Monday, April 6, 2009

Two Short Stories for Monday

There hasn't been time to read since returning from Puerto Rico, but I did take along The Norton Book of American Short Stories to keep me occupied during Twin A's cello lesson Saturday afternoon. With no story idea in mind, I just let the book fall open.

James Thurber got me with the first sentence of his very short story The Unicorn in the Garden:

"Once upon a sunny morning a man who sat in a breakfast nook looked up from his scrambled eggs to see a white unicorn with a gold horn quietly cropping the roses in the garden."

The image this conjures up brought an instant smile to my face. It turned into outright laughter when he ran upstairs to share the news with his wife:

"You are a booby," she said, "and I am going to have you put in the booby hatch."

The wife's plan backfires and Thurber leaves us with a comical moral to this short fable. You can read it here.

There was plenty of time for another story, so I chose Tillie Olsen's I Stand Here Ironing. This author was totally unknown to me, but the title caught my attention. From the first line, it was obvious that the tone of this story would be very different from the one I had just read:

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

Olsen (1913 - 2007) was born to Russian Jewish immigrants and spent her childhood in Nebraska before dropping out of school at fifteen to enter the workforce. She joined the American Communist Party and was associated with the political turmoil of the 1930's. She was also one of the first American writers to make the labor and struggles of everyday people the subject of tragedy. Olsen understood how women's voices were oppressed by conditions of time, space , and resources. She was part of the first generation of American feminists.

A woman, as she is ironing, is approached by a therapist or counselor (imaginary?) and begins to ruminate on the choices she made (or was forced to make) during her eldest daughter's childhood.

"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 nineteen years. There's 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, what should have been and what cannot be helped."

This story, published in 1961, was part of Olsen's first collection of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle. The volume contains four stories mostly linked through characters of a single family, with three stories told from a mother's point of view. I will be looking for it on my next trip to the library.

Visit The Book Mine Set to see who else is talking about short stories this week. Why not join in as long as you're there?


  1. That is a great line from the wife. I first read Thurber this year (one essay on marraige that was too funny and a book on dogs that I didn't want to end) but haven't had a chance to read any of his short stories...I will start with this one. The Olsen story sounds interesting. If it is an imaginary conversation, it makes me wonder if this type of inner dialogue is common among mothers. I constantly question myself about my parenting...but this could just be a weirdness on my part:)

  2. BookPSmith,
    I know I'll be reading more of Thurber, too! I read that Olsen is taught in a lot of college English classes and her voice (the mother's voice) was very appealing to me. What mother doesn't second guess their decisions? I just wasn't sure if there really was someone else present or if she was just ruminating on the past.

  3. Great reviews. I like how you gave background info on the author. I'm taking notes. :)

    oh and ps. the word verification i got is: unicone

    which i thought was funny b/c it's so close to unicorn.

  4. Laza,
    Glad you liked the background info! Olsen was quite an interesting lady.

    The word verification is too funny!

  5. I bet she wrote a lot of that in her head whilst ironing, don't you?

  6. John,
    I wouldn't doubt it...sounds like she may have 'lived' many of her stories. I just put in an on-line library request for her Tell Me A Riddle collection.

  7. You chose two wonderful stories. THe paragraphs are interesting. Love the title of the second. Isn't it what we do while ironing, tthink out our lives?

  8. Guatami-
    Absolutely...picking up an iron is an invitation for the mind to wander!

  9. Olsen's story is seems so simple but packs so much into it.I Stand Here Ironing is one of my favorite short stories because of its honesty.

    1. Vasilly - Even after a few years, that story still stand out in my mind! SO good...


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