Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Book Review: The Transplanted

Book Review: The Transplanted by John Bodnar

This volume, written in the 1980s, is a survey of patterns of immigration into urban areas of the United States between 1830-1930 (approximately.)    It covers those who came to stay, those who just came to get a nest egg to improve life in their home country, and those who intended to go back but just never got around to it.  Mr. Bodnar was and still is a professor of history at Indiana University.

The Transplanted

The general theme of this book seems to be “it’s complicated.”  The immigrant experience was not uniform, with their reactions and outcomes varying considerably depending on their initial motivations for emigration, the areas they came from, their initial social class and starting capital, and what part of America they ended up in.  Trying to fit the immigrants into a single narrative that fits a particular philosophy doesn’t really work, according to Professor Bodnar.

It’s pretty dry stuff, starting with a chapter on the countries immigrants came from and focusing on when various regions had their largest numbers go.  This isn’t a book for the casual reader.

The most interesting chapter for me was on religion and how their faiths both influenced how immigrants adapted to American life, and were forced to adapt themselves.  Often there were clashes between those who felt they were (ethnicity) first, (religion) second, and those (especially religious leaders) who felt the reverse.  One example was Slovak immigrants who were suspicious of their priests and ministers who preached in favor of Hungarian rule of the homeland.  (It was later confirmed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire did indeed pay off religious leaders to spout pro-Hungarian propaganda in the U.S.)

Another conflict that often came up was between the urge to embrace Americanization and blend into their new society, and the fear of losing the unique cultural elements of their homeland or religious beliefs.  This often led to a preference for parochial or ethnicity-based schools rather than putting children into the public school system.

There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index, as well as a handful of black-and-white pictures.

Again, this isn’t a book for the casual reader, but is best suited for college students and up who are doing serious research on the subject of immigration.  For most people, I’d recommend one of the many fine memoirs of immigrant families available at your local library.

Book Review: Famous Nathan

Book Review: Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or given.

Famous Nathan

Nathan’s Famous was the number one hot dog stand in the world for several decades, and synonymous with the Coney Island experience.  It was the creation of Nathan (originally Nachum) Handwerker, an immigrant who worked his way up from grinding poverty to being a successful businessman.  This book is primarily his story, told by his grandson.

According to the book, Nathan was born in a Jewish shtetl in Galicia (now part of Poland) in 1892.  At the time, the region was occupied by Austria, and was proverbial for its inhabitants’ poverty.  His father Jacob was a shoemaker who was usually unemployed and his mother sold vegetables as a sideline whenever the chance came up.  Nathan grew up constantly hungry and early on decided he wanted to be in the restaurant business.  Over time, his hard work and good business sense got him enough money to buy passage to America in 1912.

To make it in business, you need a strong work ethic, canny business sense…and a walloping dose of good luck.  Nathan had all three, and by 1916 had learned enough English and accumulated enough savings to open his own “grab joint” selling frankfurters and lemonade from a tiny storefront on Coney Island.  His initial partner backed out when initial sales weren’t good, but Nathan found a good price point and soon became able to stay open all year, expanding the store and his menu bit by bit.

After a year or so, the initially nameless joint became “Nathan’s”, and then “Nathan’s Famous” as business boomed.  Nathan used a business philosophy of fast service, a limited menu and consistent high quality to grow his enterprise.  (This was later independently discovered by the McDonalds brothers, though the highness of quality is debatable.)

A big believer in family, Nathan brought over almost all of his clan from Europe as well as marrying and having children of his own.  He didn’t let nepotism stand in the way of good business practice, though, once firing his older brother the same day he hired him for failure to follow procedure.  He was a very hands-on manager, and ran a tight ship; his contentious personality meant that he often fought with his top workers, but it also bred loyalty.  He integrated his staff very early on and was generous with benefits, but was firmly against unions.

Nathan’s Famous was huge, and the book describes its interactions with American history.  But by the time Nathan’s sons Sol and Murray moved into management positions under him, times were changing.  The brothers had clashing ideas about where the store and its brand should be going, and did not work together well.  Coney Island was losing its place as a tourist attraction, helped along by a city planner who wanted to gentrify the area.  (Unfortunately, his plans had the opposite effect, crashing the local economy and increasing crime.)  And chain fast food places became the standard.

The original Nathan’s Famous has never closed, but is no longer in family hands, and in the modern day, it’s more famous as a hot dog brand than as a destination.

Most of the material about Nathan’s early life is derived from a single interview done with him by another of his grandsons, so should be taken with a grain of salt.  The book also talks about some Nathan’s Famous legends and whether they are based on truth or the result of a public relations campaign.

There’s quite a bit of time spent on the logistics and mechanics of running a grab joint in the early part of the Twentieth Century, which will be useful to people who have always wondered about that sort of thing.  There’s also family drama, as well as details about some of the long-time employees.

