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I’m a Word Person

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I’m a Word Person ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

The school mailed out deficiency slips in the middle of the quarter. It was to alert your parents that you were failing a class, or nearly failing, and that you would almost certainly get a failing grade when grades came out at the end of the quarter, unless, in the meantime, you applied yourself assiduously to the subject, hired somebody to tutor you, or generally improved your study habits.

Algebra for me was like a bad dream. I’m sure that Satan thought up algebra on one of his bad days. I hated the class and I hated Mr. Fatty, the teacher. He had a booming voice and I was afraid of him. He wasn’t much taller than me, but he was so fat that his upper arms were like hams and he had rolls of fat on his forehead. He never wore a coat on the coldest days in winter and he sweated all the time. This is the absolute truth. I wouldn’t make this up.

I was mostly a good student, though uninspired. The good students who made decent grades, and would probably go on to college, took algebra. Everybody else—the dumbbells, hillbilly kids, and special education rejects—took general math in place of algebra. I didn’t want to take general math with all those losers—I was sure it would mark me for life—so I signed up for algebra, even though I knew from the beginning it would have its own tragic consequences.

When my deficiency slip came in the mail, I knew I was in for some trouble. I could have hidden it and pretended it didn’t come, but I knew my father would find out about it later (Mr. Fatty lived right down the street from us) and then I would be in double trouble: not only for failing algebra but for hiding the deficiency slip.

After supper I took the deficiency slip out of its envelope, obligingly unfolded it, and handed it to my father with a smile.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“I’m not flat-out failing it!” I said. “I have a ‘D’ instead of an ‘F’!”

All my exchanges with my father were fraught with anger and high drama. He had the parenting skills of a garden gnome. One, two, three, and he was already in high dudgeon.

He read the notice through a couple of times before he realized what he was seeing. I got well out of his way so he couldn’t take a swing at me.

“Do you realize what this means?” he said.

“It means I’m not doing so great in algebra,” I said.

“We’re going down to Mr. Fatty’s house right now and talk to him about this!” he said, getting red in the face.

“No! No! No!” I screamed. “I’d rather die!”

“How can you be failing algebra?” he railed.

“I hate algebra!” I said. “It makes me sick! It doesn’t make any sense! All those X’s and Y’s! All those formulas! I’m a word person! Not a formula person!”

“If you’re not good at math and science,” he said, “you might as well not even go to school!”

“That’s fine with me!” I said.

“What?”

“I’ll bring the form for you to sign tomorrow.”

“What form?”

“The consent form you’ll need to sign for me to drop out of school. I’ll tell everybody I’m quitting. How about if we make Friday my last day?”

“You’re a regular little smart-aleck, you know that?” he said.

“How about if we move the TV into my room?” I said. “I’m going to have plenty of time now to watch it.”

“How about if I just kick your ass around the block a few times?” he said.

Copyright 2017 by Allen Kopp

Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Gulliver’s Travels ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Irish writer and clergyman Jonathan Swift lived from 1667 to 1745. His most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels (complete title: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships) was first published in 1726. It’s an account, in four sections, of the seafaring adventures of one Lemuel Gulliver, ship’s surgeon, and his sometimes-bizarre adventures among the strange inhabitants of strange lands that nobody in Europe ever heard of or knew about. It’s always through misfortune that Gulliver has his adventures. First he is shipwrecked and finds himself in the land of Lilliput, where the people are about six inches (according to Gulliver’s measurement) tall. The tiny people don’t trust him, of course, because he is so big and might take it into his head to smash them to pieces. It takes many hundreds of them to tie him down, including by the hair of his head. Eventually they come to trust him, though, and let him roam freely. He falls out of favor with the King and Queen, though, because he puts out a fire in the tiny Queen’s chambers in the castle by urinating on it.

