Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 10)

Beloved – Toni Morrison

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an outpouring of grief for an author who passed away like that I saw after Toni Morrison passed in August 2019. My Instagram was flooded with quotes and remembrances to the Great American Novelist, and the book referenced most often in this eulogy-en-masse was Beloved. I’d heard a lot about it prior to then, of course, but never actually read it… until now. Yes, Keeper Upperers, I have finally read Morrison’s most-beloved 1987 novel.

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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First, a bit of history (because you can’t read or understand Beloved without its history): the story was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner. She was a slave who escaped from Kentucky and fled to the free state of Ohio in 1856. When U.S. marshals busted into her cabin and arrested her, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, they found that she had killed her own two-year-old daughter and was attempting to kill her other children. The motive, as we understand it today, was to prevent her children being returned to a life of slavery – a fate worse than death. Morrison came across Garner’s story in an old newspaper article, and reproduced it later in a compilation of black history in 1974. But Morrison wasn’t done with Garner’s story; it was the seed that grew into Beloved.

Beloved is dedicated to “Sixty Million and more” – a reference to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. Morrison lamented the fact that there was no true memorial to the deaths of those men, women, and children, and so Beloved became her own personal tribute. Upon accepting the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1988, she said: “There’s no small bench by the side of the road. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”

The story of Beloved begins in 1873, with Sethe – a formerly enslaved woman – and her daughter Denver living at 124 Bluestone Road, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sethe’s older sons, Howard and Buglar, ran away years ago. The house is haunted, see, by the memories and inherited trauma of Sethe’s past, which are personified in the ghost of the child she buried. The child was never formally named, but buried beneath a tombstone with the only phrase Sethe could remember from her Christian funeral: Beloved. (She would have had “Dearly Beloved” engraved, only her “services” to the engraver only purchased her ten minutes of time to carve a name.) Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law and a fellow escaped slave, also lived at 124 Bluestone Road, but she died shortly after the boys ran away, eight years before Beloved begins. The early chapters of the novel sketch out this rough history, and Morrison’s capacity to take your breath away with her blunt insight is on full display.

[The plantation] never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.

Beloved (Page 7)

Morrison doesn’t just give you one inciting incident: she gives you two. First is the arrival of Paul D, another enslaved man from Sweet Home (the plantation where Sethe, Baby Suggs, and several other characters were ‘owned’). A romance kindles quickly between him and Sethe, but the ghost of Beloved freaks him the heck out and he banishes her with a lot of shouting and table-flipping. It takes a bit of doing, but eventually he wins Denver over, and the three of them attend a local carnival as a family, happy to be rid of the ghost that haunted them.

When they return to 124 Bluestone Road, however, a young woman (yes, this is the second inciting incident, hold onto your hats, people!) is waiting for them on the front step. She calls herself – durn, durn, durn – Beloved. Sethe is charmed by the young woman and takes her in, despite Paul D’s repeated warnings that it could only lead to trouble. Denver has no problems believing that this Beloved is her deceased sister manifest, and quickly develops an intense bond with her.

Naturally, the manifest ghost starts causing all kinds of problems. First, she bewitches Denver. Then, she charms Paul D into a bonk. He’s disgusted with himself, and triggered by the memories of Sweet Home that the sex with Beloved recalls, and (somewhat inexplicably) he decides the best way to deal with it all is to get Sethe knocked up. Only, when he tells his friends about it, one of them – Stamp Paid – reveals Sethe’s deepest, darkest secret (uncool, but kind of warranted).

You ready for the big spoiler? It’s coming, ready or not!

Sethe killed her infant. After she’d escaped Sweet Home and made it to Baby Sugg’s house at 124 Bluestone Road, four horsemen came looking for her with bad intentions. Hearing that they were clip-clopping up the street, Sethe ran to the woodshed where her children were and tried to kill them all, but Beloved was the only one she had time for. Eeek!

