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Friday, December 2, 2016

Amazing Novel for High School History, Music, and English teachers

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

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Opening lines:  "An American agent met with a Russian agent one bright summer morning when the world was collapsing inthe face of Nazi terror.  It was June 2, 1942, the Second World War was not going well for the Allied forces.  Most of Europe had already been conquered by the Nazi German onslaught.  France had fallen, and so had Norway, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia.  Now the Germans were deep inside Russia, clawing away at the country's innards."

In Symphony for the Dead, M.T. Anderson (author of Feed, Octavian Nothing, and the hilarious Jasper Dash books) takes us to the depths of despair and starvation, and to the unlikely possibility that a nervous and starving Russian composer in the besieged city of Leningrad could, through the music of a symphony, give Russians enough hope to turn the tide of the war.  Anderson has never underestimated the ability or maturity of an adolescent or young adult reader, and make no mistake, this non-fiction regular text book (that is to say, it is not a graphic novel) is a  challenging one.  But it is also utterly gripping,  From the opening story of how Allied spies smuggled Shostakovich's symphony to American shores to the flashback story of Shostaokovich and his struggles to survive as a musician in the schizophrenic would of Russian fine arts under the paranoid and monomaniacal Lenin, this book is gripping.  In these pages, you will find the tragic story of Lenin, who trusted no-one, and how he decided to trust Adolph Hitler who declared he would never invade Russia.  Lenin's trust was so strong that even as the Germans were striking deep into Russian territory, killing Russian soldiers and destroying Russian planes and airfields as they went, Lenin forbade Russian soldiers to return fire.  Here you will find the story of the desperate conditions within the besieged city of Leningrad and how people ate furniture glue, shoe leather, and eventually turned to cannibalism to survive.  But here you will also find the hope of a symphony which kindled Russian hope and encouraged the Americans to come to their aid.

This book might work as a supplemental text in a high school classroom, but I think it would be far more successful as a go-to book for that student reader in your class who is obsessed with history or music and wants to read a powerful story without any sugarcoating.

Though as I mentioned before, there is some talk of canibalism, it is certainly not celebrated.  Though there is despair here, there is also hope.  While not well suited to younger kids, if it was used in the high school, this book would be unlikely to be challenged.

The writing is superb, the story is gripping, and it is probably the best book I have read this year.  Buy it.

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