Posts Tagged ‘fiction

04
Jan
16

Book Review: Mumbo Jumbo – Ishmael Reed

Mumbo JumboMumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

A wild, vicious satire about jazz-age America, Mumbo Jumbo is a blast, in more ways than one.

Essentially, it follows PaPa LaBas, a sort of priest who’s looking for the text of a plague sweeping the country: Jes Grew, which makes people dance and create, a kind of spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, if you will. He’s opposed by the Knights Templar, the Wallflower Order, who’s slogan is “Lord, if I can’t dance, no one will,” and various New York heavies who may be gangsters, or immortal and possibly both, but definitely a bunch of white men trying to profit by ripping off black culture. Meanwhile, there’s the militant “Mu’tafikah,” who steal art from the Centre for Art Detention (be sure to look up it’s address) to return it back where it came; a proto-Nation of Islam, led by the cynically clever Abdul Sufi Hamid; spirits and ghosts; not to mention the true story of Osiris, Isis and Set, and where Homer got his stories from.

Really, the most exhilarating thing about this book – and arguably what’ll turn most people off – is it’s free-sampling style of construction. Reed routinely cuts between scenes and time at will, jumping and moving around and incorporating all kinds of found texts into his story: newspaper headlines, radio bulletins, quotes, and photos. People in the 20s make casual references to people living decades later. It gives his book a kinetic kind of punch; just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, along comes a photo of a group of men in suits side by side of a group of men hanging around a giant statue.

As I got there, I kept getting questions: is that Reed in the bottom? Who are those people up above? What’s he saying by placing them, countering not just each other, but the climax of his story itself? And this was literally only one page. There’s a lot to chew on here; this is the kind of book I imagine re-reads will pick up new elements in, particularly as one gets older and can start putting the photos and quotes in a new context.

Not that I expect it in a novel like this, but after I finished I kept thinking about how cool it’d be to have a critical edition of this, annotated with footnotes and smarter readers than I weighing in on it, helping to give it a little more context. At the same time, I think I generally got along without any real trouble and had a blast reading the thing.

It’s a smart, clever and darkly sharp satire, taking on everything from popular music to literary magazines to race relations. It’s a wild ride and I finished the last third in one long sitting. Recommended, especially if you think you’re up for a little challenge.

Rating: 8/10

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05
May
15

Book Review: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

NevadaNevada by Imogen Binnie

Oh wow, this one knocked me for a loop. A searing, memorable trip through New York, the Nevada desert and more, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is great, a fantastic debut novel. It’s real good.

It follows Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York. She has a crappy job at a bookstore, rides her bike everywhere and lives by a punker ethos; it’s no shocker she sings along to her Fugazi CDs. She’s carefully crafted a life for herself she thinks works, but finds herself almost going through the motions, like she’s playing a role. When she gets dumped and loses her job in quick succession, she goes on a journey across the US to try and figure shit out.

It sounds like every road novel before it, but I think Nevada is smarter than the norm and certainly comes at it from a different angle. Binnie writes from the third-person and adeptly cuts between characters to show just how everyone is really acting: Maria is kind of selfish, troubled and emotionally stunted, for example. But Maria’s also compelling, funny and whip-smart.

The most striking feature of the novel is its cutting, smartass sense of humour. I think my favourite scene comes when Maria is writing, but can’t think of anything to say, so she writes a devastatingly funny little piece of Hemingway-ese:

“I am a soldier in the first world war. I don’t have very many feelings. I drink a lot and girls like me. We had a long conversation about whither she should have an abortion, but we didn’t use the word abortion. The whole thing was a dream and I am dead.” (pg 95)

In the book’s second half, Maria comes across a young stoner named James, who she sees a lot of herself in; James is alternately confused, annoyed and compelled by the bright-haired women who’s drifted into his life and wants to re-arrange things. Together they drive through Nevada, giving Maria lots of time to lay out her own theories.

It’s a funny novel, sure, but it’s also one with a sadness, too. Little lines here and there show the darkness lurking just behind Maria’s punker façade: parents who never want to see her again, a litany of messed up relationships, a miserable childhood and heavy substance abuse (try and keep up with her alcohol intake, for example!).

