The OF Blog

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Belatedly, The OF Blog Turns 11

Tuesday marked the eleventh anniversary of this blog, but as was par for the course this year, I was a bit too busy (jogging 7.63 miles that night) to celebrate it until now.  But really, there are things to celebrate even now, even though I haven't yet finished a book since my birthday over six weeks ago (that will change this weekend).

A year ago, I had suffered a back injury at work that left me unable to work for nearly six weeks.  I was on a lot of muscle relaxers and other steroid-based medications and my weight ballooned.  I took a picture that night, August 25, 2014, and I looked miserable.  I recall writing a rather pessimistic 10th anniversary post here that day and while I retain some of those sentiments, it is rather amazing that I am still writing, albeit sporadically until now.

I am now able to do stretches that I haven't done since my early 20s.  Balancing on one leg while doing alternating toe touches, followed by a jump scissor kick makes me feel young again (not that 41 is old, mind you).  Spending more time outdoors, even if much of it is on a local track, has also revitalized me in a way that reading alone cannot.  It is interesting to see the changes in my mood doing things that I used to do before I began reading so much.  Although reading is a pleasure, some pleasures can have deleterious effects on the mind and body and I think my re-found dedication to balance between mind and body, between activity and reading, has helped me not just get limber again, but to enjoy those moments even more when I do sit down and read some.

As for this blog, I said earlier this month that I would be "making it new again" and I think that'll mean more, miscellaneous essays, maybe along the lines of a Montaigne, in addition to occasional reviews.  Taking a break from most social media has led me to become more of an observer than an active participant and perhaps there'll be some "heresies" to espouse on occasion.

There is also a professional accomplishment that I'll discuss in the near future, when things are finalized, but it is something I'm excited to discuss when things are complete.

Finally, autumn is coming.  The Serbian literary squirrels are scurrying back to their reading dreys.  You have been warned.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some more brief thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Awards

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No, I have more to say than I did a few months ago when the finalists were announced.  I haven't really had much to say on those awards (or pretty much, any awards longlist or shortlist these past few months) because I have spent much of the year not reading.  It is interesting how one's perspective on things can change when removed from the immediacy of almost any situation.  I didn't care much for the way the shortlists were decided, but I just didn't have much of any real interest because there were some non-slate nominees (at least the initial list before an author withdrew from Best Novel consideration) that I thought were also mediocre to poor works.  

Since much of my Twitter feed is comprised of SF/F fans and authors (although I have several squirrel and sports feeds I follow there as well), I quickly grew bored with the same sentiments being reiterated over and over again.  Had nothing really to say; I have never really put much stock into the Hugo Awards because their finalists/winners rarely overlap with what I considered to be recent years' best fictions.  So I decided to wait until around the time the awards were announced (here's a link that shows the votes/nominations) before I would say anything really about this year's slate/winners.

I am very pleased to see that Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem won Best Novel.  Before it was added to the shortlist after Marko Kloos withdrew his novel from consideration, I thought every single one of the Best Novel nominees were not worthy of award consideration.  Needless to say, when it was added, I thought it was by far the best of the bunch and a deserving winner.  

As for the other categories and No Award winning over all of the slate nominees, nothing much to say other than people exercised their voting rights and that (like the slates did in nominating them) was that.  Nothing controversial about it in terms of procedures being followed, but I suppose there'll be months of factional arguments over next year's nomination/voting process and then maybe, eventually (right?) this will die down into the usual internecine sniping about age, group voting identities, and all the picayune things that can make SF fandom so tedious for outsiders.

