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Really Underrated Books (Part Four)

Here is the penultimate post of this week’s Really Underrated Books series.  As ever, I hope something here piques your interest, or inspires you to go and find some underrated books of your own!

1. Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo 9613541
Monty and Ada are old friends. They worked together on the frontline in Belgium, where Monty was a nurse and Ada drove ambulances – like the devil. And now, Bleakly Hall hydropathic has brought them together again.  Monty has just arrived to look after the gouty residents – there to take the Hall’s curative waters via nozzle, douche and jet – and Ada is the maid and driver. For all those at Bleakly, the end of the Great War has brought changes. Not all of them good.  Monty has a score to settle with the elusive Captain Foxley; Ada misses her wartime sense of purpose; the Blackwood brothers must reinvigorate Bleakly for a new era; Foxley has his own particular ways of keeping his ghosts at bay. But with the crumbling, rumbling hydropathic threatening to blow its top, what will become of the folk thrown together in its bilious embrace?  This wonderfully original novel brings together an irresistible cast of characters – including Bleakly Hall itself – in the wake of one of history’s great tragedies. To powerful effect, it combines fizzing comedy with a deeply moving look at the aftermath of war.

 

2. Arctic Labyrinth: The Quest for the Northwest Passage by Glyn Williams
The elusive dream of locating the Northwest Passage—an ocean route over the top of North America that promised a shortcut to the fabulous wealth of Asia—obsessed explorers for centuries. While global warming has brought several such routes into existence, until recently these channels were hopelessly choked by impassible ice. Voyagers faced unimaginable horrors—entire ships crushed, mass starvation, disabling frostbite, even cannibalism—in pursuit of a futile goal. In Arctic Labyrinth, Glyn Williams charts the entire sweep of this extraordinary history, from the tiny, woefully equipped vessels of the first Tudor expeditions to the twentieth-century ventures that finally opened the Passage. Williams’s thrilling narrative delves into private letters and journals to expose the gritty reality behind the often self-serving accounts of those in charge. An important work of maritime history and exploration—and as exciting a tale of heroism and fortitude as readers will find—Arctic Labyrinth is also a remarkable study in human delusion.

 

33742493. A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 by F.G. Rea
These are the memories of Frederick Rea, an English teacher who became headmaster of Garrynamonie School in South Uist in the 1890s. At that time, the Hebrides were as remote and forbidding to mainlanders as the Antarctic is to us today, and South Uist was one of the poorer districts. Roads were often no more than rough tracks across the mountain moorland or over the storm-swept machair. His Gaelic-speaking pupils were often frozen and starving, and fever epidemics were frequent. Rea’s memoirs show how he strove to meet these difficulties. His pupils remember him as a sincere, conscientious man and an excellent teacher. This book also reveals his keen powers of observation, and his interest in the unfamiliar scenes and events he witnessed and recorded. His lack of city comforts was more that compensated for by the wonders of the natural world and the uncommon kindness and generosity of the islanders. Dr. Rea treasured his memories of South Uist for the rest of his life, and his love and respect for the islands is wonderfully conveyed in this vivid testament.

 

4. Painted Shadow by Carole Seymour-Jones
By the time she was committed to an asylum in 1938, five years after T. S. Eliot deserted her, Vivienne Eliot was a lonely, distraught figure. Shunned by literary London, she was the “neurotic” wife whom Eliot had left behind. In The Family Reunion, he described a wife who was a “restless shivering painted shadow,” and so she had become: a phantomlike shape on the fringe of Eliot’s life, written out of his biography and literary history.  This astonishing portrait of Vivienne Eliot, first wife of poet T.S. Eliot, gives a voice to the woman who, for seventeen years, had shared a unique literary partnership with Eliot but who was scapegoated for the failure of the marriage and all but obliterated from historical record. In so doing, Painted Shadow opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.  Vivienne longed to tell her whole story; she wrote in her diary: “You who in later years will read these very words of mine will be able to trace a true history of this epoch.” She believed (as did Virginia Woolf) that she was Eliot’s muse, the woman through whom he transmuted life into art. Yet Vivienne knew the secrets of his separate and secret life — which contributed to her own deepening hysteria, drug addiction, and final abandonment: the tragedy of a marriage that paired a repressed yet sensual man with an extroverted woman who longed for a full sexual relationship with her husband.  Out of this emotional turbulence came one of the most important English poems of the twentieth century: The Waste Land, which Carole Seymour-Jones convincingly shows cannot be fully understood without reference to the relationship of the poet and his first wife. Drawing on papers both privately owned and in university library archives and, most importantly, on Vivienne Eliot’s own journals left to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, Carole Seymour-Jones uses many hitherto unpublished sources and opens the way to a new understanding of Eliot’s poetry.

