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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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Boomers Renegotiate Old Ties

Recently, I was surprised when my sister asked me to start using her formal name – something I’ve rarely done. She said the family nickname has been bugging her for fifty-six years. At first I felt kind of weird about it, even though of course I knew she had the right. Then I thought, hey, pretty cool. She’s at That Age. No more compromising on this point. She’s renegotiating her relationship with the family.

I checked with my friends at Kevorkian Estates, and this renegotiating thing seems to be going around. “I never really got along with my brother,” said my friend Joan. “For years we avoided each other because we have nothing in common and frankly, we grate on each other. But I’m older now. We’re family, and I miss that. I’m willing to make some concessions.”

It’s not just distant siblings who are renegotiating long-time relationships. Wives are throwing down the gauntlet.

“We either change or I’m out of here,” Maureen told her husband. Now that they were retired, he was getting super-clingy. She loved him, but needed more space. After some heated discussions and a bit of cold shoulder, they thawed out enough to agree that she would take a few solo weekend vacations every year, and he wouldn’t get mad or feel unloved. It wasn’t perfect, but it works for them.

Some of my buddies said they feel more whole within themselves, or more confident; they no longer need the affirmation of others, or compliance from others, to feel respected. But there was no solid agreement! For example, Kathy said, “I’m sixty-six and I’m more mellow. My friends don’t have to be 100% in tune with me. Now, I can settle for less and be cool with it.” Her friend Sandra stared at her, indignant. “I’m too old to pretend. If they can’t handle me, the hell with them.”

Sometimes an issue might be a deal-breaker, causing a long-time relationship to fade away. That happened with me, and I’ll never stop missing my dear friend, but as we matured, I got frustrated with her heroic resignation to martyrdom. She’s “happy” and it’s her life, but I can’t hang with her now. I get frustrated. I keep wanting to fix her! So now we live separate lives. I’m sad about it, but we both have the power to choose.

But in regard to my sister, her demand for authenticity sparked my own. What might I ask of her? Is there something I’ve been soft-pedaling that I might be able to come clean about and ask her to respect now? For example, I might ask her to stifle the politics, since we’re polar opposites on that score. She might agree, and then we can move forward, respecting each other’s choices.

Have you renegotiated an old relationship? How’d that go for you?

Leave a comment


  1. Interesting topic. My sister and I have always had our challenges getting along. I was reading a book about writing memoirs and recovering old memories, and the author recommended going back and looking through old photo albums — look at the body language, facial expressions, etc. I did that and noticed my older sister hovering over me in every instance. I remembered she was always very mother-like and protective, and our difficulties emerged when I asserted my independence. I decided to start asking her for help, seeking her opinion even when I didn’t need it. What a turnaround! We’re rebuilding the trust we lost, and now I ask for her opinion because I really want it. I also discovered she remembers all the family stories I forgot, so all I have to do is ask a few questions and we’re off and rolling.

    • Good for you guys. Sounds like it’s going in the right direction. I’m the older sis, and since our reconciliation (yes, us too) I’ve been hyper-aware of my behavior around her. Humbling.

  2. I have made some changes and are working on others. I’ve let go of relationships, with love, that just don’t work in my life and I am renegotiating the relationship with my brother who has tried to distance himself from all of us. I think that when we get to this age, we realize that life is too short to not enjoy all of the living we have left to do.


    • So profound, Laura. Life IS too short. Maybe that’s the whole thing right there. We get to this age and realize we might want to reconsider. Good for you. Hugs back.

  3. Excellent post, Lynne. I’ve renegotiated a few relationships over the past few years, bowed out of a couple, and formed new ones. My husband is a great guy, but tends to be cynical about people, and I told him a few years ago that I didn’t want to hear it anymore because I was absorbing more of that attitude than I want or like. I really believe that we become what we think, say, and hear constantly, and since we can choose most of that, I choose to be positive. Short rant when something offends, but then do something about it or leave it behind. Thank you once again for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    • I’m with you, Sheila. I just realized a couple years ago that my whole family and upbringing are and were negative. I realize now it was a defense mech against disappointment. In fact, in my teens I wrote a poem that ended like this: “I hope for nothing; I am never denied.” So yes, it’s a choice!

