Saturday, January 19, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews Boston Noir

Boston Noir
Edited by Dennis Lehane
Akashic Books

Ms. Hen picked up this book last summer at a Little Free Library near where she lives. She had heard about the book because she had gone to a reading to celebrate its publication many years ago. She doesn’t remember the reading very well, but she remembers what Dennis Lahane said about the size of the audience. He said something to the effect that it was a large audience for a reading, and where he lived in Florida, you couldn’t get that many people to a reading, but you could get the same amount to a titty bar. Ms. Hen thought that was hilarious, but sad and true. She’s glad she doesn’t live in Florida, even in January when the temperature has been an average of 25 degrees.

After going to the reading a long time ago, Ms. Hen finally read this collection, a book of noir stories about Boston neighborhoods. Noir is categorized here as darkness, or coming change that brings about misunderstanding.

Ms. Hen read this book quickly. She thought a lot of the stories here were similar to exercises in beginning creative writing classes, the types of stories she used to write when she started writing. She thinks the first story, “Exit Interview,” by Lynn Heitman is unnecessarily violent and badly written. She also thinks that “The Collar,” by Itabari Njeri is offensive and a waste of time. Most of the stories in this book are not wonderful. But some are worth reading.

“Femme Sole,” by Dana Cameron is a period piece about a woman who owns a tavern in the North End circa the days of the American Revolution. Ms. Hen was surprised to read historical fiction here, but she enjoyed it. Another similar story is, “Dark Island,” by Brendan DuBois, which is about a detective helping a woman find a box her fiancĂ© left on an island in Boston Harbor.

The best story in the book is the one by Dennis Lahane, “Animal Rescue,” about a depressed man who lives in Dorchester. He finds a dog and wants to help it, but problems arise. Ms. Hen believes there are people like him living in Boston, lost souls who never had a chance for anything, and never dream of a better life.

Ms. Hen has a hard time reading collections of short stories because she has to live in a new world each time, but it’s more difficult reading an anthology with different writers. Ms. Hen did not love this book, but she read the entire thing fast. Ms. Hen prefers stories written about how the world could be, not poorly written stories about darkness.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Ms. Hen at the library

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon
Harper Collins

Ms. Hen came upon this book in a strange way. Many years ago, someone left it in the coffee shop where she used to work, and she took it home, but never read it. She thought it was part of a series, but she recently learned that it is not. She found out Michael Chabon is considered a San Francisco writer when she was researching writers before her vacation last year. She dove into this novel at the beginning of the year headfirst.

The first thing Ms. Hen noticed about this novel is that it is extremely descriptive, and it’s dense in the way that words burst from the pages. The descriptions are beautiful and appropriate, but it lends the book to slow reading, which at times is fine for Ms. Hen.

Ms. Hen also recognized that this is a book containing multiple genres. It is primarily a detective novel about a police officer, Meyer Landsman, trying to solve the murder of a man who lived in the same hotel that he does. It is also alternative history novel about a Jewish state called Sitka, which was created in Alaska after Israel failed in the 1940s, a story taken from a footnote in history. The story also has a touch of magical realism: people believe in the coming Messiah and the miracles he performs.

Meyer Landsman finds out Mendel Shpilman, a junkie, was murdered in the hotel where Landsman also lives. He investigates, and finds out that several people thought that Shpilman was the Messiah, because he would give people a blessing and their lives would become better. Shpilman was also a chess prodigy, and the son of a rebbe. Landman has to deal with the imminent ending of the Sitka state, as well as working with his ex-wife Bina as his new superior officer.

At first Ms. Hen didn’t like this book because she thought it was misogynistic and Landsman was a pig. Then she got used to his views and attitudes towards women, and she figured the novel could not be written any other way. Most of the books Ms. Hen have read recently have been written by female authors, so reading an intrinsically male book was a slight shock to her sensibilities.

The characters in THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION are all rough people, hardened by their place in the world. There are primarily tough cops, and drug addicts, and criminals. Ms. Hen thought that if some people read this, they would think it is Anti-Semitic, but she decided that if these characters were banished from the Holy Land to Alaska of course they would all be bitter and resentful and turn into criminals and low-lives waiting for the Messiah who will bring them to the promised land.  This book is complex, but some of the Jewish references might have been lost on Ms. Hen. Also, she thinks there may be chess symbolism that went over her head, since she does not play the game.

Ms. Hen liked that there was a mention of a magical chicken. The characters are superstitious waiting to be saved, “And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitolovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah.” Ms. Hen thinks that this proves that chickens are important, as she has always known.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel, even though it was dense and a much of it she might not have understood. She liked dwelling in this mystical, rough world for a while, even if it’s a place where she would not like to go. She admired the people with hope for a better life, waiting for a sign, even though they pay the price in many ways.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Ms. Hen's Top Ten

It's the beginning of the year again. Time for Ms. Hen's top ten books. These are her favorite books she read this year, not necessarily published this year. And there is no number one - they are in chronological order going backwards. Ms. Hen hopes you had a good year, and she hopes this one will be better, that you will read a lot of memorable books and eat some delicious food and live your life and be happy.

