Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Calvin and Hobbes

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 27, 2016.

Last year, when I finally saw The Revenant—it wasn’t a movie that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town—it struck me as an exquisitely crafted film that was very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat in my eyes—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd its story was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog, who doesn’t lack for pretension, also actively seeks out such moments, even if he maintains his poker face throughout.) About five minutes after the movie began, I realized that I was fundamentally out of sync with it. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with an unexpected arrow through a supporting character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are a lot of fluent speakers out there. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are a little rough, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out at its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that verged on outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what seemed like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself observes in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stick in the brain because we can’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are simultaneously so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

In fact, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like some demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were both so nice that he said them twice. And it’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2017 at 9:00 am

Tales from The Far Side

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"They're lighting their arrows!"

Last week, I finally saw The Revenant. I know that I’m pretty late to the party here, but I don’t have a chance to watch a lot of movies for grownups in the theater these days, and it wasn’t a film that my wife particularly wanted to see, so I had to wait for one of the rare weekends when she was out of town. At this point, a full review probably isn’t of much interest to anyone, so I’ll confine myself to observing that it’s an exquisitely crafted movie that I found very hard to take seriously. Alejandro G. Iñárittu, despite his obvious visual gifts, may be the most pretentious and least self-aware director at work today—which is one reason why Birdman fell so flat for me—and I would have liked The Revenant a lot more if it had allowed itself to smile a little at how absurd it all was. (Even the films of someone like Werner Herzog include flashes of dark humor, and I suspect that Herzog actively seeks out these moments, even if he maintains a straight face.) And it took me about five minutes to realize that the movie and I were fundamentally out of sync. It happened during the scene in which the fur trappers find themselves under attack by an Arikara war party, which announces itself, in classic fashion, with a sudden arrow through a character’s throat. A few seconds later, the camera pans up to show more arrows, now on fire, arcing through the trees overhead. It’s an eerie sight, and it’s given the usual glow by Emmanuel Lubezki’s luminous cinematography. But I’ll confess that when I first saw it, I said to myself: “Hey! They’re lighting their arrows! Can they do that?”

It’s a caption from a Far Side cartoon, of course, and it started me thinking about the ways in which the work of Gary Larson has imperceptibly shaped my inner life. I’ve spoken here before about how quotations from The Simpsons provide a kind of complete metaphorical language for fans, like the one that Captain Picard learns in “Darmok.” You could do much the same thing with Larson’s captions, and there are probably more fluent speakers alive than you might think. Peanuts is still the comic strip that has meant the most to me, and I count myself lucky that I grew up at a time when I could read most of Calvin and Hobbes in its original run. Yet both of these strips, like Bloom County, lived most vividly for me in the form of collections, and in the case of Peanuts, its best years were long behind it. The Far Side, by contrast, obsessed me on a daily basis, more than any other comic strip of its era. When I was eight years old, I spent a few months diligently cutting out all the panels from my local paper and pasting them into a scrapbook, which is an impulse that I hadn’t felt before and haven’t felt since. Two decades later, I got a copy of The Complete Far Side for Christmas, which might still be my favorite present ever. Every three years so, I get bitten by the bug again, and I spend an evening or two with one of those huge volumes on my lap, going through the strip systematically from beginning to end. Its early years are rough and a little uncertain, but they’re still wonderful, and it went out when it was close to its peak. And when I’m reading it in the right mood, there’s nothing else in the world that I’d rather be doing.

"Think there are any bears in this old cave?"

A gag panel might seem like the lowest form of comic, but The Far Side also had a weirdly novelistic quality that I’ve always admired as a writer. Larson’s style seemed easy to imitate—I think that every high school newspaper had a strip that was either an homage or outright plagiarism—but his real gift was harder to pin down. It was the ability to take what feels like an ongoing story, pause it, and offer it up to readers at a moment of defining absurdity. (Larson himself says in The Prehistory of The Far Side: “Cartoons are, after all, little stories themselves, frozen at an interesting point in time.”) His ideas stuck in the brain because we couldn’t help but wonder what happened before or afterward. Part of this because he cleverly employed all the usual tropes of the gag cartoon, which are fun precisely because of the imaginative fertility of the clichés they depict: the cowboys singing around a campfire, the explorers in pith helmets hacking their way through the jungle, the castaway on the desert island. But the snapshots in time that Larson captures are both so insane and so logical that the reader has no choice but to make up a story. The panel is never the inciting incident or the climax, but a ticklish moment somewhere in the middle. It can be the gigantic mailman knocking over buildings while a dog exhorts a crowd of his fellows: “Listen! The authorities are helpless! If the city’s to be saved, I’m afraid it’s up to us! This is our hour!” Or the duck hunter with a shotgun confronted by a row of apparitions in a hall of mirrors: “Ah, yes, Mr. Frischberg, I thought you’d come…but which of us is the real duck, Mr. Frischberg, and not just an illusion?”

