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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

Enjoy Every Sandwich: A Book Review and Contest

How would you live if you weren’t afraid to die?

I’ve fantasized about this. Yes, I am weird but you knew that already. As we get older, we tend to consider these existential questions, so I ask you: What if you lived every day completely unafraid of dying? This is the premise of a very enjoyable and thought-provoking new book, Enjoy Every Sandwich, by the late Dr. Lee Lipsenthal, a colleague of Dr. Dean Ornish who did the intro.

Dr. Lee, who loved rock and roll, borrowed the name of his book from a Warren Zevon album. Lee was a guy with a positive outlook, doing good work at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California where he helped empower even very sick people to live life fully. Then he received a grave diagnosis, but he never freaked out, and his family and friends wanted to understand why. The book is the answer to that question.

Like me, Lee was raised to be afraid of everything, sure that disaster loomed around every corner. He says of his well-intended, Depression-era parents, “Maybe they came by their anxieties honestly, but they honed them to an art!”

“My parents taught me to look for stress in life. I now realized that looking for stress creates stress. The harder I looked, the more I found.”

So he changed his awareness. “If I looked for fun, joy and playfulness, I would find it. If I looked for trouble, stress and heartache that was what I would find.” He also began a lifetime study of meditation, which can change the physiology of the human brain so one produces fewer stress hormones. This in turn benefits blood pressure and circulation; improves respiratory function; reduces the perception of pain and body discomfort; lowers the risk of artery blockage; decreases heart rhythm disturbances and risk of heart attack; modifies fear and anxiety reactions and enhances immune system function. Not bad for twenty minutes a day.

“Meditation also helped me see that my expectations were just stories that I was telling myself about life. I became free of what life was supposed to be and able to enjoy life as it was.”

I felt empowered by his thoughts. For example, “Our bodies have an incredible capacity for self-healing. We have an intricate and complex immune system that knows what to do with cancer.” The more healthfully you deal with stress, the more your body is able to do its thing. And one of the best ways to deal appropriately with stress is meditation.

To be honest, Lee loses me a bit when he delves into his perception of past lives, although many readers will find it delightful, because there’s enough evidence there to think he isn’t just kidding! He included it to suggest we should open our minds and hearts to the idea that we don’t know everything, so we should give ourselves over to the joy of the “what if?” It also explains why he wasn’t freaked out about dying, and by extension, why we don’t need to be either.

I do wish he had explained why, given that he had only a 10% chance of beating his type of cancer, he chose to be ravaged by chemo and radiation instead of taking a pass and enjoying the time he had left? In the end, does that undercut his message?

I don’t think so. Even if a man blinks when staring into the dark maw of Death, I still buy Lee’s message that we should try harder to live in the present, suffused with gratitude. I recommend Enjoy Every Sandwich and I wish his family peace.

Contest and disclosure: I was invited to review this book, and in return for my honest impressions, the publisher promised to send one of my readers two free copies plus a $25 gift card. I will forward that bounty to whoever answers this question in the most interesting way before January 6, 2012:

Do you believe that, after we die, our souls reappear on earth in the form of another human? If you do, tell us why.

Leave a comment

12 Comments

  1. I’ve had so many experiences that can’t be logically explained. The explanation that resonates the most with me is that we are all part of one life force, travelling together through time. We leave imprints on others as we do so, sometimes in terms of real time relationships, other times as messengers. Are we always human? I don’t know, but I think not. But, for me, if I think of myself as an extension of you, of everyone, all religious/ethnic/racial boundaries disappear. My purpose in life becomes one of making this world a better place for all of us, because every single thing I do and every single way I am impacts on everyone.

    Reply
    • Renee, I once dreamed that Boris Yeltzin had been shot, and fell backwards against his security man, and the two of them tumbled into a clawfoot bathtub. I woke up befuddled. I never dream about politics (thank God) and I had been in a cabin in Big Sur for the past 3 days, without electricity or news of any kind. I went outside to get the paper. There had been a coup in Russia within the past few hours. My therapist explained it this way: you were relaxed, your brain was clear, and you picked up on a distant frequency, a signal within a consciousness over there. What an awesome thought. How else to explain?

      Reply
  2. If we do come back as a different human, why do we keep hauling all the people we’ve met before along with us? I believe in the Avatar version of reincarnation. All of life is a network of energy, all energy is borrowed, and one day we have to give it back. This calms me. Why would my soul choose junior high again? I believe we have genetic memory, which is quite old, and sometimes it skips a groove. Not everyone was Cleopatra or Joan of Arc in a past life. Somebody had to polish Joan’s armor, and keep track of her horse. Maybe our energy remembers those women. Perhaps what confuses me is the soul. I think (but cannot say believe) that my soul is a one-off. But my right brain and all its ancestors just might disagree. My left brain ego may be hijacking the neurons again.

    Reply
    • That rambunctious left brain ego, at it again! Thanks for your thoughts, Linda. I’ve always been amused by the “Cleopatra” complex in some who contemplate the possibility of past lives. I figure if one didn’t polish the armor then, one will eventually.

