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Double shot of reality, skim on the storytelling


I first heard about “How Starbucks Saved My Life” when Tom Hanks and Gus Van Sant came aboard to adapt it.

Since then I was always interested to read it. My lovely girlfriend got me a copy for Christmas, and I finally finished it.

It’s the story of an executive who is fired from his advertising firm. He cheats on his wife, falls out of favor with his family, gets a brain tumor, and is dropped back down to the bottom of the “food chain” as a man with no career, no family, no love, and no friends. He works at Starbucks, first cleaning the toilets, then moving onto the register, then the bar. Over this journey he discovers happiness for the first time in his life.

Each chapter is prefaced with a quote found on a Starbucks cup. I don’t know if they still do those (I haven’t checked in awhile), but it’s perhaps the only clever part about this book.

Recently I read a very good article in the NY Times discussing the growing irrelevance of the memoir. They take several books to task, but don’t mention this one and I think they should have.

There are essentially four rules to writing a memoir worth publishing, according to that article. I guess they are guidelines, not rules. But the same thing, to be sure.

1. That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir

To be sure, this is arguably the most interesting part of Michael’s life. He grew up the son of a writer for The New Yorker. He lived a life of privilege, and never had to apply for a job in his life. After going to Yale, he got a job at an ad agency through his father’s connections. He stayed there until he was fired.

There are some anecdotes relating his father’s weird relationships to other authors. Michael is always portrayed as the doting son, but their relationship isn’t detailed at all. One of the most curious but insufficiently explored tales is when Michael goes to Spain and meets Ernest Hemingway. Somehow through his father he meets him. He wants to know how Ernest got his scar, and Ernest says he’ll only tell him if he Runs with the Bulls. So Michael runs with the bulls, and comes back to Hemingway with an injury. Hemingway tells him how he got the scar (it was not related to bull running), but the story lacks a complete and central point. Michael has taken us on a journey to Spain, where he met Hemingway, and returned with nothing insightful to share. A more capable writer could have done something useful with this. Michael doesn’t know how.

2. No one wants to relive your misery

Here is the interesting thing about Michael’s brain tumor. He never talks about it. It’s operable, so it doesn’t pose a health risk. He doesn’t mention it to his co workers, because he doesn’t want the sympathy. Does he want ours? If it’s operable, are we supposed to care that he works at Starbucks with a brain tumor? Why just keep it a secret from his employees? Why not keep it a secret from us, unless there’s a reason to include it in the story?

3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.

This goes back to “rags to riches”. Or rather, “Riches to Rags”. It’s so fitting in this economy that we have stories like these, isn’t it? It’s something people who had lots of money but now have less of it can relate to. I’m not sure that’s a very big bandwagon, but with movies like “The Company Men” getting financed there is definitely some sympathy for these people.

I fail to understand how I can sympathize for a man who never had to interview for a job. More importantly, a man who cheated on his wife and completely flushed his family life down the drain.

There are people who have done this, and they’re looking for that inspirational story to bounce back. They want a second chance. They expect to get it through our sympathy.

4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.

Michael does his best to praise his co-workers. Towards the end he says he wrote little poems for each of them, describing their positive attributes.

He talks about one of his co workers he thought he’d never become friends with – a black woman. She’s his boss throughout the story. We never see her develop into a person, strangely enough. The comments she makes are usually related to the job at hand. Customers are called Guests (capitals not mine), co workers are called Partners. One of her lines of dialogue might sound like, “Michael, you’re treating the Guests so well that it’s rubbing off on your Partners”.

If someone talked to me that way 5 days a week, I would go nuts. Michael can’t stop talking about the chance he’s been given because of the opportunity she gave him. But I don’t feel I met anyone through his prose. What he thought was the most interesting part about her didn’t seem to illuminate a person, or a character you know better. She remains the same blurry addition in his life on the last page as she does when she’s first introduced.

Michael doesn’t need more than two sentences to explain cheating on his wife and the remorse he felt. In two sentences he says all he needs to, and thinks that’s all we need to know. He doesn’t understand from that point going forward, the reader has a different relationship to Michael than they did prior to reading about his infidelity.

It’s careless and haphazard, which goes against what I expect someone in the advertising world to act like. I expected precise prose, which some Amazon readers have incredulously praised.

I really wanted to like this book.  But it’s a quick read, and the book is light in weight. That should have been my first clue that it wasn’t going to be a profound tale of a 60 year old man’s survival.

Gus Van Sant can probably say more with a film adaptation than Michael tried to do with this memoir.


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