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Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  4,310 ratings  ·  641 reviews
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Attila Ambrus, the Robin Hood of Eastern Europe. He's the one-time pelt smuggler, professional hockey goalie (possibly the worst in the sport's history), pen salesman, Zamboni driver, gravedigger, church painter, roulette addict, building superintendent, whiskey drinker, and native of Transylvania who's decided that the best thing to do with his ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 13th 2005 by Back Bay Books (first published September 16th 2004)
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Average rating 4.01  · 
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Scott Hawkins
Jan 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: works-of-genius
A true gem.

This book is the story of real-life Hungarian bank robber Attila Ambrus. His story alone would be worth five stars even told without flair--bank robberies! hockey! flight to freedom! But Rubenstein elevates the already unbelievable events with his masterful telling. Ballad is a crime-adventure comedy interwoven with slice-of-life journalism set in the proto-kleptocracy that was post-Soviet Hungary.

Truly one of the best books I've ever read. Miraculously, the audiobook performance wa
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

Budapest, Hungary

Hungary's most beloved criminal and one of the most memorable, fascinating and likable characters ever written about.

The "whiskey robber" was a simple man named Attila Ambrus from a small village in eastern Transylvania, Romania. Attila Ambrus got into trouble at a very young age for petty theft. In 1988, he illegally crossed Romania's
R.S. Carter
Jun 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, europe
He was the main conspirator in dozens of armed robberies in post-communist Hungary in the nineties, but the people of Hungary saw Attila Ambrus like this:

He is the folk hero of Hungary, although he never redistributed his wealth. He stole from the state, but did pour the money back into the economy through his luxurious life style. Never violent, never intentionally harming a soul, giving the bank tellers flowers and maybe a little flirtation while he was half-in-the-bag, knee-walking drunk, Att
May 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is as fun to read as it is enlightening. Every once in a while there comes along a person who leads such an unlikely life that it would be impossible to invent them. In addition to the story of the protagonist himself, the story of post-communist Hungary is a major part of the book as well. Everything that you would need to put the life of Attila (the whiskey robber) in context of the world that he lived in is provided in vivid detail. This book would have been fascinating to me even w ...more
Apr 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: travelers to Hungary, true crime fans, nearly anyone
Recommended to Patricia by:
Shelves: great-audiobooks
The audio edition of this book is fantastic--really a radio comedy/drama. It is introduced by Attila Ambrus himself, the eponymous Whiskey Robber, as he served time in jail for his string of non-violent bank robberies in Budapest in the 1990s. The author is the main narrator, with voices supplied by a wildly diverse array of people from comedians Dmetri Martin and Eugene Mirman to author Gary Shteyngart, and music by One Ring Zero.

It is the crazy-but-true story of how Attila, a hapless and basic
Nov 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2016
3.5 stars.

This is a fun book, and even more fun on audio.
Pat Cooney
Oct 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing
While the title and descriptions will suggest to you that this is a book about a criminal ice hockey goaltender who also was a smuggler - and it is, don't you worry - it's selling itself short. This is a book about postcommunist Hungary, particularly Budapest, and is told with amazing love and care through the lens of one Atilla Ambrus who very well might become your favorite bank robber.

While Rubinstein does such a good job of describing Hungarian culture and identity - to the point that I fee
Ryan Chapman
Mar 05, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Shelves: nonfiction
This debut is the perfect summer read: compelling as hell, witty, illuminating, and really unbelievable for a nonfiction title. This is the story of Attila Ambrus, who in the 1990's in Hungary started as the most dedicated and talentless professional hockey goalie in the world, moonlighting first as a Transylvanian pelt smuggler and then as Eastern Europe's most legendary bank robber.

