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review 2020-07-04 22:28
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen,Anna Quindlen

This is by far Jane Austen’s most popular book, and while as a kid I found it dull and slow, re-reading as an adult I had a great time with it. It’s easy to see where that popularity comes from. First, unlike some of Austen’s other books, which just have some romance in them, this one actually is a romance, in that it’s structured around the growth of and obstacles to Elizabeth’s and Jane’s relationships.

 

Second, to the extent that it moralizes (and Austen always moralizes to some extent), it’s mostly about issues that remain both relevant and palatable today: the dangers of assuming yourself better than everyone around you, of clinging to a negative first impression despite new information, of taking people at their word when they eagerly insist to virtual strangers that all their problems are other people’s fault.

 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth is a great heroine. She’s witty, energetic, and has a sense of humor, which makes her fun. She’s intelligent, caring, and has a backbone, which makes her admirable. And she’s judgmental, jumps to conclusions, and has some learning to do, which makes her human.

 

Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.

 

There isn’t much I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said: it’s well-written, engaging, and to an adult reader, it’s quite funny. It’s the perfect piece of intelligent escapism. It’s full of well-drawn and realistic characters, many of them a little bit ridiculous, and the author invites us to laugh at them with her. It isn’t “just” a romance, but explores the intersection of love and money in Austen’s society—though for all that, Austen’s heroines aren’t as mercenary as some make them out to be. At the end I think Darcy is genuinely in love with Elizabeth, while she’s still in the early stages of infatuation, overwhelmed by the fact that this rich and handsome man cares enough to put himself out on her behalf. But I don’t think it’s just about the money either.

 

I do wish Austen didn’t lapse into narrative summary at the most inconvenient moments, like proposal scenes (!). I actually didn’t remember that Georgiana appears in person in this book, probably because although she and Elizabeth meet several times, none of Georgiana’s lines are ever transcribed for the reader. But Austen was in many ways pioneering the modern English-language novel, so it’s inevitable that not everything was perfect, and impressive that despite that she was able to write characters who still manage to inspire emotional investment today.

 

I’ll use the rest of this space to comment on some characters I viewed differently this time around. First, the treatment of Mrs. Bennet is rather sad: it’s true that her perspective is limited, but she actually is trying to do right by her daughters, and she obviously loves her husband more than he loves her. Given that the Bennets are on good terms with what seems like a large circle of acquaintance (her claim that they dine with 20 other families is meant to be ridiculous, but is impressive by today’s isolated standards), I suspect her manners are quite good enough by her neighbors’ standards, and it’s the stuck-up Bingley sisters and Mr. Darcy who judge her. It’s a little sad that their happy ending requires Elizabeth and even the otherwise-angelic Jane to distance themselves from her.

 

Lydia, on the other hand, would be a strong candidate for the heroine if this were a modern novel. Modern audiences seem to love the young woman driven by sexual or romantic passion to flout societal convention just as much as Austen’s society hated her. Particularly sympathetic in Lydia’s case is that she actually loves Wickham but is deceived about his regard for her. Lydia’s exuberance also makes her fun to read about, though because she’s a teenager and not the heroine, she has all-too-human flaws as well: she’s self-absorbed and can’t be bothered to listen to anyone she disagrees with. The scene where she claims she’s “treating” Jane and Elizabeth to lunch, but makes them pay because she already spent her money, is particularly amusing.

 

Then there’s Mary. Before I thought of her as a typical teenager in her high regard for her own intellect, and starting out here I was sympathetic to her based on her position alone. She’s the only unattractive one out of five sisters (ouch), and also the only member of the family who doesn’t seem particularly beloved by anyone else: her older and younger sisters are each a close-knit pair who also have good friends outside the family, while the parents each have their favorites, all of it excluding Mary. On this reading, though, it seemed likely that Mary is on the autism spectrum, though to Austen’s and therefore Elizabeth’s eyes it just looked like cluelessness. Mary is sententious and blind to social norms, and unlike with Lydia, it isn’t because Mary doesn’t care (she’s visibly embarrassed when her father calls her out at a party). The scene that clinched it for me comes after Lydia’s disgrace, when Mary approaches Elizabeth to suggest that they should “pour into the wounded bosoms of each other the balm of sisterly consolation,” which Elizabeth considers so bizarre that she makes no response. This seems to indicate that either Mary actually does not realize that she and Elizabeth don’t have this kind of relationship, or she’s trying to bond with her but has no idea how to do so. Unfortunately, Mary seems unlikely to improve in understanding when no one can be bothered to explain anything to her.

