Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren

Hardcover, 2016



Call number

QH31 .J344


Knopf (2016), Edition: 1st Edition, 304 pages


Jahren has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. She tells about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom's labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and the disappointments, triumphs and exhilarating discoveries of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home.An illuminating debut memoir of a woman in science; a moving portrait of a longtime friendship; and a stunningly fresh look at plants that will forever change how you see the natural world. Acclaimed scientist Hope Jahren has built three laboratories in which she's studied trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life but it is also so much more. "Lab Girl" is a book about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through Jahren's remarkable stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom's labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science, and learned to perform lab work done with both the heart and the hands; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work. Yet at the core of this book is the story of a relationship Jahren forged with a brilliant, wounded man named Bill, who becomes her lab partner and best friend. Their sometimes rogue adventures in science take them from the Midwest across the United States and back again, over the Atlantic to the ever-light skies of the North Pole and to tropical Hawaii, where she and her lab currently make their home. Jahren's probing look at plants, her astonishing tenacity of spirit, and her acute insights on nature enliven every page of this extraordinary book. "Lab Girl" opens your eyes to the beautiful, sophisticated mechanisms within every leaf, blade of grass, and flower petal. Here is an eloquent demonstration of what can happen when you find the stamina, passion, and sense of sacrifice needed to make a life out of what you truly love, as you discover along the way the person you were meant to be. -- Publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

With “Lab Girl,” Jahren has taken the form of the memoir and done something remarkable with it. She’s made the experience of reading the book mimic her own lived experience in a way that few writers are capable of. She swerves from observations about plant life (“A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet”) to a report from the interior of her tortured brain (“Full-blown mania lets you see the other side of death”) to adventures on the road with Bill (“ ‘Do you really think this is illegal?’ I asked Bill over the CB radio.”) — and somehow, it all works, because the structure and the language follow the story.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Kristelh
I read this book for the DeweyCat and found it also worked for memoir. Also discovered that this author is from Austen, Minnesota. I liked her writing and description of Minnesota but right off the bat, she exaggerates so keep that in mind when reading this. Winter does not start in September and last 9 months in Austen and it isn't that cold. Speaking as one from Northern Minnesota. I always say it can snow every month except July in Minnesota but really it isn't that bad and Austen in located nearly on the Iowa border. She describes a wonderful relationship with her father but for some reason must hate her mother even though they worked in the garden together. How can you hate your mother, she never gave us a good reason except she didn't think her mother showed love. She was okay with the stoic Norwegianess of her dad but disliked her mother. When she left home, she never looked back. She also reveals later in the book that she suffers from Bipolar illness. I suspect maybe a little personality disorder mixed in as well. She describes going through pregnancy with now medications. Perhaps, but I do think she made it more horrible than what it really should have been.

What I liked. I liked the part about the plants and the science and how she "asks the questions" that lead to the research and the description of the difficulties of academia. Her lab partner was also eccentric. Pretty weird guy with great parents. I didn't get that either. And why didn't he complete his degrees. Usually colleges would have had some program for tuition of employees of the college. It's an easy read, entertaining and informative.

Loved this quote, "Oh, I'm not worried about him," returned Bill. "He's gone (his father). It's not any more complicated than that. Honestly, if I admit it, it's me that I feel bad for." Really, that is what grief is.

I also liked this; "We had them growing sweet potatoes under the greenhouse gas levels predicted for the next several years, the levels that we're likely to see if we, as a society, do nothing about carbon emissions. The potatoes grew bigger as carbon dioxide increased. this was not a surprise. We also saw that these big potatoes were less nutritious, much lower in protein content, no matter how much fertilizer we gave them."

And the final word; plant a tree every year.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
3.5 When I first started reading this I was more interested in the chapters, which alternated with her personal story, on the trees and plants. That changed though as I read on. Loved her story too, her beginning passion for the sciences, her childhood and going with her dad to his lab, her first jobs which I found eye opening, and her wonderful long term friendship with Bill. He would become her lab partner, the person she bounced ideas off of and shared triumphs and disappointments with. The truly difficult work of starting a new lab, the constant quest for funding, grants and other studies. Trying to formulate new experiments that would be found worthy of significant money. The many years of struggle, constant paperwork and the tweaking of ideas. The chapters on plants, trees and seeds were illuminating but sometimes a bit mind boggling.. still learned and immeasurable amount there too.

I was blown away by the clarity of her writing, her passion, her vulnerability all of which shone through in this book. Her honesty with her doubts, mistakes and the hard work that this type of career entails. This is a book to reread there is so much information in it about the nature we see out of our windows and take for granted. She showed me a whole different way of looking at these things. Simple wonderful.

