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Icelandic Literature 2014 > Nóvember: Independent People by Halldór Laxness

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Jane Smiley said of this title that it is "… one of the best books of the twentieth century." And indeed it appears on several "best books" lists (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002... and http://www.toptenbooks.net/search/nod... ).

Our third title this year by Halldór Laxness, following Iceland's Bell in January and The Fish Can Sing in February. And entirely appropriate given that Encyclopædia Britannica says Laxness is "considered the most creative Icelandic writer of the 20th century."

E. Wessén, Member of the Swedish Academy, described this book in the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature award ceremony speech by saying:

Even more affecting, perhaps, is the story of Bjartur, the man with the indomitable will for freedom and independence, Geijer's yeoman farmer in an Icelandic setting and, with monumental, epic proportions the landnamsman of Iceland's thousand-year old history. Bjartur remains the same in sickness and misfortune, in poverty and starvation, in raging snowstorms and face to face with the frightening monsters of the moors, and pathetic to the last in his helplessness and his touching love for his foster daughter Ásta Sóllilja.

("Nobelprize.org". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 1 Nov 2014.

This will be my second time through with Bjartur and imho he is a character worth getting to know. His sense of ideals poses an interesting challenge to us as readers. So please join our group read and lets see what together we can make of him.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

The book is conveniently divided into 4 parts (with a short conclusion that can be lumped in with Part II of Book Two) so about 125 pages per week for the month we have it scheduled.


message 3: by [deleted user] (last edited Nov 03, 2014 07:27PM) (new)

Chapter 1 discusses the spirits, Kolumkilli and Gunnvor, that have cursed a valley in Iceland. Travellers who toss a stone onto a cairn on the latter's grave site which is on the highest point of a ridge on their first crossing of the ridge are thought to avoid misfortune. Bjartur refuses to follow the custom and later will prevent Rosa, his first wife, from doing so as well.

Interestingly Laxness wrote in an autobiographical short story called "My Holy Stone" about his experience as a seven year old boy in which Christ appeared to him upon a large rock overlooking a valley. "Nowhere have I found the echo of the divine voice in my heart except at one stone in the fields of the farm at home," Laxness wrote, and "all things lost their radiance to that childhood memory of standing face to face with the Redeemer." Laxness named his adult home "Giljufasteinn" which means "the stone in the river." (from pages 1 and 2 of The Islander, A Biography of Halldor Laxness by Halldor Gudmundsson.)

Other possibly interesting biographical tidbits:

* The first draft of "Sjalfstaett folk" - the Icelandic title of this book which apparently more accurately is translated as "free-standing folk" - was written in 1929 in Hollywood. Laxness spent much of his adult life away from Iceland. However, he did not finish the manuscript until visiting collective farms in the Soviet Union in 1932 where he learned about farming. "The draft written in 1929 was very incomplete. The writer had early become aware of his inadequate knowledge of the subject, and it was not until three years later that he considered he had laid the proper basis for a continued work. The journey to Russia, where collective farming was just then making its name, seems to have provided him with a new grasp of the task before him: 'In the Soviet people's realist view of the matter, where no lyrical faddists got an opportunity to confuse the onlooker's view. I soon noticed a few dominant features, and amond them was the simple but clarifying method of grouping farmers according to class: large-scale farmers, middle-type farmers, and small farmers. This classification, which is afterwards found to be the most obvious one of all, actually opened the whole problem to me, and enabled me to handle it fully and clearly, on a social basis.'" (p. 99 of Peter Hallberg's biography "Halldor Laxness").

Independent People was published in two installments in 1934 and 1935, two years after Stalin's collectivist agricultural initiatives would lead to more than 4 million people starving to death in an event known as "Holodomor."

* Laxness was born on a relatively well-to-do farm, with a frame house with water pipes and drains which stood out from the typical turf farm house of his neighbors. His father was a musician who also built roads and kept the farm in his spare time. Halldor was bookish and never worked at farming himself. "It's as if I have an innate aversion to labour. I shall soon be twenty-two and have never, to this day, done an honest day's work, as they say in the countryside" Laxness wrote of himself.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Wow, Don. What an Introduction. REALLY FINE. Eager to start this book.


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Wow, Don. What an Introduction. REALLY FINE. Eager to start this book."

Thank you Asma. You and the other previous group read leaders have set a very high standard that I can only hope to emulate.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Saw this today: http://www.economist.com/news/economi...

indicating that on a set of measures of gender equality, Iceland is the leader in the world. Women's organizations appeared in Icelandic life as early as 1869 (a history of the Icelandic suffrage movement is at: http://kvennasogusafn.is/index.php?pa... ) So, against this backdrop, what do you think so far of the depiction of women in Independent People?


