DATE May 23, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Chabon, author of "The Yiddish Policemen's
Union," on where the idea for his novel came from, and how he
created the fictional alternate history in which it is set
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of Broadcasting & Cable magazine and
tvworthwatching.com sitting in for Terry Gross.
Today's first guest, Michael Chabon, won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel
"Kavalier and Clay," in which he imagined the lives of people working on the
early superhero comic books. He rewrites a different era of history in his
new novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." It's based on the following
premise: What if the fledgling state of Israel collapsed in 1948 and, in the
wake of the Holocaust, part of Alaska were set aside as a temporary refuge for
Jews. The novel is set 60 years after that imagined event, in Sitka, Alaska,
when Jewish rights to the district are running out, and it's about to revert
to Alaskan control. Every Jew in Sitka is nervously awaiting what will happen
next. Here's a short reading from the beginning of the book.
Mr. MICHAEL CHABON: (Reading) "Observant Jews around the world have not
abandoned their hope to dwell one day in the land of Zion, but Jews have been
tossed out of the joint three times now: in 586 BCE, in 70 CE, and with
savage finality in 1948. It's hard even for the faithful not to feel a sense
of discouragement about their chances of once again getting a foot in the
BIANCULLI: Michael Chabon, reading from his novel "The Yiddish Policemen's
Union," which is now out in paperback.
The main character of the book, Meyer Landsman, is a homicide detective living
in this temporary Jewish homeland investigating a murder. The New York Times
called his character one of the most appealing detective heroes to come along
since Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Terry spoke with Michael Chabon last year.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Michael, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CHABON: Thanks, Terry. It's so nice to be here.
GROSS: How does Sitka become an unlikely homeland for Jews after the
Holocaust in your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, in my novel, an actual proposal that was made initially by
the Department of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt to permit refugees
from Europe--Jewish refugees from Europe, primarily, of course--to enter the
United States on a very limited, very controlled basis and to settle,
temporarily, in all likelihood, in Alaska, has come to pass. So, obviously in
our world that didn't happen and in fact there was a bill introduced into
Congress. It was called the King-Havenner Bill. It died in committee. It
was never brought to the floor for a vote.
But in the world of my novel, it actually passed, and these Jews
ultimately--several million of them--were allowed to enter the United States.
They thought it was going to be a temporary thing, but they ended up--the way
these things tend to happen, nobody ever quite got to figuring out what to do
with them after the war was over and they were granted a kind of
semi-permanent lease. But that lease in this year, 2007, has now come due and
they all have to figure out where to go now.
GROSS: And their claim on this territory is running out, so they're going to
have to like relocate.
Mr. CHABON: Exactly. It's called reversion. The territory, this little
ribbon of territory that they were permitted to settle in. And they've all
made homes. They've made lives, industries businesses and everything. They
actually have a whole almost like a little micro-nation that they've created.
It's Yiddish-speaking. But yes, now this territory is set to revert to the
state of Alaska, and Alaska is going to regain control over it and it will be
incorporated into the state.
GROSS: Tell us more about what almost happened historically, the bill that
didn't pass but that was talked about.
Mr. CHABON: Well, the Interior Department, under Harold Ickes, proposed
essentially killing two birds with one state by exploiting the vast untold
resources, the wealth of Alaska, which at this time in 1940 was very much
untapped and unexploited; and this pressing, heart-wrenching problem of all of
these people that were desperate to get out of Nazi-occupied Europe. And that
sort of humanitarian concern was hidden within this notion that we can exploit
Alaska and get a foothold there and so on. And so they proposed letting these
refugees settle there, and a bill was introduced. There was very stout
opposition. The native Alaskan community, the European, the
American-descended people living there were vehemently opposed to it. And
they were sort of championed by their delegate to Congress, this guy Anthony
Dimond, who was also dead set against this happening, and he campaigned and
ultimately was able to quash this thing before it ever even made it into a
floor vote in Congress.
