symphony for the city of the deadBiographies or any sort of nonfiction relating to the siege of Leningrad that occurred amidst World War II can become depressing to read because of the many, many atrocities committed and the vast number of people who died. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson is the opposite of the traditional heavy nonfiction. Anderson breaks up his story of Shostakovich and the evolution of Leningrad by dropping in back-and-white historical photographs that allow readers to put a face to a name. This inclusion breaks up the chaos and destruction happening within his descriptions of Stalin’s purges and the eventual siege of Leningrad by bringing in pictures and maps to connect the history presented with an actual physical place and actual people. It may seem easy for people to ignore and write off atrocities committed, but I find that when authors choose to add pictures into their books, the subject matter becomes even more real and life-changing.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad really brought to life for me the importance of art and culture to a nation and its citizens, both in a negative and a positive light. Anderson tells readers the story of Stalin and his purges: how he rid the country of top military officials, science experts, and a wide variety of other people and effectively set his country up for more widespread disaster when Hitler invaded and he had no experts to ask for advice. This book focuses on art and culture, specifically music and Dmitri Shostakovich. This Russian composer escaped death at the hands of Stalin and instead found himself navigating the tricky tight-rope of composing the music that Stalin finds appropriate while still staying true to himself. Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is the one that he writes for Leningrad, “The City of the Dead,” and this book effectively sets the stage for discovering Shostakovaich’s mindset around that time and also the necessary cultural and political framework that he was up against. Highly recommended!

Check out the following fiction and nonfiction books for more information about the siege of Leningrad and related topics!

the madonnas of leningradcity of thievesleningrad siege and symphonyinferno the world at warstalin the court of the red tsarabsolute war

bomb2July 16, 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the Trinity Test. What’s the Trinity Test? This was the first successful test of the atom bomb at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. This site was flat and located relatively close to Los Alamos where the bombs were designed and produced. This section of land was given the code-name “Trinity” and thus July 16, 1945 was known as the Trinity Test. (Interesting fact: The Trinity Test Site is open twice a year for visitors, once in April and once in October. This is the article discussing this year’s visits. )

The Manhattan Project was a top-secret research and development project during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. President Roosevelt signed the order for the initial research committee in 1942 which eventually went through many iterations to become the core Manhattan Project group. Major General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the project from 1942 to 1946 and was the person who brought on Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist who was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the site that designed the actual bombs.

Secret facilities were popping up all over the country with the express purpose of manufacturing different parts of the bombs, for researching different aspects, and for trying out different methods. Everything was top-secret. Oppenheimer recruited the top scientists in their fields without being able to tell them what exactly they would be working on, except that it had a possibility of helping them end the war.

With so little information to go off of, many scientists packed up their families to move to Los Alamos, where they lived and worked in isolation, not even able to discuss their work within their own families. Everything was kept secret and compartmentalized.


This blog is just an introduction to the Trinity Test and the Manhattan Project. If the description above interested you, check out the resources below.

trinityTrinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm gives a detailed history, not just on the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Test, but the very beginning of atom research, in laboratories of nineteenth-century Europe all the way to the Trinity Test.

This graphic novel goes into incredible detail about all the people involved in the history of the atom and its discovery. While most histories of the atomic bomb tend to focus on and use more scientific terms, Fetter-Vorm is able to include pictures and drawings through the graphic novel format that allow for a better conceptual understanding of a nuclear reaction and how atoms split. Readers are transported into the labs and lives of Major General Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the other brilliant scientists who brought to life atomic bombs and ushered in a new era of warfare.

After the successful test of the atomic bomb, Fetter-Vorm then goes on to illustrate the decisions behind the dropping of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This graphic novel is an excellent depiction of what life was like for those directly and indirectly involved in the making of the first atomic bomb.


manhattan season1What initially reminded me of the Trinity Test’s anniversary was when I started watching season one of Manhattan. This television series follows the many scientists as they work to build the world’s first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the struggles that their families go through moving to the middle of nowhere, being cut off from everyone outside the community, and being kept in the dark about what their family members are doing.

This show really hooked me because in addition to all the science and descriptions of the different models they were building, it also deals with the bureaucracy of this governmental entity, how they have to finagle getting supplies since where they are is only a P.O. Box and not an actual address, and how secrets and gossip run rampant through the entire community, fueling the suspicions that multiple people are spies and that others are committing treason. Tensions run high, both between the individual families and the two different science camps, each competing against the other to have the first successful atomic bomb design and then test.

