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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson so much. The review is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

    But with Home, I had a different experience. I wasn't compelled through most of the book. At about the three-quarter mark, things started to happen and I felt my interest quicken. But here's a summary of my impressions, and my apologies to those who loved it so much they recommended it to me:

    1. I was disappointed to see this other, peevish, nasty side of Rev. Ames.
    2. I didn't like the Rev. Boughton very much at all.
    3. Jack is tedious and pathetic.
    4. Glory almost breaks free but then doesn't.

    Robinson really makes me wait for it, building my conflict between compassion and resentment for Jack. And just when I lose faith in him, there's a scene where the old misogynist/bigot Rev. Boughton asks to see Jack and his brother together in his room, and Jack insists Glory be included. As if he sees her as an equal to the men, rather than just the servant her father expects.

    In this, I felt Jack himself was a Rorschach test for the reader, in that while he seems almost feral, a man born without skin with which to hide himself from the world, easily wounded and always untrusting, you want to abandon him, but can you? If so, who are you? What are your values - what are your limits?

    So now Glory has decided to stop being codependent with her "fiancé", and switch her ministrations and self-sacrifice to her dying father and her feral brother. This is an arc? This is growth? What is Robinson's meaning, at the end of the story, when Glory decides to stay in a town she has said she hates, in a house she agrees to preserve as a monument/mausoleum to the family? It can only be read as failure to respect oneself in favor of service to others! This troubles me deeply.

    I apologize for the length of this next excerpt, but I have to reproduce it, because it's so telling:

    "(Glory) had tried to take care of (Jack), to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined. Or returning herself to that silent house might simply have returned her to a s state of mind more appropriate to her adolescence. A lonely schoolgirl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.

    "She recalled certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness, perhaps, or her usefulness, or simply and abruptly losing interest in her together with whatever else happened just then...She found no consistency in these moments, nothing she could interpret. He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of (the family's) vigor and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing the clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamored and distinctly clerical family..."

    God! Who hasn't known people like this - men like this, children like this - who take and take and take from an ever-hopeful spouse or family and yet never seem quite able to be satisfied, or fulfilled, or happy! When all the sacrificial loving family member ever wants is for that feral person to be happy. Or at least safe.

    Like I said, Rorschach.

    And in this, I have to admit, Robinson delivers again, most profoundly, in pulling back the curtains and showing us, right down to the faint beat of a pulse along a pale wrist, the impact on a family of such a lone wolf. Not that the wolf doesn't suffer. Not that we don't all feel empathy as we struggle to surface from this mire, gulping and gasping air, sorry for Glory who remains below, yet intent on saving ourselves.

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  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

    The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    After reading some of the reviews, I felt a bit off-kilter, as if I'm seeing something that wasn't intended by the author.

    Nevertheless, here's my impression: this story is about a man who, because of his physical limitations, resists closeness with other people, to the point that he marries a woman who seems certain to want the same, arm's length relationship. It's only after she dies that he begins to sense that he was wrong about that. During the grieving process, he comes to realize he's been living an arm's-length life.

    I love stories about people who come out of a fog and change their lives, empowered by the realization that they've been missing something important - that their reasoning was flawed, but it doesn't have to remain that way. And Anne Tyler is such a great wordsmith, anything she writes is wonderful. This book is perhaps a bit too subtle to win the raving applause it deserves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    As I read Lean In, I was intrigued at being able to get inside the head of a dynamic, smart woman who is one generation younger than me, and see the corporate world through her eyes. One of the cultural questions she answered for me was this: why are younger women so averse to the terms "feminist" and "feminism"? Apparently, Sheryl Sandberg and her contemporaries believe(d) the following:

    1. Equality having arrived, there's no need for feminism anymore
    2. Feminists are man-haters who resist makeup and the shaving of one's legs

    Okay, #2 was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, having observed conditions in the real world for a few years now, Sandberg has come to see that the playing field is not and will not be level until more women occupy positions of power in the corporate hierarchy. She doesn't suggest that this is due to any malicious intent on the part of men, but rather it's simply a matter of ignorance.

    To illustrate, she describes having to park far away from her office door when hugely and uncomfortably pregnant. When she designated preferred parking spots to accommodate pregnant workers, no one complained. It was seen as logical. But prior to her taking her place in the C-suite, the issue hadn't been raised.

    Sandberg talks about not slowing down out of consideration for what might happen in the nebulous future. The example she gives, now famous, is of a young woman confiding her fears of not wanting to accept a job with a lot of responsibility due to the impact it might have on her family. The woman was planning ahead - she didn't even have a boyfriend yet.

