Tag Archives: debut novels

Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

the-futures

One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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Can’t Buy A Thrill

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Can’t Buy A Thrill: The Book Reviewer’s Slump – An article for Turn The Page, an occasional column about book reviewing.

1.  Happy and Hungover

Book reviewers are often faced with an embarrassment of riches.   They may receive hundreds of books in a short period of time, either directly from publishers or indirectly via book review publications.   This may translate into becoming less excited over the less publicized new releases.   I’m reminded of when I managed a college radio station’s music library…  The record companies sent us records every day, usually multiple copies of each release.   The longer this went on, the more we felt the temptation for the DJs to spend their time listening to the big, mega-releases like the latest from the Rolling Stones or Steve Winwood.   It was hard to pull away to listen to a new album recorded by a promising, virtually unknown and self-proclaimed bar band from San Jose.   (They went on to become wildly successful as The Doobie Brothers.)

It can be like that for the book reviewer.   At first, he or she will jump at reading and reviewing anything that’s sent.   Then the reviewer will find that he becomes pickier as time goes by.   It may be especially hard to read a debut novel by an unknown author when so many releases by major authors – from the major publishers – are whispering, “Read me!” in his ear.   This is but one of the issues that will arise.

you came back

Another issue occurs after reading an almost perfect book.   I had this experience recently after finishing the novel You Came Back by Christopher Coake.   I went to my stack of “to be read” books and, no matter how hard I tried to read each of them, they simply felt flat by comparison.   Moreover, I felt as if I could see the stitches in the tales when comparing them in my mind to Coake’s virtually seamless story telling.   I finally came to realize that Coake’s book – labeled a ghost story – is about what sudden loss does to human beings.   I then searched for a book with a somewhat similar theme and found it in the novel Gone by Cathi Hanauer, a story about a writer-mother-housewife whose husband leaves with the young, sexy babysitter and doesn’t return.   Gone and You Came Back are nearly mirror images of each other.   In music, it was like when the Beatles released Let It Be and the Rolling Stones released Let It Bleed.

Gone cover

After reading these two somewhat similar tales, I felt free to experiment with something completely different, which turned out to be an historical novel; fiction based upon a little bit of fact.   But sometimes shaking the grip a great book has on you – a type of literary hangover – takes days to be loosened.   For the book reviewer, this may mean not following through on a commitment that was made earlier; or delaying meeting the commitment.   But that’s the way life is.   As John Lennon was to so wisely state, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2.  Comparing A to B

Above, I’ve compared two novels to each other, and this leads me to wondering whether a publishing house or publicist should do the same.   It seems like a potentially risky business.   If the book jacket promises that, “Anyone who loved Milo’s Story will adore spending time with Fluffy’s Tail!” there’s the risk of making the reader who truly loved the former, but doesn’t like the latter – such as a dog lover who can’t abide cats – extremely angry.   I think these types of comparisons have more of a downside than an upside.

A better strategy, in my view, and one that draws me in, is to post a blurb by a respected author who writes in the same genre as the new, relatively unknown author.   I may be quite unsure that I want to spend time reading a book by Bill Unknown, but if there’s a front jacket blurb by David Major (you know, the one whose book was made into a movie starring Anne Hathaway) stating, “Bill’s a truly great find!   Trust me, you must read this!” I’m likely to take the chance.   That’s because David Major has little to gain and a lot to lose by letting his name be used in a less than forthright way.   Let’s just hope that I haven’t received the galley of Unknown’s forthcoming book right after I’ve finished reading You Came Back.

Joseph Arellano

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It Was A (Very) Good Year

The Year-End Literary Review

In my opinion, this was a good to very good year to be a reader; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come in 2012.   Let’s look at some of the highlights and lowlights of 2011.

The rise (and fall?) of the e-reader

The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance.   Even a Luddite such as I am picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG.   But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news (“…rising e-book prices causing sticker shock.”).

It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions.   Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry…  Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures.   Duh.

Fine biographies

It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan.   Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses.   Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.

Intriguing debuts

It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels.   Kudos!

Mixed memories

It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs.   Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr.   If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye!   (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “The Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine.)

A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly.   But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.   Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note  cover of Didion’s earlier account.   Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.

A troubling trend

2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.”   These were books whose plots generally centered around an ensemble cast of characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur.   Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.”   A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever.   Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.

Hurry up, already

Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story.   Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.

Good and very good, but not necessarily great

While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott, The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris).   One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious.   One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.

Give me someone to love

Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate.   If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless.   Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?

In summary

This year was filled with unrealized potential.   Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!

Joseph Arellano

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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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Questions

The Quandaries of a Book Reviewer

It would seem, at first blush, that a book reviewer needs only to read the book in question and then write-up his or her thoughts.   Sometimes it is just this simple.   However, I’ve found that some unexpected issues – almost moral in nature – arise from time to time.   Let me go over a few of those here with you.

The Twin Books

Sometimes two books, fiction or nonfiction, are released at the same time and contain virtually identical content.   It may be that both books are biographies of a former First Lady or of a 70-year-old folk rock singer…  It may be that both novels tell a story that is the same from start to finish.   How does a reviewer handle this?   Is it relevant?   I think it is, but then how is the reviewer to make use of this factor?

Do both books get downgraded due to a lack of originality, or does one accept that this is simply what happens in life (independent and spontaneous creation)?   If two books are almost the same, does this not beg for a comparative review – a determination of which is better (like DVD versus Blu-ray)?   And doesn’t this mean that one of the two must be selected as the winner, and the other as the loser?

Should a reviewer ever express a suspicion that one writer may have copied the other – or at least cribbed an idea from the other?   Or should all of this be put aside, so that the reviewer is – in effect – placing his hands over his eyes, ears and mouth like a monkey?

