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The Black Monk and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (audio)

blackmonkI am tagging this as a did not finish, although I did, in fact, finish two short stories (and barely started a third). I DNF’d the story collection, though. Meaning, I don’t seem to be a Chekhov fan. It’s funny when things turn out that way: when I turn out not to like an author who is Classic, or in this case, revered as one of the best short story writers of all time (I can’t remember where I’ve heard this, but I have. More than once. sigh). But it does happen.

I listened to The Black Monk and Gooseberries. It was remarkable to me how much these stories reminded me of Tolstoy (who, if you recall, I also did not like). I don’t know if it’s Russian writers with shared characteristics, or that they both evoke the same world and that’s what bothers me. At any rate, the Russian society on the estate felt very much like the same background, transferred from Anna Karenina to Chekhov’s short stories.

In The Black Monk, our protagonist visits the estate where he was raised family-like by non-relations. The father figure encourages him to marry the daughter of the estate (so, the sister figure?), and he does. At a party somebody shares the legend of the black monk, who is imaginary but shows up… sometimes, some places. Our protagonist sees the black monk, talks with him, and uses their conversations as fodder for his own writing (oh yes, he is a writer by profession). He gets caught talking to himself (as it seems – he’s talking with his imaginary black monk) and “treated” for his “illness,” which frustrates him. He and the wife split up. The end. This is a story in which nothing much happens, and the black monk bits I found uninteresting. Is this minimalism as a stylistic statement, or something? Is it not what’s there, but what isn’t there? (Like action, personality, conflict?) This is a well-regarded piece of literature, but it passed me right by.

In Gooseberries, a few friends gather and sit around and tell a story: the brother of one of these men, having grown up in the country but found work as a bureaucrat in a city, dreams about retiring to the country. He will have a farm, or something like it; and he will have gooseberry bushes. In time he accomplishes this: he has a country estate, and gooseberry bushes. The brother (who is telling the story, to his friends) visits, and is served gooseberries. The country-aspiring brother praises them highly, but they are in fact bitter. I assume this is the grand symbolic conflict of the story that is meant to impress me, but again I found it banal. Oh, there is some social commentary on the fact that this bureaucrat-brother now professes to be a nobleman and high-handedly distributes buckets of vodka to the peasants on special occasions, pretending grandeur. But again, this is a story in which nothing happens, and I am bored. So I stopped listening.

In many literary cases, we praise the understated. I’m thinking of Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer, and Hemingway’s, Hills Like White Elephants. The under-context of these stories remains pretty well hidden, but they are praised as masterpieces. (I enjoyed both, for the record.) In Hemingway’s story, nothing really happens; but it is still thought-provoking and oh, so emotionally evocative. In Cheever’s, a little more happens; nothing is said about what Cheever really wants to say; but it still works. I wonder if there’s something hidden in The Black Monk that, if explained to me, would make it so much more enjoyable? I suspect not.

Funnily enough, this audiobook I picked up right after The Gunslinger is read by the same narrator, George Guidall. That was an interesting experiment in the different voices and moods a good narrator can evoke. When I thought to notice, I could tell – obviously – that the same man read the two books; but it never would have occurred to me mid-story, because he does a fine job of bringing to life two such different worlds. The fantastic, dramatic made-up world of King’s fantasy series couldn’t be more different than Chekhov’s staid, frustrated Russian society, and Guidall did well by each, so none of my criticism falls on him. I was annoyed by the characters Guidall read; but I think he read them as they were written.


Rating: 2 empty comments.

Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

Available as 11 pages in quite small type here.

