Books Are Pretty

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Note to Self.

Christopher and I swung by the post office a couple of weeks ago to check the box. Christopher has taken over this job, of course, because let's face it: an open PO box is pretty cool. You put a big brass key into the lock of a tiny door, and when you open it up, there's a whole 'nother world in there. Sometimes with crabby government employees in it, who respond to your pleadings for mail with, "No! We already put the mail out today! There is no more. Now get your face out the mailbox before I cram my sensible shoe in there and kick you!"

But that day we did have something, a yellow note that said we had a package that was too big for the box, and we had to go see the clerk and pick it up. Our post office has a side door that allows you to bypass all the grubby people sweating it out in line, sort of like having the special pass at Disneyworld, and you can slip around to the dutch door and ring the doorbell and an employee will open the top part of the door and give you your package. Also, very cool.*

We got the package, and this book was in it. I recognized the author as someone whose similarly-covered first book I reviewed in September, and I assumed because of that review I got this one as well, in a "If you loved that, you'll really love this!" kind of way.

I don't know if other people do this, but unsolicited books go straight to the bottom of the pile, and it is an ugly, mountainous pile indeed. I have been running three solid months behind for two years, and there doesn't seem to be a time when I'll get caught up. I'll read the unsolicited ones eventually, but if I've spoken with an author or a publicist about a book, I give it priority. You'll see a review of your unsolicited book in about 10 months. Thanks for sending it!

Inside the book was a green envelope, addressed to "To Whom It May Concern." It was a letter from the author, who told me she sent me the book because she mentioned me in it, on page 103. She had come across the review I wrote of her first book, Love of Letters, and thought it was funny, she said.

Because I'm in it, I don't think I can critique the book honestly, but I sure as hell am willing to critique page 103. And here it is, in all its glory:

I recently found one of the more amusing blogs I've read about myself. It was written a few months ago, but I only just found it because - okay, we're all adults here, I'll say it - I was Googling myself. I came across a review of my first book at [Books Are Pretty.] Needless to say, I'm a huge fan of book-review blogs. Keep up the good work, guys! The reviewer didn't like my title(I appreciate the honesty) but liked the book, and made many kind comments. The reviewer was not a fan, however, of my letter-writing service. She (or he, the blogger is anonymous) wrote, "However, if it's a love letter you're wanting to write, please don't hire her. Do it yourself, or don't do it at all." The person goes on to state the reason: "To be perfectly blunt, O'Shea doesn't want to blow your boyfriend. You do. And no matter how skilled the writer, that passion is very, very hard to fake." Long live bluntness! I loved this, but I can't make any promises - I haven't met your boyfriend."

Boy, you make one blowjob joke**, and it gets preserved like an insect in amber, forever labeling Books Are Pretty as the go-to place for the book review/blowjob combo.

I stood there, laughing loudly, with Christopher begging me to tell him what's so funny. Nothing! Nothing at all. I also had an awkward time explaining it to my mother.

"Guess what? Someone mentioned me in her book!"

"Wow! What did it say?"

"Oh, she liked a review I wrote about her last book."

"What did you say about it?"

"That she doesn't want to blow your boyfriend."

"Well, if it's Samara O'Shea, watch out. She totally would."

Actually, I probably shouldn't have even brought it up.

But here's two things about page 103: I did not say I didn't like the title. I said she should have picked a different title, because at the time, when "For the Love of Letters" was typed into the Amazon search box, it turned up Letters to Penthouse. I just thought that was important to note. Secondly, I also didn't say I didn't like her letter-writing service. If it's a letter of resignation you need, or a letter of introduction, or a letter of recommendation, and you suck at those things, then go for it. I just don't think you should outsource your love letters.

So yes: Note to Self is a book about journaling, and it covers the hows, whats and whys of diaries, journals, blogging, and what to write about after you've shot the president. She includes a lot of juicy excerpts from her own diary as well as Anais Nin, Lewis Carroll, and many others. So buy the book, don't buy the book, whatever. Just make sure you keep Samara O'Shea away from your boyfriend.

*Point of unpleasant fact: This is still a government building, and when the posted sign says you can pick up mail until 5:45, what it actually means is Go Fuck Yourself. They are long gone at 5:30.

