Editors' Fall Picks

Ah, fall, that time of amethyst mists and a cascade of great new books. From fiction set in Colonial America to this feature's first audio, these picks are not the usual suspects but titles we know you'll want to rake in.

Politics and Ecstasy

The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. Knopf. Sept. ISBN 978-0-307-26842-6. $25. “Just a few black lines made as though by ink-dipped twigs”—how deftly Nadeem Aslam depicts a small, anomalous community brought together by the coruscating violence of the world beyond. Aslam sets his latest novel, The Wasted Vigil (LJ 8/08), in contemporary Afghanistan, and those lines appear on a bit of broken plaster from a house whose gorgeously painted walls have been smeared with mud for fear of the Taliban. The house belongs to English-born doctor Marcus Caldwell, who has already lost his Afghan wife and daughter to the unending chaos. There he shelters Russian seeker Lara; erstwhile CIA spy David; Casa, who is hiding his terrorist connections; and Dunia, a young woman fleeing fundamentalist threats. Has Aslam gathered these characters together to lecture us about Middle East politics? Absolutely not. “There is no message in the book,” affirms Aslam, “My writing is an exploration of my own life.” Aslam's writing is guided by the conviction that “there is nothing unique about me; if it's true about me, it will be true of other people.” And right now the Pakistan-born author, who came to England as a teenager, is genuinely confused about the current East-West tangle over Islamic terrorism. To sum up his confusion—and ours—he points to a crucial torture scene toward the end of his book that, he tells LJ, echoes Gloucester's blinding by King Lear. “A case can be made that Gloucester was guilty of a crime, but the blinding is so severe, so malicious, that we immediately lose sympathy with it,” he explains. Similarly, “No matter what the West did, we were sickened by 9/11—and by the response.” Aslam may be confounded by contemporary world politics, but there's fearsome clarity in his rendering of various extreme viewpoints, from the terrorists' hatred of the West to the CIA's rigid politicking to the Afghan warlord's amoral conniving. He so startles us with his sure take on the unthinkable that his book could be called an antipolemic polemic if his own writing weren't so scrupulous—and so piercingly beautiful. From the first page, where a mirror is seen as large enough that “if it was water [Lara] could dive and disappear into it,” Aslam crafts such steadfastly evocative lines that one imagines they might violate Islam's strictures regarding imagery. Exquisite prose comes naturally to Aslam, who loves writers who love language, though he puts it more elegantly—“It's the sky under which I move.” His writing inevitably reflects his own interests—“Whatever comes in to your mind comes out of your hand in the writing”—so The Wasted Vigil also embodies his passion for jazz and Islamic art and his curiosity about perfume making. As a result, it required little research, though he did travel to the fabled perfume-making town of Kalar Kahar, deep in Afghanistan, compelling his mother to ask neighbors to pray at the local mosque for his safety. Boldly enfolding his interests, Aslam's narrative proves his assertion that “I am happiest when I am writing something political and also something ecstatically pleasing. I hope I got the right mix,” he adds earnestly. Indeed, he did. The novel was conceived 15 years ago, but Aslam instead pursued an idea that became the Kiriyama Prize–winning Maps for Lost Lovers. When he returned to this novel, he found that “85 percent of the story was already there,” with the forces shaping early 1990s Afghanistan still in play. As Aslam advises, “We can't play geopolitical games in other parts of the world; there are consequences.” What we can do, though, is try to understand what's happening. For that, read The Wasted Vigil; there's no better guide.—Barbara Hoffert

