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Some readers may be aware that I spent a year and a half (overlapping significantly with my time teaching at UCLA) translating a book on the theology and philosophy of the body by Swedish theologian Ola Sigurdson, titled Himmelska Kroppar: Inkarnation, Blick, Kroppslighet (Heavenly Bodies: Incarnation, the Gaze, and Embodiment). It was challenging work (my first professional translation, and both very erudite and quite broad in scope), but rewarding and engaging. Ola was very responsive and a pleasure to work with, as was Eerdmans publishing, and the book itself was like sitting in on simultaneous graduate seminars in theology, church history, and the philosophy (which, in turn, ranged from Nietszche to Heidegger to Foucault to Butler–and beyond, and with at least three dozen other major and minor figures as well). On a whim I searched for the English title of the book, and lo and behold it is scheduled to come out at the end of June (I was expecting Fall) from Eerdmans! You can preorder on Amazon — $60 and over 650 pages, but hey, that’s not bad compared to, say, your textbook for college Spanish, right?

Anyway, finding this was a nice bright moment in an exhausting week as I try to figure out whether I’ll manage to find a position anywhere next year. I would love to do a project like this again (as long as folks are willing to pay chapter by chapter, rather than at the end of the project), in case anyone has a text that needs translating–but that said, I would really like to get a book of my own out there finally, or at least some articles. The book may have to wait, but at the moment I’m hopeful about getting an expanded draft of my Cultural Memory conference paper done this summer…

Image taken from the Space.com story–for some reason none of the pictures carried over via the reshare feature…

 

Stephen Hawking is helping to lead Breakthrough Starshot, an effort to develop tiny, light-propelled spacecraft that could reach Alpha Centauri just 20 years after blasting off.

Source: Stephen Hawking Helps Launch Project ‘Starshot’ for Interstellar Space Exploration

I’m really excited about this, but not sure how optimistic I am–have read too many articles lately saying that the tech (and the $$) is not there yet… but we’ll see! It would be amazing to have a probe reading Alpha Centauri withing my lifetime, though I expect I would have to hang on as long as possible to see it happen.

In other space related news, my friend Elizabeth Segran has a new article out at Fast Company on a company that wants to build 3d printed homes on Mars. Cool stuff! It would be nice if all this stuff finally started to take off–we’ve been seeing that “take-off” just over the horizon for a long time now…

File:Lars Gustafsson in 2012.jpg
 Image from Wikipedia
 

Swedish poet, novelist, and scholar Lars Gustafsson has passed away (Swedish language notice here). A literary giant in Sweden, he also made a significant mark internationally. He has been widely translated in English and was included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. He served as a professor at the University of Austin, and the southwest of the United States figures prominently in his work (well, out of what I have read–which is not much, given his impressive output). His work could certainly be erudite (he was a professor in philosophy), but I found much of his fiction to be very accessible, and what wasn’t accessible (like some of the short fiction discussed below) was still quite interesting, even if a reread may be in order at some point (but a reread is in order any time you find something good).

Find a list of his work on Amazon here. I’ve read a bit of his poetry (currently A Time in Xanadu) and recommend it. I am a very casual poetry reader myself (despite most of my non-academic published work being poetry), but he is also quite well appreciated for his verse, so you don’t have to take my word for it! Check out a sampling of his verse here (the poems are listed in the right-hand menu). Out of his many novels some places to begin are Death of a Beekeeper (a novel written as entries in the diary of a man dying from cancer), The Tennis Players (set in Austin, a short comic novel with a professor as protagonist, touching on everything from Strindberg’s period of apparent insanity to early-80s hacking and accidental nuclear warfare), and Bernard Foy’s Third Castling (a novel within a novel within a novel, the first being a straight-up thriller).

