Apr 1 2020

Short Story Review: “The Disappearance” by James Hatton

Mark Twain in Athens

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

As of April 1, 2020, everyone is relating every experience, action, thought (including specific acts and overall habits of reading) to the fallout from the outbreak of the Corona virus.

We are so overly focused on this one moment in our lives that it distorts the relations of this one moment to all others we’ve experienced and all the ones left to come.

Our tunnel vision has blotted out the periphery.

We are tainted by the current Zeitgeist—our fingers are filthy from trying to properly pin the tail on the beast we call the Spirit of the Times—our worries follow wherever the tail may wag. And if we don’t pin the tail just right, we feel we’ll end up like Eeyore—a donkey detached from his tail, someone less than they once were.

I don’t know how to avoid relating everything back to the Corona virus, particularly when it comes to reviewing apocalyptic short stories written by contemporary authors.

I can only admit that I don’t know how to avoid it; I can only emit a sense of enmity toward it.

I must learn to bound—and by bounding get beyond the inevitable referent of the viral outbreak.

wood

I read James Hatton’s short story “The Disappearance” over a year ago when it was published in 2018 by PopShot Quarterly magazine, and I meant to write something about it then. Alas, it got put aside. (2019 was, for me as a writer, pretty much a year of “regrouping.”) But I’ve come back to the story, and due to present circumstances, can’t help but compare it (or relate it rather) to the ongoing quarantine and chaos.

“The Disappearance” is an apocalyptic story told by an omnipotent, third-person narrator during a time and place where, for its characters “in their secluded life here, miles from anywhere, it had all seemed so far away.”

There occurs a change of circumstances for the characters Tom and Catherine. Then they get used to the change. Then, more change occurs.

Despite obvious comparisons to the current situation, I thought “The Disappearance” a worthwhile story a year ago. Its theme of alienation didn’t have to be plague-induced in order to be potent.

Though it compares well with the present unpleasantness—reading Hatton’s story now also reminds me of when the days of the earth did not stand so still. And this reminding is, for me now, a kind of escapism from the lockdown we continue to undergo. Reading “The Disappearance” lets me escape back into an old feeling—“some old need,” as the narrator puts it, “to be moving towards something.”

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Catch and release

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The springtime anole iguanas are helping me forget about you-know-what.


Mar 23 2020

Rereading “Slaughterhouse-Five”

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

I first heard of the book Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) when, as a kid, my siblings and I would often watch a VHS copy of the film Footloose (1984) that makes mention of the book at the film’s beginning.

But that movie doesn’t mention the author. So I first heard of the name Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) when I was in college and he was interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show in 2005. At the time, there were certain mannerisms from Stewart that made this viewer think Vonnegut was, for Stewart personally, one of the most important interviews he’d ever done.

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five during the weekend of my sister’s wedding, about twelve years ago. Before then I had never heard about what happened at Dresden.

But now, holed up at home, I found my great-grandfather’s copy and read it over this past weekend.

I’d been wanting to reread a particular passage in the sixth chapter that has stuck with me since the first reading.

It’s just a few paragraphs about maintaining order and routine and self-respect and dignity:

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Advice for when working from home.

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I found no deeper meaning in the passage this second time around, though the book overall seems more poignant now in my memory than it did before.

But I still don’t know what to think of the novel overall: it is comedy and misery and absurdity and truth all thrown at the reader in a scatter-shot style.

I did, however, notice in this second reading, how much of a Midwestern book it is, by a Midwestern author. This geographic significance is what I’ll retain as I continue my readings and eventually compare it to other things from the Midwest that I’ve read or intend to (re)read.


Mar 20 2020

Short Story Review: “Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat

pencil shavings

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

Sashi Bhat’s short story “Earning Disapproval,” published in The Puritan magazine (Winter 2019), is a story that focuses much on an abundance of detail. This surplus renders for readers something between a sense of verisimilitude and nostalgia for the life of a Hindu Indian-Canadian girl in middle school during the mid-late ’90s.