Paul D confronts Sethe, and ultimately leaves her, saying that her love for her children is “too thick” for him to deal with. She holds firm in her position that “thin love is no love” and that she did the right thing in killing Beloved. She has all the evidence she needs; Beloved has come back to her.

After Paul D runs off, Beloved consumes Sethe’s every waking thought and movement. She hardly eats, while Beloved grows bigger and bigger, eventually appearing to be pregnant. Denver is kind of freaked out by all of this (understandably), and braves her fear of the Cincinnati streets to go out in seek of help. The local women come to her aid, to exorcise Beloved – figuring, naturally, that she’s a ghost who’ll flee at the whiff of some holy water – coincidentally at the same time as the landlord of 124 Bluestone Road comes trotting up on his horse.

It’s all too much for Sethe, who is big-time triggered by the memory of those horsemen coming for her and her children to return them to Sweet Home, and she has a breakdown. Beloved disappears, and Sethe never recovers. She remains bed-ridden for the rest of her life, and Paul D returns to find her a shell of her former self. Over the years, everyone forgets about Beloved, until all traces of her are gone.

Phew! Do you need a second? I sure did, after I finished reading Beloved.

So, what was the character Beloved? A ghost? A demon? That question is the heart of this story, and probably a big part of the reason it has captured so much popular and academic attention. Morrison told us plainly that she was the daughter that Sethe killed, but we can all kind of tell that she’s also a symbol, a manifestation of the repressed trauma of slavery.

Beloved smacks of a book that needs to be re-read over and over again to be appreciated fully. I wanted to love it outright; everyone said that I would and that I should… but I didn’t, really. In fairness, lockdown probably wasn’t the right time for me to read it. There’s some future me who will re-read it and find it completely wonderful, but the present me can only concede that it was a brilliant but not enjoyable read. A lot of Morrison’s cleverness didn’t really “click” until later, writing up this review (e.g., the Schoolteacher from Sweet Home was never named, but all of the former slaves and children of slaves were, a very interesting subversion and re-claiming of the narrative). Basically, I didn’t have the brain space for Beloved, which I regret – and I’d recommend you don’t pick it up until you do.

Luckily, a lot of people far wiser than me read it when their brains weren’t turned to mush by the Delta variant. Beloved was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award, and it was ranked as the best work of American fiction (by literary critics for the New York Times) from 1981-2006.

Incredibly, despite what it has to teach students about history and about writing craft, Beloved has been banned from five U.S. schools since 2007 (let alone all the times it was challenged and banned before that). Apparently, some parents don’t want their precious progeny exposed to “bestiality, infanticide, sex, and violence”, even in fiction. Every great book, it seems, has a long history of being banned and censored, and Beloved is no exception.

If you’d asked me before I started writing this review, I would have said – with certainty – that Beloved was universally… well, beloved. It’s only since I started Googling possible reasons for my own ambivalence towards it – it just wasn’t a fun read, you know? – that I encountered some pretty heavy criticism. It’s been called sentimental, sensational, overwritten, and overblown. But, despite that criticism (and my own mixed feelings), I must acknowledge that Beloved is a book that has taken on mythical proportions in cultural significance. Its importance in representing the impact of inherited trauma, correcting the false narrative around slavery, and giving voice to African Americans cannot be denied… regardless of one person’s experience of reading it.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Once in a while, when you’re lucky, the book you pick up will have an opening line that will catch your eye and drag it down the page. Take this one, from The Vegetarian: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Isn’t that just… *chef’s kiss*? It promises a fascinating story to come. The Vegetarian is “a beautiful, unsettling novel in three acts about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul”, and it’s off to a strong start.

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As the opening line suggests, The Vegetarian is a story about Yeong-hye, an ordinary woman with an ordinary husband, who up-ends her life and the lives of those around her by deciding to commit to vegetarianism. In Part One, narrated by her office worker husband, she wakes from repeated visceral dreams of slaughter and blood. He finds her standing in front of the fridge in the middle of the night, calmly removing all animal products and summarily binning them.

