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Mac McAleer (London UK)
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The Prado
The Prado
by F. J. Sanchez Canton
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Old but worth a look, 18 Sept. 2017
This review is from: The Prado (Hardcover)
This is a useful and colourful reference to the paintings in The Prado Museum in Madrid. However, it is over 50 years since its publication. It is a normal-size book, that is, it is the size of a novel and can be held in one hand.

The first 66 pages contain a set of articles introducing The Prado and the provenance of its paintings: “The Collections of the Kings of Spain” with 3 full page colour plates; “Abortive Projects by Joseph Bonaparte and Ferdinand VII” with 1 colour plate; “The Creation of The Prado”; and “The Last Sixty Years”.

The main section is “The Plates”. Here there are 100 colour plates, mostly full page and facing a full page of explanatory text. At the end of the book is the 32-page “The Pictures in Monochrome”, which reproduces other paintings in black and white with multiple pictures per page. The colour plates start in the early 15th century with Fra Angelico and end in the late 1700s to early 1800s with Goya. There is a preponderance of Spanish, Spanish by adoption (El Greco), Flemish and Italian paintings. Most common is El Greco, Goya and Velázquez. Also represented are Hieronymous Bosch, Correggio, Raphael, Rubens, Tintoretto, Titian and Van Dyck.


The Dawn of Civilization: 4,000 - 500 Bc
The Dawn of Civilization: 4,000 - 500 Bc
by Sean Ellerker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3.0 out of 5 stars A bare, intense overview, 18 Sept. 2017
This is a 150-page dash through the history of the Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean. The 32 chapters are all short and well written. However, there is only one illustration – a half- page map with the title “The Ancient Near-East, Egypt and Eastern Mediterranean”. There is no Contents page and no Index. The chapters are numbered but not titled. Only in the last few chapters does the focus move eastwards, to India, China and finally to the Americas.

This is a useful overview but a bare, intense one. The first 34 pages can be viewed on Google Books (see Comments)
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 18, 2017 8:10 AM BST


The Early Church: From the beginnings to 461 (SCM Classics)
The Early Church: From the beginnings to 461 (SCM Classics)
by W. H. C. Frend
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Still very useful, 12 Sept. 2017
This is an enjoyable, accessible and informative read. The chapters are sequential in time from the start of the Christian movement in Jerusalem through to 461 AD and the death of Pope Leo. It is an introduction to the period.

On the plus side, this book is easy to read, never boring and it seems to have stood the test of time.

On the negative side, many criticisms can be made of this book, but I think they can all be refuted. It is certainly an “old” book, being a re-issue of 1965 original edition, which was itself based on the author’s lectures for the Certificate in Christian Theology begun in 1954. There may be some truth in calling it out-dated. The information about the Dead Sea Scrolls is incomplete and only some of the documents from Nag Hammadi had been translated at the time of original publication (for information about the Gnostics), but I do not think that this causes too much of a problem to an introductory overview. However, there is a problem about terms and events suddenly being introduced into the text without initial explanation. The meaning of some of the words used may have been known to the original readers but not to modern ones. Unfortunately, there is no Glossary. All of these criticisms are really a reflection of the book’s size constraints and range. This is a short book covering a big topic and it could easily have been ten times longer. There will always be topics that the reader feels are not treated in enough detail. Whilst there were chapters on Origen, Ambrose and Augustine, I was disappointed that there was not a chapter on Jerome.

THE BOOK has 22 chapters and at the end of each chapter is a short list for further reading. There is a useful Chronology, an extensive Notes section, containing mostly references to primary and secondary sources used and an adequate Index.


