BOOK REVIEWS

Notes on a Silencing: A Memoir by Lacy Crawford

“The teachers, rectors, lawyers, and priests of St. Paul’s School lied to preserve their legacy. It would take decades to learn not to hate the girl they disparaged, and to give her the words she deserved.”

Notes on a Silencing is a profoundly poignant memoir and a deeply moving account of a young girl’s sexual assault and its aftermath. With clarity and precision, Crawford describes her time at St. Paul’s School, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, where, at the age of fifteen, she was sexually assaulted by two older students, both of whom went unpunished and were able to graduate with awards. The physical violence of the assault is followed by a different kind of violence when the school, more concerned with its own reputation than pursuing the matter, silences her.
Crawford revisits the assault, the months that led up to it and what followed. She recreates the atmosphere and toxic culture of St. Paul’s, a place predominantly attended by the children of WASP families. Although Crawford’s vision of this rarefied world is far from idealistic, she also writes about the friendships she formed at St. Paul’s. Yet, after her assault rumours begin spreading and Crawford is labelled a ‘slut’ and ostracised by her friend and fellow students. Crawford exposes the double standards applied to male and female sexuality that enables victim blaming.
With the pace and tension of a psychological thriller, Crawford revisits these events both through the eyes of the fifteen-year-old and with new adult insight. She details the mental and physical anguish of the assault and its traumatic aftereffects. By showing St. Paul’s as a microcosm of society, Crawford reveals the underlining mechanisms that permit systemic abuse of power.
Notes on a Silencing is a gripping and powerful memoir, one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.

A few quotes:

“The simplest way I can tell the story of my assault is to describe how the boys made me feel I was no longer a person. The first violation was erasure.”

“In bearing witness, we’re trying to correct a theft of power via a story. But power and stories, while deeply interconnected, are not the same things. One is rock, the other is water. Over time, long periods of time, water always wins.”

“If one of the great sources of misery for all high schoolers is the illusion that high school will never end, the reach of power implied (and wielded) by the alumni and trustees of St. Paul’s School threatened that in our particular case, that nightmare was real.”

“We were people on this earth. This life was all we had. It was all we fucking had, and life, my life, could not be determined by cruelty like this. It could not be allowed to stand.”

“If the first violation of the boys who assaulted me was the way they made me feel erased, it was exactly this injury that the school repeated, and magnified, when it created its own story of the assault. This time the erasure was committed by men whose power over me was socially conferred rather than physically wielded, by men who—some of them—had never ever been in a room with me. They still never have.”

“I did not want to write it because it should not matter, but of course it does, because a girl who is attacked will so often assume the fault lies with her. There is no escaping a primal culpability.”

“When the boys did what they did to me, they denied the third person on that bed. I had no humanity. The impact of this violation only sharpened with time. My careful distinctions of injury and responsibility—the difference I imagined between what they did and rape, between terrible things you should put behind you and truly hellish things no one would expect you to bear—allowed me, for many years, to restore that third person in the room in my mind.”

“I recognized the school’s act, of course. Its precise cruelty, the fanged transformation of private pain into public shame, turned a key in me.”

“Why now?’”A typically defensive question, and I could dismiss it for its insinuation that I had some underhanded motive whose tell was my delay in availing myself of the criminal justice system. I’m not sure what motive that would have been—I wasn’t suing, wasn’t pressing charges. But that wasn’t the point of the question. The question tries to portray the victim as the predator, the one with a clever plan. It aims to throw the whole circumstance on its head.”

“The work of telling is essential, and it is not enough. There is always the danger that the energy of the injustice will exhaust itself in the revelation—that we will be horrified but remain unchanged. The reason for this, I suspect, is that these are stories we all already know. A girl was assaulted. A boy was molested. The producer, the judge, the bishop, the boss. To hear these stories spoken aloud is jarring, but not because it causes us to reconsider who we are and how we are organized. It is only when power is threatened that power responds.”

