Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Hello my lovelies! It’s been such a long time!

I would apologize for being an absentee book friend for…well, forever, but we both know I don’t actually feel bad about it, and I respect you too darn much to lie to you, ya piles of Goddamn excellent.

However! I have missed y’all, and this, quite a bit, and it does feel good to get back into the saddle. It’s just unfortunate that this had to be the book to get me there.

I hate to rate this book so low, because generally I like Margaret Atwood a lot. She’s a really gifted and beautiful writer. The Blind Assassin was one of the first big literary novels I ever read, part of my transition away from only ever reading Fantasy, with a light smattering of Scifi (which are still, admittedly, my favourite and most frequently visited genres), and I loooooooved it. That, and the general hype around this story, actually had me pretty excited to dig into another hefty, thick Atwood book. I was prepared, I was willing, I was able.
But HOLY MOTHER OF GOD WAS THIS BOOK BORING.
I mean…yeeeeeeesh. Who would’ve thought that a story about a possibly insane “murderess” in pre-american civil war era Canada could be suuuucccchhhh a slog. I’m all about slow burns, in fact I love it when stories take their time, and I’ve happily read books that really didn’t do much other than give a little insight into a particular time or way of life, but there was something about this book I just kept knocking my head against. I actively avoided having reading time in order to not have to pick this up again, that’s how much I didn’t want to read it.
Listen, sentence by sentence this book is as well written as anything she’s ever done, but stitched together…I dunno. There’s a lot of y’all out there who like it, it’s got a great Goodreads score and lots of praise in the reviews section, so maybe it’s just me, but…I dunno. Maybe just this once I think it might actually be you, overly long book full of miserable and unlikeable people, and not me.
Aaaaaanywho, I guess I would recommend this book for people who like plain toast, dull grey skies, and reading the instruction manuals for remote controls cover to cover.


VBR

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Yeeeeeeeeeeeesh, what a book.

I don’t know why it took me this long to get to this. It was the buzz book a few years back, and I’ve been hearing about it periodically ever since (the peeps over at Bookriot are constantly singing it’s praises, even now). There’s even regular copies of it at the used bookstores I go to (Pulp Fiction in Vancouver! Go there!). I think I was just under the (completely and entirely wrong) impression that this was a soppily dramatic YA novel, a la John Green, about a murdered girl and all her angst. This isn’t the first time that that’s happened, I made a snap judgement about a book and was way off base, but I think this may be the most wrong I’ve ever been.

I can’t believe this is Celeste Ng’s debut novel. There are writers out there (lots of them), good, competent writers, who have whole careers where they never produce something this insightful, this subtle, this good. It’s so beautifully written and she manages to fit so much stuff in such a small package. At it’s most basic this is the story about a girl’s death, how and why it happened, and what happens after. But it’s also about love and want and loss. About racism and family and the weight of expectations. And above all that, or maybe beneath it, it’s about miscommunication. How hard and complicated it is to be human, how complex our feelings are, how impossible it can be to convey what we really mean. So often we miss the point of another person’s actions or words or gestures because we’re too busy seeing it through the filter of our own flaws and insecurities. We see jabs aimed at our most vulnerable points because that’s what we’re afraid people we love are going to do, or we end up striking other people in their’s because we’re too busy licking our own wounds to notice the damage we’re doing.

This book may not have been the overly dramatic teen soap that I was expecting it to be, but it was an emotional, difficult read. There’s a lot of ugliness and at times the book can be pretty bleak and heartbreaking, but it’s not all tears and misery. There’s genuine love and affection, hope and good people doing good things, insight into the human condition. Basically gals what I’m saying is hold on to your butts, because it’s a bit of a ride.

Recommended for people who like crying, and being sad, and learning stuff about what it is to be human, even if it isn’t always the easiest stuff to admit to or see.

Buy it, ya chumps!

VBR

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

Ugh, you gals, this book broke my heart.

I had a whole stack of books to write about saved up on here. December was a great reading month for me (I treated myself to my very first N.K. Jemisin experience, and it was everything everyone said it would be), and the first two books of the year were nothing to shake a stick at. But as soon as I opened Call Me By Your Name, as soon as I read the first page, I knew that I wasn’t going to write anything else until I’d talked about it.

