The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4


When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.


Spring Crime Spree: Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie)

Title:  Murder Most Serene

Author:  Gabrielle Wittkop

Translator:  Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 939663 14 6

Murder Most Serene is a study in contrasts.  It is a tale of two cities, one above and one below, during the month and years preceding Napoleon’s invasion of the then Republic of Venice. The inhabitants, fully cognizant that history is catching up to them, distract themselves with frenetic celebrations and debauchery. Venice is an empire staring down its final days – like a garishly made-up prostitute at the end of a long night staring silently at her reflection, powder caked and lipstick smeared,  in the mirror.

In Venice, everything is different. Different from what, if not Venice?… A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.

Murdercover4As Venetian society whirls through candlelit ballrooms they whisper about the trials and tribulations of Count Alvise Lanzi, a hapless Bluebeard, who can’t seem to keep a wife alive. His brides’ untimely ends – punctuated by black bile, violent spasms and agonizing pain – blend together into one macabre death scene which plays across the entire novella. Alleviated only by occasional digressions into the candlelit glamour of Venetian society, the narrative bounces back and forth between an omniscient (if somewhat reticent) narrator describing the evils as they befall the Lanzi brides and a delightfully gossipy correspondent writing to his or her “dear Siren” about all that is happening in the city.  

The wives, of course, are being murdered. A seasoned mystery reader will suspect by whom very early on, but that isn’t the point.  The prose is the star of this dark little book. When Wittkop introduces Felicita and Teresa, two sisters destined to follow Lanzi to the altar and each other to the grave, they are pretty little dolls frozen in a miniature diorama.  

Felicita is a tall girl with a pure, olive complexion, capable of playing the harp and turning a compliment in Latin. People say she has an austere temperament. Teresa is quite as tall and slender, but of a paler hue. She plays the harpsichord and loves nothing so much as to shine, and shine…

In just four sentences Wittcop conjures the two young ladies – one regal and serene, the other vibrant and effervescent. But the glamour is fleeting and this image is quickly replaced with another. Death, when it comes, is not pretty or charming.

The room, near the kitchens at the back of the Mendicanti, is grayish white like a wall eye. To counter the smell, the pathologists don the old beaked mask once worn by doctors purporting to treat sufferers of the plague. Beside the table, a valet holds the flaming torches. The stench of butchery again, as at the birth. A fly – a fat blue gem covered in fine, downy hair – wanders across Felicita’s face.

Back and forth, back and forth Wittkop drags her readers. And, despite ourselves, we enjoy every minute of it. Like her previous novella, The Necrophiliac, the darker and more depraved the story gets the more playful the prose becomes.  Much of this little novella’s perfection comes from the cinematic handling of the imagery – cut scenes, close-ups and pan shots, fade ins & outs – it’s very easy to imagine a Tim Burton screen adaptation of Murder Most Serene inspired by 16th century still-life paintings (imagine exquisitely painted depictions of skulls, dead animals and rotting food). The archness of the prose belies the unsavory nature of what it describes. Like the white-eyed, too wide smile of Anne Hathaway’s powdered sugar portrayal of Carroll’s White Queen which leaves the audience unsure of whether she’s going to stroke or snap the fluffy white kitten’s neck, murder has never appeared so charming.



Murder Most Serene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s author, Gabrielle Wittkop, liked to refer to herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade. And Murder Most Serene is a book de Sade would have delighted in. A woman of strong principles and beliefs, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002 when she learned she had lung cancer, preferring to meet death on her own terms.


Spring Crime Spree! – Target In The Night by Richard Piglia, Sergio Waisman tr.

Title: Target In the Night

Author:   Ricardo Piglia

Translator:   Sergio Waisman

Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 941929 16 9


When Toni Durán, a handsome Puerto Rican-American, arrives in Madariaga, a small town in the Argentine Pampas, he definitely shakes things up.  He romances the beautiful twin daughters of the richest man in town, befriends the local Chinese waiter, charms all the gentry and, a few weeks later, turns up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night seems a straight-forward case of “find-the-murderer”, but soon becomes about much more than solving the mystery of Toni Durán’s death.

