Dear NYC, I promise not to hold a grudge.

Never fully recovered from our last deep-freeze February visit a few years back, so I scheduled NYC for March this year. After all, winter is over, right?

There were hopeful signs. Trees still bare, but there were buds on the forsythia and a few carefully-tended blooms along Fifth Avenue. People were out and about, strolling in the Park and hailing carriage rides along Central Park South. All in all, a lovely time to be in the city.

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And then it snowed. Okay, a spring snow. Fine. Pull the puffer out of the closet. After all, it will melt overnight; gives us bragging rights when we head back to California. And it’s pretty!

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We warmed up with coffee and calories. Sip an espresso over at our favorite Turkish place,  Beyoglu. An evening with Daniel at Peter Luger. Lunch at Nougatine, where the current iteration of their roast chicken is served with a frothy mustard sauce. Nothing to complain about here.

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BUT THEN IT SNOWED AGAIN! Giant wet clumps of wind-driven snow, snow and more snow. Not the foot they were predicting, but at least that much blocking every crosswalk; icy snow-walled moats of slush. One wrong step and you are going down. No one looks amused.

Beware the ides of March.

Et tú, New York?

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New York, how could you? Four days on and we are still skidding through crudely-hacked sidewalk paths. Today they are promising more snow. Or rain. Or, as some creative type at weather.com described it the other day, a “Wintry Mix”. Like it’s something we would choose off a menu. A succotash of snow. Thank you, no.

But I just can’t quit you, NYC. The snow may not melt anytime soon, but my heart does when I see a gorgeous sunrise over Fifth Avenue (not that one would see it through today’s blanketed skies)  and that gorgeous bouquet at the entrance to Balthazar. Full of promise. Spring is out there somewhere…

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Get Thee to the Armory.

There’s still time – the New York Antiquarian Book Fair is on through the weekend at the Park Avenue Armory.

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Thanks to the generosity of Sunday and Josh at B&B Rare Books, Ltd. we reveled among the 200+ exhibitors and international literati at Thursday evening’s opening reception. Books. Champagne. Conviviality. Oh, and if Sunday is in attendance, couture:

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So many treasures to behold. As we grazed through the miles of aisles of booths, we noted exhibitors from Maine to California to Japan, Russia, Italy, France and The Netherlands. I swooned over a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, took giddy delight in some exquisite 18th century gold-stamped paper from Germany, admired letters written in the hand of everyone from Napoleon to James Thurber, marveled at huge tomes overflowing with illustrations of flora and fauna and puzzled over various artifacts including an antique toy kitchen, complete with a chicken in every pot.

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There is truly something for everyone. First editions of Ulysses for the flush; $20 reproductions of Japanese art for the rest of us.

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And tomorrow, Sunday, is Discovery Day, where, for the price of admission to the Fair, you can bring your own “treasure” to be professionally evaluated. After you discover the true value of that volume that was gathering dust in your attic, may I suggest a celebratory lunch or dinner at nearby Vaucluse. The white asparagus is to die for:

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Oh, but don’t forget to pack a warm coat. It’s just a bit chilly in NYC this week…

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I Pink Winter Might Be Over.

It’s happening. There was still the palest hint of light in the sky at quarter past six yesterday evening. Of course, we face about as far to the west as you can here, given that the Pacific ocean actually lies to the south for us. Chalk it up to the weirdness of California.

With the days edging ever so slightly longer, there are other harbingers of spring. The hens are getting worked up. Roosting patterns disrupted, the coop in disarray from guerrilla nesting attempts, egg production suddenly on the upswing; the girls are trying to impress!

But my favorite heralds of spring are the tulip magnolias. Also known as Saucer Magnolias, Chinese Magnolia or, more correctly, Magnolia × soulangeana. All the other plants are still trying to wake up from their long winter’s nap, but, thankfully, the magnolias always set their alarm clock early. Nothing else in bloom, so they really get to show off:

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Visitors ask to take a flower home; passersby call out to exclaim – “they are so beautiful!” Yes they are!

