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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.

    View all my reviews

No Picnic for Young People, Either

My son walked in the door one evening after the daily commute with his 2-year-old daughter, who attends day care near his job. Their arrival signaled the end of my ten-hour shift, and as I prepared to hand off my 7-month-old grandson, I watched my son shift gears, from tired elementary school teacher to tired dad.

Getting in my car and driving away felt good, in that I was free to go back to my “retiree” life, but this babysitting gig reminds me how hard it is to raise kids. When we’re young we think it’s never going to end, and then when we’re old and it’s over, we wonder where the time went, and I think our perspective gets rosier in the rear view mirror. Maybe too rosy.

The adult kids suffer. They’re sleep-deprived, and they don’t have the sanguine approach to life and career that you earn with age. Everything is harder for them, and in spite of my own problems, if I had to do what they’re doing, it’d kill me. Like the “It Gets Better” campaign, I want my kids and all young parents to know it really will even out. And at the risk of pissing them off, here are some coping strategies I’ve learned over the years that might help them feel less pressure and stress: (UPDATE: I realize these comments might reflect on my son, but he’s a sweetheart and wasn’t the impetus for my thoughts. It’s just memory coming back, from my younger years.)

(SECOND UPDATE: I don’t mean to leave out my DIL. Everything my son is doing, she’s doing too, IN ADDITION TO breastfeeding. So she gets the Ginger Rogers Tip-of-the-Hat award for dancing as well as Fred, but in heels and in reverse).

  • After a long commute, you shuffle in the door after dealing with tailgaters and other assholes, and for about the first ten minutes you’re in no mood for civil conversation. So Bill and I have learned to tell each other, “I’m still on the freeway,” which is code for leave me the hell alone until I have the energy to behave normally again. If you have little kids, focus on them. They’re entertaining. Leave the big stuff for later.
  • You’re more in control of your feelings than you think. If you put on a show for your conscious mind, your subconscious will go along with it. So if somebody asks you, “how was your day?” you answer, “pretty good,” even when you want to say, “IT SUCKED LIKE HELL AND I HATE ALL HUMANITY!!” And not only will your subconscious start to lift your spirits, you won’t have a depressed/pissed off spouse to deal with. (I learned this the hard way, and not until I was about 40.)
  • Correlation to the above: music can and will change your mood, for the better or worse, so choose accordingly.
  • Fatigue and alcohol will get you in arguments in which you believe, at the time, the Authentic You is speaking. But the next morning, when you feel like a jackass, you realize it was the tired or buzzed you. And now look at the mess you have to clean up.
  • Don’t get too hungry. It messes with your head. Have a snack when you start dragging. See Authentic You, above.

Retirees with lots of free time sometimes develop amnesia about What It Feels Like To Work Fulltime and Have No Life. Working people – young or old – must hate hearing us geezers yabber on about finding ourselves, since they barely have time to find a clean pair of socks. So if we forget, and start pondering aloud a need to search for “my true purpose in life” or “finding my passion,” know that you, Young Person, will get your chance. Along with thinning hair and involuntary farting.

What about you, Older Person? Any tips for the kids?

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  1. Great article Lynn and so true. Your point number 2 is similar to the advice I’ve always given my kids and which they have yet to take. When you feel like crap, look at yourself in the mirror and smile (with both your mouth and your eyes) until you start to believe it. I look at my boys now and the difficulties they have finding decent jobs with, hopefully decent pay and some benefits, and I realize how easy it was for me at that age. As I’m off “finding myself in France” those two are in the trenches. So glad I’m not there anymore. I prefer the thickening hair on my chin and the involuntary farting!

  2. Have enjoyed reading this very much, Lynn!
    I’m still in the working full time-mode, but my sons are grown-up and can take care of themselves. No grandchildren yet.
    Number 1 and 3 especially call out to me. On my way home from work I start out stressed and filled with work-questions. And the longer I drive – and SING with the CD of choice of that day – the more relaxed I become and the better I feel. By the time arrive home, all work worries have dimmed until the next day.
    My partner arrives home one hour after me (on the days that we’re together) and then a big hug clears the last stress.

  3. Marion, I used to listen to that funereal new age music that gives you a weird existential gloom, and think the feelings were authentic. Now in the morning I listen to light jazz (buoyant but not bouncy). Music is a cool tool for changing your chemistry.

  4. You are so right!
    I’ll share this with my two grown daughters who are moms of babies and struggle to get through some endless days. Watching them brings back memories of my time with 2 little ones. If we knew how hard it would be, would we do it again? I would.

