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2022 Reading Log

May

48. Carlos Basualdo and Scott Rothkopf. Jasper John: Mind/Mirror. NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2021. I was disappointed in this catalog of the double exhibition (at the Whitney and the Philadelphia Museum of Art), meant to be the summing up of Johns’ long career. Too many short, distinct essays by too many authors made for a very choppy big picture. The decision to prints most, if not all, of the hundreds of works in the exhibition makes for a great reference source, but severely limited the number of images that were given a full-page reproduction. And the reproductions were good, not great, probably necessary in order to make the book affordable. Nevertheless, if I were in the curator’s shoes, I would have made the same decisions, except for the multiplicity of authors. It’s always about the compromises.

47. Don DeLillo. The Silence. NY: Scribner, 2020. My first take is that DeLillo’s attempt to deal with a collective loss of digital connectivity feels like a misfire. Five New Yorkers, mostly intellectuals, try to deal individually, as couples, and as a group, without any knowledge of why all of the world’s screens have suddenly gone gray. Sun spot? Nuclear war? Maybe a second reading, in a couple of months, will change my mind, but the writing seemed stilted. More disconcertingly, I don’t think DeLillo found any new ways of suggesting or responding to such a frightening situation. It reads like the script of a play—dead on the page.

46. Annie Ernaux. Things Seen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press Press, 2010. Translated from the 2000 French original by Jonathan Kaplansky. Tiny, acute, paragraph-long observations, often made during her commute or while waiting in lines, written between 1993 and 1999. Many of these moments involve the crises of conscience or the minor confrontations that occur when the haves and the have-nots rub up against each other daily in the metro and on the crowded streets of Paris. This is the model for current books like Lauren Elkin’s No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus. Ernaux’s special gift is the art of leaving the best phrase or the killer sentence until last, so that you feel, at the very end, as if a matador had slipped a sword between your shoulder blades.

45. Liam McIlvanney. The Heretic. World Noir, 2022. McIlvanney remains my current favorite mystery writer, despite the fact that I could barely follow the plot of The Heretic‘s predecessor, The Quaker, at times. It’s just good writing & pacing, great characters, and fine dialogue. McIlvanney is more fearless than most police procedural writers about plunging the reader in over his head and letting the context bubble up slowly like oxygen, just before you drown.

44. Eloísa Díaz. Repentance. Aberdeen, NJ: Agora Books, 2021. In the midst of the December 2001 riots, Buenos Aires police Inspector Alzada finds himself with a delicate murder case that takes an unexpected turn which forces him once again to try to come to the aid of his brother. Twenty years earlier, as a young policeman and his brother belonged to a guerilla group, he managed to keep his brothers name off of a list of those who were going to be disappeared by the regime. Now his brother is in trouble again. Díaz’s first novel is taut, well-written, and face paced.

April

43. Alison Jean Lester. Glide. Bench Press, 2021. Leo, the book’s narrator, teaches photography at a Massachusetts community college. When his wife fails to return from a trip to Norway, but a half-brother that he had never heard about before shows up instead, Leo doesn’t know what to believe. With each advance in the plot, the mystery grows and the tension tightens. Photographs by Andrew Gurnett at the beginning of each chapter give of preview of the ominous level of what is to come.

42. Toni Morrison. The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Lets’ just say it right up front, Toni Morrison was brilliant. Somehow, Morrison can speak with the assurance of a world leader, yet reassure you her thoughts are not the final word on the matter. While it’s disappointing that the pieces naturally overlap somewhat (she steals from herself frequently) and she talks more about her own books that other people’s books (which is what I would have preferred), every essay contains much to be absorbed. She’s utterly fascinating on Huckleberry Finn and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, for example, and I wanted so much more of that.

41. Esther Kinsky. River. Oakland: Transit Books, 2018. One of the books re-read for my 15 Books Project. River is one of my favorite books of the 21st century. It’s understated, lyrical, sensitive, and yet it’s underlying themes are about ethical issues, borders, and privilege, among other things. See my review here.