To her husband (who gave me a Humbert Humbert vibe, though not in a way I can articulate clearly – is it his self-interest? his unshakeable expectation that the whole world should naturally submit to his inclinations?), this is a shocking act of subversion, only worsened by Yeong-hye’s steadfast commitment to the whole thing. She attends one of his business dinners, with colleagues he’s desperate to impress, and offends them all by refusing to swallow their meat, and their attempts at small talk into the bargain. His reaction runs the gamut from frustration to horror to rage. When even Yeong-hye’s family cannot convince her to take a bite of pork, he declares her unwillingness to submit to his will untenable, and divorces her.

“Now don’t go making me out to be some kind of villain. Anyone can see that I’m the real victim here.”

The Vegetarian (Page 70)

Throughout this initial section, the husband’s narration is occasionally interrupted, in shocking contrast, by italicised passages from the perspective of Yeong-hye (the only opportunity in The Vegetarian that she has to speak for herself). These interjections are visceral, stomach-churning, and I must offer a big-time trigger warning for cruelty towards animals (specifically a dog). That was almost enough to put me off The Vegetarian altogether, but I persisted for the purposes of this review.

Part Two of The Vegetarian is set two years after Yeong-hye’s conversion. It’s told in third-person, and focuses this time on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a flailing (slash failing) artists with his own bizarre obsessions. He is haunted by images that he struggles to distill into art, a love-making scene between two people decorated with painted flowers.

Conveniently enough, Yeong-hye has a petal-shaped birthmark. Now that she’s all crazy and vego and everything, he figures she might just be game to pose for him – which she does. He paints flowers all over her body, and that of a male model too, but unfortunately the male model is unable or unwilling to, ahem, perform as he should. So, the brother-in-law steps in to do it himself. What a guy!

When his wife, Yeong-hye’s sister, discovers evidence of their, ahem!, “art”, she calls emergency services and claims that it’s evidence of mental illness. They are both escorted away, and Yeong-hye is institutionalised for “treatment”.

In Part Three, Yeong-hye’s sister visits her at the psychiatric hospital every Wednesday. Yeong-hye is still refusing to eat meat, eventually refusing to eat altogether, and seems to have started identifying as a tree. The sister is confused, fearful, and – strangely – a little jealous. She wonders if she had no children, like Yeong-hye, whether she might be free to tether her thread to reality as well. The doctors try to force feed Yeong-hye, in front of her sister, which is thoroughly distressing to all involved. The story ends with Yeong-hye and her sister in an ambulance, Yeong-hye being transferred to another hospital for end-of-life care (if you don’t eat, you don’t shit, and if you don’t shit, you die).

So, The Vegetarian is a pretty fucked-up twisted story, all told, and one that (ironically) says very little about the philosophy of vegetarianism or why one might wish to eschew meat from their diet. It actually began as a short story, which Kang says drew on her strange idea of “a woman turning into a plant”. Don’t come to this book looking for an impassioned defense of animal rights or the case for plant-based foods; instead, you’ll find an allegory about patriarchal oppression in Korean society and the ways that etiquette can kill.

The bait-and-switch of the title doesn’t seem to have affected the book’s reach, however. Since its initial publication in Korean in 2007, it has been translated into 23 different languages around the world. This version, “elegantly translated into bone-spare English” by Deborah Smith, was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 (it beat out the front-runner, Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of A Lost Child). The award catapulted The Vegetarian to the top of book wishlists, and the publishers had to work overtime to fulfill 462,000 orders. Kang said she was “overwhelmed, [she] thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough”.