 

Reading this right after Emma, I was surprised by how different it felt: shorter chapters, more dialogue, and rather less polished, but perhaps more fun. It didn’t touch me particularly deeply, but I did enjoy it a lot and it also gave me plenty to think about. That’s what makes it a true classic I suppose, that there’s always more to discover and new perspectives to see upon re-reading.

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review 2020-07-04 17:59
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen

In my adult re-reading of Austen’s major works, I came to this one after having a lot of fun with Emma and Pride and Prejudice, and therefore with high expectations. It disappointed a bit, in part for reasons not embedded in the text at all—character portrayals from the 1995 movie kept intruding—in part because as it turns out, even with a master you can tell when you’re reading a debut novel, and in part due to certain elements that have not aged well.

Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.

Austen’s novels have a reputation for being romances, but interestingly, other than Pride and Prejudice and perhaps Persuasion, they aren’t at all, not in the sense of the plot being focused on and structured around a love story. Somehow this label seems to get stuck indiscriminately on classics by women that have weddings at the end; when Shakespeare did it we called them “comedies” instead. So I was surprised by how little we see, in this book, of Elinor and Marianne’s relationships with the men they wind up marrying: Elinor and Edward have fallen in love off-page before the book begins, and see each other rarely during its pages, while from an adult viewpoint it’s hard to argue that Marianne falls in love with Colonel Brandon at all. She seems rather to bow to the inevitable, having been through a devastating heartbreak once and with all her family pushing the match; creepily, Elinor refers twice to wanting her own sister to go to Colonel Brandon as a “reward” for his good behavior.

Instead, this book is a parable about the advantages of sense over “sensibility” (emotion and romance), with Elinor embodying the former and Marianne the latter. The narrator is always poking us to point out how Elinor manages to get what she wants while being polite, while Marianne only causes trouble by being impulsive and oblivious. The problem is that Elinor, our heroine, is tiresomely perfect and a wet blanket. In the abstract, I identify with many of Elinor’s traits, but in concrete terms I didn’t find much to like or relate to in this particular character: she’s just sort of carried along by the plot, without seeming to yearn for anything (except perhaps that guy she fell in love with beforehand, but then she’s not exactly doing anything to pursue the match). She’s no fun; she’s almost just an avatar of what a sensible young woman at the time was supposed to be. It’s telling as to the differences between our modern culture and Austen’s that in the book, it’s Marianne who needs to change; in the film, it’s Elinor.

Though the ending does seem to muddle this a bit. Elinor’s ending is a happy one only if we assume a deep and lasting romantic connection: otherwise she’s just stuck living in a cottage on a third of the income she previously told us she wanted, as a tenant of the wealthy man who becomes her younger sister’s husband. Marianne, meanwhile, winds up with the material advantages, including exactly the income she wanted. One wonders how each feels about her situation ten, twenty, thirty years in the future. It’s not nearly as clear-cut a happy ending as I remember from childhood, when all I noticed was the weddings and the fact that the sisters are still together.

The most disturbing part of the story, though, is the treatment of the two Elizas, characters we never meet but who nevertheless figure prominently. The elder Eliza is the great love of Brandon’s young life, which doesn’t stop him, when he comes back from fighting abroad and finds her in jail for debt with her illegitimate toddler, from considering the fact that she’s also dying to be a “consolation.” This is made more horrific by the fact that Brandon is the single most important person in Eliza’s life from childhood: she’s an orphan, he was her best friend and protector. Although Austen treats his reaction with approval, there’s something profoundly inhuman about this notion that she can never be redeemed even in the eyes of the person who has always loved her most, that the best she can do is cease to exist.

