Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Andrei Makine’s Human Love: Browbeaten by politics and terrified by cheese …

Human Love coverAs a child, Elias Almeida loses both his parents during the uprisings against colonial rule in Angola and the Congo. As an adult and a professional revolutionary, he bears witness to mankind at its pitiless worst. Yet he continues to believe in a better world and the redeeming power of love – even though he cannot be with the woman he loves, who rescued him from thugs one snowy night in Moscow. Spanning forty years of Africa’s past as a battleground between East and West, this powerful novel explores the heights and depths of human nature as it tells a profoundly affecting story of sacrifice and idealism.

Well, gosh. It probably wasn’t going to be a particularly jolly read then, I thought as I turned to the first page and girded my loins for pain, angst and the aforementioned sacrifice and idealism. What I didn’t expect was to be muddled. In the first paragraph, we have what I took to be a third-person narrator, and then in the second paragraph the viewpoint switched instantly, with no explanation given, to a first-person narrator:

Without the love he felt for that woman, life would have been no more than a night without end in the forests of Lunda Norte on the frontier between Angola and Zaire.

I spent two days in captivity there with a colleague, a Soviet military instructor …

and so on and so on.

Something of a clumsy “info dump” in that first line too, which didn’t really impress me, but I’m prepared to overlook it in the interests of peace. I also appreciate I’m probably not the brightest lamp in the lamp-box, but over the next few pages I found myself flicking back to the beginning and forward again to try to work out (a) if I’d missed anything; and (b) what on earth was going on. Really, it’s not a great way to start a novel and I was so traumatised by these confusing viewpoints that on Page 12 I took a Biro and wrote the word “Muddled” in big letters across the text. Yes, I know, I know, the shame of it. This is possibly the Sin Beyond All Sins, but I was very cross. I wanted to trust the author on this journey, but I wasn’t entirely convinced his light was working. Ah well.

And, to be honest, I think this feeling of muddle stayed with me throughout the whole book. Though I did finally work out that the first-person viewpoint is the narrator who is actually telling Elias’ story from a distance of some years. It might have been better if they’d put that in the blurb and then I might not have needed a compass and a road-map in order to find my way through. Just a thought.

What can I say about this novel? Well, there’s a lot of rape. Well, particularly one rape – the poor Zairean woman who is held captive with that pesky first-person narrator and Elias at the start. They don’t rape her – other soldiers do. But they do keep coming back to it. Indeed I got the feeling that the narrator was rather hung up about sex. There’s a bizarre scene near the start where he’s watching a man and a woman having sex in a hotel room (for reasons I don’t fully understand and I’m sorry but I can’t bear the thought of having to revisit it again in order to find out) whilst being trapped on the roof at a conference. I think. It’s hard to say. The scene includes this rather wonderful line:

The breasts he has finally liberated look like spheres of mozzarella …

Yes, well. What can you say? They could come in handy for a late night snack – in oh so many ways. Anyway, the narrator thinks a lot about this experience too during those long forty years. He honestly isn’t the sort of chappie my mother would be happy for me to go out with is all I can say.

Apart from that, there’s a lot of politics. An awful lot of politics. In fact there’s so much politics that the concept of humanity, or any sense of character, is almost entirely absent from this novel. This may be because neither the narrator nor Elias has the charm or strength to carry the story which so quickly overwhelms them both that you hardly notice them at all. I spent a lot of time wondering whether it might have been better as a text book. On the plus side, the book does have a certain amount of poetry; I rather liked the repeated motif of a child nestling into the arms of its mother, which occurs at a number of key places in the text, even though it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. It starts with a real and rather touching memory from Elias’ childhood:

He squatted down and hid his face in a place where all this world of confusion ceased to exist, in the warm, tender crook of his mother’s arm.

