Lily White

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In Susan Isaac's most ambitious and dazzling novel to date, we are introduced to Lee White, a criminal defense lawyer practicing on Long Island. Into her life drifts Norman Torkelson, a career con man charged with strangling to death his latest mark. At first, as Lee explains to us, the case seems routine, the evidence overwhelming. Norman - manly, magnetic, and morally reprehensible - is a man who crisscrosses America looking for patsies for his cruel marriage scam: Love 'em, liquidate their assets, leave 'em. ...
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In Susan Isaac's most ambitious and dazzling novel to date, we are introduced to Lee White, a criminal defense lawyer practicing on Long Island. Into her life drifts Norman Torkelson, a career con man charged with strangling to death his latest mark. At first, as Lee explains to us, the case seems routine, the evidence overwhelming. Norman - manly, magnetic, and morally reprehensible - is a man who crisscrosses America looking for patsies for his cruel marriage scam: Love 'em, liquidate their assets, leave 'em. Clearly, he murdered Bobette Frisch, the dumpy, sour fiftysomething bar owner who had fallen madly in love with him. But just as Lee is resigning herself to the inevitable "Guilty!" verdict, she begins to have doubts. What, after all, was Norman's motive? Why not do what he had done for the last twenty years: run, and leave behind a broke and brokenhearted victim? Lee starts to wonder if her client is not merely not guilty but covering for the real killer and, in doing so, performing the first selfless act of his life. As the Torkelson case unfolds, a second narrator chimes in to tell us the story behind the story: the tale of Lee's life. Born Lily White, Lee is a smart, pretty, and privileged child coming of age on Long Island. Her parents have little time for her or her younger sister, devoted as they are to the pursuit of shallowness. Her mother, Sylvia, who looks like Lauren Bacall's twin sister with a mild eating disorder, is busy with the exhausting work of keeping up her wardrobe. Her father, Leonard Weissberg - Weiss - and finally White, is consumed by his chi-chi Manhattan fur salon, his model-bookkeeper mistress, and his obsession with the family next door, the old-money, oh-so-social Taylors. When Lee marries Jazz Taylor, the scion of these blue-bloods, her life seems blessed. Suddenly she has her mother's approval, her father's love - and a sublime husband. No matter that she has to give up her dream job in the Manhattan D.A.'s Office to move

