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east bay WINTERS split#
journal #13 - East Bay/Winters SPLIT - Mar. 15, 2012 to May 4, 2012
      also: journal #12 - #14 - #15       

Most every week we're on interstate 80 ... moving between the East Bay and the Central Valley city of Winters. We are splitting our time, 3 or 4 days here, 3 or 4 days there—keeping busy, and, as always, reading. There is always a heavy, over-stuffed sack of books moving right along with us.
more book journals
    what's John READING now?      Vicky's Page

crowingbook to crow about    not the best or the worst    special type of book special creative design    p no enjoyment, but no warts



the last werewolfthe coldest nightbinocular visioneverything you knowcity of bohanecrafting novels & short stories


The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan (F/353p) 5.4.12

Many years have gone by the wayside since I've read about any werewolves.


The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead (F/287p) 5.2.12

Olmstead has gone the route of love and war with his newest novel


Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (F/373) 4.29.12
This collection of short stories was a gift from my loving Valentine, aka Vicky. It's always exciting to discover a new writer. Yet, unnoticed by me, she's already: won the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award, and is still a 2011 finalist for the National Book Award. 


Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (F/203) 4.28.12


City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (F/277p) 4.26.12

There has been quite a bit of buzz about this novel. Vicky finished a pleasant time reading it and passed it over to my side of the bed.


Crafting Novels & Short Stories by the editors of Writers Digest (NF/340p) 4.24.12

I'm always looking at writing books. This seems to be set up well and brings many different authors and voices into the mix. In the section dealing with characters, one writer's advice was to avoid adultery—now that surprised me. Turns out this is the writer of more than 80 romance titles. OK, not all advice is good.


art of fieldingheart of danknessthe great northern expressraymond carverlambdrift

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (F/509p) 4.20.12

This ARC had been sitting around unread for too long. I have now just finished it. And while it has some moments of fabulous writing (the first page hooked me good), I come at this book with no love of baseball, and Fielding has a lot of baseball. There are a number of interesting characters, put into some very unique positions as the story unfolds, and there is a lot going on in the book's 500 pages, but there is all that baseball. Now, I'm not saying I was surprised at the baseball being there. I'm not saying I haven't been thoroughly entertained by baseball books in the past. It just didn't come together enough for me. I will come back to this review—after I reflect a little more on the book. But I won't be watching any diamond action in the meantime.


Heart of Dankness by Mark Haskell Smith (NF/233p) 4.16.12

   I really enjoyed this river trip through the jungles of knowledge on developing, growing, selling, and celebrating the fine herb, marijuana. As anyone would imagine, with or without smoking any substance, this world has some very colorful characters. Though the current federal crackdown happened after the writing of Dankness, there are voices throughout the book, that see such great potential and troubles in a land where—more and more states are seeing the light of varying styles of legalization—and the federal officials is choosing the way of darkness, and continuing a retarded "war on drugs." This effort is easily our country's longest and most worthless trumped-up conflict.

    Richard Lee of Oaksterdam, who was recently arrested when they raided all of his cannabis-related Oakland businesses and university, very aptly says, "The world of cannabis is simultaneously hopeful and fraught with danger."

   The book traveled to Amsterdam repeatedly—the book climaxes with winners of the Cannabis Cup there—as well as: checking in on the growers in the green national forests of California's Sierra country, several of the "state legal" dispensaries in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, a stop and talk with the people at Oaksterdam in Oakland, and many other locales. The seed people are some of the most obsessed characters described, and when it comes to developing new strains and varietals (yes, a little wine talk creep, on its way to becoming marijuana talk) the sky's the limit.

   There is a lot of information on all aspects of the herb world, and plenty of philosophy and lore as well. Many of the people, and most of the stories told, are hilarious, incredible, and bizarre. Our author, Mr. Smith, shows us a good sense of humor, and he dives right in to sample his way into awareness and knowledge. Sometimes he's quite tongue-in-cheek in the book, and at others times he seems to be barely holding-it-together as he shares more information.

