The Invaders, by Pat Shipman

Hearing about a book on humans, dogs and Neanderthals immediately had my attention. And a subtitle that suggested humans and their dogs pushed Neanderthals into extinction made me doubly interested. But did the author deliver on the promise of her premise? Yes and no.

The first three quarters of the book is about humans invading the lands occupied by the last Neanderthals around 40,000 years ago and how the coincident date of the latter’s demise may be significant. Did we kill them off? Maybe, probably, likely, we don’t know for sure. Ugh, I remember thinking, scientists are so annoying. But what about the dogs?

She doesn’t even mention the word dog until three quarters of the way through the book. That’s sort of like introducing the hero of our story during the climax of the tale. And the rest wasn’t even leading up to it!

Finally, I thought, we get to hear about the human/dog team effort that led to killing of the last Neanderthal. But no. We’re right back to the presentation of evidence for and against and great big bunch of maybes, probablies and likelies. And the things I thought she was going to talk about were left out entirely.

Here are a few missed opportunities:

1. If you’re going to talk about human invasions, and in fact, put the word invasion in your title, you better talk about history and not just archaeology. She went on at length about modern humans leaving Africa and spreading out over a world already inhabited by other early humans and wondered and guessed and hesitantly speculated what it might have been like. But she wasn’t going to talk about Europeans colonialism or their outright invasion of the Americas? Heh?

2. Every day one of my friends on Facebook posts a video of some kind of interspecies play. A kitten playing with a duckling. A gorilla with a cat. A dog with a duck. A goose feeding fish. Humans with dogs? Please, this is no big mystery. We like pets. Critters like pets and critters like playing. And don’t get me started on the ubiquity of symbiosis. But any mention of any of this in the book? Nada.

3. Lastly, this book is strictly archaeology and anthropology. You won’t hear a peep about what humans probably thought of Neanderthals or vice versa. But if you gave a psychologist or a sociologist five seconds to provide likely precedent they’d instantly be talking territoriality, sense of ownership and racism. Let me say, we have a pretty good idea what it was like. The author even goes so far as to say that we don’t know if Neanderthals had whites in their eyes. They could have been dark all the way across. Really? Can you imagine the stories told around the campfire of the monsters in the woods? Trust me, we know what it was like when modern humans met Neanderthals. But you won’t find any of this in the book.

In the end, I was happy to hear about the latest archaeological research on the world of humans 40,000 years ago. It was too bad the author didn’t have a better editor, for she repeats herself and page after page feels like a summary of what we’ve already read twice. Ultimately, I was disappointed in the book as it failed to deliver on the promise of its cover.

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The Nazi Doctors, by Robert Jay Lifton

Though I finished this book over a month ago, the savage imagery is still with me, clear as day. Going into it, I knew that facing its subject matter head on was going to be life-changing. I had two big questions at the outset: Were these Nazi doctors just normal people who got sucked into Hitler’s gruesome agenda or were they chosen to work in the death camps because of they were known to be morally twisted? And, were the experiments these doctors did on death camp inmates as horrible as I imagined?

Well, I got my answers. To the first question, it was gratifying to discover the author shared my curiosity. And of course, that made sense. We all want to know if those doctors were aberrations, in which case we, the average joes of the world are safe, or whether they started out as normal people like us and circumstances changed them, which would mean, we are all walking time bombs. My second question about just how grim their experiments were, took over two-thirds the book to answer, as if the author were priming us for the severity of the truth. I admit that was necessary, but it sure wasn’t pleasant. It’s a big book and the writer likes his long compound sentences. So the worry I had at the beginning about the true horrors was made far worse, thinking, those experiments must be a thousand times darker than I imagined for him to prime us this much.

In the end, I was surprised by the truth. Hey, I’d spend a lot of years speculating, and for the truth to be outside all of my myriad scenarios came as a shock. The truth was that the doctors were so varied in their behaviours and choices, the only theme running through their experience is the background of death camp horror.

