The 2019 State of the Blog Address

The end of 2019 marked the completion of my eleventh year of blogging, and as Tony’s Reading List moves towards the tweens, it’s time for the annual musings on the year that was and the twelve months to come.  Was 2019 a vintage year for my reading and reviewing, or has the gloss worn off the blog after so long, leaving the whole affair in need of urgent renovations?  Let’s find out in this year’s state-of-the-blog address 🙂

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Seen from one angle, 2019 could be considered as another successful year in which I reviewed some excellent books.  As you may have seen from my awards post, there were some old friends (Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, Olga Tokarczuk) among my selections for the year, as well as several new discoveries (Ahmadou Kourouma, Kyōko Nakajima, Paulina Flores).  The end result was another hundred reviews or so, which (hopefully) have helped people find some interesting books to try, and given some overlooked gems a little more publicity – all in a year’s work.

In addition, the year saw me participating in the usual blogging events.  As well as taking part in German Literature Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August, for the eighth year in a row I was part of a shadow panel of bloggers, this year for the Man Booker International Prize.  As always, it was a great experience, and I enjoyed discussing the books with other bloggers, and providing a different viewpoint to that of the official panel.  This was certainly the case with our choice of winner, Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Shape of the Ruins (translated by Anne McLean: MacLehose Press), and it was nice to be able to throw our weight behind books we thought should have done better.

Another feature of 2019 for me was an increased focus on my own translations.  I started to ‘publish’ little pieces a couple of years back, and last year saw two serialised works on the blog.  For Women in Translation Month, I looked at Ricarda Huch’s long story ‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’), and for German Literature Month, I went back to Eduard Graf von Keyserling with another novella (about 60 pages in my translation!) called Seine Liebeserfahrung (Experiences of Love).  As far as I can tell, neither work had been translated into English before , and I enjoyed the challenges the process threw up, even if I really could have done with slightly fewer flowers in the Keyserling story…

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And yet, I wouldn’t say 2019 was one of my better blogging years.  I’m increasingly feeling that the Zeitgeist has passed me by and that I could be making much better use of my time.  After a few years of decent rises in page views, this year saw a slight, but insignificant increase, while interaction, in the form of likes and comments, was significantly down.  What’s more, I’m increasingly failing to be sent books I’m interested in, ignored even in areas such as Japanese and Korean fiction, where I would expect to be at the front of publicists’ minds.

It’s partly a sign of the times, with other bookish reviewers (such as Bookstagrammers and Booktubers) receiving far more attention, and the long-review format being slightly ignored; certainly, my more popular posts tend to be more listicle than in-depth reviews.  There’s also the small matter of the importance of social media use, and I’m happy to admit that this is something I’m pretty useless at.  For anyone offering an online service, there’s a constant need to cross-promote and actively engage with followers, and I find that a struggle.  I’m the kind of person that sets off with the best intentions but soon ends up browsing and posting nothing, which leads to hours spent online for very little benefit.

Also, while I was happy with my translation efforts this year, I was deeply disappointed by the reaction to them.  The reality is that, apart from a handful of enthusiastic fans, nobody really cares about them.  Yes, I suppose classic German literature is a tad niche, and I am just an amateur, so my efforts are probably not nearly as polished as published translations, but I did think that there would be an audience, and that the serialised structure I chose would allow people to read along.  As it turned out, I was very wrong – in fact, the second week of my Keyserling project, where I posted every day (the last six parts of the story and my afterword), was easily the worst week this year, statswise, on the blog, possibly the worst week for several years.

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So, on that gloomy note, what can we expect from 2020?  Well, as you can tell, I’m not looking ahead too optimistically, and I’m already preparing myself for the posibility of throwing in the towel at some point – and have made a few decisions in light of that.  I’ve still got a few review copies I feel I should post on, but I won’t be chasing many more, and I’ll be trying to keep my commitments to a minimum, only accepting requests to look at books I’m really interested in.  As we get further into the year, I would expect to be reviewing far more of my own books, and far fewer of the shiny new things.

Secondly, and perhaps a little perversely, despite the lack of interest in my translation work, I’m hoping to do a bit more of that this year, which will also require a reduction in the time spent on reviews.  That’s good news for the select handful of readers who have enjoyed my efforts – not so much for those wanting to be kept up to date on new translated fiction releases.  I suspect that this will lead to far fewer reviews, and possibly more time spent rereading old favourites, too (which, of course, is always a good thing!).

