Archive for September, 2011

The books that the world calls immoral are the books
that show the world its own shame.–Oscar Wilde

Click for interactive US flag of banned book images.

We expect to hear stories like this out of China, which banned Animal Farm “because it put humans and animals on the same level.” But did you know that last year, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary was yanked from all schools in a California district? That ban only lasted a week, but right now many schools continue to enforce censorship. A Virginia district has banned A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. Slaughterhouse Five is currently banned from schools in Missouri.

I was shocked to learn that revered classic To Kill A Mockingbird was one of the most challenged books of 2009. And last year, seminal dystopian novel Brave New World was one of the top three disputed books. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight are the books that seem to make the list of Top 10 Challenged Books in classrooms and libraries year after year. I guess someone does not want kids reading.

In the United Kingdom, some libraries have actually blacklisted The Diary of Anne Frank. Other banned notables there include All Quiet on the Western Front, Madame Bovary, Black Beauty, and, gasp, The Canterbury Tales.

The American Library Association is sponsoring Banned Books Week, to highlight this issue and to celebrate the freedom to read. Get involved:

1.) Call your local library and offer support if they are getting pressure to remove any books from their shelves.

2.) Read a Banned Book:

Most Frequently Challenged Books in US

Most Frequently Banned Books in UK

Banned and Challenged Classics

3.) Visit the Virtual Read-Out on You Tube.
For clips of people, including famous authors, reading from their favorite banned books. Upload a your own video!

4.) Support organizations that get kids reading:

First Book—New Books to Children in Need

RIF—Reading is Fundamental

Uprise Books—Ending the Cycle of Poverty with Banned Books

5.) Check out More Links on Banned Books

Banned Books Week

Top 10 Challenged Books of 2010

Banned Books Trivia Quiz

Five Best Banned Books Made into Films

Time Magazine’s Top 10 Censored Books

NPR Interviews Penguin Editor about Banned Books

Twain Book Returns to Library Shelf 105 Years After Being Banned

Sherlock Holmes Banned by School District in Virginia

Slaughterhouse Five Banned in Republic Missouri

Merriam Webster Banned in California and other Banned Dictionaries

Clickable US Flag Made of Banned Books

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September 22 is Hobbit Day!  Here are 10 ways to celebrate:

1.) Read or reread The Hobbit. Or share it with a friend.

2.) Go barefoot, as hobbits rarely wear shoes.

3.) Eat Heartily, and don’t miss Second Breakfast at 11:00 am. Hobbits eat six or seven times a day and are particularly fond of apples, blackberry tarts, ripe cheeses, mushrooms, hot soups, cold meats, bacon rashers, scones, potatoes (Samwise Gangee’s favorite) and fruit or meat pies. But, perhaps avoid roast mutton, as that is frequent food of Trolls.

4.) Argue with other Tolkien geeks over whether Hobbit Day actually fell on September 12 or 14, since the Shire Calendar varies from the Gregorian.

5.) Noodle some riddles. Hobbits adore riddles. Bilbo used them to get the best of Gollum in the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter. He later wrote “all that is gold does not glitter” in a telling riddle about Strider, which Gandalf gave to Frodo.

6.) Check out the latest trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey hitting theaters December 14, 2012. Or, look behind-the-scenes via The Hobbit movies official blog.

7.) Log onto HobbitDay.com for an all-day online festival with Tolkien experts, readings, and events.

8.) Read about The Hobbit‘s 75th Anniversary:

Bio Close-up: The 75th Anniversary of J.R.R.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit

The Hobbit: What Has Made the Book Such an Enduring Success? (via the Telegraph)

The Hobbit Second Breakfast (via the Wall St Journal)

Why J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit isn’t Just For Kids (via the Wall St Journal)

9.) Have that “Unexpected” or “Long-Expected” Party! Hobbits like to socialize. Well, except Bilbo of course.

10.) Raise a glass of wine (preferably Old Winyards red), “a good deep mug of beer,” or perhaps a restorative cup of tea, and drink “to The Shire!”

