One-Minute Book Reviews

October 14, 2012

‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’ – A Convert to Catholicism Bears Her Cross

Filed under: Fiction,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:02 pm
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A young writer faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

American novelists appear to be losing faith in faith as a source of literary inspiration. Nearly all of the leading fiction writers who have dealt seriously with religion are over 60, especially those who have explored Catholic themes. No obvious heir to the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and J.F. Powers exists among the generation of novelists that is coming into maturity, the children of baby boomers. Into the void have rushed authors of ecclesiastical thrillers inspired by The Da Vinci Code, books that don’t engage Catholic beliefs so much as distort and exploit them.

These realities may reflect a broader cultural trend: Young Americans are less likely than their parents to affiliate with a church, a reality documented in a report earlier this month from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But the dearth of novels about Catholicism remains odd and disappointing given the deep impact on the faithful of the upheavals caused by issues such as abortion, sexual abuse by the clergy and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. You could hardly ask for more dramatic literary material.

So it’s heartening that in his first novel Chris Beha tells an intelligent, if not fully successful, story of a young female convert to Catholicism. In college Sophie Wilder fell in love with a student in her writing program, Charlie Blakeman, whose surname aptly embeds that of that skeptic of orthodox religion, William Blake. Sophie drops back into her ex-lover’s life when they are in their late 20s and finds him keeping company with self-consciously literary New Yorkers who think and speak in phrases like, “Alfred Kazin once said of Saul Bellow …” Since college, Sophie has converted to Catholicism while Charlie and his friends have made a religion their pretenses or, as they might say, “stories.” In this novel a man who asks, “What’s her story?” means: What narrative has she constructed about herself? Sophie, it seems, has reconnected with Charlie to tell him the story of her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man whose wishes tested her faith.

This novel represents Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s tale. Antiphonal chapters tell the story from alternating points of view: Charlie’s first-person account in each case precedes a third-person narrative about Sophie that perhaps reflects his effort to see things from her perspective. Both versions of the tale have weak spots. Writing in the first person, Charlie often asserts instead of dramatizing facts about Sophie or offers awkward explanations for her actions. (“Perhaps because of her family situation …”) He says that male students were “enthralled” with Sophie and found her “unlike other girls,” but it’s never clear why this was so when she was rude, sarcastic and lacking the conventional beauty that might have offset those traits. Charlie also implies that Sophie had that blend of talent and drive that enables a writer to get a book published and become “briefly famous” soon after college, but he offers no evidence of her talent and little of her drive. The chapters not told in the first person have traditional third-person limited-omniscient narration when free-indirect speech might have better revealed Sophie’s character. All of this leaves a hole at the center of the story: You see Sophie from two perspectives that don’t coalesce into a whole. She never comes into her own.

What Happened to Sophie Wilder is ultimately Charlie’s story rather than Sophie’s, and as such, it deals sensitively with worthy questions: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? What do we gain or lose from them? At what point does an investment in story become irreversible? The great virtue of this novel is that it treats belief seriously. If the book shows the cost of Sophie’s faith, it never ridicules it, and it also reveals the cost of others’ misplaced devotions. Charlie and his cousin rent rooms in Greenwich Village from a man who has Victorian aquarium full of fish, “the most important thing in his life,” and who asks only that they care for it when he’s away. Consumed by their own interests, the young men are incapable of this simple task. Charlie realizes it too late, and in a rueful observation on their failure, suggests a theme of the novel. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” he reflects. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.”

Best line: “Henry’s the Ted Hughes of management consultants.”

Worst line: “Tom … pursed his lips with a look of concern.”

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide and discussion questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder appeared on this site on Oct. 14. The  guide to this book explores, among other things, some of the religious issues raised by the novel: for example, that Sophie converted after reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and each of the main sections of the book has seven chapters.

Published: May 2012

Furthermore: The New York Times summarized the the report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life cited above. You may also want to read Sam Sacks’ review of What Happened to Sophie Wilder and One-Minute Book Reviews’ review of the nonfiction book Mr. Tibbits’s Catholic School.

Read an excerpt from What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘What Happened to Sophie Wilder’: 10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

What Happened to Sophie Wilder: A Novel

By Chris Beha

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may use it in their in-house reading programs. Other groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

A young convert to Catholicism faces a test of her faith when she cares for a dying man in the first novel by Chris Beha, an associate editor of Harper’s. Sophie Wilder fell in love with Charlie Blakeman in college and drops back into his life when they are both in their 20s and have had books published. Sophie has re-entered Charlie’s life, it seems, to tell him about her recent, troubling experience of caring for a dying man. What Happened to Sophie Wilder is Charlie’s attempt to make sense of Sophie’s life from his perspective as a New Yorker who has abandoned traditional religious practices. Told from two alternating viewpoints, the novel raises such questions as: Why do we need stories, whether religious or literary? And at what point does an investment in a “story” become irreversible?

