1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Elizabeth Gaskell, Fiction, Literature, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0

YTD: 21


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Cranford tells the tale of an oft-overlooked portion of Victorian population, the middle class.  Many novels of the Victorian era focus exclusively on the aristocracy or on the poor; Cranford, however, is similar to Austen’s Northanger Abbey, in that there are a few upper-middle or upper-class characters, but the primary characters are struggling just to survive in that solidly middle zone (or even in the lower middle-class). The ladies of Cranford put on airs, so as to seem far more dignified and “to do” than they really are. Part of the charm of the novel is witnessing these ladies hold fast to rules of decorum and propriety which would be best suited for lords and nobles, but seems rather out-of-place in their suburban neighborhood.  The story itself revolves around Miss Matty, a single middle-aged woman who is left to fend for herself, after her sister passes away, and their friend, Miss Deborah, who is narrating the story and who hopes to find a way to care for Miss Matty, when she is unexpectedly ruined, financially.  There are minor mysteries and slight intrigue, all of which are blown out of proportion by this community of old hens.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The main character of this novel is not any one particular person, it is the community of Cranford.  The most interesting action takes place in coordination with various individuals or groups of individuals who come together throughout the tale – be it interactions between Miss Matty and her sisters (polar opposites in many ways) or between Miss Matty and her maid (who she has no real idea how to command), or between certain of the members of the ladies’ circle – be it Mrs Jamieson, the “Lady” of stature and leader of the group, or the poor Hogginses, who become outcasts for love (but perhaps not permanently).  The relationships between the members of this inner-circle are interesting and hilarious enough to watch, though there is very little growth or change from any of them (certain minor growths are hinted at, after Miss Matty’s fall, but nothing spectacular).  Still, this keeps the story realistic, on the whole.  The addition characters external to the group, such as the mystic-man and his family and, near the end, a long-lost family member of one of the ladies, also adds an interesting layer or two to the story, because it forces the group and individuals to react in their own (and in their collective) ways to new stimuli.


Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

While I found Gaskell’s language fluid and engaging, and her prose easy to follow and certainly well-constructed, the story itself seemed somehow rushed at times, possibly due to a disconnect or disjointedness in the narrative’s construction.  In the beginning, particularly, it was easy to get a bit lost – hard to remember, exactly, who the characters were and what their relationships were to one another.  The narration pulls itself together eventually, with minor slips here and there right through to the end, but all-in-all, the sense of humor and lightness of the story is matched in its prose, which makes for an enjoyable reading experience.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most appealing about this novel is its close scrutiny of a segment of the population that seems relatively left-out of popular Victorian literature (particularly the Canon).  Viewing life through the eyes of the lower-middle and typical middle-classes is somehow exciting, because it is uncommon – after all, what could be interesting about the “average” class?  The town of Cranford, though, is one steeped in tradition – taken seriously, yet not quite.  The narrator, certainly, seems to find the strictly regimented rules of society rather amusing, and with good reason.  In addition to the examination of class and society, though, are explorations of family, international relations, friendships, economics and world/local trade.  For such a small and seemingly simple book, Cranford and its ladies definitely surprise.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Victorian Literature, British Middle-Class, Family, Friendship, Love/Romance

Notable Quotes:

“I’ll not listen to reason . . . reason always means what someone else has got to say.”

“She would have despised the modern idea of women being equal to men. Equal, indeed! She knew they were superior.”


–Cranford is book #120 completed for the “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die” Challenge.

–Carnford is Book #3 completed for the Victorian Celebration.

–Cranford is Book #3 completed for The Classics Club.

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Architecture, Art, Art History, Book Review, Classics, Classics Club, Fiction, Inquisition, Religion, Romanticism, Victor Hugo

Review: Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 17


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Count Frollo, Quasimodo, and Esmeralda are quite possibly the most twisted, most bizarre, and most unexpected love-triangle in literary history.  And if their problematic involvement with one another is not enough, throw-in Esmeralda’s philosopher husband, Pierre, and her unrequited love-interest, Phoebus, not to mention the self-isolated mother-in-mourning with a sad history of her own, and Frollo’s younger, troublemaking brother Jehan, and finally the various kings, burgesses, students, and thieves, and suddenly we have an epic history in the making.  The main character, as it turns out, is not Quasimodo or Esmeralda, but Notre-Dame itself.  Almost all of the major scenes in the novel, with a few exceptions (such as Pierre’s presence at the Bastille), take place at or in view of/reference to the great cathedral.  Hugo’s primary purpose is not to present the reader with a heart-rending love story (or two), nor is it necessarily to comment on social and political systems of the time (though this is certainly a high purpose); the main purpose, though, is a nostalgic view of a diminishing Paris, one which puts its architecture and architectural history in the forefront and which laments the loss of that high art.  Hugo is clearly concerned with the public’s lack of commitment toward preserving the rich architectural and artistic history of Paris, and this purpose comes across directly, in chapters about the architecture specifically, and indirectly, through the narrative itself.


Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

Hugo is concerned with one character above all in this story, and that is the cathedral.  While other characters have interesting backgrounds and do develop slightly over the course of the story, none seem truly round.  This is a minor point of contention, because though the story may have a loftier sociological and artistic purpose, it loses something by not also working completely as a stand-alone narrative.  One can certainly empathize with Quasimodo’s dilemma, for instance, when he finds himself caught between the two loves of his life, Count Frollo and Esmeralda.  The sub-story relating to the mourning woman who has locked herself in a cell, weeping over a child’s shoe (and who vehemently despises the gypsies for stealing her daughter) is also moving, but ultimately unsurprising.  Count Frollo’s descent from learned man and upstanding caregiver is not entirely unbelievable (given, especially, the relationship between Frollo and his brother), but it still seems sudden and quite dramatic.  Of course, this suits the Gothic element of the story nicely and also parallels Hugo’s analysis of science versus religion & physical art versus linguistic, so it is not out of place – yet the characters seem flat in relation to the overall attempt by Hugo to re-instill, through means of Romanticism, a renewed passion for the Gothic era. In the end, the characters and there interactions are interesting and, at times, moving or hilarious.  The reader can engage with and, to a certain extent, believe them, but they are not perfect characters; this is in large part due to the fact that their stories are not the primary focus of the work.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What moves this story along so well, even through chapters such as “A Bird’s Eye View of Paris,” which is, literally, a textualized description of the city of Paris, if looking at it from on high, and in all directions, is Hugo’s great ability at crafting words – phrases – sentences.  Although I found this story inferior to Les Miserables, which is perhaps to be expected, considering it was published 30 years prior and much of it was written under a pressing deadline, one thing the two clearly have in common is a richly beautiful and workable prose.  There were certain other “tells” of inexperience, such as Hugo’s confusing dates/places or allowing certain items to exist in the time of the story that were not yet invented (the story takes place nearly 400 years before Hugo wrote it).  Still, the language and prose are clearly masterful, almost umatched.  Hugo’s sense of humor (especially sarcasm and irony) are very well developed and leap across the page.  His Gothic elements are appropriately dark, even surprisingly so at times.   


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What is most interesting about Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris is that everyone knows the story, but few really know the story.  There have been numerous adaptations of this work, for film, theater, television, etc.  Most people are probably familiar with the story through various retellings in children’s books or movies (i.e. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Those of us who are only familiar with this story as told through the grapevine are led to believe that it is a tragic “Beauty and the Beast” type love-story, where true love rules in the end.  This explanation of the tale could not be farther from the truth. Notre-Dame de Paris is first and foremost a story about art – mainly, architecture.  It is a romanticizing of the Gothic period and a study of the time period which brought together traditional art forms and oratory with the novel idea of a printing press (and published works as artistic/statement pieces).  Yes, Quasimodo and Esmeralda are there and their story is a sad one and yes, Count Frollo turns out to be a downright despicable antagonist; but, ultimately, this, like Hugo’s Les Miserables is more than a story about its characters – it is a story about the whole history of Paris and about the absurdities of the caste system.  It is the first novel where beggars and thieves are cast as the protagonists and also the first novel in which the entire societal structure of a nation, from King to peasant, is present.  It might also be the first or most prominent work to feature a structure (the Cathedral of Notre-Dame) as main character.  Hugo’s approach, and this novel in particular, would later influence Charles Dickens, Honore de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and other sociological “writers of the people.”  When one thinks of writers who are genius at fictionalizing the history of a people, the first who comes to mind might be Tolstoy, but Victor Hugo certainly belongs in this league.


Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: High School+
Interest: French History, Art History, Architecture, Paris, Romanticism, Epic Theatre, Alchemy, Caste, Class & Society, Gypsy Lore, Gothic literature, Religious Inquisition/Witchcraft.


