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The Macdermots of Ballycloran
The Macdermots of Ballycloran
by Anthony Trollope
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.19
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4.0 out of 5 stars What a debut!, July 24, 2014
This was the first of the forty-seven novels that Anthony Trollope wrote. He was nearly thirty when he began writing it. He later claimed that never before had he "put pen to paper". That is hard to believe. THE MACDERMOTS OF BALLYCLORAN is not perfect -- there are minor structural problems and some repetition -- but it reads like the work of a thoroughly accomplished novelist. At the same time, while it employs many of the stylistic tropes and conventions of the Victorian Era, it does not strike the modern reader as something published way back in 1842. It is fresher, more modern, than Dickens.

THE MACDERMOTS OF BALLYCLORAN is set in rural Ireland in the 1830's. It is a keenly perceptive portrayal of Irish life and society in the decade before the potato disease and the Great Hunger. Trollope is sympathetic to the native Irish, whether Protestant or Catholic. (The ecumenical spirit of the novel is remarkable.) The eponymous Macdermots are rural gentry, striving to maintain their social status on a small estate with tenant farmers who cannot pay their rents, some of whom take to making and drinking potheen (illegally distilled spirits) for a smidgen of cash and the solace it brings. Bullying both the small gentry and the tenant farmers are the representatives of the Crown (such as the revenue police charged with shutting down the distillation of potheen) and the wealthy mercantilists. Their oppressive conduct gives rise to the secret society of the Ribbonmen, who are sworn to oust their subjugators. The tides of agitation and apprehension end up swamping many innocent people. In many respects, the novel is a tale of the mischiefs of British colonialism of Ireland.

There is plenty of action, including a duel, a brother killing his sister's suitor whom he believed to be abducting her for immoral purposes, the mutilation of an overly zealous landlord, and a murder trial. (As a former trial lawyer, I thought the account of that trial, which takes up roughly the last fifth of the novel, marvelously well done; Trollope had in him the makings of a superb barrister.) There are finely wrought characters, of which the most memorable are Thady Macdermot and the local priest John McGrath. There are several wonderful set pieces. Trollope displays his fine ear for dialect and his sophisticated way with dialogue. Gentle humor bubbles along through stretches of the book. In the end, though, THE MACDERMOTS OF BALLYCLORAN is a sad, melancholy tale.

P.S.: The copy I read is a handsome hardcover edition from The Folio Society, published in 1991. I am confident that the paperback editions published by Penguin Books and by Oxford University Press (Oxford World's Classics) are very satisfactory, although they may be out of print and available only via used book dealers. Judging from Amazon's "Look Inside" feature, the edition published by CreateSpace has a horribly compressed layout and cannot be recommended except to the masochistic.

University of Wyoming (The Campus History)
University of Wyoming (The Campus History)
by Rick Ewig
Edition: Paperback
Price: $17.26
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, for those with connections to the University of Wyoming, July 22, 2014
This past weekend I was in Laramie, Wyoming, where one of my sons is moving. It is a likeable town with friendly people. Per my habit when travelling, I looked to buy a book on Laramie or its environs. There were several offerings in the Images of America Series, from Arcadia Publishing. But then I saw this volume from a sister series, The Campus History Series, and I opted for it. The format is the same as that of Images of America books -- about 120 pages of duotone historical photographs, printed one or two per page, with relatively brief text accompanying each photograph.

UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING makes for a decent history of its subject. The photographs are more varied than is the case with some of the Images of America books and the accompanying texts are more detailed and informative than any Images of America book that I have seen.

The University was authorized in 1886 and, per the State Constitution, it was "equally open to students of both sexes, irrespective of race or color; and * * * the instruction * * * as nearly free as possible". The first Board of Trustees declared that the school "shall turn out a class of students who when they graduate shall know how to do something, something the world wants done." When it came time to lay the cornerstone for the first building ("Old Main"), the dedication ceremony was interrupted, never to be completed, by a sudden cold Laramie wind.

In 1969, UW was scheduled to play a football game against Brigham Young University. Fourteen African-American players went to the UW coach with their proposal to wear black armbands during the game to protest BYU's policy that blacks could not become priests in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The UW coach not only nixed the proposal, he kicked the "Black 14" off the team.

I learned the above and much more from UNIVERSITY OF WYOMING. In truth, however, the book probably will be of interest only to people with connections to the school. To a large extent that is inherent in the nature of the book. Still, the book at least could have been made more appealing and useful to visitors to the school by the simple expedient of including a map of the campus as it exists today.

