Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 8: Symphony for the City of the Dead vs X: A Novel


JUDGE – Pamela S. Turner

Symphony for the
City of the Dead
by M.T. Anderson
Candlewick Press
X: A Novel

by Ilyasah Shabazz & Kekla Magoon
Candlewick Press

On one hand, I’m grateful I didn’t draw magical-realism-versus-poetry or graphic-novel-versus-something-not-graphic-novel. On the other hand, one of these books is about Russian history. Why not just hook myself up to an IV of liquid depression?

This match-up pits a historical/biographical work of nonfiction about Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich against a historical/biographical novel about African-American human rights activist Malcolm X. A nervous mama’s boy in Harry Potter glasses compared to a brash youth in a rakish fedora. A particularly Russian tsunami of oppression that washes away millions versus a particularly American current of oppression that quietly sucks African-Americans underwater while the majority floats by in willful ignorance. The redeeming passion of a nation for its music compared to the redeeming brilliance of a young man with a heart on fire.

First: to Russia. I didn’t expect a hefty work of nonfiction like Symphony for the City of the Dead  to come from novelist M.T. Anderson. I probably should have, since his range as a writer is positively freakish. Symphony opens with the dramatic airlift of the score of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony from Russia to the west. The narrative then moves backward to trace the life of Shostakovich, who is born in Leningrad in 1909 and grows up during the Russian Revolution. After an initial artistic flowering, everything goes bad (this is Russian history, after all). Random torture and killings become the norm. As Anderson beautifully describes, Shostakovich begins writing music “for a child huddled in the ruins, clutching his knees after something terrible has passed by, hoping that if he looks up, he will find it has stalked onward–but certain that, in fact, it stands over him, waiting to pounce.”

As if Stalin’s purges weren’t horror enough, World War II arrives and Leningrad is blockaded by the Nazis. Shostakovich begins composing his Leningrad Symphony as bombs fall in the background. Recognizing the symbolic importance of the work, the Russian government evacuates the Shostakovich so he can finish in relative safety.  Meanwhile, Leningrad deteriorates into a cannibalistic nightmare that resembles The Walking Dead, except that this is Russia. The weather is WAY worse.

When Shostakovich’s masterpiece is finished, the score is smuggled back into Leningrad in an attempt to bring hope to people trapped in a circle of hell so low even Dante wouldn’t have touristed. Anderson’s descriptions of half-dead musicians struggling to practice in the wretched cold is heartbreaking. Yet Shostakovich’s masterpiece is performed, proof of music’s ability to “comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you–you are not alone.'” Symphony forces me to admit that Russian history does indeed have its uplifting moments.

I’m impressed that Anderson occasionally comments on the trustworthiness of his sources, and he does this within the main text rather than relegating the discussion to the back matter. And I’m charmed by the appearance of the verb “ensorcelled”. Every text for older readers should have at least one word that inspires them to visit a dictionary.

And now: back to the U.S.A.  X: A Novel gets off to a fast start by having the best cover in this BoB competition. The striking and inventive design perfectly captures the novel’s setting and the spirit of its main character.

In X: A Novel co-authors Ilyasah Shabazz (Malcolm X’s daughter) and Kekla Magoon re-create the life of Malcolm X from age fifteen to twenty-three. Despite being a gifted student and a natural leader (he’s elected class president at his all-white high school), Malcolm’s ambition to become a lawyer is cruelly shattered by his favorite teacher. “Be as good as you want in the classroom,” says the teacher, “But out those doors, you’re just a nigger.” As Malcolm narrates, “I’d always been colored, but now I saw the walls that came along with it. Thick and white and holding me in place.”

In deftly-crafted flashbacks, we learn that when Malcolm was six his father was murdered, probably by members of a group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. His mother struggles to keep her large family together but eventually most of the children are sent to foster homes. Malcolm moves first to Boston to live with a half-sister and eventually to Harlem. As Malcolm grows older he loses faith in his father, who taught him to chant a quote of Marcus Garvey’s: “Up,  up  you mighty race. You can accomplish what you will.” But Malcolm decides that the stories his father buried in him are lies, as Shabazz and Magoon express so evocatively: “Pulling them out hurt more than anything, like yanking myself up by the roots.”

