Satyricon – O_O

Chapters 1-4 (I find myself unable to term a plot rundown of the first ten pages a ‘spoiler’, but if you think it is, don’t read)

“Drawing two straps from her dress, Psyche proceeded to bind us hand and foot.”
~Satyricon, Chapter 4

So I watched Get Him to the Greek last night.

I don’t know if any of you have ever seen it. I certainly hadn’t, nor had I heard anyone talk about it. From the commercials, I could gather that it was a comedy of the not-too-intellectual sort. I assumed it was along the lines of The Hangover. That is to say, I figured that the movie would float right on the edge of my level of tolerance as far as sexual/drug/alcohol-related humor are concerned.


Now we’ll see how this relates to the Satyricon. When you hear the words “earliest example of a novel known to exist”, what pops into your mind? Something kind of boring, kind of confusing, perhaps something historically interesting, but I’m betting in every case you conjure up the mental image of something relatively tame.

Just in case anyone can’t tell where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out for you. Reading the beginning of Satyricon was like watching Get Him to the Greek.

Actually, the nature of Satyricon is even more surprising when discover it because it tricks you at the beginning. Chapter 1 consists exclusively of a diatribe about the failings of “modern” (that is to say, 1st century) rhetoric followed by a scholarly response. It lulls you into a false sense of security, confirming the nice, peaceful, boring image you had previously conjured up.

Then it goes for the throat. Chapter 2 follows the main character as he is unknowingly led through the city to a whorehouse. There he encounters his ex-boyfriend/current friend who was also led unknowingly to the same whorehouse where he was propositioned for sex. By a man. Then the narrator’s current boyfriend (who is 16) accuses the ex-boyfriend of trying to rape him, after which the narrator and the boyfriend enjoy themselves thoroughly.


And just so you can fully appreciate the implications of the above quote, it’s not consensual.

So I’ve come to the realization that the new book on my desk is the leather-bound, gilt-edged, 1st-century version of a grocery store romance for the otherwise inclined. Which, on further reflection, is rather interesting. I mean, the earliest known example of the form of writing which pretty much every work of fiction we have today takes is just like some plain old modern novel. There’s mischief, conflict, and sex (to keep people interested), all of which provides a view of the characters’ everyday lives.

The initial shock has now worn off, so I’ll be fine as I continue to read Satyricon. It just went beyond my initial expectations to such an astronomical degree that I felt like I was back in that little theater watching Get Him to the Greek. That moment where you realize that what you’re getting isn’t really what you bargained for is not entirely pleasant. But hey, the movie was still funny, and what I’ve read so far of Satyricon is still interesting. It just requires a shift in my perspective.

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 5:37 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Arabian Nights – Tell Me That Didn’t Actually Just Happen

Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp (includes spoilers (even though you kind of know how it goes already))

“Thence he fared into the garden and walked along its length until he entered the saloon, where he mounted the ladder and took the Lamp which he extinguished, pouring out the oil which was therein, and placed it in his breast-pocket.”
~Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp, Tales from the Arabian Nights

Yes, it does bear a passing resemblance to the Disney movie.

That is to say, Disney “Disney-fied” it – making Alaeddin a bit less of a loser at the beginning, changing or removing the plot bits that were a bit too unbelievable or boring or inappropriate for children, etc.; but, generally speaking, it is identifiable as the same basic story.

But I don’t really want to talk about the Disney movie. Because the original version teaches a rather different life lesson than the movie.

And that is, money can buy you everything. When Alaeddin emerges from the Hoard with his wonderful Lamp, he (eventually) uses it to become possessed of vast riches beyond the scope of Kings. And with this money, and little else, he succeeds. He tosses gold about as he travels though the street, so everybody loves him. He builds a richly decorated pavilion to impress the Sultan. He forks over some fancy jewels to buy the Princess’s hand in marriage. Yup, with money Alaeddin gets pretty much everything he wanted in life.

