Poem of the Day: “You Reading This, Be Ready”

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life.

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

– William Stafford

For more information about this poet, visit williamstafford.org

Jim’s Favorite Alice Munro Stories

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In honor of Alice Munro’s Nobel prize, I asked Jim for Alice Munro stories that he especially loves.  The first story that came to his mind was “”Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.”  It begins:

Years ago, before the train stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture.

The station agent often tried a little teasing with women, especially the plain ones who seem to appreciate it.

“Furnture?” he said, as if no one had such an idea before. “Well. Now. What kind of furniture are we talking about?”

Purchase the collection of stories by clicking here.

Poem of the Day: Requiem for the Croppies

Here’s a new series of posts that I’m really excited about.  As his students may remember, Jim starts off his classes reading a poem.  This is a treasured memory for me: not only does Jim have incredible taste in modern poetry, but he’s masterful at reading poetry to others.

Jim has kindly sent me some of his poetry selections and I’m going to start posting them.  I hope it inspires both Jim Shepard fans and aspiring fiction writers to read more poetry, something Jim has always encouraged us to do.

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.

-Seamus Heaney


If you’re interested in learning more about rich history behind the poem, here’s a good blog post on the topic.

Welcome to Shepard Town

The Rumpus has selected Jim Shepard’s upcoming collection, “You Think That’s Bad” as it February Rumpus Book Club Selection!

Here is the full post:

Coming Soon: February.   And not just February, but the February Rumpus Book Club selection, You Think That’s Bad, the new collection of short stories by Jim Shepard, which The Rumpus Book Club members will receive more than a month before the book is available for purchase.

You can join the book club here. We’re only going to be able to accept a limited number of new subscribers this month.

We’re really excited about this. So excited we might just rename The Rumpus “Shepard Town.” As in, Welcome to Shepard Town.

Click here to join the Rumpus Bookclub.

A reader discusses his favorite short stories

Here’s a wonderful post by a man named Harvey Freedenberg on The Book Lady’s Blog. The author is a lawyer who took a sabbatical to study creative writing.  It’s a wonderful post and here’s what he has to say about short stories:

Like many aspiring writers, I thought short stories were the training wheels of fiction and that once I picked up the basics of setting, character, plot and voice I’d move on to write my novel. What it took me a while to realize is that writing short stories is hard. It’s the reason why lots of people learn to ride a bike but only a handful of them make it to the Tour de France.  So I’m grateful for The Book Lady’s invitation to share with you some of the short stories I treasure, my Bare Necessities, ones that are so good they make me think writing a novel might turn out to be easier than creating one good, true story.

Harvey also mentions Jim Shepard in his post:

Short story writers, particularly those who’ve graduated from MFA programs in the past generation, are chided for producing precious, formulaic fiction. That criticism can’t be leveled at two astonishing collections I’ve read in recent years. One is Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand Anyway, which pretty much covers the globe (and beyond with a detour into space alongside some Russian cosmonauts) and the entire sweep of human history from Roman Britain to the present day (including visits to the French Revolution and nineteenth century Australia) in eleven stories…

The post goes on to quote an amazing passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I know to be a collection of stories that Jim loves as well.  Please take a look at the full post by clicking here.

Jim Shepard is Vice Magazine’s Guest Editor

Looking for a new magazine to read?  Check out Vice Magazine, which features Jim as a guest editor in its latest issue.  The theme of the issue?  Catastrophes.  Here’s a little bit by Jim from his “Letter from the Guest Editor:”


You can make a pretty good argument that if you’re an apocalyptic you’re both fucked up and plugged into the zeitgeist. I was an apocalyptic kind of guy before I even understood what the word meant—some of my earliest obsessive interests involved books like All About Volcanoes and All About Earthquakes and movies like A Night to Remember—but that was in the early 60s, and as we all know from our radically abridged cultural histories, the shit didn’t hit the fan, in American terms, until the late 60s. So when I’m feeling good about myself, I can pretend I saw it all coming—I still take secret pride in the precocity of my childhood conviction, in the face of everything I read, that a catastrophic event of some sort had ended the Cretaceous—but when I’m being more honest, I have to ask myself some version of the question my long-suffering wife once asked me: What kind of person takes a history of the guillotine to the beach?