On the one hand, you had doctors who bluntly told the Nazis they would not work in Auschwitz, they would not select people for the gas chamber, they would not do experiments on inmates, and they were strongly opposed to the idea that any doctor should do that work. You would think these defiant physicians would have been sent to the gas chamber themselves, or at the very least punished by their psycho overlords. But no. The Nazis said, no problem, we understand. And that was that.

On the other hand, there were those who not only quickly adapted to life in Auschwitz, they led the charge in dragging the place down to a lower circle of hell. They set the precedent of standing on the platform for the arriving trains and being the ones who ‘selected’ who would be killed and who would go to work in the camp. They were the ones who volunteered to do research to improve the efficiency of the killing apparatus. They were the ones who recruited younger colleagues, who defined their own extreme experiments on inmates and went farther into the dark side than any ordinary Nazi ever would have. Yeah, doctors. Not poor victims, but leaders.

As for the experiments themselves, well, I imagined a great deal of gratuitous violence. Yes, there was that, but it was always associated with ‘selections’ on the platform or treatment of patients before or after the experiments. Things like beatings and neglect, not outlandish experiments per se. That’s not to say that the experiments themselves weren’t bizarre and inhuman. But they were all ostensibly to further the doctor’s own research in the service of the fatherland’s racial purity agenda.

There were many tidbits of historical information that really set me back in my chair. The fact that it was Americans who were the biggest proponents of population control, though it was the Germans who carried out the Americans’ ideas. The fact that the Nazis kept the death camps secret from their own people. The fact that Jewish doctors worked side-by-side with the Nazi doctors in the death camps.

It was a harrowing read, just as I expected. But it was completely worth it. The rigour and breadth of the author’s research is inspiring. Though it was published in the 80s, it still stands as a landmark work, for the author was able to interview many eye-witnesses, both doctors and inmates, who are now dead. Read it and weep for us as a species.

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The Short Stories of Saki

I’ve been rediscovering some of the treasures in my personal library lately. The works of Saki is one of them. I just finished re-reading Saki after a thirty-six year holiday from his nimble-minded wit. In the intervening years I did dabble a bit here and there, reading a story or two to remind myself that the world is bigger than work, babies and mortgages. But now that I have the leisure of setting my own hours, Saki was at the top of my list for re-reading. Actually, that’s not true. Proust was at the top of the list. But he got bumped into the rhubarb for a second time, a hundred pages into Swann’s Way. I have leisure now, not immortality.

Saki, for me, belongs to that world of charming British snoot – full of bon mots, six mile sentences and pre-World War optimism – that was a sort of literary apex from which we’ve been descending for the past hundred years. I didn’t want to finish the book. It ends with a biographical sketch by his sister, and of course counts his death in the trenches of WWI. He and Proust had a lot in common, aunt-wise. And I always want to picture him, a kid of ten, way too smart and mischievous for his own good, having to put up with his grandmother and two squabbling maiden aunts while his father worked overseas.

His stories are like endless appetizers that are so good, you never notice that dinner never arrived. Most are just a couple of pages, easily read just before bed or over breakfast. Many of my favorites are mere conversation pieces where the maiden aunt does the setups and the dandyish nephew the zingers. Some are, plot-wise, works of utter perfection. Every word performing a job of both advancing story and painting scenery, with a satisfying, unexpected twist at the end. Very few in the collection are mediocrities, but there are a handful, forgivable by the better ones.

I love me a good turn of phrase. Shaw, Wilde, Chesterton all those over-read writers who could run rings around most of the rest of us, well, Saki is their court jester, the impish brother who always had a prank, a song or a game to liven things up. I’m sure he did all the pip-pip upper-class British nostril wagging that Monty Python skewered so well. But at heart, he was a great writer, a great humorist and one of the biggest hearted human beings that ever lived. Maybe I’ll read him again before I kick the bucket. I may not be immortal, but some books need no readings, others need three.

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A Few Books I’ve Read Lately

Stuffed-and-Starved-by-Raj-Patel

Stuffed and Starved, by Raj Patel
It took the author a chapter or so to nab me, and though it came out in 2007, it is still essential reading for anyone concerned about the extreme centralization of our food supply. 4 out of 5 stars.

