Rave Review from Washington Post for The World to Come

A wonderful review on Jim’s new collection.  Here’s the review in full:

There are slews of historical novels — hefty tomes, usually with gargantuan casts — that show off writers’ mastery of various periods. But historical short stories? Far fewer writers go there. It simply takes too long to build the past world with all of its furniture and facts. Short stories are far more likely to be snappily contemporary than to explore Cromwell’s England or the Russian Revolution.

One noteworthy exception is Jim Shepard, an outrageously versatile and gifted fiction writer who is deeply at home in a research library. His past short-story collections have included characters as diverse as Aeschylus, a 15th-century French serial killer and a Russian female astronaut in 1963. With his fifth collection, “The World to Come,” he continues his original, precise exploration of times and places long ago and far, far away. Only two of the 10 stories here concern modern folks with recognizable American dissatisfactions. Shepard’s characters are too threatened for malaise — in fact, most of them are just trying to outrun death.

Death isn’t a distant threat, either. It’s a tsunami roaring from behind, or a British submarine during World War II surrounded by German vessels, or a train full of crude oil about to explode. It’s an Australian storm “formed by monstrous whirlpools of air over three hundred miles across that came scything down out of the Coral Sea into the rainforests of northeastern Australia with such ferocity that the governmental and amateur meteorologists investigating afterward reported their findings in expressions of awe and horror usually reserved for the most extravagant fictions.”

“HMS Terror” chronicles the 1845 Franklin Expedition, a legendarily grim three-year journey to the North Pole during which the crew freeze, lose all of their teeth and, despite resorting to cannibalism, starve to death. Like many of Shepard’s stories, it is constructed as one man’s diary. Shepard deftly arrives at a diction that’s convincingly that of a 19th-century sailor; the voice is simple, declarative. As he proved in his masterful last novel, “The Book of Aron,” which followed one Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto, Shepard can be quietly elegiac as he attempts to imagine the unimaginable. There’s no room for sentimentality in a world so relentlessly “stunning and heartless.”

That sailor — and the ones in “Telemachus,” about Navy men trapped in a submarine — yearns for a girl back home. But other than love and the longing for love, Shepard suggests that work is what most shapes us. “The Ocean of Air” is about the Montgolfier brothers of France and their 1783 attempt to patent a hot air balloon. “Trade itself,” the inventor declares, “is nothing more than a galaxy of the imagination.” So when Shepard offers us something that might feel dated — say, a mid-19th-century cure for the flu (“an enema of molasses, warm water, and lard, with a drop of turpentine next to his nose”) — he presents it not as an endearing, antiquated curiosity, but as an enterprising use of all best current wisdom. There’s no condescension; people in the past, he suggests, are not so different from us in their desires, fears and willingness to take risks.

In “Cretan Love Song,” he asks his readers to “Imagine you’re part of the Minoan civilization, just hanging out with your effete painted face down by the water’s edge on the north shore of Crete, circa 1600 BC,” before an epic tsunami. Not too much of a stretch, especially given climate change threats. In that story, Shepard obliterates an entire civilization in 2½ pages. He uses the short story form to explore the nature of time itself — how moments of pain or anxiety can feel eternal, a kind of frozen present.

The title story, “The World to Come,” is a breathtaking account of two farmers’ wives in New York, in 1856, astonished to find themselves deeply in love. In between the hard labor of a farm and the claustrophobia of their isolation, they steal delight in each other’s company. “She asked that I speak,” the narrator writes in her diary. “I almost cried out that how should I have known what was happening to me? There were no instruction booklets of which I was aware. I told her I could feel something rising in me as she approached, like hair on the back of a dog. I told her the thought of her through the week was my shelter, the way the chickadees took to the depths of the evergreens to keep the snow and ice and wind a bay.”

Things don’t end well for the women. These stories are full of roiling grief, yet they’re never merely grim. As one sailor muses, about the Antarctic landscape, “By day the icebergs refract a vividness of color beyond the power of art or words to represent.” Shepard’s project is always to push toward that sense of wonder and the “high hopefulness” of purpose that ordinary people have always brought to the project of living — to give us through fiction a sense of profound empathy that the historical record alone cannot. He most stunningly succeeds.

Full link here.  Jim’s collection comes out February 21st!  Preorder the book on Amazon.

“A Slim Masterpiece:” Joshua Ferris reviews Book of Aron

A wonderful review in the Guardian: “The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.” Here it is in full:

Jim Shepard has always been preoccupied by history. His long-admired collections of short stories come with multiple pages of acknowledgments that read like the bibliographies of an intellectually promiscuous research student. His fictional subjects are often real-life figures who feature in various human fiascos spanning the centuries. It might be tempting to dismiss history’s distant follies as the function of a bygone and benighted era, but Shepard’s short fictions remind us that all eras are benighted because humanity is inherently flawed, reckless and blinkered.