Finally, it’s time to reveal the first real concrete change for 2020, namely, my decision not to participate in shadowing this year’s International Booker Prize.  While the experience is always great fun, it’s also extremely time-consuming and limiting, and given that I want more freedom, this is one way to give myself more time for what I want to do.  I’m sure I’ll still read some of the longlisted titles, but I’ll be doing so at my own pace, and with no pressure to try any I don’t like the sound of.

At present, the future of the Shadow Panel is up in the air.  I did ask former chair Stu Allen if he wanted to take over again, but he has his own plans, with a very different focus.  I’m hoping that one of the current judges will keep it going in the current format as I feel it does serve a useful function, especially when the official judges make some ‘interesting’ decisions.  It’s always good to have the books looked at by outsiders, who often view things very differently to the ‘experts’.

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All in all, then, it’s a slightly gloomy start to the blogging year.  Of course, I’ve thought about cutting back a little several times before and never quite managed it, so we’ll have to see whether I can stick to my plans this time around.  In any case, whatever happens this year, I’d like to give my thanks to all those who do read what I knock out a couple of times a week: here’s hoping that 2020 will be good for both literature and the wider world…

…because, let’s face it, 2019 wasn’t all that great 😉

50 thoughts on “The 2019 State of the Blog Address

  1. While I understand your reasoning, I do hope you don’t stop posting. Your blog is an excellent pointer to books that deserve a wider audience. Also, you know how to write quality reviews, something not every book blogger quite manages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jackie – Thanks for the kind words. I doubt I’ll simply stop overnight, but I’ll certainly be trying to wind down a little, and focus on slightly different things.

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  2. Tony, very sad to read about your sense of despondency. I have enjoyed this (my first) year of reading your blogs and reviews. I live in London but was recommended your blogs by my mother in law in the States. Very international. You cover three kinds of books that I tend to like. Especially the translated works by excellent foreign writers. Your reviews are my first port of call before reading a book, or after finishing one. I enjoyed the translation of Keyserling. Glad to hear you will do more translation. Best wishes for the new year.

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    1. Melethil – Just a bit of a rant, don’t worry too much. I can’t really complain given the state of actual world affairs at the moment – there are far more important issues than my lack of likes 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Tony, I’m sorry to hear that you are not too enthousiastic about your blogging last year. It’s a great effort to keep blogging like you do during 11 years.
    My own blog is now in it’s sixth year. I was also not overly enthousiastic about my blogging last year. I managed to publish a list (including short reviews) of my one hundred favorite movies and television series , but I read only 37 books, and most of them were very small ones. Still I hope to continue my blog and I very much hope that you also continue your blog. Greetings from the Netherlands and have a good year, blogging and otherwise, Erik

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  4. Hi Tony. I’m always amazed how you, and other bloggers, manage to post so much good quality material. I can only manage the occasional post as it takes up so much time. I hope things work out – maybe take a month or two off completely!

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    1. Jonathan – Thanks 🙂 I’m not sure about taking a lot of time off – I think that would definitely bring everything to a permanent grinding halt. I suspect that momentum is what mostly drives the whole blog!

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  5. Tony, I’ve only been following your blog for the last year and started because of the shadow jury for the MBI, as my thoughts are closer to the jury than the judges, so I hope someone takes over, and I hope you find the extra time serves you well. I like your reviews quite a bit and will keep reading them. I may even try reading your translations, which I have not done to date. I wish you the best for the new year.

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    1. Linda – I also hope that someone continues with the Shadow Panel as it fills an important gap, especially when there is a lack of critical voices. Please try my translations if you have time, and I hope you enjoy them 🙂

