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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

The Benefits of Aging

“Women of a certain age? What age is that?”

Sometimes people ask me about the subhead on this blog. Mostly it’s younger-sounding peeps responding to comments I make on The Huffington Post. I don’t answer, but I could, and here’s what I’d say:

If you have to ask, you’re too young.

As we Boomers stare into the 7x magnifying mirror, trying not to stab ourselves in the eye with the mascara wand and bemoaning the crevasses in our skin, we should remember there’s some compensation for getting old. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see them. The Senior Discount, for example, if you’re not too proud to take it. Most of the younger folks are too innocent to know the difference between a 57-year-old and a 65-year-old, so I get the discount and they don’t card me. All us old people look alike to them.

Recently at the pool, I was trying to reassure my 86-year-old Mom that nobody cares if her legs are crisscrossed with bulbous veins or her backbone is curved or she doesn’t fill out her swimsuit top anymore. None of us in my 55+ community would win any beauty contests except maybe my friend Joan. I pointed at all the adorable children and beautiful young adults visiting their elders on that sunny Saturday. “Take a look around, Mom. The only people who look really good don’t qualify to live here.” And then my big sis and I shared a snarky laugh.

Mom knows what I’m talking about. She’s still independent, but it’s getting harder. Sometimes she has to negotiate with people who are too young, too busy, or too mean to care about a 4′ 11″ woman in her mid-eighties. So Mom prepares. We rehearse before the attack. One of her strategies is to “Play the Grandma Card.” For example, she might tell a clerk, “I’m just an old woman. At the rate you’re going, I could be dead by the time you (fill in the objective).” The poor kids are shocked because they believe her, and they really snap to. You might think this is unethical but I think it’s a benefit of age. Kids play the youth/beauty card all the time. Why shouldn’t we take advantage, just like they do?

Use whatcha got.

Kindle readers can contact me at Lmspreen@yahoo.com.

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  1. Loved hearing about your mom playing the Grandma Card!! I can tell she’s got a great sense of humor, something that will help her as she eases into the next stage of life. She’s a wise woman to prepare now — most are in complete denial and when it hits, they’re shocked to the core.

    • You’re right, Debbie. And I’m learning from her. I think I’ll be happier in my old age because I had such a mentor. Hope all is well with you.

  2. Well…when you put it that way, Lynne! This was my morning chuckle! I agree about the seniors’ discount, which in a few months I will FULLY qualify for. Right now, if they accept “over 60” I qualify but a lot want 65. Never actually been carded. When I go places with my friend, Lili, I get her to buy the tickets, but sometimes I just boldly say Senior, please. I love your mother’s humour too. Found myself, for the first time, seeing a more positive benefit to this aging thing. Mind, for a long time, I didn’t FEEL old, so I just ignored it. Only lately have I focused on which end of the hour glass is fuller…Carol

  3. lol! Love your mom … sounds like a spunky ol’gal like mine was … as far as “women of a certain age”? To that I say … we are “WOMEN OF A PERFECT AGE”!

    Good Friday to you!!!

    • Hey, Itty Bitty, I just stopped by your new website and it’s got legs. Best wishes. Hope it is as fun and fulfilling for you as Any Shiny Thing has been for me.

  4. Corinne

     /  September 2, 2011

    I’m proud to be a “Woman of a Certain Age”! Your post today reminded me of a funny incident when my daughter, who has always looked about 10-15 years younger than she really is, was about 18. We were at a banquet, and they brought her the childrens meal. She was irate and extremely offended! The next day, we went to a restaurant and she was picking up the tab, and started laughing when she got the bill, because she said “Now we’re even….they gave you the senior citizens discount (I was about 50 but have had gray hair for years). I will happily take the discount! I have worked in long term care and senior housing for 30 years, and the wisdom of our elders is invaluable and a true gift and blessing.

    • Good story, Corinne. Shoe was on the other foot that day! And you are right about our elders’ gifts. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Corinne

     /  September 2, 2011

    By the way, love the windmill pictures on the top of this page. I just moved back to my native state of North Dakota, and to me there’s nothing more beautiful than the waving wheat and the wonderful (and nearly gone) windmills.

