Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (2015)

Now this was a pleasant surprise.  I checked this out from the library's e-book collection solely because I liked the stark, modern cover - reminiscent of poster art from the 1920s and 1930s.   I didn't expect to even like it, let alone devour it.  It was a National Book Award nominee (longlist) for Young People's Literature  but didn't win, and I understand why. It's a superb work of nonfiction.  One of my biggest complaints about nonfiction for youth is that it dumbs-down nonfiction, babytalks to young readers and treats them like they can't understand complexity or difficult language, or ideas that command and demand attention.  And that's just not true.  A young person who is passionate about a subject will read anything they get their hands on about that subject, whether it be baseball or whales or First Ladies (that was a favorite of mine when I was in grade school).  Symphony for the City of the Dead on first glance might seem like a non-starter for a teen reader, and for most it probably would be.  But there are young readers who may like to read about Russia, or World War II,  or the early 20th century, or gross and gory stories of survival (complete with cannibals) and even maybe classical music. This book has all of that, in spades.  And as an adult reader, I kept forgetting I was reading a book nominally written for youth - because there was no babytalk, no dumbing-down, no quashing of complexity.

Books about World War II are often - I hate to say always, but it seems that way - from very specific points of view.   British or American, or Jewish, or perhaps from a nation occupied by Germany or Japan, and occasionally even from a German point of view.  But rarely have I read, and certainly not for children, a book from the Russian point of view.  Andersen doesn't hold back here; the Russians lost the most military and civilians in their fight against the Nazis.  Anderson's story is about Shostakovich, but it's also about the early heady days of Communism, the terrible and terrifying purges of Stalin, and why a people who hated their government so very much would fight invaders for that government.  Anderson paints a picture of slowly dawning horror and the destructive and evil follies of the totalitarianism of Stalin, the cult of personality that surrounded the leader, and how that paranoia and suspicion, and a false brotherhood of dictators, led the near defeat of the Soviet Union, and the murder and death of millions and millions of people over a 20 year span.

Anderson has written a scary and absorbing true story.


Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of LeningradSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my biggest complaints about nonfiction for youth is that it dumbs-down nonfiction, babytalks to young readers and treats them like they can't understand complexity or difficult language, or ideas that command and demand attention. And that's just not true. A young person who is passionate about a subject will read anything they get their hands on about that subject, whether it be baseball or whales or First Ladies (that was a favorite of mine when I was in grade school). Symphony for the City of the Dead on first glance might seem like a non-starter for a teen reader, and for most it probably would be. But there are young readers who may like to read about Russia, or World War II, or the early 20th century, or gross and gory stories of survival (complete with cannibals) and even maybe classical music. This book has all of that, in spades. And as an adult reader, I kept forgetting I was reading a book nominally written for youth - because there was no babytalk, no dumbing-down, no quashing of complexity. Anderson has written a scary, absorbing true story here, elegantly and perfectly plotted. His book is about Shostakovich, but it's also about the early heady days of Communism, the terrible and terrifying purges of Stalin, and why a people who hated their government so very much would fight invaders for that same government. Anderson paints a picture of slowly dawning horror and the destructive and evil follies of the totalitarianism of Stalin, the cult of personality that surrounded the leader, and how that paranoia and suspicion, and a false brotherhood of dictators, led the near defeat of the Soviet Union, and the murder and death of millions and millions of people over a 20 year span.


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