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century
The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century
by David Reynolds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.25
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What were the consequences of World War I and how has it been perceived over the past century?, July 16, 2014
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Much attention is currently being given to the centennial of the outbreak of World War I -- which in the twenty years following was called the Great War or, even more pathetically, the War to End All Wars. It turned out to be anything but -- indeed, it sowed the seeds for the even more cataclysmic and consequential World War II. Still, World War I looms large over the next one hundred years, as is explored in breadth and depth in this splendid book.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at Cambridge University. In Part I of THE LONG SHADOW he examines the ways in which World War I impacted the next twenty "postwar" years (or, as they became, the "interwar" years) as well as how the Great War was perceived during that period. He does so in six chapters that deal with (1) the concept of nationhood, and especially the new national map of eastern Europe; (2) the idea of democracy, which Woodrow Wilson had championed when he said that the U.S. entered the war "to make the world safe for democracy", whereas afterwards many of the European participants, with the explosion of mass politics, actually had to deal with making "democracy safe for the world"; (3) the future of colonial empires; (4) the dislocation of the world economy; (5) the sea change in culture, including the ascendancy of modernism and, in Great Britain, the phenomenon of war poetry; and (6) the objective of international peace, especially the determination to ensure that all that carnage not have been in vain -- a determination that goes a long way in explaining the reluctance to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis.

In Part II, Reynolds turns to changing perceptions and interpretations of World War I since 1938 and Munich, especially how views of the War were altered first by the prism of 1939-1945 (World War II) and then by the prism of 1989-1991 and the denouement of the Cold War. This Part is somewhat more amorphous and ventures more into the realm of cultural history.

While the book deals with the shadow of World War I in Germany, France, Russia, the Middle East, the Balkans, and elsewhere, there is a decided Anglo-American emphasis. Of the two, Reynolds gives more attention to Great Britain -- one of his principal themes is how the United Kingdom's experience of the conflict differed in significant respects from that of all other participants -- but there also is a lot on the War and the United States, including how its influence extended to our approach to World War II, to Vietnam, and even to the War on Terror.

THE LONG SHADOW is a superb book, interweaving conventional history, economics, intellectual and cultural history, and historiography. It is highly instructive and at times it is provocative. To top matters off, it is excellently written. It is one of the best books of history I have read in some time (notwithstanding the fact that the discussion of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki overlooks several highly relevant considerations).

There is an insert containing thirty-one illustrations printed on high gloss paper. It is a nice bonus, but it also gave rise to a glitch. The textual references to Plates 11 through 31 are off by one. Apparently Plate 10 was removed from this edition but the text was not revised to reflect that fact. An embarrassing mistake in an otherwise impeccably produced book.

The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art
The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art
by Roger Kimball
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.81
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fatuous academic art historians get their comeuppance, July 15, 2014
The worst development in the halls of academia since I was a student has been the ascendency of deconstruction, post-modern relativity, and political correctitude. In THE RAPE OF THE MASTERS, Roger Kimball discusses the phenomenon as it has played out in the field of art history, building his argument around what au courant art historians have pronounced concerning the back-story (racism, cross-dressing and gender confusion, fear of castration, daughters as sexual desiderata, etc.) for seven notable works of Western art and then skewering their fatuous pronouncements.

Kimball starts from the premise that people teach and study art history to learn about art. The challenge to the art critic or art historian is to enhance how one experiences the art without substituting "a verbal encounter for an aesthetic one". Today, however, much of the academic art establishment undertakes art history "in order to 1) to show how clever one is and 2) to subordinate art to a pet political, social, or philosophical agenda."

Art no longer is a worthwhile end in itself. That is of a piece with the retreat in general from the search or striving for truth in academia. "The truth? You can almost feel the shudder of horror cascading through the professoriate: imagine someone so naïve as to speak of 'the truth'! They don't do truth in the fashionable precincts of the academy today. They do 'theory'." Taking their inspiration from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, what matters for these academic fashionistas is "politics--plus a measure of self-aggrandizement--not truth". One Professor of Art History at Barnard College and Columbia University is at least honest enough to admit that "historical arguments will be evaluated according to how well they coincide with our political convictions and cultural attitudes." (As Kimball comments, that's something "that parents may wish to ponder as they make out their tuition checks".)

