Mokhtar’s tale, for which Eggers makes himself the conduit, starts out as a story of the frustration of second-generation immigrant assimilation and becomes an anecdotal history of coffee culture and practice. It ends as a kind of breathless thriller as Mokhtar braves militia roadblocks, kidnappings and multiple mortal dangers in order to get his first coffee samples to a producers’ conference in Seattle, the make or break for his business. In some senses, particularly at the outset, you wonder if this narrative would work best as a brilliant long-read magazine article. However, as it goes on, as Eggers explodes Mokhtar’s tale to book length, with all the detail that implies, you start to understand his wider purpose. He is anxious to put not only Mokhtar’s story on the page, but somehow Mokhtar himself, all his hopes, all his obstacles. Look at this extraordinary American, Eggers’s attention says. And more to the point, look at him at this particular moment; give him some proper time; no story is more urgent.
It’s narrative nonfiction that is his natural home. Telling other people’s stories seems to focus him. The sentences take on an Orwellian clarity — they’re lean and clean, flensed of the tics, doodles and strenuous self-consciousness of his early work, and of the dour didacticism of the new novels. In The Monk of Mokha, he moves lightly between story and analysis, and between brisk histories of Yemeni immigration to America; gentrifying San Francisco; coffee cultivation; and the saints and thieves who dispersed the beans around the world ... It left me warmed, but also wired, and a little twitchy. What is it about Eggers? What accounts for this aftertaste that is equal parts admiration and suspicion?...Eggers wants to humanize immigrants, but in his telling, something very different seems to occur. Everything about his characters is outsize — their bravery and suffering, their resilience and capacity for forgiveness, their contributions to the country. They are supermen, their powers 'entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor.' Time was, to make a home in this country it was enough to yearn to breathe free.
At its best moments, Mokha reads like one of those obsessive journalistic explorations of a quotidian object—think John McPhee's grand Oranges or Mark Kurlansky's brilliant Cod or Salt ... The final third of Mokha is concerned with the procurement and delivery of Alkhanshali's first crop — a shipment of tons of beans — through a Yemen choked with civil war and battered by Saudi missile strikes. It's a cracking tale of intrigue and bravery and more than a little bit of luck ... He is by no means impartial; Alkhanshali is his friend, and the book is a celebration of that friendship. Eggers excels when he brings his sweeping novelist's scope to the issues that matter most to him — income inequality, the spoils of colonialization — and he stumbles when Alkhanshali's tale demands a more impartial witness. But really, every biography is a kind of love story between the author and their subject. And if Eggers leans a bit too heavily on the over-earnest mythologization of an American citizen with deep Yemeni roots during the disastrous Trump presidency, who — really — could blame him?
There was an uncomfortable dissonance between the cheerful tone of Monk and my own overriding feeling while reading it, which was a dread akin to that I might feel on seeing a child totter into oncoming traffic ... My interpretation of Mokhtar as a specifically American hero is evidently the intended one. US citizens like him 'bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome,' Eggers writes, before closing his prologue with a rousing call to arms...That’s some 'authentic frontier gibberish' all right (to quote Blazing Saddles), but I’m struck especially by the phrase 'irrational exuberance,' more usually associated with housing and tech bubbles whose sudden burstings have disastrous consequences. Eggers seems to mean it in a good way, but that isn’t how it reads to me.
...however they’re identified, [Eggers' books] work brilliantly as narratives that reveal worlds that otherwise would be well off the radar of most readers. In The Monk of Mokha, Eggers does it again ... The Monk of Mokha resembles a political thriller with an insanely optimistic Horatio Alger type skedaddling through it.
...the McSweeney’s founder and prolific author does manage to illuminate the more arcane bits of history and production without devolving into Guy You Wish You Hadn’t Started Talking to at the Party. It helps that, as a writer who moves consistently between novels and nonfiction, he’s able to harness his considerable storytelling powers to shape Alkhanshali’s real life into such a compelling cinematic narrative. And that his muse somehow comes off as both a relatably messy kid and a modern-day swashbuckler, flawed and funny and refreshingly real. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Mokhtar an entrepreneur or an altruist, but he feels like much more than that, too: a living distillation of the enduring, endlessly elastic power of the American dream.
...a remarkable hybrid: an adventure story about a coffee entrepreneur that is also a portrait of one man’s attempt to understand his ancestral country ... Eggers’ detached style can seem an odd and distancing approach for a story about someone so driven. But this is still a fascinating account of an enterprising man pursuing his newfound passion while honoring the achievements of his ancestors and their descendants.
In these scenes, in spite of the coffee beans Mokhtar has rather painstakingly collected, Yemen seems to push itself out of the pages with a certain determination, asserting itself as a place and a people that cannot be reduced either to a single commodity or to a mere backdrop for some kind of American finding-of-the-self project ... as Eggers returns with Mokhtar to California, it becomes clear that these complexities do not interest him—that his interest in Yemen does not go beyond what Chinua Achebe, in his withering comment on Joseph Conrad, called the Eurocentric tendency to reduce Africans to 'the role of props' for the self-involved drama of the Western mind ... Eggers ends up seeing only what he wants to see and showing only what he wants to show. Those choices have far less to do with Mokhtar or coffee or Yemen than with Eggers’s own approach to his story—his attempt to show a world of daring and enterprise, in which Americans rise from rags to riches through sheer chutzpah.
Readers will never take coffee for granted or overlook the struggles of Yemen after ingesting Egger’s phenomenally well-written, juggernaut of a tale of an intrepid and irresistible entrepreneur on a complex and meaningful mission. This highly caffeinated adventure story is ready-made for the big screen.
