Man of Steel: The Welded Transfigurations of Melvin Edwards

November 23, 2014 Posted by admin

Melvin Edwards, “Wayou Tugge” (2014), welded steel, 15.25 x 15.25 x 6.25 inches (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. ©2014 Melvin Edwards / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Melvin Edwards’ welded relief sculptures conjure up human anguish and human advancement often within the same work. His art delivers the mythmaking spirit of abstract sculpture into the domain of identifiable histories. He has built a long, wide-ranging career around that apparent incongruity.

His abstract sculptures’ components are instantly recognizable. They are composed of metalwork drawn from discarded farming and carpentry equipment, from random blocks or sheets of scrap metal, and from rods, gears, shipyard hooks, nails, screws, chains, rings, locks, braces, knives, machine parts and pipe fittings. Edwards then recontextualizes these found instruments into intricate, welded steel sculptural forms, in which the sum of these parts constitutes a new identity and, with it, an array of ineffable impressions. Throughout his oeuvre, there is a tough-minded ethical sense at work within a highly refined aesthetic. His appropriations of discarded metalwork and tools represent, with great depth of feeling and thought, vanished human beings who once exploited, or who were exploited by, these rudimentary technologies.

Melvin Edwards in his Studio (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York)

At first glance, from a distance, his sculptures’ tortured, jutting and tangled formations make them seem like relics preserved in magma or dug up from vanished farming villages or prewar factories. Close up, they are vital and integrated, animated by an illusion of motion conveyed through the sculptor’s contortions of the steel and superimpositions of metal on metal — and metal into metal. These interlocking components are intensified by Edwards’ aggressive and imaginative play with their multiple, contradictory meanings. His current show at Alexander Gray Associates marks the largest exhibition of Edwards’ work since a major retrospective held in  the same space in 2010.

Though his inspirations are drawn from both within and beyond the borders of the United States, Edwards’ biography is utterly American. Born in 1937, in Houston, Texas, and raised for a time in Dayton, Ohio, Edwards served in the naval reserves and earned a football scholarship to attend USC. He had taken up painting in high school, and then studied sculpture in the early 1960s under such diverse figures as Hal Gebhardt, Hans Burkhardt and Edward Ewing. While critics have often cited David Smith as his touchstone, the scholar Lowery Stokes Sims cites Edwards’ own statements that his chief influence was the sculptor Theodore Roszak. As in Roszak’s works, Edwards’ symbolic designs project outwardly or inwardly from the sculpture’s dense centers, consistently defying representation in order to connote kinetic energy and potentialities.

Edwards’ career breakthrough came with his Lynch Fragments, a series he began in the early 1960s and exhibited soon after in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to immediate acclaim. That series, which he has continued over the decades, was initially inspired by the implosive canvases of Abstract Expressionism and the urban uprisings during the civil rights era, and it has provided the impetus and the scale for almost all of Edwards’ relief sculptures since, including most of the works, completed over the last thirty years, exhibited in this breathtaking show.

Melvin Edwards (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York)

Despite its evocations of historical memory, Edwards’ work has always seemed fueled by ambivalences that have only deepened over the years, in part due to the artist’s immersion  in other cultures. Starting in the late 1960s, Edwards developed countless friendships and collaborators in artistic communities in Nigeria, Gabon, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, as well as in Senegal, where he established a studio, spending several weeks each year working there during the 2000s.

In Edwards’ work, personal and communal significations operate in tandem. Edward’s hyper-individualized sculptures allude to a range of basic human activities, some of them productive, like agriculture, building, manufacturing  and trade, and others disgraceful, like civic violence, warfare, torture and incarceration. Because of this, they produce global resonances even when, or especially when, their themes are localized or particularized.

This current show occupies two floors of the roomy Alexander Gray exhibition space. The ground floor features a series on rounded metal plates completed over the last ten years, many of which are Edwards’ conjurations of Senegal’s urban zones.

