Tell Me a Riddle
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Tell Me a Riddle

4.09 of 5 stars 4.09  ·  rating details  ·  1,073 ratings  ·  90 reviews
This collection of four stories, "I Stand Here Ironing," "Hey Sailor, what Ship?," "O Yes," and "Tell me a Riddle," had become an American classic.Since the title novella won the O. Henry Award in 1961, the stories have been anthologized over a hundred times, made into three films, translated into thirteen languages, and - most important - once read, they abide in the hear...more
Paperback, 128 pages
Published July 15th 1971 by Delta (first published 1961)
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Sep 01, 2013 Teresa rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Teresa by: Mikki
Though there is much more to the four stories in this slim volume than the disruptive force of family life, I think it appropriate that I read the majority of the final, title story while three of my husband's grandkids wanted drinks, snacks, pillows, covers and conversation from me. After they settled in another room with their granddad and a movie, I finished the last story (though not uninterrupted) with the Sunday night baseball game on low volume.

These modern conveniences show that my life...more
Quattro racconti che sono quattro capolavori.
La Olsen ha avuto una vita faticosa. Figlia di ebrei esuli russi, da quando ebbe dieci anni iniziò a lavorare e si istruì da sola, leggendo. Quando divenne madre ebbe poco tempo per stare con i figli, perché doveva lavorare, ed ebbe anche poco tempo per scrivere, sempre per la stessa ragione, e anche perché fu costantemente perseguitata per il suo attivismo politico (cosa che la fece finire anche in carcere). La sua scrittura è quindi anche un modo p...more
Una scrittura immediata, diretta; pensieri espressi senza traduzione, né intermediari. Voci della mente, impressioni pure. Una scrittura inusuale, “strana” che mi ha preso alla sprovvista e inizialmente sconcertato: talmente coinvolgente da provare smarrimento, e diffidenza, come nei primi rapporti con una persona che ti appaia troppo invadente: ci si irrigidisce, si rimane in controllo.
Per questo motivo, forse, i primi tre racconti mi sono scivolati via senza che riuscissi ad immergermi complet...more
L'incessante e spossante rinuncia del vivere quotidiano.

Essere moglie «Bugiarda - disse lui risoluto - c'è stata anche un po' di felicità», essere madre «Pensa che solo perché sono sua madre abbia una chiave, o che in qualche modo potrebbe usarmi come chiave? Vive da diciannove anni. C'è tutta questa vita vissuta fuori di me, oltre di me», essere donna «Mai più costretta ad andare al ritmo degli altri», negli anni Cinquanta, negli USA, fra New Deal povertà e battaglie politiche sociali e razzial...more
Though bleak, it's refreshing reading honest stories of the "other" San Francisco: families scraping by year after year, earning wisdom through deep regret and being experienced have-nots. There are still quite a few folks like these, though you'd never know it through the media's hipster and old-money portrayals of the city. The title story is a challenge to the idea of waiting for retirement.
Olsen, Tillie. TELL ME A RIDDLE. (This ed., 1964). ****. This collection includes three short stories and the title novella by this author. Although the title story is excellent, as is the short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” the other two stories are, in my opinion, so-so. One of the, “Oh Yes,” about a church service and the thoughts of several of the attendees at the time, was mostly too scattered and without a point to really grab my attention. “I Stand Here Ironing,” is comprised of the ment...more
In my continuing attempt to read things with some Nebraska connection, and also (mostly) in honor of Olsen's passing at the beginning of the year, I thought I would read something from her. It turns out that this is really her only completed book of fiction, so I suppose it's not unusual that this is the one I would settle on. Having read the book, in any case, there is one thing I can say for sure: Holy hell, this woman could write. I'm not sure I've ever read a more powerful collection of stor...more
Cindy Arnold
This short story was a game changer for me -- after reading it, I was certain I wanted to major in English literature. Before that, I knew I wanted to teach high school English, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to focus on literature or writing in my major. As I sat on my bed in my freshmen dorm room, silently and uncontrollably crying as Olsen pushed the story further and further, I knew this story had turned on a switch within me. I then went on to write the first literary analysis paper that I w...more
US school are considering making Tillie Olson’s short story “I stand here ironing” required reading for high school students. I get why. The simple writing is rich with meaning and regret. Reading each sentence is almost like analyzing an Emily Dickinson poem. Life is not beautiful in Tillie Olson’s world, it is nasty, brutish and short. A mother stands ironing while recounting to a teacher the struggle she had raising her oldest daughter and their awkward, painful disconnect now. It’s a moving...more
I remember reading this book in 1995. I opted to stay in the car and finish the title story rather than snowshoe in southwestern Colorado - that's how into the book I was. I couldn't remember thing one about the book, though, and recently reread the title story. What a sad, tragic story! There's a lot of early feminist stuff in here, as well as themes like aging, the power of names, family, and immigration. Not a lot of uplift here and a whole lot of sadness. A testament to the life I don't want...more
The first story, "I Stand Here Ironing," was my favorite in this collection. A beautiful depiction of what it's like to be haunted by your failings as a mother without the sense of hand-wringing that seems to accompany many efforts to capture that emotion.
fatevi un regalo: leggete questi racconti.
Amanda McDougle
I thought this story was truly sad. The elderly couple - the Cadavers - have faced poverty and oppression since the beginning of their marriage. This couple's flaw is the lack of communicating to each other. Mrs. Cadaver finds solitude in taking care of the house. Mr. Cadaver is concerned about finances, and this leads him to make the decision to sell the house. Mrs. Cadaver's medical condition is progressive.