Science Fiction nerd that I am, I first became (especially) interested in Gustafsson after randomly happening upon a minor work of his in the tiny science fiction section of Celsius bookstore in Uppsala: Det Sällsamma Djuret Från Norr (“The Strange Beast from the North”). I initially didn’t think it could be the same Lars Gustafsson–I hardly knew of him then, apart from the fact that he was “literary” and “respected”, and these were outright pulpy (well, not so pulpy) science fiction short stories, with a frame narrative on par with the best Space Opera, old or “New”. Not available in English, alas–nor is his much earlier set of short stories Förberedelser till Flykt (Preparations for Flight), a group of experimental short stories that edge into science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism. The two are collected in one hard back edition (which I have out from the UC Berkeley library), but still in Swedish. I’ve played around with translating bits myself here and there, but if I do get that done it probably won’t be especially soon–translation may be especially important for those of us who teach foreign literature, but you don’t get much credit for it academically, a problem when you are a young scholar still trying to find a tenure-track position. :/  But we’ll see–I may have a translation of one of the stories from Förberedelser till Flykt translated soon (one of Gustafsson’s favorites, according to his afterword), and the titular story is translated in, and gives, once more, its title to another collection, Robin Fulton’s collection of translations from Swedish Preparations for Flight and Other Stories (an old volume–1990 I think–but looks like Amazon has a few used copies available). This is one of my favorite stories from the collection in any case, with a very accessible premise (though some of my students still didn’t get what was going on…) and an otherworldly and quietly post-apocalyptic flavor (in my reading, at any rate).

Gustafsson’s blog is still up–mostly in Swedish, but every now and then you’ll find something in English or German. I’m afraid I’m at the limit of what I can recommend–but definitely someone to read, whether you are specifically interested in Scandinavian literature or not.

I’d been excited about Tor.com’s move to publishing longer novellas in addition to short fiction (or the novel-length material at their parent company Tor Publishing)–I love the vast tomes of epic fantasy that have been taking over the last few decades as much as anyone, but I also love the shorter novels of earlier eras, in particular the New Wave (I’m thinking in particular of the shorter novels of Ursula LeGuin and Samuel DeLany), and I think it’s a great move on Tor.com’s part to explore this middle-ground. While I appreciate getting a variety of lengths of fiction packaged together in one volume, when I encounter a novella in, say, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction I tend to put it off, read the shorter fiction, and then forget about it–I enjoy the experience of reading mid-range fiction like this a lot more when I get it packaged separately (and the price is reasonable–$3ish for my digital copy. The paperback is nearly $10, which is a bit harder to swallow for something so short). Looking forward to reading many more from their growing list. I decided to start with Binti (click the link for a description and preview) by Nnedi Okorafor, and that is what this post will be about. Long story short–this is an excellent short Space Opera where competent world building fits perfectly with the central narrative of an engaging and believable protagonist, who in her turn fits the genre’s need for a “special protagonist” while remaining very relatable and realistic.

I’d been looking forward to this novella since it was first announced as one of the initial stories in the series. I confess the gorgeous cover influenced me a bit (that goes for all of these books though–my goodness, whether for their short fiction or for their novellas Tor.com has really got the cover game down), but I’ve also been wanting to read more by Okorafor since hitting one of her short stories a year or two ago. I’d picked up her novel Who Fears Death a few months back, but I’ve got too many novels I’ve been trying to work through lately–Binti was the perfect size to squeeze in while still working through my other books. It was definitely a quick read–the paperback is 96 pages, so you go through it a lot faster than you expect for an independently packaged text.

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch–I won’t say this is at all a canonical vizualization of Binti, and not exactly what I had in my head while I read, but it’s what came from my pen when I started doodling after finishing the book. Will hopefully get a better version (both scan and drawing) posted eventually…

The eponymous main character really makes this story–well, the fascinating far-future science fictional world, more glimpsed than spelled out in this short work, is also a main attraction here, but the narrative arc of the story, however filled with action and tragedy and problem-solving, is clearly Binti’s own character arc, and climax and closure are most satisfying when you look for them in the transformations she goes through, rather than in the resolution of the conflict on its own. Those used to longer and more complex stories (novels as opposed to short stories or novellas) may get frustrated, but you have to take it for what it is–more of a glimpse of a larger world, and a look at a particular transformative moment in the life of the main character.