Some of the details mentioned I recall from my own days in middle school–such as girls’ enthusiasm for the film The Craft (1996) and the slime toy Gak (which smelled awful) made by Nickelodeon.

Other details I wasn’t so familiar with, such as the narrator’s mention of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), a very popular Indian film I was unaware of; although, after watching a clip from it, I recognized the star Shah Rukh Khan from things I once watched for an Indian film class in college.

Overall, reading “Earning Disapproval” reminded me of a remark by critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) when, in his essay on Milton, the critic mentions:

… the famous “Miltonic vague”—the preference of vast but rather indeterminate pictures, tinted with a sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity, as the case may be—to sharper outlines and more definite colours….
(Saintsbury, “Milton, § 22 His versification and style,” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes, Volume VII: English Cavalier and Puritan, eds. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller, (Cambridge UP, 1907–1921).)

“A sort of dim gorgeousness or luridity….” yet containing things with “sharper outlines and more definite colours” is the lasting impression I have after reading Bhat’s story. I find these traits in my own attempts at fiction, so perhaps I’m being overly critical of Bhat because of my self-awareness.


Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

porticos in Bologna, Italia

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

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Feb 15 2020

Duke Spooks: a Review of “Ghostly Tales of Mississippi” (2018)

Except for most of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, some Hardy Boys, and a little Dick Tracy, a sprinkling of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock mysteries series, and a couple of Goosebumps books—I didn’t read any Young Adult Fiction as a young adult (unless you think the 1992 NIV Student Edition of the Bible and 1984 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia qualify).

No Lovecraft in childhood. No Tolkien. No Stephen King (in book form). I did, however, read Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) but none of its sequels, even though we had the whole series sitting right next to the encyclopedias. (And I’m too old for Harry Potter to have made an impression.)

So I don’t know if I’m an apt critic to comment on current young adult fiction like Jeff Duke’s Ghostly Tales of Mississippi (2018). I have, however, had no hesitation in writing about the most recent work that I’ve read in this genre: the first two books of Heidi. So in what follows, I hope not to disappoint.

Besides being young adult fiction, Duke’s book is certainly southern gothic in genre. But thankfully, its aromas contain none of the musty smells of imitation-disguised-as-influence so frequently found in writers who were repeatedly burdened by classroom-assigned readings of Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily (1930) and O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953). Duke was taught by Barry Hannah (1942–2010), a highly revered writer, but one I’ve yet to read (so I can’t tell you how strong his influence on Duke is).

But the stories in Duke’s book do remind me of the things I as a child liked (and of which I was chased by the occasional nightmare) in the works of R. L. Stine. Most of the ghosts and witches that appear in Duke’s stories, however, don’t cause most of the characters they’re chasing or spooking much harm. Most of them….

I’m particularly appreciative how the title of each story in Ghostly Tales of Mississippi is of a particular place in that state. This detail is part of the book’s larger intention of weaving together an intricate pattern from various strands of local folklore, geography, and family mythology.

“Rosehill Cemetery (Brookhaven)” and “Cinema Theater at the Barnes Crossing Mall (Tupleo)” remain my two favorite stories. The first for its simplicity at rendering spookiness; the latter for its keen combination of nostalgia for playing Street Fighter II at an arcade, the vivid image of a phantom seen in the reflection of an arcade video game screen, and the very Kubrickian environment of a quiet, empty, cinema at night.

And there’s even a bit of Joyce in Duke’s collection of local tales; for his final story “Witchdance (Houston),” (Houston, Mississippi, of course), almost overpowers all the stories that came before it––very similar to the way “The Dead” does for the rest of the local tales in Dubliners (1914). But only almost.

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A random assortment #bookstagram

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Jan 17 2020

Arcadia and Middle-Earth: Prose Plus Poetry in Sidney and Tolkien

After finishing C. S. Lewis’s (1898–1963) English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) (1954) last autumn, I was curious to then read Sir. Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): a strange work of mostly prose, but interspersed with much poetry. I’d read Sidney’s Apology (1580) several times and mostly understood it, but the Arcadia was more ambiguous. When reading it, sometimes (at least the older version) felt like a medieval romance (like the first part of the Roman de la Rose [c. 1230]). At other times, the Arcadia felt like an ancient epic (the Argonautica (c. 200 BC) comes to mind). Either way, Arcadia is definitely not a novel, though it is a fantasy.

