Category Archives: Epicurienne’s library
book lists, book reviews, what’s Epicurienne reading now?
In recent years, I’ve found one of the most efficient conversation starters to be “what do you think of Starbucks?” The opinions fly about as fast as Roadrunner on his sixth triple espresso, and there’s often the feeling that it’s a bit uncool to admit to liking Starbucks, just like when it wasn’t cool to like Abba. Don’t get me wrong; there’s always a handful of brand-faithful caffeine addicts ready to share their love of vanilla frappuccinos, Christmas gingerbread or eggnog lattes, caramel macchiatos or the reliability of the simple flat white. On the other hand, there are plenty of folk who make no secret of their disdain for the world’s most famous coffee house.
Some people hate Starbucks because it’s everywhere. Others love it because it’s everywhere. It would seem the jury’s still out, especially because of the effect of Starbucks on the small, old-fashioned coffee shop which has been fast-disappearing, unable to keep up with the larger coffee chains. Think: You’ve Got Mail, only with independent cafes, instead of bookstores, being put out to pasture by the new big boy on the block. Given all the different opinions, the argument seems nowhere near being resolved. Then, in one online dispute between some of my fellow bloggers from different cities around the world, each with their own Starbucks (plural) nearby, I learned something new about the coffee giant: in the States Starbucks is respected for the benefits it offers its employees and the fact that it has a notable non-discriminatory recruitment record. That piqued my interest. Gay, straight, young, old, black, white, with or without qualifications. If you’re willing to work, you’re almost assured of a job at Starbucks.
A while ago, I picked up a book in a charity store. It was called ‘How Starbucks Saved My Life’. It sat in my To Read pile until recently, when I found I could not put it down. The author, Michael Gill, tells the tale of his successful career, for which he sacrificed Christmas with his kids and quality family time as he jetted around the States and beyond in the name of advertising. Not so clever in hindsight, he finds. He never considered that the agency for whom he worked would axe him. No, he really believed he’d be there until he retired, but the agency didn’t see it that way. Suddenly, and without further ado, Gill was fired. His face no longer fit the image of the agency.
One failing consultancy, an affair, a love-child, a divorce and a tumour later, Gill finds himself down-and-out, applying for a job at Starbucks. Instead of feeling embarrassment at taking a blue collar job with very basic hourly wage, Gill surprises himself by realising how much he enjoys his new, simpler life. He makes new friends, looks back at past experience with fresh eyes, learns to take pride in all aspects of his new-found work, including toilet cleaning, and starts to reassemble the different parts of his broken life. It’s inspiring.
Some cynics would say that the Ad-Man in Gill saw an opportunity here; by writing about his experience of such a global brand, he’d get his book noticed, and he did. I don’t have a problem with that. Others might complain about Gill’s name-dropping, which did annoy me at times, but we should remember that until he lost his job in advertising, Gill really was a major player in that world, so a certain amount of his past-life involved schmoozing high-profile people. What impressed me, however, was how the once-grand man with everything learned to take pleasure in simple things and be grateful for them. Once upon a time Gill would have taken his ad-agency remuneration package, including health care benefits for all his family, for granted. He is now almost pathetically grateful for the health care he receives through Starbucks. In the past Gill would have been scared to cross paths with some of his co-workers, from starkly different backgrounds to his. Now they share music and anecdotes and learn from each other’s life experiences.
Gill works hard and steadily, getting himself into a new groove and routine. He overcomes fears, confronts his failings and learns enough about coffee to run tastings for colleagues and guests. I’d say that’s pretty admirable for a man who only recently thought he was on the scrap heap for good.
Apparently Tom Hanks thought Gill’s tale was worth further attention, because he bought the film rights. The film version of How Starbucks Saved My Life is listed on IMDB as being a 2012 release, so we’re going to hear a lot more about the global coffee king before too long.
Before you all jump on your soapboxes to tell me that I’m evil for supporting what one acquaintance calls The Devil’s Coffee House, just remember that my day job is in Human Resources. In recent years I’ve had to tell too many good people that they needed to find a new way to cover their rent/ mortgage/ school fees/ loan repayments and credit card debts because their job had ceased to exist. I’ve seen grown men and women sway with catatonia and cry, and it’s been soul-destroying for all concerned.
