Tag Archives: moral dilemmas

The Soul of Discretion, by Susan Hill

So, I had an interesting experience while reading this book, and the seven that come before it, during a binge-reading episode during November and December, in that I read it at the same time that I caught up on the Peter Grant/Rivers of London/The Folly series by Ben Aaronovitch. They’re two such very different series – not just in that one is urban fantasy and one is realist crime (although that’s not even a remotely complete description), but also that the writing styles are so radically different that it took me quite a while to bring my brain from one to the other. When I read the Aaronovitch series, I came away with the feeling that this would make a fantastic modern episodic television show (in fact, it has been optioned not that that’s any sort of a guarantee of anything), with its continuity and plot arcs as well as character arcs; when I read the Hill series, I came away with the feeling that this would in no way make a good arced television show, but would make a great character development mystery show, with the focus on character development instead of plot continuity.

 

It’s not that Hill lacks plot, I hasten to add.  There is definitely plot. But it’s less of the storyboard, this happens so then this happens kind of plot, and more of the things happen and this is what they tell us kind of plot. You can pick up any one of the Simon Serrailler books and not be lost – what happens with the mystery in one book doesn’t necessarily carry over to another (with one exception). What does carry over are the character events – children, marriages, promotions, moves, deaths. And because the timeframe of the books – both within each book and between the books in the series, months and years pass – it’s like catching up with friends that you don’t see very often (and who aren’t on Facebook).

 

What really sets Susan Hill’s series apart from other series that I’ve read is her focus on thematic continuity within each book, rather than plot progression. Each book features any number of point-of-view characters, not just Simon Serrailler, and some of them may not ever even interact with Simon or play a part in the central crime that’s being investigated. But every single section, every single POV character, reflects whatever the central theme of the book is.  It’s actually a bit jarring if you’re used to more traditionally structured series, at least until you get used to it.

 

The Soul of Discretion is the most recent novel in the Simon Serrailler series. The theme of this one is sex, particularly problematic sex. Simon’s assigned to a dangerous undercover operation, sent to infiltrate a pedophile ring that features the great and the not-so-good – MPs and Lords and other public figures. His girlfriend has just moved in with him, the first woman who’s ever had such a permanent presence in his apartment, and he’s having a harder time than expected dealing with the fact that his sanctuary is being shared. (Simon’s history with and treatment of women is a running concern of his triplet Cat, and in this book she works with Rachel to help her establish a life outside of Simon.) Cat herself, a constant in these books, is still struggling with her idealism toward the medical profession as it conflicts with the reality of the bureaucracy of the NHS – but it’s their father Richard, who’s been physically abusive toward his second wife in previous volumes, who demonstrates the theme when he rapes a fellow Mason’s wife at a party, shining an incredibly harsh spotlight on the treatment of women in rape cases (spoiler: she’s not treated well, by Richard (obviously), her own husband, or the system).

 

It’s a troubling book overall, because the theme is so troubling (the details of the pedophile ring are somewhat glossed over, but their extent and nature isn’t, and the rape certainly isn’t), but it is mesmerising. I don’t think I like Susan Hill very much as a person, but she can definitely write.

 

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The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.

But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.

The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.”  This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease.  (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)

The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns.  By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.

Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.

The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.

There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.

I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.

There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..

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Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is brilliant, and in this novel set she revisits her favourite continuum (Oxford time travel: see also, The Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and my favourite of her themes (chaos theory). In Blackout and All Clear, three historians go through to various points of early World War 2: one to an manor housing evacuees, one to observe the Blitz, and one to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. They are under strict instructions not to put themselves into danger, and not to do anything that could alter history. Of course, they inadvertently do (or think they do) – you can’t introduce an element into a closed system and not affect it – and fear that the timeline is trying to correct itself when their access back to 2060 gets blocked off.

