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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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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.

    View all my reviews

You Have the Power. You Just Don’t Know It.

I had a rough childhood, with a dad who was overwhelmed with work and financial stress, and a mother overwhelmed with him and four small children. How can I say this gently? Dad was violent. I grew up angry, and even into my late forties I had nightmares about punching him in the face. I’d wake up crying at the futility of it, and so pissed off I wanted to break something.

Around the time I turned fifty, I wrote him a letter saying his brutality and scorched-earth behavior was wrong, that he hurt us terribly and the least he could do now is apologize.

A great silence emanated from his part of town. Three weeks later, my sister told me he was pouting. He assumed I had severed ties, so he would sever ties longer. Yeah, of course he would interpret it that way. He always had to win every argument. So I called him on some business pretext and we talked politely, as if nothing had happened. Then we said goodbye and hung up.

The phone rang.

Him: “I want you to know I got your letter.”

Me, heart pounding: “Okay.”

Him: “And I want you to know I’m not offended.”

Me: (biting back astonishment, which corroded to mirth, which died in bitterness on my tongue). “Great.”

Him: “I’m sorry you had to carry that around all these years.”

Me: “Thank you.”

The End

The nightmares vanished. Our relationship improved overnight. I felt sorry for him, instead of hating him. For the next seven or eight years, until he died suddenly of a stroke in 2008, I was able to love him like a regular dad, to appreciate all the good stuff he did for us. All it took was that one sentence.

Now here’s the quirky thing: a few years later, I wondered, what if I misinterpreted his apology? This man NEVER apologized. What if I heard what I wanted to hear? What if he didn’t mean it the way I took it? What if he really meant he was sorry I was so stupid as to let a little thing like a broken eardrum or bloody nose bother me? Because that would have more been in character.

I’ll never know, so I chose to believe the first interpretation. And that’s what I’m thinking about today, a few days before what would have been my dad’s birthday: sometimes the prison in which we live is self-constructed.

The implications are staggering.

I just finished reading a memoir about a woman who had a rough childhood. Adopted as a toddler by inadequate parents, she was poorly nurtured and emotionally abandoned – and having survived that, she became an adult who was forever doomed to seeing every development in her life through that filter of rejection, of being unloved. Then, in her early sixties, she had an epiphany: she realized her parents had done the best they could, even though they should never have been given a child to raise. This caused her to rethink everything. She wasn’t trapped anymore. My friend was much happier from that point forward, but what a terrible waste.

In her case and in mine, our parents relinquished some information late in life, thereby freeing us. You can accurately say this wasn’t within our control. But what if either one of us had made up some excuse of our own and freed ourselves sooner? I could have told myself Dad was sorry and moved on. She could have done the same. Instead we waited, seething (in my case)  and pathetic (in hers).

To this day I don’t know if I read Dad correctly, but I’m free. I should have done it thirty years earlier. Freedom was within my power to achieve, but I didn’t realize it.

In next Friday’s post, I’ll give you another example of self-entrapment, in this case how older people limit themselves.

(If my words seem less polished than usual, or if you notice any typos, I apologize, but the baby’s waking up and he doesn’t permit multitasking! Stay-at-home moms, I feel ya.)

Leave a comment


  1. Lynne, as I have said many times, we have many things in common from our earlier life. I was raised in the same way. It took a lot of self help groups, counseling, and loving people to come to forgiveness prior to my father’s death. That power was released from me in my 30’s.
    Today,I can share my story to help others so they to can be free.

    • Thanks for saying that, Ann. It’s a little hard to reveal such info about my upbringing but I know there are so many who went thru similar things, and succeeded in spite of.

  2. Lynne
    Great post. Don’t we all wish our ephipanies came earlier in life? Years ago, I was at a inner healing seminar and the speaker explained the power of forgiveness like this: when we choose not to forgive, it is as though we’ve written I Will Not Forgive on a posty note and are holding it on the walls of the past, unable to move on with our lives. But the moment we take the note down in forgiveness, we release ourselves to move on. Keep sharing.