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

So...A child is born. Rosa departs. A dog saves the day and Bjartur goes off and talks sheep. Is this one of the most pathetic passages ever?

And what to make of the Bailiff? Peter Hallberg's biography of Laxness states that the Bailiff "obviously represents the Icelandic version of the Kulak or 'rural capitalist.'" In the USSR, on December 27, 1929. Stalin had ordered the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class." Should we consider this political backdrop when we read this story? Or should the story be considered on its own terms in isolation of Laxness's political views?


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Read to 125...poor Rosa. Impressed with Bjarturs double rhymes and double alliteration, and his memory of ballads, his sheep and dog. He is not a romantic like the Poetess Bailiffs wife about freedom and independence, rather living that rural life while appreciating nature. Unbelievable snowstorm he endured on his quest for the ewe.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments I wonder whether unbeknownst to Bjartur his acquisition of Summerhouses from the Bailiff might have been helped along with his interest in the servant Rosa, who was involved with the Bailiffs son. Rosa would then be far away in her own croft married to Bjartur. Her pregnancy was suspicious to Bjartur.


message 10: by Betty (last edited Nov 11, 2014 07:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "Saw this today: http://www.economist.com/news/economi...

indicating that on a set of measures of gender equality,..."


Interesting set of statistics, and peeking into the full list of the print edition, as well. Responding to your point about perceptions of female equality in it, I would say Bjartur values the sheep more highly than Rosa. Nonetheless, she is valuable in the fields, in the house, and in his concept of generous hospitality to guests. His one-sided ideas make her secretive in eating the ewe.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "Saw this today: http://www.economist.com/news/economi...

indicating that on a set of measures of gender equality,..."


Bjartur's driving beliefs compel Rosa to go along with him without consideration for her welfare. Survival means harvesting the winter fodder and tending the sheep. In contrast to Madam Myri, Rosa knows neither soft living nor learning. Though Rosa exerts herself admirably in the fields and house uncomplainingly, there is little companionability with Bjartur's adamant beliefs in spite of his endearing words of fondness. Her rough clothes make her shy to carry out Bjartur's gracious hospitality to guests.


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "I wonder whether unbeknownst to Bjartur his acquisition of Summerhouses from the Bailiff might have been helped along with his interest in the servant Rosa, who was involved with the Bailiffs son. ..."

I think your point about Bjartur valuing the sheep more than Rosa may be related in part to your previous point about Asta Sollilja's paternity. I thought for certain that Bjartur was not the father. In the chapter "Secrets" Bjartur rages "And now they even ask me to his bastards in my own house." In "Life" he tells Gudny "Mm, I'll be her father as far as that's concerned, anyway." Seeming to indicate that he was making an intentional choice to do something he was not obligated to do. Later the Bailiff takes a special interest in her and gives her a coin ("Day") and makes a point of singling her out to his son ("Gentry"). Much later, in "Madam of Myri Suffers Defeat" there will be another more explicit discussion.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Bjartur's driving beliefs compel Rosa to go along with him without consideration for her welfare. ..."

Yes, the sheep are always first and foremost with him as they seem to represent both survival and independence. I have trouble seeing Bjartur as merely a hayseed ideologue and find myself wondering what his choices really are in the struggle to survive.


message 14: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (bookgirlarborg) Excellent intro, Don! Thank you for posting it. I am coming in late on this, but am just catching up, reading this for the third time. The first time I read it, I became so angry that I hated the book. Angry at the way women were treated in Iceland, angry at the Danish occupation... The second time I realized what a skillful writer Laxness is. From forebears who immigrated to Canada to Iceland, I know that the situation in Iceland was exactly as described by Laxness in this novel. The character of Bjartur is so complex, so stubborn, so ingrained in his value system and goals, that he consistently does insensitive things to the other characters in the novel. Insensitive, I'm sure, doesn't even half-way get there.... When Rosa is left on her own, pregnant and malnourished and ultimately loses her mind, I think she has been sacrificed to the pride of Bjartur. I now LOVE this novel. It comes more alive with each reading, I have found.


message 15: by Judy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Judy (bookgirlarborg) Don wrote: "So...A child is born. Rosa departs. A dog saves the day and Bjartur goes off and talks sheep. Is this one of the most pathetic passages ever?

And what to make of the Bailiff? Peter Hallberg's biog..."


