Archive for June, 2010

I know next to nothing about Garrison Keillor.  Like many people though, when I hear his name there are certain word-associations.  A Prairie Home Companion.  Lake Wobegon.  Minnesota.

That’s about it.  But there were enough similarities between Keillor’s work and that of Stuart McLean, another radio presenter whose domestic yarns were spun into successful book sales and of whom I am a great fan, that I though it time I finally investigated for myself.  So, when I saw a copy of Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance by Garrison Keillor on the “New & Notables” shelf at my local library, I picked it up.  If nothing else, how could I resist such a quintessentially American author for the Orbis Terrarum challenge

Scandinavians have a reputation for being a little depressing.  Very little sunshine and daisies, lots of stark, dismal scenery and tall Nordic people being uncommunicative.  That heritage certainly comes through here and, though Keillor mocks the dreary outlook of his fellow Minnesotans, it does set the tone. 

The pilgrims of the title are twelve of Lake Wobegon’s finest who journey to Rome to visit the grave of a hometown boy who had died there during the Second World War.  Remembered as a hero by generations of school children, the truth about the young man’s less-than glorious (but rather more poignant) end is detailed as the novel progresses.  The trip was organized by, and the novel centers around, Marjorie Krebsbach, a middle-aged woman ready to shake up the monotony of her life and to figure out why exactly her husband has taken to sleeping in another room.  A typical enough mid-life crisis set-up but Marjorie is rather more fearless than most heroines of such stories.  She’s marvelous, actually.  Ethically I’m not sure I agree with all of her choices but I loved how fantastically decisive she was and her complete lack of guilt afterwards – what many writers would have turned into a source of internal angst, Keillor chalks up to life experience and proceeds on to other issues.  When Marjorie finds herself on her knees in a church, she prays not for her husband’s love or forgiveness or even for the return of the fortune she has unwittingly given away but for the existence of God (while studiously ignoring the other occupants of the church, a mafioso and his armed guards). 

Unfortunately, Keillor’s humour always seems a little off, as though you know he’s trying to make a gently mocking yet affectionate statement but it never quite comes off.  The only lines that truly amused me were the ones at Keillor’s expense – Gary Keillor is the 12th member of the pilgrims and the one providing the funding.  However, his fellow travelers don’t feel so indebted to him as to be polite and take care to remind him frequently that they either don’t like or don’t read his books.  Keillor makes fun of himself as well, remarking that “lack of social skills: that was what made him a writer.  Nothing to do with talent whatsoever”(p. 121). 

A book dealing with small-town Americans travelling in Europe is always guaranteed to mock them, even if just a little, but again, it didn’t quite work.  Yes, there were the grouchy men who didn’t want to leave the hotel.  And yes, the group decided to hit all the main tourist spots, accompanied by large cameras and loud voices, and to eat at an English-style pub with an English-language menu rather than walking a little farther to find something authentic.  The plain, simple Americans pale in comparison to their more worldly, polished Italian counterparts.  Most of this we see through Margie’s eyes – Margie who wants the glamour and romance of Rome, who wants to absorb and be absorbed by the city rather than stand out in it like a sore thumb.  Obviously, she does what any self-respecting tour group member would do and ditches her companions to explore by herself, exchanging the restraint of her townsfolk for the passion of the Romans.  Understandable, especially if you come from a place like Lake Wobegon, where “you worked from a small pool of appropriate partners and a man stepped in where the woman had signaled a vacancy and if she thought he was okay, not an incipient drunk or child molester, she didn’t dismiss him, which was the Lake Wobegon equivalent of falling love”(p.169).  Wouldn’t you jump too at the chance to flirt with handsome Italians in cafes?