He returns home to his wife and children in England after his adventures in Lilliput, but he is a seafaring man and just can’t stay away from the sea. He is only home for a few months before he sets out again. This time misfortune brings him to Brobdingnag, a land where all the inhabitants are giants compared to him. He is kept as a pet or a curiosity in a “traveling box” and eventually ends up in the royal court, where he spends many hours conversing with the king in the king’s native language, which Gulliver quickly learns.  On a trip to the seaside, the box in which he is traveling is snatched up by an eagle and dropped into the sea, where Gulliver is rescued by sailors and returned to his native England.

On his next seafaring adventure, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates; he is marooned and soon picked up by the “flying island” of Laputa. The people of Laputa aren’t overly big or small, but they are strange. They blindly pursue science without any practical results. They use great resources and manpower to research preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marbles for pillows, mixing paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons. After his sojourn in (or on) Laputa, Gulliver is awaiting passage to Japan when he visits the island of Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures, including Julius Caesar, Brutus, Homer, and Aristotle, among others. On the island of Luggnagg, he discovers the immortal race of people known as the struldbrugs. They don’t have the gift of eternal youth, though; they get old and stay old forever.

On his fourth and final adventure, Gulliver returns to sea as captain of a merchantman. His crew mutinies and keep him tied up below deck for weeks, after which they leave him on the first piece of land they come to and then continue as pirates. He comes across a race of hideous humanoid creatures, which he finds out later, are known as Yahoos. The Yahoos are filthy and savage, human beings in their basest form. We learn that Yahoos are merely what pass for people back home. This is Swift’s statement about the human race and his not-very-high opinion of it.

Soon he meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent talking horses. He finds them to be everything humans are not: kind, caring, thoughtful, considerate, selfless, and completely alien to the idea of lying, war and warfare. In short, they lack all the qualities that make human beings so odious.

Gulliver is treated well by the Houyhnhnms and comes to admire them among all creatures he has ever encountered. He comes to want to be like them and live as they do. Much to his dismay, however, an Assembly of Houyhnhnms decides that Gulliver, as a Yahoo, has too much reasoning ability for his own good and poses a threat to the Houyhnhnms. They expel him, even though he would like to live among them forever, and he thereby returns to England. He is unable to reconcile himself to living again among the Yahoos, even though he is one of them, and remains a recluse in his own home in England, avoiding his family and all other people, and spends his time in the company of his horses in the stable.

Gulliver’s Travels exists on several levels. It is a satire, a science fiction story, a fantasy, an adventure story, and a forerunner to the modern novel; strangely accessible and readable, almost three hundred years after its first publication. Jonathan Swift stated that one of his purposes in writing the story was to write it for all, the high-born and the low, and to vex the world rather than divert it. It became an instant classic upon its publication and a huge literary success.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

As High as an Elephant’s Eye

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As High as an Elephant’s Eye ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

(This is a revised version of a short story I posted a while back.)

We’re in my parents’ old green Pontiac. Mother is driving and grandma is in the front seat with her. In the back seat, I can’t see out the window when I’m sitting down, so I stand up and hold onto the back of the seat, something the mean old mister won’t let me do when he’s driving. I’m excited because we’re going to the store and I can probably get my mother to buy me something.

Mother pulls onto the enormous parking lot of Champ’s Supermarket. (Shop Like a Champ at Champ’s.) She has trouble finding a place to park and when she finds one it’s all the way on the far side of the lot away from the store.

“I don’t know why it’s so crowded today,” she says.

I’m all ready to get out of the car and go in with her, but she tells me I have to wait with grandma.

“I want to go!” I say.

“Well, you can’t.”

“Bring me some Blackjack gum.”

“If they have it.”

“I know they have it! It’s right where you stand in line to pay.”

“I have a lot on my mind. I can’t guarantee I’ll remember a small thing like gum.”

“Bring me some clove gum, too.”

“You’re not greedy, are you?”

“No.”

“Either one or the other. You can’t have both.”

“Well, then, if I can only have one, I want the clove. No, I want the Blackjack. No, make it the clove. No, I want the Blackjack.”

