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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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Improve Your Life, Part 2

I was going to write something fun this week to give you all a break. We’ve been examining some pretty heavy social issues lately, and I wanted to make you laugh.

But I just finished the book Ask for It, and in the chapter called The Likability Factor, authors Babcock and Laschever say that for all our efforts at becoming more assertive at the negotiating table, women have to take care not to offend.

Offend? I thought, are you sh#@ing me? Apparently, they are not.

Behavior that seems too aggressive typically doesn’t work for women and often backfires…We’re not just guessing here. Multiple studies have shown that using a “softer” style can improve a woman’s chances for success when she negotiates.

The authors didn’t want to believe it either, so they constructed their own study to see if it were really true, and they not only confirmed that men punish women for being too aggressive, but women do too.  To be fair, women on the power side of the table punished everybody for acting assertively, both men and women who pushed too hard for higher starting salaries, raises, or a cheaper price on that yard-sale sofa.

Good to know, huh? And right now you’re thinking, thank God the old peeps are dying off, because the younger women are much more egalitarian and fair in dealing with our own gender.

Wrong. 80% of the test subjects were under forty.

While you may think that this response to a woman being forthright and direct sounds outdated, research has shown that it is surprisingly current – even among men and women in their late teens and early twenties. The average age of people who participated in this study was twenty-nine, which means that it’s not just baby boomers who react negatively to women negotiating in an aggressive manner.

As disheartening as is this evidence of gender bias at the negotiating table, I’d rather be aware of it than not. At least now we know how to act. And it doesn’t have to remain this way.

…Using a sociable, friendly style may help you get more of what you want and deserve. It may help you rise into senior positions where you’ll have more influence over the culture of your organization, your profession, and perhaps even the larger business world. And then you can use your influence to make it more acceptable for women to ask for what they want in whatever way suits them.

The authors suggest we effect change ourselves. Have you ever criticized another woman for acting pushy or coming on too strong? Rather than roll your eyes at a her for behaving in a forceful way, say out loud, “That’s great that she’s going after what she wants.”  Little by little, we can change the outdated norms for how society wants women to behave.

Leave a comment


  1. Hooray for your response to this. Unfortunately we have all been socialized to think that an aggressive woman is a b@&ch. As ridiculous as that is, it is taking longer than we all want for this to change. Women have to affect change themselves and that means working within the norms to get to positions of power where they can affect change. We definitely need to move forward with the way women are treated in our society, not backwards.

  2. Until women negotiate at the rates men do, this will remain true simply because we are the minority. African Americans have the same challenges. I suspect anyone who isn’t white male does–just the way it is and what I tell my 3 daughters…”Be creative in your approach”….
    Yep, we do have to try harder….I don’t believe this always will be this way but I’ll probably be long gone before it shifts.
    I have been a B-a big one when I’m not heard-it hasn’t helped much. I just had a dialogue yesterday -perhaps while Lynne was creating this post-:)–with my Ex. FINALLY, I outfoxed him by doing exactly what he did not expect: I was not a B–he couldn’t say “there you go again…”
    And when he couldn’t default to that and then retreat into his ‘righteous indignation’-a lifelong pattern with me/us- he had to listen. And he didn’t like listening but the B remained quiet so he had no choice. The conversation involved $$ he owes me so I’m really glad that it didn’t go south like it does whenever the B comes out and forces him to retreat cuz he’s so scared….poor thing, we don’t want that now do we???
    Thanks Lynne for the chance to add my 2 cents! You’re the BEST!

    • Thank YOU, Marla, for a real-life testimonial. You remind us that we humans have a gift: the ability to feel one thing but project something else. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve benefited from hiding my true feelings, and it amazes me that I can. Being a capable actress is yet another skill that improves with maturity. Also as we mature we finally come to understand there’s usually a cost associated with letting loose. Being able to control those costs = power.

  3. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes for certain notions to fade away. I’d have thought the younger peeps would have been more accepting of assertiveness without b&%@$iness, but no — indeed, they might even more more judgmental. Very enlightening post, Sistah!

    • Thanks, Sis! I don’t think this topic is going to go away. I just bought a new book on a related subject. The authors did research and found enough alarming info to write this: “In the Company of Women; Indirect Aggression Among Women – Why We Hurt Each Other and How To Stop”. http://amzn.to/GHE8hT (Holy crap!)

  4. I will react negatively to anyone , male or female, who is too pushy and expect anyone I am too agressive with to react in kind. Negotiating implies the opposite of pushing. That is why it is called NEGOTIATING instead of arguing.

    • Judy it wasn’t pushing or rude behavior. Just assertive. But I get your point. According to the research, if men negotiated assertively with each other, both sides liked it. If women negotiated assertively with either gender, though, they were seen as pushy and icky. Okay, my brain just tilted…

      • Peggy

         /  March 23, 2012

        Judy…I understand what you mean. Who wants to work with anyone who is rude? But, when I was “strong” what I meant was I was neither pushy nor rude (in fact, respectful), but I held my ground and spoke my truth and didn’t cower when males or senior managers attempted to talk over me, or bulldoze me. That’s not rude. When men make their business points with strength and decisiveness, and sometimes even with open hostility, it’s perceived as “okay” in a corporate setting, but a woman who makes her point with strength and conviction is often (sadly) considered a shreaking, emotional bitch, a virago, by both genders even when her behavior is appropriate and professional.

