Kid Lit Review of “Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee!” By Andrea J. Loney

This picture book provides a biography of James Van Der Zee, a groundbreaking photographer born in Lenox, Massachusetts in 1886. James wanted a camera from an early age, and worked hard to afford one.

He became only the second person in Lenox to own one. He started taking pictures, and soon everyone in town was saying “Take a picture of me, James Van Der Zee!”

At age 18, James moved his photography business to Harlem, where he eventually opened his own studio. All the big names of the Harlem Renaissance came to him for their portraits. But as time went on, eventually most people got their own cameras, and James’s business declined.

He adapted by starting a business to restore old photographs. In addition, his collection of photos was used by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a visual history of Harlem. This exhibit brought him new clients, with people once again coming to him and saying “Take a picture of me, James Van Der Zee!”

“Future Expectations, 1926” – Van Der Zee mastered the art of photomontage, combining two or more pictures into one final image

An Afterword by the author gives more background on VanDerZee and also includes examples of some of his work. As she explains:

“James Van Der Zee saw himself as an artist first, then a photographer. He was a master at transforming simple photographs into elaborate works of art.”

During his life Van Der Zee took more than 75,000 photographs: “Each image shared an extraordinary story about the people of Harlem….” He died in 1983 at the age of ninety-six.

James Van Der Zee in 1982

The author also includes a small bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

Illustrator Keith Mallett employs rich acrylic paintings that reflect his dedication to historical accuracy in the smallest details, such as styles of clothing and the way iconic buildings in Harlem would have looked when Van Der Zee was there. You can also find a great collection of Van Der Zee’s photographs here.

The famous Cotton Club in Harlem in a photo by James Van Der Zee

Evaluation: The prose in this book is not all that exciting, but the story is compelling nevertheless. The author does manage to convey a sense of Van Der Zee’s dedication to artistic quality and persistence. The striking pictures will help spark reader interest in the narrative.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2017

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Review of “Symphony for the City of the Dead” by M. T. Anderson

To say that a soundtrack would be useful or, indeed, desirable, while reading this history is an understatement, because of the centrality of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to the story. And yet, in some ways the symphony is only a “hook” to tell the story of the rise of Stalin and more specifically, the devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II. (The book is subtitled “Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”). Still, the creation of the symphony was critical for citizens of Leningrad enduring the siege, and this book explains why. [In 1914, the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.]

The story of the Siege of Leningrad, part of Operation Barbarossa, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named, is remarkable indeed. The siege lasted 872 days (it is sometimes called “the 900-Day Siege”), and was the longest siege in the recorded history of warfare.

Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis

Some 2.5 million were trapped in the city. When it was over, it is estimated that approximately one and half million had died – more than the total combined WWII casualties of both the Americans and the British. Quite a few of the deceased became food for the living (a fact not disclosed except in rumor until 2002). What caused the citizenry to persevere? The author posits two seemingly opposing motivations: (1) intense devotion – to country – “Mother Russia” – in general; to the city in particular; and to other family members; and (2) a deep hatred of the besieging German army. He later adds that it was not only nutrition that was essential to survival, but morale.

“In besieged Leningrad”. Leningradians on Nevsky Avenue during the siege.

In addition, there was the incentive for Leningraders to assert their humanity in the face of so many dehumanizing forces, set in motion first by Stalin, then by Hitler, each of whom attacked the citizens of Leningrad in ironically similar ways. Both of these psychopathic autocrats in effect issued a challenge to the people of Leningrad: will you do whatever it takes to survive by becoming like animals, or will you work together, trying to maintain normality, and continuing to aspire to greater things?

