Hell Screen and Rashomon – Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

hell screen akutagawa ryunosuke
 

A tiny book that packs a punch! This is my first time reading Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, as it was selected for my GR book club. The Penguin grey copy above is actually out of print now, so I almost gave up getting a copy. But I later found the Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories  – also by Penguin – at the library, and found the 2 stories included in the grey book: Hell Screen and Spider Thread.

The Spider Thread story was very familiar to me, like one of those folk tales I grew up with but never knew the source or author. I wondered whether it was based on an even older tale – retold by Akutagawa (ala Brothers Grimm), or whether this was really the original. But reading the extra notes in my edition, it seems Akutagawa did adapt tales as old as 12th century.

The Hell Screen story was new to me. It uses an interesting technique of “narrator in denial” – which I guess is a variation of unreliable narrator, but for me at least, it wasn’t immediately clear at first reading. I put my full trust on the seemingly genuine narrator, who’s an old officer of a wealth Lord. He gives us glimpses of story between his Lordship, the artist the Lord employs, and the artist’s daughter. And really only at the end I realised he injects his opinions and skewed views a bit too much. Because of the layering, and the multiple themes running through the story, it is perfect for a book group read. I’d highly recommend it.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

rashomon

And because I enjoyed Hell Screen, I decided to go ahead and read the two stories that Akutagawa is probably best known for, thanks to Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon (which I have not seen). The film is actually based on the story In a Bamboo Grove, while the story of Rashomon itself only inspired the use of Rashomon – the Kyoto main city gate.

Both stories are less than 10 pages long. I read Rashomon first. The ending gave me goosebumps all over. I honestly think this might be the most chilling story I have ever read. Dark. Very very dark.

In a Bamboo Grove is narrated using the police commissioner’s interviews with a few people on a common incident – a murder. As you can probably guess, everyone tells their story a bit differently. What a great technique. What storytelling! It’s amazing how mere few pages could elicit such visceral responses.

Overall I’m completely blown away by Akutagawa. I may not read all the stories in the Penguin book immediately, as these stories already gave me so much to ponder about, and I like to let them linger for a while. But I definitely intend to read more of his works. I have Kappa on my shelf and from what I gathered it’s also quite dark.

I rated Rashomon and In a Bamboo Grove 5 stars. Stars, stars everywhere.

Rashomon is included in 1001 Books you must read before you die.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

dorian gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde’s only novel. First published in 1890 in Lippincott Magazine, it was widely criticized by London society for its homo eroticism, so Wilde revised it and published its modified version in 1891. It helped little for what’s coming however, as 5 years after the first publication of Dorian Gray Wilde faced trial for “gross indecency”. He was convicted and went to prison for 2 years of hard labor, was self-exiled to Paris, and died 3 years later in poverty.

I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde, having read all his short stories and his most well known play The Importance of Being Earnest. But with The Picture of Dorian Gray I felt like I finally tied all the pieces together, as the book I believe (and many people do) to be the closest to the author in terms of ideas and deepest desires. In fact, I faced the challenge of separating one of the characters in the book with Oscar Wilde himself – or what I thought he must be like.

I assume most people know the gist of the plot about a man and his painting who gets old and ugly instead of him. There are 3 major characters: Basil Hallward – the artist who did the painting; Dorian Gray – the man that Basil completely adored to the point of idolatry, hence the painting; and Lord Henry – a friend of them both who makes all these witty, cynical comments, and partly “tainted” Dorian into the road of sins and pleasure. (Before reading the book I had in my head that Dorian painted a self-portrait.)

Lord Henry was the person that I imagined Oscar Wilde to be. In fact, he famously said: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” A bit ironic then, imagining Lord Henry as Wilde was what made parts of the book a bit difficult to swallow for me, for his comments on women like: “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” or “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.”

However if you think that this book is really about love, passion, and adoration between men, none of them fancying women much, would you blame such comments?

Prior to reading I didn’t know there are different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And unlike Frankenstein’s two versions that are widely available, the second version of Dorian has been the ultimate and only version that we read until today. The first version that appeared in Lippincott Magazine was never published as a book until recent years, in 2011 by Harvard University Press (link).

The revision of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s life before and after the publication are the two major themes that were discussed in Edx BerkeleyX Book Club that I followed. And thanks to it I was aware of which chapters were added: 6 chapters, totaling some 28,000 words. Many of which were the expansion of the other characters.

More interestingly perhaps is what was being dropped. An example is this speech by Basil the painter to Dorian: “It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman…. From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me…. I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

How radical! I can only imagine how daring you must be to write such thing in mainstream publication in the time where homosexuals were being persecuted.

