The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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How to Pick the Right Book to Read?

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Deciding what book to read is becoming more difficult every day due to the tremendous, ever-growing offer of books in the market, and I assume that making this choice will only become more challenging in the future. Whenever we approach a book shelf (or equally, when we do an online search), we have a number of personal preferences/criteria in mind, but neither the short description of the book, nor its cover, nor illustrations can guarantee that we will like the book. Looking through the readers’ reviews is also only a relatively-efficient way, because– well, you know, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Is there an algorithm for selecting a book with a near 100% satisfaction guarantee?

Yes, there is one for me, and it is really simple. I believe that any book can be fairly evaluated by the quotes taken from it and the readers’ ratings of these quotes. Luckily, there are a number of websites (goodreads.com is one the most popular among them), where you can find lists of quotes nearly for every book. Whenever I need to make an opinion about a book, I go to those pages and read the quotes left by the readers of the book.

I know, it would be logical to ask, “What if a book has not been quoted on Goodreads yet?” Well, to me the answer is simple: I will wait till it is. There are thousands of other books to enjoy.

Another question would be, “What if I don’t like those quotes?” In this case, I’ll exclaim, “Great! This is exactly what you need to make your choice!” The best way to determine for yourself if the book ‘suits’ your personal taste and immediate reading needs is to read a few lines which other people have aready noted as the best pearls of the author. Simply look through the quotes and decide whether if you like them, or not. If you do, you will be reading the book the next minute. If you don’t, you can move on and look for another book.

My method may not be perfect, of course, but it suggests some degree of objectiveness, so it works for me. For example, if I search for quotes from Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller), I can see hundreds of quotes left by grateful readers, and I love nearly all of them. When I look for novels by James Patterson, there are also lots of quotes, but they are not always good to my liking. At this point the choice becomes personalized, and this is very good, because everyone can quickly determine for themselves, who of the authors they like more.

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Novel Chapters of the Size of Tweets?

Whenever I come across an attractive piece of reading, my first thought is: Why don’t I check out the Internet for some quotes from the book first? If I like the quotes, I can devote a few minutes to reading about the book and its author, and only then I would take the book and start reading it. shrinking-1

In the new millemium, this tendency has grown into a common pattern for many of us, because our time is too precious and the abundance of books which are marketed as bestsellers is so mindblowing that we simply cannot afford to ‘read everything we can get our hands on’, as many readers use to say about their childhood habits.

This change is going to influence the writers’ work, too. Today, the life of an author is such that in order to conquer readers’ attention, one has to compress every thought to the size of a tweet. I won’t be surprised if I see a bestseller with chapters of the size of tweets some day. This is the specificity of our time, and authors will have to adjust to it.

Our available reading time is shrinking, so do the lengths of fiction and non-fiction works. This is the thought that I wanted to share here, so I will wrap up the post, hoping that somebody will read it to the end.

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Agents Have Their Blocks, Too!

I have just ran across a blog post about reading blocks: a common problem for book editors and literary agents. The author explained that reading blocks may occur to everyone who works with books on daily basis, because they hardly ever read books for pleasure: to them, reading every new book means a hard work of mind, asking and answering questions like: ‘Can I sell this book?’ or ‘How am I going to promote it?’

The author of the post tried to convince her readers that even today, in the time when the world is facing terrible challenges like wars, economic stagnation, terrorism and increasing violence, the job of literary agents is needed, anyway, because they help create new voices in literature. Still, the gereral intonation of the post was a bit apologetic (at least to my mind), as if the author was trying to justify herself and her colleagues, so I felt bound to share my opinion on this.

Female student writing at desk

I am convinced that the work of finding new voices in literature IS very important: it is as important as finding new voices and discoveries in every other creative area.  Still, majority of people today tend to underestimate it, because they have already swallowed the poisonous pill of ignorance. This makes the role of humble publishing industry workers even more significant now, when the world is being shrugged by violence, terrorism, wars, arrogance and populism (in my mind all these phenomena grow from the same root of ignorance). By finding new voices and by bringing them to the world, editors and agents help promote education, intelligence, and ethical values, which altogether may help us overcome the disease of mass ignorance.

