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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YA book review: “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed

The Nowhere Girls imgThis is a very hard-hitting YA novel for older teens. It is an important book, dealing with a very current issue, misogyny, sexual violence and rape, but as a parent I found it extremely challenging to read. The story is set in Prescott, Oregon, a medium sized-town in the northwest United States. It centres on a group of three girls in high school (so about 17 or 18 years old) Grace, Erin and Rosina. Grace has moved to Prescott after her mother (an evangelical preacher) was forced out of her position in their previous home in the southern US because of hostility from the congregation towards her views. Grace finds, in her bedroom in their new home, some cryptic words scratched into the woodwork. She discovers that the previous occupant of the room was a girl called Lucy who alleged that she was raped by fellow students. No charges were brought and Lucy and her family left the town.

Grace struggles to make friends in her new school, because of her southern accent and her newness, but eventually connects up with Erin and Rosina, relative misfits in the school community. Erin has Asperger’s and her mother is over-protective and a zealous moderator of various social media groups and forums. Her obsession with this activity and her over-anxious concern to do all the right things, inhibits her from having a truly meaningful relationship with her daughter. Rosina comes from a large extended South American immigrant family and has a tempestuous relationship with her mother and her other relatives for whom she has to work for little or no pay, babysitting and waitressing.

The three girls are thrown together and Grace learns about what happened to Lucy, the author of the words scratched into the woodwork. Like her mother, Grace is earnest and a campaigner and she vows to do something about this unresolved issue. She sets up a secret group, calling it The Nowhere Girls, with a view to the young women at the school sharing their experiences and, Grace hopes, banding together to do something about the widespread misogyny. The group takes off in ways that none of its three founders could have anticipated; their secret meetings, held after dark in abandoned or remote locations, are well-attended and the young women share stories of widespread rape, and violent or coercive sexual encounters. The girls decide to go on a sex strike, to teach the boys a lesson, and as news of this spreads, the school authorities become increasingly angered and concerned about the reputation of the school and about the effect it is having on the stability of the school community.

As the book progresses events take on increasingly sinister turns. As the meetings of the Nowhere Girls expand it becomes clear that whilst misogyny and taking girls’ sexual availability for granted are widespread, the worst offences seem to have been committed by a small group of boys. Also, the Principal of the school becomes ever more extreme in her determination to stamp out the disruption caused by the Nowhere Girls, engaging in the kinds of blackmail and threats and that are effectively colluding with the perpetrators of the sexual crimes. The book is hinting at a wider social acceptance of rape and sexual violence as inevitable and quietly endorsed by those with vested interests in a storm not being created.

Once I had got past my initial doubts about the book’s basic premise, I found it a real page-turner. As a parent of teenagers I also found it a useful insight into a world I no longer know, not the sexual violence side of things, but the feelings of young women about their relationships with their parents, their relationships with each other and their hopes and desires around romantic partners. Coming back to the book’s premise, that rape and sexual violence are pretty common in high schools, accuse me of living under a rock if you like, but I found this difficult to accept as a phenomenon. Remember this is set in the US, so things may be different over there, but it painted a much more extreme view of a middle class high school community than was familiar to me. Perhaps I’m out of touch, but…

There are some sub-plots in the book, which help to lighten the load, for example, the relationships all three central characters have with their mothers, and the rather nicer romantic attachments they develop, including, in Rosina’s case, an exploration of her burgeoning homosexuality. But there is no doubt the book is at times graphic and disturbing, and therefore, I would suggest, suitable for older teens only. I think there are many important issues handled here, and they are sensitively done, but I would suggest it should be read by parents first before handing to under 18s. It may also form a useful basis for discussing these sorts of issues with your teens.

Do you think parents should ‘vet’ books before their teens read them?

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Short story review: “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian

2018-01-10 10.43.49I concluded my 2017 Reading Challenge with something a little less challenging (in terms of length anyway), a short story. I knew it would be a busy month so I did not want to set myself up to fail by choosing some lengthy tome. (I’ve done the same for my 2018 Reading Challenge). December was so busy that it actually took me a couple of weeks to get around to choosing what to read, and then Cat Person fell in my lap, so to speak!

It’s hard to write a review a short story without spoilers so you can read it here, and then move on the reading the rest of this post, if you wish. It will take you no longer than 20-30 minutes, or you can actually listen to the author reading it herself via the same link.

