The Good Doctor

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Damon Galgut’s The Good Doctor was shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. I have not read other works on the Shortlist for that year, although Margaret Atwood’s highly regarded Oryx and Crake was also on that list. The very popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Longlisted.

The venue is South Africa soon after the end of apartheid. The scene is a rural hospital that virtually has no patients or useful equipment. Some of the latter is stolen by one of the employees, Tehogo who along with the local military express some of the racial tension associated with change in power and outlook.

The principal characters are two doctors at the hospital. Frank, the long-time employee who has been promised leadership of the hospital after Dr. Ngema is promoted, is cynical or realistic depending on your point-of-view. Dr. Ngema is a bureaucrat and Frank is one in-waiting. He is the product of a very successful father and a broken marriage, and the hospital is a refuge. In contrast, Laurence is the young idealistic doctor, devoid of social experience, who in search of a challenge chooses this hospital, perhaps believing it had a patient base. Laurence energizes the hospital by trying to start a clinic in the villages in the bush. Unfortunately, it has no capability to service any medical condition that is more than minor. The interesting aspect of Laurence’s character is whether he is truly “good” or more passive-aggressive.

It is an entertaining read, but I doubt I would have Short or Longlisted it. Sometimes prizes are the product of the times.

 

 

 

 

Honeymoon

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I tried to read Patrick Modiano’s La Place de l’Étoile, which was his first novella and subsequent re-release as part of his Occupation Trilogy, better received, but I had to put it down. It had all the pretensions of a young writer doing a literary mind-dump about French collaborators during WWII. I subsequently came across Honeymoon which was his first novella after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Apart from the connection to WWII there is no comparison between the writing styles. The latter is more atmospheric and spare. The principal character and narrator Jean is captivated by a chance discovery of a suicide of a woman in his hotel, who turns out he knew, having spent time with her and her husband during WWII when the latter was sheltering her because of her Jewish religion during the war. In a French open marriage, the principal character abandons his career as a documentary film producer and hides from his wife and goes in search of the woman’s husband to uncover their history. All of this occurs in Paris where his wife is as if Jean is in an altered space and time. It is fitting that a Chirico graces the cover of the book, as there is a surreal feeling about the book. Jean, perhaps in a mid-life crisis, is bored with his life and existence and is in search of a spark through the mystery of a suicide.

It is the author’s style rather than the plot that makes this novella interesting. There is a quiet intensity even when there is no action. Modiano is a storyteller, but his mechanics are different. It is an interesting read in this regard.

 

Red is the new Black

Today I saw the videos of the police shootings of two black men. One in Baton Rouge and the other in Minnesota.

I am white. I have been ambivalent about Black Lives Matter. I am aware of the disproportionate police shootings of  mostly young black men. However, from the media attention paid to Black Lives Matter, it seemed they ignored the far more prevalent black on black killings that go on every day.  It is similar to the attention paid to assault rifle killings, when hand guns are the cause of more deaths. In each case one does not excuse the other. In the case of the police shootings, they often seem more complicated than the one minute clip I see on TV. There have been many acquittals. Some due in part to the criminal justice system, some due to the factual complexity. I am troubled by a number of these acquittals. Some seem racially motivated, others due to bad training and lack of understanding of the community. In a split second, a lack of the ability to communicate; the prevalence of fear on both sides; a sense of authority and a right to dominate; and weaponry, lead to deadly results.

I am familiar with life in a tough urban community. When I first moved into the area I now live in it was drug infested with automatic gunfire every night and constant muggings. There was black on black, and black on white killings. I never sought to own a hand gun, but I did carry a knife, as the walk from the subway to where I lived was not safe. I had guns pulled on me twice and survived a wilding attack. I know Giuliani did things that were not appreciated by the black community. He did make both communities safer than under Dinkins (although less in the black community).

