Thursday, August 30, 2012

Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King

This is one of those "oops, I meant to say something" reviews; I have a bunch of drafts in progress, but somehow, I failed to finish them. So, oops, because Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King (Little, Brown - BYFR) is one of the best books I read last year.

Lucky Linderman sees things. A lot of things. Things that other people don't see. He sees his grandfather, a man presumed dead at war, and he sees himself in combat situations. It's harder to see what's right around him--how to mend or forge relationships with his relatives, including his parents, his aunt and uncle (at whose house Lucky and his mom go to retreat for a while), and a group of bullies.

There is a powerful and disturbing scene wherein a group of boys attack Lucky, one I'd even say might be triggering for some readers. Yet, I know this happens. I know it does; there was a much more violent similar incident at a town in my state when I was about Lucky's age. And this is real bullying, the kind where you can't quite prove things, where the parents are afraid, where no one knows what to do, and one doesn't have the skills to try anything new should the bully change their mind and be receptive to change. Which is all to say: bullying sucks. It's truly difficult to prevent and solve, despite all the prepackaged programs that promise to save us all.

And: despite my feeling that teaching and learning about bullying is difficult, I don't think it should be ignored. In fact, I think that Everybody Sees the Ants is a highly appropriate book for classroom discussion precisely because it doesn't pull punches. Stuff sucks. And kids know it. And the time to start talking about it beyond the couched, please-don't-let-the-parents-complain presentations is right now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (Random House - Ballantine) is a comfort (re-)read for me. Of late, I’ve been tackling more challenging reads and trying to cut down on my “I think I won’t like these” to-read stacks, so I took a break with some dinosaurs.

I saw the movie of Jurassic Park before I ever read the book, and I saw it when I hadn’t been to a movie in several years. The experience was, as you can imagine, memorable: here are lifelike dinosaurs, wondrous and awful. And scary. They will roar you.

I am not afraid of monsters under the bed. I am afraid of dinosaurs under the bed. I heartily approve of their demise into fossils and petroleum products even as I get excited to fuel up at a Sinclair station. And I find that any Jurassic Park movie is a great companion for an afternoon on the treadmill (or, of late, this, to better avoid neck and back pulling issues).

And, I’m sorry to say, the movie—the first, at least—is better than the book.

I’m a big fan of this kind of adult sf, of stuff where we have to fight disease or figure out that wormhole or battle the problems of ancient creatures brought back to life. Terra Nova, canceled as it hit its stride, was right up my alley, as Revolution will be this fall (up my alley, that is; it's too early to predict demise). But even as I love, love, love the scientific details, the ideas about space and physics and biology, I recognize that the stories are sometimes lacking. I used to say that I liked the book and movie of Jurassic Park equally, as you’d like two very different siblings, but this last read, I had an editor brain turned on.

What’s not to love about Jurassic Park? Well, throughout the book are features that appear in many similar books and that are hard to balance. For example, there are a lot of characters in the book, and the movie does a good job of combining several people and cutting others down to cameos. (Not necessarily in the best of ways; in the book, Dr. Wu plays a much bigger role as a scientist who buys into the idea that he can simply keep making new versions of dinosaurs until he hits on the right one. In the movie, BD Wong  gets a few seconds of screentime to explain the use of amphibian DNA; we all know that Asian actors don’t get a lot of roles, so that sucks extra.) 

The biggest character changes are in the children and Dr. Grant. Lex is transformed from a whiny victim to a much older girl who’s still not fond of dinosaurs, but who helps save the day with her computer skills; Tim is younger, but doesn’t lose his dinosaur knowledge, and takes on some of the vulnerability that book-Lex is supposed to embody (but in the book, she is a character that could have been cut with no real loss to the story, unfortunately, except for gender balance). Dr. Alan Grant, a Hawaiian-shirted, cowboy boot-wearing, bearded dino guy, goes from being just the guy who knows all the stuff to the guy who’s experiencing the amazement of his life’s work come alive, to, in the film, the guy who grows through his reluctant relationships with kids Tim and Lex. 

