How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain De Botton

Here’s my second instalment for the blogging event Paris in July 2014.

Paris In July 2014

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You must have heard of this book by a Swiss-born Brit writing about a French novelist called Proust. You probably have read it, and let me guess, were surprised when reading the first chapters? Well, I was. For before reading this book, my knowledge of Alain de Botton, the popular British writer and media personality, mainly came from an art critic’s thoughtful posts on her blog.

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Is Botton joking? This book reads like a parody.

First we are introduced to Dr. Proust, Marcel’s father, who was a renowned physician and prolific writer. His thirty-four books had helped the French people from defences against the plague to the correct postures and exercises for the ladies. Botton being an image-driven person does not hesitate to include some of Dr. Proust’s instructional illustrations for his female readers such as how to jump off walls, or balance on one foot.

Not your definition of parody? How about this chapter on ‘How to Suffer Successfully’. Proust is well known for his physical ailments, having had to lie in bed most of the time when he wrote the longest novel ever written, In Search of Lost Time. Botton exhaustively lists down the various trials Proust had to live with throughout his life:

  • The Problem of a Jewish Mother
  • Awkward Desires
  • Dating Problems
  • A Lack of Career in the Theatre
  • The Incomprehension of Friends
  • At 31, His Own Assessment
  • Asthma
  • Diet
  • Digestion
  • Underpants
  • Sensitive Skin
  • Mice
  • Cold
  • Coughing
  • Noise from Neighbours

… Should I go on? And oh, he does include Death.

I know, that’s what Botton does, bring the extraordinary into the ordinary realm of common readers, and by so doing, explaining Proust to us lowly creatures. And of course, it would help if you have at least read the first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, for many of his examples are taken from there, so you would feel a resonance, or disagree with Botton’s interpretation, when he talks about Francoise, Swann, Albertine, Combray, or Balbec.

Do I get anything out of it? Plenty. I’ve lots of highlighted passages and my own handwritten notes on the margins. When Botton gets serious between the lines, he leaves me with some useful tips:

So if speaking in clichés is problematic, it is because the world itself contains a far broader range of rainfalls, moons, sunshines, and emotions than stock expressions either capture or teach us to expect. (p.106)

For one thing, express your own feelings and ideas instead of saying ‘nice’, or describing the setting sun as ‘a ball of fire’. I love this little passage Botton quotes from Proust about the novelist’s description of his ‘lunar experience’:

Sometimes in the afternoon sky a white moon would creep up like a little cloud, furtive, stout display, suggesting an actress who does not have to ‘come on’ for a while, and so goes ‘in front’ in her ordinary clothes to watch the rest of the company for a moment, but keeps in the background, not wishing to attract attention to herself. (p.98 of Botton’s, but no mention of where this is from Proust’s)

The key of course is not so much of trying to use a new language to describe a common scene or object, but to be able to look at them from a distinctively new perspective to begin with. How can we invent new lenses to see the world? Towards this end, Botton has failed to go further. So we’re told to avoid clichés, but not how. If you sense my ambivalence, you’re right.

In order to avoid clichés himself, Botton has resorted to hyperboles. The title of the book is a ready example. The 200 page book comprises of nine short chapters, each can be a book in itself. So you can expect the oversimplification of the ideas. Further, with no citing of sources for the Proust quotes, the critical reader could be left unsatisfied; it feels like Botton has jumped to generalizations and found expressions of his own thoughts from one or two excerpts of Proust’s. Makes one feel that Proust could just be a selling point.

However, this is an entertaining read, like a self-help manual with instructional tidbits and amusing images. The book is a mixed bag of common-sense wisdom, with a ‘moral’ at the end of each chapter. Throughout, it is obvious that Botton could well find it not as easy as he tells his readers to do… to be original and not say what others have said before. Here are some of his main points:

  • Live life today
  • Read books to form your own ideas
  • Suffering makes you strong
  • Find art and beauty in the ordinary
  • Avoid clichés like the plague
  • A time to pick up a book, a time to put it down
  • Win friends by your praises
  • but pour your honest criticisms of them into a work of fiction (now that’s a novel idea).

Is there anything new under the sun?

Speaking of the sun, take this to the beach. It would make one breezy read.

Lastly, following Botton’s (actually Proust’s) advice on reading:

We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us do so. (P. 195) Reading… is only an incitement…

 

So I’d say the moral is: read Proust yourself. Don’t let Botton tell you what Proust can do for you.

