Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir

by Wednesday Martin Ph.D.

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Overview

Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir by Wednesday Martin Ph.D.

An instant #1 New York Times bestseller, Primates of Park Avenue is an “amusing, perceptive and…deliciously evil” (The New York Times Book Review) memoir of the most secretive and elite tribe—Manhattan’s Upper East Side mothers.

When Wednesday Martin first arrives on New York City’s Upper East Side, she’s clueless about the right addresses, the right wardrobe, and the right schools, and she’s taken aback by the glamorous, sharp-elbowed mommies around her. She feels hazed and unwelcome until she begins to look at her new niche through the lens of her academic background in anthropology. As she analyzes the tribe’s mating and migration patterns, childrearing practices, fetish objects, physical adornment practices, magical purifying rituals, bonding rites, and odd realities like sex segregation, she finds it easier to fit in and even enjoy her new life. Then one day, Wednesday’s world is turned upside down, and she finds out there’s much more to the women who she’s secretly been calling Manhattan Geishas.

“Think Gossip Girl, but with a sociological study of the parents” (InStyle.com), Wednesday’s memoir is absolutely “eye-popping” (People). Primates of Park Avenue lifts a veil on a secret, elite world within a world—the strange, exotic, and utterly foreign and fascinating life of privileged Manhattan motherhood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476762623
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 06/02/2015
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Wednesday Martin, PhD, has worked as writer and social researcher in New York City for more than two decades. The author of Stepmonster and Primates of Park Avenue, she has appeared on Today, CNN, NPR, NBC News, the BBC Newshour, and Fox News as an expert on step-parenting and parenting issues. She writes for the online edition of Psychology Today and her work has appeared in The New York Times. She was a regular contributor to New York Post’s parenting and lifestyle pages for several years and has written for The Daily Telegraph. Wednesday received her PhD from Yale University and lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.

Read an Excerpt

Primates of Park Avenue


  • The island is a geographically, culturally, and politically isolated landmass roughly seven times longer than it is wide. The climate is temperate, with relatively harsh winters and extremely hot and humid summers that, in recent years, approximate tropical conditions due in part to two centuries of intensive land clearing and industrial practices. The island’s longitude is 40°43'42" N, and its latitude is 73°59'39" W.

    Island dwellers live in a state of ecological release—resources such as food and water are abundant and easily procured; disease is minimal; there is no predation. Living in a niche characterized by literally unprecedented abundance, untethered from hardship, the wealthiest islanders are able to invest heavily in each and every offspring and to invent elaborate and complex social codes and rites, the observance of which are time-, labor-, and resource-intensive.

    In spite of the extraordinary abundance of food, water, and other resources island-wide, there is persistent and marked poverty in some areas. The isolation, extreme population density, and vast discrepancies in wealth, as well as traditionally gender-scripted roles and behaviors around child rearing and work, may inform and in part account for many of the strange-seeming behaviors of the wealthiest island dwellers, discussed in the following pages.

    The island’s inhabitants are primarily vertical dwellers, making their homes directly on top of one another in structures of finely ground stone. Living in these “vertical villages” allows inhabitants to maximize physical space, a precious commodity in short supply on their tiny and remarkably densely populated island. In some locations, particularly where the wealthiest islanders reside, these vertical villages are notably restrictive, with a secretive “council of elders” presiding over who will and will not be allowed to live there. Scouting out a dwelling is one of the most labor-intensive practices of the female members of the tribe I studied—most often the task is undertaken by primaparas. Almost without exception, “dwelling shamans” guide these women in their quests for homes—which are also quests for identity. The shamans offer specialized knowledge, counsel, and emotional support throughout this costly, protracted, and painstaking initiation process.

    Island dwellers have heterogeneous geographical origins. Many dispersed at sexual maturity from their natal groups in distant, smaller, and even rural villages, immigrating to the island for enhanced professional, sexual, and marital prospects. Other island dwellers are indigenous; their status is higher than that of the nonautochthonous residents, particularly if they were raised in certain corners of the island or attended particular “learning huts” while growing up there.

