One-Minute Book Reviews

January 27, 2008

Coming Saturday — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

Laura Amy Schlitz proved that she could capture the attention of ages 10 and up with her novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair and her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. But can she write for younger children? On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review her recent picture book, The Bearskinner, a retelling of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Max Grafe.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 26, 2008

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Illustrated by Robert Byrd
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

Laura Amy Schlitz calls Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! “a book of miniature plays – 19 monologues (or plays for one actor) and two dialogues (for two actors).” Strictly speaking, she’s right. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! are young people between 10 and 15 years old who live on or near an English manor in the 13th century, the time of the religious wars known as the Crusades. They include girls like Nelly, who helps to support her family by catching eels, and boys like Hugo, who has to track down a wild boar as his punishment for playing hooky. But some characters know one another, so their stories overlap and at times read more like a collection of linked short stories than a series of plays. This unusual format may have helped the book win the 2008 Newbery Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Questions for Young Readers

1. The speakers in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! live in medieval times, also known as the Middle Ages. Many people first learn about that era from fairy tales about princesses and others who live in castles. What ideas did you have about the medieval life before you read this book? How did your ideas change after you had read it?

2. Most books of fiction have a main or most important character. Does this book have one? Why or why not? How did the presence or absence of a main character affect your enjoyment of the book?

3. Why do you think Laura Amy Schlitz began the book with the tale of “Hugo, the Lord’s Nephew”? What aspects of this story would grab your attention right away?

4. Schlitz made up all the stories in this book. If you didn’t know that, would you have thought that some of the tales were true? What makes them seem believable?

5. “Camelot, it’s not.” These were the first words of a review of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! that appeared in a New York newspaper. What did the writer mean? [“You Are There,” by John Schwartz, The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 16, 2007.]

6. Some of the characters in the book speak in prose (such as “Nelly, the Sniggler,” “Pask, the Runaway” and “Will, the Plow Boy”). Others speak in poetry (such as “Lowdy, the Varlet’s Child,” “Thomas, the Doctor’s Son” and “Otho, the Miller’s Son”). Why do you think they do this? Might the book have become monotonous or less interesting if everybody spoke the same way?

7. What does Otho mean by: “There’s no way to retrace our steps, / the mill wheel’s turning — ”? How does this line relate to his life? How does the line relate to the theme of the book as a whole? [Page 29]

8. Pictures can have different purposes in a book. For example, they can show you exactly what you see on page (acting as a mirror), or they can or focus on and enlarge a detail (acting as a magnifying glass). What purposes do Robert Byrd’s pictures serve in Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!? Why might the sun and moon have human faces on pages x-1 and elsewhere?

9. Before you read Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, did you ever think that you might have liked to live in medieval times? How did the book affect your view?

10. The characters who speak in poetry in this book use different verse forms. Thomas speaks in iambic pentameter when he says: “A healthy man is careless with a bill — / You have to make them pay when they are ill.” (The two lines form a heroic couplet, a specific type of iambic pentameter.) [Page 18] Lowdy speaks in a different verse, dactylic, when she say: “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas the bread.” [Page 60] If you’ve studied verse forms, how many can you find in the book?

Extra Credit
Schlitz writes about the “Children’s Crusade”: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” [Page 37] Some scholars aren’t sure that this “crusade” occurred in the form Schlitz describes. You may want do some research on the “Children’s Crusade” and decide what you think might have happened.

Vital Statistics
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: The American Library Association has posted information about 2008 Newbery at www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz is a librarian at the Park School in Baltimore. She also wrote the text for the 2007 picture book The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, illustrated by Max Grafe, and an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.
Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your library blog or ready-reference links, so patrons can find other guides and reviews. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and appears on Open Directory lists. It is the sixth-ranked book-review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 24, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medalist, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!,’ Coming Saturday

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every weekend on One-Minute Book Reviews. Coming Saturday: A review of the book that won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, Laura Amy Schilitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! (Candlewick, $19.99) www.candlewick.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 22, 2008

John Bowe Exposes Abuses of Migrant Workers in Florida, Oklahoma and Elsewhere in ‘Nobodies’

 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. By John Bowe. Random House, 304 pp., $25.95.

 

By Janice Harayda

In ancient Rome the authorities created a torture device called “the brazen bull,” a life-sized metal statue of a bull in which they locked people accused of misbehavior. “A fire was built below the bull’s belly, and with careful placement of musical pipes within the bull’s head, the victim’s screams would be transformed into ‘music,’” John Bowe writes in Nobodies.

Most of us like to think that such inhumanity has gone the way of the Caesars. But Bowe argues that spiritual descendants of the Roman torturers exist in modern employers who exploit migrants and frighten them into silence with threats of deportation, harm to their families back at home or other punishments. And the abuses he describes are no less chilling because his rhetoric about them at times becomes overheated.

