Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
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I came to read this book because last summer I was given, unexpectedly, a review copy of Dexter's latest book, Train; (my review). I had never heard of Dexter at the time, but I loved the book, and when Dexter came to the book store to do a reading, I made sure I was in attendance (he turned out to be a very engaging guy) and had him sign a copy of Paris Trout for me. And now I've gotten around to reading that very same book. Paris Trout centers around a character of the same name. Though he is clearly a psychopath, he has money and is a business man, so his violent nature is ignored by the citizens of his small town, Cotton Point, Georgia. The book opens with an attack by Trout on a local black family. The town's white population does not want to be seen siding with a black family against a white man, so, from then on they turn a blind eye towards Trout and allow him to bully the legal system. Also involved in this hard boiled drama are Trout's wife Hanna and Harry Seagraves, Trout's good-guy lawyer. The book is framed as the story of a very bad man terrorizing a sleepy town, but the amazing thing about it is the way Dexter slowly turns the tables until it becomes clear that the complacency of the townspeople is a far greater sin than the murderousness of someone who lives among them. Though it reads like genre fiction with gripping suspense and at times remarkable violence, the subtle play on the psychology of a small town elevates the book to a remarkable literary novel. Although, I should say, if this book were not as deep and were merely a legal thriller, I would still have found it to be fantastic based on the strength of Dexter's writing. A great book. (Another Dexter post).Next UpI am now embarking upon Edith Grossman's translation of Miguel De Cervantes' classic, Don Quixote. After that I'll be reading Walker Percy's underappreciated classic The Moviegoer
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Throughout his career, William Boyd has evaded classification. What kind of novelist is he? What kind of books does he write? The themes in his works are various, and as a result stubbornly refuse to be filed under any handy group heading. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was farcical fun. 2002’s Any Human Heart was a magnificent fictional autobiography, and recent offering, Restless, was an evocative Second World War spy novel which shone a fresh light on the genre, chiefly in its treatment of identity. So what about the identity of the author? Who could he sit comfortably alongside? For if we can’t categorise his oeuvre then we may have more luck categorizing him – such is this British insistence on shacking British writers up with likeminded literary bedfellows. Many critics think he has been robbed and should always have been the fourth wheel of the McEwan-Amis-Rushdie triumvirate (or sneaky fifth column if you accept the inclusion of Julian Barnes). Others feel he has a claim to inclusion only because of generation, not artistic merit. Boyd could be the outsider, ploughing his own furrow and glad of it. He has the dark naturalism of McEwan but eschews the verbal dynamism of Amis and magical realism of Rushdie. For my money his closest teammate is Sebastian Faulks. We might still be waiting for Boyd to produce something as durable as Birdsong but both write competent, confident fiction and are equally adept at relighting the past as they are at providing rich insight into the present. Any Human Heart has the same broad strokes and masterful period detail as Human Traces, and with its backdrop of war and desperation, Charlotte Gray is an antecedent for Restless. Now, in his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd returns to the red thread that ran through its predecessor and spools it round a new reel. If Restless was about the search for identity then Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about the need to conceal it. Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with familiar territory. During a trip to London for a job interview, Adam Kindred gets into conversation with an immunologist in a restaurant. When Adam visits the man’s apartment later to return the folder he left behind he finds him dying, with a knife stuck in his side. The man dies on him in mid-sentence and Adam flees from the scene of the crime with the folder. The novel deals with Adam trying to evade capture by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, and a nut-job contract killer eager to get his hands on the folder for his paymasters. Armadillo (1998) starts in a similar fashion, with the protagonist walking in on a hanged man. But Boyd has made no bones about this opener being an updated Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a pity its beginning couldn’t have been as plausible. Adam’s fellow diner asks him the time and then “they inevitably began to talk.” This is a cheap conceit to join dots and unite characters. Also “inevitably” is too presumptuous, unless Boyd himself is one of those garrulous, gregarious sorts who like nothing better than to acquaint themselves with taxi drivers, check-out assistants and the person sitting next to them in the aisle seat. We make a sharp slide from presumptuous to preposterous. Following the dying man’s orders Adam pulls out the knife – yes, that was pulls out the knife – and then finds himself faced with a double quandary: his fingerprints are on the knife, but, now more pressing, he has heard movement on the balcony outside. Clearly the scientist’s attacker hasn’t yet exited the building. Managing to escape in one piece, Adam then acts even more recklessly by opting to head for a Pimlico pub where, temporarily shored up, he can recover from his shock by downing several whiskies and devouring bags of peanuts. The problem an author faces when presenting such characters is that one man’s reckless is another man’s idiotic; foolhardy is not a large jump to foolish. We lurch onwards and are forced to suspend our disbelief some more when Adam abstains from dialling 999 and protesting his innocence and instead settles down to a life lived rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea until things blow over. The thriller that Boyd set out to write has by turns gripped us then cheated us, and we’re only at the end of chapter one. Luckily, chapter two heralds a new character, Rita Nashe, a policewoman, and chapter three introduces us to Ingram Fryzer, head of the pharmaceutical multinational for which our corpse once worked. Extra characters are needed to offset dopey Adam, and it is a relief to know he is not to carry the whole of the novel on his shoulders. Boyd brings Adam back in chapter four and in doing so takes two steps back from the one step forward he’s made by giving us the hope of a wider perspective seen through the eyes of Rita and Fryzer. Adam decides to stay off the grid and go underground. From now on he’ll shun phones, internet and cash machines and become an “urban ghost”, one of the 600 people who go missing in Britain every week. It isn’t long before he is erecting a make-shift tent, bathing in the Thames and eating seagulls. He – or perhaps the reader – is bailed out as Boyd feeds us more characters from all walks of London life. He expands on the Fryzer strand by introducing Ivo, his brother-in-law and a louche Lord of the Realm; Mhouse, a prostitute, who laces her son’s cornflakes with rum and crushed Diazepam, and whose life on a Rotherhithe sink estate is unflinchingly portrayed as a daily fight for survival; and our two villains, Alfredo Rilke, the shady owner of Rilke Pharmaceutical, whose “controlling interest” extends to people as well as companies, and Jonjo our hitman-for-hire who injects not only violence but menace. The novel works best when Boyd rouses Adam from his self-pitying funk and gets him away from his wasteland and interacting with the rest of the cast and London itself. We are gripped when it seems that Jonjo is closing in on him; there is a tenderness in the scenes where he teaches Mhouse’s son Ly-on to read; and the satiric scenes in the Church of John Christ – complete with charlatan preacher and a congregation made up of illegal immigrants, scamsters and paedophiles - are blackly comical. When he ventures out, London becomes alive, Adam becomes alive and the novel takes shape. With the city, Boyd is particularly interested in the river. The Thames opens and ends the book and permeates key chapters, providing settings for the vagrant Adam, a backdrop for Rita’s new career in the Marine Support Unit and her domestic life on her father’s houseboat, and a dumping ground for two bodies. With each tidal ebb the river shifts in character, sometimes sinister, sometimes with the same colours as a Fauvist painting – indeed, “at low tide everything changed”, and for the worse: “Correspondingly, the city suffered aesthetically.” Thus the river has the power to transform the city, regenerating it and wrecking it, and in a similar way Adam’s changes bring colour to what would otherwise be a humdrum thriller. He goes from Adam