He also seems to magically gain fantastic conversational skills and prowess as a warrior. He never wishes for these things, at least not that the reader is informed of. But apparently, being filthy rich confers these talents upon a person. Just so you’re all aware 😉

But okay, whatever. Alaeddin kills the evil magician with some very clever tricks, rescues the helpless Princess, and they move into his magnificent pavilion. Everyone’s satisfied and content. They get all set to live happily ever after.

Then the magician’s evil twin comes along.

Like, seriously. Although, since the first magician was evil, I suppose that would be his eviler twin (or perhaps his also-evil twin?). And, if I’m being completely honest, they weren’t twins – just brothers. But still. The concept is there.

Tip for the aspiring writer: if you use the ‘evil twin’ trick in your story, there had better be a darn good reason why you need another practically identical villain after the first one is killed, and I mean other than to make the story eight pages longer.

Still, though, it was nice to read the original source material for the movie – you can see what ideas the Disney folks picked up, and which they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole (*cough*evil twin*cough*)

Final review of Alaeddin: it can be incredibly long-winded at some parts. That seems pretty much consistent throughout Tales from the Arabian Nights. But it is interesting, so if you can suffer through the winding machinations of the plot and irrelevant substories, you are rewarded with a classic fairy-tale of magic and true love. Or something like that.

The Divine Comedy – Telling People Off Since 1321

Inferno, Cantos VIII-X

“’If they were banished,’ I responded, ‘they returned
from every quarter both the first and second time,
a skill that Yours have failed to learn as well.’”
~Dante, Inferno, Canto X

So, I have to confess, Dante’s character is thus far rather uninspiring. He’s pretty wishy-washy on his attitude toward the sinners – he sympathizes with some to the point of tears, and others he harshly shouts down. He’s awfully quick to change his mind on Virgil about the whole ‘life-altering journey’ thing (although, he is walking through hell – I suppose we can give him a little lee-way). And he faints an awful lot. Just saying.

But there was one particular snippet of Canto X that redeemed him in my eyes somewhat. As they are walking through the sixth circle of hell, Dante gets caught up in a verbal sparring match with a past resident of Florence. The two criticize one another about their lineage. The sinner brags about how his faction ran Dante’s out of Florence twice, and Dante responds with the above quote (‘Yours’ referring to the man’s faction).

My instantaneous mental response was, “OHHHHHHH!” I mean, I couldn’t believe that the vaguely wimpy Dante had so effectively told this guy. It’s a fantastic, witty quip, and one that I appreciated. Dante may be a weak, fallible mortal, but man, can he deliver a comeback.

I realize that this is completely unrelated to the larger moral and allegorical lessons that Dante the poet is trying to deliver through his poem. But this little six-line exchange is probably my favorite so far.

Perhaps it’s because, while very vivid and interesting to read, and while featuring a number of interesting characters and a fascinating concept, Inferno is kind of depressing to read. Go figure. This little section struck me as a small break from that.

It also teaches a valuable lesson: even if you’re suffering eternal torment in hell, make sure that when you stop passerby and heckle them about their family, you don’t open yourself up to get burned!

Get it? Burned?

Published in: on September 17, 2010 at 1:10 AM  Comments (2)  
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The Divine Comedy – On Translations

Through Inferno, Canto VII

“Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
~Inscription above the gate of hell, Inferno, Canto III

All of the books in the Franklin Library’s collection are printed in English. Otherwise, this little project of mine would come to a screeching halt rather rapidly. But this means that the numerous books that were originally written in other languages are translations.

Now, normally I wouldn’t even give this fact a second thought. I mean, there are English words for me to read, and presumably whoever did the translation knew what they were talking about, so why should I bother with it? But in the case of The Divine Comedy, it’s necessarily an issue.

The honors college at my university offers a number of informal reading groups per semester, where a group of students all read a certain amount per week and get together to discuss the book. Seeing Dante’s Inferno (which, for those of you who don’t know, if the first section of The Divine Comedy) on the list, I immediately signed up, since I intended to read it anyway.

Now, when you sign up for these reading groups, you get a free copy of the book. The copy that everyone is reading is the Hollander translation. However, the edition published by the Franklin Library is the Ciardi translation.

