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Posts Tagged ‘history’

I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

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I’d heard Simon Garfield interviewed about his new book and knew I would love it, and it came in with a stack of other “holds” the Thursday before the blizzard. But I’ve been so busy it’s been hard to finish On the Map: a Mind Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks. This is not a book to pick up and set down in short intervals. It’s better absorbed at least one rich chapter at a time, if possible.

I’ve always loved maps and geography. I thoroughly enjoyed geography class in junior high, and looking at globes and atlases as a child. When my children were young we had a series of map place mats and puzzles, played geography games on the computer, and conducted a family “country of the month” club, where we took turns choosing a country, checked out stacks of books about it, ordered maps from tourist bureaus, read folktales, listened to music, learned a few phrases, etc. and wrapped up with a meal featuring foods from our chosen country. And on family trips I introduced them to old school AAA “TripTiks,” each flip map trip route plotted especially for us at the AAA office, with the journey unfolding page by page as the miles melt away.

My son learned to travel by map every summer for the handful of years we lived in deep southern Georgia. I’d order fresh new regional maps and we’d highlight a route according to our stops along the way. We’d set off early, the summer sky just brightening, dotted with a few lingering stars, the trees dark silhouettes, all three of us (the kids and I — the Computer Scientist didn’t usually get enough time off to road trip) nearly sick with nervous excitement, the car fully kitted out with snacks, caffeine for me, travel games, audio books and music to help us pass the time. Odds Bodkin and Jim Weiss, and later Bill Bryson, kept us company on the way.

My son would follow the route I’d marked, navigating and urging we go farther before stopping (he was always anxious to get wherever we were going). We’d stop to visit family along the way and end up back in New Hampshire, where I would never fail to point out the gorgeous boulders to my eye-rolling offspring as we drove along Rt. 9 past Keene in a particularly scenic stretch where the road follows a brook. And at the end of the visit we’d head back again, the familiar exits and landmarks leading us home as my son followed along on our maps.

My daughter likes maps too but is far more familiar with GPS. (An aside: she is the subject of one amazing map story in our family’s lore. When she was 2, she was sitting in her booster seat looking out the kitchen window and said in the matter-of-fact way of children, “Look Mommy, France.” She was pointing to a cloud, and it did indeed look like France, which was in front of her on a place mat world map!)

Garfield explains towards the end of his book that by 2005, GPS had taken off, becoming the routing method of choice for people traveling by car. My daughter knows I find GPS frustrating – it’s disconcerting to look at the little screen diagram and also at the road for one thing, and I like seeing the whole route, not just the next step. I almost always print out directions and ask her to refer to them as we go. So she’s learned, in her formative years, to navigate via Google Maps directions, and to follow along on a moving digital map with us at the center.

On the Map begins and ends by examining this current state of mapping affairs: we are the center of our own maps, as GPS devices and smartphones and apps focus on our current location. He traces this unquenchable human longing to place ourselves in the context of our world from the earliest maps traced on a stone tablet through the imaginary but incredibly detailed maps of Skyrim and even more mind boggling, maps of our own brains. He covers maps’ role in geopolitical, economic, social and cultural history, and their influence on everything from exploration to social justice.

I loved every bit of it. It’s a very pleasingly designed book, smaller than most hardcovers and stout. Every chapter is filled with illustrations and many have small sections Garfield calls “pocket maps” that offer tantalizing detours from his main narrative. From mapping Mars to the history of guidebooks, from Churchill’s map room to famous map thieves, from blank spaces and invented mountain ranges to iconic maps real and imagined (the London Tube, the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter), Garfield packs every page with fascinating people and stories. One of my favorites concerned the use of specially modified Monopoly games as escape kits sent to WWII prison camps; the boards hid clues, silk maps were sandwiched between the cardboard layers and the game pieces included a compass.

