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Music for Wartime

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Named a must-read by the  Chicago Tribune , O Magazine,  BuzzFeed ,  The Huffington Post ,  Minneapolis Star-Tribune , and The L Magazine

Named one of the best short story collections of 2015 by Bookpage and Kansas City Star

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.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published June 23, 2015

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About the author

Rebecca Makkai

24 books4,313 followers
Rebecca Makkai's latest novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, and the LA Times Book Prize; and it was one of the New York Times' Ten Best Books of 2018. Her other books are the novels THE BORROWER and THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE, and the collection MUSIC FOR WARTIME -- four stories from which appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. A new novel, NINETY-FIVE, will be released by Viking in 2022 or early 2023.

Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of Sierra Nevada College and Northwestern University. She is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Visit her at RebeccaMakkai.com or on twitter@rebeccamakkai.

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5 stars
566 (33%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 292 reviews
Profile Image for Esil.
1,118 reviews1,363 followers
June 18, 2015
I have already mentioned on GR probably a few too many times how I feel about short stories: I am reluctant to read them, am often happily surprised at how much I like some of them when I finally get round to reading them, kick myself for being reluctant to read them, and then want to read a novel by the author of the good short stories I have just read. Which pretty much sums up my reaction to the stories in Music for Wartime. Some of these stories are stunning and some are very good and some are ok, but overall the collection was well worth reading. Makkai is a great writer, has a quirky sensibility and is surprisingly versatile in her use of characters, settings and time frames. I especially loved the title story told from the perspective of a young teenage boy whose parents immigrated from Roumania to the U.S. in 1941 and who is driven to feel the losses his father suffered. And I really liked The November Story which is told from the perspective of a woman who makes a reality tv show that is really quite far from reality. Another favourite was Cross -- about a woman who returns home from being away for a few weeks to find a shrine to a dead motorcyclist on her front lawn. And to emphasize how versatile Makkai's talent is, I also really liked Couple of Lovers on a Red Background in which the narrator recounts her encounter with Bach who appeared in her apartment in New York a year or so after 9/11 (surreal but worked really well). There were a couple of stories that fell flat for me, but I suppose that's the benefit of short stories -- they were quickly over and I was on to a better story. And now that I've finished Makkai's stories, I really want to read her two novels. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read advance copy.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,782 reviews14.2k followers
July 11, 2015
second story. The worst you ever feel. A young violinist watching a master play after years in a Romanian prison, is able to tell from the music what the man went through. Quite good.

Third story , November. A reality show where the contestants are all artists of some kind. All sent to an artist's colony to live together. Every week has a theme and every week someone is eliminated. A good look at the behind scene staging of these shows and how it can rub off into personal lives.

4th story, The Miracle Years, a drought ridden town and a dead elephant bring about a crisis of faith for the town minister. Not a favorite.

6th story. The Suitcase. A man exchanges lives with another man in an unusual way with unusual results.

7th Peter Torrelli Falling apart. Two young men both homosexuals meet in school. One is a very good actor and become a Chicago star until suddenly his acting ability leaves him. Chicago and Berghoffs how can this one miss.

Couple of lovers on a red background. After hearing noises in her piano for weeks, the owner is surprised when a 10 inch Bach jumps out and runs onto her broom closet.

Everything we know bout the bomber, a man who sets off a bomb is scrutinized from youth on. Why did he do it seems to be the question?

Painted Ocean, Painted Ship. A college professor who teaches "Rhyme of the ancient mariner" mistakenly shoots an albatross while visiting Australia, with unforeseen circumstances. A favorite.

Exposition, Instead of leaving for a refugee camp and safety a young pianist stays to perform one last concert.

Cross, a woman cellist arrives home to find a tacky looking display with a cross in front of her tree.

I've posted a description of most of the stories in this fine collection. All were immensely readable, though "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship remains my favorite. Truly wonderful stories all.

ARC from publisher.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,189 reviews1,691 followers
April 3, 2015
There are only two types of stories in this splendid collection. Great ones. And outstanding ones. Truly, there is not a clunker in the batch.

