Review: Ways of Going Home: A Novel by Alejandro Zambra

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My Interest

Completing my “journey” of reading a book set in each of the 50 States has led me to make another foray into Reading the World [aka Reading the Globe]. South America is the continent about which I know the least, so when researching books for an upcoming reading challenge I noticed one author identified as Chilean, I requested whatever my regional library owned of his work.

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American maps would show the Americas in the middle and Asia divided in two. I like this way better.

The Story

“That I prefer writing to having written. I’d rather stay there, inhabit the time of the book, cohabit with those years….” (p, 39)

 

This novella is done a bit differently though all of it relates to the idea of coming home. It begins with the story of a young boy and his inner world. After an earthquake he begins to explore his world, agreeing to “spy” on a neighbor for an older friend. He is bright–he reads Madame Bovary in French at 11 or so years old.

“We are united by a desire to regain the scenes of secondary characters. Unnecessary scenes that were reasonably discarded, and which nonetheless we collect obsessively.” (p. 99)

As the story progresses, the boy emerges as the author of the story. The “older girl” he knew as a boy is now more of a contemporary. She has come home for her father’s funeral. She struggles with coming home. She struggles with the idea of names.

 

My Thoughts

This is a very short book, only 139 pages of the actual story, but it took me a while to dig into it. I expected to read it in an evening, but I found I had to stop and process what I’d read. Was the text as deceptively simple as it seemed? Like with some Japanese novels, I felt I was too stupid to understand all that was supposedly contained in the story both on and between the lines. The brief issue of names did interest me, but that issue neither toyed with long enough nor satisfactorily enough to give me any sense of resolution. I found this to be the longest short book I’ve read in years and one that ultimately left me with a “meh?” or unsatisfied feeling.

 

My Verdict

3 Stars

Ways of Going Home: A Novelby Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

Review: Unmarriageable: A Novel by Soniah Kamal

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My Interest

I love reading books set in other countries and other cultures. Pakistan is a country the media tells us to fear, so that made this story even more appealing. The idea of a Pakistani P & P was so clever I couldn’t wait!  For the record, I enjoy Jane Austen but prefer to watch or listen to the stories rather than read them so I knew it would have to be an audiobook to fully enjoy it. Thankfully, I finally made it up the library waiting list for the e-audio. It was well worth the wait.

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The Story

The Binat family has been swindled by relatives and left with only a house in a nowheresville small city in their native Pakistan. The marital prospects for the five Binat daughters look to be nil due to their being in the poor part of the otherwise prominent family. The two oldest daughters, Jena and Alys, teach at a private school and the other three sisters attend the school. The mother, who wants her social position back, is determined they will all marry excellent rich men. Her husband, for whom the betrayal of his family has been the source of a near breakdown, potters in his garden and tries to stay out of the way.

Meanwhile, the family garners an invitation to the top wedding of the year. Mrs. Binat pulls out all possible stops to send her daughters off in the best possible outfits, with the best-looking hair and the best accessories they can manage on their paultry budget. Let the fun begin!

The story shifts with the shifting alliances, makes twists when treachery is uncovered and generally takes the reader on a prom-night-stretch-limo-party-bus of a ride to the predictable happy ending.

My Thoughts

The backstabbing relatives, overly abundant gossip and the general cattiness of women are marvelously employed devices in this story. The author has a great ear for dialogue and the voices of the characters each run true. Of course, the daughters are stereotypes. It’s an Austen re-tell! Jena, the quiet one, Alys the bold one, Marie the religious one and Kitty and Lady the bratty younger ones.

I loved this book! It was so much fun. I wanted to hug hapless Mr. Binat, smack Kity and Lady and Sami and Hami [I listened to the audio–sorry if I spelled them wrong] The fun nicknames like Gin and Rum added to the party atmosphere.  Get yourself some chai and get ready for a great read.

