‘I didn’t want to have this idea. It hunted me down.” The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

October 21, 2020 at 7:10 pm (Book review, books)

Three teenagers – siblings who live in a village near Oxford – are walking home from school when they catch sight of a boy, similar to them in age, lying in a field adjacent to the road that they themselves are walking along. He is quite still, seemingly insensate.

They – Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan – cross the field for a closer inspection. It is obvious that the boy is injured. Hurt, but alive. In fact, they each hear him whisper a single word: cow? coward? cowslip?

Watching the vein pulsing in his temple, his chest rising and falling, he had sensed that the boy had made his way to a place of safety; to wake him would be to hurl him back into hardship.

From this incident, an engrossing narrative unfolds. Matthew takes it on himself to discover the identity of the boy’s assailant, while Zoe pursues a love affair with an older American whom she has met by chance. Duncan – the youngest, an adoptee, a gifted artist and an especially lovable child, decides to launch a quest for his “first mother.” They are each, in other words, on a quest.

The three should not have been walking home from school, to begin with. Their father, a man with a most unusual profession, was supposed to pick them up. But he failed to appear. There was a reason.
**************

Some years ago, a book group I was in discussed an earlier novel by Margot Livesey. I believe it was  The House on Fortune Street. I’ve always meant to read another novel by this author. Now I have, and I loved it. I slowed down the pace of my reading toward the end, hating the thought of finishing it.

Highly, highly recommended.

Margot Livesey

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The Deepest South of All: True Stories from Natchez, Mississippi, by Richard Grant

October 14, 2020 at 3:28 pm (Book review, books)

This is Natchez:

Monmouth Plantation

 

Rosalie Mansion

 

Stanton Hall

Dunleith Historic Inn

So is this:

Author Richard Grant is clearly fascinated by the history of Natchez, its present day existence, and the people who call it home. In addition, Grant, a native of Great Britain, brings a unique perspective to the stories he relates and the individual denizens with whom he engages.

The Deepest South of All brings to life many aspects of this singular place, but what comes through again and again, is the struggle by the city’s people to come to terms with its past.

The town and the surrounding area contain the greatest concentration of antebellum homes in the American South, including some of the most opulent and extravagant. Looking at these Federal, Greek Revival, and Italianate mansions, their beauty seemed inseparable from the horrors of the regime that created them. The soaring white columns, the manacles, the dingy apartment buildings at the Forks of the Road, the tendrils of Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled old trees, the humid fragrant air itself: everything seemed charged with the lingering presence of slavery, in a  way that I’d never experienced anywhere else.

(I should mention that at first glance, The Deepest South of All reminded me of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But whereas that book took a somewhat bemused, not to mention highly entertaining look at the city of Savannah and its curious customs – I vividly recollect the ‘Married Women’s Card Parties’ – The Deepest South of All is, in my view, decidedly more somber, both in tone and in content.)

Threading its way throughout this narrative is a story stranger than fiction: that of a prince from the nation of Guinea. He was called Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori, also known as Ibrahima.   There is also a documentary on this subject, available on Amazon Prime. Here is a trailer:

As much as I liked this book and in particular appreciated Grant’s terrific writing, I was frustrated by two seemingly inexplicable omissions. First, there were no photographs or illustrations of any kind; second, there was no bibliography save mention of the book pictured above. In my opinion, The Deepest South of All would benefit greatly by being reissued in a larger format with illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography.

Even in its present form, this book would be an excellent choice for a book group discussion.

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The Minotaur by Barbara Vine; or, I should have known what would happen….

October 4, 2020 at 8:20 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

It was late one night. I was reading more and enjoying it less – sometimes as many as five different titles at once!. Like everyone else, I was slowly going covid- confinement crazy. Suddenly I was notified via email that I could download a title by Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell for a reasonable sum. 

I knew I’d read The  Minotaur when it came out in 2005. I remembered virtually nothing about it. So why not? I downloaded it, and began reading, just to remind myself of the story. Two days later, having ignored everything else I was reading, I finished it.

