Cooking up some scary fun

Mount Fløyen hiking trail, Bergen, Norway. Photo courtesy of Lizzie Ross

There’s still time to prep for Witch Week 2020. If you haven’t yet read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, find a copy and get started. You have two weeks starting … now!

For the second musical inspiration, here’s one from the grandaddy of Goth bands, Bauhaus, with visuals from Tod Browning’s 1931 horror classic, Dracula. Those eyes!


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Are you ready for Witch Week 2020?

Medieval beast

Leaves are turning, winds from the north are cooling down the nights, pumpkins and apples are making appearances at local farm stands.*

Which can mean only one thing:

WITCH WEEK 2020 approaches!

Anyone still unsure what that is can check out last year’s celebration at Calmgrove’s blog, which you can find here. This year’s theme is GOTHICK, and our read-along is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. We start in just 3 weeks. Will you be ready?

Meanwhile, I’ll be posting some inspirational music videos, to help get you in the mood. Today’s is a Goth jewel from the 1980s.

*Northern Hemisphere version. Those of you who live south of the equator have my sympathies.

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Witch Week 2020

Not long now!

Witch Week, the annual celebration of fantasy fiction, begins in under 2 months. Lory @ EmeraldCityBookReview created it to honor Diana Wynne Jones, author of the Dalemark and Chrestomanci series, along with dozens of other fantasy novels and short stories. These days I co-host Witch Week with Chris @ Calmgrove, and we’ve lined up a frightening array of posts for the week between Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ Day.

Our theme this year is GOTHICK, and our guest bloggers will cover nearly 300 years of gloom and doom, including a discussion of our read-along novel, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. Pick up a copy and join us for a week of thrills.

Here’s a little something to put you in the mood:

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Hashtag Jane Austen

Twitter has misinformed me. There I was, getting all excited about #AustenInAugust, and it turns out not to be a thing. It was a thing in 2019, but apparently not this year.*

Do I care? Not a fig, for that tiny bit of misinformation led me, via a circuitous route too complex to recall, to this little bit of fan fiction published just as WWI was preparing to change the face of Europe.

Old Friends and New Fancies: An Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen (Sybil G. Brinton, 1914, NYPL e-book) is the likeliest candidate for the prize of First Piece of Jane Austen Fan Fiction. Brinton’s only novel, it gathers major and minor characters from Austen’s six major works, focusing to a greater part on Georgiana Darcy, Kitty Bennet and Mary Crawford, whom Brinton has chosen to place at the center of her marriage plot. Austen herself had said that Kitty eventually married a curate who lived near Pemberley (which Brinton uses), but gave no hints of Georgiana’s and Mary’s fates. That Brinton rehabilitates Mary Crawford initially struck me as odd, but of all the women left unmarried in Austen’s work, she is, in fact, the most attractive and intelligent. In the end, I was relieved that all barriers to her happiness were removed, just as with the others. After all, that is what a marriage plot is about

Most of the familiar characters are there: The Wentworths, Tilneys, Knightleys, Bingleys and Darcys, Edward Ferrars, and Edmund Bertrams are all healthy, still happily married and comfortably settled throughout England. They provide houses — both in the country and in London and Bath — for the others to visit and intermingle, setting up all kinds of possibilities for match-making. The fact that these families all know each other seems a bit far-fetched, given the range of their wealth, but it isn’t strictly impossible. (It makes me want to write a sequel/s that show how each meets the others.)

Knowing Austen’s plots certainly helps in understanding relationships between and among characters, especially as some are only briefly referenced, but isn’t required. Being a Janeite is required, however, in being able to appreciate Brinton’s attempt to model Austen’s style. Here, for instance, is Brinton’s first sentence:

There is one characteristic which may be safely said to belong to nearly all happily-married couples–that of desiring to see equally happy marriages among their young friends; and in some cases, where their wishes are strong and circumstances seem favorable to the exertion of their own efforts, they may even embark upon the perilous but delightful course of helping those persons whose minds are as yet not made up, to form a decision respecting this important crisis in life, and this done, to assist in clearing the way in order that this decision may forthwith be acted upon.

