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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

Elder Wisdom Needed

I humiliated myself, but it wasn’t my fault. It was the fault of my elders, who play things so close to the vest.

One day when I was in my mid-fifties, I was having lunch with friends who are twenty years older. We were discussing a very elderly couple in our writing group. The husband was 90, the wife 85. They still wrote and published, and were incredibly vibrant. “They probably still have sex!” I said.

My friends were appalled. “Well, why wouldn’t they?” one asked.

But how was I to know? Who talks about the intimate details of life in the oldest years?

Okay, now I get the sex thing, but here’s what I really want to know: how do very senior peeps deal with mortality? I apologize for sounding stupid; yes, I DO in fact realize that I, at 58, could go any minute. I’ve almost “gone” three times already (1 car accident at 17, and 2 surgeries later in life). But I want to know how to deal, when I get to be eighty-plus. Getting very old must be existentially challenging. One loss after another, one medical scare after another. How do you manage it emotionally?

We just learned that my uncle, who is 85 and has Parkinsons’, has to go live in an elder care facility. To quote the renowned geriatrician Dr. Bill Thomas, my uncle has been given a life sentence for the crime of frailty. Later today I’ll ask Mom how she’s handling it, because if it were my brother I’d be flattened by grief. But Mom’s been through so much, I suspect she’s stronger than me. Is that the answer? That we grow stronger in old age?

I see all these vibrant eighty-plussers living happy lives. They must have a strategy. I’d like to know what it is.

Recently, my husband, who is 65, said he figured he had about ten more “good” years. A few years ago, I would have bitched at him about that comment, but now I accept the logic of it. Maybe he’ll be wrong but we don’t want to take a chance. So I say, HELL YEAH, LET’S PARTAY. Let’s go on cruises, let’s go on road trips. Let’s golf, make love, go out to lunch and a movie. Let’s drink too much and eat two desserts.

Alice Walker, in her poem “Until I Was Nearly Fifty,” said of this inter-generational wisdom-sharing:

Those who sit
Skeptical
With hooded
Eyes
Wondering
If there really
Is
A path ahead
& Whether
There really
Are
Elders
Upon it.

Yes. We are there
Just ahead
Of you

Looking back
Concerned for you…”

So in that vein, ladies and gentleman of the forward wave, do you have any advice for coping with the upcoming blows to body and heart? Any words of wisdom or strategies to share? I for one would be so grateful, and I doubt I’m alone in my desire to learn.

A Contemplation on Mortality

Just before dawn on a cold October morning in 2008, I boarded a puddle-jumper out of North Dakota after my father’s funeral. Mom, my two siblings and I were returning to California, and it felt like we were abandoning Dad. As I listened to Rainbow by Jia Peng Fang and looked out the window at the dots of light representing isolated farmhouses of South Dakota, then Wyoming, then Colorado, the song burned a powerful memory into my mind. Every now and then I hear it, and it reminds me, and I’m flattened, stunned stupid with grief all over again. So then I wonder,

Why the hell did humans have to get stuck with knowing they’re mortal?

It’s such a burden, and it’s a special gift to humans alone. Animals have no concept (although sometimes I wonder about elephants). Think how comforting it would be to have the limited consciousness of a dog, for example. You eat, sleep, poop, and watch for opportunities. You don’t think about your eight missing litter-mates or parents.

And then this is amazing: we humans adjust. I can go a whole month or two without feeling bad about Dad. What an underrated coping mechanism! We not only get used to the idea that we’ll lose our loved ones, but once we do suffer such a loss, we adapt and move on. The drive to survive wins out over grief, and even allows us to repress the knowledge that some day, we’re going to deliver that same blow to our loved ones.

Recently I noticed Bill was moping around. He was missing his parents, he said, but when I tried to comfort him, he declined. “The pain reminds me  of the love I felt for them. They were good parents.” Bill, who doesn’t believe in a God or afterlife, believes he will live on through the people he’s influenced positively.

I get fearful sometimes in the wee hours, when the arithmetic seems more stark and life more of a crap shoot. Like you, I’ve survived tragedy; I’ve dealt with situations that made me feel almost mentally ill at the realization of a horrendous truth, or some kind of great loss. Sometimes it seems we humans know too much. One way to alleviate that burden is a form of denial: you stay busy and productive, enjoy the sun on your face and the fragrance of new-mown grass, and try to ignore it.

I finally told Bill about my existentialist woes. I didn’t want to bum him out, because he’s always such a Pollyanna and I didn’t know if he could handle my dark side. He shrugged and said, “Life is wonderful, but it IS a ticking bomb.” Cracked me up. I felt relieved. We  know we will die. The choice is what we do with that knowledge.

I’ve pretty much decided to ignore the fact in favor of energetic productivity, and let the chips fall where they may. What about you? What’s your strategy for dealing with this?

Laughing at the Afterlife

Okay, admit it. If you’re reading this blog, you’re at that age where you’re thinking about it.

Mortality.

If you are at all concerned – and who isn’t? – I recommend reading a fun book called Sum; Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman.

Eagleman is a sharp young neuroscientist who looks at life with humor and creativity. The forty short stories (2-5 pages each) in Sum are more like parables which can be read on more than one level. The main theme is that life on Earth is simpler and more fun than we humans have made it out to be, and in that sense Sum is a teasing reminder to lighten up and appreciate the now.

I laughed out loud at some of the stories, like Egalitaire, in which God in Her great generosity invites all who die to come to Heaven equally, but the outcome surprises her:

“The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don’t want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage; the liberals have no downtrodden to promote.

