Wednesday, March 24, 2010

55. How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill

I think I first heard about How Starbucks Saved My Life when I heard about the movie adaptation that's in the works. Tom Hanks is slated to star, and I love Tom Hanks. So I figured that I would read it for the project, but it seemed silly to count this as one of my movie adaptations since I don't even know when the movie will be released (it's still listed as "In Development" on So I added it to the biography tally (a category that I know I wouldn't have trouble finding books for).

In his fifties, Michael Gates Gill had it all: a big house in the suburbs, a loving family and a top job at an ad agency with a six-figure salary. By the time he turned sixty, he had lost everything except his Ivy League education and his sense of entitlement. First, he was downsized at work. Next, an affair ended his twenty-year marriage. Then, he was diagnosed with a slow-growing brain tumor, prognosis undetermined. Around the same time, his girlfriend gave birth to a son. Gill had no money, no health insurance, and no prospects.

One day as Gill sat in a Manhattan Starbucks with his last affordable luxury, a latte, brooding about his misfortune and quickly dwindling list of options, a 28-year-old Starbucks manager named Crystal Thompson approached him, half joking, to offer him a job. With nothing to lose, he took it, and went from drinking coffee in a Brooks Brothers suit to serving it in a green uniform. For the first time in his life, Gill was a minority -- the only older white guy working with a team of young African-Americans. He was forced to acknowledge his ingrained prejudices and admit to himself that, far from being beneath him, his new job was hard. And his younger coworkers, despite having half the education and twice the personal difficulties he'd ever faced, were running circles around him.

The other baristas treated Gill with respect and kindness despite his differences, and he began to feel a new emotion: gratitude. Crossing over the Starbucks bar was the beginning of a dramatic transformation that cracked his world wide open. When all of his defenses and the armor of entitlement had been stripped away, a humbler, happier and gentler man remained. One that everyone, especially Michael's kids, liked a lot better.

The backdrop to Gill's story is a nearly universal cultural phenomenon: the Starbucks experience. In How Starbucks Saved My Life, we step behind the counter of one of the world's best-known companies and discover how it all really works, who the baristas are and what they love (and hate) about their jobs. Inside Starbucks, as Crystal and Mike's friendship grows, we see what wonders can happen when we reach out across race, class, and age divisions to help a fellow human being.

Plot summary lifted from the back cover, per usual. 

I enjoyed reading this book so much! I picked it up during a lazy Sunday morning, thinking I would start it and then watch some TV, and I read it straight through until the end. I couldn't put it down, which is kind of unusual for autobiographies. I enjoy the genre, but they don't always grab you like that. This is partly due to Gill's writing skills; he grew up in a famous New York literary family and started his 25-year career at JWT as a copywriter. It shows. Although the book is mainly about his first year working at Starbucks and how it changed -- sorry, saved his life, he cuts back and forth between the present and the past. Gill has lived what most would call a charmed life, and the stories from his childhood to adulthood are fascinating. For example, a friend from the secret society Skull and Bones set up his job interview at JWT. Maybe that's common in some circles, but to me that is crazy. 

Side note: OMG! My friend Jeff and I heart the movie The Skulls with Joshua Jackson; our favorite quote is "If it's secret and elite, it can't be good." Well, apparently it was good to Mr. Gill!

I think this book especially appealed to me because I could relate to both of Gill's professional lives -- I work in the advertising industry, so reading about his advertising career was interesting, and I worked at a Caribou Coffee for over a year, so the insider info on Starbucks was interesting, too. By the way, this quote kills me:

"Almost all ad clients took about ten minutes to decide they knew better than you."

I have a tiny chip on my shoulder after reading about some of the Starbucks stuff. For example, Gill and his coworkers got scheduled breaks. Not me! I think it may have been in the rules at Caribou, but it wasn't enforced. Also, Gill didn't have to count down his cash drawer at the start and end of each shift -- they had a money weighing machine! What the what? I spent hours of my life counting down those drawers, and Starbucks has money weighing machines? Ugh. Okay, I'll get over it. Eventually.