Hammond, Arnold, Nedry, Muldoon, and Dr. Ellie Sattler each keep similar roles in the books and films, or similar amounts of importance, but I appreciate that they aged Ellie up so that she’s clearly Grant’s colleague and not just some hot TA. Mathematician Ian Malcom isn’t as much of a hotshot in the book as he is in the film, and interestingly enough for me, a lot of his dialogue made it straight into the film, with only a few changes, even though he’s the voice of explanation; strangely, his ranty monologues work in the film, but I might have to credit Jeff Goldblum for that. Genarro, the lawyer, lives much longer and has more to do in the book, shadowing Muldoon and representing arrogance in big business; his role as meal in the film is nothing more than a cheap lawyer joke, and Hammond acquires most of Genarro's traits, as well as more of a conscience.

All of this adds up, though: Jurassic Park the movie is streamlined. There are no extra people, events, or scenes. The implications of the science are not so much discussed as they are illustrated; we see the chaos theory in effect as things spiral out of control. Most importantly, the characters, almost all of them, grow and change in the film, whereas in the book, they pretty much stay the same, and the interest is in how they solve a problem like maiasauru.

In summary, this provides an exercise: Read, watch, figure out how to amp up conflict, streamline…and some books should be more like films.

And don’t move. They can’t see you if you don’t move.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 5

After arriving back at our accommodation very late, I bounced myself out of bed around 5 a.m. because we had a flight at around 9 a.m., and my stuff was in disarray. I hustled us out the door around 7, to C's amusement, because we had called for a taxi, driven to the airport, checked in, and made it to the gate by 7:35. Let's call it amusement.

I was highly impressed by my airport experience! We got out at the airport and wandered in the door, up to some small kiosks. We put in our confirmation numbers, I chose a new seat (I had a window away from C, but I got the last aisle), and out came our destination stickers. We put them on ourselves and rolled over to this other little thing where we scanned our boarding passes (I think), plopped the bags on the conveyor belt, and whoosh, there they went. Security was nostalgic; nothing out, nothing off, just an x-ray and a metal detector. And, no, I don't feel that there needed to be anything else.

We settled in at the gate and I went to find breakfast, a delicious coffee and a muffin. I did not have any of these items:

C recently sent me some pictures of Lego vending machines in Germany. I think that's nifty too, though I'm always up for a game of eat the baby.

At last, we boarded our flight for Cairns. This was where I sort of finally got my mental reset; a large tour group of American senior citizens was on board as well, and I sat next to two of them. The wife was quite loud and annoyed by everything, including the food (she wanted to know what a tortellini was, as if it were something made up simply to stump her). Her husband took a chance on the butter chicken, as did I, but I knew what I was getting into. (It was delicious.) I wish she'd given me her mango ice cream, also delicious, instead of sneering at the weirdo fruit on the lid and handing it off. I watched The Help for the rest of the flight for a distraction.

Cairns is a jumping off point for all sorts of rainforest and snorkeling adventures, and I seem to remember it being an international entry point for a lot of flyers from Asia. We collected our bags and got a taxi to town; it's touristy, sort of spring-break-y touristy, to me. We dropped off our things at the Sebel Cairns, and if I'd been thinking, I'd have signed up to go to the spa right then. But we thought we'd have a little walk around, get checked in when our room was ready, and have some pool time.

I was really underdressed for this lobby.

Some greenery. Below, some greenery on the outside of another hotel.

The marina. Lots of tours, from river tours to Great Barrier Reef snorkeling, left from here. If we'd hustled straight out to the docks, we might have been able to catch some. It wasn't on our agenda, though, and later turned out to be a lucky thing!

Having a Coke. I'd tell you the restaurant where we had that, some samosas, and some spring rolls (and some other thing I've forgotten) but I can't figure out where we were. After a bit more strolling and a quick stop to pick up some snacks, we headed back to the hotel, thinking we'd have some pool time. Pool time, to me, is deck chairs, sun umbrellas, and someone to bring you drinks and snacks. I don't know if any of that was on offer, but it was a nice idea. We got checked in, to these views:

I think it was prettier in person--greener, more touchable, more present. It was also more humid; if you didn't leave the air on and the door closed, you had a steam room!