**One? Yeah, yeah. Shut up.


Note to Self
by Samara O'Shea
July, 2008 by HarperCollins
Hardcover, 192pp
ISBN: 0061494151

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Pocket Guide to Mischief

The product details on indicate that this book was published on February 1st; however, let me tell you that my copy arrived on April Fool’s Day, complete with a whoopee cushion.*

Christopher accepted the gift like it was a stone tablet found on the mountain, and when Steve came home from work he was beside himself trying to get Steve to sit down in one of the dining room chairs.

“Please,” he urged, “please Daddy! Please sit in the chair.”

Steve decided to torment him for a little bit, saying he wasn’t tired and didn’t feel like sitting, but thank you very much.

“Oh, Daddy, please,” he begged, and by this time his desire had nearly doubled him over.

With much sighing and exasperated sounds, Steve finally sat down, an action that was heralded by the trumpeting of the cushion.

Tears squirted out of Christopher's eyes as he fell over, completely helpless with laughter. His unbridled joy was infectious, and if you have never had the opportunity to introduce the concept of a whoopee cushion to someone, well, I heartily recommend it. He took the whoopee cushion to school the next day, where it met an untimely death at the hands of one of his classmates, but for 24 glorious hours he was in possession of the greatest invention ever made.

So I’m not sure I’m going to give him the book that came along with it. He may have a stroke.

The Pocket Guide to Mischief was written by a junior high school teacher, a revelation that should surprise no one, as the book is filled with anecdotes and snappy comebacks that an eleven year old would most certainly run around and use on all who have the misfortune of crossing his path.

I am married to a mischief-maker myself, by the way, a man who repaid an office debt of twenty dollars by sending his nemesis a quarter every day through inter-office mail. A man who took all the pencils of the same (very short) nemesis and stuck them in the porous office ceiling so they tauntingly hovered over his head all day. A man who, when in the army, surreptitiously booby-trapped a training area that his COs had already booby-trapped, causing his superior officers to set off all kinds of unexpected, startling explosions. So I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur.

This is a book for beginning mischief makers, and true to his junior high school teacher roots, King has to first urge his readers not to get carried away and do stupid things, like hurt someone or themselves.

Then he delves into the nuts and bolts of mischief-making, the first rule of which is to acquire a nemesis to bear the brunt of out all these new-found skills, some of which include wedgies and tp-ing someone’s house, which is apparently illegal in some areas of the country, so watch out. The Pocket Guide to Mischief also pays homage to mischief makers of the past, like the Yale students who conned the Harvard students into holding up placards that said “We Suck” at a football game.

Mostly, though, the book just teaches you how to be goofy, and I’m not sure junior high school boys need lessons on that.


*I thought it was spelled “whoopie,” but spellcheck corrected me. Wikipedia votes with spellcheck, but the NY Times book section agrees with me. Controversy! Controversy! Fight!

The Pocket Guide to Mischief
by Bart King
February, 2008 by Gibbs Smith
Paperback, 272pp
ISBN: 1-4236-0366-4

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Stone Gods.

Oooh, check it! One of the publicists at Harcourt sent me a book written by one of the big dogs! As you may have noticed, the books I'm usually sent are books by lesser known (although not necessarily less talented, she hastens to add) authors, sometimes by publicists and sometimes by the authors themselves, which is always nice. This means they're almost sure to read it, and if I offer any sort of criticism the author will zero in on it and either write me a note telling me how I got it all wrong, or, in the case of one particular writer, exact her revenge, which you will find out more about in an upcoming review.

Jeanette Winterson, however, is one of the U.K.'s more prominent writers, so she gets reviewed by the Guardian, the London Review of Books, the Washington Post, etc. The downside is that nobody will pay attention to my pea-sized blog and what I have to say about this book. The upside, however, is that nobody will pay attention to my pea-sized blog and what I have to say about this book, so I can say whatever I want.

I sure wish I hated the book, then. This would have been a perfect opportunity to rip something to shreds, but not for nothing is Winterson a prize-winning writer.

I'm not going to go so far as to emulate some of the blurbs on the back of it, such as the one written by The Daily Telegraph that said, "...If she keeps on like this there may be a glimmer of hope for the future after all."

