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friedag

Bizarre Interpretations

friedag
16 years ago

Some writers intentionally write such convoluted stories that interpreting them can be "anything goes." That's not what I'm talking about.

Rather, I am asking for examples of books that seem to be straightforward enough, but then along comes some reader or commentator who interprets (or misinterprets) the story so outrageously that you wonder what they were smoking while reading it.

Or, sometimes it's just youth or inexperience, such as young female readers thinking Heathcliff is a "dreamboat."

Or, there are the agenda seekers, an example of which came up recently in another forum: A poster pointed out that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has obvious "homosexual undertones." Whoa! I've read it many, many times and never picked up on those. Turns out, though, that the poster isn't the first to make such a claim because another poster dredged up an article published in 1948 by one Leslie Fielder called "Come Back to the Raft Agin, Huck Honey!" that claims to identify Huckleberry Finn as just one of the many "unspoken homoerotic relationships" in American literature. Hmmm!

What bizarre interpretations have you run across?

Comments (31)

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    > I am asking for examples of books that seem to be straightforward enough, but then along comes some reader or commentator who interprets (or misinterprets) the story so outrageously that you wonder what they were smoking while reading it.

    The Giving Tree. I cried when I first read it, used it to teach about the concept of Jewish Tzedakah (charity) in Sunday School class, and have given it to others. Obviously it is an anti-feminist screed of the worst kind......It comse up now and then on another forum (frieda you've probably seen this) and soon everyone comes out with their claws. Gack, its a book, a sweet book! Why do you have to ruin it with things that the author didn't intend?

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    Cindy, I've never read The Giving Tree though I have read some of the rants against it in that other forum. I looked it up at Amazon and the review seems to tell the entire story. If I had come across it without any kind of foreknowledge, I probably would have judged it as a kids' book with a message that it's not good to take, take, take and it's not especially good always to give, give, give. I'm not sure where the idea comes from that [o]bviously it is an anti-feminist screed of the worst kind. I haven't read the whole book or seen all the illustrations, but I will -- just to see if I can get a handle on what indeed does seem a bizarre notion. How common is this complaint against it? That other forum has quite a lot of overtrained readers who have spent too much time overanalyzing things (in my opinion, of course).

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  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    >That other forum has quite a lot of overtrained readers who have spent too much time overanalyzing things

    Ayup. Definitely take a look at it (very short read).

    I first heard about the complaint on that forum. As I searched a bit I found others shared the problem. Here is a quote off of Silversteins bio:

    >Barbara A. Schram noted in Interracial Books for Children (Vol. 5, No. 5, 1974): "By choosing the female pronoun for the all-giving tree and the male pronoun for the all-taking boy, it is clear that the author did indeed have a prototypical master / slave relationship in mind... How frightening that little boys and girls who read The Giving Tree will encounter this glorification of female selflessness and male selfishness."

    If I had never read Shel Silverstein, a quote like that would make me wonder just how misogynist he was. But having read and taught several of his poems, I think I could safely say that he was just writing a book about giving. Maybe I am wrong, but how many people have used this book to teach the meaning of giving, I don't think they too many pay attention to this interpretation.

  • georgia_peach
    16 years ago

    I hate it when adults bring their political agendas and personal hangups to children's literature. I'm sure there are the rare exceptions when there really is a hidden agenda behind the story, but in most cases, particularly Cindy's example, it is what it is. Children's literature, especially anything more than 20 or 30 years old, is full of gender and racial stereotypes and biases. I guess we'll need to stop reading fairy tales, Aesop's fables, and The Arabian Nights. The list goes on and on.

    I haven't read The Giving Tree, but I have some of Silverstein's other books -- mainly the silly poetry. We love the silly poetry.

  • ginny12
    16 years ago

    My vote for truly bizarre interpretations goes to Bruno Bettelheim and his sexualized etc etc views of children's fairy tales. His book, The Uses of Enchantment, did a lot of damage. And we won't even go into his accusations against the mothers of autistic children. Autism, he said--and many believed for many years--was caused by women who didn't want their children and coldly refused to love them. What a guy.

