Category Archives: nonfiction

True crime on page and on air: A fan’s notes

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transition

ed into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I’m from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn’t treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it’s everybody’s problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn’t resist picking it up — and I’m so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren’t terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people – and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates – a letter that was later cited as a “landmark study” in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the “Xalisco boys,” as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn’t carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don’t feel like you’re reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I’ve come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That’s the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It’s more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn’t-he. It’s a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they’ve picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense’s case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He’s knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It’s all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.


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Hits, misses and a couple that went out of the park

FullSizeRender-4Some recent reading that exceeded my expectations The novel I really want other people to read so we can talk about it is Euphoria by Lily King. It’s historical fiction, though set in the early 20th century in New Guinea, not my usual time and place. It’s based on a period from the life of Margaret Mead though heavily fictionalized. And it’s mesmerizing. Also short enough that you can, essentially, read it at one sitting. It was one of those books where I was intentionally making myself slow down so it would last longer. The Trip to Echo Spring is about writers and drinking. It’s a portrait of six alcoholic writers, two of whom are Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway, so it features a Key West visit. But it’s not a clinical or sociological dissection – more of a literary meditation and travelogue as the author travels around the country visiting some of their homes. I first heard about The Mechanical from this NPR review, the good people at the FKCC Library were nice enough to order it at my suggestion and I read it in less than two days. It more than lived up to my admittedly unformed but moderately high expectations. I’m not a huge reader in this genre but I do occasionally enjoy it and this was a good one. Books that lived up to my expectations: I finally got around to Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, which got a lot of praise last year and deserves it. Kind of like The Passage (which it even references) but without such a large cast of characters … or the wait for two more installments. I picked it up looking for distraction during a period of high anxiety over a work project. I’m not recommending dystopian stories as a remedy for anxiety but it did take my attention away from my own silly worries. Because why get all consumed with anxiety about a work project when other people are trying to survive a pandemic and its aftermath? C.J. Sansom’s new book in his excellent Shardlake series, Lamentation, is both a classic crime fiction procedural and a fine helping of Tudor intrigue, all in one nice big book. It’s nice to have him back, even if he goes through the usual trials. Maybe even more so. I tried out another historical series, this one set in Anglo-Saxon Britain, with Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell – that was good enough that I’ve got the second volume on request. And I liked The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, which I found browsing the library’s new books shelf – it’s not exactly Tudor intrigue though it’s told from Jane Seymour’s point of view. It’s about her sister-in-law, her brother Edward’s first wife, who is shipped off to a convent after a sexual scandal. It’s not for everyone though I’d say more for the Hilary Mantel interior psychology fans than those who favor the Philippa Gregory court/sexual power plays. I finally finished The Plantagenets by Dan Jones, a nice meaty nonfiction tome that covers the dynasty from Henry II to Richard II. I am even hopeful I will remember my Edwards and Henrys, at least for a little while. I got through my next work of nonfiction a lot quicker. After a disappointing spy thriller last month, I took a flyer on a thriller based on an ad in Entertainment Weekly. Maybe not the best basis for selecting books but you know what? White Plague was just fine. I was glad the library had it in the collection — I might have regretted spending my own money on it. But I didn’t regret the few hours it took me to read it. Books that didn’t live up to my expectations: I bought The Skull and the Nightingale in hardcover and have had it on my shelf for a couple years. Why? I don’t really remember and when I finally read it — meh. Set in the 18th century but not the sort of romp that, say, Blindspot was. Interred With Their Bones  should have been right in my wheelhouse – a lost Shakespeare play McGuffin! Some scenes set in Shakespearean London. But this one strayed over the Dan Brown line of disbelief suspension. The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. Why does Alison Weir keep writing fiction? And why do I keep trying to read it? She’s such a good popular historian – but her fiction reads like some of the most wooden romance writing ever. Ugh. I didn’t finish this one. And you know I don’t do that very often.

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My year in books


The TBR stack is not helped by the holidays and the Key West Literary Seminar.