As a result, you could easily go through a Far Side collection and use it as a series of writing prompts, like a demented version of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. I’ve occasionally thought about writing a story revolving around the sudden appearance of Professor DeArmond, “the epitome of evil among butterfly collectors,” or expanding on the incomparable caption: “Dwayne paused. As usual, the forest was full of happy little animals—but this time something seemed awry.” It’s hard to pick just one favorite, but the panel I’ve thought about the most is probably the one with the elephant in the trench coat, speaking in a low voice out of the darkness of the stairwell:

Remember me, Mr. Schneider? Kenya. 1947. If you’re going to shoot at an elephant, Mr. Schneider, you better be prepared to finish the job.

Years later, I spent an ungodly amount of time working on a novel, still unpublished, about an elephant hunt, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was inspired by this cartoon, I’m also not prepared to say that it wasn’t. I should also note Larson’s mastery of perfect proper names, which are harder to come up with than you might think: “Mr. Frischberg” and “Mr. Schneider” were so nice that he said them twice. It’s that inimitable mixture of the ridiculous and the specific that makes Larson such a model for storytellers. He made it to the far side thirty years ago, and we’re just catching up to him now.

Written by nevalalee

September 27, 2016 at 8:58 am

On not knowing what you’re doing

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

A few days ago, I stumbled across the little item that The Onion ran shortly after the death of Steve Jobs: “Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies.” It’s especially amusing to read it now, at a time when the cult of adulation that surrounded Jobs seems to be in partial retreat. These days, it’s impossible to find an article about, say, the upcoming biopic written by Aaron Sorkin without a commenter bringing up all the usual counterarguments: Jobs was fundamentally a repackager and popularizer of other people’s ideas, he was a bully and a bad boss, he hated to share credit, he benefited enormously from luck and good timing, and he pushed a vision of simplicity and elegance that only reduces the user’s freedom of choice. There’s a lot of truth to these points. Yet the fact remains that Jobs did know what he was doing, or at least that he carefully cultivated the illusion that he did, and he left a void in the public imagination that none of his successors have managed to fill. He was fundamentally right about a lot of things for a very long time, and the legacy he left continues to shape our lives, in ways both big and small, one minute after another.

And that Onion headline has been rattling around in my head for most of the week, because I often get the sense I don’t really know what I’m doing, as a writer, as a dad, or as a human being. I do my best to stick to the channel, as Stanislavski would say: I follow the rules I know, maintain good habits, make my lists, and seek out helpful advice wherever I can find it. I have what I think is a realistic sense of my own strengths and weaknesses; I’m a pretty good writer and a pretty good father. But there’s no denying that writing a novel and raising a child are tasks of irreducible complexity, particularly when you’re trying to do both at the same time. Writing, like parenting, imposes a state of constant creative uncertainty: just because you had one good idea or wrote a few decent pages yesterday is no guarantee that you’ll be able to do the same today. If I weren’t fundamentally okay with that, I wouldn’t be here. But there always comes a time when I find myself repeating that line from Calvin and Hobbes I never tire of quoting: “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”

John Fowles

My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Recently, I’ve been rereading The Magus by John Fowles, a novel that made a huge impression on me when I first encountered it over twenty years ago. In places, it feels uncomfortably like the first work of a young man writing for other young men, but it still comes off as spectacularly assured, which is why it’s all the more striking to read what Fowles has to say about it in his preface:

My strongest memory is of constantly having to abandon drafts because of an inability to describe what I wanted…The Magus remains essentially where a tyro taught himself to write novels—beneath its narrative, a notebook of an exploration, often erring and misconceived, into an unknown land. Even in its final published form it was a far more haphazard and naïvely instinctive work than the more intellectual reader can easily imagine; the hardest blows I had to bear from critics were those that condemned the book as a coldly calculated exercise in fantasy, a cerebral game. But then one of the (incurable) faults of the book was the attempt to conceal the real state of endless flux in which it was written.

Fowles is being consciously self-deprecating, but he hits on a crucial point, which is that most novels are designed to make a story that emerged from countless wrong turns and shots in the dark seem inevitable. In fact, it’s a little like being a parent, or a politician, or the CEO of a major corporation: you need to project an air of authority even if you don’t have the slightest idea if you’re doing the right thing. (And just as you can’t fully appreciate your own parents until you’ve had a kid of your own, you can’t understand the network of uncertainties underlying even the most accomplished novel until you’ve written a few for yourself.) I’d like to believe that the uncertainties, doubts, and fears that persist throughout are a necessary corrective, a way of keeping us humble in the face of challenges that can’t be reduced to a few clear rules. The real danger isn’t being unsure about what comes next; it’s turning into a hedgehog in a world of foxes, convinced that we know the one inarguable truth that applies to every situation. In fiction, that kind of dogmatic certainty leads to formula or propaganda, and we’ve all seen its effects in business, politics, and parenting. It’s better, perhaps, to admit that we’re all faking it until we make it, and that we should be satisfied if we’re right ever so slightly more often than we’re wrong.