Check out this television show to gain a better understanding of the complex secrecy of the Manhattan Project and how the segmentation of their lives, in addition to bringing immense tension, in the end allowed work to secretly flourish and bring together an explosive ending.

nightingaleAfter their mother dies and their father virtually abandons them, Vianne and Isabelle must learn to forge their own way. Vianne marries and starts a family in an idyllic country setting outside of Paris while Isabelle becomes rebellious, expelled from one boarding school after another. When the Germans occupy Paris in 1939, Isabelle is sent to live with her sister but the horrifying experiences of escaping with other refugees opens Isabelle’s eyes to the pain and suffering the war will bring.

The changes brought by the Germans are inexorable – the men are sent away to prison camps, food is rationed, soldiers are billeted in private homes, valuables ruthlessly taken, Jews and other “subversives” are persecuted then transferred to prison camps. Vianne, in the countryside, desperately walks a line between loyalty to her friends and neighbors while remaining unseen by the occupying soldiers. Isabelle joins the French Underground and risks her life again and again in an effort to make a difference. Their stories intertwine as they struggle to survive and protect those they love.

There are a lot – a lot – of books about World War II both fiction and non-fiction. It’s one of the most popular subject areas at the library. And while most of us learned the basic facts about the war from school and history books – dates, countries, famous battles – the stories of what it was like to actually live through the war are slowly disappearing as that generation ages and passes away. The Nightingale may be a dramatic, fictional account of living in war torn France, but the messages it sends are very real – remember for those that no longer can. What they did to survive, to change the course of events, whether big or small, mattered. We should not forget.

ghost soldiersA tense, powerful, grand account of one of the most daring exploits of World War II.

On January 28, 1945, 121 hand-selected troops from the elite U.S. Army 6th Ranger Battalion slipped behind enemy lines in the Philippines. Their mission: March thirty miles in an attempt to rescue 513 American and British POWs who had spent three years in a surreally hellish camp near the city of Cabanatuan. The prisoners included the last survivors of the Bataan Death March left in the camp, and their extraordinary will to live might soon count for nothing – elsewhere in the Philippines, the Japanese Army had already executed American prisoners as it retreated from the advancing U.S. Army. As the Rangers stealthily moved through enemy-occupied territory, they learned that Cabanatuan had become a major transshipment point for the Japanese retreat, and instead of facing the few dozen prison guards, they could possibly confront as many as 8,000 battle-hardened enemy troops.

Hampton Sides’s vivid minute-by-minute narration of the raid and his chronicle of the prisoners’ wrenching experiences are masterful. But Ghost Soldiers is far more than a thrilling battle saga. Sides explores the mystery of human behavior under extreme duress – the resilience of the prisoners, who defied the Japanese authorities even as they endured starvation, tropical diseases, and unspeakable tortures; the violent cultural clashes with Japanese guards and soldiers steeped in the warrior ethic of Bushido; the remarkable heroism of the Rangers and Filipino guerrillas; the complex motivations of the U.S. high command, some of whom could justly be charged with abandoning the men of Bataan in 1942; and the nearly suicidal bravado of several spies, including priests and a cabaret owner, who risked their lives to help the prisoners during their long ordeal.

At once a gripping depiction of men at war and a compelling story of redemption, Ghost Soldiers joins such landmark books as Flags of Our Fathers , The Greatest Generation , and The Rape of Nanking in preserving the legacy of World War II for future generations. (description from publisher)

Ghost Soldiers is also available for check out as a free ebook through the RiverShare Digital Library.

wind is not a riverA gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife – separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil – fight to reunite in Alaska’s starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands.

Following the death of his younger brother in Europe, journalist John Easley is determined to find meaning in his loss, to document some part of the growing war that claimed his own flesh and blood. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Helen, after an argument they both regret, he heads north from Seattle to investigate the Japanese invasion of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government. While John is accompanying a crew on a bombing run, his plane is shot down over the island of Attu. He survives only to find himself exposed to a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, known as “the Birthplace of Winds.” There, John must battle the elements, starvation, and his own remorse while evading discovery by the Japanese.

