Remembrances of a long life in an uneven but mostly satisfying collection.

Elephants In The Room

Wexler (Milk and Oranges, 2015, etc.) mixes humor, nostalgia, and reflection in her second collection of essays and short fiction.

The book opens with a recounting of a day in the life of a Chicago teen in 1959. The author offers a loving but cleareyed reminiscence of working in her father’s drugstore that sets the tone for the first section, which deals with her own coming-of-age in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The following sections take on different topics, including lighthearted memories of pets and general observations of human nature and life. The longest section, about family and friends, also contains the strongest piece in the book, “Loss and Grief,” which recounts the death of Wexler’s 12-year-old son from leukemia. She delves into her raw emotions of grieving, and particularly her anger: “The sun and I were angry all the time, but it was our secret.” A subsequent remembrance of the dog that helped Wexler through her grief suggests that this powerful theme could carry a full-length memoir. The final section, which includes several poems, takes on the weighty topics of growing older and mortality, but in a high-spirited way. In the last essay, “When I’m Gone,” Wexler plans her own funeral. Although many of the longer essays are affecting, some seem superficial, such as a brief perusal of an autograph book she found in a closet. Full-color photographs illustrate several selections, but other than some family photos, they don’t add much. A few short stories are mixed in with the essays and poetry; the title story, in which several cousins gather for a family funeral, reflects on the enduring strength of family bonds. “Band of Girls,” about a maverick running for president of her sorority in 1963, has a strong opening but no real resolution. These tales seem out of place next to the personal remembrances that make up the bulk of the book, and might have been better saved for a fiction collection.

Remembrances of a long life in an uneven but mostly satisfying collection. 

Pub Date: Jan. 27, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5234-7196-6

Page Count: 194

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: March 7, 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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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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