book review: tunneling to the center of the earth and like you would understand, anyway

by Kevin Wilson and Jim Shepard

Both Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and Like you Would Understand, Anyway, read quickly. When books are that good it kind of makes you sad. I read Wilson’s book on the plane to Idaho and savored Shepard’s book for months, having a short story here and there as I felt the need.

One problem I have with short stories is that they are usually sad. Nothing ever really ends well in a short story, so when I find authors who are able to get past the sad short story, I rejoice. Shepard, a professor at Williams College with my Aunt and Uncle, takes major historical events and asks, “What was it like to be the person who was there?” For example, what would it have been like to be the guy whose actions caused the Chernobyl accident? Who was that guy? What was his life like, before and after? I just loved learning about the history of these events more intimately. I want to write out a few of Shepard’s stories long hand to see how he does what he does.

Wilson’s book came highly recommended by our local bookstore, Politics and Prose. (In an effort to keep it from closing, we try to buy a few books there every month.) Similarly, in Shepard’s book, we learn what it is like to be the class geeks, who have no other friends, taking those first tentative steps to explore their sexuality and then losing your best friend because of these steps. The title story is about avoiding growing up. The characters in the story studied underwater basket weaving, and after college, don’t have jobs. So they start digging under their town.

The comparison of the two authors leads to a discussion of how much research a writer needs to do before writing a story. Shepard does a lot. Wilson does almost none. The problem with doing no research, is that some subset of readers will notice what you don’t know. For example, in the Tunneling story, Wilson says that the diggers have to put on warm clothes in the tunnels when winter comes above. Nope. The earth, a mere four feet below ground is a constant temperature, between 50 and 55 degrees. Ever been in your basement? How about a root cellar? They should have needed warm clothes all of the time.

I started collecting notes on fun historical events to write about years ago, but what Shepard shows me is how to use these bits of paper and fragments of ideas.

1 comment:

Katerina said...

Thanks for this review. I was very intrigued with the way you described Jim Shepard's writing. I'm ordering the book on amazon!