In the end, everything works out (as though you ever had any doubt).  Mistakes are made and misunderstandings cleared up, good people prosper while less-than-good (but not bad, never that) people are thwarted, however incompetently.  The prose got increasingly sentimental towards the end though this reader did not – an awkward situation (there are very few writers whose flights of sentimentality I will tolerate without question, really only Alexander McCall Smith and Stuart McLean).  In the end, I was satisfied but not impressed by the story.  I’ve since been told that this is one of Keillor’s weaker offerings so perhaps I’ll go back one day and try one of his earlier works.  Probably not though – it was the style of writing that bothered me most here and I’m not terribly eager to wade through more of it.  I’ll stick to Stuart McLean’s far superior Vinyl Cafe stories.

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Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.  Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Two years, I thought.  How fast it passes when you subtract vacation, time with the children, weekends, holidays, doctor visits; it becomes a year, and a year’s squandered in a blink.

~ Dear Money by Martha McPhee (p. 110)

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I have been reading romance novels of late.  More specifically, the excellent, highly entertaining, amusing novels of Susan Elizabeth Phillips.  And not just one or two – eight in the last sixteen days.  No wonder I haven’t been posting reviews of other books: there haven’t been many.

In order, I’ve read:

What I Did For Love (2009) – so many Hollywood plotlines thrown together in one wonderful muddle.  The hero and heroine (Bram and Georgie) have known and hated each other since they were teenagers, costarring on a long-running sitcom.  Bram’s bad boy behaviour led to the show’s cancellation and they went their separate ways, Georgie eventually marrying one of Hollywood’s leading men.  Cue the Jen-Brad-Angelina storyline that destroys her marriage.  The book begins as year after that, when Bram and Georgie unexpectedly reenter one another’s lives.  One thing leads to another and Bram and Georgie wake up married in Las Vegas.  As you do.  Georgie, who can’t face the idea of more public pity, convinces Bram to keep up the sham of a marriage, though they still hate each other.  We all really know though that ‘hate’ means ‘clearly will fall in love and make everything way too complicated for themselves.’  Huge cast of supporting characters (many of whom are key characters in other Phillips novels), which only makes it more enjoyable.        

Ain’t She Sweet? (2005) – painful.  I should know by now that books set in the American South irritate rather than intrigue me.  Why do I never remember this or, when I do, why am I so freakishly optimistic?  The heroine is named Sugar Beth – enough said.  And the hero, Colin, is incredibly unappealing.  Cruel, overly dramatic, vain and, at least at one point, long-haired…none of it is remotely alluring.  To be entirely honest, I picked this up because it was mentioned in Crystal Renn’s memoir Hungry as one of her favourite books.  Stupid Claire, taking recommendations from models. 

Glitter Baby (revised 2009) – Hollywood, Paris, New York.  Errol Flynn.  Supermodels and movie stars.  Over-the-top glamour.  Can you tell this was originally written in the 1980s?  The novel focuses perhaps too much on Belinda and her twisted relationships at the expense of her daughter Fleur, the heroine of the novel.  One of the major plotlines, dealing with Belinda’s French husband, is intensely dark and uncomfortable, almost gothic.  This is definitely the bleakest of Phillips’ novels that I’ve read, but still enjoyable due mostly to the incredibly strong main characters, Fleur and Jake.    

Natural Born Charmer (2007) – On his way to Tennessee, NFL quarterback Dean Robillard picks up a woman dressed as a beaver on the side of the road.  Together, Dean and Blue (sans beaver costume) clash and sizzle their way through a number of unexpected family reunions.  Weak start but definitely picks up as you go along.  The focus here is much more on family than on the romantic relationship between Dean and Blue (their storyline made less and less sense as the focus shifted).  The misunderstandings between them were a little too contrived – but communication issues in relationships always bother me because I’m so ridiculously blunt myself. 

Match Me If You Can (2005) – Annabelle Granger inherits her grandmother’s match making company (and, with it, her geriatric clients) but is determined to turn it into a success, starting with sports agent Heath Champion who knows exactly what he wants.  Heath is wonderfully selfish and unapologetically masculine – none of that touchy-feely, all-he-wants-is-a-little-woman-and-a-few-kids business.  Annabelle could be a little flighty and insecure but only a little – she’s not one of those Chick Lit too-dumb-to-live heroines.  Anyone who can take charge of a house full of drunk football players is worth some respect.  The supporting cast here was mostly composed of the heroes and heroines of Phillips’ other Chicago Stars novels – always fun to see characters either a few years after or before their novels take place.   


