TBR50: the first ten

July 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

Well. Perhaps deciding to read only books from your shelves is the same as what they say about dieting: as soon as you start thinking about it, you eat more.

I have now read ten books from the shelves. I started an additional two and abandoned them without hesitation and without guilt. But. Three review copies arrived; another two are on the way. Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End arrived from my And Other Stories subscription. And then I went to the library and discovered seven holds waiting for me. In addition, there are two inter-library loan books in French finally coming in, as well as two Larissa Behrendts books for indigenous literature week (yes, I am a bit behind). Oh, and I went camping and managed to read all of Jonathan Coe’s Number 11 at top speed, so was forced to find the nearest local bookshop, where I chose James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life, which was wonderful and just what I needed. Reading Coe and Rebanks together was a fascinating picture–depressing with glimmers of hope, sometimes vice versa–of modern England.

It’s been fun, though. As an inveterate listmaker, I have of course queued up the next forty (ok, perhaps a few more than that) books in the order in which I’d like to read them. One of my pleasures each day is spending a few minutes rearranging them according to any changing priorities with reviews, work, and so on.

Books read so far:

  1. Kerry Clare, Mitzi Bytes
  2. Angela Readman, Don’t Try This At Home
  3. Adam Biles, Feeding Time
  4. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Lolly Willowes
  5. Roxane Gay, Difficult Women
  6. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
  7. Katie Kitamura, A Separation
  8. Georges Perec, Je suis né
  9. Jonathan Coe, Number Eleven
  10. James Rebanks, The Shepherding Life

Too many books

June 21, 2017 § 4 Comments

A few days ago I was looking at our bookcases. There are two of them, with double rows of books on most of the shelves. These are the books that have been read, although there are many on there that haven’t read, or that I would like to reread. Then there’s the bookcase in the bedroom, which is where I store the unread books plus a few reference volumes I use for work. That too is starting to need books to be stacked in double rows. I realised that if book-production ceased right now and if libraries were shut down, I would still have probably a decade of reading material if I read every book in the house.

I never really had a TBR pile until I started blogging, though. Before that point I was happy just reading what I found at the library, even if it didn’t always quite match my taste. I had trouble choosing books in shops. I would narrow it down to just a few, and then end up putting them all back on the shelf in case they were disappointing. When I got books for presents I would keep them by my bedside for a while, savouring the newness.   But since starting the blog I’ve focused much more on the specific things I like, I’ve gathered a few subscriptions, I’ve been sent review copies, and I’ve bought books that I knew I wanted to read at some point, mostly small-press titles. Whenever I go to England I always return with a very heavy suitcase. And then I made the mistake of starting to listen to the Backlisted podcast, and every episode adds at least one book to the TBR, either real or virtual. (I don’t buy books from Amazon but I love using it as a filing system for books I’d like. I’ve got several hundred on it right now…)

Then I came to the end of a pile of books that I’d had to read for various review- or work-related things and realised that I hadn’t simply chosen a book for ages. There were always at least two or three I needed to get to. At the same time, Tony at Messenger’s Booker started his own book-buying ban, deciding to read fifty books from his TBR before buying any new ones.

So I’ve decided to do the same thing. It doesn’t mean that no books will arrive–I’ve got subscriptions as well as a long list of books on hold at the library–but I am going to read fifty from the TBR shelves before I buy anything else. Too many books: it’s a nice problem to have, but I also liked it when becoming the owner of a new book was a little rarer, a little more special.

I’ll write about some of them–not reviews, maybe, but thoughts–but this is mostly going to be about the reading.


International Women’s Day 2017

March 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

This time last year, who’d have thought IWD would be quite so much more urgently necessary than usual? Right now I’m reading Anne Garreta’s erotic memoir Not One Day and Nalo Hopkinson’s novel Sister Mine. Very different voices and subjects; both, by happy coincidence, easily sailing through the Bechdel test.