      Reply
  3. At my late husband’s memorial service I was overtaken by the feeling that it was not him lying there in the casket. When I thought about it, I realized that it was the spark behind his blue eyes that was missing. The more I thought about it the more comfortable I became with the idea that our soul, our spark is energy that must return to the universe when our bodies are done with it. I don’t believe that the energy itself dies, it is simply reabsorbed, recharged and made ready to become the life source for another entity. Will it be human? Another species? This I do not know. But I believe we are, through energy, much more connected to the Earth than many of us would care to think. Carol

    Reply
  4. Lynne, I don’t believe in reincarnation in the sense that we come back in the form of another person or animal but I do believe that the spirit of who we were on earth does live on after we die. And, as you know from my white dove story, I do believe that our loved ones send messages from the other side to bring us hope and consolation. I am deeply rooted in my faith in God~ “Faith is walking to the edge of all the light you have and taking one more step”(author unknown) Too many (good) things that I cannot explain have happened to me to think otherwise.

    Reply
  5. P.S. Lynne, I meant to tell you that was an excellent review of “Enjoy Every Sandwich” I feel very intrigued by the message and eager to read the book. Great job!

    Reply
  6. Lynne, I strongly reject the idea of reincarnation as another human being. I believe that God created each human as unique and that once our sojourn on earth is over, we (if we accepted His Son’s sacrifice on the cross) return to the Heavenly mansion that’s been promised us. That’s not to say that heavenly messengers can’t cross the divide between earth and heaven — I believe they can and do! Interesting review — I like Dr. Lee’s switch from looking for disaster to looking for blessings. Now that’s optimistic living!

    Reply
  7. I was blown away by this…not about the dying and living stuff, that I get. But, I thought it was only my family that was brought up to be frightened of every blasted thing in the universe. I wasn’t even allowed to ride a bike ….my one big rebellion in life was to learn to ride at 12. I secretly snuck over to the neighbor’s who taught me on her bike.

    Reply
  8. Lynne, I am recently remembering things that had left my mind. Sometimes, I have to remind myself that those former things really did happen to me. I did walk through those streets and pathways; I did mingle with those people; I did eat those strange foods, … I did lay in that bed. It sometimes catches my breath away to know that I lived a life previous to right now that was so different, that even I have to remind myself that it was me. I don’t regret it now. Then, it was more than an adventure, the way that I lived seemed to be an adventurous necessity, for that time. I felt led on a blessed path of discovery, and en route, I discovered me. Thank God.

    When you ask after we die, do our souls appear on earth as another human? I have been led by my own desires to copy or take on the spirit of others, like the courage of King David or the wisdom of Joseph, Daniel, and/or the faith of Abraham. And the spirit that they moved in them is a spirit that I have shared in faith, so that I might feel like Daniel or Ruth or Hannah in my own mind and in the movement of my body, usually during a particular time, place or situation. But I always feel that the reference that these old souls have given me serve as an anchor, and not necessarily as a permanent stand in. Their examples allow me to stand, when I am not able to stand on my own. The example of Love, Peace, Grace, etc. shown by such great heros provide a common spirit that lasts and can be walked in by faith, hope unseen, yet realizable. And when the results come in, it’s much better results than when I attempted to do things without regard to the connection that I have now with those who came before me, by faith.

    We are what we lend our minds to. I used to find it easy to not believe in the uniqueness of my own existence. After spending some time with me alone, I enjoyed finding out about me. Now, my path is in a different environment and I have to challenge myself to keep growing. Growth is what keeps adventure for me, no matter what the environment, and remaining adventurous and open to discovery in my heart keeps me connected to greatness. Although I may carry the traits of some others in my body, my spirit and my heart, I am the strength of my own will to be me, in my soul. It would be my utmost pleasure to encourage someone else, the way that others have encouraged me and others before me to greatness after I pass on.

    Here’s another way to put it:

    Is to the T
    The A to the Z
    The First to the Last
    Etre, To Be.
    I AM made to be is.
    I AM MADE to be is.
    I AM made TO BE IS.

    Thanks for the encouragement to share.

    Reply
  9. To all my AST friends who have commented above, I don’t want you to think I’m ignoring you! But after responding to a few comments I thought maybe I should skedaddle off the page, since there’s a contest going on. I’ll be back on Friday with more thoughts and the name of the winner, although from the looks of your comments, you’re all winners – what amazing thoughts. See you in a few days.
    Love,
    Lynne

    Reply
  10. Marilyn Patrick

     /  January 3, 2012

    I believe that we do return to this earth in another form once we die and we continue reappearing. It is as if there are only a certain number of souls meant to be and so those souls keep coming back. I remember the person I was before I became who I now am. I was born in the 1880’s. I lived in a small town along the Ohio River. I fell in love with my high school sweetheart. I finished high school and became a gifted seamstress and created and crafted beautiful clothes for the more affluent women in nearby towns. My darling went onto college and medical school and became a surgeon. We were married in the early 1900s and had a girl and two boys. I have this recurring memory of our lives in the 1920s. I joined him in a larger city after he completed school and we were married. When our children were young we joined a country club and had friends with whom we golfed on Sunday afternoons. I remember a white gauzy dress I wore and as I swung the club the skirt would twirl around my calves. My off white leather pumps would have to be cleaned after each round of golf. We returned to our home and played cards while the help prepared supper for us. We dined while our sole maid put the children to bed. My husband developed a drinking problem and died in 1936. We had divorced by then because I couldn’t cope with the alcoholic stranger he had become. These memories come to me as though I had indeed lived those moments. I truly believe it was myself in an earlier time.

    Reply

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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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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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