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Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories

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Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

1. The majority of the stories are told in the third-person. Is the narrator's voice for the most part sympathetic, neutral, or distant? What techniques does Wolff use to draw you into the characters' lives and the events depicted in the stories? Discuss how the conversations between characters, their own musings and observations, and the detailed descriptions of the way they look and dress bring their personalities into focus.

2. Soldiers and veterans are the focus of "Soldier's Joy," "Desert Breakdown, 1968," "The Other Miller," and "Awaiting Orders," and make appearances in several other stories. What do the stories demonstrate about the effects of the military experience on individuals? How do the various characters deal with the difficulty of balancing the demands (or expectations) placed upon them and their own impulses and ethical standards? In what ways does military service provide a rationale for unacceptable or aberrant behavior? Do the more recent stories ("Awaiting Orders" and "A Mature Student") mark a change in Wolff's ideas about the military? If you have read In Pharaoh's Army include this in your discussion.

3. Lying or hiding the truth is a recurring theme in Our Story Begins: "The Liar" deals directly with a young man who makes up stories about himself and his mother; in "Two Boys and a Girl" a boy convinces himself that betraying his best friend is reasonable; and the husband in "Say Yes" equivocates when discussing interracial marriage with his wife. Discuss the different forms of lying Wolff explores. In which stories do characters lie to themselves about their own motivations or feelings? In which stories do characters lie to protect or please other people? What rewards do lying and/or betrayal bring to the characters? What are the negative consequences of their deceptions?

4. In "Deep Kiss," "Down to Bone," and "Her Dog," memories of the past, as well as imaginative fantasies, provide comfort and a release from the regrets that haunt the characters. What do these stories convey about the influence of the hopes and promise of the past on the way people cope with, perceive, and perhaps distort the reality of the present?

5. Wolff explores the relationship between parents and children in many of the stories. How do stories like "Flyboys," "Sanity," "Powder," and "Nightingale" illustrate the complicated emotional connections between parents and children? Does Wolff portray their conflicts and misunderstandings in a balanced, sympathetic way? How would you characterize Wolff's view of the power parents exercise, knowingly or inadvertently, on their offspring?

6. "The Rich Brother" and "The Night in Question" feature young men searching unsuccessfully for spiritual meaning in their lives. What similar traits do Donald ("The Rich Brother") and Frank ("The Night in Question") exhibit? What do the reactions of their siblings to their idiosyncratic behavior reveal about the mixture of love, guilt, and frustration that often informs relationships within a family? Why is Pete unable to accept and reconcile with Donald, while Frances is sure she can "bring [Frank] around" [p. 249]?

7. The narrator in "Next Door" says about his neighbors, "I think about the life they have" and how it goes on and on, until it seems like the life they were meant to live. Everybody always says how great it is that human beings are so adaptable, but I don't know. . . . It's awful what we get used to" [p. 19]. To what degree do the characters Wolff depicts passively accept (or adapt to) the circumstances of their lives? What happens to characters that break the rules or defy old patterns? Consider such stories as "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs," "Nightingale," and "Down to Bone" in your discussion.

8. "Bullet in the Brain" presents the surprising thoughts and images running through the head of a dying man. Discuss the significance of the narrator's declaration that, "It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did recall?" [p. 266]? How does it relate to the other stories in the collection?

9. What does the collection's title Our Story Begins imply about Wolff's approach to writing short stories? In what ways do the stories embody the sense that life's experiences, both ordinary and extraordinary, are part of a continuum? Do the characters' histories and their reactions to the situations in which they find themselves provide insights into what the future might bring? Choose several stories and share your thoughts about what happens next.