    • Shawn, i like the anecdote. Like a lot of thick-headed peeps, I have a problem with the word “forgive” but if you substitute the phrase “move on” it sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

  3. Hi Lynne,

    Love your post! I’ve probably carried around a similar resentment for my first husband, and I wonder if that could be the reason I’ve never been able to stay in a relationship with any of the assortment of men who’ve passed through my life. Who knows? It’s also possible I’ve always been too independent and itchy to settle in, too afraid I might lose my SELF, after wrenching it free from that first ugly marriage. But at least it was material for the bad husband in several novels. Always named Ralph.

    I’m half-way through Dakota Blues, enjoying it immensely, while also circling typos, missing words, etc. Most of what I’ve found are unnecessary commas or places that need commas, and I’m not sure you want to bother with that. Does anyone really care about commas? Besides overly anal English teachers. 🙂

    One thought I had when Karen is reacting to being fired, feeling lost and adrift, her life unraveling… This is only days after her amazing night with Curt. Wouldn’t she have some thoughts about Curt? I think women do this even when they know better. That desperate hope beyond hope that maybe this new man is the answer. Oh, to be in his arms, immersed in the passion that chases away dark thoughts, at least for those hours.

    Of course, that would mean adding text, and at this point you might not want to go there. BTW – when I got the copy-edited manuscript of HOT WATER, they included instructions for adding text. I never knew that was possible in the production stage, but I’d been reading a book with a Goddess theme, and I actually added a chapter and a half late in the book.

    I hope I’m not out of line here. DAKOTA BLUES is wonderful. Now to get back to it.

    Why don’t I mail it to you when I finish? So you don’t have to wait till I’m back from Louisiana.


    • Kathryn, the more I get to know you, the more I think it’s just the fact that you’re one of the most independent people I know. You love life, and you chase after it with great zest! The Ralphs wouldn’t stand a chance of keeping you interested.

  4. Lynne, I think you’ve got it right to hang on to what your dad said as an apology. My dad, too, was of that ilk — never apologizing. It’s hard growing up self-confident and at peace when you never hear the words, I’m sorry, or I’m proud of you. But somehow we manage, and whether it’s a trusted friend or a counselor or self-help books, we find the support we need. And we overcome. And that means we don’t need to revisit all that angst or harbor bitter feelings, now that they’re gone. Instead, we forgive what wasn’t done right by us, and we promise ourselves we won’t foist that on OUR kids. Well said, my friend!

  5. For a guy who was gruff and not apologetic, I think that one sentence said volumes. And you did interpret it right! Thanks for sharing.

    • Cyndy, I came to see him in my mind’s eye as that young man in the army picture from when he was about 20, and I know that man wouldn’t know how to apologize without giving up his soul. So that helped.

  6. Good for you, Lynne, for achieving your freedom. And you’re right, too often we imprison or entrap ourselves. Very enlightening post.

  7. Nanci

     /  August 31, 2012

    I sometimes feel like it would be a great service to younger people to compile a list of ways to break free from the toxicity of the past. For me it was in my 40 s when a friend pointed out that the conversation I had with mom was so repellent that she was shocked. I had been putting up with huge emotional abuse for my whole life. I went to a therapist and divorced myself from my mother in an empty chair protocol. I wouldn’t say I was totally free, but for the first time I actually recognized the abuse and could tell her that I wasn’t going to talk to her if she spoke that way. I’ve been told that emotional abuse is harder to get over than physical abuse, but it did help a lot.i felt more in control.

    • Nanci, my husband has been a great mentor in this respect. I used to be such a doormat, but he helped me see that looking for some kind of reciprocity in a relationship wasn’t mercenary.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story, Lynne. You are courageous and compassionate. I am fortunate to be able to read your posts, have my left brain working long enough to wrestle these issues best 3 out of 5 pins, blessed to have a spiritual neighbor bring some clarity. I, too, now understand that parents don’t get a manual for child-rearing with the child. Isn’t it FANTASTIC that we’re writers? When I recently discovered I have no memory of the years between 13 and 18, after serial panic attacks, and a desperate search for my analyst’s phone number, light dawned. If I don’t remember being 15, and I’m writing about a 15 year old girl, I can make everything up! Bonus!

    • Wow, Zig. You prove it: Simple coping skills are anything but. How heroic. Spiritual neighbor, yup. Glad to be in the same neighborhood.

