Friday, April 29, 2016


Yi Shun Lai
Shade Mountain Press

Ms. Hen does not usually read self-help books, but this is not that kind of book.  The character in this novel, Marty Wu, loves to read self-help books in order to improve her life. She is searching for something to change, to help make her outlook better, and to help her deal with her mother and her problems.

This book is different from other novels Ms. Hen has read. For one thing, the protagonist is very young. Ms. Hen doesn’t have a problem being around young people, and even reading novels about them, but this book is about a young person in today’s immediate society. Ms. Hen found this novel refreshing because she has never read a novel about a young person that could be one that she might see standing in line at a coffee shop, staring at her phone, with headphones on, worried about her future, and who could shortly make a disaster of her life.

Another aspect of this novel, which is new to Ms. Hen is the subject matter: it is about a young woman with a “tiger mother,” a term used to describe Asian parents that are overbearing and demanding. Ms. Hen’s parents were never anything like Marty Wu’s mother. Ms. Hen knows that parents like this exist, because she has heard stories. Marty’s mother is a force of nature, and nothing Marty does can please her. Whatever Marty says or does her mother throws a negative retort back at her daughter.

This novel is about a young woman trying to find herself, and what she wants from her life. Marty Wu works at a magazine in the sales department, and she acquired the job from her boyfriend, the boss, who soon became her ex-boyfriend. Marty is a mess, she wants things that she doesn’t have; she flubs a sales conference in a dramatic way, and gets fired. She dreams of opening a costume shop, but her dream seems to slip father and farther away when she travels to Taiwan with her mother.

The drama gets deeper and deeper in Taiwan. Her mother insinuates to the relatives what Marty did to get fired from her job. Marty tried to find peace in the house where she lived when she was young. The description of the family house is beautiful; Ms. Hen wished she could go there and relax. She especially liked the way the courtyard is described while Marty is painting with her aunt, “…my aunt’s one rooster, standing head and part of his wing above his harem of hens.” Ms. Hen also loves the Taiwan in the novel; it is a place where Marty can become the person she wants to be, by being the person she always has been.

This novel is about a young person living in a difficult world, and trying to find her way amidst the turmoil in her life. Reading the novel is like listening to a person speak really fast, trying to figure out life. The diary style of writing works well for the immediacy and energy of the novel. Ms. Hen got to know Marty’s voice and her problems, and how she tried to solve them. NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK is a fast-paced, rollicking ride through someone’s troubled life that is not yours, which might make you appreciate your own problems. Ms. Hen enjoyed the novel because it is a different perspective for her, and she likes seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Simone De Beauvoir
Translated from the French by Patrick O’Brian
Pantheon Books

Ms. Hen chose to read this book because she recently watched the film VIOLETTE, about Violette Leduc, and Simone De Beauvoir appeared as a character in the film, and was her mentor and friend. Ms. Hen was curious about both writers, and she was browsing in a used bookstore and by chance she found this jem.

Ms. De Beauvoir says in the introduction to the book that she had several unfinished novels before she started writing these stories about young women she knew, including herself. She thinks that her writing improved when she wrote about women’s issues that were from real life rather than things she invented. Ms. Hen agrees with her in that writing should be personal and honest, even when it is fiction. Ms. De Beauvoir claims this collection is a beginner’s work, but Ms. Hen couldn’t help but think, what a beginner!

The stories are each about one young woman and the story’s title bears her name: Marcelle, Chantal, Lisa, Anne, and Marguerite. Ms. Hen thought a lot of these stories were sad; the characters don’t seem to have any hope for their lives, and seem to dwell in misery. She believes the reason is their Catholic upbringing, and the pressure that society put upon them to behave in a certain way and do what their parents tell them.

Marcelle is a serious young woman who falls into the hands of the wrong man, and pays the price by losing her freedom. She doesn’t realize who she is marrying and what she is getting herself into. Chantal is a young teacher at a girl’s school in the provinces and she tries to be the “good” teacher, but is shocked by the students’ behavior when one of them asks for advice on a delicate matter.

The character Lisa goes to the dentist, and on her way a middle-aged woman accuses her of being her husband’s mistress. She goes to the dentist, and he tries to flirt with her, and says, “’Pretty girls shouldn’t be allowed to study.’” Ms. Hen was shocked by this. She was shocked because no professional man would be allowed to say that to a young woman in today's society, and if he did, he would be fired.

Ms. Hen thinks it’s horrible that men were allowed to treat women like that in France in the 1930s. Ms. Hen is happy that she doesn’t live in a society where this kind of behavior is acceptable, and has decided to celebrate that fact that she was not alive eighty years ago when men were allowed to act like that. Life for women isn't perfect now, but society has improved as time moves on, as Ms. Hen believes.

Anne is a character who is tied to her mother, and she thinks she has to follow her mother’s commands. She comes to a tragic end. Marguerite is the wildest character in the collection. She goes out to cafes to drink and toys with men, but falls in love with the wrong man. She is the person who is most likely to come out okay of all these women. Marguerite is based on Ms. De Beauvoir, and Ms. Hen can see how her independent streak was born.

