About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

#32: City of Thieves

City of Thieves, by David Benioff (New York: Penguin Group, 2008)

"Stumped by a magazine assignment to write about his own uneventful life, a man visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. Reluctantly, his grandfather commences a story that will take him almost a week to tell: an odyssey of two young men determined to survive, against desperate odds, a mission in which cold, hunger, and the Russian authorities prove as dangerous as the invading Wehrmacht.

"Two young men meeting for the first time in a jail cell await summary execution for crimes of dubious legitimacy. At seventeen, Lev Beniov considers himself 'built for deprivation.' Small, smart, insecure about his virginity, he's terrified about the sentence that awaits him and his cellmate, the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier charged with desertion. However, instead of a bullet in the back of the head, the pair is given an outrageous assignment: In a besieged city cut off from all supplies, secure a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel to use in his daughter's wedding cake. Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt to find the impossible in five days' time, a quest that propels the from the lawless streets of Leningrad to the devastated countryside behind German lines. As they encounter murderous city dwellers, guerrilla partisans, and finally the German army itself, an unlikely bond forms between this earnest teenager and his unpredictable companion, a lothario whose maddening, and endearing, bravura will either advance their cause or get them killed.

"Hailed for his brilliantly drawn characters and incisive ability to capture the pulse of urban life, David Benioff rises to new heights in this portrait of two unforgettable young men and Soviet Russia under siege. By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves takes us on a breathtaking journey into the twentieth century's darkest hour even as it celebrates the power of friendship to transform a life."

Opening Line:
"My grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen."

My Take:
Don't think there are many authors out there who can successfully combine a buddy movie and the seige of Leningrad between two covers, but somehow, Benioff manages. City of Thieves is an engrossing, entertaining book that manages to capture some of the humor and absurdity of war without trivializing it.

The main story opens in the Crosses, as Lev, an achingly young seventeen-year-old whose mom and sister fled the city long ago, awaits an unknown but dire fate in the dark, forebidding prison that's long been the stuff of every Leningrad child's nightmares. Enter Kolya, a handsome-and-knows-it Cossack deserter who claims he can write in the pitch dark and quotes from a great Russian novel that Lev (son of a famed poet) has never heard of. Kolya is arrogant but kind, Lev is impressed but annoyed, and whether or not they admit it, both are terrified. Not usually the stuff of lifelong friendships ... that is, until the next day, when the local colonel offers to redeem their lives if they can bring back a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake within a week's time. Yes, in a city whose very name still defines the word siege.

Since both young men value their lives, they have no choice but to try. Their search begins in Leningrad proper, where they assume someone, somewhere must have eggs, and they need only the money, barter, and/or guile to get them. They crash with an old friend-with-benefits of Kolya's, narrowly escape a tribe of cannibals who do indeed have food to sell, and learn the truth behind the rumors of a crazy but armed old man who still keeps a flock of chickens on a rooftop somewhere ... but alas, no luck, and no eggs. They make a daring escape from the city, thinking the Germans must have left a farm or 2 intact somewhere, if only for their own provisions. Their instincts are correct, though it's not only the soldiers' culinary appetites the lovely young residents are satisfying -- a fact which incenses Kolya until his hosts describe, in harrowing detail, what the alternative would be and exactly how they know. Together, the young men and their hosts hatch a plan to catch the Germans with their pants down ... which is interrupted by the arrival of a band of pro-Allied guerrillas who have had some success plaguing both the German soldiers and the not-so-popular-around-here Soviet army. The guerrillas are led by Vika, a crack sniper barely Lev's age who seems to have a secret up his sleeve (among other places).

As you might expect, the young ex-cons join forces with the partisans, additional hair-raising adventures ensue, and not everyone survives till the last chapter ... though you know all along that Lev will, as he's still alive and now a grandfather in the frame story. A bit formulaic, I suppose, if I'm being honest -- but captivating and (har, har) novel enough that I didn't mind. Recommended if you enjoy World War II stories and/or tales of young men's adventures.

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