Alone in their home three thousand miles to the south, Helen struggles with the burden of her husband’s disappearance. Caught in extraordinary circumstances, in this new world of the missing, she is forced to reimagine who she is – and what she is capable of doing. Somehow, she must find John and bring him home, a quest that takes her into the farthest reaches of the war, beyond the safety of everything she knows. A powerful, richly atmospheric story of life and death, commitment and sacrifice, The Wind Is Not a River illuminates the fragility of life and the fierce power of love. (description from publisher)

I am one of those people who understands history through art. Partly for the classic idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but also because the concept of “this artist made this during this time while these things were happening” just somehow clicks with me. To me, art IS history, so I am always a bit baffled when I hear other people snicker or gripe at stories that come out about people who make heroic efforts to save a piece of artwork as if the idea that a person would put themselves in danger to save history is somehow silly. I am also one of those people who understands things by relating them to movies made in the 1980’s. And thanks to the Back to the Future Trilogy, those of us living in the twenty-first century should all now be fully aware of how saving history will also save our future.

But alas, earwax! The Back to the Future Trilogy did not exist during World War II! Can you imagine telling a Superior Officer in the military (who has no IDEA what Jan Van Eyck painted, nor what song Marty McFly sang after his parents’ first kiss) that he needs to set free a recently captured group of German Soldiers because a German Monk told you that they are the only men trained to keep a historical church from catching on fire from the bombs the Allies are still blasting at the city? Yeah, he may not take it that well…

Luckily, the small group of men and women assigned to the MFAA, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, understood the importance of their job even when others did not, and were able to save the history (and thus, the culture, spirit and future) of Europe from total destruction. Their story, after being forgotten for many years, is finally receiving worldwide attention thanks to the wonderful book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), The Monuments Men : Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and the new movie based on Edsel’s book, Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.

Led by George Stout, an art conservation pioneer from Iowa (and who Clooney based his fictional film character on–Learn more about George Stout here: http://bit.ly/MeLsKn), the MFAA members managed to protect historical world sites from unnecessary bombings, repair sites damaged due to necessary bombings, protect priceless cultural items from looting by both the Nazis and Allies, and track down and conduct emergency conservation efforts on millions of items stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful countries and owners, including those owned by Germany. And here is the super amazing part, although the MFAA would eventually include hundreds of members (still a very small amount compared to the millions who served during WWII), the Monuments Men numbered UNDER TEN MEMBERS during their most critical period to save all of the art in NORTHERN EUROPE (and unlike in the film, they were mostly working ALONE). As the brilliant Dr. Emmett Brown would say, “Great Scott!”

Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men, as well as his companion books and the related documentary, The Rape of Europa, are must-sees for those interested in Art History, World History and Military History as well as anyone who likes a good treasure hunt around Europe.

~~Sigh~~ A windswept island, daring escapes from Nazis, British country estates, dancing with soldiers in London, writing Food Ministry brochures extolling the values of carrots to hungry British citizens and a funny little sister who bullies a young Princess Elizabeth at a aristocratic Girl Guides Meeting. The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper (a series of three lovely books: A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and The FitzOsbornes at War) are those kind of books where the narrator feels so natural, so familiar that I often forget that the stories in the book didn’t actually happen to me. Sadly, the memories are not all pleasant. These books are about a teenager’s family evolving and trying to survive World War II, all with the weight of a small country on their shoulders. I had originally written “evolving and surviving World War II,” until I remembered the pages and pages of sobbing while reading The FizOsbornes at War. Don’t worry, there is a wonderful ending.

Montmaray is a (fictional) tiny island monarchy between England and Spain whose already small population was decimated during World War I, and there are only a few village families left living in the shadow of a romantic, crumbling castle when 16 year old Sophie begins keeping her journal in 1936. Oh yes, ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLE. Sophie is actually Princess Sophie of the FitzOsborne Royal Family– she is one of three Princesses of Montmaray (the others being her stunning, intellectual cousin, Princess Veronica, and her younger tomboy sister, Princess Henry) and also the younger sister of the future King of Montmaray, charming Prince Toby FitzOsborne. However, Sophie’s royal title does not correspond to a royal lifestyle, at least not while she is living on a remote island in a stripped bare castle under the rule of her mentally ill uncle. Their wealthy aunt is forever trying to get the girls to move away from Montmaray and become a part of British Society, but their loyalty to Montmaray keeps them grasping to its shores until they have no choice but to fall into the lap of luxury. And then, of course, the war begins and Sophie’s home seems lost forever.

