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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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Midlife Crisis is Overblown, and Other Good News about Your Middle-Aged Brain

More good news: midlife crisis and the empty nest syndrome don’t exist. There is no scientific research to support them. Not that people don’t suffer at that time of life. I don’t mean to make light of the changes. But statistically speaking, there is no scientific evidence of either syndrome.

In the 1970s, a Yale psychology professor handpicked forty men to study. He then concluded they were suffering from midlife crisis. That’s about it.

Although people still believe in it (try Googling “midlife” and see what comes up), there is ample evidence to the contrary. In 1999, for instance, one of the biggest studies of middle age, the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Midlife Development, concluded:

Between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five, people across the board reported increased feelings of well-being.”

The feminine version of midlife crisis is empty nest syndrome. Here again, there is evidence not only that this “syndrome” doesn’t exist, but that the opposite is true. According to Barbara Strauch and researcher Karen L. Fingerman,

…no one has ever been able to find a true empty nest syndrome in a scientific way. Instead, even among women who devote all their time to raising their kids, studies find mostly a ‘great deal of satisfaction’ when the kids become independent. ‘They feel they have done a good job and they suddenly have the freedom to do new things,’ says Fingerman. ‘They feel great.’

I won’t deny that some people feel unhappy or lost over the reality of the years passing, or the newly-quiet house that used to ring with the sound of a happy family. Of course that could be discouraging; it may even cause depression. My point is, serious psychological impact from those changes is not a given. To learn more, you might want to pick up a copy of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, whose words I’m using in this post.

Now that you’re all warmed up (flex fingers, crack knuckles here), let’s talk about the power of the midlife brain. Last week I mentioned the brain in midlife powers up instead of gearing down. There’s a particular trick your brain learns in midlife, and it was only accepted as scientifically irrefutable in the late 1990s. It’s called bilateralization.

See, when the younger brain needs to solve a problem, it tends to use the factory settings. If it’s a logic problem, the left brain gets a workout. Creativity? The right side lights up. Young brains are so powerful, this works fine. However, when you’re older, your brain realizes that in order to do the best job possible, it’s going to have to reach across from one hemisphere and borrow circuits from the other. Thus, both sides of the brain are engaged in a task where in the past, only one side would have been. In addition to pure processing help, there may be an almost magical benefit from this strategy.

As we age, and the two sides of our brains work together, we are able to see bigger patterns, have bigger thoughts, reaching – according to one researcher – the level of art. According to Gene Cohen, who studies the connection between art and neurons,

The brain’s left and right hemispheres become better integrated during middle age, making way for greater creativity…The neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, but they become ever more richly intertwined…”

Last week we discussed the fact that as the brain ages, it begins to default to its daydreaming mechanism to process new data. Unfortunately, this is why it takes us longer to learn new things. On the plus side, some scientists think that tendency to daydream, combined with the ability to use both sides of the brain in an integrated way, might result in better problem solving, deeper insights, and more creativity. And I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

Next week: how grandmothers could save civilization.

Leave a comment


  1. I do agree that in most cases the brain learns to integrate both side in order to function well, I disagree with the empty nest syndrome as applying to every one in these days and times. Most women I know don’t have the time to just go out and do what they want when the children leave home. They are too busy trying to survive. Divorce and widowhood have left too many struggling. We don’t seem to have the safety nets that were enjoyed by our mothers.

    • You’ve made a lot of good points, Laura. Also, last night at my critique group, a retired psychologist begged to differ strongly on that assertion that midlife crisis is a hoax. My point was that, per Barbara Strauch’s summation of the research and researchers, crisis occurs as often in this age group as any other, but not any more often. And yes, for the group you reference, having the kids move out might improve a mother’s budget.

  2. I’m sure that there is truth in Laura’s observation about some (perhaps many) divorced and widowed women not having much time after the kids leave home. But in the case of my wife, obviously not divorced or widowed, after raising 4 kids, there was indeed an empty nest syndrome, and what characterized the syndrome was unabashed and overwhelming JOY!

    • LOL Martin! The researcher did acknowledge that there might be a sense of sadness, but no study ever showed a significant uptick in dysfunction due to the kids leaving. As you point out, maybe a bit too much drinking and partying afterward, though!

  3. I went through what I call a “Menopause” crisis a few years ago and bought a little red Mazda Miata convertible. The crisis was really that my other car died and I decided I didn’t really need a mom car anymore. It’s been a fun four years, but I’m over it and ready for a car that doesn’t make me groan when I get out of it. 🙂

    Great post – thanks!

    • I’ve always yearned for a Miata. I remember when they came out. Oh, the ocean-themed one! And the “Merlot” edition! But rented one once and had to put half my luggage in the shotgun seat. Plus you could drive it under an 18-wheeler, it’s so short! But dang, so cute and fun!

  4. Great news! I think I’ll write another novel.

  5. My whole life has been a series of crises, sometimes of the same nature and sometimes different–no big deal when taken into the context of the big picture. I do miss my kids a bit, but them leaving has freed up bedrooms to be turned into office spaces for my wife and I. I don’t think I particularly like to see any of them come back to live with us. If they did I’d be afflicted with “Lost Office Space Syndrome”.

    • Ha ha, Arlee! Aint that the truth. You don’t want the screen door to hit them on the way out, but it’s fun to get the space back, isn’t it?

