29 March 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes. He also moderates a GoodReads discussion group dedicated to the BTBA. Feel free to join and post your opinions and rants and raves.



My Marriage by Jakob Wassermann, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, New York Review Books)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 7%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: <1%

Wassermann’s My Marriage is a beautifully complex emotional and intellectual account of a budding relationship that careened into a failed marriage, based, reportedly, a great deal on the author’s own first marriage to Julie Speyer (whom you can see on the NYRB Classics edition cover). How much of the book is actually autobiographical, I don’t know, but perhaps we can take the word of the German literary historian Peter de Mendelssohn, who said it was the “exactest, most scrupulous autobiography,” “the true confession of the death-marked author,” as per translator Michael Hofmann’s Afterword. At the same time, the book is presented as fiction, with names changed and pasts imagined.

The book was originally published posthumously in the autumn of 1934; Wassermann himself had died on New Year’s Day of that year of various troubles, including what Hofmann calls “general exhaustion.” After reading this book, we might extrapolate what Hofmann means.

The book pulled me in immediately. It isn’t happy reading, but it is an exquisite rendering of pain that is brought on by union and separation at once. Wassermann seems to be exploring, trying to comprehend just what happened with this central experience of his life, and I loved the step-by-step exploration of his painful past—not that it was entirely the past.

Let me introduce the characters who stand in for Wassermann and Speyer. The author/narrator is a man named Alexander Herzog. He divides his account into three sections: Mirror of Youth, The Age of Certainties, and The Age of Dissolution. Mirror of Youth begins before he’s ever met the persistent, eccentric Ganna Mevis. Again, it’s like Herzog has to go back that far just to get his footing, just to see where this juggernaut that would run through his life got its beginning.

The youngest of six daughters, Ganna doesn’t fit in. Ganna is fiercely competitive with her sisters. She dreamed of a glorious future. Hers weren’t the usual banal girlish dreams, they were scenarios and imaginings of an usual definition. She felt chosen, even though she couldn’t have said in what way.

Meanwhile, in this early section Herzog is a young author who has published one great book that made him no money. Ganna gets a hold of that book and her imaginings tell her that she must be a part of the author’s life. She knows nothing about him, naturally—she even is afraid that any letter she sent would simply be lost amongst the flood of letters Herzog was definitely not receiving—but she pursues him even when he obviously thinks little of her.

The next day, I got a pneumatique from her. Why the rush, I asked myself. There was nothing pressing in it. The letters were just as urgent as her speech. Big, jagged, impetuous characters that resembled a meeting of conspirators. I can’t remember if I wrote back. It seems to me it was only the third or fourth letter that induced me to give her an answer. Because she wrote to me almost every day. Always pneumatiques. A few lines, with obvious attention to style. I thought sardonically: writing letters to a writer is surely an education in itself. And the content? Atmospherics: happy wonderment at the new turn in her life; a plea to me not to forget her; a friendly greeting because it was a nice day; anxious inquiries about my state, because she’d had a bad dream about me. She wasn’t short of things to say.

Herzog thinks back on this time and tries to understand “what possessed me to answer her?” His answer: “I don’t know.” But he has some ideas and he works through them. For one, “[e]ven the most resolute misanthrope has a spot where he falls prey to vanity. And I was anything but a misanthrope.” Still, the notes are exhausting, and he admits that sometimes, “when I was opening one of her notes, it was as though I had to push away her little hand that reached for me with greedy grasp.”

Money, though . . . he’s honest enough to admit that her money and his lack thereof contributed greatly, even if he did his best to leave the subject under the surface. She’s the one who brings it up, and I love Herzog’s lingering amazement, capable of erasing the years between their courtship and his writing this account, taking him back to the initial confusion as his younger self pondered just what she was thinking:

But patience, Ganna, patience: do you propose to take what you call your wealth, today or tomorrow, and merely drop it at his feet, unconditionally and impulsively and without regard to yourself, and without any reference to any of the usual contracts and obligations? It would be a splendid impulse, whether it were possible or not. Or is some forfeit not required—in fact, wouldn’t the person, the future, the whole man from head to toe have to serve as your collateral? Speak!

