Talking About Books . . .

Things Fall Apart

We recently discussed Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in my Reading the Classics book club.  In it Achebe tells the story of a Nigerian indigenous society from the point of view of its members, and then describes what happens when first missionaries and then the British invade.  The society of the natives was quite sophisticated and worked well for them, but the interlopers insisted that it was evil, and set about forcing changes in it.  Just as with any society, some of its members were able to adapt to change while others were not.  The protagonist, Okonkwo, a very important member of his tribe, is unable to adapt to the new way of living with disastrous results.

The Poisonwood Bible

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible in which the story is told from the point of view of the family members of a Baptist missionary from the United States.  Much of this story takes place in 1960 in the Belgian Congo.  In Kingsolver’s novel the missionary, Nathan Price, is totally inflexible in both his dealings with the Africans and with his wife and four daughters.  A crisis occurs when the rulers of the country are overthrown by rebels.  All foreigners are directed to leave, but Price refuses to abandon his mission, and he refuses to allow his family to leave.  Tragedy follows and the Price family survivors’ lives are altered forever in ways I did not imagine.  Late in the book Kingsolver spends a lot of time talking about the politics of Africa and possible involvement of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (with the blessing of President Eisenhower) in the events that took place in the Congo and elsewhere.  She puts this within the context of the lives of the novel’s characters, but I found it a bit overdone.

Both books are very worth reading, and I strongly suggest that you read them in the order in which I’ve described them above.  The novels are different in many ways, but similar enough that you will be able to intertwine the stories nicely.

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 According to information a member of my Reading the Classics book club sent me, reading books – but not newspapers or magazines – can help you live longer.  I did some research on the research and found a Guardian article that reports (in terms that we non-scientists can understand) on what studies have found.  Note that the researchers don’t know yet if these results are different for those who read fiction versus nonfiction or a physical book versus an e-book.  That will require further studies.

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 Are you feeling a bit down because of the news this summer?  The Guardian, suspecting that a lot of us need some positive reading material, has instituted a series of articles called “Books to Give You Hope” in an attempt to lift our spirits.  There are only a few books in the series at this point, but more are being added each weekday.

I wondered if one book, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of short stories by Wells Tower would fit the stated purpose of the series, but we are assured that “it will not only give you hope in mankind: it will also give you hope in the future of short fiction.”  I hope so.

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 Wanda June

Kurt Vonnegut completed the libretto for an opera based on his play Happy Birthday, Wanda June a few weeks before he died at age 85 following a fall.  The opera will be performed September 16-18 by the Indianapolis Opera company as part of a number of activities honoring Indianapolis’ hometown boy.  Beth J. Harpaz has penned an article for the Associated Press that outlines many of the upcoming activities.

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 Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic has gathered together “slightly more than 100 exceptional works of journalism” from 2015 for us.  Not only are the subjects diverse, but perusing the list will introduce you to sources for great articles that you might otherwise never know about.

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 Blade Runner

What book is the movie Blade Runner based on?  How about Bridget Jones’ Diary?  To find the answer to these questions and more about movies based on books see the Jonkers article here.

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 BOOKish is recommending books for us to read this summer.  They’re currently featuring 10 books for this week, but you should also check out their Summer Previews.  I like the Summer Previews because the books are broken down by category.

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 The American Scholar features an ongoing series entitled “The Complete Reading Lessons” where “Poets, novelists, essayists, journalists, and scholars name a book they prize above all others and tell us why.”  The books reviewed include Willa Cather’s My Àntonia, John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Virgil’s Aeneid.  And there are many more, so check out the list.

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 Quirk Books has compiled a list of women in fiction who were either bad or misunderstood mothers.  You have to decide for yourself.  I think the first mother on the list, Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is an excellent example of the difficulty in categorization.  She spends her time trying desperately to get her daughters married off, but when you look at the situation of unmarried women in the British society of the time you might want to give her a break.

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Words at Play

Portmanteau 2

A portmanteau is a suitcase that opens into two compartments.  In another sense a portmanteau is a word made up of two words joined together.  And finally, the word portmanteau is itself a portmanteau – being constructed from the French verb porter meaning “to carry,” and the French noun manteau meaning “cloak.”  The Oxford Dictionary blog lists, and defines, 11 words you probably don’t realize are portmanteaus – including “endorphin,” “napalm,” and “modem.”

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The Oxford Dictionary blog also lists some words that are used by the people who create the comic books and newspaper comic strips that we enjoy.  Though you may be a fan of the comics, you’re probably unfamiliar with the lingo used by their creators.

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Anacronyms, ananyms, backronyms, homophenes, and holophrases are examples of words for other words.  Mental Floss gives us 25 of them, their definitions, and examples of their use here.

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If you love words, you’ll love Lexicon Valley a podcast from Slate magazine.  It’s a doozy.

