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Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Perfidia ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Writer James Ellroy is unapologetically politically un-correct. If you are offended by racial slurs and blunt sex talk, he is not the writer you should be reading. He manages to insult almost every ethnic and niche group. He gets away with it, it is assumed, because all his novels are set in the not-too-distant American past, where racial prejudice and racial slurs were much more a part of everyday discourse than they are now. “If you’re looking for political correctness,” Mr. Ellroy says, “go someplace else.”

His big (almost 700 pages) novel Perfidia (a Spanish word meaning betrayal or treachery) is set in Los Angeles in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. With all those Americans dead in Hawaii and with the country now at war, fear and unease—and in some cases, hysteria—are the order of the day. The west coast of California seems the logical place that the frighteningly aggressive “Japs” will attack next. And those mandatory blackouts don’t do anything to ease peoples’ fears, either. (Imagine moving through a big city at night with all the lights turned off.)

The Japanese people in the Los Angeles area are being rounded up, no matter how innocent or blameless they are. Their property is being confiscated and they are being housed in “internment” camps. Americans are so anti-Japanese because of Pearl Harbor that they want to kill or at least defile almost every Asian they see. (Most people can’t tell the Japanese from other Asians). It’s in this atmosphere of fear and distrust that Perfidia is set.

Dr. Hideo Ashida is an Americanized Japanese. He is a brilliant forensic chemist employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. When all the Japanese people on the city payroll are canned just because of their ethnic background, Dr. Ashida manages to hold onto his job because he is so good at solving crimes. (He is, of course, called Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto, but he seems impervious to insult.) When he is out in public in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, people call him names, spit on him and, in some cases, threaten him. The police department assigns bodyguards to keep him safe.

Dr. Ashida has what he believes is a “shameful” secret. In the world that he inhabits of hyper-masculine, crime-fighting alpha-males, he is secretly gay. The lone object of his desire is one Bucky Bleichert, a boxer with whom he has been friends since high school. He sets up a hidden movie camera in the shower room to capture footage of Bucky naked. The one femme fatale in Perfidia, one Katherine “Kay” Lake, offers Dr. Ashida a roll in the hay but he, of course, isn’t interested.

On the day before the Pearl Harbor attack, a Japanese family of four, the Watanabes, are brutally murdered in their home. It appears to be a sort of ritualized killing, maybe a suicide, but the police just can’t figure it out. There’s an apparent suicide note written in Japanese that speaks of the “coming apocalypse,” but it’s too ambiguous. On examining the background of the Watanabes, the police discover they are “Fifth Column,” meaning they are part of the non-fighting branch of the Japanese military whose job it is to create disorder on the civilian front. The Los Angeles police are hoping to find a Japanese suspect to pin the Watanabe murders on, to somehow mitigate the internment of the Japanese people. If it turns out that a white person committed the murders, it will be a public relations nightmare.

If you read Perfidia and some of the other novels of James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, American Tabloid, among others) you know that the Los Angeles Police Department of the past was unspeakably corrupt, or at least it is that way in the Ellroy universe. Most of the upper tier of the police department are on the “make” in some way or other. They have no allegiance to anything other than themselves. They take drugs, cheat on their wives, kill without compunction whenever it suits them, cover up evidence, and involve themselves with gangsters and shady characters that will advance their own interests. They don’t account to anybody but themselves. These crime fighters are in some ways worse than the criminals they pursue.

Some real-life people (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, J. Edgar Hoover) appear as minor characters in Perfidia, and James Ellroy paints a very unflattering portrait of them. It’s probably a good thing they’re all dead or they might be initiating some legal action. Bette Davis having a torrid affair with police sergeant Dudley Smith? It somehow doesn’t fit in with the idea we have of Bette Davis. (Bette’s husband, we are told, is a “chains-and-leather queen.”) Joan Crawford seducing a young police officer half her age? Maybe so, but it’s an odious thought. J. Edgar Hoover with pomaded hair and buffed fingernails developing “crushes” on handsome L.A. police officers? I somehow doubt it. It’s all part of the badly damaged world of James Ellroy.

