Tag Archives: Bonnie T.

How I Spent My Summer Reading

Who remembers those first back-to-school homework assignments, asking about summer vacation? One of those terrible things about being in a household composed entirely of working adults is looking back over a summer and realizing that you didn’t really have a break, especially not a gloriously excessive one like you idealize from your childhood.

It wasn’t all business-as-usual at the Library, though. Just a few days ago we finished our summer reading program. And while the children’s department was focusing on superheroes, here in “adult” land we talked about goals. It was a time to deliberately break out of our usual reading patterns (or genres). We all wanted to try something new, even if that something was as simple as setting aside a few minutes a day to be able to read.

That last one is not my particular problem. I read almost compulsively. I read while I eat and while I cook. For years, my exercise regimen has been based around what I can do while reading. I buy purses based on their ability to hold books. I have read during class, work and religious services. I have read throughout parties, sporting events and dental procedures. Books are my security blankets.

Between the shelves at home and the shelves at work, I am constantly surrounded by books I could be reading. Because I have ready access to recommendations, my “to read” list numbers in the thousands. I read more than forty books this summer, including books for this blog, continuations of four different series, half a dozen graphic novels and one personal development project, besides a pile that just seemed interesting.

Despite all this, I didn’t actually meet my declared “summer reading goal.” The challenge I had set for myself was to only read books I had never read before. I made an exception for reference books, including cookbooks, because I rarely devour those in a single pass. But even with the mountains of new things calling my name, I re-read books one and two of a trilogy to prepare for book three, and half-accidentally repeated a John Grisham (by chapter three I was sure it was familiar, but I had already been sucked in too well to put it down).

I did meet some of my less explicit reading goals this summer. More than half of my books had female authors, and the list represented diversity of age, race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation. Most were from my “to read” list, rather than the metaphorical flings that caught my eye across a crowded shelving truck. Many were interesting, a few even useful.

Given all that, does meeting the goal even matter? I mean, if I had declared from the beginning that I didn’t care if I met my goal, I wouldn’t have tried. And I did push myself to avoid some of my “comfort” books because I had set this goal, and discovered a few new lovely things. Perhaps, then, the deeper purpose of the goal—pushing me to actually work through new things, even when it took more effort—was met. That’s something to consider when I set my next goal.

-Bonnie T.

P.S. If you are in need of suggestions, here are a few of my favorites from this summer:

The World Forgot (book three in a ridiculous sci-fi trilogy about teen pregnancy, space travel and alien prejudice)

Superman: Secret Identity (a stand-alone comic book about a man named Clark Kent in a world that already has a Superman)

Men Explain Things to Me (essays about experiencing a gendered world that sometimes doesn’t work)

March: Book Two (part two of a three-volume graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis about his experiences in the Civil Rights movement)

Roller Girl (a graphic novel aimed at middle schoolers about growing up, changing friendships and roller derby)

Breasts: A natural and unnatural history (this one is kinda self-explanatory)

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Somebody’s getting married! (A guide to your first same-sex wedding)

First, congratulations! Someone you know is getting married, and that’s a significant and happy thing. It’s quite likely this wedding couldn’t have happened two months ago, and it almost definitely couldn’t have happened ten years ago, which probably makes it even more meaningful for the people involved.

Given this newness, it’s likely you have some questions. Many social institutions are still figuring out how to recognize same-sex marriages and married couples. The laws are changing all the time; in the United States, the most recent significant change happened less than two months ago when the Supreme Court ruled that states must “license a marriage between two people of the same sex” and “recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”* Since this ruling, approximately 40% of Americans still opposed this legalization.** Religious bodies are making new decisions as to whether they will bless these unions, and whether they will treat them equally with those of opposite-sex couples.

The cover of the New York Times from June 27, the day after the Supreme Court ruling, showcasing a dozen happy couples.

The questions you have probably depend a lot on your role in this wedding. You may have just received an invitation in the mail from a friend or relative. You may have been invited to be an attendant (i.e. bridesmaid, groomsman, usher, etc.). You may have been asked to officiate, to take photos, to bake a cake. Someone may have just proposed to you—in which case, even more congratulations! It turns out, in many ways the questions and the answers are the same as they would be in the case of an opposite-sex wedding. A wedding is a wedding, and most of them look alike in most ways. The only thing you can count on at a same-sex wedding is that there will be either two brides or two grooms and at the end of it they will consider themselves married to each other.