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I think of them mostly as an east coast tree, but they are graded for hardiness zones 4-9 and they have been very happy now for several years standing guard at our north-facing front entry. Eleven months of the year you don’t even notice them, but in late February and early March they are the belle of the ball.

Fun fact: while the ancestors of our trees hark from China, the Magnolia genus is named for 17th century French botanist Pierre Magnol:Fun fact: while the ancestors of our trees hark from China, the Magnolia genus is named for 17th century French botanist Pierre Magnol:

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The only downside to these trees is that, in less forgiving climates, their spring debut can be thwarted by hard freezes or early spring frosts. They can also grow to as tall as 25 feet, so pruning shears must be kept at the ready.

The magnolias are just the beginning: next there will be the sweet smell of pittosporum and fennel and then the volunteer nasturtiums by the roadside will pop into a frenzy of orange blooms. By the time May rolls around, the hens will be eating loquats from the tree by the coop and the jacarandas  will unfurl their purple blossoms. To everything there is a season, and today I pink spring might be the best of them all!

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Birds of a feather.

Just when I was thinking that I might not have the best husband in the world.

(Background: he is balking at recovering some twenty-year-old furniture. Some chairs that are tattered to ribbons. Shredded from age and shedding their nether parts every time they are touched.  Sofa pillows so stained from some unidentifiable substance – animal? vegetable? mineral? that we should probably call in a hazmat team. Yet he is immovable: “They’ll just get faded again anyway”/ “the cats will scratch them just like they did the last ones”/”no one ever sits there anyway”)

So, I stomped my feet and stalked off to calm down (the alternative was to seize any blunt object in the room and do bloody battle and then we’d have some real stains on the furniture). I was in my office, sulking, thinking he might not be perfect after all (a shock, truly, after thirty-six years) and then he comes roaring in, calling my name. I am hopeful! A change of heart? New chairs on the horizon?

No. He was distraught, and not about furniture. It had been one of our less favorite signs of spring. A huge thump against the window, a bird slamming into the glass with such force that you could feel the vibration. Sometimes it is a hawk, occasionally a songbird; this time it was one of the acorn woodpeckers that carouse in our palm trees. Spring invariably renders the neighborhood birds temporarily insane and a few of them pay heavy consequences. Each year the rites of spring sadly include a few losses – a nest perched too precariously or too accessible to predators; a sparrow too curious about the inside of the chicken coop and can’t find its way out, and on this day, a woodpecker that crashes into our window at mach speed.

We rushed out to the bushes below the window and there he lay, completely still. “Is he dead?” I asked. “No, you can see his eye is blinking”.  So beautiful close up, the crimson head, the obsidian beak.IMG_3858.jpg

And then I watched my husband, who five minutes before had NOT been my favorite person in the world, gently cradle the fallen bird and fashion a little nest of safety for him to lay in in the bushes, in the faint hope that he might just be stunned. He stood over the bird, fretting earnestly over its prospects. And I was dangerously close to forgiving him for the furniture debacle.

An hour later, we went back outside to check on the little guy. We approached the bushes with a sense of dread. We could see that he had not moved. My implacable, unrelenting, stubborn, furniture-allergic husband bent gently over the bird and in that moment, two things happened: first, my grudge against him dissolved. Who could stay angry at a man who cares so tenderly for a fallen creature? And secondly, just as he reached again for the woodpecker, it started suddenly, jerked its head and in an instant, flapped its wings and flew to the top of a nearby palm tree.

We shared a moment of giddy joy. We felt ridiculously triumphant over a tiny event in nature at which we were no more than bystanders. But a bird flew, and our spirits soared. Crisis averted. Marriage saved.

If this was fiction, my husband would then have looked at me and said “Let’s go buy some new furniture.” Regrettably, that’s not what happened. But we did go out to lunch. Two old people, like two shabby old chairs – faded and worn and tattered but somehow, apparently,  just not replaceable.

Happy spring!

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Buckets and buckets and buckets!

Just when it seems your prayers are never heard, the skies just open up and the benisons pour out. Yesterday it was a torrent, a deluge of blessings to soothe our long California drought.