    • Corinne, I took that picture in ND! Mom and I had just left Dickinson (her home town) in June of 2008. We on the 85 heading south just past Belfield (off the 94). My extended family is mostly in Dickinson, but also Williston, Bismarck, Richardton and Grand Forks. Thanks for mentioning that you’re a native NDakotan. What city, if I may ask?

      • Corinne

         /  September 13, 2011

        I was born and raised in Crosby (way way way up in the NW corner), and left at the wise old age of 17, saying I would NEVER come back to ND. And now I’m nearly 60 and extremely happy to be back. I live in Bismarck, and although I’m not looking forward to a ND winter, I love being back with family and friends.

  6. Great post – I love the comment about the magnifying mirror – that was my (requested) birthday present on my 50th birthday. I got tired of poking myself in the eye and putting more mascara on my eyelids than eyelashes!

    • Thanks, Joanne. It’s disheartening to see all the wrinkles up close, but I would rather know if I have eye shadow cascading down my cheeks than not. Happy Labor Day!

  7. So, I was not going to leave a comment on this out of…..I don’t know, self-consciousness? But then I figured what the heck.

    I’m 44. For a crazy amount of time (decades), I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of women not being seen as sexual beings after…whatever age. A few years ago, the idea of a tee-shirt that says “A woman of a certain age” popped into my head. I’m not a real activist type, but, obviously, this is a “statement” tee-shirt. I set up a Cafe Press online store, and a little blog. I thought the idea was so great that all I’d have to do was tell people, and the shirts would sweep the nation.

    Yeah, that didn’t quite happen. I’ve since talked to a bunch of people with experience with these things and have been told that one of the things I need to do is “start a conversation” about the whole idea, get people involved. Have not yet done that, as if I’m going to get more serious about this, I have to get out of Cafe Press and find a better way to sell the shirts. Also have to find out how, or hire someone, to get traffic to me.

    Anyway, all this NOT to plug my still fledgling site, but to say that I figured the “conversation” had to in part be about how old is a woman of a certain age. Though, really that is just a starter and not even quite the point.

    When I read your post, however, it struck me as true. If you have to ask, you are too young. I am very aware that though I am not officially young anymore, and it shows, I am still…..how to put it? I’m still just barely passing as viable in these terms, on borrowed time. I know I have not become “invisible” to the masses quite yet, and that when I realize I have, that will be a new world.

    Inevitably, my feelings and views on all of this will change. But I do think these limitations affect women of all ages — in very different ways, of course — and we cannot know things that we have not yet experienced. But I think that for many young women, the knowledge of a sort of expiration date coming sometime in a foggy future, haunts them.

    This is getting very long, but I can’t end before I make it clear both that I do not think that this is all a bad thing — it propels people to find REAL meaning and purpose in their lives — and also that I think some of idea that women are not sexy after whenever is a fallacy.

    • Oh, Nomi, I hope you don’t feel excluded from our conversations because you are only 44. My daughter Donna is 40 and I’ve told her she’s of a certain age, and to please feel welcome. I remember the challenges of all my ages, and none of them were/are easy.

      Traditionally, “women of a certain age” was code for “older women”. What is “older”? Not sure. But a 44-year-old is certainly on the cusp of life-changing upheaval. If we older peeps can reach back with reassurance along your journey, we surely will.

      As to your tee shirts, the phrase “woman of a certain age” on a baby is funny and ironic, because it asks the question, “what age is that, dude?” It’s kind of in-your-face and I like it. But if you put it on a woman who is middle-aged or older, it says less, because it’s like identifying what already is. Like a woman wearing a shirt that says “woman.” If you maybe made it into a sentence that was more catchy with lots of different endings, that might sell more. Example: “A Woman of a Certain Age Jumps Out of Planes.” (see my last post with Nanci skydiving.) Or, “…Likes to Take a Little Walk.” (with a pic of a woman atop Mt. Everest). Or, “…Enjoys a Refreshing Swim” (with a pic of Diana Nyad swimming to Cuba – or trying to, anyway.) I like the look of your website. Best wishes with your biz.

      • Lynne, thanks so much for you thoughtful welcoming words. And I think your ideas about the tee shirts are great — thank you.