But I've always been struck by these possible alternate Jewish homelands that
have been proposed over the years. It's been proposed, you know, that
Jews--at one time there was a Uganda plan that the British empire had put
forward that Jews should be allowed to settle in Uganda. Australia,
Madagascar. You know, one hears I think even Suriname. There was a brief
Dutch plan to allow the Jews to come into Suriname at some point. So, you
know, those what ifs, those might have beens, those maybes, those are
endlessly fascinating to me, and so I think I just picked it up along the way
and never forgot it.
GROSS: So you've created for your novel this place in Alaska that's a kind of
like temporary homeland for Jews displaced by World War II. Can you describe
a little bit what this community has grown up like in your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, it's a big city. Sitka has become a big city, tall
buildings. It's got everything a contemporary city, you know, is expected to
have in the range, you know, from big box shopping malls to symphony orchestra
and everything in between. There's a very diverse community of Jews living
there--and by diverse, I mean they range from the most secular, contemporary,
somewhat--let's not--I don't want to say deracinated, but just people who
don't identify terribly strongly with the religious aspects of Judaism all the
way to ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic sects and everything in between.
And it's kind of a swinging place in some ways, you know. There's a lot of
art and music and culture, and Yiddish language remains in full flower. On
the other hand, it's, you know, it's a dark place. It's in Alaska, it's gray,
it's rainy, and there's also this constant anxiety that's been hanging over
these people for 60 years that it is meant to be temporary and it could all be
You know, in a way, that's been the facts for Jews for the past 2,000 years,
in a sense, the knowledge that you, no matter how well you do in a place, no
matter how greatly you prosper, your lease could be canceled at any time, at
any moment, and you'll have to move on. And so in one sense they're just,
they're living with that consciousness in a way that, you know, their
ancestors had been living for 1,000 years or more.
GROSS: Why did you want to combine the fictional story you tell in the book
of this alternative version of history where a homeland for the Jews after
World War II is created in Alaska, to combine that with, you know, a detective
Mr. CHABON: You know, there was a review in The New Yorker magazine, sorry,
by Clive James, where he kind of did a roundup of some detective fiction from
around the world. He talks about how these detectives are all connected to
the cities that they live in, whether it's Venice or Stockholm or wherever it
might be. And he said in passing something like, you know, `The detective
novel has always been in part a guide book.' And I thought that was putting it
really well, and it wasn't anything I had ever exactly thought to myself in
But I think I had that sense, so that when I came up with the idea of setting
a novel in this imaginary land, I realized I had this job to do of making it
feel clear and plausible and articulated to the reader so that the reader
would understand the place. And in order to understand the place, the reader
needed a kind of guide, and I felt, I guess just intuitively, that a policeman
with his badge, and therefore with his access to every levels of society. No
door is really closed to him. That he would be the perfect guy. That in the
company of the policeman we would be able to go everywhere and see everything.
GROSS: In your novel, there's an island called Verbov that is populated by
ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are known as Verbovers, and there's a passage I'd
like you to read that's set on this island that describes the ultra-Orthodox
Jews that live there. Could you just set up who we'll be hearing from in this
Mr. CHABON: Yes, well, Meyer Landsman, the protagonist of the novel, is a
homicide detective in Sitka, and he and his partner, Berko Shemets, have drawn
this case. There's a murder in the opening pages of the novel, and in pursuit
of a lead they've gotten that the victim might have possibly been connected to
the Verbovers in some way, they've decided to brave Verbov Island, which is
this kind of almost like a--I think it's an idealized shtetl in many ways. It
was created sort of out of nothing by this sect, this ultra-Orthodox sect to
recreate the world of their sect's homeland in Verbov back in the old
country--which, Verbov, I think it's a small city somewhere in eastern Europe
and Russia, or Poland. And my mother's maiden name was Verbo--or her mother's
maiden name, so I was just kind of trying to draw my own heritage in naming
it. There is no such sect, obviously.
(Reading) "Friday afternoon on Verbov Island and Landsman's Chevelle Super
Sport surfs the wave of black hats along Avenue 225.