    Whether they are autochthonous or émigrés, island dwellers are believed by outsiders, many visitors, and their countrymen to harbor haughty attitudes about themselves and their island. They are known throughout the land for their brusqueness; intellectual gifts; dazzling adornment practices; and acumen in barter, trade, and negotiation. Increasingly, their trade is in invisible ideas and abstractions, enhancing the sense that they have privileged knowledge and even “magical” powers. The journeys and tribulations of those who move to the island and struggle to succeed there are the stuff of legend, literally—there exists a long oral and written tradition about the supposedly indomitable and unique spirit of people who are able to “make it there.” Once they have established themselves on the island, it is said, they can “make it anywhere.”

    On the whole, the island dwellers are the richest in the entire nation, living untethered from the environmental constraints that have such a profound impact on life-history courses in other habitats worldwide. Obtaining adequate calories for themselves and their children, the main ecological challenge to parents worldwide and throughout our evolutionary prehistory, is a simple given for wealthy island dwellers. However, as in many industrial and postindustrial societies, fathers of the very traditionally gender-scripted tribe I studied tend to focus on the job of provisioning their wives and families with less-tangible resources, including financial, social, and cultural capital. While many island-dwelling females work outside the home, during the childbearing and child-rearing years, many wealthy female islanders believe it is their “role” to remain home with their children, where they are often assisted by alloparents—individuals other than parents who take on parental roles. They call these alloparents “housekeepers,” “nannies,” and “caregivers.”

    The island is organized, in the minds of island dwellers, into four quadrants: Up, Down, Right, and Left. The “Up” and “Down” areas are believed to be markedly distinct—with Up being preferable for raising children and Down being considered primarily a place for pre-reproductives, cultural “outsiders,” feasting, and ecstatic nighttime rites. Islanders further divide their island into left and right hemispheres. “Left” and “Right,” like “Up” and “Down,” are believed to have different—even polar opposite—characteristics. Left is believed to be more casual and progressive, in contrast to Right’s perceived formality and conservatism.

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Primates of Park Avenue includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with Wednesday Martin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.



    Introduction

    Wednesday Martin’s new memoir, Primates of Park Avenue, is an inside look at the unexpectedly stressful and anxious lives of Manhattan’s most elite set: Upper East Side mommies.

    The book follows Wednesday on her journey to join the “it” crew in Manhattan, and no detail—no matter how trivial or painful—is left out. We read about the feelings of exclusion and unhappiness Wednesday experiences as she learns to navigate the sometimes-cruel streets and female “friendships” west of Lexington Avenue. We hear about her epic quest to own an Hermès Birkin bag and about the cutthroat nature of preschool applications on the Upper East Side. Through it all, Wednesday straddles the line between subjective insider desperate to find a place for herself and her son and academically detached outsider using her background in anthropology and primatology to help make sense of her world, one she realizes might seem silly and unsympathetic from the outside. Wednesday is both participant in and observer of the rituals of motherhood in Manhattan’s richest neighborhood.



    Discussion Questions

    1. In her introduction, author Wednesday Martin asks herself “who were they really, these glamorous, stylishly turned out women with sophisticated babies?” (2). Answer Wednesday’s question with your group. Who are the women of the Upper East Side really? Is there an Upper East Side in your town? Did your conception of these women change after reading Primates of Park Avenue? Why or why not?

    2. On page 8, Wednesday discusses her strong desire to fit in with the mommies of her new neighborhood, and for her son to fit in by extension. She writes that from her studies in literature and anthropology, she knows that “without a sense of belonging, and actually belonging, we great apes are lost. . . . Particularly female ones . . . do not fare well.” Do you think that all people feel this way to some extent? What about all mothers? Is wanting to fit in and feel a sense of community particularly important for new mothers?

    3. Why do you think Wednesday Martin chooses to frame the beginning of her memoir as an academic study? Does the format add humor? Does it give greater credibility to the author? Both? Think about how you would describe your own world anthropologically. Are you part of a tribe? If so, which tribe?