But the thing about it is they’re only hinted at: I think a lesser writer would’ve included those scenes in an attempt to show pathos. Binnie doesn’t, which makes her book feel a lot more honest and certainly less manipulative. Compared to books like Middlesex or Annabel, this book is refreshingly honest and direct, a clear voice cutting through a busy street corner.

The book also functions as a manifesto on gender theory and even as a how-to guide (shave with boiling water, use a decent foundation and put on lots of eye makeup; sparkles are an optional touch). Through Maria, Binnie cuts into conventional psychiatric theories like a hot knife through butter, absolutely ripping thinkers like J. Michael Bailey or Ken Zucker to shreds. In these sections, it reads more as manifesto than novel, which might grate on some readers, but is actually some of my favourite writing here. It builds on earlier authors, but speaks with a loud, distinct voice.

For what it’s worth, many of those authors Maria casually namedrops are worth reading: Kate Bornstein, Julia Serano, Michelle Tea. At times, it’s a stretch believing the characters are so literate in this specific area, but then again I’ve read those books, too. (I’ll get around to posting my Gender Outlaw essay someday, I swear).

Rating: 9/10. This one absolutely seared itself into my mind – literally one I found myself thinking about when I was doing other stuff – and over two or three days, I barely put it down. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, too. In sum: Nevada is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while and it’s absolutely recommended, 100 per cent.

24
Mar
15

I Hate It Here: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Sometimes books hit me right between the eyes and catch me unawares. Other times, I want to hit the book right between its eyes. This was one of those times.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad had picked up a shelf of tributes: a Pulitzer Prize, plenty of best-of-the-year awards and more blurbs than I bothered counting. Most say some variation of how smart the book is, how clever a writer Egan is. And that’s just where my problems begin.

Her book more or less follows a group of people along their lives, starting in late 70s San Francisco, through New York in the mid-aughts and winding up in the desert at some unspecified point in the future. They start punk bands, go on safaris and have a moment to reflect on the September 11 attacks. And they’re all super caught up in themselves and their lives that they might not realize how alienating they are.

Which is probably key to this book. It never asked me to consider that maybe these characters were supposed to be unlikable, but they’re all generally crappy people: they lie, cheat, backstab and act petty all the time. Maybe that’s the point, but I never felt especially clear on how Egan wanted readers to feel, if she wanted people to see through their self-congratulatory attitudes and luxury trappings. Particularly since Egan has her characters defend each other when they assault people and wreck each other’s lives.

Indeed, as the back copy says, some of these characters experience “redemption,” which I suppose makes it okay when one tries to sexually assault a person they’re supposed to writing a profile about: they’re bad now, but everyone will get their happy ending! Except maybe the victim, who in another story is wed to a third-world dictator. Really.

What really makes this book frustrating is how on a technical level, it shows Egan as an interesting stylist. Throughout the stories here, Egan tries different structures, forms and voices. One story is told through a PowerPoint slideshow, another is structured in the second person. There’s even a DFW pastiche, a rambling, self-obsessed story just laced with footnotes. And in a formal sense, the stories all work: they’re put together well and Egan never falters in all kinds of experimental styles.

But at the same time, it’s a gimmick that when combined with her characters narcissism, has the discomforting effect of feeling show-offy. It’s as if Egan is showing off, almost bragging about all the feats of prose she can pull off. It left me with a bad feeling in my mouth and at times, left some of her stories just about unreadable for me.

Still, I’ll give her credit when they work: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (aka: the slideshow story) is a moving story about parents trying to connect with an autistic child who’s obsessed with pauses in rock tunes; as someone with an autistic family member, the way she captured single-minded obsession and how families have to adapt to them resonated with me. Likewise, I think “Forty Minute Lunch” is supposed to be unreadable and awful; it’s certainly successful at it.

But ultimately, her novel never quite lived up the hype: it’s not a band novel, barely even one about music (so much for the back copy again, which claims there’s “music pulsing on every page’) and is ultimately one about people who all seem to think they’re a lot smarter than they are, written in a way that seems to suggest the author is of a like mind.