To me the feel of the book is definitely YA, from the prose to the treatment of character and obstacles (as well as the youth of the MC), but if we want to think in terms of shelving at the bookstore this is definitely more at home with straight-up science fiction–this is Space Opera by someone who is well-read in the genre and has her own very competent take on the various tropes. In fact, I really loved Okorafor’s vision of a realistically diverse Space-Operatic future. Binta is Himba, and so right away we get a vision of what it looks like to enter the world of interstellar society from the perspective of a minority–and, gratifyingly, we get a vision of a future in which ethnic communities persist, rather than being erased in favor of a Star Trek-like liberal Western uniformity. Prejudice still exists, another bit of gratifying realism, and is, I think, treated very well–we get it all from Binti’s perspective, a realistically youthful one, and we get to see her reactions, her almost mundane expectation of prejudice, and the way this extra weight plays into this coming of age narrative (which it is, of course–practically a Rite of Passage in the anthropological sense. It even takes place in liminal space–literally the space between worlds–and she has a very different, in this case unexpected, identity, at the end). This all feels like a realistic element of this future world–it is specific to the concrete situation(s) of this future setting, rather than feeling like just a projection of our contemporary issues. Prejudice, systemic and otherwise, along with the drivers and mechanisms of imperialism and colonialism are real forces in cultures, societies, and individuals, and I appreciated seeing that realistically and appropriately explored here.

Communal and individual identity are also very central here, and Okorafor makes excellent use of the tropes of Space Opera in her exploration of Binti’s crisis of identity. Binti is 16 in this story, an appropriate moment for a coming-of-age story, and as I’d mentioned before she comes out the other end as, in certain ways, a very different person, but along with this movement at the level of her individual identity we also have the tension between her individual identity and her communal identity–or perhaps better to say on the one hand the tension between her identity as Himba and her identity as a member (or member to be) of the interstellar and interspecies academic community, and between her communal identity (Himba, family, culture, roots) and her individual identity as the “special one” (not meaning that to be sarcastic, despite the scare-quotes), her identity as the Space Opera protagonist with her special gift (she is marked as exceptionally gifted, and the moments when she starts “treeing” in the narrative seem like they must be intentionally reminiscent of that prototypical Special Spaceman Paul Atreides in Dune with his bred talent for seeing the future). So much of what happens (I’ll avoid spoilers) involves sacrificing what she used to be or could have been in favor (though not in all ways by her will) of becoming something new. She chose a path that would take her away from her previous identity, but ended up being transformed much more than expected, and against her will. The trope of “Special Protagonist” is so ubiquitous and overdone that it is on the one hand almost required for the genre, but on the other must be handled well and with an eye for loss and sacrifice, unintended effects, if it is to avoid turning into pure wish-fulfillment. Okorafor does this very well, and we get a story that is at once a meditation on loss (both in terms of personal choice as well as at the hands of other agents, both personal and impersonal) and a narrative of empowerment (in the face of, or alongside, the oppressive realities she is stuck with–her parents’ fears are ultimately well-founded, even if we see Binti learning to thrive as best she can).

For a spoiler-heavy review/analysis check this out. More historical context and nuance here (especially regarding the imperialist/colonialist overtones in the world of the story), and I admit it makes me feel like my reading is overly rosy (we should keep in mind, after all, that everyone else on the spaceship dies without any resolution on their behalf–and much of Binti’s transformation in the story is against her will and yet stays with her forever). Check out more of Tor.com’s novellas here–they look amazing, and I’ve got another 4 or 5 cued up on my Kindle–and of course check out Tor.com for short fiction and articles relating to Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. The two latest announced novellas (scheduled for next Fall and the one after respectively) are by Cassandra Khaw–I’d only just heard of her through this announcement, but have already read a couple of her short stories (“Disconnect” and “When We Die On Mars“) and am really excited to see what we get from her!

On Writing the Sequel

Can’t wait for the sequel! Alas, she’s only just started it.😦 In the meantime, this is a nice read about what went into the Oddfits, what is going into the next book, and Tiff’s new life as a professional writer.

Tiffany Tsao

“I’m writing the sequel.” If someone had told me two years ago that this would be my response to the question, “What are you working on these days?” I would have first collapsed into fits of laughter, then hugged my knees to my chest and sighed. I would have sighed not only because The Oddfits hadn’t yet found a publisher, but also because being the hopelessly impractical dreamer I am, I had already begun outlining the subsequent books I hoped would comprise The Oddfits series.