There’s a lot about coffee in this book, most of it exquisitely interesting, from the challenges of becoming a Q grader — a sort of sommelier for coffee — to the kopi luwak, a coffee made by beans that have been eaten and excreted by a catlike creature in Sumatra. Eggers previously considered himself 'a casual coffee drinker and a great skeptic of specialty coffee,' and he tells the story of the bean with a novice’s excitement, bringing a perspective of wonder and attention to detail that vibrates — to use his word — on the page ... Alkhanshali’s story will no doubt be hailed as quintessentially American — the dream made real — as a counter to the current wave of Islamophobia and immigrant bashing. But that’s really chauvinism of a different sort. This is about the human capacity to dream — here, there, everywhere.
As with What is the What and Zeitoun, this is another gripping real-life tale of survival in the face of extraordinary adversity; and Eggers has reined in the whimsy of his earlier writing — although he does intentionally capture Mokhtar’s humour. At points, the style, poised between the conventions of nonfiction and fiction, can feel flat; and the tone, stretched between Mokhtar’s and Eggers’s voice, awkward. The Monk of Mokha lacks the full interiority and freedom of a novel, yet judged as nonfiction can be simplistic, over-optimistic and myopic, especially in its portrayal of politics. One could argue, however, that the very awkwardnesses create an odd effect of authenticity and veracity.
...the basic story is never less than engaging and instructive ... As Mokhtar gets near to his goal, Eggers keeps us close to the complex, terrifying texture of life in Yemen as things unravel ... As a tribute to its subject, it’s exemplary, and one can already imagine the sympathetic Hollywood version, perhaps played a little more for laughs. But as a piece of reportage, with all that implies of skepticism and scope? For all the details of rural roadblocks and AK-47s, the book is pretty light on the actual geopolitics of the Yemen conflict. And Eggers is at times weirdly nonjudgmental ... A stricter brief might have forced Eggers to a more exacting and engaged version of Mokhtar’s undeniably intriguing tale; instead the book reads at times like an extension of the marketing literature for an expensive, if hard won, product.
This heartwarming story of a man who surmounts immense obstacles to start his own coffee company is what certified literary good guy Dave Eggers does best: a true account of a scrappy underdog, told in a lively, accessible style ... The last third of the book details Alkhanshali’s hair-raising plan to escape by whatever means come to hand, and it is absolutely as gripping and cinematically dramatic as any fictional cliffhanger ... The problem with Eggers’s book is not in its execution, which is superb, but with its conception. Eggers, of course, means to use his celebrity platform to give a leg up to a worthy unknown, which is commendable but faintly discomfiting. In the end, appropriating a person of color’s experience this way feels a tad patronizing.
...this book is about much more than coffee or Muslim immigrants or the conflicts in Yemen—it is about the undeniable value of 'U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume.' Eggers gives his hero a lot of thematic baggage to carry, but it is hard to resist the derring-do of the Horatio Alger of Yemenite coffee.
Eggers employs economy of language, with compressed timelines and glancing descriptions. Sometimes, this no-nonsense phrasing packs a punch...However, the speedball approach sometimes bounces between people, places and events so rapidly that they are only partly brought to life, or you puzzle over recurring characters and rapidly unfolding timelines … Still, Mokhtar is an endearing hero, and if he has hard edges, they’ve been glossed over by Eggers. Mokhtar’s indefatigable optimism bonds you to him early.
The Monk of Mokha is a page-turning mash-up of genres — coming-of-age, business how-to (and in some cases, how-not-to), and international political thriller … readers should embrace this third book not only as a terrific read, but also as a relevant backgrounder to their daily habit. When you lift that next cup of coffee to your lips, remember to put the growers ‘in front your face.’
Readers will cheer for Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of Dave Eggers’ most recent book, a biography … The entirety of The Monk of Mokha — Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s life — reads like a harrowing adventure story. Readers will hold their breath for the charming, brilliant child of the Tenderloin … The book is a wonder: dense with details, yet light and often funny … Eggers has an urgent message about resilience and a new American Dream, and his literary skills make it easy to hear.
Just as the history of coffee helps to secure Yemen’s place in the geography of the mind, experiencing the outbreak of the civil war from Alkhanshali’s vantage point sets the war. From blood and bodies and bullets, Alkhanshali’s experience—his tragic adventure—provides a small, developing sample of a whole, a Polaroid flash in a black sea … Eggers inserts us directly into a conflict we need to understand. What happens in a Gulf State thousands of miles from American soil may not seem cogent to our everyday life, but what happens to one society has an indelible effect on us all. The Monk of Mokha is a small, and therefore inevitably incomplete, portrait of the war. It’s remarkably bloodless, practically picaresque, but it’s also approachable.
There's a long list of people for whom I would enthusiastically recommend Dave Eggers' The Monk of Mokha, his nonfiction chronicle of Mokhtar's success: people who love coffee, because the book is filled with fascinating details on the subject; people from Yemen; fans of Eggers' writing, of course; and in particular, anyone who has ever dreamed of starting a business, especially an international one … In the story's climactic pages, Mokhtar has to find his way out of war-ravaged Yemen with precious coffee samples destined for a trade show that could make or break his financing...Incredibly, Mokhtar, with help he acknowledges from so many people, made his dream reality.
Eggers describes Yemen, with some justification, as the world’s most misunderstood country. Yet he seems mostly uninterested in closing that gap, serving up clichés that only exacerbate the problem. His portrait of Yemen is a cheap cup of instant coffee. Then again, this is less a book about Yemen than the old-fashioned American dream.