Aug 14 2020

This Monotony of Literature

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

In light of having recently finished Václav Benda (1946-1999)’s essays, with its theories of a parallel polis, and amid my preparing to soon read some published works from NewPopLit and Screamin’ Skull Press–both recent and independent publishing endeavors which seem in line with at least some of Benda’s thinking regarding such a parallel polis and culture–I came across this poignant passage from Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893):

After about a hundred, or at most two hundred years if we exclude Homer, the genius of Hellas had ceased to flower or blossom. The dreary waste which follows, beginning with the Alexandrian writers and even before them in the platitudes of Isocrates and his school, spreads over much more than a thousand years. And from this decline the Greek language and literature, unlike the Latin, which has come to life in new forms and been developed into the great European languages, never recovered.

This monotony of literature, without merit, without genius and without character, is a phenomenon which deserves more attention than it has hitherto received; it is a phenomenon unique in the literary history of the world. How could there have been so much cultivation, so much diligence in writing, and so little mind or real creative power? Why did a thousand years invent nothing better than Sibylline books, Orphic poems, Byzantine imitations of classical histories, Christian reproductions of Greek plays, novels like the silly and obscene romances of Longus and Heliodorus, innumerable forged epistles, a great many epigrams, biographies of the meanest and most meagre description, a sham philosophy which was the bastard progeny of the union between Hellas and the East? Only in Plutarch, in Lucian, in Longinus, in the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Julian, in some of the Christian fathers are there any traces of good sense or originality, or any power of arousing the interest of later ages. And when new books ceased to be written, why did hosts of grammarians and interpreters flock in, who never attain to any sound notion either of grammar or interpretation? Why did the physical sciences never arrive at any true knowledge or make any real progress? Why did poetry droop and languish? Why did history degenerate into fable? Why did words lose their power of expression? Why were ages of external greatness and magnificence attended by all the signs of decay in the human mind which are possible?

Benjamin Jowett, “Introduction to Phaedrus,” The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, Vol. I, trans. Jowett, (Oxford University Press, 1892; third edition revised and corrected) pp. 425–26.


Jul 30 2020

Remembering John Lewis

I recently returned to this; the author James Farmer (1920-1999) grew up in Austin, Texas, where I live:


Jun 30 2020

Short Story Review: “Animation” by Chris Dangle

pencil shavings

I once knew a writer in the mid-80s, one of nondenominational Christian songs, and about the only lyric I can now remember (for I was then but a child) is “my life’s a vapor.”

This writer was in his twenties then; he later died in his forties (some kind of cancer, I heard about it third- or fourth-handed years later). So, like some poets, his lyrics (or at least the one I remember) ended up being prophetic.

So, when part of your childhood mindset is “life’s a vapor,” carpe diem and all that, it is quite natural to be suspicious of something that calls itself “flash fiction.”

I used to think flash fiction was just a gimmick to lure Gen-Z readers and writers into the ever nonlucrative world of modern publishing.

And there is Hamlet’s remark that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but he may be mad when he says it, and besides, not all brief texts, whether fiction or otherwise, are witty.

All that being said, I’m willing to reconsider things after reading Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018), for here one finds intense, interesting brevity.

Here is a barest-of-bones narrative told seamlessly (or perhaps one should say “without fracture”)—like James Thurber’s (1894–1961) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (1939), the Ficciones of Jorge Borges (1899–1986), and some of Kafka’s (1883–1924) parables.

I shall now be more receptive to this genre (and may sometimes admit that even I make mistakes.)


May 10 2020

Five Books With Old, Interesting Covers That I’ve Recently Read

porticos in Bologna, Italia
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Recently read (c. 1964)

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1. There was a passage in the appendix to this book that reminded me, that while Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy, he also wrote a book titled Daybreak:

At what time of day did the plays begin?

At dawn. The dramatic poet for the day furnished a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play. Finally the day ended with the performance of a comedy by one of the competing comic poets.

(Paul Rouche, “Appendix,” Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, trans. Roche (New York: Mentor Classics, 1964) p. 114.)

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Recently read (c. 1955)

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2. One thing that stuck out from reading this book was Ian Watt (1917–1999) explaining how the Elizabethans read differently than we do:

This contrast brings us to our final general comparison between modern and Elizabethan ‘light reading[’]. Even the word ‘reading’ suggests similarities which are misleading.

