All the Light We Cannot See 8

The power of radio, literature, nature, and love to incite imagination, resilience, and survival during WWII (Saint-Malo, France, 1944; and 1934/ 1974/2014 Paris, Germany):  This extraordinary novel – “ten years in the writing” by an author who has garnered a number of literary awards – inspired me to buy a new dictionary!  (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition: over 2,000 pages, 4,000 visuals.)  It often reads like mini-dictionaries in the natural, mechanical, and technical sciences, evoking so many beautiful things like mollusks and gemstones that offer stark contrasts to the horrors of Hitler’s war.  They also serve to stir the mind and spirit of a freckled blind French girl, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, whose soul is the soul of this historical novel, which opens with the German occupation of the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Breton coast, two months after D-Day.

Doerr’s novel is also a stand-out for its unique structure.  Clocking in more than 500 pages for the advanced reader copy, no chapter is longer than four or five pages, many merely one or two.  The effect is fast, edgy pacing, strengthened by chapters that alternate back and forth between “The Girl” and “The Boy” (see below) and in time.  Doerr’s style is crisp and notable.  The payoff is spellbinding tension, an intensity you feel straightaway; it relentlessly grows as the reader awaits the convergence of the stories of “The Girl” and “The Boy,” so sure are we that they will.

When we meet “The Boy” he is close in age to Marie-Laure: seven-year-old Werner Pfennig, who lives at an orphanage with his prescient sister, Jutta, in Zollverein, Germany, near Essen, which is “steel country, anthracite country, a place full of holes.”  Their backbreaking mines took the life of their father; Werner is resolute not to repeat that dreadful life.  Instead, he endures grueling training in a misguided notion of duty to country.  That Werner – who appears fragile (hair as white as snow; a “faint presence;” “like being in the room with a feather.  But his soul glowed with some fundamental kindness”) – becomes one of the Reich’s prized cadets at the National Political Institutes of Education #6 at Schulpforta is, like so much else in this novel, presented in bold contradictions.  Werner’s development and experiences allow the author to delve into why Germans did what they did.

Werner happens to be a genius with radios – receivers, variable capacitors, inductors, motors, wires, tuning coils, solenoids, attenuators, ohmmeters, wave turbulence, ion detectors, Morse beacon, code breaking – so he becomes valuable.  He tracks radio transmissions across Russia, Ukraine, Italy, and Austria, with his huge comrade  Volkheimer (his size emphasizes Werner’s actions).  They ultimately reach Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure LeBlanc is hiding out with her father, having escaped burning Paris, at her great uncle’s Etienne’s house.

Number 4 rue Vauborel stands as a sentinel overlooking the sea.  Since returning from WWI, Etienne has never left the house.  And yet, “he has found himself at the nexus of information” because of a large radio hidden on the 6th floor that gives him “the whole world right at his fingertips.”  He forms an endearing relationship with his brave niece.  Saint-Malo’s beaches and anti-resistance movement provide a powerful setting that clashes with the ugliness of war.

As the novel flashes back to 1934, Marie-Laure is six years old living in Paris with her father, a locksmith at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.  This is a cleverly invented profession: the mind of a locksmith who can keep straight 12,000 locks also builds intricate puzzles and a scale model of their neighborhood in Montmartre – “hundreds of houses and shops and hotels” – so his daughter can find her way out.  Later, he labors to build an even more complicated model for her: Saint-Malo with its 865 buildings.  His laboriousness and ingenuity are testaments to a profound love that “will outstrip the limits of his body.”

In Marie-Laure, the author asks us to think deeply about the nature of blindness.  Doerr shows us how great books and classical music and mental puzzles unlock her imagination, giving rise to a remarkable resiliency when faced with the terrors of war.  The author presumably loves literature, and gives that love to Maria whose mind we see enthralled as she reads to us from Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  In Captain Nemo, for instance, we are reminded of the “great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea” – prose and stories that let Marie-Laure see the light.  Of course, she reads these books in Braille: “the raised dots form letters, the letters words, the words a world.”

