Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Little Women

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2018

by Louisa May Alcott (Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library 1947)

I was not one of the many girls who adored Little Women when I was younger. I am pretty sure I read it (but not Little Men or Jo’s Boys), but probably just once. It doesn’t feature animals, for one thing. And perhaps I found it too saccharine. It is kind of a goody-goody story. But I enjoyed the performance on PBS this year and resolved to re-read it. I bought it very cheap for my Nook app and alternated between that and a friend’s somewhat dilapidated 1947 edition (Ex Libris: Carmen Valenzuela) featuring color plates and line drawings by Louis Jamber.

This time around, I preferred Part Second, when the sisters are older, to Part First,  during which Mr. March is away ministering to the Union troops in Washington. Almost all the main characters are introduced in these chapters:  next-door neighbor Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, and his crotchety grandfather; equally crotchety Aunt March; and of course, mother Marmee and the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I think it is common knowledge that Alcott modeled Jo after herself, and I think she is most readers’ favorite character. Jo is a tomboy;  had the story been written now, she could be a lesbian or even, eventually, a trans-gender man. (Even though in Part Second, she bows to convention, falls in love, and marries.) She is a more natural character than Marmee, Meg, and Beth, who are all rather saintly, and more likable in Part First than practical Amy, who will grow up to decide that she should marry for money (so that she can take care of her poor relations). But in Part Second, the girls, now young women, take on more authentic characteristics. Meg, the first to marry, almost squanders her husband’s love and attention by paying too much attention to her children; Beth, facing her own death, inspires her family with her courage and kindness; Jo struggles with her ambition, her sharp tongue, her inability to reciprocate Laurie’s love for her, and the loss of her beloved Beth; and Amy finds true love and a fortune in the person of Laurie, once he has gotten over his crush on her sister. Through it all, the parents are founts of wisdom and good advice, especially Marmee. All of these things are pretty well known. But I cried over Beth’s passing and cheered for Jo and her Professor. Despite its moralistic tone, Little Women can still delight.

 

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The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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A Man Called Ove

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2018

by Frederik Backman (Washington Square Press, originally published in Swedish in 2014 and translated by Henning Koch in 2014)

Ove is 59, apparently “on the spectrum” with all the difficulties with human relationships that that implies. As a young man, he fell head over heels in love with Sonja, who did not judge him (perhaps because her father had very similar traits), who loved him in return. Ove and Sonja married, but their happiness was marred by a tragic accident. Sonja was able to move past the tragedy and get on with the business of living, so Ove did, too. Until Sonja died, robbing Ove’s life of all its color and robbing Ove of his reason to go on living.

Spoiler alert: Below, there are some details about the story that you might not want to know if you are going to read it. Stop reading here!

So Ove decides to end his life, and the novel focuses on a period of weeks (I think–it’s not entirely clear, and there are numerous flashbacks to Ove’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sonja) one winter during which Ove attempts to commit suicide several times, in different ways (neatly and with minimum trouble to those who would need to deal with the aftermath, as per Ove’s idea of the right way to conduct oneself). But each attempt is interrupted by others who need Ove’s help: his old friend (more recently, enemy) Rune and Rune’s wife Anita; his new neighbors, Patrick, Parvaneh, and their children; his obese young next-door neighbor Jimmy; the awkward teenager Adrian; gay Mirsad, whose father hates homosexuals; and a nameless stray cat, among others. Slowly and inexorably, they pull Ove back from the brink and show him how to love and live again.

Although she is dead as the novel begins, Sonja is a luminous major character in Ove’s story. Part of the reason that Ove does what he does is because he knows Sonja would approve, and he believes that when he dies, they will be reunited; he doesn’t want her to be angry with him because of what he does or doesn’t do. Sonja’s good qualities shine throughout the story: gentleness, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, a sense of justice and an ability to meet each human being on his/her own terms, without judgment.

Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant, is also a very important character in the book. Outgoing, generous and practical, Parvaneh also refuses to be frightened by Ove’s grumpy exterior. She does not hesitate to ask for, even to demand, his help when she needs it, thus saving his life on several occasions.

I just loved this book. Especially if you know someone on the spectrum, you may gain some insight into how that person thinks and sees the world. The novel has been made into a movie, which looks good, and I hope to see it soon, but I don’t expect it to surpass the novel. Movies seldom do.