I’m not in a position to write much about either of those books, but today seemed like a good day to mention a couple of books I’ve been wanting to write about for some time.


My friend Megan Bradbury published Everyone Is Watching last year and kindly sent me a copy when I couldn’t buy it in Canada. Set in New York, and something of a love letter to the city, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells the (semi-imagined) stories and city lives of four men: the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the writers Edmund White and Walt Whitman, and Robert Moses, the abrasive city planner who had an enormous effect on what New York City looks like today. The book itself has a great deal of the feeling of a Mapplethorpe photo, or of a film Mapplethorpe might have made. I am often nervous about novels that feature real people, but in Everyone is Watching it has a purpose and it works. The novel not biographical (and it’s not designed to set up some kind of spec fic meeting between these four men). It’s about journeys, and building, and creating; it’s about how people become themselves, in a way. The writing is deceptively simple and beautifully poetic. It’s not not realist, but neither is it any sort of traditional realist novel. You’ll just have to read this fascinating hybrid book for yourself to see.


Do you remember a time (at least, I think it wasn’t mythical), when you could have things called discussions? When it was possible to talk in a group of people who didn’t all have identical opinions? People would feel safe enough to disagree; sometimes people would mention things you’d never thought about, and you’d go away and ponder them and change your mind, and nobody would be shamed or humiliated or excommunicated for having a different opinion. Reading Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, published by the unfailingly excellent BookThug, was like having this kind of conversation. The title comes from the name of Sara Ahmed’s fabulous blog (and her book, Living a Feminist Life, came out last month). Let’s be honest–if you’re a feminist, it’s pretty impossible not to be a feminist killjoy at least some of the time. You have to be one when someone makes a sexist joke, when some loudmouth in the street tells you to “Cheer up, love, it might never happen,” when people at your workplace don’t see the problem with pinning pictures of naked women on the lunch room walls. Wunker muses on turning this oft-dreaded accusation–that of being an uptight, humourless feminazi–into a badge of honour. If we let the status quo go unchallenged, how will it ever change? Wunker acknowledges the problems of privileged white feminism and aims to find some ways of addressing its shortcomings and the harms for which it bears direct and indirect responsibility.

Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is a hybrid book, combining factual essay with self-interrogation as well as memoir–the book was written when Wunker’s daughter was very new, in the snatched moments-to-oneself of perplexing and absorbing early parenthood. You can buy it today from BookThug for nearly $10 off the usual price!

My writing elsewhere

April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment

Things have been a bit quiet at Bookist Towers recently as reading and writing time have been in short supply. But a few things I wrote a while ago have been trickling out into the wider world.

In February I had not one but two reviews in the TLSArvida by Samuel Archibald, translated by Donald Winkler (just longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award) and Perrine Leblanc’s The Lake, translated by Lazer Lederhendler.

My review of Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist was published in March’s Open Letters Monthly.

Full Stop published my review of Helle Helle’s This Should Be Written In the Present Tense (translated by Martin Aitken).

And finally, I had the chance to write about Han Kang’s Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, for Three Percent.


Atavisms by Maxime Raymond Bock, translated by Pablo Strauss

February 9, 2016 § 2 Comments

Atavisms, Quebec author Maxime Raymond Bock’s debut short-story collection, translated into English by Pablo Strauss and published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive, contains thirteen stories spanning time periods from Samuel de Champlain and the (most recent) white discovery of Canada to the present day. Many of them are first-person, with characters that look at the world in a slightly off-kilter way.


Both stylistically and content-wise, Bock’s writing reminds me to a certain extent of Samuel Archibald’s work. Archibald was recently shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, but Bock’s book–more explicitly and literary and meticulously concerned with the precise effect of the language–has not had the attention it deserves. Both writers are contemporary, immersed in a world of Anglophone literary fiction as well as the Quebec tradition, both write with a masculine edge softened by introspection and insight, both can turn their pen to a variety of genres—and both, intriguingly, have written a scene in which a young boy (who is nonetheless old enough to know better) brutally kills a small domestic animal.

