In Defense of the Screaming Fangirl

So this movie came out this weekend.

It’s based on a book written by a guy called John Green, and if you haven’t heard of him by now, you apparently live under an even larger boulder than my parents. (For reference, my mom gets her news from a mashup of Good Morning America and push notifications from USA Today; my dad is significantly more internet-savvy, but hasn’t read a fiction book since high school.)

Yes, yes, like everyone else on the internet, I’m talking about The Fault in Our Stars.

I’m not actually going to talk about the movie, because I haven’t seen it yet. (I’m going on Monday, I promise.) No, if you’ve got like ten minutes, I’d really like to talk about all the screaming, crying girls who are absolutely in love with this book’s author.

HERE’S THE PROBLEM:

Last week, I was volunteering at BookExpo America, and I was lucky enough to have a little time off to go see John Green’s panel. I didn’t see the clip that launched the session off, as I was still outside helping to herd the last several hundred fans into the auditorium (while simultaneously refusing a bribe from a whispering, middle-aged librarian who was wide-eyed with desperation). In fact, I didn’t even know that the presentation started with a clip. I couldn’t hear it over the screaming.

No, really.

And then, later, when John walked onto the stage. And when he said something funny. Or like, when he said something.

More screaming.

Then, on Thursday night, one of my friends went to a The Night Before Our Stars event, which was basically an early screening followed by a video chat Q&A with John Green. She had dragged her boyfriend along, knowing that the event would be much more teenager-y and girly and teary than he was expecting.

Still, even she was caught off guard. “I didn’t expect there to be quite so many actual teenagers,” she texted me. “We’re easily the oldest non-parents here.”

Later, after they’d seen the film, she texted me again to say how wonderful it was and how, contrary to all his expectations based on the age and gender of the screaming masses, the boyfriend thought it was “really, really good.”

I remember feeling annoyance.

For all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. I was annoyed at the girls. The little ones, the pretty ones, the crying ones, the ones who also love Twilight or who got really into TFiOS after finding out that Tris and her brother (a.k.a. Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort) were going to be the romantic leads, the ones who screamed so loud I couldn’t hear John Green at BEA.

Let me repeat that: I was annoyed at the girls. I wished that the people who showed up to TFiOS events weren’t just silly little teenage fangirls, because then maybe John Green would be thought of as something other, something more, than a “teen whisperer.” Then maybe the book would be appreciated as something more than just YA.

^^^ I wish I could unthink those thoughts. But more than that, I wish that I — who consider myself an educated, liberal woman and practically a feminist by default — was incapable of the kind of sexist thoughts that occupy the above paragraphs.

But I’m not. We live in a society that taught us to think that way. Just like glitter and the color pink, YA (or really any book with a girl on the cover) is for silly little girls. And that’s just not fair. Because yes, TFiOS is about a girl. And there’s a cute boy and kissing and apparently that’s girly stuff. (Though to be honest, the straight 15-year-old boys of the world could learn a lot from Augustus and Isaac.) But there’s also travel and sex and disappointment and cancer and heartbreak and life and death — and that’s everyone stuff.

So what I really wish is that all those girls screaming wouldn’t put the book and its author in a category, especially a category that means boys and men (and women over the age of 16) will think less of themselves for reading it. (And they will be encouraged to think just that: check out the piece from Slate called “Against YA”.) And since I can’t figure out a way to change socialized norms, I guess I sort of end up gritting my teeth and wishing they’d shut. up. They end up being the face of a book I care about and that’s full of things that have meaning, but the world writes them —and therefore it — off as silly.

The solution, quite clearly, is to stop being sexist and to realize that teenagers are mentally and emotionally complex. Stop writing them off and then stop writing the books off. But if that’s too hard, let’s start with the books.

WHY THE BOOKS TEENAGE GIRLS LOVE CAN’T BE SILLY:

A fact that’s hard to deny: you can tell a lot about a person by their bookshelf.

