Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die discussion

1001 Monthly Group Read > May {2010} Discussion -- A PASSAGE TO INDIA by E.M. Forster

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message 1: by Charity (new)

Charity (charityross) Discussion time!

message 2: by Tasha (new)

Tasha While reading this book, I wavered back and forth about liking it and then getting lost in the words. However, since I've had time to process the book, looking back I can say that I did enjoy it. I agree with you, NicoleMichele, you described it well. The discrimination was appalling and it did cause such horrible things to happen that ruined many people's lives.

Without a huge dialogue and "part" in the story, I found Mrs. Moore was such a huge influence in the story, probably just so b/c of her "steadfast ethical codes" and her strong sense of self. And Fielding, definitely, a good guy, one I could relate to :)

message 3: by Amanda (new)

Amanda What struck me as most sickening is even before the 'assult', it was assumed by the British that the Indians were essentially bad and that it was only a matter of time before they 'turned'. Obviously, after the alleged attack, this magnified the feelings a thousand-fold so that not just Dr. Aziz, but all indians were considered guilty, never to be found innocent and the colonialists sought to punish the entirity of India.

It is disapointing, but perhaps therefore understandable that when Adela risks everything to fight against the tide and refuses to give evidence based on her doubts, that Dr. Aziz, rather than embracing her, is as embittered and vengeful as ever, even to the risk of his friendship with Feilding.

message 4: by Judith (new)

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments Amanda wrote: "What struck me as most sickening is even before the 'assult', it was assumed by the British that the Indians were essentially bad and that it was only a matter of time before they 'turned'. Obviou..."

Yes, I was disappointed in that reaction also, hoping for a better ending to the incident. But given the amount of prejudice he had experienced and witnessed, found it quite understandably human.

message 5: by Judith (new)

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments NicoleMichele wrote: "discrimination & politics - Most don't want to examine either, but it's imperative we grasp both. The abounding ignorance depicted by most characters in this story was repulsing. Alarming assumptio..."

That is, indeed, the outstanding question in this story. My only conclusion is that with the heat and her confusion and fatigue at the time, she just swooned and had an hallucination. I never saw any evidence that she was truly ill in any way that would have caused the incident. Interested if anyone picked up something I didn't here......

What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination causing such a tragic turn of events? Do you think his message was that the prejudice was so rampant at the time, that it didn't even require a REAL societal error or even misdemeanor to set a tragedy in motion between the two races? That was my take. If he had explained the cause, it would have taken some of inevitability out of the story.

message 6: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Judith wrote: "What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination"

Perhaps Forster didn't want to make it clear one way of another exactly what happened to leave some doubt in our minds. If he cleared it up, case closed - we wouldn't spend so much time thinking about the issues in the novel once we had finished it.

Also, I think it puts us into the same mindset as Adela when she expresses her uncertainty in the courtroom. Adela is still not completely convinced that she was not attacked, but felt there was 'reasonable doubt' enough that she couldn't condemn another human being. This is the very foundation of the western legal system that the British forget in their hurry to criminalise Aziz.

message 7: by Judith (new)

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments Amanda wrote: "Judith wrote: "What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination"

Perhaps Forster didn't want to make it clear one way of another exactly what happ..."

Yes, Amanda, well said.

message 8: by Amanda (new)

Amanda On a bit of a tangent, I was rather surprised last night when I checked the year of A Passage to India's publication. Not knowing too much about Forster before I started reading, I'd assumed it was a novel of the 1940s at least, if not the 50s. A Passage to India was actually first published as early as 1924! Forster is much more ahead of his time than I supposed.

message 9: by Ginny (new)

Ginny | 165 comments Tasha wrote: "While reading this book, I wavered back and forth about liking it and then getting lost in the words. However, since I've had time to process the book, looking back I can say that I did enjoy it. ..."Those tow characters were probably the only reason I got through the book. I wanted to know what would happen to them. A librarian in Traverse City, Mi.told me, when I was finishing the book, that one of her relatives knew Forster and one of the characters was based on her relative. I asked her if it was Mrs. Moore (then found myself randomly sayin 'esmess esmoore...' ) but she didn't know who I was talking about.Maybe the relative was somebody else in the book.