The first story, “Wolverine,” starts off with a would-be writer—Poet—and his two friends, who are somewhat less intellectual, setting out for a night drive with a difference: there’s a cabinet minister imprisoned in the back seat, his hands duct-taped together. As they head for the forest, Poet thinks it an opportune moment to describe his novel-in-progress to his friends: “It was a love story. A couple of depressed, coca-chewing revolutionaries were getting ready to take over a coffee plantation that had somehow escaped the forest fires and the clear-cuts.” Tonight’s adventure illustrates the gap between what these boys are (immature mediocre wannabes who believe they’re superior to everyone else) and what they think they are (badass Quebec nationalists). Poet is quickly losing his alleged sensitivity as the night wears on, with ominous lines like “Turbide was stirring now, waking up to a nasty headache. His moans were wrecking the nice silence you look forward to when a tape ends” combining reason and rationality with threat. But Poet isn’t in charge, Jason is, and once they’ve tied up the old man, Jason starts punching him in the face, “[e]very blow accompanied by … the recitation of an entry in a somewhat random register of four hundred years of humiliation—the deportations, the British Conquest, the subsidies, the sham democracy.” After the beating, which the Poet thinks is sufficient payback for one night, Jason pours petrol over the man. The ending is not the anticipated foregone conclusion but leaves the characters and reader shaken just the same.


“Wolverine” isn’t the only story with a character poised on a precipice between a life of the mind and a life of brute force; what Bock does well—something that is often attempted by writers of more macho fiction without always fully coming off—is show that these two kinds of lives are not opposites, nor are they mutually exclusive. But Bock also shows characters from entirely different social situations. In “Raccoon” a very young couple with a newborn live isolated in their apartment. The first-person narrator is the “official ambassador to the outside world’; whenever he returns, he goes through an elaborate disinfection process to avoid bringing in C difficile. The narrator distrusts authority and believes in conspiracies, but feels safe behind the locked doors and windows of the apartment. They have “a good life[: …] TV, couch, fridge, bed, table.” They change cereal brands because of the brand eaten in the girlfriend’s favourite soap opera. When a nurse present at the birth tells them the baby has FAS (foetal alcohol syndrome), they misunderstand and make a joke about him being speedy. It would be easy—and satisfying—to write about these characters with a superior tone, but Bock doesn’t do this, instead giving them agency, the ability to be happy with what they have, and hopes, plans and good intentions. The result is something complex and thought-provoking.


There isn’t a single story in the collection that isn’t political in some way, most often dealing with Quebec nationalism or colonialism (hence, perhaps, the atavisms of the title). The politics is handled well—definitely not subtle, but also never intrusive or awkwardly stuck on. The last, and possibly best, story in the collection is “The Still Traveler,” an intriguing combination of indigenous issues, time travel and Inuit legends. The opening immediately calls Dorian Gray to mind as the narrator tells us that “Those who have seen me age so quickly suspect nothing. They think I have some rare disease, some form of adult progeria or congenital degeneration.” The narrator has inherited a semi-dilapidated house from his parents, and leaves his urban Montreal apartment for the country to slowly renovate it. While sorting through the collections of possessions, he finds a trunk that had belonged to his great-grandfather, who’d been a seaman and sailed the world. The contents of this trunk are not junk; in fact, it’s a collection of Inuit art that the narrator recognises needs to be professionally evaluated. Among the artefacts is a metal eye. While reading his grandfather’s diaries to trace the origins of this eye the narrator discovers that his grandfather was part of a smuggling ring, supplying these artefacts to private collectors. Whenever there was nothing left to barter, they stole what they needed. The narrator is too familiar with colonialism to be shocked by this discovery, but he was “still hurt to see my own great-grandfather caught up in such outrages, and now to find [him]self in possession of his ill-gotten booty.” As he packs away the artefacts in disappointment, he is transported, while holding the eye to a rock by the ocean, surrounded by fishermen. He learns that the eye will transport him to whatever place and time he thinks of. This sounds gimmicky, but the rest of the story is held together by Bock’s attention to the logistical minutiae of time travel as well as the story told by the places and times he visits.