I never read enough new books to come up with a top 10 of those like the pros do. But I do like to look back on what I read and come up with some recommendations. I read less than usual this year for which I can only blame one thing: radio. Two months of intensive radio school at Transom, and lots of freelancing when I got home, for radio and print, meant I didn’t have as much brain capacity for serious reading as I usually do. Still, I managed to read a few dozen books and made some discoveries.

Favorite work of fiction, overall: Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it’s because it’s the last book I completed in 2014, but I don’t think so. I think this story collection would have stuck with me no matter when in the year I’d read it. Stone Mattress is Atwood’s first story collection in almost a decade and she’s still got it. The stories are dystopian without despair, funny and elemental and shockingly perceptive about our most intense fears. And hopes, too. Lots about aging, which is increasingly terrifying, but Atwood’s wit and humanity make it somehow easy to go down.

Favorite work of nonfiction, overall: True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel

I don’t remember hearing about Michael Finkel’s fall from journalistic grace, when he was fired from the New York Times Magazine after making some stuff up. He was no Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass but what he did was bad enough to get him justifiably disgraced. Soon after — in fact at the very moment his disgrace was going public — he learned that his identity had been appropriated by a man accused of murdering his wife and children in Oregon. Finkel, having nothing else to do, struck up a correspondence and eventually a friendship of sorts with his pretender. The book is everything its subtitle promises and there’s no question Finkel is a terrific writer. Read it now and you’ll be extra-informed when the movie version, starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, comes out later this year. More on this book in my September reading roundup.

Favorite work of nonfiction in which I am mentioned in the acknowledgments: The Shelf: From LES to LEQ: Adventures in Extreme Reading by Phyllis Rose 

Full disclosure: I know Phyllis, who spends winters in Key West, and I am even mentioned in this book though not by name. She asked me about library weeding practices when I was working at the Key West Library. This book, though, is not about that so much as it is about the delights and perils of semi-random reading. She chose a shelf, not at random but a shelf nonetheless from her library in New York and doggedly read her way through. Her reports are entertaining, sometimes depressing but always enlightening. And she reminded me of the dwindling pleasures of browsing, of just finding a book by accident. You have to do that on purpose these days.

Favorite historical fiction series: Emmanuel Cooper series by Malla Nunn

Malla Nunn appeared at the Key West Literary Seminar last year and was a revelation for many of us. I’m fond of historical crime fiction anyway, and her books are exactly why I love that genre — because it’s a way to enter another era and follow a character in a time and place there is no other way to reach. And because it’s crime fiction, the fissures in society are exposed. This is especially true in Nunn’s series, which is set in early 1950s South Africa, just as apartheid is taking hold. Our hero, Emmanuel Cooper, is a World War II veteran-turned-detective who has connections at many levels of society and has to navigate an increasingly irrational world while maintaining his integrity. The fact that they’re beautifully written doesn’t hurt, either.

Favorite contemporary fiction series: Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith

You’re probably aware that Robert Galbraith is really J.K. Rowling. I picked up the first in this series, The Cuckoo’s Calling, mostly out of curiosity to see if her insanely readable style would translate from YA fantasy to adult crime fiction. It does, and Cormoran is a wonderfully interesting lead, an Afghanistan war veteran who’s lost his leg and his posh fiancee. And he’s the son of a Boomer rock star. But I really fell in love with this series with the second volume, The Silkworm — so much that I wish Rowling would quit messing around with whatever Potter follow-ups she’s doing and just focus on Cormoran. How many books is it going to take before he and his assistant, Robin, acknowledge that they’re falling for each other???

Favorite graphic work: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

It’s not really a graphic novel or even a memoir in the style of Fun Home — Hyperbole and a Half is a compilation from Brosh’s blog posts. But it is so brilliant and funny and honest and all of the things that make me so happy that the Internet exists to give people like Brosh a platform. Just read it.

Favorite romance novel: Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne

I’m reading a little less romance in recent months (increasing employment? Proximity to the Key West Literary Seminar?) — but I read a bunch over the summer and fall and the best by far as the latest in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster series. Half the time I want to push these books on people who dismiss the entire genre as Fifty Shades of Grey-like in their writing. Half the time, I feel like those people don’t really deserve to get a fun, smart read like this anyway.

