Category Archive: Literature

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June 22, 2018

Massive Book Sales

Category: Education,Literature,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Here’s something I wrote a while back, for homeschooling parents heading to a huge book sale and unsure which books they ought to be snatching up as fast as they spot them.

Having a list does help. But you may be in a hurry and not be able to stop and look up every author’s name in a list. It’ll take too long and there may be other people grabbing books.

The last sale I went to, there were a bunch of people using their phones to scan books — Amazon lowest sale price and Amazon sales rating, probably — to see what was valuable for resale.

So what can you do FAST?

(1) Best case: You’re going to know certain authors’ names. Don’t worry about titles. All the titles you need to know are the titles of books by that author that you already own, so you don’t buy duplicates.

But there’s no point trying to memorize (or check) a list of every last book Alice Dalgliesh wrote or which ones AO uses or whatever. Just remember the name: Alice Dalgliesh. And remember that you already have The Courage of Sarah Noble. Maybe remember that you’re especially looking for The Bears on Hemlock Mountain, but you probably want everything Alice Dalgliesh wrote anyway.

Memorize (or jot down) a few authors’ last names: Brink, Burgess, Coatsworth, Dalgliesh, Marguerite de Angeli, Eilis Dillon, Enright, Estes, Harnett, Marguerite Henry, Kjelgaard, Lenski, Meader, Meigs, Needham, Nesbit, Ransome, Streatfeild, Sutcliff, Treece, Van Stockum, Willard.

(2) Look for older books, preferably hardback. Check the date. Let’s be honest: Pretty much everything newer than about 1970 is a bit suspect.

I’m not saying there aren’t living books that are more recent than that, but the likelihood of twaddle (or immoral books or badly written books or whatever) after 1970 is higher. And yes, there was twaddle, etc., before 1970, but on the whole those books are better written.

Remember: This is a FAST rule of thumb to get POSSIBLE good books into the big box you’re carrying around with you (or by now, pushing along the floor with your foot as you move down the table).

(3) You’re probably not looking for # 47 in a series. You like The Boxcar Children? That’s great. But everything after #19 is a cheap knock-off written by someone else. You don’t need volume 47.

(4) You should be able to spot obvious twaddle and obvious junk. Your eyes skate right over Captain Underpants and Barney Belch’s Barfalicious Birthday and land on … Is that Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet?! All four Melendy books in a single hardback volume in great shape? Why, yes. You will add that quietly to your box.

(5) Look for the Landmark series of historical books. They’re uniform in size, have the word Landmark on the spine, usually a circle of some kind on the cover — like the picture I’ve attached.

Good rule of thumb: Know the names of a few series that you want to collect.

(6) There are a billion books about fish, the environment, the weather, mountains, snakes, trees, Ancient Rome, and so on. Most of them are pretty bland and pretty much the same. There are going to be a bunch of pictures and very little text (and of a somewhat twaddlish nature). Get some if you really, really want them, but … well, they’re not especially high quality. I suspect you’re mainly looking for The Really Good Stuff.

There are some great, classic science books of course, and it helps to know the names of some series and some authors (Fabre, Goudey, Selsam). But just because a book is somehow science-related or looks “educational” doesn’t mean you need it.  You can spend a lot of money buying mediocre science-related books (Usborne, DK, Magic School Bus) and not get very much bang for your buck.

(7) When you’re done, start over quickly. It’s amazing how much you missed the first time. You may spot things that you didn’t see before. Is that a Frog and Toad tucked between those two other books? They also sometimes bring out more books when they see the tables being depleted.

(8) When you’re done, sort. That’s the best time to look things up on your SmartPhone is you need to. If you’ve picked up some book published in 1947 and you’re not sure if it’s a good, living book, read a bit of it. If it seems silly, if it has really big print and really short words and short sentences (“Jane looked at the dog. The dog was black. It wagged its tail”), and above all if its tone is smarmy or it talks down to the reader, set it aside to put back.

My other piece of advice would be a caution, which may be totally unnecessary. Don’t lose your head and go on a buying spree. 

It happens. It’s possible to find yourself grabbing books, even though they aren’t in great condition or aren’t particularly high on your “must have” list.

Here’s a copy of Edward Eager’s Half Magic. Woohoo! Except … the spine is cracked and someone has used crayon liberally throughout. But it’s Edward Eager! Into the box it goes.

And here are a few books that … well, nothing about them really grabs you but they are older and might not be twaddle and so into the box they go.

And then you get home and look through your pile and realize that you didn’t get anything that you’re really excited about.

