• Our Story Begins

  • New and Selected Stories
  • By: Tobias Wolff
  • Narrated by: Anthony Heald
  • Length: 13 hrs and 5 mins
  • 4.0 out of 5 stars (168 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Tobias Wolff's first two books proved how the short story can "provoke our amazed appreciation" ( New York Times Book Review). 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 enrolls in college while her son trains for Iraq. A lawyer takes a difficult deposition. An American in Rome indulges the Gypsy who's picked his pocket.

In this potent new collection, the first in over a decade, Wolff displays his mastery over a quarter century, once again proving himself "a writer of the highest order: part storyteller, part philosopher, someone deeply engaged in asking hard questions that take a lifetime to resolve." (Los Angeles Times)

©2008 Tobias Wolff (P)2008 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"[A]s good as anything Wolff has done...Wolff expertly uses irony and empathy to explore facets of contemporary life." ( Publishers Weekly)

What listeners say about Our Story Begins

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Great

I have very little experience reading Tobias Wolfe. I tried "Old School" a few years back, but got bored with it. However I gave this collection of short stories a shot and am glad I did. What amazes me is how different each story is. Its almost as if a different person wrote each story. They are all very engrossing and have strong characters. I enjoyed this audio and will definitely listen to it again in the future

29 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

3.5 stars to these slice of life short stories

I listened to these stories on audiobook while moving out of my house. I feel they need to be paid careful attention to or else I would miss underlying connections or messages in the story. But I had to clean, organize and sometimes talk to my husband or kids so the amount of focus I could give these stories probably didn't do them justice. I found some of them to be boring or pointless but others were interesting slice of life vignettes. Some of them didn't have endings that were neatly wrapped up but I guess that's how life is in general. Others had twists at the end although I found those to be predictable.

I'm a fan of Tobias Wolff's writing style/tone and I really loved his novel Old School. I didn't like this book of short stories as much as that novel but I also think that reading them (as I did Old School, and got sucked in and finished it in one day, whereas these stories took me weeks to listen to, spread out one by one as I was over there cleaning) would have been a more immersive experience than listening to them so I don't know that it's fair of me to compare.

They were definitely interesting enough to keep listening to and to keep me entertained as I read. I especially enjoyed the story "Down to Bone." It was haunting and stuck with me in a rather depressing way. Some other good ones I'd like to re-read were The Liar and The Other Miller.

Some of these were available individually as part of my Audible Plus subscription so as I listened to them I left a review. The rest were included in the compilation which was also in Audible Plus and so I grouped them all together as one book with all my reviews here in one place. It was nice to listen to them individually and think of each one of its own complete book, so I may go back and listen to some that way again in the future and see if my opinion of them changes when I have more time to focus on them and digest them.

Most of the stories were about boyhood or the military. Some were about marriage or parenting but almost all from a man's/husband's/father's point of view. There were a couple from a woman's point of view or dual perspective with alternating narrators (like Desert Breakdown which I kind of enjoyed). All the man seemed the same- manly men who found it hard to make true connections or find true love and felt they had to be tough to get through life. A common theme was putting on an act or going through the motions of what one feels one should do in life, even though it didn't make them happy.

The ones from the womens' point of view were usually older women who were unhappy as well and most didn't like being mothers or weren't very good mothers. In the first story, called In the Garden of North American Martyrs, the main character is a woman who finally breaks out of the shell that she feels society has put her in, and I kind of liked that. Another theme common to a lot of these stories was finally breaking out or breaking down although not all the characters did it and some really needed to.

I guess these stories were overall kind of sad or depressing but sometimes I like that type of story. Most turned out to have bad endings instead of happy endings, if they had any ending at all. One that could be said to have a good ending is "The White Bible," which had some interesting action happen in it.

Here are my reviews of each story.

(Selected Stories.)

1) IN THE GARDEN OF THE NORTH AMERICAN MARTYRS
Okay story - 3 stars
This was an okay story about a professor who tries to get a job a new school and finds out she's being taken for a ride. The narrator's voice was good for this story; I feel this narrator is good at reading stories about older women. The narrator's friend Louise was insane. It ended too abruptly for my preference; I wanted to find out what happened next. A lot of these stories in this collection are like that, though. Just slice of life vignettes that don't really go anywhere.