Luca Belladonna, along with his late brother Lucio, owned the town’s only factory which once employed most of the townspeople. Now the factory stands empty, production stopped by an economic downturn and the death of Lucio in a car crash.  Luca has become something of an eccentric, living in the crumbling building with an assistant, continuing to work on his inventions in hopes of re-opening for business. His red-haired twin sisters Ada and Sofia (who can’t help but remind readers of Bolaño’s Garmendia sisters) are beautiful and wild – “The sisters were like replicas, the symmetry between them was so similar it was almost sinister” – and local gossip has both girls engaged in a ménage à trois with Durán, who they met on a visit to the States.  He followed them back to Argentina with a suitcase full of money.  

The Belladonna patriarch is still alive, but estranged from Luca.  The siblings’ mothers (one for the boys and one for the girls) are both dead.  Piglia’s novel portrays the decaying aristocratic family and all that goes with it: betrayal, disillusion, archaic codes of honor, sexual deviance and the loss of the wealth which buttressed its illusions of grandeur through generations. He has, in short, clothed a Faulknerian tragedy in the guise of a detective novel.

By then the story had changed. No longer a Don Juan, no longer a fortune seeker who had come after two South American heiresses, he was now a new kind of traveler, an adventurer who trafficked in dirty money, a neutral smuggler who snuck dollars through customs using his North American passport and his elegant looks. He had a split personality, two faces, two backgrounds. It was impossible to reconcile the versions because the other, secret life attributed to him was always new and surprising. A seductive foreigner, an extrovert who revealed everything, but also a mysterious man with a dark side who fell for the Belladonna sisters and got lost in the whirlwind that followed.

The whole town participated in fine-tuning and improving the stories. The motives and the point of view changed, but not the character. The events themselves hadn’t actually changed, only how they were being perceived. There were no new facts, only different interpretations.

As every good reader knows, a murder needs an investigator.  Detective Croce, a Lear-like figure working from the brink of madness, is determined to discover the true killer and exonerate the scapegoat.  A man who has been falsely imprisoned by those who find an expedient solution to the case more politically beneficial than justice.  Emilio Renzi, a big city journalist who appears in a number of Piglia’s books and is a satisfactory (and satisfactorily cynical) foil provides the objective outsider’s view of events. They form a dynamic partnership – Renzi the superego to Croce’s ego.

Piglia’s work is both clever and unusual.  At first glance Target In the Night reads as if it were three or four stories, ideas even, mashed together into one. The transitions between scenes are fuzzy, making the plot difficult to follow at times.  The story doesn’t follow the narrative we expect and as a writer Piglia can come across as a bit schizophrenic.  But the writing, itself, flows beautifully and the threads sort themselves out by the end. And some of those scenes with the fuzzy transitions between them can be very funny. When Renzi visits Croce in an asylum he gets to know some of the inmates.

Renzi gave them a cigarette and the two men started smoking it right away, taking turns, standing near them. The fatter of the two broke a one-peso bill in half and gave half of it to the other for a drag of the cigarette. Every time they took a smoke they would give the other patient half of the bill, and when they exhaled they would take the other half of the bill back. They paid with half a bill, took a smoke, exhaled, accepted half of the bill, the other would smoke, blow out the smoke, they would pass the half-bill back, the other would smoke – and the cycle accelerated and went faster and faster as the cigarette was consumed…

Ricardo Piglia is an Argentine transplant who now currently teaches Latin American Literature at Princeton University. It might be worth noting that the Belladonna/Garmendia sisters coincidence isn’t the only Bolaño parallel to be found.  Piglia incorporates fictional footnotes into his text as well. And while Bolaño doesn’t own the patent on twins and footnotes, they might be something an Argentine author who isn’t specifically intent on paying homage might want to avoid. Sometimes, though, these glimpses of the familiar work in an author’s favor and add to the readers pleasure. Fortunately for the author, they do that here.

