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Mary Poppins (Essential Modern Classics)
Mary Poppins (Essential Modern Classics)
by P. L. Travers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.10

5.0 out of 5 stars No Julie Andrews here by any stretch, 7 Jan. 2014
(Note: This review is of the 1981 U.S. paperback edition published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

"'Just look at you!' said Mary Poppins to herself, particularly noticing (in the shop window's reflection) how nice her new gloves with the fur tops looked ... And having examined the reflection of the gloves she went carefully over her whole person ‒ coat, hat, scarf, and shoes, with herself inside ... But the winter afternoons she knew were short, and they had to be home by tea-time. So with a sigh she wrenched herself away from the glorious reflection." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

"And another of (the birds) mistook Mary Poppin's new hat for a rose garden and pecked off a flower ...'You ought to be in a pie ‒ that's where you ought to be,' said Mary Poppins to him angrily." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

"All day long Mary Poppins had been in a hurry, and when she was in a hurry she was always cross. Everything Jane did was bad, everything Michael did was worse. She even snapped at the Twins. Jane and Michael kept out of her way as much as possible, for they knew there were times when it was better not to be seen or heard by Mary Poppins." ‒ from MARY POPPINS

Anyone having ever seen Disney's Mary Poppins [DVD] (1964) and the recently released SAVING MR. BANKS cannot perhaps but be compelled to read the original story by P.L. Travers to make the comparison between the print version and the cinematic one. They are surprisingly different, and you'll never view the latter in the same way again. Perhaps only 15% of the material in the book is recognizably represented on the Big Screen, and, in the former, the elder Banks and Bert play parts that are positively miniscule. Most notably, the text Mary Poppins is both vain and tetchy; no lovable Julie Andrews brandishing a spoonful of sugar here.

Walt Disney obviously cherry-picked the original and then embellished to make HIS creation appeal to an audience used to his light-hearted, musical animation format. I can understand why Travers might have been displeased with the transformation.

Any reader who is as struck by the results of the comparison as I was may have to be reminded that Travers's MARY POPPINS remains the magical work that enthralled both young and old in a time when there weren't the distractions of smart phones and tablet computers (much less television). Awarding it five stars comes in recognition of that fact if nothing else. It's a masterpiece of whimsy.

One of the more interesting aspects of this edition (published post-1981) is the revision to the chapter entitled "Bad Tuesday" in which Mary takes her young charges on a tour of the four points of the compass using a magic compass. In the 1934 version, they meet an American Indian, an Eskimo, a sub-Saharan African, and an ethnic Chinese. By 1981 this was considered too simplistic, and the author was persuaded to change to a dolphin, a macaw, a polar bear, and a panda. Perhaps the criticism Travers faced was an embryonic manifestation of political correctness. Oh, puhleeze! God save us from rampant PC when it comes to the literary classics of any genre!
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 7, 2014 3:23 AM GMT

Soldier Stories
Soldier Stories
Price: £0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Victoria's men, 4 Jan. 2014
This review is from: Soldier Stories (Kindle Edition)
"He has received just sufficient education to make him understand half the purport of the orders he receives, and to speculate on the nature of clean, incised, and shattering wounds." ‒ from SOLDIER STORIES, on the first-enlistment Tommy

"So we loosed a bloomin' volley,
An' we made the beggars cut,
An' when our pouch was emptied out,
We used the bloomin' butt,
Ho! My!
Don't yer come anigh,
When Tommy is a playin' with the baynit an' the butt."
‒ from SOLDIER STORIES, a barrack room ballad

Queen Victoria may have ruled the Empire, but it was her soldiers, sailors, and colonial administrators that bore its weight. Here, in SOLDIER STORIES, are seven of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, most of which have three recurring characters: Terence Mulvaney, Stanley Ortheris, and John Learoyd ‒ all rank-and-file Tommies serving (at one point or another) in India and Burma. The short story "The Drums of the Fore and Aft" takes place in Afghanistan and has as its two heroes the drummer boys Jakin and Lew.

The time is the 1880s.

