Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ms. Hen's Top Ten

Ms. Hen’s Top Ten Books (She Read) in 2015

Ms. Hen has decided to jump on the bandwagon of end-of-year top ten lists. She wrote lots of reviews last year, and spent some time thinking about what the top ten books she read were. Hardly any of the books on the list were published in 2015, but books have a long shelf life, so if it’s a high quality books it stays that way. They are in no particular order, because sometimes the time to read a book is perfect and another is perfect at a different time.

When Ms. Hen read this in March, it was just what she needed.

This is a beautiful memoir about dealing with grief.

4.     MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante 
5.     THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante
The three previous books are the continuation of one story.

7.     COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier
This novel wins the award for containing the most chickens.

8.     WHITE LIGHT by Vanessa Garcia

9.     THE BLIND ASSASIN by Margaret Atwood

10.  THE BLUE GIRL by Laurie Foos

Ms. Hen would like to wish everyone a happy new year. She doesn’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, but if she did, she would resolve to read more books, do more Zumba, and eat more dark chocolate.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Elena Ferrante
Europa Editions
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Ms. Hen read the first two books in the Neapolitan novels previously this year. She loved them and she devoured them, but she is trying to read them slowly so she won’t be too overwhelmed with emotion. She thought she would read the third novel sooner after she read the second one, but she wanted to savor it and look forward to it.

THE STORY OF A NEW NAME begins where the previous novel leaves off, with Elena Greco and the release of the novel she wrote. She lives at home with her family after she has graduated from college, and is waiting to get married. She is still unsure of her intellect, and she feels that her meekness eventually surfaces with everything she does.

She never expected to publish the novel. Her future mother-in-law to be decided that it was good enough to be published and Elena thinks that her future mother-in-law wanted her son’s wife to have some status, since she came from such a poor neighborhood, and she had nothing else to recommend her to their world.

Elena is thrust into a brief experience with fame with the publication of her novel. She still tries to help her friend from childhood Lila, who Elena thinks is more intelligent and talented than she is, even though Lila never continued her education. Lila is the brilliant one, who has always shone in spite of everything that has happened to her.

There are more politics in this novel than the previous novels. Ms. Hen thinks this is possible because the characters are older, and they have more interest in the world around them. Society is changing, and demonstrations are happening, and Elena gets involved with Lila fighting the corruption at the sausage factory where Lila is employed. The workers want to start a communist revolution, but they have to go against the fascists to win. Nobody ends up winning, and some people get hurt.

This novel, like the other two novels is full of raw emotion and brimming with the power of friendship. Loving her friends, and hating her friends, wanting them to succeed, and wanting them to fail, is the rollercoaster of emotion that Elena Greco lives every day. Wanting to be happy, and wanting the best out of life, even when stuck in an unhappy marriage with two small children, Elena perseveres and tries to be happy.

Ms. Hen had a conversation with someone whom she respects as a person and a writer about these novels. This person had read all four books, but she couldn’t understand why the characters had strong feelings about one person at one time, then completely different feelings about that person another time. Ms. Hen told the woman she didn’t want to sound racist but it was because the people are Italian, but she meditated on this idea, and then decided that she understood why Elena changes her mind often about people she loved.

She changes her mind because she is a passionate person, due to bouts of irrationality. Some people are completely rational, and could never understand why someone could alter their feelings so quickly. Ms. Hen is also an unstable character that changes her mind a lot of the time about the people in her life. Ms. Hen doesn’t understand a lot of people, but she deals with them because she has to do it to survive. Elena lives her life and takes care of the things that she must do, but she loves passionately and irrationally. Not all love is rational. Ms. Hen didn’t understand why Elena keeps her obsession with Nino when she discovers what a cad he is, but Elena is unstable in her heart. Elena loves Lila, even though she is jealous of her, and cannot stop being jealous of her, even though Lila has had a lot of bad luck, Elena still feels that her own intellect will never match Lila’s.

There is one mention of a rooster in this novel, “Lila gazed at the water pitcher in the middle of the table with its comical rooster head: Gennaro liked it.” This took place when Lila and Gennaro were living with Enzo in the tiny apartment while she worked at the sausage factory and she and Enzo studied computer programming at night. They didn’t have a lot of money to spare, and the pitcher with the rooster head could have been a luxury.

Ms. Hen loved this novel. Reading it is like watching a friend make mistakes and you want to tell her to stop doing what she’s doing, but she can’t help it because it’s what she needs to do. Elena can’t help but continue her life, and the spiral goes as it goes in everyone’s life.  Ms. Hen gives this novel five feathers up.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Harper Lee
Harper and Row
1960, 2014

Recently, Ms. Hen found TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in a used bookstore. She hadn’t read the book since she was a young hen in high school, but she remembered enjoying it, so she bought it. She’d heard about the new novel by Harper Lee, but forgot about the controversy surrounding it, so she got that book out of the library and decided to read the two books consecutively without researching the story behind the new book before she read them.

