This Book is My Jam: Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson

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.

symphonyHave 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.

This Book is My Jam: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

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.

goodbye strangerYou know those books that the more you think about them, the more you remember the characters, and the more you sit with them, the more you love them? That’s Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead for me. I really enjoyed it when I read it, but I finished it over a month ago and just can’t let it go. I want more people I know to read it so we can talk about it. If I had a middle school aged daughter, I’d want us to read it together and talk about it. In fact, in writing this review, I decided to bump my Goodreads rating up to 5 stars.

Here’s why I loved this book:

  • The relationships between the women and girls in the book. I thought this was going to go in a mean girl direction at one point, and it really didn’t. The story centers around 3 girls who have been friends for forever and have decided that they will never fight. While they figure out that this may be unrealistic, they are (mostly) supportive of each other and really try to embody what it means to be good friends. There’s also a lot of time given to mother/daughter relationships, and the conversations the girls have with their mothers are authentic and wonderful. There’s an older sister who makes an appearance and takes one of the girls under her wing. It’s really a tribute to the wonderful richness of female friendships and relationships and shows how positive those can be.
  • The portrayal of middle school. I said in my Goodreads review that I wasn’t sure these kids sounded like middle schoolers, and I stand by that, but I do think the way middle school is portrayed is accurate. Boys who want girls to send them a certain kind of picture: that’s a thing. Pushing boundaries and trying to figure out who you may be: that’s most definitely a thing. A lot of the books that deal with middle school are aimed younger than this, and present a somewhat sanitized version of what middle school is. I thought this was honest, and aimed at older middle schoolers, and I think more books like that are needed.
  • The characters. This is a really character-driven novel and I loved all of them. As I’m writing this, I realize I miss them!

For me, Rebecca Stead just keeps getting better and better, and Goodbye Stranger was most definitely my jam.

This Book is My Jam: Trustology by Richard Fagerlin

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.

TrustologyThis is a surprise entry into “This Book is My Jam.” Because it’s a management book that I had to read for my CALLI program (management and self help books are usually anything but my jam–I read them for good information, but I don’t usually expect to be moved by them). Because the title is (sorry to the author) kind of silly. Because I just honestly didn’t expect to like it, and wasn’t excited about reading it. And then I read it, and really liked it!

The basic premise of Trustology: The Art and Science of Leading High-Trust Teams is that managers need to be better about trusting their team. According to Fagerlin, trusting your team leads to happier employees, more productivity, and more money for the business. Of course, in libraries we aren’t about profit, but who wouldn’t want more productivity and a happier work environment? The book is divided into 3 sections. Here’s a brief rundown of what those sections talk about:

Trustology 101: Trust’s Big Lie. This section talks about the fact that the way we think about trust isn’t correct. We think of it as something to be earned, not something to be given freely. The author says we need to think of trust as something that can only be given–and only you, individually, have the power of giving trust. If you want to have a high trust team, you have to choose to trust your people and keep making that choice day after day. Fagerlin talks about how often we don’t give people the benefit of the doubt or chance to tell their side of the story when breakdowns in communication happen. If we do that, he says, we hold people hostage to our own assumptions of their behavior. That means trust can’t happen.

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This Book is My Jam: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

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.

nestI find it hard to put into words how affecting this book was for me. I cried (a lot) when I read it. I cried when describing it to a coworker and it made her cry (and she had not read the book). It was recommended to me by another coworker’s daughter, who said it was the best book she had ever read (she’s 11, so the exact target age for this book). When discussing it with this coworker, we both teared up. There’s no doubt that I’m a softie, but seriously: bring the tissues when you read this one.

I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I read it, mulling it over in my head. There are so many reasons why Nest worked so well for me. I think the thing that really struck home for me was how real the characters felt. They felt incredibly specific, yet at the same time very relatable. Chirp’s (our protagonist) father, a psychiatrist, deals with things in the way you would expect a psychiatrist father to deal with things (although it never felt stereotypical) and the way his daughters, Chirp and Rachel, talk reflects that they have a psychiatrist for a father. It just felt like a family you could actually imagine meeting.

Chirp as a main character was much the same way. There are a lot of quirky, precocious kids in children’s literature, and I appreciated that Chirp was not one of these characters. She did so many specific kid things (like deciding that if she could get changed in less than 15 seconds everything would be okay) that I felt like a lot of kids would relate to her. I also loved that her and her family were Jewish and that this was both a big part of her life and not the main focus of the book. I want to read more diverse books this year, and reading this book made me realize that there aren’t nearly enough Jewish characters and families in middle grade literature.

Another thing I appreciated: a lot of bad stuff was presented and dealt with very realistically. Mental illness, having a sick family member, and child abuse were just some of the issues here and are presented pretty starkly. Some of this realism and how people reacted to it really made me mad. Nothing was tied up neatly with a bow. But it felt like reality, and I liked that Ehrlich didn’t condescend to her audience. She just showed a reality. And sometimes, reality sucks. Pretending that it doesn’t doesn’t change that, and doesn’t help kids who are going through bad times.

I could keep talking about this book, and I did talk about it quite a bit more in my Goodreads review, if you’d like more of my thoughts. Even though it made me cry, I loved reading this book, and would highly recommend it. There are some pretty serious issues discussed in the book, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph. Be aware they do contain spoilers so don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know anything (else) about the book.

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