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on 3 August 2017
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on 25 November 2008
The cover of this collection proudly proclaims Wolff as the greatest living exponent of the short story form, bringing together 21 of his previously published stories with 10 new works. As someone new to his work (bar having watched the film adaptation of This Boys Life) it provided a brilliant overview of his writing and certainly compels me to search out more.

There are two things that strike me about his writing. First of all is the accessibility. Wolf's language is uncomplicated, the speech colloquial, but written with the playwright's skill of making a few words mean so much more. Sometimes this is with dialogue that fizzes but he can also do understatement like this example in his story about a very male kind of friendship in 'Flyboys'.

'I waited while Freddy went into the barn, and when he came back outside I said, "We're going to move." Though no one had told me any such thing, those words came to mind and it felt right to say them.
Freddy handed me a shovel. "Where to?"
"I don't know."
"When?"
"I'm not sure."
We started back.
"I hope you don't move," Freddy said.
"Maybe we won't," I said "Maybe we'll end up staying."
"That would be great, if you stayed."
"There's no place like home."
"Home is where the heart is," Freddy said, but he was looking at the ground just ahead of him and didn't smile back at me.'

Often it is the perfectly chosen phrase or detail which Wolff gets to work so well for him: the boarding house 'heavy with the smells that disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate' or the 'lollipop-red' sports car in which one man drives to visit his dying mother, a car which, given the occasion, he admits is 'maybe a little festive'.

The second thing is the aspect to his writing for which I gather he is well known: morality. In many of the stories he forces his characters to show honestly which direction their moral compass is facing. Sometimes he does this blatantly, as in 'The White Bible', where a school teacher, on her way home after drinks with friends, is effectively kidnapped by the father of one of her pupils. His wish for his son Hassan to become a doctor stands in jeapordy, the teacher having caught him cheating in an exam. As he forces her to drive, he calls into question her own morals; first her drinking, then hypocrisy, even the fact that she teaches at a Catholic school without actually being Catholic herself (his indignation here making himself a hypocrite). The enforced parent-teacher conference allows Wolff to explore many of their moral facets, and having placed Maureen in a position of physical danger he allows the dramatic tension to shift slowly in the teachers favour until it is she who is in the position of power, who holds the fate of this man in her hands, but still unresolved what she will do with the future of Hassan which she also controls.

These morality tales are sometimes resolved in some sense, like the slap delivered by a policewoman to the smooth talking lawyer in 'The Deposition', but more often they are allowed to hang there, the questions raised, the points of view expressed with honesty and the conclusion, the answer, the moral of the tale left for us to decide or infer. In 'The Night In Question' Wolff has the confidence to make an actual moral quandary the centre of his story, delivering it with the gripping intensity of a thriller, only to then leave it unfinished and show that this is really a story about a sister's love for her brother. Brilliant and brave stuff.

In one of the shortest stories, 'Say Yes', which is just five pages, he manages to pull apart a relationship as a couple wash the dishes. The man thinks inter-racial relationships are a bad idea,

'"A person form their culture and a person from our culture could never really know each other." "Like you know me?" His wife asked. "Yes. Like I know you."

When he returns from the bathroom with a plaster for her cut finger she is ready for him: 'I'm black, but still me, and we fall in love. Will you marry me?'. They say that there's no such thing as a wrong answer but this isn't always the case in relationships. We are willing him to say the right thing and when he doesn't and the two of them break away from each other like balls on a pool table Wolff shows first the man's ability to recognise his wife's demonstrations of indifference (thereby showing the trouble he's in) and finally, crucially, the uncertainty of ever really knowing anyone.

I could right a whole post on just that one story to be honest. There is a richness to these stories which isn't necessarily apparent at first, perhaps because of the language he uses or the lack of pyrotechnics stylistically. Only once did I find myself thinking that the set-up was a bit tricksy ('Her Dog', in which a man conducts a 'conversation' with his deceased partner's dog) and even then he justifies it by using it describe a relationship, two relationships, with crystal clarity. When Wolff allows those skills to take flight with a longer story like 'Desert Breakdown, 1968' you have a heady concoction filled with symbolism, driven with energy and punch, a story I can't begin to do justice to here. The best thing would be for you to read it yourself. And all the rest too obviously. You won't regret it.
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on 8 September 2013
I loved this collection. I'd previously only read the novella "The Barracks Thief" - which I thought was superb and perfectly formed - so I was looking forward to reading some of Wolff's selected earlier stories (from anthologies I already wanted to check out, and still do) as well as the precious newest offerings.

