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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

Your Middle Age Brain: Brilliant and Ridiculous All At Once

This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.

I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.

I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.

Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know – pffffft.

Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.

If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.

The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.

Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:

The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”

One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”

“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”

According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”

This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.

You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.

Remember how I said your brain gears up rather than slowing down, later in life? I can’t wait to tell you more about it but I’m already up to eight hundred words and I don’t want you to lose focus. Thus I’ll save bilateralization for next Friday. Now go have a nice daydream.

*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.

Leave a comment


  1. Well, we are up early, aren’t we? Love this post, Lynne. Great one as always. Good morning!

  2. Thanks, Lynne…I feel so brilliantly befuddled now…which is a whole heck of a lot better than just plain befuddled.

  3. Hi Lynne,
    Enjoyed this post and I feel this brilliance happening often. Oh, the other day i wrote a blog post about “emergence” theory which is another way of looking at brains and connections etc. you would like it I think (Dec. 4 post: http://heddaplace.blogspot.com/) just sharing not plugging. . .

    • Hedda, thanks for stopping by and for mentioning your link. I’m eager to check it out – going to be a few hours until I get the kids settled but I’ll save it for my coffee break. Welcome to AST.

  4. This confirms what I’ve been going through lately. I find that I have the answer to a question or a solution to a problem, but I’ve no idea how I figured out the answer or solution. Who knew that I was just brilliantly addled. Fascinating.

    • It is interesting, isn’t it Ally? I’ve felt it too, and it’s magical! Unfortunately I have just as many befuddled moments, but I’ll take the good with the bad.

  5. Great info, Lynne. I’ve been hearing about this in different places, and it makes such sense. Perhaps this is why “primitive” cultures valued their old people so much, why grandparents were relied upon and consulted regarding communal problems. Especially old women, I might add, since we usually live longer than the men. We cared for the children freeing up the younger women and men to forage and hunt. Sound familiar?
    Anyway, it’s very heartening. Looks like I can go right on writing novels for the next twenty years – if my eyes hold up. My mom is 94 and can no longer see well enough to read or write, but her hearing is better than mine. Hey, books on CD.

    • And Kathryn, there’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis wherein a certain gift of old age is considered to have evolved to preserve the tribe. It’s about regulating our emotions, and you can do this better with age. I’ll write about that – I think it’s the third Friday in Dec. but off top of my befuddled head, not sure! PS by the time you’re 94, we’ll be able to apply a Think Strip to our forehead, think the words, and see them appear on the screen. You won’t even need hands!

  6. Now I know there’s hope for when I have my snazzy progressive lens glasses on and I try to put my computer glasses on over them while I look for the post-it note I had in my hand a moment ago. I’m waiting for the brilliant moment …

  7. There’s so much bogus information out there about aging and the brain. It’s harmful–in part because of the asumptions of other people–and in part because it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    I find that if I get stuck on a name from the past, I don’t force it. It’s there and will pop into my head shortly. My tongue-in-cheek theory is that all the info I’ve ever learned is on a mental rolodex. As the years go by, there’s more and more information, so it takes longer to retrieve.

    • Hi Madeleine, good to hear from you! That bogus aspect is why I felt so good about this book. Barbara Strauch compiles results of research, and much of it is downright impressive, like the 40-year Seattle longitudinal study, or the “Nun Study.” So I feel her stuff is solid. BTW, she calls what you’re describing a TOT (Tip of the Tongue) experience; says it more often happens with names as opposed to common nouns, and happens less with occupational information. This is because the names are (to the brain) more arbitrary, whereas occupations automatically come with associative triggers. Ex: you might not remember the name of John the Accountant, but you’ll associate his face with accounting.

  8. I spent two minutes looking for my glasses that were on my face yesterday and then went down and conquered the crossword, so this makes perfect sense to me. Now, where are those bananas?