 

5. The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangwing 407756
Desire, virtue, courtesans (also known as sing-song girls), and the denizens of Shanghai’s pleasure quarters are just some of the elements that constitute Han Bangqing’s extraordinary novel of late imperial China. Han’s richly textured, panoramic view of late-nineteenth-century Shanghai follows a range of characters from beautiful sing-song girls to lower-class prostitutes and from men in positions of social authority to criminals and ambitious young men recently arrived from the country. Considered one of the greatest works of Chinese fiction, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai is now available for the first time in English.

 

6. Once Upon a Time by John Barth
From master storyteller and National Book Award winner John Barth comes a bravura performance: a memoir wrapped in a novel and launched on a sea voyage. A cutter-rigged sloop sets sail for an end-of-season cruise down into the “Chesapeake Triangle.” Our captain: a middle-aged writer of some repute. The sole crewmate: his lover, friend, editor, and wife. The journey turns out to be not the modest three-day cruise it at first seems. As we sail through sun and storm, our skipper spins (and is spun by) the Story of His Life – an operatic saga that’s part Verdi, part Puccini, and more than a dollop of bouffe, a compound narrative voyaging through the imagination. Crisscrossing the past, mixing memory with desire, our narrator navigates among the waypoints of his life, beguiling us with tales of adventure and despair, love and marriage, selves and counterselves, aging and sailing, teaching and writing – steering always by the polestar of Vocation, the storyteller’s call.

 

2684457. The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories by Li Ang
Li Ang’s highly charged fiction has made her one of the most widely known Taiwanese authors of her time. This new anthology begins with the internationally acclaimed “The Butcher’s Wife,” a novella that evoked shock and outrage in Taiwan when it first appeared in 1983. The shorter stories that follow range from Li Ang’s first story, “Flower Season” (1968), through “A Love Letter Never Sent” (1986), and include stories that are erotic, thought provoking, and cautionary.

 

8. The Tower of Glass by Ivan Angelo
The five interlocking stories in The Tower Of Glass create a singular, powerful account of a nation in turmoil – and a prophetic warning about an oppressive government’s need to control not just the society but the mind. Through symbolism, wry humour, and outrageous sexual frankness, Ivan Angelo tells of businessmen and whores, poor working people and Death Squads, truth and illusion, and methods of political manipulation and terror. From the gritty, bawdy story of “Bete the Streetwalker” to the Kafkaesque portrait of a prison made of glass, the fictional pieces demonstrate Angelo’s masterful wordplay, and his ability to take formal and structural risks without a false step.

 

9. What’s Become of Waring by Anthony Powell 6977196
This fascinating catalog of the comic relates the ironic and ludicrous adventures of a noted (but mysterious) English travel-book writer whose reported “death” throws the London literary world into a tizzy.’

 

10. Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure by Joseph Jay Deiss
A vivid portrayal of life in Pompeii’s sister city, this book includes a detailed description of the ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the present Getty Museum in Malibu is modeled.

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‘Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading’ by Nina Sankovitch ****

I was most excited when the copy of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading dropped through my letterbox.  It has been in my top twenty list of ‘please read soon!’ books since I found out about it, but I was unwilling to pay full price for a copy because I had read some rather unfavourable reviews of it.  If it was anything like Sankovitch’s second book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, however, I knew it would be a real treat.