It turns out, a lot of stuff traditional etiquette or wedding planning books might tell you about weddings is gender-specific. Things done for the groom, by the groom’s family, with the bride, by her father, etc. Everything from who proposes marriage to who takes who’s last name has gender-specific traditions. And while anyone can choose to be walked down an aisle by or dance with a parent, everything needs to be planned and paid for by someone. These weddings can take more active thought and decision than opposite-sex weddings, because there isn’t a tradition to fall back on.

There are a few categories of things to consider if you have some responsibility for putting on one of these weddings:

The Law

Here in Pennsylvania, marriages between couples of the same sex have been legal since a district court ruling in May 2014. As of July 2015, marriage is legal throughout the United States regardless of the gender of the couple involved. This applies in all 50 states and the territories (with the possible exception of American Samoa). Federally recognized Native American tribes operate under separate jurisdiction, and can still decide individually whether to recognize and/or perform same-sex marriages. Currently, twenty other nations also allow these marriages to be performed legally. If the wedding in question is being held outside the country, the legal logistics may be different than at home.

However, there are places within the country where the law is not being applied. Couples in some counties have been refused licenses, and some state government officials have been encouraging this refusal. Additionally, while marriage is legal, in many parts of the country discrimination based on sexual orientation is also legal. This can make it more difficult for to arrange vendors for things like locations, flowers, cakes, photography, etc. When contracting for these sorts of services, it is often good to ask what experience they’ve had with same-sex weddings, and if they (and their staff) are comfortable with them. While there is value in fighting for your rights, there is also value in feeling supported and appreciated by everyone involved in your wedding day.

Religion

Many people getting married (even those not actively involved in a congregation) find themselves wanting a religious presence within the ceremony. As Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson says, the state licenses unions; the church blesses them. That sense of blessing may manifest by holding the ceremony within a church, having it performed by a religious official, and/or having passages from sacred texts read. If one or both partners are members of a religious group, it is likely one where they feel accepted and welcomed. However, sectarian restrictions may prevent even a supportive religious official from officiating at a same-sex wedding ceremony, or holding one within their building.

While sects may have policies regarding entering, performing, or sanctioning same-sex weddings, neither policy nor doctrine address other kinds of participation such as attending or performing contracted services. No couple sends invitations to a wedding intending to cause people to sin, or even to witness sinning. They desire their guests to love, and witness loving.

Etiquette and Protocol

Many parts of weddings are dictated by tradition—cultural, ethnic, religious, and more. Weddings are rituals, and have meaning in part because they have so many familiar elements within them. Unfortunately for same-sex couples, many of these traditions are specific to one or the other gender. Adapting to a couple’s needs may be as simple as changing language (e.g. best men, groomswoman, couple’s shower), or as emotionally fraught as deciding whether one or both partners will change their last name.

Same-sex couples are older, on average, than opposite-sex couples when they get married. This may change in the future as the couples who were only waiting for marriage legalization take advantage of new opportunities. Nevertheless, because they are older, they are more likely to have established financial independence from their parents. This means that they are more likely to fund and host the event themselves, and may have less familial pressure as to the wedding’s specifics.

As anyone not a bride or groom, etiquette is pretty much identical to that at any other wedding. You are a part of this because somebody cares about you and believes you care about them. They think you and they would be happier if you showed up. If there are specifics you are unsure about (i.e. how to address the couple after they are married, what to wear, whether it is appropriate to bring children, what sort of gift to bring), ask!

Or, just wear your best top hat and rainbow unicorn horn. Always in style.

Want to know more about planning a same-sex wedding? About the process of legalization in America? About religious attitudes towards same-sex marriages? The library has some great resources for all of these!

Planning Guides

The Essential Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings

The Gay Couple’s Guide to Wedding Planning

Modern Brides and Modern Grooms: A guide to planning straight, gay and other non-traditional twenty-first-century weddings

The Lesbian Couple’s Guide to Wedding Planning

The New Gay Wedding: A practical primer for brides and grooms, their families and guests

Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony

Church and State

Blessings Same-Sex Unions: The perils of queer romance and the confusions of a Christian nation

The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An evangelical’s change of heart

God Believes in Love: Straight talk about gay marriage

When Gay People Get Married: What happens when societies legalize same-sex marriage

Speak Now: Marriage equality on trial

From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, backlash and the struggle for same-sex marriage

Same-Sex Marriage in the United States: The road to the Supreme Court

Essays, History, and Etiquette

Here Come the Brides! Reflections on lesbian love and marriage

Same-Sex Marriage: The personal and political

Charity and Sylvia: A same-sex marriage in early America

Outlaw Marriages: The hidden histories of fifteen extraordinary same-sex couples

Steve Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners: The definitive guide to LGBT life

-Bonnie T.