September 22 is Hobbit Day!

Bring on The Hobbit Movie Triple Play!

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I think there is more to this hobbit than meets the eye.” –Gandalf the Grey

Don’t forget to eat your Second Breakfast in honor of Hobbit Day, celebrated every year on September 22.  The holiday was founded by the American Tolkien Society back in 1978. They chose this date, as it’s the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. Indeed, the Fellowship of the Ring opens with Bilbo throwing himself a spectacular “eleventy-first” (or 111th) birthday party complete with fireworks, courtesy of Gandalf the Grey.

Contrary to recent statements made by politicians, hobbits are nothing like trolls. They are somewhat diminutive, averaging 3-4 feet in height, but they have disproportionately large, and rather hairy, feet. They are fastidious in their attire—favoring dresses, breeches, and waistcoats—and also fastidious in the upkeep of their gardens. A hobbit-hole is “not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms,” protested author JRR Tolkien. Their homes are built into the hillsides, with painted green doors, brass knockers, polished floors, crackling fireplaces, cosy sitting rooms, and lots of extra pegs for hats and coats—as hobbits love visitors.

But, what they don’t like are adventures, which they consider to be “nasty disturbing uncomfortable things [that] make you late for dinner.” Nevertheless, Tolkien’s hobbits repeatedly landed themselves in most adventuresome predicaments. Yet, despite their small stature and their distaste for such circumstances, the hobbits consistently rose to the occasion: Bilbo hunted for Smaug the dragon, Frodo and Sam marched into Mordor, and Merry and Pippin galvanized the Ents.

“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit,” summed up Tolkien.

It’s an important lesson, played out repeatedly in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Even one person, no matter how small, can make a difference. Another bit of wisdom imparted by Bilbo: “Never laugh at live dragons.”

10 Ways to Celebrate Hobbit Day

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Ghosts of Borders Past Photo Essay

The last of the Borders bookstores closed over the weekend, ending an era for booklovers. Rachel, of Booksellers Without Borders, offers a glimpse into her happy days working at Borders. Our final elegy to a retail icon whose warm, friendly stores made so many of us feel at home.


“Hi! My name is Rachel, and I’m a recovering Borders bookseller.”

I’ve been using that line for the past few months, ever since my home store, Borders #517 (Lincoln Village) on the north side of Chicago, closed last April. It feels even more appropriate now, after closing my second store last Friday: Borders 405, also in Chicago, on State Street downtown. Even after working that first brutal two-month liquidation, watching my beloved home store get torn to shreds, and finally losing my job—when I was asked to come back and do it all over again, I said yes. I couldn’t help myself. I went on another six-week Borders binge. My last. This time, for real.

If you have ever walked into a bookstore during business hours and felt that it was an oasis of calm in the middle of a chaotic world, imagine being there when it is closed. I spent several years pulling myself out of bed before dawn in order to be at Borders by 6am. I am not a morning person, not at all, but four hours of uninterrupted shelving time before we opened each day was too enticing. There was something cathartic about spending those quiet hours in the stacks, putting my sections in order, and making the books look pretty. I would slip off my shoes, tie up my hair, and get down to the very serious business of section maintenance. (Note: I do not recommend customers ever walk around a retail location without shoes.)

Being a bookseller gave me an appreciation not just for the content of books, but for their physical bodies. I like that they have heft, weight, and corners that can inflict real damage when they fall on your head. I can look at the space on a shelf, table, or display and tell you how many copies will fit there, in multiple configurations. Filling in the new mass-market table was my favorite Tuesday morning activity—a three-dimensional puzzle, a biblio Rubik’s cube—taking into account release date, quantity, color, and popularity.

Ghosts of Borders Past Photo Essay

More than the books themselves, though, were the opportunities to find them good homes. I helped teachers plan their classroom libraries and students choose books for term papers. A 10-year-old boy asked me for reading recommendations—he had just finished Freakonomics, and wanted to know what other interesting non-fiction books we had. As a blizzard was rolling in, about to dump two feet of snow on us, a man walked into our store and simply said, “Tell me what to read for the next few days.” You can’t get that kind of interaction when you order books online. You just can’t.

