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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

Is It Okay Not To Have Awesome Goals in Mid-life?

In my last two posts, I reminded you that if you don’t know what you want, or if you live your life in service to others to the extent that you never know what you want, or if what you want isn’t really what makes you happy but rather, what gets you through the day (like “I want to organize my desk”), you may die unfulfilled. You may sleepwalk through your one precious life. What a tragedy.

HOWEVER. (Sound of self-righteous throat-clearing.)

Just a few days ago, I read a letter to an advice column from a confirmed slug:

Dear Advice Person:

Is there anything wrong with a single, childless 50-year-old whose only goal in life is to coast to retirement, having saved enough to make retirement comfortable and carefree? I keep reading about having a grand purpose in life, working in a field that you love, being creative, etc., and it just sounds like too much work to me.

I like to have good, clean fun and I don’t like to be responsible for other people. I give to charity, but I don’t want to work in a soup kitchen or be hands-on with helping others. My job is not very fulfilling, sometimes boring, but it pays well enough, and I don’t feel overwhelmed or like I can’t produce what is required of me. I get along with the people at work, and I don’t find myself dreading going to work.

Do I need to challenge myself? Do I need to set more goals? Is coasting such a bad thing?

The Coaster

Lynne again. Hmmm. So what I hear you saying is that my life, that of the rat on the wheel, born of some existential anxiety, may not be the norm. Maybe you don’t NEED to have a big damn goal. Maybe your life is fine just as it is, being a middling member of middle society at middle age.  What’s so wrong with that, as long as you go at it consciously and are happy?

Not a darned thing. I think the important thing is to have self-knowledge, to be aware of what makes you happy and go after that. And if you do, and you have no interest in bringing clean drinking water to Africa or peace to the Middle East, I still wish you happiness. We should all be as self-aware and mature as The Coaster.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent post, Lynne. I always look forward to them arriving in my inbox!

  2. I understand tiredness. What I don’t understand is non-productiveness. I can’t imagine a life, being the gift it truly is, that doesn’t accomplish something, that doesn’t give back in some way, that doesn’t seem to mean anything other than “coasting” through to old age! Maybe middle-aged people are no longer able to do the things they once dreamed they could; nevertheless, as long as there’s breath in my body, I want to LIVE!!

  3. Hmmm, another thought -provoking post,Lynne. While I do not have the inclination or energy to set the world on fire, I do feel having a sense of purpose and making a difference are important. I find as I get older , I become more selective on how I define that. You get out of life what you put into it so coasting wouldn’t be my choice. It reminds me of a quote by Teddy Roosevelt “Do what you can with what you have where you are” And I agree with Deb, I want to lIVE!

  4. I was brought up to believe that hard work makes up for being all sorts of a
    crummy person in other ways. As long as it could be said of me ” Well; she certainly works hard”, I could be forgiven many sins (in the non-religious sense).

    Now that I am a boomer+, I know that the value of hard work is much overrated.
    Do the best you can, which includes being kind to yourself, listening to your inner voice. even if that tells you to coast for a while. I am far more ALIVE now than I was when I was flogging my back to achieve. achieve, achieve.

    And yes, I do care about water in Africa and food in the bellies of starving children, but I can do something about that quite easily, no hard work involved.

    Vagabonde sent me here, I am glad she did.

    • Friko, I used to look at the wealthy, nonworking wives in my extended family and shudder at the thought, “what does she DO all day?” These are people who no longer raise children. It seemed all they did was plan parties, enhance their bodies, and redecorate. But there is another kind of retirement, wherein a woman might live a quiet life – she might putter at her plants, watch soaps, try a new recipe, do social networking, visit her adult children, attend a book club, take in a movie with a buddy…The former seems like killing time, the latter like living. But I feel bad judging.

      I guess the thing I’ve learned in my middle 50s is that I have to feel like I have a purpose, like it would matter to at least a few people if I were no longer here. Thanks for joining the discussion!

