Tag Archives: literature

Palahniuk takes on some beautiful ‘Monsters’

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players. – William Shakespeare

What is the cost of beauty? If you go all in on your looks, what lengths will you go to seeking attention for your long eyelashes, lean legs, toned abs? And when you lose those looks, what is left of the person when the pretty is stripped away?

Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters takes a deep, twisted dive into those murky waters. This is the tale of Brandy Alexander, a pre-op transexual who was thought to be dead by her multi-monikered sister, the narrator of the tale. Sister narrator was always a beauty and grew to be an up-and-coming model in the fashion world, until she is shot in the face by her lover Manus … or her best friend Evie … or maybe neither. She awakes in the hospital to meet Brandy, a big, brash, beautiful product of multiple plastic surgeries financed by three brothers who made a fortune in dolls. And from there, it’s a non-stop race to defy beauty and seek truth, no matter how ugly said truth may be, until the walls close in and everything burns to the ground.

In true Palahniuk fashion, Invisible Monsters isn’t nearly  as simple as this previous, vague paragraph suggests. The author lays out the case for pure, simple beauty as a wonderful thing that is then marred, manipulated and repackaged for sale as just another consumer product. “Shotgunning anybody in this room would be the moral equivalent of killing a car, a vacuum cleaner, a Barbie doll. Erasing a computer disc. Burning a book. Probably that goes for killing anyone in the world. We’re all such products.”

Narcissism is an industry, just like technology or manufacturing. The lengths – both physical and financial – to which our model narrator and Brandy will go to either to enhance their looks or re-create themselves is startling. Waxes, dyes, make up, dresses, shoes, diets, drugs, nips, tucks, implants. Money, money and more money, to fight that nasty aging and freeze their perfect countenance in time for as long as possible, projecting the flawless mask to the camera, the photographer, the entire world, and hide that invisible monster that no one wants to know exists.

The grotesque nature of the proceedings, the absurdity of this pursuit of eternal and false perfection is the perfect world for a mind like Palahniuk’s to explore. I’d encourage you to jump into the journey and take the ride.

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CEO fight clubs and crashing cars to get turned on: The trippy tales of J.G. Ballard

THE FIRST RULE OF CEO FIGHT CLUB is there is no CEO fight club.

While reading J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes, I thought a lot about Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Both center themselves on the idea that unrestrained violence and sexuality are healing actions, rather than negative or self-destructive. However, in Fight Club, that violence is directed to cripple a society that has already crippled the clubbers. In Super-Cannes, the anarchy is more controlled, with the idea that these periodic bursts of lunacy will help make the world a better place by allowing elites in their fields – business, engineering, medicine, etc. – to release this pent-up rage and malaise, to unblock their psyche and intellect so that they can focus on their chosen professions and studies with a singularity and fervor that they would have been unable to do before said acts.

Paul, a magazine editor, moves to the elite business park Eden-Olympia after his pediatrician wife, Jane, accepts a position there. David Greenwood, the pediatrician who preceded Jane at Eden-Olympia and an acquaintance of Paul and his wife, is dead after going on a rampage at the business park, shooting a number for fellow co-workers before being gunned down by security. While Jane is immediately immersed in her work, Paul starts to wonder what exactly set David off and gets his Hardy boys on digging into the incident.

What Paul comes to find is that the elites that populate Eden-Olympia are participating on “bowling teams.” These teams periodically go out to areas around the park, in Cannes and the neighboring towns and cities, stealing, committing vandalism, beating up immigrants and more. The staff psychiatrist, Wilder Penrose, encourages this psychopathy. He believes that these elite individuals really don’t understand down time, unable to commit to average hobbies and pastimes that help soothe the souls of normal people. This negatively impacts their health and productivity. But after evenings beating up prostitutes or stealing top-end furs from a commercial shoot, these leaders in their respective fields get physically and mentally healthier and are able to spend even more time working.

Super-Cannes is intriguing and works well, with one exception. On the one hand, Paul seems sucked in by this madness, wanting to stop it but unsure how. On the other, Paul almost seems completely removed from the madness he witnesses or even is involved in personally. When it comes time for him to shit or get off the pot, you can see why he chooses what he chooses to do morally and personally, but Paul seems to lack the rage and passion required for his book-closing move. The journey is interesting and well-executed, but the wrap-up feels like it doesn’t quite fit.

DO MANGLED STEEL, broken plastic, burning wires, spilled gasoline, broken limbs, dripping blood, scarred torsos and metal leg braces turn you on?

