Friday, September 23, 2016


Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Ms. Hen came to acquire this novel by a twist of fate. She was at one of her local bookstores, and saw the book, and remembered it, and thought she would like to read it, but didn’t buy it that day. The next day, one of her hen friends was giving out books, and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS was one of them, so she scooped it up.

Ms. Hen loves novels about circuses and carnivals. She used to dream of running away to join the circus to be a clown, but she knew that was a silly fantasy. She would never make it on the road, sleeping in a train, living a reckless life. But the protagonist of this novel did exactly that.

Jacob Jankowski finds himself in the circus train of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth after he couldn’t take his final exams for veterinarian school because his parents die suddenly. He thought he would take over the family practice, but he didn’t know his father had been taking food as payment for years, since nobody had any money. The year is 1931.

Jacob jumps on the circus train, and gets swept away by the happenings. He is hired as a roustabout, a man who raises the tent, and keeps the crowd in line. But when Uncle Al discovers he is a Cornell educated veterinarian, he is hired for that job. He takes care of horses, and giraffes, and the show acquires what Uncle Al always wanted, an elephant from a failed circus which the Benzini Brothers show chased to pick up the remnants. Rosie, the elephant, is expensive; as is her travelling car, and both take almost all the show’s money.

Jacob’s boss is August, is a mean-spirited person who hurts the animals, or berates and beats up his employees. Jacob slowly falls in love with Marlena, August’s wife, which causes problems for Jacob. He wants to believe that August is a good person, but eventually he comes to see that August is dangerous.

Walter, the dwarf clown, shares a sleeping car with Jacob and the horses. At first Walter hates Jacob, but they become good friends when Jacob gives Walter a remedy for helping the dog, Queenie, Walter’s constant companion. The working men are also Jacob's friends.

August and Jacob believe Rosie is stupid, and can’t be trained, until they discover how she can be trained. When she performs her show, she is magnificent, the crowd loves her, and they can’t get enough. The show doesn’t last, because August is mentally and emotionally unstable.

There are a smattering of hens in this novel, and Ms. Hen was pleased. At the beginning, when Jacob’s parents die, he finds out how his father has been getting paid for his practice, “’Beans and eggs?’ my voice cracked in disbelief. ’Beans and eggs?’ ‘And chickens. And other goods.’” This is important to the story because chickens and beans are not an inheritance, and as a result, Jacob Jankowski joins the circus. Another time a hen is mentioned is during the time the men were paying to see the amazing act where only men were allowed, and a man goes to pay, and his wife pulls him back, “As he struts off to hand over his quarter, someone clucks like a hen.” Ms. Hen thought this was funny, even though she knows the men are insulting women.

Ms. Hen has read other novels about circuses and carnivals. Her favorite is GEEK LOVE, which she will be reading again soon.  She has also read SWAMPLANDIA! which she did not like as much as GEEK LOVE because she was hoping it would be just as magical and beautiful, but it turned out to be creepy and perverse, and it left Ms. Hen with a bad taste in her mouth. Stay tuned for a review of GEEK LOVE from Ms. Hen soon.

Ms. Hen loved WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. It is a beautiful story about a man and his journey into the circus and also the end of his life. The novel is about yearning and the dream of love. Jacob loved his parents, he loves animals, he loves Marlena, and he loves life. This novel is sweet the way pink cotton candy at the circus is sweet, a flavor unlike any other.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews SNOWPIERCER

Directed by Bong Joon-Hu

Ms. Hen doesn’t watch many science fiction films, but she enjoys them. The reason is she finds most sci-fi films formula and Hollywood, and that is not Ms. Hen’s style. She happened to find out about SNOWPIERCER from a preview, and she thought she would be interested, and she was not disappointed.

SNOWPIERCER is about a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone left is travelling on a train hurtling around the planet. We are introduced to the train at the tail section, known as economy class, where the poorest passengers live. The people start to fight to get to the front of the train to find Timmy, a boy who is taken away. They also want to see what’s there, and to find more food than the protein bars they are given to eat. Curtis, and the other men decide that the guns the guards hold don’t have any bullets, and decide to overthrow them and start their way up the train.

Curtis and the other revolutionaries employ Namgoon, a prisoner who is known to be a security expert, and they pay him with Kronole, a drug that is he and the other first class passengers are all addicted to. His daughter is psychic, and also addicted to Kronole. She sees what is beyond the doors before they are opened.