It rained. Oh how it rained! According to our rain gauge, almost five inches of precious water showered down upon us. It was a day of sandbags and drains and puddle-splashing.

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It was also a day of house arrest. We tried to leave twice, only to be turned back by impassable roads. In some places puddles had turned into rivers; in others, felled trees blocked the roads.

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At first we felt trapped. The lights flickered and the power went out, but only briefly – just long enough to consternate all the electronics and give the CE another project in addition to his role as plenipotentiary of sandbags and drains.

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But as the long, sodden day unspooled, we began to grasp the wisdom of the Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterward.” A mid-afternoon fire glowed in the fireplace, a signal to the cats to come lounge beside us and purr while we sat and read. And read and read…

The rain lessened just long enough for us to take the dogs on a soggy walk, so even they were content. Everyone was happy. Except for the chickens, whose feathers and spirits were ruffled by the wind-whipped storm. You’ve heard the saying “mad as a wet hen?”

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Grilled cheese for dinner. Early to bed. And then, this morning, I rose in the dark and took the dogs outside where it was not raining. The moon was veiled in clouds but still, some stars shown through. I could hear the pounding surf a half mile away, and a chorus of frogs sang their matins from somewhere under the tree ferns. We are cautioned that the drought is not over, but this storm counted for many, many drops in the bucket. And, at least for today, everything is so green!

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Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Finale.

That sound? Sometimes it ticks and tocks, sometimes it whooshes. It was another year, flown by, and me no closer to my goal of reading EVERYTHING. I am as guilty as anyone of reading fluff, ephemera, and the National Enquirer that my husband faithfully brings home from the grocery. But in my (highly delusional) mind’s eye, I am on a quest to read All The Important Stuff. The grim reality: if I continue at my pace of reading one Shakespeare play a year, I am on par to finish around my 98th birthday. We’ll see.

I squeezed in just over 70 books in 2016; an average of just under 6 each month. I was reaching up to pat myself on the back for this when the CE mumbled a little humblebrag: “Oh, seventy-one? That’s nice. I read a hundred and ten.”

A HUNDRED AND TEN?

Sigh. Maybe I’ll do better this year. Maybe I’ll spend less time scrolling through my Twitter feed and playing Words With Friends. And maybe pigs will fly.

Anyway, here are my reads for the waning months of 2016:

NOVEMBER

The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Tea Obreht. Kindle. 352 pages, published 2011. (National Book Award Finalist for Fiction) Sometimes there is such a flurry of buzz around a book that I download it to read later. In this case several years later. It sat gathering dust in my Kindle library, and even once I started it, it failed to grab me for a hundred pages or so. But it was worth the wait – this is a haunting and beautiful story. The essence of the novel can be gleaned from the author’s personal history. Born in then-Yugoslavia, the Serbian-American Obreht was raised by a single mother and was very close to her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a Roman Catholic; her grandmother was a Muslim and this gives the very talented Obreht a singular perspective for her novel, which is set against the backdrop of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s. Yes, there is an actual tiger. It takes awhile to tease out all the threads of this novel, part fable, part magic realism, part family history, but in the end, highly recommended.

Image from The New Yorker review, which is inestimably better than mine:

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Audiobook, narrated by Peter Francis James. 181 pages, published 1958. On many “must read” lists, this novel set in an unnamed country that is  almost certainly the author’s native Nigeria. The proud Okonkwo must grapple with the shift from pre to post-colonial life and, indeed, things do fall apart. This book is considered the preeminent novel in African literature and is a staple of African Studies courses around the world. The audio version is magnificently narrated but maybe I should have read it in book form; I never truly sank into this story. Neutral on recommending it.

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The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. Kindle. 353 pages, published 1982. Everyone has their genre, and a book club friend’s is British crime fiction. Set in the 1920’s this murder mystery features Charlie Chaplin, the Lusitania, a cast of broadly drawn characters and various plot twists. Not my cup of English Breakfast so I cannot recommend.

