I would never have dreamed that a story set during the WW II Siege of Leningrad could be as engaging and darkly humorous as this book, but the Author has done a fine job of bringing a diverse set of characters to life, two of whom have been given an impossible mission (find a dozen eggs!) in an unbearable situation (the Blockade of Leningrad, and its consequent famine).
I have over a dozen books on the Siege of Leningrad (for a project I'm working on), and I have to say that the Author portrays the siege with accuracy, if not with full depth - in large part because the story is told from the viewpoint of Lev, a 17 year old boy. This doesn't give the reader an omniscient overview of "the big picture", but it certainly provides a very specific perspective on life in and around the city, and one well worth reading.
It's an "impression" of life during the city, and I have to say that with one exception - Lev would have been much hungrier and weaker in real life - a fairly accurate one. Readers of "The 900 Days" will recognize the inspiration for a specific scene, (Hint: Beware of well fed men in a famine) but how the characters react to what happens makes the action their own. And what characters!
The two main characters that carry the book deserve to be remembered as a classic pairing. Their interactions, observations and the journey they take on their absurd quest are one that I will remember for a very long time. Lev, the narrator, will remind most adult men of their own awkward youth. Wry, dry, frustrated and a little plodding, he is enormously sympathetic, while seemingly always in the process of doing a "Straight Man's Slow Burn" in a comedy routine. Kolya, an accidental Red Army deserter, is overly confident, irresistably charming and scatologically minded. Imagine a dirty minded Bugs Bunny come to life as a 6ft tall, Blond hair Blue eyed Russian and you're not too far off. By the end of the story, these two have formed a real bond and friendship - one that seems real, rather than forced for the sake of the story. The supporting characters are all given real weight - you feel that this really could have happened, and that these aren't just puppets the author is manipulating, but real people.
Is it serious? Yes.
Is it a war story? Yes.
Is it funny? Yes.
Is it a coming of age story? Yes.
Is it historically accurate? Yes.
It's simply got quite a lot to offer to any reader. I highly recommend it to both the general reading public and to WWII buffs.
on June 22, 2008
I have read some good fiction lately, but this one is special like "Catcher in the Rye" or "The Curious Incident" or maybe "The Kite Runner". Instead of telling the story, I will make observations as to why I loved it:
1. Many historical fiction novels are written from the perspective of the thinking of the time. Although it is interesting to observe how people think people thought in the past, it can be a little too un-modern and sometimes boring, like reading "Moby Dick" or some other great, but somewhat over the top book. Here, we are set back in time by the grandson who is just like us, telling the story his grandfather tells him, but with language and interpretations that are how we think about things today. Instead of finding this tool to be unrealistic and too Hollywood modern, I found just the opposite. I felt like I really was back in time and I related to the characters like they were my best friends and buddies. I loved this approach to history telling.
2. The primary relationship in the book is between a shy, 17 year old Jewish boy who is intelligent, clever, educated and a great story teller. There is a running dialogue in his head describing his sometimes ridiculous and unimportant thoughts and observations as life threatening things are occurring. His older buddy is a young "man of the world" a college boy who is experienced with women, a writer and philosopher, a handsome and sometimes arrogant guy. He puts his arm around his younger shy friend's shoulder and starts to teach him about wine women and song. It is a touching and fun relationship that works as well as any friendship relationship I've ever read. The observations of the younger as to the older's sometimes graphic and raunchy statements and experiences are absolutely brilliant and spot on. This is how life and relationships really work and the author has been able to convey these experiences in a way that makes us relive similar things in our lives as older kids taught us about what really goes on in the adult world and we're half thinking it's a lie and half believing it, yet shaking our heads. I can't think of a book I've read that does this kind of coming of age relationship as well.
3. Because the story moves fast and is more about relationships and internal observations, you would think that the history of the time is secondary. However, the story gives us a very realistic feeling of how it must have been to be suffering through the invasion of the Germans into Leningrad in the horrible cold of the winter without much good food or shelter or equipment. There is a lot of good information about the cold and calculated way of the Nazis and the underfunded and yet heroic attempts of the Russian people to fend them off. And yet, as important as the historical setting of the book is, the thing that makes it work well is the commentary and thoughts of our two friends and eventually heroes.
4. There are many other great characters in the book from the brilliant and interesting Nazi leader, an intense and talented young female sniper, and the spoiled and wealthy man who sends them on their ridiculously trivial mission in the first place.
This book is the reason you read fiction.
David Benioff's "City of Thieves" is something of a coming-of-age tale with a twist. The twist is the fact that the tale is set in the besieged city of Leningrad in January, 1942. It is a city at war surrounded by the German army. The city is under martial law but its people are starving and fighting for food and even cannibalism is the inevitable result. The two `heroes' of the story, Lev Beniov and Kolya Vlasov are each picked up by the Red Army for crimes against the state. Lev is caught looting (taking the knife from a dead German soldier). Kolya, already a soldier is picked up and accused of desertion. Both crimes are grounds for immediate execution but the two boys are thrown together and given a `secret mission' by a Red Army officer, Colonel Grechko, who agrees to release them on the condition that they steal two dozen eggs in time for his daughter's wedding. The two dozen eggs are essential to make her a wedding cake. If they fail, they will be hunted down and shot. And with that bizarre quest ringing in their ears they are let go and sent out to scour Leningrad and the surrounding countryside in a quest for enough eggs to save their lives.
