Sunday, October 22, 2017


The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, And the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer
Roseanne Montillo
Harper Collins

Ms. Hen decided to read this because she thought it would be appropriate for the Halloween season. It’s not a scary book about ghosts and magic, but rather a scary book about a boy who lived a long time ago in nineteenth century Boston, who tortured and then murdered other children.

Ms. Hen thinks this book is graphic, and may not be suitable for children or adults who get disturbed by descriptions of gross things. Ms. Hen is not squeamish about things when she reads them, but only when she sees them in real life. This is the reason she could never be a nurse, because the thought of sticking a catheter into someone or wiping someone’s bottom is something she couldn’t bear to do.

Ms. Hen enjoys reading about upsetting things. She also likes the descriptions of Boston in the nineteenth century. She knows a lot of the places and landmarks in this book, and she learned things she didn’t know before, such as Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill is where the brothels used to be located. She has been to that street, and she can’t ever imagine it being dangerous. It’s a lovely quiet street in an upscale neighborhood.

This is a true story of a serial killer, Jesse Pomeroy who killed two children in South Boston in the 1870s. He got caught, but he denied ever killing the children. His mother didn’t believe he did the crimes. Intertwined with Jesse’s history are parts about the Great Boston Fire of 1872, and Herman Melville’s life. The book talks a lot about madness and how it was perceived in that day. Jesse was thought of as mad. Herman Melville’s novel BILLY BUDD is supposedly based on Jesse’s story.

One thing that Ms. Hen thinks is fascinating was the idea that the so-called “dime novels” that Jesse read caused him to commit his crimes. (They were small books about violence and other macabre subjects.) People say that these days, not about novels, but about movies and video games and pornography. The literati in the nineteenth century thought that the dime novels were ruining quality literature, and people, especially young boys, were drawn to them for the quick thrills they gave.

A publisher, James Thomas Fields, wanted to find out if the dime novels did cause Jesse to become a murderer. He visited Jesse in the Charles Street Jail, and he talked with him. Fields came to the conclusion, which is still true today, that reading cheap novels does not make a person commit crimes. If the inclination is there, the person will become evil, and reading dime novels simply makes the person more attuned to the dark side of nature.

Ms. Hen had a couple of moments while reading this novel. She was riding the subway, and she read the opening to one of the chapters about the prison in Charlestown, and the golden light that shines on it, and suddenly, she was in the exact place the prison was located, where now stands Bunker Hill Community College, and the golden light of the afternoon was shining. She also decided to visit the Liberty Hotel, which is the former Charles Street jail, and took some pictures. A family walked through the lobby, the parents drinking flutes of champagne, and the father saying to a little boy of about five, “These rooms used to be jail cells,” laughing. Ms. Hen doesn’t think the men who were jailed there would think it was funny. She wonders if the ghosts of the inmates haunt the hotel, with all the laughing that goes on about it now, it was a terrible place to be for over one hundred years.

Ms. Hen does not read a lot of nonfiction because sometimes it can seem a little too lecture-like for her. But she liked this book because it was about a piece of her city's history. She likes the parts about madness and murder, and also learning how people and their attitudes have changed.

Ms. Hen didn't come to The Liberty Hotel, but her alter-ego went there during her lunch break. She works next door.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


The Night Country
Stewart O’Nan

Ms. Hen decided to read this because she loves Halloween books, and she wanted to discover new ones. She did a search online and most didn’t interest her, but she had read another book by Stewart O’Nan, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER, about working at a restaurant, and she enjoys his writing, so she bought THE NIGHT COUNTRY.

She didn’t read that much about the book before she got into it, but when she first started, she didn’t understand what was happening. She had to read a little bit get into it. The novel is about a group of friends, three of whom died in a car crash on Halloween: Danielle, Toe and Marco. The novel takes place on Halloween the next year, and the three kids who died are haunting different people in the town: their friend Tim, who didn’t die in the crash; the police officer Brooks, who first arrived on the scene; Kyle’s mom, the mother of their friend who didn’t die, but became brain damaged; and their other friends, Greg and Travis.

Brooks feels guilty about the crash; he was chasing the kids and they crashed into a tree. His wife left him with the house, which he is trying to sell, but nobody is offering the price he wants. Kyle’s mom is devastated that she has to take care of her son like he’s a child for the rest of his life. Greg and Travis are angry that their friends died. The ghosts follow the people around, and they know what they’re thinking, and they try to do things to influence them, but it doesn’t always work.