DECEMBER

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Audiobook, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith. 480 pages, published 2016. I logged many extra miles of walking just so I could keep listening to this wonderfully entertaining and poignant book. Towles, who is also the author of the excellent Rules of Civility: A Novel, covers thirty-some tempestuous years of Russian history from an attic room in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The story begins in 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov,  whose family’s fortune was lost in the Russian Revolution, narrowly escapes a death sentence for his crime of being an aristocrat and is placed under house arrest. His charm, impeccable manners and deep friendships carry him through the ensuing decades. A joy to read. Highly recommended.

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Kindle. 353 pages, published 2014. A wry take on a  Swedish widower and curmudgeon bent on committing suicide. Everyone loves this book, except me. Yes, the writing is clever, maybe too clever. There is one excellent chapter about a cat that survives a snowdrift, but otherwise, meh. Not recommended.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Audiobook, narrated by Rich Orlow. 497 pages, published 2013. Set during a single summer in a small town in Southwestern Minnesota, this is a gently told story woven around themes of family and faith and fragility. And death. Recommended.

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A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Kindle. 880 pages, published 1991. I had a hate/love relationship with this book. Three hundred pages in, I thought of abandoning it. Four hundred pages in, I realized that Helprin is a genius and that I should probably start re-reading the book as soon as I finish it. I haven’t, but I will, because it is that good. Set in Italy, 1964, the elderly Alessandro Giuliani sifts through the events of his life, many of which center on his experience as a soldier in World War I. His assignments to the River Guard on the Isonzo and later to the mountains between Italy and Austria could not be more different in their setting or more alike in their futility. These are contrasted with an idyllic boyhood in his beloved Rome, the “city itself… like a family, like girlfriends, lovers, children. I can’t tell you exactly why, but it unfolds before you with the grace of water streaming from a fountain. I think that of Rome because for so many years I was either a child, a lover, a father, or a friend, in Rome, and it echoes and echoes, and I’ll hear it until I die.” Very highly recommended. I developed a great affection for The Tempest, a painting by 16th century Italian master Giorgione, which features prominently in the book:

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They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince, and that goes for reading, too. Many of the books I read in 2016 were good, a few were terrible, but at the end of the day – or year – here, in order, are my Top Ten:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Just Kids by Patti Smith

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson

 

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Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Part 5

Nothing good can come from trying to read in a car. And I have the queasy memories to prove it. Among them, “I’m hot, Mom”, moaned my then seven-year-old son, who had surreptitiously hauled a stack of books into the back seat on a drive to LA. I was distracted, trying to navigate a freeway exit.”How can you be hot? It’s raining. It’s cold.”

“I’m hot, Mom,” he whimpered. And then I realized it had nothing to do with hot and everything to do with carsickness. “Roll down your window!!!” I yelled. Too late. Nope. Can’t read in the car.

We spent most of September on the road, and I spent most of that time with my eyes on the horizon, looking neither right nor left lest the familial curse of carsickness strike, even  during our drive through the bucolic Texas Hill Country:

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Thus, I read only two measly books that month. But one of them was The Alamo, and we were in Texas, so that almost made up for the dearth of reading opportunities. It is one thing to visit The Alamo; it is another to stand before it knowing some of the historical background. “As it happened, Spain and France had never got around to settling just here Texas left off and Louisiana began.” And knowing just how fiercely General Antonio López de Santa Anna intended to exploit the general sense of confusion around the boundaries and status of this wild west place called Texas. And knowing how Tennessean Davy Crockett had lost his Congressional seat and said defiantly, “You can go to hell, and I will go to Texas”, which placed him with Jim Bowie (yes, that Bowie) and Colonel William (“line in the sand”) Travis at The Alamo, where their bravery and sacrifice breathed life into the flailing Texas Revolution. Today, they are depicted on a stirring monument that stands in front of The Alamo:

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“Remember the Alamo” was the war cry that preceded Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto a few weeks later and heralded the beginning of The Texas Republic.