10 Discussion Questions for What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. A lively debate has occurred online about whether Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism was convincing. How plausible did it seem to you?

2. The publisher of this novel says that it is about “the redemptive power of storytelling.” Do you agree? If so, why? If not, what is the novel “about”?

3. The novel tells Sophie’s story from two alternating points of view. The odd-numbered chapters give Charlie’s first-person point of view. The even-numbered chapters use third-person narration. Who is telling the story in even-numbered chapters? Some critics believe they represent Charlie’s attempt to tell the story from Sophie’s perspective. Do you agree?

4. The phrase “What happened to?” has more than one meaning. It can signify curiosity (whatever became of?) or alarm (what went wrong?). In this novel, the phrase has a third, metafictional meaning: What happens to Sophie Wilder at the end of the novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder? What do you think happens to her at the end?

5. Did you find the ending of the book — really, two endings — satisfying? Why?

6. A critic for Publishers Weekly said it’s hard to sympathize with Sophie even when she’s trying to do the right thing, “because she’s so blatantly indifferent to the harm she causes.” What, if anything, did you admire about Sophie?

7. Chris Beha dealt indirectly with a meaning of the title of the novel in the online magazine the Nervous Breakdown. He wrote: “What Charlie does discover about what happened to Sophie has nothing to do with the success of her first book or her failure to write another. Instead, it has to do with the time she spent caring for her husband’s dying father, and the way the watching him suffer has changed her. That is, it has to do with the world’s hard realities.” Did the novel convince you that Sophie’s fate had more do with Bill Crane than with Charlie or with her writing career?

8. This novel has conspicuous literary symbols, such as the Victorian glass aquarium in the Greenwich Village townhouse in which Charlie and his cousin Max rent rooms. What does the fish tank represent? Who or what are the tropical fish? You might interpret the tank in either a secular sense (it’s an expensive object from earlier era) or in a sacred one (in some contexts, fish symbolize Christianity).

9. “We had been given something beautiful, asked only to watch over it,” Charlie says at the end of the novel. “We’d been careless, and now it was all in ruin.” He’s talking about the aquarium he and Max were supposed to tend, but his words may have more than one meaning. What you think he’s saying in these lines?

10. What Happened to Sophie Wilder has drawn raves from some critics, such as David G. Myers of Commentary, who said that it is “a remarkable first novel” that “should especially be read by those who have given up on contemporary literature.” The book has had mixed reviews from others, including Sarah Towers, who wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “In places the novel suffers from too much distancing exposition — the price of so many flashbacks to Charlie and Sophie’s college days. And yet, like Charlie, I found myself absorbed throughout with the mystery of Sophie.” How would you sum up the novel?

Extras:
These questions relate to the religious ideas in What Happened to Sophie Wilder:

1. Sophie begins to read her dying father-in-law the story of how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, found in the Bible in John 11:1-44. (“Now Jesus loved Martha …) He cuts her off. Why did Sophie choose that passage? Why did Bill reject it?

2. The Bible says that Christians will receive the gifts listed in Galatians 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering [i.e., patience], gentleness, goodness, faith.” Which, if any, of those traits does Sophie show? Does it matter, in a literary sense, whether or not she shows any?

3. Sophie converted to Catholicism after reading the monk Thomas Merton’s spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and each of the two main sections of the novel has seven chapters. (The title of Merton’s book refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.) Does the division of the novel into seven-chapter sections have meaning? If so, what is it? In what ways is Sophie in her own purgatory?

Vital statistics:
What Happened to Sophie Wilder. By Christopher R. Beha. Tin House, 256 pp., $15.95. Published: May 2012. A review of the novel appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Oct. 14, 2012.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a frank discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to those commercial guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers or authors, and all of its reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. You can avoid missing the guides by subscribing to the RSS feed or following Jan on Twitter.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the Plain Dealer book editor and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 13, 2012

‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ – The True Story of an Eccentric Headmaster and His Beloved English Boys’ School

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:26 am
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A captivating portrait of “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse” 

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School. By Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes. Illustrations by Kath Walker. Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A nun once stuffed young Bruce Springsteen into a garbage can because, a biographer reports, “that’s where you belong.” Such incidents abound in books about American Catholic education in the middle decades of the 20th century and tend to turn them into horror stories or bleak comedies of errors that wrest humor from pain.

Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is something rare: a book about a Catholic school that is at heart a love story. This captivating history of St Philip’s in South Kensington has its share of anecdotes that might horrify anyone unfamiliar with how common such episodes once were at English boys’ schools – pants-down beatings with a slipper, meals of Spam and watery mashed potatoes that all children had to eat, and cricket games played in frigid weather in just a shirt and itchy wool shorts, with underpants forbidden. The book also offers ample hilarity in its teachers’ efforts to control what a former student called “a hundred little anarchists in a London townhouse.”