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Black Narcissus

Posted by nliakos on April 8, 2018

by Rumer Godden (Little, Brown 1939)

This one is part of my on-going project of reading all of my mother’s books which I still have and haven’t read (Cf. The Birds Fall Down). She had two by Rumer Godden: this one, and An Episode of Sparrows, which I believe is better known.

Black Narcissus is the story of a small group of Anglican sisters who are sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to open a convent with a school, clinic, and dispensary in a building which has been offered to their order by “the General”, the local potentate. Ominously, a group of brothers failed at a similar project in the same location. The offer of the building seems too good to pass up, but at the same time there are numerous signs pointing to failure (so the reader isn’t very surprised when in the end, the nuns depart, leaving little to remember them by).

There are some colorful characters, including Sister Clodagh, the sister-in-charge (I spent the whole book wondering how to pronounce her name); Sister Blanche, aka Sister Honey, the over-emotional sister whose rash kindness will eventually set the group on the road to disaster; Sister Ruth, “the snake-faced sister”, who sinks into madness; Mr. Dean, the Englishman “gone native” (apparently a terrible thing) who kindly helps the nuns in every way he can, including trying to get them to understand the people they are trying to serve; and Dilip Rai, “the young General”, the eponymous Black Narcissus, who wants to study in England, so he convinces Sister Clodagh to teach him. Reluctantly, she acquiesces, but his presence in the Convent eventually leads to trouble.

I am always astonished at the arrogance of the English (and of Christian missionaries) who believe that they have everything to teach the inhabitants of other lands, and nothing to learn from them. (Mr. Dean is the exception to this unfortunate tendency.) In this novel, Rumer Godden seems to be saying that some other cultures are impervious to Western teachings, although some of her characters refuse to believe this.

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Corridors of the Night

Posted by nliakos on February 21, 2018

by Anne Perry (Ballantine 2015)

This is my first encounter with Anne Perry, and the characters in this suspense novel–William Monk, head of the Thames River Police; his wife Hester, a nurse; their adopted son, Scuff (presumably a nickname); and various other people that play roles in the story–must all be familiar to most readers of this book. To me, they were not, so I was a little confused, but after several chapters I was on board and following the plot. The story is set in London in the nineteenth century, some time after the Crimean War, in which Hester served alongside the famed Florence Nightingale. There is a crazed chemist, enabled by his brother, a doctor, who is obsessed with finding a way to transfuse human blood from one person to another without killing the patient. The reader wants to shout, “BLOOD TYPES!”, but the discovery and understanding of these will not happen in the time frame of this novel.

The chemist, Hamilton Rand, has discovered some poor children whose blood does not cause patients to die (presumably they all have Type O blood). He purchases them from their father, who has no clue as to the use to which they will be put. Hester figures out what is being done just in time to be kidnapped and taken to a remote country house where she is expected to assist in the diabolical (but professionally intriguing) experiment. I assumed that her rescue would be the book’s climax, but it goes on for several chapters after Monk successfully rescues her and the three children–through two trials and two murders!

The story got me thinking about what a medical breakthrough safe blood transfusions were, and made me curious to read about how it actually happened here. (The discovery of blood types was not made until 1901 by the Austrian Karl Landsteiner, and much progress was made during the First World War.) So the story of Hamilton Rand and his diabolical experiment, set thirty  or forty years earlier, makes sense.

I liked Monk and Hester, and will perhaps seek out some of the earlier books in the series to find out how they met and fell in love. Thanks to my dear friend Carol for this book!

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The Trumpet of the Swan

Posted by nliakos on February 14, 2018

by E. B. White, illustrated by Edward Frascino (Harper & Row, 1970)

Although I’ve read Stuart Little  and am a huge fan of Charlotte’s Web, I had never read E. B. White’s third classic children’s book, so I have now corrected that error. While it does not compare with Charlotte’s Web, it is entertaining and sends a message that disabilities can be overcome with persistence and resourcefulness.