   The rarified—yet, mostly smoky—air of the world-class seed companies, is a very strange combination of completely-focused moneyed business interests and a little 1960s stoner freakiness. The book was a long strange trip, and one that was fully entertaining and educational.

   As to the title's term dankness, it proves elusive, yet definable in a personal way ... to most. 


trivia: If you Google "heart of dankness"—it will be tough to come up with this title. Heart of DARKNESS by Conrad is Google's way of "thinking"—not what you're looking for. It's what they offer you.


The Great Northern Express by Howard Frank Mosher (NF/246p) 4.14.12

   Here we have a favorite author of mine, one who moved to Vermont with his wife to teach high school, and still finds himself and wife there after 30 or 40 years. The years have slipped by, as the man became a professional writer, and took it upon himself to tell the stories of the northeast part of the state of Vermont. Many years ago a famous politician, George Aiken, named this three-county part of the state the Northeast Kingdom. Aiken, who was governor of the state when he named the Kingdom, became better known when he was the state's senator in DC, when he came up with his solution to the Vietnam War ... Declare victory and go home ... or his exact words were, "the United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam," "It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked." And, as a boy growing up in the Kingdom (Newport, Vermont to be precise), I remember that more often than not, it was The GREAT Northeast Kingdom.

    I had once set my goal in life to be a cranky old man living in Vermont. I've got most of it down ... I just find myself living in California. Mosher enjoys the area's people, and their great stories, too much to be my cranky stand-in.

    He brings a smile to my face often in this book. It's not just, hey, that's my old-stomping-grounds sort of a connection for me, it's much more. He's on a long, country-wide book tour for his last novel, and he's a strong supporter of reading and one of the best things about this country—our many unique independent bookstores. Another really humanizing aspect of the book, his very personal reflections on his decades living there, and what the state has become to him. It must be very special to live in an area as a writer, and realize you could make a difference by being THE writer telling the people's stories, before they become just more completely forgotten and lost stories of old, dead people.

   I was touched by this book. I was also very amused. Mosher does not suffer fools lightly. Bless him, and I hope the health scare that played a large part in this book tour has just become a memory.

   Even if you have no connection to Mosher or Vermont, I'm thinking that you will find this a moving and amusing read.


Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life by Carol Sklenicka (NF/500p) 4.13.12

   This biography was written twenty years after this renowned "Chekhov of middle America" (as some have called him) died at age fifty. And, I waited a couple, three years, after buying the hardback to get around to reading about one of my favorite writers. To be any kind of an honest reflection of this man's troubled life, I knew that it would be extremely bleak at times, and I couldn't bring myself to get into it before. Now I've finished it and I'm the richer for it. I also now know more of how a person's art can take over an artist's life. I also know that his life was the "stuff" of his art—the "oil" of his "canvas"—so to speak. At times, Carver was unwilling, or unable, to see how making public the people closest to him, could embarrass and hurt these people. Yet, so much about Carver's work was a brutal honesty. Things weren't pretty, neat and tidy, or, most of the time, very easy, for the characters portrayed in his short stories and poems.

   His personal life was everything his work was, and it was hard on him. His drinking, and that of those around him, was legendary. Hard-drinking and writing are almost expected of writers in our culture. Bizarre behavior and wild stories of writers abound. Sklenicka did bring up a cogent observation, many of these extreme stories of wild goings-on are relayed to the general public by those who were there to witness them, AND in most cases, these were famous fiction-writing friends, or young, striving-to-be-noticed writing students. Are these the type of people we should expect to give us the cold, honest truth, without any embellishments? Yet, in fact, his drinking did almost kill him several times. While at times his drinking was boorish, others times he was hilariously and very entertaining. And then, there was another habit, the constant smoking, that directly lead to his death.  

