Thursday, June 9, 2016

Biography is NOT my genre: a review of three biographies

Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had integrity. Metaxes has written his biography to reflect that integrity.  As most critics have said, this is a definitive biography.  Here comes my personal prejudice.  I just don’t like biographies that detail the historical context and then afterward talk about the person.  I don’t want a 50-year history of Germany.  I just want to know about the major events in a person’s life.  Therefore, I skimmed through the first half of the book because I was interested in Bonhoeffer’s war activity. However, as I skimmed through the pages, I began to see a connection between Bonhoeffer as a theologian and his personal choices.  It was interesting to learn just how well-educated, well-connected and well-respected he was as an intellectual.  I was not aware of the extent of his personal struggles to encounter grace, to conquer depression, to live boldly and act boldly in an evil world.  I didn’t realize how much his spirituality had meant to him.  His decisions to first, support the Jewish people, and later to become involved in the German counter-intelligence movement ran deeply, and he acted with great conviction that what he was doing would further the kingdom of God here on this planet we’ve been given.  When I had this epiphany, the book and the events to which Metaxes lent narrative came together. My first thought was that this book is a must-read for anyone interested in theology and/or authentic Christian living. My second recommendation would be for historians who study Germany between the wars.  The lives of the upper-middle class and German aristocracy led by families such as the Bonhoeffers are not told often enough. The feelings of the German people as a whole are often overshadowed by Hitler’s evil deeds.  It is somehow comforting to know that many thousands of Germans were not satisfied and did not welcome him as the leader of their country. It’s comforting that many of them were pro-active from the inside in trying to stage a coup. The extent Bonhoeffer’s personal involvement in Valkyrie will never be known, but since he was implicated and killed for it, I’m sure there are many brave deeds and sacrifices the reader will never know.  I would not have come to this opinion had I not read this book. Knowing Bonhoeffer was ready to die for his convictions still doesn’t make up for the earthly contributions he could have made to Christianity had he lived. I don’t think he would like to be idolized or made a martyr by those he left behind.  I think his legacy would be for each of us to work out the gift of salvation on earth with genuine acts of devotion and compassion.

Awards and Reviews

''In Hitler's Germany, a Lutheran pastor chooses resistance and pays with his life. . . Eric Metaxas tells Bonhoeffer's story with passion and theological sophistication, often challenging revisionist accounts that make Bonhoeffer out to be a 'humanist' or ethicist for whom religious doctrine was easily disposable. . . Metaxas reminds us that there are forms of religion -- respectable, domesticated, timid -- that may end up doing the devil's work for him.” --Wall Street Journal

''In this weighty, riveting analysis of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Metaxas offers a comprehensive review of one of history's darkest eras, along with a fascinating exploration of the familial, cultural, and religious influences that formed one of the world's greatest contemporary theologians. . . . Abundant source documentation brings to life the personalities and experiences that shaped Bonhoeffer . . . Insightful and illuminating, this tome makes a powerful contribution to biography, history, and theology.'' --Publishers Weekly

''A welcome new biography of one of the twentieth century's leading lights. Metaxas magnificently captures the life of theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who 'thought it the plain duty of the Christian-and the privilege and honor-to suffer with those who suffered.'  Metaxas rightly focuses on his subject's life, not his theology, though readers will learn plenty about his theology as well. The author makes liberal use of primary sources, which bring Bonhoeffer and other characters to vivid life.” --Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Sheinkin, Steve. Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2015.

Of the historical biographies I've been reading lately, this one is the best.  The writing is direct and clear, and the focus is on the events of Ellsberg's life that specifically led up to his involvement in the leaking of the Pentagon papers. Of course, everyone has heard of Watergate, but I did not know exactly what had prompted that investigation.  I had no idea it was related to the Pentagon Papers.  It was a fascinating story, and it does read a bit like a spy novel because there was actually real spying going on (duh!) The story is told in a way that reminds the reader of the government's accountability to the people as well as the protection of First Amendment rights.  The book is biased toward the liberal side of the argument, but this is most probably because it is about Ellsberg who was, indeed, a liberal.  There was some thought put into representing the conservative viewpoint, as well, in the inclusion of direct quotes from Nixon, Kissinger, etc.; however, the government covert operations and the persons involved do not come across as "good guys" in this story. The addition of the story of a US POW, Alvarez, added to the intensity of the story.  By sharing a personal account, readers are able to feel the urgency of putting an end to the Vietnam War and its atrocities.  The idea of Civil Disobedience, the role of Journalism and First Amendment Rights, government checks and balances are all teachable concepts inherent in the book. It is thoroughly researched, containing 9 pages of Works Cited and 25 pages of source note.  The epilogue makes asks the question of Edward Snowden--is he a hero or a traitor?  Sheinkin notes that Snowden is not the original government whistle blower--Ellsberg was.

