Review: Unplugged

April 30, 2014 Comments Off on Review: Unplugged

I picked this book up because the author is presenting “Scenes and Songs from the Novel Unplugged” the day after tomorrow, and I was curious. Turns out the man has talent! Just not a very good editor, apparently. It’s about rock star Dayna Clay, who abruptly deserts her tour, tries to kill herself, then drives aimlessly until she ends up in the Badlands, which speak to her and heal her. It’s an enjoyable book in spite of reading very young.

McComas uses too many words. I found myself rewriting as I read, just a little—well, not even rewriting, just crossing out a word here and there—and it was amazing how much tighter the book could have been. There’s a lot of “she paid for her groceries, walked to her car, put the bag in the backseat, and got in,” a lot of “‘I think,’ she said out loud, ‘that that might be true,'” and he has an embarrassing adolescent infatuation with ellipses and quotation marks. But the talent is apparent even so, and not just as pertains to the style. McComas has great psychological rhythm: he is skilled at creating effortless little significant episodes, something I have always struggled with, and the pacing of these is mostly good. I found myself swinging Tarzan-like from neat vignette to lovely phrase to solid dialogue exchange, and the next vines arrived with enough regularity that I was comfortable reading like that (as opposed to some books, where you reach out, grasp air, and go into free fall).

In a way it’s too bad the protagonist is a gritty bisexual rock star struggling with depression and a history of abuse—it looks awfully Mitch Albom, doesn’t it, especially when you drop her into a plot where she finds herself by dropping everything and driving west, getting in touch with nature and falling in love—but I have to say, it’s well done. The story would be saccharine and corny in most hands, and the Big Reveal would be enormously built-up and anticlimactic, but somehow the book turns out right. One exception is the interview published by a reporter who tracks her down—it’s nothing but a soapbox for a bunch of pet topics: defining someone by their sexuality, sugarcoating the truth, the validity of sex vs. marriage, why Biblical literalism is bad, etc. Blah. Occasionally the symbolism gets a little heavy-handed; occasionally the woman-to-woman attraction scenes start to sound a little too much as if they were written by a man; occasionally depression and suicide are portrayed pretty simplistically. But I can’t come down too hard on all this because there’s a totally outlandish scene at the end of the book, where she strikes out into the wilderness and ends up having a kind of spirit quest, complete with visions and communion with animals, which is just perfect and wonderful and possibly enough to make me want to buy the book. Plus it is indeed true that the Badlands are magical, and I am currently very homesick for them and may need to make a pilgrimage.

I heard about this book through publicity for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s a surprisingly quiet little read, considering how loud the characters and plot should be…but if it were that loud, I would never have finished it. Despite constant internal criticism of the editing, I am very glad I read it. But dude, if you’re looking for an editor for your next book, drop me a line.

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Review: Harlot’s Ghost

March 21, 2014 Comments Off on Review: Harlot’s Ghost

FINALLY.

And now, after years of piecemeal reading, long hiatuses, and a rant I couldn’t keep down, I am not sure what I think of this book. Go figure.

Let’s start with this: I will not take back anything I said in my rant. Not only do Mailer’s characters talk completely unlike real people, they talk so completely unlike real people that I was totally alienated for several hundred pages. The narrator gradually acquires experience but he never grows up and is always kind of an idiot boy, even at the end.

But I wonder what I would have thought of this book if I had known from the beginning that it doesn’t really have a plot. It’s more like a three-hour movie shot on a handheld camera focusing on the back of someone’s head—around the sides you can see classified conversations and dull fiddly Agency politics, Marilyn Monroe and Fidel Castro, Florida and Berlin and Uruguay, but clearly that isn’t what the movie is about, it’s just the backdrop against which you watch the narrator’s head bob and occasionally make out with a stewardess.

By the end of the book it becomes clear that nothing is going to resolve the way you might expect it to. Instead of joining the weave in an orderly manner, the plot threads in this book swing in like comets, leave a blazing trail over a hundred pages or so, then arc back out into space, never to be heard from again. Getting to the end of the book was amazing, because the first thing you do (after reading a paragraph of Mailer’s afterword and decided nothing will ever be worth listening to him talk about himself and closing the book) is take stock of all the loose ends that were not tied up. But in the course of making the list you realize that none of them actually touched on what was important to the narrator—he hasn’t quite figured out himself just what that is—and that he is letting all these things go in favor of the mission he states on the last page …and the reader, at least, has to let that go as well.