Ballard’s Crash confronts the sexual nature of the automobile in ways I never imagined. I saw David Cronenberg’s Crash back in the 1990s (see The 5 Most Disturbing Movies I’ve Ever Seen) and was pretty appalled by what I was witnessing. The idea of intentionally crashing vehicles as well as maiming and killing people in order to achieve some ultimate turn-on – known as symphorphilia – isn’t exactly commonplace stuff, and it was hard to digest. The movie is compelling if you can stomach the perversity, but I didn’t really connect with it.

If it’s possible, Ballard’s book is even more startling, but in a different way. Cronenberg’s flick is really about the relationships that form among the members of this bizarre subculture. And while Ballard’s Crash does that as well, there is one thing that both separate it from the film and make it, to me, at least, the superior work of art.

I’m a man. I’m an American. I get the idea of a hot car and how it appeals on a sexual level. But the intensity and detail that go into Ballard’s description of vehicles here take that to a new level. It’s the one part of the book that, for me, doesn’t feel absolutely bugshit insane. The angles, the chrome, the lights, the shadow, the feel of a leather interior, the cool cleanliness. I’m not saying I’m jumping into the fetishism with both feet, but for brief moments of the book, I gained an understanding of how combining the cold-steel eroticism of the vehicle with an intense, life-altering event like a near-fatal car crash could push a person over the edge and into an obsession with this very dark kink.

That, to me, is the power of Crash. There are plenty of kinks – for example, watching a pretty girl in expensive shoes crush worms on a sidewalk – that I look at and think, “How do you get to the point where that gets you off?” With Crash, I feel like I gain some understanding of how, in a singular instance, one could get to that point. That Ballard could find a way to convey this unique psychological outlier in a way that brought me to greater understanding of it says something about the author’s abilities (or possibly about my own pysche). Quite the feat.

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Beware the Bloody Nine

Author Joe Abercrombie deserves credit for two great things when it comes to his fantasy First Law trilogy.

  1. The Bloody Nine. Logen Ninefingers, so known because one of his digits was excised during many one of his personal and/or tribal battles, is a simple dude. He really just wants to live in peace with his family. The problem is, his family is dead, and Logen is one of the most feared and hated warriors of the North, known as The Bloody Nine to both enemies and allies. There is no peace for Logen, who survives to trudge from fight to fight, questioning more and more his destructive path as the years and fighting drag on. But when the fighting is fiercest, when the heat is truly, Logen evolves from a relatively nice guy trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation into The Bloody Nine, a sociopathic and vile beast who relishes delivering pain and death to all around him, and not necessarily just his enemies. The Bloody Nine is an alternate personality, appearing only in the most dire of situations, and always to the dread of Logen. When The Bloody Nine first truly makes an appearance in The Blade Itself, that is when the tone starts to turn from that of a normal, adult, fantasy tale to truly dark, and a shadow is cast over the next two books that never disappears. For a simple dude, Logen turns out to be a singularly complex and compelling character in a book full of personalities with depth and interesting back stories.
  2. War is hell. Yes, a lot of the fantasy genre covers this, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. But in the second and third books of the First Law series – Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings – Abercrombie really sinks down into the morass. What is the point of all of this violence? What does it solve? The arguments of kings are born on the backs of soldiers and the people, not the men who start the fights. Limbs and lives are lost, cities and towns destroyed, and for what? Honor? Glory? Logen asks these questions, repeatedly – and isn’t the only one – but can never seem to break away from the cycle of death and war. Many of the characters – from career soldier and war hero Collem West to once-the-tortured-now-the-torturer Sand dan Glokta to Dogman, a Northman and running buddy of Logen – come back to this, over and over, never really able to answer their own questions to their satisfaction. Even as our heroes’ fortunes turn and they appear to be winning the fight, the cost is never ignored. Many fantasy books have no problem with the battles and blood, but gloss over the impact with tales of honor and bravery. In the First Law trilogy, the honor and bravery are there, but the end result of all of this warring is never buried. It makes for a grim tale, but one worth telling.
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Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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‘Company of the Dead’ enough to make one’s head spin

Here’s Company of the Dead in a nutshell: Germany and Japan rule most of the world and are at an uneasy detente. The United States really is no more, as Japan has taken New York and the West Coast, and the South broke off after a second Civil War and is quietly allied with Germany. Amid all of this, Joseph Kennedy – of the Kennedys – is a Confederate war hero now running a secret operation as an intelligence officer for the South to prepare to unite the states once again.

