Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt

The Academy Outside of IngolstadtThe Academy Outside of Ingolstadt by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If it's not apparent that I'm a fan of Damian Murphy's work, you've not been paying attention to my reviews. That said, I do believe that every work has to stand on its own merit, so I approach the work of those whose work I have liked in the past with what I think is an objective, although anticipatory, frame of mind. Consider this mind blown.

I absolutely adore the strange characters of Abyssinia. I am fascinated by the subterfuge of The Acephalic Imperial. I was swept away by the intrigue of Psalms of the Magistrate. But all of that left me unprepared for the epic journey that is The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt.

This is literature at another level: the level of the sublime. From the beginning, with Franz's holocaustic vision of angelic destruction (a prophetic waking dream of the future in store beyond the book), which propels him to return to The Academy, to the era before the beginning, where Franz discovers what true catharsis is, and back to the present, where past and future coalesce in a time that is not time, the sideslip alley of memory (or of memory of memory) and of prophecy, we sense, no, we know that one can never fully know. And there is comfort in that. There is strength in the unseen. But there is also strength in revelation, even if the veil never fully tears apart, or if we discover that beyond that veil is another.

Above all, in reading this book, I felt a sense of one-ness with the characters and their experiences. For instance, the notion of a map constructed wholly from memory resonates with me. I often dream of places I've lived (and I've lived in a lot, being an Air Force brat) and visited again in dreams. My oneiric wanderings always take me to impossible nooks and crannies, skipping gulfs in a few steps, folding and unfolding interstices that were never there (and I've proven they were never there by visiting again). The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt has pushed me to meditate (yes, literally) on those dream-visions. Good fiction causes one to think. Great fiction causes one to act. And I will act on this by doing a (near) future blogpost about my wanderings. Call my upcoming blogpost . . . an offering.

Franz's escape from his threat and his sense of utter, eternal freedom is something I've experienced, albeit under very different circumstances (mine involves a literal threat of prison sentence and banishment from the place I loved, but that's a different story). It leaves an indelible impression on the soul. It's not always easy to recall it and draw upon it for strength, but it's always there. Once you've experienced it, there's no going back. Oh, yes, there can be denial, but such things are carved on the heart, forever. It's the Three of Swords, stabbed through and hurt, but still alive and pyrrhicaly-triumphant. The wound has become a part of you, your bleeding has become your freedom.

I've also experienced the sensations that are described in the little red journal around the student, Una's experience with participating in a marionette theater. Una's transformation is a slippage from puppeteer to puppet, then from puppet to self-aware being. She is, with full intention, but without full awareness, becoming herself by denying her self, that she is becoming a doing by doing a becoming. "I AM that I AM," in full praxis.

Finally (for the purposes of this review - there is no "finally" to this book, as far as I am concerned) the following quote caught my eye, then caught my soul:

The intoxicating flavor of the past, so he reflected, was sweeter in his memory than it could possibly have been at the time it was experienced.

Now that I'm over fifty, I can say that this is true. The ephemeral is often the most beautiful. Nostalgia is a strong drug that can intoxicate your world, whether in your waking hours or your dream-time. The world says "seize the day". The world beyond the world says "seize your memory of the day past".

My cryptic ramblings have headed in no particular direction. And I don't intend on giving them any direction. This matches my feelings, now, about how to approach this book. Approach it from whatever angle you like. Read it from beginning to end or flip to a random page and read backwards. No, it's not a structurally fluid as, say, Finnegans Wake. But there is a spiritual breathing to the work that allows you to enter the story at any inhalation or exhalation. Where you enter doesn't matter, what matters is that you be in it. And I plan on being in it again and again and again and again. One does not read this book, one breathes it. One is it. This has been my experience. Profoundly moving, profoundly still, profoundly here. The story is the Academy.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