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The Good Fight

There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.

When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.

 

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet - click through for source.

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet – click through for source.

In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.

My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?

I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.

What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.

  • Bonnie T.

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Gallery Crawling

Part of HC Gilje’s “The World Revolves Around You” at the Wood Street Gallery.

A City Without Guns, by Jennifer Nagle Myers, part of the Unloaded exhibit at Space.

This past Friday, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust hosted their quarterly gallery crawl in the cultural district downtown. The library had a buttons-and-fliers booth there, as we do at a lot of downtown events. I just went as a citizen; I love these. I wasn’t always an art fan, but I met a few local artists when I first moved to Pittsburgh, and discovered that these events were a great introduction to the community.

The gallery crawl is a relatively simple event: multiple venues open, often with special exhibits or live performances, and the public is invited to visit and witness art. The downtown Pittsburgh events sprawl throughout about ten square blocks, at twenty to thirty separate venues. Some venues, usually the ones that are actually galleries, showcase traditional art (i.e. art you can hang on a wall or put on a literal pedestal). Others show films, offer dance lessons or yoga classes, present improv comedy, host artist talks, demo cooking techniques, etc. A night market allows local artisans and small businesses to display wares for purchase, and is generally accompanied by food booths from local restaurants. If you missed this one, the next one will be happening July 10.

From Tamara Natalie Madden’s exhibit “Out of Many, One People” at 709 Penn Gallery.

This kind of event is one of the things I love about Pittsburgh. I went to this event as part of a foursome, hoping to see one artist and one musical group that I recognize from previous events around town.  I encountered a handful of unexpected familiar faces, including a few of you I know from the library. I got into conversations about love and pain and funk music and ephemera and and and….

A lot of the artists are new enough or working on a small enough scale that the library doesn’t yet have them in our collection. And let me tell you, we are missing out. Some were beautiful, some were perplexing, and some just felt like they reached in and grabbed the heart out of your chest. To learn more about some of the themes and events, try these from our catalog:

August Wilson’s Fences, currently in rehearsal by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company.

The Early Mays self-titled second album, songs from which were performed during the “crawl after dark.”

A collection from a National Poetry Month podcast, an event coming to an end in just a few days that was being celebrated at a downtown public school.

Several books in honor of National Jazz Appreciation month, which has been associated with performances downtown throughout April.

To learn more about cool things to see and do around Pittsburgh, look at these:

Pittsburgh Quarterly magazine

Whirlwind Walk: Architecture and Urban Spaces in Downtown Pittsburgh

Food Lovers’ Guide to Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Bucket List

Pittsburgh (travel guide)

Finally, to get more art in your own life, try borrowing materials from the Braddock Library’s Art Lending Collection.

-Bonnie T.

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My Favorite Mediocre Book

It seems to be the season for unpopular opinions here in the Eleventh Stack. We are denying the touchstones of our generation, swearing off the big hits, and gearing up to not go see the 50 Shades movie. With that in mind, I figured it was time to share my favorite not-very-good book.

Freckles,* a 1904 classic by Gene Stratton-Porter, tells the story of a plucky, one-handed Irish orphan making a life and a family for himself in the woods of Indiana (the Limberlost) at the turn of the last century. If you think that sounds like a plot worthy of Horatio Alger, you’re pretty much right. As in Alger’s 100-plus novels, our brave hero is a proponent of honest work and clean living, which eventually cause a fortune to fall into his lap. The author achieved commercial success (her novels eventually made her a millionaire), but railed against the literary critics who rejected her popular fiction.

While Horatio Alger dignified his work above pulp fiction with highbrow literary allusions, Stratton-Porter glorifies hers with nature. The woods where Freckles lives and works were right outside her family home, and she was a committed naturalist who went on to publish several nonfiction books on the local species. While the environment is relevant to the story—Freckles works as a guard for a lumber company, protecting part of their territory from poachers—the descriptions of the wetlands seem to interest the author more than her own characters do.

The flow of the story gets interrupted for pages at a time to describe scenes “[that] would have driven a botanist wild with envy.” And yet, as the New York Review of Books points out, “she performs the brilliant feat of fudging that permits the reader to feel ennobled by the natural world while rooting for its extirpation.” The wilderness Freckles loves is actively being destroyed by his allies and mentors, and he is helping them do it.

