Fat Books & Thin Women


Book vs. Movie: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Book: There is a frenetic caffeinated energy to this novel. Nick and Norah take alternate chapters and after reading the wretched doubled narration of Megan McCafferty’s Bumped it was such a relief to see this working. Nick and Norah both seemed older than they are, even when they’re reminding me of how old I am getting. (I kept doing the math, not quite believing it. I know that being 25 doesn’t exactly make me ancient, but I still find it hard to believe that I am seven years older than either of these characters.) Nick’s been dumped by his girlfriend of six months but she shows up at one of his band’s shows anyway, so he asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes to throw Tris off. Norah agrees, which leads into a night of music, debating what this means for either of them, how they feel about their exes, what they are going to do with their lives, whether it’s possible to meet someone and know, that night, that they are the right person. Norah especially sometimes reads as too screwed up to be eighteen years old but I couldn’t slow down reading long enough to really care about that.

Movie: It wasn’t until rewatching this after reading the book that I realized how much the film departs from the book. Unlike the book, the movie goes for the gross-out in its focus on Norah’s friend Caroline (the scene of her vomiting into a bus station toilet, dropping her phone and gum in, reaching in for the phone – then the gum) and it turns a few of the characters into caricatures, which works better in some cases than in others. Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Tris, loses the humanity she has in the book; here, she’s nothing more than a lying, cheating, Lindsay Lohan-style Mean Girl, and watching her is never not painful. One of the pleasures of watching the film, though, is to see what they’ve done with Tal – he wasn’t a real sympathetic character in the book so there isn’t much departure there, but to see Jay Baruchel who is always so adorable and puppy-like (have you seen Undeclared or Knocked Up or She’s Out of My League?) play the part of a raging asshole is kind of wonderful.

Maybe because we can’t access the inner monologues of Nick and Norah as we can in the book, the movie makes its focal point finding Where’s Fluffy rather than Nick and Norah finding each other. I mean, they do, of course they do, but that’s all kind of secondary, a benefit to their efforts to find Caroline and then the band. The movie gives you what you want, which is finding the band, Nick and Norah realizing they like each other, Tal and Tris getting their comeuppance, and lots of good jams and potty humor. My one major complaint is that Kat Dennings is so much prettier than Tris – and in the book she’s not, not by a long shot. I guess when you make a film you gotta have your leading ladies be gorgeous, but it’s still kind of a disappointment even though I like Kat Dennings.

Verdict: Tie.

These two versions of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist don’t seem like the same story so much as they do riffs on a theme. They’re good in different ways and in different places and I can’t say that one is better than the other. They’re different, that’s all.

Both the book and movie also serve as a healthy glimpse of what I’m headed back to once I finish my service here in Macedonia. Things that wouldn’t have annoyed me too much before (like Nick driving a Yugo – such a teenage hipster move, imagine the effort required to find a Yugo in the States) drove me nuts now that, you know, I live in a country that was part of Yugoslavia and where a lot of people, including my host family, drive a Yugo if they’ve got a car. I wanted to tell Nick to stop using his Yugo (a) to tell the world he doesn’t have enough money for a different car, and (b) as an expression of irony. I am not sure how well I’ll do living in Brooklyn when I get back, or anywhere for that matter. Maybe I should give the two Nick & Norahs a win and me a lose, for now.

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Review: Megan McCafferty’s Bumped

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Megan McCafferty’s Bumped has been getting hype up the wazoo. I’ve heard almost nothing but good things about it – you know, good world building, topical issues, young adult dystopian (which instantly makes me think of The Hunger Games – I expect every YA dystopian novel to be as good as Suzanne Collins’s, I guess), inventive language – and I was practically drooling thinking of reading this book.

Only, then I got it, and I found that the things everyone was talking about and praising, like the way McCafferty doesn’t do an “info dump” at the start of her novel to explain her world and the lives and vocabulary of her characters, drove me nuts. Sure, giving a chapter of exposition isn’t the most gripping way to open a novel, but not everyone can pull off making this information an organic part of their story. Then there are some people who don’t even try, at all – and as a reader it felt to me that McCafferty gave up on building a strong world, resting her story instead of the questionable strengths of its storyline and wacky vocabulary.

