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Pun-ishing plot

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I'm going to be reading more of Brad Leithauser's writing.  Thus far, I've read only his criticism in The New York Review of Books, but he is also a novelist, poet and verse novelist.  Obviously, a major talent (and did I mention MacArthur Fellow?).

He is also a very polite critic.  His NYRB review of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs caught my attention with its opening paragraph:

Lorrie Moore's novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on.  Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching.  But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters - nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay - have explored the far-flung implications of the language that entertains and envelops them.
"Remarkable" sounds good, but it could also bear less positive connotations (e.g., remarkably misguided).  That the plot is "likely" hatching evinces a positive attitude about what could be a serious failure (i.e., if the plot didn't materialize).  And what must be "patient" with Lorrie Moore is not the plot, but the reader, who like Leithauser (and this reader) "kept looking for someone [in Moore's novel] who didn't parse and pun." 

As Leithauser observes,

Moore's fiction proceeds by "near misses": misapprehensions, mishearings, misidentifications, misunderstandings.  An innocent utterance floats out into the atmosphere, which turns out to be a hazardous and transformative medium, everywhere subject to misinterpretation.
. . . .
It's rare in contemporary American fiction to meet a writer so preoccupied with this sort of linguistic dissonance.
The reason for such rarity, I submit, is that stories don't proceed by linguistic "near misses": they proceed by action.  The action can be physical, emotional or psychological, but it cannot be solely linguistic.  (As Leithauser notes, "poets are another matter."  In a sense, poetry is by definition linguistic action: the rhythm of the language stirs our viscera.)

The weakness of Moore's approach is plain in her plot, which Leithauser (even with his critical delicacy) highlights.  "I turned skeptical, and a little feisty" when the protagonist, Tassie, and her boyfriend break-up (a scene which also caused me grief), Leithauser admits.  "Pesky questions of plausibility arose again" when Tassie accidentally poisons her roommate, Leithauser continues.  But worse awaits - "an utter suspension of suspension of disbelief," in Leithauser's words - when Tassie climbs into her brother's coffin.

To some extent, Leithauser excuses these problems with the explanation that

[m]any writers who are led by the ear, as I think Moore is, have little facility for visual detail.  But she has an arresting gift for the one-line imagistic simile or metaphor.
While this statement may be true, the plot of A Gate at the Stairs fumbles, not because Moore has little facility for visual detail, but because she's trying to power a plot with linguistic acrobatics - puns, similes and metaphors - instead of action.  Moore's is not a methodology worth replicating.  Over 322 pages, the experience of verbal-shenanigans-in-search-of-the-plot-in-the-distance is, even for the patient reader, remarkable. 

(Image of Brad Leithauser from Johns Hopkins University website)
Jewish_Mother.jpgWilliam_Shakespeare.jpgWho will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill'd with your most high deserts?
Bubbalah, you're so beautiful, nobody would ever believe it without seeing you!

Though yet, Heaven knows, it is but as a tomb
Which hides your life, and shows not half your parts.
Not that your gorgeousness is as anything to your intelligence and wit, so what's the point in talking about it anyway?

If I could write the beauty of your eyes,
And in fresh numbers number all your graces,
The age to come would say, this poet lies,
Such heavenly touches ne'er touch'd earthly faces.
I say anything even a little bit accurate about you, and Masha Finklebaum accuses me of exaggerating your merits, but what can you expect of a woman whose own daughter has been on J-Date for a decade without meeting anyone?

So should my papers, yellow'd with their age,
Be scorn'd, like old men of less truth than tongue;
It's not that I mind the gossip mill at the Maazel-Tovel You're Rich Enough for Assisted Living facility in Short Hills . . .

And your true rights be term'd a poet's rage,
And stretched metre of an antique song:
. . . but when Masha says there's as much truth in what I say about you as in an Isaac Babel story, it gives me tzuris.

But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice;-in it, and in my rhyme.
So, nu?  When are you going to give me grandchildren?

