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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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I Would Change a Thing

Do you ever hear this?

Sure, I had it bad when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It made me who I am today.

I admire the “can-do” spirit in those words – the refusal to be kept down by adversity. Since we can’t go back and change things, I guess it’s good to adapt, but what if adaptation involves denial, and that denial interferes with our ability to enjoy the last half of our lives?

I’ll give you an example. My friend, let’s call her “Carol,” had a horrible childhood, worse than you can fathom, so bad that I’m not going to describe it. Carol says it made her what she is today. Let me tell you, what she is today is heartbreakingly valiant. She labors along, saving the world with her heroic efforts, but never seems to get what she wants or needs. Most of her efforts benefit others.

I had a challenging childhood, so I have the battle scars to speak to this. I ask Carol, “What if we hadn’t had to endure such torture? Who or what might we have become?” She refuses to consider it, as if the answer would open a Pandora’s Box.

My upbringing made me a slave for many years, always putting everyone else first, or hypersensitive to the moods of others, unable to relax and enjoy fulfilling my own needs. I still fight the tendency (like you?) to apologize all the time, and I tend to fidget, doing repetitive movements that substitute, no doubt, for banging my head against the wall in frustration.

What if Carol had been born to parents who adored her and told her how smart and capable she was? For she is a genius, and hugely talented, but has hidden her light under a barrel for almost sixty years. This girl could have played Carnegie Hall, or written the Great American Novel. Instead…not. She’s a hero, no doubt about it. She’s the hero of her life, the same role I decided to shed almost twenty years ago.

I’m sure it’s wrong to extrapolate from just Carol and me, so I’ll refer you to one of the most useful books I’ve ever read, The Narcissistic Family by Pressman and Pressman. An excerpt:

One of the biggest problems for adults raised in narcissistic family systems is that they tend to take responsibility for things over which they have little or no control, yet refuse to take responsibility for what is happening to them today.

I started watching the new HBO series, Girls, but couldn’t even get through the first episode. Everybody is so young and vulnerable. Thank God we get older and, I do believe, smarter. At least most of us. For Carol and the rest, I pray you win the lottery so you can quit working so damned hard and enjoy the rewards you deserve.

Leave a comment

16 Comments

  1. Lynne, this is such a fascinating topic and another great, thought-provoking post from you. I believe we are all born with varying degrees of emotional resiliency. There are people who go through horrific circumstances and become stronger, more visionary, more compassionate as a result. I read that Elie Wiesel said he wouldn’t have given up his time in a concentration camp. I still think about that. But my guess is that a majority of us do think (not obsess) what life would be like if the circumstances of our childhood had been different. I certainly do. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t take full responsibility for my life and my actions. It’s not an excuse. It’s not a free pass to victimhood. The circumstances of my life were the circumstances. What I did as a result was 100% my doing.

    Reply
    • “what I did as a result was 100% my doing.” Renee, I am so profoundly moved by your words. I see a little girl, chin up, refusing to be kept down, and I see the world you’ve crafted and feel proud for you. Putting things in perspective, as usual. thanks.

      Reply
  2. This subject sure resonates with me. Wow. My childhood and its interpretation definitely molded me into who I am today, traits that I also battle. My mother was the “victim.” I’ve been the “survivor” with my dukes always raised in the air. It’s always been difficult for me to ask for help of any kind and to allow myself to be vulnerable with people. Only with animals can I instinctively let my hair down. Thanks for giving me lots to think about today… as usual!

    Reply
    • Joyce, thanks for weighing in. My mom, too; and her being trapped made me resolve never to be. So in that sense, I’m better for the ugliness. Damn, it’s so much better to be older and freer, isn’t it? Even if we’re not “free”, at least we understand so much more now.

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Heitger

     /  April 20, 2012

    I also have a history of apologizing. Fortunately, I now recognize the trait and am getting better at stopping myself before I form the words.

    As far as changing things from my past, sometimes I do wish I had made other choices for some of my past actions. However, if I’m honest, I realize that some of the choices I made were the only ones I could have made at that time based on my personality and the things I was dealing with then. We’re taught to be positive about EVERYTHING even if it was a negative experience which is why many people say they wouldn’t change anything of their past since it shaped who they are. In my opinion, it’s a rationalization..but if it makes you feel better then it’s a good thing for YOU!

