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  • Review of Home by Marilynne Robinson

    HomeHome by Marilynne Robinson
    My rating: 4 of 5 stars

    I loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson so much. The review is here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

    But with Home, I had a different experience. I wasn't compelled through most of the book. At about the three-quarter mark, things started to happen and I felt my interest quicken. But here's a summary of my impressions, and my apologies to those who loved it so much they recommended it to me:

    1. I was disappointed to see this other, peevish, nasty side of Rev. Ames.
    2. I didn't like the Rev. Boughton very much at all.
    3. Jack is tedious and pathetic.
    4. Glory almost breaks free but then doesn't.

    Robinson really makes me wait for it, building my conflict between compassion and resentment for Jack. And just when I lose faith in him, there's a scene where the old misogynist/bigot Rev. Boughton asks to see Jack and his brother together in his room, and Jack insists Glory be included. As if he sees her as an equal to the men, rather than just the servant her father expects.

    In this, I felt Jack himself was a Rorschach test for the reader, in that while he seems almost feral, a man born without skin with which to hide himself from the world, easily wounded and always untrusting, you want to abandon him, but can you? If so, who are you? What are your values - what are your limits?

    So now Glory has decided to stop being codependent with her "fiancé", and switch her ministrations and self-sacrifice to her dying father and her feral brother. This is an arc? This is growth? What is Robinson's meaning, at the end of the story, when Glory decides to stay in a town she has said she hates, in a house she agrees to preserve as a monument/mausoleum to the family? It can only be read as failure to respect oneself in favor of service to others! This troubles me deeply.

    I apologize for the length of this next excerpt, but I have to reproduce it, because it's so telling:

    "(Glory) had tried to take care of (Jack), to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him. That old illusion that she could help her father with the grief Jack caused, the grief Jack was, when it was as far beyond her power to soothe or mitigate as the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. She had been alone with her parents when Jack left, and she had been alone with her father when he returned. There was a symmetry in that that might have seemed like design to her and beguiled her with the implication that their fates were indeed intertwined. Or returning herself to that silent house might simply have returned her to a s state of mind more appropriate to her adolescence. A lonely schoolgirl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.

    "She recalled certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness, perhaps, or her usefulness, or simply and abruptly losing interest in her together with whatever else happened just then...She found no consistency in these moments, nothing she could interpret. He was himself. That is what their father had always said, and by it he had meant that Jack was jostled along in the stream of (the family's) vigor and purpose and their good intentions, their habits and certitudes, and was never really a part of any of it. He had eaten their food and slept beneath their roof, wearing the clothes and speaking the dialect of their slightly self-enamored and distinctly clerical family..."

    God! Who hasn't known people like this - men like this, children like this - who take and take and take from an ever-hopeful spouse or family and yet never seem quite able to be satisfied, or fulfilled, or happy! When all the sacrificial loving family member ever wants is for that feral person to be happy. Or at least safe.

    Like I said, Rorschach.

    And in this, I have to admit, Robinson delivers again, most profoundly, in pulling back the curtains and showing us, right down to the faint beat of a pulse along a pale wrist, the impact on a family of such a lone wolf. Not that the wolf doesn't suffer. Not that we don't all feel empathy as we struggle to surface from this mire, gulping and gasping air, sorry for Glory who remains below, yet intent on saving ourselves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

    The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    After reading some of the reviews, I felt a bit off-kilter, as if I'm seeing something that wasn't intended by the author.

    Nevertheless, here's my impression: this story is about a man who, because of his physical limitations, resists closeness with other people, to the point that he marries a woman who seems certain to want the same, arm's length relationship. It's only after she dies that he begins to sense that he was wrong about that. During the grieving process, he comes to realize he's been living an arm's-length life.

    I love stories about people who come out of a fog and change their lives, empowered by the realization that they've been missing something important - that their reasoning was flawed, but it doesn't have to remain that way. And Anne Tyler is such a great wordsmith, anything she writes is wonderful. This book is perhaps a bit too subtle to win the raving applause it deserves.

