About thirty seconds ago, I finished, albeit out of breath, the last seventy pages of David Benioff's City of Thieves. I ran the book downstairs and immediately hand-delivered the book to my brother, Jeff. Here's a little "decoding", if you will, as to the significance of that event.
My brother Jeff never read a single book in high school. He reminds me so much of the students that I see every day in my English classes. He never saw the point, didn't like being told what to read and how fast to read it, didn't like being tested on it, and was quickly converted to being a total non-reader.
Something happened about three years ago. During his sophomore year in college, I caught Jeff reading. It was the strangest thing! Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked him what he was doing. Flatly, and unamused, he responded, "Reading." Clearly, he didn't want to entertain a lengthy conversation about the event, so I let it be. Over the past three years I've gleaned pieces of information from him: my prime research subject. It turns out, and not to my surprise, that teenagers really do like to read! They love getting caught up in just the right story with memorable characters and a self selected reading pace. Jeff confirmed my beliefs about teenagers and reading: give me some space, let me discover what I like, and I'll read. In fact, I'll read more than you'd ever imagine AND I'll even push myself into much more challenging texts than you'd ever expect.
So here we are. City of Thieves thrust into the hands of a previously labeled "non-reader". That has some serious weight to it. There are many delightful moments and many that I'd like to quickly forget, namely the cannibalism and the graphic deaths of many throughout the novel. Set in Russia during the German occupation of World War II, City of Thieves essentially tells the story of two men on a seemingly simple mission: to find one dozen eggs for a specific army commander. The narrative arc constructed by this ancient quest like story line was comforting to me. It made me feel like I belonged in the narrative even in the moments where I felt like I was so distant from two men freezing, crossing enemy lines, and conversing so frequently about sex and women.
The unique setting and characters were nothing short of compelling. Lev, the main character, is full of adolescent quirks that the reader can't help but want to reach out and hug him through the pages. Lev's heroic counterpart, Koyla, is one of the funniest and darkest characters that I've read since the last time I read a Kurt Vonnegut novel. This unlikely pair on an unlikely mission pulled me through page after page of horrifying violence, cannibalism, and gruesome imagery. I really wanted to hate this book. I wanted to be done with it. Done with the vulgarity (and there is plenty of that), done with the cursing, done with the murderous Germans, but I couldn't. I couldn't hate this book because I feel like that would be so unfair to Lev and Koyla. David Benioff, what have you done to me?
Perhaps the most alluring aspect of this story is the way Benioff has framed it. Chapter one begins in present day as Benioff visits his grandparents in Florida to finally get the real story of what it was like in the war. Benioff's grandfather reluctantly fills tape after tape with stories from the war, and from there, Benioff launches into his retelling of these stories that came from his grandfather. The memoir-esque feel to this novel appealed to me the most. It even left a pang of regret in the bottom of my stomach...I really wish I would have taken the time to hear my grandfathers tell me about what life was like for them in the war.
City of Thieves? Pick it up. You'll want to cry, throw up, rip it up, cradle it, and devour it all at the same time. This book truly is for those of you who love an adventure story, aren't offended by vulgarity, and can stomach some pretty nasty scenes.