We already know where this is heading, despite words of warning from the author himself: “You can find a woman lovable without loving her; that’s a dangerous grey area.”

Marriage, honeymoon, children, pain, a slow—and strange!—separation. Throughout, Herzog—Wassermann—shifts back and forth from a distant perspective, trying to see the forest for the trees, to an impassioned closeness. It was his writing that brought Ganna into his life, and it is with his writing that he attempts to exorcise her. He knows in the end that such an act is impossible: “But in the end it’s just words on paper, which can be turned and twisted and perhaps challenged by a higher instance.” It’s not spoiler to say that he is still struggling even with his last paragraph:

So what do I need? A hand to help me past an obstacle whose nature I cannot ascertain. A human breath to imbue me with the spirit of understanding. Understanding would surely illumine me like a flash of lightning ripping apart the sheet of darkness. And then the devil riding over the wreckage of my life would disappear with a howl into the gulch of his hell. A slightly overdone image. But then I’ve lost all sense of measure.

1 February 13 | Chad W. Post |

Back in 2003, Other Press—one of the most interesting independent presses out there—brought out a book about Walt Disney entitled The Perfect American by Peter Stephan Jungk and translated from the Germany by Michael Hofmann.

I remember hearing about this book from my friend Blake Radcliffe (which, I still maintain, would be a fantastic porn star name . . . Blake Radcliffe and Lexy Spry . . .) when he worked at Other Press. It sounds pretty interesting—the novel focuses on the last few months of crazy Walt Disney’s crazy Walt Disney life (his delusions of immortality, EPCOT as Utopia, etc.) from the point of view of Wilhelm Dantine, a cartoonist who worked for Disney on Sleeping Beauty.

Unfortunately, I never got around to reading this (sorry Blake!), but I’m planning on getting to it soon, since Other Press just brought out a paperback edition to celebrate the new Philip Glass opera version that just premiered in Madrid.

From the New York Times:

Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel The Perfect American is a surreal, meditative, episodic account of the last days of Walt Disney.

It seems at first glance to be an ideal source for an opera by Philip Glass, whose surreal, meditative, episodic explorations of the lives of famous men — always men — have formed the bulk of his prodigious operatic output. [. . .]

At the fourth performance on Wednesday, the subtle, moody score, at war between its propulsive and serene impulses, felt more than equal in quality to the festive occasion. While criticisms of Mr. Glass’s music as cookie-cutter have always been misguided, The Perfect American finds him in especially unpredictable form, experimenting with sonorities, textures and pacing.

Led by the Glass veteran Dennis Russell Davies with careful attention to both its underlying pulse and its twists of temperament, the opera opens with an ominous, low murmur punctuated by sharp, syncopated percussion snaps. The sound gradually expands through the orchestra and warms into something that, under Mr. Davies, has more gentle swing than the relentless forward motion generally associated with Mr. Glass.

The music often seems devised to trail off, to run out of steam as it expresses Disney’s struggle with the cancer from which he died in 1966 at 65. But there is nothing exhausted about its inventiveness. Simultaneously eclectic and cohesive, the score incorporates strange, fractured brass fanfares out of Janacek’s Makropulos Case and lilting, seductive rhythms that feel almost foxtrotty, like a misty echo of the 1930s.

Here’s a promo video from Teatro Real:

Too bad I’m not planning a trip to Madrid any time soon . . . At least I can read the book.

And since I LOVE Rework: Philip Glass Remixed album that just came out, and SUPER LOVE Dan Deacon, here’s his contribution, “Alight Spiral Snip.”

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Quantum Sarah on Peter Stamm’s new collection of stories, We’re Flying, which came out from Other Press in Michael Hofmann’s translation earlier this year.

Peter Stamm has a number of books available in English translation, including Seven Years, which was on last year’s Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist.

Quantum Sarah was a spectacular summer intern who is not back in school, but will likely be reviewing for us again in the not-too-distant future. Here’s the opening of her review:

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives.

Click here to read the entire review.

