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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Like I said, Rorschach.

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

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  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

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

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

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

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

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  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But back to Lean In.

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

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

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

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Why Can’t We Die Like Dudley?

My brother and his wife recently put their beloved German Shorthair to sleep. Dudley was ready. (The photo is not of him). Bro said Dudley told them when when it was time, and they put him on a blanket in the yard and gave him the blue juice (my sis-in-law is a veterinarian.) I am sure they petted him and cried, but it sounds like a pretty good way to go. Dudley died with the sun on his flanks, the smell of grass in his nostrils, and the love of his family all around him. I wish we humans would permit each other such a sweet farewell.

Of course, that’s not how we do it, because human life is more valuable than dog life, and the risk is too great. Instead, we pull out all the stops to keep each other alive in spite of great illness, pain and struggle. Or at least that’s how the general public handles it. Doctors? That’s another story.

In this article entitled How Doctors Die by Ken Murraya cardiologist reveals that doctors are so averse to the normal life-saving techniques visited on the dying that they even go so far as to have No Code (i.e., no CPR)  tattooed on their bodies. Here is one reason: did you know that in order to properly conduct CPR on a patient, ribs are usually broken? How’d you like your old mom to have to deal with that? Here’s an excerpt:

Almost all medical professionals have seen what we call “futile care” being performed on people. That’s when doctors bring the cutting edge of technology to bear on a grievously ill person near the end of life. The patient will get cut open, perforated with tubes, hooked up to machines, and assaulted with drugs. All of this occurs in the Intensive Care Unit at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day. What it buys is misery we would not inflict on a terrorist. I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.” They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped “NO CODE” to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.

I have had more surgeries than your normal 57-year-old, and were it not for these surgeries I’d have been dead several times over. I think I have a bod that’s inclined that way, so I think about things like this, and if I were to receive a grave diagnosis, I’d forego all the extreme measures and enjoy the rest of my time on earth. What a privilege to have enough advance notice that you could get your files in order (shutting down all my online accounts would take days!) and lay the groundwork for sending your loved ones off into the future comfortably instead of torturing yourself with toxic chemicals and premature hospitalization.

Of course, the problem is that medical knowledge is incomplete, and we can’t often say with a high degree of certainty that all efforts are useless and we may as well go quietly, but if I were lucky enough to get such certainty, I think I’d rather get the blue juice. Wheel me close to the window, hook me up to the morphine, and adios, muchachos.

I hope I didn’t bum you out but I believe this topic deserves more attention. Now that I’ve raised the issue, I’ll drop it. The sun’s coming up, the day is young, and we’ve got livin’ to do.

Leave a comment


  1. Lynn, I couldn’t agree with you more. I often (okay, not often, but sometimes) try to plot a way to make the end arrive the the way I want it to. Sadly, most often at the end we have no personal power. Dudley was a lucky dog. And well loved.

    • Delana, I think we should think more about having a good death. Sure, we can’t plan everything. But what if by thinking about it and writing it down, sharing it with somebody who might be able to effect it when we can no longer speak? (Advance directive, at the very least). Below, Linda Robinson implies that her mother was able to give her kids something to take into the future: a sense of relief. A nice last bequest.

  2. I agree. When my father in-law died we told Mom ,”you need to tell him it is OK to go.” She thought that was strange since he appeared to be in a coma. She said good-bye and told her husband of 72 years it was OK to go. My husband prayed as soon as she did that and Dad took his last breath as Curt said Amen. A perfect way to go.

  3. My mom was able to walk on the way she wanted to, at home with family at her side. It’s the way I’d like to move along, if I can keep the world at bay with the same courage and heart she did. Thanks for sharing Dudley’s story, Lynne.

  4. This is a timely post, Lynne, and very interesting. As a pet owner, I firmly believe that letting my beloved pup go when the time is right is the kindest, most loving thing I can do for him. Why is it that we humans can’t do that for our loved relatives? After all, it’s not like this life is all there is — when you believe, as I do, that you’re going to a better place, it’s not too hard to let go!

  5. I believe that this life is just a small part of our time. It is a difficult question, because we don’t know for certain that we can’t be cured. There are many people walking around today that were told many years ago that they only had a short time to live. I do know after my grandmother was revived once, she asked that it never be done again, and we didn’t.

    • Well that is straight from the front lines. If somebody goes thru it and then says, please let me go next time, that tells me something important. You’re right, there’s a certain risk involved, but if I were given a year’s notice of my impending demise, I’d feel grateful for the time to get things in order! Not spend it getting tortured.