Typically, in reviewing a short story collection, I start out with my favorites. But I’d be hard put to choose from among 17 stories (including some short-shorts inspired by Rebecca Makkai’s own colorful family history. Among the most memorable for me: “Couple of Lovers On A Red Background”, which starts, “I’ve been calling him Bach so far, at least in my head, but now that he’s started wearing my husband’s clothes and learned to work a coffeemaker, I feel it’s time to call him Johann.” Yes, indeed, THAT Johann Bach, the 18th century German musician who is living in the piano of a young woman who gradually seduces him. I’ll leave it right there so that others can discover the fun twists.

Then there’s Painted Ship, Painted Ocean; an assistant professor kills the proverbial albatross – literally – discovering to her dismay that she’s known all along that “one little thing gone wrong in her world could unravel absolutely everything else.’ There’s also “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” – a naïve Reverend tries to be useful in a small town where an elephant keels over during the final circus performance and dies of heatstroke. Like in Painted Ship, Painted Ocean, this one event starts a chain reaction, eventually creating a crisis in faith. The Reverend muses, “This was the thing about a crack in faith, he knew, the way one small fissure could spread and crumble the whole thing into a pile of rocks…”

There is irreverence here, flights of imagination, an ample dose of intelligent wit, and a marvel at how little things can quickly become big things or cause major insights. In “The Worst You’ll Ever Feel”, a young boy suddenly gains crystal-clear insight about his dad’s flight to the U.S. when a famous Romanian violinist plays a concert in their home after years of incarceration. In “Good Saint Anthony Come Around”, set at the height of the AIDS crisis, one gay man reflects on another man who always had good fortune when “my only magic was in survival.”

To say I’m blown away with this collection is an understatement. It’s the best short story collection I’ve read in quite some time – and I’ve read some good ones!
Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,437 followers
March 19, 2021
I read Rebecca Makkai's second novel, The Hundred Year House, last year and was really impressed. This collection of short stories has only confirmed my faith in her talent: although it's slightly patchy, some of them are spectacular.

I'll start with 'The November Story', because I thought it was absolutely perfect. It's about a woman who's working on the production team of a reality TV show, something a bit like Big Brother except all the contestants are artists. (It's called Starving Artist.) She's instructed to fabricate a relationship between two of the participants, with the aim of manipulating them into actually, really, falling in love; at the same time she's floundering in her own relationship with her girlfriend, a maddeningly lazy and indecisive presence who's 'making a list of the pros and cons of our relationship', and with whom she can no longer find anything to talk about except her work. Almost every sentence of this story is brilliant, and everything in it works wonderfully. Christine's work on the show, her relationships with her colleagues, the little snippets of her career history; the tiny vignettes of her home life with Beth, their stilted conversations, talking at cross purposes, deciding to ignore each other or feeling like they are. I've read it a couple of times since I finished the book and have a feeling I will keep returning to it forever. 'The November Story' is everything a short story should be.

In 'Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart', the titular character is a handsome, brilliant actor who one day 'freezes' on stage and instantaneously loses all his acting ability, confidence and belief in himself. The narrator is a friend who sees Peter as his first love: 'I never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there's another kind of first love.' He invites Peter to read at an event he's holding, to celebrate a project in which writers have created short works to complement paintings and sculptures in a local museum. It's hardly difficult to predict that this won't end well, given the title of the story, but there are still so many surprises in it, so many unexpected details. This is perhaps the greatest strength of Makkai's stories and the thing that binds them together, since the plots and styles of each are so different from one another. 'Cross' - a cellist finds her driveway marred by a plastic cross, which grows to become a plastic shrine, commemorating the death of a teenage girl in a road accident; she battles to get it removed, while trying to balance her disgust about it with the grief of the girl's family; meanwhile she starts a new relationship with an old friend, and forms a quartet with him and two young musicians - also benefits from this perfect use of detail. Another couple of favourites were 'Good Saint Anthony Come Around' (too much going on to describe quickly, but it's basically about the relationship between two artists) and 'The Museum of the Dearly Departed' (a woman finds out her fiancé was having an affair with his ex-wife, a person she'd never known about, when the two of them are killed in a gas leak at the latter's apartment building).