"`Look at this place,' Landsman says. `It's hopping.'
"`Not one empty storefront,' Berko says.
"`And more of these no-good Yids than ever.'
"Landsman stops for a red at Northwest 28th Street. Outside a corner store by
a study hall, Torah bachelors loiter, scripture grifters, unmatchable
luftmensches and garden variety hoodlums. When they notice Landsman's car
with its reek of plainclothesman hubris and its inflammatory double S on the
grill, they leave off yelling at one another and give Landsman the Bessarabian
fisheye. He is on their turf. He goes clean shaven and does not tremble
before God. He is not a Verbover Jew and therefore is not really a Jew at
all, and if he is not a Jew then he is nothing.
"`Look at those bums looking,' Landsman says. `I don't like it.'
"The truth is, black-hat Jews make Landsman angry and they always have. He
finds that it is a pleasurable anger, rich with layers of envy, condescension,
resentment and pity."
GROSS: That's Michael Chabon reading from his new book, "The Yiddish
What you're getting at in that reading is the division between secular Jews,
like your main character, who's a homicide detective, and the ultra-Orthodox
Jews, who are in this new homeland for the Jews in Alaska. But, you know,
that division exists in real life, and...
Mr. CHABON: Absolutely.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about that division?
Mr. CHABON: Well, it seemed to me to be an inevitable feature of any large
community of Jews living all together. You know, I felt like it would be an
inaccurate portrayal of this place if it didn't--if those fissures didn't
exist, and really that--my knowledge of that comes out of my knowledge of
Israel, the state of Israel in our world. You know, my somewhat limited
knowledge, but it was apparent to me on my one visit to Israel that there's so
many divisions among Jews there, not just between ultra-Orthodox and secular
but between Ashkenazic and Sephardic and Russians and non-Russians and so on
that it just, it would have been inaccurate to leave that out.
GROSS: Now, what do you like about taking history and completely rewriting it
with a different premise? You did that with comic books in "Kavalier and
Clay," and you're doing it with the Jewish homeland in your new novel "The
Yiddish Policemen's Union."
Mr. CHABON: Well, actually, I think it has a lot to do with comic books, in
a way. When I was young kid reading comic books, it was a--there was a sort
of very popular kind of story that was being written then. It was popular
starting in the '50s, in particular, in Superman comic books, that was called
the imaginary story, which I kind of love that distinction being made. But
imaginary Superman stories were Superman stories in which something was
different than in the sort of official canonic Superman story, where he comes
to earth and crashes outside of Smallville, you know, and the Kents rescue him
from his rocket ship and they raise him. And they would do these stories, you
know, `What if Superman's rocket ship had landed in Africa?' Or `What if the
rocket ship from Krypton had landed in Canada?' you know, and we had a
Canadian Superman. What would that be like? Or, you know, `What if Lois Lane
was the one who came from Krypton?'
And that sort of hypothetical story, the what if story, which then later also
was done a lot at Marvel, and in fact, Marvel Comics had a whole series called
"What If?" in which, you know, the Fantastic Four each had the other one's
powers and so on. I think that was really my first introduction to the idea
of counterfactual or hypothetical kinds of stories, the what if story. What
if this one thing had been different? And it's always a kind of story I took
an interest in. There's a classic novel called "Lest Darkness Fall" by L.
Sprague de Camp in which the Roman Empire never fell and has survived into the
modern era and so on. And I was always drawn to those kinds of stories.
I mean, I think anyone who lies awake at night sort of going back over the
course of his or her life and asking him or herself the question, you know,
`How did I get here?' That sort of David Byrne question, you know. I mean, at
every moment you're making choices that determine the future course of your
life, but there always do seem these sort of key junctions where, `If I had
taken that job or if I had said yes to that person, if I had done this or done
that, my whole life would have been different.' I think we have that tendency
to do that with our individual histories, and then it's just a short step away
to do it with "History" with a capital H and look at those sort of what seem
to be juncture moments and wonder how things might have come out differently.