A Closer Look: Colour
A Closer Look: Colour
by David Bomford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good, colourful introduction, 11 Sept. 2017
This review is from: A Closer Look: Colour (Paperback)
The first impression is that this is a slim book, but a very colourful one. It has only 96 pages, but it is full of colour illustrations taken from paintings in the National Gallery (NG) collection. It is a normal-sized book of about 8” by 6” and gives a useful and interesting overview of the origin and use of colour in paintings. The illustrations are either sections from paintings or full reproductions and they predominate over the text. This book should be treated as an extension to the traditional museum guide as it is part of the NG’s "A Closer Look" series (1). The book is divided into four chapters and each chapter contains several short sections.

THE CHAPTERS
> Introduction: Painting the Coloured World; The Perception of Colour; Symbolism and Emotion.
> Colour and Paint: Pigments and Media; The Artist’s Palette (Blues, Greens, Reds, Yellows, Whites Browns and Blacks); Identification of Pigments.
> Painters’ Treatises and Colour Theories: Handbook and Instruction Manuals; Theories and Treatises; 'Diegno' and 'Colore'; Optical Theories.
> The Painter’s Use of Colour: Cennino Cennini’s Technique Exemplified; The Effect of the Paint Medium; Unusual Pigments; The Seventeenth-century Palette; Velázquez and the Use of Coloured Grounds; Rembrandt as Colourist; Eighteenth-century Brilliance; The Nineteenth Century - an Explosion of Colour; Optical Contrasts and New Colour Theories.

At the end of the book is a single page titled “Find Out More” that lists books for further reading (2).

EXAMPLE SECTIONS
In the section “Symbolism and Emotion”, a quote is given from van Goth about his use of colour in his painting “The Night Café” to express “the terrible passions of humanity”. However, this painting is in the Yale University Art Gallery, so the section continues with a discussion of his use of colour in his painting “Chair” , which is in the NG collection and so can be reproduced in this book.

In the section “Pigments and Media” it is noted that before the 18th century most pigments came from nature, either from plants, animals or minerals. White lead was one of the few exceptions. Early painters suspended the pigments in egg yolk (tempera); later in oils. Egg tempera dries quickly so the technique is to build up of layers in short hatches. Oil dries slowly, allowing it to be blended with a soft transition between colours. The hatching of egg tempera is illustrated by a close-up of the face of the Virgin Mary from the Wilton Diptych. The use of oil is illustrated by a close-up of Rembrandt’s “Belshazzar’s Feast” showing the elaborate collar created by thick oil paint (impasto).

In the section “Unusual Pigments”, the intense and vibrant use of colour in sixteenth century Venetian painting is discussed. Venice was then a great international trading centre with access to precious imported pigments. The example used is Titian’s “Bacchus and Ariadne”. The intense blue of the sky is ultramarine, based on lapis lazuli. The blue-green sea is azurite. Ariadne’s scarlet sash is vermillion. A red lake, probably made from insects, is Bacchus’ fluttering drapery. A rare arsenic containing orange mineral called “realgar” is used on the drapery of the Bacchanate. The full painting is reproduced as a half-page as well as a full-page close-up of the Bacchanate. Additionally, the front cover of the book displays Bacchus and the back cover displays Ariadne.

___________________________________________________________________________________________
(1) The National Gallery’s “A Closer Look” series includes books on Allegory, Angels, Conservation of Paintings, Deceptions and Discoveries, Faces, Frames, Saints, Still Life and Techniques of Painting
(2) “Find Out More” begins with Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction by John Gage, which it describes as “The most comprehensive book on colour in art, and an indispensable work of brilliant, wide-ranging and impeccable scholarship”. It then adds Gage’s later book “Colour and Meaning”, which it says expands on many of the ideas in “Colour and Culture”. Other books listed include
P. Ball Bright Earth “The Invention of Colour”, P. Hills Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass, 1250-1550 and H. Rossotti “Colour”


The Oxford History of Byzantium
The Oxford History of Byzantium
by Cyril Mango
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars An intelligent overview, dripping with illustrations, 30 Aug. 2017
This is a small coffee table book that combines an authoritative text with art-book quality illustrations. It is small enough to be picked up and read. The contributors are all academics who have created short, interesting and readable chapters.