    View all my reviews

  • Review of Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

    Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to LeadLean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    As I read Lean In, I was intrigued at being able to get inside the head of a dynamic, smart woman who is one generation younger than me, and see the corporate world through her eyes. One of the cultural questions she answered for me was this: why are younger women so averse to the terms "feminist" and "feminism"? Apparently, Sheryl Sandberg and her contemporaries believe(d) the following:

    1. Equality having arrived, there's no need for feminism anymore
    2. Feminists are man-haters who resist makeup and the shaving of one's legs

    Okay, #2 was a bit tongue-in-cheek. However, having observed conditions in the real world for a few years now, Sandberg has come to see that the playing field is not and will not be level until more women occupy positions of power in the corporate hierarchy. She doesn't suggest that this is due to any malicious intent on the part of men, but rather it's simply a matter of ignorance.

    To illustrate, she describes having to park far away from her office door when hugely and uncomfortably pregnant. When she designated preferred parking spots to accommodate pregnant workers, no one complained. It was seen as logical. But prior to her taking her place in the C-suite, the issue hadn't been raised.

    Sandberg talks about not slowing down out of consideration for what might happen in the nebulous future. The example she gives, now famous, is of a young woman confiding her fears of not wanting to accept a job with a lot of responsibility due to the impact it might have on her family. The woman was planning ahead - she didn't even have a boyfriend yet.

    With this example, Sandberg makes the point that women, having been highly trained and educated, are waving off promotional opportunities. The jury is still out as to why, but she suggests, and I agree, that part of the reason is this: in corporate America, a woman's decision to go through pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and child-rearing is viewed as a private matter that should not impact her ability to work long hours and irregular schedules, including lengthy and frequent travel as needed. Rightly fearing this may drive her insane, a woman who wants a family may leap off the corporate ladder at a very early stage.

    Sandberg argues that if a young woman stayed on it long enough to secure a more powerful position, she would be able to exert more control over her work life (a perspective the young woman must trust will happen, since at her current low place on the corporate ladder she can only see her lack of power and control.) After a few promotions, she will be able to delegate some of her work to subordinates, afford more help at home, and influence workplace policies that unfairly impact women and families. Who can find fault with this argument?

    Sandberg is honest about her own mistakes, and I found that charming. For example, I was amazed that, for all her intelligence and education, she didn't originally intend to negotiate her starting salary with Facebook. Luckily a nice man (her husband) set her straight, and she made a counter offer to Zuckerberg. Reams of guidance have been written about how this error could have impeded her in later years, both at Facebook and with future employers, yet she didn't know. For other women who have not yet made this horrifying discovery, please read Ask for It by Babcock and Laschever (http://www.amazon.com/Ask-Women-Power...) which in addition to being enlightening and entertaining, offers tons of strategies for preparing yourself to negotiate. And not just for salaries. After reading that book I saved $150 on furniture I was going to buy anyway, by asking one question.

    But back to Lean In.

    I was also surprised that she wasn't well informed about how women can sabotage other women in the workplace, particularly women in power. This is an unfortunate truth with roots in biology, and is brilliantly explained in the amazing book, In the Company of Women by Heim and Murphy (http://www.amazon.com/Company-Women-I...) which I reviewed here:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... This also suggests the reasons Sandberg was hit with such a backlash for the well-intentioned Lean In.

    There is so much more to say about Lean In, but let me close with this: I enjoyed learning how this stellar corporate executive struggled, made mistakes, and ultimately learned some strategies that will enable her, her family, and the women (and men) in her corporation to thrive. It's not perfect, and sometimes it's not even pretty, but part of the lesson is to let go of the need for perfection.

    The other message, younger women, is to get as far and as fast as you can before starting your families. Don't opt out just because it looks too hard from where you're sitting now. The view improves with each rung on the ladder.

    View all my reviews

The Best Argument for Mindfulness

One of the joys of my marriage is that Bill and I both like to read, and occasionally to each other. He’ll share a particularly moving passage; I’ll share a turn of phrase that delights. A few days ago he read something that got under my skin, that maybe even changed my life.

He was reading The Ship by C.S. Forester, a beautiful, thick-paged old book published in 1943. Forester wrote the Hornblower series, among other works. Here’s the passage that affected me:

The Captain experienced a feeling of elation…He was a man who was profoundly interested in the art of living. Rembrandt gave him pleasure, and so did the Fifth Symphony; so did bouillabaisse at Marseilles or Southern cooking at New Orleans or a properly served Yorkshire pudding in the North of England; so did a pretty girl or an elegant woman; so did a successful winning hazard from a difficult position at billiards, or a Vienna Coup at bridge; and so did success in battle. These were the things that gilded the bitter pill of life which everyone had to swallow. They were as important as life and death; not because they were very important, but because life and death were not very important.