Target In the Night seems to be part of the ongoing trend towards the domestication of the crime novel. Crime/detective fiction is the one category which (seemingly) has managed to entirely escape the genre ghetto – skipping back and forth across the line between its sensationalist roots and literary aspirations. Latin American authors, in particular, seem to have the most fun with the fusion, injecting a bit more humor, experimental prose writing and unusual story structures into their endeavors. In fact, the defining characteristic of these existential crime novels seems to be exactly how little a satisfactory resolution of the crime actually matters to the overall trajectory of the story.


Scars by Juan José Saer, translated from the original Spanish by Steve Dolph all his novels and short stories, it is For Whom the Bell Tolls that showcases Ernest Hemingway’s signature brand of maudlin, alcohol-soaked sentimentality.  Yet it remains a great novel.  The closing paragraphs, as Robert Jordan says goodbye to his María, are among the most heartbreaking ever written. Yes, I believe it would have been better if Hemingway had just written their conversation in Spanish instead of inflicting all those English thees and thous on readers.  Yes, there is something weird about his choice of the nickname Rabbit.  But the bleakness conjured by the words “We will not be going to Madrid…” has remained with me, as I imagine it has with others.

The famous epigraph that gives the book it’s title, taken from John Donne’s XVII Meditation can be attributed to Hemingway’s cynicism or prescience depending on your feelings about the man.  It ends with his hero, who valiantly aligned himself against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, lying beneath a tree and waiting to die.  We know the Fascists, Franco’s Nationalists, ultimately win – and in doing so unlatch the gate for the coming of the second World War.   “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Juan José Saer has set his novel, Scars, in a completely different time and place.  “La Zona” is Saer’s personal Yoknapawtapha.  It includes the city of Santa Fé, Argentina, c. the late c. 1960’s.  The books is divided into four parts.  How Saer names his parts is unusual – he uses it to compress the timeline.  Part one is February, March, April, May, June; part two is March, April, May; part three is April, May and part four is simply May. The common factor of all four narratives is a violent murder which takes place in May (the description of which is the last narrative in the book).  Luis Fiore kills his wife, La Gringa, by shooting her in the face with a shotgun. Twice.

The final part of Scars tells the story of the murder from the murderer’s perspective.  The preceding three parts only touch on that event.  Or rather, the event touches on the lives of the three men who each act as first person narrators for a section of the book.  It opens with Ángel Leto, who is a young journalist given access to Fiore by the judge on the case.  But of the 90 pages that make up Leto’s story only 7 pages and a few scattered sentences talk about Fiore or the murder.  The rest is taken up by/with Leto’s libido as he goes about his day-to-day business.  All his interactions are underlaced with an uncomfortable sexual tension.

The parts/chapters which follow are told from the perspective of an attorney and former friend of Fiore who has given himself over entirely to the game of Baccarat – spending all his money, mortgaging his house and taking the wages of his young housekeeper in order to continue gambling; and by the judge who presides over Fiore’s case – a man in a deep depression who sees the world through the narrow tunnel of his daily routine and perceives his fellow human beings as gorillas.  Lust, addiction, despair and rage – these are the drives each man’s life seems to be reduced to.  One at a time we, the readers, are trapped in an individual narrator’s head… along with his particular demon. Each of these men are connected, tenuously perhaps, by the murder.  And each is isolated, living self-absorbed lives in which everyone around them is a supporting character.

Scars is an early novel – by a writer who is considered by many to be one of Argentina’s  most important and influential authors.  As such it has it’s strengths and weaknesses.  The writing feels intentionally claustrophobic.  Steve Dolph has done a wonderful translation – somehow balancing the author’s obsession with the repetition and minutiae of his characters’ lives (a detailed explanation of the game of craps, for example), with incredibly subtle moments of true poignancy.   The Hemingwayesque styled conversations, particularly, are powerful because the prose is so stripped down.  Saer doesn’t even bother with quotation marks.

