Bloggy Book Club: Our Great Big American God


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The Puritans weren’t dreaming about “a more perfect union”; they were too busy building a most-perfect religion, following their own blueprint for the Kingdom of God, one seemingly void, at least in part, of the Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter five. But again, that’s what made the Puritans so influential, because they were far too intentional to let God just be.

Safeguarding God against the ills of humanity was not simply the Puritans’ desire; they believed it was their divine responsibility. However, rather than keeping God safe, their efforts created a stifling environment, a space that opened up opportunities for new ideas to arise and spread among their own people. They couldn’t control people’s beliefs. And the same is true today. As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.

A dinner guest, while describing a recent trip to Israel, remarked that his visit had made him unusually aware of the fact that we live in a Christian country. It wasn’t the populace or the historical sites or the politics that brought it to his attention.

It was the weekly calendar.

For Jews, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Fridays and ends at sundown on Saturdays. So in Israel, the weekend is Friday-Saturday.  Sunday is a normal work day. Our guest remarked that he felt very aware of its being Sunday, and disoriented by everyone doing “Monday things.” He said he’d simply never realized how culturally ingrained the Christian influence is.

We do live in a Christian nation. Protestant, to be specific. God may not show up in the Constitution, but God sure is everywhere else. Our work and school calendars make allowance for the major Christian holidays and holy days of Easter and Christmas. Federal systems like the postal service are closed on Sundays, the Christian Sabbath.  What our guest was describing was the sensation of noticing the absence of something so familiar that its presence goes unnoticed. Eight years ago, when I was living in England, it took me ages to realize that the reason I was so jumpy in libraries was that there were no precautions to keep the books on the shelves or the shelves on the walls in the case of an earthquake. Not generally an issue in England, but certainly an issue here in California.

Matthew Paul Turner’s brief examination at the evolution of America’s relationship with God is necessarily limited. At 220 pages, he would need to cover about two years of New World history per page, which he doesn’t. The focus is extremely narrow, based first on Puritans and tracing a route from there to the Second Great Awakening, and then to the development of fundamentalism and evangelism.

What he does cover is done in a way that’s insightful, interesting, and liberally sprinkled with a wicked sense of humor. To be honest, I didn’t notice the massive gaps in his story until about halfway through.

There’s extensive discussion of the Second Great Awakening, but not the Third. No mention of groups like the Oneida Community or the Burned-Over District. The Quakers, Mennonites, and Shakers are mentioned once or twice and only in passing.  No mention of the Amish. No discussions of Lutherans. Of course no discussion of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or anyone else whose religious observance didn’t spring off the Calvinist branch.

The strangest, to me, is there’s no discussion of the Mormons. As topics in America’s relationship with God go, it doesn’t get more American than the Mormons. Aside from the usual sensationalist aspects (polygamy!), they also play a major role in America’s move west.

It’s a fun read, but it’s fundamentally (hah) flawed. What Turner does discuss appears to me to be done well. What he leaves out is disappointing.

Next Up: Worlds of Arthur by Guy Halsall

Bloggy Book Club: The Story of Land and Sea


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If he tried to say what drew him to her, he would only find a handful of gestures. Her first refusal to perform on the harpsichord; her focus beyond the window in a room crowded with friends and strangers; her glances, which were as direct and unblinking as a hawk’s. The feeling of her hand an inch from his arm. He does not consider himself a lonely man, and yet he needs something in her gaze. Honesty, perhaps, or conviction.

I actually finished this book a week ago and I’ve been trying to work out what to say about it. For a book in which three people die, it’s an oddly quiet story that’s a little bit out of focus, like a flashback in a movie or tv show. It’s not bad-fuzzy. It’s as though most of the colors are a little washed out and nothing’s sharply defined.

This is Katy Simpson Smith’s first novel, though in her capacity of adjunct professor at Tulane, she previously published a study of motherhood in the South between 1750 and 1835. The Story of Land and Sea is in three parts that are not in chronological order, and it’s hard to describe it without giving things away.

