Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews WE

Yevgeny Zamyatin
Modern Library
1924, 2006
Translated from the Russian by Natasha Randall

Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she learned about it from the afterword in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. She had never heard of it before. She is interested in dystopian fiction, and some people think this book is the first of its kind.

This novel was not published in the Soviet Union when the author wrote it because it was too scandalous. It was first published in Prague. The author was sent to exile a couple of times in the Soviet Union for writing things against the government. Ms. Hen thinks it is outrageous that someone should be sent to jail for writing a book, but that is the way things were in that country back then.

This novel is about a mathematician who is building a ship, the Integral, to go to space. The rigid society tells the ciphers (people) when to do everything they have to do, when to wake up, when to work, when to eat. When the ciphers want to be intimate with each other, they have to get permission for the “blind drawing,” to draw their blinds, which are always up; everyone can see into everyone else’s rooms unless the blinds are drawn. The city and everything in it are made of glass.

The narrator, D-503, (all the ciphers have a code and not a name) writes a chronicle of what happens. He meets another cipher and is intrigued when she takes him to the Ancient House, a place full of objects from before the revolution. The narrator talks a lot about the past, it seems as if he is writing a letter to the author about the world he lives in. Everyone has a routine for the day, but the narrator gets caught up in a situation with a woman, and starts to fall in love. He doesn’t understand how he could develop a soul, but he does, and suffers because of it.

Ms. Hen noticed that this novel seems to be about Soviet Russia and not the future. The author appears to be critiquing the way his country was headed at the time he wrote this. All the ciphers are supposed to be part of something bigger than themselves, and it does not matter where they stand individually. He likens the society to a scale, on one end of the scale is an item that weighs a ton, on the other is a gram, and what happens to the ton matters more than the gram; the whole matters more than the small amount.

Ms. Hen learned reading the introduction that the narrator speaks in equations. Ms. Hen is not a math expert, but she understands how this is true. The narrator would make a statement, then there would be a colon, and then something would equal the beginning of that statement. Ms. Hen would like to talk to someone who has read the novel who understands math better than she does to explain how this works, but unfortunately Ms. Hen is not acquainted with a mathematician or even someone proficient in math. Those are the circles she runs in: no math experts around Ms. Hen, just artistic and ordinary people.

This is a short book, but a dense one. Ms. Hen read it quickly because she had time. This novel is beautifully written and important. It is considered one of the first science fiction novels ever written, and it was written before the term science fiction was invented. Ms. Hen recommends this novel if you want to be disturbed and enlightened, and she does not understand why you wouldn’t want to be.

Below is a short film based on WE that Ms. Hen found by chance.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews WHISKEY, ETC.

Ms. Hen likes cats

Whiskey, Etc.
Sherrie Flick
Queen’s Ferry Press

Ms. Hen happened upon this delightful collection of short stories by chance. It is full of flash fiction, or very short stories, which are difficult to write, because the writer has to get to the crux quickly.

This collection reminded Ms. Hen of a couple of other writers of short stories she admires: Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill. Ms. Hen likes these writers because they write things in such a unique way that it makes the reader pause and think, hmm, yes, this is true, but why didn’t I think of that?

The different sections in this book are some of Ms. Hen’s favorite things, and what Ms. Hen considers to be the great aspects of life: songs, pets, coffee and tea, dessert, art, cars and canoes, soap, and whiskey. Ms. Hen is excited that there is a cat in almost every story.

One of Ms. Hen’s favorite stories in this collection is, “Breakfast,” which is about a mother and son, and the chickens in their yard. Ms. Hen likes this because chickens appear. Evan makes eggs and bacon for his mother, and plucks a feather from a chicken for a garnish for the breakfast. Another memorable story is, “Microwave,” in which a woman dreams of putting a dog in a microwave.

Ms. Hen never thought she could read a funny story about a dead dog, but “Heidi is Dead,” fits that bill. It’s about a couple visiting the husband’s family in the Midwest and the family’s dog dies, and they go around the room sharing dead dog stories. The wife feels she does not fit in with the family, which is conservative and rural. The couple lives in Boston. Ms. Hen thinks this story is hilarious because she knows that somewhere in the world, there are people like this family, even thought she is not acquainted with them in her personal life situated in Boston.