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Do you know that many animal names – including ape, buffalo, grouse, hound, and louse – are also verbs?  Richard Lederer at Verbivore lists 50 animal names and invites you to match them with their “beastly verbs.”

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Though I’ve never played them, The Word Blog lists what it believes to be the six best word games for your phone.

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Ten Days in a Mad-House

Ten Days in a Mad-House

I first heard of Nellie Bly many, many years ago when I listened to Jimmie Rodgers’ version of “Frankie and Johnny” (composer and lyricist unknown).  The song tells the story of a woman, Frankie, and her unfaithful lover, Johnny.  Frankie goes out for a bucket of beer, and asks the bartender if he has seen Johnny.  He replies, “I don’t want to cause you no trouble, / I ain’t gonna tell you no lie / I saw your lover an hour ago / with a gal named Nellie Bly.”  Well, Frankie ends up shooting Johnny and paying the consequences.  The story, says Rodgers, shows that “there ain’t no good in men.”

I was surprised to find out much later that there was actually a reporter who wrote under the name “Nellie Bly.”  She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in a small town near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1864.  In 1880 she wrote an impassioned response to a Pittsburg Dispatch article entitled “What Girls Are Good For.”  The editor was so impressed that he asked her to write another article, and soon hired her as a full-time reporter.  Women journalists usually used pen names, so the editor proposed that she take the name “Nelly Bly” which was the title of a popular song by Stephen Foster.  He accidentally spelled her first name as Nellie, and the spelling remained that way.

She did some good articles for the Dispatch, but was ultimately told to write for the lady’s section – that what women journalists were supposed to do in those days.  Frustrated, she eventually went to New York in 1887 and agreed to go undercover to research and write an article on life in an insane asylum for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.  That’s what made Nelly Bly a household name, and that’s probably why “Nellie Bly” is the name of Johnny’s lover in “Frankie and Johnny.” It also helps, no doubt, that “lie” and “Bly” happen to rhyme.

To get into an asylum Nellie took a room in a boarding house for single women, and feigned insanity.  She was so good that the other women were afraid to go to sleep fearing that Nellie would kill them.  The owner of the lodging had the police remove her, and she ended up being examined by a number of doctors and a judge who all agreed that she was hopelessly insane.  All of this was done with little evidence, and with disgracefully cursory medical examinations. Bly was sent to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 971 after FDR) where she remained for 10 days before being retrieved by members of the World newspaper.

She wrote a book about her experiences while in the asylum that exposed the ill treatment of the patients by guards (some were simply brutal while others were truly sadistic), and the horrible living conditions (including putrid food and lack of heating in the facility).  She spoke to women who seemed quite normal, and she saw severely mentally ill women who were continually mistreated and laughed at by the guards.  As a result of her exposé changes were made in the asylum and the budget was increased by almost a million dollars a year.

Here are a few of Bly’s observations:

 “But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity.  I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life.  Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and  gentle ways I shall not soon forget.”

 “Thus was Mrs. Louise Schanz [who only spoke German] consigned to the asylum without a chance of making herself understood.  Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter?  If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity.  But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity.  Confined probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore.  Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence.  Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?”

 In the next passage Bly writess about getting an ice-cold bath in a freezing room.  All of the women took baths in the same tub – with the same filthy water.

 “The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest. How useless it all was! I begged, at least, that the patients be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up. The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me, even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub, went the old woman, chattering to herself. My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head—ice-cold water, too—into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane. I caught a glance of the indescribable look on the faces of my companions, who had witnessed my fate and knew theirs was surely following. Unable to control myself at the absurd picture I presented, I burst into roars of laughter. They put me, dripping wet, into a short canton flannel slip, labeled across the extreme end in large black letters, “Lunatic Asylum, B. I., H. 6.” The letters meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.”

 “As I passed a low pavilion, where a crowd of helpless lunatics were confined, I read a motto on the wall, ‘While I live I hope.’ The absurdity of it struck me forcibly. I would have liked to put above the gates that open to the asylum, ‘He who enters here leaveth hope behind.’”

 You can understand why people were so outraged by what Bly found.  The book Ten Days in a Mad-House also contains accounts of some of Bly’s other undercover assignments including working in a cardboard box factory, and her attempts to get a job as a servant in someone’s home.  In both cases you see women at the mercy of men – some who are decent, and some who are sleazy cheats.

Her other claim to fame was her successful attempt to travel around the world faster than Phileas Fogg did in Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days.  She accomplished her circumnavigation in 72 days.

Bly’s experience in successfully faking insanity reminded me of an experiment done in the 1970s by Dr. David Rosenhan a psychology professor at Stanford University.  In the experiment three women and five men (including Rosenhan) claimed to be suffering from auditory hallucinations.  They went to 12 different mental hospitals in five different states and, when examined, all were found to be mentally ill.  Like Bly they all claimed to be free of hallucinations once they were admitted, and like Bly, all were determined to still be mentally ill.  All had to agree to  take antipsychotic drugs before they were released.