It starts with the acclamation of Constantine as emperor by the troops in Britain on the death of his father in AD 306. By AD 324 Constantine had removed all opposition to his rule and chosen the already thousand years old Greek colony of Byzantion (Byzantium in Latin) to be his imperial residence. The book continues through the long history of this eastern part of the Roman Empire through to its end in 1453.

The Chapters are: (1) The Eastern Empire from Constantine to Heraclius (306 – 641); (2) Life in City and Country; (3) New Religion , Old Culture; (4) The Rise of Islam; (5) The Struggle for Survival (641 – 780); (6) Iconoclasm; (7)The medieval Empire (760 – 1204); (8) the Revival of Learning; (9) Spreading the Word: Byzantine Missions; (10) Fragmentation (1204 – 1453) ; (11) Palaiologan Learning; (12) Towards a Franco-Greek Culture. The illustrations are extensive and mostly in black and white but they are always subservient to the text. There are eight full-page black and white maps and twelve double-sided colour plates.

Readers wanting a popular book on the history of the Byzantine Empire with more details and less illustration could try John Julius Norwich’s three volume set (The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline and Fall).


Notes on a Cuff and Other Stories (Alma Classics)
Notes on a Cuff and Other Stories (Alma Classics)
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.95

4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting collection from his early work, 25 Aug. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is a collection of Bulgakov’s early work, written in the early 1920s. The stories vary in length and style, but all are influenced by the author’s own experiences as a doctor during the civil war and then working for the early Soviet republic. These will be of interest for anyone familiar with his later works. However, the style of some of the stories makes them seem unfinished.

Bulgakov was from a middle class Russian family living in Kiev. He was neither a Bolshevik nor a Ukrainian nationalist, but because he was a doctor, he was forcibly recruited into the anti-Bolshevik forces after the 1917 revolution, just like Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago. He was with them in the Caucasus, where he contracted typhus. On the triumph of the Bolsheviks, he went to Moscow to be a writer. Many of these stories reflect these experiences.

Notes on a Cuff (48 pages) is the longest story in the collection and is divided into two parts. The first part is written from the Caucasus through the filter of the character’s typhus fevers. I found this very disjointed and hard to follow. The second part is the account of the same character, now in Moscow and his Kafkaesque experience working in a state literary department. This made more sense to me, in a nonsensical way.

The Fire of the Khans (20 pages) is set in a country palace near Moscow turned into a national trust type visitor attraction for the newly emancipated soviet comrades. Then secretly the former owner returns.

The Crimson Island (22 pages) is a Jules Verne pastiche. If it had not been for this book’s Notes section I am not sure I would have realised that it is really about the 1917 Revolution.

A Week of Enlightenment (8 pages) is a short, snappy piece about a soldier who wants to go to the circus but is sent by his company commander to the theatre and opera instead. He then goes to school and become educated. “We weren’t taught anything before the Revolution” he says. This may be intended to mock the Bolshevik attempts to educate the masses, but it has the opposite effect.

The Unusual Adventures of a Doctor (16 pages) details the experiences of a doctor press-ganged into the war in the Caucasus.

Psalm (6 pages) narrates a man telling a naughty boy a moralising bedtime story.

Moonshine Lake (8 pages) is a story about a large Moscow apartment building full of home-made alcohol and the disruptions this causes.

Makar Devushkin’s Story (4 pages) is a satire about the tedium of local party meetings for the workers.

A Scurvy Character (4 pages) is the tale of a malingerer who plays the system successfully, for a while.

The Murderer (14 pages) is the story of a surgeon and his deliberate murder of patient.

The Cockroach (10 pages) is a tragedy about gambling, a little alcohol, conmen and a cursed Finnish knife.

A Dissolute Man (4 pages) is about a man who gets himself a virtual wife after reading an article in The Hooter, the newspaper of the Railway Workers’ Union.

