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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.

    View all my reviews

Hack Your Bad Habits

Happy New Year! I’ve been off in the dungeon, working away at my new book. It’s a sequel to Dakota Blues, because you’ve been hounding me for same, and hey, I aim to please.

Remember I promised to get back to you on forming new habits in 2014? Good news: I think I found something. According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, you can’t expect to completely erase old habits. Give up on that, because they are hard-wired into your brain. Habits are developed as an evolutionary tool to conserve brain energy. Once you learn to do something on cue, you don’t have to think. In survival terms, that’s good, because it allows you to then focus on other things, like not getting devoured by a sabertooth.

That’s why habits, once established, are darn hard to break. Duhigg says it’s smarter to let the habit continue, but just replace certain harmful elements with good ones. Here’s the habit chain: you perceive a cue, which sets up a craving, which results in you following a routine that leads to a reward. The only part of this chain you can change is the routine. If you replace an old routine with a new one, you’re golden. Your brain is fooled, it’s happy, and the habit will stick.

To use myself as an example, remember I said I crave a glass of wine in midafternoon? At about two o’clock, my energy flags. After working all day (I start early) in the dungeon, I also feel a little guilty about ignoring Bill. I want to party, but it sets up a cascade of bad effects. After a short burst of wine-induced energy, I feel lazy and my inhibitions are lowered, so I snack and drink more, and for rest of the evening, accomplish less.

I know. Loser. That’s how it makes me feel.

But using Duhigg’s work-around, I think I’m on track to overcome my problem. Here’s the old routine.

  • Cue: 2:00 pm (party time)
  • Routine: wine and snacks on the patio with my honey
  • Reward: sociability, relaxation, a buzz

Here’s the new routine:

  • Cue: 2:00 pm (party time)
  • Routine: caffeinated tea and snacks on the patio with my honey
  • Reward: sociability, relaxation, a buzz

For almost two weeks I’ve substituted tea for wine, and it seems to be working. By the time the tea is gone, so is the craving. Bonus: the buzz I’m feeling is about caffeine-induced real energy, so I get more done in the evenings. I think this “replace the routine” idea has legs. How cool to think we might be able to overcome our old bad habits by simply out-thinking them.

So consider trying it. You can also find out more at Duhigg’s website, The Power of Habit.

Enjoy your weekend!

Leave a comment


  1. Humor_Me_Now

     /  January 11, 2014

    I like this idea—just correct a piece of the habit. Now I have to think of some habits I want to change besides my wife’s. lol

  2. What?!!! The personal trainer at the gym told me yesterday that at “my age,” I’m basically stuck with what I’ve got. Now, I’m not complaining, I look pretty good “for my age,” if I do say so myself. However, I’d like a little more tone in the backside and on the underside of my arms, and want a more toned belly. He did say I could get stronger, but basically be grateful for what I have.

    Now, you’re telling me I can’t break a habit. What? I LOVE chocolate. I’m suffering from the dreaded C(andida), which means, no freaking chocolate.

    For the past week I’ve looked at a piece of dark dove chocolate on the table and in spite of any change in routine, in spite of all the cues to eat it, I haven’t touched it. No, that’s not true. I have touched it. Fondled it. Gazed at it. But, dammit, I have not eaten it. BTW…I deliberately left it on the table. Have I broken a habit? Probably not. At the first sign that I’ve conquered the dreaded C (for the umpteenth time in my life, which will give you a clue) I’ll be back to the chocolate.

    So, perhaps I should read the book!!

    Looking forward to the sequel!! Happy writing.

    • Oh, no, Martha, I don’t want to bum you out! Chocolate may be in a special category, due the its truly addictive qualities. But damn, girl, you are strong. You will do whatever your health requires. I figured out I can beat nighttime acid reflux if I finish dinner and stop eating three hours before bedtime. THAT’s kind of hard, but the reward is I don’t get those horrible symptoms. Maybe that’s an incentive that will work for you, too. Not suffering. Being healthier. Good luck and best wishes!

  3. I must try altering some habits. Thanks for the heads up and how-to. 😀

  4. Sue Shoemaker

     /  January 11, 2014

    Dislike the word “dungeon”…how about “sanctuary of creative pursuits and productivity”…or something similar?