I am 98% sure that I was led to this story by a mention in Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder. I’m always up for some Poe; he’s batting 1000 with me. I have a complete works volume on my shelves somewhere; maybe one of these days…

I’m pretty sure the reason I came to this story from the above book is that it is cited as one of the earliest mystery stories in literature, that is, in which a detective (in this case an amateur) puzzles through the clues to come to a conclusion of whodunit. It begins with a fairly lengthy (several long paragraphs) discussion of analytical powers, in which our narrator argues that whist or draughts are both more challenging intellectual games than chess. [I am not familiar with whist or draughts so can't comment on that.] The point of all this rather cerebral discussion finally becomes clear: the narrator’s roommate, a Frenchman named Dupin, is an analytical genius. He can tell what the narrator is thinking. And he will solve… The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

by Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (click to enlarge)

illustration by Daniel Urrabieta y Vierge, via Wikimedia Commons (click to enlarge)

In a tone and a climate I recognize from The Invention of Murder, we learn that a mother and daughter have been brutally killed in their home on the Rue Morgue. All the doors are locked from within, and a very large amount of cash has been left behind, spilled on the floor. The Parisian police are stumped. Dupin, however, reasons through what clues he finds – having been allowed special access to the crime scene, naturally – and comes to a very strange and improbable, but correct, conclusion. Occam’s Razor aside.

The strengths of this short story, as always with Poe, lie in its atmosphere: brooding, dark, melancholy, cerebral. The character of Dupin is not well-rounded or human, but that’s okay. He plays a role. Our narrator is there, Watson-style, to provide a foil for Dupin’s analysis. The solution to the mystery is most strange and enjoyable for its strangeness. Realism this is not.

An enjoyable quick read and a good early example of a genre I love. Well worth a few minutes.


Rating: 8 thick tresses of grey human hair.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I heard about this short story through the National Library of Medicine’s Traveling Exhibition Program (we will be hosting several exhibitions at the hospital library where I work). I hadn’t heard of it before, although clearly I should have! If you want to read it, too – and I recommend it – I found my copy online here.

It is a very quick read at 9 pages, during which our narrator keeps a secret diary. She suffers from nervous depression, or neurasthenia, or the usual woman-sickness as diagnosed in the 1890′s when this story was written; and her physician husband has prescribed bed rest. So she’s shut up in the top floor of a decaying old mansion, in what used to be a children’s nursery (she thinks) because it has bars on the windows; and it has terribly ugly yellow wallpaper. Now, she’s forbidden even the exertion of writing, but because she disobeys, we get to follow her descent into madness, by way of that wallpaper.

It is a chilling story, and let me tell you that I read it while camping alone in a remote valley in Colorado, in a tent with a yellow rain fly on it (in the rain) – but never fear, I’ve made it back with all the marbles I began with, I’m reasonably sure. No one has tried to make me stay in bed yet, at any rate.

It turns out that this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own story, to some extent: she was diagnosed similarly and given a similar “treatment”, but feeling herself slide downhill, disobeyed doctor’s orders, shook herself off, and got to work – writing, and living her own life. This turned out to be the healthier option for her, and it seems she lived a reasonably happy life thereafter. My copy (link above) came with a less-than-one-page piece called “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which she states that “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”

I learned more by going back to the NLM’s exhibition entitled The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, which I recommend and which also won’t take you but a few minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t resist sharing with you this related piece of art that I found while trolling the interwebs…


Lovely work, and of the images I found online that try to illustrate this story, it was my favorite.

Not only is the plot chilling, and the purpose behind the story important and sympathetic, but it is a well-crafted story too. I enjoyed it very much and am moved by the story behind the story. I’m lucky people like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were speaking up over 100 years ago, or I would never have been allowed to go camping alone in a valley in Colorado, yellow rain fly or no.


Rating: 9 disruptions of the pattern.

A River Runs Through It, and other stories by Norman Maclean

riverNorman Maclean is a poet and a genius. Annie Proulx’s foreword, and Macleans’ own acknowledgements, had me spellbound from the first moments; even before I began the first of three stories, I had to put the book down and meditate on what I’d read. Consider the final lines of the acknowledgements:

This, then, in summary, is a collection of Western stories with trees in them for children, experts, scholars, wives of scholars, and scholars who are poets. I hope there are others also who don’t mind trees.

