Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading Joss Whedon edited by Rhonda Wilcox

Reading Joss Whedon is a collection of scholarly essays, edited by Rhonda Wilcox and others, that looks at the works of Whedon including and beyond The Buffyverse.  Nonetheless, the bulk of this book does focus on Buffy (7 chapters) and Angel (2 chapters) which means nearly 40% of the book is solidly placed in Buffy's world.  As with all anthologies, some of the essays shine while others fall a little flat or simply aren't as exciting (for me, anyway).  Still, it's hard to argue that anyone who is a fan of Whedon's works will want to invest some time and curl up with this book.  The book is divided into sections and promises to discuss the various works of Whedon, from Buffy through Agents of SHIELD and Much Ado About Nothing.  Unfortunately, aside from brief mentions, the last two are not explored in the essays.

The book is divided into six parts beginning with, naturally enough, Part One:  Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This part also contains the largest number of essays.

“From Beneath You, It Foreshadows”  by David Kociemba begins the collection, exploring how the first season foreshadows many of the themes and situations that manifest in the next six seasons of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  Anyone who has repeatedly watched the series has probably noticed some of the examples the writer cites but may find a few surprising observations.

“Hero’s Journey, Heroine’s Return” by Janet K. Halfyard looks at how Greek mythology—Eurydice and Orpheus—informs many of the events in the series.  I have to say that this was one of the essays I especially enjoyed reading.   

“It’s Like Some Primal, Some Animal Force . . .  That Used to Be Us” by Ananya Mukerjea focuses on how humanity is defined in the Buffyverse, an unsurprising subject, given the presence of werewolves, dehumanizing humans (Jackal demons as well as the vampire de-souling the human victim), et al.  I don’t know if it’s because of the limited scope of an anthology like this or not but I found this essay disappointing, expecting it to say more.  Or maybe I liked it enough that I wanted it to say more. 

“Can I Spend the Night / Alone?” by Rhonda V Wilcox is one of the stronger pieces in the collection, touching on how the use of a fragmented narrative of “Conversations with Dead People” exposes a theme of connection/disconnection not only within the episode but within the series itself. 

“Hey, Respect the Narrative Flow Much?” by Richard S Alba right writes about storytelling, connecting several different episodes and the success or lack thereof of different characters.  The effective use of exposition in narrative is certainly worth considering.  Alba manages to skim the surface, yet again leaving me somewhat wanting more or merely disappointed. 

“All Those Apocalypses” by Linda J Jencson excited me at first.  The idea of applying disaster studies to the various crises the characters seemed a natural fit and yet the essay read more like a discussion of the studies themselves, only occasionally digging into how the theories apply to the show.  In my opinion, this was the weakest of the essays in the Buffy section.

Part Two: Angel only has two essays, one stronger than the other, perhaps because it was more focused on the one program.  After so many essays on Buffy, it would have been nice to have one or two more on its spin-off.

“Enough of the Action, Let’s Get Back to Dancing” by Stacey Abbott is an adequate essay on the episodes that Joss Whedon himself directed of Angel.  In particular, Abbott looks at how Whedon’s development as a director is revealed in both Buffy and Angel.  I wasn’t especially blown away by this essay, again perhaps because the observations made by the essayist were not things I myself had not noticed.

“What the Hell?” by Cynthea Masson tackles one of the notoriously least favorite episodes of Angel and brings to light several very strong points that made me want to watch the episode again.  I mean, who doesn’t get excited when someone is able to compare an episode of a television show with an existential drama like Waiting for Godot?  Or is that just me?

Part Three:  Firefly and Serenity is at least longer than the previous part and the essays are good, more or less, depending on how well-versed the reader is on this particular show and movie.  

Firefly” by Matthew Patement looks at the how and why Firefly failed as a television series, including the behind-the-scenes wrangling, time slot, and various other issues that made it nearly impossible for Whedon to have success with a hybrid show that simply could not pull the necessary numbers.  Anyone who is a fan of Firefly in particular will already know everything this essay covered.  I would have happily forgone this essay to give more room to Angel or, better still, see another essay about Firefly.

