MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION – Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation Moshfeg“Having a trash chute was one of my favorite things about my building. It made me feel important, like I was participating in the world.”

Moshfegh’s most recent book, 2022’s Lapvona, was among the best books I’ve ever read. So even if her other work can’t be classified as speculative fiction, I owed it to myself to read more of her. Curious about the hip and trending, I decided to read her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a book that featured in 19 prominent year-end lists of 2018. Does this book endure, 5 years later?

The answer is easy: yes. Set in the New York of 2000, it doesn’t have a timeless quality per se, but both Moshfegh’s narrative voice and her themes easily surpass the local – both in time as in space.

The plot might be well known to the literati, maybe my readers need a quick pointer: My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about an unnamed woman in her 20ies, working for a contemporary art gallery, recently orphaned, beautiful and slender. Wikipedia further spells it out like this: “increasingly dissatisfied with her post-collegiate life, the narrator finds a conveniently incompetent psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, who freely prescribes a variety of sleeping, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic medications for the insomnia the narrator reports as her complaint; in fact, the narrator hopes to spend as few hours awake as possible, lulling herself with pills and middlebrow movies she plays on repeat on her VCR (…).”

It didn’t captivate me in the same way as Lapvona did, but it is still an excellent book I would easily recommend if the above seems to your liking. Be warned however: Moshfegh is known for her unlikable characters, and a fascination for the bodily disgusting – even if the latter is far less present than in Lapvona. My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s title might have a soothing ring to it, but its protagonist borders on the misanthropic. What’s the ethics of that?

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KOLYMA STORIES – Varlam Shalamov (1954-1965, transl. 2018) & TELLURIA – Vladimir Sorokin (2013, transl. 2022)

Kolyma Stories Shalamov NYRBTelluria Vladimir Sorokin (Lawton)

Two very different books this time, both translated from Russian, both published by New York Review Books, and both collections of short stories of sorts.

Telluria is a work of speculative fiction, set in a future Russia.

Kolyma Stories is not so fictional, as it is Shalamov’s personal account of his 15 years in the gulag – one of the very few that survived in the system for such a long time. I’m not so sure about the practical political power of literature, but it is clear that both dissident writers at least shed some light on today’s Russia.

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DIASPORA – Greg Egan (1997)

Greg Egan DiasporaBefore this, I had read 6 Egan titles: 4 novels, 2 novellas. Judged by those, his work is remarkably consistent thematically, even though the reading experiences themselves differ widely – Egan is no one-trick pony.

My seventh Egan, Diaspora, just might be considered as a microcosmos of his oeuvre, and so, surely, the above applies as well. Diaspora consists of 7 parts and 20 chapters, stretching from 2975 to 4953 and even billions of years beyond, and all that in 321 pages.

Given such a scope, it’s not a surprise Egan chose an episodic structure, basically stringing a set of novellas together – all sharing near-immortal, digital characters that complete one overarching story. One of the chapters, Wang’s Carpets, originally appeared in 1995 in the New Legends anthology, and was published separately as an e-book as well.

Taken as a whole, I liked the novel, even though it had me skimming a significant amount. Let’s take a closer look.

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Meganets How Digital Forces Beyond our Control David AuerbachI’ve always been impressed by the writing on David Auerbach’s blog. His article The Bloodsport of the Hive Mind: Common Knowledge in the Age of Many-to-Many Broadcast Networks should be obligatory reading: it’s a very sharp and original analysis explaining some of what ails our current society – antivaxxers, conspiracy theories, etc. I’ve been equally impressed by his year-end lists: the sheer volume and range of books Auerbach reads is impressive.

So when I learned that this software engineer who used to work for Microsoft and Google wrote a book on the digital forces that are transforming our societies, I eagerly waited for the publication date.