To be honest, the book never really grabbed me, but I think it will be of great interest to hot dog aficionados and those who are nostalgic for the Nathan’s Famous of yore.  Each chapter has a black and white photo heading.  Also, there are end notes (functional but lackluster) and a bibliography for further reading.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Comic Book Review: Poseurs

Comic Book Review: Poseurs written by Deborah Vankin, art by Rick Mays

Jenna Berry is a Jewish-Cherokee teen living in a downmarket part of Los Angeles.  Her mother is a hard-drinking legal secretary who has been dating a string of pretty boys, and they’re always on the verge of poverty.  When Mom’s shoplifting costs Jenna her part-time job, Jenna needs a new way to make money so she can pursue her avocation of photography.

Poseurs

As it happens, Jenna’s got a look that makes her a good fit for a job as a party guest for rent, making Los Angeles events appear even more prestigious than they already are.  Jenna hasn’t quite mastered socialization, but she does make two new friends.  Pouri is a “parachute kid” from Taiwan who was sent to the United States for an education, but her guardian has bailed, and she prefers partying to studying.  Mac is a whitebread kid from suburbia with a habit of trying to create new slang; he’s a busboy, so works the same parties Jenna does, but at a lower payrate.

Parties are fun, but Pouri’s made some poor life choices, and now she’s getting threatening texts.  Also, it’s crunch time–she needs to pass her SATs or her parents will force her to come home to Taiwan for an arranged marriage.  Pouri comes up with a wacky plan, and then something goes drastically wrong.  Can Jenna save the day?

Deborah Vankin is a Los Angeles Times writer covering the culture beat, so presumably well-versed in the party scene.  This is her first young adult graphic novel (I see that it may also have been published under the title Insta-Life.)  Rick Mays is an experienced comic book artist, working in black and white here.

The theme of the story, as indicated by the title, is that the characters are pretending to be people they’re not, or projecting an image.  Even Mac is trying to seem more cool by spouting nonsensical slang.  Only when the characters start being more honest with themselves and each other does the plot resolve.

If anything, the depiction of the party scene seems a little sanitized.  Pouri drinks, but Jenna doesn’t, and there’s no other drugs, and no sex.  Presumably this is to stay in a “Teen” rating.  Senior high students should be okay, but parents of younger readers may want to talk to their kids about some of the behavior modeled by the protagonists.

This is a good first effort by Ms. Vankin, but the characterization is a bit thin, and there’s a bit too much fourth wall breakage, so future works by her should be better.  The art works very well with the subject matter.

 

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Book Review: The Land of Dreams

Book Review: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Lance Hansen has not dreamed in seven years.   A divorced Forest Service police officer on the North Shore of Lake Superior, most of his days are spent chasing illegal fishing and people camping in the wrong places.  He thinks that the latter will be his main problem one June day, but when he investigates the crime scene, one camper is covered in blood, and the other horribly murdered.

The Land of Dreams

This is the first book in Norwegian crime writer Vidar Sundstøl’s “Minnesota Trilogy”, translated by Tiina Nunnally.   I should warn you right away that this is a true trilogy, and most of the mysteries introduced in this volume are not fully resolved in it.

Lance is a history buff, expert in the Cook County area’s people and events–he realizes this is the first murder within living memory in the area, and this allows the author to use the background material he gathered while himself living on the North Shore.   During a check of his archives, Lance realizes that a disappearance a century ago might be connected to an  old family story he had not realized must have taken place at the same time.

The current murder investigation is out of Lance Hansen’s hands, however.  Since it took place on federal land, the FBI has been called in, as well as a guest detective from Norway, Eirik Nyland.  The investigators soon learn that the Norwegian tourists were lovers, but is their homosexuality a motive for murder, or just a complication to the investigation?  (This book was written before Minnesota legalized gay marriage.)

While many details of life on the North Shore ring true, and the translation works well (absent one or two word choices I would have done differently), it is really obvious that the book was written for a Scandinavian audience, as there’s a lengthy passage dedicated to explaining just where Lake Superior actually is.

The Norwegian immigrant experience and Ojibwe/Chippewa /Ashinabe lore are woven into the story’s fabric, important to Lance’s storyline if nothing else.

This book has a leisurely pace, and more impatient readers may want to give it a miss as it ambles from scene to scene and the characters spend a lot of time looking at Lake Superior and thinking.  There may be some supernatural events, or Lance may simply be hallucinating–that’s one of the mysteries that is not resolved here.

The ending is disturbing to me in a way few books are, and I am very interested in finding out what happens.

Recommended to fans of Nordic crime stories, and residents of Minnesota.

Book Review: Seeds for Change

Book Review: Seeds for Change by Marly Cornell

This is a biography of Surinder “Suri” and Edda (nee Jeglinsky) Sehgal, the founders of the Sehgal Foundation.  That foundation helps rural villages in India achieve clean water, improved agriculture, better education and more honest government, as well as funding conservation and ecological efforts around the world.

Seeds for Change

Both of them were refugees as children, Suri when his family wound up on the wrong side of the border during the partition of Pakistan and India, and Edda when her home in Silesia was about to be overrun by the Soviet Army during the end of World War Two (and then was attached to Poland in the post-war process.)

