Mar 25, 2010

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth is the story of Wang Lung, a farmer from a village in northern China. It begins when Wang Lung marries O-Lan, who is a slave at the rich Hwang House. The reason why he chooses her for his bride is because he and his elderly father could not afford a dowry for one of the village girls. Throughout the novel, we follow Wang Lung and his family until his old age, through famines and times of prosperity, through good and bad fortune, from his native village to a big southern city and then back to the land.

The Good Earth surprised me in several ways, and the first thing to surprise me was the Biblical vocabulary and syntax it uses. Possibly this is a widely known fact about this novel, but, well, at least I never claimed not to be ignorant. I really liked the simple, direct and lulling writing style. I liked the rhythm it created, as well as the fact that it gave Wang Lung’s story an epic, timeless feel. I imagine that the story is set in the 1930’s, when the book was published, but there’s nothing about it that clearly tells us that. If it weren't for the appearance of a train at one point, it could have been set centuries ago. It’s strange: in some ways, the very simplicity of the language makes it stand out, but at the same time, the prose feels discreet. This is a book in which events speak for themselves; in which the narrative voice almost seems to cease to exist.

Wang Lung is not an unkind man, but he follows his village’s traditions, namely when it comes to the treatment of women. The sexism in The Good Earth is appalling – and just to be clear, this is not a comment on the book itself, but on the reality it depicts. After reading Xinran’s The Good Women of China earlier this year, none of what I saw here surprised me, but my heart still broke for these hard-working and unacknowledged women and their undesired baby girls.

But at the same time I think that Pearl Buck managed to achieve a very delicate balance in how she portrays O-Lan. We respect her too much to pity her. The Good Earth manages to show us both the social system that relegates women to the roles of slaves and everything that falls outside it – the very real humanity of those who are actors in that system. There’s Wang Lang’s tenderness for his baby daughter; there’s his awareness of the fact that he’s been unfair to O-Lan; there’s his real appreciation for her role in the family; there’s the conflict he sometimes feels between what is traditionally accepted and what a human being should or should not do to another.

There has been some controversy surrounding The Good Earth, namely about the fact that it was written by a white American woman who presumes to speak for China. While I can see why this is a source of concern, I don’t automatically reject the idea of someone writing a book about a culture that is not their own. Naturally there’s a great deal of responsibility involved – the responsibility to be faithful and fair, and to avoid generalisations and oversimplifications. But to assume that this is a Bad Thing no matter what seems to me to be a way of avoiding the responsibility we have as readers: the responsibility to make sure we don’t limit ourselves to a single perspective. It’s up to us to listen to local voices too, to seek out books by Chinese authors, to ask questions, to compare the two. A book by an American woman won’t tell us everything there is to know about China, of course, but then again, neither will a single book by a Chinese person. These are my own humble two cents, but I’d of course be interested in hearing your thoughts on the matter.

One of the things Pearl Buck has been accused of is of superimposing Western values like individualism and hard work into Wang Lung’s story. I know very little about Chinese culture, so I don’t feel that I’m qualified to comment on how accurate or not Buck’s portrayal of it was. But I will say that I find the above a very superficial reading of this novel. I didn’t at all read Wang Lung’s saga as a rags to riches story about a man who climbs up in life because he works so hard. One of the things I loved the most about The Good Earth was its impermanence and vulnerability: the fact that it clearly showed us just how arbitrary Wang Lung’s good fortune was.

Wang Lung is undoubtedly a hard worker, but then again, so is his neighbour Ching, who for all his work never succeeds like Wang Lung does. Wang Lung's success depends on so many chance factors, on so many things he can’t control. Like all humans, he’s at the mercy of the land. A draught or a flood at the wrong time could have ruined him. He knows what hunger is, and never quite forgets that it can come again. And the fact that later in his life he can remain prosperous even through hard times has more to do with the fact that he was once in the right place at the right time than it does with his diligence. The Good Earth is such a human book, in so many ways. And for that reason I found it very moving. It’s too kind a book not to acknowledge that we are small and often impotent, and that even the most hard-working people go through bad times.

I wasn’t aware until I finished the book that Pearl Buck returned to the story of Wang Lung’s family with two sequel, Sons and A House Divided, which I assume tackle some of the things that are hinted at in the final chapters of The Good Earth. Has anyone read them? How do they compare?