Sadly that moment of insight into Elias’ character isn’t ever allowed to grow, which is something of a shame. I also enjoyed the neat twist of the narrator writing his tale with the pen he stole from Elias when they were imprisoned. Also on the more exciting side, Che Guevara does turn up for a while, but to be honest I didn’t realise it was him until after he’d died and they were all bemoaning his loss. Well, they were calling him by his real name, Ernesto, until that point so I didn’t have a clue who he was. Sorry. Neither did I have the heart or the interest to reread those passages once I’d discovered the truth. In the phrase that we all seem to have to use these days, I just wasn’t that into it.

That said, there are hints within the very dense prose that this could have been a good and humane story if the characters had been allowed to live a little. I feel much more could have been made of the bleak and all too brief story of Elias’ mother, the difficult encounters between Elias and his father when they are both fighting alongside Guevara, and the relationship between Elias and Anna also needed a good overhaul. As it was, I simply didn’t believe in their apparently deep and lasting love. It all seemed very trite to me.

Which brings me to the main problem with this novel. It’s a truism, I know, but there’s simply far far too much telling and not enough showing. When Elias is sad or angry or frightened, the narrator tells us he is – we see very little of the effects these emotions have on Elias, so it’s almost impossible to accept him as a real character with whom we can sympathise. My opinion is that it was a poor editorial and writing decision to give this novel an overarching narrator at all – he only serves to keep the reader at bay and stops us experiencing the story directly ourselves. This makes it appallingly dull. In fact it made it so dull that at one point, whilst reading at the breakfast table, I was unbeknownst to me actually moaning with boredom and swaying like a stressed elephant – so much so that my poor husband offered to distract me and turn over a few pages simply in order to save me a small amount of pain. In truth I don’t think I would have noticed if he had.

It does therefore worry me that this might be what literary novels are coming to. I understand that the tradition has been for literary novels to have more aspects of telling us what is happening and not showing us than is customary in commercial fiction (although that aspect has always irritated me and does make me sigh deeply when the subject of literary fiction arises). Moreover, agent Nathan Bransford would probably disagree with my assessment of literary fiction, as his 2007 blog entry indicates. But I do think this particular novel takes the more high-brow aspects of itself to almost unreadable extremes. Surely books are too important for it to have come to this pass?

Because it’s my belief that underneath all the baggage, political posturing and sometimes rather poor writing that drag this novel down so very much lie the bones of a story that could have been told and told well. It’s a shame therefore that this isn’t it. At the moment, Human Love is nothing more or less than notes for a novel that might have been written. Perhaps another, more savvy author should try it one day.

Andrei Makine, Human Love (Sceptre 2009], ISBN: 978-0-340-93678-8

[Anne is feeling browbeaten by politics and bamboozled by cheese. To discover her human side and her burgeoning dairy phobia, click here]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke’s fiction has been shortlisted for the Harry Bowling Novel Award, the Royal Literary Fund Awards and the Asham Award for Women Writers. She has also twice been the winner of the national DSJT Charitable Trust Open Poetry Competition. She is the author of nine published novels, including her free fantasy series, The Gathandrian Trilogy, featuring gay scribe Simon Hartstongue. More information on the trilogy is available at: www.gathandria.com. In addition, her gay and literary short stories are regularly published by Wilde City Press, Amber Allure Press and Untreed Reads. All her gay fiction can be found at: www.gayreads.co.uk. Anne has a secret passion for theatre and chocolate, preferably at the same time, and is currently working on a fantasy novel, The Wilderness Room. More information can be found at www.annebrooke.com.

43 comments on “Andrei Makine’s Human Love: Browbeaten by politics and terrified by cheese …

  1. Roderic Vincent
    August 12, 2009

    Another review that’s equally educational and funny, Anne. I laughed out loud at the possibility of your hubby turning a few pages. Perhaps it all goes to show that writing a novel is quite difficult, a fact that stares at me from every wall just now. Still, no excuse for publishing poor ones. That’s another business. Thanks for entertaining me this morning. Rod.

  2. Christine
    August 12, 2009

    All I can say is, don’t hold back the next time. Tell us how you really feel.

