As my CBR handle suggests, I like coffee shops, both for the lattes and the atmosphere. So when I was in Chicago recently, I wanted to try out one of the trendy places as my touristy thing. At Intelligentsia Coffee, I saw this book for sale. I didn’t buy it then. I saw the same book a few days later, this time in paperback, for sale at a publisher exhibit. I didn’t buy it then. I did however, upon my return home, acquire said book from my local library.
The Monk of Mokha is the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who goes from smart talking streetwise kid in San Francisco to entrepreneur intent on reviving Yemen’s ancient coffee heritage by becoming an importer who works directly with his farmers and processors. In a lot of ways this is a stereotypical story, in spite of it being about a real person. The hero is smart and gifted but is from an underprivileged background and as a youngster is more interested in getting in trouble. He gets lucky, then experiences some major setback, and eventually rises above the trouble, by luck, pluck, and work. This happens repeatedly, during his childhood, young adulthood, and then his pursuit of a coffee business.
I liked learning something about the history of Yemen, but I wish there was more information. I also liked learning about coffee from plant to cup, but I wish there was more information. The author, David Eggers, is perhaps best known as a novelist, so it makes sense that he’d be more interested in character and story, but if you give me some hints, I’d really like to know more. For example, there’s this intriguing description, to me at least, about how one gets certified as a Q grader, basically the coffee version of a sommelier. But it’s just a general outline, and if you’re going to tell me something is crucial for Mokhtar’s success, I’d really like even a little more detail about the process and content. I get that it’s hard and that there’s a massive exam at the end. The exam is explained in some detail: it has 22 parts, including general knowledge written, Olfactory practical where you are blindfolded and must id, Cupping in which you taste and id and rate, etc. So what exactly does the training leading up to all this look like? No idea.
It’s the same with the story too, that you sometimes get part of a side story but then no conclusion. Once Mokhtar is in Yemen, trying to build connections, he gets caught up in the 2015 bombings and violence that marked the beginnings of the still ongoing military struggles in Yemen. In this part of the story, we get the story of one Mosed Shaye Omar (a family acquaintance) who is a naturalized US citizen who goes back to Yemen to take of some business for getting his daughter a passport. While there he is pulled aside, and interrogated by embassy officials and coerced into signing a document he can’t understand. It turns out the document was an admission of using a false identity, which means his US passport is revoked. So what happens to him? No idea, not even a hint or current status.
On the one hand, this is an interesting book and it’s a quick easy read. On the other, it’s aggravating because of the tendency to start but not finish many threads of story or information. I am very glad I got this one via the library, since I would have been annoyed at spending $3 on the paperback, or even a little upset at the $30-ish at the fancy coffee shop for the hardback.