From limited information I gather from "Tell Me A Riddle," Mrs. Cadaver was not an aff...more
I was excited when I learned that this book of stories (three short, one long) is about a family. One of my favorite things is fiction that links places and characters through multiple works. I like a canon. I like the feeling that this is something, someone, who you know the way you know things and people over time, in your real life.

I loved these a lot. Generally they seem to be set near the 1960's, and are about certain transitional moments in relationships: parents and children (of course),...more
These short stories have the wistful, melanchotic tug of times of enormous stress, change, loss, dashed hope, and nostalgia. They center around a single family, although the connections between them are not entirely obvious. "I Stand Here Ironing" is a mother's examination of conscience over her daughter Emily's self-estrangement. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is the chaotic, drunken haze of a man visiting the only home he knows using the only coping mechanism he has had for the ugliness life has thr...more
Heart-breaking/bursting and illuminating -- the first short story is superb, not a syllable is wasted in "I Stand Here Ironing." The final (title) novella is poetic, haunting and excellent. I have enormous respect for this writer, and for the indomitable poor working mothers she reveals to us.

"I Stand Here Ironing" ***** (Highly recommended!)
"Hey Sailor, What Ship?" ***
"O Yes" ****
"Tell Me a Riddle" ***** (The title novella left me verklempt - all choked up)

Here's how "Tell Me a Riddle" opens:
A compilation of four stories (three short and one almost novella-length) written by Tillie Olsen. Not only was I inspired to pick up this book because of an article she wrote that was republished in my copy of An American Album (a compilation of articles, stories, and poems published in Harper's), but also because it was recommended to me by Amy Hempel in the short fiction workshop she taught in Southampton last month.

I've already read "I Stand Here Ironing" (back in high school) and, since the...more
Gosh, what powerful stories.
She shows us lives that are painful, tortured. Manages to get into the head of an alcoholic ex-sailor. ["Hey Sailor, What Ship?"]

"I Stand Here Ironing" sounds like it might be autobiographical -- Olsen too had to raise her children and provide for them single-handed. The story shares the intense pain of the mother who desperately wanted/wants to give her children much more than circumstances allow.