But then again, I'm probably not the person to turn to these days for scintillating coverage of SF fandom awards.  I was too busy either getting in a late night 5.5 mile walk/jog or watching a replay of NXT Takeover:  Brooklyn (by the way, the Women's Championship Match was one of the best matches I've seen this year) to pay any attention to Twitter until hours after the winners were announced.  Priorities and all.  With that being said, time to rest, as I have another 10 miles I'd like to walk/jog before work Monday. 
 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Renovatio blogis

I said four months ago (using April Fool's Day as a cover) that I was contemplating shuttering this blog after nearly eleven years.  There were many reasons why I had reduced my blogging frequency (and by extension, my overall online profile) since mid-January:  focusing on weight loss/fitness improvement; burnout on reading much after a decade of reading on average 400 books a year; general ennui with the circular nature of tangentially book-related discussions; increasing discomfort with the sorts of "conversations" I was seeing on social media; etc.  I didn't really go into detail then and I'm not going to now, but being the sort of person who prefers thesis-antithesis=synthesis in the realm of ideas to rehashing ad hominem attacks or feeling pressured to give "hot takes" on ephemeral social controversies du jour, it was easier to just bow out than to continue to be inundated with repetitive crap.  I'm also much more of an extravert than many, so it was easier to find stimulating conversation at work and elsewhere than it was online, so naturally I gravitated back to things that gave me much more pleasure and less irritation and aggravation.

But there is something in the art of communicating one's assessment of ideas and people via a written, electronic medium such as a blog that continues to have some appeal to me.  Oh, it's not about the number of "hits" I draw for certain pieces or about who is talking about what I said as much as it is about expressing something that might aid another in his/her search for greater understanding on a topic (especially if it's one as august as squirrel adulation).  It is interesting to see which posts draw a steady stream of visits, month after month.  One such example was a March 2014 entry where I posted my 1994 university course-assigned translation of the final 100 lines or so of Book I of Vergil's Æneid.  As of this writing, it has been viewed 768 times, more than almost all of the 2014 releases that I reviewed that year.

It is not an anomaly; more often than not, the "classics" and older literature have stronger, longer "tails" than recent fiction when it comes to views here.  My William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston reviews (which were first posted at Gogol's Overcoat and which receive even greater views there than here) average in the high hundreds or low thousands for page views.  Doubtless a good portion of this traffic involves high school and college students seeking something they could utilize (plagiarize?) in a report/paper, but I suspect there is something more to it than just that.  I know that from time to time I search for others' opinions on works that I'm reading and it is so difficult at times to find something that isn't linked to Amazon or Goodreads, but instead is more of a "proper" length review of the work in question.

Realizing that some, even if they rarely (if ever) comment here, see value in what I write about older literature (or even the snippets that I translate into an English-language first draft) makes it easier to continue writing in spite of the above-mentioned irritants, which likely will never completely fade away.  So while I probably won't be writing more than a handful of times a month for a while still (my desktop's motherboard failed last week and my Macbook at six years is ancient; blogging via my iPhone is out of the question), I believe that when I do resume writing on a more regular basis that there might be a renewal of spirit to be found.  After all, I'm the critic whose opinion is the only one worth considering here, so the new content will reflect my interests more so than anyone else's.  So there might be some language-related material mixed in with discussion of which Library of America editions I've bought lately, topped off with occasional scandalous squirrel pornography.

Now excuse me while I try to decide which books I'm going to keep and which 150-200 I'm going to sell/trade this month.  Maybe I should post photos of those?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A serendipitous discovery

A little over a week ago I went shopping at my favorite Nashville used bookstore, McKay Books.  As usual while waiting for my books to be processed for trade credit, I browsed through the Foreign Language section (typically, somewhere between half and 100% of the books I buy during these visits are non-English-language works) when I stumbled upon a curious slipcased book:

 When I pulled the book out of its slipcase, I saw that it was leatherbound and that it looked similar to a certain set of high-quality, higher-priced French books that I had pondered ordering online whenever I had enough money to justify spending $70 or so.  So I opened this book of Paul Claudel's poetry to its title page to see that my suspicions were confirmed.


Yes, I had a 1967 Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Paul Claudel's poetry in my hands, with only the slipcase, yellowed with age, bearing any marks.  I glanced again at the price.  Only $4.  While more expensive than most foreign language books I buy there (most French and Spanish fiction paperbacks are 10¢ or 15¢ in price), I would have to say that finding a very good to excellent condition Pléiade edition for 1/16 of its list price to be quite a bargain.