9780061999857After the death of her sister Anne-Marie, the grieving author decided to ‘put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom’.  Its blurb heralds it ‘a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading’; just the thing for bookworms.  Sankovitch began her year of reading on the 28th of October 2008, three years after her sister’s passing, for the following reasoning: ‘I looked back to what the two of us had shared.  Laughter.  Words.  Books…  That was how I wanted to use books: as an escape back to life.  I wanted to engulf myself in books and come up whole again’.  For Sankovitch, the catalyst is that she is approaching the age – forty-six – that Anne-Marie was when she died.

In undertaking her project, Sankovitch put several sanctions in place to ensure that she made the most of the year for which a similar opportunity in future may never come: ‘The rules for my year were simple: no author could be read more than once; I couldn’t re-read any books I’d already ready and I had to write about every book I read…  All the books would be ones I would have shared with Anne-Marie if I could have…’.  Sankovitch also chooses to read from the comfort of a purple chair, which she has had since pregnant with her eldest son.  She writes wonderfully about the very experience of getting to grips with a book: ‘For years, books had offered to me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotones and frustrations.  I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience.  Books would give me all that and more…  My year of reading would be my escape back into life.’  As well as the experiences which her current projects bring her, Sankovitch weaves in familial memories, which makes her memoir all the stronger.  Her writing is bright and intelligent, and never feels forced or overdone.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair does tend to become a little cheesy at times – for example, the tendency to draw out morals from every book – but it is a great read, and a marvellous project to undertake.  Sankovitch’s book is about remembrance, as well as forging new memories with the books which she has chosen to include during her project.  I would personally love to undertake something just like this; I tend to average around a book a day, but I do not read as methodically as Sankovitch does.  This is partly, I think, because I do not choose what I read based on whether it is of a manageable length to get through in a day, as she does.  I can spend a week reading something long (hello, Dostoevsky), and then get through seven or eight novellas in a weekend.  I read as often as I can, but sometimes life gets in the way.  Kudos, then, to Sankovitch’s husband and four sons, who allowed her the freedom to do what she most wanted to; they allowed her to grieve in a constructive way, and from what she writes of her reflections, it seems as though she got an awful lot from the process.

Just a tiny niggle; I would have liked to see the list of read books in chronological rather than alphabetical order.  I was interested in the journey which she took from one tome to another, and how one choice perhaps led onto another.  Whilst she does not even mention a lot of the books which she read, those which she does discuss are varied and interesting.

The enduring message for me is as follows: ‘I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much’.

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‘Comfort: A Journey Through Grief’ by Ann Hood *****

I hadn’t heard a lot about Comfort: A Journey Through Grief before I decided to buy it; I did so because as far as retrospective illness narratives go, it was unlike anything I’d read before.  I have come across and loved a couple of accounts of women who sadly miscarry, and those who have lost adults (husbands or sisters, for instance) to terrible diseases, but I haven’t read anything about the loss of a child.  In Comfort, Hood writes about the death and its aftermath of her five-year-old daughter Grace, who passed away from a virulent form of strep throat.  In doing so, she also encompasses Grace’s short but worthy life; she writes of her daughter’s favourite activities, and the little quirks which were already such a part of her. 9780393336597

From the outset, I knew it would be honest and heartbreaking.  Hood launches the reader, and herself, into the deep end at the book’s very outset; in the harrowing prologue of Comfort, she runs through the supposed ‘coping techniques’ which have been recommended to her, from drinking single malt whisky and taking regular courses of drugs such as Prozac, to reading memoirs about the grief of others.  As she writes of this last course of action, ‘But none of them lost Grace.  They do not know what it is to lose Grace’.

Comfort is, of course, incredibly emotional; one can feel Hood’s pain and anguish from its opening paragraph.  Some of the details were repetitive, but there was a therapeutic element to this; it seemed crucial for Hood to mention different elements or happenings at intervals, just in order to convince herself that everything had happened, and to reinforce the impact which her young daughter had had on people, both in terms of Hood’s nuclear family, and in the wider world.