I want to have my own book published and get someone to blurb, "This book totally cured my cancer!"

I mean, that is an awesome blurb. I wanted to find the Telegraph review and read that quote in context, because it's possible the reviewer was referring to Winterson's personal career, considered by many to be somewhat erratic. However, I like the idea that Winterson has the ability to save the world through her fiction. Why didn't she write this book back in 2000 when Bush was busy stealing the election? Think of all the damage she could have prevented! Why would she have the ability to produce such life-saving miracles, yet mysteriously withhold them? We already have God for that; we don't need Winterson horning in on his gig.

But Winterson didn't write The Stone Gods to play God, even when she takes the opportunity to smite some very specific targets. Dipping back in to her commonly used theme of love and the search for a place to call home, her latest novel speculates on a future where humankind has reached the inevitable end of consumer culture. Orbus, the planet the human race evacuated to when Earth was finally used up and uninhabitable, has also been used up and is now uninhabitable. The world is run by a corporation, MORE, which monitors the activities of all citizens. The citizens, in the meantime, have put their brains and free will completely in MORE's hands. They are no longer literate, and spend their time spending their money. Plastic surgery has evolved to the point where men and women can "fix" their DNA, keeping them perpetually looking like hot 20-year-olds (which cramps the style of celebrities, who had previously used their money to look much better than the rest of us.) All actual work is done by robots, made by the MORE corporation, including a type of robot called Robo sapiens, that was created to govern the world.

The protagonist, a scientist named Billie Crusoe, is considered a trouble maker, because even though she works for the MORE corporation, she is a lone voice of sanity, begging her species to give a damn about the planet they are so carelessly destroying, through pollution, through war, through the wasteful use of resources. The more loudly she agitates, the more the corporation wants to get rid of her, and finally she is given a choice: be arrested or be on the next spaceship out of town, to colonize a newly discovered, pristine planet that the rich can evacuate to when Orbus is finally dead.

Billie travels to the planet with Spike, an impossibly beautiful and perfectly pleasant Robo sapiens, whose quest for humanity leads to what is either a inter-...species? affair between Billie and Spike, or the discovery of the best masturbation tool ever. (And in case all the ecological pleading doesn't persuade you to read the book, maybe some of the hot Robo lingus will.)

The Stone Gods is broken into four parts, initially seeming as dissimilar as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. The second part features the Billie character as a teenage boy, Billy, stranded on the Easter Islands in 1774, abandoned by his shipmates and left to fend alone on an island where the inhabitants have utterly destroyed it in order to build useless stone gods. The second two books return to Spike and Billie, this time on planet Earth, right after Iran has launched a nuclear attack on the United States. As Billie and Spike wander through their world, from the cleaned-up suburbs where the MORE employees live, to Wreck City, a lawless land sort of like Blade Runner to Ground Zero, where the soil and air are utterly toxic.

Over and over again, Winterson's characters refuse to learn from their mistakes and continue their path of destruction. On the way to Planet Blue, the ship's captain tells a theme-encapsulating story, which he of course misses the point and continues in his quest to conquer and consume.

There was a young man with a hot temper. He was not all bad, but he was reckless, and he drank more than he should, and spent more than he could, and gave a ring to more women than one, and gambled himself into a corner so tight an ant couldn't turn round in it. Once night, in despair, and desperate with worry, he got into a fight outside a bar, and killed a man.

Mad with fear and remorse, for he was more hot-tempered than wicked, and stupid when he could have been wise, he locked himself into his filthy bare attic room and took the revolver that had killed his enemy, loaded it, cocked it and prepared to blast himself to pieces.

In the few moments before he pulled the trigger, he said, "If I had known that all that I have done would bring me to this, I would have led a very different life. If I could live my life again, I would not be here, with the trigger in my hand and the barrel at my head."

His good angel was sitting by him and, felling pity for the young, man, the angel flew to Heaven and interceded on his behalf.

The in all his six-winged glory, the angel appeared before the terrified boy, and granted him his wish. "In full knowledge of what you have become, go back and begin again."

And suddenly, the young man had another chance.

