The Whiskey Rebels

If you like historical fiction, you’ll like David Liss. Most of his books have focused on Great Britain, but this one tackles the US during George Washington’s presidency and focuses on the rise of Alexander Hamilton as a political game-changer. It’s rich in history and has two great fictional main characters who share scenes in an alternating manner, both from the first person perspective.

I’m not as familiar as I want to be with Alexander Hamilton. He seems to get the “most influential guy you don’t know about” treatment a lot. He was in the mix with those who shaped our nation, but doesn’t seem to get the same notoriety as Washington, Jefferson, or Adams. I almost bought the Ron Chernow authored bio on Hamilton but I’m not in the mood for 800 plus pages of history right now. It just seems a little daunting.

I did, however, get The Federalist Papers, which Hamilton authored along with John Jay and James Madison. I got it for free on my Kindle. I’m going to try and plow through it casually by the end of this year, but it won’t be a priority. Somewhere in these writings are the roots of how Hamilton justified creating a central bank, which allowed the government to take on debt. This debt would then be paid off by taxes and tariffs that he instituted (since he was the first Secretary of the Treasury), the most famous of which being his tax on whiskey producers in the western United States.

This book tells two sides of the story of the (real) Panic of 1792 using a fictional woman named Joan Maycott and a fictional man named Ethan Saunders. Maycott is a western farmer who’s husband has figured out how to make some very flavorful whiskey and Saunders is a disgraced, ex-Revolutionary War spy who is recruited by Alexander Hamilton to ferret out some financial hijinks happening in the newly-created American financial community.

The Maycott character is serious and dramatic, while the Saunders character is crass and hilarious. This contrast breaks up the book nicely and makes for an enjoyable, fast read. It’s also thought-provoking, especially in this day and age of conservative/liberal polarization, our recent financial crisis, and the 99% camping out in downtown. There’s a point in here somewhere. I think one thing Liss is trying to say is that government corruption and cronyism and their inextricable links to the financial community are nothing new; that we should have seen this crisis coming because it happened from the beginning – in the earliest days of the central bank.

Political positions aside, Liss creates fun, likable characters and fictional plot elements that make it feel like a thriller. I’ve read A Spectacle of Corruption and A Conspiracy of Paper and loved them both. In fact, like clockwork, I’ve read a David Liss book in Jan/Feb every three years starting in 2006. He has four more books so I’m looking forward to getting started on the next one in 2015.

That’s idiotic. I’m especially discouraged by my lack of follow-up. I said back in 2009 that I wanted to dig up more stuff on Alexander Hamilton and I haven’t done anything, save for reading this book. This website does bear the ugly truth at times. I didn’t even remember making a tacit commitment to expand my knowledge of Hamilton, but upon re-reading my thoughts from three years ago, my procrastination and lack of follow-up are laid bare.

I gotta get to work.


The Name of the Rose

So I’m starting early this year with what I’m going to classify as literature. And yeah, it felt like lit. This was a long, slow read for me but it was rewarding when it was over; not so much because it was exciting or dramatic, but because I feel like I learned a few things.

As I’ve already stated, I’m getting in touch with my inner Catholic this year so this book goes along with that effort. It’s a mystery that takes place in an abbey in Italy that is accused by the Pope of heresy (year 1327). Set against the backdrop of a visit from the Pope’s envoy to assess the heresy are some grisly murders in the abbey. William, a visiting monk from England, arrives at the abbey in advance of the envoy as somewhat of an unbiased interlocutor (did I use that correctly?) but he seems to be sympathetic to the abbey. He also voraciously pursues the evildoer who is committing the murders.

The story is told from the first person perspective of William’s sidekick, a young monk named Adso. It takes place during one of the many upheavals in the church. In this time period, Michael of Cesena is in a serious disagreement with the Pope about how strictly to practice the vow of poverty. Michael believed in the strictest teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi and the Pope viewed this as heretical. Michael is at this abbey during the time, so the book combines some history and fiction.

