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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

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tmp_2018071515122033598A bit of poetry for a change, and a book that seems to have chosen me rather than the other way around – a charity shop find, and a casual purchase that’s been well worth the fifty pence I paid for it. It’s a paperback version from 1963, much scribbled in by lit students and contains a love letter, secreted there long ago, from a time when men used to write such things to girls. It adds mystery and charm,  hints at unknown lives. But that’s second hand books for you. They are multidimensional, multi-layered things trailing the history of their readers as well as the work of their writers.

But does anyone buy poetry any more when they don’t have to, I mean other than having to study it in order to pass an exam? Like writing love letters, does anyone actually do poetry? I mean read it, live it, follow it, even write it themselves? Of course they do. Indeed, in a world dominated by hateful commentary, poetry provides the perfect antidote, lowering us back into a place of thoughtfulness and calm.

Collected and published after his death in 1958, Miscellany One contains perhaps Dylan Thomas’ most famous poem: Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave Rage/Rage against the dying of the light.

It was quoted by Michael Caine in the movie Interstellar, this as an exaltation for us to quit an ailing earth, one that we’d pretty much destroyed, risk it all on one last shout, then presumably we could go and destroy somewhere else. It wasn’t the context in which the poem was written of course, nor intended. It was actually written upon the death of Dylan Thomas’ father, and Thomas’ intent here, urging struggle in the face of the inevitable troubles me. But that’s poetry for you. It rises from the subliminal depths of one mind and settles to work in the subliminal places of another. And there’s no telling what the effects might be.

I reference “Miscellany” in my current novel in progress – an outrageous liberty, I know. I might be accused of borrowing something of depth in order to disguise the shallowness of my own work – a bit like Interstellar. I use it to connect a pair of characters, to draw them together in conspiracy by using the book as a basis for encoded messages in order to avoid web-snooping and other tropes of the modern surveillance culture. But that’s literally another story – and one that isn’t finished yet.

There are other poems here of course, also short stories, and radio scripts. And I find the writer is an intriguing one, immensely popular in his own lifetime but with critical opinion divided as regards his actual literary merit. Personally, I find the poetry lyrical and powerful, and I’m bewitched by the use of odd and at times deeply obscure language. He can also be rousingly alliterative, rhythms loosely punctuated by internal rhyme. There can be a formal structure to the work, but one that’s not always apparent. The poem “prologue” appears to have no structure at all, but in fact consists of a hundred lines of rhyming couplets that start in the middle and work outwards. It’s a form that appears to have no form, yet hides a startling symmetry, like ripples moving out upon the surface of a pond, from the epicentre of a tossed stone.

This day winding down now
At God speeded summer’s end
In the torrent salmon sun,
In my sea shaken house
On a breakneck of rocks,..

I know virtually nothing about Dylan Thomas, therefore I must tread lightly in my speaking of him, speak here perhaps only of first impressions. And my impressions are of an infectious use of language. There is also the passing glimpse of a curious existential view. Born in 1914, in the thick of war, his poem “I dreamed my genesis” has him as the rebirth of someone dying in the carnage of France, at least in the sense that as one wave breaks upon the shores of our mortality, another is already forming behind it, ready to break in its turn – life and nature cyclical, repetitive, unstoppable.

As an artist he was courageous to the point of self destruction, driven even from boyhood to be a poet, and determined to make a living at it, instead of settling to a more secure profession. But in spite of attaining the near impossibility of popular acclaim in his own lifetime, he spent that life largely penniless, indeed indebted to the tune of writing begging letters to other literary figures. He was also heavy drinker, a hell raiser, and a serial philanderer who burned his candle at both ends, and died following a spectacular drinking binge while on tour in America – the stuff of myth and raucous legend.

Speaking as a non poet or a wannabe poet, or just as a reader and lovers of words, I find his words enchanting, a powerful voice that must be listened to, in the best bardic tradition. It may be that we hold a special place in our hearts for those who have fallen while trying so hard, and we project something more of the hero onto them than onto those who make their success seem all too effortless.

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durleston wood cover smallIn the dreams of men, encounters with an unknown woman are significant in that she represents a meeting with the image of the man’s soul, and sets out the state of development of his psyche, also the state of his relations with, and his knowledge of women. A sickly soul-image in dreams is an obvious sign something is wrong, similarly if she is wearing chains, or in some other way restrained or imprisoned.

We see it depicted in art as St George, come to release the maiden from where she has been chained to a tree and is harassed by the phallic dragon. George kills the dragon, more metaphorically the Ego, which releases the maiden, the soul, into a more constructive relationship. Without undergoing this fundamental mythical journey every man is going to struggle with aspects of himself later on, and not just in his relations with women.

