Monday, February 28, 2011

Adding Feedback

I've decided to add little check boxes to the reviews.  Now you can check off the follow:
  • want to read
  • won't read
  • already read
I had to keep these short so they wouldn't disappear off the post soooo . . .
want to read means you want to read this book (even if you wanted to read it before you read my review)
won't read means you don't want to read this book (even if I loved it and my review doesn't convince you it is too good not to read)
already read obviously means you read the book (and you don't plan on rereading the book but you went ahead and read the review)
I made this change because someone (you know who you are) suggested I needed to have a "like" button because facebook has apparently made this the new auto-response to things.  And I obviously concur or I wouldn't be adding these little check boxes.

So thank you, not-so-anonymous reader, for a good recommendation.

Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin

Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin is a wonderfully written novel about a teenager who is in crisis, struggling to make sense of something that happened, who tells her first person story in a voice that is both strong and vulnerable, luring the reader into sympathizing but never pitying her.

Have you ever read a novel and been so carried away by it that you find yourself falling in love only to reach the end and feel like you just woke up in the wrong person’s bed after a night of poor decisions?  That is how I felt by the end of this novel, which began with literary promise and devolved into a Lifetime movie.

If it weren’t so well-written I would have to dismiss this novel altogether but, like The Lovely Bones, the powerful prose gives the story a foundation for recommending it I can’t dismiss quite so easily.  Sure, the content has been covered before, with a variation on a theme, and perhaps one could argue it was handled if not better at least equally well.  However, derivative or not, the protagonist, as realized by the author, deserves the reader’s attention because Judy Lohden is interesting, intelligent, and inspiring.  Her innocence is palpable and even if I found it a bit unbelievable that a sixteen-year-old girl would ever be this na├»ve, I nevertheless followed along, knowing the inevitable outcome, disappointed that I was not disappointed (in other words, that the “surprise” was completely unsurprising to me), and very disappointed by the neatness of the conclusion.

I don’t begrudge DeWoskin’s choices.  A different ending would have either been even more contrived and convenient than the one she wrote or been overwhelming in its despair and complete lack of closure.  The problem, dear reader, lies in me because I prefer honest endings where things don’t get tied up in pretty little closed boxes, an ending that is as messy and complicated as real life would have made this book an absolute winner for me and left most other readers angry.

And with that said, I would happily seek out her other novels, curious to see what other stories she has to tell because this one is good enough to keep me interested.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of Windy Poplars by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the fourth book in the Anne of Green Gable series.  However, it was written long after the first three were published which suggests that Montgomery was filling in some blanks or driven to write it for other reasons.  I remember reading a long time ago that L Frank Baum wanted to stop writing the Oz books long before fans grew tired of them.  (And the fact that a few Oz books written by people other than Baum were published after his death goes to show you just how hungry the audience was.  Not unlike V C Andrews who continues to be publishing books longer after her death because her books were always nothing if not formulaic and she left a model for her novels that other writers can easily mimic.  But I digress . . .)

I can’t say that I especially liked this book.  It suffers from the worst that made up Victorian literature.  Epistolary beginning gives way to typical stories about love and romance with predictable endings preceded by ludicrous plot manipulations that force the happy ending.  Not unlike reading an O Henry story.  Or even a collection of his stories because, really, that is all this novel is--a collection of loosely connected stories that don't really flow together and often feel more redundant than inspired.

Another drawback is that Anne Shirley is no longer living at Green Gables and, although she goes home to visit, there are new people in her life.  A lot of new people.  Too many new people.  Meddling in one romance or two is one thing but in this book she meddles in so many relationships, not all of them necessarily romantic as a few are purely familial and, ergo, platonic.  She seems more like a matchmaker than a principal at a school.

But for those who were wondering where the inspiration for Anne of Avonlea, the miniseries, came, this is the source material–complete with Pringles and such.  Only, there are so many pieces of the story on the page that rightfully were never put on the television screen and, when you get right down to it, I prefer the show to this book.  And while I can forgive the quality of the writing, I must say that Montgomery’s flowery prose and her constantly telling rather than showing is quickly becoming tedious.