40. Percival Everett. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2009. A funny, pointed satire that aims its sharpest arrows at white Southerners, colorism, and higher education. It’s impossible to give a brief synopsis of the plot, but suffice it to say that the main character is a young kid whose mother named him Not Sidney because his last name really was Poitier. He accidentally becomes phenomenally rich through a stock purchase which makes him a partner of Ted Turner and the company that will become CNN. But because he is black, very dark, and named Not Sidney, he must suffer—and suffer egregiously—at the hands of whites and blacks alike, before becoming wise. Simply delicious.

39. Leonora Carrington. The Milk of Dreams. NY: New York Review of Books, 2013. A slim and thoroughly fun book for very adult children with fabulous drawings in pen & ink and watercolor by the author/artist. Imagine Dr. Seuss allowed to be nasty (e.g. cigarettes and excrement) and nightmarishly surrealistic. It’s no wonder this book is the theme for the current Venice Biennial. From everything I’ve seen of the art selected, this is the perfect umbrella. I’m headed to Venice in September for the Biennial, so I’m getting prepped.

38. Ishion Hutchinson. House of Lords and Commons. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016. I’m becoming a fan of Hutchinson’s complex, often deeply-layered poems, and some of that is beginning to emerge in this book, which came out six years ago. Some of these poems blend his Jamaican heritage with classical of historic themes to great effect.

37. Rosmarie Waldrop. The Nick of Time. NY: New Directions, 2021. These poems either connected with me or just fell flat. I never became comfortable with the way Waldrop’s prose poems, written in paragraphs, used periods to force a pause, the way that other poems would use line breaks. Many of the poems are about language itself. Some are about her husband Keith Waldrop and suggest he is suffering from memory loss. These are deeply beautiful and personal poems.

36. Ocean Vuong. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. NY: Penguin, 2019. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before about this book? Lyrical, carnal, angry, brilliant, astoundingly beautiful. I just don’t understand how someone can write stunning sentences one after another without end. May his well never run dry.

35. John Hawkes. The Lime Twig. NY: New Directions, 1961. A motley gang of petty English crooks hatch a plot to steal a race horse and insert it in a rich race under a false name. This allows Hawkes to explore the chaos, confusion, terror, the small-time treachery, the illusions of grandeur, and the outsized dreams of success that are the prelude to several cheap and terrible deaths. Which is all just an excuse for lots of wild Hawkesian writing and carefree plotting, although this is somewhat more restrained than his earlier novels. If Graham Greene had taken a pair of scissors to Brighton Rock, it would have turned out something like The Lime Twig. The Introduction by the late, great Leslie A. Fiedler feels like a Hawkes’ short story unto itself.

34. Kirsty Bell. The Undercurrents. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. A first-rate introduction to Berlin. Bell works outward from the perspective of a new owner of one apartment in a 19th century building that survived the war. She slowly expands her view to take in the nearby canal, then the neighborhood, and eventually more of the city and enough of its history to make anyone pretty savvy. She lays out a concise picture of Berlin’s dismal attempts at post-war city planning and gave me the best run-down of what went wrong during “re-unification” I’ve read yet. When I visit Berlin later this year, I feel like I will be coming in with my eyes wide open. Every city needs a book like this.

March

33. Dennis Duncan. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure. NY: W.W. Norton, 2021. Surprisingly great fun, especially the book’s own quite playful index. Who knew that indexing has led to philosophical battles for centuries? Duncan is just the person to make this topic thoroughly entertaining.

32. Javier Marías. Venice: An Interior. NY: Penguin, 2016. Penguin craftily says this is a 2016 publication, but it’s a reprint of something Marías wrote for El País in 1988, updated with a tiny chapter at the end. True, I bought this for Marías’ verbiage on Venice, which I was sure would be amusing (and it is), not as a guide book. But it still ticks me off that publishers try to get away with this. It’s worth reading only 1) if you must read every word Javier Marías writes or 2) you are unquenchably aching for Venice and have already read Joseph Brodsky’s superior book Watermark. I fall into both categories.