message 10: by Lauli (new)

Lauli | 263 comments Judith wrote: "What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination causing such a tragic turn of events? Do you think his message was that the prejudice was so rampant at the time, that it didn't even require a REAL societal error or even misdemeanor to set a tragedy in motion between the two races? That was my take. If he had explained the cause, it would have taken some of inevitability out of the story. "

I think Adela's accusing Dr Aziz is largely a product of her having met Miss Derek on her way down from the caves. What I felt was that Adela was induced to think she had been assaulted, and immersed in the British community, with their high disregard for Indians living or dying, she allows Mr Turton and Heaslop to make an example case out of Aziz. I think seeing Aziz in court she may have realized what was really at stake and probed her own conscience and memory of the event.
It is interesting how the British women in Chandrapore despise Adela until she becomes a victim and is useful for the community to join together to defend their cause. What is at stake here is the British imperial machinery and its perverse use of human beings, both Indian and British.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly (joselitohonestlyandbrilliantly) | 372 comments When I was a teenager, I read the twin novels of anticolonialism by Jose Rizal, the "Noli Me Tangere" and the "El Filibusterismo." They were originally written in Spanish, but I read their Tagalog translation. Published towards the end of the more than three hundred years the Philippines was under Spanish colonial rule, these twin novels--which angered the Spanish rulers in the Philippines--hastened Jose Rizal's martyrdom and sparked the Philippine revolution.

This book by E.M.Forster lacks the drama of the Noli/Fili novels but there are similarities. India here would be Rizal's Spain; the Englishmen, Rizal's Spaniards; and the Indians, Rizal's Indios (the natives of the Philippine Islands). Similar characters are also found in these novels. Mr. Forster's "Mr. Fielding" is an Englishman who is sympathetic with the Indians and there are several characters like him in Rizal's novels. A Passage to India has one character who gets confused whenever there are both Englishmen and Indians around. Similarly, Rizal's novels have the mestizos, and even those just given some minor positions in the Spanish government, with the same ambiguous allegiance. Of course, there are characters in opposite extremes: colonizers who see nothing good about the natives and enslave the latter as if they were doing it as a big favor; and the natives who have the same unqualified distaste about the colonizers. Both Rizal and E.M.Forster--in their novels--likewise did not give any definite conclusion as to how to solve the problems that colonialism brings to occupied territories.

What is unique here, however, is that while Rizal looked at everything from the eyes of the enslaved, E.M.Forster, an Englishman, saw it from the eyes of the colonizers themselves. And he saw very differently from the rest of his countrymen.

In one scene, a court trial is about to start. An Indian doctor was wrongfully accused of a crime allegedly committed against an Englishwoman, Adela. Inside the courtroom, the judge was there, the chief of police, the lawyers and some bigshots from both the English and Indian communities. Through Adela, however, Mr. Forster zeroed in not on any of these people, but on one inconspicuous Indian native and saw him as a god:

"The Court was crowded and of course very hot, and the first person Adela noticed in it was the humblest of all who were present, a person who had no bearing officially upon the trial; the man who pulled the punkah. Almost naked, and splendidly formed, he sat on a raised platform near the back, in the middle of the central gangway, and he caught her attention as she came in, and he seemed to control the proceedings. He had the strength and beauty that sometimes come to flower in Indians of low birth. When that strange race nears the dust and is condemned as untouchable, then nature remembers the physical perfection that she accomplished elsewhere, and throws out a god--not many, but one here and there, to prove to society how little its categories impress her. This man would have been notable anywhere: among the thin-hammed, flat-chested mediocrities of Chandrapore he stood out as divine, yet he was of the city, its garbage had nourished him, he would end on its rubbish heaps. Pulling the rope towards him, relaxing it rhythmically, sending swirls of air over others, receiving none himself, he seemed apart from human destinies, a male fate, a winnower of souls. Opposite him, also on a platform, sat the little assistant magistrate, cultivated, self-conscious, and conscientious. The punkah wallah was none of these things: he scarcely knew that he existed and did not understand why the Court was fuller than usual, indeed he did not know that it was fuller than usual, didn't even know he worked a fan, though he thought he pulled a rope. Something in his aloofness impressed the girl from middle-class England, and rebuked the narrowness of her sufferings. In virtue of what had she collected this roomful of people together? Her particular brand of opinions, and the suburban Jehovah who sanctified them--by what right did they claim so much importance in the world, and assume the title of civilization?"

