Acts of Love

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In this newsletter:
*** Girls Skipping
*** News and Current Projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do
*** Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" Trilogy (part 1)

Girls Skipping

The Christmas holidays have been quiet time for myself – which I find I do not mind at all. I decided to deal with only the very most pressing work obligations over the holidays – such as putting up a Christmas blog on Amazing Stories, or sending out this newsletter. Instead, I started to bring some order into the household, which has turned a bit messy and overgrown for the last couple of months. I wrote some Christmas cards which I sent with the last post before the holiday shutdown, and I caught up with a bit of a backlog of gardening work. I cooked some nice food, and decorated my Christmas tree – an almond, this year.

On Christmas Day, I drove out to the coast and spent a couple of hours lying on the beach reading the end of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, for the second time. I highly recommed reading these books a second time – it's an entirely different story than the first time round. But more of that further below: I have started grappling with the long-promised review, but there is no way I can get my head around it and write it all down before the year is out, and there is a bit more background reading which I ought to do. It is important to me, and those books deserve that someone does a good thorough analysis. The English language reviews I've found on the internet have all been dissapointingly superficial, and often – in my view – missing the point entirely. Maybe there are better essays in Swedish, but I don't read Swedish very well.

I thought I might repeat the beach-and-book experience on Boxing Day, but it was raining. I drove down to the coast anyway, for a bit of a walk. After 10 years of broken car stereo, I can now finally listen to music in my car again, and so I put on some Blondie, and Eurythmics (this is also background research for Stieg Larsson) :).

As I was driving up the little byroads on my way back, I saw a couple of kids who looked like they were dancing to the beat of the song I was listening to. As I came closer, the two girls – a younger and older sister – stood demurely by the roadside until I was past. When I looked in the back mirror, there they were, skipping down the middle of the road. For some reason that made me acutely happy.

There have been so many headlines about girls over the last year or so. Just over a year ago, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head because she insisted on her right to go to school. She has now written a book, and is touring the world making tv appearances as an ambassador for girl's right to education. All girls, everywhere. She has been nominated for the Peace Nobel Prize. Western media have licked her up, and she has been showered with awards, while the girls in Swat still can't go to school. She is 16 years old. When I look at her on tv, I cannot help but think of the term "sacrifice". What are the chances that she will ever be able to lead what might be termed a "normal life"? Kia kaha to her.

Just before Christmas a year ago, a girl on a bus in Delhi made headlines: victim of an unbelievably brutal gang rape by her fellow passengers, she died of her injuries a short time later. I never thought I would say such a thing, but I am glad India still has the death penalty: in my opinion, someone who is capable of what these men did, has no place among the human race. I hope they will be reborn as intestinal worms for the rest of the existence of the universe. The event kicked off street protests all across India, and brought the issue of rape to the forefront of a public debate. Another sacrifice, and an even more brutal one.

As I have been spending so much time reading and thinking about Stieg Larsson's books – and getting mildy addicted to the Swedish movie version – these things have been very much on my mind. Much of what happens in these books is an accurate description of my own experience – not the outright violence, thank God, but certainly the workplace bullying, and the various mechanisms of control and emotional blackmail. I am quite grateful that a man could write that, for it often seems to me that even the most openminded and supportive of men simply lack the experience of the permanent background noise of subtle humiliation, and constant fear of violence, which all women are subject to even in a society like Sweden, which prides itself on being liberal and egalitarian, and places a high value on civil rights and social justice.

So girls skipping down country roads is not something we can take for granted. I've had a discussion recently with a couple of female, intelligent, professionally ambitious artist friends, and they tell me that they hesitate to call themselves feminists. I don't understand that. What is it that they think feminism is? In my view – and this is also something Stieg Larsson makes brutally clear in his writing – the alternative to being a feminist, is being a fascist. And if we – each of us, all of us – don't make an active choice to be feminists, and fight that crap every inch of the way, one day the girl skipping down the country road might become the girl on the bus. For my part, if anything I do or say contributes to ensure that these girls can skip without fear, my life will have been worth living. As long as there are girls skipping down country roads in summer, there is hope for this world.

Happy new year 2014 to my readers!

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Christmas Day at Te Awaiti



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News & Current Projects

Earlier this year, I booked an afternoon in the sound studio and produces two new tracks: Silver Dagger, an American folk song made popular by Joan Baez, which has been available on CD Baby and Amazon for a little while – and a German Christmas carol, Es kommt ein Schiff geladen, which I have just made available on Reverbnation (you can stream it there, or buy and download it). I'm not sure that singing is really my strongest talent – at the least, it could use some more work – but, well, you can judge for yourself. Enjoy!