“So God sits on the edge of Her bed and weeps at night, because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they’re all in Hell.”

I highly recommend this book! And if you want to feel uplifted right now, watch what he has to say about his new movement, Possibilianism, at PopTech in Camden, Maine.

Kindle readers can contact me at LMSpreen@yahoo.com.

The Truth About Why We Fear Aging

Why is our response to aging and the old so intensely negative?

According to Lynn Casteel Harper, a chaplain to a retirement community, here is the answer:

“Older people expose what is true for people of all ages. We are vulnerable and finite…Elders point to our shared fate as living creatures — to slow up, to wind down, to die. It comes as little surprise that a society so phobic about the subject of death (people “pass,” no one seems to “die”) so readily dismiss those people we see as closest to death — old people. However, we know that not just older people die. We are all vulnerable, at any moment…Coming to terms with finitude is the ongoing struggle of the human spirit; it is soul work. To attempt to live meaningfully with the awareness of our mortality is work marked by courage…” (You can read her entire essay here.)

Dr. Kathryn Zerbe, eating disorders specialist, says much the same thing. “In our mothers’ generation, there was acceptance that your body wasn’t going to look the same at 50 as it did at 25. Today there’s not.” She goes on to say that extreme efforts to maintain youth “…is a way of trying to skirt the issue of aging and mortality.”

According to Rev. Harper and Dr. Zerbe, then, much of what we do to “look young” is based on fear of dying. So here’s my question: what if we weren’t afraid of dying? How much more richly would we live?

Losing My Perspective

When I’m healthy, I think about things like being mindful, living in the present, and having balance in my life. Every day, I work hard to build my writing career. I write, I study, and I work on my platform to sell my book. I try to help other people. I spend time with my family and friends. I do the usual life-maintenance things: cooking, cleaning, exercise, bill-paying. I try to get enough sleep and I worry about all of it.

And then something happens to drop you right down to the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’m facing surgery for ovarian cancer. Hang on, I don’t know if I have it! Maybe not. Maybe it’s a cyst. Maybe it’s scar tissue from previous surgeries. OC killed two of my aunts, though, so I’m taking this seriously.

While I’m preparing for surgery, it’s hard to focus on the things that typically make up my days. Most of it seems unimportant now, but when I’m back to normal, I’ll return to my usual routine. And there’s the question: should I?

My constant obsessing about happiness, balance, the afterlife, work/love/energy/health – that’s all important if you have the luxury of time and energy. If you are preparing for major surgery and possibly a rough period after that, though, everything changes. I’m trying to clean things up for my husband and son, you know, just in case? And what a nightmare.

Consider all of my files. What if they have to figure out what the hell to do with them? How will they know if it’s straight to the trash or something more important? I have about 75 user name/password combinations to access certain services. What will they do with those? Some of them are linked to automatic charges on a credit card. How will these two good men, assumedly who wouldn’t be dealing with this mountain of work unless they were also simultaneously grieving, deal? Doesn’t it make you sick to even glimpse the possibilities? So I am trying to reduce, focus, organize and/or prioritize the things that make up my life.

As I go through all of it, as I make phone calls and explain to people that for the next few months I won’t be at their meetings or clubs or writing for their newsletters or editing whatever, I come to this inescapable conclusion: much of the flurry of my life is a waste of time and energy.

The prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates one’s mind wonderfully.” – Mark Twain

Here is what’s important to me: my health. My husband, family and friends. My writing, and being a part of the online community. Golf. Um, what else? Uh. Let’s see. Hmmmm.

You know what? I can’t think of anything else that deserves to take up my days.

Kindle users can send their comments to Lmspreen@yahoo.com.

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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."

    View all my reviews

  • Blogs I Follow

    1. Feed the Beauty
    2. How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks
    3. Fifty 2 Ninety
    4. Waiting for the Karma Truck
    5. Live & Learn
    6. Platinum Boomer
    7. My Mother is Losing Her Memory and I am Losing My Mind
    8. How the Cookie Crumbles
    9. Grandma Got STEM
    10. MIDDLE-AGED MAN BLAH'G
    11. The Parking Lot Confessional
    12. beyondthea64's Blog
    13. Not quite at my wits' end...yet
    14. All the small things
    15. Writing Out Loud
    16. Guerrilla Aging
    17. Memoir Writer's Journey
    18. www.rockthesilver.com
    19. The Woman Doctor's Guide
    20. Life in the Boomer Lane
  • This Blog Got Five Stars!

Feed the Beauty

Beauty is an inside job

How to Make, Market and Sell Ebooks

self-publishing tips for indie authors

Fifty 2 Ninety

Celebrating Some of the Best Years of Our Lives

Waiting for the Karma Truck

Thoughts on work and life and everything in between

Live & Learn

David Kanigan

Platinum Boomer

fabulous @ any age

How the Cookie Crumbles

An irreverant view of life after SIXTY-FIVE

Grandma Got STEM

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (+more!).

MIDDLE-AGED MAN BLAH'G

Let's Win it in the 2nd Half! Middle-agedman.com

The Parking Lot Confessional

Write until your fingers bleed.

beyondthea64's Blog

The daily musings of a fiftysomething adventurer who has left the rat race to explore the world.

All the small things

A mother-daughter diablog

Writing Out Loud

A Place of Observation

Guerrilla Aging

Navigating the Third Half of Life

Memoir Writer's Journey

Sharing hope one story at a time

MIDLIFE MAGIC

The Woman Doctor's Guide

A guide to good health, women's wellness and getting it all done

Life in the Boomer Lane

Musings of a former hula hoop champion

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