Book Review: My Brief History by Stephen Hawking

My Brief History
by
Stephen Hawking

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I enjoyed reading this quick memoir by Stephen Hawking, the famous English theoretical physicist and cosmologist who made major contributions in theoretical physics. He was director of research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge and the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. Hawking also wrote several popular science books and a series of children’s books with his daughter. One of his most successful books was the New York Times best seller, A Brief History of Time (1988), written for the general public. The 1991 biographical documentary film of the same name is a more in-depth look at Hawking’s life. Although his scientific theories were complex, he understood the universal interest in trying to comprehend our world and its beginnings. “I wanted to explain how far I felt we had come in our understanding of the universe: how we might be near finding a complete theory that would describe the universe and everything in it.”

Hawking was born in 1942, grew up and attended Oxford and Cambridge in England. When he was twenty-one, he was diagnosed with a slow-progressing motor neuron disease. At the time of his diagnosis, Hawking was already a big thinker, but he was also young man and not entirely focused on his studies. Facing an uncertain future, he determined to devote his professional life to research and theories about black holes, time travel and other advanced physics. He married twice and had three children. Hawking died in 2018 at the age of seventy-six after a long career and numerous prestigious awards and recognitions.

Because I’m not much of a science person, I worried that Hawking’s story would be too advanced, but I was pleased to find that, although some of the scientific chapters were more difficult to follow, I could still get a good general idea about his work and theories. The book also includes a lot of interesting pictures, providing a look at the person behind the science.

At 126 pages, this memoir is indeed brief, but I was interested in what he chose to include: the descriptions of his childhood and college days, and both of his marriages. He’s very matter-of-fact about these relationships with his family and was practical about his disability. I was impressed with how he adapted to his progressing disease, which caused many secondary health problems and ultimately left him paralyzed and unable to speak. His desire to contribute to the world despite these extreme challenges helps put our smaller problems in perspective.

I recommend My Brief History to readers who enjoy understanding a little bit about the great minds that have contributed to our world.

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Book Review: The Home Place – Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature by J. Drew Lanham

The Home Place
Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature

by
J. Drew Lanham

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The best way to describe this book is to begin with the author. J. Drew Lanham is a birder, naturalist, and hunter-conservationist. He’s also an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. Lanham’s essays and poetry have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. The Home Place is his memoir is about growing up in rural South Carolina and how he fell in love with nature, especially birding. Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk, says it best when she describes the book as “A groundbreaking work about race and the American landscape.”

Lanham talks about growing up with his three siblings in Edgefield during the 1970s. In addition to teaching high school, his parents ran a produce farm to make ends meet. Lanham and his brother and sisters were all expected to help on the farm and it was during these times that Lanham grew to love nature and the outdoors. “All that and the land were mine back then. I was the richest boy in the word, a prince living right there in backwoods Edgefield,” he writes.

Family relationships shaped Lanham in complex ways, from a commanding father who insisted on obedience and respect, to his widowed grandmother, Mamatha, who lived in a ramshackle house on their property and where Lanham spent many of his days and nights. Mamatha practiced both traditional black Baptist Christianity and her own form of spiritualism and herbalism. Lanham also talks about his brother and sisters. In a chapter titled, “A Field Guide to the Four,” he describes his siblings and how they each represent different birds: raven, falcon, swallow and hermit thrush.

Of equal importance are his experiences of being black in the deep south and how subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices have affected him. He talks about being a black birder, a rarity, and about feeling threatened out in the field, while observing birds in their habitats. He writes, “But my choice of career and my passion for wildness means that I will forever be the odd bird, the raven in the horde of white doves, the blackbird in a flock of snow buntings.” The impact of his prose lies in its gentle assertions, which are not argumentative, but deliver a powerful message about race in America.

Lanham writes beautifully about nature and about humans being just one part of a greater world. I like that idea and relate to both the words and the sights he describes. I attended a webinar this week where Lanham was a guest speaker and I enjoyed hearing him talk about his love of birding and nature. I highly recommend this book to those who like memoirs about nature and as a field guide to treating others without prejudice.

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What’s That Book? Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Welcome to What’s That Book, sharing book recommendations from readers and bloggers. Today’s guest reviewer is Austin Vitelli.

