Archive for the ‘Bios/Auto-Bios/Memoirs’ Category.

How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gill

Ultimately, How Starbucks Saved My Life isn’t believable.  I was interested in the concept, and the book started well.  Gill has come down in life from being an advertising executive to being a long-time unemployed.  He’s also made a mess of his marriage and fathered an illigitimate child.  Now he needs health benefits and a paycheck.  So he goes to work at Starbucks as a barista where he finds that their corporate culture of respect for individuals coupled with manual labor inspires him to become a better person.

You can see how that might happen.  Trouble is, it seems to happen almost without a struggle.  From day one he’s proud to scrub the toilets well and afraid he won’t know how to make change.  He doesn’t try to get into a management role, nor is anyone interested in taking advantage of the skills he actually has.  He’s all welled up with pride in himself and respect for his co-workers despite claiming to have been a prejudiced, condenscending asshole up until this point. 

And this turnaround comes without him ever hitting any visible bottom.  He has moved into an attic apartment.  That’s about as pathetic as his life gets.  He’s not on the street; he has a tax accountant and a multitude of doctors; and he’s somehow keeping four children in college while paying child support to another woman.  He’s not doing any of that on a Starbucks salary, I’ll wager.  So there’s clearly another source of income there and the Starbucks job is either primarily for the health insurance, as he claims (although I question whether this insurance would really pay for an operation on a pre-existing tumor.  The Starbucks benefits may be good but I doubt they’re so good as to ignore industry best practices), or it’s for a book deal.

So I’m sorry to say that that’s my takeaway.  He came up with a concept–bigwig asshole works humble small-time job–and he sold it to a publisher and then he went and executed it.  Although he’s supposedly still working as a barista, the book is so pro-Starbucks in an unrealistically fawning way, that some kind of viral marketing kickback plan seems likely.  He works to be a tourist attraction is my guess.

Call me cynical.  Yeah,we can all change.  (I’ve changed considerably in the last nine months, but I’m still cynical.)  Honest labor certainly has redeeming value.  Starbucks might treat it’s minimum wage workers way better than Wal-Mart.  Gill may really have gotten a lot out of the experience.  But redemption isn’t an overnight miracle.  Hand someone a mop and hey, presto!  a lifetime of privilege fades away as he discovers the true meaning of life in balancing a cash register.  If only it were so easy.

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra

Father Joe is a sweet recounting of the author’s life, particularly as it touched a priest he met in early adolescence.  Tony Hendra, inspired by Father Joe, thought he had a calling to the priesthood but before he took vows, he detoured.  Despite going on to live a worldly life, he kept in touch with the man who had shaped his teen years.  Father Joe was his only touchstone with his former faith.  Eventually, with Father Joe’s help, Hendra finds his way back to a relationship with God.

Hendra, being a professional writer, has a smooth delivery and the message is warm.  Father Joe is lovingly rendered.  At times, the prose is overly florid but the genuine emotion behind the excessive adjectives comes through.

My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

I was a little surprised by how unimportant the lobotomy in My Lobotomy seemed to be. Howard Dully’s story is a sad one of a boy who may always have been difficult being raised by a stepmother who didn’t want a difficult stepson. So there wasn’t much sympathy for little Howard, which probably made his behavior even worse. At some point the stepmother decided that he’d best be helped by a lobotomy. At the time, lobotomies were somewhat in vogue, being trumpeted by a doctor who’d invented the procedure and traveled around the country performing them.

Apparently the results were unpredictable. In Howard’s case, it’s hard to say whether or not there were results. He goes on to have an even more troubled teenage and young adult life with a lot of drugs and alcohol involved. Eventually he gets himself into recovery. Part of that is facing up to what his stepmother had done to him, which he didn’t understand at the time it happened. He becomes something of a poster boy for people who underwent unnecessary lobotomies at the hands of this doctor, having a documentary made about him and giving talks on the radio and to audiences.

I can understand how cathartic both the original procedure and the later exploration of all its ramifications must have been to the author, but to the reader, it’s hard to be sure the lobotomy influenced his life that much. His story is not unlike other stories of youngsters who didn’t get much love at home (and even those who did) and discover drugs and alcohol at an early age. That doesn’t diminish the complete irresponsibility of his stepmother (and more so father) in having this procedure done on him, of course.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Holidays on Ice is the second book of humorous essays I’ve read by David Sedaris. The first book was all biographical non-fiction. This one also included some purely fictional essays, which weren’t anywhere near as good. When he’s writing about himself as a homosexual man, I can relate to what he’s saying because he’s being real and down deep we’re all people with the same feelings and failings. But when he tries to write as a heterosexual woman, it’s just stereotypical silliness. It’s not funny because it’s no longer true.

Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

Stories of addiction are getting more honest. Once upon a time, they all ended with the uplifing recovery scene. Beautiful Boy cycles through a few uplifting recovery scenes but keeps dropping you back to the reality of addiction, i.e. relapse.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a good book for someone who doesn’t have kids or who hasn’t gone through tragedy with their kids to help them understand how parents feel when their kids are in this much need. Sheff illustrates his own pain very clearly.

Lately I’ve reconnected with some old friends on Facebook and have enjoyed reading old diaries and letters and re-living those debauched younger days. It seemed innocent enough at the time. Why does the man have to hassle you? Then I read Beautiful Boy and see why the man had to hassle us, and why it’s a good thing he did, and why I came out luckier than some.

Good Morning Midnight by Chip Brown

Good Morning Midnight is the story of Guy Waterman and his choice to commit suicide by sleeping out overnight on a mountain during the winter. There’s quite a long chapter about Guy’s son, Johnny, probably because it makes a better story. What can you say about Guy’s death except that he planned it for a while and then did it.

Is depression really the only reason people commit suicide? I have a hard time believing a person can maintain that level of depression for more than a year. I’m more inclined to call it determination. It does seem unfair to his loved ones, but his wife had plenty of time to separate herself in some other way if it seemed preferable.

It was interesting to read about their off-grid home in the woods. Sometimes I think I’d enjoy a simple life like that but then I realize that I’d have to have the internet.

Schuyler’s Monster by Robert Rummel-Hudson

Why do I like reading true stories about children with mental or emotional handicaps? I don’t know, but usually I do. Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with His Wordless Daughter was somehwat of an exception. Frankly, I didn’t think much of Schuyler’s Father. Although his devotion to his daughter is touching and his writing style is highly readable, he’s kind of a jerk and that really comes across.

Schuyler’s handicap is an unusual brain disorder that leaves her mute though, in her case at least, high functioning in other ways. She seems like a pleasant social girl and I hope we’ll hear something from her own pen somewhere down the road. It’s too early to tell how well she’ll learn to communicate using alternate devices but there’s reason for hope. And it’s great her father advocates for her so strongly. One just wishes he was perhaps not such a jackass about it.

Transparent by Cris Beam

Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers is the memoir of a lesbian who gets involved with transgendered teenagers, mostly male-to-female. This isn’t a subject I can claim to know anything about, but it’s an interesting one. I learned a lot about the challenges these kids face and you certainly do get a sense for how strongly some of them feel the disconnect between their physical and mental genders. It’s curious how some people feel like they’ve been born the wrong gender while other people simply feel non-stereotypical. For instance, I have many stereotypically male characteristics, habits, and interests, but I’ve never doubted my identity as a woman.

Cris is more patient with the kid she semi-adopts than I would be. Gender issues aside, these kids have a lot of other problems, so kudos to her and her partner for taking on such a troubled teen and sticking with her.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

A Three Dog Life is the memoir of a woman whose husband suffered brain damage in a car/pedestrian accident. At first her husband’s condition improves and he’s able to come home briefly but then it declines. He has no short term memory, can be combative and confused, and is occasionally irrational. She sticks with him, although he’s largely institutionalized, even moving closer so that she can see him more frequently and bring him home for visits. It sounds like their love continued.

Interestingly, although she mentions it only once and briefly, their marriage was unhappy and perhaps failing prior to the accident. She says she was “miserable” before and “happy” afterwards and feels some (natural) guilt for that. But the book doesn’t focus on her guilt. It focuses on her ordinary daily life with her three dogs and her warped husband, which goes to show that we can adjust to anything as normal over time.

Addicted to Danger by Jim Wickwire

This guy’s kind of unlucky. I mean, he made it to the top of practically nothing and he watched a lot of people die. On the other hand, he’s kind of lucky. He didn’t die himself, despite some stupid choices like bivouacing near the summit of K2, and he has a wife and family who love him, despite some selfish choices like repeatedly missing birthdays and anniversarys so he could climb.

Addicted to Danger isn’t a bad read, but I felt bad reading it. I know people who’ve been less selfish and have gotten less. On the other hand, I know people who have been so devoted to their families and jobs that they haven’t realized themselves. Perhaps Jim Wickwire walked a fine line and walked it well.