Lizzie's Reviews > Tell Me a Riddle

Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
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's review
Jul 05, 12

bookshelves: 2012, for-school, recurring-characters, short-stories, used-book, own
Read from June 26 to July 02, 2012

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), chosen family, the dying of a friendship, the dying of a spouse. The author's style is internal and free, often jumping intentionally between disjointed thoughts and the things that are happening. It's really effective and moving writing.

The first story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is the only one I can't place in the set. I think it doesn't explicitly belong to the others. It's written essentially as a monologue of a mother's reflections about her college-age daughter, and how she grew up the way she has. The idea is somewhat simple, but it works. The author has a huge amount of honesty in her writing about the failures and successes of parenthood.

The second is by far my favorite: "Hey Sailor, What Ship?" It is outstandingly wonderful, 5 overwhelming stars for sure. It establishes the characters who recur, from the perspective of someone we won't meet again. I love him, though: a merchant sailor and irrevocable drunk, visiting his best friends and their children while in port. Their relationships are warm and real, and we pick up signals of a situation that is never fully discussed. We know the difference between what he thinks and what he says, and why they fight and why they love each other. He's been an uncle to the children and he loves them so much it is almost difficult to cope with as a reader. This author knows every beat of what it's like to have children with you, every bright and dark place. Jeannie, the teenager, and Carol, the middle-schooler, both show up in the following stories, though in this one they are mostly upstaged by the staggering cuteness of their baby sister, who probably has the most adorable kid dialogue I've ever read, ever. (Except maybe Lynda Barry's.)

The third story is the reason I bought the book, "O Yes," about Carol's transition with a friendship bogged down with race, religion, sexuality. I'm pretty sure that every person has a middle-school friend who stopped being their friend in some formative, influential way. This is about that, but about what it looks like to an adult. What happens to Carol is observed by her mother, who finds it just as keening an experience but must simply watch Carol through the reality of maturity. There's several pieces to the story: it begins at a black church service they are attending with their friends, where the powerful spiritual reactions of some of the congregation overwhelm Carol, and she faints. She can't bear to think about what it means, or why. Later, her friendship starts to fall apart, but what she takes note of isn't her feeling so much as what surrounds the circumstance that has changed them both: the way teachers treat her friend differently, the identity crisis other girls like her go through, how her classmates handle each other. Carol is borne on the tide of her immature age as her mother watches, and neither of them can make it easier.

The fourth piece is a long story about Carol's grandparents, married for too many years, the kind of marriage that is always in the clench of battle and resentment. They never call each other anything but mocking names. He is exasperated and lonely, and she has had too many children. Eva cannot hide how this has broken her: she can no longer be around anyone, even be nice to anyone, play with a child, or look at a baby. An unwanted visit to her youngest grandchildren is excruciating. Eva, however, is starting to die, and her husband makes her spend the last few weeks of her life visiting all her descendants. Appropriately, though, Jeannie is eventually there to help, as an adult: the awesome bitchy teenager of the last two stories now an awesome, loving nurse struggling with the amount of care she has for her patients.

It's a grim and difficult story, but a very strong one. Perhaps the strangest thing is the very, very thin thread of back story given to Eva: memories surface that don't make any sense, but are incredibly important. She recalls prison, in Russia, politics, from before she was married. We don't know why, what kind, or when. We don't understand how she began there, just that all that matters now is how she's ending.

Stories like these surprise me with their quietness. They are literary and strong, and so much, so much comes out of them. I'm certain I'll read them again someday.
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