They’ve told me you live off gambling, said el Negro.

Just the opposite, I said.

Then I asked him to tell me about Fiore.  He said that he had gone hunting in Colastine Norte with his wife and their girl.  In the truck from the mill.  That on the way back they stopped at a bar.  There was an argument, and when they were leaving he shot her, twice.  I asked if the argument had been violent.  He said he didn’t really know.  He said that he had used the shotgun.

That could actually help, I said.

They’re going to give him twenty years, at least, said el Negro.

He’ll be comfortable in prison, I said.  Much more than on the outside.  It’s always more comfortable in prison, in a way.

El Negro stared at me.  The skin on his face was thick and taut.  Two cords curved from the base of his nose, dropped to the corners of his mouth, and died at his jawline.

I never thought I would find you like this, said el Negro.

Come on, Negrito, I said.  We go back.  Tell me what you can, because I’m not asking out of curiosity.

Scars ends with a postscript; the Latin words “NAM OPORTET HAERESES ESSE”.  This translates to “There must be heresies” which is actually only a partial quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:19.   The full line reads:  “For there must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you”.  The word heresies is sometimes translated as heretics, or as divergent sects.  The translator Heather Cleary wrote a wonderful article on Saer for the website the Quarterly Conversation  entitled The Geometry of Dissent – in which she translates HAERESES to mean heresies or divergent sects.  Saer’s plays with points of view and perceptions, allowing the story of the murder to unfold slowly as the book progresses until, at the very end,  we are allowed inside Fiore’s head (though clear answers still aren’t given).  This makes sense, though to be honest I don’t see much divergence in the facts of the case among the narrators.  Another interpretation that seems equally legitimate is “heretics”.  That these four men, each sunk in a particular vice, likeable but by no means good, are in a way the heretics.  That their miseries, obsessions, addictions are all necessary to better see (and appreciate) a life better lived.  Because, going back to Hemingway, the only way to make someone understand that no man is an island is to show him that he, in fact, is.  That we are all trapped alone in our heads*, wrapped up in our own lives and egos.  Grace is the opportunity to step outside of ourselves and be “involved in mankind”.   Juan José Saer seems to have understood that… though his characters may not.

*have you ever read a Hemingway character who wasn’t trapped in his head??

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, Rochester (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 22 1

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Memoirs of a Porcupine by Alain Mabanckou (translated from the original French by Helen Stevenson)

I’ve decided it’s not fair to form an opinion of Alain Mabanckou based on only one book.  Particularly one as unconventional as Memoirs of a Porcupine (which is narrated – appropriately – by a porcupine). It being my first experience with this author I’m in no position to pass judgement.  For example, my calling him brilliant, amazing, genius, one of the most exciting authors I’ve read in years – might be considered premature.  But I really don’t think it is.

Porcupine, our narrator, is a “harmful double”.  He is the animal familiar of a practitioner of black magic.  At the same time he reveals himself as a creature with a conscience – torn between loyalty and what he believes is right.

Memoirs of a Porcupine begins at the foot of a Baobab tree.  Porcupine is obviously distressed.  His master is dead. He is being hunted.  He has committed horrible acts of which he is not proud.  He and his master “eat” people.  “Eat” means “kill”.  And the two accomplices – porcupine and master – have committed over a hundred murders in the village where they live.  Porcupine tells us (somewhat disingenuously) that it is not entirely their fault.  There is a third member of their little family who demands to be fed.