Notable Quotes:

“For, even if we believe in nothing, there are moments in life when we are always of the religion of the temple nearest to hand.”

“Never has there been loose such an unruly mob of students! It’s the accursed inventions of the age that are ruining everything–the artillery, the muskets, the cannons, and above all the printing press, that scourge brought from Germany. No more manuscripts, no more books. Printing is ruining bookselling. The end of the world is upon us.”

“You can be a great genius yet understand nothing of an art which is not your own.”

“Fashion has done more harm than Revolutions.  They have cut into the quick, they have attacked the wooden bone-structures of the art, they have hewn and hacked and disorganized, and have killed the building, in its form as well as its symbolism, its logic as well as its beauty.  They have also remade it: which neither time nor revolutions have presumed to do.”

“She danced, she spun, she whirled on an old Persian carpet thrown carelessly down beneath her feet, and each time she spun and her radiant face passed in front of you, her great black eyes flashed like lightning.”

“I have not crawled all this time on my belly with my nails in the earth, along the countless passages of the cavern without glimpsing, far ahead of me, at the end of the unlit gallery, a light, a flame, something doubtless the refelection from the dazzling central laboratory where the wise and the patient have taken God by surprise.”

“I perceived, at the end of a certain time, that I was, for one reason or another, fit for nothing. So I decided to become a poet and rhymester. It’s a profession one can always take up, if one’s a vagabond.”

“To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids. In the fifteenth century everything changed. Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”

“The press, that giant engine, incessantly gorging all the intellectual sap of society, incessantly vomits new material for its work. The entire human race is its scaffolding. Every mind its mason. Even the humblest may block a hole or lay a stone….It is the second Tower of Babel of the human race.”

“One drop of wine is enough to redden a whole glass of water. To tinge a whole company of pretty women with a certain amount of ill-humor, it is enough for just one prettier woman to arrive on the scene–especially when there is but one man present.”

“When one does evil one must do the whole evil.  To be only half a monster is insanity! There is ecstasy in an extreme of crime. A priest and a sorceress can melt in delight together on the straw of a dungeon floor!”

“Every civilization begins in theocracy and ends in democracy.”

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, Detective Novel, Epistolary, Mystery, Sensation Lit, Victorian, Wilkie Collins

Review: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 8 


Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is widely accepted to be one of the first –and best- mystery and sensation novels.  The main character, Walter Hartright, is also considered to be one of the earliest literary detective characters – one who later inspired the development of mystery/detective genres (Hartright’s investigative techniques, for example, are later employed by private detectives in mystery novels that followed this one).  The story revolves around a few characters who are at first drawn together by chance, but then become involved in an elaborate plot of deception, orchestrated by the ingenuous Count Fosco and his cold-as-ice wife, who just happens to be the slighted aunt of our main character’s love interest, Lady Glyde.  Lives are threatened, identities are stolen, and more than one man’s (and woman’s) place in the world is in jeopardy.  How are Lady Glyde and Anne Catherick’s (The Woman in White) destinies intertwined – and why do they look so strikingly similar?  When Lady Glyde and Marian are doomed by the devious count, will Walter – a simple art teacher with no resources and no friends- manage to piece together enough evidence to vindicate the unfortunate women – before it’s too late?  


Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily well-developed.