There are other important characters with intersecting stories.  One is Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, a former gemologist with a passion for diamonds.  He’s been put in charge of collecting treasures – “things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes” – precious European and Russian objects.  The timeliness to the Monument’s Men feels eerie. The Sergeant’s obsession with diamonds forms the perfect storm because there’s a legendary, rare 133 carat, gray-blue diamond of the sea – Sea of Flames – that has gone missing from the natural history museum since the Germans occupied Paris.

The author must loves birds too, because they fly across the pages.  He imbues the character of Frederick, a cadet friend of Werner’s, with this passion. Frederick’s 434 exquisitely drawn Birds of America is “not so much full of birds as full of evanescence, of blue-winged, trumpeting mysteries.”  What happens to Frederick, whose crime was faking his vision to get into military school, is heartbreaking, beautifully told.

Like the novel’s provocative themes, the title is thought-provoking.  I think it refers to Imagination – especially the blind French girl’s and the orphaned German boy’s – imagination that brings to light that which they both cannot see, connecting them.  According to the author’s website, the title refers to “radio waves that we cannot see” and the hidden stories of WWII, particularly those of “ordinary children.”  I think these two interpretations are reasonably close, except to say that what happens to “The Girl” and to “The Boy” is anything but ordinary.

This is a novel that stays with you.  Lorraine

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My Name is Mary Sutter 1

“I Always Loved You” left me wanting more of Robin Oliveira’s absorbing prose.  “My Name is Mary Sutter” is her only other novel, her debut. It garnered rave reviews and literary awards, but I overlooked it.  Perhaps you did too, because the Civil War time period is not my favorite setting for historical fiction; I even live in Virginia where many battles were fought.  It took this immersive reading experience to bring the Civil War alive for me.

The Making of a Civil War Heroine and Modern Medicine (Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; Virginia and Maryland battlefields, 1842–1867):  There is no mystery how Mary Sutter, a gifted young midwife as competent as her mother, Amelia, nurses and doctors her way through the Civil War to become an unforgettable heroine: through sheer single-mindedness of purpose, boldness, courage, and endurance.  The mystery, for me, is how Oliveira emotionally connects us to a fictionalized character who awakens us to the real heroes and heroines of America’s Civil War.  She wants us to admire and remember them; she even tells us so in her Acknowledgements detailing her exhaustive research process.

Notwithstanding the author’s experience as a registered nurse and former literary magazine editor, I think the answer lies in her exacting prose.  You do not read this novel casually.  Instead, you are pulled into it, to grasp emotions and visualize scenes word by word, sentence by sentence.  The reader senses the novelist poring over every word, analyzing and re-analyzing until she’s satisfied she’s landed upon the best way to show us her characters’ mindset and feelings.  The skill is in seamlessly embedding her fictionalized characters into Civil War history and battlegrounds, peopled by the likes of President Lincoln, John Jay, and General McClellan.  The fictional Mary feels as real as Lincoln feels present, as if the two really met each other.

The many compelling storylines all connect to Mary’s fight to do the one thing she wants more than anything else in the world, become a surgeon – a fight against society’s negative views about women’s role in medicine.  She’s repeatedly rejected by Albany’s Medical College; Albany is where she lives in her parents’ beautiful home.  Her father Nathaniel made his fortune in railroading, but he died before the story begins, introducing grief as an overarching theme.

In the opening pages, we witness Mary’s medical excellence in an emergency.  She unexpectedly encounters a surgeon, Dr. James Blevens, who urges her to take over a complicated delivery.  The subplot enables Mary to seize the opportunity to offer herself as his apprentice.  But he too rejects her, and then spends the rest of the novel regretting his decision, trying to make amends.

In Albany, Mary falls in love with her recently orphaned neighbor, Thomas Fall, who instantly admires her seriousness but finds that sharing grief with Mary’s prettier, easier, more vulnerable twin sister, Jenny, is a more powerful attraction and marries her.  The blow sends Mary off to Washington, even more determined to pursue her quest, seeking to join Dorothea Dix’s fledgling nursing corps.

In Washington, Dorothea also rejects Mary, this time because she’s too young.  Mary is undeterred.  Scouring the city, she finally finds work as a charwoman and nurse in the wretched Union Hospital, where she encounters another surgeon, Dr. William Stipp.