I haven’t been this moved by a love story since A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which I read early last year and which remained one of my favourite reads of 2017. Granted, I’m a sucker for a gay love story. I’ve spent so much of my life starved for them that, even if it’s mediocre, I’m still going to devour it (likely over and over again). If it’s bad, I’ll probably still like it. If it’s good, I’ll love it. If it’s as touching and insightful and beautiful as this? Well, I’ll probably cry while finishing it on a train full of strangers and feel like a total weirdo after.

I just…it’s been a long time since I’ve felt so connected to a main character. Elio felt like me (minus the super rich, European genius thing, obviously) as a conflicted gay teenager. There were so many parts that were just so spot on. The way he moved around men that he wanted, the way that he thought about them. The way he lay awake at night seesawing between hoping that they would come to him and praying that they wouldn’t. The way he knew that his parents would accept him no matter what, but that he feared telling them or talking to them about it anyways. He dreaded that moment of hesitation from his father, that slight twitch of the face, even if he knew that what was coming afterwards was love and acceptance. There was a portion of the book where Elio is thinking about Oliver and his broad shoulders and how nice they are, when he starts to wish he had shoulders like that, and it makes him think, Do I desire to touch them, or to have them as my own? Am I admiring them just because they’re admirable, or because I want to nestle inside them, hold them, have them hold me? Is there a difference? I read that and felt like Aciman had cracked open my skull and scooped out a memory from my youth. It was the lie I told myself for years as a teenager in order to avoid confronting my gayness. I don’t want them, I want to be them. That’s the reason I had all those GQ magazines under my bed. That’s the reason my eyes always lingered where they did.

It’s a beautiful love story, but at it’s heart, for me, it’s a story about confronting oneself, of finding oneself within another, and of finding acceptance in that other person. Elio knows what he is, he spends almost none of the book trying to deny it (he’s so immediately smitten with Oliver that there’s little chance of that), but he still wrestles with it. The scene after the first time they make love, where Elio feels shame and self-disgust and doesn’t want to be around Oliver at all, I know that feeling. I remember it. Even when intellectually I’d decided that I was going to act on my feelings, that there was nothing wrong with them, there was still all this pent up, festering homophobia that I’d swallowed from my culture and environment. That was the hardest hurdle to get over, and I’ve never seen that reflected so accurately on the page before. It broke my heart to experience another person going through something like that, but it gave me comfort too. I said this about Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad a few weeks ago and if anything it’s even more true about this: reading this book made me feel less alone about my experience of life. Not to get too cheesy on you, but that’s a rare and precious thing.

So all that is to say, this book gave me feelings. Like, a bunch of them. Probably all of them. I loved it, I still love it, and I’m probably going to reread it in like a month. So…I dunno, get on it!

Recommended for people who aren’t idiots, who have good taste in things, and who don’t want me to judge them for not having read it (because I will, and already am).

VBR

 

Ps. As a side note, this book was such an emotional experience for me that I didn’t really get into any of the technical aspects of it in the review. Suffice it to say, Aciman knows what he’s doing. The book is not only beautiful, but beautifully written.

 

Manhattan Beach (And Also, Sort of, Mostly, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan can do no wrong for me.

I read A Visit From the Goon Squad when it first came out and absolutely loved it. As well as just being an outstandingly written and engaging book, it struck a really specific chord with me. I was in a weird, complicated place in my life at the time. I had already come out of the closet, but was still wrestling with the idea of being gay, the fact of it. I’d admitted it to myself, I’d let people know about it (I’d sort of gotten to the point where hiding it was not an option anymore), but I was having a hard time acting on it. I didn’t know what to do or how to be and I was still struggling with a little internalized homophobia. I wanted to sleep with men, but I didn’t want to be the type of man that slept with men (which, trust me, I know how fucked up and wrong that is. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I had swallowed some of the mild, background homophobia of the environment that I grew up in, and even longer to purge that vile shit from my system).

