Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More reading

I had stockpiled a few books knowing I had long flights across the country but ended up finishing Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor before I left. You would think that a book involving mathematics, baseball and baseball cards would be my cup of tea. It was a nice book but nothing special.

Surprisingly, my attention was brought to it by the cover. A nice dark blue sky with cherry blossoms blowing in the wind. The story involves a single woman who works as a housekeeper in Japan. She is hired to take care of a former mathematics professor who was in an automobile accident back in 1975 and suffered a brain injury that has left him able to remember everything that happened before the car crash but limits his short-term memory to just eighty minutes. Every day he wakes up and everything that happened to him from before is forgotten.

Thus, every day the housekeeper is a new person to him and he has to go through introductions and such. The professor keeps a wealth of reminder notes pinned to his suit so that he can remember important things (such as the fact his memory lasts just eighty minutes). Despite this, they develop a friendship, largely due to the housekeeper's 11-year old son.

It's a nice enough story, sort of a you-can-find-family-anywhere type of tale. The mathematical stuff is neat and the baseball info is accurate and entertaining. It still didn't captivate me, though.

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was thoroughly captivating, however, which was nice since I spent most of my flight out to LA reading it. The book is about a Romanian fellow, Attila Ambrus, who, after a difficult childhood, heads to Hungary to make a home and a name for himself. Hungary in the early 1990's is going through a lot of changes and as the country shifts to capitalism, supposed wealth is to come to all people.

It turns out that this is not the case and it is a matter of the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. Ambrus is a clever and tenacious fellow who arrives in Hungary with no connections and proceeds to talk his way onto one of the country's top hockey teams as a reserve goalie and janitor. Still treading below poverty, he begins a business smuggling animal pelts from Transylvania. The money he makes and the lifestyle it enables him to lead intoxicates him. Unfortunately, Ambrus has weaknesses for alcohol and gambling and he finds himself losing money as fast as he makes it.

In desperation, he robs a Hungarian post office. He has such an easy time of it that he begins to study other venues for robbery. This leads him to a career as a bank robber. Over a six year span he makes off with almost a million dollars and becomes a national folk hero. He becomes known as the Whiskey Robber because of his predilection for drinking whiskey at nearby bars before he undergoes a heist. A large portion of the Hungary public, tired of being downtrodden as corrupt political officials embezzle and steal and grow rich while they toil fruitlessly, embrace Ambrus and his antics, the media even labeling him a Robin Hood despite the only poor benefitting from his thefts being himself.

Ambrus is eventually caught but escapes while awaiting sentencing. He returns to crime for money and is eventually caught again.

The book is an interesting glimpse at an era that, as the author Rubinstein comments, is about the only possible way such a story could happen. The transitioning economy, the Dark Ages police force, the corrupt government and a handsome, intelligent, hardworking ne'er-do-well all work together to make a fascinating story.

As much as I have always enjoyed reading about criminals, both fictional and not, I had a hard time sympathizing with Ambrus, who does himself in with his drinking and gambling. There are times where he is able to lead an honest life and he somehow finds ways to ruin it. So despite his derring-do and his intelligence, I did not find myself as forgiving as his countrymen which is why I end up putting this book further down my top-ten list despite it being a fantastic tale.

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