The Shooting Star

Let’s say that the reviewer has a favorite author and is very much looking forward to reading this writer’s latest work (in our example, a novel).   For illustrative purposes, I will use one of my favorites, Pat Conroy.   If I’ve loved every one of his novels and then I find that his latest release is a dog, what do I do?   Or, rather, what should I do?   Do I compensate for this by stating that every author is going to have a down period (a compensation for a lifetime of achievement), or should I slam him since I know full well that he’s capable of doing better than this?

Is a talented author to be given a pass when he delivers something less than his usual best, or should the reviewer explicitly make the case that this author has gotten lazy – or something worse?

Pass/Fail

Some less-established authors may have only published a couple of novels.   I’ve found instances where one of the two is near-perfection (more often the debut novel), while the sophomore effort pales by comparison.   Is this something that should be mentioned in a review of the more recent release, or is it outside the bounds of propriety and relevance?   Is it acceptable for the reviewer to write something like, “While this new novel is not up to the standards of the author’s first, he clearly has demonstrated the ability to produce an impressive product the next time around.”

Does the average book review reader really care about whether the author is getting stronger or weaker, or does that reader simply want to know whether this book is worth purchasing?

The Same Thing, Over and Over

There are a few authors who write a great story – the sole problem being that they’re known for writing the same story, the same novel over and over again.   In one recent case, a publisher stated that a very successful author’s new novel was “completely new and different,” as if to apologize for all of the almost-photocopied novels (with similar cover images) that preceded it.   Should the reviewer judge each and every novel with the almost-same plot and resolution on its own merits – on “all fours” as law professors state, or is it justifiable to critique the author’s novels for a lack of originality?

If you love a particular author whose books happen to be very similar, does it bother you or is  it something that you’re able to put aside – like knowing that some rock bands are continuously original while others are not?

The End

If you happen to know the answers to these questions, please feel free to let me know.   In the interim, I will continue to stumble along not quite knowing (in the words of the immortal Van Morrison) “what is worst or what is best.”

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – Jackie as Editor: The Literary Life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Greg Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, 322 pages).   “The vision Jackie brought into editing embraced the recognition that every life has its own riches and meaning, waiting to be revealed by what she called ‘the hard work of writing.'”

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Over and Over

The Boomers in our audience will remember what things used to be like during the late 1950s and the early 60s.   A recording artist, like Chubby Checker, would have a hit with a song like The Twist; which meant that the follow-up 45 single had to sound as close to it as humanly possible (this usually meant a virtually identical tune with different words attached to it).   In Chubby’s case, the next song was Let’s Twist Again.   It is to the credit of the Beatles that they broke this pattern of releasing songs that were virtual clones of each other.

Sometimes as a reader and reviewer I see this same pattern applying itself when it comes to popular fiction.   Let’s say that our debut author Christy Crafty writes a novel called Becky from Bakersfield.   Against seemingly all odds this story of a woman who can see what is going to happen in people’s futures becomes a moderate success.   So what happens next?   You guessed it, Christy does not want to rock the boat so she releases a follow-up (and the titles and book covers will naturally be quite similar) called Florence from Fresno.   This will turn out to be almost the same tale except for the fact that this time around our female protagonist can see what happened in the past of the lives of the strangers she meets.   The third book may be Sally from Stockton, about a woman who knows when people will die as soon as she encounters them.

Now this may not be such a horrible strategy from a sales standpoint, except for the fact that book one is likely going to get great reviews, and each succeeding variation is going to be less charitably commented on.   Eventually, Christy herself is likely to see that she’s put herself into a rut.   And then even her most loyal readers will begin calling for something new and original from her.

Why are reviewers and readers going to be increasingly disappointed in this commercial product?   Because the freshness that accompanied the original novel from author Crafty is slowly leaked out like air from a damaged tire.   The once delightful story that gets reworked over and over again becomes dull and flat.

It is my own view – and it’s much easier for me to say since I do not write novels – that the moderately to highly successful new author should, after the release of the first well-sold and reviewed novel, quickly change styles before the release of the second book.   Why?   To prove to readers, critics and the world that he/she is a writer, one who can write novels of many forms, short stories, poetry (if the muse strikes), and perhaps articles on politics and sports.   Again, why?   Because this is the creative process – this is the essence of writing.   Writing the same story repeatedly is not creative and fails to display one’s talents.

It was the singer Natalie Merchant who noted that you simply cannot give the public what it thinks it wants, which is candy (musical or literary) all of the time.   If you do, the public gets tired of you after it comes down from the sugar high – the false creative rush.   Once they get tired of the same old thing, they not only stop buying it, they also join the critics in their anguished howls.

So what is the moral of the story?   That creativity has its costs.   Being creative, continually and over a career, takes courage.   It takes real courage to write what you need to write even if it is not what you wrote before…

Just look at the careers of this country’s most highly rewarded authors – the Capotes, the Mailers and others of their ilk – and you’ll see that they did not settle for rewriting one story time after time.   (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood could not be less similar.)   They branched out; they changed even if simply for change’s sake.   They stayed alive, as the Beatles did with their music, ever evolving, ever-growing; each and every collection of songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo was the result of new periods and experiences in their lives.

To borrow the words of Bob Dylan, life should be about new mornings.   It’s not dark yet, unless you elect to go living in the past, the shades drawn tight.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  The Girl in the Green Raincoat: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman, which was released by William Morrow and Harper Audio on January 18, 2011.   This book (actually a 176 page novella) has absolutely no relationship to the matters discussed in this article – I simply like the intriguing cover image which makes me want to read it.   Look for a review of The Girl in the Green Raincoat to appear on this site in the near future.

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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