Many thanks to Michelle, Claire, Mee and David, whose Asian Book Group encouraged me to pick up this book at last. Please visit Bookie Me between today and the end of the month for more thoughts on this book.

The Asian Book Group

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  1. This is a case of literary serendipity for me as I was reading an article about a new biography of Pearl S. Buck only the other day. From the sounds of it, she certainly had a fascinating life, and from what little I know did love China. I'd like to read her novel, definitely.

    Imposing Western values on a different culture is an interesting point - if that is the case, I wonder how conscious a decision it was? It reminds me slightly of 19thC British and American missionaries going out to Africa to "civilize" the natives...

  2. I agree with you, Ana. I think it is our responsibility as *readers* to find varied perspectives. As you said, no one book can tell the entire story of a country, or a culture, or really even an event. And of course, most people don't have the luxury of being able read five or ten or twenty different perspectives on everything...but that only means that as readers we have to remember that we may not have an accurate story, and we certainly don't have the full story. But to say that an author should only write out of their own direct experience, well, I think we'd be missing out on some wonderful books that way.

  3. I've read the sequels. They are not as good as The Good Earth but I still thought they were very good. This trilogy actually sent me off to reading every book I could find by Buck. I have a handful I haven't read but she's one of my favourite authors.

    She loved China and the Chinese people with all her heart. She was only a few months old when her family moved there, she was raised bi-lingual and spent a large portion of her life there so I'd hardly think of her as a typical Western woman.

  4. So glad you joined us for this reading. =)

    First, I must ask about the "Biblical vocabulary and syntax". I'm not sure I caught on that one (that I don't read the Bible might be a huge reason why).

    About how Pearl Buck is a white lady writing about China (a culture not necessarily her own), I actually didn't quite feel the superimposing of Western values much. In fact, when I was reading the book, it hardly felt to me like the narrative was Westernised in any way, it felt very believable, as if straight from Wang Lung's head. And it was almost like a story-telling, just telling the story as it is, without opinions or discriminations. That's why I think she was able to write about how the women were treated during the early 1900's, without being judgmental about it. Herself being a woman, she could have easily used the novel as some sort of mouthpiece to speak up against sexism, but instead she chose to portray what it really was like. She isn't telling you that it's right or wrong, she's just telling you about it, and letting you judge for yourself.

    I like how you said that you didn't see Wang Lung's story as a rags-to-riches story. And I like how you mentioned Ching too (I totally forgot about him in my post!), because like what you said, both of them were hard-working people, but Wang Lung just happened to be at the right place at the right time. And the fact that Wang Lung doesn't forget that a lot of his land was purchased with gold he took forcefully just shows how he himself realises that his success is not his alone, but also because fate played along with him.

    There are a lot of things that this book managed to bring forward, and I'm really glad for these group readings, because we each pick out different things to talk about. =)

    PS: I didn't know she wrote sequels. I'm interested, definitely.

  5. You are right, it is the responsibility of us readers to go out there and read more books by "locals" and get the picture right of a culture we have no idea about. But I really want to read this book too!
    I also have no idea about China...BUT I would love to know more.. as much as I am not in awe of the gov, I find there culture very interesting!

  6. So much stuff to say! First, let me give you the link to my review:

    Second, I actually didn't think the syntax was very biblical at all. I know people say that, but it felt so much more simple to me than biblical prose. People say the same thing about Cry the Beloved Country, which also didn't feel biblical to me, and which has a completely different tone than this book.

    Third, I think whoever said that an American woman couldn't write a story about China is ridiculous and doesn't know a thing about Pearl Buck. I mean, the woman lived in China from the time she was a toddler. I'd be less convinced if she wrote a book about America!

    I loved this book. I loved that it portrayed everyone with neutrality, with the indifference that the sun might view these people. I loved how life just went on. This is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read, both in prose and in message, and it wasn't nearly as depressing as I expected it to be.

  7. I didn't know there were sequels either! I remember reading this because it was one of my dad's favourite books and then reading Imperial Women (about the Dowager Empress Tsu Hsi), which really opened my eyes to life in China. I read this when I was in school, so I didn't really feel that there was an issue with Buck's Western perspective (like Michelle, I didn't notice it at all). Makes me want to go back and reread it.

