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Sunday, August 15, 2010

City of Thieves by David Benioff

At only 258 pages, this is a great, quick read for both men and women alike.  Set during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, this story revolves mainly around two young men, boys really.  Lev is Jewish and so his existence is precarious at best.  Kolya is blond, blue-eyed, with handsome Cossack features.  Where Lev is introverted and shy, Kolya oozes confidence, and charms everyone around him. 

Lev's father (a famous poet) has been "taken" by the secret police, and his mother and sister have fled the city.  Like most teenage boys, Lev proudly stays behind to defend his home, and is the commander of his apartment building's volunteer fire brigade.   One night on the roof, Lev and his friends see a downed paratrooper and rush to ransack the body.  You see, they are all starving.  Cannibalism is rampant (a true historical fact) and they are tearing apart books to boil down the bindings to eat the animal proteins in the glue.  This confection is called "Library Candy" and it's hard to come by and very expensive.  There are no dogs and cats left in the city.  Lev is caught looting the paratrooper's body, and sent to a formidable and infamous prison known as The Crosses.  There he meets Kolya, and the next morning, they are dragged before a high-ranking military officer who tells them they can go free on one condition.  They must somehow procure one dozen eggs, to be used in a wedding cake for the Colonel's beautiful daughter.  How they go about getting one dozen fragile eggs in the middle of a war, in the dead of a brutal Russian winter is the event-filled story.  This author was a student of Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and he also wrote the screenplay for the movie The Kite Runner.  To write this book, David Benioff relied heavily on the personal diaries and journals of those who survived the actual siege, and historical books written about same.   The Nine Hundred Days by Harrison Salisbury was his bible as he wrote.  With the somber subject matter, I thought this would be a hard book to get through, but it wasn't.  It's not a long book and there are little moments of levity in among the harrowing circumstances.  A really interesting read.

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