My Verdict

4 Full Stars

 

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For another Pride & Prejudice retelling see:

 

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Ayesha At Last: A Novel by Uzma Jalaluddin

Review: Strange Weather in Tokyo [aka The Briefcase] by Hiromi Kawakami

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My Interest

As you’ve learned if you have read my blog for a while, I love a good older man–younger woman romance. No Sugardaddies! No gold-diggers! No pervs! Just a sincere older man, younger woman pairing.

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Map Source

The Story

Tsukiko is an office worker in early midlife. One evening at a bar she encounters a teacher from her high school. They develop a close, loving relationship. “Sensei” as she continues to call him is much older, but they find they order the same foods, like drinking together, and enjoy each other’s take on the world.

“Would you consider a relationship with me, based on a premise of love?” he asks a few years later.

My Thoughts

Hopefully, no spoilers. I hate them. Sorry if I give something away without realizing it First, let me say that I loved the sound of the food–I want to try ALL the food in this book!

I’ve only read a handful of Japanese books, so I probably missed miles of symbolism in this one. For example, Sensei always carries a briefcase and in the end, we find something out about it, but I’m still unsure what it means. Some of his pronouncements, some of her acts–surely there was supposed to be more meaning than I understood in them?

This is one of the few older man/younger woman relationships that I accepted and liked but found “off.” Not pervy, not desperate, not cringe-y, just “off” somehow. I found myself hoping Tsukiko would take off for America or move-in with her high school classmate or just adopt a pet. I did not “feel” the relationship between her and Sensei in the way I believe the author intended. I found Tsukiko’s only true-to-life emotion was in the cringy last part where she wonders if a physical relationship even matters.

My Verdict

3 Stars

Read all of the reviews of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 here

#JapaneseLitChallenge13

Review: The Sacrament: A Novel by Olaf Olafsson

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My Interest

I tried this audiobook earlier as I was curious to read more about Iceland, but got too confused and quit. I did something I rarely do, I read some reader reviewers on Amazon and got the gist of what was confusing me and tried it again a few months later. This week, it made sense.

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The Story

Pauline/Sister Johanna reveals her story in an often confusing narrative told in back-and-forth switches in time from her student days in Paris to later in her life and to even later in her life. Her personal story is entwined with the stories of her investigation into tales of abuse in a Catholic School in Iceland. An emotionally blackmailing priest, a headmaster with problems, children who are being abused, and a church hierarchy wanting to hide it all away combine with the dark winter days and gloomy weather of Iceland and the gloomy emotional landscape of her early Paris years to make this story a fascinating, if somewhat dark, read. [Note: Abuse is a topic in the book, but there are no descriptions of the abuse and there is no sex. It is all just there in the background, it is not a focus.] The gloom is enlivened by a dog named after a Beatle and a car named after a Savior.

My Thoughts

This story had such promise I took the time to sort it out and try it again–that should be all I need to say! Olafsson can really spin a tale. I do wish, though, that for the sake of the reader he’d take on just a tiny bit of conventional style and put in a date or a place when he switches back and forth in time. This is confusing enough in print, but in the audio, it was often truly frustrating until I got the hang of his storytelling style, by which time in my first attempt, I was hopelessly lost.

In spite of the confusion, this book more than lives up to its hype. The audio was beautifully done by Jane Copeland whose voice was perfect for the story’s atmosphere. I will definitely look for more of Olafsson’s work.

My Verdict

4 Stars

The Sacrament: A Novel by Olaf Olafsson

 

For A Nonfiction Book Set in Iceland, see:

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Names for the Sea by Sarah Moss

Review: Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller

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My Interest

I’ve enjoyed all of Fuller’s memoirs of her family’s life in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi due to my own stay in Malawi and visit to Zimbabwe. Her Colonial with a capital “C” mother, her wild father, disowned by his British family, are the sort of people I tend to love–their belief in Rhodesia and all it stood for aside. She has become a “must-read” author for me.

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Zambia–where the family now lives

The Story

Having had a childhood lived in unusual circumstances marks a person, but having such a childhood and having it in the middle of a war, can do real damage. Fuller’s growing up could be called Glass Castle meets Out of Africa. Part abuse, part wild ride, part fantastic adventure. In this installment of her family memoirs, she begins in Budapest with her father’s death while there on holiday. This time the author is narrating the audio version and she voices her mother EXACTLY the way I imagined her, which was very exciting for me.

