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Author Spotlight: Charles Kastner

In honor of Black History Month, we interviewed author Charles Kastner who has written multiple books on the 1928 and 1929 ‘Bunion Derbies’. His most recent book on these transcontinental races, Race across America, focuses on the struggles of one of the few black racers participating in the derbies. Eddie ‘the Sheik’ Gardner ran through states that did everything except welcome him, yet persevered and inspired Black Americans throughout this journey.

Do you remember when you first learned about the ‘Bunion Derbies’? Did you learn about Eddie Gardner then as well, or did that come to light throughout your years of research?  

My introduction to the Bunion Derbies began while my father-in-law lay dying in a hospital bed in Seattle—a sad start to a topic that would occupy my time for the next twenty-two years. He told me about a footrace he remembered from his childhood that started in Port Townsend and finished in Port Angeles, Washington, a race distance of about fifty miles. At first, his statement seemed hard to believe: I had no idea that people were competing at the ultra-marathon distances so long ago.  

Several months after his death, I traveled from my home in Seattle to Port Angeles and began scrolling through rolls of microfiche at the city local library to see if I could uncover any information about the race. This was before the days of digitized newspapers. Finally, in the roll marked “June 1929,” I found articles in the Port Angeles Evening News about what was billed as the “Great Port Townsend to Port Angeles Bunion Derby.” My first reaction was “What is a Bunion Derby?” and my second was “Why would a bunch of ‘average Joes’—lumberjacks, farmers, postmen, and laborers—attempt such a thing?” Of the twenty-two men who started, only eleven finished the event, as they had little training and little understanding of what they had gotten themselves into. Most crossed the finish line with blisters the size of half dollars, shoes oozing blood, and legs so sore and cramped that one finisher had to crawl across the finish line–all this for small cash prizes that ranged from $100 for first to $10 for tenth. One article noted that local officials had dreamed up the event after the famous sports agent Charles C. Pyle held his first-of-its-kind trans-America footrace, or “Bunion Derby” as it was nicknamed by the press, in the spring of 1928. The article also mentioned that a Seattle runner, Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner, had competed in the event. That information piqued my interest. 

After I returned home, I went to the main branch of the Seattle Public Library, pulled rolls of microfilm from the newspaper file and began scanning through the sports pages of the Seattle Post- Intelligencer and the Seattle Times. I quickly found article after article about the event starting in late February 1928. I then realized that Seattle’s entry, Eddie Gardner, was black. I wondered about the challenges a black runner would face running in an integrated footrace, especially when the 1928 race took the derby through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, where either by custom or law, blacks and whites were not supposed to compete against each other in sporting events. I also learned that Gardner earned his nickname “the Sheik” from his trademark outfit he wore when he competed in local footraces. Wearing a white towel tied around his head, with a white sleeveless shirt and white shorts, he reminded his Seattle fans of Rudolph Valentino, a 1920’s heartthrob who starred in the silent films “The Sheik” in 1921 and “The Son of the Sheik” in 1926. For the rest of his life, local sports writers referred to him as Eddie “the Sheik” Gardner. 

How did you decide to specifically highlight Gardner out of the five African American runners who participated in this race?

Eddie Gardner was the only black runner who could challenge his white competitors for the $25,000 first place prize money in the 1928 derby. The other African American bunioneers were out of contention for any prize money–the top ten finishers with the lowest cumulative times won cash that ranged from $25,000 for first to $1,000 for tenth–and hoped only to complete the 3,400-mile course. Eddie Gardner’s elite status made him the focus of the taunts and death threats that white fans felt free to hurl at him as the bunioneers passed through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Gardner had a brutal passage through these three Jim Crow states. In Texas, he held back from challenging the lead runners out of fear of losing his life. When the race entered western Oklahoma, a white farmer rode behind Gardner with a gun trained on his back, daring him to pass a white man. At that point Eddie was falling out of contest for the prize money, and he had to decide if he wanted to risk his life and resume challenging the lead runners. His courageous decision to do so became a source of pride for the African American communities he passed through. The black press picked up his story, and he became a nation-wide hero to black America.

