My Life in Middlemarch

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Beyond Bookmarks: 10 Gifts For Readers

For the past three years, The Millions has offered a holiday gift list for writers. This year we’d like to give readers their due, with a list of bookish treats. Because where would writers be without readers? Also, let’s face it: discriminating and avid readers can be as difficult to shop for as cranky writers. It's hard to pinpoint the tastes of a truly omnivorous reader and you always run the risk of buying something they've already read. So, for this year's list, we've tried to go beyond book recommendations (although a few snuck in) with a list of items and services that's a mix of the cozy, the classic, and the curated. 1. An Excellent Reading Chair. Some swear by an Adirondack chair on the front porch, while others prefer the classic wing chair. For me, the quintessential reading chair is a folding butterfly chair, which you lug out to the backyard with a glass of iced tea and park beneath the shade of a large locust tree. (But since I live on the second floor of a building without a backyard, I’ll have to settle for an apartment-friendly version.) If you live with a reader, maybe this is the year to finally buy them that big, cozy lounger they’ve always wanted, the one that doesn’t have anything to do with your minimalist decorating scheme but which will provide hours of reading pleasure. 2. A Cozy Blanket or Throw. You’ll need the right blanket to go with that chair. My own personal favorite is a Woolrich blanket, a preference that, like the butterfly wing chair, goes back to childhood. Others might prefer a lightweight throw or wrap. There are thousands of options available this time of year, for a range of budgets. You can spend upwards of $200 on the perfect cashmere blanket, or you can spend $3.99 on a fleece throw from IKEA. Only someone who exclusively reads in the bath would not have a use for this gift. 3. Snacks. When you’re settling in for a marathon reading session, you need the right snack to keep you going. The subject of snack food always spurs passionate debate, so I decided to contact an expert, Dan Pashman, host of the WNYC podcast The Sporkful and the Cooking Channel web series You're Eating It Wrong, and the author of the new book Eat More Better: How To Make Every Bite More Delicious for his advice: "There are several considerations when snacking while reading. First and foremost, you don't want to have to take your eyes off the book. So you need a snack you can eat blind. Second, you may not want to get food all over your hands, because that food will end up all over your book. Therefore I recommend a drinkable snack that you can enjoy through a straw. For some people that might be a smoothie -- for others it's a milkshake. Either way, this option is clean, tidy, and delicious without being distracting." Of course, it's hard to give someone a smoothie, especially if you're mailing it from afar, but you could certainly send a blender, or perhaps an immersion blender, which are handy for making single-servings of milkshakes and smoothies. Reading is, after all, a solitary activity. For those who to take a more traditional approach to snacks, there's always tea, cookies, and bon-bons. Opinions vary on whether or not it is wise to enjoy alcoholic beverages while reading, but if you want to match your tipple with your title, you can’t go wrong with this list of book and booze pairings over at Abe Books. 4. Curated Book Subscription. I grew up with The Library of America, my parents amassing a collection of classic books that I rarely read because the editions were so austerely bound and boxed. But there is a new breed of book subscription out there, services that aren’t in the canon-making business and instead aim to connect readers to writers they might not otherwise discover. Emily Books offers its subscribers one carefully selected e-book per month, for an annual price of $159.99 (or a monthly price of $13.99). It’s an excellent list that leans feminist, autobiographical, and gutsy. At Quarterly Co., Book Riot will send you a surprise package “books and bookish stuff” every three months. Packages are $50 a piece and you can sign up for a year’s worth or just one delivery. Powell’s Books hosts a similar subscription service, Indispensable, which, for $39.95 per mailing, sends readers a special edition of a new book every six weeks. Just the Right Book sends “hand-picked books chosen by a literary expert based on your personal reading tastes and individual preferences.” Subscribers fill out a questionnaire to assess their tastes and choose a subscription plan to meet their price point, which ranges from $90 to $395 per year. Finally, Stack, a U.K.