I've had a few orders for sheet music before Christmas – the last volume of the Huete Dances is now out – as well as some posters and cards from my Etsy shop, which is of course very pleasing. I will definitely work on expanding my range of prints to sell next year! Perhaps there is even a new calendar on the horizon, this time with illustrations rather than photos. Though realistically, that might not happen until 2016 – twelve images is quite a bit of work.

ARTWORK OF THE MONTH: I haven' t had the time or energy to make a new selection this month, so for once, I will leave last month's miniature Angels up on Ebay for another month. They are one-of-a-kind original paintings on a 5 x 7 inch / 12.5 x 18 cm canvas. They ship easily to all parts of the world, and are small enough to fit in your handbag, for some extra heavenly protection – or perhaps just everyday art appreciation. Perfect if you missed out on buying yourself a Christmas present. View my Ebay listings here.

On Amazing Stories, I have kept things seasonal: I've selected some images of Angels, and some Christmas themed art – of the, well, deviant kind. Visit my author page, with a list of all my blog posts on Amazing Stories.

Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds

Asni's garden in December: vegetable beds

The days between Christmas and New Year have been rather rainy – which was actually great, because it was perfect planting weather, and I urgently needed to catch up with some gardening work. I have now planted out all my eggplant, capsicum, and tomato seedlings, and sown some more okra, as well as green beans and borlotto beans. I have also continued to distribute various flower seedlings among my burgeouning flower beds. It's an ongoing process – I need them to be low maintenance, so the aim is to gradually replace grass and weeds with flowers and herbs that will more or less look after themselves. It's not quite there yet, but definitely beginning to take shape.

I've now harvested all my peas – I plan to cook home grown pea soup for my New Year's Eve dinner – and the beetroot and kale have been going strong this month. It's time to start pickling things again: the first of the gherkins are ripe, and the green walnuts have started falling off the tree. Plus, my plums are about to be ripe! The first time the old plum tree has set a proper crop, not just a few isolated fruit.

Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs

Asni's garden in December: flowers and herbs



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Cool Things Friends Do

I haven't had time or energy for a big Christmas feature this year either, but here are a couple of things I would like to share:

My friend Sunila has come up with this excellent idea to do a fundraiser for the victims of the typhoon in the Phillipines: she is selling prints of one of her latest artworks and donating the proceeds. She posted this a little while ago, so it might be best to contact her and make sure the offer is still on – but the consequences of the disaster are by no means over, and I am sure the support is still badly needed. Plus, it really is a pretty rocking piece of art.

All through the 1990's, I worked with an early music group in New York, ARTEK – 458 strings. The director of the group, Gwendolyn Toth, her husband Dongsok, and their three children became something of an extended family – I used to stay at their flat on the Upper West Side whenever I went over for a project. The youngest of the kids, Adrian, was still in a baby stroller the last time I saw them – unlike his two older sisters, I didn't get to know him properly. But apparently he is now pretty much grown up – and he is a really good figure skater! Gwen posted this video of one of his performances on Facebook recently, and I just have to pass it on. I loved to watch the figure skating on tv when I was a kid, so watching this makes me go all gooey – I knew that guy when he was a baby in a stroller! I bet Gwen and Dongsok they never told their kids they couldn't. :)

 

 



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Acts of Love: Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy – part 1

*** SPOILER WARNING: this essay reveals major plot points in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy : Men Who Hate Women (aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – The Girl who Played with Fire – The Cloud Castle Blew Up (aka The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest)

So I've been promising my readers a proper review of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy. Where to begin?

First of all, let me state right away that it has been a long, long time since I have been so impressed by any piece of writing. Not just the bravery of putting the topic of violence against women out there in the spotlight – the pervasiveness of it, which, despite our so-called "gender equality", continues to be permissible in our society – in what turned out to become a major international best-seller, with associated (also very successful) film productions.

The Swedish title of the first novel translates literally as "Men who hate women" – which is an allusion to a much-quoted line from Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch: "Women have very little idea of how much men hate them". Lisbeth is, on one level, a metaphor for the repression of all women in patriarchal society. Everything that happens to her – declaring her legally incompetent, withdrawing control of her finances, brutalizing and bullying and then punishing her when she defends herself, the refusal to listen to her side of the story, and of course, declaring her insane – are all things which have been identified by Greer and other feminist writers, as mechanisms by which patriarchal society aims to control women – particularly those who are unruly.

