Review: City of Thieves by David Benioff

I stumbled over City of Thieves when it came out and was early on the bandwagon. First to read and last to blog: a neat summation of how I run things around here. City of Thieves is simultaneously funny and sad, which is a hard balance to strike without becoming glib or irreverent. Much of the humor is dark, a little twisted, which is what you’d expect from a book set during a war.

To form an opinion of this book, you must read the first two chapters (at least). The first few pages are tired, because they’re the old: “Sit down, Sonny-boy. Gramps is gonna tell you ’bout the war.” (That’s sarcasm. It’s not a quote). When you get to the story proper, you’ll forgive the clumsy framing device. At the outset, Lev Beniov is starving in Leningrad as the Germans bomb the city. One night, a dead German paratrooper lands near his apartment and he investigates the corpse with a few friends. He is arrested for looting and thrown in a cell with Kolya, a charismatic deserter, until the two of them get a reprieve. They are ordered by a colonel to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake:

“My men say there are no eggs in Leningrad, but I believe there is everything in Leningrad, even now, and I just need the right fellows to find it. A pair of thieves.” (35)

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Review: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is set in a dystopian future. Since it’s for the YA crowd, it’s simpler than other staples in the genre. I’ve read criticism to this effect, but it’s not productive. The Giver’s simplicity makes it accessible to a younger audience and its narrow scope keeps it focused.

The novel outlines Jonas’s road to maturity and adulthood at the age of 12 in a warped and futuristic world. Life in his community is tightly regulated, but seemingly happy. Children do not have individual birthdays but attend a collective ceremony for everyone in their year. These ceremonies impart different gifts and responsibilities to each age group that affirm their role in the community. Jonas is forced to recalibrate his relationship with his peers when he is placed under the Giver’s tutelage instead of working in a traditional occupation. As the Receiver, he will encounter history, wisdom, and pain that he would never know otherwise. read more

Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth snagged the Pulitzer in 1932, one year after it was published. While the win is well deserved (the novel is impossible to put down), The Good Earth is lacking in places. I’m stating up front that I’m rating it 4.5 (out of 5), because some of this review will sound harsh.

I procrastinated with this review, because I was at a loss to describe how I ever became so invested in such flat characters whose struggles were portrayed via bland language. Perhaps Buck stumbled into a foolproof story that could not be derailed by errors in execution. “Errors” is a strong word. The writing is clear (if repetitive), and the characters are compelling (if cardboard). Note: you do not need a prior understanding of Chinese history (though it couldn’t hurt) as the novel provides ample context to understand differences between urban and rural areas in China. There are no clear dates for the novel’s events, but it’s assumed that the uprising in the South is the 1911 Revolution in Shanghai. read more

Review: True Grit by Charles Portis

I gushed a little hard over McCarthy’s The Road and I’m a fervent fan of No Country for Old Men, but Charles Portis has one thing McCarthy will never have: a sense of humor.

Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny. — Roy Blount, Jr.

I don’t have much to add beyond Blount’s summation. The Coen Brothers recently adapted this book to film and the first half is so faithful that the book reads like the film’s script if you’ve seen it. Fortunately, the second half is different enough that it doesn’t feel wholly redundant. This deja vu is the price you pay when reading a great book after watching a faithful adaptation. read more