Saturday, September 27, 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

David Benioff is probably best known for writing The 25th Hour, a gritty crime novel which he then adapted into a Spike Lee film starring Edward Norton. He also wrote the screenplay for Troy (which I won't hold against him), and adapted Khalid Hosseini's The Kite Runner (which I haven't yet seen). However, my first introduction to David Benioff was a few years ago when someone handed me his second book, a short story collection entitled When the Nines Roll Over. It's a wonderful collection, and even now, years later, two of the stories, "The Devil Comes to Orekhovo" and the last story, "Merde for Luck," (which struck me so hard that I photocopied it and mailed it to a dozen of my friends) are still floating around in my head.

But what I really want to talk about is Benioff's latest novel, City of Thieves, which was published in May and I read recently on a rather harrowing plane ride. I seem to have this bad habit of never reading the book that an author is best known for; for example: in college I read almost everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote except for Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five; I've read some Philip Roth, but not American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint; and just yesterday, when deciding which Connie Willis book to read, I chose To Say Nothing of the Dog over Doomsday Book, in part because I was told that she's best known for Doomsday Book. This list could go on and on. And with David Benioff - I've read two of his books, neither of which are The 25th Hour. I have every intention to read it, seriously, I do. I want to read it. But a part of me has resigned myself to the fact that it might never happen, due to whatever odd bit of psychology has kept me from reading Slaughterhouse Five all these years, despite owning two perfectly good copies. One of the many reasons I'll never be a real book reviewer or critic.

City of Thieves takes place during the siege of Leningrad, when two young men (strangers) accused of desertion are given a ludicrous mission: they have five days to steal a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Of course, if you know your history, you'll remember that everyone in Leningrad is starving. There are no eggs. People are eating dirt. Hell, people are selling dirt to other people as food! Also for sale as food: the glue that holds books together (called Library Candy). And this colonel wants eggs to bake a cake? The concept alone felt like love at first site.

And check out the first line: "You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold." A great opening line. But technically, this isn't really the first line - the novel has a framing story (basically a prologue) to set things up. Readers of this blog know that I'm no great lover of prologues, but this one works. In it we are introduced to David, who is writing a piece about his grandparents' experiences during the siege of Leningrad. He tells us that his grandfather talked most about one week in January 1942, when "he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans." This is a promise to the reader of what's to come, and it really adds a lot of fun and tension to the story. At times, reading City of Thieves reminded me of watching that bad CBS show with Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother, because every time Lev (the grandfather) meets a woman you think, "ooh, could this be the grandmother?" You also wonder how the hell Lev, a scrawny 17-year-old and self-confessed coward, is ever going to kill two Germans.

Here's how it begins: Lev Beniov is caught out after curfew by Red Army soldiers and accused of theft and desertion. He's thrown in a cell with another boy/man, Kolya, who is also accused of desertion. Kolya is Lev's polar opposite - he's tall, blond, handsome, and charismatic, where Lev is short, scrawny, and chronically terrified. Both boys expect to be shot in the morning, and nearly are, but they are saved by the colonel who wants the eggs. They have five days to bring back a dozen eggs, and the colonel confiscates their ration cards, so they can't simply disappear.

The next five days are full of everything I look for in a story: adventure and danger and mystery, some absurdity, some emotional moments, an "ah-ha" moment or two (for the characters, not me), and good writing. I loved this book, and heartily recommend it.