  3. annebrooke
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks, Rod & Christine! And there was I thinking I was being subtle, Christine …
    :)

    Anne B

  4. Lisa
    August 12, 2009

    Interesting reading this, Anne and ;) @ Christine! However, I’m struggling to get a sense of what this book is actually about. That ‘love’ in the title as well as the cover image made me think it was going to be a great romance, presumably between Elias and Anna. It doesn’t sound as if it is. Seems like politics is the main focus?

    “Apart from that, there’s a lot of politics. An awful lot of politics. In fact there’s so much politics that the concept of humanity, or any sense of character, is almost entirely absent from this novel.”

    What kind of politics are we talking about here? Was there a definite political message, did you feel, or was it exploring lots of issues without making judgement? Sorry, being curious, but no need to delve back into the book, Anne!

    Thanks for the detailed review. Lx

  5. annebrooke
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks, Lisa – another interesting response also! Yes, I think I too really struggled with trying to get a sense of what the book was about. Or indeed what position it might have been taking. I’m not a political expert (by a long long chalk!) but I suspect Makine might have been saying that power of any sort corrupts and that there isn’t any hope that things will ever improve, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, and that the “little guy” doesn’t count even though he should. Um, possibly.

    Apart from that, my main impression was Muddle (with a capital M) – apologies!…

    ==:O

    Axxx

  6. Lisa
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks, Anne! Bit of a depressing message then really…

    And, heavens, not meaning to suggest my confusion was your fault – the book just seems quite different to what I expected. But that’ll teach me for judging a book by its cover. :)

  7. RosyB
    August 12, 2009

    I was looking around on the net after reading this for other reviews and most of them extremely positive and also comparing this to the author’s other work which is very well-respected. However, it was interesting that The Washington Post seemed to be saying some very similar things to this review. Particularly about the character of Elias and some of the messages. I thought it might be of interest to anyone wanting to look into this further to have a look at some of the other reviews.

    This is a work in translation, isn’t it, from the French? So I wondered how much that might have to do with the slightly strange style/imagery here and there and whether one needs a little adjustment of mind for imagery that might be more natural in another language? (Mozzarella breasts? Hee hee!)

    But, on an argumentative note, I don’t agree about show and tell. At least, I don’t know that I don’t agree with your assessment here, but in general I have a worry about the maxim as it seems to have become a modern “unquestioned” truth about what constitutes good writing – and I don’t think it’s that simple at all. Tell can work very well if it done with aplomb and deliberately. Showing can be just as false and as much of an affectation as telling. More so, sometimes. I get very tired of writing where characters are forever raising eyebrows, scratching their inner armpit or producing slight flushes of pink underneath their crowns, rather than just being told the salient info. Whatever the author does, it just has to feel natural to the piece, doesn’t it? Whether showing or telling – or hopefully a nice mix of both.

    What I don’t understand properly from this review, though – and it sounds like a point of confusion for you as well – is who the story is being told by or why or how that works.

  8. annebrooke
    August 12, 2009

    Yes, I suppose so, Lisa – but my confusion is still paramount, I fear!
    :)

    And you might well be right, Rosy – perhaps it would be better in the original French? And I do see that there should be a balance between Show & Tell (those 2 famous comedians …) – but in this case I felt I was being kept away from the characters entirely by the narrator’s intrusion. All very exhausting!

    Axxx

  9. kirstyjane
    August 12, 2009

    What a very funny and brilliant review, Anne. I know I’ve often felt the complete opposite about books the critics love (cf. Dancing with Cuba) and this one does sound like it isn’t my cup of tea either… I was actually wondering if Che would surface given the setting. How does Makine portray him, out of curiosity?

  10. annebrooke
    August 12, 2009

    Thanks, Kirsty! Ooh, and yes I should have put that in, shouldn’t I?! Doh! I’d say that Che is gruff and charismatic in this book, but sadly dies fairly sharpish, really.
    :(

    Axxx

  11. Lisa
    August 13, 2009

    Anne, I just noticed that Jackie wrote a short review of one of Makine’s books, here:

    https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/02/09/the-woman-who-waited-by-andrei-makine/

  12. annebrooke
    August 13, 2009

    Now that sounds much more like my kind of thing, Lisa! Though I think you might be underestimating the time it takes to hear back from a publisher of course …
    :)

    Axxx

  13. Jacob Russell
    August 14, 2009

    Evidently you would have preferred that Makine had written a book more like the sort of thing you like to read. Better to forego writing a review when that’s the case.