Filled with incredible details, from his habit of robbing while blisteringly drunk to the ubiquitous corruption
Aug 25, 2020 rated it liked it
I loved this book. I thought all the voices were so funny and entertaining. I would laugh right out loud. I can’t believe how truly unbelievable this story is. I don’t want to call the Whiskey Robber lucky or smart but that’s what I kept thinking the whole time!!
May 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: book-club-picks
I had to let this one set for a bit before I could decide what to write in a review. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, it was like listening to radio theatre! This is the true story of Attila Ambrus, a Hungarian pro hockey player who was also leading a double life as the notorious whisky robber. Even without the robbery Ambrus had a very interesting life. He snuck into Hungary riding under a train car. He worked many odd jobs while he tried to gain citizenship. One of which was a zamboni driver w ...more
Craig Dube
Jun 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was pitched to our bookclub as a non-ficton that reads like fiction. I find this to be a very accurate assessment. The story is of Attila Ambrus, a young man who immigrates from Romania to Hungary to carve out a new life. When he comes to Hungary, he makes his way onto the local semi-pro hockey team as both a janitor and a 3rd string goalie. Attila struggles to make ends meet until he stumbles across the lucrative profession of pelt smuggling. However the pelt sm ...more
Oct 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone, it's great!
I have recommended this book more times than I can count! julian rubinstein writes a page-turning history, of a man, a place, and a series of events that proves once again that real life is stranger than fiction!

THE BEST! You'll be in post communist Budapest / Hungary / Romania during the 1990's. One reviewer said of it: "I love this book for giving me insight into a country I had little knowledge of".

Another reviewer said he saw "Atilla Ambrus – as a doorway to the bigger story, that of the t
Dec 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Marieke by: Cait's shelves
I wasn't expecting this to be this good. First, i'd never heard of the subject, Atilla Ambrus. I was alive and well at the end of the Soviet era and totally into Eastern and Central European stuff. how did i miss this story? Thank you Julian Rubinstein for making sure it didn't slip by me.

Second, i was alarmed when i heard the long list of readers at the beginning of the recording. Normally i don't go in for that type of audio book, but this was done so incredibly well i want to give this book
Rebecca Skane

Wow. A true crime story that reads better than fiction. I can see why the country of Hungary fell in love with him. The gentleman Whiskey Robber, the folk hero of the masses, Attila Ambrus. Full review: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber Book Review.
Kiwi Begs2Differ  ✎
The saga of an alcoholic hockey player turned polite bank robber, who became a news sensation and Hungarian national hero by evading the local and international police for so long. It’s an unbelievable (view spoiler) but quite funny story, dragging a little in the middle. ...more
Jun 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was an absolutely extraordinary story, totally unbelievable yet true. To be honest, I had no clue about Attila Ambrus, never read or heard about him and had no intention of reading his life story. This book came up in a blog as a must read before travelling to Budapest so I bought it before my trip a few years ago and completely forgot about it. After Beartown, this book caught my attention just because of Ice hockey and surprise!! even this one had little to do with the actual sport :P

Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a fun and hilarious portrait of a bank robber in the 1980's and 90's. The political climate of Romania and Budapest is also discussed, as well as the American influence on Eastern European culture at the time of the fall of communism. Great history lesson for me! The audiobook had a great cast of characters and had me laughing often. ...more
**2.5**The writing just didn't work for me. I also feel like I went into this one with very high expectations from some high praise, I was expecting a lot more and was somewhat disappointed that it didn't work well for me. I seem to be in the minority however so it might just be me. ...more
Jan 27, 2021 rated it really liked it
Love me a well written history book. It started off a little slow but that might be because I am unfamiliar with the history of this region. Once it picked up I couldn’t stop listening!
I had no idea that Hungary was considered at one time something like the scourge of Europe, at least I got that impression from reading this. Here's a little of the start of the book:

Hungary has always been unlucky. In the approximately eleven hundred years since the handlebar mustachioed Chief Árpád rode into the Carpathian basin in 896 and founded Hungary, the country has been plundered so relentlessly that defeat could be considered the national pastime."

The author then goes on to recount ho
Mar 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book is totally nuts, in a good way.