Bumped takes place in a vaguely future version of our world, in which an AIDS-like virus causes most men and women to become infertile once out of their teens. Teenagers thereby become responsible for the propagation of the human race, “bumping” as amateurs or professionals to produce babies that are adopted or purchased by older couples. Pregnancy isn’t just a way of life but a fashion; girls can purchase not just t-shirts about “pregging” and being “fertilicious” but fake baby bumps to wear.

McCafferty’s narrative flips back and forth between Melody and Harmony, sixteen-year-old identical twins separated at birth who have grown up in cultures that treat teenage pregnancy differently. Melody has grown up in “Otherside”, as Harmony calls it, raised by parents who believe in the move to monetize pregnancy. She’s the first girl in her school to turn “professional”, though two years after signing her contract she hasn’t “bumped” and is nearing obsolescence.

Harmony grew up in “Goodside”, a strict community of “Godfreaky” (as Melody would put it) people who marry and preg young but raise their children themselves. Harmony contacts Melody and unexpectedly shows up in Otherside, where she hangs around with Melody and her friend Zen.

So, not a bad premise for a young adult novel, though aspects of it are contrived enough that I should have guessed I wouldn’t fall in love with the book the way everyone else has. McCafferty hasn’t formed her story around a cast of deluded teenagers as much as she’s thought of caricatures to place into her narrative. Melody, Harmony, Zen, Melody’s friends and their pregnancies, Melody’s parents, Harmony’s huge extended family – none of them feel real to me, but rather as if they’ve been put in this narrative to stand as examples of or for something.

McCafferty comes up with a lot of future words and slang for this novel, which I started writing down halfway through – “paps” for papparazzi, “foto” for photo, “Avatarcade” (future version of the arcade, with avatars!), “GlycoGoGo Bars” (energy bar), “US Buff-A” (restaurant), “Mi-Net” (crazy future internet, accessed with contact lenses and earbuds), “pro boner work” (instead of “pro bono work” – well, this one was kind of funny I guess), “procreationists” (Christians who believe in spreading the seed), “starcisstic” (instead of narcissistic), “breedy bits” (you know), “facespace” (speaking to a person in person), “MasSEX parties” (orgies). These words seem to stand in the place of world building (McCafferty doesn’t build a world as much as she suggests, via future words, that she has built a world), and McCafferty’s characters seem just as superficial as her world and its language.

Over at I Swim for Oceans there’s a pretty interesting interview with McCafferty in which she talks about some of these things, like why her characters speak the way they do and how that changes over the course of the novel. All my notes about this book are kind of disappointed scribbles (e-bookishly speaking) about how she goes for the most obvious ways to distinguish her characters. Harmony’s grown up in a Godfreaky community, so her internal monologue is filled with references to God and the Bible, while Melody’s is more along the lines of wondering whether she is “fertilicious” and what she will look like with a baby bump. McCafferty lays this on thick early in the book, and it fades away as time passes. Like she says in the interview, McCafferty used that sort of internal monologue to show character development – as the narrative progresses the girls are finding their own voices and freeing themselves from the voices their families and cultures have given them – but this reads, like so many other aspects of the novel, as superficial and contrived, because this use of the language is the only way McCafferty chooses to show character development, and also because Bumped takes place over such a short time period that this shift in internal monologue isn’t believable.

Bumped deals in issues that are pretty heavy – questions about who owns the rights to their own bodies, how teenagers’ bodies are taken advantage of when it becomes the only way of surviving as a race, monetizing sex and pregnancy – but the tone of the novel doesn’t fit these issues. At novel’s end the characters are rethinking their world and their places in it and how they treat their bodies, but the decisions they reach about these issues largely take place behind the scenes. As readers, we see little deeper than the slang they use to express themselves. The disconnect between the subject matter and the voice is huge and distracting, and lets down this story and the potential it had. McCafferty drowns what could have been an interesting and thought-provoking story beneath her top-heavy world – developed in terms of language and fashion but feeling barren in every other way.

Bumped is released on April 26th, and judging by the ending (or lack thereof) there’s a Bumped v. 2.0 on the way.