Bowe focuses in Nobodieson the harm done to three groups, including Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, and garment workers on the American commonwealth of Saipan, whose mistreatment led to a class action suit against JCPenney, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and 21 other corporations that was settled for $20 million. Then there were the welders brought over from India to work for the John Pickle Company (JPC) in Tulsa:

“JPC had confiscated their passports, crammed 53 workers into a squalid barracks on factory premises, and was feeding them disgusting, unsanitary food, verbally abusing them, constraining their movements, and forcing them to work six days a week. The company had even hired an armed guard to keep them from escaping over Thanksgiving.”

Bowe is such a fine reporter that if he had let facts like these speak for themselves, Nobodies might have appeared on every newspaper’s list of the 10 best books of the year. But he also tries to show that the growing gap between the rich and the poor, as exemplified by forced labor, undermines democracy.

That’s true, but Bowe is much less effective as an analyst than as a journalist and can’t quite pull it off. In the third section of his book, on Saipan, he loses his focus and serves up something that resembles an investigative report less than a highly stylized travelogue of the School of Geoff Dyer. And in the fourth section he tries to link the stories in his book to global events such as the attacks on Sept. 11 in a way that comes across as simply glib.

Bowe says on his blog that he wishes he’d written a simpler book, and it’s a perceptive comment. As good Nobodies is, it could have been better if he’d tried to do less in it.

Best line: “The average migrant [worker] has a life expectancy of just 49 years. Twenty thousand farmworkers require medical treatment for acute pesticide poisoning each year; at least that many more cases go unreported. Nationally, 50 percent of migrants – up from 12 percent in1990 – are without legal work papers. Their median annual income is somewhere around $7,500.”

Worst line:“Osama bin Laden, to my thinking, is just another name for Osama bin jobs, Osama bin minimum wage, Osama bin social justice. The poor will find ways to revenge themselves on the rich. And the ideology that provides the most comfort and justice to the largest number of people will prevail. If the revenge motive of brand Osama holds greater appeal than brand Freedom, well, I guess that means that brand Freedom didn’t do such a great job of delivering on its promises.”

Editors: Daniel Menaker and Dana Isaacson

Published: Sept. 18, 2007 www.randomhouse.com and www.johnbowe.wordpress.com/

Furthermore: Parts of “Florida,” the first section of Nobodies, appeared in different form in the April 21, 2003, issue of The New Yorker. In 2004 Bowe’s work to date on the book won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award and other honors. The plight of the Immokalee tomato-pickers led to a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, which ended in 2005 when its parent company agreed to give workers a raise that would nearly double their wages and take other steps to improve their working conditions. Bowe lives in Manhattan.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

January 21, 2008

Anne Enright’s Worthy Man Booker Prize–Winner, ‘The Gathering’

The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer

The Gathering. By Anne Enright. Grove/Atlantic/Black Cat, 261 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In the 1920s a group of lay Catholics tried to save Dublin prostitutes by removing them from brothels after buying off the madams with Milk Tray chocolates or other bribes. Anne Enright builds on this historical episode in her artful Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Gathering, which imagines how the effort might have affected a young woman and her descendants.

Her narrator is 39-year-old Veronica Hegarty, a contemporary Irish mother of two who has enough wit and ironic detachment from her life to view it in quotation marks: “I could pick up my keys and go ‘home’ where I could ‘have sex’ with my ‘husband’ just like lots of people did. This is what I had been doing for years.”

But that begins to change after her brother Liam kills himself and her eight surviving siblings gather in Dublin for his funeral. As Veronica tries to make sense of the suicide, she reflects on her family’s sorrows – cancer, mental illness, alcoholism, an infant’s death, a mother’s seven miscarriages. None of it disturbs her more than a scene of sexual abuse that she accidentally had witnessed years earlier. An Oprah show might focused on the effects of that experience alone. Enright digs deeper and begins where television typically leaves off. In adulthood, Veronica realizes, “we always feel pain for the wrong thing.”

Best line: No. 1: “There is something wonderful about a death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest.” No. 2: “There are so few people given to us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not, at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given to us to love and they all stick.”

Worst line: “I sweep my arm along the table of yellow pine, with its thick, plasticky sheen.” Send that “plasticky” back to the same neologism factory that gave us “garlicky.”

Recommendation? Not for book clubs that think Western literature peaked with Mitch Albom and Fannie Flagg. But it could be great choice for groups that like literary fiction. Grove/Atlantic has posted a reading group guide that is more extensive and thoughtful than most publishers’ guides.

Reading group guide: Available online at www.groveatlantic.com.

Published: 2007

Furthermore: The Gathering isn’t likely to have the popularity of the best-loved Booker winners, such as The Remains of the Day. It themes are too downbeat and the sex is too frequent and explicit. But it is a far better novel than the favorites for 2007 Man Booker Prize, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, which it defeated www.themanbookerprize.com. The story is richer, the characters better developed and the settings more fully evoked. The Gathering is to On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip what 18-year-old Jameson is to lukewarm tap beer. It is also better than the 60 or so pages that I read of the 2006 winner, The Inheritance of Loss www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/. Anne Enright is what every literary novelist should be: a good storyteller who has something worthy to say.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 19, 2008

Beverly Donofrio and Barbara McClintock’s ‘Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary’

A girl and a mouse share more than a house in an engaging bedtime story

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–6.

