Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari

Title: Letter to Jimmy

Author: Alain Mabanckou

Translator: Sara Meli Ansari

Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley (2014)

ISBN: 978 1 59376 601 6

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There has long been a  tendency in the West to over-simplify African nations. The most obvious example  being the habit of dispensing with identifying the 56 countries which comprise the continent as individual nations and instead referring to them unilaterally as “Africa”.  Or the strange and so obviously condescending insistence in defining these countries by their conflicts and crisis, rather than by their triumphs (or, indeed, the mundanity of day-to-day life).  And so famine, apartheid, genocide, conflict diamonds, civil wars & child soldiers have, each in their turn, dominated our conversations about “Africa”. Western images of African nations has been shaped by National Geographic (on the one hand) and the current news cycle (on the other).   Or, to put it simply – by white Western agendas rather than African self-identification.

Thankfully, a new generation of writers has arrived – writers who are building a more complicated, nuanced picture of the continent and of the effects of diaspora on its citizens; who reject the over-simplification of their countries of origin and, by extension, themselves.

Alain Mabanckou is a featured author at this year’s 2015 Pen World Voices Festival and a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. His latest book – Letter to Jimmy (on the 20th anniversary of your death) – is part memoir, part tribute and something of a departure from  his previous work.  Mabanckou is dealing with the concepts of identity, expatriation and race – all topics he’s explored to some extent in his other works. But in this, his most recent, offering he is in a more reflective mood. The simple premise of the book is that it is an open letter from the author to his hero James Baldwin.

At first the letter (letters, plural, would be more accurate) seem completely banal, as if Mabankou intends only to offer a re-cap of Baldwin’s life & career.  He spends pages establishing facts and timelines, discussing Baldwin’s relationship to his parents, his friendships with other black authors, his participation in the Civil rights movement, his books and his homosexuality – all of which I, a reader with a Baldwin shaped gap in their reading history, found very helpful.  But for those solely interested in a Baldwin biography there are already several of those available.  And Baldwin, himself, was an autobiographical writer (particularly in his essays).   It is only when Mabanckou gets past the foundational portion of his book and begins to draw parallels between Baldwin and himself, compare the world in which Baldwin lived to the world in which we live today, what it means to be African versus African American (and the relationship that exists between the two) that Letter to Jimmy engages.  Mabanckou brings a fresh perspective, one which is probably unique among Baldwin scholars.  The two writers have geography in common.  Mabanckou’s writes:  “I was born in Africa, the land of his ancestors.  I had lived in France, his land of refuge. And now I live in his homeland: America.”  Neither man, Mabanckou tells us, knew their biological father. They share similar views on race, society and the role of the writer.  Mabanckou has obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and understanding Baldwin’s work.  His admiration and affection are apparent on every page.  Even the form of Letter to Jimmy pays homage to Baldwin’s two essays:  “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation” and “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind” collected in The Fire Next Time.

This, though, is not a collection of essays.  Mabanckou has truly written a long, though somewhat fragmented, letter. He is carrying on a conversation with Baldwin in which Baldwin’s writings form the other half of the correspondence.  And so perhaps the most powerful passages (in light of the riots in the United States and migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) are when he – Mabanckou – discusses the relationship between Africans to African Americans.  When he tries to explain racism as it exists in both America and France, then and now.

On African immigrants in France –

However, the serious error regarding the perception of black communities in France, as Dominic Thomas points out in his essay, Black France, is to underestimate the different forces behind their  emergence.  One must be warned, he insists, against perceiving them as a homogenous community.  This is how, in a novel like The Black Docker, from Senegalese writer Ousmane Sembène, the author can describe a black community in which the West Indian ranks higher than the Senegalese, a term referring to all Africans, regardless of their country of origin, with everything that it implies about France’s attitude toward people of color from the black continent… How many times during my long stay in France do you think, Jimmy, I was asked if I was Senegalese*?

On the United States –

And when riots erupt on March 19, 1935, after the murder of a black man by a white police officer – several thousand men take it out on white-owned businesses, causing a good portion of the middle-class to flee the neighborhood – you see that, despite the widespread indignation, political figures merely make endless speeches, set up committees, and tear down a few hovels to replace them with housing projects.