Title: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Author: Anthony Bourdain

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What’s it about?  Anthony Bourdain provides a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work in the food industry, highlighting many of the juicy details of what really goes on in a professional kitchen that’s surely to raise some eyebrows for those who have never worked in one. The thing is, he said he originally wrote the book specifically for chefs and figured no one else would find it relevant—almost like a series of inside jokes. But the book, which was first published in 2000, quickly became a New York Times bestseller, capturing the attention of millions of people around the world, whether they had experience in the food industry or not. It also catapulted Bourdain’s career as a “celebrity chef,” a term he begrudgingly adopted due to its negative perception.

The story itself surely captured such a wide audience for a reason—people naturally love gossip, and of course many people have a love for food. The book provides endless stories of people whom Bourdain worked with over the years, his countless jobs and relevant escapades in the industry, and most importantly, the truth about how many kitchens (at least at the time) functioned. Bourdain’s blunt and detailed-to-a-fault account of his experiences, including his battle with drug addiction, immediately establishes himself as a trustworthy storyteller. Other than a few people’s names, he basically holds nothing back. And mostly importantly, while “the times” in 2000 certainly were no stranger to sexist and otherwise questionable behavior in that industry, Bourdain still had the awareness to know that it was wrong, making sure not to glorify that type of behavior too much, even though he later worried that the book still somewhat normalized it.

How did you hear about it? I watched Bourdain’s CNN travel/food show Parts Unknown, which ran for 12 seasons until his death in 2018.

Closing comments: If you have any sort of curiosity about the food industry or what a professional kitchen looked like 20 years ago, I highly recommend this book. And if nothing else, Bourdain is one of the best non-fiction storytellers I’ve ever seen.

Contributor: Austin Vitelli is an editor for a medical publishing company in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Lehigh University with a degree in journalism. You can learn more about him and his writing experience at austinvitelli.com.


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it? Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Audiobook review: Inside Out by Demi Moore

Inside Out
by
Demi Moore

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

When you’re a celebrity, your image is a product of the media and what you want to share about yourself, and those things are often at odds. I recently listened to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out to find out more about an actress who was very present in the entertainment world beginning in the 1980s. I knew all about her movies, including St Elmo’s Fire and A Few Good Men and of course her famous marriages to Bruce Willis and Ashton Kutcher. But I didn’t know much about her childhood and how she became an actress.

It turns out Demi Moore had a pretty bad childhood. Her father was an alcoholic and her parents fought constantly, and they moved a lot, to get away from creditors. This unstable childhood forced Moore to live her life in survival mode, a mode she carried with her into her adult life.

Unfortunately, her confidence was only on the surface, but it was so believable that it led people to think that she could handle tough situations. Underneath, she desperately needed taking care of. Because of her father’s alcoholism, she was determined to avoid the devastating effects of addiction, but she could not and her memoir covers these years with honesty. She openly discusses her relationship with alcohol and later other drugs, and how these dependencies nearly wrecked her relationship with her family.

Having a mother who wanted to be in the limelight as much as Moore was also difficult and they had a tumultuous relationship because of it. In the end, Moore found a way to forgive her mother and love her.

I enjoyed listening to Moore’s memoir, which she narrates and which makes much of her story relatable. I also liked hearing about her marriage to Bruce Willis and give them credit for keeping their split amicable. But it’s also the point in the memoir where Moore seems to make a lot of bad decisions. She talks about her marriage to Ashton Kutcher who was only twenty-five when they met and fifteen years younger than Moore. There’s a lot of bitterness in that story.

There seems to be a shift in the later part of Moore’s tone as she talks about the years when her daughters refused to speak to her. By then, Moore was in her fifties, still drinking and using drugs and readers and listeners might think it was about time she held herself accountable.

But in the end, the point is that all anyone wants is to be happy so I was glad to hear that she was able to pull herself out of the mess even though you can’t help but think she made much of it herself in the later years.

Inside Out is a very fast listen. It’s not full of substance, but it’s intelligently told and I’d recommend it to readers/listeners who like celebrity memoirs.

