Saturday, March 10, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews Beyond the Pale

Beyond the Pale
William Trevor
The Viking Press

Ms. Hen picked up this book at the Little Free Library in Downtown Boston, in front of Walgreens. That one does not always have good books, but Ms. Hen managed to find this treasure one day recently. She has read other books by William Trevor, and she always loves them. He died recently at the age of eighty-eight, which Ms. Hen is in awe of. She admires writers who can live a long life and keep on writing. Mr. Trevor was one of the preeminent Irish short story writers of our time.

Ms. Hen finds it difficult to write reviews of collections of short stories, mostly because she can’t write about every story in the book; she has to choose only a few. Ms. Hen thinks that the best literature is about characters with messed up lives. All the people in the book are dysfunctional in one way or another, which Ms. Hen thinks is beautiful. There’s no point in reading about characters who are deliriously happy, or so she thinks.

In “Beyond the Pale,” four friends set out from England to Ireland for their summer holiday, who are bridge partners. Two of them are married to each other and two of them are single. Some strange events occur and it seems as if their bridge foursome will break up. This story is about the tenuous existence of ordinary people, and what keeps them together and what disintegrates relationships.

“The Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” is about a married couple, and the wife’s announcement that she is having a teddy bear’s picnic with her childhood friends. The husband is distraught and mortified; he does not want to go to a picnic for teddy bears with a group of adults. He is used to getting his way, and does not like to be told what to do. He hopes his wife will get pregnant soon, so he does not have to bear her boring life. Ms. Hen thinks this story is interesting, but dated; it’s about a married couple who don’t understand each other and don’t really know each other.

“The Paradise Lounge,” is about a couple having a love affair, which is ending. They go to a village where they don’t know anybody to stay at a hotel. In the bar, a woman observes them and she knows what is conspiring between them. She wants to tell the woman having the affair she is lucky, but she does not.

In “Beyond the Pale,” the narrator dreams that Cynthia is murdered, " 'Promise me you didn’t do it,' I whispered to Strafe, but when Strafe replied it was to say Cynthia’s body reminded him of a bag of old chicken bones.” Ms. Hen thinks this is funny, in perverse way.

Ms. Hen loved this book. She likes reading short stories because she has to discover a new world again and again within a book. A lot of people who read don’t like short stories, but writers do, because writing them is quick, and there’s less commitment than a novel. Ms. Hen raises her glass to writers who can create a small universe in a short time.

Friday, March 2, 2018


When Madeline Was Young
Jane Hamilton
Anchor Books

Ms. Hen happened to buy this book because she was in a bookstore, and she had heard of the author, and she liked the title. She read the description, and was intrigued by the story of the woman who became incapacitated and was treated like a daughter by her ex-husband and his new wife.

Madeline is a beautiful woman who suffered an accident in the 1940s. She was riding a bicycle with her husband, after they had been married for a year, and she falls and hits her head and become mentally challenged. Aaron, the husband, has an acquaintance who is studying nursing, so she comes to help them, and eventually Julia and Aaron get married, after he divorces Madeline. They treat her like a daughter, and they have two more children.

This novel is told from the point of view of Mac, Aaron and Julia’s son. He is a sensitive, smart boy who grows up to become a doctor. The novel revolves around the present day conversation between Diana, Mac’s wife, and Mac about whether or not he should go to his cousin Buddy’s son’s funeral. Mac doesn’t want to go, but Diana thinks he should out of family duty. Buddy was a rough young man, and Mac hasn’t seen him in a long time.

Ms. Hen thinks it’s interesting that Mac is the one who is telling the story. He is not the most important person in the book, and the choice to shape the novel around him is different. Ms. Hen thinks Mac is a great character, and she understands why he is telling the story, but she might have wanted to know what is happening in Madeline or Julia’s mind.

This novel is primarily a story about a family, dysfunctional in its own way. Mac muses that if Madeline had had her accident in the new millennium, she might have had access to better treatment and recovery. Relatives said that they thought Madeline should have been in a home, but Julia would not hear of that. They handle her like a perpetual little girl, which may have stunted her growth, if she could have had any. In the 1940s and 50s, not much was known about the right way to treat the disabled. Many people stayed at home with their parents, and were not given the type of education and therapy that is given today.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel, even though it is very slow. It is not a loud novel; it is quiet and calming. There is fighting and sex, but even so, the noise level does not go up. Ms. Hen took her time reading WHEN MADELINE WAS YOUNG.  It is not a novel that a reader plows through, but rather wades through, gently.

