Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Review: The Coffee Story

Sometimes you pick up a book to read that seems to resonate with your life at the time. Little coincidences seems to abound.  This is what happened when I began reading The Coffee Story by Peter Salmon.

It's a story about a man dying and a story about his life and other's death in the coffee industry. A number of coincidences started almost immediately.  Xeni Jardin, a Boing Boing blogger, announced that she had breast cancer and would be blogging about it.  While following her cancer stories, I came across a hilarious video, Sh*t Cancer Patients Say, that echoed some of the same stuff mentioned by the main character, Teddy Everrett.  The video itself, is or course, a parody of Shit Girls Say.

I had read The Cancer Ward just before I picked up The Coffee Story.  I didn't knowing what Salmon's book was going to be about but there are tons of parallels between the two.  One is critical about the communist system while the other is critical about the capitalism and imperialism in Ethiopia.  Intertwined in both stories are sex and loss of manhood due to ageing.  Or maybe they are really about the emasculation due to an oppressive regime of communism or capitalism.  In either case, they both have a fair amount of humour of the dark variety.  They both have at its core a democratizing factor of great men being brought down by death.

Oh and about the coffee.  After all, this is a blog primarily around food and drink.  I was reading  a book called Endless Appetites that takes about the global food industry and how it affects small farmers in emerging economies.  The coffee story follows Ethiopia and its history of coffee and funny enough there is a whole chapter on some of those same issue in Endless Appetites.  I hope to be able to review that book later this year.  I've finished the meal of the book but have not yet digested the contents.

Coffee is mostly present as a McGuffin. But in talking about The Coffee Story, Lucy must be mentioned.  She is the Teddy's main love.  Her name echoes a local Ethiopian restaurant on the Danforth called Lucy, and Leakey's Lucy, the mother of all humans.  Lucy, the name meaning light, 'came out of the jungle at fourteen with a silver lighter in one hand and a coffee bean in the other'.  This is repeated many times in the book and shows us through it.

There is a lot of sex but it is of a coarse variety not seemingly meaningful but as a distraction, playful, or just because that is all that is left when your life is totally controlled and predetermined.  A coffee bean is what begins the story, drives the story and ultimately what causes the downfall of the main character.

This book made me look up words: monophysite and cunctator.  The latter word sounds a little dirty and made me feel a little foolish when I looked it up.  But a few pages later, the word that is sound like shows up.  Pretty funny.  Like I said, a fair amount of humour of a certain type.

At the beginning of the story, I do not like this character Teddy.  As the story moves on, a little sympathy is built for him.  But even at the end, I do not feel for him but do gain an understanding.  He is a stand in for capitalism and its detractors in some ways.  Still, the idea of Africa walking into our world with a lighter in one hand and a coffee in the other haunts me.  I am a big coffee drinker and I consume coffee politics with my dark elixir.  I am not blind to the realities but this book reminds me of those that are responsible for the system that now exists.  It a frightening reality with some cracks where hope shines through with either the light of hope or the light of a revolution.

The writing is solid and the subject matter tickled me.  I wouldn't recommend this to everyone but it does invite you to think about coffee and death.  As a novel, it is a gentler way to understand what that bloody cup of coffee costs.  Great for when you need a little pick me up.

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