This is especially tempting near the end of a sale, when they say (as they do at a sale near here on the third day of the sale) that it’s $5 a big bag. Great! You stuff it with almost everything you can find. But when you get home, they’re all books you might as well have just taken out from the library, nothing you really want to own. I speak from experience here.

A variant of this buying frenzy: You get so excited about picking up so many great books at such great prices that you start stretching your budget a bit. After all, that box set of Time-Life Books about great artists *might* be good for your home school … and it’s 10 books for $40, which is only $4 a book for a lot of great art and … But do you really want those books? Are they really something you want to stretch your budget for?

Well, maybe. And maybe not. Don’t buy stuff you don’t want to own. Don’t lose your head. Don’t give in to the voice that says “I might never find this Edward Eager book again, so I ought to pick it up, battered and broken and ugly and crayoned in as it is.” (That voice is worth listening to only if the book in question is extremely rare and available only at a high price elsewhere.)

Again, maybe this is totally unnecessary. But I myself have had some buyer’s remorse after a sale or two, especially when they tell me that it’s $5 a bag and I come home with a bag or two stuffed to bursting with books I’m not all that interested in.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:20 pm | Discuss (0)
April 27, 2018

Butter and Margarine

Category: Literature,Psychology :: Link :: Print

“The fact is that by profession I’m a psycho-analyst — quite a successful one, I suppose; successful certainly as far as money goes.  The amount of money,” he said confidentially, “which some people will pay for information which they could get from three hours’ intelligent reading in any public library….  However” — he became conscious that he was getting off the point — “there it is.  I suppose in London I’m pretty well at the top of my profession.  You may think we’re all charlatans, of course — a lot of people do” — Geoffrey hurriedly shook his head — “but as far as I’m concerned, at least, I have tried to go about the business methodically and scientifically, and to do the best for my patients.  Well, then –”

He paused and mopped his brow to emphasize the fact that he was now coming to the crux of the matter; Geoffrey nodded encouragingly.

“As you know, the whole of modern psychology — and psycho-analysis in particular — is based on the idea of the unconscious; the conception that there is a section of the mind in some sense separate from the conscious mind, and which is responsible for our dreams, certain of our impulses, and all the complex manifestations of the irrational in human life.”

His phraseology, Geoffrey thought, was taking on the aspect of a popular textbook.

“From this concept all the conclusions of analytical psychology are derived.  Unfortunately, about a month ago, it occurred to me to investigate the origins and rationale of this basic conception.  A terrible thing happened, Mr. Vintner.”  He leaned forward and tapped Geoffrey impressively on the knee.  “I could not find one shred of experimental or rational proof that the unconscious existed at all.”

He sat back again; it was evident that he regarded this statement as in some sense a personal triumph.

“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that in fact it didn’t exist.  We know, after all, nothing at all about the conscious mind, so why postulate, quite arbitrarily, an unconscious, to explain anything we can’t understand?  It’s as if,” he added with some vague recollection of wartime cooking, “a man were to say he was eating a mixture of butter and margarine when he had never in his life tasted either.” — Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:24 am | Discuss (0)
February 5, 2018

Requirements for Poets

Category: Literature,Poetry :: Link :: Print

Sister M. Madeleva [Wolff], poet and college president, writes:

Sometimes students ask what books are best to read as helps to writing. With no hesitation at all, I say, “The Bible, the Oxford Dictionary, seed catalogues.” This is spoken in parable. Here are the words of God, of man, of nature.

What preparation best enables one to be a poet? The Sixth Beatitude, I think, “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God.” (My First Seventy Years, p. 148).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:59 pm | Discuss (0)
February 2, 2018

A Teacher and a Gentleman

Category: History,Literature :: Link :: Print

Sister M. Madeleva, looking back over her life in her delightfully titled My First Seventy Years, recalls her experience with C. S. Lewis during a brief stay in Oxford:

Oxford that Trinity term meant and continues to mean for me Mr. C. S. Lewis.  After attending his second lecture on the Prolegomena to the Study of Medieval Poetry I said to some of the students at Cherwell Edge, “Mr. Lewis is the one person at Oxford with whom I should like to tutor.”  “But,” they exclaimed in amazement at my temerity, “Mr. Lewis refuses to tutor a woman.”  “That,” I replied stoutly, “does not change my statement in the least.”

You probably are not interested in a prolegomenon or preface to medieval poetry, or indeed in this archaic poetry itself.  I should like, however, to share with you two experiences from the class in which Mr. Lewis dug up medieval poetry by the roots and planted it in our minds, there to grow and flower as it might.