Well. What did I expect? The power of Rendell’s narratives still amazes me. I was hooked, hopelessly, from the first page.

A young woman named Kerstin Kvist travels from her native Sweden to England. She has a boyfriend in London whom she wants to spend time with. But they are not yet at the stage of moving in together, so she must find somewhere to stay. A friend recommends that she apply for a position in the Essex countryside with a family named Cosway. They have a mentally disabled son and desire someone to provide some companionship for him and at the same time to watch over him and keep him from harm.

Thus does Kerstin come to live with the Cosways. The family consists of the mother Julia, four daughters, and John, the afflicted son. All save one of the daughters live in Lydstep Old Hall, the family manor house. Ida, the eldest daughter, is the family drudge, doing virtually all the housework including meal preparation. The next two daughters, Ella and Winifred, are eccentric but in radically different ways. Zorah, the youngest, is independently wealthy, coming and going from Lydstep at erratic, unpredictable times.

I have to say, they are among the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. Despite wanting to yell at them at regular intervals, I could not stop reading about them.

I should mention that this story is told in retrospect, in the first person. It actually takes place in the nineteen sixties, although you’d hardly know it, so isolated do Old Lydstep Hall and its inhabitants seem to be.

It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I found this book so compelling. You do get the sense, right from the start, that events are building towards some awful climax. Rendell is a master at creating an atmosphere of accumulating dread. The only authors I know that are her equal in this dire craft are Ian McEwan and Edgar Allan Poe.

By the by, a strange thing about the narrator. The proper Swedish pronunciation of her name, Kerstin,  is ‘Shashtin.’ I verified this by means of Google Translate. Not that I actually doubt it: Ruth Rendell’s mother was born in Sweden to Danish parents  and brought up in Denmark. (Her father was English.) The pronunciation of her name is at issue throughout the novel.

Oh, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, how I do miss the unforced genius that flowed from your pen! But I will be returning to your oeuvre more frequently, now that I know that it can still exerts such power over me.

Ruth Rendell (aka Barbara Vine) 1930-2015

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Introducing Ketupa Blakistoni!

October 3, 2020 at 6:34 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

 
The enigmatic fish owls, when they appear, are surprisingly un-owl-like, not  gliding down from the trees so much as “dropping” like sacks. At a meter high,they are at once imposing and comical, a jumble of feathers with ragged, twitching ear tufts.
So states Tucker Malarkey, the wonderfully named New York Times reviewer. “They seem endearingly awkward creatures,” he later adds, “stalking the river bank like hunched feathery gnomes, peering for glimmers of fish, then hurling themselves talon-first into  the current.”
 
  One can only be grateful that Jonathan Slaght and his Russian counterparts willingly expend so much time, energy, money on their quest, the nature of which is to survey  the Blakiston fish owl population with a view to aiding the conservation of this endangered species. This research involves much slogging through ice cold conditions, both wet and dry, in Primorye, a maritime territory in Russia’s  Far East. There’s also a great deal of waiting around. This requires much patience on the part of the researchers, and also, at times, on the reader’s part.
 
But persevere, I exhort you! There are numerous enjoyable anecdotes recounted along the way. You will encounter some wonderful writing:
 

The frost overnight had formed a crust on the deep snow, bearing the owl’s weight and yielding just enough to leave clear, crisp indentations on the sparkling surface. The owl had walked with a calm swagger, each toe pad clearly articulated and its two hind talons raking lines in the snow like a spur-heeled cowboy in the rodeo dust. The sun glistened brilliantly off the marks, scars on a field of diamonds. It was beautiful, and I felt almost like a voyeur: the owl had been here in darkness and secret, but the snow left evidence of its path for me to marvel at.

The outcome with regard to conservation  is cautiously optimistic. And finally, for his troubles – and they were many! –  Jonathan Slaght earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.
 
I admit that in the course of reading Owls of the Eastern Ice, I fell in love with this wondrous avian being. One of the first things that Slaght tells us about fish owls is that they make a strange, almost unearthly sound when calling to one another in the depths of the forest. You can hear it on the Cornell Ornithology Lab site.
 
