David Liss’ “The Coffee Trader”

Well, I have tried this one twice, and given up each time.  The first time, I read probably 50 pages; the second about three times that.

What an interesting premise.  The setting is 17th century Amsterdam, where the native Dutch are living side by side with the free Jewish population (descendants of the hidden Jews of Portugal who had been forced to play like they were Catholic since the end of the 15th century).  The Jews are under the control of the community’s leaders, who brook no dissent (think of Spinoza) and strongly limit contact between Jews and Dutch.

But business (and probably other) connections did develop and in this case, a Dutch woman and a young Jewish merchant/trader decide that the next big thing is “coffee”.  Almost unknown in the West except as a medical prescription for certain psychiatric conditions, coffee is ubiquitous in Turkey and other parts of the Middle East and why shouldn’t it spread to the West, as it seems to have conditions opposite soporific wine and alcohol, increase attention, and decrease the need for sleep?  Would could be more influential in a commercial hub like Amsterdam, where traders needed to remain both alert and awake to take advantage of the news bulletins and rumors that permeated their environment.

What happens in the book.  Does this venture succeed?  Are our perpetrators happy at the end?  I don’t know, because in spite of the fascinating (to me) premise, Liss’ prose is too heavy handed to carry me along, and while I can’t say that his characters don’t interest me, I don’t particularly feel for any of them and, because I don’t, I think that his descriptions of them lack a certain human element necessary to envelope me in the story.

Liss has a new book out – this one not about coffee, but about paper  (this time in London, not Amsterdam, and a century or so later, but the Jewish/Christian relationship is similar)  and its effect on the world economy.  Like “The Coffee Trader”, it has been well reviewed, but I don’t think I am going to give it a try.  Too bad, because “paper” and “coffee” are two of my favorite things.

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