“It’s so simple, what happened at St. Paul’s. It happens all the time.
First, they refused to believe me. Then they shamed me. Then they silenced me. On balance, if this is a girl’s trajectory from dignity to disappearance, I say it is better to be a slut than to be silent. I believe, in fact, that the slur slut carries within it, Trojan-horse style, silence as its true intent. That the opposite of slut is not virtue but voice.”

“ Consequences were not our concern. The school’s rules were not even called rules—they were formally known as expectations. Here the children of the elite were trained not in right or wrong but in projections of belief.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson — book review

9780143128045.jpegLife Among the Savages is a collection of comic essays by Shirley Jackson originally published in women’s magazines. Rather than a memoir Life Among the Savages reads as a series of episodes focusing on Jackson’s chaotic family life: children squabbling, disagreements with other parents, daily chores, and family dinners. Jackson renders the cacophony of her family, tinging everyday activities or conversations with a does of absurdity. Her children’s back and forth are as entertaining as they are bewildering:

“That shirt’s no good,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“Children,” I called, my voice a little louder than it usually is at only nine in the morning. “Please stop squabbling and get dressed.”
“Laurie started it,” Jannie called back.
“Jannie started it,” Laurie called.”

Jackson very much focuses on the lightest aspects of her life, painting herself as a busy mother of three, and focusing her attention to her children’s antics as opposed to herself. It was lovely to read the way in which she could be amused by their nonsense or misdeeds (Jannie’s imaginary daughters were a joy to read of). There were also plenty of elements that brought to mind her fictional work or in some way made me wonder whether they somehow influenced her writing: the broken step, the creepy taxi driver, the nosy locals, Laurie’s ‘schoolmate’ Charles (whose name enters the family lexicon, “With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”). I was delighted by the way in which Jackson would write about her house.

Life Among the Savages will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Jackson’s particular brand of humour.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado — book review

While I definitely admire Carmen Maria Machado for having not only the strength to tackle such a difficult subject matter but to do so by sharing her own personal experience91zeicdP-gL.jpg with her readers, and part of me also can’t help but to recognise that In the Dream House: A Memoir is one of the most innovative memoir I have ever read, I would be lying if I said (or wrote) that it was flawlessly executed. I’m definitely glad to see that many other reviewers are praising it and or have clearly found it to be an emotional and striking read…nevertheless I will try to momentarily resist peer pressure and express my honest opinion instead, which is that In the Dream House: A Memoir struck me as a rather disjointed amalgamation.
On the one hand we have pages and pages chock-full of quotations from secondary sources discussing the way in which American society tends to dismiss or not acknowledge that sexual, emotional, and physical abuse within the queer community is possible. These sections seemed to adopt an essayist’s language. However, while these sections used certain academic terms (possibly not accessible to a wide readership) and were structured like essays of sorts they didn’t really develop Machado’s initial argument (that abusive queer or LGBTQ relationships are often called in to question since many consider the idea of a woman abusing another woman unbelievable). I didn’t agree with some of her readings of certain queer films nor did I find her own brand of queer criticism all that compelling.
The other segments in this memoir draw from Machado’s personal history with an abusive relationship. Her partner (a woman) emotionally and psychologically abused her throughout the entirety of their relationship. Machado deviates from the usual recognisably ‘memoir’ way of presenting one’s own story offering us instead with fragments of her time in this abusive relationship. She addresses this past ‘self’ in the secondary person, so there are a lot of ‘you’ this and ‘you’ that, and her abuser as ‘the woman in the Dream House’. Here her language becomes even more flowery and the imagery and metaphors were rather abstract. These sections seemed snapshots more than anything else. The ‘poetic’ style seemed to take on more importance than Machado’s own story.
I also wasn’t all that keen on the way she traces past conversations and incidents back to folklore. She seems a bit too ready to connect every single moment of this awful relationship back to Jungian archetypes. It was weird and it made some aspects of memoir seem a bit artificial.
Also while I get that sometimes including graphic or deeply personal moments is horrifyingly necessary when discussing abuse (such as Isabelle Aubry does in her memoir where she talks in detail about the horrific sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her) here we had these random sex scenes which seemed to be included merely to be subversive.
Overall I just couldn’t look past my dislike for Machado writing style. Still, I’m definitely in the minority on this one so I recommend you check this one out and see for yourself whether you are interested in reading this.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Coventry by Rachel Cusk — review

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I have rather mixed thoughts about Rachel Cusk’s Coventry: Essays. Maybe I’m just not the right ‘reader’ for her work…I previously read, and was rather underwhelmed by, Outline…a book that has won quite a few literary awards and is thought of by many as a modern classic.