-based company, sends subscribers a different independent magazine every month. These are the beautifully-printed, idiosyncratic magazines you see in bookstores and secretly want to take home, but would never buy for yourself. An annual subscription is £72, about $112. 5. Small Press Book Subscription. Many small presses also offer book subscriptions, and this is another great way to find titles for adventurous readers who are willing to take a chance on less well-known writers as well as foreign and translated works. If there’s a small press you already know and love, check to see if they offer a subscription package. Otherwise, here are a few recommendations: Coffee House Press and Archipelago Press offer annual subscriptions to their consistently excellent catalogs, at considerable savings. (Coffee House press’s current season is $100, while Archipelago’s 2015 subscription, which includes 10 hardcover books, is $150.) New Vessel Press, which publishes new English translations of foreign literature, offers a subscription to their current season for $75. For $12.99/month (or $6.99 for a digital subscription), Melville House will send you two books from their award-winning “The Art of the Novella” series. Wave Books, an independent poetry publisher based in Seattle, offers signed hardcover and paperback subscriptions to their 2015 season, at $375 and $100, respectively. For a truly extravagant gift, you can make your friend a subscribing partner of Copper Canyon Press. They’ll receive signed copies of all Copper Canyon’s new titles and the knowledge that they are supporting poets around the world. 6. Books About Reading. For those who really love to read, there are books about reading. I recently enjoyed Rebecca Mead’s My Life In Middlemarch, about reading and rereading George Eliot’s masterpiece. Other titles to consider are 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley; Reading Like A Writer by Francine Prose; How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, and Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography, which received a rave review here on The Millions a couple months ago. 7. A Wearable Book. It’s easy to find tote bags and tee shirts emblazoned with quotations from great books, but how many tee shirts contain the entire text of the book on one tee shirt? Litographs offers strangely mesmerizing posters, tote bags, and tee shirts, that from a distance look like simple graphic designs, but up close contain the entire texts of classic novels and poems. You have to see them to believe them and you have to squint to read them, but you really can carry around Moby-Dick or Hamlet or Walden in tote bag form. That way, even if you finish the books you’re carrying around, you’ll still have something to read. 8. Special Editions of Treasured Books. At a recent Millions meet-up, there was a debate about special editions of books. Some staffers love a fancy version of a classic novel, while other prefer a grubby paperback they can underline to their heart’s content. I tend toward grubby, but I do treasure a hardcover edition of The World According To Garp that I received as a gift many years ago. It’s not a pristine or valuable copy but I liked seeing the original cover art as well as the slightly idiosyncratic type-setting. You don’t have to spend a lot to find a special version of a favorite book; Etsy and Ebay are fun to browse for collectibles and just plain bizarre titles. For more serious buyers, Abe Books and The Strand have online rare book shops. If you’re looking for pure beauty, check out Folio Books, which reprints classic books in lavishly bound and illustrated editions. 9. Gift Certificate to a Local Independent Bookstore. Sure, you could email your book-loving friend a gift card to an online bookseller and they probably wouldn’t complain. But why not send them a gift certificate to their local independent bookstore, a place they’d probably love to have an excuse to visit? If your friend lives in a different area, you can use this handy store finder to figure out what bookstore is closest to them. 10. Time to Read. How do you give someone time to read? It might be as simple as giving permission. A lot of people have trouble putting aside a Saturday afternoon of errand-running/housework/babysitting/gym-going/family-visiting/etc., in order to finish The Goldfinch. So, if there is such a person in your life, take the kid/dog/visiting family out of the house and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours -- with dinner. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Is There No Gender Equity in Nonfiction?