Not surprisingly, the  contradiction between Malcolm’s abilities–he’s a volcano of intelligence and ambition–and his cruelly limited opportunities leads him into the underground economy. White society has rejected him; why should he play by its rules? Eventually, inevitably, self-affirmation and self-destruction cross paths. Malcolm is arrested and sent to jail for a burglary spree; at his trial his white girlfriend (and partner in crime) testifies against him.  Ironically, jail provides a revelation: “Facing the old man–in my mind at least–has made me realize something. I don’t want to fight Papa any longer, to forget him. I want to remember. I  want to come home.”

Many small, poignant details show Malcolm’s struggle for identity and self-respect within a racist society — straightening his hair, using the word “slave” to mean “job”, resisting (for a time) those who espouse his father’s views.  Shabazz and Magoon end their novel on the perfect note: the triumphant moment when “Malcolm Little” affirms his identity as “Malcolm X.”

My one quibble with X: A Novel is that Malcolm’s time in prison accounts for a mere 27 pages of a 348-page book. Given that prison was a transformative period in Malcolm’s life, this section felt too compressed and the description of Malcolm’s intellectual journey too vague.  I wanted to know much more about his conversion to Islam. How and why did that religion speak to him? By what internal alchemy did he mold Islam and his father’s beliefs into his own philosophy?  After spending so much illuminating time in Malcolm’s head, I wanted to stay longer and understand more deeply before letting him go.

In the end, of course, there can only be one winner. So I’m choosing the one that most ensorcelled me: Symphony for the City of the Dead.

— Pamela S. Turner

I appreciate Turner’s humor, even when attached to an “IV of liquid depression.” Symphony certainly captivates the reader with its tragedy and desperate hope, that of a nation and an artist. The sheer scope of Anderson’s research and the beauty of his writing simply blew me away. For me, it’s one of the best books in this competition, and I’m really glad it won – but really, Symphony vs. Nimona in the second round? What cruel gods (Battle Commanders) would condone such a travesty? Notwithstanding Symphony’s brilliance, I think Turner’s right in wanting something more from X. I do like getting inside young Malcolm’s head and seeing his “hustle,” daring, and strength. But I don’t really perceive a transformation from a boy who loses himself in his hustle to a man who hustles for freedom. Still, X definitely raises awareness among kids. I’d hope that young readers can move on to a detailed biography of X and a history of black militancy, as I will, knowing very little about both Malcolm X. Most kids, however, won’t read further, and I don’t think X provides a full enough picture of the civil rights giant.

– Kid Commentator RGN

Battle Commander (gravatar)




  1. Paige Ysteboe says

    I agree completely with RGN’s opinion. At the end of X, I wanted to come out liking him and understanding his choices but I just finished thinking that he was someone who, although he had many, many bad things happen to him, he always knew what the better choices were and instead chose the path that led him to prison. I was glad when the book was over.

    Symphony for the City of the Dead took me a lot longer to read because so many of the events were so terrible that I had to take breaks. I knew that Stalin was a horrible person, but I never understood the extent of it. I learned so much about 20th century Russia from it. If The Hired Girl can’t make it back from the dead, this is the book that I hope goes all the way.

  2. When I finished X I decided that this must be the first in a planned series. I agree with Kid Commentator that young readers having this as their first introduction to Malcolm X are left with too little and nothing that would lead them to know the life that came after.
    I have Symphony winning the whole thing so I was very relieved it won this battle. It is a book I cannot stop talking about. I learned so much and was moved by the story.

  3. Other Meredith says

    I’m in the middle (or the beginning if we’re being honest) of Symphony for the City of the Dead right now, and this is making me both look forward to reading it and dread it a lot at the same time. I haven’t read X yet.

  4. Well I’m 7/8 so for this year. My only losing pick is Most Dangerous. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next round.

  5. I was surprised by how quickly I read Symphony of the Dead. Normally it takes me weeks or even months to get through a nonfiction book (while I read some fiction on the side) but I read this one in a weekend. I shouldn’t be surprised that it had the pacing of a fiction dystopian novel considering the author and the content but I was completely engrossed/horrified. The writing is wonderful as well and contains so many beautiful passages. I’m glad that Judge Turner mentioned the Harry Potter glasses. Every time I saw a picture of Shostakovich I though of Harry Potter. If a movie gets made about his life my vote is for Daniel Radcliffe to play him!

  6. Well thanks guys, just what I need, MOHR BOOKS TO READ. This review has taken me to the bookstore.

  7. I still say the only reason Symphony for the City of the Dead isn’t marketed to “old” adults is that it’s super interesting and has lots of pictures! He certainly doesn’t pull any punches as to the material covered. This book is outstanding, if not exactly cheery.

Speak Your Mind