As it turned out, C wasn't feeling too well that afternoon, so we sat on the balcony and ate Pringles (yes, yes we did) and read books and I think took naps until we felt better. And then we wandered out to find some dinner, and as we did, it started to do a torrential rain sort of thing.

Yeah, like that.

We weren't really sure what we wanted, and now we were sopping wet, and I thought to pass up some local food offerings with a plan to try later (I really wanted to, er, eat the native fauna and flora, but wasn't spruced up enough to go in anywhere that cost $75 a person), and eventually, we just went back to the hotel and got room service. Mmm, fish and chips.

And then we went to bed, because in the morning, we had another tour!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Australia Trip, Part 4

After waking up early--too early, still--C and I ventured out for some breakfast. Queen Victoria Market was still too overwhelming, so we ended up at Le Croissant Des Halles, where I had some juice and a roll with bacon. Maybe egg. If it was a bacon buttie, I ordered it, because I've always wanted to order a bacon buttie and snicker a little.

After breakfast, we still had something like two hours before our tour, one designed as an afternoon/evening, rather than early morning and on. I was pretty nervous. It turns out that adhering to timing is something I worry about during travel. I'm afraid of missing my transportation or forgetting reservations entirely! In the meantime, we wandered around the few blocks right near the hotel. I discovered that the ATMs in the post offices--closed, that day--would actually give me money. We wandered into a grocery chain that K had told us not to, and of course, K was right. We looked at apartment listings in the window of a real estate office, and I contemplated moving to Melbourne. As it turns out, I mostly want to visit plants and animals, walk around, and sleep on vacations, but I loved Melbourne, to the point of doing some hard thinking about emigration. Eventually, we went back to our apartment and stopped at a bank of computers, where C bought a little time, and I frantically rushed through some e-mail.

Around 11:15, we wandered downstairs and out to the front of the hotel next door where we were to meet our tour with Go West Tours (of Australia, versus any similar-sounding companies from elsewhere). We'd just about given up when they showed up close to noon. It turned out that Jack (I think) was just ending his training week, accompanied by Katie, a fantastic senior tour guide. Now, the tours we had were usually a small van/bus with one row of single seats and one row of doubles, holding about 20 people. On most tours, we stopped three or four times to pick up families and people who'd all been at the same hotel, but poor Jack--I think that we made nine or ten stops at least to pick up single travelers. Katie and Jack were the very best tour guides we had the whole time, and shared a lot of the things that other tour guides would say, wrongly--and Katie and Jack were right.

Before I go on, let me tell you something else about small tours. This tour was full of very well-behaved people or, at least, people who all have to a mutual understanding. But here are my tips, based on some other tours. First, be on time to your tour. Don't make the operator wander around inside the lobby looking for you. Second, get on the bus with your group and stay with your group. By this I mean that I don't care where you sit, but sit together, and take either the first open seats, or move all the way to the back, so that the open seats are all together in a block, because inevitably, the last group to board with be parents with a bunch of small children, and we'll have to take a year sorting it out. If there are two of you, don't sit one person in the single seat and one person in the adjacent double. What is wrong with you. And once you've chosen a seat, you should keep it unless there's a compelling reason to change; sometimes, it's okay to leave things on the bus, and no one likes to get back on and find out that not only do they have to figure out where their stuff is, and under whom it is, but they have to find a new place to sit. Personally, I preferred to sit near the front to be able to see and hear better, but I had nice times in other parts of the buses, too. Except that time that kid from Canada kicked my seat for an hour (though, nothing really bothered me for more than a minute or three the whole trip).

One other tip, drawn from recent U.S. National Parks visits: If there is a walking path around attractions, don't stand on one side of the path and have your group try to line up on the other side with the attraction in the background, and get mad that people want to walk by, including people who don't speak your language and understand your anger and woe. Instead, stay on the same side of the path as your photo subject, and take a picture from that angle so you can get the person and thing without blocking, oh, 3,000 people who need to keep moving lest they be trampled. Or I will come after you.

I'd been up for driving out to Phillip Island, but C didn't like that idea, and booked us for the Penguin Parade Day Tour. (We'd probably have been fine with a GPS to get us out of the city; most of the roads were divided, or pleasantly rural and not busy.) As much as I love(d) Melbourne, it was nice to be out in the green countryside. And to be on the way to penguins!

