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PODCAST: Interview with Marian Finucane

This weekend was exciting. I was invited to be a guest on the Marian Finucane show on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1. It’s always an honour when people are interested to hear about A Year of Reading the World, but I knew this was a particularly big deal when my Irish neighbour’s eyes lit up at the mention of the programme. ‘Oh how wonderful,’ she said. ‘I must try and listen in.’

Because Dublin was a little far for me to travel from London on a Saturday morning, the producers had booked a studio for me at BBC Western House near Oxford Circus. The arrangement was that I would go there and do the interview remotely.

There was only one snag: as the place is unmanned at the weekends, I would have to let myself in. There wouldn’t really be anyone around to help set me up.

Not being a technical person, this made me slightly nervous. I had visions of myself sitting in front of a bewildering array of buttons and switches desperately trying to work out what to press as poor Marian called my name again and again from across the Irish Sea.

Luckily, the reality was quite different. I arrived in the studio to find three microphones –coloured so that I could be sure I was sitting in front of the correct one – and an incredibly comprehensive list of instructions. ‘To your left there is a phone,’ I read. ‘Pick it up, dial this number and tell the control room in Broadcasting House that you are ready to proceed.’ It felt a bit like being a secret agent in a spy film.

Before I knew it, I was listening in to the show, waiting for my slot. If I’d been at all anxious from the technical shenanigans, I’ve no doubt Marian would have put me at my ease. She was so charming and interested in the project that it was a real pleasure to speak to her.

As you can hear from the podcast of the show above, we had a great chat. And if I needed any more proof of what a star Marian Finucane is, the number of visitors to this blog from Ireland over the last few days has told its own story. Céad míle fáilte to you all.

Photo by curtis.kennington

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As those of you who followed this blog during my year of reading the world back in 2012 will remember, Africa is by far the most difficult continent to get published literature in English from. Not only is there a serious lack of translation (which meant that I often had to resort to unpublished manuscripts and even had to have something translated specially by a team of volunteers in one case), but in countries where English is widely spoken there are often very few publishers and weak networks for getting books out. The result is that very few stories written by African authors make it onto bookshop shelves in places like Britain and America.

Luckily, there are organisations working to change this. The African Books Collective (ABC) is one such – for more than 20 years, it has distributed African literature around the world and now represents 147 publishers from 25 nations in the continent. It came to my rescue several times during my quest and was the means by which I discovered Weaver Press, the Harare-based publisher behind Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, which I read for Zimbabwe.

I very much enjoyed that book, so when the ABC’s Justin Cox told me about a new book from Weaver Press, Christopher Mlalazi’s They are Coming, I was keen to take a look.

Set in Lobengula Township in Bulawayo, northern Zimbabwe, the novel reveals the personal cost of the traumatic events in the nation’s recent past. It is told through the eyes of Ambition, a young boy whose family is thrown into disarray when his older sister, Senzeni, runs away from home to join the pro-Mugabe youth militia. Switching between 2004 and the time of the 1977 War of Independence, the narrative traces a series of old grudges and scores, revealing how violence begets violence on both a domestic and national level.

Mlalazi’s skill shines through in the little details. Every so often, his spare prose is illuminated by a glorious image, bringing the narrative alive and plunging us into the heart of the scenes he describes. There is the national flag streaming above the Green Bombers militia so that they look ‘as if they’re accompanied by a brightly coloured bird’, for example, and the group of people scattered by police tear gas ‘as if they’ve been flung hither and thither by a giant hand’.

This fine observational detail accompanies a host of strong female characters – a recurring trait in much of the African literature written by men that I have read. From the irrepressible prostitute MaVundla, who does not scruple to abuse and exact revenge on clients who do not pay, to the angry Senzeni herself, the narrative is thronged with women determined to assert themselves.