10. Wolff has said, "If there's a moral quality to my work, I suppose it has to do with will and the exercise of choice within one's will. The choices we make tend to narrow down a myriad of opportunities to just a few, and those choices tend to reinforce themselves in whatever direction we've started to go, including the wrong direction" (The Believer, May 2005). How do stories like "The Chain," "Hunters in the Snow," "A White Bible," and "The Benefit of the Doubt" incorporate and illuminate Wolff's statement? In these and other stories, are there moments of decision that are particularly telling or powerful?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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HasnulKarami, December 17, 2012 (view all comments by HasnulKarami)
Tobias Wolff is worthy to be mentioned among the greats of short story writing. Like Hemingway, his stories often begin in action, immediately capturing the attention. Like Chekhov, his endings break the flow of life and cast a reflection on our own weaknesses and strength. He has a fluid style and voice embedded in the rhythms of 21st American life. He's unobtrusive, yet knowing. He's streamlined in capturing every detail.
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Chris Horne, April 7, 2009 (view all comments by Chris Horne)
Let me say it straight out -- Tobias Wolff is an absolute genius in crafting stories. This collection -- ten absorbing new stories combined with twenty-one of his anthologized works -- is pitch perfect in every regard.

These are not stories that forces the reader to dig deep for symbolism and didacticism. Each is accessible, but each also presents a universal truth that somehow, someway, burrows its way straight into the reader's own mind and heart. This reader kept pausing and thinking, "But how did he KNOW that? How an he possibly be so empathetic and get it so darn RIGHT?"

There's the at-loose-ends professor with a one hopeful chance, who finally finds the courage to give back as much as is dished out to her. The hunters in the snow who stand up to a bully. The American in Rome who feels a strange connection with the gypsy who picked his pocket. A night in question, where filial connections are explored. A first love that never stops haunting the now successful man.

Many of these stories are ordinary occurrences that rise to the extraordinary. Many involve regular folks who gain the authenticity to truly become themselves...or to discover the meaning behind their lives and their actions. I know I will not soon forget many of these characters, who in ten or fifteen pages, solidly come to life.

For anyone who wants to explore the human condition -- our cowardice, our selfishness, our dreams, our connectiveness -- I urge you to read Tobias Wolff. He's the real thing.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400095971
Author:
Wolff, Tobias
Publisher:
Vintage Books
Subject:
Short Stories (single author)
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
20090431
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
400
Dimensions:
8.06x5.32x.68 in. .60 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
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Product details 400 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9781400095971 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Wolfe's latest round of philosophical and thought-provoking short stories is a rousing collection that spans a wide variety of genres and time periods. Anthony Heald brings the stories to life with vigor, offering fresh voices and complicated, flawed characters, each as original and believable as the last. Heald has a knack for performance, gifting each tale with his flare for theatrics while never trespassing outside of his range in an attempt to impress. His familiar voice abounds with colorful emotions and a certain melancholic ache. Listeners step inside all 21 tales and see the world as Wolfe himself must have: heartbreaking, hilarious and even a little scary at times. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Dec. 3, 2007)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "Those who have read Wolff's memoir This Boy's Life...or his novel Old School may find some echoes in these stories, but overall the short fiction is more venturous and spirited. Wolff consistently finds ways to slip beyond the unfolding of events in a narrative sense, making his stories something of a chrysalis from which emerges something non-narrative — call it heart." (read the entire Chicago Tribune review)
"Review" by , "Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and Robert Stone are the modern masters whom Wolff most resembles. Like their best work, his own exhibits classic richness and depth, and it's built to last."
"Review" by , "Wolff dexterously probes, in immaculately clear prose, the cor eof ordinary peoples' passions and vulnerabilities."
"Review" by , "Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
"Review" by , "This collection of new and selected stories...amounts to a master class in the genre....Wolff juggles style and content with seeming effortlessness, but the truth is that he is a disciplined craftsman with a hard-earned understanding of the two worlds, real and imagined, he inhabits."
"Review" by , "These stories remind how powerful and important are good stories, especially ones that look right into our furtive, yearning hearts and refuse to blink."
"Review" by , "Wolff's deceptively simple prose style is like listening to an old friend eagerly telling the previous night's adventures."
"Review" by , "Our Story may be the summation of Wolff's story-writing career to date, but as its title suggests, he clearly has more tales to tell, and thankfully for his readers, the undiminished storytelling gifts with which to tell them."
"Synopsis" by , This collection of stories — 21 classics followed by ten potent new stories — displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.
"Synopsis" by , Our Story Begins gathers 21 classics and 10 new stories from the author who The New York Times hails as "unfailingly authentic...his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
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