Because of that I can’t help wondering if a real man of that time period in Brandon’s position would actually have thought this way, or if this is simply Austen—who was presumably never in this position herself—projecting what others who have also never been in this position believed he should have felt. Or, hell, maybe Brandon himself didn’t actually feel that way, but is moralizing in retrospect about his own story because it’s the only way he can live with it. But at any rate, Elinor approves, which is hardly to her credit. She also approves Brandon’s subsequent decisions, which involve farming out the young orphan, the younger Eliza, to be raised by someone else, then being shocked when as a teenager and most likely feeling unloved and unwanted, she jumps into an ill-advised romance, and then banishing her to the countryside alone with her baby. One hopes that she manages to raise her own child with a more solid and loving foundation than the last two generations have had.

So it’s kind of hard to wrench my attention back from that situation to the social lives of Elinor and Marianne, though it does seem like Austen tempered the horrible fates of her “fallen women” in future books: Wickham, who seems like a later version of Willoughby, is just as much a seducer, but Georgiana escapes in time with no loss of reputation or her brother’s love, and Lydia is redeemed through marriage in the eyes of all but the most judgmental (who never liked her much anyway). In that sense, it’s strange that Wickham is perhaps drawn as more of a scoundrel than Willoughby, who regrets what he’s done to Marianne (though not Eliza), in a drunken confession that feels unusual for Austen and almost like wish-fulfillment. But Elinor pulls it back into the realm of the realistic with the astute observation that it’s easy for Willoughby to regret the consequences of decisions he’s already made; that doesn’t mean he’d actually have been happy with the alternative.

This book doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as some of Austen’s later works, but it is still engaging and a lot of the secondary characters are just plain fun to read about: John and his money-focused blindness, Mrs. Jennings with her bad manners but good heart. I did enjoy reading it, though not as much as some of her other work, which was written with a bit more experience and has aged better. Though frankly, anything over 200 years old that is at all enjoyable or says anything to anyone today has aged far better than most, and considering the state of the novel at the time Austen wrote this one, it’s quite an achievement.

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review 2020-07-04 06:17
Emma by Jane Austen
Emma - Jane Austen,Fiona Stafford

I have a rocky relationship with Jane Austen. I first read her major works for bragging rights when too young to appreciate them. Then as an adult, I read Mansfield Park and Persuasion, and decided, nope, Austen wasn’t for me. And then I read Northanger Abbey. And it was fun! And funny! So recently, I embarked on a re-read project of Austen’s three most popular works, and what a difference those intervening years have made.

Warning: there will be SPOILERS below.

First of all, I have a strong preference when it comes to Austen’s novels: I enjoy her wit and insight, but not her moralizing, which is why I had great fun with Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey, but found her other books to drag. Her dynamic, imperfect heroines, the ones with real foibles to poke fun at, whose journeys involve needing to grow and change as they learn more about the world and themselves: these are great fun to read about. Her static, flawless heroines who don’t go on a journey so much as stand by while others learn to better appreciate their perfection: ugh, no thank you.

Happily, Emma falls into the first category. It’s one of Austen’s longer books, and I remember taking forever to read it, but this time I burned through, finding the story compelling and fun. It feels a bit more polished than some of Austen’s work, with longer chapters that flow naturally together. It’s also a little ridiculous with its endless misunderstandings, but each one individually is believable. Its characters feel real, and Austen’s observation of certain aspects of human nature is dead-on: Mr. Woodhouse, who allows his high levels of anxiety to control his life and limit the activities of everyone around him, is so much like some real people I know that I was irritated at him every time he appeared on the page. For all her flaws, I can’t help thinking Emma’s a bit of a saint for so patiently putting up with him.

Most interestingly though, as it turns out few people (including my younger self) seem to realize what this novel is actually about. It’s not a romance: for most of the book Mr. Knightley acts the part of a father-figure to Emma, she doesn’t realize her feelings for him till near the end, and before that point there’s only one brief moment of chemistry between them; romance is her reward at the end, but not the subject of her story. It’s not about a young woman facing financial or familial pressure to marry: unique among Austen’s heroines, Emma has no actual need to do so, and no one voices any objections to her stated plan to remain single and eventually adopt one of her nieces for company. It’s also not about Emma’s learning not to try to set up her friends: she actually learns that lesson pretty early on.

