Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.1.2018
Book from: Personal collection

All links below go to reproductions of Keeley’s translations by the official Cavafy Archive.

Cavafy is considered the greatest modern Greek poet. Gay, eccentric, private (though not reclusive), and obscure as a poet during his lifetime, he wrote poems during the late 19th and early 20th century, both about his sensual life, and about life in antiquity (often political life) through a deeply personal, everyday lens. His historical poems made immensely more sense to me after I saw translator Keeley report that he “had [the] fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet’s second-floor balcony.” Illustrative poem title: “For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610

Cavafy’s poems also often deal with questions of the many possible spheres of Greek cultural identity: Alexandrian, Hellene, Pan-Hellene… all versus, of course, barbarian. I can’t pretend to understand all the nuances of historical and cultural reference that Cavafy draws upon, but I did come away with a sense of the vivid importance for him of embodying belonging to not only an ethnic group or city, but a way of living and bearing oneself, a proud weight of cultural and historical inheritance.

At the same time, “quirky” is actually the first word that came to mind when I thought about how to describe the feel of Cavafy’s poetry. His language is typically flat in tone and diction, yet his point-of-view is always wry, quirked, with an odd and wistful twist often arriving at the end – “Waiting for the Barbarians” probably being the most famous example on that front, but “Morning Sea” being my personal favorite. His attitude towards himself is self-deprecating, self-effacing; likewise he plays with wry affection on the pomposity, short-sightedness, and pettish egos of the ancient historical figures whom he brings to life for brief flashes.

And what of loveliness? The loveliest Cavafy poems have a soft, understated glow of sensuality, tenderness, regret; they distinctly evoke for me the hour or two after sunset, the lucid glow on the horizon, a harborside town rousing to a nocturnal life of furtive delights that quickly slip away.

I end with an attempt at picking out my three favorite Cavafy poems, both for that wistful evening quality, and in general:

The God Abandons Antony

Body, Remember

and maaaybe The Afternoon Sun

Go to:
More poetry reviews on The Black Letters

 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: May 27, 2018
Book from: Personal collection

Capt. Will Laurence is serving with honor in the British Navy when his ship captures a French frigate harboring most a unusual cargo–an incalculably valuable dragon egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence unexpectedly becomes the master of the young dragon Temeraire and finds himself on an extraordinary journey that will shatter his orderly, respectable life and alter the course of his nation’s history.

Thrust into England’s Aerial Corps, Laurence and Temeraire undergo rigorous training while staving off French forces intent on breaching British soil. But the pair has more than France to contend with when China learns that an imperial dragon intended for Napoleon–Temeraire himself– has fallen into British hands. The emperor summons the new pilot and his dragon to the Far East, a long voyage fraught with peril and intrigue. From England’s shores to China’s palaces, from the Silk Road’s outer limits to the embattled borders of Prussia and Poland, Laurence and Temeraire must defend their partnership and their country from powerful adversaries around the globe. But can they succeed against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?

I’d been meaning to read Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragon (!) series since it came out, couldn’t believe it took me so long, and felt more than well rewarded for finally breaking into the series, especially as a summer read. (Though I admit my interest slowly tapered while reading the second volume, a few weeks after this one.) His Majesty’s Dragon is an utterly delightful read, and one I expect to revisit many times. The methodical, economical precision of the historical detail and characterization is both engrossing and comforting, especially as punctuated by occasional leaps of quiet wit or irreverence. And the “stranger in a strange land” narrative, with staunch, conservative, thoroughly honorable Capt. Lawrence being thrust into the rough company of dragon aviators, is just so well executed. Lawrence is my favorite part of the series: I love his acuity, his brusque yet cultivated style of masculinity, his carefulness of observation, and his unbending sense of duty toward his country and fellow military men and women. On a personal level, I honestly aspire to be as capable and honorable as him; on a craft level, I loved the narrative execution of his uncomfortable yet determined entry into the world of the dragon aviators, and all of their upturnings of British class and gender conventions.

Surprisingly, Temeraire, Lawrence’s unlooked-for dragon, is a bit too charmingly idealized for my taste; I felt my interest played upon in a rather automatic way whenever the book detailed how endlessly graceful, intelligent, ingenious, etc. he is. Yes, his youthful impetuousness is intended to offset his many virtues, but he’s still too perfect to be really interesting. It’s far more amusing and engaging, for example, to watch Lawrence reach the limits of his own intelligence and have throw up his hands in bafflement at having to “parent” a hyperintelligent dragon. (And, more broadly, to watch Lawrence unconsciously adjusting the boundaries of his masculinity to accommodate the deeply solicitous, tender relationship he has with Temeraire.)

