Summer Reads

Here are a few books I’ve enjoyed so far this summer.

A Good Home, A Memoir, by Cynthia Reyes

A Good Home

Cynthia Reyes’ journey from a pink bungalow in Jamaica to a Victorian Farmhouse in Toronto is captivating. Each home is the center of a vibrant and interesting life, inhabited by family and friends, and in one case, a female mentor. She shows us how a home is not just a place to live, but a place we fill with our spirit, and where our spirit can renew itself, grow and thrive. I’d like to know more and look forward to reading her sequel, An Honest House.

Somewhere More Simple, by Marion Molteno

Somewhere More Simple

This story of life on the small islands cast into the sea off the coast of Britain is one of the most hauntingly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. The descriptions of the islands are precise, poetic, and will make you will feel as if you’re living there. Some passages reminded me of D. H. Lawrence, others of Virginia Woolf, but the narrative is modern, attuned to environment and relationships. A great read.

The Very Worst Riding School in the World, by Lucinda Clarke

The Very Worst Riding School in the World

This is a very good opening to the longer story which is available upon subscribing to Lucinda Clarke’s monthly newsletter. Her understated British sense of humor is perfect for the challenges of living and operating a “riding school” in Africa. The story itself is both funny and sad at times, but her love of Africa’s people and land, and of course, the individual horses, shines through. This little book is a gift to its readers.

 

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Uncertain Light: Book Review

Uncertain Light by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

I was drawn in slowly, sometimes considering not going on, but beyond the valley mists and the world’s tallest mountains, lurks a promise. That kept me reading, and I’m glad I made the journey. This is an amazing look at people whose work we hear of, and yet do not know, at places remote and veiled in violence, where refugees gather and ancient towns bury their treasures.

One of the great treasures, discovered only after trust is achieved, is the work of a local poet, imprisoned, disappeared, his poems suppressed by one government after another. But he is not forgotten, his poems have been disseminated throughout the region, in various translations. The skill to translate them into English creates a new and surprising network of local and foreign people. 

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action.

In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. These are no hive-mind of like-minded people. Instead, each person has a distinct history, and carries an aloneness which is palpably felt in every moment. Even as they search for connections, each one keeps to her or his solitary walks. This yearning and this isolation accompany those who work in unsettled areas, who move through uncertain light.

Molteno’s experience with Save The Children comes through with portraits of the trauma children live through in turbulent times: their loss of family members, shelter, food, and education. “‘Them’ and ‘Us’ wasn’t primarily about cultural difference, the unbridgeable divide of life-chances was between the children of whatever race or religion who went to school like hers … and those for whom school was an unreachable dream…who sold things at roadsides, who carried heavy loads…”

In Hasilgah (the place of achievement which was originally named Be-hasil-gah, a place where nothing can be achieved), a town near the border of Tajikistan, a small group of people, many women, and the men who relate to them as equals, keep family and community together in adverse times. They protect not only children – future creativity, but also the creativity of the past. “Each step … forward will also be a reaffirmation of what mattered in the past.” Life is both history, social and personal, and future, challenging and beckoning, but the struggle for healing and wholeness always takes place in the present.

The Sophisticated Cat, Book Review

the sophisticated cat

The Sophisticated Cat, A Gathering of Stories, Poems, and Miscellaneous Writings About Cats, chosen by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Available in paperback and hardcover.

The cat is the supreme creation of a benign and wonderful god, someone like Santa Claus in a GQ suit. Obviously, sophistication becomes the cat, and any person who reads about cats becomes sophisticated. This large collection of stories, fables and poems spanning ancient to modern times describes the innate ability of cats to transcend the sad attempt at cleverness practiced by humans.

The Sophisticated Cat is a sometimes farcical, sometimes wise, often poignant and passionate collection of writings by an impressive array of great authors from many countries and cultures. Humorous stories include “The Cat That Walked By Himself” by Rudyard Kipling, “The Story of Webster” by P. G. Wodehouse, and “Lillian” by Damon Runyon (the latter takes place in the vicinity of Eighth Avenue and 49th Street). Colette’s “Saha” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “The White Cat” deal with human cruelty toward cats and the frailty and folly behind this cruelty.

Alice Adams’ exceptional story, “The Islands,” begins with the question, “What does it mean to love an animal, a pet, in my case, a cat, in the fierce, entire and unambivalent way that some of us do?” The story of her life with the silver grey tailless cat “Pink” rings true in every phrase.

