• A midlife coming-of-age story. You'll laugh, you'll cry. You'll quit your job and buy an RV. At Amazon.com.

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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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Dakota Blues, my first novel, is a coming-of-age story about a woman embarking on the second half of her life. Karen Grace, a high-level executive living in California, returns to her hometown of Dickinson, North Dakota, for her mother’s funeral. While there she reconnects with childhood gal pals, falls in love with stories of her immigrant ancestors, and falls in lust with a sexy professor from the university.

When her vindictive boss fires her, Karen takes a hard look at her life. The supposedly safe rut she’s carved for herself in the first fifty years isn’t so safe after all. Her marriage has fallen apart, and now her job is gone. Her first impulse is to rush back to California and find another, but 90-year-old Frieda Richter has been lobbying hard for one last road trip in the old but pristine Roadtrek 190. “I just want to see my great-grandbaby in Denver, and after that, I don’t care,” she says.

Reluctant at first, Karen agrees, and the journey turns into one of self-discovery for both women. On a deserted highway in Wyoming, though, the trip turns deadly, and Karen is forced to make a lethal and life-changing decision.

Book Clubs: download Dakota Blues Reader Discussion Guide here.

Praise for Dakota Blues

STOP the PRESSES! Read what Pennie Nixon just wrote (Sept. 13, 2013):

Hi Lynne,

I have meaning to email you for weeks to tell you this little story. Today I am on jury duty so I finally have some time!

Years ago we used to go camping, but after several unfavorable experiences I decided it was not for me. I often said my idea of roughing it was no room service in the hotel. However, after reading Dakota Blues I was drawn to the idea of trying it again. The second time I read the book I was ready to take the big step of talking to Darryl about it and that was when our adventure of exploring the RV world began. There was so much to learn and so much research to do. Anyway – to make a long story short, at the end of August we bought an 28′ Class C. We bought it up in WA state and will keep it at our daughters house for the time being so you won’t see it around the neighborhood until the spring or so.

This little event has been life changing for us and it is my belief that reading your book was the catalyst. I thought you would like to know.


Martha Goudey says:

I read Dakota Blues and loved it. A poignant and well-written story. I especially loved the interweaving of history and descriptive narrative. Loved Frieda. Wise woman. And taking off in the RV alone. Nice touch. I did that years ago–drove around for two years in my VW bus in-between jobs…always wanted to do it again.

Karen Espensen Sandoval says:

Loved Dakota Blues…what a rich sweet tale you weave. Yours was my fav book on vacation this past week. Read it in a day. Could not put it down! Awesome book!

Sandy Sallin says:

It’s not often that you read a book that just pleases you with the characters, the places and the history. Others have described the plot I’m writing about the enjoyable experience reading this book.

I was fascinated by the history of North Dakota, the farmers lives and the immigrant experience. Her characters were interesting and varied. A pleasure to meet. I’m hoping there will be a sequel. Lynne left me wanting to know the rest of the story.

Pennie Nixon says:

I read this book this past summer and I enjoyed it so much I just reread it. The main character of the book, Karen Grace, is so convincing and authentic you feel like you have known her for years. The trials she faces throughout the book are actually credible and believable – ones that many of us have actually faced in our lives. When I finished the book the first time I continued to think about Karen and her adventure so often that I decided to read the book again. Dakota Blues has a bit of adventure, a bit of romance and a lot of great fun and for that reason I highly recommend it!

Jean Gogolin says:

Lynne Spreen’s debut novel, “Dakota Blues,” reminded me of my own heritage among the Pennsylvania Dutch – the rural landscape, the stolidity of the characters, the permanent feel of the setting despite surface change. 90-year-old Frieda had me laughing and cheering at the same time. Spreen is a lovely stylist with much to say about women in the second halves of their lives. I look forward to more from her.

Linda Smith says:

Just finished reading Dakota Blues and loved it… it is a book about families, about grief including death, divorce, job loss, about aging and about re-inventing one’s life at midlife.  Wonderful book!..I enjoyed the small town you described including the houses, the food, the community, and the people. I could so identify having grown up in a small town in Michigan. It was meaningful to me in many other ways as I have spent a career of also working too hard.  I just want to thank you for sharing this wonderful book with me. I hope you write some more about Karen and let the reader know what she has done with her one and precious life.

Joy Vicelli says:

My friend Heather sent me your book, Dakota Blues. She has been feeding my reading hunger for a few months as I have been going through breast cancer diagnosis, mastectomy and reconstruction. I was between procedures trying to maintain some sort of fitness and took (the book) with me down to our gym for a ride on the incumbent bike. I pedaled and read. It was a symbolic rough start for me as I had been idle of mind and body for a few weeks. I was not allowing myself to find the groove into that reentry. As I persisted, my muscle and mind memories synchronized and I was hearing the messages of Dakota Blues…Wanted to share what was food for thought in your story…especially for those of us “not geared for sitting around doing nothing…”

  • “Every marriage is a mystery.”
  • “The one who cares the most always loses.”
  • “Busy’s not important. Being happy is.”
  • “Why the hell had she worked so hard for so many years to remain thin?”
  • “Even after your kids grow up, you never stop being their mother. I tried to show Sandy how to not lose yourself once you marry and have kids. People think I’m selfish but I tried to be true to myself. A mother doesn’t stop being a person. But it’s hard to keep things even.”
  • “She wondered if you could get to a certain age where you look adorable just because you still tried.”
  • “You have to let people be.”
  • “People you love go through all the suffering and they fall out of love and hurt each other and fight for life in a hospital room. Life and death. Nothing changes and an oblivious world keeps rolling along.”
  •  Insignificance…the idea of …not being responsible for everybody and everything as people carry within them their own strength, their own resources.

Thanks for the good read…

Julianne McCullagh says:

Karen Grace, at fifty, is forced to confront herself and her choices when her mother dies. She reluctantly travels from her expensive life in California to her childhood home on the weather beaten prairie of North Dakota. With her cousins, who did not flee to the shinier promises of career and wealth, she visits the graves of her ancestors. Karen is brought face to face with her legacy:

“Done with their short, hard enlistments, their bodies worn out from bearing children and tilling the soil, they lay waiting for her to make their efforts worthwhile. “

Whether we are aware of this task or not, every generation must answer this question: what are we doing with our legacy?

Ms. Spreen deals with this issue as old as Homer in this odyssey of one woman’s quest to sort her priorities and find the courage to uproot herself and embark on her own wilderness in Dakota Blues. Karen Grace must face her own obstacles, not Dust Bowls and reluctant prairies, but complacency and following the script of what success means in 21st century America.

I enjoyed Karen’s odyssey. I loved the cantankerous Frieda who played her part well in prodding Karen from her assumptions to her options in their rocky road trip across the American West. My take-away from this book is that I shouldn’t wait for life to fall apart before I take a chance and step out into my own wilderness. I recommend this book, especially to fellow baby boomers who still have choices to venture from their lives and their “supposed to’s” to something else, something bigger.

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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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