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Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai
Pub. Date: June 23, 2015
Source: finished hardback via publisher (Thank you, Viking!)
Summary: Rebecca Makkai’s first two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, have established her as one of the freshest and most imaginative voices in fiction. Now, the award-winning writer, whose stories have appeared in four consecutive editions of The Best American Short Stories, returns with a highly anticipated collection bearing her signature mix of intelligence, wit, and heart.

A reality show producer manipulates two contestants into falling in love, even as her own relationship falls apart. Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a young boy has a revelation about his father’s past when a renowned Romanian violinist plays a concert in their home. When the prized elephant of a traveling circus keels over dead, the small-town minister tasked with burying its remains comes to question his own faith. In an unnamed country, a composer records the folk songs of two women from a village on the brink of destruction.

These transporting, deeply moving stories—some inspired by her own family history—amply demonstrate Makkai’s extraordinary range as a storyteller, and confirm her as a master of the short story form.
Genre: Short Stories
Recommended for: Readers looking to add a short story collection to their shelves, newcomers to Makkai’s work who want to sample her writing

Last year I discovered Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light & Matter, a super slim collection of short stories. After devouring the book I was in Short Story Mode, obsessed with hunting down collections and anthologies – even stories written for magazines. Here we are, eleven months later, and I’m still on a short story kick. I had been curious about Makkai for quite some time (her debut, The Borrower, about a librarian and a young runaway and the road trip they take and her follow up, The Hundred-Year House, a family saga-meets-literary scavenger hunt) so when I was pitched Music for Wartime it was a total no-brainer.

The stories mentioned above in the blurb are the best of the book: The Miracle Years of Little Fork, about the elephant and the minister, was easily my favorite and while it never directly stated the time period, while reading I kept imagining a 1950s-era small town (which definitely added to my enjoyment!) The November Story was fascinating as well and opened my eyes to what really goes on behind the scenes of reality television shows. When it comes to mindless entertainment like that, I suppose I never really spared a thought, but it made sense that, during interviews, contestants would be told to talk in complete sentences and present tense despite already knowing they’ve been eliminated or have managed to scrape by to see another week.

A good portion of the stories deal with the Holocaust, particularly survivors of, and I’m wondering how many of the stories were actually tales of Makkai’s own family. Some are written in a way to where I can easily see them as a family history (the Legends especially: Other Brands of Poison, Acolyte, and A Bird in the House) and even mention Makkai’s name, so…? Maybe? If so, these were excellently-written bite-sized morsels of history (a grandmother kills a soldier with a bottle of ink!) Exposition, a recording of a soldier’s interrogation after not exactly following orders, complete with blacked-out words and phrases, was another of my favorites.

Were I to choose one favorite story or a starting point for readers, it would be The Miracle Years of Little Fork. From its excellent first sentence (“In the fourth week of drought, at the third and final performance of the Roundabout Traveling Circus, the elephant keeled over dead.”) to its colorful cast of characters and surprisingly thought-provoking subject, this one was hands-down my top pick of the book. The Worst You Ever Feel, about a young boy’s revelation when a renowned violinist visits his home, was another standout piece and easily one that will receive praise and attention. Regardless of how you read this book (cover-to-cover or jumping around to whichever story catches your eye) Music for Wartime is a fantastic introduction to Makkai’s style and, while I didn’t love the book as a whole, I’m happy I was finally (finally!) able to sample this author’s writing – and discover some incredible tales in the process.

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