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The Life of Emily Dickinson
The Life of Emily Dickinson
by Richard B Sewall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Emily Dickinson - Self and Others, 3 May 2015
Richard Sewall produced a remarkable study of a remarkable poet. For students of Emily’s poetry, it remains indispensable.

The volume I read was originally in two parts and runs at well over 800 pages. A large part of this is given over to appendices and footnotes.

The author looks at Emily through her family, including her ancestors and more distant relatives, and friends – including loves and possible lovers. The principal sources are a thousand letters and almost two thousand poems. He quotes these at some length, many of reproduced in full.

Sewall debunked the myth of Queen Recluse, hiding away with a broken heart. Emily was a busy housekeeper, a good cook and a care to her ailing mother. Through correspondence she maintained a wide circle of friends – to some of whom she was intensely close. She got along well with the family’s servants. She was fond of children, especially her young nephew, Gilbert. This is also a readable story of a woman’s life in 19th century America. Among many details Emily won 2nd prize – 75 cents - for her rye and Indian bread in the 1856 Amherst Cattle Show; unfortunately we don’t know how she spent her reward!

He demonstrates Emily was early aware that she was possessed of a very special talent. She was daunted by the task she faced in using it, not least because so many would not understand her. Her themes were eternal - love and death. She had lifelong struggles with Christian beliefs. She agonized over what comes after - the last breath. But she believed that through her chosen vocation and through poetry she and we could come to understanding; in her words

“I reckon – when I count it all
First – Poets..” [#569]

I cannot pretend Sewall’s volume is an easy read. I had to take it in small bites, stopping and thinking about the text and the meaning. After many weeks of reading I felt I had the beginnings of an understanding – this was time well spent, this was worth it.

It is forty years since this was published and that after 20 years of research, too. I would like to know if it has been re-appraised in the light of another four decades of interpretation. I will go through the Emily Dickinson Journal to see what I can find, but if any reader here knows of such an essay please add a comment.

Many of the poems are difficult. Among many online analyses I found this site particularly helpful –

Neue Pinakothek Munich (Museum Guides)
Neue Pinakothek Munich (Museum Guides)
by Prestel Publishing
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars For a Second Visit, 28 April 2015
The Neue Pinakothek is situated in Munich’s museum quarter. It is a lovely museum to visit, bright and spacious, consisting of 20 rooms, ingeniously arranged on floor and mezzanine level. It houses a wide selection of European sculpture and painting from the late 18th century to the early 20th. Great foreign [= French] artists are represented, but the strength of the collection is German art, not as well known. So a guide is going to be useful here.

As with most galleries audio is available. In all the rooms there is a comprehensive written brochure, too, but that is in German. In the bookshop this short introduction is also available. Not just short but pocket-sized and easy to tote around.

The guide adds to the information available on the audio. The translation is generally good. The reproductions are alright, although small, but you will have the real thing in front of you at some point. You are given a very brief biograph of the artists. The author does presuppose some knowledge of art and artistic movements – indeed quite a lot. The chapters are arranged – as is the collection - by date and movement – Realism, Impressionism, Symbolism. Some of the terminology is obscure – thus one “struggled to achieve an abstract of space”. There is much on different kinds of brush stroke [lost on me I’m sorry to say]. Some juicy details are omitted –The Poet by Spitzweg is very well known in Germany – it was also reputedly Hitler’s favourite. Perhaps not surprisingly neither the audio or guide mentions this!

If you are not so well up on art history, perhaps stick with the audio, which is free. Once you have gone round the gallery pop into the bookshop and glance then at this introduction – buy it if you intend to find out a bit more and make another visit.

Regarding the works themselves – for me the highlights are Degas’ Woman Ironing and Gauguin’s painting of a Tahitian nativity - which might make it seem I have fixed ideas about the place of women in art, but actually no!

Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History
Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History
by Joe Perry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £44.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Kristallnacht, 20 April 2015
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I spent Christmas in Munich. The atmosphere rich and warm, seemed special. The street markets felt timeless – the rustic stalls, the handcrafted toys, the smell of pine needles. I wanted to know a bit more and this book seemed to fit the bill. It sort of did but it is a serious academic study. Very well researched and argued and fascinating in its way but not a light read.

The author traces the Christmas story from the Napoleonic Wars to German reunification [or rather re-reunification] in the 1990s. Christmas has played a significant role throughout 200 years of turbulent history, its symbols and rituals interpreted and reinterpreted to fit the times – be it the Second Reich or the Third, Weimar or the DDR.

Elements of the festival go back to the Dark Ages, but the modern family affair was an invention of the early 19th century. The urban middle class created Weihnacht - Christmas Eve - with gifts, under a tree, round which they sang carols. It spread to the rest of the population and was indeed exported to Britain and the USA world-wide; it was increasingly commercialized.

After 1871 Christmas brought all the new Germans together in the Imperial State. Through 1914-18 it united trench and heimat. In subsequent defeat it gave hope.

Perry’s chapter on the Nazi festival is fascinating. Ideologues sought to write the Jewish people out of the celebration and to put the “winter solstice” centre stage. Nativity plays were scripted without Joseph, Mary, Jesus and Bethlehem. It is clear that to a degree both Churches and citizens adopted or adapted to the Volk’s Christmas.

Again in defeat consolation was offered by the birth of the Saviour. Thereafter in the Federal Republic Christmas took its place in the Cold War, a time especially to oppose the atheism of the Communist bloc. It was celebrated in East Germany, too, but as a festival of socialism building true peace on earth. In a final chapter he argues that even before the fall of the Wall, both east and west converged in a festival of consumption and entertainment.

This book is more than a history of two hundred years of Xmas days – quite literally all our Christmases coming at once! The chapters contain so many fascinating stories and well worth reading for these alone. More than that, an explanation is offered why it has been so durable. This is set out in the introduction and conclusion –and it is quite hard to follow. Basically Christmas as in 1815 [when Hoffmann wrote his classic The Nutcracker and the Mouse King] so in 2015 gave “the family”, and “the nation”, a cache of feeling and tenderness, renewed every year, replenished and reinvigorated.

Like a precious family heirloom or inherited castle, it has served for purposes dark and in times shameful – but it is as much part of the German emotional landscape, as its mountains and rivers are part of the country’s topography.

The Disappearing Spoon...and other true tales from the Periodic Table
The Disappearing Spoon...and other true tales from the Periodic Table
Price: £4.35

5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, Entertaining - and a bit of a Challenge, 13 April 2015
This is one of many books on the Periodic Table. A fair review would compare them, of course, but the only other I have read is Aldersey-Williams. Both are written for the interested lay reader. Both are good. To Kean, anyway.

Sam Kean is a journalist on Scientific American and an engaging writer, evident in the books he has written on neurology and genetics. Here he takes us from the origins of the universe to possible future encounters with aliens, with whom, he suggests, we will have only π and the periodic table in common.

He covers all the elements, arranged by theme in 20 short chapters. There is a great deal of historical anecdote, illuminating and amusing. The great men and women of science are as important to him as atomic weight and half-life. All will have heard of Curie and Einstein, but Donald Glaser who conceived of the cloud chamber while watching bubbles in his Bud? Many find his style grates, too Top Gear not enough Open University. But I liked it.

But this is more than knockabout history, The author is also good on expounding the science underlying the properties, uses and abuses of the elements. I think you need high school chemistry to get into this book. It is not a textbook on basic science, not an introduction . Some of the concepts I struggled with, but I was encouraged to find out more and follow up quantum dots and the alpha constant.

This is what I like about the author – he really does educate in the sense of opening your mind and leading you onto other ideas. Also his science is for us all – who knows it may be you or me who has to explain the periodic table to visitors from another galaxy

The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther Mystery Book 7)
The Lady from Zagreb (Bernie Gunther Mystery Book 7)
Price: £6.64

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Hero flawed - and author, 12 April 2015
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The latest instalment of Bernie Gunther, Third Reich detective, whom I have followed over many years. I preordered Zagreb and set aside time to read it, hot off the press or, in my case, blown down from the Cloud. It was enjoyable but flawed.