It is no secret among people who know me that my favorite book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (I have written about it on the blog here and compared it to another fabulous book, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, here, and the Montmaray Journals shares much in common with Dodie Smith’s fantastic novel (which is pretty much the highest praise I will give a book!). Both stories are told in thoughtfully-written diary entries by quiet teenage girls in 1930’s and whose lives seem both beautifully ordinary and bohemian at the same time. Both girls fall in love with men named Simon. Both feel inferior to their prettier, outgoing relations. And yes, both live in ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLES!

P.S. I will just say, that for those of you who thought the end of I Capture the Castle was not a happy one (and I disagree with that! but now is not the place to discuss…), you will be very satisfied with the ending Sophie chooses for herself.

code name verityThe less said about the plot of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, the better. “Careless talk costs lives,” say our heroines, and in a tightly plotted and breathlessly suspenseful book like this, you won’t doubt it. Verity is a prisoner of the Gestapo in occupied France, writing out her confession. Maddie, a young woman pilot, is a part of that confession. As Verity writes, she confronts and examines her beliefs and her fears.

And that’s about all I can tell you.

I am not (usually) a lover of war stories or YA novels, but this one is just too good to miss. The characters are vivid, the plotting is superb, and the immersion in wartime Europe is complete. I loved reading about women in war – active, brave, brilliant women – instead of men. It’s more than a story of torture and war and espionage: it’s about life-changing friendship, love, incredible bravery, and the difficult choices we face (whether our lives are ordinary or extraordinary). Everything about this book was refreshing, surprising, exhilarating, and beautiful (even when it was terrifying). I wanted to reread it as soon as I turned the last page!

Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s co-authored epistolary novel has a very long title: Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two young ladies of quality regarding various magical scandals in London and the country. Please don’t judge it by this wordy title or by its tragically hideous cover. It’s great!

It’s Regency England, magic is real, and cousins Cecelia (Cecy) and Kate correspond over the course of a summer, unraveling alone and together the mystery surrounding the titular enchanted chocolate pot and the “Mysterious Marquis.” The action is very exciting, the letters brisk and forthcoming, the characters sympathetic, the romance delightful, the magic subtle and delectably menacing. It’s a delight – the only complaint I can offer to temper my enthusiasm is that Cecy and Kate are virtually indistinguishable. I cannot recall a single difference between them, whether in temperament, opinion, age, physical appearance, or letter-writing style. The only difference between them is that Kate is in London and Cecy in the country; or did I switch that around? I’ll have to look back at the letters to check.

By sheer good luck, my reading of this novel overlapped with my listening to the also epistolary, also long-titled, also co-authored, and also excellent The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This was an enormous hit with book clubs a couple of years ago, but if you missed out on it then, treat your ears to this audiobook right away! It has become my standard audio fiction recommendation, even surpassing At Home and Twenties Girl. Juliet Ashton corresponds with and befriends the people of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel which was occupied for 5 years by the Germans during World War II. Each character’s letters are read by a different voice actor, and the result is entirely winning. It’s a lovely book read by lovely people, and it’s about resilience and friendship and bravery and the love of books. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Death in the City of Light is the gripping, true story of a brutal serial killer who unleashed his own reign of terror in Nazi-Occupied Paris. As decapitated heads and dismembered body parts surfaced in the Seine, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu was tasked with tracking down the elusive murderer in a twilight world of Gestapo, gangsters, resistance fighters, pimps, prostitutes, spies, and other shadowy figures of the Parisian underworld.

The main suspect was Dr. Marcel Petiot, a handsome, charming physician with remarkable charisma.  He was the “People’s Doctor,” known for his many acts of kindness and generosity, not least in providing free medical care for the poor.  Petiot, however, would soon be charged with 27 murders, though authorities suspected the total may have been as many as 150. Who was being slaughtered, and why?  Was Petiot a sexual sadist, as the press suggested, killing for thrills?  Was he allied with the Gestapo, or, on the contrary, the French Resistance?  Or did he work for no one other than himself?  Trying to solve the many mysteries of the case, Massu would unravel a plot of unspeakable deviousness.

Death in the City of Light is a brilliant evocation of Nazi-Occupied Paris and a harrowing exploration of murder, betrayal, and evil of staggering proportions. (description from publisher)