And it also reminded me much of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892–1973) works—another fantasy world told mostly in prose but containing much poetry. Both authors take these old literary forms and add something fresh to them by mixing them together. They are “fun,” even when their tones turn toward things serious. In this regard, they have mirth.

This freshness of song and speech also reminded somewhat of Miguel Cervantes (1547–1616) Don Quijote (1605, 1616), which contains a few handfuls of sonnets, and along these lines we might add Johanna Spyri’s (1827–1901) Heidi’s Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (1880) and Heidi Kann Brauchen, was es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (1881) as well as John Bunyan’s (1628–1688) The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) with their Protestant hymns and songs intermixed with prose tales.

But the going-back-and-forthness between prose and poetry in Sidney’s Arcadia and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth mostly reminded me of classic Hollywood musicals. (I’m a South Pacific (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964) kind of guy.)

Post Scriptum

Finally, with feelings more of somberness than sadness do we wish Christopher Tolkien (1924–2020) and his kin the best as he now journeys westward toward the Grey Havens. His task as steward to his father’s work is now complete. And I expect the father to soon say to all around him, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

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First edition…. RIP Christopher Tolkien

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Dec 28 2019

Heidi and Sidney: Two Views of Arcadia

typewriter

The title character of Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre (Heidis Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) lives in a true Arcadian paradise along the slopes of the Swiss Alps:

By now the sun was ready to go down behind the mountains. Heidi sat on the ground again and gazed at the bluebells and the rock-roses glowing in the evening light. The grass seemed tinted with gold, and the cliffs above began to gleam and sparkle….[1]

May had come. From every height the overflowing brooks were rushing down into the valley. Warm, bright sunshine lay on the mountain. It had grown green again; the last traces of snow had melted away, and the first little flowers were peeping up out of the fresh grass. The spring wind blew through the fir trees and shook off the old, dark needles, so that the young, bright green ones could come out and dress the trees in splendor. High above, the old robber-bird was swinging his wings in the blue air, and around the Alm hut the golden sunshine lay warm on the ground. [2]

Yes, as Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) has taught us beforehand, Heidi’s world is founded in that literary setting of poetic pastoral that so often can become (as Americans say) “tacky” with its kitsch motifs, followed by the inevitable banality in meaning behind them. As Johnson puts it:

In consequence of these original errours, a thousand precepts have been given, which have only contributed to perplex and confound. Some have thought it necessary that the imaginary manners of the golden age should be universally preserved, and have therefore believed, that nothing more could be admitted in pastoral, than lilies and roses, and rocks and streams, among which are heard the gentle whispers of chaste fondness, or the soft complaints of amorous impatience. In pastoral, as in other writings, chastity of sentiment ought doubtless to be observed, and purity of manners to be represented; not because the poet is confined to the images of the golden age, but because, having the subject in his own choice, he ought always to consult the interest of virtue. (Rambler no. 37, July 24, 1750)

Johnson is almost always right about this sort of thing. Still, it is good for children to read about the world Heidi lives in, for though it is a beautiful world, it is certainly not a paradise. Through her innocence and innate goodness, Heidi “was never unhappy, for she could always find something about her to enjoy.”[3] But those around her must struggle (and it’s important for children to read about this contrast, for depicting it is one of the things good fiction, for any age, tends to do).

There is, for example, the goatherd boy Peter, who has literally never eaten is fill, and a grand moment where he marvels when Heidi gives him some of her leftovers as they share a mountainside lunch.[4] And there is Heidi’s friend from Frankfurt, Clara, a girl (temporarily?) lame, perhaps from polio. Life is certainly not a paradise for Clara, which is one reason while Heidi comes to visit her. [5] There is the doctor who suffers melancholy and finds relief in the mountains. [6] And finally, there is Heidi’s grandfather, whom she loves dearly, but is someone who remains stubborn (for reasons never quite explained) in his unforgiveness toward the town beneath his mountain cabin.