It begins well. 1956 finds our man in a smoky cinema on the French Riviera. He has a tale to tell about the actress on the screen. You are drawn in. You want to know the story. And the heart of the story is good .

Kerr has a deep and extensive knowledge of Germany in this period, which he uses for theme and plot. Exactly so here – the focus is Croatia and Switzerland, with connections made to German cinema and the favoured stars of Nazi screen. Almost all the characters are taken from history or very closely based on the same. Kurt Waldheim gets a cameo role. The novels also shine a light on aspects of daily living – here driving on the autobahn, relaxing on the Wannsee and so forth.

The plot runs along three or four paths, managed well both separately and together. There is also a development in Bernie’s personal life - possibly. Our man also seems more than usually reflective on his role as a detective investigating single deaths in a society given over to mass murder.

So flaws then?

Well there are a few. Philip Kerr portrays the Nazi regime as rotten through and through, of course. But the regime itself is portrayed as a bunch of bandits. I don't expect a political dissection of the roots of Hitler's seizure of power, but, for instance, Goebbels, a key figure in this novel as “Joey the crip”, is almost a cartoon baddie, or a character from a Bond movie.

The author really overdoes the wisecracking side of Gunther – the snappy speech and metaphors [“she had a body like..” he had a face like..”]. We never encounter him reading a book but he is up to date with philosophy [Kant] psychology [Jung] art criticism and mathematics ! Top that with a certain implausibility to his sex appeal. He is late 40s, he drinks and he smokes, living in a little flat on his own – yet a drop-dead gorgeous actress falls at his feet. Descriptions of his love-making are as frequent and lengthy as they are utterly ridiculous. Then we have his skills in armed and unarmed combat straight from a Bond movie – honestly, in reality he would have dropped dead trying.

On top of that too. Gunther has moved from the Kripo, Murder Division, to the War Crimes bureau, but in this book he seems to operate as a kind of high-level secret agent. Again Bond movie.

I understand that Gunther was always a bit of a womaniser, a maverick, a smart ass, a wise guy. I also get that Kerr is not writing straight history but a novel in the detective genre. But in Zagreb he has gone way over. I wondered if Philip Kerr is messing about here with Bernie but even more with his fans - seeing how far he can push it. I hope not.

Au Revoir, Europe: What if Britain left the EU?
Au Revoir, Europe: What if Britain left the EU?
Price: £8.96

5.0 out of 5 stars How Should I Vote?, 11 April 2015
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The UK joined the Common Market in 1973. Now, April 2015, there is a General Election. UKIP calls for withdrawal , SNP wishes Scotland to stay in, the Conservatives and the Greens are pledged to a referendum, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are committed to renegotiate our terms of membership. The author spent six years as Times Correspondent in Brussels. He presents a well written guide for the interested voter, to help her to decide -"Should we bid Europe au revoir?".

There are caveats. The book is three years old. Many leading post holders in Brussels have changed. More than that, the Greek crisis has assumed critical dimensions. Populist nationalist parties have arisen elsewhere - Podemos in Spain and, of course, Marine le Pen's Front National. Nonetheless, this book is a good foundation to assess these changes. Not everything has changed so much.

It is not a quick read. I took a chapter at a time every day or so. Trying to read it carefully and seriously.

We get a concise history of "the Market" from its emergence in the early 1950s, its growth and metamorphosis thereafter, taking in the accession of new members. He shows how its reach has expanded in scope and depth. He shows examples of good and bad practice in the citadels of Europower. Attitudes of British politicians and the British media are described down the years - a picture of increasing discomfort with the Brussels project, a deep feeling that London and Londoners do not want to be part of a United States of Europe or a continental constitution modelled on the Bundesrepublik.

