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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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Nora Ephron Left Us Sleepless

Nora Ephron

Like you, I was struck by the death of Nora Ephron. I kept saying to Bill, “I can’t believe it.” Tears surprised me.

Nora spoke to me through her books (Her last one, I Remember Nothing, is reviewed in the left sidebar.) She made me laugh, and I passed her books around to my friends. Like you, I felt as if she and I were friends. I can’t believe such a vibrant, creative, insightful, witty, valuable life is gone.

And yet.

I’m unhappy now, made so by feelings of disagreement with my old friend. As I reread I Feel Bad About My Neck, I was struck by the negativity in her words. Here are some examples:

Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever’s writing it says it’s great to be old. It’s great to be wise and sage and mellow: it’s great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can’t stand people who say things like this.

That would be me. Here’s another:

Sometimes I go out to lunch with my girlfriends — I got that far into the sentence and caught myself. I suppose I mean my women friends. We are no longer girls and have not been girls for forty years.

Sigh. What a worldview. Lastly:

But the honest truth is that it’s sad to be over sixty. The long shadows are everywhere–friends dying and battling illness. A miasma of melancholy hangs there, forcing you to deal with the fact that your life, however happy and successful, has been full of disappointments and mistakes, little ones and big ones. There are dreams that are never quite going to come true, ambitions that will never quite be realized. There are, in short, regrets.

I Feel Bad About My Neck was published in 2008. We now know that Nora was suffering from leukemia at the time, and I’m flattened by the fact that she could write (at all), write things that were funny, and keep her illness a secret while ensuring that her show went on. What a champ.

But a certain part of me wants to – needs to – live in denial of mortality, so for my mental health, I’m going to keep referring to myself and my friends as girls, or even the hick-ish gals. I’m not “full of regrets” even though I’ve experienced (and caused) great pain in my life. I respect the pain, but I need to sublimate it and move forward with anticipation and excitement.

Nora, I’ll never be half the person you were. Rest in peace, girl.

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  1. I was stunned to hear of Nora’s death, too, Lynne. She wrote some entertaining things, and her voice was silenced too soon. Still, I find myself agreeing with your perspective, Sistah — we know we’re mere mortals, but I don’t want to dwell on that. I want to look into my female friends’ eyes and see them as the “girls” they once were, to celebrate the friendships we’ve made, to embrace life (with all its challenges and joys) for as long as we can! I don’t know if it’s “sad to be over sixty.” I know that every day, I find people younger than I am listed in the paper’s obituary column. I suspect they had regrets, too.

    • Debbie, thanks. I know we all have that “Nora side” to us, the dark side. But what’s the upside of letting it take over? We’re alive! Let’s enjoy it!

  2. I need to preface this by saying that my general rule is to make my comments as positive as possible because I believe there’s enough bitterness in the world.

    That said, I’m actually encouraged to read these words from Ephron. I’m really struggling with the pressure to be happy about being older. I’m not.

    I know that it’s all about frame of mind and my own attitude toward it, but I’ve tried, really, really tried to stay young at heart and in mind and in body and in spirit.

    I read what you and others write desperately hoping your optimism and joie de vivre will catch on, but it doesn’t.

    I’m grateful that she was honest. Knowing that someone as accomplished and well-loved as she was had regrets actually makes me feel better. Not that she had regrets, but that it’s ok that I do.

    • Hippie, I respect that you have feelings unique to your own reality and experience. I wouldn’t want to tell anybody what they should feel. My own deal isn’t the same as yours. I would venture that what we do have in common is the struggle to find meaning, assess value (good or bad) to our experience, and in a million different ways get through it the best we can. Thanks for your thoughts. Stop by again. You won’t have any gauntlet to run next time!

  3. My comment disappeared when I tried to post it. . . I wonder if that’s a message from the Universe.:-)

  4. Kathy Shattuck

     /  June 29, 2012

    Lynne, thank you for your comments on Nora Ephron. Your take and her take on life may differ, just as maybe yours and mine do. I know your POV is to see the upside, and to live life in a positive manner, after a certain age, as you write in your blog, I don’t agree with you,

    We all want to make that effort to be strong, healthy, and positive, but I think you know we can’t all see these same things in the same way. We can only try to do our best, with what we’ve been give, pushing that best to give life a more positive view.

    I laugh as much as I can. I spin life around to see it in as much light as I can. But there are just times when the physical body thumbs its nose at you. Hurting, either physically or mentally, can weaken that resolve.

    As writers, we live in all of those moments; and as writers, we are to see those moments to enable us to write about them, being careful not to be bested by our own, not so sunny side, of those words.

    • Kathy Shattuck

       /  June 29, 2012

      Lynne, a typo! I meant this to read, “I DON’T DISAGREE” with you. 🙂

      • Kathy, you’re not the only one pacing the floor at 3 a.m. It’s just a matter of trying to deal with the inevitable. Sometimes I get real negative, and then I drink too much wine and wallow. After a while, I get sick of myself and shake it off until next time. We all cope the best we can.

  5. I loved Nora and her work, and I have to believe that she knew she was facing her own mortality and that was reflected in what she wrote. As a 61 year old woman, I try not to look back, but ahead to all the bright days yet to come.

  6. On any given day, it sucks to be old and it’s awesome to be an elder. I have adjusted to the face in the mirror, the batwing underarms, the butt that’s so low to the ground, it’s practically a shovel. I have not quite adjusted to the spring that’s coming soon that I may not see, the autumn winds I’ll miss, and the heavy snowfall I won’t stick my tongue out in. My mother started collecting bittersweet at a certain age. I think I know why.

    • Zig, I shouldn’t laugh but I loved your shovel comment. Yah, we die. Big surprise. I’m beginning to think the trick is to pretend otherwise for as many hours of the day as possible.

  7. For most of my 60 years, I have been such an optimist and so extremely naïve yet it has provided me with a great deal of life. Now, I really focus on each moment for what it is–as best I can without interpretation–rather than running down the road to “fix” what may or may not be coming, my usual modus operandi. I do find the change most fulfilling, and I find myself a lot less in the future or the past but I do have my moments in those, too.

    Great post.


    • Karen, I have a comparison: I was a naive writer at first. I didn’t know how hard it would be or how much I would do wrong – hundreds of pages of wrong. If I had been less “optimistic and naive”, as you say, I never would have started. Sometimes that’s better. Best wishes with staying in the moment.

  8. Lol. Old age does have its perks. It’s got a lot of awful things too. I sure would never want to go back to any time previous to where I am – loose neck and all. Now I’m going to have to go read her stories 🙂

  9. My life too was shaped by Nora’s writing. Although, I agree that the sentiments expressed in her last book were negative, I understand the source of the bitterness. Bearing chronic pain and illness wears down one’s spirit and chips away at one’s soul. But Nora, never one to mince her words, remained honest and true to her self until the end. Thanks for sharing this heartfelt reflection on an admirable woman’s courage in her last act. I only wish she could be around to hear the applause at the last curtain call.

    • Pat, I know you speak with authority on the issue of chronic pain and illness. Would you consider doing a post on your blog about how to get through it? It would benefit so many.

  10. Susan's Story

     /  July 1, 2012

    An inspiration ! RIP NE and thanks, Lynne

  11. She has left a legacy. Every one of her books were perfect at the time I read them. I gave them to a friend who just turned 50 this week. She is reading, laughing and told me that you have to be into your 50’s to come close to appreciating her profound humor. Now what will I read when I turn 70? Something you have written perhaps?


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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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