Regardless – highly recommended if you love fantasy that’s deeply grounded in a convincing sense of practical reality, if you love alternate history or historical fantasy that plays on gender and class tensions, or if you’ve ever wondered just how the Battle of Trafalgar would have worked out if the European powers had aerial dragon corps.

Related reading:
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia C. Wrede (1990): review by Emera
Flight of the Dragon Kyn, by Susan Fletcher (1993): review by Emera

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The Lodgers (2017)

INCEST, the answer is incest.

If you’re marketing anything in the line of gothic horror, it takes a minimum of three words to establish that the big reveal is incest: “twins” and “no outsiders.” 

2017 Irish horror film The Lodgers is lusciously beautiful, slightly underbaked, and very much undercut in the suspense department if you happen to take the above deductive shortcut. The Gothic is one of the preeminent genres where obviousness doesn’t necessarily undercut efficacy – in fact, can easily be an asset, a piece of set dressing that evokes delicious foreboding. The Lodgers, though, suffers from a general sense of unrealized intensity and suspense: lukewarm chemistry among the actors, ghosts that are scary-ish at best, etc. This makes the hand-wringing over what ails those reclusive twins, and all the film’s other emotional stakes, all seem a bit empty or tedious, sometimes comically so.

That said, the film is atmospherically beautiful enough to be enjoyed purely on the basis of looks and sound. On those counts, it has the deeply satisfying sensory and emotional coherence of a fairy-tale pocket universe – the psychogeographic trinity of the haunted mansion, the deep woods, and the huddled village. I’ve also mentioned before my affinity for water-based imagery, and The Lodgers overfloweth with mists, depths, drowning phantoms, and surreal, gravity-defying drips.

Anglo-Irish twins Rachel and and Edward live in a decaying country mansion, governed by a set of nursery-rhyme rules (be in bed by midnight; no outsiders), surrounded by phantoms, and feared/scorned by the nearby villagers. The film opens on their 18th birthday, the brink of rupture: Edward is both traumatized by and deeply loyal to the legacy of their house and its rules, while Rachel is restless, defiant, and drawn to a young villager, Sean, who has recently returned from World War I.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

Reviews of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu, pt. I: Green Tea, Squire Toby’s Will, The White Cat of Drumgunniol

Many of J. S. LeFanu’s human ghosts share a moral type – grasping, corrupt old men of power – and a countenance: “sensual, malignant, and unwholesome” in “Ghost Stories of the Tiled House,” “[wearing] a smile so sensual, so unspeakably dreadful that my senses were nearly overpowered” in “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street.” Both of these are brief, emininently rereadable traditional haunted-house stories, more reliably delivering a pleasurable chill (in my opinion) than many of his weirder, more wandering tales of guilt and spirits. (The second section of “Tiled House” has also been published or anthologized as “The Ghost of a Hand,” notably in Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories.)

“Mr. Justice Harbottle” is another of that spirit-type: “an elder man, stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse’s, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy.” His story is a Jacobite-era ghost story; I’ve tended to enjoy that setting ever since reading Peter Beagle’s Tamsin; and M. R. James of course has several Jacobite tales. But I confess to finding most of “Harbottle” slow and predictably moralizing – except for the spectacular nightmare-journey midway through, featuring a “gigantic gallows” with capering hangman, a hell-court, and other demonic delights. I want to say that the story reminded me a bit of Washington Irving thanks to its combination of delirious horror and dark satire, but I’m still not quite sure that Irving is the comparison I really have in mind…

The prominence of evil judges did make me wonder about the impact of LeFanu’s courtroom experience on his moral landscape – but a quick Wiki search reminded me that while he studied law at Trinity College, he never actually practiced. Perhaps LeFanu encountered Harbottle’s original during his work as a journalist, instead? It’s hard not to indulge in this kind of biographical speculation when the type recurs with such exactness.

“An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House,” as its name suggests, is another traditional haunted-house story. Nothing spectacular, but very satisfactorily eerie:

“This figure was seen always in the act of retreating, its back turned, generally getting round the corner of the passage into the area, in a stealthy and hurried way, and, when closely followed, imperfectly seen again entering one of the coal-vaults, and when pursued into it, nowhere to be found.”

And there’s also something pleasantly eerie, just unresolved-enough, about the way LeFanu’s narrator ends the story with a bit of speculation about who the specters are and what they might be about. I think it’s the only one of LeFanu’s stories where I liked how he enacted his tendency to over-explanation.