    4. Discuss the way gender figures into life on the Upper East Side, according to Primates of Park Avenue. Wednesday writes on page 24 that “in Manhattan, the woman is in charge of finding a place for the family to live.” What else do the women seem “in charge” of in Manhattan? Of what are they decidedly not in charge?

    5. “Women on the Upper East Side, particularly women in their thirties and women on the downhill slope of middle age, are utterly attuned to and obsessed with power” (83). Consider this power obsession in connection with Wednesday Martin’s obsession with acquiring a Birkin bag. What is the implicit connection between expensive handbags and power? Does owning a Birkin on the Upper East Side make one more powerful? What is your tribe’s “it” bag? Is it a “fetish object”?

    6. Many of the women in Primates of Park Avenue are described as hyper-dedicated, particularly when it comes to their bodies. Describing a workout class in the Hamptons, Wednesday Martin writes that these women, herself included, put themselves through hell “to bond with their fellow tribe members, but also to measure up to, and to take the measure of, others, day by day, evening by evening, event by event, class by class” (129). Does their physical appearance symbolize something intrinsic? Something about their worth? What is the connection between the body and the person, in the case of an Upper East Side mommy?

    7. What surprised you the most about Wednesday’s memoir? Which aspect of these women’s lives feels most foreign to you and your life? Which aspects feel more familiar?

    8. How does the loss of Wednesday’s unborn daughter, Daphne, change the course of the story? Do you think losing a baby changes her perspective on life—particularly life on the Upper East Side?

    9. Compare and contrast Wednesday Martin with her new circle. How are they similar? How do they differ? According to what you’ve read, does Wednesday retain her subjective view of this “tribe,” or does she become too similar to be subjective?

    10. “From an anthropological perspective, these wealthy women who seem and are so fortunate are also marooned in their sex-segregated world” (162) writes Wednesday Martin about the marriages she sees all around her in New York City. She describes these so-called arrangements as “fragile and contingent and women are still dependent . . . on their men” (163). Does sex segregation and complete dependence on one’s partner seem strange in the twenty-first century, or do these marriages seem relatively standard? Do you agree with Wednesday that these women are perhaps in a less enviable position than one might assume? Why or why not?

    11. Consider the ways in which anxiety is described in Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree that “having too many choices is stressful” (178), or that a luxurious lifestyle ultimately leads to more—not less—unhappiness?

    12. Discuss the title of the memoir: Primates of Park Avenue. Do you agree, as the title suggests, that these women who live a certain kind of lifestyle on the Upper East Side are really no different than any other women anywhere? Are we all just animals, doing what we can to survive and create the safest, most favorable conditions we can for our families?

    13. Primates of Park Avenue is ultimately a testament to the strength of all women to endure the pain that so often accompanies motherhood. In her grief, Wednesday discovers another side of the beautiful, competitive women around her: love. In her time of need, these women came forward and offered emotional support and understanding, bolstering the bond between women of the same tribe who know “just how closely the territories of mothering and loss overlap” (198). Discus this “secret,” as Wednesday coined it, with your group members. Why do you think motherhood, in particular, feels so deeply connected to loss?



    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. In her quest to understand the women with whom she now shares a zip code and way of life, Wednesday Martin plunges into a thoughtful, observant study of Upper East Side mommies, the kind of woman she is fast becoming. In addition to firsthand observation, Wednesday uses her academic background to make sense of the rituals, beliefs, and desires of the classic Upper East Side woman. One source she turns to is literature; on page 100, she finds these women and their desires to be similar to the character Lily Bart and her wishes in Edith Wharton’s classic The House of Mirth. Have a movie night with your group to watch the film adaptation of The House of Mirth (2000). After the movie, discuss how Wednesday and her new crew resemble the character of Lily Bart. Do these women covet luxury items because they want “to be a wanted thing” (100) too?

    2. Many of the activities in Primates of Park Avenue are attended by women only, as the Upper East Side is, according to Wednesday Martin, a very sex-segregated society. In light of this, host a Girls’ Night inspired by the one Wednesday attends at her friend Rebecca’s apartment (page 150). Over dinner and drinks, discuss how your party compares with Rebecca’s. Do outfits, accessories, or conversation topics seem drastically different? Do you feel a kinship with the women in the memoir, or do you feel like a member of a totally different species?

