An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches is a blog about the best the library has to offer. From audio books to movies, from novels to zines, library staff and guest bloggers will tell you about their latest library discoveries. Read. Watch. Listen. Chat.

I’ve wanted to write a little something about Roald Dahl for a long time.  Yes, everyone knows him for his children’s books: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, and Esio Trot seem to always have a permanent place on the bookshelves of many young readers.  Yet there is more to Dahl than his beloved children’s books.  His short stories for adults are among the best around. They are highly original, deeply engaging and filled with unusual characters who stand out from the ordinary but seem strangely familiar.  

Roald Dah's Collected Stories book jacketThe titles of Dahl’s stories suggest something of the intrigue to come.  Someone Like You and Lamb to the Slaughter, which can be found in his Collected Stories, suggest stories filled with unexpected twists and dark humor and they never fail to deliver both. In Lamb to the Slaughter’s title story, a disgruntled wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds the roasted meat to the investigating policeman. In The Landlady, an unsuspecting traveler falls prey to a landlady who prefers stuffed guests. Dahl’s dark and often macabre stories are beautifully written and always contain at least one moment of absolute surprise that pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet.

Dahl has been around for the long time, rising to eminence long before J.K. Rowling and writing before the days when series fiction was needed to draw young readers in.  Roald Dahl appeals to children because he takes them seriously and endeavors to treat them well.  Dahl created worlds where magic lived just along the edges of ordinary life and where a shove in any direction would turn that life upside down.

Dahl’s personal life was filled with its own share of the unexpected. His autobiographical books including Boy and Going Solo detail his early school daysGoing Solo book jacket through his wartime service as a fighter pilot. After being shot down, Dahl eventually landed a post working in Washington D.C. at the British Embassy where he hobnobbed with Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn and played poker with Harry Truman. He also met C.S. Forester who encouraged him to write. Dahl started with short stories and magazine articles and eventually branched into his well-known children’s books and often overlooked adult works.  Roald Dahl’s stories are the kind that can be read over and over.  Lucky readers will discover new and exciting details with each reading.

I fell in love in Africa once. On horseback. Surrounded by giraffes and impala. My boyfriend and I were backpacking around southern Africa, and that’s when I knew my heart was his.

Reader, I married the guy. We moved to Portland and acquired jobs, a mortgage, and two kids. It’s great, really, but I miss traveling. I miss that sense of not knowing what the day before me will bring, and I dream about going back to Africa.

Paula McLain, whose Paris Wife was a big success in 2011, has just published Circling the Sun, a new novel about Beryl Markham, the pilot, horse trainer, and author of West with the Night. West with the Night is an awfully good memoir that I’ve owned forever and finally read after finishing McLain’s book. Hemingway said of it that "this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book." (The story goes that Hemingway wanted to sleep with Markham and she refused him!) 

It must be said that both books skirt the very real issue of how British colonists treated the natives-- but I still couldn’t help being beguiled by their descriptions of Kenya in the early 20th century.  I long to join all the expats on Karen Von Blixen's veranda to sip gin and tonics and watch the hills in the distance turn a darker and darker shade of purple as the sun goes down. I want to go riding along Lake Elementaita in the early morning, scattering  thousands of flamingos who take to the sky as we draw closer, and I want to go on safari again and see lions stalking a kudu in the long grass.

Paula McLain is so good at putting my fantasies on the page. Someday I'll get to travel the world some more, but until then, Circling the Sun offered a great escape, one I think you might enjoy. 

The aliens slip into our universe through holes 1” by 2”.

Video game cartoon alienThe aliens have no legs.

The aliens have their mouths under their arms.

The aliens have half of their brains in their arms.

The aliens change colors at will.

The aliens can open locks without using tools..

Woman scuba diver and octopus

The aliens can tell what you’ve been eating, drinking, and what drugs you’ve been exposed to just by touch.

We call the aliens octopuses. They broke off from our evolutionary line back when we were barely protozoa. Yet they’ve developed an amazing brain and a complex body. And, according to author Sy Montgomery, they can connect with us in a deep way. Sy herself has spent many hours with an octopus holding her arms with its many suckers,  even ending up with an “octopus hickey.”

