REVIEW: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

Yet another of the 100 Essential Novels according to www.popchartlab.com, albeit a novella really.

The Metamorphosis is one those books that I would have preferred to read in a literature class. I am sure I missed much in subtext and symbolism and would have greatly benefited from classroom discussion.

The story begins with an overworked young man waking up to himself transformed into a “monstrous vermin” although he thinks despite the six legs and hard shell, he may just have a traveler’s malady. Gregor assumed care for the family as a traveling salesman, always scurrying here and there, barely taking time to eat or sleep. It is a job his father’s debts have enslaved him to.

He is trapped under the weight of these responsibilities and run-ragged by a boss who knocks on his door when he fails to show up for work, not out of concern, but to ensure he gets on his way immediately.

Locked away by his new physical state, his sister Grete assumes his place as the family lead, his mother takes in piece-work and laundry, and his father takes demeaning work at a bank. Grete endeavors to find scraps Gregor will eat and slowly removes the furnishings from his room. Gregor’s mother is so distraught by the change in him that she takes to the sofa in horror. They rent out part of their home to borders to make ends meet and keep Gregor out of their sight.

Grete begins to feel put upon by having to care for Gregor and leaves it to a servant. His ever decreasing role in the family angers him and yet he empathizes with Grete’s anger at being thrust in his former role. He thinks of being able to somehow ease her life.

His father takes out his anger at being forced to work on Gregor and heaves an apple at him causing a debilitating wound. In another burst of anger his father threatens to stomp him. He sinks further and further into depression, hiding under the bed and leaving the scraps of food to rot. His family should not have to suffer for his existence so he slowly commits suicide in order to free them.

With Gregor finally gone, the parents immediately move on and turn to Grete, noting her beauty and marriageable age and make plans to find her a rich husband thereby saving them from the need to work to keep from poverty.

It is difficult to feel any empathy for parents who seem to treat their children as simply a means to their livelihood. The reader can feel some empathy for Grete who at least displays a modicum of compassion towards Gregor before turning on him. And what of Gregor? It would be hard not be repulsed by his new physical state and yet as a reader you feel empathy for his still-human thoughts and feelings. What did Kafka want us to take away from his novella? That family love can only be stretched so far? That workaholism only leads to illness and early death?

Published in Germany in October of 1915, the novella is now a little over 100 years old. A whole literary style has been named from it –“Kafkaesque” – the style and messages in it are still being taught and his work has stood the test of time as required reading for many students of literature. I wish it had been for me.

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REVIEW: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

More scratching off the covers of the 100 Essential Novels according to www.popchartlab.com

My daughter brought my attention to this poster about a year ago and I’m currently in the middle of row 3. A lot of them I had already read, but some so long ago that I felt I needed to re-read before scratching. The Red Badge of Courage was one such book. I vaguely remembered the story, but mostly I remembered that it was one of my younger brother’s favorite books.

Stephen Crane wrote his novel about a young Union soldier in the Civil War in 1893 and despite never having fought in the war himself, the book earned him status as the godfather of war novels. It’s easy to see why as his writing vividly brings the battle scene to life and the emotions of the soldiers to bear.

The story is told by a teenage Henry Fleming who volunteered for the Union Army so he can finally be a man, experience the adventurous life of brave men and give meaning to his existence. His tale focuses on his impressions of the landscape, the minutiae, his fellow soldiers, the enemy and a specific battle. His recounting paints a powerful picture of the war that the reader can easily fall in to. In fact simply by analyzing Henry’s incredibly descriptive words, historians have rightly concluded that the tale depicts the battle of Chancellorsville.

I’ve noted before that historical fiction is my favorite genre, but this book isn’t just that. It’s so much more. It reads like a fine stage drama shown from inside the psyche of a young boy thrown into a man’s world. The scenes are so deftly set that I am there with him. I flinch. I gasp. I sigh. My eyes fill with tears.

Early critics accused Crane of a lack of patronage shown by Henry’s struggle with fear over courage as the battle commences. But what young boy when faced with his first real life do or die moment wouldn’t suffer an instinct to flee from a thrusting bayonet, to fear that wound that will be his red badge of courage. He stays with the Union Army despite his fear, battles alongside his fellow soldiers watching them fall around him. He himself remains unscathed although grown older and wiser in this brief moment of his life and longing for the peaceful boring days of his recent childhood. Far from a lack of patronage, his love of country is strengthened.