THE RAPE OF THE MASTERS is an exercise in polemics. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, Kimball observes that one does not refute a sickness, one resists it. "In the face of blatant absurdity, ridicule is generally a more effective specific than argument." And the book is chock-a-block with ridicule. For someone (like myself) whose natural instincts are in line with Kimball's, it is great fun. Still, at the end of the book the sobering fact remains that these windbags are everywhere, engaging in mutual back-scratching, promoting one another's books, and giving their acolytes associate professorships and then granting them tenure. "If it weren't for their influence, their writings would be merely laughable. As it is, they are wholly repellent."

The individual spewers of nonsense should not go unmentioned. They are recognized in the comment.
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Trollope: An Illustrated Biography
Trollope: An Illustrated Biography
by C. P. Snow
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine introduction to an underappreciated novelist, July 13, 2014
Anthony Trollope is an engaging novelist -- and for some, an addictive novelist -- principally because of his ability to get inside and inhabit his characters so well. Those characters are not exceptional people but rather, for the most part, relatively typical members of middle- and upper-class Victorian society. This biography of Trollope shows that he too was a relatively ordinary upstanding member of Victorian society and it does a good, almost Trollopean, job of getting inside its subject, revealing him to be one of the most well-adjusted, least egotistical, and most fundamentally decent of all famous writers.

He also was one of the most prolific writers, at least among the upper ranks of authors. He wrote forty-seven novels, most of which (according to biographer Snow) are still worth reading. And he wrote most of them while holding down responsible positions as a Civil Servant in the British Post Office. During his most productive years, he would arise at five a.m. By five-thirty he had settled down to his desk. "He read through the work of the day before, and corrected it. By six he was writing. He wrote until nine-thirty. There was a watch in front of him. He had disciplined himself to write two hundred and fifty words each quarter of an hour. Thus his normal day's work would be two thousand five hundred words [by my arithmetic, that should be THREE thousand five hundred words]." At nine-thirty he had a substantial breakfast, after which he turned to his work for the Post Office. It sounds like the routine of a hack, but -- as virtually all who have read him will attest -- Trollope was anything but.

C. P. Snow is most noted for his essay, "The Two Cultures", which surely is among the most-read commentaries on Anglo-American cultural affairs in the second half of the twentieth century. Snow was trained as a physical chemist, with a Ph.D. in physics (spectroscopy). He also wrote over ten novels, and he brings a novelist's sensitivity to his study of Anthony Trollope. His biography is short. The writing is lively, quite British in style, although a little dated and a little fussy. It is obvious that Snow likes Trollope as a writer and respects him as a person. Two of the more interesting chapters are those in which he discusses "Trollope's art". There are about one hundred illustrations, over twenty of them in color.

Here is one on the interesting tidbits about Trollope from the book: He had visited the United States in 1861 and, unlike most Englishmen at that time, he was a fervent supporter of the cause of the Union. However, the idea of conscription bothered him. He wrote a close American friend: "My feeling is that a man should die rather than be made a soldier against his will. One's country has no right to demand everything. There is much that is higher and better and greater than one's country. One is patriotic only because one is too small and too weak to be cosmopolitan."
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F: Poems (Borzoi Books)
F: Poems (Borzoi Books)
by Franz Wright
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.86
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "The soul is a stranger in this world", July 10, 2014
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This is my first encounter with Franz Wright. I sense that it would have been better to be introduced to him through an earlier book. F -- the title is the sixth letter of the alphabet, and when Wright comes across it in an old disintegrating notebook he wonders whether the capital letter stands for his name or his grade in life -- is a disorienting, discomfiting, bitter and anguished jeremiad. It reflects a man whose life, at least in the main, has not been happy, one who has been visited with insanity, illness, and drugs. It is intensely personal and often inscrutable. Reading it was something like walking along a city street and being accosted, suddenly, by a street corner preacher haranguing passersby with garbled threats of doom and visions of glory. The passion is manifest, but the message is impenetrable.

F is divided into three parts. The first contains fifteen pieces, seven in the form and format of free verse and eight being short pieces of prose. With the exception of two pieces, I found the contents of Part I without meaning or merit. I was projecting a two-star Amazon assessment. Part II, entitled "Entries of the Cell", is eighteen pages long; it is a mélange of prose and verse and what are perhaps jottings in a journal. It reveals enough of the author's disturbed world to engender a sense of empathy and to begin sweeping into one pile the shards from Part I. Part III contains seventeen pieces, again roughly divided between free verse and short pieces of prose. About half of these pieces touched me sufficiently to mark them to return to in the future. Perhaps by Part III I was better prepared for the weirdness of Wright's world or perhaps its pieces are simply better and less intractably personal.