We weren’t alone; the credit crunch has forced many companies to shrink their staff numbers or close down completely, and many firms use the credit crunch as an excuse to remove non-contractual benefits and cut salaries. Often the business reasons for this have been valid. At other times, you’ll find they’re a tight-fisted pretext for making those at the top richer and Joe Bloggs poorer. Of those still in work, most of us are worse off than we were four years ago. So when you’re jobless, sixty something, down on your uppers and are accustomed to having coffee served to you as opposed to serving it to other people, but have never made cappuccino foam in your life, what do you do? Take a leaf out of Gill’s book and head for Starbuck’s. Then ask for an application form. In this tough climate, Starbuck’s is rare in not pulling the plug on staff benefits and however you look at it, the list of benefits for U.S. Starbucks workers is impressive. They cleverly call it a ‘Special Blend’. Here’s a brief summary of benefit components that a Starbucks partner might expect, taken from the U.S. website:
- Competitive pay
- Insurance: medical, prescription drug, dental, vision, life, disability
- Paid time off
- Retirement savings plan
- Stock options and discounted stock purchase plan
- Adoption assistance
- Domestic partner benefits
- Emergency financial aid
- Referral and support resources for child and eldercare
- A free pound of coffee each week
Further information is here:
When it comes to finding out what benefits a UK Starbucks partner can expect, there is a curious lack of information on the UK website, but I did manage to find out that Starbucks intends to introduce an NVQ training scheme for their staff from next year, with an MBA-style programme for senior managers currently in development. These courses and more will be available to partners through the Starbucks University, helping them to gain education whilst working, whatever their level.
As for Michael Gill? He’s written a second book, called How to Save Your Own Life: 15 Lessons on Finding Hope in Unexpected Places, but according to a quote on his website, he is intent on keeping things simple.
“I have heard from literally thousands of people who have told me that they have benefited from my surprising story,” Mike says, “I think because my life is irrefutable proof that simply acquiring things does not bring happiness. In fact, the contrary has proved true for me: losing a lot of stuff frees me to be truly me. There is a cost to working 12 hour days like I used to do, or striving to keep up a big house and a big life. There is a freedom to going through life without a lot of heavy status stuff—and just giving yourself the chance to do what you were meant to do, and be who you were truly meant to be.”
Sounds like someone’s been talking to the ghost of Epicurus…
In case you’re wondering, yes, Michael Gill still works part-time at his local Starbucks. And my favourite Starbucks beverage? Ice-cold mocha frappuccino, even when it’s snowing.
Do you have a comment to make about The Devil’s Coffee Shop? Let’s debate. Let me know YOUR experience of Starbucks, good, indifferent or bad – all opinion is welcome here.
It’s always a relief to me when Christmas is over. Following all the over-eating, excitable families, pressure to spend, emotional blackmail to eat more, stay longer and be energetic, happy beings, in spite of any work-related year-end exhaustion, I find myself in desperate need of escape. Forget peace on earth and goodwill to men. Few people seem to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Take last Christmas, for instance, when Israel was wreaking havoc in Gaza. There was nothing peaceful about that. Extremist factions around the world favour Christmas as a great time to try to blow things up, and on Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami swept through southern Asia, killing over 200,000 people in 13 countries, so forgive me if peace is the last thing I relate with Christmas these days.
On reflection, 2008 was turbulent. A memorable year for all the wrong reasons, it had been a rollercoaster ride from start to finish and not in a good way; it was more akin to Expedition Ge Force than It’s a Small World. So, to recharge, Monsieur and I booked an end-of-year trip to Sicily (once we’d fulfilled all family obligations and celebrated Christmas not once, not twice, but three times over).