Over 120 years later, Crane’s book still engrosses and captivates. It’s place on PopChart Labs’ poster is well-deserved.

REVIEW: Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

Continuing my immersion in the world of Southern historical fiction led me to Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard – a sweet, easy read with a delightful 9 year-old girl telling the story.

Starla’s momma left her when she was three. Her father works on an oil rig in the Gulf and Starla is being raised by her grandmother in a small Mississippi town. She is always in trouble with her grandmother. This time she’s sure reform school is in her future and she sets off for Nashville to find her momma. She’s convinced her momma is a famous singer and will be able to fix everything. Her daddy can join them in Nashville and they can finally live as a happy family. When Eula, a black woman with a white baby, pulls alongside her in a beat up old pick up truck offers her a ride she figures it’ll get her there quicker and get her out of the awful July heat.

It’s the beginning of the Civil Rights’ Movement in the South. Starla meets with some unexpected violence along her journey. Some of it related to race issues, some not. The Civil Rights’ Movement is touched on, but not in much detail although Starla slowly begins to be aware that what she’s always been told by her grandmother may not be right. That maybe skin color doesn’t really matter when it comes to love and family.

REVIEW: Salvage the Bones

As soon as I started reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, I remembered why I hadn’t read it earlier. I’m a dog lover. Not the dress them up and carry them around in my purse kind (my fur baby is a 120 pound Leonberger so wouldn’t fit anyway), but completely devoted to them nonetheless. A big part of the book is dog fighting in the backwoods of Mississippi. Once I remembered, the dread set in and I put the book down for a week or so. I did want to read about Hurricane Katrina in relation to poor African Americans in rural Mississippi so picked it back up and braced myself. I still didn’t read the pages that involved dogs being hurt. Couldn’t.

The Batiste family lives in the Pit, a junkyard in a backwoods area near a creek fed by the bayou.  The narrator is Esch Batiste, a shy 14 year old girl whose mother died giving birth to her youngest brother, Junior. Her father is an out of work alcoholic, her brother Randall is hoping for a basketball scholarship and her brother Skeetah earns money by pitting his prized fighting dog against other dogs and hopes her new puppies will increase his payload. Esch has been having sex with her brothers’ friends since the age of 12 because “it’s easier than saying no.” Pretty soon she’s pregnant on top of everything else. And Katrina is coming.

The book is told in days-to-landfall chapters starting with Day 12. At first she’s no more than a depression out in the Gulf. Only Esch’s mean drunk father even seems to be that concerned about it. In between beers, he tries to scavenger up plywood to board up the windows and repair his truck so he can make money after the storm. By the last two chapters we are frantically turning the pages to see if the Batiste family is going to drown in her fury.

Salvage the Bones  won the National Book Award in 2011 and most reviews are glowing. Ward writes in metaphors. Lots of them. Almost every sentence is picturesque or convoluted depending on your point of view. Add in the voice of a teenage girl with a fondness for Greek mythology telling a raw story and it can be a difficult read. Even if you’re not a dog lover.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Picking up my second book in the 24in48 challenge, I left The Tilted World’s 1927 Mississippi Delta and entered 1870 Texas where Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd was returning 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger back to her family. Johanna had been kidnapped by Kiowa warriors when they killed her German immigrant parents four years earlier.

Capt. Kidd, a Civil War veteran and widower who once ran a newspaper, now travels to middle of nowhere small towns in the South reading news from around the world to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it for the small fee of a dime. At one of his readings he agrees to take Johanna off the hands of an Indian agent for a $50 gold coin and make the long journey to San Antonio. Johanna has completely adopted the Kiowa as her family and has no memories of her life before the kidnapping. She speaks no English and no longer understands or trusts the white man’s world.

This is Reconstruction Texas of the Old West so there are gun fights, corrupt government officials, violent Calvary members, ambushes, and harsh landscapes with long horse wagon travelled distances between towns – the journey from Northern Texas to San Antonio will take them several days. The grandfatherly “Kep-dun” and his charge soon develop a bond that only deepens as they travel.

Upon arriving at the German enclave just outside San Antonio, he takes young Johanna to her cold, childless aunt and uncle who ask his confirmation that the child will work hard and pull her weight on their farm. Uneasily he leaves her with them but soon returns to rescue her from their abuse.