“You’ll be lucky to get any.”

“I never heard of clove gum,” grandma says.

“It’s good,” I say. “It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.”

“It’ll rot your teeth.”

“No, it won’t! It’s good for your teeth!”

“Oh, dear!” mother sighs. “This is going to take a while, I can see. They’re so crowded today and I have prescriptions to get filled.”

“Drop them off at the drug counter and pick them up when you’re finished with everything else,” grandma says.

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’ll do.”

“Do you want me to go in with you?”

“No, then we’ll all have to go because I don’t want Buster Brown staying in the car by himself.”

“I don’t mind,” I say.

“Somebody might come along and kidnap you.”

“No, they won’t!”

“Kidnapping is a serious thing,” grandma says, and I can hardly keep from laughing.

I think about being kidnapped and try to decide if I would like it. If it kept me from having to go to school, I’d like it all right, if whoever kidnapped me didn’t slap me in the face and treated me the way I’d want to be treated.

Mother gets out of the car and disappears into the maze of parked cars. I’m starting to feel hot because the afternoon sun is shining on my right side so I roll down the window all the way and stick my head out.

“There’s more people right here than live in the whole town,” I say.

“I don’t know where they all come from,” grandma says. “Everybody must have a lot of money except us.”

“She sure has been gone a long time,” I say.

“Two minutes,” grandma says. “You have to learn to be patient.”

“No, I don’t! I don’t want to be patient!”

“You have to sit and wait and not complain about it no matter how long it takes.”

“I brought my connect-the-dots book,” I say.

“I have my magazine,” she says. “See, that’s what being patient is.”

I open my connect-the-dots book to a page on which is obviously a cowboy on a horse, but you’re not supposed to know it’s a cowboy on a horse until you’ve connected all the dots. I can tell what it is, though, even before I connect the dots.

I don’t like drawing in my book so I use my number-three pencil that’s worn down to a nub and connect a few dots very lightly so I can go back later and erase them with a big green eraser I have at home in my desk.

Grandma is reading an article in her magazine about “getting older.” It doesn’t mean going from sixth to seventh grade. It means going from forty to fifty.

“Life begins at forty,” she says.

“What does that mean?”

“It means that by the time you’re forty you should have all your problems straightened out and your kids raised, and you should be able to enjoy life the way you’re supposed to.”

“I’m not ever having any kids,” I say.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like babies. They’re nasty and they scream all the time.”

“You’ll change your mind when you grow up and meet a lovely young girl and want to get married.”

“That won’t ever happen to me.”

“You’ll be lonely if you don’t get married.”

“No, I won’t. I’ll have plenty of cats and a few chickens and I’ll live in a big house and I won’t let anybody else come in.”

I connect a few more dots and soon I grow tired of waiting. I want my Blackjack or clove gum and I want to leave Champ’s lot. I put the book aside and put my head back and close my eyes, smelling hot cars and gasoline and feeling the sun on my head and arms.

“Do you think she’ll get me the clove gum or the Blackjack?” I asked.

“She’ll be lucky to get what she came for,” grandma says. “A pack of gum is not important.”

“To me it is.”

In a little while I’m aware of a commotion in the corner of the parking lot, not far from where we are. I hear voices and laughing and I see some kids headed over that way. It’s probably just a stupid clown or something, but I want to go see what it is so I open the door and start to get out.

“Where do you think you’re going?” grandma asks.

“I want to go over there and see what’s going on.”

“You stay in the car! You don’t want to keep your mother waiting.”

“I won’t. I’ll just be gone a minute.”

“Don’t make me have to come and get you.”

“I won’t.”

“And watch out for cars.”

As I walk over that way, I see an elephant over the tops of the cars. An elephant is something you don’t ordinarily see in this town. A crowd of people has gathered and they’re looking at the elephant as if it’s something that just came down from Mars.