I found the Notes (8 pages) useful for the references to places and to Russian and other writers. The section Extra Material: Life and Works of Bulgakov (30 pages) at the end of the book was both interesting and useful. The publishers, Alma, include this section in other works by Bulgakov.


The National Gallery Companion Guide
The National Gallery Companion Guide
by Erika Langmuir
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.95

4.0 out of 5 stars A very good guide, 7 Aug. 2017
This is a very good guide at a very good price considering the quality of numerous colour illustrations. It can be used as a guide to the National Gallery’s (NG) paintings or as a useful overview of the history of Western painting up to the end of the 19th century.

If you only want an overview of Western painting and will not be visiting the NG, then the previous version of this guide will be just as good and cheaper:

The NG has a vast collection of paintings on display and it would be impossible to include them all, so this companion guide can only select the most notable. Even so, there are 216 entries (although three are on permanent loan to the Tate). The NG contains paintings from the early medieval through to the end of the 19th century. These are all Western European and are arranged by the period they were painted and this is reflected in the guide, which is divided into sections by date.

This guide could be carried around the NG gallery, helped by its size, which is longer than it is wide. However, it may be a little heavy if held for too long. Each entry concerns a single painting and is from one to one and half pages long. All the entries include a full colour reproduction of the painting, but it can be difficult to judge the actual size of the painting. Thus, a huge paining given three-quarters of a page can seem not much bigger than a small painting given a third of a page. There is also the danger that having absorbed the contents of the companion guide you will go straight to the paintings from the guide and not look at all the other paintings.

The sections of the guide are:
Paintings 1250 -1500 Sainsbury Wing - 54 entries
Paintings 1500 - 1600 The West Wing - 49 entries
Paintings 1600 - 1700 The North Wing - 60 entries
Paintings 1700 - 1900 The East Wing - 47 entries
Paintings After 1900 The East Wing - 6 entries (3 of which are on loan to the Tate)

Sainsbury Wing
The Sainsbury Wing covers the period 1250 – 1500. There are many Italian and religious paintings in the selection and most tend to be towards the end of the period. The selection includes Bellini, Hieronymus Bosch (but not his fantastical scenes), Botticelli, Van Eyck (the Arnolfini Portrait), Leonardo da Vinci (The Virgin of the Rocks (oil) and the Virgin, Child, St Anne and St John the Baptist (charcoal and chalk on paper), Mantegna. The themes are mostly religious.

West Wing
The West Wing covers the 1500s, the period of the Italian High Renaissance. Thus, there are entries for Bronzino, Corregio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titan, Tintoretto and Veronese. It is not just Italians. There are examples from northern Europe such as Cranch, Gossaert and Holbein, many of whom visited or worked in Italy. Religious painting continues, but there are also portraits, classical mythology and landscapes.

The North Wing
The North Wing covers the 17th century. Here the surnames and nationalities of the painters change. There are fewer Italians and more Spanish, a few French and more Netherlandish. Notable names are Vermeer, Velázquez, Caravaggio and van Dyck. There are fewer religious paintings and more landscapes. Everything seems less colourful, duller and browner. Exceptions include Poussin, a French painter working in Rome. Three of his paintings are represented with groups of people all colourfully clothed against darker backgrounds: The Adoration of the Golden Calf; The Finding of Moses; The Triumph of Pan. Colour is also provided by El Greco in “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple”.

There is also the domestic: Dou - The Poulterer’s Shop; De Hooch - The Courtyard of a House in Delft; the Le Nain Brothers - Four figures at a Table; Vermeer - A young Woman standing at a Virginal; and most domestic of all: De Zurbarán - A Cup of Water and a Rose.

The East Wing
The East Wing covers the 18th and 19th centuries. Notable names are Delacroix, Gaugin, van Goth, Goya, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Stubbs and Turner. There is now a dominance by French and British painters. There is only one religious painting: Puvis de Chavannes - The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, and this is more an historical than a devotional painting. At first glance, Tiepolo provides a religious theme with a painting of people floating on clouds with winged attendants. However, a second glance shows the winged attendants as cherubs not angels and the theme is mythological, titled “An allegory with Venus and Time”.