“MMOZ” (2005) is named after Mermoz, a district in Dakar near the spot where Edwards maintained a studio. Curved metal braces or plates, some of them resembling small horseshoes, are welded among bars of various thicknesses and joints. Within this intense synergy, a gold-coated lock or casing forms a strange talismanic focal point. The welded sculpture slopes downward as if it might melt off its circular base even as it retains its internal, angular logic. As in all of Edwards’ small scale reliefs, the eye is transfixed by a network of invisible links that create a pulsing unity among the welded components. You stand before it visually tracing the sculpture’s junctures and recesses, its knots and gaps, its unfolding and enfolding, a sense of motion highlighted by the liquid-like seam where the  bristling body of the work is welded to the smooth base.

Melvin Edwards, “Kasangadila: For Francisco Romão de Oliveira e Silva” (2004), welded steel, 15 x 15 x 6.75 inches (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. ©2014 Melvin Edwards / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York)

One of the most striking of  the recent sculptures is “Kasangadila: For Francisco Romão Oliveira e Silva” (2004), a title explained in  the exhibition catalogue as meaning “Thank you” in Kamanadu, with the dedication referring to the late Angolan leader who led the country’s rebellion against the Portuguese. That history speaks vehemently through steel. A large ring supported by welded spokes seems to form an informal frame, which itself contains a grooved cylinder, a smooth flat bar and a few chain links that nearly enclose  yet another curved bar. Outside this circular framing protrudes a rail spike, and further down, a machete blade. Taken together these are talismans of agricultural traditions and industrialization  as well as  latent discord and violence, forming an ambivalent allegory of the country’s post-colonial situation. The sculpture’s machine-like composites seem frozen in time yet synchronized with some timeless, or ecstatic, dimension.

The gallery’s upper floor contains many more compressed relief sculptures, each a kaleidoscope of visual and emotional experiences. Except for  three sculptures built on elegant, grid-like bases that were created for Edwards by Senegalese metalworker Yusuf N’Diaye, most of these works dominate their almost unseen bases, giving this section of the exhibition a special charge. These frontloaded, spiked, crenellated, baroque objects seem to burst through the white walls of the brightly lit gallery at perfectly corresponding heights and consistently precise distances from one another.

“Ill Ogun” (2003) takes its name from the mythical home of a Yoruban deity.  It consists of a lumpish metal base, simple nail-shaped filings, a slender hammer made from rounded steel bars, and a ladder-like central structure. The work seems an emblem of divine craftsmanship and earthy aspirations skyward. “At Crossroads” (1984) is another minimalist masterpiece that packs maximalist punch.  The work references the South African township’s mass evictions by the apartheid government. A clamp from a vise has been welded into a smooth pipe, and the two in tandem seem  to levitate on a miniature  zigzag plate that itself forms two small, polished vertical steps. The struggle between these oppositional forces, unleashed by the work’s diminutive push-and-pull, is exhilarating.

Melvin Edwards, “At Crossroads” (1984), welded steel, 10.5 x 8 x 8.88 inches (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. ©2014 Melvin Edwards / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York)

“Angola” (1992) is one of the most forceful works. Like many of the other sculptures, its disparate elements — in this case a hammer-head, a trowel’s blade, a narrow hook and chain links — seem to emerge and almost melt into one another without an underlying support. Its chains evoke imprisonment, suggesting the brutalizing Louisiana prison named Angola. But the sculpture’s allusions to labor and to building, conveyed by the trowel and the hammer, could be expressing the labor of remaking the African nation in its own image.

In “Poetry” (2012), the most recent and least intimidating work in the show, interlaced and interlocked rods, bolts, screws  and gauges coalesce into an anchorage for a single wide trowel blade  extending from it. Edwards has softened the welded metal’s concatenation by  overlaying its surfaces with smudged, liquid-like metal finishing. The effect is poignant. A glance at the catalogue informs the visitor that the work is an homage to his recently deceased wife, poet Jane Cortez. This highly personal homage to his late partner and to the art of poetry corresponds to Edwards’ inimitable contributions to the art of American sculpture. Poetry’s enjambments, leaps, rhythms and insertions of one word’s meaning on to another’s,  as well as its ability to transform past suffering into compacted, present-day clarities, are all  comparable to the effects unleashed by Edwards’ welded steel sculptures.

“Route des esclave” (1995-99) exemplifies this metaphorical strength. It consists of a giant bolt and a tangle of chains. The chains dangle from a brick-like base. The chain links  are punctuated by a padlock while additional links are welded to a large shackle, which dominates the composition. The undisguised obscenity of the slave trade has probably never been so devastatingly rendered into a work of high art.

The sharp blade protrusions and internal wiry dynamism of “For Makina Kameya” (1988) pays tribute to Zimbabwe’s stone cutters, while the compacted, heart-shaped knot of balled steel “WTC NYC” (2001) is a far more evocative remembrance of that attack’s complicated aftermath than the all-too-literal installations in places like the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

Overall the show speaks to the virtue of endurance,  in many voices, registers and tones. And nowhere is Edwards’ hopefulness more in evidence than in the large freestanding sculpture  called “Homage to the Poet Leon Gontran Damas” (1978–81). The work, which dominates the show, pays tribute to Edwards’ friend Damas, the poet from French Guiana who cofounded the transnational Négritude movement. A giant, sharp-edged metal crescent faces eastward, leading to a room-wide arrangement  of large square and circular plates and rings. These variously-positioned structures are set apart by a chain that sweeps outwardly in a perfect arc along the gallery floor, forming both a direction for the visitor and a gentle perimeter that neatly frames the work’s meditative, geometric calm.

Melvin Edwards, “Homage to the Poet Leon Gontran Damas” (1978-81), steel In Five Parts (courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. ©2014 Melvin Edwards / Artist’s Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Walking within its monumental silhouettes and metallic peripheries, the viewer finds no easy symbolism within its rings, circles, squares and crescent. Instead, the work gradually transports the viewer beyond the narrow  confines of local New York time, into a tranquil sensation of the world as pure possibility: of form, shape and function within the purity of space — an ethereal experience forged by a sculptor’s steeliness.

Melvin Edwards continues at Alexander Gray Associates (510 West 26 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 13.

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The top 50 fiction books for 2014

November 21, 2014 Posted by admin


By Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s)

This sad and improbably witty novel is about two loving sisters: one who wants to live, the other who wants to die. Toews mines the frustration of caring for someone set on self-destruction, offering a nuanced look at the wrenching questions about the end of life. — Ron Charles


By Dinaw Mengestu (Knopf)

Mengestu, who left his native Ethiopia as a child and now teaches at Georgetown, tells the mournful, mysterious story of an African man who comes to the Midwest on a student visa. He captures beautifully the conflicted emotions of someone who has survived the loss of his family, his country and his identity. — R.C.


By Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

At the center of this enthralling novel, a National Book Award finalist, are two children: a blind French girl who flees to the countryside when her father disappears from Nazi-occupied Paris and a whiz-kid German orphan whose science skills gain him entry into the Hitler Youth. — Amanda Vaill

“Us” by David Nicholls (Harper/Harper)


By Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt)

Mantel wins the deliberate-provocation sweepstakes with the title story, which imagines the attempted murder of the former prime minister. It’s one fine example in a collection that evokes a shadowy region where boundaries blur and alternate realities seem possible.
— Wendy Smith


By Siri Hustvedt (Simon Schuster)

This electrifying work stars an enraged artist bent on exposing sexism and other prejudices in the art world. Her tactic: to have three male artists exhibit her installations as their own. — W.S.


By Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)

In this whimsical reimagining of “Snow White” moved to 1950s Massachusetts, Oyeyemi explores the alchemy of racism and the weird ways in which identity can be transmuted in an instant — from beauty to beast, or vice versa. — R.C.


By Cristina Henríquez (Knopf)

After she is severely injured in an accident, a teenager and her family emigrate from Mexico to Delaware. Quiet and unassuming, Henríquez’s novel ravels slowly and surprisingly, and without an iota of sentiment, delivers an original coming-to-America tale. — Marie Arana


By Ian McEwan (Talese/Doubleday)

This svelte tale tells the story of a British High Court judge facing an especially challenging case: a teen refusing life-saving medical treatment. McEwan focuses not only on the conflict between faith and science, but on the way a woman’s well-ordered life is shaken by a confluence of youthful passion and old betrayal. — R.C.


By Lisa See (Random House)

Set in San Francisco in the late 1930s, this affecting novel tells the story of three distinctive women who meet as dancers at a Chinese nightclub. The women endure precarious careers, roller-coaster romances and personal conflicts, but their precarious bond is put to the test when the United States declares war on Japan. — Eugenia Zukerman


By Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday)

Narrated by a 16-year-old girl in Vermont, Bohjalian’s suspenseful and provocative novel pushes some hot buttons — child homelessness, mental illness, nuclear energy — while creating one of the most memorable teenage protagonists in recent fiction. — Elizabeth Hand


By Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf)

Murakami’s thought-provoking novel centers on an engineer haunted by a shattering experience in his adolescence. His pilgrimage to find answers is not only a coming-of-age story, but also a suspense tale with deft twists and bright jolts of psychological insight. — M.A.


By Derek Howe Smith(Locked Room International)

Smith’s stories, set in 1950s England, are works of subtle, highly imaginative intricacy. They test our skill as readers, employing every form of misdirection in their cluing, yet at their best leave us satisfied that, had we been a little shrewder, we might have grasped the truth before the final pages. — Michael Dirda


By Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Knopf)

“Dust”opens in 2007 with a panicked chase through the streets of Nairobi and moves between the lamentation of a single family and the corruption of national politics swirling around one young man’s death, creating a vortex of grief that draws in generations of deceit and Kenya’s tumultuous modern history. — R.C.


By Lily King (Atlantic Monthly)

This atmospheric novel reimagines a brief collaboration in New Guinea in the early 1930s involving the anthropologist Margaret Mead, her husband and future husband. It is the winner of the first Kirkus Prize for fiction. — R.C.


By Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown)

Set in San Francisco in the summer of 1876, Donoghue’s novel is based on the real-life shooting of a cocky cross-dresser who supported herself by supplying restaurants with frog legs. This atmospheric tale unfolds as a full-throated murder mystery, as the victim’s friend, a celebrated showgirl, tries to track down the killer before he gets her first. — R.C.


By Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt)

Cheshire, a former Jehovah’s Witness, draws on his own experience in this tender novel about a child preacher who eventually leaves the church but is forced to face its teachings again as he cares for his maniacally devout father. — R.C.


By Antonio Muñoz Molina; translated by Edith Grossman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A labyrinthine and spellbinding novel of love and war, this story of a Spanish architect who falls passionately for a woman who is not his wife is an elaborate, complicated maze, peppered with historical facts and faces — and one of the most eloquent monuments to the Spanish Civil War ever to be raised in fiction. — M.A.


By Howard Jacobson (Hogarth)

This chilling novel, a finalist for the Man Booker prize, imagines an anti-Semitic future where wit and irony, along with jazz and literary fiction, have evaporated in the heat of a second Holocaust sometime in the 21st century. — R.C.


By Denis Johnson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Set in post-9/11 West Africa, this high-suspense tale offers a more convincing portrait of amoral intelligence agents and the havoc they wreak than almost any journalistic account of Third World skullduggery.
— Michael Mewshaw


By Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Gilead” and “Home” returns to the town of Gilead to complete a trilogy on spiritual redemption. In this National Book Award finalist, Robinson captures clearly and without a trace of condescension the mind of an uneducated woman struggling to comprehend why things happen. — R.C.


By Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer (New Directions)

Published in Spanish a few months before Bolaño’s death in 2003, this short novel about the struggles of an orphaned young woman is a gripping chronicle about urban youth, anomie, sex and crime. — M.A.


By Amy Greene (Knopf)

This literary thriller unfolds over three dramatic days in the summer of 1936 as a mother searches for her missing 3-year-old daughter in a depressed Tennessee town threatened by a flood. — R.C.


By Ayelet Waldman (Knopf)

Waldman’s multigenerational novel centers on a historical event largely faded from memory: the Nazi-run Hungarian Gold Train, which carried a trove of goods stolen from the Jews in World War II. Tracing the fate of one iconic jewel from that collection through Budapest, Salzburg and Maine, Waldman demonstrates the curious and tragic ways that history binds us together. — R.C.


By Francine Prose (Harper)

Inspired by a Brassaï photo of Violette Morris, a celebrated French athlete who later betrayed her country to Hitler, this saga of Paris at war offers ribald humor, sexual transgression and military intrigue. — R.C.


By Amy Bloom (Random House)

Set in World War II and taking place from Ohio to Hollywood and Brooklyn, the novel centers on two motherless half-sisters who take it upon themselves to reverse their sorry fortunes. — M.A.


By Dan Rhodes (Europa)

In 80 or so very short — usually one-page — stories, Rhodes runs through a variety of Seinfeldian routines focused on love, marriage, infidelity, divorce and death. While his imagination runs riot, he addresses some of life’s greatest joys and worst traumas in a voice that’s deadpan, unflappable and understated. — M.D.


By Tony Earley (Little, Brown)

This collection of engaging stories is topped by a novella-length tale that’s a rollicking experimentalist riff on “Jack and the Beanstalk” — featuring a contemptuous talking dog, a pair of post-feminist maidens and an equally forlorn Tom Dooley, who laments that his famous murder ballad “ain’t done much good since Burl Ives died.” — Michael Lindgren


By Colm Tóibín (Scribner)

Set in the early 1970s in Tóibín’s hometown in County Wexford, Ireland, this autobiographical novel follows the story of a 44-year-old widow and mother of four. Across pages that never succumb to a single melodramatic or sentimental phrase, Nora quietly manages her grief and figures out how to carry on with her life. — R.C.


By Edward D. Hoch (Crippen Landru)

Structured like those classic radio dramas during which Dr. Watson would sip Petri Wine and relate an adventure of Sherlock Holmes, the stories here — mysteries set in New England during the 1930s— offer glimpses of bygone small-town life.— M.D.


By Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead)

Lee’s dystopian novel opens on a wasted landscape where the remnants of civilization survive in stratified compounds walled off from the lawless scrap heap of North America. In some ways, it’s a familiar tale: a lone radical’s picaresque journey through a repressive society ripe for revolution. But at every turn, Lee thwarts our expectations.



By Richard Powers (W. W. Norton)

A fascinating novel about the allure and power of music, “Orfeo” centers on an avant-garde composer in his 70s who lives alone in a Pennsylvania college town. He has taken up an alarming hobby: DIY genetic engineering. — R.C.


By Yelena Akhtiorskaya (Riverhead)

Equal parts borscht soup and Borscht Belt of upstate New York, this first novel replaces the inspirational hype of the great immigrant story with broad comedy about a menagerie of Ukrainian emigres making their way in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. — R.C.


By William Gibson (Putnam)

No one writes better about the near future than Gibson, and in this surprisingly optimistic novel, he vaults us forward into two futures, one near and recognizable, the other more distant. As the two imagined realities make contact, forces large and malevolent converge. — Robin Sloan


By Phil Klay (Penguin Press)

In this story collection, a National Book Award winner, Klay draws on his experience as a U.S. Marine captain to give us one of the most compelling depictions of the Iraq war written. He explores what it really means not only to train young men to kill strangers, but to encourage those young men to shout with glee and high-five one another upon doing so. — Jeff Turrentine


By Stephen King (Scribner)

Spanning five decades, King’s sweeping tale is narrated by a man whose life is profoundly affected by a chance meeting with a preacher when he was a boy in rural New England. — E.H.


By Susan Scarf Merrell (Blue Rider)

A tribute to horror-story master Shirley Jackson, this novel weaves events from the writer’s life into a hypnotic story that will please Jackson fans as well as anyone in search of a solidly written literary thriller.