STGM: The Conclusion of the World and What Rose After

STGM: The Conclusion of the World, and What Rose AfterSTGM: The Conclusion of the World, and What Rose After by Valin Mattheis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Valin Mattheis' art. I have two prints of his up in my writing area and one of his paintings adorns my own book, The Varvaros Ascensions. So, when I heard that he was producing a book from sketches he made during Inktober 2020, I dropped everything and bought a copy. I really do believe in buying books 1) directly from the author whenever possible, 2) directly from the publisher when that's not possible, 3) from a local bookstore when I can't buy it direct from the author or publisher, 4) from Ziesings.com (my favorite online bookstore - they also have a paper catalog - remember those?), 5) from Ebay or Abebooks, then, finally, 6) from the good sponsors/owners/whatever of Goodreads. In this case, I was able to go with choice #1, and that brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

The book is divided into four chapters: i: The Great Sorrow, ii: Black Earth Revival, iii: Harold Rose Up, and iv: The Three Pilgrims. The story is mythic in scale, and each chapter follows from the other, although from different perspectives. The whole is made cohesive by the strand of destruction, change, and maybe, possibly, hope among the darkness. A grim hope, but hope, nonetheless.

The art is saturated with color, even while the water-color backgrounds and spectres give a ghostly quality to the whole. It is a beautiful book and the emphasis is squarely on the art. There are, as you might guess, lots of skeletons and a morbid sense of humor running throughout, but the book is never so silly as to throw one out of the grim mindset. The "slim" story, again in a mythic mode, helps to maintain a mood of solemnity, even a touch of reverence.

As an added treat, there is a detailed commentary in the back explaining some of the more obfuscated iconography. This added a great deal of depth to the story, but I hope that, in future volumes, not too much is given away. This was just enough to be helpful, but not enough to strip away the mystery. And I hope that some mystery remains. Some things are best left unexplained.

There are also a few pages of sketches, art that was unused in their nascent form, at least (and some of it not used at all) in the main body of the book. This gives a little peek into Mattheis' creative process, a window into window through which the artist was constructing his representation of the view in his mind. I'm excited to continue exploring these vistas. As the afterword states "This is the conclusion of the world, and what rises after."

I am excited to see what rises after the after . . .

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Promethea (Promethea, #1)Promethea by Alan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Confession time: I'm not a huge fan of superheroes. Yes, I grew up reading comics and even collected some titles (Metal Men, Defenders, Thor, Star Wars, ROM, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Conan ), but when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons at age 10, I sort of went sour on the whole superhero thing. Not completely. but mostly. I even tried to get back into things by playing some superhero RPGs with friends, but it just wasn't my thing any more. That's not to say I completely abhor them - I like the Marvel movies just fine. DC, not so much. I never was much of a DC fan. I did pick up Grimjack (possibly the best comic of all time, at least for me) in the '90s, and still have those, as well as Albedo Anthropomorphics.

But notice something about my comic book taste: It's mostly scifi and fantasy (or an admixture of the two). I'm just not that big on straight-up superheroes. Call me jaded.

But I am big on magic. Interpret that however you like. I like magic. I believe in magic, though I might call it any number of things besides "magic".

And here, with Promethea, we have something that tries to tow the line between the two. If I had to pick a comic precursor, Doctor Strange is the obvious choice. But Promethea is smarter than the good doctor and far more "hip". I'm not talking about the characters themselves, I mean the comic as an idea and an act of art and writing. I'm sure Stan Lee was a smart guy, but could he even compare to Alan Moore in terms of sheer genius. Nope. 'nuff said.

And while I do love Jack Kirby's artwork and am very fond of John Buscema's Conan (et al.), J.H. Williams III has some serious drawing and, even more so, design chops. The layout itself, in all its variation, is stunning, framing the story perfectly almost the entire way through, threading together what can be a meandering narrative, holding it all together with pictures and a flow that is . . . magical.

I really like the main character, Sophie, as she grows in knowledge both about who she is and about who Promethea is (and was). There is a lot here to learn, and seeing her go through her "Chapel Perilous" endears her to the reader.

My only problem here is that there is so much for her to learn that reading about it can be tedious. This is a magic for beginners book. If you have any knowledge of esoterica, the tarot, chakras, the hermetic tradition, etc., you'll find a lot of lessons here you already know. It can feel a little pedantic, at times.

