Synopses & Reviews
"One of our most exquisite storytellers" (Esquire)
gives us his first collection in over a decade: ten potent new stories that, along with twenty-one classics, display his mastery over a quarter century.
Tobias Wolff's first two books, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs and Back in the World, were a powerful demonstration of how the short story can "provoke our amazed appreciation," as The New York Times Book Review wrote then. In the years since, he's written a third collection, The Night in Question, as well as a pair of genre-defining memoirs (This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army), the novella The Barracks Thief, and, most recently, a novel, Old School.
Now he returns with fresh revelations about biding one's time, or experiencing first love, or burying one's mother that come to a variety of characters in circumstances at once everyday and extraordinary: a retired Marine enrolled in college while her son trains for Iraq, a lawyer taking a difficult deposition, an American in Rome indulging the Gypsy who's picked his pocket. In these stories, as with his earlier, much-anthologized work, he once again proves himself, according to the Los Angeles Times, "a writer of the highest order: part storyteller, part philosopher, someone deeply engaged in asking hard questions that take a lifetime to resolve."
"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.)
"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." Kirkus Reviews
"Wolff dexterously probes, in immaculately clear prose, the cor eof ordinary peoples' passions and vulnerabilities." Booklist
"Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing." New York Times
"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." Miami Herald
"These stories remind how powerful and important are good stories, especially ones that look right into our furtive, yearning hearts and refuse to blink." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Wolff's deceptively simple prose style is like listening to an old friend eagerly telling the previous night's adventures." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"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." Rocky Mountain News
"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." Art Winslow, The Chicago Tribune
(read the entire Chicago Tribune review
This collection of stories — 21 classics followed by ten potent new stories — displays Tobias Wolff's exquisite gifts over a quarter century.
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."
About the Author
Tobias Wolff is the author of seven previous books and the editor of The Vintage Book of American Short Stories. Among his honors are the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award, both for excellence in the short story, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in Northern California and teaches at Stanford University.
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?
"Unforgettable. . . . Wolff's voice is unfailingly authentic, while his embrace of the variety of American experience is knowing, forgiving and all-encompassing."
—The New York Times Book Review
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Tobias Wolff's Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff, a writer whose works have evoked comparison to such masters of the short story as Hemingway, Salinger, Raymond Carver, and William Trevor.