18. Mitko, by Garth Greenwell

20 Mar

Mitko by Garth Greenwell

Last summer while vacationing in Bulgaria I picked up my copy of The Paris Review and read a stunning and unforgettable story about a semi-anonymous, dangerous BDSM sex scenario between gay men that coincidentally was also set in Bulgaria. The country is so homophobic and the material was so graphic and disturbing that I felt somewhat anxious about having The Paris Review in my luggage, which was amusing, but probably not a first in that magazine’s history.

The story made me uncomfortable in many ways, but I haven’t been able to forget it in the ensuing months, so I went ahead and ordered another of Greenwell’s published works, a novella called Mitko, which is a about a gay American college professor’s brief and tortured relationship with a Bulgarian street hustler.

Like the story that captured my attention, the novella is an exploration of a shameful passion that reason cannot justify. The college professor meets the hustler, Mitko, and almost immediately embarks on a series of humiliating, possibly dangerous encounters that none of his intelligence or better nature can stop.

Desire here is presented as an absolute force, divorced from rationality. Early on he writes of Mitko, who is drunk, possibly dangerous, reeking, and partially contemptuous of the narrator, clearly in it for the money…. “in my own estimation this body, the enjoyment of which I was contracting to rent, seemed almost infinitely dear.” And later, after several such encounters in a public bathroom at Bulgaria’s Palace of Culture, he brings the man to his apartment (dangerous, stupid) and writes,

“I felt myself gripped yet again by both pleasure and embarrassment, and by an excitement so terrible I had to look quickly away.”

One of the novella’s symbolic motifs is double-faces and double-sides. As a hustler Mitko is double-sided, of course, “vulnerable, over-exposed, and unrelievedly hidden behind impervious defenses.” And the narrator  has his own faces. He wonders how Mitko has transformed from a prosperous boy to a homeless man, and of himself

“how it was I had become one of these men in the dark, offering whatever was asked to rent something we wouldn’t be given freely, accepting without complaint our own diminishment.”

There’s double-sidedness as well in the novel’s treatment of passion, whose overwhelming physical, emotional, sensual force Greenwell meets with an outpouring of language, which is “as always interposing itself between ourselves and what we see.” The paragraphs sometimes run for several pages, and the whole, short 86-page novella sometimes feels like one long, very articulate, breath.

There’s tension in this treatment of passion. Can all this analysis say anything about desire in the right register? Is this book finding the truth about this affair, or obscuring it? Is there even truth to be had between two people? Greenwell seems to think not, explaining that in sexual encounters,

“our responses are never in any simple way our own, where they are always balanced against the responses, perceived or projected, of our partner, and also against our own fears and enthusiasms, our claims and generosities, our failure of nerve, so that sincerity, authenticity, flees ever more swiftly away from us, like a shadow that we ourselves cast out. “

Or maybe the narrator is just justifying the moment because Mitko has faked an orgasm and he’s faked believing in it.

Passion in Mitko is both overwhelming and fleeting, doomed to dissatisfaction almost before the satisfaction has come. The narrator doesn’t get the thing he longs for. Maybe what he wants is not the thing but the longing. Or, in another layer, the shame. “The whole bent of my nature is toward confession,” he says.  But his confession is in such a clinical, flaying tone, one wonders how there can be pleasure in it. Until one realizes that the twinning of pleasure and pain is the point.

It’s all very thought-provoking and I really enjoyed reading it.

From some Google-stalking of Greenwell, I’ve discovered that he has a book-length novel coming out in 2016 called What Belongs to You, which seems like maybe it’s an expanded version of the story in this novella. I will be interested to see these themes drawn out more, and to read more of Greenwell’s flaying prose. Where, for example, at a Bulgarian seaside resort “elaborately themed facades” are described as having “garishness mitigated by desolation.” This is both a good echo of the dual-faces theme and—as I can attest from personal experience of traveling in Bulgaria—a spot-on accurate description of the seaside town he’s describing.




17. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, by Mohsin Hamid

19 Mar

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This group of collected essays by the author of How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is minor-arcana, a small treat for the Mohsin Hamid fan, which I am.

Hamid is one of the best writers of literary fiction working today. He knows what’s important in life and has an ability to access strong, deep human emotions in his fiction. He’s a humanist, and he’s also the type of sophisticated writer who achieves utter clarity and simplicity.

But he writes slowly.

That’s where this slim volume comes in, collected from his previously published non-fiction work written in the 15 years since his first novel was published (for much of that time he kept his day job as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.). The essays are arranged into sections on Life, Art and Politics, and to an extent that they have a focus, it’s globalization. He writes in the introduction:

“When I was younger, I thought of being a migrant and being foreign as things that made me different, an outsider. Now, at the age of forty-three, I think these experiences are increasingly universal.”

In  global world, we’re all foreigners somewhere, and all forced to contend with alien new neighbors—even if they live continents away. Hamid is an ideal guide to this strange modern condition. He’s Pakistani by birth but has lived only “a little less than half” of his life there. He lives in Lahore now, but spent much of his adult life in New York and London, the other two cities of the book’s subtitle.

And we should all take Lahore up close and personal, he says, because the city matters,

“not just to myself and other Pakistanis, nor only because it is beset with terrorism and possesses nuclear weapons, but because Pakistan is a test bed for pluralism on a globalizing planet that desperately needs more pluralism. Pakistan’s uncertain democracy and unsteady attempt to fashion a future in which its citizens can live together in peace are an experiment that mirrors our global experiment as human beings on a shared Earth.”

That he has these concerns—how to be human, how to be human together—is why I’m interested in him as a human, and why I’m curious to read his autobiographical essays and his thoughts on writing and politics, as collected here. I do find that work collected from previous mass-media sources can be dated and scattered, and this collection has that problem to some extent. Do we care about that time he saw Avatar in Lahore? How he likes Murakami’s running book?

Still there’s enough wisdom in here to make those flaws easy to overlook. And as an American, reading the Politics section reminded me of how U.S politics have shaped Pakistan since its inception. We are neighbors. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could visit more freely with each other?


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

17 Mar

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

I didn’t know who Paul Beatty was a few weeks ago, when I suddenly became aware that he’s been canonized as our funniest, most relevant literary writer on the black American experience. Amazon has been bannering the websites I go to with advertisements for his book; his blurb-writers include Ben Marcus and Sam Lipstyle; Lorin Stein of The Paris Review is having a conversation with him at McNally Jackson as I type; and a link to a glowing Guardian review of the book is on the top of the blogstream at Volume One Brooklyn, also as I type.

The quote that’s going around, written by fellow black American writer Kiese Laymon for the Los Angeles Times  says “it’s fairly obvious that the United States is a Kara Walker exhibit and a Paul Beatty novel unknowingly masquerading as a crinkled Gettsyburg Address.” This is a great comparison, because like fine artist Kara Walker, Beatty takes classic racist themes and morphs them into something violent, horrible and new as a form of resistance.

From its opening passage, The Sellout takes stereotypes-head-on:

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.”

This powerful, sad, funny, obnoxious, ranting, exhaustive voice belongs to a black man variously called Bonbon or Sellout, who embarks on a quest to re-segregate a school in his suburb and to re-establish slavery there. I am supposing he does this because there is freedom in overturning convention when we discuss black history, and only by killing the sacred cows can Beatty get at something that resembles truth about what it’s like to be black in America.

Here’s how he takes down the Civil Rights Movement:

“the marchers on Washington become civil rights zombies…. The head zombie looks exhausted from being raised from the dead every time someone wants to make a point about what black people should and shouldn’t do, can and cannot have…. Under his breath he confesses that if he’d only tasted that unsweetened swill that passed for iced tea at the segregated lunch counters in the South he would’ve called the whole thing off…. He places a can of diet soda on the podium. ‘Things go better with Coke,’ he says. ‘It’s the real thing!'”