By Janice Harayda

This quiet, lovely bedtime story goes against the grain of almost everything that is fashionable in picture books. That’s partly what makes it so appealing: It won’t lose its appeal when a book with more glitz comes along, because it has no glitz. What it has is heart, lots of it, that shows up most clearly beguiling illustrations by Barbara McClintock.

Mary and the Mouse is a book of opposites. Mary lives in a big house in the early years of the baby boom. The Mouse lives a little house in Mary’s house. They meet by accident and wave to each other every night until they grow up and leave for new homes. When Mary becomes a mother, she and her family live in another big house. When Mouse becomes a mother, she and her family live in another little house inside Mary’s house. The daughters of Mary and the Mouse vary their mothers’ pattern – they smile at each other instead of waving – until one night each of them “did something brave”: They found the courage to say, “Good Night!”

This simple plot serves worthy themes – affections survive separations, children resemble their parents but are unique, and change may not occur in one generation — well-supported by the art. McClintock creates lively human and animal faces that show real expression. And her warm and painterly seem to catch gestures in midair, as motor-drive camera does. Her cover image has Alice-in-Wonderland quality, and it’s pleasure to fall down the rabbit hole – or mouse hole – into this book.

Best line/picture: As an adult, Mary lives in a beautiful glass-and-fieldstone home in the spirit of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. This is refreshing. You could easily get the idea from recent picture books that all American children live in a) trailers; b) suburban colonials; or c) brownstones. Architectural diversity almost doesn’t exist in them.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: August 2007 www.randomhouse.com/kids

Furthermore: This is the first book for children by Beverly Donofrio www.beverlydonofrio.com, who lives in Mexico and wrote Riding in Cars With Boys. Barbara McClintock wrote and illustrated the children’s book Adèle & Simon. She lives in Connecticut.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 22, 2007

Alexander Masters’s ‘Stuart: A Life Backwards': An Antidote to the Year’s Worst Books

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Passover — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A charming — yes, charming — biography of an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath”

Stuart: A Life Backwards. By Alexander Masters. Delacorte, 300 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Suppose that you had just slogged through ten of the year’s worst books and wanted to read one that would rekindle your faith in authors and publishers. Suppose – in other words – that you were me and needed something that would induce temporary amnesia for words like “Dr. Phil,” “Mitch Albom” and “human shish kabob scene by Thomas Harris.” What book would you choose?

I picked up Stuart, a recent finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award that I loved when I started it last year but kept having to return to the library because people were on the waiting list. “Charming” isn’t a word often applied to books about “an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” as Alexander Masters describes his subject. But it fits this biography of an intelligent and self-aware but physically and mentally impaired man – half Jekyll, half Hyde — whom the author got to know when both were living in or near Cambridge, England.

Masters has enriched his book with quirky, New Yorker-ish line drawings of Stuart Clive Shorter and others in which people’s heads seem too big for their bodies. And whether or not the distortion was intentional, it’s a fine metaphor for the man vibrantly alive on its pages: Stuart was a someone whose brain always seemed to be about to burst out of his body and, apparently, in the end, did.

Recommended … without reservations.

Best line: “The moment of transition is one of the great mysteries of homelessness. At what point does a person change from being inside his house to being outside all houses? When does he go from being one of us to one of them? I can imagine being desperate; I can see being up against the wall, bills dropping in the letter box, wife in bed with the bailiff … what I can’t see is the point at which I think to myself, ‘Bother! Homeless!’ and genuinely believe it … Is this why outreach workers say that it is so important to catch new homeless people within a few weeks of ending up on the streets, maximum, because otherwise they will start to build up a new sense of belonging, to the street community, because they are human and must have companionship, and thereafter it is a hundred times harder to get them back where they started, among the rest of us?”

Worst line: Masters tells us on the first page that Stuart disliked an early draft of this biography and urged him to make the book “like what Tom Clancy writes.” Later Masters writes that the phrase was “like a murder mystery what Tom Clancy writes.” The discrepancy may exist because Masters and Stuart had more than on conversation about the story. But it makes you wonder if a few quotes, or more, were massaged, though this is otherwise a highly credible book.

Editor: Nicholas Pearson

Published: June 2006. Paperback to be published by Delta in May 2007.

Links: Author’s site (which shows some of the illustrations): http://www.alexandermasters.net/new/ [Note: SNAP Preview is enabled on One-Minute Book Reviews. This means that you can see an example of the art in Stuart just by putting your cursor on the preceding link to Masters's site. You don't have to click on the link and go to his site.] Publisher’s site: www.bantamdell.com

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Stuart appears in the March 22, 2007, post directly below this one and is archived with the March posts.

Furthermore: Stuart won the Guardian First Book Award and was a finalist for several others, including the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography http://bookcriticscircle.blogspot.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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