Imagine if the movie Airplane were instead about a serial bank robber. That's the way this true-crime story reads. Very few times and places had the combination of societal and individual volatility of Eastern Europe in the 1990's, and author Rubinstein does a good job of convincing the reader that Hungary was the maddest of the mad-cap countries freed from the yoke of Soviet-style communism.

I cannot really discuss much about the characters or the plot wi
eleen ✨
Jan 22, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, kindle, 2019
Definitely less about hockey than I thought it would be, but such a great book. Rubinstein makes this story so engrossing, writing in a way that's humorous but still gets the story across. He tells the story like it's fiction. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is organised in 3 parts plus overtime. The first period is about Attila Ambrus, Whiskey Robber, and his early life in Transylvania, which was Not Good. The second period is about his life in Hungary, as an awful goalie for a crap team, but most ...more
Dan Spencer
Dec 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
You just can't make up stuff like this. This mesmerizing tale reads like fictional satire, but it's all true. With his exquisitely detailed writing, Rubinstein immerses readers into Hungarian culture circa the post-Communist 1990s. You can tell the author loved delving into this bizarre story, which takes us Westerners into a cubbyhole of the world we rarely see. (When people talk of the Third World... well, Hungary could be described as the Second World; not completely backwater but riddled wit ...more
Jul 13, 2009 rated it really liked it
This is quite a complex true tale that Rubinstein briliantly weaves intertwining the corrupt politics of 1990 Hungary, Ice Hockey, Bank heists and just trying to make ends meet month to month (paycheck to paycheck or heist to heist). I guess that is why it was given the title it was given. Don't be overwhelmed by the list of characters provided to you in the beginning of the book. It really isn't that hard to remember who is who, due to the fact that as some new characters fade in, others fade o ...more
Patti Meyerdirk
Sep 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Having lived in the neighboring country of Slovakia during this time period and now living in the city of the setting, this was an incredible read to me! It brought insight into the culture and thinking of those around me that I had not had before reading it. I was also able to relate to much of the atmosphere and ways of the people. The author was very accurate in his descriptions of the people, culture, and setting. His understanding of the transition from communistic rule to a democratic soci ...more
On top of the fact that the story is inherently fascinating (and true), the historical, political and social context of the book is thoroughly enjoyable due to the author's dry humor. Such humor even helps to express the plight of the post-Soviet Hungarian. The absurd descriptions of the police force would make the sternest reader smile and the history and politics will interest even the most avid renouncer of history. The story and its tone give the reader an overall endearing look at how Budap ...more
Tom Buske
Jun 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book was great. I don't know which made me laugh more, the main character being so drunk when robbing a bank that he slurred his words so badly that the tellers just laughed at him or one of the Keystone Kops chasing him being nicknamed "Mound of Assshead". All this set against a backdrop of post-Communist Hungary trying to adapt to a capitalist economy and a democratic government. All in all, an extremely enjoyable read. ...more
May 27, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Ok, so normally I don't write reviews for Goodreads—got to save the big thoughts for the paying customers. But this book is the first I have given a five star rating to. It is funny, astonishing, and incredibly reported. I read it in absolute awe. Julian Rubinstein pulled off something awesome. Read it now. ...more
Tragic yet funny. This is the amazing true story of how the worst goalie ever to play professional ice hockey discovered that he was a very talented bank robber--though he had to get drunk to go through with each heist. I listened to the audio version, which is very ambitious and has lots of famous voice actors and sound effects and music.
Jan 30, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Ex-goalies, inmates, drinkers, World Bank wonks
Recommended to Pat/rick by: Lango
The subtitle says so much, so truthfully. The book promises and delivers. We would find it hard to create a more unlikely hero or a more bizarre, compelling story. Post-communist implosion and Wild West vigilanteism meet Robin Hood, Zorro, and the Wu-Tang Clan.
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Julian Rubinstein is an award-winning journalist, author, producer and educator.

His new book, The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood will be published by FSG in May 2021. It has received Starred pre-publication reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, which called it "a shattering piece of investigative journalism involving street gangs, ra

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