When set against the multitude of threats that render daily life perilous – including economic breakdown, political spies, guerrilla attacks and witchcraft (it is widely believed, for example, that new underwear can be used to cast a spell that will make a woman menstruate to death) – this intransigence is admirable. As Ambition’s mother observes, ‘this isn’t about politics, [...] it’s about survival.’

That’s not to say that this is a perfect book. The nuts and bolts of the narrative creak. Tenses slip, conversations meander, and the various revelations of the narrative tumble into view rather clumsily. Now and then, the stripped-back prose reads more like a synopsis than a rounded, fleshed out novel.

In addition, the question of who Mlalazi is writing for crops up a few times. Having been a fellow on the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program and a Guest Writer of the City of Hanover, among several other accolades, Mlalazi clearly has an eye on the international audience, meaning that he sometimes shoehorns in rather chilly exposition in an effort to keep us all up to speed. His writing works best when he treats as locals, trusting us to infer what we need to know. (The section where he gives us directions to Jiba village, for example, is great because it allows us to put off our foreignness and entertain the illusion that we are residents of Plumtree district.)

Despite these problems, however, this is a refreshing and brave book. It is an illuminating view from a section of world society that usually goes unheard. As an imaginative account of the trials and challenges facing ordinary people under Mugabe’s rule, it is valuable. Weaver Press must be applauded for continuing to put out such works in the face of many obstacles. Let’s hope there are lots more to come.

They are Coming by Christopher Mlalazi (Weaver Press, 2014)

 

A great honour

June 15, 2014

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I had a nice surprise this weekend. There was a very familiar name on the list of people receiving Queen’s Birthday Honours (the titles awarded every year by Elizabeth II to mark her official birthday). The person in question was celebrated Portuguese- and Spanish-literature translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has been given an OBE for services to literature.

I first came across Jull Costa’s work back in the initial week of my year of reading the world when a colleague at the newspaper I was working at lent me her translation of Eça de Queiroz’s The Mandarin and Other Stories to read as my choice from her home country, Portugal.

A few months later, I encountered Jull Costa again when I read Luís Cardoso’s powerful memoir The Crossing, one of the few books available in English translation by a writer from East Timor.

On both occasions, I was struck by the clarity and beauty of the writing and, as my appreciation for the extraordinary skill that translation requires grew throughout the project, I began to realise how deserved the many accolades Jull Costa has received over the course of her career are. But it wasn’t until September of that year that I witnessed her dedication to literature first-hand.

That month, having tried and failed to find any stories in translation from the small African nation of Sao Tome & Principe, I decided to appeal to the kindness of strangers and see whether Portuguese speakers might come to my rescue to translate a short story collection especially for me. As happened so many times during my quest, the world’s literature lovers overwhelmed me with their generosity and before a week had gone by, I had more offers of help than I was able to accept.

In amongst the welter of messages, however, there was one particularly exciting email. It was a message from Margaret Jull Costa, who had heard about the venture from a student on a summer school she had taught at, and wanted to offer her assistance.

I couldn’t believe it. This was Margaret Jull Costa. The Margaret Jull Costa – translator of Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, and Javier Marías and a shelf-ful of other revered writers. And she wanted to do a translation for me? As I said at the time to a friend, I felt as though I had asked to borrow a bike and been lent a Ferrari.

True to her word, along with eight other volunteers, Jull Costa translated the stories I selected and sent them back, enabling me to read Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor in its entirety. Without her work, both published and unpublished, I would not have been able to read the world as I did. Hearty congratulations to her on this latest achievement in a glittering and immensely valuable career.

Picture by marcus_jb1973

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When I wrote the final post of my Year of Reading the World, back on 31 December 2012, I thought this blog was finished. As the first months of 2013 went by, however, I discovered the world had other ideas.

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, but I found myself constantly coming into contact with interesting projects and initiatives that I wanted to let you know about.

The book recommendations from readers all over the planet kept coming in too (they still do to this day), so I decided to update the list every now and then to make sure that none of the excellent suggestions go to waste.