However, I have to concede: Moore's intent here was to teach. At least that's how it seems. At first, I was disappointed. But then, I thought, this book wasn't just written for me. It was written for a lot of people. So, if you don't have a whole lot of knowledge about the subjects I've mentioned, this will be a great education for you. And if you happen to like superheroes, I suppose this thing might be your bag, too. I can see this series going much deeper from here, or I can see it getting more shallow (and more stock-superhero-story-ish), possibly. But I don't think Moore will go there. We'll see. So far, so good.

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Monday, January 4, 2021


Skip back to 2019, before the coronapocalypse, and my wife and I spent a two week trip to England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. It feels like an eternity ago - in the meantime, I have lost a job and started a new one, a volunteer commitment with my church was fulfilled after three (very fulfilling) years, we moved from Madison to Janesville, and we gained a grandchild in that time. It's like a dream of another lifetime, when one could roam as freely as one could afford, when we were all looking forward to the deposition of the worst President in US history, and where one only wore a mask the majority of the day on Halloween.

Since we're all pinned in by the pandemic, I've done a few posts on some of our stops, and there are more to come. My hope is to provide a little moment for you to "travel" out of your quarantine box and get to "see" and hear about a bit of this good world. I've already covered Oxford, a day hike in the Cotswolds, and Salzburg. I still "owe" posts on Vienna (which might take two or three posts), The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden, Bath and the Kooky Cotswolds tour, Bedford / Chicksands, and The Devil's Quoits. 

This time around, it's a quick post about our day trip to Wales, more specifically, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, a well-known (among bibliophiles such as myself) "booktown" in the Powys area. This would qualify as one of the "places I'd be happy to die in" from this trip (Vienna being the other). When I think of the D&D outer plane of Elysium, Hay-on-Wye is what comes to mind: a beautiful plane of goodness, quaint scenes . . . and lots of bookstores. The population, when we visited, was 1600 people, and the village has (or at least had) 26 bookstores. TWENTY-SIX BOOKSTORES!  That's one book store for every 61 residents. How can that not be heaven?

Our drive from Moreton-in-Marsh was, if I remember correctly, about an hour and a half or so. What they don't tell you is that a full half hour of that drive is through skinny winding roads with head-high hedges (but no fences) on either side of the road, making it impossible to see around the next curve. When you're trying to learn to drive on the other side of the road, this can be very, very unnerving. In fact, it was a little terrifying. I suppose you got to go through hell before you get to heaven, as Steve Miller put it.

Eventually we made it there. And in one piece! Well, until I pulled into this parking lot:

I don't even remember which car was ours. But I do remember when I accidentally side-swiped someone while trying to park. ARGH! And the people I swiped? They had just gotten out of their car. The one woman said to the other "He just scraped my car!" Yes. Yes, I did. Thankfully I had taken the dealership up on that insurance (you know, the one I never take when driving in the US?). I am so glad that I did that. Note that it also came in handy in Germany when someone poked a hole in the the bumper of the Mercedes I was driving! THAT one was not my fault. But THIS one, yes, it was all me. We called the rental place and got it all worked out. Her people talked with my people, and we went on our way. I still feel stupid, even now. But they drive on the other side of the road! I was so glad when we had a chauffer the next day, but that's a different story.

After our harrowing parking experience, we set off into town on foot. I use the word "town" to mean "village". It's very small and very quaint. Look, even the clocktower is small:

And, yes, before you ask - this photo was taken near the end of the day, rather than the beginning. As I was saying, the clocktower is small, but quaint. Where in the US will you find a genuine clocktower like this, in the middle of the road (I mean this quite literally)? Sorry, Walt Disney World does NOT count. Get a life.

As a further piece of evidence regarding just how small Hay is, note this sign:

This is the gospel truth. Hay-on-Wye, in fact, all of eastern Wales, from what I could see, was clearly unsuitable for large vehicles.

While I would have gladly just laid down in that little village and died (and nearly did die of embarrassment after the parking incident), we were there to find books! In all honesty, I didn't take a lot of pictures in Hay because I was bent on book hunting. Who had time for pictures? Still, I got a few.