Or maybe that’s what Kennedy is doing. His boss, his ex-girlfriend, the media, all but his closest allies are trying to figure out what is really behind Kennedy’s moves. His motives go deeper and broader, as it turns out. He has discovered a time machine, as well as evidence that someone has been messing with history. During a brief trip to the near future, Kennedy sees a decimated planet, nuclear war ravaging the world and killing everything. He must go back in time to set history on the right path and, hopefully, save Earth. The incident that changes history, which Kennedy and company must confront? The sinking of the Titanic.

Author David Kowalski’s effort is brilliant, because the description above doesn’t quite cover the breadth of the author’s historical knowledge nor his ability to lay out a bizarre, mind-twisting path that our heroes blaze down. In part, the journey is a monumental effort to avert the end of history. In part, it is a journey these brave men (and woman) have taken many times, so many, in fact, that this is the last attempt before reality is torn apart by their time skipping, leading to an end that only the fates know.

Kowalski has crafted a fast-moving, action-heavy thriller that doesn’t slow to take many breaths over its 700+ pages. But he goes much deeper than that, sinking into the nature of reality, the question of fate vs. free will, people who are so key to the direction of history that they exist almost as other-worldly presences, recognized by those who live on the same frequency as the larger universe. If you could go back and change history, should you? What are the repercussions. If history is what it is, why should it be changed?

I’m not a fan of the alternative history genre, in general. But Company of the Dead is both unique in its aim and finely crafted, so much so that down the road, I may have to revisit Kowalski’s vision.

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Double shot of Locke Lamora isn’t enough

20130906162408!Locke_Lamora“I can’t wait to have words with the Gray King when this shit is all finished. There’s a few things I want to ask him. Philosophical questions. Like, ‘How does it feel to be dangled out a window by a rope tied around your balls, motherfucker?’ ” Locke Lamora, The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve previously written about a conversation with a pal, who, after I said I had some issues with Game of Thrones (while enjoying it overall), went on a rant about the quality of fantasy tomes for adult readers. After he spewed forth his wrath against the genre in general, he then pointed me toward Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series and said, “Read this.”

So I did. The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastard series, is a combination of Ocean’s 11-esque heist movie and Game of Thrones level violence. The backstabbing is metaphorical, literal and frequent. Lamora and his gang of confidence men violate the peace between the old money of the city of Camorr and its criminal underworld, going after the elite targets while generally being rewarded for their efforts. Until the Grey King shows up and it all goes to shit. The twists are marvelous, the characters are many and varied, the world that Lynch has created is broad, unique and detailed. I can’t recommend the Lies of Locke Lamora enough.

887877Book two of the Gentleman Bastard series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is … effective. Some of the fun of the first book is gone, as Locke has lost too much to continue to be nothing but a light-hearted rogue. But some of what we lose in Locke is just as much about the story as the evolution of character, a tale which takes Locke out of the con too frequently. It isn’t that Lamora’s time on the high seas isn’t rewarding, but what gives these books their vitality is the thrill of the crime. Don’t get me wrong: Red Seas Under Red Skies is still a great read. But my hope is as I delve deeper into this series, Lynch is able to find the fun a bit more. With the dark ending of the second book, however, that may be difficult to do.

But I have faith in Locke, Jean, Scott Lynch and the Crooked Warden. So bring on book three and whatever violence, chicanery and humor it holds.

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Language leads to war in ‘Embassytown’

I finished Embassytown a few weeks ago. It’s rare for me to wait this long to comment on something I’ve read or watched, but I really don’t know where to begin.

I keep thinking of the Indian parable about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come across an elephant and start to feel it. One feels the tusks, another a leg, another the tail, and so on. The blind men start to argue about what it is they might be feeling, but they lack the ability to see the complete picture, only able to quibble over what seem like unmatched parts.

With Embassytown, the complete picture is so incredibly large. It doesn’t feel like that from the start, as our first-person narrator, Avice Benner Cho, gives us the lay of the land. Embassytown is a small, human village amid the Ariekei on a distant planet at the edge of the known universe. The Ariekei have two mouths, speaking two words at the same time. This can be mimicked by machine, but a third element comes into play: the soul. The sounds emitting from the machine mean nothing without living, breathing beings speaking the words. Since humans can’t really say two words at the same time, special twins, Ambassadors, are bred and raised to function as one to be able to communicate with the Ariekei. It’s a little like trying to lift a warehouse with a simple lever, but it enables some communication between the two races. Cho is uniquely positioned in this little world. She is an Immer, someone who can help guide ships through vast regions of space due to special abilities most don’t have. She is also a living, breathing metaphor, “the girl who sat in the dark and ate what was given to her,” for the Ariekei. The Ariekei are incapable of lying; therefore, they construct metaphors from actual humans. Cho is in with the humans because she is both an Immer and one of the rare humans to ever leave the planet and come back, and she’s damn near a rock star with the Ariekei, who actually develop favorite metaphors much like humans pick a baseball team to root for.