‘Able to read’ or ‘literate’ meant knowledge of Latin to most people until the eighteenth century. And even if ‘English’ were specified, ‘reading’ would still have denoted to an Elizabethan a process different from that commonly practised today. Most Elizabethan literature then received and still requires reading aloud, or at the very least pronouncing the words internally or sub-vocally. Even their prose novels and their sensational journalism were meant to be ‘interpreted’ into sound; that was the meaning they gave to the word ‘interpretation’. To some extent, at least, all their literature of entertainment was designed to embody the shame rhetorical and stylistic, as well as moral, values which are found in their lyrical and dramatic poetry. The modern habit of fast silent reading, combined with the development of matter which can be easily and swiftly absorbed by the eye alone, is perhaps the greatest obstacle between us and an enjoyment of Elizabethan light reading. Certainly it requires, as much as Spenser or Shakespeare, an alert attention to pauses and stresses, and to the pattern of sound and meaning, an attention which the Elizabethan unconsciously accorded. Only with this break from our present reading habits can we today recapture some of the qualities which the ordinary sixteenth-century reader expected to find as part of his pleasure and entertainment.

(“Elizabethan Light Reading,” The Age of Shakespeare, ed. Boris Ford, (Aylesbury and Slough: Penguin, 1955, 1960) 120.)

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Recently read (c. 1934, 1953)

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3. This was my second time to read this book, and I will return to again, because it covers a lot of ideas and times frames that overlap with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). One thing that stood out on this reading was Willey making a triumvirate of Milton, Newton, and Locke:

The supremacy which Milton held in heroic poetry, and Newton in physics, belonged in philosophy to Locke. Moreover, his authority was not confined to this one sphere; indeed, the prestige of his philosophical work was itself acribable to the wide acceptance of his views on political liberty and religious toleration.

(Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: the Thought of the Age in Relation to Religion and Poetry, New York: Columbia UP, 1935; Anchor Books Reprint, 1953) 264.)

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Recently read (c. 1964)

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4. While I’ve read various short stories by Chekov over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his plays until now. And this moment from the first act of The Sea Gull (1896) was quite poignant on an initial reading:

ARKADINA: Now it appears he [Trigorin] has written a great work! Oh, really! Evidently he got up this performance and fumigated us with sulfur, not as a joke butt as a demonstration….  He wanted to teach us how one ought to write, and what one ought to act in. After all, this is getting tiresome! These continual sallies at my expense, these gibes, if you please, would try anyone’s patience! He’s a conceited, capricious boy!

SORIN: He meant to give you pleasure.

ARKADINA: Yes? Then why didn’t he choose the usual sort of play instead of forcing us to listen to these decadent ravings? I don’t mind listening even to raving if it’s a joke, but here we have pretensions to new forms, a new era in art. To my way of thinking this has nothing at all to do with new forms, it’s simply bad temper.

TRIGORIN: Everyone writes as he likes and as he can.

ARKADINA: Let him write as he likes and as he can, so long as he leaves me in peace.

(Anton Chekov, The Sea Gull in Chekhov: The Major Plays, trans. Ann Dunnigan (New York: Signet Classics, 1964) p. 117.)

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Recently read (c. 1954)

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5. Finally, I have yet to find much information about the author of The King’s Vixen (1954) Pamela Hill, though apparently she has written a few dozen novels. This one, her second, was pretty much a boring (but not bad) romance novel. There was, however, an amusing part about how speaking in allegory had become fashionable in early Tutor England:

“I came here to pay my respects to the farmer’s wife, and I find the goddess Aphrodite, risen from the waves and sojourning here, so that Phoebus shines the more brightly for her company,” [said Walter Kennedy]….

She [Jan] found his conversation amusing, being of a kind to which she had been hitherto unused. In France, and Italy where he had lately been, she understood that they talked thus in allegory, so that every woman was a nymph or a goddess and every action initiated by some virtue or vice.

(The King’s Vixen, (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1954) p. 39.)