  6. Lynne, I had to put my beloved 13-year-old bulldog and 19-year-old tuxedo cat to sleep in the same year, and I have always thought that it’s a shame we can’t offer the same relief to humans. A recent “60 Minutes” episode chronicled how many medical professionals let people linger long after they should have been allowed to die just so the hospitals and doctors can make more money. The show reported that last year, Medicare paid $50 billion just for doctor and hospital bills during the last two months of patients’ lives – more than the budget of the Department of Homeland Security or the Department of Education. And 20 to 30 percent of these medical expenditures may have had no meaningful impact. Most of the bills are paid for by the federal government with few or no questions asked. It costs $10,000 a day to keep a patient in ICU. Also, 75 percent of people die in hospitals, although most people would prefer to die at home.

    • Libbye, that last line of yours is amazing. Yes, I think I saw the same episode. They want to die comfortably at home but when the time comes, it’s probably hard to say, let me go. It’s nature’s way to fight! Hence the mysterious aspect of this whole question.

  7. It takes courage to go when we know it’s our time, to leave everything and everyone we know; courage to go into what is truly unknown despite what faith or religion tells us we get in death. And it can also take courage to demand that we be allowed to die, to push back against well-meaning family or friends who want to hang on to us at all costs.

  8. Lynne,
    another great topic to explore here. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt & said this-at the end, we are kinder to animals than humans. I won’t offer more because of family but I’ve witnessed close family members suffer needlessly in the name of ‘hospice care’–I’m an RN practitioner turned writer & have seen a lot of death up close. I also took 2 of my own dogs in when it was their time and I will tell you, my doggies had a blessed ending by comparison to the many human deaths I’ve witnessed. If our culture would only focus on ‘end stage’ care with the same passion some give to ‘beginning of life’ debate, maybe more fully formed human beings would be able to go peacefully.

    • With your background, your voice has authority. Thanks for weighing in, MM.
      PS I loved being able to hang out with you in person last weekend. Cyberspace is nice but being in the same room together, even better!

  9. Lynne, I’m so glad you wrote about this. You have expressed what I have come to believe for years and years. I have a friend with multiple chronic medical illnesses whom I have watched being brought back to life time and time again over the years. Each time, he says, “No, I don’t want to live, please just let me die,” and each time, they bring him back, despite the Do Not Resuscitate form tacked on the wall by his bed. He is now living precariously from day to day feeling miserably ill, is estranged from his family, and is living on Social Security with help from the government. He feels that no one wants to help him, yet no one wants to let him die. His life is suspended in a sad state of limbo. He often dreams of running in the fields with his dog Maggie, something he has not been able to do for three decades. His life is a testimony to the fact that much needs to change in the right-to-die arena. Your article gives voice to this. Thank you, Amanda

    • Amanda, how can this be? If he has an advance directive saying clearly that he does not want to be revived, who is overriding his orders? Isn’t there something he can do to threaten these people? Or something? I’m so sad to hear of this.

      • I couldn’t believe it either, Lynne. The last time he was hospitalized, I made sure the nurses had everything in order on the DNR form and saw it myself on the wall. However, after a week or so of being in critical condition with his primary doc saying he could die any moment, my friend told me that in the middle of the night his breathing slowed and he became unresponsive, and the next thing he remembers is that “some big guy” was on top of him doing CPR. This man has severe osteoporosis, end stage emphysema, chronic bouts of MRSA, pneumonia with kidney infection several times a year, chronic ulcer disease, etc, and has been this way as long as I have known him. I speculate that hospital personnel are maybe more worried about repercussions legally or losing their jobs if they don’t resuscitate than they do about the wishes of a perpetually dying man. He has requested not to return to this hospital for obvious reasons.

  10. In Switzerland, euthanasia is legal and there is an organization called Exit designed to help provide this choice. Exit cannot administer the drugs, but they can provide them when a patient, who has enrolled in their program, decides the time is right. It gives people a gentle way to leave us with dignity and grace.

  11. Mary

     /  February 25, 2012

    In 2008 Washington state voters passed the Death with Dignity Act which legalizes physician assisted dying with certain restrictions. This emulates the 1994 Oregon law which has been very controversial over the years. Montana, I believe has passed a similiar law recently. It gives me comfort to live in a state that offers this end of life option. I’m surprised that only 3 states have pursued this issue.

  12. Mary

     /  February 25, 2012

    Always happy to help. Thanks, for another great post Lynne.

  13. Stephanie

     /  February 26, 2012

    When our old dog’s time had come, we called in our vet who gently and kindly helped Tara “over the bridge.” Our companion of many years was comfy in her bed and surrounded by her pet and human friends. The veterinarian was one of the very few I’ve ever met who would make house calls.

  14. Hey Lynne, I couldn’t agree with you more. As a health care professional, I have seen far too many “heroics” performed on people over the years who should have been able to die in peace and dignity. That ‘s why Advanced Directives were initiated where a person puts their wishes in writing for when the time comes. As far as a family pet, our 12 year old Golden, Rosie, is clearly deteriorating and we are wishing a peaceful death for her. We are watching and waiting and if she begins to suffer, we will have to make “the ” decision. We want a “gentle death” for our beloved furry companion and certainly wish the same for ourselves and our loved ones.

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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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