This collection by Cusk is divided in three sections: the first consists of autobiographical essays (“Driving as Metaphor”,“Coventry”, “On Rudeness”, “Making Home”, “Lions on Leashes”, “Aftermath”) in which she makes various speculations regarding notions of motherhood, home, and agency, often using her personal history—for example with divorce—as a springing board for later suppositions. The other two sections include essays in which she mainly speaks of artists and authors (a few being “Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric”, “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence”, “Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “On Natalia Ginzburg”).
I much preferred the essays included in these last two sections of this collections. Even if I didn’t entirely agree with some of her readings I thought that Cusk’s ‘critical’ essays were well articulated and interesting. Sadly, I found her autobiographical essays to be rather obnoxious.

At times I had the distinctive impression that the Cusk that emerges from these autobiographical essays seems to have undergone a processes of self-fashioning. Cusk presents herself as a sphinx-like figure, a seer of sorts, capable of discerning the universal truths from personal experiences and opinions. The weight she seems to give to her own mental meanderings seems rather unjustified.
I was also discomfited by the impassive manner in which she would methodically dissect the people around her, coldly pointing out their flaws without ever rendering with clarity a sense of their personality or their shared history with her.
This reticence to let ‘us in’ that manifests itself throughout her biographical essays was detrimental to my reading experience. She seems unconcerned by ideas of privacy as she speaks of very personal subject matters (her divorce for example) yet provides so little context when describing certain episodes and events in her life that made it difficult it for me to relate to her experiences or viewpoint. For example in “Coventry”, the essay which has become the title of this whole collection and therefore one might assume that it has some importance, she doesn’t really make it clear to her readers why her parents “send her to coventry” or what is the exact nature of their relationship. In another essay she examines the way in which divorce has changed the reality and shape of her family in a rather metaphysical way, so that it seems almost as if she wasn’t writing of her own personal experiences presenting her personal experience as some sort of universal one.
She skirts around the edges of possibly complex and fraught relationships without ever delving into the ‘thick of it’
. Because of this, the comments she made about the people in her life struck me as somewhat callous and even uncalled for as I wasn’t made privy to the reason behind her words.
I acknowledge that autobiographical essays are a tricky feat but there are many writers who manage to give an outline of their relationships with their family without revealing everything about them (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). If an essay examines something that is specifically connected to a certain episode or person from its author’s life one might expect a ‘personal’ element to supplement this exploration of this certain event/individual. For instance, in an essay in which Cusk writes of being repeatedly “send her to coventry” by her parents would, in theory, give us at least a vague impression of the dynamics between them (it doesn’t).
In her philosophising Cusk shows a tendency for issuing rather banal dictums (cars=people, airports=places of transport, children=extension of their parents, homes=reflecting those who inhabit them). At times these rather predictable statements could lead into more profound observations, such as when Cusk expands her vision of airports as places of convergence or how a visit to a clothing shop leads into a discussion regarding the falsity of the customer service industry.