But the book isn’t really interested in segregation, slavery, or civil rights. Its true intention seems to be to recreate the cacophony of pressure and expectation placed on black Americans, which could simply be called ‘racism’ but here seems more complex, and then to resist it with Sellout’s freewheeling diatribe. Sellout is angry, making jokes and taking no prisoners about topics as varied as pressure from the black community to be the right kind of black person, pressure from yourself to be that person, pressure from a culture that imitates and fetishizes you (the name ‘Bonbon’), the sense of being under surveillance, the knowledge that if you do anything even slightly wrong you will be punished, and the expectation of hyper-sexuality, among many other things.

He says in various places, “I couldn’t care less about being black” and “Fuck being black.” But of course there’s no escape, as established by some gruesome early scenes where his behavioral scientist father tortures him while trying to condition him with appropriate black-pride racial responses. His blackness is painfully hard-wired.

Under these conditions, Beatty’s establishment of absolute freedom for his narrator to say and do whatever he wants makes sense. And it also creates a book that’s a masterpiece of gleeful line-by-line mayhem. Like, the passage where Sellout helps a gang of schoolchildren castrate a calf.  “‘Don’t they got cow rubbers?'” someone asks. Sellout replies:

“That’s not a bad idea but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population. It also makes them more docile. Anyone know what ‘docile’ means?’ … A skinny chalk-colored girl raised a hand so disgustingly ashy, so white and dry-skinned, that it could only be black. ‘It means bitchlike,’ she said, volunteering to assist me by stepping to the calf and flicking his downy ears with her fingers.”

This is difficult material that will not be for everyone. It wasn’t for me, to be honest. In addition to taking my schoolgirls and “sacred cows” (see, hilarious!?) too seriously, I found the prose funny but overly long and rambling.

I also found that the satirical plot and the humorous elements added a layer of unreality that made the potentially powerful parts less powerful. Are we supposed to feel sad about this poor little schoolgirl in the hands of a man named Bonbon who is criticizing her skin and then lets her castrate a bull? Or is it supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to feel like it even happened? I don’t know, so I don’t feel much at all.

As a statement on race, it’s incredible. As a novel, I didn’t finish it.





16. The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers

10 Mar

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers

The orderly, Church-centric English countryside in the 1920s isn’t someplace I should by any rights feel nostalgic for, but reading The Nine Tailors, a great mystery novel written in that time period by a feminist intellectual and devout Christian, makes me so.

This is one of the most popular books in writer Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, and it takes place in the English village of Fenchurch St. Paul, where Lord Peter’s car breaks down one New Year’s Eve, and he’s pressed into service ringing in the New Year on the bells of that village’s majestic old church, a structure so large and grand that Wimsey thinks it looks like “a young cathedral.” The parish is only 340 souls but, as the selfless and kind Rector Venables explains,

“you find the same thing all over the fens. East Anglia is famous for the size and splendour of our parish churches. Still, we flatter ourselves that we are almost unique, even in this part of the world. It was an abbey foundation, and in the old days Fenchurch St Paul must have been quite an important place.”

Naturally, suspicious behavior ensues during the bell-ringing, leading to a murder and an investigation for Wimsey, but the real heart of the book is the church, its bells, and the lovingly detailed portrait of English religious life in a small town in this era.

Let’s pause for a moment to contemplate church bells, which before telephones, internet, etc., were a system of public address. Each bell had a distinct sound which the population at large was likely to know, and depending on which one was rung and how many times, messages could be communicated. In this book there’s a bell called Tailor Paul and rung nine times it means someone has died, thus, “The Nine Tailors” of the title.

The other bells in Fenchurch St Paul are Gaude, Saboath, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, and their majesty shines even to the  modern reader. Saboath’s voice is silvery and sweet. Tailor Paul was, the Rector explains, “‘cast in the field next to the church in 1614. You can still see the depression in the earth where the mould was made and field itself is called Bell Field to this day.'” And her sound—bells are always female— is “bawling and striding like a giant in the midst of them.” Batty Thomas has killed two men, and according to another character is “‘queer-tempered.'”