A lot of these stories made Ms. Hen angry and upset, not because she felt sorry for the characters, but upset that society made it possible for such women to exist. Ms. Hen likes to think that women have more options today, and are not stuck with no way out. Ms. Hen loved this collection of short stories, even though she felt sorry for the characters, and the book made her sad, she’s happy she does not have to live with the utter hopelessness that they felt in that time.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews Portland, Maine

Portland, Maine

Ms. Hen recently went on a short trip to Portland, Maine. She wanted to get away for a few days and she didn’t want to go far. Usually when she goes on a trip, she travels to faraway places like Europe or Washington D.C., somewhere she can get on a plane and not have to worry about going in a car, since she is a bit driving impaired. She has her license, but she prefers not to drive because she finds it stressful.

Ms. Hen took the Amtrak from North Station to Portland. She has taken the train before, but most of the time, she has gone south to New York. She found the train to Maine less crowded and more pleasant than going south. She had two seats to herself the whole time back and forth. The trip takes about two and a half hours.

Ms. Hen stayed at a bed and breakfast place called the Inn at St. John She picked the place because it was inexpensive and it was right near the train station. She walked in the door, and classical music was playing and the place was lovely. It seemed to her to be the kind of hotel where people go to have love affairs. She wasn’t having a love affair, and was initially nervous that the strange atmosphere would bother her, but it didn’t.

Ms. Hen at the Inn at St. John

The hotel is the oldest in Portland, and is a European style hotel, and it didn’t have an elevator. Ms. Hen was on the top floor. She didn’t realize how awkward the stairs were, or she would have taken the offer someone made to help carry her bags. Some of the rooms at the hotel have shared bathrooms, but Ms. Hen’s room had a private hall bath, which was the second cheapest room in the hotel.

Ms. Hen thought her room was charming. It was perfect for getting away for a few nights. It had a refrigerator, a coffee maker, a TV that she didn’t watch, bathrobes, and the people at the hotel left a basket of snacks. Of course free WIFI was available. There was coffee and tea in the lobby all day, but Ms. Hen is a coffee snob and she always brings her own, because hotel coffee is usually below par, and yes, the coffee at this hotel was as expected.

Ms. Hen didn’t have any concrete plans as to what she was going to do. She mostly explored the streets and looked at things, went out to eat, took pictures, and went shopping. She thinks it’s wonderful to be in a different place. The hotel is near the downtown area where a myriad of used bookstores and art galleries and restaurants are located. The first night Ms. Hen ate at a fantastic vegetarian Thai place called The Green Elephant, and she had Thai Basil fried rice with vegetarian meat and it was tasty.

It snowed the second day, and Ms. Hen decided she would walk to the Old Port area, which was a long walk from the hotel. She got lost and wandered farther than she should have. The day was cold. Ms. Hen had planned in advance that she would go to a place called The Blue Rooster for lunch because she liked the name of the place. She had a beet goat cheese sandwich and poutine tater tots, and she ate quickly, since the tater tots were hot, and she needed the warmth. The place is a café, and is very small, but the food was delicious.
Ms. Hen at the Blue Rooster waiting for her lunch

Ms. Hen walked around the Old Port area, and some of the streets were paved with cobblestones. There were lots of quaint shops, and it seemed like it would be packed in the summer with tourists. Many of the seafood places on the water were still closed for the season.

On her last full day, Ms. Hen went back to the Old Port District to search out some seafood for lunch. She ate at Gritty McDuff’s, a brewpub and restaurant where she enjoyed some baked stuffed haddock. The tables at the place were not the most comfortable; they were picnic table style, with seats that had no backs.

Old Port area

Ms. Hen always feels rushed when she eats at a sit-down restaurant when she travels alone. But she never feels rushed when she goes to a coffee shop, because the employees don’t pay attention to how long a person stays. Ms. Hen went to a few great independent coffee shops in Portland. She went to Yordprom Coffee, where she had an almond croissant and a soy latte; Tandem Coffee and Bakery, which is a converted garage, but Ms. Hen though it was too drafty inside; and Bard Coffee, in the Old Port area, where Ms. Hen went twice and loved the coffee and atmosphere.

Ms. Hen drinks coffee at Bard Coffee

Ms. Hen thinks it’s great to get away for a few days, with no grand plan and no expectations. She didn’t feel stressed or rushed, and she didn’t feels like she had to do absolutely everything on her list. She did some writing in her hotel room in the mornings before she went out. Portland Maine is trendy and cool in its own way, with a Mainer edge to it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews SACRED COUNTRY

Rose Tremain
Washington Square Press

Ms. Hen has recently become interested in transsexuals, not the how, but the why. Why would someone want to be different from they way they are? Why would a woman feel that she is supposed to be a man and vice versa? Ms. Hen found a lot of nonfiction books about transsexuals, but she wanted to read a novel, because she thinks she can get inside a character’s skin better if she reads fiction. She found this novel, about a transsexual man, his life and transformation.