The writing is, at its best moments, so wildly overblown that it can be hard to take seriously. The dialogue drips with sentimentality and questionable dialects. Freckles falls in love with a girl known for the entirety of the book (and its sequel) as the Swamp Angel. “Me heart’s all me Swamp Angel’s,” he says, “and me love is all hers, and I have her and the swamp so confused in me mind I never can be separating them. When I look at her, I see blue sky, the sun rifting through the leaves and pink and red flowers; and when I look at the Limberlost I see a pink face with blue eyes, gold hair, and red lips.”

The plot hangs on ideas of genetic inheritance that are beyond ridiculous—namely, that the orphan Freckles’s biological family can be identified not only by similar looks but also similar character attributes such as pluck, honesty, capacity for loving, and (even stranger) vocal training. As is said of his gentility, “No one at the [orphans’] Home taught you. Hundreds of men couldn’t be taught, even in a school of etiquette; so it must be instinctive with you. If it is, why, that means that it is born in you, and a direct inheritance from a race of men that have been gentlemen for ages, and couldn’t be anything else.” This also comes with a few uncomfortable moments of ethnic stereotyping, where his traits are as much attributed to his Irishness (he grew up in Chicago) as anything personal or familial.

And yet, I love this book. It may help that I was introduced to it by my mother, who was introduced to it by her mother, when I was much younger and less sarcastic than I am now. It certainly helps that I’m sentimental and respond well to outpourings of emotion. I identify well with the Angel’s proclamation, “I never have had to dream of love. I never have known anything else, in all my life, but to love every one and to have every one love me.” Particularly during the dark of winter, it’s nice to have something overflowing with spring life. And as excessive as the language is, the characters are charming, and the morality is uncomplicated. Spoiler alert—the bad guys are defeated and the good guys are rewarded and get to live happily ever after in a place that’s really pretty. And some days, that’s as much as I need.

-Bonnie T. *There’s only one copy in the library system, but the full text is available for free online through Project Gutenberg.

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This Blogger Did Not Know Cold

When winter reaches its coldest and darkest, some people like to fill their brains with escapist fiction full of warm beaches and sun-kissed romance. I find the cold too consuming for those fantasies. I magnify it into blizzards and ice ages. And while for every icy thriller, one can find a cozy ski lodge, this year I’m stuck in the permafrost.

The man starts building his small fire under a snow-covered spruce. He may live to regret this.

There’s a Jack London short story you might remember from a high school English class—I certainly can’t forget it. It’s called “To Build a Fire.” The protagonist is trekking with a husky across a frozen Yukon trail, ignoring the advice of the old-timer to never travel alone below fifty degrees. As London says, “This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing-point.” When, halfway through his journey, he meets with disaster, he knows that his only chance of survival is starting and maintaining a fire. But the chill that necessitated the fire also attacks his coordination, and his numbed fingers can no longer manage delicate tasks. More than a century after it was first published, London’s story remains both compelling and horrifying.

Jack London’s body of writing extends past the frigid short story. His two most famous works are the novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild. And while the winters they portray are just as disturbingly frigid, the real violence of the stories comes from the wolves, sled dogs, and the humans around them.

The Call of the Wild is a sensational work, full of the feeling of running, the sting of a first snowflake, and the passion of love. The main character, Buck, is a pampered San Francisco estate dog, kidnapped and brought north for the Yukon gold rush. And while his understanding is enhanced and anthropomorphized for the sake of narrative, it’s an ultimately canine story. It’s also a fierce story, and the sensational delights are more than matched by the dizzying force of clubs, the taste of fresh blood, and the bone-wearying effects of pride and cruelty. It shows its age only in a few unfortunate moments of thoughtless racism, where the dog—having shed most of the trappings of civilization—is still treated as more human than the (fictional) Yeehat Indian tribe members he is attacking.

To see how a more modern author addresses similar questions of civilization and survival in the same setting, try Julie of the Wolves, a Newbery Medal-winning juvenile novel by Jean Craighead George. The protagonist, a thirteen-year-old Yupik girl, is torn from safety by her mother’s death, her father’s abandonment, and her own child marriage and domestic abuse. She packs a bag and runs away, hoping to eventually reach the home of her pen pal in California. But miles of tundra separate her from the shipping ports, and she is dangerously underprepared for survival. Craighead George, unlike London, develops within her heroine humility, ingenuity, and compromise. Her story, while violent, accepts violence as only one part of natural law.