I’m not sure whether I actually enjoyed The Vegetarian, or whether it was simply a gruesome scene from which I couldn’t pull my eyes. It was certainly well-written, and short – I read it in a single sitting without actually trying to do so. It’s a compelling read, but also (at times) a horrifying one. The vegetarianism angle is interesting, but I’m not sure it makes any points that haven’t already been made more memorably elsewhere. All in all, the only way to know if The Vegetarian is for you is to try it – as it is with everything, suck it and see.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Vegetarian:

  • “I can honestly say that after reading this book I felt dirty and offended by its very existence. And in case you were misled by the title — no, it’s not about vegetarianism. This book is grotesque, bizarre, and has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I found myself wanting to violently torture to death the main character almost from the first page. I read it through to the end only because I was waiting for the non-horrible parts to emerge or at least to watch this miserable wretch of a main character finally die. Neither thing happened. Every line of this book was a defilement of my brain cells and an assault on my will to live. This book literally made me wish I were dead just so I could escape the memory of having read it.” – Chloe pitbull
  • “I didn’t read this- but my sister did, her name is bucky. she liked it a lot. talked about it a lot. She even finished reading it (usually she just pretends to finish books) but she finished this one, which is why I gave it five stars.” – Muna Amry
  • “After the first twenty pages, I was like “Yeah, this is great.” By the time I got to page 80, I was like “Hmmm, I don’t want to finish this.” Would have been a good short story. Also, this made me want to eat more meat since the vegetarian in the book is so unlikable.” – Eli Cook

Adèle – Leïla Slimani

Leïla Slimani is probably best known for her debut novel (Lullaby, for which she won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt), but for some reason I was more drawn to pick up this one – which, incidentally, she actually wrote before her best-seller. Adèle was first published in the original French in 2014, then this translation into English by Sam Taylor did the rounds in 2019, as the #MeToo movement was ramping up.

Adele - Leila Slimani - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The #MeToo connection is significant because of Adèle‘s premise and content. The titular character Adèle is a respected journalist who appears, from the outside, to have a perfect life – husband, kid, and a swish apartment in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris. It’s all a mirage. Adèle is actually a sex addict, seeking ever-more brutal carnal encounters to satisfy her desperate need. She’s kept her addiction a secret, from her husband and colleagues (well, the ones she hasn’t slept with, anyway), but the cracks are beginning to show.

Adèle begins with her leaving the house early, before her husband and child wake up, to search for sex on the way to work. You should know that Adèle is a Moshfegh-esque protagonist, one whose single-minded desire and self-interest will undoubtedly turn off a lot of readers. It’s hard to fathom her logic, or keep up with her swings from self-chastisement to self-abasement, unless you’re familiar with the rhythms of addiction on a personal level. Adèle is effectively delusional, and she (almost) sucks the reader under with her.

Adèle‘s sexual encounters are ultimately unsatisfactory and unfulfilling, because – really – it’s not about sex. As Slimani tells the reader directly, “Her only ambition is to be wanted,” (page 52). That means that the dirty bits aren’t erotic or titillating, at all. The sex scenes will make you shudder, but not in the good way. Even the most generously-minded reader would struggle to find anything actually arousing in this novel. For a novel about a sex addict, that’s quite an achievement on Slimani’s part.

The story is told in short, sharp chapters. There’s not much of a plot, and very few other characters besides Adèle and her immediate family. The tone is flat, humourless, and pacy as a standard domestic-noir thriller. There’s nothing to distract from Adèle’s descent into complete self-destruction, until a shift about two-thirds of the way through, which introduces her husband’s point of view.

I’ve seen Adèle described as a “modern-day Madame Bovary”, which works for the most part as a parallel, except that as I remember it, Flaubert’s protagonist was, in some small measure, understandable. Emma was raging against the patriarchy, against the oppressive society and marriage into which she was bound, and heck – she liked a drink, at least. She had fun. Adèle (the book and the character) is completely humourless, completely anhedonic, and it’s hard to see what she even gets out of the addiction that has wholly consumed her. Of course, that’s the point, but… as a reader, I wished I’d had some kind of “in” with her character. It would have made Adèle a story, rather than just a commentary on power.