Having very seriously contemplated staying on in Malawi, I always find the daily life parts of her memoirs to be the best and that continued in this volume. That the author is only about 7  years younger than me makes it all the more relatable. But this time the cracks are showing. The end of Dad is too much–and for the author, there is more in store after that [no spoilers].

Her eccentric parents, who “survive magnificently,” have aged and their daughters, “squaddies [i.e. G.I.s/soldiers] before they were sisters” are in their 50s and time has not helped the wounds of their childhood. The mother whose leaving the house checklist once went something like “Uzi, bullets, lipstick, sunglasses” is still her indomitable Memsiab self, surrounded by her beloved troop of dogs and cats, and after 50+ years of marriage, she and her husband still “do not bore each other” and still do not try to possess each other.

I adore her parents in spite of it all, in spite of a war to keep Africans from ruling their own country. They are backbone of the Empire sorts who let nothing defeat them. These are not the stuffy folks who inhabit the Cricket and Tennis Club, or who run the local Anglican Church and hold the Gymkhanas. These are the real settlers. Give them land, sufficient booze, dogs, books, and an old Land Rover and they will survive. The booze is the key. And cigarettes. Lots and lots of cigarettes–or those “anti-mad” pills Mum gets from the Indian chemist. It IS a rough life.

Her mother with her books and animals has transformed herself time and again and is now a very successful fish farmer, having educated herself for her new role. She may have lost the war, but she’s won the battle–the family survived. Her very Mitford U-ish speech adds to the whole picture of one who can “Keep Buggering On” as Churchill said, quite beautifully even in a war, even after burying three babies. In this book, even she has reached her limit. I could completely relate to her rant about being sick of people telling her she’s strong and that she’d love to just fall apart.

The author’s father, who can hunt from a moving Land Rover, probably could still have played a rugby match at 70, and like any good Colonial Bwana could drink everyone under the table, could also live on beans on toast, alcohol, and tobacco. Like my own father, I’m sure Tim Fuller could have taken the Lord’s name in vain as any figure of speech. (They also saw eye-to-eye on missionaries). He could light a cigarette, fire an Uzi, and keep driving the Land Rover even with a hunting guide on the roof. That’s a manly man. He loved his wife, his family, and his life. [He also loathed “online f—ing banking” to which I say “hear, hear” especially on the passwords.]

It is the sisters though who are doing the worst. Vanessa has been in a clinic in South Africa, both are divorced, Vanessa is remarried, and the author is in a new relationship. No one in the family is at all happy about the books–and, honestly? Who can blame them? While I have loved reading them, I can see it from their side: Why are you telling our secrets? Why is it all reduced to your perspective, your way of seeing it?  The fissures are deep and will rend the family with Dad’s passing.

My Thoughts

The author, though, became whining somewhere along the way. [No spoilers but I am NOT disregarding something I cannot reveal without spoiling part of the book–ok?] The end of the book was a lot New Agey, naval gaze-y, word salad-ish moaning. [Tiny spoiler] That her new relationship wasn’t going to be the love of the ages was about as obvious as Meghan’s “love” for poor, dim Harry. That one she needed to walk it off–follow her Dad’s advice and have a party. Alcohol, her parents believe, lets one suffer successfully. She should have done that and had a splendid and necessary hangover, then reloaded and got back in the war of life.

I found the end of the book [in spite of what I won’t spoil] annoying. It bordered on minor-league narcissism–“Me, me, me–my, my, my–mine, mine, mine]. A girl raised to be a stalwart Rhodesian, able to take what life sends you for Queen and Empire (well, Commonwealth) or just because you won’t take it off any bastard, shouldn’t have grown into such a whiner. It almost spoils the excellence of her writing. I’m very much like her parents when it comes to freaking out over everything. I’d have had to tell her to get over herself and carry on! I wanted to say, “Look, the did the correct first aid, loaded all the guns, loaded you into that station wagon and drove you through a war to the hospital–remember? They CARED.”