As the above shows, it's incredibly difficult to summarise any of the stories in Music for Wartime in a single sentence, since there's always more than one thing going on. They cross into so many genres that the collection is constantly surprising and fresh. 'The Miracle Years of Little Fork' is full of scenes straight out of a quirky historical novel: a travelling circus becomes stuck in a Arkansas town after one of their elephants dies there; the town is then besieged by drought, flood and wind in turn, while a young reverend tries to hold his 'flock' together. 'The Briefcase' is one of those Kafkaesque political allegories, with a nameless political prisoner escaping and assuming the identity of a professor whose briefcase and clothes he steals. 'Couple of Lovers on a Red Background' - perhaps the most-talked-about story from this collection, at least from what I've seen so far, no doubt because its premise is so ridiculous in isolation - is a comic fantasy about a woman who finds Johann Sebastian Bach living in her piano, and goes on to start a sexual relationship with him because she wants to be pregnant with the child of a genius.

The weakest link for me was Makkai's use of what seem to be personal anecdotes to bridge the gaps between the stories proper. 'Other Brands of Poison', 'Acolyte', and 'A Bird in the House' all fit into this category. They are presented as true stories that have gained the status of legends within Makkai's family (indeed, each is subtitled as a Legend), and read like notes from the author - a device that interrupts the flow of the longer stories and rather disturbs the magic. I'm sure they'd be great as part of an autobiographical collection, but here they just feel like they don't belong.

Some of the shortest stories here are comparatively weak, too. 'Everything We Know About the Bomber', for example, feels like the product of an assignment you might be set in a creative writing class, and comes off as amateurish when compared to the superior pieces. (Actually it just really kept making me think about that notorious Amanda Palmer poem.) And 'Suspension: April 20, 1984' I found uncharacteristically hard to follow. But maybe these are more personal quibbles than actual problems: I've said before that I always struggle with really short stories, and most of what gets called flash fiction; I find it hard to get anything out of them, and maybe one day I will mature enough as a reader to start appreciating them, but this wasn't the book to change my mind.

If the 7 micro-stories had been trimmed from this collection, and it was just made up of the 10 longer stories, the fully formed and rounded ones, I'd probably have given it five stars. Honestly, I'm tempted to give it full marks simply because of how much I adored 'The November Story'. I gained so much inspiration from it; it would have been worth reading the whole book just for that. Needless to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting/scouring the internet for more of Makkai's short fiction in future.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,054 followers
August 28, 2021
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Having heard many positive things of this collection of short stories (it appears on quite a few 'best short stories' collections') I was prepared to be dazzled. Rebecca Makkai can certainly write well. While her prose is void of flowery metaphors or lyricism, her use of a more straight-forward type of language that is nevertheless striking for its preciseness. Makkai's writing definitely appealed to me, and I did find that it complemented the themes and characters she wrote of. However, like many collections of short stories, many failed to hit the mark. One of my favourite was 'The November Story', in which a woman working on a reality show finds herself questioning the morals of her job while also navigating her deteriorating relationship with her girlfriend. There were many stories that focused on classic music, Jewish characters (with quite a few set during or after the Shoah), as well a stories touching on relevant issues (such as 'Painted Ocean, Painted Ship' in which a college professor risks her career after an insensitive remark on her part).

Accountability, grief, history, and most of all change (of circumstances, of perspective) are the themes underlining these narratives, which vary in length, setting, and perspective. The shorter stories, such as 'The Singing Women', felt somewhat insubstantial. And while I did not dislike any of these stories, most of them did not leave a lasting impression. Still, I would be curious to read more by this author, especially her full length novels.
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,551 reviews603 followers
August 8, 2021
[3.5] I enjoyed these stories over several weeks but only a couple have made a lasting impression. Going back through them, I still barely remember most of them. Makkai writes about wartime, music, reality TV...the story I like the best is the the last one I read - "The Museum of the Dearly Departed." I may have rated this higher if my fleeting memory hadn't put them out of mind.
Profile Image for Tara.
Author 23 books561 followers
February 8, 2019
Late to the party on this brilliant collection and new to this acclaimed author's writing. Now I see what all the buzz is about. I read her stories in awe, knowing I will never be able to match her ability to conceive such layered, rich stories. Of the 17 stories in this book, I only skimmed one of them. I was entranced by the rest. Makkai's prose is eloquent and assured, but never too dense. Her dialog is spot on, as are her observations of human nature (how does one so young have this gift for knowing people so well?). She moves effortlessly between historical stories to contemporary ones, and this flash editor was thrilled to find some linked vignettes.

Just one of the many gorgeous passages: "Some people live their whole lives according to the laws of probability. If there's a one in six thousand chance of getting hit by lightning, they won't. They won't win the lottery, either. Because someone like Chapman will. Someone whose stars made strange and intricate patterns at the moment of his birth."