(80-years later and the headlines are eerily similar. Mabanckou warns ‘If you return to this world, Jimmy, you will judge your homeland even more severely than you did when you were alive. Inequalities are now more subtle, and more hidden, in a society which has not yet resolved the issue that had been so important to you: redefining American identity, or, in your words, addressing integration through the “power of love.” ‘)

On race & racism  –

Instead of seeking out the definition of one’s status, one is better served by interpreting and untangling the meaning of works, what they convey, what they imply, for the destiny of the person of color. In the end, definitions imprison us, take away from us the ability to create ourselves endlessly, to imagine a different world. As long as these definitions appear absolute, the question of the other remains acute. It is in this vein that I understand your warning: “And, in fact, the truth about the black man, as a historical entity and as a human being, has been hidden from him, deliberately and cruelly; the power of the white world is threatened  whenever a black man refuses to accept the white world’s definitions.”

And again quoting Baldwin’s own words back to him –

“… the value placed on the color of the skin is always and everywhere and forever a delusion.” **

 


 

This is obviously not a traditional narrative and Sara Meli Ansari does an excellent job keeping the casual tone of the conversation and even capturing the  subtle idiosyncracies of Mabanckou’s English.  She also transitions nicely between the story that bookend’s the letter – Mabanckou’s fascination and eventual meeting with a homeless man on the Santa Monica beach to whom he dedicates Letter To Jimmy – somehow capturing the difference between the author’s anecdotal and epistolary voice.  But, I feel its my duty as a reviewer and Mabanckou fan to say that if you haven’t yet read his novels then this may not the book to judge him on. There is an energy and humor in his fiction that doesn’t find an outlet in his letter. He quotes Baldwin heavily, and a large portion of the book is an examination of Baldwin’s work and life.  What I am trying to say, poorly, is that his nonfiction is not what I would call indicative.

Still, I loved this book. And Letter To Jimmy might ultimately be judged as one of the more important books in Mabanckou’s oeuvre.  It is a frank discussion of race and racism, globally contextualized.  It is also an examination of a great 20th century author’s work; his historical importance and his relevancy in our own twenty-first century world.

 

*Alain Mabanckou was born in the Republic of Congo.  Senegal is located 3,709 km, or 2,305 miles away.

**The last two Baldwin quotes are both from “The Fire Next Time”

 

 

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia by Julio Cortázar (translated by David Kurnick)

Title:  Fantomas versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia

Author:  Julio Cortázar

Translator:  David Kurnick

Publisher:  Semiotext(e), Los Angeles (2014)

ISBN:  978 1 58435 134 4

 

00-HS3--Julio-Cortazar-FantomasOne problem with coming to a book without any useful prior knowledge is that your risk being blindsided.  For example:  sometimes you pick up a novella (Say by  Julio Cortázar, an author with whom you’ve had enjoyable experiences in the past. An author who writes playful, Escher-esque short stories and is known for the novel Hopscotch, in which the chapters can be read straight through or mixed up in an entirely non-linear way) seduced by the way the author has used visual images as part of the narrative rather than in the supportive role of illustration only to suddenly, inexplicably, find yourself reading a political tract on the evils of global capitalism. Surprise!

Cortázar is a genius. Fantomas was a comic book hero from the 1970’s written by Gonzalo Martré and drawn by Víctor Cruz Mota.  All the comic book pages featured (and commented on by the narrator) are from the actual issue entitled Fantomas, la amenaza elegante: La inteligencia en llamas (Fantomas: The Elegant Menace and The Mind on Fire).  The premise behind Cortázar’s book is that the narrator, Cortázar, finds himself reading the Fantomas comic book while on a train ride home after attending the Second Russell Tribunal in Brussels – (we’ll get back to the Tribunal later).  As he reads he discovers that he, Alberto Moravia, Octavio Paz & Susan Sontag are all characters in the comic book.  The lines between the comic book story and the “real world” of the novella begin to blend and merge until the readers finds themselves immersed in a marriage of the two.  Books around the world are disappearing.  Libraries are being burned. Intellectuals are being alerted and expressing suitable horror.  Our hero Fantomas leaps into action (and through several windows) in order to stop the villain responsible.