As the mystery unfolds we see the central role of the church in village life and during emergencies—it’s on high ground and everyone including Lord Wimsey literally lives there for weeks during a flood.

I’m a secular American in a polarized country (in a polarized world), and I can only imagine a society centered on a shared public space of a church, with a deeply habitual sense of shared ritual, where religion provides a code of good behavior and most of the local entertainment, and where this seems like that would be pleasant instead of terrifying. Elsewhere I believe Sayers has referred to the Church of England as “the great compromise,” and the sense of religion bringing people together instead of dividing them is palpable.

Conflict when it comes in this gentle and good society is a source of humor. Sayers often makes affectionate fun of church life, as when Mrs Venables explains about a local dispute:

“‘…they had some sort of dispute with the Minister about their Good Friday beanfest. Something to do with the tea urns but I forget what. Mrs Wallace is a funny woman; she takes offense rather easily, but so far, touch wood’ — Mrs Venables performed this ancient pagan rite placidly on the oak of the screen) — ‘so far I’ve managed to work in quite smoothly…'”

I’m fairly certain the beanfest is meant to be funny, as are the tea-urns.

I’m a social person, a blogger, a PTA mother, a charity volunteer and I often feel lonely in those roles; reading about England in the 1920s I think, Oh, I would have been active in the Church, and that would have been fun.

I’m sure there are people who will say, “you still can,” but I’m hopelessly on the other side of the culture wars for religion today. Which makes this kind of mystery novel a lovely escapist pleasure, and a new favorite of mine in the Sayers oeuvre.


15. All Our Names, Dinaw Mengestu

5 Mar

Dinaw Mengestu All Our Names

My quest to read more literary fiction by writers of color has led me to many African War/ American Immigration books lately, putting me in a decent position to comment on a jacket-quote on All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, which says that “This is not an immigrant story we already know.”

Eh, yes and no.

It is a version of the same African War/Immigration story we already know, and the title is unfortunately almost exactly the same as another recent book in the genre, NoViolet Bulaweyo’s We Need New Names, but it’s nonetheless a refined and intense book told in alternating perspectives, and I enjoyed reading it.

The chapters labeled “Isaac,” are about a poor young man from an unidentified African countryside who spends time hanging around the university in Kampala, Uganda just before war against Idi Amin breaks out in the 1970s. “Back then, all the boys our age wanted to be revolutionaries” he says, or at least dress like them. He comes to the capital for reasons more personal than political, ready to shed his name and create himself, but soon falls under the spell of another young striver named Isaac who has better revolutionary credentials.

The chapters labeled “Helen” are about an aimless and depressed young white social worker in the American midwest who is assigned to Isaac, who has arrived in America under mysterious circumstances. The two embark on a romance under furiously segregated conditions, and it’s true that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s easy at this distance to gloss over the details and fail to imagine how oppressive and impossible it would have been for a black man and a white woman to date in a small town in the ’70s. After a humiliating and possibly dangerous meal together in a restaurant, Helen writes about the toxic effect prejudice has on the relationship:

“It seemed impossible now for us to move forward, and I assumed after that lunch that if there was any relationship left it would live on in the strictest privacy, late at night and exclusively in his apartment, with all the blinds closed and the lights off.”

And here is the simple but powerful passage when she and Isaac first hold hands in public (and they had to go to Chicago to do it):

“We hesitated, looking at our hands, not each other, then gathered our strength and moved forward. We walked. It didn’t feel like a victory over anything, but I was proud and, to an equal degree, scared. After walking one block like that I was grateful for the feeling of his hand in mine, and even for the anxiety that came with it. After two more blocks, the gratitude had turned to sorrow that we hadn’t had this sooner. All this time, I thought, we’ve been at best only half of what was possible.”

