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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: Yemen and Coffee and Inspiration

Dave Eggers is one of those rare writers who can make me care intensely about something I knew nothing about before. He did it most notably with his novel What Is The What, about the Lost Boys of the Sudanese Civil War. And here, in his latest narrative non-fiction The Monk of Mokha, he pulls off the trick again with Yemen, coffee, and an inspirational, enterprising young man named Mokhtar who wants to bring Yemeni coffee back to its former glory.

You may not be aware — I sure wasn't, and neither was Mokhtar, until his moment of inspiration — that coffee was "invented" in Yemen, by a dude who was dubbed the Monk of Mokha (Mokha is a port city on the Red Sea in Yemen). Even though people used coffee beans in Ethiopia as stimulants prior, this fella was the first person to brew coffee.

But so, our real-life hero Mokhtar, an American of Yemeni descent living in San Francisco, casts about for what to do with his life — he's sold cars, he's worked as a doorman at an expensive apartment building, he's been a teenage hooligan. One day, he notices a statue of a guy drinking coffee outside the apartment building, and has his flash of inspiration. He begins studying the history of coffee, learns how to be a Q-grader (assigning coffee a score based on taste), and travels to his ancestral homeland to try to import specialty Yemeni coffee back to the US.

But to build a viable coffee business, Mokhtar has an uphill battle on a number of fronts. Most Yemeni farmers have switched to growing qat (or khat), the stimulant leaf popular in Arab culture. The farmers that do grow coffee sell it in bulk as a commodity instead of as a specialty product. And these farmers use poor and antiquated methods for harvesting. And finally, oh yeah, there's a civil war happening!

Mokhtar persists. When some samples he brings back score very highly, he knows he has a business. He just has to convince the farmers to sell to him (though he doesn't yet have the capital), harvest, process, and store the beans, and then ship several tons of coffee out of a war torn country. No problem!

Eventually, the war becomes literally life threatening. So Mokhtar's last challenge is simply to escape Yemen with his life by any means necessary. If you'd sort of been just trudging through the book before, this is where the narrative really gains some speed. It's as fast-paced and pulse-pounding as an adventure novel. But again, it's real!

So even if you don't care a whit about Yemen or coffee, this is still a great read. (All most Americans seem to know about Yemen is what they learned from Friends.) You do have to keep reminding yourself at times that this is a true story — inasmuch as any narrative non-fiction this detailed can be true. But it's an inspiring story, to be sure. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Welcome To Lagos: Clobbered By Life, How To Be Good?

Chibundu Onuzo is a 27-year-old Nigerian writer who has already published two extremely well-received novels — her first titled The Spider King's Daughter when she was 21, and her second novel, Welcome to Lagos, which just came out in early May. Yes, she's a bit of a wunderkind, and so I've been excited to read her for that reason along. But also, because I've read every word another  famous Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has written (Americanah is still one of my favorite novels of the last decade), I've become more and more fascinated by Nigeria and its notorious megacity, Lagos (population: 21 million!).

Welcome To Lagos absolutely fed that fascination. Onuzo's terrific, fast-paced story examines the good and the bad of Nigerian society through the eyes of several people who just get clobbered by life, and must swim back upstream to make their way in the world.

The story starts with a soldier named Chike, who is patrolling the Niger Delta, where oil companies have ravaged the area to drill, and insurgents constantly siphon off oil and sell it for their own gain. When Chike is ordered to set fire to a seemingly innocent village (that may or may not be "harboring" insurgents) he and another guy named Yemi desert the army. They make their way to Lagos, on the way picking up a band of refugees who are also on the lam from various other problems — a young woman named Isoken who was nearly raped by insurgents, but escaped and now wants to start over in Lagos; a young man named Fineboy who was part of the troop that tried to rape Isoken, but wasn't present at the time, and decided to desert after that incident; and another woman named Oma who is running from an abusive husband. These five people rely on and protect each other, like a family unit. Thrown together by circumstance, they trust each other almost immediately, and almost unconsciously begin functioning just like a family — splitting the chores, cleaning and cooking, and helping each other look for work. Chike even reads them Bible stories each night before bedtime.

