Sunday, May 31, 2015

Ms. Hen reviews EMPIRE FALLS and makes it personal

By Richard Russo

Ms. Hen has not posted a blog in a while. She’s been busy doing other things that have not been pleasant. She read a very long and winding novel, EMPIRE FALLS, which she enjoyed. She found this book was easier to read in long segments because the characters are rich and dense. It’s not to say they’re badly written characters. They’re very complex.

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. Ms. Hen has read another novel by Richard Russo, THE RISK POOL, which she also liked, but when she told people she read that, everyone she talked to raved about EMPIRE FALLS. It has been a while since she read THE RISK POOL, but she finally got around to reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

EMPIRE FALLS is about a small town in Maine by the same name. The protagonist, Miles Roby, is the manager of the Empire Grill, the diner in town, owned by Francine Whiting, the town matriarch, who happens to own everything in the town. Miles went away to college and never meant to spend twenty years at the Empire Grill, but he came back because his mother had cancer, and then he got married, had a child and he stayed to manage the restaurant. Few job options exist in Empire Falls.

At the beginning of the novel, Miles is in the middle of a divorce with Janine, who had an affair with The Silver Fox, Walt Comeau, the owner of the town health club. Janine has lost a lot of weight and is proud of that. Tick, Miles’ and Janine’s daughter, lives with Janine, but can’t stand Walt.

The town is full of local characters, most of whom have spent their entire lives there. A lot of them don’t like each other, or they might, but they are all so bored with their lives that they only tolerate their neighbors. Miles seems like the only sympathetic character in the novel. Miles’ father, Max, is despicable, Janine’s mother is a wisecracking tavern owner who is tired, Walt is obnoxious, Janine is narcissistic, Tick is an awkward child, and everyone else in high school is immature.

EMPIRE FALLS is an accurate portrayal of small-town life. Ms. Hen has never lived in a small town, but she has read enough books and has visited small towns often enough to know they can be insular and some of the people who reside there are provincial. A lot of people who live in small towns never leave, and everyone knows everything about the whole town.

Miles Roby is a man who wants to improve the life that he has. Mrs. Whiting told him years ago that he would inherit the Empire Grill when she dies, and he has been waiting for her to die for many years. He wants change, but that is difficult for him to achieve.

Ms. Hen wanted to tell most of the characters in this novel to get a life and don’t be a jerk because life is short and you should appreciate what you have while you have it. Most of the characters in EMPIRE FALLS are petty and selfish and need to get a grip on things. Ms. Hen realized that when a person or a hen reads a novel or watches a film or a play, that person or hen brings her own feelings to the piece. Ms. Hen brought her own emotions to her reading of this novel. But the characters in the novel are exactly the way people are in real life. People hardly appreciate what they have until they’re faced with its loss.

Ms. Hen does not recommend reading this novel when you are in a crisis or if you’re depressed, because it will make you angry and want to punch all the characters. But if you want to read a novel in which characters are realistic and difficult, and you’re in a good place in your life, EMPIRE FALLS is fantastic.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Ms. Hen reviews KRIK? KRAK! by Edwidge Danticat and becomes superstitious

Edwidge Danticat

Ms. Hen chose this book because it was on the list of women writers to read during Women’s History Month, which she has mentioned previously. It’s not Women’s History Month anymore, but Ms. Hen thinks it’s always a good time to read women writers.

At first, this collection of short stories startled Ms. Hen. The language used is sensual and poetic. She stopped reading a different book because the writing style was too plain and old fashioned and the difference between the two books is sharp.

All of these short stories are about Haiti, women in Haiti, men and women in Haiti, and people who have left Haiti for the United States. Ms. Hen loves reading about people with difficult lives that are different from her life.

The first story in the collection is “Children of the Sea,” is told through two characters, a man on a ship heading towards Florida and the woman he has left behind. The fear and dangers that these characters face changes them. The young woman in Haiti hopes in her heart that her loved one will survive, but she discovers what happened through an omen of a butterfly.

Superstitions run rampant in these stories. The people of Haiti carry their superstitions inside them the way some women hold their purses. Curses and charms bring good luck or bad luck. In the story, “A Wall of Fire Rising,” Guy dreams of a better life when he sees a hot air balloon rising near their tenement shack. His wife, Lili, thinks it is a bad omen. He does not think of consequences. His young son, Little Guy practices his lines for the play in which he will appear. He says the lines while his father faces his destiny. Lili wishes Guy had never tried to leave without them.

In the story “Caroline’s Wedding,” a family plans for a woman’s wedding. Caroline was born with half an arm. She and her sister teach ESL at a school and live with their mother. The mother carries her Haitian roots close. This is a thoughtful story about a family dealing with problems, and trying to work things out.

Ms. Hen really loved this book. She loved the language of this book and the singing voice of the writer. The epilogue was also intriguing to Ms. Hen. In it, the author talked about women who write and how women in her family didn’t write. If they did, they were considered kitchen poets because that is the only place their poetry mattered or could be heard.