May 7 2020

Short Story Review: “A Morning Swim” by Robert Garner McBrearty

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Robert Garner McBrearty’s short story “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) is an example of master craftsmanship of a prose storyteller:

(1) its opening paragraph immediately sets up one of the story’s two principle conflicts;

(2) there is careful handling of tone and the emotions that run from suspense, to euphoria, to anxiety, to rude humor (a cringe-worthy, Larry David-esque moment), to dark emotions of melodrama;

(3) the plot morphs from being one that involves an individual versus nature (shark, water) to one that invovles a conflict between two individuals (husband and wife). It then changes again into a (sub)plot of the individual versus their self (the swimmer).

With regard to themes, McBrearty’s story seems to oscillate from Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” (1807) and how––

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away,

––to then shift to the attitude, à la Marcus Aurelius, of advocating that one should cultivate an intimacy with Nature (III, ii). In doing so, according to Aurelius, one must reject one’s sense of injury—though that doesn’t mean laugh it off (IV, vii), but by rejecting it one carries out Nature’s bidding (V, i; see also V, iii). To quarrel is to go against Nature (II, xvi), for Nature is not evil (II, xvii). To live with nature means to live with others, which is a part of what “A Morning Swim is about.”

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Another short story review from Bookbread:

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Apr 30 2020

5 Short Stories to Occupy Your Attention

Western book stack

Here are five short stories I’ve recently reviewed:

The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess, New Pop Lit.
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat, The Puritan
(coming-of-age, teenage anxiety)

The Disappearance” by James Hatton, Popshot Quarterly
(science-fiction horror/thriller, dystopian)

Hunger” by Susan Neville, Missouri Review
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong, Sydney Review of Books
(job stress, isolation, futility of work)


Apr 21 2020

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong

pencil shavings

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong
Translated by Isabelle Li

Zheng Xiaoqiong’s short story “Plastics Factory” (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019) is a strange work of fiction I keep returning to and rereading. I don’t “get” some of it; but all of it intrigues me.

There is, for example, a timelessness to this story. It was just as absorbing reading it before the pandemic as it has been during it. Or it could be read in the 1950s or the 2050s, before or after a great economic war, and still make sense.

Much like the ancient Psalms (such as 61), throughout “Plastics Factory” there is a voice that sometimes cries out in desperation but expects no response. It’s not always a loud cry; sometimes just a murmuring chant, quiet as the waters of a clear, thin stream:

… plastic beads melting, disintegrating, flowing into moulds, solidifying, being pushed out by mechanical arms, picked by us, placed in basins, on shelves, into tubes, sent to the fourth floor, assembled by us, and packed, before being taken away by container trucks, year after year, one piece after another. We are the same, our youth melted and dissolved, flowing into every finished product, packed up and taken away.

There is also a kind of culturelessness to the story: it could be set anywhere Seoul, Minsk, or Mexico City—there is a placelessness to it and there’s something pure about that. Reading Xiaoqiong’s story doesn’t feel foreign or translated. It doesn’t feel strictly like a “Chinese” story. It feels familiar, as when the narrator remarks:

In this place, I can’t find any room to accommodate a quiet, imaginative heart. Labour has crowded out all imagination and any superfluous thoughts or dreams.

And:

I believe the taste of labour is sourness. In my mind, toiling is tiring, and tiredness is sour. ‘Sour-tired, sour-tired,’ my mother, who toiled the field, had often said. Such sour-tiredness wafts from the loaders, surrounding their bodies.

I have a sour tongue: that I as a reader am not getting the author’s full intentions. But it’s my fault, not hers. Alas, I’m an unfair reader who wants to be pleased and pampered. Signs of a struggle betray my weaknesses. But the sourness is sharp, acute, memorable. I want another taste.


Apr 7 2020

Short Story Review: “Hunger” by Susan Neville

book spines

I don’t want to go too much into summary and specifics of plot when discussing Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger,” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017). The title speaks enough for itself in that regard.

Instead I will note some moments and lines that stood out and elaborate on why they did for me.

wood

At one point the unnamed narrator tells readers:

Maybe it was choice itself I wanted to rid myself of. Left or right? This way or that? Day in and day out, year after year, I drive in my little rat’s maze. Grocery store. Drugstore. Work. Home. But in what order? And what if I wanted to break out of that maze, as I sometimes do? (p. 31)

Readers learn only that this narrator lacks a sense of freedom, but not why. This idea that she’s stuck in a rat’s maze, either entrapped in vacuity or restrained by oppressive hegemony—she never tells readers, but it really stood out when I read it.