The theme of war connects many of the stories, especially WW II in Bulgaria. Some of the details in her stories are autobiographical. As Makkai seeks to understand her complex history, the reader is witness to her intelligence and gift with words and story. I will for sure read more of her work. Highly recommend to short story lovers.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,514 reviews29.5k followers
June 30, 2015
More than 4 stars, not quite 4.5...how about 4.25 stars?

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

A reality show producer. A cellist dealing with the presence of a growing shrine on her property. A minister in a town plagued by weather-related issues. A college professor for whom nothing seems to be going right. These are just a few of the characters in Rebecca Makkai's wonderful and intriguing new story collection, Music for Wartime .

Makkai is a tremendously talented author; her first book, The Borrower , was among my favorite books of 2011. I found her storytelling ability dazzling, particularly how she created such memorable characters. That talent was in full bloom in Music for Wartime , which juxtaposes a few stories with Holocaust-related themes or characters with other stories chronicling not-quite-everyday human struggles and foibles.

While not every story of the 17 in the collection worked for me, I was moved and captivated by a large number of them. My favorites included: "Cross," in which a cellist must deal with a growing shrine to an accident victim that is on her property, as well as her feelings about growing older; "The Museum of the Dearly Departed," which chronicles a woman's struggles to come to terms with the death of her fiancé, among other revelations; "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," a story about how what we perceive isn't always accurate; "Good Saint Anthony Come Around," which chronicled the relationship between two artists, as told by another member of their circle; "The Miracle Years of Little Fork," about a small-town minister dealing with his town's struggles and his own emotional challenges; and "The Worst You Ever Feel," which told the story of a young boy captivated by a concert given by a famed Romanian violinist, and the revelations the boy has about the lives of the violinist and his own father.

For someone who didn't like to read short stories about 20 years ago, I have been fortunate to come across some tremendously beautiful and memorable stories. I'd definitely include some of the stories in Makkai's new collection among some of my favorites. While the book as a whole isn't perfect, it is still a fantastic example of her storytelling ability, and you'll find yourself thinking about some of these characters long after you've finished.

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Tammy Parks.
104 reviews13 followers
July 23, 2016
4.75 stars. A beautiful collection of short stories, loosely tied together by themes of loss and sadness. I'll be thinking about some of these stories for a long time.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,117 followers
July 26, 2015
I received a copy of this from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I read one of Makkai's novels, The Borrower, previously, and I think I can say I enjoyed these short stories more. I liked the themes of music and war moving throughout them without the pressure to connect them otherwise. Some of the stories are very short, 2-3 pages, while others are longer.

Some favorites:
The Worst You Ever Feel - a little perspective, shall we say, from a nine-fingered violinist

Other Brands of Poison (First Legend) - One of the very short stories, with a family legend not to be forgotten.

The Briefcase - about survival, identity, and love

Couple of Lovers on a Red Background - I'm not sure if Bach is actually living in her apartment or if she's crazy, but it makes a good story, especially if you think of grief as its own kind of wartime.

Painted Ocean, Painted Ship - the not so majestic fall from grace of a professor, awkward and painful, true to life.