ARC from publisher.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
This is a book about studying plants, but also and mostly a book about being a non-neurotypical woman finding her way in a still-often-hostile world while loving science beyond measure. She’s deeply, deeply weird in a way I recognize, with a knack for turning a phrase and some nice subtle uses of plant development to contrast with her own life story.… (more)
LibraryThing member bragan
Hope Jahren is a geobiologist, which, in her case, seems to involve doing a lot of studies on plants, and a lot of mass spectrometer experiments designed to figure out things about plants and their environments using isotope ratios.

In Lab Girl, she talks about various aspects of her life and her career: growing up in a family who seldom spoke to each other; the painstaking care with which she goes about doing science and the careless neglect that seems to have characterized much of her personal life; the struggles of scientists to get funding and her particular difficulties as a woman in science; her struggles with bipolar disorder; her somewhat strange but very deep connection with her lab assistant/bff; her love of plants; and the ways in which she has grown in her life.

She intersperses all of these personal musings with short, sometimes rather poetic descriptions of how plants grow and survive and reproduce. These chapters generally reflect in a metaphorical fashion on things in her own life, but she never pushes that so far it starts to feel artificial or cute. And they're kind of fascinating. I know they got me thinking in slightly new ways about the trees I pass every day on my way to work, almost without seeing them.

The writing is good, but a little odd, in a hard-to-describe way. It somehow feels simultaneously intimate and distancing, but maybe that's appropriate, because it very much reflects the sense you get of the author and her self-image. She does come across as a bit of a weird person (and her aforementioned research partner/best buddy even more so), but in an interesting way. Sometimes she made me laugh -- she and the people she surrounds herself with seem to be masters of expressing affection via humorous shit-talking -- and sometimes she made me roll my eyes at her a little -- seriously, lady, you should not need to experience a bad accident to know you should wear a seat belt! -- but she's definitely not boring. Even if she does capture very well the un-glamous tedium that is such a large part of scientific research and so seldom acknowledged.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
As a former female scientist this book appealed to me even before I read it. Hope Jahren has a Ph.D. in soil science and has taught and run her own lab in three different institutions. On the other hand I only obtained a B.Sc., never did graduate work, never taught and always worked for some other scientist. So we don't have a lot in common but nevertheless I found her memoir fascinating. I listened to this book which was read by the author.

Hope grew up in Minnesota, born to Scandinavian parents who were emotionally distant. Her father taught science at a community college and Hope (and her brothers) spent quite a bit of time in his lab while he was working. Perhaps this is what kindled her interest in science; she certainly never seemed to doubt that her field would be some branch of science. She must have been a prodigy since she obtained a cum laude Bacherlor's degree at the age of 21 and was accepted to University of California, Berkeley where she obtained her Ph.D 5 years later. While at Berkeley she met Bill Hagopian, another science student, who would become her friend and lab supervisor for all her subsequent work. They would pull all-nighters to get projects done and laugh and joke continuously. Bill was able to fix anything, a valuable trait when funds were scarce. Jahren worked first at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Although her salary was paid by the institute, the funds to run the lab and pay Bill had to come from grants. In the early days, before Jahren had established a reputation, grant funding was hard to obtain. At one point Bill was living out of his vehicle and when he couldn't do that anymore he lived in a room in the lab. After three years Jahren moved to John Hopkins University in Baltimore and Bill moved along with her. Despite the close nature of their relationship it never became a romance and in Baltimore Jahren met the man she would marry, Clint Conrad. An offer from the University of Hawaii convinced her to move her lab there primarily because it offered more stability for Bill. Jahren and Conrad had a son in Hawaii but the pregnancy was a time of anxiety because she had no good example to follow to learn how to parent She also was diagnosed with manic depression prior to becoming pregnant and had to go off all her medication while she was pregnant. Once her son was born Jahren seemed to become less manic, less anxious and she talks about her son and her husband with great love. Her work is still her passion and probably always will be but it is nice to see that she can enjoy other segments of her life.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
It wasn't until the end of this book that the author confessed to being a poet and lifelong writer. Not surprising after reading the lyrical prose in Lab Girl. I loved this book. Dr. Jahren is the common man's scientist. What she tells us about this living earth is easy to understand, fun to read, and important to know. The book is a loosely based memoir so she let's us see the "inner" Hope as she grew up and as she became her own person. A large part of the book is also her career-long partnership/friendship with Bill, her lab partner and best friend who has worked with her at every lab since college. It is a beautiful relationship. Coincidentally, I planted my very first tree, a bald cypress, 3 months ago and have been treating it as a newborn. I love seeing the daily changes as it grows. Reading this book has made me appreciate this tree so much more as well as providing me with new knowledge to better care for it.… (more)
LibraryThing member eun410
Botany plus a wonderful memoir
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
This memoir by a scientist, a botanist, was interesting for the most part. I enjoyed learning more about plant life, and felt a bit guilty while thinning seedlings in my vegetable garden.