But as the story progresses the intellectuals, with Cortázar and Susan Sontag at the helm, begin to question their priorities. What is the value books when compared to people? And as Sontag tells Julio, “Fantomas realizes now that he’s been tricked, and it’s not a nice thing for him to realize… Now he and many more are realizing that the destruction of the libraries was just a prologue. It’s too bad I’m no good at drawing – if I were I’d hurry up and prepare the second part of the story, the real story. It’ll be less attractive to readers without the pictures”  we all know she’s not just talking about Fantomas.  Cortázar, at least, had a sense of humor.  Because if Susan were truly being forthright she would have explained that the destruction of libraries was actually a distraction, rather than a prologue.  More appropriately: a lure.  Which brings us to the Second Russell Tribunal.

FantomasMost of the following information can helpfully be found in the Appendix of Multinational Vampires.  In January, 1975, the Second Russel Tribunal was held.  The First Russel Tribunal (perhaps better known as the International War Crimes Tribunal) originally took place in 1966 and was organized by Bertrand Russel & Jean Paul Sartre to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam by the United States of America.*  To date there have been five Russel Tribunals held with the most recent taking place in 2012 on Palestine.  The second, with which we’ll concern ourselves because it is the one on which Multinational Vampires is predicated, dealt with Latin America – instigated by Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile.  Ultimately, the tribunal did not limit itself to Chile.  Latin America was the CIA’s playground at the time and many of those attending the Tribunal had Communist leanings, so there was plenty of material for the delegates to work with.  The problem was and remains that the Tribunals are only symbolic.  Those involved had no power in the making of policy. Their goal and hope was that through their participation the atrocities, injustices and economic manipulation would be exposed and brought to the public’s attention.

Which is why Cortázar wrote Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, are the international corporations. The novella is an interesting bit of Cold-War ephemera on the one hand and a neat bit of literary slight-of-hand on the other. My only problem with it is the transition from experimental writing to political pamphlet was so unexpected that the second half of the book became something of a blur as I tried to figure out what had just happened.  Rather like jumping on a subway train expecting to wind up in Park Slope and finding yourself on a platform in Jackson Heights, Queens.  What saves Multinational Vampires, and make it readable, is Julio Cortázar’s dry sense of humor, his clever structure and the way he has his narrator move in and out of the frames of the comic book.  And, not least of all, the realization that there is still some value in Cortázar’s message. Because unfortunately, at least in the case of multinational vampires, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires has been longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s a wonderful translation – the dialogue that propels most of the novella is delivered rapid fire and the transitions I mentioned earlier – between the “main” story, the comic book and the politics – probably weren’t the easiest to execute. Despite all that, and the fact I enjoyed it quite a bit, I’d be very surprised if Fantomas made it onto the shortlist.

 

*Cortázar attended the First Russell Tribunal, as well.

 

2015 Translation Awards – By the Numbers

None of the 10 authors nominated for the Man Booker International Prize has a book on the 4 longlists.

There are 76 spots on the combined longlists, including the 6 write-in spots for the Typographical Translation Prize. (3 of the 6 write-in titles show up on 1 of the 3 other longlists).

There are 62 unique titles across the 4 lists.

34 of the books are from Europe, 14 Latin America, 9 from Asia, 3 from Africa, 1 from the Middle East, 1 from North America.

France has the most books on the combined lists – 7.

There are 19 female authors represented & 41 male authors.

Bohumil Hrabal has 2 separate titles on The Best Translated Book Award longlist (translated by 2 different translators).

The I Ching translated by John Minford has no attributable author.

Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman, is the only title on 3 lists – The Best Translated Book Award, The PEN Translation Prize & The Typographical Translation Prize.  All 3 are American prizes, which has me wondering whether it is eligible for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize?

12 titles appear on 2 of the lists.