This is reviewed as a horror novel, but Ms. Hen doesn’t think it is. It’s a literary novel about ghosts. Ms. Hen thinks it’s a realistic novel about what ghosts could really be like. When she was reading this, Ms. Hen couldn’t help but wonder if there are any ghosts following her; if there is anyone she has known who could be stalking her, and watching her. She doesn’t know if she believes in angels, but ghosts could be more realistic. Angels are considered benevolent, and want to help people, but ghosts are just there, watching, knowing, and possibly judging.

One thing Ms. Hen loves about this novel is the writing, which is very clean and descriptive and original. The author knows how to put a sentence together; his writing is tight and crisp, and every word is perfect. Ms. Hen admires that.

There are two mentions of chickens on the same page, which Ms. Hen doesn’t count as being chickens. The kids were in the car, “From the backseat you can’t see the tree, or only at the last minute, if you happen to be backseat driving, chickenshit.” And then after being chased, “It is a game of chicken.” Ms. Hen doesn’t consider these chickens, because she considers chickens brave, but she is only a purse. But this is an important part of the novel, because it’s where the story begins.

Other than the lack of real chickens, Ms. Hen thinks this is an exceptional book. She has her favorite Halloween books, and this one might now be esteemed in their company. This isn’t spooky, but it’s a perfect for Halloween, right for autumn days with the leaves falling and pumpkin spice in the air.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Random House

Ms. Hen picked up this book at a Little Free Library near where she lives;
she had heard
it wasn’t that good, but wanted
to pick out a free book. She read the novel in letters,
the epistolary novel, if you will,
about the woman writer in post-World War II England;
she makes pen pals on Guernsey, an island occupied by Germans in the war;
she wants to write a book about it,
but she doesn’t know where to start.

One thing this novel does well is that it reeks
of charm, which shines on every page, but does charm
make a novel work? Ms. Hen thinks a person without charm is worthless,
but a book stuffed with it doesn’t always cut the chocolate cake.

The problem Ms. Hen had with this book is that it doesn’t
know what it wants to be.
It is a romance novel, a novel about war and occupation,
the horror of concentration camps,
and a humorous novel?
Oscar Wilde materializes suddenly;
this novel is too many things for one book.
It’s not the letters which make it difficult; it’s the story:
there’s too much happening all at once, and it is not to Ms. Hen’s taste.

Ms. Hen didn’t like this book enough to write a real review,
so she wrote this review,
to let everyone know this book isn’t good enough for her,
you would be better off walking in the woods,
or making chili,
or watching movies, 
than reading this book.

Monday, October 9, 2017


History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing Up in an American Communist Family
Dan Lynn Watt

Ms. Hen decided to read this memoir because she had heard the author read from it at an open mic series, and she was fascinated with the story of his youth growing up in an American communist family. This is a different type of life story than she has heard or read before; Ms. Hen does not know that many communists that grew up in the 1940s and 50s. Ms. Hen’s family was ardent anti-communist, like many Americans were in that time.

The memoir starts with Dan’s recollections of his childhood. His father, George, was active in the communist party in the 1930s, and went away to fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. His father regaled young Dan with the tale of swimming across the Ebro River and being rescued by Ernest Hemmingway; afterwards, the article was on the front page of THE NEW YORK TIMES. He later entertained Dan with the story of his plane getting shot down by a German fighter plane over Belgium and parachuting to save his life.

When Dan writes about his childhood growing up in New York and listening to his father’s stories, Ms. Hen sees his life through a child’s eyes. She thinks that the author captures the wide-eyed innocence of childhood; he recollects what it was like to be awed by his larger-than-life father, and the energy that surrounded him.

Not everything is this memoir is pleasant. For a long time, George Watt was on the run from the government, because of his involvement with the Communist Party. Ms. Hen understands that it must have been difficult on the family to have the father absent for such long periods of time.

Ms. Hen does not want to give away what happens in this memoir, but she will say that young Dan had a colorful life in his early years. He had to learn how to hide the fact that he came from a communist family from his classmates and teachers at school. He was afraid that people would find out and squeal on him, or he would be ostracized. Ms. Hen imagines what a difficult life it would be to have to hide your politics and opinions from people.

But his life was not all terrible: he became interested in human rights and Civil Rights; he learned how to organize and gets things done. Ms. Hen was impressed by the fearlessness which he acquired in his youth, especially when he travelled to Tennessee to help African-Americans register to vote.

The communists in the United States in the 1940s and 50s had the idea that the Soviet Union was the ultimate workers' paradise; that everyone was equal, and things ran smoothly. They didn’t know then what we know now, that Stalin was a brute and the country quaked in fear. The communists of that time in the United States were dreamers, wishing for a different life where greed and money were not king.  Dan’s grandfather Maurice went on a tour of the Soviet Union; meant for propaganda, where the Soviets displayed to the Americans what a bountiful life they had. It was all a ruse. Maurice came back and raved about what a fantastic country it was because the citizens went on vacation and it was paid by the government. Maurice had to travel out of the country via Canada because Americans weren’t allowed to travel directly the Soviet Union from the United States, but they could through other countries.