“Wheel Never Stops Turning” by Alyson R Buckman focuses mostly on the initial pilot episode (“Serenity”) and the substitute pilot episode (“The Train Robbery”) demanded by the network.  Buckman argues that the powers that be at Fox were right, that Whedon’s two hour expanded pilot did not define the series or its themes as effectively as its replacement.  An interesting point, one with which I am not certain I agree.  It definitely made me want to sit down with the series again and really look with an eye to her points to see if I still found myself unconvinced of her argument.

“Metaphoric Unity and Ending” by Elizabeth L Rambo is the best of the essays on this particular show, perhaps because it’s focus is on what is arguably one of the best episodes of the series:  “The Message.”  Rambo does a brilliant job of showing how this episode is not merely an anomaly so much as it is indicative of how the series, itself, would eventually grow, if given the chance. 

Part Four: Dollhouse addresses the most controversial of Whedon's television programs and definitely made me consider watching the show again.  

“Reflections in the Pool” by K Dale Koontz, like a previous essay, looks at Greek mythology, this time on the obvious use of the Echo/Narcissus myth.  I don’t know if, because the connection between the myth and this series is so obvious or what but this essay did not impress.  I found that some of the points Koontz tried to make seemed like they were over-reaching and misapplied, trying to make the whole thing fit together too tightly and, in the end, leaving me unconvinced of most of what was supposed to be proven.

“There Is No Me; I’m Just a Container” by Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan also aims at the obvious by exploring personhood as a theme in Dollhouse.  In this case, however, the essay is strong and effective, digging into the show itself while also touching upon the implications of many of the show’s themes and why it made the television audience uncomfortable.  For those who were so off-put by what they perceived as a betrayal on Whedon’s part in creating a show that smacked of misogyny, this essay could very well change those viewers into appreciators of what is done in the mere two seasons of the show’s existence

Part Five:  Beyond the Box leaves aside the television shows and jumps right in with the internet sensation Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, the graphic novels Buffy, the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 and movies.  

“Joining the Evil League of Evil” by Victoria Willis does an interesting job of looking at the “posthuman” experience found in Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.  The strength of this essay lies in her discussion of both Dr Horrible and, unsurprisingly, Captain Hammer.  What weakens it is a lack of strong focus, touching on the hybrid quality of the program itself, and a need to dismiss Penny’s role as insignificant.   Perhaps without the distraction of the other topics, the essay would have been altogether stronger. Unfortunately, the reader is presented with a well-written but not well-crafted essay instead. 

Buffy’s Season 8:  Image and Text” by Marni Stanley is the first essay in any collection of such on the Whedonverse to focus on Buffy Season 8 so I was thrilled.  Furthermore, I’m happy to say I liked Stanley’s piece very much.  Buffy’s alienation/connection are themes that obviously carry over from the television series and how the visual elements of a graphic novel (the use of frames, or none, color, negative space, etc.) reveals how much thought was put into creating these comics. In discussing the way we make meaning, Stanley does a superlative job of giving meaning to the visual effects created on the page.  

“Watchers in the Woods” by Kristopher Karl Woofter is all about The Cabin in the Woods and, while it does look briefly at the parallels between this film and Dollhouse, I don’t think the discussion of diegesis was all that mind-blowing.  I almost felt that Woofter wasn’t particular fond of the movie or what it was trying to achieve because the essay itself has an ambivalence towards its subject matter that is not merely objective.  

“Joss Whedon Throws His Mighty Shield” by Ensley F Guffey discusses the elements of The Avengers and how it serves as a classic war film (ala The Sands of Iwo Jima, et al).  In an odd bit of coincidental timing, I had just watched Band of Brothers so my appreciation for this essay was enhanced because I haven't seen a great many war films and would have otherwise lacked a frame of reference.  I had not considered that Whedon's usual sardonic skepticism is set aside in favor honoring the primary source and that is interesting to notice (especially when juxtaposing it against certain episodes of his television shows).

Part Six:  Overarching Topics--I have to say that I loved this section of the overall collection best because each essay seemed to complement and build upon what was said before, taking a broader view of Whedon's oeuvre.  While the earlier essays were good, they did not piece together as seamlessly as these final ones seemed to do.