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Gushing: Roald Dahl’s Danny, The Champion of the World


It would be hard for me to choose just one of Roald Dahl’s books to label a “favorite,” but if I had to it would probably be Danny, The Champion of the World. When I was eight years old or whatever and read this novel for the first time I don’t remember being unduly impressed, but it’s a book that grows on me with the years. There are no witches, no giants, no speaking foxes, no chocolate factories, no glass elevators, just a father and his son, and that’s what makes this book so special. Unlike Dahl’s other children’s books this one is set firmly in the real world.

Danny’s mother died when he was four months old, and he’s since been raised by his father on a small plot of land on which they have a two-pump gas station, a one-car garage, and a gypsy caravan for living in. Danny starts school two years late, when he’s seven, because his father doesn’t want to send him off until he’s learned how to take a small engine apart and put it back together again; early on, his father says, “You know something, Danny? You must be easily the best five-year-old mechanic in the world” (15).


One night Danny wakes up to find that his father isn’t in the caravan, or in the garage, or in the outhouse. When his father gets home he reveals his greatest secret: that he’s a poacher and spent the night in Hazell’s Wood on an unsuccessful mission to steal a pheasant. The owner of Hazell’s Wood is this offensive, bloated, red-faced brewer who each year holds the best pheasant hunt in the country. It’s his one day of the year to feel important and liked by the people he wants to be in with, and for a bunch of very good reasons Danny and his father decide to pull off the greatest poaching expedition of all time.

Somehow the things I love about Roald Dahl I love even more when his story is so firmly set in our world. It’s not just that he can create these magical and awesome and funny stories about things like giants blowing dreams into children’s windows (the BFG makes an appearance in Danny, by the way), but that he can make the everyday seem just as funny and wonderful as a country full of loafing bone-crunching giants. Also that he never, ever censors this reality: I mean, he wrote this entire novel about a father and his son stealing pheasants. Of course Hazell deserves it – he’s the sort of person who digs tiger traps in his woods to catch poachers, risking breaking their necks to save his pheasants – and Danny and his father are clearly the moral victors here, but I can’t imagine most writers doing this.

Danny is a very funny book on top of all its other fine qualities, like when Danny tries to rethink poaching in the context of children’s games:

“Then how do we stop the keepers from seeing us?”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s the fun of the whole thing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s hide and seek. It’s the greatest game of hide and seek in the world.”

“You mean because they’ve got guns?”

“Well,” he said, “that does add a bit of flavor to it, yes.” (123)

Or when Danny is writing about his school and all its teachers, and brings up Mr. Snoddy, the headmaster:

He was a small round man with a huge scarlet nose. I felt sorry for him having a nose like that. It was so big and inflamed it looked as though it might explode at any moment and blow him up.

A funny thing about Mr. Snoddy was that he always brought a glass of water with him into class, and this he kept sipping right through the lesson. At least everyone thought it was a glass of water. Everyone, that is, except me and my best friend, Sidney Morgan. (103-104)

Of course Danny figures out why Mr. Snoddy has that inflamed nose and is such a careful hydrator!

Dahl gives us the good vs. bad, the poor vs. the rich, the first-time nine-year-old poacher being the one to figure out the Greatest Poaching Scheme of All Time, crawling around in woods, adventure, risk of “poacher’s bottom” (being peppered with buckshot on the retreat), but mostly this father-son relationship. Danny’s love for his father tumbles off every page of this book and I really, really love Dahl for writing this. And I’d like to thank whoever donated this book to my school’s library and made it possible for me to reread it. And I’d like to ask you to go to your library right now, this very second, and check out Danny, The Champion of the World: the greatest book of our time, or at least pretty high on the list.

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Review: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy was my post-GRE reward: after months of (kind of) breaking a sweat, reading wise, I could chill out and read some solid young adult lit, which if you if you read my blog you know is a genre I can’t shake my interest in.

Only The Hunger Games, despite being an engrossing, fast-paced, well-written series, wasn’t as light as I’d been imagining. Now that I look back on the basic plot, which is that every year the Capitol of Panem (the nation that has replaced the former United States) selects a male and female tribute from each of its twelve colonies to participate in the “Hunger Games,” a fight to the death, as a reminder of the total control the Capitol has over the colonies and their people, I am not sure why I thought this would be a light read. There is nothing light about that description.

Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, Prim, is drawn as District Twelve’s female tribute in the trilogy’s first book, but Katniss volunteers to take her place. It’s hard…well, impossible…to describe the general arc of the plot without totally giving away the first book, to those of you who haven’t read it yet (and you should! You really really should!), so I’m going to skimp on plot summary this post. Although any of you who read my reviews on a semi-regular basis already know that I skimp on plot summary all the time.

The three books are tightly plotted, but what impresses me most about Collins’s plotting is how all-encompassing it is – how the shape of the three books as a whole becomes horrifyingly apparent in the third book, this idea that even outside of the Hunger Games’ rings, there is nothing but another version of the Games. I found the third book harder to get through than the first two, not because I thought it was a poorer book, but because the plot was so hopeless. I could guess, generally, where things were headed, and I didn’t want that to be where things were headed. Like Katniss in the first book of the series, I wanted to believe that once the Games were over, they were over; that she and her family, and her two friends or boyfriends, Peeta and Gale, could go back to District Twelve and “normal” life.

They can’t, of course, and I’m not giving too much away by saying that. Collins does a stunning job of showing the good and bad in everything she writes about. There are no characters or political groups in this book that are wholly good; everything is mixed. Katniss, by her own probing analysis, makes most of her decisions based on her own self-interest and on the theory that others (usually Peeta) will act in ways to her benefit, will continue to love her long after she has become both unlovable and unbearable. Haymitch, the only living victor of the Hunger Games in Disctrict Twelve before Peeta and Katniss, and their mentor in the Games, is an emotionally crippled alcoholic who manages to guide the pair through the Hunger Games, though often playing them off each other in order to suit his interests, or the interests of those he works for.

This trilogy answers in force the plea, examined in earlier posts here, to write “round” characters in young adult literature. There is not a single character in this book that struck me as false or lacking complexity. Like her mentor Haymitch, Katniss frequently is incapable of handling her emotions, her sadness and anger at being involved in the Games and used for others’ means. She tries to shut out the people she is closest to in an effort to strengthen her chances of winning and getting back to them, and the tragedy here is that while she can shut them out, she can’t ever reach the end she dreams of, the point at which she can allow them back in. Even these moments, though, are coupled with her desire to protect those around her, particularly her sometimes boyfriend Peeta and her sister, Prim:

Too heartsick to cry, all I want is to curl up on the bed and sleep until we arrive in the Capitol tomorrow morning. But I have a mission. No, it’s more than a mission. It’s my dying wish. Keep Peeta alive. And as unlikely as it seems that I can achieve it in the face of the Capitol’s anger, it’s important that I be at the top of my game. This won’t happen if I’m mourning for everyone I love back home. Let them go, I tell myself. Say good-bye and forget them. I do my best, thinking of them one by one, releasing them like birds from the protective cages inside me, locking the doors against their return.

Through the trilogy’s first book, The Hunger Games, the reader, like Katniss can mostly comfort him or herself with the thought that it is, after all, just a game; that every game has to end. But Collins is writing about a game that extends beyond the borders of a ring, one that is very much a part of the political control the Capitol has over its people. District uprisings that begin in the second book, Catching Fire, take hold in the third, Mockingjay, and Katniss and her childhood friend and, well, maybe someday boyfriend Gale, along with her family, are drawn into the resistance movement in the rogue District Thirteen.

And here is where I fought, where Katniss fights, against the fear that this movement might be no better than what it seeks to replace. As a Hunger Games victor who “defeated” the Games by her romance with Peeta, with her appeal to the “hearts and minds” of the Capitol’s people, Katniss has been a tool of propaganda for over a year before finding herself in District Thirteen. But as part of this district and the rebel movement, Katniss finds herself a propaganda tool for the other side. Just as in the Hunger Games, her romance with Peeta is mined for its propaganda value:

When I confront Plutarch, he assures me that it’s all for the camera. They’ve got footage of Annie getting married and Johanna hitting targets, but all of Panem is wondering about Peeta. They need to see he’s fighting for the rebels, not for Snow. And maybe if they could just get a couple of shots of the two of us, not kissing necessarily, just looking happy to be back together–

I walk away from the conversation right then. That is not going to happen.