Suri grew up to become a crop scientist, specializing in hybrid corn, and came to America to pursue his graduate studies.  Edda was invited to the U.S. to serve as the au pair for the Henry Kissinger family.  They met and fell in love.  Suri got a job with Pioneer, creating their first international research station in Jamaica, and the couple got married.

They settled down in Iowa and raised a family, and with a combination of hard work, diplomacy and good management  skills, Suri rose to eventually become the president of Pioneer’s overseas operations.  Unfortunately, there was a management change at the company, and the new CEO felt uncomfortable with the decentralized nature of Pioneer at the time.

According to this book the new management of Pioneer fired Suri and attempted to frame him for stealing trade secrets, as well as gutting a joint venture in India that Mr. Sehgal had an independent interest in.   (A book from the perspective of the Pioneer management  might tell the story differently.)  The ensuing lawsuits were settled in Suri’s favor, and the independent company he rebuilt was successful enough to create the Foundation.

There’s a lot to like about this book.  Suri and Edda’s life experiences are interesting and shed light on areas not often brought to the attention of most Americans.   Edda is very much depicted as Suri’s partner who he could not have succeeded without.    If the text sometimes seems overly flattering, this is understandable due to it being written specifically to promote the Sehgal Foundation.

I found  the writing style a little flat.  A discussion of the children’s part-time jobs is given the same tonal feel as Suri’s trek  across India as a shoeless refugee  to find a relative whose location he only knows by a general region, which could use a bit more emotional weight.

There are genealogical charts at the beginning of the book (there are a lot of relatives that come in and out of the story) and a color photograph section in the middle.  Citations are done in footnotes, and there is no index.

Proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Sehgal Foundation, so that might influence your decision whether or not to purchase.

I would especially recommend this books to readers with an interest in immigrant stories.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author for the purpose of undertaking this review.  No other compensation was involved or requested.

Book Review: Empire of Sin

Book Review: Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

A criminal called “the Axman” opens this story, and after a thirty-year flashback through New Orleans history, wraps it up as well.  No one is sure who the Axman actually was, how many of the crimes attributed to him he actually did, or his final fate.  Rather more is known of many of the Crescent City’s other colorful characters between 1890 and 1920 or so.  The reformers tried to make prostitution and other vices confined to a small neighborhood sardonically named “Storyville.”  This created one of the most notorious red-light districts in American history.

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, who also wrote City of Scoundrels, which I reviewed earlier, covers rather more ground in this volume, expanding from 12 days to three decades of history.  In addition to the brothels and saloons of Storyville, presided over by the genial vice lord Tom Anderson, the history also looks at the alleged Mafia/Black Hand involvement among Italian immigrants, the infancy of jazz music and the coming of Jim Crow.

The high-minded citizens who wanted to reform New Orleans and make it a modern city unfortunately wanted to make it like other Southern cities of the time.  So in addition to segregating out sin and temptation, they wanted to segregate out people of color as well.  New Orleans’ complicated social scene, including many Creoles of color, was simplified (legally at least) into black and white, the first of which was to be suppressed and oppressed.  This resulted in Storyville being one of the few places where people of different races could meet and interact as something like equals.

Meanwhile, the Italian immigrant population had persistent problems with crime;  how organized it was is up for interpretation.   Paranoia and the assassination of the police chief resulted in the Parish Prison lynching of eleven men.   It didn’t help when some of the alleged Mafia people decided to try to muscle in on Storyville.

Quite some space is devoted to the early musicians who created what would become jazz,   “Buddy” Bolden, considered by many to be the first, had a tragically short career due to a sudden onset of mental illness.  But by that time, he had inspired many others, with Storyville providing work opportunities for them in dives and brothels.

While reform movements constantly assailed the vice district, what dealt the crippling blow to Storyville was World War One.  With a major military encampment near New Orleans, and the War Department insistent on keeping their soldiers moral and fit for duty, they imposed restrictions that made it difficult at best to operate.  After the war, Prohibition struck, making it illegal to serve alcohol, the lifeblood of many demimonde establishments.

While crime and vice never actually went away, they did have to go underground, leaving New Orleans a much duller place.  The “better class” people disdained jazz, so the city lost many of its best musicians to other cities, particularly up North.  Eventually, economic doldrums convinced the New Orleans tourist boards to play up its seedy and jazzy past, though somewhat whitewashed.

There’s small pictures at the beginning of each chapter, a bibliography, end note and index.  The paperback edition also has a short interview with the author, a suggested playlist for New Orleans music, and a list of fictional treatments of the Crescent City.

I found this book to be more…diffuse…than Mr. Krist’s previous one–thirty years is a lot of territory to cover.  The focus on the Storyville district means that a lot of other matters get only a glancing view at best.   Still, if you’re curious about New Orleans history, this is a good place to start, well-researched and full of lurid bits.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was involved.

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