Here is where Shostakovich played such a great role, with the evocative music he continued to create in spite of all the hardships and barriers to doing so. At it’s heart, the author writes, this story is about “how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy . . . how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.’” [It should be noted that in Russia, literature, poetry, folklore, music, dance, and art play a much more central role in people’s lives than is perhaps the case in the West. ]

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, and always felt a deep love for that city. But the city was only a small part of a large country, and he grew up in a tumultuous era, when many Russians were disaffected with the tsar and the direction taken by the Russian Empire. They saw the West, but not Russia, moving toward modernity and more equality. Intellectuals were further inspired by the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. The first revolution had taken place in 1905, after which the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” But social unrest in Russia continued and grew. Astoundingly, as the author reports:

“In the first year and a half of Shostakovich’s life, roughly 4,500 government officials were injured or killed in assassination attempts by radicals. In his toddler years, the government recorded 20,000 terrorist acts across the empire, with more than 7,500 fatalities.”

Engagement in WWI brought more disruption and mass starvation to Russia. Two additional, more effective, revolutions in 1917 – one in February and one in October – resulted in the abdication of the tsar and the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, initially led by Vladimir Lenin, and later by Joseph Stalin. After the February Revolution, the country was in an uproar, and the eleven-year-old musical prodigy Shostakovich was inspired to compose a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” He got into the Petrograd Conservatory at the young age of 13, trying to focus on music while the rest of the country roiled in upheavals. St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, “was wild with frenzied experimentation,” not only in politics but in the arts, and Shostakovich became a part of it. The “Futurist” art movement reflected these “times of hope and fantasy.”

Lenin tried to capitalize on the importance of art to the Russian people by insisting that artists reflect the party position. Lenin wrote: “The state is an instrument of coercion . . . We desire to transform the state into an institution for enforcing the will of the people. We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of our workers.” Art, including music, was to be a part of this coercion.

Vladimir Lenin

After Lenin’s death, the name of Petrograd was changed to Leningrad – “Lenin’s City” – in honor of Lenin. Shostakovich was going through his own renaissance, having had his First Symphony performed in 1926, when he was only 19. He gained international fame after this. His Second Symphony in 1927 was written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Soviet machine as directed by Stalin repeatedly sabotaged itself. Experts on factory production were removed from their jobs because they were seen as being “enemies of the common working people.” During the first Five-Year Plan, more than four million in the Ukraine alone (six million in total) starved, as their food was taken from them to pay for foreign factory equipment. The “Great Terror” was launched in 1934 in reaction to the murder of Stalin’s friend Kirov, although Kirov’s murder was attributed to Stalin himself. About a million people perished. (Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates.)

Sergei Kirov

In 1935 Stalin announced children as young as 12 could be executed as adults, giving the secret police, or NKVD, even more leverage against their parents. In 1937, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. The author writes:

“According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

When the NKVD was finished purging others, Stalin had the NKVD purged. Stalin also turned against artists, and Shostakovich came under attack for “formalism,” or paying more attention to form than content. He was also accused of being “elitist” and “anti-people.” Anderson tells an astonishing story of how Shostakovich was saved from deportation to Siberia at best, or execution at worst, only when his would-be executioner got executed first!

Joseph Stalin, 1943

Most of the accused admitted “guilt” after extreme torture. Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government afterwards, were executed.

In a similar way from 1937-1938 some 60-70% of officers in the Soviet military were removed, including 90% of generals. While this may have made Stalin feel more secure about threats to his power, it proved to be exceedingly crippling with the onset of World War II. Soldiers were not any safer than officers. After the war began, Stalin had “blocking units” stationed behind Red Army lines to shoot any soldier who tried to run from the Germans. By war’s end, some 300,000 soldiers had been killed by their own army for attempted flight or desertion.

At the height of the Great Terror, roughly eight million had been arrested, and about two million died in camps from starvation, exposure, disease, and exhaustion: “It was a full assault on the nation by its own government.”

Leningraders endure the siege

Stalin’s purges had begun in Leningrad: “They were that city’s first siege.” Anderson’s detailed description of the second siege, during the Nazi encirclement, is jaw-dropping. He shares gripping stories of the fear and hunger that plagued the population. During the winter of 1941, the daily bread ration in Leningrad was only 125 grams per person. While there were arrests for murdering people in order to eat them, the consumption of those who were already dead was common and not as harshly sanctioned.