"Stuffing a Rabbit in It" by Lorna Jowett and "Adventures in the Moral Imagination" by J Douglas Rabb and J Michael Richardson both look at the theme of memory, with the former essay focusing on the use of flashback and how memory makes meaning while the latter delves into how memory informs and defines the self (with a nod to Sartre along the way).

"Technology and Magic" by Jeffrey Bussolini carries the idea of how we define ourselves forward into addressing how technology and magic are used in the Whedonverse to compromise the idea of free will and how the mind and body are manifest even when we think one has been changed.

"From Old Heresies to Future Paradigms" by Gregory Erickson takes the exploration further by looking at the meaning of body and soul in the Whedonverse and comparing it with traditional and heretical religious perspectives.

"Hot Chicks with Superpowers" by Lauren Schultz looks at the criticism of Whedon's feminism, with a focus on Dollhouse, although Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and River (Firefly/Serenity) are brought into the discussion the impetus seems to be a defense of the one show rather than an exploration of an overarching theme.  Frankly, the essay by Sutherland and Swan did a better job of proving its point than this essay did and I am not even certain why this essay wasn't simply included in that part rather than here.

"Whedon Studies" by Tanya R Cochran is a summarized history of the ongoing scholarship of the Whedonverse in which the essayist lists the first doctoral dissertation, various conferences and symposia, as well as many publications that have all focused on Buffy et al.

A Dog Year by Jon Katz

A Dog Year: Twelve Months, Four Dogs, and Me by Jon Katz is a sweet memoir about a man, his two Labrador retrievers, and how their lives were turned upside down when he offered to rescue a border collie which had been abandoned.  My mother gave me this book a couple of years ago but I didn’t choose to read it until recently and the timing could not have been more perfect.  Holly has been such a loving albeit disruptive force in our lives and I took great delight in reading about Katz and the chaos that ensued. 

The author does a lovely job of first inviting us into his home, describing his easy-going life.  His two retrievers, Julian and Stanley, are innately mellow, following him through his day, quietly resting at his feet as he writes, and being a companion to him and his wife.  Then someone who had read a previous book by Katz sends him an email about a border collie that needs a home.  Although he doesn’t immediately embrace the idea, soon enough he is at the airport, picking up Devon.  But nothing can fully prepare him for the intelligence, the weariness, the sheer willfulness of this dog.

You can see why I would gravitate to this book, although the truth is Holly has been far easier to integrate into our hearts and home than Snowdoll.  And the author pulls no punches when it comes to sharing his failings and frustrations as he tries to discipline a dog who manages to outwit him at nearly every turn.  Be prepared to fall in love, to cry, and to rejoice.  If you can’t imagine why anyone would or could love a dog, this book should sell you on the treasure a canine companion can be.  Katz does make a point of concluding his book with a disclaimer about adopting a border collie in particular but dogs in general.  Each breed has particular characteristics making some more ideal for certain lifestyles than others.  Personally, after reading this book, I know I’m not cut out for a border collie but I can see why the author would do this.  He writes so lovingly about the best and worst of his experiences that it would be easy to fall into the allure of not only owning a dog but a border collie.  As for me, I think I could share my heart and home with a retriever but, for now, I think we’re content with our two huskies.   

And a bit of Satia trivia for you . . .

My mother has only gone to two book signings in her life.  One was my step-sister's book signing and the other was for this author's book.  One of the titular "four dogs" was there with him and my mother asked his wife to sign the book.  Not the author--the author's wife.  The copy she gave to me was not signed.  Apparently that book was loaned to someone who never returned it.  So I had hoped to get in touch with the author and see if I could have him and his wife sign the copy my mother gave to me.  Unfortunately, this was one of the first of several books Holly devoured.  Oh well.  It would have been a wonderful gift, if I could have pulled it off.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Structuring Your Novel by K M Weiland

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story by K M Weiland is exactly the writing book I needed to read to make sense of what is meant by how a story should be structured.  I have been a longtime reader of her newsletter (and I encourage anyone who is an aspiring writer to subscribe to it immediately) and had high expectations for this book.  In fact, I was eager to just devour it.  Unfortunately, early in the book she says she’ll be drawing on four particular “texts” and I had to first watch a movie.  Fortunately, I’d read the two novels mentioned and had seen the one film so I only had a little catching up to do. 