Collins writes some horrifying scenes in which the attempt to create propaganda is juxtaposed with the war itself. Victors of the Hunger Games might be sent into combat, but as Katniss says, “I’m not even a real solider. Just one of Plutarch’s televised puppets.” Even that fiction of the televised puppets can’t last, though; sent into a fairly inactive and tactically unimportant area of the Capitol to stage some war scenes for the propaganda reels, a “pod” (think a landmine, only more high tech) is triggered and all hell lets lose.

We take turns reenacting our responses. Falling to the ground, grimacing, diving into alcoves. We know it’s supposed to be serious business, but the whole thing feels a little ridiculous. Especially when it turns out that I’m not the worst actor in the squad. Not by a long shot. We’re all laughing so hard at Mitchell’s attempt to project his idea of desperation, which involves teeth grinding and nostrils flaring, that Boggs has to reprimand us.

“Pull it together, Four-Five-One,” he says firmly. But you can see him suppressing a smile as he’s double-checking the next pod. Positioning the Holo to find the best light in the smoky air. Still facing us as his left foot steps back onto the orange paving stone. Triggering the bomb that blows off his legs.

[…]

It’s as if in an instant, a painted window shatters, revealing the ugly world behind it. Laughter changes to screams, blood stains pastel stones, real smoke darkens the special effect stuff made for television.

Okay, I’m giving in to my usual temptation to quote half a chapter rather than a sentence or two. But this scene encompasses so much of what is central to the trilogy – the ongoing attempt to shatter the painted window and find what is reality, only to discover that what seemed to be reality is another painted window. How can anyone react against that? How do you find your way out of a Game when it makes up your entire world?

At end, many of the major characters are dead, lost to the cause of either the Capitol or the rebels or The Hunger Games itself, but those who remain have changed and grown enough to underscore Collins’s skill at character development.

The Hunger Games are those types of books that, though classified as “young adult literature,” seem to be there as a matter of convenience as much as anything else. Where else to place them? Every aspect of these books is so well imagined, though, that I’m glad the books have found their way out of what could be the purgatory of sparkly vampires and are, from what I can tell, being read by about every English speaker on Earth. (I hope this is true and not just some fantasy I’ve dreamt up thanks to my lack of access to US news or bestseller lists.) Not exactly the light read I was looking for, but they’re something all right.



Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3)


Tamora Pierce and Hannah Moskowitz both tackle in their previously mentioned blog posts (check out my earlier entries on young adult literature and on strong female characters if you’re new here) the question of Why Boys Don’t Read, and the accompanying question of why publishing houses aren’t printing for boys.

As a woman, and as, you know, a woman, rather than a young adult, I may not be qualified to tackle this question. But it’s an interesting one, and is inseparable from the earlier ones I asked about what young adult literature “should” look like and what sort of female characters we should be pushing girls to read. (If we should be pushing them to read particular books in the first place.) Amanda at Desert Book Chick did what I think was a great series, back in September, on boys and men and reading, why men aren’t reading, what sorts of reading we “count” as reading, and to what degree what men read ties back into what they read, or didn’t read, when they were boys.

It’s been a while since I’ve been in an English-language bookstore,[1] but Amanda’s description brings it back: “Take a walk into the local bookshop and check out the YA shelves. It’s hard to escape all those girly vampire, relationship and chick lit primers on the shelves.”


When I was younger, though, there were a lot of books for boys out there. Tamora Pierce does a fantastic list of some of the authors writing books aimed at boys: “Gary Paulsen, Walter Dean Myers, Terry Trueman, Chris Crutcher, Robert Parker, Will Hobbs, Roland Smith, Dave Conifer, Brent Hartinger, David Levithan, Ned Vizzini, Dave Lubar, Gordon Korman, Paul Fleischman, Joseph Bruchac, David Klass, Gary Soto.” This is a not insignificant number of authors who are writing stuff for boys; I remember reading a lot of their books when I was growing up because they were often more interesting than the offerings for girls at my local library.