The principal human character in the story is Sam Beaver, a young boy who grows up as the story of Louis the swan unfolds. Sam loves nature and animals and is always ready to help Louis when asked. But his importance to the story is secondary to that of Louis, the Trumpeter Swan who is born mute (not a Mute Swan!). (He is described as having “a speech defect”.) Louis refuses to accept his fate as an outcast in Trumpeter Swan society, and his parents decide that he should learn to play a trumpet of his own. Louis gets Sam to help him attend school to learn to read and write, and little by little, he accumulates a slate, a piece of chalk, and a trumpet,  all of which he carries around his neck and uses to communicate with both humans and other swans. He has many adventures: he plays the trumpet for the Swan Boat at the Boston Public Garden, and in a Philadelphia night club, and he woos and wins his true love, Serena. With Sam’s help, Louis is able to return to his idyllic life in the wild (but he has to agree to occasionally sacrifice  a cygnet to the Philadelphia Zoo, which seems kind of harsh given that Louis himself refuses to stay there).

It’s weird that a swan would think and communicate in English, use the toilet in a hotel room, know how much to tip a waiter, and other oddities, but there are funny passages that made me laugh, and I guess I can say that I enjoyed the book (but it’s definitely not in the same league as Charlotte’s Web!).

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If I Stay

Posted by nliakos on December 26, 2017

by Gayle Forman (SPEAK/Penguin Group, 2009)

Vicki and I watched the movie of the same name that was based on this novel, which made both of us want to read it. I consumed it in a couple of days. Both the movie and the novel made me cry.

If I Stay is the story of 17-year-old Mia Hall, a promising young cellist living near Portland, OR. In her final year of high school, Mia is dating Adam, a young man a year older than she who is a guitarist in a punk band. She is very close to her parents, who also frequented the rock music scene–her father was the drummer in a well-regarded band–and her younger brother Teddy. She has applied to Julliard, which would mean moving across the country away from her family and Adam, but other than this her life seems quite charmed. . .  until the family is in a terrible accident on a snowy road. Mia’s mother is dead on the scene; her father and brother make it to the hospital but ultimately do not survive. Mia herself is gravely injured and comatose, but her spirit watches over the family in the hospital, including her own unresponsive body and the people who keep a vigil at the hospital: Adam, her best friend Kim, her grandparents and other relatives. Mia’s spirit is devastated by the loss of her family, and she dreads waking up without them. One of the nurses keeps telling her that whether she lives or dies is up to her, and that if she wants to live, she must decide to live. Mia seems reluctant and readies herself to die–but Adam refuses to let her go without a fight.

The novel does not proceed chronologically but consists of time snapshots of the day of the accident interspersed with flashbacks to Mia’s childhood and adolescence; these include scenes without her, such as her parents in their bedroom listening to a very young Mia practicing her cello obsessively late into the night. The flashbacks flesh out Mia and Adam’s loving relationship as well as Mia’s family life.

I must be showing my age, but I was kind of amazed that Mia and Adam quickly become intimate, and no one seems to think it strange for high school kids to be sleeping together. This is, after all, 2017 (well, 2009, when it was written)!

Music is integral to the story. In the edition I read, there is an addendum by the author explaining her choices of both popular and classical pieces that she wrote into the novel.

If I Stay is a love story, tender and passionate. Adam and Mia, like Romeo and Juliet, love deeply and intensely, despite their youth. But will their love be enough? You can probably guess the answer–but this book is followed by a sequel which I have not read, Where She Went, which takes place three years later. Apparently there is no happily ever after–at least not immediately.

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Nanjing Requiem

Posted by nliakos on November 18, 2017

by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2011)

The publication of The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (1997) put the brutal Japanese occupation of China’s “Southern Capital” on my radar. I don’t believe I knew about it prior to that time. Reading the reviews of the book, I was appalled at the cruelty of the atrocities described. I couldn’t bring myself to read the book itself. But the events of 1937 and after stayed in my mind, like the genocides of Rwanda and Cambodia, as something I ought to educate myself about. When I saw Ha Jin’s novel about these events on the library shelf last week, I decided I would try a fictional account as a way to learn more. Fiction can be more difficult to digest than factual prose, since it puts the reader into the mind(s) of the characters as they struggle to survive against seemingly impossible odds, so I was cautious as I began to read the story of Minnie Vautrin, principal of Jinling (Ginling) College, and her heroic fight to protect the thousands of women and children who took refuge on the college campus in 1937, narrated by the (presumably) fictional Anling Gao. But I was not swept up in the story of men and women fighting against insurmountable odds. I felt like I did when I read the reviews of Iris Chang’s book: appalled, but not personally involved.