There are some chickens in this novel, and they are mostly food. One of Ms. Hen favorites is when Mac and his family visit Buddy, “He was eating a pile of barbecue chicken wings and drinking a beer, nodding occasionally.” Ms. Hen likes this because it is a visceral scene, a man in his backyard after his son’s funeral eating chicken wings.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this novel. It is complicated and strange, and the characters are compelling. They are different from the people Ms. Hen knows, and getting to know strangers and getting in their heads and learning their particular pain is the purpose of fiction.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews GET IN TROUBLE

Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House

Ms. Hen decided to read this because she was determined to read something she would like, a book she would not have to throw across the room in disgust. Also, because it is similar to THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE, which she just read and enjoyed. Ms. Hen read a couple of books by the author of GET IN TROUBLE, Kelly Link, many years ago.

This book is similar to the others that Ms. Hen read by the same author. The collection is full of magical, whimsical stories based on fairy tales, but dwell in the real world. Certain threads run through the book, such as superheroes and young people having a good time.

Ms. Hen particularly liked the first story, “The Summer People.” It is about a young woman who is in charge of her father’s summer homes where it turns out unseen people live. Her friend comes with her to see the house, and her friend learns what the house is, and why it’s so full of odds and ends. This story is about home and not knowing what’s real and not real.

Ms. Hen found the story, “The New Boyfriend,” endearingly haunting. It’s about four girls who are best friends, and one is having a slumber party for her birthday. She gets a new “boyfriend,” a type of robot doll, called the Ghost Boyfriend, who is supposed to scare the owner. Her friend gets jealous, because she doesn’t have any Boyfriends, even though she did have a boyfriend in real life at one time. Ms. Hen liked this because it’s about jealously and the absurd lengths teenage girls will attempt to get back at their friends.

Ms. Hen could not quite understand one of the stories, “Valley of the Girls.” It’s about young people, but they’re building pyramids, and it’s about ancient Egypt, but it’s about a young man who sleeps with lots of women. Ms. Hen didn’t understand what exactly is happening in this story. It didn’t seem to make any sense to her. Ms. Hen is quite capable of understanding the strange things she reads, but this story was too weird for her liking. None of the other stories come as close to being as indecipherable as this one. The story “Two Houses” is a little odd at first, but after a few pages Ms. Hen got it. Ms. Hen doesn’t like to be lost and not to be able to grasp what is going on when she reads. She thinks that not all writers are great all the time, even though they may be great at some times.

Ms. Hen thinks some of the stories in this collection are too bizarre, but it is mostly worth reading. Each story brought her to a different place, to help her figure out what is unique about the world where it is set. Reading a collection like this is like diving into different mindsets, which Ms. Hen can enjoy if she knows what on earth she is reading. Ms. Hen considers herself smart and strange, but she thinks there is a world of strangeness and absurdity that may be beyond her. She tries to be as strange as she can, though most of the time she hides it. J

Sunday, February 18, 2018


The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Aimee Bender
Anchor Books

Ms. Hen has started reading some subpar books lately and hasn’t finished them. She is disgusted by books with bland writing. She won’t say which books those are, but she wanted to read one that she knew she would like, so she chose THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE. She has read other books by Aimee Bender, and she has loved them. Aimee Bender writes some unique and strange novels and stories, which are right up Ms. Hen’s alley.

This novel is about a girl named Rose who can taste feelings in the food that she eats. Her mother bakes a lemon cake for her right before her ninth birthday, and Rose eats the cake when her mother is taking a nap, and Rose can taste her mother’s sadness in the cake. She is horrified that she is overwhelmed by her mother’s emotions. She doesn’t understand why.

That night, the family eats chicken that the mother makes for dinner, and Rose can taste her mother’s hurt again. Ms. Hen likes that the family eats chicken, but it upsets her that it makes Rose distraught. Rose doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. She recruits her brother’s friend, George, to help her on her birthday to discover foods and figure out the feelings of people who made them. She tastes angry cookies at a bakery and a sandwich that is made by someone upset that her boyfriend doesn’t love her.