It’s an excellent attempt, although perhaps a bit long and lacking Austen’s spritely tone. Compare it with this:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Note the word seemed, in which Austen suggests that Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich”, may be missing something important to her maturity — something that, perhaps, can only come from being distressed and vexed. Brinton’s sentence, no matter how closely it adheres to Austen’s style, gives no hints of unformed character, nor does it make any satirical statement, as do the starts of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. It lacks that knowledge of human nature that lies behind all of Austen’s prose.

It’s a brave soul who takes on the burden of writing sequels to Austen, which these days run the gamut from murder mystery (P D James) to romance (Joan Aiken) to horror-parody (Seth Grahame-Smith), not to mention all the modern reworkings for film (Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, etc.). I can understand the allure: Austen’s characters are irresistible. When Brinton brings Jane and Elizabeth’s father, Mr. Bennet, to Pemberley for a short visit, I relished every statement he made concerning Kitty’s frivolity and desire for attention. On being asked for permission to marry Kitty, Mr. Bennet explains to the man,

Let me know when the time comes to wish you joy …, and I will do it, but life is so uncertain that I think for the present I had better refrain. Have you ascertained whether Kitty can cook, make her own gowns, and trim hats? I understand it is a great promoter of married happiness when the wife can do so, and I am not sure whether all my girls have turned their education to such good account.

I wish Mr. Collins had also appeared, and I absolutely longed for Henry Tilney’s teasing wit.

Despite its failings, Old Friends and New Fancies was good entertainment. I generally feel about Austen sequels the way Dr. Johnson felt about women preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” To be honest, Brinton has done surprisingly well with this sequel. I can recommend it to anyone who is not ready for another read-through of Austen’s oeuvre.

*If #AustenInAugust2020 is out there, please let me know!

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Getting over the Don’t-Wants

LA palm trees at dawn, early June 2020

Maybe you’ve never heard the term, but you know the feeling: Low energy, little interest in doing anything that isn’t absolutely essential (cleaning, eating, sleeping), general listlessness.

But stop right there — I don’t deserve anyone’s sympathy. I know I spent three months in paradise, of which I took full advantage. I was able to gratify every don’t-want imaginable, and it was lovely. Don’t want to go for a walk? Fine, guidelines said to stay home anyway. Don’t want to talk to anyone? Fine, staying inside guaranteed a safe social distance from others. Don’t want to cook? Fine, my daughter’s happy to do it. Don’t want to write? Fine, I don’t have my computer anyway. Don’t want to read? (Yes, that happened.) Fine, I can watch all four seasons of The Good Place for the third and then fourth time, or listen to podcasts about The Good Place, or just stare at the sky from the terrace off my bedroom and think about the meaning of The Good Place.

But I had to leave eventually, and after this month at home, I realize again how lucky I’ve been (especially since season 4 of The Good Place isn’t available here. Gah!!!). Also, I realize how much I’ve let slide, and it’s time, at last, to correct that. Kick out the don’t-wants, bring back the action.

NYC sunset, early June 2020

So, with jetlag finally cured, my days have become more productive. I spent the last week of June in an online writer’s workshop, where I got feedback on a MS I’ve been working on for six years. New readers, new inspiration — I’m making some major changes and will submit the revised MS to agents starting in August. Deadlines leave no time for the don’t-wants.

Lory at Emerald City Book Review has inspired me to read something in French. I have Harry Potter 1, as well as Candide and a few other books. I think I can manage to read at least one during July. I just finished a reread of Cornelia Meigs’ Invincible Louisa and have decided to take on the bulk of Louisa May Alcott’s novels, starting with An Old Fashioned Girl. After the first chapter, I can already see an inspiration for L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley (which I have no way of proving, so I merely note the resemblance).

Then there’s Witch Week to prep for. Chris at Calmgrove and I are lining up some great guest bloggers, who plan to review Gothic novels and short stories from the UK, Italy, and the US. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate the creepy, spooky, mysterious, fantastic, grotesque, and bizarre worlds created by gothic authors, all in honor of Diana Wynne Jones.