It’s an odd way to tell a story. But it is not necessarily an odd way to tell a character. And for all their unrealistic bombast, the characters are very good: complex and multi-dimensional and uniquely shaped. The question I’m left with is whether the characters in this beautifully executed character sketch were worth getting to know. I have the bothersome idea that it is a waste of time to spend any energy on pretentious, self-righteous people who preen themselves on their intellect and take it for granted that they are high, high above the peons who comprise the rest of humanity. It’s true that these people are the most likely to be, say, extremely high-ranking officials in the Central Intelligence Agency, and arguably it is worth understanding the extent to which they are willing to play god, but, particularly taking into account that this is fiction, it is a profound waste of perfectly good life-time to follow their shenanigans.

The worst part is thinking that Mailer probably thinks he won. One character is a little unhinged toward the end of the book, and it ends without divulging whether he committed suicide or not. And as I wonder whether he did, I can hear Mailer laughing snidely and thinking with insufferable smugness that if I were an astute judge of character, I would know, without being told. Granted, I do sometimes worry excessively about what dead authors think of me, but I have such a strong impression that Mailer expects the reader to be SO IMPRESSED by how awesome his writing is, and what a subtle mind to come up with so many genius characters with amazing thoughts! and weren’t you just blown away by how he subverted all your expectations about the ending?! that I feel that I need to take a stand for all Harlot’s Ghost readers everywhere, and roll my eyes and say loudly that it was okay, I guess.

There are many, many things about it that are superb, but all those things that were stuck in my craw way back on page 600 are still stuck in my craw. I resent that the reader’s role is to be as obsessed with Harry Hubbard as Harry Hubbard is and to care about what Harry Hubbard cares about. This book is excellent but it is full of the kind of people I take pains not to know, and I don’t care to take on the worshipful role Mailer wrote for me.

I read an article once about what a perfect jerk Mailer was, and I thought, what an odd thing for people to get hung up on. Almost no one is famous for being a good person, and if you like the work they do or their acting or the way they write, who cares what they’re like? You’re not looking to them for moral guidance. But Mailer’s choice of major characters says a lot of very unflattering things about him, and I’m afraid I find myself hung up on them.

So…it was okay, I guess.

Review: Run

May 11, 2012 Comments Off on Review: Run

This is a perfect little gem of a book. Of course I was already an Ann Patchett fan after Bel Canto, although I was braced for a similarly wishy-washy ending, but the writing in this book is so much better; one of the quotes on the back says that Patchett is apparently hitting her stride, and I think I agree.

It’s a very intimate story…it’s about your family. The characters all have their own stories but you don’t get to hear all of all of them. The action spans less than twenty-four hours, excepting the first and last chapters, but it’s the day when the ground under your feet shifts. It’s barely even a plot—it’s just a stew of characters that bump against each other and make their own plot—it’s like Patchett didn’t do anything! But of course, the minute you think that about a book, you acknowledge that the author in question has truly done a great thing.

I find myself unable to write anything about the book because it’s like when someone asks you, “So how was Christmas break with the in-laws?” It’s so hard to summarize the fine, subliminal interactions between so many different personalities that you either have to say “Good” and change the subject or ramble about it for half an hour. And I choose not to ramble. I feel like I know these characters too well.

My only criticism is that the first chapter reads like something a subpar student cooked up for his creative writing final. The book begins: “Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back. They had no legal claim to it, of course, she never would have thought of leaving it to them, but the statue had been in their family for four generations, passing down a maternal line from mother to daughter, and it was their intention to hold with tradition.” Is that terrible or what? It’s awful because it’s so textbook. It’s sad to read from an author with such a sure feel for pacing and thought processes and description. But after about ten pages the stiffness and predictability goes away, and it’s infinitely preferable to have the awkward part at the very beginning, where you can forget about it, than at the very end like the misbegotten finale of Bel Canto. Wonderful book, very quick read…which means there’s no reason at all why you shouldn’t go pick it up right now. Take the time to read the extra-long excerpt; I told you she was a master of pacing.