So this puts me in the interesting position of owning two translations of the same work. At least thus far, I’ve been reading along in both, and the differences in style are remarkable.

It’s probably because The Divine Comedy really is a poem – in the original Italian, it rhymes and everything. And the two translators have taken very different approaches to the style of the poem. So, for all of you who are simply torn over which translation to read, here is:

My Short Guide to Divine Comedy Translations (based on 7 cantos):

The Hollander translation reads very much like prose. The phrasing is rather lyrical, but it comes across as normal writing. The annotations (or whatever they’re called – the notes that explain things) are very exhaustive, often detailing numerous interpretations of various lines, not just the prevalent one. This is generally one aspect that I really like, as it really makes you think about what’s written, but it can also be a little confusing.

The Ciardi translation, on the other hand, reads like a poem. The rhyme structure is the same as the original Italian, and the general phrasing is much more . . . poem-y. Additionally, the annotations are not nearly as extensive. This can be nice, since the Hollander annotations can be very academic, and Ciardi ones are often more practical – but they also don’t really convey as full a picture of what Dante was talking about, at least in my opinion.

From what I can tell so far, the Hollander translation is excellent for comprehension and context, while the Ciardi version is stylistically more poetic and indirect. What I’ve been doing is reading a canto in the Hollander translation, including all annotations. Then, when I’m through, I read the same canto in the Ciardi translation, at which point I don’t even need annotations – I can just enjoy the rhythm and style of the poem.

If you (understandably) don’t want to buy and read two copies of the same book, I’d suggest the Hollander if you’ve never read the Divine Comedy before. For any future re-reading, though, the Ciardi seems excellent.

Anyway, that’s my impression so far.

Now for a bit of whining. In order for me to make sure that I’m on pace to finish these twelve books within the semester, I have a ‘pages per day’ quota. It’s the very manageable number 43 (unless I get really lazy one week, in which case it will go up). However, as I’m finding out, not all pages are created equal. For something like The Divine Comedy, which I have to slowly read with annotations (not included in the page count), it can take as much as an hour to get through 7 pages of text (in both translations). Which means that, while I’m enjoying the Comedy thus far, it’s rather demoralizing in terms of how much progress I make toward my daily goal.

Anyway, that’s all. I’m too lazy to search for a relevant link tonight, so if you want something further to read, go look up The Divine Comedy on Wikipedia – I imagine it includes a thorough breakdown of the structure of the poem.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 12:14 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – Final Thoughts


“’If it is any point requiring reflection,’ observed Dupin, as he forbore to enkindle the wick, ‘we shall examine it to better purpose in the dark.’”
~The Purloined Letter

For the first time, I get to cross a book off my list. Well, a book I hadn’t read in 10th grade, that is. It’s an extremely satisfying feeling.

First, quick notes on the last two stories (spoilers). The Murders in the Rue Morgue taught me an important lesson: never leave your window open in the middle of the night, because you never know when a crazed orangutan is going to swing in on your shutter and decapitate you with a razor. I mean, really, who doesn’t know someone this has happened to? Yeah, it was a little out there – perhaps a little too out there. But clever nonetheless, I suppose. I just hope I’m never that unlucky.

As for The Purloined Letter, that was awfully smart – I’m just going to stop there. Go read it right now. Seriously.

So, I guess I’ve decided that for every book I read, I’m going to decide if I think it belongs on this list of 100 great books; if so, why; if not, why not. All that horrible high-school-English stuff.

I give EA Poe the thumbs-up. While I wasn’t a fan of all of his stories, many of them were perfectly eerie, suspenseful, or just plain morbid. And we all know that dark stuff makes for great literature. While occasionally dry or too drawn-out, they were in large part genuinely entertaining, even 150 years later, which speaks to their staying power, generally hailed as a hallmark of a ‘classic’.

And then there are the Tales of Ratiocination, which are regarded as the origination of the genre of detective stories. I mean, inventing a whole subset of fiction probably earns one’s work a place on the list of the Greatest Books of All Time, at least in my opinion.