Prior to reading, I somehow imagine Dorian Gray as a simple morality tale – which it is in a way, but it has so much more. There are a lot of discussions on beauty, aestheticism, art for art’s sake, and hedonism. In many ways it was so modern. And in the style of Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of aphorism (short observation that appears to contain a general truth). The book is full to the brim with them and my highlighter was flying:

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

“The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

“Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed.”

“When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

“Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”

And some that are simply funny:

“I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.”

“I don’t desire to change anything in England except the weather.” (So it has been like that since 1890. England hasn’t changed much.)

I can go on. Oscar Wilde produced more quotes than any other authors I know.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 – A fascinating novel that I couldn’t give my full mark, but I highly suspect that the first version would’ve got my full mark. New Yorker article on the revised version: “.. these excursions (the additional chapters) in high and low society feel a bit like staged distractions. There are too many tidy formulations—“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for”—positioned to reassure the middle classes. The version that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s is the better fiction. It has the swift and uncanny rhythm of a modern fairy tale—and “Dorian” is the greatest of Wilde’s fairy tales.” I believe this. The Dorian Gray that we read now felt like the sharp edges have been smoothed out and it sometimes pretends to care about characters and stuffs it doesn’t actually care about. A cut of 28,000 words would also make the work a lot tighter, the pace swifter. Perhaps one day I’ll read the uncensored version. (Though note that the magazine editor had already cut some 500 words before publication without Wilde’s knowledge for fear of “indecency” charges. I guess you can only imagine the *original* original version.)

Trivia:

Do you know that The Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four were sparked by the same dinner at Langham hotel in 1889? I coincidentally read The Sign of Four merely months ago and mentioned this in my post, so it’s interesting that this comes up again in the above New Yorker article.

bosie

Lord Alfred Douglas (picture above), nicknamed “Bosie”, is how I imagine Dorian Gray to look like. His youthful beauty is remarkable, honestly looks like something out of a painting. I can absolutely imagine Basil being enamored of this boy. Bosie is Wilde’s latest lover who brought his downfall. However Wilde only met him after the publication of Dorian Gray.

 

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson

the summer book
Sort Of Books, 172pp. First published in 1972. Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

I knew about Tove Jansson only in the recent years, after I moved to Europe, from her beloved series Moomin. I didn’t grow up with Moomin, but fell in love immediately with the white hippo looking characters. Today I have a Moomin soft toy, Moomin shirt, and Moomin postcards stuck on my bookshelf :) – all without having read or watched the series.

The Summer Book is a standalone non-Moomin grownup book, and it seems very critically acclaimed and loved everywhere, appearing in many book lists. I didn’t know what to expect, but like with Moomin, I fell in love with it almost immediately.

The book tells the story of six-year-old Sophia and her elderly grandmother, spending summer on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Sophia’s mother recently passed away, and her father is busy working a lot of the time (though he’s nearby in the same island), so Sophia and Grandmother spend most of their time together.

Perhaps there are other books that have explored the grandparent-grandchild special bond, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across that of the a grandmother and a granddaughter. What I love the most is Grandma is not your average knitting, cooking grandmother. She is a wood-carving, smoking, feisty grandmother. And Sophia is no princess. She is adventurous, curious girl-scout type of girl.

The book consists of 22 short stories or chapters, and it starts slow, laying out the setting of the island. The chapters can be considered vignette, but they’re not as short as The House on Mango Street, and therefore more satisfying for me. Gradually, the pair’s bantering and conversations reveal to the readers and to each other their fear, whims, and yearning for independence. The island plays a major part. I’m not usually a big fan of setting description, but here I found it soothing, giving me space to breathe, to reflect, and for my imagination to fly around the island. In a way it reminded me of another recently read book set in islands: The Ten Thousand Things.

It’s hard to put into words how much I love Sophia and her grandmother. I love how they spend time together, but also apart. Like in the chapter The Tent when Sophia wants to try to sleep in a tent outside by herself. She learns how to be alone, and very aware of her surroundings, listening to the sound of the island all night. Grandmother always gives Sophia space –  her love is not the strangling type. Sophia has to learn this herself in the chapter The Cat, in which she meets a cat who refuses to be affectionate. Sophia realises that the more she wants to love the cat, the more he wants to get away.

“It’s funny about love,” Sophia said. “The more you love someone, the less he likes you back.”
“That’s very true,” Grandmother observed. “And so what do you do?”
“You go on loving,” said Sophia threateningly. “You love harder and harder.”
Her grandmother sighed and said nothing.

