Mark Reads ‘Looking For Alaska’: one hundred fourteen days after through the end

One hundred fourteen days after it happens, Takumi provides a missing key to Alaska, and Miles comes to terms with getting out of the labyrinth of suffering. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to finish Looking For Alaska.

one hundred fourteen days after

Well (part of) that answer was just sitting right in front of me, wasn’t it? If I had just counted the days that John Green had given me in the chapter titles, I would have put two and two together.

Somewhat. And I think that’s important about this. When Takumi surprises both the Colonel and Miles with his realization that Alaska’s mother’s anniversary of her death was the day before she died, it’s still not the answer. It’s an answer, a possible explanation of many, though it is admittedly one that makes the most sense: Alaska became upset when the daisy she doodled reminded her of the flowers her mother used to put in her hair, and she realized she’d forgotten about her. It’s a pretty believable idea, sure, but neither option explains Alaska’s car bearing down so swiftly on that cruiser on the highway. And here’s why this book is going to end on a note that satisfies me:

The Colonel reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, tapping it upside down against the COFFEE TABLE. “Well,” he said. “That clears things up nicely.”

They’re stopping. It’s the end of the line, and they all realize that this is all they’ll ever know, that there’s nothing left to be discovered that wouldn’t involve reading a dead girl’s mind.

It’s done.

one hundred eighteen days after

Which is not to say this situation is simply reduced to nothing; it’s still a messy, complicated affair, and it always will be. Suicide or not, Miles and the Colonel will forever feel complicit in sending Alaska to her death, but they’ve finally taken their guilt and done something productive with it, instead of thinking of more ways to blame Alaska for everything. Emotionally, though, Miles and the Colonel have one last act to commit to in order to help them free themselves of their grief.

They have to drive through Alaska’s crash site.

This is not a ritualistic action, like the Alaska Young Memorial Prank, or tossing unsmoked cigarettes into the lake. It is a one-time thing. It is passage into a new world where they’ve now seen where their best friend died “instantly.” It is moving beyond the pain and rage and fear and sadness that her death brought them and it is moving on.

It is an act that makes them feel alive, and that distinction is all that matters. They are alive.

one hundred nineteen days after

Goddamn, The Sound and the Fury was a difficult read. I do not envy Miles.

one hundred twenty-two days after

I admire Dr. Hyde, even if there’s not that much we get of him. He’s a layered character, one who surprises me with his intellect and his capacity for empathy, so it’s entirely in character for him to make the final exam about Alaska Young. It’s a natural path for the man, who so pleasantly spoke about Alaska after she passed a way, to use an experience to hopefully expand the way his students thought about the world. I love that he makes the exam a much more personal experience, too:

“Your knowledge, or lack thereof, has been established in the quizzes you’ve taken this semester. I am interested in how you are able to fit the uncontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it.”

And isn’t that one of the Big Questions we all have to deal with at some point in our lives? Nearly everyone suffers in this world, some of us more than others. So how do we justify or explain it or rationalize it or cope with it? It’s one of the major themes of Looking For Alaska because the Colonel and Miles are looking for this answer. It’s not necessarily the most subtle message in the whole world, but I enjoy that it’s one of a few ways you can read this novel. There’s another subtext of Miles physically and mentally looking for Alaska after her death, and even that has a double meaning. On top of that, it’s also a book about the American high school experience. But for me, it’s a book about finding the answer to the labyrinth of suffering, and it’s my favorite theme of the book.

I was struck by the Colonel’s response to the exam topic:

“After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out–but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it.”

At first, I sort of read it like the Colonel was judging Alaska, but now I feel like he’s acknowledging that regardless of the way in which she died, he recognizes that Alaska isn’t suffering anymore. And stating that is a powerful thing to me, because it’s acknowledging she was in pain, and that her struggle to find love and acceptance was a real thing that happened. It was part of who she was.

one hundred thirty-six days after

Oh, Takumi. I honestly didn’t expect this, but it explains why Takumi wasn’t around for so long: he was dealing with a similar sense of guilt that Miles and the Colonel were. In his case, though, he saw her after she got upset that she’d forgotten to put flowers on her mother’s grave. He knew the whole time why she was upset, and he also didn’t stop her, despite knowing she was drunk.