I would have loved this novel more had E.M.Forster been executed by a firing squad also after writing this novel, like what the Spaniards did to Jose Rizal.

message 12: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten | 35 comments I read this book a few years ago so have chosen to spend the time reading another book off the list but wanted to remind myself of the story by watching the 1984 film. It was fantastic and very true to the story from what I remember. The director really captured the themes and characters of the book and I definitely would recommend it.

message 13: by Judith (last edited May 22, 2010 10:02AM) (new)

Judith (jloucks) | 1203 comments Lauli wrote: "Judith wrote: "What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination causing such a tragic turn of events? Do you think his message was that the prejudice..."
Yes, her influence on Adela and all that follows is significant and should not be ignored in interpreting Forster's message in the novel.

message 14: by Philip (new)

Philip Ashcroft | 8 comments I am only part way through the book at the moment and am not convinced I am enjoying it. The discrimination is so overwhelming I want to reach in and shake these pompous English gits. However there is also that level of arrogance shown by the Indians towards each other as well. Religion against religion caste versus hereditary wealth.
A revealing comment about the English and who they really are is the fact that they will return home to domestic suburbia. In India they are someone at home they are nine to five suburbanites. The English rule the waves with ignorance and boredom.

message 15: by Grace (last edited May 27, 2010 10:03AM) (new)

Grace I used to believe that colonialists fomented ethnic and religious divisions for calculated political reasons.

But Forster gives another possible explanation. The British favored Muslims over Hindus simply because they were more comfortable with monotheistic Muslims.

Professor Godbole's speech about shared guilt and the coexistence of good and evil was masterful. Did the British audience read it as proof of the inscrutability of the eastern mind? Or do they see the narrowness of western thought?

message 16: by Grace (last edited May 27, 2010 10:28AM) (new)

Grace Has anyone else read Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series about British life in Egypt? They are fiction, but historically accurate.

Peters mentions that unmarried British women traveled to the colonies to try their luck at finding husbands. Egypt is preferred over India because of proximity to Europe and England.

Only women who were unsuccessful in Egypt went on to England. Thus, the women in India tended to be plainer, more stupid and poorer than the ones who had the option to marry in less remote places.

This explains the acute racism and class consciousness of the women in the novel. The lower on the social rung, the more important it becomes to keep other people lower on the social ladder.

[Aside: An Indian friend told me that the concept of dowries was imported to India from England.]

Because of their jobs, the men had more day to day contact with Indians. They had more sympathy, but were held back by the women. Racial divisions worsened over time, as more women joined the men in colonial India.

Forster didn't explain the strategic importance of this region of India to the English. I am currently reading Liquid Jade The Story of Tea from East to West. Beatrice Hohenegger traced the English balance of trade with China due to the English love of imported tea and silks. The Chinese would only accept gold and silver in payment and the English lifestyle was bleeding their treasury dry.

They had to find an alternative source for tea and something that the Chinese would accept instead of gold and silver. Thus, the British grew tea for English consumption and opium poppies for Chinese trade.

The British also imported plantation workers from southern India, who tended to be Hindus. Before that, this valley was predominantly Muslim. That also played a part in the prejudice against Hindus in the story.

It's rather unsavory. Forster must have been aware of all this. Does anyone know if the omissions were due to censorship, pressure from publishers or if it was assumed that the reading public would already know this?

message 17: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Well, I'm not quite finished this book but really have enjoyed reading it. While I agree entirely with others on the matter of racism in the novel - it is totally abhorant - but it did not surprise me in the least and in some respects I thought it would have been worse. There were a number of characters who showed sympathy towards Indians and there were a number of Indians in reasonably well respected positions - Mr Das for example. Mr Feilding was an extraordinary character in many respects.