The principle character is Mulvaney, and his "Oirish" dialect is quite often difficult to comprehend and it takes getting used to. I sometimes just resorted to skimming the text for the gist of it. That said, Mulvaney is an enormously appealing fellow. I wonder if his character may have served to some extent as the basis for McAuslan of George MacDonald Fraser's McAuslan series (The Complete McAuslan) although the latter was a Scotsman.

SOLDIER STORIES open a small window of insight in what it was like to serve with Her Majesty's regiments, either on the front lines or in the cantonments in Afghanistan, India, and Burma. It should appeal to any casual student of the British Empire and the colonial British Army. And, for the most part, the plots of the stories will leave the reader satisfied. Only "The Man Who Was" seemed incomplete and left me wondering what the entire backstory was.

SOLDIER STORIES is a worthwhile read if your interests encompass the subject matter.

Note: The Kindle edition omits the end-of-chapter illustrations presumably included in the printed-text editions.

The Expats
The Expats
by Chris Pavone
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Honesty is a consensual continuum", 28 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The Expats (Paperback)
"You know the lines (in a marriage) are there, you feel them: the things you don't discuss ... So when you eventually find yourself at one of these lines, your toe inching over, it's not only shocking and horrifying, it's banal. Because you've always been aware that the lines were there, where you were trying with all your might not to see them, knowing that sooner or later you would." ‒ from THE EXPATS

THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone is a delicious novel of things left unsaid in a marriage, things woven into a pattern of intelligent plotting and eyebrow-raising plot twists.

When Kate's husband Dexter lands a gig as the security IT consultant for a European bank, the former gives up her job as a U.S. government desk jockey and moves with her husband and two sons to Luxembourg.

Dexter's job is to make the bank and its computer so secure that he can't even tell Kate whom he works for or what he does. Kate is irritated by all the secrecy, but who is she to complain. After all, she has a Big Secret of her own that she's kept from her husband since the first day she met him. But soon she must take a proactive interest in his affairs when it appears others are doing so. Are they after him ‒ or her?

Kate is an endearing protagonist as the reader observes her reluctantly embrace her new role as an expat housewife left to take the kids to school and clean up their room, do the laundry and shopping and minor home repairs, make the gossip rounds over lunch with other expat wives, and plan family vacations to other European cities. But, at the end of the day, she's still left with the Big Question: What the hell is Dexter up to.

A minor fault of THE EXPATS might be the sometimes slightly confusing time line spread out between Today and Two Years Earlier. My best advice is to just go with the flow.

About two-thirds of the way through the storyline, I began to wonder if the author hadn't perhaps made his story too long. But, when I arrived at the dynamite plot twists, I realized they were predicated on all that had come before and that all of the backstory elements were necessary.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the realization that we won't likely be seeing Kate again as THE EXPATS is most probably a one-off.

P.S. 2/5/14: I was wrong about Kate being a one-off character. Happily, she appears again in The Accident being released in March.

Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube
Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube
by Andrew Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Minding the Gap, 10 Dec. 2013
"I visited the (East London) line shortly after it re-opened, noting that the refurbishment had done nothing to eliminate the brackish stink of the Thames at Wapping or the constant sound of rushing water. Standing in that station is like being in the cistern of a great toilet, and you rather dread the flush." - from UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND

"A friend of mine who works for the Underground said the only death-by-urination that he knew of involved a Metropolitan Line driver, who late one night was being given a lift back to the depot by another driver. He leaned out of the cab to relieve himself, and his head struck a signal post." - from UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND, examining the possibility of death-by-urination from the electrified rail

If you've read my other reviews on anything English or British, you'll know the affection I have for Great Britain and London in particular. And riding the Underground ("Tube") could front as the essence of my joy at being in the capital. I love the escalators, the advert posters, the occasional busker in busy tunnels, the Tube logo and maps, the Cadbury dispensers, the "Mind the Gap" announcements, the smell and blow of the air along the platform as a train approaches, the sway of a moving car (especially when standing and steadied by a hand-grip), and the magic of descending into a hole in the ground and emerging across town at my desired destination. The experience provides a rush both literally and figuratively.

In UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND, Andrew Martin distills the social history, network evolution, lore, and contemporary state of the Tube into one immensely readable volume affably told in a manner as it might be shared by the author over a pint at your favorite pub.

The only major flaw in the book is the absence of the famous Underground schematic. However, this is undoubtedly unavoidable as a single page couldn't possibly accommodate such and, even if it could, the cost of publishing a map in the de rigueur colors would be prohibitive. (I think we can all agree that a black and white version of the map simply won't do.) So, I didn't deduct a star for its absence; simply bring it up on your computer or iPad.

Mind you, as a resident in the Los Angeles suburbs, I've always been more than a little irritated that the bloody cab lobby has blocked the city's rudimentary light rail system from establishing a station inside Los Angeles International Airport. Therefore, I was slightly puzzled that Martin made no mention of the Piccadilly Line's arrival at Heathrow. After my first visit in 1975, I followed the progress of the line as it inched towards the airport and was thrilled the first time I could board a train at Heathrow Central for Earl's Court. Well, perhaps it wasn't locally such a momentous milestone as it seemed to me to be. You think?

One of the more notable aspects of the author's narrative is his obvious personal fondness for the Tube, which is apparent in the following excerpt:

"One benefit of the driverless trains is that you can sit right at the front and have that privileged, hypnotic, driver's-eye view of a ride through the tunnels. On the DLR (Docklands Light Railway)... I always try to sit at the front. (It's usually just a matter of elbowing aside some ten-year-old boys; I can then get on with pretending to drive the train.)"

While UNDERGROUND, OVERGROUND might not hold any interest for one not an Anglophile or, at least, a railway buff, for me it was a book I couldn't put down.

By the Seat of My Pants (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
By the Seat of My Pants (Lonely Planet Travel Literature)
by Simon Winchester
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars All good stuff, 24 Nov. 2013
"We travel ... for adventure and fun, to get away from the drudgery of our lives at home ... We meet people for whom our presence is nothing but opportunity, to take them out of the sadness and difficulty of their lives. The smiles exchanged on both sides have something of a nervous edge." ‒ Pico Iyer, in BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS

I always approach a literary anthology with some trepidation; I expect the stories to fall on the bell curve of Gaussian distribution and it's the several at the low end that often have me wishing I hadn't cracked the book at all. But the curve represented by the thirty-one chapters in BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS, subtitled "Humorous Tales of Travel and Misadventure," is skewed sharply to the right. It's all pretty much good stuff. Indeed, while I give one tale three stars, the rest get four or five.

Ok, ok. I've been robbed blind by a pair of Gipsy pickpockets on Rome's Ponte Sant'Angelo, locked myself INSIDE my car in Portsmouth, England, and, while as a clueless foreigner struggling with the language barrier at Bucharest's B„neasa Airport during the height of the Cold War, was stopped from boarding the wrong plane even as I had my foot on the bottom step of the air-stairs. But I haven't a story to match any of those here.

Escaping the drudgery of life at home to travel outside the comfort zone is an invitation to be taken unawares and delighted, enraged, surprised, scammed, annoyed, physically sickened, confused or enraptured. But, it beats staying home doing the laundry. Among other things, the aggregate thirty-one wayfaring contributors to BY THE SEAT OF MY PANTS are sorely embarrassed ("Blackout in Ushuaia", "Dutch Toilet", "Walk of Fame"), unexpectedly delighted ("Carpet-Rolling", "The Garden Kitchen"), befooled ("Let the Buyer Beware", "An Award Winning Performance"), confounded ("The Afghan Tourist Office", "Left Luggage"), amazed ("A Matter of Trust") and otherwise educated for the better ("Journey to the Centre of the Earth", "Naked in Oaxaca"). And, indeed, in "Wangara's Cross" I came across perhaps the most poetic explanation of the sun's traverse of the sky from sunrise to sunset that I've ever read.

This is the perfect book for anyone with Wanderlust. And, hey, I'm in!