Jiles’ novel is a poetically written piece of historical fiction and Captain Kidd is an authentic character. The surrounding characters fill in his story with rich details and color. The era evoked and the landscapes drawn will haunt you longer after you finish the story.

The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

This was the first book I read during the 24in48 Readathon Challenge and it was a good choice to kick off 24 hours of reading – my favorite genre of historical fiction, but not too heavy, and with an intriguing Southern storyline.

It’s 1927. Prohibition Revenuers and the ever-rising Mississippi River are threatening to destroy the Mississippi Delta and its way of life. Childless Dixie Clay is a successful moonshiner’s wife. Her husband Jesse is reckless and violent and she believes he may be responsible for the disappearance of two federal agents who recently discovered their large still operation.

Ing and Ham are revenue agents sent by Secretary of Commerce Hoover to find the missing agents, arrest the moonshine makers and destroy the stills. They stumble upon a robbery scene with a wailing infant left behind. A former orphan himself, Ing feels obliged to take the baby and find it a home. Inevitably he ends up on Dixie Clay’s doorstep in the small town of Hobnob on the banks of the Mississippi.

The river continues to rise. The townspeople continue to try to secure the levee. Ham gets closer to finding out about the still operation and what happened to the other agents. Dixie and Ing fall in love. Jesse negotiates a deal with a group of wealthy New Orleans bankers to blow up levees along the Delta in an effort to keep the destruction of the rising river from ever reaching NOLA.

It was oddly déjà vu as I read: President Coolidge wasn’t there when the Mississippi Delta was destroyed by the Great Flood of 1927 – President Bush wasn’t there when New Orleans (NOLA) and the Mississippi Gulf Coast were destroyed by flooding and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina; Herbert Hoover led the Red Cross at the time of the 1927 flood and rode the publicity all the way to White House – Michael Brown led FEMA at the time of Katrina and rode the publicity all the way to unemployment.

There’s a point in the book where the authors allege that had the flood happened somewhere more affluent than the Mississippi Delta, the U.S. Government would have done more to save the area and its population. African-Americans who could used the flood to join what would later be coined the Great Migration and moved north. And it is true that the political elite decided that to save New Orleans, they would blow up the levee and basically destroy St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish.

Similar accusations were made after Katrina – the wealthy French Quarter and the Port of New Orleans saw an almost instant flux of cash and assistance; to date there remain washed-out neighborhoods in the 9th Ward and thousands of African-Americans with no home to return to even if they could afford it. The Mississippi Gulf Coast, marginalized by the NOLA flooding yet which actually took the direct hit of Katrina, has yet to fully recover.

Both natural disasters were record breakers that forever changed the demographics and landscape of America.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

24 in 48 Updates

Hour 24.5: Ended up going back to Pride and Prejudice for the last 3 hours as I just couldn’t sit anymore without nodding off. Now I’m at 95% and feel the tussle between sleep and the last 5%.

Great challenge! Many thanks to the organizers for putting it all together and for livening things up with the additional challenges thrown in every few hours.

Happy Reading All!

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Hour 18.5: finished News of the World, a beautifully written story whose words and images stay with you; will post a review later

Spine Poetry

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Mocha and “gods in Alabama” in hand for the final 5.5 hours.

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Hour 15.5: listened to a few more chapters of Pride and Prejudice while getting some much needed housework done.

Brewed some lemon-ginger tea and settling back into News of the World where the captain continues to reintroduce Kiowa-kidnapped, 10 year-old Johanna to the white man’s world on their journey to her people in San Antonio territory.

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Hour 13.5:

My TBR

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My TBE – made them on Friday to fuel the weekend:
• Carrot salad with toasted walnuts and cranberries
• Oriental salad with roasted chicken and mandarin slices
• Black bean and corn salad with fresh avocado and smetana
• Hummus with carrot sticks

And cappuccinos, mochas, lemon-ginger tea and sparkling water with orange juice

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Hour 12.5: slept longer than I meant to so a late start this morning. A brief thunderstorm in the middle of the night has cooled things down here and it looks to be another beautiful day.

“This is writing. This is printing. This tells us of all the things we ought to know in the world. And also that we ought to want to know.” ~ News of the World

#ownvoices

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