EXCERPT:

She kept it light at first, swinging past the gently jogging girls who were locked in their own breathless conversation, And so I told him…, past the curve where the high-step lunging boy kept his legs so even and straight he resembled a mechanical doll. If there had been endless time she might have gone over and joined him but the need to run was so strong now she had to fight to hold herself back, keep herself from tearing out chunks of the soft red track with her heels. She needed to take it slow at first, to stretch down through her toes, to pump her elbows out behind her. The cold had settled in her bones, she felt it now. The cold from the high bedroom where she had slept the night before and the cold that had built up in her skin even before that, crouching down in the snow beside her mother, holding her mother’s cold hand. She had absorbed her mother’s cold into her and it had worked a frost along the inside of her veins. It had been cold at the hospital in the little room where they hooked her mother up to the monitors while she slept. There hadn’t been time to think about it then, how cold she was, how her hands ached, how her head was splitting from the ice that had built up in her ears. It was cold in the hospital waiting room with Teddy talking about the snow and cold at the piano though she had loved to play. It was cold in the kitchen and cold when she went back to her own apartment. It was every bit as cold there as it was outside. It was unbearably cold without her mother to wrap her in a blanket and fix her a cup of chocolate and talk about how the sun poured over everything in Kenya, the place for which she was the namesake, where they agreed they would go together someday. In Kenya it was hot enough to make you forget that winter even existed.

And this morning? She had been freezing every minute of it. Her coat wasn’t half as warm as Tip’s and even though she’d brought a sweater from home she hadn’t been able to wear it under her coat because then the coat was too tight to get her arms through the sleeves. Tip was on crutches, she didn’t blame him, but he moved as slowly as the hands on a clock and she was having to practically nail her feet to the sidewalk to keep from running over him every step. She was picking up her pace now on the track, but not to where she would take it. She could have run this fast in the snow. She let herself float forward, every step a leap, her legs stretching out like scissors opened wide. She was a swimmer, a gymnastics star, she was a superhuman force that sat outside the fundamental law of nature. Gravity did not apply to her. “Meditation in motion,” her coach would say. She heard his voice in her head as she lapped the talking girls, as she swept past the one who was there to run. From the corner of her vision she could see the step-lunge boy stand up straight and watch her pass. She dried off his forehead with the breeze she made. She wasn’t even trying. She wasn’t racing anything but the sight of her mother being hit by the car. That, and she raced the Doyles at their breakfast table saying she lived too close, and the girl at the front desk intimating that Kenya was not a person to be on this track any more than she should have a house on Dartmouth Street. She was racing Thoreau and his jar of fish because he continued to hound her. How was she supposed to know him? It was her plan to outrun all of that, and somewhere in that running she had started to fly. She no longer felt like touching all the dirt and the muck she had so patiently submitted herself to so that people would think she was a very nice girl. She was not such a very nice girl. Nobody who was very, very nice would ever work this hard to take something they wanted only for themselves. Nice girls did not demand that everyone stop what they were doing and look at them but that was exactly what she asked for and what she got. All the other runners on the track had stopped now, the way dancers will stop when the soloist steps forward to dominate the floor. The girl from the front desk was there, too. Kenya caught sight of her extraordinary hair as she blew past. Tip was there, his leg off the bench now and straight out in front as if he thought at any moment he might have to throw a rope around her and pull her back. Anger and sadness and a sense of injustice that was bigger than any one thing that had happened stoked an enormous fire in her chest and that fire kept her heart vibrant and hot and alive, a beautiful, infallible machine. They were no longer waiting to see how fast she could go, they knew how fast she could go. Now they wanted to see how long it would be before she crashed, and if that was what they were waiting for they might as well sit down and get comfortable.

Review: REAMDE

January 5, 2012 Comments Off on Review: REAMDE

The newest Neal Stephenson book is very fun but not as overwhelmingly awesome as my favorites of his. It’s a great story, but disappointingly devoid of the philosophical/mathematical tangents and oversized metaphors that I expect from him. And 1000 pages might be just a tad long for a single storyline, even an exciting one with multiple main characters. Positive changes from Anathem, though: we’re back to third person, thank god, and the stultifying proofs and thought experiments have gone away (maybe he overcompensated and that’s why there are so few interesting digressions in REAMDE). And the story is a great idea; someone commented that this will be the first Stephenson book to become a movie, and that might well be. Do not read any further if you are a committed Stephenson fan who will definitely read the book no matter what—I had a blast going into it without having any clue what was about to happen.

