Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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I don’t know.

I feel like I’ve got nothing in me.

It’s easier to work from what’s outside of me lately, so I’ve been doing these Gravity’s Rainbow annotations; I “finished” (not the right verb) a third reading this weekend and then dipped back into it again—this time in the middle. I was thinking of doing a “how to read Gravity’s Rainbow” post but that seems fucking pretentious. I love the book though.

This stack looks big, but it’s not really—most of the other books there are slim volumes I worked into my reread of Gravity’s Rainbow. Little breaks, of a sort.

But not that big book at the bottom.

That big book at the bottom, Bottom’s Dream? Hm. Not sure about this guy. It’s too big to read. I mean physically. It’s unwieldy, uncomfortable, uncurlupwithable. I can’t get a rhythm going there.

Roman Muradov’s Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art will get a full review soon; the book starts with the best opening line of read in a contemporary story in years: “READER YOU HAVE NO WORTH.”

Daniel Green’s Beyond the Blurb will also get a review, sort of, soon (the book is a critical survey of literary criticism, making a review of it especially difficult to me). I have n interview with Green in the works.

Not pictured here because it’s an e-book is Scott Esposito’s The Missing Books. Esposito’s book is a continuing project, a “curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” I read it in one sitting and was frankly jealous that I hadn’t written it.

Leon Forrest’s There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden is a novel I read in a blur, a kind of fever dream postmodern pastiche, a narrative unstuck in time and yet wholly about a specific time and place and past and consciousness. I need to read it again; like so many so-called “experimental” novels, a first reading is highly impressionistic but also confusing. Forrest throws you in the deep end. The prose is liquid, viscous, and you’re swimming around for edges, contours to grab onto. Just a marvelous strange read, and it deserves better than I’m giving it here—I mean, I think the novel deserves way more attention, and I’ll attend to it again.

Vítězslav Nezval’s 1937 poetry collection The Absolute Gravedigger is new in English translation by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická (Twisted Spoon Press). I hadn’t read Nezval before now, but I did see Jaromil Jireš’s film adaptation of his novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders; if you know it, you’ll perhaps have an idea of some of Gravedigger’s rich dark weird flavor. There’s something of Bosch or Goya in the spare poems—somehow simultaneously bleak but vivid, morose but witty. The cityscapes, the entropy, the impressionistic details here all melded into my Pynchon-addled brain with the immediate post-War Zone of Gravity’s Rainbow: broken bits of civilization twitching into new combinations of reality.

Marian Engel’s Bear is this wonderfully lucid story of a bibliographer who goes to a remote island to document the contents (and library) of an old semi-famous house. Engel’s sentences are too good; there’s something fresh and restorative about the prose that echoes the plot, which is both simple and bizarre. Also, the bibliographer has a sexual relationship with a bear.

I read the first half of John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig over two short plane rides. I might have finished it, but I had to read every paragraph twice. I haven’t picked it up since the election on Tuesday. Maybe this post will motivate me to pick it up. Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s so very accurate blurb from the back cover:

You suffer The Lime Twig like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want to escape from but can’t. The reader even has that slight feeling of suffocation that you have when you can’t wake up and some evil is being worked on you.

Evil is being worked on you.

 

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is an elegant collection of creepy intertextual tales

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In Yoko Ogawa’s new collection Revenge, eleven stories of fascinating morbidity intertwine at oblique angles. Tale extends into tale: characters, settings, and images float intertextually from chapter to chapter, layering and reticulating themes of death, crime, consumption, and creation. (And revenge, of course. Let’s not forget revenge). Not quite a story cycle or a novel-in-tales, Revenge’s sum is nevertheless greater than its parts. It’s a brisk, engaging read, and as I worked my way to the final story, I already anticipated returning to the beginning to pull at the motifs threading through the book.

The book’s dominant motifs of death and food arrive in the first tale, “Afternoon Bakery,” where a mother tries to buy strawberry shortcakes for her dead son’s birthday—only the baker is too busy bawling to attend to sales. We learn why this baker is crying in “Fruit Juice,” the second story, a tale that ends inexplicably with an abandoned post office full of kiwi fruit. The third story, “Old Mrs.  J” (one of Revenge’s stand-outs) perhaps answers where those kiwis came from. More importantly, “Old Mrs. J,” with its writer-protagonist, elegantly introduces the thematic textual instability of the collection. There’s a  haunting suspicion here that the characters who glide from one tale to the next aren’t necessarily the silent extras they seem to be on the surface. Our characters, background and fore, are doppelgängers, ghost writers, phantoms.