I would like to thank the editors and agents, who are not afraid to share about their work-related problems and chores. Knowing about your reading blocks helps us, authors, to see you as real people, rather than as ‘callous rejection machines’ with no emotions whatsoever (I picked this from Facebook).

The more talented voices are discovered and displayed to the world, the better our life will be, the less violence we will witness and the fewer ignorant minds will govern our lives. I am a strong believer in this principle, so I want to support and encourage you, editors and agents, to go on and do your work well.

As an educator, I have a similar professional goal: I share knowledge with those who can’t stand ignorance and I continuously look for new voices and smart ideas among the students I work with.

By the way, we, teachers, have teaching blocks, too. In fact, my recent block was so bad that I wrote a novel while trying to overcome it. But, as a popular saying goes, ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, so I never stopped pursuing my mission: I teach. It does not matter where and in what form: in classroom, in the open air, online, or through the books I write.

To be able to teach really well, I need to learn from the new voices which you, editors and agents, create. So please, do not stop. Give us, readers, more food for thought… every day!

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Dostoevsky’s drawings

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Fyodor Dostoevsky never discussed his drawings with anybody. Neither he left any notes describing his attempts to picture his characters or scenes from his stories. He must have believed that writing was a very intimate business, so the only person who was allowed to keep Dostoevsky’s diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks, was his wife, Anna. It was largely due to her effort that many of Dostoevsky’s sketches and drawings were preserved in very good condition and can be studied by researchers today.

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Interestingly, Dostoevsky never produced anything else but the three types of drawings:
1. Portraits of people, which were made with great attention to detail and, as a rule, they were images of his new characters, which he crafted while working on every new book;

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2. Architectural forms, mainly of Gothic style buildings, which Dostoevsky – an architect by diploma – also drew with amazing care for detail; and
3. Exercises in calligraphy, which, very probably, helped him concentrate when he was planning his novel plots, because these ‘exercises’ appear quite often among his notes, made at the beginning stages of work with every big manuscript.

D1 His drawings, as well as writing sketches are usually scattered all over the page, which shows how thoroughly he used to put together little pieces of ideas, scattered thoughts and observations to develop every scene, description, or dialog.

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This is how great books were (and are) put together: huge work of mind; mindblowing concentration of thought, amazing work of imagination.

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Love… as Dostoevsky saw it.

Love. Is it a gift given to us from above, or a skill which can be developed by learning? I have been trying to figure this out, and of course, I am not the first one to ask this question. A great thinker of the 19-th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, kept trying to answer this question during his whole life. Some of his thoughts on the topic can be found in his immortal novels. I spent this morning turning pages of my Soviet-time edition of Dostoevsky, published in 1958.

D001Let me start with a line from The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most acclaimed of Dostoevsky’s novels: 

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Wow. Scary, isn’t it?

In the 19-th century the phrase ‘being unable to love’ sounded even worse than it sounds now: it meant that Creator himself had decided to deprive some particular people of the gift, and thus, they were in some way inferior, or sinful, or just ‘spotted’ and destinied to suffer endlessly.

Today, it is still common to hear that love is a gift given to us from above, but we tend to take it lightly, because — well — science tells us not to worry. “Love is a result of chemical reactions,” it says, “if your body has hormones — and, of course, every body has some,” it says, “then you have nothing to worry about: relax, you are capable of feeling love.”