The backstory of the book is that Richard Forthrast helped create an MMORPG (like World of Warcraft) where it was easy to change virtual gold pieces into actual real-world currency. (It is possible to sell WoW gold pieces to people who don’t have time to mine, but the game in REAMDE was created with the explicit intention of making the economics a significant part of it.) But a virus named REAMDE is going around which encrypts all your computer’s data and makes it inaccessible without the key, which can be obtained by leaving 100 or so gold pieces at a certain latitude and longitude in the game. The Russian mafia loses some important data and vows revenge on the hackers who created the virus. Also, chaos ensues in the game world once everyone realizes that a certain region is littered with piles of gold and idiot n00bs carrying more of the same. Also, spies and guns and explosions. Also, boats and cougars. Also, fundamentalists. It’s really a wonderful story, told with Stephenson’s usual tight writing, even though it does get a little bogged down towards the end. But he does my favorite thing, which is to blandly arrange spectacular coincidences—because spectacular coincidences happen all the time, even in the real world, and it’s great to enjoy them in a plot.

Review: The Poisonwood Bible

November 9, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Poisonwood Bible

My Important Books list is full of well-written, thought-provoking books that are thoroughly fun to read. But The Poisonwood Bible is always the first one I have to recommend, because the things it has to say are so weighty and important. As much as I adore Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, as much as Cryptonomicon very probably is my one and only true love favorite book ever, I have to concede that The Poisonwood Bible is the book that should be required reading for absolutely everyone. It’s about a family of Baptist missionaries in the Congo, and it’s like watching a crazy chemical reaction, the way the religious lifestyle they brought from Georgia hisses and steams and changes color when it comes into contact with Africa. One by one, Nathan Price’s wife and four daughters come to release (in one way or another) their old Christianity, while Nathan plows forward, unwarned and undeterred by the hints that this isn’t the way things are done here. It’s infuriating and inspiring, frightening and transcendent, to watch what happens to everyone.

Of course Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite writers; my favorite thing is how she can work in a dialect without stooping to phonetic spellings. She’s also good with figurative language and allegorical images, working in plenty without their being obtrusive. But mostly she’s just a fantastic writer; mostly the book just flows and flows, pouring out its rich language while the reader drinks it in. My major complaint after this reading is the voice of the character Adah, who has hemiplegia and chooses not to talk, and reads and thinks backwards and forwards. She does a lot of palindromes, and of straight-up backwards writing, but neither is really convincing. The palindromes always sound forced, and the backwards stuff just seems artificial—there’s not usually even any real beauty in the backwards-ness. Lo octon sisith. And to my shock, Kingsolver entirely neglects anagrams. That seems to me something that would have really added to the impression of Adah’s mind as crooked and strange and talented. As is, I find it instead a little forced-sounding. Maybe it’s just too far removed from Kingsolver’s way of thinking? It stands to reason that a storyteller functions best in straight lines that move forward even if they weave and bend and fray. Maybe she did have to force tricks that require you to circle and go back on your train of thought.

Other than that, no complaints. And there is so much to this story I’m going to have a hard time doing it justice. It’s about how you can never be sure you’re right; and even if you are, you can never be sure that that makes anyone else wrong. It’s about Africa, and how badly it’s been treated by the world, and both how much it’s changed and how impossible it is that it will ever change. It’s about God and where to find it. It’s about survivor’s guilt. It’s about one family’s entire world, and especially how its women were shaped by the man of the house and his religion and how that made them act throughout their entire lives. It’s an awfully big book, as you can see. It makes you feel you understand the world better after reading it. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

EXCERPT:

It was midway through September when Ruth May made her inroads. I came back from my spying foray one afternoon to find her playing “Mother May I?” with half the village’s children. […] I watched for a long while, astonished to see what Ruth May had accomplished behind my back. Every one of these children could execute giant steps, baby steps, scissors steps, and a few other absurd locomotions invented by Ruth May. She grudgingly let us join the game, and grudgingly we did. For several afternoons under the gathering clouds, all of us—including the generally above-it-all Rachel—played “Mother May I?” I tried to picture myself in a missionary role, gathering the little children unto me, as it was embarrassing to be playing this babyish game with children waist-high to me. But we were so tired of ourselves and each other by then the company was irresistible.