Why? Because the books people love are the books that fill holes in their souls. They’re the books that echo back some sort of truth out of the void. And it’s not just the happily-ever-afters of YA romances. This is true of all books, so don’t try to go all lit-snob on me. Your favorite book is A Tale of Two Cities? I raise you “‘Tis a far, far better thing that I do…” and suggest you find somewhere to volunteer.

Okay, so I’ll give you that a lot of books written for teens contain certain clichés:

  • They have romance
  • They have a (possibly way too super awesome, but often female) hero
  • They have a character who “finds herself”
  • They have magic
  • They have ridiculously crazy fight scenes considering they’re about teens
  • They possibly have weird dystopian settings

These repeated tropes are not a bad thing! These are the things that echo back from the void for teens: finding love, finding independence, finding yourself, finding hope, finding strength, finding a way forward into the future.

This, my friends, is what the teenage girls of today are asking for!

If you’re what they call an “adult” — though who really ever feels all grown up? — then your daughters, nieces, students, and protégés are asking you these questions: How will I find the strength to go forward on my own? What will I do when you can’t guide me? How will I know love and what will I do when love stops? Who am I and how do I accept myself and love myself? What does the future bring?

If you’re a teenage boy, then your classmates, sisters, and friends are giving you these answers: I like boys who think. I like boys who wonder. I like boys who are kind. I like boys who tell me and show me that they love me. I like boys who don’t give up even when I’m too confused about who I am to have the space in my heart to be good to someone else. (And yes, sometimes that last one is overwritten and the relationship comes across as too persistent. But the girls want loyalty, not stalkers, and so loyalty is what echoes back at them.)

These girls might not want to sit you down and ask any old adult these questions. That’s part of independence, after all: figuring things out on our own and finding the people we relate to, whose answers make sense.

For a lot of young girls out there, John Green’s answers make sense.

Plus, as a bonus, he’s an approachable, rather handsome, kind of shy sort of gentleman who is clearly clever, who clearly wonders, who shows them with every video, every book, every thoughtful answer that yes yes yes he does love them.

(At the BEA event:
Fangirl: Can you tell us anything about the next book?
John: I cannot. But if you look me in the eye and ask me to work harder on it, I can assure you I will.
Fangirl: I demand that you work harder.
John: Okay.
Fangirl: Okay.)

That’s not silly.

What’s wonderful about the world today is that so-called silly young girls can find each other on the internet, and there they can claim YA as their own, share it with their own, and wear words like “fangirl” and “nerdfighter” like badges of honor and courage.

What’s terrible about the world today is that no one except girls ages nine to nineteen wants to admit they read the same things as girls ages nine to nineteen. It’s either “girly” or “childish” — one argument is a social construct and the other is stupid: who do you know whose emotional life is richer or more complex than your teenage daughter’s? But yes, sure, sure, I’ll concede that young girls should read the classics or books about older characters as well as their YA. Perspective is good.

WHY WOMEN SHOULD READ BOOKS GIRLS LOVE:

1. Perspective is good. Just like teens should read so-called adult books, so-called adults should read books shelved in YA.

2. Speaking of perspective, who really decides what shelves book belong on anyways? I mean, yes, editors are trying to sell to a certain audience and authors usually have their readers in mind as they write… but if books didn’t have that little label printed on the corner of the jacket (“Young Adult,” or even worse, “Juvenile Fiction”), would the world end?

No. Probably not. We might, however, be a little bit more open-minded about what we read. We might not smut-shame things in the romance section or make overly optimistic assumptions about the quality of novels that get put on the “Literature” shelf because they don’t have elves or spaceships or detectives or teens or graphic sex and there therefore isn’t really anywhere else to put them.

As an example, I wandered into my local Barnes & Noble recently and was checking out the Teen Fantasy and Adventure shelf when I happened across an addition to the Brandon Sanderson titles.

I did a double take.

Now Brandon does write YA, but I would know if there was something new out. There wasn’t. In fact, the “new” thing on the shelf was actually something old: Mistborn, one of his early fantasy books. It’s been over in SF/Fantasy for years. In retrospect, it does have a lot of YA things: a strong girl protagonist who’s a heroine and a thief, as well as magic, battles, romance, and a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. It’s a bit longer than a YA book usually is, but with the makeover they gave the cover, I suspect it’ll fit right in.