Any of you have similar discoveries of expensive books being sold dirt cheap (and in good condition) in a used bookstore?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

In evaluating certain literary works, conventional, tried-and-true approaches sometimes must be jettisoned.  This certainly has proven to be the case with the recently-released Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Much (e-)ink has been spilled on the origins of this 1950s trunk novel that later begot To Kill a Mockingbird and how after a half-century of near-silence the dubious fashion in which it came to be published has come to light.  Those lines of thought are more the provenance of journalists than literary reviewers, however.  It is more than fair to raise the issue, but when it comes to the text itself, then it comes to the text itself and all else should be ancillary.  Yet in cases like this, attempting to remove oneself from the uproar would be a Sisyphean task.

When I began reading Go Set a Watchman, I found myself thinking of the various posthumous works that I had read or listened to:  Vergil's Æneid; Jimi Hendrix's post-1970 releases; Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again; among others.  Vergil reportedly made a deathbed request that his "unfinished" epic poem be burned after his death.  While obviously this was not the case (another such example would be the majority of Franz Kafka's work that his friend and literary executor Max Brod published despite Kafka's occasional declaration that they should be burnt), the debate on the merits of publishing, whether posthumously or in a situation where an author potentially could require a conservator to make legal and business decisions, is an interesting one.  I believe that if an appropriate framework is established for evaluating the works in question, then there is little to quibble about in the case of a work that almost certainly would have been published immediately after the author's death if not beforehand.

Go Set a Watchman's complex textual history makes for a fascinating study.  Readers familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird are going to see several parallels in descriptions, characterization, and plot development.  Jean Louise/Scout Finch's journey home to Maycomb, Alabama sometime in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling contains several flashbacks that the germ of numerous events in the latter novel.  In a weird sense, the first novel becomes a quasi-sequel to the latter, not so much for the flashbacks (which in some cases were revised and altered in To Kill a Mockingbird), but for readers' understandings of how certain characters have developed.  Although much ado has been made about Atticus Finch's seeming character shift in Go Set a Watchman, there are certain other characters, Calpurnia in particular, whose actions here in this novel may be surprising or even unsettling to those readers who approached To Kill a Mockingbird as a mostly nostalgic, mildly "heroic" Southern novel despite the heartbreak of the Tom Robinson case.

Certainly there are grounds for being startled throughout.  Go Set a Watchman slays its gods, strewing about disillusionment in the wake of its revelations.  This is no accident, as it appears that Lee originally conceived of the autobiographical Maycomb milieu as being a way of retelling the civil rights era upheavals within a slightly fictitious family account.  Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was also a lawyer who became caught up in the counter-protests common throughout the South after 1954.  But in the case of Atticus Finch, what is interesting is seeing just how fully conceived his character was in this earlier draft:  he is just as wry, courteous, and humane as in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the key difference is the narrative perspective through which he is viewed.  Young Scout's first-person narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird portrays him as a sort of demi-god, a father who may not always understand his children, but whose wisdom and humanity inspire them to be the best they can possibly be.  Go Set a Watchman, written in a limited third-person point-of-view, demonstrates this lingering hero worship that Jean Louise has for her father, but it also reveals the cracks in this façade and also how much Jean Louise has changed while becoming an independent, opinionated young woman in her late 20s.

Go Set a Watchman deconstructs these earlier views of Scout through the liberal use of flashbacks (many of which were later transported, virtually unchanged, into To Kill a Mockingbird).  Although they are invaluable in demonstrating just how Lee initially constructed this coming-of-age tale and how it later morphed into a sometimes very different "daughter" novel, at times these flashbacks weaken the narrative thrust considerably.  For example, more space is devoted to discussing Jean Louise's first period than in connecting that to her complex emotions regarding the former family cook, Calpurnia.  The near "as in" presentation of this 1950s draft as the published Go Set a Watchman does an injustice to the "new" scenes, as an occasional judicious pruning of extraneous scenes could have heightened the narrative tension that builds throughout the course of the novel.