My most favourite part is probably one where Sophia decides to write a book about angleworm in the chapter Of Angleworms and Others. She finds that it’s too slow to write herself – as she has to stop to ask for the correct spellings, so she asks Grandmother to write for her while she dictates. It’s hilarious, while conveying universal truth at the same time. In a way Sophia and her grandmother reminded me of Pooh and Christopher Robin (which I absolutely love as well).

But most of all, I guess Sophia reminded me of me. I grew up in a stiffling big city, but I always yearned for nature and independence. I even have cat now who sometimes does refuse to be affectionate. The more I squeeze her the more she wants to get away. Sophia and I discovered that there’s a fine balance between loving too much and letting one to follow its nature. And the tent! I think staying in a tent by yourself is one thing everybody needs to experience at least once in their life.

The copy that I read published by Sort Of Books has a beautiful introduction by Esther Freud – which I’d recommend to read at the end (not at the beginning). She went to meet the real life Sophia, who is Tove Jansson’s niece and was the inspiration of The Summer Book. She even went to visit the island that inspired the stories too, where Sophia lived in, and another island not far away where Tove Jansson lived in for a period of time (her house is now a kind of museum). Real life Sophia had to explain to occasional Japanese tourists that ask her to sign pebbles, that she’s not Tove Jansson, isn’t really even Sophia. (Sounds like an echo of the real life Christopher Robin too.) The island was way smaller than what Esther had imagined, which she could cover by foot in minutes. But at the end of her few days stay, her focus changed. The island was no longer as small, and she realised it would take a whole summer to discover everything there is to do.

I can go on, but hope you will discover Sophia, her grandmother, and their tiny island in Finland by yourself. I can imagine revisiting this book again and again in the future.

Mee’s rating: 5/5 – Not a perfect book, but I loved it for its rare portrayal of a unique girl and her unique grandmother.

Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson (1914-2001)

Tove Jansson herself sounds like a very interesting figure to me. She was both a writer and an illustrator. Was briefly engaged to a man before meeting her life-long partner Tuulikki Pietilä. The two women collaborated on many works and projects, and they spent many summers together in the small island mentioned in The Summer Book introduction. Based on this book I will read more of her works – grownup or children’s literature. I’m interested to even read her biography when I get a chance.

The Lover – Marguerite Duras

the lover duras m
The Lover (French:L’Amant) – Marguerite Duras, 123pp,
translated from French by Barbara Bray, first published in 1984

 

The Lover is a novella by French writer Marguerita Duras. Both the book and the author piqued my interest because of their setting and background. Duras (a pen name of Marguerite Donnadieu) was born in 1914 near Saigon, French Indochina – now Vietnam. The Lover is also set there, making it easy to imagine the book as semi-biographical.

It tells a story of a 15-year-old girl in 1929 who is traveling by ferry across Mekong Delta, when she attracts the attention of a 27-year-old wealthy Chinese man. He strikes up a conversation, and things just roll after that into an affair.

As in The Waiting Years, I was immediately aware of the girl’s age and wondered whether it was an acceptable age back then. But it is made clear somewhere in the book that she is considered under age, and the man knows it’s punishable by prison (though in reality I imagine this could be swept swiftly under the rug by the position and wealth of the man’s family). This isn’t a big point in the book however, and just personally added to the uncomfortable feeling I had about the couple’s affair.

The dynamic of the affair itself is highly unusual, and shows much about the perception and position of white French people and of Chinese people (not Vietnamese) in Indochina at the time. The girl’s family is poor, and the girl and her family look down on the man, as he is Chinese, but they go along with the affair because he is rich (or his father is). The man’s father obviously disapproves. The man’s love for the girl seems real and overflowing, but the girl is more ambivalent.

What surprised me the most however was the style it is written. I expected a straightforward coming-of-age love story, and instead I got a jumble of memories and stream of consciousness. The story is far from linear. It goes back and forth, showing snippets here and there, and revisit some scene multiple times from different angle (in particular the meeting scene between the couple) – just like memories in our head.

Apart from The Lover, Duras has another 2 novels in 1001 Books list: The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein and The Vice-Consul, both I have never seen any review about from bloggy and GR friends, but she seems like a writer to watch. Based on this novel I’m not sure yet if I’ll read another of her book, because I wasn’t fond of her style, but I’ll keep an eye on those titles.

Mee’s rating: 4/5

The Lover – the movie (1992)

the lover (1992)the lover - the film

As expected, the movie is a really hard one to make. The girl is played by Jane March (English, who turned 18 shortly after filming began), and the man is played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with the other Tony Leung).

So as you can see, language is a big issue. The girl is supposed to be French, the guy Chinese, but they’re in Vietnam/Indochina, and the actress is English. What language to use? In fact this is not even clear in the book – what language do they communicate with? I assume French, because the man mentioned that he studied in France.