Fantasy cover. Clearly.

This year’s new paperback release by the Tor Teen imprint.

It’s a genre jumper, just like all those classics done up with Twilight-esque covers in the last few years, and hopefully it will find a whole new audience on the YA shelf. The question is: if they were originally written as YA, would we have let these titles jump the other way?

And if we hadn’t, would we have ever read them?

3. Once upon a time, you were a girl, and I can promise you that somewhere, she is still in there. The reasons that today’s fangirls read and read and read books that seem to say the same things again and again is that there is no one complete and total answer to any of the Big Questions. We spend the rest of our lives answering them.

A beautiful excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.

Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

Even though you’re all grown up, you’re still asking the questions. And these books… they still have answers.

4. This is the feminist bit.

The history of the novel begins with women who wrote because they imagined a better life. Or, if not a better life, at least a different one, one where they were better equipped to take on life.

Think about Jane Austen. We love her stories, her characters, but most of all, we love her forward-thinking ideal of romantic love in a practical age. It’s that ideal that appeals to us even to this day. But Austen herself never married. Her books imagined a world in which women could be Elizabeth Bennets and still live happily-ever-after, instead of a reality where women often took either the path of Charlotte Lucas or the path of Caroline Bingley (who I ‘ve sometimes imagined lived to be an old maid after she couldn’t win Darcy).

She shouted into the void and her readers still hear her echoing voice.

But in her time, nothing changed.

What if we read the books our girls (and by our girls, I mean the ones ten years younger than us, the ones who read YA now but who will look up to us when they’re college graduates and young professionals and wonder why we didn’t do anything to fix the problems in the world) love and we figure it out? What if we can find the echoes, find what matters, what worries them… and what if we can change their worlds?

What if we can’t, you ask? Then there is at least one small favor we owe them.

We owe it to them to stand beside them and say, “The things you care about aren’t silly. There is meaning in them. Love them and seize them and work for them. Believe in them and make them happen. Scream and cry and never shut up, not for anything, not for anyone.”

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Lizzie’s Back!

I wasn’t really Twittery enough last year to know about the #TwitterFiction Festival. This year, I am. And I’m really intrigued! I like seeing fiction happen in a new medium — and in a medium as restrictive as this one, it will be so cool to see what the authors are able to do! There’s nothing harder than writing short fiction, and this is the ultimate of short fiction (excepting perhaps that quirky little genre known as the six-word story). It’ll be like making a diamond, right? We could see some really excellent writing emerge under such rigid writing rules.

I’m also pleased to see Twitter accepting and engaging with the fictional world, after the disastrous suspension of some of the Emma Approved Twitter accounts last year. Maybe it wasn’t a conscious decision to shut down accounts without real people behind them, but it certainly felt targeted to the fans of a group of people who were revolutionizing the way we tell a story and the way a reader/viewer/user (we don’t have the right vocabulary for this kind of storytelling yet and that’s so cool!) experiences that story.

All that said, I’ve been a bit puzzled about how exactly this festival works. And about the summaries for some of these stories.

For instance: “Over 35 collaborators playing word games in Italian to rewrite the poetry of @PaveseCesare on Twitter”?

Yeah, I don’t really know what that means. It sounds contrived.

“The erotic inner life of Mr. Bates from Downton Abbey, revealed by @anthonyfmarra”?

Um, thanks but no thanks.

But, “The rise and fall of Anne Boleyn from the POV of her dog, voiced by @LizFremantle”? Sign me up! “@tommycm is taking you on a choose-your-own-adventure night out in London”? I only wish I could join him IRL! “@benjamin_percy writes a meta horror story for the digital era that is literally coming for you”? Eek, I can’t wait!

And…

DRUMROLL PLEASE!

You guys  — Lizzie’s back!

The one, the only, @TheLizzieBennet has returned for the festival, bringing along chaos (oh, and Charlotte, Jane, Darcy, and the marvelous Lydia that the Lizzie Bennet Diaries taught us to love.) We may not get videos, but it almost doesn’t matter. I can hear their voices in the way they tweet and it does make me so happy to see them back.