At the beginning of the course he announced by titles nineteen lectures.  Later in the term he missed three of these because of illness.  Returning to class, he stated that obviously some of the assigned lectures would have to be omitted.  He asked that if we had any preference for those to be retained we would write him a note saying so….

I had been anticipating impatiently the single lecture on Boethius.  I wrote as much to Mr. Lewis.  He gave in response three lectures on the author of The Consolation of Philosophy.  This was the graciousness of the teacher.

Later, I wrote to thank him and to ask if there was available a bibliography on his course.  He replied by writing out for me a history of the development of his study, a list of the books I should read relating to it, a list I might read, and a list to which I need pay no attention at all.  This was the gentleman.  Mr. Lewis had tutored me. — Sister M. Madeleva, My First Seventy Years, pp. 75-76.

By the way, in case you wish you could see that letter Lewis wrote, you both can and can’t.  The letter is in the second volume of C. S. Lewis’s Collected Letters.  But alas, the bibliography is not there.

It seems that what Lewis did was loan Sister Madeleva a notebook that contained the book lists she mentions here, which (judging by his letter) were the bibliography he worked with in particular when he was preparing The Allegory of Love.  But the notebook itself is not reprinted in the Collected Letters and may, in fact, no longer exist … although one wonders if it really was loaned (as Walter Hooper says in his footnote in Collected Letters), with the intention that she return it, or if it was given, since Lewis’s letter says nothing about returning it and it would have been laborious for her to copy it out.  In either case — whether it was loaned and she made a copy for herself or if it was given outright — one does wonder if it exists somewhere in Sister Madeleva’s papers.

 

Posted by John Barach @ 9:06 pm | Discuss (0)
December 29, 2017

Books I Enjoyed in 2017

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

* Edoardo Albert. Oswiu: King of Kings. The third in Albert’s trilogy about the Christian kings of Northumberland.

* Lloyd Alexander. The High King. An excellent conclusion to a great series.

* Michael Bond. A Bear Called Paddington. The first in the series; the one book I’ve read more than any other. This was the first time my third child got to hear it.

* Nicholas Carr. Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations. A collection of essays and blog posts, mainly about technology and computers and how they affect us.  Some of the essays are hilarious; almost all of them are thought-provoking.

* Blaine Charette. Restoring Presence: The Spirit in Matthew’s Gospel. Very helpful. Even when he says things I already know, he puts them extremely well. You might think the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say much about the Holy Spirit; you would be mistaken.

* Mark Dallow. The Heir of Charlecote. Great novel for kids, set in Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) England.  I read it aloud to the kids.

* August Derleth. Wind Over Wisconsin. Known primarily for preserving H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy through his publishing house, Arkham Press, or perhaps for his Sherlock Holmes pastiches starring Solar Pons, Derleth was primarily a regional writer, devoted to telling stories about the area of Wisconsin he called Sac Prairie. This is a long, slow novel about the settlers’ change from hunting and trapping to farming and about the passing of the Indians.

* Elizabeth Enright. The Saturdays; The Four-Story Mistake; Then There Were Five. The original three books about the Melendy family. I hadn’t read these since I was a boy, but my kids were reading them and so I picked them up too.

* C. S. Forester. Payment Deferred. Forester is the author of the Hornblower novels, but this was his first novel, a particularly gripping crime novel.

* Tim Gallant. Feed My Lambs: Why the Lord’s Table Should Be Restored to Covenant Children. This was the second time I had read this book. Read it this time in preparation for Sunday School. Excellent.

* Ted Gioia. How to Listen to Jazz. Basic, but quite helpful. I’d love to have seen more structural analysis of popular jazz songs, but what Gioia provided was eye-opening.

* Harold Lamb. Swords from the West. A collection of several of Lamb’s stories about Crusaders after the Crusades, wandering around the Middle East and getting into various adventures. Lamb wrote well and researched thoroughly.

* John Masefield. The Midnight Folk. Bizarre but engaging story. Read to kiddos.

* A. E. W. Mason. The Four Feathers. Engaging story, though I have to admit that I have no sympathy for the sort of patriotism / militarism that undergirds the whole story, such that resigning from the military could ever be seen as cowardice.

* Charles McCarry. The Tears of Autumn. Originally presented as an unpublished non-fiction book, this is McCarry’s spy novel based on what he thought — and may still think — is the true story behind JFK’s assassination, and it’s probably not a theory you’ve heard elsewhere.

* Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Very helpful.

* Margaret Oliphant. Salem Chapel. Very enjoyable Victorian novel … except for the last couple of pages.