    3. In chapter 6, Wednesday contemplates the complexity of the relationships between mothers and nannies on the Upper East Side—relationships that can be very familiar for some and terribly foreign for others. In Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday focuses only on the point of view of the mothers, the side of the relationship with which she is most familiar. For the nanny point of view, read The Nanny Diaries with your book club. Do the two books overlap in their consideration of this complicated relationship between mommies and nannies? Ultimately, do you agree with Wednesday that the nanny wields more power than the mom? Why or why not?



    A Conversation with Wednesday Martin

    Primates of Park Avenue is your second book. Discuss how this project compares with Stepmonster. Was one more difficult or challenging to write than the other? Did you have to be more vulnerable in telling one story over the other, or did both require a certain kind of vulnerability?

    Primates of Park Avenue and Stepmonster were both very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science. The difference is that Primates came to me very visually. I “saw” the story, not only as I had experienced it, but as I wanted to tell it. I hope readers can visualize the story and characters as well!

    On page 52 you write that on the Upper East Side, “child’s play was apparently a deadly serious business.” Child’s play—like exercise or finding the perfect apartment, the perfect summer home, or the perfect handbag—seems to have heavy stakes attached for Upper East Side women. What strikes you as the most outrageous ritual you observed in this society?

    The hiring of black-market Disney guides with access to disability passes so as to bypass lines really did take me by surprise. It said a lot about the pattern of “insider trading” at the heart of many tribal behaviors—I will give you this guide’s number, and it establishes that we are one, we are people who do this. And it speaks to the tribe’s impatience with doing things the way that “everybody else” has to.

    Why did you decide to tell this story from a female-only point of view? What is it about motherhood in particular that seems so distinct in this community?

    I really had to do it that way. The sex segregation of the tribe I studied is remarkably pronounced. I didn’t have access to the world of men. Men and women have very separate spheres in this tribe, and mixing is frowned upon for all kinds of reasons.

    In your introduction, you summarize this memoir as “a consideration of one narrow sliver of motherhood on one tiny island, and a meditation on what it might mean for everyone else” (14). Will you answer your own question for us—what does this sliver of motherhood mean for us? Do you agree that ultimately your book is about the connection between women who are mothers, no matter where they live?

    I think of the book as one contribution to the literature of motherhood. The themes that preoccupied me on my “quest” are pretty universal: the desire to be a good mother, to fit in, and to find and enjoy the perks of social support. It’s the quest of every primate, actually. The cultural script of “intensive motherhood”—the belief that you should give every ounce of your energy and every minute of your time to enrich your kids’ lives in every measure—intensifies with income. The richer you are, the more you’re expected to do it. But the expectation that mothers are solely responsible for their children’s well-being and that they do it on their own prevails in most industrialized settings. And it’s really hard on kids and others alike.

    You’ve been compared to an urban Dian Fossey and the anthropologist Jane Goodall. Who are some of your female heroes, women you look up to and perhaps channel as you write?

    I grew up really admiring Jane Goodall, Margaret Mead, and Gloria Steinem, and I still do. I am a huge fan of the writing of evolutionary biologist and primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. If I met her, I would be utterly starstruck! In very real ways, all of these women remade the world, or established entirely new ways of thinking about it.

    Do you agree that loss is a major theme in Primates of Park Avenue? When you write, do you consciously choose themes, or do they arise organically from the writing?

    The themes of Primates of Park Avenue—competition, anxiety, female aggression, social support, loss—presented themselves to me as I studied the women around me and mothered alongside them and had coffee with them. And yes, I do think that mothers everywhere, whether they are band foragers or mommies in Scarsdale or Madison or Cleveland, are processing the idea of loss, or of potentially losing a child, much of the time. Sadly, child loss has always been a big part of our experience as a species, and has been woven into human evolution.