We soon lost interest, though, for there was no suspense at all: the Congolese children always passed us right by on their march to victory. In our efforts to eke the most mileage out of a scissors step or whatever, my sisters and I sometimes forgot to ask (or Adah to mouth) “Mother May I?” Whereas the other children never, ever forgot. For them, shouting “Ma-da-me-yi” was one rote step in a memorized chain of steps, not a courtesy to be used or dropped the way “yes, ma’am” and “thank you” are for us. The Congolese children’s understanding of the game didn’t even take courtesy or rudeness into account, if you think about it, any more than Methuselah [the parrot] did when he railed us with hell and damnation. This came as a strange letdown, to see how the game always went to those who knew the rules without understanding the lesson.

Review: The Diamond Age

November 2, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Diamond Age

This is my current favorite Neal Stephenson book (*subject to abrupt change). In terms of creative futuristic thinking, it leaves Snow Crash in the dust, and its deep thoughts are a good deal more accessible than those in most of his other good books. As usual, the writing is amazing and I continue to learn new words from this book, even though I make lists and look everything up every time I read it. But the most important thing about this book is its philosophy. A prominent theme is the importance of subversiveness, and how it is lacking in modern education. It’s an incredibly important idea; it’s so important that you really need to talk about it for 400 pages to sufficiently communicate its importance, which is why you just need to go out and read this book.

Another, lesser theme is the silliness of considering hypocrisy a vice. They make a big deal out of how the only reason hypocrisy became a crime was because it was the only thing that could be; if all lifestyles and all choices were equally valid and you couldn’t say any one was “bad,” then the only way to call someone out was to point out inconsistencies in their opinions and actions. I’m already in favor of not nitpicking over inconsistencies, so it was particularly interesting to me.

But what really hit me this time around is that this book is an argument for teaching reading/literary analysis in schools. Aside from being a really ripping story, The Diamond Age is a complicated critique of education, complete with an acknowledgement of how difficult a job education really is and suggestions for ways it needs to be improved. It is whole in the way a good allegory is whole: if you can really understand the surface text, the underlying connections to complex ideas and philosophies are magically clear without your having to articulate them or go through them one by one; you can skip straight to digestion without chewing. It is an efficient and enjoyable way to gather information and expand your thinking. BUT in order to access this wonderful process of acquisition, you must first be able to understand a text, and then you must have practice in the art of tying a text into abstract lessons and ideas. This is interesting because I had previously been unable to come up with a concrete argument for the importance of English class—the best I could do was some sort of “good for your soul” nonsense that wouldn’t cut it with real critics. And that’s what I love about Stephenson books—the revelations keep coming. I mean, this has to be at least the fifth time I’ve read this book. But this time it clicked.

As usual, a crashing success with brilliant writing. All hail!

EXCERPT:

When Dr. X made his way down half an hour later, he was nonetheless delighted and surprised to see the moderately famous and widely respected Judge Fang sitting all by his lonesome staring out at the pond, its schools of fish flickering lambently. When he approached the table to tender his respects, Judge Fang invited him to take a seat, and after several minutes of sensitive negotiations over whether this would or would not be an unforgivable intrusion on the magistrate’s privacy, Dr. X finally, gratefully, reluctantly, respectfully took a seat.

There was lengthy discourse between the two men on which of them was more honored to be in the company of the other, followed by exhaustive discussion of the relative merits of the different teas offered by the proprietors, whether the leaves were best picked in early or late April, whether the brewing water should be violently boiling as the pathetic gwailos always did it, or limited to eighty degrees Celsius.

Eventually, Dr. X got around to complimenting Judge Fang on his cap, especially on the embroidery work. This meant that he had noticed the unicorn and understood its message, which was that Judge Fang has seen through all of his efforts at bribery.