Throughout he weighs up the pros and cons of UK membership. A detailed closing chapter looks at ten key areas - from peace to fish. I would not attempt to summarize this in any detail. He does make clear how difficult it is to show the effect since 1973 on the specific if not narrow trends of economic growth and trade in precise terms of pounds or indeed euros. If we cannot assess the past, how can we predict future patterns in an uncertain global economy?
One theme comes over loud and clear - that even if the UK leaves the EU, Europe and the EU will still be there. Au revoir will not be adieu. In LBJ's phrase - are we better in the tent?

Charter provides a clever epilogue, set in 2023. What if? Labour won the 2015 election narrowly and ED is PM. However - and this shows the problem with crystal balls - he says the party had committed itself to a referendum in its manifesto. Well it didn't so the referendum of 2017 [a close victory for the au revoiristes!] would not have happened.

Still a big recommend.

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway
by Asne Seierstad
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profoundly Moving, 31 Mar. 2015
July 22 2011 mid-afternoon, Oslo, raining. Anders Breivik parks a car in the centre. It is a bomb. The bomb explodes at 15.25. He is already on his way to a little island called Utoya. It sits in the fjord outside the capital. It is hosting a youth festival. He lands at 17. 07. The killing begins. At 18.27 it is finished. 77 people are dead.

How do you write about that afternoon? What kind of a book can deal with such outrage?

First, the title. The killer is not the One of Us. One of Us refers specifically to Bano Rashid killed on Utoya. A refugee from Iraq she came to Norway and wanted to belong, to be One of Us. This book is really about her and so many others,

The author does deal with the life of Breivik. She reports the details that she was able to verify. She does not argue a particular motivation for his act. Different factors are brought out - no single one is highlighted, though many and all may have contributed.

Interwoven with this are life stories, all too short, of those who really mattered on that day, "the beating heart at the centre of the case" in her words. Contrasts are drawn sharply between them and the man who defiled them. Simon Saebo, a natural leader, attended national Labour Congress at 15 years of age. Bano, born in Kurdistan, heart in Norway, adored by her little sister, Kara. Jon Lervag, new father-to-be, with a spring in his step that brings him alongside the car at the very moment.

This is what the book is about - loss and loss and loss 77 times over. So we feel it.

The author describes in cold, chilling prose just what this man did. The sentences are short . They chronicle his steps back and forth on the tiny island hunting down his terrorized victims. Each verb another bullet and another bullet to make sure. This is what he did and this is what he did and this is what he did.

He was killing every minute. The police response was confused, chaotic. Mistakes were made - on another day they would not have mattered. The author does not pass judgement although it might be deduced from what she describes. Five minutes would have saved 5 lives. By the time the police arrive he's stopped anyway. But how could they ever have expected anything like this? He spent a year planning this "operation". Astounding the ease with which Breivik assembled the tools of his savagery from the internet and learnt how to use them.

The trial. I was reminded of the trial of Eichmann - like Israel, Norway had to get this right. Asne Seierstad reports the views arrived at, diagnoses reached, by different teams of psychiatrists - dissocial personality disorder, narcissistic melancholia, paranoid schizophrenia, sociopath, Asperger's. In the end - not mad. A sentence of 21 years, though it will forever be extended. He sits in isolation in maximum security waiting to be released by his Aryan brothers and sisters. He will wait forever.

Asne Seierstad closes with the people left behind. Some "cope" better than others. There is bitterness. Bitterness at police failings. Bitterness that Utoya aims to create bigger, better youth festivals. Bitterness even at the words of Jens Stoltenberg, that Norway had triumphed, come good in its hour of darkness.

Critics have said that this account lacks context. By this they mean - I think - that Breivik is not measured against, compared to : Timothy McVeigh [Oklahoma], Thomas Hamilton [Dunblane], Adam Lanza [Sandy Hook]. Since it was written we can add Said Kouachi [Paris] or indeed the many who have decided they do not want to be "one of us" and have, ironically, followed the path of the Crusaders idolised by Breivik. But that would be a different book.

One paragraph haunts. Night is falling on Utoya on July 22 - the survivors have gone. The fallen remain - having passed now beyond the reach of those who loved and seek them still . "All over the island, sounds were ringing up over and over again. Until the batteries gave up, one after another".