31. Henri Cole. Orphic Paris. NY: The New York Review of Books, 2018. This struck me as a very entertaining, albeit predictable poet’s take on living in Paris. Cole, whose books I have never read, does all the usual things: visits art museums, pays homage to the right graves (Sontag, Baudelaire), name drops prominent names (Jenny Holzer, James Lord), writes about his proper admiration for other poets (Plath, Rilke, Dickinson, Bishop, Stevens, etc.), & takes long Parisian walks. Lots of photographs, almost one per every other page. It seemed to me the book of a younger writer, working his way up the food chain, not that of a man in his mid-sixties with more than ten books of poetry to his name. Maybe it’s partly a project to make money, which is something I can respect. My local bookseller, whose poetry section is measured in mere inches, says this title has been very popular, which seems to confirm that theory.

30. Stephen Saperstein Frug. Happenstance. Ithaca: Snark and Boojum Press, 2019. An excellent graphic novel made using photographs about two youngish couples who live in Ithaca, New York. Paul and his significant other, Rebecca, are Jews, except that Paul is secretly exploring the idea of converting to Christianity. Chris and her girlfriend, Alex, are a lesbian couple, a relationship that is troubled by the fact that Chris won’t come out to her parents. Paul and Chris, who is struggling with her evangelical Christianity and with religion in general, go for long walks and talk about God, the universe, faith, and other weighty matters. (Read in January, but not recorded.)

29. Donna Grant Reilly. An American Proceeding: Building the Grant House with Frank Lloyd Wright. Hanover, NH: Meadowside Press, 2019. Donna Grant was a young child when her ambitious and naive parents asked Wright to design a house for them in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just after WWII. They owned a beautiful fifty acre setting that had its own small limestone quarry on site. The Grants quarried the stone themselves and helped build the house according to Wright’s plans. But it was—and still is—a nightmare to live in. It’s freezing in the winter and the flat cement roof leaked from the very first year. No one lives in the house now, but Donna’s brother lives next door and has been restoring and maintaining the house most of his adult life—without knowing who will take care of the house next. It’s just a couple of miles from where I live and I’ve gone through it twice with Donna’s brother. It’s a great Usonian house with all the typical FLW problems. Reilly’s book documents the truth about working with Wright and trying to live in one of his houses.

28. Don Mee Choi. DMZ Colony. Seattle: Wave Books, 2020. Another great design by Wave Books and another book by Don Mee Choi in which poetry serves as a kind of velvet fist. The book uses children’s drawings and handwritten stories, adult’s doodles, documentary photographs (some by her father), and other images as jumping off points for poems and prose poems about Korean historyparticularly the creation of the Demilitarized Zone after the Korean War and the decades of U.S-sponsored dictatorship. The book specifically documents and deals with the torture and death of so many citizens during those dark years. Winner of the National Book Award.

27. D.A. Mishani. The Missing File. NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Translated from the Hebrew by Steven Cohen. The first novel involving Israeli police detective Avraham (Avi) Avraham and the disappearance of a teenager. Half of the chapters are from Avi’s perspective, half from that of the teenager’s English tutor, who keeps trying to insert himself into the police investigation, for reasons no one can fully grasp. I don’t like this kind of split narration, but nevertheless the novel kept me going and kept me guessing. Avraham is an original kind of detective and Mishani writes succinctly. I will read the second one.

February

26. Paul Metcalf. I-57. New Haven: LongRiver Books, 1988. Metcalf’s book-length poem about his meandering south-to-north journey along Interstate 57 through Illinois is a combination of homespun diary, history, found texts that he subsumed in great bites into his book, and occasional snapshots, all adding up to a rich journey into place. The trip was made in 1975, making this a record of a disappeared era.

