Sunday, August 20, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE LOVE OF A GOOD WOMAN






The Love of a Good Woman
Alice Munroe
Penguin Books
1999

Ms. Hen bought this book because she knows that Alice Munro is a great writer, and she should read more of her. Ms. Hen doesn’t love short stories as much as novels, because she likes to sink her teeth into a novel and become entrenched in it, but these stories are different. Ms. Hen was able to live in the short stories; each was its own complete world, and Ms. Hen became immersed.

These stories are all about women in Canada, and they take place in a time past, mostly in the Fifties and Sixties, when life was completely different from the way it is now. Women were not treated with much respect, and were expected to live a certain way, and if they did not live like that, they were judged and maligned. All of these stories are about women who have taken a bad turn.

These stories are not light-hearted. They remind Ms. Hen of Flannery O’Connor’s writing. There is murder in “The Love of a Good Woman,” adultery in “The Children Stay,” spouse swapping in “Jakarta,” and a graphic description of abortion in “Before the Change.”  A scene in “Save the Reaper,” seems to be completely inspired by O’Connor, in which a grandmother takes her two grandchildren on a ride, and comes across a house of debauchery, and ends up with an escaped, rough young woman in her car. The grandmother feels unsafe, but she figures a way out of the trouble.

One thing Munro does well is subtext. The characters are saying or doing one thing, but they are actually something else is happening. In the story, “Rich as Stink,” Karin, a ten-year old girl visits her neighbor, Ann, and Karin notices, “She had put makeup on her face so it didn’t look so blotchy.” Karin notices that Ann had been crying, but Ann takes her to find some old clothes, and she puts her wedding dress on Karin. Ann tries to distract Karin from the fact that she had been crying, because she has to sell the house, and her husband doesn't love her anymore.

One other story in which there is subtext is the last one in the book, “My Mother’s Dream.” It is about a young woman, Jill, who has a baby, whose husband dies in World War II, and afterwards she stays with her in-laws. Jill doesn’t like the baby, and the baby doesn’t like her at first, but the baby takes to the sister-in-law Iona. Iona and Aisla and their mother have to go for a ride to visit someone, and Jill does not know how to be alone with the baby. When they come back, Iona thinks Jill murdered the baby, and mayhem ensues; the doctor comes to visit. The doctor and Aisla have a moment, “Too speedily and guiltily he took his own hands away. If he had not done it, it would have looked like an ordinary comfort he was administering. As a doctor is entitled to do.” There is something between the doctor and Aisla, but it’s a secret, as there are other secrets in this collection.

Ms. Hen did not think she could finish this book in a week, because it is long, but she did. She doesn’t give herself deadlines when she reads, but she likes to write about a book once a week. But even thought this book is lengthy, it is engrossing. It’s no wonder that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize – Ms. Hen thinks she deserves it! And though Ms. Hen has strong opinions, she’s usually right.



Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE






Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Susan Vreeland
Penguin Books
1999

Ms. Hen found this book at the Little Free Library in the town where she lives. A little free library is a small box where people can pick up books and drop off books for free! Ms. Hen is excited that there are some where she lives now. She picked this book up because she liked the title and the cover.

Ms. Hen didn’t know what this book was when she first started reading it. She thought it was a novel, but it turned out to be a novel in stories. All the stories surround a painting by Vermeer, GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE, and the mystery of its origin. The book takes the reader back through the history of the painting, and the different owners, and how they felt about it.

The book opens with the story, “Love Enough,” about a math teacher who owns the painting, and he is not sure if it’s a Vermeer. He acquires this painting through dubious means, and shows an art teacher colleague to get a professional opinion. He keeps the painting a secret from everyone, and it nearly ruins him. This story, and “Morningshine,” a story about a family who finds a child and the painting together, in which the wife does not want to let go of the painting, since it is the only beautiful item they own, remind Ms. Hen of the novel, THE PEARL by John Steinbeck. In that novel, the characters are left to ruin by a pearl that they think will save their lives, which is similar to these stories; the characters thinks a painting will save their lives, and it does not.

The story, “Adagia,” reminds Ms. Hen of the story, “The Dead,” by James Joyce. In “Adagia,” a husband and wife walk behind their daughter and her intended, and they reminisce about their life together. The man tells his wife about the story of his former sweetheart, whom he left by the wayside, but always regretted it. The story is wistful, and sad, and the wife became troubled after the husband tells her about his past. Ms. Hen thinks this is similar to “The Dead,” because possesses a comparable feeling; in that story, a wife tells her husband of a boy she loved who died, and she never forgot him.