Who are your favorite gothic writers? Even if you don’t join us as a guest blogger, we hope you’ll review something in that genre during Witch Week. Let us know in advance, and we’ll give you a shout out.

Happy reading, everyone, and, as always, stay safe.

Posted in Am reading, Am writing, Gothic, Witch Week | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Farewell to Aotearoa

Moon over Aoraki, over Lake Pukaki

With mixed feelings, I’ll soon be leaving this lovely country. But I’m so grateful for the refuge it has provided my daughter and me.

To all my readers, I hope you also have found comfort somewhere during these months, in friends and family, in books, in art, or — like me — in the beauty that surrounds us.

Next time you hear from me, I’ll be home again. Safe journeys to all of us.

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More from down under

Some good news: we’ve booked our flights back to NYC, to arrive late afternoon on 03 June. 90 days in New Zealand (60 more than originally planned) have exponentially increased my respect for the people of this country. They know how to treat each other well.

If only …

Nope. I refuse to go down that road. Instead, let me introduce you to an Australian author, one who deserves more attention: Jaclyn Moriarty. If you know of her, it’s most likely through her YA Ashbury/Brookfield series, which includes The Year of Secret Assignments. Perhaps at some other time I’ll review those books, but today here are two that are so far apart in concept that I wouldn’t blame anyone who thought they weren’t penned by the same person.

Unknown-1The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone (2018, NYPL e-book) is MG fantasy-adventure at its best. 10-year-old Bronte, orphaned and living with an aunt, learns that her parents have recently died during a pirate raid. She has never lived with them (they set off on their travels just after she was born), so she isn’t very upset, but in order to inherit their estate, she must visit each of her other 11 aunts to hand-deliver some small gifts, following a precise itinerary (including where to stop for tea and tasty scones). And she has to do this alone, traveling across the realm by coach, ship, foot, and even dragon. Oh, yes, there are dragons, along with Spellbinders and Whisperers and child-snatchers, not to mention those pirates.

A mixture of the third-child trope from fairy tales (how she responds to the people and situations she meets along the way governs her luck) and practically every adventure yarn you can think of (including Sabatini’s Captain Blood), Moriarty’s fantasy delivers a perfect tale with complex plot strands that are all neatly tied up by the end. Early on, Bronte jumps into a raging river to save a baby, building a chain of connections that come into play when she finally has to face the Whispering King.

Moriarty undercuts our expectations of fantasy. For instance, Bronte’s Aunt Sophy is a dragon vet, and explains how to talk to dragons:

… if you want to say “Sleep is the best thing for you, Dragon Sayara, and when you wake, your throat will feel much better,” you make these noises: grrrr eek! eek! bro, grl, brl, and at the same time, you bend, touch your toes, straighten, then punch yourself in the stomach.

The 12 aunts, each with her own special attributes, include ship captains, that dragon vet, a queen, parents, businesswomen, and one who is in love with a mer-man. The variety is mind-boggling.

I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel.

UnknownMoriarty’s other novel under review here, Gravity is the Thing (2019, NYPL e-book), is for adults and includes no fantasy at all. In it, Abigail (Abi) Sorenson, in her mid-thirties and recently divorced, single mother and cafe owner, is still mourning her brother, Robert, who disappeared the night of her 16th birthday and all these years later no one knows what happened to him.

Meanwhile, through all these years, Abi has been receiving bi-weekly letters from “The Guidebook”, some letters just two or three lines, others much longer, but each setting her a task (physical, mental, or otherwise). The novel begins as she heads off to a weekend retreat, where others on the same mailing list have gathered to “Learn the Truth about The Guidebook.”

The “Truth” is that The Guidebook has been preparing them to fly, without wings or equipment. No joke. And I remind you that this is not a fantasy.