* Margery Sharp. The Rescuers. The first of the series. Read aloud to the kiddos. We loved it.

* Sherwood Smith. Wren to the Rescue. The first in a fantasy trilogy aimed at young adults; quite well done.

* Angela Thirkell. Three Houses. A memoir tied especially to the houses in which Thirkell grew up.

* Douwe van Dijk. My Path to Liberation: Reflections on My Life in the Ministry of the Word of God.  A memoir by a pastor of a Reformed church in the Netherlands, most of which deals with the events surrounding the Liberation in 1944.

* Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie. Read to the kiddos.

* P. G. Wodehouse. The Girl on the Boat. Fun.

The worst book I read this year was Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons. In his defense, it was Trease’s first novel and he was strongly Marxist at the time he wrote it. It’s full of things like “Everyone is equal; there should be no leaders, no rulers.” I was disturbed by the casual violence—lots of innocent people killed even by the “good guys,” in a novel aimed at children, no less—and irritated by several elements of the plot. I could not bring myself to suspend my disbelief in a secret network of caves under all of Nottingham, known only by the humble shopkeepers who are on Robin Hood’s side, a Robin Hood (by the way) entirely different from any you’ve ever met before. Again and again, there were extra “suspenseful” moments thrown in for good measure (e.g., an escape wasn’t enough; there had to be quicksand, too, from which the protagonist is also quickly rescued). And then there was the episode in which the main character somehow smuggled longbows into a castle in a pack on his back. Longbows. Hidden. In a pack on his back.

The book I had the most fun with this year may well have been Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Of Keeler, Neil Gaiman writes: “He may have been the greatest bad writer America has ever produced. Or perhaps the worst great writer. I do not know.”

Otto Penzler, on the other hand, writes:

Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail,you’d need to think about it.

But this is the novel that contains, in the opening chapter, as an explanation for why the narrator didn’t pay much attention to the Chinese man who spoke to him briefly on the street near his apartment, this fascinating sentence:

For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag,” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!

The whole novel is just as strange. Which is why the New York Times once wrote: “We are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.”

[Update, December 31, 2017: In his comment, Alastair Roberts alerted me to the fact that, however bad Trease’s novel might be, there really are underground caves in Nottingham.]

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 pm | Discuss (3)
November 3, 2017

Just So

Category: History,Literature :: Link :: Print

Angela Thirkell describes how she used to play Cavaliers and Roundheads with her cousins.  She and her cousin Josephine Kipling were the Cavaliers, and the Roundhead was Josephine’s father, whom Thirkell calls “Cousin Ruddy”:

Josephine, very fair-haired and blue-eyed, was my bosom friend, and though we both adored her father, the stronger bond of patriotism drew us yet more firmly together as Cavaliers against Cousin Ruddy’s whole-hearted impersonation of an Arch-Roundhead….

The war between Cavaliers and Roundheads raged furiously every year as long as the Kiplings were at Rottingdean, Josephine and I leading forlorn hopes against the Regicide and being perpetually discomfited by his superior guile, or by the odious way in which the Nannies would overlook the fact that we were really six feet high with flowing locks, a hat with feathers, and huge jack-boots, and order us indoors to wash our hands or have an ignominious midday rest.

How would they have liked it if they were plotting to deliver King Charles from Carisbrooke and their Nannies had suddenly pounced upon them with a “Get up off the grass now Miss Angela and come and lie down before lunch, and there’s Lucy waiting for you Miss Josephine, so put those sticks down like a good girl and run along.”  Fools!  Couldn’t they see that these were no pea-sticks, but sword, dagger, and pistol, ready to flash out or be discharged in the service of the King?  But Nannies are by nature unromantic, so we had to submit and pretend to be little girls till we could meet again later (Three Houses, 83-84).

Later, when she talks about Josephine’s death at six years of age, Thirkell writes:

I still have a letter from Josephine, written in sprawly childish capitals.  “I will help you,” it ran, “in the war against the Roundhead.  He has a large army but we can beat him.  He is a horrible man let us do all the mischief we can to him.”  It must have been a very real game that made her call the father she loved a “horrible man.”  The world has known Josephine and her father as Taffimai and Tegumai in the Just So Stories and into one short poem he put his heart’s cry for the daughter that was all to him (86).

Thirkell was one of the first to hear these stories:

During those long warm summers Cousin Ruddy used to try out the Just So Stories on a nursery audience.  Sometimes Josephine and I would be invited into the study….  Or sometimes we all adjourned on a wet day to the Drill Hall where the horse and parallel bars made splendid forts and camping grounds, and when the battle was over and the Roundhead had been unmercifully rolled upon and pommelled by small fists he would be allowed by way of ransom to tell us about the mariner of infinite resource and sagacity and the suspenders–you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved.