14 September 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In his new collection We’re Flying, Swiss author Peter Stamm weaves together a multitude of perspectives with the ghostly fiber of loss. This fascinating set of short stories centers around the general theme of the “human condition”—joy and sadness, birth and death, couples and families, work and school. However, a generous majority of these tales unfold against a subconscious background of grief, whether real or imagined: the widow that learns posthumously of her husband’s affair; the toddler abandoned by his parents at preschool; the frustrated artist. Yet the book isn’t a blurred mess of sympathy; rather, it’s a sharp analysis of life’s chronic pain and beauty. Precise, disquieting, and high-impact, Stamm’s new collection slices away surface tissue to reveal the downright messiness of human life

Stamm’s stories are surprisingly fleshed-out with minimum verbage. Like the artist in one of his stories, Stamm writes surgically: “You paint what you see with the maximum of precision, but you don’t care about the precision of the depiction . . . What counts is decisiveness.” His characters are quickly but sharply sketched; his story-world is modeled on the one at hand, but as though seen through a microscope, with fine-grained crystals of detail. Stamm shows, instead of tells—in “Sweet Dreams,” a newly-cohabiting girl reflects on the meaning of family while imagining an old black-and-white photo of relatives:

Lara could see the pictures, big family get-togethers in a garden in the north of Italy, pictures full of people she didn’t know, even her mother didn’t know some of the names. Thereafter the family had fallen apart . . . When Lara had visited Italy with her parents, there hadn’t been any more big reunions, only visits in darkened homes with old people who smelled funny and served dry cookies and big plastic bottles of lukewarm Fanta.

Rather than directly stating Lara’s isolation in her new romance, Stamm instead gives us vivid objects to evoke the feeling: a faded photograph. Dry cookies and lukewarm Fanta. Old people whose homes are lonely and “funny”-smelling. Later on, we get “a barely used coffee machine that Laura found on eBay, a chest for their shoes, a whole stack of yellow bath towels that were on offer”—objects that carry a false connotation of stability, but which are really as destructible and transient as her new relationship.

There’s an uncanny equanimity and composure in Stamm’s voice as he makes us privy to frequent scenes of psychological pain. When Angelika brings home a forgotten child from her daycare job, her boyfriend Benno is both warm and insensitive: he plays with the child, making droning noises like an airplane—“We’re flying!” he yells—but later begins to unbutton her blouse in front of the boy. “I’m not going to let that runt spoil my fun,” he snarls, engrossed in a cop show. After the boy’s parents come to pick him up, Angelika is confronted with the reality of Benno’s revealed selfishness and lack of care. “She freed herself and said she would have a quick shower too. She locked the bathroom but didn’t undress. When Benno knocked on the door, she was still sitting on the toilet, with her face in her hands.”

Heavy, shocking endings like these cap off many of Stamm’s stories, but not all of them are as tragic. In “Seven Sleepers,” a lonely vegetable farmer finds his first love; in “The Suitcase,” an elderly man surreptitiously slips a suitcase beneath his dying wife’s hospital bed with her necessary items—and a bar of chocolate.

We’re Flying is eerily readable—perhaps due to how much of ourselves we recognize in his characters. In a varied and colorful array of stories, Stamm manages to portray human life as the emotional mishmash that it really is, full of misery and beauty, full of falling and flying.

24 March 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.

Click here for all past and future posts in this series.

Seven Years by Peter Stamm, translated by Michael Hofmann

Language: German
Country: Switzerland
Publisher: Other Press

Why this book should win: Dismantled relationships FTW!

Today’s post is by Tom Flynn, bookseller and events coordinator at Seminary Co-Op in Chicago.

Let’s get this bit out of the way first: Peter Stamm’s Seven Years is not a terribly pleasant novel. The characters—particularly the narrator, Alexander—are deeply flawed people who probably would have done better in their fictional lives had they never encountered one or another or, after meeting, run in opposite directions. But it is also an engrossing read with direct, clear prose that engages and eggs the reader on.

