Archive for July, 2022

What do you do after reading one Ron Rash book? You read another Ron Rash book 😊 Well, I decided to pick his most famous book ‘Serena‘.

In the first scene in the story, Pemberton and his wife Serena are newly married and arrive in a small town. It is surrounded by forests and mountains. Pemberton owns thousands of acres there. He owns a lumber company which cuts trees there. A nasty surprise waits for Pemberton at the train station. It doesn’t end well for someone. As the story proceeds, we get to know more about the tree logging world of America of a hundred years back, during the Depression. How life is hard for the workers, but how the owners of the lumber company themselves face many threats and challenges.

The story appears to be a modern day retelling of the Macbeth legend. It is very dark. It is Appalachian noir after all. At some point of time, the workers, while they are relaxing during lunch, discuss who is going to be targeted next and who is going to die next, and how long they are going to survive on the run, with a target on the back. Those conversations were some of my favourite parts of the book, they were filled with rustic, dark humour and made me smile many times. The workers discussed other things too, anything under the sun. Those workers were wise. In the whole story one character who has a target on the back, makes it out alive. I was rooting for that character and was happy when that character made it out alive. I can’t tell you who that was, not even whether it was a man or a woman. No spoilers 😊

The two main characters in the story were hard to like, because they were ruthless and were ready to do anything (if you are a Cersei fan, you might love them), but I loved some of the other characters. One of my favourite characters was Rachel, who is a person who gets crushed by others, but who does her best to survive. Some of my most favourite chapters and passages in the book were the ones featuring Rachel. She was a beautiful soul. Rachel’s friends were also like her – likeable, gentle and kind.

The eagle featured on the cover of the book is also a character. She is cool and regal and majestic – she is an eagle after all.

Serena‘ is very different from the previous Ron Rash book I read, ‘Above the Waterfall‘. It is also set in the Appalachians, but the similarity ends there. The prose is not poetic, the atmosphere is dark and sombre, the story is dark, many of the main characters are ruthless and violent. These two books are such a fascinating study in contrast. Ron Rash shows that he is a great writer, by writing two totally different books set in the same geography. Readers seem to have voted for ‘Serena’ because they seem to like the dark side more these days. I don’t know why. ‘Serena’ is a gripping book, it makes you want to turn the page to find out what happens next. But it doesn’t make you feel better. It makes you sit and brood and makes you feel depressed. ‘Above the Waterfall’ is a sunny charming book. It uplifts you and makes you feel good.

Macbeth‘ seems to be the most popular among Shakespeare’s tragedies. Atleast many Shakespeare fans I’ve talked to, seem to have liked it the most. I don’t know why. I can’t believe that it is rated higher than ‘Hamlet’. But the good news is this. If you are a ‘Macbeth’ person, this is your book. You’ll love ‘Serena’.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“Her father had been a hard man to live with, awkward in his affection, never saying much. His temper like a kitchen match waiting to be struck, especially if he’d been drinking…Yet he’d raised a child by himself, a girl child, and Rachel figured he’d done it as well as any man could have alone. She’d never gone wanting for food and clothing. There were plenty of things he hadn’t taught her, maybe couldn’t teach her, but she’d learned about crops and plants and animals, how to mend a fence and chink a cabin. He’d had her do these things herself while he watched. Making sure she knew how, Rachel now realized, when he’d not be around to do it for her. What was that, if not a kind of love.”

“Rachel removed her hand from a stone she knew would outlast her lifetime, and that meant it would outlast her grief. I’ve gotten him buried in Godly ground and I’ve burned the clothes he died in, Rachel told herself. I’ve signed the death certificate and now his grave stone’s up. I’ve done all I can do. As she told herself this, Rachel felt the grief inside grow so wide and deep it felt like a dark fathomless pool she’d never emerge from. Because there was nothing left to do now, nothing except endure it…As she rode back down the trail, she remembered the days after the funeral, how the house’s silence was a palpable thing and she couldn’t endure a day without visiting Widow Jenkins for something borrowed or returned. Then one morning she’d begun to feel her sorrow easing, like something jagged that had cut into her so long it had finally dulled its edges, worn itself down. That same day Rachel couldn’t remember which side her father had parted his hair on, and she’d realized again what she’d learned at five when her mother left—that what made losing someone you loved bearable was not remembering but forgetting. Forgetting small things first, the smell of the soap her mother had bathed with, the color of the dress she’d worn to church, then after a while the sound of her mother’s voice, the color of her hair. It amazed Rachel how much you could forget, and everything you forgot made that person less alive inside you until you could finally endure it. After more time passed you could let yourself remember, even want to remember. But even then what you felt those first days could return and remind you the grief was still there, like old barbed wire embedded in a tree’s heartwood.”