So anyways, I was in this weird and vulnerable place, thinking that nobody in the world understands me or where I’m coming from, that yeah there are lots of gay people out there, even lots of gay people in conflict with themselves, but I’m some specific and unique type of person that, in the entire history of angsty as fuck semi-adults, has never ever existed before. And then I read this book, and there’s a character in it who’s struggling with himself a lot, uncomfortable and unhappy in his own skin, and it mostly has to do with the fact that he’s gay and not allowing himself to act on it. We weren’t exactly the same (he was some highschool football jock and I was suuuuuper not that), but I saw a lot of myself in that character, in the way he pulled against himself and tore himself up trying to avoid something that he, deep down, didn’t really want to avoid. It was a relatively small portion of the book, but Egan fucking nailed it. It’s such a specific feeling, being pulled, both against and not against your will, towards a version of yourself that you’re afraid of becoming, that you want to become, that you know you can’t avoid. I have such respect for her as a writer, for her insight, because of it. It gets the highest compliment that I can give a novel: I read this book and I felt less alone.

Now! Manhattan Beach didn’t have quite the impact on me that A Visit From the Goon Squad did (it’s hard to imagine how it could), but that has less to do with the writing and more to do with the subject, I think. She still has her sharp insight, her craftsmanship when it comes to specific and engaging characters, who not only seem like real people, but feel like them. And I did dig the setting and the subject a lot, women workers during the second World War, diving, gangsters, merchant seaman, the pressures and consequences of social expectation during that period of time. All those things are super awesome and interesting, and she tells them really well. I may not have connected with the characters in that same way I did in her previous novel, but that’s not really surprising. I’m not a gangster, I’m not a father who abandoned his family, and I’m definitely not a woman pushing against a society that is set up not to trust or respect me. The commonality that I had with these characters was more in a “we’re all human beings” sort of way, rather than anything specific. Still, Egan is a master of her craft and I got wrapped up in these people, absorbed by them. This isn’t a little book, somewhere around 450 pages, but I shot through it in two or three sittings and, even though I really liked the ending, was disappointed when it was done. I liked these people (most of them anyways), liked learning about and being around them. I was sad to see them go.

Anywho, all of this is to say that this wasn’t my favourite of Egan’s books, but I still loved the pants off it, and it was a damned sight better than I’d expect from most other authors.

Recommended for anybody who’s looking for historical fiction rooted deeply in the lives of the people of the period, those who want finely crafted character studies, and anybody with an interest in World War II era underwater welding, but that (like me) doesn’t really want to spend that much time on the war itself.

VBR

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This book really, really moved me. It was, is, and will continue to be for some time, very important to me. I’m going to do my best here to describe why. I’m not really sure if words will do it, at least not in the way that I use them, but I’ll do my best.

This is a book of such beauty and grace. I know that’s not a novel description of it. It’s on the cover of the book itself, and countless reviewers have probably said the same thing, and will continue to. But it’s new to me. I don’t think I’ve ever, not even in all of the thousands of unread words I’ve written in journals, used the word grace to describe a book. The fact that I’m doing it now is itself a testament to the way reading this has impacted me.

If that paragraph above was a little too pretentious for you, strap in. It’s only going to get worse from here.

My relationship with this book started really contentiously. I’d heard about it, knew that it was centered around religion and was told from the point of view of a religious man, and that caused me to enter into it a little warily. I’ve had a difficult relationship with religion. I’ve always been surrounded by it (I spent a large portion of my youth around a big, warm, lovely catholic family), but I’ve never had much time for it myself. I don’t hate it, not like some people do (though my feelings towards the institutions, as opposed to the people and communities who practice it, are not as kind), but I’ve never appreciated it much either. Never really believed in it. I still don’t. My brain is wired for facts, numbers and statistics and reasons that people can give why I should believe them. Believe, not believe in. The difference there is subtle, but it’s there. I think I’m missing that thing, whatever it is, that allows people to believe in a person or an idea that completely. In fact, if we’re being honest, I’ve spent much of my life looking down on that quality and the people who have it. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. It seemed archaic, unnecessary, a false comfort for people who couldn’t face the cold, hard intellectual truths of the world. A way of ignoring them. I try to live my life being kind and understanding, to view the world through other people’s eyes (to not be an asshole, essentially), but every now and again the stubborn, opinionated, right teenager I used to be would bubble up. I’d say, yes, that religion of course had it’s place. Whatever comfort people could glean from the world, false or not, was a good thing. And that the institutions didn’t reflect on the people. I would acknowledge that it was made up of individual, distinct parts (how good of me). But then I’d clear my throat and crack my knuckles and say that just because an institution is made of kind people who do kind things doesn’t mean that we should just ignore the injustices they’ve been responsible for. Those kind people gave their money to the church, provided them with the power that they’ve misused, again and again and again. And if you think about it, catholics especially, why are you giving your money to the church to begin with? The pope preaches giving alms to the poor from a city made of gold. It’s hypocritical and gross. Then, smug and satisfied, I’d pat myself on the back for an argument well-made and go on my merry way. Looking back on it now, the arrogance of it embarrasses me.