If this fascinates you, join Montgomery in her new book, The Soul of an Octopus, as she dives heart and soul into the world of octopuses. For some great photography, or to share with children, follow it up with her newer children’s book, The Octopus Scientists.

No alien lover or animal lover should miss these latest works by this prolific author. In fact, while you're waiting for the octopus books, try some more of Sy Montgomery's titles for both adults and chidren.

Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.

The Collected Works of Langston Hughes book jacketI had never read the literary works of Langston Hughes before coming across The Collected Works of Langston Hughes at the North Portland Library.  I knew of him as a great poet and poetry was not my favorite genre.  Nonetheless, I leafed through the seventeen volume set on the shelf and I immediately was hooked on the works of one of the literary lions of the Harlem Renaissance.

Not sure where to begin, I skimmed through the volumes on poetry.  I read quickly a few poems, tried to digest others, but it was his prose that truly beckoned me.  I paused skimming midway through his oeuvre and read the first two short tales in depth.  I knew then, as I do now, that I had found a literary gold mine because weeks later, I’m still digging through the Simple stories in volumes 7 and 8.

Originally published in the Chicago Defender from 1943 to 1965, the Simple stories read more like weekly columns on race relations in the U.S. The tales are narrated in a conversational form to engage readers on multiple levels.  On one level, the stories are comical and reader-friendly, designed to show the human soul of Jesse B. Semple, or Simple as he is known, and draw the reader in.  Readers get to see and feel Simple’s failures and successes as well as his frustrations and dreams.  On another level, the stories portray the complex world that evolved in the Jim Crow era in a non-antagonizing way.  Simple’s conversations with his bar buddy not only lured readers into the national dialogue over race, but they also engaged readers in a constructive conversation over racism—the ideological foundation that defined the racial boundaries of Simple’s life and, by extension, African Americans.

Though it has been sixty-five years since Langston Hughes published the first Simple stories in book form, the ideas in these tales still resonate.  Racial progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go.  Both fictional characters would probably nod their heads.  Yes, over a cold beer.  Still, such ideas, now more than ever, need to be part of a national discourse.

 

The Water Knife book jacketI’ve been thinking a lot about climate change lately. It isn’t surprising, I suppose. After all, it was a very dry winter and spring here followed by one of the hottest summers in Portland history. What sparked these thoughts, however, wasn’t the weather but a book, The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi. The novel is set in a near future Phoenix where prolonged drought has left the American Southwest a place where states compete for what little water remains and refugees from climate disasters in Texas eke out a bare existence. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book and I highly recommend it, but you need to start it knowing a few facts: the story is dark; and it’s brutally violent; and it’s all too plausible.

It isn’t like I’m a newcomer to apocalyptic stories. As one of my earlier reading lists will attest, I grew up in the 1980s convinced the world would end in a nuclear holocaust. I’ve reveled in apocalypses from a variety of causes, comet impacts, plagues, alien invasions, you name it, but this one has bothered me more than others. It isn’t even like this is the first Paolo Bacigalupi novel I read in which climate change is a major point. So why has this one stayed with me? I think I’ve figured it out, at least in part. First, not only did I grow up in Arizona and Texas but I still have friends and family in both places. Thus what Bacigalupi describes has a certain familiarity. Also, while it has been around for a long time, there have been an increasing number of books in this cli-fi (climate fiction) genre. Most disturbing, though, is the fact that the book seems more and more prescient. Many scientists are saying that the worst-case scenarios of climate change are not only increasingly likely but will occur much faster than expected. In other words, The Water Knife has shown me the future and it scares me.

While some people think the new cli-fi could be beneficial and lead to positive change, I’m going to have to take a break from this sub-genre and other dystopias for a while. It has been like a cloud hanging over me for weeks now and I’m in need of some sunshine. Maybe you can suggest a book that will brighten my day? I could really use something with a hopeful ending.