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Book Club Mom’s recommended biographies and memoirs

Here are twelve fascinating biographies and memoirs of important historical and influential figures, and some regular people too. I like reading all kinds of life stories and recommend these:


Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder by Claudia Kalb – an excellent collection of mini biographies of twelve famous personalities, explaining their known or likely battles with mental illness.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – a remarkable and amusing record of Franklin’s life in America during the mid- to late 1700s.

Educated – A Memoir by Tara Westover – Westover’s account of breaking out of an isolated and abusive childhood, with a violent sibling, a controlling and paranoid father and a mother who deferred to her husband.

Helen Keller – The Story of My Life – the story of an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.


Howard Hughes: The Untold Story by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske – the story of a dashing billionaire inventor, pilot, and a filmmaker who used money to and control his business and personal life.

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – I avoided Lab Girl at first because I am not a science person. But this memoir is for all readers. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson – a great story about being different and making it anyway. In some ways, it is a classic success story about perseverance, but mostly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who’s not mainstream.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway – Using notes stored away for nearly thirty years, Hemingway began working on a memoir of his days in Paris, where he was part of the expatriate community of writers, artists and creative minds, known now as the “Lost Generation.” He died leaving the book unfinished, but his fourth wife, Mary Welsh, edited the manuscript and the first edition was published in 1964.


Night by Elie Wiesel – Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more.

The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore – an in-depth look at the lives of two young men with the same name, who grew up on the same streets in Baltimore, Maryland and took two divergent paths.

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman – a young woman from West Virginia dreams of becoming a concert violinist and gets a job playing in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. Listeners instead hear music that sounds suspiciously like the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – a young doctor at the crest of a brilliant career as a neurosurgeon and scientist, Kalanithi was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. During the short time he had left, he was determined to live a life with personal meaning, so he continued working, fathered a baby girl and wrote this book.

What biographies and memoirs have you read? What do you recommend?

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On animals, nature, books and live feeds

Hi Everyone,

I wrote a post on our library blog today and shared live feeds of scenes of nature around the world. I’ve become fascinated with them, especially one of eagles and their babies.

I’ll share the link to that post at the bottom, but I also want to share a book I read last year, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. I think it ties in nicely with these nature feeds. Montgomery is the author of 28 books for children and adults and her New York Times Best Seller, The Soul of an Octopus, was a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction. I recommend How to Be a Good Creature to anyone who is interested in animals, from those in the wild to the ones curled up in your lap or at your feet.

You can check out my review here.

Click here for more information about The Soul of an Octopus.


And to see how to get to the live feeds, with more book suggestions, check out this post: Explore nature’s creatures with, live feeds, books and magazines.

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Audiobook Review – Maid by Stephanie Land

Maid
by
Stephanie Land

Rating:

This is going to be one of those reviews that goes against a popular and well-received book. But it also raises an important question that readers should consider when they’re reading a memoir.

First, though, a quick summary of Maid by Stephanie Land. It’s Land’s story of how, as a single mother, she found herself homeless and had to turn to public assistance in the form of grants, food stamps and similar programs to help her find a place to live and provide daycare while she worked. In an eye-opening explanation, she lists the programs and specific requirements she needed to meet in order to qualify. As a former coffee shop worker and part-time landscaper, she had only a high school degree and struggled to find regular work. She took on jobs cleaning houses, working for herself and also through a maid service. But for a long time, there were never enough hours for her to earn a proper living

It’s also her success story of how she was able to pick herself up and get a college degree in creative writing and eventually write this book.

I’m all for this kind of success story and that’s why I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the author.

The problem I have with the story is that the author is whiny, chippy and judgmental about the people she interacts with, including her family, who do not support her. I’m not going to get into the details about these relationships, her actions and the decisions she makes, except highlight a couple that really bugged me.

I thought her attitude towards the people in the homes she cleaned was hypercritical and downright shocking. Looking at receipts, going through papers, trying on clothes, snooping through their prescriptions, and the worst, opening up the urns of one family’s ashes and imagining how they died – that stuff is appalling. So much complaining about their bathrooms and the dirt in their homes. It was tiresome.