Others here have reviewed more eloquently what you might find intriguing and beautiful in these many little gems of contemporary literature. I don't think I disliked a single one, but those that really stood out for me were "Desert Breakdown '68", "The Other Miller", "Benefit of the Doubt", "Deep Kiss", and well, really I could go on and on, but I don't have my library copy to hand and these are the ones that occur to me now...

If you love short fiction or were curious to try it again after a disappointing earlier foray then read this book. Each story says so much and leaves you entirely wrapped up in the world that the author just created. If you've never read short fiction - Tobias Wolff is a master. I now want to read everything he has ever had published.
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For many decades Tobias Wolff has been considered one of the preeminent American short story writers. He also happens to be my own favorite modern short story writer, and I have been eagerly reading as many of his works as I was able to lay my hands on.

“Our Story Begins” is a collection of many of the Wolff’s “greatest hits,” as well as several stories that have only recently been published. Fans of Wolff’s oeuvre will doubtlessly be familiar with many of the stories in this collection, if not most of them. Some of them, like “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” and “The Night in Question” I’ve read several times, but each time I read them I find them fresh and filled with new insights that I failed to notice before.

There are several features of Wolff’s stories that make them so appealing. First, there is Wolff’s writing style. Wolff eschews complicated stylistic maneuvers and tries to get to the heart of the story in a way that is very accessible to any reader. His writing is filled with refreshing nuance that bring the story and the characters to life. The characters themselves are extremely relatable, and are easy to identify with. They are, for the most part, ordinary people that often find themselves in unusual or just interesting circumstances. Many authors today have hard time of not making the ordinary characters come across as trite, or trying too hard to imbue meaning into the ordinary storylines that are not there organically. Wolff manages not only to strike the right balance, but in fact elevates the story to something unique and intrinsically different. Underneath all of it lays Wolff’s deep affection for his characters’ humanity and a sense of deeper meaning behind even the most ordinary of life’s circumstances. There are even deeper religious echoes in many of the stories, but those, with a few exceptions, very rarely surface. Finally, what I always appreciated about Wolff is that he is first and foremost a storyteller. He wants to tell a good story, and tell it in the most effective and meaningful way. He’s obviously been gifted with a unique and remarkable talent in this regard, but it also takes a certain level of discipline and mature craftsmanship to shape stories in such a way that they become genuine objects of high art.

Whether you are a long-time Wolff fan or are exploring his writing for the first time, this collection will be a valuable introduction to this wonderful writer. This is storytelling at its finest.
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VINE VOICEon 21 July 2011
I think short stories work best when published in their original collections. That way, you get fewer stories that somehow hang together more satisfyingly, and they represent a snapshot of where the writer was at that period in time. This chunky collection of Wolff's stories tends to prove the point; the sheer volume of stories on offer here makes it hard going if you tackle it in a oner.

Wolff has been compared favourably to other masters of the craft like Raymond Carver and John Cheever. There is certainly some similarities here in terms of style and approach. However, some of Wolff's stories do tail of rather weirdly, leaving you, and many the characters he writes about, stranded in mid-point without knowing quite what will happen next. Maybe that's the point, but it's a technique that can be over-used.

Overall, a collection of this size feels too much like hard work; the themes, characters and stories blurring into one after a while. A little underwhelming to be honest.
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on 22 August 2011
One of the Press reviewers used these words and they are just-right for this collection of short stories. The author is new to me and I liked the way he crafted these stories which were written over 3 decades. Some are quite dated but give the atmosphere of that time and dig into issues perhaps just surfacing then. The trick is not to read them immediately one after another. The very last sentence of the book gives a flavour: "It baffled him that he couldn't hold on to something he'd known so well, and he stood fixed in his puzzlement as the song swelled to a finish and died, and a dog barked somewhere, and another waltz began".
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on 12 February 2011
Excellent writing, something dark often there not always visible; some stories end at a peculiar moment, like the writer considers you can think of yr own ending, quite compelling. Great book.
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on 27 February 2009
This is the first work of Tobias Wolff's that I have read and I feel that I have made a great discovery. I'm now hungrily seeking out his other works with great anticipation. A true master of the short story his style of writing is both evocative and captivating, I cannot recommend him highly enough.
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on 18 June 2015
Excellent book of short stories and very enjoyable to read. The number of different story lines and characters that Tobias thinks of are truly amazing and thought provoking. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anybody.
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on 7 May 2011
Ok so it might not be for the under 25 market. But anyone with a bit life experience behind them could not go wrong with this. His prose is pure quality, not word too much or too little, almost perfect and quite hypnotic at times. A total joy to read. And he makes it look so easy. He is literature's Federer!
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