For reference, let me quote a big chunck of the blurb on Amazon:

“Auerbach’s exploration of the phenomenon he has identified as the meganet begins with a simple, startling revelation: There is no hand on the tiller of some of the largest global digital forces that influence our daily lives: from corporate sites such as Facebook, Amazon, Google, YouTube, Instagram, and Reddit to the burgeoning metaverse encompassing cryptocurrencies and online gaming to government systems such as China’s Social Credit System and India’s Aadhaar.

As we increasingly integrate our society, culture and politics within a hyper-networked fabric, Auerbach explains how the interactions of billions of people with unfathomably large online networks have produced a new sort of beast: ever-changing systems that operate beyond the control of the individuals, companies, and governments that created them.

Meganets, Auerbach explains, have a life of their own, actively resisting attempts to control them as they accumulate data and produce spontaneous, unexpected social groups and uprisings that could not have even existed twenty years ago. And they constantly modify themselves in response to user behavior, resulting in collectively authored algorithms none of us intend or control. These enormous invisible organisms exerting great force on our lives are the new minds of the world, increasingly commandeering our daily lives and inner realities.

Auerbach’s analysis of these gargantuan opaque digital forces yield important insights such as:

  • The conventional wisdom that the Googles and Facebook of this world are tightly run algorithmic entities is a myth. No one is really in control.
  • The efforts at reform – to get lies and misinformation off meganets – run into a brick wall because the companies and executives who run them are trapped by the persistent, evolving, and opaque systems they have created.
  • Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are uncontrollable and their embrace by elite financial institutions threatens the entire economy.
  • We are asking the wrong questions in assuming that if only the Facebooks of this world could be better regulated or broken up that they would be better, more ethical citizens.
  • Why questions such as making algorithms fair and bias-free and whether AI can be a tool for good or evil are wrong and misinformed.

Auerbach then comes full circle, showing that while we cannot ultimately control meganets we can tame them through the counterintuitive measures he describes in detail.”

For a more in-depth look at the book’s content, do read the Guardian interview with Auerbach, here. Well-worth your time.

While I enjoyed reading Meganets, the book has a few problems too.

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VERGETEN SCHEDELS – Louis Paul Boon & Roger van de Velde (1946 & 1969)

Next post will be about Meganets by David Auerbach, a non-fiction title on “how digital forces beyond our control commandeer our daily lives and inner realities”.

In the meantime, a post in Dutch, consisting of 3 short reviews.

The first is about the third book by Louis Paul Boon, Vergeten Straat, written during the war and published in 1946. “Forgotten Street” is about a street in Brussels that’s accidentally closed off as a new railway is being build. The inhabitants of the street struggle to make the best of it by trying to build something utopian, but ultimately fail.

The other two are on Roger van de Velde, another Flemish author. Van de Velde is way less known than Boon – one of the biggest voices of 20th century Dutch literature. During the 60ies, Van de Velde, a journalist, was imprisoned in psychiatric wards because he was addicted to Palfium – the result of several gastric surgeries. He wrote two works about his predicament, even though he was forbidden to publicize anything. As a result his wife had to smuggle out the handwritten texts hidden in her underwear.

De Knetterende Schedels, “The Crackling Skulls”, is a collection of short stories on fellow psychiatric prisoners, and Recht op Antwoord, “Right of Reply”, is a long pamflet denouncing the way the Belgian judicial and penitentiary system dealt – and still deals – with psychiatric patients. They were both published in 1969, just before Van de Velde died in 1970, 45 years old.

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SHADOWS LINGER – Glen Cook (1984)

Shadows Linger Cooke BerdakGlen Cook was already an experienced writer when he published The Black Company in May 1984: I counted 9 novels. The Black Company would spawn 11 novels and a bunch of short fiction. Shadows Linger, the second book of the first trilogy, appeared a few months later in October. That same year Cook also published The Fire in His Hands, which started the Dread Empire series.

In 1985, when the third Black Company title appeared, Cook put out no less than 6 novels. Most of those seem to have gotten only one print run in the 80ies, and yet around 2010 Night Shade Books did reprint them.