When the communists in the United States realized that the Soviet Union was not what they believed it to be, their spirit got crushed. Ms. Hen thinks it’s like having delusions, people can believe that something is a certain way, but the truth can turn out to be completely different. Ms. Hen understands that true communism is for dreamers; the people who think the world can be an ideal place. There’s nothing evil about communism, it’s the way that it manifested itself in the world that made the vision turn sour.

This book made Ms. Hen think a lot about the world, and her place in the world, and why everything is the way it is. At the end of the book, the author describes how his life growing up was not all about getting by with basic necessities. There’s more than just survival. There’s also working toward a better world for everyone.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE BIRTH OF VENUS

The Birth of Venus
Sarah Dunant
Random House

Ms. Hen picked up this book at one of the Little Free Libraries near where she lives. She knew nothing about it, but she liked the title and the cover. She read the back and learned it is a book about Florence in the 1400s, and art in the Renaissance period, and she was captivated. Ms. Hen enjoys historical fiction from time to time, so she dove into this book.

When Ms. Hen first started reading this, she realized it was a very dense read. The words are lush and stick together like ribbon candy on the page. That’s not to say she didn’t enjoy the novel, but it took some attention. Luckily Ms. Hen had some time off work, so she could sink into the pages.

This novel is about Alessandra Cecchi, a daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant in Venice in the 1400s around the time when the Medicis are in power. She is young, and her sister is about to be married. Alessandra is headstrong, and enjoys reading the classics, such as Aritstotle, and she attempts in secret to be an artist. The family hires an artist to paint the chapel in their house. Alessandra does not want to do what women are supposed to do, that is marry and have children, and keep quiet about political matters.

Alessandra gets married quickly, because she wants to get away from her family. She doesn’t know what she gets herself into when marries. Her slave, Erila, helps her with everything. Erila is a great character, because she seems to be the freest of the women in the novel, even though she is a slave. She does what she wants and gossips her heart out. She knows lots of secrets and shares her discoveries with people she chooses.

This book reminds Ms. Hen of POPE JOAN, in the way that it takes place in approximately the same time period, and it is about nuns, but this is so much better. It’s written more exquisitely, and it’s more captivating, and it doesn’t turn into a romantic women’s novel in the end. THE BIRTH OF VENUS is a sexy novel, but not in the type of a romance novel, more the style of an intelligent, realistic novel about a woman who lived in a different age.

In the prologue of the novel, an image appears of something shocking when Alessandra dies, and for the entire book, Ms. Hen wanted to know when that would show up again. When it did, she was not disappointed.

Ms. Hen loved THE BIRTH OF VENUS. She thinks it is extremely well researched and convincing. She felt as if she was in Florence in the 1400s, and she could see and smell the different elements of the city. This book makes Ms. Hen want to go to Florence. Maybe someday she will be able to see the frescos that were so painfully painted with scaffolding and fire. But until then, she has to be content to live in books for a while.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank

The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank
Puffin Modern Classics

Ms. Hen decided to read this book again because she was bored at work one day, and happened to look at Wikipedia, and it was Anne Frank’s birthday, so she decided to read the Wikipedia article. She found out that this new edition was released after the death of Anne’s father Otto, and the book contained previously unpublished material. Anne received her diary as a gift for her thirteenth birthday.

Ms. Hen originally read this book when she was a young hen her freshman year of high school, which was a long time ago. She had a different experience reading the book this time. When she read it before, she was the exact age as Anne when she died in the concentration camp. Ms. Hen didn’t realize it then, but now she thinks that’s extraordinary.

This is a story everyone knows. Anne is a young Jewish girl in Amsterdam in the 1940s, and her family goes into hiding because the Jewish residents are being taken away. They have all heard the rumors of the concentration camps and how the people are starved and gassed. Anne hides with her parents and sister, and four others.

A lot of the book is about the problems Anne has with her mother and the cohabitants in hiding. Anne was a positive girl, and she looked at going into hiding as an adventure. She had dreams for her life, and she wanted to be a journalist, a writer, also to travel, and study art history. She was philosophical at a young age; she seemed to have a lot of thoughts about humanity and the way the world works. She writes about the older people versus the younger people in the annex, and she says, “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them, because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are good at heart.” Ms. Hen doesn’t know how a young girl in hiding from the Nazis could still believe that people are good. This made Ms. Hen think of her own life.