Real Heroics

War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War by James Neugass. New Press. Nov. ed. by Peter N. Carroll & Peter Glazer. ISBN 978-1-59558-427-4. $26.95. “If it were not for my eyes, I might be in the infantry,” wrote James Neugass in the journal that became War Is Beautiful: An American Ambulance Driver in the Spanish Civil War. In late 1937, Neugass began serving in Spain with the American Medical Bureau, which operated light maneuverable hospital units built to serve the International Brigade's forces supporting the Loyalist cause against Franco's fascist Nationalist rebels. “I'm still ashamed of driving an ambulance,” he continued. “I don't like the literary, intellectual, here-to-be-revolted-by-the-horror-of-war, later-to-write-a-book...mock heroism tradition that lies behind my job.” The 32-year-old native of New Orleans had led a privileged life, followed, after the stock market crash, by work that included selling shoes, union organizing, and teaching fencing, as well as some early success as a poet. In Spain he soon came to recognize his value as a driver. He called his car “my sweetheart.” It accepted olive oil for its motor and dirt for camouflage, with only a foot diameter of the windshield left clear. For men like Neugass, road conditions delivered the pulse of the war better than any bulletin. In his journal, Neugass explained grim realities—“No sense sewing up a guy's chest if there's a hole in the liver. Since livers will hold no stitches, almost all boys nicked in this organ die”—and memorialized the dead. Of a former Child's Restaurant counterman he wrote, “Some of him lies buried in the grave dug free of charge by a fascist bomb.” Within a mere five months, he ceased referring to “the World War” that was behind and wondered about the one to come. Ever a self-conscious writer, he repeatedly asked himself “Why did I come to Spain?” Neugass returned home in April 1938, the leather journal with him. He married, had two sons, and lived in New York, working chiefly as a cabinetmaker (though he had declared in his diary, “When I get back...I'm going to drive a taxi or a carriage. I'll wait...in front of the Metropolitan Opera House and drive society couples slowly through Central Park on spring nights”). He wrote some short stories and spent years on his first novel, Rain of Ashes, published in 1949. That year he suffered a heart attack and died. Over 50 years later, Neugass's typescript was discovered among what were likely the papers of socialist critic Max Eastman—evidently Neugass's submission to consider for publication. Save for a couple of excerpts that appeared in a 1938 pamphlet on the Spanish Civil War, Neugass's journal is now published for the first time. Since the Spanish conflict included relatively few Americans, we now pay it little mind compared with the larger one that followed. But the pulse of war delivered by Spain's roads to Neugass is here delivered to us. His narrative conveys the awful alchemy of war—as he put it, “something big and something terribly human. Pity and terror, mercy and pain, all between drawn lips”—yet also speaks of the writer himself and his own powers of alchemy. There was no “mock heroism” in his work in aid of the anti-Fascist cause, nor in his faith in himself as a writer. One day, near the front at Teruel, Neugass was “filling in a shell hole [when] a small limousine came tearing down the road.... 'That's Hemingway,' said someone pointing at the vanishing cloud of dust.... 'He's a writer and I'm a writer,' I thought, and went back to work.” Did Hemingway really leave James Neugass in the dust? Don't be so sure.—Margaret Heilbrun