Perhaps the simplest way to describe it is it’s a book about how people deal with the death of loved ones. Set in the years around and directly after the American Revolution, the story looks at the impact of two maternal deaths in childbed and the death of a ten-year-old daughter on the fathers, husbands, and grandfather. It incorporates complex relationships with faith, the land, the community, and, of course, the sea. It looks at friendship, marriage, slavery, and the impact of choices even years after the initial action.

Since it’s a new publication I don’t want to say anything that will give away plot points, and for all that the book is dreamy and slow, there’s not much excess.

It’s not a story that invokes strong emotion – I neither laughed nor cried – but it was gripping, and I wanted to keep reading. And really, isn’t that the best thing you can say of a book?

Next Up: Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner

Bloggy Book Club: Sister Queens, Part 2


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Having seen Elizabeth Blount and her own sister discarded once the king’s interest faded, Anne wanted more. She wanted to become Henry’s wife and queen, not his mistress. Unfortunately, Katherine was in her way.

But this is where fortune’s wheel favored Anne, not the queen. For Henry now had scruples about the legality of his marriage, and it is far more likely that these scruples developed before he was bewitched by Anne than afterward. She merely crystallized them, focused them, and gave him an additional reason to exploit them.

A few years ago, while pursuing my MA in history, I had a professor who remarked that nearly every historical thesis can be boiled down to the same basic point: The situations under discussion were far more complicated than we previously thought.

Think about your own recent history. If you really consider each major occurrence or decision, how many of them can be explained easily and directed back to one single cause?

England’s split from papal jurisdiction in the early 16th century is undeniably inextricably linked to Henry’s doubts about the legality of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, but it is a vast understatement to say that it is all because of his lust for Anne Boleyn. To assert this is the only cause is to do a colossal disservice to all those involved, 500 years ago. So here are some of the other points that I think are important to consider. They are by no means all of the causes and influences, and I am of course giving very brief explanations, but hopefully it’ll get some of you thinking.

First, as Julia Fox points out in the passage quoted above, Henry’s doubts about his marriage begin before Anne Boleyn starts showing up in the court records in any significant way, if at all.

It is common practice but in my opinion unfair to dismiss Henry as a lazy, selfish hedonist who took credit for others’ writings and efforts. While certainly true to some extent – he was selfish, he hated the physical effort of writing himself, and he loved banquets and tournaments and pageants – consider today’s politicians. How many of them write their own speeches without any help from professional speechwriters? As far as I know, there’s not much evidence to say that Henry had no hand at all in documents like the pamphlet Defence of the Seven Sacraments, which won him the title of “Defender of the Faith” from a grateful pope.

David Starkey’s book about Henry before he came to the throne is an interesting read. The child exuded charisma from every pore, and he was apparently the epitome of the ideal Renaissance prince. He was well-educated, very intelligent, interested in matters of philosophy, theology, music, art, literature, history, and war. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who was the king’s right-hand man for years, is reported to have warned other counselors to be careful “what matter ye put into his head, for ye shall never put it out again.”

He was genuinely interested in matters of theology. This really can’t be stressed enough. His scruples about his marriage to his brother’s widow are legitimate. Biblical verses give conflicting instructions on the question of marrying a deceased brother’s wife. Other royal marriages involving similar relationship networks bore children – why didn’t his? If the pope’s dispensation was issued in error, if the pope had no right to issue such a dispensation to evade canon law, then that gets into frightening questions of papal authority and infallibility.

It is easy to view Henry through the lens of 500 years of 20/20 hindsight. We know he married six women, two of whom died at his command. But when he was struggling with the Katherine question, nobody had any way of seeing the bloodbath and upheaval that was to come. We are too prone to seeing him as the bloated, violent, vindictive monster he became.

The second point I think it important to discuss further is some of the reasoning for Henry’s obsession with getting an undeniably legitimate male heir.