As you might expect Rosenhan’s report, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” was not popular with those who dealt with the mentally ill.  As a follow-up to his first experiment Rosenhan informed a research and teaching facility that he would send a number of “pseudo-patients” there in the coming weeks.  Of the 193 new patients admitted to the facility during that timeframe 41 were suspected of being pseudo-patients.  In fact, Rosenhan had sent no pseudo-patients to the facility.

The author of an interesting summary of Rosenhan’s experiments writes that, “The main experiment illustrated a failure to detect sanity, and the secondary study demonstrated a failure to detect insanity.”

The experiences of both Bly and Rosenhan (almost a century apart) indicate that diagnosing mental illness is somewhat subjective despite the best efforts of psychologists and psychiatrists.

You can read Ten Days in a Mad-House (with illustrations) free here, or listen to it free here.

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Quotes of Note

“They would ask me what actors I saw in the roles.  I would tell them, and they’d say ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ And that would be the end of it.” – Elmore Leonard on his experience with movie makers planning to adapt his novels for the big screen

“I drink to make other people more interesting.” – Ernest Hemingway

“Got no checkbooks, got no banks, Still I’d like to express my thanks – I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.” – Irving Berlin, Annie Get Your Gun

“The very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.” – Isaiah Berlin

“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” – Chinua Achebe

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” – Elie Wiesel

“If I knew that today would be the last time I’d see you, I would hug you tight and pray the Lord be the keeper of your soul. If I knew that this would be the last time you pass through this door, I’d embrace you, kiss you, and call you back for one more. If I knew that this would be the last time I would hear your voice, I’d take hold of each word to be able to hear it over and over again. If I knew this is the last time I see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already.” – Gabriel García Márquez

“I’ve been to a lot of places and done a lot of things, but writing was always first. It’s a kind of pain I can’t do without.” – Robert Penn Warren

“The majority of husbands remind me of an orangutan trying to play the violin.” – Honoré de Balzac

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Who Narrates Audio Books?

Mil Nicholson

A few months ago I wanted to listen to Charles Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop.  I went to Librovox, the website where volunteer-produced recordings of books in the public domain are available for free, and found two complete recordings of the novel.  I sampled both and was particularly impressed by the one narrated by a woman named Mil Nicholson.  Her reading of the novel was as good as any you could buy from Audible or elsewhere.

But who in the world is Mil Nicholson, and why did this very talented woman spend so many hours producing a free recording of a 600 page novel?  It turns out that she is a British actress who loves Dickens’ novels.  In fact, her goal is to record all of Dickens’ novels for Librivox – and she’s well on her way.  She records them, and her husband helps her edit the works for upload to the Librivox website.  According to a Wired article that tells the story of the people behind the making of audio books, it takes Nicholson about six months to record one book with about five hours of reading being converted to a single hour of completed narration.

Nicholson, and a few other Librivox readers, have been hired to read professionally.  Some well-known professional actors have also been hired to narrate audio books because they have name recognition, and because they have great voices.  They include John Malkovich, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, and Anne Hathaway.  I recently listened to a recording of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman read by Reese Witherspoon (who was born in New Orleans and raised in Tennessee), and I thought she was brilliant as the voice of the adult Scout Finch.

Order of the Phoenix

I was very surprised to find that a British actor named Jim Dale narrated all seven of the Harry Potter novels for American audiences.  Why was I surprised? Because that same Jim Dale played the part of P. T. Barnum in the 1980 Broadway musical Barnum.  I have played selections from the original Broadway cast recording of that musical many times during my years on public radio, but I had no idea that Dale was British.  He is obviously very gifted.  In fact, he created 134 individual voices for characters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (a record noted in the Guinness  World Records).

Listen to “There is a Sucker Born Every Minute,” and see if you can detect a British accent. You can also hear a short AudioFile interview with Dale here.  In the interview you hear some of the voices he created for Peter and the Sword of Mercy, book 4 in the Peter and the Starcatchers series.  The books, written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, tell the backstories of many of the characters that appear in J. M. Barrie’s book Peter and Wendy.

I know that some of you like the feel and smell of a real book, and don’t feel satisfied when you simply listen to a book, but let me close with a quote from the excellent Wired article that I referenced above:

 The human voice and performance are central to Western literature. Homer’s epics were recited aloud, though we don’t really know what form those performances took. Shakespeare, as many will tell you, is meant to be heard, declaimed, not read silently. And Dickens, considered by many to be the greatest English novelist, regularly read from his work at popular public events. (His marked-up texts used for performances—with extraneous details marked-out—can be seen at the Dickens House Museum in London.)