That’s just the prodding I need to press on to In Search of Lost Time, Vol. III.

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Paris in July 2014 on Ripple Effects:

Haute Cuisine Movie Review

CLICK HERE, HERE and HERE to see what others have posted.

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Related (Proust) Posts on Ripple Effects:

Proust Read-Along: Swann’s Way Part 1, Combray

The Swann and Gatsby Foil

Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Out of the Budding Grove

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Half Way Through a Budding Grove

Half way through reading In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove, I’ve discovered a key to enjoying Proust. Just as it’s best to eat madeleines by dipping them in tea before putting the moistened petite cakes in your mouth, the most enjoyable way to read Proust is lying in bed with an unhindered mind. In this most relaxed state, I’m at ease to stroll leisurely through a budding grove, or the thickets of a genius’s mind.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

So far, I’ve gone passed the narrator Marcel’s painful struggles with adolescent, unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter Gilberte. In contrast, his crush for Mme Swann has been appreciated and normalized. Unlike the cool and aloof Gilberte, Mme Swann welcomes Marcel into their home warmly, including him in their family outings, and their home gatherings with their friends, thus allowing him an opportunity to meet his literary hero, the writer Bergotte.

And here’s the passage I’m most impressed by, so far. The man Bergotte is very different from the writer Marcel has encountered in his ‘divine writing’. The man appears to be very common, inarticulate even, and devoid of eloquence, a man who spent his childhood in a ‘tasteless household’. Marcel is shocked by this discovery, and scrambles to come to terms with such dissonance. In a most ingenious analysis, the young Marcel comes to this conclusion:

But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them… To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface… is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. (p. 175)

As I read these few pages, Jane Austen came to mind. A writer who had lived her short life mainly in a rural setting, her associations parochial and far from ‘high society’, and yet could transport herself and thus her readers to a different world from her mundane social environs. Her imagination soared as it took flight with her incisive observations of human nature.

… the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror… genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected. (p. 175-176)

The adolescent Marcel’s disillusionment with the discrepancy between the man and writer Bergotte leads him to an uplifting insight:

The day on which the young Bergotte succeeded in showing to the world of his readers the tasteless household in which he had spent his childhood, and the not very amusing conversations between himself and his brothers, was the day on which he rose above the friends of his family, more intellectual and more distinguished than himself; they in their fine Rolls-Royces might return home expressing due contempt for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his modest machine which had at last ‘taken off,’ soared above their heads. (p. 176)

Yes, more Proust’s words than mine on this post. Many other highlighted passages and surprising delights, but will have to wait till I’ve come out of the budding grove the end of November. If you’re interested, you’re welcome to join me in a read-along of In Search of Lost Time, Vol. II: Within A Budding Grove.

CLICK HERE to my wrap-up post: Out of the Budding Grove

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Related Posts:

Proust Read-along Swann’s Way Part I: Combray (Featured in ‘Freshly Pressed’)

The Swann and Gatsby Foil

What Was Jane Austen Really Like? Reading Tomalin and Shields

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

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Another Proust Read-Along

… as if we’re not busy enough?

Truth is, reading Proust calms me down. Maybe because I’ve to slow down, really slow down, to savor, and decipher. These two have become a fused enjoyment for me while reading Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way.

After finishing that, I quickly ordered the next volume Within a Budding Grove, but have since put it aside… until now, thanks to Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza, who read Vol. I with me. She’s right, of course, as she wrote on her invitation post for Vol. II:

‘No one should read Proust alone.”

So here we are, embarking on another Proust Read-Along, In Search of Lost Time Vol. II, Within A Budding Grove.

Within A Budding Grove Modern Library

Yes, this is a slow read, as always on Ripple Effects. We plan to finish and post our thoughts on November 30. I just might add in a mid-way post around end of October.

You are invited to join us for another slow and enjoyable ride.

If quantifying makes it easier to grasp, counting the days in October and November, and the 730 pages in my Modern Library Classic edition, you only need to read about 12 pages every day. A very doable plan.

Those of you who have read it all… how about a re-read now?