Shepard’s new novel, The Book of Aron, set in the Warsaw ghetto, is another historical fiction, but a departure of sorts. Where Shepard’s short fiction often features the bit players and hapless sidemen of disaster, The Book of Aron brings to life an indisputably great man, the child advocate Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage and followed his charges to Treblinka.

But The Book of Aron is Aron’s book, the story of a misbegotten boy born in Poland at a disastrous time. His antics exasperate his father, who beats him. His mother, loving but harried, is confounded by his behaviour. If that behaviour is mostly that of your run-of-the-mill five-year-old menace, nobody in the Rozycki household needs another headache. The trouble greater than Aron is the general squalor of life among Jews in the Polish countryside on the brink of the second world war. Sickness, toil, penury, bad teeth, disaster and death rule their lives long before the Nazis even make an appearance.

Aron’s early efforts to be a better person are touching. “I lectured myself on walks,” he tells us. “I made lists of ways I could improve.” He takes to books. He loves his mother. In the quiet hours of night, they form a special bond that is Aron’s only tether to humanity.

Things for the Rozyckis don’t improve when Aron’s father gets a job at his cousin’s factory, and they move to Warsaw. The Germans invade Poland soon after, and all Jews are shunted into the ghetto. Families double up in small apartments and sleep in hallways. Aron’s father is beaten mercilessly by German soldiers. His brothers are shipped off to labour camps. Aron runs the streets with a patchwork gang, stealing and smuggling what they can. He falls in with a member of the Jewish police who turns him into an ambivalent informant.

Shepard’s fidelity to the historical record is impressive, but what makes The Book of Aron a work of art is his obedience to the boy’s restricted perspective. To render Aron believably, Shepard had not only to sublimate copious research; he had to channel the consciousness and patterns of speech of a Jewish-Polish boy from the 1930s while divesting himself of most of the tools and tactics a typical writer uses to tell a story: elevated diction, reader-directed introspection, knowing metaphor. Shepard did something similar in his excellent, upsetting 2005 novel Project X, but that book’s protagonist was a contemporary American boy. This is the more remarkable act of ventriloquism, and it serves more than one thematic purpose. What better way to rebuke the Nazi piety that all Jewish life was utterly worthless than by bringing to full and empathetic life a perfect nobody of a kid, historically irrelevant as anything but a number, one of a countless horde? Aron’s perspective also mirrors that of the ghetto: no one knows what’s coming next, and the Jews are like credulous children under the Nazis’ indiscriminate lash. You’ve never experienced the unfolding atrocities in quite this way before, and this helps to make them anew.

There are bleak ironies and dark comic exchanges throughout The Book of Aron. But while these start off in a familiar Shepard mode – one character wielding sarcasm against another to reveal shortcomings of character – before the overwhelming colossus of Nazi oppression the humour has no choice but to shift focus. Considerable laughter emerges out of the terrible circumstances that surround Aron and his family, as the only defence the Jews of Warsaw have against patented insanity, and it rings convincingly with the syntax and speech patterns of aphoristic Yiddish wit. This is just one example of how the book slowly expands to become something great.

That expansion kicks into full force in the final third of the book, when Aron, stripped of family, home and sustenance, and freezing to death on the streets of the ghetto, is rescued by Korczak. Korczak is no cheery saint with box office appeal. “We’re walking tombstones,” he says to his assistant, Madame Stefa, whose only happiness is Korczak, but whose passion he cannot reciprocate. “I exist not to be loved,” he tells her, “but to act.” These are the words of a monomaniacal and self-martyring machine. But he is indisputably good. Despite illness and rejection, Korczak makes trip after tireless trip into the wider world in search of money and food for the children under his care. He soon takes to Aron, who, in his presence, no longer needs to make lists on how to improve. Their friendship, based on insomnia as much as likemindedness, prompts Aron to act selflessly in a way his mother would not have dared dream. If it’s ultimately in vain, there are consolations. We watch as character transcends its mean surroundings, and a once-questionable boy becomes a loving human being.

Narrative art about the Holocaust runs the risk of indulging our collective yearning. Please, writer; please, film-maker: save the characters we love. Alchemise the evil. Reassure us. The Book of Aron offers no reassurance. The fate of history is sealed. The book’s final pages are shattering. But by reclaiming an insignificant voice and deploying it to observe a great man, Shepard turns hell into a testament of love and sacrifice. The Book of Aron is his best novel yet, a short and moving masterpiece.

“The ideal author you’d sit across the table from”

Book/Plate is a literary/culinary series in partnership with Peck’s Homemade, which pairs new books with complementary cuisine for a unique dinner with the author. And they had an event for The Book of Aron! The menu featured a meal celebrating the foods of the Eastern European Jewish Diaspora and celebrates the survival of this cultural tradition.   Check out a short video below:

Washington Post Review: It’s a Masterpiece

Ron Charles reviews “The Book of Aron” and he likes it!

In the summer of 1942, German soldiers expelled almost 200 starving children from an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and packed them into rail cars bound for Treblinka. As with so many entries in the encyclopedia of Nazi atrocities, the depravity of that act and our inability to fathom such cruelty threaten to eclipse the individuality of the victims.