This is so cute!

This past summer at SPI, the magazine brands were always going on about the 360-degree experience. They wanted to offer their readers every kind of medium and immerse them by bringing the brand into every part of their world.

They should take lessons from LBD. Really, they should. For a year, the LBD was everywhere: it was on my Facebook, my Tumblr, my Twitter. I could read it, yes, but I also got face time. Lizzie and Lydia and Jane and Fitz and Charlotte and Darcy and Gigi became my friends the same way that people on podcasts start to feel like your friends: I spent enough time with them to develop inside jokes and to know the tones of their voices. And unlike a book, it was realtime. It felt like it was happening. It was like I had grown up reading Pride & Prejudice and wishing that someday I could meet Lizzie and be friends with her. And then she walked into my life.

The LBD was like getting a letter from Hogwarts with a bent edge from being lost in the mail or like finding a dragon’s egg in the woods behind my house after a particularly portentous thunderstorm. Something I always expected to happen, but never thought would happen.

Readers like to joke about this:

With LBD, it wasn’t a joke. It felt that real.

Eventually, of course, the story ended. But sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. Sometimes it feels like some of my friends just got really busy and forgot to respond to my texts.

And hey, that happens!

I don’t mind.

Just don’t do it again.

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Let’s Talk Brandon Sanderson

My brother and I are both readers, but we are different kinds of readers: I rip through books, while he plows through them, slow and steady. I read anything and everything I can get my hands on, but he doesn’t waste his time on unproven books: he insists that I find him something SF or fantasy that I can guarantee is good. I prefer to give him epics, if only because it means it’ll be a little while before he comes back demanding another well-researched, fool-proof recommendation.

Harry Potter, the Inheritance Cycle, The Hunger Games, an assortment of King Arthur retellings, and a selection of the books off my own shelves all served him well enough, but it was with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series that I truly struck gold. For two long years, his birthday gifts and Christmas gifts were easy… and then the Wheel of Time came grinding to a halt and the reading material ran out.

Fortunately, though, the Wheel of Time also brought us Brandon Sanderson (the writer who took over the series after Robert Jordan died). And so this summer, at BEA, I acquired as much Brandon Sanderson as I could find — including an autographed copy of The Rithmatist.

I could kind of kick myself now, honestly. I stood face to face with Brandon Sanderson, having read absolutely none of his work myself and having done next-to-no research on him, and squandered a perfectly good chance for an excellent conversation with a really cool writer. Hindsight, right?

Long story short, I’m excited about a book.

It’s called Words of RadianceIt’s the second installment in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasy cycle The Stormlight Archive. It’s coming out tomorrow. And I won’t be reading it.

I mean, eventually, of course, I will. “Eventually,” though, is a little ways away. I’m currently racing through A Dance with Dragons and when I’m done with that I have a pile of eight or so library books waiting for me and then there’s the fact that I’m still working my way through the rest of my Sanderson stack.

(This man does not mess around. He writes. And he writes fast. Every time you think you have your hands on the newest Sanderson book, you start to hear whispers of the next one. As for me, I’m due to start the second book of the Mistborn trilogy next.)

But even though I don’t have immediate plans to read Words of Radiance, I’m still excited about it. In a world of authors who often — inadvertently, I’m sure — sacrifice quality for deadlines, Sanderson’s work is a breath of fresh air because, as often as it appears, it is reliably good. I’ve been feeding my brother a steady diet of Sanderson since June and he has yet to complain.

A Brandon Sanderson novel feels masterful and deft. It’s full of relentlessly innovative world-building, but without headache-inducing info dumps or bendy rules that obediently and conveniently serve the plot. It has likable characters who do and say stupid and mean and petty things along with clever and valiant and noble ones. It has dangerous women. It pushes past the limits, takes a problem and makes it worse, goes beyond what might have been the ending and asks, “What now?”