But it didn’t stop there: various publishers also jumped on the band wagon, frequently emailing to ask whether they could send me books in the hope that I might blog about them. Even when I explained that I wasn’t reviewing books on this site anymore, some people still posted me their titles.

Such was the case with Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions UK. Although I told her that I wouldn’t write about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she insisted on sending me a copy along with a glowing description of the work, so convinced was she of its power.

All credit to her, because the novel might have sat on my to-read mountain for a long time had it not been for Petracco’s belief in it. Something about the way she described the story and her enthusiasm for it made it stand out in my memory so that when I came to choose my next read last week, my hand reached for it, bypassing many titles that have been waiting for weeks, months and even years.

What followed was an enthralling reading experience, reminiscent of those childhood immersions in a story that turn the volume of the real world down to a whisper. It impressed and delighted me – and it was powerful enough to make me revoke my decision not to do any more book reviewing on this blog because I simply had to let you know about it (despite her success in Italy, the reclusive Ferrante is very little known in the Anglophone world – last year, the Economist declared that she ‘may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’).

Indeed, reading Ferrante’s novel has inspired me to introduce a regular review slot. From now on, I will choose one ‘Book of the month’ that has stood out from among the titles I’ve read (perhaps recommended by you, stumbled upon by me or sent by a passionate advocate) and publish a post on the last Tuesday of the month about it.

So, without further ado, here’s a little insight into what makes My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, Adolescence such a tour de force.

Charting a close friendship between two girls , Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in 1950s Naples, this, the first volume in a trilogy, depicts the rabble of circumstances, character traits and incidents that conspire to make us dream of a better life while condemning us to be who we are. From the jealousy that steers the central characters between cruelty and fierce loyalty, at once sabotaging and supporting each other, to the bitter realities that blight the hopes of figures such as Lila’s brother, Rino – tormented by visions of a family shoemaking empire but without the focus and application to see it through – and the wretched Melina, driven mad by her love for a philandering poet, Ferrante shows us the levers working the vice that warps and crushes the human soul.

Menace is everywhere. Whether in the childhood imaginings that shape the ogre-like figure of Don Achille or the all-too-real characters of the Solara brothers, terrorising the area with their Camorra connections, violence is only ever a mistimed comment away. Straitjacketed by honour codes that at once protect and hobble them, Elena and Lila must make desperate choices to have a hope of exercising some sort of control over their lives.

Now and then, the narrative doesn’t hold together as tightly as it could. Ferrante gives us a few too many TV-style recaps of events and there are occasional statements that contradict what has gone before – at a wedding towards the end of the book, for example, we read that ‘it was clear no one who had received an invitation wanted to miss it’ shortly after we have just witnessed the local school teacher spurn an attempt to get her to attend.

Some readers may also be frustrated by the mismatch between the prologue, set in the present day presumably some way towards the conclusion of the yet-to-be-published (in English) third book in the trilogy, and the main narrative, which only goes up until the mid-1960s. Unlike works that make up many other literary trilogies, this novel cannot really be said to stand alone.

Nevertheless, if the trade-off is that we have to read on to find all the ends tied up, it’s a sacrifice few are likely to mind making. Hmmn, I wonder if I can persuade Daniela Petracco to send me the next book…

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012; 2013)

 

On the home straight

May 21, 2014

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It’s been an exciting week in the Year of Reading the World camp. That stack of paper you see in the picture above is the edit of the penultimate draft of my book, Reading the World: Postcards from my Bookshelf, which comes out in the UK next year, published by Harvill Secker/Random House. (It will hopefully be coming out in some other countries too – watch this space.)

On Monday, I had a meeting with one of my editors, Gemma Wain, and we talked through the changes still to be made. It was an extraordinary moment. After 18 months, three drafts and quite a lot of headscratching about how you conjure a book from a blog like this, I realised that the finished product was nearly there. And – better yet – we were both rather pleased with it.