From Abi we learn about her 3-year-old son, Oscar (who ages 2 years over the course of the novel), her divorced parents, her ex-husband and several disappointing, dissatisfying — even abusive — boyfriends, her former career as a lawyer and then decision to open the Happiness Cafe, where she wants to help her clients find happiness, even if only via a great muffin.* The chapters move back and forth in time, quoting occasionally from Abi’s annual “reflections” on The Guidebook (required for submission, but there are three she didn’t send), from The Guidebook itself, and then taking us through the weekly meetings of those who want to learn the Truth.

It’s impossible to represent the joy underlying this very dark book. The shadow of Robert’s disappearance lies over everything, and how this is resolved shows the power of Moriarty’s plotting and careful writing.

Moriarty, in Abi’s voice, attacks the labels rom-com, and chicklit — both of which could accurately be applied to this novel. But because it goes much deeper into Abi’s “rage at a world that cheapens, dismisses [her] need for sex and love,” this novel stands out:

The sneering at the happy ending, the pursed lips intoning: You don’t need a partner! You must be happy with yourself, content to be alone! ¶I don’t want a man to save me; I am happy with myself. Only, this longing for physical contact is real, a shape with dimension, and it’s all on a continuum with longing for closeness, for friendship, connection, for love. It’s a yearning that reaches back to lost best friends, lost brothers, lost birthdays, lost birthday wishes.

The realness of every character in this novel is a big part of what made me so happy I’d read it.

*If you listen to podcasts, Freakonomics’ recent episode, “Reasons to be Cheerful” addresses this very issue.

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Although restrictions have eased a bit, I’m still under lockdown beneath the southern cross¹ (aka “lolling in the Antipodes”). Still doing needlework, still getting out for walks and short bicycle rides, still reading Little Dorrit (as dense as overdone grits so not as easily gobbled as Evelyn Waugh’s early prose; yet I persist).


imagesEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine  (Gail Honeyman, 2017, NYPL e-book)

Early in this novel, it becomes clear that 31-year-old Eleanor has a tragic past. She is a combination of misanthrope, language police, and brick wall, strongly seasoned with Asperger syndrome. In response to strangers phoning to sell her something, she whispers, “I know where you live” and then hangs up. Figurative language is not in her wheelhouse. (Someone asks her if she’s seeing anyone, and her response is “Yes”, meaning yes, she’s seeing the person she’s conversing with at that moment.) She sneers when she sees her colleagues’ over- and under-use of apostrophes, and she believes it’s weak people who fear solitude:

What they fail to understand is that there’s something very liberating about it; once you realize that you don’t need anyone, you can take care of yourself. That’s the thing: it’s best just to take care of yourself.

This is a story of a damaged soul saved from itself². Eleanor begins the process after developing a crush on a local musician. She decides she needs to spruce up if she wants the musician to notice her, so she opts for a make-over that encompasses hair, clothing, and make-up.

Over time, the make-over expands to include mental as well as physical well-being, and I couldn’t help cheering for Eleanor as she learns more about how to be happy with herself and comfortable with other people. She starts to pull bricks from that wall I mentioned earlier. But there was a point where I noticed myself missing the old rough-edged, literal-minded Eleanor and hoping she could hold on to the part of her that doesn’t like the “gilded cage” of normalcy:

… like the chicken that had laid the eggs for my sandwich, I was more of a free-range creature.

At the end, when the full scale of Eleanor’s tragic past is revealed, I wasn’t surprised. Any careful reader should be able to guess her story. But there’s nothing wrong with an ending that fulfills expectations. Honeyman’s writing doesn’t falter, and there are scenes of pinpoint exactness: the “bronze” of autumn leaves piled along a sidewalk, the utter despair caused by disappointed hopes, the disquieting instants of self-understanding, the comforting scent of a friend, even if they smoke.

Strong writing, unforgettable characters, a satisfying ending — I can’t ask for more.

¹Every time I see the southern cross constellation, this tune from Richard Rogers’ Victory at Sea runs through my mind. My dad was a WWII naval veteran, and he loved this music.

²For similar redemption story, see Ricky Gervais’s After Life, available on Netflix.