When I had time to sit down and really savor his erudite but thoroughly readable prose, I really enjoyed it. If I had just a few minutes to read, I wished for more. If all history were this palatable no student would ever find it drudgery. Garfield presents the entire course of humanity’s rise from caves to space in the story of maps. I’m going to have to add his other books to my lengthy “to-read” list.

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Many of the books I read this month are about people who are actually a little bit happy being miserable. I think we all know people like that; we may all be somewhat prone to this. Sometimes lamenting life’s little annoyances feels good, and reading about someone else’s gripes can be very amusing. More on this in a moment.

I read a little less this month in part because I was writing more. Yesterday I “won” NaNoWriMo by finishing a novel of just over 50,000 words, written entirely in November. You can learn more about this crazy endeavor at The Nocturnal Librarian.  I also have a new obsession: zentangle.

My interest is zentangling caused me to request The Mandala Book: Patterns of the Universe by Lori Bailey Cunningham, on interlibrary loan.  This is one of those books that really excited the life learner in me. It full of gorgeous photos of all kinds of designs that occur naturally: shapes, mathematical patterns, branching, and more. Brief essays expand on the ideas presented in the photos. I really enjoyed the way Cunningham joins math, science, spirituality, and aesthetics to celebrate the beauty and mystery of our world. And I found inspiration for tangling!

Next, another book that isn’t about my proposed theme of enjoying a good gripe. It’s a book by an author I’ve mentioned on bookconscious before: David Rubel. His new picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift got a nice shout-out in the New York Times book review’s children’s holiday issue. David sent me a copy and I absolutely adore it — it will have a place of honor among my growing collection of holiday reads.

The Carpenter’s Gift tells the story of a little boy, Henry, who goes with his father to sell Christmas trees in New York City in 1931.  At the end of the day, they give away the leftover trees to some construction workers who’d helped them set up. They decorate the tallest of the trees at the site — Rockefeller Center. Henry makes a wish for a warm house to live in, and takes a pine cone from the tree home with him.

The construction workers turn up the next day with some extra wood and offer to build the struggling family a home. Henry helps a bit and is thrilled to have a warm place to live. When his parents throw a party to thank the men, Frank, the man who helped with the Christmas trees, gives Henry a hammer. Henry plants his pine cone and treasures the gift.

Flash forward, Henry has grown up, his tree is enormous, and along comes a man looking for a Christmas tree for Rockefeller Center. What seals the deal is that the man tells him the tree will be made into lumber for a house for a family in need — built by Habitat for Humanity. When the now gray-haired Henry attends the tree lighting, he sees a little girl picking up a pinecone from his tree.

Henry has the chance to complete the circle and share a very special gift. What? Did you think I was going to tell you the whole story? You’ll have to go get the book and find out what happens.

The story and its lovely illustrations by Jim LaMarche are perfect for curling up on a December evening and reading with a child. I love that the book incorporates history, holiday traditions, and the spirit of giving that can tranform this season into more than just making merry.

David also subtly touches on Habitat’s mission, which is to partner with people in need of decent housing (Habitat homeowners help build their own homes) and to bring people together to eradicate poverty housing. The impact of Habitat’s work is not only to build houses but to “transform the lives of volunteers,” as Rubel writes in the afterword, and his story really shows how that happens.

One more book before I get to the love of misery. Cinnamon Press, a terrific indie publisher in the UK, sent me Migrations by Anne Cluysenaar to review. Migrations is a collection of poems that are insightful, thoughtful,veined with wisdom, and also well crafted. Cluysenaar writes not only of human experience with feeling and skill, but also of human and natural history, literature, and philosophy.

The musical language in “Eels,” a poem in the section called “On the Farm,” is lovely, with interesting letter combinations such as the “gl” and “sh” along with “o” sounds as in the first stanza: “Glasseels, that in open ocean/passed for glints or ripples,/nose into rainflow freshness./Their gills flush crimson.” This reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s lilting poems.