Kindred, climatologist, to an identity-less nobody on the embankment, to John 1603, and lastly re-enters society as Primo Belem. In his essay"‘On Personal Identity" William Hazlitt states that for all the admiration and envy we feel for others, “no one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself.” However, necessity prevails here: Adam has to slough off one identity and assume another. It is when he does so that Boyd increases the momentum, as if remembering he has set out to write a thriller. And if the last section of the book has Adam running around the city a little too much like Jason Bourne, it is still immensely preferable to him sitting still in Crusoe-like solitude at the beginning. We might scorn them but the two main rules of the thriller are incontestable: excitement is the drama of movement rather than stasis; and you can strain the reader’s credulity but don’t try our patience. The book isn’t as thrilling as a thriller should be, and it is almost as if Boyd got bored halfway through of the genre he had shackled himself to and was far more interested in fleshing out his characters. The scenes in The Shaft, Mhouse’s estate, are extremely effective, and Boyd is able to add colour and the requisite grittiness to the gangs, pimps and pushers, not to mention the poor victims caught in the crossfire, while remaining unpatronizing. Mr Quality, Mhouse’s landlord, is lightly sketched but we get enough strokes to learn it’s not only exorbitant rent he commands from her. Boyd even invents a Clockwork Orange-esque vernacular for The Shaft’s cheap hustlers: good things are flat, ordinary people are mims; “You scatter my head,” Mhouse tells Adam. A thriller writer is allowed to slow the pace and insert postmodern pyrotechnics but there had better be a good reason to do so. Boyd gets mixed results. True, the momentum is drastically impeded, but the characters are so good and their street-talk so vibrant that the reader is prepared to make allowances. Boyd is of course less successful when the bit-parters don’t light up the page. Fryzer’s family are stock caricatures, right down to his spoiled-brat kids and long suffering wife; and his doctor, a benign old Scot, is a chronically bad pick-and-mix stereotype who enjoys a dram of whisky during surgery hours and even says “You’ll have had your tea.” All that is missing is the kilt and shortbread. Finally, there is the nagging suspicion that Boyd is also keen to expand on this theme of identity, or better still, being identity-less in the twenty-first century. This would have been an intriguing topic to explore, particularly in a country which has a huge overreliance on CCTV and yet has reversed its decision to introduce mandatory identity cards. In fiction, we are fascinated by characters with concealed identities – from the amnesiac walking-wounded or Victorian dispossessed in search of an identity, to the spies or confidence tricksters with too many identities, multiple passports and aliases. Sadly the idea is only touched upon here, with more screen time being dedicated to the almost hackneyed thriller staples of innocent men on the run, maniacal rent-a-killers and the collateral damage caused by the corporate greed of bad Big Pharma. Coming in at four hundred pages, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a lengthy thriller. The pace meanders like the river at its heart and only towards the end is there a current-like narrative pull. Miraculously Adam doesn’t die from drinking from the Thames (“brownish water with some sediment but the taste was acceptable”) but thanks to the strong omniscient voice the reader is kept guessing until the end as to whether Adam will elude Jonjo in their cat-and-mouse game. Weighing the strengths of Ordinary Thunderstorms we can declare it could be weightier, that it is full of untapped ambition and potential, with snapped-off strands which could have led off in more interesting directions but instead are left dangling. Boyd is not Buchan but nor does he try to be. Unlike many of his Scottish contemporaries he is also no purveyor of tartan noir. Which brings us back all the more tenaciously to our original problem: how to categorise him? How to categorize the novel? Does it even matter? It is clear the book suffers from the same identity crisis shared by its protagonist. Only Boyd will know if he has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Whatever, he deserves respect for attempting to do something new with London, and for creating a panoply of characters, low life and high society, all of whom in the main ring true enough to belong there.