I hadn’t set foot on the island off ‘The Boot’ since I was a student in quite a different life. On that first trip, many of our group had been suffering from a nasty virus and I therefore coughed and sniffed my way around Sicily in a somewhat depleted state. This time I was determined to squeeze the most into and out of our New Year’s adventure, especially as Sicily was unbroken ground for my compadre, Monsieur.
The departure routine was the same as for most of our travels: washing and packing like laundry obsessives, to bed later than hoped, waking in the dark, groaning our way into readiness and repeatedly checking our bags for passport and ticket reference numbers in Frequent Traveller’s O.C.D.
For these and other travel prep reasons, I find it’s a blessed relief to reach the air-side part of any airport terminal, especially as you never know whether security will ask you to remove boots, shoes, belt, jacket or hat (I always wear a little Phillip Treacy fascinator for travel, daaahling), or whether they’ll confiscate your perfume or evian from carry-on luggage, lest you turn it into an incendiary device and blow up the plane. (It would seem the instructions for making such things are on the internet somewhere – God bless Google.) Whilst we’re on the subject of confiscated items, have you ever wondered where those clear plastic bags of illegal on-board items end up? I imagine the guards split the take at the end of the day “there you go, Bob, you said you needed a new deodorant. Eileen, you like Number 5, right? Who needs toothpaste? Full tube, whitening… Old Spice anyone?”
On the particular morning that we set off for Sicily, Monsieur and I were both in need of books, so we found a bookshop, stood in front of shelves of what’s deemed as good holiday reading and yawned. Chick lit… murder mystery… murder mystery… Danielle Steele… more chick lit… footballer ‘auto’-biography. It seemed we’d read all the decent titles and neither of us was in the mood for tales of unrequited office crushes or dismembered bodies floating in the Thames. Dismembered bodies in Sicily, however, were another matter entirely.
And so, with that in mind I walked towards the plane with the sort of book I never, ever buy, wondering if I’d just thrown a handful of (devaluing) pounds down the Drain of Mistaken Purchases. As I burned my mouth on too-hot coffee in the departures lounge, out of the hand-luggage it came: The Last Godfathers, by John Follain. At the very least, the book had pictures. That was a start. Turning to the black and white collection of images, I looked hard into the faces of the men who’ve tortured, maimed, murdered and terrorised so many good Sicilian folk. They could have been anyone; there was nothing remarkable or particularly violent-looking about any of them. Food for thought. In the name of better understanding our destination, it was time to find out what this whole Sicilian Mafia thing was about, so I started to read. By the time we reached Sicily, via Milan, I was hooked. Little did Monsieur know that his one-time peace-loving fiancée would soon be recounting tales of disappearances and body disposal, peppered with details of why you have to be strong to garrotte someone and what sort of acid is best for dissolving human bodies. Needless to say, many of these revelations took place at mealtimes for maximum effect.
Wherever we went in Sicily, we saw people and situations that smacked of a Sopranos-on-location episode: grey-haired men with cashmere coats slung across their shoulders, flanked by ginormous muscle-men in suits with mirrored glasses as they ambled about in the New Year sun… there were plenty of such stereotypes about, looking like they’d just walked off the set for The Godfather Part 7, but perhaps Monsieur and I possess over-active imaginations and we were just observing double-glazing magnates enjoying a stroll with their beloved nephews. I leave it to you to decide.
One thing did take my breath away, however. As I sat watching Italian breakfast news one morning, I learned that one of the most notorious of Corleone’s godfathers, a man named Salvatore Riina, had not one but several Facebook sites in his name and other godfathers were being ‘honoured’ (if you can call it that) in the same social networking fashion. The pages were apparently set up by fans (Fans? These people have fans?) eliciting support for the release of Riina and his cohorts from prison where they’re serving life sentences for inconceivable crimes in both method and number. The Italian outcry had begun and soon spread to Facebook’s headquarters, where it caused great argument because Facebook says it doesn’t want to be responsible for censorship. The victims of such men do not agree. They view this stance as support of evil in our midst. Will we next see the godfathers blogging from their cells? Or should such rights be denied prisoners? The questions, the questions. Out of interest, if you stumbled across a Mafioso blog, would you dare post a comment? If so, what ever would you say? Well, I don’t know about you, but suddenly, I find myself in the grip of blogger’s block, quite, quite at a loss for words.
