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There are a lot of terrible quotations out there, shared primarily on Facebook, and it bugs me.

Here’s where I’ve seen them, and then the actual source.

  1. Success is never as interesting as struggle.” — Willa Cather
  • Where did I see it?: A Riffle post on Facebook
  • Is it correct?: Mostly. Willa Cather wrote it; however, it doesn’t appear in My Antonia, which that Riffle post might suggest.
  • Source: The Song of the Lark, 1932 Edition. It’s from the preface, and that muse.jhu.edu site is the closest I can get you online.
  • Full quotation: “The chief fault of [The Song of the Lark] is that it describes a descending curve; the life of a successful artist in the full tide of achievement is not so interesting as the life of a talented young girl ‘‘fighting her way,’’ as we say. Success is never so interesting as struggle—not even to the successful, not even to the most mercenary forms of ambition.

Jan 17: The Talented Mr Ripley, Patricia Highsmith (1955)

Feb 21: The Ambassadors, Henry James (1903)

Mar 21: The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty (1972)

Apr 18: Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann (1901)

May 16: Iceland’s Bell, Halldor Laxness (1943)

Jun 20: Romola, George Eliot (1863) / Mid-Year Potluck

July 18: My Mortal Enemy, Willa Cather (1926)

Aug 15: The Grandissimes, George Washington Cable (1880)

Sep 19: The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles (1969)

Oct 17: Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)

21 Nov: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (1886)

19 Dec: Eugenie Grandet, Honore Balzac (1833) / Year-End Potluck

Families: Monstrous and Demonstrative

We meet the third Tuesday of every month at 7.00 p.m at the Bethesda Library. To be added to the mailing list for updates and miscellany, email Mike Bevel at mbevel at gmail dot com.

Jan: The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Feb: Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac

Mar: The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Apr: Independent People by Halldór Laxness

May: What Maise Knew by Henry James

Jun: Therese Raquin by Zola

Jul: Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Aug: The Real Charlotte by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross

Sep: Caleb Williams by William Godwin

Oct: The Fifth Queen by Ford Maddox Ford

Nov: The Golovlyov Family by Shchedrin

Dec: Man & Wife by Wilkie Collins

Heredity, Identity, Destiny: Exploring the Human

21 Jan 2014Hedda Gabler/Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

18 Feb 2014The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

18 Mar 2014The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

15 Apr 2014Daisy Miller by Henry James

20 May 2014Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (no online version available)

17 Jun 2014The Warden by Anthony Trollope

15 Jul 2014Summer/Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

19 Aug 2014Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

16 Sep 2014A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

21 Oct 2014The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson/”The Lifted Veil” by George Eliot

18 Nov 2014Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

16 Dec 2014Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Oh my god, you guys, this book.

The Charles Dickens in Love bio is 390 pages, not counting end notes and index. It could EASILY have been a longish New Yorker article. Peter Ackroyd’s bio is at least a gabillion pages long, but I didn’t feel it.

Garnett leaves no point un-repeated — sometimes within the same paragraph. Again and again he’ll remind us that Maria Beadness was the first, fiery, sexual love, and that Mary Hogarth was the chaste, virginal, lasting love. He then does this very curious thing: he begins by saying, “We don’t know if Charles and Ellen had a child together.” But then, to make the rest of his belaborings not seem wasted, he just decides that yes, of course, they did have a baby. (This is all based on “reading between the lines” of Dickens’s journals and letters. I’m not saying that it’s entirely unlikely; maybe I’m just cranky with this guy for later stuff, so I’m busting his chops about this particular point. What makes me allow some doubt about a baby is this: Dickens was TERRIBLE at keeping this affair a secret, pretty much EVERYONE knew about it, and I can’t see him keeping the birth of a son close to the chest at all.)