1. At the outset of Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant Moth Smoke, a terrible crime has been committed. A child has been killed. A judge, rendered rather unusually in the second person, watches as a diverse cast of characters enters the courtroom: the defendant’s partner in crime, Murad Badshah; the defendant’s childhood best friend, Aurangzeb, known as Ozi, exuding good taste and money; Ozi’s estranged wife, Mumtaz, exuding fury. A crowd of spectators filters in behind them, drawn from every strata of Pakistan’s extremely stratified society. And then the defendant, Darashikoh Shezad, Daru for short: “[a] hard man with shadowed eyes, manacled, cuffed, disheveled, proud, erect. A man capable of anything and afraid of nothing.” But if Daru’s afraid of nothing, it’s because he has nothing left to lose. Hamid’s novel shifts back some months, to the day when Daru’s long slide began. Before he was languishing in prison cells and shuffling into courtrooms in chains, he held a respectable position at a bank. But even then, his position in middle-class society was fragile. Ozi and Daru’s fathers served in the army together, and Ozi’s father watched over Daru after Daru’s father died. Daru and Ozi went to the same elite school, the most prestigious in Lahore, Daru’s tuition paid for by Ozi’s father. Daru did better than Ozi on the SATs, but while Ozi was accepted into three foreign universities, Daru wasn’t accepted into any, because Ozi's father's generosity didn't extend as far as college tuition and it’s difficult to obtain financial aid if one’s a foreign student. Ozi went to study overseas; Daru stayed in Pakistan. Ozi loved studying in America; Daru hated the local college where he ended up. While the book is specific to a time and a place — Lahore, Pakistan, spring 1998 — the essential difference between Ozi and Daru comes down to the difference between the poor and the comfortable everywhere: one has a margin for error in his life, whereas the other does not. When Daru snaps at a rude client at the bank and is immediately fired, there’s no safety net to break his fall. He obtained his job only because Ozi’s father called in a favor, but now the economy is such that even Ozi's father can't help. Elle Magazine called this “a crackling funny first novel,” and it often is, but Daru’s slide into addiction and criminality is harrowing. The crackling surrounds a deadly serious core. 2. Hamid is best-known for his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Moth Smoke, recently re-released by Riverhead, was his first. The plotting is masterful, especially for a first novel; Hamid's shifts in perspective are effective, and while we know from the courtroom scene at the beginning that a child will be killed, we don't know which one, which makes the appearance of every child in these pages an event fraught with peril. Moth Smoke was published to considerable critical acclaim in 2000, which is to say after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapons, and the arms race between Pakistan and India form the jittery backdrop to Daru’s long goodbye. The book is suffused through and through by a terrible uncertainty, a sense of ground shifting beneath one’s feet. Hamid uses Daru’s descent from middle-class respectability to desperation as a lens through which to examine the corruption and the complexities of late-90's Pakistani society. It’s not an especially flattering portrait, but a major strength of the book is Hamid’s refusal to take an easy moralistic stance. Daru is a victim of circumstance, but he’s also capable of cruelty, poor decisions, and hypocrisy. He feels victimized by the monied classes, but mistreats the boy who keeps house for him. He carries a strain of entitlement; he’s insulted by the suggestion that he sell cars for a living. Through his education and through his friendship with Ozi he’s been allowed a glimpse at an entirely different Pakistan, the Lahore of the monied elite, and his rage is fueled by the impossibility of crossing the border from his Pakistan to Ozi’s. Ozi's Pakistan is a fortress. Money is the only way in. Ozi is amoral, but on the other hand, as he notes in a chapter told from his perspective, he manages not to slap his housekeeper and he doesn’t sleep with his best friend’s wife, which is more than can be said for Daru. Yes, Ozi acknowledges, the rich in Pakistan use their money to create their own reality, separate from the rest of the struggling country, but what choice do they have? “The roads are falling apart," he notes, ...so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser. The phone lines are erratic, so you need a mobile. The colleges are overrun by fundos who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad. ...Thanks to electricity theft there will always be shortages, so you have to have a generator. The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. It goes on and on. It’s a cynical stance, but not an incomprehensible one. The book sounds a warning of the perils of allowing a considerable sector of the population to slide into disenfranchisement while the 1% seal themselves off in a privatized bubble, and it's as relevant now as it was upon first publication twelve years ago.
“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.” Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that--we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.” Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D'J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man's fiction; my favorites are "The Way It Has To Be" and "Time and Again." It would be foolish to deny Pancake's literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters' lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes's list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes. One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney "was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet." Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like "Autumn Again," where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but "this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling." Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range. The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.” Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded-- / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.” Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.” Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist--“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”--these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.” The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme: No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer. What would you rather have than a thing you know spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded, in another’s accent? Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”
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