Rating: 2/10. Honestly, it was one of the more infuriating books I’ve read in a while; even as I blazed through the thing in a few days, I still found myself setting it down in disgust every so often. Even if you’re interested in her prose and attempts at various devices, I’d still recommend Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style over this. At least there, you don’t have New Yorkers feeling sorry for themselves every few pages!

10
Mar
15

Good Times, Bad Times: The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker

Complete StoriesComplete Stories by Dorothy Parker

These days, I suppose Dorothy Parker is best remembered for witty verse, blistering one-liners and maybe her work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But she was also one hell of a writer, particularly in the short story form. In a time where most writers were self-important white men, Parker was a wit and talent who crossed mediums. In a burst of creativity, she wrote drama reviews, light verse and short stories for a succession of magazines (mostly the New Yorker), a lot of them real good.

Which is both the blessing of a book like this. It collects not just the cream of her stories, but everything she published, right down to a handful of early sketches. While it doesn’t touch on her other talents – no reviews, no verse – it allows you to trace her progression as a writer, from her early sketches to her late, darkly humourous stories.

Parker wrote most of these for the New Yorker, so there’s a very 20s New York vibe at work: speakeasies, upscale urbanites, and lots of social cues. People speak of how well they treat their servants, who are lucky to get a day off a month and the remnants of their castoffs; couples go out for a drink and get royally sloshed, all while proclaiming the virtues of staying sober.

A common criticism of Parker is how she must’ve been unhappy or how she descended into a pool of, I dunno, drink and sadness or something. I guess they imagine she lived in a scene straight out of a Lana Del Ray video. I sort of see where they’re coming from – there are a number of depressed people here – but I never got that impression at all.

A good example of this is her story “Lolita,” which is about an unhappy mother, an unexceptional daughter and the rich man who falls for her. The crux is a broken relationship and the mother’s caustic relationship – she professes wishing the best for her daughter, but wants nothing more than to see her relationship fail – but Parker doesn’t write it like a dark, sad tale.

The daughter’s life is blossoming and the mother can’t accept that change. In Parker’s hands, the story is more about refusing to let go and the perils of growing bitter – the juxtaposition of the two great, since we can see how it’s destroying the mother’s life and we know she won’t let it go.

There is a certain sadness at work here, but it’s usually presented in a way that seems strangely modern: missed messages and mixed signals. Parker wrote in a time of rough phone connections and telegrams. People misunderstand a message on a bad connection or pretend they aren’t home – in a manner that echoes a broken relationship. I can’t say with certainly what Parker would’ve thought of Snapchat, Group DMs or subtweeting, but I imagine it would’ve been a lot like what she wrote nearly 90 years ago.

I think more to the point about Parker and her perception is her use of point-of-view. While most of the time she uses an omnipresent third-person, there a few stories where she instead goes into first-person, often with a character she shares a name with: “The Garter,” “The Waltz,” “The Little Hours.”

In these stories, Parker shows the same themes and ideas as her other stories – miscommunication, social cues, etc – and uses them to great effect. In “The Waltz,” Dorothy dances with a klutz who keeps stepping on her feet and can’t get away from a party she doesn’t want to be at – but she doesn’t say no or try to leave in a comedy of manners.

For nitpickers and over-zealous critics, the way these stories are presented makes easy pickings for people to project on her. When she had trouble sleeping, did she really start thinking about La Rouchfoucauld? Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? I think it’s safe to say Parker wasn’t a memoirist. As Regina Barreca notes in her introduction, “when an author’s words are confused with her deeds, they too often act as substitutions for a truly conscientious consideration of her work and life.”

Indeed, a collection like this shows that while Parker’s output slowed over the years – the bulk of these stories come between 1926 and 1933 – the quality remained fairly consistent. Stories like “Song of the Shirt: 1941, ““Lolita” and “The Lovely Leave” are still pretty good.

My Penguin copy has a nice introduction by Barreca, who examines the themes of Parker’s stories, her life and how people often conflate the two, plus a handful of early sketches by Parker that I more or less skimmed through; they’re amusing, but not really essential.