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  6. Sorry to hear of your down mood, and I *can* understand. I often think that some readers are, as you say, not fans of the long-form post. Certainly, I tend to find that a post about book finds and best of gets more response than a more in depth analysis of a Dostoevsky book! But at the end of the day I write my posts because I enjoy doing it, so while I do I’ll carry on. I can’t imagine posting on instagram for instance – just not enough words, it doesn’t seem to me the right format for book reviewing. Hope you stay with us as I do always enjoy your reviews – and I can understand you take a step away from the Shadow Booker, because it’s a heck of a commitment!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Kaggsy – Well, as I showed in my previous post, a few paragraphs on books that *might* make the MBIP longlist gets fifty times more views than most of my reviews! I agree about the length of reviews, too – I just wonder whether that’s really what people really want to read these days…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry to hear you felt 2019 was disappointing. I’m just as surprised as you are about the attitude of publicists – I would have thought any of them publishing Korean/Japanese authors would be battering down your doors to beg for your time and attention. So few other people focus on them.
    Yes listicles seem to get a lot of hits initially – a sign of our times unfortunately – because they are quick to read, especially on a phone. But I also find they don’t get much traffic subsequently whereas reviews get pick up for years after….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karen – The ARC situation is a bit hit and miss. There are certain small publishers who send me lots (which I’m very grateful for), but I’m pretty much ignored by the bigger ones (although I occasionally get something sent randomly – and then never hear from the publicist again…). I do feel a little frustrated when big Japanese and Korean books come out, and suddenly everyone except me seems to have been sent review copies (it actually makes me feel like leaving it for a while). A good example was the latest Yoko Ogawa book, ‘The Memory Police’, which I stll haven’t seen…

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      1. Have you ever asked s publicist what’s going on? I hope it’s not that they send the books only to people who do glowing reviews and ignore those who give a balanced perspective

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        1. Karen – No, it’s a bit trickier than that!

          1) I rarely get sent books without asking (although some presses, such as QC Fiction, Kurodahan Press and, to a lesser extent, MacLehose Press do).

          2) Some publishers balk at sending ARCs to Australia, and as I’ve grown increasingly disinclined to read e-texts, that rules some people out.

          3) While I have developed contacts over the years, people do sometimes move on, and that can lead to relationships changing somewhat.

          4) With the bigger publishers, I’ve always found it very hard to even get in touch with anyone, and any time I do, it’s usually only for one book, and then either they’ve gone, or they lose interest.

          5) All in all, it means I have to work hard if I want any review copies, and in the past I’ve been guilty of taking on books I was ambivalent about in the hope of receiving other books (and this didn’t always happen).

          That’s why it’s probably best just to stick to my own books 😉

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          1. Definitely a complex situation. People do move around a lot in publishing – especially those in the marketing/promotion departments and I suppose unless you put a lot of effort into tracking them to their new role, or they have thought to leave their contacts behind, you will slip off the mailing list.

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            1. Karen – You’d be surprised how much effort I put into the admin side of blogging at times. I send a *lot* of emails, and I have all kinds of info on spreadsheets!

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  8. I suppose that, even if you slow down the blog a bit, you’ll continue reading and enjoying reading, won’t you? Isn’t that the most important? At least that’s how I try to console myself for the downsides of having quite a “niche” blog! Wishing you a very good reading (and reviewing, translating, reading with your little helpers etc) year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Passage à l’Est! – Of course, the reading comes first, but I wonder how my reading would be affected if I didn’t bother with reviews. I think it would feel very strange, at least to begin with! And thanks for the good wishes 🙂

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  9. Dear Tony,
    I, like your other readers, was dismayed to realize your despondency. I appreciate but don’t understand why the numbers game is so important to so many. Rising profits or numbers of readers, are not sustainable; and why is it the metric for determining how we judge our work and worse yet, ourselves. If each of us can impact, impress or just encourage one person to have a new thought, or read a new author, isn’t that more than sufficient to determine “success”? Process not product, is what is meaningful, after all. One thought I have wanted to share with you, for sometime, and might be helpful as you review your position. Other than when you are publishing the actual story (translations were wonderful), why not eliminate your retelling of stories, which are actually not reviews of the author’s art. Criticism of the art is what I look for in a critique. I skip over retellings of the story line, as I want to experience the unfolding fresh from the writer. A brief, high-level statement about the story is sufficient, followed by your analysis of the author’s art piece, that is the character development, plot, etc. would be wonderful and shorten and focus your time. Please see this as constructive, from an admiring fan, who hopes you keep at it because you want to. Wishing you a peaceful 2020.

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    1. Joyce – Thanks for your comments. It’s tricky finding a balance between content and criticism as it forces you to reflect on who you’re actually writing for, and why. A lot of the books I read can be unfamiliar to many readers (or the readership I suspect is tuning in), so some sort of introduction to the work is necessary. I do think about this a fair bit, and I try not to fall into the twin traps of simply regurgitating the plot, and of analysing themes and characters the reader knows nothing about. In the end, perhaps it’s about deciding whether to be a reviewer or a critic, and I’m not convinced I’m the latter…

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      1. Thank you for the thoughtful response Tony. Greatly appreciated and not surprising! I would beg to differ, however, as I find your critical insight very enlightening and valuable. It also seems to me that your readership is a sophisticated group, somewhat enlightened to the particulars of global literature. Having said that, I understand your dilemma, and just hope you continue to enjoy your reading and writing, no matter what form suits you going forward. Thank you for all you do!