The range and depth of characters in The Woman in White is impressive, to say the least.  If Collins has one advantage over Dickens, it is that his characters are a bit richer – a bit more interesting and realistic than Dickens’s characters, who often become grotesques.  Count Fosco is perhaps one of the most brilliantly drawn characters in literature – ranking along-side Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in the perverse, unpleasant yet satisfactory enjoyment he brings to the reader’s experience with the story.  Collins has a way of creating characters that are downright evil, but with intermittent, surprising bits of good – or genuinely good, with moments of badness.  He writes truly human characters, flawed but perfect in the same breath.  Drawn thusly, the mystery aspect of the novel is further richened because one can never be entirely sure that we are seeing the true nature of any character at any given moment – after a few hundred pages of wondering just how dastardly  a character can get, he suddenly surprises the reader with a moment of genuine sensitivity or compassion.   Minor characters, too, such as Anne Catherick’s mother and Mr. Fairlie, Lady Glyde’s uncle, bring additional elements – like comic relief or historical significance, to Hartright’s narrative, increasing the complexity of the story while simultaneously further committing the reader to the main characters and their destinations.  Ultimately, the dénouement –beautiful as it is – could not have been achieved without clever assembly of characterization throughout the entire story, which is finally realized in a final letter, written by Count Fosco himself.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In my experience, 600-pages of Victorian literature can amount to one of two things:  transcendent literary genius, or a mentally exhaustive torture device.  In the case of Collins and The Woman in White, the prose was far from prosaic (Haha… get it?).  Okay, jokes aside, this is one of those pieces of literature you could recommend to someone who doesn’t read literature.  The style and language are just that good, and the story just that engaging.  The pace is well-measured, so even though there is plenty of description and flushing out of details, the story rarely, if ever, stalls.  Something in the way Collins has designed the tale (perhaps in large part due to the multiple narrators, who pick up the story as ‘main character’ while it advances) makes these 600-pages flash by as if there were half as many.  The narrative voice(s) is engaging, the language is substantive without being overwrought or lofty – finishing this book is like having enjoyed a piece of gourmet cheesecake, garnished with just the right amounts of fresh fruit and chocolate sauce, and maybe even a dash of warm caramel (getting hungry yet?).  Each bite is a delight to be savored and the story as a whole, when finished, is satisfying – so much so that the reader might be licking that dessert plate clean.    


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

First – one minor issue.  The edition I read was the Penguin Classics Clothbound edition, pictured above (which, incidentally, I won in a giveaway from the awesome Allie at A Literary Odyssey).  I love the edition and I love the footnotes (although I do much prefer footnotes to appear at the bottom of pages, rather than in the back – I hate having to flip back and forth).  What I discovered from the footnotes, though, was that Collins, while a fantastic writer and an even better storyteller, was not too concerned with historical and/or legal accuracies.  This is a common pitfall with serial novels that often needed new installments to be completed quickly, to meet magazine/newspaper deadlines.  So, there were frequent mentions of things Collins got wrong, usually because certain things he described (laws, inventions, etc.) were not yet in place at the time the story takes place.  Now, without the footnotes, I would not have known the difference – so it is a small complaint and not much to dwell on, considering none of the “mistakes” impacted my enjoyment of the story.  That aside, the elements that were interesting and which added to the story include:  the examination of the rights (or lack thereof) of women in the 19th century; perception of foreigners by English natives; isolation; identity theft and the legal process (thank goodness for the discovery of DNA!); fine arts and the craft of writing; hereditary rights to income and property; secret societies and politics; and, of course, love – revenge – and the nature of family.   What makes a good story a great story is not just that it is enjoyable or entertaining, not just that it is written well, with interesting content, but that all of these elements come together seamlessly – that the reader can learn about a time, place, or culture while also being entertained.  The Woman in White achieves all of this, and how.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult

Interest:  Epistolary novels, Victorian literature, Gothic novels, Sensation novels, Mystery/Amateur Detective novels, Law and justice.


Notable Quotes/Excerpts:

“Where is the woman who has ever really torn from her heart the image that has been once fixed in it by a true love? Books tell us that such unearthly creatures have existed – but what does our own experiences say in answer to books?”

“Our words are giants when they do us an injury, and dwarfs when they do us a service.”

“I sadly want a reform in the construction of children. Nature’s only idea seems to be to make them machines for the production of incessant noise.”

“Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than our own.”

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realise. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls.”

“The best men are not consistent in good– why should the worst men be consistent in evil.”

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1001 Books, 2012 Challenges, 2012 Classics Challenge, 2012 TBR Challenge, American Civil War, Antebellum, Book Review, Classics, Literature, Margaret Mitchell, Reconstruction

Review: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 1


Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

“The greatest love story ever told.”  “The epic novel of our time.”  These are just two of the many descriptive phrases applied to Margaret Mitchell’s brilliant tome, Gone With the Wind.  Is it an epic tale, indicative of the essence of the American south during the Civil War?  Absolutely, it is.  Is it one of the most tense, romantic, and familiar love stories of all-time?  Yes, it definitely is.  But, when it comes down to it, do these short phrases accurately describe what Gone With the Wind is all about?  No, they do not.  Gone With the Wind is about the end of an era – the collapse of a civilization.  It is about selfishness and prosperity, morals and aristocracy, war and destruction, mercenaries and old maids.  When we come right down to it, the book is about change and how people deal with change differently – some, those who understand how to take advantage of circumstances, will manage change with extraordinary success; others, those too old, naïve, or stubborn to adjust, are destroyed by change – deflated and disillusioned.  In the tradition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind is American reality in print – a detailed period piece which resounds beyond its time and echoes on through the ages. 


