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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

It’s Her Life

I spent several hours at Mom’s house today. I alternate weekends with my SoCal sister. We get Mom’s mail, water her plants, check her phone messages, and just generally make sure all is well while the place is empty.

The sky really was that blue today

Yes, it’s inconvenient (it’s a 90-minute drive), but it’s short-term because she has agreed to sell her house, and this time I believe she will follow through. I’m glad, but also heartbroken. To think of them – them! but it isn’t “them” anymore, is it? It’s just her – not living up there ever again. Well, I’ve held off the tears all day but I guess I can’t forever. Time moves on, and we all get old and die.

I feel conflicted. I want her to move down (“up” and “down” in this post relate to land elevation) by me, for all the logical reasons, and then all of a sudden, like right now, I don’t want her to move at all. I want her to risk it, to inconvenience and vex and terrify us with her dogged determination to stay as long as she possibly can in that house that represents that good part of her life when Dad was still alive, and then the part where as a new widow she reaped the benefit of having cultivated friends and hobbies for the alone-time she knew was coming. For me to yank her away from that – and then add in the heartbreaking, elegiac, mind-numbing beauty of the high desert – I can hardly bear the thought.

Poppies grow wild in her yard

It’s an end. I’d like to think it’s a beginning, too, but who can say? Mom is healthy and vibrant for almost-86, there’s no reason she can’t have a great ten more years. But will she have the courage to start over, to walk away from that place?

It hurts to think of losing it, because for ten years, this town was my home, too. It was largely a difficult time, when I worked harder than any human should have to, and delayed my dreams, and saved everybody.

The memories are bad and good.

As a young single mother, I took my son Danny (now 33) on his paper route some weekend mornings when the snow made it impossible for him to ride his bike. One morning I ran over his foot, but the deep sand saved him and after we got over the shock, we laughed. And then newspapers stopped hiring kids and kids stopped getting up early and riding bikes and getting their first paychecks.

On the other end of the scale, my previous marriage ended there. And Dad died up there! I wouldn’t live there now. Couldn’t. But I miss it.

When Dad and Mom build the house in the '80s, they preserved the native juniper trees

But I digress. Today I worked my ass off, getting Mom’s house all spiffed-up for Amber to look at next Saturday. Amber might buy it. That would be nice, to know it’s still in the family. Amber is a dear friend of my step-daughter. So we would know the house that Dad and Mom built in the ’80s would be well cared for.

It was so beautiful up there today! I swear, when you live in such a place as the high desert, and especially on a spring day like today, you feel a sense of hope and optimism about rearing kids, raising your own food, having quiet and privacy and clean air and astounding skyscapes…but you have to agree to be away from the grownups, those people with good cars and nice landscaping and HOA rules and recycling. You have to cut yourself off from fancy restaurants and advanced culture and decent shopping.

But you can pretend that you’re living life on your own terms.

This picture hints at the mountains they can see out the back AND the front of the house

I imagine this is what people seek when they move to Idaho or Montana or the Dakotas. It’s like joining a monastery. All magic and no movies.

But again, I digress.

Mom’s coming home to my house tomorrow. I started out being excited, and I still am, but we’ve had a couple of conversations since the hospital said they’d cut her loose, and I realize I’m a bloomin’ amateur. I see that Mom’s looking for ways (already) to cut corners and speed things up; and now I understand it’s not about reveling in the relative luxury of my house as compared to a rehab hospital. It’s about my house as stepping stone to – you guessed it – her house. I think she’s just biding her time until she can go home. It started out being a month, and now she’s only planning to stay for two and a half weeks. We both talk about the need for therapy, and the therapist will have to visit my house, and we should set that up ASAP, but I sense Mom’s beyond that already. And my other sister, the one who hasn’t yet adapted to her new home near Canada, would do almost anything, including promising to take care of Mom, to be able to come south and thaw out for a couple of months.

So I rearrange furniture at my house to make Mom comfortable, to encourage her to stay, but like an inadequately compelling acquaintance, I know I don’t have much pull. Because I suspect she’s going home for good, even if she doesn’t yet say it. And the tears and frustration and anger of her children and grandchildren are nothing compared to the incense of creosote and sage calling to her from the high desert.