Have you read ‘Serena‘? What do you think about it?


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I discovered Ron Rash’sAbove the Waterfall‘ through Emma’s (from ‘Book Around the Corner’) review of it. Emma reviews beautiful American fiction that non-American readers haven’t heard of, and I always discover new American authors through her reviews. I’ve never heard of Ron Rash before and so I decided to read this book.

Les is a sheriff in a small town in the middle of the Appalachians. He is going to retire in a few weeks. He hopes to have a peaceful few weeks and then hand over charge to his deputy. But things don’t go according to plan. First one thing happens and then another and suddenly it turns out that a good, old gentleman might have done a really bad thing. What happens after that and how the mystery is resolved forms the rest of the story.

Though the book has a plot, it is not at all about the plot. There were two things about the book which stood out for me. The book depicts how small town life is, how everyone knows everyone else, and how when someone acts or reacts in a particular way, we need to know his or her past and history to understand them. As Les says in one of the chapters –

“In a county this rural, everyone’s connected, if not by blood, then in some other way. In the worst times, the county was like a huge web. The spider stirred and many linked strands vibrated.”

This depiction of small town life was very perceptive and beautiful. There are almost no bad guys in the book, just beautiful, imperfect human beings.

The second thing about the book that I loved was the beautiful prose. The descriptions of nature are very beautiful and poetic. That, I think, was the best thing about the book, and the book is worth reading for that alone. Sometimes the sentences are actually poetic – that is if we organize them in different lines, they have rhyme and rhythm and are beautiful to read aloud.

For example, these lines somewhere at the beginning of the book.

“In canopy gaps,
    the sky through straws of sunlight
sips damp leaf meal dry.
    For a minute, no sound.
I gather in the silence,
    place it inside me for the afternoon.”

And this one :

“I lead them to where
    joe-pye stems anchor
low clouds of lavender.”

And this one, which reads like a line from a Wordsworth poem :

“A hollowed lightness like a thimble,
    spring’s green weight gone.”

And these beautiful lines :

“There on the straw-strewn floor,
    a sundial of slanted light.
I’d reach my child’s palm into it,
    hold sunspill like rain.”

And this one :

“Eyes adjusting,
    much more revealed:
junctions knit
    with spiderwebs,
near cross beams
    dirt dauber nests,
the orange tunnels rising
    like cathedral pipes.”

One of my favourites was this one :

“Morning’s fawnlight yokes
    inside dew beads,
each hued
    like a rainbow’s hatchling.
But they cling like tears
    about to fall.”

In the middle of a tense scene, later in the story, there is a sentence like this.

“Ferns sleeve both banks green.”

Who writes like this?

Ron Rash is a poet too and he has written many poetry collections, and it looks like he couldn’t resist inserting poetry into this book and cleverly disguising it as prose  I lingered on many of these nature descriptions and poetic lines and celebrated their beauty.

An interesting thing happened when I started reading the book. The book started with Les narrating the story, but at some point, I felt that the story had a taken on a different light, there were new characters and the tone was different and the prose was more soft, and I wondered who this person was who was narrating the story, and if it was really Les. Then I discovered that this narrator was not really Les, but Becky, who manages the nature park. It was interesting to discover, because when we read the book, there is no clear indication of who the narrator is. After I discovered this, I challenged myself to discover while reading every chapter, who the narrator was. It was fun 😊 I loved Becky’s narration even more than Les’, because most of the nature passages came in her story.