  14. annebrooke
    August 14, 2009

    You may well be right, Jacob! Many thanks for the thought.

    All good wishes

    Anne B

  15. nmj
    November 5, 2009

    I too am struggling with Human Love, I had such high hopes, and came across your review yesterday – it made me smile – when I was googling out of frustration. I actually enjoyed the first couple of chapters, the first person narrator is more interesting, I think … Now, am at page 60, Ernesto has just entered, he is referred to as the Cuban, so there is the wee hint! Still, I will keep going for a bit…

  16. annebrooke
    November 5, 2009

    Thanks, NMJ – you’re a more subtle reader than I am, having picked up on the Cuban hint for sure! Let us know how you get on …
    :)

    Axxx

  17. andrei
    November 12, 2009

    annebrooke….i am so sorry for you! in fact i think what i feel towards you goes better described by means of the word compassion! it’s the ultimate blasphemy to describe Makine’s narrative as poor writing! what was the most challenging book you have ever read? oliver twist? if you want to understand and fully appreciate Makine’s ” Human Love” try read some novels which hopefully will sharpen your senses and qualities as a reader and will mould your intellect! i suggest reading, for example, Ernesto Sabato’s “Sobre heroes y tumbas” – “On Heroes and Tombs” or Antonio Lobo Antunes’ “The Natural Order of Things” (i think this might be the english translation) and only after completing this readings, undertake again the journey Makine proposes! Literature nowadays is about provoking the Reader to discover ideas by trying to make out some elusive, barely perceivable connections! If you enjoy being spoon-fed naked ideas…just give up reading modern writers!

    I apologize if the tone of my comment seems harsh…this happens because i was startled, rather offended when i saw the carelessness and the superficiality of your critique!

  18. annebrooke
    November 12, 2009

    Dear Andrei – always grateful to receive any kind of compassion, so many thanks for that! However, as I’ve really always been both careless and superficial, I fear there is indeed no hope for me …
    :)

    Anne B

    PS I do rather like the idea of being spoonfed naked ideas though – sounds wonderful!

  19. Jacob Russell
    November 12, 2009

    Was it really necessary to cite the mozzerlla boob line?

    This seems needlessly cruel. Let’s at least hope they were Italian and not Kraft.

  20. annebrooke
    November 12, 2009

    Indeed so! But was it really necessary to write that line?
    :)

    Anne B

  21. Jackie
    November 12, 2009

    This book sounds quite unpleasant, I’m glad I read one of Makine’s other books instead, though there was a certain amount of politics in that one too, but it didn’t overtake the story.
    I don’t know why there is so much flak because Anne was honest about disliking the book, she stated why, quite clearly, so it was well reasoned. People shouldn’t be insulting her intelligence & reading tastes either, just because they disagree. Why get personal?
    The review was honest, but not malicious. And rather funny too.

  22. annebrooke
    November 12, 2009

    Thanks, Jackie! Perhaps I should try the other Makine story you read, as maybe this one was an off day?
    :)

    Big hugs to you! Axxx

  23. marro
    December 22, 2009

    You’re right, hon, you’re not the brightest lamp in the box.

    How COULD you miss all that exquisite existential subtlety.

    But hey, a guy who writes like that, winning both the Goncourt & de Medici prizes in one year is WAY out of your league.

    What can I say? Keep to Dan Brown, maybe?

  24. annebrooke
    December 22, 2009

    But, my dear Marro, everyone is out of my league! Though I rather suspect the “exquisite existential subtlety” (great phrase, btw) actually missed me – perhaps a fault of the writer then?