When the National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction was released this week with only one woman author out of 10 nominees (and only one person of color), I thought, wow, the jury (two of whom are women) must have completely missed the increasingly vociferous discussions over the past few years about the lack of gender equity in the literary world. Then I read the Slate essay in which Katy Waldman calls nonfiction the “patriarch of the book world.” As the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book, a biography, I have become aware of how male-dominated the field of biography is. But why all of nonfiction? Last year’s longlist wasn’t much better: only three women out of 10. Prior to last year, the National Book Award announced only shortlists, which look pretty good since 2010 (two or three women out of five) but for much of the 2000s were dismal (mostly one or even no women out of five). A recent study in Mayborn also showed that among all of the major prizes in nonfiction over the past 20 years, only 20 percent were won by women and five percent by people of color. The study also found that these results don’t simply prove jury bias; the percentage of books by women submitted to the major competitions was only 30 percent last year. (The study also found the awards skew towards East Coast writers nurtured by institutions that are predominately white and male.) Are fewer women writing nonfiction, you might ask. I suppose it depends on what you call “nonfiction.” According to the last few years’ NBA juries, it is mostly history (preferably about war or early America); biography (preferably about men, especially presidents); or reportage (preferably about war, the economy, or non-Western countries). Even within these parameters, there were some notable, well-reviewed books by women that didn’t make this year’s list: Louisa Lim’s The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War Lynn Sherr’s Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space Joan De Jean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War Two books in science, a topic which attracts surprisingly little attention from NBA juries, should have been strong contenders this year (along with E.O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which did make the list): Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction An Unnatural History Dianne Ackerma’s The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us There are other nonfiction genres, however, in which women are prolific—namely memoir and the essay—which get short shrift from the major awards. The only book by a woman on this year’s NBA longlist is a graphic memoir by Roz Chast called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?. It is also the only memoir on the list. Of the past 50 nominated books, Waldman points out, only four have been memoirs (three of them by women—one of them won, Patti Smith’s Just Kids in 2010). Women’s attraction to memoirs and essays, many of which focus on the issues unique to women’s lives, may in fact have much to do with their low profile. Memoirs and essay collections by women that deserved the judges’ attention this year include: Leslie Jemison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays Jessica Hendry Nelson’s If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir Then there are those nonfiction books that defy genre. In 1976, when Maxine Hong Kingston won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction with The Woman Warrior (her China Men won the NBA in 1981), it seemed as if nonfiction had experienced a seismic shift. Unfortunately, in recent years, the major awards have not reflected much of an interest in works that defy category—whether it be in their play between fiction and nonfiction or simply in their interest in combining elements of subgenres within nonfiction (such as history, biography, literary criticism, and memoir). There are a number of compelling works published this year by women that inject memoir into these more conventionally objective subgenres. I would conjecture, in fact, that women writers are more likely to investigate how their own lives intersect with larger issues—such as great books, our nation’s founding documents, or returning soldier’s PTSD—as they did in these works: Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch Danielle Allen, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books This year’s NBA nonfiction longlist is disappointing not simply because of its dearth of women writers but also because of its unwillingness to think beyond the male-dominated forms of nonfiction that have garnered the most gravitas in the past. We can keep hoping, however, that the subtle biases that govern out understanding of literary value—why is a great work, as Ron Charles points out, called “seminal” rather than “ovular”?—will gradually become as quaint as those 1950s videos instructing women in how to become the perfect housewife.

Tuesday New Release Day: Ball; Offill; Cash; Finch; Quindlen

Out this week: Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash; The Last Enchantments by Millions contributor Charles Finch; My Life in Middlemarch by New Yorker staff writer (and Millions interviewee) Rebecca Mead; and Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2014 Book Preview.