It was certainly the women who seemed the most racist, but perhaps this is more easily understandable. They are kept more isolated from the more educated and skilled Indians - only really having contact with their servants. I wonder how differently they would have treated non-Indian domestics? Women of this era were lower of the social heirarchy and as someone else mentioned, perhaps this led them to wanting to ensure others, in this case Indians, were kept lower.

I think this is a pretty standard description of British colonial life and oen which prevailed for many decades after this novel was written, in various parts of the world.

On the matter of the accusation directed at Aziz and the incident which did or did not happen. I tend to agree with Lauli, I think Miss Derek had a lot to do without, possibily unknowingly. Adela was obviously confused and upset when she bolted down the ravine through the cactus - perhaps Miss Derek assumed something awful had happened and Adela just accpeted that. Before she knew the story was out and she couldn't take it back - she convinced herself it was true.

Overall I thought it was an insightful view of British-Indian relations in the 20's, as well of attitudes towards caste and religion between Indians and in the eyes of outsiders.

message 18: by Michelle (new)

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments we're talking a lot about the British racism, but I want to throw out the idea that the vast majority of the people in this book (other than mrs.Moore & fielding, of course) are all acting like asses to one degree or another. from the get-go, the Indians claim that all British are alike (the men are insufferable within 2yrs, women in 6mos), and aziz is shouting at the non-Muslim about her shoes in a mosque before seeing if his assumptions are correct. the British racism is only more aggressive because they're the ruling class, but the indian racism is just as pervasive once they've come out on top after the trial. aziz dreams of going on vacation with the riches he'll squeeze out of adela, far above and beyond restoring his good name.

basically, racism is an insanity koolaid that everyone's drinking. the sane people end up dead or shunned by both sides.

I do think the question of what actually happened was left intentionally very vague. perhaps because this isn't a story about plot, but about human interactions and perceptions. if everyone's perceptions of a whole other race are so dead wrong, how can one small person's perception of one hour be accurate?

but if we have to make a call, no nothing happened to her other than an awful hallucination. she does say several times, "he never even touched me," though nobody listens.

message 19: by Erica (last edited May 29, 2010 08:12AM) (new)

Erica There were definitely a lot of unfair assumptions made on both sides of the racial divide. It was frustrating to read at times; you just want to slap the characters for some of the comments they make. Even Moore and Fielding, though easily the most sympathetic characters, occasionally make a gaff or two. I think in general everyone is trying too hard and over-thinking everything, to the point where they can no longer communicate honestly. For example, at the bridge party an Indian woman invites some of the British people to her house, even though she knows they will be in Calcutta that day, because she thinks it's the polite thing to do. In the end, of course, it ends up being much worse when they show up and she's not there. Rather than saying she would be gone and suggesting a different day, she thinks it would be impolite to disagree with the day initially suggested. The whole trip to the caves is conceived for similar reasons, when Aziz is ashamed of his house after inviting Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested over without thinking about it.

I agree with the supposition that Miss Derek had a lot to do with Quested's accusation getting made. I went back and re-read that section a few times and I think it also had a lot to do with her state of mind just as she was entering the cave. Remember, she had been mulling over the fact that she was marrying Ronny for the wrong reasons (convenience? money? anyway, definitely not because she cared about him) and was pondering whether or not she could or should break it off, mostly because she feared others' reactions to the news. Also, she had just been talking to Aziz about his wife (or, as she ignorantly assumes, wives). I think when she entered the cave, a physically disorienting place, all this mental strain combined with the disorientation and unhinged her a little. Maybe some part of her figured if she was "sick" she would have an excuse to break the engagement and save face. So she ran down the hill to Miss Derek's car and probably made some incoherent comments about the caves, Aziz and his multiple wives (an assumption he did nothing to correct, even though he was deeply offended by it), and being scared and not feeling well, and Miss Derek immediately jumped to the conclusion that Aziz himself was the cause of her illness, and Miss Quested, still unhinged, did nothing to dissuade her, probably again thinking in the back of her mind that this would be an even better excuse to break off the engagement (now that she's a "ruined" woman or something). But of course all the racial tension causes all hell to break loose and eventually Miss Quested can't live with the guilt, especially after Mrs. Moore upbraids her for it. (As an aside, I liked how the "echo" from the caves became Quested's conscience.) That's all speculation of course, but it seems like a likely explanation.