Is there any specific piece of Gardner’s story that has really stuck with you throughout your years of researching? Or a favorite part of the book itself? 

Here’s the one that stands out for me. On the 24th day of the second bunion derby in 1929, Eddie was in third place after covering 1,040 miles since leaving New York City on March 31st. The next day, the derby would cross the Mississippi River into Missouri where Jim Crow segregation was the law of the land. He had been here before in 1928 and he knew what awaited him.  

Despite danger, he wanted to make a statement: He ran at a sub-three-hour marathon pace on the short, 22-mile course that passed through St. Louis on the way to the finish at Maplewood, Missouri.  And he had added something new to his race outfit. Eddie wore his trademark “Sheik” outfit with a white towel tied around his head, and a sleeveless white shirt, with his number 165 pinned on the shirtfront. A few inches below the number, he had sewn an American flag. It was about six inches wide and was put there for all to see. Poignantly, without words, Gardner announced his return to the Jim Crow South. Death could await him at any crossroad or from any passing car, but he kept going, unbowed by fear. Whites might kill him, beat him, or threaten him, but they could not change the fact that on this day he was running as the leader of the greatest footrace of his age and giving hope to millions of his fellow African Americans who saw him race or who read about his exploits in the black press. In the birth year of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Eddie crossed the Mississippi River with an American flag on his chest, a man willing to die for his cause. 

How did you conduct your research in order to provide such a thorough account of Gardner’s experiences without being able to communicate directly with him? Are there any specific methods you use to conduct this type of research?  

Reconstructing the life of someone long dead is a challenge. It’s a bit like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; each piece of information adds something to the emerging picture. Census data and death certificates helped a lot. Another important source was Eddie’s federal personnel file. In the 1950’s he worked for the U.S. Navy, refitting ships at the Bremerton Naval Shipyard near Seattle. Gardner needed a security clearance to work there. To get one, he had to fill out a lengthy background questionnaire, which was verified by Federal investigators prior to his employment. That document fleshed out a lot of his past life. Another source was Gardner’s transcripts and yearbooks from Tuskegee Institute where he attended from 1914-1918. I spent a week at what is now Tuskegee University combing through its archives. These sources combined with hundreds of newspaper articles written about the derbies, and four personal narratives, helped me come up with a detailed picture of Mr. Gardner’s life. 

I started with the two bunion derbies, and both were relatively easy to follow. The 1928 edition started in Los Angeles on March 4, 1928, and finished in Madison Square Garden on May 26, 1928, after 84 days and 3,400 miles of daily ultra-marathon racing. Each day’s race or “stage run” as it was known in the vernacular of the derby stopped at a given city or town for the night. The 1929 race reversed course.  

After each stage run, a cadre of nationally syndicated reporters that traveled with Pyle filed stories about that day’s race. Combine these syndicated stories with local reporting and I could piece together a detailed account of both derbies. This involved many hours of research to determine what newspapers still survived from a given town, ordering the microfilm through inter-library loan, and then reading through rolls of microfilm and copying any pertinent articles I found. All told, I reviewed more than 75 different newspapers, four first-hand accounts of the races, and a scattering of secondary accounts of the events. In all the articles I read, only one local newspaper, Missouri’s Springfield Daily News, noted that whites had been “especially [unpleasant] to the Negro runners” in Missouri.  

Then I turned to the black press. From stories written in such newspapers as Oklahoma’s Black Dispatch, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, the California Eagle, and Seattle’s Northwest Enterprise, I quickly realized that there was an untold story about the bunion derbies that the white press ignored, namely, the harassment and death threats Gardner had to endure in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. From there, I tried to flesh out the life stories of the individual runners by following the methods I have outlined in my previous responses.  

I noticed on your website that you participate in a variety of marathons with your family, often to raise money for the Benaroya Research Institute and their efforts in finding causes and cures for autoimmune diseases. Would you mind explaining “Team Mary” and your connections to the BRI? 

