Sunday, August 18, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews Other People's Worlds







Other People’s Worlds
William Trevor
Penguin Books
1980

Ms. Hen happened to find this small novel in the Little Free Library probably in Downtown Crossing, but she does not remember. Most of the books she finds are from there, but she takes so many, and does not always read them right away. She picked this up because she has read William Trevor before, and admires him. She found this book charming, but distressing.

This novel is about England, probably in the 1960s or 70s, and a group of people affected by a conman named Francis Tyte. Julia is a widow, but still attractive, with two grown daughters. Julia lives with her mother in the family home called Swan House. Francis convinces her that he is in love with her. He is an actor who is well known for a series of tobacco commercials.

Francis is a tricky and conniving man. Since he is an actor, he can convince people he is interested in them. He has a daughter with a woman who works in a shop, Doris, who he sees now and then. Doris is obsessed with him. He told her that he is married to an elderly dressmaker, and he can’t leave that woman, because she is sick and dying. He is married to a dressmaker, but has not seen her in a long time. Francis scorns Julia, and Doris gets involved. Doris is a drunk and makes a spectacle of herself. Her daughter, Joy, does not go to school because the kids in school have crazes and the latest one is tattooing, and she does not want a tattoo.

One of the things that struck Ms. Hen about this novel was the use of the internal worlds of the characters. The last few books she has read have been contemporary, and have been focused mainly on the surface of the characters’ lives. Ms. Hen thinks that writers now might be more influenced by movies and TV, which can only show what is happening with the person externally. Ms. Hen enjoyed reading about the lives of people and how messed up they were. Ms. Hen thinks that genuine pathos is something that might be lacking from fiction these days.

Another aspect of this novel that struck Ms. Hen was she thinks that there's a chance these events would not take place in the world today. A man would not have the capability to be as big a con man that he was then, because now things are more open. Also, Ms. Hen likes to believe that women are not as weak and subservient these days as they are in this novel.

There is one brief mention of some chickens in this novel. Francis is walking around a sketchy part of London, and he prostituting himself. He sees, “By a row of dustbins a cardboard carton was full of chickens feet.” Ms. Hen thinks this was put in to show how weird this place was, and untrustworthy. Ms. Hen thinks this is an unsavory use of chickens, but it works for the novel.

Ms. Hen liked this novel. It was starkly different from the other books she has read recently, but she thinks sometimes it’s good to shock the system, like jumping into a cold lake on a lukewarm day. Life can be terrible, but it can always be worse.



Sunday, August 11, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews The Water Cure






The Water Cure
Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday
2018

Ms. Hen had read about this novel a while ago, so she put it on her library list and requested it, and it took months to be delivered to her branch. She knew that it was dystopian women’s fiction, and that genre is hot right now. She imagined if there was a long wait for the book it should be good, but that is not always true. Some people read novels just because the subject is stylish. That is not true for this novel. Ms. Hen became enthralled.

THE WATER CURE is a novel about three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, who live on a remote island or peninsula with their father and mother. The parents want to keep their daughters away from society and men, because they say men are poisonous and bad for women. The novel starts off with the father, King, disappearing on one of his trips to the mainland to get supplies. Mother tries to console the girls, but they are depressed that their father is dead.

One day some men appear in their area. The young women have never seen men besides their father, and they notice how different they are. They smell strange and are more vocal. Mother does not want them to be near the men or for the men to touch them, but of course she can't stop what comes naturally between men and women. Dark things happen to the family. Grace was pregnant and loses the baby. Mother disappears. The girls have to fend for themselves against the men. They have never learned how to take care of themselves.

This novel reminded Ms. Hen of THE TEMPEST and LORD OF THE FLIES because it’s about a society with no rules and everyone runs amok. It’s obviously also reminiscent of THE HANDMAID’S TALE, since it is feminist dystopian fiction. It takes place in a time in the future that is not known. Not much technology exists, but we know it’s the future because of the way the parents explain how society crumbled because of men.

Ms. Hen noticed that the tone of this novel is quiet. Not a lot of noise happens in these pages. She could hear the sounds of the water, and of whispering, but the book never turns up the volume. The last novel Ms. Hen read, BLUE ANGEL, was loud and at times it screamed at her. Every novel has a different tone, and the author directs the sound like a conductor does a symphony.

There are not many chickens in this novel, because they are in a remote area and do not have animals anymore or that much fresh meat to eat, but there is one significant mention of a chicken, “When I put the blade to his neck and press, aiming for just under the ear, dragging down under the jaw, I might have thought about your lifting the chickens by their feet and swiping the knife across their throats.” She is thinking of King and when they had chickens and what he did to them.