I absolutely hated reading about the gorilla in a roadside zoo-type attraction. I hate that the author went there. I hate that animals live decades in misery for our entertainment and the owners' profits.

It seems that every time I read a memoir lately, it is about someone with mental health issues, someone who needs medication. While I am happy that the medication is helping, reading about it gets tiresome. I wanted to read about plants and the science thereof, and I got too much very personal information.

Still, this was an interesting book. But my heart breaks for that gorilla and the others like him.

I borrowed this audio edition from my local library.
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LibraryThing member meandmybooks
Hmmm. Well, I liked some aspects of this one a whole lot better than others, but on the whole it was interesting and memorable. The parts of the book concerning the lives of plants are Wonderful. Really fascinating. The stuff about her work on soils is good too, but Jahren's gift for conveying her passion and enthusiasm for plants made this non-scientific reader, at least, feel “enlightened” and swept into an astonishing new world of familiar-but-unfamiliar living creatures, who act with an intentionality one never would have imagined. The stories of her lab and field work are captivating, the science beautifully explained, and the character of Bill, her heroically patient, deeply bizarre lab assistant, adds interest and also helps us see a more sympathetic side to our prickly narrator. The memoir sections, which form a substantial part of the book, are, for me, less enjoyable. Jahren, sensitive, self-absorbed, and arrogant, is not a character with whom I easily sympathize. I can well believe that the career of a woman scientist is particularly challenging, but Jahren goes on about the various injustices she faced at wearying length. Additionally, too much of the book is about her issues relating to her undemonstrative mother and her feelings of being “different.” She is a poster child for “special snowflake,” and, despite the genuineness of her challenges, especially her truly harrowing bouts of severe mental illness, I got more than a little tired of her woes. Towards the end of the book, however, the tone changes completely and my grumpy intention of giving this 3 stars (the skillful science writing itself deserves 4) disappeared. Her emergence as a loving, joyful mother, particularly, warmed my heart. Even in the most self-pitying parts of the book Jahren can be very funny, and she clearly acknowledges her own over-the-top drama.

So, I recommend this for readers with an interest in the subject – a young woman's early years and career as a scientist – with a couple reservations. First, there is a lot about Jahren's struggles, both with coming to terms with her distant mother, and with serious mental illness. Second, her literary references, in the early part of the book, struck me irritatingly as forced and pretentious, and her editor would have done well to suggest that she take a second look at the ending of Great Expectations, which I think she does not remember as well as she imagines. Still, I think that the strengths of the book outweigh these weaknesses (and for many readers my first complaint may actually add interest, it just wasn't something I enjoyed), and Jahren beautifully conveys the excitement and wonder that have inspired her to devote herself to a life of scientific investigation.
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LibraryThing member klburnside
Lab Girl is a memoir/science-y book written by Hope Jahren, an award winning geobiologist. In the book she writes of both her career and personal life, and also gives a lot of information about the complex world of plant life.

Jahren is a dedicated, inspiring, and talented individual, and her passion for what she does seeps through the pages. I admire her deep reverence for the natural world and her insatiable curiosity. I also appreciate her honesty in talking about her struggles with manic depression and all the doubts and setbacks she experienced along the way.

Jahren writes a lot about Bill, her lab partner and best friend. They work together, travel together, and have done so for years, all while Jahren is happily married. I found their relationship intriguing, and like that it doesn't really fit neatly into any box. They obviously care about each other and that is what matters.

On a side note, I just read an interesting article about Jahren taking over Seventeen Magazine's #ManicureMonday, which encourages people to post pictures of their manicures and nail art. Jahren instead encouraged people to post pictures of their hands doing things, manicured nails or not. Hoping to remind girls and women that what you do with your hands is just as beautiful as what they look like, the twitter feed totally changed, and the next Monday instead of manicured nails, the feed was full of women's hands taking samples from plants, holding test tubes and fossils, and doing other science things. I liked that.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
I was drawn to this book after reading a short biographical sketch of Hope Jahren in Time magazine’s special edition of “The 100 Most Influential People.” I’d never heard of this prize-winning scientist before and wanted to know more about her. In the article, she was headlined as being “science’s great communicator.” That stunning phrase sold me: I just had to buy her book. There is nothing I love better than to read brilliant science authored by an accomplished academic who also writes eloquently.