Rating: 8/10. An enjoyable collection of stories and a book I’d recommend for anything who likes short fiction. As an overview of Parker’s work, it’s a little lacking, but Penguin’s The Portable Dorothy Parker does a good job of that.

03
Mar
15

The Curse of St. Custards: Molesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

MolesworthMolesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, with an introduction by Philip Hensher

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but I’ve never really held an opinion on private schools. I’ve sort of been aware of them, but even when I was younger, they seemed like something for rich kids, something of a British relic. Which is maybe why so many British novels deal with them while Canadian fiction doesn’t.
It ranges from older stuff like The Lord of the Flies and it’s marooned school children to something as recent as the Harry Potter series, which is basically about life at boarding school: trouble with headmasters, living in dorms and everyone clad in a uniform, although it’s all sprinkled with magic.

Recently I came across a copy of Molesworth, a collection of books by Geoffrey Willans, all of them illustrated by Ronald Searle’s cartoons and picked it up on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised: it’s another look at boarding school, but it’s laced with a savage, cynical sense of humour. And Searle’s cartoons – dark and dryly witty – add another element to its cutting humour. It’s great stuff.

Essentially, Molesworth 1, aka student Nigel Molesworth, aka “the goriller of 3b and curse of St. Custard’s,” narrates the books like he’s writing a how-to for students. He’s young, flunks all his classes and can’t spell worth a damn. He’s also irrepressibly clever and sees that class is worthless, the food is appalling and Master Sigismund is actually “the Mad Maths Master.”

His stories take various forms: daydreams, lectures on how to get out of assignments and chance moments in the schoolyard with classmates. They include his younger brother Molesworth 2, his friend “Peason,” and my favourite of all, Fotherington-Thomas ,a guy who skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky.” I think one of the best moments – and a good example of the kind of humour we’re dealing with – is when Fotherington-Thomas and Molesworth discuss existentialist novels while lazing through a soccer game.

The kind of humour that runs through here is clever satire, dressed up like it’s coming from a kid and it works on a few levels. Although Molesworth can’t spell a damn, he’s up on world leaders, classical composers and literature. Sure, it’s funny when he calls out his Latin teacher on how useless it is in modern society, but even a kid will enjoy seeing a pupil best a teacher.

Granted, some of the jokes are a bit dated. When Molesworth cuts into French class, it’s at the droll texts featuring a kid named Armand who visits the zoo with his father. The reference is lost on me, but Molesworth’s take is still fresh (note: all spelling in context):

“ ‘Thou art a good boy, Armand,’ he sa, ‘this afternoon I will take thee to a zoo.’
Ahha you think is not so dumb as he look he will thro Armand to the lions.
‘Are there any animals in the zoo?’ ask Armand.
‘Oh but yes,’ sa Papa without losing his temper as this feeble question.
‘Houpla houpla I am so hapy.”
Perhaps the lions are not bad enough perhaps it will hav to be the loups… You wonder if it was noel coward who wrote the dialog it is so nervously brilliant my dear how long can it be before Papa do Armand.” (pg 174)

I especially enjoyed Searle’s cartoons. They’re something of a mix of Matt Groening and Ralph Steadman; they’re cynical and chaotic, but composed with a dry, understated wit.

At their best, Searle’s lines can look as dystopian as a nuclear wasteland while the kids smile, slouch and light a cig in the background.

Generally, his illustrations are for what’s happening in the text – the Molesworth brothers setting a giant bear trap for Santa; an unhappy Molesworth 1 trudging across a cricket pitch – but some of the book’s best moments are when Searle draws harsh, hilarious caricatures: an advanced whip, complete with telescopic sight and rangefinder; stuffy, silly-faced adults; the master pleading “you boys think I’m soft, but I’m hard, damned hard.”

This one completely took me by surprise. It’s funny, dark and packed with great cartoons. While it’s a little dated – the schools are still segregated by gender here, for example, and female students are basically ignored until the end – it’s biting humour holds up. Recommended!

(images via: Forbidden Planet, Matou En Peluche)

10
Feb
15

Bad Cops: LA Confidential – James Ellroy

L.A. Confidential (L.A. Quartet, #3)L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy

Set in 1950s Los Angeles, LA Confidential is a gritty, dark thriller about bad people. And they’re supposed to be the good guys.