Once I felt ready to start, I found myself unable to just plow through the book.  I began reading with a vague idea of a story and, as I was reading, I found myself forming more details about my story.  Weiland explains some basic narrative rules which are typical for how stories are told.  At the 25/50/75% mark, certain events should happen and, while it seems restricting, it does make sense.  And yes, rules are made to be broken; but first you have to know the rule to know when and how to break it.  In thinking about my vague story idea as I was reading this book, I found it all becoming more concrete for me. 

As it turns out, however, I could have started reading this book right away because the author doesn’t discuss the four source texts until the fifth chapter.  Furthermore, they are not her only sources she uses for exemplary purposes.  I literally had to skip whole paragraphs because I loathe spoilers and had not read and/or seen some of the sources she uses.  I found this off-putting and somewhat dishonest.   Had I known that so many other resources would be used, I doubt I would have made the effort to familiarize myself with all of them.  That would have been too time-consuming.  Still, that other sources were used and the ones I was clearly told will be used weren’t even mentioned again for four chapters . . .well, I found that odd.

I also did not like the final chapter, which felt tacked on and wasn’t remarkably useful.  The points made in the chapter are the things I repeatedly point out to writers when I’m editing their work so maybe it wasn’t strong to me because the advice seemed obvious.  It felt like Weiland didn’t know what else to say and decided to just dump one more idea into a book that is otherwise strong.  I think she could have devoted this last chapter to sharing a more personal account of her editing process, of how she may know all these rules for writing, yet she has to go through her finished rough draft manuscript and polish it, etc.  Thematically, this would have flowed better with the rest of the book.

Don’t expect any writing exercises.  This book is not going to hold your hand and walk you through some step-by-step process.  Instead, it presents its points in a clear manner that makes it practical within your own process, whatever that process may be.  I would still suggest, if you haven’t done so already, to devote time to the four source texts if you are as troubled by spoilers as I am.  If you don’t particularly care one way or the other, then read with impunity. 

I definitely want to read her other writing book, Outlining Your Novel, because, while I feel like I’m one step closer to knowing how I will structure my young adult novel, I’m not sure I have enough of a concrete vision for it to start working on it.  Not yet, anyway. 

The four texts used as examples are:

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place:  The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood is the first of a series of children’s chapter books.  This first installment introduces the characters.  Penelope is hired to be the governess of three children—Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia.  She is hired when Lord Ashton brings home three children he found on his property, children who were abandoned and raised by wolves.  His wife is confused by his determination to keep the children and not simply drop them off in an orphanage.  Neither has any real interest in caring for the children and leave Penelope to take full responsibility for their upbringing.

The author draws on classic literature, like Jane Eyre, while infusing her work with a contemporary tone, not unlike that found in the Lemony Snicket series.  The story is amusing and I can see why my granddaughter loves them.  I found myself finding ways to use the novels as a foundation for more.  Penelope reads poetry to the children, specifically The Wreck of the Hesperus.  Those familiar with Anne of Green Gables may recall this poem being one that is recited in one of the episodes.  And, of course, the children’s names are also an invitation to learn more about legendary and historical people.  There is also a mention of finger knitting, which is apparently so simple even a child could do it.  (I wish we had some yarn in the house so I could try it and then possibly teach Bibi how to do it for herself.)

I always appreciate a children’s book that invites learning beyond what is on the page.  With that said, I kept waiting for the titular “mysterious howl” to enter the story.  I have no idea why the author takes so long to introduce it.  And then the mystery isn’t even resolved.  In fact, very little is resolved.  I have my suspicions about the lord of the manor who disappears occasionally (and why he does so) but if you think you’ll find out who abandoned these three children and why you won’t have that answer in the pages of this book.  Nor will you know for certain what the mysterious howl is because you won’t even “hear” it until nearly the end of the novel.  (I have my guesses about the cause of that as well.)

