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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson so much. The review is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

    But with Home, I had a different experience. I wasn't compelled through most of the book. At about the three-quarter mark, things started to happen and I felt my interest quicken. But here's a summary of my impressions, and my apologies to those who loved it so much they recommended it to me:

    1. I was disappointed to see this other, peevish, nasty side of Rev. Ames.
    2. I didn't like the Rev. Boughton very much at all.
    3. Jack is tedious and pathetic.
    4. Glory almost breaks free but then doesn't.

    Robinson really makes me wait for it, building my conflict between compassion and resentment for Jack. And just when I lose faith in him, there's a scene where the old misogynist/bigot Rev. Boughton asks to see Jack and his brother together in his room, and Jack insists Glory be included. As if he sees her as an equal to the men, rather than just the servant her father expects.

    In this, I felt Jack himself was a Rorschach test for the reader, in that while he seems almost feral, a man born without skin with which to hide himself from the world, easily wounded and always untrusting, you want to abandon him, but can you? If so, who are you? What are your values - what are your limits?

    So now Glory has decided to stop being codependent with her "fiancé", and switch her ministrations and self-sacrifice to her dying father and her feral brother. This is an arc? This is growth? What is Robinson's meaning, at the end of the story, when Glory decides to stay in a town she has said she hates, in a house she agrees to preserve as a monument/mausoleum to the family? It can only be read as failure to respect oneself in favor of service to others! This troubles me deeply.

    I apologize for the length of this next excerpt, but I have to reproduce it, because it's so telling:

    "(Glory) had tried to take care of (Jack), to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined. Or returning herself to that silent house might simply have returned her to a s state of mind more appropriate to her adolescence. A lonely schoolgirl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.

    "She recalled certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness, perhaps, or her usefulness, or simply and abruptly losing interest in her together with whatever else happened just then...She found no consistency in these moments, nothing she could interpret. He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of (the family's) vigor and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing the clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamored and distinctly clerical family..."

    God! Who hasn't known people like this - men like this, children like this - who take and take and take from an ever-hopeful spouse or family and yet never seem quite able to be satisfied, or fulfilled, or happy! When all the sacrificial loving family member ever wants is for that feral person to be happy. Or at least safe.

    Like I said, Rorschach.

    And in this, I have to admit, Robinson delivers again, most profoundly, in pulling back the curtains and showing us, right down to the faint beat of a pulse along a pale wrist, the impact on a family of such a lone wolf. Not that the wolf doesn't suffer. Not that we don't all feel empathy as we struggle to surface from this mire, gulping and gasping air, sorry for Glory who remains below, yet intent on saving ourselves.

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  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

    The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    After reading some of the reviews, I felt a bit off-kilter, as if I'm seeing something that wasn't intended by the author.

    Nevertheless, here's my impression: this story is about a man who, because of his physical limitations, resists closeness with other people, to the point that he marries a woman who seems certain to want the same, arm's length relationship. It's only after she dies that he begins to sense that he was wrong about that. During the grieving process, he comes to realize he's been living an arm's-length life.

    I love stories about people who come out of a fog and change their lives, empowered by the realization that they've been missing something important - that their reasoning was flawed, but it doesn't have to remain that way. And Anne Tyler is such a great wordsmith, anything she writes is wonderful. This book is perhaps a bit too subtle to win the raving applause it deserves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    As I read Lean In, I was intrigued at being able to get inside the head of a dynamic, smart woman who is one generation younger than me, and see the corporate world through her eyes. One of the cultural questions she answered for me was this: why are younger women so averse to the terms "feminist" and "feminism"? Apparently, Sheryl Sandberg and her contemporaries believe(d) the following:

    1. Equality having arrived, there's no need for feminism anymore
    2. Feminists are man-haters who resist makeup and the shaving of one's legs

    Okay, #2 was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, having observed conditions in the real world for a few years now, Sandberg has come to see that the playing field is not and will not be level until more women occupy positions of power in the corporate hierarchy. She doesn't suggest that this is due to any malicious intent on the part of men, but rather it's simply a matter of ignorance.

    To illustrate, she describes having to park far away from her office door when hugely and uncomfortably pregnant. When she designated preferred parking spots to accommodate pregnant workers, no one complained. It was seen as logical. But prior to her taking her place in the C-suite, the issue hadn't been raised.