In the movie the decision fell on English as the common language. So just like Memoirs of a Geisha movie, everybody seems to talk awkwardly in a language that is not their own and does not belong to the world the characters are in.

It’s not all bad however, as the setting of Vietnam/Indochina here is absolutely beautiful. I would watch the movie for the setting alone. The Mekong Delta, the port, the tropical houses, the hustle and bustle of the market lane the man’s house is in. All fascinating and exotic looking the way South East Asia does it.

Possibly hard to find movie, but worth watching after reading the book if you can get it.

Mee’s rating: 7/10

 

Season of Migration to the North – Tayeb Salih

season of migration to the north
Sudan, first published in 1966, translated from Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North is a post-colonial book by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese writer. The book is first published in Arabic in 1966, and translated to English in 1969. My edition is the NYRB classics with introduction by Laila Lalami (who’s born and raised in Morocco) and translated by Denys Johnson-Davies.

Sudan became independent from the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1956, and these two countries comes up again and again in the book – becoming almost as an important setting as Sudan itself.

And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances
And as Sudan is located just south of Egypt, Nile River also makes a good deal of appearances

We can sense the post-colonialism theme from the beginning as we meet the narrator who just comes back to Sudan after an extended period of studying in Europe. The narrator is never named, and at the end of the book, I’m not even sure if he is a reliable one. Through his eyes, we learn the story of an enigmatic man in the village called Mustafa Sa’eed. Just like the Narrator, Mustafa has also studied and lived in England for a period of time. The difference is that, while for the Narrator his experience abroad doesn’t seem to have much effect on him, Mustafa’s adventures have gone to the extreme, which includes several women and the demise of them.

The book is rich and multi-layered, and would definitely trigger a lot of discussions if you read it in a book group (luckily I did). But on the flip side, there are a couple of very violent scenes, including psychotic behaviors, and I’m not sure what is the purpose of them. I wonder whether the shock factor is a big part of what made the book as well known as it is. Especially that it came out from Sudan – a Muslim country. Though perhaps it indicates a contrast between Islam of the 60s with the Islam of now? On that note, I like how Islam works more like a backdrop in the book rather than center stage, and how the author didn’t feel the need to always explain for Western audience. (There are times when this would be useful in other books of course, but it’s also refreshing to find varying style.)

When a book comes with the so-called Introduction I always leave it for last, as I’m a bit paranoid about spoilers. In this case with Laila Lalami’s introduction it was the right choice (again!) as she goes to summarise everything that happens in the book. But it’s a great “introduction” and I recommend it if you have that edition. Lalami had the advantage as she read the text in the original language Arabic and English, and was able to compare them. Not many Arabic books get to be so successfully translated. I thought the translation by Denys Johnson-Davies was amazing, and Lalami thought highly also of the collaboration between Sayih and Johnson-Davis to translate the book.

She noted that Season of Migration isn’t the first book in which a writer of color has decided to “write back” to the empire, but it is unique in that it is written in the author’s native language, rather than the colonial one. “Indeed Salih stands out among African writers of his generation for his insistence on continuing to use Arabic in spite of having lived the majority of his life outside of Sudan. ‘It’s a matter of principle,’ he once told an interviewer.” This really contrasts with the opinion of Wole Soyinka.

Interesting aspect to highlight, considering many books, if not all, that I’ve been reading by African writers in recent years have used the colonial language (just to mention a few: Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka – English, Kamel Daoud – French). 

Season left me with conflicting reactions, but it is short, it’s readable, it’s a classic from a region whose literature isn’t available widely in English, so I think it’s worth reading.

Mee’s rating: 4/5 

tayeb salih
Tayeb Salih (1929-2009)

 

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima

I had a very long break of Japanese literature. I used to read tons of it when I was in Singapore, but then I moved to Sydney, and London, and Japanese lit took a back seat. I don’t even remember what’s the last Japanese lit book I read. So with a happy heart I finally got to finish Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima — my first voyage into this master’s catalogue. Reading this with a nudge from Bellezza‘s Japanese Literature Challenge 9.

Yukio_Mishima

Even before I read his book, I was already fascinated by Mishima’s life story, including, especially, his death by committing seppuku (ritual suicide). I know, it seems all the great authors are either gay or suicidal.