Interesting stuff to me because this is roughly the same time period as World Without End and gives a little deeper insight into how the church was being affected by forward thinking types who combined science and philosophy with theology, like Sir Roger Bacon and William of Occam. Both of these men were coming at things from a philosophical and scientific perspective that often made the church uncomfortable.

William, the fictional main character, uses logic and science to track down the killer and to try and reason with the inquisitors who seem to be biased against Michael of Cesena and his followers. It was, at times, an exciting mystery and interesting character study. William appears to have the ability to remain faithful to his religion while relying heavily on the scientific method for his daily work. I think this is one of the messages, that science and faith can coexist.

Unfortunately, the book was full of side trips into fantastical dreams and theological discussions that were lost on me. It would have been a much better read had I done my research on the people and times before hand.


World Without End

This is the follow-up to Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, which I read about two years ago. It takes place about 200 years after Pillars so I don’t think it deserves to be termed a sequel. You certainly don’t need to read the first one before this one. But they are similar and the first one adds some context. They are both 1,000 page epic period-pieces that I found virtually impossible to put down.

I’m telling you man, if you love reading just for the pure entertainment value of a good story, you have to grab these books. They’re just great stories that keep you engaged no matter what’s going on around you. Sure, I predicted a few things and I’m not calling it literature. But there are so many twists and turns that even if you get something right, it doesn’t ruin the book because you couldn’t have plotted the route Follett took.

I may start ranting here, but I especially noticed the greatness of Follett’s story because I finished this book on the same weekend that I saw Avatar. Avatar was a great movie and by all accounts it will break plenty of box office records over the next few months. I’ve heard critics say it will do so because it combines “visually stunning” cinema techniques with a great story.

I disagree somewhat, although I did like the movie a lot. I just don’t think the story is that great.

Side-by-side with this book, Avatar looks kind of formulaic. I know, there’s only so much story you can tell in a three hour movie; I get that. But don’t be fooled when Cameron goes on during his interviews about how he’s had this story in his mind for years. It’s mostly a war story where the side you’re rooting for is seriously undermanned, combined with a love story. Kind of like Dances With Wolves meets She’s All That. As I said, I loved the movie, but Cameron is a better movie maker than a story teller. I thought Terminator was better and a more original story.

Now this Follett book, that’s storytelling. Like Pillars, there are five protagonists who’s stories intertwine with each other along with that of the cathedral. And again the Catholic church figures prominently with the historical backdrop being reign of King Edward III and the Black Death. But it’s slightly different than Pillars in that one of the five protagonists, Caris, stands out more prominently than the rest of the characters. She, in my view, could probably be termed the hero of this book.

Caris is inquisitive and in a constant battle with the role of women in 14th Century England. She wants to be a doctor but only priests and and monks can be so. She still gets belittled by the priests even after she becomes well-known across England for devising innovative techniques to deal with the Black Death. It may sound like Follett is going a little Jane Austen with this story line (power to the women!), but that’s an improper conclusion. I’ll let you read it to understand why I say that.

It’s a very enjoyable read. The fastest 1,000 pages in fiction!


The Given Day

Reading huge, epic novels has always been complicated for me. The best time to read them is on vacation, but hauling a huge book through airports and rental cars, along with other reading, is cumbersome. But not anymore now that I have a Kindle. I was out of town getting some R&R and the cumbersome aspect of carrying around a large work of fiction, a sports book, Newsweek, the WSJ, and the Chicago Tribune is no more. It even makes me think I can justify the Kindle from a cash flow perspective.

This Lehane book is that “large work of fiction” I just mentioned. It’s a mighty piece of historical fiction that takes place at the end of WWI. I started it and finished it in the middle of my vacation, which was perfect. It was great reading material for a vacation; long and involved, but exciting and thought-provoking. I’m going to classify it as popular fiction, but I don’t think it’s quite as “popular” as Lehane’s crime novels like Mystic River or Gone, Baby, Gone.

Like those books, it’s set mostly in Boston. It’s the story of the Coughlins, an Irish-American family of cops and politicians, set during the years of 1917-1919, a tumultuous time in Boston and all over America. Tumultuous because of the rapidly changing landscape in the seats of power in America. The labor movement was in full swing, race relations were heated, women were on the brink of getting the right to vote, and fear of communism coupled with paranoia about radical immigrant groups was especially acute. Lehane brings them all into play.