  • thyrkas
    16 years ago

    georgia peach - This spring I memorized a poem by Silverstein. It is about Runny Babbit (Bunny Rabbit):

    Runny Bakes a Tath

    Runny had to bake a tath
    Before they'd sive him gupper.
    He got so tungry in the hub
    He ate the rat of mubber.
    He ate his rucker dubby up
    He ate boap subbles, too
    But what really made his mommy mad
    Was shrinking the dampoo.

    I hope there is no room for bizarre interpretaions in it!

  • veer
    16 years ago

    georgia, I must agree with you on the critics who find fault with children's books/authors and look for meanings that clearly were never there.
    Here in the UK the books by Enid Blyton are a good example. They all stick to a simple formula and no great demands are made on the reader but it is said that over 400 million of her books have been sold world-wide; and she died in the late '60's. Yet for many years they were banned from public libraries for several quite daft reasons.
    Her 'Famous Five' and other adventure series featured middle class children.
    Her 'Noddy' series for younger children, about a group of toys, was hammered for having 'baddy/anti-hero' golliwog characters that show Blyton to be a rascist, Noddy and his chum Big Ears were physically handicapped and not shown in a positive light and horror of horrors they shared both a car and a bed, presumably with no chapter being given over to safe sex between consenting toy box characters. "Watch where you're putting that bell Little Noddy."
    These days the diet police would ban her books because of the huge number of cream buns and the lashings of ginger beer that are consumed . . . so bad for the teeth and no mention of '5 a Day' portions of fruit and veg.

    An interesting article below from the Sydney Morning Herald.

    Here is a link that might be useful: Enid Blyton

  • bookmom41
    16 years ago

    Ugh, Bruno Bettelheim...

    On NPR this morning, author Richard Halpern, a prof at Johns Hopkins, was interviewd about his book The Underside of Innocence. His premise is that Norman Rockwell's work is highly sexualized and anything but innocent. He made a few valid points, but most of it seemed to say more about Halpern and his reaching for symbolism (open bag = part of a woman's genitals) then about sexual imagery in the works. After all, as the saying goes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • martin_z
    16 years ago

    What a super essay! (At the risk of sounding like an Enid Blyton character.)

    I loved Enid Blyton. Funny, my daughter read one or two and got bored. She loves Jaqueline Wilson.

    I'll keep that and send it round to some of my sniffier friends.

  • kkay_md
    16 years ago

    This discussion brought to mind a book I love, Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier." My view of the narrator is that he is extremely deceptive and twists his account to garner as much sympathy for himself as possible, altering facts and coloring them in the most repulsive fashion. I despise him (and delight in doing so). It's a terrific novel, incredibly absorbing.

    Anyway, I have read this book with 2 different book groups, and both times my view has been seen as utterly missing the point of the story, and completely off the mark--everyone else seems to see the narrator as a naive and innocent victim.

    So, I have come to accept (reluctantly) that I have a "bizarre interpretation" of the story, and it's a lonely position to be in! I had wanted to read it a second time with a second book group, convinced that they would see the tale in the same way I did--I was astonished that they had the same reaction as the first group did! So I have not foisted the book on anyone else. I remain as convinced as ever that the narrator is a terrible man, but maybe I should just shut up now, and be reconciled to my lonely position.

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    kkay, I've been in that position before, so I commiserate! I haven't read that book, but I've read others where I am totally out of sinc with the rest of the crowd. As I usually say, its all in who you are and where you are coming from, so I know its all a matter of perspective. But you are right, sometimes it is rather lonely!

    Oh don't get me started on kids fairy tales, or tv shows for that matter. There was a portion of a children's show on PBS a year ago that showed two women sitting at a table, talking to a young child. It was 'apparent' that the women were roomates, and according to some people, 'apparent' that they were gay. PBS was forced to toss that portion off of the program. Huh? Same for the kid books; you can find anything you want to in any story, if you decide you want to find it. If you read it as a story, you wouldn't even bat an eye.

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    Her 'Famous Five' and other adventure series featured middle class children.So according to the lights of the disdainers, only upper class children should have adventures? I never read Enid Blyton, and I realize there's a cultural divide, but I can't quite wrap my mind around this objection.