The group walks through the section where insects are ground to make the food for the tail passengers, and a schoolroom in which a teacher is giving a lesson about the Frozen Seven, a group of people who tried to escape the train. They also walk through an aquarium full of fish, which serves sushi twice a year, which happens to be that day, and a nightclub, and many other odd places.

Tilda Swinton gives a stellar performance as Mason the Minister. She’s reminiscent of Effie Trinket in THE HUNGER GAMES, but much creepier in Tilda Swinton-fashion. Ed Harris appears as Wilson the train conductor. Ms. Hen didn’t know at first if it actually was Ed Harris, because he didn’t sound the same as usual.

Ms. Hen was reminded of George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM watching this film. There is a hierarchy, which cannot be challenged, and the people in the tail want to rebel against the people at the front. The tail people are fed insects, and are left to eat each other and babies in the beginning of the excursion, and they hate that their lives are like this, even though they survived the apocalypse, they don’t know if they prefer to be alive. Children born on the train, under seventeen years old, are called “train babies,” and know nothing of the world outside the train.

At the beginning of the film, the tail people were handed their protein bars, but before, they were asked what they wanted, and they all screamed, “Chickens!” Ms. Hen was impressed that the people wanted chickens, but she was not surprised since she believes chickens are superior. Also, one of the areas of the train was a meat locker full of chickens, which looked disgusting, but the characters all appeared anxious and apprehensive at the sight.

Ms. Hen enjoyed this film because it brought her to another place. It is a train ride on the end of the world, and humanity still has to learn to coexist, the fighting and insurgencies never seem to stop, the train speed goes of control, but the passengers know that they are all of humanity left on the planet together, which is a frightening thought, but one that is their reality. Ms. Hen thinks this is an important film, which she cannot say for everything she watches or reads. It's important because it shows how twisted society can get, and displays how the world should not succumb to itself.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews GIOVANNI'S ROOM

James Baldwin
Random House

Ms. Hen decided she wanted to read a book by James Baldwin, so she did some research. She discovered GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN was his most famous novel, but she was more interested in GIOVANNI’S ROOM because it takes place in Paris, and it’s about a man trying to suppress his homosexuality, which is more to Ms. Hen’s taste.

At the beginning of the novel, Ms. Hen discovered that David's lover is about to be executed. It takes the entire book to find out why. Ms. Hen was enthralled by the style of writing in this novel. James Baldwin is a master of words, and Ms. Hen didn’t know why it took her so long to read his work.

This novel takes place mostly in Paris, and the city plays a large part in the narrative. The descriptions of staying out late at bars and eating in cafes early in the morning, and the streets, the neighborhoods, the scenes were all so vivid that Ms. Hen could picture herself there with these people, drinking, and being young and carefree in the city of lights. It made Ms. Hen nostalgic for a time she had never had, but that is what outstanding fiction should do.

Another successful aspect of this novel is the portrayal of the anguish of futile love. David becomes involved with Giovanni, and moves into his squalid room outside the city center, where they get to know each other, and become lovers. David stays in the room while Giovanni goes to work, cleaning and getting ready for him to come back. They both know their relationship could not last, because David has a fiancée and they are two men living together. They know it could not be forever, but the question is, when would it end? They don't know until it happens.

The other characters treat David and Giovanni with disdain. They don’t like that the men are happy, and insult them at every turn. Jacques, who was with David when he meets Giovanni, resents their relationship. Jacques and Guillaume have money and David and Giovanni do not, so the couple is at a disadvantage.

Ms. Hen thought that the women are not treated with respect in this novel. Hella, David’s fiancée, rants about how she is glad she only had a woman’s mind, which has limits. This section gave Ms. Hen a bad taste in her mouth. She realized that this novel was written by a gay man in the 1950s, and she understands that he might not have been progressive on women’s issues, and he could have believed that a woman is decoration, and beneath her husband. Everything about this novel was perfect, except for this page. Ms. Hen was disappointed.

She was not disappointed when she found chickens mentioned in the novel. The four men are at a bar early in the morning, when Jacques is urging the men ahead, “and Jacques, pushing us all before him as though we were his chickens.” Ms. Hen thinks it is charming that he is treating the men like chickens, because they’re not chickens, and if they think Jacques thinks they are, he could be in trouble.

Ms. Hen loved reading this novel. She likes reading about other people’s strange and wild lives. And to experience Paris in its visceral glory in the 1950s is magical. Ms. Hen recommends this to anyone who loves Paris, and reading about tragic gay love affairs.