In fact, this is a very conservative novel about a young woman learning her proper place in society and how to behave as befits her station as the highest-ranking woman in her rural town. Emma has to learn to be charitable and patient toward the genteel but unfortunate (Miss Bates), not to snub the nouveau riche as long as they remember their place and treat her with proper respect (the Gardners), and to choose as her friends the worthy and well-bred (Jane Fairfax) over people of lesser birth, with whom too close a friendship will inevitably cause trouble and social disorder (Harriet Smith). It’s hard to say much for this sort of message now. For modern audiences, the less charitable parts of it—the message that Emma must ultimately drop Harriet as a friend to maintain proper social order, hammered home through the way Emma’s machinations to keep Harriet within her circle cause escalating trouble until finally Emma herself is done with the friendship—are so obviously unfortunate that people tend to read the novel as being about something else entirely. Austen makes it easy to do that, with several subplots and layers to the story. But I doubt her contemporaries would have missed that the entire novel is about a young woman’s journey toward “correct” behavior, dressed up in a bunch of drama and poking fun at people in a small town society.

All that said, it’s an enjoyable story in its own right, and makes for such lovely escapism while giving the reader multifaceted characters and issues with some real depth to chew on, that I can’t give it less than 4 stars despite rather unfortunate themes. Maybe one day I’ll return to it again and see something completely new.

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review 2020-06-19 21:46
The Best American Short Stories 2019, compiled by Anthony Doerr
The Best American Short Stories 2019 - Anthony Doerr

This is my first year reading the Best American Short Stories, after having gotten more into short stories over the last few years. I am not a fan of multi-author anthologies, finding them impossible to “get into” when each new story is like starting a new book, and that’s particularly true here, where there is no unifying theme. From reading a number of both brief and in-depth reviews of this collection and its stories, I have the sense this year wasn’t the best for this series. Many readers only connected with a couple of the stories, though Doerr must have done something right in selecting them when readers’ favorites seem to vary so widely. Looking through the top reviews on this page shows that while most readers only really liked a third or fewer of the stories, almost every story made somebody’s shortlist, with little consistency in which were the favorites. For me the only two standouts are “Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva and “Omakase” by Weike Wang, but I liked these enough that I now plan to read the authors’ books.

So, a rundown in order of appearance:

“The Era” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: The collection begins with a dystopian tale about a world in which kindness and human connection are despised, and the resulting hole is filled with constant injections of drugs. All this I think is astute commentary on certain trends in our society, but I found other elements – like the genetic engineering that sometimes goes wrong and gives people only one personality trait – rather less relevant, and like many insecure sci-fi stories, this one spends way too much time talking about why their values aren’t our values and how our world became theirs. It’s as if we went around talking about the Renaissance all the time and why we aren’t like those people; I’m not buying.

“Natural Light” by Kathleen Alcott: This is perhaps the most literary and best-written story in the collection, about a woman in her 30s who discovers something new about her deceased mother. I admire the author’s skill a lot, but her subject matter was too run-of-the-mill to interest me in reading more, and I still can’t figure out the ending; the last couple of sentences just seem like word salad to me. The story made more sense once

I figured out that the random interjections were the narrator’s intrusive thoughts of suicide methods. The contents of the photograph, meanwhile, seemed obvious to me: the mother was receiving oral sex with drug paraphernalia scattered around, yes?

(spoiler show)


“The Great Interruption” by Wendell Berry: An entertaining boyhood escapade turns into a local legend, which is then used to comment on the demise of local culture in America. A well-written story, though Berry’s nostalgia for the rural America of yore is steeped in white male privilege, which though not acknowledged becomes visible at one point when the females privileged to hear the original story are referred to as the “housewives and big girls” of the community (it contained no other adult women).