The penultimate tale “Tomatoes and the Full Moon” lays the ghosting bare. Its protagonist is a magazine writer, whose “articles” really amount to little more than advertising. Staying at a seaside resort, he’s pestered by an old woman, one of the many witches who haunt Revenge. The old woman claims to be a novelist, and points out one of her books in the resort’s library:

Later, in my room, I read ‘Afternoon at the Bakery.’ It was about a woman who goes to buy a birthday cake for her dead son. That was the whole story. I should have gone back to my article, but I read her novel through twice, finishing for the second time at 3:00 a.m. The prose was unremarkable, as were the plot an characters, but there was an icy current running under her words, and I found myself wanting to plunge into it again and again.

The final line is perhaps a description of Revenge’s haunting intertextual program—although to be clear, Ogawa’s plot and characters are hardly “unremarkable,” and her prose, in Stephen Snyder’s English translation, is lucid and descriptive. It’s the “icy current running under her words” that makes Ogawa’s tales stick so disconcertingly in the reader’s psychic gullet. And if her prose is at times “unremarkable,” it’s all in the service of creating a unifying tone. All eleven tales are narrated in first-person, and each narrator is bound to the limits of his or her own language.

These limitations of language bump up against the odd, the spectacular, the alien, as in “Sewing for the Heart”:

She had explained that she was born with her heart outside of her chest—as difficult as that might be to imagine.

The line is wonderful in its mundane trajectory: Our narrator, an artisan bagmaker, witnesses this woman who lives with her heart outside her chest and concedes that such a thing might be “difficult . . . to imagine”! There’s something terribly paltry in this, but it’s also purposeful and controlled: Here we find the real in magical realism.

But this bagmaker can imagine, as we see in an extraordinary passage that moves from the phenomenological world of sight and sound and into the realm of our narrator’s strange desires:

She began to sing, but I could not make out the words. It must have been a love song, to judge from the slightly pained expression on her face, and the way she tightly gripped the microphone. I noticed a flash of white skin on her neck. As she reached the climax of the song, her eyes half closed and her shoulders thrown back, a shudder passed through her body. She moved her arm across her chest to cradle her heart, as though consoling it, afraid it might burst. I wondered what would happen if I held her tight in my arms, in a lovers’ embrace, melting into one another, bone on bone . . . her heart would be crushed. The membrane would split, the veins tear free, the heart itself explode into bits of flesh, and then my desire would contain hers—it was all so painful and yet so utterly beautiful to imagine.

Painful and utterly beautiful: Another description of Revenge.

Sometimes the matter-of-fact tone of the stories accounts for marvelous little eruptions of humor, as in “The Last Hour of the Bengal Tiger”:

At fifteen, I took an overdose of sleeping pills. I must have had a good reason for wanting to kill myself, but I’ve forgotten what it was. Perhaps I was just fed up with everything. At any rate, I slept for eighteen hours straight, and when I woke up I was completely refreshed. My body felt so empty and purified that I wondered whether I had, in fact, died. But no one in my family even seemed to have noticed that I had attempted suicide.

The scene is simultaneously devastating and hilarious, an evocation of abyssal depression coupled with mordant irony. The scene also underscores the dramatic uncertainty that underpins so many of the tales, where the possibility that the narrator is in fact a ghost or merely a character in someone else’s story is always in play.

There’s no postmodern gimmickry on display here though. Ogawa weaves her tales together with organic ease, her control both powerful and graceful. Her narrators contradict each other; we’re offered perspectives, glimpses, shades and slivers of meaning. A version of events recounted differently several stories later seems no more true than an earlier version, but each new detail adds to the elegant tangle. Like David Lynch and Roberto Bolaño, Ogawa traffics in beautiful, venomous, bizarre dread. Like those artists, she offers a discrete world we sense is complete and unified, even as our access to it is broken and discontinuous. And like Angela Carter, Ogawa channels the icy current seething below the surface of our darkest fairy tales, those stories that, with their sundry murders and crimes, haunt readers decades after first readings.

What I like most about Revenge is its refusal to relieve the reader. The book can be grisly at times, but Ogawa rarely goes for the lurid image. Instead, the real horror (and pleasure) of Revenge is the anxiety it produces in the reader, who becomes implicated in the crimes cataloged in the text. Witness to first-person narratives that often omit key clues, the reader plays detective—or perhaps accomplice. Recommended.