What happens when the dreams you dare to dream really do come true? Only deception, betrayal, and life lessons like you wouldn't believe! Susan Isaacs, the bestselling author of After All These Years and Compromising Positions, has crafted her most dazzling novel of manners and morality, Long Island-style. Lily White is a seamless story of con artists and true lovers, of treachery and devotion—and of one brave lawyer's triumphant fight for injustice.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
A big, fat, happy feast of a book. . . . [Isaacs's] most confident and appealing. . . . [She] is both funny and piercing, a highly satisfying combination.
Murder, sex, and humor make for a wickedly entertaining combination.
Her richest book yet.
Boston Globe
Riveting. . . . Best of all is the character of Lee, smart and sassy . . . self-deluded at the same time. Her good-humored, self-knowing, self-mocking voice is a treat for the ear.
Baltimore Sun
The ingredients for another bestseller.
Los Angeles Times
A one-volume vacation reader.
Cincinnati Post
Stunning. . . . [Isaacs] has created an ingenious novel that breaks out of the mystery genre. In fact, it sets the genre — in which, typically, the killer is brought to justice — on its ear.
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Touching, funny, and fast-paced.
Atlanta Journal
Shiny fun, jampacked full of story.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Lily White is a winner . . . with wit, insight, and enough twists and turns to keep the pages turning.
Entertainment Weekly
Isaacs delivers witty, wicked satire from beginning to end.
Fresh Air
Not only an entertaining legal drama, but a chilling account of family scapegoating. . . . Reading this smart, sassy book on the beach will be the very picture of civilization and its contents.
Lily is a funny, nervy survivor of some major house guest you'll wish could stay longer.
Miami Herald
A well-written, moving story that will keep the reader engrossed all the way.
Library Journal
Criminal defense lawyer Lily White thought she had it all: a career, a husband, and a darling daughter. But just as she is facing her toughtest case yet, her husband says he wants out of the marriageto marry Lily's sisterand he wants to take the daughter with him. Start thinking about who will play Lily in the movie, since Isaacs's novels usually end up on the silver screen.
Joanne Wilkinson
Can a tough, smart Jewish girl from a nouveau riche Long Island family find happiness with a gay black Republican? The answer is a resounding yes in the ever-witty Isaacs' latest genre-bending mystery-comedy. Told in chapters alternating between her personal life and her work, this is the story of Lily White, a funny, ambitious criminal-defense attorney. Lily becomes overinvolved in the case of her current client, Norman Torkelson, a con man who woos and then bilks desperate, lonely women. Something went terribly wrong in his last con, and the mark ended up dead. Now Torkelson is charged with murder; is he guilty, or was his gorgeous, ditsy girlfriend--prone to wearing orange lipstick and neon-colored miniskirts--overcome by jealous rage? As Lily pulls out all the stops in trying to determine what really happened, she also reveals her painful personal life--her increasing distance from her blue-blooded, ne'er-do-well husband, his startling revelation that he is in love with her sister, and her subsequent efforts to build a makeshift family with her best friend and mentor, an elegant gay black man. Aside from the many great one-liners and a gutsy, likable heroine, Isaacs offers a host of zinging observations on the notion of family, the politics of our criminal-justice system, and the importance of good eye shadow, all wrapped up in an interesting plot. Now that's entertainment.
Kirkus Reviews

Isaacs achieves a personal best with this warmly spirited tale of a Long Island lawyer conned over and over by life and love.

Lily "Lee" White, daughter of a wealthy WASPophile Jewish furrier and a beautiful, vain, neglectful mother, had always done her best to transcend her shallow background, attending NYU Law, marrying the love of her life, and serving the people in the Manhattan D.A.'s office. For a while, it seemed she had succeeded, as her attorney-husband, Jasper "Jazz" Taylor, the rich, Episcopalian boy next door, joined a prestigious Wall Street firm and Lee reaped her first major triumphs in the courtroom. But Jazz wasn't comfortable as a lawyer, and Lee couldn't help feeling betrayed when he moved her back to their hometown of Shorehaven and became president of her father's ritzy Manhattan fur boutique. Joining the Long Island D.A.'s homicide department, Lee did find some comfort in a friendship with Will Stewart, the super-elegant head of the department, who held her hand as Lee adjusted to the strains of motherhood, cared for Jazz's Down's-syndromeinflicted younger brother, helped her younger sister, Robin, recover from a heroin addiction, and tried to put up with a mother disappointed in Lee's mediocre sense of style. The strain proved too much when Jazz and Robin announced they were in love, wanted to marry, and intended to sue for custody of Lee's and Jazz's child. Now, while representing a con man who seduces lonely women for their money and may have actually murdered one, Lee reviews her own foolish moves in life and takes comfort in the knowledge that her exile from an unloving family and deceitful marriage has left room for a happier, if much more offbeat, life than she ever could have imagined.

As always, Isaacs's strengths lie in her feisty characters, lively pacing, and perfectly tuned comic sense.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061093098
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/1997
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 656
  • Product dimensions: 4.18 (w) x 6.75 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Isaacs

Susan Isaacs is the bestselling author of eleven novels, two screenplays, and one work of nonfiction. She lives on Long Island.


Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, she worked as an editorial assistant at Seventeen magazine. In 1968, Susan married Elkan Abramowitz, a then a federal prosecutor. She became a senior editor at Seventeen but left in 1970 to stay home with her newborn son, Andrew. Three years later, she gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. During this time she freelanced, writing political speeches as well as magazine articles. Elkan became a criminal defense lawyer.

