Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Coffee Trader - David Liss

the coffee trader
david liss
c. 2003
384 pages
completed 6/9/2010

read for: reading western europe challenge

*may contain spoilers*

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting.

In the year 1659, as the Netherlands explodes with innovate speculative business ventures, Miguel Lienzo is living with his brother after suffering a terrible loss with the turn of the sugar trade. He and his friend Geertruid, a Dutch widow, devise a scheme in order to take control of a new commodity recently arrived in Europe, coffee. Their scheme will give them a monopoly on the new drink and make them richer than they could possibly imagine. But there are many risks involved. Being a Portuguese Jew living in Protestant Amsterdam, Miguel must make sure his business dealings with Gentiles don't come under the scrutiny of his people's court, the Ma'amad. Miguel quickly discovers he has made two powerful enemies, one Jew and one Gentile, and as his coffee scheme spills out of control, Miguel finds cause to be suspicious of everyone's loyalties.

This is the second novel by David Liss I've read this year, the first being The Whiskey Rebels, and he's definitely becoming an author I will keep looking in to and looking out for. While The Whiskey Rebels dealt with an era of history I'm fairly familiar with (post-Revolutionary America and the debate over the Bank of the United States), The Coffee Trader was very new. Set entirely in the business world of the Netherlands, right after their fight for independence from Spain, The Coffee Trader was actually kind of lacking on the Dutch details. Other than some unpronounceable names (Annetje, Joachim, etc) and a tolerance of Jews, I felt there was little to distinguish the setting from, say, London, England. Perhaps there really isn't much to distinguish Amsterdam from London, but I find that hard to believe. For me, I like a historical novel to really immerse me in place and culture as much as story and character.

I was a little put off at first because I didn't really understand all the business that was going on. I don't totally get speculative trading. How can you buy and sell something you don't have? As things went on, however, it became apparent that it wasn't essential for me to understand the actual business transactions and that helped me get more into the story. Also, the further you get in, the harder it is to trust anyone, so I quickly began ignoring the actual business and became absorbed in trying to figure out who was betraying who and who was being manipulated and such. That was where the real story was.

The description of coffee was something I found kind of odd. I mean, I've never really felt that caffeine has that much affect on me. Maybe if I started popping caffeine pills we'd see some results, but these people drank coffee and had instant courage and clarity. It seemed to me a little exaggerated, but of course I did grow up in a coffee drinking house. Maybe things are different when it's bran new.


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