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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

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I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

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The university where I work selected The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore as the book all incoming freshmen are reading this summer. Since Convocation Day is just under four weeks away, I decided it was time to read it. If you haven’t heard of it, the book is written by a man who heard in college of the fate of another man with the same name, who’d been convicted of killing an off duty police officer during a robbery. The author, stuck by their same name and similar early childhood circumstances, eventually wrote to the convicted man, later visited, got to know him, and after a few years wrote a book about their two lives.

Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convicted man were both boys in Baltimore with single mothers. Both got into trouble early in life, although the author’s mother tried more drastic steps to prevent her son from wrecking his life, first moving the young family to the Bronx to live with her parents in her childhood home, then sending Wes away to military boarding school when he appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.

It paid off. Military school led to an Army commission, then to Johns Hopkins, the Rhodes scholarship, a White House fellowship, a Wall Street career, a book deal. The other Wes Moore got into increasingly more dire situations, including selling drugs, and had four children by the time he was twenty. When he watched the mother of two of his children succumb to addiction he couldn’t face his own part in it. He found out about Job Corps, got his GED in a very short time, and trained as a carpenter. Back in Baltimore, he could only get low paying unskilled jobs and under continued financial pressure as he tried to support his family, he went back to dealing drugs.

The Other Wes Moore juxtaposes these two stories, focusing primarily on the first 20 years of each Wes’s life. It’s a telling portrait of life for poor, young black Americans, and it’s also a heart-breaking look at what happens when society does not fulfill its promises fully — Wes the convict is smart, but he never graduates from school and if anyone tries to help him there it goes unmentioned. His mother was in college (ironically, at Johns Hopkins) and also working to support herself and her kids when Pell grants were cancelled and she was forced to drop out. When Wes made it through Job Corps he was prepared to live a new life, but was not given a chance with a living wage or even a job where he could apply his skills, and he turned back to crime.

Yes, the author’s mother managed to keep her kids safe, and sacrificed to get him first to private school in the Bronx and then military school, and yes, people have free will, and should be able to take responsibility for their actions. Still, I was really struck by how different things could have been if the convicted Wes had just had a couple of things go differently in his life. But there was something that bothered me even more: he claimed he wasn’t even at the robbery, and therefore could not have participated in the murder. Wes the author mentions this, but does not pursue it, or even spend more than a sentence or two on it. In the introduction to the book he writes,”Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime.” So I guess he just doesn’t question the verdict, even though he’s come to know the man who claims he wasn’t there.

It seems to me that a man who has become devoutly religious while serving a life sentence who still maintains his innocence deserves more than a passing reference to his contention that he didn’t do it. He was young black man with a record, and I don’t know if I have enough faith in the justice system to believe his conviction was definitely just. That really bothers me, but it’s true. Society had given up on him long before and had sentenced him to a life of despair. So it’s not much of a leap to wonder if society would even think twice about locking him up. The community was demanding justice for a police officer. In light of all the recent attention given to the endemic police bias in Baltimore, I can’t help but wonder. Would that bias trickle into the justice system? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t.

As a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is compelling, but there were some stylistic choices I had a hard time with. I’ve never been a fan of reconstructed dialogue, which Moore employs not only in the sections about his own life and family (at least he was there) but also those about the other Wes. The author is a good storyteller though, and when I was reading the book those sections didn’t bother me. So maybe it was my overall discomfort that made me think twice as I looked back at the book when I was finished. Is it a good choice for a community-wide read? Absolutely — there is a great deal to discuss about race, economic and social inequality, education, family, personal responsibility, even the power of books and stories to change lives.

But I remain disquieted nonetheless.

 

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

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First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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Books & Brew is one of my favorite things. It’s our library’s low pressure book club; we meet once a month at True Brew Barista and talk about whatever we’re reading. On Wednesday, a guy in a shirt with some kind of red, white & blue logo came over with some postcards. I admit I ignored him a little — this is New Hampshire, and we’re up to ears in political canvassing. I was concerned that he was going to pitch something or someone to the group.

Turns out he was. When there was a break in the conversation, he jumped in and explained. He was Bob Makela of Bobtimystic Books, a small press in Brooklyn. He had an author with him, Craig Tomashoff, a box full of books, and no one had shown up for their event. I immediately felt for them. He told us about Tomashoff’s book, The Can’t-idates: Running for President When Nobody Knows Your Name.

It’s about fifteen of the more than 1400 “ordinary citizens” running for president. When Makela pitched it, I immediately asked one question that for me, would reveal how well researched this book was: “Is Vermin Supreme one of them?” Makela didn’t hesitate, “He’s chapter eleven.” Sold.

For you poor folks in the rest of the country where Vermin Supreme doesn’t campaign, get yourselves a copy of The Can’t-idates because it’s worth it for his chapter alone. Mr. Supreme has been running for president since 1992, and it’s not primary season in New Hampshire without him. My son and his friend actually got to meet him during the 2012 campaign at a Barack Obama event. He often attends other candidates’ events and talks to the crowds lined up to go in.

Anyway, I had high hopes there were other “protest” candidates out there bringing Vermin Supreme’s potent mix of satire and seriousness (this year he’s challenging people to give a kidney to those who need one) to weary voters everywhere. But as I began to read The Can’t-idates I was a little worried — the first guy Tomashoff meets thinks his whole hometown are government agents meant to keep him safe.

To his credit, Tomashoff recognizes his own “Oh God, this guy is crazy” feeling and feels badly about it — he wants to be respectful and kind to all the people he meets, and I admire that. He’s honest and he also looks for the good in these people. They may have failed the bar, or lost a business, or have a rap sheet, or be semi-illiterate, or have nearly insurmountable problems, but he sees and writes about what makes each of them admirable as well.

And that works, because Tomashoff is thoughtful, and a good writer. The book is as much a road trip memoir (he drove over 10,000 miles!) as it is a book about fringe presidential candidates. Tomashoff writes candidly about his own life experiences and his inspiration for the trip — he wanted “To show my son (and anyone else who’d pay attention) that you should listen to your own life.” His son was about to graduate from high school and Tomashoff hoped this project would help him learn about trying something other people thought was crazy, and finding happiness anyway.

He also notes things about America in 2016 that the mainstream media doesn’t or can’t confront so plainly and honestly. The ubiquity of racism, yes, even in you and me, in everyone. The fact that so many people all over our country don’t have safe, comfortable, or stable lives, and if you are a minority you’re even more likely not to. The fact that people who don’t learn like other people frequently end up just not learning at all.

And most of all that we are going along with electoral politics the way some of us follow our GPS even when it is leading us astray. Tomashoff writes about Waze not making clear that he’d be taking a ferry across Lake Champlain to get to Burlington. “The mainstream Republican and Democratic contenders are like Waze. We don’t really know how they operate. They’re forever telling us what to do, where to go and the easiest path to get there. And we are the ones who give them that authority, which we blindly follow without question because . . . well . . . it’s just easier that way.”

In his introduction, Tomashoff also points out that the media is partially responsible for low voter turnout. “There’s some irony here: the media spends hours shaming candidates for their personal and professional failures, and then shames voters for not showing up at the polls. If you tell us these people suck, you can’t be surprised that we don’t want to cast our votes for any of them.”

I submit to you, as does Tomashoff, that you have options. My take? If you truly feel no candidate represents your views or understands your life, consider voting for Vermin Supreme. He gave a kidney to his mother, and takes care of her. That’s probably a better indicator of someone’s fitness for office than a lot of the stuff we mindlessly accept from other candidates.

 

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