2) NEXT DOOR - 2.5 stars
It was okay but needed a careful listening for deeper appreciation and I was doing other things while I listened to it. A couple hears a couple next door fighting and watches a Western on TV.

3) HUNTERS IN THE SNOW
Crazy story - 3.5 stars
This is a crazy story of friends who go hunting and one shoots another one and the others say they are taking him to the hospital but they keep stopping to get drinks and share their life issues along the way. It was entertaining. The story was good. The narration was okay but with this narrator it sounded like it was a book about or for old ladies instead of manly hunters. I'm sorry but a couple of them sounded gay and I don't think they were supposed to. Other than that, I enjoyed it.

4) THE LIAR - 4 stars
I enjoyed this story about a boy who always lied while growing up and his mom who was upset about that.

5) SOLDIER'S JOY - 3 stars
A kind of boring but interesting in parts story about a soldier who was not a good soldier and then has to help save another soldier. There were things left out of the story that I wanted to know. For instance, he was demoted for something but it never said what, or maybe I missed it because I spaced out when it got boring.

6) THE RICH BROTHER - 3.5 stars
One brother has to go help out his perpetual screw-up other brother. The other brother predictably screws up. It was pretty good.

7) LEVIATHAN - 4 stars
This story involved people doing drugs together and in that way it was very different from the other stories in this book, and a lot more interesting than some of the boring ones. Mostly they just do a bunch of coke and tell stories but you get a glimpse into their lives and past regrets. I liked it.

8) DESERT BREAKDOWN - 3.5 stars
I liked that how this story switched perspectives between a wife and her husband who wasn't very happy about being a husband and father. They break down in the desert, like the title said, and get taken for a ride by some people. I wanted more to happen or I would have given it more stars as it was interesting to listen to.

9) SAY YES - 2.5 stars
I didn't really get the point of this one. A racist guy fights with his wife about whether he would have married her if she was Black. I don't like some of the endings of these stories because they are too open-ended.

10) MORTALS - 3 stars
This story about an obituary writer who writes an obituary for a guy who isn't dead, because he failed to do his job of checking to confirm the death, is basically a conversation between two men but it was interesting enough.

11) FLYBOYS - 2.5 stars
Typical boyhood story from Tobias Wolff. It was okay but not incredibly interesting.

12) SANITY - 1 star
Weird and Boring
These are going downhill for me. April's stepmother Claire tells her about sex after they visit her dad in a mental hospital where he has a breakdown. The story has no ending at all. It was stupid and I don't think Tobias Wolff should write about women and virginity because it didn't come across as real. It also should have been read by a woman, not a man- it was like hearing a grandpa or uncle read me a story about sex, yuck.

13) THE OTHER MILLER - 4 stars
I liked this story about a guy who hated being in the Army and was happy to have a reason to get a break when he is told his mother died but knows it is another person's mother.

14) TWO BOYS AND A GIRL - 3 stars
Two boys like the same girl. A fairly interesting story. But nothing extraordinary about it.

15) THE CHAIN
Chain of events - 4 stars
One bad deed leads to another as an act of revenge sets of a CHAIN of events. An interesting listen, full of action. It did go into some backstory about the character's heritage and prejudices against himself and other characters. It seemed to set up a longer story but I guess it was just enough to make for an entertaining story. Good narrator.

16) SMORGASBORD - 2 stars
This was a boring story about boarding school boys who are invited by the son of a dignitary to dinner but they decide to go to a lower class buffet instead and they are fascinated by his Spanish stepmom. Maybe if I listened to some of these stories more carefully next time, I would like them better but I get easily distracted while cleaning or working and listening to audiobooks so the story has to be really interesting for me to keep paying close enough attention and really like them.

17) LADY'S DREAM - 3 stars
The husband in this book was really despicable. He married a woman to spite his parents but he ends up needing his parents more than he knew he would. I get this one confused with "Desert Breakdown." The common theme of men who are shitty husbands and fathers makes me wonder if Tobias Wolff was adding autobiographical tidbits to his fiction and/or if he hates himself and/or his life.