Texas. The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee won The Typographical Translation Prize and is longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

There are 58 individual translators across the 4 longlists.

4 titles were translated by a pair/team of translators.

2 translators on The Typographical Translation Prize longlist are brother & sister. Neither won.

7 translators have 2 books on the lists – Andrew Bromfield, Daniel Hahn, Silvestor Mazarella, Polly Gannon, Margaret Jull Costa, Jordan Stump & Don Bartlett.

Margaret Jull Costa is competing against herself for the Best Translated Book Award.

NUMBERS

Translation Award Season – The 2015 Edition

‘Tis the season for Translation Awards.  The 2015 Best Translated Book Award, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, PEN Translation Prize, Man Booker International Prize and Typographical Translation Prize (which has already been selected) – I’ve included the long lists for all five below.  This year I thought it would be fun to put them all in one place and compare.  Later this week I’ll be taking a closer look…  But for now, enjoy!

2015 Best Translated Book Award

  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Denmark, Two Lines Press)
  • The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires by Julio Cortázar, translated by David Kurnick (Argentina, Semiotext(e))
  • Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov (Russia, Counterpoint Press)
  • 1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale (France, New Press)
  • Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard, translated by Charlotte Mandell (France, Open Letter Books)
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
  • Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Pushkin Press)
  • Monastery by Eduardo Halfon, translated by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn (Guatemala, Bellevue Literary Press)
  • Letters from a Seducer by Hilda Hilst, translated by John Keene (Brazil, Nightboat Books)
  • Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago Books)
  • Rambling On: An Apprentice’s Guide to the Gift of the Gab by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by David Short (Czech Republic, Karolinum Press)
  • The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal and Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, New York Review Books)
  • Works by Edouard Levé, translated by Jan Steyn (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
  • Adam Buenosayres by Leopoldo Marechal, translated by Norman Cheadle and Sheila Ethier (Argentina, McGill-Queen’s University Press)
  • Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich (Taiwan, New York Review Books)
  • Winter Mythologies and Abbots by Pierre Michon, translated by Ann Jefferson (France, Yale University Press)
  • Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner (Rwanda, Archipelago Books)
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated by Stephen Henighan (Angola, Biblioasis)
  • La Grande by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph (Argentina, Open Letter Books)
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Hispabooks)
  • Snow and Shadow by Dorothy Tse, translated by Nicky Harman (Hong Kong, East Slope Publishing)
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (China, Yale University Press)

2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 

  • Bloodlines by Marcello Fois, translated by Silvester Mazzarella (Italy, MacLehose Press)
  • Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by Don Bartlett (Norway, Harvill Secker)
  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, translated by Jethro Soutar (Equatorial Guinea, And Other Stories)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Japanese, Harvill Secker)
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (Germany, Quercus)
  • In the Beginning Was the Sea by Tomás González, translated by Frank Wynne (Colombia, Pushkin Press)
  • Look Who’s Back by Vernes Timur, translated by Jamie Bulloch (Germany, MacLehose Press/Quercus)
  • The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Russian, Peirene Press)
  • The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Germany, Portobello Books)
  • The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Germany, Bloomsbury)
  • The Investigation by J.M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Korea, Mantle/Pan Macmillan)
  • The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan (Chinese, Yale University Press)
  • The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed, translated by Sarah Death (Sweden, Clerkenwell Press)
  • Tiger Milk by Stefanie De Velasco, translated by Tim Mohr (Germany, Head of Zeus)
  • While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier, translated by Paul Vincent (Belgium, Pushkin Press)

The 2015 PEN Translation Prize

  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz, translated by Danuta Borchardt (Poland, Yale/Margellos)
  • The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla, translated by Peter Bush (Spain, New York Review Books)
  • The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon (Russia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Master of Confessions by Thierry Cruvellier, translated by Alex Gilly (Franc, Ecco)
  • The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura, translated by Anna Kushner (Cuba, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • I Ching, translated by John Minford (China, Viking Books)
  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Denmark, Two Lines Press)
  • Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee  (Mexico, Deep Vellum Publishing)
  • Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Two Lines Press)
  • The Woman Who Borrowed Memories by Tove Jansson, translated by Thomas Teal & Silvester Mazzarella (Finland, New York Review Books)

The 2014 Typographical Translation Prize 

  • Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt, translated by Denise Newman (Greenland, Two Lines Press)
  • The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov, translated by Polly Gannon (Russia, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright (Iraq/Finland, Penguin)
  • A Little Lumpen Novelita by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Chile, New Directions)
  • The Author and Me by Éric Chevillard, translated by Jordan Stump (France, Dalkey Archive Press)
  • 1914 by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale (France, The New Press)
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
  • With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst, translated by Adam Morris (Brazil, Melville House)
  • The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue, translated by Michael Emmerich (Japan, Pushkin Press)
  • F by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Janeway (Germany, Pantheon)
  • My Struggle Book Three: Boyhood by Karl Ove Knausgard, translated by Don Bartlett (Norway, Archipelago)
  • Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett (Netherlands, Hogarth)
  • Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney (Mexico, Coffee House Press)
  • Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich (Greece, Open Letter Books)
  • The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-yi, translated by Darryl Sterk (Taiwan, Pantheon)
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel (Japan, Knopf)
  • Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein (Mexico, Seven Stories Press)
  • Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman, translated by Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia (Argentina, FSG)
  • The Light and the Dark by Mikhail Shishkin, translated by Andrew Bromfield (Russia, Quercus)
  • The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated by Barbara J. Haveland (Norway, Other Press)
  • Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated by Samantha Schnee (Mexico, Deep Vellum) – Write In / WINNER
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, Hispabooks) – Write In
  • Harlequin’s Millions by Bohumil Hrabel, translated by Stacey Knecht (Czech Republic, Archipelago) – Write In
  • Nowhere People by Paulo Scott, translated by Daniel Hahn (Brazil, And Other Stories) – Write In
  • Guyana by Elise Turcotte, translated by Rhonda Mullins (French Canada, Coach House Books) – Write In
  • The Book of Sins by Chen Xiwo, translated by Nicky Harman (China, Forty-Six) – Write In

The Man Booker International Prize 2015

  • César Aira (Argentina)
  • Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
  • Hoda Barakat (Lebanon)
  • Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe/France)
  • Mia Couto (Mozambique)
  • Amitav Ghosh (Calcutta)
  • Fanny Howe (U.S.A.)
  • László Krasznahorkai (Hungary)
  • Alain Mabanckou (Congo/France)
  • Marlene Van Niekerk (South Africa)

 

 

 

DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 Shadow Jury – And the winner is….

But when Stu, Lisa & I started discussing which book should win it quickly became a process of elimination. We all agreed one book was good, but not a prize winner. Another novel two of us did not like, one of us did. Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera was a close runner up.

Title:  The Mirror of Beauty

Author: Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Translator:  Translated by the author from Urdu

Publisher:  Penguin, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0 143422 73 0

 

Publishers Description:  It is the sunset of the Mughal Empire. The splendour of imperial Delhi flares one last time. The young daughter of a craftsman in the city elopes with an officer of the East India Company. And so we are drawn into the story of Wazir Khanam: a dazzlingly beautiful and fiercely independent woman who takes a series of lovers, including a Navab and a Mughal prince—and whom history remembers as the mother of the famous poet Dagh. But it is not just one life that this novel sets out to capture: it paints in rapturous detail an entire civilization.


Of the five books shortlisted for the DSC Prize I only managed to read four.  The Mirror of Beauty, at 985 pages, was the one book I didn’t manage to get to. There just wasn’t enough time.

But when Stu, Lisa & I started discussing which book should win it quickly became a process of elimination. We all agreed one book was good, but not a prize winner. Another novel two of us did not like, one of us did. Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera was a close runner up.

In the end both Stu’s & Lisa’s glowing recommendations of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s beautiful, epic novel made it the only possible choice.

Click on the links below to their reviews to see why:

Stu’s review of The Mirror of Beauty at Winston’s Dad

Lisa’s review of The Mirror of Beauty at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

 

The official winner will be announced this Thursday, January 22nd.