In other words, I believe this is where the romance ends for me.  However, there are 8 books in the series and I really do want to read them all, or at least the first six which are Anne of this and Anne’s this or that (while the final two are R something and something else).  I may bite the bullet and read all 8 books this year.  Who knows?  I only know that when I said with the last book that I could feel the lover affair drawing to a close, I can bluntly state that I should have stopped with that book and never ever read further.  Now that I have, I am loath to stop here.  After all, a commitment is a commitment and maybe, just maybe, it will turn around and get better.

One can only hope.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Insecure at Last by Eve Ensler

Insecure at Last: Losing it in Our Security Obsessed World by Eve Ensler is a collection of Ensler’s political perspective, a further look at her ongoing work with ending the global violence against women, and expressions of her own frustration at how the drive for security and the fight against terrorism has compromised American security as evidenced by how poorly the powers that be responded during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

If you are not a hard-line liberal, you will find little to like in this book.  Just go read Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck and be happy.  But if you agree even moderately with Ensler’s views, and it is hard to see how anyone who hasn’t visited other countries to actually see firsthand what is happening to women would disagree with what she’s seen, then you will find much to make you despair in this book.

The first part focuses a great deal on global situations and how women are still being raped, victimized, brutalized in nations in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America, etc.  She pulls no punches when talking about the problems that continue to perpetuate right here in the United States.  Within glibly titled chapters like “Vaginas–More Terrifying Than Scud Missiles,” Ensler explores her own challenges in facing her particular fears and how she worked through her preconceived judgments and notions.

By part three, she is being even more intimate in sharing her own experiences, giving the reader an idea of where her own pain and anger are rooted.  Part four initially carries on in this tone but then shifts rather jarringly back to Hurricane Katrina.  The emotional digression is not the least objectionable point in which she seems to jump from one context and continent to another.  Some of the chapters flow into the next while others seem to be jammed in for effect or even shock value.  I don’t know if the book would have been better served if she had woven her personal story more fluidly throughout the book or if the integrity of the text itself needs a stronger and more assertive editor.

In the end, it feels more like Eve Ensler wanted to get up on her soap box with a promise of spiritual and/or emotional depth (she doesn't even really offer any feminist or political insight).but merely ended up screaming angrily at the top of her lungs.  I guess, when you think about it, this book may be the exception that proves the rule that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  I expect more from Ensler and this was not it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Breaking the Silence by Frances H Kakugawa

Breaking the Silence: A Caregiver’s Voice by Frances H Kakugawa is one of those rare resources that serves on a multitude of layers.  The book is neatly divided into three parts–the first a mini-anthology of poetry and prose, the second a look at the unique challenges that come with caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s, and the third an outline of how to lead a poetry writing workshop.

Drawing on her own experience as caregiver to her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease, Kakugawa shares herself in both poetry and prose and gives voice to some of the people she encounters in her work as a workshop leader.  The first part begins with her gentle but dominant presence.  The reader cannot help but feel her compassion and empathy as she then introduces a few of her workshop members who share their own stories in their own words.  In only a few pages it becomes quickly apparent that although each person is writing about the same disease, the manifestations and the personal experiences are unique.

The second section returns the reader to Kakugawa’s own exploration of the two faces of Alzheimer’s and she shares one more poem by another workshop participant. This is actually the shortest section and I am not sure why it was not more fully developed.  I’m not even sure that the implied theme of this section wasn’t more thoroughly explored, by implication if nothing else, in the previous section.

The third and final section outlines her workshop, how she begins each series of workshops and how the evolve from one week to the next.  She offers some suggestions for workshop facilitators while also reminding the reader that not all poetry related to caregiving is about Alzheimer’s or even about the relationship between the caregiver and the caregiving recipient.  After a brief glossary of poetry terms, she shares some other poems she’s written about her own experience with being told she had a mass that needed to be biopsied.