The elephant is to advertise a circus that’s coming to town. A man is leading the elephant around by a leash in a fenced-in enclosure. A little girl with fuzzy blonde hair is sitting on the elephant’s neck; she looks like she’s hanging on for dear life, making snorting sounds and swiveling her head around for somebody to help her. I think she’s very silly. She screams and starts to slide off and the handler eases her down to the ground and she runs off into the crowd.

The handler holds his arm up over his head and shouts, “Anybody want a ride? Only twenty-five cents!”

He points at me and I shake my head because I don’t have any money. Since he doesn’t have any other takers at the moment, he leans over and picks me up like I’m a sack of feathers. I think he’s going to put me on the elephant’s neck where the fuzzy-headed blonde girl had been, but he just holds me up, his hot hands on my ribs, to where my face is only a few inches from the elephant’s eye.

“Did you ever see an elephant up this close?” he asks me. I shake my head and the people laugh.

I don’t know what else to do, so I reach out and put my hand on the elephant’s face right underneath his eye. He blinks three times as if he is thinking about me, studying what I look like so he’ll remember me if he sees me later. I am charmed to make his acquaintance.

The handler sets me down on the ground and I’m quickly forgotten because a different girl with a funny-looking red thing on her head is holding up a quarter, demanding that she be put on the elephant’s neck. The handler takes the money from the girl and picks her up.

When I get back to the car, mother is still in the store.

“What’s going on over there?” grandma asks.

“They’re giving rides on an elephant.”

“Did you ride?” she asks.

“It costs a quarter.”

“I think we could have scraped together a quarter if you had wanted to ride.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “I got to see the elephant’s eye up close and it didn’t cost anything.”

Before grandma can ask me any more questions, mother comes back. She’s carrying two small bags; not a very impressive showing for as long as she was gone.

“Did you get my gum?” I ask.

She reaches into the bag and hands the Blackjack gum over the seat.

“Where’s the clove gum?” I ask. “I wanted both.”

“We seldom get what we ask for in life,” mother says, and I know the subject is closed.

“All right. Just checking.”

She starts the car and pulls out of the spot, but the cars are lined up to get off the lot, so we have to wait a while. I get a piece of the gum unwrapped and into my mouth as fast as I can. Yes, Blackjack is definitely my favorite flavor, with clove a close second.

“Can we go to the circus?” I ask.

“What circus?” mother asks.

“There’s going to be a circus.”

“We’ll go only if you can pay for it.”

“I don’t have any money,” I say.

“Same old sad story,” she says.

I know she’s teasing, but I think I can get her to agree to get her to go if I keep harping on the subject long enough.

We finally make it through the jam of cars waiting to get off the lot and mother pulls onto the highway with a squeal of tires. There’s a huge puddle right there and I feel a couple drops from it splash onto my arm as we drive through.

I wipe the water off my arm with my left hand and turn and look out the side window. I see the elephant’s head way over there on the corner of the parking lot over the tops of the cars and I know he can see me too.

“I’d like to own my own elephant,” I say.

“Other kids want a pony,” mother says, “but I don’t think you’ll be getting either one in the very near future.”

“When I’m grown up I’ll have whatever I want,” I say. “Life begins at forty.”

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

 

La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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La La Land ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

I was prepared to hate La La Land but, once we got past the cutesy singing-and-dancing traffic jam that opens the movie, I didn’t hate it. I can’t say it’s really my favorite kind of movie, but it’s passable entertainment for a late-December afternoon at the local art film theatre. It’s a bittersweet romance and a musical fantasy rolled up together. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) both have a dream: she wants to be an actress and he wants to be a jazz pianist and own his own jazz club. Their lack of success, however, is dazzling. She came to Los Angeles from a small town in Nebraska and has been struggling for six years to gain a foothold in the acting profession, working at a lousy job in a Hollywood coffee shop to keep herself going. He gets fired from his job playing background music in a dimly lighted restaurant because he plays real jazz on the piano instead of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”

Mia and Sebastian have several chance encounters, the first one being an ugly traffic confrontation. She happens to hear him play in the restaurant where he works on the night he gets fired, and when she tries to congratulate him on his playing, he won’t even listen to what she has to say. Eventually they get together, though, and, in typical movie fashion, they “fall in love.”