I term this book epic because it intertwines other families and individual personalities with the Coughlins. So even though it doesn’t span a long time-period like a traditional epic, it switches back and forth between these people and places, giving it an epic feel. For example, the story of Luther Laurence, a black factory worker/domestic servant whom trouble seems to follow around, is just as involved as that of Danny Coughlin, a white cop bucking the establishment. Eventually they become intertwined forming the backbone of the story, highlighting issues of race and class that were so warped back then. Other stories involved an early-career Babe Ruth, a young J. Edgar Hoover, the Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge, and the Coughlin’s domestic help. It’s a wild, roaming ride through post WWI America and I was engrossed from the get-go.

I often hold off reading these long stories regardless of the convenience factor, which is why I’ve only read two (labeled as epic) in the last few years. Besides hauling it around, staring down the barrel of 700+ pages is sometimes daunting because it takes a lot of focus and locks me out of reading other fiction at the same time. But the rewards are great, so I’ve purchased another epic that I’ll read this year for sure (World Without End).

Lehane’s tone is kind of gloomy. There’s a lot of evil and heartbreak in this book, along with some solid family carnage. So I had that going for me, which is nice. Lehane’s characters spend a lot of time ruminating about their situation and his narrative style is thoughtful and descriptive. At times I found myself welcoming a section of crackling dialogue because it didn’t seem that common. I don’t have empirical evidence to support this, that’s just the way it felt. I would like to see book stats come out that measure items like this. How about a ratio that compares dialogue to narration? The quant head in me would welcome that.

I’ve said it before, this is why we read. The only time I turned on the TV this vacation was to measure the screen and see how well we could see it from the back of the room. It was on for about four minutes. No need for it when you have a captivating work of fiction, a solid sports book (Breaking the Slump), and a few newspapers and periodicals handy. Gail read three books and mentioned that it was the most relaxing vacation we’ve ever had. I agree.


A Spectacle of Corruption

This is the sequel to A Conspiracy of Paper, which I read a few years ago. I said then, and I’ll say it again, I will continue reading Liss. But I didn’t think it would be three years. This book continues the adventures of Benjamin Weaver, a private detective in 18th Century London. Ahh, I do like historical fiction and I’m starting to love period pieces.

This book is set in 1720’s London, about 30 years after King James II was dethroned. I did a little rooting around in Wikipedia and came up with a few things. King James II was the last Catholic to be king (1688). There was much “upheaval” in England at this time. Protestants and Catholics didn’t trust each other. France and England didn’t trust each other. Whigs and Tories didn’t trust each other. And underlying all of this was the chance that the Pretender (the son of King James II), was trying to plot the overthrow of the government from his base in France.

To put this in perspective, the time frame was about 100 years after the Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth. King James II was part of the Stuart line of royalty. The Stuart line included Mary, Queen of Scots, who was executed for trying to kill Queen Elizabeth, her father’s first cousin. Be sure not to confuse Mary, Queen of Scots, with Mary I of England (“Bloody Mary”), who re-established Catholicism in England, which was eventually reversed by her half sister, Queen Elizabeth. Thanks Wikipedia for taking this full cycle. Where would I be without you. So yeah, there was a lot of intrigue and treachery happening, which provides a great backdrop for some solid historical fiction.

Benjamin Weaver is a great character and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. Supposedly it’s due out later this year. This according to the bio at David Liss’ official website. Who, upon further reading of his website, appears to have a particularly, and admitted, liberal view when it comes to “unregulated and overly-exuberant markets.” In fact, he engaged in a little war of words with the NYT over the facts in his latest novel, The Whiskey Rebels, released in late 2008. This is interesting to me because Alexander Hamilton factors into this novel and I really need to learn more about Hamilton, especially since I just finished John Adams, an arch rival of Hamilton’s. I think I need to read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton.

Wow, I’m glad I did this rooting around. It really opened my mind to a few other books that I can’t wait to read.