Cat Person imgCat Person, by Kristen Roupenian has caused a social media storm. Set in America it is a story about Margot, a 20-year old college student, and a brief relationship she has with 34-year old Robert. Margot works at a small independent cinema and she meets Robert when he buys some confectionery from her stand before watching a movie. She feels mildly attracted to him:

“She did think that Robert was cute. Not so cute that she would have, say, gone up to him at a party, but cute enough that she could have drummed up an imaginary crush on him if he’d sat across from her during a dull class.”

Margot flirts lightly with Robert, to ease her boredom, but, initially, at least, he does not reciprocate. He returns to the cinema a week later and this time they exchange phone numbers. Over the next few weeks they develop a text relationship, then he meets her late one night at a convenience store. She expects that he will try to kiss her but he merely gives her a peck on the forehead. They eventually go on a date, to see a movie about the Holocaust that Margot finds slightly inappropriate for a first date. Afterward, when they have been for a drink at a bar, he kisses her, ineptly, and she finds she has mixed feelings about him. Despite this, Margot seems to feel she cannot back down from the inevitable, at this point, and they go back to his place to have sex. Margot finds the sex repellent and decides that she does not want to see him again, but she also feels that her flirtatious behaviour may have ‘led him on’.

This is a highly topical story about the complicated business of dating and sexual relations in the 21st century. The “cat person” of the title refers to Robert; when they go back to his place he announces that he “has cats”, although Margot never sees them. This is clearly meant to convey a slight ‘oddness’. In Margot’s eyes Robert falls well short of expectations (on all levels not just physically and sexually, she does not even feel completely safe with him) and she decides she wants nothing more to do with him, which he clearly finds confusing. When she finally rejects him by text (encouraged by her roommate who becomes impatient with Margot’s dithering and takes the matter into her own hands), Robert reacts in quite a needy way, before becoming angry (all by text). His final text “Whore” clearly echoes the aggressive and unsolicited sexual behaviour we are hearing too much about at the moment, but it could be argued that Margot’s behaviour, her flirtation, her initiation of the sex, means she created that situation for herself and it is no wonder that Robert, clearly no master at relationships, does not know how to react to her seemingly unpredictable behaviour.

It is a story that left me somewhat morally adrift.  There is no clear right and wrong party here. How you judge Margot, or Robert, will depend entirely on your perspective – your age, your gender, whether you have male or female children, etc. And it perhaps goes to show how the sexual politics that are currently being renegotiated make for a complex environment for both men and women.

A thought-provoking read, highly recommended.

If you have read this story, what did you think?

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Man Booker Book Review #5: “History of Wolves” by Emily Fridlund

This was the fifth book in my Man Booker shortlist reading marathon and I had not finished it by the time the winner was announced last week (George Saunders won with Lincoln in the Bardo you may recall). I was almost halfway through though, and felt quite strongly that it would not be the winner. It’s a debut novel (one of three on the shortlist, among them Saunders who has mostly published short and non-fiction previously), the author being best known for her short stories. To be honest, it did not move me, even though the subject matter is challenging and parts of the book shocking, even harrowing.

A History of Wolves imgIt’s a tough one to review without giving too much away, and the comments on the jacket don’t say very much about the story either, only that it is “exquisite”, “compelling” and “forcefully moving”. The central character is Linda (also Madeline or Mattie to her parents), who is an only child living with her parents in small town Minnesota. To say they live in a rural environment is an under-statement; they live in a cabin in the woods, which they seem to have built themselves, with their dogs. It seems they were formerly part of a small commune, but the other residents have gradually moved away as the cooperative spirit broke down. Linda’s parents are rather remote and she is allowed to roam the area freely, to canoe on the lake as and when she pleases, and to walk many miles in all weathers.

The primary plot of the novel is the relationship that Linda develops with a family that moves in across the lake. Somewhat disillusioned and disappointed with her own existence, Linda befriends the young woman, Patra, and her young son, Paul, aged four, and becomes his babysitter, or his ‘governess’ as Patra decides to call her. Patra’s husband, Leo is initially not present. He is an academic, working on some significant science project and has settled his family in this rural setting to enable them to have a better quality of life. Linda becomes very close to Patra and Paul, insinuating herself ever more closely into their lives, a fact which her parents do not seem to mind.

A parallel plotline is that of Linda’s school life. Linda is the victim of low-level bullying at school; the other kids see her as different to them and tease her because they know that her parents were part of a commune. The title of the story refers to a project Linda did for a regional History Odyssey. She somewhat misinterpreted the remit of the task, and therefore had no chance of winning, but her project on the history of wolves was given a special recognition. The teacher who invited her to participate in the competition, Mr Grierson, a recent blow-in from California, is subsequently implicated in a sex scandal with one of Linda’s classmates.

