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found out that this new edition was released after the death of Anne’s father Otto, and the book contained previously unpublished material.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.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ms. Hen reviews ICY SPARKS

Icy Sparks
Gwyn Hyman Rubio
Penguin Books

Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because she found it at one of the Little Free Libraries near where she lives. She knew nothing about the book; she had never heard of it, but she liked the cover and she read the back, and decided that it was something she would be interested in.

This novel is about a troubled young girl, Icy Sparks, who lives in Kentucky in the mountains with her grandparents. Her mother dies shortly after she is born, and her mother ate a lot of crab apples while she was pregnant with Icy, and her grandparents tell her that is the reason why she has golden hair and yellow ocher eyes. Icy believes that is why she croaks like a frog.

Icy has problems getting along with people. When she is ten, her fourth grade teacher does not like her from the beginning. Also, the same year, she starts to have fits and twitches and she feels like she has to get something out of herself. She doesn’t want anyone to know, but a boy sees one of her episodes and tells everyone. The teacher puts her in supply room to get her away from the class, but she has another fit, and the principal decides to put her in a hospital. Icy has more issues with people at the hospital. When she gets out, she does not go back to school, and spends time with her grandparents, and her friend, Miss Emily, an obese woman who gives Icy her school lessons.

This book reminds Ms. Hen of a lot of other novels she has read. It has snippets of magic, and reminded her of GEEK LOVE.  It also made her think of GIRL, INTERRUPTED and THE BELL JAR, with the scenes in the hospital. It also has elements of Southern Gothic, as in Flannery O’Connor, and her short stories about disturbed people.

Ms. Hen really liked this novel, but she thought the ending was a cop out. She didn’t understand why Icy did what she did. She will not tell you what happens, because she thinks the novel is worth reading anyway, but she thinks there could have been a more substantial ending. In the Epilogue, Icy goes to college and she is diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. She likes knowing there is a name for her disorder and she is not alone. Ms. Hen doesn’t think there are many novels about Tourette’s Syndrome, but she did see a film about the illness called NIAGRA, NIAGRA, many years ago which she really enjoyed.

This is a rural novel, and of course, there are some chickens. There is a scene where Icy is spying on her neighbors that stole chickens, and killed them. Afterwards, someone steals the family’s chickens, and Icy knows it was the neighbors. She tells her grandfather, and he doesn’t believe her, so they go to the other farm and see the dead chickens, “When he rounded the corner, I heard him. Even before I saw him, I heard him. A sad, low groan, like the bellow of a sick cow came to my ears, and I knew he had seen them Henrietta and Bonnie, dangling from that wire – blood like droplets of rain – scattered over the ground.”

Ms. Hen thinks this is a decent novel because it is about a troubled young girl with an issue that is not discussed much in literature. The book is beautifully written, and captures the voice of a place. She liked it, but there were problems with the character’s development at the end, but she forgives Icy, because she knows Icy was lonely and just wanted to try to fit in.

Sunday, August 27, 2017


House of Splendid Isolation
Edna O’Brien
Penguin Books

Ms. Hen decided to buy this book because she’s read other books by Edna O’Brien, and she’s enjoyed them. O’Brien is a contemporary Irish writer, and Ms. Hen thinks she writes from the gut, which is, she writes about important and disturbing things, but those that are necessary all the same, such as internal strife in Ireland, which is the subject of this book.

This novel has many different sides to it. It is about domestic terrorism in Ireland, and how it affects the people around the violence. The men and women fight for what they think is a just cause, but create so much mayhem around them, the cause seems to be lost in the bloodshed. It is also about the people affected in the violence, how the fear grows and terrorizes everyone, including young children.

This is a novel about a house, and its occupant, Josie O’Meara. The reader visits her when she is a young bride, and brought to the house by her new husband, who turns out to be a brute. In later years, she is an old woman, after being sent from a nursing home back to her house, a man name McGreevy breaks into her house to hide from the police who are chasing him. He is a terrorist with the IRA, and fighting a losing battle. Josie is afraid, but she and McGreevy become friends after a while; she pities him when she discovers his story.

Josie and McGreevy have a strange relationship. She is afraid of him, because she thinks he will kill her, but she tries to get him to open up. This novel is about how tortured an existence it is to be Irish; some people want to do the right thing and fight for their beliefs, but at the same time, they seem to have lost sight of what they are fighting for, and don’t know what’s right and wrong anymore.

Ms. Hen took pity on these characters. She read another book by O’Brien recently, THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS, and she felt the same way. O’Brien is a master of darkness and pathos, she nudges the reader into feeling for characters who have had horrific lives, and introduces the reader to the idea that everyone’s life can be miserable in its own unique way.

Irish folklore and poetry play a huge part in this novel. The police officers walk around spouting poetry, which Ms. Hen thinks is strange, because she doesn’t think any of the police where she lives would do this. But she knows other cultures are different, and in Ireland it is likely to be common for police to be literate. Also there is a scene that invokes the legend of Cu Chulainn, when a bird comes down and licks the blood of someone who has died. Ms. Hen doesn’t want to ruin the book for anyone, so she won’t tell who dies. The legend of Cu Chulainn was about the warrior who is killed, and a bird comes along and licks his blood, and that’s how the English know it’s okay to take over the country. Birds are considered bad luck in Ireland because of this tale.

There are a few hens and chickens in HOUSE OF SPLENDID ISOLATION. At one point, the criminal is on the run, and the village is in terror. They are trying to find him. “ ' Good God, he was in our yard,’ Ma Hinchy says, opening her dirndl skirt so her two children can huddle in their like chickens under a mother hen.” Since this is a rural novel, there are chickens all around, not just in metaphors and similes.

Ms. Hen loved this novel, not just because it was beautiful, but also because it was disturbing, and it made her think. She is a hen who likes to ponder how horrible the world can be, but at the same time, she tries to find beauty where she can, and is able to most of the time.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


The Love of a Good Woman
Alice Munroe
Penguin Books

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


Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Susan Vreeland
Penguin Books

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,

“ 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

Jeanette Winterson
Vintage International

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.