She was reminded of how TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is beautifully written. The story of Scout and her family in Alabama struck Ms. Hen, and also the innocent but dark times in which they lived. Ms. Hen read this without remembering the outcome of the trial; she knew the novel was brimming with injustice, but she didn’t remember the details. She had no memory of the fact that there were so many chickens mentioned in this novel, which she adored.

Ms. Hen thought the choice of first person worked well in this novel: the reader is in Scout’s mind as a child, but is looking back through adult eyes. This novel made her think of the awkwardness and embarrassment of childhood, which children these days don’t have since they are coddled and made to believe they’re perfect. The aspect of childhood that should be important is that children simply don’t know as much as they do as when they are adults.

When Ms. Hen read GO SET A WATCHMAN, she noticed right away the lack of first person narrative that made MOCKINGBIRD so immediate. The novel is about Scout as a twenty-six year old woman who comes back to visit her family and hometown for her yearly two week vacation.

Ms. Hen thought there were parts of WATCHMAN that were outright slapstick comedy, which she enjoyed. But the thrust of the novel is racism, and how the people Scout knew in her hometown, including her father, are racists. The novel is disjointed in the way that some sections are hilarious, and others, downright frightening. The novel made Ms. Hen uncomfortable, and she had to think long and hard about what she wanted to write about it. She is disappointed that Atticus Finch, a beacon of nobility in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD turns out to be so disgusting in WATCHMAN.

Ms. Hen researched WATCHMAN after she read it, and she discovered that Harper Lee wrote it before she wrote MOCKINGBIRD. She set out to write a novel about race. An editor suggested that she write about the trial that was mentioned briefly in WATCHMAN about a black man accused of raping a white girl. Ms. Lee never intended to publish GO SET A WATCHMAN. One of the rumors surrounding the publication is that her sister who took care of her affairs died, and Ms. Lee was left unprotected. Someone who worked at her sister’s law firm had possession of WATCHMAN and sent it to the publisher.

Ms. Hen thinks it’s tragic that the people at the publishing company exploited Ms. Lee in order to make money. The novel isn’t a bad novel, but it’s not the one that Ms. Lee intended to publish. Ms. Hen is happy that she did not spend money on GO SET A WATCHMAN, so she didn’t give in to the corporate machine.


Ms. Hen thinks everyone should read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD again, and if you haven’t, then hurry up and read it. The subject matter of the novel is still relevant today: injustice surrounding racial issues. Ms. Hen wants to keep the Atticus Finch of MOCKINGBIRD in her mind, instead of the ugly one from the other book. Ms. Hen gives TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD five feathers up, and GO SET A WATCHMAN a big question mark.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ms. Hen reviews KAOS

Directed by Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani

Ms. Hen usually doesn’t enjoy watching extra long films, mostly because she can’t stand to sit in front of the TV for that long. She tends to stop paying attention when a film is more than two and a half hours long. She didn’t know if she would like this film, KAOS, for that reason, but she ended up adoring it.

The film is comprised of four tales and an epilogue which all take place during the turn of the last century in Sicily. There is also a prologue at the beginning with men screaming at a crow because the bird is a male and is sitting on eggs. The men told the bird that he is not a real man. One of the men tells them to stop and puts a bell around the crow’s neck and it flies away. It appears in the first tale, “The Other Son," and in between the other tales.

The tales are like fairy tales; they are not completely to be believed. In “The Other Son,” a woman has someone write to her sons who have left for America, but will not have anything to do with the son she has nearby because he reminds her of his father, the bandit that raped her. This short film has one of the most haunting scenes Ms. Hen has scene is a film: men are rolling something that cannot be seen in a type of contest to see who can roll the item the farthest, until it is revealed they are human heads. Ms. Hen was reminded of when she was in elementary school, one of her teachers like to say, “heads will roll.” She didn’t imagine it could be an actual visual, she thought it was an expression.

In the tale, “Moonstruck,” a young married woman’s husband becomes affected by the full moon and goes berserk. She tries to protect herself by having her mother and cousin stay with her during the full moon, but things don’t turn out the way she wishes. In “The Jar,” a rich landowner buys a giant jar to hold olive oil, but it cracks mysteriously in the middle of the night. He calls in a potter to help him piece it back together, but the potter accidentally glues himself in the jar. The short film reminded Ms. Hen somewhat of the book THE PEARL by John Steinbeck, about a giant object that is revered and puts everyone in awe, but in the end is the downfall of the owner.