Cross - a new string quartet, a lawn memoriam, and all the stuff in between.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,414 reviews491 followers
April 27, 2015
The best short story collections contain a paradox -- while short in print length, they can contain material of such complexity and meatiness, thus requiring more effort on the part of a reader than novels of same size. Such is the case here. Usually there is at least one story that makes the eyes roll, the impatience accelerate, but not here. Several of the stories do have music as an element, but they are handled in such a way as to demonstrate an insider's intense knowledge of the art form as well as the life that goes with it. Most of the other stories are based in the arts even tangentially, with, again, an insider's observations. Hard to know which I'd choose as a favorite, so I won't even try. Interspersed between the longer stories are 2-3 page "Legends," family history that Makkai has included. As this is the first of her books I've read, I'm going to pick up her others.
Profile Image for Rachel.
584 reviews69 followers
October 2, 2016
Makkai is a fabulous writer and though I loved both of her novels, this short story collection is my favorite book by her. Obviously with any collection there will be stories that resonate more than others, but a couple of the stories rate among my favorite short stories ever. There is so much skill and emotion in these stories that it's hard not to be both impressed and moved. If you're looking for a great short story collection, I highly recommend checking out Makkai's.
1,428 reviews51 followers
May 19, 2015
Even readers who typically do not enjoy short stories, I highly recommend adding Music For Wartime by Rebecca Makkai to all reading lists. Makkai’s latest release is due out in June 2015 and she has crafted some intense, thought provoking, and unforgettable stories. Typically when I read a collection of short stories I except to dislike a few, however that was not the case with Music For Wartime. Makkai’s writing is deeply moving, passionate, intense, descriptive, and not one story contained fluff, rather each story is best read and fully digested before moving on to the next story in her collection. Not only is her writing superb, but Makkai’s stories transcend time and class, in one she has a reality show host bring two people together while the host’s life is in shambles, another occurs after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while another takes you inside the life of Bach, and so the stories go, changing from time, place, and circumstance, yet always thought provoking and intriguing. Music For Wartime is filled with wit, intelligence, as each story told could be a book of it’s very own. Music For Wartime is currently my favorite short story collection and I do not expect that to change for quite some time. I think even readers who do not think they care for short stories will find themselves entranced in Makkai’s stories and I highly recommend this astounding collection to book discussion groups as each story offers so much to discuss. I look forward to reading more of Rebecca Makkai’s works of literature.
Profile Image for Tasnim.
26 reviews12 followers
October 1, 2019
این مجموعه داستان آمریکایی که ارتباط موسیقی با جنگ موضوع اصلی اکثر داستان‌هایش است سرشار از الهامات‌ نابی‌ست که نویسنده از آهنگ‌های نوازندگان مشهور یا نقاشی‌های شاگال، پیکاسو، کایبوت، هاپر و اوکیف گرفته و هوشمندانه در فضای داستان‌ها و روایت‌ها از آن‌ها استفاه می‌کند. به خصوص در داستان [دو عاشق در پس‌زمینه‌ی سرخ] که داستانی سورئال است چندین‌بار شاهد این اشاره‌ها هستیم.
موسیقی در این اثر جایگاه ویژه‌ای دارد‌ و نویسنده ماهرانه از این هنر برای شخصیت‌پردازی و محتوای داستان‌هایش بهره گرفته.
اعطای عنوان بهترین مجموعه داستان کوتاه آمریکایی از سوی هایدی پیتلور برای این کتاب شاید اغراق‌آمیز باشد اما بدون شک یکی از بهترین مجموعه داستان‌های قرن اخیر است که مخاطبین بی‌شماری دارد.
داستان‌های بدترین درد، داستان ماه نوامبر، سال‌های معجزه در لیتل‌فورک، دو عاشق در پس‌زمینه‌ی سرخ، نقاشی کشتی در دل اقیانوس، صلیب و‌ موزه‌ی دیرلی دپارتد را بیشتر از سایر داستان‌های این مجموعه دوست داشتم.
Profile Image for Jennifer S. Brown.
Author 1 book403 followers
March 4, 2020
I read this book over the course of months, because the short stories were so beautiful I wanted to savor each after I read them. After some, I just thought, "Wow." This book is a master class in short stories.
Profile Image for Amy.
745 reviews31 followers
September 13, 2015
What an exceptional, stunning and creative short-story collection. Rebecca Makkai seamlessly changes voice and point-of-view for her stories: male [“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”], female [“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”], varied ages [“The Worst You Ever Feel” is told from a young boy’s perspective.], races [there’s Celine, the Asian musician in “Cross”] and sexual orientation. She transports to varied times and places with ease.

“The November Story” details an imagined behind-the-scenes for a reality dating show—“The casting directors are great at spotting borderline narcissistic personality disorder, the kind that makes you just crazy enough for great TV but not crazy enough to destroy a camera with a baseball bat.” In Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” Makkai utilizes dark humor: “As much as I didn’t believe his optimism, I was glad he wasn’t giving up. I constantly pictured him hanging himself from the closet rod of his cold little apartment, or drinking something medieval and poisonous.” A woman confronts betrayal in “The Museum of the Dearly Departed.” Makkai includes three stories about her family’s history in 1930s Hungary including “Other Brands of Poison (First Legend).”