  8. My wife loves this book and has been begging me to read it for, like, forever.

  9. I'm glad Nicola pointed out that the author lived in China for many years- to me, that would validate her perspective on their culture to a certain degree. I tried this book once as a teen and just couldn't get into it. It sounds wonderful now and I think I'd like to pick it up again.

  10. Another classic I've never read. I'm not even sure I knew it was about China, to be honest! I think it sounds great and definitely want to pick it up at some point.

  11. I have to admit that I've never really been all that curious about this novel, though I had heard of it, but your review has made me change my mind. It sounds really interesting and while it certainly wouldn't provide a comprehensive look into Chinese history (what could?), it sounds like a good way to ease myself in. I haven't read much (any?) fiction set in China or by Chinese authors, but it's one country I'd definitely like to explore more through my reading.

  12. I also didn't notice the Biblical syntax, though I've hardly read the Bible.

    And I completely understand your point about a white woman writing about China. I took a class in multicultural children's lit last year for my library degree, and this came up a lot. My professor (who was African American) thought it was acceptable and appropriate if the writer had done research and was respectful of the culture, and I agree with her. If white people can't write about other cultures, does that mean they can only write about white people? Then, can Asians only write about Asians? Can women writers only write female character? Can Americans only write about Americans? Of course if the writer has an insider's knowledge of a culture, like Pearl Buck, it creates authenticity. The debate goes on.

    Last year I got to visit Pearl Bucks house in Pennsylvania and it was a great experience. She adopted and fostered a lot of children, including Asians, and pioneered adoptions of Asian children in America. She wrote about 70 books and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth.

  13. If this author thoroughly researched her story before writing it, I cannot see how she can be criticised for writing about another country and culture. Just because she isn't Chinese, shouldn't matter and everyone has the right to search other books to complement their reading. I have to say that I have never heard of this author, but by reading the above comment, it is obvious that she was quite a prolific writer and one I may need to search out.

  14. I really liked what you had to say throughout your review. Some great points and great thought provoking questions. For me, simply put, I loved this book. It spoke to me on a variety of levels. This book is amongst just a handful of books that I have on my "must read, most highly recommended books" list. A list that I hope my children and close friends will read through at some point in their lives.

  15. Super-fantastic review! I am probably halfway done with this one, but I laid it aside in a fit of fickleness several months ago. It's been haunting me ever since, and you touched on a lot of the things I was really enjoying and admiring about the book before I took a break from it. Will be picking it back up soon!

  16. I admit to not remembering much about this book except that I cried for days after reading it! But on the issue of author-authenticity, I totally agree with you. I don't know that an author of the same race or ethnicity or even sex as a protagonist necessarily has a representative point of view either. I think empathy and a good eye cuts across all these lines. You may not necessarily have it even if you are of the same category as your protagonist or setting. I don't think anyone ever imposed that requirement on painters, for example; I don't find it reasonable.

  17. Having just read Miss Chopsticks by Xinran, this sounds like a very interesting read. And I agree that if an author has researched her story thoroughly, there's nothing wrong with her writing about another culture. It seems a bit presumptious to think that anyone can write a "true" history of "a culture" anyway. Of course, her not being from the country herself is always something to keep in mind, but it's not something to judge a book by in advance.

  18. "Dirt soup" became a family saying because of the '30s movie version of this book.

    Wow, what an insight: "A book by an American woman won’t tell us everything there is to know about China, of course, but then again, neither will a single book by a Chinese person."

    I have a special love for books that are written by someone who knows a culture or subculture from the inside, but I feel very disturbed by the idea that people only have a "right" to write about certain things. . . but I don't talk about it much for fear of being chased down and beaten with cudgels!

    Telling writers to stick to their own culture is like telling them to stay home instead of travel. Novelists are our ambassadors. We need them to go places to do their job!

  19. I knew I recognised that name because of some kind of controversy surrounding her writing. Like lots of people here I think the key to white writers writing stories set in other cultures is good research into cultures and also into how those cultures present stories, so that the writing feels authentic to the culture if it's told in first person.

