Thursday, December 17, 2009

City of Thieves, David Benioff

City of Thieves, David Benioff:  historical fiction, no spoilers!

I've read many books about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust over the years, but I was completely unprepared by this book by Benioff.  It really knocked me around emotionally, in part because it contained so much tragedy and so much humor. 

Background:  this is based on the author's grandparents and their "how we met" story as Nazi hunters in Russia circa the end of WWII.  It is true to the extent that his grandfather dictated it to him, with the instructions to his grandson to 'make stuff up' if he needs more information.  His grandfather, Lev, was a Jew living in Piter, who was inadvertantly caught out during curfew (when he was trying to rifle the pockets of a dead German).  He ends up in jail where he meets a blustery blond soldier, who was also inadvertantly caught absent without leave (he was making a quick trip to visit his girlfriend and stayed too long).  Both face firing squads the next morning.

They get lucky, or so they think.  They are taken to a powerful General who agrees to free them if they first find him a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding the following week (supplies are nonexistent).  Sounds easy, and it isn't.  This is the tale of their search.  It is appalling, graphic, and funny.  Weird combination.

What surprised me was the detail to which the Russians suffered.  For example, food deprivation.  I knew that cannibalism took place, but the idea that they ate dirt from below a candy factory (the dirt was infused with sugar) or peeled book bindings to eat the glue (i.e. "library candy") shocked me more.

This book has genuine surprises and you really don't know what is going to happen at any given time, in fact, the more you assume the bigger the surprise. 

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