In the mid-seventies, Susan got the urge to write a novel. A year later she began working on what was to become Compromising Positions, a whodunit set on suburban Long Island. It was published in 1978 by Times Books and was chosen a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Her second novel, Close Relations, a love story set against a background of ethnic, sexual and New York Democratic politics (thus a comedy), was published in 1980 by Lippincott and Crowell and was a selection of the Literary Guild. Her third, Almost Paradise, was published by Harper & Row in 1984, and was a Literary Guild main selection; in this work Susan used the saga form to show how the people are molded not only by their histories, but also by family fictions that supplant truth. All of Susan's novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her fiction has been translated into thirty languages.

In 1985, she wrote the screenplay for Paramount's Compromising Positions, which starred Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. She also wrote and co-produced Touchstone Pictures' Hello Again. The 1987 comedy starred Shelley Long and Judith Ivey.

Her fourth novel, Shining Through, set during World War II, was published by Harper & Row in 1988. Twentieth-Century Fox's film adaptation starred Michael Douglas and Melanie Griffith. Her fifth book, Magic Hour, a coming-of-middle-age novel as well as a mystery, was published in January 1991. After All These Years was published in 1993; critics lauded it for its strong and witty protagonist. Lily White came out in 1996 and Red, White and Blue in 1998. All the novels were published by HarperCollins and were main selections of the Literary Guild. In 1999, Susan's first work of nonfiction, Brave Dames and Wimpettes: What Women Are Really Doing on Page and Screen, was published by Ballantine's Library of Contemporary Thought. During 2000, she wrote a series of columns on the presidential campaign for Newsday. Long Time No See, a Book of the Month Club main selection, was published in September 2001; it was a sequel to Compromising Positions. Susan's tenth novel is Any Place I Hang My Hat (2004).

Susan Isaacs is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. She sits on the boards of the Queens College Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, the North Shore Child and Family Guidance Association, the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is an active member of her synagogue. She has worked to gather support for the National Endowment of the Arts' Literature Program and has been involved in several anti-censorship campaigns. In addition to writing books, essays and films, Susan has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Newsday and written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.

Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.

Good To Know

Some outtakes from our interview with Isaacs:

"My first job was wrapping shoes in a shoe store in the low-rent district of Fifth Avenue and saying ‘Thank you!' with a cheery smile. I got canned within three days for not wrapping fast enough, although I suspect that often my vague, future-novelist stare into space while thinking about sex or lunch did not give me a smile that would ring the bell on the shoe store's cheer-o-meter."

"I constantly have to fight against the New York Effect, an overwhelming urge to wear black clothes so everyone will think, Egad, isn't she chic and understated! I'm not, by nature, a black-wearing person. (I'm not, by nature, a chic person either.) I like primary colors as well as bright purple, loud chartreuse, and shocking pink. And that's just my shoes."

"I'm not a great fan of writing classes. Yes, they do help people sometimes, especially with making them write regularly. But the aspiring writer can be a delicate creature, sensitive or even oversensitive to criticism. I was that way: I still am. The problem begins with most people's natural desire to please. In a classroom situation, especially one in which the work will be read aloud or critiqued in class, the urge to write something likable or merely critic-proof can dam up your natural talent. Also, it keeps you from developing the only thing you have is a writer -- your own voice. Finally, you don't know the people in a class well enough to figure out where their criticism is coming from. A great knowledge of literature? Veiled hostility? The talent is too precious a commodity to risk handing it over to strangers."

"Writing is sometimes an art, and it certainly is a craft. But it's also a job. I go to work five or six days a week (depending how far along I am with my work-in-progress). Like most other people, there are days I would rather be lying in a hammock reading or going to a movie with a friend. But whether you're an artist or an accountant, you still have to show up at work. Otherwise, it is unlikely to get done."