The author’s falling apart and her self-absorption [part of which WAS 100% understandable — no spoilers] and the family’s dislike of her books, brings to mind Madeline L’Engle’s Crosswicks Diaries. L’Engle’s children dismissed them as “fiction.” I don’t think that is the case here, but I could see the annoyance so clearly, and equally clearly hear the author’s belief that she was right and saw things right. That was a bit hard to take.

Now? Who’s for a cup of tea and who’s for a g & t? In spite of my feelings on the end, this book is a good read. Need an ashtray? Here–have a dog, or would you prefer a cat?

My Verdict

3.5 Stars

I couldn’t give it a full 4 stars due to the whiney parts.

 

Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller.

 

Alexandra Fuller’s previous books that I have read:

Review: The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

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My Interest

I learned of this book last month during Nonfiction November in this post of nonfiction favorites from blogger Book ‘d Out. During my stint in Peace Corps in Malawi in 1989 to 1991 the other expatriates with whom I was friends were Australians. I remember the wife being surprised when recounting her time at Syracuse University in New York state, that she was expected to have a home phone even though she would be there less than two years! Even in 1989 that was unimaginable to me–an American. Today I have another good friend in Australia, who, like me, grew up in the same era as this author.

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The Story

Richard Glover was the child of a Ten Pound Pom–an Englishman who accepted a bargain fare underwritten by the government to immigrate to Australia. There he did well enough to send Richard to a tony private school–something that would have been forever beyond his reach in the UK of that time. Richard tells of the various ways Australia was different back then–the title’s bemoaned lack of avocados being one way.  His humor takes us easily through all the ways children died back then–such as being flung thru windshields of cars due to no car seats. He wrote this book more to show that nostalgia is misleading–things are far better today for the average Australian than they were in the 60s and 70s–a more than 12 year gain in life expectancy being only one obvious proof.

My Thoughts

I was surprised to learn that “Night Soil” men still plied their revolting, but necessary trade even city neighborhoods into the 1970s. when a Prime Minister’s great achievement was getting everyone “flushed”–i.e. connected to sewers, rather than to septic tanks or worse. I also learned why my friend was so surprised that Americans expected everyone to have a phone–an up to two-year wait for one in Australia into the 1970s!

Overall, many “differences” between then and now were fairly universal among developed nations of the time. Kids roamed free, no one wore seatbelts, everyone tossed trash out the car windows, no one “hydrated” or ate broccoli, workers had Unions who saw to it that they earned a living wage and had affordable health care. Of course, the truly bad things were there, too–all those death in car accidents from no seat belts or drunk driving, widespread racial discrimination, no concept of sexual identity so discrimination against anyone not heterosexual, widespread office/factory floor sexual harassment, etc.

Today, worldwide, figures show we are ALL better off–yes all, even HIV/AIDS patients in Sub-Saharan Africa who now have hope of medication.  Still, we like to look back and say how great the good old days were when children routinely drowned in unsecured backyard pools or from swallowing medicine without a protective cap.

The Land Before Avocado by Richard Glover

My Verdict

3 Stars

Review: Small Country: A Novel by Gael Faye

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My Interest

While not set in Malawi, my Peace Corps country, it is set close enough on the continent of Africa to interest me. Plus, a coming of age story that does not focus on sex, sexual orientation or traditional “African” sexual initiation rites, intrigued me. That it also covers the years leading up to and immediately after the horrific Rwandan genocide made it more interesting, but did add trepidation to my thoughts.

 

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The Story

 

“I’ve been very busy recently, trying to stay a child.”

Gaby is a young boy of mixed race and parentage–Rwandan mother (who has lived many years in Burundi) and French father. His life is part wealthy ex-pat (i.e. International School, expatriate gated neighborhood, servants, etc.) and part local boy. He and his sister are living with their father after their mother has left. She is in and out of their lives. Like any boy anywhere, Gaby has neighborhood friends and they run free and call an old VW Bus [“Combi”] their hideout.

