Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: American (page 1 of 16)

Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is one of those (true!) stories that you immediately want to know more about. As per the blurb, it’s “the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space,”. Margot Lee Shetterly spent years learning about the ‘human computers’ who worked with paper and pencil to put man on the moon, and shared all she had learned about them in her 2016 non-fiction best-seller.

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Of course, by examining the roles these women played at NASA, Shetterly incidentally traces American history through WWII, the Cold War, and the space race. Hidden Figures highlights the particular barriers for black women in the sciences as well as society at large, from the late 1930s through to the 1960s. She offers a kind note at the beginning of the book about being faithful to that period, with regard to the use of epithets and pejoratives – it was nice to have a heads up, but honestly, that note made it sound worse than the actual text bore out.

The first surprise of Hidden Figures was just how many black women worked as mathematicians and scientists at NASA. There weren’t just a handful of them – there were dozens and dozens.

Many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

Hidden Figures (Page 248)

What’s more, Shetterly herself knew many of these women. Her father worked with them so she grew up around them, and she took for granted their roles at NASA, the way children do. “Growing up in Hampton [Virginia], the face of science was brown like mine,” she says (page xiii). This is ‘see it to be it’ in action.

As Shetterly describes it, when these women took jobs as ‘computers’ during WWII labour shortages, workplaces in Virginia were still segregated and the women – especially the black women – were kept at arm’s length. Still, most of them were grateful to have meaningful work (with the dark days of the Depression not so far behind them, and many of them supporting themselves and their children), and NASA paid handsomely for the time.

Gradually, the utility of the women began to outweigh the entrenched (at times, government-mandated) racism and sexism, and by the time Apollo 11 was preparing for launch, they were working in essential roles at the highest levels.

This is all fascinating, of course. Unfortunately, Hidden Figures itself is hard to penetrate. The story is told largely in the historical abstract, with a lot of unnecessary “context” (i.e., extraneous detail). The voice is very detached from the women supposedly at the heart of the story. The rare glimpses Shetterly offers into their personalities and private lives are the most engaging and interesting parts of Hidden Figures. On the whole, though, it’s a disappointingly dry read.

Don’t get me wrong: it should be a good story! It’s just not told in a compelling or engaging way in this particular book. Perhaps more dialogue – interviews with the women themselves, conversations with their co-workers or children – might have made the story more moving, or at least tangible. As it stands, I feel like I just read a Wikipedia entry about them. I think Shetterly was more committed to stating facts for the record than telling a story. That works fine in some formats (see above, Wikipedia entry), but not in Hidden Figures.

I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation, but I’d imagine it would be a much better format for telling this story. Allowing us to engage with the women – even just a few of them – on a human level, ‘put faces to names’, will make the story of Hidden Figures sparkle the way that it should.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hidden Figures:

  • “Thank God the producers of the movie eliminated over two thirds of the book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This book was like reading a dry tortuous math textbook. Too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary details, and the book jumps all over the place. When I get a book like this I just go the the epilogue, even that was torturous!” – N. Ross
  • “This is the kind of novel a science or history teacher would require you to read.” – Trisha K
  • “This book reminds me of when I was lilttle and my mother would mention some Obit from the village we lived in and then my Dad would follow with his brother’s name and then my Mom would recall their Mother amd then my Father would recall how he worked with his Dad and then my mother would recall them going to school together and then my Dad would talk about the car they drove blah, blah, blah I was ready to take the gaspipe.
    All I can say is the screenwriter who took this pile of crap and made a great movie out of it deserves an Academy Award.” – Amazon Customer

We Keep The Dead Close – Becky Cooper

In 1969, Harvard was merging with its sister school Radcliffe, and the administration was trying desperately to curb student activism and the growing influence of counterculture. That same year, 23-year-old graduate student Jane Britton was killed in her apartment. Decades later, student Becky Cooper heard a garbled version of the story that had passed into Harvard folklore. She spent ten years chasing the truth of the story, and We Keep The Dead Close is the result.