The truth is that I still believe most of those things to be true (though I never bring them up anymore. What good does it do? How many people’s minds have I actually changed? Is that even what I want? If I did manage to persuade someone, really change what they thought, would what I was offering them be worth what I was taking away? Am I that sure of my own rightness? There’s too many questions behind it, and I don’t have the answers to any of them), but that they’re besides the point when you’re talking about the religions themselves, when you’re speaking about belief. It’s also just rude.

Because of my antagonistic way of interacting with religion, I always felt a sort of antagonism back from it. The offenses you perceive from other people have more to say about yourself than they do about them. I know that that’s true here, and I think it’s also just true generally. I always felt like their terminology was demeaning. By offering to save me, by referring to the act of joining them as being saved, they were denying my right to know what was best for me, denying my ability to look at the world and figure it out for myself. They were, in my eyes, dismissing the thing that I value the most about myself, my intelligence. But really, if you think about it, of course that’s the word they would use. And most religious people of any kindness or intelligence would inform you that it’s just a term. That they don’t really believe that people are ignorant or stupid for not believing what they believe, or that those people are doomed to burn in hell. No God that loves us would damn us just for the crime of non-belief. He couldn’t be that cruel.

The most obvious example of that is the brother and the way the narrator interacts with him. He mentions the brother’s belief (gleaned from an author and thinker whose name eludes me) that the kindness and beauty that we make in the world (and that which exists without our involvement at all) should be sufficient for our understanding of it. The world itself is enough. He thinks that religion is unnecessary, and that it should just “stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised” (this is the view in the book that hews most closely to my own). The author thinks that his ideas are marvelous when it comes to appreciating the world, but that he is ultimately wrong. At first after reading this I was furious. How dare he wave that idea away, belittle it, treat it so trivially. It was right! But the more I read and thought about it, the more I realized that’s not what happened. The narrator (the author) had thought about the viewpoint and respected it, but simply disagreed (with me). That’s all. And disagreement itself is not dismissive, despite what my pride may want me to believe. I had treated their beliefs about the world with condescension and arrogance, and I was looking for the same in return. And if you look for something hard enough, you’ll find it, even if it’s not there. Even if it never was.

After coming to that realization I was able to let my guard down, and, for the first time in my life, set aside my prejudices enough (or as much as is possible) to get a glimpse of the world through the eyes of a person who really, truly believes. And it was lovely. Different, yes, and in some parts so much so that it was hard for me to grasp, but no less beautiful for its strangeness. The narrator had so much warmth and wisdom and kindness to share, so much love for the world. He wasn’t using his religion to shield him from the darker parts of it, he was using it to confront and understand them, to seek guidance through them. Most importantly he was using it to appreciate all the light. As he would say, that’s a remarkable thing to think about.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’ve been converted. I am who I am, and who I am lends itself to a belief in the physical, the tangible. But I feel like I learned a lot. I’m still no expert on faith, but I think I understand it better now. I respect it (not that it matters to anybody whether or not I do). I may not think that it’s right, but for the first time in my life I feel like it might be good.

Grace. I think I’ve avoided using that word to describe previous books or authors because I never knew what it meant, not really. I still don’t think that I’ve quite figured it out. But I’m a good deal closer than I’ve ever been.

Be good to each other.