The novel reads like a diary. (Indeed, Ha Jin used diaries kept at the time as some of his sources.) Horrific events, like murder and rape, are relayed in the same dry tone as what everyone had for dinner. It’s terrible, but you don’t want to cry. Anling’s voice is cool and calm, whether she is describing the campus ponds polluted with dead bodies or meeting her half-Japanese grandson for the first and only time. The reader has to infer her pain; Jin does none of this work for you.

I also noted Jin’s odd use of American and English idioms, which also seemed awkward to me in Waiting and War Trash, two other Jin novels which I have read. The idioms often don’t seem to fit into the context he uses them in. I suppose he is trying to convey the use of colloquial Chinese expressions in at least some cases, but the expressions just don’t seem natural in his prose. They seem more like the tortured sentences my students used to write when told to use an idiom in a sentence–or when they tried to pack as many idioms into one sentence as possible, as in this instance from page 276: If they got on my nerves, I didn’t hesitate to give them a piece of my mind to let off some steam. I knew they would bad-mouth me behind my back, . . . . There is nothing actually wrong about these sentences, but for some reason, they seem more like a language learning exercise than natural prose. They stand out in a way that seems awkward. That said, Ha Jin is on a short list of major authors writing in a second language (others that come to mind being Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov), and I have enormous respect for his ability to do it at all.

In conclusion, I guess I am going to have to read The Rape of Nanking after all.

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The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre

Posted by nliakos on November 4, 2017

by Gail Carson Levine (Harper 2017)

When I was at the library recently, I picked up two books for myself (neither was on my to-read list, but they looked interesting) and this one for my daughter, who loves The Two Princesses of Bamarre. I gave up on the two “adult” books (The (Fabulous) Fibonacci Numbers by Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann; and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel) and instead read The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. 🙂 And enjoyed it.

Gail Carson Levine has written many books inspired by popular fairytales, such as Ella Enchanted (Cinderella) and Fairest (Snow White, sort of). The two Bamarre books are set in a fairytale world of Carson Levine’s own imagining, but there are elements of familiar tales; for example, the heroine, Peregrine (aka Perry), has hair which grows very rapidly and very long; when her adoptive father imprisons her in a tower with no door, Perry uses her hair to enable her friend Willem to climb up to her with food. Other examples are the seven-league boots which she uses to travel from place to place, the magic tablecloth that produces rich, delicious meals for its owner, and the snail shell that enables a person to hear conversations from a great distance. (The boots and the tablecloth also appear in The Two Princesses of Bamarre.)

Perry is a Bamarre, but the Bamarre have been conquered and subjugated by the fierce Lakti. (They are just too kind and empathetic to resist with violence.) As a baby, she is taken from her parents by the barren wife of Lord Tove, a Lakti aristocrat. They take her older sister Annet along for good measure, to serve as Perry’s nurse, leaving their parents bereft. Perry grows up believing herself to be a Lakti, undergoing the harsh training required of all the Lakti, both male and female, to turn them into fierce warriors.

The story takes place mostly when she is about fifteen. A fairy appears to her and reveals the secret of her birth, and announces that it is Perry’s destiny to liberate her people. Most of the book narrates how she manages to do this. There are dragons, gryphons, ogres, and other monsters to fight in the land beyond the Eskern Mountains where the Lakti came from originally, and in New Lakti (the kingdom stolen from the Bamarre by the invading Lakti), there are cruel Lakti, especially Lord Tove, whose all-encompassing love for his daughter turns to murderous hatred once he finds out the secret of her birth.

The treatment of the gentle, polite Bamarre people by the arrogant Lakti is reminiscent of the treatment of African slaves in America by white landowners. Lord Tove considers the Bamarre to be dirty, simple, and animal-like, and thinks nothing of subjecting them to ever-harsher laws. Perry has grown up with this racism, and must confront it in herself before she can accept herself and her birth family. She also has to learn to exist in a very different culture, where no one tells anyone else what to do and everyone’s speech is sprinkled with “Begging your pardon’s”. I enjoyed the small cultural details such as these that Carson Levine invents for her peoples.