    I won't bore you with a summary of his whole life, but it was a long, painful process that took a toll on everyone around him. His first marriage to Maryann was a bond that lasted his entire life, yet she sacrificed so much to make the development of his writing craft possible. Carver's life wasn't all suffering, there were some very, good times with his many friends, and there were some years of good money and fame. Because he grew up with little, and struggled for many years trying to establish himself as a writer, once money came his way, he had a good time and was proud of it. He liked his money and what it could do, and was fairly generous with his money once it came his way.
Maybe the part of the Carver story that interests most readers, is the editing process, and how influential that was in his success. The name of his long-time editor and friend, Gordon Lish, will always be linked to Carver and his writing. Carver's most famous collection of short stories—and the one that signaled his arrival as a name writer in this country—What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, was reduced by almost half, as in almost 50%, by Lish's editing. Once Carver became aware of the severity of the editing, he asked Lish that the volume be held up at the presses. That did not happen. I have a British volume titled Beginners, that contains the unedited stories, but it wasn't published until 2009. There is a richness and a variety to the stories in Beginners that breathe a little deeper than the shorter versions in What We Talk About. Would he still have made such a splash with the longer, less minimal versions, no one can know for sure, but the stories in Beginners are impressive to this reader.
The medical problems leading to Carver's death, and the money scrambles after he passed, make up the end of the book, but the story of this writer's life, and death, are fascinating to anyone who's read Carver, or is interested in writers. He lived a full life in his fifty years, and most he definitely lived it totally dedicated to the written word...his was a writer's life.
I leave you with the book's last paragraph.
"I don't know what I want, but I want it now." Carver wrote in a pocket notebook. Perhaps a writer never knows exactly what he wants, but Carver had followed his impatience and yearning where it lead him, into some very dark places, and then beyond, toward that elusive goal he glimpsed in his youth—a writer's life. Another notebook entry that Tess Gallagher found after Carver's death gives what may be his own modest assessment of his life: "Whatever this was all about, this was not a vain attempt—journey."


Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (F/275p) 4.7.12

   I read this in two settings and truly enjoyed it. The plotline creates a tension quickly. Yet, it's could all be an unreasonable, conditioned response in the overly-sensitive, paranoid world we Americans live in...or NOT. There is a special relationship that quickly grows between an eleven-year-old girl—who is from a broken home (does anyone still use that term?) and has but a few friends—and a troubled liar of a man over fifty, who has seen his marriage end and his father's health decline very recently.

   Yes, troubled is what he is. Oh, and don't forget, an habitual liar. But, maybe to atone for how he has treated people, and women especially, he is very kind to young Tommie, he begins to bring presents and take this young girl out to share meals.
   When the novel then moves on to another phase, that troubling feeling the reader has in the back of their head, is certain to come forward. Yet, the conversations between the two figures are wonderful. This is some very good dialogue. There is an honesty and a straightforwardness that is so comfortable on the face of it. This much-older man seems to be honestly instructing and protecting his young student.

   I don't want to reveal any more about this novel, but it's very clever, and uniquely original in its writing. She just blew me away many times with her phrasing. Now that I've read the book, I regret having seen it so many times on bookstore shelves and not getting to know Mr. Lamb, Tommie, and Bonnie Nadzam's writing, much sooner.


"Lamb is one of the most powerful and original novels I have read in years. Beautiful, evocative, and brilliant." — T.C. Boyle


"Lamb is a remarkable debut, by a writer to watch. I will be thinking about these characters for a long time." — Amiee Bender

"Nadzam has a crisp, fluid writing style, and her dialogue is reminiscent of Sam Shepard's...[This is} storytelling as accomplished as it is unsettling." — Publishers Weekly


