Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I've Been Typecast

Well not really, but with Chuck on sabbatical, Bronwyn and I have taken on the bulk of the buying at Words Worth, and this could change how I read.
Technological changes aside, books are marketed pretty much as they have been for years. Good and bad book reviews influence what gets in the door and how much of it. There are still newspapers of note, and blogs that I check constantly but there’s a closer relationship with various publishers sales representatives who sell their firms seasonal titles.
One of my favourite people in that regard recently put me onto a novel that we had in the store last year.
It didn’t do much in hardcover and was due shortly in paperback.
This sales rep said something to the effect that “you should have a look at this, I think you may really take to it” while noting (they are in sales after all) that we didn’t sell the hardcover too well.
Most sales reps are duty bound to let the world know about the “big” books coming out particularly in the fall (by the way, the first sentence of the new Dan Brown novel in September will be “Robert Langdon awoke”) but the good ones have a real knack for getting the smaller gems into enthusiastic hands.
And so, a thank you to the underpaid staffers of Penguin Canada for David Benioff’s City of Thieves.
The hook is fairly simple. Two young Russians are spared prosecution during the Nazi’s siege of Leningrad by an influential Soviet colonel. He’s proposed to bury their crimes if they can procure a dozen eggs for use in his daughter’s wedding cake.
Bodies are stacked like chord wood and even bread is made from things inedible, but Lev and Kolya pool their talents in a desperate and at times comic attempt to expedite the impossible request and save their skins.
An historic city beset by lawlessness and the German war machine carries the novel along like a tank.
City of Thieves is in pre-production as a film and its Benioff’s talents as a screen writer (Kite Runner) that lend an especially episodic air to the tale.
Often, aspects of a novel that stand out especially can carry the work even if the author can’t sink every ball on the table.
Coming of age tales during wartime are everywhere, but I’m hard pressed to find a weak point in Benioff’s game. His treatment of Russian literary history is seamlessly woven into the story; his tone is smooth whether City of Thieves is brutal or comic. The multitudes contained in the character Kolya are wonderful.
It’s to Benioff’s credit that he didn’t let Kolya run wild and risk overwhelming other characters in the novel. His professorial/maddening riffs on war, literature, love, sex and everything else are wonderful in an informal setting.
To top it off, the eternal teenager in me notes what I now believe to be the single greatest putdown one man has ever delivered unto another.
Lev, the narrator and sidekick to Kolya meets and falls in love with Vika, an enigmatic Resistance fighter with a crack shot, and he plays an epic chess match for the highest stakes possible with a barbaric German officer Abendroth. Lev’s back story and his skill as a straight man make Kolya’s bombast all the more memorable.
As I raced through the book, I noticed small similarities with Jonathan Safran Foer’s acclaimed first novel, Everything is Illuminated. As good as it was Benioff is a more assured and subtle writer.
Even when the author is clearly nodding to classic storytelling convention, his originality and fine touch is such that his bag of tricks feels entirely new.
City of Thieves is the whole package, a literary novel with a knockout punch.
I frequently grumble that novels are overlong and the better of the bunch are knowingly short.
Very seldom do I wish a novel to be longer than it is. Thus, City of Thieves will have to be reread until David Benioff’s next book.
Alongside the euphoria of a book this good, I always lament that I didn’t get to it sooner and mourn again the books I miss while reading the equivalent of “Robert Langdon awoke.”

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