The strength of this book lies as much in the idea of using poetry to help process experiences that are often difficult to describe as it is in the various pieces shared for, between the lines one can easily recognize not only how different the details may be but also how all caregivers have a shared experience no matter how isolating that experience itself may be.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Kindness Handbook by Sharon Salzberg

The Kindness Handbook: A Practical Companion by Sharon Salzberg is not unlike her book Lovingkindness, only this book lacks the depth and profundity of the latter.  Some of the same stories are shared to complement the same teachings about how compassion and metta meditation work to enhance a sense of well-being.

Had I read this book before the other, I would have liked it well enough but probably not loved it as much as the latter.  I prefer my spiritual books to provoke some thought or inspire some insight, neither of which occurred while reading this one.  One could argue, I suppose, that the teachings in both books overlap enough to make the one seem irrelevant when compared with the other.  I don’t know if that is the case or not; I only know that if you’ve reading Lovingkindness and appreciated it, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed by this book.  However, if you are new to the Buddhist teachings on compassion and the metta meditation, this book may be right up your alley. For me, it was nothing more than a dead end of already explored territory.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag is a slender volume that philosophizes on photography, specifically wartime photography with occasional discussions about other explorations of human atrocities.  Her opinions are well-written, clear with a sharp precision one can’t help but admire in writing.

Ultimately, as when anyone voices an opinion about things, she can be provocative if not downright contentious.  She even goes so far as to criticize her own previously published thoughts On Photography.  This is not to suggest that what she has to say is too mercurial to be relevant; rather, Sontag, who is not above heaping piles of judgment upon others, is just as comfortable in pointing a self-accusing finger at her own previously held beliefs.

Whether you agree or disagree with what she has to say, Sontag not only encourages her reader to think but seemingly urges the reader to do so, to come to their own conclusions and be open to second guessing and changes in once held precious beliefs.  At time courageous and perhaps outrageous, Sontag’s arguments are at least interesting enough to invite some serious discourse.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Death’s Door by Sandra M. Gilbert

Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve:  A Cultural Study by Sandra M. Gilbert is one of those remarkable books that leave me feeling inadequate to respond appropriately.  Gilbert, known for her academic approach to common literary themes, was inspired to write about the elegy, how poets write through grief and mourn on the page.  After some research and some disillusionment, she set the project aside.  But life and loss have a way of infusing past inspiration with new life and Gilbert’s own grief drove her to return to this project.

The result is this remarkable book that works on a myriad of levels.  With the death of a child and later of her husband, Gilbert infuses a traditionally academic text with a personal empathy that elevates this above and beyond a dry resource.  Drawing not only on the works of poets and novelists, Gilbert alludes to artwork, photography, even experimental works from the AIDS quilt to internet memorials.  Anyone familiar with Plath or Eliot, with Yeats, Keats, or Hardy will be comfortable with the sections that compare and contrast the way each writer approaches death and loss.  I found myself setting the book down frequently, doing my own research and rediscovery as I contemplated not only what Gilbert shared but remembered poems and writers to which she makes no reference at all.

In trying to approach the shifts in how we, as a society and individuals, grieve, Gilbert repeatedly confronts the impossibility of not only avoiding death but the inevitability of how change has affected not only the process of mourning but of death itself.  Progress in medicine has moved death from being in the home to somewhere sterile and removed.  “Progress” in warfare also has an impact as those who survived World War I are confronted with not merely the loss of a single family member but the death of a whole generation of young men.  How long do you wear widow’s weeds when you are mourning the death of a husband, a brother, a son, and more?  The implication on faith is also addressed for how does one embrace a bodily resurrection when only parts of a loved one’s body ever make it home?

I find myself, even as I write this review, wanting to list the many points Gilbert makes about the spontaneous memorials–those clusters of flowers, stuffed animals, etc. that manifest on the side of the road where someone has died–to how art has evolved from showing the suffering of saints to exploring the agony of a parent dying from Alzheimer’s on film.  Rather than reinforce the idea that death is sacrosanct, Gilbert suggests that the modern and post-modern era has realized that there is nothing sacred about death and dying and that sterilizing death by removing it to hospices or hospitals leaves those who survive at a loss.  With the process of death changing, mourning too becomes something that we no longer know how to express.  From women ripping their hair and clothing in grief, from keening and wailing, we now offer antidepressants and the impossibility of closure.