Time to Put the Knives Away: An Interview with Rebecca Mead

Over coffee in a cafe in Fort Greene, Rebecca Mead asks me what my favorite book is, and then she stops herself. “Having a favorite is a stupid thing,” she says. “It’s like asking a child his favorite color. Only children have favorites.” Of course this isn’t true. Committing to a favorite book is like committing to a relationship, which is to say that it carries no automatic promise of deepening your engagement with human life, and may impede it. (Very often, when someone tells you his favorite book, you think he should have read more books before settling down.) The danger of poorly chosen commitment is a major theme of Mead’s favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch — young, energetic Dorothea is stymied by her marriage to the permanently blocked scholar Casaubon; the ambitious doctor Lydgate is destroyed by his marriage to the materialistic Rosamond — but My Life In Middlemarch, Mead’s new book about her favorite book, makes it clear that she has chosen well. Mixing memoir, criticism, and literary history, with a sharp eye for all three, My Life in Middlemarch makes us feel what it’s like to live with a book throughout one’s life. A veteran New Yorker writer, Mead describes how her sympathies have shifted among characters from one reading to the next, and about how her life and reading have changed each other. Mead points out that Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about Middlemarch — that it is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” — is not quite the unambiguous compliment it is often taken to be, since “grown-up” is “what children call adults.” But since we never stop being children and never stop having favorites, Mead makes a persuasive case that our favorite novel should be this one, which, like the best romantic partner, never stops comforting and never stops chastening us. The interview has been condensed and edited. The Millions: Is Brooklyn more or less provincial than the town of Middlemarch? Rebecca Mead: (Laughs) New York is provincial, and Brooklyn is its own peculiar, absurd province within that. When I moved here from England in 1988, New York felt like it was where everybody wanted to go, the center of everything, very, very exciting. Now it feels like this isn’t the place where people are coming to. If you’re young, you can’t afford to move here. London is so international. People are coming there from Europe; it feels much more connected to the rest of the world. Maybe it’s age, and being less excited. But yes, New York does feel provincial. TM: Where’s the line between self-help and literature? George Eliot, maybe more than most novelists, rather explicitly wanted to make her readers better. I admire how your book is not “How George Eliot Can Change Your Life In Seventeen Steps.” Where do you think that line is? RM: I began with a piece in The New Yorker that was about the origin of this quotation — “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” — and I wanted to disprove that Eliot had said it. I didn’t disprove it, though I still don’t believe that she said it. When I started thinking about writing this book, I thought maybe I could do chapters based on twelve or thirteen things she did say. But I realized that this didn’t work at all, because that’s not how she works. When you separate what look like nuggets of wisdom from the text, they can make nice refrigerator magnets, but they’re just phrases. I think you have to read the whole book in order for it to make any real difference in your life. Because while you’re reading Middlemarch, you have the experience of empathy. You’re not simply told to be empathetic. You have your empathy shift from one character to another. And you have it change as you go back to the book over time, as most serious readers do. Middlemarch doesn’t tell you how to live, but reading Middlemarch, knowing Middlemarch, thinking about Middlemarch, helps you think about how to live for yourself. It’s a more demanding process than simply being told how to live. Eliot wasn’t afraid of explicit moral direction or suggestion — she didn’t think there was anything wrong with doing it, as lots of later people have. That’s one thing I like about her; that’s one thing I liked about her as a young reader. She didn’t think there was anything wrong with telling you what she thought about things, rather than forcing you to think about whether you’ve got it right or wrong. They keep coming up with these scientific studies measuring the effect on people’s empathy if they read literature, and on the one hand, you think: “Oh, good, that that will encourage people to read literature.” On the other hand, you think: “Do we have to measure it this way?” Isn’t that what literature is for, to make you see the world beyond yourself, and feel the experience? I’ve read Middlemarch lots of times, but it never told me what to do, and it certainly didn’t tell me what not to do. And if it did tell me not to do something, I didn’t not do it. We make our own mistakes, and learn from our own experience. But reading is part of your experience. If you love literature, literature is part of your life. It’s not an external thing. TM: “Books are stuff and life is stupid” doesn’t