  4. Debra

     /  October 19, 2012

    My big sister had a habit of trotting out stories from the past, the painful ones, from my rambling single-girls days before I found Prince Charming. She found her PC in high school and went on to lead a charmed, happy life. I don’t begrudge her that happiness but I did resent her throwing up reminders of a previous life that I was no longer living. I told her a few years ago to please stop doing that. She was a bit surprised, but I am glad I did it. I still love her and would do anything for her…but cripes she can be maddingly over-bearing!

    • Debra, doesn’t it seem like people who never had it bad think that’s a reflection on their fabulousness? I want to write a novel with a smug woman as the heroine, and then her world falls apart, and she has to deal somehow. That’s what I like to read about.

  5. This struck a chord. Long-time friends and I used to share the same political ideology. Over the years I changed, but never bothered to tell them. We don’t live in the same town, so I didn’t think it was necessary. I respect their right to believe as they do, and trust they feel the same. However, during the last presidential election cycle, they (2-3 friends) sent me political emails. I ignored them. This cycle, no word about politics…friendships endure. A renegotiation of sorts.

    • Yeah, politics. Yuck. In my neighborhood there’s like a Battle of the Signs going on, as if we’re all daring each other’s candidate to win. I’d like to show my support for my candidate but don’t want to alienate my buds on the other “team.” You have to shake your head at those emails, though. Cripes. Glad your friends got the message.

  6. I have not renegotiated an old relationship, but yet have learned more and more to stand up for myself over the past seven years– and finally with my family last year. It was not easy, and quite painful as I realized what was happening and I was being called to speak my truth. But once I did I felt good that I had– it was very freeing. I see this happening alot in the world, too– people creating their boundaries and living more authentically. I think this is a most beautiful thing.
    I always went by Barb though my given name is Barbara. I never felt like a Barbara– as if I didn’t live up to that– but as I started to live more authentically it was quite magical as how I now feel like a Barbara. I can understand where your sister is coming from with this.

    • I love your story, Barbara. It exemplifies what I’m trying to tell people our age – there’s a kind of freedom available to us if we just recognize it. But it takes some guts, and you’re demonstrating that. Good for you! I’m glad you wrote.

  7. Interesting topic, Lynne. I feel like living between continents, I am renegotiating ties all the time. Each time I leave my x-pat home to return to my passport country, I work to reestablish family and friendship ties. I stay away from the hot topics of politics and religion because my time in the USA is always limited and I don’t want to waste it arguing, especially since my views, after living in Europe thirty years, are often the opposite of my friends. Case in point- gun laws or lack of them!

  8. Interesting post, Lynne. I’ve learned over the years how to navigate around or avoid “Energy Vampires” and the older I get, the more skillful I become. I think the deal breaker for me was when I was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 50. There’s nothing like facing your mortality head-on for grasping how short life is and realizing that spending it with negative people is not worth it. The one renegotiation example that stands out is an encounter I had within the past few years with a young female doctor who criticized me in public about a patient care matter. I responded to her by asking for specific feedback. When she couldn’t provide it, I told her I expected that she never confront me again in this way-in public or without specifics I could learn from. She never bothered me again and,in fact, we went on to have a colleagial relationship. It made me feel like I wish I had been able to do that in my younger years. I would have saved myself a lot of angst and sleepless nights. I guess that’s the beauty of aging- not wasting time on people or events that bring us down. You really got me going , Lynne!

    • I’m glad I did, Kathy. You said “I wish I had been able to do that in my younger years.” I get what you’re saying, in that I believe with age comes a kind of certainty, based on years of experience and learning. In that case, it is another aspect of, as you call it, the beauty of aging. Hear, hear!

  9. Fascinating and full of hope, Lynne. Hope that some of that acceptance does come with age. I just assumed that the old saying about people coming into your life for a reason or a season was part of life — maybe with age does come wisdom!

  10. I’m seeing more renegotiating of relationships among individuals of all ages. I think that the changes brought upon us by social media are forcing everyone to rethink how to connect with others– and why.

    I find myself much more mellow about the people who I let into my life now; however at the same time I’ve established clear boundaries about what behaviors I’ll tolerate from others. There are limits now in my friendship circle.

    I’ve never thought of this as an age issue as much as a way of staying safe & sane in our connected world. But now that you mention it, maybe this renegotiation process is age-related. I’ll think on that.


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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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