Monday, December 8, 2008

Enthusiasm for City of Thieves in the State of Cheese

Recently I was walking between our Shorewood shop and our Downer location. There are two interesting ways to do this. Turn left at Capitol Drive, pick up a delicious cookie at City Market, and then turn right on Downer. The other way is to head straight down Oakland Avenue, stop in at Oakland Gyros for the chicken shish kabob sandwich (or the ginormous platter if you are particularly hungry), and turn left on Webster.

Anyway, I was taking route two when I ran into another Daniel, one of my favorite customers. The best part is that I had just seen his wife and daughter at the JCC, where I was helping out at Tatiana de Rosnay’s appearance at the JCC for Sarah’s Key. I love coincidences, not least because they are the stuff of great comic novels.

Daniel told me he had finished, on my recommendation, one of my favorite novels, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. Last year if you ran into me on the floor of one of our shops, and chatted with me, at one point I probably found a copy and read you a sonnet or two. It’s an incredible novel, a one-of-a-kind experience, about two friends in the early 1980’s San Francisco who are divided by the war machine, a woman, and a cat. It’s all in perfect sonnet form, based on the structure of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.

Some coworkers and I are planning to read Eugene Onegin this January, as part of our lunchtime office book club (Every book lover should do this. Details to follow in another posting.) and that has got me thinking about Russian literature in general, another novel that, like The Golden Gate, plans off Russia in a modern, inventive way.

It’s David Benioff’s City of Thieves, and it’s one of my favorite novels of the year. In short, it’s the story of two young prisoners during the siege of Leningrad who are told that their lives will be spared if they can find a dozen eggs for an army officer’s daughter’s wedding.

It’s a thriller that’s alternatingly gruesome, philosophical, and funny. There’s a Michael Chabon-ishness to it in both the humor and the underlying theme of friendship between two very different men. Benioff plays with reality much like Jonathan Safran Foer, and the story is as cinematic as The Kite Runner and Khaled Hosseini's newest, just out in paperback, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

That’s not a surprise, since Benioff wrote the screenplay for The Kite Runner. I recently spotted Hosseini’s recommendation for the book on Penguin’s “What to Give Checklist.” He called it “A riveting war novel and an engaging coming of age story. City of Thieves is tender, illuminating, and, be warned, often shocking. “

City of Thieves is a book that I’ve successfully recommended to 25-year-old women and 70-year-old men. I watched it get passed around to each member of my family. It’s that kind of book. It’s also time for you to buy it. Read it first, and then give it as a gift, if you can bear to part with it.

Read another take on City of Thieves from Sarah Marine at our Downer Avenue shop.

Find more recommendations in our Gift Guide. If you are a regular shopper under our Schwartz Gives Back program, one was sent to you. If not, we’ve got copies in our shops or you can look at a pdf here (part one) and here (part two). You can also pick up a copy in our shops.

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