From what I understand, the cliffhanger ending becomes more pronounced as the books go along, not resolving much of the narrative.  I may postpone reading the rest of the books until they have all been published.   Since my son and his wife are reading these books to my granddaughter, I may wait until they tell me the series is finished.  In the meantime, this is a cute and quirky book and, for those who loved the Lemony Snicket books and who don’t mind reading a novel that reads more like a part of a longer story then this book will probably delight.   

Monday, March 17, 2014

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D Ehrman

Misquoting Jesus:  The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D Ehrman is an exploration of how both the history of the Bible, in particular the New Testament, and the historical circumstances that affected the final text we now consider The Bible. 

At first, I found the book provocative and very interesting, as the author first explained his spiritual background, how he eventually came to study the oldest manuscripts in the original languages, and what he came to understand about the Bible through his long research.  The first few chapters become somewhat redundant as he explains how the scribes could make mistakes or even consciously change one manuscript.  He goes into great detail.  So much so that, when he finally shares a few specific examples, it’s a bit frustrating. 

I’m glad I didn’t give up on this book, in spite of my finding it occasionally boring.  With the introduction of the printing press, things changed although, in some ways, they also stayed the same.  Before the printing press, however, manuscripts were copied manually, resulting in incidental changes.  And apparently there are thousands of mistakes.  Given that the oldest manuscripts we have were written 200 years after the original, that there are only a very few that are even that old, one can only imagine how many times each was copied and how easily one or more mistakes could be inserted. 

My favorite parts of the book included specific examples, for instance with I Timothy 3:16 where the word who ΟΣ becomes God ΘΣ as the result of bleed through, ink fading in and changing one letter, thus changing the meaning of a single word which, in turn, changes the meaning of the text itself.  This is, of course, one of several examples and he concedes that most of them are not so overweighed with implication.  Still, he makes a strong argument for why it matters and it is not enough to say “but they all mean the same thing” when, the truth is, even the accidental changes complicate the text’s very meaning.

One odd observation I took away from reading the book is how essential it is for some people to insist on the veracity of God’s Word.  When your faith is rooted in sola scriptura, how could it not?  Every word must be inspired and correct or how can you believe?  This also put the Catholic attitude towards the Bible in a context that finally made sense to me because I did find it confusing that someone would be raised in a faith based on a particular book while still being unfamiliar with the text itself.  So literary criticism of the Bible is not a threat to the faith of some Christians.  However, long before I read this book, I did read a book that argued that literary criticism could not be used with Biblical texts because the Bible is above such scrutiny.

There are, naturally, those detractors who will not accept anything Ehrman has to say, will deny or refute what evidence he provides.  Those who must believe in the inerrant word, who hold the King James Version as the authoritative text, will likely not even open this book.  The title alone would turn those readers away.  Others will read to argue that he does not make a convincing argument or even accuse the author of attacking Christianity, undermining The Truth, and such. 

For me, the points he makes are often unsurprising.  The King James Version, it is commonly known although not universally accepted, relied on corrupted manuscripts.  Many more manuscripts have since been found in the centuries since then.  But the number of a particular manuscript variation doesn’t ensure a better version.  Ehrman explains that when one early manuscript was copied more frequently doesn’t imply it is the preferred or most precise. 

For instance, if there are three early Christian sects, and as we know there were many more than three, and each copied a version of Mark’s gospel, imagine if sect A had a scribe that made no mistakes, while sect B made one mistake and one “correction,” and sect C made several accidental changes.  Now, what if sect C is more successful in finding converts?  They are distributing a manuscript with more mistakes than either of the other sects.  More people will inevitably result in more copies of this manuscript.  And don’t forget that nearly every time a manuscript is copied, there is room for more mistakes to be introduced.   If sects A and B are eventually labeled as heretical and fade into non-existence, their few and far between manuscripts are harder to find.  So there isn’t any strength in numbers.

There are other insights like this that make this book a provocative and interesting read.  So much so, I am adding Ehrman’s other books to my Neverending-To-Be-Read-List.  I would definitely recommend this book to Christians who are not afraid to imagine the possibility that early Christians may have manipulated the manuscripts in response to certain historical circumstances.  This is by no means an exhaustive look at the subject but it is a good introduction and, if you commit to reading it in spite of its feeling sometimes redundant, it’s well worth the reading.

