Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

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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All the Light We Cannot See

Posted by nliakos on June 14, 2017

by Anthony Doerr (Scribner 2014)

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, and deservedly so. I practically inhaled it over several days. I was completely caught up in the story of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, the blind French girl, and Werner Pfennig, the gifted German boy, set before, during, and after the Second World War. All of the characters, including Marie-Laure’s father and her great-uncle Etienne, who suffered from extreme anxiety or agoraphobia; Madame Manec, who worked for Etienne and cared for Marie-Laure as long as she could; Werner’s sister Jutta, who always knew what was right; Frau Elena, the kind and courageous director of the orphanage where Werner and Jutta grew up; Frank Volkheimer, the giant boy-man from the Hitler Youth School who served with Werner; even Von Rumpel, the German officer desperately seeking the legendary diamond known as the Sea of Flames, which he believes will save him from the cancer that has riddled his body–all of them are memorable and believable.

The chapters, arranged in fourteen sections, are extremely short, some as short as a page, few longer than three. They alternate among the characters, primarily Marie-Laure and Werner, but some of the others as well, from time to time. The time frame lurches back and forth: August 7, 1944; 1934;  November 1939; August 8, 1944; June 1940; back to August 8, 1944; and so on, ending in 1974 and then 2014 as we learn what happened to these characters whom we have bonded with. With Werner and Marie-Laure, we suffer through the Allied bombing of Saint-Malo. Sometimes you have to destroy something to liberate it.

Through it all, the cursed diamond holds the story of all these diverse characters, times, and places together, like a character in and of itself. A terrific read!


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The Birds Fall Down

Posted by nliakos on March 8, 2017

by Rebecca West (Viking 1966)

This was one of my mother’s books, many of which I rescued from her house in Hackensack, NJ before we sold it in 1984. It’s also the first Rebecca West I have read. She wrote not only novels (six up to and including this one), but also history, biography, criticism, and short stories.

Actually, I found The Birds Fall Down rather hard to get through. It tells a story of intrigue and betrayal among Russian expatriates and revolutionaries in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Russian Revolution. Eighteen-year-old Laura Rowan, English on her father’s side and aristocratic Russian on her mother’s, goes with her mother to visit her grandparents, Nikolai Nikolaievich and Sofia Andreievna Diakonov, who are living in Paris after Nikolai was framed and exiled by the Tsar. Leaving her mother and her ailing grandmother behind, Laura and Nikolai begin a journey by train to a place called Mures-sur-Mer. On the way, they are joined in their car by a former friend of Nikolai’s, now a revolutionary, Chubinov. Most of the novel is consumed by an endless “conversation” between Count Diakonov and Chubinov on the train, as Chubinov attempts to convince the Count that he wants to help him. (I put the word conversation in quotes because it is more a succession of interminable monologs than a real conversation. And that was the part that was the most arduous to read. It seemed to go on forever!)

Spoiler Alert! Eventually, Chubinov and Nikolai realize that they have both been betrayed by a double agent in the Count’s retinue, and the shock kills Nikolai. Laura is left to handle the situation on her own until her father arrives from London, which takes several days. Although she has been depending on her father to save her from the double agent, Laura realizes that she cannot trust him to protect. Ultimately, she relies on Chubinov to save her, but until the last moments, neither Laura nor the reader is really sure who the villain is.

Laura is not really important for the story, but she is the thread that holds it together, and we see the other characters and the action (such as it is) from her point of view. But I did not find her to be a very convincing character. She seemed too mature for an eighteen-year-old, and her reactions to some of the events in the novel seemed wooden to me. I couldn’t identify with her, and she didn’t seem like a real person to me.

The Birds Fall Down has some things in common with the great Russian novels: lots of characters who are known by several different names and a twisted plot. I found it rather tiresome to read, but I did finish it and (sort of) followed the plot! Dame Rebecca West notes in the Prologue that she based the story on an actual historical event, but Google was unable to help me find exactly what that could have been.

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The Love Letters

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2017

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House/a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015)

I found a copy of this book at my local Little Free Library. Since I had enjoyed The Atonement and The Photograph, I traded Trains and Lovers for it. Like the others, it was an easy read (about a day); it kept me engaged without claiming to be great literature, and it taught me some things I didn’t know about the “Plain People” that we call the Amish.