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  10. I actually think there’s a lot of positive in your post: you are planning to re-own your own time, and focus on reading books that you really want to read, and use your time in ways that are more beneficial to you. I think this is wonderful! Life is nothing static, and it’s good to go with the flow.
    I’ll always enjoy reading your reviews. They don’t need to be on brand new books.
    Am personally in my 10th year, and have also severely cut on the number of books received for review, to focus on my own shelves.
    Happy New Year of reading to you, I hope you find a renewed joy in your reading and blogging

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  11. Tony, I would really miss this blog, but I can understand your feelings. I think many people have stopped doing the ‘comment and blogroll” thing I used to watch from afar (I was never a blogger, but I have started quite a few over the years!) As for the publishers, that shocks me. It’s just bad business not to send a book to someone who can appreciate it and who will write a real review, but maybe all they want is “rah rah, go read this 10 stars!” Who knows. I, for one, truly appreciated watching you translate this year. Mostly because, while I only “translate” for myself, I’ve thought of writing a few down to share over the years, and watching you do it has been interesting and edifying. Also, you offered me novellas I would not have read unless I read them here, which I did. Lastly, I can understand not wanting to shadow judge. Just thinking about that gives me a stomachache, so I get it! I admire those who can do so. I do hope your blog sticks around. I’m not much of a commenter because it requires signing in etc, but we’re here reading, even if we don’t comment. I promise you that! Honestly, I’m not big on lists of other people’s favs, but a good review will get my attention every time, as will the championing of books that aren’t getting a ton of press elsewhere. (Muttering under my breath about publishers not sending you books – so so so short-sighted….) Anyway, happy new year! May 2020 bring you joy and health.

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    1. EMc – Thank you so much for such an in-depth comment 🙂 I shouldn’t really complain so much about review copies as I do receive books, and I’m sure some bloggers would love to get as many as I do. Then again, given some of my more critical posts, perhaps I should just be grateful to get any at all!

      I hope you enjoyed my translations – it’s certainly a part of the blogging I’ve come to look forward to recently, so I’m always happy when others feel that way, too 🙂

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  12. Really appreciate your very honest state-of-the-blog address. It’s a little sad that 2019 wasn’t such a great blogging year for you. Still, I’m going to look forward to whatever you decide to add to your blog this year, and hopefully be more interactive than I have been in past years (when I was all but gone from the blogging world).

    Hope we all have a great year ahead. On another note, my thoughts are with Australia.

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    1. Michelle – Good to see you back in the blogging world 🙂 Thanks for dropping by, and here’s hoping that 2020 is a much better year for Australia, too…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Tony, thanks for the great state of the blog address post. I was considering doing one of these myself but never got around to it, and it’s probably too late now…

    In terms of blog statistics, I saw a very similar trend on my blog. I got around a 30% raise in hits from 2017 to 2018 (and an even bigger one in 2016-2017), but for some reason in 2019 I got a very small single-digit percentage raise, and I don’t see any obvious correlation with my posts. It may be a general trend of blogs being less popular that other sources, like Youtube, as you mentioned.

    I didn’t know you were doing your own translations, that’s really cool! I have been doing that same thing myself for a few years now, gradually transitioning from posting on my blog to making E-books. My sales are not that great yet, but it’s hard to say if it is hard to sell books in general or because of a lack of interest for the works I felt were worth translating (probably some of both).

    Having said that, I totally support your decision to continue translating. Besides being a rewarding activity in itself, I think there will be some people who enjoy reading your translations, at least eventually. I’ve translated roughly 10 series (full or in part) on my blog, and only one of them has really “hit”, and ironically I decided to stop that one for various reasons. But my point is that I think if you translate enough you’ll find some people who really enjoy your work.

    Finally, I can empathize with you about social media use and engaging with users. In the last few years I’ve increasingly used Twitter, and while I have a reasonable number of followers, I find that it’s a pretty low percentage that actually make it to my articles.

    Anyway, here’s to a great 2020!