GROSS: So, if those `what if?' moments in comic books inspired your new
novel, what was the first like `what if?' you came up with for your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, the genesis of the novel really lay in this book, an
actual book published by Dover Publications called "Say It in Yiddish," and
"Say It in Yiddish" is subtitled "A Phrase Book for Travelers." And I came
upon this book in a bookstore. I was entranced immediately by the idea of
there being a phrase book for travelers in Yiddish that's, like any phrase
book, is full of all these unintentionally droll things that you might need to
say such as `I need a tourniquet' or, you know, `Which way to the casino?' And
I was so struck by this idea of a phrase book in Yiddish with no obvious
destination that I wrote an essay that was published many years ago now, where
I sort of speculated on possible places that might have come into being where
you could have taken this phrase book for Yiddish as you would take, "Say It
in French" to France or "Say It in Swahili" to Africa...
GROSS: Because there is no country in which Yiddish is the national tongue.
Mr. CHABON: No, I mean, and there--you know, in a sense there was at one
time. I mean, there were many millions of Yiddish speakers in Europe going up
to, you know--obviously, in America as well--going right up to the second
world war, but they never had--Yiddish speakers never had a country of their
own, the kind of place that seemed to be implied by this phrase book that gave
you phrases to use when dealing with customs officials in Yiddish and, you
know, casino employees, airline employees and so on. Like, the idea of a
Yiddish airline, for example, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish airline just entranced
And so, I mean, the initial `what if?' was not a specific forking in history
so much as a `What if there really were a country where everyone spoke
Yiddish? What would that be like?' And so that `what if?' was presented to me
by this little book, "Say It in Yiddish," that I came upon so many years ago
GROSS: When you're creating, like, a whole fictional world, you know, that
rewrites history, you have to make sure that you're consistent in that
everything you create kind of adds up.
Mr. CHABON: Yeah.
GROSS: So what kind of like map of the world did you have to create so that
you knew--you know, did you actually have like a plan on a wall someplace with
like a flow chart or a timetable...
Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...so that you could follow your own rules in this world that you
Mr. CHABON: You bet. I mean, you know, I got into this business so that I
could do that kind of thing. I mean, when I was a kid, for me, creative
writing as, you know, we called it in school back then, it all had to do with
maps and charts and diagrams and chronicles. And, you know, I was really into
"Lord of the Rings" and the whole kind of apparatus that Tolkien created
around--I mean, in a way, the story, in the case of Tolkien, was just an
excuse to invent the languages, from his point of view, and draw the maps and
make the charts and the chronologies. And I had the sense from a very early
age that maps and making maps and charts and chronicles was part of the
And I grew up in this town in Maryland, Columbia, Maryland, that was a planned
community that was built in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, in
the countryside between Baltimore and Washington, back in the late '60s, and
we moved there when Columbia itself, which is now a city of close to 100,000
people, existed almost entirely on paper as maps, as plans, as diagrams and
charts and proposals and projections. And I sort of grew up in this place
where the maps were translated into reality before my very eyes, where the
houses would be built--you know, there would be a street proposed. They would
come out with stakes and strings and stake it out, and then, over the course
of the next several months, the street would be laid, the pavement, the
sidewalks, the houses would grow, and it would all sprout before my very eyes.
It was this very powerful demonstration of how somebody's idea, somebody's map
that they just make up and they come up with all these names for streets and
neighborhoods and so on.
And so starting this novel, I did draw maps for my own use, city maps and
territorial maps, and I came up with a timeline of world history in the event
that the state of Israel didn't come into existence because it failed to come
into existence in this world. And I don't know, I just felt like it was all
there for my benefit to make the book--hopefully, the world within the book
seem real and feel real and be clear to the reader.
GROSS: Michael Chabon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Author Michael Chabon speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. His new
novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," is now out in paperback.