This is a macabre story, as much a commentary on the evils of superstition as it is a fantastic tale of… well, of an anthropomorphized porcupine pouring out his soul to a tree.  Despite his troubled past and questionable moral compass, Porcupine is completely engaging. His obvious grief for  his master, his fear and his attempts to comfort himself are childlike and bizarrely touching.  His view of the world is fascinating. Despite the circumstances our protagonist finds himself in:  Memoirs of a Porcupine isn’t a sad or heavy read – just the opposite.  It’s very entertaining.  Not surprising from the author who’s referred to as “Africa’s Samuel Beckett”.

Alain Mabanckou is a French-Congolese author, who writes in French and currently resides (and teaches) in California.  He’s won several awards, including the prestigious Prix Renaudot (for the novel reviewed here). In an interview published in the Summer, 2010 issue of BOMB Magazine Mabanckou speaks with the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina) about Memoirs of a Porcupine and its conception.  The plot is based on actual myths from the African village where he grew up.  Wainaina remembered similar stories from his own childhood.  I got the impression Mabanckou’s sympathies, like mine, are with the porcupine.

It’s a sort of fable. The narrator is an animal that is also a serial killer—it’s a porcupine. The porcupine is the double of a man whose name is Kibandi. According to myth in Congo-Brazzaville, when you are born, you come into this world with an animal that is your double or totem. You will live the same life and will die on the same day. In my book the problem is that the man dies but the animal survives…The myth of the double exists not only in my own village; a lot of African readers have told me that in their country people also believe in having an animal as a double.

Mabanckou manages to develop a visually evocative narrative from a tightly tailored and carefully refined prose style.  He’s been compared to the magical realists, and the premise of Memoirs is dark, violent and whimsical.  The writing, though, is free of the flourishes characterising the work of other authors associated with the genre.  Mabanckou has given Porcupine a voice that is both intimate, conversational and – rather than just dressing-up a human in animal clothes – preserves Porcupine’s porcupine-ity.  Making it easy for readers to imagine the creature waddling about and waving its paws in the air.

While Mabanckou acknowledges his debt to classic French authors, he has clearly developed a technique all his own – twisting the French (and, with Helen Stevenson’s help, the English) language into variations of Congolese rhythms.  The only punctuation he uses is the comma, with chapters ending on a word rather than a period.  He uses his technique to seed the minds of Western readers’ with images, sounds and experiences they will probably never have in the flesh.

“I know now that thought is of the essence, it’s thought that gives rise to human grief,  pity, remorse, even wickedness or goodness, and while my master brushed these feelings aside with a wave of his hand, I felt them after every mission, many’s the time my face was wet with tears, because, for porcupine’s sake, at times of great sadness or compassion, you get a lump somewhere right near your heart, your thoughts turn black, you regret your actions, the bad things you’ve done, but as I was only carrying out orders, devoting my life to my role as double, I managed to get a grip on my black thoughts, and tell myself, by way of comfort, that that there were worse things you could do in this life, I’d take a good deep breath, gnaw at a few manioc roots or palm nuts, try to get some sleep, tell myself tomorrow would be another day,”


Broken Glass is the companion novel to Memoirs of a Porcupine, also translated by Helen Stevensen.  Broken Glass is the title as well as a character in and the narrator of the book.   We learn at the end of Memoirs of a Porcupine that Broken Glass is also the (fictional) author of this novel, the manuscript of which was discovered and published posthumously.  Somewhat convoluted, but I like the idea that Mabanckou may be creating a larger narrative.  He’s definitely putting out a hugely respected body of work.  Recently he took part in the A Room for London project, part of the Cultural Olympiad, in which authors are invited to take up residence for four days in a boat suspended over the Thames.  In return they must write an essay on London, the Thames or Joseph Conrad.  You see, the boat is a replica of the Roi des Belges – the boat from Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness.  Having Alain Mabanckou there is both surreal and creates a nice symmetry – points which were not lost on the author.  He discusses his thoughts on being chosen and reads from his essay in the August 9, 2012 Guardian Artangel Books podcast.  It is perhaps the best installment of the series I’ve listened to so far.

Publisher:  Berkeley, Soft Skull Press (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 59376 436 4

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