18) POWDER
Slice of life - 3.5 stars
Short slice of life vignette about a dad and son who go skiing and get stuck in a snowstorm on the way back, threatening to make the boy's mom mad. You can get a great sense of the dad's personality in this story. It wasn't super exciting or eventful but it was interesting enough.

19) THE NIGHT IN QUESTION
Didn't really go anywhere - 2 stars
Interesting backstory but the main character basically told a story to his sister the whole time, which he had heard from his pastor after he found religion. And nothing really changes in the siblings' dynamics. I thought it was boring compared to some of the others by Wolff.

20) FIRELIGHT - 3 stars
This was a pretty decent story about a boy whose mom promises him a nice apartment and they go to look at them but always return to their boarding house.

21) BULLET IN THE BRAIN
Exactly what it sounds like - 4 stars
This story is about exactly what the title sounds like. A man is standing in line at a bank and he gets shot in the head with a bullet by a bank robber. He reminisces over his life while he's dying. I think I like Wolff's shortest stories in this collection the best because I enjoyed this one. On a side note, I don't think the summaries of the stories accurately represent what is presented in the stories; they seem to give extra information that isn't explored in the story itself and that's a bit disappointing.

(New stories.)

22) THAT ROOM - 2 stars
A boring boyhood story. Didn't like too much about it.

23) AWAITING ORDERS - 3.5 stars
This story delved into being closeted and gay in the military, so it had an interesting twist that the other military stories didn't and I liked it.

24) A WHITE BIBLE - 3.5 stars
This story was pretty interesting with some twists and turns but ended up being kind of a letdown. A teacher is kidnapped when she goes to her car in a parking garage.

25) HER DOG - 2 stars
This is a weird story in which a man didn't want a dog but the man's wife did. His wife died and now he still has the dog. He starts talking to the dog and they have a competition about who loved her most. I guess it was interesting but talking animals are just too over the top for me, since Tobias Wolff's stories are usually so realistic.

26) A MATURE STUDENT - 2.5 stars
An older student who was a female Marine bonds in a platonic way with her professor but then fears that the professor fears being judged after opening up to her. It was rather weird and I am sure there was some underlying message or connection I missed between the student's past and her own son, and the professor's past in various countries etc. I often feel that way while listening to Tobias Wolff's stories, and I think I just get distracted or am not smart enough to understand what the story is trying to tell me but sometimes that means I find them boring or confusing.

27) THE DEPOSITION - 2 stars
A weird story that goes off on a tangent when a lawyer goes to the deposition of his client and sees a woman walking by the river.

28) DOWN TO BONE - 4.5 stars
This was my favorite story in the collection even though it was sad and depressing. A man visits his dying mother. It's rather haunting.

29) NIGHTINGALE - 3.5 stars
In this story a gruff military dad is trying to toughen up his shy, awkward (perhaps autistic or mentally slow?) son by sending him off to boarding school. He has a crisis of conscience and goes back to talk to the commander to make sure his son is in a good place, but gets lost on his way back, which I guess is supposed to show that he himself is not as put together as he thinks he is. I felt bad for the son and I didn't like the dad at all but I connected with the story more than some of the others, if only because I wanted to jump in and save the son from having to go there, or rescue him from his dad's attitude in general.

30) THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT - 3.5 stars
A "gypsy" tries to pickpocket a man who is visiting Italy on business. He fights him off and then feels bad for injuring him so he tries to get him home safely. This is a "no good deed goes unpunished story" and a "fish out of water" story where he gets to peer into a culture he previously had no knowledge about.

31) DEEP KISS - 3 Stars
A man has never forgotten about his teenage crush even after he grew up, got married and had kids. He still thinks about her and tries to figure out why he's still in love with her. It was kind of boring/pointless but it did keep my interest until the end.

8 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Wonderful stories and a good reader

I loved this book. My only complaint is that they should have included five or ten second gaps between the stories. One story ends and then you immediately hear the title for the next story.

10 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Story titles missing.

