#37: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (Katarina)

When I turned 11, my father gave me a copy of Black Beauty (1877). Easy to say, it quickly became one of my favorite books. Black Beauty is written out of the perspective of the horse with the same name. The reader gets to follow his life from when he is a happy foal to the day he is “retired”. During his life, Black Beauty lives with different kind of people where some treat him well and others not. But throughout his life, the calm and kind ways of his first owner helps Black Beauty adapt to all kinds of situations.

Today, we might think of this book as one for children. However, it was written with the purpose to shed light on the horses’ situation in England (and the world). And it did. It was a bestseller from the start and reactions were so strong that the welfare for the horses improved significantly. Also, animal activists handed out the book to drivers and stables.

I’m not sure this is true, but a believe I heard a story once where a man who had mistreated his horses was sentenced to reading Black Beauty in jail. That in itself, if it’s true, shows how greatly one can effect the world with words. Sewell made a smart move when she told the story out of the perspective of the horse, because it makes the reader feel its pain with it.

I hope generations to come will enjoy this novel and see it as a reminder of the importance to treat both humans and animal with kidness and respect.

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#36: Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (Katarina)

Death in Venice (1912) focuses on a man, Gustav, who travels to Venice, Italy. He is a well-known author, but struggles with writer’s block, which is the reason behind his trip. While in Venice, Gustav notices a young Polish boy, who is staying at the same hotel as him. The boy, Tadzio, is supposedly very beautiful and the older man is mesmerized by him. There is no actual interaction between the two, except a few glances. When rumors begin to spread that Venice is suffering an outbreak of cholera, Gustav finds himself unable to leave until he knows that Tadzio has been taken to safety. However, he later on has to pay the prize for this noble and yet unknown gesture with his own life.

The book, which I happened to read a month or so before I actually went back to Venice for a visit, is interesting in the sense that it deals with human affection in a very innocent way. Gustav might be heavily affected by the young boy’s beauty, but he knows not to act on those emotions. But of course, the subject in itself of a man chasing after a young boy was discussed at the time of publication. Interesting to note in the matter is also that Tadzio was based off a real person who Mann and his wife saw while in Venice on vacation. The relationship between boy and man can surely be analyzed further.

To be honest, what stuck with me the most was the fact that they tried to hide that the plague was raging through Venice. And during my own trip back, I had that very fresh in mind, which led to a standing joke between me and my friends.

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#35: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Katarina)

By now, it’s been made very clear that I love the works of John Steinbeck. East of Eden (1952) is no exception. The book tells the tale of two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, who both come to live in the Salinas Valley, California. The Hamilton’s are said to be based on the real family of Samuel Hamilton, Steinbeck’s grandfather. The writer himself also appears briefly in the story, which makes it feel even more like the truth ( at least to some extent). Samuel Hamilton struggles to make a living on an infertile piece of land and he is known to be an inventor with a good heart. Adam Trask on the other hand, grew up in a military home on the east coast and came to the Valley a rich man. He is head over heals in love with his beautiful wife Cathy, but she is full of secrets and runs away from him after giving birth to twin sons.

The book offers an intricate weave of colorful characters and some fo them you would love to have as your best friends, while others appear to be the devil’s offspring. The book is also closely related to the Bible and the story from Genesis about Cain and Abel. Salinas Valley also plays a vital part in the book and is so well described by Steinbeck that it feels like I have visited the place in person.

In the short, the book is beautifully written and I truly recommend it. If Steinbeck is still a writer for you to discover, I envy you, and if he is already someone you love, I understand you fully. If you on the other hand don’t like his books, well, that is fine too, but maybe you should give him another try?

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#34: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (Katarina)

The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is one of few books I wish I hadn’t read. Not because it was bad, it was sometimes quite interesting and especially in the beginning, but because of how it ended. I think it is (SPOILER ALERT) cheap to end a book with “it was all just a dream”. The insanity in some parts of the book should have clued me in on this ending, but I hoped the outcome would be quite different.

So what is the book about? A man called Syme is recruited to an anti-anarchist group within Scotland Yard to take down a group led by a man known as Sunday. Syme takes on the role as Thursday as he infiltrates the group. One by one, the other members of the group (except for Sunday) turns out to also be part of the same group as Syme. They have all been recruited by the same mysterious man who interviewed them in a pitch black room, so neither one of them knows what he looks like. To me, at least, it was evident that this man had to be Sunday. Why else be so secretive? The hunt for Sunday takes the police officers on a wild journey through Europe that, as I said earlier, becomes more and more insane. And then ends with it all being a dream.