Because that’s what I’ve decided this book is: a comment on how men and women find power, how they give it up. The “truth” of the character of Adèle is evasive. Adèle is all effect, with little interrogation of the cause. It’s interesting, it’s a good conversation-starter, but it’s not going to sweep you away or pull on any heart-strings. I’d recommend this one for your book club if the chat has been a bit stale lately, but skip it if you’re looking for something to curl up with on the couch.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Adèle:

  • “I usually plow through a book even if I don’t really like it to see if it gets better as I get into it. I started reading this book on my reader, and when I was about 40% through it, I realized that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters at that point, so I decided to cut my losses and move on to something else. I didn’t think it was even good porn.” – William
  • “A thin short book vaguely portraying a drab cynical view of the human condition through a married couple living a miserable empty life. About the best thing a reader could say is “hmm, well, I’m glad I’m not them.”” – Daniel Stuelpnagel
  • “those looking for a biography of the singer Adele should look elsewhere” – J. R. Baillie

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

Girl, Woman, Other is Bernardine Evaristo’s eighth novel, her “break-out” novel, the one that catapulted her to international fame. It tells the stories of twelve people – “mostly women, mostly black” – who live in Britain and vary greatly in circumstances. It’s not a linear narrative, more like a series of connected biographical vignettes that span decades and multiple geographies.

Girl Woman Other - Bernadine Evaristo - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Each “episode” in Girl, Woman, Other is connected to another in some way, Love Actually-style. Some of the characters are mother/daughter pairs, some are friends, some don’t even realise that they’re connected. It can be a little tricky to keep it all straight, if you’re reading the book in stolen moments, so I’ve made one of my trademark character maps. Note that this only shows the major relationships between characters, not the incidental acquaintances (e.g., Bummi is briefly employed as Penelope’s cleaner, and Yazz follows Morgan on Twitter) – the complexity of a complete map is beyond even my powers.

Girl, Woman, Other Character Map - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Evaristo’s entire oeuvre explores the all facets of the African diaspora, and Girl, Woman, Other is no exception. The characters are well-fleshed out, but they’re also undeniably devices to discuss the intersectionality of racism, sexism, feminism, and all the other -isms that impact the lives of black women. Each character faces their own unique challenges, fighting their way up from under the covers of colonialism, politics, poverty, and patriarchy. The “other” of the title doesn’t just allude to the non-binary expression of gender (personified in Morgan’s character), but also the ways in which the characters “other” each other. “I might be a woman, but I’m not one of those women”, “I might be black, but I’m not one of those black people”, so on and so forth.

Evaristo uses very strange line breaks (though perhaps not that strange, given her history of writing verse novels) to emphasise and elucidate her points. It’s not quite prose as you know it, but it’s not poetry either. She doesn’t seem to use any strict formula for grammar, punctuation, or formatting. Normally, I’d find this super-annoying, but in Girl, Woman, Other I barely noticed. It was surprisingly readable, and all of the stories flowed very naturally. So, if that’s normally your bug-bear, you needn’t worry.

Now, I can’t not mention the Booker Prize controversy. Evaristo was the co-winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, sharing it with Margaret Atwood (for The Testaments). The Booker Prize overlords had implemented a rule, back in the ’90s, that was supposed to prevent the judges from splitting the prize… but that year, the judges flipped the bird and did it anyway. It might not have been such a big deal if Evaristo wasn’t the first black woman to win the Booker (in fact, only four black women had even been shortlisted in the award’s history, prior to Evaristo’s win). Splitting the prize, and the controversy it invited, detracted from that milestone – and Evaristo had to split the cash, into the bargain. Still, perhaps it worked out well in the sense that the controversy had everyone talking about Evaristo and her work for a year, where otherwise her win might have been briefly exciting and then fallen from the headlines.