Favorite cap to a supernatural trilogy: The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

I re-read the first two volumes in this series (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night) in preparation for reviewing this book for The Miami Herald … and they got better on re-reading. And she brought it all together in the final volume. Brava! Even though I kind of hate it when a series I love wraps up after only three books, I also appreciate that the author has created a world and a story and moved on .. so we’re not all left hanging out there, Westeros-style. A close second in trilogy-capping goes to The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, which I also reviewed for the Herald and also liked very much.

Favorite beginning to a new supernatural trilogy: The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

I just happened upon this in a really nice bookstore in Falmouth last spring. And when I saw the blurb from Eloisa James calling it something like a love child of Jane Austen and Doctor Who .. I was all in. It’s got time travel. It’s got romance. It’s got intrigue. Just read the damned thing and hope Ridgway doesn’t take too long coming up with the next installment.

Favorite book that won me over despite my cynical attitude: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I picked this up at the same bookstore in Falmouth — I just had to get some reading in after a few weeks of intensive listening — despite some reservations. Because I have a default contrarian attitude toward books like this that are book club/library patron favorites. My fear, I guess, is that they will be manipulative, or treacly, or not as well written as everyone tells me they are (I’m still getting over having to read Ya-Ya Sisterhood for a book club like 15 years ago). But since this one was about books, I gave it a try anyway and damned if I wasn’t charmed, entertained, touched, all of that. A really nice story.





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What I read last month: September

bookshelfBecause I cannot fully control my inner gold-star-seeking preening child, and because this is a book blog, I’m going to start posting a monthly roundup, with capsule reviews, of what I’ve been reading. And because I have a lot more reading time on my hands now, and can’t really resist bragging about it.

In September I read:

The Fever by Megan Abbot – The highest praise I can offer for this book is that it isn’t really my thing … and I still couldn’t put it down. High school girls mysteriously get sick, around the same time they are discovering their sexuality and getting vaccinated for HPV. While high school remains, for me, a mostly dreaded land where I have no wish to return even in fiction, I was fascinated by this book. And I didn’t see the end coming, which is always a plus.

Lost by S.J. Bolton – Since the Key West Literary Seminar focused on crime fiction, last January (see Megan Abbot, above), I have been slowly expanding my reading of contemporary crime which had before then been mostly limited to P.D. James and Kate Atkinson. S.J. Bolton is harder-edged than either of those and not as good a writer. But I’m enjoying her Lacey Flint series … and I’ll keep going if only to find out if she’s EVER going to finally jump Mark Joesbury’s bones like they’ve both been wanting for several books now.

The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory – I reviewed this one for the Miami Herald. It’s the final entry in Gregory’s Cousins’ War series about the Wars of the Roses, and brings us up to Henry VIII. This time our narrator is Margaret Pole, a York cousin who has a front row seat for Henry’s increasingly desperate search for an heir, growing tyranny and the turmoil England experiences as it breaks away from Rome. I haven’t loved every entry in this series (I liked The White Queen and the Lady of the Rivers, the others not so much) but this is one of the good ones.

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Key West Literary Seminar: The Dark Side, Chapter One download

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar

Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. Lifetime should hire these three for a regular show analyzing their movies. Photo by Nick Doll, courtesy of the Key West Literary Seminar

