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Author: Tobias Wolff

Publisher: Knopf

ISBN:  978-1-4000-4459-7

I tell people who tell me they want to write to do two things: 

(1) Write something every day.

 (2) Read the best stuff you can get your hands on. Our story begins: New and Selected Stories by Tobias Wolff is one of the best things I've gotten my hands on recently.

The book, originally published in 2008, contains 21 stories from earlier collections, plus 10 new stories. In his author's note, Wolff asked himself about this book: "Should I present my stories, of whatever vintage [some are 30 years old], in their original form? Or should I allow myself the liberty of revisiting them here and there?" 

I am sure every writer, looking at earlier work, sees ways to improve, to tinker, to touch up. While there is a good argument for leaving the published text alone, there is, I believe, a better one to edit. "The truth is that I have never regarded my stories as sacred texts," writes Woolf. "If I see a clumsy or superfluous passage, so will you, and why should I throw you out of the story with an irritation I could have prevented? Where I have felt the need for something better I have answered the need as best I can, for now."

Because Woolf wrote the 31 stories over a 30-year period, they cover an enormous range of subjects, themes, and settings. We are in the peacetime Army, in prep school, teaching college, married, single, a child. "For two days now, Miller has been standing in the rain with the rest of Bravo Company, waiting for some men from another company to blunder down the logging road where Bravo waits in ambush."  So begins "The Other Miller" putting the reader into a muddy foxhole with Miller.

"'A prep school in March is like a ship in the doldrums.' Our history master said this, as if to himself, while we were waiting for the bell to ring after class." So beings "Smorgasbord" putting the reader into the head of a prep student narrator.

"The number 64 bus stops at St. Peter's, so it's always crammed with pilgrims or suckers, depending on your pont of view—a happy hunting ground for pickpockets. Mallon was not a pilgrim, or by his own reckoning a sucker." So begins "The Benefit of the Doubt," in which Mallon, in Rome, indulges the Gypsy who has attempted to pick his pocket.

Although Wolff is widely anthologized, I recognized only one story, "A White Bible," perhaps because I read it in Best American Short Stories; it is unforgettable. A female schoolteacher is accosted at her car and forced to drive to a remote spot by a man who turns out to be a student's father. The confrontation between a single American woman who has actually had an alcoholic drink on a Friday after work and a puritanical immigrant Islamic man who only wants the best for his son is powerful, convincing, and moving.

All I can say is, see if you can get your hands on a copy of Our story begins.