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City of Thieves (Benioff)

City of Thieves 
David Benioff, 2008
Penguin Group USA
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780452295292

Summary  
As wise and funny as it is thrilling and original-the story of two young men on an impossible adventure.

A writer visits his retired grandparents in Florida to document their experience during the infamous siege of Leningrad. His grandmother won't talk about it, but his grandfather reluctantly consents. The result is the captivating odyssey of two young men trying to survive against desperate odds.

Lev Beniov considers himself "built for deprivation." He's small, smart, and insecure, a Jewish virgin too young for the army, who spends his nights working as a volunteer firefighter with friends from his building. When a dead German paratrooper lands in his street, Lev is caught looting the body and dragged to jail, fearing for his life. He shares his cell with the charismatic and grandiose Kolya, a handsome young soldier arrested on desertion charges. Instead of the standard bullet in the back of the head, 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 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 to find the impossible.

A search that takes them through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and the devastated surrounding countryside creates an unlikely bond between this earnest, lust-filled teenager and an endearing lothario with the gifts of a conman. Set within the monumental events of history, City of Thieves is an intimate coming-of-age tale with an utterly contemporary feel for how boys become men. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Aka—David Friedman
Birth—ca. 1970
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Dartmouth College; M.A., Trinity College of
   Dublin, Ireland


David Benioff is an author and screenwriter. His first novel, The 25th Hour, was adapted into a popular feature film. His short story collection, When the Nines Roll Over, received critical acclaim (From the publisher.)

More
Born David Friedman, he changed his name to David Benioff, his mother's maiden name. He worked as a club bouncer and high school English teacher at Poly Prep in Brooklyn, NY, until he won recognition for his book, The 25th Hour. He later adapted the book into a film, starring Edward Norton and directed by Spike Lee.

Benioff is a Dartmouth College alumnus. Additionally, he attended the University of California Irvine and received a Masters from Trinity College, Dublin. Thus began his career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

He adapted a screenplay of the mythological epic Troy (2004). He also penned the script for the psychological thriller Stay (2005). 20th Century Fox reportedly paid Benioff $2 million for the script. The film was released on October 21, 2005, and was directed by Marc Forster and starred Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. His most recent screenplay, The Kite Runner, marked his second collaboration with director Marc Forster.

Besides The 25th Hour, Benioff published a collection of short stories titled When the Nines Roll Over (And Other Stories) in 2004. His second novel, City of Thieves, was released in 2008. Benioff is married to actress Amanda Peet; they have one child. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
The novel tells a refreshingly traditional tale, driven by an often ingenious plot…. He shifts tone with perfect control—no recent novel I’ve read travels so quickly and surely between registers, from humor to devastation….
New York Times Book Review


City of Thieves is a coming-of-age story brilliantly amplified by its war-torn backdrop…At times Lev and Kolya seem too free from the strictures of Soviet ideology: They each come equipped with an improbably deep understanding of their society. But for the most part, they and the minor characters satisfyingly inhabit the historical wreckage, and Kolya and Abendroth are especially memorable. But Benioff's finest achievement in City of Thieves has been to banish all possible pretensions from his novel, which never wears its research on its sleeve, and to deliver a rough-and-tumble tale that clenches humor, savagery and pathos squarely together on the same page.
Thomas Meaney - Washington Post


In the six years since his critically praised debut, The 25th Hour, Benioff has produced a story collection and a handful of screenplays, including the blockbuster Troy. The imprint of his film work is evident in this novel, a finely honed but too easily sentimental adventure story set during the siege of Leningrad. Lev, the mousy, virginal son of a disappeared Jewish poet, is jailed by the Russian Army for looting; in prison and awaiting execution, he shares a cell with a blowhard blond infantryman accused of desertion. When a strange colonel offers the pair an impossible task in exchange for their lives, they set off on a journey that takes them through a series of nightmarish war zones, populated by cannibals, prostitutes, starving children, and demonic Nazi chess enthusiasts. Benioff finds a good deal of humor amid the grisly absurdities of wartime, but does so at the expense of real emotional engagement.
The New Yorker


A deft storyteller, Benioff writes about starvation, cannibalism, and Nazi atrocities with poise and cinematic flair. If Thieves were a movie, it would start out like Schindler’s List and end up like Raiders of the Lost Ark.
People


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


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.
Barbara Conaty - Library Journal
 

Novelist and screenwriter Benioff's glorious second novel 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



Discussion Questions
1. David wants to hear about his grandfather's experiences firsthand. Why is it important for us to cultivate and preserve our oral histories? Do you have a relative or friend whose story you believe should be captured for posterity?

2. Lev's father is taken—and almost certainly killed—by the NKVD, yet Lev himself stays behind to defend Leningrad. How do you think he reconciled his patriotism to his love for his father?

3. In the midst of a major historical moment, Lev is preoccupied with thoughts of food and sex. What does this tell us about experiencing history as it unfolds?

4. From the cannibals in the market to the sex slaves in the farmhouse, there are numerous illustrations of the way in which war robs us of our humanity. In your opinion, what was the most poignant example of this and why?

5. Kolya tells Lev that the government should "put the famous on the front lines" (p. 67) rather than use them as the spokespeople for patriotic propaganda. Do you agree or disagree? Can you think of any contemporary instances of this practice?

6. Aside from the sly pride that Lev notices, are there any other clues that give Kolya away as the true author of The Courtyard Hound?

7. Do you think Markov's denouncer should have remained silent about the partisan's presence? Did either of them deserve to die?

8. Even moments before Lev pulls his knife on the Sturmbannführer, he thinks: "I had wanted him dead since I'd heard Zoya's story. . . . [But] I didn't believe I was capable of murdering him" (p. 228). Do you think everyone—given the right motivation—is capable of killing another human being? Could you?

9. Lev takes an instinctive dislike to Kolya yet comes to consider him his best friend. What was the turning point in their relationship?

10. Lev says that Vika "was no man's idea of a pinup girl," (p.149) but he is instantly infatuated. Would he have been drawn to her had they met in different—safer—circumstances?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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