Saturday, May 9, 2009

Book Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

You can honestly find any review that will tell you what City of Thieves is about. The plot, daring and inconceivable, makes it sound as the pathetic work of some ambitious author, one that, if it didn't work, would simply be thrown into the goodwill piles with all the other useless novels. And Ayn Rand is right, in the introduction to The Fountainhead, when she says that most novels are trash now, and will never live past the first printing. They are as disposable and as numerous as the tabloids that line parrot cages.

But not City of Thieves. This work combines the fast-paced dialogue of a motion picture with the literary aspects of most classics. Benioff has turned Leningrad into a absurdist landscape, with characters and happenings more fitting some apocalyptic setting or the abstract nonsense of a modern artist. And it would be clearly absurd, if it were not almost all true. Benioff says in the beginning that, while most of it is true, some is made up, as his grandfather, the lead character, Lev, didn't want to or couldn't remember all the details. City of Thieves is the finest example of the pseudo-biography (with other examples being Frey's Million Little Pieces or Burroughs' Running with Scissors), in which your suspension of disbelief is almost broken. But almost is what makes it fun. Cannibals, whores, and the incessant babbling of Kolya, the Russian soldier that accompanies Lev, which comprises of obscene references to women next to the brilliant analyzing of Russian poets and novelists.

I found more than once thinking of the French novel Candide, by Voltaire, and of the ironic short stories by O. Henry. Also, looking at it from a literary point of view, the symbol of the eggs, especially as one of fertility in a time of war, as a sexual symbol of women and the drive that Lev and Kolya have in finding not only the eggs, but for the women that have been left to starve in WWII Leningrad, is very well executed. It is a book that would be interesting to teach in a College English class, but is a little too mature for high schools.

On a professional note, I want to thank the people at the Corporate offices at Borders for finding this book out of the many "disposable" books in print, to bring to the attention of its employees and customers. As with Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, they selected books that were engaging and very well written, even for one as myself, who would rather read science fiction or kids books. It makes it so much easier to recommend such books to other customers, as I have bought the books myself. It is a practice that is profitable (in knowledge and money) for bookstores to do, and is why advanced readers are so very vital for the industry.

So go out to Borders and pick up a copy of City of Thieves. You'll be very glad you did. :)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Feast of a Crow

I think I've been neglecting my blogging duties lately...oh well... :)

I stepped out of my car at the Stonecrest Parking lot on a Monday morning, and , noticing the unusually loud "CAW" of a crow (or at least a really large, black bird), naturally, I "CAWED" back at it. Then I listened to the numerous chirping of the many sparrows that frequent our parking lot in search of the fallen french fry, and said, "Damnedable birds. I wish the Crows were carnivores, and'd eat the smaller birds." Then I realized that the crows did eat meat, albeit bugs, worms, and things of that nature. As well as carrion, and plant and seed material, if nothing else is available. Birds are, for the most part, (apart from the larger birds, Pterodactyls, and the like) Omnivores.

Which got me to thinking.... I had recently found a photo in a Facebook friend of someone eating a Soy Cheese Pizza. To that I had to make some snarky remark, along the lines that, like Caffeine Free Diet Coke, soy cheese misses the point. I mean, let's face it, CFDC (see above) is just brown water with bubbles. Aside from the aspartame that is poisoning all of us, it does nothing. And eating soy cheese (and I've tried it before), does nothing to progress the clogging of arteries and certainly doesn't taste as good as the real thing. To which, the person eating the pizza said, "Well, yes, if you like mammalian stomach enzymes in your food." I am supposing, by this, that he is a vegetarian. Which, BTW, I have no problem having mammalian stomach enzymes in my food, if they are going to taste as good as that. Take a nice smoky Gouda cheese, or an imported Guyere cheese..... I'm in heaven!!!

Anyway, as I was looking at the birds, I suddenly realized the connection between them and the soy cheese pizza. Namely, that among all the reasons for becoming a vegetarian (most of which are valid, health driven reasons that I will have none of), I've heard the killing of animals and the eating of meat as being inhuman. Well, as humans are, last I checked, animals as well, and there are many creatures on this Earth that eat meat, or both, as the crows and other birds exemplify, eating flesh is just as natural and as common as the many creatures we share this orb with.

I care not to go into other reasons why or why not to be a vegetarian, as this is a personal decision, one that has no impact upon my life unless I go to one's house, in which case I'll bring my own mammalian stomach enzymes along. Because as for me, myself, personally, I have no problem eating cow or chicken or fish or pig or whatever animal happens to be cooked in the meal. Heck, as long as it tastes good, I don't particularly care what's in the egg rolls. Lamb doesn't taste all that good, but that's just me. For me, it's all about the pleasure gained in eating whatever it is. It really has nothing to do with diet, as I'd just as soon eat a grilled chicken caesar salad (fixed stir-fry style from a wok like they did at the cafeteria at GC& good!!!) as a hamburger. In fact, I'd rather do that than get a Double Cheeseburger (not the McDouble, as they skimp on the piece of cheese) from McDonalds, as there really is no pleasure in eating one (unless it's the Triple Cheeseburger... that's just sinful eating.)

Because, while I know of my family's history of dying of heart attacks, I cannot help but have strong Epicurean ideas about things. I will not go through life miserable and frugally, keeping myself miserable just to satisfy society's ideals about what is aesthetically appealing, or to keep a couple of cows from becoming meat. I will eat and do whatever makes me happy, within the boundaries of my belief system. For Epicureans aren't just the gluttonous, lustful, sloths (well, that's three of seven) that the name implies. Epicureas believed in a balance of pleasures, because as a Post-Aristotle philosopher, he realized that to reach eternal happiness, or the greater good, for one's own life or for the good of mankind, that self-restraint must be applied. Forgo a pleasure now to achieve a greater one later. Save up money from Double Cheeseburgers to enjoy a Red Lobster meal later. Or to buy a dear friend something that will light up their face and bring joy to their lives.

So give me the cheese, and the meat, and the clogged arteries, and let me live my life the way I want to, bringing happiness to myself and to those around me. And if that means I don't live quite as long as those who eat salads and soy cheese pizzas, then, that's okay with me. Let me be one of those fat people that Caesar wanted about him. They were happy folk. Too bad they couldn't stop daggers.