Owls of the Eastern Ice was recently nominated for the National Book Award in nonfiction for the year 2020.
 
 

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The Talented Mr. Varg by Alexander McCall Smith

September 20, 2020 at 9:10 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I have just finished The Talented Mr. Varg, sequel to The Department of Sensitive Crimes. I thoroughly enjoyed it, just as I did its predecessor.

In this, the second entry in a new series, Ulf Varg pursues several  cases of possible faithlessness. These cases may also involve legal infractions; in one instance, even blackmail. While all this is going on, Ulf and his neighbor, Mrs. Högfors, are taking solicitous care of Martin, Ulf’s dog. Martin is prone to fits of depression, but has been steadily improving while in the care of a kindly veterinarian.

While all this is transpiring, Ulf must constantly attend to his  feelings for his partner Anna. She’s married, and has two daughters who are champion swimmers. He refuses to be party to the disruption of this comfortable domesticity. Nevertheless…

He rose from his desk glancing at Anna as ho did so. She looked up and caught his glance, and smiled. It was a moment of pure  bliss. Anna was everything. She was decency, courtesy, reliability, motherhood, Sweden, and love. All of that; and all of that. And she was somebody else’s. She was that too, perhaps above all those other things.

There is a sweet sadness – a sad sweetness? – in this novel, as in the numerous others by Alexander McCall Smith. It keeps them from being saccharine or sentimental. I was searching for a term to describe this quality, and I think I’ve found it: poignancy. The Oxford English dictionary defines this word as “The quality of evoking a keen sense of sadness or regret.

I recently led a discussion of The Department of Sensitive Crimes with my fellow crime fiction lovers in the Usual Suspects group. We mulled over the question of whether to classify it as a cozy mystery.    We decided that although some of the characteristics of that subgenre were present in the novel, it nevertheless featured other aspects that led to deeper waters. To wit: This is a thought that Ulf ponders as a session with his psychotherapist draws to a close:

Freud, he remembered, died of a disease that affected his jaw. Alone in London, with enemies circling, that illuminating intelligence, liberating in its perspicacity, flickered and died, leaving us to face the darkness and the creature that inhabited it.

For the record, Sigmund Freud died in September of 1939, of cancer of the jaw. He was 83 years old. My researches into the life and interests of Alexander McCall Smith revealed that he is an avid reader of philosophy.

 

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I’ve been doing tons of reading – really!

September 13, 2020 at 3:12 pm (Book review, books)

I just haven’t been writing about it. I shall try to remedy that state of affairs, if only partly.

First, the most challenging:

This is from the August 11 New York Times review by Mark Oppenheimer:

In 2012, the Harvard scholar Karen King announced what she believed to be an extraordinary discovery: a second-century papyrus fragment with a text hinting that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as it became known, tapped into a plot point from “The Da Vinci Code” that had already helped King’s academic treatise on Mary Magdalene become a best seller with a mass audience.

That about sums it up. I can only add that behind this summary there is a huge amount of information concerning the dating of papyrus fragments, the deciphering of Coptic language passages, and lots more arcane data that, for  this reader at least, was too much to take in and make sense of. Along with this, there was a large cast of characters, mainly experts in specialties of which I for one was barely aware. At every turn, the book threatened to become unreadable. It was only through sheer force of will that I made my way through to the end.

I should mention, though, that midway through this weighty and solemn tome, there’s a totally unexpected segue into the doings of a Florida couple who are part of a fun loving swingers group, complete with explicit video footage. “Southwest Florida has a vibrant swingers’ community,” author Ariel Sabar informs us. He enlarges on the subject  thus:

Couples can get to know one another at brick-and-mortar clubs with names like Eyz Wide Shut, Master’s Quest and the Woodshed. In one online forum, Fritz’s wife mentioned performing with a well-known scenester named Art Hammer, who was featured in a VICE channel TV miniseries on “the lifestyle: the insatiable wives and their cuckolded white husbands….”