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, 24 years after his father defeated the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, in battle at Bosworth Field. 1485 is given as the official end to the decades-long Wars of the Roses, the conflict between opposing royal claims from the houses of York and Lancaster (yes, the loose basis for Stark and Lannister in Game of Thrones - George R.R. Martin didn’t exactly break a sweat on that one). It’s basically nearly a century of civil war, royal restorations/usurpations (depending on who you asked), fear, and turmoil. The reign of Henry VII, troubled though it was by the occasional pretender to the throne claiming to be one of the lost “Princes in the Tower,” was one of the longest periods of relative stability in generations.

Henry VIII was terrified of leaving his country without a solid, uncontestable heir to the Tudor dynasty because to do so would be to throw the country back into the Wars of the Roses.

To his mind, a solid, uncontestable heir meant a male heir, and this is an issue that also takes a little thought on our part. We know, because we know how the last 500 years went, that three of England’s longest-reigning, most-solidly-on-their-thrones monarchs were women. Elizabeth I reigned for 45 years. Victoria reigned for 64 years. Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952 and is still going. And yes, the monarchy today is a far cry from what it was in the 16th century, but still. We know a woman can inherit the crown and rule without letting the country dissolve into civil war.

Henry VIII didn’t. The last (and only) time that England had the prospect of a queen regnant was Matilda, in the middle of the 12th century. Her attempt to succeed her father, Henry I, resulted in some twenty years of civil war as her forces clashed with those of her cousin Stephen, who was crowned upon Henry’s death in 1135. In the sixteenth century, England believed that a woman inheriting the crown was equivalent to civil war.

And thus the quest for a legitimate male heir whose right to succeed could not possibly be challenged.

Next Up: The Story of Land and Sea: A Novel, by Katy Simpson Smith

A Midrash on Genesis


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And God said: No longer shall your name be Ya’akov, “Heel,”
But Yisrael, “Godwrestler,” for with Me and with humanity have you battled, and You have won!”

And thus, night after night, God, You come to me.
Not with favors do You come, but to try my strength.

And when, by morning, I prevail against You once again, again I find myself alone:
A poor and hapless traveler, limping on a twisted thigh.

“With God and with humanity have you battled, and You have won!”
Is this Your blessing for me, Great Mystery?

Then heaven help me! For though against all I may prevail,
Against one there is no victory. Against me!

Your blessings rest heavy, God. I cannot bear them.
I limp, and I’m alone on every road, wherever I go.

Defeat me, just this once, that I might find some rest by morning,
The rest that all the vanquished know.

Again it’s night. Again alone. And once again God comes seeking.
Yisrael! Where are you?

Here, God, over here — somehow I moan.
But why? Why, night after night, do You battle with me;

And, with the rising of the dawn, forsake me once again,
And leave me limping, limping and alone?

Bloggy Book Club: Sister Queens, Part 1


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In a clause of the treaty which mentions the dispensation of the Pope, it is stated that the princess Katherine consummated her marriage with Prince Arthur. The fact, however, is, that although they were wedded, Prince Arthur and Princess Katherine never consummated the marriage. It is well known in England that the Princess is still a virgin. But as the English are much disposed to cavil, it has seemed to be more prudent to provide for the case as though the marriage had been consummated…

What an impact a single word can make.

Thanks to the popular fictional representations of Tudor history presented by the Showtime series The Tudors and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, many people have at least a vague idea of the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to his longtime love Anne Boleyn. There are many ways in which the situation has been oversimplified and exaggerated in popular imagination – rumors of Henry having syphilis, cynical assumptions that his split from the church of Rome was simply for sexual gratification, that Katherine was a dour old religious fanatic – I could write extensive arguments on each of these subjects.

I am quite pleased, though not surprised, that Julia Fox looks in detail at the wording of the Papal dispensation allowing the widowed Katherine to marry her brother-in-law Henry.  Her previous work examining the marriage contract of Jane Parker to George Boleyn showed her skill in dissecting the details and ramifications of sixteenth-century legal documents. In spite of what critics may think of the work as a whole – Fox’s style tends towards excessive speculation about motives and emotions that cannot be proven at this distance of time – the examination of documents is impressive.