25. Gabriel Josipovici. 100 Days. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2021. A self-assigned Covid project to “keep a diary for a hundred days . . . with a short thought or memory, one a day, connected to a person, place, concept or work of art that had played a role in my life . . . not . . . perfect little essays . . . but rather a way of talking to myself.” The alphabetically-themed entries range from Aachen and Abraham to [Georges] Perec and Piers the Plowman to Zazie dans le métro (Raymond Queneau’s 1960 novel) and Zoos. Josipovici’s erudition and his utter honesty shine through in these wonderful little pieces, each of which is preceded by a short diaristic encapsulation of the current political situation with regard to Covid, usually the British government’s botched handling thereof. Josipovici could have easily become this era’s Samuel Pepys, if he had kept a diary. (Maybe he does?)

24. Jessica Au. Cold Enough For Snow. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2022. Au’s very brief (94 pages) first novel reads like a first novel, albeit an excellent one. It’s beautifully written in a very deliberate, mannered way. It goes out of its way (too much so, to my taste) to be mysterious about locations the characters visit and artists whose work the character see, etc. The book would be a one-trick pony if it weren’t for some minor themes that are scarcely developed. I don’t mean to sound harsh. I think I’m just reacting to all of the hype I’ve read about this novel, which is genuinely promising, definitely worth reading, but not the pot of gold that some have claimed it is. A young woman from somewhere goes to Japan to meet her mother, who lives in yet another unnamed country, to visit unnamed art galleries and unnamed art museums and talk about unnamed artists. But the daughter seems to have an unknown agenda.

23. Caesar Aira. The Divorce. NY: New Directions, 2021. Even though it is only 96 pages long, I wanted to divorce The Divorce about halfway through. Aira, whose books I generally like a lot, takes ridiculousness to an extreme that I no longer found interesting in this tiny book about the consequences of chance meetings.

22. J.W. Böhm. This Wounded Island. Berlin: Institute of Liminal Studies/Probability Books, 2020. The title page notes that the book has been “translated by Michael Rudolph,” but it does not provide any original language or title. The author, the institute, and the translator are all, apparently, nonexistent. But the book is a collection of three previously published volumes of This Wounded Island, with a new Foreword by another pseudonymous writer, Mark Valentine. “Writer, photographer and wanderer J.W. Böhm’s pictorial survey of contemporary England finds a country overwhelmed by doubt. . .” This Wounded Island is best compared to Patrick Keiller’s trio of sardonic films about Great Britain, starting with London (1994). The books are comprised of b&w photographs and (usually) ironic texts on opposing pages. A terrific and farce that goes for Brexit Britain’s jugular. Great fun.

21. Jenny Erpenbeck. Visitation. NY: New Directions, 2010. Translated from the 2008 German original by Susan Bernofsky. I really wanted to reread this devastating short novel that follows the “ownership” of a plot of land outside of Berlin from the nineteenth century through to the reunification of Germany. The lands passes through numerous hands, though none of the owners are named. The main characters are the Gardener, who remains the one person who stays on the property throughout most of the time encompassed (which is probably about a century in total) and the land itself, which is continuously planted, uprooted, replanted according to the whims of the new owner, destroyed by war, replanted, and so on. The property’s owners/occupiers include a Jewish family, a Nazi architect, and a (very temporary) Russian brigade.

20. Enrique Vila-Matas. Cabinet d’amateur, an oblique novel: Works from “la Caixa” Collection of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2019. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull-Costa. Vila-Matas, an astute and experienced observer of contemporary art, was asked to selected several pieces from this distinguished Spanish corporate collection and create an exhibition and narrative. He chose to build it around an aphorism of Kafka that he says has long been the key to his “biographia literaria“: “Our task is to do the negative, the positive has already been given to us.” It’s the particular genius of Vila-Matas that, within a handful of pages, he can connect Franz Kafka, Glenn Gould, Robert Walser, Rimbaud, Rem Koolhaas, Kurt Gödel, Miles Davis, and artists like Andreas Gursky, and Gerhard Richter. We need more Vila-Matas in our lives.