This Heart of Mine (2001) – Molly Somerville has had a crush on Kevin Tucker, the Chicago Stars’ handsome quarterback, for years though he can’t even remember her name.  After a few disastrous missteps, they find themselves married and trying to make sense of their feelings for other another while sorting out the camp site that Kevin has inherited (look!  Convenient, remote location in which hero and heroine are forced to get to know one another away from the pressures of normal life!).  The entire premise of this one is a little too much, so right from the start it’s difficult to form much of an attachment to Molly.  Naturally self-destructive, she doesn’t exactly grow on you as the novel progresses and Kevin is less well sketched-out than most of Phillips’ other heroes.  However, as escapist fantasy fiction it’s still good fun.


It Had to Be You (1994) – the very first of Phillips’ Chicago Stars novels.  In the wake of her estranged father’s death, Phoebe Somerville finds herself the owner of the struggling Chicago Stars football team (not to mention guardian to her younger sister Molly).  The blonde bombshell with a troubled past soon finds herself clashing with Dan Calebow, the Star’s attractive head coach.  It may not be Phillips’ most polished work, but there are still glimmers of promise.  Phoebe is a little too transparent, too simplified but she’s easy to sympathize with (even if she does look like Marilyn Monroe).  Dan is a textbook Phillips’ hero: strong, athletic, combative, intelligent, emotionally-scarred by parental neglect/abuse, and ready to settle down.    


Fancy Pants (1989) – Francesa Day and Dallie Beaudine – a penniless English socialite and a blue-collar Texan golfer with nothing in common.  Never thought I’d say this but I much prefer reading about football to golf (though I loathe watching both).  A rebel, playboy golfer is still a tough sell (despite “Tin Cup”), especially to a reader who thinks it’s the dullest sport on earth.  And the secret baby cliché is never a favourite and, provided he isn’t an addict or abusive, I invariably take the father’s side.  Francie only came of age because she struck out on her own, baby in tow, but she cheated Dallie out of 9 years of fatherhood.  Rather selfish (though Dallie –worst name every, by the way – made a rather big mistake by not telling her he was married). 

I think that, after reading eight of them with varying degrees of enjoyment, I’ve finally figured out what I like so much about Phillips’ novels.  It’s not her heroines, not even her heroes, and it’s certainly not her plots (her books have excellent dialogue but typically outrageous scenarios).  It’s the families she creates, the web of people she ties together so that no one is ever alone, not even minor, supporting characters.  And who doesn’t want that, all that unconditional love and security?

Tying in with all these romance novels, I borrowed Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan.  As much as I love to read, I love to read about reading and, in this case, the various preconceptions and stereotypes active within a genre that I’m not overly familiar with.  And what a great introduction: crass and hilarious, fond and irreverent, it’s everything you needs to know about romance novel clichés, the people who read them and the people who bash them.

Reading Phillips’ novels after reading this was a revelation: the changes in genre conventions over the past twenty years are really echoed in her works, as the novels shift to focus more on the emotional development of characters in their own rights, rather than miraculously finding themselves because of some relationship they mind find themselves in.  Heroes have become more complex and far less likely to get away with the rapes so common to the romance novels of the 70s and 80s (and even early 90s).  The virginal (or semi-virginal) heroine, while still around, is far less dominant that she used to be as social conventions have changed and more and more contemporary romances have heroines in their late twenties and early thirties who have sexual pasts (sometimes more active ones than the heroes). 

One section of the book that brought me up short was this quote: “One African American romance reader said to us directly, ‘Black people like to read about other black people.  And I look for romance about black women in the black section of the bookstore” (p. 192).  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  Dear Americans, WTF?