For more stories of wolves and sled dogs to chill your bones:

True Stories

Could-have-been-true Stories

Not-remotely-true Stories

-Bonnie T.

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Into the Woods We Go Again

I’m gearing up to see the Hollywood adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. I’m excited for this. I like musicals. I like that one in particular, ever since my college theater troupe put it on while I was living with half the cast. And even though I know they’ve made changes (they even announced a lot of the changes being made, unusual for Hollywood), I’m still going to enjoy it. I like a good fairy tale with a twist.

Given that this isn’t a movie I’m likely to see with a dozen friends in costume at midnight (ahem, Harry Potter, ahem, The Avengers, ahem, my friends are really nerdy), what does it mean to gear up to see a movie? For me, it’s all about those fairy tales. Because Into the Woods involves an array of fairy tale characters, with a few original inventions to move the story along, I’ve been focusing on just one—Cinderella. Sondheim’s Cinderella follows the Grimm version of the tale rather than the familiar Perrault/Disney, so she is aided by forest creatures and the spirit of her dead mother inhabiting a hazel tree rather than a fairy godmother. This Cinderella is more self-aware than most—even after catching the attention of the prince, she recognizes that escaping her life of drudgery by attaching her fate to a complete stranger won’t necessarily lead to a happily-ever-after ending.

The classic cover of Ella Enchanted, before the movie release went and spoiled everything.

Some of my favorite stories are these clever Cinderellas who direct their own lives. First and highest on my list is the children’s novel Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine. The character list is what you’d expect—Ella, dead mother, unattractive stepfamily, fairy godmother, charming prince. But Ella isn’t just a comfort-to-rags-to-riches girl. She has a knack for foreign languages, a sense of humor, and a tendency to trip over her own feet. Her prince is not a distant stranger, but a confidante and pen pal. The story elapses over years, allowing for real character development. As the title implies, Ella has been under a spell since birth, and her great moral struggle comes from understanding and fighting this spell. If you want a fast read with fairies, friendship, and banister-sliding, I’d recommend picking this up.*

A rear view of Danielle in her ball gown, with massive fairy wings.

The second recommendation is the film Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore. Our heroine is Danielle, living in an entirely non-magical 16th century France. She reads Thomas More and befriends Leonardo da Vinci. She is aggressive, crafty, and—like Ella—a defender of the weak and disenfranchised. The prince is an elitist, burdened by the demands of his station. The stepmother (played by Anjelica Huston) is conniving and self-serving, and gets some great dialogue. As a costume drama lacking in fight scenes and special effects, the movie ages well.

The final recommendation is Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. It’s more of a soft science fiction story than the usual fantasy, and our eponymous leading lady is actually a cyborg, who leaves an entire prosthetic leg behind at the prince’s ball. The setting is New Beijing, in a world with android servants, mysterious plagues, and hostile alien forces. Linh Cinder was adopted as a child after a hovercraft accident destroyed two of her limbs and all memories of her birth family. She works as a mechanic for hire, enslaved by her adoptive family and the limited rights granted to cyborgs. She is independent, sarcastic, and dreams of freedom rather than love. Cinder is actually the first book in an in-progress series, currently including Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) and Cress (Rapunzel), with Fairest due out next month.

Cinder and the first two sequels, with references to the classic tales on which they are based.

If you’re interested in more non-traditional Cinderella stories, here are some worth looking up:

Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix, a children’s novel exploring life in the aftermath of the ball

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire gives us a kind stepfamily to a bratty girl who chooses the kitchen hearth, set in Holland during the tulip craze

Ash by Malinda Lo is a dark teen romance with a servant girl torn between the powerful magic she’s dreamed of saving her and the real world friendship/romance that allows her true freedom

Bella at Midnight is another teen adventure, with prince as childhood friend and heroine who refuses to be a damsel in distress

Fables is a graphic series wherein the stars of fairy tales are exiled from their magical world into modern day New York City, full of espionage, intrigue, and well-developed female characters.

Once Upon a Time is a television series with a suspiciously similar premise to Fables. Now in the middle of its fourth season, it borrows from not only the “Disney Princess” canon but also Mark Twain, L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, and Mary Shelley.

*I don’t recommend the film version of Ella Enchanted, however. The plot has been changed enough to be almost unrecognizable, and it lacks most of the charm of the original.

– Bonnie T.

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