Revenge is new in handsome trade paperback from Picador; Picador also released Ogawa’s novel Hotel Iris in 2010.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in the spring of 2013; we republish it here in the spooky spirit of Halloween].

On the Stream of Life — Hugo Simberg

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Woman with a Cat — Fernand Léger

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Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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The Leopard, Giusesspe Tomasi di Lampedusa

After a few years of false starts, I finally read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel The Leopard this August. Then I read it again, immediately (It’s one of only two novels I can recall rereading right away—the other two were Blood Meridian and Gravity’s Rainbow). The Leopard tells the story of Prince Fabrizio of Sicily, who witnesses the end of his era during the Risorgimento, the Italian reunification. Fabrizio is an enchanting character—by turns fiery and lascivious, intellectual and stoic—The Leopard takes us through his mind and through his times. He’s thoroughly complex, unknown even to himself, perhaps. The novel is impossibly rich, sad, electric, a meditation on death, sex, sensuality—pleasure and loss. More mood than plot, The Leopard glides on vibe, its action framed in rich set pieces—fancy balls and sumptuous dinners and games of pleasure in summer estates. But of course there is a plot—several strong plots, indeed (marriage plots and death plots, religious plots and political plots). Yet the narrative’s viewpoint characters keep the plots at bay, or mediate them, rather than propel them forward. Simply one of the better novels I’ve read in years, its final devastating images inked into my memory for as long as I have memory. (English translation by Archibald Colquhoun, by the way).

Dhalgren, Samuel Delany

I think The Leopard initially landed on my radar a few years ago after someone somewhere (where?) described it as a cult novel. Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) really is a cult novel. I’m about 200 pages into its 800 pages, and I’m ready to abandon the thing. Delany often evokes a fascinating vibe here, conjuring the post-apocalyptic city of Bellona, which is isolated from the rest of America after some unnamed (and perhaps unknown) disaster—there are “scorpions,” gangs who hide in holographic projections of dragons and insects; there is a daily newspaper that comes out dated with a different year each day; there are two moons (maybe). And yet Delany spends more time dwelling on the mundane—I’ve just endured page after page of the novel’s central protagonist, Kid, clearing furniture out of an apartment. I’m not kidding—a sizable chunk of the novel’s third chapter deals with moving furniture. (Perhaps Delany’s nodding obliquely to Poe here?)Dhalgren strives toward metafiction, with the Kid’s attempts to become a poet, but his poetry is so bad, and Delany’s prose is, well, often very, very bad too. Like embarrassingly bad in that early seventies hippy dippy way. If ever a novel were screaming to have every third or second sentence cut, it’s Dhalgren. I’m not sure how much longer I can hold out.

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, Leon Forrest

I had never heard of Forrest until a Twitter pal corrected that. I started Tree (1973) this weekend; its first chapter “The Lives” is a rush of time, memory, color, texture…religion and violence, history, blood…I’m not sure what’s happening and I don’t care (like Faulkner, it is—I mean, each sentence makes me want to go to the next sentence, into the big weird tangle of it all). Maybe let Ralph Ellison describe it. From his foreword:

As I began to get my bearings in the reeling world of There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden, I thought, What a tortured, history-wracked, anguished, Hound-of-Heaven-pursued, Ham-and-Oedipus-cursed, Blake-visioned, apocalypse-prone projection of the human predicament! Yet, simultaneously, I was thinking, Yes, but how furiously eloquent is this man Forrest’s prose, how zestful his jazz-like invention, his parody, his reference to the classics and commonplaces of literature, folklore, tall-tale and slum-street jive! How admirable the manner in which the great themes of life and literature are revealed in the black-white Americanness of his characters as dramatized in the cathedral-high and cloaca-low limits of his imaginative ranging.

Typing this out, I realize that I’m bound to put away Dhalgren and continue on into Forrest.

The Combinations, Louis Armand

I read the “Overture” to Armand’s enormous so-called “anti-novel” The Combinations (2016)…the rush of prose reminded me of any number of post-postmodern prose rushers—this isn’t a negative criticism, but I’ll admit a certain wariness with the book’s formal postmodernism—it looks (looks) like Vollmann—discursive, lots of different fonts and forms. I’ll leap in later.