Beyond Walden

Autumnal Tints by Henry David Thoreau. 1 CD. unabridged. 72 min. Silver Hollow Audio. Sept. ISBN 978-0-9793115-2-9. $8.95; digital download. ISBN 978-0-9793115-3-6. $8.95. This month, Silver Hollow Audio brings to audio one of Henry David Thoreau's best-known essays, “Autumnal Tints,” originally delivered as an 1859 lecture and published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. In it, Thoreau marvels over the changing foliage of a New England fall, from August's “purple grasses” to November's “liquid-green” pines. He writes in turn as a scientist, an aesthete, and a poet. After explaining the phenomenon of brightening leaves from a physiologist's perspective, for instance, he admits that he is personally “more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on,” then offers an infinitely more poetic explanation of the phenomenon: “The very forest and herbage, the pellicle of the earth, must acquire a bright color, an evidence of its ripeness,” he writes, “as if the globe itself were a fruit on its stem, with ever a cheek toward the sun.” Longtime voice-over artist and narrator Brett Barry's (www.brettsvoice.com) crisp, well-paced reading free of theatrics allows the author's words to resonate. Listeners will get the sense of walking alongside Thoreau as he leads them—half authoritative teacher, half marveling student—on a tour of the evocative landscape. (Hear a clip at www.silverhollowaudio.com.) “It's very gratifying to publish something that's never been released as an audiobook before and to expose a whole new audience to [it],” says Brett, who, together with wife Rebecca Rego Barry, a former preservation and archives librarian (Drew Univ.) and public services librarian (Marist Coll.), cofounded Silver Hollow Audio in 2005. It was Rebecca who suggested they produce “Autumnal Tints” in audio form when she came across a paperback reprint of the lecture (Applewood Bks., 1996) in a Concord, MA, museum shop. Silver Hollow being such a small publisher, the Barrys have control over the entire production process, from book selection to recording and editing to package design. “Caring for the environment and minimizing our impact on it has always been near and dear to [us],” says Brett, which is why the couple decided to package its first coproduced title, Henry Beston's The Outermost House (Best Audio, LJ 1/08), in recyclable paperboard. With Autumnal Tints, they've taken their commitment to environmentally friendly packaging further (it was, after all, Thoreau who once asked, “What's the use of a fine house if you haven't got a tolerable planet to put it on?”). The audiobook packaging features 100 percent green forestry practices–board, a minimum of ten percent postconsumer recycled content, and all vegetable inks and is—besides the shrink wrap—plastic-free and completely recyclable. Further, through the Barrys' partnership with the organization 1% for the Planet (www.onepercentfortheplanet.org/en), one percent of Silver Hollow's gross profits will be donated to a network of environmental nonprofits worldwide, a practice they hope to continue with all future releases. The Barrys are also considering producing another of Thoreau's posthumously published essays, “Ktaadn,” from The Maine Woods. To reduce their carbon footprint further and remain in the spirit of Thoreau's tenet to “Simplify, simplify,” says Brett, they're thinking they might sell it solely as a digital download.—Raya Kuzyk

The Watchmen Cometh

The movie based on the only graphic novel to rank in Time magazine's list of 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present won't premier in theaters until March 2009—but the hype begins now. The core cast of the film showed up at the Watchmen panel at San Diego Comic-Con in July, taking full advantage of the spotlight—the Watchmen tie-in T-shirt was one of the most coveted items on and off the show floor. And although sales of this more than 20-year-old property have been good all year, the book rocketed to the number one spot on BookScan's Top 20 Graphic Novels in July with the release of the film preview accompanying the mega-blockbuster Dark Knight. DC Comics ordered a 300,000-copy reprinting of the paperback edition this summer and is planning to release in November a new printing of Watchmen: The Absolute Edition (2002. ISBN 978-1-4012-1926-0. $39.99). First published in 1984, Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, is set in an alt-1984 United States, where costumed superheroes are part of everyday life and the country teeters on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. A group of struggling, retired superheroes gets drawn back to the action owing to the murder of one of their own. Although the graphic novel should already be a staple in all libraries, Titan Books is publishing a number of Watchmen-related titles that should generate additional interest. The main event will be the October release of Watching the Watchmen (ISBN 978-1-84856-041-3. $39.95), which is Dave Gibbons's account of the origin of the graphic novel. Designed by Chip Kidd and Mike Essl, this dust-jacketed hardcover details Gibbons's collaboration with Moore and reveals excised pages, early versions of the script, original character designs, page thumbnails, sketches, and more, including posters, covers, and rare portfolio art. In January 2009, Titan will also release three tie-in books to ramp up the anticipation leading up to the feature film: Watchmen: The Art of the Film (ISBN 978-1-84856-068-0. $39.95) will include scores of production designs, set photos, costume sketches, and storyboards; Watchmen: The Official Film Companion (ISBN 978-1-84856-159-5. $29.95; pap. ISBN 978-1-84856-067-3. $19.95) will offer exclusive interviews with the cast and crew as well as a generous helping of photographs; and Watchmen: The Film Portraits (ISBN 978-1-84856-069-7. $50) will feature black-and-white portrait photos of the lead and supporting characters and extras from the crowd by Clay Enos, the official photographer on the set. Whether blockbuster or bust, in the upcoming six months, all eyes will be watching the Watchmen.—Ann Kim