How profoundly these words affect me! In them I feel the comfort of knowing that life’s difficulties aren’t unique to me. I also understand that there’s a way to build resilience to the bitter pill(s) all of us will eventually be compelled to swallow. It is this: whenever possible we should be fully present, absorbing every sweet morsel of life that’s available to us, storing it in our memories for the hard times.

As Bill and I discussed the passage, he told me that during a recent family blowup – I told you we’re brawlers, apparently. Lately it seems that way – he would have trouble falling asleep. At those times he’d call up the sweet memories of holding our 10-month-old grandson. The two of them have such a bond; after a nap, and after finishing his sippy cup of formula, Andrew will snuggle with Grandpa in the recliner. He’ll examine his toys and talk in his happy, wordless way, occasionally arching back to grab Bill’s nose or hang upside down, studying the world from that perspective before wriggling around to be set on the floor.

I get happy just thinking of that.

Right now, I’m sitting in a quiet hideaway – a part of the cruise ship where we’re spending our spring break before returning to our babysitting duties. The hideaway is silent, thanks to my resourceful sweetheart who found the audio controls and cut the disco music to this cocktail lounge that is deserted at eight in the morning.

Bill sits twenty feet away from me, reading. I see him framed against the sea, and feel almost teary with gratitude that we are still healthy and able, and that we enjoy each other’s company. He makes me laugh; earlier we were considering the size of a new ship. “It’d have to be big,” Bill said. “You figure, four thousand passengers at five hundred pounds each…”

I’m also feeling a bit more understanding about those who seek the finer things in life, not purely for consumption’s sake, or the drive for status, but as a pleasant positive to offset the inevitable negative.

Whatever we have can be taken away. Better to lay in supplies for that cold inevitability. A better argument for mindfulness, I haven’t found.

Leave a comment

44 Comments

  1. Patricia Lee

     /  March 29, 2013

    Lynne your posts really speak to me. Life is not alway fair and as my son says “shit happens” and you deal with it and do the best you can.

    Reply
    • Patricia, your son is right. The trick is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and remembering that sometimes it’s okay to smile and laugh! Thanks for coming by.

      Reply
  2. One of the loveliest posts I have ever read!

    Reply
  3. Thank you — I needed that.

    Reply
  4. Very nice, Lynne. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Beautiful, Lynne. I loved the Hornblower series, and that passage really resonates.
    Karen

    Reply
  6. Lynne: love the imagery of companionship between life’s pleasures and life’s challenges. If we look we’ll always find the balance between joy and difficulty: the real art is recognizing them when they come. And I agree with Bill….the ship should be bigger LOL

    Reply
    • Shawn, didn’t that crack you up? I burst out laughing for days afterward every time I’d remember that comment. And he said it so deadpan.

      Reply
  7. What a sweet post and reminder of the sweet things in life….it IS wise to store them up for dark, troubled times. Love that passage. And am impressed that you found, or that your Bill found one – that’s love.

    Reply
  8. Ooops – I meant that Bill found a quiet spot on a cruise ship – that’s a treasure.

    Reply
  9. Debra

     /  March 29, 2013

    Some days I just lose my way…and this arrived on a day when I needed the reminder. Now I am going to go outside and check out the wisteria…every day more flowers bloom.
    Thanks, Lynn.

    Reply
  10. I ADORE this post! thanks so much!

    Reply
  11. Lovely post and important reminder. I will keep that excerpt. It is by far the best celebration of the simple joys of wine, women, and song that I have ever read. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Isn’t it, though? And to think it was written almost seventy years ago. Nothing changes. We all need support and encouragement. Life is tough, except sometimes it’s beautiful. Got to savor it. Good to hear from you, Susan.

      Reply
  12. Sharing a love for reading is so delicious. My husband The Engineer and I do that. One of us will read a passage aloud, and sometimes the other will say “I want to read that book when you’re done.” And it works with other activities too. I introduced him to Toastmasters and to bird-watching. He introduced me to gliders.

    Reply
  13. Even though I enjoyed today’s post (or maybe BECAUSE I enjoyed today’s post), I’m asking myself why I’m sitting here at my computer when the sun’s shining! Thanks for the reminder to grab life’s joys. I’m outta here.

    Reply
  14. Lynne, What a lovely, contemplative, and inspiring piece! You speak of gratitude, and that’s what I felt when I read this. Thank you for reminding us of life’s delicate balance(s).

