Alden Mudge

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As an immigrant from a “rich Arab country,” Lamya H was often asked by acquaintances in the American LGBTQ+ community how she could possibly remain a practicing Muslim, given Islam’s reputation for oppressing women and queer people. Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya’s memoir, is a generous, probing and candid response to that query.

Through its 10 chapters, the memoir generally follows the arc of Lamya’s life, beginning when she was a young girl in an international Islamic school, discovering her attraction to women and sometimes feeling suicidal. She moved to New York City at 17 to attend university, feeling unsure of her sexuality and of America’s gay culture. Now in her mid-30s, she has found love, her people and a life she could not have imagined as a teenager.

What is beautiful and brilliant about Hijab Butch Blues is that in each chapter, Lamya evokes a formative moment in her life through emotional and intellectual dialogue with a story from the Quran. The first chapter, “Maryam,” centers on a narrative that Christians will recognize as a version of the story of the Virgin Mary. As a young teenager, Lamya was transfixed by it because of how a despairing Maryam considers committing suicide, just as Lamya herself had. Thoughtful and questing, Lamya continued reading and found in Maryam’s story a way forward. The year she discovered this story, she writes, is “the year I choose not to die. The year I choose to live.”

Lamya H reflects on what was gained and what was lost by writing her debut memoir under a pseudonym.

In a chapter on Allah, Lamya recounts her questions about the nature of God, which she began asking as a 6-year-old. Is God a woman? A man? A pious religious teacher told her that Allah is not a man or a woman. This was a mystery and a revelation, and it helped her in later years as her family attempted to mold her in traditionally gendered ways. She learned how important it was “for me to use the pronoun they for God,” she writes, “my God, whom I refuse to define as a man or a woman, my God who transcends gender.”

Chapter by chapter, readers will feel a growing appreciation for Lamya’s intelligence, eloquence and courage. Along the way, we learn vivid details about her life and outlook—that, for example, she was a diligent, bright student with a disruptive sense of humor; that her parents immigrated to an Arab nation from a South Asian country for better opportunities and, as a result, that she and her brother experienced bias because of their brown skin; that she was immediately uncomfortable in New York’s gay bar scene and struggled to feel “authentically gay”; that she is ambivalent about America; that she loves her parents and feels OK not coming out to them.

Lamya H is a pseudonym, and her reasons for using one make sense. But even without using her real name, in Hijab Butch Blues she is observant, passionate and anything but voiceless.

Lamya H’s memoir is a generous, probing and brilliant response to the question of how she could be both a queer person and a practicing Muslim.
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With a magical protagonist and a vivid cast of heroic and devious characters, it’s easy to imagine Salman Rushdie’s fantastical 15th novel as a thrilling, multipart Bollywood epic. Victory City marks the author’s return to the long arc of Indian history, taking readers on a frisky romp through nearly three centuries of south Indian lore.

Rushdie’s endnotes cite numerous historical works he consulted about the Vijayanagara Empire (14th–17th centuries) while composing the novel. Google Vijayanagar, the city in which the novel is set, and you’ll discover its translation from Sanskrit is indeed “City of Victory.” Search the internet for the shepherd brothers Hukka and Bukka, and you’ll find they were the first kings of the empire. Look for Domingo Nunes, a character who humorously reappears in various incarnations to Pampa Kampana, the novel’s heroine, and you’ll encounter an amalgam of two Portuguese men who wrote with amazement about their early travels through the empire.

But search for Pampa Kampana, and nothing. She is Rushdie’s marvelous invention. At 9 years old, she witnesses the downfall of the old king. She sees the submissive women of the defeated kingdom, including her mother, go willingly to their deaths by fire. But Pampa rejects this path, steps away from the fire and, in anger and anguish, is overtaken by the voice of the gods. She becomes a prophet who gives the shepherd brothers the magical seeds to grow Victory City. She whispers the history of the future empire into the ears of its newly formed citizens. She gives them a past and a present. 