19. David Damrosch. Around the World in 80 Books. NY: Penguin, 2021. For the most part, Damrosch pulls off the delicate balancing act of making this popular movie scenario serve his purpose of introducing people to some pretty damn good writers and books, including obvious choices like Woolf, Proust, Kafka, Joyce, and so on. To his credit, Damrosch manages to get in Djuna Barnes, Georges Perec, Paul Celan, Naguib Mafouz, Derek Walcott, and a couple dozen names of that caliber. But he falls down by naming Bar Harbour, Maine as one of the sixteen areas he selects, simply because he grew up there and still has a home there. A world tour of literature that omits Russia and limits South America to Brazil should not be including Bal Harbour, Maine and writers like Robert McCloskey, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Hugh Lofting. Other than that, no complaints.

18. Marcel Proust. The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Volume 5 of In Search of Lost Time. NY: Penguin, 2003. Translated by Carol Clark and Peter Collier. I feel like I have climbed K2. It has taken more than a year to get through this section of Proust. The Albertine section is notoriously tough going, but with her death the narrator goes to Venice and, as he looks back on his life, everything starts to come into a new focus. I’m going to make it to the finish line.

January

17. Patrick Modiano. La Place de l’Étoile. in The Occupation Trilogy (Bloomsbury, 2015). Translated from the 1968 French original by Frank Wynne. Modiano’s first novel, published in the significant year of the ’68 student uprisings) was a thumb-in-the-nose to French passivity about his country’s sad collaboration with the Nazis during WWII and its long history of anti-Semitism. I agree wholeheartedly with M.A. Orthofer that La Place de l’Étoile is “caustic” and “subversive” and very angry. It’s also so full of references that it’s hard for anyone not steeped in French literature and culture to fully grasp all of the allusions. Thankfully, it’s very short.

16. Raymond Chandler. Farewell, My Lovely. 1940. When in doubt, return to Chandler. Sentence for sentence, he can be more fun than just about any writer. “The house itself was not so much. It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.” But halfway through Farewell, just like his other Marlow noirs, the plot becomes more convoluted than a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. What’s with spelling okay “okey”? Is that just Chandler? Or is that a 40s thing?

15. Sally Mann. Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs. NY: Little, Brown, 2015. I am a big fan of Sally Mann’s photographs, but I was not as much taken with her memoir as many other readers seem to have been. Although it’s heavily illustrated with her photographs and full of fascinating family snapshots and memorabilia, it’s also chaotically organized. Parts of her family story are utterly fascinating, and her writing about her own photography is essential reading. But I struggled in the sections during which she goes to some length to describe how she rose above her childhood ignorance of Southern racism, which didn’t dawn on her until she went away to college. But I confess that I struggled when it seemed like she went on far too long trying to convince readers how she had risen above her childhood ignorance of Southern racism.

14. Bae Suah. Recitation. Dallas: Deep Vellum, 2017. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. I don’t know quite what to make of this slippery, engaging, mystifying, sometimes boring novel. There are some stunningly beautifully written sections tucked away amongst puzzling stories that morph without apparent reason. Probably not the best book to start reading Bae Suah.

13. Chloe Aridjis. Asunder. NY: Mariner Books, 2013. The narrator is a museum guard at London’s National Gallery. She’s comfortable watching people watching art. But at any moment, she’s aware that her life could be torn asunder as was her great-grandfather’s a century earlier. He was a guard in the same museum and he failed to prevent the militant suffragette Mary Richardson from slashing Velazquez’s painting known as the Rokeby Venus as an act of protest. Aridjis’s books are never about any one thing; instead, they invoke states of mind that try to push the reader into realms that seem mysterious, askew. She was a friend of the late Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), the Surrealist painter and writer, and it feels as if she always wants to nudge things in that direction. Moderately enjoyable reading.

12. Richard Powers. Bewilderment. NY: W.W. Norton, 2021. I think of Powers mostly as a writer of ideas and Bewilderment is full of them—what life on other planets might be like, about decoded neurofeedback, about science under Trump. But it’s also a novel of powerful emotions about love and parenting, as an astrobiologist grieves for his deceased wife and struggles to raise a young son who is on the spectrum. I liked this more than I expected to.