    With this example, Sandberg makes the point that women, having been highly trained and educated, are waving off promotional opportunities. The jury is still out as to why, but she suggests, and I agree, that part of the reason is this: in corporate America, a woman's decision to go through pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and child-rearing is viewed as a private matter that should not impact her ability to work long hours and irregular schedules, including lengthy and frequent travel as needed. Rightly fearing this may drive her insane, a woman who wants a family may leap off the corporate ladder at a very early stage.

    Sandberg argues that if a young woman stayed on it long enough to secure a more powerful position, she would be able to exert more control over her work life (a perspective the young woman must trust will happen, since at her current low place on the corporate ladder she can only see her lack of power and control.) After a few promotions, she will be able to delegate some of her work to subordinates, afford more help at home, and influence workplace policies that unfairly impact women and families. Who can find fault with this argument?

    Sandberg is honest about her own mistakes, and I found that charming. For example, I was amazed that, for all her intelligence and education, she didn't originally intend to negotiate her starting salary with Facebook. Luckily a nice man (her husband) set her straight, and she made a counter offer to Zuckerberg. Reams of guidance have been written about how this error could have impeded her in later years, both at Facebook and with future employers, yet she didn't know. For other women who have not yet made this horrifying discovery, please read Ask for It by Babcock and Laschever (http://www.amazon.com/Ask-Women-Power...) which in addition to being enlightening and entertaining, offers tons of strategies for preparing yourself to negotiate. And not just for salaries. After reading that book I saved $150 on furniture I was going to buy anyway, by asking one question.

    But back to Lean In.

    I was also surprised that she wasn't well informed about how women can sabotage other women in the workplace, particularly women in power. This is an unfortunate truth with roots in biology, and is brilliantly explained in the amazing book, In the Company of Women by Heim and Murphy (http://www.amazon.com/Company-Women-I...) which I reviewed here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... This also suggests the reasons Sandberg was hit with such a backlash for the well-intentioned Lean In.

    There is so much more to say about Lean In, but let me close with this: I enjoyed learning how this stellar corporate executive struggled, made mistakes, and ultimately learned some strategies that will enable her, her family, and the women (and men) in her corporation to thrive. It's not perfect, and sometimes it's not even pretty, but part of the lesson is to let go of the need for perfection.

    The other message, younger women, is to get as far and as fast as you can before starting your families. Don't opt out just because it looks too hard from where you're sitting now. The view improves with each rung on the ladder.

    View all my reviews

The American Dream Has Changed

A few days ago on Morning Joe, the CEO of Gallup (the polling company) expressed surprise, if not dismay, that the American Dream has changed. According to polls, Americans no longer define the Dream as “peace, a home and family, religious freedom…” Now, they long for “a good job.” I am not kidding. That is the new American Dream, according to Jim Clifton, who wrote The Coming Jobs War. You can watch him talk about it in this video.

I think we dream of a good job because it represents a means to attract a mate, pay for food/shelter/health care (well, maybe not health care), and afford to have children.

And if that’s true, I think we Americans are in deep trouble.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy. No longer are we concerned with such lofty (self-actualization) goals as world peace and religious freedom. Now it appears we’ve dropped down the pyramid to survival goals: food, shelter and family.

If you’re over forty, you’ve seen the change during your own lifetime.

When I was in high school, I was capable of getting straight A’s but I was immature. Most of the time I cut classes, smoked pot and turned in my work at the last minute. After graduation, I enrolled in community college, but dropped out after one semester, at age nineteen, to get married. I found a full-time job as a low-level filing clerk, with the best pay I’d ever earned. Little by little, I worked my way up. It took me eighteen years to get my bachelor’s degree, attending school at night while building my career. I became a Human Resources executive, a fulfilling career where I earned great pay and benefits, and a nice retirement.

In my family, going to college wasn’t critical. It was desirable, seeming to offer a vaguely “better” future, but my three siblings found well-paying professional careers without a bachelor’s degree.

Those days are gone forever. Now, the younger generations must focus like lasers from preschool on up to land that “good job,” which only lasts until the next merger.

My Dad

My dad, born in 1924, was virtually an orphan. He attended thirteen schools before dropping out of high school to be a welder in a ship yard. When he met the classy dame who would become his wife, she encouraged him to apply for a job at Bank of America, where she worked as a teller. He did, and over the next several decades worked his way up to management, thanks to a good work ethic and the training provided by his employer.