There were great changes in the two centuries covered. The view of the Venetian stonemason’s yard by Canaletto (1725) seems a long way from Cézanne‘s Bathers (1894-1905). In between are the bucolic landscapes of Constable and the society portraits by Gainsborough. At the end of the period, the modern world intrudes. In Seurat’s partly pointillist painting “Bathers at Asnières (1884) you can see the smoke from the factory chimneys in the background. In Wright of Derby’s “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) you see the rise of scientific enquiry.

The East Wing after 1900
There are only six paintings in this section. Three of these, a Matisse, a Picasso and a Redon, are marked as on loan to the Tate but at the time of writing the Matisse and Redon can be seen at the NG. The other paintings are Bellow - Men of the Docks (1912); Gallen-Kallela - Lake at Keitele (1905); and Klimt - Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904).

Additional information can be found on the Web. For example, all the NG’s paintings can be found on their web site and a search for "YouTube National Gallery London" will deliver many short talks about some of the paintings.


Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine
Pravda: Inside the Soviet News Machine
by Angus Roxburgh
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The Ministry of Truth, 2 Aug. 2017
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is an interesting little book. If you are interested in journalism or media studies this will give you a different historical perspective from what you are used to. It also gives a different perspective on Russian Communism.

This book was published a couple of years after Mikhail Gorbachev took charge and thus reflects a one party state trying to modernise. At this time, Pravda (Truth in Russian) was still the leading newspaper in the Soviet Union. It was closely connected to the central government and was regarded as authoritative. Foreign Kremlinologists poured over it for clues in changes in doctrine or government, as did ambitious party members. It had a surprisingly large circulation.

The first part of the book gives a useful overview of Pravda, it contents and purpose, how it is controlled and censored and how it is physically produced and distributed. There is also a brief history, from its founding as a legal newspaper before the First World War, its later suppression and transformation into an underground publication before its final triumph as the leading paper of the Bolsheviks after the October 1917 revolution. Unsurprisingly, Pravda’s account of its own history is not always reliable: its front-page banner claims it was founded by Lenin, which is not true. The book also contains a few interesting photographs. There is Lenin reading Pravda, and two examples of doctored photographs, where people mysteriously appear or disappear from history.

The second part of the book presents a selection of news stories. Here the more interesting ones are selected, as Pravda’s articles can be very dull. There are also a couple of cartoons, for example Pravda’s view of the British miners’ strike of 1984.


How Your Brain Works: Inside the most complicated object in the known universe (New Scientist Instant Expert)
How Your Brain Works: Inside the most complicated object in the known universe (New Scientist Instant Expert)
by New Scientist
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.38

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I am not a camera, 27 July 2017
This is an intelligent and authoritative introduction to the brain from both a “hardware” and “software” perspective, written in the accessible New Scientist style. It includes mentions of current theories as well as established facts. The articles are based on talks at the 2016 New Scientist masterclass “How your brain works” and on articles previously published in New Scientist. I would recommend it for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.

The book deals with both the physical and mental aspects of the brain. There are physical descriptions of the brain, with diagrams of its various parts such as its overall structures and at a much lower level, the structure of the neurons. I now know that those parts of this book that I found notable first went into my short-term memory but are now in a totally different part of my brain. There, repeated access has reinforced and re-coded an area of neurons in long-term memory. The connections between these neurons have been strengthened so they are more likely to trigger one another and the levels of both neurotransmitters and receptors having increased in the synapses between the neurons.

An interview with Patricia Churchland (1), a Neurophilosopher at the University of California San Diego, introduced the term neuroexistentialism, meaning we are just the result of the organisation and the chemical and electrical activity of our brains. This can be fundamentally disturbing for many people. For most of us, our brain does not want to think deeply about itself.