I liked City of Thieves for a number of reasons. First, Benioff does an excellent job setting the story up. It begins as a narrative of his own life as a writer and then evolves into getting his grandfather Lev to tell him the story of his experience during the war. All the author knows is that "my grandfather, the knife fighter, killed two Germans before he was eighteen". The story unfolds as a narrative told to his grandson. Second, the characters of Lev and Kolya were well-drawn and engaging even if Lev and Kolya did play into a couple of stereotypes, Lev the shy, quiet, intelligent Russian of Jewish descent is scrawny, short, and horribly shy around girls and seems to be able to do no more than dream wistfully of some dreamlike romantic encounters when he gets older. Kolya is handsome, tall, athletic and an accomplished Romeo. He has, if even some of his stories are true, become quite accomplished in the art of seduction. Third, the plot is well designed and well thought out. This seemingly bizarre search for eggs takes them through the dangerous streets of Leningrad into German-occupied territory where they meet up with a local group of partisans. Each story unfolds as a self-contained vignette but each has its own climactic moment that propels the reader into the next chapter. Last, Benioff has done an excellent job in creating a historically accurate picture of Leningrad during its siege. I've read a lot of non-fiction accounts of life in Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Moscow during the early years of WWII and nothing in this novel strikes me as out of touch with life during the siege including the Colonel's request for two dozen eggs.
The outcome of the story may be thought of by some as predictable but I found the ending more than satisfying even if some of the `results' did not take me totally by surprise.
I think City of Thieves is an excellent story and well worth reading. L. Fleisig
on June 12, 2008
I just finished the book today and I have to say it's one of the best novels I've read in years. After reading a review in Entertainment Weekly, I decided to give it a try, and I was blown away. I was a fan of the movie "25th Hour," based on Benioff's novel, but had never read any of his books. From the very beginning of this book, it's clear this guy is a gifted screenplay writer. I can easily picture this book adapted into a movie in the near future, and Benioff's name in the credits. The characters are wonderfully engaging and the 1st person narrative is completely believable. Every man was once a teenage boy like the protagonist, and even if we can't relate to his war experiences, we can relate to his fears & frustrations. I don't consider this a war book, but there is more than enough military substance to keep WWII buffs entertained. The best part is that Benioff never talks down to the reader by explaining what a Heinkel is, or an MP-40, etc. His characters are very familiar with these wartime household words and don't need stop the book's flow to elaborate on them. He does the same for Russian authors, Russian culture, and Leningrad itself...half of the references I didn't recognize, but it added to the reality. The book is lightning paced but perfectly balanced in its structure...you don't know where it's going, but where they do go just feels right. He never uses the characters to spew out great lines, or make a dramatic point to enhance the story. He doesn't need too--these characters interlock with one another like a puzzle. It's a proverbial page turner and you keep wondering to yourself, how could things possibly get worse for them? It really reads like a movie screenplay--my heart was literally pounding at the book's climax. Even if you have no interest in WWII or Leningrad, I think most people can appreciate Benioff's storytelling. I'm really looking forward to the film adaptation, if & when it comes out...
on May 24, 2008
One doesn't usually read the great Russians for the jokes. In "Love and Death", Woody Allen parodies a bleak Tolstoy-esque passage, "Wheat. All there is in life is wheat....Wheat with feathers. Cream of wheat." But a close reader like Woody would recognize the dark humor always bubbling beneath the surface of novels like "The Brothers Karamazov", "A Hero of Our Time", "The Nose", despite the stodgy taint that lingers with their shelving in the Classics section. Do you really want to spend hours with a novelist who doesn't see the humor in the human condition?
I don't. Which is why I adored Benioff's new book. Don't get me wrong, the novel is about two young intellectuals gripped in the throes of the Germans' siege of Leningrad, trying to survive not only this evil but the sweeping persecutions of the Stalinist purges. Not a time nor a place for rollicking comedy. And Benioff's elegiacal descriptions do terrific justice to the nearly-unimaginable hardships that the denizens of Leningrad suffered through during a period when cannibalism came to seem a valid response to hunger. But along with the Russian broodiness that satisfyingly permeates this novel are a wit and wisdom I seek -- and find in my favorite works, Russian or otherwise.
on June 2, 2008
This is an enormously entertaining and illuminating novel. In addition to being a cracking good read with engaging characters and an action-packed story, it's also a window into a place and time that not enough Americans know about. Benioff's depiction of WWII era Leningrad is evocative and haunting - I confess I had no real knowledge of the horrors the Russian people endured during this period of history. This book definitely makes me want to find out more on the subject. But, above all, this is simply a great story with a beautifully drawn and unique relationship between the two lead characters, Lev and Kolya. Highly recommended.