Alexander is a German architecture student who, at the end of his final year of school, becomes involved with a Polish woman, Ivona, whom he does not much like. She does not engage him intellectually, he finds her unattractive, and he feels her to be beneath him socially. Yet he finds himself unable to stop seeing her. While this is going on, he begins a relationship with a fellow student, Sonia, who possesses an ambition and drive completely absent from Alex. Sonia and Alex marry and open a firm but after several years (the seven year itch that the title can, perhaps, be understood to reference) of marriage Ivona reappears in his life and he takes up with her once again. The effect of this affair eventually lays bare the weakness of his and Sonia’s relationship, which, despite its solid presentation at the beginning of the novel, is doomed to crumble around them.

Architecture and its various metaphors prove an apt vehicle for exploring Sonia, Alex, and Ivona’s movement through life. Sonia wishes to build socially conscious structures that work toward the creation and fulfillment of an ideal human. She has very firm ideas on the type of life she and Alex ought to lead: their work, home, and family life are all clearly laid out. Alex, for his part, finds himself happiest designing buildings he can never build, nor wants to construct; he would rather explore space on the page than express it in the world what with all the compromises that accompany such efforts. He allows others to determine the shape and course of his life, effectively drifting from one event to the next. And Ivona is simply a dweller, moving from one small, unpleasant residence to the next with little regard for how much smaller the physical space she inhabits becomes along the way. Instead, she carves out a world within that houses her love—her mania, really—for Alex and Alex alone.

Much of the drama in the novel feels, well, anti-climatic. A sense of the inevitable pervades the novel. Alex is by no means a passionate character, nor is he anyone—in fiction or life—for whom one should feel much pity. The events of the novel plays out as they do because of his own inertia, his willingness to meander in whatever direction circumstances take him. He builds a life with Sonia because it’s what she wants and it seems he should want her. He returns to Ivona time and again not because he wants to, but because she is always reaching out to him, no matter how he treats her. Inertia is his natural state and by novel’s end his inability to act has yielded the life he sees laid out before him.

Really, I could go on at much greater length about Seven Years. There’s just something about the characters and Stamm’s understanding of human nature that causes the myriad issues the novel raises to jut out in my mind. Truly excellent novels—which in my estimation Seven Years is—worm their way into the reader’s mind, giving them something to gnaw on. The excellent novel also possesses a life of its own and, to turn the phrase somewhat, gnaws on the reader, too. Or creates an itch that the reader can’t help but scratch.

5 February 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next eleven days, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada. Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Germany, Melville House)

Below is a guest post from Tom Roberge, an editor at Penguin, avid fan of international literature, and big lover of this book.

Last March was a strange time for novels dealing with Nazis. On the one hand Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones finally appeared in the US, and reactions on both ends of the critical spectrum were hyperbolic. The fictional memoir of a Nazi officer who details his role in scores of unspeakable atrocities that won two of France’s major literary awards, it was either heralded as a masterpiece or dismissed as utter garbage by American critics. I wanted nothing to do with it, not because I cringe at descriptions of violence and depravity—I generally gravitate towards them—but instead because I’d read so many reviews that accused Littell of a grievous fault: being a bad writer. Questionable morality I can handle; bad writing I cannot. To this day, the only person I’ve spoken to who’s read the book was a used bookseller at a flea market, and he claimed that it was the best book he’d ever read.

On the other hand was Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which for some absurd reason had never been published in the U.S. since it was completed just before the author’s death in 1947. But thanks to Dennis Johnson at Melville House Books, this oversight has been addressed. At the heart of the story are Otto and Anna Quangel, a middle-aged German couple whose soldier son has died just before the book’s opening. At first simply stunned into near paralysis, they slowly emerge from their passivity and begin a quiet civil disobedience campaign by making and distributing anti-Nazi postcards. They imagine they’re sparking revolution, or at least sparking a conversation about a revolution, but the truth is that the cards are rarely seen by anyone other than citizen informants and their official contacts. Their efforts are not only largely fruitless, they’re also incredibly dangerous; as you can imagine, the Nazis didn’t look kindly on defiance.

What makes Every Man Dies Alone so remarkable is its portrait of what we’d now call “average” Germans during World War II. They’re average on one level because they’re blue collar employees living in modest conditions. They are also surrounded by and only interact with other people living in similar situations, some better off, some worse off. But they’re average on another level as well: they are not targets of Nazi “cleansing.” Instead they are the people for whom Hitler’s war is being fought. In return for this crusade, all the Nazis ask for is unquestioned loyalty and total devotion to the war effort.