On the subject of less-gripping guilt ‘n’ spirits: “The Familiar” I thought overlong and repetitive. It shares the narrative device used in “Green Tea” of increasingly close confrontations with a persistent specter, but feels punishingly plodding at over 30 pages. As suggested above, I was also very disappointed by the way LeFanu diffuses its main mystery – why an upright naval officer should be haunted by a menacing figure – with a blatant explanation at the end. The title was intriguing to me, though: LeFanu diverges from the more, well, familiar sense of a witch’s companion spirit, and uses “familiar” in a sense a bit closer to a doppelganger. This, together with the prominence of seamen, gave the story a slight Poe-ish aura to me.

Finally, “The Dead Sexton” I enjoyed well enough while reading, but had trouble recalling afterwards. Set in LeFanu’s fictional, idyllic-yet-haunted town of Golden Friars, Northumbria, it’s all a bit cute about the earnest, bustly village types, and the petty villainy of the title character. The dark visitation who leads to the story’s final climax is charismatically drawn, but as with “Harbottle,” the narrative’s predictable morality undercuts the impact of its spookier bits.

Go to:
Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera
The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.21.2018 (reread)
Book from: Personal collection (you can read an excerpt online at Tor.com)

The word for this Lovecraftian novella is not exactly luscious, but somehow that’s always what comes to mind when I think about it. Kiernan just does something exceptional with style and tone here: the prose is implacably menacing, cuttingly witty, and both those tones run together with a free-floating, sinuous, sometimes psychedelically inflected quality that is what I want to call luscious. This is also the work that made me realize that while I tend to think of Kiernan as a Gothic writer, she’s also tremendous at noir.

Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert. The heavens above West Second Street are blazing like it’s 1945 all over again and the Manhattan Project has mistakenly triggered the Trinity blast one state over from the White Sands Proving Ground. Or, he thinks, like this is the moment fifty thousand years ago when a huge nickel-iron meteorite vaporized herds of mastodons, horses, and giant ground sloths just sixteen miles southwest of this shitty little diner and its cracked Naugahyde seats and flyblown windows. Either simile works just fine by the Signalman; either way, the sky’s falling. Either way is entirely apropos. He checks his wristwatch again, sees that it’s been only seven minutes since the last time, then goes back to staring out the plate glass as shadows and fire vie for control of the dingy, sunbaked soul of Winslow, Arizona. His unkind face stares at him from the glass, easily ten years older than the date on his birth certificate. He curses, stubs out his cigarette, and lights another.

That’s the first paragraph; it makes me want to read the whole thing all over again. The sense of place throughout Agents of Dreamland is extraordinary: a smoked-out, hard-baked, rusty-blood-stained West, even featuring the Salton Sea, which I’ve been fascinated by for a while. (Inland seas = automatically uncanny?) There’s also a lot of Lovecraftian and UFO-theory allusion that I think pulls together into a compellingly sticky web (this universe of UFO-intercepting spooks feels real, and worn), even if one happens to be foggy on the particular referents. Namely, I had no idea that Dreamland and Paradise Ranch were nicknames for Area 51, and I had forgotten that Lovecraft’s Mi-Go were fungoid in nature – a feature that makes logical the nature of the extraterrestrial pathogen with which the Signalman comes face-to-face.

Darkly lovely also are the jangly, free-associating chapters from the point of view of the wonderfully/sadly named Chloe Stringfellow, a heroin addict turned Lovecraftian cult victim. (If some of her cult leader’s apocalyptic babble sounds a bit silly, callow, I think that that makes sense, in the same way that, say, Beat Poets sound silly once one starts to feel external to the experience of disillusioned adolescence.) I especially appreciated Kiernan’s evocation of Chloe’s longing for belonging – simultaneously diffuse and fire-hot – because right after my first read of Agents of Dreamland, I read John Darnielle‘s Universal Harvester (one of my top three reads of 2017), in which a ragtag Western cult also ends up playing a major role – but we never get to see it from the inside. I always find it strangely moving when accidental echoes run between books I’m reading.

Oddly, even though the future that Agents of Dreamland looks forward to is Grim with a capital G, the novella leaves me in a dreamy, appreciative mood, and one that approaches humorous. There’s a sense that our fates are ruled by a cosmic wink-and-shrug, that we’ve come near to disaster a hundred-hundred times, but chance (or human nature, in Chloe’s case) conspires to deflect us away at the last moment. The Signalman sets the tone here: he tempers fear and resignation with a very hard-bitten humanism, and with a sardonicism that feels beautifully human in direct proportion to the magnitude of horror that he faces.