A-Field-Guide-to-Your-Own-Back-Yard-by-John-Jason-Mitchell

A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, by John Jason Mitchell
This is halfway between a literary romp (where we get to see common things in the light of uncommon knowledge and sculpted turns of phrase) and a bathroom book that you can’t bring yourself to read cover to cover.  3 out of 5 stars.

Capitalism-A-Ghost-Story-by-Arundhati-Roy

Capitalism, A Ghost Story, by Arundhati Roy
Given Ms. Roy’s lofty reputation, I expected more out of this little book of essays. Far too much of it reads like the hallway mutterings of an eccentric pundit whose committee meeting didn’t quite go her way. If you’re going to address a global audience on a local topic, a little background preamble is always helpful. Sadly, she launches into full rant mode before she get’s our ear. 2 out of 5 stars.

Here,-by-Richard-McGuire
Here, by Richard McGuire
This is a graphic novel that gives little snapshots of the history of one place, from one perspective, over time. Lots of time. Millions of years, to be exact. What’s cool is, he overlays little windows of coincident events from other eras on a single page. You can’t help but be drawn into the nostalgia for things that have passed through that place. 4 out of 5 stars.

A-Walk-in-the-Woods-by-Bill-Bryson

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
I probably don’t need to say much about this book. Half the world read it years ago. It’s the third of his books I’ve read and it’s by far the most personal, anecdotal and hilarious. If you’re looking for a pleasant read, go for it. It’ll be worth every penny you pay for it. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

The-Life-and-Times-of-the-Thunderbolt-Kid-by-Bill-Bryson

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
In the same way the movie, The Goonies encapsulated everything you could ever want in a boys adventure story, the Thunderbolt Kid embraces every single childhood memory from someone who grew up in the 1950s. Here, I thought A Walk in the Woods was full of goofy story after goofy story. Hoi. This thing takes the cake. Lots out laugh-out-loud moments. 4 out of 5 stars.

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My Latest Book

The Sneaking Girl and the Other Queen - by G.C.McRae - 270

I’m sticking a fork in it. Six fairy tales in six months. As I may have mentioned, I’m releasing these stories as single publications. Next year, they’ll come out in a print book called, Seven Tales. They are all long-form stories that together will make up a novel-length book. Each has its own set of odd characters and its own twisted arc. The goal was to write something as good as the best traditional fairy tales. I’ll leave that up to you to judge whether I’ve succeeded.

The Sneaking Girl on Amazon

Oh, by the way, the cover image is by the great Russian painter, Alexei Harlamov (1840–1925).

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Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

I’ve just finished Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything and I completely enjoyed it. Somewhere in the first few chapters I remarked to my wife that I was really pleased to be reading something so contemporary (the book mentions events that happened as recently as June 2014) and yet so comprehensive. It’s not a doom and gloom book, eluminating the causes and consequences of climate change for the unenlightened. It’s more a practical look at where we are now and what our choices are, given the determination of fossil fuel companies to drill to the last drop and the climate intransigence of our governments in the face of big money’s big pressure.

The book has moved the conversation forward, not with data, but with realistic paths for the anti-fossil fuel movement to follow in the future. I appreciated her list of shining examples of states and countries that have successfully resisted fracking or moved toward greener power. I also enjoyed hearing that some of the biggest green groups on the planet are in cahoots with big oil.

For me though, the book floats, fingers crossed, in what I’d call a state of steely-eyed hopium. She’s firmly on the side of those who believe it is possible to make a switch from fossil fuels to solar, wind and wave before we heat the planet enough to cause our own extinction. And she leans quite heavily toward getting there using the model of Indigenous respect for Mother Earth and the Indigenous land rights movement. Nothing wrong with that in itself. But halfway through the book, it occurred to me that the wrong battles are being fought.

Before I describe the tangent my brain went off on, let me encourage you to buy the book. This is one smart and talented writer who knows her stuff. Even if you don’t agree with all of her conclusions, you will certainly enjoy her journey.

So here’s my tangent – why activists may be fighting the wrong battles, or at least, fighting battles that even if they win, will still lose them the war.