In a nutshell, the situation of Katherine of Aragon, a widow at sixteen: The youngest child of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Katherine was brought up to consider herself destined to be Queen of England. She was betrothed to Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII of England and his wife, Elizabeth of York, when both were still toddlers. At fifteen, they married and went to Arthur’s princely seat at Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches. After five months, Arthur became ill and died. When it became clear that Katherine would not give birth to a posthumous child, her parents and her parents-in-law set about arguing over her person and her dowry – the Spanish monarchs wanted Katherine to marry Arthur’s younger brother Henry. The English monarchs thought that they could perhaps do better, especially once Katherine’s formidable mother Isabella died and the unification of Aragon and Castile fell apart. However, Katherine and Henry were betrothed with the blessing of a Papal dispensation allowing for siblings-in-law to wed.

The issue that plagued Katherine again when the matter of the legality of her marriage to Henry came up in the 1520s, when Henry’s distress over not having a male heir led him to doubt his marriage and wish to form a new alliance with the woman who was seemingly the love of his life, was the question of whether her brief marriage to Arthur had ever been consummated. If it had, as Henry argued, their subsequent marriage was not legal. Katherine held to the line that though she and Arthur had on several occasions slept in the same bed, she came to Henry a virgin.  This was the argument when the dispensation was originally sought, too.

Ferdinand, a notoriously wily political operator, was willing to shrug his shoulders and allow a dispensation that assumed consummation had taken place, in spite of Katherine’s (and some of her most trusted household staff’s) vigorous assertions that it had not. Eventually the document included the word “forsitan” – perhaps. The marriage had perhaps been consummated. The passage I quoted at the start of this post is Ferdinand’s own words on the subject, in a message to his ambassador in Rome.

We still don’t know. The only people who knew were Arthur and Katherine – Katherine always asserted it had not been consummated, and Arthur’s teenage boastings about being “this night in the midst of Spain” may simply be the result of a teenage boy’s pride. Or perhaps Katherine was her parents’ daughter, wise to the ways of politics and determined to fulfill the role God called her to – Queen of England, wife to the King of England, no matter what dissembling was required of her in order to achieve her destiny.

Many point to the many historical instances when a single vote has determined the course of events. Less attention is given to the impact of a single word inserted into a document or mis-heard.

In Sarah Vowell’s essay collection The Partly Cloudy Patriot, she writes about a visit then-Presidential-Candidate Al Gore made to a middle school. A student got up and asked how citizens of their age could get more involved, and he told a story about a girl who wrote a letter from western Tennessee about how the water tasted funny and people were getting sick at an alarming rate. He said investigations found the water was contaminated, and that they then remembered similar occurrences in a place called Love Canal. But the letter from the girl, he said – that was the one that started it all.

Reporters present at the event misquoted Vice President Gore by one word. Soon the story went viral, showing Gore’s habit of taking far too much credit had struck once again. “I was the one that started it all,” the reporters quoted him as saying.

Vowell argues that reporters and citizens alike are too prone to projecting the character and story we expect from each given candidate onto them, at the expense of paying properly close attention. Gore had a habit of taking credit for things – he said he invented the Internet, that he was the inspiration for the movie Love Story – so the exhausted reporters following the candidate on his campaign trail automatically assumed he was once again taking credit, this time for exposing the environmental contamination at Love Canal, New York and Toone, Tennessee.

One word.

Just one word misquoted in a story that is actually inspirational – a candidate spoke to an audience, answered a good question with a relevant anecdote, and the audience really listened. The misquotation turned it into a joke.

One word was inserted into the dispensation allowing Katherine and Henry to marry. Five hundred years later and we’re still debating what that “perhaps” means.

Bloggy Book Club: The Brewer of Preston


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Ah, yes, I was talking about Luigi Ricci. Well, he studied music and started composing. The first crap he wrote – oh, I’m sorry, that just slipped out – anyway, his first compositions, for whatever reason, were very successful. Theatres all over Italy wanted him, from Rome to Naples to Parma to Turin to Milan. And, since he couldn’t manage to keep up with all the music they were asking him to write, he started copying stuff wherever he could find it, the way some of my pupils do. There’s one, in fact, who seems to take his lessons from the devil himself. You know wheat he does, when I give them Latin dictation? He goes… Where does he go? But what’s this got to do with anything? Ah, yes, Luigi Ricci.