Though this was an interesting novel and I enjoyed pondering its implications, I would also agree with the comment about getting "lost in the words" in this novel. Even aside from all the soliloquies about religion, mythology, and racial tension, it was just downright hard to follow the action sometimes. Characters are referred to by different names, sometimes within the same sentence, and it's not always clear which character is speaking in the dialogs. I suppose that was meant to contribute to the general feeling of "muddle."

message 20: by Celeste (new)

Celeste | 14 comments Lauli wrote: "Judith wrote: "What do you think Forster was trying to say with the choice of such an unexplained hallucination causing such a tragic turn of events? Do you think his message was that the prejudice..."

I do think that the prejudice was such that from the moment she ran out of the cave - alone - Aziz was convicted. She was turned around. Had she gone directly to Mrs. Moore at the camp she could have taken a moment and recovered. Of course Mrs. Moore would have told her how preposterous it was to assume something, when she hadn't even been touched.
I concur, getting lost in the words happened repeatedly. I was very frustrated at the narrowmindedness of characters from all sides of the story. Honestly by the last section I was tired of the whole thing. I was exasperated by the ignorance and total breakdown of communication between those who attempted to sincerely "bridge" the gap.
Erica, the names drove me nuts too. I couldn't keep the characters straight. Perhaps that was the point to remain 'muddled' because everyone was tiptoeing around each other and refusing to understand the customs of the other.
Was Mrs. Moore such a threat that she had to be killed off. I don't think she would have testified, but I do think Ms. Quested should have left with her. She knew Aziz wasn't the culprit. In fact, she could never say definately whether anyone touched her.

message 21: by Michelle (new)

Michelle (fireweaver) | 104 comments i watched the movie (thanks netflix on-demand!) right after i finished the book, and it really clarifies some of these sketchy bits. it's very very true to the plot and the spirit of it all, minus the rambling musings on the nature of life & religion. i got much more of an idea that he was being accused of **attempted** rape, rather than of actually raping her, which makes far more sense being as how we're all running down hillsides fully clothed. the thing with the names is that some people are referred to by titles at least as often as by proper name, and that's easier to sort out with faces attached as well.

Celeste, yes, i think Mrs.Moore's calm rationality was indeed too much of a threat to the irrationality of the plot that she needed to be out of the picture permanently of the trial and its aftermath.

Erica, i don't think Adela was either marrying Ronny for shifty reasons nor was she trying to break the engagement by any means possible. they'd met each other back in the day in england, they were of the correct social class to match each other, and it just seemed like the proper thing to do. certainly not a marriage of romantic love, but very much one of practicality and propriety. in many ways, it's as much of an arranged match as Aziz and his wife had. did miss derek have anything to do with the accusations? quite possibly - she is prone to lots of inappropriate blabbering about her employers, so no reason for her not to trash-talk anyone else. but maybe she just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and the idea of immediately fleeing in a good british car was infinitely more appealing to the traumatized Adela than an hours-long trek on an elephant. plus, the girl was stabbed by about a billion thorns and in quite a bit of pain, so she's very much not thinking rationally when she hops in that car.

message 22: by Darryl (new)

Darryl | 6 comments Michelle wrote: "we're talking a lot about the British racism, but I want to throw out the idea that the vast majority of the people in this book (other than mrs.Moore & fielding, of course) are all acting like ass..."

Michelle, I think you're getting closest to the book's core message. Not only does racism exist equally between English and Indian, though, prejudice exists throughout society. Although the most obvious prejudice existed between the races, there was a good share of prejudice based on religion, class, sex, and even time spent in India!

I think the end of the book summed up the message pretty clearly. Fielding and Dr. Aziz shared a real love for each other and tried hard to be true friends, but it wasn't possible. Why? Because prejudice is built into human societies. Even if you don't personally feel any prejudice toward a group of people, you can't live with others without being influenced by their prejudices. Fielding and Dr. Aziz were completely surrounded by overwhelming prejudices and their ongoing friendship had as much chance of success as that of a black man and a white woman in 1890's Alabama.