Well, you get the idea. In the midst of this hyper-intellectual tome, this section was a startling presence. All I could think was, Who knew? Certainly not I, a former Floridian myself. Needless to say, the pace of reading picked up considerably at this juncture! But be assured, things settled back down in short order. And the pace became arduous once again.

If this is an area of interest for you, then  by all means, read Veritas. Or, if you just wish to push your brain a bit. Otherwise, like me, you might be a bit overwhelmed.

I have to add that Ariel Sabar did a prodigious amount of research. I deeply admire the effort. Also, Karen King is an interesting person to learn about. I was glad to get to know her, through Sabar’s unrelenting labors in Veritas.

Ariel Sabar

Karen King

 

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‘…one of California’s wildest places–mountain lions, bighorn sheep, abundant reptiles, birds, eye-popping wildflowers, and desert-dwelling arachnids, including scorpions.’ – Then She Vanished by T. Jefferson Parker

September 5, 2020 at 9:11 pm (Book review, books, California, Family, Mystery fiction)

This is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park and one of the most beautiful, otherworldly places I have ever seen.

I was there many years ago, with my sister-in-law Joan. We drove there from Solana Beach, just north of San Diego. I recall the drive in the mountains as being breathtaking, even harrowing. Joan was doing most of the driving. At one point, she asked if I’d like to take over for a little while. Timid soul that I am, I assented, with much trepidation. But as soon as we go going again, I was loving it – it felt like flight! The huge blue sky of southern California lay open before us. A small pink cloud the shape of a sombrero hovered at the horizon. Oh, I can never forget this.

Upon arriving, we checked in at La Casa del Zorro, a lovely spa resort nestled serenely in the desert landscape. We shared a room; it looked much like this one:

I remember Joan asking to borrow my mousse (both of us having super curly  hair). We hiked a gentle uphill grade. We went to the Visitors’ Center, which delighted me with its large selection of books.

We stayed for two nights at ‘The House of the Fox.’

So why am I thinking about this excursion right now? I just finished a mystery/thriller by T. Jefferson Parker called Then She Vanished. Parker is a veteran writer in the field; I’ve read and enjoyed several of his older titles. This one is part of new series featuring a private investigator named Roland Ford. These novels are set in northern San Diego County, where pretty much all of the action of this particular novel takes place. A very crucial part of the story is set in the desert town of Borrego Springs, home to Anza_Borrego Desert State Park. The description in the title of this post is a quote from the novel,  courtesy of Roland Ford.

Then She Vanished is, unsurprisingly, about a woman who goes missing, but it’s about more than that. There’s a terrorist group on the loose, called the Chaos Committee. Some of their pronouncements sound eerily like what we’re currently hearing from extremist groups. Their actions are horrific. So this is the backdrop for the search for one Natalie Strait. Her husband Dalton does not have faith in the efforts of the police, so he has hired Roland Ford to help in locating Natalie.

Parker is a wonderful writer who has lived in Southern California his whole life. So he’s ideally positioned to render this setting vividly. As a person who has spent time there and who loves the place – especially the desert, I’m grateful to him.

Joan has been gone for a little over three years now, and I miss her very much. A kinder, more  genuinely goodhearted person would be hard to find.

 

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‘This was machair, that quintessentially Hebridean landscape–part beach, part sand dune, part field of tiny flowers.’ – The Geometry of Holding Hands, by Alexander McCall Smith

August 30, 2020 at 7:24 pm (Book review, books, Scotland)

  For the past two weeks, I’ve been happily marinating in the works of Alexander McCall Smith. To begin with, I just finished The Geometry of Holding Hands, the latest entry in the Isabel Dalhousie series. Isabel and her beloved Jamie are happily married and now the parents of two little boys, Charlie and Magnus. The dependable presence of Grace, housekeeper and now also child minder, means that Isabel and Jamie can each pursue their somewhat erratic work schedules. Jamie, a bassoonist, plays in area ensembles and also gives music lessons to school age pupils. For her part, Isabel continues to manage and edit the prestigious specialty publication Journal of Applied Ethics. She owns this journal – after a considerable struggle – and is justifiably proud of it.