  5. When I gave up drinking many years ago, I substituted ginger ale for my 5pm beverage. For me it was the sugar…as long as I had some in my system at the bewitching hour, I felt great…& not interested in alcohol. I still pop open a gingerale @ 5….:)

  6. Sue Shoemaker

     /  January 11, 2014

    Actually…disliked “picturing” YOU in the “d-word”…you deserve so much better! 🙂

    (How’s that for avoiding the REAL topic here…namely MY bad habits?)

  7. Linda Smih

     /  January 11, 2014

    Can’t wait to read the sequel. Some experts say it take 21 days to change a habit. I think that has been true for me.

    • Thanks, Linda. I’ve heard that too, about the 21 days. I figure, if I do this for another 2 weeks I’ll know if it’s true! Very exciting.

  8. hanks. I have to stop taking sips of wine cooler to relax. I have to find a substitute I guess.

    • Shalilah, I have a glass of water with a straw on the kitchen counter all day long. I sip it every time I walk by it. Seems to help. It’s not about the substance, I don’t think. It might be about the motion. Like smokers need a cigarette in their hands.

  9. Good for you. Here is to you for keeping it up, and hoping that it lasts throughout the year. I like the fact that you say you have more energy later in the day.
    All the best for 2014.

  10. I too am an early bird – with incredible energy that seems to evaporate by 3PM…I’m not sure where I need to change the cycle, but this is really good for for thought (and I’m thrilled that you’re working on a sequel).

    • Mimi, we’re on the same time schedule. (I’m typing this at 4:50 a.m., up by choice.) And thanks for your kind words about the sequel. I’m actually doing 3 books as a follow up to Dakota Blues, so we’ll follow Karen for a few more years.

  11. Interesting variation on my process of “taking the mind off the subject (the habit one wants to break) by attending to something else.” In your example, I’d switch from paying attention to the two o’clock pattern(and thereby feeding and reinforcing it) to focusing on what I want to accomplish at 5 or 6 PM. In the process, the opportunity to alter what I do between two and five presents itself – very possibly with the idea of drinking a stimulant rather than a relaxer.
    By either route – well done!

    • The stimulant – caffeine – is enough of an attraction that it mitigates the “pain” of not having that nice little glass of wine…because I WANT to be productive later in the evening. So you are right, Chela! Thanks.

  12. great post…when i stopped drinking the first thing i did in a social situation or at home over cocktails was have my ‘cocktail’ in a wine glass. even when we are out to dinner when the wine and glasses come to the table there is a glass for me for either my water or soda water.
    my cocktail of choice is…wine glass, soda water and a spash of grapefruit juice with a lemon or lime slice. and presto…i am ready to party..
    one bad habit down, many more to go!
    thanks again Lynne, you are always a great read.

  13. Congratulations on working to change your afternoon wine habit, and for starting the sequel to Dakota Blues too. Both are important beginnings, and you should be proud of yourself for taking those first steps. I tend to get hungry around 4:30 in the afternoon, even though I know it won’t be that long until I eat dinner. Lately I’ve been trying to remember to drink a big glass of ice water instead of reaching for a snack, but sometimes I have a slice of cheese or some crackers in my hand before I even realize what I’m doing! Maybe a bright orange sticky note on the refrigerator will serve as a reminder to back off.

    • Or get that stuff out of the house. Before I met my husband, I never had ice cream in the house. Now I have a bowl every night. Grrrr.

  14. Heather

     /  January 13, 2014

    Excellent substitution. But isn’t wine “good for us?” Just kidding. . .

  15. Happy New Year, Lynne! I really like this reasonable approach to changing a bad habit–pick your battles carefully and handle in manageable doses. Little changes can make a big difference and can make behavior do-able. Onward, one little step at a time!

  16. Beverly

     /  January 13, 2014

    I did a holiday detox from Jan 5 – 7 which was: no caffeine (just about blew my head off!), no sugar, and no alcohol, among other things. I found that the taste for wine at ‘happy hour’ was diminished once I finished and I could actually have the wine. One glass last Wednesday and a couple today. Also, saw numerous newscasts recently saying how excess alcohol leads to breast cancer. Seems like a good reason to me to cut back on how often I have a glass (or two).

  17. I read that book and also found it quite helpful. Not sure I am light years ahead, but I am started on my book too. You, two, me one. I have a new editor, mentor, and have hopes of completing another draft by April. I still think you could blog more often….after the book is done.

  18. I like your example of a habit you changed; good to know it can be done.


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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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