“Through Time” is a series of poems that evoke the wonder of geological time and our human awe of it, and the poems’ shapes are jagged-edged like the shorelines, causeways, quarries, stream beds, shear zones, valleys, and other features Cluysenaar explores. She muses on things such as tiny prehistoric creatures who left “. . . delicate pale arabesques/on the stones at my feet” noting, “This was all beyond my/reach this flow –/independent ongoing life,/things quite unknown,/unconscious minds/feeding from tide to tide,/doodling grey stone.” There’s something almost liturgical in this language, and I love the image of an ancient chain of life leading to a person walking along the shore.

“Clay” is a long poem inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the author’s discovery that an ancestress of hers lived 10,000 years ago in what is now Syria. The poem alternates between the ancient and the remembered present, as in this passage reflecting on a young scribe marking a clay tablet: “But what if he knows we’ll look down/on that river (still flowing), our steps/and our thoughts, like his, still restless?/I see his young hand, ghostly,/making strokes for the word life –/life that enforces a journey./My own, typing the word./Text upon text upon text./And thoughts’ unwriteable palimpset.” Shivery stuff, that ancient hand writing alongside today’s poet.

“As a wind or an echo rebounds,” a poem whose title is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus, is shorter but still a few pages long. It is a very poignant reflection on the death of a loved one: “. . . the terror/of love about to flow between us.”

The final section of the book, “Migrations,” joins poems which reflect that theme but are varied in subject matter, point of view, and setting. I particularly enjoyed “Late-night London. The Tube” which describes a singing panhandler, “It was a round bin, strapped,” about a sort of drop box for books traded between the narrator and a homeless person who annotates the margins. “No I can’t remember his words,” “Waiting for tests,” “Mere canvas – flat, timeless,” and “A metaphor for this earth” are also particularly strong, lovely poems.

One more in this final section actually made me squirm: “Soft as water, my finger-tips,”about a salmon’s experience as someone lifts it out of a stream, is so evocative that I felt as if I was experiencing what the fish was: “. . . the air clasps round,/harsh with heat, the floating/surface below him broken,/ no water to breathe, nothing/against which to brace his fins.”

Cinnamon Press is an independent source of original voices and fresh talent in a world in which large publishers’ marketing and sales departments often determine what the public reads. You can’t go wrong with any of their high quality titles, and I recommend Migrations wholeheartedly.

Ok, on to the griping already! First, a book I really didn’t enjoy. I almost never blog about books I didn’t like, but this one got so much hype when it came out that I am going to do a bit of complaining myself and ask: what is the appeal of Loving Frank?

As I told the Hooksett Library Book Club, which discussed the novel in October, I am willing to have an open mind and try to appreciate a novel that is either about people I don’t particularly like or a story I’m not drawn into, but not both. I’d argue that a novelist has to convince readers to get behind either the characters or what happens to them, or ideally, both. But in this case, I got all the way to the end without caring about either the characters or the plot. I wished I’d followed Teen the Younger’s advice to quit reading a book that isn’t appealing.

Rant over. On to the better kind of griping, that of writers who are perceptive and funny as they whinge. First up, Another Bad-Dog Book by Joni B. Cole. I laughed out loud throughout this warm and endearingly grumpy essay collection. I’ve mentioned before that I get a kick out of books that make me wish I could sit down and have a cup of tea with the author. This one makes me want to sit down and share a bottle of wine and swap favorite Kate Middleton style blogs with the author.

Cole wouldn’t think less of me for ogling royal fashions. And, she is a hilarious griper. She sends up not only her family and friends and herself, but also all the many things that comprise “neurotic human behavior” as her subtitle says. But these essays aren’t just about self-deprecating humor or skewering the crazy things she observes.

