Monthly Archives: September 2011

Book: “The City of Thieves,” by David Benioff

“The City of Thieves” (2008) is set amidst the siege of Leningrad during World War 2. Lev Beniov, age 17, is caught looting–in this case, the body of a dead German pilot who parachutes into his neighborhood. He is thrown into a prison, where he meets Kolya, a colorful, charismatic infantryman accused of desertion.

Both expect to be executed the next morning. But instead, a KGB (or something like that) colonel offer them a deal. His daughter is getting married, and they need a dozen eggs to make the wedding cake. In a city where people starve to death every day, food is at a premium, and eggs are nonexistent. But if they can find a dozen eggs in a week’s time, he’ll let them live.

And so, Lev and Kolya descend into the city to find eggs, or clues about where they could find eggs. Their journey exposes readers to the nightmarish conditions of Leningrad, and to people willing to do anything–anything–for a scrap of food.

The siege of Leningrad began in September 1941, when the Germans totally cut off all access to the city by land. The siege didn’t end until the end of January 1944, almost 2.5 years. During that time, 1.5 million people died, making it the most lethal siege in history. Another 1.4 million were evacuated, and many of them died. Cannibalism was common.

The opening chapter, after a prologue, begins:

“You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold. When we slept, if we slept, we dreamed of the feasts we had carelessly eaten seven months earlier–all that buttered bread, the potato dumplings, the sausages–eaten with disregard, swallowing without tasting, leaving great crumbs on our plates, scraps of fat. In June of 1941, before the Germans came, we thought we were poor. But June seemed like paradise by winter.”

“The City of Thieves” illuminates this horrific situation. And yet, it’s not a dark book. The light-hearted character of Kolya off-sets some of that, as does the ludicrousness of their quest–eggs for a wedding cake.

They search within the city for a while, and then go outside the city, to villages behind German lines. Here they encounter prostitutes selling their bodies to Germans to remain alive, and they have run-ins with Germans and with Russian partisans. One partisan is Vika, a young girl who happens to be a crack sniper and all-around warrior–and who’s mission in life is to kill a sadistic German commander.

I can’t tell you anything more beyond this point without spoiling the story for you. Suffice it to say, this book is well worth your time.

The book is actually a framed story. It begins in modern day America, with the author sitting down with his immigrant grandfather and asking him to tell about his experiences in Russia during the war. His grandfather is Lev. We don’t return to modern times until the final four-page chapter. But let me tell you–it’s a wonderful ending. Sort of what I expected, and yet, so satisfying on every level.

I truly loved this book, and my interest never lagged. There are a number of little threads which keep you wondering–like, what’s with this book Kolya keeps talking about? But all are resolved in good time, and satisfactorily. The writing is superb, the characters are interesting and well-drawn, and the story moves right along. And in the process, you learn some good history.

Read “The City of Thieves.” You’ll enjoy it.

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Book: “The Woman Chaser,” by Charles Willeford

“The Woman Chaser” (1960) is not a good title for this book. The book is not about chasing women, though Richard Hudson does some of that. But he’s really chasing success, or self-actualization.

Richard Hudson comes to LA to start a used-car dealership for his boss in San Francisco. Hudson is great at selling cars, and he experiences success pretty quickly.

He also moves in with his mother and her new husband, Leo, a washed-up film producer who is 20 years younger than she is.

Richard, restless, decides to launch into the film business. He’s got an idea for a movie, which he wants to write and director and everything else–and Leo’s inside knowledge puts him on his way.

“The Woman Chaser” is told first-person by Richard Hudson, whose ego and delusions of grandeur come through loud and clear.

There is no real plot–no mystery to solve, no destination to arrive at. In that way, the book is similar to Willeford’s “The Pick-up,” or Jim Thompson’s “The Grifters.” You’re just carried along as you follow Hudson from one thing to another, and eventually the book stops.

I read this book not because of the title, but because of the author. Willeford is good. I enjoy reading his work. “The Woman Chaser” is the fifth Willeford book I’ve read.

Willeford was born in Arkansas, but grew up in Los Angeles. In 1935, he began a 21-year stint in the military, serving in various roles. During World War 2, he was a tank commander who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and he earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star for outstanding bravery, and Purple Heart. He left the military in November 1956, a few weeks after I was born. But by then, he had already published three novels–in 1953, 1955, and 1956.

A high school dropout, after leaving the military Willeford worked as a boxer, actor, horse trainer, and radio announcer, and studied painting in France for a while. Quite the Renaissance Man. He entered college in 1960, and by 1964 had a Master’s.

Willeford’s most famous novel is “Miami Blues” (1984), the first of five books featuring Detective Hoke Mosely. I read “Miami Blues,” and really need to get to the others. I just think he’s an excellent writer who doesn’t adhere to any formulas. Willeford died in 1988, but left some good reading behind.

Previous Willeford reviews: “Miami Blues” and “The Cockfighter,” and “Pickup”, a book whose ending I’ll never be able to forget.

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Superman Without Shorts

Comicbook Superman and movie Superman wore red shorts. But not (far right) the new Superman. For shame.

I learned today, much to my shock and dismay, that the new Superman won’t be wearing shorts. You know, those tiny red shorts he wears outside of his blue uniform, for some unknown but no doubt very important reason.

A new Superman m0vie is coming. They are, as they say, “rebooting” the franchise, like they did with Batman and the Hulk. Why they decided to remove his shorts, I don’t know. It seems unAmerican. Somebody should inform Michelle Bachman, so she could get the Tea Party riled up about it.

Superman has ALWAYS worn those red shorts. Can he still, truly, be Superman? Although, from a practical standpoint, I suppose it did take a little extra time, in that cramped phone booth, to pull on those shorts and get them situated properly. But still.

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Letter Home from a Redneck Soldier

This is good. Real good. Enjoy.

Am well. Hope ya are. Tell brother Walt & Brother Elmer the Marine Corps beats working for old man Minch by a mile. Tell em to join up quick before maybe all of the places are filled.

I was restless at first because you got to stay in bed till nearly 6 a.m., but am getting so I like to sleep late. Tell Walt & Elmer all you do before breakfast is smooth your cot and shine some things. No hogs to slop, feed to pitch, mash to mix, wood to split, fire to lay. Practically nothing.

Men got to shave but it is not so bad, they git warm water here. Breakfast is strong on trimmings- like fruit juice, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc…, but kinda weak on chops, potatoes, ham, steak, fried eggplant, pie, and other regular food. But tell Walt & Elmer you can always sit between two city boys that live on coffee. Their food plus yoursa hold you till noon, when you get fixings again.

It’s no wonder these city boys cain’t walk much. We go on “route” marches, which the Platoon Sergeant says are long walks to harden us. If he thinks so, it is not my place to tell him different. A “route march” is about as fer as to our mailbox at back yonder. Then the city guys gets sore feet and we all ride back in trucks.

The country is nice, but awful flat. The Sergeant is like a schoolteacher. He nags some. The Capt. is like the school board. Majors & Colonels just ride around an’ frown. They don’t bother you none.

This next will kill Walt & Elmer with laughing. I keep getting medals for shooting. I dunno know why. The bulls-eye is near as big as a chipmunk an’don’t move – an’ it ain’t shooting back at you, like the Higgett boys at home.

All you got to do is to lay there all comfortable and hit it. You don’t even load your own cartridges – they come in boxes.

Be sure to tell Walt & Elmer to hurry an’ join before other fellers get into this setup an’ come stampeding in.

Your loving daughter, Gail

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