Monday, February 29, 2016

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

Stalin was a paranoid and cruel dictator that killed millions of Russians crippling his economy, government, Arts, and military long before World War II even broke out. While the Germans laid siege to Leningrad during the war, it was Stalin that initiated the "first siege" during his Great Terror and Five-Year Plan. Like most despots, he murdered anyone that disagreed with him, repressed free will, free press, violated human rights, and ruled with terror. Popularity and capitalist notions could get you killed or sent to Gulag labor camps. Stalin trusted no one (except Hitler who betrayed him). He felt it was his right to enact terror - he was an institutionalized psychopathic leader. Through music, Russian composer  Dmitri Shostakovich, was able to give the people a voice to express their feelings and emotions in a state where it was not allowed.

Stalin was trying to break down social structure to the point that people were denied their souls and aligned with the party. Through alienation, loneliness, and terror he tried to create a classless society and in the effort tore down the moral fabric. Shostakovich's symphonies allowed listeners a respite and not only pride in their Arts but an understanding that was unique to their own experience. And Shostakovich managed to hold on to his humanity even though Stalin attacked him twice and had him publicly denounced. Shostakovich remained a kind man who cared for the students he taught at the Conservatory and his family for his whole life. He was a complex mixture of defiance and compliance with the Party. He easily could have ended up murdered like so many of his other friends, but he survived even when the odds looked bad.

The first part of the book shows the experimentation that Lenin allowed before his death and Shostakovich's extraordinary gift in music at the piano and later writing of symphonies. When Lenin died and Stalin's Five-Year Plan and Great Terror steamrolled through the Arts, Shostakovich's wildly popular 4th Symphony was marked as being too individualistic. A smear campaign by the Party and the death of his other successful friends, led to him fearing for his life. He wrote symphonies that reflected more of the Party's liking, but he also had discordant sections that spoke to the people and reflected the repression of will by the government. Stalin was always leery of Shostakovich and his popularity. It is somewhat of a mystery that he let him live.

The second part of the book focuses on the horrors of the siege of Leningrad that lasted for three years. The desperate and terrifying situation is reflected in Shostakovich's 7th Symphony that he wrote as German bombs pounded the city mercilessly. Shostakovich ended up escaping to Moscow after a year-and-a-half and times got even worse for the Leningrad people. As the winter temperatures plunged to minus forty degrees people died of exposure and hunger by the thousands. While some resorted to cannibalism, others created communities that cared for one another. The library stayed open for people to read and the orchestra got together to play Shostakovich's 7th Symphony when he completed it in Moscow. The concert was a turning point for the people in Leningrad for it told the Germans that they could not break the Russian spirit and it was their identity. While Stalin used the 7th Symphony as propaganda to inspire national pride, the Russians saw it as Art as a way of self-expression.

Any good history book shows the struggles the author has with its sources and whether or not they are truthful or exaggerated or false. M.T. Anderson does this with exhaustive notes and logic to create a solid glimpse of Russian history. Last year I read the book, "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia," by Candace Fleming that explains the downfall of the 300-year-rule by Russian tsars. The books combined show how the severe economic distress, ineffective political, and judiciary system made it ripe for the Russian revolution and rise of despotic rulers such as Lenin and Stalin.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates' raw honesty emerges in an essay to his teenage black son about the struggle against institutionalized Supremacy in America. He warns that the American Dream is a lie built on the backs of oppressed blacks that lived in fear and ignorance that scars them even today in the failings of schools, police officers, religion, the justice system, and government. He offers no solutions, only an abundance of beautifully written questions - his voice a "cocktail of emotions". He gives readers a glimpse into growing up in a black culture rounded by perpetual fear, struggles of a college experience, and the transformation of becoming a parent. Sometimes it was confusing and other times a fascinating glimpse into a different culture. Part memoir, part rhetorical, part anecdotes, and history this was a short, but intense essay.

The essay seems to start out within the narrow confines of history expanding in scope. The last part engaged me the most as I was drawn into his one-side conversation with his son. When Coates goes to Paris and experiences a different culture it gives him a different perspective, his views expanding on previous questions bigger than himself. Or maybe after reading about the extreme fear and violence he dealt with in the beginning of the book, I felt like I could breathe a bit when he goes to college and becomes a parent. Like I said, it is an intense essay. In his travels to Paris he describes feeling outside of the country, looking in. How he is not a part of that culture's dream: "I was an alien, I was a sailor-landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before - that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else's dream." I live overseas, and it is a good description of the isolation an expat might feel living in a different culture.

