Wednesday, September 30, 2009

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff

2008 Penguin Group

War books always make me ask myself what I would do in certain situations. What would I do to make sure I lived to see the next day? Would I become a prostitute if others were starving to death all around me? Would I betray my friends in order to have a few peaceful moments? It is nice to believe that I would always take the high road, that I would always follow my moral compass and do what is right. But I am resolved to not lie anymore and must admit that I will do anything to survive. I would sacrifice all my beliefs to live an extra day. Lev Beniov, the main character in CITY OF THIEVES, must deal with this same issue day after day.

CITY OF THIEVES is the story of two young men trying to survive the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Lev Beniov finds himself thrown into jail with Kolya, an army deserter, and tasked with finding a dozen eggs for a Soviet colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Lev and Kolya live in a city without the most basic food supplies and trying to stave off hunger with "library candy".

"The boy sold what people called library candy, mad from tearing the covers off
books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars
you could wrap in paper.The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the
glue, protein kept you alive, and the city's books were disappearing like the

Lev and Kolya are prisoners and have to do whatever it takes to survive to see the next day.

I picked up a copy of CITY OF THIEVES because it is the book discussion choice for the state this year. We are reading it in my library book discussion group, my nephew had to read it for his summer reading assignment and there will be staged readings of some scenes at city parks this fall. Based on the blurb on the back of the book I would not have read this book. I would have put it back on the shelf and kept on moving. And I would have missed a great book. CITY OF THIEVES is one of the best books I have read and one I know I will be returning to time and again.. It is one of those books that sneak up on you, making you cry when you least expect it and finding joy in situations that in any other book would be ridiculous. This book took me the full gamut of emotions and left me emotionally drained but satisfied.

CITY OF THIEVES is a decidedly adult novel. It is not for young adults or immature adults. There is some heavy material in here that requires a lot of life experiences to fully make sense. When reading this with my nephew, who has just turned 15, I realized that the only parts he and his friends understood were the death scenes. They were not understanding the sacrifice that the characters go through because they, for the most part have not had to sacrifice anything in their lives. They condemned certain characters without understanding the situations involved. For example, there is a scene where Lev and Kolya find themselves in a Nazi run Russian brothel. Lev finds himself attracted to the healthiness of the girls, seduced by the fat elbows of a prostitue, while Kolya is repulsed and without sympathy. It is easy to hate the young girls, to be disgusted by thier new profession. It is harder, however, to put oneself in their shoes, to be a young unprotected female in a world where the people with power are the enemies and you have to follow their orders or die. Who can say which is the bet choice; a noble death or a tarnished life.

Other Reviews:
Entertainment Weekly - Screenwriter David Benioff's splendid new novel, City of Thieves, opens as a screenwriter named David, curious about his grandparents' experiences in Russia during World War II, visits the retired couple in Florida and records cassette after cassette of his grandfather's tales. Finally, wearily, the old man ends the conversation. ''A couple of things still don't make sense to me — '' Benioff persists.
''You're a writer,'' answers his grandfather. ''Make it up.''
And so, apparently, he has. Exactly how much of this novel is true, and how much imagined, matters not a whit. The surreal wartime journey of 17-year-old Lev Beniov unfolds like a crazy and vivid dream (and, at times, a nightmare), but it has the rich texture of lived experience.
The story opens in the winter of 1942 during the crushing Nazi siege of Leningrad. ''You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold'' are Lev's first words to us. A nervous virgin with a gift for chess and a bashful crush on his cello-playing neighbor, Lev watches the corpse of a German parachutist float down from the sky, ''his silk canopy a white tulip bulb above him.'' Lev drinks the dead man's cognac, steals his knife, and is promptly nabbed by the police for looting.
Lev hasn't yet learned how to make his way in the world. But while in jail, he meets the consummate operator: Kolya, a handsome, irrepressible, Zorba-like soldier who was arrested for going AWOL from his regiment. You can tell Benioff is a screenwriter, because Lev and Kolya are a comic odd couple from a long Hollywood tradition. You're ''a bit moody, in the Jewish way, but I like you,'' Kolya announces, and thereafter treats Lev as his soul mate. For Kolya, Lev feels a combination of envy, fascination, and suspicion. The colonel holding them prisoner offers them a deal: He'll set them free if they can track down a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake.
This ragtag pair hits the road, telling each other ribald stories, bantering about literature, and getting on each other's nerves. In ravaged Leningrad, they discover willing young women and charnel-house horrors, but no eggs. They venture out of the city and into the frozen countryside, where they spend the night with a cabin full of courtesans, briefly join a band of partisans, and are captured by the German army. Guns are fired, throats slashed, a love affair launched, and eventually, at a staggering price, eggs acquired. By listening carefully — and making the rest up — Benioff has produced a funny, sad, and thrilling novel. A-

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