    Along similar lines, you write on page 198 that part of the “script” for privileged motherhood is the belief that children will follow a certain path: go to school and college, marry, and ,eventually, “bury us.” Why do you suppose that it is these privileged mothers who hold on so strongly to this belief in a set pattern for a life?

    It’s what parents everywhere hope for, isn’t it? The tribe I studied is economically privileged in relative and absolute terms, and their rate of infant mortality is lower than those in many places in the world where resources and good prenatal care and medicine are not as accessible. They have come to expect that their children will outlive them. However, that does not shelter them from the realities of loss. Worldwide, being a fetus or a baby is risky, relative to other life stages.

    You share so much with readers that is personal; these things must have been painful memories for you to revisit. What was the most difficult part of writing Primates of Park Avenue? Did the act of writing work as a kind of catharsis for you?

    Writing the chapter about the loss of my daughter, Daphne, was very sad, but also very helpful for me. It helped me understand and connect with other women who have experienced such losses. It was also surprisingly cathartic to write about the experience of being a playdate pariah. So many women had experienced it and wanted to talk to me about it. That was inspiring.

    It seems your quest to obtain a Birkin bag was all-consuming and intense, and you spend an entire chapter describing for us the ins and outs of owning such a coveted item. What does the Birkin bag symbolize for you? Does it carry the same import now that you own it?

    I wrote that part of the appeal of a Birkin bag is the “get” itself. Once the thrill of the hunt is done, you are left with a status object made of leather. I learned the hard way that such quests can backfire spectacularly: in my enthusiasm to get a Birkin in order to “play ball” with the other moms, I neglected to consider that it might actually injure me! Two different doctors told me that the bag was the likely cause of the neurological pain that made it hard for me to write!

    What news can you share with us about upcoming projects? Do you have plans for a new memoir?

    I am now part of the tribe of fiction writers. They are very different from writers of nonfiction (well, at least that’s what writers of nonfiction say). I love inventing a world and plots and characters entirely. It’s very freeing, but I do feel a little crazy when I speak to my husband about what the characters are doing or how they feel or what they think. I mean, c’mon, they’re characters. But I hope readers will enjoy the novel I’m working on. All the sex that the tribe of women I studied are not having, the main character of my novel is!