11. Cynthia Saltzman. Plunder: Napoleon’s Theft of Veronese’s Feast. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021. Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana,” a gigantic canvas commissioned in 1563 for the monastery of Venice’s San Giorgio Maggiore, was part of the plunder that Napoleon took for his new museum the Louvre when he conquered Italy and stripped Venice of many of its art masterpieces in 1797. Saltzman expertly uses “The Feast” to tell the larger story of Napoleon’s rise and fall and of his two decades plundering Europe and Egypt of art and antiquities.One can never read too much about Napoleon and this is a fabulous story told well.

10. James Kestrel. 5 Decembers. Hard Case Crime, 2021. For a while I thought I had hit the jackpot here. A brutal double murder in Honolulu on the even of the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, December 1941. A police detective determined to track down the killer even if it meant heading the wrong way across the Pacific Ocean as war with Japan begins. Kestrel’s book is very readable, but at a half-dozen points it stretched my credulity a shade too far for my comfort. I kept thinking that Kestrel saw the movie adaptation down the road and got blinded by the klieg lights.

9. Annabel Dover. Florilegia. Nottingham: Moist Books, 2022. A daring first novel narrated by a woman who becomes enamored with the 19th century British botanist and photographer Anna Atkins,. The novel is really about the power of objects to provoke memories that, in this instance, bring the narrator back in touch with memories of her parents and siblings. Packed with nearly one hundred b&w photographs.

8. Peter Weiss. Leavetaking. Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014. Translated from the 1961 German original by Christopher Levenson. How many novels and memoirs are there of an adolescent trying to break out of the confinement of strict parents? It doesn’t matter. Read this one, just for the sentences. The life is not particularly memorable, the writing is. Wonderful sections on how books helped him in various stages of his youth.

7. Leonardo Sciascia. To Each His Own. NY: New York Review Books, 2000. Translated from the Italian by Adrienne Foulke. While it is true that this compact story depends on one plot twist at the very end, Sciascia’s goal is to let his characters reveal themselves through their conversations and interactions with other people. A high school literature teacher decides to look into the circumstances surrounding the murder of two friends, which he does primarily through casual conversations that reveal much about how people lie to themselves and others. A brilliant reinvention of the classic detective novel, with an ending that comes out of nowhere.

6. Kevin Breathnach. Tunnel Vision. London: Faber & Faber, 2019. Some mildly intriguing critical essays about Berenice Abbot, Susan Sontag, André Kertész, the Goncourt Brothers, and Stephen Shore, interspersed with self-centered non-fiction about his days as a wasted young man.

5. Carole Maso. Ava. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993. The thoughts of Ava Klein, thirty-nine years of age, professor of comparative literature, on the day that she dies in a hospital bed of cancer. Perhaps some overheard conversations, as well. “The desire of a novel to be a poem,” as Maso says about this book in Break Every Rule. There are scattered, disconnected thoughts about literature, music, AIDS, current events (the Zodiac Killer, the Bush invasion of Iran), her husbands and lovers, her students, and the book she was working on about four French women writers of the twentieth century. I’m unconvinced.

4. Carole Maso. Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, & Moments of Desire. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000. Maso’s impassioned plea for a new kind of lyrical writing also feels like an explanation and defense of her recent novels Ava and Aureole, which she feels readers have either misunderstood or avoided altogether. I suspect that Maso will only convert those who are already prepped and willing.

3. Charles Todd. Wings of Fire. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. In the second Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery, he is sent to Cornwall to investigate whether a death and a double suicide might be something more insidious. It takes Rutledge nearly the entire book to determine if anything suspicious has actually taken place, and only at the last minute does he suss out the culprit. Lots of conversations and convoluted theories. Only for the determined.

2. Chloe Aridjis. Dialogue with a Somnambulist: Stories, Essays & a Portrait Gallery. London: House Sparrow Press, 2021. A wonderful miscellany by the Mexican-born novelist. I especially liked the tenor of her non-fiction work, written more like a novelist than a New Yorker essayist.

1. Geoffrey Sanborn. The Value of Herman Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. This is not your typical literary criticism. Sanborn’s laudatory goal is to explore the values we might find as readers, in part by trying to see what Melville thought he was saying to his readers. Largely free of academic language, too.

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