    We do have snootier types of librarians, teachers, and parents who react with horror over any kind of kids' series -- ours being Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, and Trixie Belden when I was a kid, and such things as the Goosebumps books when my boys were in school. I allowed my sons to buy and read several dozen of the latter, simply because they got a kick out of the slightly scary adventure stories, which seemed harmless enough to me. At the time I had an acquaintance (I won't call her a friend) who curled her lip and sniffed that she would never let her children read such garbage. I quite cheerfully did let her kids read Goosebumps books when they came over to play with mine -- they not only read 'em, they devoured 'em.

    Re The Good Soldier: Isn't the narrator famously unreliable? It's been decades since I read it, but I seem to recall that that was rather the whole point: he was conning the reader, in effect. So, kkay, I think I would agree with you and not your reading group.

    I've probably had divergent -- perhaps bizarre -- interpretations, myself, at times. There was a poster at Salon years ago that I seemed to annoy, tremendously. She was a George Eliot expert (wrote her thesis on her, or something), so she flat-out told me that my opinion of why Maggie Tulliver loved her brother, though he was cruel to her, was wrong. Excuse me, lady, I know a thing or two about sister-brother relationships, since I have two brothers of my own. She wouldn't have it, saying that George Eliot intended something else, and she was the authority and I wasn't.

  • veer
    16 years ago

    re middle class children. The general trend in the UK among the so-called intelligentsia (aka Guardian Readers :-)) of the 60's-80's was that Middle Class=Bad Working Class=Good.
    Books about children from homes with two parents, especially if Mummy stayed there to take care of the family and Daddy left for a tidy job in an office were treated with some scorn.
    Life must be shown to be tough and gritty. If I had a pound for every time I have heard someone say "My Dad/Uncle/Grandfather was a miner and is as good as you" I would be well-off. Inverted snobbery was rife in those days.
    Of course most of the authors of the time wrote of the homes they were familiar with and when 'the poor' were used in a story it was probably as the child of a servant such as Dickon in The Secret Garden, or Tom the little chimney sweep from the Water Babies.
    I think by the time my children were at school a team of so-called working class writers were employed to churn out 'class readers' featuring sad kids living in slums, or on run-down Council estates with a harassed teenage Mother and multi-coloured siblings, living on fish and chips washed down with pop. I remember one that featured a 'tattooed lady' with a heavily illustrated text. Nothing could have been further from the country life they knew.
    A book also came out in the 80's? featuring a little girl who had 'two daddies' with a cover drawing of her in bed between the two guys; but maybe that's a step too far for this discussion . . .
    Frieda, I can think of almost no children's books featuring 'upper class' kids except for Little Lord Fauntleroy. Of course, over here that term implies aristocratic connections, not loads of money . . . I think it may be different in the US.

  • Chris_in_the_Valley
    16 years ago

    As a college freshman I had an instructor with whom I agreed about nothing. The personality conflict was very educational as I would hit the library and read critical essays of all the works we read in her class to give myself ammunition. I was particularly delighted once to find a writer himself disagreed with her interpretation. She replied that the author of a piece was the last person one should go to for the meaning of a work. That was the point at which I realized that all art was a mirror that told us more about ourselves than about the work.

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    Ah, Vee, I think I understand now about the middle class thing. Yeah, the same thing has happened over here regarding children's books and young adult books, especially. Starting about 1970, you could predict that the major awards would be given to ethnic writers or stories about ethnicities besides WASPs (even if written by WASPs, but preferably not). Even better would be non-WASP writers AND stories about social problems and difficult life experiences. I suppose the inclusion of groups that had long been excluded and the leveling of the playing field, along with some more difficult topics, was justifiable, but it wasn't long before these elements became as predictable as the old stuff. Frankly, in my opinion, this rotational award business -- last year was an Indian's year, this year is a South African's turn -- hasn't necessarily improved the quality of the product awarded.

    Chris, I was always a difficult student, too. If I had kept my opinions to myself and hadn't resorted to debate with some professors, I probably would have got better marks. Professors who irked me most were the ones who expected regurgitation of the exact phraseology they used. I learned to do it, but I always loathed it.