Modern science looks at it with pragmatism, typical of the 21-st century. The notion ‘gift’ is defined by modern dictionaries as a natural ability or talent, and so, some people feel gifted for love, while others claim that love is a skill (interpreted by dictionaries as ‘the ability to do something well; expertise’), which can be acquired by training. Very convenient, don’t you think? 😉

When 150 years ago Dostoevsky wrote that–

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

every reader would nod his head in agreement on reading this, a contemporary reader might shrug doubdfully or even express disagreement. Unlike our great-great-grandparents, we, modern people, prefer to believe that being in love is an exciting adventure, which may (and should) happen to anybody, it may involve lots of emotional experience, and– well, there is no need to worry: nobody dies of love anymore. Love is fun! Why even try to understand how God intended your partner, when you

In his latest stories, ever-gloomy Dostoevsky writes–

“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Love IS a skill, agrees the great genius, because it can be developed. Moreover, it develops with suffering, it takes you time and suffering to learn the skill of love. In Dostoevsky’s latest story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, his character says:

“I want to suffer so that I may love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

If Dostoevsky’s characters finally managed to master the skill of love, they would realize the change that happened to them:

“They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

but still, there was lots of suffering:

“But to fall in love does not mean to love. One can fall in love and still hate.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

and more suffering:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What a gloomy, dark, sad, derogatory approach! After this, I am not surprised that our high-school students are reluctant to read Dostoevsky.

Still, a genius is always a genuis. Even hundreds years later, his words remain meaningful. Moreover, they sound like a call for action, and no one of us could put it together as precisely as Dostoevsky did:

“Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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P.S. This is a photo of a page from Dostoevsky’s book of notes. One of these days, I am going to put together a little post about his drawings and calligraphy practice. It seems he loved drawing while planning his scenes.

A Jonah of Portugal: A Few Lines About Camoens

Jonah (in the Bible) is a Hebrew minor prophet. He was called by God to preach in Nineveh, but disobeyed and attempted to escape by sea; in a storm he was thrown overboard as a bringer of bad luck and swallowed by a great fish, only to be saved and finally succeed in his mission

Luís Vaz de Camões (or de Camoens) (c. 1524 – June 10 1580) is the greatest national poet of Portugal. He is best remembered for his epic work Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), the influence of which is so profound that even today, Portuguese is often called the “language of Camões”. He is also well known as the man whose life was marked with numerous troubles, which seemed to accompany him like seagulls that follow a boat.

camoesMany details concerning the life of the poet remain unknown. The historians learned many facts about his young life from his poems: Camoens was lucky to obtain a good education by having access to exclusive literature of that time, including classical Greek, Roman and Latin works. He used to read a lot in Latin and Italian, and wrote poetry in Spanish.

Now, comes the interesting part: having studied a massive amount of books, Camoens — an incurable romantic and idealist — fell in love with Catherine of Ataíde, lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and also Princess Maria, sister of John III of Portugal. Like many other immature and brave romantics-in-love, the young man had a sharp tongue and, as a sequence, could not find common language with authorities, which resulted in his exile from Lisbon in 1548. Camoens traveled to Ribatejo where he stayed in the company of friends who sheltered and fed him for about six months.

In the fall of 1549, he enlisted in the overseas militia and traveled to Ceuta. During a battle with the Moors, he lost the sight in his right eye. In 1551, a changed man, Camoens eventually returned to Lisbon, living a bohemian lifestyle.

Not for long, though. In 1552, during the religious festival of Corpus Christi, in the Largo do Rossio, he injured a member of the Royal Stables and was imprisoned. His mother pleaded for his release, visiting royal ministers and the Borges family for a pardon. Released, Camoens was ordered to pay 4,000 réis and serve three years in the militia in the Orient.

He departed in 1553 for Goa on board the São Bento, the ship arrived to Goa six months later, and Camoens was immediately imprisoned for debt. He used to call Goa “a stepmother to all honest men”.

At that point in his life, Camoens was made to believe that adventure is the real man’s second name. During his first obligatory service, he took part in a battle along the Malabar Coast. The battle was followed by skirmishes along the trading routes between Egypt and India. The fleet eventually returned to Goa by November 1554. During his time ashore, he continued his writing publicly, as well as writing correspondence for the uneducated men of the fleet.

Camoens

Luís de Camões

Foge-me pouco a pouco a curta vida
(se por caso é verdade que inda vivo);
vai-se-me o breve tempo d’ante os olhos;
choro pelo passado e quando falo,
se me passam os dias passo e passo,
vai-se-me, enfim, a idade e fica a pena.