Not long afterward, Miss Pao came down and regretfully informed the Judge that his presence was urgently required at a crime scene in the Leased Territories. To spare Judge Fang the embarrassment of having to cut short the conversation, Dr. X was approached, moments later, by one of his staff, who whispered something into his ear. The Doctor apologized for having to take his leave, and the two men then got into a very genteel argument over which one of them was being more inexcusably rude, and then over which would precede the other across the bridge. Judge Fang ended up going first, because his duties were deemed more pressing, and thus ended the first meeting between the Judge and Dr. X. The Judge was quite happy; it had all gone just as planned.

Review: Unaccustomed Earth

October 11, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Unaccustomed Earth

The back of this book bears the quote “Stunning… Never before has Lahiri mined so perfectly the secrets of the human heart.” I suppose that’s more or less true, but that’s about all she does. Lahiri’s characters are beautifully constructed, and the way they interact is precise and rings very true; also, she is a very competent writer who can tell a seamless story with inconspicuous, effective writing. Nevertheless, I have two beefs: first of all, none of her stories have happy endings. Secondly, the writing is not beautiful.

I could deal with either of these problems if the other were not present. But it’s sad that her watertight writing doesn’t sport any pretty flourishes, nothing to suggest that the writer is an artist as well as a student of human (and particularly Bengali) nature. Every once in a while an attempt at figurative language stands forth from the rest of the writing like an exhibit, but it’s never anything spectacular and even if it were, its aloneness would be alienating. It’s an extremely strange problem to have—usually flowery writing needs to be tightened up; rarely does tight writing need to be dressed up. It is true, incidentally, that this book contains the most perfect epigraph I have ever read:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth. (from “The Custom House,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

It ties it in nicely to the title, gives you a great sense of the overarching theme of the stories without giving anything away. So you approach the eight stories in the book with anticipation that they will illustrate the effects of transplantation—and you will not be surprised (given the author’s name) that they deal mostly with transplantation from India. What is surprising is that the mood rapidly becomes bleak. I expected a variety of storylines; unaccustomed earth has a different effect on different people. And Lahiri would probably argue that this is what she tried to portray. But as the stories march past, the broader perspective they outline begins to look stuck in the past and fearful. Unaccustomed earth starts to look unwanted and unbeneficial. More than anything else, these stories seem to show that tight family ties, high expectations of family members and low expectations of marriage work in India, but in America lead to stiffness, deep unhappiness, and outright heartbreak. (So maybe you may as well stay in India?) Every main family or character starring in these stories is disappointed, sometimes very painfully. The arc of the stories makes comments about the clever little epigraph that look bitterly mocking.

I’ve always had a bit of an issue with writers like Lahiri, who seem to write sad endings all the time, not because they had a great idea for a story that happened to have a sad ending, but because sad endings are Serious and happy endings are Frivolous. I fully acknowledge that it may be my own tendency toward writing happy endings that makes me feel this way, but what is certain is that Lahiri’s endings are monotonous: everything is going well, then someone loses their temper or says something thoughtless and presto! everyone is sad, and someone’s life is ruined, at least temporarily. And this ending can come at the end of absolutely any story: a love story, a travel story, a story about being in school, a story about being a roommate, a story about losing touch with your brother. It’s dull!

But, as I said, great characters and great interactions, and Lahiri can really tell a story…as long as it doesn’t involve any poetry and ends badly for at least one sympathetic character.

EXCERPT (from “Unaccustomed Earth”):

It occurred to her that her father missed gardening. For as long as she could remember it had been his passion, working outdoors in the summers as soon as he came home from the office, staying out until it grew dark, subjecting himself to bites and rashes. It was something he’d done alone; neither Romi nor Ruma had ever been interested in helping, and their father never offered to include them. Her mother would complain, having to keep dinner waiting until nine at night. “Go ahead and eat,” Ruma would say, but her mother, trained all her life to serve her husband first, would never consider such a thing. In addition to tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini, her father had grown expert over the years at cultivating the things her mother liked to cook with—bitter melon and chili peppers and delicate strains of spinach. Oblivious to her mother’s needs in other ways, he had toiled in unfriendly soil, coaxing such things from the ground.

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