Seveneves book jacketWhen they announce they end of the world, they’ll do it at Crater Lake. Or at least that’s how Seattle author Neal Stephenson envisions it in his hefty new hard SF tome, Seveneves.  So how is the world ending this time? When the Moon explodes due to some unknown force, it’s shocking at first, but quickly becomes an astronomical edutainment show. The pieces are even given cutesy names such as Potatohead and Mr. Spinny. But then two fragments collide and become three, and three become four. Astronomers start running simulations and discover that life on earth is going to come to an end in about two years’ time. The continued fragmentation will create a massive debris cloud called the White Sky and a catastrophic meteor storm dubbed the Hard Rain (perhaps after this appropriately dire and prophetic Bob Dylan song?).  After this, Earth will be a flaming ember for at least 5,000 years. S’mores, anyone?

Our heroes are the astronauts of the International Space Station, who must transform it into a self-sustaining habitat capable of supporting as many people as can be launched off the ground during the two years before the Hard Rain. These launches are hasty and kludgey… (although I kind of enjoyed it when a Walla Walla vineyard got taken out by an errant rocket). Yes, there’s a lot of engineering and orbital mechanics involved, but this is a tense, sad, and harrowing read, and I couldn’t put it down. Later some humor surfaces, and the story is not without a glint of far-future hope, but the beginning is just wrenching. If you like (or at least don’t mind) your nail-biting human drama salted with delta vees, mass ratios, and Tsiolkovskii equations, this is the book for you.

John Gorham is the culinary genius behind restaurants Toro Bravo and Tasty n Sons, among others. He believes that a chef’s cuisine and style is influenced by travel, work and place, as well as the food he grew up with. His advice about cooking: Fall in love with food, go traveling and taste everything. His reading interests reflect this philosophy. Here are some of his favorite books:

A Year In Provence.  This book just makes you want to throw caution to the wind, and go travel and dine. A must-read for any chef or person in love with food and travel.

The Alchemist. Another book of adventure, but also of self-reflection.

Another Roadside Attraction. I read my first Tom Robbins book when I was about 21. I hadn't really fallen in love with reading until I found his books. I read the rest of his books in the next couple of months. But of all of his books, Another Roadside Attraction was always my favorite.

Tender At The Bone. This is the story of Ruth Reichl. This book came at a time in my life when I really looking inward to what kind of chef I was becoming. It inspired me to take some risks — I moved to Berkeley a few months after I read this book — and really focus on the food.  

Danzigers Travels : Beyond The Forbidden Frontiers.  An old friend of mine gave me this book in the mid 90s. It's a true story of a man that walks the Marco Polo trade route in the 80s. It was the first time I ever really got a feeling of what the Middle East must be like. It inspired my cooking as well as my view of the world. This is a hard book to find, but worth the search. (Note: This book is available through interlibrary loan.)

Are you moving out to a house in the country anytime soon? No? Me neither. And yet there's always that little 'what if' in the back of my mind. Find a nicely formed plot of land with swoops, curves, nooks and crannies, and build a small, self-sufficient house nestled into the hillside. Solar power, check. Gravity-fed water suppy, check. Composting toilet, uh, ...

Luckily those of us who make our living in the city can experience country-living vicariously through others. We can mentally inhabit the space that Dee Williams created in The Big Tiny (though even our ghosts might take up too much space in her tiny house); and now we can also enjoy the view from Evelyn Searle Hess's handbuilt house in the Coast Range in Building a Better Nest. Though the title might lead you to believe that you've picked up a how-to manual for building a sustainable house, the book is really a rumination on the meaning of home, how much is enough and the significance of community as we grow older. 

Hess and her husband aren't neophytes; they lived in a tent on their land for many years while dreaming of the home they'd build. Then, finally, when they were both in their 70s, they began. Yes! That's just one of the remarkable elements of this story, that reads more like an adventure than an instruction manual. And throughout there's Hess's calm and wondering voice thinking aloud about living more mindfully among the myriad creatures whose home she has invaded. I have a feeling she'll put out the welcome mat should you chose to inhabit her space for a while.