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First off, I love the format of We Keep The Dead Close. There are no schlocky high-gloss photographs; it’s laid out like a literary fiction novel. There are transcripts of interviews, extracts from journals and letters, facsimiles of newspaper coverage, and extensive notes. It smacks of a classy, well-researched piece of journalism.

Vignette-like chapters alternate between the initial discovery and investigation of Jane’s murder, and Cooper’s own discovery and investigation of the crime. The story Cooper heard was sensationalised, as all rumour-mill murder stories tend to be: apparently, an archaeology student was murdered in the library with an ancient stone tool, by the married professor with whom she had an affair. Her body was sprinkled with red ochre, an ancient burial rite, and adorned with jewellery for her journey into the afterlife, a macabre ritual that pointed to the killer – but he got away with it, because the Harvard administration covered it up. Of course, the truth of Jane Britton’s murder was less sensational, but no less fascinating.

(And, okay, fine, some of the facts of the case are stranger than fiction. The red ochre bit was real. And a man who might have been able to provide crucial evidence was struck dead by lightning. True story.)

The New York Times, reviewing We Keep The Dead Close, gave it the headline: “New Book Returns To An Irresistible Theme: The Harvard Murder”. Indeed, the institution of Harvard plays a major role in the narrative, and Britton’s murder is – in effect – the harsh reality of the ‘dark academia’ aesthetic. Cooper lifts the veil on the cryptic world of elite tertiary education, the pot-holed track to tenure for professors and the politics of progression for students. But it’s not as simple as “there was a murder on campus and Harvard covered it up”.

You’ve heard of “leaving no stone unturned”? Cooper turns the stones, the pebbles, and digs up the dirt underneath them for good measure. In We Keep The Dead Close, she follows every lead and goes down every rabbit hole. It’s particularly admirable work in a genre that so often demands cohesive narratives be made out of the messy strands of a life. Cooper has no compunction about presenting inconclusive evidence. But that does mean, at times, the reader could easily get bogged down in the details. Cooper’s passion for her subject – and her tireless investigation and presentation of it – is enough to light the way, if the reader is willing to persist.

It takes until Part Four (about half-way through the text) for the story – and Cooper’s driving force – to really come together. But when it does… hoo boy! You won’t be able to put it down. I worry for the readers who might abandon it before they get to that point (see above: rabbit holes, boggy details). It’s not ideal structurally, but We Keep The Dead Close is one of those rare books that you really can’t form an opinion on until you’ve read it all the way through. It’s the Schitt’s Creek of contemporary true crime.

I am particularly impressed with the emphasis that Cooper places on the impact of the crime on those left behind, Jane Britton’s friends and family and co-workers. Clearly, much care and consideration went into her decisions about how to best portray the decades-long effects of violent crime, without betraying her subjects. I really hope that We Keep The Dead Close is representative of a new direction for true crime as a genre, in that regard.

By Part Seven (near the end), We Keep The Dead Close is about so much more than the crime, the investigation, or the victim. It’s about our collective histories, the stories we fit around the facts of our lives and the lives of others, how and why we construct these narratives (and whom they serve).

Vox highlighted this aspect in their review, saying that: “We Keep The Dead Close joins Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark… within a growing true crime movement. This movement aims to underscore just how deeply the act of reporting on a true crime story – especially one in the past – can alter and warp the story in ways that serve to destroy the truth, whatever that may be.”

As one of the interviewees says, it’s a Poirot mystery with a post-modern ending.