Soseki Natsume’s “I Am A Cat” is told from the cat’s point of view. It is beautiful, precise, and haunting. There are stories by Aesop, the Brothers Grimm, Emile Zola, Balzac, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Saki, Italo Calvino, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Chekhov’s “Who’s To Blame?” is one of the finest, Orwellian-style allegories ever written.

The poetry is presented in five sections, from the romantic to the whimsical. In Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Cat,” he describes the complete catness of cats; a cat intends or impersonates nothing else: “His is that peerless / integrity, / neither moonlight nor petal / repeats his contexture: / he is all things in all, / like the sun or a topaz.”

Paul Valery describes them as “indifferent to everything but Light itself.” W. B. Yeats’ well known poem about Minnaloushe the cat is included: “And lifts to the changing moon / His changing eyes,” and fine poems by Hart Crane, Robert Graves, and Marianne Moore. “My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher Smart is the most fun to read and William Wordsworth’s “The Kitten and Falling Leaves” is the loveliest.

I did wonder why May Sarton’s work was not included. She has written a beautiful book, “The Fur Person.” To a purrfectionist, sophisticated cat reader, this was a glaring omission. The Sophisticated Cat receives ten purrs, five meows, and only one tail flick.


This review was first published in February 1993 in the Clinton Chronicle, a monthly community newspaper for the Clinton, Hell’s Kitchen and Times Square area of Manhattan, New York City, which I published from January 1993 to April 1998.

The Red and Black Aquatints of Robert Motherwell

Red Sea 1 Robert Motherwell Red Sea 1 (1976)

In the early 1990s I published a monthly community newspaper called the Clinton Chronicle (NYC). This review was written by Claire Machaver, a woman whose joy was manifest along with her generosity. 

Long Fine Art Gallery, March 2 – April 30, 1994, 24 West 57th Street, New York

At the Long Fine Art Gallery, the cumulative effect of the glow of the multiple dense Red and Black Aquatints is striking. Robert Motherwell likened this effect to Plato’s image of art as the shadow cast on the dark cave’s wall by persons passing by the fire. In the Republic, Plato regarded such viewing of shadows as the first step in the path toward viewing the brightest of all things in the material world, the Sun – a metaphor for the vision of the best among realities, wisdom.

Motherwell’s graduate work in philosophy and psychology at Harvard and later studies in art history with Meyer Schapiro provided him with the impetus to address problems of visual communication. With this background, he could draw upon such masters as Mondrian, Matisse and Picasso.

For nearly a decade Motherwell addressed a continual problem of uniting disparate elements in his work.

“It used to cross my mind from time to time that it would be much more intelligent to go the other way – To begin with unity and then, within unity, create (through dividing) disparate elements.”

Motherwell became the heir to Mondrian’s rectilinear geometry and Matisse’s reduction and simplification of his own prior paintings.

Resolving the issue of inside/outside in his Open series of paintings, Motherwell employed a window motif that remains on the picture plane rather than functioning as an illusion of space. These windows do not describe a view. Instead they distill the geometry of all windows and act as symbols. Motherwell’s spare, elegant black lines suggestive of open windows in number 9, Red Open With White Line (1979), and in numbers 4 and 5 in the exhibit, Untitled (1972-73) recall the windows in Matisse’s 1914 painting, French Window at Collioure, a simplification of his 1905 painting, The Open Window (Collioure), and his 1914, View of Notre Dame, a simplification of an earlier View of Notre Dame painted the same year.

The A la Pintura aquatints are illuminations for Rafael Alberti’s poem, A la Pintura (Homage to Painting), first published in 1948. There are three major works in the exhibition: Red 1 – 3 from A la Pintura (1991); Red 4 – 7  from A la Pintura (1969); and Red 8 – 11 from A la Pintura (1971). These aquatints are subtle variations of square and rectangular black imagery on a red ground, with the Spanish text printed in red and the English translation printed in black.

r_motherwell Red 8-11

It was Picasso who first indicated in his writings as director of the Prado museum and in Guernica, with its symbolic and mythological references, how a painter might bring together images that would be universally recognized as archetypal symbols, with the expression of the social consciousness of the artist.

Motherwell wrote, “Every intelligent painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The abstract imagery he developed was derived from dialogues with political events, other art, literature and psychoanalysis. Red Sea 1 (1976) is one of the first prints to fully employ automatic “gestural” drawing. Referring to the gesture, Motherwell said, “the true way to imitate nature is to employ its own processes.”