This was one of the first windows I saw. A harbinger of good things to come and a stark reminder that we were (thankfully) not in America any more. 

Like I said, I didn't take many pictures. We visited ten bookstores, and I only took one picture of one. Otherwise it was a mad sprint from shop to shop digging through the piles, some of them well-organized, some of them spewing printed material from the mouth of chaos. I reveled in both. Oh, and it wasn't all books:

See, there were models as well as books. And art, a ton of art. They especially like Rackham there. In fact, I picked up a Rackham book whilst there, from the same bookstore that I found these models in. I had to take this photo for my friend, Tom, as I know he loves models. 

One bookstore that came highly recommended to me by several literary friends was the Hay Cinema Bookshop, located in - yes, you guessed it you smart cookie, you - what used to be Hay's Cinema. 

This picture did not do it justice, as it was honestly an afterthought as we were leaving there for another shop. But I must tell you  that this was a treasure trove. Though they didn't have a copy of The Yellow Book Quarterly, and I really was looking to pick one up. In fact, we spent a good amount of time in ten of the 26 book shops in Hay and none of them had any copy of any volume of TYBQ, though the curator at Hay Cinema Bookshop said that he had just sold a full set a couple of weeks before. Sigh. One day . . . one day . . .

After all this running (sometimes literally) from bookshop to bookshop, we were famished, so we stopped at an Indian restaurant in town and had some great vindaloo and curry and I can't remember what all else, except that it was delicious and fairly spicy for food served in the UK. Here's a view out the back of the restaurant:

By this time, the shops had all closed, and we wandered the streets, finding this alley, which is not notable for anything at all expect that it's an alley in Hay with a view of the hills beyond.

And, speaking of hills, I took this shot of the "quilted" hills in the distance.

And this last photo from the now-notorious car park. The white spots on the hills are sheep. There are sheep everywhere there.

Finally, after what was far too short of a day, we were off back to Moreton-in-Marsh. Here is a claustrophobic view of the hedges we were trapped between until we were near the English border:

And as much as I gripe, I would return there in a heartbeat. Supposedly there is some Welsh ancestry on my Mom's side of the family. I'd say it felt quite a bit like "home" there. Yeah, I could live there for a very long time - if I wasn't killed trying to drive there. But, like I said, Hay-on-Wye is a place I could happily die in.

Why all the morbidity? Well, take a look at the books I picked up. To be fair, the M.R. James collection was picked up in Oxford the day previous, but . . . 

And I must note here that I hunted and hunted for a book by Machen, whom I believe was from just south of Hay, and I found The Hill of Dreams, which is a remarkable book. Go read my review here. and Robert Graves, who wrote The White Goddess (also reviewed on my blog) had all kinds of connections with Wales, especially on the poetic front. I mentioned Rackham earlier. And while James and Shiel were both very much English, at least I bought their books on the same island. The Spiegleman book was the one book (I know, I know . . .) my wife picked up. And the Art Deco book was just one I couldn't pass up as genuinely good art books are sometimes hard to come by, especially used, in the US. We are such Cretins!

And, lastly, what are some of the notable books I passed up? I coudn't buy everything, folks, and I only had so much space in my luggage. So, I missed out on: The Complete Short Fiction of J.G. Ballard, Maupassant's Complete Short Stories,  Frazier's The Golden Bough (abridged edition), The Complete Poems of John Betjeman (note that my wife did get me a copy of this for Christmas this year!), and Asterix in Britain. If I would have had oh, say 600 quid to spare, I would have picked up several first edition volumes from a collection of occult books that someone had just sold to Hay Cinema Bookshop. Alas, I did not have that kind of money (having spent it instead on plane tickets, car insurance, and such). But, oh, did I want them. Oh my, oh my.