All told, We Keep The Dead Close isn’t a straightforward read, but it’s a worthy one. If you’re looking for a fast-paced linear whodunnit with a foreseeable conclusion, you’ll need to pick up a fictional detective mystery instead. But if you’re interested in how a real cold case gets solved, in the role institutions play in our lives, in the way our stories shape who we are and what we know about the world – you absolutely must put We Keep The Dead Close on the top of your to-be-read pile.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Keep The Dead Close:

  • “I pity this poor author. She poured her life into investigating a crime. She cast shade on a dozen different men, almost to the point of libel. And then, oops! it turns out the killer was just some random criminal. An honorable writer would have admitted that things did not work out for her and moved on. But, Cooper apparently decided to just write the book anyway.” – William Theodore Clemmons
  • “This is a grad students thesis gone wrong.” – Lisa Ray
  • “I like fictional mysteries and suspense novels, but I think I’m not going to be one of those white women millennials obsessed with true crime.” – Rachel Reads Ravenously
  • “Others have said it better than me, but my two cents is that this book is mostly pointless unless viewed as a memoir of a (wasted) decade of a young woman’s life. Even as such, it’s pretty thin. It’s kind of incredible that she could say all those unflattering things about all those people and not get sued—it’s not like any of that gossip ever led anywhere. So awkward.” – Esskay
  • “I suspect that if the author had been a mature woman–someone of the victim’s generation, say–rather than a photogenic young woman with a Harvard degree and a stint at The New Yorker, We Keep The Dead Close would never have found its way out of the slush pile.” – Priscilla S. Rhoades

Lakewood – Megan Giddings

Here’s yet another book I discovered thanks to The To Read List Podcast: Lakewood, the debut body horror novel by Megan Giddings. If a mix of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (with Get Out and Black Mirror vibes) appeals to you, you’re going to want to give this one a go.

Lakewood - Megan Giddings - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Lakewood begins with Lena Johnson, a Black millennial woman, mourning the passing of her beloved grandmother and staring into a financial abyss. Lena’s mother is unwell with a series of mysterious symptoms that come and go, and medical treatment in the U.S. is… well, we all know what it is. Plus, amongst Lena’s grandmother’s belongings are a stack of bills that are way past due. Lena is forced to drop out of college, and seek any opportunity to make money – fast.

The answer to Lena’s problems comes in the form of a letter from Lakewood, Michigan. That’s the location of a research program testing new drugs and therapies. They invite Lena to become one of their test subjects, a position that comes with medical insurance for her whole family, free housing, and a generous stipend. Of course, it also means a loss of privacy, great personal risk, and the penalties of a terrifying NDA at stake… but if it saves her mother and gets her family out of debt, it’s worth it, right?

An invitation to participate in a series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception. The Lakewood Project.

Lakewood (page 11)

A job offer that seems too good to be true! Are your spidey senses tingling yet? They should be. Lakewood is about to get fucked up.

It turns out these experiments aren’t anything that would hold up to any kind of ethics review panel. This isn’t filling out a Myers-Briggs or rating the taste of a new coating on a baby aspirin. They give Lena eye-drops that turn her brown irises blue. They feed her with cream capsules that are supposed to replace food and leave her starving. They make her take medication that could be a cure for dementia, but loosens her grip on reality.

All of this is told from a close third-person perspective in the first half of Lakewood. The second half switches to an epistolary style, telling the remainder of the story through a series of letters that Lena writes to her best friend Tanya, describing what is being done to her. The switch to the first-person account makes the whole thing more chilling.

Actually, Lakewood is scary on two different levels. First, there’s the all-too-real commentary on how science has abused and exploited Black bodies. Giddings draws openly on the Tuskegee studies and other such real-life examples. She uses what happens to Lena as a diorama of the trauma underpinning distrust of medicine in minority communities. It’s not subtle, but it doesn’t have to be.

But Giddings – in a masterstroke – manages to scare us another way, as well.

See, the horror isn’t just what’s being done to Lena’s body. The truly fucked-up bit is what they do to her mind. She quickly realises that she can no longer trust her own memories, and she can no longer be sure what is “experiment” and what is “reality”. Did she really spend a night at a bar being told that her newly blue eyes were beautiful, or was that part of the experiment? What about the woman in the bathroom who told her that “Toni Morrison would be ashamed”? Was an observer gauging her reaction to that?