As for visiting Mafiosi on Facebook, well, what do you do to get a godfather’s attention, exactly? Poke him? Somehow that seems wrong. What are my chances of making it to the next birthday if I throw a sheep, instead? Or send tropical fish for the Don’s aquarium, or a round of pangalactic gargleblasters? Pass to all. I think I’ll just play the Facebook app called Mafia Wars, where I’m known as Don Epicurienne. Far safer.
Some while back, My Friend, The Planet (otherwise known as Planet Ross) sent me his blue monkey. He’s a funny little figurine with a pointy hat that probably has some sort of spiritual significance, but the only spiritual influence he’s had so far in London has been scaring one of my colleagues so much just by looking at her that I had to take him to live at home. Prior to that I thought he’d have fun living at work, but that was probably a mistake on my part. Only sad people like living at work. In any case, when Blue Monkey lived with The Planet in Japan, his life was fun. He played with puzzles and predicted the future all day long. Now his days are spent presiding over my shrine, scaring visitors and drinking from my rapidly diminishing bottle of sake when he thinks I’m not looking.
I knew I should send something back to The Planet, but wasn’t sure what to get. Then, one day when Blue Monkey and I were out shopping, we saw the ideal book for this man who loves word play so off it went to Japan for The Planet’s birthday. Here’s the post written by The Planet about his late birthday snail-mail from Blue Monkey and me.
PS Planet Ross thinks he’s old this year, but as Blue Monkey told him “you’re actuarry very young for a pranet”. (Blue Monkey’s still having problems with the English L sound but we’re working on it. ).
It isn’t often that I find a book that makes me want to read it twice in three months, but I should have known from the review that I’d want to immediately re-read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl:
“GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES is Ruth Reichl’s delicious and mischievous account of her time spent as an undercover restaurant critic. Reichl knows that to be a good critic you have to be anonymous. When she lands the much coveted job of the NEW YORK TIMES restaurant critic, she resorts to disguise in order to avoid the inevitable red carpet treatment.”
Have you ever heard of anything so unusual? A restaurant critic dining in disguise, then writing about her experiences as various alter egos? I love reading about food; that’s a given. But what makes this book really special is how Reichl’s disguises take her on an unexpected journey to discover aspects of herself that she hadn’t been aware of previously. We’re not talking big hat and dark glasses here; Reichl (pronounced ‘Rye-shul’)develops astoundingly three-dimensional characters, adjusting hair, make-up, style and personality to suit each. In the course of the book we meet a frumpy old lady, a come-hither siren, an elegant hippy whom everyone adores and the invisible woman. A huge amount of effort goes into pulling off each of these new personae, but it works, and Reichl successfully avoids being spotted as she gets around the Manhattan dining scene. Sometimes, in the course of her research, Reichl visits a single restaurant multiple times, as both herself and as one of her other selves (not at the same time!), allowing insightful comparisons between how she is treated depending on which of her personalities dines there. Needless to say, the resulting reviews were the subject of some controversy, especially when revered establishments lost a New York Times star or two because they treated the alter ego badly. This is a veritable rollick through gastronomic Manhattan – so much fun!
As a result of so thoroughly enjoying Garlic and Sapphires, I’ve now placed Reichl’s other culinary memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples on my New Year’s reading list. These follow Reichl’s evolution from a New York childhood, through college at Berkeley and on to her career as a food critic. I’m also having fun devouring the odd copy of the magazine food-fest that Reichl edits, Gourmet, which is always crammed with fantastic recipes and inspiration. Check out Reichl’s pumpkin fondue recipe for some truly warming kitchen inspiration. (This said as it approaches 3pm in London, with the light fast disappearing and a particularly chilly office because the boilers failed – again - this morning.)
This is for the people I know who’ve lost close ones in recent weeks, and for all those who know what it feels like to lose someone. WARNING: do not read without kleenex to hand.
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.
To find out more about the poem’s attribution and history, please click here.
