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Thursday, October 20, 2005

The Casual Critic — Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle

Tillie Olsen writes in a style that reminds me of the camera direction of shows like NYPD Blue — jumping in and out of scenes, grabbing the heart of the scene, and moving on. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it leaves the reader a bit behind, in her short-story collection Tell Me a Riddle.

The opening story, "I Stand Here Ironing," is the best of the collection. A mother mulls over the request of her daughter's teacher to discuss the troubles her daughter is having in school. Of course the mother knows her daughter's struggles. The prose floats through the pages the way a real person remembers, and, sadly in this case, regrets the past.

"O Yes" shows its readers how early the realities of race relations impact us. Two young girls, once best friends, see themselves losing each other as the black family and white family head in different directions. As she does throughout the collection, Olsen never wavers from what are often harsh realities in this story.

"Hey Sailor, What Ship" examines the toll of alcoholism on the addicted and those around him. I definitely could have used a bit more explanation to understand the relationships here. There was just too much put on the reader.

"Tell Me a Riddle" looks at the fate of aging we all face. Overwhelmingly sad, the story is very strong. The cruel realities of becoming an elderly person are never shied away from here. Occasionally, the prose left me a touch lost, but nothing that hurt the story too much.

Olsen is a voice I'm guessing few casual readers like myself have come across before. Tell Me a Riddle isn't a page-turner, but at the very least will broaden your horizons.

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