Over the 247 years of her life, Pampa sees the birth of the empire, suffers exile in the Forest of Women, stealthily returns to eventual triumph and then experiences the empire’s final fall. She writes this history down as the empire collapses and hides her account in an urn. Four hundred years later, her words are discovered.

Rushdie tells his tale with a generous and irreverent spirit. Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests he had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel. Pampa is the incarnation of the humane values of this (or any) empire, and when she is in ascendance, the empire’s arts and beneficial technologies are ennobled. Women serve as warriors and empire officials. People of all religions are embraced. The empire comes close to being what today we would call an open society, and its collapse is a direct result of turning its back on these values.

Victory City is accessible in a way that suggests Salman Rushdie had fun writing it, but this is no lightweight novel.
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Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call their deeply researched new book, The Big Myth, “the true history of a false idea.” The false idea in question is not really a single idea but rather many connected assertions, promoted throughout the 20th century, that have gelled into the “quasi-religious belief that the best way to address our needs—whether economic or otherwise—is to let markets do their thing, and not rely on government.”

Both Oreskes and Conway are highly praised historians of science and technology. Their blockbuster 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, examined the effort by a small number of scientists to undermine the evidence of climate change. One common denominator they found among these scientists was a distrust of government. The scientists’ ideological and economic biases led them to oppose anything that would admit a need for governmental action. In the introduction to their new book, Oreskes and Conway say that this discovery was what led them to do a deep dive into the ideology of neoliberal, free-market, anti-government thought, which has persuaded many Americans that unregulated markets are inseparable from democracy and freedom.

But are those things really inseparable, the authors wonder. In an early chapter, Oreskes and Conway point out that Adam Smith, a seminal theorist of capitalism, believed that government regulations were in fact needed to preserve a competitive playing field. Another chapter examines the moment in American history when power companies decided it was just too expensive to bring electricity to rural farming communities. They believed the market was too small, but at the same time, they resisted community alternatives. In the end, it was the government, not business, that literally brought power to the people. This leads the authors to wonder, how do markets alone supposedly make people free? In later chapters, they examine the economic, political and public relations efforts that have fostered our belief in this pervasive myth that government is the problem and markets are the solution.

The Big Myth is deeply detailed in its argument. Readers will be intellectually enlivened by chapters such as “No More Grapes of Wrath,” which looks at the ideological shift in the movie industry, and the revelatory chapter “The American Road to Serfdom,” which explores the popular rise of economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago school,” which deftly promoted the libertarian argument against government involvement in markets. The way the book challenges each component of market mythology is hugely impressive—but the book is sometimes so detailed in its pursuit of the truth that some readers will surely become intellectually exhausted.

Still The Big Myth’s arguments do add up. “Markets are good for many things,” the authors write, “but they are not magic.” In a world facing existential threats like climate change, markets alone do not suffice, they argue. Governments must act.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway boldly challenge the American myth that unregulated markets are inseparable from democracy and freedom.
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Vietnamese writer Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel to be translated into English, the award-winning The Mountains Sing (2020), spun an epic family saga centered on the Vietnam War. Her luminous new novel, Dust Child, is less spacious but still focuses on reverberations from that war. Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the war.

In the opening chapter, set in Ho Chi Minh City in 2016, Phong is a middle-aged man applying for visas for his family to emigrate to the U.S. under a program for children of American soldiers and Vietnamese mothers, so-called Amerasians. Phong’s application is rejected because of a youthful infraction. In later chapters, Quế Mai develops a visceral sense of Phong’s life as an outcast, “a child of the enemy,” a “dust child” who is half Black American, half Vietnamese.

In the book’s second chapter, also set in 2016, we meet Dan and Linda, who are flying to Ho Chi Minh City for a vacation. Linda hopes the trip will help her husband, who was a young helicopter pilot during the war, with his PTSD. Returning to the country for the first time since the war, Dan wants to discover the fates of his Vietnamese girlfriend, who went by “Kim,” and the child he fathered with her, a secret he has kept from his wife for many years.