    Zetta Elliot recently made a comment about how she wonders if an abundance of white writeres writing great stories about black culture, makes it easier for publishers to ignore great black writers writing about black culture. I think there's something in that. If white writers want to write outside their culture and they get published I think they need to take responsibility for supporting great authors from inside the culture they're writing about as well.

  20. A dear friend of mine has suggested this book to me several times, but I still haven't gotten around to it. I really should add it to my list.

    As far as authorial authenticity goes, when I'm reading about other cultures, I do prefer for a good chunk of my reading to be by people from that culture. But that doesn't mean I don't think white people can't or shouldn't write about other cultures, just that their books shouldn't be promoted above books by authors from that culture. And of course, Buck is a special case, having grown up in China.

  21. I read this when I was in high school and didn't have the insight to realize the difference between western values and the rest of the world. It sounds like I should re-read it now.

  22. This was one of my favorite reads in 2008. To me, it is a timeless story, with thoughts and insights applicable to any culture or race.

  23. My parents had this book on their shelves when I was growing up but somehow I never took the time to read it. Years later I heard a lot of hoopla about it after Oprah selected it for one of her book clubs. I still haven't gotten around to reading it but after reading your review I know I must!

  24. I also don't think there is anything wrong with an author writing about a different culture. After all, didn't Pearl S. Buck actually live in China? I think there is a book out about her now (called Pearl of China, maybe?). I just don't think that should be the ONLY way to learn about a different culture.

  25. I loved this story and never once thought about Buck being a white woman author. She pulled me into their lives and I felt it all..I have not read the other books though.

  26. You know, it's funny...I just came across this book two days ago when dusting the book shelf and I had been thinking that I really needed to read it. Your review was a timely one and gave me a lot to think about. When I do get the chance to read it, I will have to try to remember your thoughts about it. Great review, Nymeth. You have made me more eager to want to grab this book off the shelf and give it a try, so thanks!

  27. For some reason I have never read this, although I distinctly recall my best friend reading it in high school and loving it. Glad you enjoyed it!

  28. I have been meaning to read this book since I was 13, but I have yet to pick it up. Thank you for the thoughtful review

  29. This is an outstanding review! The Good Earth is one of my all-time favorites, and I totally agree with Amanda in saying she'd be less convinced if Buck wrote a book about America. Shortly after reading this, I looked around for the other two books in the trilogy, but didn't find them. Someday...

  30. Hi Ana,I'm excited to see your review on this because this is one of the books that I've always wanted to read.

  31. This is one of those classics I've been meaning to get to... When I read The Good Women of China last year I vowed to read more about China in general, this would help me learn more, I'm sure!

  32. Just as an aside, Buck actually wrote quite a few books that take place in America. I've enjoyed them all! She did write the first few under a pen name, John Sedges, which were all set on the American frontier of the 1850s. "The Townsman" is a brilliant story and if I remember correctly the first in a trilogy as well.

    After those first books she wrote under her own name and her American stories ranged from historicals set in the Civil War to a modern 1960s tale of brothers in the business world.

  33. I haven't read the other two books she published in this family story, but I should. It's been years since I read this novel, but I still remember good portions of it and how much I loved it. Thanks for the reminder and for your great review and commentary!

  34. Kirsty, I'd love to read her biography sometime! She does sound like a fascinating woman - and it's interesting that you mentioned missionaries, because that's what her parents were and that's how she wound up in China. But from what I read, she rebelled against the whole idea of "civilizing" the Chinese people, so I don't think she'd try to do the same through her novels. But then again, like you said it's often not a conscious decision. The Good Earth really really didn't feel Westernised to me, but I'm reluctant to express myself strongly on the topic because I know so little about Chinese culture.

    Debi: It is very limiting to say that, isn't it? As long as we make an effort to listen to local voices too, I really don't have a problem with it.

    Nicola: I'll definitely look for the sequels, then! And yes, I think her love of China really showed in this novel. Her approach seemed very respectful to me.

    Michelle: I haven't either, but I did go to Catholic school, so I have vague memories of the language :P And I'm glad you didn't feel she was imposing her own values either! It all really seemed very natural to me too, but I know so little about Chinese culture that I didn't want to dismiss the criticism altogether. I completely agree with you that she let events speak for themselves and invited the readers to make up their minds - I really loved that about the book. And now I'm off to read your review!

