Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad


 amazon.com

Let me begin this review by saying a couple of things.

One, I never read nonfiction on my own time growing up, and only when I was nearly done with college did I realize that maybe I would like it. After all, I have always loved learning about multiple subjects, be it history or science or music, etc. Being in love with a man who prefers nonfiction really opened my eyes to what is out there. The nonfiction and fiction vie for room on our overflowing bookshelves. My mental state and hunger for knowledge have been infinitely rewarded.

Two, I am so ashamed to even admit that I know next to nothing about Russia and it's history. I knew the story of the downfall of the Tsar and of the tales surrounding the Princess Anastasia, but that was it. Honestly, I still love the children's movie, despite how far from the truth it really is. But really, my knowledge didn't stretch much further, other than knowing who Marx and Lenin and Stalin were. It was appalling. But, this book changed all that.

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Symphony for the City of the Dead was first published in autumn of 2015, but I hadn't even heard of it. I am so thankful that I was listening to the satellite radio channel Symphony Hall on a Monday morning a few weeks ago. The radio DJ (who, incidentally, used to be on my local classical station back in Illinois!), was talking about Shostakovich and mentioned this book. I filed the title away in my mind and then forgot about it while at work (the library, no less, silly me). The next day, I was at work again and suddenly remembered it, but struggled to recall the title. I furiously googled and found it, so I searched our library system and requested a copy from another library, since we didn't have it. It came the next day and I put all my other reading on hold to read this. I was not disappointed. It took a couple weeks to read only because life unfortunately does not allow for as much reading time as I would want, but I was also able to absorb each section thoroughly. So, thank you Martin Goldsmith of Symphony Hall, for mentioning this book. I am much the better for it.

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Dmitri Shostakovich was born in the city of St Petersburg on the eve of the reign of the Tsars of Russia. He lives and survives through the rise of Lenin and Stalin and all the horrors that come with their dictatorships. He began playing the piano at the age of nine, By the time he was thirteen, the city of St Petersburg had been renamed Petrograd, and young Dmitri was admitted to the musical conservatory. His first symphony was composed as his graduation piece; it premiered in 1926. (It was in 1924, after the death of Vladimir Lenin, that the city was renamed Leningrad. This was to be the city's name until 1991, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed.) Throughout the years in which Shostakovich composed his next few symphonies, he was watched closely by the government, especially after his 4th Symphony. Joseph Stalin came to power and his purge of literally everything hurt the Russian people heavily. I mean, the guy even purged his own army, which was pretty idiotic...people were afraid to even tell him the truth, because they could be killed for it! (I could go on about the horrors of Stalin's purge, but that's not the point and this is long already, sorry!)

 Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, an opera that Shostakovich composed, was the beginning of his being officially watched by the government, and the composer fell deeply out of favor with the people. Stalin despised the opera, which of course meant that the people did, too. He struggled to stay low profile and essentially stay alive during this time, this purge, the Great Terror. He wasn't the only artist who was under surveillance, but he was one of the lucky ones who came through it with his life. He composed film music for a time, and also his 4th Symphony, which he eventually withdrew, for reasons which we are not fully certain. (The 4th Symphony finally had a premiere in 1961.) But his 5th Symphony was Shostakovich's response to being denounced, and it was incredibly successful. It's a beautiful symphony, and a favorite of many who listen to Shostakovich's music now.

In the interest of moving forward and not making this too long, we're going to jump into WWII. This is where the book got seriously interesting because I learned so much about Stalin and his cruelty and also how he trusted Hitler even when his intelligence was telling him that Hitler was going to attack. I was so shocked; Stalin set up the potential for his own defeat SO WELL. It was nuts. Anyway, the German army, the largest land force assembled in history, invaded Russia on the longest day of the year, June 22nd, 1941. By September, they were at the gates of Leningrad; September 8th marked the beginning of a nearly three year long siege. The Germans destroyed the supply of food that the government had put up for the winter, because of course it was all in one large and easy to find building. The Russian winter is harsh to begin with, but the lack of food, heat, electricity, and even decent habitable buildings took their toll. My heart broke for what these people went through. So many died of starvation, and some of the population even pretty much went crazy from hunger and turned to cannibalism. All through this time, Shostakovich remained in the city, because he initially tried to volunteer for the army, but they didn't take him. It could have been because of his celebrity, but it could also have been because of his eyesight, we don't fully know. But throughout the siege, he worked on composing his 7th Symphony, which became known as the Leningrad Symphony.  He composed three movements while living in the city, and the fourth came together after his harrowing evacuation with other artists to the city of Kuibyshev (present-day Samara).