    Reply
    • Thanks, Sienna. How nice of you to say so. It is delicate, fragile enough to change in a heartbeat, so our only defense is to enjoy what we have when we have it. Good of you to stop by.

      Reply
  15. This is beautiful, Lynne. I have nothing to add except Amen and thank your for the lovely reminder to enjoy the moments while we can.

    Reply
  16. A particularly poignant post, Lynne. After losing my mother in January, all those precious moments come back in my memory, all I have of her now.

    Reply
    • Christine, I am so sorry for your loss. Having lost Dad 4 years ago, I know the immediacy of the pain softens, but sometimes it pops up and it’s almost unbearable. How to explain it; what to tell ourselves? Only that you are not alone and we have all gone through it. Right after I lost Dad, Kathy Pooler (above) lost her daddy. We at least were able to comfort each other. I feel for you. Try to savor what you can. XOXO.

      Reply
      • Actually I lost both of my parents in January. Dad died two weeks after Mom. Thanks for your support. It helps to know that the pain lessens and that the waves of grief are to be expected.

        Reply
        • Both! Oh, my goodness. I am doubly sorry. Do you need another sister? I’m available. At least they are together; or at least they’re not apart. Thinking of you.

          Reply
  17. What a profound post, Lynne. So simple, yet so hard to remember when shit happens. Loved the picture you paint of Bill bonding with your grandson as he draws peace and strength in the moment for the inevitable storms that lie ahead.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Pat. You must have your own strategies. They’re usually formed by hardship, to which you’re no stranger! Yes, the babies comfort us. A continuing ray of light. Happy Easter, my friend.

      Reply
  18. Thanks Lynne for that great reminder of what is truly important, not life or death, but the things and people that touch our hearts…

    Reply
  19. heather

     /  April 1, 2013

    Lynne,
    I believe this is my favorite post of yours that I have read. My husband and I read to one another also, and sharing these little morsels of prose and human philosophies are so enriching. I loved the quote your husband read you and it is similar to how i view life — it is the little things like the loveliness of fresh flowers, a delicious salad, the sun on one’s back after a chilly winter, a soft pair of shoes, a loving grandchild or two — that are the blessings in life.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Heather, thanks for your kind words. I’ve been hearing from friends who say they and their sweethearts read to each other, and I love that!

      Re Bill, he used to be a sales manager at a car dealership, and most of his sales team could be seen, during the slow periods, with their noses in books. One day I was in Bill’s office, and a salesman poked his head in. “Any new books, boss?” because they were used to getting his books when he finished them. It cracked me up because it doesn’t fit the stereotype of car salesmen. I took to calling him “The Librarian.”

      Reply
  20. Lynne, it’s been too long since I visited your blog! I’ve had my nose to the book deadline grindstone and have not been very active online. Like so many others, I loved this post. I wonder how you interpret the last line of the quote “because life and death were not very important”? I suppose that’s the ultimate in detachment. Does it help us live more mindfully to think our lives are of little importance?

    I so identified with your sense of gratitude for your husband and your love of his love of your grandson. At our household, we go around quoting whatever sweet thing our two-year-old grandson has said on video the past week. It binds us together in a deep way.

    Reply
    • Shirley! Welcome back! I admire your ability to stay away from the online timesuck and work on your book. I was lucky enough to be on a cruise over the past two weeks, one with a lot of sea days. Almost every morning at around 8 I’d tell Bill, “See you for lunch,” and I’d go up to the nightclub to work. In the daytime, the club is a quiet place, and I’d plug in my laptop and work for hours, and as much as an hour at a time without having to talk to anyone or being distracted in any serious way. It was amazing! I am going to try to replicate that when my babysitting stint ends in June.

      But to answer your question, here’s how I took that last line: I think he meant that this necessity to appreciate the little things in life is no less important than life and death; i.e. that he was being ironic in saying life and death aren’t important.

      Best wishes with your writing. Let us know when your book is ready to peruse.

      Reply
  21. After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked on the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment.
    Perhaps there is an easy method you can remove me from that service?
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Yikes, Mariel! I’ll see what I can do. Sorry about that.

      Reply
    • Mariel, I can’t find any place that you left a comment, so I’m stymied. All I can suggest is that you mark them as spam and hope your email service learns to stop bothering you. Best wishes.

      Reply

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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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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.

    View all my reviews

  • 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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