My father, Edward Kuswa, managed banks! Back then, it was a respected profession, a notch below doctor. At one time Dad was single-handedly bringing in 60% of the loan business at the Chino, California branch.  He put us four kids through Catholic school on his salary while Mom, now a full-time homemaker, sewed all our clothes and made a home for us. In 1949 they bought a brand new house in Whittier, California. It consisted of two bedrooms, a den, and one bathroom. We had a detached two-car garage and a big back yard, where us four kids played (swing set and sand box; remember, Boomers?)

In 1982, Dad retired as a bank executive. He was able to fund a decent if frugal retirement for Mom and himself, and when he passed away three years ago, he left her in good shape financially. Not rich. Minds her pennies. But good.

The highest degree Dad ever earned was a GED.

I don’t object to competition or capitalism, but I do fear for my kids’ and grandkids’ futures. I worry that the experience of Boomers and our parents will be viewed as an aberration on the American Timeline, unrelated to their own reality. The American Dream will be seen as a charming fiction, just something the old folks reminisce about, like five-cent ice cream cones and affordable medical care.

Karen, Lynne, Verne and Cynthy

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

Leave a comment


  1. I’m seeing a lot of that worry even from my son, who’s still in college, Lynne. He tells me ALL the kids (except those who don’t know what they want to do and are going for more education, read: graduate school) are focused on getting the “right” internships and the “right” jobs upon graduation. I have a hard time believing that a JOB is the most important achievement in life, particularly when jobs are such fickle things! You’re right — those days are gone forever, and we lived in the best of times. Sad for generations to come, though.

  2. Lynne, I can always count on you to have a finger on the pulse of key issues of our time. You really bring this issue to light through your own storytelling. And of course,being of “that certain age”, I can relate to it all. And Maslow’s Hierarchy hit the me between the eyes. It saddens me to think our priorities for self-actualization are being trumped by basic survival needs. It makes me glad that I lived in a time when family, integrity,work ethics,etc were valued and practiced.My Dad’s motto was God,family country. At least I can hang onto that thread and do my best to influence my children and grandchildren as they navigate through these stressful times. You always get me going,Lynne. Thanks for the prompt 🙂

    • Kathy and Debbie, thanks for your kind thoughts. I wonder, Debbie, if the answer in some way for your son and his friends is to take a page from Atlas Shrugged (that bible of the extreme right, I’m sorry to say) and walk away from all of it. Make simple lives for themselves, earning enough to feed and clothe their families but not worrying about the latest cars, gadgets, and vacations. Find a solution to the “our children are too distracted!” conundrum by moving away from the city and having them help after school with the family garden. Ride their bikes to school. Maybe small-town life is the answer. Let the fat cats have Wall Street. Let’s shrug and walk away; make a life for ourselves somewhere where barter and labor are valued. Eventually they’ll either need us back, or we’ll be so self-sufficient we won’t care. It’s my little Utopian dream.

  3. Jean

     /  September 30, 2011

    Hi Lynne. Great post. I grew up in that world and agree it WAS a hopeful time. Generations that followed had more in some ways, and less in others. What I see in my work with new independent author/publishers is that they expect their first book to become an instant best seller, and even attaining that shouldn’t require too much effort. It doesn’t happen that way. Life doesn’t happen that way, nor do years spent in school equal ‘time served’. The American dream has always involved hard work. Your parents, my parents worked hard to achieve their dreams. I’m not saying it isn’t a scary or sad time, but it isn’t a hopeless time. It may just be time for us to get up off our butt and save this country. Obviously it is not a good idea to trust the politicians and corporations, and for myself, I don’t see walking away as the solution. The most energetic and enthusiastic group right now is one you and I are part of—women over 50—empowered, interested, and tired of the bunk coming from major media. We are making changes.

  4. LOVED this poignant, thought-provoking post, Lynn. The black & white photo of the 4 kids could have been me and my 2 sisters and brother. Yes, what happened to the good ol’ fashioned American Dream? And what are our children losing in terms of well-being in pursuit of the all mighty dollar (which is not so mighty these days.) What an admirable story about your father. We are lucky to have inherited that work ethic. Hopefully enough of our old fashioned human values will be instilled in the new generation.

  5. Humans adapt. We always have and will continue to do so. Socrates despaired for the next generation’s future and we’re dazzled by what those generations undertook and accomplished. The 20-somethings will raise their children to adjust to the times in which they live. The luxury of enough may be redefined and I believe, and have faith, that the young people will find a better way to live in community and peace.

  6. As I read this blog it gave me chills. It was as though you knew my thought and had lived my earlier life. How times have changed! At times I wish we could turn back the times to our childhood. I wonder just how it will be for those that follow us. Thank you for writing.

  1. This Boomer Will Never Die | 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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