Ms. Hen read this novel quickly, and after she finished, she had a book hangover, and had to stop reading for a day. That doesn’t happen often, but she likes it when it does, because she gets so involved in a world, that she doesn’t want to let go and go into another one. Ms. Hen approves of this novel and thinks you will too J

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews Blue Angel






Blue Angel
Francine Prose
Harper Collins
2000

Ms. Hen bought this book at a used bookstore shortly after she read another novel by Francine Prose, HOUSEHOLD SAINTS, which she adored. That was one of Ms. Hen’s top ten last year, and she read it right before Christmas. Ms. Prose has a way of creating believable, fantastic novels, which Ms. Hen admires.

This is a world that is familiar to Ms. Hen. The protagonist is a creative writing professor at a small, expensive, middle tier college in Vermont. Ms. Hen has been in a lot of creative writing classes, and these are scenarios that she knows quite well. The person whose story is being workshopped has to keep quiet while their darling is butchered. And it is always pulverized, no matter how good it is. A lot of sensitive people can’t handle it. The young people in this novel are typical creative writing students, though they might not be advanced.

Ted Swenson has been teaching at Euston for almost twenty years. He has never had an affair with a student, but that changes when he meets Angela Argo. He describes her as ferret-like, but she is a talented writer. He becomes obsessed with her writing, even though he is happily married to the college nurse. The college introduces a new no sexual harassment campaign; Ted finds it annoying that he is forced to go to a seminar while he has never done anything wrong. At least not yet.

Ms. Hen thought this novel could be considered LOLITA in reverse. Ted isn’t the one that wants to behave badly, and Angela is no wilting flower. She uses him to get what she wants. Ms. Hen read that this novel is supposed to be satire, and it seems ridiculous to her at times.

Ms. Hen thinks the author did an excellent job of writing from the point of view of the opposite gender. Ms. Hen has never attempted this, she is not sure why, but she thinks she does not understand the male brain enough to get inside and to think what they think. Ms. Hen imagines that Ms. Prose is able to do this because she is writing about a character that she knows, the creative writing professor, which is not difficult for another professor to write.

There are lots of significant chickens in this novel. On the first page, in the initial creative writing workshop, a story is being discussed in which a chicken is raped, and Swenson thinks about this, “so blindly focused on the imminent challenge of leading a class discussion of a student story, in which a teenager, after a bad date with his girlfriend, rapes an uncooked chicken by the light of the family fridge.” Ms. Hen thinks this is a great way to begin a novel. It catches the reader’s attention, it’s weird and freaky, and there is a chicken involved. Ms. Hen does not condone these actions, but she understands why the author chose to do this, to shock and disgust, and goad the reader into continuing.

Angela, the student that becomes Swenson’s downfall, is writing a novel entitled EGGS, which Swenson thinks is the best student writing he has ever read. It’s about a teenage girl who is doing a science project trying to breed chickens in her backyard, who has a crush on her music teacher, “What to do with the broken egg? My dad transferred it, oozing gunk to his other hand, and picked up an egg from another incubator. It broke. It smelled bad, too.” Ms. Hen likes that the novel is called EGGS, and the character is attempting to hatch chickens.

Ms. Hen thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It felt familiar to her, but foreign at the same time. She felt sorry for Ted, but not honestly sorry. He had bad luck, but it could happen to anyone. This is a good example of a story within a novel, or several stories within a novel, which Ms. Hen admires. There are many things to appreciate in this novel, and it continues to twist and turn and surprise.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews My Year of Rest and Relaxation





My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press
2018

Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she had read another by this author, EILEEN, which she reviewed a couple of years ago, and she adored. She ordered this book from her local library, and got ready to read another lovely book about a screwed up, unhappy woman. These are Ms. Hen’s favorite types of books to bury herself in.

This novel follows an unnamed protagonist in the year 2000 and 2001, when she decides to sleep for a year because she does not want to deal with her life. She already sleeps a lot when she decides this, but she goes to a psychiatrist and tells her that she has insomnia and asks for medication. The psychiatrist is unstable herself, and she gives the young woman a sheaf of prescriptions. She drugs herself and sleeps most of the time, except to shuffle to the corner bodega to buy coffee and snacks, and when her bulimic, emotionally unhealthy friend Reva comes to visit and complain about her life and beg her friend to go out.

The character has an on and off boyfriend who is a jerk, and she is as beautiful as a model. Both her parents have passed, and since she has a large inheritance, she does not have to work. When she did have a job, she worked at an art gallery, surrounded by the freaky artists of New York and beyond. She is a recent Colombia graduate who majored in art history.