Honestly, this is where the entirety of the story came together for me. Everything in the book was leading up to this, obviously. But like each separate movement of a symphony, each section of Dmitri Shostakovich's life and the trials of the Russian people played their parts. The explosive finish came when the symphony was at last performed in the city for which it was written. The music had been performed around the world to thunderous applause, but the most moving and perfect moment was when it came home. In 1942 the Radio Orchestra was given the score to rehearse; there were only fourteen members left alive. The conductor found others who could play instruments, and members of the military bands were brought in, and through their hunger and pain they learned the piece. On August 9th, the date Hitler had claimed he would be celebrating inside the city, the Leningrad Symphony was performed. Philharmonia Hall was lit brightly with electricity for the occasion, and the Red Army even made sure to draw German fire away from the bright target; his diversionary attack wasn't even learned of by the people till twenty years later. Many of the people in the city went without their meager rations to purchase a ticket to the performance. And during the performance, everyone was uplifted. Even the Germans, hearing it over the radio, were stunned. The siege was not over (it lasted for another year and a half, amazingly), but for many people, the worst had passed.

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The book goes on to wrap up Shostakovich's life. I was so dazed by the end, though, because the way that M.T. Anderson writes is just so amazing. There were so many sentences and even whole paragraphs that I wanted to commit to memory. I cried over what the Russian people suffered, at the hands of their own leader and at the hands of their enemy. And through it all, Shostakovich was so selfless. He never thought of himself; always would he give to his family and others first. I've always enjoyed his music, but this book brought him to life for me. And the power of music? Well, that much is obvious. It can bring people together and lift up the downtrodden in ways that can be hard to understand. Music touches the soul. I feel like Shostakovich was one of those composers who really understood that, too. He knew what suffering was; almost his entire life was full of it. And yet he kept going.

If I keep going, this will turn into a post of epic proportions and will likely end up not being coherent. So I shall leave you with this recording of the Leningrad Symphony, and insist (not even just recommend) that you pick up this book, because Symphony for the City of the Dead is so much more about truly living.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Villains

brokeandbookish.com

Happy Tuesday and happy October! And because it's Tuesday, it's time for the weekly meme from The Broke and the Bookish. I didn't participate last week because the theme was October reads, and I had already shared my reading list with you lovely people haha. So. This week's theme is.... VILLAINS. Pick your top ten villains in books, movies, tv shows, whatever. I'm gonna go with books, because well...this is a book blog. Though I could easily give you a list of favorite villains in other media. I mean, I watch enough tv...

Anyway. My top villains in books. Which is basically going to come down to my favorite books.

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1. Voldemort
     Because obviously. I mean, he's an incredibly well crafted character.

2. Saruman
     I could have picked Sauron, but honestly Saruman has more to him and he becomes such pure evil while under Sauron's influence. It's creepy. Plus the movies don't show you what he does to the Shire and what the hobbits come home to.
   

3. Jadis/The White Witch/etc.
     I've read the Chronicles of Narnia so many times, which is kind of obvious haha. The White Witch always fascinated me as a child, but it was more because of her control over the weather (winter has long been my favorite season) than anything else. She's also pretty pure evil when we first meet her as Jadis in The Magician's Nephew. Like...there's nothing good there. Most other villains start off semi good, but not her. She's pretty well depraved already and only wants to benefit herself.

4. Cluny the Scourge
     I think I'm really dating myself here because it seems that I haven't read many books recently with great villains. But anyway, I couldn't forget to include the infamous rat from the Redwall series. This guy freaked me out hardcore, but his death was pretty cool...getting killed by a bell is good.

5. Grand Admiral Thrawn
     Because all the Star Wars books that came before are still canon, damn it. And Thrawn is amazing. And honestly people just aren't going to read these books anymore and it makes me so sad. Especially because they also brought forth my favorite Star Wars character of all time...but that's beside the point I suppose. (Actually I could highlight multiple villains from the Star Wars books.)

6. Prince Humperdinck
     Because The Princess Bride is an amazing movie and an even better book. Humperdinck is bumbling and really a total idiot (the six-fingered man is the real villain, one could argue), but we all love to hate him.

7. Captain Hook
     I'm talking about the original Peter Pan novel here. Nuff said.

8. The Dead
     One of my favorite fantasy trilogies of all time is the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. The dead/undead creatures that he created and the mythos surrounding necromancy in his world building is just fantastic.