I’m certain there is some greatness in this book and that there is a lot to discuss, but to me, it is all over-shadowed by the fact that it ends with the awakening from a dream. Maybe it was something new back in the day, but now it feels like an easy way out, just like killing the main character is. If it doesn’t add to the  greater good of the story, it can easily be seen as a way for the author to get out of the corner they have painted themselves into.

But maybe I take back what I said first. I don’t regret reading the book, because it had its charm. However, I wish it had ended differently.

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#33: The Pearl by John Steinbeck (Katarina)

My love for John Steinbeck deepens further after reading The Pearl (1947). Based on a Mexican folk tale, we meet a young couple who live in hut with their infant son. The man, Kino, is a pearl diver, and very poor. When the story opens, the young family lives a very content life, but that is all about to change. One morning, the baby Coyotito is stung by a scorpion and needs medical treatment. However, the doctor doesn’t want to help a poor man since there’s nothing in it for him. It’s the beginning of desperate times.

Shortly thereafter, Kino finds an enormous pearl that is nicknamed “the Pearl of the World”, and no one has ever seen anything like it. Kino first believes that his luck has turned in his favor, but only the first night, people try to steal it from him. The next day, he is further disappointed when the corrupt pearl buyers try to play him and rob him of what the pearl is really worth by saying it has no value.

Instead, Kino decides to take the pearl the long way to the capital to sell it, but his wife Juana sees the evil it has brought and sneaks out at night to throw it back in the ocean. But Kino figures it out, attacks her and then gets attacked himself. Eventually they begin the dangerous journey and are chased by trackers.

The story, although quite short, shows how greed can lead to the downfall of man. Steinbeck paints a beautifully painful story with an end that leaves you heartbroken. It also offers a lot to discuss and even now, weeks after i finished it, I still hate the people who let their own greed cause so much pain in a young family who really didn’t care about money but that which is important – the people you hold near and dear.

 

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#17. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (Catharina)

This book falls under the genre of animal fiction, as human thoughts and feelings are given to the lead character of the book (the lead character is a dog named Buck). It was very popular when it was published and was made into a movie the first time as early as 1908 (five years after the book was published, several movie and even series adaptations have followed). Part of its charm is probably the mix of fable, allegory and parable. This is a quick read for an adult reader, but it doesn’t mean that they should not read it; if nothing else it covers a portion of American history.

In this story we get to follow Buck, a St Bernard-Collie mix. The book is written to reflect the 1890’s Klondike Gold Rush; dogs to pull the sledges were in great demand. Buck is stolen from his home and sold to a dog trader, who savagely beats obedience into the dogs. His stay here changes how Buck thinks about humans and also to a point how he looks at other dogs. Especially when he arrives in Yukon and gets experience in how the experienced sledge dogs act. Buck is put to work in a sledge team, and start having problems with the lead dog straight away. After a while he managed to kill the lead dog and takes over being the lead dog in the team. The team gets sold off to some people that are not evry experienced and unable to fathom that the dogs are run down, they work them anyway and Buck is almost beaten to death for refusing to pull at one point. He gets saved by a man that happens to be present and for the first time in a long while Buck gets to experience how it is to have a loving owner. At this point the story goes into displaying “American pastoralism”, where the character returns to nature so to speak. Buck starts running around in the wild, befriends a Timber wolf, but still returns to his owner on regular intervals. After returning to camp after a short trip away he finds that Indians, have killed his new human and he returns to the wild fully and run with the wolves.

I believe that this book gives an insight into how the life of sledge dogs was at that time, attempted from the dog’s perspective. Worth a read at least once in your lifetime, it won’t take very long for an adult reader anyway and I believe that for younger readers it would be very popular.

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#16. Persuasion by Jane Austen (Catharina)

Another Jane Austen novel, in fact it is her last. Her brother is thought to have decided on the title of this novel, which was named after her death, and that she referred to it as “The Elliott’s”.

We get to follow the character Anne Elliott here; her father and sister are rather self-involved people and had together with Anne’s friend Lady Russell eight years earlier persuaded Anne to break off an engagement to a young naval officer on the ground that he was beneath her. At age 27 Anne is still unmarried and the family fortune has dwindled. The family estate is leased out, as it turns out to the sister and brother-in-law of Anne’s former fiancée. The poor naval officer have now turned into a fairly rich Captain, he proclaims that he wants to marry, just not Anne, as he is till angry with her for breaking off the engagement.

The book deals with the social pressures of the time, and different types of persuasions by family members on young women to act as they saw fit. I do believe that seeing Jane Austen’s novels as “just love stories,” mean that you have missed the whole point. Rather they give a glimpse into how it was to be a young woman of those times and the different social pressures that you had to conform to.

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