  5. Lucy

     /  November 8, 2010

    I just found this site and I am happy I did. As a woman of 58 who, less than one month ago left a very stressful, responsible job, I am delighted to be semi-“coasting”, at least for the time being. I am back in school, on track to finally finish my bachelors degree in English, then will go on to an MFA in creative writing. I am loving having time to relax in bed in the morning, or, conversely, jumping up at dawn to do schoolwork because the house is quiet. I used to dread Sunday evenings knowing what awaited me the following morning. Sunday is now my favorite day of the week. I love staying up as late as I like because I know I can. I run errands when I want. I have lots more time with my lovely husband and close friends. I can talk on the phone to my two daughters for as long as they want to chat. I procrastinate writing my papers or doing homework but then enjoy the process once I start. A movie on a Wednesday afternoon just because I am in the mood? Heaven. Oh, and I do give to charity. I love writing the checks and mailing them off. I, too, do not feel the need to show up at the local food bank putting in time, though who knows? Maybe I will later. It is lovely knowing I have the choice to do so without having to squeeze it into an already over-scheduled day. I am not sure if this is will be the rest of my life. I will see where my education leads me, once I finish. For now? Coasting is a gift, and I feel very fortunate and grateful to have this time in my life to reflect and to do what I want to do.

    • Lucy, I’m glad you found us, too! And any future comments you make will go right up on the web, no approval necessary, so stop by often and let us hear what you’re thinking.

      I worked for 30+ years and when I retired (if you can call it that; I’m finishing my first novel) I was kind of lost for a while. I tried freelance writing, got a part time job as an events coordinator for a law firm, and volunteered at a hospital. I remember being kind of afraid of all the free time. But, man, how I have adjusted!!! Now, a good day is one in which I have absolutely no appointments. The whole day to organize as I see fit. There’s always STUFF to do, but how wonderful to organize it on your own terms.

      Best wishes!

  6. Java

     /  November 11, 2010

    I worked for 26 years as an HR Director and then the company decided that Mexico was the place to be. So with my newly found freedom, I cooked more, enjoyed more movies, woke up later in the morning, didn’t worry about cleaning up on the weekends and actually had breakfast in the morning. At first it felt strange – having time on your hands to do stuff without rushing about, not having plans for each hour of the day.

    I’m back in school going for another degree, but I can schedule the hours so that they don’t interfere with the more important things in my life: my husband, my grandchildren and my knitting.

    I was having a ‘serious’ talk with my granddaughter (she’s four, but she rocks!) around a month ago regarding what she wanted to be when she grows up. She advised me that she wanted to be a astronaut. So playing along I asked her “Do you know what Nana wants to be when she grows up?” Without missing a beat she said “My best friend.” Yep, that summed up my goal for life.

    • Java, I was an HR director, too. And your little story about your granddaughter melted my heart. I have a tiny little granddaughter (6 wks) and she’s so precious. Stay in touch – let us know how it goes.


     /  November 14, 2010

    At 55 I thought my world was tumbling down when…I was fired from my full-time job that supported me and my disabled husband…when my unemployment ran out…when I needed cataract surgery on both eyes…when employers ignored my hundreds of resumes sent…and as it turned out life just went on. We tightened our belts, trimmed budgets, and lo and behold, we simply went on day by day, bruised but far from bested. My lesson; sometimes less is indeed more. More trust, more faith, more time, more creativity and no one can take those away.

    • Shoreslady, what an amazing comment. My own circumstances, while different by degrees, reflect the same curve as yours, and my husband and I found we could be very happy away from – well, away. I’m glad you’re okay now (and I hope you’re writing a book!) PS any future comments will go onscreen instantly w/o moderation, so please stop by again.

    • christine nelmes

       /  March 1, 2011

      inspirational answer! thank you from a 60 something who was bemoaning her fate…….and indeed life does just go on no matter what the circumstance. I needed to hear that. Good luck although with your wonderful attitude I think you probably make your own.

      Kind regards Christine

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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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