For a time, all went well. He was sober, upright, true, thrifty. Then one night he passed a bar, and it seemed familiar to him, and he went in and gambled all he had, and he met a woman and told her he had no wife, and he stole from his employer, and spent all he could.

And his debts mounted with his despair, and he decided to gamble everything on one last throw of the dice. This time, as the wheel spun and slowed, his chance would be on the black, not the red. This time, he would win.

The ball fell in the fateful place, as it must.

The young man had lost.

He ran outside, but the men followed him, and in a brawl with the bar owner, he shot him dead, and found himself alone and hunted in a filthy attic room.

He took out his revolver. He primed it. He said, "If I'd known that I could do such a thing again, I would never have risked it. I would have lived a different life. If I had known where my actions would lead me..."

And his angel came, and sat by him, and took pity on him once again, and interceded for him, and...

And years passed, and the young man was doing well until he came to a bar that seemed familiar to him...

Bullets, revolver, attic, angel, begin again. Bar, bullets, revolver, attic, angel, begin again...angel, bar, ball, bullets...

Like the lonesome (and deliberately named) Crusoe, Winterson issues an outsider's plaintive cry to love and to rescue our planet from ourselves before it is too late. On her website, Winterson writes, "I heard Stephen Hawking on the radio talking about how humans must colonise space to have any chance of survival, and I thought what a depressing prognosis of our condition that is. Maybe it’s a boy-thing, this infatuation with rocket ships and rocky worlds. I would prefer to stay here and honour the earth."


The Stone Gods
by Jeanette Winterson
April, 2008 by Harcourt
Hardcover, 206pp.
ISBN: 978-0-15-101491-0

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Leonardo's Shadow.

So here I am, back in the Renaissance. In March, I reviewed Traci Slatton's Immortal, a look at the Italian Renaissance through the eyes of an young orphan boy who developed a strong relationship with the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

Guess what Leonardo's Shadow, the debut novel by Christopher Grey, is about? The exact same thing. Fortunately for me, there's more than one way to tell a story, and although the backdrop is the same and so is the age and gender of the protagonist, the personalities and experiences are wildly different.

Immortal's unlucky little protagonist, a child who seemingly does not age, spends twenty years of his life enslaved as a child prostitute in Florence's most sadistic brothel. Giacomo, the plucky little servant of one of history's greatest painters, fares much better, although he complains more than the child prostitute does. This improvement in the quality of life is a very good thing, because unlike Immortal, the intended audience for Leonardo's Shadow are young teens. Although my 14-year-old self probably would have greedily sucked up every last sordid scene in Slatton's excellent novel and sniffed contemptuously at any adult trying to stand between me and a book, as an adult myself it's nothing I would recommend for readers under sixteen. (Although I did buy my nephew a copy of Maus when he was 13. For Christmas. Ho ho ho.)

Based on da Vinci's Notebooks,* Leonardo's Shadow centers on da Vinci's servant Giacomo, who is mentioned sporadically in the Notebook by da Vinci, usually in a tone of exasperation. Grey presents Giacomo as a boy who is constantly striving to be useful and loyal to his Master, but is constantly given nothing but (somewhat) good-natured grief.

Grey introduces us to Giacomo when he is eight and very ill. Pursued by villagers for suspected thievery, he is rescued by da Vinci and brought home with him to be pressed into service. Due to a high fever, Giacomo has no memory of his life prior to living with the artist, and the only possessions he owns are a ring, a medallion, and a necklace with a cross dangling from it, and he doesn't even know where they came from. Seven years later, Giacomo is still with da Vinci, and in between his duties to the Master, he attempts to discover his roots and find his missing parents. Not that he has much time to indulge himself, because da Vinci keeps him on his toes. Commissioned by Milan's Duke Sforza to paint a scene of the last supper at the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, da Vinci stresses everyone out by procrastinating for two years. Giacomo's duties mostly involve begging the local merchants not to cut them off even though da Vinci hasn't paid them in ages, and nagging at the artist to hurry up and paint already. As Giacomo slowly begins to piece together his past, his loyalties to his Master begin to waiver, and he is pulled into a chain of events that lead to revenge, murder plots, and that old Renaissance standby, alchemy.