(Images from Borders and Archive BVI)

A different kind of magical realism

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This post was written for The Rumpus,which publishes readers' pieces about their last favorite book - but not, apparently, mine.  Having received no response to my submission, I am publishing the piece here.  Enjoy!
My last great literary discovery wasn't a book, and I didn't read it.  It's the short story, "Romance at Droitgate Spa," by P.G. Wodehouse, published in Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, and I listened to the talented Jonathan Cecil read the short story collection as an audiobook.

I'm a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse, and I particularly admire his mastery of comic plotting.  But P.G. Wodehouse is also impressive for the way he works with his limitations.  He's not particularly skilled at characterization or endowing characters with emotional depth.  Wodehouse was aware of this weakness and, although he probably could have tried to develop his capacities for rendering characters (as opposed to caricatures) on the page, he didn't.  He once described his approach to writing novels as "making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life all together."

But even characters in musical comedies need some realistic emotional presence if they are to resonate with audiences.  As hilarious as P.G. Wodehouse's work can be, his method can also result in two-dimensional, stereotyped characters that fail to grip, regardless of the humor intrinsic in the plot circumstances.  Psmith, Journalist is one painful example; but even Galahad at Blandings suffers in this way.  In the Wooster-Jeeves novels, Wodehouse decisively solved the problem by creating two characters - an airhead clubman and his brilliant gentleman's gentleman - both of whom are flatly realized, but who together function as a compelling (and comically riotous) team.

"Romance at Droitgate Spa" shows P.G. Wodehouse devising another solution to his problem.  In the story, Freddie Fitch-Fitch is in love with Annabel Purvis, but he needs his uncle, Major-General Sir Aylmer Bastable, to release his trust fund so that he can marry.  

Uncle Bastable suffers from gout and lives at Droitgate Spa.  Despite the healing waters, he is snubbed by the "elite" of the spa community, who are those afflicted with complex and intractable diseases; gout doesn't qualify.  This ostracism pains Uncle Bastable because he's a class snob and believes he should be received by the best people wherever he goes.

Given his constant distemper, Uncle Bastable is disinclined to approve of Freddie's marriage.  Poor Annabel is low-born.  At the opening of the story, she's a "conjurer's stooge"; she stands on stage in pink tights, looking enchanting and occasionally handing her employer, the Great Boloni, a bowl of goldfish.  Uncle Bastable disapproves.

To sweeten his uncle, Freddie sends Annabel to nurse Uncle Bastable.  Freddie instructs Annabel to tell Uncle Bastable that she's of "gentle birth."  Freddie is confident that Uncle Bastable will be charmed by his lovely new "nurse," and that he'll approve the marriage without discovering that his nurse used to be a "conjurer's stooge."

Freddie's plan works perfectly.  Uncle Bastable blesses the marriage, and Freddie goes to London to finalize legal documents his uncle must sign to release Freddie's trust funds.

So far, the set-up is both superficial and standard for P.G. Wodehouse: young lovers are thwarted by money and cantankerous relatives; a softly-deceptive scheme solves both problems.  Then Wodehouse dropped acid or was struck by lightning or was crammed into a barrel and sent over Niagara Falls - or some such - because, mid-plot, the story abruptly deviates from the form-book.

In London, Freddie is called into the small smoking room of his club, where a "Mr. Rackstraw" awaits him.  Entering the room, Freddie finds "a tall thin man with pointed black moustaches, who was pacing up and down, nervously taking rabbits out of his top-hat."  Mortimer Rackstraw flashes his sinister eyes, twirls his mustache and - as Freddie soon discovers - performs under the name, "The Great Boloni"; and he used to be Annabel's fiancé.  "Fiend!" Rackstraw greets Freddie, before instructing him to "take [a card], any one" from a deck, to memorize it and to return it to the pack.  Throughout their conversation - during which Rackstraw warns Freddie that he will take revenge for Freddie's theft of Annabel - Rackstraw performs magic tricks.  He makes a rabbit vanish, an egg appear from Freddie's head, and he removes a cage of lovebirds from his hat.  After his dramatic exit from the smoking room, he re-enters to bow to the left and right before leaving for good.  Freddie is left to wonder "what a man so trained in the art of having things up his sleeve might have up it now."

