MUSIC FOR WARTIME: STORIES, by Rebecca Makkai

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Music for Wartime: Stories
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking – 23rd June 2015
ISBN 9780525426691 – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“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)”
“Exposition”
“Cross”
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
“Suspension: April 20, 1984”
“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”

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.

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Viking (Penguin UK)
ISBN: 0670923583
224 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication (US): 24th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads & NetGalley

So often, literature focuses solely on conflicts, the inability of people to reconcile with others, themselves, or their environment. Like any story, Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto contains conflict, adversity that its characters must face. The appeal of the novel is that despite the darkness it is suffused with humor and joy and is focused on how a family successfully holds together despite their hardship. In Em and The Big Hoom, communication abides even amid the unpredictability of madness.

Told from the perspective of a boy living with his family is small Mumbai flat, Em and The Big Hoom is a series of chapters that are each almost short stories themselves. Em, or Imelda, is the mother who is plagued with mental disease (bipolar disorder) that creates a paradoxical closeness to and distance from her husband (Austine or ‘The Big Hoom’), daughter (Susan), and son (the unnamed point-of-view character).

The son relates the emotional roller-coaster of life with a woman that everyone knows is ‘mad’, but whom they all love and try to support even through the darkest moments of attempted suicide. The son thinks constantly about both of his parents, their past and how they came together, the present, and the uncertain future that shows both promise of hope and the threat of instant disaster. Looking at his parents, the son is also forced to consider what genetic aspects he may have inherited from each: an admirable devotion of sacrifice and love displayed by his kind father, the sweet uncompromising honesty and playfulness of his mother, or her ‘madness’.

Both parents are well written, but Em is fabulously so, a woman who faces the weighty realization of her mental illness with a brutal honesty, yet simultaneously tries to lighten it with humor and memories of past joys. As the point-of-view character, the son is likewise complex, but the sister Susan seems present only to have another child in the story.

The beauty of the novel lies in Pinto’s writing, which mirrors the frank honesty of the characters. Though not flowery or decorated with an advanced vocabulary, Pinto’s writing is poetic. It flows gracefully and naturally with simple, but precise, words that convey deep emotion and thought, making the unnamed son who serves as the narrator familiar and relatable. The novel is highly quotable and many of the son’s thoughts or pondered questions would be excellent fodder for student or book group discussion.

A simple plot saturated with the dark undertones of mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom joyfully depicts a realistic optimism and hope that will be inspiring and enriching for readers of all kind.

Five Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher both electronically via NetGalley and through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

(In a rare case of timing I was granted NetGalley access and then won a physical copy moments after getting that notice, before I was able to withdraw from the Goodreads giveaway contest. The physical copy will go to a friend and reviewer I hope will enjoy it as much as I have.)

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Books)
ASIN: B00G3L163K
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Expected Publication: 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Somewhere in the first part of Makkai’s impressive The Hundred-Year House there is a line or two referencing classic ghost stories of history that were not really about anything supernatural, but were rather psychological, about the descent of a character’s mind and the loss of their grip on reality or self. And in this first part, set in the late 1990s, it seems as if Makkai is doing something similar here with her characters.

The protagonist of this first part is Doug, a failing academic who (seeking to find a university position) should be working on a paper about a relatively unknown poet, but instead has become involved in writing formulaic children’s books. To aid his chosen (or forced) research and get back on track, Doug takes advantage of his connections through marriage. Zee, his wife and an established professor, who is heir to an estate which once served as an artist’s colony where the poet had stayed. Zee and Doug go to stay in the old house on the grounds, where they are joined by Zee’s mother, step-father, and her step-brother and his wife.

While Doug finds writing about the poet difficult, he becomes increasingly pulled into the mystery of what occurred at the artist’s colony in the past and why Zee’s mother-in-law seems so averse to letting him access any records or memorabilia from the time stored in the attic under lock. As Zee sets in motion a devious plan to create an open position for Doug at her university, Doug enters deeper into guarding his secret investigations into the house’s past and his clandestine children’s book writing from Zee. And unexpectedly, he finds himself drawing closer to his sister-in-law.

This first section is thus filled with secrets and intrigue, deep mysteries, catastrophic assumptions, and lies. Set against the backdrop of an old house where odd things occur and rumors of ghosts abound, all seems poised for the novel to continue down a course where Doug, Zee, and the others fall apart (individually in the psychological sense; and quite literally in their union as family). But rather than continue down this path and allow the characters to fully uncover one another’s secrets and the complete history of the house and estate, Makkai leaves these people and takes the reader back into the past with a step to the mid 1950’s, and in the parts that follow additional steps back, ultimately to the very foundations of the house.

