The Monk of Mokha: review

The Monk of Mokha
Dave Eggers
Vintage (2019)

I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.

Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.

Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.

His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.

And then he took off for Yemen.

Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.

He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.

In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)

Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?

Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.

But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.


Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.

The Elephant in the Room: review

The Elephant in the Room
Tommy Tomlinson
Simon & Schuster (January 2019)

I just got back from WW, formerly known as ‘Weight Watchers’ but now marketed as a wellness workshop. I tell people that over the last ten years I have gained and lost the same 35 pounds twice. And I don’t ever intend to do so again. There are many reasons for my weight gain. I went through menopause–that’s a big one. I live with chronic pain–that’s another. (Because when fatigue sets in and muscles ache, a good ol’ shot of endorphins, released by the pleasure that is all things carbolicious, makes everything hurt just a little less.) Life got rough. Real rough. And I discovered the true meaning of that phrase “comfort food”.

In his new weight loss memoir, Tommy Tomlinson looks at his life and tries to figure out, first of all, how he came to be 460 pounds, and, secondly, how to lose that weight. He writes about his childhood, growing up in a working class home in Georgia, where food was a way to show love and where even though his parents no longer labored in the field, sharecropping, the food they ate was didn’t reflect the change in their lifestyle. He writes about food being a way to connect, a way to feel like you belong–how nothing says bonding like a night of beer and fast food with college buddies. And then there was his career as a sports journalist, where deadlines meant fast-food instead of healthy eating and sedentary days spent writing meant he burned off too few of those fast-food calories.

So for the most part, as pretty standard memoir of weight gain. But where Tomlinson provided a unique perspective was in his quest to figure out why he couldn’t lose the weight. Why few programs or diet plans worked for him. Why, no matter how firm his resolve, after a few weeks counting calories, he would revert to old habits. And so he turned inward.

While he mentioned several discoveries, the following made me wonder how many of us can be this brutally honest about our own reasons for overweight. Tomlinson says “I’ve forged my weight into a shield that keeps me from the risks of a bolder life.” He can blame a lot of life’s disappointments on his weight–people don’t like him because he’s fat, he is “more boring than I ought to be”–and it is that weight that holds him back from taking risks. He writes about his weight being rooted in lies and deception, a character defect that conflicts with his religious beliefs. Tomlinson lies to himself about wanting to lose weight. He lies to his wife that he avoided soda and fast food on any given day. And maybe most poignantly of all (especially coming from a fifty-something man) is that he is overweight because he doesn’t want to fully be an adult–that it is childish to not take responsibility for his health, to petulantly satisfy his every whim when it comes to food.

Over the course of writing the book, Tomlinson lost eight-five pounds–a snail’s pace for most of us seeking to lose. But Tomlinson isn’t concerned about how quickly he loses, but rather that the weight stay off. So that he can live that bolder life–honest and true–adulting all the way.

And I have a suspicion that because his weight loss journey was as much an inside job as an outside one, he will.


As is often the case, NPR did a great interview with Tommy Tomlinson the week his memoir was published.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

My Big Magic

big magicA few years ago I was cleaning out my file drawers. I use “file” here loosely because the drawers are an odd collection of miscellaneous ephemera: ticket stubs, campground maps, prayer cards, receipts ($12.97 at Meijer, and I saved this?!), and unopened mortgage offers. I’d just slogged my way through some serious upheaval and organizing is my go-to ritual. If I can’t put my life to rights, I can certainly put my papers in order.

At the bottom of one of the drawers I found a folder with a few stories I had written nearly thirty years ago. In another life I’d have been a writer, but I pursued a more practical path instead. I had kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, and ain’t nobody got time for make believe. Part of the fallout of these last hard years was that I had to put off retirement and pay the bills. I was the breadwinner once again–but a heartsick and weary one.

The stories reminded me of what could have been, I was mired in the misery (self-inflicted, mind you) of the wouldas and the shouldas, and I just wanted to forget the dreams. I flipped through the typed pages. Wondered if they should stay or go. And threw them in the trash.

As I did, I remember having some strange sense that those stories could never really be trashed. “They’re out in the universe somewhere–living on in some other dimension. I only set them free.” Maybe I’d done enough to just write them; maybe keeping them wasn’t the point.

So imagine my surprise when I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic last weekend and she confirmed my intuition. Ideas, says Gilbert, are “an energetic life form … ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will.” Ideas will tap us on the shoulder, knock impatiently on our hearts–waiting, waiting for us to give them welcome. Whenever we create (whether it’s story or quilting or painting or dancing) we embody those ideas and they come to make their home with us.

Now am I sorry I tossed those poor stories out? Of course. I think they know that I did so from a very sad place. But I also think they forgive me. Their brothers and sisters–story sprites!–come sit next to me and whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

And we are all of us happy to be alive.