9. L
     Death Note is one of the best manga I ever read, and while L might not qualify as a villain for some people, he definitely does for at least part of the time. But then again, so does Light. The crazy thing about the series is that anyone can be a villain.

10. Count Olaf
     Last but not least, I can't forget Lemony Snicket's terribly infuriating villain. I mean, he was trying to kill children, for heaven's sake.

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So that was a lot harder than I anticipated it to be! None of these are recent reads, and it made me realize it's time to get back into some classic good versus evil. But it also helped me remember a couple books/series that I adored and should probably re-read soon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Reading plans for the rest of the year

If there were a way to read multiple books at once, I would be doing it. As there is clearly not, I have to pace myself, which we all know has never been my strong suit. Anyway, I've decided on a reading list through the end of 2016, that also includes some room to read books I grab on a whim at the library or that may show up in reading challenges. So, here we go.

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September

To finish:
  • Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (This one is obvious...I've been reading it since February.)
  • Eve of a Hundred Midnights, by Bill Lascher (WWII China/America nonfiction)
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead, by M.T. Anderson (WWII Russian nonfiction)
To read:
  • The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, by Marie Kondo (Finally got my hands on it!)
  • Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly (new WWII novel...clearly I'm on a WWII kick)

October
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (I have tried and failed to start this for years.)
  • The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter (a scifi series I've wanted to read)
  • The Book of Chameleons, by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (for a Goodreads group read) 

November
  • The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
  • The rest of this month is open

December (my Christmas re-reads month)
  • A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  • The Legend of Holly Claus, by Brittany Ryan
  • Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
  • Redwall, by Brian Jacques (this will probably stretch into 2017 as I re-read the whole series)
  • The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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I am telling myself to stick to this list, even though there are books I have from the library right now that are not on it. Doesn't matter, I will read and review those as well. I look forward to December with all my re-reads though. I might even begin Redwall or LotR in November. The cold months are the best time to read those. What are you planning to read for the rest of the year??

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: All About Audio

brokeandbookish.com

Happy Tuesday! I missed a couple of these again, and today's topic is a little tough for me. Audiobooks are just not for me most of the time. I really do try, but I'm too easily distracted by literally everything, among other reasons I have mentioned before. However, this week's topic is a freebie, which means I don't have to list just books, but I can pick anything audio related. So, I'm going to list five audio related things that have to do with books and stories in general. I'm only doing five because I just don't have enough experience in this area.

1. The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques
     This is one of my favorite books series of all time anyway, and the audiobooks that were made were full cast dramas, narrated by Jacques himself. The world of Redwall Abbey, Mossflower, and all its creatures came to life in a big way through these, and I was sad that there weren't more of them done; only a handful of the books were ever performed.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
     In all likelihood I have read the Narnia series more than any other books in my life. The radio dramas that were produced by the BBC only made the stories come even more to life for me. I listen to them every single winter; so perfect on a chilly and snowy evening with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.

3. EOS 10, a sci-fi radio play
     This is a podcast I stumbled across on the Podcast app on my phone; EOS 10 is a space station. I would listen to it while cleaning, and it's a really fascinating and funny story. The voice actors are so great too. Worth checking out if you like audio dramas and sci-fi. I've only listened to the first season, so I need to play catch up here soon.

4. Welcome to Night Vale
     An audio drama that runs the gamut from fantasy to sci-fi to musical theatre to just plain weird, I fell in love with Welcome to Night Vale pretty quickly. I am way behind on episodes (also on the Podcast app) because it's tough to remember to listen, but I liken it to The Twilight Zone in some ways. I've also discovered new music through listening, so that's a bonus.

5. Zombies, Run!
     This is maybe a weird one to include, but it's a fitness app that actually does follow a story, and it kinda like virtual reality. It's actually super motivating because each episode/session leaves you hanging so that you want to go out running (or walking; you don't HAVE to run!) to hear more of the story. Plus you collect items and meet new people and your map expands as you learn more about the area your character explores. So totally cool, and a unique concept that I'm pretty thankful is a thing. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

End of summer catch up reviews

Hi, my name is Elisabeth and I read too fast for my own good and then don't stop to think. I'm behind on book reviews, so in order to not have too many new posts suddenly, I'm going to write short reviews in this post, Twitter-style. For those of you who have followed my blog for a few years, I've done this before. Clearly, I have a problem.