My wife, Mary, and I were both marathon runners and we spent many happy hours together training for races in the 1990’s. Our highlight was running the first marathon of the new century in Hamilton, New Zealand on January 1, 2000. Since then, she has faced several health challenges that has made running impossible for her. Mary has three autoimmune diseases— Relapsing Polychondritis, which attacks her cartilage, Dermatomyositis, which attacks her muscles, and Crohn’s Disease, which attacks her digestive tract. These diseases have made life a daily struggle for her. It’s been heart breaking to watch this brilliant athlete face such difficult challenges, but we’re working to give her and others like her hope.   

In 2012, we formed Team Mary to raise money for research conducted at the Benaroya Research Institute (BRI) to fight rare autoimmune diseases. BRI has been in Seattle for more than fifty years and has made major breakthroughs in redirecting faulty immune systems so they don’t attack healthy tissues, especially for rare autoimmune diseases. See https://charleskastner.com/team-mary/  

We wanted to start a grassroots effort where neighbors, friends, and those suffering from autoimmune diseases and their family members could come together to do something positive. From running in triathlons, to public speaking, to holding fund raising events, Team Mary has been an active fund raiser for BRI. Mary and I were Peace Corps volunteers and we believe strongly that individual actions can change the world for the better. This is our way to make a difference. If you want to join our team, here’s a way to do so.  

As a thank you for contributing $200 or more to BRI, I’ll send you a free autographed copy of Race across America and make you a member of Team Mary.  Follow the link to contribute to BRI, write in “Mary Kastner” in the “in honor of” line, and I’ll send the book off to you. https://www.benaroyaresearch.org/support-us/ways-to-give 

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill designating the third Monday of January as a Federal holiday honoring the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. Although many of his supporters had been honoring his life annually since the assassination of King in 1969, it was almost 30 years before the holiday became nationally recognized. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we highlight two Syracuse University Press books that reflect the long, trying battle for racial inequality in the United States.

Leveling the Playing Field

Leveling the Playing Field by David Marc is the story of nine former Syracuse University football players, mistakenly coined as the ‘Syracuse 8’, who protested racial inequality on the SU Football team in 1969-70. The narrative and in-depth interviews provide a thorough account of the battles these nine young men experienced that led to their demands for equality. In boycotting the team practice, these players risked ruining their chance of a career in football, but as news of the protests grew, institutional changes slowly took hold that eventually paved the way for future African American athletes across the country.

Beyond Home Plate

Beyond Home Plate by David Long collects the many articles written by Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, and the first African American MLB player, Jackie Robinson. Following his retirement from the MLB, Robinson continued in his pursuit of social progress through his work as a writer. Contributing a regular column to the New York Post and New York Amsterdam News, Robinson provided rich social commentary while simultaneously exploring his own life and experiences. As a pioneer for African Americans in athletics, Robinson’s articles on life after baseball began a civil rights movement as he began to shed light on the racism he had experienced throughout his time in the MLB

AAUP #UniversityPressWeek

“COMMUNITY”

Author Sean Kirst discusses today’s theme

Eight years ago or so, when I began working with editors at the Syracuse University Press on “The Soul of Central New York,” the entire goal – and the success of the book – hinged on the notion of community.

At its heart, the book was a collection of columns I had written over what would turn into 27 years as a staff writer and columnist with The Syracuse Post-Standard. The idea was capturing – as a guy who first arrived here years ago from somewhere else – what I had sensed and hopefully shared over many years with readers about Syracuse and Central New York: It is a place of extraordinary physical beauty, heritage and shared experience that had – through decades of economic, environmental and cultural struggle – sometimes forgotten its own gentle but resounding claim to the extraordinary.

The idea of putting together such a a collection sounds simple. As I quickly learned, It was not. My early attempts contained too many columns, too many repetitive themes and too little of a focus. The first concept involved roughly 150 columns. In the end, in close partnership with editor Alison Maura Shay of the SU Press, she wisely convinced me to almost halve that number and create a narrative thread binding it together, with the first sentence connected to the last.