Well, the good news for people like me and the bad news for the rest of the world is that things are getting so fucked up that a worldview that sees disaster around every corner is starting to look a lot like a measured and sober understanding of the facts. Pick your poison—land, sea, or air—and try to think of an arena in which we don’t seem to be accelerating toward some pretty bad news. Accelerating because of our nature as human beings, which is to say in individual terms, the bad decisions we make each and every day, and in collective terms, our decision to have handed over our fate to global capital.

What to do about climate change? The toxification of our food? The death of our oceans? These are all decisions we’ve turned over to ExxonMobil, Monsanto, and BP. And those companies have become as powerful as they are by having figured out how to game the system. Regulatory agencies, national and international, are now controlled by the very companies they’re supposed to be scrutinizing. And each industry, in pursuit of ever-greater profits, has installed as its primary value its definition of greater efficiency, which means ever-narrowing options and greater precariousness. So that now instead of thousands of local slaughterhouses, America has 13 megaplants, the perfect recipe for collecting lethal pathogens and spreading them far and wide. Now instead of shallow offshore drilling, our oil companies are drilling six miles down in water two miles deep, which means the chances of anything going wrong, then going catastrophically wrong, increase geometrically.

And the one agenda on which all of these corporations agree is that of doing away with what used to be known, quaintly, as the public’s right to know: They’ve come to understand that the kind of master-of-the-universe success they’re envisioning is as much about the control of information as it is control of the market. And that’s a nonpartisan agenda, worldwide. In the US, the progressive Obama administration—and you can supply your own air quotes around progressive—has been timid and tentative about everything but going after whistleblowers.

As more and more is systematically hidden from us, there’s less and less chance that we—or anyone—will be able to intervene in time to prevent disasters. If a crucial step involved in growing older is understood to be the recognition that loss is the seminar in which we’re all going to be enrolled, the collective version of that understanding in the 21st century might be that catastrophe is the seminar in which we’re all going to be enrolled. We have a lot of Deepwater Horizons ahead of us.

JIM SHEPARD, Guest Editor

The new issue is available now.  Learn more about Vice Magazine here.

First Paragraphs I Love: Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

“Here, and also south of us, the beaches have a yellow tint, but along the Keys of Florida the sand is like shattered ivory.   In the shallows the white of it turns the water such an ideal sea-blue that looking at it you think you must be dead, and the rice paddies, in some seasons, are profoundly emerald.   The people who inhabit these colors, thanked be the compassion and mercy of Allah, having nothing much to trouble them.   It’s true that starting a little ways north of them the bodies still just go on and on, and the Lord, as foretold, has crushed the mountains; but it’s hard to imagine that such things ever went on in the same universe that holds up the Keys of Florida.   It strains all belief to think that these are the places the god Quetzalcoatl, the god Bob Marley, the god Jesus, promised to come back to and build their kingdoms.   On island after island, except for the fields of cane popping in the wind, everything seems to be asleep.”

If you haven’t read Denis Johnson, you should.  This is a good place to start.  You can purchase Fiskadoro at from Amazon or Powell’s Books.

First Paragraphs I Love: “First Love” by Vladimir Nabokov

“In the early years of this century, a travel agency on Nevski Avenue displayed a three-foot-long model of an oak-brown international sleeping car.   In delicate verisimilitude it completely outranked the painted tin of my clockwork trains.   Unfortunately it was not for sale.   One could make out the blue upholstery inside, the embossed leather lining of the compartment walls, their polished panels, inset mirrors, tulip-shaped reading lamps, and other maddening details.   Spacious windows alternated with narrower ones, single or geminate, and some of these were of frosted glass.  In a few of the compartments, the beds had been made.”