This novel is magical realism, but at the same time, it’s about a family. It’s about Rose and her parents and brother Joseph, and how they interact with each other. Rose can taste her mother’s feelings and she knows her secrets, and her brother is a strange kid who doesn’t know how to relate to people. The father is a lawyer and tries to be normal, except he can’t go into hospitals because he's afraid. The family has to deal with issues that Rose cannot control. Rose gets older in the novel, but most of the book takes place during the springtime of different years.

The subject matter of this novel reminded Ms. Hen of an article she read about cheese bread in the former Soviet State of Georgia. In the article, the people who made the bread have to be happy, or their sadness would come across in the taste. You can read the article here:     Ms. Hen doesn’t know if this is quite true, or if this is superstition, but she thinks it is a lovely idea that someone who makes food should be happy.

This book is strange, but it is not over-the-top strange. It is just quirky enough that Ms. Hen wanted to eat lemon cake, and it made her hungry for good food. In the novel, Rose eats vending machine snacks in school when she is young, because she didn’t want to taste her mother’s pain, and she can't stand so much drama wrapped up in the food she eats. When she gets older, she learns to appreciate quality food.

Ms. Hen thinks this is a charming novel. It is the exact remedy for the mediocre books she has started to read lately. She wants to read more books like this, ones that are light and airy and like meringue, books that taste delicious when you read them.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews RUNAWAY

Alice Munro
Vintage Books

Ms. Hen decided to read this book because she has read other books by Alice Munro, and she adored them. She saw a Spanish film recently, called JULIETA, by one of Ms. Hen’s favorite directors, Pedro Almodovar, which is based on some of the stories in this collection, and Ms. Hen was curious as to how the stories translated to the film. She read that Almodovar had a hard time making the film in Canada, since he doesn’t know anything about the country, so he decided to transform the story and make it Spanish. Spain is different from Canada, as everyone knows, but Ms. Hen thinks the stories of the woman with a tragic past crossed over well.

The three stories, “Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence,” are about Juliet at different times in her life. The story “Chance,” is about her traveling on a train where she meets a man, and dismisses him, then tragedy occurs. She meets another man, and she doesn’t know that she will become involved with him. She is a Latin scholar and an awkward young woman. She loves the classics, but she doesn’t know if she can make a career of them. She is scarred by the events on the train.

In the story, “Soon,” Juliet visits her parents with her baby. She doesn’t know what happened to her parents. A woman, Irene, helps her father with the housework, since her mother has a heart condition. Juliet thinks it’s strange that her father admires Irene so much, and it unsettles her. Her mother is delicate and cannot handle much.

The story, “Silence,” is about Juliet and her daughter Penelope's decision to join a religious organization, which Juliet thinks is a cult. Penelope leaves home and never returns. Juliet is troubled by this, but she continues her life. Ms. Hen distinctly remembers this part from the movie, the woman is old, but she pines for her lost daughter, and she doesn’t tell people that she had a daughter, and that causes problems in her life.

Another story that attracted Ms. Hen’s attention was the story, “Tricks,” about a lonely young woman who goes to the theater in the city, loses her wallet, meets a man, and becomes somewhat obsessed. She finds out what she thought was true was a trick, that it is like the Shakespearean plays she had gone to see. Sometimes when a person thinks one thing is true, the exact opposite is true. Ms. Hen has learned this in life. At times, things just aren’t what they seem.

There are some chickens in this collection of stories. One of Ms. Hen favorites is in the short story “Soon,” “Their father had been killed in an accident in the chicken barn where he worked.” That is, Irene’s husband, the woman who helps Juliet’s father. Ms. Hen imagines that dying in a chicken barn would be a poetic way to die, but she doesn’t think the characters would believe that. She understands the characters would consider it bad luck.

All the stories in this collection are about women and the different degrees of their sadness and tragedies. Ms. Hen felt for these women, because their problems could be everyone’s problems. Ms. Hen recommends this beautiful collection to anyone who wants to feel emotions shine through the pages, and learn how to see humanity better.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


The Autograph Man
Zadie Smith
Random House

Ms. Hen picked this book up because she read WHITE TEETH last year and enjoyed it. This book is different, but charming in its own way. It is about young man, Alex-Li Tandem, who collects, and buys and sells autographs for a living.

Alex is half Jewish and half Chinese. The opening scene shows Alex with his friends and his father at a wrestling match. Alex is getting an autograph from a wrestler with his new friend, Joseph, who introduces him to collecting autographs at the arena, and Alex's father dies right there. This scars him permanently.

