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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.

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Were You Raised to Be a Doormat?

Yesterday a difficult acquaintance caught me at the grocery store and cried on my shoulder about a big problem she was having. I was surprised because her problem was really personal and we don’t know each other well, but she was distressed so I listened and made sympathetic noises. When I saw a decent opening, I bolted.

Later, I told Mom that I hadn’t wanted to hear about the woman’s problems because it made me feel obligated, but more than that, I wondered why she’d dumped that load on me.

“She probably feels comfortable with you,” said Mom. “Maybe she doesn’t have anybody else. It’s a compliment.”

A light went off in my brain as I recognized the sound of old, familiar propaganda.

Like many of you, I was taught to sacrifice my own interests in service to others. If a person who everybody else avoids reaches out to us, we feel honored to be singled out. Because we’re special – stronger, more patient, more broad-minded than those wimpy others who would simply give up.

I was taught to think, “I must really have something, that this person needs me.” What I didn’t see was that normal people avoided the abusers. Normal people valued themselves enough to protect their time and energy, whereas I labored to help the crackpots change and do better. When I first got hired in human resources, I was practically codependent.

I had the look of a victim. 

I understand that my parents thought they were teaching me compassion, but they went too far toward love and not enough in the direction of self-defense. It would have been good if they’d taught me to squint, Clint Eastwood-style, when I encountered potential users.

I once read a book called The Sociopath Next Door (yep, that’s what floats my boat) by Martha Stout. Toward the end she said, now that you know everything about a sociopath, you’ll want me to tell you how to protect yourself. How to see them coming. And the answer is, you can’t, not really, because they look for people who are nice, because those people are more easily manipulated.

Well, isn’t that great.

Even if you never meet a sociopath, you still have to have some filters, because even good people can tend to take, take, and take some more. Here’s an article by Dr. Judith Orloff about maintaining balance in a vampire relationship.

Now that I’m older I consciously resist looking like an easy mark or sending out signals that say, “Use me! Use me!” After many years in HR, two failed marriages, and countless one-sided relationships, I have developed a strategy. I offer it to you.

At first you take a little chance on a person, without making an irrevocable commitment. Then you look for reciprocity – does the person give you something ethical in return? Time, effort, repayment, career help, etc.?

Or instead of looking for reciprocity, observe and track the person’s behaviors. Discount any talk of big dreams or undeserved heartache; watch the patterns. If you see a track record of selfish behavior, lack of follow-through, or narcissism, arm yourself. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Act accordingly.

I understand that there’s a risk in taking this hard-line approach. You can’t shut down or become a recluse. Compassion is good! We need more of it. Also, this rule gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults.

Here’s a weird outcome of my new thinking: I don’t feel quite so special. I’m average, not heroic. I no longer have bragging rights. (More about that in a previous post, The Courage to Be Average.)

Although it’s good to be heroic, I’d reserve that for pulling kitties out of trees. In the meantime, I implore you to teach your kids or grandkids the squinty-eye. It just might save them from being drained and manipulated by the weirdos, narcissists and slackers who depend on a friendly face and big heart for all their energy needs.

Leave a comment


  1. That kind of thing also happens to me, though I’ve never considered it being used. I also tend to not let myself get sucked into their drama. But people need people, and I’ve considered those confiders people who must not feel loved by people they love. It makes me not want to turn my back on them too. Listening is different from getting sucked in. Listening might just be offering some compassion to someone in need.

    • Good point about listening, if that’s all it is. And if you’re not late for your meeting.

      But I think it’s smart to occasionally listen with two minds. With one, you’re in the moment, responding to the conversation. With the other, you look for balance: is the conversation always about them, them, them? Do they ever ask about you in a way that seems sincere, and listen to your answer, and ask followup questions? If it’s just a one-time or occasional deal, balance isn’t so important, but with friends and family or other regular relationships, it’s good to watch for that.

  2. Marilyn Patrick

     /  January 20, 2012

    Nah – I don’t buy it. As I reach Senior Citizenship (read: Medicare) I find myself more and more wanting to leave this world a better place for having been here. Each night I pray, among other things, for the Lord to give each of my beloved family an opportunity to show some kindness to someone who needs it. If that had been a neighbor of mine, as she walked away, I would have been, like, “Whoa, God, you really took me up on that!” If it became a regular habit with this woman I would have looked her square in the eye and opined that she really would benefit from professional advice. But I look at that as the Christian thing to do. Who can determine just how much good you did for that neighbor!

    • Sure, the neighbor, no problem. It was a one-time deal. (See above reply to Joyce). But Marilyn, I’m talking about the people who’ve slaved to make the world a better place since they were old enough to get the message that that was more important than their own happiness (5? 6?). Some of us are only just now realizing we’re kind of important too, at least as much as the rest of the planet. I was about 40 when I started to ask for reciprocity in long-term relationships, so that’s why I feel strongly about this.

  3. Excellent post and discussion ,Lynne. Joyce has a good point about the value of listening to one another. But your point addresses the “energy vampires”. I think we can usually trust our feelings when someone is truly in need of a good listener vs someone who drains the life blood out of us because they are seeking answers outside themselves when they should be looking at taking ownership of the problem and the solution. You are so right, we cannot be everything to everybody and sometimes the best we can do for others is to take care of ourselves first. Amen!

  4. Ah yes, Lynne, the fine art of the squinty-eye. As women, conditioned to care, we often get caught in this web. Thanks for sharing this enlightening piece, which also encourages us to beware of the sociopath energy drainers, who prey on our goodness! So come on out with a smile, but keep those elbow swinging (in basketball terms it called a block out! ha ha)

  5. I cannot believe how similarly we were raised. Thanks for the good advice.

  6. I understand completely what you’re saying, Lynne. There is such a thing as being too nice! I’m happy to be “so approachable” as most people say I am, but like you, I feel drained after those types of conversations and when other people find a way to bolt, I’m usually still there trying to figure out what to do it help solve their probs. There has to be a happy medium and I’m still trying to find it.