The difference between these authors and the big name “vampire authors,” the reason why when we talk about boys and reading the issue of there not being material out there for boys always comes up, may simply be that these writers are in the midlist now, and are not being pushed the way the “girly vampire” books are.[2] Pierce writes, “Why do publishers appear to publish so many books for girls? Because girls buy books. That’s it, clear and simple. Guys don’t. They take books out of the library, or they borrow books from girls, but they don’t buy. Not like girls do.”

Is this true? If it is, why do guys tend to borrow rather than buy books? And again, is this true?

It’s necessary to think about the economic reasons that books for boys aren’t getting as much press as books for girls, but Hannah Moskowitz looks in other directions: namely, that books with realistic and multi-dimensional boys[3] aren’t being written, or aren’t being published. Moskowitz’s argument lies in the direction that there aren’t really good male characters being written because they’ve been crushed by the feminist spirit of new female leads, which I am not buying though her post makes for a good read.

If this is the case, then, might it just be part of a cycle we need to break? That boys, for one, don’t buy as many books as girls do; that publishers therefore have more interest in placing copies of the latest teen romance (or whatever) at the entrances of thousands of Barnes & Nobles; that authors thus have an economic interest in writing for girls; that boys find the numbers of new books geared at them are dwindling; and so it goes.

But now I have a couple of questions. For the guys reading this (god, I hope that one of my two readers is male), what did your reading look like as you were growing up? I know I read a lot of books that were geared towards boys, and so I still picture the young adult boys section of any bookstore as overflowing with adventure and detective stories. I am probably a little off here, but I cling to my fantasies.

And how do bookstores look different today, to a guy? Are there fewer books for boys? My last clear memory of a young adult section in an American bookstore is pretty jammed with covers either bedazzled or showing some suggestive vampire imagery: girl books. Or are there still good books being published for boys that simply aren’t receiving the shelf space that the books for girls are?

Do you think Moskowitz has something in her argument that there aren’t strong male characters being written in young adult, and that this is something limiting boys’ interest in reading the (supposedly nonexistent) books aimed at them? Or that strong male leads have been replaced by strong female leads?

And, a topic of abiding interest for me: why don’t boys read “girl books”? I get that there are some a 13-year-old boy wouldn’t want to read (there are a lot I wouldn’t want to read), but what is it about a book having a female main character that keeps boys from reading a book? Tamora Pierce writes that she has plenty of male readers in her fantastic lady knight universe, but I’m not sure I buy this. As she points out, though, her books are full of sword fights, war, adventure, monsters…why wouldn’t teenage boys be into this stuff?

The ultimate question when we’re discussing boys and reading may be why we are so concerned that boys aren’t reading fiction in the same volume as girls are. As Pierce notes, there are a lot of things besides novels that guys can be reading: “Magazines. Comics. (The ones they don’t read already.) Short stories. Audio books. High impact books–lots of action, short length. Nonfiction.” And as the Reading Ape notes in a guest post at Desert Book Chick, men tend to read more newspapers and blogs than do women; so despite all the hand wringing over why men aren’t reading, they are, but not always novels.

What’s the specificity of our focus on young adult novels for boys say about how we value different types of reading materials? If a boy is reading not novels but comic books or graphic novels or magazines or something on the internet, would you rate that as valuable reading, or is it only reading novels[4] that “counts” when we’re discussing the reading habits of teens? Do you think that the reading habits of teen boys has changed significantly since you were a teen, or is it just that we’re writing more articles about it now?

Previously:

  1. Wednesday – YA Lit: What it is, and What it “Should” Be (1/3)
  2. Thursday – The Need for Strong Female Characters in YA Lit (2/3)

[1] However, it might not be that far off from what I see here. There are a few bookstores in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, that I’ve been in, and they’ve all got Macedonian translations of Twilight front and center. (I may own one of these Macedonian translations of Twilight…) Not to go off-topic (I so rarely do), but think about it: there are translations of Twilight in Macedonian, a language with roughly two million speakers. Will it ever be stopped? Back to text

[2] Is this entry nothing more than a test to see how many times I can write “vampire” in one post? For that matter, is that what this whole series is? Back to text

[3] As my GRE-studying self would say, as through the mouth of E.M. Forster, “round characters.” Back to text

[4] Twilight. Back to text