The Sorrows of an American

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When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their father’s funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives ...

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When Erik Davidsen and his sister, Inga, find a disturbing note among their late father's papers, they believe he may be implicated in a mysterious death. The Sorrows of an American tells the story of the Davidsen family as brother and sister unbandage its wounds in the year following their father’s funeral. Erik is a psychiatrist dangerously vulnerable to his patients; Inga is a writer whose late husband, a famous novelist, seems to have concealed a secret life. Interwoven with each new mystery in their lives are discoveries about their father’s youth—poverty, the War, the Depression—that bring new implications to his relationship with his children.

This masterful novel reveals one family’s hidden sorrows in an "elegant meditation on familial grief, memory, and imagination" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"I think I am in love. . . . This is one of the most profound and absorbing books I’ve read in a long time."—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

"Beautiful . . . both a large-scale examination of the idea of America and a close inspection of the experiences of coping with trauma and loss."—Margot Kaminski, San FranciscoChronicle

"The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. . . . Here again [Hustvedt] proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot."—Sylvia Brownrigg, The New York Times Book Review

"The Sorrows of an American takes on elements of a suspense novel as the various mysteries unfold, but the real question is how we reconcile ourselves to the hard truths in our lives."—Connie Ogle, The Miami Herald

"The pages turn themselves. The old story, the search for the self, holds water once again."—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

"Like all enduring novelists, Hustvedt combines riveting storytelling with philosophical rumination as she dramatizes and contemplates the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love."—Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

Sylvia Brownrigg
The Sorrows of an American is a thought-provoking book that offers pleasures across many different registers. Hustvedt's descriptions of the immigrant experience and the Minnesota landscape have a spare Scandinavian elegance, while her account of the life of a Brooklyn psychoanalyst feels quietly authentic. She takes unapologetic delight in intellectual characters who understand their lives through far-ranging reading and lively conversation…Hustvedt explored the milieu of New York writers and academics in her last novel, What I Loved—in fact, Leo Hertzberg, that book's art-historian narrator, appears briefly at a dinner party at Inga's apartment—and here again she proves herself a writer deftly able to weave intricate ideas into an intriguing plot.
—The New York Times
Ron Charles
…one of the most profound and absorbing books I've read in a long time. Hustvedt pushes hard on what a novel can do and what a reader can absorb, but once you fall into this captivating story, the experience will make you feel alternately inadequate and brilliant—and finally deeply grateful…This is a radically postmodern novel that wears its po-mo credentials with unusual grace; even at its strangest moments, it never radiates the chilly alienation that marks, say, the work of Hustvedt's husband, Paul Auster. The remarkable conclusion of The Sorrows is a four-page recapitulation of the story's images racing through Erik's mind—and ours. It's a stunning, Joycean demonstration that invites us to impose some sense of meaning on a disparate collection of events, to satisfy our lust for "a world that makes sense." I reached the end emotionally and intellectually exhausted, knowing how much I'll miss this book.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In her fourth novel (following the acclaimed What I Loved), Hustvedt continues, with grace and aplomb, her exploration of family connectedness, loss, grief and art. Narrator and New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen returns to his Minnesota hometown to sort through his recently deceased father Lars's papers. Erik's writer sister, Inga, soon discovers a letter from someone named Lisa that hints at a death that their father was involved in. Over the course of the book, the siblings track down people who might be able to provide information on the letter writer's identity. The two also contend with other looming ghosts. Erik immerses himself in the text of his father's diary as he develops an infatuation with Miranda, a Jamaican artist who lives downstairs with her daughter. Meanwhile, Inga, herself recently widowed, is reeling from potentially damaging secrets being revealed about the personal life of her dead husband, a well-known novelist and screenplay writer. Hustvedt gives great breaths of authenticity to Erik's counseling practice, life in Minnesota and Miranda's Jamaican heritage, and the anticlimax she creates is calming and justified; there's a terrific real-world twist revealed in the acknowledgments. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Library Journal

"Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened." These words, found in an old letter addressed to his deceased father, shake New York psychoanalyst Erik Davidsen to the core. Was his father once involved in something questionable? Despite the misgivings of his sister, Inga, recently widowed and contending with both a conflicted daughter and a nasty reporter threatening to unburden herself of secrets regarding the duplicity of Inga's celebrated novelist husband, Erik tracks down the truth-which is both stranger and more gratifying than he could have imagined. But this is not a novel about solving mysteries: it's about the secrets we keep and the delicate tangle of relationships we maintain. Even as he sorts out his father's life, Erik must come to terms with his own devastating loneliness and his attraction to his new tenant, Jamaican artist Miranda-who is in turn being stalked, sort of, by her daughter's father. Complex relationships, indeed, but the narrative is breathtakingly clear, heartfelt, and involving. Hustvedt (What I Loved) has written a novel of quiet strength; recommended for most collections.
—Barbara Hoffert