As the war escalates, Mary visits President Lincoln to plea her case to tend to the wounded on the battlefields.  Lincoln grants her wish, for he has an “endless capacity for grief” and the ability “to look into the future [is] his greatest skill.”  That is how brave Mary ends up performing so many amputations that no one even knows where or how to dispose of all the limbs.

Was this what medicine was?  Barbarity?  By comparison, even at its worst, childbirth was artful.  Even when women bled or seized, there remained at least the elegance of hope.  The flickering promise of life.

Mary’s love for Thomas, Blevens, and Stipp plays out in different heartfelt ways, as she discovers each of them at different times on the battlefields.  “Why is it that voices break hearts?” Mary wonders when she comes upon Thomas wounded.  When she’s finally working alongside the two war-challenged doctors in the chaos of battle, they repeatedly fail to convince her to return to the comforts and safety of her family home, where she is also desperately needed.  Through both doctors, we vividly see Mary’s “gentleness combined with competence seduced beyond measure,” as each develops strong feelings for her that grow from deep admiration to love and a need so powerful at least one of them declares out loud that he cannot live without her – “Only Mary’s presence kept him from weeping.”  By now, Mary Sutter has evolved into “a purveyor of hope,” because no matter how hellish the working conditions, her indomitable and indefatigable spirit offers hopefulness.  For the reader, this means the novel is inspiring, not depressing.

The absorbing prose is a mixture of contemporary phrasing, period language, and medical terminology.  Some examples:

Contemporary:  An arc of sunlight struck the firm contours of his body, and for a moment Mary thought she could see right through his heart; dignity an elusive thing when professors and drunkards alike answered Lincoln’s call; a national chess board realigning; time was on its own meter; privacy, after tenderness, the second casualty of war.

Period:  privy trenches, picket duty, tintype

Medical: vulnus puncture, Dover’s powder, bilious fever, ichtyocolla plaster

To sum up Oliveira’s writing style, let me offer another example from the beginning of the novel, reflected on at the end: Mary Sutter does not simply sit under an oak tree in the northern landscape of Albany – she sank into it.  That’s how you feel as a reader: you sink into the historical landscape of this novel, precisely the author’s intention.

Enjoy Reading!  Lorraine

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I Always Loved You 2

Love and Impressionism: Picturing the forty-year relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas (Paris, 1877 to 1927): Is it any wonder that Robin Oliveira has achieved her lofty goal in I Always Loved You of creating an historical novel with a “soul”?  Guided by research that sounds as passionate as her artist characters – she’s read 70 – 80 books, traveled 20,000 miles, offers 40 links on her website to artworks cited in her novel – she delves into and shapes the tumultuous, complex relationship between one of the most influential artists of Impressionism – Edgar Degas – and the American woman who exhibited “more pictures in Paris than any other” – Mary Cassatt – and asks if it was Love?

In imagining a conflicted, emotional story of two great artists who shared a deep, enduring admiration for each other’s artistry and devotion to their art, Oliveira sets out to answer the question, “Was there room for love in two lives already consumed by passion?”  She was inspired by the knowledge that Cassatt, at the end of her life and upon Degas’ death, burned a lifetime of their letters.  In re-creating them, the author offers up glimpses, as Degas revealed his affections to Mary in his private communications but was bewildering and unknowable in public.

Digging deeper, the author examines “what is love,” “what is happiness?” in many dimensions, staying close to history.  In so doing, she gives us a veritable “Who’s Who” of an amazing circle of artists, many friends with each other, sometimes entangled relatives, an Impressionism 101 cast of characters that also includes forerunners to Impressionism – Realism – and those who soon followed – the Post-Impressionists – and others who affected the impressionists such as art critics, writers, and art dealers.  The list of famous and not-so-familiar names is long.  That the author has executed all of this in such a tightly woven novel (343 pages) is quite impressive.

What this means for the reader is that I Always Loved You is packed with little details that if you turn the pages too quickly you are likely to miss.  So take your time reading this novel, it begs us to linger, maybe even take some notes as I did, because there’s so much art and cultural history behind the telling of Cassatt’s and Degas’ story, organized in appropriately short chapters because they are dense with tidbits of information.