Related reading:

“Houses Under the Sea,” by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2003)

Alabaster, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2006)

The Red Tree, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2009)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012)

 


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I watched Sarah Adina Smith’s The Midnight Swim (2015) late last fall. It’s a strange, quiet psychological horror movie, with the soft-yet-tense quality that I love about a lot of domestic thrillers that focus on female experience. (The Virgin Suicides, for example, or the first act of mother!.)

The film focuses on three half-sisters who reunite at the family home on Spirit Lake – a cold, deep lake in Washington State – after the disappearance of their mother while diving. The movie is finely textured by the various strands of affection, loyalty, resentment, and mistrust that run between the sisters, who are perfectly cast: almost uncomfortably plausible as sisters, interesting to watch even when little is obviously happening. Eventually, those strands of connection run back to their mother, whom they resurrect through videos and playacting, revealing her as both absurd and terrifying, as mothers so often are: hippie-dippie eco-goddess; domestic tyrant.

The women’s relationships are cradled by the deep quiet and chill of the surrounding wilderness, and the spiritually luminous yet ominous expanse of the lake. I love water, so the lake imagery, the evocation of its magnetic depthlessness, was particularly sensually effective for me.

Certain narrative elements felt expected, generic in both senses of the word: the appearance of dead birds around the house by night, the increasingly strange behavior of one sister, who refuses to get out from behind her handheld video camera. Still, the movie is effective in using prolonged quiet and unexpected little tweaks to keep ratcheting up the tension. There’s a pervasive sense of not-quite-nameable wrongness: what exactly is going on here?

The ending of the movie I found pleasantly baffling: deeply gentle, perhaps even hopeful, but also terrifying in its strangeness. It strikes me as audaciously weird, and merciful.

Related reading:

I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016)

The Drowning Girl, by Caitlín R. Kiernan (2012): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 3.13.2018
Read from: Reproduction posted by The Sanguine Wood; also available here on unz.org

Tom Digby swabbed his face against the rolled-up sleeve of his drill shirt, and good-naturedly damned the whole practice of measuring altitudes by barometric instruments…

This Leiber tale has a rock-solid Weird premise: a geological surveyor’s instruments tell him that the hill he is looking at is, in fact, a hole. Well, which is it? The premise taps into the same what’s in there unease as fairy mounds, without directly drawing on that body of folklore, and adds a Lovecraftish space/geometry-warping flavor.

Execution is just okay – the prose and pacing have a slightly thick, ungainly feeling, as if Leiber is laboring to maneuver the expected narrative accoutrements into position – the creepy blue-eyed little girl to provide cryptic warnings, the surveyor’s internal protestations in favor of rationality: “If there was anything he detested, it was admitting the possibility of supernatural agencies, even in jest.” We all know how that will go. (Also, how ridiculous is it that the surveyor is named Digby?)

But this is the sort of thing that – like urban legends – lives on in the imagination regardless of execution, helped along by Leiber’s evocation of suffocating summer heat and dust. Yum.

Related reading:

Lovecraft the terrible, the ridiculous, the great

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948) E

Are you listening closely

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Reviewer: Kakaner

Date read: 12.31.2017

Book from: Bookstore browse session

An Obedient Father is a harrowing story of a rather run-of-the-mill moneyman Ram, a middle rung manager within a governmental structure, corrupt and unambitious, who repeatedly molested and raped his daughter when she was pre-pubescent, and now finds circumstances forcing her and his granddaughter to live with him again.

Generally, I thought this was a rather successful first novel– the premise and backstory felt kind of contrived and heavy-handed but the emotional exploration was well done. However, I hesitate to ever label any story of sexual wrongdoing as heavy-handed or unrealistic because I only have reason to believe that fiction has happened many times over, and reality is worse than fiction. I feel it is my duty to consider these kinds of stories seriously.

I was immediately overcome with the horror of seeing the emotional journey of a family ripped apart by this kind of tragedy from the perpetrator’s perspective. Ram is very much simply a product of his culture and context, and I think one takeaway from the novel is that it’s very hard to engineer and live by your own moral compass when there is no external impetus for doing so. Of course, a lot of this lack of impetus is entrenched in the darker aspects of Indian culture and the patriarchy. I was struck by the helplessness of both sides of the act– the daughter Anita and the father Ram, but especially how weak Ram was, fixating on his inability to control himself despite hating himself for what he was doing. Sharma manages to immediately elicit sympathy for Ram without ever being apologetic for him, a tricky act to pull off. The whole journey was just this incredibly strange crumbling and dismantling of the health of a family while the distributions of love, privilege, progressiveness, greed, and justice shifted within the family. Finally, it’s a painful, cautionary highlighting of the belief that no one is going to look out for you, that stigma and society can be thicker than blood.