If nothing else, Gilbert offers the promise that death is not only inevitable but it is not something from which we ever fully recover.  For this reader, knowing that some pain can never be left behind and bearing the burden of grief is the inevitable grace of living, is a profound comfort.  Possibly because I fully believe that compassion, that feeling with someone that can only come from empathy, I can appreciate the despairing message of Gilbert’s exploration and it is not surprising to know that she could not approach the subject of death and grief until she herself had been fully immersed in the experience of loss.  While not an easy book to read, it is one I would encourage anyone who loves literature and art to read, especially if you are comfortable with questions and not seeking answers because, when it comes right down to it, for death there really are no answers–only the inevitably endlessly open door.

PS:  I recommended this book to my mother and she immediately ordered it.  When she received her paperback copy, she called me up.  "This book is heavy."  Yes.  In many ways this is a heavy book, not an easy one to carry or to read.  I can't even imagine how Sandra M Gilbert lived through the writing of this book without feeling some sadness and I can't thank her enough for her bravery in facing death day after day as she chose to do in writing this book.

PPS:  Another story about this book.  When Rob went to the hospital, I stayed behind only long enough to get things organized at home, just in case.  Just in case what, I could not say.  After all, Rob had gone to the hospital before and been sent home after only a few hours.  Still, I sent Marc to the store to get some things and I gathered myself and my things, including the inevitable pile of books that I simply must take with me everywhere I go.  Death's Door was in that pile.  It was not until I got in the car that I realized that this was not an appropriate book to carry with me to a hospital emergency room.  It isn't like it is a small book, one that I could easily tuck away.  But then I thought that if I chose to leave it behind then I would be showing some superstitious fear, denying death somehow.  It was silly of me, of course, to sit there worrying about the worst that could happen and somehow connect it with my not bringing the book with me.

Then the doctor explained that the CT scan did, indeed, show an enflamed appendix which would have to be removed.  I held onto Gilbert's book, in which she shares her own experience of her husband's death due to complications stemming from a routine surgery, as if it were a shield.  I didn't open it, couldn't dare read it, but I wouldn't leave it in my bag.  At this point it became a sort of talisman, a refusal to believe that the worst could happen, that other husbands die due to complications but mine would not.  Period.

Of course, we all know how that story ends; Rob came through the surgery well enough.  I did not, however, begin reading the book again until he started turning cranky, annoying everyone from the staff to me, his sleep deprived wife.  (What the hell are hospitals thinking with those impossibly uncomfortable chairs that unfold into still more uncomfortable cots?  Insane and torturous.)

I think that once I really knew Rob was safe, I no longer had to just carry the book around but could return to reading it for the research I was doing.  Superstition and irrational thinking aside, I wanted to share this part of my experience with this book as well.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery is the third book in the Anne of Green Gables series of books and I am beginning to see that my intuition was correct and that, as Anne matures her escapades become less engaging. Mostly odd circumstances that occur through no fault of her own like an awkward proposal for marriage and the arrival of guests on a Friday who were supposed to drop by on Saturday. Otherwise, Anne has definitely been tamed as the result of her higher education and getting older.

Nevertheless, I did get choked up at the end, in spite of my knowing full well what was coming. There was no surprise, especially since this was a reread, but I still found myself getting all caught up, emotionally, and sighing with satisfaction. And oh such pretty prose, flowery in excess, like a garden in full bloom on a sultry summer’s evening. Too much but still you catch yourself inhaling.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Make It Fast, Cook It Slow by Stephanie O'Dea

Make It Fast, Cook It Slow by Stephanie O'Dea is a collection of slow cooker recipes.  Many of them sounded yummy so we tried some.

We tried the Pizza Soup recipe.  Yummmm.  Very much enjoyed by  the whole family.  Rob and Marc ate it with garlic bread and Rob sprinkled some Parmesan cheese on top of the soup for added oomph.  But really, there's nothing more to say about this recipe because it was just yum yum yummy.  However, for those who want to cook only from scratch, these and most of the other recipes use some form of pre-packaged products.  A truly creative cook can easily modify and figure out how to do it without a can or jar, no doubt.