The book generally focuses on three cops. Bud White is brute, a cop who beats people for information and has a vendetta against domestic assault. Ed Exley is a World War II vet, a cold calculating guy who’s following the career his dad set out for him. And Jack Vincennes is a dirty cop who shakes down musicians and sells stories to a local scandal rag.

All three dislike each other: Bud’s seen as a loose cannon, Exley as a squealer (he ratted out some cops who beat a bunch of prisoners up) and Jack as a self-promoting opportunist, a guy trying to get his name and face out there. Soon all three get caught up in a murder investigation, each investigating different aspects and each trying to sabotage the other.

None of these cops are especially nice people. All three aren’t above lying to and abusing prisoners, to getting in wild shootouts that leave bystanders dead. They plant evidence, beat confessions out of people and drop racial slurs so casually it’s like they’re talking about the weather. They’re as crooked as the criminals they prosecute.

Which is kind of the point in noir fiction, really. The whole genre, going back as far as Hammett and Chandler is subversive in it’s treatment of police, refusing to treat them as paragons of society or even as generally good people. And Ellroy’s novel continues this thread.

Even now, nearly 25 years after it’s publication, LA Confidential is still a brutal read and hasn’t lost any of its ability to shock. It deals with hardcore pornography, underage prostitutes and all kinds of police abuses. The main thread deals with a crime called The Nite Owl Massacre, where a handful of people are shot to death in a diner; before long, this murder involves a whole string of underworld people and incorporates everything from torture to blackmail, too.

Key to its brutality is Ellroy’s deadpan and terse prose. He writes in short, rapid bursts, pushing the plot along so quickly there’s hardly time to stop and look at the collateral damage, the people framed for murder, the innocent bystanders blown away in the crossfire and all the civil rights routinely violated.

In the book, there’s a popular TV show called “Badge of Honor,” a local and heroic look at the men in blue. But Ellroy presents it as another cynical take on policing: they look good, but only on the surface. The actors all have dirty secrets and the policeman adviser is not above shaking them down and blackmailing the actors.

The mystery itself is nicely crafted, if a little hard to follow, but it’s almost secondary to the main stories of revenge and double-crossing, of a divided and compromised police department. By the time one gets the Byzantine lines of crime sorted out, the book’s nearly over and all that’s left is a cataclysmic shootout scene on a prison train. But really, pursuit of this crime just about takes a back seat here and there as Ellroy delves deeper and deeper into back-channel politicking, casual racism and cops pissed at other cops.

While I enjoyed this book, after spending so much time with other noir fiction I found it a bit wanting in a couple respects. It was a dark read, but sometimes felt like it was being intentionally pushed into the realm of shocking, like Ellroy was pushing to provoke readers. For example, take all the vice-related crimes. It’s not enough that someone looks at pornography, but they have to look at graphic books full of gore. Frankly, it’s almost cartoonish in how hard it tries to be disturbing.

Indeed, Ellroy’s treatment of sex in this book is interesting: it leads to vice and debasement, undoes the good men are striving for and, by book’s end, is the root cause of evil in the main villain. I’m not saying Ellroy’s a puritan, but I was occasionally reminded of the way David Foster Wallace treated women: he spends so much time trying to shock the reader it’s easy to miss the reactionary undercurrents.

Rating: 6/10. Recommended for people who enjoy noir fiction and don’t mind books with a lot of shooting. But honestly, I’m more into Chandler’s more darkly cynical take on LA, which feels less cartoonish and less judgey.

27
Jan
15

Shakespeare – Anthony and Cleopatra

Anthony and CleopatraAnthony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

Oxford World Classics, edited by Michael Neill

Okay, so let’s start with the obvious. Anthony and Cleopatra is a Shakespeare play, which means that it’s generally very good, sometimes a little confusing and very much a work a fiction.