I very rarely cry whilst reading (yes, I’m one of those people), but Comfort brought me to tears on several occasions.  Hood’s work is so candid, so honest; it felt like a real privilege to read.  I can only hope that the writing process gave Hood some comfort, and that my paltry review will encourage others to read it whilst also putting across how important this book was to me.

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‘Survivor’ by Sam Pivnik ****

9781444758399‘Sam Pivnik’s life story is a classic testimony of Holocaust survival. In 1939, on his thirteenth birthday, Sam Pivnik’s life changed forever when the Nazis invaded Poland. He survived the two ghettoes set up in his home town of Bedzin and six months on Auschwitz’s notorious Rampkommando where prisoners were either taken away for entry to the camp or gassing. After this harrowing experience he was sent to work at the brutal Furstengrube mining camp. He could have died on the ‘Death March’ that took him west as the Third Reich collapsed and he was one of only a handful of people who swam to safety when the Royal Air Force sank the prison ship Cap Arcona, in 1945, mistakenly believing it to be carrying fleeing members of the SS. Now in his eighties, Sam Pivnik tells for the first time the story of his life, a true tale of survival against the most extraordinary odds.’

My sister purchased this as a gift for me when she visited Auschwitz back in August.  It is a Holocaust account which I hadn’t heard of before; I do not remember seeing any information about it upon its release, and have come across no reviews on Goodreads or blogs regarding the thoughts of its previous readers.  Regardless, as a History nerd, the premise appealed to me immediately, and I only waited for a couple of weeks before reading it.

Pivnik’s account is thorough, and all the more heartbreaking for it.  Usually with collaborative memoirs like this, I do not usually find that the prose style is quite up to scratch, but here it was refined, and read beautifully.  The prose style is fluid, and very much suits the piece.  Survivor is brutal in places; I expected this to be the case, but some of Pivnik’s descriptions were far more chilling than I had anticipated.

Pivnik’s bravery is paramount to his account; he survived conditions which millions did not.  The very fact that he writes so humbly of his own efforts is extraordinary.  It was astounding to discover how much he went through, and yet still came out of the other side eager to live and contribute.  Survivor is an incredible memoir, which is sure to appeal to those who enjoy reading historical accounts of the Second World War.  There is so much to think about whilst reading, and so much to get choked up about too.  Survivor is an incredibly important book, and one which I wish I had heard about sooner.

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Reflections: ‘The Iceberg’ by Marion Coutts *****

The Iceberg by Marion Coutts was my book of the year in 2015.  Never have I read an illness narrative which is so poignant, nor a reflection on life which sings with such beauty and sadness.  A recent presentation which I had to give on the book is below.

Winner_-_The_Icebe_3285478fMarion Coutts’ The Iceberg presents not just one story – that of her husband Tom Lubbock’s gradual decline after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in September 2008 – but three; her own, Tom’s, and their young son Ev’s.  She writes, ‘We will all be changed by this.  He [Ev] the most’.

Tom’s trip to the hospital, which led to his diagnosis, was brought on by a seizure suffered whilst at a friend’s; this was the trigger, the catalyst, for the next two and a bit years, dying, as he did, on the 9th of January 2011.  The way in which Tom relays the news of his cancer to Coutts is incredibly matter of fact: ‘Tom stops me.  He says he has had a phone call.  He has a brain tumour.  It is very likely malignant’.  This discovery comes on an already momentous day for the couple – that of Ev’s first day away from them at the childminder’s.  Initially, she is distraught, breaking down in tears, but she does show strength of character from the outset, acting in what she sees as her familial duty.  She realises that she has to adopt the position of proverbial rock for both her husband and son: ‘Right from the start see how I set myself up.  Let us see how this thing goes’.