    And I do love being called “hon” – takes me back to my young days, so very much appreciated! These days, sadly, I tend to get “madam” …
    :)

    Anne B

  25. Jackie
    December 23, 2009

    Why is it assumed that anything that won an award is automatically good. Are prizes only given to the most deserving? Is it always the best films that win the Academy Awards? Or best actors? Do the best workers always win “Employee of the Month”? Haven’t we all been to restaurants that didn’t live up to its reputation?
    So why do we think a book would be the exception to the rule?

  26. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    Interesting point, Jackie. Perhaps the awards culture, particularly in terms of books and films, has gone too far these days? Maybe they should be culled in some way. One to ponder.

    Axxx

  27. Jacob Russell
    December 23, 2009

    Granted, defending the merit of a work based on the rewards it received is an argument from authority–that is, at best, an argument by unsupported inference–and one that cuts both ways. A pris Goncourt don’t make it bad.

    That aside, one of the first principles of a just review–is that you judge a book by what it is, not by what you want it to be, and you make it pretty clear that that’s exactly what you’ve done. It only makes it worse when you back up a misdirected judgment by silly quotes out of context–as you’ve done with the cheese thing… where this was not an ‘authorial narrator’s’ thoughts, but a reflection of the mind of the character–a depersonification of the women–making her a ‘thing’ … a piece of food.

    That’s just a bad misreading. Another principle: a good review is about the book–not a vehicle to show how clever the reviewer is in her own mind.

  28. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    Ah, Jacob – so good to have you back. We missed you! I am indeed a truly appalling person and the Book Foxes have to beat me with twigs every week just to keep me in order. It’s astonishing anyone reads my reviews at all.

    Mind you, if I had to be an item of food, I’d really rather be chocolate than cheese, but that is of course an entirely personal (though sadly not particularly clever) view.
    :)

    Anne B

  29. rosyb
    December 23, 2009

    Jacob. Getting the distinct impression you don’t agree with Anne’s review here. Perhaps you’d like to write your own “just” version to put her straight rather than just banging on about your dislike of her review here. You’re free, naturally, to keep on banging away but I think we’re hearing you loud and clear and you aren’t really adding much now beyond that you still don’t agree with her or her way of doing things. Which is fine. But perhaps it’s time to embace those principles yourself if you feel so strongly about it rather than trying to make someone else do it your way.

    A review is a review and you don’t agree with it – fine. Anne is surely entitled to her view and you are entitled to yours, no? One advantage, I would have thought, of Anne’s personal and playful approach is that it makes it easier to stand back and go “is this the way I read?” “would I agree with this?” rather than just being told what you have to think by some jumped up authority figure. No one pretends to be a jumped up authority figure round here, thankfully.

    We read, we think and we try to be honest. You might not think the last of those is important.

    I do.

  30. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    Thanks, Rosy! As always you say everything so much better than I do! I’ll look forward to reading Jacob’s review – always fascinating to see another side to a book, no matter what one’s own view of it might be. And good to know also that books themselves have so many interpretations that one could probably go on discussing them till the next millennium. Though I suspect I’ll be way past it by then!…
    :)

    Axxx

  31. Jacob Russell
    December 23, 2009

    A critique of a critique is fair game.. and I think my comments were just. Nothing personal.

    As for reviewing Makine… I was thinking of reviewing Earth and Sky… (didn’t think too highly of it) but found another review that said pretty much what I would have. HEARE

    I chuckled when I read Anne’s post… sort of Saturday Night Live parody of a review–( something that an intentional misreading and good sense of humor can work for any book… and this review was funny! ).. but when others, and then Anne, seemed to take it as a serious critique of the book, I had second thoughts.

  32. Jacob Russell
    December 23, 2009

    rosyb

    Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion, but no one is entitled to exemption from a critique of their reasoning and interpretation.

    All opinions are not equal, nor all readings equally strong and insightful.

    If you display your thoughts in public you can’t beg off having someone look at them with a critical eye (and I don’t at all have the impression Anne has done that).