Meanwhile, a newspaper owner from a background of privilege named Ahmed gets in hot water by publishing scathing reports of the corruption at the highest levels of Nigerian government. And a high-level education minister named Chief Sandayo absconds with $10 million that had been earmarked for Nigeria's desperate schools.

The stories of all these characters converge when Fineboy finds an abandoned apartment that used to belong to Chief Sandayo. When Sandayo arrives there with his ill-gotten money, they sort of kidnap him, call Ahmed to write the story, and then must decide what to do with this apparent windfall. Will they use it for good, or for their own gain? Welcome To Lagos is about what it means to be a good person amidst the easiest temptations to do bad; about what it means to be moral when everyone else seems to be immoral.

I loved this book — it's completely different than what I thought it'd be when I picked it up. It's fast-paced and high drama, while still pausing here and there to flesh out each of these characters enough to make them real and three-dimensional. Of course, Lagos is a character as well — Onuzo seems to really love her homeland, lumps and all, and that shines through clearly.

This is highly recommended for fans of Adichie, yes, but also fans of any well-written, morally complex, fast-paced story. Bravo, Onuzo!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lawn Boy: The Struggle Is Real!

I love Jonathan Evison novels because they're about people vastly underrepresented in fiction — people who are able to keep a sense of humor and self-deprecation despite how much life can kick them while they're down. Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThis Is Your Life Harriet Chance, and more) is a charming, funny writer who really understands people of all walks of life. And that shines through in his empathy for his characters.

In his new novel, Lawn Boy, his protagonist is Michael Muñoz is a 22-year-old landscaper. Mike is stuck on the bottom run of society's ladder, but fighting hard to climb up. He lives with his mother and his older developmentally disabled brother — their father skedaddled when Mike was a kid. But not before truly traumatizing him by telling him he'd take him to Disneyland, driving him to a parking lot, and telling him "Hm, they must've moved it." So Mike is used to disappointment.

One of the things that immediately endears you to Mike is that he truly enjoys being a landscaper — he has a really talent for topiary. He takes pride in a profession society sort of deems a job for folks on the lower-tier. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have big dreams — for instance, he plans to write the Great American Landscaping Novel. If you need another reason to like Mike: He's also an avid reader, getting recommendations from his new friend Andrew, a librarian at his local branch. (Andrew steers him clear of "MFA fiction" — Evison, a proud graduate of the "school of life," delights in pointing out how "MFA fiction" is overwrought and boring.)

So spends his time Mike hanging out with his neanderthal buddy Nick who berates him for his crappy fantasy football team. Mike also harbors a crush on a cute waitress named Remy, which seems to go awry when his brother throws a salt shaker at her. The novel follows Mike as he lives the ups and downs of life in a society where he can't seem to catch a break...or can catch a break, but it always ends up being a mirage, or he's swept up in the whims and wheelings of other people. For instance, when Mike loses his landscaping job, a rich but shady dude named Chaz hires Mike to assemble bobbleheads at a factory, and grooms him to take over a new business — but Mike has no idea what it is or if it's even real. Then, he thinks he finally has a piece of good luck when he runs into a former grade school friend named Goble who's made it big selling real estate and hires Mike to landscape some big rich properties. But it soon becomes clear that Goble has had to sell his soul to sell real estate, and if Mike wants to hitch his wagon, he'll have to kill his conscience as well.

The difference between the haves and have nots, the privileged and not, is never more in stark contrast than Evison sets them in this novel. If you're a Mike Munoz — born without a silver spoon and unwilling to compromise your morals — is the willingness to work hard really enough to make it in this society that is so obviously stacked against you? Maybe, maybe not. But it's only when Mike begins to fully understand who and what he is and who and what he cares about that he starts to see the world more clearly.