A lot of these stories are about relationships, which Ms. Flick writes about well. It’s easy to picture the characters in these stories; they could be people we all know. Ms. Hen came to understand the characters and their neurotic tendencies. Ms. Hen is a hen who knows about such things.

Ms. Hen sped through this book, because she was engrossed in it. She would recommend it to anyone who likes quick stories pinpointing the pieces of human nature not everyone notices all the time. This book might help you to see small parts of the world better, and find humor in ordinary life.

Ms. Hen during the blizzard

Monday, January 1, 2018

Ms. Hen's Top Ten

Ms. Hen chose her top ten books she read this year. Not all of them were published this year, and she did not include books she has read before.

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/12/ms-hen-reviews-stephen-florida.html

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/11/ms-hen-reviews-wonder.html

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Dononue

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/10/ms-hen-reviews-night-country.html

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/09/ms-hen-reviews-boston-girl.html

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/08/ms-hen-reviews-girl-in-hyacinth-blue.html

The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/06/ms-hen-reviews-patron-saint-of-ugly.html

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Olafsdottir

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/01/ms-hen-reviews-little-red-chairs.html

Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik http://mshenreviewsthings.blogspot.com/2017/01/ms-hen-reviews-shelter-in-place.html

These books are not in order that Ms. Hen enjoyed them, but they are in order chronologically backwards. Ms. Hen wishes the best of the New Year to you, and she hopes the world will survive this year, so she can read more books and eat more food and see more places she has never seen. Ms. Hen doesn't make New Year's resolutions, but if she did, she would do her best to not be afraid of the unknown.

Happy New Year!

All the Best,
Ms. Hen

Tuesday, December 26, 2017


Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell
Harcourt Brace and Company

Ms. Hen read NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR when she was a sophomore in high school many years ago. When she recalled the novel, she remembered being struck by the story about the vision of the future that the author had, even though when she first read this book, it was after 1984. She didn’t know yet how prophetic the book was, and what a part of our culture it would become.

When Ms. Hen remembered this novel, she thought of the romantic parts. That might have been because she was sixteen and more interested in romance that the future of politics, destruction, and Winston’s job in the Ministry of Truth. What struck her this time reading the novel is that there are no computers. Of course, there weren’t many computers in the actual 1984, and there was barely a vision of what something like the internet would be, but in the novel, there is an image of a television screen watching the citizens’ every move and reporting back to the party when someone did something wrong.

This novel is important because it tells of a future which could become true. It’s general knowledge that the Internet is similar to Big Brother; the Internet knows what you search for and buy, and who you are stalking, and what kinds of pictures you put on social media. Social media is a special type of Big Brother in which everyone who is your friend is your own Big Brother and they know everything that you put on that website.

(Ms. Hen knows that most people don’t care about her life and what she does. But she tries not to reveal everything to everyone.)

Ms. Hen hopes that the world does not become the vision of this novel, but she is afraid that it might. There was a news story last week in which the CDC (The Center for Disease Control) had to change the wording in their documents. Ms. Hen read an article about that, which you can read here:
It talks about how this is “Orwellian” which Ms. Hen agrees with. Vladimir Nabokov said that every writer should try to put a word in the dictionary, such as his “Lolita.” Orwell managed to put the version of his own name, which means, “characteristic of the writing of George Orwell, especially with reference to his dystopian account in his totalitarian state in NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR.”

When Ms. Hen remembered this novel, she thought of how the Party broke Winston. She was afraid that this is what would happen to the world. The hopeful thing is that now, there are still people to stand up and say, “No, we won’t take that!” or “WTF?” of some such version. She hopes that there will always be people who will fight the those in charge if the world is going badly, which Ms. Hen thinks it is.

Ms. Hen believes that this is a novel everyone should read. It is important because it was one person’s imagined scenario of the future, which we have not succumbed to yet, and hopefully never will. But Ms. Hen is not sure. She does not want to believe these things could happen, but current events are proving her wrong. George Orwell wrote this novel as a response to the horrors or World War II and Stalin’s Soviet Union. He didn’t know about today’s world, and the icy slope the United States and the Western world are now slipping down. Who will be there to catch us? Ms. Hen doesn’t know, and is not sure anyone does.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews I AM A CAT

I Am a Cat
Soseki Natsumi
Tuttle Publishing
Originally 1905, 1906
Translated from the Japanese by Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson

Ms. Hen had planned to read this novel for a long time simply because she liked the title. She wanted to read an entire book from the point of view of a cat. She thought it would be fascinating to get into a cat’s mind, or what an author would think a cat ponders. But she didn’t like this book as much as she thought she would.