Audiobook Riff 1 (a non-definitive list (mine) and a Maqroll anecdote (not mine))

I got a lovely email, with the subject line “Audiobooks,” a few weeks ago from a guy named Ben. Basically, he asked me to do a post on some of my favorite audiobooks, which I suppose I could’ve done fairly easy as a list (and which, yes, if you want to drop down, I will list below, oh-so-non-definitively)—but after thinking about his question, I thought I might break the post up into a couple of posts on audiobooks in general—the excellent ones, the average ones, the terrible ones afflicted by readers who misread the material; the audiobooks I’m auditing now/recently; childhood favorites (on vinyl!); hell, maybe even a totally pretentious post called “How to listen to audiobooks” or some such garbage.

Before I go on though, let me share Ben’s email (he gave me his permission), which is mostly a marvelous anecdote about Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas:

After reading your post on The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, I immediately ordered the book and read it with my father as we travelled through Borneo, passing it back and forth every dozen pages. The reading became even more significant as we reached the passage in which Maqroll is laid up sick in Northridge, California, in an area surrounded by orange groves. This area is where my father spent his childhood. Reading Maqroll with my father on that trip stands as my most meaningful reading experience. I thank you for putting us onto that book.

Have you done a post yet on your favorite audiobooks? I’d like to get your recommendations. I recall you mentioning a few in previous posts, but could not track them down. Keep at it.

Ben’s Maqroll story surely deserves a response in full, fleshed out detail, and my next post will discuss in detail why I praise the following audio productions. But for now a list (sans, alas, Álvaro Mutis: our Gaviero Maqroll has not found his way into an audiobook yet, at least to my knowledge).

In no real order, and by no means definitive, a list of eight perfect or near-perfect audiobooks:

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as read by William Hootkins

James Joyce’s Ulysses RTÉ’s 1982 full cast production (that second link links to a free download!).

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, as read by Claire Higgins

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as read by Nicol Williamson

William Gaddis’s J R, as read by Nick Sullivan

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as read by Richard Poe

Gordon Lish’s The Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish, as read by Gordon Lish 

Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, as read by Will Patton

Lingam — Claudio Bravo

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Some fine thoughts

Reading — Lilla Cabot Perry

What books does William T. Vollmann find himself returning to again and again?

William T. Vollmann is the interviewee in the New York Times feature “By the Book” this week. It’s a fun read (he chooses Sappho to write his life story, which cracked me up). From the piece:

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

I often reread certain parts of my Oxford Revised Standard Bible, which I recommend for the maps and footnotes. The parables of Jesus are haunting in the fashion of certain Zen koans. And the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, and the way it leads to young Joseph’s conceit and fall, is of gripping psychological interest. When she was very young I used to tell my daughter about the coat of many colors, and she would say: “But, why, Daddy? Why did they throw Joseph underground?” — “Because they were jealous.” — “Why were they jealous?” — “Because his father loved him more than the others.” She and I would follow the story backward and forward; its elegance was so perfect that my little child could understand it.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg always inspires me to try to be myself. Here is one of his powerful aphorisms: “I believe that man is in the last resort so free a being that his right to be whatever he believes himself to be cannot be contested.”

I love that fountainhead of Norse myth and saga, the Elder Edda. It is, after all, part of my ethnocultural heritage. Its glorification of ruthless and often pointless cruelty troubles me, and I refuse to identify with that. But I can enjoy the delicate eeriness of other ghost stories without reveling in gruesome murders and wailing horrors, so why can’t I drink in the strangeness of Skirnir’s ride down to Hel on his quest to win the giant maiden? Moreover, the Norse ethos privileges steadfast endurance in the face of pain, bravery in the face of inevitable doom, and loyalty. These qualities would well become all of us mortals, and may grow more relevant once climate change really kicks in.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666

[Editorial note: Today is Roberto Bolaño’s birthday–he would’ve turned 62. The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of his masterpiece 2666. To be clear, I am a huge fan of 2666—I’ve written about it extensively on this site. But I never posted a review on Amazon. More one-star Amazon reviews.].

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Awful.

Boring!

Nothing.

No Point.

No Story.

No characters.

This is not a story.

Felt it was too dark.

endless culs-de-sac

There is no premise

Numbing dumbness.

As a Literature major,

incoherent and rambling

Disconnected and tedious.

The joke is on me, I guess.

written in a type of journalese

this novel (if it can be called that)

an obtuse novel with no real point.