Shostakovich busied himself creating music for the troops to help build morale. As Anderson contends:

“These musical efforts were important. The Soviets were fighting an enemy who considered Slavic culture to be inferior, even subhuman. . . . Shostakovich wrote in anger: ‘Russian culture is immortal and never will the Nazis succeed in destroying it.’”

Shostakovich began the Seventh Symphony in 1941 after he and his immediate family had been evacuated to the countryside in Vyritsa, outside of Leningrad. He later remembered, “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music.”

In the winter of 1942, the second winter of the siege, Leningraders finally got a lifeline when Lake Ladoga, surrounding Leningrad from the east, froze over. Anderson provides a harrowing account of how trucks and sledges braved the ice to get refugees out and supplies in. While almost a million people got out of the city that way, tens of thousands died in the attempt, either by freezing while waiting, freezing on the way, or falling through the ice. (In the first two weeks alone, 157 trucks broke through the ice and sank.)

Horse-drawn sleighs were the first vehicles on the ice road. Starving horses had to pull goods and people along the treacherous snow-covered path. Not all managed to finish the distance.

When it came time to perform the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad that summer, approximately half the musicians in the local symphony were no longer alive. As one of the group observed: “The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.” Three more of the orchestral players died during rehearsals. Nevertheless, the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place on August 9, 1942. (This date was deliberately chosen since it was the date Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating the conquest of the city with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria.) The performance was broadcast to the city and reached radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.

Karl Eliasberg conducting the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad on August 9, 1942

[In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of that performance, the same orchestra came together to play the piece again. Only fourteen of them remained alive. Oboist Ksenias Matus remembered: “. . . that symphony has stayed with me the way it was that night. Afterwards, it was still a city under siege, but I knew it would live. Music is life, after all. What is life without music? This was the music that proved the city had come back to life after death.”]

The author explains that “one way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music. . . ” This was part of a long tradition in Russian music. Furthermore, the “miracle of music” is that it becomes whatever the individual listener needs it to be. Shostakovich’s symphonies, the author writes, “meant different things to different people, but somehow it meant them all intensely.” The theme of the Seventh Symphony could be seen as much anti-Stalin as anti-Hitler: “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience.”

Shostakovich meets original Leningrad conductor Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964

On January 14, 1944, the last of the German Army was finally forced away from Leningrad.

Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of all military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them, not the West. As Anderson observes, “This was a considerable battlefield contribution made through a very considerable sacrifice.” Part of the goal of the Russians in prioritizing the publication of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the West was “to convince the Americans that they were not the rude, cold Communists of capitalist nightmare,” and “to stir up American sympathies” in order to increase the likelihood of American aid to the Soviets during the war. Thus, this book begins at the end of the story, in June, 1942, with the top-priority flight of the music’s score across several continents during wartime conditions to reach the United States. It was the best argument the Soviets had to offer.

2017 photo of grave of Shostakovich at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetary, with an abundance of fresh flowers

Note: This book contains a large selection of photos.

Evaluation: While the portions of the book on the life of Shostakovich weren’t as interesting to me as the war coverage, I consider the detailed account of the Siege of Leningrad to be essential reading for students of WWII.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2015)
YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2016)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2016)

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Review of “As You Wish” by Chelsea Sedoti

This book centers around one central theme: “be careful what you wish for.” The citizens of Madison, Nevada, a small isolated desert town, have a secret: when you reach your 18th birthday, you enter a magical cave, and are granted a wish. The wish can bring you beauty or money or a skill, but there are some restrictions, such as the fact that nothing you wish for can have any impact outside of the town, in order for this magical power to stay secret.