Atavisms is a strong collection, and Pablo Strauss, one of the best new translators working in Canada at the moment, captures Bock’s rhythms and voice fantastically well in his English rendition.


Bock’s new novel, Des lames de pierre (Le Cheval d’août, 2015), moves in a slightly different direction. It’s a study of the lives of two poets, Robert Lacerte, born in 1941, and the unnamed first-person narrator, a contemporary Montreal writer. The two meet at an outdoor poetry reading a year and a half before the older man’s death, and the two stories of their lives pull together two separate threads of Quebec writing. Lacerte had a typical childhood, being sent away at fourteen to a lumber camp to work for the entire winter, but having the luck to meet a fellow teenage worker who introduced him to literature. The narrator is an urban poet attending readings, suffering from occasional city-ennui. The intertwining of the lives of these two men, juxtaposing their very different but equally of-their-time existential and material concerns, is skilfully done, leading to a moving ending. Read an extract in translation here.

Both Des lames de pierre and Bock’s novella, Rosemont de profil, about the perils of revisiting childhood friendships, share both Atavism’s strong voice and Bock’s care and attention to language that is always interesting and often exhilarating. This is a Quebec writer who deserves a wider audience.

2015 books

January 18, 2016 § 7 Comments

There were a lot of 2015 books that I loved and really wanted to write about but just never managed it. And that’s ok, I’ve decided. There were books like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (had no idea where to start talking about it even though it was one of my top books of the year), Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (felt as though I needed more art-world expertise to comment knowledgeably), Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (needed to read it at least once more and preferably three times) and Anne Garréta’s fabulous Sphinx, which I still hope to write about in detail, so I won’t talk about it here.


So here are my thoughts–definitely not critical, definitely not reviews–of four books from 2015. Three are Canadian and one is German. The first one is Carellin Brooks’ One Hundred Days of RainI’m a huge fan of BookThug fiction. Both their English-language books and their translations are always interesting and provocative. Just last season we had Jess Taylor’s Pauls (from which a great story was printed in CNQ 93), The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree by Jason Massey, and Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen (my review of which will be published in February at Full Stop. And then there’s Jacob Wren, whose work I have inexplicably not read. But that will change in 2016, when he publishes Rich and Poor.

One Hundred Days of Rain is the moving story of a post-breakup life. The narrator and her young son keep plodding on, through Vancouver’s endless rain and grey clouds, through difficult times and distressing incidents. It’s a story told in long fragments, with the short and choppy sentences conveying the narrator’s frame of mind. The first new situation she encounters is being arrested after a fight with her partner, being photographed and fingerprinted and eventually being barred from their home and contacting her spouse.

This is a life that has come apart, and yet still demands certain routines of the narrator as she deals with the constant obstacles to rebuilding something resembling her old life. The skill of using the weather as a meditative device without resorting to pathetic fallacy is one of the book’s great achievements, along with its beautiful depiction of how interior and exterior bounce off each other. It makes me very keen to read Carellin Brook’s wonderfully titled Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces.


One morning last summer I woke up in the middle of the night with the lights on and Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know under the bedclothes. And a good job it was that I did fall asleep on page 10, or I’d have been up all night devouring it. Women should read it because it’s a shiveringly good portrayal of the little accommodations we make every single day, the unexpected noises we are aware of, the decisions we make based on what seems—and sometimes feels—like irrational instinct. (I know there are women who don’t feel like this, who feel that their lack of concern about walking home across a park at 3am makes them special is nothing special, so congratulations to them on having never once been scared by a man, never once having stopped breathing from terror of what might happen next.) And men should read it because it’s such a startlingly good account of what it’s like to feel that kind of jumpiness.