‘The Soul of Central New York’ offers accounts of some high-profile figures whose personal lives in some often intimate way had intersected with Syracuse or the region: Famed children’s author Eric Carle, then-Vice President Joseph Biden, anthropologist Jane Goodall, Onondaga Nation faithkeeper Oren Lyons, longtime Syracuse University basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

Yet they were simply part of the core notion of the book, which was illuminating how a network of seemingly everyday tales from a multitude of experiences – some involving the region’s defining and ongoing connection with the Onondagas – meshed together in a living definition of community.

Thus the fate of an elderly man who falls on a bitterly cold day on a downtown sidewalk, or the tale of a child raised amid struggle in a housing project whose chance encounter at a newsstand helps him ascend to a career as a bank executive, or the account of a woman born with cerebral palsy who formally turns out the lights of an institution that once overwhelmed her life …. these narratives became the spine, the foundation of the book.  

All told, it took five years to put together, and the process demanded that I jettison some of my own early preconceptions and focus on making it tighter, smaller and, hopefully, significantly more effective. The outcome was a reaction that I don’t think any of us expected: It became the fastest-selling book in the history of the Syracuse University Press, and a book intended to make at least a small and lasting statement on a sense of place, of joined identity.

For that, I am grateful to the editors and staff at the SU Press. Through their patience, and their belief in the larger theme, we attempted to create a quiet reminder of how struggle, pain and love, the core forces in any solitary life, are also the elements that forge true community – and provide the strength to last.

Sean Kirst, author of ‘The Soul of Central New York,’ was the recipient of journalism’s 2009 Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing; he is now a columnist with The Buffalo News.

AAUP #UniversityPressWeek

“Speaking Up and Speaking Out”

Author Kelly Belanger discusses today’s theme

I’m in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this week for a conference on Community Writing, a relatively modest-sized gathering of about 350 professors and local community members who see speaking out and speaking up on social issues as part of their personal and professional callings.

I find my colleagues’ commitments and passion inspiring, yet I don’t usually think of myself as an activist. I identify first as a writing teacher and a writer. I have spoken out on inequalities for women in sports by using my academic research skills and persisting in my quest to piece together a little-known history. I discovered how and why courageous individuals decided to speak out in the 1970s movement for gender equality in athletics. This movement took off in the 1970s when Congress, through Title IX, made sex discrimination illegal in federally funded schools.

Like some of the women I wrote about at Michigan State University, Temple, Brown, Texas my personality type is best described as introverted. Like Rollin Haffer at Temple, Marianne Mankowski at MSU, or Peggy Layne at Vanderbilt, I don’t typically seek public attention, and I prize harmonious relationships with friends, colleagues, and family. I value studying a problem from many angles, often waiting for others to speak and take the lead before offering my perspective.

But writing Invisible Seasons Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sports reminded me that social change movements require a symphony of voices, perspectives, and divergent rhetorical styles. Speaking up and speaking out is a responsibility. It’s a necessity. It has consequences and demands courage. When each of us, with our different styles and strategies, steps up to play our part, changes for the good of us all can begin.

Kelly Belanger, author of Invisible Seasons: Title IX and the Fight for Equity in College Sports is a professor of English and director of the university writing program at Valparaiso University.

2019 Veterans Writing Award Winner!

We are thrilled to announce the winner of the 2019 Veterans Writing Award is Dewaine Farria for his novel Revolutions of All Colors. Farria’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, Drunken Boat, Outpost Magazine, and on the Afropunk website. He is a frequent contributor to The Mantle. He holds an MA in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As a U.S. Marine, Dewaine served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Dewaine has spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations, with assignments in the Russian North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. He presently lives in the Philippines with his wife, daughter, two sons, two cats, and a dog.

Farria answered a few questions for us about his writing and what inspires him.

SUP: Has your military service influenced your writing? In what ways?

DF: The Marine Corps taught me how much of life revolves around consistency and habits. The discipline I developed in the Marine Corps helped shape my, “every morning, butt in the chair” approach to writing. Certainly, my time in the military also heavily influenced my thoughts on patriotism, masculinity, and violence—themes that frequently pop up in my work.