But even better than writing well, Sanderson speaks well about writing. He has a podcast called “Writing Excuses” and posts the weekly lectures from his course on writing scifi and fantasy at BYU on YouTube.

Fine! I admit it! At this particular moment in time, I’m a Brandon Sanderson fangirl. BUT! I think anyone who likes storytelling has to find this article worthwhile. I’ll save my thoughts about the length of epic fantasy novels and their narrative structure for another day. (I started to type them out and then got a little overwhelmed by how long this post was getting.) But when I read this article I was struck most particularly by Sanderson’s comments on what Words of Radiance is.

“[It] is a trilogy,” he says. “[It] is a short story collection… [It] is an art book.”

Genre fiction is so often disparaged by people who make their living (or more likely, fail to make their living) in the world of literary fiction. But reading this piece made me feel so inspired, because if there’s one thing I love more than stories themselves, it’s thinking about storytelling as a craft. I have nothing against the James Pattersons and John Greens of the world. J. K. Rowling taught a generation to read. HBO and George R. R. Martin have made epic fantasy mainstream. But Sanderson wants to go further:  “I want to push the idea of what it means to be an epic fantasy, even a novel, if I can,” he says. So here’s to hoping that Words of Radiance is proof that commercial success and innovative storytelling can mingle, that genre novels destined to be reprinted as mass market paperbacks can also be pieces of art to be considered, admired, and incorporated into the storytelling of the future.

To Brandon and his book: good luck tomorrow!

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Two Years Ago In Scotland

Arthur's Seat

Two years ago today, I climbed this volcano. Missing the UK, as always.

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland

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E-book Envy

All right, so here’s one thing e-books have going for them.

It’s 12:04 on a Tuesday morning, and I’m quite sure that there are plenty of happy fans out there reading their pre-ordered books.

(Yup, this is about Cress again.)

As for me? Well, I wanted the physical book, but I’m too cheap to buy it at a physical store. Barnes & Noble doesn’t do same-day delivery. So I bought it on Amazon. (I know, I know.)

I’ve been checking the tracking online all day, and I’m optimistic that it will arrive sometime later today. I have to admit, though, there was part of me that was counting down to midnight.

And that part’s rather jealous of the early birds and their e-readers.

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Books Belong to Their Readers

Tonight, the internet is all abuzz about the love life of our very favorite know-it-all bookworm: the one, the only, Hermione Jean Granger, who — according to the much-debated epilogue of the Harry Potter books — marries Ron Weasley and gives him a pair of kids named Rose and Hugo.

According to the Sunday Times, however, a recent interview of J.K. Rowling (by none other than Emma Watson) has revealed that Rowling’s not so sure Ron and Hermione would have worked out after all. She goes so far as to say that Hermione should have ended up with Harry and that if Hermione and Ron had gotten together, they would have needed “relationship counseling.”

Now, I’m not going to say she’s wrong.

Ron’s a volatile character at best, and a petty, vindictive one at his worst. He’s never had patience for Hermione or shown that he values her as anything other than a problem-solver and a homework-doer. A relationship between them seems riddled with problems right from the get-go. Maybe they could’ve made it work. But the massive body of fanfiction that starts with Ron doing something stupid and ends with Hermione with someone else suggests that many of the series’s most devoted have always had their doubts.

So while Jo’s probably right about them, it’s more than a little frustrating to hear her comments on them.

John Green tweeted this tonight:

And while it’s entirely possible that it’s not a response to Rowling’s comments, it also fits perfectly into a discussion about them. Because, really, Rowling’s a bit of a control freak.

Don’t get me wrong! I love her to death! I love her books, her characters, her invented world, her real-world causes. But the way writing a book works is that, eventually, you let the things you’ve written go. You send them off into the void, off to be read and interpreted and overanalyzed. And then they’re only kind of still yours.

Maybe it’s our fault. We kept asking her for more and more details. Tell us what happened to these characters, we said. What’s the origin story of that one? we asked. And she always had them! She knew exactly what happened to the characters, what their histories were, and their favorite foods, and their Patronuses.

