November 9, 2009
Missing a number? You're right – R&R 068 hasn't been posted yet. It will be, but until then I'm continuing on with posting my other reviews.
Michael Gates Gill
How Starbucks Saved My Life
First published in: 2007
This edition: Gotham Books paperback, 2008
Cover illustration by Simon Spillsbury
Mug in my R&R was purchased at Starbucks
I thought this book would be right up my alley. I love Starbucks, and for two reasons: their mugs (which I collect because I think they are pretty), and their Cinnamon Dolce syrup. But really, I just love coffee, and Chai lattes make my world go round. Whoever serves them has a loyal customer in the form of me.
Michael Gates Gill, a man born into wealth and privilege, is a Starbucks man through and through. He knows all the stores in New York City. Being over sixty years old, divorced, without a steady job but with a brain tumor, his one comfort in life is Starbucks. One day, he goes into one of NY's stores to have a latte, and walks out of the store with a job, offered to him by a young, female African-American store manager. Crystal is his polar opposite, but she gives Michael a chance, which Michael grabs eagerly – the health insurance will cover his brain surgery; Starbucks will literally save his life.
Finding a job below his usual standards humbles a 64-year old privileged man into appreciating what he has instead of what he has lost… That's a riches-to-rags formula with the potential for inspiration, while getting to know a favorite coffee place better. Yes, it could have been good.
It wasn't. So much is wrong with this book, I seriously couldn't keep this review shorter than it is now.
I'm just not buying it. Gill doesn't get the emotional impact behind his big life change across. In his book, the former advertising man is too busy namedropping and selling Starbucks to us, readers.
While sweeping floors and cleaning toilets of this GREAT (!) store, where dignity and respect come first and foremost and Guests are happy when Partners are happy (oh everyone just loves each other), he reminisces in length about Jackie Onassis and her adoring eyes and voice soft as a whisper (Jackie this, Jackie that, oh Jackie Jackie Jackie), or Muhammed Ali and how he made up a poem for Gill (how endearing) after Gill was not just at any of his matches, but the first professional match (and this is actually italicized in the book so as to make extra sure us readers understand that Gill is in fact bragging his ASS off).*
The namedropping is irritating right from the start, because these memories are irrelevant to the story or his 'change' and recalled at random times (he hears the word 'Master' being used. Enter his memory of Frank Lloyd Wright, dubbed 'Master' by his apprentices).
[sarcasm] Yes, all of this tells me you're definitely a changed man to whom his life of privilige is nothing compared to his life as a Starbucks barista. I'm wholly convinced, by your knowing 'Jackie' and 'Papa' and having been to Ali's first professional match, that you've moved on from your entitled past and your attitude of superiority. Comparing the opening of a store is so similar to running in front of the bulls in Pamplona to impress Ernest Hemingway. I can totally see the relevance and don't see this as another opportunity at all to impress me, the simpleton, with the people you know, the places you've been, the things you've accomplished. [/end sarcasm for now]
Why do this? What point is he making here? Does he want to show how important he is via all the people he's met? Wasn't he was supposed to be satisfied with his current life as a barista? Doesn't sound like it to me. (The man keeps contradicting himself.)
[sarcasm returns] Your skills as a Yale Art History major are just so helpful in placing the pastries in their trays correctly, what a challenge you are facing once again! We should be so, so proud of you for overcoming your next obstacle – for managing, all by yourself, with all your knowledge and connections, to open up the bagel packaging. I'm moved to tears by the inspiration. [/sarcasm overload - warning - evacuate!]
This book just seems so contrived in more ways than one. He conveniently knows juuuuuust how to read people, making instant successful conversation with his Guests. The dialogue made me cringe. Also, right after he's done sweeping that floor or cleaning that toilet (thinking back of the maid his parents used to have, or his African American nanny), he's overcome with a sudden life-changing epiphany, like how a young African American woman from a poor background (his boss Crystal) can actually REALLY be successful. Who would have thunk it? Because the idea of successful African Americans, or women, or other people from other minorities is so… outlandish!
I also resented that he considered himself part of a minority now that he is working at Starbucks. Oh so he "suddenly understands in this moment" what it's like to struggle because with this job he might as well also be from a different class or race… even though he's a white guy from a wealthy background who screwed up a huge chunk of his own privileged life.
Crystal, his 'mentor', sounds more like a human Starbucks ad than an actual warm human being. [Play tape] "Here at Starbucks, we have dignity and respect for our other partners!" [/stop tape] This was so disappointing! I thought Crystal would be tough, a no-nonsense woman with attitude – the highlight of the book! But she was just a robotic instruction manual on tape.
His petty stabs at his former employer JWT (advertising agency; he was sacked) while sharing his abiding affection for Starbucks (where nothing goes wrong EVER) are both endless. He's being repetitive here and with lots of other things too, sometimes literally, i.e. "Jay Laughlin, Pound's publisher, owned the camp next door" (p.48) followed by "…an invitation to Jay Laughlin, who owned the camp next door" (p66). There are countless examples, but if I mention them all here I will have half the book quoted in my already way too long review.
He could be a really nice guy and truly changed for all I know, but this book sure didn't convince me of it. Maybe it's the (bad) writing or… maybe he hasn't changed as much or as deeply as he'd like us to believe. No, truthfully, I hated this book. Riches-to-rags, my ass. Michael Gates Gill has just managed to adapt to a new situation (which he fell into in despair), making the most of it. Doesn't make him an inspiration to me.
If Michael Gates Gill were truly happy in his job as a barista, if he had learned his lesson, this book just wouldn't exist, or would be 50% thinner (leaving out flashbacks, namedropping and hating on his former employer). He still feels the need to be Somebody Important, instead of just being happy with being somebody.
This book has left me with a really bad taste in my mouth. I will need lots of coffee to wash it away… served in my Starbucks mugs. Because at the end of the day, I still love those mugs. And Starbucks, too.
*) An actual list I kept of celebs / influential people Gill is connected to directly or 'via via': Skull & Bones, poet Ezra Pound as well as Robert Frost, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot – all of whom he'd met over drinks or something. There's E.B. White (author of Stuart Little), Andy Warhol, Jackie Onassis, Ernest Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth (!), Muhammed Ali, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Sinatra and… 50 Cent. I probably missed a few.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008, 2009 and beyond
© Karin E. Lips
2008-2010 and beyond.