And besides, Girl, Woman, Other attracted plenty of other attention all on its own. It received over 30 Book Of The Year/Decade honours, and Barack Obama picked it as one of his best reads of the year. You might think that’s too much hype for any one book to withstand, but I’m here to tell you that it totally holds up. Girl, Woman, Other is a strange book (and thus, difficult to review), but if you take anything away from this little ramble, I hope it’s that Girl, Woman, Other is well worth a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Girl, Woman, Other:

  • “Too many people, too many “other” sexualities, I did not enjoy it.” – SRath
  • “This book began to wear on me at 30% complete. It is really a collection of short stories; but not really, because each is entirely too superficial to stand on it’s own. I gave it 2 stars because it seems rude to give a prize-winner 1 star.” – NadineR
  • “Her best since “Person, Camera, TV.”” – B. Hobson

The Yield – Tara June Winch

When I first read the blurb for The Yield, I was hit with a strange sense of deja vu. The premise is almost identical to that of Too Much Lip: a young woman, ripped from her roots long ago, has to return to her ancestral home after the death of her grandfather, and finds the threat of colonial interests looming on the horizon. But hold your horses, copyright lawyers! Before you go calling Melissa Lucashenko to tell her her book’s been ripped off, you should know that, while the story is similar, the tone, structure, and… well, “vibe” of The Yield could not be more different.

The Yield - Tara June Winch - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Winch is a Wiradjuri author, born in Australia and now based in France, with many feathers in her young cap (including a prestigious mentorship with Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka). Still, The Yield is the work for which she is best known, the book that won her the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award (and the 2020 Voss Literary Prize, and the 2020 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and…).

The Yield is “the story of a people and a culture dispossessed… a celebration of what was and what endures… a powerful reclaiming of Indigenous language, storytelling, and identity”. The story is told from three different perspectives.

The first is a dictionary, penned by Albert ‘Poppy’ Gondiwindi, a man who uses the last moments of his life to pass on the language of his people and the storytelling tradition they have nurtured over tens of thousands of years. The second is a narrative about August, his granddaughter, who returns to present day Australia to attend Poppy’s farewell and reconnects with her family and her heritage. The third is a letter from a Reverend Greenleaf, uncovered from the archive, in which he details the establishment of a mission in the (fictional) town of Massacre.

The “action” really only takes place in August’s story, where she discovers that a mining company plans to repossess her family home and build a tin mine that will destroy the area-slash-create a lot of jobs (blegh). She is reluctant, at first, to allow herself to emotionally and spiritually return to the “home” and the family she felt she’d left behind long ago. But, as you’d expect, she finds herself drawn back through the search for a book she heard her Poppy had been writing, a dictionary of Wiradjuri language, that could prove continuing cultural connection with country (which the town needs to refute the miners’ claim to the land).

That’s a fine story, but honestly, I would have loved a version of The Yield that was purely Poppy’s dictionary. Even though it lacks the standard narrative arc of August’s section, it tells the story of Poppy’s life through his translations and it would have been a unique and incredibly compelling book all on its own. Even simply alternating that dictionary, the First Nations voice, with the letter from the Reverend (which outlines just a few of the many atrocities perpetuated against First Nations people) would have made for an excellent story.

For me, August’s story was a bit of a let down. The “innovative conceit” (as the Stella Prize judges called it) of using Wiradjuri language in The Yield to communicate a story and connect with the reader was muffled somewhat by a… well, a bog-standard David and Goliath fight that felt familiar and flat. It’s a good story in the sense that it hits all the beats you’d expect, but next to the dictionary and the letter, it didn’t shine.

That said, The Yield is still a valuable contribution to the burgeoning field of high-quality First Nations literary fiction. I’ll leave the last words to Winch herself, taken from her Author’s Note:

This novel contains the language of the Wiradjuri people. Before colonisation there were two hundred and fifty distinct languages in Australia that subdivided into six hundred dialects. The Wiradjuri language is a Pama-Nyungan language of the Wiradhuric subgroup and has been reclaimed and preserved through the efforts of Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr AM and linguist Dr John Rudder… Cultural knowledge, community history, customs, modes of thinking and belonging to the land are carried through languages. In the last two hundred years, Australia has suffered the largest and most rapid loss of languages known to history. Today, despite efforts of revitalisation, Australia’s languages are some of the most endangered in the world.

The Yield (author’s note)

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