My other chief problem comes from a highway car accident in which the author left her daughter alone in their pulled-over car to a retrieve a toy that had gone out the window. There were many more things that rubbed me the wrong way, including major facts that were left out, that seemed to spin her story the way she wanted it.

But I want to raise a question about how readers are supposed to react to another person’s actions, when they’re put out there in a memoir, particularly the overcoming adversity type. As I said before, I like inspirational and uplifting stories and I don’t begrudge anyone’s success and happiness. As many other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads have noted, I’m glad she dug herself out and found success. And if the book gives others in her situation the hope to do that, I’m for that.

I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoyed reading or listening to Maid. As I said above, I’m glad she found happiness. But if readers feel something else, along with that message, something that doesn’t ring right, can’t we say so? What do you think?

To be fair, I’m sharing some positive and a couple skeptical WordPress reviews of Maid. And you can also click on these Amazon and Goodreads links for a full selection. It’s clearly the reader’s right to like the book, even though it wasn’t for me. Even Barack Obama liked the book, so what do I know?

Visit these blogs for a variety of reviews:

Becky’s Books
Hit or Miss Books
Ink Drinker Society
Arguably Alexis
The suspense is killin’ me—

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Fiction or nonfiction? Twitter reading poll results

The results are in on my small Twitter poll. Eighty-seven percent of those who responded on Twitter prefer fiction over nonfiction. And I had six write-ins on my blog. One for fiction, one for nonfiction and four readers who say it’s kind of even.

Despite these results, I feel as if readers are reading more nonfiction than ever. I’ve always preferred fiction over nonfiction, but I’m reading more nonfiction than I ever did in the past.

Here are some recommended nonfiction books I’ve read since I started my blog.


The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin – I wasn’t sure I would enjoy reading this, but I was happily surprised to find Franklin’s memoir a remarkable and amusing record of time in America during the mid- to late 1700s. I also enjoyed refreshing my memory about the colonies before the American Revolution and the steps that led to independence.


Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. – Dedman was intrigued by two vacant but fully maintained mansions and two large apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York, owned by reclusive heiress, Huguette Clark. Clark, by choice, spent the last twenty years of her life in a hospital bed and gave away large amounts of money to her caretakers and advisers. When she died at age 104, who was to inherit her $300 million fortune?


Helen Keller – The Story of My Life – If you grew up in the United States, you very likely learned about Helen Keller in school.  She was an American girl from Alabama who lost her sight and hearing as a baby and determinedly overcame these obstacles to become a writer, a social activist and an advocate for the blind and deaf.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – Many believe that Truman Capote was the pioneer of the nonfiction novel genre. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote explains his decision to write a book about the brutal 1959 murder of a Kansas family: “The motivating factor in my choice of material—that is, choosing to write a true account of an actual murder case—was altogether literary. The decision was based on a theory I’ve harbored since I first began to write professionally, which is well over 20 years ago. It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it.”


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – Here’s a book I resisted reading because there was so much hype that I took a step back. I also avoided it because I am not a science person. But then my book club chose Lab Girl and I committed to reading it. So, wow. This book was excellent. Jahren writes beautifully about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Night by Elie Wiesel – I had read other books about the Holocaust, but never Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir about being sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland during World War II. The New York Times calls it “a slim volume of terrifying power” and I couldn’t agree more. In 1944, Wiesel was deported by the Germans from his town of Sighet, Transylvania and sent by cattle train to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald. He was just a teenager. His account of this experience is a horrifying reminder of a terrible period of history.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti – Here’s a quick book that is guaranteed to put you in a good mood. It’s about the owners of the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When they set up the store, they put out a typewriter and paper for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. Notes is a compilation of these messages.


Have you read any of these?  What are your favorite nonfiction books?

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A great reading year for fiction and nonfiction – check out these recommended reads!

Image: Pixabay

It’s been a great reading year and the perfect time to share the books I’ve enjoyed. I’m ready to curl up with a good book, are you?


Fiction

Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

The story of a young woman and her search for happiness. Set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know her in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Highly recommend this terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!


Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Debut collection of 13 coming-of-age stories, set in Houston, and told mainly by one character. An uncensored look at a struggling population with a hopeful finish. One of Barack Obama’s Top Picks of 2019.