Cusk also demonstrated a propensity for unfortunate analogies: she is “a self-hating transvestite” because she earned the money in her household and did her share of the house-chores . She and her husband were “two transvestites, a transvestite couple” because he was a stay at home dad. She also compares her changing notions “of a woman’s beauty” to “an immigrant’s notion of home”, that is “theoretical”: “My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father’s”. This seemed a somewhat dramatic comparison…then again she goes to equate being ignored to being at war so yes, Cusk has a tendency to dramatise some of her so-called ‘struggles’. After her divorce she feels that “my children and I […] we are like a Gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary” . Another clumsy comparison she makes is that of feminist to alcoholics: feminists stay away from “the kitchen, the maternity ward – like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven’t been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine”.
Speaking of feminism, I didn’t entirely agree, or cared to agree, with her vision of feminisms which seems to present feminism at its most radical: “ The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation” and “what I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me – the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother ”. For Cusk a feminist “does not propitiate: she objects. She’s a woman turned inside out”. Feminists hate feminine values and notions of domesticity…and some sure do but isn’t a bit of a generalisation to imply that all feminists will inadvertently fall into this trap of hating other women?
Cusk’s notion of male and female values seemed outdated. In each of this autobiographical essays she seems a bit too concerned with bringing different episodes or topics back to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, definitions of womanhood and manhood which weren’t as ‘mind-blowing’ as the author herself seemed to think. Cusk’s speculations seemed to clearly stem from the mind of someone…shall I say intellectual? Of a certain class? Because of this she seems unaware of making quite a few unfortunate analogies that made me wonder whether a reality check was needed.
Yet, in spite of my criticism towards Cusk’s essays I still thought that does manage to make some interesting speculations regarding things such as rudeness and her portrayal of the polarisation in post-Brexit Britain ‘hits’ right on the nail as she shrewdly describes her country’s current political climate.
Woven throughout Cusk’s essays are a set of theories and concepts such as “suspension of disbelief” and “story vs. reality” yet, in spite of her assertion that as a writer she is values “objectivity” she shows a predilection for self-dramatisation and for conflating notions of subjectivity and objectivity.
However I also have to concede that one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to relate to Cusk’s autobiographical essays might be due to generational, if not cultural, differences. My mother, unlike me, seems to have appreciated most of these essays and doesn’t seem to think that Cusk’s speculations about feminism and domesticity are quite as obsolete as I claim they are.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster — book review

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A compilation of wonderfully funny and awkward anecdotes.

Perfect Sound Whatever will definitely appeal to readers who are already acquainted with James Acaster. As I consider him to be one of my favourite comedians I was looking forward to this new book by him. Acaster manages to translate his ‘on screen/on stage’ humour to both the print and the audiobook format of Perfect Sound Whatever. What comes through is also his passion for the project that is at the heart of Perfect Sound Whatever: to convince his audience that 2016 Was The Best Year For Music.
He recounts of how the music from this particular year helped him rediscover his love for music and come through a particularly miserable year (aka 2017) in which his girlfriend broke up with him, he was dropped by his agent left him, and had to stop seeing his incredibly unprofessional therapist.

His deep dive into pop, rock, indie, metal, electronic, and some very obscure music of 2016 clearly provided him with both purpose and relief.
Throughout his endlessly amusing narrative he intersperses some of his favourite 2016 tracks, providing readers with some information about the artists’ life, career, and music style. His critique of these songs were surprisingly in-depth as he is able to discern exactly what elements of a track speaks to him and why. Acaster also manages to fit the right artist and track to a particular moment of his ‘not-so-good’ year. These songs clearly spoke to him and it was lovely to see the way in which music helped him feel more in control of his life.
I recommend listening to the audiobook format as Acaster’s performance enhances his already entertaining book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg — book review

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From the first page I was drawn by Natalia Ginzburg’s incredibly vivid prose. The title of this memoir encapsulates much of Ginzburg’s recollection of her family. She remembers in minute detail the way in which within her family certain words and phrases had a particular significance or meaning, one that is known only by a small group of people.
For example, the father reiterates the same words and views so much so that readers can predict not only what he will say but the words he will use. The same goes for the rest of Ginzburg’s family…I never thought of them as ‘characters’ but as real people. And of course they were ‘real’ but it is rare to find a memoir—or a book in general—that really brings to life these different personalities.
Maybe I found a lot of the family discussions and anecdotes relatable because I’m Italian, and Ginzburg’s father reminded me very much of my own grandfather (from their quirks and habits to their idiosyncrasies). And in a way in this portrait of her family Ginzburg evokes the typical Italian family (the brothers who fight with one another, the temperamental father, the pacifying mother).
Behind the laughter and mundanities of this family’s everyday life is a country in turmoil. The rise of Mussolini and fascism repeatedly threaten the safety of Ginzburg’s loved ones (her father was jewish and her first husband—born in the Russian Empire—was an anti-fascist). Yet, even as her brothers and father are imprisoned and released time and again, there is a sense of normalcy that alleviates the gravity of these situations.
A memoir full of humour, love, and deeply insightful, I would definitely recommend this to readers who might want an immersive and entertaining glimpse of an Italian family in the 30s and 40s.