When I started writing The Oddfits, I had intended the book to be a standalone one. Singapore was as rich a setting as I could hope for, and I wanted to do it full justice. But as I continued writing and revising, more and more glimpses of the More Known World began to insert themselves in between scenes and into chapters. The cracks widened…

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My copy is already a bit beat-up. Lots of dog-eared pages as well.

I was really excited to get my hands on this book, and remain excited about it having just finished reading it. Before I get into more depth (though honestly, this will be a relatively shallow and overwhelmingly positive review), let me note that I recommend this book to a wide variety of folks: those of you interested in creating languages of your own (the obvious target audience, but I would say it doesn’t have to be the only audience); those interested in an accessible introduction to the basics of linguistics (I wish I’d had something this engaging and easy to follow when I was in undergrad); writers/creators who don’t plan on creating their own languages, but might consider hiring a conlanger to create one (the conclusion of the book contains a special appeal to you); fans of Game of Thrones, Defiance, or any of the other franchises Mr Peterson has created languages for (it’s an opportunity to dig into worldbuilding, which everyone seems to be interested in now); fans of fantasy and sci-fi in general (again, if you are someone into the worldbuilding side of things); and those just interested in an very unusual angle on language itself (whether language as art, or language as something we can play and create with in a very different way than what we already do in poetry or prose). Now, on to the book itself…

Peterson‘s book is an introduction to conlanging, or the creation of constructed languages. While the term “conlang” is recent, most folks are aware now that this was a big element of JRR Tolkien’s creative work, his creation of the Elvish languages predating or contemporaneous with his initial creation of the myths and legends that lay behind the world of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and people are generally aware of the language construction that went into Star Trek (Klingon) and Avatar (the blue folks, not the airbending guy)–and now most folks know of Game of Thrones and other franchises that have brought Peterson on board to add some linguistic depth to their projects. In-between Tolkien and Peterson, and in particular with the rise of the internet, various conlang hobbyists coalesced into a community–I’d run across them once or twice online, but I’m afraid I was always too shy about joining groups, so I missed out. Due to some changes in how folks currently use the interwebz to stay in touch, more recent hobbyists have started constructing languages on their own without awareness of or ready access to this community and its resources, and in his very nice introduction to the history of conlangs Peterson sets his own book up as an attempt to remedy this, providing the new generation of hobbyists (and potential professionals, now that you can get paid for this) with a quick guide to some of the basics.

After his more historically minded introduction, Peterson’s book is essentially a very brief and easy-to-follow introduction to Linguistics, with special notes relevant to the conlang practitioner. There are four large chapters: Sounds, Words, Evolution, and The Written Word. Each chapter is itself subdivided into subtopics in logical sequence, followed by a case study from one of Peterson’s now-famous languages. For example, Chapter 1: Sounds is divided into Phonetics, Oral Physiology, Consonants, Vowels, Phonology, Sound Systems, Phonotactics, Allophony, Intonation, Pragmatic Intonation, Stress, Tone, Contour Tone Languages, Register Tone Languages, Sign Language Articulation, and Alien Sound Systems, followed by a case study on the Sounds of Dothraki (one of the languages Peterson constructed for Game of Thrones). You should remember that, however helpful these sections are for getting across the essentials of a topic (especially what is essential for a conlanger), they will not cover absolutely everything–for example, Chapter 2 on Words covers nouns, verbs, and word order–nothing in there about, for example, conjunctions specifically. That said, nouns and verbs were the obvious and most complicated things to focus on, and as far as I can tell (being a Norse mythologist rather than a linguist) he does a great job of succinctly showing just how varied these things can be in different languages. I especially enjoyed his chapter on evolution, as I have been trying to read up a bit on historical linguistics on my own time (I’ve got a decent understanding of what goes on with the Scandinavian languages, but I’ve never been formally introduced to Historical Linguistics as a topic in its own right), and my take on that chapter is pretty much my take on the book as a whole–it’s a great, concise, and accessible summary, and it will set you up nicely to continue on to more specialized introductions (in, say, historical linguistics–I’ve been reading Lyle Campbell’s intro lately–or phonology, or morphology, or, to really get a picture of the potential for variety, Typology–I got my hands on a used copy of Whaley’s intro to the topic recently, hope I can find time to work through it).