  8. Sometimes it is GOOD not to be seen as a sexual being. It means you can go to the grocery store without having to spend a lot of time fussing with hair and makeup too! As for invisible, I would like to share a poem, if I may, that I wrote several years ago.


    Is this how invisible feels?
    Walk down the street

    faces turn away
    blank eyes in blank faces
    make me so small
    i could fit through
    the eye of a needle.

    Invisible is painful
    needle-pricks in skin.

    Sometimes eyes do register:

    Not my fault,
    my eyes say in return, then
    cast down to count
    cracks in the sidewalk
    looking like wrinkles in old skin

    Sounds of metal on metal
    grind in my ears, careless collision
    mind on other things
    fearful that age does this
    am i smaller today
    than i was yesterday?

    Am i more invisible today?
    Each day smaller and
    smaller until one day
    i just disappear

    only a crooked smile
    like that cheshire cat

    more and more absent-minded
    until there is no mind at all?


    Carol A Stephen
    April 16, 2007

    This poem won an Honourable Mention and publication in Arborealis,
    an Ontario Poetry Society anthology, 2008

    • Thanks for sharing the poem, Carol. It is rich and poignant. The award is well-deserved.

      I agree about the relief when you feel an absence of sexual pressure. I’m okay looking and basically shy, and when I was younger I felt like a piece of meat. Now I’m free of that. To me it’s a good thing. Obama recently said of his graying hair and wrinkles, “Michelle still thinks I’m cute.” And that’s how I feel too. Bill still thinks I’m cute and I don’t care about anybody else.

  9. Betsy

     /  September 3, 2011

    So happy to find a blog I can relate to! I live in England and next year at 60 I’ll be able to ride the buses for free anywhere in the country. Your blog has me planning my first trip rather than feeling depressed at turning 60. Thank you.

  10. Oh My Gosh, Lynne, You are too funny!! I love this post and all its reminders of how keeping a good sense of humor is vital to growing old gracefully. The first time a 20-something Dunkin Donuts clerk gave me a senior discount without even asking, I was taken back. Then I thought,”Hey, I just saved 10%. I get to pocket a few cents rather than digging for more”. The “Grandma Card” is a great idea. BTW. your Mom is my heroine and role model-independent and feisty, full of that Greatest Generation spunk and pride like my own 88 yo Mom. Give her a hug for me!

    • I sure will, Kathy. We just had lunch at the pool, in my 55+ community where she now lives, and as we were leaving a friend of mine came barreling over to “meet Lynne’s mom.” Funny thing is, my friend isn’t much taller than Mom, and we joked about it. I said, “See Mom? Here at Four Seasons, you’re even taller!”

  11. Your post, Lynne, reminds me happily again of Lear’s Magazine: women of a certain age are women who weren’t born yesterday. Just saw some photographs of my great-grandmother in 1919, hands on hips, chin high, in the swimming costume of the day that, while flouncy, long and supposedly modest, soaking wet, it’s all out there anyway. Very inspirational.

  12. tricia

     /  March 1, 2013

    Being small and having a rather silly personality, I’m used to people expressing surprise at my age (particularly when I ask for a senior discount) . While the natural , nice-girl response is to thank someone for thinking you are younger, I really have reached the age where I don’t want to thank someone for the flattery (which, let’s face it, often times is just chatter/I don’t know that they think I look that young) .

    I don’t respond nastily to the comment – but I also don’t want to act too pleased/grateful at such remarks because it suggests that youth is better, that we all strive to look young. That I need to hear that. I feel good about being older – about reaching that age where I can cop a certain attitude that comes with becoming more mature; I like that the things I seek are no longer what I needed/wanted when I was much younger. I like being seasoned/smart/a sage.

    • Tricia, you’re silly like Rosa Parks was silly. Or Gloria Steinem. It’s hard to convey to people that it’s insulting to be “complimented” about not looking like what you are. It’s like agreeing with the YOUNG person that WHEW, Thank God I don’t look my age, for $%^#’s sake. ANYTHING but what I am. What in insult. How ignorant. Yet they mean well. I get discouraged when peeps my age don’t get what you’re saying. So thanks for saying it. Glad you’re here.

  1. Aging: One Long Downhill Slide? | 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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