So yeah, this is a great book. Weaver is wrongly accused of murder so he sets out to clear his name. During that process, he masquerades as a wealthy tobacco trader from Jamaica and runs in social and political circles that a Jewish private detective wouldn’t normally be accepted in. Throw in a murderous villain and a crooked politician who Weaver has to team with, then mix in a few love interests, and you have a ton of good fun.


The Pillars of the Earth

I cleared the decks for this thing. One book, about 1,000 pages – complete focus. I’ve had good experiences with Ken Follett. Triple was one of the earliest thrillers that I recall reading. I read it back in the mid 1980’s and enjoyed it, then I read it again about five years ago. I didn’t enjoy it as much the second time around but still thought it a solid thriller. I’ve read a few other Follett books and I’ve always considered myself a fan, but I’ve never felt compelled to read ’em all.

But in the last few months or so, I’ve heard a lot of people talking very favorably about The Pillars of the Earth – people I know and trust. Additionally, especially with the Oprah publicity, it seems to be popping up in the front of bookstores a lot lately. Which is odd because it was first published in 1989 and I could have sworn that this thing spent years in the discounted section. In fact, I actually think I owned this book in hardcover sometime in the 1990’s, but gave it away without reading it. This longevity made me curious, so I grabbed it in January with a Christmas gift card from Borders.

Let me go off topic a little right now. For some reason, I like English period pieces. Earl this, lord that … kings, queens, bloodlines … Elizabeth Bennet, Queen Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett. It makes for a good story or two. In fact, as long I’m being forthright, I will admit that every Sunday this winter I’ve been watching the Complete Jane Austen on PBS with my wife. I’m just saying … try it.

So these forces aligned and I devoted my singular focus to reading The Pillars … starting on March 1st.

It lived up to expectations. To use phrases from reviewers (and the book jacket); it’s a “sweeping epic” of “gripping readability” with “majesty and power.” I’ll tell you, it didn’t disappoint.

Not to keep going off topic, but this type of book makes you understand why we read. I spent 20 hours during the first few weeks of March reading this thing and it struck me that there is no competition in the entertainment world for books like this. There is no movie, TV show, play, game, opera, podcast, radio program, song, or sporting event that combines such an engaging experience with such a high level of convenience. A good book stirs your emotions as much as any of these mediums but comes with much less baggage. You don’t need much electricity. It’s highly portable. It’s inexpensive (or free if you go to a library). You can do it any time, in any place, at whatever pace you choose. The book will never die. It may change in its form, but it will not go away. I digress, this booklove is material for another post. We’ll get to that.

There are five protagonists in this book and any one of them is worthy of their own book. Their names are Tom, Ellen, Philip, Jack, and Aliena. Follett combined and intertwined their fictional stories with some historical fiction from 12th century England. Follett uses the friction between church and state as the backdrop. In fact, this book spans a period almost identical to the life of Saint Thomas Becket, who figured prominently in the often bloody battles between (and within) the Catholic Church and English royalty.

But it wasn’t only an apparent fascination with 12th century history driving this work, it was Follett’s love for cathedrals, castles, and stonework in general that provided most of the back-story. He has a touching forward (in the edition I read) and it’s clear that this book was truly a labor of love. He loves writing and he loves touring cathedrals, and it’s fitting that this labor of love is finally yielding some fruit after about 19 years (copyright date is 1989).

The central part of the book is Philip’s quest to build a beautiful cathedral. All of the action and antagonism comes back to the cathedral, time and again. I’m not a big epic reader; I usually get confused or frustrated with all of the characters, times, and places. That didn’t happen here because the cathedral keeps things simple. The characters keep coming and going, and each of them partake in some act of violence, treachery, kindness, greed, or heroism. But I was able to keep them straight because Follett tethered everything to Philip’s quest to build the cathedral. It was also helpful that Follett used the reflective nature of Philip’s thoughts to review and realign things.

It was a very fast and enjoyable 1,000 page read and I look forward to reading the sequel sometime over the next few years.


Where Angels Fear to Tread

In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been consuming a lot of popular fiction so far this year. For balance, I grabbed some literature before heading out on vacation. This E.M. Forster fellow spins a good yarn and it made for some great vacation reading.