This is Maclean’s first book, published when he was already an old man. It includes three pieces I have a little trouble categorizing. Short stories? Well, they’re not particularly short, not consistently: the first one is over 100 pages and therefore more properly a novella; the second is 20 pages; the third, 90. They are also nonfiction, which makes calling them short stories or novellas also problematic. Take that as you will. They are very fine, whatever they are.

I am going to write this review much like I did yesterday’s, heavy on the quotations because this writer is such a Writer.

A River Runs Through It, the titular story and the one best critically received, begins:

In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

We meet a young Norman and his brother Paul, briefly as boys to establish their personalities and their relationship with fishing (every bit as reverent as those opening lines suggest), and then we delve into their lives in their early thirties. They fish together. Paul is a gifted fly fisherman. They have a noncommunicative (stereotypically male) relationship, but they worship together at the river, hone their craft, share special moments; their world is intruded upon by the unpleasantness of Norman’s brother-in-law, who is (gasp) a bait fisherman. Paul also likes to fight, and he comes to a young and violent end. All these years later, the Maclean who writes this story might be seen as exorcising a youthful trauma; lucky for us it is as thoughtful, wise, delicate, and beautiful as it is.

…I could never be talked into believing that all a fish knows is hunger and fear. I have tried to feel nothing but hunger and fear and don’t see how a fish could ever grow to six inches if that were all he ever felt. In fact, I go so far sometimes as to imagine that a fish thinks pretty thoughts.

Again I see Derrick Jensen here: fish are people, too.

What a beautiful world it was once. At least a river of it was. And it was almost mine and my family’s, and just a few others’ who wouldn’t steal beer. You could leave beer to cool in the river, and it would be so cold when you got back it wouldn’t foam much. It would be a beer made in the next town if the town were ten thousand or over. So it was either Kessler Beer made in Helena or Highlander Beer made in Missoula that was left to cool in the Blackfoot River. What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.

If you don’t see Hemingway’s legacy there, I don’t know what I can say to help you. Maclean was born just three years after Papa, but Hemingway had been dead over a decade when this, Maclean’s first book, was published, so at least in literary terms they are a generation apart. No one can write prayerfully about fishing and the beauty of a trout stream without channeling that man.

I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.

Again, talk about prayerful – a word he uses several times, actually, and appropriately. I won’t quote the famous final line of this story for you. Go find it out for yourself. I cannot argue with the accepted notion that A River Runs Through It is Maclean’s masterpiece.

Next is Logging and Pimping and “Your Pal, Jim”, a story of Maclean’s work as a young man on a logging camp, during the summers while he’s not in school becoming an academic. The man who signs his letters as in the story’s title is a mystery, and the fact that Maclean leaves him unexplained felt a little strange but, of course, very real. It’s an entertaining and rather disturbing little tale, worth the time, but nothing compared to River.

And then there is USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky, almost as long as the first story and less well received critically, but in my opinion very striking. It focuses on just a few weeks during the time Maclean spent working for the Forest Service, yes, in 1919, when the world was a little different place:

We were fairly representative of early Forest Service crews as I came to know them – maybe not even that good, because the war had ended less than a year before and many of the best men had not yet returned to the woods, and the earth was still pretty much in the care of the old with corrugated skin and tiny steps and young punks looking for a fight and gassed Canadians and anonymous lookouts who had to be there but can’t be remembered. Not one had ever seen the inside or the outside of a school of forestry. But, as Bill said, we were a pretty good crew and we did what we had to do and loved the woods without thinking we owned them, and each of us liked to do at least one thing especially well – liked to swing a jackhammer and feel the earth overpowered by dynamite, liked to fight, liked to heal the injuries of horses, liked to handle groceries and tools and tie knots. And nearly all of us liked to work. When you think about it, that’s a lot to say about a bunch of men.

The first line introduces our narrator:

I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew it was beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but hadn’t noticed it yet.

And there is wisdom about nature:

…the mountains of Idaho, poems of geology stretching beyond any boundaries and seemingly even beyond the world.