‘The project officially launched in August of 2000, with the release of the first 100 journals in San Francisco. I gave them to friends, and left them at bars, cafes, and on park benches. Shortly thereafter, people began emailing me, asking if they could participate. So I started sending journals to folks, allowing them to share with friends, or strangers. It’s been a roller coaster ever since.’ So writes Someguy, the pseudonym for the brains behind this project.
Being an avid journal keeper, I was interested to learn about 1000 Journals. It’s become a collaborative art effort, with strangers from all over the world adding their own thoughts and images before handing the journal onto the next contributor and the results are nothing short of fascinating. The journals have travelled throughout the US and on to 35 different countries before returning to Someguy. Check it out here.
1000 Journals is now complete but the trend has been set. For anyone wanting to set off their own travelling journal or to contribute to an existing one, go to 1001 Journals .
Meanwhile, a selection of the best contributions has been collected and released as a book and filmmaker Andrea Kreuzhage has made a documentary about the journals, their travels, the lives of some of the contributors and what inspired them to take part. It’s currently touring the USA and fingers crossed it’ll reach the UK soon…
For a giggle, try to find the entry where a political critic talks about Presidents ‘Shrub’ and ‘Ray-Gun’!
This is one of the most unusual travel books I’ve ever come across, written by a Canadian teacher of English as a second language, who decides to follow the appearance of the cherry blossom by hitchhiking from one end of Japan to the other. I haven’t yet finished, but can’t resist sharing a couple of hilarious excerpts from the book.
‘Another combination that gives me trouble is “human” (ningen) and “carrot” (ninjin) which once caused a lot of puzzled looks during a speech I gave in Tokyo on the merits of internationalization, when I passionately declared that “I am a carrot. You are a carrot. We are all carrots. As long as we always remember our common carrotness, we will be fine.”
On another occasion I scared a little girl by telling her that my favorite nighttime snack was raw humans and dip.’
You can probably imagine the fit of runny-nosed giggles I experienced when reading that on a plane recently. Another snorter is this:
‘Here I was, folding and refolding my maps, trying to figure out my next move, and this nattering gnat of a man was trying to engage me in a dialogue about my income. He spoke what I call Random English, dictated more by the abrupt firing of synapses than by anything approximating a plan.
“Foreigners can’t eat pickled plums,” he said. “And you are very racist. In America, you treat the blacks bad just because they aren’t as intelligent as other people.” (How do you respond to something like that?) “And you killed all of the Indians.”
I sighed. “There are still Indians in North America.”
“No there isn’t. I saw a show on NHK. You killed them all.”
At this point I decided to simply ignore him in the hope he would just shut up and go away. Or burst into flames and run screaming from the building. Either would have been fine.’
The rest of that particular page has me in stitches. Will update this post once I’ve finished this side-splitting appraisal of the life of an outsider in Japan, on the most un-Japanese of journeys to follow the very Japanese cherry blossom as it bursts into flower all over the country.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Extremely Pale Rosé by Jamie Ivey, I was thrilled to find a sequel to quench my thirst for rosé wine in London’s ever-grey winter. La Vie en Rosé does not disappoint. On this occasion, Jamie and Tanya are trying to forge a French life for themselves by test-driving the concept of a rosé wine bar in the south of France. Lovably eccentric friend, Peter, is along for the ride with his faithful BMW, Betty, the pack-horse for cases of wine from faithful vintners whom we met in the first instalment. The characters are present in a full three dimensions and the settings make for itchy feet.
I e-mailed Jamie to thank him for such a wonderful couple of books (watch this space; there’s a third on its way! Rose en Marché available from 26 June 2008 ) and he kindly replied with information on a concurrent venture to his becoming a favoured author and wine merchant: a magazine. It’s called Blue Sky Living and if you e-mail Jamie, he’ll tell you more.
I thoroughly recommend reading Jamie and Tanya’s adventures in France. They’re a true testament to the fact that escaping the rat race is worth it. Especially if you have a supportive friend named Peter.
and for their new magazine about life in France