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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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Tommy Hilfiger Sounds Ageist

In this week’s Time Magazine, designer Tommy Hilfiger says he doesn’t like to see people wearing floral prints.

I think they really don’t have great taste. Why would you want to wear a print you see on a bedspread or wallpaper in an older person’s home?


Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. Why would you disrespect a whole group of people based on nothing but age? That’s textbook ageism, my friend, and at sixty-one you should know better. Think I’m overreacting? Try this: why don’t you repeat that sentence but instead of older, use the adjective black. How does that look?

If it’s not okay the one way, it’s not okay the other, Tommy. I will assume you’re a nice guy and didn’t mean it, and if so, that makes my point: we’re so comfortable insulting people based on age that we don’t hear ourselves. It’s not intentional or conscious, just an easy stereotype to slip into. So next time, try to be a little more careful, won’t you? Maybe, in so doing, you can set an example for the rest of the world.

Is Feminism a Bad Word?

There it was again, in an interview in Parade magazine last Sunday, with Emma Thompson and Dotson Rader:

Rader: When you were at Cambridge, you became a feminist. I don’t mean that in a negative sense.

Thompson: No, it’s not a negative word.

Well, Emma, it wasn’t originally, but now I think it is.  Younger women start their sentences with, “I’m not a feminist, but...” In Lean InSheryl Sandberg writes,

We accepted the negative caricature of a bra-burning, humorless, man-hating feminist. She was not someone we wanted to emulate…In our defense, my friends and I truly, if naïvely, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore. We mistakenly thought that there was nothing left to fight for.

Feminism has fallen out of favor. This is partly because it has been taken over by extremists. Lately, for example, it’s considered bad feminist form to diet, lest one be perceived as selling one’s soul in compliance with cultural norms of beauty. (Dang, right after I started back on Weight Watchers!) According to an article in Elle Magazine this month, Marisa Meltzer says,

There’s a thread of old-school feminist thought that says taking pleasure in being admired for our looks is participating in our own oppression…

Lynne going crazy 002

Daughter, please. There’s also a thread of feminist thought that says make up your own mind about what you want to take pleasure in. Just don’t let anybody limit you based on gender.

The feminist movement (a) made some mistakes and (b) got co-opted by the forces of capitalism. Unfortunately, the message of feminism was perverted from “you can be whatever you want to be” to “you must be a spectacular over-achiever.” Women are expected to be perfect mothers and partners while running corporations, and they’re freaking out and opting out.

Although we’ve opened up classrooms and board rooms, allowing women to go where only men have gone before, we’ve ignored the fact that women have wombs, ovaries and breasts, plus the talent for perpetuating the human race. This requires a little more effort and time, which they’re not getting. They’re expected to pop out babies on their lunch hours and get right back to work, pumping breast milk in the ladies’ room while wolfing a sandwich at their desks.

It’s horrendous. A nightmare. I’d be pissed, too. But instead of competing with each other for the title of Superwoman, we should recognize that women face similar difficulties and challenges in work and life. That used to be the basis for feminism. Our common difficulties impelled us to band together and fix things. We rejoiced in our collective power to shape a society that for too long had taken our contributions for granted while barring us from real power.

Back in the day, we wanted to be liberated from stereotypes that said we couldn’t be astronauts or fire fighters, and from rules that we should act or look a certain way to keep society from feeling threatened. Yes, some of us took it too far. Some of us became narcissistic assholes. If you were raised by one, I apologize.

But here’s one of the coolest, most empowering things I, as an old broad, can share with you. If you don’t like something? Change it, alone or collectively. Remember, there is more power in numbers, so you might get a couple hundred thousand sisters to join you in your mission. Call it whatever you want, but do something. Make yourself proud.

You can wallow in the nastiness of what is, or stand up, hose off the mud, and create a better world for yourself and other humans. If not for yourself, for your daughters and sons. At least, please try.

Smart Young ‘Uns

We talk about the wisdom that comes with age, but sometimes the wisest thing we could do is allow ourselves to be mentored by younger people.

Disillusioned, and Grateful for It

I first wrote this post for Heather Black Wood’s blog From Shadow to Seen. Per Heather, FSTS is “a project created by two women who were inspired to develop a venue that would encourage other women to share their short memoirs, poetry or original artwork with the world, thereby emerging from the shadows to be seen.” There’s more about FSTS at the end of the post. 

By the time you get old, you will have been disillusioned many times. This can be a good thing. To illustrate from my own experience:

Disillusionment #1

In my twenties, I was proud to call myself a perfectionist. One day my boss, smiling sadly, told me perfectionists fear criticism. The words rang true and he knew it. Humiliated, I slunk back to my desk.