The novel follows Alex-Li through the train wreck of his life. He’s a mess. In the beginning, he has done some type of drug, and does not know how he has spent the past few days. Every one of his friends is angry with him. He is obsessed with the obscure film star Kitty Alexander because her autograph is the hardest to obtain, since she hardly ever signed any. He writes letters to her describing what he imagines her own life to be.

Alex’s girlfriend, Esther, has a pacemaker, which he loves. Ms. Hen has not read many novels in which young people have pacemakers, so she thinks this is quirky. Currently Ms. Hen knows a lot about them, since it’s her day job. She didn’t know that you could see them under the skin, and touch them. Alex does this in a way that is erotic, which Ms. Hen thinks is odd. But Alex is an odd character.

This novel has a lot of Jewish mysticism in it. Alex’s friend, Adam, is interested in this subject. Adam is trying to get Alex to say Kaddish for his father, since he never did when his father first died. Adam tells Alex that this is important, that he should respect the dead, but Alex doesn’t want to do it, because his father was Chinese, and also because he is afraid.

This is a very loud novel. It races around from place to place, from person to person, and does not stop. Ms. Hen couldn’t figure out if she liked Alex or if she didn’t. He is a type of jerk that Ms. Hen doesn’t think she would want to hang out with. But he has fascinating qualities, obsessions that he would not let go. Ms. Hen doesn’t know if this is supposed to make Alex appealing.

This book is paced very well. It seems as if there are plot points along the way, which are turning points, such as the way a film is supposed to be written. There are moments when the story changes, and the action rises and falls. Ms. Hen admires this, and she knows it takes skill to write this way.

Ms. Hen liked this novel, but she didn’t love the character. There was something unpleasant about him. She doesn’t think this is the best novel she has read recently, but it is entertaining. It isn’t enlightening or beautiful or poignant. It’s just a fast-paced romp through one guy’s messed up, but cool life.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Ms. Hen reviews LISETTE'S LIST

Lisette’s List
Susan Vreeland
Random House

Ms. Hen picked up this book at a Little Free Library near her house, because she had read another book by this author, GIRL IN HYACINTH BLUE, and she enjoyed it immensely. Ms. Vreeland writes a lot about art, which is a subject Ms. Hen enjoys. She doesn’t always like the way everyone talks about art, but she can appreciate beauty.

This novel is about a young woman, Lisette, who is dragged to the countryside of Provence against her will to help take care of her husband Andre’s grandfather, because he is sick, right before the outbreak of World War II. Lisette can’t stand to be in the rural area, she yearns for Paris, the city where she was born; the place full of excitement and brimming with love. She loves her husband, but pines for the city.

That is, until she gets to know the grandfather’s paintings. She falls in love with the artwork by Pissarro and the Cezanne, and the mysterious painting they think is by Picasso. She vows to take care of the paintings. Pascal, the grandfather, dies, and Andre goes off to war, and hides the painting so the Nazis will not steal and destroy them. Lisette goes to find them, but cannot, and it is a long process after the war to find them.

This book took place in a similar timeframe as another book that Ms. Hen read, but she adored, called LA BATARDE, by Violette Leduc, which is a memoir about a woman growing up in France as an illegitimate child, or a bastard, hence the title. However, there are few similarities. This novel is not as urgently written and powerful as Leduc’s memoir. The Resistance is mentioned, and so is the black market during the war, but LISETTE’S LIST pales in comparison in importance and scope.

Ms. Hen loved the descriptions of the French countryside in Provence, and she longed to go there as she read. She has not been to that area of France, but she has been to the other side of the south, Languedoc, and thought it was breathtaking, and dreams of returning. She couldn’t understand how Lisette could not love this place immediately, but she does eventually. This book was not Ms. Hen’s favorite book she has read recently.

This novel seemed to go on a little too long, and it seemed to drag. Ms. Hen thought this book was what she calls “book clubish,” a word to describe a novel written for women, which is just too nice, not offensive, with nothing dark about it, for women or people who do not want to get easily offended by writing. This surprised Ms. Hen, because GIRL IN HYCINTH BLUE was one of her favorite books she read last year. But that book has a lot of spirit that this novel simply lacks.

This is not the worst book Ms. Hen has read recently, but it is not the best. Ms. Hen does not recommend this novel to people who like to be punched in the face and inspired by something they read. But there are a lot of chickens and hens floating around within the pages, which is one positive aspect. But mostly Ms. Hen says, no, find something else to read.