Once, I caught myself looking around for my boss after I realized I had been talking to a customer about trends in Young Adult fiction for about 15 minutes. Then I realized that showing her all my favorite YA titles was actually part of my job description, and I wasn’t going to get fired over it. I left work that day feeling very lucky.

Borders was my home for five years, and Borders booksellers are my family. I am heartbroken to have lost the stores, the bookselling teams, and the customers as a part of my daily life. We were a ragtag bunch, heavy on the art and liberal-arts degrees, but light on pretentiousness. We shared our reading lives and our real lives indiscriminately. Most of us never planned to stay for very long, but found it hard to leave. I’m glad I saw it through to the end, but I hope never to be faced with such a depressing task as closing down a bookstore again. If you want to see what I mean, check out the photo essay, The Ghosts of Borders Past.

Borders, we already miss you.

So long, and thanks for all the books.

Booksellers Without Borders  (We are the Remaindered)
@BksellerExpats on Twitter
Book reviews, author interviews, and a reading
community from former Borders booksellers

Related Stories:
A Former Borders Employee Says Shop the Sales

Books, Dialogue, and Community

Borders We Will Miss You

Photo Essay: The Ghosts of Borders Past

Booksellers Without Borders

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IndieThursdays Get Readers Buying and Tweeting Books!

Booklovers are galvanizing for IndieThursdays! The idea is to buy a book at your local independent bookseller, and then on Thursday share the title and the name of the store in an tweet or via Facebook. The event was the brainchild of children’s author Ryan Jacobs, who wanted to inspire readers to shop locally.  Why not create a twitter event, he thought. After all, one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading is sharing it with others.

In stepped Jenn, the multi-tome juggling reader and reviewer of Jenn’s Bookshelves, who launched IndieThursday on July 28th. Each week, over 200 tweets (and growing!) post to the #indieThursday feed. You can also follow the acount @IndieThursday. If you aren’t on twitter, you can post to the Indie Thursday Facebook page.

Click here to find a local independent bookstore in your area.

E-readers can participate as well—as long as they purchased the download from an Indie. Here’s a list of independent bookstores that sell Google e-books.

Now some of you might argue that the prices aren’t as low as the book chains. But did you know that shopping at a Mom-and-Pop benefits your whole town? If you spend $100 at a local store, $68 of that stays in your community contrasted with only $43 that remains when you purchase at a national chain.

For today’s BBAW focus on readers, I’d like to shout out to Jenn’s Bookshelves for creating this fun online event. She has definitely influenced my reading, and shopping, habits for the better.

So let’s go and get some books … and tweet it out to @IndieThursday #IndieThursday or share via IndieThursday on Facebook.

Shop Indie Bookstores

#IndieThursday Website

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I take exception to your “don’t shop the Borders sale” post,
and would like to frame a reply longer than 140 characters.

An ominous tweet. At least it felt ominous to me because it came from one of the savvy bookish twitter handles: @BksellerExpats. I had blogged that booklovers should Skip the Borders Fire Sale.

Luckily, brevity tends to make missives seem more dire, and Rachel, the aforementioned tweeter, sent a charming follow-up email offering to write a rebuttal. Thus, the first guest post on Word Hits happened less than a month into my blogging. Her piece, A Former Borders Employee Says Shop the Sales, is one of my favorites, as it is gives a window into the bookseller’s experience in these difficult times. I am still getting comments on it from people who are sorry to lose Borders.

I wanted to share this as part of today’s BBAW focus on community, because what I took away from the experience is that I can learn from and build relationships with bloggers who give feedback—good or bad.

While I’m on the topic of community, I also want to highlight the site that Rachel founded with some other former Borders employees, Booksellers Without Borders. “We are the remaindered” reads their tagline. It is a wonderful collection of reviews from people who know a great deal about and who absolutely love books. I find it inspiring that they are sustaining an online community together, even though they have lost a beloved work community.