Yet despite this uneven narrative pace and its numerous digressions, there is a strong, questing core that should captivate most readers.  The revelation of Atticus's views on race, while disappointing to his daughter (and readers), are only the tip of the iceberg.  What Lee focuses more on is how Jean Louise tries to process this sudden upheaval of her world.  It is not always a pretty sight, as 21st century readers might find Jean Louise's arguments and rationales to be rather antiquated, if not bigoted themselves.  But perhaps that is exactly a point behind this novel.  Maybe for white Southerners, especially so-called Southern progressives of the mid-20th century, there are some hypocrisies that still need to be exposed to the light. 

The final two parts of the novel are the strongest, most attention absorbing, because they distillate these inner and familial conflicts into a series of dialogues (Jean Louise-Jack, Jean Louise-Alexandra, Jean Louise-Henry, and most especially Jean Louise-Atticus) that present a wide spectrum of white Southern thought during this period.  There is little that is facile about them; Atticus's counterarguments, when viewed within the context of the times, prove to be challenging to his daughter's more idealized views.  As a reflection of contemporary social views, these concluding sections are very well realized.  However, it is difficult not to see flaws in how Lee arrived at these final scenes.  It is not just the meandering flashbacks that clog up the narrative flow, but also those false steps, such as Jean Louise's impulsive visit to Calpurnia and her rebuffal there,  where much more could have been said to even greater effect than what was ultimately achieved.

Go Set a Watchman perhaps should be judged primarily as an ur-text; it represents a genesis of thought that led to a modern classic.  It certainly shows enough in character and plot evolutions to serve as an example of how to develop a story.  But with the majority of events taking place after those of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is in many regards its own story.  It contains characters that shift somewhat in presentation, yet on the whole these are characters that are easily recognizable as being those who appeared in the earlier tale.  No, it does not contain the same narrative magic that made To Kill a Mockingbird dear to tens of millions of years, but what it contains, warts and all, is a story of confusion and conflict that speaks most clearly to white Southerners who have tried, like Thomas Wolfe's George Webber, to "come home again," only to discover that "home" is a more repulsive, conflicting place where hatred and love make for strange bedfellows.  This is not to say there can't be other readings for this novel, but only that the central conflict, or at least how it is phrased and conducted amongst its participants, might be foreign to non-Southerners or at least not as vital to them.  As it stands, Go Set a Watchman is a flawed yet occasionally riveting work that does not weaken or ruin Harper Lee's legacy, but rather is a testament for just how deeply she conceived this retelling of how an independent-minded, idealistic daughter comes to terms with the complexities of a father she had adored and worshiped her entire life.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..."

"What's in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell just as sweet."

"To be, or not to be, that is the question..."

"Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war..."

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."


"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players,
They have their exits and entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages."


"My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun..."

Chances are, if you are a native English speaker (or one even casually familiar with English-language culture), you could identify the composer of these quotes even though the exact source and context might elude you.  Next to the King James translation of the Bible, William Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are the lodestone of the English language; so much of this language's idiomatic expressions and metaphors orient themselves to these rich, imaginative text.  It is nigh impossible for me to fathom an English-language culture, much less literature, existing in a form similar to today's without Shakespeare's Olympian influence.  Although there are numerous great writers that have left their own indelible marks on contemporary English-language literature, Shakespeare is that rare talent whose turns of phrase are often quoted, frequently without full awareness of their source, by those who aren't regular readers of literature of any sort.

Part of this is due to Shakespeare's writings being almost chameleon-like in their ability to be adapted for almost every situation and need.  Although composed mostly before the first English settlement in what is now the United States, in the intervening four centuries, Shakespeare's work has become as much a central part of American literature as it is the keystone of English literature.  In James Shapiro's 2014 anthology, Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, there are dozens of selections from writers and politicians, social activists and ministers, from lay people to composers, all of which testify to Shakespeare's influence on them and their course of action.  A fascinating mosaic image emerges when these disparate threads of American social and cultural life are placed in chronological order.