That’s not to say there isn’t still work to do. Those little red marks are Gemma’s comments – and yes, there are around three of them on each and every one of this draft’s 263 pages. Still, for the first time, I have the feeling that the finishing line is in sight.

The team at Harvill Secker seem to agree. Apparently, they are keen to send proofs out to key readers and reviewers as soon as possible. So I suppose I better stop writing this blog and get started.

Now, let me see, should I keep or delete that comma in paragraph one…

Eyes on the prize

May 15, 2014

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Exciting news this week: Commonwealth Writers has announced the regional winners of its international Short Story Prize 2014.

There’s always something nice about seeing authors recognised for good work, but this year I have two reasons to be particularly delighted by the list of five writers representing Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The first is that my old university friend, Lucy Caldwell, is the winner for Canada & Europe. Author of several excellent plays and novels, Lucy already has many accolades to her name, including the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize for her second book The Meeting Point, which is set in Bahrain. Indeed, Lucy’s extensive research into that country meant that she was one of the people I turned to for advice when I was trying to find something to read from the small Persian Gulf state back in 2012.

The other reason that the list of winning stories makes me smile stems from the fact that I had the privilege of reading one of them almost six months ago. This was because I was lucky to be on the team of readers in the UK and around the world invited to help draw up the longlist for the prize.

In my case, this meant receiving a batch of some 120 stories in December and having a little over two weeks to read and assess them – a challenge for which my experience of devouring and blogging about four books a week during my year of reading the world stood me in good stead.

As well as a privilege, being a prize longlister was fascinating. Having nothing but the title, the writer’s region and the words on the page to go on, I was free to judge the works with an open mind and heart. I was amazed at the range of topics and inventive approaches wordsmiths around the world took on, with a considerable number venturing into the realms of fantasy and science fiction – something prize veterans tell me is relatively unusual.

I’d like to say that the standard was consistently high, but the truth is there were a few rotten apples in the barrel. What was tougher, however, was that the majority of stories were good but not exciting, leaving me hesitating over whether to put them down as a Maybe or a No on the spreadsheet (all those I put as Maybes would be read again, whereas the Nos were discarded – the Yeses went through to the next stage).

Nevertheless, every so often, a story would reach out and grab me by the scruff of the neck, making the world around me recede and thrilling me with what it had to say. Asia winner Sara Adam Ang’s ‘A Day in the Death’ was one of those and I am delighted that she has come out on top in her category.

I wish her, Lucy and all the other regional winners luck as they await the announcement of this year’s overall winner in Kampala, Uganda on 13 June. May this be one of many more successes in their writing careers.

Photo by Harvey Goldblum

 

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Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though the genres vary from classic crime fiction in the shape of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral to John Boyne’s Young Adult Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and from former SAS sergeant Andy McNab’s memoir Today Everything Changes to Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot, an account of growing up in the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton, there is not a single translated novel to be found on the list. Unlike previous years, all the books are by authors who write in English – most of whom are British, with the odd Irish and American wordsmith thrown in for good measure.

It’s a similar story when you look at the US WBN list, although there is one Spanish-language work in the mix: Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago’s Cuando Era Puertorriqueña, which is also being given away in both Spanish and English.

According to the WBN UK website, this year’s selection was arrived at by an ‘expert editorial committee’, which looked for ‘good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives [and] … a really wide variety as what will inspire one person will turn another off’.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Samuel Johnson in the belief that reading any book is better than reading none. ‘I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good,’ wrote the 18th century man of letters. ‘I would let him first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get a better book afterwards.’

The one point on which I disagree with both Johnson and the WBN committee is that this has to be an ‘English’ book. If you want to give people a gripping crime novel, why not put a bestselling Jo Nesbo on the list or the latest translated French thriller? If it’s Holocaust fiction you’re after, why not pick from the fine array of German-language novels on the subject or plump for Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning Blooms of Darkness – I certainly can’t think of a more intriguing premise than that of a Jewish boy being hidden in a brothel throughout the war.