In addition, wishes are granted with extreme specificity and permanent repercussions, so that wording is critical, with the magic wish granter (whoever or whatever it is) being very talented at parsing sentences. Eldon, our main protagonist who is about to have his 18th birthday, knows, for example, that his mother wished for his father to love her, but ended up getting over him relatively fast, especially when he became an uncritical worshipper of her. Now they are stuck together. Similar stories of wishes that had a negative backlash are interspersed throughout the book in a somewhat irritating format reminiscent of the movie “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

As the day of his wish approaches, Eldon agonizes over what to wish. He faces intense pressure from his mother to wish for money to pay for medical care for his sister Ebba, who is brain-dead after an accident for which Eldon irrationally feels guilty.

Eldon also agonizes because he used to be the most popular and handsome and talented in his high school class, but as others got their wishes to be popular and handsome and talented, he is just ordinary, and doesn’t like it. Between whining about that and obsessing over Ebba, that is pretty much the core of the “action.”

Other topics are thrown in but only explored superficially, including belief in God versus belief in magic, gender preference and the fear and social judgment that might accompany non-hetero choices, the ability (or not) of members of the opposite sex to have friendships, the value of a life and the right to choose to live it or not, and even sex trafficking. None of these, however, rise above the level of a side-note; Eldon’s self-absorbed angst remains front and center.

At the end, Eldon claims to have grown up, but it isn’t convincing, and none of the other questions raised by the story have been resolved.

Evaluation: Although the premise was enticing, the book itself was quite unsatisfying. The writing seemed derivative and puerile at times, and so did the plot. Frankly, I had a hard time finishing it.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by by Sourcebooks Fire, 2018

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Review of “A Legacy of Spies” by John le Carré

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In a series of eight previous books, John le Carré created a world of spies who fought the Cold War with grit, determination, an occasional lapse of morals, and a genuine regret for those lapses. He also created a wonderful cast of characters, most especially George Smiley, but quite a few others who populate Britain’s “Circus,” the Directorate of Military Intelligence or MI6, analogous to the U.S. CIA. Le Carré’s ninth book in the series, A Legacy of Spies, is no disappointment.

Le Carré’s reputation was made with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in 1963. This latest book is something of a retelling of the earlier work, but from the point of view of Peter Guillam, Smiley’s faithful assistant. In fact, the second book is set several decades later than The Spy. The British government is being sued by the descendants of the agents who were sent to their deaths in the earlier book. Guillam is a reluctant witness to the events that are the basis of the lawsuit. Le Carré cleverly lets Guillam tell the reader what he says to attorneys for the plaintiffs and for the government, but he often does not tell the truth.

George Smiley appears only briefly, but his reputation and aura linger in the background throughout the story. Perhaps Smiley should not play too important a role because if the author were entirely consistent with his earlier works Smiley would be about 113 years old!

Evaluation: Le Carré is a master of English prose, and even though this is a spy novel, it is also excellent literature.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version, read by Tom Hollander, who does an excellent job of changing his voice, delivery, and accent as he assumes the roles of different characters.

Published unabridged on 7 compact discs (8 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Radio Publishing Group, 2007

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Kid Lit Review of “Red Cloud: A Lakota Story of War and Surrender” by S. D. Nelson

This biography serves as a companion book to Nelson’s previous biography, Sitting Bull: Lakota Warrior and Defender of His People. It is written in the imagined voice of Red Cloud, born in 1821, who was a member of the Oglala tribe – one of seven Lakota tribes, known by non-Natives as the Sioux.

Red Cloud’s people were warriors who had fought against other tribes to establish their homeland in the Black Hills. But then “strange people with pale skin came up the rivers into our country.” At first, the whites (called wasichus by the Lakota) just wanted to trade.

The traders were followed by throngs of whites headed to California in search of gold. They in turn were followed by the U.S. Army, sent west to protect settlers crossing Lakota lands. As the author writes in Red Cloud’s voice:

“It became clear to me and other Lakota that the wasichus planned to devour the land and conquer us.”