Because it’s a collaborative site, there is an impressive depth and range in the books they cover. Booksellers Without Borders feels like a virtual bookstore, with reviews arranged by categories just as they would be in on the shelves: Art/Photography, Children’s, Fiction/Literature, Graphic Novels, History/Politics, Humor, Horror, Memoir/Biography, Mystery/Thriller, Science/Technology, Science Fiction/Fantasy. With 15 nephews and nieces, I found it especially helpful that in addition to Children’s, they have separate categories for Intermediate Readers (8-12) and YA.

In the last few weeks Booksellers Without Borders has not had as many posts because Rachel, the site’s administrator, was rehired by Borders to help with the liquidation of Store 405 on State St in Chicago. Her handle @BksellerExpats also fires fewer tweets. Rachel has posted a photo essay on this experience called, The Ghosts of Borders Past. Alas, this is now the final week for Borders 405. But Rachel has promised to guest post an elegy to Borders on Word Hits, hopefully next week … if she has caught her breath by then!

A Former Borders Employee Says Shop the Sales

Caveat Emptor: Skip the Borders Sale

Photo Essay: The Ghosts of Borders Past

Booksellers Without Borders

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As part of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, today I’m featuring an interview with Ellen of Fat Books & Thin Women. She gets her blog title from a quote from Russell Baker: “Americans like fat books and thin women.” Like her preferred reading material, Ellen has created a pretty fat and in-depth blog, which covers an impressive number of books and short stories.  Even more impressive, she manages this while working in the Peace Corps in Macedonia. Ellen will finish up her service there in October and then head to Albania to research Albanian culture as a Fulbright student.

Yesterday, Ellen contributed a guest post to BBAW on Why Book Blogs Mattter, and Why They Should Matter to More People.

1. As someone who identifies Hermione Granger as the character you relate to most, do you see your role as a blogger to try to encourage others to read?  If not, what is your primary goal as a book blogger?

I’m not sure I’d say my main goal is to encourage people to read, simply because most of my visitors are already readers. I do like encouraging people to read what I’m reading, though (does that sound bad?). The chance to get other people excited about a book I loved is one of my favorite things about doing the blog, and I see that as one of the most important aspects of the book blogger’s “job.”

2.) I enjoyed perusing your 30-Day Book Meme. Do you have any other read-a-thons or book challenges that you would be eager to participate in?

The 30 Day Meme was great for this August, because it was Ramadan, most of my town was fasting and not available for hanging out during the day; it was a nice chance to reflect on some of my favorite books and characters. I won’t be doing the next Dewey’s Read-a-thon, because it’s just a few days before I finish my Peace Corps service and I’ll be busy packing and saying my goodbyes. It’s something I’d like to do again, though, maybe with some more planning than last time. There are a few people who’ve added a charitable component to their participation in the read-a-thon, which seems like a fantastic (and not too difficult) thing to do, and is something I’d like to do (and maybe encourage others to do) the next time I’m able to join in.

3.) You have a wonderful feature: Story Sundays. I see also that you are a short story writer yourself. Have you found that section as popular as the rest of your blog? What do you see as the role of the short story in today’s literature?

Story Sundays is my favorite section of the blog. For the first few months I wrote it I worried that no one was interested, but kept going because I was. They draw more hits over time – a lot of people arrive at my blog because they’re searching for these stories – than most of my other posts. I find that really encouraging.

Some of the stories are favorites; some are ones I’ve stumbled over. What I’ve done occasionally in the past, what I’d like to do more of in the future, is to highlight stories by lesser known authors. I wish I could better understand why short stories aren’t more popular in the States, especially given the recent popularity of Longreads. You’d think short stories might fall into that same class of “one sitting” reads, but there are so many fantastic stories that aren’t seen by many people. This may be nothing more than personal preference, but I’m bored by so many of the stories in anthologies like Best American (you know, the stories that are actually read by a good number of people) and like to think that if people had easier access to some of the genre-bending stuff put out by smaller presses, they would fall in love with short stories.