VBR

 

No One Writes to the Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I knew my wild hot streak of incredible books wasn’t going to last forever, but I never would’ve imagined it would be Marquez that would end it.
I don’t think I had overly high expectations for it either. I know that sometimes authors of great novels don’t necessarily make authors of great short stories. They’re different mediums and they require the use of different skills. But as a lover of short stories and Marquez alike, I thought that I’d at least like this. Instead I found it really, really tedious to get through. The characters were flat and the stories were uninteresting, slices of life that had so little to say that I’m not sure what motivated him to write them in the first place. For the most part they were just pretty flavourless and forgettable, but one story, I think it was called One Sunday Afternoon (or something along those lines. It’s been reburied into my suitcase and I’m not willing to go digging around to get it out), was so boring and so pointless that it pushed my mild unenjoyment of the collection into actual dislike.
Anyways, I’m not going to belabor the point. I read these stories, didn’t like them, but I’ll get over it. And don’t let this dissuade you from going out and checking out Marquez. His novels are fantastic. Just maybe give this one a miss. Or not, I didn’t get much from it, but you might. Books are like that.

VBR

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Hey my beautifuls! How’re ya’ll today? Feeling good? Great! Cause we’re going to talk about one of the darkest, saddest novels I’ve ever read. As a reader of bookish blogs and a member of the book-loving(/obsessed) community, you’ve probably already read it. It was huge when it came out, and has continued to be sold and talked about since. But…I dunno, it’s what I felt like talking about today, so I suppose you’ll just have to suffer through.

This book is strange, sad, and bleak as fucccckkkk. There’s value here for sure. It’s insanely well done, with moments of real, genuine beauty in it, most of them wrought from Roy’s writing (which can, from time to time, veer into the overly abstract. It really is lovely though). There’s insight into the human experience, emotional depth, smart social commentary, but…it’s not exactly fun to read. This book is an exercise in emotional endurance. It’s worth it, once you get to the end, but getting there…woof. It’s not easy.

Have any of you ever seen Grave of the Fireflies? The Studio Ghibli movie? I didn’t weep quite as much while reading this as I did during that film, but afterwards I had the same sort of “life is pain, but also beautiful, but also mostly just pain” feeling when I was done. And just like that movie, I loved it, but I’m not sure I’ll go back to it again. Once is enough.
I feel like I’m waffling a little back and forth between telling you to either go out and pick this book up right away, devour it, suffer through the pain and take all the rich, meaty goodness that it has to give you, or to take that money and go and buy yourself some ice cream instead. Go for a run. Kiss someone. Eat a whole pizza and watch cartoons. Most of me says just do some or all of the last ones. But! If somehow you find yourself in the mood to get your heart broken a little (perhaps you’re wrapped in blankets, sitting by a fire, drinking hot chocolate and snuggling with a pet), this is a great book to do it with.


VBR

 

The North Water by Ian McGuire

I am such a sucker for a period piece. Even more of a sucker for one set in this particularly grimy, shitty period of English/European history. Even, even more of a sucker for a period piece about a weirdly specific industry that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, to be fair, this book isn’t exactly a deep dive into the whaling world (which, despite my love of learning anything and everything history, even the horrifying stuff, I’m a little thankful for. Whaling was fucking brutal. Have you ever read anything about whaling? I love whales, so maybe I’m more sensitive than your average Joe, but the sheer volume of animals that industry killed makes me a little sick to my stomach. The whaling boom didn’t last a terribly long time, some places that I read guesstimate it at about a hundred or so years, but it almost completely wiped whales out. Their populations have never recovered) but just having it as a backdrop to the story hooked me.

But really, this story could have been told anywhere, at any time. As much as I like the setting, and as much as it fits and helps to facilitate the plot, it’s not what this book is about. The real nugget at the centre of this novel is McGuire’s interest in the darkest parts of the human animal-what it is we want, why we want it, the things we’re willing to do to others to get it.

And boy howdy does he ever have a low opinion of us. This book is dark. While there are good people doing good things (our friend the doctor is a nominally nice guy…sometimes…sort of), the characters are mostly bad men motivated by base desires.

He outlines his ideas about men, as little more than beasts (though I do think he offers a good argument, several times throughout the book, that we can be better), through the two main antagonists of the story, Drax and (I guess spoiler? Eventually I’m just going to stop putting these in my reviews and just write whatever I want. Listen, whenever you read a review of something on my page from this point forward, just assume that it’s probably going to have a spoiler or two in it, but that I won’t ruin the major conflicts at the heart of the story for you. Okay? Okay) Baxter. While on the outside these two seem pretty different, beneath that they share the same dark, selfish motivations.