All the Best,
Ms. Hen

Top Ten List

Household Saints by Francine Prose

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason

Pride and Prometheus by John Kesel

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Kindred by Octavia Butler

The Beginning Place by Ursula K. Le Guin

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews M Train

Ms. Hen at her favorite local cafe, Jitters

M Train
Patti Smith
Vintage Books
2015, 2016

Ms. Hen decided to read this book because her hen-sister lent it to her, and Ms. Hen has always been curious about Patti Smith. She is not a fan of her music, but she understands a mystique surrounds Smith that not many public figures possess. She was one of the first women in punk rock, which Ms. Hen admires.

M Train is a memoir about different places Smith has been and her obsession with coffee and cafes. Ms. Hen can relate to this because she is also obsessed with coffee. She can’t go a day and not have at least two cups.

This book is also about loss: the loss of things, and the loss of people. Smith tends to lose things. When Ms. Hen read that Smith lost some beautiful pictures that Smith took of Sylvia Plath’s grave, it pained her. She could imagine such a thing happening and how devastating it would be to a person who was an admirer. Ms. Hen is also a Plath fan, so she can relate.

Ms. Hen liked reading about the different places Smith traveled to, and the adventures she experienced. She went to Mexico to speak at Frida Kahlo’s house; she flew to Japan to see where the tsunami hit, she also went to Tangiers to speak and play at a Beat festival. Smith’s journeys have a purpose, and they seem to be a part of her; they are necessary. She buys a house right before Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, and the area in which it was located was devastated, and she had to have extensive renovations done. This book is also about trying to find a home.

There are some mentions of chickens in this book, which Ms. Hen enjoyed. One particular passage is, “He drove a beat-up tan Peugeot and insisted our bags stay with him in the front seat as chickens were normally transported in the trunk.” This is important because it was a lie. There was a man in the trunk and the people in the car were arrested for that, including Patti and her husband, Fred, even though they didn’t know. Ms. Hen doesn’t like when people lie about chickens, especially when people get in trouble.

When Ms. Hen first started reading this memoir, she wasn’t into it. The narrative follows Smith around her messy apartment with her cats to the cafĂ© near her place and scribbling in a notebook and also on napkins. Ms. Hen thought that Smith might have had too much time on her hands, but after she got into the book, Ms. Hen decided that Smith is an obsessive artist and sees the world in a different way than other people. Ms. Hen wishes she had a lot of time on her hands, so she could wander the streets and write in notebooks and be strange. Ms. Hen used to be stranger than she is now, but these days she has to pretend she’s a normal person. It’s difficult for her, but she is capable of doing it.

This book is about dreams and has a lot of air and wispiness to it. Ms. Hen took pleasure reading this book, and she thinks it’s the right book to read at the end of the year: it’s quiet and peaceful, sad, but hopeful. It’s about some of one person’s life, and how she views things and feels, and meanders around the world.

Caffe Trieste, San Francisco

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews Household Saints

Ms. Hen, a Christmas hen

Household Saints
Francine Prose
G.K. Hall

Ms. Hen happened to pick up this book a couple of weeks ago at the Little Free Library in front of the Walgreens in Downtown Boston. She usually is able to unearth one good book when she is there. Some people might be offended that the location of the former Borders Bookstore is now a Walgreens, but Ms. Hen is a forgiving hen. This particular Walgreens has a liquor department, which Ms. Hen finds convenient and inexpensive.

She picked this book for the simple reason that she had heard of the author. She didn’t remember anything about her, just her name. She is so glad she did! Ms. Hen adored this book.

This novel is about an Italian family in Little Italy in New York around the 1950s. Joseph Santangelo wins his wife Catherine in a card game that he plays with her father. Catherine is unaware for a long time that her father gambled her away for a breath of cold air from the walk-in refrigerator in the butcher shop on a hot summer’s day. When she finds out, it’s almost a joke. They marry and are happy, but have hard times.

In the beginning the couple live with his mother in their apartment above the butcher shop. Catherine loves the way Joseph smells like meat when he goes to bed with her when they first get married, which Ms. Hen thinks is visceral. Ms. Hen is not a meat eater, but she could understand why someone would love that smell.

Mrs. Santangelo is superstitions in the ways of the old country. She believes Catherine loses her baby because she saw a turkey being slaughtered while she was pregnant. Mrs. Santangelo dies and after that, the couple live alone. When Catherine becomes pregnant again, she wants science to rule her life, not superstition. She reads medical books and does not tell anyone in the neighborhood she is pregnant. She gives birth to a healthy girl, but the girl grows up to be a strangely religious as her grandmother had been, to the dismay of her parents.

This novel has a tinge of magical realism, even though it is based in real life, fantasy is thrown in, or the hint of fantasy. This novel reminded Ms. Hen of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the way that magic can be hidden in ordinary life, and part of the mystery is whether it actually is magic.