seem to help Lydgate. RM: No. Poor Lydgate. But he dies young. He might have figured it out if he lived a little longer. But he made his own mistakes, as we all do. If he had read more literature and less science, he might have a wider view of women than he did. He had his own erroneous expectations, as we know from his relationship with the actress. He has an idealized notion of a woman on a pedestal. TM: Lydgate’s relationship with the actress is an interesting burst of melodrama very early on. Which leads me to all the plot-heavy stuff with Raffles, which you mention is the least memorable part of Middlemarch. RM: I’m not sure I could tell you now exactly how it works. I assume she had fun writing it. It’s fun to read it, and it’s fun to forget it. Then you come back and it’s like a whole new book. TM: There’s also a lot with wills and so forth. Eliot is more dependent than I remembered on creaky plot devices. Why do you think that is? RM: Why does she use Victorian plot devices? They were there, and they were what people used. Her audience would not have thought that that’s a creaky old device, they would have thought that that’s the shape a novel takes. What she was doing that was transformative was the interiority — D.H. Lawrence said that she took the action inside. That was the innovation, done within a framework that was in many ways still very traditional. And there were the demands of the serial format. She wasn’t quite like Dickens, but she had to hook people for the next episode. So she’s not Virginia Woolf, but you have to have Eliot first. I don’t think we can take her to task for not inventing every revolution in the novel, given that she invented one so brilliantly. At least one. TM: Zadie Smith, in a very admiring essay on Middlemarch, complains that nineteenth-century English novels are still being written with “troubling frequency.” Do you think that literature’s gotten more conservative since Woolf? Do we need to move beyond Middlemarch? RM: Right now, I’m reading Sheila Heti’s book, which is fantastic. It’s experimental but still has the satisfactions of a traditional novel. Kate Atkinson’s most recent book has an experimental form. Zadie Smith’s own work. People are doing things with novels that haven’t been done or haven’t been done for a while. Elizabeth Gilbert writes a novel with the idiom and ambitious scope of a 19th-Century novel, and I loved that, too. I found it completely winning. There are plenty of boring books, but there are plenty of exciting books as well. TM: Do you think that writing this book has changed your approach to journalism? Your recent piece on yogurt opens up into a panoramic look at the family of the man who founded Chobani, and the town where the factory is. RM: “The Middlemarch of yogurt?” I hadn’t thought about that. Certainly, though, the process that led me to want to write this book has to do with empathy. A lot of young writers don’t have a lot of empathy, and I don’t think I did. My first book [One Perfect Day] was about the wedding industry, a world about which I was curious about but not attracted to or invested in or fond of. I spent a lot of time with people who were doing things I didn’t like or approve of, and that was my aim, to do a comic muckraking sort of thing. That has a lot less interest for me now. I’m interested in writing more about people I like or admire or want to understand, rather than wanting to write about people that I could expose in what I saw as their comic foolishness. But that’s just part of growing up. If you still have the knives out when you’re my age, it’s time to put them away. TM: Is there value in having the knives out when you’re young? Should we put them away when we’re twenty? RM: No, I’m not saying that there should be no journalism that’s spiky or skeptical. I’ve still got the knives; I might get them out when there’s something that really needs cutting. I’m speaking about what I’m interested in doing. And of course there’s important value in exposing corruption and malfeasance, but that’s not the kind of thing that I ever did. There’s a debate — isn’t there always — about whether criticism should always be kind, about whether you should write a bad review or take somebody down. It’s hard being on the receiving end of those reviews, but we all put ourselves out there, don’t we? TM: You talk about how Middlemarch was too earnest for Virginia Woolf’s generation. Do you think that we’re too earnest? Too ironic? RM: “Too ironic. Insufficiently earnest.” (Laughs) Your generation will acquire earnestness. I’m not going to be anti-irony. But earnestness has its own rewards. TM: On a sentence-by-sentence level, there’s no writer more ironic than George Eliot. RM: Yes, that’s a very important point. The post-Victorian generation put George Eliot into the box of earnestness and worthiness and dullness, so she’s forbidding. And people look at Middlemarch and think: “Oh my God, it’s so dense, I’ll never get through it.” But if you try hard enough to get into it, it’s spectacularly hilarious and ironic and cutting. As I write in the book, when she was in her early thirties, she wrote absolutely scathing pieces about people. Forget about my knives, her knives were really, really sharp. Reading those essays, there was