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Creative thinking

REMINDER: This was written in February, aka BCEW (before COVID evicerated the world).

I can’t think of many novels about new ideas — about how the thinkers came up with them, rather than the consequences to the world — but here are two that I’ve always enjoyed.

Spinster, Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1958, Simon and Schuster). In this novel, a fictionalized version of Ashton-Warner’s life as a rural infant-school (the equivalent of today’s “pre-K”) teacher in post-WWII New Zealand, we find the narrator, Miss Anna Verontosov, struggling to teach unruly Maori and Pakeha children who are more inclined to dance, sing, leap — even fight — than to sit quietly as model students. Pressures are intense, never easing up, and Miss V — herself a musician, painter, and writer — bucks against the “normal” teaching methods that would have the children engaged in rote learning devoid of the volcanic emotions and creative zeal that seethe through them. Yet she can’t help feeling guilty about how often she fails to create the “model” classroom, especially when the Inspectors come to visit and evaluate.

At the same time, she must deal with the men in her life: the supportive Head of her school; a much younger fellow teacher who pursues her romantically; a sympathetic new Inspector; the man in England she years ago rejected — often her own emotions overwhelm her, and most mornings she needs a swig of brandy before she can leave her door and walk the few steps to the school.

But something happens, slowly. From the first pages, Miss V is trying to see what she is missing in her teaching, some “key” that will open a door to learning for her students. All along she gives us samples of the children’s writing, brief story-poems of drunken parents, fights, jail, spankings (called “hidings”), nightmares, deaths — but also of kisses, hugs, dancing, joy, love. Finally, she makes the connection. The state-approved books have passages like

Mother went to a shop. I want a cap, she said. I want a cap for John. She saw a brown cap. She saw a blue cap. I like the blue cap, she said.

Her children write passages like

I ran away from my mother and I hid away from my mother I hid in The Shed and I Went home and got a hiding.

The “key” she’d been searching for was there, in her own students’ writing. Their own lives provide the stories they want to read about.

Following Miss V’s progress towards this discovery (which eventually occurs about two-thirds of the way into the novel) is exciting. Ashton-Warner lets us see Miss V’s frustration, anguish, doubts, inklings of something big but not yet graspable. She discusses her ideas with the school Head, the colleague who wants to bed her (she keeps him at bay), the Inspector whom she wishes wanted to bed her, herself — all the time circling closer and closer to the eureka moment. It’s extremely satisfying when she finally gets there, shocking how simple and obvious the new idea is.

Ashton-Warner wasn’t the first to note the lack of diversity in schoolbooks, but she was certainly one of the early exponents of how important diversity is. Her ideas about teaching reading and writing influenced researchers and educators throughout the English-speaking world. Miss Vorontosov, however, didn’t fare so well. Despite the Inspector’s respect for her ideas, he gives her a poor grade as a teacher. In the final pages, we find Miss V back in England, sheltering under the care of Eugene, the man she’d rejected so long ago.

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1987, Penguin Books). Chatwin called this book a “novel”, even though there’s much in it that is non-fictional. The narrator, Bruce (I’ll call the author “Chatwin”), is a writer whose favorite subject is nomads, and he’s in Australia trying to understand the meaning of the Songlines, the Aboriginals’ stories that are like maps that trace routes past hills, gullies, stones and flatlands. He’s in Australia at what seems to be a turning point for the Aboriginals — a movement to protect their lands from white encroachment is growing stronger, with new laws governing procedures for building new roads or other structures in the Outback.

From Alice Springs, Bruce accompanies a lawyer whose task is to check the route of a north-south trucking road. The man (Arkady) wants to be sure the route doesn’t disturb any sacred Aboriginal sites, so he needs to meet with several tribal leaders — there’s no one person who knows it all, and most know only a few hundred square miles of territory. It’s a huge task, but one Arkady obviously relishes.

