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What to Read Next (No. 161): another Russian edition — City of Thieves and The Tiger
I have a weakness for books set in Russia. Here’s two that I recently really enjoyed.
I have a weakness for books set in Russia. Something about the bleak Russian landscape and its sordid, fantastic, complicated, fierce history easily and immediately captures my attention and doesn’t easily let it go.
In the last week or so I’ve finished a couple books which fit that bill. Let’s dive right in.
City of Thieves by David Benioff
Published: 2008 | Pages: 258
“You bring me a dozen eggs by Thursday, I give you your lives back.”
Though I wasn’t aware of this while I was reading the book, Benioff is best known for co-creating and writing the Game of Thrones TV show. The guy obviously has some serious storytelling chops. He’s stuck more with the screen than the pen in the last decade or so, but City of Thieves caught my attention after a number of this newsletter’s readers recommended it to me.
The premise seemed strange at first, but quickly grabbed me: We’re in WWII-era Russia during the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Two Russian boys, on the verge of manhood, are oddly assigned to each other’s company for not quite doing their duty to their Mother Country. Thinking they might be executed, Lev and Kolya are instead sent on a fool’s errand to find a dozen eggs. That’s right: their life and death mission is to bring their superior officer twelve eggs.
It’s a bit humorous, at first. Even to the boys. Is this a joke? And Benioff sprinkles in enough humor, especially in womanizing, constipated Kolya, for us to think that the novel might end up to being more comedy than drama.
But then Benioff will take a surprising, dark turn—on a dime—and shocks the senses back into realizing this is in fact an intense story of survival between unlikely comrades. From underground Soviet markets, to a mysteriously well-stocked house in the country, to an epic game of chess . . . Benioff takes us on a wild ride that’s more than just plot driven, but beautifully written as well. One of my favorite lines:
“There is a place beyond hunger, beyond fatigue, where time no longer seems to move and the body’s misery no longer seems fully your own.”
City of Thieves was an incredibly fun roller-coaster of a story. I have yet to find someone who hasn’t liked this book; I’m sure you will too if you haven’t read it yet.
Related books I’ve reviewed: A Gentleman in Moscow (read my review)
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The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant
Published: 2010 | Pages: 306
“No one would read [this book] if it were about a pig or a moose (or even a person) who attacked unemployed loggers. Tigers, on the other hand, get our full attention. They strike a deep and resonant chord within us.”
Vaillant’s superb narrative of a vengeful tiger in Siberia is among the most memorable writing and storytelling I’ve encountered in the time I’ve been writing this newsletter. If you didn’t know any better, you could get to the end of this book thinking you had just read a very realistic novel.
The Tiger opens with a blood-tingling scene: Vladimir Markov is walking home with his dog, through bone-chilling cold and knee-deep snow—at night no less. The reader senses something amiss . . . something dangerous lurking just off-stage. Before even having a chance to react, both Markov and the reader are ambushed by the fiercest predator that remains in our modern world.
The non-fiction books I love most are those that combine genres and deeply explore the context of the story being told. Just a couple examples: Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map explores early attempts at epidemiology, daily life in Victorian London, the history and future of cities; Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men looks at some of the history of spaceflight, why the US needed a win in 1968, the incredible feats of NASA engineering and problem solving. There’s plenty of digression, but I don’t consider that a bad thing when it’s all interesting and when it’s all incredibly well-written.
In The Tiger, John Vaillant tells the captivating biological story of the tiger itself—how it’s an animal that’s hardwired for ruthless killing. Tigers are the silent, sneaky assassins of the natural world. He also tells us about Siberia and what the hard life of a village in Eastern Russia is really like. And threading it all together: how a massive and angry tiger got personal and gruesome revenge on a poacher. Vaillant writes that, “It resembled something closer to a first-degree murder: premeditated, with malice aforethought, and a clear intent to kill.”
His composition is deceptively, simplistically descriptive, but also lyrical in what seems to be a very Russian way—as a reader, I was a bit awed by the spare beauty of the words, and also entranced by Vaillant’s ability to bluntly convey the subject matter. I loved this particular line, as just one example: “The impact of an attacking tiger can be compared to that of a piano falling on you from a second-story window. But unlike the piano, the tiger is designed to do this, and the impact is only the beginning.”
The Tiger is a great book. Period. I originally picked it up because it was recommending multiple times by you guys in the Best Read of 2020 discussion thread. Sure as heck didn’t disappoint.
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