The Just So Stories are a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice.  There was a ritual about them, each phrase having its special intonation which had to be exactly the same each time and without which the stories are dried husks.  There was an inimitable cadence, an emphasis of certain words, an exaggeration of certain phrases, a kind of intoning here and there which made his telling unforgettable (87-88).

 

Posted by John Barach @ 6:17 am | Discuss (0)
July 2, 2016

Style Wins

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

The point about every single book that I re-read in order to laugh is that every one is so much more than funny because the authors write so well. Wodehouse uses the English language to perfection, Durrell evokes scenes so wonderfully, Nancy Mitford’s prose is so elegant, so arch. One could learn to write from any of them and I wish more people would. No matter what the genre, good writing always tells. Crime novels? Look at Raymond Chandler, master of style. Spy novels? How many do you know who write as well as le Carre? Style wins every, every time. — Susan Hill, Howard’s End Is on the Landing.

 

Posted by John Barach @ 3:23 pm | Discuss (0)
May 2, 2016

Fantasy Land

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

Ursula K. LeGuin on common assumptions people — including writers! — make about fantasy fiction:

Assumption: Fantasy Land is the middle ages. It isn’t. It’s an alternate world, outside our history, and its map isn’t on our map. It may resemble mediaeval Europe in being pre-industrial — but that doesn’t justify its having no economics and no social justice. Nor does it explain why nobody there ever feeds or waters their horses, which run all day and night just like a Prius. The best send-up of this fifth-hand Tennyson setting is Monty Python’s Holy Grail, where horse are replaced with coconuts. Whenever I find a fantasy that is set in a genuinely imagined society and culture instead of this lazy-minded, recycled hokum, I feel like setting off fireworks. — Ursula K. LeGuin, “Some Assumptions about Fantasy,” Cheek by Jowl, p. 5.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:00 pm | Discuss (0)

Ruth Pitter on Poetry

Category: Literature,Poetry :: Link :: Print

This astonishing gift of special seeing is quite common among children. To this extent perhaps most children are poets. As we grow up it is generally lost. I can remember so well, from earliest childhood, seeing something in the light on a hill, or in the shape of a flower, or in a human face (perhaps a very plain face) which seemed absolutely heavenly. It was so strong a feeling that I felt I must tell the world about it or burst. Ordinary description was no use; poetry it had to be. — Ruth Pitter.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:56 pm | Discuss (0)
April 26, 2016

We Only Wish We Could

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

Somewhere about the house, curled up, maybe, in a nursery window, or hidden in a freezing attic, a child is poring over The Three Musketeers, lost to any consciousness of his surroundings, incapable of analyzing his emotions, breathless with mingled fear and exultation over his heroes’ varying fortunes, and drinking in a host of vivid impressions that are absolutely ineffaceable from his mind. We cannot read in that fashion any longer, but we only wish we could. — Agnes Repplier, “What Children Read,” in Books and Men (1888): 64-65.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:49 pm | Discuss (0)

Slow Reading (2)

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers.

Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language. It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious. It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings. It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.

Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopaedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort by seeing how fast you can dispose of it. — Susan Hill, Howard’s End Is on the Landing, pp. 171-172.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:29 am | Discuss (0)
April 18, 2016

Western Union

Category: Literature :: Link :: Print

Most fiction for kids and young adults is reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon — “Growing up is tough but you can make it.” “Popularity is not all it’s cracked up to be.” “Drugs are dangerous.” …

The notion that a story ‘has a message’ assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review. If that were true, why would writers go to the trouble of making up characters and relationships and plots and scenery and all that? Why not just deliver the message? Is the story a box to hide an idea in, a fancy dress to make a naked idea look pretty, a candy coating to make a bitter idea easier to swallow? Open your mouth, dear, it’s good for you. Is fiction decorate wordage concealing a rational thought, a message, which is its ultimate reality and reason for being?

A lot of teachers teach fiction, a lot of reviewers (particularly of children’s books) review it, and so a lot of people read it, in that belief. The trouble is, it’s wrong….

I wish children in school, instead of being taught to look for a message in a story, were taught to think as they open the book, “Here’s a door opening on a new world: what will I find there?” — Ursula K. LeGuin, “A Message About Messages,” Cheek by Jowl, pp. 126-127, 129.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:30 pm | Discuss (0)

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