Next we had the 3-Packet Pot Roast.  We had to modify the recipe slightly because we could not find one of the "packets" but Rob rated this a clear winner.  Wow!  Two recipes loved.  (She also makes suggestions throughout the book for those who are gluten sensitive.)

At this point Rob finds out that this is a library book and wonders if we should just go ahead and buy it for ourselves.  I have to say, I concur.  He had marked quite a few other recipes he wanted to try and I found a few that I was aching to sample.  With so many choices, it was hard to narrow ourselves down and keep focused on the task at hand.

For a poultry recipe, we tried Chicken Masala because we had all we needed for that recipe except the chicken thighs and plain yogurt.  I made it too early in the morning because I mistakenly put in twice as much cayenne pepper (oops) but thankfully nobody noticed (shhhhh . . . don't tell them).  This recipe fell a little flat for us.  The flavors were just right (and I dislike spicy foods so that extra pepper had me worried but the taste didn't bother me at all) but there was something missing. Rob thought it would taste good with mushrooms.  Perhaps.

Our next recipe to try was Vegetarian No-Noodles Lasagna which we agreed is quite yummy but hardly passes for a lasagna.  It turns out to be entirely too soupy so it seems more like a stew than a layered pasta dish.  Okay.  I get it.  No-noodles means no pasta but it was, in that respect, a disappointment.  But now that we know how it will turn out, I know we will make it again because we definitely liked it.  Rob however, said he would have liked to have some sausage in it so I may end up converting this vegetarian meal into something with a little meat.  Perhaps cooked up and sprinkled, not sliced.  Anyway, we liked the recipe enough to think of ways to make it even better.

Our last recipe tried was the Thai Coconut Soup which we found hugely disappointing and quite tasty.  Quite the contradiction, don't you think?  Well, we have a lovely local Thai restaurant that makes a decadent Thai Coconut Soup which Rob and I both love.  The prices are so reasonable and their ginger chicken makes me swoon.  So we went into this recipe with certain flavor expectations.  That is where the disappointment comes in because, even as we were making it we knew the ingredients were not quite right.  I used 1 tsp of chili paste and that was just the right amount of heat for me.  And now we know what we will do the next time we make the recipe as we try to get the flavors closer to the one at our restaurant.  With that said, I served this to my friend Megan when she came for a visit and she was well pleased, enough so to ask for a second bowl.  Aha!  See?  It is a winner of a recipe if you have no expectations for a different flavor experience.  (Hint:  we already know that on our next try we will not add the tomato and red bell pepper and we will add another can of coconut milk.)

I would have to say that this recipe book is a winner simply because there were no recipes we flat out refused to eat as leftovers and we always tried to think of ways to tweak the recipe to meet our personal preferences.  That is remarkable, given how nit picky some people are around here.


We borrowed this book a second time and tried the Pound Cake recipe.  We made it with Splenda instead of sugar and it burned around the edges.  This is a simple cake.  Very plain.  Even burnt on the edges it was good, very dense.  The perfect cake for a bit of ice cream or maybe a fresh fruit puree and a dollop of whipped cream.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Lovingkindness by Sharon Salzberg

Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg is a wonderful introduction to the metta meditation, a thorough exploration not only of the practice of metta in spiritual practice but also in daily life. (Metta is another word for compassion or lovingkindness.  I will be using these terms throughout, as does Salzberg.)  

Drawing on her experience with meditation retreats where she was asked to commit a month to doing only one part of the metta meditation, she applies the Buddhist teachings not only to her own experiences but shares sympathetic ways that the reader can also grow into the experience of living with compassion even if one is unable to be immersed in hours of intensive meditation.

After the first chapter, each ends with a suggested practice but, whereas many books that encourage meditation present a prolonged visualization practice that one can’t possibly read and remember without having a remarkable memory, Salzberg’s suggestions are uncomplicated and easily followed.  The challenge is not in remembering what the meditation practice should be but in continuing the practice for the length of time she suggests.  In an eager to move onto the next quick fix, her suggestion to sit with a single mantra for more than a day or two is going to be more challenging than choosing one.  The exercises build upon one another and reading through the book in haste defeats the purpose of reading.