Garnett is also incredibly unkind about Catherine. Look, okay, sure: Catherine Dickens put on some weight because she’s a human being Going Through Some Things and WE GET IT. She had 10 kids and at least two miscarriages. She was saddled with Charles Dickens as a husband — a husband who, by the way and p.s.: only married her because Maria Beadnell broke his heart and her younger sister Mary was too young. I mean, couldn’t it be possible that Catherine was just PROFOUNDLY depressed? So why you gotta be a dick, Robert Garnett, with your “Catherine’s reckless fecundity” this, and your “overly prolific wife” that, and going on about her stoutness and unattractiveness (even quoting someone ELSE: “Repeated pregnancies were exhausting Catherine’s sexual role, and lacking the personality to keep her in favour with Dickens, she had no other.”) and for FUCK’S SAKE, where is CHUCK in all of this? It’s like we’re all just supposed to conveniently forget that women had about thismuch reproductive agency in the nineteenth century and just blame poor Catherine for having a uterus.

I mean SERIOUSLY.

Anyway. He also keeps talking about Wilkie Collins’s “mistress” — a term I have specific rules about and for it to work, at least one of the two individuals involved need to be married and neither Wilkie Collins nor either of his two lady-friends were ever married. (Well, Caroline did leave him for a brief period and got married, but then she divorced that guy and came back and that’s a weird episode in Collins’s life because it’s likely that Caroline was playing a game of emotional chicken with Collins, only she lost, because dude did not want to be married.)

I liberally skipped a significant chunk of the last 100 pages of Charles Dickens in Love because OH MY GOD I CAN’T CARE ABOUT HOW MANY TRAINS HE TOOK.”

Oh! Oh! Oh! AND: later in the bio– WAIT. Before I get to that, let’s go back to the pregnancy thing for a moment because here’s where all those fucking TRAINS make an appearance. This guy has very carefully looked at old train schedules and tracked them with Dickens’s post-marks and references in his letters and this is the kind of shit that happened in that movie about the Torah guys: I DON’T NEED TO SEE THE WORK. Just, you know, give me the conclusions. And I suppose that there are some people out there who are just fascinated by that kind of minutia — the kind of people who thought Driving Miss Daisy was an action-filled adventure picture, no doubt. Those people are none of my business.

So, later in the bio– Sorry. I have another quick point about Ellen Ternan. She’s a cipher. We don’t have any of her letters or her diaries or anything. She shows up in Dickens’s letters, and other people write about her, so she’s more of a character than an actual person. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about that. But she just felt so lifeless and inert in this bio; she felt like a movable object, a chess piece, not a human being. And interestingly, Garnett never mentions that Ternan is alleged to have said, about her time with Dickens, “I so loathed the old man’s touch.” (Because it would interfere with his thesis, maybe? About how important this love was to Dickens? And maybe he feels like it would be too heartbreaking to discover that the love of his life loathed him?)

NOW, the other thing: Later in the bio, Garnett brings up this FASCINATING lady named Frances Dickinson. He says that during one of her divorce proceedings (she had a slew of divorces), the judge stopped the proceedings because he felt that the whole thing was too disgusting to talk about in court. (She also talked often of her love of wigs and I know that this may not be the thing that makes you sit up and take notice but I’m a homosexual and a crazy divorcee talking about wigs? HEAVEN.) Anyway, Garnett decides that’s all we need to know about her and doesn’t even give us a HINT about the disgusting divorce proceedings and I just think he could THROW ME A BONE HERE, Garnett.

Anyway. Ugh. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

The below is the (somewhat modified) text of an article I wrote for the Bethesda Library’s newsletter.

After the original illustrator for The Pickwick Papers died (under…complicated circumstances; see me after class for the full story*), William Makepeace Thackeray applied for the job with a collection of quick watercolor sketches he had made. No matter that the author, Charles Dickens, was notoriously difficult to work with (a significant accomplishment for a young and as-yet unproven talent); Thackeray was just starting out, and any break could be the big one.

[* “Suicide” is the short answer. “Possibly driven to suicide in part because of Charles Dickens” is the longer answer.]

This was not that big break.