At first, Lakewood feels like a novel grounded in our own reality as readers. But as the experiments go on, and become more surreal, we’re drawn into a speculative world almost without realising. We lose track of what is real and what is not – much the same way as the main character does. In that way, our experience reading Lakewood mirrors Lena’s living it.

So, what I’m saying is that Giddings is very, very clever. The fact that she developed this complex premise right out the gate, for her debut novel, is very, very, impressive. There were a few unanswered questions (like, who was funding these studies?) and the prose didn’t always shine, but on the whole, an amazing effort. I think Giddings is going to have a writing career to watch.

Want to read more? Check out my review of The Women Could Fly, also by Megan Giddings, here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lakewood:

  • “if they came out with a part two i don’t think I’d read it…maybe I would to see if it finally goes somewhere.” – April Edwards
  • “All I can say is read it if you want…..I wish I hadn’t.” – Kindle Customer
  • “End of the day, I’m just glad a Black woman got a book published.” – Cam’s Corner
  • “Sometimes books try to be deep by not going very deep, skipping over the surface of the story and letting the reader create subtext. I’m not the best reader for this. I’m not that deep.” – Kindle Customer

Of Mice And Men – John Steinbeck

Am I the only person in the world who didn’t have to read Of Mice And Men in high-school? It’s a staple of English lit classrooms, despite repeated and sustained attempts to have it banned or censored. Having finally got around to reading it for myself as a grown-up, I have to say, this might be the first time I’ve ever thought that people wanting to keep a book out of the classroom might have a point. Not because of “vulgarity” or “obscenity” or whatever bullshit they’ve come up with this year, but because this book is messed up.

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On the off-chance that there’s someone else out there who skipped the rite of passage that is reading Of Mice And Men as a teenager, let me break it down for you. This 1937 novella by John Steinbeck follows George and Lennie, two drifters with big dreams but only their hands to work with. They move from farm to farm in California, during the Great Depression, hoping to get enough cash together to buy a little plot of land for themselves.

My edition includes an introduction by Susan Shillinglaw (Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University). I read it before I read the story, of course, and it gave some good context. It was part of an unofficial trilogy of Steinbeck novels (the others being In Dubious Battle, and The Grapes Of Wrath) that focus on the Californian labouring class. He based Of Mice And Men (originally titled ‘Something That Happened’, which I reckon would’ve been better) off his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers in the 1910s. Apparently, Lennie was based on a real person Steinbeck had worked with during that period.

Before I describe the plot, I want to offer a few trigger warnings (I wasn’t kidding when I said this book was messed up – like, seriously, I might never get over it). You might be expecting the standard violence, racism (including racist language), and ableism (including ableist language) that was all too common in that period, but what you might not be prepared for is the constant and pervasive animal cruelty and death! Dogs and puppies – oh, my heart. Their deaths were discussed with such cavalier abandon, I had to cuddle with Fyodor Dogstoyevsky for an hour after I’d read it.

Alright, with that out of the way: Of Mice And Men begins with George and Lennie camping by a body of water, en route to a new farm job. George is street-smart but bitter, and Lennie is physically strong but lives with a non-specific intellectual disability. George feels obliged to keep Lennie out of trouble, and he doesn’t always succeed. They both hope that this new job will earn them enough money to realise their long-held dream of purchasing land of their own.

When they arrive at the farm, the vibes are immediately off. The Boss’s son, Curley, is an arsehole with a Napoleon complex, and he sees a big ol’ target on Lennie’s head. His wife (a ‘tart’, can you believe it) has the audacity to flirt with the farmhands for lack of anyone else to talk to, and Curley doesn’t like that one bit.

They befriend an elderly ranch hand, Candy, who is eager to leave the farm after one of the other workers euthanises his elderly dog against his wishes (*sobs*). Candy offers George and Lennie $350 towards their purchase of land on the condition that he join them and help where he can.

