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. :)

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