Little by little it ebbs, this life,
if by any chance I am still alive;
my brief time passes before my eyes.
I mourn the past in whatever I say;
as each day passes, step by step
my youth deserts me—what persists is pain.

At the end of his obligatory service, he was given the position of chief warrant officer in Macau. He was charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. During this time he worked on his epic poem Os Lusíadas (“The Lusiads”) in a grotto.

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Camoens Grotto, Macao

Uh-huh. Once a Jonah always a Jonah! Camoens was accused of misappropriations and had to travel to Goa and respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover, Dinamene. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

In 1570 Camoens finally made it back to Lisbon, where two years later he published Os Lusíadas, for which he was considered one of the most prominent Iberian poets at the time. In recompense for this poem or perhaps for services in the Far East, he was granted a small royal pension (15000 réis) by the young and ill-fated King Sebastian (ruled 1557–1578).

In 1578 he heard of the appalling defeat of the Battle of Alcácer Quibir, where King Sebastian was killed and the Portuguese army destroyed. The Castilian troops were approaching Lisbon when Camoens wrote to the Captain General of Lamego:

“All will see that so dear to me was my country that I was content to die not only in it but with it”.

Camões died in Lisbon in 1580, at the age of 56. The day of his death, 10 June OS, is Portugal’s national day. He is buried near Vasco da Gama in the Jerónimos Monastery in the parish of Belém in Lisbon.

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Albert Einstein: My Credo

What follows is a repost of Albert Einstein’s speech written in 1932. Wonderful words. Amazing work of thought. A message of a genius to all of us.

Albert-Einstein

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.

Albert Einstein. My Credo

[Part I]
“It is a special blessing to belong among those who can and may devote their best energies to the contemplation and exploration of objective and timeless things. How happy and grateful I am for having been granted this blessing, which bestows upon one a large measure of independence from one’s personal fate and from the attitude of one’s contemporaries. Yet this independence must not inure us to the awareness of the duties that constantly bind us to the past, present and future of humankind at large.

Our situation on this earth seems strange. Every one of us appears here, involuntarily and uninvited, for a short stay, without knowing the why and the wherefore. In our daily lives we feel only that man is here for the sake of others, for those whom we love and for many other beings whose fate is connected with our own.

I am often troubled by the thought that my life is based to such a large extent on the work of my fellow human beings, and I am aware of my great indebtedness to them.

I do not believe in free will. Schopenhauer’s words: ‘Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills,’ accompany me in all situations throughout my life and reconcile me with the actions of others, even if they are rather painful to me. This awareness of the lack of free will keeps me from taking myself and my fellow men too seriously as acting and deciding individuals, and from losing my temper.

I have never coveted affluence and luxury and even despise them a good deal. My passion for social justice has often brought me into conflict with people, as has my aversion to any obligation and dependence I did not regard as absolutely necessary.

[Part 2]
I have a high regard for the individual and an insuperable distaste for violence and fanaticism. All these motives have made me a passionate pacifist and antimilitarist. I am against any chauvinism, even in the guise of mere patriotism.

Privileges based on position and property have always seemed to me unjust and pernicious, as does any exaggerated personality cult. I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I know well the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual have always seemed to me the important communal aims of the state.

Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”

Einstein signature, 1932

Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

________________________________________

Picture credits:
Courtesy of the Albert Einstein-Archives, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, Call Nr 28-218.00: 1
Hans-Josef Küpper, Cologne: 2, 3

The Romantic Russian Phrase Book

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Learn Russian with love!

The Romantic Russian Phrase Book is an easy to learn course of conversational Russian with full audio support.

  • The phrase book was developed specifically for those who are seeking to establish romantic relationships with Russian women;
  • the book is a perfect tool for every beginner who is interested to learn about Russian language and culture;
  • The phrase book contains hundreds of easy to pronounce, most meaningful phrases and sample dialoges, which can be used in multiple life situations;
  • You will find numerous tips from the best linguists and relationships experts;
  • Learn about Russian culture and lifestyle;
  • get the taste of simple grammar and enjoy full audio support for every unit;
  • contact the author Rina Tim at any time to request information, counseling, and/or language training.