It all goes to shit when Lennie accidentally kills a puppy (*sobbing grows violent*), and then double-accidentally kills Curley’s wife. He does a runner, as he and George had earlier planned an escape route in the event of such trouble. George catches up with him – and, uh, shoots him in the back of the head? And everyone else is like “oh, good, the big stupid murdery guy is dead, let’s go get drinks” and no one can figure out why George is a bit conflicted about the situation. The end.

I told you! Of Mice And Men is messed up. M.E.S.S.E.D. U.P!

It’s a short novel, but it’s brutal and terribly sad. It’s masterfully written – no notes on that front! – but it’s far from an enjoyable read. Devastating. Nightmare fuel. I am exceedingly glad I was not compelled to read it as an angsty adolescent, as I’m quite confident I never would have recovered.

If I set my personal feelings aside for a second, I can see that Of Mice And Men has the same timeless qualities and themes as The Grapes Of Wrath: class struggle, bonds, sacrifice, race, gender, loneliness. One of the characters sums it up well when he says: “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Steinbeck inverts our expectations by putting Lennie, the character who should be the most powerful in that context (with his strength and size, in a physically demanding job), in a position of powerlessness due to his intellectual disability, compounded by his socioeconomic position. And again, as with the Joads in The Grapes Of Wrath, there is no happy ending to be found, no neat resolution to the position in which Lennie finds himself due to structural oppression.

Plus, the brevity of Of Mice And Men (at 30,000 words) lends it to dramatic adaptation and performance. This was very much by design, according to Steinbeck. He wrote in 1936: “The work I am doing now is neither a novel nor a play but it is a kind of playable novel. Written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” As such, it’s been adapted to multiple formats across the decades, mostly to critical praise.

What fucks me up, though, is that Steinbeck clearly thought he was capturing something essential (maybe even hopeful) about humanity in Of Mice And Men. I’m not sure he realised how truly depressing his story was.

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

John Steinbeck (Journal Entry, 1938)

I mean, that’s a beautiful and resonant sentiment – but Of Mice And Men got me closer to understanding nothing but a bottle of wine and a trashy rom-com to try to cleanse my mind of it. Really, that’s my reaction to Steinbeck’s writing on the whole, and it makes it very difficult to give a pithy summary or a star rating: five stars for mastery of the craft, negative five stars for enjoyment.

Anyway, I’m determined to end this review on a happier note. My favourite fun fact about Of Mice And Men is that an early draft was literally eaten by Steinbeck’s dog. As he explained, in a letter in 1936: “My setter pup [Toby], left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my [manuscript] book. Two months [sic] work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

Dogs are awesome. Steinbeck was twisted. End of book report.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Of Mice And Men:

  • “Don’t read. Waste of time. Only Boring old English teachers read this garbage” – SHOPPER
  • “Really don’t see why a children’s book needs swear words. What the heck!! This book is not meant for young kids. The word “bitch” is not appropriate for any kid book” – Lucy
  • “Of Mice and Men is just a major downer with no redeeming qualities.” – SDH
  • “because five pretentious critics gave these books great reviews back in the 50’s, we’re now forced to read them even today. For the actual book, it has one of the stupidest endings i’ve ever read in a novel, the characters are uninteresting, and this should not even be at a garage sale for a quarter, let alone an ‘american classic’. of mice and men gets 1 dead friend out of 5” – Raditz
  • “This was the first book I ever felt like ripping to shreds and unless you yourself are depressed or wish to become so, DO NOT READ A STEINBACK NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE TELLS YOU!” – not so great expectations

