Category Archives: Books

The Whiskey Rebels, by David Liss

The Whiskey Rebels opens in a dark alley. A man of dubious reputation has been set upon by enemies he may or may not deserve. Will he be humiliated — or worse, will he be killed by new enemies, and finally succumb to the fate he has courted since the days of his disgrace.

We are in David Liss country, familiar territory to readers of The Coffee Trader or A Conspiracy of Paper, and we’re happy to be here and eager for adventure.

What I just adore about David Liss is his ability to write fiction about things that I don’t understand, like commodities trading (Coffee Trader), the South Seas Bubble (A Conspiracy of Paper), deductive reasoning (C of P), and the Whiskey Rebellion and the Bank of America. As Liss’s characters undergo an education to the hard financial realities of life,  the reader is also granted and education — and a perspective.

The Whiskey Rebels is jammed with nuggets of wisdom as one of Liss’s most sympathetic female characters, Joan Maycott, makes observations about her country and her times: “We walked the cobbled streets of the new imperial capital [New York City], the rivers filled with forests of merchant-ship masts, yet we were surrounded by the untouched submlimity of nature. There could be nothing more American.”   She reads books on trade — and plans to write the American novel. As her husband-to-be observes in the first “Joan Maycott” section, “The American Novel, if it is to be honest, must be about money, not property. Money alone — base, unremarkable, corrupting money.” At times like this, The Whiskey Rebels touches on meta-novel status as Liss also gives up pointers on how to write through the actions of Joan Maycott, along with lessons on government and finance.

Liss’s other narrator, Ethan Saunders, is a flawed hero, so sunk in his own grief that he remains clueless about the suffering of others, including Leonides, Saunders’ young slave. As the novel progresses, it is easy to see why Leonides and Joan Maycott become important to each other even though we never witness a conversation between the two. That’s another Liss touch — the actions behind the scenes that are rendered subtly but honestly — no 11th hour revelations and deux ex machina  here to cheat the reader.

The only thing that keeps me from giving the book 5 stars is the writer’s tendancy to end chapters with “If I only knew then about the problems of the future” -style cliffhangers. I personally find them unnecessary and am pulled along with the story for its own sake.

To lovers of history, fiction,and strong characters, I recommend this book. Enjoy!

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Michael cured by a horse

Another horse-instance from Jews Without Money by Michael Gold, woodcuts by Howard Simon, published by International Publishers, New York, NY, 1937 (16th edition)

Michael became deathly ill once, and it started with a Fourth of July firework. A firecracker came in through his bedroom window, landed on his pillow, and went off. It tore a hunk out of his shoulder and while his body healed, his mind did not and he began to lose weight. A doctor was no help, so his mother called in a Speaker-Woman. Baba Sima was a mess — no teeth, a hunched back, dressed like a beggar. First she turned the boy over onto his stomach, then took a blunt knife and drew on his back while chanting a song and praying. She then ate prodigious quantities of Michael’s mother’s cookies and drank a gallon of tea. She came back three more times and always assigned tasks, like drinking water from a certain place at a certain time or collecting various muds and dungs to make a paste. The last time, Baba Sima came with a pan and a ball of lead. She heated the lead on the stove and poured the hot lead into a pail of cold water, and declared the shape to be that of a horse:

“We stared at the chunk of jagged lead. Yes, we assured each other in amazement, it had taken on the shape of a horse. And the next night, exactly at midnight, my father led me into the livery stable, and I whispered into the ear of one of the coach horses: ‘My fright in your body; God is Jehova,’ I said, giving the horse an apple which he munched sleepily. ”

Michael was made whole again. No more nightmares. He even checked with the stable owner to see if the horse suffered from nightmares. It didn’t.

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Ganuf the old Thief, from Jews Without Money

From Jews Without Money by Michael Gold, Woodcuts by Howard Simon. International Publishers (New York NY), 1937. 309 pp HC $5.00.