There are some things only a reader of romance can understand and appreciate.  The bemulleted cover models.  The alpha hero whom you love to read about but who’d be fodder for COPS episodes in real life.  The heroines who are either so feisty they make your teeth hurt, or the embodiment of every virtue known to man, dog, and Chthonic deities. (p.2)

This lack of anything resembling common sense, coupled with the need to show us that the heroine has more than a limp noodle for backbone, often leads to annoyingly feisty heroines, who in turn are the precursors to the dreaded Too Stupid to Live heroines. (p.23)

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Someday, I will stop being surprised by all the things librarians read; they’ll read anything. (P. 49)

I have been looking forward to This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson since February, when I first came across it in The New Yorker.  A book about 21st Century librarians embracing the many new technologies available and adapting those technologies to suit their (and our) needs within libraries?  How could I resist?  Why would I want to?  Given my love for books, libraries, and information systems (I know, that’s weird isn’t it?) this was destined to appeal to me from the start. 

And I wanted to love it.  I was determined to.  It seemed like the kind of book that I should instantly love, that I would cling to and consume in one sitting.  It didn’t quite work out that way.

I think the main problem was a lack of focus: it is ostensibly about how technology is changing librarianship and the strongest parts of the book deal with just that.  The chapter on the Connecticut Four (who sued the government to keep library patrons’ records private) was a fascinating examination of civil liberties and the librarians’ devotion to discretion.  Johnson persuasively argued that, yes, in the age of Google librarians are still necessary – anyone can use an internet search engine but do they know what to search for?  Librarians are trained to ask clarifying questions to determine what it is specifically that the patron wants to know and they have the vocabulary and knowledge to run the right searches in the right places.  The chapter examining the relationship between librarians and IT staff was anecdotal and a little weak, but it certainly stressed its importance.  As Johnson says, “this is the greatest and most fraught romance of modern society, the marriage between the IT staff and those who depend on them” (p. 39).

But then, for much of the book, Johnson seems distracted by novelty and strays from her purpose.  Almost forty pages are devoted to Second Life librarians.  Yes, I agree it’s amazing that there are people building libraries in a virtual world, answering questions and providing information (though I think I’m amazed in a far different way than Johnson) but I also want to know why this is significant.  Virtual librarians are available, they have a presence, but how great is their reach?  How many people are using their services and what are the practical long-term implications of this style of service?  Johnson is equally titillated by a new generation of hipster librarians, anarchist librarians and tattooed librarians.  Look!  So new, so completely unlike the stereotypical librarian!  They embrace technology!  (Of course they do, they’re children of the 80s.  They don’t remember what life was like before computers). They’re rebels with a cause! 

Oh dear.  And yet even as she’s saying this, she’s also making sweeping generalizations like:

If you had to divide the world into creeps and assholes, as writer Susin Shapiro once did, librarians would be creeps.  By and large, they’re cat people, not dog people.  Librarians’ favorite wall decorations are posters of the goofy ‘LOLcats,’ adorable cat pictures with misspelled legends: I Can Has Cheezburger? Or drunk dial kitteh callin u at 2 am.  Is it the misspellings that crack them up? (p. 124)

Could there be a crueler stereotype? 

All of this seems particularly odd (and slightly unkind) given that so many of the librarians that Johnson interviewed and mentioned are rather old school: men and women in their forties and fifties who embrace technology but, at the same time, don’t view it as the be all and end all of their profession.  People like David Smith, ‘Librarian to the Stars,’ who know that customer service is their real focus, connecting people with the right materials, however that may happen.

There’s also a strange chapter on preserving archival materials.  Interesting enough I suppose, but this is a book about librarians, not archivists, and Johnson is careful to point out that, yes, they are in fact different professions, with different mindsets (librarians are finders, archivists keepers).  So why was this chapter still included?