    Sandberg talks about not slowing down out of consideration for what might happen in the nebulous future. The example she gives, now famous, is of a young woman confiding her fears of not wanting to accept a job with a lot of responsibility due to the impact it might have on her family. The woman was planning ahead - she didn't even have a boyfriend yet.

    With this example, Sandberg makes the point that women, having been highly trained and educated, are waving off promotional opportunities. The jury is still out as to why, but she suggests, and I agree, that part of the reason is this: in corporate America, a woman's decision to go through pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and child-rearing is viewed as a private matter that should not impact her ability to work long hours and irregular schedules, including lengthy and frequent travel as needed. Rightly fearing this may drive her insane, a woman who wants a family may leap off the corporate ladder at a very early stage.

    Sandberg argues that if a young woman stayed on it long enough to secure a more powerful position, she would be able to exert more control over her work life (a perspective the young woman must trust will happen, since at her current low place on the corporate ladder she can only see her lack of power and control.) After a few promotions, she will be able to delegate some of her work to subordinates, afford more help at home, and influence workplace policies that unfairly impact women and families. Who can find fault with this argument?

    Sandberg is honest about her own mistakes, and I found that charming. For example, I was amazed that, for all her intelligence and education, she didn't originally intend to negotiate her starting salary with Facebook. Luckily a nice man (her husband) set her straight, and she made a counter offer to Zuckerberg. Reams of guidance have been written about how this error could have impeded her in later years, both at Facebook and with future employers, yet she didn't know. For other women who have not yet made this horrifying discovery, please read Ask for It by Babcock and Laschever (http://www.amazon.com/Ask-Women-Power...) which in addition to being enlightening and entertaining, offers tons of strategies for preparing yourself to negotiate. And not just for salaries. After reading that book I saved $150 on furniture I was going to buy anyway, by asking one question.

    But back to Lean In.

    I was also surprised that she wasn't well informed about how women can sabotage other women in the workplace, particularly women in power. This is an unfortunate truth with roots in biology, and is brilliantly explained in the amazing book, In the Company of Women by Heim and Murphy (http://www.amazon.com/Company-Women-I...) which I reviewed here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... This also suggests the reasons Sandberg was hit with such a backlash for the well-intentioned Lean In.

    There is so much more to say about Lean In, but let me close with this: I enjoyed learning how this stellar corporate executive struggled, made mistakes, and ultimately learned some strategies that will enable her, her family, and the women (and men) in her corporation to thrive. It's not perfect, and sometimes it's not even pretty, but part of the lesson is to let go of the need for perfection.

    The other message, younger women, is to get as far and as fast as you can before starting your families. Don't opt out just because it looks too hard from where you're sitting now. The view improves with each rung on the ladder.

    View all my reviews

Being Oprah

What would it feel like to be Oprah? No, I’m not talking about living in a fifty-million-dollar house near Santa Barbara (for which she wrote a check), or having a private jet to haul you anywhere in the world, or your own TV show and magazine and cable network. No, I’m talking about something else: the attitude. What would it feel like, to feel like Oprah?

This question occurred to me as I unfurled the tenth anniversary issue of O Magazine. On the cover, Oprah stands next to a giant cake. She’s been on the cover of every one of her magazines for the past ten years – one hundred and twenty issues – the only face of O, blow-dried and airbrushed to within a pixel of perfection.

She’s even on the back cover. In a special nod to her anniversary, and forgoing what must be tons of advertising revenue, Oprah is portrayed in a lovely near-silhouette. She is wearing diamond earrings and a sparkling, sequined dress. The picture lacks any text, as if words simply fall short.

Now, you might think I’m going to say that Oprah’s ego is way over the top, but I’m not. I’m asking you to suspend judgment and think about how it would feel to be that person on the back cover. Imagine you had the power to decide to occupy that space, and then to direct the stylists and the artists and who-knows-who-else to focus on one thing: making you look fabulous. Imagine your one-point-five-million subscribers and countless other readers gape-mouthed in awe when they see you on that page. Can you feel it?

Me, neither. It’s too much of a stretch from my normal life, and the self-negating attitudes many of us struggle with. So let’s do a warm-up exercise, and then I’ll ask you again.

