Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category.

Accidents in North American Mountaineering (ANAM) 2010

As I say every year, I read ANAM every year, though with less and less interest as the years pass. Eventually you feel like you’ve seen them all, although this year featured the most bizarre accident ever (a leader strangled by her gear sling when the trigger bar for a cam got caught on a horn–tragically implausible).

The theme this year was bad belaying. There were more “lowered off the end of the rope” accidents than usual and a couple of uncommon “belayer didn’t catch the fall” accidents. I’d almost gotten complacent enough to believe those didn’t happen.

Being in the process of teaching a beginner to climb, I’m rethinking some of my techniques. Monkey see, monkey do. And when you see the monkey do what you have (apparently) been doing all these years, it leaves a different impression. All excuses (I’m more experienced) and rationalizations (I haven’t dropped anyone yet) aside, I don’t ever want to reproach myself with having been less than the safest belayer possible if I’m ever involved in an accident. So I’m reviewing my own belay technique with an eye towards setting an example worthy of emulating. No more one-hand slide when taking in slack. From now on, I grab and go.

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.

Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg

Salzberg’s Lovingkindness is one of the most insipirational books I’ve ever read.  I’ve lent it to several people through the years and have read it three times myself.  It’s currently on loan with a waiting list. But Faith didn’t do nearly as much for me.  I had a hard time finding enough interest to finish it, though I eventually slogged through.  It’s written in her same, accessible style and is rife with examples from her own life.  It just didn’t resonate with me.

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.

Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

I think this is my third time through Lovingkindness and I get more out of it each time.  If only I could live up to these ideals!  I think each read-through drives the concepts in a little deeper.  I wish everyone could read (and really hear) this book.

Tweak by Nic Sheff

Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines is the counterpoint to Beautiful Boy. Tweak is by the addicted son; Beautiful Boy by the suffering father. I first read Beautiful Boy, which was also published first, with every intention of reading Tweak, but Beautiful Boy was a pretty depressing read. As I mentioned in my review of it, I’m accustomed to a “happy ever after” ending for mental illness and addiction books. Although I guess we always know that relapses are lurking in the shadows, you like to end on some kind of hopeful high note. Beautiful Boy ended with Nic in treatment but after so many relapses that neither his father nor the reader could believe he’d been through his last.

Tweak has no better picture to paint. In fact, although it ends where Beautiful Boy did, my edition contained two additional epilogues/afterwords chronicling two more (shorter, it sounds like) relapses. Since then, Nic has had a blog but when I went to check it out, I found the last post was one saying “Bye” because other things were consuming his time, which reads a bit like addict-speak for “I’m getting ready to relapse.”

Aside from my increasing frustration with Nic’s relapses, I enjoyed the book. His writing is a little too obviously casual, peppered with “like” and “you know.” It’s meant to sound like he’s really talking but it comes off as artificial over a space as long as that book is, but he’s honest and open and a good writer. I wish him luck.

Mary Cassatt by Sophia Craz

This was a nice collection of Mary Cassatt’s works with a one-page summary of each of the major periods of her life and many full-color prints. It was interesting that Mary Cassat was a long way from being an ovenright success. She didn’t come to like her own work until later in life but she kept working, taking lessons and trying different mediums until she found her niche and honed her talent. She’s best known for her mother/child drawings and those were the most striking and best-represented works in this collection.

Dali by David Larkin

Dali is a nice collection of color prints of the artist’s works. It’s interesting that some of these works are actually smaller in person than in the prints. The book also contained detailed blow-ups of some sections of some of the works and a review of Dali’s life.

Sway by Ori & Rom Brafman

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is often compared to Blink and with good reason. I actually thought it was written by the same guy, but it’s not. It covers the same sort of warped thought processes we humans use to make decisions. They’re interesting to read about but often discouraging since it seems unlikely we can really overcome these ingrained human traits. It might not be advantageous to overcome them all anyway. The need to conform and the lack of time to thoroughly evaluate every possibility don’t allow us to always make the right choice based on solid evidence and rational thought. Sometimes we need to jump to conclusions or just go along with the crowd.

Of course, it’s good to be aware of when we’re doing that so the brakes can be applied in cases where clear thinking is critical, as in the example in the book of a pilot who killed a whole plane full of people by being stubbornly committed to a pre-planned course of action. But in the example of saying whether or not three lines are the same length (when they’re clearly not) because everyone else is saying so . . . well, there are times when agreeing is the right choice. The dissenter, while an important role, is not a popular one. Perhaps companies and other organizations with important decisions to make could hire consultants to dissent. These people could show up, dissent to the point of getting a good conversation going, and move on without damaging their careers. I would make an excellent professional dissenter. I’ve already spent too much time being an amateur one.

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.