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    Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir 2.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
    BrainyBookBabe More than 1 year ago
    I was SO excited about this so-called memoir, I had it on my "Must Buy" list since hearing about it three months ago. So, I purchased it the morning it came out at B&N. I was hoping it would be as well-written as something by the Sykes sisters. Boy, was I disappointed. This was a ridiculous book; not because of the way UES moms are depicted, but because the author used up at least half of the book talking about animals and primates. She completely ripped off the beginning of the Nanny Diaries movie with all of her talk about primates. Glad I saved the receipt, as soon as I finished it, it went right back to B&N. And I'm glad I did return it, as the NY Post did a whole story on Wednesday Martin in this past Sundays' edition and they called her out on all of the inconsistencies (i.e. lies) her book had in it, and she backpeddled on all of them with excuses. Want to read something really good? Go out and get After Perfect. Purchased it yesterday and haven't been able to put it down. Also, The Knock-off was excellent, as was The Underwriting. Save your money and don't even bother with this lie of a memoir.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I pre-ordered this book and started reading it as soon as I received it on my Nook. But! It really was not quite as expected. I found myself getting annoyed at the many passages that went into detail about actual primates and anthropology. They seemed too detaled and just went on and on. I started skipping over them completely, and there were quite a few pages I didn't read as a result. I guess I just didn't enjoy her writing style.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    As the other reviewer noted, this book was just plain ridiculous.  I understand you have a degree in anthropology,  but why would you need to bring all that stuff into a  light-hearted amusing topic  such as rich women in NYC and how they spend their time/money.  The latter is funny; the anthropology stuff was just plain boring and unnecessary.  I would not recommend this book for that reason.   
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Turns out it's not a memoir, it's a "memoir," i.e., something mostly made up and passed off as true. I feel like an idiot for buying it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    A bad rewrite of the Nanny Diaries, which was at least insightful and touching.  This is packed with lies and mistruths and boring as well. 
    Livanlearn More than 1 year ago
    The overview of this book sounded funny and entertaining. Whoever wrote the description of the book was a better writer than the author of this flat book. Not entertaining, not funny and not even a good read. I am disappointed I bought it. A waste of my time, trying to read it.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This is a sharp, witty memoir. I enjoyed Wednseday’s writing style and flair for detail. Definitely thumbs up on this one!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I think this book was great!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Based on this books description, I was under the impression it would be a light, fun read. Could not have been more wrong. It reads more like a college anthropology text book than a witty satire on life as an Upper East Side mommy.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Primates of Park Avenue is an interesting book. I truly thought I would like it more than I did though. It’s not a bad book, it’s just not great either. 
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I like a good NyC story but this had none of the fun of devil wears prada or bergdorf blondes. The narrator is annoying
    Mrsjr11 More than 1 year ago
    simply put in one word "Boring".  I'm so sorry I wasted my money on this book that does not but goes on and on about nothing.  Don't call yourself a doctor.  That's a joke.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Designer hand bags, nannies, trips to Aspen, summer homes in the Hamptons, expensive clothes and galas are all of the norm on the Upper East Side. The Age of Innocence and Gossip Girl are similar because the characters all live within the upper class of New York City, particularly the Upper East Side. In Primates of Park Avenue, by Wednesday Martin, Wednesday faces many adversities and when she overcomes them, she is stronger. She finds an apartment on the Upper East Side with the help of her realtor, Inga, despite the difficulty of it. She also finds a preschool for her son, which was tough because of the limited amount of available spots. Maybe one of the most difficult tasks she faces when first moving to the Upper East Side was trying to fit in with all of the other mommies. This may not seem hard to do to some, but the mommies on the Upper East Side are territorial, cruel, vicious, fantastically dressed and very hostile. Wednesday was expecting these women to be exactly that. However, not all of these women were, maybe on the exterior, but as she got to know some of them she realized that wasn’t the case at all. However, some of these women had all of those traits and they certainly know it. As Wednesday spent more time with the other mommies, she hadn’t expected them to have the same or very similar issues as herself, but they did. She formed many friendships from having similar hardships and they helped her get through some of her own. I thought that this book was very telling and interesting. I didn’t expect some of the mommies to be so cruel, but I guess that’s a part of the Upper East Side. Her friends helped her out in her time of need and I think that’s nice to read about that she found caring friends in a society with such limited ones. Some of the plot and dialogue was amusing in my opinion. The unexpected directness of some of these women was in some cases hilarious, but in others straight out cruel. Some of the characters were surprisingly down to earth. When Wednesday and her son couldn’t find a playdate and they were pariahs she ultimately became friendly with an alpha dad and her inauspicious status was no more. After that, she had playdates and was not considered an outsider any more and women didn’t ignore her as much. After this experience she became stronger and learned a way in with the mommies. It seems that she attempts to not be like these women, but that she ultimately fails and accustoms herself to their practices. One of the most telling signs of one's status is if they have a Birkin bag or the equivalent. Wednesday does a lot of research to try and get the Birkin bag and finally gets one when her husband is on business in Asia. I think that her determination really is a factor of success. When Wednesday and her family decided to rent a house in The Hamptons I don’t think she expected some of the people to behave in the way they did. When she went to the Physique 57 studio the women were pushy and rude before she even entered the studio. She entered the studio and then worked out with these women. I think it’s amusing to read about how the women behave outside the studio and then when they start working out they wouldn’t even look at Wednesday. I would recommend this book because I thought that it was very surprising and entertaining. Some of the things that these Upper East Side mommies did was at some point absurd and at others hilarious.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This. Book. Sucks.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Egad. Who would have thought there existed such a vapid bunch of self absorbed people, including the author. She drank the kool aid after all. Disappointing.
    brooklyn63 More than 1 year ago
    Very disappointing, thought this was going to be a light funny story about the Upper east Side mom's cliques definitely not the case. The author obviously chose to make this a dissertation for her Anthropology degree. Please don't waste your time or your money on this book
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Sooo boring save your money
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