Isabel also helps out in the delicatessen owned and run by her niece Cat. She fills in when Cat needs an extra pair of hands, frequently performing this service at short notice and with no pay. She enjoys the work, but does feel taken advantage of at times. Jamie also feels this way, on her behalf. The fact that Jamie is actually a long-ago discarded boyfriend of Cat’s can still create awkward situations.

It is, in fact, the fate of Cat’s delicatessen and that of Cat herself that are central to the story. Cat, as anyone knows who has followed this series, is a demanding and difficult person. But she is Isabel’s niece, her only remaining family nearby, someone she feels obligated to care about and watch out for.

Meanwhile, all the hallmarks of McCall Smith’s novels are present here in abundance:  graceful writing, humor, insights into Scottish language and customs, and above all, the consideration of questions of morality – the rightness of our actions and feelings.

Oh and there are references to various cultural figures. I was surprised and pleased by the mention of Gertrude Himmelfarb, “the American historian.” In 2012, an essay by Himmelfarb entitled “The Once-Born and the Twice-Born” appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It had an extremely profound effect on my religious thinking.  To put it more colloquially, I found it mind-boggling. (If the above link doesn’t work for you, trying accessing the Wall Street Journal through ProQuest, which might be available on your local library’s website. It is on ours.)

As usual, McCall Smith takes us deep into the heart and soul of Isabel Dalhousie:

Do I believe in God? she asked herself. She hated being asked that question by others, but was just as uncomfortable asking it of herself. The problem was  that sometimes she said yes, and sometimes no. Or answered evasively, in a way that enabled her to continue to believe in spirituality and its importance, and kept her from the soulless desert of atheism.

‘The soulless desert of atheism’…aye, there’s the rub! Actually, she might profit from a reading of the Himmelfarb essay I referenced above.

Yet always, there is the consolation of the otherworldly beauty of Scotland, as described in the title of this post. And also this:

In a few weeks’ time  the solstice would  be with them, that perfect moment between what had been and what was to come. It would barely get dark then at these northern latitudes, even at midnight; now the sun was still painting the roofs golden at eight o’clock, a gentle presence, a visitor to a Scotland that was more accustomed to  short days and wind and drifting, omnipresent rain. And yet was so beautiful, thought Isabel, so beautiful as to break the heart.

While I was immersed in this novel, I’ve also been preparing to lead a discussion of another McCall Smith novel, The Department of Sensitive Crimes. This is the first in yet another series set in Sweden and featuring Detective Ulf Varg. More on this, following the discussion (to be held via Zoom, of course), but I want to conclude with a snatch of dialog that brought me up short and then made me smile. A contentious married couple, Angel and Baltser, are part of a case Detective Varg is investigating. They are arguing about whether the spa that they’re struggling to make a go of might have ghosts on the premises:

“I think the place might be haunted,” she said. “There might be one of those…what do you call those things? Polter…”

“Poltergeists,” said Ulf.

“Yes, one of those.”

Baltser shook his head. “Nonsense,” he said. “Ghosts don’t exist.”

Angel gave him a sharp look. “How do you know?” she asked. “If you’ve never seen one, how do you know they don’t exist?

Baltser frowned. “I can’t see how to answer that question,” he said.

Angel clearly felt that her point had been made. “Well, there you are.”

Alexander McCall Smith

 

 

 

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A book that shouldn’t have interested me – but it did

August 25, 2020 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books)

By ‘shouldn’t,’ I mean, ‘ordinarily would not have’. But these are anything but ordinary times, as you don’t need me to say.

 

I got off to slow start with this book, and I wasn’t sure I would stick with it. But I did, and I was ultimately rewarded with a fascinating story beautifully told.

Stanley, a professor of history at Northwestern University, renders the world of that rebellious woman, Tsuneno, so vividly that I had trouble pulling myself back into  the present whenever I put the book down.