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Review: David Edelstein on "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the
(Soundbite of "Indiana Jones" theme music)
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
Nearly three decades ago, Steven Spielberg collaborated with producer George
Lucas and actor Harrison Ford on "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a film that paid
homage to the cliffhanger action serials of the 1930s. Then came "Indiana
Jones and the Temple of Doom" and, 19 years ago, "Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade." Now the three men have teamed up once again for "Indiana Jones and
the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: A shot early in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the
Crystal Skull" reminds you why no mainstream filmmaker since Orson Welles can
touch Steven Spielberg when it comes to camera movement and composition. Or,
more precisely, to composition that gets more vivid as the camera moves.
Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones is held at gunpoint by murderous Soviet
soldiers, led by an icy Cate Blanchett as a scientist called Irina Spalko.
They're in a giant warehouse, and Spalko orders Indy to hunt down a crate with
precious contents. Indy climbs some crates. He's in the foreground. The
camera holds on him, tracking back and up, and the space opens up behind him.
We see Spalko and the soldiers gazing up, and the warehouse, with its built-in
obstacle course of boxes, spreading out in the background. That's it.
Nothing flashy, nothing to make film students cry, `Great shot!' But it tells
you, simply and elegantly, everything you need to know about the setting, the
threat, the variables in play. It's the work of a man with film storytelling
in his blood. What a bummer when the story is such a big, noisy nothing.
The setup is certainly smart. It's the '50s, and Professor Jones is getting
old. The nuclear age and the Cold War have come, and McCarthyism has hit
academia. He has no family. His father is dead. There's no wife or child,
or so he thinks. Into this comes motorcycle-riding greaser Mutt, played by
Shia LaBeouf. He says he's been sent by his mother, one Mary, held captive in
the Amazon, along with Indy's old friend Professor Oxley. Mutt is a dropout,
which would bother Indy if he were the kid's father. Hold on, he is the kid's
father! Mary turns out to be Marion, Karen Allen from "Raiders of the Lost
Ark." Mutt is Henry Jones III.
Oh, but what lackluster tasks await the aging adventurer and his spawn as they
embark on a quest that makes "The DaVinci Code" look like a model of plot
construction. Indy and Mutt open tombs, dodge poison darts, get captured,
break out, get captured again, break out, get chased and get captured again.
The action is the movie's reason for being, of course, but the setups are
wittier than the payoffs. Indy finds himself on a nuclear test site amid
life-size dummies of mom, dad and kids--the nuclear family, ha ha. And the
way he escapes the H-blast is a howl. But the sequence has no punchline. A
Jeep chase through the jungle features Indy and son leaping between vehicles
as the eponymous skull flies back and forth. So many variables, so many
stunts, so little snap.
Harrison Ford never brought much to the show, but he knew how to lighten his
clenched persona with goofy shrugs that said, `I can only go so far with this
hero stuff.' But the breeziness is gone. He now seems like a peevish movie
star who's too self-centered to interact. When he's supposed to realize that
Marion is the lost love of his life, it looks as if he's gritting his teeth to
Blanchett is a great photographic object, her satin skin taught over those
high cheekbones, her black hair cut sharply across her forehead. But how many
variations of `Ve meet again, Professor Jones' can you do?
Spielberg has evolved as an artist since the last "Indiana Jones" picture.
He's grown beyond this. And even with his pet theme, absent fathers and sons,
"Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" has no urgency. It's not just the shallow
script. All the computer-generated imagery in the action scenes muffle
something vital in his technique. It removes the intangible element of
gravity and blands out his staging. The state-of-the-art effects have a way
of making the actors' advanced ages more, not less, pronounced. As they run
from CGI explosions, you can almost hear their joints creak. Or is that
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Review: David Bianculli on the HBO made-for-TV movie "Recount"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.
Just as there was a swirl of protest surrounding the Florida vote in the 2000
presidential election, protests have surfaced about some of the scenes and
portrayals included in HBO's new made-for-TV movie about that election,
"Recount," which premieres Sunday.