Forster wrote Howard’s End, which I didn’t read, but I saw the movie. I liked it, but I can’t remember it that well. I know for sure that Howard’s End (the movie) was not as shocking as this book. There were two shocking twists and it was more of a page-turner than I expected from so-called lit.


This story appears to be about a headstrong and foolish young mother, Lillia, who’s husband has died. Her in-laws tolerate her despite their view that she is not worthy of their social standing in early-1900s London society. The in-laws send her off to a vacation in Italy and she meets a local common man (Gino) and weds shortly thereafter. The in-laws try and stop the marriage from happening, but it’s too late. Well, it turns out that the marriage is a bust and Lillia and Gino really don’t love each other, but they decide to have a kid (a son) anyhow.

Then Lillia dies. That’s right, at the end of chapter two or three, she dies from complications at childbirth. Shocking, at least to me. What’s this book about, I asked myself?

Well, it gets more warped from there. Her in-laws try and hide the existence of this young son from the world (and from Lillia’s daughter) but the world finds out. This causes some serious complications. I’m talking serious complications. In fact, the whole cadre (Lillia’s brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and friend) go to Italy to try and convince Gino to allow them to take the child back to England so they can raise him there.

This goes very badly because Gino will not give up the child, so the idiot sister-in-law kidnaps the child. To make matters worse, as they are making their getaway with the kidnapped child, their carriage overturns and the child dies.

Damn, this is heavy stuff. It’s like watching a Merchant Ivory movie. You may wonder why I would read such heavy stuff on vacation. Hmmm, for some reason, I embrace the carnage. Not sure why.

I’m in an especially reflective mode lately. A passage in the about the author section really struck me:

His six novels explore subtle political questions, as what seems at first to be merely stories of conflicts among friends, lovers, and families come to illuminate underlying tensions between the wealthy and the poor, individuals and nations.

Things that we still need illuminated today. I sit here during the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy wondering about the parallels. How much of Cho Seung-Hui’s deranged lunacy was made even worse by today’s class struggle between rich and poor. Back in 1900’s England, young people rebelled, sure. But they did it by running off and marrying someone outside of their social class. Now you buy a gun and kill people outside of your social class. It’s a messed up world.


The Power and the Glory

This is the story of an unnamed priest. He is a tortured soul only referred to as the “whisky priest.” We learn about why he is called such as he is reflecting:

He was a bad priest, he knew it. They had a word for his kind – a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret – the rubble of his failures.

The reader meets the whisky priest as he is thinking about boarding a boat to get the heck out of town. You can’t blame him, after all, because the Mexican authorities want him dead for the simple fact that he is the last priest in the state (probably Tabasco) still practicing Catholicism. In fact, the only person wanted as badly as the whisky priest is a murderer and thief from the United States that’s loose in the state. The priest is such a horrible criminal in the minds of the Mexican authorities that a particularly zealous lieutenant is able to convince his boss that he should be allowed to take one innocent person hostage from all of the surrounding villages until someone turns the priest in.

The reader follows the priest as he attempts to evade the aforementioned lieutenant. He hops from town to town, always one step ahead of the lieutenant. Along the way he meets a cast of characters, of which some show him kindness, some treachery, and some indifference. These rich characters complement the harrowing pursuit scenes to weave a gripping story. But it’s much more than that. Underlying it all is the inner struggle of a priest who has to deal with his demons in a time when he must show great courage and fortitude. He is on the run and constantly forced to choose between saving himself or helping others. The tragedy and triumph that ensue are the direct results of his choices.

It was a fast and pleasurable read.


Washington Square

I’ve had this book sitting in a stack of stuff to read for years now. I think I purchased it about three years ago, probably after seeing one of those Merchant/Ivory movies or something. I’ve never read anything by Henry James but I always see his novels in the racks of classic lit at the bookstores. So this week, I figured I needed a little classic lit after soiling myself with that trash fiction a few weeks ago. Kinda keeps my world in balance, if you know what I mean.