That might be on the strength of The Black Company: the series that had a profound influence on Steven Erikson and The Mazalan Book of the Fallen. Cook was a very busy writer, but so far The Black Company remains very, very readable. I enjoyed Shadows Linger a lot.

Most of what I’ve written in my review of the first book holds for this sequel too. And yet this is a different book altogether.

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Bernd & Hilla Becher book collection

This time, two books from an artist couple also featured in my favorite art book list I posted back in 2017. The first is a monograph from 2007 I’ve had for ages, but never got around to actually reading. The second book was published last year, and it’s the first posthumous monograph about the Bechers to appear, published to accompany the exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an exhibition that traveled to San Fransisco, and is still on display until April 2, 2023.

Over the years, I’ve steadily collected all the thematic monographs Bernd and Hilla Becher published – my collection is pictured above. Their work resonates deeply with me, and as their work is among the most revered of 20th century photographers, I know I’m not the only one. For almost 50 years the Bechers documented mine winding towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, grain elevators, water and cooling towers, processing plants, factory halls, lime kilns, timber framed houses and entire complexes of factory buildings. They did so in much of Western Europe, and the United States as well. In a way, the things they depict are more machines than buildings, as critic Armin Zweite wrote.

Bernd also taught photography at the Düsseldorf Academy from 1976 to 1996, and Hilla was intricately involved with that too. This resulted in the so-called Becher school of photography, with prominent German artists like Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff & Thomas Struth.

Both books at hand cover similar territory: they try to provide an overview of Bernd & Hilla Becher’s life and work, framed in an historical context. Is one markedly better than the other? And, more importantly, what did I learn from these books about the Bechers and their work? Why does it resonate so deeply with me?

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NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR – George Orwell (1949)

0EE75B7A-A9C1-438A-9FDD-B6AE90F61276I can understand the cultural significance of this book – it’s so significant I don’t need to explain to you what this book is about: you know.

That might be one of the reasons I felt this to be utterly boring: I don’t think I learned a thing, it all felt so familiar, generic even.

Because of its central place in the Western literary canon, my feelings about 1984 are hard to parse. Might I have loved this if I hadn’t known so much about it? If I’d read it when it first came out?

I’m not so sure. It felt like Orwell was preaching the entire time, and I generally don’t like MESSAGE literature. I didn’t like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t feel fully realistic either.

Another issue: I didn’t buy Orwell’s future world. It seemed so binary – everything in service of Orwell’s didactics. I missed the path towards the state of affairs described: such a path would be complex & interesting, but Orwell basically reduces the Ingsoc state system to a bad boogeyman, and the motivations of the characters that installed and sustain this system aren’t really explored. Indeed: I missed a certain kind of depth.

I know I’m in a minority position. The cultural norm is to like books that are against totalitarianism: over 4 million ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.19 average. Most dissident voices on Goodreads – the one and two star reviews – say the same: not enough story, too much essay, bland characters, heavy-handed exposition, a cartoon villain.

That said: what Orwell does extremely well is illustrate blatant lies as a powerful political method.


ps – For those of you who don’t read the comments, somebody posted a link to a 1984 review Isaac Asimov wrote in 1980. Asimov is highly critical, and raises interesting points. Definitely worth your time.

His text is here: or here

Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

Click here for an index of my non-fiction or art book reviews, and here for an index of my longer fiction reviews of a more scholarly & philosophical nature.

DROWNING PRACTICE – Mike Meginnis (2022)

Drowning Practice Mike MeginnisAn important part of reading is reading about reading, and so I bought this book because of a glowing review on Speculiction. Drowning Practice is part slipstream, part immediate future doom, part satire & part psychological study.

The novel’s premise would be ideal for a movie or tv-series. Everybody on the planet dreams the same thing in the same night: in a few months there will be a flood and everybody will drown. Most people take their dream for truth, and Mike Meginnis examines what would happen to our society when most expect imminent demise. He does that by zooming in on three broken characters: an addicted, anxious novelist, her 13-year old daughter and the girl’s father, a controlling government spy/hippie.