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    1. Hometown:
      Sands Point, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1943
    2. Place of Birth:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Education:
      Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I was never a virgin.

Okay: In the technical sense, of course I was. But even in my dewy days, I never gazed at the world wide-eyed with wonder. If I wasn't born shrewd, at least I grew up too smart to be naive. So how come in the prime of my life, at the height of my powers, I could not foresee what would happen in the Torkelson case? Was I too street smart? Had I been around the block so many times that I finally lost my sense of direction?

A brief digression: Ages ago, soon after I became a criminal defense lawyer, Fat Mikey LoTriglio hailed me across the vast concrete expanse of the courthouse steps. "Hey, girlie!" His tomato of a face wore an expression that seemed (I squinted) amiable, pretty surprising considering he'd just been sprung from Elmira after doing two and a half years on the three counts of aggravated assault I'd prosecuted him for.

"Come over here," he called out. "Hey, I'm not gonna kill you." In Fat Mikey's world, that was not hyperbole but a promise; he got busy straightening his tie to demonstrate he was not concealing a Walther PPK. "I hear you're not working for the D.A. anymore," he boomed. I strolled over, smiling to show I didn't hold any grudges either, and offered my hand, which he shook in the overly vigorous manner of a man trying to show a professional woman that he's comfortable with professional women. Then I handed him my business card. I was not unaware that Fat Mikey was one of three organized crime figures the cops routinely picked up for questioning on matters of Mob-related mayhem. To have Fat Mikey as a client was to have an annuity.

He glanced down at my card to recall my name."Lee?"

Naturally, I didn't respond "Fat?" And to call him "Mike" after having called him "a vulture feasting on society's entrails" in my summation might seem presumptuous. So I murmured a polite "Mmm?"

"A girl like you from a good family—"

"Are you kidding?" I started to say, but he wouldn't let me.

"I could tell you got class, watching you at the trial," he went on. "You know how? Good posture—and not just in the morning. Plus you say 'whom.' Anyways, you really think you can make a living defending guys like me?" He didn't seem so much sexist as sincerely curious. I nodded encouragingly. "This is what you had in mind when you went to law school?" he inquired.

"No. Back then I was leaning toward Eskimo fishing rights. But this is what I'm good at."

He shook his head at my folly. "When—pardon my French—a guy's ass is in a sling, you think he's gonna hire a girl who says 'whom'?"

"If he's partial to his ass he will."

Fat Mikey's upper lip twitched. For him, that was a smile. Then, almost paternally, he shook a beefy index finger at me. "A girl like you should be more particular about the company she keeps."

Years later, I would learn how wise Fat Mikey was.

Nevertheless, from the beginning I knew there were limits to keeping bad company. I could be sympathetic to my clients without getting emotionally involved: A lot of them had sad childhoods. Many had been victims of grievous social injustice, or of terrible parents (who were themselves victims of terrible parents). Still, I never forgot they were criminals. And while I may have delighted in a bad guy's black humor, or a tough broad's cynicism, I was never one of those attorneys who got naughty thrills socializing with hoods. You'd never catch me inviting a client—let's say Melody Ann Toth, for argument's sake—to go shopping and out for Caesar salads so we could chitchat about old beaux ... or about what she might expect at her upcoming trial for robbing three branches of the Long Island Savings Bank on what might have been an otherwise boring Thursday.

For their part, most of my clients (including Fat Mikey, who retained me two years after that conversation on the courthouse steps) wouldn't think I was exactly a laugh a minute either. Whatever their personal definition of a good time was, I wasn't it. Unlike me, Fat Mikey simply did not get a bang out of crocheting afghans or listening to National Public Radio. With fists the size of rump roasts, Mikey looked like what he was: a man for whom aggravated assault was not just a profession but a pleasure. As for Melody Ann, with her pink-blonde hair that resembled attic insulation, the only reason she'd go shopping at Saks would be to knock off the Est‚e Lauder counter when she ran out of lip liner. My clients had no reason or desire to pass for upper middle class.