“In the livery stable on our street there was an old truck horse I loved. Every night he came home weary from work, but they did not unhitch him at once. [. . .] The horse was hungry. That’s why he’d steal apples or bananas from the pushcarts if the peddler was napping. He was kicked and beaten for this, but it did not break him of his bad habit. They should have fed him sooner after a hard day’s work. He was always neglected, and dirty, fly-bitten, gall-ridden. He was nicknamed the Ganuf – the old Thief on our street.”

Michael loved the horse. Stole sugar from home for him, patted his nose and his flanks and mane. Ganuf shook his head and stared at Michael. The horse wouldn’t shake his head for the other members of Michael’s gang. His handler was an Irish man with short, bent legs who would begin an evening of drunkenness and fighting by first abusing the horse. But the horse never kicked or bucked. Just took the abuse. The poor thing dropped in street one hot day. His harness was loosened and he managed to get back to the stable, but dropped dead in the harness. Michael watched the dead horse because the body stayed there for a day until carted off.

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Jews Without Money by Michael Gold

Oh yes it does too have something to do with horses!

OK, maybe Harvey Pekar doesn’t and were I the editor and not the writer of this blog, I would say to Leslie, “Leslie,” I would say, “Exactly what does Harvey Pekar, author of the American Splendor series of comics have to do with horses?” and Leslie would shamefacedly admit that Harvey Pekar has not a thing to do with horses. But when one is the editor and the writer, one is playing a game of Chinese Checkers with/against one’s own self. You can make patterns with the marbles or create elegant yet inefficient bridges for the other marbles to jump on their way to find home and win the game. Or “win” the game (notice effective usage of ironical quotation marks).

So I was following Michael Dirda’s advise to dedicated readers, that they should go into a used book store and make it a point to pick out a book by an author they had never heard of that was at least 50 years old. I went to Areopagitica on a mission of both outreach and book searching — and found Jews Without Money by Michael Gold which I can Not Put Down. My edition is an old hardcover from the late 1930s. There’s some woodcut illustrations and the thing is a wee bit mouldy so I sneeze sometimes while flipping the pages, but it’s a small price to pay for this riveting and heart-breaking story of life on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Things were pretty damn bad on the Lower East Side before World War I. I knew this in an abstracted sort of way, but the descriptions of life (especially for young women) are grim.

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Interred with their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

I like a swash-bucklin’ woman, which is exactly how the protagonist, Kate Stanley, shows the reader her mettle in the first chapter of this book of deception, mystery, bad Jacobeans, and the theatre. Kate is a young American woman with an academic background who has said Goodbye To All That in order to follow her bliss for the stage and Shakespeare.  That’s all well and good until her former mentor shows up with a mysterious request, then the rebuilt Globe Theatre burns down, and then the mentor shows up again — except dead this time.

Kate gets herself in trouble deep by withholding evidence from the inspectors more capable of this line of work than she is. But at a critical moment, whilst being attacked by a mystery man with evil on his mind, she meets a buff stranger, the nephew of the deceased, who is skilled in multiple arts of war and who has been sent to protect her.  *Sigh.*  Don’t you wish you had a buff stranger who leaps in to run interference for you?  I wish I did. Some gals have all the luck.

The past and the present merge.  In England, the bad blood between families never EVER dies. Neither do the words of the immortal Bard who is quoted liberally within these pages. And author Jennifer Lee Carrell, armed with her doctorate and good writing credentials, has penned a fun thriller.

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On Borrowed Wings by Chandra Prasad

When a woman dons the clothes of a man and dresses against her sex, she not only disguises herself but she does indeed take on the power and the position of the rightful owner of those garments. It’s like Halloween, when you dress as your favorite superhero or princess or whatever and for a time (at least when you are a child and still able to inhabit your imagination to its fullest), you are that personage.

Adele Pietra, daughter of stone cuttes and younger sister of a Yale-bound man, becomes her brother in order to fullfil the promise that his death left open. Not only does she rise above her station in the dark days of the Great Depression, but she lives behind Adele to become Charles and to earn the education that should have been hers by the right of her natural intellect and intelligence.