Meginnis started writing the book out of a frustration with existing apocalyptic stories, and I have to say he did succeed in writing something that is both compelling and completely non-generic – unlike the first episode of HBO’s The Last of Us, to name just one thing.

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FOUNDATION TRILOGY – Isaac Asimov (1951-’53)

Foundation first edition cover high res (David Kyle, Gnome, 1951)Foundation and Empire (Asimov, first cover, damaged)Second Foundation (Asimov, first cover, Binkley)

For about a decade I didn’t read any fiction. About 14 years ago a friend recommended me Anathem by Neil Stephenson, and I’ve been back at reading fiction since. Some Culture novels by Banks followed, and I became enamored with science fiction as genre. So I dove into its canon, and the Foundation series became the first thing I read after I gobbled up Iain M. Banks. It became one of my favorite series, even liking book 4 and 5 from 1982 and ’86 most – back then because of their scientific-mystical all-is-one slant.

I read some more of Isaac Asimov too: I, Robot (1950), Caves of Steel (1954), The End of Eternity (1955), The Gods Themselves (1972), and the godawful Foundation prequels – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993).

And now, after my rereads of the entire Dune series, and Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, the time felt right to reread and review Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. At first I wanted to do one book at a time, but when I finished Foundation, it was obvious that these books are better reviewed as a whole, as they are a sole collection of short stories and novellas first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, from 1942 to 1950, under the auspices of editor John W. Campbell. Only the very first chapter, “The Psychohistorians”, was written for the publication of the first book itself.

I read the splendid Everyman’s Library edition – a hardback with an excellent 15-page introduction by Michael Dirda that’s isn’t expensive nonetheless. That introduction guided my reading a bit, and I’ll get back to it a few times.

First, a warning: I’ll have to let down recurring readers expecting a long analysis like those of the Dune books or The Book of the New Sun. This post won’t be 5,000 or 10,000 words – only 2,300. I simply don’t have that much to add to all that has been written on this seminal work, considered a “watershed” in literary history by many. Dirda quotes SF editor Donald Wollheim: “Stories published before Foundation belong to the old line, the stories published published after belong to ‘modern’ science fiction.”

Before my actual reread, I thought this post might turn into a big examination about how Asimov deals with free will in the books, not dissimilar to my post on LOTR. It turns out that there just isn’t that much to discuss, but I’ll spend a few paragraphs on it nonetheless, as it is the crux of the series.

Did I think this trilogy has become way outdated, and did I enjoy my reread? To answer that and more, let’s get back to Dirda – three times.

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Rock & Roll met Frieda Vindevogel JMH Berckmans coverNext post will be about my reread of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov.

In the meantime, a post in Dutch, again about cult writer Jean-Marie Berckmans, who died in 2008 – after a lifelong struggle with a bipolar disorder, anxiety and addiction. I met him a few times in 2006, and also read his final book back then. After I found another book of his on a flea market in 2016, I started collecting his oeuvre. I’m slowly working my way through it.

This review is about his 4th book, “Rock & Roll with Frieda Vindevogel”. Frieda Vindevogel was a pseudonym for his psychiatrist.

Voor een introductie in J.M.H. Berckmans: onderaan vind je links.


De achterflap van Rock & Roll met Frieda Vindevogel verraadt dat dit een compagnon is van Café De Raaf nog steeds gesloten, Berckmans’ vorige boek: beide hebben dezelfde foto en dezelfde lay-out. De biografie van Chris Ceustermans bevestigt ook dat de meeste verhalen in dit werk al geschreven waren toen Café De Raaf in 1990 werd gepubliceerd. Dat boek was dan weer verwant met Vergeet niet wat de zevenslaper zei, zijn tweede debuut. Ik schreef al in mijn recensie van Café De Raaf dat je Berckmans’ werk misschien wel in 3 periodes zou kunnen opdelen, en dat wordt voorlopig door mijn lectuur van Vindevogel bevestigd.