I was dining alfresco on El Paseo recently, El Paseo being the Rodeo Drive of the Palm Springs area. It was high season on this mid-winter day, and when I looked up from my croissant I saw that the Bentleys and Rolls Royces had cruised to a stop, and the shoppers had turned their backs on Tiffany and Cartier. Everyone was watching a tall, thin, forty-something greyhound of a woman, her long limbs clad from shoulders to toes in bronze leather, her coppery hair cascading down her back. Stunning, even for El Paseo, the woman strutted past high-end showrooms, absolutely riveted on her own reflection in the plate glass windows. She seemed oblivious to us, the commoners who had themselves dressed up for this pricey resort area. For her, the only two people who existed on the street that day were herself and her reflection. Everyone ogled her – some scowling, others with mocking grins, some just shaking their heads. Lady Godiva and her horse wouldn’t have gotten a better response. My own reaction was mirth: what a showboat! What an ego! How could a person act like that?

And then I felt a thrilling rush, almost a sense of vertigo as some unpredictable part of my mind took the question literally. Mentally, I left my fellow gawkers behind and hungered to feel like her, even for just one minute – to sit inside her mind and look outward at the world from her vantage point. Was she aware of us and feeding off our reaction? Society teaches us to be modest, and that braggarts and showoffs will be punished, but what if her parents taught her something different? What if she came from a culture where beauty was accepted as a gift from the heavens rather than a sign of conceit? Maybe she assumed that we adored her, and negativity never crossed her mind. How would it feel to stand so tall and strut so proudly, not only not minding the attention but inhaling it, your heart expanding with joy from your own reflection, and from all that human energy focused directly at you?

I ask you, could the sun shine any more brightly?

And then, as I stepped away from judging this woman – as I quieted the voice inside that whispered “narcissist” and instead simply admired the pure brilliance of her self-confidence, I felt freed from the bonds of jealousy, of envy, of competition. I felt like a spectator, admiring a fiery thing of beauty, and more than that, I felt lifted up, equal to that beauty, because I had the capacity to celebrate rather than denigrate.

Now back to Oprah.

We’re all familiar with Oprah’s history, how as a child she lived in a shack without running water, and that she was sexually violated before she was even out of elementary school. You might say she’s overcompensating for a childhood that would have ground most of us into the dirt, that she’s not really happy, and that nobody who is that driven could be, deep down. If she were happy she’d have married Stedman by now, right?

But I asked you not to judge.

Imagine that you built a media empire in which you launched the careers of Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, Dr. Mahmet Oz, Gale King, trainer Bob Greene, and countless other celebrities, authors, philanthropists and do-gooders. She’s won awards – thirty Emmys for her TV show alone. She has created thousands of jobs, given away vast sums of money and helped so many causes, small and large. She is a trailblazer, having been feted for becoming the first of her gender or race in many areas. She has funded schools and built an academy for impoverished girls in South Africa. Nelson Mandela loves her. Maya Angelou writes poems for her. President Obama and his wife consider her a friend. What must that feel like?

Oh, and the money? Oprah earns $385 million a year. Her net worth is upward of a couple billion. Forbes identifies the source of her wealth with this most sterling of American descriptors: “self-made.”

If I were inside Oprah’s head – if I were her – and I looked in the mirror as I got ready for bed at the end of a long day, and thought about the weary necessity of tomorrow’s schedule – a dozen meetings, a hundred decisions, camera/hair/makeup – I might feel lonely. I might feel the burden of leadership at the top of my media empire, and the hard-won distance from my childhood and youth.

But after I washed off my makeup and saw my plain, wide-eyed face stripped clean, my hair unstyled, my earlobes unadorned, I might let my shoulders relax. I might break into a grin. I might even say to the mirror, “Damn, girl, you’re amazing!”

In our own humble (or astounding) lives, we are all accomplishing great things, even if it’s only getting out of bed and showing up for work at a horrible job, because our family needs to eat. Even if it’s only because we manage to keep a smile on our faces when dealing with damaged and demoralized family members. Even if only because we’ve managed to hang onto our houses for one more day.

Damn, girl. You’re amazing.

Leave a comment


  1. Nanci

     /  July 21, 2010

    I loved this comment… and I, too, have imagined what it must be like to be Oprah… I wondered if she was driven to acheive to make up for her sad past, or whether she does it for the love of it. I expect it is both, but I hope it is the latter. Giving up your freedom to be so public is a wearying ride, I expect, so the passion is perhaps an adequate trade.
    Yes, we are all Oprah. Do we do what we do to make up for past emotional and physical insult or for passion? If we are lucky it’s the latter…. or maybe it’s not luck, maybe I need to start living or creating my passions and appreciating myself and others more ( and more loudly) for the differences we are making.