Of course, now they’re all in approximately the same position as the “contemps”. They may know the details that the original timeline had, but they don’t know what, if anything, has changed, and they don’t know if anyone can or will rescue them. The parallels of terrifying, imminent danger are very well-done.

Another thing that Connie Willis does extraordinarily well is weaving in phrases and motifs so subtly that you don’t notice them until you realise their importance. She gives minor characters or overheard conversations phrases that are totally appropriate to the scene and the setting, but piled all together make a great running theme, and reassurance for the reader. Of course, that does lead to the only minor query that I have. Agatha Christie is a bit of a motif (referenced at least three times, in different ways), but would the British consistently have referred to Murder on the Orient Express as  Murder in the Calais Coach? (Wikipedia has Calais as its American title.) I trust Connie Willis’s research, but I spent a couple of  minutes trying to work out which mystery people were referring to, and was very taken aback when the title was revealed as Calais. It’s also kind of pivotal at one point, in a way that Orient Express wouldn’t have been.

My favourite theme, though, is chaos theory – something that she’s worked with before in both the Oxford series and Bellwether (which I think is my favourite Connie Willis novel). Non-linear, non-obvious cause and effect, fractals (not mentioned here, but part of the math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable.Bellwether does the same kind of thing: establishing all the seemingly random events is overwhelming and the (realistic) half-sentences and interruptions are frustrating, but the clarity when chaos resolves into order is absolutely worth it.

I don’t think I would recomment this as a starting point for Connie Willis, though. The Oxford continuum’s history anand time travel laws are already well-established when this book starts, so there’s not a lot for a novice to grab on to. Start with either  The Doomsday Book  or  To Say Nothing of the Dog, but then devour these two.

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Organisation!

There’s been some stuff recently about how people organise their bookshelves. (Alexander McCall Smith put out a call on Twitter for advice, and the discussion was picked up by the Guardian.) So I thought I’d put in my two cents as well.

Everyone who has more than a shelf or so of books has to deal with organisation. I’ve gone through several iterations of bookshelf sorting, ranging from your basic by-author to the more adventurous ISBN. (There was a while there where I knew which ISBN numbers were given to which publishers. I am a nerd. I freely admit this.) I’ve done Dewey Decimal numbers for my non-fiction books, as well as LOC categorisations.  (I think some of the French study books I had a teenager still have stickers with Dewey Decimal numbers on them.)

As an adult, I’ve been in charge of a couple of libraries. I tried, mostly, to separate fiction and non-fiction, but there was also the trick of keeping age and reading-level texts together, without limiting the students’ access.

I do think, contrary to some of the commenters in the article, that alphabetically-by-author is one of the best ways to organize books. Within categories, of course. As a grad student, I kept my for-fun reading and my course-based reading separate. For-fun reading was mixed between fiction and non-fiction, organised by author. Course-based reading was kept together by which module it was for, generally chronologically by placement in the module.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed in our current dream house – although because of heating issues I haven’t done a ton with it yet – is setting up a new organisational system. I’ve got categories again: children’s books, fantasy/sci-fi, historical (non-fiction and fiction), general non-fiction, “classics”, Japanese language and manga, folklore and fairytales…..  This time, though, I’ve decided to mix up the traditional alphabetical system. For categories that don’t cross genre, I stick with alphabetical. But children’s books are approximately by reading age, with same authors or series grouped together. Classics are in approximate chronological order. And my favourite, historical, is by time period, with all the Robin Hood non-fiction together, followed by the Robin Hood fiction, then general medieval, then historical biography chronologically, then historical fiction chronologically.

This is only a temporary system, of course. No system is ever perfect or permanent. I’ll have a few days between Christmas and New Year’s where my boyfriend isn’t back from his parents yet, so I may play with it some more then.

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The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

This one I found at the charity shop. The back-of-book blurb sounded interesting, and as I’d just finished Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, I was in the mood for something similar.