Cole’s insights are thoughtful, bittersweet, and intelligent. She is not preachy or didactic, and she’s kind, even when she writes about things that make her miserable.  She writes about experiences many people can identify with: feeling insecure about one’s looks or at a professional conference, dealing with illness or caring for aging parents, parenting, finding out an old friend on Facebook is a ranting nut-case, facing one’s own foibles. This was a delightful read, one that made me tear up at least once (see if you can read “Oh, Didn’t I Tell You?” without reaching for a tissue)  in addition to laughing out loud.

Here’s an example of Cole at her best, writing about her best friend in college: “Jeff always said I was the funniest girl I knew, and so I was funny. After he told me he was gay, he assumed I was a decent human being, and so I decided to act like one.” Coming out in the 80’s, even to a friend, was risky, and her friend saw the best in her. You will too as you laugh along with Cole and enjoy her wisdom and sharp wit.

I’m getting close to my goal of reading fourteen Europa Editions books by the end of 2011 for the Europa Challenge. In November I read another short story collection by Eric-Emannuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. I read Concerto to the Memory of an Angel earlier this year.

Schmitt’s stories are full of grumpy people who serve as foils for the grateful human beings who bring his themes to fruition.  And I think his theme in The Most Beautiful Book In the World is that what we humans spend an awful lot of time yearning for what we actually already have.  If we’d quit complaining and look around, we’d see it. Miserable people aren’t very mindful, but in Schmitt’s hands they are generally entertaining.

My favorite stories in this collection include: “The Intruder,” which is just heartbreaking; “The Barefoot Princess,” ditto; “Odette Toulemonde,” which the author adapted from his film of the same name; “The Forgery,” which kept me guessing; and the title story, about a gift women in a gulag make for their daughters.

Schmitt endears and amuses, his characters stumble and fumble and delude themselves but nearly every tale includes redemption or realization as well. A few stories aren’t about people who are miserable out of habit or character but really have an illness or other trauma. Even those are hopeful. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to another Schmitt collection in my “to read” pile: The Woman With the Bouquet.

Another Europa editions book I read in November was Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb.  This is a quirky short novel about a Belgian girl who becomes engaged to a Japanese boy while living in Tokyo. It touches on the oddities (to Westerners) of Japanese culture, the formalities and rules which dictate social and even family life there, and the strangeness of being an ex-pat.

The girl, also named Amelie, enjoys the boy’s attentions and his romantic, almost chivalrous delight in her, but doesn’t really want to get married. In the middle of a lot of romantic wooing, the book veers into a touch of magical realism in two separate mountain scenes. I won’t spoil it but I will say I found it slightly confusing and wasn’t always clear on why Amelie was miserable.

She’s not a loveable protagonist but in this case, that didn’t ruin the book for me. Because she’s young and somewhat impetuous, I could believe the story; one thing that confused me is that while this is fiction, the main character not only shares the author’s name, but also bits of her biography. Both are Belgian but born in Japan, and at the end of the book Amelie flies to Japan for a book tour for what was Amelie Nothomb’s first novel.

So is this autobiography, fiction, or some hybrid thereof? Does it matter? It kind of did to me — somehow it would be different if a real person had the experiences Amelie did. On the other hand, I had heard the ending would surprise and it didn’t. To me it seemed that Amelie did exactly what the book had been leading her to do.

So, I enjoyed this strange little novel on the whole, but was left wondering what I’d just read.  Except that this book was about someone who was miserable being happy in the conventional boy-meets-girl-they-fall-in-love sense. But ends up happy all the same. Got it?

I’d been waiting for French Leave by Anna Gavalda, also from Europa Editions, to be available on interlibrary loan. This was a quick read, sweet and funny and True, in that Gavalda really captured soemthing of the essence of being human. It’s the story of adult siblings who play hooky from a family wedding and visit their brother who wasn’t able to attend.

They spend the day and night remembering together (and I love how they don’t all remember childhood the same way, which is one of those little details that rings so true to life), hanging out, being silly, leaving their relationships, work, and responsibilities behind. I really enjoyed this book about letting the cares of the world go and being a family.