Anyway, I have eight books to talk about, not counting the three cookbooks I've read cover-to-cover. I haven't tried any recipes from those yet, so I don't feel I can give an accurate review. (All links lead to Amazon. Not affiliate links.)

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Anya's Ghost, by Vera Brosgol
     This fell off the shelf at work while I was putting other graphic novels away, so I thought I'd give it a go. Perfect for Halloween, even though I read it in early summer, it's a creepy tale of a girl who learns all too quickly that ghosts may appear friendly but generally have their own agenda. It was a really quick read and I enjoyed all the Russian references too.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake, by Amy E. Reichert
     I don't normally go for modern romances, but when it's set in Milwaukee and revolves around food, it's hard not to take that chance. A super quick and absolutely adorable read about a chef and the restaurant critic who causes her to lose her restaurant (sounds bad, but trust me!); anyone who likes Milwaukee and food and the romance that can result from serious misconceptions would love this story! It's not the best written book, but the descriptions of Milwaukee and the food we love so much here in Wisconsin totally make it worth it. And like I said, it's adorable.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling
     Hah, so I'm not actually linking to the Amazon page for this book because it's not even worth it. No, it wasn't because it's in script form; that didn't bother me in the least. It's not worth it because, quite simply, it's crap. It's utterly deplorable, and J.K. Rowling must be stopped. She's writing her own fanfiction, and quite frankly I feel like she's turning into George Lucas...which is never a good thing. Leave your own work alone, the original is JUST FINE. *hides in a corner with original unedited Star Wars* Wait, what was I talking about? Oh right. Don't bother with Cursed Child. Just. Don't.

Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body, by Kate Hudson
     This was a totally fun book to read, and while there were some weird Buddhist things I had to wade through, the gist of it was that there's no one way to love the skin you're in. And it's the only one you're getting, so you'd do well to take care of it and not hate it because it's easier to love and care for others if you love and care for yourself. She's got all kinds of great tips on exercising and eating and being mindful. Really nice.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, by Paul Krueger
     Another one that I found by accident (released in June) and really loved, this is a crazy romp through Chicago where alcohol is magical and bartenders are on the front lines to protect humanity from disgusting creatures called tremens. Taking the classic cocktails to a new level, Bailey Chen learns that each basic liquor has it's own magical effect, and that she's a natural at bartending. The fictional lore about each drink (think old fashioned, gin and tonic, margarita, long island iced tea) is super cool too. Be careful though, you might get thirsty!

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, by Lindsay Ribar
     This is a brand new YA novel (I know, it's weird!) that had an intriguing premise...there's a boy named Aspen who has the magical ability to reach inside people and steal...whatever he wants. Pain, memories, loves, likes, etc. His grandmother and aunt can do the same. One summer he is called to the ancestral home in the small town of Three Peaks where he has to be a part of the ritual. This ritual keeps the cliff above the town from falling on everyone. Little does Aspen know what lies ahead of him as he keeps stealing from his friends and expecting no consequences. It was a fascinating tale with a couple idiotic characters, but maybe I only thought they were idiotic because I'm not a teenager anymore. Still worth reading, and the system of magic was one I hadn't seen before, so that was cool.

The Leaving, by Tara Altebrando
     Also a brand new YA novel, The Leaving is about a group of teens who have been returned to their town after having been kidnapped eleven years previously. None of the five who came back can remember anything, not even about the sixth child who didn't return. The story is told from the perspective of a few of the returned kids, and also the younger sister of the boy who didn't come back. There's some fancy typography in this novel that definitely kept me engrossed. But the ending left a lot to be desired...there were a couple plotlines that were promising and led nowhere, and I was hoping for a more supernatural ending, but that's not really what happened. But well written, for the story that we are given.

Happy People Read and Drink Coffee, by Agnes Martin-Lugand
     I just read this today; it took a couple hours. Honestly, by the title and the fact that it was translated from French...I was mildly disappointed. Also, character development was rather odd. It's about a woman named Diane who loses her husband and young daughter in a car accident and then a year later jets off to Ireland to try to recover. There's some romance, but it didn't build up accurately in my opinion. The descriptions are what I really loved, especially of Paris and then Ireland's rocky coast. Kind of a cute story, and there's a sequel out now (soon?) which I'll probably read as well.