4.) How has your work in the Peace Corps informed or influenced your reading? Does it make it easier or harder to read and appreciate escapist books versus non-fiction or literature?

I don’t think being in the Peace Corps has had much of an impact on how I read certain types of books, though it does sometimes give me more of a background to lean on when I’m reviewing a book like Three Cups of Tea (a book that, as a volunteer, I thought gave a pretty inaccurate and at times offensive view of the sort of work people are doing in developing nations). I bought a Kindle before I came over here, so I’ve been able to read a lot of classics and keep up fairly well with new novels. Wonderfully, every Peace Corps office in the world (there’s one in each country, though I believe some countries also have regional “houses” or offices) has a library of books left by previous volunteers. I started reading a lot of authors, like John Grisham, Elizabeth George, and Sue Grafton, that I wouldn’t have touched if their books didn’t dominate the Peace Corps library.

5.) Your Reading List is WOW! How do you pick which of these books to write about and review?  Also, I’m curious as to your opinion of the ones that you’ve read but not reviewed. Do you have plans to review them also?

More recent books on the Reading List that I haven’t reviewed, I’m probably getting around to. There are a few books I didn’t review because I didn’t know what I could write about them beyond “amazing, amazing, amazing” (The Handmaid’s Tale, Age of Innocence), but more that I never wrote about because I had to take them back to the Peace Corps office.

7.) Do you read many reviews before choosing to read a book? What do you see as the role and/or duty of book reviews in blogs?

Often if a blogger I trust recommends a book, I read it looking for any more opinions; I like to read by my gut, I guess. I love revisiting reviews after I’ve finished a book and written my own review, to compare thoughts with other bloggers. I don’t see bloggers as a replacement for those newspaper reviews, because the social networking component of blogs is so unique; but I love to see people writing about books they love (or didn’t) in ways that are more representative of the way average readers will respond to a book than the writing of someone for a major book review.

8.) As a writer, have you found that writing a book blog informs or influences your own approach to writing? Do you look at social marketing sites (blogs, twitter, facebook pages) as necessary tools for the contemporary writer?

Writing the book blog hasn’t changed my approach to writing, but it has been interesting in that I’ve now interacted with authors by being one (sort of), editing their work, and being bombarded with review requests. I think all these social marketing sites are necessary tools for today’s writers, but they have to be used carefully; it’s a real turn-off when writers use twitter or their blogs not to interact with a community but to advertise, very bluntly, their works.

 9.) Finally: any plans for your blog over the coming months?

Not much; it’ll probably be the same stuff for a while, since I’m moving to Albania in late October. For Story Sundays, I would like to focus more on short stories by lesser known authors in coming months, though. I’d love to do some close reading posts, like the ones The Reading Ape occasionally writes, but it may be a while before I get around to that.

Ellen’s Interview of Sarah from Word Hits

Fat Books & Thin Women

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It’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

Now that fewer and fewer print publications review books, the book bloggers have stepped up to the plate.

Click to see a list of links to bloggers who have posted book blog recommendations.

Here are two of my favorites.


The Misanthropologist

“I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good” reads the tagline, a nod to the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter. But so far it has not been “mischief managed” for The Misanthropologist who is simultaneously plowing through the A Song of Fire and Ice series as well as, ahem, ALL of the Man Booker Prize Winners. I like that this blog tackles the classics as well as fun books—alternating Les Miserables with The Hunger Games. And I really like these book reviews!  This blogger can give you a real sense of the feel of a book, and whether it’s appealing, without giving away spoilers. The Misanthropologist writes with an enticing style, so much so that I’ve found myself straying into a few of the cultural posts on UNESCO and French films.