But the thing about stories is that sometimes we don’t want all the answers. My creative writing professors always said that the end of a story should open up a whole new realm of possibility, should turn the piece on its head and offer up a different way to think about it — an ending should never, ever close a story down. As readers, we want to be left with a few loose ends, to toy with like a cat with a piece of string.  That’s what makes a book stick, what gives us a hangover, what keeps us thinking and imagining and loving it long after we’ve closed it and set it aside. If she wants to write a sequel series or a prequel series, fine! Then her word can be law. I’d love to see her explore another part of the Potter world! (For instance, I’m very much looking forward to Fantastic Beasts.) But if she’s not going to write more, then I don’t just want all the answers thrown at me like the key to a multiple choice test: all those As and Bs and Cs and Ds are meaningless without the context, without the stories that lead up them. If you, as an author, are not going to write another book, then surrender your characters to your readers’ imaginations.

I think that ultimately, that’s what was so frustrating about the epilogue to Deathly Hallows. Rowling knew the answers (who gets married, how many kids they have, where they work) and so she gave them to us. But they didn’t satisfy, because they closed the ending down. She drew us a picture in black-and-white where she could have left us a blank page — and then she told our imaginations to color within the lines.

So I’ll say it again: books ought to belong to their readers.

It takes remarkable courage to give a story away to a scary, faceless horde of readers. The characters, the world, the plot, the turns of phrase — they’re your children and you’re sending them out on their own. But once you do, they belong to everyone they meet. They belong to the people whose lives they’ve changed.

Like I said, I see the problems inherent in a Ron/Hermione relationship. And maybe I agree that they wouldn’t have worked out, that they would have been unhappy. But nonetheless, it is canon. It’s Han-shot-first. It’s what’s on the page. It’s what we’ve pondered over and worried at for years before finally deciding that, yes, it does makes sense. It’s what we’ve come to accept as the truth in this crazy world of falsehood that readers desperately, gleefully navigate every single day.

Don’t mess with it.

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One Week Until Cress!

Yup. I’m *that* excited about this book.

If you don’t know which book I’m talking about, then you must stop reading this blog post immediately and go pick up CinderIt’s (predictably enough) a retelling of  Cinderella, but in this version, she’s — SURPRISE! — a cyborg. And I’m kind of obsessed. Cinder and its sequel, Scarlet, (part of a four-part series called the Lunar Chronicles, written by Marissa Meyer) are everything romantic and adventurous that we expect from fairy tales. But they’re also a million times better, because they’re:

  1. Impeccably written.
  2. Beautifully intertwined.
  3. Set in an alternate future where Earth is being invaded by a species of not-quite-humans who live on the moon and are ruled by an evil queen. Cinderella’s a cyborg, Little Red flies a ship, and Rapunzel (soon to be introduced to the series as the title character in Cress) monitors Earth from a lonely satellite.

I read these books last winter. And then I reread them in November. And I’m going to read them again this week. I usually try my hardest to be objective about books, but right now I just can’t be with these. I love them, and when I reread them, I spend the next week walking around with a giant book hangover. The marketing campaign for Cress has been massive and engaging: they keep trying to pull me in and I just want to tell them, “Please stop teasing and give me the book!” (Don’t ask me how many contests I entered trying to win an ARC. The answer is embarrassing.)

The silver lining, though, is that Marissa Meyer is absolutely delightful. Her blog is relatable and consistently updated (yes, I stalk it), often featuring thoughts about her writing process and advice for other young writers. She isn’t shy about her past as a writer of Sailor Moon fanfiction and she participates regularly (and vigorously) in NaNoWriMo. She’s also generous with content, releasing chapters of her books online for free and uploading short stories that also take place in the Lunar Chronicles world.

I’m a fan.

Pre-ordered my copy weeks ago, so I could just twiddle my thumbs until it arrives, but fortunately I have plans to hold me over until next Tuesday.

  • Reread Cinder and Scarlet.
  • Stalk the blog and the tweets.
  • Read the posts Marissa is writing for the Cress blog tour.
  • Read the newest short story: The Little Android.
  • Cosplay.
  • Eat, shower, and sleep. At least a little bit.

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