Some of the Democrats who fought for Al Gore say they're portrayed as wimps,
that certain things in the movie never were said, and that certain scenes
depicted just didn't happen. Republicans, by and large, are more pleased by
their portrayals in "Recount," but they, too, agree that some Democrats come
off as ineffectual and that a lot of scenes and lines of dialogue are wholly
fictional. Gasp. Really?
One thing I find really amusing about the minor controversy surrounding
"Recount"--the HBO movie, not the actual election--is that even in a drama
whose point is to show how easily history can be affected and even
manipulated, it comes as a shock to some people that Hollywood plays by the
same street-fighting rules. Anyone who comes to a fact-based drama, whether
on TV or film, expecting to be told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but
the truth, simply expects too much. Characters are composited. Scenes are
invented. And while I firmly believe that the closer you get to the actual
truth, the more interesting things really are, filmmakers rarely work by that
That's why, to me, the most involving and memorable sequences in "Recount" are
ones closest to real life. To demonstrate the chaos of Election Night,
screenwriter Danny Strong lets the TV network anchors do the talking. A
montage of actual clips from that very long evening make the point perfectly,
including NBC's Tom Brokaw calling Florida for Gore, then putting the state
back in the too-close-to-call column. What the networks giveth, Brokaw says
sheepishly, the networks taketh away.
Later in the movie, when Bush v. Gore reaches the Supreme Court,
representatives for the candidates argue their respective cases, and we hear
whole chunks from actual court transcripts. These, too, are fascinating. The
rest of "Recount," though, takes an inarguably compelling story and doesn't do
quite enough with it. It comes close, and has a fine cast, led by Kevin
Spacey as Gore's former chief of staff Ron Klain. He and Laura Dern, as
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, are the most fun to watch. And
the toughest guy in the fight, according to this account, turns out to be
George W. Bush's point man, James Baker III. He's portrayed by Tom
Wilkinson, who just played Benjamin Franklin in another HBO fact-based
political drama "John Adams." The comparison is not only convenient, it's
delicious. Both Franklin and Baker embrace the law, but when
Wilkinson-as-Baker does it, it's to thank his staff for using it to stave off
(Soundbite of "Recount")
Mr. TOM WILKINSON: (As James Baker III) People are going to say all kinds of
things about this election, that is was down to 154 votes, that Bush's brother
was the governor, that the US Supreme Court gave it to us. But I want you to
remember that we won every single recount. Never once did we trail Gore. And
who knows how many votes we lost when the networks called Florida for Gore
before all the polls were closed on Election Night.
But more important than all that is that the system worked. There were no
tanks on the streets. This peaceful transfer of power in the most emotional
and trying of times is a testament to the strength of the Constitution and to
our faith in the rule of law.
(Soundbite of applause)
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Denis Leary, Bob Balaban and Ed Begley Jr. are other talented
actors with media roles here. The candidates themselves are heard but not
seen, except in newsclips. This is a story about the staffers fighting for
"Recount" moves quickly and tells a story that's so amazing, it doesn't need
embellishment. Yet screenwriter Strong does embellish. There's a tacked-on
scene at the end, for example, in which James Baker and Ron Klain meet by
coincidence on the airport tarmac as they're about to board separate private
planes. It smells like a scene contrived to get the two main adversaries to
share at least one moment together, and that's exactly what it is: contrived.
It never happened.
But this is a first-time writing effort for Danny Strong, who's more familiar
as a young character actor. He was on "Gilmore Girls" for a while as Doyle,
and appeared on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" as Jonathan, the shortest of the
nerds who banded together against her. While "Recount" is enjoyable, it's not
exceptional. It's certainly no "Barbarians at the Gate," the HBO movie that
remains the gold standard for this particular genre. That one, starring James
Garner, was about the attempted takeover of a tobacco company, and was
brilliant. Then again, it was written by Larry Gelbart, who isn't exactly a
"Recount" throws you right back into that world of undervotes and hanging
chads, and will teach you a thing or two, including that the correct plural of
chad is chad. Just don't accept everything in "Recount" as gospel and enjoy
the ride. If you can agree to that, then I have no problem giving "Recount"
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