PS:  When I went to get the image and link for this blog post, I found these two books which argue that Ehrman is wrong, proving what I said above about how some people will want to refute his contentions.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher K Germer

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:  Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions by Christopher K Germer, PhD  is a worthy addition to the pantheon of books on mindfulness meditation and, specifically, metta meditation.  Because of his experience as a psychologist, the author brings more of a clinical rationale for the power of meditation. 

This is not to suggest that the book is tedious to read.  He intersperses the book with various stories from his work with counselees and refers to research without getting too caught up in numbers along with quotes from poetry and other sources, including a collection of relevant and amusing cartoons.  The book begins with the usual “why mindfulness” approach, laying a foundation for the various types of meditation practice that will be introduced throughout the book.  Germer takes a gradual approach to meditation, beginning with mindfulness, focusing on the breath, for a mere 5 minutes. 

There are other meditation practices introduced—walking meditation, sound meditation—building up to longer practices and eventually metta meditation.  Even the metta meditation is introduced gradually.  For those unfamiliar with metta meditation, the practitioner begins by repeating several phrases (May I be safe/May I be happy/ May I be healthy/May I live with ease) and then moves onto meditation not on the “I” but on others—a neutral person, a person who brings happiness (or mentor), a person who has hurt or angered the meditator, and all sentient beings in general.  Germer suggests staying with the first phrases, focusing on the self, before moving onto the other phrases.  (He even goes so far to say that some meditation teachers suggest repeating only this for over a year.  Can you imagine?)

Through his experience as a psychologist, he explains how the process of practice changes, much the way a romantic relationship evolves.  This is not surprising because metta meditation begins with loving yourself, and, with self-compassion at the core of the meditation practice, the practitioner is building a relationship with the self, one that will go through the same stages as any other, from rose-colored love to disenchantment to, eventually but gradually, acceptance.  I hadn’t really thought about how interconnected self-compassion and acceptance are.  That is one thing I will take away from this book.  Actually, there are other things that I will take with me and I wish I had read this book with someone else.  I’ll want to read it again, to take the time to do each of the practices he describes and explore them more carefully.  But I chose this book for one of my “monthly reads” and pushed myself to finish it rather than really explore it.  In the meantime, I’m definitely looking for ways to begin a meditation practice even as my life seems to be changing.  We’ll see how that goes.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty

Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty is the fifth and final Jessica Darling novel and, after all the ups and downs, she is still as insecure and confused as ever.  She is also as loyal and deeply committed to her friends and family as ever. Not that you really get to know anyone other than Jessica and, this time around, one other person, because, when she literally runs into Marcus Flutie at the airport, the novel slips between their two points-of-view. 

Because the novel is more focused on just the two of them, it is perhaps the strongest one of the series.  If nothing else, it’s at least as strong as the first novel in the series which greatly benefited from its format.  But now, having the opportunity to get inside Marcus’ mind, to see what is motivating him and how he feels about Jessica, is a powerful narrative choice.  I think McCafferty did a good job crafting this series in general and I want to reiterate how much I appreciate her choosing to allow Jessica to make the kind of choices a young woman can make for herself—to get an education, to walk away from a relationship that is confusing and overly complicated, to honor herself and allow for mistakes along the way.

In other words, from the first book through this fifth one, we see Jessica grow up into a young woman who still has doubts and desires and dreams and still more doubts.  Yes, she is the only well-rounded, fully realized character in the series, surrounded as she is with flat, two-dimensional support players, but she personifies what I think most young women are and how they feel about themselves.  I wish Marcus had become something or someone more interesting and it shouldn’t have taken five books to make him someone the reader could see Jessica falling in love with.  But if I have to settle for just getting to spend a little more time with Jessica and still not really getting to know anyone else whatsoever, that’s okay.   These are fun books and I enjoyed reading them, frivolous though they may be.  And, best of all, you want Jessica Darling to have her happily ever after but McCafferty has the sense to know that life is never so uncomplicated and she has the confidence to trust her reader to know this as well.  A perfectly gratifying conclusion to a good series of novels.
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