The chained and sickly soul-image is a symbol. It does not mean she is lacking energy, quite the opposite in fact. But the energy is misdirected by a man’s lack of understanding of himself. It is a powerful force erupting from the unconscious and being projected out into the world, affecting the way he sees things, the way he sees women.

He notices a female, is attracted, besotted, obsessed, unaware what he’s seeing is a manifestation of something inside of him. This is partly how attraction between sexes works. But say we hit things off with the object of our desire, make love, get married, come to know her as a mortal woman, you might think we had then slain the dragon, that is until the soul projects herself onto someone else. Time and time again. If we have by now settled on our life mate, such serial infatuations can be troublesome, even dangerous. But rather than acting on them and potentially ruining our lives, the soul is inviting us to withdraw the projections, to dissolve them, and in doing so restore the power inwardly, allowing her the means of manifesting herself more in consciousness, thus aiding us in seeing the world more clearly and with a little more wisdom.

All of this sounds a bit odd. But there are precedents in stories, in myth, and in practice.

In Durleston Wood, the protagonist, Richard, has returned to his home village after a failed marriage, and takes up a teaching post at his old school where he finds himself in love with his headmistress. For a time he recognises this infatuation for what it is and does not act. Instead he basks in the sweet melancholy of its futility while taking long, lonely walks through the titular Durleston Wood. But in the wood is an old house, part ruined and overgrown, and living in it, kept prisoner there, possibly, is a woman he’s seen wearing the cuffs and chains of BDSM role-play. She’s apparently the sex slave of another man, and she invites our hero to rescue her, to take ownership of her,…

Houses are significant in Jungian psychology. They are the place of abode, both physically, and psychologically. In Jung’s own dreams, the rooms of the house represent aspects of the self. If your abode is dilapidated, as it is in Durleston Wood, it suggests a psyche in distress through neglect. Work on restoring such an abode is likewise suggestive of work upon the psyche, a process of healing. Thus Richard moves into the house in Durleston Wood, performs his restorations and releases the chained woman. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Work on the psychological aspects of the self do not in themselves guarantee the correctness of one’s direction thereafter. Indeed it can be a bit of a roller coaster. For certainty in navigation, you need wisdom as well, but it certainly gets things moving.

In Durleston Wood, free to your e-reader, sometimes sold in mangled form by pirates on Amazon – oo-arrr!

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mooncard

Tarot cards have an interesting history, most of it the invention of nineteenth century occultists, thus lending them the darker tones of diabolism, at least in popular culture – all of which makes them even more interesting of course. Still, today, the merest sight of the Tarot is enough to cause palpitations in the breast of any God fearing Christian, so deeply scarred is the ancestral memory, and that’s also interesting because the origin of the cards is quite innocent. Fake news, fake narrative has a lot to answer for.

Pictorially intriguing and often very beautiful, the earliest reliable records place the Tarot in Italy in the fifteenth century where it was simply a popular card game. Predating the printing press, each deck of cards was hand made, hand-painted, so each deck was an original, making them rare and powerful symbols of the status of their owners.

Unlike a modern deck of 52, the Tarot has 78 cards, split into the major (22 cards) and minor (56 cards) arcana – arcana meaning secrets. The minor arcana are split into four “suits” of 14 cards each which comprise the number (or pip) cards from ace to ten, and four royal cards of King, Queen, Knight and Page. The major arcana are also known as the “trumps”. This structure is roughly familiar and suggests somewhere along the line card games simply evolved away from using a full deck, requiring instead only the minor arcana, so the rest were ditched.

The early cards had no associations with occult practices. This was an invention of mostly Victorian mystics and ceremonial magicians who adopted them for their own purposes, and it’s easy to understand why when you look at the images of the major arcana. These can be interpreted in an allegorical or an archetypal sense, that to draw certain cards might have a deeper meaning for the individual, or be suggestive of a future fate. But occult writings on the subject go further, attempting a complete revisioning of history, tracing the origins of the Tarot to the mythical, alchemical and hermetic traditions of ancient Egypt. It’s an evocative thesis, and one that’s often picked up by uncritical scholarly writings, but there doesn’t seem to be any actual historical evidence to back it up, which means most of what you think you know is probably wrong.

Most of the earliest Tarot decks, restricted their pictorial artistry to the major arcana with the exception of the Sola Busca Deck, dated around 1500. This was prpbably use as the basis for a later popular deck, the so called Rider-Waite-Smith version, which came out around 1910. Brainchild of the occult writer A E Waite, it was created by the illustrator and mystic Pamela Coleman Smith, and is very much in the esoteric, mystical tradition. Indeed if you’re into alchemy, cartomancy, dark or light path magical traditions, you’ll most likely be familiar with this deck.

