Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I teach East European history, a dense and sometimes confusing subject that can be difficult for my students, so I’m always looking for books that are accessible to the average reader. I’ve come across two works of non-fiction recently that absolutely fit the bill: Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber and Reggie Nadelson’s Comrade Rockstar.Visit the official The Yugo website and Facebook page.
First, Julian Rubinstein’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber…. Here Rubinstein describes the life and times of Attila Ambrus, “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.” To Hungarians, Ambrus was a loveable rogue. In the 1990s, he robbed nearly 30 banks. Ambrus eschewed violence, left flowers for women tellers, and once sent a bottle of wine to the police detectives pursuing him. (He earned the nickname “Whiskey Robber” because he liked to drink Johnny Walker Red while staking out future heists). Through six years of robberies, Ambrus became a latter-day Jessie James. He symbolized the anger and aspirations of ordinary Hungarians who now felt powerless in a post-communist (and not so wonderfully capitalist) world. Ambrus is still in jail, but word is Johnny Depp is going to play him in a film.
In Comrade Rockstar, Reggie Nadelson tells the fascinating story of Dean Reed, a good looking, all-American pop singer from Colorado who was anything but all-American. Dean, we learn, was a rock star in Russia—Soviet Russia—and spent most of the Cold War singing “Rock Around the Clock” and “Wake Up Little Suzy” to communists. According to Nadelson, “Reed’s records went gold from Berlin to Bulgaria. He made cowboy movies, Eastern-Westerns with stand-in Indians cast in Uzbekistan. He played the radical circuit too—South America and the Middle East. He [even] sang “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to Yasser Arafat. Reed led an interesting life—that is until he died mysteriously in 1986 by drowning in an East German lake. But what should we make of Reed and his curious East/West existence? Was he truly a promoter of peace, as he likened himself, or was he callous self-promoter? Why did so many East Europeans like him, and why did communist governments, so known for their anti-Americanism, allow him to perform?
Buy the two books, have a shot of Stoli (or a nip of palinka), and find out. You'll be glad you did.