In addition to using this book as a springboard into more thorough introductions to various linguistic topics, think of it as inspiration to start learning more languages yourself, whether at a conversational level or just skimming a wikipedia summary–if you want to get a feel for what languages can do, in all their variety, there is nothing for it but to get your hands dirty. Looking at my own conglanging experience (small as it is), I have at times been too conservative, not pushing far enough outside the “box” of the languages I knew, and other times have been just plain silly, trying things that were ridiculous and could not make for pragmatic communication (which is fine–you have permission to be silly–but once you discover something isn’t working, you put it away). Taking courses in linguistics is a no-brainer, if you are in college, and I really wish I had stuck with that myself, instead of being super-intimidated by my first linguistics course (this was about 15 years ago now). And while I definitely prefer Peterson’s book as a general introduction, you can also read Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction and Advanced Language Construction for another introduction to the art (Rosenfelder’s book feels more like a checklist–“Do you do this in your language, or that?”–than a general introduction, but it seems like it can be taken as nicely complementary to Peterson’s. Rosenfelder covers conjunctions for example).

I got sucked into the conlang world (though I wasn’t aware there was any sort of community–and at the time maybe there wasn’t) when I was just a kid, after deciding (in 3rd grade) to become a novelist. It was not long before I discovered Tolkien and decided I wanted to be Tolkien. Since Tolkien was an academic, this is largely to blame for my going into Scandinavian Studies, and more specifically Old Norse language and literature. And of course, I discovered early on (before Jr Hi, I think) that Tolkien had invented languages as part of his worldbuilding, and of course I had to do that too–the only problem was, I had never learned a foreign language, and when I started (in High School Spanish) I felt completely lost. I think I had some abortive attempts at a fantasy language in high school, back when I first started creating the world that (though it is very different now) I am still writing in. The next attempts, and the most serious ones for a long time, were in early grad school, creating languages for two of the different human cultures involved in my stories. Honestly, I still didn’t really know what I was doing–I had learned a variety of languages by then, but I’ve always been better at learning to read a language than I have been learning to think systematically about it. Not that these were total losses, but I’m currently revisiting these and trying to figure out what can be salvaged (a decent amount, I think–it seems to mostly be a matter of filling in gaps and reframing what I’ve already done). While I find it a lot harder, I get the same sort of kick, or buzz, out of creating languages that I do out of writing–both feed my soul in a way that my academic work, rewarding in one way, and my non-verbal creative work (art and music), rewarding in another way, do not quite cover on their own. Now if only I could get rid of that feeling that tells me “shouldn’t you be doing something more practical or career oriented right now?” whenever I try to do what I love…

Bonus link: Watch a conlang being made right here! Demonstrates nicely that screwing around with language creation can be the work of an afternoon–sure, if you really want to make something of it you will have to put a lot more in, but honestly, it makes me feel like sitting down for a couple hours and just hacking together a quick grammar and vocabulary and seeing how it goes–no pressure, after all (unless you are doing it for HBO I guess…)

And another (added more recently)–check out this interview with Rose Lemberg, a professor and specialist in sociolinguistics (among other things), who discusses some aspects of her own conlang history early-midway through the interview.

Check out Peterson’s tumblr as well, and his youtube channel!

Oddfits Authors CopiesMy friend Tiff’s novel The Oddfits (or the first in the series anyway) is out today! I was able to read it ahead of time on Kindle via my Amazon Prime membership, and I really enjoyed it! (and you can check out other early reviews on amazon, or if you want a summary of the good and the bad, check out her blog). Be warned, it is indeed a very Odd book (haha… OK, I’m not the first to say that…)–whether this is a taste that can be acquired or not I don’t know, but it is certainly not going to sit right with everyone, while others will love it–according to the reviews, some have loved it despite not having any idea what in the world they were reading…

Set in Singapore, the book follows Murgatroyd, son of a pair of not-really-the-best British parents, persecuted, to all appearances a bit “touched in the head,” but still a massive sweetie, really, and with something special (not in the derogatory figurative sense, despite my “touched” comment) about him that comes to fruition (just in the nick of time) over the course of the book. The book is heavy on local color, and I enjoyed the glimpses of “Singlish” throughout. TLDR: loved this book, you should definitely go out and buy it, but it is “weird” and I realize there are some Stucks (see the book for the reference) out there who may just not be into it. On to more in-depth notes…