Marjoleine Kars in her review in the Washington Post

In a sense, Tsuneno inhabits two worlds., The one she is born into in 1804 is called Echigo, a remote village in the snowy countryside of  north central Japan. She is the scion of a priestly family, but as a woman, she is almost no control over own life. Instead, she must follow the dictates laid down first by her parents and then by her eldest brother. The world she yearns for, though, is to be found in the storied city of Edo, known since 1868 as Tokyo.

In Edo, Tsuneno believes that she will find at least some measure of freedom. In 1839, she escapes from the strictures of her home life and makes her way to the city of her dreams. And what a place it turns out to be!

I plead utter ignorance of Japanese history, so this book was, among other things, a revelation to me on that subject. Even more, I got so immersed in Tsuneno’s struggles that it was as though I were there with her. I wish I could have helped her; she needed it desperately.

Before I leave this subject, I have to express my deep admiration for the job that Amy Stanley has done in producing this book. The depth of her research can only be described as prodigious.

The great achievement of this revelatory book is to demolish any assumption on the part of English language readers that pre-modern Japan was all blossom, tea ceremonies and mysterious half-smiles. Instead, by working through the rich archive of letters and diaries left by Tsuneno and her family, Stanley reveals a culture that is remarkably reminiscent of Victorian England, which is to say deeply expressive once you’ve cracked the codes.

from the review by Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. (I should warn potential readers that this review reveals rather  a lot about the book’s contents.)

Holder of a doctorate from Harvard, Amy Stanley is currently an associate professor of history at Northwestern University

The colorful world of early nineteenth century Edo contains, among its other attractions, a lively theater scene. I found this film of kabuki on YouTube. I remember many years ago when Grand Kabuki appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and caused a sensation. I went to a performance. I wish I remember more of what I saw; I just recall being astonished, like everyone else. It was so strange and exotic, and the stagecraft alone was amazing.

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‘…gossip and insinuation, those Venetian twins of truth.” – Trace Elements by Donna Leon

August 22, 2020 at 6:53 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

  I enjoyed the latest novel by Donna Leon, as I knew I would. In this one, the police are dealing with  some chronic pickpockets; they are caught, punished, and then go on plying their trade as before. A more serious case involves a dying woman, Benedetta Toso, whose husband was recently killed in a motorcycle accident. She has expressed an urgent need to talk to the police about what happened to her husband.

Commissario Guido Brunetti and his colleague Commissario Claudia Griffoni go to the hospice where Signora Toso is currently being cared for, in order to hear what she has to say. But she is only able to gasp out a few words before she too is overtaken by death.

Being present at the passing of the Signora is emotionally devastating for both Brunetti and Griffoni. It strengthens their resolve to work jointly to get to the bottom of the case.

Once again, the city of Venice gleams in the prose of Donna Leon. I would have liked to spend more time with Brunetti’s family: his children, Raffi and Chiara, who are fast leaving childhood  behind, and his wife, the fiery and uncompromising Paola, a professor of English who has a highly laudable specialty in the novels of Henry James.

Nevertheless, a most enjoyable read. Leon’s writing is a joy, filled as it is with classical allusions:

Like Nausicaa listening at her father’s court to Ulysses’ account of his travels, Signorina Elettra sat enthralled.

Last year, Donna Leon was interviewed in the New York Times Book Review’s feature ‘By the Book.’ When asked how she first got hooked on crime fiction, she said this:

Ross Macdonald impressed me for the quality and beauty of his writing. I still, reading through them, come upon passages, especially his descriptions of characters, that I wish I had the courage to steal. He’s also a master at the well-honed plot that takes Lew Archer, and thus the reader, back a generation to find the source of the crime. He’s compassionate, apparently well read, and decent.

I was, of course, no end pleased by this. It’s most gratifying when the writers you esteem praise one another.

Donna Leon is 78 years old or thereabouts; she now divides her time between Venice and Switzerland. I wish her well, and of course I look forward to more novels featuring the investigations of Commissario Guido Brunetti.

Donna Leon

 

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