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There you have it, I am now caught up. I have approximately 43782 books from the library to read yet, and I'm still slogging my way through Anna Karenina. I had no idea that would take me so long!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Classics I Read in School

brokeandbookish.com

I am so bad at keeping up with these lists...which is sad because they're so fun! Going to strive to do better, and I have a few book reviews backed up too, so hopefully that means a lot of activity here for this little blog soon. Anyway, this week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish is "back to school" and it's a freebie, meaning you can pick how you want to approach your personal list. I have chosen to select the top ten classic works of literature that I read over my schooling years, possibly including college, but not likely. Granted, it's a bit different than if I had been in school; half of these I don't recall if I read them for school or for fun. But being homeschooled makes the lines a bit blurred, and I can't say I'm upset about that! So, here is my list, in no particular order.

1. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
     Obviously I had to include P&P, because this set off a lifelong obsession with all things Regency.

2. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
     I distinctly do remember reading this one for fun when I was seventeen, though I think I did write a short paper on it for my mom because it made such an impact on me.

3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo
     This was my first foray into French literature and it totally blew me away.

4. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
     I read this one three times, once in high school, twice in college (one of those for fun). Not as old as the other books on this list, but every inch a classic and a book I tell everyone they should read.

5. Silas Marner, by George Eliot
     Haha, this one I fought with my mom about...it sounded so boring when she wanted me to read it (I think I was in 8th grade?). And the print in our copy made it hard to read, but I struggled through it and found at the end that it really wasn't that bad. I'm thinking of rereading it in the next few years.

6. The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
     This is my very first review on my blog! I've read it a few times throughout my life. Always excellent.

7. Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott
     Initially I read this for school, in junior high I think, and got an abridged copy from the library that took me only two hours to read and I was left thinking a lot was missing. Mom suggested I find an unabridged copy, which I did, and that ended up taking me three weeks to read haha. But a seriously amazing story, I love it so much. One of the books that fueled my love of medieval England.

8. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
     This I definitely read in college, because I took a class on it. I had read short excerpts in the past, but always only from Inferno, and I was beyond ecstatic that my favorite professor was going to teach on the entire work. It was one of the best classes I ever took (all of his classes were the best, tbh), and I now own three different translations and like to tell everyone they should read the entire thing. [Yeah, you reading this, go read Dante!]

9. The Epic of Gilgamesh, author unknown
     I believe I read this in junior high or my first year of high school, not sure. (The years blur because there's not really such a thing as grade separations when you're homeschooled haha.) It was on my classical literature list and I didn't fight about this one at all, because I adore old, old, old literature. The translation I read was really awesome too, easy for me to read. Wish I could remember which one it was.

10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carroll
     I would be remiss if I didn't include this on my list!! The first hundred times I read it were totally for fun, but the culmination of my college career was my senior seminar on Alice, so I spent a lot of time reading and rereading while I worked on that. It's definitely one of my favorite books of all time, despite that it's technically a children's book.

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There you have it, my top ten classics read in school!! As I was writing this list, I actually had to pare down and pick and choose, because there were a lot more than ten...classics were always something I loved very much.





Monday, August 29, 2016

Battle Royale

amazon.com

Sometimes, you read a novel that just sticks with you.
Sometimes that novel is one you've wanted to read for ages, but only recently got your hands on a copy because time and forgetfulness are real.
Sometimes said novel is everything you hoped for and more.
Sometimes you can't stop thinking about the characters, even a month later.

Sometimes...
...a book changes your life.

Most recently for me, that book was the very violent but absolutely incredible Japanese novel from 1999 called Battle Royale. I kid you not, this was an almost 600 page book with small print that I read in less than 24 hours because I just could not put it down. People call it the original Hunger Games, and also liken it to Lord of the Flies, and I see it. But it's better than the latter, and also hugely better than the former, which I am 99.9% certain is a total ripoff. (There's just too many similarities, guys. Suzanne Collins, at least for the first book, really had to have ripped off Battle Royale. Anyway, I digress.) All that aside, this book was just sooooooooo good. If you don't handle rather graphic descriptions of violence and gore well, I would suggest you stay away, but if you don't have a problem with it, read it. Really. There's so much socio-political stuff, and getting inside the heads of the teenage characters when they are faced with certain death (at the hands of their classmates, no less), is fascinating. Human nature is well explored in this novel, which I find interesting from a Christian standpoint because Japan is so different from most of the Western world in how they view humanity. And yet, the depravity of the human soul is shown so well, as is the fragility. It's so sad and yet so beautiful in its own way, amongst all the killings. I know that sounds so weird, but it's true.

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I don't have anything else I feel I can say at this point about Battle Royale. You will just have to read it for yourself to see just how beautiful it really is. Beyond five stars.