The book took me two days to finish and held my interest throughout. But in the end, the book was as equally fascinating as it was disappointing. It also left me frustrated. Let me explain.

The memoir takes up perhaps two thirds of the text, but interspersed throughout are many small chapters, each illuminating some small facet of botany. Virtually every one of these life-science essays was exquisitely written and intellectually enchanting. I loved them! In many ways they reminded me of some of the best science writing of O. E. Wilson. I would definitely buy another book by Jahren that was focused on some popular aspect of geology, chemistry, or botany. These essays were five-star gems…but this book is not getting five stars because those essays only formed a minor part.

As charmed as I was by the book’s botany essays, I was disenchanted (and frustrated) with the biographical chapters. In my view, all lives are fascinating if you scratch deep enough, and Jahren’s life was, indeed, very interesting. But what this author seemed to lack is any deep psychological perception about herself. In so many ways, Jahren seemed like a stranger to her own emotional and psychological landscape. I found that startlingly odd in a woman who was otherwise so incredibly brilliant. I always wanted her to take me deeper, but instead she generally just followed the action. Sometimes her vignettes were intriguing, sometimes amusing, sometimes downright silly (revealing youthful immaturity, lack of judgment, and inexperience)…and a few times, they were bit too technical for my general interest.

Her memoir consisted of a disjointed grouping of chronological stories selected from her life. At the end, the author reveals that she had chosen most of the stories because she and her lab partner, Bill, often reminded each other about them and took great joy in talking about them. If these stories amused the two of them, she was sure they would amuse others…including the reading public.

The stories come from the author’s day-to-day academic experience as a research geochemist and geobiologist. But taken together as a group, the stories actually celebrate the history of her extremely odd, two-decade-long relationship with her lab assistant, Bill. As a whole, the stories puzzled me more than they entertained or amused me…and by the end, the man and their relationship remained more of an enigma than anything else.

“People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me. Are we siblings? Soul mates? Comrades? Novitiates? Accomplices? We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything. We travel together, work together, finish each other’s sentences, and have risked our lives for each other.”

In the end, I found the book incredibly frustrating. There was so much more I wanted to know, but the author never took me there…never revealed those aspects of her life…or those feelings in her heart! Was she guarding them or was she unaware of them? Frankly, I don’t know.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.”

“Being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Hope Jahren is a scientist. Her specialty is paleobiology. She also has a strong passion and dedication to trees.
In this terrific memoir, Jahren describes her early life in Minnesota and her growing fascination with nature and the art of discovery. She then discusses her rise through the scientific ranks, with all the various successes and pitfalls, that crop up, along the way. She is currently a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii.
Jahren takes the reader through her personal life, dealing with a bipolar disorder and starting a family. She also happens to be a very good writer and she offsets the drier, scientific analysis, with clarity and dazzling prose.
Narrative nonfiction has really been shining, these past few years and I can gladly add Lab Girl, to the mix.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
Author Hope Jahren is a paleobotanist who, in this wonderful memoir, shares her life as a scientist. Her infectious enthusiasm comes through in every page.

Chapters alternate between amazing stories of plants and her journey as a scientist.

We see her pursuit of her studies and the difficulties and adventures in establishing a lab of her own as she fights for lab space and funding.

It's also a story of a unique friendship as we see her relationship with her lab assistant Bill, also a dedicated researcher as well as a staunch supporter of her work.

And finally, it's a story of her not just living with, but triumphing over her bipolar disorder. She shares her absolutely manic work hours as well as some details of her incredibly brutal pregnancy where she chose so go without medication until the third trimester in order to protect her unborn son.

She weaves these subjects into one really fine whole, and although my review may seem choppy with all the subjects she manages to work in, the book certainly isn't.