Most of these stories take place in the Netherlands, which Ms. Hen thinks is lovely. She hasn’t read that many novels that take place there. She tried to imagine the countryside, with its flooding and windmills; she was entranced.

There are a few chickens mentioned in this novel.  Ms. Hen’s favorite is,

“...so small and new it was only a few twigs above the water, to see if their chickens were in it. Maybe Stijn would find them today. She felt the loss of Pookje the most. She was the beauty, with those chestnut feathers soft as baby’s hair on her throat. And how she always rose so dainty-proud to show the perfect egg she produced.”

This is from the story, “Morningshine,” which Ms. Hen thinks is the turning point of the novel because the owner of the painting is heartbroken to sell it, since it brings her so much happiness.

Ms. Hen loved GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE. She thinks it is a beautiful small book, and it is very fast to read, not only because the pages are small, but because she became engrossed with the characters and their lives and their relationships to the enchanting masterpiece.






Sunday, August 6, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews ART AND LIES






ART AND LIES
Jeanette Winterson
Vintage International
1994

Ms. Hen bought this book because she has read several books by Jeanette Winterson, and she enjoyed them. She had a hard time getting into the lyricism and poetry of this novel, because her head was still wrapped up in the of the language of last book she read, UGLY GIRLS, which is completely different; it’s more stark, plain, rough storytelling.

But when she was in ART AND LIES, it became magical. This novel is about three characters, Handel, Picasso, and Sappho, who are all traveling on a train. The different chapters describe each character.

Handel is a priest and a surgeon, and he has led a colorful life. He works in a hospital and administers help to the poor at times and is a breast surgeon. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is a scene with a charity patient who is a prostitute and he removes the wrong breast during surgery. Handel describes the bucket of breasts left by the operating table.

Picasso is a young woman and a painter. Her brother molested her for her whole life, and her parents refused to see it. She goes insane and paints the walls of their house odd colors. Picasso is always obsessed with art, but her father tells her that women are not artists.

Sappho is the poet from Lesbos. She describes her life across the ages. She is mad for love and sex and people. There are several fairy tales intertwined into her story, and she does not hold anything back.

The three characters are separate, but they work together. Handel is a priest, and has nothing to do with sex, and Picasso was molested, so she is scarred, and Sappho is a nymphomaniac. They have three different attitudes when it comes to intimate relations. They could be a manifestation of all of us, a little piece of all of them lives in everyone.

One of the ideas put forth by the novel is that  “language is artifice.” Ms. Hen agrees with this, even though she does not want to. She knows that language is a made up thing, but we need it in our lives to express what it is we want to say. Ms. Hen thinks in words all the time, and she cannot imagine a life without words. But in nature, there are no words, there is only feeling. Humanity has gone past that and lives in words instead of breathing and air and intuition.

There are a few chickens in the novel. Ms. Hen's favorite is, “At night her mother pecked her on the cheek as hens peck at their food. Her face was a dirt yard where hens peck.” She enjoyed this metaphor of Picasso’s face as a dirt yard where hens peck. She’s never read a description of a face like that before. This entire book is full of that type of image, and charming little stories.


Ms. Hen loved this book, even though she found it hard to swim through its waters. It’s philosophical, and deep, and she doesn’t think it was the right book for her to read at this exact time. It’s not a summer, airy book; it’s more of a November or February book, meant to be read under the cloak of darkness and mist. Nevertheless, she gives it her stamp of approval.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews UGLY GIRLS


UGLY GIRLS
Lindsay Hunter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2014


Ms. Hen found this novel in a bookstore when she was on vacation in a faraway place. She picked it up because she liked the title, but is usually wary about buying books she knows nothing about. She doesn’t want to get tricked by a cute title, but then, when she looked at the back, she noticed that one of her three favorite teachers from writing school Bret AnthonyJohnston wrote a blurb and raved about the book. She respects his opinion, and thought that might be a sign telling her to buy the book, so she did.

Ms. Hen was caught up immediately in the girls’ world. They are bad girls, and Baby Girl is the ugly one; she is half bald and a little chunky. Perry is cute, with a blonde ponytail and green eyes; she’s the one that the boys are always after. They are not friends in the way that girls are usually friends. They don’t share their secrets with each other and gossip and talk about boys and their hair. They do bad things.

Perry and Baby Girl steal cars in the middle of the night. They don’t try to sell them; they just drive them around. They stay out all night and sleep during class. The future holds nothing for their bleak lives. Perry lives in a trailer park with her mother, Myra, and her stepfather, Jim, who works as a prison guard. Baby Girl lives with her brother Charles, who had been in an accident and is now disabled, and also with her Uncle Dave.