French readers and publishers have had a long love affair with American fiction, stretching back to the 1850s and before. French readers discovered Edgar Allan Poe, before American readers did. French readers and publishers are continuing that proud tradition deep into the 21st century, promoting and translating books by American writers, who might be well-known in their country among a dedicated group of readers, but who are virtually unknown outside America. If we want to tread off the beaten path and discover wonderful new American writers, who are virtually unknown, a good way to do that would be to look at the catalogues of French publishers and find out which American books they have published in French translation, or are planning to publish in the future. An alternate way, an easier way, to discover wonderful new American writers would be to just go and read Emma’s blog.

I enjoyed reading ‘Above the Waterfall’. Hoping to read more of Ron Rash’s books now.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

This is a perfect depiction of the picture on the book’s cover.

“A mown hay field appears, its blond stubble blackened by a flock of starlings. As I pass, the field seems to lift, peek to see what’s under itself, then resettle. A pickup passes from the other direction. The flock lifts again and this time keeps rising, a narrowing swirl as if sucked through a pipe and then an unfurl of rhythm sudden sprung, becoming one entity as it wrinkles, smooths out, drifts down like a snapped bedsheet. Then swerves and shifts, gathers and twists. Murmuration: ornithology’s word-poem for what I see. Two hundred starlings at most, but in Europe sometimes ten thousand, enough to punctuate a sky. What might a child see? A magic carpet made suddenly real? Ocean fish-schools swimming air? The flock turns west and disappears.”

This conversation was very beautiful.

      What does silence look like?
      I ask them to think about an answer. As they do, several children tilt their heads to one side, listening.
      “It looks like air,” a child says.
      “What else does it look like?” I ask.
      “It looks like night, but not scary.”
      “It looks like the wind when the wind’s not blowing.”
      “What about you, Ms. Douglas?” a child asks the teacher.
      “Hmmm,” she says. “How about that it looks like paper that hasn’t been written on.”
      “Plain paper with no lines,” a child says.
      “Yes,” the teacher agrees. “No lines.”
      “And what about you?” a child asks me.
      “Like stars resting on a calm pond,” I answer.
      Several small heads nod.
      “It’s time for us to go,” the teacher says, and we stand up, brush bits of ground off our clothes. We are almost to the bus when a child who hasn’t spoken turns to me.
      “I know what silence looks like,” she says.
      “What?” I ask.
      “It looks like someone asleep,” the child says.
      “Yes,” I tell the child as she boards the bus. “It does.”
      It does, it did.

And the sound of crackling fire during a winter evening, what can be better than that?

“…Gerald is building a fire. As always, one of the hearth logs is apple wood. Because its colors make a fire pretty, Gerald says. He places kindling and newspaper as attentively as he might tie a trout fly, then strikes a match. Beneath the andirons the red-tipped wood spore blossoms. Fire streams around kindling, thickens and pools, swirls upward as sparks crackle, splash slowly onto the hearthstone. The apple wood sprouts feathers of redyellowgreen, as if the lost parrot has phoenixed among the flames. Gerald’s palms open as if to bless the fire, or maybe it’s to have the fire bless him. How many thousands of years that gesture, its promise of light, and heat, and soon-rest summoned.”

Have you read ‘Above the Waterfall’ or other books by Ron Rash? What do you think about them?

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I’ve never read a Charles Bukowski book before. I got this book, ‘Post Office‘, as a present from one of my friends, and so I thought I’ll get started with this.

Henry Chinaski goes to work in the post office. First he joins as a mailman who delivers mail. But at some point he feels that he has had enough and quits and decides that he wants to bet on horses and enjoy the money he makes. At some point his girlfriend breaks up with him because he is just lounging around at home (though he is making money in horse betting). Then he gets a new girlfriend who is rich. She wants to prove to her family that a person can get by without being rich and so she makes Henry get back to work. After trying his luck at different places, Henry ends up at the post office again, this time as a clerk. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

I loved ‘Post Office‘. The first thing I loved about it was Bukowski’s prose. It was sharp and shining, had a lazy elegance, and cut like a knife. But it was also filled with humour. Bukowski’s prose has had many imitators since, but probably no equal. The second thing I loved about it was the story. I looked at it as a commentary on how a typical dead end job looks like, and how people who work there are just cogs in the wheel and can’t bring any positive changes. The main character Henry Chinaski gets into this job by chance and deals with it in his own way – he is rebellious, and he doesn’t care about authority, and he knows that whatever he does it doesn’t matter, but he defies the system and has a devil-may-care attitude. It is hilarious the way he takes on the system and his superiors and when he occasionally wins, it makes us smile. If you have seen the movie ‘Office Space‘, and you remember the main character, you can picture Henry Chinaski easily.

I could identify a lot with Henry Chinaski and what he said and did, because I was one of those guys – quiet and defiant. Most of my bosses felt that I was too intelligent for my own good, I was too individualistic and not a team player, looked like a quiet introvert who was pliable but in reality was a defiant rebel, and so was not reliable. At one point things became so bad that I was moved into a team where I didn’t have any clear responsibilities and was exiled to the cubicle next to the toilet. Everywhere I looked around, there were enemies who were blocking anything I did. At some point things got better, of course, because there was only one way to move from rock bottom and that was up. So Henry Chinaski’s adventures made me laugh, made me sad, made me think, made me look back.

There was one particular incident in the book which was violent which left a bad taste in the mouth. It was not required, it didn’t add anything to the story, and it wasn’t art which improved the story. Some readers might crucify the book for that one thing. I’m not going to do that, but I was disappointed with it.

I’ll share one of my favourite passages from the book here, which captures the book’s style and humour beautifully.

      “Mr. Chinaski. This is a terrible record. I want you to explain these charges and if possible justify your present employment with us.”
      “All right.”
      “You have ten days to reply.”
      I didn’t want the job that badly. But she irritated me.
      I phoned in sick that night after buying some ruled and numbered legal paper and a blue, very official-looking folder. I got a fifth of whiskey and a six pack, then sat down and typed it out. I had the dictionary at my elbow. Every now and then I would flip a page, find a large incomprehensible word and build a sentence or paragraph out of the idea. It ran 42 pages. I finished up with, “Copies of this statement have been retained for distribution to the press, television, and other mass communication media.”
      I was full of shit.
      She got up from her desk and got it personally. “Mr. Chinaski?”
      It was 9 a.m. One day after her request to answer charges. “Just a moment.”
      She took the 42 pages back to her desk. She read and read and read. There was somebody reading over her shoulder. Then there were 2, 3, 4, 5. All reading. 6, 7, 8, 9. All reading.
      What the hell? I thought.
      Then I heard a voice from the crowd, “Well, all geniuses are drunkards!” As if that explained away the matter. Too many movies again.

Have you read ‘Post Office‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nancy Garden’sAnnie on My Mind‘ recently and decided to read it today.

Liza is in the final year of high school. She wants to study architecture when she goes to college. One day she is at the museum exploring around, when she hears someone singing. She stumbles into this girl whose name is Annie and they end up talking. Before long they become friends and then magic happens. If that is all there is to it, then there is not much, isn’t it? Two people meet and fall in love and live happily everafter – what is the fun in that? Where is the drama? Well, this is the late ’70s or the early ’80s. If two young women fall in love and people discover that, all hell will break loose. And it does. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

‘Annie on My Mind’ was published in 1982, exactly forty years back. It was probably one of the first lesbian stories told in YA fiction. It was much ahead of its time. In that era, if a person comes out, they might get expelled from high school. They’ll definitely lose their jobs, and it will be impossible to get another one. Parents, who might be liberal in principle, will definitely have a problem if their own child comes out as gay, and will try to change their child, give them hell, or hide that fact from others. Nancy Garden captures all this beautifully in her book. I was worried about how the story was going to end, and what might happen to the main characters – things didn’t look good, it was a conservative time, after all. I’m not going to tell you what happened. You have to read the book and find out.

One of my favourite coming out stories is this one. One of my friends who was straight when she was in high school, came out gay when she graduated from college. At some point she wanted to tell her dad about it. She thought a lot about it and she was worried how he’ll react to it. But after hesitating for a while, one day she invited her dad for lunch, telling him that she wanted to talk to him about something important. While having lunch, after the initial chitchat, her dad asked her what it was that she wanted to discuss and after hesitating a bit, she told him that she was gay. Her dad said, “Oh that! I already knew that, of course! It is so cool! You are so cool! So how is your day? What did you do today morning?” And just like that, all the tension she had felt disappeared. Her dad, with just those simple gestures and words, told her that he loved her unconditionally. When my friend told us this story, we screamed and said, “Your dad is so cool! We want to meet him!” 

I’m sharing some of my favourite passages from the book below.

“I’m not sure how to describe Annie’s voice, or if anyone really could, except maybe a music critic. It’s a low soprano—mezzo-soprano is its technical name—and it’s a little husky—not gravelly husky, but rich—and, according to my mother, it’s one hundred percent on pitch all the time. It’s also almost perfectly in control; when Annie wants to fill a room with her voice, she can, but she can also make it as soft as a whisper, a whisper you can always hear.”

“There’s a Greek legend—no, it’s in something Plato wrote—about how true lovers are really two halves of the same person. It says that people wander around searching for their other half, and when they find him or her, they are finally whole and perfect. The thing that gets me is that the story says that originally all people were really pairs of people, joined back to back, and that some of the pairs were man and man, some woman and woman, and others man and woman. What happened was that all of these double people went to war with the gods, and the gods, to punish them, split them all in two. That’s why some lovers are heterosexual and some are homosexual, female and female, or male and male.”

“I went downstairs to Dad’s encyclopedia and looked up HOMOSEXUALITY, but that didn’t tell me much about any of the things I felt. What struck me most, though, was that, in that whole long article, the word “love” wasn’t used even once. That made me mad; it was as if whoever wrote the article didn’t know that gay people actually love each other. The encyclopedia writers ought to talk to me, I thought as I went back to bed; I could tell them something about love.”

I loved ‘Annie on My Mind’. It is a beautiful book. Have you read ‘Annie on My Mind’? What do you think about it?

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Wanted to take a break from the serious reading I’ve been doing and read a popular novel. Picked this one up. It is Irving Wallace’s first novel. Used to read a lot of Irving Wallace when I was a student. At that time, I felt that his books were well researched and so I learnt a lot from them, and they also had a good plot written in simple journalistic prose. Must have gone through atleast half of his backlist. At some point I stopped reading his books and never went back. I think his two best books were ‘The Man‘ and ‘The Prize‘. ‘The Man’ is about how a black man accidentally becomes the American President and how his party tries to impeach him. It was a book ahead of its time and would make a great TV miniseries even today. It was made into a movie during its time, with James Earl Jones playing the role of the African-American President, but I don’t think that movie is available anywhere now. ‘The Prize’ is about how the Nobel Prize is given and the controversies involved. Wallace spins that off into a Cold War era mystery. ‘The Prize’ was later made into a movie starring Paul Newman.

Wallace also wrote a lot of nonfiction and I feel that his nonfiction has aged well. I’ve read just one of them – ‘The Sunday Gentleman‘. It is a collection of biographical essays about interesting people. I learnt about P. T. Barnum and Van Meegeren and the Everleigh Sisters through that book. Wallace later expanded that essay on Barnum into a whole book called ‘The Fabulous Showman‘. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was one of the sources used for the 2017 movie, ‘The Greatest Showman‘.

This book, ‘The Sins of Philip Fleming’, is about a scriptwriter in Hollywood, who meets an attractive woman, and attempts to have an affair with her during the course of a week. There was nothing much in the story. It was disappointing. Just lots of descriptions of women from the perspective of the male gaze, and lots of gratuitous sex for which Wallace was famous for. Things that we’ll treat with contempt these days, and haul the author over the coals for. I didn’t like the main character – I don’t know what he was trying. The women characters were well drawn – they were complex and fascinating and likeable. The first scene in which the two main characters flirt with each other quoting lines from literature was nicely done.

The literary references in the story were interesting – Stendhal, Byron, Caroline Lamb, Henrik Ibsen, Proust, Tolstoy, Dickens. Now I want to read more on Lady Caroline Lamb – she looks like a fascinating person. There is also a reference to Croesus, about whom I am reading right now in Herodotus’ ‘The Histories’. There is also a reference to Andorra, one of my favourite countries, which I enjoyed reading about. There was a mention of a French perfume called Arpege. I wanted to find out whether it was real or imaginary and if it was real, whether it was still available. So went to Amazon and checked. Was very surprised that it is still around, in beautiful bottles. Who knew! It was expensive – not rich-people-expensive, but middle-class-expensive. For a moment, I was tempted to buy and try. Unfortunately, I’m not a perfume person.

So, the story was mostly unimpressive and disappointing, and hasn’t aged well. But the nonfiction parts of the book were interesting, if one decided to pursue them more and jump into the rabbit hole. I don’t know whether my favourite Irving Wallace books have aged well. Need to read ‘The Man’ and ‘The Prize’ again sometime, and see how they are.

Irving Wallace had an interesting background. He was Jewish. But he knew that in the America of his time, if people knew that he was Jewish, he wouldn’t get anywhere, as a writer. There was a quota for Jewish students in American universities at that time, not a minimum quota but a maximum quota. That is, a university won’t admit more than a particular number of Jewish students in a year. Some universities didn’t entertain Jewish applicants. All this during the time when Einstein was living in America and was celebrated there. So Wallace changed his Jewish second name to the more acceptable WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) name, Wallace. And he became a successful novelist, and at one point, he was probably the highest paid novelist in the world. His son David, discovered years later, that they were Jewish, they had East European roots, and their second name was Wallechinsky. So after he went through an identity crisis, David changed back his second name to Wallechinsky. I discovered all this through Anne Fadiman’s memoir about her father, ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter‘. This is the kind of interesting stuff we learn from books.

In the picture :
Left – Irving Wallace with his daughter Amy;
Right – Irving’s son David Wallechinsky

For a book, in which the plot wasn’t great, it had some nice passages. Just proves that we can find beauty anywhere, if we decide to look closely. Here are some of my favourites.

“How falsely portrayed, in most novels and plays, and in almost all movies, were troubled marriages. In fiction, usually, a single reason was given for a marriage that did not work. As a writer he understood the necessity of this simplification. A single reason for discord could be dramatized better than many and could be better understood by audiences of varied sensitivity and comprehension. Yet, how untrue these pictures of the marital state. His own marriage worked, but not well. It had good days, lovely, wondrous days, and shattering black days. But when it was bad, it was bad not for a single reason but for a dozen reasons. They were so many, and often so indirectly related to immediate discord, that he often had difficulty in associating them with any quarrel.”

“In the studios there was a cliché, as phony as the producers who persistently repeated it, that if you could not tell the story you wanted to tell in one sentence, it was not worth making as a movie. “Give it to me in one sentence, kid,” they would say. “If you can’t, you haven’t got it yet.” This was the rankest nonsense. He liked to picture Charles Dickens sitting in a producer’s office trying to compress his latest novel into one sterile, meaningless, pretentious sentence. Yet, the cliché was appealing because it was challenging.”

“Surely somewhere, foreign ministers had conversed in stilted, guarded words of destruction or survival; surely somewhere, men had died by violence and lived by heroism; surely somewhere, floods had raged, and lovers scandalized, and sums of gold had been gained and lost—but to all of this, Philip had been blind and deaf. For a week, he had lived on a planet inhabited by two, and on this planet no other life existed. It was less strange than amazing, he decided, that this most momentous week in his memory would play no part in his public history. To him, the week had been the summary of his being, it had been everything, yet to others it would have no actuality. No one on all the earth knew or would know of the crucial days except he and Peggy—and not even she knew or understood its significance to him. He would grow into the years ahead, have more anniversaries, children, friends, acquaintances; he would become famous or respected or frustrated; he would add achievement to achievement and failure to failure, and earn money and spend it, and become grandparent and sage or old fool; he would love, and he would disappear, and no one would know of this one crucial week in his story. Was it possible that this happened to other men, too? If so, history was a fraud, and those who were diggers into the past were indulging in the idiot’s play of simpletons. Was it possible that the most decisive days in the lives of Jesus, Mohammed, Socrates, Kant, Darwin, Napoleon, Goethe, Freud, Marx, Tolstoy were not to be found in their writings or writings about them? Was it possible that even those whose lives had been so thoroughly illuminated by themselves and others—Samuel Johnson, Rousseau, Lincoln, Lord Byron—had carried their most vital secrets to their graves?”

Have you read Irving Wallace’s novels? Do you like them or hate them? Which one is your favourite?

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