There are bad cops, as there are bad people in every ethnic and racial community. Some people are more troubled by the Minnesota shooting then by the one in Baton Rouge. Both are troubling, but the Minnesota shooting is more complicated for me. I am not seeing the whole event. I am seeing a poorly trained cop. Is there racial bias involved. Like Minnesota’s Governor I suspect so. The victim correctly advised the cop that he had a license for a concealed weapon. I wonder if this made the cop more nervous. If the victim was alone I could imagine it, but a woman and a child were in the car. It is not unheard of for a cop to be shot under similar circumstances, but if he was in fear he could have asked the victim and the woman to each step out of the car and put their hands on their heads and then locate the weapon and obtain the ID he was asking for. Would any of this been deemed necessary from the cops perspective if the victim was white- likely not in my view. There is bias, fear and bad training involved here, but the fact pattern is more complicated than the Baton Rouge video. The latter shows the victim pinned to the ground by two officers, immobile on his back. One officer pulls out his gun (no audio so I don’t know why) and shoots the man point-blank. There is no fear here. You don’t need training to know that pulling out the revolver and shooting point blank is unwarranted. Unless you are a bigot, it is clear as day that this is murder. At best, the officer could say that the gun discharged accidentally, but it would not be believed.

Baton Rouge is mostly black with about 70% of its police force being reported as white. When I first moved into where I lived we used to have white police who lived in the suburbs police our area. No one walked a beat.They drove in their cars, scared of the neighborhood without knowing it. I would walk my dog, so I knew who was bad and who wasn’t. Black and white who were not bad, looked out for each other and their kids and the neighborhood, with much better policing, improved.

For families of victims the reason for the killing is unimportant. Dead is dead. For a community it does matter. There will always be bad cops, but there needs to be attitude changes in both communities. Communities and organizers that are trying to play gotcha with cops on video when circumstances don’t merit it, are no better than bad cops. Two recent examples in NYC. An Asian rookie cop kills a black man in a dark stairway in one of the projects. Absolutely no reason for the shooting other than that he was scared. Bad police management for him to be on such a patrol. He was acquitted to the family’s dismay. The latter is understandable, but it was not a racial shooting. The other day an off-duty cop gets into a road rage incident with a black man. The facts are still sketchy but the victim allegedly punches the cop in the face through the open window of his car while he is sitting in it. The cop apparently did not identify himself as a cop, pulls out his gun and shoots the victim. Clearly excessive force, but seemingly not a racial matter. The family, angry from the death say there is no excuse, even recognizing that the victim provoked the incident. This is not to say that Black Lives Matter is not concerned about non-white cops killing young black men. There is a police culture (even toward whites) that needs to be adjusted. Many fail to recognize that they are public servants, rather than the public serving them. Often they don’t follow the law that they are charged to uphold. Police need to learn to lead by example. Some do, more need to. For whites, when they don’t it often is an annoyance (although numerically, but not proportionally, police kill more white people). For blacks, particularly young black men, they pay for it with their blood.

It is past time to stop Red Being the New Black.

 

 

 

 

The Ghost Road

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Craiglockhart War Hospital was known for housing some of the best British World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen, a minor character in Pat Barker’s excellent and unusual war novel “The Ghost Road”. The Booker Prize winning author wrote two prior World War I novels before The Ghost Road, and I am inclined to read both Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.

Part a psychological study of the victims of gas, shell-shock, and what today would be considered PTSD, the novel is narrated by the historical doctor W. H.R. Rivers who treated patients at Craiglockhart, and Billy Prior, a bisexual officer, addicted to the War. Prior has relationships with Rivers and others during this closeted period which reflects the commonality of  the experience, even as he is engaged. The author reflects his involuntary revulsion when having sex with his fiancee, he sees in her face the face of a bosce he targeted.

The unusual aspect of this novel, is that Rivers had conducted an anthropological study of the headhunters of Melanesia prior to the war, and has flashbacks to these experiences as he treats soldiers on the ward. The shaman of the tribe, Njiru, is believed by the tribe to have connections with Ave. The shaman does not believe it to be so. Rivers is both fascinated and in fear of Njiru, as he is not sure if the tribe has abandoned headhunting even though the British had outlawed it.