Written by nevalalee

October 20, 2014 at 8:59 am

The four-panel rule

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Good writing is hard work, part 2

Recently, I’ve taken to reading the comics page of the Chicago Tribune with my daughter, who likes to look at the pictures while the paper is spread across our living room floor. It’s the first time I’ve taken a serious look at daily comic strips in about a decade, and I’ve come to an unfortunate conclusion: comics these days are pretty bad. It’s possible, of course, that I’ve simply aged out of the medium, or that comic strips are best appreciated when consumed in big anthologies—as I first encountered everything from Peanuts to The Far Side to Bloom County—than when experienced one day at a time. Yet I don’t think it’s irrelevant that it’s been years since a newspaper comic strip entered the wider cultural consciousness. You could say that the comics are tethered to the dying industry of print journalism, and are doomed to go down with the rest of the ship; or that it’s hard for younger cartoonists to break into syndication, which is dominated by aging warhorses like Hagar the Horrible; or that most of the real talent has migrated online, where a strip like xkcd can pursue its obsessions into odd corners without worrying about editorial interference.

All of these factors no doubt play a role, but I suspect that there’s also a subtler process at work. When I glance over the comics page today, the handful of strips that still hold up, from Dustin to Sherman’s Lagoon to For Better or For Worse, have one thing in common: they all operate within a grid of four fixed panels. Most of the others, by contrast, freely change format within the strip’s skinny rectangle of real estate, going from four panels to three or even one as the gag requires. And while there are exceptions to the rule—Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts remains consistently superb while rearranging its layout as it sees fit—I can’t help but think that the discipline that four panels impose can have a positive impact on a strip’s quality. In the old days, the four-panel format was mandated by editorial standards; now it appears to be purely voluntary. Cartoonists have more freedom now than ever before, but the outcome, to put it mildly, hasn’t been an explosion of creativity. And while it might seem silly to lavish so much attention on the aesthetics of the comics page, there’s a real lesson to be learned here about the importance of constraints and the loss that occurs when they’re taken away.

Good writing is hard work, part 3

There have always been good reasons for newspapers to prefer four panels, as well as what might seem like superficially justifiable reasons for cartoonists to fight back. Four panels allow a strip to be easily rearranged into a square grid, rather than a long rectangle, which gives editors more flexibility in laying out the page. (For much the same reason, most Sunday strips are adhere to a strict layout, with throwaway panels at the top and panel breaks occurring at strategic points that allow the strip to fill half, a third, or a quarter of a page, depending on the arrangement.) Cartoonists, of course, resist such restrictions, which theoretically limit the kinds of stories and gags they can do. In practice, you’ll often see lazier strips stretching what should have been a single-panel joke over four panels or more in order to accommodate the layout. But for a serious cartoonist, being compelled to work within a standard format has the opposite effect: it forces you to think a little more about the gag you’re writing, rejecting the obvious approach in favor of one that gets the same point across in a slightly different way. You can’t go with your first idea; you need to look for a second. And that extra level of work and reflection often shows.

A quick look at the history of some of our greatest strips seems to bear this out. Charles Schulz’s Peanuts remains the medium’s crowning achievement, but there’s no question that it suffered a dip in quality in its later years—a decline that coincides almost exactly with its shift, in February 1988, from four panels to three. (Later, Schulz routinely indulged in gag strips that used only one panel, leading to some of the strip’s weakest moments.) Bill Watterson waged a brave fight to free Calvin and Hobbes from the rigidity of the Sunday comics format, but when you compare the later spreads, in which Watterson was free to fill half a page however he liked, to the more constrained earlier installments, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the writing suffered a bit even as the artwork became increasingly spectacular. Something similar occurred when Berkeley Breathed moved from Bloom County to Outland and Opus, which never quite recaptured the original strip’s urgency. Which isn’t to say that the majority of comic strips of the past, whatever their era or format, weren’t bland and predictable. But if modern comics have settled into a kind of sloppy mediocrity, it may only be because the old constraints, even as they enforced a formula, pushed the very best artists into something more.

Written by nevalalee

October 8, 2014 at 9:27 am

The challenge of honest optimism

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place?”

