Jim Shepard is full of insight in stories on human motivation

Book review: "you think that's bad, stories" by Jim Shepard. Alfred A. Knopf $24.95.

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The stories in Jim Shepard's "you think that's bad" are 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. Why we do what we do, though it may bring ruin in the long run, is one of the themes that tie together these stories.

Mr. Shepard's characters want grace and forgiveness for their choices, but want to live life on their own terms. They don't have life-changing epiphanies; they just want to be understood. Still, they keep secrets from us, from themselves, and from those they love.

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. He uses characters, some based on real people, to infuse the stories with history and information. The acknowledgments include a daunting list of research books. We learn about water management in The Netherlands, alpine skiing, mountain climbing, World War II, France in the 15th century. And yet, it's the nuggets of ordinary human weakness, dropped in here and there, that can stun the reader, make us shiver.

"The Track of the Assassins" follows the true life adventurer Freya Stark as she hikes across the Persian Mountains in 1930, to what, we imagine, will be her death. As with several of Mr. Shepard's characters, she has come a long way to die alone. Woven in the details of place and time are hints why she has done this. Watching a tribe of women and children very slowly follow their men into their winter valley, Freya notes, "I began to understand why two years earlier the Lurs, when fleeing a forced resettlement, had massacred their own families to unburden themselves for the march." Freya has left behind a narcissistic mother, and a dead sister.

In "Poland Is Watching" the narrator is a member of a Polish mountain climbing team. Left with few records to break, they climb Nanga Parbat in the winter, "the world's ninth-tallest mountain, its summit at nearly the cruising altitude of commercial airlines." His wife wants him to quit before he gets killed, telling him he's an addict. "A trip like this is about the loss of your ability to control the dose."

"Gojira, King of the Monsters," about the man who invented Godzilla, is loaded with details about the process of creating this film, and the story feels a tad too long, but Mr. Shepard drops in perfect jewels to reflect his character's personality and the story's conflicts. Discussing a relationship, one character reflects, "Supposedly the cat forgets in three days the kindness of three years."

Mr. Sheppard's characters are not generally pleasant people, especially the narrator in "Boys Town" who is despicable and cruel, but his narration fascinates us with the few threads Mr. Shepard gives us into his soul. In "Classical Scenes of Farewell," Poitou, a young page for the brutal Gilles de Rais of France, must help his Lord murder thousands of young boys. Poitou knows he has done wrong, but won't quite admit to how wrong. "All I desired, morning in and evening out, was a love with its arms thrown wide."

If you haven't already read a story by Jim Shepard, you could easily start with this collection, then go back to his six novels and two other story collections. And if you have already read Mr. Shepard, here's the next book that you've been waiting for.

"you think that's bad, stories"

Sarah Willis is a Cleveland-based freelance writer.


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