  9. cydmadsen

     /  December 7, 2012

    I bought that book in a hurry! Now I’ll turn on my Kindle in a few minutes and wonder where the new book came from 🙂 It’s nice to hear good news about my aging, addled brain. I don’t have too much trouble keep track of my glasses, but I do miss having my daughter around to point out I forgot mascara on one eye.
    Hmmm, the part of the brain involved with daydreaming. I must’ve sneezed out that part some time ago. For a long time I had no dreams of any kind, but that’s slowly returning. The first to return were night dreams, and it was a whopper. I saw a naked Elvis (from behind, thank God) standing on a windowsill with his arms held up to the sky, screaming, “Give me my sandwich! Give me my sandwich!” Lately I’ve been nurturing myself back to daydreams. If they’re anything like that first night dream, it could be fun. Ah, perchance to daydream…and remember a name.

    • You crack me up, Cyd. But about daydreams…I find I can now sit quietly (when I have the chance, which is rare, dang it) and my brain is like a pleasant sieve. Things flow in and out, and nothing sticks unless I work at it. Bad for actually working on something – in that case I have to write things down and draw diagrams for myself. But good for relaxation.

  10. Oh, Lynne, this is wonderful news. I can now think of my absent-mindedness as “mental magic” and revel in the intellectual brilliance of the aging process. Now where did I put that banana?? 🙂 I love it! xo

    • I have more good news in the next three Friday posts, Kathy. We do have limitations but they’re manageable, and the good that comes from the changes really is a blessing. Thanks for saying hi, Sis. I miss you.

  11. My husband and I sometimes argue over the silliest things because he is brilliant when I am daydreaming, and I am brilliant when he is ridiculous. Next topic — aging relationships!

    • Donna, I hate when I’m trying to make a point to my husband about something he did wrong, and as I’m blathering, I suddenly see, in some weird place in my mind, that I do exactly the same things wrong. I don’t know if I found my soulmate, if I finally have the wisdom to see my own failings clearly, or if at this age I realize nobody’s good enough all the time, including me, and we should all just relax!

  12. Fascinating, Lynne — thanks for doing what you’re doing to make us boomers feel better about getting older! So many of us are on “brain overload,” trying to juggle a little of this and a lot of that, that sometimes we find ourselves wondering if we’ve still got it. This new research seems to indicate that, despite the challenges, we do!

  13. Glad to hear there is hope for my menopausal mind!

  14. I completely agree with the concept that I am getting smarter as I age. Partly it’s because I’ve learned so much over the years, and partly I’m sure it’s because my bullshit detector is on high. I intend to keep learning as long as I’m alive. Also, the Sunday NY Times crossword is a great exercise each week!

    • Hi Sharon, I’m going to do a separate post on this as part of my Fridays in December thing, but you actually can generate new brain cells, and they tend to grow in the hippocampus area (good for memory); the two things I remember off top of head that cause regrowth are exercise and brain challenge (ie crossword). Good job!

  15. The brain is remarkable. I always remember the Agatha Christie Character and his ‘Little Gray Cells’!

    • Haralee, it IS remarkable, and here’s a tidbit: we have more control over the amygdala and our emotions later in life, even though it’s more difficult! It’s why we don’t get sucked into drama so much anymore. Not only have we been there/done that, we’re cooler and calmer.

  16. Fascinating. I reserved a copy at the library before I finished your post. Thanks.

    • Smart move, Robin. The thing I really liked about this book was that the author gathered up tons of legitimate, long-time, comprehensive, respected research to back up her statements. So I felt it was real, and I could believe it. Good stuff.

  17. Lynne: Thanks for the info on cognition and the overview of Strauch’s book. I’m going to link this post to my GenAboveMe FB page. Because I taught college English for 30 years and because I still have a lot of friends who are professors and because I’m graduating in May after 3 years in a gerontology grad program, I get a lot of request for information about age-related changes to cognition. And this book looks like it will help expand my knowledge in this area. Thanks for sending me the link at the #GenFab FB page! Have a warm and cozy week.

    • Karen, the Strauch book really impressed me because she doesn’t just pump out these happy little platitudes; she quotes dozens of authorities and cites the particular studies. So I felt it was pretty authoritative. Plus she’s the science editor for the NY Times so she’s around science a lot. Your blog is powerful, BTW.

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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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