I would rather stick forks in my eyes

stilted, awkward, and difficult to read

I would prefer to be boiled alive in oil.

900 pages of words that mean nothing.

multiple pages are spent describing dreams

delivers little if any enjoyment to the reader.

900 pages of distinctly non-literary masochism

I hated the spewing of authors I’d never heard of.

The writing or words are geared towards intellectuals.

Imagine this: you’re dreaming a dream that never ends.

it’s one of those pretentious books for pretentious people

a sprawling, formless, utterly pretentious bloated drudge

bloated streams of consciousness which negate themselves

no subtle meassage that is worthy of discussion or thought

I can see how this might have been written by a very ill man.

boring, repetitive, pointless, misogynistic, indulgent blather

I’ve never experienced a book which was so devoid of reward.

little or no substance in terms of an overall message or theme

a pointless study of odd obsessions and the meaningless of life

On xx date, the body of xxx was found, mutilated in the dumps.

I spent most of my time looking up defintions to 100’s of words.

this book is a GRUESOME and HORRIFICALLY VIOLENT book.

Bolano could not care less what the general public thinks of his book

has little of note to say about the meaning of life or the human condition

I am hard pressed to believe that the other reviewers even read this book.

The largest section of the book is basically 300+ pages of autopsy reports.

You will read the words “vaginally and anally raped” over and over and over

This book would make a great table leg, coaster, or booster seat for a small child. Continue reading “Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666”

“The Girls of Herland” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“The Girls of Herland,” below, is Chapter 8 of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland, a feminist utopian novel that was serialized during its author’s lifetime, but not published in one volume until 1979.  This chapter can, I believe, stand alone or serve even as an introduction even to Herland, depsite coming rather late in the text, but readers who wish more context/want the whole thing can legally download Herland via Project Gutenburg.

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“The Girls of Herland”

by

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

At last Terry’s ambition was realized. We were invited, always courteously and with free choice on our part, to address general audiences and classes of girls.

I remember the first time—and how careful we were about our clothes, and our amateur barbering. Terry, in particular, was fussy to a degree about the cut of his beard, and so critical of our combined efforts, that we handed him the shears and told him to please himself. We began to rather prize those beards of ours; they were almost our sole distinction among those tall and sturdy women, with their cropped hair and sexless costume. Being offered a wide selection of garments, we had chosen according to our personal taste, and were surprised to find, on meeting large audiences, that we were the most highly decorated, especially Terry.

He was a very impressive figure, his strong features softened by the somewhat longer hair—though he made me trim it as closely as I knew how; and he wore his richly embroidered tunic with its broad, loose girdle with quite a Henry V air. Jeff looked more like—well, like a Huguenot Lover; and I don’t know what I looked like, only that I felt very comfortable. When I got back to our own padded armor and its starched borders I realized with acute regret how comfortable were those Herland clothes.

We scanned that audience, looking for the three bright faces we knew; but they were not to be seen. Just a multitude of girls: quiet, eager, watchful, all eyes and ears to listen and learn.

We had been urged to give, as fully as we cared to, a sort of synopsis of world history, in brief, and to answer questions. Continue reading ““The Girls of Herland” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman”

A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Shakspeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably. A good reader can, in a sort, nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakspeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakspeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self,—the subtilest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof; and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanitycoördinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities: no cow-painter, no bird-fancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly; the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong, as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, and love-songs; a merit so incessant, that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Shakspeare; Or, The Poet.” (And yes, he uses that two-e variant of Shakespeare’s name).

Reading backwards (Oscar Wilde)

There is a great deal to be said in favour of reading a novel backwards.  The last page is, as a rule, the most interesting, and when one begins with the catastrophe or the dénoûment one feels on pleasant terms of equality with the author.  It is like going behind the scenes of a theatre.  One is no longer taken in, and the hairbreadth escapes of the hero and the wild agonies of the heroine leave one absolutely unmoved.

From the “Sententiae” section of A Critic in Pall Mall.

Maya Angelou (Books Acquired, 3.18.2015)

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Random House is reissuing Maya Angelou’s seminal memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in both hardback and paperback with the original 1970 cover (love love love the cover). The Complete Poetry is also new (in hardback); love how the cover matches Caged Bird.

The paperback reissue of Caged Bird features a new foreword by Oprah Winfrey.

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From The Complete Poetry:

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Infinite Fictions (Book acquired 2.10.2015)

ESL — James Jean

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