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.

Mary

For someone who reads as much as I do, I struggle with contemporary poetry. What should be a pleasure–me! lover of word-craft and all that is story–is more often a frustration. I find most of it arcane. Baffling. And, dare I say, way too self-absorbed. I want my poetry rich with images that I can connect with, that touch my heart-center. I don’t want a poem heavy-handed, but rather one that brushes against my soul like a well-loved comforter–one that says “You’re home”. So the list of contemporary poets who have won my heart is short. Billy Collins. Ted Kooser. And Mary Oliver.

So much has been said about Ms. Oliver in the past week since her death–certainly don’t need to say more. I listened to any number of remembrances on NPR and sought out The New York Times to read her obituary. I recalled reading “Wild Geese” for the first time and the thrill of “only let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I changed my letterboard to feature that most famous of lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

And I thanked the Google gods that, with only a finger tap or two, I found many archived articles that allowed me to tuck away a few more Mary memories. Here are my favorites:
What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” (The New Yorker; Nov. 27, 2017)
“Mary Oliver’s Poems Taught Me How To Live” (The New York Times; Jan. 18, 2019)
Listening to the World” (On Being–a rare interview recorded with Krista Tippet in 2015 and rebroadcast last week)

But for me, Mary Oliver became so dear because of the woman she was. Private to the point of eccentricity. Haunted by abuse. Reluctant to talk about herself. Yet always–always–sure of belonging in the woods and fields around her Provincetown, Massachusetts home because of what it had to teach her about her place in the world.

I look at her face in those last photographs–lined and weathered, the slight lift of her smile, a brightness in her eyes. Where age was Mona Lisa beautiful. And I want to grow into that woman. The one with the “wild and precious life”.

An evening with Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

Anyone can write a book. Just tell yourself a story a pebble at a time.  Stephen Mack Jones

Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

In most circles of friends there’s that One. You know, the one who tells great stories–and acts out all the parts. That friend who is self-effacing, no matter how successful they might be. The one who has a strong moral compass, yet never acts holier-than-thou. The one who is often the butt of the jokes they tell.

The Grand Rapids Public Library recently hosted An Evening with Stephen Mack Jones as part of their summer GR Reads program. Jones is the author of August Snow a crime novel that pairs a rollicking whodunit with insightful social commentary all set against the backdrop of Detroit. (Read my review of the novel here.) And if I had to guess, Jones is that One for his family and friends.

Dressed casually in jeans, a black tee, and sport coat, Jones began the evening by talking about the process of writing the novel. Joking that after he retired (Jones was a copywriter by trade) there was never anything new on Netflix, he set about to tell himself a good story. While mowing the grass one day the words “August Snow” popped into his mind, but it meant little to him at that moment. When he later looked back at some ideas he had jotted down for a story, he realized that August Snow was the hero’s name. Jones said as he wrote, the story moved him, making him laugh … and cry.

Readers of August Snow know August holds dear the memory of his parents and feels their influence daily. Jones said that during an early interview when asked who the story is about, it came to him that August Snow is the story of his father, the hero “that makes the hero yet never asks for any glory.”

After Jones told the story of writing the novel, he took just as long to answer audience questions. This is one author who was not stingy with his time, one who thanked the readers sitting in the audience again and again as being the source of the book’s success. Of course he was asked about a second novel (Lives Laid Away set to be released in January 2019), and of course he was asked about a film version of the novel (and the answer is probably–the novel was recently optioned).

Now to wait six months for that second August Snow novel …

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.

Happy Flavia Day!

Did you know …

Alan Bradley started writing after he retired from a career in TV engineering and production.

Bradley never planned on writing more than ten Flavia de Luce novels (*yikes*) because he can’t imagine her as a teenager. He has considered, however, Flavia at 70 looking back at her life.

The author is … Canadian! and never traveled out of North America until the publication of the beloved novels. Now he and his wife plan to live for a time in each of the countries where the novels have been translated–that’s 31 and counting.

Bradley sold film rights to Sam Mendes whose production company also brought us Call the Midwife.

While there is no release date or cast for the BBC series, I found this intriguing trailer for a Flavia film in Norway, of all places!

And last of all, friend (and blogger) Denice at Denice’s Day makes a pretty good case for suggesting Flavia join the ranks of Jo March, Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, and Nancy Drew.  We need to promote images of strong and confident young protagonists for girls to dream about … and grow into.