Characterization:

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

I cannot think of another book that is written so perfectly and that I love so much, whose main characters are so utterly despicable and unlikeable.  Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler lack almost any kind of redeeming quality – they are easy to hate, yet, somehow, I love them.  This is the mark of inspired writing and realistic characterization.  Although I was often at odds with the actions of Scarlett and Rhett, I also sympathized with their plights and understood why they chose to act the way they did – why they made the choices they made.  Some of the minor characters, too, were downright unbearable.  From the faint-prone Aunt Pittypat to the combative India, from the faulty White Knight, Ashley, to the Yankee Army Wives, so many characters in the cast of Gone With the Wind are largely negative – foolish, weak, selfish, and proud, among other things.   Still, as irritating as they might be, they are honest characters.  They are believable and independent from one another, equally dislikeable, but each in his or her own way.   Fortunately, there were some saving graces – characters easy to fall in love with, such as Scarlett’s angelic but deceptively strong sister-in-law, Melanie.  Also, Scarlett’s loud but wise nurse, Mammy.  Ellen O’Hara, too, the well-respected matriarch of Plantation Tara and, yes, even Scarlett’s verbose, drunken Irish father, are decent people – flawed, but champions nonetheless.  Put together, this cast of characters, crafted and molded so superbly by Mitchell, are interesting to watch, easy to believe, and enjoyable to spend time with.


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

At just over 1,000 pages, Gone With the Wind is quite the chunkster.  Its subject matter, too, is hefty.  Combined, the length and plot are seemingly daunting and the primary reason why it took me so many years to take this book down off the shelf, where it has been sitting for a half-decade.  Surprisingly, I found myself breezing through a hundred pages a day and finishing the book in less than two weeks.  One of the things I most hate in a book is lengthy chapters – chapters of 25 pages or more- and this book was filled with them; yet, for some reason, it hardly bothered me this time.  So, why was I able to read the book so quickly?  Interesting themes, partly.  Entertaining characters, somewhat.  But, largely, it was thanks to the prose.  While, at times, I found the romantic (lower-case “r”) a bit over the top, it was not so dramatic as to distract from the more important elements of the story.  That being the one minor complaint – all that is left to say about the style and prose of this work is that they are simply lovely.  The language is fluid and charming, as befits a story about the American south.  The dialogue is well-spaced and delivered appropriately, supporting the general narration and the many internal monologues of Scarlett.  There were some grammatical errors, becoming more frequent later in the book, but this is a complaint against this particular edition (1973) and the publisher (Avon), not the author.   


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Instead of trying to describe the many interesting and important elements of this book – the topics covered, the politics presented, the societal elements explored- it might be easier to talk about what was not in this book.  This is a book about the American south – and there are many different types of southerner depicted here, with ample time provided to express their belief systems, social ideals, political aspirations, etc.  The one thing missing which could have provided some more insight would have been a prominent Yankee/Northern character.  Still, as I’ve mentioned a few times – this is a southern book, and it is appropriate that it be presented through southern eyes (mostly Georgian, although there are brief interludes from Louisiana, Virginia, and even Ireland).  Perhaps the most interesting elements in the book is the battle between the decline of the “Old” south and the rise of the “New” (characterized by the “Oldies” as scallywags).   The nature of love, too, and the blinders we place upon ourselves – the distracting fantasies, the aching for the past – are intimately, almost painstakingly evaluated.  Ultimately, though, it is perhaps Scarlett’s oft repeated thought, “I’ll think of it all tomorrow.  I can stand it then,” which sums up the various aspects of this book and its themes.  So much has happened, so much has changed.  It is only those who can continually refocus, who can stay strong and positive, and who can adjust to the changes, sacrificing, at times, prior ideals, who will survive the turmoil. 


Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School +

Interest: American South, Civil War, Antebellum Era, American Reconstruction,


Notable Quotes:

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“He never really existed at all, except in my imagination.  I loved something I made up . . . .  I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it.”

“Death and taxes and childbirth!  There’s never any convenient time for any of them!”

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

“If the people who started wars didn’t make them sacred, who would be foolish enough to fight?  But, no matter what rallying cries the orators give to the idiots who fight, no matter what noble purposes they assign to wars, there is never but one reason for a war.  And that is money.” 

“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.”

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