The first half of the book is slow. The writing is beautiful and skilful, but I had trouble seeing where it was all going and how the very disparate plotlines would at any point intersect. About halfway through Leo returns and the pace alters somewhat. His return changes the dynamic of the Linda, Patra, Paul set-up and it becomes clear that his presence is about to impact on events. Which it does! I can say no more without giving away too much of the plot, but I will just say that he is much older than his wife and that he is a committed Christian Scientist who has converted Patra, his former student.

There were a couple of things I really liked about the book. Firstly, the sense of place, the remote atmosphere of rural Minnesota and the character of the local population, their interests and priorities, are beautifully drawn. Secondly, I think the concept is a good one; the exploration of not just Christian Science as religion, cult or social grouping, but of all forms of group identity that people create for themselves in order to feel a communal belonging, is fascinating. On the whole, however, the book did not deliver for me and the group identity theme is not as fully explored as I would have liked. Later on in the novel we meet Linda when she is an adult, living in the city and reflecting back on the events of her teenage years. The novel jumps back and forth between the present and the separate plotlines of the past and I found this rather annoying. I found the ending something of anti-climax and for me the novel did not really fulfil its potential. It felt like an early draft that needed some reorganising.

I know there are others who have raved about this book, so don’t just take my word for it, but I’m afraid it fell short of Man Booker shortlist standard for me. And against my Days Without End yardstick (possibly the best book not to be shortlisted, ever!) I’m afraid it is inferior.

If you have read this book, what did you think? Is it just me???

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Man Booker Book Review 1: “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

Once again this year, I have set myself the goal of reading the Man Booker shortlist. The shortlist of six was announced on 13 September and the winner will be named on 17 October. The title and description of this book did not appeal immediately and it would probably not have been the book I started with, but the others took a few days to arrive and this was the one that was available in the library, so by default it became my starting point.

Lincoln in the Bardo
I’m sorry, I just don’t get it!

George Saunders is a well-established American writer, winner of the Folio Prize in 2014 (for Tenth of December, a collection of short stories) and on the back of my copy of this book are some impressive quotes from literary heavyweights: “A writer of arresting brilliance and originality” Tobias Wolff, “A morally passionate, serious writer…He will be read long after these times have passed.” Zadie Smith. High praise indeed. But this book? I just don’t get it.

The premise of the book is the untimely death of Willie Lincoln, eleven year old son of US President Abraham Lincoln in February 1862, whilst the American Civil War is raging. The Bardo is, according to Tibetan tradition, a kind of interim state that the dead enter prior to their admission to the final place where they will spend the afterlife. The Bardo, as imagined in this book, is a riotous place where the spirits, from different ages and social strata, mingle and squabble. Specifically, here, they argue over Willie’s soul and are fascinated by the vigil that Abraham Lincoln undertakes beside his son’s coffin. The cemetery (or perhaps more accurately the Bardo) is populated by a cast of characters who could easily have stepped out of a Victorian travelling circus; a mixture of grotesques and rogues, troubled souls and tragic misfits. Some are more fully realised than others; Hans Vollman. Roger Bevins iii and the Reverend Everly Thomas are our primary narrators, whose background stories are revealed in some detail, but many others make only brief appearances and are more like caricatures.

The structure of the book is very unusual, like nothing I’ve ever read before. There is no coherent narrative, as such, the story is told from the multiple perspectives. These not only include the restless spirits, but for the events that precede Willie’s death, or outside the cemetery, they are told in short paragraphs by third party observers, reporters and historians. What was most interesting to me, was how different some of these accounts were, despite the writers all seeming to have been present at the event described.

This book has left me feeling like I’m missing something. I know that it has been highly praised, but I’m afraid I just am not seeing anything particularly innovative here. To me it’s all just a muddle, with no story, where nothing really happens. There is one central theme, which seems to be that the dead do not rest easily until the living let them go, allow them to realise their ‘deadness’, but I’m not sure that single point is worthy of a whole book. And I didn’t really find the cast of spirits very entertaining or enlightening. I’ve read many books which have challenged form, which have taken some re-reading to fully appreciate. But for me, this book offers nothing that I want to delve back into. If it wins the ManBooker, I may need to go back to Literature School!

I dislike being critical. Did you find something of value in this book? What is it I’m missing?!

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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