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First Post for Vol. II:

Half Way Through A Budding Grove

My posts on Vol. I, Swann’s Way:

Part 1: Combray (my ‘Freshly Pressed’ post)

Wrap-up: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

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Proust Read-Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

“He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts…” Swann’s Way, P. 510

While plowing through Part 2, ‘Swann In Love’, I happened to reread The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new movie adaptation, I’m sure many more are doing the same. And oh what interesting contrasts Swann and Gatsby make.

Both are deeply in love, yearning for a woman who seems to be utterly elusive. Gatsby frantically maximizes to attract Daisy; Swann willingly minimizes to reach Odette. From a poor background, Gatsby grabs whatever means he can to build his wealth; Swann whose niche belongs to high society, has to pretend that he is nobody special, stooping to ‘a lower social sphere’ (P. 285) to be near Odette.

That distance is more than social. Swann is willing to forsake his cultured tastes of art and music, to lay aside even his own research and writing on Vermeer (Odette: I’ve never heard of him, is he alive still? P. 279). Swann is willing to lay down his interests and privileges for a woman who is uncouth in the sophistication of high society, who has superficial views and flashy tastes, and alas, even promiscuous.

However, love transforms all deficiencies and blemishes into ethereal beauty. Here’s how Swann visualizes Odette. To him, she is like Sipporah, Jethro’s daughter, Botticelli’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:

Zipporah, Jethro's Daughter by Botticelli

Following Odette to her ‘little nucleus’ at the Verdurins, Swann downplays his association with prominent people and tries not to be so outspoken with his knowledge and opinion about art and music.

When he is alone with Odette, he has taken her values and interests:

he tried at least to ensure that she should be happy in his company, tried not to counteract those vulgar ideas, that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion, and which in fact he loved, as he could not help loving everything that came from her, which enchanted him even. (P. 348)

Is this measurement of incompatibility in tastes inherently snobbish? Yes, Swann (or Proust) is sensitive enough to analyze this in depth. What is ‘taste’ anyway, or the intellectual beliefs with which he has been raised from the days of his youth?

… the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (P. 350)

So, all for love of Odette, Swann is willing to give up going to the Jockey Club, lunching with the Prince of Wales, or his love of Holland, or a visit to the Versailles (‘which bored her to tears’):

And so he denied himself the pleasure of visiting those places, delighted to tell himself that it was for her sake, that he wished only to feel, to enjoy things with her. (p. 350)

Those colorful shirts Gatsby has hoarded, Odette would have loved them, just like Daisy, and his mansion too… if only Swann had resided in a more prestigious address, somewhere ‘more worthy of him’ instead of his house on the Quai d’Orleans. (P. 346)

Odette’s fondness of Swann begins to wane as Forcheville enters into the picture. She becomes even harder to get. Swann is burned with jealousy, anger and bitterness. Yet he cannot forget her. His love even grows stronger for her, despite receiving an anonymous letter defaming her. Why,

People often say that, by point out to a man the faults of his mistress, you succeed only in strengthening his attachment to her… he had begun to desire the possession — as if that were ever possible — of another person. (P. 517)

Perhaps that is a mark of love: the demand for exclusivity. This is exactly what Gatsby wants Daisy to admit, that she has never loved Tom, that she has always loved him. “Oh, you want too much,” she cried to Gatsby.

But Swann is more fortunate. He knows he must gain back Odette’s full and exclusive devotion and somehow he does. I’m glad to read in Part 3 that eventually Odette does become Mme Swann. I’d be curious to know how that comes about. (Proust’s strategy to get us go on reading the next volumes?)

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Part 3 is an enjoyable and much swifter read as the narrator remembers his childhood in Paris drown in unrequited love (so far, not sure about how this unfolds later) for Swann and Odette’s daughter Gilberte. Because of his love for Gilberte, the boy is infatuated with M and Mme Swann as well. His crush on the elusive Gilberte parallels Swann’s love for Odette in their earlier days.

The last sentence in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, like that in The Great Gatsby, ends with a haunting remark on memory and the past:

The places we have known… were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

There are much more to be said, but nothing can replace the actual experience of reading Proust first hand. From March to May as I plowed through Swann’s Way, there had been up’s and down’s. Numerous times long sentences entangled, yet the very next moment could be so beautiful and lucid it dissipated all frustrations. I now look forward to Volume II.

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Thanks for joining me in this Read-Along. Finish or not, you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Throw your two pebbles into the pond and make some ripples. If you have written a post, do let me know so I can link it here.