Sebastian has another chance encounter (this movie is full of them) with an old musician acquaintance who offers him a steady job in a musical combo. The only problem is that Sebastian is away from Mia most of the time and they begin to have problems arising from their separation. Mia, for her part, continues to struggle with soulless acting auditions. She writes a one-character play and hires a theatre to perform it in, but, at the play’s one performance, only a few people show up, and she doesn’t even make enough money to pay for the theatre. Disheartened and disillusioned, she retreats to her small-town home in Nebraska. Wait a minute, though! She gets the “call” after she’s gone that might be her big breakthrough. Although Sebastian and Mia are officially finished, he drives from Los Angeles to Nebraska to get her to deliver the good news to her and see that she makes it to the audition in time.

There are singing and dancing in La La Land, but not of the Fred Astaire variety (which I detest). Whenever Mia and Sebastian are alone together, in several scenes, they go into “fantasy singing-and-dancing mode.” One of these happens at dusk on a parking lot overlooking the bowl-like valley that is Los Angeles. The most notable scene of this kind, though, is at the famous planetarium (the Griffith Observatory) where James Dean and Natalie Wood took a memorable high school field trip, along with their class, in the classic 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause. Mia and Sebastian are the only two people at the planetarium and, in their singing-and-dancing number together, defy gravity. For me, the most effective and innovative scene of the entire movie is at the end when Mia and Sebastian have their final chance encounter in a roomful of people and Sebastian plays “their song” while we are treated to a montage of soundless (except for the music) “what if” scenes. What if he hadn’t brushed her off the night he was fired? What if he hadn’t been offered a job that kept him mostly on the road? Will there be a sequel? No, a sequel would only spoil the bittersweet.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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Fences ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

Fences was first a Pulitzer Prize play by August Wilson and is now a movie directed by Denzel Washington. Set in Pittsburgh of the 1950s, it touches on themes of family, duty, loyalty, and overcoming one’s difficult past. Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson, an uneducated black man who rides on the back of a trash truck and empties trash cans into the truck. He has a best friend and co-worker named Jim Bono; a brain-damaged (from the war) brother named Gabriel; a dutiful wife named Rose (played by Viola Davis); a 34-year-old musician son (by another wife) named Lyons; and a teenage son named Cory who wants to play football. We learn about Troy’s life as he reveals it in dialogue. One of eleven children, he left home at age fourteen to make his own way. He fell into a life of crime and stealing and ended up in prison, where he spent fifteen years. If prison taught him nothing else, it taught him to go straight.

He’s had a stable marriage with Rose for eighteen years. He goes to work every day and owns the house he lives in, but life isn’t easy for him. He struggles to pays the bills and, when he wants to advance in his job from trash collector to driver, he is dismayed to learn that his company only hires white men as drivers. His friend, Jim Bono, chides him for not having a driver’s license and not being able to read, but if there’s one thing Troy has, it’s determination. Life has made him hard and intractable. He seems at times to have lost the touch of humanity he needs to get along with his family. If we come to understand Troy, we also come to not like him very much.

When Troy comes to Rose in the kitchen one day and tells her he is about to become “somebody’s daddy,” she reacts about as expected. He has taken up with a much younger woman named Alberta and has impregnated her. When he tries to explain to Rose why he has sought the company of another woman, Rose isn’t buying it; all she can see is the betrayal. She says she might have expected it when he was ten or fifteen years younger, but not at his age. “Age has nothing to do with it,” he says. Alberta makes him laugh “down to the bottoms of his shoes” and makes him forget for a little while how hard his life is.