“Thanks to my reading, I had broken free from the limits of our street and was able to breathe again; the world seemed bigger now, extending beyond the fences that encouraged us to turn in on ourselves huddled up with our fears.”

Meanwhile, an expatriate lady with a huge library enters Gaby’s life and changes his world in other ways. [Note: I had so hoped for this sort of relationship during my Peace Corps stint. It is way harder to find than I imagined].

“And I felt sorry for them and also for myself, for the purity that is ruined by the all-consuming fear, which transforms everything into wickedness, hared, and death. Into lava.”

But the gang of boys’ days of beer and stolen cigarettes or wanding the neighborhood stealing mangoes are about to end. Real gangs–gangs allied with the political situation and the words “Tutsi” and “Hutu” soon take over.

“We’re alive. They’re dead.”

“I didn’t leave my country, I fled it.”

“Politics” in spite of his father’s best attempts to shield his children, soon take over the family–robbing them of more than could have been imagined.

My Thoughts

I loved this book. I admired the father for trying to shelter the children from the evils of their world, but even when he ultimately failed, it was the mother I both loathed and loved. [No spoilers]. Her world, her life–both were impossible. Gaby was a delight, but totally real. Their world was so odd, but it was one I could feel, smell, and enter. Their life, after all, was one I had contemplated while in Malawi–that is staying on and marrying. This book deserves bigger awards than it has already won or for which it has already been nominated or long-listed.

Highly Recommended.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

Note: I almost never give 5 stars, so this is huge praise.

Small Country: A Novel by Gael Faye, on sale today, Cyber Monday, for $1.99 on Kindle

Review: The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay

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My Interest

India is a country I’ve long wanted to visit. It is a fascinating place. The story interested me for that reason and because the young woman is of my own kids’ generation.

The Story

Shalini is a young college grad working in a lifeless job and yearning to make a difference.  She decides to go off and look for a man who used to visit their family–a man from Kashmir, a troubled region near the dangerous boarder with Pakistan.  In alternating chapters, she tells of her time in Kashmir and the story of her trouble middle-class upbringing in Bangalore, explaining  how her family knew the man for whom she is searching why he was important to her.

My Thoughts

I sincerely doubt if one American in 1000 today could find India and Pakistan on the map, let alone the Himalayas (which Americans pronounce incorrectly) or Kashmir or Bangalore. We hear of India and Pakistan only when the word “nuclear” can be added or a disaster is perpetrated by an American chemical company. Even fewer Americans know that a minor member of the royal family, Lord Mountbatten, (Prince Philip’s Uncle and Prince Charles’ mentor) afraid to be away from his naval career too long, set an arbitrary date for full Indian Independence. To make that long story short, he divided India into two nations–Pakistan being the new country born out of a majority Muslim area. This area of the so-called “partition” has been violent almost ever since. If Americans consider the mess we have currently on the Mexican border and then add in religion, and religious extremists who are eager to kill or die or both, you can about picture the region Shalini went to in this book.

All through the story, I thought of myself and my fellow Peace Corps volunteers arriving bright-eyed, pukingly earnest and eager to “help” by telling people how to do things the American way. Shalini’s experience was so similar. The feeling of “family” created with the locals with whom you lived [although the dictator I lived under did not allow foreign volunteers to live with host families as is the norm in nearly every Peace Corps country–even 1960’s India itself where President Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian” served in retirement], the sense of “belonging” you gain as the community becomes geographically familiar to you, and self-esteem you develop as the languages and gestures of the people start to become understandable. You feel yourself “assimilate.” You think you are a local, a real resident. A part of the community.

All of that is laughable. You are so ridiculously naive. You find this out when you go to leave at the end of service and they want your stuff. Shalini, too, found out just how naive she was and I relived every emotion along with her.

Every word of this book rang true. The emotion, the process of assimilation–it was so chillingly accurate. Yet, in the end, Shalini found out what an impact she had [no spoilers] and how naive she was.