Kirkus Reviews
The death of their father sets a brother and sister on the path to discoveries about their loved ones and themselves. Sifting through Lars Davidsen's papers, son Erik and daughter Inga find an enigmatic note that suggests a dark secret in his past. It's only one of the mysteries about this respected and respectable Minnesota college professor, who sometimes would vanish from his home and walk for hours in the night. Erik and Inga have their own problems. Her husband Max, a famous writer, died five years ago; their daughter Sonia is haunted by recollections of 9/11 (the towers collapsed just blocks from her high school). Erik, a psychiatrist, finds himself entangled in the personal difficulties of Miranda, the new tenant in his Brooklyn brownstone, whose former boyfriend Jeff is leaving on their doorstep invasive, vaguely menacing photos of Miranda and their daughter Eglantine-and of Erik, when Jeff senses his attraction to Miranda. Other elements in the busy plot include Max's affair with an actress now threatening to make his love letters public and the various traumas of Erik's patients. Passages of piercing beauty evoke Lars's hardscrabble past on a Depression-era farm and as a soldier in World War II, as well as the complex bonds of love, guilt, regret and joy that bind families together. But the present-day story is marred by Erik's pat psychiatric insights and improbable plot developments that reach their nadir when the buyer of Max's letters turns out to be Erik's medical school buddy Burton . . . in female drag. Hustvedt (A Pleas for Eros, 2005, etc.) writes spectacular sentences that embody the American experience in brilliantly specific physical imagery. She's already writtenone great novel (What I Loved, 2003), and she'll undoubtedly write more. Here, she stuffs too much material into a narrative that buckles under the weight of too many ideas insufficiently developed. Ambitious, moving and sometimes maddening-but never, ever dull.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Forget about crumbling farmhouses, hidden debt. Among the most complicated legacies the dead leave us are their secrets. A wrecking ball of this sort swings through Siri Hustvedt's brilliant novel The Sorrows of an American, the tale of Erik and Inga Davidsen, two New York–based Norwegian Americans. After the death of their father they find what appears to be record of his involvement in a murder. "Dear Lars," reads a note in his papers, "I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can't matter now she's in heaven or to the ones in earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa."

No one in the Davidsen family knows who Lisa is, not even Lars's widow. By profession Lars's children -- Erik, a psychologist, and Inga, a cultural critic -- do not let loose ends lie. "I've always felt that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us," Inga tells her brother, "especially about his childhood." What unspools from here is a moving quest for truth in the murky waters of familial memory. Inga and Erik become detectives within their own family, tracking down leads to distant relatives, searching for hints of what their father may have hidden in plain view.

Had Hustvedt stopped here, she would have put on a merely solid performance, but she stuffs The Sorrows of an American full of numerous subplots that allow for a powerful meditation on truth and memory, the inscrutability of the past, American amnesia, and the question of how much experience can be recorded. Unlike so many broad-scope social epics of recent note, Sorrows of an American says more through ambiguity than information. "Words create the anatomy of the story," says Erik, who listens to them all day long. "But within that story there are openings that can't be closed."

To read this novel is to watch Hustvedt's characters try to close those Pandora's boxes anyway -- though Erik's prediction ultimately seems to hold. Inga's late husband, the famous novelist Max Blaustein, has a biographer and a tabloid journalist chasing his ghost. Both of them stalk Inga at close distance -- the biographer, hoping for a whiff of Max's genius, the journalist creepily insinuating that there were things about her late husband that Inga did not know.

During the publication of Hustvedt's previous novel, What I Loved, tabloid journalists played a similar literalist number on her, reading into the plot of that book a veiled story about her private life with her real-life husband, novelist Paul Auster. There are, it is hard not to notice, similarities between Blaustein and Auster here, but it's also blindingly obvious these are red herrings. On some level, it feels like Hustvedt has created this frisson of autobiography in The Sorrows of an American to coax some readers to the peephole -- only to reflect back to them their own prurient gape.

On one concrete level, however, the novel owes a heavy debt to real life. Hustvedt has spliced sections of her own father's memoir into the text nearly verbatim, assigning them to Lars. She carries this tricky narrative gambit off beautifully, in part because Lars's memoir is so convincingly of its time. "Looking back at our early life," reads one mournful section in his voice, "the most astonishing feature must be how small our house was. A kitchen, living room, and bedroom on the floor came to 476 square feet."