I highly recommend this book. It's a quick read with an incredibly likeable narrator. The journey that Gill goes through to adjust to this new chapter in his life and the lessons that he learns make for a valuable yet entertaining read.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

54. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I subscribe to NPR and New York Times book reviews through Google Reader, and that's how I learned about Sarah's Key. I know that I've mentioned this before, but I am endlessly fascinated by this period in history. It seems like each time I read about this era, I learn something new. I had never heard of the Vel d'Hiv' Roundup -- have you?

Here's the brief summary included in most reviews of the book online:

Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On the Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel' d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Let me start by saying that this review is going to be fairly glowing. I fell in love with this book (although it does have some flaws, which I'll get into). De Rosnay starts out by alternating the points of view of Sarah and Julia in each chapter, and at first I found that Sarah's chapters were much more compelling. But by the time that Sarah's chapters end and Julia narrates to the book's conclusion, we're in the same boat as Julia -- desperate to know more. I would definitely describe this book as a page-turner; I read it one night while Colin was at work, I couldn't put it down. And not only does this book grab you while you're reading, but it stays with you, under your skin, for a few days. 

De Rosnay doesn't shy away from describing what Sarah goes through when her family is arrested and detained, then sent to a concentration camp. Horrible events are relayed in detail, but not gratuitously so. I felt that the overall message of the book is that we should, no we need to remember what happened. So it made sense to me that de Rosnay would want her readers to truly understand the unbelievable anguish that people were subjected to. I thought it was very smart to show the horrors of this time through the eyes of a child; it seemed like everything took on more significance, and it was a good way to demonstrate what de Rosnay wanted to. For many chapters, Sarah was referred to only as "the girl" which I didn't fully understand -- it's no secret that the girl in those chapters and the girl that Julia is trying to track down are one and the same, so why bother not identifying Sarah from the start? The only explanation that I could come up with was that de Rosnay wanted to make Sarah's experiences universal, as it could have been anyone going through the same things. That's valid, but it irritated me a little bit because it wasn't readily apparent. It almost seemed like de Rosnay was trying to stave off a reveal in a mystery, which wasn't necessary. Also, I thought some of the writing from Sarah's point of view was a little heavy-handed, although I could understand that de Rosnay was trying to clearly express her message. Those are fairly minor complaints, though, considering how much I enjoyed reading this book.

I didn't really like Julia at the beginning and there were times when I didn't understand her motivations. But I grew to like her as the book went on, and I can completely relate to her fascination with the roundup. When I become interested in a subject, I react the same way; reading up on it as much as I can, almost to the point of obsession. (Needless to say, I've never had this kind of experience, though.) I was put off by Julia's relationship with her husband -- he was so insufferable -- but de Rosnay slowly and subtly showed that they were both at fault for the problems in the marriage, and I really appreciated that. It would have been much easier to make Bertrand the villain. The progression of Julia's relationship with Bertrand's family was one of the many elements of the book that really worked. It felt very natural and real to me.

I don't want to give away too much, because I want you to read this book if it sounds interesting to you, but I will say that the ending is very satisfying, and everyone ended up where they were supposed to. The question that de Rosnay wants us to ask, and that various characters in the book do ask, is whether or not Julia was right to try to track down Sarah and apologize for benefiting from her misfortune. I think many readers will come to the conclusion that you just know de Rosnay wants us to: Yes, Julia was right to pursue this because in the end it is better to know and remember the past.

Oh, and by the way -- apparently there's a movie adaptation in the works, with Kristin Scott Thomas playing Julia. I don't know if it's going to be released in the U.S. though. Details on the internets are sketchy. Boo.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

53. Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I think part of the reason that my dad has taken such an interest in this reading project of mine is that I'm finally giving science fiction and fantasy novels a chance. He and my sister Annie have given me great recommendations and we've been able to talk about the sci fi and fantasy books that I have read and might read at great length. It's been fun. Old Man's War was one of my dad's suggestions, and I've had his copy of it for at least a couple of months now. (It looks good on my coffee table.)

I was pretty much hooked just by reading the back cover:

John Perry did two things on his seventy-fifth birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army. The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space. The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce -- and alien races willing to fight us for them are common. So: we fight. To defend Earth, and to stake our claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has been going on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding. Earth itself is a backwater. The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Forces. What's known to everybody is that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living. You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed the return. You'll serve two years at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets. John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect. Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine -- and what he will become is far stranger. 

Intriguing, right? 