The unlikely supporter of this deception is her mother — unlikely because Adele’s unhappy and disapointed mother doesn’t seem to like her very much, let alone be willing to put up with the work and stress of launching her daughter on an insane plan that’s doomed to failure at any moment.

Fortunately for Adele, young men and young women, as unalike as they are in hormones, are enough alike to for her to pass as her brother, and thus begin her adventures.

Chandra Prasad is a gifted writer. She fully fleshes out the character of Adele and her school mates. I’m especially glad that Prasad doesn’t give Adele any kind of squeamishness about sex (Yes, men and women even back in those almsot forgotten times were aware of and wished to act upon their feelings and desires). Adele knows what she wants, but also knows that getting it isn’t going to be at all easy.

Adele’s mother,is, however, a cipher. Too mean to be believable, her various twists and turns are functions of the plot and do not grow organically from the character. Adele’s classmates fade into the background at times, and I wished to see and understand more about Jerry Persky, another outsider at Yale. There were a few too many college escapades that did not move the plot along but seem to exist as set pieces without really being of much use to the plot. Not so Adele’s friendship with a working-class family, which does indeed require the protagonist to look at herself and evaluate her world.

Chandra Prasad is a good writer with a great future ahead of her. She will learn more as she goes along writing about what she needs to say, and she will learn to say it clearly and closer to her own heart.

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Maximum Ride By James Patterson

Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports  is the third book by James Patterson about the flock, a band of six winged children (and their talking dog Total) and their struggles to survive the menacing forces that created them — and that want to destroy them.

I admit, I’m a sucker for mouthy girl main character and that description fits Max (short for Maximum Ride) the same way her amazing wings fit her, wings that carry her effortlessly over the ground and just as neatly fold up against her back.  Max is the leader of the troop and with her co-captain, Fang, are the Peter Pan and Wendy of the four younger ones in their care.  Since I haven’t read the first book, I can’t explain about the dog other than he’s kind of persnickety and has no interest in eating from a dish on the floor.

Max gets off some good ones that had me giggling more than once, and her intense love of her fellow bird-kids is very real despite the way she throws off smart-alecky one-liners.  That her way of whistling in the dark and there’s plenty of dark in this book.

The unreal video-game violence might prove to be exciting for some readers.  As I read Max’s description of her round-house kicks and about the impossible odds, I couldn’t help but think of old cowboys v. Indians movies.  You know, the kind where the cowboy shoots once and four Indians hit the dirt?  It’s like that, except high tech and more likely in Technicolor rather than black and white. The problem, as far as I’m concerned, is that character development becomes secondary or even tertiary to the gore. Yes, I know it’s fantasy  and I don’t have any problem with flying kids.  I appreciate the physiological explantions (bird-kid bone density) and the way Max describes the oddness of a trip on an airplane and the reality that although they are strong and fleet, they are not built for transatlantic crossings. I appreciate passages that remind the reader that these are beings, humans just like the people turning the page of a book.

Patterson pays homage to the Wizard of Oz  during the infiltration of a big castle run by a witch and inhabited by legions of mutants who all but chant “O-lio, o-LEE-o” as they march in lockstep.  It’s probably not a coincidence that the scary uniformity takes places in Germany and that the evil powers-that-be have cleansing-by-extermination in mind,  any more than the Imperial soldiers in Star Wars had helmets that bore a strong resemblance to the uniforms of WW II German troops.  But Mr. Patterson, why put “Publicists” on Fang’s Web blog entry where he lists useless people? And the two foaming-at-the-mouth villains (one with a crappy German accent) seem mostly silly.

Good fantasy pulls the reader into the alternate world or the wrinkle added to our own.  That’s what any good story does, horse-opera (an old name for westerns) or space-opera (an old name for SciFi). This book has some of those moments.  And some readers might appreciate the call-to-action and the opportunity to log onto the book’s Web site and feel as if they part of the story. The best way to become a part of the story, however, is to care about what happens to the characters.  You don’t become part of the story so much as the story becomes part of you.  Max, in her much-appreciated teen snarkiness, cetainly struck that note with me.

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