In other words, these books are pure feminist theory in the form and shape of a hugely popular bestseller. About time, too! Perhaps we shouldn't believe those "marketing experts" who tell us that stories dealing with loaded, difficult topics don't sell, and that all people really want to see and hear about are plenty of orcs being beheaded. Maybe women actually buy books, and maybe women actually want to read about issues that concern them, and by that I don't mean lipstick and bubble bath. A revolutionary thought in many a publisher's marketing department, I bet!

But what I am most impressed by, is the sheer craft of writing. The trilogy features a vast cast of characters, multiple strands of action at all times, and a plot line that would have to seem convoluted in the extreme, if it were not for the fact that it sits on a rock tight fundament of symmetry and recurring themes. There is a richness of episode and detail which one might think, is sometimes there just for the sake of it – but on closer inspection, there is almost nothing in this novel that does not foreshadow, reflect or illustrate some other aspect of the characters or storyline – that provides contrast or explanation for something that happens elsewhere in the book, or helps to fill out the picture when it comes to driving home the message of the story. Plot lines are seemingly dropped, only to reappear at a later stage, which helps to forge the disparate strands of the narrative into one conclusive whole. And the ending – the last scene of the third book, which seems so frustratingly open and inconclusive at first, turns out to be tying up the remaining loose ends neatly with a bow. It's the happiest end this story could possibly have without completely ruining it, as far as I'm concerned. I'll get back to that.

The style of writing is unpretentious and straightforward, full of acute observation and factual detail, and it really does the trick of drawing the reader in. I have read the books in the English translation, so any judgement about the quality of writing is of course tempered by that fact. Stieg Larsson was a journalist by profession, and this shows: he reports incidents, conversations, and people's inner monologue with a sort of factual objectivity which refrains from interpretation – emotional, moral, or otherwise. He leaves it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions. It may even be that challenging the reader to read between the lines, and put together parts of a puzzle to fully understand what is going on, is a deliberate part of the author's game. It is, after all, a journalistic virtue to "question and scrutinize most critically" and not literally believe everything one hears and reads – and puzzles of various kinds play a major part in the plot.

This journalistic objectivity is particularly evident in the description of various acts of violence which occur in the book. Some people have complained that they find the amount of violence gratuitous and voyeuristic, but I don't agree. There has certainly been an upsurge in graphic descriptions of ever more horrid and bizarre acts of violence in popular literature (and film) in recent years, which is often an attempt to titillate the jaded palates of audiences with ever heavier shock factors. I have read passages in books, and seem tv shows, which I have found viscerally nauseating. But the Millennium trilogy is absolutely not one of them.

Violence against women, in its various forms, is the topic of these books – therefore the acts of violence that occur are anything but gratuitous. They are an integral part of the book's message. I don't find the descriptions very graphic either: Rather than dwelling on gushing blood and body fluids, or on the experience of pain, the relevant scenes are delivered in a distanced, precise, almost police report style. Stieg Larsson has claimed that every act of violence that is described in the books is based on a real crime, and lifted from actual police reports. "Reality is worse" was his response to his editor, when he was asked if he couldn't tone it down a bit. And the horrid sexual murders Lisbeth and Mikael uncover in the first book? Those gruesome descriptions are quotations from the Bible.

Incidentally, this also goes for the treatment of sex in the novel: for the amount of times that various people sleep with each other, there is hardly any explicit description – and none of the often highly unrealistic, semi-pornographic titillation which seems to be an obligatory feature of most any adult novel these days. We know that it happens, but we don't get to play peeping Tom. The most explicit scene is when Lisbeth first crawls into Mikael's bed – and they are both so matter of fact about it that it is funny and a little quaint, rather than a turn-on.

This narrative detachment also applies to the character's inner monologue and emotions. The first time I read the novels, I was deceived into thinking that the emotions various characters express to themselves and each other, reflect an "all-knowing" point of view – that what they state about themselves, is what the author wants us to think. On second reading – knowing where the plot will go – it becomes entirely obvious that the character's inner monologue frequently reflects their own self-deception. It is a narrative trick I seem to fall for every time: a little while ago, I wrote about M. M. Kaye's novel Trade Wind, where a very similar thing occurs.