Once again, I’m behind the schedule I’ve arbitrarily set for myself. But luckily for me, I’m the only one who notices.

So, The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri, who also wrote the Inspector Montalbano series. This book is actually set in the same town of Vigata in Sicily, set in the 1870s. The unification of Italy and the difficulties in merging such disparate regions and cultures are overarching plot points in the story.

If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, you’ve got a sense of what The Brewer of Preston is like. It is eccentric. It is determinedly, insistently eccentric. It is full of colors that are just slightly too bright, characters that are fiercely peculiar, and situations that are so odd that they’ve moved beyond implausible into a range that’s so unlikely that you find yourself taking each new revelation in stride.

There are two difficulties with this book. First, it’s a translation from the original Italian, and a lot of the humor is based on what I can only imagine is a detailed cultural knowledge of Italian regional differences. It’s not hard to see that a lot is lost in translation.

The second challenge is the presentation of the story. It’s as if each of chapters was put into a hat and then drawn out at random to create a chapter order.  To say it is not in chronological order is an understatement, and it’s not until a postscript at the end of the author’s note at the very end of the book – a postscript which is on its own page, I might add – that you find out it’s intentionally disjointed, and that Camilleri encourages you to read in whatever order you want. If you ask me, that should have been put as a disclaimer at the start.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel a need to read this again, but it’s an amusing and short diversion, so if aggressively quirky stories are something you enjoy, look it up when it’s released this winter.

Next up is Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile but I’m taking a short break from book-blogging to read Randall Munroe‘s What If? book. Because science can be funny, but I don’t want to ruin it for you all.

By the way, that poll in my last post proved useless. It doesn’t help me if you choose “other” without offering a suggestion, people.

Soliciting Opinions!


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The Brewer of Preston is pretty short, and it looks like it’ll be an easy read, a week at most. I’m having trouble choosing one off my list to follow it, so here are some of the options. Help me pick, or suggest one to add to my list! Multiple voting is allowed:)

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 4


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To part with money is a sacrifice beyond almost all men endowed with a sense of order. There is scarcely any man alive who does not think himself meritorious for giving his neighbour five pounds. Thriftless gives, not from a beneficent pleasure in giving, but from a lazy delight in spending. He would not deny himself one enjoyment; not his opera-stall, not his horse, not his dinner, not even the pleasure of giving Lazarus the five pounds. Thrifty, who is good, wise, just, and owes no man a penny, turns from a beggar, haggles with a hackney-coachman, or denies a poor relation, and I doubt which is the most selfish of the two. Money has a different value in the eyes of each.

I HAVE FINISHED THE BOOK. Huzzah! So yeah, I generally prefer to post at least once a week, and it’s been a week and a half, but I FINISHED THE BOOK so I waited. Because, frankly, I’m glad to be done. And it’s not like any of you tend to comment anyway, so I’m really the only one who cares how often I post!

Anyway. My dad suggested I start this post by saying that I’m having trouble coming up with something to say because Thackeray used up all the words… In a book that clocks in at 825 pages, that’s not so far off, but his vocabulary is not as extensive as Dickens’. His writing, though still distinctively 19th-century English, reads as far more simplistic in style. One of the fun things about Thackeray’s style, which heightens the satirical tendencies, is his habit of using obvious names that demonstrate a person’s character, like those in the quote above – but only for minor characters. He gives these one-or-two-scene characters names like Thriftless, Toady, Bareacres, Spoony, and Mr. Woolsey, the tailor. They are not subtle, but they inform a scene or a reference that may last no longer than a paragraph, and they are often an indicator that this section is satirical but we need not pay too much attention to remembering these characters for the whole course of the story.

In film versions and analyses of Vanity Fair, I understand the chapters at the conclusion of the first volume, dealing with the final days of the Napoleonic Wars near Brussels, including Waterloo, get a good deal of attention. And these chapters are indeed the most engrossing and exciting of the first half of the story. But in my opinion the book gets much more interesting in its second half.