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    Cindy, do you remember the "Hemingway Wars" at Salon? I think they carried over to Readerville, too. No writer seems to get feminists' dander up as much as Hemingway. Judith G (a writer and frequent poster) railed on and on about how could any woman read, much less enjoy, Hemingway? She was nearly apoplectic in her derision of The Sun Also Rises. I've forgotten exactly what made her livid, but it seemed to be something that many women readers share with her. I've run across the hatred of Hemingway many times since, but it still perplexes me. Yeah, I know Hemingway was arrogant and full of his "manliness" sometimes, but I have my doubts that he was as misogynist as some say. He obviously respected Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach, and he wrote admiringly of Kiki. Do you recall or have you encountered the Hemingway hatred and have you any insight about it?

    Aside to Vee: Is your e-mail working?

  • veer
    16 years ago

    I wish I could say something knowledgeable about Hemingway but his work is not studied at school/college level over here, although I'm sure in his day he was popular.
    I often wonder what it is about matcho men and their relationships with either clingy 'little women' types on one hand or tough butch females on the other.
    I remember from College days there was always a group of female students who just had to be seen with the captain of the rugby/football/hockey team. This 'real man' would more or less ignore his 'date' spending the evening with his 'mates'. The frilly little girl type would flash her teeth and eyelashes and giggle at his jokes, the tough one would match the guys pint by pint and try and talk sport.
    The hero guy lapped up all this attention, treated the women badly and seemed to enjoy the company of his men friends more. This I think may be an English thing.
    Btw Martha Gellhorn had a cottage in the woods just a few miles from us.

    Frieda, I think my emails are getting through, although I know some people here have been having trouble. Yours seem to have gone up in smoke.

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    >Cindy, do you remember the "Hemingway Wars" at Salon?

    I got a whiff of it when I started Table Talk. I know there were many battles about it but not having read much of Hemingway I pretty much stayed out of it. Interestingly it did spill over to Readerville, not with the woman posters, but posters like Martin, John Matthews, and Jacob, for reasons I never quite understood. I certainly have no insight; It took me a long time to pick up allegory, and a long time to pick up on an author's agenda. It has to be pretty blatant for me to notice. So I am the last person to ask!

    I also have some trouble with giving modern interpretations to older classics. I had a teacher that railed against the racism in Huck Finn. I hadn't read it since I was a kid, so I reread it. Oh come on - it was written in the 1800s, and Twain if nothing else was being satirical in his portrait of his characters hypocrisies. A novel is not in and of itself racist if it uses a few words that are not kosher. And yet thats what people use to try to ban the book, one that I think is one of the best and earliest examples of Modern American Literature written.

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    The hero guy lapped up all this attention, treated the women badly and seemed to enjoy the company of his men friends more. This I think may be an English thing.Nah, Vee, there are equivalent types the world over, I'm afraid. It's probably just as well that Hemingway wasn't/isn't studied at schools in the UK -- I can't quite imagine very many English academics cottoning to EH; heck, American academics -- of the past thirty or so years -- don't seem very enthusiastic about his writing, though many will grudgingly admit that he profoundly affected the American style of writing. I figure he's just not fashionable anymore, during this age of opaque postmodern and post-postmodern darlings.

    It's interesting, I think, that Hemingway's famous terse style wasn't so evident in his first drafts, but it was his famous editor (whose name I can't think of at the moment) who instigated the cut-it-to-the-bare-bones method of storytelling. Hemingway embraced the recommendation and made it his signature. But he was perfectly capable of lovely description and it's not true that he eschewed adjectives and adverbs. There's a passage in A Farewell to Arms that I think is stunningly beautiful in its descriptiveness -- I wish I could quote it but after a prefunctory 'net search I didn't find it. I think that a lot of Hemingway naysayers base their opinions on those of other naysayers, and not what they actually know or have read of his work...if they've read anything.

    As you've probably already deduced, I like what I've read of Hemingway very much. His machismo doesn't really bother me an awful lot, but it apparently does many women readers -- probably as much as some forms of feminism grate on male readers' nerves.

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    Drat! Half of my post above -- my response to Cindy -- disappeared. Vee, maybe this indicates that the e-mail snafu is all on my end. If I can't get anything through to you, let me tell you here that I've been trying since I sent something to you around the first of September.