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  1. Ah, Lynne, what a moving post. I can really feel your conflict and pain — on the one hand, wishing for time and quiet when your mom can stay with you and you can “baby” her; on the other, wanting ever so much for her to be the active, independent mom you’ve grown up with and come to love. Maybe that’s why they call us the “Sandwich Generation,” although I think that term was coined to show us sandwiched between aging parents and growing children of our own! Anyway, I’d hate for her to sell her house. People need roots, and it takes at least two years after relocating before they feel comfortable calling their new place home. That’s a hard two years when they get to your mom’s age. Just sayin’!

    • You’ve laid it out perfectly, Debbie. I feel like a circus rider, one foot on each of two horses, hanging on for dear life.

  2. Vonnie

     /  April 3, 2011

    What a beautiful, emotional post. I hope writing it helped you clear your head. Not only will the writing help you but it helps the rest of us as we travel down similar paths.

    It’s so important that the siblings stick together at this time. Sometimes, that’s the hardest part but if keep your mother’s best interest at the forefront everything will be okay.

    Hugs from the southeast. A good cry can be very cathartic. 🙂

  3. Lynne, you must know, since you’ve lived it, how irresistible is the lure of the desert. I’ve been in my own corner of the high desert for forty years. Every day since our decision to move to Idaho (because that’s where most of the children and grandchildren are) seems like a good one (waiting just on the sale of the house). Everyday it breaks my heart. But I want to see those babies growing up!

    Then — on the daughter side — my own mom is across the continent, in care, with dementia. I want her with me. My Vermont sister wishes the same from her end. What we both have learned is that a change of place is something she would most likely never adapt to. My mom is a bit older than yours and cannot live independently. So we make the trek every other month or so as we can to hang out for a week, swim, shop, knit, visit the gardens she loves with their giant camphor trees.

    We are lucky to have some wisdom and experience to help (unlike my friend’s children who simply want her “close”, never mind what she wants and needs). We can ask, “What will I want — at a similar time, an older stage?” But we are wise enough to know the answer we would give is callow even from our mature years. We are not she.

    (Thanks for your beautiful description. And I’ll be thinking of you and your mom this spring.)

    • Thanks, Linda. The hard part is accepting that it really is her life, and her decision to make. You say, “we are wise enough to know” that our perspective is relatively immature. Oh, man, I so agree! But when I get to be that age, I hope to have planned ahead so that I can make it easier for my son to help me. I will make sure I’m near enough to his home to be able to participate in his life easily and naturally.

      As it stands, if Mom stays in the high desert and needs to go to her doctor, I’ll drive an hour and a half to pick her up, then turn around and go 45 mins to the doctor, then reverse it all. Even if it’s just an eye exam. She can drive locally but not the freeways. I mean, she’s WORTH it!! But it doesn’t make it simpler. Thanks for your comment. Sorry to blab on about my own situation so much – you certainly have your own challenges, but it sounds like you have your priorities straight. Best wishes.

  4. Oh Lynne, what a heartwrenching post. I can feel your struggles and heart tugs(the pictures are beautiful!) You have lured me there through your words and pictures. Whatever way you look at it, there will be sacrifices. I know you will work it out,keeping your mother’s best interest at heart. I truly hope writing it out and sharing this will help you to process this very delicate topic that those of us with aging parents share, respecting our parent’s independence while ensuring their safety and wellbeing. Wishing you peace and clarity in the process. Blessings, Kathy

    • “Respecting our parent’s independence while ensuring their safety and wellbeing.” Bingo, Kathy. Harder than it looks. Thank you for your kind wishes.

  5. Lynne,
    I have such mixed feelings as I read your post. My life has been different. My mother died at 50, when I was 18. But my husband works as a physician with patients at the end of life. We’ve both talked about not wanting to be a burden to each other (eye of the beholder, I know) or our kids. I had a brush with breast cancer a few years ago that made me quite sure that in the future, I would not make choices that subjected me to the medical care machine. I want to live and die on my own terms. That doesn’t mean I would refuse all treatment but I have learned how to say “no.”

    So I can understand your mother’s wish to live where she wants. Once you leave behind all that is familiar and “yours,” you start losing a sense of who you are. I would guess she knows what’s she’s getting into if she goes back home.

    Some families want to be together and have that kind of closeness and some just don’t. I don’t know about yours. What seems like a good idea can turn sour if your mom start feeling like she gave up too much of “her” life to live in your life. Good luck with your choices and keep me posted.