Seeing the characters without the distorting lenses of early courtship or the outbreak of actual military battles helps to grab the interest, I think. Amelia’s still a vapid ninny and Becky’s still a manipulative social climber, but putting them each into the role of motherhood adds dimensions to their personalities. Amelia clearly has an obsessive, clingy nature with an absurd tolerance for handsome, selfish, bossy males. She’s indulgent with her boy, who has all his father’s qualities – those that are charming in the short term and incredibly unappealing in the long term. He is, in a word, spoiled.

Becky’s son, almost exactly the same age, is George Jr.’s opposite. Rawdon Jr. is neglected. His mother dislikes him, and he would be entirely forgotten if not for the pity of a housemaid and his own father, who is an idiot, but a genial idiot who is genuinely fond of his son. Moreover, Rawdons Sr. and Jr. are both bullied by Becky, who is fake at best, scornful on average, and downright hostile and insulting at worst. The best thing that happens to Rawdon Jr. is being sent to live with his uncle and aunt after the scandal about Becky erupts and his parents separate.

Vanity Fair lives up to its name. It references a section of John Bunyan’s decidedly un-subtle allegorical work, Pilgrim’s Progress. The town of Vanity hosts a never-ending fair, known appropriately as Vanity Fair. The whole section represents man’s sinful attachment to worldly things – luxuries and so on. Thackeray repeatedly points to the opportunism, cynicism, and hypocrisy of Vanity Fair, in which people create fictions about themselves to seem more pedigreed or more wealthy or more connected, and in which people choose selfish indulgence over moral righteousness. The difference between Bunyan and Thackeray, though, is Thackeray isn’t preaching a course of righteousness. Thackeray’s just pointing out the hypocrisy so we can all laugh in our sleeves at other people’s pretensions.

Nobody in the book is wholly good or wholly evil. Many are selfish, vain, melancholic, gullible, or just plain amoral. It’s all grey area. It is, as Thackeray intended, a novel without a hero.

Next Up: The Brewer of Preston, by Andrea Camilleri. Due to be released Dec. 30, 2014.

Bloggy Book Club: Vanity Fair, Part 3


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If some parts of his conduct made Captain Dobbin exceedingly grave and cool, of what use was it to tell George that though his whiskers were large, and his own opinion of his knowingness great, he was as green as a schoolboy? that Rawdon was making a victim of him as he had done of many before, and as soon as he had used him would fling him off with scorn? He would not listen: and so, as Dobbin, upon those days when he visited the Osborne house, seldom had the advantage of meeting his old friend, much painful and unavailing talk between them was spared. Our friend George was in the full career of the pleasures of Vanity Fair.

I keep intending to post once a week, but I also want to have made it through a certain amount of the book of the moment between my posts. 

I’m not liking Vanity Fair as much as I’d hoped to. Generally speaking, there are two reasons for continuing to read a book that wasn’t assigned in a class. You either like the characters and feel invested in their eventual successes, or you hate the characters and feel invested in witnessing their deserved downfall.

It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as though we, the audience, aren’t spending enough time with the primary characters to know if we like them or hate them. Except we do spend a lot of time – it’s just through the narration, which has a very removed-from-the-scene feel to it. The narration reads like someone reporting second- or third-hand, rather than in the moment, which is weird, of course, given the text is delivered in the third person past tense. It naturally SHOULD feel removed from the moment, except it’s somehow more so than usual. It’s like he’s describing some other book he read, perhaps.

I suppose it suffices to say that I’m finding it difficult to stay engaged in the story for more than very short bursts. The chapters about Brussels and the Battle of Waterloo were gripping, but then he dropped it suddenly, shifted forward by a year within the course of a paragraph, and started talking about the elderly Miss Crawley’s will. AGAIN.

I’m accustomed to the fact that nineteenth-century novels take a while to build their momentum, but even the notoriously verbose Dickens hooks you in by halfway through the book. I’m going to stick with it, because I’ve read that Vanity Fair is infamous for starting slowly, but I’m halfway through the book. It’s been 400 pages. Surely that’s a little too slow!


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