Frieda Vindevogel is een pseudoniem voor Frieda Matthys, een psychiater die Berckmans een tijd heeft behandeld. Prof. Dr. Matthys is gespecialiseerd in verslavingen en nog steeds actief. Meer biografische achtergrond vind je in die twee vorige recensies, hier zal ik inzoomen op wat Vindevogel te bieden heeft.

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A mountain to the north a lake to the south paths to the west a river to the east KrasznahorkaiThis blog focuses mainly on speculative fiction, and as such this short novel with a very long title is not out of place: one could approach this as a sensitive mythopoetic tale, about a grandson of a prince, living outside of space and time, wandering the grounds of a monastry in Kyoto, searching for an elusive, possibly perfect, garden.

One could also approach it as high literature of the most oppressive sort, like Marcel Theroux did in The Guardian: “It’s not beyond me to imagine that there are readers who want to surrender to the strangeness of his prose, the long, self-cancelling sentences and the obsessive descriptions. My view is that 100 years after Ulysses and The Waste Land, his writing is a belated tribute act to modernism that perpetuates its worst traits: obscurity, self-referentiality, lazy pessimism and lack of empathy with the lives of non-academic readers.”

Having an academic background myself, I guess I’m biased. I acknowledge that A Mountain to the North, A Lake to the South, Paths to the West, A River to the East is not for everybody – what book is? – but Theroux’s remark is terribly misguided: does he ask of Colleen Hoover if she has empathy with her academic readers? So instead of lazy shots as intellectuals, he might have just acknowledged Krasznahorkai’s 2003 title simply didn’t click with him, because, indeed, he failed to connect with the prose and the themes. There is no shame in that. Shaming its writer however, is not very empathic.

But enough with the negative vibes: I think Északról hegy, Délről tó, Nyugatról hegyek, Keletről folyó is an absolute masterpiece. 5 stars! 6 stars even! I’m not an expert on translation nor Hungarian, but it seems more than remarkable that Ottilie Mulzet managed to translate such peculiar prose from an non-Indo-European language and still conveys something of László Krasznahorkai’s flow and poetry.

This is a book to surrender too, and then be rewarded with a certain ecstasy and wonder about the terrifying miracle and baffling mystery that is all that exists. The nature of reality and the reality of nature is often pondered in literature and art, its infinite mystery even celebrated, but when push comes to shove, its profound and utter incomprehensible strangeness is generally ignored. Not so by Krasznahorkai: it seems the very heart of his writing. A 2022 interview in Rekto:Verso confirms this: “I try to express something that I cannot. The highest art can build a bridge, but only until it reaches the border of the hidden reality – you cannot move beyond that. I try to reach that border through beauty. That is not the only way, but it is my way.”

When Theroux goes on in his review, writing that this book doesn’t seem interested in “the relationships, love, toil, conflicts, needs and interactions of ordinary people” he misses the point, as the lives of people are embedded in the miracle that Krasznahorkai tries to come to grips with. To me, A Mountain to the North showcased nothing but sensitivity for what it means to be alive, even if it also expresses the sentiment that a demand such as Theroux’s – to put the human in the center – is a form of self-absorbed navel gazing.

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH – Walter Tevis (1963)

The Man Who Fell To Earth (Tevis)Walter Tevis has some serious cultural clout. Two-thirds of his literary longform production was transformed into other forms – high profile forms at that. He wrote six novels: four of those were adapted for the screen.

The Hustler (1961) won 2 Oscars and was nominated for 7 more. The Color of Money (1986) was directed by none other than Martin Scorsese, and nominated for 4 Oscars, of which Paul Newman won Best Actor. The Queen’s Gambit became a very successful & critically acclaimed Netflix series in 2020.