With Rackstraw, P.G. Wodehouse throws up his hands at the very task of characterization.  Instead, he makes a joke of the challenge.  He takes the most hackneyed villain - the guy who would tie the damsel to the railway tracks in the black-and-white-films - and reveals his distress and anxiety with behavior that, of course, no one would ever manifest.  In the process, however, Wodehouse achieves an unexpected victory: Rackstraw's unconscious default to sleights-of-hand in times of stress is so amusing and delightful, that it endears him to the audience; I empathized with him.  (Jonathan Cecil, I should add, excels in his performance of Rackstraw.)         

Suddenly, I was more deeply engaged in the story, at which point, Wodehouse produced another surprise from his hat.  Annabel summons Freddie to Droitgate with a frantic telegram and, upon arriving, Freddie learns that Annabel has locked Rackstraw in the cellar, the door of which - from the pounding sounds - Rackstraw is well on his way to banging off its hinges.  Annabel is trying to prevent Rackstraw from meeting Uncle Bastable - who is in the Pump Room, listening to the band - because Rackstraw wants to introduce Annabel's Uncle Joe to Freddie's Uncle Bastable.  Uncle Joe, she explains, is not Uncle Bastable's "sort," and if Uncle Bastable meets him, their scheme will be ruined: Uncle Bastable will know that Annabel comes from humble origins, and he will refuse to bless their marriage.

Freddie dashes to the Pump Room, hoping to attain Uncle Bastable's signature on the necessary legal documents before Rackstraw frees himself.  But Uncle Bastable is a music lover, and he makes Freddie sit through the band's renditions of "Poet and Peasant" and an encore, the overture to "Raymond," by which time Rackstraw has arrived.  Rackstraw (who is mechanically juggling in one hand two billiard balls and a bouquet of roses) immediately denounces Annabel, exposing her claim to be the daughter of a "colonel" with the information that her father was a colonel in the Salvation Army, before which he was "a Silver Ring bookie known to all the heads as Rat-faced Rupert, the Ber-mondsey twister."  Then Rackstraw produces his ace: Uncle Joe, a "ghastly outsider" in these "refined" surroundings: a man wearing a morning coat, a red waistcoat and brown shoes, who greets Uncle Bastable as "old cock."

Just when Rackstraw's revenge appears to be unstoppable, Uncle Joe shows that Rackstraw isn't the only man with a trick up his sleeve.  "Uncle Joe" turns out to be Joe Boffin, a famed patient whose been written up in The Lancet.  He's spent most of his life in hospitals, beginning as a child with congenital pyloric hypertrophy of the stomach, progressing into adulthood with thrombosis of the heart and vesicular emphysema of the lungs.  His temperature has twice been up to 107.5 (when he had hyperpyrexia).

Uncle Bastable is rapturous with admiration.  Joe Boffin is his hero.  Uncle Bastable aspires to have ailments on Joe Boffin's scale, so that he can be catapulted to Droitgate Spa aristocracy.

The Droitgate Spa snobs then wander over, themselves equally enamored of Joe Boffin, who brushes away their apologies for interrupting with the assurance that he's "always glad to meet the fans."  Upon hearing that Joe Boffin's niece, Annabel, is going to marry Bastable's nephew, Freddie, the Droitgate Spa snobs are stunned at the honor.  They invite Bastable to join their exclusive group "the twelve jolly stretcher cases" and wonder if Bastable would join them that evening.  Boffin, they presume, wouldn't condescend to fraternize with their little assembly, but Boffin counters, "There's nothing stuck-up about me," adding, "We can't all be Joe Boffins, that's the way I look at it."

The chief Droitgate Spa snob, Lord Rumbelow, sighs, "The true democratic spirit." 

Joe Boffin then admits that he was best man at a friend's wedding recently, and the only thing wrong with him was "emotional dermatitis."  (Jonathan Cecil's delivery of this line made me laugh out loud.)