In the third chapter, set in 1969, we meet 20-year-old Trang and her 17-year-old sister, Quỳnh, working in the family’s rice fields. Crushed by debt from their father’s illness, the sisters decide to go to Saigon to work. They wind up working as “bar girls,” catering to American soldiers, and Trang takes on the alias “Kim” for her work in Saigon’s boisterous Hollywood Bar.

With this setup, the novel’s plot takes on a sense of urgency. How are these characters connected? Will they find one another, and if they do, what will be the outcome? At certain junctures, the plot creaks and shudders as it turns. But Quế Mai provides readers with wonderful linguistic play, and through her deft and illuminating descriptions of the intimate details of her characters’ personal lives and difficult choices, we end up caring deeply for them and hoping for their well-being. 

In the novel’s afterword, Quế Mai writes movingly of her research into the challenges of Vietnam’s disparaged Amerasians and how she drew inspiration from the many stories she heard and documented. Through her imagination, she has transformed those stories of dust into something akin to gold.

Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the Vietnam War.
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Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s and ’60s, novelist Fae Myenne Ng (Bone) and her youngest sister accompanied their father to Portsmouth Square to visit the elderly “Orphan Bachelors” who gathered in the park “like scolds of pigeons.” Because of the United States’ exclusionary immigration laws, these men couldn’t bring their wives or children when they came to work in America. Ng’s father instructed his daughters to call these men Grandfather.

As she relates in her luminous, sometimes sorrowful memoir, Orphan Bachelors, Ng’s own maternal great-grandfather was one such bachelor. Born in the 1870s, he fathered two sons before leaving China to work in the abandoned gold mines in America. On a visit back to China in 1907 (it was common for Chinese workmen to travel home on occasion), he fathered a daughter, Ng’s grandmother. Nearly 50 years later, Ng’s mother arrived in America and found and cared for her grandfather, but Ng’s mother’s mother never met her own father.

No wonder Ng’s life was filled with secrets and mysteries. She peppered the Orphan Bachelors with questions about their lives and families, but most of these were ignored or answered with wildly inventive fictions meant to scare and instruct. Ng suggests that these stories seeded her desire to write.

Ng’s father, who worked as a merchant seaman and a laborer, arrived in San Francisco in 1940 as a “paper son,” a man who had purchased his identity from another family and studied a “Book of Lies”—a coaching book containing the “correct” answers to give during his immigration interview—before entering the U.S. Although some restrictions had been lifted since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Ng’s mother was one of only 105 Chinese people allowed into the country in 1953. After Ng’s father decided to participate in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Chinese Confession Program and admit (with the promise of forgiveness) that he had entered the U.S. using falsified documents, she and her sister eventually changed their surname to Ng; their younger brothers, however, retained their father’s “paper name,” Toy.

A simple confession is never simple, however, and much of the memoir tells the story of an immigrant family in conflict. Ng’s mother, who worked first as a seamstress in a sweatshop and then as a shopkeeper, and her father, who was often at sea, did not see eye to eye. At some point the children chose sides. This family story will resonate with readers partly because of the crackle of its conflict but also because of the keen observations of its writer.

Orphan Bachelors feels intimate and evocative, quiet rather than strident. Ng’s grace as a storyteller makes it possible to understand in one’s bones how heartless policy bends and misshapes lives for generations.

Fae Myenne Ng’s luminous, sometimes sorrowful, memoir recounts how racist U.S. immigration policies have shrouded four generations of her family in secrets and mystery.
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Deborah Levy’s slender, enchanted novel August Blue has all the piercing detail and bewildering movement of a midafternoon dream.