But the Arcadia of the Heidi books is quite different from the original Arcadia (1580) by Sir Philip Sidney (1584-1586), which is a work that paints a world without children, but also a world full of young love and (occasionally) lust, as readers find at the end of Book III:

    Thus hath each part his beauty’s part;
But how the Graces do impart
To all her limbs a special grace,
Becoming every time and place,
Which doth e’en beauty beautify,
And most bewitch the wretched eye!
How all this is but a fair inn
Of fairer guest which dwells within,
Of whose high praise, and praiseful bliss,
Goodness the pen, heav’n paper is;
The ink immortal fame doth lend.
As I began, so must I end:
    No tongue can her perfections tell,
    In whose each part all pens may dwell.[7]

Upon encountering Sidney’s fictional work, I expected (as Johnson has taught me) green pastures and white sheep abounding. But here Sidney’s prose fiction rarely has anything to say about landscape. Instead there is a wild variety of poetry sprinkled throughout this strange prose creation, some of it beautiful, but some of it too rugged (in its style and structure) to be recited aloud with ease.

And I don’t know how reading these two highly contrasting works will ever make me a better writer (or reader), but after having read them, I do feel both better informed and thoroughly refreshed from the workaday world of Austin, Texas. As the doctor says to Heidi after recovering from his melancholy:

It is good to be on the mountain. Body and soul get well there, and life becomes happy again.”[8]

Happy New Year,

Christopher / Bookbread

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Picturesque at the family farm

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NOTES

wood

[1] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) I, iii, p. 36.

[2] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881) in Heidi, illustrated Arthur Jameson, trans. Helene S. White [?], (Racine, WI: Whitman Publishing Co., 1944) II, vi, p. 183.

[3] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iv, p. 40.

[4] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, iii, p. 32.

[5] Spyri, Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) I, vi.

[6] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii.

[7] Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembrokes Arcadia (The Old Arcadia) (c. 1580), ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones, (New York: Oxford UP, 1973; 2008) 210–11.

[8] Spyri, Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) II, iii, p. 164.


Dec 7 2019

Heidi and Bluejays

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Recently, I read for the first time Johanna Spyri’s (1827-1901) Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre (Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning) (c. 1880) and its sequel Heidi Kann Brauchen, Was Es Gelernt Hat (How Heidi Used What She Learned) (c. 1881).

They are nice, pastoral books, set in the elevated Arcadia of the Swiss Alps.

Then, today, I saw these bluejays:

And these bluejays reminded me of a passage from the fifth chapter of the first Heidi book:

“What are you going to make of the child?” the pastor asked. “Nothing; she [Heidi] grows and thrives with goats and the birds. She is well enough with them, and she learns no harm with them,” [said the grandfather].


Dec 1 2019

Gogol, Dolly, and George Sessions Perry

Western book stack

Until recently, I’d never heard of George Sessions Perry (1910–1956), even though for the past several years I’ve made my way to his hometown of Rockdale, Milam County, Texas to eat barbeque and attend rodeos. Sessions was a writer, mostly of fiction, and most notably for his 1942 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a book which tells the story of a white tenant farmer family in the central-eastern portion of the Lone Star State.

There is a moment in the novel’s sixth chapter that particularly stands out: a scene where a family wants to send their daughter to school on a cold and rainy morning until they realize she has no coat. What follows is a three-page description of how the daughter’s coat comes to be produced—a scene somewhat moving in its intentions, somewhat sappy in its melodrama––somewhat reminiscent of the rugged practicalities behind the madness of the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), and yet also somewhat resembling the soft sentimentality running through the narrator of Dolly Parton’s ballad of a “Coat of Many Colors” (1971).

But it was a scene that made reading the book worthwhile, and I now find myself curious to encounter what else Perry wrote about.


Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

THE DANGERS OF BEING AN ETERNAL STUDENT:

MEDITATIONS ON BEING A WRITER no. 3

Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

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