"Emotional dermatitis" might well summarize P.G. Wodehouse's view of the work of conjuring realistic emotional lives for his characters.  But with Joe Boffin, as with Mortimer Rackstraw, Wodehouse achieves great effect by giving up and making a joke of the whole endeavor.  With Boffin, Wodehouse takes the basest proletariat and makes him the catalyst for stunning upward mobility (both of himself and of Bastable) by inventing a social standard that - like Rackstraw's anxiety-induced magic - doesn't appear in the real world.  The transposition of snobbery from matters like education and wealth to an equal-opportunity arena like disease is, in Wodehouse's hands, so quixotic and charming that the audience is seduced.  By the time that Rackstraw takes "the flags of all nations from Annabel's back hair and, with a despairing gesture, [strides] from the room," I was convinced that I'd heard Wodehouse's supreme story.

Wodehouse's oeuvre is so enormous (more than ninety books) that I can't say for certain that he never used the techniques on display in "Romance at Droitgate Spa" again, but the delightful Mortimer Rackstraw and Joe Boffin do not seem to have had encore performances in Wodehouse's work, which is a shame.  As much as I adore the Jeeves-Wodehouse series, "Romance at Droitgate Spa" tantalizes with the possibility that Wodehouse could have reached other comic pinnacles had he elaborated on his "Droitgate Spa" insights.  I won't say it's a loss on par with Aristotle's discourse on comedy, but - in my book - it's close.

(Trailer for this cute amateur production of "Romance at Droitgate Spa" from YouTube)

Warriors women

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Maya_Hanley.jpgOver the last couple of days I've been corresponding with Maya Hanley, the daughter of Gerald Hanley, who wrote Warriors, about which I've blogged at this post and this post

Maya Hanley is currently at work on a memoir - spectacularly titled Silence and the Black Wolf.  In the course of researching her memoir, she came across my blog posts.  She has thoughtfully written some responses to the posts, and about corresponding with one of her father's readers (me), on her blog, The Sound of the Night, here.

Maya's father, Gerald, wrote Warriors many years before it found a publisher, and now the original book in which it appeared, Warriors and Strangers, is shamefully out of print.  In her correspondence with me, Maya Hanley expressed a desire to see her father's books return to print - a sentiment with which I could not agree more fully. 

But conversations about books are also a means of honoring the author, his or her text, the book's story and its ideas; dialogue is nothing short of keeping alive a book - or a person - liable to slip from our grasp.  In writing about Warriors, I was invigorated to participate in that process; in dialogue with Maya Hanley, that "keeping alive" function seems (to me) to have deepened considerably - one of the most moving rewards I've yet experienced from blogging.

Best of luck to Maya Hanley with her memoir.  May the conversation about her work - and her father's - continue, and may many voices join! 

(Image of Maya Hanley from Twitter)

What not to say when breaking up: Islamobabble

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Lorrie_Moore_Gate_at_the_Stairs.jpgLori Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is about loss and maturation in post-9/11 America.  One of the first instances in the novel of these linked phenomena occurs when the narrator, Tassie, a 20 year-old college student, is dumped by her boyfriend and classmate, Reynaldo.

Tassie and Reynaldo met in their Intro to Sufism class.  He's Brazilian, she's a virgin; need more be said?

Their break-up comes without warning.  Tassie leaves her babysitting job and heads for Reynaldo's apartment, only to find all the lights out and the apartment stripped bare of its furniture.  Reynaldo sits on the floor, staring at his laptop.  He looks up at her and announces that he's moving to England.  Then, without prompting, he says:

"I'm not part of a cell" . . . .

"I'm part of an Islamic charity for Afghan children.  That is all.  They think I'm part of a cell.  I'm not.  If anyone asks you, if they question you when I'm gone, please tell them that I'm not."
(p. 204.)  Not unreasonably, Tassie immediately assumes, in a vague way, that Reynaldo is part of some Islamist extremist organization:

"You are a haddi: some sort of jihadist[," Tassie says.]

"It is not the jihad that is the wrong thing.  It is the wrong things that are the wrong things."