For The Hundred-Year House isn’t just a ghost story with emphasis on the people, it is a story about place, as the title betrays. The novel later contains a comment by a character that living in this house in the presence of ghosts doesn’t feel to them as they would expect or understand. We normally view ‘haunting’ as the past coming to intrude and influence our present, to the point that the phrase “haunted by the past” appears redundant. In this house, the character explains, it is more as if its future is reaching back to form the history. And this is indeed the precise experience the reader is having, most obviously from this backward stepping through time as we learn some of the truth of events or unexpected relations between people we met through stories earlier in the novel, in the future.

This makes it necessary, and rewarding, to pay careful attention while reading Makkai’s novel. It is beautifully crafted, a complex weave of characters that makes the tapestry of this house, this estate, which becomes almost a life in itself for the reader and for those people in the story who feel manipulated by what is to come. Quite ingeniously this playing with time and cause-and-effect is more literally born-out in the sub-plot of the first section when Zee manipulates and creates a false story to try and destroy the reputation of a professor. Though based on lies, the charges end up becoming accepted true by all (even the falsely accused) as if history were rewritten by the future (paralleling the rewriting Zee does of the other professor’s Internet browsing history).

The Hundred-Year House is quite good, and rich. It is a novel that invites rereading to capture all the details – I can only guess the many things I missed through the nature of its construction and my spotty memory. Although I read it on a Kindle due to the format of NetGalley advanced reading copies, I’d recommend buying or checking out a physical copy of this, it is the type of work where you’ll appreciate the physical text and scents of reading in front of you, permitting you to flip back and forth between sections and time periods when those ‘aha’ moments hit. This is a haunting book, in no way supernatural, but surely powerful.

Five Stars out of Five

 

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard

Moth and Spark, by Anne Leonard
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 0670015709
368 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

“Moth and Spark” is not the novel I initially expected it to be, and it took me quite awhile to figure out what star rating I could give to it. If going off my own interest and experience I would say two, perhaps even one. But that would be grossly unfair simply because it is a kind of story I don’t enjoy or get much from. If this were my thing, I would probably be inclined to rate it higher, at three or four stars.

The novel is a romance, one written for a predominantly female audience that Leonard has modeled in the spirit and tones of Jane Austen, but set within a fantasy realm. This is quite significant, because fantasy and science fiction rarely contain an infusion of material that may appeal to people who like an Austen or chick-lit type tale, particularly “high” fantasy. (Urban and supernatural fantasy abounds in female influence I would say). But the ‘epic” or ‘high’ fantasy subgenre, being so defined in Medieval (European) institutions and customs, is not terribly female character friendly.

With this, Leonard rather effectively creates a gripping romance within such confines of a vaguely Medieval European fantasy realm populated with dragons. On the plus side, she does this well, writing some beautiful prose and creating an excellent, likable protagonist. The other characters border on being a bit too simplistic in that the majority are just so good or so evil. Those that need to get along with the heroine protagonist do so without any issue at all. They simply adore her, loyally love her with nary a naysay. With the prince and King in particular as men, these ‘perfect’ characters create that strong, but suitably emotional support for the female protagonist. These perfect men are able to fight, make love, or talk deeply about their feelings at the drop of a hat as required. In this, the novel becomes almost like the exact opposite of most fantasy in this genre, where the men have become some ideal of masculinity to suit the heroine.

While this is nice in that it recognizes the defects and deficiencies of the genre, it also falls into the same trap of being equally unrealistic and off-putting. Though just as there are men out there that adore reading a book of mindless action filled with stereotypical women, so will there be women that feel at home reading a lush romance with its idealized supporting male characters. While the protagonist is brilliant, witty, and strong, she still is placed in the confines of being feminine, needing emotional support, attention, and a committed romance in a way that a male protagonist would never be written as needed. She thus remains exceedingly traditional, despite showing at least the ability of independence.

The fantastic aspects in this novel also take a strong backseat to the other elements of the story. Magic and the dragons make an appearance at the very start, but then the majority of the novel is only about romance and court intrigue, indistinguishable from a story that could take place in our own historic reality if we bent the roles of gender social conventions a bit. Fantasy doesn’t enter back into the story (nor much ‘action’ for that matter) until the final third of the novel. It therefore ends up feeling as if it were two distinct types of novel all set into one story, and I think I would have enjoyed the novel far more had there been a better integration of the two.

Three Stars out of Five