Essentially, the play follows the final months of the second Roman Civil War, the one where Anthony was defeated at Actium and Octavian assumed control of the Roman Republic, essentially turning it into the Empire and setting the stage for a good 300 years of perpetual dictatorship. You know, season two of HBO’s Rome. The play plays fast and loose with the facts – Stacy Schiff has noted Cleopatra was likely a good deal more savvy  than Shakespeare plays her, for example – but even now, this play has tremendous influence; when was the last time you heard Anthony called by his proper name, Antonius?

As for the play itself, I’ll restrict myself to a few loose thoughts. I’ve never seen it in performance, but I imagine it works a great deal better here than it would on stage. Yes, Cleopatra, Octavian and Anthony are all fascinating characters, but the staging and pace of this thing is hard to figure out: Act 5, for example, has a confusing scene where Anthony’s body is taken to Cleopatra: was it lifted or taken off stage and brought around? There are others, including a triumph scene and Enobarbus’ death, which seemed a deal hard to picture in my head.

Still, it’s a fun read and one I enjoyed thinking about, especially the political scenes where Anthony and Octavian talk in formalities as they plot the other’s downfall; I’m currently reading a book about Nixon’s first term of office and I can’t help think of the similarities. Anyway, it’s Shakespeare. You’ll probably like it.

So the focus here is in this specific text, the Oxford edition first published in 1994 (and currently in it’s third edition). It weighs in a hefty 400 pages, with a lengthy introduction and notes by Michael Neill. In a novella-length intro, Neill writes about the textual history of the play, it’s performance history and looks at it in the context of it’s times. He makes some interesting observations about parallels between it and an earlier play and to North’s translation of Plutarch (see here and here for stuff I’ve written about Plutarch). There’s also a lengthy analysis of the different themes of this play, which I found occasionally interesting but mostly over-my-head or pedantic. I suppose students studying this play in a classroom would get more from that than a casual reader.

Thankfully, Neill spends a lot of time on the play’s performance history; how it wasn’t staged for many years, then staged with archaeological trappings: whatever the current trend for how Roman Egypt looked was how the play was staged. I suppose it’s interesting, but truthfully, I was more interested when he describes how different performers played their characters to different effect. For example, Patrick Stewart’s Enobarbus gave the play a different feeling than Helen Mirren’s Cleopatra. There’s an interesting bit on the lack of black casts for this play, which does go out of it’s way to describe Cleopatra in similar language as Shakespeare describes Othello. It’s all interesting stuff; going back to it after reading the play helps set the scenes you just read a little better, too.

The book is packed with notes, too. They can seem overwhelming, especially when they dominate the page, but they’re almost always helpful. Sometimes they explain an obscure word or point out how it’s the first recorded use of one. Sometimes they offer textual commentary: why he added or dropped a word from the manuscript or other editions. Occasionally, they help explain a scene and how a reader should interpret it, like this note to scene 2.6, a confrontation between Anthony and Octavian:

“The veiled ironies of this scene are nicely caught in Peter Hall’s note to his actors at The National: ‘this scene is about politicians who never say what they are thinking… conceal your hostility beneath a veil of utmost charm. Make it sound perfectly genuine. The art is to show now nice you can be.’ ” (pg 204)

Generally, I found myself reading each scene twice. Once straight through, then a second time going back and forth between the text and notes. I usually didn’t have any trouble; unfamiliar words usually explain themselves in the play’s scenes. But the notes helped too, especially on the second reading, since they explain what’s happening on stage or what various editors (from Dr. Johnson right up to Neill) think Shakespeare was getting at.

A final note: I find that when reading Shakespeare, or any play for that matter, it’s worth remembering it’s meant to be read out loud, like poetry. If you’re passive when reading his work, it’s easy to fall into his verse and never come out; phrases that seem hard to follow on paper are a lot easier to keep track of when read out loud.

I don’t have this play in another edition, so I can’t compare it directly to Arden, Pelican, Norton or other editions, but generally Oxford seems about the same with Arden’s long introduction and heavy annotation. It doesn’t have the critical appendixes Norton’s usually does – just an abridged version of North’s translation of Plutarch’s Life of Antonius and a section on pronouns – but it’s more specific than I usually find Pelican editions to be: no general intro on Shakespeare and his life, no long discussion of The Globe or etc, but a detailed and specific intro to the play.




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