Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

I doubt that the name Tillie Olsen is unfamiliar to most readers. Her story “I Stand Here Ironing” (which is included in the collection Tell Me a Riddle that I am actually discussing here) is one of the most widely anthologized stories around. For anyone who reads, Tillie Olsen just seems to feel like an old friend. That’s one reason I jumped at the chance to take a look at her collection Tell Me a Riddle.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Scott Turow.)

And, though this is a small collection, I was just as impressed by the other stories inside as I was (and was again) by “I Stand Here Ironing.” I kept pausing to sit and roll what I’d just read in my head, happening to flip to the bio and picture at the back as I did so. That’s when I happened to notice that Tillie Olsen was from Nebraska.

I did some looking, for some reason never having heard where Olsen was from. She was born in Wahoo (which I’ve been to numerous times), but she grew up in Omaha (where I lived for the better part of thirty years). She went to Omaha High School before having to drop out at 15 and work. That last part didn’t interest me as much, until I realized that Omaha High School was the original name of Central High School, where I attended.

It was just such a weird thing to suddenly realize, to think that she once even sat in the same classrooms I did, that I had this connection to someone I’d always felt a connection to…just because of her writing. The connection I feel to Olsen’s stories is still much more important, but it was all kind of a weird synchronicity kind of moment.

For me, the reason I find Olsen’s stories so magical is actually part of that odd experience. Her writing just seems to tap into something inside people, recognized like it’s always been known but never realized. We may not have lived the lives of Olsen’s characters…but we have felt their stories.

Just re-look at the opening section from “I Stand Here Ironing”:

            I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

            “I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and who I’m deeply interested in helping.”

            “Who needs help.” … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

            And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

There is such a tender bluntness to these words, a resignation yet an outcry to and against all that we cannot change in our lives. In short, Olsen zaps us right into the inseparable pleasure/pain that is our lives as human beings.

Now, don’t think that just because I only quote from “I Stand Here Ironing” that it is the only good story in the collection, or that it is the only one I wanted to talk about. I didn’t just jump for that one because everyone has read it already. Instead, there are only four stories here. I wanted to show what I needed to show and still leave the rest for you to find, if you haven’t already. You all deserve that. After all, there is just only so much Olsen out there for us to read. So many other things laid claim to her life.

Though, I have to stop before wishing it could have been otherwise for Olsen. The stories in Tell Me a Riddle are such that I hesitate to even wish something that could damage them. Olsen’s life was still part of her writing. If things had been better for her and she could have written more, who knows if we would have gotten something like “O Yes” or “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” She might have turned out many more masterpieces…or we might have gotten none of what we treasure so much.

Olsen’s talent was amazing. I may wish she had written more, but what she gave us is more than we can reasonably ask of anyone. Just pick up Tell Me a Riddle and I’m sure you’ll agree with me…presuming you haven’t read it already.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I feel exhausted, completely and totally exhausted. Why? I just finished reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Believe me, it was fun but it was also a lot of work. I’ve read many longer books, but even some longer weren’t as much work. Further, now I have to sit down and think of what to say to you all about it. Oh well, here goes.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Scott Turow.)

I’ll start off by saying that I’m going to talk about this one a little bit differently than I usually do when sitting down to do a longer review. Exactly what I mean will be evident shortly, but I think there is no other way for me to cover The Count of Monte Cristo.

There is probably no need to cover the basic overall of this particular volume. Most people who have never even read Dumas know what this is about; The Count of Monte Cristo is the first thing people think of when they think of a revenge story. Hell, even The Simpsons did a short version of it. Still, this is the story of Edmond Dantes. A good and industrious young man, a few undeserved enemies are jealous of him. Through their machinations he loses everything he has and is unjustly imprisoned for what is to be the rest of his life. However, he makes a friend of an imprisoned abbot. The abbot teaches him and tells him where a treasure is buried. Dantes escapes and goes about revenging himself on those who did him wrong.

Of course, this is wildly simplified. There is just no way of explaining how overly simplified this is. Really, no soap opera on Earth has had a more convoluted and complex plot structure. Dumas is the beginning and end word on this sort of thing, and he managed to keep it all corralled much better than any soap opera ever did.

I mean, he doesn’t just kill his enemies. He makes them suffer, and he makes them suffer in ways that take years and years and years to come about. Thousands of tiny events and happenings have to line up, some because of Dantes and some not. Really, the first hundred pages or so are a record of dramatically unlucky things happening to Dante (assisted by a few jealous persons) followed by the rest of the book being a record of how unlucky his persecutors find themselves (helped along, of course, by Dantes).

Seriously, there is a great argument here that Dantes just acts for god. I mean, his enemies have already built Dantes’ revenge into their lives by the time Dante comes on the scene again. He just has to find out where to push and everything goes right into motion. He barely has to even try. Things just work out. Of course, up until that turning point in the book the same could have been said about Dantes, and he had done nothing to deserve it. If the latter portion is Dantes acting as the instrument of the divine will, is not the former the capricious and unjust divine punishment of an undeserving soul? Am I going to hell just for asking that question?

I don’t know, but I do know it was pretty damn complicated. Even now I can barely keep track of it all.

That is where we come to the part about how I’m doing this review different from I do for other books. One thing you will notice is that I haven’t mentioned a single quote yet. Nor will there be one. Normally I like to cite, if not heavily, to the text I’m considering. However, how would I do this here? What portion of The Count of Monte Cristo could I cite that would demonstrate what I’m talking about? A single paragraph wouldn’t suffice, nor a single page or chapter. There are simply too many threads. To give one example would necessitate talking about hundreds of others. Pulling one thread would just cause the whole thing to collapse. As such, I give you none and just tell you that this is the case.

Really, I actually did enjoy reading The Count of Monte Cristo. I admit, it did feel like a bit of work. However, despite that, I did have fun. It was amazing to see just how meticulously and intricately Dumas had set this all up. That’s why, even though I found myself shouting “Just fucking kill them already!” as I read, I would not advise reading an abridged copy. There is just too much you could miss, and you really need every bit of what is there if you are going to bother reading this book.  ‘Nuff said.