After that long (and yet so short) day, we returned to our little air-b-n-b "loft", pictured below. Note the skylight in the roof, out of which we could see the stars over the Cotswolds. By the Welsh and Breton gods, it was beautiful. Nothing like falling asleep in that cozy loft, looking up through the roof at the stars.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 on Goodreads

2020 on Goodreads2020 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2020 did not suck . . . as far as reading went. Au contraire, my methodology for limiting my "to read" shelf seems to be working. The secret is: I don't let my list get longer than 30 books. If I have 30 books on my TBR shelf on Goodreads, and I want to read another, I have to remove one. This causes me to be very careful in my pre-assessment of books. I read a variety of reviews (eschewing those with spoilers, of course) and give a good hard think to whether or not I want my "current crush" to displace something else on the list. My pickiness has paid off. I'm going to keep doing this. It also ensures that if I have had something on the list for a while, I better save up my geld and spring for that book before too long, or it might be pushed off the list by something more desirable.

To quote Devo:

Ain't it true
There's room for doubt
Maybe some things that you can do without
And that's good . . .

Another good thing is that I started the year reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. This set the tone for my year in many ways. I took two social media "fasts", one in February, one in December, which allowed me to read and write a lot more and focus on some projects that I had been wanting to accomplish for, in some cases, many years, including the publication of my books The Varvaros Ascensions and The Simulacra and the inclusion of a story in an anthology which I was very excited about. I was also able to spend time handwriting letters and snail mailing my favorite literary people (one of which I owe a letter, still). With my resolve hardened to spend more time in the analog world, I hit the books harder than even I anticipated.

I read so many great books that it's hard to narrow it down to my absolute favorites, but among them were definitely:

John Howard's The Voice of the Air

Benjamin Tweddell's A">http://forrestaguirre.blogspot.com/20... Crown of Dusk and Sorrow

Damian Murphy's Psalms of the Magistrate

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21>

Arthur Machen's
The Hill of Dreams

Colin Insole's Valerie and Other Stories

Louis Marvick's Dissonant Intervals

If you held a gun to my head (please don't), I would probably pick Howard's work as my favorite. I won't go on about it here - go read the review (then buy yourself a copy and read the book)!

Were there disappointments? Sure. I DNF Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and my expectations for Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life were probably unrealistic, going into it. But I didn't read a bad book all year. Unsuccessful? Yes. Bad? No, not really.

For Christmas, my wife bought me five books. That, added to the 15 or so on my shelf, could last all year, who knows? No, who am I kidding? I'll buy more. But only up to 30 at a time! I have my limits!

Note that many of the books on my list this year and all of my favorites listed above, are from boutique small presses. I really do believe in getting the money to the authors directly, whenever possible, and to the publication houses, as the next best thing. Especially when people are struggling, I want my money to go directly to those who are producing such beautiful works, whenever possible. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they are sometimes difficult to get a hold of. And, yes, I do sometimes buy from that one online book distributor. But I'm trying to keep it direct, as much as possible, since I'm in a position to do so. I know not everyone can do that (did I mention that many of these books are expensive), but if you can, please support the small guys out there. They need it now, more than ever, and I'd hate to see the wonderful sort of literature they are publishing and the beautiful editions that they are producing disappear.

With that, I should be spending waaaaaay less time worrying about the news in 2021, whether because of regime change or because I'm burying my head in the sand during a social media fast (I plan on "fasting" every two weeks for a two week duration, at least for the first part of this year). Oh, and I should mention: I'm not counting Goodreads as "social media" when it comes to the fast. I'm always up for intelligent conversation (or outright goofiness) when talking with readerly friends. You guys are the best!

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A Voyage to Arcturus

A Voyage to ArcturusA Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A spiritual quest, more than a science fiction novel - much, much more. The protagonist, Maskull (and, ultimately, Nightspore) take the hero's journey not through the underworld, but across the planet Tormance as it orbits the twin stars of Arcturus. He encounters several stock characters in his journey, each of which introduces him to a new perspective or philosophy, sometimes with all forthrightness, sometimes in spite of themselves and their masks. Through it all, Maskull seems to be coming to some sort of conclusion, but the clouds of the different philosophies make it difficult to see where he is headed (in fact, he doesn't know where he is headed, though he gains more confidence in his abilities as he travels further and further north). In the end . . . well, about the end.