The family dynamics, the tensions and dramas, are finely rendered.  It’s a touching read. It’s pitch perfect — I could picture Garance, the sibling who tells the story, as she spoke, young, a little bit wild and flip, messy but pretty. Carine, the sister-in-law, is a classic I’m-not-happy-unless-I’m-miserable type who badgers everyone around her. And, there is a loveable stray mutt who plays a role in the story — making a furry friend is always a good way to leave your troubles behind.

I’m now reading the Gerald Samper books by James Hamilton-Paterson (all three are from Europa). I read Cooking With Fernet Branca last weekend and laughed aloud.  I’m about halfway through Amazing Disgrace and am wondering exactly where our hapless hero is going to end up next.

Gerald Samper is a British ex-pat author of sports biographies. He lives on a hill in Tuscany where he creates foul sounding gourmet dishes he is inordinately proud of, and sings opera (again a point of great pride) very badly.  He is forever grousing about his Voynovian neighbor Marta, who turns out to be a composer who parodies his yowling, and complaining heartily about the narcissistic, vapid subjects of his biographies.

Samper loves himself and loves to complain, and he’s the perfect male lead for these farces.  In the first book, he blames Marta for making him drink Fernet Branca, a strong Italian liqueur, but in her chapters, she blames him.  Their back and forth, including a wacky scene in which Samper nails himself to the fence he is trying to build between their properties, and their parallel struggles with their creative work and the crazy people they have to deal with are hilarious.

The minor characters in Cooking With Fernet Branca include a great Italian film director who seems a little loopy, his sports car driving son, a fast-talking realtor, Marta’s Voynovian family members, including a brother who lands an attack helicopter on her hillside, and the leader of a “boy band” who visits Samper and turns out to believe in UFO’s. Hamilton-Paterson is that perfect combination: avery good writer who also does comedy well, and I am really enjoying these books.

Teen the Younger read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik last month, after seeing Martin Scorsese on The Daily Show. We hope to catch the film soon. She really liked the illustrations, and said she found the story interesting and liked how it all fit together. She is also reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes and must be enjoying it, since as we’ve discussed, she doesn’t finish books she doesn’t like.

I’m hoping to finish the Gerald Samper books (after Amazing Disgrace comes Rancid Pansies) and the other Schmitt story collection, and I have the next Hooksett Book Club selection out from the library (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I’ve read and loved). I hope to reduce the piles beside my bed to perhaps one small stack over the holidays. Don’t I say that every month?

But meanwhile, I am trying to slow down in advent while also preparing for the holidays. So, I hope to reduce my griping (and my to-do lists) with literary humor and wisdom and find happiness even in the life’s aggravations. Like a woodpecker destroying the siding on the back wall of our house. We humans like to gripe, but we also like to laugh. I hope you find stories that offer both in the coming month.

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If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.

It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn.  Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.

Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war.  As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat.  Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself  by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.

It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.

A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran.  I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy.  Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.

But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac.  So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.

Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.

I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran.  Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery.  One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution.  In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.

The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.

The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried.  She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that?  Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a  memoir within a memoir.

Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.  This book quietly grew on me.  If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building  is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens.  As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.

Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.

I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”  Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”

In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.

Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound.  This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.

The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.

The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.

This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.

Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org.  In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week.  First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.

This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books,  is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies.  The essays examine belief  in everything from the Golden Rule to baking.  I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.

Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other.  I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”

Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah.  Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.

Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary TimeMarie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive.  I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.

Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.”  Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.

“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and  mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”

And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”

A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.

Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.

Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved.  Poems that struck me.

Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.

“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”

Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.”   “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”

She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”

I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.”  For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.

Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.

Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.

I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.”  It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books.   Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of  Truth in the voices of these women.

If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.

Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying.  I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.

Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.

The  Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.

Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced  “intense.”  She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting.  She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

What’s next for me?  Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon.  And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!

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