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

Does this book really need an introduction? I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Maya Angelou’s iconic 1969 autobiography, describing her youth and upbringing. The title comes from the third stanza of Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” (which is well worth reading in full, if you’ve got a moment). It’s one of the most acclaimed autobiographies in the history of literature, and with good reason.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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By the way, a note on choosing your edition: mine is gorgeous, but it doesn’t have the foreword by Oprah. If I had my time again, I’d prioritise that over prettiness.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings traces Angelou’s life from age three to seventeen, artfully recreating the perspective of the child while retaining the wisdom of the adult narrator. She and her older brother, Bailey, were abandoned by their parents and sent to live with their grandmother (whom they call Momma) in Stamps, Arkansas. Several years later, Angelou’s father unexpectedly appears and takes the children to live with their mother in St Louis. There, aged just eight years, Maya is sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. This horrifying event has ongoing ramifications throughout her young life (obviously).

The traumatised Angelou proves too much for her mother and St Louis family to handle, so she and Bailey are sent back to Stamps. There they remain until after Angelou graduates eighth grade, a watershed moment in her young life. Momma then decides that the children are ready to return to their mother, who was by then living in California.

Angelou attends high school while living with her mother (whom she adores, despite the earlier traumatic experience in her St Louis home). Before she even graduates, Angelou becomes the first Black female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She relishes the independence and responsibility that comes with entering the workforce, but she still experiences the usual confusion and angst that comes with adolescence. In a moment of desperation, to prove to herself that she “isn’t a lesbian”, she sleeps with a local teenage boy and becomes pregnant.

She manages to hide the pregnancy from her family for eight months, until she graduates high-school, and at seventeen years of age, she gives birth to her son. It’s remarkably not a particularly traumatic experience for her, and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings ends on a positive and hopeful note as Angelou embarks on motherhood.

So, as that potted summary might indicate, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings depicts a radical transformation, from a nervous young girl subjected to racism and abuse to a self-possessed young woman with hope and determination. At many critical junctures, books and literature provide solace to Angelou, and it’s through the power of the written word that she reclaims her own agency and makes sense of her bewildering world. It’s a powerful coming-of-age story, especially for fellow bookworms, and it’s impossible to read this one without feeling uplifted in some way (despite the traumatic content).

It reads like a novel (even though, obviously, it’s not) – beautifully, lyrically, with rich and inviting prose. It would seem that’s very much by design; Angelou wrote I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in response to a challenge issued by her friend James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis, to “write an autobiography that was also a piece of literature”. She later said that she felt “tricked” into writing the book (she initially refused, as she thought of herself as a poet rather than a memoirist, but couldn’t resist the challenge), but given the result, I think we can forgive Baldwin and Loomis the manipulation.

The literary feeling isn’t just a “vibe”. Many fancy-pants literature critics have commented on it, categorising I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings as “autobiographical fiction” rather than straight narrative non-fiction. But Angelou herself resolutely called this and her subsequent books autobiographies, and thematically they align very neatly with other autobiographies by Black women. Basically, let’s not punish Angelou for writing so damn well that we can’t believe it’s real.

If I had to offer a criticism – like, under pain of death – I would say that I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings slows down a bit in the second half. Plus, the content is definitely going to be tough for some readers to handle (trigger warnings for racism, sexual abuse, and violence). But it’s just so beautifully written! I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.”

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings:

  • “I get that this book is an autobiography so of course I knew it was going to be somewhat boring. But what I didn’t know was how boring.” – Amy Lee
  • “Should be required reading in high school except that too many school boards will probably disapprove.” – Allen Hunter
  • “I wanted the book with the title that included CRAWDAD not caged bird sings…my mistake” – Sheldon Rudolph
  • “This has to be the worst book ever written! I am reading thisfor english right now and I can’t read two pages without fallingasleep. She goes on and on about things that don’t pretain to the topic. I remember toward the begining of the book she spent half of a page on how she didn’t steal a can of pinapples when she had the chance. So what! I don’t steal stuff every day, and I don’t write about it and bore people with it. What ever you do, don’t buy this book.” – Wesley Detweller
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