Brooklyn Cheer

In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World by Peter Golenbock. Morrow. Oct. ISBN 978-0-06-125381-2. $32.95. A proud citizen of Brooklyn, I've always known that my borough packed serious historical importance, but Peter Golenbock's In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World made it indelible. Via enthralling first-person narratives, readers meet the likes of African American activist Dorothy Challenor Burnham, who dared protest for racial equality in the 1930s South; Lester Rodney, sports columnist for the Communist Party USA paper the Daily Worker, who pushed for the integration of major league baseball; and Ted Rosenbaum, a gifted history teacher who lost his career for railing against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In or out of the borough, these and the other 40 or so mainly unknown Brooklyn natives featured took a stand against bigotry in their own country, often at great cost. The borough's cultural legacy first dawned on Golenbock—best known for his baseball bibliography (e.g., Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers)—by way of the Jackie Robinson story. “I was thinking about Brooklyn and why was it that Brooklynites loved [Robinson] and why the rest of the country hated him.” (For the record, the author has never lived in Brooklyn, though he claims that Nathan's Famous restaurant in Coney Island is his favorite haunt.) The first black baseball player in the major leagues (he played for the Dodgers between 1947 and 1956), Robinson struggled for acceptance by the white Protestant majority, just like Brooklyn's many immigrant Jews. “It took immigrants to appreciate the downtrodden, or the downtrodden to appreciate the downtrodden,” Golenbock tells LJ. “That's one of the themes of this book: without immigrants, this country wouldn't be half of what it is.” Neocons won't keep this behemoth next to their bedside Ann Coulter—Golenbock proudly and loudly criticizes George W. Bush—but this is a book that transcends politics as usual. The voices of several generations of Americans—black, white, male, female, Jewish, Muslim, Italian, Irish—make clear that every one of us has suffered at the hand of some evil, that every one of us is still an immigrant, whether we care to admit it or not. Rather than repeat the injustices of A. Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and, yes, Dubya, Golenbock's Brooklynites urge us to honor life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—true American ideals. “Bigotry is a terrible, terrible thing,” concludes Golenbock, “and the people in this book fought it. They didn't always win, but they didn't often lose either.”—Heather McCormack

Don't Praise Me

The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance by Polly Young-Eisendrath. Little, Brown. Sept. ISBN 978-0-316-01311-6. $25.99. In her psychotherapy sessions over the last three or four years, Polly Young-Eisendrath noticed a distressing trend that motivated her effort to revolutionize modern parenting. In The Self-Esteem Trap (LJ 8/08) she works to convince parents of the negative effects of overpraising, lays out steps to break free from what she deems the self-esteem trap, and explains self-compassion as a replacement for the indiscriminate doling out of praise by today's parents. She considers those born between 1970 and today (Generation Me) to be caught in a trap, in which, she writes, “we believe that everyone has something extraordinary to contribute to life and that being ordinary is an embarrassment.” She blames this trap for the excessive self-focus common today, with high teenage and young adult suicide rates and an elevated number of adult children returning to live at home. Young-Eisendrath tells LJ of baby boom parents she's counseled: “Their suffering was palpable; these parents had devoted their lives, savings, and mental resources to trying to give their children the best possible of everything, but it wasn't working. The children were distressed, restless, distracted, or, worse, really cynical about themselves and their lives.” In younger parents, she noticed what seemed to be a “socially sanctioned obsession” with creating a “sociocultural niche for their young that could never be reproduced by the world outside the family.” And when they leave that falsely enriched, supportive environment, twentysomethings can't share dorm rooms or pay their dues in a career. In her book, Young-Eisendrath cites a recent survey that showed “a stunning 98 percent of college freshmen agreed with the statement 'I am sure that one day I will get to where I want to be in life,'” and she argues that it takes a decade of engagement to be able to make any sort of creative contribution to a field. When Young-Eisendrath noticed how hard it was to talk with young mothers about the potential danger of the cosseted environment they were creating for their children, she researched the phenomenon but was unable to find any new conversations about parenting. “Because parents and kids still believed that promoting the individual self of a child (praise and enhancement of individual abilities and performance, both real and imagined) would be the best path to long-term happiness,” she said. Parents of children under ten years old are most likely to resist her thesis, she thinks. “When you are a parent of a young child—especially a toddler or preschooler—you can still idealize yourself and your child. You can see your child as becoming just what you want him/her to become,” she explained. “You can't yet see your child's adult identity because the abstract skills and self-consciousness of later adolescence haven't yet been developed.” In addition to providing guidance and understanding to adults who feel themselves caught in the self-esteem trap, Young-Eisendrath opens up a whole new conversation on “What it takes to prepare a human being for a lifetime of engagement, creativity, satisfaction, and reverence.”—Anna Katterjohn