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Here are the paltry reads for September and October:

SEPTEMBER

The Alamo by John Myers Myers. Kindle. 244 pages, published 1948. The tone is folksy; you can almost hear a Texas drawl. It may not be the best book on The Alamo, and it doesn’t make Phil Collins’ (yes, that Phil Collins!) list of Top Five Alamo Reads but it was an apt place to start. Recommended.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin. Kindle. 384 pages, published 2016. A different sort of revolution. It was a macabre kind of circus and with Toobin as ringmaster, you can finally make some sense of what went down with Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, whose run struck me as a sort of Black Muslim-fueled joyride by misdirected disaffected young people with guns. Their ideology seemed based on nothing but narcissism and the adrenaline rush of revolution, which pings disturbingly of current circumstances. My book club was divided as to whether Patty Hearst was a sympathetic victim or a lying, manipulative brat. Judge for yourself. Recommended.

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OCTOBER

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. Kindle. 400 pages, published 2003. A kinder, but not gentler tale than the ones above. Alan Brennert writes historical fiction about Hawaii, and this novel focuses on the struggle and courage of some eight thousand Hawaiians who were confined on Molokai’s leper colony during the first half of the twentieth century. The story follows the main character’s near lifetime of sequestration until antibiotic treatment became readily available in the 1950’s. The book is well researched, but the prose is not sophisticated. I learned a lot but I am neutral on recommending it.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Audiobook,  read by Christopher Timothy. 450 pages, published 1972. A truly kind and gentle read. The author, whose real name was James Alfred Wight, collected vignettes of his experience as a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, England, in a series of books of which this is the first and best known. His calm, compassionate and humorous observations of bovine, equine, canine, porcine and human behavior are sweet but not saccharine.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund DeWaal. Paperback. 354 pages, published 2010. Fascinating look at nineteenth and twentieth century art and history through the travails of the Ephrussi banking family and a collection of Japanese netsuke that survived, more successfully than the family itself, the savage vicissitudes of World Wars I and II. Highly recommended.

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The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen. Kindle. 432 pages, published 2016. Intelligent young know-it-all moves from socialist Finland to NYC and gets her nose out of whack because America is not Finland. The tone is strident and more than a touch condescending. Note: the population of Finland is a homogenous (here, by the way, is their strategy on refugees)  5.4 million; the population of the United States is a diverse 320 million or so. The premise of the book is frankly inane, so not recommended.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Kindle. 290 pages, published 2016. Such a pleasure to read this book! Jahren grew up in Minnesota, remembering the blue spruce of her childhood. She teetered between becoming a literature major or a science major, and lucky for us excels at both passions. This book is a wise and gorgeous memoir of her career as a paleobotanist. She interweaves stories of the survival of plants “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet” with her own survival as a female scientist doing “curiosity-driven research” in the desert of academia. Highly recommended.

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Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Audiobook, narrated by Jeff Woodman, Barbara Caruso, and Richard Ferrone. 326 pages, published 2005. Well, this was just a disappointment. The author’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, is one of my favorite reads ever, but my tag for this post-9/11 novel has to be “not his best work”.  The premise is compelling: a nine-year-old boy loses his father in the attack on the World Trade Center and tries to find meaning in it, just as his grandparents also continue to sift through their memories of the bombing of Dresden during World War II. Despite the precocity of the protagonist, or maybe because of it, for me this novel did not illuminate. It was roundly hailed by the critics, just not by this one. Not recommended.

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The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy. Kindle. 160 pages, published 2010. A brief and brilliant read. Like a meteor sailing through the sky, it is there and then gone, but the memory remains brightly lit. I avoid McCarthy in general because of the violence and cruelty – fine if people want to kill each other but couldn’t he leave the animals out of it? But this play is completely different from his other work. An unnamed black and white man debate the meaning and value of life and their differing opinions regarding the existence of God. Pithy and profound and you could almost read it in one sitting so there is no excuse not to. Highly, highly recommended. Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson starred in the film:

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I covered more miles than pages in September and October. Texas, Virginia, Michigan, Chicago, back to California, then to New York and back to California again. I love being on the road, but have to admit it was nice to get back to my favorite reading spot: fluffy pillows, fire in the fireplace; purring cat in the crook of my elbow, golden retriever at my feet. Beats being car-sick any day!

Dodger says we need to wrap this up – just one more post to come for November and December reads…

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