"Thank you, holy warrior, for the Islamofacist lecture."

"As Muhammed said, we do not know God as we should."

"And whose fault is that?  That's not yours or mine!  Maybe God has not stepped forward enough.  Maybe God has not done a sufficient job of meet-and-greet."
(p. 206.)  Throughout this overlong, similarly stilted and disconnected conversation, Reynaldo continues to make remarks that suggest sympathy with the cause of violent Islamic extremism ("A lie to the faithless is merely a conversation in their language" (p. 208)).  Tassie continues to respond with weak arguments ("Listen!  The jihadist leaders - they don't respect outsiders.  They think these fervent recruits are all crazy, coming from another country as they do, and they use them and laugh at them." (p. 210).)  And Reynaldo continues, to the end, to deny that he's part of a cell.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani rightly called this scene "absurd."  But I focus on it not merely because it's utterly unbelievable, but because, in the context of A Gate at the Stairs, this scene well represents the national conversation about Islam and terrorism.  In a novel (and a country) where people have learned to parse issues of black-white relations so finely that the returns are plainly diminishing, people haven't learned to speak about Islam or terrorism with basic comprehensibility, let alone sophistication.

This shortcoming is important for many reasons.  In the real world, the inability to hold knowledgeable and sensible dialogue about issues as important as violent Islamic extremism will obviously impair our ability to address the problem.  In the world of A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's inability to write this scene in a way that makes sense alienates the reader.  I could not empathize with the loss Tassie was supposed to have experienced because the break-up scene was too joltingly unreal: was Tassie supposed to have been sleeping with a terrorist?  If not, what was going on?  And if yes, then why didn't Tassie take any of the responsible actions she should have taken, like alert the authorities?

And in neither real life, nor the world of the novel, can maturation flow from loss unless the conversation about that loss is more accurate, piercing and honest.  Lori Moore seems to make this point herself in another part of the novel: she provides a portrait of a couple whose wrenching loss occasions little-to-nothing in the way of maturity because their lives - and, necessarily, their conversations - are too convolutedly deceptive.

In losing Reynaldo, Tassie is supposed to be experiencing her first heartbreak, an experience that - for many of us - lays the groundwork for maturation.  Conversations that precede heartbreak are horrendous, but Lori Moore doesn't allow Tassie and Reynaldo to have that conversation.  "There was no room in this conversation for 'What about us?'" Tassie thinks.  (p. 204.)  Instead, Moore shoves on her characters a conversation that makes no sense.

Later in the novel, Moore seems to want to excuse herself.  She has Tassie reflect:

I had learned that in literature - perhaps as in life - one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself.  The creator was inconvenient - God was dead.  But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires . . . . The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!
(p. 263-64.)  But this insight cannot explain the debacle of the Reynaldo-breaking-up-with-Tassie scene.  A Gate at the Stairs may speak of its own yearnings, but those yearnings (from what I can tell) are to tell a story of loss and maturity in post-9/11 America.  The dialogue that Moore wrote in the novel's first example of its overarching theme undermines, rather than advances, this purpose.  This missed opportunity is unfortunate because few topics are more vital to our future happiness than insightful exploration of loss and maturity in post-9/11 America.

(Image from Vogue)

The Rime of the Ancient Environmentalist

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Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge.jpgTo my knowledge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge never heard of climate change.  Yet his brilliant, influential Rime of the Ancient Mariner - written apparently to illustrate the power of unknowable invisible forces - functions effortlessly as a warning about the suffering wrought by environmental degradation.

In Rime, the Ancient Mariner stops a man on a way to a wedding party and regales him with the story of the Ancient Mariner's last sea voyage.  He describes how his ship became trapped in South Pole ice.  The appearance of an albatross coincided with a fissure in the ice that permitted the helmsman to steer the ship to safety.  Thereafter, the albatross followed the boat.