So there’s this woman, Catherine Sloper, who is described by her father, the wealthy Dr. Sloper, as particularly ugly and stupid. He makes these proclamations about his daughter aloud, in the presence of others, and barely sugar coats it even if he is speaking with his daughter directly.

One evening, Catherine meets a young whipper-snapper named Morris Townsend and is immediately smitten. He too appears interested in furthering the relationship, despite Catherine’s plain looks and lack of cleverness. Could it be that one facet of her attractiveness is that she is in line to inherit a huge chunk of change because of her father’s riches? Yes, it very well could be. But you still hold out hope that Townsend is an honorable man.

Well, her dad is livid and will have nothing to do with this Morris fellow. He does everything in his power to discourage his daughter from wedding young Morris. However, there is an opposing force to her father’s negativity in the form of his sister, Mrs. Penniman. Mrs. Penniman is Catherine’s live-in, widowed aunt, who defies her brother and works the action from the other side by playing matchmaker between these two young lovers.

What follows is a sordid family matter that turns out to be a social commentary by one of our classic writers. I really enjoyed this short read but felt a little empty at the end. I developed a seething hatred for her aunt and her father, but they both seem to escape unscathed. It did appear that Catherine went on to lead a rich and fulfilling life in her spinster-hood, so maybe that was her victory.

Great stuff. I’ve tried to read a few Jane Austen novels and just can’t seem to get through them. James, however, really kept me interested. I was pulling for Catherine throughout.


A Conspiracy of Paper

I’ve had David Liss on my reading list for a long time. I’m not sure how I heard about him. I think maybe there was a write-up in the Chicago Tribune book section, or maybe even Newsweek. Who knows, but I finally pulled the trigger. This came with a lot of deliberation, but it was a New York Times Notable Book so I wasn’t taking that big of a risk.

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre but I am pretty selective and fiercely loyal to authors like Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. I need to be comfortable that I’m not wasting my time and once I settle on a “brand,” so to speak, I don’t really deviate. I own just about every Hillerman in hardcover and I have never been disappointed with any of his books. With Hillerman, I know I’m going to get deep and interesting characters, a keen insight into a different culture or time period, and an intricate, challenging, yet understandable plotline. I think the same goes for Francis and Grafton. Let me say right now, David Liss did not disappoint.

The main character is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker (private detective basically) in London – year 1719. Weaver is a former champion boxer who now lives comfortably in London chasing down criminals in a discrete and professional manner. He has led a rough life and spent most of it estranged from his family and his overbearing, cruel father.

The story begins shortly after his father is killed in the streets of London by an out of control carriage driver. It is deemed an accident by the relevant authorities and Weaver shows little remorse given his rocky relationship with his father. However, certain instances give rise to doubts about the nature of his father’s death and Weaver’s interest gets piqued enough such that he begins to investigate.

I’m not giving anything away, this all happens within the first 20 pages.

His investigation sets off a series of events in London that brings Weaver in contact with corrupt corporations, seedy street criminals, a prolific mob boss, the beautiful widow of his dead cousin, and an enemy from Weaver’s childhood that may be an ally. The most colorful character of the bunch is his buddy, Elias, who happens to be a doctor, aspiring playwright, drunken playboy, and part-time philosopher. The novel is set in a very anti-Semitic, early 18th century London, a city that during this time was leading the world in the conversion from gold to paper as a medium of finance. Most of the action takes place in and around the exchanges and the London financial markets.

Liss was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and wrote his thesis on “the ways in which eighteenth century Britons imagined themselves through their money” (Historical Note, page 438). So as you can imagine, he mixes in some real characters with his fictional characters and attempts to capture the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. This historical backing does not impinge at all on the intrigue and violence of the story. It is a great mystery with plot twists throughout.

Finally, not only is it a great mystery, but it also has a great main character in Benjamin Weaver. It is told from his perspective. He is a tough yet reflective gentleman. He wrestles with the demons of his childhood, the British class structure, anti-Semitism, and his own insecurity. He questions the moral implications of his actions and second-guesses his methods of investigation. He is not infallible but certainly resolute once he sets his mind to something. This was a great read and I look forward to reading the other two books, which continue the adventures of Weaver.