In the tale, “Requiem,” farmers fight with landowners in order to bury their dead in the cemetery. They go to great lengths to get what they want. In the epilogue, “Conversations with Mother,” a writer goes back to visit his childhood home and sees his mother who has passed away and talks with her about the time her family took a trip on a boat and landed on an island of pumice.

Ms. Hen liked this film because it is similar to watching a series of dreams. The landscape is brown and bare and strange things happen at every turn. Ms. Hen kept waiting for odd events and they materialized. The characters are mostly peasants, with no education, but they all dream of a better life.

Surprisingly, there were no chickens seen in this film, even though the film was set in a rural area. There is one mention of a chicken in the tale, “The Other Son,” one man says the people who left for America sound like hens and say, “Pui pui pui.” Almost every tale has dogs or cats in it, which pleased Ms. Hen.

Ms. Hen was able to watch the three hours of this film and not be bored and walk away. She thinks that she was able to watch it because the different stories caught her attention and made it seem as if it weren’t that long. She gives KAOS four and a half feathers up because she likes to be reminded of dreams when she’s awake.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Ms. Hen bids adieu to her Kindle

Ms. Hen and her to-read shelf

Three years ago Ms. Hen bought a Kindle as a Christmas present to herself. She was excited that she would join all the other people using this new technology. She bought the cheapest model available, not the Paperwhite or the Kindle Fire; she bought the bargain basement version, since at the time she did not have money to burn.

At first, Ms. Hen was excited to read books on her Kindle. She was happy she was up to speed with new things. She read lots of books on her Kindle. At first, she didn’t like that there were no page numbers, just the percentage she had read, but she got used to that after a while.

She really enjoyed reading on her Kindle at first. She told herself that she would read some books on her Kindle and some hard copy books, but she got so used to reading on the device that she preferred it to real books.

But then she started reading more hard copy books than on her Kindle.

And she realized that she likes reading real books better than on the device.

She thinks that the main reason she prefers books is that she is able to read better when she reads a book. She can comprehend better; she remembers better, and she digests the book better than on the Kindle. She can’t explain why. She thinks it might have to do with how the book is a tangible thing, and it might sink into her mind easier. It could have to do with the fact that a book is an item that people have been using for hundreds of years, and the computer is so new that we don't register the words on the device as well as paper.

She thinks that there is a good explanation of the idea of the book versus the Kindle in Sven Birkert’s collection of essays, CHANGING THE SUBJECT: ART AND ATTENTION IN THE INTERNET AGE. He talks about how reading devices like the Kindle and computers are ruining reading, and how he fears for the future of literature, among many other things.

Ms. Hen thinks her Kindle was good for two things: 1. It is very small, and it could fit into almost any bag or purse, including Ms. Hen. 2. It is good if she travels on a long vacation, so she doesn’t have to carry five heavy books with her on the plane.

What finally broke up Ms. Hen and her Kindle’s relationship was when she wrote her blog post about THE STORY OF A NEW NAME by Elena Ferrante. There is a part in the novel which mentions a chicken coop that Ms. Hen wanted to put in her blog post because she loves to mention the chickens in fiction, but she had to flip through her Kindle to find the exact quote and it exasperated her! She is a hen who doesn’t want to be bothered with searching through fifty percent of a book on a Kindle to find a quote about chickens. She threw her Kindle down in disgust. When she reads a book that contains a quote about chickens, she usually bookmarks the page, then goes back after she finishes.

Since that episode, Ms. Hen has not read any books on her Kindle. She buys books at bookstores and gets books from the library. She doesn’t want to throw her Kindle in the trash because she does not believe in being a wasteful hen, but she is not planning on reading anything on her Kindle any time soon.

Ms. Hen knows that she is not alone in her opinion of the Kindle. But she thinks there is a generation of young people who would prefer to read from a Kindle, an Ipad or a computer. She is afraid, like Sven Birkerts, of the death of books and the disappearance of the libraries of the world. She is holding onto her own small library for as long as she can, and hopes the readers of books will as well.

Friday, December 4, 2015


Isabel Allende
Atria Books

Ms. Hen debated for a long time over whether or not she should go to Isabel Allende’s reading in Cambridge in November. She wanted to go, but everyone attending had to buy the new hardcover book. Ms. Hen had never been to a reading where all members of the audience were required to purchase the book. She thinks it’s a great marketing strategy, but it would only work for well-established writers.

She did not regret going to the reading. Ms. Allende was smart and funny and inspiring. She told the story of how she got the idea for her new novel: Ms. Allende's friend told her that her mother had a Japanese male friend for forty years. Ms. Allende asked if they had been lovers, and the woman said, “No, of course not, how could you say that, she’s my mother!” But the seed of the novel was planted and it grew out of this conversation. Ms. Allende told the audience that she gets lots of letters from people all around the world telling her their stories, who want her to put them into a novel, but she said she cannot write something unless she feels connected to it, like she was to this story, because it was about love.