Good book but the lack of chapter titles is a big problem. A lot of audible books do this but it’s a bigger irritation here because each chapter is another short story.

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

5 minute walk

Wolf can make a five minute walk last 30 minutes and each step an adventure.
This book is like reading the leftovers of a prolific author where even the cast-off is mesmerizing. Some stories leave you hungry. But, so does life.
A perfect reader for his work.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Uses words like a master

This is a master class in using words to make a vision and a story come alive. Highly recommended.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

excellent writing, but the reality too grim

The writing, and the narration were excellent, but the grimes of the stories were to much, didn't finish.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Mostly unsatisfying, but one absolute gem

The gem, I think, is a haunting little story, just three or four pages long, called “Bullet in the Brain.” When it appeared in the New Yorker many years ago, a friend – a professional fiction editor – phoned me and excitedly urged me to read it. It’s a beauty. However, to be honest, it probably works better in print than read aloud, even though Anthony Heald (you remember him as the smarmy prison psychiatrist in “The Silence of the Lambs”) does his usual brilliant job.

And now, from here on, SPOILER ALERT!

The rest of this collection was, for me, pretty unsatisfying. I’m aware Woolf is a highly respected writer (and teacher of writing), but all his stories seemed typical of the sort of work that comes out of college fiction classes: You know in advance that their view of humanity will be a sour one, that they’re going to end a little too soon, on a note of incompleteness and ambiguity, and that before the tale ends, someone is going to be revealed as weak or duplicitous or cruel.

And they also seem a little dated. The first story, for example, pretentiously titled “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” features some ridiculously caricatured academics, and it's so off the mark, or at least so out of date, that the main character, a woman professor interviewing for a job at another college, learns to her disappointment that the hiring committee has already decided that only a man is actually going to be considered, and that she is merely the token woman. I don’t think that was remotely true even fifty years ago.

The second selection, “Next Door,” recounts the narrator’s puzzlingly mild, low-key reaction to some brutal, noisy, drunken neighbors who, among other things, beat their dog almost to death. In the third, “Hunters in the Snow,” a dog is shot dead, and the hunters of the title are revealed to be so absurdly selfish and callous that two of them stop for coffee in a roadside snack bar and chat about a love affair while their wounded companion lies outside freezing to death. You get the feeling that these tales are deliberately unpleasant, and they don't even have the virtue of ringing true.

“The Rich Brother” presents two brothers being nasty to each other on a long road trip, one a naive screwup, the other successful and somewhat protective but also possessed of a cruel streak. It’s not bad, but then they pick up a hitchhiking con man whose obvious tall tale – about a Peruvian gold mine – seems annoyingly cartoonish and cliched. The next story, “Leviathan,” is just a catty conversation, over wine and drugs, among two couples, all four faintly objectionable and not very nice to one another.

“Desert Breakdown, 1968,” as in many a movie, offers us a dusty nondescript gas station down an empty desert road, with four guys in cowboy hats sitting around outside, and you know immediately that they're going to be menacing, threatening, and unfriendly to a couple who drive up, unlike actual human beings in Arizona or pretty much anywhere. (One even flicks a cigarette butt at the car.) This sort of thing is fine in a genre story -- horror, crime, whatever; you expect it. But in mainstream fiction, it just feels tiresomely fake.

One story, “The Chain” – in which yet another dog is shot! – starts out fairly intriguingly, but by the end it has turned into a preachy parable about racial injustice. “Two Boys and a Girl” is about the betrayal of a friend, as well as disappointment in love. I could go on, but you’ve already gotten the idea: Aside from the admirable “Bullet in the Brain,” this collection gave me barely a moment’s pleasure.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Models of Modern Short Fiction

These stories are perfectly crafted short fiction from our American desires, failure, and experience. Is Wolff the greatest American short story author, I think so.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Glance into Real Life with Wolff

Tobias Wolff's stories are always interesting, often a little strange. But, at least to me, they feel real, like covert peaks at the real lives people are living underneath pretense and costume. The characters are never noble or enviable, but they are enticing and likeable. They feel like people you almost know, or maybe the true selves under the people you think you know .

Great book.

David