    Veens: I'd love to know more too! I wonder what's a good Chinese author available in translation...must do some research.

    Amanda: I've added your link; thank you! The Biblical language: when that first crossed my mind I thought I might be imagining things, because like Michelle I haven't actually read the whole Bible, but then I looked it up and saw that a bunch of reading guides mentioned it too. There are different translations of the Bible, though, so perhaps it only resembles a particular one. Anyway, I loved how the language, Biblical or not, added such an epic, timeless feel to the story. I also disagree that she doesn't have the "right" to write about China - I just found an essay about it and thought the point was worth addressing. But I did love the book too, and I really love your comparison to the sun.

    Chasingbawa: I didn't notice it either, honestly, but it's just that I know so little. That's why I thought I'd address that point. Imperial Women sounds very interesting too - I must look for it.

    Loren Eaton, you should!

    Jeane: Yes, I think that makes a big difference too. She was clearly closely familiar with the culture she was writing about, even if she wasn't herself Chinese.

    S. Krishna: I didn't know much about it either before I picked it up. It surprised me in many ways, and I loved it so much more than I thought I would.

    Steph: Exactly - what could? I do think this is a wonderful point of departure for reading other things. I need to look for more Chinese authors myself. Part of my interest has to do with the fact that I'm cataloguing the letters of a local author who was greatly influenced by Buck at work. She lived in China too, though not for nearly as long, and wrote about it extensively. I want to compare her work with that of other authors, so when I saw that the Asian Book Group was going to read this I thought it was a perfect chance to get started.

    Karen: Maybe it's just me about the language :P Though I did see some references to it online. Oooh - I wonder if my library science degree will include a similar class? I would absolutely LOVE to take it! Anyway, yes - respect is everything. And I'd love to read a biography of Buck, as she sounds like an incredibly interesting woman!

    Vivienne: It seems she has been somewhat forgotten, but she won the Pulitzer and was one of the few women to win the Nobel to date! I'd love to read more of her work.

  35. ibeeeg: I'm glad you're spreading the love for this book! I can see why it stayed with you.

    Andi: Thank you! I look forward to your thoughts when you finish it :)

    Jill: In some ways it WAS incredibly sad, but I found the vulnerability of the characters and their dependence on the land comforting too, in some ways. I don't know if this even makes sense :P Anyway, I absolutely agree with you about empathy!

    candletea: I'm very curious about Miss Chopsticks! I loved The Good Women of China and must try some of her fiction.

    Trapunto: I feel the same way - I appreciate it when a writer has a deep knowledge of the culture she/he is portraying, but when we bring "rights" into it, things become uncomfortable and a little too limiting.

    Jodie: That's definitely something to take into account - though in Buck's case, I don't think that quite applied. Probably at the time there weren't all that many books by Chinese people being translated (even now there are few), so she probably wasn't stealing their spotlight. But I definitely think that's a point contemporary writers should consider.

    Teresa: "....just that their books shouldn't be promoted above books by authors from that culture." Exactly! And Buck is a very special case indeed.

    Kathy: Even at my age I honestly didn't either :P It didn't feel Westernised to me, but then again, there's so much I don't know.

    Tricia: I feel awful that I always seem to miss your reviews! I'm so so sorry!

    Kathleen: I didn't know this has been an Oprah selection! I'm glad she brought it to the attention of a new audience.

    Aarti: She did for most of her life, yes, and that does make a different. I agree; the key is not to limit ourselves to books by white authors.

    Staci: I didn't think of it while reading either. Wang Lung felt absolutely real.

    Zibilee: I really look forward to hearing what you think of it :)

    Daphne: I hadn't even thought of reading it until recently. It's one of those books that had escaped my notice, but I'm glad I did now.

    Stephanie, I hope you enjoy it when you do!

    JoAnn: Thank you! It really feels very authentic, doesn't it? I don't know when I'll get around to the sequels, but I'd love to read them someday.

    Alice, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Joanna: It would, yes :)

    Nicola, thank you for the extra info! I definitely need to read more of her work.