Then there was the time I took the slow train from Timisoara to Bucharest accompanied by drunken Romanian Land Forces troops.

Dynamite Fishermen
Dynamite Fishermen
Price: £2.86

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bond would've been bored out of his skull, 12 Nov. 2013
As has been admirably noted by at least one other reviewer, DYNAMITE FISHERMEN follows shoes-on-the-pavement CIA agent Conrad Prosser as he performs the nuts-and-bolts duties of his assignment to the American Embassy in turmoil-torn Beirut of the early 1980s, i.e. to gather intelligence and recruit agents. There's no James Bond derring-do here, only the routine, day-to-day efforts to get the job done in hopes of a promotion.

I'm old enough to remember the news reports of the violence in Beirut back during those years. The stew of competing factions ‒ Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese Christians, Lebanese Army, Iraqi and Israeli surrogates ‒ was confusing both then and now, and author Preston Fleming does little to enlighten the casual reader who has no deeper knowledge of the time and place. For him and Conrad, the mess just is.

It seems to me a novel ‒ especially a spy novel ‒ should incorporate a plot with some degree of overt conflict between major characters and an escalating tension leading to a resolution. The superb character-driven Smiley novels by John le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People) had that. There's nothing like that here in DYNAMITE FISHERMEN.

Fans of this book will say I just don't get it. You're right; maybe I don't. But if I want to read about somebody doing routine tasks, perhaps there's a thriller out there featuring a lead who lays linoleum. Prosser himself was so average and unremarkable a protagonist that I never came to care much about the character or his mission. That, for me, is a serious flaw in any novel.

I recognize why some might give DYNAMITE FISHERMEN four or five stars either because it gives an unembellished, unsensationalized portrayal of a craft usually fictionally fraught with guns, babes, chases and close calls for the hero or because it's a sober and realistic picture of a confused time in a venerable Middle-Eastern crossroads. So, I'll just leave it at three non-committal stars and move on.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 8, 2014 11:57 PM BST

The Potty Mouth at the Table
The Potty Mouth at the Table
by Laurie Notaro
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Author freaked by Bambi and his mother on her front lawn. Really?, 25 Oct. 2013
"And do you know what vegans bring to Thanksgiving? Hummus. Hummus and nut crackers, and believe me, when you look at your dining room table and there are twelve tubs of beige (fecal material), it is very clear that there is such a thing as too much frigging hummus." - from THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE

"I was the one who invented that recipe (for stuffed mushrooms) ... THAT WAS ME. That was also me who gave you the recipe when you asked for it ... and (when) a guest (at your Christmas party) complimented you on them... yes, that was me who heard you say 'thank you,' without giving me proper attribution ...when I am standing two feet away. That is theft. Grand food larceny. You are an appetizer thief..." - from THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE

I'd never read anything by Laurie Notaro before, but the title THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE implied that her talent is for deliberately saying inconvenient but witty things in polite company just to see, with a glint in her eyes, what the effect would be on the assembly. Since that approach held out promise of a humorous read, I bought the book.

It's all in the packaging; I was seduced.

THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE is a series of thirty-three short essays in which Notaro expresses annoyance/displeasure/anger/hysteria with circumstances encountered in her life.

Mind you, the author occasionally scores, as with her chapters entitled "Thanksgiving" and "I Only Want to Know if You Have Herpes" in which she respectively disparages Vegan extremism and Facebook postings.

For the most part, however, the author's attempts at humorous rants seem contrived and come across only as petulant and whiney if not downright over the top. Indeed, her reaction to the unexpected appearance of two deer in "Tiny Dancer" had me wishing Notaro had a handler to slap her and shout "Snap out of it!"

The open letter to her husband in "A Handy Manual for A Widower, My Husband" should've caused her husband's lips to curl. It did mine.

It's not that THE POTTY MOUTH AT THE TABLE is a bad book; it just doesn't leave me with the least desire to return to the author's other books for more. For Laurie and her publisher, that may be a bit of bad news; for me, it's a matter of indifference.