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View Recipe: Through the Woods Tart

Emera first shared Emily Carroll’s horror webcomic “His Face All Red” with me several years ago. It’s an unsettling, inconclusive tale of two brothers who set out to kill a wolf that has been terrorizing their village, but nothing is what it seems. The story is a swirl of fearful trips to the forest, sloshing cheers in taverns, village gossip, paranoid insomnia, feral intentions, and inexplicably spilt blood. I wanted to create a confection that would evoke the comic’s vivid color palette and capture the flavors of bravado, fear, and death.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Vars. in November and December 2017
Book from: Personal collection

The Dover collection of Best Ghost Stories of J. S. LeFanu (originally issued in 1964, with a rapturous introduction by an E. F. Bleiler, “an editor, bibliographer, and scholar of science fiction, detective fiction, and fantasy literature” according to Wiki) contains the following stories:

Squire Toby’s Will, Schalken the Painter, Madam Crowl’s Ghost, The Haunted Baronet, Green Tea, The Familiar, Mr. Justice Harbottle, Carmilla, The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances on Aungier Street, The Dead Sexton, Ghost Stories of the Tiled House, An Authentic Narrative of a Haunted House, Sir Dominick’s Bargain, Ultor de Lacey

…of which I’ve currently read all but “The Dead Sexton,” “Sir Dominick,” and “Ultor de Lacy” (which is what I’d like to name an S&M lingerie shop). (Note that LeFanu’s work is available online for free, being in the public domain.) Presently I’m in the middle of re-reading “Carmilla,” one of the only two stories I’d read before.Thoughts on some of the rest…

—–

I was a bit disappointed and perplexed by “Green Tea,” having heard that it was LeFanu’s most renowned story after “Carmilla,” and having been intrigued for quite some time by the seductively mysterious title. The central specter (which is not tea) is devilishly uncomfortable, and there’s a powerful sense of dark magnetism dictating the specter’s encounters with the narrator. (M. R. James’ unstoppable horrors later echo the same narrative rhythm.)

But I feel the story’s integrity is spoiled by the preening narration of Dr. Hesselius, LeFanu’s proto-Van-Helsing, who prides himself on his ability to counteract supernatural influences through rational medical practice. His flippant, self-congratulatory closing pontifications pretty well ruined the story for me, even if his final sentence is tasty:

“Thus we find strange bed-fellows, and the mortal and immortal prematurely make acquaintance.”

Talking-head Hesselius makes this story the most explicit enumeration of LeFanu’s supernatural principle, which would go on to inspire Lovecraft – that we are at all times surrounded by terrible sights and malign beings, but only certain states of physiological or psychological disturbance make us vulnerable to influences. This principle shows up explicitly in almost all of the stories claimed to have been drawn from Hesselius’ files, and I think one or two others as well. Personally I find it notable as a literary feature, but not interesting; it’s discussed too fussily to evoke a sense of dread.

—–

“Squire Toby’s Will” suffers from what I think is LeFanu’s most frequent narrative weakness: poor pacing. The opening scenes feel leaden and ungainly, and the feuding between the rival brothers at the plot’s center reads as failed comedy. But the story does draw atmospheric power (1.21 English Gothic gigawatts!) from its rainy, moldering setting and crabbed, ill-tempered characters. And as in “Green Tea,” the central specter is memorably uncomfortable:

The head of the brute looked so large, its body long and thin, and its joints so ungainly and dislocated, that the Squire, with old Cooper beside him, looked on with a feeling of disgust and astonishment, which, in a moment or two more, brought the Squire’s stick down upon him with a couple of heavy thumps. The beast awakened from his ecstasy, sprang to the head of the grave, and there on a sudden, thick and bandy as before, confronted the Squire, who stood at its foot, with a terrible grin, and eyes with the peculiar green of canine fury.

—–

Sticking with the theme of “critters,” “The White Cat of Drumgunniol” is a cross between a fairy tale and a vengeful-ghost story:

“There is a famous story of a white cat, with which we all become acquainted in the nursery. I am going to tell a story of a white cat very different from the amiable and enchanted princess who took that disguise for a season.”

The story opens with a lakeside scene witnessed by the narrator by a boy, and which I think is goddamn amazing – tense, eerie, calm, unbearably strange. (It reminds me of the climactic vision in I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House.)

The story decrescendoes from there, sustaining some of the tension and the chilly sense of otherworldly hostility, but terminating wistfully and weakly. The ending suits when the narrative is taken as the verbal account it’s purported to be, but, for a literary story, is disappointingly stingless.

Related reading:

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, by Arthur Machen (1948): review by Emera

The Haunted Dolls’ House and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James (1919, 1925): review by Emera

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