Good Cooking

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food by Moira Hodgson. Nan A. Talese: Doubleday. Jan. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7679-1270-9. $24.95. Growing up as the daughter of a British foreign officer had numerous benefits for food writer Moira Hodgson. At age 12, for instance, she and her sister, Philippa, had the opportunity to go on a three-week cruise with their parents. In her latest book, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, she recalls visiting Egypt, Lebanon, Vietnam, and many other countries, where she got to try all kinds of exotic dishes. Fifteen years after publishing her last cookbook, Favorite Fruitcakes, Hodgson put all her experiences to good use. She decided to write a memoir, something she says has been at the back of her mind for many years. “I kept scrapbooks filled with anything from movie ticket stubs, matchbook covers, and the local paper currency to letters, postcards, and my (usually dismal) report cards,” she tells LJ. She also reveals that her sister and her parents had a “wonderful” sense of humor and would exchange stories around the dinner table. Recalling those stories was important because her family changed countries so often. As Hodgson observes, “I always hated it when we had to move on,” and she tried to pin down the memories of the place they'd just left. Hodgson's culinary adventures are reminiscent of chef Anthony Bourdain's exotic travels and unusual food experiences, but she says some of the things she has seen him “cheerfully scoff down give me pause.” Still, there's nothing edible that she will not try once, except that “Japanese fish called fugu that can paralyze you if the chef preparing it slips up.” She has never collaborated with Bourdain, but she has worked with star chefs Pierre Franey, Gordon Ramsay, and Marco Pierre White. Hodgson has been the restaurant critic for the New York Observer for over 20 years. She explains that her job there is fun and interesting, not just because she loves food and tasting new dishes but because restaurants are a “barometer of the times: about people, fashion, art, architecture, and, of course, social mores. Things have certainly changed since I first came to New York and Jackie Kennedy was thrown out of La Côte Basque for wearing a pantsuit!” Whether it's a plain peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a complex Moroccan stew made with intriguing spices, Hodgson enjoys food that's good. She likes “simplicity: ingredients that aren't gussied up but allowed to speak for themselves.” Speaking for herself, she's given anyone who loves reading about food a delectable treat.—Ann Burns

History Made Novel

Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. Spiegel & Grau. Dec. ISBN 978-0-385-52619-7. $24.95. In the bawdy, satirical tradition of the 18th-century picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe, Blindspot (see review, p. 118), a brilliant historical fiction debut by two noted historians, recounts the adventures of Scottish portrait painter and rake Stuart Jameson as he arrives in 1764 Boston, just one step ahead of his creditors. In the following excerpt, Stuart hires a new apprentice who, as the artist soon discovers, is much more than meets the eye.—Wilda Williams This lad, and a slip of a one, stands no taller than my chin. He's a filthy thing, more like a chimney sweep than a painter's apprentice—thin enough to slide down any flue. He reeked of lye and wood smoke. A poor boy, meager and pale, with a much-bitten, crusty scalp, all but shaved. A desperate boy, as I could see in his brown eyes, shuttered with lashes long—haunting eyes, weary beyond measure. He wore clothes that would have fit two of him: loose trousers secured with a rope, and a moth-eaten jacket I took to be his father's. He held in one hand a cap and in the other a wool satchel, stitched together with cotton, a handiwork I noted as he placed the thing on the table, after we crossed the hall to the parlor. He opened the bag. Why must I see his sketches? I need a lad of promise, one who will do my bidding, not one who pretends to Art. What matter his dreary drawings? Might I not be spared the clumsy courtesy of false praise? “Aye, what a fine eye for line, you have, Weston” (for that is the lad's name). “My, what an astonishing likeness of your sainted mother.” But. But. As he opened the bag, with his small, roughened hands, out came half a dozen likenesses, such as Hogarth himself might have made. Sweet Jesus. Charcoal on coarse paper. But the faces: young girls, rosy but knowing, and old men, wistful, and more than one of the same polished gentleman, of about my age, smiling with a kind of Lovelacian lovelessness that I cannot even describe. Surpassing work. My head near reeled at the sight, and I had to struggle to hide my joy. That I must have him, I know. But it will require a patch of deceit to secure him, for Reader, as you by now know all too well, I have aught to pay him, and not a sitter in sight. From the book Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore, to be published by Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