So he had a part in it, too, but he kept it to himself. Miles rushes to say goodbye to him, but he’s gone.

What I found touching about this is that Miles just wanted to tell Takumi that he forgave him. It’s weird talking about forgiveness because I have a few grudges that I plan on taking to my grave. And while it is my right to decide when I get to forgive someone, I can’t deny that those negative thoughts bring about a whole lot of pain with them. Forgiveness is a very, very personal thing, and I always sort of despised when people told me I had to forgive someone. Um, I WILL BE THE JUDGE OF THAT THANK YOU VERY MUCH. But holding on to that sort of stuff has certainly made my own suffering much more difficult.

In a way, Miles’s final exam, which we get to see in full, feels a tad forced, but it’s a fine way to wrap up a lot of the themes and character development over the course of this book in the context of what has happened. It does read like John Green wrote it, not Miles, but it’s still got a lot of closure to it, so I don’t have a problem looking beyond this. The central problem that Miles has been facing since Alaska’s death is finding a way to make sense of it. He couldn’t ever rectify to absurd notions that came with it, and, even worse, he tried to blame her for the problems of death. That’s not fair to Alaska.

What Miles eventually comes up with ties in neatly with the idea that all energy is never created or destroyed: it simply is. And perhaps this is how he can deal with the loss of his best friend, by imagining that her energy will continue on to wherever or become something else. This manifests itself in the closing remarks of Miles’s exam and the last part of Looking For Alaska: if this is true about matter, then perhaps we really are as invincible as we say we are.

I think that Looking For Alaska is a flawed novel, especially in the characterization of Alaska Young. Framing her whole person as a growth experience for Miles isn’t my favorite thing in the world, but thankfully, there’s a whole lot to like about this book and the story of searching out for Alaska. Even that framing has its merits, and I think the last quarter of the novel is its strongest part of the whole. This book, though, is both a celebration and a study of youth, of what it’s like to grow up in the middle of the United States, and about the realities of adulthood crashing into the bright visions of our teenage years. I know that this book is being taught in schools now, and that makes me happy. There’s so much here that I wish I had talked about in my classrooms.

So while I relate to a lot of what happens in Looking For Alaska, I didn’t get the experience of talking about sex, death, friendships, or the quest for existential happiness in an absurd world. (Aside from the month we spent on The Stranger in AP English, which genuinely changed the path of my whole life.) This is a sad book, for sure, but I was surprised how much joy there was to be found in the pages, especially the final prank that these characters pulled off.

I think it’s crucial to engage with the criticism of this book, especially since I don’t think it’s unfounded, but I ultimately enjoyed this book quite a bit. You know, it was nice to talk about high school without every story being about how I thought I was going to die; it’s allowed me to remember that I did have silly and fun days, that I had problems that weren’t as traumatic and painful as the ones I’ve written about in the past. I’m just glad that someone is writing books that deal with these sort of things; personally, I always felt that novels prepared me for the “real world” more than anything else in high school. I would rather have read Looking For Alaska than taken calculus any day of the week.

Okay, that’s not a fair comparison, but you get the point. This is a solid book, one I had a good time reading, and had an even better time discussion. And with that, I end Mark Reads Looking For Alaska. That means on Monday morning, Mark Reads Lord of the Rings begins.

oh lord what have I gotten myself into.

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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85 Responses to Mark Reads ‘Looking For Alaska’: one hundred fourteen days after through the end

  1. drippingmercury says:

    Hmm, for some reason I can’t get intense debate to load properly so I can’t post this logged in. 🙁

    Anyway, I thought the book was pretty good, but the fact that I found the discussion of suicide triggering as all fuck – even though I spent the whole book expecting that Alaska would kill herself and thought I could prepare myself – makes me kind of meh about it overall and reluctant to actually delve into my thoughts and issues with the book. SO, completely aside from the important themes in this novel: Did anything ever come of sending the flunk out letters to the Weekday Warriors’ parents? I realize that Alaska’s death affected the whole school, the narrator in particular, so people aren’t going to be up in arms about a prank that screams “Alaska & co.” but it does seem kind of odd to me that it was never mentioned again, even in passing (unless I just missed it).