side note: the cover for the English edition of this book is beautiful.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up to 5 because I listened to the audiobook)

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Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson — review

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Brave Face was not an easy read given that it delves into some of the darkest moments of Shaun David Hutchinson’s life. The memoir focuses in particular over his teenage years where he struggled with reconciling himself with sexuality and with his own personality (who he is, how others perceive him, what others expect him to be…). We see how a lot of the popular culture of his time presented him with demeaning portrayals of his sexuality (which saw gay men as little more than jokes or as sick figures to be pitied). Hutchinson evokes with clarity the way these misconceptions influenced the way he felt about his sexuality, fuelling much of his self-hatred. It was painful to read of the way in which he closed himself from the world, and the way in which his bitterness, hatred, and loneliness seemed to spiral out of control dominating this period of his life.
Hutchinson also captures the awkwardness of being a teenager. The pressures of ‘fitting in’, or belonging, of finding the ‘right path’…he does so in a frank manner, and there were many instances where I felt embarrassed, sad, or frustrated on his behalf. His depression, self-harm, and anxiety are not easy to read of. Perhaps because I share some similar experiences with him, I felt particularly affected by his story.
Another thing that made this a powerful read is that it was realistic. There is no magical cure for depression, and sometimes we grow apart from the people we cared for. Or at times, we care for people who are rather horrible.
My only quibble is that the final chapter rams in too much of Hutchinson’s life. Compared with the slow progress of the rest of his memoir, the last chapter seemed to be trying to narrate the rest of his life, which was a tad overwhelming and definitely all-too rushed.
Still, this is a memoir that will definitely resonate with a lot readers and I fully recommend it.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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THINGS I DON’T WANT TO KNOW : BOOK REVIEW

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Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing
by Deborah Levy
★★★✰✰ 3 of 5 stars

In Things I Don’t Want to Know Deborah Levy revists her childhood in South Africa in order to better understand her place in the present. She herself admits that her writing favours form > matter and so in this short book she focuses more on the sound of certain phrases rather than providing a more clear cut depiction of her personal life. Levy conveys the kind of thoughts that children have but her writing jumps too quickly between different subjects that I often lost the trail of her discussion or reflection.
Nothing groundbreaking or deeply affecting but in such a short format Levy had a ‘restricted’ space for all those topics she wanted to handle.

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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

“She was a monster but she was my monster.”

Despite addressing ‘heavy’ topics, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a fast read.
Earlier this year I read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. For the most part I liked it (I gave it 3 stars) but I wasn’t too taken by it. So I was quite surprised by how much I ended up liking Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? . Although liking perhaps is not the right word. I didn’t like reading about Winterson’s painful childhood and of her more recent ‘troubles’. However, I did think that her words, and story, heartbreaking. I found her memoir to be incredibly affecting. Her words struck a chord. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a poignant and heart-rending memoir that explores love, family, loss, happiness and many other things.

“Love. The difficult words. Where everything starts, where we always return. Love. Love’s lack. The possibility of love.

Winterson’s voice relates here past in a genuine and matter-of-fact way while also being able to make her past behaviours and to make sharp reflections.
Her self-examination is honest. She does not shy away from writing about all of it: the good and the bad, and the downright awful.

“I have always tried to make a home for myself, but I have not felt at home in myself. I have worked hard at being the hero of my own life, but every time I checked the register of displaced persons, I was still on it. I didn’t know how to belong.
Longing? Yes. Belonging? No.

An emotional and contemplative journey that offers many acute observations.

“Pursuing happiness, and I did, and I still do, is not all the same as being happy– which I think is fleeting, dependent on circumstances, and a bit bovine.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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