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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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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

Two Rich Links for You

“…the control we want to think we have over our lives is…an illusion. It is an illusion we are accepting of because the opposite of it is hard to bear. The truth of the matter is that life can change on a dime, tragedy is merely a phone call away. But what that made me understand is that not only do I not have control over everything, but I am also not responsible for everything. Life happens and we move into the changes, like it or not. It doesn’t really take courage because we have no other choice. Every day the sun comes up and the sun goes down and we get through another day.” – Marilyn Jean

That is from Marilyn’s blog, ThereMustBeSomeMistake. Marilyn, a former RN, speaks with such a moving, rich voice about her experience with breast cancer, and her new online friends are checking in with their experiences. I thought you might enjoy getting to know her. I’ve never had cancer but I’ve had a lot of surgeries and several cancer scares, so I relate to her words. What she says above just hammered my heart. I feel the same way, so much so that I made up a scene in Dakota Blues about the exact same thing, and I’ve included that excerpt at the end of this post.

I also want to turn you on to a helpful friend, Dr. Melanie G. Dr. G is a psychologist, and you might want to follow her on Twitter. She is such a curious, thoughtful reader and prolific linker that you could almost follow her alone and still have a cornucopia of helpful articles to read every day.

Finally, here’s my excerpt, where recently fired middle-aged workaholic  Karen Grace sets out from the Dakotas in a Roadtrek 190 camper van:

“Room enough, and time.” The phrase tickled around the edges of her memory, something she’d read in a book or heard in a movie, a blessing proclaimed by the Native Americans about places such as this. Here on this highway in the vast freedom of the Northern Plains, her mind uncluttered by a daily agenda or the demands of a casual populace, she could permit herself the luxury of thought. She slowed the van until it came to a stop. The wind blew in the windows, rearranging her hair until she was blind and thrumming past her ears until she was deaf. It rocked the van but Frieda still slept, and the highway was deserted for miles in both directions. Karen put the van in park and eased the door open. Her bare feet touched the blacktop, warm but not hot. She filled her lungs with the dry, clean air, right off the plains and miles from any town. She heard a squirrel chirping and saw antelope walking along on the other side of the barbed wire fence, tearing clumps of grass from the rich earth. The wild fields on both sides of the road revealed an astonishing palette of light yellow, orange, pink, blue and three colors of green: pea, mint, and forest. The rippling grasses were topped by feathery beige flowers that resembled wheat.

“Insignificance: for the first time she considered that she need not accept responsibility for everybody and everything within range in her world. In taking on that responsibility she had not only overburdened herself, but shortchanged those for whom she worried. Why had she assumed them incapable, taking that weight on her own shoulders? Other people surely carried within them their own strength, their own resources, and she finally saw that she was not responsible: not for her parents’ satisfaction with their lives, not for her relatives nor her former employees at Global Health, nor for what happened to the planet after she left it.

“Instead, she saw herself as a bright, vivid figure standing on a timeline, her ancestors barely visible behind her, their small beloved bodies dim and fading into history. In front of her she saw only stick figures moving into the unknowable and impersonal future, as anonymous as the ancestors. As if she slid a magnifying glass along the ruler of history, the figures became larger and clearer as they edged nearer in proximity to her own life. They gained names and identities, but only for that small space in time they shared with her.

“In front of the van she stood on the center line of the deserted highway, her arms outstretched, eyes closed. The wind embraced her with its clovered breath, wrapped itself around her waist, between her legs and under her arms, lifting her. She turned in a slow circle, her arms reaching out, her fingertips lengthening to touch all that she could see in three hundred and sixty degrees of solitude and peace.

“It was enough. It was everything.”

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  1. Wonderful post,Lynne.It stopped me in my tracks and made me pause and consider what I have at this moment. Love the last line”it was enough. It was everything.” And I want to know more about Karen Grace. 🙂 Thanks for the rich links,too.

    • Kathy, I wondered how this post would affect you, as you have your own battle and survival history, and are a nurse to boot! I didn’t know if you would be drawn to Marilyn’s story, or, having suffered enough, would be happy to never read another post about breast cancer again in your life?

      • Actually ,Lynne, I was energized by Marilyn’s blog post and subscribed. Sharing our stories strengthens us all so thank you!