The chapter on intelligence starts with the first systematic measurement of the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) by Alfred Binet in 1904. It then discusses later and broader measurements and the debate around these measurements. However, no matter how intelligent we are, our “hardwired primitive traits” also need to be taken into account. Our “cognitive biases” include paying less attention to future risks than present ones, for example on climate change. This is not intelligent behaviour.

In the chapter on emotions, I was expecting a discussion of the nature of human emotions deep within our brains, originating from our non-human animal ancestry. Instead, it started with the visible signs of emotions and as shown in our facial expressions (2). It then moved on to the connection between language and emotion and finally to EQ, the measure of Emotional Intelligence.

Consciousness remains a mystery, but the three areas in the human brain involved in consciousness have been identified. Some researchers have suggested that we are looking for something that does not exist. However, the unconscious does do a lot of processing unnoticed, for example when the answer to a problem seems to come from nowhere.

What is sleep? Electroencephalograms of the brain’s electrical activity show that it is a series of cycles of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) stages. There is some physical maintenance involved as well as much maintenance of the connections between neurons at the synapses. If you do not get enough sleep, your health will be damaged. Dreaming is a peculiar form of consciousness. Dreams may also have a housekeeping function, although many researchers think that dreaming may be a side effect of the neuronal maintenance, an epiphenomenon. (3)

THE BOOK is divided into ten sections: 1 Welcome to your brain; 2 Memory; 3 Intelligence; 4 Emotions; 5 Sensation and perception; 6 Consciousness; 7 Ages and sexes of the brain; 8 Sleep; 9 Technology to improve your brain; 10 Making the most of it. Throughout there are mentions of the results of academic research and major books, but not to the scientific paper level. The book is well illustrated but not excessively and overall text is dominant. All the illustrations are black and white and are either diagrams, half-tone reproductions of photographs or charts. For example: figure 1.1 structure of a neuron; figure 1.3 Penfield’s homunculus: How the brain sees the body; figure 3.2 Average IQ score distribution by population; figure 5.1 Cortical sensory area; figure 7.1 The adolescent stage of brain development; and the two timelines How your brain evolved and The rise of the silicon brain.
_______________________________________________________________________________
The title references Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
(1) Patricia Churchland’s publications include: Neurophilosophy
(2) Darwin explored this topic in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.
(3) Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams is no longer taken seriously.


And Yet...: Essays
And Yet...: Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and readable book reviews and journalism, 18 July 2017
This review is from: And Yet...: Essays (Paperback)
This is an interesting and readable collection of the last unpublished writings of Christopher Hitchens.

The inside front flap of the cover says “ And Yet . . . collects the previously unpublished essays of the late Christopher Hitchens into a final volume of peerless prose from one of the greatest thinkers of our times.”, which is correct, although technically all of the essays have been previously published in magazines or e-magazines.

Although these writings can be called essays, they are really a mixture of book reviews and pieces of journalism. They are short, with 48 essays spread across 322 pages and they mainly appeared in Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and Slate, with a few in the Wilson Quarterly, The Nation and Foreign Policy. Most were published between 2004 and 2012 (Christopher Hitchens died in 2011 so a few were published posthumously). They are serious and entertaining, ranging across literature, politics, current affairs and personal journalism. The author was a British subject but lived in Washington for thirty years and is now a US citizen, so the writings are more American than British.

The essays on writers include: G. K. Chesteron, Dickens, Oriana Fallaci, Ian Fleming, Clive James,
V. S. Naipaul, Orhan Pamuk, Orwell and Salman Rushdie. The political history includes: the Suez crisis, Gertrude Bell, Rosa Luxembourg, British Imperial decline and Hungary 1956. The recent political history includes: Hilary Clinton (he is not a fan), Hezbollah, Iran, and Obama (a cool cat). There are also several personal essays including his attempts at self-improvement (mostly physical and mostly temporary) from a series of three articles in Vanity Fair, and musing on Thanksgiving, Christmas and on becoming an American citizen.


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