I was confident the Literary Seminar was going to be great. First of all, it always is and second, with this line-up, how could it not be? Carl Hiaasen brought down the house Friday night, just as you’d expect. Joyce Carol Oates was eerily mesmerizing, like she always is. Still, it’s the unexpected that brings me the most pleasure. And though I hoped (see previous post, below) that the women were going to be my favorite parts of the event, they managed to exceed my expectations. The highlight was a Sunday morning panel titled “Fatal Vision: The Imprint of True-Crime Movies.” The panel consisted of Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn. They set out by telling us that the panel’s title had been classed up and what they were going to talk about was their unironic love for Lifetime movies. And then they did. It’s already on the Seminar’s Audio Archives page and it’s worth the listen even if you’ve never seen or wanted to see a Lifetime movie in your life. Laura Lippman has already written a great essay expanding on the panel’s central theme — the lack of meaty roles for middle-aged women in Hollywood and how the true crime genre, frequently derided as trashy, allows women to express their full dark sides. Clearly it speaks to great numbers of people — mostly but not all women — and it goes beyond the camp value of seeing Meredith Baxter or Farrah Fawcett enter a homicidal fugue state. Several female friends and I agreed immediately after this panel that we need to have a Netflix movie viewing binge weekend. I also think Lifetime should consider hiring these three to host a show about the genre. Gender was on my mind a lot through the weekend — and not in a preachy, academic kind of way. Perhaps because we started off with a keynote from Sara Paretsky, a pioneer of kickass female P.I. fiction. Cara Canella wrote a nice piece about it for Littoral and the address itself is on the Audio Archives page. And BTW, keep an eye on Littoral in general for great Seminar coverage, words and pictures, throughout. Many people were kind enough to say nice things about my program intro Friday morning and it’s also excerpted on Littoral. The other great revelation to me during this Seminar was not a younger woman at all, but an older gentleman — Alexander McCall Smith. He’s easily dismissed as a writer of gentle cozies. He is, in person, hysterically funny and one of the Seminar highlights was when he would crack himself up reading his own work. Hopefully the audio will appear soon; when it does I’ll post it here. Continue reading

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Carnegie Medals: In which I (almost) make a literary prize reading deadline

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Every year when the shortlists for various literary prizes — Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award — are announced, I think hey wouldn’t it be cool to read all the finalists and compare my judgment with the judges? But I never do. This year, however, I had no excuse when the finalists were announced for the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. This is the second year for this prize, given by the American Library Association — and I would be attending the annual conference in Chicago. I bought tickets to the ceremony and started reading — there were only six books total, three fiction and three nonfiction.

Neither of my top choices — The Round House by Louise Erdrich and The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore (with a serious caveat I’ll get to below) — were the ones chosen by the judges. The winners were Canada by Richard Ford and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan. All six were excellent reads; I highly recommend them and I’m glad I did this. I’ll probably do it again next year. And then maybe take on another project: reading the winners of the various big contests and comparing them to each other.

A couple things I learned along the way:

* I’ve been neglecting my literary fiction — for the last couple years I’ve been on an extended genre jag. Which is cool … but means I’m missing out on some great books. It was good to have a reason to read some of the best current fiction. Canada was probably my least favorite of the three but it was an absorbing, if grim, read. It did feature a few fantastic lines like this one about spending the day at the movies in Mississippi:

“We’d emerge at four out of the cool, back into the hot, salty, breathless Gulf Coast afternoon, sun-blind and queasy and speechless from wasting the day with nothing to show for it.”

And that is EXACTLY what it’s like after you go to the early show at the Regal.

* After reading This is How You Lose Her, I didn’t at all buy the argument that it was misogynistic or otherwise hostile towards women — if anything, Junot Diaz goes out of his way to show what an idiot Yunior is for repeatedly screwing up relationships with smart, cool women. Hence, the title.

* I liked Spillover and I feel kind of guilty for it not being my favorite in the nonfiction category — in fact, it was probably my least favorite of the three — but I’d just like to take the opportunity here to say that David Quammen is an amazing science writer for nonscientists and if you haven’t read The Song of the Dodo, his masterpiece about island biogeography, go do it RIGHT NOW. It’s one of the books I’d grab if my house were on fire. Seriously.

* There wasn’t a theme at all to the choices, but the fiction titles were all coming of age stories, which is interesting since Erdrich and Ford are in the double digits, bookwise. And even more interesting, all three were celebrations of geekdom — Canada’s young hero is seriously into beekeeping, Yunior is a comics geek and Joe and his buddies in The Round House are obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I liked that about all of them.