    • @ronnachu says:

      I was wondering that too, and the only mention I found was Eight Days After:

      "[The Colonel] actually rolled his eyes when Weekday Warrior Brooke Blakely, whose parents had received a progress report courtesy of Alaska, said 'I'm just sad I never told her I loved her.'"

      So it is mentioned, but I kind of feel like this could have been explored a little bit more.

  2. Laura says:

    I also liked how they came to some sort of peace with Alaska’s death — something that involved them, and not her. Of course the book isn’t perfect. But it made me cry both times I read it, which few books have done — usually the second time, the tears don’t happen.

    As far as things that I wish had happened in my high school and were talked about… well, all I can say is YES. And in fact, there was a recent New York Times article on the best sex-ed program I have ever heard of. I wish I’d had that class in my school.

    • flootzavut says:

      I wish I'd had a teacher I trusted that much – I think I could have avoided a lot of heartache over the last couple of decades if there had been someone I could tell I had been abused and start to get over it rather than just sitting on it for 25 years. Kind of makes me sad to think the if only thoughts.

  3. ADB says:

    What a book.

    Okay, LotR time. NONE OF US ARE PREPARED!

  4. I feel all the pain!

    I really liked this book (I would fail a book report for writing that!) and I feel that it would certainly have affected me positively as a teenager if I had read it then. As is stands, I still enjoyed it for what it was even though I suspected very early on (as soon as Alaska was introduced) that she was possibly traumatised, which made me sad, and having her kept at a distance from us, the readers, saddened but did not surprise me. Even though (similar to you Mark!) I honestly couldn't identify with any of the sex/drink/drugs/pranking/friends the characters still felt very real to me. This was always my problem with books! I would always make friends out of books and the characters within them because I found it sooo difficult to interact with other people. No one seemed as real as those in my books. Hmm. I think I'm better now.

    To summarise, this book made me cry and it's awesome that the writing engaged me so well! At times I did feel that it would have a greater impact upon someone younger and or similar age/situation to the characters, simply because they could relate more closely.

    Still reading The Book Thief, which is also making cry. This is a good things. Crying let's the boo hoos out.
    What am I writing?!?! SUBMIT COMMENT.

  5. guest_age says:

    I agree with you for the most part–there are things to criticize here, but over all, I enjoyed the book. I will say, though, that while we were taking this book chapter-by-chapter, I read all of John's other books and enjoyed some of them more than I did this one. (I know, I know, blasphemy, I deserve to be tarred and feathered, etc etc.)

    Anyway, I can't wait for you to start Lord of the Rings, which is, for me, the book that changed the course of my life in high school. I had a science teacher who told us that if we read either the first Harry Potter book or the first Lord of the Rings book over winter break and wrote a report on it, he'd give us extra credit. (What this has to do with ninth grade science is beyond me, but I needed all the help I could get, so I was game.) I chose LotR and it opened my eyes to how much fun reading and in particular, reading fantasy, could be. It's because of that book that I eventually read Harry Potter, through which I made pretty much every friend I have today, and eventually joined the staff of the HPA. So…yeah, LotR means a lot to me. SO EXCITE to share it with you.

  6. I am surprised that Looking for Alaska has received so few comments over the course of The Reading!
    Is everyone just waiting for the next Buffy review, and Lord of the Rings on Monday? I am of course waiting for both also, but where did all the Nerdfighters go?
    Irrelevant point: I am hoping to make Vanilla Cake this weekend. Tips?

    Also – I have not forgotten the Hufflepuff Cookies!

    • Thiamalonee says:

      I read this book when it was up for the Lincoln Award, and it was so not my cup of tea that it was my cold medicine (you don’t want to take it, you do to improve yourself, but it ends up just leaving you sleepy). That said, I know the book is praised and well-liked by others, so I chose the “if you can’t say something nice…” policy and disappeared for its run. I’m psyched about LOTR coming back, and I’m ready to get my comment on! (insert jumping around Tangled gif, here, you know the one). 🙂

    • knut_knut says:

      One day he will tell us about those Hufflepuff Cookies.

      One day.

      (I hope your Vanilla Cake goes well! Is it a difficult recipe?)

    • xpanasonicyouthx says:

      The weird part is that pageviews/visits went UP during this time.