Henry Drax is all id, all desire, but of the emptiest, bleakest sort. He wants things, craves them, but he feels no passion for them. When he gets an urge, he uses whatever means necessary to satisfy that urge, and then he moves on, unhindered by the experience, unchanged by it. There never seems to be any enjoyment of a thing, any pleasure, and he never thinks about the morality behind his actions. In fact, he even states in the book that he thinks that morality in and of itself is pointless, just something that men like us use to impose our will on men like him. He’s the perfect brute, stripped of any feelings of obligation to the social contract. Like every dangerous, aggressive animal, he’s all surface, no depth.

Baxter, the secondary antagonist, is more complicated, more conniving, but ultimately the same. At the observable level he’s a gentleman, clean and wealthy and law-abiding. He plays the game, abiding by society’s rules on the surface, even using them to his advantage. But beneath all that, he’s the same type of animal as the first. His desires differ (money, status, power), but his willingness to do anything to get them is the same. Drax is meant to be the more monstrous of the two, a vomit-streaked and blood-soaked child murderer, his crimes all violent and committed by hand, up close. But, if you crunch the numbers, Baxter has the much higher body count by the end of the book, and seems just as unbothered by it.

All of that is just a really long, roundabout way of saying that I thought this book was great (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the main character! He was so good! Sympathetic and genuinely decent, but a bit of a fuck up nonetheless. At times a good person, other times a little pathetic and selfish and shortsighted). It was dark and bleak, but not completely despairing (again, there are good people doing good things just for the sake of doing them). The writing was beautiful, the characters were complicated and interesting, and the story was gripping as hell. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

As always, with love,

VBR

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

I had a really interesting time with this book. The first half I couldn’t really tell if I liked it that much. Lauren Groff is a beautiful writer (though every now and again her prose veers into the overwritten. Sometimes I could feel her crafting the sentence, writing and rewriting it, polishing it down until it was perfect, so much that it pulled me right out of the book), but I found I was having some of the same problems that I had with The Monsters of Templeton. The story is better crafted, and the characters are all really well drawn, but I just couldn’t get hooked in.

I don’t think it was entirely Groff’s fault. I’ve read a toonnnnn of literary books about men who are geniuses, or think they’re geniuses, and how complicated their relationships can be. I could build a house out of the “examinations of a whole life” literary books I’ve read (Larry’s Party by Carol Shields deserves a shout out here. I’ve liked a lot of them that I’ve read, but out of all them, that one has really stuck with me over the years). So, at this point in my life I’m slightly wary of them, and more than a little weary too.

Also, I did like Lotto, mostly, but he was just sooooo arrogant and self-centered. And Mathilde, for the first part of the book, seemed too perfect to be interesting. She was supportive and un-endingly kind. She got mad but she always forgave him, always came back to love and support him again. Their relationship, which was the crux of the whole first half of the book, just wasn’t enough to rest a novel on.

Until.

The back half of this book really saved it for me. It not only engaged me more than the first half did, but worked some sort of weird, good novelist sleight of hand that made the previous half seem better than it had while I was reading it. I won’t say what, but at around the mid-point of the novel there’s an event that shakes things up a bit, and precipitates a sudden shift in the perspective the story is told through. It goes back and shows you events through the eyes of Mathilde, a character much angrier, sharper, and more complex than I would’ve thought.

I’d had to push myself to the midway point of this novel, not exactly grinding through it, but not getting that “I can’t wait to get back into this” feeling you get when you’re really hooked by a book either. The second half I devoured, shoveling it into my brain in just a few sittings.

In the end I’d like to say that I loved it, but I’m not really sure that I did. I was okay with the first half, loved the second half, and think I liked it overall. I’d say for those of you out there that like character studies, deep dives into tangled and complicated relationships, you should give this one a read. Just remember, if you’re not feeling it, try not to give up on it too quickly. You’ll be happy you pushed through.

That’s all for today 🙂

VBR

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