In August, at a flea market in Athens, Greece, Elsa M. Anderson encounters a woman she comes to believe is her double. Perhaps to taunt Elsa, the woman purchases the very objects Elsa planned to buy for herself. “I felt she had stolen something from me, something that I would miss in my life,” Elsa thinks. She pursues her double, and the woman drops her black felt trilby hat, which Elsa retrieves and wears until the following August, when the story ends.

Elsa, we learn, is 34 years old, a musical prodigy who has apparently, quite suddenly, lost her gift. Her recent performance in Vienna came to a jarring halt when her “fingers refused to bend for Rachmaninov and [she] began to play something else.” Orphaned at birth, she was adopted by a family in rural England, and when her musical talents became evident, was taken under the wing of Arthur Goldstein, her teacher and promoter. Her teacher is now old and ailing. Elsa eventually goes to visit him in Sardinia, where she resists his offer to see the adoption documents that would reveal her parentage. 

In the meantime, she travels to teach piano to the disenchanted and unseen children of the elite. She has fraught, fleeting encounters with her double and carries on an internal dialogue with the woman throughout her journey. People recognize Elsa, photograph her and wonder about her.

Sergei Rachmaninov, the feel and weight of his music, is certainly a motif in August Blue. So too are the works of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche. Beneath the novel’s surface thrum questions and observations about civilization, culture, identity, the self and the many forms of love. The narrative, such as it is, unfolds until an encounter in Paris resolves some of Elsa’s questions.

In addition to being a novelist, Levy is also a poet. Her storytelling moves to its own music. Her sentences are sharp, sensuous, crackling with ironic humor. Her paragraphs are compact, full of tension that pulls the reader forward. The novel offers the reader a dazzling gaze at the conundrums of existence.

Deborah Levy’s storytelling moves to its own music. In August Blue, her sentences are sharp, sensuous, crackling with ironic humor. Her paragraphs are compact, full of tension that pulls the reader forward.


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Allegra Goodman’s Sam stands out among realistic coming-of-age novels about contemporary American girlhood.

We meet Sam when she is 7 years old. She lives in an apartment on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her mother, Courtney, and half brother, Noah, a spirited 2-year-old with problems all his own. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is an itinerant juggler and magician who is often on the road. Noah’s father, Jack, is hostile to Sam. 

Courtney loves her children but is overwhelmed by the need to work multiple low-paying jobs to support them. She fervently wants Sam to get the education she herself was unable to obtain. 

During one of Mitchell’s intermittent appearances, he takes Sam to the local fair, where she summits a climbing wall in the rain and discovers her passion. She is a talented climber, but climbing is as much about failing and falling as reaching the top. This metaphor seems obvious, but in Goodman’s skillful telling, it feels real and fraught. We’re brought deeply into Sam’s sensibility, her need to win, her dislike of formal schooling and her desire to please her mother, who has worked so hard to give Sam a decent life. We viscerally feel Sam’s peril, both as a climber and as a young girl. We’re with her through loneliness, problematic boyfriends, self-doubt and loss of youthful confidence, and we connect with her desire to be herself and realize her own dreams.

The novel follows Sam until she enters junior college, and although there are many failures and falls along the way, this is by no means a gloomy story. Sam is a very appealing character, and so are the friends who sustain her. 

Sam’s struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is. We care deeply how Sam’s story turns out, thanks to Goodman’s brilliance and empathy.

Sam’s coming-of-age struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Allegra Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is.
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In Now Is Not the Time to Panic, Kevin Wilson once again deploys his customary humorous, off-center storytelling to artfully delve into deeper matters. Where his previous bestsellers The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here focused directly on weird family dynamics, his latest novel explores issues of adolescent angst, art and even societal madness.

The story is set in the out-of-the-way town of Coalfield, Tennessee, in the blazing hot summer of 1996. Frances Eleanor Budge, “Frankie” as her single mother and triplet older brothers call her, is the teller of this tale. At the beginning of the novel, she is an alienated 16-year-old and aspiring writer. She avidly reads “badass women southern writers” like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, but in the summer of ’96, Frankie aspires to write a darker version of a Nancy Drew mystery novel—emblematic of the childhood-adult divide she is about to cross.