But there were bigger lessons ahead.

Disillusionment #2

I could always work with difficult people. They saw something in me, and nobody else would put up with them. Sure, it took a lot of time, so I had to bring work home because I fell behind at the office, but I felt good about myself. I felt special. Important. Years later, a therapist said I tolerated those people because I was trying to replicate my unsatisfactory relationship with my tyrannical and violent father. Normal people, said the shrink, wouldn’t put up with that treatment because they have good boundaries. They value their time. You don’t.


Disillusionment #3

In my late thirties, I married a guy who was underemployed but I figured things would improve. Wrong. He was jobless for years, always with some excuse. He placated me by doing the laundry and making dinner, and telling me I was pretty and talented. Later I found out he was selling drugs and screwing other women during the day while I was at the office. When we had our last fight, he said he’d married me because he deserved not to have to work. “I earned you,” he said.

Filled with grief and feeling like a complete failure (and idiot), I divorced him. I still didn’t understand what I missed. Then I read the book The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. She said sociopaths target people who are mindlessly, hopelessly helpful. The ones who do it without thinking about it much.

Okay. That helped.

Finally, I see the light

Then I married a man who showed me you could be a good person without being a doormat. I realized part of the reason I had always rescued everybody was because it fed my ego to do so. I never asked myself if people were as good to me as I was to them, or why I was sacrificing myself for others without any reciprocity. I realized helping people gave me a sense of importance.

So in my mid-forties, I finally rejected the self-serving role of hero. Now, at fifty-nine, I’m an average Jane and that’s okay. Although my history is a bit grim, there may be parallels for your life.

If you often feel drained by other people, here’s a tip: when you’re asked to help or sacrifice, take a little chance, not an irrevocable commitment. Then look for reciprocity – time, effort, career help, etc. The next time they ask, respond accordingly.

I understand there’s a bit of risk in this approach. Not everything comes out evenly, and compassion is good. Also, the plan gets a little wobbly when you’re dealing with children or young people because they’re not fully formed. I cut them more slack than mature adults. Bottom line? Know why you’re doing something; dig deep.

You are every bit as precious as the next human. Treasure yourself.

That is what disillusionment taught me.

From Shadow To Seen seeks to engage and encourage participation in ways that inspire and promote artistic expression, understanding, and empathy. As we allow ourselves to participate and share our stories or works, it may move us forward—building a platform for exchange, enlightenment and hope. We hope the exchange will provide a quiet place where women may release a shadow and find themselves moving toward a more accepting light—emerging with a new found energy.

The One Thing About Aging That You Can Control

As we get older, we face a lot of challenges. Our looks change, our strength wanes, we lose loved ones, and we’re minimized by society. We try to celebrate the good and stay positive, but so much about getting older is difficult, and there’s not a darned thing you can do about it.

Except this:

“The one thing that is up to you is whether you will see getting old as a tragedy, or embark upon it as another of life’s great adventures.”

What an empowering statement. I borrowed it from Dr. Carol Orsborn’s new book, Fierce with Age: Chasing God and Squirrels in Brooklyn. For a more complete review, see the lower right margin of your screen. I first learned about Carol Orsborn’s point of view when I read this wonderful post. In it, she says, “What a waste of the human potential it is to define successful aging — or life, for that matter — in youth-centric terms of productivity, activity and vigor.” She goes on.

…those of us who can grow large enough to embrace the dark side of aging can organically have what the Eastern traditions call an “awakening.” We don’t need books to help us understand the transitory nature of life. We’re living it.

I love her idea that we’re on a path to enlightenment as we age. It’s such a positive way of looking at things.

Contrast that with the discouraging tone in Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. I wrote about it here. Yes, there’s some truth to what Jacoby says, like why would you become wise in old age if you’ve been average-to-stupid all your life.

The two authors view old age through different perspectives. If I were dealing with grief, ill health, or other horrific negatives, for example, that could change my perspective. I regret to say that, around the time she wrote her book, Susan Jacoby was caring for a loved one during a lingering illness.

In exercising choice, I decided to stop playing the youth game. Oh, sure, I tried it. I got Botox a few times, and once I even did filler in my lip area to try to combat the deepening purse-string effect. But I felt like a fraud. Plus those needles hurt. Did you know before they give you filler the doctor comes at you with one of those painkiller needles they use at the dentist? The ones that look like they are meant for horses? But I digress.

Back to the idea of choice in older age: it’s a rich new phase we’re in, Second-Halfers. You can change your perspective and decide how you want to see things. Look closely: the lock on your jail cell is rusting. If you give the door a push, you might be able to break free, scamper down the hall and out the door into the sunlight.

  • Lynne Spreen

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  • 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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self-publishing tips for authors

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