“No More Than a Bubble” by Jamel Brinkley: Two college boys crash a party with the goal of hooking up with a pair of slightly older women, and wind up way out of their depth. It’s a vividly told tale but I didn’t really know what to make of this one. The problematic aspects of the boys’ sexuality are clearly acknowledged, but I didn’t know how to reconcile Ben’s

telling us that he learned the most important lesson of his life from all this with his still being alone and confused many years later, i.e., at exactly the same place his father’s view of women, which the young Ben adopted unquestioningly, led his father to end up.

(spoiler show)


“The Third Tower” by Deborah Eisenberg: In a vaguely-sketched dystopian world, the medical system tries to stamp out the creativity and possibly repressed memories of government-sponsored horror from the mind of a young woman. This one was a little too on-the-nose for me, and Therese’s gullibility and eager compliance made it harder for me to have strong feelings about what was being done to her.

“Hellion” by Julia Elliott: An adolescent girl in rural South Carolina befriends a visiting boy, and unfortunate consequences follow from their actions. It’s sweet enough I suppose, but what Doerr cites as its exuberance and courage, for me was just over-the-top in a way that seems almost careless: the character referred to as having grown up “before the Civil War” early enough in the story that we don’t yet realize this isn’t meant literally (it’s set in the 1980s or thereabouts); the young female narrator going off on a sudden tangent about people killing the planet when she’d never before mentioned an interest in science or ecology and again, it’s the 1980s. It all felt a bit haphazard to me, and the grounding in serious questions about whether this girl has a shot at a fulfilling life wasn’t quite enough to draw it back.

“Bronze” by Jeffrey Eugenides: A gender-nonconforming freshman meets an older gay man on the train home to college from New York, and has to finally decide whether he’s actually gay and if not, whether his self-expression is worth letting people read him that way. Interesting enough but didn’t do much for me, though I did find it interesting that Eugenides developed the older man, who without getting a point-of-view would have just been a standard creep.

“Protozoa” by Ella Martinsen Gorham: A 14-year-old girl tries to establish her self-identity in both the real and virtual worlds. Doerr perhaps sells this one short by calling it a cautionary tale about the amount of investment teens put into their online lives; in many ways Noa seems to live more in the real world than a lot of teens (she interacts with quite a few people in real life over the course of the story), and I found myself thinking that the cautionary message might have been sent more effectively. But I’m not sure the author actually intended the story as anything so simple: what might have been portrayed as traumatizing cyberbullying in another story, Noa seems perfectly well-equipped to handle and even in some ways to welcome, while her real story is about trying to establish herself as someone darker and edgier.

“Seeing Ershadi” by Nicole Krauss: A dancer and her friend both attribute newfound motivation to leave bad situations to visions of actor Homayoun Ershadi. This one didn’t really do anything for me. It seems to have a hole at its center: we hear a lot about the plot of the Iranian film Taste of Cherry, and a lot about the narrator’s friend’s life, while the narrator’s own life and decisions are sidelined. It is sweet though that according to the author’s note at the end, Ershadi read and was touched by the story at a difficult point in his own life.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula Le Guin: An outcast young woman in a late 19th century California mining town cares for a lonely mine engineer injured in an accident, and the two of them and a doctor all form a bond. A sweet story but not one that leaves the reader with much to think about, despite the author’s legendary status.

“Anyone Can Do It” by Manual Muñoz: A young mother struggles to figure out how to pay the bills when her husband, along with other farmworkers, is suddenly snatched by immigration. Timely, certainly, though set in the 1980s rather than the present, and the author adds some complexity in that, for instance, Delfina doesn’t actually seem to like or miss her husband much. But she was a bit of a hollow character that was hard for me to root for, and

I was a little disturbed by the way the theft of her car was foreshadowed by her allowing her 4-year-old son to shoplift a toy car. It seems to me that she’s allowing her son to grow up into exactly the kind of person who took advantage of her.

(spoiler show)


“The Plan” by Sigrid Nunez: Inside the mind of a killer. Interesting enough, but didn’t do much for me.