Then the Ancient Mariner took his crossbow and killed the albatross.  This crucial event is rendered in a mere line-and-a-half, a scant seven words (one hyphenated), in the context of a verse dominated by the wedding guest's exclamations:

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! -
Why look'st though so?" - With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.
No motivation for this act of violence is ever requested or offered.  As Barbara Everett, writing in the London Review of Books observed, "It is still often asked why the Mariner shoots the albatross. The only answer is that Mariners did: these heroic New World discoverers killed and culled everywhere they went."  As she colorfully expands, "There is a taste of rottenness, a dead albatross, underneath the history of discovery."  One might add, under the history of development as well.

This example of environmental plunder - as convenient, unthinking and reckless as our current interface with the environment - generates some unpleasant consequences.  Returning to England, the ship hits a dead spot in the Pacific and is stuck without a wind, "As idle as a painted ship/Upon a painted ocean."  The sailors become parched for lack of water; some are afflicted with fevered dreams of a spirit "[n]ine fathom deep" that has followed them from the South Pole.

A skeleton ship emerges from the sky.  This ghost ship's crew consists of Death and his female companion, Life-in-Death.  They are playing dice for the lives of the men aboard the Ancient Mariner's ship.  Death wins the crew; Life-in-Death gets the Ancient Mariner.  The ship's crew - 200 men strong - drops dead on the deck.

Seven days elapse, during which the Ancient Mariner is stuck on the boat with 200 corpses.  He finally spies some water snakes

Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
Because of the Ancient Mariner's connection with these "living things," his condition improves.  He is able to pray and sleep and, when he awakes, rain pours onto the ship's deck, saving him from dying of thirst.  Even more extraordinarily, angels embody the corpses of the 200 crew men, raising the dead and getting to work sailing the ship.

But the Ancient Mariner still belongs to Life-in-Death.  He learns that, although he will be returned to his homeland, his life will not be his own.  He will serve a terrible penance, which is the vengeance of the spirit "nine fathom deep"

. . . who bideth by himself
In the land of mist and snow,
He loved the bird that loved the man
Who shot him with his bow.
Were it that every endangered species had a guardian spirit to avenge its killing!  We'd be in a much stronger position, biodiversity-wise, if this kind of incentive structure were in place.  But it's not.  Poachers and real estate developers (among others) whose actions cause the destruction of countless animals find themselves richer and unrepentant; Life-in-Death has yet to call.  

Instead, we're left with the Ancient Mariner's lesson.  Returning to England, the Ancient Mariner experiences periodic "agony" that compels him to recount his tale.  Such agony had possessed him when he saw the wedding guest.  Now he warns

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
The wedding guest is understandably shaken by this dark tale of the consequences of wanton environmental destruction, and he turns away from the wedding party:

A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.
At this historic moment, with oil poisoning the Gulf of Mexico, and myriad other environmental catastrophes unfolding, an environmental reading of Rime of the Ancient Mariner is especially poignant.  Given the difficulty of conveying through traditional journalistic and public information channels the consequences of climate change, perhaps Coleridge can impress upon a denying public that Life-in-Death (or Death itself) awaits environmental degraders and their cohorts.

That Coleridge was a religious man, the son of vicar, might make him especially persuasive to climate change doubters.  As Everett emphasized, "Coleridge was an 'anima naturaliter Christiana', a mind born Christian, who said that the 'strongest argument' for Christianity is that it 'fits the human heart'. It fitted his, at any rate." 

Nonetheless, as exegesis of Rime makes clear, Coleridge did not believe (as present-day Christians often espouse) that God made humans the caretakers of animals such that they might dispose of animals as they pleased.  Coleridge's pro-environmental Christianity is a powerful refutation to arguments like, "let's wreck the planet to bring on the rapture."

I am not, of course, idealistically optimistic that the 176-years-dead Coleridge will enjoy a resurrection as an environmentalist of note.  Not on the Al Gore scale, anyway; certainly Coleridge won't be winning any Nobel prizes.  Whatever potential long form Romantic poetry has as an instrument to influence world-wide climate change policy, that potential is deeply buried.

Nonetheless, mash-ups are super popular these days.  If we can have an Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, if readers want Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, why not Rime of the Ancient Climate Change Eco-Terrorist?

(Image of Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Guardian)

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