So why then did I read through it in a few days?  Ahhhhh . . . I wasn’t reading to apply the teachings the first time.  Rather, I wanted to get an overview of Salzberg’s teachings first and I am glad I did.  I probably would have been eager to move on without fully experiencing each stage of the process.  Knowing where Salzberg is leading the reader helps me to appreciate more each stage of the exercises.

This is the book my mother initially chose to be part of our Year of Compassion but then I recommended Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and I think that Armstrong’s more intellectual approach appealed to her more fully.  Or perhaps it was how Armstrong viewed the teachings on compassion from a more thoroughly ecumenical approach.  Salzberg’s teachings are deeply rooted in her Buddhist traditions.  If you prefer a more intellectual approach to metta meditation and compassion, you will probably prefer Armstrong’s book but for a more Buddhist and experiential approach, Salzberg’s book is quite good.

As for me, I’ll be rereading both over the next few months so expect quotes and such in my regular blog, where I promised myself that this year I will be sharing more about my spirituality.  In the meantime, I would absolutely recommend this book and Armstrong’s book for anyone interested in exploring more fully the idea of compassion.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz

Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz is another graphic memoir, a genre for which I am increasingly finding a fascination.  Unfortunately, Wertz’ offering falls short of being insightful.  Although amusing and occasionally quirky, she skims the surface of her own life and psyche in favor of coming off glib.  Glib is easier than being candid and where other graphic memoirs can be profound, Wertz remains too interested in amusing her audience than engaging them.

If you want to read about a young single woman who skips from job-to-job with little to no explanation as to why she keeps getting fired, then this book will probably be engaging.  But if you are more curious about her family’s struggle with her brother’s drug addiction, you won’t be content after reading this memoir.  I don’t think I ever even learned what his drug of choice was, although I clearly knew what Wertz enjoyed using to numb her own feelings.  And if you thought that after watching her drink her troubles away (only to have these same troubles bite her in the ass) would lead to seeing her share her own work towards sobriety, you won’t find it here.  In face, the only gives two panels–not even two pages–to what is obviously a serious drinking problem.


Cute and charming at first, quirky soon gives way to tedious.  If the Y-Generation is accused of being vapid and more interested in being snarky than sincere then Wertz will be the poster-child of her generation.  I would like to think she has something more relevant to share.  Unfortunately, with graphic memoirists like Bechdel and Small before her (and so very many others), Wertz brings nothing new or necessary to the table.  And I feel like a teacher, writing a report card that says, "Does not live up to her potential."  Well, she doesn't and I hope someday she will choose to do so.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Poetry Chain Gang: The Poetry Chain Gang (Volume 3) | Janice Erlbaum

The Poetry Chain Gang: The Poetry Chain Gang (Volume 3) | Janice Erlbaum

Not strictly a review.  I know.  But this is about Janice Erlbaum and since I've reviewed her books and I have ulterior (nepotistic) motives, I simply had to share this link with all of you.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen (Part One)

Sanditon and Other Stories by Jane Austen is a collection of some of Austen’s later unfinished works along with some samples of her juvenilia and other miscellaneous pieces.  The reason I am writing this review in two parts is because I am reading the juvenilia first and the rest later, after I have read her published novels.

I have to say that, for the most part, I enjoyed the juvenilia.  One can easily see the wit and surprising ability to see what motivates her characters.  I found myself chuckling a few times and smiling at others.  I also found myself bored because, although one can find evidence of future brilliance, it is dulled by immaturity; Austen’s talents are not yet dazzling because she hasn’t honed her craft.  Many of the examples of her early writings are unfinished and this is mostly interesting either to hard-core Austen fans (aka Janeites) or writers who are curious to see a successful writer’s early scribblings.

I know I wouldn’t want my unfinished or immature writings exposed to the harsh light of the published page but I truly enjoyed the experience of peeking inside the early writings of this remarkable writer’s career.
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