And work:

The unpacking was just as beautiful – one wet satin back after another without saddle or saddle sore, and not a spot of white wet flesh where hair and hide had rubbed off. Perhaps one has to know something about keeping packs balanced on the backs of animals to think this beautiful, or to notice it at all, but to all those who work come moments of beauty unseen by the rest of the world.

And as a historical moment in time, I found it only a hair’s breadth less impressive than River. I like to read about the Forest Service, and I can’t wait to get into Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, about the Mann Gulch forest fire of 1949, in Montana, where a bunch of young smokejumpers were killed. (My fascination with forest, and fire, holds over from Fire Season, obviously.)

I am reeling from this book. Especially having read A River Runs Through It back-to-back with The Solace of Open Spaces, and with the two set side-by-side (or, top to bottom) in Wyoming and Montana, I feel swept away. Sometimes our reading happens this way, that a set of books come together to effect more than the sum of the parts. So, like Ehrlich’s lesser-known work, I will say that Maclean’s is… wise, compassionate, lyrical, and so important and beautiful in its honoring of a dying version of our world. Highly recommended.


Rating: 9 beads of sweat.

Teaser Tuesdays: A River Runs Through It, and other stories by Norman Maclean

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. The idea is to open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. And try not to include spoilers!

river

It has taken me too long to find Norman Maclean. Those who recommended him were, of course, oh so right; and now I can’t wait to get a hold of Young Men and Fire.

My 25th anniversary edition of A River Runs Through It includes three stories, but the titular one is the bulk of the book. It is from that story that I’ve taken this lovely teaser for you today.

It was so hot that the mirages on the river melted into each other. It was hard to know whether the utterances I had heard were delphic.

Of course I’m a sucker for the classical reference in the use of the word ‘delphic’. And now I will try to bite my tongue and save it for my review; but let me say, this is a beautiful book.

A White Heron by Sarah Orne Jewett

I found this story online, for free, here. Thanks to the Open Library project.


thanks to the Boston Public Library for sharing

thanks to the Boston Public Library for sharing

I finally got around to this one, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve seen it referenced before, but it was in Iodine that I saw the allusion that finally got me. And it was pretty easy to find online in full-text form, so no excuses.

It is a simple story. A girl named Sylvia (Sylvy) lives with her grandmother in the woods; she is fortunate to have been the one of a “houseful of children” to be chosen for this life, because she was very unhappy with people and in the city, and now she blossoms. The birds and trees are her friends. She meets a hunter, a pleasant enough young man, who initially scares Sylvy (because he is people) but who she comes to like and esteem. He is seeking a rare bird, a white heron, who does not usually roost in these parts but who Sylvy has seen and knows. In her admiration for the hunter, Sylvy climbs a very tall tree before dawn – a feat of great proportions – to locate the heron’s nest. Perhaps you can see where the central conflict comes from.

This is a very fine example of the art of the short story. It is a brief tale, and simple, but layered and allegorical and very moving. There are only three human characters, of whom the hunter remains unnamed and the grandmother is usually referred to simply as “the grandmother”; only Sylvy consistently gets a name. This adds to the simplistic, and the symbolic, effect. On the other hand, the natural world is well characterized. I love the cow:

…though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring.

Or the tree Sylvy climbs:

…it must truly have been amazed that morning through all its ponderous frame as it felt this determined spark of human spirit wending its way from higher branch to branch… The old pine must have loved his new dependent.

We can see here the important role that nature plays. Indeed, Sylvy herself is part bird:

…her bare feet and fingers… pinched and held like bird’s claws to the monstrous ladder [of the tree] reaching up, up, almost to the sky itself.

Her tree-climbing adventure seems to me to clearly be an epic journey of a rather religious nature; but I am inexpert in religious texts & symbolism, so I’m not sure I can articulate that for you.