What we have to keep in mind with Iceland, is that they lived under Danish occupation for hundreds of years, only ending in 1944. The Danes ruled Iceland harshly, severely limiting any independent commerce by Icelanders. For example, the Danes closely monitored the amount of salt given to Icelanders, so the people wouldn't be tempted to set up their own fish-drying operations. Danes were in all of the senior positions in government and law, and placed Icelandic people they could control in positions like that of Bailiff. Iceland's Bell, also by Laxness, is focussed almost entirely on the life of Icelanders under Danish occupation. And it wasn't pretty....


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Judy wrote: "Excellent intro, Don! Thank you for posting it. I am coming in late on this, but am just catching up, reading this for the third time. The first time I read it, I became so angry that I hated th..."

Wow! Three time - you should be leading this Judy. Thanks for your valuable comments. That is a great reminder about the oppression of the Icelandic people. The book in a way seems to assume the reader understands the Danish rule which I tend to forget. With such limited economic opportunities, in a way, Bjartur seems trapped. "Insensitive" is certainly a polite way of describing Bjartur's way of treating those around him.


message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

Laxness wrote Independent People in opposition to Growth of the Soil by Norwegian Knut Hamsun who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for it in 1920. Gudmundsson's The Islander quotes Laxness:

It has been suggested that Independent People was written partly in imitation of Hamsun's Growth of the Soil. That is correct in the sense that I ask the same questions...although the answers I give are of course completely contrary to Hamsun's. I am not saying that all of the conclusions concerning society - or anything else - in Independent People are correct, but their place in the composition of the book was dependent on my conviction that Hamsun's conclusions...were, in general, wrong.

So maybe a few words here on Hamsun and Growth of the Soil. Hamsun, like Laxness, is a writer whom I greatly admire, and I love Growth of the Soil, despite having a personal antipathy for their politics. Of Hamsun, wiki says "After Hitler's death, he published a short obituary in which he described him as "a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations." Nevertheless, wiki says, "Thomas Mann described him 'as a descendant of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche'. Arthur Koestler was a fan of his love stories. H. G. Wells praised Markens Grøde[Growth of the Soil] (1917) for which Hamsun was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Isaac Bashevis Singer was a fan of his modern subjectivism, use of flashbacks, his use of fragmentation, and his lyricism. Charles Bukowski called him the greatest writer to have ever lived."

Of Growth of the Soil, wiki quotes William Worster, who describes the novel as follows:
“It is the life story of a man in the wilds, the genesis and gradual development of a homestead, the unit of humanity, in the unfilled, uncleared tracts that still remain in the Norwegian Highlands.

It is an epic of earth; the history of a microcosm. Its dominant note is one of patient strength and simplicity; the mainstay of its working is the tacit, stern, yet loving alliance between Nature and the Man who faces her himself, trusting to himself and her for the physical means of life, and the spiritual contentment with life which she must grant if he be worthy.

Modern man faces Nature only by proxy, or as proxy, through others or for others, and the intimacy is lost. In the wilds the contact is direct and immediate; it is the foothold upon earth, the touch of the soil itself, that gives strength.

The story is epic in its magnitude, in its calm, steady progress and unhurrying rhythm, in its vast and intimate humanity. The author looks upon his characters with a great, all-tolerant sympathy, aloof yet kindly, as a god. A more objective work of fiction it would be hard to find—certainly in what used to be called "the neurasthenic North.",

So basically, I think Hamsun romanticized the independent small farmer that Laxness attempts to de-romanticize.

Does Laxness succeed?

I am reminded in some ways of the anti-drug campaigns in the US that unintentionally stimulated curiosity about drug use and may have led some kids to try drugs. Apparently the ads get kids to thinking about drugs and the information seems untrustworthy sparking a bit of rebelliousness. (http://benthamopen.com/tocommj/articles)
/V002/43TOCOMMJ.pdf ).

To me, Bjartur seems drawn with such an excess of anti-social feeling that he appears alien, and not human, for if nothing else humans are social animals, even if each of us have various preferred levels of sociability. And yet his doggedness almost becomes admirable. The great challenge of the crofter's existence seems noble despite Laxness's best efforts.

We are blessed with numerous great pastorals though and need not get sucked into rooting for one side or the other in the Laxness - Hamsun cage match. I'd offer instead another Norwegian, one who came to the US and returned again,O.E. Rølvaag whose Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie takes something of a tragic view. Wiki says "the novel follows a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America. The book is based partly on Rølvaag's personal experiences as a settler, and on the experiences of his wife’s family who had been immigrant homesteaders. The novel depicts snow storms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land. Giants in the Earth was turned into an opera by Douglas Moore and Arnold Sundgaard; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1951." At Amazon, The Nation is quoted as saying that it is "The fullest, finest, and most powerful novel that has been written about pioneer life in America."