And this mention of the maze has both reminded me of what New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas has been getting at as a literary theorist and editor as well as led me to suspect that Neville is also trying to get at something similar as a writer (through the character of her narrator in this story): the need to break out of the maze––to shatter the cookie-cutter, foregone conclusions found in too many short stories these days.

Neville’s story has what Wenclas hints at in his phrasing of “new, different angles,” and how “in truth there are more than two sides to every story.” And Neville’s story has many sides, though I haven’t apprehended all of them fully (even after at least three enthusiastic readings). But she seems to have created something that Wenclas, myself, and others are looking for as readers, what Wenclas has formulated as “a faster, vastly more readable and exciting short story….” a “prototype so different from the standard.”

wood

At one point, Neville’s narrator tells readers:

One of the pleasures of life is that there is always so much to think about and attempt to understand. (p. 32)

This to me is a key to understanding why the narrator is almost overwhelmed by the abundance of detail she’s trying to share and the difficulty in expressing why she needs to share that abundance to her readers. They aren’t just readers, but readers-as-characters participating in the story by their close listening. But even an abundance of something Good can be overwhelming and requiring adjustment (Plato, Republic VII, 518) or worse, so poisonous as to necessitate countermeasures (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II, ii; II, vii; III, vii; IV, v).

Yet, at the end of the day, the reader doesn’t know beyond a reasonable doubt if Neville’s narrator’s thinking about life qualifies as excessive and overly abundant. (But there may be clues that I as a reader have as of yet unknowingly passed over.)

wood

The narrator of “Hunger” informs readers that:

I must have complete quiet in the car. I do not listen to music. I listen to my thoughts. (p. 33)

And this line reminded me of something I’d come across recently when rereading Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel whose narrator tells readers:

Sometimes I’ll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York. I can’t stand recorded music if I’ve been drinking a good deal.

(Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York: Dell, 1969; 1971) I, 7.)

If one doesn’t listen to music when in the car for long periods of time, as Neville’s (seemingly sober) narrator appears to be doing—does that act of debarring oneself from art indicate excessive thinking? Vonnegut’s narrator seems to imply that excessive drinking leads to excessive thinking. One wants to say to the main character of “Hunger,” “If only she’d listened to music, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel so trapped in that maze she thinks she’s in.” But that may not be the case for this hungry character.

This notion of too much thinking and not enough music also reminds me of a passage from Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922):

But they––incredible! incredible!––they never replied, behaved as if I were not there. Dogs who make no reply to the greeting of other dogs are guilty of an offense against good manners which the humblest dog would never pardon any more than the greatest. Perhaps they were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other, drew each other’s attention to difficulties, warned each other against errors; could I not see the last and youngest dog, to whom most of those cries were addressed, often stealing a glance at me as if he would have dearly wished to reply, but refrained because it was not allowed? But why should it not be allowed, why should the very thing which our laws unconditionally command not be allowed in this one case? I became indignant at the thought and almost forgot the music. Those dogs were violating the law. Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too, I knew that quite well though I was a child. And having recognized that, I now noticed something else. They had good grounds for remaining silent, that is, assuming that they remained silent from a sense of shame.

(Franz Kafka, “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (c. 1922). trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971) 283.)

Notice that the dogs don’t just howl harmoniously; they make music so complex it can be forgotten.

wood

Finally, there’s the line by Neville from the daughter to her mother, the narrator:

I felt like I was being buried alive, she [the daughter] says and then asks, Where are you? I’m driving, I say, and there’s an uncanny valley sort of blip in her face as she continues doing whatever she was doing when I accidentally called her. (p. 33)

Yes, the daughter could literally mean, “Where are you, mother?” But sometimes asking “Where are you?” is a way of asking “What are you thinking about just now?” Readers don’t know where the mother-narrator is, or is going, for she never mentions a destination. The mechanic she visits functions only to keep her going, but she never intends to stop. It seems the means of her getting there have overcome the goal itself.

But is she being chased? Yes, some mazes have no exits, but I detect no monsters in this story. There is no evidence in the text that the mother-narrator is being chased by a Minotaur.