The Romantic Russian Phrase Book contains 18 thematic units:

UNIT 1. How To Be Polite In Russian
UNIT 2. Greetings
UNIT 3. Your First Meeting With Her
UNIT 4. How To Say A Compliment To Her
UNIT 5. Making Her A Gift
UNIT 6. Romantic Dinner For Two
UNIT 7. When She Is Silent And Thoughtful
UNIT 8. Moments Of Intimacy
UNIT 9. When Doing Things Together
UNIT 10. Having Fun Together
UNIT 11. Asking For Things
UNIT 12. Speaking To Her On The Phone
UNIT 13. Riding In A Taxi
UNIT 14. Shopping Together
UNIT 15. Meeting Her Family
UNIT 16. Some Conversation Starters
UNIT 17. Phrases To Use In Love Letters
UNIT 18. Words To Use In Conversation

The book is available at Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/dp/1519170068

We wish you good luck for your wonderful Russian adventure!

 

The Romantic English Phrase Book

Романтический разговорник английского языка

Phrasebook-B5

ИЗУЧАЙТЕ АНГЛИЙСКИЙ С ЛЮБОВЬЮ!

The Romantic ENGLISH Phrase Book is a great assistant for Russian women who are taking their first steps in learning English

Романтический разговорник английского языка – это набор простых, легко запоминающихся английских фраз на все случаи жизни

  • Уникальный набор фраз, необходимых для общения с собеседником-иностранцем
  • множество диалогов, имитирующих ситуации романтического общения
  • полезная информация от экспертов в области лингвистики и психологии отношений
  • примеры житейских ситуаций в диалогах и заметки о Западной культуре
  • постоянная связь с автором на http://www.rinatim.com
  • возможность получения консультаций 24/7

Эта книга дублирует Романтический разговорник русского языка, который мы составили ранее для иностранцев, приезжающих к своим русскоговорящим невестам. Чтобы понимать друг друга, вам и вашему иностранному гостю достаточно держать разговорники наготове и обмениваться фразами из тех тематических блоков, которые подходят к конкретной ситуации общения.

Обе книги имеют одинаковое содержание и состоят из 18 разделов:

Тема 1. Как вежливо привлечь к себе внимание?
               Unit 1. How to Be Polite in English?
Тема 2. Приветствия.
               Unit 2. Greetings.
Тема 3. Ваша первая встреча.
               Unit 3. Your First Meeting with Him.
Тема 4. Скажите ему что-нибудь приятное.
               Unit 4. Tell Him Something Nice.
Тема 5. Принимаем и дарим подарки.
               Unit 5. Accepting and Making Gifts.
Тема 6. Романтический ужин на двоих.
               Unit 6. Romantic Dinner for Two.
Тема 7. Если разговор угас.
               Unit 7. When the Talk Is Slow.
Тема 8. Когда вы остались один на один.
               Unit 8. Moments of Intimacy.
Тема 9. Всё делаем вместе.
               Unit 9. Doing Things Together.
Тема 10. Развлекаемся и отдыхаем.
               Unit 10. Having Fun Together.
Тема 11. Как попросить о чем-либо.
               Unit 11. Asking for Things.
Тема 12. Разговор по телефону.
               Unit 12. Speaking on the Phone.
Тема 13. Поездка в такси.
               Unit 13. In a Taxi.
Тема 14. Ходим по магазинам.
               Unit 14. Shopping Together.
Тема 15. Когда он у вас в гостях.
               Unit 15. Inviting Him to Meet Your Family.
Тема 16. Некоторые стартеры для беседы.
               Unit 16. Conversation Starters.
Тема 17. Несколько фраз для личной переписки.
                Unit 17. Phrases to Use in Love Letters.
Тема 18. Часто употребляемые слова.
                Unit 18. Words to Use in Conversation.

Желаем вам удачи в вашем романтическом путешествии в английскую культуру!

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Red Sofa Literary

Sometimes the best ideas are associated with a red couch. . .

Rule Number 32

Enjoy the little things. ~Zombieland

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