The aspect of this novel that Ms. Hen admires the most is the humor. It’s a novel about depression! So how can it be funny? It just is. The humor is dry and realistic, and current to that time and place. The character is obsessed with Whoopi Goldberg and notices that every time she appears in a film or a TV show, she makes it ironic. Ms. Hen doesn’t feel that way about Whoopi Goldberg, but she does think that Whoopi brings realism to her screen presence.

Ms. Hen loves the descriptions of the art and artists in this novel. Ms. Hen is interested in contemporary art, and how some artists have excess time to be able to create perverted, offensive art, to be able to make bigger works to offend people, or at least attempt to do so. Ms. Hen enjoys museums and galleries filled with bizarre things like this.

Ms. Hen found a mistake in the novel. The character was supposed to turn 25 in 2000, but later on she said she was born in 1973, the year that Roe vs. Wade went into effect. She thought her mother might have wanted an abortion, since she got pregnant when she was 19. She would have been 27 in 2000 if she were born in 1973. Ms. Hen thinks that she might have forgotten how old she was because she spent all her time sleeping.

Ms. Hen realizes that this novel might not be for everyone. This book might be for the weird kids who want to know that there are other weirdoes in the world who might be as messed up as they are. The world can be a terrible place, and sometimes life might not seem worth living, but you just have to muck through the shit to be able to stand on your feet again.



Saturday, July 20, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews When You Are Engulfed in Flames





When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris
Little, Brown and Company
2008

Ms. Hen has read a David Sedaris book before, when she spent time in France. She was talked into reading ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY because a lot of it is about France. She does not read essays that much, but she enjoyed that book, so when she found this book at a Little Free Library near where she lives, she scooped it up. She thinks she might try to become a spokesperson for the Little Free Libraries, since she goes to so many and continuously finds great books to read. She would like to get paid well for doing this, so she wouldn’t have to work at a normal job.

This collection of essays reminded Ms. Hen of how strange and funny David Sedaris truly is. She thinks that if she met him, she would like him. She doesn’t think this of many writers. Ms. Hen is a strange hen herself, and she gravitates toward weirdoes, or chickens with similar types of feathers.

This collection deals with the dark side of life, but with a humorous twist. All of the essays have to do with death in one form or another. One of Ms. Hen’s favorites is “Memento Mori,” an essay about the time the author bought a genuine skeleton for his partner, and it haunted him when they hung it in the bedroom. The skeleton seemed to remind him that he was going to die. This is hilarious, but sad at the same time. Memento Mori is a Latin expression meaning remember you must die. This essay spooked Ms. Hen because she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a real skeleton in her bedroom.

Another that Ms. Hen liked is “April in Paris,” which is about the author’s obsession with spiders, and one particular spider that he adopted and fed flies to entertain himself, whom he dubbed April. They were living in Normandy, and decided to take April to Paris, but there weren’t enough flies to feed his favorite spider in the big city, so April was distressed. When they got back to Normandy, she ran off, leaving her owner upset over her disappearance. Ms. Hen thinks this is weird, but the story stuck in her head. How many people actually love spiders enough to make one into a pet and take it to Paris? Not many.

The last essay in the book, “The Smoking Section,” is the longest in the collection, and is all about the author’s history of smoking and the process of quitting. He decides to travel to Japan to stay there for a while to see if that will help him quit. Ms. Hen thinks it’s strange to quit smoking in Japan because she understands that everyone smokes there, but the author does a lot of strange things, so this does not surprise her. He writes about trying to learn Japanese and failing, and also about the Japanese mannerisms, such as humility and putting others first all the time which Ms. Hen found fascinating. He quit smoking, which Ms. Hen has learned is more difficult that stopping drinking or heroin.

Ms. Hen thinks this book is fantastic. She believes in the power of humor, and wishes there were more humorous writers that she could enjoy. Life is difficult, but why shouldn’t we laugh at ourselves? If we don’t laugh, we could end up crying, and there’s no point in that.




Friday, July 12, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews The Tiger's Wife




The Tiger’s Wife
Tea Obreht
Random House
2011


Ms. Hen picked up this novel at the Little Free Library in Downtown Crossing in Boston. She chose this because she liked the cover and the title. She had never heard of the book, but she understands it was well received when it came out, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award.

When Ms. Hen first started reading THE TIGER’S WIFE, she had the feeling that it was similar to THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING because it is about a doctor, and it has the same type of tone, and it takes place in a likewise setting. This novel, however, does not have that much more in common with that one.