The book was a pre-planned project of sorts.  As soon as Coutts realises that something is drastically wrong with her husband, and is faced with his mortality – and, indirectly, her own – she consciously thinks about documenting the process.  She opens The Iceberg with the following: ‘A book about the future must be written in advance.  Later I won’t have the energy to speak.  So I will do it now’.  There is no doubt that Tom’s decline will be draining for all involved, and she is already steeling herself for the rocky road ahead.  The Iceberg is as much a historical document for she and her son to gain solace from, as it is a manual for those who are watching the suffering of a loved one to live by.

Throughout, the loss of speech and endless rounds of chemotherapy are not happening directly to Coutts; she is a bystander in proceedings – Tom’s crutch, as it were.  Throughout, she is remarkably understanding and empathetic, continually thinking of the ways in which certain daily processes will affect Tom, and how she can better his quality of life.  This applies both to the daily routine at home, and Tom’s medical care: ‘Normality is gifted in the form of steroids, 2mg daily, and immediately he tightens his grip on language and on the connection of meaning to word’.  She tries to maintain a manageable balance between their old, ordinary family life, and the situation which they have been forced into; they still see friends, and go on walks, for instance, which perpetuates a sense of normalcy in the face of the unknown.  She is essentially a mediator in a time of what could easily descend into panic.  ‘On hearing the news, our instinct is to tell it’, she says.  There is rarely any deception here, and the need to be honest – both with one another, and with others who matter to the couple – is paramount.

coutts-tom-and-ev-011

Tom Lubbock and Ev on Hampstead Heath, December 2008 (Photograph by Marion Coutts)

Coutts’ is a diachronic account; there is historical reach, and a chronological structure.  The form which she has chosen to use is not so much a diary format, as an almost academic way of breaking up separate scenes.  She deals with one day at a time, but the ‘1.1’ and ‘1.2’ structure does take an element of reality away from the whole.  Whilst we do not know the exact dates in which the written accounts took place, the whole is still achingly personal.  There is hope here; very early on in the book, she writes: ‘… we carry on in many ways as before but crosswise to what might be expected, we are not plunged into night’.

The couple do, however, become less able to discuss what the future – or lack thereof – holds for them, and for Ev.  On page 163, Coutts explains that ‘… there is the Talking Issue, meaning talking about what is going on, articulating the disaster that coagulates around us.  Tom promised a while back to begin a conversation with Ev and he has not done this’.  How does one communicate to a toddler that soon his beloved father will no longer be in his life?  Words, however, still have the power to carry them through their ordeal.  Whilst undergoing chemotherapy, Coutts describes the way in which she tenderly whispers poetry ‘with my mouth close to Tom’s ear’ (p168).

The Iceberg is a beautiful, brave, and heartfelt account of a newly-discovered mortality, which shows how one can make every single second in life count for something.  Love is at the forefront of every entry, and every decision which the couple make.

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One From the Archive: ‘Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir’ by Tove Jansson *****

“Tove Jansson’s first book for adults drew on her childhood memories to capture afresh the enchantments and fears of growing up in Helsinki in the nineteen tens and twenties. Described as both a memoir and ‘a book of superb stories’ by Ali Smith, her startlingly evocative prose offers a glimpse of the mysteries of winter ice, the bonhomie of balalaika parties, and the vastness of Christmas viewed from beneath the tree.”

I have wanted to read Sculptor’s Daughter ever since I first learnt of its existence around eight years ago.  Despite fruitless Internet searches, I could never locate a copy of the book which fell beneath £300.  When I found out that the marvellous people at Sort Of Books, who are responsible for publishing a lot of Jansson’s fiction, were reissuing it in a gorgeous hardback edition, I was incredibly excited.  I never preorder books, but this was the one exception to my rule.

Jansson, as many of the readers of this blog probably already know, is one of the authors whom I adore the most.  Her fiction never fails to astonish me with both its beauty and clarity, and it goes without saying that I absolutely love the creation which she is most famous for – the Moomins.