I’m not fond of heights, but I’m always happy to be on a ladder harvesting fruit with the Portland Fruit Tree Project.  My experience volunteering with this group inspired me to make a list called “In the Orchard.” You’ll find romances, memoirs, and other books featuring orchards and fruit trees. 

One of my favorites is the memoir The Orchard by Adele Crockett Robertson. I so enjoyed getting to know this determined woman. She quit a job during the Depression and lived alone with her Great Dane for almost two years  while trying to save the family farm and orchards. She worked hard with a single minded devotion to care for apple and peach trees, treating her few workers fairly, and trying to make enough money to pay the mortgage. A great read!

As with many pleasures,  like food, music, movies and books, we tend to find what we love and stick with that. When readers ask me for suggestions on what to read next, they usually know what they like and want to read more of it. But as with food, music, movies and other such pleasures, it never hurts to try reading something new. My something new is manga.
 
The most basic definition of manga is comics that are originally produced in Japan. Manga includes works in a wide range of genres. You can find manga translated into a variety of languages Manga reading direction examplebut they all retain the traditional reading direction of Japanese manga, which is that is you read from right to left. If you are used to reading from left to right, manga will take a little getting used to. But believe me when I say that when you find a series that sparks your interest, reading from right to left will come easily.
 
The following three titles have been my introduction to this popular comic medium, and each one has made me finally fall in love with manga. 
 
Wandering Son book jacketWandering Son by Takako Shimura is a series that is hard to miss. Among a sea of similarly sized paperback manga, Wandering Son is the rare hardcover series. The story centers around a fifth grader named Shuichi Nitori who has just transferred to a new school. During their first day of school Shimura meets Yoshino and the two become instantaneous best friends. And both Shimura and Yoshino are transgender. I really love Takako’s minimal and dreamy illustration style, and that this series focuses on the elements of curiosity and discovery that go along with gender identity and puberty.
 
Black Butler book jacketI admit that I was so excited and impatient to read Black Butler by Yana Toboso that I bought the first book. Set just outside of London during the Victorian era, this series revolves around a young noble, Ciel Phantomhive and his loyal butler Sebastian. Ciel is quite demanding and Sebastian is ever willing to oblige, to the point that it appears that Sebastian can do what no other human can. So, is Sebastian human? I love Toboso's  gothic and lush illustrations and the melding of historical fiction, mystery, and a bit of fantasy. 
 
Blue Exorcist book jacketIn Blue Exorcist by Kazue Katō you meet Rin Okumura and his twin brother Yukio. Rin and Yukio were both raised by Father Fujimoto, an exorcist. Rin has only ever known the world of his adoptive father, a world in which demons are to be fought and killed. But one day Rin finds out that both him and his brother are the sons of Satan, the most powerful demon. Rin being the stronger of the two brothers is the only one who has inherited demon powers. Determined to use his demon side for good Rin enrolls in the True Cross Academy, a school for exorcists in training. I’m a big fan of all things horror so this series immediately grabbed my attention. But I also love the dabs of comedy that are played out in the sibling rivalry between Rin and Yukio.
 
I am crazy in love with these series and excited to find more manga to dive into. If you have never tried manga I hope that I can convince you to give it a try. If you are already a manga fan, I'd love to hear about your favorite titles!
 
 

Baby, it’s hot outside. So what are you going to do? I’m going to cool down.  And that means ice cream. Something cold and delicious no?  What’s your favorite?  Are you a foodie?  I usually go for the nutty classics like pistachio or butter pecan. Jamoca almond fudge anyone?  But now after ice cream endeavors of the foodie kind I am quite taken with my husband's chipotle chocolate. And lately I have liked putting buttermilk lemon ice cream on chocolate cookies.

Next up I want to build an ice cream cake.  Are you with me?  

I judged a book by its cover.
The cover is fantastic—I mean look at it.

the-teleportation-accident_custom-aa41ab132419ab6099ba85520ed1eda25636fae9-s300-c85.jpg

 

It was screaming for me to pick it up and then, well that’s a coincidence, the author’s name is Ned Beauman. Could it be? Why yes. This is the son of Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books Ltd.—and we all know how I feel about Persephone Books.