    • Marilyn, you see it perfectly. On the one hand (one of about eleventy-seven), I know she is lonely. She said the word, and this is in spite of an active social network. For me it would boil down to the alone times in my house, and maybe that is what she feels, too. She loves her family and wants to be around us. On the other hand, she is in a familiar environment now, where Dad lived, etc. Sometimes I feel sure that I should leave her alone, let her procrastinate about leaving Hesperia until “something” happens where it will no longer be a choice (and I won’t be the one feeling guilty about having leaned on her to make one). Other times I feel more confident that she will be happier down by us, for a multitude of reasons.

      For me, as for her, there is risk in either choice. I will keep you posted, and thanks for letting me hear from you.

  6. We’re in our fifth generation of decisions made by, and for, we first and we fifth, and the choices still belong to individual of-age persons in each generation. Respect for choices and trust in the sanctity of the chooser is a lesson learned lifelong. Even when I think I’ve got it down, I lose my grip. One of the extraordinary pieces of this puzzle I’ve stumbled on is it’s brilliantly important to have a sense of personhood, and to appreciate our beloved’s self as well. My dad and brother need to have choices, and I need to let them choose. Even if our sense of self is attached to a life passed on, a homestead, or a belief, we all need to keep self close until we breathe our last. Every person has her own story to live, to tell, and to hope we allow to continue. It is heart-wrenchingly painful, but it is first and forever a beautiful act of love. You are a loving and thoughtful person, Lynne, and I send you extra doses of strength and legions of anguish banishers.

    • Linda, you say it’s important to have a sense of personhood, and to appreciate our beloved’s self as well. Of course, you’re right; the former because without your own strong sense of individuality, you can’t begin to respect anyone else’s, but the latter is the scary call, because you don’t know if you’re right. For example, I go back and forth constantly between wondering if I’m respecting my Mom’s wishes or giving too much credence to her (pointless) worry about being a burden to us. (On that latter point, I once asked her if taking care of her own mother was ever a burden, and she shook her head and said, “Never.”)

      Thank you for those extra doses of strength and anguish banishers, Linda. My whole family will need them.

  7. I so very much understand your pain and conflict over the next phase or yours and your mother’s lives. I have a very dear friend who is facing the same thing with her parents. I have known these wonderful people my entire life and it is painful for me to watch as they struggle to cross the threshold into the next level of their earthly life and for my friend it is gut-wrenching.
    I am fortunate that my almost 83 year old father is very strong and able to do most everything he’s ever done so I have not had to face many of those challenges yet. I know my time is coming and it will force a different relationship between my brothers, my sister and myself as it happens.
    It is so hard to watch as life changes us and to be so unprepared for it. Certainly we all know, intellectually, that we will face it one day, but until it begins to happen to us personally, it is not imaginable. Our parents were always our strength and safety. Now we must be theirs and I’m not certain that I’m prepared for that. I am learning from all of you that are taking those steps before me.
    Thanks for sharing yourself with us! Blessings of strength and courage to you and yours!

    • Thanks, Ereline. Sometimes I think I’m focusing too much on my own problems but you remind me that we all have to go through this, and until it happens to you, you just can’t know what it feels like, or how to prepare. So if it helps, I’m glad. Best wishes with your own situation.

  8. Loved this line, Lynne, re the Dakotas. “It’s like joining a monastery. All magic and no movies.” So true. And yes, as our parents age, it’s quite challenging. I thank you for sharing your story (which would make a great memoir, btw) of “home” and family — it gives us clues how to proceed here. My mother, 82, is also very attached to her roots, but a move would be good. I don’t have much advice, I’m afraid. Most of my friends say it’s good if they move before they don’t comprehend the transition. They gain more good years that way. But I haven’t a clue. There is a quote on my facebook page you might find helpful (tolle) and here’s another one I find inspiring: “When the heart grieves over what is lost, the spirit rejoices over what is left.” –Sufi Proverb So best wishes my prairie sister … I’ll be checking back you can be sure! –With admiration, Daisy

  9. That was beautiful. I feel like I am on the verge of all that with my parents. My Dad is right there — but my younger mom (almost 80 herself) — is still plugging along great. Such a pretty spot. I could almost smell everything.


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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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