Mary Ward feels as if she were trapped in the wrong body from the time of the two-minute silence when the king of England dies in 1952. She is six years old. Her father had lost one of his ears during World War II. Her father wanted her to be a boy when she was born, and is disappointed that she is a girl. Her brother, Timmy, is not as strong as Mary.

Mary does what she wants to do, and does not listen to people. SACRED COUNTRY is filled with lonely characters: Mary’s mother’s Estelle, goes in and out of a psychiatric hospital; her brother, Timmy, does not want to work the farm; their neighbor, Walter, dreams of going to Nashville to become a country singer. Nobody in the book has what they want, and they dream of other lives.

The setting plays a big part in how the characters feel about their lives. In Suffolk, in the village of Swaithy, people have no hope that their lives will change. Mary does not want to be a girl; when she visits her grandfather she decides that she want to be called Martin, and her grandfather goes along with that. He is intelligent enough that when the time comes for Martin to reveal his true self, the grandfather accepts him.

Mary moves to London and tries to survive in the big city, attempting to transform himself into Martin. He seeks professional help, makes friends, works at a magazine, and has a series of operations. He suffers from not getting what he wants, but he keeps going on.

Martin struggles to find peace, but it comes to him in waves. He can’t get exactly what he wants, but he finds that he does not need that much in his life to be satisfied.

Ms. Hen was pleased that there were chickens in SACRED COUNTRY. The Ward family owns a farm, so of course they had hens and roosters running around. Ms. Hen’s favorite chicken in the novel was the patient in the psychiatric hospital with Estelle, Alice, called “The Chicken Lady.” She decided one day that she would rather be a chicken than a human.  Many characters in this novel want to be something that they’re not, and The Chicken Lady is an extreme version of that notion. Ms. Hen knows that The Chicken Lady is out of touch with reality, but she thinks that if someone wants to be an animal it’s admirable that she would want to be a chicken.

Ms. Hen loved this novel. She thinks she doesn’t understand the why of transsexuals, but she understands that some things simply are the way they are. We can’t change how we feel, but we can change our view of the world. Change comes from within, and viewing our lives with new eyes can be enlightening, as it is for Martin Ward when he becomes who he is supposed to be.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE and other essays from a life outside the lines

THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE and other essays from a life outside the lines
Leslie Lawrence
SUNY Press, Albany, New York

Ms. Hen happened to read this collection of essays because it fell into her lap. Sometimes a book can find its way to her, and she’s glad this one did. THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE is a collection of essays about the author’s life: her experience choosing to be a lesbian parent when it wasn’t as common as it is now, about becoming a widow, also about teaching, being a writer, and striving to find and create art in a world that thirsts for more beauty.

Ms. Hen appreciated the honesty in this collection of essays. She felt as if she knows Leslie Lawrence well after reading the book. Ms. Hen thinks Ms. Lawrence has led a lovely life, that she hasn’t always achieved what she wanted, but she seems like a happy person, one who can survive life’s tempests and come out on the other side of the ocean with her sails still waving in the wind.

The title essay, “The Death of Fred Astaire,” is about her desire to become a mother despite the fact that she was in a lesbian relationship. The Eighties were a time when artificial insemination was first being introduced, but Ms. Lawrence decided to choose the biological father of her child, because she wanted to know his history and wanted her child to have a father figure. She started by making a list of men - some former lover, some friends - and eventually found a suitable match. Ms. Lawrence had a boy, and became the mother she always wanted to be.

In “The Third Hottest Pepper in Honduras,” Ms. Lawrence talks about her experience as a temporary teacher in an inner city school in Boston. She thought she was doing a wonderful job, until she went back to school the next year. This reminded Ms. Hen of all the times when she thought she was doing well, but ended up failing. Ms. Hen enjoyed the honesty in this essay; life can throw a person a fast ball and she can get hit on the head when she thinks she’s about to hit a home run.

The largest section of the collection, and the most fascinating, appears at the end of the book, entitled, “Wonderlust.” It contains short essays on the classes Ms. Lawrence has taken in her life: art classes, dance classes, classes on education and other subjects. She explains why she took these classes as the desire for meaning, to find beauty in the world. Ms. Hen thinks that one of the most moving essays in this section is “Plank,” about Ms. Lawrence's desire to take a sculpture class when her partner Sandy was receiving chemo for cancer. Her therapist told her, "‘When your bank account is empty, you need to refill it.’" Ms. Hen loves the idea of refilling your bank account with the quest for aesthetics. The world could be crashing around us, but we should still seek what is beautiful. And Ms. Hen thinks it's possible that is one of the reasons we’re alive.

Ms. Hen loved wading through the pages of THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE. As she read, she discovered it is not the kind of book that a person can read through quickly; she would read an essay, but she would stop to think about for a short time before reading the next one. This is a book that makes a reader stop and consider that person’s own life, what does the reader think of this subject, and why is it important?

A book that makes a reader ask questions is the type Ms. Hen enjoys reading. She likes a window into someone else’s life, especially if it is one that is filled with the quest for beauty and love, the desire to produce art, and the hope that our part of the world matters.