Later, when Thackeray became a novelist, after the successes of Barry Lyndon and Vanity Fair, he hoped to be as well-regarded as Dickens — no matter that Charles Dickens was already seen as the chronicler of mid-Victorian society (and inventor of Christmas). Even Thackeray’s children kept naming their pets after Dickens’s characters*, rather than naming a kitten, for instance “Amelia Sedley” or a puppy “Pendennis.”

[* At one point, Thackeray’s daughter Minnie asked him, “Papa, why do you not write books like Nicholas Nickleby?”]

So this was not to be his big break, either.

Most of Thackeray’s life he had to contend with the dust Dickens kicked up as he raced towards immortality and greatness. In Dickens’s limited defense, it wasn’t just Thackeray; every writer in the nineteenth century had to figure out how to survive in a world in love with Little Nell. What makes Thackeray’s also-ran position even more confounding is how much of an overlap there is between Dickens’s life and Thackeray’s. Both saw early success with comic literary creations (Dickens with the great naturalist and tittlebat expert Samuel Pickwick, Esq.;  Thackeray with the footman Yellowplush, who reviewed books on etiquette for Fraser’s Magazine). Both ran in the same social circles (though not always as friends*). Both were, and continue to be considered, rightly or wrongly, social critics. Both were horrible husbands (but let’s not gossip**).

[* In a letter to his mother cataloging his underwhelming popularity with his fellow writers, Thackeray whines, “Jerrold hates me, Ainsworth hates me, Dickens mistrusts me, Foster says I am false as hell.”]

[** Well, let’s gossip a little. For instance, Dickens grew more and more irritated with his wife as she had more and more children — children he was equally responsible for producing, p.s. —  losing her girlish figure and falling victim too often, for Dickens’s taste, to postpartum depression. He eventually kicked Catherine out of the house. Thackeray’s wife Isabelle also suffered from postpartum depression, eventually falling victim to longer and longer bouts of sadness and despondency. Thackeray’s response? To go on vacation without Isabelle, claiming that it was important to his sanity. And don’t get me started on Thackeray’s idea that he could cure Isabelle’s depression with daily doses of champagne.]

The significant difference may be in each writer’s approachability. Not in the sense of how each approached the task of writing; Dickens was far more disciplined than a hundred Thackerays. I mean in the sense of how each writer invited the reader to come closer, to be a confidant. Dickens soothed the Victorian middle class with stories that celebrated family and perseverance while picking easy targets — Chancery, treatment of the noble poor, the French — towards which to aim his critiques. Thackeray, though, took aim squarely at the middle class itself, and the middle class wasn’t comfortable being the target.

Thackeray’s 1848 novel, Vanity Fair, provides an interesting example of this point, and also happens to be the January book the Bethesda Library’s Classics in Context discussion group will be reading (18 January 2011).

To be a success in nineteenth century England involved a complicated series of steps. The Victorian Middle Class was a new experiment, arising from the ashes of the end of the aristocracy, and wanted to believe that morality, rather than inheritance, conveyed respectability. The polite fiction, explicitly expressed (with a hint of Calvinism), claimed that good people succeeded because they were good: a circular argument that gave structure and comfort and a seemingly solid place from which to judge those who weren’t successful.

While we can’t call Vanity Fair‘s Amelia Sedley the hero(ine) of the novel — Thackeray calls Vanity Fair “A Novel Without a Hero” — she is one of the few characters with whom our sympathies remain through most of the novel. When we meet her at the beginning, she’s leaving finishing school for home with all the accomplishments one could hope for: rich, blonde, lovely, and loved. She sings beautifully, blushes appropriately, and is the very model of Victorian respectability.

Later, and without giving too much away, Amelia finds that she has to strike “rich” from her list of accomplishments — and this, Thackeray argues, is where Victorian Middle Class hypocrisy replaces Victorian Middle Class morality. Once Amelia is no longer rich, it’s as if, to the world at large, she’s no longer respectable, regardless of the fact that she’s still the model of Victorian womanhood, sings beautifully, blushes appropriately, and conducts herself morally. Without money, none of those accomplishments are visible.