Author Ali Smith’s introduction to Sculptor’s Daughter is wonderful.  It is clear that she very much admires Jansson’s work.  Sculptor’s Daughter is essentially a childhood memoir of sorts, told through a series of short stories.  When opening the book, a lot of the titles seemed familiar to me, and that is because thirteen of the nineteen tales published within its pages can be found within Jansson’s A Winter Book.  If I had known this beforehand, I still would have preordered the volume, as it does contain six stories which were new to me.  Each of these is exquisite, like a tiny treasure in itself.

Sculptor’s Daughter has been beautifully produced, and the photographs throughout are lovely.  My only qualm is that a couple of these were printed more than once, which was a little bit of a shame.  It will come as no surprise, however, to say that I absolutely loved this book, and will be reading it many more times in years to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life’ by Hermione Lee ****

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), says the blurb of Hermione Lee’s new biography, ‘was a great English writer, who would never have described herself in such grand terms’.  Lee adds to this, stating that ‘her novels were short, spare masterpieces, self-concealing, oblique and subtle’.  Fitzgerald won the Booker Prize for her novella Offshore in 1979, and I am certain that great swathes of her fans have looked forward to the publication of a book which focuses solely upon her life.  The author named Lee as a biographer whom she admired, and so it seems fitting that she was tasked by Fitzgerald’s own family to immortalise their beloved Penelope in such a way.

Fitzgerald first became a published writer at the age of sixty, and did not reach the dizzy heights of fame until she was an octogenarian.  She became the author of ‘nine short novels, three biographies, some remarkable stories, many fine essays and reviews, and many letters’.  Lee states that throughout her writing, Fitzgerald: ‘wrote about her own life, but kept herself carefully concealed’.  Lee has split the biography into eighteen different chapters, which range from ‘Learning to Read’ to ‘Last Words’.  The writing style which is used throughout has been stylistically rendered as though to fit a novel, in that it is ultimately pretty, and has clearly been well thought out.  In this sense, the wealth of information which has been presented throughout does not seem at all dry, and is not difficult to absorb.

Fitzgerald had rather a sad beginning.  She was born in the middle of the First World War, in which her father was ‘shot in the back by a sniper at the Battle of Passchendaele, [and was] then found in a shell-hole in a pool of blood’, and her maternal grandfather passed away when she was just two years old.  At the start of the book – as with most biographies which set out the lives of the ancestors of their subjects – there are rather a lot of people introduced, and it is necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the extensive family tree which has been included at the beginning of the volume.  Fitzgerald hails from, says Lee, an ‘exceptional and eccentric clan’, who ‘left a strong mark upon her life and her writing’.  In the Knox family, ‘everyone was publishing, or about to publish, something’.  Indeed, there are some famous names in her extended family – the author Winifred Peck is an aunt, her father Eddie wrote for Punch, and her stepmother was the daughter of E.H. Shepard, most famous for illustrating the Winnie-the-Pooh tales.  Her mother, too, contributed to the English Literature Series, which published ‘editions of annotated, abridged, classic texts’.

Penelope Fitzgerald (The Telegraph)

Quotes have been included throughout, both from Fitzgerald’s books, and the letters of her family and friends.  Lee also paraphrases a lot of Fitzgerald’s work, which gives a real feel for the inspiration she took from her own life and interests, and subsequently fed into her fiction.  The entirety is sprinkled with Fitzgerald’s memories – The Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury, where she distinctly remembers an afternoon reading of Walter de la Mare’s poetry (‘he was the man who had written Peacock Pie.  That was enough’); of being sent to prep school in Eastbourne, an experience which she hated; being taught at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was given lectures by both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; her first job at Punch, writing film reviews; her move to the BBC during the Second World War; becoming married: ‘To Hampstead neighbours, to friends and colleague, they seemed an enviable, talented couple with the world at their feet’; hardships, and her teaching career.

Penelope Fitzgerald is an admirable biography, and one which has evidently been thoroughly researched down to the last detail.  Lee excels at her craft, and it is no wonder that the subject of this biography so admired her.  Whilst reviewing Lee’s earlier book, Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘Lee’s book is not only very good, but very necessary’.  The same can surely be said here.

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