The Sterkarm Handshake is not similar. I was expecting humour and puns and satire. What I got insetad was an amazing depiction of culture shock, sixteenth-versus-21st-century morality, and how different basic assumptions can lead to massive miscommunication.

The basic story is that scientists working for a private foundation in the 21st century have created a “Time Tube” – time travel handwaved through the multiverse explanation, and the exact physics are not necessary or mentioned again – leading to various points in history. Usually points without pollution, with genetic diversity among plants and animals, with vast reserves, as yet untapped, of oil and coal. You may be able to see where this is going.

The Sterkarm Handshake deals with one of the projects – The Sixteenth – which leaves the Time Tube in sixteenth century Scottish border lands. They send scouts and liasons through, including one, Andrea Mitchell, who is a historian and expert in the time. She lives with the local clan, the Sterkarms, and has fallen in love with Per, the son of the leader. She is the translator and liason between the 16th and the 21st – but that doesn’t prevent her from completely misunderstanding how the Sterkarms live and how the 21st century company is going to deal with them.

I thought the counterpoints between the ordinary violence of the Sterkarms (completely incomprehensible to those from the 21st century) and the ordinary violence of the 21st century corporation (completely incomprehensible to the Sterkarms) were really well-done. The portrayal of the complete and total misunderstanding, especially on the part of the 21st century people, is also incredibly well realised: the “modern” people just don’t have a clue that, or why, the Sterkarms wouldn’t be totally thrilled about getting all the modern conveniences.

The one thing that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this could be my own reading, as it came right about the point when I’d taken a brief break from the book, was Andrea’s shift from being essentially part of the Sterkarms to what seems like essentially part of the 21st. It seemed very abrupt to me, and I almost got mental whiplash from her justifications for betraying each side. Don’t get me wrong, I identified very strongly with Andrea and thought, overall, that she was very well drawn, but her switch was a little bit too quick and out-of-the-blue for me.

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that there’s a sequel. If I can find it, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

You may remember that I love Jasper Fforde. Hearing him speak on the Shades of Grey book tour is still one of the highlights of my literary life, and I’ve been looking forward to the fifth Thursday Next book for literally years. I love the world of Thursday Next and it’s so much fun to be back in it.

This one is a bit more complicated than the other Thursday Next books (and if you’ve read them, you know that that’s saying quite a lot). The world of Thursday Next is an alternate reality to our world, first of all – a world where literature is the primary form of … everything. Political parties are formed around adherents of specific authors, Richard III is “interactive” in the same way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, and there is an MI5-type organisation which has books and book-related activities under its jurisdiction (forgeries and the like). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s so much more to this world than that, but those are the easiest to relate.

And within the alternate reality that is the Thursday Next world, there are books about Thursday Next. These books are similar to, but not identical to, the Thursday Next books that exist in our world.

Oh, and also? There is an alternate reality within the alternate reality, where books are actually real, where characters exist when they’re not being read. In this Bookworld, there is a Thursday Next who is the written Thursday, portraying Thursday’s adventures to her readers in the “real” Thursday Next world. (There was a previous written Thursday, but the real-world Thursday didn’t like how the previous written Thursday was being read, so they got a new generic character to become Thursday, Thursday-approved.)

Confused yet? I swear, it makes more sense when you actually read through the series.

So, anyway, there are several versions of Thursday. And one of them is missing in this book. And one of them has to figure out where the missing one is, as well as various other issues that the missing Thursday was involved in, and, to some extent, who she is as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is the previously-mentioned complications. The other Thursday Next novels weren’t stand-alones, by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t rely quite as much on previous readings of the series. The reader, if I recall correctly, was reminded of quite a bit more detail in the middle three books , where in this book there are references that assume that you’ve read through the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading the fifth book in a series you’ve most likely read the previous books, but this one is not going to bring in many if any new readers.

It also didn’t have quite as much of the “fun” stuff of the other four books: the footnoterphone, Mycroft and his inventions, some of the intrigues of the “real” world. They were mentioned, but not used, and that was vaguely disappointing.

It’s good, though. It’s got a bit of a different feel than the others (although I definitely need a massive reread. You know, to make sure….) and some of the more philosophical/psychological issues that are explored by the end are very interesting. It’s one of the things that Fforde does really well: the blurred lines between fiction and reality. It’s a theme he’s explored in all of his books, not just the Thursday Next ones (although it is most explicit in Thursday Next) and he does it better than most. However, you definitely need to read the entire series before you read One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

Of course, everyone who’s at all interested in British literature and/or wordplay needs to read The Eyre Affair anyway….

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A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy

Hardy is an interesting author to read. I absolutely adore his style: the writing is beautiful and evocative and emotional. However, he can be absolutely heart-wrenchingly painful to read.

The first Hardy I ever read was Tess of the d’Urbervilles which, as my old literature students will tell you, has a main character with the most unremitting bad luck of any character in fiction. Throughout the book, bad things happen to her, and she deals with them in the only way possible that will keep further bad things, or worse things, from happening, and then worse things happen anyway. But the writing is so gorgeous that even as you’re weeping for Tess (and cursing the people responsible for her situation), you absolutely love her.

And then there’s Jude. Oh, Jude the Obscure. Again, absolutely gorgeous writing, and a book I will never ever read again. There is one particular scene which is horribly inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to experience. I read it on a train in Italy, with my friends who had already read it looking on, and I actually shrieked in horror. They knew exactly where in the book I was. The mental image of that scene will never, ever leave me.

Hardy has a particular gift for making horrible things seem inevitable. There is a point in the book, the Judicture* if you will, where you know that bad things are going to happen to these characters and there’s no way they can stop it. It is the point where the story shifts from “things are fine” to “life is hell”.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy, and it’s pretty obvious. It’s not a bad book by any means, it’s just not as clear or refined as his later books. There are definite indications of what he will become as a writer, but the full impact is not there yet.

The indications certainly are there, though. The language is approaching the beauty and clarity of later books like Tess and Jude – I don’t have specific examples but it was certainly easy to read. The mood, while I’m sure devastating to Elfride (the main character), was not nearly as traumatic to read as Tess or Jude. But the most striking indication of his later greatness is in the themes.

A Pair of Blue Eyes is basically about a young country girl and her love life. Elfride, who just turned 19 when the book starts, is a completely innocent parson’s daughter in the Southwest of England (probably Dorset, less than a day’s journey from Plymouth anyway). She falls in love for the first time with Stephen Smith, a man whom her father thinks is unsuitable for her (he’s lower class). They become secretly engaged, and even run off to get married, but she gets cold feet at the last minute and they return unmarried. She tries to be faithful to him when he goes to India to make his fortune and prove himself, but then falls in love with Harry Knight, an older man (who happens to be Stephen’s mentor). She doesn’t tell the older man about her past, and he refuses to marry her when he finds out that she’d had a (non-physical, although he doesn’t know that) lover before. After a year or more of separation, Knight and Stephen meet, realise the truth, and go to each try to win Elfride again – only to come on her funeral procession and her now-widowed husband. They decry her as false, but leave the grieving husband in peace.

All the elements are there: love and the way society sees love; women’s roles in love and society; the clash between classes; the clash between country and city; secrecy and its devastating effect on relationships. These themes are more developed in Tess and Jude, of course, but they’re certainly there in Blue Eyes.

(You know, it’s much harder to shorten the title of a Hardy book that doesn’t have the main character’s name in it. Tess and Jude = easy. Even The Mayor of Casterbridge can easily be known by “Casterbridge”. But “A Pair of Blue Eyes”? “Blue Eyes”, I suppose. The funny thing is that apart from one incident, her blue eyes aren’t really a plot point at all. I suppose it’s just another example of how relatively undeveloped Hardy was at this point.)

