MoMA, The Guggenheim, The Met, The Frick, The Morgan Library, The Whitney. I'm also visiting small galleries in Chelsea. I've been going to the opera, theater, musicals, the ballet and the cinema. I'm also trying all sorts of cuisines. Restaurants from all of the world seem to be gathered in New York. The beauty, spectacle and drama that echoes at the Metropolitan Opera, especially, is something you can't get in Korea, so I have acquired season tickets. But, “culture” is everywhere here; the streets of Manhattan themselves feel like theater. When I'm strolling around, I always have the pleasure of finding something new that I didn't notice the day before.
Posted March 23, 2011
The single thread that ties the eleven stories together, setting, winds its way through the pages a dense, provincial artifice. I believe very little in the characters, they are swallowed up the very landscape meant to define them in their encounters with disaster, impending and otherwise. Or man as an unnatural force, "Classical Scenes of Farewell" which is a typical serial killer telling. The backdrop is nature's wrath and a catastrophe to the storyline in "The Netherlands Lives with Water," and many of the other tales. It makes for claustrophobic reading and I'm one for the wide open, sans trumped up natural calamities.
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Posted January 4, 2012
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Posted February 29, 2012
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