Thackeray tightens the screws even more. Amelia’s is affianced to George Osborne — an engagement that’s threatened when Amelia’s family hits tough economic times. George’s parents try to convince him to end the engagement, especially with the arrival on the scene of an incredibly wealthy and thus (as Jane Austen has taught us) incredibly marriageable heiress. This heiress, however, has none of Amelia’s accomplishments. She has no conversational art. She has no artistic talent. She only knows one song to sing along with the piano, but needs the sheet music to remember the words. And yet, because of her immense wealth, society, according to Thackeray, is willing to overlook all of her shortcomings. Morality is a commodity, and it’s expensive.

Dickens rarely indicts the Middle Class at all in his fiction, or at any rate, never this baldly or directly. Social ills in Dickens aren’t the result of class hypocrisy, but the result of a bureaucracy that’s metastasized. This is also a good time to mention the differences in background between Dickens and Thackeray, and how this might influence their treatment of class. Dickens grew up outside of the Middle Class, poor and marginalized, with a father who waltzed in and out of debtors’ prison and a mother who needed her son to continue working in the soul-crushing blacking factory for any kind of financial security. Thackeray grew up relatively privileged within the Middle Class, attending public school and hobnobbing with the sons of the wealthy and well-to-do. Dickens struggled his whole life for a seat within the Middle Class, not even recognizing when he had achieved his goal. Thackeray, having grown up Middle Class, could never see the big deal. Dickens could never deal a direct blow to the stratum he wanted to achieve. Thackeray saw the Middle Class as paper tigers, not worth any special consideration.

While Vanity Fair enjoyed some success in its time*, Thackeray never became the beloved patriarch of Victorian fiction the way Dickens had. Those critical of Thackeray’s writing pointed to his heightened sarcasm and unrelenting irony. Dickens was recognized as humorous; Thackeray was simply considered mean.

[* Thackeray wrote of Vanity Fair, “It does everything but sell, and appears really immensely to increase my reputation if not my income.”]

But maybe for a modern reader, with enough distance and an appreciation for a solidly wicked (and wickedly funny) antihero like Becky Sharp (who cuts through some of the sentimentality that can cloy things up in the Amelia storyline), we can appreciate Thackeray’s accomplishments. This isn’t to suggest that we’ve somehow transcended the class/caste system. Thackeray’s thesis that money forgives a host of social ills is as true and pointed today as it was then. What our modern society has transcended, however, in a way that the Victorians weren’t quite able to do, is shame. We have a thick armor of “Real Housewives” and 10-Minutes-of-Fame-Too-Long celebrities to protect us from Thackeray’s keen-eyed aim. Instead, we can simply enjoy the desperate scramblings of a far-distant group of money-grubbers who bear no relation to us at all.

[This post deals with minor spoilers that occur in the first chapter of The Claverings. These are mild spoilers, however, and I don’t reveal the end of the novel nor do I go into any detail at all about my favorite character, the improbably named Sophie Gordeloup. Other novels mentioned in this post:

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

The Way We Live Now

Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau

The Odd Women by George Gissing]

Sensing my lagging interest in Harry Clavering, hero of The Claverings, from one hundred and forty-three years in the past, Trollope sent a quick note to me in the future on page 98:

Harry Clavering, who is the hero of our story, will not, I fear have hitherto presented himself to the reader as having much of the heroic nature in his character. It will, perhaps, be complained of him that he is fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good. But it should be remembered that hitherto he has been rather hardly dealt with in these pages, and that his faults and weaknesses have been exposed almost unfairly. That he had such faults, and was subject to such weaknesses, may be believed of him; but there may be a question whether as much evil would not be known of most men, let them be heroes or not be heroes, if their characters were, so to say, turned inside out before our eyes. Harry Clavering, fellow of his college, six feet high, with handsome face and person, and with plenty to say for himself on all subjects, was esteemed highly and regarded much by those who knew him, in spite of those little foibles which marred his character; and I must beg the reader to take the world’s opinion about him, and not to estimate him too meanly thus early in this history of his adventures.