I was lucky enough to see Fences performed live onstage a number of years ago. The movie version is essentially unchanged from the play. (The playwright, August Wilson, wrote the screenplay.) It’s fairly static and stagey for a movie; they (the filmmakers) have opened up the action a little bit, but not much. Most of it takes place in the back yard of Troy’s home and it’s a fairly talky affair. If you like authentic-sounding dialogue and are a fan of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, you’ll love Fences. If you’re a big action fan, though, and are looking for some action, you’ll probably be disappointed. This is what you might call a deep character study, a slice of life, for the more serious-minded among us.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, a 1961 novel by Scottish writer Muriel Spark, is the story of an unconventional teacher in a conservative Edinburgh girls’ school (Marcia Blaine School for Girls) in the early 1930s. She has her own “set” of six girls (“Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she says, “and she’s mine for life.”) and “progressive” teaching methods that make her a target of the “establishment” figures in the school, personified by stuffy headmistress Miss McKay. The ever-vigilant Miss McKay and others in the school would do anything to get the goods on Miss Brodie with the objective of getting her fired. They suspect her, on principle, of gross immorality and a multitude of sins and vices, short on specifics as they are. (We have here a perfect example of a novel incorporating the literary theme of “one against many.”)

Two male teachers (rare as they are in this environment) in the girls’ school are besotted with Miss Brodie. There’s Teddy Lloyd, the one-armed art master (he lost his arm in the “Great War”) and Gordon Lowther, the ginger-haired singing master. Teddy Lloyd already has a wife and a houseful of children, but this doesn’t dampen his interest for the unmarried Jean Brodie. Gordon Lowther, bachelor, lives in a big house all alone and seems to bring out the mother instinct in Miss Brodie and other of the female teachers. The two sewing mistresses, sisters named the Misses Kerr, do some housework for Mr. Lowther, and it’s in the performance of these duties that they find Miss Brodie’s nightdress folded underneath the pillow on his bed, the implication being that Miss Brodie and Gordon Lowther are sleeping together (and probably doing more than sleeping). As affectionate as Miss Brodie feels toward Gordon Lowther, she is in love with Teddy Lloyd, the art master, and he is in love with her. Miss Brodie, as she is eager to tell everyone, is a woman in her “prime.” Her prime is theoretically the best time of her life and she devotes her prime not to any mere male but to the edification of her students.  

The girls in Miss Brodie’s set are all exceptionally smart and talented, except for the doltish girl named Mary, who dies at a young age in a hotel fire, the implication being that she is too dumb to figure out how to escape a burning building. All in the set adore Miss Brodie slavishly and spend a lot of time in her company away from school, visiting points of historical interest or just talking over tea in Miss Brodie’s home. Miss McKay, the headmistress and Miss Brodie’s avowed enemy, has little private talks with each of the girls in the set, hoping to find out what exactly it is about Miss Brodie that makes her so different from the other teachers. All in the set remain faithful to Miss Brodie, but one of them will eventually betray her and Miss Brodie will go to her grave (dead from an “internal growth” at age fifty-six) not knowing which one it was.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a succinct (156 pages), ironic, gem-like novel that is fun to read and never very challenging. We find in Miss Brodie one of the true “characters” in 20th century fiction. She claims to have had a fiancé named Hugh who died in World War I, but we wonder after a while if he is just somebody she made up. And, despite her dalliances with Mr. Lowther and Mr. Lloyd, she seems a natural-born spinster, made for finer things than just being somebody’s wife. In her admiration for Hitler and Mussolini (at a time when they are seen as a terrible threat to the rest of the world) and in almost every other way she can think of, she challenges convention. (“Safety does not come first,” she says in response to a poster on the wall at school. “Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.”) She refuses to join the “crowd” or the “herd,” even if doing so would make life easier for her. She is one of those who will always be at odds with the authority figures of the world. It’s a small club, but it exists.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Star of Bethlehem ~ A Painting by Edward Burne-Jones

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The Star of Bethlehem (1890) by Edward Burne-Jones

The Star of Bethlehem is a painting in watercolor by British artist Edward Burne-Jones, who lived from 1833 to 1898. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi with an angel holding the star of Bethlehem.