  5. Nanci

     /  November 9, 2012

    I think I would tell any young person to work only as long and hard as it takes to do a good job. Americans work themselves to death ( me included in my working days). I think it was Anna Quindlen who said , “Your work is not your life. Your life is your life.” Simple, yet profound.

    • That’s quite profound, coming from you, Nanci, because you did work that hard, and also, you’re not of the typical demographic about which it is said, “they don’t believe in working hard.” Wise, indeed.

  6. What a nice shout-out to our grown children, all of us, who are parents to young ones. Practical but profound. I like the “I’m still on the freeway,” signal. That would still work well for my husband and I – and we’re empty nesters. Important to still be kind and thoughtful to each other. I loved those years with kids at home. Exhausting? yes. But I’ve been glad now that they’re grown and gone that I enjoyed and appreciated it while it was happening. So I guess that would be my advice too – stay with the now of it. It changes quickly.

    • Not quickly enough, Barbara. Just kidding. (This morning it’s taking both of us to handle our teething grandbaby!) But I see my son and DIL working fulltime and raising these 2 babies, and even tho Bill and I help, it’s still amazingly hard. I don’t know how they keep from getting overwhelmed. Snapshot: son coming home with groceries after working all day with a bad cold coming on. And DIL is working fulltime (30 kids in her 1st grade class) and still breastfeeding.

  7. Good advice Lynne. Love your code, “still on the freeway” only over here we say still on the autoroute. Parenting AND teaching are 2 of the most exhausting jobs, but also the most fulfilling. Bon Courage to your son! He is so lucky you live near enough to help out.

    • Pat: and my DIL! I think when you’re still nursing, there has to be a special layer of difficulty – not only finding time to pump while working (and thereby being isolated from coworkers during that all-too-brief social time) but also the nutritional depletion (not to mention not being able to have a glass of wine for over a year.)

  8. My comment to the young is this: No matter what anyone says, in a nano second I would trade the “comfort” of retirement and the “wisdom” of age to be 35 again.

  9. At 35 I was teaching in Madrid. Traveling in Europe, took a train to the coast then a ferry to Morocco and another train to Marakesh. My 9 year old son and soon-to-be second husband were with me. Yeah, I did plenty of stupid things before and after, but 35 was a good year.

  10. Another great post, Lynne. This is a good reminder that the grass is not always greener in someone else’s back yard. I like your points about transitioning for work to home at the end of the day–I needed to be reminded after a week like the one I just had. My husband and I have a code too: PID. It stands for “pretend I’m dead” as in “PID until 7:00” which means I need to be left alone for a period of time. I used it a lot while I was writing my book.

    As for the thinning hair and I voluntary farting….well, ’nuff said.

  11. heather

     /  November 10, 2012

    Bless you for being the helpful loving grandmother taking care of the 7 month old. I hear you about feeling your son’s exhaustion, having children is not for sissies. I always try to educate young people about being very aware of the responsibility and commitment involved in the rearing of children sans the “i can do so much better than anyone else” fantasy. Even with the best possible loving partner they can find and after they have their education and a decent career under their belt — even then — it is still very hard to work to raise children well, keep a nice home, prepare healthy food, do the laundry, mow the lawn, read a book, exercise etc. It is a 24/7 20 year job. One needs a village of help to raise a child.

    • Heather, 2 things: one, my sweet hubby helps almost every single day, driving over at 6;30 a.m. and hanging out until I say he can go, usually about 11 – noon. So I can’t take all credit, but thanks! And second, my son and DIL are early 30s, both are teachers so have Masters’ degrees in “kids”, and still, it’s damned near impossible. I realize that may be my 58-year-old bones and muscles talking, but jeez, it’s tough! Your points are exactly right. Not for sissies, at all!

  12. Wonderful post, Lynne! I look back on my single parent years and wonder how I ever managed. By the time I’d pick up my kids after work, we’d all three be at our lowest points- tired ,hungry, grumpy. So hard. Now I see my own daughter repeating the cycle ( only she is not a single parent, thankfully). I love your idea about ” still on the freeway” and Linda’s “PID until 7”! I would say factoring in transition time where there are no or few expectations on one another is necessary. Also , maybe a quick snack to increase blood sugar. My hat is off to all working parents. How fortunate that you & Bill are able to be there for your son and family. I feel the same as I am able to help my daughter. But, I am so happy those days are behind me.

  13. Lovely insight! It’s always so nice when people who’ve “been there,” remember how hard it was. Your family is so lucky to have you!

  14. You’ve said it all.


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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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