Welcome to This Book is My Jam, a semi-regular feature in which I talk about a book I recently read and really loved. I read books written for kids, teens, and adults, so it could be aimed at any age group.
Have you ever read a book that you loved so much you can’t be coherent about it? When you try to talk to people about it, you just freak out, and people perhaps back away, with a little bit of fear in their eyes? If so, you understand how I feel about Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M. T. Anderson. It’s really hard for me to put into words how much I loved this book, but I’m going to try.
This book tells the story of Stalinist Russia, of Russia’s role in WWII, of art and music, of how impossible it would be to live under a totalitarian regime, and so much more. And despite being full to the brim with all of this history, it never feels like too much. It flows beautifully, and clearly lays out the rise of Communism in Russia, what happened when Stalin took power, and how this affected every facet of life in Russia.
Anderson tells this story through chronicling the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, a Russian composer who lived through it all. Using Shostakovich to study this time in Russian history was a brilliant move. He became a world famous composer, with popularity in the West as well as in Russia, and Anderson explores how this was problematic for Shostakovich. The fact that he constantly lived on a tightrope–sometimes beloved, sometimes close to being part of the purges is shown, and the tension for the reader is almost unbearable. I know that I can never really understand what it would have been like to live during this time, and the constant fear it must have made people feel, but I understand it just a little more through Anderson’s excellent writing. Anderson also looks at the ideas of bravery and heroism and how it’s hard to make them apply in a totalitarian regime. As he says, it’s easy from the comfort of our own homes and time to say we would be part of the resistance, but it was much harder to do when the lives of your friends and family were under constant threat.
The book also explores the idea of truth, and how hard it is to know objective truth in the case of Shostakovich’s life. Anderson talks about why the famous biography of him (written by someone who defected from the Soviet Union) is problematic. This book is aimed at teens, and I think this is such an important message for teen readers to hear. I like that it encourages questioning sources and thinking about where they come from and why they might have issues.
If you want more of my thoughts, you can check out my Goodreads review (and please friend me on Goodreads!), but, really, you should just go out and read this book. It was published for teens, but is a really excellent read for adults, as well. It’s one of those books I think everyone should read.