The girls are both being stalked online by Jamey, a boy who they think is in high school, but is actually a lot older. Baby Girl is jealous of Perry because she thinks Jamey is using her to get to Perry.

Ms. Hen would categorize this novel as a “girl buddy” novel. There aren’t many of these in existence, but Ms. Hen knows there are some. These girl buddies are into their delinquency for the thrill of being bad and nothing else.

There is an overall ominous tone to this novel. Ms. Hen knew something horrendous would happen, possibly many tragedies, and she was not wrong. Even though Ms. Hen knew it was coming, she was not disappointed. She didn’t know what exactly would happen, but when the climax of the novel occurred, she was disgusted and sad.

Even though Ms. Hen thinks this is a fantastic novel, she didn’t love it too much. There seemed to be too many visuals carefully placed about the characters’ lives. The details of certain things seemed as if the author is painting a picture that to her is an unknown world, something quaint to discuss among friends who know nothing of such places. Ms. Hen knows these places exist, but she thinks this is a portrayal that’s forcing itself to fit into a space that is not quite right.

Other than that, Ms. Hen thinks this is a fun novel. It’s a little too rough for the delicate book club set, so if you loved A MAN CALLED OVE, this book is not for you. This book is meant for people who don’t mind vulgarity and want to be a bit disturbed.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA





LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Penguin Books
1985, 1988
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

Ms. Hen decided to read this again after she read THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING by Milan Kundera because the character in that book reminded her of the character in this one. If you read Ms. Hen’s post about that, she decided that Florentino Ariza was less unsavory than Tomas in the Czech novel. Ms. Hen remembered Florentino Ariza as a romantic soul, and she was reminded again why she loved this book so much the first time.

Ms. Hen recalled that the last time she read LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA was eleven years ago. She was a younger hen back then, and not that experienced and wise in the ways of literature. She has since received two degrees in this subject, and she has read countless books since the last time she read this, and thought about them deeply. She was startled reading this in the beginning, because she didn’t remember admiring Fermina’s husband Dr. Urbino that much the first time. During this reading, she found him more sympathetic at the beginning of the novel, but towards the end, she felt more compassion for Florentino.

Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza meet when they are young and have a romantic correspondence. He first sees her at her father’s house when he is delivering a telegram, and he becomes entranced. They write to each other for years, until Florentino follows Fermina in the market, she turns to him, and she tells him that nothing can be between them. From Ms. Hen’s first reading, she does not recall the moment when that happened in the book. She always remembered the couple not getting together, and then she marries the doctor because her father wishes it, and they go their separate ways.

Ms. Hen thinks it’s funny how memory can trick us. She remembered the story one way, but it unfolded in a different way.

When Fermina rejects Florentino, he becomes a womanizer. Not right away, but he does eventually. He travels up the river, and a woman bursts into his cabin on the boat and she seduces him. He doesn’t know who she is, but he thinks it’s one traveling with a group of women who have a child in a birdcage. Multiple birdcages spurt up in this novel in different places; many birds and animals appear, and Ms. Hen enjoyed this.

What she enjoyed most was the mammoth amount of hens, roosters and chickens that appear in this novel, mostly roosters. She took the time to count: she calculated there are twenty-nine times one is mentioned in the book! There are numerous beautiful quotes about chickens, and every time Ms. Hen read one, her feathers ruffled. One of her favorites is, “In Valledupar, she realized why the roosters chase the hens.” Another one she enjoyed is when a widow is talking to Florentino about how old people smell, “‘Now we stink like a henhouse.’"

Ms. Hen remembered when she reread ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, she discovered the book was full of chickens as well. She might have to read Marquez’s books eventually to find all the chickens that live in his worlds.


Ms. Hen thinks that this is one of the perfect love stories of all time. It shows that a person can love someone his whole life, and wait (in a way) for her forever. Florentino was true in his heart to Fermina Daza, and he one of the most romantic characters that Ms. Hen has read. Ms. Hen loved reading this book again; she consumed it hungrily, it was more than she had remembered, and she was grateful she went back.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE BLUE FOX







THE BLUE FOX
Sjon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2004, 2008
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

As many of Ms. Hen’s fans know, she went through a spell of reading Icelandic novels right before her trip to Iceland in April. She thought she might have been finished reading those books, but how could she finish? She stumbled across this small gem, and decided to save it for the midst of summer when the weather is sweltering, since it takes place during an Icelandic winter.

At first Ms. Hen didn’t know what she was reading: she didn’t know if it was poetry or short prose. The pages in the first section are spaced like flash fiction. The novel starts with a priest hunting a blue fox in the winter in the wilderness. The fox teases the priest and gives him a hearty chase.