I was - obviously - deeply moved. I had not so expected - I remember clearly the rolling news on the day and the trial in 2012. I thought I "knew what happened". Until I read "One of Us" I don't think I did.

Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made
Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World it Made
by Richard Rhodes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not What it Claims, 22 Mar. 2015
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Richard Rhodes has an impressive CV, his many accolades topped by a Pulitzer Prize. The Spanish Civil War is a new topic for him. This is a major fail.

He does not read Spanish. He refers in the introduction to an archive of personal narratives in the Tamiment Library, New York, but it is not apparent he has used this source. Most of his material derives from standard histories and some more recently published works. It is short - just over 200 pages in the hardback edition. A selection of photographs is included but there is only one map - this indicates where his interest lay or did not lie.

From this account you could be forgiven for thinking that Spain and its people were not really involved. We do get a great deal on Picasso [and his mistresses] and Miro. Orwell is discussed at some length, though a mere bit part compared to the pages devoted to Hemingway [and his mistresses!]. There are starring roles for American doctors and British nurses. When it comes to actual fighting - the International Brigade seems to have that covered.

There is no analysis of the war as a military struggle. Accounts of a few battles are written almost entirely from the perspective of American volunteers. The history of Spain prior to July 1936 is ignored. There is no discussion of Spanish society and social divisions. There is no analysis of the political forces of the Republic. Franco was bad - the Republic good; beyond that not much - the charms of Martha Gellhorn being much more interesting.

Really it is no more than a series of sketches of some famous names - perhaps the "good company" of the title - in wartime - the "hell" of the same. Everything about his cast can anyway be found elsewhere - in the sources cited in footnotes. Though this is not plagiarism, the book contains nothing original in content or in the author's treatment of it.

A few more illustrations and you would have what used to be called a coffee table book.

If you think I am harsh then look at the article by Paul Berman in the New York Times.

I have to wonder how it came to be written. I came across it in Foyle's London - its eye-catching cover on a neat little pile on the "What's New in History" table. It was surrounded by new volumes on specialized themes of the well-studied conflict Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War Unlikely Warriors: The Extraordinary Story Of The Britons Who Fought In The Spanish Civil War The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. It filled a gap - sort of. Is this what the publisher thought too - let's get a well-respected name to give us something on this current hot topic?

All the Light We Cannot See
All the Light We Cannot See
Price: £4.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A Gem, 17 Feb. 2015
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I enjoyed this book immensely. A number of themes are set in an enthralling narrative. The novel contains elements of war fiction, love story and fairy tale. It echoes a number of other novels and styles - post-modern is, I believe, the fancy term.

The drama takes place during World War Two. The key characters are children forced into adult roles. The leads are Marie-Laure, a French girl, and Werner, a young German. Both engage with the world through what they cannot see of it, though for different reasons. Werner, brought up in an orphanage, is captivated by radio and radio waves, Marie-Laure has lost her sight - she has to rely on sound and touch to negotiate life. This is one of the many meanings of the title.

Marie lives a happy childhood with her loving father, a locksmith in a Paris Museum. He is punctilious in his care for her, teaching her to be independent and self-reliant. These chapters reminded me of The Old Curiosity Shop. The fall of France sends them fleeing to Brittany, to St Malo.

The war transforms Werner's life too. He leaves the orphanage, goes to a brutal military school and looks to a future as a skilled radio operator. His unit crosses war zones east and west, and he arrives in St Malo.

This is where the book actually begins - the two, still unknown to each other, trapped in the blitz that destroyed the town in August 1944 [shades of Slaughterhouse Five.

The novel then travels back in time and charts their respective journeys towards each other. Can we hope for a young love against all the odds?

Well that's one part of the plot.