Separated from these dignified, spartan roots by a distance of miles and money, Erik and Inga are adrift in a much airier, de-cultured world -- and this loss creates a grinding, needful anxiety. After his divorce, Erik rents out his downstairs apartment to Miranda, a single African-American mother and her child. He quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed with their comings and goings. But before he can cut himself off, he realizes the woman is also being stalked by an ex-lover, a performance artist who shoots photos of people (and their private spaces) without their knowing.

Hustvedt is a perceptive, eclectic art critic -- her insightful essays on painting are gathered in the wonderful book The Mysteries of the Rectangle -- but her attempt to frame themes by creating fictional artwork feels forced sometimes here. Miranda, the downstairs tenant, exorcises her sorrows in paintings that never quite come to life. This is a surprise. In What I Loved, Hustvedt mined a similar vein with greater success, inventing an entire oeuvre of paintings for one of her characters and then seamlessly braiding it into the story of a family fractured by tragedy.

The Sorrows of an American is far more successful at conjuring the emotional vertigo that overtakes Hustvedt's characters as they try, and fail, to make sense of where they are now -- especially Erik, who narrates the bulk of the book. During the day, his patients' confessions echo in his head. At night, a new set of voices take over, denying him any reprieve. "Sometimes, as I felt myself finally drift toward sleep," he says, "I would hear my father cough, a sound as unmistakable as his voice, and it would jolt me back to consciousness."

We are the stories we tell, as Joyce Carol Oates's famous tale instructed. What happens, though, when these stories erode with time? This rupture with the past, Hustvedt's novel suggests, forces us to fabricate new self-myths from the people we draw to us, sometimes at great risk. The Sorrows of an American boldly embodies this idea. Conclusions are reached and then obliterated; only by forming new and more relationships do the Davidsens get to the bottom of their most burning questions.

Following them to this piece of familial bitumen, this new bedrock, makes for a good read. The novel flows from one short section to another like water from lock into lock, on its way downstream. Ultimately, this sensation of movement, however, is a trick. Hustvedt's cast always finds new snags, new questions, all sparks of the great Catherine wheel of a question spinning at the heart of this book: Can we ever truly know one another? Once pried open, The Sorrows of an American boldly reminds, this ultimate Pandora's box never gets shut. --John Freeman

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle. He is writing a book on the tyranny of email for Scribner.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428204
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/3/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 482,840
  • Product dimensions: 5.52 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt is the author of the novels What I Loved, The Blindfold, and The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, as well as two collections of essays, A Plea for Eros and Mysteries of the Rectangle. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 19, 1955
    2. Place of Birth:
      Northfield, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A. in history, St. Olaf College; Ph.D. in English, Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

My sister called it “the year of secrets,” but when I look back on it now, I’ve come to understand that it was a time not of what was there, but of what wasn’t. A patient of mine once said, “There are ghosts walking around inside me, but they don’t always talk. Sometimes they have nothing to say.” Sarah squinted or kept her eyes closed most of the time because she was afraid the light would blind her. I think we all have ghosts inside us, and it’s better when they speak than when they don’t. After my father died, I couldn’t talk to him in person anymore, but I didn’t stop having conversations with him in my head. I didn’t stop seeing him in my dreams or stop hearing his words. And yet it was what my father hadn’t said that took over my life for a while—what he hadn’t told us. It turned out that he wasn’t the only person who had kept secrets. On January sixth, four days after his funeral, Inga and I came across the letter in his study.

We had stayed on in Minnesota with our mother to begin tackling the job of sifting through his papers. We knew that there was a memoir he had written in the last years of his life, as well as a box containing the letters he had sent to his parents—many of them from his years as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II—but there were other things in that room we had never seen. My father’s study had a particular smell, one slightly different from the rest of the house. I wondered if all the cigarettes he’d smoked and the coffee he’d drunk and the rings those endless cups had left on the desk over forty years had acted upon the atmosphere of that room to produce the unmistakable odor that hit me when I walked through the door. The house is sold now. A dental surgeon bought it and did extensive renovations, but I can still see my father’s study with its wall of books, the filing cabinets, the long desk he had built himself, and the plastic organizer on it, which despite its transparency had small handwritten labels on every drawer—“Paper Clips,” “Hearing Aid Batteries,” “Keys to the Garage,” “Erasers.”