It is also the story of the priest’s life before the fox hunt and the world that surrounds him, including his neighbors and a Down Syndrome girl the people find on an abandoned ship.

A section of the book had the priest and the blue fox arguing about electricity. Ms. Hen had never considered that electricity would be something to argue about, but in Iceland in 1883, when the book takes place, she understands why that would occur. She believes it might have been controversial the way stem cell treatments are now, or enhanced minds will be very soon. Ms. Hen has read a lot about brain implants and the thought terrifies her. She does not want the Internet in her head, but she thinks that this development is most likely inevitable. She fears a world where nobody will take the time to read a novel or look at the blue sky, but it’s already happening, since a lot of people are glued to their phones incessantly. But she does not wish to digress and preach about her opinions on technology.

This novel is brief and it reads like poetry. Ms. Hen dashed through it in two days. She doesn’t usually read a book with so much speed, but this one lent itself to be read that way.

There is one mention of a chicken in THE BLUE FOX, “Wiping the food off her hands, she embraced the young man’s head as he wept in the chicken hatch, comforting him with the following words: ‘Furru ahm-ahm, furru ahm-ahm.’” The disabled woman who was taken into the household tries to help the young man who is crying, but she does not know the language, and she does not know any words. They are in the chicken hatch because they sleep there, since they are outcasts.


Ms. Hen loved this book; it is wispy and air-like. The author is a lyricist as well, and has written songs for Bjork. Ms. Hen thought that she finished it too soon, and it didn’t make her as cold in the middle of the summer as she might have wanted. But her air conditioner works now, so she is not fainting away, dreaming of snow in Iceland.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING















THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING
By Milan Kundera
Harper & Row
1984
Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim

Ms. Hen happened to buy this at a used bookstore a while back since she had heard it is considered one of the great books. She had no idea what it was about when she started reading, but soon she was engrossed in the story of tortured love.

The title of this novel has to do with lightness and heaviness. The protagonist, Tomas, believes that everything is light and nothing he does, including having numerous sexual partners, matters. His lover, Tereza, who becomes his wife, believes that everything is heavy, and she cannot bear the weight of the world. He believes she came to him in a “bulrush basket” like Moses, and he cannot turn her away, because that would be cruel.

She comes to visit him in Prague after a brief encounter in the small village where she lives. After he seduces her, she gets very sick, and he believes that he has to take care of her. He refuses to give up his other lovers, however, and even introduced Tereza to the sly Sabina so she can help Tereza find employment.

Around Tomas and Tereza, Prague is in an uproar. The Russians are taking over the city with tanks and guns. Citizens are being shot. Tereza, a photographer, takes pictures of what is happening to prove to the world that this is wrong.

Tereza and Tomas leave and go to Switzerland, but come back eventually because Tereza leaves and Tomas follows her. They have a difficult love; he loves her, but he thinks he needs other women.

He chases what he says is the one-millionth part difference between all women. He is a surgeon, and he believes that intimacy with a woman is similar to cutting open a body with a scalpel; he does it to discover how unique each woman is underneath everything else. He considers tastes in art and music interesting, but he is more interested in finding out the secret difference that dwells beneath.

Even though Ms. Hen knows this is one of the great novels, she found the character of Tomas to be unsavory. She doesn’t know anyone like him, nor would she wish to. She found his philandering unpleasant, and she was reminded of another novel she had read years ago, one of her favorites, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, in which a man, Florentino, and a woman, Fermina, are in love, but she is forced to marry a doctor because of his money and status.

In that novel, when Florentino’s heart is broken, he sleeps with every woman he can find. Ms. Hen did not find Florentino as creepy in that novel as she did Tomas in this one. In LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, the character stayed true to his heart. Tomas never stays true to his heart, and that is what disgusts Ms. Hen about him, and it prevented her from loving this novel too much.

There are some chickens in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, but not too many. What Ms. Hen did learn was the original German meaning of the word “kitsch.” It is “an aesthetic ideal of categorical agreement with being in a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.” This can mean actual shit or figurative shit. The word has become used in all Western languages and has changed its meaning. Ms. Hen does not deny shit; she knows it exists; her world is full of it. People who deny shit have rose-colored glasses, and Ms. Hen cannot tolerate that. The world may be full of shit, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good things too; Ms. Hen is not a complete pessimist. But she does not ascribe to kitsch.

Even though Ms. Hen did not love this book completely, she found it illuminating and educational. The world does have unpleasant people in it, like Tomas, and that cannot be denied, but that doesn’t mean that some things can be beautiful.