The heart of the novel takes place from 1874 to 1886.  The Belle Époque was a golden, peaceful time in France’s history (post-Prussian War/pre-World War I), when the modern city of Paris was designed and born.  It seems no other city could possibly be more in love with art, or be more enchanting and beguiling.  Enter the Impressionists: a “new school of painting” whose appreciation took many years, after being mocked by the classical painters, rejected by the Paris Salon – the premier art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, where academic techniques reigned supreme, intimacy shunned.  The impressionists, on the other hand, rejected their conservatism, favoring brilliant colors in gorgeous natural and artificial light that exposed the most intimate of moments in everyday Parisian life.  “Paint what you see,” “paint what you love,” Degas mentors Cassatt, his enduring legacy of love to her.

For although this novel is peopled with the likes of the Manet brothers (handsome, bon vivant Édouard and goodly Eugène) and Eugène’s wife, impressionist painter Berthe Morisot (a lifelong love for the brother, the brother for her, and struggling with painting after motherhood); Monet, Cézanne, and Renoir (“traitors” for exhibiting at the Salon); Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte (gentlemanly, “beloved”); Félix and Marie Bracquemond; Zacharie Astruc; Émile Zola; Paul Gauguin; Henri Somme and so many others (Sisley, Durand, Daudet, Ingres, Lebourg, Delacroix, Raffaëlli, Tourney, Zandomeneghi), they are still the background framing a stirring picture of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, who sought each other out in this teeming milieu because they admired each other’s work so much.

When Mary first arrives in Paris from Pennsylvania, she obsesses and struggles with her art; no matter how disciplined and hard-working, she doubts she’ll ever achieve excellence over technique.  It’s Degas who encourages her to experiment with color and light.  She is in awe of how Degas can keep his “brush stroke so light yet communicate so much.”  Once he awakens in her a new way of seeing and creating, she feels she “cannot live without him.”  Their relationship is up and down, over so many years.  Both never marry.  Was theirs a romantic love, or were they emotionally bound to a deep respect and love for each other’s art?

Besides focusing on the complexities of the multi-faceted theme of Love, the plight of these struggling Parisian artists, many living in poverty, others struck down by serious illnesses, is another big theme.  Degas remains the purist to his passions, antagonizing, alienating, scorning any artist he believes has sold his soul to make a living, which includes exhibiting at the esteemed Salon.  So, he, for example, feels Renoir will “prettify anyone for enough coin.”  Renoir, in turn, is critical of Degas’ sculptural, radical masterpiece, Little Dancer.  Degas is so obsessed with perfectionism that after a year of working side-by-side with Cassatt to produce an avant-garde journal of sketches and prose that involves painstaking work on an Italian printing press backs out at the very last minute, without even telling Mary, who gave up a year of painting for the project and Degas.  She is, of course, infuriated, one of many times Degas has been dismissive, uncommunicative, unreliable.  What she doesn’t know is how alike they really are.  Degas recognizes they are kindred souls: he too fears his work is not good enough and, despite what Mary thinks, it does not come effortlessly.

Key characters suffer from chronic, debilitating illnesses, which given the century are poorly understood and badly treated.  Some accept their situation with incredible grace: Lydia, Mary’s older, loving sister, often sat for Mary, never married either; and Abigail (May) Alcott Nieriker (yes!  Louisa’s sister) who seemed to have everything Mary did not (acceptance at the Salon, a happy marriage), whose life seemed so easy until a terrible childbirth.  Two illnesses are particularly cruel: Degas’ progressively degenerating eyesight which he kept hidden except from Mary – an artist who loves light but is going blind; and Édouard Manet’s decline from “Napoleon fever” (syphilis) caused by his illicit dalliances, embarrassing and painful for a man who loved life and people.