* The Mansion of Happiness was the easiest going down of the nonfiction titles and I was glad to see it here since it didn’t seem to make a lot of other year’s best lists, and I admire and respect Jill Lepore as one of those top-notch academics who writes for humans (she’s a Harvard professor AND a New Yorker staff writer). But the book felt more like a compilation of great New Yorker pieces than a cohesive book. I’d already read most of them in the magazine and I still enjoyed reading them again — it was full of fun facts about board games and attitudes toward breast-feeding (like the book called Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, published in 1646), the history of library children’s rooms and the publication of Stuart Little, sex education and eugenics (including the fact that the guy behind the Ladies’ Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved” was a hardcore eugenicist. Lovely).

* This little project helped clarify for me the role of ebooks and ereaders in my life. Obviously they’re great for immediate gratification and convenience and I have no intention of giving them up. But I think I’ll try to limit my use of them on my genre reading, which is really focused on plot and character, and not for nonfiction and literary fiction, where I need to focused in a different way. I bought Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher as an ebook shortly after it came out — but when it came to reading it, I had a difficult time. Which also could have been due to other events in my life at the time. I didn’t finish it before the awards ceremony, which made me feel bad — I was so close to actually meeting my deadline. But I bought a couple print copies at ALA — they were reduced price! And we didn’t have it in the library collection! — and found my reading was much easier when I switched formats. This is not a judgment on the quality or value of different types of books — just an observation of my own reading experience. And means, as I had suspected and hoped, that there will be a continuing role for print for many of us even as ereaders and ebooks find their place in what one marketing dude at ALA called “the reading ecosystem.”

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Key West Literary Seminar: Session 1 download

Colm Toibin at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar, Writers on Writers. Photograph by Nick Doll.

Session 1 of this year’s Key West Literary Seminar wrapped up yesterday. If you missed it, I suspect recordings will be showing up soonish on the Seminar’s audio archive site. And we’re getting particularly good coverage this year on Littoral, the Seminar blog and from WLRN, the public radio station in Miami. If you’re Twitter-inclined, check out the hashtag #kwls — you’ll even see eminences like Judy Blume and James Gleick chiming in along with us lesser mortals in the audience. This year is not as Twitterific as last but we don’t have William Gibson and Margaret Atwood with us (though Gibson is scheduled to return next year — don’t wait too long to sign up for 2014’s Seminar, The Dark Side, because it’s selling fast). As has quickly become tradition, Jason Rowan is back making custom-crafted cocktails, tailored to the year’s theme. Keep an eye on his blog, Embury Cocktails, for recipes and more information in the near future.

Phyllis Rose opened with a wonderful keynote address Thursday night, examining John Hersey (for whom the Thursday event is named) as a lens through which to view the whole writer vs. person question. Is the man Key Westers saw riding his bike around the island the same person who wrote “Hiroshima” and “A Bell for Adano”? The answer is, of course, no and yes. Rose was also refreshingly dismissive about the overwhelming adoption of deconstruction and other French-influenced critical approaches toward literature, which tortured those of us who were English majors in the latter part of the 20th century and dared to think that writers’ lives and times might influence their work. For literary scholars who didn’t feel like sacrificing themselves on the altars of Derrida and Foucault, literary biography became “a welcome oasis during the desert years of deconstruction,” Rose said. “Writers about writers were rescued by readers who wanted to know about writers’ lives.”

A sporadic sample from the rest of the weekend:

From Judith Thurman, biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette and staff writer for The New Yorker:

  • “Fiction is high-minded betrayal and biography is dirty-minded fidelity.”
  • One of Thurman’s early jobs was translating pornographic movies. “It’s freelance work that I heartily recommend because it’s easy — you just have to understand the words ‘Yes…. yes!’ and ‘More!'”
  • Translation is “yoga for the mind and for the ear.”
  • “One definition of the truth is that which is untranslatable.”

From Brenda Wineapple, biographer of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude and Leo Stein, author of a book about Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

  • On her subjects: “I prefer them deader and deader.”
  • Emily Dickinson is “the elusive subject par excellence.”
  • Oscar Wilde quote: “Biography adds new terror to death.”

Most amazing fact learned at this year’s Seminar (so far):

  • Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman (amazing fact supplier: Mark Doty). Edmund White followed this with a comment on why vampire is so often code for gay in literature: “You meet someone, you kiss them and you turn them into you.”

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