My Verdict

4.5 Stars

The Far Field by  Madhuri Vijay

I listened to the audiobook.

I learned of this book from the Podcast “Reading Women,” episode 70.

 

Review: Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali

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First of all, thank you to The Book Satchel for bringing this book to my attention. You can read her review of the book here.

Second, how often do you get the chance to read an 80-year old novel, written in Turkish, that stands up to the test of time? Translators Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe seem to have done the perfect jobb of rendering every nuance of thought and word into English. It was so well done I had to remind myself that this was a translation!

The Story

Quiet, down-trodden Raif Efendi sits alone in an office translating bank communications into German day after dull day. After work he goes home to a house crammed with relatives who disdain him. No one seems to care or wonder about him. Yet he harbors a secret.

That secret centers around the time he spent in Berlin in the 1920s supposedly learning about the manufacting of fine, scented soap. Instead he experiences a different life. To say much more would be posting spoilers and I just cannot do this–the story is too wonderful.

This is a novella so the perfect short read for a busy holiday season.

The Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali.

This book is apparently BACK on the bestseller lists in Turkey these days, too, which makes it even more fascinating. I listened to the excellent audio version.

Reading The World

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I had trouble deciding on this book. It is writen by a Turkish author, about a Turkish man but mostly set in Berlin. Above then is a map to show the proximity of both countries. You decide.

Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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A Tiny Bit of Background

Dave Eggers captivated me with The Circle, his eery corporate management by “like” novel that resonates with me becasue of my own experience in a culture that has a similar idea-sprouting routine (happily mine is nice, not menacing). His newest book, The Monk of Mokha, is a nonfiction account of a young man, a child of immigrants, who chose success.

Choosing Success

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a 24 year old Yemeni American, working as a doorman in San Francisco and trying to go to college, when his girl friend says “You ever looked across the street?” That simple phrase, and the iconic statute it pointed to, started a rise to riches like something from an 19th century Horatio Alger novel.

 

 

 

Hills Brother’s Coffee statute and logo

Maybe you’ve heard of Arabica coffee? Sounds a lot like….Arabic. Don’t worry, I didn’t catch that till I read the book, either! Apparently Hills Brothers Coffee had–they put a stereotypical old school Yemeni on their can and made him a statue at their old corporate head quarters–across from where Maktar and his girl friend were talking that fateful night.

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Well, it turns out coffee originates in Yemen. The same Yemen now enduring war and famine. But, coffee farmers there didn’t really know what they were growing–at least not in terms of what well-heeled San Franciscan, and Americans in general, would pay for the world’s best cup of coffee. Happily, Mokhtar had a wild idea to make Yemeni coffee known as the world’s best. Happier still, he spoke the language fluently, had a group of fellow Yemenis and others in San Francisco and elsewhere to bankroll his dream and the tenacity to stick with it.

What impressed me was that Mokhtar  grew up in a dirt poor neighborhood full of  those entertainment places whose name brings lots of spam so I won’t say it, as well as guns, an open drug market and lots of booze. The schools were pretty bad. Yemeni immigrants took the normal new-comer jobs of janitors, cab drivers, cleaning ladies, etc.  Mokhtar could easily have resigned himself to such a life–or maybe a notch or two up the immigrant ladder. Instead of wasting time on a pro sports or celebrity dream, Mokhtar, when not out goofing around with friends, read anything he could get his hands on–even Plato’s Republic. You see, Mokhtar choose to succeed.

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When he decided to go to Yemen and export coffee he did his homework with a vengeance. He sought out the best help and advisors, educated himself, took industry certification exams and more. When he landed in Yemen he was ready except for…. [No Spoilers!] But when his ship comes in….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!

I truly hope Dave Eggers will produce a Young Person’s version of this book. Parents may not be pleased that Mokhtar put college aside to pursue his dream, but the education he gave himself, plus the industry certifications he earned, were worth as much or more, to the success of his dream. I loved this book–and I don’t even like coffee. Go figure!

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

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Here is the New York Times review link.

Here is an interview from PBS’ News Hour