Quite a bit of weirdness, eh? And that’s just the damn tusk of Embassytown. I haven’t mentioned the first Ambassadors who aren’t twins, how their language becomes aural crack for the Ariekei, how all of this leads to assassinations, massacres, war and global upheaval.

I was blown away by Mieville’s The City & The City, which, oddly enough, I found while looking for a copy of Embassytown. As rich as The City & The City is, Embassytown is just that much more vast and intricate, a science fiction tale that is unique in its vision. I haven’t done it justice here. But as the guy who only feels like he got a good luck at the tusk, this is the best description as I can give you of this particular elephant.

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‘Winter’s Bone’ performance made Lawrence obvious choice for Katniss

The future Katniss Everdeen starved and fought in the wilds of Missouri before she took on the powers of Panem.

The future Katniss Everdeen starved and fought in the wilds of Missouri before she took on the powers of Panem.

A while back during a semi-anti-Moby Dick rant, I professed my love for the Daniel Woodrell novel Winter’s Bone. The story of a 17-year-old girl living in rural, cloistered Missouri follows her as she attempts to find her crank-cooking father, who, if she can’t get him to court in time, will cost them the family home he put up for bail. Then Ree would be left to care for her two younger siblings and mentally unstable mother without a roof over their heads.

Winter’s Bone is compact, pulse-pounding, a book that’s hard to read because you know even if you get a happy ending, it’s probably not going to be all that happy.

I applaud Debra Granik and those behind the screen adaptation of Winter’s Bone. They captured the poverty, the grind, the inevitability of violence that permeates the book. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific, a mix of determination and fear driving her every action. You really can watch this – a teenage girl protecting a younger sibling(s), no dad in the mix, violence around every corner, poverty and starvation the norm – and see precisely why Lawrence earned the role of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movies. Hell, watch Winter’s Bone and you’ll wonder why they ever bothered auditioning anyone else to play the Mockingjay.

I also want to credit the filmmakers for making me re-think the book. On the page, the constant rejection by everyone around Ree seems to be simply the product of a cloistered society that relies on illegal income. Nobody wants to say anything because nobody wants to be labeled a snitch. It’s the code of Ozarks, cut and dried. In the film, it feels more personal. Ree is the daughter of a snitch, and who knows, maybe that shit’s genetic? When she is turned away time and time again by those who might help, it comes off as less about the code and more personal, a rejection of who they believe Ree is, the daughter of Jessup the dead rat. It doesn’t change the plot or outcome at all, but it adds a ripple and separates it from the novel just a hint.

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Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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What to make of ‘WWW: Wake’


The upside: The premise of WWW: Wake, the first of Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, is ingenious. What happens when the Internet evolves and gains consciousness? This is about that inception, when that consciousness first emerges and how it comes to realize exactly what it is. This happens with the help of a blind teenager, Caitlin. Caitlin has a unique type of sightlessness, one that Dr. Kuroda, a Japanese researcher, believes he can cure. He does cure her (partially), although initially Caitlin can’t see the real world, just the virtual world. And this is how she discovers and nurtures the being that becomes known as Webmind.

It’s hard for me to explain the brilliance of what Sawyer does here. The evolution of the Webmind is subtle, realistic, creative. The teen Caitlin is one of those kids who comes off as mature for her age, a math geek with a quick wit, but someone who is also very much ruled by her hormones, pop music and the whims of her fellow teens. The relationship between Caitlin the mentor and Webmind the student never feels ridiculous or forced. This is probably the best virtual creation since Hal in 2001.

The downside: Let’s be clear: I haven’t read the entirety of the WWW trilogy, so my beefs here may be resolved over the course of the three books. But there are two other minor plot threads that dissolve as the book evolves. In one, a hacker tries to find his way out of a shutdown of any Internet connection between China and the outside world. In the other, an orangutan hybrid starts to show true artistic and creative ability never before seen in non-human primates.

Both play to the idea of the evolution of consciousness that is the main theme over the course of the story. But neither directly ties into the Caitlin-Webmind plot thread, and both just … end before the final third of the book, when everything is about our new friend in the Internet. Again, maybe these threads come together as the trilogy plays out, but it really cripples the first book, leaving me feeling as if I was cheated for paying attention to details that in no way matter to the story. Interesting side trips, but ultimately pointless.

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