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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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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