Book bits

Three books about Africa, a review of 'How Starbucks Saved My Life,' and readers' picks.

How Starbucks Saved My Life

Author: Michael Gates Gill

Americans seem to love drinking coffee from paper cups almost as much as they love stories of redemption. So the true tale of an upper-class man hitting the skids only to discover how much he loves to serve coffee has all the elements of a bestseller. (So confident is the publisher that my review copy included a letter bound inside the cover crowing that the film rights have been bought by "one of Hollywood's biggest stars.")

Which is why I didn't want to like How Starbucks Saved My Life. My defenses were up from the get-go. Here is Michael Gates Gill, son of Brendan Gill of New Yorker fame, who has blown it. He lost his job as an advertising executive, fathered a child outside his marriage, and surrendered the family house in his subsequent divorce. Now living alone in his 60s and trying to make it as a consultant, he can't get clients to call him back. He's done. Until he meets Crystal, an African-American Starbucks manager, at a hiring fair.

Mentioning race is important, because Crystal is half Gill's age and can you see how much creative tension this will produce for a narrative if she offers him a job on the tough side of town? She does. At this point, a skeptical reader, the kind who balks at paying $3.68 for a hot beverage from a trendy place, thinks, "ah ha! Will Gill's next phone call be to a publisher to secure a book contract?"

Then the story takes over. Maybe there was a book contract, maybe there wasn't, but here is a man seriously pushed outside his comfort zone. He scrubs toilets with the right amount of humility and good cheer. The unexpected friendships seem sincere. And those sentences! Delivered pithily with the kind of emotional punch one comes to expect from an ad writer.

If anything, this is an intriguing look behind the counter of one of the world's most recognizable brands cleverly told by someone who understands corporate packaging and success. The Starbucks formula has been refined to perfection, and it is hard not to respect its dedication to its product, its "Partners," and "Guests." And you.

Be prepared to fight the urge to saunter toward Starbucks to find comfort after reading this book, the way sun-dappled Coca-Cola commercials can make you think world peace is possible by sharing a fizzy drink. But in Gill's own words, "They loved it because it was from my own heart." It is true. I drank in his story like a Decaf Pumpkin Spice Latte and then tossed the book aside.

– Kendra Nordin

3 books about Africa

Today he is most often remembered for finding Livingstone, but to do so overlooks both a remarkable life story and an amazing tale of adventure and exploration in Africa. ("Think Lewis and Clark multiplied by four," wrote one reader.) In Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, Tim Jeal (author of "Livingstone," a biography of David Livingstone,) relies on newly released letters to reveal much that is new about Henry Morton Stanley.

Founded in the 11th century by Tuareg nomads and once a wealthy center of Islamic learning, it is a city of mythic stature. In Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, Marq de Villiers and Sheila Hirtle (authors of "Sahara") have created a portrait of the city that explores both its magnificent past and its lesser-known present.

In Africa, writes journalist Stephanie Nolen, "AIDS is not an event, or a series of them; it's a mirror held up to the cultures and societies we build." Twenty-eight million people living in Africa today have been diagnosed with AIDS, so in 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa Nolen offers one story for each of those millions. All stories are based on her own reporting and first-hand observations in Africa and together they create a vivid, hard-hitting, but always compassionate portrait of one of the most devastating human crises of our time.

– Marjorie Kehe

Most challenged books

To mark Banned Books Week (Sept. 29 – Oct. 6), the American Library Association has listed the "10 Most Challenged Books of 2006." (A "challenge" is an attempt to remove books from schools or libraries.) On the list:

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Gossip Girls series by Cecily Von Ziegesar

Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz

Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

Off this year's list: Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. –M.K.

Readers' picks

For a great "at the site of action" war story, choose any of David L. Robbins's books. I just finished Last Citadel. Robbins has a great command of description and he truly researches his history. This book deals with the German Tiger tanks and the Cossack war front in World War II. Also, in The End of War, Robbins gives terrific insight into the power struggle between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. – Marilyn Kortum, Arlington Texas

I just finished Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen and found it enchanting. I enjoyed seeing the relationship of the two sisters evolve and also that of the young daughter and older cousin. – Christine Kilmer, Troy, N.Y.

I'm reading Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan. It's a very good book about John Paul Vann and the Vietnam War. I like the way the author achieves incredibly good depth in the people he is writing about and the details in his story. – Ted Picado, Rialto, Calif.

My wife and I are reading The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig. Beginning in 1909, this novel tells of the life of the Millirons, a recently widower father and his three sons, who are homesteading in Montana. Mr. Milliron hires Rose Llewellyn from Minneapolis, herself a recent widow, as housekeeper. What follows is funny, dear, sad, and totally engaging. – Eric Thacher, Potsdam, N.Y.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers. Her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries still hold up after 70 years!– Becky Sirrine, Phoenix

The Courtship of Julian and Frieda by Krista Perry Dunn is the remarkable and true odyssey of two young people who, in Nazi-occupied Austria, commit the capital offense: They fall in love.– Rosemary Reimer, Dolgeville, N.Y.

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