Articulating my response to F is proving difficult. Reading it is to encounter one man's existential life in the raw, unmediated by any of the trappings of civilization. In the words of one of the pieces ("Rain in Waltham"),
"* * * I am having trouble dealing
with this most recent illustration
of the impersonal, endlessly patient
indifference of the universe"

Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories
Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories
by Stuart Dybek
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.59
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The kitchen sink, July 6, 2014
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"Ecstatic Cahoots" is a tremendous title. I'll bet there are writers out there who are kicking themselves for not having thought to borrow it from "The Great Gatsby" as a title for their own collection of short stories. The problem is that the Stuart Dybek stories collected in this volume don't live up to the title. It is more like "The Kitchen Sink". This book gathers together fifty pieces -- purportedly short stories, although some of them are only a few lines and might better be characterized as prose snippets. The pieces originally were published in various magazines -- ranging from "Alaska Quarterly Review" to "Image" to "McSweeney's" to "Playboy" to "Ploughshares" to "The Southern Review". To my mind, the pieces themselves range from the very good, to the so-so, to the "what the hell was that"? In other words, the kitchen sink.

Is there a common theme or thread? The back cover claims that in the "bite-size stories" of ECSTATIC CAHOOTS Dybek "explores the human appetite for rapture and for trust". With that in mind I looked back over the fifty stories after reading them and found that, even when employing a generous interpretation of "rapture" and "trust", less than half relate to the human appetite for those conditions. In other words, more publisher's smarmy back-cover folderol. The back cover also states that in this collection Dybek "has once again re-envisioned the possibilities of fiction, creating myriad human situations that fold endlessly upon one other * * *." I won't quibble with that statement, although it doesn't really address the overall quality of the fiction.

From a technical or stylistic perspective, the quality quotient might be high. For all I know, many of the stories will wow the M.F.A. and literary workshop crowds. They obviously made it into print in a magazine or literary journal. But from the perspective of meaningful content -- that is, telling a moving, enriching, or simply entertaining story -- too many of the pieces fell short for me. Quite a few slip into fantastic or surrealistic modes. Some are just plain weird, a couple are sick, and many are "so what?". There is a fair amount of humor, but not enough to qualify the collection as a whole as "comic" or to redeem it. My impulse was to set the book aside halfway through, but I wanted to give it a full and fair shake for purposes of writing this review, so I pushed on. It was a chore, although I was rewarded with the two best stories being the forty-seventh and forty-eighth out of the fifty.

ESTATIC CAHOOTS was issued simultaneously with another book of Dybek short stories, "Paper Lantern: Love Stories". That is a much better book, one that was worth my time and probably would also be worth yours.
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Coffee Houses of Europe
Coffee Houses of Europe
by Manfred Hamm
Edition: Paperback
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The world of yesteryear, July 6, 2014
This sumptuous, romantic, nostalgic book dates from about 1980, when a few of the great coffee houses of Europe remained in operation. How many of them exist today, other than, perhaps, as faux tourist attractions? Time rolls on and the world evolves, both for better and poorer. Where once there were relaxed, picturesque coffee houses, now there are upbeat, mod internet cafés. Those who want an evocative glimpse of the world of yesteryear can at least leaf through the ninety-nine color plates of COFFEE HOUSES OF EUROPE.

The coffee houses pictured are from all over Europe -- Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany and the erstwhile Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some of the individual cafes are the Café Florian in Venice, the Cafe Tommaseo in Trieste, the Café de Flore and Aux Deux Magots in Paris, the Hungária in Budapest, and Café Sperl in Vienna. The quintessential coffee houses are those in Central Europe. George Mikes writes in his brief Introduction, "The Central European coffee house is not merely a place; it is a way of life. As Alfred Polgar * * * put it: it is a Weltanschauung, a way of looking at the world, by those who do not want to look at the world at all."

The photographs, by Mannfred Hamm, are excellent. Most are coffee house interiors, many infused with a warm orange-tinged glow. They capture the ambiance of the European coffee house so well as to seemingly go beyond the visual to include the slightly vertiginous aromas, the pungency of the coffee in the mouth, as well as the clinks of spoons against porcelain, the occasional rustle of a turned newspaper page, the murmur of quiet conversations, and even the scratch of a fountainpen nib on the paper of a pocket notebook. Tellingly, very few of the customers pictured are under the age of forty.