One of the reasons she didn’t like it is because it is not completely about a cat; it is about a cat’s observances about the humans around him. And since the people surrounding the cat are men in Japan circa 1906, they are completely misogynistic and narrow-minded. But there are some positive things about the book.

This novel is very long and winding and reminded Ms. Hen a little of Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, but it takes place in Japan, and as told by a cat. Ms. Hen liked the parts where the cat talked about being a cat, and the things he did, such as visiting other cats in the neighborhood, and trying to catch rats.

Ms. Hen didn’t like the way the owner of the protagonist treats his pet. She thinks the family is cruel to the cat. It could have been because he is a stray, but it made Ms. Hen wonder about the cats that belong to people she knows today; contemporary cats are thoroughly spoiled! The poor cat in this novel was tortured by the children and dismissed by the household. Cats these days in the United States are pampered and coddled beyond belief. Cats in Japan one hundred years ago did not have the same comfortable life that our feline friends do today.

As well as disrespecting women, the men in this novel show their disdain for dark-skinned people. Ms. Hen couldn’t believe what she was reading when she read it. The men talk about a certain village in Japan where the women were dark, and one man said that it was a good thing, because it would make them less vain. Ms. Hen was disgusted with these characters, and she would have stopped reading the book right then, but she was on page 411, and she had spent almost two weeks reading this tome, and she wasn’t going to give up right near the end. So she persevered.

The end of the novel was one of the strangest she has ever read. She will not give it away, because that’s not the proper thing to do in a review, but if you see her in person, you can ask her and she will tell you. It is sad and upsetting, but Ms. Hen realized that’s the way life is sometimes, there are things that just don’t make any sense. Usually in literature, aspects of novels have to make sense, but not always, and as it stands, not in I AM A CAT.

Ms. Hen read this book so you don’t have to. She loves cats, but she would have liked a more entertaining novel about a charming, curmudgeonly cat that watches interesting, complicated people. Instead she became upset and her eyes glazed over at times. Now she’s glad it’s over.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews working at Starbucks

Ms. Hen drinks a gingerbread latte during the holiday season


Ms. Hen worked at Starbucks for several years. She will not say how long, but she likes to joke sometimes that she will not admit the length of time she worked there unless under oath in a court of law. She also likes to say that she could have her PhD in Starbucks, but she doesn’t. She left Starbucks recently, and has a new job. She never meant to stay as long as she did, it just happened that way. There were some great things and not so great things about working at the biggest coffee company in the world.

Ms. Hen loves coffee. She never goes a day without at least two cups. When she worked at Starbucks, she got to drink as much coffee as she wanted while she worked, and everyone who works there gets a pound of coffee, a box of tea, or some Via (instant coffee) to take home every week. Ms. Hen learned that Starbucks coffee is one of the most caffeinated in the world, so even now, when she does not have it, she needs it. The company transforms their employees (known as partners) into junkies, so when they leave, they will still be addicted, and they will pledge their allegiance to the Siren forever.

Customers at Starbucks might wonder why the baristas are so happy. Ms. Hen doesn’t know exactly why, but putting caramel on drinks and asking people if they want whipped cream puts a person in a good mood. Yes, some customers can be cranky, but the transactions are usually quick, so if someone is a jerk, they’re gone fast. Ms. Hen has never waited tables, but she thinks that would be more difficult, because when a person is a server, they have to be all over a customer, like when they’re demanding a new salt shaker, etc.

Ms. Hen read the book HOW STARBUCKS SAVED MY LIFE, and when she read it she didn't like it. It was written by a man who had been a corporate executive, and he lost everything, but he got a job at Starbucks and it made him happy. Ms. Hen thought he wrote this book so he could name-drop all the celebrities that he encountered in his previous career, and so people would come to his store and schmooze with him. But Ms. Hen thinks there’s something to working at Starbucks that makes a person happy.