Littell’s Nazi officer is a cruel, despicable man. He represents the entire Nazi regime, and The Kindly Ones is meant to give readers a glimpse inside the minds of men who killed millions mercilessly, all for the sake of an appallingly horrific ideal. Fallada, however, set out to portray life among the non-Jewish, non-military Germans during the war, and what he reveals is a terrorizing existence. Otto and Anna had been, before their son was killed in combat, as close to politically apathetic as it was possible to be in Nazi Germany. They hated the war and they hated Hitler, but they believed they were powerless to do anything, so they spent all of their time either at work or at home, avoiding contact with anyone but each other as much as possible. They were absolutely terrified, and Fallada shows why this is by following various other characters as they navigate the tense society.

A family of zealous former Nazi youths spies on its neighbors, robs an elderly Jewish woman, and generally causes trouble for anyone it believes is disloyal or insufficiently loyal. A lazy, lecherous man tips off officials for the money. On the other side there are people like Otto and Anna who want nothing more than to keep to themselves, including an elderly doctor who allows the aforementioned elderly Jewish woman to take refuge in his apartment, along with a postal worker who brazenly quits the Nazi party—despite the fact that it means she’ll be essentially unable to work again—when she realizes what her soldier son has been up to. The Berlin that emerges is one of constant terror. The Nazis have used terror to force average citizens to spy on each other, to exploit each other, to cast suspicion on each other. Fear of being wrongly accused, arrested, and punished or killed drives many people inside, both literally and figuratively. They race to work and race home, and talk to no one. And once home, they barely talk to each other, keeping all thoughts to themselves. It takes Otto and Anna several days to even talk about the death of their son. In such conditions, every action against the state, every slightly critical word or insincere gesture of loyalty, is magnified to superlative levels, and the consequences can be life-altering to say the least.

As I read, the book I thought of the most was Camus’ The Plague, his extended allegory on German-occupied France during the same time period that Fallada’s book takes place. Both books are about finding ways to get through individual days and about fighting back against ubiquitous terror. The doctor in The Plague fights back steadily but cautiously, despite pleas from his neighbors, one of whom gets through the days by perpetually re-drafting the opening sentence of a novel. Otto and Anna fight back, as well, but their battle isn’t as successful, except in one very crucial, personal regard: it engendered hope, it offered a vision of a different life. There is no happy ending here. Instead this is an invaluable portrait of a time and place that we should all make every effort to understand as much as possible.

5 March 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

In the Sun, Ben Lytal provides a brief overview to the new translation of Kafka’s stories by Michael Hofmann. It certainly sounds like it’s worth picking up, as are the Shocken translations he mentions, if you don’t have them already.

Now a new volume, “Metamorphosis and Other Stories” (Penguin, 320 pages, $14), also translated by Mr. Hofmann, rounds out this generation of major Kafka translations. By positioning this volume as a collection of everything that Kafka published in his lifetime, Mr. Hofmann pokes another hole in the old image of Kafka as “someone we are encouraged to think of as a publication-averse recluse.” Many of the stories collected here, especially the title story, are extremely well-known. But by packaging “The Metamorphosis” — which has lost the definite article in this translation — with 42 other stories and prose sketches in a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, the publishers make a bid to change the way new readers are introduced to Kafka.

Like many recent Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, the cover of “Metamorphosis” has been illustrated by a well-known graphic artist (“Candide” got Chris Ware, “Metamorphosis” gets Sammy Harkham). The stark, modernist faces of yesterday’s Kafka paperbacks are gone. One of Harkham’s drawings, for instance, shows a messy bourgeois scene: Three men sit grumpily at dinner, while a young woman plays a violin and an older man snores in his armchair. A preponderance of detail — armchair, side whiskers, grandfather clock — combines to give the illustration a 19th-century, rather than modern, ambience. And over the whole image looms what seems at first to be a giant willow tree, massing in wavy black bunches that somehow droop, dividing into tendrils, over the bourgeois furniture — until we realize that the black bunches are no tree but, quite sensibly, hordes of little black beetles.

....
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