  2. Yes — courage. In these tsunami days, I am reflecting once again on the nature of courage. considering that I have less of it than I once had, and wondering if that is simply a result of having less of a need to take risks.

    I’ve never been a young man, of course, but one wonders too if the “courage” that is lauded on the battlefield and in rescue, as much as we value and are grateful for it, may be in large part a result of rising sap and adrenaline rush.

    Marilyn’s words ring true: what is not a matter of choice need not be called “courage.” So…does a mother have a choice about rushing into danger to save a child? No. Does she have a choice about saving another’s child? When we are older, we realize there are so many other questions behind the one asking us to act.

    Thank you for the opportunity to bring this together.

    • Linda, first of all, I love your website. Somehow, optimism leapt off the screen at me, and I will visit often. But re your comment, one of the mixed blessings I’ve received as a result of getting older is realizing that what I once saw as heroism in myself was really based in a need to nurture others beyond a point that was healthy for me. In other words, if I wasn’t a martyr, I wasn’t a hero. Now that I know where that drive comes from, I curtail it but since the need is hardwired I also don’t think quite as highly of myself as I used to. I’m not saying this very well, but I hope you get the idea. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. “Instead, she saw herself as a bright, vivid figure standing on a timeline, her ancestors barely visible behind her, their small beloved bodies dim and fading into history. In front of her she saw only stick figures moving into the unknowable and impersonal future, as anonymous as the ancestors. As if she slid a magnifying glass along the ruler of history, the figures became larger and clearer as they edged nearer in proximity to her own life. They gained names and identities, but only for that small space in time they shared with her.”

    I love this passage — I’m seeing you in a different light now — your writing flows beautifully and your descriptions are wonderful. As to your links, I am only now realizing I cannot control anything — or other people — and that I am not responsible for everything — although one of my aching points is that my dysfunctions will affect my kids in different ways, and this scares me.

    I just started a blog/web site for my book — not really blog, because I’m not updating it. I didn’t realize I had signed off as drowning squirrels. Somtimes, if I’m signed into wordpress, it uses my book site as opposed to marinagraphy. Annoying. Lovely post, Lynne.

  4. Marina, you said, “…one of my aching points is that my dysfunctions will affect my kids…” Maybe they will, but how your kids react might surprise you with joy.
    Back when I was a single, hot-tempered, depressed and stressed young mother, I let my son go live with his dad, rather than risk blowing my top with him (plus his stepmom was an angel who longed for kids of her own, and they lived a couple blocks from me). Now that he’s grown, I’ve lamented my guilt over that decision a bunch of times, until one day my now-6’3″ son, who holds an MA and is entering his 8th year of teaching elementary school, said:
    “Mom, if you keep mentioning my terrible childhood, pretty soon I’m going to start believing I had one.”
    Is that not the greatest gift?
    And I pass it to you, dear Marina.

  5. Another great post, Lynn. Thank you for sharing it and the excerpt. I look forward to the publication of Dakota Blues. Sometimes we do forget that everything can change in a minute, but life will reminds us… “It was enough. It was everything.” Wonderful!

  6. Lynne, thank you so much for sharing this post with us! I love the quote from Ms. Jean and look forward to learning more about and from her! Isn’t it wonderful that we are at an age when we are able to appreciate the wisdom of our peers? I so look forward to each day seeking the lessons of life that we all have learned and continue to learn. Gone are the days of our youth when we had all the answers and didn’t need anyone to share anything with us. Thank God!
    As you both have said so wonderfully, it is such a pleasure to know that we don’t have to know everything and are not responsible for everyone else! I, too, worry about my now 19 year old son and the choices I made through the years. Thanks for the encouragement in the words about your son!
    Blessings to you!

  7. Jean and Ereline (and all who have commented), I was running errands this morning and my brain kept going back to our “conversation.” I love being able to talk with you about these things. Life is crazy and weird and sometimes horrible, but thank God we can share our humanity with each other, because that feels like the ultimate, the very best part. Thanks all for joining in.

  8. I love Dr. Melanie’s quote about letting the inner child play! So often, when we “graduate” to adulthood, we leave behind the part of us that was spontaneous and creative and fun-loving. What a shame! Oh, and thanks for more Dakota Blues — looking forward to reading that (and telling everybody I know that I’ve met its author!)


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  • Lynne Spreen

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    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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