The author blends fact, fiction and family history in this novel telling the tale of his grandfather's escapades and survival during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. If the terms "survival" and "escapades" seem oxymoronic or ill-suited to be in the same sentence, that's how this book reads and is both the good news and bad news of this novel.
Battling starvation and weathering Nazi bombardment, the citizens of Leningrad clung to existence during the city's siege. Our protagonist, Lev Beniov - the author's grandfather and just 17 years old at the time - finds himself in a heap of trouble and facing execution for a somewhat dubious civil infraction (I won't spoil it). He is given the chance for exoneration when the local Colonel pairs him with a slightly older soldier - also sentenced to death, for desertion - if Lev and his new military buddy can secure a dozen fresh eggs within a few days. (Said colonel's daughter is to be married, there is to be an extravagant wedding and the spoiled daughter wants a wedding cake - hence the need for eggs.)
This is the juxtaposition of the ridiculous with the deadly serious that at times works very effectively in this novel and at other times rings hollow. Lev is a sincere but naïve teenager. His soldier companion, although only a few years older, is worldly, handsome, brave and seemingly has a plan or solution for every challenge - some very dangerous - that the two encounter on the wedding egg hunt. Said soldier also cracks wise continuously. (Think of Ben Stiller paired with Bruce Willis or George Clooney, which I believe is the point.)
And that's where I had difficulty with this novel - as the story attempts to balance the harrowing and tragic with the sublime and ridiculous, it takes the edge off the serious while diminishing the humor of the comedic. Not a bad book, I just didn't find it the tour de force as described in previous reviews.
David Benioff's City of Thieves is both engaging and thought-provoking. The four primary characters--the young, naive Lev, the slightly older and lovable Kolya, the frightening but alluring guerilla sniper Vika, and the truly frightening and not at all alluring Einsatskruppen commander Abendroth--are wonderfully crafted with distinct personalities and voices. Benioff has the gift of enabling readers actually to see his characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
And what situations! The setting is the siege of Leningrad. Lev and Kolya escape execution (the former for theft, the latter for desertion) only because a Soviet commander wants nearly impossible to find eggs for his daughter's wedding cake and promises the two youngsters a reprieve if they find him some. Their search brings them face to face with cannibals, slaughtered dogs which have been rigged as anti-tank mines, a dying boy clinging to a rooster, Russian resistance fighters who live and die by the laws of the jungle, and ruthless SS battalions intent on Germanizing Russia by exterminating as many Russians as they can get their hands on.
Yet Benioff's novel isn't merely an action piece. His story invites us to reflect on the absurdity of war (symbolized in the ridiculous quest for eggs in the midst of a brutal conflict that's turned the world upside down) as well as its unspeakable cruelty; on the courage that even timid people can display when under great pressure; and on the human values--friendship, loyalty, and love--that transcend brutality.
Benioff will, I think, be a great novelist someday, but he hasn't quite gotten there yet. Entertaining and thoughtful as City of Thieves is, it's marred, in my judgment, in two ways. The introductory framing chapter, which purports to be an explanation on how the story of Lev came to be told, is contrived and unnecessary. And Kolya's end (without giving it away here) is all too predictable and borders on the melodramatic. But between a less then satisfying start and finish, City of Thieves is a very good tale indeed.
I read David Benioff's, "City of Thieves" in two sittings, though I tried to slow myself down in the end to make it last...I couldn't. Oh, how I fell in love with gawky and smart Lev, and charming and witty Kolya. On their intrepid picaresque search through war-torn Russia for a dozen eggs to secure their freedom, we are treated to a story of two wonderful characters that will capture your heart. This novel has everything; it is rich with humor, suspense, history, and characters, (both heroic and villainous) that you will not soon forget. My only complaint is that I wanted more and it was over much too soon.
Thank goodness David Benioff is a wonderful screenwriter as well as novelist (if you have not seen "The 25th Hour" do rent it!) so I will happily assume that "City of Thieves" will one day be a motion picture; I can't wait.
Knowing I am a fan of St. Petersburg, my younger brother recommended _City of Theives_ to me. It was a good call. Set during the 900 - day seige of Leningrad, the story relates a week as 17 year-old Lev Benioff runs afoul of the NKVD (the precursors to the KGB) and is given an impossible task: find a dozen eggs within four days or be executed. What ensues is a tragi-comic tale as young Lev and a soldier, Kolya who also ran afoul of the authorities, seek to fulfill their mission.
Benioff's depiction of the daily struggle for survival and privation in Leningrad and the abusrdity of war are well done. The humor of his characters (especially Kolya) in the face of such extereme circumstances provided welcome levity in what could have easily been a dark and bitter story. But as a previous reviewer noted, its not "literature" in the sense that reveals nothing of what it is to be human; to be fair, though, I don't think "literature" is what Benioff was shooting for. WIth this in mind, then, it is an entertaining read, and is skillfully written. By turns the book is horribly sad, laugh-out loud funny and page-turningly suspenseful; an ideal book to while away a weekend or kill time in an airport.