The Non-Judging Book and Coffee Club at Noon

As  you can guess from the title, the blog does not suffer any book pretensions. The authors, Sindhu & Humairah,  are two charming women in their 20s who live in Singapore and list among their favorite authors: Stephen King, Haruki Marukami, Jack Kerouac, Dan Brown, and Sylvia Plath. They meet at the local Starbucks for a book clatch, and I sure wish I could join them. They have a fun chat feature for those of us not in Singapore. But mostly, I really enjoy reading these reviews. They feel personal, and who doesn’t love a book rec from a friend? For example, their 4-cup-of-coffee rating of My Sister’s Keeper ends with the tagline “a definite page turner, prepare for no coffee breaks in between.” Alas, a 1-cup-of-coffee rating reads “don’t bother, just drink your coffee.”

Click to see a list of links to bloggers who have posted book blog recommendations.

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“Things spin. We are made by what we have been … This past and present is braided together with a beauty and an uncertainty.” –Colum McCann

 Esquire Magazine called Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin “the first great 9/11 novel.” This may sound odd since the book takes place 27 years before the World Trade Center attack, on August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked on a high wire between those famous Twin Towers.

The novel examines a day in the life of New York City, using the Tolstoy approach of many characters with multiple vantage points: the acrobat, the Irish priest, the hooker, the visiting brother, the myopic artist, the mother mourning her son killed in Vietnam. McCann makes us really care about these characters, giving them rich backstories and believable voices. Their lives intersect as the vignettes move about the city. It seems fitting that JJ Abrams, whose tv show LOST boasted a rich and interconnected group of characters, has optioned the movie rights.

McCann gives such a true and realistic portrait of 1970s New York that it’s hard to believe he is actually from Ireland. He did an enormous amount of research, meeting people who lived in the city then, and even going so far as to track down and interview retired policemen who had worked in the Bronx.

If you never visited the World Trade Center, than this is an especially resonant book to read. McCann, who has lived in New York since 1995, offers a vivid portrait of the looming Towers and the everyday workings of the city. His images, characters, and themes seem to ripple out from that place and time—after the Vietnam war and before our current state-of-high-alert. Tom Junod, in Esquire, argues that McCann identified “August 7, 1974, as the beginning of an era of American freedom that ended on September 11, 2001.”

What Colum McCann gives us in Let the Great World Spin, is a glimpse of what we lost:  An era. A community. An innocence.

TransAtlantic — the new novel by Colum McCann

Colum McCann’s official website

Esquire review of Let the Great World Spin

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Philip Levine at Bread Loaf

Philip Levine signs books, after a packed reading at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

For Labor Day, I thought it would be appropriate to write about our new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine, who is known as “the workingman’s poet.” He was born in Detroit during its heyday and, at age 14, Levine started working in the car-manufacturing plants. His writing is grounded in the common struggle of the workaday life, and he became known for poems about jobs, including “What Work Is.” He has won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

Fellow poet Edward Hirsch called Levine, “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” Indeed, Levine offers something that all of us can feel in his words. You don’t need to be cerebral or even know much about poetry. Within days after he was named Poet Laureate in early August, Levine’s books completely sold-out in bookstores and online.

I was lucky enough to hear Levine read, a couple of weeks ago at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. (This reading is available free at iTunes.) Though the theater had no air-conditioning on that hot, sticky day, the atmosphere was charged, electric. From my vantage in the back, it felt like a championship game, with rows of people sitting bolt upright, ensorcelled, many with sweat dribbling down their faces. The poems he read evoked tangible, common experiences such as “New Year’s Eve, In Hospital,” which really happened to him, and also “Vino Negro,” a cheap, black wine he drank in Catalan. “Vino Negro” was published a week later in The New Yorker.

Levine spoke for a bit about each poem, and I was surprised to discover that our Poet Laureate is also disarmingly funny. He would knock ‘em dead on the stand-up circuit. I’m still not sure if I was more taken by the way he crafts wonder from realism in his poems or by the openness of his off-handed, easy jokes. Levine makes poetry and words accessible, and that is brilliant.

Philip Levine’s Bread Loaf reading is available free at iTunes.

Links to Some of Philip Levine’s Poems

An Extraordinary Morning

Black Wine/Vino Negro (The New Yorker subscription required)

Coming Close

Two Voices

What Work Is

Winter Words

More Poems, Articles, and a Biography at the Poetry Foundation

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