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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.

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  • 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

Bad Advice for Boomers from Author Susan Jacoby

My greatest fear is sleepwalking through my life – finding out at the end of it that I’ve made some ridiculous miscalculation and wasted a great gift. So it seemed like a smart idea to read “Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age” by Susan Jacoby. Bill Moyers, who I respect, had vouched for her.

The premise of “Never…” is that we Boomers are in denial about the fact that we will get old and die. If we were more realistic, we’d enjoy our lives more, feel more empowered, and save a lot of money on snake oil. She says it’s cool to see portrayals of 90-year-olds mountain-biking and skydiving, but it’s not realistic, and if we accepted what is really going to happen to us, we might be better prepared.

I liked the idea. I want to be prepared and use every ounce of my life to the best of my ability, so I read the book. I finished the book. And I have never been so depressed.

If you ever thought you might age and die gracefully, expect Jacoby to bludgeon your expectations with fact, figures, historical stats and anecdotes. She even clucks away the idea of old people becoming “wise” in exchange for our old age, asking why we would suddenly become wise if we’ve been average to stupid all our lives?

I kept reading, thinking that Jacoby would eventually get to the part where she distills all her negative findings into some kind of wisdom, some guide for gleaning the most from our lives in spite of all the reasons not to. The most she can muster is this concession to her nonfiction-writing friends, who urged her to end the book on an up-note:

“And that just about sums up my ‘positive advice’: live in a place that forces you to stay on your feet, and look for work wherever and whenever you can find it.”

At the end of this book I felt like stockpiling Vicodin. Possibly motivated by the tragic loss of her longtime companion to Alzheimers’, Jacoby set out to prove to the rest of us that we have little reason to hope, and she did a good job of making her case.

However, I think the beauty of humanity is that, faced with the knowledge of insurmountable odds, we still fling ourselves heroically against the dark unknown, choosing to believe that somehow, in some small way, we might triumph. Even if, as in this case, we know we will lose the final battle, we nevertheless choose to find meaning in the prosecution of this very personal war.

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  1. Lynne,
    The Good News is, that each of our individual lives are exactly what we make them to be. It’s a Mind thing, you know? I applaud you for reading through to the end of the book — I would have thrown it across the room. I refuse to listen to stuff if it’s not what I want to invite in. We want the happy ending, right? And that is all we will accept! 🙂

  2. Jean

     /  April 26, 2011

    I haven’t read the book, and rather doubt I will. There are always those who see, and feel the need to point out, the dark side of things. As far as not aging gracefully, we are surrounded by people who do. As to growing wise, those extra years give us time to find the wisdom that has always been there—the wisdom we were too busy to listen to in our youth. Keep your chin up, Lynn. Your wisdom says it best…”I think the beauty of humanity is that, faced with the knowledge of insurmountable odds, we still fling ourselves heroically against the dark unknown, choosing to believe that somehow, in some small way, we might triumph.” We do triumph. Life isn’t a battle to be won or lost, living it well is the victory. Sounds corny, but it feels so darn good.

    • And Jean, we have a choice, and how we execute that choice says volumes about our inner workings. For example, I’m not particularly religious, but my friend Father Keith said this to me: “Given that we can’t possibly know, why would anyone choose to believe in the absence of an afterlife?”
      Or, as I have said to my sister a million times since coming to grips with the negative influence of my childhood:
      “If the future is a fantasy, why fantasize the negative?”
      Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Oy! Thanks, Lynne, for sparing us the read. Jacoby missed the advice I had from a friend when I wanted to write about caregiving early on “you’re going to have to lose the rage first.” Facing facts bravely is one thing; dragging everyone else into the dark and lonely is quite another. I’m glad there is you to haul us back out into the light!

    • Wow, Linda, “lose the rage first”. What a profoundly true statement. I sense that Jacoby is tortured and grieving, but unlike most of us in this circumstance, she had ready access to a printing press and widespread audience, before she (perhaps) had time to work through her pain. I wish her peace.

  4. Better you than me having to wade through such dismal rubbish! Life’s hard enough, without adding to the negativity. Personally, I prefer to surround myself with people and things that support my journey, rather than beat me down. Sure, the odds might be against ALL of us, but if everybody acquiesced to the odds, nothing wonderful would ever get done. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

    • Exactly, Debbie, the odds might be against us but the hell with the odds! I’m not interested in having somebody blow sunshine up my behind, but on the other end, reading this book was like volunteering to have my fingers hammered. No thanks!

  5. Trish

     /  April 26, 2011

    Your reply to Debbie is exactly how I feel. The need to find a balance between unrealistic expectations and giving up the ghost has weighed heavily of late. I don’t think it helps that our society views aging as a failure, one we should be able to avoid. If aging was viewed as acceptable, I think it’d be easier to deal with both the good and bad parts. You’d think we Boomers would have figured out how to make aging trendy!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Trish. Actually, Susan Jacoby decried the attempt by Boomers to make aging trendy, saying that our portrayal was false and misleading. For example, she took issue with ads for erectile dysfunction because they feature 40-year-old hotties as opposed to “liver-spotted hairless old men.” But her point was that aging is 100% hell and the better we accept that – what? I still don’t get her point, to tell you the truth. Her book was just such a pointless downer.
      On a happy note, though, you found the blog! Hope you’ll stop by again.