The anxiety caused by the Tarot arises from its use as a fortune telling device, also its association with occult magic, with occasional diabolism, and with controversial figures like Aleister Crowley, also an over-literal interpretation of the meaning of the Death card. I’m open minded about the paranormal in general but personally sceptical regarding anyone’s ability to foretell future events with any great accuracy, and suspect our futures are more probabilistic than fixed anyway. It would therefore be unnecessarily dangerous to assume a too literal interpretation of one’s future in the cards, especially if that future did not seem fortuitous, and we did not feel able to avoid it.

Where I have found cartomancy and other forms of divination useful is in understanding the complexities of the present moment. But I’m of the opinion this knowledge comes out of the personal unconscious. We already possess the information we need for understanding a particular situation, but it’s jumbled up and we just can’t get at it. But by judicious use of archetypal imagery, and thinking metaphorically, we invite projection from the unconscious and a corresponding “aha!” moment, a moment of insight.

In this way the Tarot might yield some practical wisdom on an issue we’re facing, a bit of lateral thinking, an angle we’ve not considered, but it’s not the cards themselves that wield the power, nor some omnipotent diabolic entity that’s called down upon their shuffling. You can believe that if you want, and many do, but it’s not necessary in order to read wisdom in the cards themselves. There is mystery enough in the phenomenon of unconscious projection without inventing devils and angels as facilitators.

Sadly, popular media hasn’t helped. All too often in film and fiction the death card is drawn and strikes fear into the heart of the receiver – or even strikes them dead on the spot. Interpreted metaphorically however, the death card can mean change and renewal, sweeping away the old to make way for the new, abandoning old ideas when they are no longer useful, all of which is quite different to being actually struck dead. There’s also the “Live and Let Die” James Bond outing in which the Tarot touting Jane Seymour draws “The Lovers” for a swivel eyed Roger Moore. The only likely outcome of that of course being their future coupling, and one that’s far from metaphorical.

I’d probably spend some time writing more on a common sense approach to the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, but that’s a big job, and it’s already been done here. I’m not sure what use or what answer the cards have for me, if any, nor if the question is one I’ve already posed, or has yet to crop up, but I’m glad at least to have blown the dust away and brought the cards out, if only from the shadows of my own mind.

They get a bit of a raw deal in popular culture, one that’s not entirely deserved.

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solarIan McEwan isn’t always an easy read, often challenging in the depths he takes us, and at times brutal in his picking apart of human nature and all its attendant frailties. In Solar we meet surely one of his most monstrous creations, Professor Michael Beard, Nobel Laureate, author of the Beard-Einstein Conflation – something about light and really hard physics. He has a brilliant mind then, but he’s also a serial philanderer and insufferably vain, not an easy man to be around which is what I felt made this one of the more challenging of McEwan’s works, given the company he forces us to keep. Worse still, the third person perspective is kept entirely on Beard, so not allowing us even temporary respite in the intimate company of other characters.

Although at times darkly comic, I found Beard so loathsome, so pompous and amoral, I failed to find any of his scrapes funny, but for all of that I found the book to be a compelling read, which is quite a feat for an author to pull off. How do you get your readers to relate to an anti-hero like this? What is it that keeps us hooked, when surely we would much sooner part company? Is it anticipation of a spectacular comeuppance? Or do we long for a glimpse of a redeeming facet of character, or do we anticipate an incident that will cause Beard to finally see the light and achieve some sort of redemption?

The story charts his misanthropic ambitions in the field of synthetic photosynthesis, a process aimed at providing a limitless source of energy from sunlight. But his patents are based on research stolen from a junior colleague, and his motivation appears to be no more than self aggrandisement rather than the moral imperative of actually saving the planet. Indeed when challenged about the likely interest in his work in the face of opposition from the oil and gas lobby he quotes the approaching inevitable climate catastrophe with glee as a guarantor of his inevitable success, as if even God were on his side wrecking the planet to suit Beard’s ambitions.

Of course things don’t go smoothly and, over the years of his egotistical excesses we witness the slow disintegration of the corporeal man, his decline into ever greater depths of slovenliness and physical decrepitude. It was a challenge to understand what it was in Beard that his long line of lovers found so attractive, other than the hope they might be the one to finally rescue him from himself.

Beginning in the cold, cash-strapped breeze-block labs of British academia, in the year 2000 and ending in 2009, in the fierce heat of a privately funded New Mexico solar farm, Beard’s past misdeeds finally gain sufficient momentum to catch up with him. So, what will become of him? Will his obnoxious ego keep him one step ahead of calamity yet again? Will he find true love? Will his creaking frame give out on him before he gets to prove to the world, finally how appallingly and ruthlessly magnificent he is?

Loved it.

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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