Nonfiction

The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the
Story of my Father by Janny Scott

Interesting biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter Janny Scott. A history, spanning four generations of a wealthy family that settled on what’s called the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.


Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Young Adult graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky.


How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in
Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

The more Sy Montgomery studies animals and nature, the more she knows that humans have a lot to learn about the creatures that share our world. In this book, she describes her unique relationships with 13 animals and what they have taught her.


What good books did you read in 2019?

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Book Club Mom’s great reads of 2019

I read some great books this year. Here’s a list of my favorites!


Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Is it good luck to survive a plane crash over the Atlantic? Most would think yes, but Scott Burroughs, after a heroic swim to safety, with four-year-old JJ Bateman clinging to his neck, may wonder. Because he will soon find himself caught between competing government agencies searching for a cause and the media’s ruthless pursuit of a story, any story, even if it’s unfounded. Winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the 2017 International Thriller Writers Award for Best Novel.


In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Fantastic nonfiction novel, the first of its kind and considered Truman Capote’s masterpiece. The chilling depiction of a senseless 1959 murder of a Kansas family. Capote and his childhood friend, Harper Lee, went to Kansas to research the story and compiled over 8000 pages of notes. They were granted numerous interviews with the murderers, who by then, had confessed and were in jail awaiting trial. They moved to death row after their convictions, where Capote continued to interview them until their hangings. He became particularly attached to Perry Smith and related to his unhappy childhood.


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Fantastic memoir about Hope Jahren’s experiences as a scientist. Jahren’s field is plants, especially trees, and her interest in them is contagious. She explains the fascinating way in which they grow, reproduce and adapt. Jahren writes beautifully about her profession, its challenges and about her lonely childhood in Minnesota, college life and early years trying to make it as a scientist.


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is turning 50 and he’s at the edge of a crisis: his writing career has stalled and his former lover is getting married. To guarantee he’ll be out of the country on the day of the wedding, Less accepts a string of unusual writerly engagements that take him around the world. His goal? Forget lost love and rework the novel his publisher has taken a pass on. In a comedic series of travel mishaps, Less bumbles through this symbolic journey in search of happiness. Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Set in New York during the Depression and World War II, the story begins with Anna Kerrigan as a young girl whose father has ties to organized crime. She accompanies her father on an errand and meets a mysterious man with powerful connections and won’t fully understand the impact until years later. I highly recommend Manhattan Beach to readers who like historical fiction and big stories with strong female characters.


Notes from a Public Typewriter – edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

Guaranteed to put you in a good mood, about the Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, owned by Gustafson and his wife, Hilary. When they set up the store in 2013, they put out a typewriter, with paper, for anyone to use. It wasn’t long before customers began to type random, sometimes whimsical and often heartfelt messages for all to see. This book is the combined story of these messages.


Refugee by Alan Gratz

Terrific Young Adult historical novel about three refugee children, caught in different periods of conflict, who flee their countries in search of safety and a better life. In alternating stories, the children face unpredictable danger as they desperately try to keep their families together. Each discovers that, by being invisible, they escape many dangers, but miss chances for others to help them. Published in 2017 Refugee is now included in many middle and high school curriculums. A New York Times Notable Book, an Amazon Best Book of the Year, and both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year.


Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Great memoir about a woman who is hired to play violin in a prestigious touring orchestra, only to discover that the microphones are turned off. What’s turned on is a $14.95 CD player from Walmart, playing a recorded version of a composer’s music, performed by other musicians. The music sounds suspiciously like, but a strategic note or two different from, the score of the popular 1997 film, Titanic.


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Kya Clark is six years old when her mother walks out of their shack, a place hidden in the marshes of North Carolina, where racial tension and small-town prejudices are firmly in place in the nearby coastal town of Barkley Cove. Soon her father’s abusive rages drive Kya’s older siblings away, leaving only Kya and her father. Then one day it’s just Kya, known in town and shunned as the wild Marsh Girl. The story begins in 1952 and jumps to 1969, when a young man has died. In alternating chapters, readers learn Kya’s story of survival and how she becomes part of the investigation into his death.


What books were your favorites in 2019? Leave a comment and share your best!

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