      Nerdfighters, I know you're reading! Say hello!

    • muselinotte says:

      I actually often found it hard to comment on these reviews.
      Reading this book made me think many thoughts (hurr, durr), but I still find it difficult to put them into words, especially as many very personal things came up, especially with the last chapters, the forgiveness…

  7. Eefje says:

    I made the connection that Alaska had forgotten her moms death-day when Pudge discovered the doodled daisy. Not because I remembered the date, but because there was only one thing she could have forgotten that would be so important for her. I've forgotten my moms death-day, but I don't put much stock into dates. I always remember her on my birthday though, it means I've lived an other year of my life without her being a part of it. The first time you forget something like that feels like you're betraying the person you've lost, like you're dishonouring the impact their death had on you by moving on.
    I guess me figuring out Alaska's motivation is party because I've been there (though my mother had a very different death and I in no way had a similar experience) and because Alaska is a very different person then me (I would never respond the way she does). Mixing that is me figuring out what had gotten her so upset.

    I wish we'd have gotten more Takumi though, poor guy was dealing with a similar guilt and he did it on his own. I kind of want a resolution for him with Pudge and the Colonel.

    • flootzavut says:

      My one major regret of the book was that I wished we'd spent more time with Takumi. My favourite character in it.

  8. elusivebreath says:

    Mark, I'm really glad you chose this book in between The Hobbit and LOTR (mainly because I loathe those books and am so not looking forward to reading them again, and yet I am strangely compelled to read along with you anyway lol), because it's something I probably wouldn't have read otherwise.

    I agree with you that there are some flaws here, but overall this book was really solid, really emotional, and any book that makes me out and out SOB is pretty damn good to me. I wish we'd had more of Alaska, but I liked what we did see, and I liked that Miles and Takumi and the Colonel did eventually come to some sort of terms with her death that didn't involving blaming her for it.

    Do you know already what you are going to read AFTER LOTR?

  9. settlingforhistory says:

    I'm surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. Before the announcement that it would be the next Mark Reads book, I had not even heard of John Green and after watching the first vlogbrothers videos in preparation I thought it would be a rather silly book (not that I don't love the vlogbrothers now, after watching half their videos in the last 2 weeks).
    I wish I could have read this book at school, it's much more interesting than the ones I had to read.

    Anyway, I figured out that it had to be something about her mother that had got Alaska so upset the day she died when the Colonel recited his conversation with Jake, that Takumi knew all along really caught me off guard though. I love that Miles doesn't even get upset with him for a second and immediately forgives him. Character Grows. Yay!
    The drive through the crash site was beautiful, so full of emotion and a chance to really let go for Miles and the Colonel. It would make a great movie scene. (I really would love to see that movie.)
    All in all I'm quite happy with the ending, it's not to cheesy and it doesn't try to convince you of any form of religion.
    The thought that the people we love are somewhere, just somewhere unspecified, maybe just energy , is really nice and I love that he doesn't end it "I wish I knew where she is' or "I wish I could go to her", but with 'I hope it's beautiful'. Wonderful last words of a novel that had been so sad and depressing for at least the second half.

    Can't wait to read more by John Green, but LotR comes first and I am so not prepared!

  10. @ljrTR says:

    I have just recently discovered this site. While the Alaska book is certainly worth reading, I simplty cannot contain my excitement over re-reading Lord of the Rings along with a Tolkien Virgin! (well, a LOTR Virgin, anyway). Remember – start Fellowship with the first actual chapter, not preface type materieal in front of it which contains spoilers!

    • @MeagenImage says:

      Looking through my copy… "Note on the Text": Not very spoily, "Foreword to the Second Edition": fairly spoily, Prologue: a little spoily on two points, but also contains some nice background info on Hobbits.

  11. flootzavut says:

    I think the last few days' worth of the book were my favourite. Not a perfect but but it has some great moments, and I really liked how he tied things up.

  12. sporkaganza93 says:

    I love The Stranger! It's one of my most favorite books I've ever read.