Motherwell explained the intensity of the Red and Black Aquatints. “What aquatint can do . . . better than any other means of a painter, is to saturate certain mould-made papers with an intensity of hue that cannot be equaled (except perhaps in stained glass light).” Aquatint is a specialized technique which uses a metal plate coated with a porous resin to create a granulated effect. This beautiful show provided a lasting impression of a master’s graphic oeuvre and his remarkable ability to use the gestural image in abstract art.

THE FIRST LADY OF SONG

She was amazing!

The Observation Post

The only thing better than singing is more singing. –Ella Fitzgerald

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Today marks the birthday (4/25/1917) of one of my all-time favorite female jazz vocalists, EllaFitzgerald. Nearly forty years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing The First Lady of Song (as she was fittingly known) when she was appearing in San Francisco at a time I happened to be there. Her performance that night confirmed what I’d dug from decades of collecting her records and listening to her sing and interpret lyrics as only she could.

Ella, my musical muse and soulmate in song, for all the ‘spiritual’ pleasure you brought (and continue to…

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Happiness: A Review

Happiness

In a series of stories linked by characters and themes, Happiness by Aminatta Forna describes two lives on the front lines of human cruelty and resilience. Attila, an expert on PTSD, works in war zones and disaster areas. The other main character, Jean, a wildlife biologist, has seen the cruelty of humans toward wild animals firsthand. They meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. Attila loves music and dance, and Jean plants gardens in the most improbable places. One is self-care with the hope of sharing, the other combines self-care with caring for the environment and wildlife. They refuse to be alienated, they continue to relate to people they’ve known a long time and to strangers who need help or offer to help them in their ventures.

The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, ‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. However, in my view, Nietzsche’s statement is a generalization. Human beings are more complex. Some people will be damaged by trauma, some will be resilient, and some will be both.

Both Jean and Attila see the real illness, the worst loss, and it’s not the damage done by traumatic events. It’s our capacity for denial, of death, and of life in all its messiness. We try then to eliminate things we cannot control. The coyote and fox, both species Jean has studied in the field, are beyond our control. Some people welcome their presence as reminders of the wild and free in themselves, while others are threatened because these animals cannot be managed and thrive independently of humans.  

The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Surmounting our difficulties to take this kind of action is pure rebellion against the damage done. There’s joy in this, and helping another person or animal affirms our humanity. It can be the simple act of giving a bit of food to a hungry fox on your lunch break at the back of the hotel you work in. It can be the more complex interaction with an old friend who now has dementia. A brief time of meditation or contemplation, a silent reverie by a river, or in a field making eye contact with a coyote, renews our connection with life. Through these acts, and the thoughts and emotions which give them a basket of flesh and blood, people find the strength to overcome trauma. 

The passages meant to convey this joy often fall flat, at times detailed to death, other times described more as an ordeal or willful event that is fraught with the character’s anxiety. While there’s truth in these last two situations, the subduing of happiness seems to serve the author’s goal of setting aside happiness for hope. My other flushed grouse, to use a wildlife allusion, is the gratuitous first chapter. To equate the thrill of the hunt by a professional hunter or sports hunter with the hunt of a conservationist disregards the difference in intent, beliefs, and consequences, and emphasize the heightened senses of the hunt, and the similarity of human and animal behavior. Forna does better when she shows the difference between blood lust and its opposite: the strength that caring requires, the effort of advocating, saving and letting live.

Have you read Abundance? – Part 3

The book, Abundance, part of which is summarized here, describes how technology can solve many of our problems: energy production, food production and distribution, reducing waste, and improving health care. It’s all about creating a world that satisfies human needs, with a nod to protecting the earth. What are the values behind this move into a tech-managed world?

A Better Man

Although biotechnological applications in food have created much controversy in recent years, the science itself is nothing new. The 12,000-year history of farming is characterized by farmers manipulating living systems, creating new strains of crops through cross-pollination and manipulating the plants’ DNA.

Technology may have moved on, but the principle of manipulating organisms remains the same. Today, advances in genetic engineering provide solutions that are proving to be a key weapon in the fight to feed an ever increasing population.

However, the applications of biotechnology are not limited to food production. Craig Venter, famed for his project to sequence the human genome, is currently working to develop strains of algae as a biofuel source. Using algae is extremely beneficial as it doesn’t require arable land, can be grown in saltwater and is also capable of absorbing carbon from nearby power stations. If Venter hits his target, he will be able…

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My Top Five Book Picks for 2018

These books range from non-fiction to memoir to fiction. Each one had revelations for me, which were communicated in language far beyond my own abilities.

Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and The Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Milkweed Editions 2013

Kimmerer is a research biologist and an active member of the Citizen Potawatomi nation. She lives near, but not on, the Onondaga reservation in upstate New York, near Syracuse. She gives us “woven essays,” often in the form of stories about people she’s met, lived with, engaged with, and places she’s lived and visited. When I read this book, I came to understand the Native American view of the world (although I had previously thought I did); and more than understand, experience it. In the first chapter she says of sweetgrass: “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.” From the meaning of sweetgrass, to the consideration of actions taken to the seventh generation, the practices of gratitude and thanksgiving, the operation of a gift economy, to the hope presented by the coming of the People of the Seventh Fire, this book held me in thrall. She tells the story of the Peacemaker who came to the Haudosaunee (Iroquois), and of the dispersal to reservations of her ancestors. Her grandfather was taken from his family to the infamous Carlisle school for re-education. He was forbidden to speak his own language. She writes of the loss of indigenous language, and her efforts to relearn Potawatomi. Throughout all she shows the resilience of Native Americans. Now they are beginning to reclaim their heritage. Her contribution is this book, which opens a new way of looking at the world to non-Native Americans. And she considers how long the immigrants from Europe have to live in a place before they become native, and what being native to a place entails. The writing in this book is among the best I’ve read in years. One of the most beautiful stories is of the salmon “coming home” in the Pacific Northwest. In all the role of the land, the trees and plants, is interwoven. I thoroughly recommend this book.

The Color of Water

The Color of Water: a Black man’s tribute to his white mother, by James McBride, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 1996, 2006

McBride starts with: “As a boy I never knew where my mother was from – where she was born, who her parents were.” The most interesting part of this story is his discovery that his mother is Jewish by birth and upbringing, and that her family were immigrants who lived in a small southern town. The radical contrast of cultures is surreal, but the family dynamics are all too common. His mother left the family and converted to Christianity, which resulted in her being estranged from them. Alone after her husband’s death with multiple children to raise, she managed with fierce dedication, and occasional violence, as she’s only human and flawed, to see them all through to healthy and successful lives. As with his book of stories, Five-Carat Soul, which I’d read before this book, McBride’s language is edgy and poetic, and so is his social commentary. His writing has a pace and rhythm that comes from his other profession as a jazz musician. Most of all, this is a penetrating look at race and religion, and family and community, in America. A very memorable read.

Loving Day

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2015

A biracial man returns from a decade in England to his old neighborhood in Germantown, Philadelphia. His father was white and his mother black, but he looks like a Celtic warrior. He is exposed to and has to deal with racial attitudes and behaviors every day of his life. The story begins with: “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” The ghetto inhabitants see him as white, but he knows he’s black. “I will not be rejected. I want to run, but not to be run off.” Soon afterward, a wizened elderly Jewish man and a striking teenaged girl visit him. The elderly man tells him he is the girl’s grandfather. He learns that the girl is his daughter, the result of a short fling with a young woman years ago. For reasons I’ll leave out now, his new-found daughter comes to live with him in the ramshackle mansion. The scenes are often funny, and some are funny and sad at the same time. A biracial “Adam and Eve” couple’s ghosts, or reality, haunt the place. How he and his daughter, among the other biracial, transgender, and marginalized people, cope with the persistent prejudices, and how they convert their experiences into strong human bonds, is well worth reading. There are flaws in this book, involving some confusing paranormal scenes which seem out of place, but the disclosure of being human in the midst of the absurdity of racism, is unforgettable. I’m glad I read this book.

A God In Ruins

A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson, Little, Brown & Co., 2015

This poignant and provocative story of England in World War II is told in a jumble of scenes, mixing together past, present and future in ways that confuse, or challenge the reader, but ultimately in this paradoxical way illuminate the characters’ lives and the book’s themes. Toward the end of the story, you learn why this mish-mash of time does not matter, and why it does matter. The author has worked hard to expose the waste and brutality of war, and leaves us with a vision of what was, what might have been, and what might be.

Without The Veil Between

Without The Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit, by Diane M. Denton, All Things That Matter Press, 2018

Now we’re in England, there’s Diane Denton’s luminous account of Anne Brontë’s short but productive life. The sisters’ books are populated with people who live large lives, with secret loves, deception, greed, passion, and loyalty. In this setting, quiet Anne makes her own way, exploring human relationships with a keen sense of morality and ethics. In a prescient way, she was ahead of her time in her thinking about the role of women, about freedom and equality. 