There is only one character who appears in both Bamarre books, and that is Perry’s younger brother Drualt, who appears in The Two Princesses of Bamarre as a legendary hero. Presumably, that story of how Princess Addie saves her sister Princess Meryl from the Gray Death takes place many years after the Bamarre escape the persecution of the Lakti by crossing the Eskerns to resettle Old Lakti for themselves.

There’s a lot of suspension of disbelief required for all Carson Levine’s books, and this one is no exception!

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I Am No One

Posted by nliakos on June 28, 2017

by Patrick Flanery (Tim Duggan Books 2016)

I have never read a novel quite like this one. It is written in the first person; the narrator, Professor of 20th century German history Jeremy O’Keefe, is ostensibly telling the story of how he got to now (in longhand), including his belief that he is the object of (probably U.S.) surveillance (or is he losing his mind, as his daughter and son-in-law seem to think?). Someone (is it the young man he keeps bumping into, Michael Ramsey, who claims to have been his student more than a decade before, but whom he cannot remember?) has been sending him boxes of documents about himself: his web browsing history, past emails, bank records, etc. Why? Is it some kind of psychological torture, or is someone trying to warn him that he is under surveillance? He suspects that his affair with a former student during a ten-year period when he taught at Oxford University in England, which resulted in a child, is the reason he is being watched: his lover’s brother has ties to the Islamic State, and money he is sending her for his son’s support could be ending up in the hands of the brother (and the terrorist organization). But he insists that he is no one of interest to the government; he is only trying to do the right thing by the child he fathered, something he is both ashamed of and thrilled by. The specter of madness pursues him throughout the novel: is the man who is watching his apartment Michael Ramsey or someone else? Did he cancel that appointment with his student and then forget he had canceled it, or did someone else somehow send the email canceling the appointment from his account? How can he get his daughter and her husband (whom he does not trust) to believe his version of the strange events that keep happening to him?  Does Michael Ramsey wish him well or ill? The reader is kept in suspense, along with Jeremy himself, right up to the final pages of the novel. In fact, the ending was somewhat of a letdown for this reader (but I won’t spoil the story any more than I already have by revealing how it ends).

Flanery’s writing is elegant and skillful, but he has some real doozies of long sentences, like this one on pgs. 120-121: What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, or that a private life is a possibility any longer, and this is not just true for those of us who are living out our sentence in the developed world, but anyone anywhere, except perhaps those hidden underground, for the satellites we have launched into space and the aircraft, manned and unmanned, patrolling the air above the earth, gaze down upon us, producing finely detailed images of all our lives, watching us, or perhaps you could say we are merely watching ourselves, or at least the governments we allow to remain in power are watching us on our own behalf, as well as the corporations who do so only for their own behalf, even as they insist on the public service they claim to provide, and which we use, often for free, spending nothing to look at satellite images of our neighbors’ own backyards and roof terraces or street views of their front windows and doors, trading this free access to all knowledge of the world for the recording by such corporations of the habits of our activity and making ourselves susceptible not only to the collecting of this data and its potential monetization, that is to say its sale to other entities collecting their own kinds of data about us, but also to be bombarded with advertising that, however much we may struggle against it, inserts its messages deep into our thoughts, influencing us one way or another, even though I insist I am not receptive to advertisements for fast food establishments where I haven’t set foot since I was in my teens but nonetheless, and despite the fact I no longer eat meat, I look at those burgers and have to struggle against the desire their images produce.

Reading this 301-word sentence made me slightly queasy. I felt as though I were tottering on a tightrope, almost falling off at times as I attempted to follow the logic of the many  (uncounted) clauses. This one sentence contains a paragraph’s worth of thoughts about our loss of privacy and our apparent acceptance of this loss. Copying it down here, I realize that it does somehow hold together logically, describing as it does “the post-Snowden culture of surveillance” (Teddy Wayne, in a blurb on the back cover). I confess that I, too, have traded my privacy for the right to explore the Internet for free. I have justified my willingness to expose myself in emails (knowing that an email is no more private than a postcard) and on social media for the pleasure of feeling connected with friends, family, and others around the world by reassuring myself that no one would be interested in anything I write or post. I have an ordinary, even a boring (to other people anyway), life. As Jeremy O’Keefe puts it: I am no one. Why should anyone bother with surveilling me? This novel forces me to realize that interesting or not, my life is (or could be) an open book to someone with the capacity and the interest in reading it.

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