Apr 1 2020

Short Story Review: “The Disappearance” by James Hatton

Mark Twain in Athens

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

As of April 1, 2020, everyone is relating every experience, action, thought (including specific acts and overall habits of reading) to the fallout from the outbreak of the Corona virus.

We are so overly focused on this one moment in our lives that it distorts the relations of this one moment to all others we’ve experienced and all the ones left to come.

Our tunnel vision has blotted out the periphery.

We are tainted by the current Zeitgeist—our fingers are filthy from trying to properly pin the tail on the beast we call the Spirit of the Times—our worries follow wherever the tail may wag. And if we don’t pin the tail just right, we feel we’ll end up like Eeyore—a donkey detached from his tail, someone less than they once were.

I don’t know how to avoid relating everything back to the Corona virus, particularly when it comes to reviewing apocalyptic short stories written by contemporary authors.

I can only admit that I don’t know how to avoid it; I can only emit a sense of enmity toward it.

I must learn to bound—and by bounding get beyond the inevitable referent of the viral outbreak.

wood

I read James Hatton’s short story “The Disappearance” over a year ago when it was published in 2018 by PopShot Quarterly magazine, and I meant to write something about it then. Alas, it got put aside. (2019 was, for me as a writer, pretty much a year of “regrouping.”) But I’ve come back to the story, and due to present circumstances, can’t help but compare it (or relate it rather) to the ongoing quarantine and chaos.

“The Disappearance” is an apocalyptic story told by an omnipotent, third-person narrator during a time and place where, for its characters “in their secluded life here, miles from anywhere, it had all seemed so far away.”

There occurs a change of circumstances for the characters Tom and Catherine. Then they get used to the change. Then, more change occurs.

Despite obvious comparisons to the current situation, I thought “The Disappearance” a worthwhile story a year ago. Its theme of alienation didn’t have to be plague-induced in order to be potent.

Though it compares well with the present unpleasantness—reading Hatton’s story now also reminds me of when the days of the earth did not stand so still. And this reminding is, for me now, a kind of escapism from the lockdown we continue to undergo. Reading “The Disappearance” lets me escape back into an old feeling—“some old need,” as the narrator puts it, “to be moving towards something.”

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Catch and release

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The springtime anole iguanas are helping me forget about you-know-what.


Mar 15 2020

Short Story Review: “The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess

porticos in Bologna, Italia

[Prefatory note: Here at Bookbread I’m starting a new series, one where I will review short stories I’ve read. I’ll try to review one at a time (in about one paragraph), but possibly intersperse those singular reviews with commentary that compares and contrasts various stories. But I want to keep the general focus on one-short-story-at-a-time. Most of the things I’ll review were written in the last five years.]

So I got around to reading GD Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde,” a short story published by New Pop Lit this past January. It makes for interesting, but exhausting reading. The same could be said for much of Proust, some of Ulysses (1922), and the great rant by the father at the end of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

By “interesting, but exhausting” as in Joyce’s Ulysses, I mean things like:

—Antisthenes, pupil of Gorgias, Stephen said, took the palm of beauty from Kyrios Menelaus’ brooddam, Argive Helen, the wooden mare of Troy in whom a score of heroes slept, and handed it to poor Penelope. Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies. Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeenwoman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugial love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures. You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III. And the gay lakin, mistress Fitton, mount and cry O, and his dainty birdsnies, lady Penelope Rich, a clean quality woman is suited for a player, and the punks of the bankside, a penny a time.

(Ulysses, IX [“Scylla and Charybdis”] )

Whether or not this kind of story-telling is your cup of tea, this kind of thing is what can be found in Dess’s “The Bayside Blonde.”

Shoptalkwise: Dess crams a lot of micro-narratives, pustulating plots and bursting conclusions in single paragraphs–but all through a well-controlled, well-modulated narrator’s voice–one neither excessively loud nor wanting in volume.

As a story, “The Bayside Blonde” is quite Aristotelian in terms of plot: it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end.

Overall, I don’t know if I “like” it per se, but it works. It doesn’t cheat readers of their time. I don’t feel “ripped off” for having taken the time to read it. And that’s more than can be said for a lot of short fiction slung around these days.

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New output, fresh from Bookbread dot com

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