THE JAPANESE LOVER is about Alma, an octogenarian who has decided to spend her last days in a discount nursing home full of leftist radicals in San Francisco. The novel starts with Irina, a young woman from Moldova who begins working at the nursing home. Irina becomes Alma’s assistant, and with her grandson, Seth, they both try to unravel the mystery of Alma’s life.

They know Alma has a lover, but they don’t know who it is or why she keeps it a secret. This novel is full of secrets, and they are revealed little by little: Alma’s childhood when she was sent from Poland to escape the Nazis, her friendship with Ichimei from the time they were young, her cousinly love for Nathan who became her husband. Irina has secrets and so does Nathan, but they are revealed just at the perfect time.

Ichimei was sent to an internment camp at the onset of World War II. He told her Alma he would write to her, and he did, but his letters were so censored that she couldn’t read them. Instead of writing, he drew pictures and they were not censored.

Alma loved Ichi from the start, but they didn’t become lovers until they were in their twenties. They couldn’t be together because they were different races, and interracial marriage was prohibited in the 1950s. Alma didn’t want to marry Ichi because she thought he had no ambition, and she didn’t want to be the wife of someone who worked in a nursery.

Ms. Hen was happy that there was a place chickens were mentioned in this novel. When Irina was in Moldova she would “pray for the potato harvest and the health of the chickens.” Ms. Hen was glad that Irina prayed for the chickens. Irina had a difficult life, and Ms. Hen hopes her prayers were answered.

At the end of her life, Alma did not regret her decision not to marry Ichi. She was happy she had had the life she lived. Ichi is a mysterious character and he never meets Irina and Seth, even though they wanted to meet him.

This novel is about living with the choices one makes, and about love and loss. Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel because she couldn’t wait to discover what happened with Alma and Ichi. Ms. Hen did not carry her autographed first edition wherever she went, because she didn’t want the book to get ruined. She gives this novel five feathers up.

Isabel Allende, Cambridge, November 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015



Ms. Hen does not watch that many TV shows, but when she does, she usually watches one show at a time. She enjoyed THE GRAND HOTEL so much that she wanted to watch something similar. She found THE TIME IN BETWEEN, also on Netflix with subtitles, another Spanish period piece, and she was immediately hooked.

THE TIME IN BETWEEN is based on a novel which was an international bestseller by Spanish author Maria Duenas. It is a work of fiction; however, real characters are involved in the story. It is a show about a young woman, Sira, an illegitimate daughter of a seamstress who teaches her daughter her trade. Sira meets a young man who is an aspiring clerk, and soon they are engaged, until Sira falls for a typewriter salesman, Ramiro, and gets whisked away to Morocco. She leaves behind her mother with the Spanish Civil War brewing.

Ramiro steals the money that Sira was given by her father, who knew that war was coming when she finally got to meet him. Sira, shocked, leaves the hotel, and gets on a bus. She has a miscarriage and ends up arrested for leaving the hotel without paying the bill. She ends up in Tetouan, in a pension for Spanish people. She struggles to help the owner taking care of the place in order to earn her room and board, until the owner discovers Sira is a talented seamstress.

They steal some guns they find underneath one of the guest's floorboards, and sell them. The tension when Sira is wrapped up in the guns on the way to the dealers stings through the screen. Ms. Hen was scared that Sira wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure. Ms. Hen didn’t know if she could handle such pressure. But Sira is able to handle a lot more than she seems.

The show is only one season long, and it is plotted like a film. The turning point in the show comes exactly at the middle, when Rosalinda Fox asks Sira to help her spy for the English against the Germans in Madrid. Rosalinda is a real-life person who was an English spy, and the lover of Juan-Luis Beigbeder, also a character on the show. Beigbeder was Franco’s foreign minister after the Civil War.

Ms. Hen loved this show because it made her anxious, and she never knew what would happen next. She enjoys watching TV shows that get her riled up. Ms. Hen has never wanted to live the life of a spy, and she doesn’t know if she would have the nerve, but watching this show, it gives her the chance to live vicariously through the characters.

There is a pivotal scene in the show when Sira is in Lisbon, and she sneaks away from the driver who is escorting her, and also watching her, when she hides in a small truck full of chickens in order to go to Rosalinda’s house to ask for her help. Ms. Hen liked that Sira hid with some chickens, because Ms. Hen thinks that is good luck.

Sira travels from Madrid to Tetouan, back to Madrid to Lisbon.  She hides messages in Morse Code sewn into stitches in shirts to give to the English about the German women who are her customers at her shop. Ms. Hen didn’t know this TV show was a novel when she first started watching it, and she wishes she had read the book first, but she is glad she watched the show. She is happy that there are people that are as brave as Sira, even though she is a fictional character. Ms. Hen gives this show five feathers up.