In Southern Waters
In Southern Waters
by Ian Marchant
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Nowt queerer than folk, 17 Oct. 2013
This review is from: In Southern Waters (Paperback)
"People are very strange. We fall in love with somebody, because of who they are, and then we expect them to change ... there's nowt queerer than folk." - Bob Blossom, from IN SOUTHERN WATERS

"(Brighton Council decreed) that every May Moulescoomb's Wild Park should play host to a free festival, which attracted the wild and hairy from all across the South of England. The quality of the music could best be described as shameful, the food obtained from any number of stalls around the park as indigestible, and the ideas represented by the single-issue campaigners who thrust recycled pamphlets at the hirsute punters as half-baked, but no one seemed to mind too much. It was, after all, free." - from IN SOUTHERN WATERS

Published in 1999, IN SOUTHERN WATERS is one of writer/broadcaster Ian Marchant's rare novels. This was his first.

Here, college student Caroline Woolfit moves into the top floor flat at 23 Bloomsbury Place in Brighton, Sussex. Her room is being sublet by another of the current residents, Bob Blossom, who covets the use of Caroline's hi-fi.

If you're looking for a piece of fiction even remotely resembling a thriller, this book isn't it. Rather it's a genial and charming examination of the relationships - relationships colored by experiences past and present - between several roommates and neighbors clustered together by circumstance. And, indeed, unless you exist alone in a cave, isn't that what Life is all about for better or worse?

The chief character is Blossom, more or less. If you've previously read any of Marchant's other nonfiction works (such as Parallel Lines: Or, Journeys on the Railway of Dreams or Something of the Night), you may come to the opinion (as I did) that there's a lot of the author in Blossom. Or perhaps Marchant is Blossom. After all, Ian is from Newhaven, which is but a few miles east of Brighton. Both seem inordinately fond of spliff, a joint rolled with both tobacco and pot. And how convenient that Blossom is working on a book entitled "In Southern Waters."

There is indeed a Bloomsbury Place just off Marine Parade in Brighton. Via the magic of Google Maps taken down to street level, you can see that #23 is a five-story house entered through a blue front door. And the free festival at Moulescoomb's Wild Park - basically, courtesy of Google Maps again, just a very spacious open field - is apparently the Family Fun Day held annually every year since 1978 on or close to May 17.

If IN SOUTHERN WATERS was a television sitcom, each chapter would be a self-contained episode that contains varying amounts of humor and poignancy. Perhaps my favorite was "Beating the Retreat," landlord Geoffrey's account of the gritty World War Two retreat of His Majesty's forces before the advancing Japanese Army across the length of Burma.

Though this book isn't for every reader of fiction, I enjoyed it enormously both for the engaging stories contained within and (largely) because I treasure the many months I've spent in England (and all over Great Britain) in a multitude of places - including Brighton.

Mimsy (A Handy Mann Novel Book 2)
Mimsy (A Handy Mann Novel Book 2)
Price: £2.22

4.0 out of 5 stars Handy runs afoul of women Mom warned you Guys about, 11 Oct. 2013
In DEAD BLOW HAMMER, author Steve George debuts his hero, Jim "Handy" Mann, a grain commodities trader (with, apparently, lots of free time) and self-assigned neighborhood Mr. Fixit. In MIMSY, George continues the theme of having his Hero-for-the-Common Man run afoul of devious women with ulterior agendas. The thing is, as another character in MIMSY observes, Jim uses his role as handyman as an excuse to meddle to no good end. Or, as might be stated another way, no good deed goes unpunished - a maxim that I truly believe in.

Here, the object of Handy's chivalrous intentions is Mimsy Waters, the wife of ex-baseball player William Waters. Mimsy takes refuge in the shelter for abused woman across the street from Mann's house as he's fixing the front door of the former. From that point, Jim's troubles escalate.

As a self-professed handyman himself, George claims to write about what he knows best. One wonders if that includes difficult women.