The anthology begins with an anonymous 1776 publication of a Loyalist response to the demands of the First Continental Congress for the colonists to sign an "association" boycotting British goods.  Making use of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, it is also, as Shapiro notes in the introductory header, a retort to a pro-colonist screed that began "Be taxt, or not be taxt, that is the question.":

To sign, or not to sign?  That is the question,
Whether 'twere better for an honest Man
To sign, and so be safe; or to resolve,
Betide what will, against Associations,
And, by retreating, shun them.  To fly – I reck
Not where:  And, by that Flight, t'escape
FEATHERS and TAR, and Thousand other Ills
That Loyalty is Heir to:  'Tis a Consummation
Devoutly to be wished.  To fly – to want – 
To want?  Perchance to starve:  Ay, there's the rub! (p. 3)
However, in Peter Markoe's 1787 poem, "The Tragic Genius of Shakespeare," published in the year of the Constitutional Convention, already there are overt moves to claim the Bard as America's own:

Monopolizing Britain!  boast no more
His genius to your narrow bounds confin'd;
Shakspeare's bold spirit seeks our western shore,
A gen'ral blessing for the world design'd,
And, emulous to form the rising ase,
The noblest Bard demands the noblest Stage. (p. 12)
And yet as grandiose of a claim as Markoe makes here, the question still remains, over two centuries later:  Just what is an "American" view of Shakespeare?  It is fitting that our national motto, E pluribus unum, come into play when examining the disparate views presented throughout this collection.  For the nineteenth century, with "nation building" (including the horrendous treatment of the various nations that dwelt on contested land and the execrable treatment of African-descended slaves) foremost on their minds, divers writers, poets, and politicians would frequent cite Shakespeare in order to further their ambitions.  In 1849, this nationalist rendition of Shakespeare boiled over into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York City, as partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest assailed the performance place of British actor William Charles Macready's performance of Macbeth.  Some 15,000 people participated in this riot, leading to the New York State Militia firing into the crowd, killing more than twenty and wounding perhaps over a hundred more.  Here is a brief citation from a lengthy anonymous pamphlet published soon after the riot:

The result was, that the constant rivalry of Forrest, though carried on in the most friendly manner, could not fail to injure the success of Macready.  A certain degree of partizanship was everywhere excited – for Forrest was everywhere placarded as the "American Tragedian," – and the tour of Mr. Macready was comparatively a failure.  A sensitive man could not but feel this; and whether he made any complaint or not, his friends saw what the difficulty was, and felt not a little chagrined about it; and when Mr. Forrest made his next and last professional visit to England, this feeling among the friends of Macready, in the theatrical press and the play-going public, found its vent.  The opposition to him was, from the first, marked and fatal; and, so far as the metropolis was concerned, his tour was a failure.  It was only in the provinces – away from London influence – that he met with any degree of success. (p. 67)
It is hard for a twenty-first century reader to fathom this level of outrage over who performed Shakespeare and with what accent it was performed.  And yet in accounts like this, coupled with lengthy allusions to him throughout the years, there can be seen a sort of metastasis occurring:  Shakespeare's characters, form, and very language were being assimilated into this growing American culture, being transformed by it as much as it imbued this nascent civilization.  Echoes of this can be seen in the mid-19th century literature, especially in the work of Herman Melville.  In his "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville not only pays homage to his mentor, but also to what lurks behind any perceived "work of genius":