crowing Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow (NF/261p) 4.3.12
I picked this up  very shortly after it came out—I'm a big fan and follower of Rachel. I remember listening to her on Air America while building bookcases for our bookstores in my woodshop.
While she will certainly make you laugh at times, this is a pretty heavy subject. Yet, it's one that she keeps interesting, even while she is giving you an incredible amount of facts, figures and dates. Her writing style is straight forward and honest. She is not out here to play bad conservative / good progressive, she wants to get to the core of how we came to be in the position of perpetual war that our country currently finds itself in. She very clearly shows the many small and large steps that every US administration has taken to move the country into this position ... it was a drift that took place over decades.
   At times I found myself amazed and terrified over what has gone on in our past. When she starts covering the history and frightening present of our nuclear weapons arsenal, I became intrigued and angry. What could we have been thinking AND what will we do now? She sites the estimate that we have spent something like $8 trillion on these weapons—weapons which seem almost as dangerous to us and our allies, as to any enemy we might have.
   At the very end Rachel does present some commonsense ways out of this, our quagmire of a military policy. Key among them, is to make the entire country involved in any conflict, to feel some of the pain of war, and not to just say, "Our boys want to be professional soldiers AND let's go shopping with our money from the new tax cut." She also brings up something that always frosts me, how Congress can endlessly debate the most minor law, but when it comes to the decision of taking the country to war, it's all about who's the bigger patriot. Jesus, that explains Grenada and so many other stupid involvements.

some of the jacket blurbs:
"At a crossroads when Americans of all stripes are rethinking their country's priorities, Maddow's compelling take on how we drifted into the costly habit of perennial war—and how we might yet reverse it—could not be more timely." — Frank Rich
"It's scathingly funny, deeply insightful, and informed throughout by a deep and abiding sense of patriotism. Bravo, Rachel!" — Andrew Bacevich
"Drift is a book worth reading." — Roger Ailes, CEO of FOX News


maps and legendsdelavierswoodlandimagineflatscreenanother bullshit night in suck  city

special type of book  Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon (NF/222p) 3.29.12
   Here's a fine example of another really specially designed book catching my eye and not letting it go. McSweeney's Books designed something really special with a book printed on thick, nice-quality paper, in a simple hardcover, BUT there are two colorful, contrasting, heavy paper wraps around the book. The artwork on the 3/4 wraps is quite nice and seems to have several different versions—as the one pictured here doesn't match mine completely.

   Chabon travels widely around in his mind to give the reader a broad-ranging group of highly intelligent and humorous essays and other writings in this collection. His creativity easily matches that of the book's physical design. Several are insightful book review, and several more touch on the craft of writing, he reveals the writer's details of his life quite beautifully. Another is a fascinating essay, Fan Fictions, on Conan Doyle and his loathing of Sherlock Holmes, with which he made his living. Kids' Stuff, is an excellent look at the world of comics and graphic novels. Comics reached their zenith in the early 1950s with 650 million in yearly sales. Today, with so much attention given to graphic novels, yearly sales are only around 80 million, and dropping. Perceptions of reality are always interesting—we were always being told by the book trade press, to increase our graphic novel section. Chabon is a fine writer and can make any subject an entertaining and learning experience. If you love what a book can be, look for this collection.

Delavier's Stretching Anatomy by Frederic Delavier (NF/143p) 3.28.12

     So, I've READ through the entire book. Soon I will be putting it all into practice ... once my bod isn't so sore from remodeling a bathroom ... man, I'm feeling old. It has just been too long since I've run around and hit a tennis ball.
As to the book, it seems pretty complete. It separates out many different body parts and gives a variety of stretches, of different intensities, for each. The book also recommends some programs and stretch combinations for different levels and sports that are quite helpful. There are photos of real people doing each stretch, and then there are also drawings of bodies with the areas being worked on, highlighted in different colors. Why the drawings highlight breasts and genitals I know not why—it really doesn't make it anymore exciting or useful—whatever, it's natural. In all the tennis-filled years of my past, stretching was something I tended to practically avoid, and now I have some injuries and aches that could have been avoided had I done that all differently. Here's to the future ... smarter and more flexible. 