Although I understand and agree with those that find the acts of discrimination in A Passage to India repulsive and abhorrent, I think it's important to face the fact that prejudice and discrimination are built into our genes. It's part of being human. So the questions to ask are: How should we deal with something that is ingrained in us and often results in great evil? How do we react to the prejudices that are a part of the society we live in? Are we so deep-rooted in our society that we even recognize our own prejudices?

message 23: by Karina (new)

Karina | 376 comments I struggled with reading this book, getting "lost in the words" as many of you have expressed. The most compelling aspect of the story for me was that everybody has a prejudice. Not only the English against the Indians or vice versa but the Muslim Indians vs Hindu Indians. Everybody had a sense of racism/prejudice towards the other cultures.

One of my favorite/saddest scenes is at the end of the novel, where Aziz and Fielding are saying good-bye and Fielding remarks to Aziz that he so badly wants to be friends and Aziz tells him that they cannot until the English pull out of India. Forster was so ahead of the times and what he said was so true.

I'm letting the book sink in, it definitely is not one of my favorites, but I definitely loved the message that it sent.

message 24: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 230 comments I, like many, struggled with the wordiness of the book, but overall I enjoyed it. I felt Forster evoked a setting and each character so well (even if I couldn't always understand who was talking or where they were).

The scene that stood out for me was early in the book when Ronny and his mother are talking about how the English should behave in India and Ronny says that they're not in India to be "pleasant."

"what do you and Adela want me to do? Go against my class, against all the people I respect and admire out here? Lose such power as I have for doing good in this country because my behavior isn't pleasant?... We're not pleasant in India, and we don't intend to be pleasant. We've something more important to do."

It just shows the total lack of respect for the country, and the hypocrisy, because, of course, they expect the Indians to be "pleasant."

message 25: by Celeste (new)

Celeste | 14 comments Okay, I'm confused. I thought A Passage to India was through May 15 and Through the Looking Glass was for June 15. Did I miss something?

message 26: by Charity (new)

Charity (charityross) The discussion for A Passage to India started on May 15th. The discussion for Through the Looking-Glass will begin on June 15th. If you look on the group home page you will see the start and finish date for each book listed. Hope this helps.

message 27: by Celeste (new)

Celeste | 14 comments Charity wrote: "The discussion for A Passage to India started on May 15th. The discussion for Through the Looking-Glass will begin on June 15th. If you look on the group home page you will see the start and finis..."

yes thank you.

message 28: by Lauren (new)

Lauren | 6 comments I really had a hard time getting through this book. I agree with many of you- parts of it were wordy and I got confused as to who was speaking at certain parts. I do agree with Karina though...the part with Aziz and Fielding at the end was very powerful and touching.

message 29: by Mark (new)

Mark (bikeboy) | 14 comments What actually happened in the caves is irrelevant, the situation is simply a setup to produce reactions by the characters and the societies at large. I can't help thinking of the O. J. Simpson trial. The trial held up a mirror to American society, and people's reactions often had little to do with the facts of the case.

I found the characters in this novel incredibly real and vivid, but the plot seemed almost allegorical. I do think that Forster has a way with the telling moment, such as when Aziz is criticized behind his back for his lack of collar stays, when in reality he had helped Fielding out by letting him borrow them. An Indian simply can't win when dealing with the English.

Maybe it's just good hindsight, but it's pretty clear to me that Forster knew that the British colonization of India was going to end soon. I wonder if many of his contemporaries felt the same way. The novel struck me as highly political, and I was intrigued by the idea that the British created a united India, giving an otherwise divided People a common cause against the British.

PaNdORa   (gökçe) (pandora-m) | 9 comments it is written to show west's prejudice towards Indıa

message 31: by Philip (new)

Philip Ashcroft | 8 comments this is not an easy book to read.
It feels dated and I have trouble imagining the lives. Yet this is my excuse for finding it difficult I have difficulty with the purpose of the book. It points out some facts about characters and prejudice and life but it is a boring story. It is good that Adela does not save her admissions of confusion till the end and reveals this early as I think the part after the trial becomes a little more engaging.
This is a glass half full kind of book there is really no purpose in life and while valid it does not uplift. It is less uplifting than the road which writes out all life.
I have taken an enormous time to read this book due to life circumstances. Perhaps this clouds my judgment.

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