In 1941, the Germans circled Leningrad, starving its remaining citizens. His mother and sister evacuated, 17-year-old Lev Beniov remained, heeding the call for every able-bodied man to come to the defense of his country. After being caught out after curfew, Lev is thrown in the Crosses, the notorious prison, and while waiting for what he assumes will be an inglorious end, a summary execution at dawn, he is joined by the gregarious, indefatigable, and literature-spouting soldier, Kolya, imprisoned for desertion. When their lives are spared, they are assigned the impossible task of acquiring a dozen eggs for the wedding of a colonel's daughter, a task that takes them into the company of cannibals and Einsatzgruppen, dreaded Nazi death squads. A high-spirited adventure, Benioff's second novel (following the 2001 debut, The 25th Hour), ostensibly an account of the author's grandfather—a quiet immigrant who sold his real-estate business and retired to Florida with his wife—takes more than a little poetic license. When Benioff tells his grandfather that a few things don't make sense in the narrative, his reply: "You're a writer. Make it up." (Booklist)
Looking for the feel-good World War II book of the year? This tale of two miscreants in Soviet Leningrad might be the one, as Lev and Kolya bumble their way toward locating a dozen eggs for a stern Soviet colonel who needs them for his daughter's wedding cakes. The city is at the gates of starvation (achingly portrayed in realistic detail), so the boys set out into the enemy-occupied countryside. Delivering the eggs will release them from their death sentences, as Lev was caught looting the body of a downed German paratrooper and Kolya deserted his unit to visit girlfriends. Coming upon partisan cadres and Germans, they find little success in their perilous saga. With deftly sly humor, respect for the agony of warfare, and dialog that elevates the boys-to-men story beyond its typical male ribaldry, this second novel (after The 25th Hour ) by screenwriter Benioff (The Kite Runner ) deserves a bright spotlight in most libraries to attract readers young and old to its compelling pages. (Library Journal)
Author and screenwriter Benioff follows up The 25th Hour with this hard-to-put-down novel based on his grandfather's stories about surviving WWII in Russia. Having elected to stay in Leningrad during the siege, 17-year-old Lev Beniov is caught looting a German paratrooper's corpse. The penalty for this infraction (and many others) is execution. But when Colonel Grechko confronts Lev and Kolya, a Russian army deserter also facing execution, he spares them on the condition that they acquire a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Their mission exposes them to the most ghoulish acts of the starved populace and takes them behind enemy lines to the Russian countryside. There, Lev and Kolya take on an even more daring objective: to kill the commander of the local occupying German forces. A wry and sympathetic observer of the devastation around him, Lev is an engaging and self-deprecating narrator who finds unexpected reserves of courage at the crucial moment and forms an unlikely friendship with Kolya, a flamboyant ladies' man who is coolly reckless in the face of danger. Benioff blends tense adventure, a bittersweet coming-of-age and an oddly touching buddy narrative to craft a smart crowd-pleaser. (Publishers Weekly)
Novelist and screenwriter Benioff's glorious second novel (The 25th Hour, 2000) is a wild action-packed quest, and much else besides: a coming-of-age story, an odd-couple tale and a juicy footnote to the historic World War II siege of Leningrad.
It's New Year's Eve, 1941, and Lev Beniov is alone in Leningrad. (Note that last name: This novel was sparked by tape-recorded memories of author Benioff's grandfather.) The 17-year-old's mother and sister were evacuated before the siege began in September; his father, a respected poet, was "removed" by the NKVD in 1937. Lev's real troubles begin when a German paratrooper, frozen to death, lands on his street. Lev deserts his firefighter's post, steals the German's knife, is arrested by soldiers and jailed. His cellmate is 20-year-old Kolya, a boastful Cossack deserter, dazzlingly handsome in contrast to scrawny Lev, who hates his telltale big nose (he's half-Jewish); their initial hostility turns into the closest of bonds. Sparing their lives, for now, NKVD Colonel Grechko gives them a near-impossible assignment in this starving city: five days to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake. There's nothing doing on the black market. Then Kolya hears of a poultry collective…behind German lines. That's where they must go, decides Kolya, and Benioff makes his boundless self-confidence entirely credible. Over half the novel happens in enemy territory. Lev and Kolya stumble on a farmhouse where four pretty Russian girls are being kept as sex slaves by a Nazi death squad. (The connection between sex and death is a major theme.) The slave-owners are killed by Russian partisans, one of whom is the deadly sniper Vika, a young tomboy who steals Lev's heart. Despite a "parade of atrocities," the pace will keep your adrenaline pumping right up to the climactic chess game between Lev and a fiendish Nazi officer.