Part of what I love about this story is the deceptive ease with which we sympathize with the bird over the hunter. I read this story in the car, and Husband expressed an interest, so I summarized it for him (which was a pleasure in itself), and he took it for granted that we want the bird, as it were, to win. Well, that’s an easy conclusion to come to; we’re animal lovers, he rescues baby birds that fall out of nests (I call him St. Francis), we like the woods. And this hunter, after all, is a sporting sort, interested in bagging a rare species, rather than feeding his family. But I don’t think the same sympathies would have occurred, let alone been obvious, to Jewett’s original audience (in 1886); they certainly aren’t obvious to the hunter and the grandmother in the story. In other words, Husband and I had very clear-cut sympathies, but I think we read this story differently than it would have read in 1886. The fact that it is moving to us today as it presumably was then, but in a different way, is remarkable to me, and thought-provoking.

This is a lovely little short story in the style of realism, in praise of nature over human industry, allegorical and sweet and very powerful. I have left quite a bit unsaid – like, the ending – because I want you to read it. The link’s at the top of this post, and it won’t take long. Go.


Rating: 9 breaths of fresh air.

The Prisoners by Guy de Maupassant

demaupassantPerhaps the best and the worst of The Prisoners is that it is like the other de Maupassant short stories I have read. This is to say that it is finely crafted with great attention to detail and wonderful expressiveness in very few words; it is also to say that it covers more of the same ground as I have seen in other of his work. That is, it is about the Prussian invasion and occupation of France in the Franco-Prussian War, and it highlights the honor and resourcefulness – and occasional corruptness and idiocy – of the French.

In this story, a young woman who is “daughter and wife of a forester” is home alone with her mother. The daughter’s wife is serving in the French army; the father is in town drilling with the local militia. This young woman is strong and unafraid. When half a dozen Germans show up demanding to be fed dinner, she tricks them into her cellar – once, apparently, an underground prison cell – until the local militia can come to take them into custody. The young woman is represented as a fine example of patriotism, courage, and quick wits; the French should be proud of her (and her father certainly is, although it is implied that the leader of the militia is happy to take credit for the capture). The militiamen, however, don’t get an uncritical treatment. I will leave this part spoiler-free, but an unfortunate and avoidable incident highlights that they are less competent than our daughter-and-wife.

This is yet another brief, effective short story from de Maupassant, who likes to both praise and expose his countrymen and -women for their behaviors during the Franco-Prussian War. He’s one of the very finest short story writers I’ve read, for his incisive use of language and imagery. Another winner.


Rating: 7 pumps.

Two Friends and The Lancer’s Wife, short stories by Guy de Maupassant

photo credit

Guy de Maupassant (photo credit)

I recently read my very first Maupassant, Boule de Suif, and found it stellarly crafted. Recently I had a few more loose reading moments – the perfect chance to dip back into his short story collection briefly. The next two stories of his that I’ve encountered continue very much in the same subject area. The French are being occupied by the hated Prussians, and the French citizens are more or less commonly outraged, but they all react differently. As in Boule de Suif, the incisive portrayals of human character are the strength of these stories, along with character sketches and images of occupied wartime.

The Lancer’s Wife sees a small band of French soldiers, after a French defeat, living under Swiss protection. Their captain is furious at being removed from the action, and takes a handful of his men, including our narrator, secretly back into France to fight guerrilla-style. This tiny group, joined by the captain’s loyal and martial wife, encounters a tiny Prussian group of fighters, which includes the Prussian lancer’s wife as well. Without spoilers, I shall say that the two wives come face to face, and the issue is one of honor. If the qualities and moral of this story are a little idealistic, I am happy to be forgiving, because it’s well done and a joy to read.

In Two Friends, two Frenchmen who have enjoyed fishing together in the past, but who are now living under Prussian occupation, endeavor to go fishing once again, and are captured by the enemy. Again there is a question of honor. Again high standards are met, and I am left, after these two stories, with a feeling of nostalgia for the fine men and women of a time gone by. These are lofty emotions to be evoked by stories about war; but Maupassant renders the setting so beautifully that, again, I can only marvel at the craft.

I believe Boule de Suif is more or less accepted as his finest story, and it’s true that these, while impressive, were shorter and less impactful. However, they were easy to lose myself in. This man is a master of the short story.