    Heh! I had forgotten the Martin, John, and Jacob debates on Hemingway. I don't remember either what they were all about, but those three could always get very involved.

    Talk about getting involved: re Huckleberry Finn: Do you recall when Jane Smiley was a guest at Readerville and the article she wrote for Harper's was discussed? She claimed that Huck doesn't deserve its "canonization" in American literature, and she blames Ernest Hemingway -- among other white male authors -- for propagandizing it into popularity. What Ms Smiley doesn't/didn't seem to recognize or acknowledge is that there were plenty of readers before, and since, Hemingway who have loved Huck because it's an entertaining tale and they're not hung up on how everything in Twain -- or in any other classic book -- has to relate to today's sensibilities.
    A novel is not in and of itself racist if it uses a few words that are not kosher.It's a peculiar myopia that crops up too often, doesn't it? I'm reminded of those readers who are offended by Betty MacDonald's insensitivities toward Native Americans, the "physically and mentally challenged," and chickens. They don't like that she lived and thought and expressed herself like those of her own time.

  • vickitg
    16 years ago

    Frieda -- Hemingway's editor was Max Perkins. I just happened to read a piece about him today in the Authors Guild spring bulletin. He also edited F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Apparently, Look Homeward Angel was over one million words long before Perkins got hold of it. According to Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg, Perkins was a terrible speller. Fitzerald's This Side of Paradise had more than 100 typographical errors. You could probably find that in the first chapter of many of today's novels. :)

    Many critics "savaged" The Great Gatsby when it was published. One critic called it a trivial mystery novel and another told Perkins "That new book by your enfant terrible is really terrible."

    Sorry - that was a little off topic, but I thought it was interesting.

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    >Do you recall when Jane Smiley was a guest at Readerville and the article she wrote for Harper's was discussed?

    Yes and remembered being rather shocked at her attitude. I dunno, maybe because I fell in love with Twain's writing at an early age, but his books are really American novels, and his works show an America at that time that was turning into the one we have today. There is a reason why he was so popular - indeed because readers of his own time flocked to his books, and they have continued to be popular a hundred odd years later. Blaming Hemingway for that is just weird (and I never cared for Smiley anyway. I had to read 1000 Acres for a book club and resented it horribly. Tried to read another one and couldn't finish it)

    That myopia seems to cross cultures. I have Jewish friends who will not read certain books because of what they might deem as antisemetic. What people forget is that whatever the offense, it is part of the general story, and they need to look at it as a whoel - how is that offense part of what the author is saying? Often the author is bashing the very offense that these people take offense at - if you get what I mean.

  • georgia_peach
    16 years ago

    I think sometimes people forget that books are often thought experiments, and can even be a reflection of an author's fears as opposed to a position they advocate. I often like books that ask hard questions, even when I don't like the author's solution or ideology. I also feel strongly that fiction -- particularly speculative fiction -- should be a place where you can entertain thoughts you could never act upon in real life.

    I also think in the internet age we are even more in danger of letting reputation lead us to false, misleading -- or at best, exaggerated -- conclusions about a person. I often debate with myself how much I should really know about an author's personal life. So much of a person's public persona gets confused for the private one. I do think knowing a little about an author's background can help inform us, but I don't think we should draw the conclusion that we can really know a person, simply because we read about them, or read their blog, etc. Too many things are anecodtal and get taken out of context.

    Hemingway always struck me as someone whose reputation tainted how people viewed his work, and I like to separate my opinions of a person's public persona from their works, if at all possible. Even though he may not be fashionable within certain circles these days, I think many seasoned and successful authors still study him as a superior stylist and credit his works as an influence.

