four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
53-July-Aug-2011
By: 
Jim Shepard
user_rating: 
0

missing imageJim Shepard is a professor of creative writing at Williams College and the author of several novels and short story collections. His previous book, Like You'd Understand, Anyway won the Story Prize, and was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award.

The Story: Jim Shepard's stories are united across continents and time by the shared strengths and weaknesses of their protagonists: they are ambitious men who are bent on success, who are prone to self-deception, and whose personal lives are in disarray. Each one struggles in situations beyond hope and remains helpless to avoid his fate. Among the stories are "The Netherlands Lives With Water," in which an engineer tries to find a solution to the floods that menace his country because of global warming; "Gojira, King of the Monsters," which portrays the special effects director of Godzilla struggling with his domestic life; and "Poland Is Watching, which is narrated by a mountaineer attempting to scale the world's ninth tallest mountain in the bitter cold.
Knopf. 240 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 9780307594822.

NPR 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Shepard's 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

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The best fiction writers strive for emotional truth, so that we, the readers, feel less alone in our own loss, confusion, frustration or whatever emotional conflict a story circles. Mr. Shepard deftly offers us those emotional truths, and more." Sarah Willis

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"I'm making these stories sound incredibly grim, and in less capable hands they would be: But 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

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"These stories bring their first-person narrators right up to the point of obliteration, leaving us exhilarated and despairing at once." David Ulin

The Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Shepard's language is precise, the scope of research impressive, and he taps obscure historical events to terrific and terrifying effect--the ‘this really happened' thread through these stories gives them heft and depth, while Shepard's fictional imagination takes us further than we think we'd like to go, than we think we should go, into the dark heart of despair." Lydia Yuknavitch

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Historical fiction is typically so ample and epilogic that the ‘historical short story' may seem a contradiction in terms, but Shepard has made himself, in particular, a master of this small, tricky subgenre." Thomas Mallon

Critical Summary

Critics concur that Jim Shepard is at the top of his game with this well-written and well-researched set of short stories in You Think That's Bad. The New York Times anticipates that these stories "may help keep American short fiction from falling asleep in the snug little precincts of its usual subject matter." Shepard, with his depth of knowledge and impending sense of doom, makes both the past and the future acutely relevant to our present. As each protagonist tries to climb their (usually metaphorical) mountain and hurtles towards his ruin, we are led through the tragedies of human weakness and the dangers of unleashing a chain of events that may ultimately cascade beyond our control.