Ned, I congratulate you on the stunning representation of L.A.

"The whole city felt like an apartment for sale, which the estate agent had sprayed with perfume just prior to a viewing."

and the many other, equally unique sentences that I wanted to copy down and pin to my wall. However, I could have done without reading the whole of the book. 

Can someone please just put together a book of collected witticisms by Ned Beauman and call it good?

Want a list of more book covers that are better than the books? Try this.


 

dog and jim butcher book

 

Thanks to a colleague's enthusiastic recommendation of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Filesmy summer reading is all set

However, all good things must come to an end(or at least until a new book in the series comes out…) and the hunt for the ever elusive "next book" begins.

 

 

 

If you are looking for your next book, check out a few of the many ways you can discover them through Multnomah County Library

Don't forget that you can always ask any of us on the My Librarian team for a personalized recommendation!

Take a look around! While you do that,  I'll be hunkered down with Stella and Chicago's best wizard for hire...

 

 

 

Ah, the lost art of letter writing. I still find myself checking my mail hoping that there will actually be a personal letter mixed in with the credit card applications. But alas, I can’t recall the last time I received a real letter. When I want to immerse myself in the beauty of letter-writing, I shall open up Shaun Usher’s, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of A Wider Audience

Letters of Note bookjacket

Shaun Usher loves letters (and lists too. His second book, Lists of Note includes such wonders as Michelangelo's illustrated shopping list and Marilyn Monroe’s New Year’s resolutions written when she was 29-years-old. Unfortunately MCL doesn’t own a copy right now.).

But back to the pleasures of letters. Usher has collected 125 letters from far and wide and long ago to more recent times. Many of the letters are from well-known figures but some are from everyday folks. All of the letters have a short introduction to put them into historical context and a good share of them include a reproduction of the letter itself. The effort and creativity that went into these letters - a 13-year-old boy at a school for the blind wrote in Braille to President Eisenhower. The sadness - Virginia Woolf’s note to her husband before she committed suicide. Witty, funny, artistic ones. Beautiful, heartfelt, poignant letters. They’re all here.

If you’d like to peruse even more letters, take a look at Shaun Usher's website where he has posted a whopping 900 letters; they’re indexed in various ways so one could spend weeks reading all of them. Or take a look at some of these books that are chock full of letters. I, however, think I’ll go write a letter to a friend.

RoganGoshMcCarthyArtDark Horse Comics' The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is a gorgeous and (almost) exhaustive compendium, collecting the duo's legendary runs like "Paradax!," "Rogan Gosh," and the previously unavailable "Skin."  Both Milligan and McCarthy went on to forge distinctive careers, but the work collected in this collection is explosive, bewildering, and immediate - completely ignoring the careerist ambitions and institutional strictures both artists eventually had to confront and contend with . 

The comics are all over the place (sometimes head-wreckingly so) but they're always readily situated in the catastrophic top-spin of Thatcher-Reagan economic/social tachycardia.  McCarthy's artwork is typically hyper-active and color-saturated, pushing the physical boundaries of panel and page (the exception being the provisionally censored "Skin" - which is wrought in unique pastel colors by the always incredible Carol Swain). Milligan's writing winds a loose balance between non-linear and scabrous - taking very little seriously - but capable of surprising moments of tenderness and expansive vision.

Their work can definitely jolt - and possibly offend (especially "Skin" - which tells the sad angry, and brief tale of a thalidomide-deformed skinhead in the 1980s UK).  But it's heavily recommended for fans of politically-charged comics that explore the horizons and possibilities of graphic narrative and page art (see Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Sandman-era Neil Gaiman).

 

Photo of Bob's dad in 1944In November of 1943, my Dad joined the US Navy at the age of 18. After basic training in San Diego and electrician training at Kansas University in Lawrence, he was assigned to service aboard an attack transport ship. He has often made light of this assignment, likening the captain and crew to that of the 1960s comedy McHale’s Navy. Sure, there were ships that experienced combat more directly. But just being in the South Pacific during those years left one under continuous threat of enemy attack. For instance, his ship once had to take evasive action to avoid hitting a mine; they fought off a kamikaze attack; and on April 1, 1945, his ship was one of the first ships in to debark troops for the final major battle of the war -- Okinawa. I’ve always been very proud of my Dad and his service to our country.Photo of Bob and his dad in 2015

So August marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Although it was thought that the war would only end with an all-out invasion of Japan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa ended up being the final fights with men against men; this was, of course, because of the atomic bombs being dropped on the cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9.