This gut-churning thriller will sweep you along and, with any luck, propel Benioff into bestseller land. (Kirkus Reviews)
CITY OF THIEVES By David Benioff
I want to hate David Benioff. He's annoyingly handsome. He's already written a pair of unputdownable books, one of which was made into Spike Lee's most heartbreaking film, ''The 25th Hour'' -- for which Benioff was asked to write the screenplay, leading to a second career in Hollywood. (They should just get it over with and put the man in the movies already.) He takes his morning orange juice next to Amanda Peet. And he's still in his 30s. See what I mean?
Benioff's new novel reveals why there are so many Russians -- not oligarchs or prostitutes, but soldiers and old babushkas -- in this nice American boy's fiction. ''City of Thieves'' follows a character named Lev Beniov, the son of a revered Soviet Jewish poet who was ''disappeared'' in the Stalinist purges, as Lev and an accomplice carry out an impossible assignment during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. Before Lev begins to tell his story, however, a young Los Angeles screenwriter named David visits his grandfather in Florida, pleading for his memories of the siege. But this is no postmodern coquetry. In fact, the novel tells a refreshingly traditional tale, driven by an often ingenious plot. And after that first chapter Benioff is humble enough to get out of its way. For some writers, Russia inspires extravagant lamentations uttered into the eternity of those implacable winters. Happily, Benioff's prose doesn't draw that kind of attention to itself.
Lev, an intelligent, awkward, eternally self-doubting Jewish teenager, and Kolya, a Slavic Adonis, have been imprisoned after wartime infractions. Awaiting execution, they're summoned by the secret police: Colonel Grechko's daughter is getting married, and eggs are needed for the cake. It would be easier to find snow in Saudi Arabia, but if Lev and Kolya can locate a dozen they'll get back their ration cards -- and their lives. Very soon, the odd couple are dodging a husband-and-wife team of cannibals and seducing their way -- well, Kolya is, at least -- through the starving city.
This isn't flippant or inappropriately irreverent: gallows humor, so nourished by the horrors of Stalin's regime, certainly survived into the era of the blockade. In contrast to the piety of so many of today's historical novels -- their facts unimpeachable and their souls somewhere in the library -- Benioff's book lets its characters inhabit the human condition in all of its sometimes compromised versatility.
But it's never cavalier, because the author has done his research. Benioff could have read in a history book -- or learned from his grandfather -- that cannibals first went for the buttocks, ''the softest meat, easiest for making patties and sausages,'' but an expletive that a passing driver shouts at Lev and Kolya requires a sixth sense. I know of no such phrase in Russian, but in an English-language novel simulating Russian speech, it captures precisely the maternal obsessions of Russian swearing.
The research never stands out because Benioff weaves it in so deftly. He shifts tone with perfect control -- no recent novel I've read travels so quickly and surely between registers, from humor to devastation -- and expertly evokes the vagaries of Lev's adolescence. Readers who look down on plot-driven fiction will learn something new, even if Benioff miscalculates with a too-neat resolution, which includes both a love interest and a coming-of-age challenge. But if this is Benioff's grandfather's story, that's the way it must have happened, right?
Who knows. In a recent interview, Benioff said the novel's first chapter was pure invention -- that all four of his grandparents were born in the United States. But in the bound galleys of the novel he thanked his grandfather for his ''patience with my late-night phone calls'' about the blockade. The final version of the book doesn't carry that acknowledgment. What gives?
In its own modest way, ''City of Thieves'' becomes a commentary on the literary rigidities of our day. James Frey and Margaret B. Jones -- gifted storytellers who, perhaps cravenly, mislabeled their work as nonfiction -- are eviscerated in the same court of public opinion that venerates apple-cheeked first-timers who transcribe every heartbeat of their suburban youth but have the moxie to call it fiction. Benioff's opening chapter, ''true'' or not, is a gentle reminder that fiction is often nonfiction warped by artifice, and that nonfiction is unavoidably a reinvention of what actually happened. In exposing these seams -- God bless his editor for leaving in that chapter -- Benioff reminds us what a beautifully ambiguous world we live in.
Source: Fishman, Boris. "Wartime Rations." The New York Times Book Review 6 July 2008: 13(L). Literature Resource Center. Web. 14 May 2010.