  9. Lynne, As I read your story, I thought not only about forgiveness and how liberating it can be but also that it is a conscious choice we make that takes courage and humility. I feel relieved for you that you chose to interpret your father’s response as you did. It freed you and enabled you to reconnect with him in your last years together. Peace of mind is priceless. Thanks for sharing your brave and honest story. You remind us all that one sentence and a quick decision can change our lives for the better- in a heartbeat.

  10. kate granado

     /  September 7, 2012

    My sister was 20 years older than me and her husband terrified me from a very young age. He would climb through windows to search me out and as he came in the iving room window i went out my bedroom window and hid in the bushes until he stumbled to his own home and forgot me in a drunken haze.
    It was not until i was 14 and we went on a road trip to his family home in rual wisconsin and i met his father that i began to understand his torment. His father kept telling me he was going to kill a little bunny rabbit for me to eat for dinner and of course i made all the disgusted 14 year old faces i knew how to make. One afternoon while napping on the screened porch, i felt a heat on my chest and startled, I awoke to a dead rabbit laying on me. I screamed and ran, with his father chasing me holding the dead rabbit by the ears and laughling through a toothless grin, searching for my mother. It was not until the ride back to california while gazing through the window in the back seat of the car, that i realized what a childhood my brother-law must of had. It had shaped him as a man and a tormentor. I dodged him for the next four years until they moved away to another state. Over those 4 years a calmness came over me in my resolve to avoid his hideous advances towards me. And it was not until i was in my twenties that i discoved my calmness was forgivness. He was a lost soul haunted by a nightmare of a father raised in a backwoods home.
    I did not come through unscathed, but i came through with the best of me and it helped me grow into a loving woman i’m proud of today.
    Forgivness sets us free. I am so happy you were able to believe that your fathers words were words of apology. You are a better woman for it.
    thanks for all your words of wisdom.
    And i loved the book, congratulations.

    • Oh, Kate, what horror. And you are so above it all, and so far past it, to be able to feel sorry for your BIL. I think that’s the greatest ending: to feel compassion. BUT first, we have to feel safe!!! Thank God you were never damaged worse. And thank you for your kind words about Dakota Blues. It really was a labor of love.

  11. I just did a couple of posts on my upbringing and your post reminded me of my own confrontation with my stepfather and eerily enough, I believed that he was sorry until years later, after his death. It didn’t improve our relationship, but it did make me stop being angry at him and just focus on getting my life good. I look forward to reading your book – it sounds like an enjoyable fall read.

    • You believed he was sorry until after his death? Sounds intriguing. I’ll have to go check out your blog, Green! Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Self-inflicted prisons are the worst kind. I’m glad you found freedom.

  13. Lynne, both my parents died without apologizing for their alcoholism or their emotional (and sometimes physical) violence. It was up to us to come to terms with who they were and what they did–or not. It took me several years of struggle to finally accept that while there was never any excuse for what they did, they were flawed human beings, acting out their own internal pain in ways I couldn’t always comprehend. It sounds so trite to say that I’ve made peace with them, and there are still so many questions I’d want to ask them if they were a) alive and b) sober, but I’m no longer consumed with anger toward them. As you say, it’s like a burden is lifted when the anger clears. And maybe that’s the best we can hope for.

  14. Oh boy, don’t get me started. A big part of my long journey with my mother, which I wrote about in my blog for a couple of years (“Taking Care of Mom,” now Connecting Points–Stories Matter), was the past…an alcoholic and sexually and emotionally abusive stepfather, a mother drinking too much and in denial. She learned of the abuse when I was 29, but asked me why I was trying to hurt her. Thirty years later I was her primary person/advocate/manager of her life. Why, I would ask, am I determined not to abandon my mother after she threw me under the bus. But my mother and I were healing journey (the book). It took years to let her off the hook and it took even longer for her to forgive herself. The last time we spoke, however, she spoke words that told me she had forgiven herself. I knew it was closure when I heard the words, but was still shocked when she died two days later…

    • computer glitch…meant to say, “were on” on a healing journey.

      • I knew.
        But your Mom died 2 days later. That’s just mind-boggling. Life is rough. Sometimes really, really damned good, but often rough.
        I like your blog, BTW. Beautiful graphics. I’m going to explore. See you soon.


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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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