Since I don't have any teenagers at home, and even if I did, their cooperation would probably be dubious at best, I gathered my more agreeable peanuts around me, ages 5 and 8. When Alex was three, Steve taught him to answer the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" with "A Renaissance Man." Five years later, Alex still thinks this is a legitimate profession, and that's how he answers the question still. So I figured he'd be interested in a story by the world's most famous Renaissance Man. I read them the first chapter, where we are introduced to Giacomo, on the lam and running for his life.

Ten paces behind, a great crowd was chasing me, waving sticks and fists, cursing and shouting. Some of them were old, but that didn't stop them. There were women, too. All had sour faces.

They thought I was a thief.

If I was caught I would be strung up by the neck from the nearest doorway and left there to swing, for the dogs to bark at.

So I ran and I ran, skipping in between the market stalls, knocking down barrels of salt fish and baskets of red plums, always keeping a tight hold on my ragbag. Each time someone new saw me running, they took up the alarm -

"Stop, thief!"

"Somebody take him!"

"The boy must be stopped!"

But I would never let them- even though I felt sick almost to death. I had the fever, I knew that. There was a mist in front of my eyes and I was buring up inside.

But to stop now was to stop forever.

Never! They would never take me while I lived.

The boys definitely enjoyed the first chapter, but I'll probably hold off on reading the part where Giacomo meets da Vinci's father and finds out about his Master's sodomy arrest.

Besides, we're in book six of the Harry Potter series at the moment, and once you get pulled into that tractor beam, there's no escape.

If your young teen is able to escape from Hogwarts, Leonardo's Shadow is a very good choice for what to read next.

When I was in high school, I was assigned to read The Good Earth, Ayn Rand's Anthem, A Separate Peace, and Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities. I enjoyed Anthem (and thought I was so totally cool for knowing that Rush's 2112 album was based on it. Between my teacher and Neal Peart, I was surrounded by Randroids), and A Separate Peace I remember thinking was fair, although I can't tell you anything about it today. The Good Earth and Tale of Two Cities, however, I found excruciatingly boring, in no small part because of the formality of the language and, in the case of Dickens, the raging amounts of unnecessary exposition**.

Why can't American educators throw some exciting new fiction into the mix? Leonardo's Shadow isn't totally accurate, of course, because it can't be. Grey created a breathing, living character from a few flat asides in the notebook where da Vinci complains about the hired help. There's a lot of gaps there. However, it gives a very reasonable look into how life was lived during the Italian Renaissance, every bit as good as Dickens showed us 19th century England, and a progressive high school English teacher might want to think about incorporating the fast-paced Leonardo's Shadow into the curriculum between Lord of the Flies and Huckleberry Finn.

But if not, there's always that summer reading program, where it can be read, then traded in for a personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut.

*Before you click on that link, be advised that it takes you to a page on the British Library's website where you can look at da Vinci's actual notebook, not a copy. The link is near the bottom of a list of many books you can look at, including the original Alice In Wonderland, handwritten and illustrated for Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll. You can click on the pages and turn them one by one, and before you know it, you've spent two hours there.

**Wouldn't it be nice if classes could read Dickens in the way it was written to be read, one chapter a month? Too much more Dickens than that drowns the 10th grade brain.

Leonardo's Shadow
by Christopher Grey
March, 2008 by Simon & Schuster
400 pp, Paperback
ISBN: 1416905448

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Solitary Vice.

Hey, lookit everybody! It's a legs-and-feet cover on a book written by a woman! And I don't hate it! In fact I kind of like it, which made me wonder briefly if my girl Olga designed it, but I dismissed the idea pretty quickly, as it didn't really seem to be her style. It was, in fact, designed by David Barnett, and he did a great job, shooting a photo of a woman from above, a book covering her pelvic area. Does this mean I love Olga Grlic any less, and will start waving my giant foam finger for David Barnett now? Of course not. It's just that there's more than one way to be clever, and getting me to not throw the book across the room when I saw the legs and feet is an accomplishment that deserves recognition.*

I almost chose not to read it anyway, because the subtitle, Against Reading, basically dared me to. I have exactly nineteen other books from people who want me to read their books, and any excuse to cut the list short is fine by me.