  6. Yikes, thanks for the warning. The last thing I need as my back side sags, is for my hope to sag. I choose to look in the faces of my children and grandchildren and see my life and the hope of the future through them. I also like to see myself as a kick ass type of woman and believe that even if she is bummed out, I don’t have to be. Screw the facts and figures, I am going to enjoy my life and be the exception…or at least try!

    In her defense, seeing Alzheimer’s played out in front of you daily can be life changing…my mother is fading more and more each day.

    • Oh, Grace, I’m sorry about your mom. One of the things Jacoby was infuriated by was the fact that the marketing of old age included manipulation of stats to make it seem less devastating than it is, and one of those manipulations was this: “only 10% of people over 65 will develop Alzheimer’s.” She pointed out that a truer stat is that 50% of people over 80 will get it or some other form of dementia. So I do get that she’s frustrated and grieving. I wish you peace from heartache.

  7. Wow, guess that book won’t be flying onto my bookshelf, Lynne! I agree with you … old age is what it is, but the spirit is timeless, ageless … I choose to concentrate on that … not the brief mortal experience that will never seem quite right to our critical minds. What is “right” anyway? We really don’t know … as Buddha said (I think 🙂 … it’s not good or bad, it just is. But we can take heart in the lives we touch along the way, knowing that life is (basically) good! Have a nice week … prairie is coming to life (finally)!

  8. What a great review, Lynne, and excellent comments. I’ve hesitated to read this book and probably won’t. What I notice is that people diverge a great deal in their old age. Some are happily and productively working, and others seem to just give up on life.
    I recently wrote about a blues musician named Pinetop Perkins who won his third Grammy Award in February at age 97. He died a month later. His life was his work, and his work was his life.

  9. Vonnie

     /  April 30, 2011

    Hi Lynne,
    Thanks for the warning about Susan Jacoby’s book.
    Like you I worry about sleepwalking through life as well. But as a kind of a non-conformist baby boomer, my hope is this – instead battling the wrinkles and meno-pudge, we should be focusing on issues like being respected as elders instead of being the brunt of jokes on late night TV. The media still seems to send a wrong massage about aging in America.

    Also, we should focus on the conditions of assisting living facilities aka nursing homes and the compensation of those who take care of us. We certainly can’t expect our children to be burdened with this worry.

    As usual, you’ve hit a nerve with me with this post. God – you are good!!!

    Thank you!!

    PS: you should put your review of the book on Amazon.

    • Vonnie, I just read this, and I’ve got a huge grin on my face because of your sweet compliment! And you know what? That’s a heck of an idea, to kind of bootleg this column and include it on Amazon. I think I will. Thanks for the great idea.

  10. Marilyn Jean

     /  May 2, 2011

    My husband is a hospice and palliative care doctor (and I used to be a nurse–1st career :)) so I know something about end of life stuff. I do hear about how people face the end of their own or their loved one’s lives every day when my husband comes home.

    I believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Our western culture, especially in the U.S., does seem to want to deny that we do all grow older and die. People get plastic surgery and do lots of things to keep that illusion of youth going because that is what we glorify. Medical care can keep people “alive” indefinitely but without much quality of living. I hope that I grow old like Betty White, still enjoying every minute. But the fact is that so few people are able to talk about end of life issues and if something catastrophic happens, the decisions fall into the laps of family members who want to do the right thing but aren’t sure what that is. So their loved one ends up in an ICU, on a ventilator and so on and to remove them now feels to some like they are taking away life.

    When people ask my husband about feeding tubes, when patients are no longer conscious or able to eat, he tells them that their loved one isn’t dying because he isn’t eating, rather, he isn’t eating because he is dying.

    When I was a nurse, someone taught me that if you can’t breathe, eat, pee or swallow without medical intervention, you aren’t “stable,” no matter what medical professionals say. It’s not about the lab values or weather the patient stirs a bit if you shout their name. You must look at the person in the bed and really see. We all grow older and die. That is the circle of life. But like you, I just want to know that I lived my life till I used it all up. I don’t want regrets to be the last thing on my mind.
    Great post,

    • Marilyn, your comment is so rich in wisdom. If anybody would know how these things go, your husband would. I so wish we Americans could start thinking about how to die well. Collectively, we might be able to apply enough pressure to force policy changes, like requiring Medicare to pay for at-home end-of-life-care, which is cheaper than hospitalization. I will say that Susan’s book made me realize that a good death would be a blessing. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  1. The One Thing About Aging That You Can Control | Any Shiny Thing

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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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