I’m not going to summarise the plot, but in brief, The Devil You Know is a mystery/thriller, but it wears its genre very lightly. I mean that in the sense of feeling as though resolution and answers wouldn’t even have been necessary, because both the writing and the characters were so powerful that the plot seemed almost unnecessary. It’s set against the backdrop of the horrific real-life Paul Bernardo serial-murder case of the late eighties and early nineties; if you’re not Canadian, start by reading this excellent memoir piece by Stacey May Fowles. I’m only a thriller reader occasionally, and often disappointed when I do pick up the year’s top picks, but The Devil You Know deserves to be as well known as Gone Girl (it’s also way better written).


The last of my Canadian choices is Alison Pick‘s wonderful memoir, Between Gods, about discovering her Jewish ancestry and the hidden stories of her family. This is a truly fascinating and moving book that dives into the debates about nature versus nurture or blood versus culture in very personal and sophisticated ways. Although Pick was never especially Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, she feels the pull towards Judaism. Her depictions of how her search for the right God, and what wanting a God even means, affect her life and her family are honest and compelling. One of my favourite non-fiction titles of 2015.

And finally, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik (translator Katy Derbyshire). I loved this tiny volume from Readux Press (you might have been hearing good things about Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair, also published by Readux and on which I am keen to get my hands). This story features two real literary characters, Ivan Blatny and Nicholas Moore. The first half of the book tells their stories, in parallel and on facing pages, the correspondences of the language used for each character mimicking the correspondences and coincidences of their lives.


The Moore tale begins:

When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.

And here’s Blatny’s opening:

When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St. Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.

The two men were both twentieth century poets who started off well before being forgotten through a combination of unfortunate personal circumstance and changing tastes. The second half of the book is made up of the correspondence between the two men, which began in 1962 when Blatny wrote to Moore, whom he did not know. The letters reveal how their lives progress, and their attitudes to the disappearance of their early promise and fame.

I’m rather fond of slightly experimental fiction about real characters (like Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters), particularly scientific or literary ones. It would be easy to look up how far this little volume was based on fact, but I prefer to enjoy the fiction and the not-knowing, particularly when it comes in such a formally innovative package. This book costs almost nothing; try to get hold of a copy if you can.

Diverse December

January 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

As 2015 is now over, I’ve been able to add up my reading numbers for the year. In total, I read 88 books. Of these, 19 were by non-white authors (a category that seems even more problematic after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eight of these were in December; so eleven over the rest of the year. Not a great tally. For some sort of comparison, my #readwomen numbers were 44 women, 40 men. That’s a category I never pay attention to at the moment of reading since my numbers are almost always evenly split. Clearly Diverse December was something I needed to do. With the exception of Farzana Doctor (library copy), all these books were already on my shelves; I just needed a reason to move them right up to the top of the TBR. So thanks to Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby for inspiring me.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book sort of blew my mind. It was like being on the other side of one of those articles that say, Hey, men, just thought you might want to know that this is what it’s like being a woman Every Single Day. The articles that talk about minimising and brushing things off and being polite, and that open the eyes of even the most feminist of men. Reading this book is neither easy nor comfortable (and will send you off to find out about other things too) but it’s important. Structured as a letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son and containing all the history and street smarts he wants to be sure to pass on, Between the World and Me is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year, and its place on so many best-of-2015 lists is well justified.



All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor

This is Canadian writer Doctor’s third novel. She writes really well about families and relationships. All Inclusive is about Ameera, a travel rep working in Mexico who is getting into trouble for sleeping with the tourists–couples only. Her mother is white Canadian and her father—whom she never met—was from India, but died the day after her conception in the 1985 Air India bomb, something that neither Ameera nor her mother know when the novel opens. It’s a moving and well-plotted story, with lots of holiday sex (it sounds incongruous with the subject matter but it works). For another recent fictional take on the Air India disaster, read Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.