While I dislike referencing Joseph Campbell (he’s not particularly in-favor in the academic circles I run in), this first book in the series is essentially a drawn-out dramatization of the Call to Adventure (first step on Campbell’s Heroic Journey). We do get to see the world of the adventure in question in this book, it’s just that the conflict in this volume centers around the main character’s discovery of his “specialness,” his initial rejection of the call to go away, and… well, I guess I shouldn’t spoil things too much…

I’m teaching a course in Other Worlds right now (though in Scandinavian literature, not SE Asian or Australian literature…), and one of my favorite things about this book is the nature of the other world in question. I think I would describe it (and the book as a whole) as a mixture of Wrinkle in Time (with the tesseracts, by which one can apparently interact in a very non-normal way with the space-time continuum simply by learning to perceive that continuum in a more all-encompassing way–or something like that…), Harry Potter (with the parallel world of special people, as well as the wish-fulfillment premise of “oh, I’m the one!”), and the absurdity and whimsy of a Roald Dahl novel–well, except this isn’t a children’s novel. It could probably pass for a YA novel (I think I may remember Tiff originally marketing it as such), but with a 25 year old protagonist, with (as far as I’ve seen) nothing explicitly noting this book as a YA novel, I take this as an adult fantasy novel written to those who miss the whimsical and surreal flavor of some of the best children’s lit. It feels like part homage, part satire–I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, which, for me, is one of the reasons I like it. One reviewer (who did not like it, apparently) called it “miscategorized children’s lit,” and there will be others who have the same impression–it’s an intentional mish-mash, and those who don’t like mish-mash of this sort will probably not like this. Hm, maybe imagine all the influences (L’Engle, Rowling, Dahl) I mentioned above combined into a Wes Anderson film… except it’s a novel, not a film. But that may get across a bit of the impression the book gives, the artifice of the fiction laid bare and the characters (at times) larger-than-life caricatures. It’s part of the fun! And within adult fantasy and science fiction, I think we can loosely compare Tiff’s novel to the sort of odd, satirical fun we find in Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett’s work–I don’t want to compare them too closely, since Tiff leans more towards the “creating a new world/high concept” side of things than the “pure satire/comedy in a clearly derivative world” side of things, but I think Adams and Pratchett provide a couple more points with which to chart out the literary space that the Oddfits falls into.

All this surreality and absurdity is carried by Tiff’s beautiful prose, which is well suited to this particular task. I’ve only gotten to read Tiff’s work the last few years, after knowing her… yeesh, I think a decade now (has it been so long?), but after reading a short story of hers (reviewed here a couple years back) and then a novel in progress (not the Oddfits) I have come to really enjoy this unique voice that she brings to her work–and which, again, fits perfectly with what she is doing here. I initially had some complaints about the editing, as it felt to me that there was some occasional redundancy, typos, etc that should have been caught, but in retrospect I don’t think it’s any worse than any other book out there (while reading Cory Doctorow’s Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free I ran across the line “…which pretty much failed to revolutionize the world the way its investors had claimed it world.” I world find more if I had the time), and one of the examples I cited (where the word “repulsion” was used where I would have expected “revulsion”) seems to actually be a dialectical variance rather than an actual typo. Honestly, my mistake was not realizing that I had my editing glasses on still, as I’ve spent a lot of the last year or so in self-editing mode (with the translation I’d been working on and more recently with my own stories), and that’s not the way to read something finished and published–not if you want to enjoy yourself. I’ve got a copy of the audio book now (the narrator seems really good, and quite competent with the Singlish portions and all the SE Asian accents–it was fun to recognize the rhythms of Malaysian English, as I’ve got a good Malaysian friend who moved away from CA about a year back), and I’m looking forward to working my way through again!

All in all, this is a very original bit of work, and I’m glad to see that there are many out there who are enjoying it–even (or especially?) those who just couldn’t figure out what the heck they were reading but couldn’t put it down anyway. Looking forward to reading the rest! And will try to get around to getting up reviews of novels by other friends of mine–my nieces loved Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief novels, and I’ve had a few other friends getting published whom I really ought to read…

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