I really, really liked this one. We're completely immersed in this fully realized world from the first paragraph. John Perry is a great protagonist; he's smart, practical, with a good sense of humor. He explains his simple reasons for embarking on the journey into the CDF so well that I started to wonder how old the author was -- aging and the effects and consequences thereof play such a large role in Perry's motivations and are expressed so eloquently that it seemed like it must have been written by someone close to John's age (75 years old). I was surprised, and impressed, upon learning that John Scalzi was only 35 when the book was published in 2005. Wow.

We experience the transition and orientation to the CDF along with John, and it's really interesting. It takes a long time to get to the more action-packed sequences, but that's how I prefer it. I would much rather read about the people that John encounters and their reactions to this strange new world they find themselves in. Early on, John makes friends with a group of fellow recruits who promptly dub themselves the Old Farts. My favorite line in the whole book is the opening sentence of Chapter 10: 

Maggie was the first of the Old Farts to die. 

Sorry for the spoiler, but isn't that funny? No? Guess you have to be named Maggie to get the same kick out of it. 

Once I got to the section of the book with more action, I wasn't any less involved. I was so invested in this story and these characters that I had a very easy time reading and following the action. It was also cool to see how naturally John developed into not only a good soldier, but a great leader. Seventy-five years' worth of experience and knowledge from his life on Earth couldn't have fully prepared John for his new role, but definitely laid the ground work and helped him build skills that he could tap into for his new responsibilities. I don't want to give away too much about where the story leads John, but it is good. I promise. 

If you try this book, I think you'll have a very hard time putting it down and it will stay with you for a few days, in such a good way. I can't say enough good things about it. Go check it out!

52. The Skinnygirl Dish: Easy Recipes for Your Naturally Thin Life by Bethenny Frankel

I should start by explaining that I love Bethenny Frankel. When the Real Housewives of New York City premiered on Bravo, I thought it might be lame but I checked it out anyway. Well, I can admit when I'm wrong about something -- the show is frickin' fantastic. And Bethenny is by far my favorite housewife. I just love her. So when I found out that she wrote a book, Naturally Thin, I immediately went to the library and picked it up. And it's really good! It's all about changing the way you approach food, breaking down all the emotional baggage that most of us carry concerning food and diets. It's not rocket science, just good, simple strategies to help you take control and approach food in a healthy way. In promoting The Skinnygirl Dish, Bethenny made a series of of YouTube videos showing her making recipes from the book. In the first one I clicked on, Bethenny made "guilt-free faux fries" -- a recipe almost identical to one for baked french fries that I got from my mom. So I figured, if this is the kind of easy, healthier recipe included in her book I should definitely read it.

Here's the summary lifted from the back cover:

In her New York Times bestseller Naturally Thin, Bethenny Frankel shares her ten real-life rules for enjoying healthful natural foods and escaping the diet trap. Now, in The Skinnygirl Dish, Bethenny joins you in the kitchen and shows you how to stop the "cooking noise" and put an end to the anxiety about how and what to cook and eat. The Skinnygirl dishes on how anyone can:

  • Get in touch with your "inner chef" and make the Skinnygirl philosophy yours 
  • Use Bethenny's list of kitchen essentials and the core concept of using what you have at hand to enjoy creating healthy, satisfying meals
  • Take your basic cooking skills to the next level with practical tips for saving time, money, and sanity
  • Make personalized gourmet recipes from celebrity chefs, including Bobby Flay and Top Chef stars Lee Anne Wong, Hosea Rosenberg, and Ariane Duarte
  • Light up -- and lighten up -- holidays and special occasions with tips and recipes for throwing the perfect, stress-free party

Over sixty recipes become more than a thousand recipes with Bethenny's "Use What You Have" substitution charts. Enjoy Breakthrough Breakfasts, Delicious Dinners, Simple Snacks, To-Die-For Desserts and Skinnygirl Cocktails, plus tips to turn almost any dish into a vegetarian delight. With the famous wit and real-world sensibility that made her a breakout star, Bethenny reveals her kitchen adventures and inspires readers to cook the Skinnygirl way with taste and style. 