Ms. Hen loved this book because she thinks the characters are realistic; they could be anyone that she has known in her life. Ms, Hen is not an Italian hen, but she grew up in an area where there are lot of Italians, so the characters in the neighborhood in this novel could have been her neighbors or classmates.

Since the book is about a butcher’s family, there are enough mentions of chickens to satisfy Ms. Hen. One particular passage Ms. Hen enjoyed was, “Crying, he turned away, but not before the thought had crossed his mind that the infant resembled nothing so much as a plucked and freshly slaughtered baby chicken.” Ms. Hen thought this was depressing and morbid, because Mrs. Santangleo predicted that Catherine would give birth to a chicken and the baby would be born dead. Ms. Hen doesn’t like when chickens in novels and stories are a source of sadness, but sometimes it’s inevitable, because sadness is part of life.

This is one of two novels Ms. Hen has read recently where she found herself in tears at the end. She thinks the ending of this novel is so beautiful and profound that it makes her almost believe in magic and saints. Ms. Hen is not a superstitious hen, but she would like to believe in something other than what's on the surface. She would like to believe in saints, even everyday household saints, like Theresa. It’s comforting to know that there could be an unseen power, especially during the darkest days of the year, like right now, which is supposed to be a time of celebration.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews Elena

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Ms. Hen likes quirky foreign films, but she does not review everything she watches. She decided to write this review because she was moved by ELENA and the characters and how messed up their lives are. Ms. Hen does not like desperate and hopeless books and films, but she likes learning about how truly demented humanity can be.

Elena is a retired nurse who lives with her new husband, Vladimir, in their spacious apartment in Moscow. He is a former businessman who has a lot of money. Their apartment is large and clean, but it seems as if it’s too clean. Elena goes to visit her son and his family; the son is unemployed, and he and his wife have two children. They live in a downtrodden area where thugs loiter outside the apartment. Elena gives her son money. When Elena cashes her pension check and takes it to her son, Ms. Hen was afraid for her walking around in a dangerous area, because she thought she would get mugged. Elena didn’t, though, because that is not the story. Ms. Hen thinks it is interesting to see how Russians handle money; it appears they mostly use cash, unlike in the United States.

Elena’s husband does not want to give her grandson money so he can get out of joining the army and go to college. Elena and he fight over his daughter, who she says is worthless and money-hungry. Vladimir wants to leave all his money to his daughter when he dies.

This film is artfully made. Ms. Hen has seen other Russian films and the lines do not appear as clean as they are in this one. The story shows the disparity between the classes in Russia today, there are some who prosper, and others who have little. And the ones who have a lot do not care about the people on the bottom. Vladimir is greedy, but Elena’s son and his family are either lazy or victims of circumstance. There are few opportunities in Russia today if a person does not have money or connections. Ms. Hen feels sorry for Elena’s son’s family.

The use of music in ELENA is done well. The scene where Vladimir is driving to the gym, then when he is at the gym is ominous with the soundtrack in the background; Ms. Hen knew something horrible would happen, and it did. Also, the music in the scene where the grandson, Sasha, is outside fighting with the young men is poignant and dramatic. Almost everything in ELENA is meaningful, which is the way movies are supposed to be made. Ms. Hen thinks this film could be considered Russian noir, and the music plays a part in that.

There are aspects to life in this film which are completely Russian, which Ms. Hen will not give away, because she does not want to ruin the surprise of the story. Ms. Hen couldn’t help but think, that would not happen in the United States, a few times when she watched this, or the character would behave differently if she were American. This film shows the chaos of Russian society.

This is a dark film, but Ms. Hen likes these kinds of things. Desperate people will do desperate things when faced with limited choices. Ms. Hen thinks that this film is centered on love and hate and indifference and power, which Ms. Hen thinks could be the basis for all art, and the reasons the world is still turning and disintegrating.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews Vox

Christina Dalcher
Penguin Random House

Ms. Hen decided to read this book because she had read it was similar to THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and she is interested in novels like that. She put it on reserve at the library, and did not receive it for about three months. It is a new release, and she thought that since it was in hot demand it would be brilliant. Was she ever so wrong.

The idea for this novel is fantastic: women in the United States are only allowed one hundred words per day by order of the government, and they wear counters on their wrists to keep track of how many words they say. They also cannot read or hold jobs. The protagonist fights for women to be free. The premise is great, but the writing in this novel is so bad, that Ms. Hen was horrified. This novel was written by someone who does not know how to write. There are a lot of impressive words in this novel, but the author does not use them to their full capacity. This is what’s called a plot-driven novel, which Ms. Hen does not enjoy. Ms. Hen prefers literary fiction because she has credentials, and she is a snob. There is no melody to this book, it’s not even prose; it’s just words on the page telling the story. Ms. Hen was so disgusted that she almost didn’t finish the book. But she did, because she waited for so long to get it from the library.

Ms. Hen decided to not write a full review of this novel because she does not want to waste your time. This novel proves that even a great concept can turn out to be an atrocious book.