The day Inga and I began working, the weather outside was heavy. Through the large window, I looked at the thin layer of snow under an iron-colored sky. I could feel Inga standing behind me and hear her breathing. Our mother, Marit, was sleeping, and my niece, Sonia, had curled up somewhere in the house with a book. As I pulled open a file drawer, I had the abrupt thought that we were about to ransack a man’s mind, dismantle an entire life, and without warning a picture of the cadaver I had dissected in medical school came to mind, its chest cavity gaping open as it lay on the table. One of my lab partners, Roger Abbot, had called the body Tweedledum, Dum Dum, or just Dum. “Erik, get a load of Dum’s ventricle. Hypertrophy, man.” For an instant I imagined my father’s collapsed lung inside him, and then I remembered his hand squeezing mine hard before I left his small room in the nursing home the last time I saw him alive. All at once, I felt relieved he had been cremated.

Lars Davidsen’s filing system was an elaborate code of letters, numbers, and colors devised to allow for a descending hierarchy within a single category. Initial notes were subordinate to first drafts, first drafts to final drafts, and so on. It wasn’t only his years of teaching and writing that were in those drawers, but every article he had written, every lecture he had given, the voluminous notes he had taken, and the letters he had received from colleagues and friends over the course of more than sixty years. My father had catalogued every tool that had ever hung in the garage, every receipt for the six used cars he had owned in his lifetime, every lawnmower, and every home appliance—the extensive documentation of a long and exceptionally frugal history. We discovered a list for itemized storage in the attic: children’s skates, baby clothes, knitting materials. In a small box, I found a bunch of keys. Attached to them was a label on which my father had written in his small neat hand: “Unknown Keys.”

We spent days in that room with large black garbage bags, dumping hundreds of Christmas cards, grade books, and innumerable inventories of things that no longer existed. My niece and mother mostly avoided the room. Wired to a Walkman, Sonia ambled through the house, read Wallace Stevens, and slept in the comatose slumber that comes so easily to adolescents. From time to time she would come in to us and pat her mother on the shoulder or wrap her long thin arms around Inga’s shoulders to show silent support before she floated into another room. I had been worried about Sonia ever since her father died five years earlier. I remembered her standing in the hallway outside his hospital room, her face strangely impassive, her body stiffened against the wall, and her skin so white it made me think of bones. I know that Inga tried to hide her grief from Sonia, that when her daughter was at school my sister would turn on music, lie down on the floor, and wail, but I had never seen Sonia give in to sobs, and neither had her mother. Three years later, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Inga and Sonia had found themselves running north with hundreds of other people as they fled Stuyvesant High School, where Sonia was a student. They were just blocks from the burning towers, and it was only later that I discovered what Sonia had seen from her schoolroom window. From my house in Brooklyn that morning, I saw only smoke.

When she wasn’t resting, our mother wandered from room to room, drifting around like a sleepwalker. Her determined but light step was no heavier than in the old days, but it had slowed. She would check on us, offer food, but she rarely crossed the threshold. The room must have reminded her of my father’s last years. His worsening emphysema shrank his world in stages. Near the end, he could barely walk anymore and kept mostly to the twelve by sixteen feet of the study. Before he died, he had separated the most important papers, which were now stored in a neat row of boxes beside his desk. It was in one of these containers that Inga found the letters from women my father had known before my mother. Later, I read every word they had written to him—a trio of premarital loves—a Margaret, a June, and a Lenore, all of whom wrote fluent but tepid letters signed “Love” or “With love” or “Until next time.”

Inga’s hands shook when she found the bundles. It was a tremor I had been familiar with since childhood, not related to an illness but to what my sister called her wiring. She could never predict an onset. I had seen her lecture in public with quiet hands, and I had also seen her give talks when they trembled so violently she had to hide them behind her back. After withdrawing the three bunches of letters from the long-lost but once-desired Margaret, June, and Lenore, Inga pulled out a single sheet of paper, looked down at it with a puzzled expression, and without saying anything handed it to me.

The letter was dated June 27, 1937. Beneath the date, in a large childish hand, was written: “Dear Lars, I know you will never ever say nothing about what happened. We swore it on the BIBLE. It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth. I believe in your promise. Lisa.”

“He wanted us to find it,” Inga said. “If not, he would have destroyed it. I showed you those journals with the pages torn out of them.” She paused. “Have you ever heard of Lisa?”

“No,” I said. “We could ask Mamma.”