During a hot day at the town pool, Frankie meets Zeke, another teenage outsider and a talented graphic artist. Zeke’s wealthy parents have sent him to live with his grandmother while they work out their divorce back in Memphis. Frankie and Zeke become inseparable, tentatively exploring a relationship and more assertively collaborating on nerdy artistic projects. 

One project involves a starkly illustrated poster that contains the mysteriously evocative message “The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us.” Swearing eternal secrecy about their prank, Frankie and Zeke staple copies of the poster everywhere. The impact is explosive. Fanned by rumors and paranoia, it creates a national stir, resulting in what will later be called the Coalfield Panic of 1996.

For Frankie, the experience is both scary and liberating. She is proud of her work and upset when outsiders claim authorship of her words. Zeke, however, is troubled by the unexpected community response, and he is relieved when others claim the poster as their own. Alarmed by events, Zeke’s parents whisk him away, and for more than two decades, Zeke and Frankie have no contact. Their eventual reunion speaks forcefully about the qualities of loyalty and friendship.

In the end, Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.

Kevin Wilson’s deceptively transparent prose, with a touch of humor, a dash of satire and a good bit of insight, carries the reader to a humane and satisfying conclusion.
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In 1778, when future U.S. president John Adams arrived in Paris to solicit aid for America’s revolutionary cause, most Frenchmen were disappointed that they wouldn’t be meeting with John’s older cousin Samuel, the renowned theorist and provocateur of American revolution. In spite of this past fame, the man some have called the most essential Founding Father is now more closely associated with a Boston beer than American independence.

In her terrific new biography, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff (The Witches, Cleopatra) presents readers with a vivid sense of this complicated man and how, using “sideways, looping, secretive” tactics, Samuel Adams steered Massachusetts and the vastly divided colonies toward asserting their rights and separating from Britain.

Adams was born in September 1722, a privileged son of a prosperous malt maker (hence his association with the contemporary beer). However, he ran the family business into the ground and spent most of his life in penury. “Alone among America’s founders,” Schiff writes, “his is a riches-to-rags story.” But what he lacked in monetary wealth, he made up for in intellectual and moral capital.

Adams was shaped by his abstemious Puritan background; unlike his boastful, self-promoting colleague John Hancock, Adams’ signature on the Declaration of Independence was self-effacingly small. But the impact of his eloquent arguments for American rights was huge, galvanizing the citizenry and causing some British officials to call for him to be hanged for treason. The British troops who sallied forth toward Lexington and Concord in April 1775 were likely seeking not just hidden stores of weapons but Adams himself. He was considered such a lightning rod that many who later gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress mistrusted him. For the sake of unity, he took a tactical back seat during the deliberations, allowing others their moments of glory. This may be one reason his essential contributions to the cause have been minimized or forgotten over the years.

Schiff’s biography focuses on the 1760s and 1770s, the period when Adams’ revolutionary activity was unparalleled. Her dense early chapters especially require a reader’s undivided attention, since she tells the history prospectively rather than retrospectively. We read through a confusing, riotous moment of conflict, for example, that we later realize is what we would now call the Boston Tea Party. The effect is electrifying, and Schiff writes with keen insight and wit throughout. By the end of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, attentive readers will vibrate with questions about the parallels between Adams’ political era and our own.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff vividly renders the man some have called the most essential Founding Father: Samuel Adams.
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For those of a contemplative mind, Stacey D’Erasmo’s novel The Complicities is full of lingering questions. What’s with the whale, you might ask yourself. Or, who else besides the narrator, Suzanne Flaherty, is complicit here? What does it even mean to be complicit? And if you are complicit and everything basically falls apart, what kind of restitution is needed or possible?