Highly recommended; especially for those with interests in plants, science, extraordinary women and bipolar disorder.
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LibraryThing member mountie9
The Good Stuff
I never thought I could become so engrossed and truly mesmerized with a book that talks about plants and flowers
BILL - I won't be able to plant a tree right now, but I will be putting Bill's name on the tree in the park just outside my gate
Such a fascinating, truly complicated women
She made trees, plants and weeds come alive and made them feel human - you will finish reading this book with a true appreciation of all plant/tree life and want to do all you can to protect them
Her writing is extremely poetic on many occasions
Extremely honest and raw
Her description of a depressive episode are so bang on and raw - the courage to be so open about something so personal is so brave
Hopefully will inspire girls to enter the male dominated sciences field
Makes you want to learn more - why oh why must our teachers make science so bloody boring - her passion for her work is thrilling and inspiring
I love the relationship between her and Bill - this is my idea of true friendship
Loved the kids story Bill made up - twisted but love it
Umm the story about Hope's intern who worked in the zoo and had to put antibiotic on the monkeys genitals - yup worth the price of the book
The Not So Good Stuff
The audio version was hard for me to listen to as the author reads the book and while extremely passionate, it was hard to listen to her overwrought voice. This is just a personal observance and no judgement - it was just painful to listen to at times - I had to listen in installments
I now have profound grief about how many plants I have killed over the years and have vowed to change that - bugger do you know how little of a green thumb I have
Her pronunciation of the word "root" is jarring
Favorite Quotes/Passages

“Working in the hospital teaches you that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.”

"We were interrupted by a good natured offer from a drunkish student who was dangerously armed with a guitar."

"Within certain social circles of the married, a single women over the age of 30 inspires compassion similar to that bestowed upon a big friendly stray dog.

4 Dewey's

I borrowed this from Leslie and I don't have to review but well we know I have to share
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LibraryThing member januthomas
Amazing book - heard it on audio - read by the author. Highly, Highly recommend it - will never forget it.
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
This is one of those books that can change the way you view the natural world. A memoir starting with a childhood in rural Minnesota to J life’s passion of being a geobiologist running her own lab in Hawaii. A tale of sacrifice, friendship, passion, and serious dedication with fascinating and detailed insight into the complex and wondrous inner workings of plants. I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member adzebill
Stunning science writing about plant biology interspersed with memoirs of a career in science. A book I'd like to give to all the young women I know starting on a research career; both inspiring and sobering. Yes, as her website says, she sure can write.
LibraryThing member Narshkite
2016 was a truly exceptional year for books. This joins my heap of great reads for this year. The book is so honest, moving, and educational, and says more about the continuing need for feminist policy in the workplace than 100 pundit polemics. I hope Jahren continues to write. I accept we as a world need her as a research scientist, but what we need even more is someone who makes nature truly understandable and personal. If only anyone in the US's incoming government read I would suggest they read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
Get prepared to plant a tree! A must read for anyone in--or aspiring to--a career in the earth sciences, as well as anyone who makes decisions regarding their funding. If you know any hopelessly discouraged researchers, you just found their Christmas gift.
LibraryThing member labdaddy4
This is an exceptional book by the author - made even more amazing considering it is her first - not counting multiple scientific papers. Her lyrical, emotional, and insightful insights into the life of a true scientist are eye-opening and a joy to read. This is one I will be recommending to everyone.
LibraryThing member mamzel
Read by the author, this is an honest look at the hardships suffered by a (yest another) male-dominated field. Without any parental support, Hope worked her way through school, and struggled to build labs in various locations to suit her purpose. One could call her a queen of scrounge for the efforts she put in. Along with her underpaid companion, Bill, who usually lived in utter poverty, she managed to do her studies and train a new batch of scientists to boot. Oh, and get married and have a child as well.

Stunning story. It should be read by every high school and college woman who imagines a different life as a female scientist.
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LibraryThing member jjaylynny
I wasn't sure what to make of this book at first; it was not science-y enough to be a memoir about being a female scientist but then I realized that everything the author thinks, feels and writes is informed by her being a scientist; perhaps to (and well known to her) a fault. She's one of those innovative thinkers who can come up with something amazing to study because she's basically a weirdo and a square peg. Her relationship with her friend Bill is absolutely odd, wonderful and hilarious. I looked him up. He appears very normal on the University of Hawaii website. Pity.… (more)
LibraryThing member nmele
One of her web addresses is She sure can write, and she sure can teach based on this book--Jahren taught me a good deal about plants, soil and the struggles of research scientists, along with the obstacles men put in the way of women scientists. This is a moving, funny, fabulous book. Read it if you have not yet done so.… (more)
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Ms. Jahren intertwines her life as an unconventional character in the world of scientific research with snippets of the interesting things she has learned about plant growth. Less science and more exploration of who the author is and how her work reflects her unique life experience, this memoir captures the drive to wonder and to discover… (more)
LibraryThing member wagner.sarah35
A poignant memoir of a female botanist, as she experienced years of struggling for funding, balancing her curiosity for plants with the demands of providing for a scientific laboratory, working with a close friend, and building a life in academia. Fascinating and illuminating about the lot of scientists today, the kind of work scientists do, and how it is funded.… (more)


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Physical description

304 p.; 6.5 inches


1101874937 / 9781101874936
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