All in all, I would recommend them without reservation. They’re creepy without being really scary. I mean, I’m a wimp, and I didn’t lose any sleep. So go. Read. Then come back and share your opinion!

For the full text of The Purloined Letter (and here you thought I was kidding) see:

Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – He Really Had Me Going For A Minute There . . .

The Gold-Bug – Includes Spoilers

“Why, to be frank, I felt somewhat annoyed by your evident suspicions touching my sanity, and so resolved to punish you quietly, in my own way, by a little bit of sober mystification.”
~Legrand, The Gold-Bug

So, for the record, I’ve been reading far too much Edgar Allan Poe lately.

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to use that fact to explain my very wrong predictions about the end of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but I’m certainly going to try.

Now, I’ve just come off Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, all stories with a rather twisted and dark element about them. So, even though I knew that I was reading a Tale of Ratiocination (a word I still can’t spell without looking it up), I was definitely not ready for what actually happened.

The tale starts out with the unnamed narrator’s friend fining a golden beetle, then apparently going crazy with some wild scheme to recover his family fortune, dragging his slave and the narrator off into the underbrush with a scythe and some shovels.

At that point, I had a bunch of theories. The friend was completely off his rocker, and was going to force the slave and the narrator to dig their own graves. Or, the friend was possessed by the spirit of the beetle, and was going to lead them all to the forest dwelling of the beetle clan to be eaten alive. Or maybe, in an even bigger twist, it’s really the slave who’s possessing the friend, and they’re all going to become subject to some maniacal voodoo ritual deep in the forests of South Carolina. I was all ready for it to be something really awful. Poe wasn’t going to fool me.

You want to know how it turned out? The friend had discovered a treasure map that led them to an incredible horde. It was all very logical, practically oozing ratiocination. And why was the friend acting crazy? He was just trying to have one over on the narrator (see the above quote).

What really happened was, he had one over on me. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I’m just a real sucker, but this story got me good. It would be excellent as a standalone piece, because the story behind the map is rather ingenious and fun to read about. But in this context, after 200 pages of horror and suspense and the grotesque and the arabesque, I was genuinely thrown for a loop by a good treasure hunt.

The Gold-Bug was a blast, and I sincerely recommend it to anyone who cares to read it. But make sure you read Poe’s creepier stuff first. This is an excellent follow-up to the more macabre stories, simply because it is unexpected by contrast. I have to think that it’s the first of the Tales of Ratiocination (there, I spelled it by myself!) for a reason.

For an analysis of the possible allegorical aspects of The Gold-Bug, as well as for an interpretation of the ending which, I must admit, didn’t occur to me, see:’s-“the-gold-bug”/

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 12:16 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – Horror and Suspense/The Grotesque and Arabesque

Through Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque

“I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”
~Montresor, The Cask of Amontillado

So, having finished the first two sections of Poe’s collection of stories, I have a rather mixed opinion. Some of them were truly fantastic, very thrilling (or chilling). But others were just kind of . . . lame.

I have to say The Cask of Amontillado was my overall favorite. I’d read this one before in school, and it was even better the second time. The cool calculations of the murderer and the desperation of the man as he was being sealed in were perfect, making this truly a Tale of Horror and Suspense. Other good ones from this category were A Descent into the Maelstrom (very exciting), The Fall of the House of Usher (very creepy), and The Masque of the Red Death (very vivid).

As for the Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, I think the prize has to go to Shadow – A Parable. Though incredibly short, it was also incredibly eerie. From this category I also enjoyed The Assignation, which had an engaging story, Ligeia, for it’s ending, and Hop-Frog, because I’m a fan of justice.

Now for the ones that totally missed the mark. Number one is Silence – A Fable. I just didn’t get it. There may be some underlying meaning, but if so, I missed it. Also was King Pest. This one, I imagine, has some sort of satirical element that doesn’t really make sense without proper context. But I don’t have that context (and, I confess, I’m too lazy to look into it).