Ms. Hen understood what it is like to be in a family of women who have never written. If the women in Ms. Hen’s family did write, they didn’t write anything substantial. Sometimes, a person has to be the first one in the family to talk about history and why things are the way they are. Ms. Hen came to this realization when she finished the book on the train one night. There should be a person to tell the truth. Ms. Hen wants to be that person.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ms. Hen raves about Busboys and Poets

Busboys and Poets
14th and V Streets
Washington D.C.

Ms. Hen has not done that many restaurant reviews, but she experienced a great place on her trip to Washington D.C. that she has to share. She found a café in the neighborhood where she was staying, the U Street Corridor, called Busboys and Poets. She was intrigued by the name of the place because she likes poets, so she had lunch there one day.

When she got to the place, the host asked her if she wanted to sit at a table, a couch or the bar. She was intrigued by the options, but she was having lunch, so she sat at a table in the café, and she was given a seat near the window. The place was beautiful, decorated with art on the walls, with funky chairs and couches in the middle. She felt comfortable there.

The waitress who took her order was very smiley. She smiled a lot. At everyone. A group of what looked like high maintenance women sat in the middle and ate French fries and she smiled at them.

Ms. Hen ordered a chicken salad sandwich and it was outstanding. The side salad tasted like no other salad Ms. Hen had ever had. The dressing seemed like it was made with magic. She had coffee afterwards and that was fabulous as well.

Ms. Hen was so impressed with Busboys and Poets that she went back for dinner the next day. She had to wait for a couple of minutes for a table so she went to the bookstore and bought a book. The store is a little different from other bookstores she’d visited. It is a non-profit bookstore run by a group called Teaching for Change.

Ms. Hen did research about the store later and she discovered that the bookstore only sells certain kinds of books, ones with a socially conscious message, or by a minority or a woman and the book must fulfill the mission of the non-profit. Ms. Hen thinks this is a beautiful way to run a bookstore. In order to sell a book in the store, it has to fit the criteria and be approved by the committee.

After Ms. Hen bought her book, she sat at a table and was greeted by another very happy waitress. She wondered what they did to these waitresses to make them smile so much. She thought they might just be so happy they work at such a cool place that they can’t help but smile.

Ms. Hen ordered a falafel salad and it was breathtaking. She sat and looked at the people having dinner. There were young people and families with children. Different kinds of people ate there, and everyone seemed relaxed.

Ms. Hen loved Busboys and Poets and wished there was someplace like that where she lives. There are cool places in Cambridge and Somerville, but they’re not everything at the same time: a bookstore, a café, a bar, an art gallery and a place to have readings. There are a few locations of Busboys and Poets around the D.C. area. Being there made her feel content. Ms. Hen loves being in a new place, discovering new things. Ms. Hen could discover all the cool places, if only she could go everywhere. A hen can only dream.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ms. Hen reviews her favorite thing yet, THE CHICKEN CHRONICLES by Alice Walker

By Alice Walker

Ms. Hen found this book by chance in a bookstore in Washington D.C. called Busboys and Poets. She knew it was destiny because it has a chicken on the cover that looks just like her. She read the first few pages and decided to buy it.

This memoir is about Alice Walker’s experience owning and taking care of chickens in her home in Northern California. She had always wanted chickens, but then she saw a chicken and her brood crossing the road and she was enraptured. She thought she had never seen a chicken so beautiful before, even though she had been raised in the South and had chickens when she was young.

Ms. Walker acquired some chickens and she grew to love them. She would watch them and they would bring her joy. The chickens all had names: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses and Babe. She loved them like her children. She is a vegetarian and every time she ate chicken by mistake she felt ashamed and guilty.

The chickens brought back her memories of her childhood. She remembered her mother’s thumb that appeared disfigured. She remembered going to church on Sunday and seeing her mother all dressed up. She remembered her siblings and other members of the family leaving home, and how she felt sad when they left. The chickens helped her remember what it was like to be young and how she felt as a child. The chickens did many things.

Ms. Walker traveled a lot to India and Nepal while she was taking care of the chickens. Some chapters of the book are letter to the chickens, who she calls her girls, telling them about the things she saw and did when she traveled.

Ms. Hen thought it was strange that Ms. Walker wrote letters to her chickens. Ms. Hen is strange, so she understood this. It’s like Ms. Hen having opinions of things. She does it to make herself feel better. People have to do what they can to survive, and if Alice Walker thinks it’s okay to write letters to her chickens to tell them about India, Ms. Hen is fine with that. Ms. Hen is a strange hen, and she admires people and chickens that can go out on a limb and be different.

Ms. Hen can’t stand people and things that are normal. She thinks that nobody is normal, but some people can’t help but try to fit in. When she’s an old hen, she wants to be as strange as Alice Walker and maybe write letters to chickens from Nepal or somewhere else that’s just as exciting. She doesn’t want to sit on her couch and watch soap operas and worry about game shows and celebrities.

When Ms. Hen is an old hen, she wants to be able to write a book as beautiful as this one. It’s small and could be a fast read, but it should not be read too quickly. It should be savored like a good cup of coffee, drinking every last drop to experience the taste and beauty of the whole thing.