I have previously read Olsen's amazing and very important nonfictio...more
Tell Me A Riddle collects four short stories, probably written in the late 50's. "I Stand Here Ironing" starts off by pulling you into Olsen's unique (and mostly successful) use of words and deft treatment of her characters. "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" is a sad tale of a family who has watched their sailor friend deteriorate through the years. "O Yes" relates a young girl's first experience in a baptist church and the scars it leaves on her forever. The final story is the one this volume was named...more
Victor Davis
Ignoring the first three stories, the title story was phenomenally good, sad, devastating. Taught me that even at the end, life never gets easy. Reminded me that everyone, no matter how puzzling or deplorable, has within them a rich, rational world of thought, carries a history worth imploring.
The note his hosts leave for Whitey in "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" warns him "DON'T go down to the waterfront," because if he does he'll get drunk and likely get in a fight and wind up in the drunk tank. Fifty years later that waterfront is a pretty boulevard with upscale shops and restaurants, jogging paths, tennis courts, and a square named after the longshore union leader Harry Bridges--but no cargo piers, no seamen's bars, and nobody like Whitey.
Tilie Olsen's kids went through San Francisco's...more
This book made me want to call my mom. The last story, "Tell Me a Riddle," has so many good things in it about how a mother lives for her family but that in the end she might want to do something different. And it's bitter, and hard to read, and complex, and so much still goes unsaid. But she captures something specific in each story, and the characters feel real. Her writing style is a bit jumbly for me (lack of punctuation for speaking, hard to know whose perspective/interior monologue it is,...more
Nicole Gervasio
I can't wait to read more of Tillie Olsen's work. If you can, get a copy of Tell Me a Riddle that includes all FOUR stories that appeared in the original edition (many subsequent versions have only included "Tell Me a Riddle" with accompanying criticism). Reading the four stories back-to-back has a very different impact than reading "Tell Me a Riddle" on its own, although that one is rightfully recognized as the most provocative and fleshed-out story in the collection. The four are meant to be a...more
I'd never heard of Tillie Olsen until a friend recommended this small book of four short stories. I was very impressed; the voice is both distinctive unto itself and slightly different in each story. "I Stand Here Ironing" was my favorite of the pieces, but they were all interesting. Olsen deals with issues of immigration, war, race, class, and more, generally from the point of view of women dealing with the way these issues and the "progress" of the twentieth century impact their lives and inte...more
Tillie Olsen has won an amazing number of awards and held some very prestigious positions. This collection of loosely related short stories (4 in total) were all written in the 50s, and appear in the book in the order that they were written.
I didn't particularly enjoy any of the stories. Olsen's style of writing was very choppy and difficult for me to follow. The Sailor story in particular I didn't understand. In addition, her subjects were very dark and I guess on this particular day that just...more
I read an article in's "You Must Read This" section (where authors recommend their favorites)) that praised one of this book's short stories. [] The story is about the demise of a marriage and how some grievances are not forgotten and impossible to forgive. Olsen writes with a flawless understanding of language and how it can maintain its formality and still speak to the hardship of life. The lives she puts into her short stories are painfully diff...more
The experience of reading of Tillie Olsen’s stories for the first time is very reminiscent of the awe I felt when I first read Virginia Woolf. Both women have an uncanny ability to truly map a character’s consciousness, to delve into the multiplicities of a train of thought and guide readers through the complexities of a character. Each of the four stories collected here highlight Ms. Olsen’s superb craft, especially in her ability to choose the perfect point-of-view to pull readers in and move...more
The title story and the first story "I stand here ironing" are excellent. They are beautifully written and heart breaking stories of regret and remembrance. The other two stories in this collection "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" and "O Yes" are not as strong as the others. They both had powerful moments with in the story, but overall lacked the strong voice and clarity of the others. Still, even Tillie Olsen's lesser stories have brilliance and beauty. Her words and images linger long after you've put...more
I've only read the title story, but there are several more I can't wait to read. This novella (about 150 pages) is about a couple who should be/are retired, and trying to decide how to live out their lives. They are struggling with their relationship, where to live, and differences between needs to be social or private with their time.

This book taught me about love, about challenges in relationships,about decisions made in families regarding illness, and about how lovely and beautiful dying can...more
Rachel Grey
A quiet series of interconnected tales, evocative of a life silenced by the determination of gender. Olsen came to writing late in life, is largely self-taught and embodies the incarcerated mind of woman in America. This novel in the form of stories is at a glance straightforward, time as depicted by the woman at the ironing board. The finale betrays the complications, the swallowed bitterness of that dying generation who believed in the American Dream.
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Tillie Lerner Olsen (January 14, 1912 – January 1, 2007) was an American writer associated with the political turmoil of the 1930s and the first generation of American feminists.

Though she published little, Olsen was very influential for her treatment of the lives of women and the poor. She drew attention to why women have been less likely to be published authors (and why they receive less attenti...more
More about Tillie Olsen...
Yonnondio: From the Thirties Silences I Stand Here Ironing The Riddle of Life and Death: Tell Me a Riddle and The Death of Ivan Ilych Tell Me a Riddle & Yonnondio

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