25 August 2005

Just Read: The Coffee Trader

This novel by David Liss was a quick read. It takes place in Amsterdam in the 17th century, during the birth and early childhood of corporations, stock exchanges, and futures trading. The protagonist is a commodities trader named Miguel Lienzo, of Portuguese Jewish extraction, who is in the process of recovering from a financial disaster and soon grows to hope that trading in the little known new commodity called coffee will make his fortune. There are a variety of intrigues that keep you turning pages, and plenty of interesting tidbits about the little-known culture of the “hidden Jews” of Portugal (in previous centuries many Iberian Jews had become Catholics to avoid execution by the Inquisition; many of these conversos privately maintained their Judaism as best they could while adhering to the forms of Christianity in public), the position of women, and the cosmopolitan culture of Amsterdam at that time.

The writing is mostly efficient, with occasional infelicities. But this is not a novel to read for the pleasure of its prose; in The Coffee Trader, the plot’s the thing.

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