Carol Memmott


By Jane Smiley (Knopf)

In this engaging first volume of her planned trilogy — a sweeping story that spans three decades, three continents and a generation of children on an Iowa farm — Smiley delivers a wry, old-fashioned tale of rural family life in changing times. — Valerie



By Sebastian Barry (Viking)

Jack McNulty, a beleaguered Irish soldier, has just returned from World War II. Cutting back and forth in time, he recounts the highs and lows of his life in a narrative as heartbreaking as an Irish ballad. — M.A.


By Elizabeth McCracken (Dial)

The calm, terrifying stories in “Thunderstruck” have the jittery emotional valence of fairy tales, where to name dangers — the wicked witch, the hungry wolf — is somehow to subdue them. The result is like some set of forgotten Brothers Grimm tales translated into the jolting anomie of modern life. — M.L.


By Nick Harkaway (Knopf)

Like a Marvel Comics mad scientist, Harkaway has crossed strains of a modern-day environmental crisis with the sweet story of a veteran of the Afghan war trying to adopt a little boy on a doomed island. — R.C.


By Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown)

This finalist for the Man Booker prize stars a Red Sox-loving, misanthropic dentist in a midlife crisis. Ferris spins a witty story that chews on Internet scams, relationship killers, crackpot theology, baseball mania and the desperate loneliness of modern life. — R.C.


By Amy Rowland (Algonquin)

Set at a newspaper that resembles the New York Times, this first novel by a former transcriptionist there, stars, fittingly, a shy transcriptionist, who, in unraveling the mystery of a puzzling death, is forced to step out of her shell and form a tentative engagement with the city around her. — M.L.


By Nancy Horan (Ballantine)

From the author of “Loving Frank,” this novel reimagines the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Horan infuses both of these portraits with color, passion and intellectual spark, creating an operatic tale that is dead-on in its portrayal of pre-feminism-era women and their limited opportunities. — C.M.


By Rabih Alameddine (Grove)

The erudite narrator of this novel, a National Book Award finalist, unfolds her personal story within the 20th-century history of her beloved Beirut. With her, Alameddine has given us a marvelously cranky heroine, gruffly vulnerable and engagingly self-mocking. — W.S.


By Roxane Gay (Black Cat)

Gay considers questions of class, parental responsibility and sex as a weapon of terror in a fantastically exciting story about a lawyer kidnapped while visiting her rich parents in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. — R.C.


By David Nicholls (Harper)

Nicholls’s dark comedy sets a crumbling family on a European tour, dangling the possibility that the trip might solve the problems of its middle-aged narrator, his artist wife and their challenging teenage son. As the family teeters on the verge of breakdown, Nicholls offers a poignant consideration of how a marriage ages, how parents mess up and what survives despite those challenges. — R.C.


By Emma Straub (Riverhead)

A dysfunctional family tries — and fails — to find joy on a summer vacation in Straub’s wise and funny novel. Set on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, much of the comedy springs from the tension between being required to have the best time in the world and wanting to stab someone with an ice pick. — R.C.


By Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood/Putnam)

Fowler has conjured a set-up that’s unusual in the extreme: a family of five in which the youngest daughter is a chimp. The novel, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, tells an unsettling, emotionally complex story that plumbs the mystery of our relationship with the animal kingdom — relatives included. — R.C.


By Matthew Thomas (Simon Schuster)

At the center of this multigenerational novel is Eileen Leary, who cares for her alcoholic mother, falls in love with an eccentric neuroscientist, raises a son and works a demanding nursing career before Alzheimer’s threatens her husband — and her family’s very fabric. — Alice LaPlante


By Kenneth Mackenzie (Text Classics)

First published in Australia in 1937, this novel, a beautiful depiction of school life, loneliness and sexual yearning, is one to set beside Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”— M.D.


The ten best books of 2014

50 notable works of nonfiction

The top 10 graphic novels of 2014

The five best romance novels of 2014

The five best thrillers of 2014

The five best science fiction/fantasy books of 2014

The five best audiobooks of 2014

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