Mengestu’s writing is fast-paced, elegant and guarded. Notice how much distance and analysis there is, even in explosive moments like the passage above. The alternating chapters are short and feel honed-down to the bare essentials. There are a few major plot twists with large surprises, and the time-lapse intertwined stories complement each other, increasing the intensity of both climaxes…not a bad effect for a love story, come to think of it.



The J.M. Coetzee Award For A Bad Female POV

1 Mar

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Sometimes female characters written by men make me want to throw the book across the room, for a particular effect that I’m going to call The J.M.Coetzee, and now I’m instituting an award for it—shortly to be granted to another lucky author. I identified this problem a few years ago, reading Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, right after reading Disgrace, which I loved and for which the South African/Australian author of literary fiction won a Booker Prize.

In Diary of a Bad Year one of the three POVs is a young, attractive woman from the Philippines who does some cleaning and typing for an older, lecherous intellectual male character, and we read her supposed thoughts. The three POVs run side-by-side on each page, a neat conceit, and the two male perspectives are great. But in the portion of the book I read before giving up in disgust, the young woman thinks mostly about a) the male intellectual she works for and b) her ass, sex, how hot she is, “my silky moves,” how she is “racy, exciting and exotic,” and her ass some more.

At some point I just wanted to say, “No, dude, she doesn’t. You think about her ass. This is not what any woman thinks about all day long.”

I read submissions for a literary magazine, and I can tell you that it is only male authors who mention a female character’s breasts or nipples within the first few pages of introducing her. Female characters written by women rarely think about their nipples or breasts (shocking!). Women writers also rarely describe their female characters’ nipples or breasts unless it’s relevant to the story. (No one of either gender mentions male nipples, except the brilliant Mark Leyner. Go Mark.)

Someone could write a compelling female character who does nothing but think about her body, or a compelling person-of-color who is really into their own hot racial sex appeal, but that’s not what The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award is for. The young woman in Diary of a Bad Year doesn’t have a character. She’s reduced to her skin color and body parts, which is especially offensive when it’s put, allegedly, in her own words.

Coetzee’s heroine also fails some version of the Bechdel Test, which asks in part “Does your female character talk about anything other than male characters?” She thinks an implausible amount about her lecherous old boss and his academic pursuits, which could not possibly be of any interest to her. When she’s not doing that, she’s thinking about her husband (having sex with him), or sometimes God (another man; her religiosity is another racial caricature).

I know I am not supposed to speak for all women, but I will go out on a limb and say that any woman with a lecherous, disgusting boss does her absolute best never to think about him. If she suspects he’s looking when she walks away, her thought is not “Oh yeah, my ass is awesome, let me wiggle it for him to enjoy.” Her thought is, quite simply, “Ew.” She also definitely, totally, never imagines in loving detail how he masturbates about her:

“He hasn’t tried anything while I am with him, but what he gets up to after I exit is another story. God alone witnesses what he gets up to then, God and the blessed virgin and the chorus of saints. There is a pair of panties of mine he pinched from the dryer, I am sure of it. My guess is he unbuttons himself when I am gone and wraps himself in my undies and closes his eyes and summons up visions of my divine behind and makes himself come.”

It’s so ridiculous that I would laugh if I weren’t full-body heaving. Dude, she has never thought that. She cleans your house, takes your money, and gets out of there as fast as she can.

The Anthology of Clouds Coetzee Award goes to a writer who reduces a female character to a male authorial sex-fantasy, and who probably created the female character in the first place in order to tell us more about whatever man they really want to talk about. The girl is there “speaking in her own words” in order to put a lot of sexy sex on the page without the author having to decrease the dignity of the male character by having him cop to it. The girl can also admire the man and talk about what a good lover he is! It’s easy, it’s convenient, and it’s also bad writing if you consider that in good writing your characters are supposed to be human beings who make sense and are motivated by internally coherent concerns.