Brilliantly written, the stories are dark, moody, atmospheric and completely engrossing. This is short-story writing at its best. Read slowly to truly savor this talent.l

published here: http://entertainmentrealm.com/2015/07...
Profile Image for Mark.
1,408 reviews106 followers
March 3, 2021
I loved Makkai's last novel, The Great Believers and immediately wanted to seek out her earlier work. I hit the bulls-eye with this story collection from 2015. The writing is excellent but I really admire how she weaves her Romanian family history into these tales, both past and present. I especially liked the story of a prized circus elephant that keels over on Main Street and transforms the town. Terrific collection.
Profile Image for Mi Na.
118 reviews17 followers
July 29, 2017
کتاب مجموعه داستانهایی از این خانم نویسنده است که در طول سالهای مختلف نوشته شده وجز بهترین مجموعه داستانهای سال 2015 است.
سی دی همراه کتاب هست که اثار موسیقی که منبع الهام نویسنده برای نوشتن داستانهای مختلف بودند در ان وجود داره. همینطور در انتهای کتاب چند نقاشی معروف اورده شده که در داستانها به انها اشاره شده. سوای این اضافات هیجان انگیز، داستانهای کتاب حال و هوای خاصی دارند. اولا : مربوط به دوره های مختلف زمانی اند (بعد جنگ دوم جهانی /دوران معاصر و...) ثانیا به مفاهیمی مثل مرگ، درد و رنج های بشر، روابط و کردارانسان، اندوه بازماندگان جنگ و ... با هنرمندی در هر داستان پرداخته شده. در بیشتر داستانها تم ثابت هنر و هنرمند است.
این مجموعه یکی از مجموعه داستانهای متفاوت و جذابی بود که امسال موفق به خواندنش شدم
Profile Image for Mary Lins.
874 reviews126 followers
March 28, 2023
Wonderful short story collection!

Now I'm bereft because I've read everything Makkai has published!

Can't wait for the next thing! Thank goodness for her Substack emails "SubMakk"!
Profile Image for Roger Brunyate.
946 reviews651 followers
May 31, 2016
A Stunning Set of Stories

As a musician myself, I am generally leery of authors who use music in their fiction, as it is so often only half understood. But by the same token, writers who get it right are a sheer joy; I am thinking especially of Vikram Seth ( An Equal Music ), Richard Powers ( The Time of Our Singing and Orfeo ), and now Rebecca Makkai. There is not music in every one of these seventeen stories, but those that do use it are memorable. "The Worst You Ever Feel" has a twelve-year-old prodigy playing the violin with his father's old teacher, a Romanian who escaped the Holocaust only to be imprisoned by the Communists. The Soviet era comes back in several other tales, such as "Exposition," a chilling partially-redacted report of the execution of a dissident pianist during her concert. But not all are shaded by war; one of my favorites, "Cross," features a female Asian cellist and some younger musicians from the Marlboro Festival playing a Bartok string quartet; any violence in the piece has to do with the tacky shrine that some neighbors have erected in her front yard to remember a girl killed in a motorcycle crash, and the cellist's own defensive withdrawal from normal social or sexual life. And others are even funny, such as "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background," in which J. S. Bach comes to stay with a modern woman, where he plays Chopin as though Romanticism had never been heard of, gets scared by passing cars, but grooves to Louis Armstrong.

In all, five of the stories use music in a significant way, but eight others revolve around one or more of the other arts: painting, poetry, sculpture, even cooking. Similarly, though only five take place in or refer back to times of war, the majority contain some kind of encompassing tension: a totalitarian regime, terrorism, the AIDS crisis, the tenure battle, even the manufactured tensions in a reality TV show. This last, "The November Story," is one of the lighter examples, blowing the lid off an industry where rivalries, victories, and even love-affairs in this Project Runway for artists are manipulated by the producers and video editors. The tenure story begins light-heartedly too, with an assistant professor of English who accidentally footnotes her lectures on "The Ancient Mariner" by actually shooting an albatross in Australia, but it soon takes a much more sinister turn with overtones of Mamet's play Oleanna. And the AIDS story, "Good Saint Anthony Come Around," set in the 1980s, does for the visual arts of the time what the best of the others do for music.

