Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff








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Master short story writer Tobias Wolff’s new collection, Our Story Begins, offers ten new stories, and twenty one from past collections. None are duds. This is a wide reaching collection, and in each story, Wolff demonstrates his mastery of this genre. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the story titled, “The Liar,” pp. 36-7:


My mother read everything except books. Advertisements on buses, entire menus as we ate, billboards; if it had no cover it interested her. So when she found a letter in my drawer that wasn't addressed to her, she read it. What difference does it make if James has nothing to hide?—that was her thought. She stuffed the letter in the drawer when she finished it and walked from room to room in the big empty house, talking to herself. She took the letter out and read it again. Then, without putting on her coat or locking the door, she went down the steps and headed for the church at the end of the street. No matter how angry and confused she might be, she always went to four o'clock Mass.

It was a fine day, blue and cold and still, but Mother walked as though into a strong wind, bent forward at the waist with her feet hurrying behind in short, busy steps. My brother and sisters and I considered this walk of hers funny, and we smirked at one another when she crossed in front of us to stir the fire or water a plant. We didn't let her catch us at it. It would have puzzled her to think that anything about her might be amusing. Her one concession to the fact of humor was an insincere, startling laugh. Strangers sometimes stared at her.

While Mother waited for the priest, who was late, she prayed. She prayed in a familiar, orderly, firm way: first for her late husband, my father, then for her parents—also dead. She said a quick prayer for my father's parents just touching base; she had disliked them—and finally for her children in order of their ages, ending with me. Mother did not consider originality a virtue and until my name came up her prayers were exactly the same as on any other day.

But when she came to me she spoke up boldly. "I thought he wasn't going to do it anymore. Murphy said he was cured. What am I supposed to do now?" There was reproach in her tone. Mother put great hope in her notion that I was cured, which she regarded as an answer to her prayers. In thanksgiving she had sent a lot of money to the Thomasite Indian Mission, money she'd been saving for a trip to Rome. Now she felt cheated and she let her feelings be known. When the priest came in, Mother slid back on the seat and followed the Mass. After communion she began to worry again and went straight home without stopping to talk to Dorothea, the woman who always cornered Mother after Mass to talk about the plots hatched against her by Communists, devil worshippers, and Rosicrucians. Dorothea watched her go with narrowed eyes.

Once in the house, Mother took the letter from my drawer and brought it into the kitchen. She held it over the stove with her finger­nails, looking away so she wouldn't be drawn into it again, and set it on fire. When it began to burn her fingers she dropped it in the sink and watched it blacken and flutter and close upon itself like a fist. Then she washed it down the drain and called Dr. Murphy.

A great way to spend a month is to read one short story a day from Our Story Begins.


Steve Hopkins, May 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the June 2008 issue of Executive Times


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