When Ms. Hen read the book this time, she thought back to what she was like when she was fifteen and she read it then. She wondered how she would have managed if she had been in an annex hiding from the Nazis. Ms. Hen was not a positive teenager; she was young in the 80s, and a lot of teenagers then were caught up in gloom and doom, the disillusionment that the Reagan administration gave to ordinary young people. The romantic notions of the hippies of the 60s became the excess of the 80s. That was a time of affluence: people weren’t fighting a war, they were fighting with their apathy and indecision about the distorted state of society. This was the time of the Material Girl, We are living in a Material World and I am a Material Girl, as the song went. A lot of teenagers fought against this ideal, but some did not and got sucked into it. Some of us were hiding in our rooms listening to the Cure, trying not to think about how terrible the world was to us and how our future was bleak.

Ms. Hen came to the conclusion that she would not have been the exact same person as Anne Frank when she was locked in the annex, but she was her own person, locked in a prison of her own mind. Anne lived forty years before Ms. Hen, and the world was completely different then. The book also made Ms. Hen wonder about the society now, and how much has changed since she was young. She wondered about the fifteen year old girl today, and what she is like, and what troubles she must have, which Ms. Hen can imagine are enormous.

This book made Ms. Hen think a lot about her life and youth, and the way everything has changed. She didn’t get all that the first time she read the book in 1988, which was almost thirty years ago. The good news is that Ms. Hen is not as morose as she was a teenager. She knows there’s nothing we can do about the past, and there’s nothing we can do yet about the future, we have to learn to live day by day and embrace life as it comes. Which, incidentally, is the way Anne lived her life in the annex. Reading this confirms Ms. Hen’s philosophy on how to live. Enjoy yourself as much as you can, do what you have to do, and try to be find as much happiness as possible.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews THE BOSTON GIRL

The Boston Girl
Anita Diamant

Ms. Hen chose to read this book because she had wanted to read a book by this author for a while. She happened to be walking by the West End Branch of the Boston Public Library, and this book popped into her head, so she went in, and by chance it was in there, on the shelf, waiting for her to check it out.

Ms. Hen likes the title of this novel because she also considers herself a Boston Girl. There are different incarnations of Boston girls, and she thinks the young woman in this novel is a smart, savvy, industrious person, and Ms. Hen thinks that if this is what it means to be a Boston Girl, she thinks it’s a positive aspiration.

Ms. Hen thinks that this novel reminds her of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN in the way that it’s about a young woman trying to make her way in the world during the beginning of the twentieth century, but this novel takes place in Boston, and the character is Jewish. The same pathos is there, the poverty, the lack of education, hardship, and the desire for a better life.

This novel makes Ms. Hen think of her own family’s history. Her family lived in Boston at the time the novel took place, in the Charlestown neighborhood, and her grandmother was slightly younger than Addie Baum. Ms. Hen had an aunt who was exactly the same age as Addie, born in 1900, and Ms. Hen knew her when she was growing up. Ms. Hen can’t imagine her Aunt Mary having as much gumption as the woman in this novel, however. She doesn’t picture her aunt fighting for causes and having her friend listen in on phone conversations at the telephone company to find out where to apply for a job. But this is what Addie Baum does.

Addie is a young woman who lives with her parents and sister in the North End of Boston, where many immigrant families live from different countries: Italians, Irish and Jewish people all live adjacent to each other, and the young people are friends. Addie has several friends from different ethnicities, that she meets at a place called the Saturday club, where young women socialize. Addie has problems with her mother and father; they don’t understand her, and she is taken out of high school because her sister gets married and cannot work to support the family anymore. Addie misses going to school, but she works successfully as a secretary for her brother-in-law. She has several jobs, and dates men, and finally falls in love.

This is not a love story, nor a women’s novel. This is a novel about a woman who learns to get what she wants and to help others to get what they want. She has friends, and her friends take care of her, and she takes care of them. At first she doesn’t know what she wants from her life, but then she discovers it as she goes along. This is a novel about the journey of one woman’s life, and the character finding herself.

Ms. Hen was excited there are chickens in this novel. At Thanksgiving the family plans to have a chicken instead of a turkey. “ 'Trief meat in my house?’ Celia whispered, like she didn’t want God to know. She rubbed her hand up and down her cheeks  ‘No. If it has to be, you can come her to eat, but chicken from the kosher butcher.’ ” The girls fight, but Celia wins and they have chicken for Thanksgiving.

Ms. Hen thinks this is a nice novel, but not too nice. The author doesn’t sugarcoat things, but tells things the way they are. Ms. Hen doesn’t like books that are sappy, but she thinks THE BOSTON GIRL has enough edge to keep her interested. Ms. Hen enjoyed Boston as a character in the novel; she knew a lot of the places described, which are still there. Ms. Hen likes being a Boston girl, or a Boston hen, and she admires Addie Baum for living a life with purpose.