Interested in reading about the closing days of the war? Here is a list of books on the two final battles and the catastrophic events that brought the war to a sudden end.

The Storm of the Century:Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America's Deadliest Natural Disaster

by Al Roker

Weatherman Al Roker of the Today Show tells the gripping tale of the hurricane that swept throughGalveston, Texas in 1900 leveling the city and killing thousands.

The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong

by David Orr

David Orr, the poetry columnist for NYT Book Review, presents a cultural biography of Robert Frost's iconic poem and how it is recognized and used around the world.

Mess: One Man's Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act

by Barry Yourgrau

The author, a severe hoarder, humorously tells his struggle with getting rid of his clutter and the myriad of therapies he tried to help him overcome his mess.

Here are summer delights recommended by a few of my favorite people. No names,  just a few salient traits. Click on the list to find the associated character trait!

You may not be able to tell a book by its cover, but can you match a reader with her/his favorite book of Summer 2015?

Guess away, which is whose favorite? Sorry, the winner only gets bragging rights. Hint: All pics below are Avatars, chosen by me.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler book jacketAnyone who is a fan of Star Trek will be familiar with the phrase “Resistance is futile.”  It’s the Borg’s mantra that basically means you just need to give up and become assimilated.  Don’t even think about fighting against the mighty collective as it’s no use.  You’ll surrender in the end, become a cyborg and be worse off for the struggle.  I probably would have caved, but Knud Pedersen wouldn’t have given up without a fight.  When the Danish king and government decided to give in quietly to the Nazis rather than have their country become war-torn, Knud and some fellow Danish youth decided they needed to take some action.  They took their inspiration from the Norwegians who were fighting back and the British RAF pilots and formed a resistance club.  They stole weapons, sabotaged vehicles and did damage to Nazi-occupied buildings.  Most of them were just teenagers, but they showed an immense amount of courage in standing up to the Germans who were occupying their country during WWII.  Phillip Hoose tells their compelling true story in The boys who challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club.

For more true stories of resistance, check out this list.

The characters of fantasy novels are so often great warriors or mighty magic users (aside from the hobbits of course!) .  Special people marked for greatness.  Somebody Important! What about the rest of us?  How about a book about a miller's daughter in a humble colony village?  Or a teenage prostitute? 
 
A Turn of Light book jacketA Turn of Light by Julie E Czerneda is about Jenn, a miller's daughter in an isolated frontier community.  Jenn dreams of a wider world that she can never see and as her birthday marking adulthood approaches she is in many ways still a child. Though nearly an adult and with her father suggesting marriage, Jenn is still running off to pick flowers in the meadow and dodging her chores.  Jenn has always had an invisible protector that only spoke to her.  A careless wish of hers one day turns him into a man.Karen Memory book jacket
 
In Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear,  Karen Memery ("like 'memory' only spelt with an e"), a teenage "seamstress" at Madame Damnable's Hôtel Mon Cherie in Rapid City (reminiscent of a gold rush era Seattle) is making the best of things...  Her world is full of steam powered marvels that can do wondrous things and steam powered terrors as well.  Karen is well treated where she is and knows most girls in her trade have it much, much worse.  Sensible sort that she is, she is putting every coin she can aside as a girl can't "sew" forever.  Once she had a mother and father and a good life helping them gentle horses.  Then death claimed them both too soon.  She had no higher hope than setting aside enough silver to buy a little bit of land and a couple of promising horses to train and sell, but she can't turn aside when a badly brutalized girl is found near the establishment she works at.
 
And now I'm going back to lords and heroes with the new book by Stina Leicht: Cold Iron. I always enjoy finding a new author to try.  Maybe
it'll be great!

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