Other ones that I have to say I wasn’t too big a fan of are Berenice, for no particular reason other than, perhaps, it was just the latest of far too many instances of people getting entombed when they’re still alive (I mean, seriously, didn’t they check!?), and The Pit and the Pendulum, because no Edgar Allan Poe story is supposed to have a happy ending (such as it is).

Finishing the first two sections means that I’m on to the Tales of Ratiocination. (ratiocination (n) – the process of exact thinking; a reasoned train of thought) So, I suppose these will be more like detective stories, something that appeals to me greatly. Plus, they’re longer, so there will probably be more detail and characterization. I’m looking forward to reading The Gold-Bug, the first in the set, and may have a review of it up by later tonight.

For a quick plot rundown on some of Poe’s best known stories, see:

Crime and Punishment – Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

Through Part 3

“Pah, how easily I get upset! But perhaps that’s a good thing; I am playing a sick man . . .”
~Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Chapter 5, Part 3

Raskolnikov interests me as a character because, in large part, he is rather unlikeable. And yet, at the same time, he is highly sympathetic – perhaps because, as the main character (I’m reluctant to label him the protagonist, though I suppose it’s true), we know him better than anyone else.

I’m reminded of the movie Secret Window (skip this paragraph if you don’t want a spoiler). Near the end, it turns out that the main character is the one responsible for murders that took place previously in the movie – and we watch him kill again. In the special features, the director talks about how, by the time we realize just what our protagonist is capable of, it’s too late – we’ve already put all our eggs in his basket. At that point, we have little choice but to keep rooting for him, since he’s the character that we’re emotionally invested in.

In Rodya’s case, it’s a little different – practically from the beginning, we know he’s going to kill someone. But since he gets probably 95% of the “screen time” in Crime and Punishment, we inevitably become emotionally invested in his success or failure.

I know that, way back in Part 1, I cringed when he bashed Alena Ivanovna’s head in – and then got irritated when, now that he’d finally gone and done the deed, he couldn’t manage to keep his cool long enough to actually steal something that might be useful.

As I read, it’s difficult to find his behavior anything but distasteful at times – clearly he’s completely deranged. He’s rude, self-absorbed, and, oh, yeah, homicidally insane. But, more than anything, I just want to smack him and tell him to keep his darn mouth shut – I mean, people are going to start getting suspicious if he keeps on yakking!

Perhaps part of it comes from the fact that, were he not regrettably off his rocker, Raskolnikov could be a likeable guy. I mean, Razumikhin seems quite taken with him. And we see, as they laugh and joke together on the way to Porfiry’s house, that he is not totally devoid of positive qualities – they’re just overwhelmed by his megalomania, nervousness, and guilt.

The one thing that kills me the most is his tendency for self-destruction. I mean, he practically confesses to Zametov before saying, “Oh, just kidding, ha ha.” And he actually comes up with the idea himself to go see Porfiry about getting the stuff back that he hawked to Alena. We find out later that they already suspected him (and why shouldn’t they, the way he’s been acting!), but still. I suppose it’s caused by guilt and a subconscious desire to get caught. He’s contemplated giving himself up to the police more than once – he just want it to be “over”.

The ironic part is that Raskolnikov thought he could commit his crime without getting caught because he knew, he just knew, that he wouldn’t be subject to the same mental paralysis as other, more ordinary criminals. Hah, we see how that turned out.

One last thing – I couldn’t help but be struck by the quote above. In fact, I almost laughed out loud. I think our dear Rodya’s doing rather more than “playing” at being sick.

For another analysis of Raskolnikov (and a more complete one, since I’m only halfway through), see:

Published in: on September 11, 2010 at 2:11 AM  Comments (2)  
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The 12 Books You Wish You Were Reading: Fall 2010

So here goes – my first foray into the Greatest Books of All Time. This semester I’ll be reading 12 books, none of which seem particularly dreadful to me. They are as follows:

1. Tales From The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard F. Burton – A collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales

2. Tales of Edgar Allan Poe – A collection of short stories that generally seem to fall into the ‘horror’ category

3. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri – A (very) long poem detailing one man’s journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – A Russian psychological thriller