    I know it’s important to reach out to others, especially if they may not have other friends, BUT, I often find out later that these same people will grab on to anybody will listen. That’s usually why they don’t have many friends!

    Yes, we have to be able to listen, but the people who latch on to somebody they barely know and pour out their problems are usually the same ones who wouldn’t listen to your problems for over a minute. I’m not saying you should always be rewarded with the give and take thing, but people like us need to have a bigger antenna than others.

    (Can you tell I’ve been through this? haha)

    Thanks for the post!!

  7. Ah, nuts. I was just settling in to enjoying the repetitive behavioral notion that I am an unlimited resource, even as my head aches, I’m running out of antacids, and my amygdala twins are squeaking “not again!” Brilliant post, Lynne. I just made a couple of serial decisions that I need to amend straightaway. Sticky stuff, that imprinting!

    • It is sticky, Linda, because you feel like a bad person when you recognize where it comes from – your beloved parents usually. Were they wrong? No, but what were they, then? Dumb? Well-meaning but … okay, you get the idea.

  8. Totally agree Lynne – thanks for the post! I always wondered why the high school drop-outs, drug addicts, abusers, freeloaders, and ‘poor-me’ types would stick to me like flies. I was the over-achieveing, nice-to-anyone person in high school/college/early adulthood. I think also when you are over-achieving, there’s another type that is attracted to you as well ….jealous people who want to ‘knock you off your pedestal/knock you down’.

    Years later as an adult I was talking to my dad and he proudly admitted his parenthood rule was to make sure his kids ‘didn’t get too big for your britches”. Then it all made sense. HE was the one that instilled in me that the harder I worked to reach a goal/make a positive difference/get the good grades, the more I should allow others to tear me down ‘for my own good’. Hearing his twisted logic spelled out made it easier for me to make the changes in my own life to prevent further abuse.

    It was an eye opening admission on his part (and backed up years of abuse to his wife and children).

    I am a much happier, healthier person now. I continue to work hard to make a positive difference and reach goals…but I expect and accept that my friends and family will encourage and support me now, instead of tear me down ‘to keep me in my place and my feet on the ground’. The people who were looking to hurt me I’ve either re-educated on how to treat me, and if that didn’t work I’ve weeded them out of my life.

    • Barb, I get what your dad was thinking. He was proud of you but also afraid you’d turn into a selfish, entitled thing, right? Here’s my story: I felt – I swear I really believe this – that GOD had picked me to be successful because He trusted me with the cash. He knew I would spread it around, whereas somebody else would have kept it all for herself! And baby, I did. I supported two layabout husbands before finding my sweet Bill. I paid for everything and everybody, because it was an honor, no, a DIVINE responsibility. When I now read about successful members of certain minority groups feeling obligated to support their less-fortunate (and less motivated) family, friends, and old neighborhood, I really identify.

  9. I think for me it came from being a nurturer/fixer …. everyone came to me with their problems … until one day I had an epiphany (as I sat in the corner of the entry hall crying and feeling completely overwhelmed) that I no longer could be “everybody’s mother” … I had to be my own mother and take care of my needs first … and it was ok to say no thank you and walk away. There were too many “takers” in my life at that time (because I let them be there/couldn’t say no – I might hurt someone’s feelings) … hard lesson finally learned …

    No more doormatting!

    • Hey, Itty, do you remember how old you were when this occurred to you, and how did you find the certainty?

      • Lynne, I was 40 at the time – and felt like I was drowning – mostly because the situation that created the epiphany was putting me in the middle of “family battles” in addition to the normal demands of raising two teenagers and work demands. The ability to finally stand up to them and say NO … I can’t fix the problems between you all … made me realize I could also consider whether I really needed to unnecessarily take on demands at work and in other areas of my life and allow some time for me (which was non existant at the time).

  10. I think “Balance” is what’s needed, Lynne. On the one hand, we shouldn’t feel leery of opening ourselves to others in need — one day, we might be on the needy end; however, we have to be careful who’s doing the needing. If it’s a stranger, we have to question why we’re the one selected to hear their problems. If we don’t have specialization in such problems, we ought to own up to that in the first place and advise them to seek professional care. You’re a nicer person than I am in being so approachable — but then, nobody ever said I was nice, haha!

    • But Deb, see, you can laugh about it! If somebody thought I wasn’t nice, it used to kill me. I had to outgrow that foolishness. You are absolutely right about the balance, Sis, and you have it.

  11. Mary

     /  January 20, 2012

    Great post Lynne. At this point in my life I try to avoid people from renting space in my head. No Vacancies!!!

  12. My mother always told me: “don’t be a pleaser.” Somehow she knew that you can’t let people use you– and that you can’t let the energy vampires take over your life. At the time I thought that she was talking about middle school & high school dramas, but over the years I’ve come to realize that she was talking about all of life. Interesting topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

    • Hi Ally, my mom told me the same thing but her words didn’t match her actions. She is such a good person, can’t stand to say no, but it wasn’t a great message to us kids.

  13. Love this for 3 reasons: 1) you used the word crackpots LOL 2) you recognize (and help others) identify when you’re being used and 3) you said compassion is good. Now I consider myself a very compassionate person but over the years I’ve had to leave the “energy sucking vampires” and “crackpots” alone because they were taking my compassion and kindness for granted. Nowadays, I’m like you and can filter those people out of my life as much as possible while still feeling compassion for them and seeing them as “sick,” especially the sociopaths.

    I’m loving your style Lynne and so glad we’ve crossed paths!


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  • Lynne Spreen

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  • 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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