Nelson summarizes the conflicts between the U.S. Government and the Native Americans, many of which arose over deceitful manipulation and broken promises by the U.S. He reminds readers, inter alia, of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when the U.S. Army led a force of 700 against a sleeping Cheyenne village in Colorado and gunned down two hundred men, women, and children. He writes:

“Afterward, they went on to Denver in triumph, brandishing the scalps, severed fingers, and other body parts of the slain innocents.”

[Nelson omits details of rape and of the exact and gruesome nature of body parts gathered for “souvenirs.”]

Sand Creek served to unite the Plains Indians more than any other event. Many looked to Red Cloud as the war chief. He ordered a series of raids in an attempt “to push the intruders out of our country once and for all!”

The U.S. Army came back trying to negotiate another treaty, bringing gifts and whiskey, which seduced some of the Native Americans who signed the papers. But as with previous treaties “negotiated” in the same bad faith, “those leaders who signed did not represent the desire of all our people.” Red Cloud and the Oglala resolved to fight. Red Cloud was recorded as saying:

“The riches that we have in this world . . . we cannot take with us to the next world. I wish to know why commissioners are sent out to us who do nothing but rob us and get the riches of this world away from us?”

It was difficult, however, for the Native Americans to prevail over the might and resources of the U.S. Army, led in the West by William Tecumseh Sherman, who stated that Indians were “the enemies of our race and of our civilization,” and vowing in 1866 that “We must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women, and children.”

A significant battle on December 21, 1866 pitted the U.S. Army against 2,000 Native warriors. Eighty-one army soldiers died and the battle was considered a victory for the Lakota and Cheyenne. But Red Cloud knew that their triumphs would be few and far-between: they were outnumbered and outgunned. In addition, Sherman initiated a policy of killing off the buffalo to deprive Native Americans of food and clothing. Red Cloud saw it was time to surrender and accept rations from the U.S. Government, saying “We must think of the women and children and that it is very bad for them. So we must make peace.”

Red Cloud

A new treaty in 1868 granted the Black Hills to the Sioux (albeit inside a reservation), but of course, even that turned out to be temporary when whites discovered gold in the Black Hills. In 1876 U.S. Army General George Crook deposed Red Cloud and appointed a more conciliatory head chief and negotiator for the Lakota Sioux, and confiscated the Black Hills.

Red Cloud died in 1909 and is buried on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

The illustrations, by the author, are done in ink and colored pencil in the style called Ledger Book Art. When Natives were forced onto reservations, the only paper they could get was in the form of bound ledger books no longer of use to the white man. The Plains Indians used the books to create the art they previously painted on buffalo robes, tipis, etc. The bound books of lined paper were turned into beautiful testimonials to Native life and memory.

There are also a number of reproductions of historical photos included in the book. Historical quotes are included periodically, offset from the text.

At the back of the book, there is an extensively annotated time line, Author’s Note, a select bibliography, and index.

Evaluation: This excellent combination of biography and history tells a riveting and tragic story. Such books as these can enhance the ability of young people to see the plight of others from different races and religions, and would make an invaluable addition to any classroom. (The intended audience is ages 8-12, but I myself found it to read like a page-turner.) Telling the story in the voice of Red Cloud helped add immediacy and emotional heft to the story.

The book also serves as a correction to the omission from contemporary history of the mass murders of Native Americans by the American Government.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017

Note: For more information about what happened to Native Americans that is also told in the form of ledger art, you may want to check out the stunning book The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle by Gay Matthaei and Jewel Grutman. (See my review, here, for a preview of what the book is about, and a look at some of the stunning artwork by Adam Cvijanovic.) The hand-calligraphed text purports to be a journal kept by Thomas Blue Eagle, a fictitious boy from the Sioux tribe who was sent to the Carlisle Indian School at the end of the 19th Century.

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