The reception of the movie based on The Man Who Fell To Earth wasn’t as glowing, but it does star David Bowie. On top of that, the book was made into a TV-series twice, once in 1987 – conceived as a sequel to the 1976 movie – and in 2022, by Showtime. Bowie’s 2015 musical Lazarus – directed by the internationally admired Ivo van Hove – was also inspired by the novel, continuing its story.

Another thing that struck me was that at least three of Tevis’ books deal with addiction: The Queen’s Gambit‘s prodigy protagonist is addicted to painkillers, humans in Mockingbird’s future “spend their days in a narcotic bliss or choose a quick suicide rather than slow extinction” and Thomas Newton, the humanoid alien from Anthea and protagonist of The Man Who Fell to Earth, becomes an alcoholic. So when I did a bit of research for this review, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Walter Tevis was an alcoholic himself.

‘Write what you know’ is an often parroted as writing advice. So, did Tevis’ condition make this a better novel?

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This review is more or less a random collage of fragments that appealed to me: fragments of reviews found on Goodreads, of the book’s preface by William Burroughs, of Hari Kunzru’s introduction, of a 2019 text by Rob Doyle in The Irish Times, and quotes from Ballard & the book itself.

Part of this review also went through an additional process, as I asked an AI to attempt to integrate & summarize some of these fragments into a coherent whole – but I don’t think it did very well on that front.

My editing is fairly minimal, not zero. I also wrote a few sentences or parts of sentence of my own.

The Atrocity Exhibition

In 1964 J.G. Ballard’s wife died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him to bring up their three children alone. In 2007, when he was already terminally ill, Hari Kunzru interviewed him. “I was terribly wounded by my wife’s death. Leaving me with these very young children, I felt that a crime had been committed by nature against this young woman – and her children – and I was searching desperately for an explanation . . .  To some extent The Atrocity Exhibition is an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early sixties. It wasn’t just the Kennedy assassination . . . I think I was trying to look for a kind of new logic that would explain all these events.”

The Atrocity Exhibition is a challenging read that takes the reader on a journey into the abstract and hallucinatory realm of Ballard’s writing. It crosses over from his more familiar territory of cold and sterile science fiction and delves into a world reminiscent of Burroughs. The central narrative is elusive, making the reading process difficult, but for some it might be worthwhile if you are up for the challenge.

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HAUNTED WASPS – Shirley Jackson & Iain Banks (1959 & 1984)


The Haunting Of Hill HouseI thought We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a 5-star read, so imagine my surprise that I couldn’t connect with this book, written three years prior by troubled soul Shirley Jackson. It’s a bit of classic, and no less than 13 of my friends on Goodreads have read this as well, 12 of them rate it positively, most whip out even 4 or 5 stars.

It started out alright, but when Eleanor Vance arrives at the strange old mansion in the hills, things soon become a bit boring. I felt Jackson managed to convey the psychological horror much better in Castle.

I can’t fully put my finger on it, but I think my main issue was the tone in which Hill House was written. There’s a faux objectivism in the scientific endeavor of Dr. Montague’s semi-paranormal research that felt a bit flat, as it was echoed in Jackson’s tone. Add to that a certain detached irony in Jackson’s narrative voice: that irony made it so that the story didn’t feel real to me. As a result, I became less and less engaged with the characters, and also the house itself gradually lost its attraction, to the point I simply didn’t care anymore, making me stop at the halfway point.

Another thing that killed it for me was the fact that the proceedings were fairly obvious, the story fairly transparant in its method – admittedly also because I read some reviews upfront. Jackson sets up a creepy environment – via a house that has a geometry that is slightly off and a history of suicide, etc. – and in that environment the main character can then start her descent into madness. I didn’t feel there was much mystery in that.

Jackson didn’t convince me during the first half that there was enough of interest to pursue Eleanor’s mental journey, even though I feel she did manage to make her an interesting character, at least at first, when she brakes free from her sister.

I’m truly disappointed, I expected a lot after the triumph that was We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

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