Rating: 7 chins held high.

Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant

I found a few unaccounted-for minutes the other night, and picked up a short read I’d been meaning to get to: the short stories of Guy de Maupassant. [Recommended by Hemingway.]


This review contains spoilers.

Set in the Franco-Prussian war, this story sees a group of ten citizens of Rouen fleeing Prussian occupation in a stagecoach for Le Havre. They are a mixed group representing a neat cross-section of French society: a merchant couple; a bourgeoisie couple; a count & countess; a Democratic revolutionary; a courtesan; and two nuns. They settle into polite chatting in the stagecoach along social lines, with all turning their noses up at the courtesan. But as the journey goes longer than expected and they are unable to find an inn to serve them lunch or dinner, the courtesan produces a large basket filled with delicacies, and everyone thaws. They make nice with her, and eat her food. The title Boule de Suif is generally translated as “Dumpling” or “Butterball” or the like (I believe, more literally, it is “ball of fat”) and refers to the courtesan:

Short and round, fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, looking like rows of shorts sausages; with a shiny, tightly-stretched skin and an enormous bust filling out the bodice of her dress, she was yet attractive and much sought after, owing to her fresh and pleasing appearance.

But upon arrival at their overnight lodging, they are held up: the Prussian soldier in charge forbids they continue on their journey until the courtesan will provide her services to him. She refuses, being a patriotic and proud Frenchwoman. And the group seethes: their travels are being held up and, as they point out, this is her business anyway, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t a whore be a whore with a Prussian as well as any other man? They wheedle, exhort, and command – even the nuns – until she is broken down and does the deed and they continue on their way. In the final scene, the socially elevated ladies turn their shoulder away from her again. And everyone has remembered to pack a lunch except Boule de Suif, and no one offers to share with her.

This is a masterfully executed short story, and I can see why Hemingway admired it. The human element is heartbreaking. It is painful to see the defeat of Boule de Suif’s pride and principles; it is maddening to see the disgraceful behavior of the socially superior characters. It is also a neatly devised statement on social class: the merchant and bourgeoisie couples are greedy and grabbing, clearly willing to place their allegiance with whomever will leave them to their profits; the count and countess are weak and craven; the nuns are unchristian in their failure to share food with a hungry courtesan; and the revolutionary is a lecherous drunk. The courtesan is the most patriotic, brave, and principled of the group.

The writing style is enjoyable, too, and again I can see where Hemingway was influenced. Just look at this first sentence:

For several days in succession fragments of a defeated army had passed through the town.

and tell me you don’t see Hemingway there. The meter or rhythm alone reminds me of him; obviously the subject matter as well.

I am rusty in my close-reading skills. I recall a poem I read in high school, for English class, that we picked apart line by line and word by word, finding three and four layers of meaning therein. It was The Black Lace Fan by Eavan Boland, and I really enjoyed the lesson. I think this short story would bear the same sort of close scrutiny. Or, it can be enjoyed as a quick read.

Highly recommended, and I hope I find time for the rest of the stories in this volume soon.


Rating: 9 pretenses.

great beer quotations in literature: Boule de Suif by Guy de Maupassant

Friends, I proudly come from a family of beer lovers, and have my eyes peeled not only for bicycle quotations in the books I read, but for those concerned with beer as well. I dipped into my very first de Maupassant the other day, and he satisfied.


He had his own fashion of uncorking the bottle and making the beer foam, gazing at it as he inclined his glass and then raised it to a position between the lamp and his eye that he might judge of its color. When he drank, his great beard, which matched the color of his favorite beverage, seemed to tremble with affection; his eyes positively squinted in the endeavor not to lose sight of the beloved glass, and he looked for all the world as if he were fulfilling the only function for which he was born. He seemed to have established in his mind an affinity between the two great passions of his life–pale ale and revolution–and assuredly he could not taste the one without dreaming of the other.

This evocation of trembling beer appreciation captivated me entirely. I am easily charmed.

It’s a great short story, too. Review to come.

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