It rather reminds me of one of those laser-engraved holographic images, which look like one thing when looked at from one side, and an entirely different thing when looked at from the other side. One can choose to believe what the characters say and think on the page, and read the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth as a short-term love affair they enter into mainly because the other person is there, and which sort of peters out into a tentative friendship in the end, while Mikael continues in his old philandering ways, and Lisbeth in her reclusiveness. In that case, Mikael's motivation for doing what he does would be based on a sense of debt and gratitude toward Lisbeth – she saved his life and restored his professional career in the first book, so he saves her life and restores her freedom in book two and three – and besides, her story really is the mother of a journalistic scoop.

Or one can pay attention to the character's actions, and read between the lines what it is they don't say – and then it becomes the story of two people who are absolutely passionately in love with each other practically from the moment go, but who are so desperately scared of screwing up, of not being able to cope, of not being the right person for the other, that they fight tooth and nail against admitting that feeling even to themselves, let alone to each other.

On that level, the story acquires quite an operatic, 19th century style epicness. There is grand passion, and a sense of fatedness in the relationship between Mikael and Lisbeth. I'd been wondering where I had read something like it before, and it struck me that their story shares quite a few elements with one of Selma Lagerlöf's most famous novellas, En herrgårdssägen (The Tale of a Manor). There is a similar symmetry: Gunnar Hede, the male protagonist, puts in a good word for Ingrid, a beggar girl who tags around with a group of circus artists, but is unable to learn acrobatic tricks. She never forgets him: eventually she finds him again, but he has gone insane. Through her love and persistence, Ingrid is able to cure him. Several motives from this story recur in the Millennium trilogy: The mental illness (though not real, in Lisbeth's case). Ingrid is at one stage buried alive. In the large manor house which Hede's family owns, only a few rooms are being occupied – just like in Lisbeth's flat. And the final words of the novella could almost be a motto for Lisbeth and Mikael: "Hede thought he could never tell her how much he loved her. He could not say it with words, only show her every day and every hour throughout their whole long life".

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Stieg Larsson's books have been marketed as "crime novels" – riding, to some extend, on the back of the success of other Scandinavian writers in that genre, most notably Henning Mankell. Most every review I have read insists on putting them in that context. And to the superficial reader, they seem to have all the elements of a genre thriller: plenty of murders, plenty of suspects, a jaded, middle-aged journalist turned private detective who falls into bed with a bunch of different women, and a chain smoking, revolver toting, strangely mesmerizing young woman who has a big dark secret in her past. Though in Lisbeth Salander's case, instead of a revolver she totes a taser and a canister of pepper spray. Plus, she is extremely good with computers.

All the trappings are there: but as it turns out, they are merely costume. Underneath, these novels are crime novels only in the sense that Dostojevski's "Crime and Punishment" or "The Brothers Karamasov" are crime novels: Crimes – several of them – play an important part in the plot, but the novels aren't really very concerned at all with "whodunit".

The 40 year old murder which Mikael Blomkvist is hired to investigate in the first book, has not actually taken place. Instead, he and Lisbeth uncover a whole ream of other crimes, and a psychopathic killer still very active in the present. Lisbeth also becomes the victim of an entirely unrelated crime, which will play out in the second and third book of the trilogy (but we have no doubt who committed it). And between them, Mikael and Lisbeth bring a dead woman back to life, metaphorically speaking.

The murder investigation takes up only the central portion of the first novel: the story kicks off with Mikael's trial for libel against the corrupt financier Wennerström – a setup, which all but finishes Mikael's journalistic career, for the time being – and it ends with Wennerström's comeuppance, and Mikael's professional rehabilitation, courtesy of the incriminating documents which Lisbeth, the master hacker, has provided him with. Lisbeth turns things to her advantage in her own way, by helping herself to a large chunk of Wennerström's illegally acquired funds, and thereby secures her own financial independence for the rest of her life.

The second book comes disguised as a police procedural. We aren't so much concerned with who *has* committed the murders, but with who has not – Lisbeth, who, through a chain of unfortunate events, is wrongly accused of shooting three people. Although admittedly, the reader is left to doubt for quite a while if it might not after all have been her. The novel then focuses on the consequences this has for Lisbeth: the biased police investigation, which is working on false premises – a paper trail of injustices which have dogged Lisbeth since she was a child – and the media smear campaign she is being subjected to as a result of it.