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    1. locksleyu – Thanks for stopping by. I am hoping to find an audience for my translations (although I doubt I can be bothered actually trying to sell them!). Hopefully, I can work out a healthy balance between reviews and other things this year – and stop stressing about stats so much 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  14. You are doing a fantastic job Tony! We all go through peaks and troughs so you are entitled to a little rant. It’s a sign of change, I do write long reviews previously but these days it’s all about videos and shorter posts due to time constraints and shorter attention span from the audience. I sometimes resort to shorter reviews on social media and copy and paste them on WordPress but such is the current state of affairs. The lost art of handwritings and soon perhaps long blog posts or even blogging. Start from a place where you are doing this for yourself. If you still enjoy it continue it, if you don’t then take a break, come back blogging or never it’s all about you and your personal choice.

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  15. Hang in there, Tony! Thoughtful, thought-provoking reviews aren’t exactly two a penny these days. We’re appreciative of each and every review – and hope you keep going!

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  16. One blog I post on has had a regular take a break from written reviews and replace them with a few sentences and photos. It’s an enchanting effect for the subject at hand (perfume) and of course very in keeping with the insta age. But in the matter of books my first response to seeing an instagram post on translated fiction is to leap over here to see if there’s a real review. Failing that I’ll wade through goodreads. This isn’t a lament about changing times, I’m a total instagram addict, but books are sadly not served well by a clever photo or matching them with food as commentary.

    I have read every korean literature review you’ve written, and probably at least a third of the books themselves. There’s been some random discoveries outside of klit too, thanks to your excellent blog. I’d be sad if you disappeared and I hope you might consider just cutting back or only posting reviews when you feel you have something strong to say for better or worse. And failing that I’ll take an instagram page with a pic of your current read and a cup of coffee and one pithy sentence 🙂 But I’ll miss you!

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    1. Narth – Wow, that’s lot of trust put in my words; I hope I haven’t disappointed you! Thank you ever so much for the kind words 🙂

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  17. I’ve never quite seen the point of Booktubing, which seems among other things to focus a fair bit on unboxing and buying which I don’t find terribly interesting. Also, it’s just quicker to read some in-depth thoughts than to watch a video and one can scroll back up easier and so on.

    Anyway, I stopped getting review copies two or three years back, partly I think as I often didn’t get round to reviewing them so it didn’t make much sense to send me them.

    I do sometimes discover things here that I wouldn’t elsewhere and I enjoy your blog, as from the comments so do many others clearly. The shadow thing, that always looked like work to me so while I follow those posts I wouldn’t dream of doing it myself. It forces you to read books you might not have chosen, which sometimes is good (Tentacle made my end of year list and I got that on subscription but would never have bought it) but sometimes isn’t.

    Anyway, whatever you do, and I hope it involves some blogging, good luck for 2020!

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    1. Max – No, Booktubing definitely isn’t for me, and I agree that written posts are far easier to deal with than videos. I’ve never been able to watch more than a minute or two of any video review without getting bored…

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  18. I think comments have dropped over last few years although I am terrible at doing them I will do the shadow of no one else takes the baton my idea is just a fun spin on the shadow jury I think I will always read the long list just habit these days although after seeing the pile of entries and that a few were quite long I may need help anyway looking forward to seeing what you read over the coming year

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  19. Hi Tony,

    I just came to your blog in the last two years as I started working as a school librarian in Melbourne and I wanted to say what a fantastic resource it has been for me.

    I have come across some great books that I never would have read were it not for this blog: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura and No One Writes Back by Jang Eun-Jin for example.

    I am also a huge Haruki Murakami fan and I love a lot of novelists who write in translation such as Knausgard, Ferrante, Bolano. I have also really taken to Natsume Soseki in the last few years after ‘Kokoro’ blew me away. It’s always interesting to see what you thought about books I have already read and you give the books the kind of in-depth reviews that they deserve.

    I am always very inspired reading your blog, and it gives me comfort that there is a huge world of translated fiction out there still for me to enjoy. Unfortunately I can’t speak or read any language other than English but reading your blog certainly makes me wish I could read some of these texts in their original language.

    Whilst 2019 might not have been the most rewarding blogging year for you, I just wanted you to know that your efforts were hugely appreciated. I hope you’re able to make a few changes in 2020 so that the process is more rewarding for you, cutting out the Man Booker International books seems to be a good idea in that direction.

    All the best, Oliver

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    1. Oliver – Thanks heaps for the kind words 🙂 It’s always good to hear that people enjoy my reviews, and especially so from Australian readers as I feel a little ignored in my own country at times!

      Liked by 1 person

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