In the few weeks that Bruce spends with Arkady, he meets dozens of Australians, both white settlers and Aboriginals, most of whom are friendly, some of whom are racist, a few even combative. There are violent meetings, dangerous hikes in the bush, flat tires and other breakdowns, nights under the stars, mosquitoes and flies, bad food, poverty.

But never does Bruce despair. He feels he’s getting closer to understanding nomadism — why it is that some people prefer to wander, carrying their homes with them. At one point, he quotes an Indian proverb: “Life is a bridge. Cross over it, but build no house on it.”

Interspersed with the story of Arkady’s hunt for various Aboriginal leaders are Bruce’s memories of visits to Afghanistan, Iran, India, Arabia, Timbuktu. And then, about half-way through the book, begins a series of excerpts from Bruce’s “Notebooks”, moleskine notebooks in which he has jotted notes, impressions, quotations, questions, and observations. These notebooks were, for me, fascinating — as with Ashton-Warner’s novel, they show a writer’s process of exploring an idea from several angles — literary, cultural, historical, and personal experience, all conglomerated into a whole that is incomplete (Bruce is never able to fully answer his question about why nomadism is a thing) yet comprehensible. I suspect that many of them are copied verbatim from Chatwin’s notebooks.

The notes include brief meditations on Hell, violence, monotheism, Konrad Lorenz, instinct, and so on. (I was reminded  of W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, where a fictional Sebald wanders through and around Norfolk, while meditating on sericulture, the Belgian Congo, Roger Casement, and so on.)

Chatwin’s book is strongly flavored with the Australian Outback, giving me what I hope is a correct understanding of what life is like for all who live there, whether in towns like Alice Springs (which Bruce didn’t like) or on remote stations or amidst a group of humpies (basic Aboriginal shelters). The food is sometimes awful, but the sense of unbounded space remarkably freeing for Bruce — until a moment when he understands how close he is to a lonely death in the bush.

Where Ashton-Warner’s novel is full of near idyllic scenery — masses of flowers, cozy fires in rain storms, paved streets and city sidewalks — Chatwin’s presents something harsher, quieter, larger, lonelier. Each book has cruelty, violence, alcoholism, each presents a native culture harmed and irreparably changed by European intruders. But because Chatwin’s writing is stronger (much as I love Ashton-Warner’s book, her narrator is often overwrought), his Australia is realer than Ashton-Warner’s New Zealand. Her book, written 30 years earlier, still has a flavor of the “enlightened colonialist” eager to help the uneducated natives join “civilized” society. Chatwin recognizes the importance of local knowledge, and also recognizes how useless his own abilities are. Anyone could land in Ashton-Warner’s rural New Zealand and thrive. How many of us could do the same in Chatwin’s Australian outback?

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More from NZ


As requested, a photo of my New Zealand-themed bookmarks. Missing only hems and backing.

Lockdown update #3: No essential change in our situation here, although in a couple of days NZ may move from Level 4 to Level 3. If so, more businesses can open if and only if they can guarantee social distancing requirements for all employees AND all business with customers will be contact-free.

At Level 3, restaurants can offer take-out, so we can mix up our meal menus a bit more. I can cycle to the beach. Perhaps a bookstore will make deliveries. Maybe I can get a jigsaw puzzle! Good news, if it happens. (And, best of all, it means that NZ has not just flattened the curve, but has shown a net decrease in new cases.)

I’m not writing much, but definitely thinking about what kinds of changes I need to make in my dystopian sci-fi work-in-progress — how to take into account this current mess. It fits perfectly, and helps account for one person’s death, but please note that this WIP will not be my pandemic novel.

imagesI’m still making my way through Little Dorrit, but meanwhile I’ve finished Waugh’s Vile Bodies and started A Handful of Dust. Also finished: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and a Vonnegut short story about assisted suicide, called “2 B R 0 2 B”. Just about right for my current mood.*

I’ve just picked up Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — just 5 chapters in, and I can’t put it down. I’m forcing a break to write this post, but heading back soon. With a cup of tea.

Keep safe, everyone, and be kind.

*Note that all books mentioned are via the NYPL e-book collection. Thank you, NYPL, for this service!

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