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

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CLICK HERE to my post on Part 1 of Swann’s Way: Combray

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Proust Read-Along: Swann’s Way Part One, Combray

Reading these first 264 pages of Proust conjures up some of my own memories…

I was sitting in a graduate class. A fellow student was doing a presentation on phenomenology. He brought into class a chocolate cake, cut it and gave each of us a piece. We were to describe this particular act of ‘Eating chocolate cake in class’.

What elicited only single words or phrases from us, Proust could have written pages. Why, from pages 60 to 64 the narrator details his experience of eating four morsels of the little cakes ‘petites madeleines’, the uplifting sensation, the taste, the action of dipping them into tea before eating, and the diminishing enjoyment after each mouthful. Above all, he relays how the very act of eating these madeleines has evoked long-buried childhood memories of Combray:

… in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the waterlilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea. (p. 64)

I don’t pretend to understand everything I read. Far from it. These first 264 pages of Proust’s seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time for me is a learning experience. I have to read through ambiguity, discard the expectations of clarity and congruity, accept incomprehension and press on. But an experience still, and surprisingly, an enjoyable one. An eye-opener too. Where have I read a sentence of 31 lines (p. 67-68) in such flowing prose, with such sensitivity and nuanced observations? And I must add, which I read at 1 a.m. I’m a quick study.

Sure, the unexamined life is not worth living. Proust must have plowed through his to the single second, and in depth too, as the madeleine-eating episode reveals. Insomnia sure has its benefits… arousing volumes of memories for the narrator.

Proust Book

From this first reading I’m surprised to find Proust’s subject matter comes from the mundane, from people and places in the village Combray where the narrator would go to stay for a period of time every year as a child. Even more a surprising delight is the loquacious way he describes the events, the people, the scenery, and the insights he can generate from the minutest observations.

A tiled roof is a tiled roof, okay, it looks more beautiful reflected on the river. But I was struck by how the narrator caught himself with speechless admiration, and ironically, articulating it with lucidity and humor:

The tiled roof cast upon the pond, translucent again in the sunlight, a dappled pink reflection which I had never observed before. And, seeing upon the water, and on the surface of the wall, a pallid smile responding to the smiling sky, I cried aloud in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: “Gosh, gosh, gosh, gosh!” But at the same time I felt that I was in duty bound not to content myself with these unilluminating words, but to endeavour to see more clearly into the sources of my rapture.  (p. 219)

Indeed, humor is another surprising find for me. In several places I’ve put down on the margin of the page, LOL!

So, I’ve quickly learned to go past those passages and sentences that have lost me, but soon as I come to something I can comprehend, and do resonate, I’d stop and reread, savoring the beauty of that moment.

My favourite passages include the heartbreaking accounts of the child’s longing for his mother’s goodnight kiss, the description of the church St. Hilaire where he goes to Sunday mass, the pages depicting the river Vivonne and the hawthorn trees in Swann’s park, the child’s discussions with Swann on reading and books, and his frustration with writer’s block as he strives to write poetry as a youngster.

But there is one passage I must mention. That is about the child’s Mamma caring to talk with their house maid and cook Françoise, asking her little questions about her feelings for her own family:

Francoise answered, laughing: ‘Madame knows  everything… [like] the X-rays that they brought here for Mme Octave, and which can see what’s in your heart’ — and she went off, overwhelmed that anyone should be caring about her, perhaps anxious that we should not see her in tears: Mamma was the first person who had given her the heart-warming feeling that her peasant existence, with its simple joys and sorrows, might be an object of interest, might be a source of grief or pleasure to someone other than herself (p. 73).

This, I think, is exactly what Proust has done.

Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, the village life, the kitchen and the table, the interactions and socializing, family relations, walking the country paths, the irises and the hawthorns… Reading this first part reminds me of paintings by Pieter Bruegel, or Van Gogh… and, not far from eating chocolate cake.

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How’s your reading so far?

Janell of An Everyday Life

tuesday in silhouette

Wrap up post on Parts Two and Three: May 15.

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Let’s Spring to Proust

Here we are, almost spring. According to my 2013 Read-Along plan, it’s time for Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1, Swann’s Way.

Proust Book

Before we start, check this out. An excellent intro of Proust from The Guardian:

“So, Proust. Have you made it past the first 50 pages?