By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar)

This is the first book I’ve ever read from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. It’s the tale of a childhood spent on an isolated Atlantic island, a place where religion and superstition mingle with fascinating results. As devastating as Job’s tribulations and the plagues of Egypt combined, the island’s tragedies are brutal and relentless. Told in part like a folk tale and translated well by Jethro Soutar, By Night the Mountain Burns works towards a moving conclusion.


Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni

The second And Other Stories title on my Diverse December list, this is possibly the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines (a theme seems to be emerging…). Keni is a physician who was born in London to Indian parents, so the choice of the Philippines is intriguing. I didn’t know this until after I’d finished reading, but I did notice that the novel doesn’t fetishise poverty and rose-tint hardship in the way some novelists do when writing about their parents’ country of origin: perhaps writing about a different country altogether makes this easier. Joseph, the main character, is a young houseboy in the household of Mary Morelos, a widow whose left-wing convictions put her at odds with many of Esperanza Street’s richer inhabitants. When a local man wants to develop the street, destroying businesses and homes in the process, she comes into conflict with much of the neighbourhood. Esperanza Street is a well put together novel that combines socioeconomics, politics, family relationships and personal responsibility, and allows its characters to be both familiar and unfamiliar to western readers.



The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar

Sukkar was just twenty-one when she wrote this portrayal of an autistic boy as the Syrian war gathers pace around him and his family. You’ll have to forgive a slightly tedious oversignposting of autism in the early pages, but you really should forgive it because this book is quite devastating. It has had extremely little press attention, as evidenced by the fact that my own Three Rs interview with Sukkar is on the first page of Google results of a search for the author’s name. I believe it was the first novel about the conflict when it was published (Eyewear, 2014); it might well still be the only one. When most of the mentions we hear about Syrian people are to do with refugee camps and asylum seeking, it’s good to be reminded that there was a before—and also to see how quickly and violently a comfortable existence can be turned upside down.



The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

A fantastic primer on Indigenous issues from one of North America’s great popular scholars. This should be required reading for all newcomers to Canada, all high-school students, and pretty much the entire adult population. King has a breezy, funny style that makes the difficult subject matter penetrable and comprehensible. He does not call the book a history, so let’s say that it’s an incredibly important back story that adds valuable context to our understanding of events from the beginnings of colonialism in North America to the position we find ourselves in today.


Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

This was actually a reread; I read this book when it first came out and fully intended to review it here, but life got in the way. Nikesh Shukla is the writer whose comments about the lack of diversity in the books being given away for World Book Night prompted Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby to set up Diverse December in the first place (and it has now become @readdiverse2016).

Meatspace is the story of the hilarious collision between our online worlds and meatspace (formerly known as IRL, or in real life). It’s not the decade-old story of whether we are giving up too much of reality by spending so much time immersed in supposedly virtual worlds, but an exploration of what our online personas mean, how important they are professionally and personally, and what happens when people and incidents that you hope are safely confined to one of the worlds come crashing into the other. It’s funny and moving and poignant, and has an impressively light touch with the many political and difficult personal themes it touches.


 The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Blomfield)

When I started reading for Diverse December it didn’t occur to me that a book from Uzbekistan would be on my list. I pulled Peirene Press’s The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov from the shelf because I initially ignored the “ov” at the end of the last name and made assumptions accordingly. But Ismailov’s story is a fascinating (and sad) one. He is the most widely published Uzbek writer, but his books are banned—even mentioning his name is likely to get you into trouble. He’s lived in exile in the UK since 1992.

The Dead Lake is set in the Kazakh steppe around a former nuclear test site. Yerzhan, the main character, moves from child to 27-year-old adult over the course of this non-chronological novel. The cumulative effect of the 468 nuclear explosions that were carried out at this test site between 1949 and 1989 exceeded the power of the Hiroshima bomb by a factor of 2500. The story is simply and effectively told, and is incredibly powerful. It’s the sort of thing Peirene does exceptionally well, and the sort of thing we need more of in English.

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