A moving, haunting poem on the lasting memories and aftereffects of war that addresses heavy themes with aptness and aplomb.

Memorial Day


Hilfiker (Journeys off the Road, 2015) meditates on grief and remembrance in this well-crafted narrative poem.

This work follows Jennifer, a grieving widow, as she visits the grave of her husband, Tom, who died while serving in Afghanistan. She’s the first person to come to the cemetery on Memorial Day; the groundskeeper, Old Steadman, lets her in at the break of dawn. Jennifer’s inner monologue makes up most of the book, although Steadman is also an occasional narrator. Jennifer’s (and Hilfiker’s) central motivations are to find an answer for why Tom had to die and a way to express “what remains unsaid” when remembering those who were killed in military service. Although the action takes place over the course of a single day, Jennifer’s narration careens among the past, present, and an unrealized future; there are vivid descriptions of details as banal as old shopping lists next to weighty retellings of Tom’s deployment order. These “kaleidoscopic thoughts / Once again recurring” allow readers to gain deep insight into Jennifer’s character during her vigil. Hilfiker’s images and metaphors throughout are arresting; one scene, for example, parallels rows of graves with the aisles at Jennifer’s wedding to great effect. The lines are short, sparse, and often anaphoric, and the use of repetition strongly reinforces Jennifer’s grief, with images coming like waves that are impossible to ignore. The author inserts other, found material, including quotes from public figures, into the poem just before the monologue structure threatens to overwhelm it, and the well-placed quotations highlight the distance between public and private forms of remembrance. Hilfiker does offer an interpretation as to why Tom and other soldiers had to die, but he doesn’t force this interpretation on readers. Instead, the poem invites them to ponder the answer for themselves.

A moving, haunting poem on the lasting memories and aftereffects of war that addresses heavy themes with aptness and aplomb. 

Pub Date: May 15, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5119-9823-9

Page Count: 80

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: May 24, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers...

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Exploring humankind's place in the universe and the nature of humanity, many of the stories in this stellar collection focus on how technological advances can impact humanity’s evolutionary journey.

Chiang's (Stories of Your Life and Others, 2002) second collection begins with an instant classic, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” which won Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette in 2008. A time-travel fantasy set largely in ancient Baghdad, the story follows fabric merchant Fuwaad ibn Abbas after he meets an alchemist who has crafted what is essentially a time portal. After hearing life-changing stories about others who have used the portal, he decides to go back in time to try to right a terrible wrong—and realizes, too late, that nothing can erase the past. Other standout selections include “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” a story about a software tester who, over the course of a decade, struggles to keep a sentient digital entity alive; “The Great Silence,” which brilliantly questions the theory that humankind is the only intelligent race in the universe; and “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny,” which chronicles the consequences of machines raising human children. But arguably the most profound story is "Exhalation" (which won the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Short Story), a heart-rending message and warning from a scientist of a highly advanced, but now extinct, race of mechanical beings from another universe. Although the being theorizes that all life will die when the universes reach “equilibrium,” its parting advice will resonate with everyone: “Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so.”

Visionary speculative stories that will change the way readers see themselves and the world around them: This book delivers in a big way.

Pub Date: May 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-101-94788-3

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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