From Vanity Fair to The Storyteller Speaks

Six Degrees of Separation

I learned of this meme on Janet Emson’s blog “From First Page to Last.

She spotted it “on the outstanding blogs of Susan at A Life in Books and Marina at Finding Time to Write.” She recommends visiting their blogs “for insightful reviews, bookish observations and original poetry. The meme was created by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.

Kate writes: “Annabel Smith and Emma Chapman began the 6 Degrees of Separation meme in 2014 (and I took over in 2016). The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways . . .  And now it’s a meme for readers.

So, to the meme. On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.”

This month starts with:

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Two women are polar opposites in this classic British tale. Becky Sharp is ruthless, cunning, and manipulative, while her friend Amelia “Emmy” Sedley is friendly, compassionate, and not very sharp. The men in their lives range from bumbling to crude to narcissistic. The scene is set for Victorian drama.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

About the same time in Britain, a young woman is also writing about the same moral and ethical issues, involving marriage and economic inequality, as well as betrayal, debauchery, and compassion, forgiveness, and love. Her book, written mostly from a woman’s point of view, paints a brilliant picture of the societal suppression of women’s talents and independence. The narrative of the main character, Helen Graham, is remarkably modern in both style and worldview.

My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

A hundred years later, in Naples, Italy, two women’s lives intertwine as children. Lila is imaginative, impulsive, and ambitious, while Elena is intuitive, observant, and much more cautious. The men in their lives are unpredictable, aggressive, or overly-sensitive. The scene is set for 1950s “modern” drama. As in Vanity Fair, economic success and marriage are the great prizes. But in My Brilliant Friend, education makes a difference, bringing the light of new possibilities to one of the women.

memoirs of a dutiful daughter

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir

Education begins early in Beauvoir’s life, in the form of self-education as she seeks books from every source. Her voracious curiosity about the fundamental questions of humanity knows no bounds, and she crosses boundaries that typically hinder or stop other women. Ambition drives her, as it does Becky Sharp and Lila Cerullo. However, Beauvoir is free in ways they were not, and she is a philosopher, challenging herself to think and act in moral and ethical ways. She is seeking a higher prize: wisdom.

Isabel Dalhousie Series

The Isabel Dalhousie Series by Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie edits a philosophy journal, and asks herself questions as to her motives and actions as she goes through her daily life. Marriage was not foremost on her mind. She is comfortably well-off, which leaves her somewhat alienated from most people around her. Through her own efforts she must reach out across the gap and engage in “real” life. Over the years she has gained a reputation for helping people with odd problems in their relationships. By listening and observing, and considering potential scenarios, she attempts to unveil the truth. The results are often askew, but still find their way to the target.

storyteller speaks

The Storyteller Speaks by Annika Perry

In the 21st century, women’s voices carry new tunes, visions and insights that enrich us as a species. In this collection of short stories, what is brought into view is our ability to choose integrity and kindness rather than uncaring mindsets and actions. Each story is a core sample of a moral issue. The characters are challenged by a tragic or potentially damaging event outside their control; in a moment, their lives are changed drastically, forever. But whether tragedy has come to them or they have made their own mistakes, they eventually recognize the situation through a severe exercise in honesty. Their honesty springs from valuing the best sense of who they can become (shades of Anne Brontë, Isabel Dalhousie, and Simone de Beauvoir). They often draw on enriching relationships with other people and humanizing traditions. Then they go beyond: to make amends. By taking this action, they rise to a new level of moral and ethical consciousness. These stories show how difficult it is to do this, and how liberating.

2018 Tribute to Veterans

Special for Veterans Day

Honoring veterans of all wars

This year you have the rare opportunity to obtain three historic war novels FREE.  Just click the links below and enjoy reading and learning about the  our veterans and the sacrifices that helped to maintain our freedoms.

Kicker (The Forgotten Front)   A WWII thriller about a family’s hardships on the home front and the Army airmen who flew unarmed missions over Japanese territory in China, Burma and India.  This ebook is available free November 9, 10 and 11 of 2018.

The Dandelion Clock  A wish to end all wishes. The war to end all wars. This WWI novel is available free November 10, 11 and 12 of 2018.

Touching the Wire  Auschwitz:1944 A Jewish nurse steps from a cattle wagon into the heart of a young doctor, but can he save her? 70yrs later, his granddaughter tries to keep the promise he made.  This WWII novel is available free…

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