For that reason alone, Norman Torkelson was different right from the beginning.

Of course, a con man cannot look like a crook and expect to make a living. If Norman Torkelson had resembled the no-good rat he was, he would have been a sawed-off runt with a skinny mustache like a plucked eyebrow. But then the nine hundred or so women he had proposed marriage to would have told him: Get lost, creepo.

However, he was not sawed off; he was six feet five. Lucky for him, since in America everyone knows a man's character increases in excellence in direct proportion to his height. Not that Norman was content with mere tallness; he was clever enough to trip over his own size-thirteen feet every so often, which made him ... Some of the descriptions in the witnesses' statements taken over the years from victims of his scams were: "sensitive," "tragic, like Abraham Lincoln," and (my personal favorite) "caring." So all those women to whom he proposed said yes—Yes, my love! Yes, Norman! (or Yes, whatever alias he was using)—and got their hearts broken.

I wonder now: What if we hadn't met in the Nassau County Correctional Center? What if he hadn't been wearing the official uniform—pants and shirt in an orange that inevitably leeched the life out of every inmate's face? Would I have wanted to trace with my fingertips the lines of his Mount Rushmore face? No. I would not have.

Still (before I leave the subject of color), even the vicious glow of that orange could not hide the fact that Norman's eyes were such a startling blue they seemed more a Crayola than an eye color: Viking blue, a shade somewhere between royal and turquoise. If not for those eyes, would the hundreds of women thrilled to empty their bank accounts for him have found themselves destitute, suddenly dependent on disgusted relatives or the public dole?

However, let's not go overboard on the blue eyes business. A con man cannot afford to be suspiciously handsome, and Norman Torkelson was not. First of all, he had a too teeny nose. Instead of the cute upward tilt you'd expect from a nose like that, it hooked; in certain lights, you'd swear Norman was half man, half parakeet. So not gorgeous—an asset to a con man because true beauty evokes curiosity. And not slick. At least, he didn't seem slick. Like any professional swindler, he was just convincing enough to persuade a woman who had never met a man from Yale that he had gone to Yale.

Furthermore, a competent con man never overacts. Norman may have listened avidly when a woman spoke, but he never pretended to drown in the depths of her eyes; he didn't shift around in his seat either, crossing his leg to hide an alleged erection. Oh, one more handy imperfection: He had a slight lisp.

I heard his first words as: "I thwear I didn't do it, Mth. White." He lowered his big head and whispered, "Jethuth!"

"It's not me you have to convince, Mr. Torkelson," I told him. "I'm on your side. It's the D.A. who's a problem."

He clutched the top of the white Formica barrier that separates inmates from their visitors. "Please," he begged me, "call me Norman."

Amazing: He threw his entire being behind that request. His forehead furrowed, his shoulders tensed, his Adam's apple bulged, every part of him seemed to yearn: Call me Norman.

A con man's hokey trick? Absolutely. I tried to be cool, glancing around the visitors room, a huge space filled with rows of Formica-topped tables, which resembled a school cafeteria. However, instead of patrolling teachers there were armed guards carrying semiautomatic rifles, and closed-circuit cameras.

Despite the ugly publicness of the place, I felt a private flush of gratification at my client's request: Please, call me Norman. Almost as if he had willed it, I actually eased my attach‚ case off my lap and set it by my feet, then pushed my chair back so he could get a fuller view: I carried on as if I were OD'ing on estrogen. I actually crossed my legs, movie starlet style, and began to inscribe a sexy O with my foot.

Naturally, all this took place within a microsecond. Then I realized I was being manipulated—which only proved to me what I'd already suspected. Norman Torkelson was not a great con artist. Just a fairly competent one.

"I was not—and I quote—conning Bobette out of her money!" he announced in that very instant.