“He was reminded suddenly of an incident in the Torres Straits when Haddon had been trying to get skulls to measure. One man had said, with immense dignity, ‘Be patient. You will have all our skulls in time.’ It was not a comfortable memory. He was not asking for skulls but he was asking for something equally sacred. He leant forward and their shadows leapt and grappled against the bush. ‘Tell me about Ave.’

Ave lives in Ysabel. He is both one spirit and many spirits. His mouth is long and filled with the blood of the men he devours. Kita and Mateana are nothing beside him because they destroy only the individual, but Ave kills ‘all people ‘long house’. The broken rainbows belongs to him, and presages both epidemic disease and war. Ave is the destroyer of peoples.”

Wilfred Owen was one of the heroes of the War.  In what is one of the scant references to battle in the novel, near the end of the war, Prior’s unit is commanded to undertake a near suicide mission. The soldiers know that the war is coming to a close and Prior remarks on it with the cynicism of a veteran. “I lay in bed last night and listened to them in the barn singing. I wish I didn’t feel they’re being sacrificed to the subclauses and the small print. But I think they are.”

In Melanesia Rivers shares the same cynicism about the Empire. He is discussing the consequences of the tribe violating the law by resorting to headhunting again.

‘Look you know what the penalties are. If they go on a raid there is no way the British Commsioner isn’t going to hear about it. And then you’ve got a gunboat off the coast, villages on fire, trees cut down, crops destroyed, pigs killed. Screaming women and children driven into the bush. You know what happens.’

‘Makes you proud to be British, doesn’t it?’

Ms. Barker writes both powerfully and with the humor of a sailor.

She sums up Craiglockhart.

“We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think- at least not beyond the confines of what’s need to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.”

The wars and the technologies change, but the anxieties remain. “Murder was only killing in the wrong place.”

Even if you do not like the war literature genre, this is a novel worth reading.

 

 

 

 

 

The Ancient Minstrel

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I never read Jim Harrison and as he was a widely known American author and poet I decided to read his last book “The Ancient Minstrel.” His better known works include Legends of the Fall and The English Major. Authors at the end of their career usually are not at the top of their craft and this book is no exception. The first novella, which bears the name of the book, is purportedly semi-autobiographical. If you like 100 pages of narcissism you might find this enjoyable. I hope it is more fiction than biographical as I don’t give points for be honest.

The second novella, Eggs, is more readable. It is a story of a girl from a relatively wealthy family whose imbibing of alcohol has a deleterious effect on the children, one who commits suicide and the other who finds comfort on a Montana farm with chickens. Ultimately, she trades their eggs, for the birth of a child out-of-wedlock.  It is women’s literature in the sense that men are of no use save for procreation.

The last novella is The Case of the Howling Buddhas. It is a dime store detective story with sexual innuendo of pulp fiction. I got about ten pages into it before I stopped and had enough. Awaiting me was Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Unfortunately when I tried to renew it at library, two people had holds on it, so I will have to read it another time. This annoyed me because Mr. Matthiesssen is a superior writing and I wasted my time reading The Ancient Minstrel. Don’t make the same mistake.

 

 

 

 

 

A Strangeness In My Mind

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I saw Orhan Pamuk at a book reading for his most recent novel, “A Strangeness in My Mind”. He read very little. He did discuss that he has ideas he wants to convey to the reader and builds a fictional account to do it. Often it starts as a short story and develops. In this case it expanded to almost 600 pages. His goal was to write about the change in Turkey from the perspective of the working class. He believes that this has not been done without involving the middle class in the story and conveying the latter’s point of view instead of the workers’. I don’t share his viewpoint, and this novel does not accomplish it. The principal character Mevlut is dependent upon the protection and economic support of his relatives Korkut and Suleyman and their family.

It took me a long time to become involved in the story. The novel conveys the economic and cultural changes of Istanbul and its surrounding regions from 1982 to 2012. Melvut, who is tricked by Suleyman into eloping with the elder sister of the girl he is enamored of, develops a life-long love for his wife. It is the discussion and comparison of relationships, and arranged marriages with marriages for “love”, that was most appealing to me. Melvut is an innocent, who works hard but is generally unsuccessful in business-principally a street vendor of boza (a drink with low alcohol content). The book reveals a loss of community as Istanbul becomes a city of real estate development. In this the novel is a universal tale.

It is not great literature, but if you can wade through the pages, in the end it is a story that is endearing, particularly to readers who have have or had a long and successful marriage.

The Letter Bearer

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Robert Allison’s the letter bearer was nominated for the 2015 Desmond Elliot prize for first novel written in English and published in the U.K. The Miniaturist, which I previously reviewed, was a good story that was Longlisted in 2015 for this Prize. The two novels are very different, although both are historical fiction. The use of language in Mr. Allison’s work is exquisite, and the plot evolves into a complex story. Between the two, his prose is superior. Mr. Allison is a writer to be followed. This novel is a must read.

The plot is initially simple. A soldier, a bearer of British soldiers’ letters home from the front in the early stage of the North African campaign during WWII, is severely injured and left to die by German soldiers. He is rescued by a band of deserters who have an Italian POW in-tow.

“Beastly misfortune. To be delivered into so reprobate a family. Brinkhurst: gentleman inquisitor, bon vivant, liar. Swann: bully, sadist, god to lesser creatures. Mawdsley: curator of analgesics, inductee to that venerable register of opiate-soused, absinthe-swilling quacks. Men of such poor fibre that they find in the openness of the desert only the need to seclude themselves. That they will kill him in the end he has no doubt. Either by calculation or mischance, whichever comes sooner.”

The author is a keen observer. Narrated by the severely injured courier named “the Rider”, the novel witnesses the desert landscape and the small frailties of men trapped between combatants in a war-zone, as the sedentary might. The Rider has PTSD and amnesia. It makes his distrusting companions uncomfortable. He tries to unfold his identity by reading the letters he carries. There is irony in this band of deserters. They an Italian POW in-tow. Humanity always needs to have someone to step on.

The desert, like Malta, is a land of antiquities and war fossils. Read this novel first for the prose, then for the plot.

“The Grant [a tank] continues on to an empty expanse, all flourishes of land ceded now to a featureless divide between earth and sky. If any vessels were to appear on the horizon they might describe in their travel the circumferential arc, a sight familiar to mariners, but still astonishing to land dwellers. Across the breadth of the vista, the air lifts and rolls in apparitional breakers, conjuring visions of mythic skylines, the canopies of secret waterholes. And for the rider, one illusion to supercede all others: that grand temple in which he had earlier trespassed, revealed to him now in a flourish of baking air. And why? The soul seeking redemption? The gateway to absolution?”

 

 

 

 

The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606

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You might want to read this justifiably well-received literary history multiple times. The title “The Year of Lear” is a slightly misrepresents the scope of the book. It provides an interesting critical analysis of the literary development of the play “King Lear” in historical and cultural context, but it does the same for “Macbeth“, “Antony and Cleopatra” and other Shakespearean plays. The author, James Shapiro, is an expert on Shakespeare. He previously published “A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599”. It spotlighted Shakespeare’s Elizabethan plays of that year: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. Coincidentally a local theatre company in NYC is staging to mixed reviews, excerpts from all four plays in one four hours plus production, where the actors take on multiple roles. 1606 was the year for Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Some were performed later, and Timon of Athens was a collaborative effort that may have been dated 1605.

What is most interesting about this book is how we are products of our times. The transition from Elizabeth I to James I required flexibility by playwrights and theatre companies. The latter were dependent upon the public largesse of the Crown and the popularity of the actors. Shakespeare’s the King’s Men, was James I’s official company, even though Shakespeare’s Queen’s Men was associated with Elizabeth I. Political and theatrical transitions were smooth for the time. Dramatist wrote for specific actors who could make or break a company.  King Lear was written for Richard Burbage the lead actor of the period. He was curiously also the embodiment for Richard the Third, Hamlet and Othello. The playwright had to be sensitive to the politics of the period. Criticism not masked in the writing could result in time in the Tower or execution. Antony and Cleopatra, written after Elizabeth’s death, may reflect the virgin Queen’s relationship with the Earl of Essex (who she executed), even though it is drawn from Plutarch’s Life of Antony. Shakespeare counterpart Ben Jonson, who wrote Volpone for Burbage, spent time in the Tower for offending King James.

The historical context of this book is current and  compelling. The Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 although unsuccessful in its attempt to kill King James and to blow up Parliament understandably resonated throughout the kingdom, as 9/11 left a cultural impact on the U.S.. Catholics, and in particular Jesuits, were the targeted group. Gowrie Day, the 5th of November, was a day of collective memory. A plot by Catholic English gentry seemed unimaginable given its magnitude. Spain and other Catholic governments were suspected. There even was a conspiracy theory that the Catholic hating Salisbury orchestrated the plot.  Many of the plotters were known or had association with Shakespeare and his family and it was orchestrated from Warwickshire. James’ response was moderate and no worse than Elizabeth’s prosecution of the Jesuits. James’ primary goal was to unify Scotland, England and Wales and he needed moderation to accomplish this. Queen Anne was also a silent Catholic. His kingdom, like Lear’s, was divided. The Union Jack and other trappings of unity were created by James to enlist Parliament in his desire for Great Britain. He was unsuccessful. Parliament held the purse, the Crown was as dependent as a theatre company.

James did not have Elizabeth’s swagger and Antony and Cleopatra may have been a masked dig at James being the less charismatic. As Shapiro would have it, the play was nostalgic for a more heroic period. The Armada was defeated during her reign. James’ legacy was the King James Bible (see my review of the interesting cultural and religious history of this Bible by Alistair McGrath, In the Beginning). He also began the colonization of the New World with the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Over time, perhaps he is the one with the greater legacy.

Communication was relatively slow, but the plague was fast and near constant during this period, particularly in London. It interrupted the theatre schedules, eliminating younger companies that were not subsidized. As Shakespeare was 42 in 1606 this was beneficial to the Kings Men. Shakespeare did not stage masques which were a financial plum. Although some Shakespearean plays incorporated masques (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer’s Nights Dream, the Tempest and Henry VIII), the costly staging (often by Indigo Jones) of dance, pantomime, and song that engaged the Crown and aristocracy in the production were awarded to others.

As is the case with Broadway, plays were often revivals and adaptations of earlier plays that the public knew and would attend. The spectators expected to see a different play every night, so volume restrained creation of original works. King Lear was an adaptation of an earlier, King Leir. Shapiro contrasts the two, with King Lear being substantially the darker. Shakespeare borrowed language for Lear and Edgar from Samuel Harsnett’s treatise on faking demonic possession A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures. Often better to be a borrower than a creator be.

The literary references and analysis, the self-censoring of language, the etymology of Shakespearean usage in their historical and cultural context, are a few of the other virtues of this book. If you like history, language, and Shakespeare, this book will be as you like it.

 

The Blue Between Sky and Water

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An imagined village that historically was on the trade route from Cairo to Damascus. Once ruled by the Mamluks, today is in Gaza.

“A river, brimming with God’s assortment of fish and flora, can through Beir Daras, bringing blessings and carrying away village waste, dreams, gossip, prayers, and stories, which it emptied into the Mediterranean just north of Gaza. The water flowing over rocks hummed secrets of the earth and time meandered to the rhythms of crawling, hopping, buzzing, and flying lives.”

The author, Susan Abulhawa, is a political activist whose family immigrated to the U.S. after the Six Day war with Israel. Her parents had lived in East Jerusalem, initially moving to Kuwait. She reportedly spent some time in foster care, and the character Nur perhaps reflects some of her experience. The story is a saga of a Palestinian family displaced after Israel’s War of Independence, told through the eyes of women. It is a story of family and traditional Palestinian values, in part, in contrast to American values and those of richer Palestinians. The underlying theme is of unprovoked displacement, occupation, and struggle to regain their freedom and village of Beir Daras. The novel begins with a recitation of the Israel-Arab/Palestinian conflict and the rise of Hamas, who the author supports.

“Declassified documents, obtained years later, revealed the chilling precision with which Israel calculated the calorie intake of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza to make them go hungry, but not starve.” The author’s statement is based on a April 15, 2006 article in the Observer section of The Guardian, and attributable to Dov Weissglass, then an advisor to the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert :

“‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,’ he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.”

The authenticity of the quote and its context were later called into question (see https://bbcwatch.org/tag/dov-weisglass/ ). Without the undercurrent theme I might have been able to enjoy the story more, but its historical inaccuracies and unbalance, seem aimed at propaganda for recruits. Given that the author lives in Pennsylvania and did not bear the suffering that those in Gaza have experienced, this is bothersome to me. She admits that the venue is derivative from Ramzy Baroud’s book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. To her credit she is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.

The story  never demonstrates the starvation and deprivation that I expected it to. The families do not have all that they want and do suffer from bombings, but no family member is ever without food nor has diet limitations. They have periodic celebrations. It does not feel like a pogrom, if that was the author’s intent. Perhaps this was edited out. Perhaps the intent was not to directly create a political novel, but to do so indirectly. The preface and epilogue only intermittently reflect the novel and might have been omitted.

The more literary writing reflected in the initially quoted paragraph of this review is never repeated. This novel is principally story-telling. The characters are well-developed, particularly the matriarch of one of the family lines, Atiyeh m. Nazmiyeh, and Nur a granddaughter of a related family line, who is American born, and suffers in foster care before emigrating to Gaza. The interplay between these two characters and Nazmiyeh’s daughter, Alwan, is interesting, as Western American women (and Westernized upper class Palestinian women) values are unacceptable to retained traditional values. The atomic, individualized world of Americans, is rejected by the communal, familial orientation of traditional Arab (and Persian) cultures. The author is reflects the values of her characters, and is honest in doing so.

As this is principally a women’s novel, only the stories of a few males by marriage, birth, or relationship, are told. Nazmiyeh’s eleven sons are not part of the tale. Are they part of the resistance or are they merely trying to earn a living to survive? Perhaps the author can write a sequel based on their stories given her political activism.

If you are a supporter of Hamas you may like this novel or may find it too mainstream. Personally I am troubled by an agenda that keeps sending young people and families to their death, rather than to try to coexist and build a better life for those which it purportedly represents (and did at one point).

 

 

 

Fifteen Dogs

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I came across Fifteen Dogs at the Brooklyn Book Fair last year. I had not read anything by Mr. Alexis. It is an apologue. Apollo and Hermes wager whether dogs granted human consciousness and language will die happy or sad. Part of the pack of 15 dogs dominates those who are attracted to their new-found capabilities. They want to remain as dogs. Those who accept their new skills find it disruptive. Communication with humans is not always understood nor accepted. Human males treat them as circus performers. Female humans are drawn closer to them. The dogs presumed genetic pack hierarchy of male dominance makes it hard for these dogs to treat their female human friends as equal. Nature (genetics) is pitted against culture (epigenetics).

The book is anthropocentric. While it recognizes that dogs (and other animals) have their own language, it assumes that they may not be able to understand human language because they cannot speak it. It is known that in their own language birds actually have dialects like humans. The dogs in this novel are multi-linguistic although they prefer English. Whether dogs might have these natural skills is unknown.

There is no deep philosophy nor moralizing in this book. The book contains poems written by the dogs who have accepted their new linguistic skills. The author notes that these are written in the genre invented by Francois Caradec called oulipo. These poems purportedly can be understood by both dogs and human. They may give dogs a reason to hate poetry.

Given the wealth of outstanding literature that goes unread I would suggest you pass up on Fifteen Dogs. For me it wasn’t fetching.

 

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