This novel is about a young doctor, Natalia, in a country that is not named, but is supposed to be Bosnia. The country is recovering from war, and Natalia’s grandfather has just died. She is in a rural area vaccinating some orphans with her friend, and she goes to retrieve his things that were in his possession when he passed away suddenly in a remote area.

Natalia recounts the story of her relationship with her grandfather, and how they went to the zoo to look at the tigers, and also tell the story his life when he was young in the small town where he lived. A tiger appeared in the village one day, and frightened the people that lived there. One of the women was supposedly the tiger’s wife, because she fed him, and the people in the town thought that the tiger impregnated her.

This novel shows the superstitions of rural people, and how isolated they are from the rest of the world. Some people actually believed that the woman was married to the tiger, and the women of the town would gossip and most of the men listened and did not do much to help her.

This novel is told in layers. The stories of the different characters go back and back and at times, Ms. Hen almost lost track of who she was reading about. The people in the village, and how they got to be there, and even the story about the only gun, and how it arrived, spread around like honey on pieces of crusty bread, and never stopped, and at times left Ms. Hen breathless. This novel is an excellent example of how to write multi-layered stories, one on top of another, like a club sandwich with a tower of bread. Ms. Hen admires this writer because she does this so well; it kept Ms. Hen on her toes, and she took her time reading it, because she thinks that this novel is meant to be read slowly and ingested gently because there is so much to absorb.

There are some chickens and hens that appear in this novel, which always pleases Ms. Hen. Natalia is driving through the country with one of the monks when, “There was a henhouse which had apparently collapsed at least once in the last few years, and had been haphazardly assembled and propped up against the low stone wall…” The characters are in a run-down area ravaged by war, and they have to make do with what they have. Ms. Hen is glad that the hens are being protected during difficult times.

Ms. Hen loves finding novels that are new to her that she adores. This is one of those. There are a lot of animals and magic in this novel, which Ms. Hen enjoys. The story twists and turns until it left Ms. Hen’s head dizzy. Ms. Hen won’t think of tigers or wild animals the same again.




Sunday, June 30, 2019

Ms. Hen reviews Beyond Beauport






Beyond Beauport
James Masciarelli
Koehler Books
2018

Ms. Hen came to read this novel because she met the author in her travels through the world. He told her that his character’s name is also Shannon, and she told him that she wrote a blog about books, and he gave his book to her as a gift if she promised to write about it. And so she is.

This is not what Ms. Hen typically reads. She it not quite into adventure novels, but she is willing to take a risk and read something different when the opportunity presents itself. Even though this is described as an adventure novel, it is more of a literary adventure, the characters are complex and well-drawn, and the story revolves around love and family.

Shannon Clarke is a forty-six year old native of Gloucester, Massachusetts and has always loved the ocean. She got pregnant young, and eventually married the father of her child. She worked at various jobs around the town, and has close friends in the area. She is in the process of a divorce, and is experiencing depression, and her children have moved away. Her Uncle Paddy comes to visit and tells her a story of her ancestors and their connection to pirates.

Shannon and Paddy go on an adventure to look for treasure in Florida and the Caribbean. They get into scrapes, and Shannon’s big mouth gets her in trouble sometimes, but she is a tough woman who can take care of herself. Since she and Paddy can trace their heritage back to pirates, they are fearless and strong.

Shannon has always dreamed of being a sea captain, but her obligations to her family, and also money has always gotten in the way. Paddy teaches her how to be a captain through the different levels of proficiency, and she gradually works her way up. He teaches her how to handle herself quickly in last minute situations where she needs to make snap decisions. It’s life or death on a boat if someone is not fast enough to know what to do.

Ms. Hen has always loved pirates, as many people do. Before she read this novel, she had the idea that it was historical fiction because who in their right mind becomes a pirate today? There is some history thrown into the story when Shannon dreams of her ancestors who were pirates and they guide her to where they buried the loot. Ms. Hen thinks it’s charming that Shannon and Paddy hunt for pirate treasure, and it’s not like it is in the movies where they live happily ever after. This novel displays a more realistic approach to hunting treasure.

Ms. Hen has not any other novels in which the protagonist is named Shannon, and she appreciates her name being used effectively. However, Ms. Hen has nothing in common with the Shannon of the novel, she has no desire to be a pirate, and is not a tough Shannon, but rather a delicate Shannon who does not start fights, and likes taking pictures of flowers and puddles. Even though she has nothing in common with Shannon Clarke, Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel as an escape to the sea air of Gloucester and the Caribbean, where adventure abounds and a spirited world exists.