Mikael takes it upon himself to investigate the murders in order to prove Lisbeth's innocence. In the process, he gradually unravels her past. Lisbeth, meanwhile, is driven to take matters into her own hands. This leads to a bloody showdown, during which Lisbeth winds up with a bullet in her head, and buried alive. Fortunately, Mikael has been hot on her trail, and while he can't prevent her getting hurt, he does arrive in time to call the ambulance.

The murder which happens at the beginning of the third book, is not a mystery at all – there are plenty of witnesses to who has shot Alexander Zalachenko in his hospital bed. But neither is it very important: from the reader's point of view, what Zalachenko got is only what he deserved, and his execution at the hands of an old retired former Security Police officer is just one blip in a long, long series of crimes and corruption stretching all the way back to Lisbeth's tormented childhood, and beyond.

The genre this third book plays around with is "Spy novel". It picks up seamlessly where the second part left off, forming one continuous narrative arc. It culminates in Lisbeth's trial – which mirrors Mikael's trial at the beginning of the first book. But unlike Mikael, Lisbeth fights back with all she's got, and in the process gathers allies all the way to the Prime Minister.

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There are also overtones of a fantasy or fairy tale. Besides being a consummate investigative journalist, Stieg Larsson was also involved in the Swedish Science Fiction society, and an avid reader of speculative fiction. Which did not surprise me in the least when I learned the fact: despite being strictly grounded in actual locations and contemporary society, the Millennium trilogy strikes many of the same themes as the more socially conscious of speculative fiction has been addressing for the last couple of decades or so – feminist theory being one of them.

Lisbeth has aspects of a supernatural being – she might be an elf or a witch, who appears in Mikael's life and waves her magic wand, then disappears without a trace. She does magic with her computer, and she inhabits a secret hidden flat which only the person with the right key and password can find. Her mental abilities and physical agility verge on superpowers. There are also hints that she can turn herself into a dragon – an idea that links her to another damaged child, Therru/Tehanu from Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series.

Mikael's mission to prove Lisbeth's innocence is quite explicitly framed as knight-errantry – Mikael refers to the group of people who come together to help Lisbeth as "The Knights of the Idiotic Table". It might be knight-errantry of the Don Quixotic kind – most of Mikael's heroic deeds prove quite ineffectual: unlike Lisbeth, who saves Mikael's life with a well-aimed golf bat in a typical – if gender-inverted – "damsel in distress" situation in the first book, Mikael arrives in Gosseberga too late: Lisbeth has already taken care of the dragon, so to speak. But he still saves her life by patching her up, and seeing to it that she gets to hospital.

He also single-handedly takes on Ronald Niederman, the terminator-like killer who is capable of breaking a policeman's neck with his bare hands: many people have commented on how unlikely it is that Lisbeth can single-handedly beat up two bikers, but no one so far has pointed out just how unlikely Mikael's feat is when he trusses up Niederman with a belt loop he has learned in military service twenty years ago, and chains him to a "moose crossing" sign. Sadly, it is all in vain: an incompetent police officer lets Niederman escape, and Lisbeth will have to get him sorted out herself in the end.

The mass media campaign Mikael plans and works for in order to influence Lisbeth's trial, proves quite unnecessary too: Lisbeth has already won the trial, and thanks to Constitutional Protection getting involved, the members of the "Section" have already been arrested by the time Mikael's special issue of Millennium hits the shelves. Still – without his research and advocacy, none of this would have happened. And in the end, what matters most for Lisbeth is that he cares enough to do all these things: she has seen so much of the worst of humanity, that the mere fact that someone like Mikael exists, might make all the difference between wanting to die, and wanting to live.

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The comparison with Dostojevski is not random: Stieg Larsson's novels really do have that kind of scope. Among other things, they are an investigation of human relationships, early 21th century style – in a sexually liberated society, where casual relationships are freely available, and physical intimacy is no longer an indicator of the depth or "seriousness" of a commitment – unlike in the olden days, when people wooed and married first, and then had sex (unless they were scoundrels or whores). How do we even know when we are in love, or if the relationship we are in is casual, committed, or somewhere in-between? What constitutes a happy end to a love story, if women no longer regard the acquisition of a good husband as their main aim in life, and "they married and lived happily ever after" (or the 20th century update, "they lived happily and had lots of highly unrealistic sex") -- no longer cuts it?

*** To be continued ***

Arohanui, from Asni



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