    Reply
    • Cynthia, you are so right. “We’re taught to be positive about everything,” is the truth. I think in some cases it’s self-protective. Think how it would feel/sound/look were we to shrug and say, “that was a pointless mistake.” I once gave a not-yet-ex-husband a big chunk of money to improve our lives. It vanished. Nothing good to be said about it. Am I smarter as a result? But wouldn’t I have matured anyway without the financial loss? Anyway, glad you stopped by.

      Reply
  4. Thought provoking to say the least. When I first accepted that my childhood had left wounds, I was very angry with my parents. Perhaps it was denial that I eventually moved to acknowledge that they too had wounded childhoods and couldn’t parent any better than they did. Years ago, I accepted that I too may have created emotional injuries to my children, so I apologized, said I now understood I had done the best I could, and if they needed healing beyond what I could offer, see a therapist which I had done as a young woman. Some familes such as narcissistic, sexually and physically abusive are in a category of their own and any child who is raised in those family has to develop all kinds of coping strategies and creating an illusion of being in control of whatever they can may be on of them.

    Reply
    • Really thoughtful words, Dolores. The power of forgiveness. One day my son told me that if I kept lamenting his bad childhood, he would begin to believe he’d had one.

      Reply
    • Ollie Barrett

       /  May 25, 2012

      I have to agree with Delores’ comment. As I grew up I added to my emotional injuries and when my adorable children were in grade school, I thought I would I was living in a never ending pit of despair, so I left knowing they were in loving hand with their dad and his new love. They have not forgiven me, which I understand perfectly, but I believe they will hurt themselves so much more by not seeing a therapist to deal with my leaving. (If there was a scarlet letter for leaving your children-I would have that pinned to my clothing).
      I was raised in a narcissistic, sexually and psychically abusive home and I have endured,however; I have not thrived in my life. I make the best of what I have and try to find ways to scatter joy. I regret my mistakes and ask for forgiveness every day.

      I have seen a therapist when younger, and now at 58 have decided I need to revisit, because I am beginning to crumble at the broken places. I don’t want to whine like I am a victim, but incest doesn’t go away.
      Thanks for your website and insights.

      Reply
      • Life is hard sometimes, Ollie. I hope your therapist is a good one, and helps you find peace. Best wishes.

        Reply
  5. Timely. So timely…..

    Reply
  6. Fascinating post, Lynne. Too bad babies don’t come with “care instructions” so we’d know just what they need and wouldn’t make grievous mistakes with them. For the majority of us, our parents did the best they could — considering their own inadequacies. Does that justify their mistakes? I don’t think so. What’s needed is for us as adults to forgive them and move on, trying hard not to repeat the errors with our own kids.

    Reply
  7. Peggy

     /  April 21, 2012

    Love this blog, Lynne. I’ve come to terms with my being wounded by my mother and my wounding my daughter later (not wanting or intending to). I reached the conclusion that we all do the best we can and we simply forgive our parents, forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made as parents, say we are sorry to our chilren and and hope they will will forgive us in turn…all the while knowing every single one us is doing our very best, whatever that might be in any given circumstance. My mother was/is mentally ill. Being raised by a single parent with schizoaffective disorder makes for an interesting and oft time brutal childhood indeed. But, she did her best.

    Reply
  8. Oh my .Lynne, you certainly have touched a chord (again!) on the litany of “what if’s” that any one of us could hang on to about our imperfect lives. I certainly have gone through phases in my life where I obsessed about my regrets and lost dreams. My” if onlys”..I had a relatively uneventful childhood with loving parents and an intact family but I managed to go out in the world and create my own chaos which I call my self-defeating detours. For me, accepting my role in making them happen was the beginning of relinguishing my victim role and embracing my life . Having a cancer diagnosis at 50 was a wake-up call and a blessing for all I learned about forgiveness (and that includes self-forgiveness) and appreciating each day. I agree, some people are dealt much worse hands and they can go either way-continue in a victim role or take the lessons and move on in a positive direction. I sense that Carol is really trying to move on. I hope she gets what she needs in her life and finds her way to healing and peace.

    Reply
  9. cookie Scott

     /  June 16, 2012

    This blog has stayed with me for days, constantly in the back of my mind. I do believe my Mom did the best she could have under her circumstances. My biological Dad didn’t. I need to think about “if”, or “how” it is affecting me now. Great blog Lynne!

    Reply

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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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