Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Five Star Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

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

Published 2015 by Candlewick

456 pages, nonfiction--history/biography.

I checked this book out from the library back in early May, and it has sat around my house ever since, eyeing me reproachfully as I went through renewal after renewal. It looked big, and possibly Serious. But I'm in the last few days of my final renewal cycle, so I picked it up this evening and started reading.

And didn't stop until I'd finished three hours later.  Sorry kids, no dinner tonight!  Scrounge around and see what you can find!

I know a bit about Russian and Soviet history. I read 900 Days back in high school on my dad's recommendation, and as a European history major in college I took all of the Russia-related courses available. It was a small college, so that was only two history courses and a lit class, but still. I know about the tsars, and Lenin, and the starvation of the Ukraine under Stalin, and the horrors of The Great Patriotic War (including the cannibalism, which also happened under Stalin's collectivization push). I've read a translation of Kruschev's "Secret Speech" I'm even dimly aware of Shostakovich, courtesy of a very thorough piano teacher and time spent in orchestras.

But this book pulled it all together cleanly and effortlessly. This is the kind of nonfiction that made me want to major in history in the first place. Unlike in The Family Romanov, the parts I already was familiar with came alive with new vibrancy and importance. I've walked the streets of both Leningrad (in 1990) and St. Petersburg (in 1993 and 1998). I've met people decades after their return from Siberia, been friends with people who grew up in the final decades of the Soviet Union with all this painful history, secrets and lies hanging over their heads. And this book puts me right there in ways I've never been.  By framing the national history around the composer's biography, the author maintains a narrative drive that some nonfiction loses.  (Looking at you, all those excellent Bill Bryson books I've read half of, then forgot to finish because NO PLOT.)

Halfway through the book, I realized I should be listening to the music as I read.  For awhile I just listened to Shostakovich music in general, but then I put on his Seventh Symphony.  And would you believe it--the final triumphant chords came crashing down as I read the last page of the book.  

I agree with other reviewers that the author's sentence structure is choppy and oddly juvenile in a book that is so complex. But the impact of the book more than makes up for that stylistic decision, as far as I'm concerned. (And I know it was a deliberate decision, having read Anderson's Octavian Nothing and Feed, neither of which sound anything like this.)

Fiction is my candy, and I gobble it down with ease. Nonfiction always daunts me, yet my favorite books from this summer have all been nonfiction. Maybe I need to recommit to tackling more of it this year.

5/5 stars

Do you read nonfiction?  What types do you prefer?  Is there a topic that you're drawn to, or do you like to explore new ideas and information?  


  1. Having read (most of) Octavian Nothing, I now know that Anderson absolutely chose this style, and that he would never write down to teen readers! He must have felt the choppy short sentences went with his material; they do have a sort of Soviet brutalist quality.

    1. Right? The thing I found odd about it is that it seemed like it was trying to "simplify" the language a bit--in a 450 page book stuffed full with Russian names and terms. People (of any age) who are willing to tackle that don't exactly need short sentences.

  2. I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction. Usually I buy the books and then they sit on my shelf forever because fiction is more appealing. I read Feed last year, so maybe I’d like this one.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    1. It's very different from Feed, but (obviously) I loved it. I have the exact same problem with the attractiveness of fiction.


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