Knowing how vital Parisian light was to the impressionists, the author’s prose is wonderfully sprinkled with numerous references to light: “Paris is shining” in its “footlights” and “gaslamps,” falling light, half-light, dawnlight, candlelight, soft light, grey light, afternoon light, “light of southern France,” “washed darkness.”  For Mary, “color and light are all she has in the world by way of her tools.”  The same evocative prose holds true for the author’s depiction of this Parisian era – Victorian and Old French – words such as cheval glass, décolletage, fiacre, abattoir, abonnés, vitrine.

Mary’s awfully protective father, Robert, wants to know what it “means to be an artist in Paris?”  Thanks to a gifted writer (and researcher), we have a much better answer to his question than when we started.

Happy Reading in the New Year!  Lorraine

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The Rosie Project 5

Romantic comedy set in an Australian university (present day):  One of the pleasures of book blogging is the freedom to choose what to share.  Taking a lesson from genetics professor Don Tillman – the thirty-nine-year-old narrator of this utterly charming and intelligent romantic comedy who dispenses with predictability and self-imposed rules – I’m expanding my definition of “beautiful prose” to include original prose.

Owing to the “great fun” of The Rosie Project – which also delivers a poignant and meaningful message about people who are “wired differently” – I’ll hereafter allow myself to blog about novels whose prose is wonderfully original despite containing language excessively four-worded, outside my definition of beautiful.  (Note: it’s part of the dialogue that fits the “barmaid” stereotype and disillusioned persona of Rosie.)  The rest of this modern-day novel’s prose is consistently funny, the kind of laugh-out-loud humor that takes talent.  We’re talking pitch-perfect nerdy language that befits a professor of science whose brain thinks literally, unconventionally.  (For instance, instead of visiting a shop to rent a tuxedo, our lovable Don visits a “formal costume rental establishment” for “maximum formality”).  Interestingly, and inspirationally, this is IT consultant Graeme Simsion’s debut novel, to be published in 35 languages.  The Rosie Project is that good!

For Simsion has dreamed up a timely version of When Harry Met Sally.  Instead of Billy Crystal, imagine another actor (who? Sony Pictures has already optioned the script for a movie) playing a high-functioning professor with Asperger’s syndrome who doesn’t know it, in search of a “female life partner” using scientific methods.  Designing a wife questionnaire, the author creates comical prose that touches on serious issues related to unethical behaviors and society’s obsession with image and appearance.

Don Tillman is lovable for many reasons.  Chief among them is his ability to appreciate his skills (organizational, focus/intensity, fast learner) and accept his differences (difficulties in: being touched, picking up on social cues, empathizing).  He deals well with rejection: an “expert at being laughed at.”  While he doesn’t have many friends, he has two that care about him: Gene, the fifty-six-year-old psychology professor who hired him, specializes in “sexual attraction” and claims that he has an open marriage with Claudia, who happens to be Don’s therapist.

The prose is also pitch-perfect because it matches Don’s respect for efficiency.  Just by listing a few examples of the efficiency of Don’s characterizations of events, people, and experiences, you’ll be able to picture what The Rosie Project is all about:

The Wife Project (of which The Rosie Project becomes a sub-set)

The Father Project (which leads to The Rosie Project).  Rosie is searching for her biological father.  Gene introduces her to Don (she’s not just a “barmaid”; she’s a graduate psychology student in Gene’s department), a logical choice because Don is a geneticist.  Gene, of course, knows about The Wife Project.

Great Cocktail Night (in which Don has one of the best times of his life, with Rosie, posing as a “drinks waiter”): “It was surprisingly complex, and I am not a naturally dexterous person” although Don has taught himself martial arts, karate, aikido, and dancing (taught with a skeleton!), during which Don and Rosie unethically pursue the Mass DNA Collection Subproject (at a physician’s reunion.  Rosie’s mother was a doctor, who told her that her biological father was one too. )

Standardized Meal System (for which Don has identified “eight major advantages”)

Late Woman: Timeliness is one among many personal traits Don values.  He thinks mathematically, talks in precise minutes.  He also thinks in facts, not emotions, so he describes people in terms of their age and BMI; their food preferences (vegetarian, sustainably farmed); exercised (something he’s big on); and alcohol consumer (also big on).