The central idea of the book is their immaturity - as darkness and fire descend, Marie clutches her braille copy of Jules Verne, Werner holds to memories of his house mother. The war years are the years of their adolescence . But in these times it is not just about growing up, but surviving. Other young characters are introduced - Jutta, Werner's little sister, the sensitive Frederick , a fellow student at military school along with the giant Volkheimer . In the character of Volkheimer in particular I was reminded incredibly of Le Grand Meaulnes (Penguin Modern Classics). Only now the enchanted kingdom is the blood soaked lands of Nazi occupation.

A key part of the story is a mysterious diamond, beautiful but cursed. It is being sought by a classically evil "baddie". SS Sergeant - Major Rumpel believes it is in the possession of Marie. He has tracked the jewel to St Malo, so he's in town as well. Risking the firestorm to win the treasure, hidden in her enchanted castle. Symbolism goes off the scale here - and there is a lot of it in this novel.

There are really three epilogues after the curtain falls on the main act - 1945, 1974 and 2014 - which should satisfy any reader's desire for completion.

The book is arranged in almost two hundred short chapters - like flashes of light, a flickering film reel. The narrative goes back and forth, in time and place. It's easy to start reading quickly, picking up the pace but it's better to stop and take a break with this novel. It should be put down! Take it slow like the snails of St Malo who are such a part of the story.

A slow read reveals many themes and many levels of meaning. It pays too to savour the language and colour of the author's writing. In particular Doerr captures brilliantly Marie's world - when she is in the narrative my mental images were of sound and feel and smell, not sight.

Amazon reviews show the novel to be much more widely read in the USA [at a ratio of 1:100]. I can't think why - though he is American, of course. Anyway, fab book.

The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Price: £6.33

5.0 out of 5 stars Partisans, 6 Feb. 2015
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In 2013 the author published a memorable account of the liberation of Paris in August 1944. This earlier book covers the four long years that preceded those eleven dramatic days. The French Resistance is the subject of a vast amount of literature, of all kinds. It’s hard to know where to begin. I would suggest here with Matthew Cobb’s account.

The catastrophe of May 1940, the death of the third Republic, German occupation and the birth of Vichy. The old political formations were swept away. A new term entered the language – collaboration.

Resistance at first fragmented, hesitant and weak. A friend meets a friend for a drink, a third joins them – they put their glasses down and decide they need to “do something”. Just type up a leaflet or scrawl a slogan. A group of young lycee students make a noise on Bastille Day, ruffle feathers. Some are imprisoned in Lyons, one is shot in Lille. Organization improves - secrecy and caution adopted but actions bolder taken. Things are getting tougher for everyone – rationing, forced labour, petty and not so petty humiliations. A big strike in the mines northern France shows it’s not impossible.

So it goes. Hundreds of different groups emerge, are broken, reunite, link up. The invasion of the Soviet Union brings in the experience of the Communists, who find they can work with the people they hated in the 30s. Railway lines are blown up, Nazis assassinated, British pilots smuggled home. In turn the Allies – with the USA in the mix after 41– drop weapons and spies in return for intelligence. De Gaulle is a potent figurehead. Stalingrad. They know they will win now. Sabotage and terrible reprisals. Thinking of what comes after – when it’s over – planning a new France, a better world. D-Day. Insurrection. Paris rises. The Nazis return east.

Cobb gives us a riveting account. The big questions are covered. The failure to protect Jewish people is discussed. The attitude of the Allies, the attitude of De Gaulle. He looks at the divisions within this kaleidoscope of resisters. Sometimes old scores were settled; there were traitors within their ranks; justice was summary and decisive. And of course – did these brave men and women make a difference ?

A final chapter shows how the Resistance became historical “fact” and potent “myth”. What happened to its soul? Did the sharing of fear and sacrifice, of betrayal and triumph, of brotherhood and sisterhood - did it survive or did they all return to the shadows? The author is not an academic historian – a noted zoologist, in fact – but he sifts a huge amount of historiography and memoir, modern analyses, discoveries and debates: notes account for almost half the text.

A central paradox is that for those who survived the struggle was the happiest time of their lives. Matthew Cobb, weaving his account with the threads of individual heroes and heroines, explains why.

* Note the kindle edition does not contain photographs.

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