    • I loved your thoughtful question, Nanci, about whether we are driven because we need to make up for past emotional / physical insult or because of innate passion. I think in my case it’s both. My passion to write is somewhat based in a difficult childhood, and a learned aversion to being a victim. More innate is my hunger to share knowledge, and if I can share how not to be a victim, that satisfies my passion!

  2. What an excellent and thought-provoking post , my friend. Your writing is wonderful – descriptive and entertaining( you really should write a book!!)
    Beyond all the fame and phenomena of a woman that Oprah is, she is just a human being like the rest of us. We all have our own unique gifts to share with the world. I think it is all about appreciating who we are and learning to live our lives on our own terms. Yes, we are equal to that “fiery thing of beauty ” and to Oprah..just with our own little twist. And I agree with Nanci’s comments about “how not to be a victim” Awesome!


  3. Way to write, sista!! You said it — and said it so well! Thanks for putting things in perspective for us all.

  1. What If We Didn’t Consider Aging a Problem? | Any Shiny Thing

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  • Lynne Spreen

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  • my read shelf:
    Lynne Spreen's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)
  • Review of Private Life by Jane Smiley

    Private LifePrivate Life by Jane Smiley
    My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    Maybe this book is better than my capacity to appreciate. I don't tend toward writing that is obscure, or dense (or makes me feel dense). However, sometimes it's better to roll along with the storytelling and let the deeper meaning work its way up from subconscious to conscious.

    The ending of this book is extremely powerful. Margaret, due to the traumatic incident that happened when she was five, lived in a fog her entire life, married to a wacko genius, and not waking up until she was in her sixties and everything/everyone is sad and tired. Yet she seems to catch fire, fueled by bitterness, in the very last 3 sentences of the epilogue. It was a long time to wait for the enlightenment.

    I gave the book 3 stars because there's too much backstory too soon, making it hard for me to develop an interest. Once there, I felt frustrated at the repetitious nature of Margaret's obtuseness, even though she's a bright woman, and her deferring to Andrew, even though this is what people - women especially - do.

    It went on for her whole life! That she was living in a cloud due to, I believe, the trauma of the childhood incident, and that she was ill served by those around her, didn't make it any easier to like this story. I know Smiley is a master writer, and I feel like a goof not giving her a better rating, but this is my honest reaction.

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  • Review of Up At The Villa by Somerset Maugham

    Up at the VillaUp at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Very much enjoyed this short book, which I read in one night. The settings are lush, dialogue snappy, and the characters realistic and strong. The plot and writing are compelling. I enjoyed it because a theme might be, "people are not what they appear to be." A character acts one way and you think, okay, he's good and upstanding. And maybe he IS, but the "why" of it is enlightening. Maugham is a respected author for a reason. What talent! A very good story.

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  • Review of Benediction by Kent Haruf

    BenedictionBenediction by Kent Haruf
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    Ever in search of stories about midlife and beyond, I set up a page on facebook (www.Facebook.com/midlife.fiction) and asked for suggestions. I got 38 great recommendations, and I hope to read and review every one of them. Herewith, then: Benediction by Kent Haruf. What a masterpiece.

    Benediction centers around an elderly man who is dying, but the story encompasses many rich characters, and their small stories touched me. In fact, I think this is what made the book so special for me: I saw a little bit of myself in each of them. Each one resonated. I felt again what it was like to be a lost little girl, a lonely divorcee, a misunderstood introspective, a grieving wife, a person who is coping with serious illness. I longed for the small-town atmosphere described here (the Fourth of July fireworks over the high school football field is a stellar short story all by itself.)

    Although the central character is dying, the book is not negative. Far from it - Benediction reflects on the everyday goodness (and tawdriness) of people. His characters are beset by the normal difficulties of life yet buoyed by simple beauties and kindnesses.

    Yet, nothing in Haruf's writing is overly dramatic or in the least saccharine. In fact, that's one of the aspects of Benediction I enjoyed the most: being surprised by tears on the completion of a plainly-written paragraph, phrase or description.

    I couldn't stop reading excerpts to my husband, since he also loves beautifully crafted writing. This book put me in mind of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. If I could describe it in one word, it would be "elegiac."

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