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Like You'd Understand, Anyway: Storiesby Jim Shepard
Synopses & Reviews
Following his widely acclaimed Project X and Love and Hydrogen — "Here is the effect of these two books," wrote the Chicago Tribune: "A reader finishes them buzzing with awe" — Jim Shepard now gives us his first entirely new collection in more than a decade.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway reaches from Chernobyl to Bridgeport, with a host of narrators only Shepard could bring to pitch-perfect life. Among them: a middle-aged Aeschylus taking his place at Marathon, still vying for parental approval. A maddeningly indefatigable Victorian explorer hauling his expedition, whaleboat and all, through the Great Australian Desert in midsummer. The first woman in space and her cosmonaut lover, caught in the star-crossed orbits of their joint mission. Two Texas high school football players at the top of their food chain, soliciting their fathers' attention by leveling everything before them on the field. And the rational and compassionate chief executioner of Paris, whose occupation, during the height of the Terror, eats away at all he holds dear.
Brimming with irony, compassion, and withering humor, these eleven stories are at once eerily pertinent and dazzlingly exotic, and they showcase the work of a protean, prodigiously gifted writer at the height of his form. Reading Jim Shepard, according to Michael Chabon, "is like encountering our national literature in microcosm."
"Following the novel Project X and Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected Stories, Shepard's new collection takes in landscapes as diverse as 1986 Chernobyl in 'The Zero Meter Diving Team,' to 1840s down under in 'The First South Central Australian Expedition.' It's clear that Shepard has done his research in these 11 first-person tales-be it on Alaskan tidal waves for a story about a man contemplating a vasectomy while reliving a childhood tragedy in 'Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay' or Sherpas and the Chang Tang tundra in 'Ancestral Legacies,' and his precision gives the poignant longing and human emotion of the stories room to resonate. Save for 'Eros 7,' about a lovelorn Soviet Cosmonaut set during the US/Russian space race, all are the stories are told by men, often with few female characters. At the core, each is essentially an exploration of familial relationships between men-be it the ill-fated trio of brothers working at the nuclear reactor or the unhappy adolescent camper calling home to find out about his mentally disturbed younger brother in 'Courtesy for Beginners.' Shepard's far-flung explorations get very close to the male heart." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Jim Shepard's new collection of short stories leads off with two pages of acknowledgments in which he cites dozens of books, many of them obscure: 'Wild Flowers of Greece,' 'The Oxford History of Australia 1770-1860,' 'The Guillotine and the Terror,' etc. He wants us to know that his tales have solid groundings in fact, that his imagination comes into play in such choices as which historical details... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to use and how to place his characters in authentic settings. Thus in 'My Aeschylus,' we get a portrait of the Greek tragedian not as a playwright but as a warrior and brother, defending his homeland against the invading Persians. In 'Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak,' we get the ruminations of a high school football player on his and his teammates' brutal approach to the game. In 'Sans Farine,' we learn, almost against our will, myriad facts about why the guillotine was invented, how it worked ('In an eye-blink (the head) leapt seventeen or eighteen inches from the trunk'), and what it cost an executioner and his family for him to ply this scorned trade. Shepard previously demonstrated his ability to enter into the minds of historical figures in his excellent novel 'Nosferatu' (1998), about F.W. Murnau, who directed the silent horror movie of the same title. Something about grisly subject matter seems to stimulate this author; for me, at any rate, the executioner's story is the best of the lot. It's a brief tragedy about a man whom society virtually imprisons in his job (executioners and their kin formed a kind of French untouchable class) and whose beloved wife warns him that if he carries out his assignment to behead Marie Antoinette — he's already done the king — she may walk out on him. In other stories, however, Shepard's prose can frustrate his intentions. The otherwise spot-on 'Courtesy for Beginners,' about a lousy summer camp experience, gets off to a bad start when the narrator, who is supposed to be 12, says, 'I headed down the path toward the noise. I think I was affecting a saunter.' I've never met a 12-year-old who would use such an arch phrase, even to himself. The diarist narrator of 'The First South Central Australian Expedition,' which takes place in 1840, writes in the short, terse sentences favored by American creative writing programs, rather than in the ornate style, rich in subordinate clauses, beloved of educated men and women in the 19th century. Shepard's prose is capable of aphoristic power, as when his executioner sums up the most murderous stage of the French Revolution: 'The solution for all national troubles was understood to be an unflagging austerity of purpose in the form of an evermore passionate embrace of ruthlessness.' But I wish that, to help the facts he tracked down do the work laid out for them, he'd been more of a ventriloquist. Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Like You'd Understand, Anyway serves as testament not only to Jim Shepard's talents but also to the power of the short story itself, forged from the world with a sharp eye and a careful ear, serving no agenda but literature's primary and oft-forgotten one: the delight of the reader." Daniel Handler, New York Times
"These wildly diverse stories share a fascination with the inevitable cost of familial obligation and the inescapable fallout from disaster, both natural and human-made." Los Angeles Times
"Shepard has an appetite for the strange and foreign, and the collection ranges impressively across time and place." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Freakishly erudite, Shepard writes fiction that glories in the sheer too-muchness of life — its superabundance of emotion, incident and sensory delight. Virtuoso work." Kirkus Reviews
Brimming with irony, compassion, and withering humor, these 11 stories seem both eerily pertinent and exhilaratingly exotic, showcasing the work of a gifted writer at the height of his form.
About the Author
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and two previous collections of stories. He teaches at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
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