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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

How Terribly Strange to be Seventy

V. Putin by Sculptor Sherry Cavan

After a career as a social science professor, Sherri Cavan became a sculptor post-retirement. Her Vladimir Putin trio above was meant to illustrate three kinds of power – the Fool, who gains power through his antics; the Predator, obvious; and the Beauty Queen, who seduces.

Sherri and I met last March on a cruise ship. She was doing Tai Chi, alone on the darkened dance floor on Deck 14. Unbeknownst to her, I was lurking in a corner of the bar, tapping away on my laptop. When she finished, I introduced myself and asked about Tai Chi. She said she’d started for the health benefits. Same with sculpting, to exercise her right brain. We talked for almost an hour. I was entranced by her energy.

Smiling an impish grin, she leaned toward me. “Do you want to know how old I am?”

I said, “Yes, but I’m too shy to ask.”

She was seventy-five, and I could tell she was proud of it, a model of confidence and joie de vivre in older age. I wanted what she was having.

As we began our goodbyes, she said she’d recently learned to play the ukulele. For a woman cruising alone this was a cool way to socialize, as uke players tend to bring their instruments on trips. She’d jammed with a group on the beach in Waikiki a few days earlier. After I got home I saw an article about how ukulele is hot right now.

I loved Sherri’s wit, humor and curiosity. If she wanted to know something, she went out and learned it. I felt drawn to her aliveness. Sherri is exceptional, but she represents a wave of change in regard to aging. My husband has made lots of friends on the tennis courts, men in their mid-seventies who are gourmet cooks, singers, world travelers, speakers, writers, and government activists. Remember how we used to see old people when we were young? Here’s a reminder: the lyrics to Old Friends by Simon and Garfunkel. They wrote it as young men in 1968.

Old friends, old friends sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blowin’ through the grass

Falls on the round toes of the high shoes of the old friends

 

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through trees

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

 

Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly

How terribly strange to be seventy…

I wonder if we’re aging more slowly these days. Not just older people; on the other end of the age scale, young people seem to take longer to mature. Maybe it’s all the preservatives in our food. Better living through chemistry.

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19 Comments

  1. I think it is wonderful to see our generation aging with a new joy of living. Of course there are still many of us struggling with new financial concerns at an age where we should no longer have to worry about such things. I hope it is not the preservatives that are keeping us young (I am sure that was tongue in cheek) because I avoid them like the plague. 🙂
    Laura

    Reply
  2. Nice…and, yes, I do believe we are “younger” these days….my hubby turns 72 in August. I see him more as a healthy, vibrant, active 50-something. And at 59 (well, next month, I’ll be 59) I feel more like someone in her later 30s or early 40s. There was a time when 70 was old. Now? Naw. Babies still.

    Reply
    • I turned 59 last month Peggy and I have never been happier or more excited. I also feel very strong mentally. See you Monday at Colonial!!!

      Reply
      • YAY! You’re joining us? I have missed you so much. Glad you will be with us. I really should send you the first few chapters of Scorched so you will know where I am. What are you writing these days? Or….do I get to be surprised on Monday?

        Reply
  3. Lynn, As soon as I read the title, I knew you were referring to Simon and Garfunkel. In kindergarten my best friend and I said we’d meet on a park bench when we’re 70. Now 70 is too young!

    I would have loved to meet this remarkable woman. She shines in my eyes, and shows that women can do anything they set their minds to, and are extraordinary doing it, at any age. What a pearl.

    Loved this post. Absolutely marvelous.

    The ukelele, eh? I never would have thought of that!

    Reply
    • Cathy, she and I were like two magnets that day on the ship – we couldn’t stop talking! I was invigorated by her energy and intellect. I seem to remember she said her work is in a gallery in San Francisco. What a life!

      Reply
  4. Nanci

     /  May 31, 2013

    This is a lovely character study of someone who I strive to be. It’s interesting though about aging. Are we congratulating ourselves on being vibrant aging people in the same way that past generations of vibrant older people congratulated themselves? After all, there are many more of us Boomers, thus more to be vibrant. There are also many infirm in our generation…are we perhaps discounting them? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do wonder how much of what we think is just part of the perspective of whatever age we are. I think we still look old to the youngers. That’s what drives the invisibility discussions….. Another thought provoking post from one of my favorite writers. Thanks Lynne.

    Reply
    • And thank you, Nanci, for your always thoughtful comments. BTW, I think you and Sherri are very similar. Sharp brains, brave, inquisitive.

      Reply
  5. Kathleen Sara Shattuck

     /  May 31, 2013

    Since I just turned the BIG Seven-O this year, I’m now contemplating what it means to be O L D. I know my kids treat me a bit differently, as if I need more help around the house…. which I’m not too crazy about at times, and at other times it’s welcome when my arthritic bones start to ache….my grand kids still treat me the same, poking fun at me and my now protruding belly, but it’s all in fun.

    I was thinking about why we don’t feel as old as we actually are, or should feel; I see my doctors on a regular basis, just to have routine check-ups and blood drawn, but if I didn’t, I know I wouldn’t be feeling as good as I do. They’ve caught potentially harmful problems, and we’ve been able to correct them before they got out of hand. I’m grateful for medicare, offering me the medical treatment I need by wonderful, caring practitioners. I also try to eat the foods I should be eating, and staying away from the foods that are harmful. We’ve become a more aware society, and I think this has been a huge step in keeping me as healthy as possible.

    Reply
  6. It’s harder when serious health problems begin to interfere with how we function in the world, but there is still much to live for and be grateful for.

    Reply
    • Or almost anything else that’s powerfully negative, Joan. I know what you mean. Due to several health problems (hopefully, in the past now) that I suffered in early adulthood, I understand how it’s hard to float along atop Maslow’s hierarchy if you’re suffering. And psychological trauma can be debilitating too, like watching an adult child suffer through a divorce. At this age, hopefully we’ve got the tools to endure, and hopefully we’re not so beat up that we simply can’t deal with yet another setback. Damn, life can be a challenge.

      Reply
  7. I still use a picture of myself taken 10 years ago for my newspaper column, is that age related? You bet, lack of maturity. So I conclude, if I am not mature, then I can’t be old. Don’t bring up denial.

    Reply
  8. Love this post Lynne! The V. Putin sculptures by Sherry Cavan are amazing (great photo). Again you have such a gentle writing voice.

    Reply
  9. So many of us don’t stop and talk to a stranger–afraid we’ll interrupt them or intrude somehow. Good for you for introducing yourself to Ms. Cavan! I had a similar experience on a flight recently when I introduced myself to my seatmates. What an interesting couple! They told me they’d started a new hobby: diagramming sentences. Our conversation veered to books and authors, and I somehow never had a chance to find out more about their unusual hobby; but talking to them both was a joy. It made the flight seem shorter too.

    I think that as long as we’re open to new experiences (and we’re able to stay healthy), we’re young–even if we do remember all the words to “Old Friends” as well as the haunting melody.

    Reply
    • Sandy, I used to LOVE diagramming sentences! I learned it in Catholic elementary school. Took to it like a duck to water. Re strangers, I tend to be reclusive, but Sherri and I were the only ones there, and she knew I was there and did her Tai Chi anyway, so I felt I owed her a howdy do. Glad I did! Hope you are well and loving life.

      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.

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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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