What do you think? Do you get the sense in Independent People that Laxness has an axe to grind?


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "Yes, the sheep are always first and foremost with him as they seem to represent ..."

I like that Bjartur makes the animals' welfare come first. It's not just sentimentality on his part as such a feeling might be for a domestic pet. What hardy animals they are. Nature's beings are interconnected. Bjartur shows a great difference of attitude in that to the Bailiff's son, who sees nature's beings as prey. Other characters comment on Bjartur's seemingly unreasonable attitudes towards not hunting animals; his ideas though are not unworkable as he has a varied diet anyway. Rosa, however, doesn't adjust well to his dietary ideas.


message 19: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "I like that Bjartur makes the animals' welfare come first. It's not just sentimentality on his part..."

Yes, the contrast with the Bailiff's son could not be more stark. In one of the biographies it says that Laxness wrote in the margins of an early draft something to the effect of "Make more sympathetic" and his attitude towards animals certainly works for me in that regard. Curiously sheep's milk doesn't seem to be a dietary staple in Iceland as it is in many sheep-keeping areas of the world although historically it once was (according to wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandi... ). Perhaps its the breed as sheep-keepers I've met here in Virginia do not milk theirs either but use them mainly for wool. Sheep dairies tend to keep East Frisians.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "...So basically, I think Hamsun romanticized the independent small farmer that Laxness attempts to de-romanticize.

Does Laxness succeed? ..."


Having read part way into Independent People and having not read Growth of the Soil, I do think that Laxness romanticizes Bjartur's life, perhaps better from my viewpoint Laxness mythologizes it for the hero. The convincing point for me was his experiences in searching for the missing ewe in the sudden snowstorm, his riding the elk? down the surging Glacier River, his night of reciting ballads and hymns of his own and of others from his encyclopedic memory, and his unscathed will if not his body after being de-iced. So far, Don, that's my take on Laxness's portrait of the m.c. He is not alone among the farmers, but he is portrayed as a singular individual, as the book's title notes.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "...The great challenge of the crofter's existence seems noble despite Laxness's best efforts...Do you get the sense in Independent People that Laxness has an axe to grind?"

I agree with you about the portrayal of the farmer Bjartur and his life on the haunted Icelandic croft, which he comes to own and to make productive through singleness of mind and through cooperation with nature. I don't know that he is especially antisocial, he knows his own interest, for sure, cooperating with other farmers. Regarding his attitude to Rosa, he seems affectionate towards her, though not in a romantic way. His sense of mystery about women in general is that they're not like himself, less hardy perhaps. Afterwards, Finna fulfills that attitude more than Rosa in the former's being seasonally bedridden after pregnancies. I wonder whether Laxness's biography gives a clue to his reasons for writing Independent People.

Bjartur's boy little Nonni is autobiographical. Do you think so?


message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Bjartur's boy little Nonni is autobiographical. Do you think so?"

Perhaps in a way, but from what I understand Laxness never went to bed hungry.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Halfway through, every part has held my interest, that being the Summerhouses croft setting. In this second family with children this time, each character has something unique, particularly the females (Finna, Halberta, Asta...); the worst episode being the brief visit to the run-down town many hills and dales away from the farm. Besides the characters old or young toiling daylong in weather fair or foul, the cooperative-v.-merchant proposal took an interesting turn, Bjartur's predicting the farmers' being indebted through participation in it. Wary he is right to be, as the hay-consuming milk cow foisted on him deprives the sheep and lambs in the critical springtime, and as the new minister's views of sheep and learning are not respected by Bjartur. This first-half left unresolved the identity and intent of the temporary camper on Bjartur's property. His appearance is followed by Asta's dreaminess and by marks on Bjartur's sheep. Finally, Laxness's and the translator's language in the narration and the spoken poetry uses le mot propre which carries a lot of meaning and tone.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "Jane Smiley said of this title that it is "… one of the best books of the twentieth century." And indeed it appears on several "best books" lists (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002......"

I must say, Don, that how someone cannot find this book interesting is strange. Page after page is filled with new events which raise sympathy for the characters' and sheep's predicaments. The description of Nature through its terrain, weather, day/night which surround the snow roofed dwelling in the dale is stunning. Out of those moors, heaths, rills, and crags come beautifully rhymed, recited poems and characters' dreams.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Don wrote: "Jane Smiley said of this title that it is "… one of the best books of the twentieth century." And indeed it appears on several "best books" lists (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/..."

Very poetically said Asma.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "...Curiously sheep's milk doesn't seem to be a dietary staple in Iceland as it is in many sheep-keeping areas of the world although historically it once was (according to wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icelandi... )..."