I gave DEAD BLOW HAMMER five stars in recognition of Steve's creation of a literary hero that doesn't fit the usual mold of such in a realm inhabited by the likes of Jack Reacher, Dave Robicheaux, Jason Bourne, Clarice Starling, or even Thursday Next. It's as if a protagonist was fashioned from a bartender, bus driver, bank teller, or dental hygienist. In George's world, there's hope for all of us workin' schmucks to get a series of our own. That said, I can only award four at most now and in the future if Handy's weakness is for ladies in distress that are best left alone. He needs to get out more. Perhaps if Stevens would send him off on a much needed vacation to Las Vegas or the Big Apple, he might get into a different sort of trouble that would expand his worldview and opportunities for meddling.

Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770
Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England, 1600-1770
by Emily Cockayne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The downsides of Man as a social animal, 6 Oct. 2013
"Beds, Thomas Tryon taught, absorb a variety of 'pernicious Excrements' from sweaty and leaky bodies. Passed down through the generations, these beds became fetid and unclean ... In cities and large towns, where the air was sulphurous and humid, bed putrefaction was more prevalent." - from HUBBUB

"Passengers in coaches would be 'cruelly shaken' by the ruts and pot-holes ... Jostling along the street in a coach in December 1662 made Samuel Pepys's testicles hurt." - from HUBBUB

"(Clavering) listed various examples of damage and injury caused by falling (chimney) pots. In one case the sweep became stuck in a chimney pot and both fell into a pile of rubbish in the yard below. The sweep was hospitalized, the pot broke, and a maid who had been washing in the yard fell into an apoplectic fit." - from HUBBUB

HUBBUB by Emily Cockayne is a scholarly account of the assaults on the senses and one's person encountered in England in the period 1600 to 1770 - assaults brought on by humans living in too close proximity to one another, particularly in the cities of London, Manchester, Bath, and Oxford.

In chapters entitled Ugly, Itchy, Mouldy, Noisy, Grotty, Busy, Dirty and Gloomy, the author examines everything - from physical deformities to poor personal hygiene to spoiled food to poorly-paved streets to air and noise pollution to traffic congestion to raw sewage, and more - which might be encountered by the average citizen on a daily basis and cause for simple discomfiture to absolute outrage.

Cockayne's approach to the narrative is to rely heavily on references to or quotes from public records and the personal accounts of contemporary chroniclers to make her points. Thus, HUBBUB comes across as interesting though somewhat dry reading, and it teeters precariously on the shelf of Popular History about to tumble to that of Scholarly Dissertation. It suggests a high school research paper for academic grown-ups, perhaps a doctoral thesis. Each chapter ends with a lengthy summary paragraph which encapsulates that which came before. Taken together, these paragraphs would have sufficed to provide the reader with the big picture, but what would've resulted wouldn't have been a 250-page book but a short pamphlet.

The volume is liberally sprinkled with reproduced engravings of the period illustrating the various annoyances. The author seems to have found those by Hogarth and Marcellus Laroon particularly useful.

One might be left pondering the question: So, what's changed with species communal living? I suspect undeveloped countries still endure most if not all the sensory assaults experienced in 17th and 18th century England. Even in developed Western democracies, it's a matter of degree, isn't it? Here in Southern California, I experience gridlocked freeways and pot-holed surface streets. I have neighbors on each side of me, each of which has a large tree that dumps huge amounts of leaves onto my property that must be swept up. Teenagers park in front of my house in the wee hours and discard fast-food wrappings into my planting beds. The neighbor up the hill and behind occasionally has noisy parties. Annual area wildfires started by arsonists or idiot campers contaminate the air with smoke. A busy-body local municipal government tells me I can't erect a white picket fence across the front of my property (if I wanted to) or landscape with fake grass to cut down on an enormous water bill (which I've considered doing).

As one who loves London above all other cities visited, I'm left with this quote by James Boswell noted in HUBBUB about a journey within that metropolis:

"... the noise, the crowd, the glare of the shops and signs agreeably confused me ... my companion (in the coach) could not understand my feelings."

But, perhaps more to the point of HUBBUB, this quote from Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit":

"Hell is other people."

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