“Letter of Apology” by Maria Reva: In late Soviet Ukraine, a KGB agent is required to extract a letter of apology from a renowned poet for making a political joke. The agent, who narrates the story, is in denial about certain aspects of his own life, leading him to wildly misinterpret the behavior of the poet’s wife. I loved this one: there’s a ton of humor in the contrast between the dread image of the KGB and the reality of the bumbling and confused Mikhail, as well as the absurdities of the system as a whole. The whole story is full of dark humor and the changes wrought in both Mikhail and Milena seemed very real and sympathetic to me. I was excited to find that the author has also published this as part of a whole collection of linked short stories.

“Black Corfu” by Karen Russell: On a Croatian island in 1620, ruled at the time from Venice, a black man wanted to be a doctor but is permitted only to cut the hamstrings of the dead, meant to prevent them from rising again as less-violent zombies, known as vukodlak. He’s falsely accused of botching a procedure – or is the accusation really false? This was my first exposure to an author who’s gotten a lot of buzz lately, and the story hits a lot of buttons in terms of racial prejudice and glass ceilings, but didn’t actually work well for me.

“Audition” by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: A young man who wants to be an actor instead, for unspecified reasons, works on construction sites owned by his father, a real estate developer, and seems to be falling under the spell of crack. This didn’t do much for me.

“Natural Disasters” by Alexis Schaitkin: A young New Yorker moves to Oklahoma with her husband, where she takes a job writing descriptions of houses for sale and tries to fit everything that happens into some meaningful narrative of her life. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice, her obvious pretention and her adult awareness of it when telling the story from the vantage point of many years later, but I was underwhelmed and unconvinced by the “big event.”

Really, at age 24 it’s this earth-shattering moment for her to hear that some guy’s brother died meaninglessly?

(spoiler show)


“Our Day of Grace” by Jim Shepard: An epistolary story about the American Civil War: two southern women write letters to two Confederate soldiers, one of whom writes back. The letters are credible enough but the Civil War has also been pretty well done to death as a setting, and in my view this didn’t do anything new or exciting.

“Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson: A therapist treats a man who at first seems boring, but then reveals that he only experiences sexual attraction to adolescent girls, though he insists he’s never acted upon it. This is interesting, but perhaps too short for me. I would have liked to know a little more about the therapist’s life, which is only vaguely hinted at, and to have seen the consequences at the end developed a little more. But the existence of people seeking treatment for pedophilia who have never acted on their urges was not new information to me, which may have blunted my reaction to the story.

“They Told Us Not To Say This” by Jenn Alandy Trahan: Blink and you’ll miss this 7-page story, told in the first person plural about a group of second-generation Filipina-American girls who are second-class in their families but find empowerment on the basketball court. This is the one story no reviewer seems to have highlighted as a favorite, and I can see why not.

“Omakase” by Weike Wang: A Chinese-American woman in her late 30s goes out for omakase (in Japanese, “I’ll leave it up to you”; in restaurants, sushi selected by the chef) with her white boyfriend, who increasingly shows his obliviousness about racial issues and his dismissive and condescending attitude toward her, despite the fact that she’s the one to do most of the sacrificing and pay most of the bills in their relationship. It’s interesting to see the widely varied responses that reviewers have had, some feeling that all the ways in which the woman is marginalized and put down in the world and within her own relationship to be too stereotypical, while others seem to take the boyfriend’s opinions at face value and view her as too sensitive and neurotic for her own good. Those varying responses are certainly a testament to the realism of the story. She is a bit neurotic, but to me much of this is the conflict generated by her instincts telling her she’s in a bad situation, while everyone around her (boyfriend, family, friends) insists that the only problem is her – thereby robbing her of the sense of self-worth she needs to actually stand up for herself. She comes across as real and vibrant, as do the racial issues addressed, and I’m interested in reading Wang’s novel.

Overall, an interesting collection of stories I don’t regret reading, but that took me a really long time to get through. I’m not sure if I’ll try another of these collections, but I did at least discover a couple of promising authors.

 

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text 2020-06-18 12:21
Reading progress update: I've read 529 out of 529 pages.
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

It´s the third time I´m reading Cloud Atlas and it´s still one of my favorite books. And it´s a fair guess that nothing is ever going to change that. I love this book to bits and pieces.

 

You can find my review of my 2015 reread here, if you are interested.

 

Page count: 529 pages

Money earned: $ 5.00

 

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