Our first stop was the town of Koo Wee Rup. We were given about twenty minutes to go to a pie shop and get groceries for lunch. It was a very, very good thing that we did, though we didn't know it at the time. First, C and I hustled over to the IGA.

This will sound very rude, but all I could think at the time was I came halfway around the world to go to IGA. (IGA, in the US, is always that little supermarket in towns that would not otherwise have a supermarket.) I remember looking for a particular kind of lemon fizzy candy, and I think we grabbed some water, Coke and Pringles, which I'm only a little ashamed to say was our go-to "no time to think about it, just get something that's portable and you know how you'll feel after you eat it" combination. Then, we got meat pies from--and I'm not sure, even on street view--either Kooweerup Bakery or Wattle Cafe and Milk Bar. At the time, I felt a little bit weird chowing down when others weren't, but it turned out that we didn't get much of a chance to eat again until the next day. But more on that later.

Our "real" first stop was at Panny's Amazing World of Chocolate. I can kind of take or leave chocolate--I either want all of it, or none of it. That day, I was wanting none of it, but I picked up some mint, ginger, and honeycomb chocolates, which I wanted very much later in the trip! C. picked up some sort of assortment that melted into a big and, I think, luscious gob.

Here are some shoes made of chocolate.

Our next stop was at The Koala Conservation Centre. It turns out that Katie helps do a census of koalas, and told us a lot about them, from the misconception that they're getting high on eucalyptus--nope, just very picky about eating the leaves, and not getting enough energy from them to be super-active--to the preponderance of chlamydia in the koala population that's one of the many risks the animals are facing. 

There's a small interpretive center, but the main attraction for me was a series of trails and boardwalks, where you could get up close to view the koalas without being able to touch them. Here are the rules: no spanking, shouting, or shaking.

I could have stayed here all day just to check them out! That plastic you see in the background is something that's hard to climb over, and sets out ground territory so koalas can switch trees. Here are some koalas. Did you know they have two thumbs?

And an awesome bird. I'm not sure what it is.

I could have hung out here all day, but tours are tours (and oddly enough, you know, some people want to do this thing, others that). We headed on out into the countryside, and it was a beautiful day.

Then, we made a stop at a small winery. Phillip Island Winery, where I learned that roses planted around vineyards are the early warning system for grape problems, and where we tried a variety of wines and cheeses. I really liked the first one, a rosé. We also heard about screw-top wine, explained as fitting better with the Australian lifestyle than corks (and of course, corks can get icky).

I'm all for getting to the wine without need for a corkscrew. Nicely aglow, we headed out to a park, The Esplanade area, on the north side of the island. It was a very quick stop. I didn't take any pictures. It was suggested that we grab dinner, but I didn't see how we could accomplish that in the 15 or 20 minutes we had (walk uphill included), and we were headed out to see penguins soon after. Or we did some bit around the sea, and a stop at a visitor center, and then the park; I can't remember. But here are some pictures from the island.

I think that's a little penguin in a little penguin den. Most live in a no-photographs area. More on that later.

Some of this is the Nobbies. I'd have to look up things to tell you more.

At last, at last, we headed to the Penguin Parade area. I grabbed a guidebook with pictures at one stop because you're not to take pictures in the viewing area. (You can get an idea by going to Google Images, though, and searching for penguin parade.) And I didn't, even when I saw a rogue penguin out in the parking lot later.

This is not the penguin in the parking lot.

Signs directed us into the building, which was busy with exhibits and shopping.

Penguins: This way to eating and gifts! Or is it penguins, get eaten and turn into presents ahead?

C was very generous and got us the fanciest of fancy things, only available by advance arrangement. It turns out that I would probably have liked the mediumest of fancy things, because we were turned over to a ranger. I had on my jacket and my credentials around my neck, my purse slung around one way (exacerbating a medical issue, all on its own), and then added a set of binoculars and a radio-hearing thing, plus my glasses--it was pretty heavy and overwhelming, and then we went out onto the crowded boardwalk and beach just at twilight, when I find it very, very hard to see. So I might have just liked to sit in the sand, or on the off-to-the-side platform, to watch.