Historians push back against the obliteration of chaos, time and shame, but talented novelists have also offered their creative gifts in this sacred process of remembrance. And now, Jim Shepard, one of America’s finest writers, brings the Warsaw orphanage to life in “The Book of Aron.”

Drawing on his imagination and dozens of historical sources, the author has produced a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. Although relentless in its portrayal of systematic evil, “The Book of Aron” is, nonetheless, a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage.

The narrator is a poor Polish boy who introduces himself by announcing, “My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.” With erratic beatings, constant disparagement and unending illnesses, this is hardly a nurturing environment, but Aron’s clear-eyed reporting and self-deprecating humor make him irresistible. “I was like something that had been raised in the wild,” he confesses. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was.”

The novel hangs on the delicate tension of that deadpan adolescent voice — never cute, never cloying. Aron’s wryness is always entirely unknowing. He relays his world to us just as he experiences it: He fails at school. His mom complains about everything. His little brother dies. How he feels about any of this is articulated only in the space between his sentences. “The next morning my father told me to get up,” he says, “because it was war and the Germans had invaded.” And with that news, his town slides into hell.

We read novels about the Holocaust with the burden of knowledge: the incalculable statistics, the sickening photos, the faint outlines of vanished shtetls. But Aron has only his own simple life by which to judge anything, so nothing surprises him. “Whether I was happy or unhappy,” he says, “I took things as I found them.” What he finds is an ever-escalating series of horrors, but he describes the Nazis’ humiliations and crimes with a child’s concentration on the specific. “That night two Germans showed up at our door looking for furniture,” he says. “They roamed around our apartment before deciding we had nothing they liked. They went next door to our neighbors with the radio and took two chairs and a soup tureen. The husband told us after they left that they’d pulled him around by the nose with pliers because he hadn’t said a courteous enough hello.”

From that captivating perspective, Shepard re-creates the shrinking Warsaw ghetto, running out of food and ravaged by typhus as the Nazis ship out everything of value. But for Aron, the war delivers freedom from the drudgery of school. He joins a small gang of kids who scour the ghetto for loot. “The destroyed buildings were a great playground,” he says, “and we always found something surprising in the rubble.” Aron’s innocent face is an asset as his parents tell him to stay close and be careful. “I told them I would and went on doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to,” he says. He’s a scamp, helping his buddies smuggle goods through a hole in the ghetto wall, but they know they’re playing against opponents who shove prisoners into open fires and shoot kids in the streets.

As terror escalates in this doomed city, the novel delineates Aron’s dangerously compromised position. While he and his friends smuggle anything of value into the ghetto, he falls under the influence of a corrupt Jewish police officer who demands information for his Gestapo bosses. The boy has no way to resist, no way to excuse the deaths that result and no capacity to understand what is happening to him. After witnessing a particularly shocking murder, he says, “On my way home my legs acted like I kept forgetting how to walk and I stopped in the center of the road. I threw my own cap away. A truck honked and someone finally dragged me to the curb.” Divorced from his own feelings, he is left only with his sensory reports. “I wiped my eyes so hard I blinded myself at first,” he says. “There was nothing for me to do and nowhere for me to go in the face of the pictures in my head.”

But where he goes next draws “The Book of Aron” into one of the most affecting acts of bravery you will ever encounter. In real life, the caretaker of the Warsaw orphans was a well-known writer, a progressive pediatrician named Janusz Korczak. When his orphanage was moved into the ghetto, he insisted on going with the children. And there, in those final weeks, Shepard imagines him taking a special interest in Aron. “You’ll be fine,” the good doctor tells him, brushing away the boy’s tears.

Let’s set aside puffery about the best novel of the month or even the year; Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless in this slim masterpiece — a portrait of an exhausted but determined man, locked in a futile battle he will not concede. “It’s Jewish honor I’m upholding,” Dr. Korczak says as he trudges around the impoverished ghetto with Aron, cajoling and demanding donations for his 200 charges. Back at the orphanage, he designs both chores and games, exhorting these sick and malnourished children to imagine they aren’t “living in the worst place in the world but instead were surrounded by grasshoppers and glowworms.”

But there’s a lot more here than pastel optimism. Shepard shows Korczak in all the private discouragement and desperate loneliness that could make him short-tempered with those who loved him. “I am unkind,” he admits late one night. “To work here you have to be unkind. You have to be smeared with crap, you have to stink, you have to be crafty.”

That logic leads Aron into an ethical dilemma that he’s too young and weakened to resolve, which fuels the novel’s suspenseful crisis. But there is no room for hope for the Warsaw orphans; that history is carved into the earth. Although Dr. Korczak was offered opportunities to escape, he refused to abandon his children and died with them in Treblinka. Still, Shepard dares to move his narrative down the asymptote of despair, and the moral heroism he describes on that path toward infinity, you will never forget.