Unspeakable Need

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George. Metropolitan: Holt. Oct. ISBN 978-0-8050-8271-5. $28. It's something we all do but don't talk about except in the most euphemistic of terms. But British journalist Rose George's The Big Necessity (see review, p. 157) boldly brings the topic of human waste out of the W.C., taking us on a global tour of how we take care of our business and revealing the serious health and environmental consequences of ignoring a basic human function. In The Big Necessity, you tackle a rather unpalatable topic. Why did you decide to write a book about bodily waste? I used to work as a writer at the magazine Colors. Its editor, a rather eccentric photographer, decided to do a glossy coffee-table book on excrement. I didn't like the pictures, but the research I did for the stories accompanying them stayed with me. That's when I was introduced to such memorable characters as Bindeshwar Pathak, an Indian sanitation activist who has installed half a million toilets in India. I noticed that every so often the topic would make the news but only ever in a jokey way. I found this odd, having learned the astonishing fact that four in ten people in the world have no sanitation whatsoever. When it came to writing a second book—my first was about refugees—the topic of toilets and sanitation transformed from a background noise in my brain to the obvious and compelling choice. As you point out, 2.6 billion people worldwide live without any sanitary facilities. Given the health and environmental threats involved, why isn't this issue more of a priority for the UN and other organizations? When the Victorians put in sewers and flush toilets, they did the world an enormous service. But flushing [our waste] out of sight has meant we can push it out of our minds, too, and that isn't ideal. Politicians ignore sanitation because they are not asked about it. Also, they think it's not a sexy subject. Most will happily be photographed in front of a nice, shiny water pipe gushing out fresh water, but who wants to be photographed in front of a new latrine? Even though that latrine, especially when combined with better hygiene, actually reduces disease more than a simple supply of fresh water (40 percent compared with about 16 percent). But all the attention goes to water because it's easier to supply and less embarrassing to talk about. It really is time to stop pouring resources into water, or at least to divert some of it to sanitation. You write that the issue of sanitation lacks a celebrity champion “with the courage to talk about toilets.” If you could send your book to any influential personality, who would it be, and what would you say to convince them to take on the role? I'd send it to all the celebrities who campaign for clean water, for a start. Angelina Jolie has traveled to enough refugee camps to understand the vital importance of sanitation in such situations and to realize that diarrhea can kill as many refugees as militias. Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, comes from Korea, which has a lively interest in the provision of sanitation, being the birthplace of the World Toilet Association. Bono likes to talk about finances; if he did his sums about sanitation, he'd realize it's one of the most cost-effective investments in health and well-being that a government can make. And to persuade them, I'd take them into any school in Africa that has installed clean latrines and get them to talk to the young schoolgirls who before would drop out of school because they had nowhere to go to the toilet, or because they were menstruating. When latrines were installed in schools in India, Bangladesh, and Tanzania, school attendance leaped by 15 percent. What do you hope readers to take from this book? If we could move sanitation from the hidden, shameful place that it has been shovelled into, just a little bit into the open, then I'd be content with that, because the unspeakability of sanitation is wreaking havoc. The numbers of children killed by diarrhea is equivalent to a jumbo jet full of people crashing every few hours. The modern world assumes that sanitation has been solved. It hasn't, really. Sewers and the flush toilets were a wonderful solution. But that doesn't mean they can't do with some evolution. And for that to happen, the topic of human waste, and its environmental impact, has to become speakable again. Sanitation really doesn't have to be a dirty word.—Wilda Williams
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