Woodland by Robin Datel, Dennis Dingemans & Thomas Krabacher (NF/125p) 3.25.12
This is a part of their Images of America series, those paperback books with the brown-tinted covers, on practically every community in the country. The text is 98% contained in the captions that accompany the huge number of great old photos that fill their books. It was a quick read, but it was so grand to see all those images and learn more about one of my favorite cities. While none of the houses we lived in was pictured, both of the locations of our bookstore were well represented. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the history of communities, architecture and old photos. Arcadia always seems to do a good job, and they let you learn about history without experiencing any old book mildew smell.   


Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (NF/253p) 3.25.12 (note my update following my glowing review)
    It's hard to imagine another book that I've been so excited about in some time. But, I have this Post-It problem. Because I don't want to fold pages down, I mark memorable parts of the books I'm reading, with small Post-It flags. This book ended up looking like a very colorful, paper porcupine. There are just so many fascinating facts—including how Post-Its came to be invented. Yes, I marked that part with ... a Post-It. Several times I used up all my available markers and had to start writing up my notes on the book so that I could reuse them to mark more passages.
Beyond my minor marking problems, this was a very stimulating and fascinating book. He is constantly pouring on the facts about what creativity is, how it manifests itself, but, so much more on all the different efforts being made to create more creativity.
I delighted in the hard fall that noncritical brainstorming took under his telling of the facts. Allowing no criticism or comments on anyone's contributions, so as not to stifle anyone's poor defenseless thoughts, was clearly exposed to waste a lot of time and to not create a situation that yields the most benefit. He uses examples of Steve Jobs (yes, most all of us are sick of hearing anything about Steve) at Pixar and Apple, where he promoted creativity by creating the maximum number of "chance" meetings (going to the centrally-located bathrooms and such) of a wide range of people, to give them different viewpoints and inspirations. People feeding off of each other and building something simply from the free exchange of thoughts.

     That is a reoccurring theme in the book, what does it take to make someone inspired to create? A blue-colored work space is a simple one. Travel and meeting different people is another. And then, let's mix into the book, a whole raft of different theories (successful and not) and a fair amount of scientific experimentation and data. It is all presented clearly and the arguments are well thought out.
A major hook in the book for me was that there is an entire chapter that uses Bob Dylan as an example of creativity. It involved the period when he had become disillusioned with the whole popular music scene, were he just couldn't face writing and singing his own songs in the same way. He "retired" to a home in Woodstock, New York. Well, let me quote from the book.
But then, just when Dylan was most determined to stop creating music, he was overcome with a strange feeling. "It's hard thing to describe. It's just this sense that you got something to say." What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. And so Dylan did the only thing he knew how to do: he grabbed a pencil and started to scribble. Once Dylan began, his hand didn't stop moving for the next several hours. "I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long." Dylan said. "I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do."
 Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing , with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight, that flow associations that can't be held back. Dylan said, "It's like a ghost is writing a song. It gives the song and it goes away. You don't know what it means." Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the away.
The song that Dylan began writing in Woodstock starts like a children's story — "Once upon a time — but it's no fairy tale. Dylan had no idea where his narrative was going or how it was going to end. And so he decided to blindly follow his imagination, as the ghost led him from one evocative image to the next:
Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People call, say, "Beware, doll you're bound to fall."
You thought they were all kiddin' you.
What do these words mean? What is Dylan trying to tell us? These questions, of course, didn't have easy answers. This was the thrilling discover that saved Dylan's career: he could write vivid lines filed with possibilities without knowing exactly what these possibilities were. He didn't need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

  The following week Dylan took his new song to a recording studio and quickly recorded the song before the musicians became comfortable with it. This changed his career and much in the musical world. Upon his first hearing of the song on the radio, Bruce Springsteen said that it was the most important moment of his life. John Lennon said that he was in awe of the achievement.
To me, this is all such a kick. This entire chapter about this point in Dylan's life was worth the price of the book—all by itself. Yet there is so much more. If you have ANY curiosity on the subject of creativity, this book is guaranteed to grab you, and educate you.