Inga answered me in Norwegian, as if the subject of our mother demanded that we use her first language. “Nei, Jei vil ikke forstyrre henne med dette.” (No, I won’t bother her with this.) “I’ve always felt,” she continued, “that there were things Pappa kept from Mamma and us, especially about his childhood. He was fifteen then. I think they’d already lost the forty acres of the farm, and unless I’m wrong, it was the year after Grandpa found out his brother David was dead.” My sister looked down at the piece of pale brown paper. “‘It can’t matter now she’s in heaven or to the ones here on earth.’ Somebody died.” She swallowed loudly. “Poor Pappa, swearing on the Bible.”

Copyright © 2008 by Siri Hustvedt. All rights reserved.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. The book’s epigraph comes from the eleventh-century Persian poet Rumi: “Don’t turn away.

Keep looking at the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.” The author has said

that these lines summarize the novel’s journey. What metaphorical role do wounds and

healing play over the course of the story, and how can suffering and not turning away lead to


2. The first line of the novel is “My sister called it the year of secrets.” Later, Inga says,

“Secrets can define people.” The novel’s plot is generated by several secrets, which are

followed by revelations or confessions. Inga talks about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard,

whose father had a mysterious secret that changed his son’s life. Later, she stresses

Kierkegaard’s preference for the sense of hearing, his argument that the ear “detects human

inwardness” better than the eyes. Erik listens carefully to his patients. How do secrets,

confessions, and the human voice function in the book?

3. What role do dreams play in the novel? How does the author use dreams to address the

characters’ emotional states?

4. Siri Hustvedt has said that her novel is about the past in the present, the ghosts that haunt

families from one generation to the next. How doe Erik’s immigrant past and Miranda’s

relation to her Jamaican history summon ghosts that remain with them?

5. Miranda, Jeffrey, Lane, and Eggy all express themselves in images. What does Lane hope to

communicate through his altered photographs? How do both he and Eglantine use art to

express emotions that they are unable to convey in other ways? Miranda tells Erik that she

uses her anger when she draws. How do these visual works relate to the novel’s theme of

fathers and children?

6. Reading Lars’s diaries, Erik tries to understand how forms of suffering are passed from one

generation to the next, even when those pains haven’t been talked about. What qualities do

you think Erik carries from his father and grandfather? Why is he startled and defensive

when his former analyst, Magda, says, “I know how much you identified with your father”?

7. At the end of the book, Siri Hustvedt acknowledges using passages from her father’s memoir

for the character Lars Davidsen. Does knowing that these texts tell true stories affect your

response to the novel?

8. Eglantine’s presence in Erik’s life triggers memories of his childhood that even his own

psychoanalysis did not touch: “Memory offers up its gifts only when jogged by something in

the present.” Erik’s mother, Inga, Sonia, Miranda—they all relate memories. Erik’s patient

Ms. L. “remembers” her mother hurting her, but Erik doubts her story. Lisa cannot remember

the fire that killed her mother and brother. Discuss the complexities of memory in the novel.

9. Erik’s grandfather and father, his niece Sonia, and some of his patients suffer from trauma,

what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. What meaning does this illness have in the


10. Erik’s patient Ms. W. uses the word reincarnation to describe what has happened to her. At

the very end of the book, Erik remembers his last session with Ms. W. And her use of the

word. How does the word apply not just to Ms. W. but to Erik and the story as a whole?

11. Discuss the role of fantasy in the novel. Did your feelings about Edie changes as the story

unfolds? Why does Max write his letters to a fictional character? How do some of the other

characters invent or distort people in their lives? What is Erik’s image of Miranda? What

various perceptions do Burton, Rosalie, and Linda have of Inga? In what way do they differ

from how Inga sees herself and others? How does Sonia’s view of her father change?

12. What do Erik and Inga finally discover on the trip to meet Lisa? How do the damaged dolls

the two women make echo larger themes in the novel?

13. Did your reactions to Lane’s character develop as the narrative advances? Is he dangerous or

merely emotionally unstable? What does he want from Miranda? How does Lane perceive


14. Erik’s view of Miranda deepens as the novel progresses. Discuss how it changes, and how it

is different from Erik’s relationship to Laura.

15. Discuss the very last section of the novel. What has happened to Erik? What does he mean

when he says, “…it struck me as a moment when the boundary between inside and outside

loosens, and there is no loneliness because there is no one to be lonely”? How do these last

pages illustrate the idea that the past is in the present?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2008

    Supremely beautiful

    I'm delighted to say this book won't be passed around as some light beach read, it's for the sophisticated reader who realizes loss and death are part of the puzzle that makes us human. The intricate detail and Minnesota references were tenderly appreciated. Some who have lost a parent will understand the issues of questions because even after the journey to find the answers we still don't know and that is okay. This book redefined my expectations for writing excellence and the bar is high.

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    Posted May 3, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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