Spring Snow is the first book in the Sea of Fertility tetralogy – a final body of work from Mishima. I’m imagining a dramatic scene at the end of his writing session in which Mishima exclaimed “I wrote my masterpiece! I can now die happy!” SEPPUKU! ;)

In Spring Snow we follow a son of a rising nouveau-riche family Kiyoaki Matsuage, and his childhood friend turned lover Satoko Ayakura, who comes from a declining aristocrat family. (The way I described the Kiyoaki to hubby is “imagine the son of Japanese Gatsby”) The story is set in early 1900s Japan, 1912 to 1914 to be exact, so I found the society dynamics and the underlying historical setting very interesting. I’m sure I missed a lot of the historical subtleties, but by reading this book you get to understand a lot more, about the rigid customs and relationships between the Imperial family, aristocrats, and upper class society in early 20th century Japan. The Western influences have entered Japan too, giving it an extra layer of color.

A semi-important character is Kiyoaki’s friend Honda – a son of an intellect, sort of the Nick of Gatsby, mostly hovering on the side of the main love story, and occassionally giving hand at crucial moments. Honda will be a very important character in the subsequent books in the series, but I shall say no more.

I have to admit, the beginning and the middle were a bit of a slog for me, and I really didn’t like Kiyoaki’s character as he was exhibiting an array of teenage angst (the early 20th century Japanese version of it). I found that I had little patience for childishness and youth pride. Mishima took his time in building his characters and setting. He was being very careful, and it’s great in a way, but you need to push through the initial hump. (The book is almost 400 pages thick)

But once I hit the half point, I raced through the book in no time at all. I finished it in my week long trip around Central/Eastern Europe just last week, mostly between city to city in a train. The end just hit me like a ton of bricks. The last sentence left me dumbstruck. It probably shouldn’t have if I knew what the tetralogy was about, but I never quite knew what to get from quick browsing around goodreads and wiki. In other words, just go and read it, no need to find too much what the book is about :).

Spring Snow has turned me into a Mishima fan. I have yet to see anyone not liking his work no matter which book they start with, and I used to wonder about this. Now that I’ve crossed to the other side, I can say, yes yes it’s true, he’s amazing, come join us!

I plan to read the rest of the tetralogy. I have the first one on Kindle, but now I wonder whether I should collect the paperbacks. There’s the Vintage UK version and the Vintage International (US) version. Which do you think has better cover? I tend to lean towards the US version (only if it’s matte though, not glossy) but it seems harder / much more pricey for us to get the US version here.

spring snow
UK version
spring snow (US)
US version
JLC9
Hoping to read another Japanese lit book by the end of the challenge in January 2016! I’m thinking The Waiting Years by Fumiko Enchi, but we’ll see. Let me know if you’re interested in it too, perhaps we can buddy read :)
ETA: This book also fits in nicely for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event on October 4-17, 2015, yay!
diversiverse

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

secret history

In The Secret History we follow six Classical Greek students in Vermont college. In the first couple of pages it is revealed that this group of friends killed one of them. So the story is a why-dun-it rather than a who-dun-it, and about the aftermath of the killing. Great premise.

I read the second half of the book on a boat in Greece and Turkey so The Secret History is officially my summer and holiday reading:

reading on a boat
Can’t lie – it’s pretty awesome to spend your holiday reading on a boat :)

As The Goldfinch is more recently out, everybody on the boat seemed to have read it and ask me if I had read it too. I haven’t. The Secret History is my first Donna Tartt book, and I do realize I’m a bit late to the party. In fact I wonder a bit whether the book has gotted a bit dated. Though it was only published in 1992 – so our world is still largely similar, the non-existence of mobile phone was a bit jarring. There are a large amount of calling to someone’s flat or someone’s dorm, and trying to contact someone by landline, and not being able to reach the person. It’s similar to the slight annoyance you feel when you watch movies from the 90s, and major plot points hinge on people not being able to contact each other immediately with mobile phone, and you think there’s no way stories like this could happen again now.

I liked that the book is very readable. I think it’s a perfect beach read (or boat read or holiday read) – or any time when you have a big chunk of reading time, since it is 660 pages long. So since I read it during the holiday I didn’t mind too much that it’s so long – kinda reminded me of the 5th book of Harry Potter, both of which are very readable. But really they went on and on and on. After about 2/3 of it though I’m pretty fed up with all the characters being drunk or drugged 90% of the time. I never liked people’s drunk stories and I don’t like being drunk myself, so I had little empathy for all the drunkenness.

Tons of bloggers/readers love this book I know, so I didn’t quite expect my lukewarm reaction. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently if I read it when it was out. I have a feeling that the book just doens’t date very well. I’d be interested to know what you think if you’re one of those people who just read this book in the past couple of years.

Mee’s rating: 3.5/5 starsIt’s a very readable book, but I didn’t love it as much as I hoped. Will probably read The Goldfinch though.

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