The story begins with Suzanne arriving in Chesham, Massachusetts, a lower-middle-class beach town on Cape Cod, not too long after her divorce. Her former husband, Alan, has been imprisoned after committing large-scale financial crimes. Despite the apparent similarities, Suzanne should not be compared to the wife of Bernie Madoff; this is a quieter, more inward tale. 

Rejected by her college-age son, who feels that she’s abandoned the family, Suzanne takes an online class in massage, frames the program’s certificate on the wall of her drab apartment, starts seeing clients and feels a genuine power and sensitivity flowing through her hands. When a rare right whale beaches itself nearby, Suzanne gets deeply involved with its rescue. This is not Captain Ahab’s white whale, but the novel’s three sections refer to it provocatively: “The Whale’s Breath,” “Whalefall” and “The Whale’s Bones.”

D’Erasmo is admirably skillful in moving the story backward and forward through time. For a while, Suzanne is in contact with the other two important women in Alan’s life. Lydia, an artist and paralegal who, a decade earlier, survived a car crash and still has burn scars on half her face, becomes Alan’s second wife after he is paroled early. Alan calls her “the girl with hell in her eyes.” Sylvia, Alan’s mother, surrendered her legal rights to him when he was a child. Now she’s a Walmart employee with a mathematical gift for gambling. She imagines finding Alan, but does little to do so.

All of these intriguing and sharply drawn characters fudge little bits of their past. Is that important? Should we believe Alan has reformed, or is his new venture in housing development just another scam? Does a little white lie matter? Is this, as Suzanne says at one point, “the way damage moves, the way it seeps and wanders”?

D’Erasmo’s descriptions are vivid. Her similes and metaphors are often explosive. Of the beached right whale, Suzanne thinks, “The leviathan looked like another sun, fallen to earth on the broad, flat beach.” And as Sylvia enjoys the presence of a very quiet man, she thinks, “If talk were rain, he was like a cactus.”

Full of small mysteries that deserve lengthy discussions with well-read friends, The Complicities is a superb book club selection.

Full of small mysteries that deserve lengthy discussions with well-read friends, The Complicities is a superb book club selection.
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Stay True is a memoir born of trauma. In the summer of 1998, Hua Hsu’s friend and classmate Ken Ishida was murdered in a carjacking just before the start of their senior year at the University of California, Berkeley. However, this is not an account of that event. Instead, Stay True examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by death.

Hua Hsu shares how he tried to capture the aura of the 1990s, AOL and all.

In the immediate aftermath of Ken’s death, Hsu obsessively collected the detritus of their friendship—a cigarette pack, receipts, paper napkin jottings—and stuffed them in a padded envelope that he’s carried with him for years. Since then, Hsu has gone to Harvard, become a professor (first at Vassar College, and now at Bard College), started a family and taken on a parallel career as a staff writer for The New Yorker. In all that time, he’s struggled to find and express the essence of his friendship with Ken. How close were they really? What did their friendship mean? In Stay True, he seeks to recapture the look and feel of the moments they spent together smoking cigarettes on a dorm balcony, talking about girls and sexual inexperience. Moments in the car on a food run in Berkeley. Moments together planning projects inspired by the movie The Last Dragon.

Although Hsu was older than Ken, Ken feels like the older brother here. Ken was Japanese American, and his family has lived in California for generations, long enough that his grandparents were imprisoned in an internment camp during World War II. Hsu, on the other hand, is a first-generation American, the beloved son of recent immigrants from Taiwan. Ken had a conventional style, and plenty of self-confidence. Hsu sought to distinguish himself with his assertive taste in music and his offbeat clothing choices, and he had little of Ken’s social and cultural comfort. In moments like these, Stay True becomes a remarkable examination of the experience of immigration and assimilation.

But overall, Stay True is a questing exploration of the elusive nature of friendship as it shifts and reshapes with the passage of time.

Hua Hsu’s remarkable memoir examines the reverberations of a friendship frozen in time by untimely death.

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