    Becky: It will mostly likely be years before I get to them too...other books always get in the way :P

  36. I read this book a long time ago, in high school. I don't really remember anything "Biblical" about the writing, other than Wang Lung does seem to be judged by the gods at some point. To tell the truth, the part I remember most from the entire book is that the family had to make weak tea at the beginning of the novel for Wang Lung's father because they were too poor to make regular tea. I think about that every time I make tea. :P

  37. I completely disagree with "Western values like individualism and hard work". How is the individualism depicted? What I got was family, community, and respect for the elders. Chinese people are known for being extremely hardworking, so I don't see how it is a Western value. (Sorry for sounding a bit harsh, but it wasn't directed to you :)

    What I completely missed from your review was the emphasis on luck. You are right that good fortune plays an important part. It just happens that Wang Lung got a "very useful" wife, sons, and the robbed gold to allow him to restart his life. I especially thought about his good fortune when O-Lan bore a son, then another son. I thought, if they were girls, the story might turn out very different.

    Thanks for joining the read. I'm glad that you enjoyed it :)

  38. Thank you for this beautifully written review! This book has been on my to-read list for years. It sounds like it gives you a lot to think about and discuss. I wasn't aware there were sequels.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  39. I have never heard of this author before.But then, you always highlight authors and books that I have never heard before. That's why I like your blog so much. I can always discover new books and authors and I love to read your excellent reviews!

  40. I wish I remembered more about this book than I do, I really want to read more by Pearl Buck. I didn't know there were sequels, but I have been looking out for more of her work. I remember liking the language a lot but I'm not sure I can make any biblical connections - I'd never read the Bible so I wouldn't know anyway!

  41. Heidenkind: I really just meant the style, not the content. That sort of "and then this happened, and then that and that followed, and blah blah said blah blah" know :P

    Mee: Don't worry about sounding harsh! I know it's not directed at me. I definitely agree that there's much more of a focus on community than on individualism, so I don't know what the author of the essay I read (the title is "What is bad about The Good Earth" and I found the link on Wikipedia) was getting at. Also, the hard work thing: I don't know they meant to say that Westerners work harder than Chinese people, just that the novel emphasised that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - basically, that Wang Lung was a self-made man who got where he was through his own effort, which is apparently a very American value. But I disagree that the novel was saying that at all :P

    Anna, you're most welcome! I hope you're read it soon, as I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    Andreea: It seems that Pearl Buck has been somewhat forgotten in the last few decades, which is a pity - especially as she was one of the few women to win the Noble for Literature. And thank you so much for the kind words!

    Meghan: Possibly I'm just crazy, since so many commenters disagree :P But the style (all those "ands", the short simple sentences, etc.) brought back memories of my Catholic school days :P

  42. I love this book -- and I agree about O-Lan. We love her too much and respect her strength. She was incredibly inspiring to me, showing what she can do in the midst of a not so great situation called her life.

    I think the author did a great job of treating everything with respect, even though it does show the not so pleasant side of China's traditions.

  43. Nice to see some of the classics being revisited. I remember reading this book in school (required) but loving it. It was touching, emotional, and yet filled with characters that had strength beyond their years and beyond their experience to carry on with the lives they had been dealt. Thanks for sharing! Happy reading....

  44. Mo Yan is one of my favorite authors, especially his earlier work (Red Sorghum and The Garlic Ballads in particular.)

  45. (Finally, after so long I can join in the discussion, VERY late!)

    I very much agree with you: "A book by an American woman won’t tell us everything there is to know about China, of course, but then again, neither will a single book by a Chinese person." Buck lived in China and she has as much right to talk about China and its people.

    I agree that Buck did manage to achieve a delicate balance in portraying O-lan and the role of a woman during those times. It must be hard, being from an American family where as a daughter she must have been very loved, and having a mother loved by his father, not to project her own sympathies towards O-lan, but she succeeded in presenting a very honest picture of how a Chinese woman was at the time: completely subservient and having no voice. Still, she also managed to have the reader sympathise with O-lan just enough that we are able to connect with her.

    Thanks so much for reading along! (I'm sorry I was such a bad co-host.) :D

  46. I would say this is one of the greatest Chinese books ever written. It is a very Chinese book, only in a different language. Neve mind some Chinese looking fellows telling you it is not the China they know.

    Pearl Buck wrote about China as a classically educated native Chinese speaker. She hit the bone of China and the things Chinese do when they are rich and poor, sometimes sad, sometimes funny.

    It is a great book.


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