We picked our way down into the cool, wet sand--and I swear I didn't step on too many people on the way--and waited for sunset. As the sun goes down, rafts--gatherings--of penguins start to form in the waves, dark blotches. They clump up and then ride the waves in, thousands of them, spilling onto the beach on their tummies, and then walk, slide, wander up to their dens in the hills, passing over sensors that track and weigh them. They're wary of shorebirds, but they mostly ignore the people. They waddle back into the dark to mate (noisily!) and feed their chicks, some huge and pushy. And there are some penguins, females, going back the other way, down to the beach--I've forgotten the details, but I think to get minerals, to make stronger shells for eggs.

We got up to do some other boardwalk activities, tricky in the crowd (and while it would have been easier for me to see and follow C, I think he was afraid I would somehow get lost), and went up to the visitor center just in time to grab our included drinks and hop on the bus. Really, though, the parks on the island could be an all-day trip; you can find out about farming and working dogs and sheep shearing and whips in the day, visit the koalas in the afternoon, and see the penguins at night!

Also, there are some fantastic-looking tours in the area around Melbourne. If I'd had more time, I'd've liked to explore the beaches and the Great Ocean Road, the 12 Apostles, and so on, and the mountains, maybe on the Puffing Billy Railway. Of course, I wanted to tour the country by car, and if we'd had a couple of months...

We headed back to Melbourne, arriving very late, and getting caught in a traffic jam. I am not sure what that was about, but things were busy at 1 a.m. We were nearly the last to get dropped off--I think with all the pickups and dropoffs, there was a question of running out of fuel, too--so we stumbled home, hungry, but too tired to do anything but fall into bed.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mella and the N’anga: An African Tale by Gail Nyoka

I read Mella and the N’anga: An African Tale by Gail Nyoka (Sumach Press) because it's one of the retellings we picked out for this year's Books and Breakfast at Sirens. People bring their breakfast and join a small, very informal discussion of books that they've read--or not--before the day's programming begins. This is where we fold in a variety of books that meet the conference's theme (retellings, this year) but that might not be well-known to attendees, or addressed in other programming, or that are controversial in some way, or that add to the diversity of what we're talking about for the weekend, or that are the books everyone's talking about. 
Despite adding one book for each session of Books and Breakfast this year, we still, as always, wrestled with why this one, and not that one, or why this topic and not the other, and, sometimes, with finding books to add to the list; we were trying to find global retellings, for example, but in some cultures, those original stories or retellings are not meant to be fantasy. Sometimes, I'd find glorious picture books, but wonder if representing something only in that format would send an unintended message if all the rest of the books were novels. Sometimes, I'd find a great retelling, but not in translation, or something nifty that is out of print and so expensive and hard to find that it's not a good fit for this list. And, of course, we're highlighting books by women authors and about women characters, and, and, and... There are just never enough spots on the roster. It's only a starting point.

Anyway, Mella and the N'anga was a book we added to the list as a retelling, even though I wouldn't try to shoehorn it into fantasy as a genre. Nyoka takes a tale from Zimbabwe, which I've seen credited to the Shona people, about the Nyangara, a great python--and here, Nyoka is also retelling a play of her own called Mella, Mella. Keeping an oral storytelling feeling in the prose, the story centers on the king's daughter, and brings women to the forefront of the tale. The magic here is a quest for Mella, a quest to find a way to heal her father, and it's also in the way that old traditions, here of women who hunt and sing and survive in the forest, come back from near death. There are some of the bones of the old tale here, but it's very much reimagined, extended, and refocused. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Deadly by Julie Chibbaro

A friend gave me Deadlyby Julie Chibbaro (Simon & Schuster - Atheneum) because she knows I like Robin Cook's books--medical, scientific, almost impossible thrillery books. Deadly isn't quite that, but it's worth a read anyway.

In 1906-1907, Prudence Galewski leaves school to take a job with the New York City Department of Health and Sanitation. It's not quite the upscale nanny or shopgirl job her schooling has been preparing her for, but since Prudence's mother is a midwife, typing notes for a sanitary engineer is something that Prudence is a little more interested in than she might otherwise have been.