"Norman," I said, uncrossing my legs, "let's get our priorities straight. The fraud by false pretenses charge is the least of your problems right now."

"Bobette and I were friends," he insisted. "She was lending me the money. I told her: 'Have your attorney draw up the proper paperwork, with whatever interest you feel is fair. I'll sign it. I won't have it any other way!'"

Lily White. Copyright © by Susan Isaacs. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

Before the live chat, Susan Isaacs agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: In Soul Kiss, Mariah contemplates her nomadic mother's whereabouts and romanticizes the idea of traveling in her own mind. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would be your most romantic destination?

A: On my first book tour with The Big Mama Stories, I got into a car with a friend and we drove across the entire United States and parts of Canada doing readings at bookstores and schools. I was in awe of the splendor and beauty in this country. As a Peace Corps volunteer I lived in the Caribbean, and I've lived in France and Hawaii as well. I used to think that Paris was the most romantic place in the world because it's so easy to fall in love with the people, the food, the atmosphere. Everything is so sensual, the air itself is intoxicating. I fell in love several times the year I lived in Paris. So while I still believe that Hawaii is an earthly paradise and the Caribbean, God's front yard, I think that the most romantic place in the world is wherever you are with the person you love.

Q: What have you read lately that just knocked you out?

A: I reread Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. Wow! It's a splendid coming-of-age novel written in the late '40s with a 17-year-old heroine who's a woman for all seasons. Cassandra Mortmain lives in the ruins of a moated castle with her father, a novelist with a decade-long writer's block, her exquisite and flaky stepmother, a kid brother, and a gorgeous older sister. The Mortmains are down on their luck, when who should knock on the castle door but two young Americans, heirs to the local manor and landlords of the castle -- so, in a sense, this is a 20th-century version of Pride and Prejudice, a story about young women and highly eligible men. But Cassandra's voice -- witty as hell, wise beyond her years and, every once in a while, lyrical enough to bring tears to your eyes -- is thoroughly modern. What a fantastic dame she is!

Q: Please provide us with your favorite recipe and tell us where you got it from.

A: Chicken soup, from my grandma Rosie: one cut-up chicken, four carrots, three celery stalks, including leaves, two parsnips, one turnip, one onion, one leek be sure to clean out the sand, a small handful of parsley and a slightly smaller handful of dill, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Throw it all into a pot with 1 to 1-1/2 gallons of cool water and bring to a boil, skimming off yucky gray soup sludge that invariably forms. Then simmer for two hours. Strain and cut up chicken into bite-size pieces to put in the soup. Throw in noodles or a stray matzoh ball and have a party.

Q: A big debate these days surrounds content on the Web. Who should assume the role of "Internet watchdog" for children? The government, or parents?

A: The government does have a right to protect those who cannot protect themselves: children, animals, and so forth. But the government has given its OK to the V-chip, a device that puts the onus on the parents, where it should be. The last thing we want is government deciding what our children should or should not see. Because who in government is going to judge? President Clinton? Senator Thurmond? A blue-ribbon panel appointed by a non-partisan committee? We all know anyone of any stature isn't going to accept the job of patrolling the Internet. Further, even if you got, say, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on that panel, do you think they're equipped to decide what your kid will see or hear? In other words, who's to judge the judges, who's to oversee them?

Q: What thing crazy stunt, boring task, etc. have you done once and will never do again?

A: What would I never do again? Well, after I wrote and coproduced "Hello Again" I swore I'd never make another movie with Disney, a studio that profoundly believes in the collaborative effort. So guess what studio bought Lily White? You got it!

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2003


    As I read the reviews for Susan's other books I am amazed at the differences of opinion. More and more I come to the conclusion that you should not be overly influenced by any ONE persons evaluation of a book. (nor of a critic's opinion). Susan puts MEAT into her novels that capture you and keep you reading -- smooth as silk and a MUST read for the serious fiction reader.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 28, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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