It…didn’t help. I still found myself struggling to muster up anything like caring or interest in Harry Clavering or the pickle he’s gotten himself into. To wit:

Harry Clavering, after having spent a summer making furious love to Julia Brabazon, finds that he’s actually not in the running at all for her hand in marriage. Julia’s a pragmatic girl who probably loved Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons as much as I did: “When it comes to marriage,” the Marquis de Merteuil explains to the convent-schooled Cécile (while wearing an amazing dress that appears to be made of all the fabric in France), “one man is as good as the next.” And with that being true, there’s then no need to marry the (essentially) penniless Harry for love when there’s a perfectly acceptable rich old guy who’s a lord to boot waiting to offer his own hand in marriage. Julia gives Harry the “it’s not you, it’s your wallet” speech, tells him he’s a great guy, hopes they’re able to stay super-close friends, and then skips off for what should have been a shopping montage if this were a Julia Roberts movie from 1990. I’m not made of stone, people: I love a shopping montage.

I also love Julia Brabazon – even when Trollope seems to try his hardest to convince me that I shouldn’t.

Trollope will use Julia and Harry to look at love and marriage from two jaundiced points of view. Julia sees them as mutually exclusive; Harry can’t tell them apart. And because both characters are mildly unlikeable at the start, it’s a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure: if you agree with Harry, turn to page 76. If you agree with Julia…

Actually, you should agree with Julia. She’s an amazing character in this odd little midpoint novel. In some ways I feel Trollope understands her fully, and then in other ways she seems to elude his grasp. His novels always have a woman like Julia: a little out of her time, and doomed to unhappiness because the rest of the world can’t catch up with her.  Listening to her arguments against marrying Harry that she shares with him in the first chapter, it can be easy to get swept up in the emotional unfairness of it all, as Harry does. But what sounds like cold and grasping calculated ruthlessness on Julia’s part is actually carefully considered logic. She tells him:

“Look at me, such as I am, and at yourself, and then say whether anything but misery could come of a match between you and me. Our ages by the register are the same, but I am ten years older than you by the world. I have two hundred a year, and I owe at this moment six hundred pounds. You have, perhaps, double as much, and would lose half of that if you married. You are an usher at school.”

There’s an Austenian clear-headedness in Julia’s argument. The idea of marrying for love in the nineteenth century is a polite fiction that gets told to sell romances. Love is almost always imprudent in a Jane Austen novel (for instance, we learn what happens when Fanny Price’s mother gets carried away emotionally): Women of a certain class who can’t work and are dependent on the success of their husbands for not just their comfort, but for their lives, would be foolish to throw everything away on a man who looks great in tight breeches but who can’t scrape together income enough to support more than himself and his debts. Sticking with Austen for a second more, in Persuasion, the tragedy isn’t that Anne Elliott let Captain Wentworth go the first time. She was wisely counseled as to the imprudence of that match because at the time Wentworth was in no position to support a wife. Austen always wants her heroines to follow the money.

This is what makes Julia so interesting at the beginning of the novel, when she is so level-headed about what is necessary for her life. As she explains to Harry (who has wimpishly tried to guilt her into changing her mind by invoking his love for her), “Love is not to be our master. You can choose, as I say; but I have had no choice—no choice but to be married well, or to go out like a snuff of a candle. I don’t like the snuff of a candle, and, therefore, I am going to be married well.” The roles are switched: usually we see a woman pining for the lost love of a man. Trollope, ahead of his time, swaps the roles and gives us Julia.