In among the longer stories of around twenty pages, there are five that occupy only two or three. Several of them have the subtitle "Legend." Only anecdotes really, they are windows into a distant past. But by the time you come to the last and longest of them, "Suspension: April 20, 1984," which links several generations of the Makkai family through snaps in a photo album, you realize that all of these have been autobiographical family vignettes, and that the theme of the Holocaust which occurs in many of the stories has a very particular and rather horrifying meaning when applied to the author's grandparents. The last story of all, "The Museum of the Dearly Departed," begins with a gas leak that kills all the inhabitants of a Chicago apartment building in their sleep—all except the old Hungarian couple in the basement, who were away for the night, and whom you suddenly recognize as a fictional version of those same grandparents. There is no other word for it: it is a masterpiece, tying together past and present, the destruction of war and the restorative power of art, making the perfect conclusion to this amazing collection.
Profile Image for Lolly K Dandeneau.
1,866 reviews238 followers
June 3, 2015
I have been learning to love short stories a lot more lately because of such writers. This collection is pretty fantastic and each story touched a nerve with me. Sad is such an empty word for what the characters go through, but it's strangely beautiful too. I can't help but share some of my favorite lines.

"You know our whole thing about leapfrogging into someone else's body? it was like that, but like I suddenly leapfrogged into myself."

..he thought of mankind as a line of miserable monkeys chained at the wrist, dragging each other back into the ground.

Living in a country and time, as some of us do, we are so far removed from the horrors we read in this collection. It's easy to forget that there are people who suffer things we can't even imagine. Naturally not all the stories involve war- though I will always enjoy the story of the ink drinker, and remember when I see a bottle of the stuff. I enjoyed A Bird in the House, though it's short. Maybe because so many birds have flown into every house I've lived in, luckily minus any bad luck following. Suspension moved me. It's interesting what stories cling more than others, but all are wonderful. I kept seeing people talking about this one and they aren't wrong, it belongs on everyone's to read list. Whether you like short stories or not, don't pass this one up.
Profile Image for Sherry.
125 reviews53 followers
November 11, 2015
Wow! Best collection of short stories I've read this year. Brilliant and compassionate- a small novel in each story.
Profile Image for Mindy Mejia.
Author 13 books1,083 followers
July 22, 2018
I've owned this book for a few years and it always sat somewhere in the middle third of my TBR pile. Now seemed like the perfect time to dig in as Makkai's new novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, is exploding into bookstores with rave reviews and accolades. My MO with short story collections is to read half the book, set it down for a moment, and never think of picking it up again. That was not an option with MUSIC FOR WARTIME. Wow. The stories were indeed threaded with themes of music--mostly classical--and decades of scars from the guilt and horror of surviving war, but even the prose itself seemed to sing. My personal favorite of the collection was "The Briefcase," but I was equally mesmerized by "Everything We Know About The Bomber" and "Suspension: April 20, 1984." Makkai knows precisely how to create the turning moments that short story requires and how to breathe characters, full-blown yet shadowed, into your mind after mere paragraphs of exposition. In short, Makkai tells a damn good story. This is a master class for any student of the short form and an absolute reading privilege for the rest of us.
Profile Image for Daniel.
648 reviews30 followers
July 3, 2015
Roughly one year ago I read and reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s second novel The Hundred-Year House. Looking back to those recorded thoughts compared to my memory I realize that a large part of my response to her novel stemmed from the power and promise of Makkai’s writing overcoming some flaws in the construction of a full novel. As impressive as the novel was, it really does resembles a collection of shorter stories interwoven around the history of a family and home. I wasn’t looking forward to another novel by Makkai (and I still haven’t read her first), but was rather really itching to see what she could do with short fiction.

Her new collection Music for Wartime: Stories affirms that initial sense. Makkai writes an exceptional short story, filled with evocative language with plots that often take slight steps into the fantastic or surreal:

“When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelscu the violinist.”

As in The Hundred-Year House, there are not necessarily actual ghosts here, and the rest is metaphor. But these opening lines to “The Worst You Ever Feel”, the first major story of the collection, set the atmosphere for Makkai’s collection. The opening very short tale, “The Singing Women”, also serves as a sort of introduction, serving as a modern fairy tale, an anecdote that establishes repeating, unifying elements of Music for Wartime. Many of the stories, with their hint of oddity, will appear like fairy tales. Interspersed with the main longer stories are shorter flash-type stories. Of these, three are marked as “Legends” in their titles, and they carry a semi-biographical relation to the Makkai family history. These three short ‘legends’ recall elements of “The Singing Women” where the relation between the number three and fairy tales – their emotion and power – is brought up.