There are multiple stories woven into the novel. There is Marlena Wenger of Mifflinburg, who is engaged to Nat Zimmerman. Marlena and Nat were brought up in an Old Order Amish community, but Marlena’s parents left that community to join the “Beachy  Amish-Mennonites“, and out of deference to her parents, Marlena has been worshiping in their church. Then Marlena is sent to spend the summer in Brownstown with her grandmother Janice, a “black-bumper Mennonite“, after the death of her grandfather, to provide company and assistance as the older woman gets used to her new reality. This sacrifice will delay Marlena’s marriage to Nat.

Then there are the Old Order Bitners, Janice’s neighbors: Roman and Ellie, and their children Dorcas, Julia, Sally, and Jake (“Small Jay”), who is small for his age (14) and has some disabilities (both mental and physical). Ellie and Marlena are quite close. Small Jay is unloved by his father for his disabilities, and Ellie’s heart breaks to see how much her son wants to help his father, who continually rejects him. Small Jay meets a homeless man, “Boston”, who appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; he has no memory of who he is or where he comes from. But he treats Small Jay with respect and courtesy, earning his trust and affection.

Marlena has an older sister, Luella, who left their family and went “fancy”, marrying an “Englischer.” Tragically, Luella is severely injured in an automobile accident. Since her husband is serving in the military overseas and his parents are on a European vacation and are unreachable, Marlena is tasked to take care of her five-month-old niece, Angela Rose, until her parents can take her back. But Luella dies from her injuries, and then Gordon is missing in action and presumed dead. Marlena, who by now adores the baby, would like to keep her forever, but the presumption is that Gordon’s parents will take her. Nat is less than understanding of Marlena’s deep attachment to the baby; he wishes she would give her up so that he can court her properly when she returns from Brownstown. He is also unhappy that Marlena is attending her grandmother’s church, rather than Old Order prayer services with the Bitners. Marlena, however, is undergoing a spiritual transformation in the (slightly) more liberal faith communities of her grandmother and her friends the Masts. She persists in believing that Nat will come around, but he seems to be losing patience with her refusal to obey him.

The eponymous love letters are carried in a satchel by Boston, the mysterious homeless man. They seem to be from a devoted wife, Abigail, whom he insists is gone from him forever. Small Jay reads him a letter from time to time, becoming more and more curious about the man’s origins. (There are also letters between Marlena and Luke, but the love they express begins to lose ground to their spiritual disagreements.)

What will happen to Angela Rose? Will Nat come around and marry Marlena, while allowing her to worship in her New Order community? Will Roman ever accept his son and give him the love and trust he deserves? Will he relax his authority over his wife and daughters? And will Boston be reunited with his Abigail? These are the questions that kept me turning the pages.

The theme of the various Amish and Mennonite communities, and how they differ from one another, was very interesting. Clothing, colors, use of electricity, whether they drive traditional buggies or cars, style and language of prayer and relationship with the Divine, place of worship, presence or absence of missionary work-all these combine to keep the communities apart. Individuals like Roman Bitner and Nat Zimmerman, both Old Order Amishmen, refuse to socialize with (or even be friendly with) members of other Anabaptist sects (or to permit their womenfolk to do so). It’s the Sh’ia vs. the Sunni, the Protestants vs. the Catholics, the Orthodox vs. the Conservative or Reformed, all over again, but playing out in what is essentially one religion which has splintered over and over into many tiny communities that won’t talk to each other anymore. It’s quite sad, really.

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A Christmas Carol

Posted by nliakos on December 25, 2016

by Charles Dickens (edited by Jane Gordon; published by American Book Company in 1904)

Every year on Christmas Eve, my family and I watch the 1984 movie of A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott–it’s our favorite of many versions. This year, after watching the movie, I decided to reread the original novella, which I have in the collection called Christmas Stories (from “Eclectic School Readings”). The book originally belonged to my great-aunt, who was a teacher. I suppose she may have read some of the stories aloud to her classes. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed to realize that the story was edited. (Here is one of several unedited versions I found on Google Books; I should read that!)

Anyway, I read the edited version, since that is what I have. It omits some scenes  (like Scrooge’s visit to the pawn-broker’s shop with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) which both the film and the original story include. But it’s still a wonderful story, a classic. Everyone should know it, whether by reading the story or watching one of the movies based on it.

Like Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol manages to be all about Christmas without ever mentioning Jesus, apart from Tiny Tim, who thought “it might be pleasant to [the people in church] to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

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