Distiller: A.R. Braithwaite
Rating: 4/5 stars
Drink: Egg Nog
City of Thieves
by David Benioff
May 15th, 2008
During the Nazis’ brutal of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible. By turns insightful and funny, thrilling and terrifying, City of Thieves is a gripping, cinematic World War II adventure and an intimate coming-of-age story with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men.*
A story about looking for eggs in order to live while starving to death.
I could discuss this book for hours and probably still be left trying to grasp exactly what it is the author is trying to do and why I like what he did so much. I'll do my best to explain in this review exactly what I mean by that last sentence, but in the end I'm just going to recommend that you read it yourself because it is a great work of prose. First off, this book is dark and filled with gruesome images as well as vulgarity, so you probably shouldn't take my recommendation to pick it up if you have strong issues against candid discussions or descriptions of sex, war... even cannibalism. As dark and gruesome as this work is, it is arguably equal parts humorous and satirical. At one point I would physically wince while reading because of some crude detail and only a few short pages later I would find myself outright laughing because Benioff had turned the situation on its head, or made some larger picture comment that makes the whole thing both ridiculous and depressing at the same time. Even the main plot line itself holds this sentiment to be true, two grown men, who previously don't know each other at all, are about to be killed for minor infractions because they are living in the middle of a dramatic war zone, but instead they are miraculously 'saved' by instead being sent out on an impossible mission to find a dozen eggs. People are starving, literally eating each other or anything else remotely edible around them and these characters are searching for a luxurious commodity that was readily available only a few months before this story takes place. It's all somehow so sad and funny at the same time, I'm amazed that it has been pulled off so elegantly. The writing is blunt, but I also found it very eloquent. I was actually sad that the book was less than 300 pages long because I enjoyed reading the writing, as well as experiencing the story.
I usually don't give spoilers in my reviews, but I really want to add this one specific scene. If you are OK with having a small portion of the book given away, then feel free to read on, but if not then simply skip the rest of this paragraph. I will strive to better convey the tone of this novel by describing one of my favorite parts of the story. Lev and Kolya are actually able to get their hands on a chicken, which they acquired by coming into contact with a pitiful boy dying of starvation. The boy was dedicating his final hours of life to keeping this bird alive, a bird which is barely alive itself, and when he finally relinquishes ownership to Lev and Kolya he won't take any of their offerings for payment (which is all of the money and food they have on them). They leave the payment with the boy anyway, who will obviously die within hours of them leaving him. It's a very heartbreaking scene that is frustrating and depressing. Later that night Lev and Kolya are discussing with some other people how to maintain a chicken and if they can keep it alive whether or not it will even have the capacity to produce one egg, let alone twelve. One of the men who comes into the conversation late immediately assumes they will be eating the bird, but soon finds out that it is meant to lay eggs. He outright laughs at them and when Kolya begins to get upset, Lev thinks things might even turn violent. However, the man informs them that it is a rooster... not a chicken.
In the end I believe that Benioff was using juxtapositions to make us, the readers, recognize both the normalcy and abnormalcy of war, as well as human reactions to it. If we can, for example, both cry and laugh within pages of a text about finding eggs and starving to death then maybe the author is getting us as close to actually feeling the way we would feel in that situation without actually living it. Again, I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, satire, and unique works of writing. I enjoyed reading it and only held back from giving it a five star rating because of the vulgarity and violence. At times I felt those aspects went too far without really needing to, or at least came up more often than necessary for the story.
The drink I chose for this book was egg nog, not because this book is a festive holiday book by any means, but simply because it is a drink with eggs in it. After all, the whole point of this work revolves around obtaining eggs, so why not drink them while reading it? Enjoy your great abundance and close proximity to the very thing that Lev and Kolya so desperately struggle for, it will add another metaphysical layer of satire to the whole experience.
*summary taken from Goodreads.com