Despite waiting patiently, Johnson never persuasively made the case that these new-wave, technology-embracing librarians will in fact “save us all.”  She paints a fascinating portrait of the profession during an interesting and perhaps transformational point in its history but doesn’t dare to draw any real conclusions from these changes or, even after all this research, give opinions of her own on where librarianship is heading and what skills will be needed.  And I think that was the biggest problem for me: so much of the book felt like it was degrading the old at the expense of the new.  Yet most of the older librarians she came across embrace new technology, new ways of getting and organizing information.  “Good librarians are natural intelligence operatives,” Johnson says.  “They possess all of the skills and characteristics required for that work: curiosity, wide-ranging knowledge, good memories, organizational and analytical aptitude, and discretion” (p. 6).  A wonderful description and one that surely applies to a myriad of personalities – be they anarchists, hipsters, or old fuddy-duddies in flannels.

Related Links:

The Darien Statement on the Library and Librarians – an inspiring mission statement sketching out “the role librarians should play in defining the future of libraries.”

Librarian Blogs – links to all of the blogging librarians Johnson mentions in the book, ranging from the technological to the humourous.

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Library Loot

I’ve been much more disciplined lately about checking out small numbers of book and working my way through them (rather than grabbing everything that looks remotely fascinating, staggering home under the weight, and then only reading a few).  Work has also kept me far too busy this last week, so there hasn’t been as much time for reading as usual (a trend that seems likely to continue for the next several weeks).  But I am very excited about what I did pick out!



This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson
I have been waiting for this for ages.  I placed a hold on it back in February and it finally came in this week!  The focus here is definitely on technology – there’s even a whole chapter about librarians who blog (and you better believe I’m taking notes and will be checking them all out afterwards!).

Dear Money by Martha McPhee
Saw this one reviewed in the New York Times last week and, being fascinated by American books dealing with wealth (because, more often than not, they seem to be written as morality tales – I blame Fitzgerald), thought I’d check it out.  Also, I’m a sucker for Pygmalion tales.

Friends Like These: My Worldwide Quest to Find My Best Childhood Friends, Knock on Their Doors, and Ask Them to Come Out and Play by Danny Wallace
About to turn thirty, Danny Wallace decides to track down his childhood friends (I thought this is what Facebook is for, but whatever.  I use it primarily to feel superior to elementary school friends who have no jobs or prospects – fun times).  It’s been a while since I read something amusing and it doesn’t get much funnier than Wallace.   If you want a quick laugh, I’d recommend Wallace’s (relatively) recent article “Man with a pram” in the Guardian, a dispatch from the dads army.

Lovers and Newcomers by Rosie Thomas
Okay, yes, the reviews for this haven’t been great.  It’s been compared more than once to “The Big Chill”.  But I love “The Big Chill” (and not just because it has the best soundtrack ever).  The idea of friends reuniting after years apart is always a favourite (see Friends Like These, above) and anything by Thomas is compulsively readable.  Also, the cover is really, really pretty.

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via onlyinbooks (tumblr)

Alright, I never finished Life of Pi and really have no intention of reading Beatrice and Virgil, but I love Yann Martel.  And I adore this interview recently published in the Guardian, in which he defends his (and everyone else’s) right to write about the Holocaust. 

“The tragedy of the Holocaust wasn’t exclusively Jewish,” he says. “It was non-Jews who did it. It was an act of two groups, so it’s not just for Jews to be expert on the Holocaust. In any case, we’re in dialogue with history, and you no more own a historical event than people own their language. The English don’t own the English language; the Jews don’t own the Holocaust; the French don’t own Verdun. It’s good to have other perspectives. If you claim to own an event, you may suffer from group think.”

Along the similar lines, Meg Rosoff ponders using real-life characters in fiction, in this case using Sharon Dogar’s Annexed as an example.  A few weeks ago we discussed this a bit in terms of historical fiction but Rosoff pulls in some modern examples as well (including personal favourites The Uncommon Reader and The Queen and I, both of which feature Queen Elizabeth II as the protagonist).

As there is nothing I like better than curling up with a big book of other people’s personal correspondence, I had to include the dying art of letter writing.  I choose to take these articles (and they are legion) as arguments for why email should be avoided whenever possible in favour of handwritten, posted correspondence.  This backfires on me.  A lot.  People love to receive mail but then never send a response and, I suspect, my bons mots end up in their recycling bins more often than not (save for my more supportive friends who live in hope/fear that I will one day be famous for something, their foresight in having lugged around my letter these many years to be rewarded by my eager biographers.  Good luck to them but prospects seem dim).

Finally, what would a Friday Potpourri be without an NPR link?  And this one’s great: Three Degrees of Failure for the Recent Graduate.  It includes Vanity Fair, which I can never read too many times, and The Group, which depressed me beyond belief when I first read it as a teenager.

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Library Lust

credit: Francisco Costa

I love this library.  I know I’ve said that before, but those were all lies.  Youthful, fleeting fancies.  This is true love – built to last.  And how could it not?  So functional and so stylish.  Far too often bookshelves in magazines have almost no books on them.  Not here.  And I love the pictures hung off the shelves and the small television tucked away on the second shelf.  It’s practical and beautiful, casual yet elegant.
Absolutely perfect.

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Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

Grab your current read. Let the book fall open to a random page.  Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page. You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

Lack of social skills: that was what made him a writer.  Nothing to do with talent whatsoever.

~Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance by Garrison Keillor, p. 121

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A new Amelia Peabody Emerson book!  I’d almost forgotten how much I missed her (and Emerson and Nefret and Ramses.  Especially Ramses) but it only took a few sentences of A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters for me to remember. 

As with most of the books in the series, it was rather light on plot but if I were reading these books for the plots I would never have made it through the first book (to be fair, it took me three tries to get through that one, but those were the days before Ramses).  It does have the normal, wonderful dynamics of the Emerson clan, not to mention Ramses being dashing and heroic and a generally all together too romantic figure.  We can’t forget that.  I love Emerson and am quite fond of David and Nefret (not Amelia particularly) but it’s Ramses who draws me in.  He’s the reason I reread these books over and over, ignoring weak plots and insanely dramatic adventures.

Rather than the familiar setting of Egypt, this volume is set in Palestine in 1910 (placing it between Guardian of the Horizon and The Falcon at the Gate) where the Emersons become entangled with German spies, a strange interfaith fellowship, and the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.  And Ramses finds himself kidnapped.  Of course.  It’s that kind of old-fashion storytelling makes these books so irresistible: the romance, the adventure, the exotic settings, the nefarious villains.  Usually, I enjoy the archeological details as well, but those are few and far between here, of very little significance to the events that move the plot along.

Peters also includes many not-so-subtle hints about Nefret’s changing feelings for Ramses (which we were already beginning to see in Guardian of the Horizon).  She is typically quiet and underused and Amelia only seems to record Nefret’s skin colour (flushed versus pale as expressions of emotion) rather than actual conversations.  Poor Nefret.  The boys get to run around playing spies and even Amelia gets to poke wrong doers with her parasol while Nefret stays in town, taking care of servants and being coddled by the senior Emersons.  Nefret has always been the most uneven character in the series – a strong modern woman who fades into the background in most books, the reader only being reminded of her when Ramses decides it is time to explore his unrequited love for her.  Terribly frustrating.

This isn’t Peters’ strongest book in the series but it’s still good fun and a quick read.  Already, I’m seriously contemplating a reread of some of the others books.  There’s nothing like a good adventure story to start off the summer.

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World Cup thoughts

One week into the World Cup and I’ve only just watched my first full match (well done All Whites).  And yes, the vuvuzela really is the most annoying noise I’ve ever heard, like a massive hive of angry bumblebees – thank goodness I can put the television on mute, I can’t imagine how twitchy they would make me if I were in the stadium. 

But this remains a sport I’m never destined to really like, despite the gorgeous, gorgeous men who play it – I’m so used to hockey players with broken noses that these pretty boys are quite overwhelming.  But dramatic, so, so dramatic.  Is it really necessary to perform a opera-worthy swoon everytime someone grazes you? 

The…customary method of getting a penalty is to walk into the ‘area’ with the ball, get breathed on hard, and then immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arm and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their foreheads at the tragic waste of a young life.  The referee buys this more often than you might think.

~Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik, p. 218

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