The premise of Brottman's book, in case you haven't figured it out from the title, is a rebuttal to the push for literacy that takes place mostly in the form of ad campaigns urging people to read more. If reading is so good for you and so much fun, she argues, why do we have to be browbeaten into it? Perhaps reading is a solitary act akin to masturbation, fun in small doses, but do it too much and people stop wanting to shake your hand. Too much time hiding behind a book causes the bookworm to lose the ability to relate to one's peers, and causes a somewhat antisocial personality to develop. Brottman relates her own childhood spent in the attic in her home, voraciously devouring her town library's collection. As a result, she was "ill-looking and white, etiolated, like a plant without sunlight...[her] hair was a veil of grease hiding a sour, miserable expression."

I don't dispute that there are kids who use books to avoid interacting socially; I was one of them. I was never, ever without a book, because I learned quickly that when I was reading, adults left me alone, and other kids, kids who might have bullied me (or might not have, I never wanted to risk finding out), left me alone, too. I read at the dinner table, in the car, and during recess. Where I part from Brottman is that I don't think it was the books that made me antisocial; I think I was that way to begin with, and I still am. After decades of failed attempts at forcing myself to be a social butterfly, I've reconciled myself to the fact that not liking to spend a lot of time around other people is just the way I was made, and it isn't the fault of books. Books were what made me happy, for crying out loud.

Brottman has a slight tendency to think her experiences with reading are universal. In subsequent chapters, she makes the point that literature isn't the end-all, be all of what we "should" be reading, and that the benefits of reading classic literature are blown out of proportion. It's just as good to read true crime stories, Hollywood gossip stories, or psychoanalytic case studies, even better in some ways, because it teaches you real world lessons. She gives a gentle knock to "the plain girl's Bible**," Jane Eyre, for teaching us ugly chicks to have unrealistic expectations at finding romance.

Again, we differ, because this wasn't the lesson my little-girl self took from Jane Eyre at all. I learned from Jane not to let the judgment of others get you down, that self-respect and self-reliance were preferable to twisting yourself into knots to meet the demands of others, and, from the part in the book where Jane walks away from true love, that no man is worth selling your soul to. I still think those are pretty good life lessons that you can't get from reading Hollywood Animal (although Joe Eszterhas is such a hilarious douche, it's worth reading at least the article I linked to) or Valley of the Dolls.***

Although Brottman's voice is both personable and engaging, with juicy little tidbits such as Art Garfunkel's weird, obsessive online cataloging of every single book he's read since the early sixties, The Solitary Vice is a bit disjointed. I kept forgetting, when I was reading her very long chapter about her love for true crime novels, what her point was supposed to be. Why does a love for In Cold Blood make the case against reading? Is it just literature that's like masturbation and the John Douglas behavioral science books don't blur the line of reality and lead to bad lifestyle choices? If that's true, why did Brottman develop a pen-pal relationship with a prisoner who was jailed for killing his pregnant girlfriend?**** I'm confused now.

The main thing that I agreed with Brottman on was that life's too short to spend on a book you hate. There are too many good ones out there, and what those "good ones" are is entirely up to you. I decided last year that I'm probably never going to be in the mood to read James Joyce's Ulysses, while my friend Funnie did read it and enjoyed it very much.

At any rate, The Solitary Vice didn't really make much of a case against reading, or even reading too much, in fact, it actually made me want to read The Cask of Amontillado again, and I can't figure out if Brottman would think that was a good thing, or not.

*If a book was written about a female protagonist who was a double amputee, would they still put legs and feet on the cover? I think they would. It would be a drawing of disembodied legs and feet in stiletto heels, maybe lying in the grass somewhere, or just a pair of legs in a beauty chair, getting a pedicure.


***A book which produced the single most hilarious line in all of fiction, when Neely O'Hara slurs, "There's nothing better than a wop in the kip!" So completely crass, yet so completely old-fashioned at the same time. Oh, Neely, you brassy broad, you!

****Some things are really best kept to oneself. This is one of those things.

The Solitary Vice
by Mikita Brottman
April, 2008 by Counterpoint Press
Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN: 1-59376-187-2

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