These shorter stories in the collection, particularly the three anecdotal ‘legends’ taken with “The Singing Women” will likely be the one aspect to Music for Wartime that divides reader reactions. Some may find them too short, and unnecessary. I however found their interludes to be among the most engaging, and they do help form the only structural coherence to the collection. For the stories of Music for Wartime are very distinct from one another. They range in emotion and humor, plots, and protagonists. Stories feature different ages, genders, and relationships. Though some aspect related to ‘music’ crops up in most (indeed all the stories I ended up mentioning in this review), there is no overarching theme to the collection. Similarly, the plots of any single story are somewhat difficult to summarize quickly. Each of the major stories has a healthy dose of complexity and can go in unexpected directions from the setup. Yet Makkai manages to keep firm hold of the reader without dropping any of the balls she has in the air.

Each of the main stories are great, but I do have some favorites. “The November Story” is about a woman involved in producing a reality show, who is tasked with manipulating contestants to form a relationship together, all while she struggles in managing her own real-life relationship with her girlfriend. “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” reminds me of the TV show Carnivale, with a blend of historical and hints of magic as a circus comes to a small town. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” may be the most surreal and memorable story in the collection. In this one a woman finds J.S. Bach living in her piano. She starts introducing him to the modern world, and soon enters into a sexual relationship with the goal of creating a child with an artistic genius. There is no explanation to this odd situation, it just is. And Makkai does exceptional things with it, digging into her protagonist’s psychology and themes of basic human drives. In “Cross” a cellist discovers near her driveway one of those memorial markers, placed after the death of a teenager in a car accident. Her annoyance with its presence contrasted with grief over a tragedy leads to a sort of crossroads in her own life: rediscovered friends and new opportunities.

I’ve noticed several other readers remark that they thoroughly enjoyed Music for Wartime despite not normally being fans of short fiction. Like those that would make a blanket statement of ‘I don’t like vegetables’, until they happen to taste vegetables cooked properly and deliciously, Makkai’s collection is likely to have a similar effect. The stories are well-written, engaging, and varied. They are literary, but approachable and have just enough of a twist of weirdness to be intriguing but not off-putting to a broad audience. I’ll join others in highly recommending this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review that originally appeared at Reading1000Lives.com.

“The Singing Women”
“The Worst You Ever Feel”
“The November Story”
“The Miracle Years of Little Fork”
“Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
“The Briefcase”
“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”
“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
“Acolyte (Second Legend)”
“Everything We Know About the Bomber”
“Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
“A Bird in the House (Third Legend)”
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
“Suspension: April 20, 1984″
“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”
Profile Image for Stephan Benzkofer.
Author 2 books12 followers
July 12, 2023
I love when books talk to each other. Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime and Bradford Morrow's The Prague Sonata had such a spirited conversation in my head that I sometimes had a difficult time keeping them straight. The themes of music, war, Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe, generational trauma, and cultural inheritance run rampant through both books, so much so they almost feel like companion works.

I particularly appreciated this pairing because while I chose The Prague Sonata for a trip to the Czech Republic, finishing it on our final day, I chose Makkai's collection of short stories because it was light, not needing more than the author's name to know it was worth my time. The related subject matter was serendipity. When I opened it up in the Prague airport before our flight home and began reading the first story, "The Singing Women," a two-page fable-horror tale, and then the second story, "The Worst You Ever Feel," about a young violinist coming to grips with his father's escape from Hungary, sparks were flying.

This is a quality and varied 17 (!)-story collection that sees the author mix it up with style and tone and point of view. For Makkai fans who loved The Great Believers but were a little disappointed by I Have Some Questions for You, this would be a good collection to pick up.
Profile Image for Aran.
709 reviews16 followers
May 31, 2018
First heard "The November Story" on This American Life (I think) and LOVED it. So glad that I came across this book in the library stacks. Several of the stories play with the same kind of framework--other art forms are brought in, and artifice is addressed more directly. The characters are aware of the central metaphors, and we are aware of their awareness...plus the writing is just so good. Recommend it a million.
Profile Image for josie.
137 reviews35 followers
October 25, 2021
a mixed bag of stories but every time rebecca makkai writes about fate and memory and loss my ears perk up
59 reviews1 follower
November 25, 2022
Took a second to actually start reading it but then was so into it. The last story is the best I think. I will be reading other books by her for sure.
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