Don is also reflective, in an admirable, authentic way, and not afraid to make major changes in “self-improvement.”  When an “unscheduled series of events” leads him to finally solve his own profound question (“Why do we focus on certain things and not others?”), the answer, he says, is “incredible.”  We say so too, because the story feels so incredibly good.

In winning a beautiful copy (appealing jacket design) of The Rosie Project, I won more than a complimentary copy of a highly entertaining novel that feels as memorable as Sleepless in Seattle. (Who could play the new Tom Hanks? Tom Hanks!)  “Enchanted Prose” has a bigger umbrella than previously envisioned.  Now I might discover non-fiction that reads so much like fiction I’ll tell you about it too.  Like Don, though, you’ll recognize it’s still me.

Happy Reading!  Lorraine

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The Melody of Secrets

WWII’s END, NORDHAUSEN, GERMANY (1945)/BIRTH OF ROCKET CITY, HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA (1957):  For a relatively short novel (257 pages) spanning two historical timeframes, The Melody of Secrets packs quite an emotional punch!  Three assumptions why:

  1. The author: Jeffrey Stepakoff draws on his deft screenwriting skills to write cinematic scenes, so you feel like you’re watching a movie – a great one!
  2. The dialogue: as a screenwriter, Stepakoff knows how to create crisp, provocative, informative, interesting dialogue that moves the novel forward at a brisk, page-turning pace.
  3. Plot #1: original, shocking, complex, controversial.  Has anyone else fictionalized the historical truth underpinning this novel?  Did you know America recruited Nazi rocket scientists who were SS officers for our space race against Russia during the Cold War?  The best known, Wernher Von Braun, headed a team of a dozen or so German aerospace engineers who came to Huntsville in the ‘50s to launch America’s space program.  In the author’s retelling, besides Von Braun, two other scientist characters are: Hans Reinhardt, whose wife, Maria, is the central voice; and Karl Janssen, whose wife, Sabine, discovers her husband’s secret past, and in her torment confides and warns Maria, setting off one of the novel’s two plot themes: what about the rest of the team?  Is Maria married to a former SS officer?

What did America know?  How much is historically true?

It’s a testament to the novel that the reader MUST know the answers.  I would have preferred an Author’s Note separating fact from fiction.  Absent that, movie-like – and rich book club material – you will feel emotionally and intellectually driven to search out these profound questions once the novel ends, also provocatively.

Here’s a case where the facts are as shocking as the fiction.  Operation Paperclip was conducted by an agency (the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency) specifically created at the end of WWII for the sole purpose of bringing Hitler’s German rocket scientists to the US so we could beat the Russians in space (and prevent Russia from engaging them), at the time of the Cold War.  However, President Truman forbid, by law, our mobilizing any known “member of the Nazi party and more than a normal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism.”  So, a secret military operation cleaned up the scientists’ records, enabling them to obtain security clearances to emigrate here and lead our space race.  Truman, apparently, never knew his directive was violated!

After learning this, I appreciated the clever title of a chapter: “Paper Clip.”  Note: while rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was a recognized Nazi sympathizer and SS officer, I think Stepakoff has fictionalized the Hans and Karl characters, because I can’t find any other references to them.

  1. Plot #2: the novel’s title captures its love story, connecting 1945 and 1957.  Beautiful Maria plays her Pressenda violin beautifully; Hans gave it to her at war’s end.  In 1957, she’s the star of the fledgling Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, practicing for a major fundraising concert for the community.  That’s when she spots Lieutenant James Cooper, who entered her life in 1945.  He still stirs deep romantic emotions, causing her to question the life she has built in the US, and to make painful choices that have national consequences, made even more difficult by her love for her son, Peter.
  2. Structure: as Maria struggles to find answers about Hans and to choose between him and Cooper, the pages are turning quickly.  Initial chapters are compartmentalized: the reader witnesses the plot surrounding 1945; in the next chapter, Huntsville’s players are introduced.  But as the two themes interconnect, the chapters condense and fuse: a single page looks back at 1945 and then switches forward to 1957, then seamlessly races back and forth, back and forth.  As Maria races for the truth, so do we.

With Maria’s truth, would you have made the same decision?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Lorraine

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