  33. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    Yes, always interesting to hear other people’s views, Jacob. We’re just critiquing your critique of the critique. In an utterly serious fashion of course! Don’t be fooled by the humour … That reaction is a common mistake. I didn’t, however, expect such a mistake from you!
    :)

    Anne B

  34. Jacob Russell
    December 23, 2009

    Best wishes to you for the horror… er .. holly daze… may you pass through them without once hearing the Little Drummer Boy!

    j

  35. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    Even worse – it could be that pesky Snowman! Raymond Briggs has a lot to answer for, sigh …
    :)

    Anne B

  36. RosyB
    December 23, 2009

    I’m afraid, Jacob, you are leaving me no choice but to conclude that you must think rather more of Anne’s review than you’re letting on to be spending quite so much of your time “critiquing” it. ;)

    But, hey, don’t let me stop you…carry on, carry on…

  37. Jacob Russell
    December 23, 2009

    RosyB

    I think neither more nor less of it than what I wrote. A witty lass, AnneB!

    Be well!

  38. annebrooke
    December 23, 2009

    “Than what I wrote”?!? Shocking! Standards are falling, I fear. Whatever next?
    :)

    And people are starting to talk, Jacob … I fear we must be more secretive!

    Anne B

  39. Taiga
    April 4, 2010

    Anne Brooke’s review unfortunately bypasses the achievements of Makine in “Human Love” and instead focuses on her failure to understand the content, style & structure of the text.

    The clever narrative interplay is led by an unnamed Russian writer who records the life of Elias Almeida. In doing so, the resulting biography offers a huge experience to readers of post colonial Africa (stop and do a little research here, if need be, before you read on into the book), the chaos and animalistic violence of insurgency and its resulting kaleidoscope of suffering; all set in parallel to the corrupt “fat cat” Africans, the superficial literati, the rich young trend-setters looking for a fashionable cause or a reason to piss off their parents and the plump conference speaker seeking a quick weekend thrill.

    The recurring and undoubtedly graphic scenes of violence, often against women, are not received in their correct context or even explored by this reviewer. A vital key to the purpose of this, if needed, is provided early on in the piece:

    “If there’s nothing beyond all this, then men are no more than ants chewing, copulating and killing one another. In that case nothing matters…To be certain a woman’s not just a lump of meat that’ll rot beneath the red earth, you need to love well” (Elias, p25)

    Without sidelining the author’s intention to write a book about Africa, Elias’s words here, in addition to the title of the book, link to an important main idea: that human love is vital and if a cause does not result in the attainment of love, and thus a change for the better, then what is the point?

    “After the revolution do you think people will love one another in a different way”? (p62)

    Human love is seen as the (somewhat obvious) preventative against atrocity, that if men loved their wives, mothers, sisters etc; then the instinct to perform acts of violence upon other men, women, children and ethnicities may not be so commonplace; in the arena of war or otherwise:

    “But above all, we should have to know how to love. Just simply, to love. Then it would be unthinkable for a woman thrown to the ground to have her collarbone smashed with the kick of a boot…” (p209).

    If in doubt, re-read the final two pages of the book. Here you will find a careful reiteration of the key concepts of the story. You may also appreciate Elias’s poetic finale:

    “Elias’s body disappears slowly. The water is so calm that this human shape looks as if it were rising amid the stars, into a sky deeper than the sky. When the music stops, very clearly, amid absolute silence, a child’s sigh can be heard.” (p249)

  40. annebrooke
    April 4, 2010

    Many thanks for the comments, Taiga. I do agree that the book failed to convey its message, as you point out. This may of course (perish the thought!) show faults in the author as well as the reviewer – the latter of whom does of course have many many faults. As her mother will tell you!

    It would have been interesting if Makine had written it as a political treatise rather than a novel – it may then (for me) have been far more powerful, and indeed successful as a book.

    Anne

  41. Taiga
    April 4, 2010

    To clarify: I thought that the book constructed and conveyed its messages perfectly. My point was that you failed to pick up its messages.

  42. annebrooke
    April 4, 2010

    To clarify in return: my point was the book failed utterly to convey them.

    Anne

  43. makina
    September 16, 2010

    thats a great article I want to use it in my website

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