5. Satyricon by Petronius – A Roman novel (not too sure what it’s about)

6. Poems of William Shakespeare – Rather self-explanatory

7. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev – A Russian novel about the differences between generations

8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – A novel about propriety and marriage in the 1800s

9. The Basic Works of Sigmund Freud – Some of the collected works of the father of psychoanalysis

10. Eight Comedies by William Shakespeare – Again, fairly self-explanatory

11. The Federalist by Hamilton, Madison and Jay – A series of essays promoting the ratification of the US Constitution

12. Political Writings of John Stuart Mill – The political writing of John Stuart Mill. Just kidding. Mill’s ideas about civil liberties, political structure, and the ethics behind government

The Premise: 100 Great Books

Dear Reader,

So, you must be wondering why I’ve gathered you here today.  Or, more accurately, why you’ve gathered yourselves here.  Although, you’re probably sitting there reading this alone, so ‘yourselves’ is a bit of a stretch, and ‘gathered’ is definitely the wrong verb for stumbling upon a random blog page . . . but, hopefully, you see what I mean.

My purpose for writing this blog is actually rather specific, but it has a bit of a back story, so hopefully you’ll be patient.

I’ve been an avid reader since I was about two.  So no one was surprised when, halfway through my senior year, my great aunt left to me her complete set of The Franklin Library’s collection ‘The 100 Greatest Books of All Time’.  One hundred beautiful, leather bound, gilt-edged volumes, featuring some of the best prose, poetry, plays, and nonfiction ever produced by mankind.  I was in seventh heaven.  I sorted them by type and carefully arranged them on six shelves in my bedroom.

Time passed, I actually got accepted to college (a beautiful Big 12 school), and then, finally, I graduated from high school.  However, as I began packing up for move-in day, I had a startling revelation.

I had yet to actually read any of them.

That’s right; my fantastic, awesome, coolest-thing-ever collection of books had languished on my shelves.  Sure, I’d read the first few pages of one or two, but I’d made no significant progress on any of them.  A large portion of the wealth of knowledge of mankind (or, at any rate, a lot of the most famous words ever written) had been staring me in the face for the past six months, and I hadn’t been bothered to actually read any of it.

Then, it hit me.  An idea so intriguing, so daunting, that I couldn’t possibly turn it down.  Theoretically, I was heading off to college to become educated, to learn how to think, to become an informed citizen of the world, all that nonsense.  What better way to supplement such an education than by reading the 100 greatest books of all time?

I mean, I suppose it’s not the authoritative list of the best books ever.  But somebody had to think they were pretty good, good enough to spend time making fancy editions of them.  So it would work.  Take one hundred books, subtract the three or four I’ve read in the past, divide by eight semesters, and we get the magic number 12.

12 books per semester for the next four years.  I mean, I read a ton; for me, that’s like a cake walk.  Only problem is, the average length of these books seems to be a mind-numbing 500+ pages.  (I haven’t even dared to check the page count on War and Peace.  I shudder at the thought.)  And it’s easy to fall into the trap of reading without paying a lot of attention to what I’m reading.  I mean, the point of this project is to somehow edify myself by reading these books – skimming for plot is probably not the best way to accomplish that.

So, I figured, what better way to gain an in-depth understanding of the books I’m reading than to write about them to other people?  And how could I accomplish that?  Oh, I know, a blog!  It’s, like, part Julie Powell and part AJ Jacobs.  But, of course, I’m pretty much talking to myself unless someone else reads and enjoys and (hopefully) gains something from what I write.

And that’s where you come in.



Spoiler Note: Just to be up-front with everyone, pretty much all of my posts are going to include at least glancing mentions of plot points in the books I’m reading, so if you’re one of those people who really doesn’t want to know anything that happens before you read it . . . don’t read it. On posts where it’s particularly bad, where the content will focus heavily on plot twists or endings, I’ll do my best to say so at the beginning. In other words, if a post starts out with ‘includes spoilers’, I’m going to tell you exactly what happens.

Published in: on September 9, 2010 at 10:59 PM  Comments (1)  
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