Awards and Reviews
Finalist for the 2015 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature
National Book Award Finalist 
Selected for the 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People List
Winner: YALSA Award for Nonfiction for Young Adults

“Lively, detailed prose rooted in a tremendous amount of research, fully documented. . . Easily the best study of the Vietnam War available for teen readers.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Sheinkin has done again what he does so well: condense mountains of research into a concise, accessible, and riveting account of history. . . [This book] will keep readers racing forward.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Powerful and thought-provoking.” —Booklist, starred review

“Fast-paced and fascinating. . . backed up by meticulous research.” —VOYA, starred review

"Thoroughly researched, thoughtfully produced, and beautifully written . . . a timely and extraordinary addition to every library." —School & Library Journal, starred review

Teaching Resources
PBS Documentary Page with links to Lesson Plans for Educators
Teaching the Vietnam War (Zinn Education Project)

Anderson, M.T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. Somerville, MA: Candlewick, 2015.

I read until page 97, and then I had to stop.  I came back to the book this morning and spot-read a few more passages, to give it one last chance. This is a comprehensive book about Shostakovich, but there are long passages that deal with history, not mentioning Shostakovich at all.  Thank you for the detail and the hard work, but the biographies I find more appealing don't bother with the historical context.  Even though I am sure the point of including such information is to inform the reader of how closely-related historical events shaped the subject's life and work, too much is still too much.  I also find that when Shostakovich becomes the subject (after the historical background has been laid), the biography take the form of a daily, almost hourly account of his activities.  Again, I'm not interested in all of that.  As a reader, I just want major events in a person's life that contributed to his or her work.  I had the same experience when reading Jon Anderson's CHE GUEVARA: A REVOLUTIONARY LIFE. Exhaustive biographies are just...too...tedious for this reader.  If you happen to like biography as a genre or long books about history, this book is perfect.  There are only a small handful of students at my school to whom I would suggest this title.

Reviews and Awards
YALSA Nonfiction Award for Excellence, 2016
Horn Book Honor Book, 2016

“Gr 9 Up—The compelling, well-researched narrative relates what is known of Shostakovich's story, what is speculation, what is revisionist history, and what new sources have revealed. The chilling details of the Stalin regime and the plight of the Russian people even before the Germans arrived will be eye-opening to many teen readers. The book has all the intrigue of a spy thriller, recounts the horrors of living during the three year siege, and delineates the physical oppression and daunting foes within and outside of the city. This is also the story of survival against almost impossible odds. Through it all, Anderson weaves the thread of the composer's music and the role it played in this larger-than-life drama”—Luann Toth, School Library Journal

“The storytelling is captivating, describing how Shostakovich began composing the symphony under relentless bombardment in Leningrad and later finished it in Moscow, its triumphant performance in Leningrad during the siege, and how it rallied worldwide sympathy for Russia's plight. Music is at the heart of the story. As Anderson writes in the prologue, "it is a story about the power of music and its meanings," and he communicates them with seeming effortlessness in this brilliantly written, impeccably researched tour de force. A triumphant story of bravery and defiance that will shock and inspire.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In a gripping narrative, helped along by ample photos and shockingly accurate historical details, Anderson offers readers a captivating account of a genius composer and the brutally stormy period in which he lived. Though easily accessible to teens, this fascinating, eye- opening, and arresting book will be just as appealing for adults.”—Booklist (starred review)

Teaching Resources
Teacher’s Guide from Candlewick Press

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