    Also, I came back home from my dorm yesterday. And wouldn't you know it, I'm all sitting here comfortable and then you bring up LOTR and then I realized I forgot my copy of LOTR at my dorm! Crap!!!! Oh well, we have a copy at home too. It's just a matter of finding it……

  13. arctic_hare says:

    What I found touching about this is that Miles just wanted to tell Takumi that he forgave him. It’s weird talking about forgiveness because I have a few grudges that I plan on taking to my grave. And while it is my right to decide when I get to forgive someone, I can’t deny that those negative thoughts bring about a whole lot of pain with them. Forgiveness is a very, very personal thing, and I always sort of despised when people told me I had to forgive someone. Um, I WILL BE THE JUDGE OF THAT THANK YOU VERY MUCH. But holding on to that sort of stuff has certainly made my own suffering much more difficult.

    Thank you so much for saying this, because it is how I feel on the subject as well. <3 I think this was a well-written book with some great quotes, but in the end I did have the issues with it you bring up.

    BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY LOTR ON MONDAY EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE 😀 😀 😀

    <img src="http://i44.tinypic.com/6fmfyc.jpg&quot; border="0" alt="Image and video hosting by TinyPic">

    <img src="http://i40.tinypic.com/v4bdaw.gif&quot; border="0" alt="Image and video hosting by TinyPic">

    <img src="http://i43.tinypic.com/vax5v.gif&quot; border="0" alt="Image and video hosting by TinyPic">

  14. Becky_J_ says:

    Hahahaha. Remember, everyone, how angry we all were that he wasn't starting LOTR right away?? I, for one, enjoyed you reading Alaska, Mark. It's a flawed book, but then again, very few aren't (HARRY POTTER *cough cough*) and I think it is a valuable and thoughtful book to read, which is all we can ever ask.

    That said….. OH MY GOD YOU GUYS LOTR ON MONDAY SHIT IS ABOUT TO GET OUT OF CONTROL

  15. muselinotte says:

    I really enjoyed this book overall, I wish I had read it earlier in life…

    Miles and Chip hugging after passing the the place where Alaska died was so incredibly touching, ach…
    I quite liked the end, it felt like I was gently led out of the story and given some things to think about on my way out.

    All in all, it made me excited for more John Green books, although at the moment, i do all i can to feed my new found need for Jasper Fforde books! 🙂

    About LOTR, I don't know how to feel about it… I've got the book here, but the thought of re-reading it is kind of offputting for me. I read them about ten years ago, before the films came out, but I remember them as quite tedious reads.
    OH WELL!

    • flootzavut says:

      "I quite liked the end, it felt like I was gently led out of the story and given some things to think about on my way out."

      That is such an absolutely beautiful way of putting it. This is a good comment and you should feel good.

      Something about the combination of LFA and your comment made me think of Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. I think that's how BY makes me feel when I read Kitchen – not that anything is being forced on me but that I am being gently told a story, and by the way here are a few things to think about as you go.

      And YAY for Jasper Fforde converts 😀

      • muselinotte says:

        Haha, thanks, I shall 🙂

        That sounds like an interesting story, noted!

        And oh my, I just started on my second Jasper Fforde book today (The Big Over Easy), I already like it a lot, but I'm anxious if it will hold up to Shades Of Grey, which is probably the most fun I've had with a book all year! 😀

        • flootzavut says:

          Shades of Grey is one of the few of his I have yet to read. I started with the Thursday Next series… which I adore. The Nursery Crime series took me more effort to get into but when I did I loved both TBOE and The Fourth Bear. Both genuinely clever IMO… the effort is amply rewarded. And to be fair it took awhile for The Eyre Affair to grab me but when it did it was fantastic. Enjoy!It has been years since I read Kitchen… I have no idea if I would feel the same now but I read it and its partner novella Moonlight Shadow may times and always felt moved but never peached at or coerced into reacting a certain way. I am tempted to suggest it as a Mark Reads book but between some of its subject matter and how long it has been since I read it I feel I should read it again first… if I could just find the book!

        • flootzavut says:

          Shades of Grey is one of the few of his I have yet to read. I started with the Thursday Next series… which I adore. The Nursery Crime series took me more effort to get into but when I did I loved both TBOE and The Fourth Bear. Both genuinely clever IMO… the effort is amply rewarded. And to be fair it took awhile for The Eyre Affair to grab me but when it did it was fantastic. Enjoy!It has been years since I read Kitchen… I have no idea if I would feel the same now but I read it and its partner novella Moonlight Shadow may times and always felt moved but never peached at or coerced into reacting a certain way. I am tempted to suggest it as a Mark Reads book but between some of its subject matter and how long it has been since I read it I feel I should read it again first… if I could just find the book!