Three years ago, I watched my father die. He had recently had surgery for a tumor in his sinuses. The cancer had wrapped around his optic nerve and his eye had to be removed. It was also revealed in the surgery that part of his frontal lobe was occluded and would need to be removed. At this same time, my mother had been hospitalized when her kidney's failed. To keep a four-month long saga of trips in and out of various hospitals, of hopes gleaned, then dashed to the ground, my mother passed away in February of 2018 and my father died in May of the same year. I was there for both instances because I had been the one to take each of them off of life support. Mom passed away after about 10 minutes of being off of life support - truth be told, she was practically dead when we made the decision to take her off. Dad's cancer had invaded his brain and it was riddled with tumors. He was inoperable and wasn't thinking straight because part of his brain had been removed during the initial operation. He was not himself. Dad had always been a highly intelligent individual and I'm fairly certain (he couldn't talk because of the tracheostomy that had to be given to him earlier) that he was in a living hell with part of his thinking machinery, so to speak, removed. It was inevitable that the cancer was going to kill him. There was no stopping it. So, after talking with my wife and a few very close friends and my kids, and after a lot of soul-searching and prayer, we decided to take him off life support.

He lived for two full weeks. I was with him every day, often spending the night in his room with him.

Losing my Mom and Dad was one of the most painful events of my entire life. It still hurts like hell just thinking about it now. Was it right to take them off of life support? I think so. But having to make that decision cut a deep scar in my heart. It will get better, it has gotten better, but it will never fully heal. I've learned to embrace the pain.

As I read A Voyage to Arcturus, I thought of my father, lying in the hospital bed conscious, but deteriorating, over the course of two weeks. By all rights, he shouldn't have lived that long. Dehydration should have killed him in a few days. But my Dad is one stubborn man, and full of fight. I often wonder what he was thinking, what he was even capable of thinking at that time. I know he knew I was there and I know he knew that I loved him and that he loved me. Beyond that, I don't know what was in his head. I suspect that in his painkiller-addled moments of delirium (which were far more frequent than his cogent moments) he was taking a sort of journey himself, maybe something similar to Maskull's journey. In the end, I think they might have come to the same conclusions, which you are free to learn for yourself.

Now, this book, while it tugged at my emotions, is anything but emotional. It is, in a word, flat. The characters are more "everyman" than anything. Their antagonists (and guides) represent ideas, not real people. I can see how this would be tedious to a lot of readers, and the reviews I've read bear this out. The writing is also clumsy and, at times, very stilted.

But for me, rather than criticize the surface appearances of the novel (it is, from a writerly point of view, ugly), I read with my heart, as well as my brain, and was put into a quite contemplative frame of mind. I reflected on the Tarot, of all things. If the Three of Swords could be expanded into a novel, then this might be it. Do I understand all the battling philosophies? No. Do I understand all the symbolism? No. But I understand the feeling that Lindsay was, especially at the end, trying to get across.

I know Krang, and I know him well. You'll know what I mean when you reach the conclusion . . .

. . . The Conclusion . . .

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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Unconsoled

The UnconsoledThe Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why, you ask, did I give three stars (meaning "I liked it") to a book I DNF? Because I see what Ishiguro is doing here, and he does it masterfully. Reading The Unconsoled is like reliving some sort of dream, with all the unexplainable rifts in memory and sudden recollections, the impossible-in-real-life shortcuts, and the full knowledge of the context of a situation even though that situation is unfolding in-media-res. But I can only take so much of this. I quite like vagaries in my fiction (I'm a huge fan of Robert Aickman, for example. But there comes a point where I need to be able to at least infer a point, and 39% of the way through, I feel like I am taking one step forward and two steps back and forcibly so. It's one thing to let me noodle about an open ending, it's quite another to feel like I'm being yo-yoed by the author and he's not letting me come to my own conclusions. Frustrating, in a word. And yet, Ishiguro's prose is such a gentle, effortless thing. I fully admire what he's done here, but I'm going to admire this one from afar, as I'm a little tired of being led along. It's time to turn away, be grateful for the experience, and move on to something more substantial.

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