I read somewhere that sheep give less milk than cows, enough for their lambs at least. However, I'm not sure how much acreage for fodder one cow requires. In Bjartur's case, the wool was more important from the sheep than milk from the cow; eventually he also ate the mutton. What a toss-up among the other family members whose health & well-being improved with the addition of cow's milk in their diet.


message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

So far I am about 20% in and loving the book. I live in sheep country (in England in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales) and Laxness is so in tune with with country life and nature. He has the call of the curlew (a summer visitor here too) just right and how it lifts your soul in spring. I also love the details such as the small doorways with raised bottom edges and lowered upper lintels to keep the winter warmth in, which I've seen also in Russia. I will have to read further before making any comment on the plot and characterisations.


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Theresa wrote: "So far I am about 20% in and loving the book. I live in sheep country (in England in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales) and Laxness is so in tune with with country life and nature. He has the call o..."

Thanks for that insight Theresa. Getting the details right adds so much.


message 29: by Betty (last edited Nov 24, 2014 10:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments Don wrote: "...Stalin had ordered the "liquidation of the kulaks as a class." Should we consider this political backdrop when we read this story? Or should the story be considered on its own terms in isolation of Laxness's political views?..."

The last sections changed from a novel to an expression of Laxness's political views before his bringing together again the generations of Icelanders on their way north to begin again on a different homestead. The Nobel Committee apparently did not find his political views about capitalism and socialism offensive. The post WW1 depiction of indebted Icelandic farmers under the guise of a beneficent cooperative society and generous savings and loan banks did not benefit peasant farmers when international markets for sheep dwindled and when the encouragement of rural building and extensive cultivation required forty-year interest loans. Besides the impossibility of peasants ever paying off the debts in their lifetimes and the possibility of their mortgaged land taken away with the consequence of starvation for honest farmers, Laxness's theme of man's inhumanity to man plays with ironic, dark humor in his inane portrayal of WW1's slaughter.

Near the end, Bjartar the main character has times when he questions how independent he was before co-ops and is now. There's his mortgaged then distrained farm, his briefly falling in with the hungry, thieving socialists, his attraction to Brynja the last housekeeper. Nevertheless, he recoups his independence, though always despite his losses and hardships, in the final freedom of trekking with his entourage of the undying old woman, Asta and her children, and his old nag Blesi to a home further north.

Don, Laxness has an axe to grind, as you referred to those final chapters. It's not just the time frame and setting of Independent People. He's pointing to a perennial problem in society, the story being the allegory.


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "Laxness has an axe to grind, as you referred to those final chapters. It's not just the time frame and setting of Independent People. He's pointing to a perennial problem in society, the story being the allegory. ..."

Thanks for that summary, Asma. Yes, Laxness does show us that inhumanity takes a multitude of forms.


message 31: by [deleted user] (new)

As Asma points out so well, the plight of indebted farmers such as Bjartur during this period of Icelandic history is wrenching indeed. Is Independent People, then, a part of the grand tradition of social awareness novels? Do its literary predecessors perhaps start with Friedrich Engels' Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845) and running through Émile Zola's Germinal (1885), Riis, Jacob and his How the Other Half Lives (1903), Jack London's The People of the Abyss and James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan(1932-1935))? If so, then perhaps it is appropriate to reflect upon the amazing transformation of Iceland over the last century. Where the poor crofters once starved, now, or at least in 2013 Iceland was ranked #13 in the world on the Human Development Index (http://world-statistics.org/result.ph...). And great progress is also taking place in other parts of the world. It has been said, "The world is witnessing a epochal 'global rebalancing' with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new 'global middle class'. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast"
(http://www.theguardian.com/society/20...). So with those blessings in mind, such as they are, I wish a happy thanksgiving to those of you who will be celebrating that holiday tomorrow.


Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3622 comments And the same wishes for you, Don, a bountiful Thanksgiving. Those novels of "social awareness" you included in your post appear fascinating. I wonder whether the man in the Guardian's photo will also experience the predicted rise of prosperity. Lucky, I suppose, is the life of consistency unlike those on Chaucer's wheel of fortune. I really enjoyed reading your posts for this topic of Laxness's Independent People as well as trying to address your thought-provoking ideas. *Stars*.


message 33: by [deleted user] (new)

Asma wrote: "And the same wishes for you, Don, a bountiful Thanksgiving. Those novels of "social awareness" you included in your post appear fascinating. I wonder whether the man in the Guardian's photo will al..."

Thanks so much Asma. Your participation and moderating is very much appreciated. Looking forward to our next read.


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