The problem seems to be that those in charge of World Book Night have got so hung up on the issue of engaging non-readers with books that they have forgotten the world. Perhaps they are afraid that the world itself might prove another obstacle to someone picking a story up.

They could be right. But if they don’t give potential readers the choice, we’ll never know.

Instead, for now, the ‘world’ represented on both sides of the Atlantic this World Book Night will be a very narrow, inward-looking one; a place where the only stories non-readers will be offered are those written in the language they have been speaking all along.

What translated fiction would you choose to give away this World Book Night? Leave a comment and let me know…

Photo by wsilver

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In the 16 months or so since I finished my year of reading the world, I’ve been delighted to hear how the project continues to generate interest and have unexpected consequences. From booklovers discovering stories they would never have otherwise found to other readers being inspired to take on similar quests, it’s great to know that my little adventure has encouraged people around the planet to engage with books in new ways.

So you can imagine my delight when, a little while ago, I received a message from film producer Genevieve Lemal. Having worked on such notable movies as Coco Before Chanel  and a forthcoming adaptation of Madame Bovary, as well as numerous French-language films, Lemal is always looking for stories that might work well on the big screen.

She’d heard about Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland when she read an article about my project in The Atlantic a few months ago, and decided to take a closer look at the book. Just as I did, she fell in love with the writer’s account of his teenage escape from the clutches of a python cult in rural Togo and amazing journey up through Africa and Europe to live with the Inuit in Greenland.

Lemal liked the story so much, in fact, that she thought it would make a good film and was in talks with Kpomassie’s French publisher to secure the rights. If all went well, she hoped to be able to invite me to the premiere a few years hence.

A month or so later she was back in touch: she’d been to Paris and met Kpomassie, who is now in his seventies and lives just outside the city. He was an astonishing character, she said, full of stories about his adventures – he even recounted an extraordinary conversation he’d had with his grandfather when he returned to Togo, in which he struggled to explain all that he had seen and done because his mother tongue, Mina, has no word for ‘snow’. I was very jealous as, as I mentioned in my post on his book, Kpomassie is the writer I would most like to meet in the world, so Lemal generously said that if I was coming to Paris I should let her know and perhaps we could all meet up.

A few messages further on and a deal has been struck and a scriptwriter engaged, and Lemal is looking forward to going scouting for locations in Greenland. As she warns me, it will be a long time before the film is ready for screening. Nevertheless, I can’t help being very excited. It’s brilliant to think that Kpomassie’s wonderful story has a chance to reach even more of the world. I look forward to shaking his hand on the red carpet when that day comes.

Picture showing Tété-Michel Kpomassie signing a copy of his book at a student event by Stundentersamfunnet Bergen.

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One of the exciting things about reading the world was the number of unpublished manuscripts I got to sample during the project. From the crowd-sourced translation of Olinda Beja’s A casa do pastor, which I read for Sao Tome & Principe after nine volunteers generously converted it into English for me, and Mozambican literary giant Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa’s Ualalapi, to Ak Welsapar’s The Tale of Aypi  – the first book ever to be translated directly from Turkmen but still, sadly, without an Anglophone publishing deal – I was repeatedly surprised and delighted by the extraordinary works I had the privilege of discovering.

People often ask me whether any of these works are going to make it into the shops. I hope so, is the short answer. Certainly many of them deserve to – not least because they are often one of the few, if not the only, English-language translations of literature in existence from particular nations. I would be delighted if this project meant that some of these exciting stories had a chance to break into the world’s largest publishing market.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I heard today that Robi Gottlieb-Cahen’s Minute Stories has come out through Editions Phi.

Now, I have  to confess that A Year of Reading the World has nothing to with Gottlieb-Cahen’s success – the book was already slated for publication when Claudine Muno, frontwoman of Luxembourgian band Claudine Muno and the Lunar Boots, helped me find it. Still, it’s great to hear of the first AYORTW manuscript making it into print – particularly from Luxembourg, which has very little literature available in English.