I’m guessing that a healthy proportion of people who pick up the book don’t even get beyond page 51. Within a similar word count, Raymond Chandler could have got through two murders, six whiskies, half a dozen wisecracks. Raymond Carver could have described at least six suburban households descending into despair. And Hemingway had almost finished The Old Man and The Sea. Yet, in pure plot terms, pretty much all that happens in those first pages of Proust is that the young Marcel struggles to fall asleep.” 

Right. But I do urge you to finish this very helpful Guardian article on Proust.

Those who are familiar with Read-Along’s on Ripple Effects know, we go slow. Ah… go slow on Proust? Well yes, that just means you can read Chandler and Hemingway while you’re watching young Marcel struggle to sleep.

Here’s our very simple plan. You can read whatever version you like, if you’re so inclined, the original French edition will even be better. We can compare notes and thoughts. I’ll stick with the Modern Library version in the photo above, just because of the enticing cover.

Here are the dates for the two posts:

Part One, Combray (264 pages): to post April 15

Part Two, Swann In Love (278 pages) & Part Three, Places Names, The Name (61 pages): to post May 15

Two months to finish In Search of Lost Time Vol 1: Swann’s Way. I’m sure with our mutual support, we can all go past page 51 and even reach the end.

Interested? Do let me know in a comment. I’ll be sure to add and link your blog in the following list. If you’re not a blogger, you’re welcome to join in as well. Just come by on the two posting dates and share your thoughts.

So far, here are the participants who have confirmed with me:

Bellezza of Dolce Bellezza

Janell of An Everyday Life

Gavin of Page247

Tuesday of Tuesday in Silhouette

Jessica of Bluestockings.com

Alison of Chino House

Hope to see you join in.

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Previous Read-Along on Ripple Effects

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

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Read-Along 2013: Bonhoeffer and Proust

CLICK HERE to Bonhoeffer Read-Along Part 2 Wrap-Up: Ch. 19 – 31

CLICK HERE to Bonhoeffer Read-Along Part 1: Ch. 1 – 18

CLICK HERE for an updated post “2013 Read-Along Begins: Bonhoeffer”

Just because they’ve been on the shelf staring at me for too long. And I’d love some company when I tackle them.

My experience of Read-Alongs started serendipitously this year upon the suggestion of another blogger. Thus began the four months journey of Midnight’s Children. Finding the experience so rewarding, I later held another one, Anna Kareninajust in time to coincide with the film.

So anyone who has come along with me know I like to take things slow. If I can finish a long book, anyone can. So here we are, hope you will join me in the winter months of 2013:

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas 

Bonhoeffer Pastor Martyr Prophet Spy-Eric Metaxas

In the top ten of Barnes and Noble’s Best non-fiction books of 2010, and on New York Times Best-Seller list, this Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography intrigues me greatly. Author Metaxas’s title makes me want to know more about this legendary figure whose books I had read in my youth, but now think I haven’t known him enough to fully appreciate his daring life, a man of faith and anti-Nazi in wartime Germany.

This slow reading plan allows you plenty of time to pursue your own reading and blogging. I’ve roughly divided it in two parts, posting twice:

Chapters 1 – 18 (277 pages): to post on February 15

Chapters 19 – 31 (264 pages): to post on March 15

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And come Spring, I’d like to step into the world of Proust.

In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1, Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

My curiosity of Proust has long been latent. The movie Little Miss Sunshine is the trigger. Remember Steve Carell’s character Frank, the Proust scholar in the movie? He just got out of the hospital recovering from a failed suicide attempt… uh… Yeah, that’s when I told myself, umm… one of these days I must read some Proust.

So here I am, again attracted first by the appealing book cover from my favorite publisher: Modern Library.

In Search of Lost Time Vol

I understand Lydia Davis has a newer translation of Swann’s Way. You can chose whatever translation you prefer. It may be good to compare notes on the different versions too.

Again, we’ll post twice. According to the parts in the book:

Part One, Combray (264 pages): to post April 15

Part Two, Swann In Love (278 pages) & Part Three, Places Names, The Name (61 pages): to post May 15

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So these are my Read-Along plans for 2013. Sure hope you can join me on either or both of them. Just leave me with a comment and a link to your blog below. If you’re not a blogger, you can read along too. As we post, you can stop by and share your thoughts in the comment section. As I like to say, stop by the pond and throw in a pebble or two, make some ripples.

On Ripple Effects, the Read-Along bandwagon is a slow ride, but just as convivial. Hope to see you hop on!

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