However you look at it, Perfidia is fun to read for its portrayal of a time and place. Very few of us alive now were alive seventy-five years ago at the start of World War II; this is a vivid “re-imagining” of those days. As long as the novel is, the chapters are short, the paragraphs are short, the sentences are short and punchy, and we never get bored. Keep turning those pages and eventually you’ll come to the end and want more.

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

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

Shiloh ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Shiloh ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The Battle of Shiloh (also known as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing) was fought in southwestern Tennessee, on April 6th and 7th, 1862. It was the mostly unsuccessful effort by the Southern forces to keep two armies of the Northern forces from joining together and advancing into the Confederacy. The soldiers of the South, commonly referred to as the Rebels, considered that they were trying to keep a foreign invader out of their land, as the Revolutionaries had done in 1776. Casualties were heavy on both sides (about 20,000), and people everywhere were shocked by the wholesale carnage. The Battle of Shiloh was the biggest and costliest battle up to that point in the Civil War. There were, however, worse battles to come.

Shiloh is a short (225 pages) novel by writer/historian Shelby Foote. Although it’s fiction, it’s based on actual historical records of the battle. The action is told from the point of view of regular fighting men (not generals or officers) who lived the battle firsthand: aide-de-camp, adjutant, rifleman, cannoneer, and scout. It’s told in the language of the common man, what he sees and hears on the ground, rather than that of the military strategist or the West Point graduate. We get the Southern point of view and then the Northern point of view in alternating chapters throughout the book. Both sides believed they were fighting a just cause and both sides were determined to win without giving an inch to the enemy. Many people in the South believed the war to be a lost cause from the start, considering the superior numbers and weapons of the North.

The Southern forces were winning on the first day of battle, but on the second day the tide turned in favor of the North. The two Northern armies joined forces and repulsed the Southern forces. The South wasn’t giving up, though. It was going to be a long and terrible war.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Beautiful and Damned ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Beautiful and Damned ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In college literature classes, we learned that there are about seven basic themes in all of literature and that nearly all great novels incorporate all seven of them. One of these themes is “the fall” or “fall of man.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (published in 1922), is an example of the theme of “the fall.” It concerns the young and doomed (by his own hand, by his own frailty) fictional character known as Anthony Patch. Anthony is young in the early years of the twentieth century. He is of the privileged class. He attends Harvard University and is the heir to a considerable fortune, being the only living relative of his grandfather, Adam Patch. We don’t learn how Adam Patch made all his millions, only that he is a “reformer.” From that word, we can deduce that he’s moralistic and Puritanical.

Anthony meets a debutante named Gloria Gilbert and falls in love with her. Gloria’s beauty is the wellspring of her shallowness and self-centeredness. Her beauty and desire for social status are all she has going for her. Men are, of course, drawn to her, but that’s because they’re shallow. We know that when she gets older and her looks begin to fade, she will be finished. Anthony persuades Gloria to marry her; she is easily persuaded because one day he will be very rich. The two of them are happy for a while, at least a few years, but Anthony discovers that marrying Gloria was the worst thing he ever did.

It seems that old Adam Patch will never die. Anthony could get a job, but all he does is wait around for years for the big day when the old man dies and leaves him all his money. Anthony and Gloria are a socialite couple. They throw parties (or attend parties that other people give) every night. Drinking all the time, Anthony becomes an alcoholic, if he wasn’t already one. Gloria and Anthony have only limited money that they get from their investments but—not to worry—when Anthony gets his millions all will be well. The longer they wait for the money, the more they get on each other’s nerves. They begin to hate each other and their marriage deteriorates.

One night in summer old Adam Patch decides to pay an impromptu call on his grandson and his wife at the house they’re renting. On that night, Anthony and Gloria happen to be “entertaining” guests with drinking, dancing and raucous fun. Adam Patch is appalled at what he sees (people drunk out of their senses, dancing in their underwear). He dies soon enough, but when he does Anthony discovers that he has disinherited him, leaving all his money to servants. Anthony contests the will, being forced to retain an expensive lawyer, but he isn’t given much hope that the case will go his way in court.