In the current climate crisis, I am always leery of those who spend more time talking about who is to blame and what it will be like afterward than they do trying to save themselves. Hey, I’m all for solar power and stopping the burning of fossil fuels from baking the planet. But there are a couple of elephants in the room that Ms. Klein and many other otherwise thoughtful writers fail to address.

When people think of climate change, the picture most commonly in their heads is one where today is mostly fine, with a few aberrant exceptions like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. There is the certainty that as we burn more fossil fuels, we’re going to be in deep trouble. And of course, there is the very real worry that the next time the weather dice are rolled, your own family might be affected. To rectify those worries, we buy Priuses and local produce, click Like on Facebook when someone says No to another bout of fracking or pipeline building. We trust that at some point, our economy will be fully greened, oil will only be used for french fries and gas, well, we won’t talk about Uncle Freddy’s little toot at Thanksgiving.

It is assumed that scenarios where bad weather days happen every day or there is an extinction event just after lunch are at least a hundred years away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the phrase “in order to keep the Earth’s temperature below 2°C”. It’s become a mantra for climate activists the world over. Well, what if I told that we reached 2°C a long time ago and that 4°C is a done deal. Not ‘maybe’ 4°C, not ‘with the right climate models’ 4°C. Actually, 100% locked in, and no one is doing a damn thing about it.

Let me explain. In all our worry about warming up the atmosphere, there is an annoying little law of thermal physics that isn’t getting a lot of airplay. And that’s the fact that heating takes time and we are currently experiencing a delayed response. It’s called Latent Heat, and atmospheric scientists discovered that it takes about 40 years for that CO2 we’re pumping out to reach its full effect.

Anyone who does not know what Latent Heat is will have a false sense of security. It is not hard to understand if I do not use physics jargon. Place on a hot stove a pot of cold water containing 1 kg of ice cubes. Stir the ice water with a long thermometer and take temperature readings. My question is: When will the thermometer begin to show a rise in temperature? Answer: After all the ice has melted. In other words, all the heat from the stove would first all go into melting the ice, without raising the water temperature. The amount of heat entering a system without raising the temperature of the system is called Latent Heat. It takes 80 calories of heat to melt one gram of ice. So in this case, the first 80,000 calories of heat from the stove went into melting the 1 kg of ice first. Only when the ice is all gone will the water temperature rise, and it will do so until it reaches 100C, when the water will begin to boil. Once again, Latent Heat comes into play, and the water temperature will stabilize at the boiling point – until all the water have changed from liquid to vapour, at which point the temperature of the dry pot will rise to the temperature of the flame itself. So how does this apply to Earth’s climate? Consider the Arctic Ocean to be a gigantic pot of ice water, and the sun as the stove. For as long as there is still sea ice to melt, the Arctic Ocean will remain relatively cool, in spite of the ever increasing solar heat entering the Arctic ocean due to ever decreasing ice cover. When the sea ice is gone in the summer, as early as the latter part of this decade, the Arctic Ocean’s temperature will steeply rise, and when it does, so will the global mean temperature, and all hell will break lose. (Source)

So here’s the first elephant in the room. Between 1800 and 1975, the world used a total of 403 billion barrels of oil. In the past 40 years, from 1976 to 2015, we used more than a trillion barrels of oil, well over twice the 1800-1975 amount. That’s just oil. Coal, natural gas and other heat-trapping gasses are in addition, but the trajectory is the same (coal use doubled since 1990, gas use in the U.S. has had a five-fold increase). So, 1800 to 1975, 403 billion barrels of oil.

Up to now, the global temperature has risen an average of .8 degrees. Given the promise of all that latent heat, we can expect that by 2055, 40 years from now, the world will be on average 2°C hotter. Some would say 3°C or more, but we’ll be generous to the doubters and say, at least 2°C hotter than in 1800.

The second elephant is economic. Since the industrial revolution, we have been riding on the coattails of the cheapest energy available on the planet, derived from our beloved fossil fuels. When those fuels become too rare and therefore too expensive to extract (as we go over their production peaks), a stable economy goes south with them. All the world’s hopes of solar, wind and wave power are pointless if no one can afford to build or buy them. There are lots of other reasons why the world’s economy might crash in the next 40 years. Many forecasters are astonished that it hasn’t crapped out already. But the fact we have no replacement for our incredibly efficient black bubbly spells certain doom for the engines of transport, agriculture, and a legion of other human activities. When oil goes, the party is over. Before the fracking boom, it was expected that humanity would drink every drop of oil on the planet by around 2050. Now, some would say fracking has thrown us a life preserver. The only question now is, come 2050, will the rich still be able to afford oil? Because the rest of us sure as heck won’t be able to.

Alone, each of these elephants has the power to stop civilisation in its tracks. Together, it becomes a certainty. Here’s why.

We are all seeing rather less of the Sun. Scientists looking at five decades of sunlight measurements have reached the disturbing conclusion that the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface has been gradually falling. Paradoxically, the decline in sunlight may mean that global warming is a far greater threat to society than previously thought.

The effect was first spotted by Gerry Stanhill, an English scientist working in Israel. Comparing Israeli sunlight records from the 1950s with current ones, Stanhill was astonished to find a large fall in solar radiation. “There was a staggering 22% drop in the sunlight, and that really amazed me,” he says.

Intrigued, he searched out records from all around the world, and found the same story almost everywhere he looked, with sunlight falling by 10% over the USA, nearly 30% in parts of the former Soviet Union, and even by 16% in parts of the British Isles. Although the effect varied greatly from place to place, overall the decline amounted to 1-2% globally per decade between the 1950s and the 1990s.

Gerry called the phenomenon global dimming, but his research, published in 2001, met with a sceptical response from other scientists. It was only recently, when his conclusions were confirmed by Australian scientists using a completely different method to estimate solar radiation, that climate scientists at last woke up to the reality of global dimming.

Dimming appears to be caused by air pollution. Burning coal, oil and wood, whether in cars, power stations or cooking fires, produces not only invisible carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas responsible for global warming) but also tiny airborne particles of soot, ash, sulphur compounds and other pollutants.

This visible air pollution reflects sunlight back into space, preventing it reaching the surface. But the pollution also changes the optical properties of clouds. Because the particles seed the formation of water droplets, polluted clouds contain a larger number of droplets than unpolluted clouds. Recent research shows that this makes them more reflective than they would otherwise be, again reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. (Source)

Gruesome as it sounds for a scientist to benefit from the events of 9/11, when all the aircraft in the US were grounded after 9/11, it was a perfect opportunity to study the effects of global dimming. Sure enough, without all those aircraft polluting the sky, the temperature in the States shot up a full degree C. Which does not bode well for us in the future when we stop burning fossil fuels. And that could happen for either of two reasons. Either we’ve figured out how to make ‘green’ jets that don’t pollute or we run out of cheap oil to make jet fuel and our fleets are grounded with the rest of the economy.

So here we are with an horrific arithmetic (say that ten times fast).  We can expect at least 2°C total rise in temperature by 2055 just from the amount of oil, gas and coal we’ve already burned (the latent heat). That’s a done deal and there’s no going back. But regardless whether our economy goes kaflooey or goes green, the average global temperature in 2055 will go up by two more degrees (when airborne pollutants are lessened). We’ve locked in 4°C, period.

Picture it this way. You are standing in a camp shower, the kind where there is a bucket above and you use a rope to tip it over on yourself. The bucket is the 4°C temperature rise we have already locked in. We have pulled the rope and we have tipped the entire contents onto ourselves. All there is left to do is cringe and wait for the impact. There is no un-tipping the bucket. It’s all up to gravity now.

The year 2055 is not some magic number where the weather’s just fine up until then and then everything happens all at once. No, 2055 is only the latest possible year that 4°C will happen. If there is another 9/11 or if the economy crashes unexpectedly, that could mean another degree or two within a week’s time. I hate to imagine what a Superstorm Sandy would look like the week after that.

The issue is, who is planning for it? Not in a bunker-mentality kind of way, where rednecks stash guns, water and food and expect to fight off the zombie hordes. I mean in a realistic, public resource mobilization manner, where our leaders face the oncoming threat with Churchillian realism and bravado.

Right now, according to the World Health Organization, 150,000 people die annually directly from the effects of climate change. That’s a lot. But what about four times that? If someone told you that half a million people (perhaps your entire city or every person you have ever met in your life) is going to die in front of you, say, on your birthday every year, wouldn’t you think it was kind of an important issue?

A great many books have been written about what has caused our current predicament, books about greedy-guts capitalism and our industrial economy’s dependence, first on coal, and now oil and gas. Just as many books have been written about what to do now that the science is in on climate change, ocean acidification and so on. I couldn’t tell you how many titles I’ve seen that promise solutions to the problem of going green in a black-as-oil world. But seriously, there are bigger fish to fry. Why are we standing around calmly discussing blame and after-party cleanup when humanity is about to experience a holocaust-level loss of life every decade or two for the next several thousand years? We’ve pulled the rope in the shower. And no, despite what the guards have told you, we’re not in here to get clean.

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The Brave Houseboy

The Brave Houseboy - by G.C.McRae - 270

I’m happy to announce that my fourth fairy tale novelette is out today. This one has taken more work than most. I knew twenty years ago that I had a great idea for a story. But it took this long for me to finally eke out a proper telling of it. Here’s the description.

The Brave Houseboy is the tale of a young boy with a tragic past and a hopeless future. He overhears the secret of a great animal horn that sits on a high shelf in his master’s library. With this knowledge, small, frightened and powerless as he is, the houseboy realises that only he can save the kingdom where he lives. As with all the other traditional fairy tales by G.C.McRae, this one is a perfect bedtime story for young and old.

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The Attacking Ocean by Brian Fagan

The book is subtitled “The Past, Present, and Future of Rising Sea Levels”, a phrase which may sell books, but doesn’t accurately describe what you’re paying for. The Attacking Ocean is the history of sea levels, both rising and falling, since the last ice age and how man has acted on and reacted to those changes. The Past takes up 85% of the book, the Present 10% and The Future, a meagre 5%. The author approaches the subject as a researcher, meaning the story is long on data and short on thoughful assimilation. There is alot to learn here about Dutch dikes, Bangladeshi floods and what the Mississippi river was like before man began to screw with it’s natural flow.

Would I read it again? No. Even by the title you can tell the author believes the story is one of Good Man against Bad Nature. There is no hint that perhaps we deserve every drop of the floods we’ve caused by raising sea levels in the wake of our industrial activities. The last line of the book says it all. “The sooner we confront our predicament head-on, the better, for our challenge is to master the earth.” Master this, bucko. A little less mastery would be best for everyone – and everything – on our little planet.

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The Dollmaker’s Daughter

The Dollmaker's Daughter - by G.C.McRae

My third fairy tale novelette, The Dollmaker’s Daughter, comes out today. This one’s significantly darker than the first two. If you’re a fan of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, you’ll love this. Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

“The Dollmaker’s Daughter is a tale of twin princesses who lead vastly different lives. Separated at birth, one girl is raised in the forest, poor and maimed, but much loved. The other lives in royal comfort in an opulent palace, but is sorely neglected. Unaware of each other, the girls’ paths continually cross until their true fates are revealed when one makes a doll in the other’s image. Author of The Seven Sisters and The Boy Smith, G.C.McRae has written a tale for all time that is at once shocking, humorous, and heart-warming.”

Link to The Dollmaker’s Daughter on Amazon

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The Boy Smith and the Giant of the North

The Boy Smith and the Giant of the North, by G.C.McRae

If you’re looking for something quick to read this weekend, my second novelette is out on Amazon. It’s another original fairy tale, this time dealing with a kid having to face four impossible tasks. The book is usually $.99, but today and tomorrow only, it’s free as Steve McQueen at the end of Papillon.

So here you go, read it to your kids as a bedtime story or curl up with a glass of vino and your favorite blankie. And if you like it (or not), I’d sure appreciate a few words of review.

Link to “The Boy Smith” on Amazon

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