Anyway: love, society’s view of love, women’s roles in love. Elfride, as I mentioned is an innocent. She’d had a brief flirtation with a local boy that, in her eyes, was just kindness, but in his eyes was true love. The boy then dies, and his mother blames Elfride and hates her bitterly. She then does everything in her power (which is not much, but enough) to destroy Elfride’s future happiness.

Then there’s the old attitude (that still hangs on, to some extent, today), that a woman should be innocent until marriage, but a man is expected to be experienced. Both Stephen and Knight (although, to be fair, Stephen got the idea from Knight) think and say that the sweetest first kiss is an awkward one, because it proves that the woman has never been kissed before. Knight even falls in love with Elfride because he believes that she has never loved anyone before. He tells her so (and then is it any wonder that she can’t confess that she has, in fact, had a previous boyfriend?). He leaves her because he can’t accept the fact that she was planning to marry someone before him (and because she hadn’t told him, but mostly it’s the fact that she’d had a boyfriend before). Knight himself, on the other hand, is considered very wise and experienced – and indeed he has thought about the subject extensively although he is a rarity who has no physical experience himself.

And, a vent: Boys. When you break up with a girl, and leave the country, and do your best to forget her, and do not communicate with her in any way for a year, she is in no way “false” when she marries someone else. When you give her no indication that you are ever coming back or that you still have feelings for her, she is not “false” when she marries someone else. When you have moved on, or at least tried to, then you have to expect that she will do the same. I know that in The Princess Bride, Westley says “Why didn’t you wait for me? Death cannot stop true love,” and it’s very sweet and romantic. But that is an idealised fairy tale and should not in any way be taken as reality. Reality is this: the woman has just as much right to move on, change her mind, and find a new relationship as the man does. When you disappear completely, you can’t expect her to wait, unknowing and unchanging, forever.

(This rant is based mostly on the book and partially on personal life events. Yeah, I’m still mad about that one. It’ll be a while longer before I’m fully over it, I think.)

The class clash, and the clash between city and country, is seen most in the character of Stephen Smith. The city is seen to be a haven of culture and experience – anyone who comes recommended from the city must be a person of worth. When Elfride’s father finds out that Stephen is not just a country boy but a lower-class country boy, all of Stephen’s education and employment count for nothing. Stephen is accepted with open arms when the parson thinks he is an architect’s assistant from London; he is essentially thrown out of the house when his father is a local labourer. Elfride even points this out – that Stephen himself hasn’t changed, just their knowledge of his parents, and if his parents had been labourers from, say, the North, Stephen still would have been accepted. But because they are aware of his low birth and his local history, he is suddenly unacceptable.

Knight, too, is incredibly condescending toward Stephen. Knight has lived in the city much longer and maintains fewer ties to the local area. What ties he does have are loose, and higher class. This makes Knight not just an acceptable suitor for Elfride, but a superior person (even though, in my mind, Stephen was much better for Elfride and more of a person that I’d like to know).

Finally, secrecy. It’s when secrets are revealed that the Judictures come in this book (although, as I’ve said, they’re not as devastating as the Judictures in Tess or Jude). Stephen’s revelation that his parents are local labourers leads to his banishment from the parsonage, and hence to his and Elfride’s elopement. The parson’s secret relationship with a local (rich) woman prevents Elfride from confiding in him about her relationship with Stephen. Elfride’s (unwilling) revelation about her previous relationship leads to Knight’s departure.  If any of those three secrets hadn’t been secrets, the story would have been much, much different. Even if the telling of the secrets had been different (well, except for the first one which is almost entirely down to the parson’s snobbery), the story would have been much, much different.

The story revolves around miscommunication, misapprehension, and misunderstandings from almost the first word. It shows signs of the greatness that Hardy achieves in his later works, without the emotional devastation that makes him painful to experience.

*Judicture = a combination of Jude (from Jude the Obscure) and juncture (the juncture of “life is fine” and “life is not fine”). Spread the word. Let’s get in the OED someday.

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