Once at the Department, Prudence's interest in science blossoms; she has had no real resources on the topic other than a copy of Gray's Anatomy, but now, she's putting together the pieces for an investigation into the woman known as Typhoid Mary, getting her first look through a microscope, and meeting a doctor who happens to be a woman.

All of this is intertwined with a coming of age story. Prudence has a lot going on: a missing dad, an inability to fit in with most other girls her age, an arm's length relationship with Judaism, weird feelings (and weird advice about) some men in her life, a struggle with the ethics of quarantining Mary. But she's really thoughtful, even in her confusion. She's the sort of girl Bella Swan thinks she is, if that makes any sense.

I think this would make a really interesting classroom read in a middle school or high school setting. Despite all of the issues in the book, it's not preachy, and it's surprisingly open-ended, which I think would lead to great discussion.

Weird: My copy has a purply, maybe Jack the Ripper's around the corner sort of cover, like the one at left. I don't know which one you might get if you buy a copy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson

I avoided reading this book for a long time. Why? It made a song in my head. A music curriculum version, one in all those third and fourth grade textbooks. I didn't have YouTube then, so check this out instead:

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson (Warner Books--which I think is now owned by Hachette) is about Ti-Jeanne, who lives in a future, fallen Toronto, and bringing up Baby. She's left her boyfriend, Rudy, to move in with her grandmother, a woman who knows magic of nature and magic of spirits. It draws from Caribbean traditions, and deftly combines the unreal with the grittiness of the city. In the middle of it all, Ti-Jeanne has to fight evil within the confines of the city, and within the confines of her extended family. Chapters are organized with snippets of other work, like "Brown Girl in the Ring," which I only know as a children's game (and only kinda, but that's a long story about not understanding diagrams I had and only getting started on an interest in music/game traditions before I left teaching).

Even when I could figure out what was going to happen next, this book just kept punching me in the gut when the inevitable did happen. Hopkinson is really good at threading together SF and fantasy elements without losing the heart and without shying away from having characters ask tough questions. Redemption isn't easy. Love isn't easy. Forgiveness isn't easy. Societies, now and in speculative futures, don't play by the rules all of the time. I think a lot of budding authors would do well to spend some time living in books like this one and absorbing.

I think that this is a good introduction to Hopkinson's other work; she's got an impressive, thoughtful, and just plain excellent body of writing to dig into, too. (She's also a guest of honor at Sirens this year, and wow, are we fortunate to have her!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan

A while ago, I read The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan (Simon & Schuster - Scribner). I have a love for the undercover journalism books by Barbara Ehrenreicht and The Omnivore's Dilemma, and this is sort of a cross between the two: McMillan works in the fields where food is grown, and it doesn't look anything like your Fisher-Price playhouse set. Applebee's is a wasteland of reheated food, but also a relief for poor families. And Walmart--well, we already knew that Walmart talks a big game and does everything it can to shut down local commerce and pay its people as little as possible.

In blurb format: we're kind of a mess.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Confession: I've been reading, when I can, but I hate Blogger's new interface so much that I've been avoiding it. Bah.

I read Angela Carter's classic collection of stories, The Bloody Chamber, as general research for Sirens, this year focusing on retellings. There are a couple of papers being presented this year that focus on or reference the book, and we considered it for a time for our book-club-like Books and Breakfast program (but ultimately chose not to include it, thinking to include some less-familiar retellings and to make room to highlight more different bookstore age levels, approaches, cultures, and so on).

If Disney's princesses are the shiniest and most spotless, The Bloody Chamber is the grungiest, finding the horrible hearts of the tales that include, among others, Bluebeard, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as a take on vampires and a story about the Erl-King, with whom I'm most familiar via lieder. A few of the stories seem rustic, rural, in the way many fairy tales are, but others, like "The Bloody Chamber," have a glamorous, Gatsbyish feel, and I liked those best. Probably no surprise!

Even starting to analyze a single one of the stories would take more than a blog post, but I will mention that it's especially interesting to me that this collection has been adapted--retold--in film and music. And I think that's due to its grotesque charm; you are the fly, and the flytrap, with its awful smell, will eat you.

I read the Penguin paperback edition.
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