  6. When my youngest child went off to college, I immediately set up a home office for myself in her bedroom. When she took off a year after her sophmore year, she rented an apartment nearby and took a job at Home Depot. That year she learned invaluable lessons about the “Real World,” went back to college, and did better that ever.

    No Empty Nest Syndrome here. It was wonderful to see my daughter become the mature, responsible, and thoughful young woman that she is today.

    • Madeleine, I can’t answer you. I’m just overwhelmed with the Newtown shooting. I am so pissed at Congress and the NRA I can barely keep myself from making threats myself.

      • Lynne, I understand. Everytime there is a shooting like this, I wonder whether finally we will join together and say that, as a nation, we have to put a stop to such shootings. Is this what the drafters of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Constitution?

        • I’m just dying, thinking about the parents. I babysit a 7-month old every day, and his 2-yr-old sister once a week. All I can think of is their parents in this situation. Who in our country is going to protect the children? They have no lobbyists.

      • Well said, Lynne. But we have to be the lobbyists, demanding restrictions on some weapons. If enough of us speak out, change can and will happen. Susan in Texas where everyone is NOT packing heat!

  7. Just recently joined your marvellous blog, Lynne. I’m a (same spelling!) Lynne, and live down under in Brisbane, Australia.

    My heart goes out to all the parents and loved ones of the little children murdered by this freak mad-man. Your wonderful country of the United States is literally being blown to bits from these serial mass killers that copy each other, month after month.

    In Australia, we have had mass killings as well, the biggest of all was in 1996 at Port Arthur, Tasmania. This particular nut-case murderer killed 35 innocent people, many of them children, for no reason, no logic, except that he went “off his rocker.” He is now locked up permanently, never to be released. Following this shocking crime, our then Prime Minister John Howard brought in very tough gun laws in Australia. He had a lot of opposition from groups like the NRA but he resisted the gun lobby and brought an Act into our Parliament. Since then, in Australia, mass shootings are very rare – taking away the easy availability of high-powered repeating guns that can kill many people very quickly has been a highly=effective deterrant. It can work in the USA too.

    I realise the political and legal issues are more complicated for the USA because you will need to change or more likely, re-interpret your Constituion. The Founding Fathers did not ever intend these consequences of mass murder.

    I believe that the only road forward to stop the epidemic of killings is people power. A mass movement along the lines of Occupy Wall Street, because it needs a groundswell of citizens in every US State to take to the streets peacefully and occupy the places of Government, State and Federal for as long as it takes. The people of Australia are with you all the way to changing these gun laws through people power. In the meantime, we share your pain and outrage at this slaughter of the innocent little ones and their teachers. We pass on our our sincere condolences.

    • Lynne, so good to hear from you. I agree with your points. The greatest deterrent to action is lethargy, and speaking for myself, it’s born of aversion to pain. The day this happened I was overwhelmed, and the only way I can function is to try to put it out of my mind, but that’s got its own problems. Did you see Pres Obama crying? I sure as hell hope he plans to stay the course, and I think many in the US are determined to. Thanks for stopping by and I do hope to hear the Aussie POV as often as you care to share it! Best wishes.

    • Thanks, Lynne from Brisbane, for your thoughtful and caring remarks about our national shame. We appreciate it sincerely.

  8. Ah, Lynne, this is a good one — thank you for doing the research. I find it fascinating to read what I see regularly, that middle-aged people are finding new things to do, new activities to pursue, new interests, in the aftermath of the child-rearing years. And that in itself provides a good role model for our kids, too.

  9. Wow this is great news Lynne, especially since lately, I am not sure either side of my brain is working! Gives me hope the New Year!

  10. One size does not fill all. I was a single parent and 55 when my 19-year-old left home in 2001. I grieved and missed him deeply, but I also knew it was time for him to flee the nest. I’m proud of him and his successes. However, I had just gone back to college and was taking care of mom, who didn’t die until 2011 at the age of 101. It was an arduous journey giving me little time for the “unabashed joy” Martin speaks of. Successes, yes, and a new marriage that brought me love and companionship and … joy. But even then, I had to quit my job to take care of mom (thanks to husband), and nearly lost my health in the process. Friends were concerned she would take me with her. Since then I’ve been in “recovery.” There are a lot of people in my shoes that can’t be dismissed by saying there is no “middle-age crisis.” People who take care of aging parents are often in constant crisis, losing health and vitality in the process.

    • Martha, I can’t imagine how hard it’s been for you, and I’m glad you’ve got love and happiness in your life now. I didn’t mean to diminish your challenges or those of other people who face overwhelming commitments. However, what the researchers were saying was that there is no greater frequency of crisis for those in middle age than any other point on the timeline. Best wishes.

      • Lynne, I understand where you are coming from and appreciate the information. I’m definitely not arguing for my limitations, or anyone else’s. I plan to be mentally and physically vital into my 80s (and maybe 90s). But there are so many facing the greatest challenges of their lives in their middle years because of aging parents or their own declining health.

  11. And here I thought the increased creative ideas popping into my brain were solely a result of long, meditative training runs. I’ll put Strauch’s book on my reading list. Whatever it is that keeps us vital physically, mentally and spiritually it’s important to avoid being put in those prescribed boxes that are thrown at us all our lives (terrible two’s, teenage angst, midlife crisis, etc).

    • Mary Lou, that creativity is just a gift of getting older – savor it! In our society we don’t know or talk about the goodies of being over 50. That’s definitely one of them. Thanks for stopping by.

  1. Goodies for You | Any Shiny Thing

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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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