J.M. Coetzee can and should take on any POV he wants. He’s written very successful women in other books.  Moreover, I defend anyone’s right to write a misogynist character if it seems important to them to do so. Disgrace, the book Coetzee won the Booker Prize for, is a fairly sympathetic portrait of a professor who date-rapes a student, and I loved that book and went out to buy more of his work. But if I’m going to put up with a misogynist character, I demand that they be well-executed.

I will leave you with the words of Coetzee’s heroine, after the male intellectual has treated her to some yucky innuendo:

“I turn my back and off I go with a waggle of the bum, his eyes avid upon me.”

No, I don’t. I promise I don’t.

14. Things I Like About America, by Poe Ballantine

19 Feb

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There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country. Or really I was thinking about elsewhere, freedom, escape from myself and towards a place where no one would expect anything of me.

I never left Brooklyn, but that’s my road story. Something about the map of America seems to evoke them, to call forth the idea that there’s a place out there where one could dispense with the bullshit, live the right way, just be.

That this itself is known bullshit and escapism only makes it more attractive.

Poe Ballantine is a master of the road story, a drunk, writer and late-bloomer, lover of women, laborer at crap jobs who, in his first published book, Things I Like About America, chronicles decades of drift. At some point he says he’s written 17 unpublishable novels, that 90 percent of what he writes is no good. His age skips from 17 to 28 to 43. He takes busses and stays in motels. He lives in Eureka, Louisville, Niagra Falls. He’s a man with no ties, down to his last few dollars, going somewhere new. There’s something deeply consoling about this much freedom…and this much failure.

And oh is his voice great.

Here he is describing an early encounter with crack cocaine:

The first inhaled hit of volatilized cocaine is the best: it launches you through the roof of the sky. There is no greater high. It makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe. You love, with the power of God, all things: house plants, bumblebees, lint balls, even the cat shit in the sandbox beneath the sink. I thought of Charlene and loved her for once purely, without resentment or remorse, without a trace of indignation for having neglected me. I longed to share this feeling with her, this unfathomable, infallible, and virtuous love. So I called her apartment but she wasn’t home.

It’s witty, unpretentious writing with many great turns of phrase. The high of crack “launches you through the roof of the sky” and “makes an orgasm seem like a stubbed toe.” Elsewhere he says, “I was dazed by love, like someone hit in the forehead with a two-by-four.” Elsewhere yet, running out of money, he writes, “I had about a month before my feet would be sticking out of a bunk at the Baptist Mission.” I liked the image of the feet, his ability to paint himself into a landscape.

There’s a point when the traveling gets to be too much, when the bad jobs reach their nadir, when he dreads again confronting, “the strangers, the empty room, the low-paying job where they would lead me through the door marked Hazardous Chemicals, the willful isolation and the poverty.” So he goes back to collage, likes it, almost graduates, but doesn’t stay, because,

“How can you expect to produce anything interesting or different while sitting in secure, climate-controlled comfort year after year, doing exactly what you’re told? How do you get your certificate of long-standing conformity and then expect somehow to stand out from the crowd?”

This brings us to the why of the road story. In the chapter “Never and Nowhere,” Ballantine says that

“for twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive.”

This is so strange that it bears examination. He’s not looking for an idealized way to live, he’s looking for a nowhere. I don’t understand this exactly, but I sense truth it in, the truth that makes road stories sad, haunted by suicide, driven by hope and failure in equal measures. Maybe when we hit the road we’re looking for a safe place to fail among all the other failed people, an anonymous room, a lowered expectation. Maybe we’re looking for a thing that isn’t there.

Ballantine almost kills himself, but then he makes it through somehow, and the book is evidence that his career slowly blossoms by its own lights.

This is another gem from Portland, Oregon small-press Hawthorne, who also publish Lidia Yuknavitch and Tom Spanbauer. These books are so great, so likeable, so well-written that it’s hard to understand why they aren’t front-and-center in every airport in America.  The world would be a better place, I tell you what.




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