8.1.12 update - TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book

   An article in Tablet magazine revealed that in his best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most closely studied musicians alive. Only last month, Mr. Lehrer had publicly apologized for taking some of his previous work from The Wall Street Journal, Wired and other publications and recycling it in blog posts for The New Yorker, acts of recycling that his editor called “a mistake.”

   David Remnick, the editor of the magazine who had reluctantly kept Mr. Lehrer on staff after his reuse of his own material was detailed last month, spoke with Mr. Lehrer on Sunday night and accepted his resignation. “This is a terrifically sad situation,” Mr. Remnick said in a statement, “but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”

   In a statement released through his publisher, Mr. Lehrer apologized. “The lies are over now,” he said. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.” He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.”

   Mr. Lehrer’s publisher quickly moved to make Imagine disappear from the bookstore shelves. Since its release in March, Imagine has sold more than 200,000 copies in hardcover and e-book. On The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list of Aug. 5, Imagine held the No. 14 spot.


Flatscreen by Adam Wilson (F/330p) 3.21.12
Wilson's novel has the main character going through life as the poster child for being the ultimate slacker. There is family money, few demands, plenty of drugs, some strange friends, and, while it's a very funny book—there is also a darkness to the book. Or, maybe it's a odd, funny book with a dark, dank underbelly, and some whiffs of sex to it. Don't get me wrong, I laughed a lot ... I like humor that's dark, dank and odd. And, as pointless as the slacker life might seem at times, Wilson knows how to wring the total humor out of it, AND keep you thinking. This could easily slide into being a movie. But it should be a movie that would have you thinking about the bigger things in life—after all that laughter.   


"Bleakly funny and totally outrageous.... Adam Wilson has written the slacker novel to end all slacker novels." — Tom Perratta

"OMFG, I nearly up and died from laughter." — Gary Shyteyngart


Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn (NF/355p) 3.15.12
   This is a most interesting work, as author Nick Flynn shows how he dealt with some pretty powerful things in his life. One of the most powerful "things" he has to deal with was the long-time absent father who re-entered his life. While in his twenties, Nick was working in Boston's largest homeless facility, when his alcoholic father came in demanding a bed for the night. This was not a heart-warming tale of a family instantly reunited and all becoming right with the world. Because this particular father, Jonathan Flynn, had left home so many years ago. His son Nick has only know life without him. He does learn that Jonathan claims to be a great writer and always relates about how the writing is going so good in his letters and whenever they see each other. The older Flynn claims his masterpiece of a novel, The Button Man, will belong on the shelf next to Cather in the Rye and Huck Finn, as the greatest of American works. To quote the book, "Perhaps the story of the masterpiece is his life raft, what he invented to keep himself afloat."

    Nick isn't sure if this is Jonathan's reality, brain damage, alcohol problems, or his years of living on the streets talking. Nick's brother will have nothing to do with the father, so relating to this man is left completely to Nick. Jonathan's heavy vodka drinking, prison time, and his sometimes violent and chaotic street life, make nothing easy. At one point the son has to vote with his co-workers to bar his own father from the very shelter Nick works in. Things do seem to improve. A relationship starts to grow. But, one never knows when the next crisis will arise. By the book's end, Nick has moved far from Boston to teach, but he continues to visit his father.   
   I found this work moving—many times because it doesn't try to be anything warm and fuzzy. Jonathan's life is still only one incident away from being back out on the mean streets, or in jail again, and Nick's life has had some very rough stretches as well. I picked this book up because I had been listening to a fascinating interviews of Nick Flynn on NPR. I am also pretty sure that the movie is in my near future as well. The book's world is not an easy place to be, but it feels painfully real.
   The book's title comes from Jonathan's description of life on the streets, but when it came time to make it into a movie...it got sanitized. The film, Being Flynn, starring Robert De Niro, Paul Dano, and Julianne Moore, opened March 12.


"It is a story of self-discovery in the best sense, and also a story of the dissembling of history, the fight to keep one self whole, and the inherent obligations of biology. In the end it is about family, about fathers and sons and how painful it is to know the depth of that relation at its fullest."

A.M. Homes



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