When I was in my twenties, I had a theory that most novelists my age—including myself—were more or less faking it. Until you turned thirty, I thought, even a spectacular literary debut was usually just a pastiche of similar works the author had read and internalized, rather than a reflection of real experience. You had to have lived a little longer, and done something besides spend all your time writing, to express something meaningful about the world; until then, you were left with technically clever imitations, some admittedly more graceful or ingenious than others, of the books you’d loved yourself. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve modified my opinion: I suspect that we’re all faking it. (This isn’t confined to writing either: it’s a terrifying realization about being a grownup in general. As the father says in Calvin and Hobbes, “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”) In their first drafts, at least, most writers don’t really know what the story is about, so they end up writing a kind of extended simulation of the novel they want to see, a patchwork of good guesses and impersonations that they hope to revise into the real thing.

And it strikes me that a lot of what we call “insight” in fiction is really a verbal strategy, a reflection of a basically neutral ability with words, just as an invalid argument seems more convincing if the author knows how to write. A strong prose style is no guarantee of truth, and at its worst, it can hide weaknesses and gaps in logic that would be more obvious if less artfully concealed—which may be why serious philosophy is such a chore to read. And while we’d all like to hope that we’ll come up with real insights in the process of putting together our thoughts, in the meantime, we have to find new ways of faking it. That’s why so many young writers can seem so cynical. Cynicism feels more mature, at first glance, than idealism; a dark, pessimistic perspective presents itself as a hard realization at which the writer has arrived after passing through many intermediate stages. Of course, that doesn’t need to be the case at all. Reflexive cynicism is as much of an intellectual retreat as unthinking optimism, but it hides itself a little better, which may be why it’s so attractive to writers who want to seem more worldly than they really are. As Zapp Brannigan says on Futurama, when trying to convince Kiff to smoke for the first time: “Teenagers all smoke, and they seem pretty on the ball.”

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

That’s why I’ve come to treasure works of art, regardless of their ethical or philosophical point of view, that seem like the product of earned experience. I’m aware, obviously, that I may just be responding to a particularly convincing act of sleight of hand, but it doesn’t feel that way: there’s something in really great works of art or literature that takes us by the hand to show us that we’re in the presence of a genuinely alert intelligence. That’s true of books as different as The Magic Mountain and Catch-22, or movies with as little in common as Last Tango in Paris and My Neighbor Totoro. Sometimes a really honest exploration of the world can end up in a place of despair, but it’s easy to tell the difference between a work of art that ends up in the darkness because it has no other choice, like Caché, and one that takes it as a fashionable starting point, like Fight Club. And I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it, even if it ends up staking out the position, which may not be wrong, that existence is fundamentally meaningless. But such works are all the more precious, at least when it comes to getting through this life in one piece, when they express a basically optimistic view of the world.

Take, for instance, A Canterbury Tale. The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are wonderful for a lot of reasons—their wit, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their enormous visual energy—but what I’ve come to value in them most is their air of a wisdom that isn’t confined to the movie studio. Powell and Pressburger lived crowded, eventful lives, and their films are crammed with tiny moments of anecdote and observation, side by side with spectacular artifice, that speak to deep experience. When necessary, they don’t shy away from darkness or tragedy: The Red Shoes ends the way it does for a reason. Throughout it all, though, they remain sympathetic, humane, and attuned to a vision of what makes life worth living. A Canterbury Tale is both their gentlest and most radical work, a leisurely, nearly plotless slice of life that remains endlessly watchable because it’s so intensely observed. It was shot during World War II, which affects the lives of all the characters involved, and although it was clearly designed as a boost to morale, it winds up being much more. It’s propaganda, if you like, for the values of humor, simplicity, and forgiveness, and it ends so happily that I can’t help hoping that it’s true. But I wouldn’t believe in it at all if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t given me good reason to trust them in the first place.

What I’m reading this week

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Mailer by Peter Manso. Purchased for $2.65 at the Borders on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (It’s closing in January, so everything is marked down 20% or more.) I’d devoured this book growing up—it’s an oral biography with a lot of gossip—but hadn’t seen the revised edition, with its incredibly vitriolic afterword by Manso. His disillusionment with the last two decades of Mailer’s career isn’t hard to understand, but his tone of condescension and bitterness toward everyone involved—including Mailer’s wife and kids—makes it difficult to take him seriously. Still, this is a mostly fine book that I’m glad to have in my library again.

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. Research for my second novel, which I’m scheduled to deliver in September.

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I recently realized that I could put together a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes strips for only $24 by shopping the bargain bin at Better World Books (easily the best online used bookstore around), so I snatched them up right away. This collection, which came out in 1992, probably represents the strip’s creative peak.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. This is the most useful recent guide I’ve seen on the publishing process, with hundreds of pages devoted to what happens after you sign your book contract. (The only thing missing, as far as I can tell, is a guide to writer’s taxes.) Not to be confused with The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth, which is the first thing that came up when I searched for it on Amazon. (Although that looks pretty interesting, too.)

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

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