I was expecting a straightforward cookbook, but this is so much more. In addition to giving recipes with extensive guidance on substitutions, Bethenny writes about organizing your kitchen and what kitchen equipment to invest in as well as giving advice on ways to simplify recipes. She really wants people to not be afraid of the kitchen, or of trying new things in cooking. She wants you to be able to walk into the kitchen and prepare a satisfying, healthy meal with what you have. So really, this book is a much better investment that I originally thought.

I think I'm going to have to read it one or two more times to really wrap my mind around it. See, I never really "learned" to cook. My mother is an instinctive cook, she understands food and doesn't need a recipe in front of her to make an amazing meal. I did not inherit this gift. I need a list of ingredients and precise directions to feel comfortable in the kitchen. And so this book is actually perfect for me, but there's so much information to absorb that I couldn't take it all in. This is one of the few books that I bought without having read it first and I'm glad that I have a copy to keep on hand. It might take a long time to feel perfectly at ease in the kitchen on my own, but I definitely think the lessons in this book will help me get there. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Picks!


Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

I have loved Christopher Plummer since The Sound of Music; Woody Harrelson has been doing some good work lately; Stanley Tucci is incredibly talented, I love that his range extends from the gay fashion editor in The Devil Wears Prada to the virile husband in Julie & Julia; and Matt Damon looks AMAZING in Invictus; but this is Christoph Waltz's Oscar to lose. Seriously, have you seen Inglourious Basterds? I thought his acceptance speeches at the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards were kind of cheesy, but I'm still excited to hear what he has to say on Sunday night.


Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

I think Penelope Cruz and Maggie Gyllenhall fall into the "honor to be nominated" category and that in another year Anna Kendrick might have had a real chance, since the Academy loves to award promising young ingenues. And while Vera Farmiga was fantastic, it's no surprise that Mo'Nique will take home the Oscar. I have no plans to see Precious because the commercials were so sad that I wanted to off myself -- and frankly, it really bothers me how long the stupid title is -- but from what I've heard, she totally deserves it. Well played, Mo'Nique.


Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Jeremy Renner and Colin Firth already won just by being nominated, and I think that if George Clooney hadn't won for Syriana a few years ago, he would be a more serious contender. I haven't seen Invictus, but I'm willing to bet that Morgan Freeman would be a deserving winner and I kind of hope he pulls off a win. However, the time -- and the role -- is right for Jeff Bridges to win and I think he will. 


Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourney Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Neither Helen Mirren nor Gabourney Sidibe have any buzz going for them whatsoever, so I'm counting them out of the running. In another year, Carey Mulligan might have had a shot with her role in An Education. But we all know it's coming down to Bullock v. Streep, Oscar Death Match 2010. Now, if Meryl doesn't win, it will be a travesty. It's gonna be her, or I will lose my faith in humanity.


Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche, In the Loop
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

This looks like a tight race to me. An Education has an outside chance at best; if Precious wins anything aside from Supporting Actress, this may be it; but don't count out District 9 and Up in the Air. I say In the Loop should win but District 9 will win.


Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, Up

Again, a tight race! I don't think the Coen Brothers are at the front of the pack, and the writers of Up should feel honored with the nomination. The Messenger could pick up a win here, but don't count out Quentin Tarantino or Mark Boal for The Hurt Locker. I think that this award will go to one of those two pictures, and I think it will go to one whose director does not win. (Does that make sense? It does in my head.) I'm not sure who it's going to be in the end, so I'm going to guess Quentin Tarantino, since I doubt he'll get the Directing award but the Academy should recognize the achievement that this movie is.


James Cameron, Avatar
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

I think Jason Reitman has a long career ahead of him and will be nominated again in the future, so he shouldn't feel bad if he doesn't win. I doubt it will be Lee Daniels, I don't think there's that much... affection? for Precious. Tarantino is not a great fit with the Academy, I don't think. He's probably like their red-headed stepchild. That leads us to the other main "feud" this year, between exes Bigelow and Cameron. I'm not going to lie, I would just plain rather see Bigelow win for The Hurt Locker (since I think it may be the only major award it will receive), so that's my pick.


The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Ugh. I am hating the whole 10 nominees thing! And seriously, if there are 10 Best Picture nominees there should be 10 Directing nominees. It's a little preposterous. I really have no idea who's leading the pack in this category, but I'm going to guess Avatar. I don't feel great about it (that movie was SO long, and unnecessarily so!) so I'm not going to elaborate.