  5. Peggy

     /  March 23, 2012

    Thank you, Lynn. Funny thing, this very thing just surfaced in my life. Someone who used to report to me, a man, contacted me. Been trying to find me for awhile, I guess. Good guy. We started talking about the “old days” when I was a manager over the tech writing and course design group of a huge organization, the now defunct Great Western Bank. He was a tech writer on one of my teams. He noticed that whenever I demonstrated strength, it was the women who objected. My boss, in particular, called me on the carpet for “negotiating too forcefully” when we were in business meetings with men…who did not seem to mind my style at all! Interesting.

    • Peggy, in their research they found that both men and women punished assertive women, so your experience is outside the norm. Best advice? Smile! (I was going to say kiss ass but it looked kind of crude.)

  6. Peggy

     /  March 23, 2012

    I hear you… I know that both men and women criticizing strong women in meetings is the norm, but in this case (or environment) if the men were offended or didn’t like it, they were silent…at least to my face. My boss was livid and actually invited me into her office for a LOUD lecture and some of the other female managers, my peers, came into my office and told me I behave too aggressively. My ex-team mate, Mark, said he didn’t understand why these women were so upset and chalked it up to feeling threatened. I have had men in the past become unsettled when I stood strong in a meeting, but not at Great Western Bank for some reason. Maybe particular corporate culture has something to do with how strong women are received at a negotiation table? I don’t know. What was interesting, Mark (the guy I’m talking about) and I JUST had this exchange maybe an hour before you posted this blog. Interesting timing, eh?

  7. ziggityboomer

     /  March 26, 2012

    Are the writers still emphasizing the external as the force to shape behavior? I admire women who strive for what they need, whether it’s a promotion, a mortgage or respect, and don’t give attention to negative words used to describe how they got there. Is the authors’ advice much different than how we were taught to behave in the 50s? 60s? Until we women respect ourselves enough to respect others for ambition, we will continue to raise new generations of women who think it is easier to suppress others rather than advance ourselves. I hope I live long enough to see some tidal changes.

    • I think women react as other minorities historicall have in order to move up—Tactfully, when needed and fist raising when needed (a la the very recent assault on our bodies’ civil rights). There is no one way. I have learned this over time and it’s ok if other women don’t think this way.
      All women are not the same.
      funny, Whoopi on today’s ‘The View’ said something similiar about African Americans-they all aren’t the same, either.

      • Yep, Marla I agree, we’re not all the same, but whatever tactics a person is comfortable choosing, they must choose something, and they won’t unless they see the need. So I appreciated these writers for making us aware of it. Again.

    • Zig, I think they were saying it’s a bummer that we’re all still like that, but that we should at least play the game long enough to get up to the C-suite and then act differently, effecting change from the top. And yes, a total bummer that in 40 years we haven’t moved all that goldarn much!!!

  8. So true. I worked in the aerospace industry starting in the 1960s. And during that time I saw change, but definitely not enough. Even though women are in the majority population-wise, they don’t come close to the majority on corporate organization charts. And we are part of the problem. Because the plum jobs for women are so few, we play musical chairs to get them – always fighting to get to the available seat. We need to mentor and be nice to our women colleagues and learn how to play on a team as the men so aptly learned as young boys.

    • Yes, yes, yes! And one of the ways we can do that is to begin to tell ourselves to lift our sights higher! One day recently I was asked to speak to a group without preparation or warning. Yikes! But I did it, and I hit it out of the ballpark. One reason: the woman who spoke before me was a funny, strong broad who made me feel strong by association. I was empowered by her strength! Instead of being fake-embarrassed to take the reins, I felt proud to stand up alone in that setting. We’re so afraid of making each other feel bad. I used to golf that way, too – if another couple joined us and the woman wasn’t very good, I dropped my game to make her feel less like the odd man out. Now I play as if to lift her up! We just need to see things from a more powerful perspective.

  9. What a fascinating discussion you have going on here,Sis! I think there’s a big difference between being assertive and being aggressive. Interesting,some of the most ruthless bosses I’ve had have been females. They got the job done but not without leaving a bloody trail in their wake by bullying and intimidating(men can do that too but these happen to be women). The most effective ones empowered their staff to perform and valued their contributions. As far as playing in the “good old boy” network of corporate America, we need to present ourselves from a position of strength, command respect and not back down from being heard. I love your statement about “seeing things from a more powerful perspective.”- a conscious effort for a Baby Boomer to overcome societal expectations of women but I think our daughters are making some headway. Very provocative post,Lynne!

  10. I like your comment “My brain just titled.” There are so many inconsistencies in the way the sexes react to each other in the workplace. We’ve made a certain amount of progress over the years regarding sexual harrassment, but there’s a long way to go. Assertiveness awareness should be on the menu.


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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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