  16. elyce says:

    yayyy LotR! i'm so excite. i started rereading it in preparation… like 3 weeks ago. Only halfway through. haha. Need to go a little faster, I guess :]

  17. Meltha says:

    oh lord what have I gotten myself into

    Something for which you are not prepared? On the other hand, between this and Buffy, I am going to be having the best Christmas break in a long time. 🙂

  18. enigmaticagentscully says:

    OH MY GOD I COULD LITERALLY NOT BE MORE EXCITED FOR LOTR.

    I'M ALREADY STARTING TO HEAR THE MUSIC FROM THE MOVIES PLAYING IN MY HEAD…

    DUNNNN, DUNNNN, DUNDUNDUNNNNNNN….

  19. xpanasonicyouthx says:

    Tolkien is verbose, but I assure you my reviews won't be. Plus, I think as a whole, each "book" of LOTR will take less than a month to finish, and I really don't want to stretch the entire experience out super far.

    • Majc says:

      Awesome! My fear comes from many readers I know not being able to handle Tolkien in large doses. But since you can handle GRRM and you enjoyed The Hobbit greatly I never should have been worried.

  20. Tauriel_ says:

    That means on Monday morning, Mark Reads Lord of the Rings begins.

    *breaks into the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's Messiah*

    😀 😀 <3 <3 <3

  21. Tauriel_ says:

    LOTR on Monday! 😀

    Mark, umilyë feryaina. You are not prepared – now in Elvish! 😀

    <img src="http://i29.photobucket.com/albums/c251/Tauriel/umilye_feryaina.jpg"&gt;

    • stefb4 says:

      Hmmm…Dhraln? rot13 because…overcautious-ness…Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, even though they are actually quite different in style 🙂

      • Tauriel_ says:

        Yep, you're right! 🙂 You can tell by the writing mode, too. 😉

        • stefb4 says:

          Haha, yeah, that's what I was going by! the umilyë gave it away 🙂

          I should teach myself Elvish–I used to know a tiny tiiiiiny bit but I've forgotten it.

  22. arctic_hare says:

    I see no reason to break up a trilogy with books in between and I'm glad Mark isn't going to. He's never done it before and I don't see a reason to start.

  23. Tauriel_ says:

    Yeah, no breaking of the trilogy, kthxbai!

  24. Raenef says:

    I'm glad Mark reads both popular books and perhaps lesser known books, because while I am excited for LOTR, being able to peek into a book through Mark's eyes that I'd probably never read on my own is pretty nice in a vaguely "I'm almost expanding my horizons vicariously" way.

  25. stefb4 says:

    If anything, I think taking a break between books would ruin any kind of momentum. It's a little different with a book between The Hobbit and LotR, because LotR is technically one book (and also written nearly twenty years later) and a book between isn't nearly as jarring, but I think it would be with the trilogy.

  26. Ryan Lohner says:

    Plus Lord of the Rings was written as one book. The only reason it was split up was so people could actually afford it.

  27. Lady X says:

    Yes! LotR FINALLY!

  28. Elise says:

    John Green actually wrote "Paper Towns" as a kind of response to the dangerous way we can minimize people. Just like is done with girls like Alaska in real life and in literature. It's about imagining people complexly and the pressure that you can put on people with your expectations about how they are going to change YOUR life. I've always been the kind of crazy girl with dyed hair and spontaneous plans. It can be really exhausting when people see you as an idea instead of a person with complicated emotions and experiences and fears and dreams. I'm not going to request that you read Paper Towns for MarkReads, but I really suggest reading it at some point!

  29. Ryan Lohner says:

    Wow, apparently we're getting a new banner for each book of the trilogy. I look forward to Mark actually realizing the meaning of this one, like the bench from His Dark Materials.

  30. weneedtotalk says:

    Finally stopped just lurking and registered because you're doing LotR! Read them a while ago and loved it, can't wait to re-read it along with you.

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