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Friday, January 18, 2013

The Whiskey Rebellion, The Technologists, The Bookseller of Kabul, and Prince of Fire

David Liss.  The Whiskey Rebellion. Two narrators alternate until their stories come together.  Ethan Saunders, who had been a very successful spy for General Washington until he was unjustly accused of treason just before the end of the war, is busy drinking himself to death in Philadelphia, while Joan Maycott, a young New York woman, accompanies her carpenter husband to land they thought they had bought near Pittsburg.  It was a swindle by a financier named William Duer.  The Maycott’s only had a lease, and it required quarterly payments in a back country where cash was rare.  Nevertheless the Maycott’s, with the help of neighbors in a similar situation, made a success of their uncleared land, principally by developing a better formula for making rye whiskey.  When Alexander Hamilton attempted to fund his Bank of the United States by imposing an excise tax on whiskey, Duer’s agent for collecting lease payments was appointed tax collector and tried to use his position to take back the leaseholds and prevent competition with the whiskey he was making on his own estate.  The agent kills Maycott’s husband and accuses her of the murder.  Maycott goes to confront the agent and finds that one of his own men has killed him.  She scoops up the agent’s money and flees to the office of a lawyer in Pittsburg.  She sells her lease to the lawyer and conspires with some of her neighbors to get revenge on Hamilton.  She next turns up in Philadelphia with a scheme to break the Bank of the United States.  Meanwhile, Saunders attempts to protect the woman he was to marry, until he was disgraced.  She had married a financier who is part of Duer’s plot to corner the market in 6% bonds and take over Hamilton’s bank.  The ins and outs of the various plots make exciting reading.  Meanwhile the principal male characters are consuming unimaginable amounts of alcohol.  Liss manages to give us a lot of the history of finance in 1790s America and tell a very good story without bending that history too much.  January 2013

.Matthew Pearl.  The Technologist.  The first graduating class from MIT in 1868 is the vehicle Pearl uses to tell a tale of scientific terrorism in Boston.  It’s exciting, and the historical tidbits are interesting, but the science behind the acts of terrorism is more than just a stretch.  As he did in the Dante Club, where he had Longfellow assisted by James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, searching for a serial killer, Pearl makes 19th C Boston come alive.  Sometimes you don’t want a novel to end, but not this time.  It could have been cut by as much as a third.  January 2013

Asne Seierstad.  The Bookseller of Kabul.  The author, a Norwegian journalist, spent six weeks embedded with Northern Alliance commandos  in Afghanistan before moving on to Kabul.  In Kabul, she met an Afghan businessman whom she calls Sultan Khan and eventually asked if she could move into his household to collect data for a book on life in Afghanistan.  Surprisingly he said “yes,” and she lived with him and his family for four months.  The stories of family life, shopping in a burka, courtship, marriage, pilgrimage, crime and punishment and Sultan’sd book and postcard business are well-told and fascinating.  The author spends a lot of time on Sultan’s role as head of the family, and how he tramples over his wives and children. The first thing I took away from this book was that if you are a woman, you don’t want to be an Afghan.  The second this is that if you are a man, you don’t want to be an Afghan.  January 2013

Daniel Silva.  Prince of Fire.   This may be the last mission for Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, alias Mario Delvecchio.  He had been undercover in Venice for many years working as an art restorer and is currently inactive and off the payroll.  When he is outed by one of Arafat’s agents, his time in Venice must come to an end. There’s a good bit of back story here as Gabriel hunts a third generation terrorist under deep cover in France as a distinguished archeologist.  The action story is thrilling, but there is more.  Silva provides his own sense of the conflicts, dreams and sadness that have defined Arab/Israeli relations for decades. Towards the end of the book Allon has a conversation with his mentor, Shamron, about the way Arabs within the borders of the newly partitioned Israel were dealt with in 1948.  Little has changed in the intervening 60 years.  January 2013

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