  • Chris_in_the_Valley
    16 years ago

    I'd never read Hemingway until late in life, perhaps because of his macho reputation. I was on one of my regular but never to be sustained, attempts to read all the classics, and picked up The Old Man and the Sea. I love that novel. I became caught up in a focused adrenaline rush that took me out of time and body and put me in the boat for the entire trip. Joseph Campbell describes it as being in a "zone," a perhaps spiritual state of being. I continued my love of Hemingway through his short stories, and then read, The Sun Also Rises. The short bits of dialog, sans speaker ID, ruined it for me. I would reread again and again trying to figure out who said what and was taken into that world where one knows one is reading a novel, a classic, and loses all sense of intimacy with the story. I didn't read him again until my bookclub picked For Whom the Bell Tolls which I both loved and which made me angry. He tells a wonderful story, but is totally clueless in the writing of nubile women. His greatest depiction is of Pilar, the matriarch of the guerrillas. My own bizarre interpretation is that Hemingway struggled mightily with expectations. He seemed to never check in on his own feelings which make me think he feared them. His only true portrait is of an older woman whose sexuality did not threaten him.

    And now I want to go read some more Hemingway that I've missed. I cannot really hate a man who loved Key West.

  • woodnymph2_gw
    16 years ago

    As Georgia wrote above, I, too, believe in separating the author's public and /or private persona from their actual works. I know that T.S. Eliot was horribly anti-semitic, Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, and Hemingway insulted a great many of his friends.I could go on here with many other examples). But I respect the genius of all three and read their works for pleasure.

  • veer
    16 years ago

    A good point Mary, it can be difficult, once you have heard some dreadful fact about someone to feel quite the same towards their work, however laudable it would be to rise above it.
    I'm sure Dickens many lady 'fans' would not have been pleased to know that he was a serial womaniser and treated his wife very badly or that E M Forster had a penchant for little boys.

    Frieda, I sent you an email this morning (our time).

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    >believe in separating the author's public and /or private persona from their actual works

    ditto. I am rarely if ever interested in the private life of any one in entertainment, and wonder at how often the headlines blare out something about someone's life that I really don't think is any of my business. So its unlikely I know much about the authors I am reading unless someone tells me. If I was to decide on my reads based on the sainthood status of the author, I'd never read. Same with movies - I know people hate Woody Allen and will never watch his movies. I am sorry for them, they miss some really good art.

    Then again, I will not pay a dime to watch any Polanski movie. So I am not always constant with my blinders on :)

  • friedag
    Original Author
    16 years ago

    You all make excellent points about separating the writer's work from the writer. I am able to do it some times, but other times I can't.

    Re Polanski, the director: I wish that I knew little or nothing about him because I do think his Chinatown and Tess are superb films, and there are others of his that I admire.

    Max Perkins, yes. Thank you, sarah canary. Raw talent does need direction, so a good editor can be almost as important as the creator -- in other words, the relationship is symbiotic and in this way Perkins was a genius. There are other editors, though, who can take over a work so there's room for doubt as to who did the creating. Some question how much Carver was left in a Raymond Carver story after Gordon Lish imposed his editing style. It probably happens a lot, but we don't usually hear about it.

    Cindy, what do you think of Cynthia Ozick's contention that Anne Frank's diary should never have been published? She makes some valid points in her essay (in Question & Quandary, I think), but I simply cannot wish that Anne's story never came to light. It means so much and reaches so many because it is so personal. When I first read Ozick's take, I did think it was bizarre, perhaps because I simply had never thought of it in that way.

  • laceyvail 6A, WV
    16 years ago

    A little off topic here, but several months ago someone in the news stated, perhaps in a book, that Abraham Lincoln was gay, the "proof" being that he slept in the same bed for two years with a friend.

    The author apparently understood so little about history that he didn't realize how scarce and valuable beds and bedding were in those days, even if you weren't on the frontier. People of all sorts--even strangers at inns--shared beds regularly, unless they preferred to sleep on the floor.

    People can generally see what they want to see.

  • cindydavid4
    16 years ago

    >Cindy, what do you think of Cynthia Ozick's contention that Anne Frank's diary should never have been published

    I remember that discussion; I was rather shocked by her idea, and still am. IIRC she was also the one who suggested that books about the holocaust shouldn't be written by non Jews. Such an idea is so bizarre to me, yet I know other people in other minorities have said similar. I don't agree - and I don't think I've read anything else by her since.

  • Chris_in_the_Valley
    16 years ago

    LaceyVeil, speaking of sharing beds, much of my middle school (Juntior High in my generation) fantasy life involved the use of the bundling boards I'd just learned about. ;-)

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