I admit I only read David Benioff’s City of Thieves because it was a present from my friend Mike. After all, the siege of Leningrad is not what I would normally turn to for my usual escapist fiction, but the story of Lev Beniov, a young boy who stayed behind in his crumbling apartment block after the rest of his family had fled the city, and Nikolai Alexandrovich Vlasov, whom everyone calls Kolya, actually contains an amazing amount of humor, albeit of the gallows kind.So armed with my debt of gratitude and the fact that the foreword gives you some hope that the novel won’t end with everyone dead (and the fact that it’s first person), I tackled the book. And it’s another one of those stories that’s set in such a foreign environment—Russia during World War II—that it reads like science fiction. Many of the events are so bizarre and disturbing that you can’t believe these can be human beings doing these things to each other. Unfortunately it’s all too possible that people can be this evil, cavalier and uncaring, from the NKVD colonel who charges Lev and Kolya with the impossible task of finding a dozen fresh eggs in a city where people are turning to cannibalism, to the German Einsatzgruppen (SS death squad) officer who, Seventh Seal like, forces Lev to play chess for his life and that of his friends — and the dozen eggs.I don’t want to give away any of the horrific and surreal scenes of torture, bad luck and stupidity, nor do I want to tell you about the little sacrifices, acts of courage and equally stupid things that give some meaning to the nastiness and brutality. They are both too awful and wonderful to spoil. What I will tell you is that the unlikely friendship between Lev and Kolya makes it endurable. Kolya is that crazy person (you may have such a friend) who is equally skilled at talking them out of trouble as much as getting them into trouble. He spends a lot of effort trying to find a woman, worrying about his lack of a good bowel movement and especially glorifying an obscure author and his masterpiece The Courtyard Hound. Lev just wants to make it out alive, but he also manages to fall in love with a young woman sharpshooter, and it’s a love forged during some pretty horrifying circumstances and that makes the ending of the book bearable.Maybe in the end the book is about the ability of human beings to survive no matter what. People manage to make some sense of the world when it’s at its most insensible; society survives, mangled and twisted and bent out of shape, but humanity is never completely erased. In the end, City of Thieves is another one of those books I am glad I read and that I urge others to read, but I never plan to read it again. It’s just too awful, and that’s what makes it good.