–Vladimir Nabokov, “First Love”

Here’s an excerpt from an interview Jim gave with Jesse Pearson for Vice Magazine:

I know that you are very into Nabokov. How would you recommend that somebody who is coming to him totally fresh should begin?

I would recommend they start with Nabokov’s Dozen, which is a small collection of short stories, and then move out from that to some of the more accessible novels. The obvious one is Lolita, but there are others as well, whether it’s Bend Sinister or Pnin or Invitation to a Beheading.

What do you love about Nabokov?

I think that what Nabokov is amazing for is what Updike was considered amazing for as well, but the reason I don’t cite Updike as often as I cite Nabokov is that I think, as Updike himself would say, that Nabokov is sort of doing a better version of it. And what I’m talking about is just an astonishing, astonishing attention—sort of a lover’s attention—to the world. It’s observational precision, but it’s a combination of that and tenderness, which means not only are you describing the shade of a tree in a certain kind of light better than anybody else could describe it, but you’re describing it with a certain affect attached to it that allows you to do all sorts of complicating things when you then put that into juxtaposition with something that’s going on with human beings in the foreground.


And that’s a wonderful instrument to have as part of your toolbox, to be able to say, “Jim and Biff were having an argument, but meanwhile, behind Jim and Biff’s argument here’s what was happening in the shade of the oak tree.”

What do you think about his more complicated or experimental works like Pale Fire?

There are no Nabokov works that I don’t like. I just have some that I don’t respond to as much as others. Ada and Pale Fire seemed to me to tilt more toward the game playing and away from the heartbreak, and I like to try and keep it as balanced as I can. But then, others have found Pale Fire the most heartbreaking of the books. For me, the two books that most perfectly balance his game-playing and his ability to render suffering are Pnin and Lolita. Those are the books that I keep coming back to…

You can purchase the stories of Vladimir Nabokov here from Amazon or Powell’s.

First Paragraphs I Love: “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July

We’re going to do a series of posts on wonderful first paragraphs from stories and novels, all selected by Jim.  The first is from a story called “Something That Needs Nothing” by Miranda July, published in the New Yorker on September 18th, 2006.

“In an ideal world, we would have been orphans.  We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but embarrassingly enough, we had parents.   I even had two.   They would never let me go, so I didn’t say goodbye; I packed a tiny bag and left a note.   On the way to Pip’s house, I cashed my graduation checks.  Then I sat on her porch and pretended I was twelve or fifteen or even sixteen.   At all these ages, I had dreamed of today; I had even imagined sitting here, waiting for Pip for the last time.   She had the opposite problem: her mom would let her go.   Her mom had gigantic swollen legs that were a symptom of something much worse, and she was heavily medicated with marijuana at all times.”

If you have a subscription to the New Yorker, you can read the full story here.  If you don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, then you need to fix that right now by going here and getting a free umbrella.  Miranda’s story comes from her collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You which can be purchased here.

Jim Recommends Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr

We’re going to start a new weekly topic on this blog called “Jim Recommends,” where we highlight outstanding authors who Jim thinks you should know about.

The book of the week is Anthony Doerr’s collection of short stories called Memory Wall.  Please visit Anthony’s website to learn more about him and read all of the nice things people have to say about his work.  This is what Jim has to say about his new collection:

Everywhere in Tony Doerr’s work, there’s light and stone and unimaginable distance, while our hearts go on about their steady work. His subject is what we would hear on the most macrocosmic and intimate levels, if only we were to listen more closely. I love Memory Wall for the empathetic reach of its imagination, for the intelligence of its meditation on the consolations of memory, and especially for the tenderness and care with which it presents the ongoing miracle of humanity’s daily interaction with the world. These are beautiful and moving stories.

Memory Wall comes out on July 13th.  You can pre-order a from a bookseller of your choice here.