These little moments of catharsis and lessons learned in Evison's novels are one of my favorite parts of his writing, as well. He makes you feel good about his characters — that they've learned lessons and have found how to be happy. And that in turn makes you happy as well. Evison doesn't always get it his dialogue exactly right and you may sort of scratch your head about a strand of plot here and there, but for the most part, Lawn Boy, like the rest of Evison's work, is a great example of a story that deals with a tough issue but when it's overcome, your faith in humanity is restored for having read about it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat: Mayhem in the Jungle

Ned Beauman writes some of the zaniest, funniest novels I've ever read, and his newest — Madness Is Better Than Defeat — might be his zaniest, funniest, and best yet. It's the story of a temple in Honduras, and CIA agents, and shadowy secret organizations, and drugs, and Hollywood, and newspapers in the golden age of journalism, and ex-Nazis, and titans of industry, and the nature of memory, and so so so much more. I loved it, despite its un-summarize-able plot. I mean, you don't read a Ned Beauman novel and expect a straight line. Indeed, the opening scene of this novel takes place in an underground speakeasy where people are betting on a guy wrestling an octopus underwater — which (and of course Beauman knows what he's doing here) is a beautifully apt metaphor for this novel. Just when a tentacle of plot starts to make sense, another one appears to smack it down.

Beauman novels have a plot logic all their own — you just have to accept that not everything is going to make complete sense. Things just happen, sometimes loosed of logic (though they usually wind up making sense later on...but sometimes not). Beauman his own unique way of tying his twisted plot together — and believe me, there are a ton of strings to bind.

And so, the basic premise in this novel is two competing expeditions embark into the jungles of Honduras in 1938 to find an old Indian temple. A CIA agent who is telling this story 20-plus years later becomes enmeshed in these expeditions for wacky reasons. We first see him looking through a CIA warehouse in the late 1950s looking for evidence he thinks will clear him of some crime, though we don't know what that is or what he's looking for, or even how the hell he's involved with the temple expeditions. But it all becomes slowly clear-ish.

Scared off? Don't be — just be fairly warned. I fully admit Beauman is a bit of an acquired taste. I made the mistake of recommending two of his other novels, Glow and The Teleportation Accident, both of which I really loved, to just about everyone I knew. Then I was disappointed when many of those people that read them wondered if I'd lost my damn mind.

This, like his previous work, is an incredibly funny, clever novel — I just love his writing. He has no qualms about spending a page-long digression just to set up a one-line joke. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall, and then having his characters joking about breaking the fourth wall — meta on top of meta! And his wandering eye catches everything. It's easy to compare him to Pynchon for his non-sensical plots and general goofiness, but I also like to think of him as similar to David Foster Wallace in how he observes and then relates the world he's created, and also how he mixes the low- and high-brow. It took me more than three weeks to read this because I really wanted to take it slow and digest as much of this as I could. It's a spectacularly inventive book, and I highly recommend it...if you're brave.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

King Zeno: What A Time To Be Alive In New Orleans

In 1918 New Orleans, a serial killer gruesomely hacked his victims to death with an axe he often stole from the victims themselves. The so-called Axeman of New Orleans was never apprehended. Meanwhile, construction was just beginning on a massive canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, bisecting New Orleans's Ninth Ward. A Spanish Flu outbreak in the city killed several thousand residents. A new form of music called jas (or jazz, as it's known now) floated through the air. And rumblings from Washington about efforts to enact Prohibition threatened to prevent the good times from rolling. (The Volstead Act passed the next year, in October 1919.)

What a time to be alive! If you like your historical fiction with a healthy dose of real-life, then Nathaniel Rich's new novel King Zeno is just the book for you.

Rich's novel takes advantages of this rich confluence of historical events in a city known for its richness of culture and tells the stories of three characters whose lives all intersect and influence each other. A poor black jazz musician named Isadore Zeno works on the canal and tries to provide for his family. The rich widow of a gangster attempts to go straight, making the canal project her last dirty deal. And a New Orleans detective and World War I veteran is tangled up trying to solve the horrific axe murders while dealing with his own demons.

These characters are as well-drawn and fully realized as the historical detail itself. One of the craziest, best parts of the novel involves the character Zeno, and is based on a real event. To try to jumpstart his failing jazz career, he writes a letter to the newspaper purporting to be the Axeman, and threatens to kill more people unless all the rich white people in the Garden District hire a jazz band for a party on a Tuesday night. Unbelievably (except that, again, this really happened!), the newspaper prints the letter and there's a big citywide party.

I loved this book, not the least because I love New Orleans. But Rich is a magnificently talented writer, clever an super fun to read. And he tells this story at a near breakneck pace. There's sex, and booze, and rock'n'rollish (JAZZ!). Highly recommended!