If a person is sad, and she has to go to work and put on a happy face, and pretend like everything is okay in her life, then that job will make her happy. Fake it till you make it, is the expression that fits this situation. It’s easy to pretend like you’re happy when you’re making lattes (maybe not so much frappuccinos), and if you pretend you’re happy long enough, you become happy. So Starbucks might not save a person’s life, but it might make her outlook better. It’s easy to let the rude and obnoxious customers slide off when a person is on high-octane caffeine, surrounding by people who have joy and hope in their lives. And since Ms. Hen worked there for so long, she got to know a lot of the customers, and some of the regulars were perfectly nice people.

Yes, Starbucks partners are mostly young, and even though Ms. Hen was older than the majority of the kids there, she got along with them. Starbucks partners are primarily creative, interesting people who have cool lives and dreams for the future. Some other places Ms. Hen has worked are not like this.

One of the great things about Starbucks is that it’s a billion dollar corporation and the company shares the wealth. Every so often, the partners would get some extra money. But one time Ms. Hen researched how much money the company actually made and she gagged. Her few thousand dollars seemed like a pittance compared to how much money actually was in the company. Like the Romans, "Give them Bread and Circuses," but now they give them coffee and a few stocks to keep the peasants happy.

Ms. Hen worked at Starbucks for too long, she realizes. It’s not that she didn’t want to leave; she wanted to find something better. She spent so long standing on her feet, that her feel still hurt sometimes. And her teeth are a mess from all the sugar she ate and drank.

Even though Ms. Hen is glad she does not work at Starbucks anymore, she misses it occasionally. She misses being surrounded by people who work together and have happiness in their lives. But there is a world other than Starbucks. And life goes on.

Ms. Hen with Ethiopia coffee

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Stephen Florida
Gabe Habash
Coffee House Press

Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she saw and heard the author do a reading at the Boston Book Festival in October, and she was impressed by his writing and presentation. She was intrigued by the story of a college wrestler that is obsessed with winning the championship, and the process of his unraveling. Ms. Hen’s favorite novels are about unstable young women, but she is willing to give unstable men a chance, too, sometimes.

Stephen Florida is a wrestler at the 133 pound slot in Oresburg College in rural North Dakota. Ms. Hen learned at the reading that the author didn’t have any personal experience with wrestling, and he had never been to North Dakota. Ms. Hen thinks that it is impressive to write an entire novel that takes place somewhere an author has never been, and about a subject that is not his specialty.

Stephen Florida wants to win the Division IV NCAA Championship in the 133 weight class. He is determined to win, and it drives his every move. He skates through his classes, not applying himself, scraping by just to stay in school. In wrestling, a lot of men have to struggle to keep their exact weight, and at times have an eating disorder to the point where they are neurotic about food. Stephen is like this. He has a good friend Linus, who wrestles at the 125 weight class, and they are both at the top of their game.

Stephen meets a girl, Mary Beth, and starts dating her. She works just as hard as he does; she wants to work at an art gallery, and is quirky like him. She doesn’t know if she wants to be with him, and she can’t decide. He struggles with everything, and starts to unravel during winter break, which he spends alone at the college.

Ms. Hen thinks this book has an odor to it. It could be the smell of men wrestling, or the excessive description of flatulence. Ms. Hen has had the privilege to read two books in a row (also the novel EILEEN) in which the character describes their bowel movements in minute detail. Ms. Hen doesn’t think reading about this is pleasant, but it portrays the truth about the character, and what is important to that person.  

The writing in STEPHEN FLORIDA is exquisite. Ms. Hen thinks that the descriptions of the breakdowns that Stephen has are expertly rendered. Ms. Hen had the idea that this novel could be a type of MOBY DICK story, but she wasn’t sure how it would turn out in the end. Ms. Hen thought that the wrestling championship could be Stephen Florida’s great white whale, the one thing he desires in the world that destroys him, but she will not reveal the end. She thinks everyone should read this novel.

Ms. Hen noticed there are some chickens in this novel, which made her happy. Stephen eats a lot of chicken, “ ‘Stephen gets an extra piece of chicken for breaking that kid’s arm.’ “ And also, at the end of the novel, during the championship match, “I eat the chicken dinner and blank out my entire history.”

Ms. Hen thinks that STEPHEN FLORIDA is a beautiful novel. It’s about a young man who starts to come undone, who wants one thing, and it practically drives him insane, not quite, but nearly. Ms. Hen was dazzled by this novel, and if you like excellent writing, and anguished, complicated characters, you will be too.