So, Anthony and Gloria wait out a lengthy court case, with no reason to believe they will win it in the end. Anthony continues his drinking, his money problems get worse, and he and Gloria become more alienated from each other. While World War I rages, Anthony is drafted into the army. He ends up in a miserable training camp in Mississippi and it’s while he’s there that he begins an affair with a local girl named Dot. For Anthony it’s just a little fling while he’s away from home, but for Dot it’s all or nothing. She proclaims her love for him, suggesting that she might kill herself if for any reason he should happen to leave her. She knows that Anthony has a wife back in New York, but she doesn’t care very much, believing that he will choose her (Dot) over his wife. It’s while Anthony and his unit are waiting to be shipped to France that Germany surrenders and the war ends. Dot isn’t giving Anthony up without a fight, though.

After Anthony’s stint in the army, he returns to Gloria and things only continue to get worse between them. The suit he filed to contest his grandfather’s will isn’t going anywhere and Anthony and Gloria are down on their heels. They don’t know what they are going to do for money. Neither one of them will consider going to work and earning any honest dough. They drink and quarrel, as their friends and their hopes abandon them. Anthony becomes completely unraveled and degrades and humiliates himself. But, wait a minute! The court case is still pending! Is there any chance, even a slim one, that it might still go Anthony’s way, since public sentiment has turned against “reformers” because of Prohibition?

Almost more than any other American writer of the twentieth century, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a chronicler of his age, the World War I era, the years leading up to the war, the 1920s, Prohibition, and the “Jazz Age.” We get a vivid impression, though his books and stories, of what it was like to be alive in those days that were so different from our own. Of course, a hundred years’ passage of time has romanticized the era. Maybe in 2116, people will have a romanticized view of 2016 because they didn’t live it and couldn’t possibly know what it’s like with its leaf blowers (I hear one now), cell phones, microwave ovens, computers and political lunacy.

The Beautiful and Damned, if not a great a novel, is certainly a very good one, with a strong story, vivid characters and a strong sense of time and place. Where else could we learn about New York “café society” in the years before, during and after World War I? (Through Fitzgerald’s descriptions, we see the New York streets, the park, the buildings and the trees around Anthony Patch’s apartment.) The story of Anthony Patch and his lovely bride Gloria, we are told in background material, parallels the real-life story of Fitzgerald’s tumultuous relationship with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. Plenty of heartache to go around.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

The Medici Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review

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The Medici Boy ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (better known as Donatello) was one of the most gifted sculptors and artisans of Renaissance Italy. He lived from 1386 to 1466 in the politically volatile city state of Florence. His bronze statue of David is among his greatest works and one of the most famous works of the Italian Renaissance. He shows David as a beautiful, delicately nude youth, a shepherd boy who has just slain the giant Goliath. We see David’s foot resting on Goliath’s head, a sword in his right hand, his left hand on his left hip and his left knee canted out. He is an almost androgynous figure with long, curling hair and a slight frame. He looks like anything other than a slayer of giants.

In The Medici Boy, John L’Heureux has written a purely fictional account of Donatello’s creation of his bronze statue of David and his obsessive and destructive love for the model, one Agnolo Mattei. Agnolo is a male whore, a bardassa. He prowls the streets at night, looking for men who will pay him to perform sex acts. (Donatello is, of course, a real person, while Agnolo is a fictional construct.) For all his physical appeal (some people don’t see it at all), Agnolo is a trouble-maker. He exerts a kind of spell over Donatello, a physical attraction that develops (for Donatello) into an all-consuming passion. Sodomy is, of course, a terrible sin and a crime in Florence, referred to as the “Florentine vice.” Men who engage in the forbidden practice are subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment, fines, or even death. (The penalty for each conviction is more severe than the one before.)

The Medici Boy is told in the first-person voice of one Luka Matteo, a worker in Donatello’s workshop (bottega). He is himself an artisan, but he also keeps the account books for the enterprise and handles other details that Donatello is too busy to handle himself. He has a wife, a former prostitute, and four children, two of whom are “carried off” by the Black Pest, a terrible disease that seems always to be lurking in the background in fifteenth century Italy.