Coates was inspired to write this essay after reading James Baldwin's 1963 book, "The Fire Next to Me" where Baldwin has a dialogue with his fifteen-year-old son on what it means to be black in a country where white oppression has existed since its birth. An excellent comparison can be found in this New York Times article. I now have a better understanding of black violence today and its connections with slavery. The stream-of-consciousness writing meanders sometimes, but I have a meandering brain so take that with a grain of wheat. Coates doesn't believe in hope for a better future. Hope isn't tangible enough for him. Instead, he tells his son to focus on the struggle, because "the struggle" is the only thing that can be controlled. He also insists that the questions matter more than the answers. He challenges the reader in unexpected ways through a harsh reality. A diverse voice that adds to the rich tapestry of literature.

5 Smileys

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Course of Human Events by David McCullough

David McCullough gave this terrific talk at the Jefferson Lecture in Humanities in 2003 and  I listened to the 38 minute audio book spoken by the author. He begins by talking about John Trumbull's painting of the Declaration of Independence that hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda and the artist's intentional inaccuracies.

The signing did not take place July 4, 1776, and had no formal gathering as seen in the dramatic painting. The decorative display of the room does not accurately reflect the room where the men signed the Declaration of Independence, but it doesn't matter. Trumbull was creating a symbolic event and while he takes liberty with the room, he is completely accurate with the faces of those in the room capturing the qualities of Jefferson and Adams. Washington is absent and McCullough explains why. The intent by Trumbull is to show the brave intentions of the men in Congress who were making a declaration against the King of England claiming freedom for the thirteen colonies and making them traitors to the crown. The painting is symbolic of what the country stood for at that time. Pretty heady stuff. It is easy to get swept up in the story as David McCullough reveals the individuals in history, bringing the time alive and making it vibrant.

The rest of the lecture explains the importance of education to the Founding Fathers and books that influenced David McCullough making him pursue the career of being a historian. He talks about reading, "Ben and Me" by Robert Lawson, as a six-year-old and I thought to myself... I've never seen a kid that young read that book. It goes to show what a gifted man McCullough is and quite brilliant himself. He then quotes many other books that influenced him growing up. He's 82 years old so his book list had some unfamiliar names for me. I'll have to check them out. I did know the children's books, however, and I have seen N.C. Wyeth's glorious illustrations of Treasure Island. Although McCullough mentions Wyeth pictures in The Last of the Mohicans and Drums as influencing him.

The last part of the lecture focuses on how history needs to come alive. A writer can have all the facts but if there are not interesting individuals or empathy or heart in the history being revealed, then it won't hold readers interest. History has to be literature, he says several times, as well as, "History is about change and the power of ideas." He ends by explaining that the American experiment was an unfulfilled promise with a government of laws and not of men, equality and justice, the importance of the individual, freedom of thought and religion, and a love of learning. You can read the lecture printed at the web site: Be inspired.

5 Smileys

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm, Wilhelm Grimm, Andrea Dezso (Illustrations), Jack Zipes

Read the fairy tale about a frog prince that is not kissed by the princess but tossed against the wall with the intent to kill, except the violence turns him into a prince (and then they marry). Cinderella’s stepsisters, urged by their mother, cut off parts of their feet to get the golden slipper on, but the prince notices “blood streaming out of the slipper” and knows of each girl’s deception. Snow White ends up in a glass coffin that a prince finds in the woods and who falls in love with her; however, it is an irritated servant stuck lugging her around the castle, because the prince wants the glass coffin at his side at all times, who happens to pop out the poisoned apple that is lodged in her throat from jostling her on a tight passage. These are just a few of the classic fairy tales we grew up with in their original form as they are revealed in the 1812 Grimm’s fairy tale first edition, translated into English for the first time. This authentic look at fairy tales that were told orally shows that they were written for adults. Extensive notes in the appendix reveal the Grimm’s as brilliant folklorists that gathered information from ancient manuscripts as well as people from all walks of life. If you enjoy the study of folklore, the introduction by scholar and fairy tale expert, Jack Zipes, is full of background knowledge on what the Grimm’s were trying to accomplish in their first volume and what led them to change their focus over 40 years of revisions that created fairly tales less violent, child-centered, and romantic. 

One disturbing story that kept reappearing is the woman who marries a rich man who is nice to her, but has a test where he leaves the castle and gives her keys or an object and says she can’t look in one particular room. She does and it is filled with chopped up female body parts. The room is enchanted and the key or object becomes stained with blood that she can’t get out so when her husband comes home he says he has to kill her for looking in the room. She escapes through magic and the husband is punished. Needless to say, we gladly don’t see this serial killer fairy tale cropping up in kids stories. It is a chilling horror story that shows how curiosity is so strong people can’t resist doing what they are told not to do and that some people are dangerous predators. But it also shows storytelling not only as a way to pass on morals, but as a form of entertainment in the horror genre.

The Grimms’ collected stories from well-educated middle-class women that shared stories in social circles that they heard from servants or nannies growing up. They also gathered stories from ancient manuscripts, soldiers, peasants, aristocrats, a pastor, and a tailor’s wife. As Zipes explains, these diverse voices give the first edition a unique voice that reflects the stories’ sociohistorical context. From class struggles where the common man becomes king, to women “lousing” men, to the “simpleton” as an underdog persevering with courage and wit to win the princess, these stories have a flavor that shows a gap between rich and poor and a patriarchal society where women want more but do not break from the conventional norms. As Zipes explains many of the themes are universal: sibling rivalry, greedy tyrants, oppressive rulers, oppressed women and young people, abandoned soldiers, children mistreated, Death rewarding the virtuous boy, and so on. The protagonists are simple-minded and innocent making readers sympathize with him or her. They achieve their goals through humility and kindness and social justice is achieved at the end. The theme of underdogs cooperating to achieve justice is strong throughout the stories. Usually some gruesome death occurs to the “evil” person at the end. Punishment is harsh with villains being burned at the stake, made to dance in hot iron shoes, or rolled in a spiked barrel. 

The tales usually have women that are “beautiful” and men that are handsome. They become rich and live happily ever after, but don’t think all the stories have this droll convention. Some of the stories show women not being so satisfied with their life and as underdogs manipulating the men around them to get what they want. “Nasty Flax Spinning” has a king being outwitted by his daughters to avoid the chore of spinning. “The Clever Farmer’s Daughter” shows an intelligent woman who outwits the men around her within a patriarchal society. Not only does she do what is socially just, she is proactive and outwits her dimwit husband, the King. The women in these stories love their husbands and are with them in the end so the story isn’t threatening any social norms. There is a morality to the stories that is not overly didactic. There is also the Simpleton who is either a commoner or the third son of the king that must overcome odds to win the kingdom and princess. The Grimms were studying law at university and had an influential professor that used interdisciplinary methods of studying relationships between laws, customs, beliefs, and values which affected how they wrote the tales. The Grimms gathered stories using this approach and the sociocultural context is evident and interesting to look for when reading. 

Many of the stories are tales about how strangers or animals are treated with arrogance or kindness. The kind person is rewarded for his or her actions. The tales are diverse with animal stories, legends, tall tales, and nonsense tales. The weaker animals use intelligences to overcome the larger ones again reinforcing the theme of underdogs succeeding. Usually something miraculous happens to help the underdog. Magic is a necessary element in these tales as it is what allows the protagonist to finish impossible tasks. There is one story with a stereotyped stingy Jew that might offend some and another about three ugly coal black sisters that confused me as they were dressed in black with a little white on their face. The Grimms viewed their collection as an educational primer of ethics, values, and customs. They have legends from all over the world. Even the “Genie in the Glass” is parallel to story in “The Thousand and One Nights” and the notes say that “The Frog Prince” story is related to “Cupid and Psyche” by Apuleius. I kept thinking of stories that I had read aloud to students. “Strega Nona” by Tomie DePoala and “Tunjur, Tunjur, Tunjur,” is just like the fairy tale, “The Sweet Porridge”. If you like fairy tales, don’t miss this fascinating comparison that shows how much they have changed since the nineteenth century. 

5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bright Sky, Starry City by Uma Krishnaswami, Aimée Sicuro (Illustrations)

So often I read a book and it makes me think of a certain student and what they like to read. This one brings to mind a grade 2 student that loves, loves, loves any book about the planets and solar system. While it is a nonfiction book, I know this student will like the nonfiction facts in the back, particularly the part about light pollution. The story about a girl that's disappointment is turned into a blizzard of happiness when she is able to see the stars at night is memorable with its beautiful mixed media illustrations.

Phoebe draws the solar system on the sidewalk outside her family's store. Her father has the telescope ready because Mars and Saturn are going to appear in the sky. Phoebe can't wait. She loves to find the constellations in the sky and look for the planets. But tonight, she is having a hard time seeing the sky because all the city lights make the stars look gray and dull. Will she be able to see the planets or will the city lights make it impossible?

The story is not very clear at the start that this is a planetary conjunction which means certain planets are lined up between the Earth and the Sun. It is a temporary event that doesn't happen every night. The nonfiction text at the end explains it, but I think the story would have been clearer if it had been mentioned in the beginning. The descriptive writing is beautiful with some strong metaphors, "Phoebe peered through the window at her sidewalk solar system dissolving into chalky streams." Phoebe's character goes from disappointment to spending a special moment with her dad where they both share the same interests.

The illustrations use mixed media such as pastels, watercolors, acrylic, pencil, and collage to create a dreamy night sky. My favorite page is the one with the storm that reminded me of Dorothy's house being picked up in the tornado and blown to the land of Oz. Here the storm picture reflects Phoebe's disappointment and stormy feelings toward the uncooperative weather. I can't wait to pass this on to the students. Make sure to add it to your library.