Humans have tended throughout history to think that there’s something sacred in the breath, the spoken word, the charged air, as it relates to literary inspiration. The Muses are said to breathe into the ear of the poet. God breathes life into matter in the Bible.

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On the Burning of Books

On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word by Kenneth Baker will be published on August 15, 2016.  You can get a preview of what I think will be a very interesting and extensive look at our proclivity to disdain and destroy what we disagree with here.

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I have previously written about the Proust Questionnaire, but The New Yorker has a more in-depth article about the genesis and growing popularity of the subject than the article I wrote.  The piece is by Evan Kindley whose book Questionnaire has just been released by Bloomsbury Academic.

Kindley’s new book is part of a series called “Object Lessons.”  Bloomsbury describes them as, “. . . a series of concise, collectable, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Each book starts from a specific inspiration: an historical event, a literary passage, a personal narrative, a technological innovation-and from that starting point explores the object of the title, gleaning a singular lesson or multiple lessons along the way. Featuring contributions from writers, artists, scholars, journalists, and others, the emphasis throughout is lucid writing, imagination, and brevity. Object Lessons paints a picture of the world around us, and tells the story of how we got here, one object at a time.”  You can see a list of the books, and read some free Object Lesson essays here.

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Encyclopedias that are out of date can still be very valuable.  Why? Because they are time capsules of what we knew or believed to be accurate at the time they were published.  Justin Nobel, writing in The Atlantic, gives us an Object Lesson concerning encyclopedias here.

Britannica An interesting example of an encyclopedia that has great value, even though it was published almost 250 years ago, can be found (and bought) at the Encyclopædia Britannica website.  It’s a reproduction of the first edition of that venerable work, and all three volumes of it can be yours for $199.95.  An excerpt from the first edition, featured in the advertising at the Britannica website, informs us that California is, “a large country of the West Indies. It is uncertain whether it be a peninsula or an island.” 

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Alison Kerr Courtney isn’t a therapist, but she has found a unique way to help people who are going through a life crisis.  She recommends books that address what they are going through.  Many people have found that her unique approach to assisting people who are hurting has been very useful in restoring their mental health.  CNN has the story here.  Some of the links in the article may be interesting to you.  Also, be sure to check out Courtney’s blog while you’re at it.

Should you be looking for something to read, be sure to peruse “Amazon’s 100 Best List” which appears at the top of the article.  It contains both fiction and nonfiction; books for children and books that are definitely only for adults.  You can start with Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, and work your way through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.  In fact, both of those books have something in common, don’t they? Astronomy.

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George Peabody Library

The photo above is of the George Peabody library in Baltimore, Maryland.  It’s the USA Today recommended vacation spot to visit in that state.  A recent USA Today article recommends one vacation spot to visit for under $20 in each state.

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What is your earliest memory?  How old were you when the events in that memory took place?  A BBC article explores the subject of our earliest memories, and provides some possible reasons why we lack memories of most of the early events in our lives.  Also, the author, Zaria Gorvett, writes that the age at which children begin to form memories that will be retained varies from culture to culture.  Fascinating!

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The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has been announced.  The Guardian has an excellent article on the nominees.

I often link to book articles in The Guardian because it has the most extensive, and most interesting articles on books of any website I’ve ever found.  Check out their book section here.

Some other features of their book section worth your review are:

You can subscribe to The Guardian’s Bookmarks e-mail newsletter here.

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 Book TV will feature a panel discussion on author Zora Neale Hurston this weekend. Panelists will include Rutgers University’s Cheryl Wall, Rich Blint, with The James Baldwin Review, Columbia University’s Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Barnard College’s Yvette Christianse.  The discussion was part of the Harlem Book Fair.  See the Book TV schedule here for days and times of the broadcast. Choose “View/Print” to browse or print out the schedule.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, August 7, 2016 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.  His books include American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst and The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court.

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Quiz of the Month – July 2016

In this month’s quiz you are to match the titles of the books listed below to the women who wrote them. As always, you will find the answers to the quiz on my Quiz Answers page.

  • Beloved
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • Emma
  • Ethan Frome
  • Excellent Women
  • Jane Eyre
  • Like Water for Chocolate
  • Peyton Place
  • Silas Marner
  • The Awakening
  • The Bell Jar
  • The Color Purple
  • The Good Earth
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The House on Mango Street
  • The Japanese Lover
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • The Poisonwood Bible
  • The Red Tent
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Alice Walker
  • Amy Tan
  • Anita Diamant
  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Barbara Pym
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Edith Wharton
  • Emily Brontë
  • George Eliot
  • Grace Metalious
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Isabel Allende
  • Jane Austin
  • Jean Rhys
  • Kate Chopin
  • Laura Esquivel
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Patricia Highsmith
  • Pearl S. Buck
  • Sandra Cisneros
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Toni Morrison
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Willa Cather
  • Zora Neale Hurston
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