Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Jack & Attila

I've always read a lot, usually having a couple of books on the go at any one time, but during a recent enforced period of downtime I positively devoured a mountain of them. From Charles Bukowski's hilarious Post Office, to a comics biography of Martin Luther King by Ho Che Anderson called, perhaps unsurprisingly, King, to the first of three volumes of Nanaimo's history by Jan Peterson, it was books for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not forgetting second breakfast, elevenses, supper and midnight snacks.

Of all the books I enjoyed, however, two in particular really bowled me over. So much so, in fact, that it appears I need to tell you about them right here, right now. So I will. I'm thinking anyone reading who is clued into the book world may have heard of this first one, as it has quite rightly received a lot of attention. Published last year, it is a veritable page-turner called Room by Canadian-Irish author, Emma Donoghue, and it is magnificent. 

On the first page of Room we meet Jack as he reaches his fifth birthday. Shortly thereafter we learn that he has lived his entire young life to date in just one room. Why this is is slowly, harrowingly revealed as Jack narrates the story in his deeply endearing way, in a remarkable language dreamed up by Donoghue and executed with faultless consistency.

I don't actually read a great deal of fiction, preferring history, travel, memoirs and so forth, but this book - a gift from my friend and Fascinating Rhythm boss, Steve - had me hooked from the first page until I put it down, emotionally drained, having read it in, I believe, three sittings.

The thing about Room, at least for me, is that it provokes thoughts on subjects one wouldn't as a rule consider. The story and general concept - so simple, really - have indelibly stuck in my mind, so I'm finding myself pondering such as my relationships with the inanimate objects in my home and workplace. I've been thinking about how I might survive if presented with a similar situation to Jack and his mum's plight, especially in light of the mild claustrophobia I suffer from. And I've been thinking about how the intensity of the bond between mother and child would be unimaginably amplified in this imponderably awful scenario. I've also been mulling on my own sense of spatial awareness, how I occupy my place in this world. All of this and more has stemmed from entering the beautifully realized, yet cramped and highly stressful world in which much of Room is played out.

Really, I cannot recommend Room highly enough. I have never read anything remotely like it and, however much you read, I guarantee you won't have, either. As if I haven't said enough already about why you should immediately buy and dive straight into Room, here's a brief teaser video that may seal the deal: 

My second book choice for today could hardly be more different: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, by Julian Rubinstein. A true story published in 2004, this is a fantastically entertaining account of the life and criminal activities of Attila Ambrus. Before continuing, it is probably best to give you the bizarre synopsis/overview, as laid out on the back jacket of my Canadian copy:

"Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant - if only Cary Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. His opponents: a police chief who learned how to be a detective via dubbed episodes of Columbo; a deputy so dense he was known only by his Hungarian nickname, Mound of Asshead; and a forensics expert-cum-ballet teacher who wore a top hat and tails on the job.

Part Pink Panther, part The Unbearable Lightness of Being, part Slap Shot, this uproariously funny, exuberantly praised book tells the remarkable story of a crime spree that galvanized a forlorn nation and made a nobody into a somebody - a tale so outrageous it could only be true."

Although I appreciate the above reads like a plot outline for a Wes Anderson movie, the whole darned lot of it is true. Yes, even Mound of Asshead, who is routinely referred to throughout the book as 'Mound.' At times, it's hard to believe it all really happened as you stumble into crazy situation after crazy situation in the company of Ambrus - the loveable rogue pictured above - but therein lies the joy of this book. Rubinstein writes with such panache and obvious affection for his subject and his preposterous faux-gangster lifestyle that, even in the darker times - and there are plenty - it's difficult to stop smiling due to the utter lunacy of the story.

Set against a backdrop of the dramatically shifting political climate of 1990s Eastern Europe, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is not only a book about a unique, complex and fascinating character, but also an examination of what can make a folk hero, as Ambrus became, and remains, in Hungary. How could anyone not fall for a bank robber who would hand the tellers roses as he emptied the safe, or - for reasons only he knows - leave a loaf of bread in it before he fled with the loot? 

One of the true joys of this book is tripping over the scores of laugh-out-loud sentences that work even out of context, even when the subject matter is dark, simply because of the ridiculousness therein:

"Among those who took their lives in 1993 were twelve of the thousands who had been lured into a failed Ponzi scheme to raise and sell ringworms."

"Right, here he was, then, in a bad wig and a spot of trouble."

"And they were hot on the trail of the priest who stormed a money van with an ex-judo champion and made off with more than 50 million forints ($470,000)."  

"Hungary's tourism minister proposed as his office's new marketing campaign: 'The Russians came. The Mongols came. The Turks came. They took everything. Come to Hungary and see what's left.'"

"Back in his cell he yapped so incessantly that his cellmate, Killer, who signed his letters to his wife in blood, finally threatened to stab Attila if he didn't shut up (which worked)."

"He began to run as best he could on two twisted ankles toward the Danube, where his first sight across the river was Parliament, spread out on the bank like a big, proud turd."

Anyway, there you have it. To reveal any more might spoil your fun if you decide to hunt down Rubinstein's fabulous tome. As you should.

Although admittedly not terribly curmudgeonly on this occasion, Captain Curmudgeon will return in due course with more musings on whatever takes his fancy. Thanks for reading and have great day.  


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