In Shakespeare's tomb lies infinitely more than Shakespeare ever wrote.  And if I magnify Shakespeare, it is not so much for what he did do, as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing.  For in this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only be cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, – even though it be covertly, and by snatches. (p. 130)
It is interesting to see how observations like this are reflected in subsequent pieces for the remaining 500-plus pages.  Shapiro has placed these selections in a fashion where it is easy to discern certain currents of American thought on Shakespeare and his ability to voice deep-seated fears, hopes, and anxieties.  "The play's the thing", ironically, is where a collision of received cultural understanding of Shakespeare and divergent interpretations of that very same understanding take place.  It is the source of contemporary takes on West Side Story and Romeo + Juliet, as well as arguments over just how well (or poorly) Marlon Brando performed in Julius Caesar.  Peppered amongst critical (both senses of the word) theatrical articles are allusions made by recent authors who echo and cast back, perhaps a bit distorted, the views of Melville and others of the first half of American socio-cultural history.  For Shakespeare does not belong to any one class or nation; he is, as what was later associated with St. Thomas More, "a man for all seasons."  This can especially be seen in Langston Hughes' 1942 poem, "Shakespeare in Harlem" (there was also a play of that name by him):

Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go? (p. 450)
With pieces like this presented side-by-side with scholarly references and layperson allusions, Shapiro's Shakespeare in America serves as a good introduction to the Bard's influence on American culture.  It is a rich collection of primary source material that does not overwhelm the reader, but instead provides enough of a framework by which readers can draw their own connections to currents of thought regarding Shakespeare.  Certainly it is one of the more enjoyable pieces on Shakespeare that I have read in recent years.







Friday, May 29, 2015

A little personal update before resuming reviews

As I've said before on a few occasions, 2015 to date has been devoted much more to improving my health (2014's kidney stone and back injuries wreaked havoc on my body shape and health) than reading or translation work.  Back in January, my work held a company-wide weight loss challenge, where groups of 4-5 employees were paired up and the winning group (selected by average percentage of weight lost per team) would divide the pot.  The competition ended on May 5th and my team won.  During that span, I lost 42 lbs., so it was nice to have monetary motivation to lose the necessary weight.

Also in January, I had blood tests done to see if progress was being made in lowering my cholesterol and triglyceride levels, both of which were around the 300 level (>150 is considered normal/good for both) back in October (I was placed on simistatin then).  Although both had dropped some due to the medication, they were still elevated.  So I made a goal then that by the time that I had my next round of tests (today), that I would have lost 50 lbs.

In order to do this, I gave up drinking anything other than water; ate leaner cuts of meat and only occasionally fry/saute them; ate more nuts and dried fruits; only had two meals with any sort of meat a day, if possible; lifted weights (only up to 65% of my known maxes) at least once a week and usually 2-3 times; and tried to walk at least 20 miles a week.  It was at times grueling, having to relearn muscle movements while my stomach felt hollow, but it was interesting to see the changes.  Within a week of giving up sodas, I had a lot more energy and I only needed 5.5-6.5 hours of sleep a night on average to feel rested the next morning.  I started to feel less hungry due to drinking 3-4 liters of water a day and my chronic dehydration went away.

In March, I purchased a fitness band, the Garmin Vivofit, and began using My Fitness Pal to track what I ate.  On the latter, I was able to set goals (namely a 2 lbs./week loss) and by inputting what I ate and seeing roughly what their caloric contents were, I found myself eating less in order to meet those daily goals.  With the Garmin watch/band, I started trying to walk more and more each day, especially during the late hours at work after the residents were asleep.  This combination of tracking items and conscious effort on my part to meet the goals set out led to a very rapid weight loss in late March/April, when I lost nearly half of my weight before the competition's end.

So it was with some confidence that I went to get my blood tested today.  Turns out that my cholesterol and triglyceride levels are now in the 130s and that my HDL and LDL levels have improved greatly.  No imminent threat of Type II diabetes setting in and the anemia that showed up on the January tests had disappeared (maybe due to the further healing of my left kidney after my October procedure, or maybe also due to taking vitamin supplements regularly).  If things are much the same in four months, I get to come off of my medications, so I still have motivation to work even harder to get my body healthy and toned.

And yes, there have been days where the squirrels have pushed me to the brink...

But at least now I can rest a little bit.  No, wait, I'm going for an evening walk in a few minutes.  Maybe later this weekend I'll write my first review in a few months.
 
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