This is why I had such a hard time with Harry Clavering. He’s everything Trollope warns us about 98 pages into the novel: “fickle, vain, easily led, and almost as easily led to evil as to good.” I can see why Julia isn’t interested in marrying him; what I can’t see is why she got wrapped up with him in the first place. But then I remember how difficult it was for women to meet men, and that many romances were more romance of opportunity (“Oh, you’re staying at the manor too? Want to watch me drop my glove?”) than they were romances of kindred spirits. (Though they’re often spun that way after the fact.) I think Trollope hopes we’ll feel some sympathy for Harry when chapter one comes to a close – and maybe better readers do. Instead I see this continuum of women who have to explain the ways of the world to men who should know better but pretend not to. (I’m thinking specifically of the similarities between Julia and Madame Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. After her lover tries to convince her that they can run away together, to another country perhaps, someplace where they can live out their love in peace and where no one will know who they are, she says, “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?  I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”)

Of course, this being a Trollope, Julia Brabazon will be punished for her independence. It’s the unfortunate lot of women in Trollope novels. While he can be very progressive in his treatment of women characters (for instance, the financially well-set Aunt Greenow in Can You Forgive Her?), he’s still a man of the nineteenth century. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I tell you that [spoiler alert] Julia’s marriage doesn’t turn out to be as fabulously awesome as we may all have hoped it would be. And it would be very easy – but very wrong – to shoot an I-told-you-so in Julia’s direction for not sticking it out with Harry. That she picked the wrong guy is not the same wrong as picking the wealthier guy, which isn’t wrong at all. While Trollope may know that, it’s tougher for a modern audience.

Is The Claverings worth your time? I…’d hesitate to recommend it to someone who hadn’t read any Trollope in the hopes of getting him interested – mostly because there are better Trollope novels to be read, starting with Can You Forgive Her or my personal favorite, The Way We Live Now.  But I think it is an underappreciated look at the moral conflicts the Victorians inflicted on themselves, so for those who are interested in the nineteenth century as a social experiment with corsets I’d probably still recommend several other novels first (possibly Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook or George Gissing’s The Odd Women), but would save The Claverings for those moments where I needed to come up with the Top Five Novels About the Perils of Romance.

I’ll take any questions either via email (mbevel2002 at yahoo dot com) or in the comments below. (Thanks to Rebecca for this opportunity, p.s.)

Chapter 13 is titled “Coming to an Understanding” — and it’s about Enderby and Mrs Rowland and I can barely contain myself because it’s going to be RIDICULOUSLY awesome. This is going to be the chapter where Enderby breaks it to Mrs Rowland (whose name, by the way, is Priscilla — but I can’t call her that without thinking of this) that actually, no, he’s not engaged to Mary Bruce and yes, he is actually going to marry Margaret Ibbotson. (At least, in this chapter he’s going to marry Margaret Ibbotson. Spoiler alert for later chapters: dude is super wishy-washy when it comes to wanting to, and following through with, marrying Margaret Ibbotson.) Let’s get to it, shall we? We’ve waited a loooong time for this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Mr Hope is finally starting to realize that things may not be going great for him, career-wise, in the village of Deerbrook. The culmination of his string of bad decisions — marrying the wrong Ibbotson sister through moral bullying; voting for the wrong candidate when he didn’t really have to vote at all; thinking the final season of “Lost” was finally going to answer all of his questions (okay; maybe that one’s just me)* — is the scene where, once again, Hope is hit in the head with a rock thrown from somewhere secret. Or almost hit; the rock (sadly) misses him, as does the next rock, and finally Hope leaps off of his horse and tries to track down the guy with the bum arm who can’t seem to hit the target. He finds no one, just some guy in a field who looks pretty guilty, but doesn’t have a conspicuous pile of stone around his feet to be the nail that seals the case. By now, though, Hope knows that he’s not liked or trusted in the village. He’s also pretty sure that the recent spate of new doctors coming to Deerbrook are probably competition for him.

Read the rest of this entry »

Margaret can’t wait to tell Maria that she’s engaged to Philip Enderby because Margaret is a great friend who listens when people tell her things like, “Philip Enderby left me high and dry after my accident–” (I’m paraphrasing) “–but I still sort of have a thing for him.” I mean, why wouldn’t Margaret want to race right out to Ol’ Gimpy Maria and rub her nose in her happiness — especially since Maria can’t get away easily. Maybe one of the Grey kids could immortalize the scene in silhouette for Maria’s fireplace screen. Right next to the execution of Charles I.

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