something absolutely thrilling about realizing that she too had been thirty years old and willing to take somebody down. But those things don’t live, and we would not read them now if she hadn’t written these great works of empathy, which are filled with irony and humor and the rest of it, but endure because of the empathy and the earnestness that underlies them. TM: In that Zadie Smith essay I mentioned, she argues that the ambitionless Fred Vincy is the moral center of Middlemarch, because he’s not bounded by ideology. What do you think about that? RM: It’s a great take on him. He’s a character whom I was uninterested in when I was seventeen. At the time, I couldn’t see the point of people like Fred Vincy. I realized in my late thirties or early forties that Fred and Mary are my mum and dad. Coming late to marriage myself, and having had many years of romantic adventures that I probably wouldn’t trade, the idea of that commitment from childhood is incredibly romantic. Awesome, to use that word properly. It’s really awesome. I have a lot more time for Fred than I used to. That line at the end of the book when he goes hunting but won’t jump over the high gate because he sees Mary and his children: that makes me cry. I literally sobbed the most recent time I read the book when I got to that scene. When a book can speak to you in these different ways over the decades, that shows that she did a good job. TM: Are there any interpretations of the book that you strongly disagree with? RM: There are some that aren’t mine, but I’m interested in reading other people’s. There is a wonderful essay by Nina Auerbach called “Dorothea’s Lost Dog,” in a book called Middlemarch in the 21st Century. She wrote about how annoyed she is by Dorothea, because Dorothea could learn all kinds of things if she wanted to. She has a library, she has the resources to educate herself, and yet she never does. Auerbach goes through the book and finds all these places where Dorothea has got books but she’s not looking at them and is looking out the window or something else instead. She finds all these places where Dorothea is not reading. She makes the case that, while we see Rosamond as the silly woman to be despised, in fact Dorothea is just as trivial as Rosamond. Dorothea’s ideas about spirituality are absurd; she has no rigor; she has no intellect. It’s so interesting to read; it’s not how I read the book, and I don’t agree with it in the sense that I have a different Dorothea, but it’s equally plausible. The more interpretations, the better. Even wrong ones. TM: I think Rosamond is stronger than she gets credit for. She refuses to play the role that Lydgate tries to assign her, and I think there’s something admirable about that. RM: So she could be reclaimed as a feminist heroine? There’s an interesting argument there. She’d be a feminist in the mode of: “Sure, I wear revealing clothes, but I do it because I want to. I spend an hour every day on my makeup for me.” But I’m not sure that I buy that sort of feminism, so I’m not sure I would buy Rosamond as a proto-post-post-however-many-posts-we’re-at feminist. She’s certainly not weak; she gets what she wants. She decides she wants to get married, and Lydgate has virtually no say in the matter. Once they are married, she gets everything she wants up to and including the death of her husband. She’s resilient like a rock is resilient. But the point of marriage is not one submitting to the other; it’s each submitting part of the way and not submitting part of the way.  She resists him, but she doesn’t resist him in any productive way. TM: Do you think Lydgate would really be able to submit usefully over the long term? You talk about what would happen if he married Dorothea; I don’t think that that would be a happy marriage. RM: It might not be. There’s a part of me that always hopes he might marry her. A lot of readers say he could have been redeemed that way. But maybe you’re right; maybe it wouldn’t have been happy. Whatever Lydgate did, he should have waited a little longer before getting married, done a little bit more, made some scientific discoveries, met some more people. There’s that line where Ladislaw asks Dorothea not to forget him, and she says that she’s met so few people that she’s never forgotten anyone she’s met. The condition of someone like Dorothea is that she really wouldn’t have met many people. It’s hard to think yourself back into what that world would be like. That’s one way in which Brooklyn is not provincial in the way that Middlemarch is. There is always somebody else to meet. TM: That makes me think of Adelle Waldman’s novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., which is explicitly influenced by Middlemarch. RM: What’s interesting about the conclusion of that book is that Nathaniel is essentially a Lydgate who doesn’t care. He’s a Lydgate who marries Rosamond and is happy. We don’t know where he’ll end up — from the outside, it doesn’t look good for him. But from the inside, he seems to be doing great. There’s something very dark in her willingness to leave it there and not stage a comeuppance. It was scary. In a naïve-reader sort of way, it made me very glad I’m not thirty and living in Brooklyn.
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