Tuesday, August 05, 2008

City of Thieves

Several weeks ago, I read the NY Times review of David Benioff's book and put it on reserve at the public library. It just so happened to come in right after I read Chabon's book, leading to a rare confluence in my reading life. First, the two authors have a lot in common -- both are precocious literary talents, have Jewish backgrounds, and have had their works translated to film. They both seem annoyingly blessed with genius, good looks, lovely partners, and California tans, but I'll forgive them both, just as Michael Dirda can bring himself to forgive Tom Brady for his Superbowls, chiseled features, and Gisele Bundchen.

Benioff's novel features a teasing opener, leading one to believe it is based on the adventures of his real Russian immigrant grandfather, but then he wisely dashes off into the story proper and never returns to the "frame," which, more often than not drags down an otherwise perfectly good novel. Lev Beniov is a teenage boy, alone in Leningrad during the famous siege in WW2, dreaming of being a heroic Russian fighter defending his city against the Germans. Things go awry when he is taken prisoner by the NKVD (Russian secret police) for looting a dead German paratrooper. He becomes paired up with an alleged army deserter in an unlikely mission to save both their lives -- procuring a dozen eggs for a Russian colonel, whose daughter is marrying and wants a proper wedding cake as the rest of Leningrad teeters on the edge of starvation. Madcap adventures of cannibalism, whoring, and picaresque wandering behind German lines ensue. And like Chabon's TYPU, the story ends up hinging on a game of chess.

I loved the novel -- I zipped right through it, and then read a recommendation from my mother that I'd also carried to the beach with me, an Anita Shreve novel called Resistance, about, what else, the Belgian Resistance in WW2! I think I shall try to take a break from the plight of Jews, WW2, chess, and Nazis.

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