Luka is a sort of step-brother to Agnolo, the male whore who has stolen Donatello’s heart, but he hates Agnolo for all the trouble he causes. (He is also a little bit jealous of Agnolo because he ingratiates himself with both men and woman.) When a political conflict erupts between the different factions in Florence, the opposing side hopes to use Agnolo to inform on Donatello, in an attempt to bring down the powerful Cosimo di Medici, a long-time associate and patron of Donatello.

For a speculative story about a real person (Donatello) in a real place (Florence, Italy), The Medici Boy is convincing and believable. We can easily believe that this is what “might have happened.” It’s obvious that the author has done a lot of research to render the time and place just right, although he has filled in the details of the lives of the characters with fictional details. It’s an easy and fascinating book to read, especially if you like historical fiction that removes you from your distasteful surroundings and transports you to another time and place. The sexual content is never graphic or offensive (after all, it was not written by Jacqueline Susann) and is handled in good taste and never sensationalized. Now that we have that out of the way, go and get the book and read it.

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review

1920 First Edition cover

1920 First Edition cover

This Side of Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

F. Scott Fitzgerald had his first novel, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, when he was only twenty-four years old. The central character in the novel is Amory Blaine, an arrogant, good-looking, heavy-drinking young man from a prosperous family. He has an indulgent mother who spoils him and a mousy father who doesn’t do much besides make money. Amory has what might be called a “golden” youth. He attends Princeton University where he and his friends spend a lot of time drinking, socializing, talking and intellectualizing, and having a good time. The glory of his youth is rather tarnished (it seems) by a series of unsuccessful love affairs with pretty but vapid girls. Each time he begins a new love affair, he believes it is the all-consuming passion of his life that will bring him eternal happiness and peace. None of them turn out the way he wants them to, however. He plans on marrying a girl named Rosalind Connage, but she throws him over at the last minute because she thinks he is essentially a loser who won’t ever be able to make enough money to suit her. Here we have one of the major themes of the novel: how the quest for money and social standing kill romance.

In his second year of college, the Great War (WWI) obtrudes. Amory enlists in the army because he believes it’s what he’s supposed to do (and because everybody else is doing it) and finds himself in France. While some of his best friends from college die in the war, Amory returns home (later he says he hated the army) to find a changed world. His father dies and his mother discovers they don’t have nearly as much money as they thought they did. (Is Amory going to be forced to go to work to earn a living?)

As Amory grows older, he becomes more disillusioned. His mother dies. His college friends die or drift away. Some investments left by his family that provide a portion of his income dry up (and this is long before the Depression). He’s afraid of being poor. He wants to write but doesn’t. He sees his youth slipping away, its promise unfulfilled. The book concludes with a long philosophical conversation he has with two men he doesn’t know (one of them turns out to be the father of a college friend who was killed in the war), in which he espouses his belief that Socialism will cure all the world’s ills. After all he goes through, he ends up by saying, “I know myself, but that is all.”

If we examine Fitzgerald’s life, we see that This Side of Paradise is largely autobiographical. Amory Blaine, his protagonist in the novel, is a heavy drinker, as was Fitzgerald (which probably contributed to his early death at age forty-four in 1940). Like Amory Blaine, Fitzgerald attended Princeton University, served a brief stint in the army during the war without seeing any real action, had some unhappy love affairs with debutantes, experienced financial reverses, and was disillusioned in early middle age.

This Side of Paradise is a novel that stops rather than ends. We imagine Amory Blaine going on for years to come, but we don’t know whether he’ll find happiness or not. He concludes, cynically, that if he finds someone to fall in love with and gets married, it will ruin him and keep him from being anything or doing anything. Romance is not the answer to anything. Will he find whatever he needs to make his life worth living? Probably not. He’ll more likely than not drink himself to death in a squalid hotel room with fly specks on the curtains and questionable stains on the carpet around the bed.  

Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp