Book review: “American Pastoral” by Philip Roth

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The theme for July in my Facebook Reading Challenge was an American novel. It was a tough choice as I wanted to select something that captured the American ‘story’. I at first thought about The Color Purple, which had been on my shortlist for February (a work by a feminist writer) but I felt it was too similar to June’s choice of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first volume of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I also thought about The Bonfire of the Vanities, but decided it was a bit long and my fellow readers on the Challenge would not thank me! So, I finally alighted on Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, which seemed appropriate in terms of both subject matter and timing, since Roth died just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure how other readers on the challenge got on, but I’m afraid I failed to complete it within the month – it’s not overly long at 423 pages, but the writing is so rich that it was almost impossible to read at any pace. I had to (and wanted to!) savour every word. That gives you an idea of my overall feeling about the book – it is tremendous, epic, glorious and tragic. If you want to understand anything about the American experience, especially the immigrant experience over the last hundred years or so and the effect that has had on the mindset of American-born second and third generation immigrants, it is essential reading.

2018-07-23 16.19.23The plot is not complicated: ‘Swede’ Levov is a third generation Jewish immigrant whose grandfather came to America from Europe. He was a glovemaker and set up a business in Newark, New Jersey which became highly successful. Swede’s father continued the business, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s when glove-wearing for respectable women was the norm and most would have several pairs. (There is more information on gloves in this book than you will ever need to know, but it’s fascinating!) Swede inherited the business from his father, while his more wayward brother became a cardiac surgeon.

Swede Levov pursued the quintessential ‘American dream’ – he excelled in sports at school, served in the military, followed his father into the business, and learned the glove trade, married an Irish-American Catholic former beauty queen, with whom he had a daughter, Merry. From the outside everything seems perfect except for one small flaw – Merry has a stammer, which no amount of expensive medical or therapeutic treatment seems to be able to fix. This is the first indication that Merry perhaps represents some flaw which will undermine the Levovs and all that they represent.

Slight spoiler alert (though not really because you learn of the event quite early in the book): as a teenager Merry becomes obsessed with opposition to the Vietnam war. She becomes increasingly frustrated and rebellious. Her parents lose control and it culminates in her planting a bomb in the general store of Old Rimrock, the solid New Jersey semi-rural idyll in which the family has settled. The bomb kills the local doctor.

Swede’s world begins to fall apart; he cannot accept that his daughter has committed this crime, believing that she must have been put up to it by others, or indeed that others did it and are allowing her to take the blame. For a number of years Swede lives in the hope that he will be able to find his daughter, that the truth will come out and that she will be exonerated, and that their life will return to ‘normal’. For a time, it appears that he might find be able to find Merry, when a woman known as Rita Cohen contacts him saying she knows Merry’s whereabouts. Swede becomes convinced that she is in fact the real bomber because she is cruel and threatening and extorts money from him.

The Rita Cohen thread is all part of Swede’s self-deception, however, and this is the central theme of the book – Swede, his wife and his family, represent the ‘American dream’, which is in fact, just that, a fantasy, a mirage. Merry’s actions put Swede on a path where everything he held dear, which he believed to be real, unravels and is exposed as a sham.

As I have already said, the plot is not complex because it is not a novel so much about events as it is a deep exploration of the American psyche. The structure of the book is quite complex, however, but so brilliantly done that it is not hard to follow. It flits effortlessly between different stages, between different characters and their individual stories and the handling can only be described as masterful. No wonder it won the Pulitzer Prize (1998)! It explores notions of religion in America, particularly the Jewish experience as told through the Levov family, and through the eyes of our first narrator, former schoolmate of Swede’s and now author Nathan ‘Skip’ Zuckerman, the Catholic experience (through Dawn Levov) and the American Protestant experience through the residents of Old Rimrock. The decline of the glove industry and its craft, and also the city of Newark where the Levov family business was based, is a metaphor for the gradual collapse of the concept of the American dream which now seems to lie degraded and in ruins. A further metaphor is the Garden of Eden story, itself Old Testament fiction. The book is written in three parts (Paradise Remembered, The Fall and Paradise Lost) echoing Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, because for Swede Levov the experience is truly a destruction of all that he once understood to be real and to be good.

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In American Pastoral Roth explodes the idea of the ‘American dream’.

This is the longest review I’ve written in a while and yet I feel I have only scratched the surface in telling you about this book. I have only just completed it so I may write more in a few weeks once it has had a chance to sit with me! Truly, as I savoured the last few pages I was open-mouthed at the unravelling. It is truly an American tragedy (the title is a kind of oxymoron), and it reminded me of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf similar examples of the collapse of an American dream happening in slow motion before our very eyes. The final dinner party scene is quite spectacular.

Needless to say I recommend this book highly. It’s not an easy read but it rewards in spades.

If you have read this book I would love to hear your thoughts.

Book review: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

When Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86, she was one of the towering figures of American culture and politics. Poet, author, civil rights activist, speaker, friend and advisor to figures of national and international importance, her career was, by any standards, glittering. And yet, her start was a decidedly inauspicious one. In the late 1960s she was persuaded to begin writing an autobiography and she went on to publish it in seven volumes, the latest one appearing in 2013, just a year before her death. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is the first volume and covers her childhood and coming of age. Her early life in Arkansas featured parental abandonment, overt racism, sexual abuse, discrimination and poverty. It is a sobering tale, and a testament to her immense ability, that someone with that kind of background could become such a great and important figure, well-known not just in the United States, but throughout the world.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings imgI chose this book for my 2018 Facebook Reading Challenge. The June theme was an autobiography, a tricky category since enjoyment can often depend on your feelings about the author. I also wanted to avoid titles that would most likely have been ghost-written. After thinking about it for some time, I chose this, the first volume in Angelou’s memoir series, and the one which is often considered to be the best. It can be read as a stand-alone.

I had read it myself many years ago; I have written on here before that at some point in my teens, I resolved to work my way along my local library bookshelves starting at ‘A’! I read the first five volumes (the fifth was published in 1986 when I would have been 18, so I imagine I did not read them all consecutively). I remember I enjoyed the book at the time, and parts of it were familiar, coming back to it so many years later, not least the horrific scene where she is raped by her mother’s lover. This aspect of Maya’s story, like all the other terrible instances of injustice she experienced, is told without self-pity (apart, perhaps from the toothache!) or sentimentality, and this, I think, is the mark of her greatness as a writer.

I loved also, the evocation of the setting – 1930s Arkansas is set out vividly before us, particularly the evangelical Christianity of the black community, the tense relations with their white neighbours on the other side of town, and the poverty of the community, scraping a meagre living in the most challenging of circumstances, from cotton-picking, domestic service or, in the case of Maya’s grandmother “Momma”, from running a small business.

I also loved the language – the Deep South comes across so profoundly in the words and phrases used by the author, such as the wonderful term “powhitetrash” to refer to the prejudiced white townspeople of Stamps who blight the lives of the black community with their bullying, their cruelty and their vulgar behaviour. And I loved the characters, from the young Maya, to her elder brother Bailey, whom she adored, to Momma, the starched Christian woman of steadfast values and brilliant business acumen. The author brings them alive so skilfully that they walk the pages of this book.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is a must-read. I trust that it is on academic reading lists throughout the United States, but it should also form part of the historical context for any student of American history. It is not an easy read and the nature of the language definitely slows the pace (it took me twice as long to read as any other book of this size), but you would do well to read it slowly as the pace draws you into the languid lifestyle of the setting. Someone on the Facebook group listened to the audiobook, narrated by Angelou, herself, which sounds like a must-listen. Coincidentally, the book was also abridged for Radio 4’s book of the week recently, and that should still be available online. It was very good.

Highly recommended, should probably even be on everyone’s books bucket list.

If you have read Maya Angelou’s memoirs what impact did they have on you?

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Book Review: “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

My Facebook Reading Challenge 2018 is well underway and March’s theme was a classic. I chose Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 classic, because it seemed to fit well with a lot of the women’s issues around and being discussed at the moment, particularly gender equality and sexual exploitation. It is fair to say that it had a mixed reception among the readers on the Facebook group!

2018-02-22 14.12.54I had read this book previously, but many years ago as an undergraduate, so whilst I had remembered the basic story, I had forgotten much of the detail. I had forgotten for example just how brilliant the writing is and how very like Jane Austen Flaubert can be in his use of irony. By all accounts, Flaubert was a perfectionist and spent years on this book; it is certainly masterful and for me the writing was sublime. I had also forgotten how unlikeable all the characters are! Even Emma, our supposed “heroine”, is at times unpleasant, childish, selfish, superficial and self-obsessed. When I discussed it with my husband (who speaks fluent French and read it in the original) he was surprised that I did not find Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, sympathetic. Interesting that he felt affection for the long-suffering, betrayed husband who loved his wife to the death, despite her many faults, whereas I found him ineffectual and basically unable to connect with his wife on any level, and that was part of the problem in their marriage.

I don’t think even Flaubert liked his characters and I think it was the intention of the author that we stand with him and examine the people he puts before us, with all their flaws. I believe he wants us also to dig a little deeper and examine the French provincial society that gave rise to Emma. As a young woman she lives a dull and uninteresting life with her widowed father on a farm, until the day she marries Charles, a physician in a neighbouring town, and goes to live a dull and uninteresting life with him. Passed from one man’s home to the next. Emma would not have had expectations, but she was an intelligent woman and the kind of life she was forced to lead did not fulfil her deeper needs. She is a woman of deep passions, but there is no outlet for them, apart from the romantic novels she devours. Certainly, Charles does not really do it for her! “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement.”

Flaubert hints that Emma’s lack of fulfilment may be dangerous when he observes, after she and Charles were invited to an aristocratic ball, where she glimpses how the other half live and begins to fantasise:

“This life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north; and boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart.”

What a sentence! Emma is naïve and inexperienced, however. Her life has been limited and she sees events in the most superficial of ways:

“She confused in her desire, sensual luxury with true joy, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.”

Flaubert doesn’t expect us to like Emma very much, but I think he wants us to see her as a product of a time and a place, not as wilful and malicious.

Seduced by romantic fantasy, Emma takes lovers, both of whom are equally selfish and unpleasant. Whilst she is clearly a willing participant in her adultery, there is no doubt that both Leon and Rodolphe exploit Emma. When Emma’s reckless behaviour leads her to run up unsustainable debts, the town’s notary, from whom she has been borrowing money, also exploits her. When he requests sexual favours in return for his continued discretion we can see how deeply lost Emma’s situation is and how as a woman she has almost no power or autonomy. Her response to him, is when we begin to see for the first time something more admirable in her spirit:

“You are taking insolent advantage of my distress, monsieur. I may be in a pitiful state, but I am not up for sale!”

Parts of the book are heavy going, but it is in Part Three that we see the tragic coming-together of events, the closing-in on Emma of all the consequences of her misguided actions, her falsehoods, and the tremendous dislike she accrued. She is not a nice woman – she betrayed her husband, who did not understand her, but loved her in his own way, rejected her daughter and treated those about her with contempt. She was the architect of her own downfall, but she was also a victim of heartless men, of social norms and conventions that failed women like her and gave them no outlet.

She is a difficult heroine for us, but one who makes us think, for sure. Recommended because it’s just one of those books you have to read!

Do you find it hard to connect with the classics? What is your favourite?

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April Reading Challenge

At last, it’s starting to feel a little more spring-like as we enter April, which must mean it’s time for this month’s book on the Facebook Reading Challenge group.

2018-03-29-10-08-25.jpgLast month, we battled our way through Madame Bovary, some enjoying it more than others, it has to be said. Our theme was a classic novel, and this can be a challenging genre. It can take you right back to schooldays and unhappy memories of working line by line through a text that had no relevance to your teenage life. And if you are out of the habit of reading classic, usually older, novels, the language can feel outdated, and hard work.

For me, the challenge was the size of the typeface in my University days edition! Not only was this a strain on my ‘mature’ eyesight, but it meant that pages were turned less frequently than I am used to. A trivial point perhaps but it gave me an insight into what motivates continued reading, and feeling like you are making progress can be a part of that. Personally, I really enjoyed it – it was all about the writing for me. Just sublime. Irony on a par with Jane Austen. I had forgotten how good a novel it is.

2018-03-29-10-28-24.jpgThis months’s challenge is something altogether different – a children’s novel and I have chosen Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. This book first came to my attention before Christmas and I have been keen to read it ever since. It is written from the perspective of three different polar bears: the first , a female, who flees her homeland in Soviet Russia, the second, her daughter, a dancing bear in a Berlin circus, and the third, the most recent, born in captivity in Germany.

The book has won high praise for its Japanese author. It’ll be the second children’s book I’ve read recently that is written, in part at least, from the perspective of an animal (the other being Pax, which I enjoyed enormously), so I’m looking forward to it. I expect it will be one of those books that blurs the boundary between ‘children’s’ and ‘adult’ fiction. Happily.

If you would like to participate in the challenge, do join us on the Facebook group, or if you have read this book and have a view on it, I would love to hear it. 

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Waiting for Spring…

…feels a bit like Waiting for Godot this year!

Tomorrow it’s the Vernal Equinox, the mid-point on the calendar between the Winter and Summer Solstices, when the number of hours of day and night are equal. It may be the official start of spring in meteorological terms, but, here in the UK, it still feels very much like winter! The daffodils in my garden are putting a brave face on it, but we have just had a weekend of snow-related disruption in many parts of the country and the strong winds blowing in from the east mean it is freezing out.

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Spring bulbs are flowering in the sunshine, but it’s freezing out!

It is at this time of year that many of us start to get itchy feet, desperate to get outside after the long winter, and yet the weather is making that quite challenging. I’m keen to blow the winter cobwebs away, but not to get blown away! We have been relatively lucky here in Manchester, in the north west of England, with very little snow settling, particularly compared to other parts of the country. Temperatures look set to improve by the middle of the week.

The downsides of this protracted winter are obvious: less fresh air, less getting out and about, less exercise and more hours with the heating on! I’ve written here before about my reluctance to make New Year’s resolutions, but at this time of year, I start to get some energy and motivation back. So I’m trying this year to see more of the positive in events, to default to ‘Yes’ and to see a glass half full. In that spirit, I’m trying to think about the upsides of this unexpected weather and one definite bonus is more time for reading: I can still justify curling up with a blanket and a book when it’s too cold to go out!

I’ve almost finished Madame Bovary, the March title in my 2018 Reading Challenge, and am looking forward to starting our children’s book for April, which I’ll be announcing next week. After blogging here about my difficulties with 4321 last week, I’ve resolved to give it another go and take it on holiday over Easter. I’m also looking forward to reading my next book from the children’s library, Red Nemesis by Steve Cole, a Young Bond adventure set during the Cold War. Very topical!

What are you reading at the moment?

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Book review: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson

Oranges are not the only fruitThis was February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. The theme was a feminist novel, in part to mark the 100th anniversary of the extension of the vote to a section of the female population in Britain. This book is normally considered a classic of the LGBT genre rather than feminist fiction, but, for me, Winterson is one of the most eloquent and interesting feminist authors around today, so I definitely felt this book was a worthy choice for the theme.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was Winterson’s first published work and proved a stellar launch to what has become a brilliant writing career. It was published in 1985 and won the Whitbread Prize (now known as the Costa book Awards) for a first novel that same year. I was a teenager at the time and can’t say for sure that I was particularly aware of it. I remember more vividly the 1990 television adaptation (written by Winterson herself) starring the late Charlotte Coleman (Marmalade Atkins, Four Weddings and a Funeral) which also won a BAFTA. This is a book with quite a pedigree.

Although Winterson insists this is a novel, it has strong autobiographical elements: the central character is adopted and called Jeanette, it is set in a northern industrial town, (the author grew up in Accrington), and it concerns a young woman’s discovery of her sexuality against a backdrop of religious zealotry. Winterson makes no apologies for this and writes in the Introduction to the 2014 Vintage edition that she “wanted to use myself as a fictional character – an expanded ‘I’.” She points to her 2011 memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? as being more authentically autobiograpical.

I had not read this book before but my memories of the television series were of something bleak and dark (and Charlotte Coleman’s brilliant orange hair!). I was expecting a sombre book with an overriding feeling of cruelty and oppression. In fact, it was lighter than I expected (Jeanette escapes, of course) with a great deal of humour, particularly in the characters, or rather caricatures, the author creates.

I’ll outline the story briefly. Jeanette is an only child, adopted as a baby. Her mother is a maniacal Pentecostal Christian “Old Testament through and through”, and her father, who has only a vague presence in the book, goes along with it, for a quiet life you suspect. In bringing up Jeanette, the mother attempts to instil in her daughter her own extreme religious views, keeping her as far away as possible from all other influences, including school. Every aspect of daily life is dominated by the church and all values and principles are predicated on the Bible teachings.

“The Heathen were a daily household preoccupation. My Mother found them everywhere, particularly Next Door.”

It is assumed that Jeanette will become a missionary when she grows up, like the charismatic Pastor Spratt, for whose work Jeanette’s mother raises substantial amounts of money, and for whom she harbours strong feelings which she would not describe as sexual, but which undoubtedly are.

There is cruelty in Jeanette’s childhood, in the way she is initially prevented from going to school, in the way her mother controls all aspects of her daily life, and attempts to control her mind, and in the way she denies her normal social interactions. This is tempered by the pithy and humorous observations the author makes about the church community, the hypocrisy, the characters she creates, and the naivety of some Jeanette’s observations. The following is an example – not long after Jeanette has started school, she reads out an essay in front of the class about what she did during the summer holidays:

‘”This holiday I went to Colwyn Bay with our church camp.”‘ The teacher nodded and smiled. ‘”It was very hot and Aunty Betty whose leg was loose anyway, got sunstroke and we thought she might die.”‘ The teacher began to look a bit worried but the class perked up. ‘”But she got better, thanks to my mother who stayed up all night struggling mightily.”‘ ‘Is your mother a nurse?’ asked the teacher with quiet sympathy. ‘No, she just heals the sick.’

There are passages in this book which are truly hilarious and it’s hard to pick out the best ones.

The level of cruelty, however, intensifies in Jeanette’s teenage years. This is the stage that her mother sees the greatest threat to the control she exercises over her daughter, and when the measures she adopts to keep her become the most extreme. Jeanette discovers she has feelings for a girl who has a Saturday job at the fish stall in the market. She contrives to spend time with her (in Bible study) but they become intimate. When this is discovered, Jeanette is forced to undergo a degrading ‘cleansing’ process, a kind of exorcism. At this stage the book becomes much darker.

Jeanette’s mother, although a frightening and unforgiveable bully, is of course a victim herself, driven to religious fanaticism, as the outlet for the frustration she has endured in her own life. Her bitterness and her need to oppress others, stems from her own anger and feelings of repression, and the author knows this. That is where I think a more feminist reading of the book can be taken. The men here are weak, pathetic, complacent, or downright creepy. The women are unfulfilled, frustrated or resigned. And it is this which has created the environment in which the promise of something more interesting and more empowering, albeit in the most dysfunctional of ways, through blind religious fervour, can thrive.

This is such a clever book, incredibly well-written, but complex. There are elements which are vaguely unsatisfying – the author tells a great story, but to some degree it is left unfinished. I found myself wanting more, wanting some answers. For me, it did fizzle out a bit at the end, but I can forgive this because the first half of the book is just glorious.

Highly recommended, but whatever preconceptions you might have about this book, set them to one side.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book, if you have read it.

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Book review: “The Disappearances” by Emily Bain Murphy

At the start of this year I set up a Facebook reading group, based on a challenge I undertook for myself last year where I read a book with a different theme each month. I have been delighted with the response and that so many people are keen to push their reading boundaries a little. The theme for January was a YA book and I chose The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy, a first-time American novelist. This book has had rave reviews and I’ve come across a few vlogs where the reviewers have spoken passionately about how much they loved it. I was keen to see what all the fuss was about!

The Disappearances imgThe book is set in Connecticut in 1942-43. Aila, is 16 years old when we first meet her and she has a younger brother Miles. Their mother, Juliet, has just died and their father has been called away to fight in the war. Aila and Miles are sent to live in Sterling (their mother’s birthplace) with Matilda Cliffton and her family; Matilda was Juliet’s childhood best friend. Aila is keen to take something of her mother’s with her and she finds a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, much scribbled in, into the back of which has been placed an envelope, containing a ring Juliet always wore, and a mysterious note to an unknown person, Stefen, at the end of which Juliet signs herself ‘Viola’.

 

When Aila and Miles arrive in Sterling it quickly becomes clear that things are not as they should be. First of all, Aila notices that other townspeople seem quite hostile towards her, and that this has something to do with Juliet. She also quickly observes that there are no stars and no smells in Sterling, and that the inhabitants have no reflections. Matilda Cliffton reveals to her the curse that struck Sterling (and its two nearby ‘sister’ towns Corrander and Sheffield) some years before which means that every seven years something in their life disappears (ie stars, reflections, smells). They are due another Disappearance shortly. Over the years, Matilda’s husband, Dr Cliffton, has been instrumental in developing ‘Variants’, powders which temporarily restore the losses, and these are traded in the market in town. Thus the scene is set and Aila and her brother settle into life in Sterling. We see Aila making friends at the local high school, particularly George, Beas and Will, the Cliffton’s son, and a few enemies, namely Eliza, who has a thing for Will and whose indifference to Aila borders on antipathy.

Interspersed between the events in Sterling are short italicised chapters where we meet the dark characters of Stefen and his father Phineas. Phineas is a former grave-robber, and has served time in jail for this. He is also dying. We know that Stefen wants to find ‘the Stone’ to try and save Phineas’s life though it is not clear how it would do so. Stefen is also obsessed by birds and at the start of each of these chapters is a short description of a bird species, and its characteristics give the reader clues to the action that is taking place in Sterling.

A kind of chase commences, as Stefen goes in search of Juliet’s ring, and Aila tries to understand the root cause of the curse (suspecting that it is somehow connected with her mother). She is convinced she can also find a way to lift it, and believes clues to the mystery lie within the Shakespeare volume of her mother’s. The plot is complex and I have to confess that some elements of it left me slightly confused. However, I loved the characters, particularly Aila, who is well-developed and very credible. I also loved the handling of the relationships among the young people, particularly the dynamic between Aila and Will. The book is beautifully written and the Shakespeare references are lovely and very cleverly incorporated. It is well-researched and well-thought through. I liked the ‘fantasy’ element less, but perhaps that is because I am not a particular fan of that genre, though I can see how it would appeal to a YA reader. Also, the twist at the end (which many of the YouTube vloggers loved) left me feeling a bit cold. I just couldn’t believe in it. The pace of the book is also a little uneven; the reader is thrown into the action and the plot quite quickly, but then it slows right down and becomes less engaging before the sprint at the end. Those things aside, it’s a good read that I would recommend and I think if you do find it a bit slow, stick with it because you will be rewarded. Hence, I’m not giving spoilers on this one!

For younger readers I would recommend the 14-17 age group. The plot is complex and not likely to appeal to those under 14, and there is some romance more suited to slightly older teens.

Have you read The Disappearances? Did you think it lived up to the hype?

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