Gottlieb-Cahen’s fascinating collection of tiny stories of no more than two or three sentences written in three languages and accompanying paintings by the author will give many readers a chance to sample literature from a nation they might not otherwise have the opportunity to read a book from. Congratulations on your achievement, Robi!

And for details of more AYORTW titles coming to bookshops or e-retailers near you, watch this space…

Picture from Editions Phi

Person under a train

February 8, 2014

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One of the great, unexpected things that has come out of my project to read a book from every country in 2012 is the fact that I’m often invited to go and tell people about it at various events around the UK and even abroad. There’s nothing nicer than sharing some of the great stories you helped me find and the extraordinary kindness of many readers and writers around the planet that I encountered that year – and still do to this day.

So when Graham asked me to come and give a talk yesterday evening at the Hilt in Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire, I was only too pleased to say yes. The plan was that I would get the train from London to Winchester, where Graham would pick me up.

Everything was going swimmingly until, about ten minutes before we were due to pull into my stop, the train slowed to a halt. The guard came on the Tannoy. There’d been an incident at Winchester, he said, and the station was closed. Instead of stopping there, the train would go back the way it had come and take another route. Next stop: Woking, then Southampton.

My heart was in my mouth. I thought of Graham waiting at the station and all the people who had bought tickets to hear me speak. How on earth was I going to make it on time?

Luckily, the woman sitting next to me knew the area well. The best thing for me to do was to stay on until Southampton as it wasn’t that far to drive there from Winchester. I’d be late, but I would at least make it, she said.

Over the next two hours, the woman and I chatted as the train crawled its way around southern England. Claire, I learned, was a film editor making a documentary about fashion and we talked openly about our work and families. At some point, we heard that the disruption at Winchester had resulted from a person jumping under a train, a sad discovery that made us reflect on some of the difficult situations facing people we knew in our own lives.

At last, 20 minutes after my talk was due to start, we pulled into Southampton Central. By this stage, poor Graham had been waiting for nearly an hour and had bought me several cups of peppermint tea and a veggie pizza, nearly all of which had gone cold.

We got to the Hilt and I gave my talk. Despite having to wait so long, the audience were warm and enthusiastic and I felt very welcome. As ever, the excitement and fellow-feeling that books have the power to generate was humbling.

Then it was back to the station. Things I’d seen online suggested that by this stage trains should be running from Winchester once more, but when I arrived on the platform, it turned out not to be the case. The information on the boards and the recorded messages just kept pushing departure times back and cancelling services, and there was no member of staff (erhem, South West Trains) to advise us.

At length, a man asked me if I was headed for London and what I thought about the idea of getting a group of people together and trying to share a taxi. It seemed better than spending the night staring at numbers on a screen, so we gave it a go and before we knew it we had six people and a taxi prepared to drive us the 70-odd miles or so to London for a reasonable price.

Feeling a bit like children embarking on a school trip – the taxi driver even made us stop at a petrol station to use the toilet and get snacks and drinks before we started – we set off. My fellow passengers, I discovered, included theatre director Daphna and set designer Jenny who had been at work on I Do, a play showing at Winchester’s Theatre Royal and coming back to the Almeida Theatre in London soon, and a young artistic guy working for an architecture firm called Tom.

Sitting up front as we bowled down the motorway, Tom and I had a great discussion about Amsterdam, where he lived for 18 months, and our various projects.

Finally, some way north of midnight and after the poor taxi driver’s sat nav had erroneously led us to the Ritz, we arrived at Waterloo, tired but strangely happy. Against all the odds, it had been a great journey. We had met new people and learned something about the awkward strangers we normally found ourselves sitting among on public transport.

If the person who died on the tracks that day needed proof that they were worth something and had the power to make a difference, it was there in that car. Sadly, however, they’ll never know.

Picture of a Banksy in Boston by Chris Devers

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