SUP: You’ve published both non-fiction and fiction in various print and online platforms. Do you see each as engaging with the reader in different ways?

DF: Good writing—whether it be poetry, fiction, or non-fiction—conveys truth. I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. For a good story I’ll tolerate self-indulgent language, grammatical liberties, and slips in point of view. What I can’t abide is dishonesty; nothing disengages me from a piece of writing more quickly than the creeping desire to call “bullshit.” Convincing the reader to trust your narrator is the challenge and this is true regardless of genre or point of view—including for pieces with heavily journalistic elements (like this essay that I wrote for the New York Times last year).

SUP: What was the inspiration for this novel?

DF: My father inspired the novel. I built the book out of a short story called “Walking Point,” which contains a character loosely based on my dad. An early version of the story won second place in Line of Advance’s Colonel Darren L. Warren Writing Contest and can be found here.

SUP: Are you currently working on any writing projects?

DF: I’m about halfway done with a collection of short stories. Earlier this year, CRAFT published, “The Knife Intifada,” the first story from the collection. After I finish up these eight short stories, I plan to begin work on a collection of linked essays.

Celebrate Short Story Month this May!

Short stories are the perfect way to discover an author’s work, great for when you don’t have the time or mojo to commit to a 400 page novel, and a brainy impulse purchase on your phone or e-reader. This month we encourage you to pick up a new story collection or share one with a friend, and we have a few suggestions to get you started.

The Rebels

“The stories here show a great breadth, empathy for and insight into his subjects. His ability to move elegantly through different styles is not just a welcome addition to the Irish short story tradition but also a vital one.” —Books Ireland

Richard Power (1928-1970), an accomplished novelist, short story writer, and playwright, explores the life of of an Irish mother and adolescent girl in The Rebels. This collection of short stories captures the daily lives of urban and rural dwellers in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century. He tackles themes of coming of age, the tensions between modern and traditional life, and romantic love in his beautiful and vivid tales. This memorable collection, arranged by James MacKillop, gives new life to Richard Power’s voice and the fans of the Irish short story tradition.

The Cocktail Hour

“I like a little mystery and for people to walk away from a story thinking of various possibilities. In terms of this collection as a whole, I would love readers to feel like they’ve been somewhere else for a few hours; somewhere that has been a little though-provoking; a place of meditation.” —Sophia Hillan, Author

The Cocktail Hour includes moving tales on the themes of sibling love and how it develops over time. These short stories retell the journey’s of various individuals in different periods of their lives. It includes one young boy’s contemplation of the wars in Ireland and Germany and it’s effect on his imaginative mind. One woman’s playful New York adventure and how it becomes a confrontation with external reality. And lastly, a dramatic monologue from one of Jane Austen’s bitter relatives that is directed at Austen herself.

Vilna My Vilna

“Jewish Vilna is forever gone, but this translation of Vilna My Vilna does much to keep its pale memory alive. Helen Mintz renders Karpinowitz’s slangy, colloquial Yiddish into a lively and idiomatic English and graces both Karpinowitz’s stories, and even Jewish Vilna itself, with a second life.
–Colorado Review


In this collection, Karpinowitz portrays, with compassion and intimacy, the dreams and struggles of the poor and disenfranchised Jews of his native city before the Holocaust. His stories provide an affectionate and vivid portrait of poor working women and men, like fishwives, cobblers, and barbers, and people who made their living outside the law, like thieves and prostitutes. This collection also includes two stories that function as intimate memoirs of Karpinowitz’s childhood growing up in his father’s Vilna Yiddish theater.

Impossibly Small Spaces

“I am interested in the vulnerable moments people can encounter. My characters often find themselves facing ordinary or extraordinary obstacles. Some will be graceful in these challenges and others will blunder, hurt others and themselves in the process. Fiction must feel emotionally authentic even as the situations and characters are pulled from my imagination. I believe we expand our understanding of human behavior through stories.”
Lisa C. Taylor, Author  

In Lisa Taylor’s second collection of short stories, a woman locks a man in an airplane bathroom, two brothers rewrite their past, and strangers in an airport are thrown together through tragedy. Taylor explores the ideas of confinement and expansion with both humor and angst, as characters of all ages and backgrounds are continually forced to redefine who they are, and how they think.

Who Will Die Last?

“All the stories are about people whose past struggles to fit their present-a rich and universal subject. Because the setting is Israel, these struggles can escalate into matters of life and death. Sometimes, as the title hauntingly indicates, Ehrlich’s characters triumph by simply dying last.”
Iowa Review

Both Hilarious and sad at the same time, Ehrlich’s collection of short stories, takes his characters on a tantalizing journey through their souls. His understated writing style transforms even the most heartbreaking plots into an uplifting and funny tale. Israel’s special unique history, landscapes, and conflicts add to the drama and passion of the collection. The themes discussed relate to gay life in Israel, loneliness, and the importance of community in time of sorrow and tragedy. Rather than a single translator, this collection was translated by various translators, bring out the diversity of voices in the stories.

Monarch of the Square

“Zafzaf offers visions of Moroccan culture and its traditions in an easygoing style that is well-nigh incomparable.”—World Literature Today

Monarch of the Square is Mohammed Zafzaf’s first collection of work that has been translated into English. This anthology is a tribute to his influence on an entire generation of Moroccan storytellers.
Zafzaf’s stories portray all aspects of Moroccan life and shows the struggle to survive in such a challenging place that is constantly changing. His writing explores the various myths, beliefs, and traditions that operate within his culture, while questioning it all in an easy-going, conversational manner.

These six books and the rest of our short story collection is available for purchase online at our website.

Put Poetry First this Month with Books from Sheep Meadow Press!

April is the month when the world celebrates the importance of poetry in our lives. To join the celebration we’re highlighting five books of poetry from our press and our distribution partner, Sheep Meadow Press. We hope these selections will spark your interest, and encourage you to read a poem, share a poem, or write your own poem.

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In the Alley of the Friend

In the Alley of the Friend is a translation of the Persian book Dar Kuy-e Dust which is about the fourteenth century poet Hafez, who is often recognized as the most original Persian poet of all time. Scholars have studied his work for centuries, exploring his life and his deeply moving poetry of love, spirituality, and protest. Ghanoonparvar’s translation of scholar Shahrokh Meskoob’s analysis of Hafez’s work provides profound insight into the poets thoughts and spirit.

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The Noise of the Rain

Sarah Plimpton’s The Noise of the Rain illustrates her collected poems with simplistic black on white and white on black drawings. Both an artist and poet, some have referred to her creations as being as quiet as the moments just before sleep, almost like preludes to dreams. Word choice and the way she arranges her poetry exudes a certain simple intensity. You can find her books in the The Museum of Fine Arts, The New York Public Library, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Winters Come, Summers Gone

Winters Come, Summers Gone is a collection of selected poems by the notable Howard Moss.
This book combines work from his first three published volumes with fourteen new poems. Moss was an American poet, critic, and the poetry editor of The New Yorker for nearly forty years. He wrote eleven books of poetry and even won the National Book award in 1972. Much of his poetry centers around the theme of love in its various forms.

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Perhaps Bag

Perhaps Bag is a collection of poems by acclaimed British poet Carol Rumens. Starting with her first set of poems in 1968 to her most recent and unpublished pieces from 2017, Rumens “retains her feminine voice but extends her sympathies beyond feminism” (Anne Stevenson). She has written fourteen books of poetry and currently serves as a Professor of Creative Writing at Bangor University, in Wales.

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Snow Part

Perhaps one of the most distinguishable poets of all time, Paul Celan, described Schneepart as his “strongest and boldest” book. It’s a response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and is a collection of poetry haunted by images of violence and resistance in a dark European century. Snow Part is the first published English translation of Schneepart. Its seventy poems were published in 1971, a year after Celan’s death. Translator Ian Fairley includes twenty posthumous poems that are closely related to the themes found in Schneepart.

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To learn more or purchase any of the books listed on this page, visit our website!


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