The book was originally published in Germany. My copy -- ISBN 0500273898 -- is paperbound and was published by Thames & Hudson in 1986. (I don't know why the "Product Details" on this Amazon page show W.W. Norton & Co. as the publisher.) Affordable copies are listed both here on Amazon and through ABE. It is a book worth tracking down.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 6:29 PM PDT

The Difficulty of Being a Dog
The Difficulty of Being a Dog
by Roger Grenier
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.89
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For dog-lovers with a literary bent., July 2, 2014
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Having read two other lovely books by Roger Grenier -- plus the fact that I have had dogs for over sixty years -- I was favorably predisposed towards THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING A DOG. It is a thin book, consisting of about forty short pieces about dogs (one paragraph to five pages each).

It contains ruminations about dogs and their relationships to people. "How can such an understanding exist between two species? It seems more miraculous, more precious to me than any relationship among humans." Or, concerning the fact that garden gates often bear a sign "Beware of the dog", Grenier comments: "Never 'Beware of people,' though this may well be more apt."

It includes dog tales about other people and their dogs. "When Josephine married Bonaparte, she refused to kick a pug named Fortuné out of her bed. Fortuné was used to sleeping with her, so the general was forced to share the Creole beauty's bed with her dog." Then there was Madame Simone, who telephoned Grenier and told him, "My dog has died. You seem to know about these things. Could you tell me where I might get another?" Grenier then adds, "She was 95 at the time. What optimism! Perhaps she was right, since she lived to be 107 * * *."

There also are stories about dogs that Grenier owned, including Ulysses, a Saint-Germaine pointer who was a long-time companion in his adult years, and Dick, who was "the inseparable companion" of his youth in Pau, France. There is a chapter on Sarigue, a Belgian shepherd he bred to a "superb" German shepherd (which had once been Hermann Goering's) that Grenier then gave, still gravid, to Albert Camus, who then gave the dog to Jules Roy, who eventually gave it back to Grenier.

And lastly, THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING A DOG contains a "survey of men of letters who have spoken of dogs" and what they had to say. Among those men of letters are Homer, Rilke, Flaubert, Kafka, Faulkner, Turgenev, Kundera, Jack London, Raymond Queneau, and Virginia Woolf (a "woman of letters", to be precise).

THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING A DOG is a charming book. Ultimately, however, it was a little too much of a good thing, becoming mildly tiresome before I was three-quarters through it. Still, it should be appreciated by any dog-lover with a literary bent.
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Paper Lantern: Love Stories
Paper Lantern: Love Stories
by Stuart Dybek
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.00
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Blue moon / Now I'm no longer alone / Without a dream in my heart / Without a love of my own", July 2, 2014
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PAPER LANTERN contains nine short stories by an underappreciated contemporary American writer. (Dybek's "I Sailed with Magellan" is one of the best contemporary American novels I have read in the past decade.) For the most part, the stories take place in Chicago or its environs. The time period is current, or the recent past. And per the book's sub-title, the stories all involve love in its many forms -- romantic, sexual, possessive, destructive, and transcending. All of the love affairs, however, are over by the time of the telling, living only in memory.

There is considerable variety in the structures, styles, and narrative techniques of the stories of PAPER LANTERN. Most of them feature characters in their thirties who tend to be relatively hip. There is an abundance of cultural references. (Two of my favorite such references concern the classic pop song "Blue Moon" and Sviatoslav Richter's performance of "Pictures at an Exhibition" as recorded over an epidemic of audience coughing in Sofia, Bulgaria.) In several of the stories Dybek gives rein, temporarily, to a surrealistic impulse. Three of the stories are very good -- "Tosca" (which is very, very good), "Seiche", and "Four Deuces". Two are only fair. The other four stories, however, are strong enough to warrant five Amazon stars for the collection as a whole.

Dybek has a creative mind and he is an original, sometimes quirky, writer. He has an unusual ability to capture scenes, situations, or concepts in a few sentences. Example: "I had this sudden awareness * * * of how the moments of our lives go out of existence before we're conscious of having lived them. It's only a relatively few moments that we get to keep and carry with us for the rest of our lives. Those moments ARE our lives. Or maybe it's more like those moments are the dots and what we call our lives are the lines we draw between them, connecting them into imaginary pictures of ourselves." (Those sentences, by the way, are spoken by a young woman who, while riding in the passenger seat as her boyfriend drives across Iowa on I-80 late at night, is about to pull down her panties, spread her legs, and put on a show for him . . . and, unbeknownst to her, the driver of a semi in the next lane . . . with more than just passing consequences.)

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