But the eccentric founding headmaster and staff of St Philip’s loved their charges in a way that, to judge by the sparkling anecdotes gathered by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, was largely reciprocated. Richard Tibbits and his “ragbag of untrained teachers” had a quality that rarely surfaces in books about American parochial schools: They were human. American Catholic students of his era were taught mainly by nuns whose flesh-and-blood realities remained a perpetual source of mystery. It was far from uncommon for young children to ask their parents, on first glimpsing their new teachers in black habits and stiff white wimples, “Do nuns go to the bathroom?”

No one would have been likely to ask that question about Tibbits, who resembled “a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig” and was known for “extreme strictness” mixed with “the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls.” Nor would anyone have asked it about his wife, who chain-smoked Benson & Hedges as she presided over the ground-floor corridor in a nylon housecoat.

The Tibbitses attracted teachers with similar quirks. A retired Cockney customs officer, flush with his wife’s money, taught math and boasted, “I could buy the whole lot of you out.” A beautiful Polish princess arrived as a maternity-leave replacement for one of the few women on hand and fell in love with the geography instructor. John Tregear, the French teacher, “wore black boots with red cork high heels and drainpipe trousers.” He leaps to immortality in one of the witty line drawings by Kath Walker that add as much charm to this book as Arthur Watts’s do to E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady.

Richard Tibbits had founded St Philip’s in 1934 as an academy for the 7-to-13-year-old sons of middle and upper class Catholics, many of whom attended Mass at the Brompton Oratory, and his teaching methods suited that group. As late as the mid-1960s, the school had no classes in biology or chemistry because, Tibbits said, “Gentlemen do not study science.” When St Philip’s finally dipped its toe into such fields, its approach might have struck some people as curious – students, for example, learned to make gunpowder. The school had crucifixes and pictures of the Pope on the walls, but it welcomed doubters with a warmth rare in American Catholic schools of its era, where many jokes involved variations on the words “Protestant” and “prostitute.”

For all of this, St Philip’s had high educational and spiritual standards that boys strived to uphold. One former student told Maxtone Graham that at the age of seven he was reading Treasure Island: “You were expected to be good at drawing, good at reading, interested in foreign lands.” The high-achieving the families associated with the school suggest that students met those standards: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes attended St Philip’s, the biographer Antonia Fraser sent her son, Orlando, there, and the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mother taught singing. Maxtone Graham has rewarded the trust of those who spoke with her by writing a history distinguished by the perfection of its tone: She writes in the first person, so that her story reads like a memoir, but keeps her focus on St Philip’s. In its casual tone, her book resembles many English schoolboy stories less than Diana Athill’s recent memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End. Mr Tibbit’s Catholic School might have been called Somewhere Towards the End of the Reign of Richard Tibbits.

St Philip’s began to change after Tibbits’s died in 1967, and the process sped up in the 1980s as a new generation of working mothers dared to suggest improvements the old regime would not have tolerated, such as the purchase of a computer. But the fearless spirit of the school endures in its administrators’ willingness to display on its website this melodious hymn to its idiosyncrasies, a book that shows how much American and other schools lose when they impose enough restrictions to drive away the most gifted and creative teachers. Ninety percent of the teachers at St Philip’s were “certifiable,” the historian  and former student Adam Zamoyski admits. “They wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of a school now. But that was often what made them such good teachers.”

Best line: All. An example: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Worst line: None. But a few more details on some would have been welcome. The book notes, for example, that Antonia Fraser was a school mother but not whether she sent all her sons there or just one.

Publication date: 2011

Learn more about the book on the publisher’s websiteMr Tibbits’s Catholic School is available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York. Allison Pearson wrote about the book in the Telegraph.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs. Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 21, 2007

Listen to Thanksgiving Hymns and Others for Free at Cyber Hymnal — Downloadable for Free, Too, If They’re Out of Copyright

Further update at 7:45 p.m. Dec. 1: The Cyber Hymnal site is back up. I just listened to the Doxology and “The Snow Lay on the Ground,” the carol often used as an anthem (the first I remember singing with youth choir at my childhood church). But I’m leaving up the Nov. 29 update because you may want to use Hymn Site as a back-up if Cyber Hymnal goes down again. Jan

Update at 5:25 p.m. Nov. 29: The Cyber Hymnal site seems to have crashed — let’s hope temporarily — since I posted this. The link worked without problems for days. But at this writing you can’t reach Cyber Hymnal either from here or the link on Google. Until the site is up again, you can hear the music and find the words to hymns at HymnSite www.hymnsite.com. HymnSite isn’t as easy to search as Cyber Hymnal and may have fewer hymns, but has many of the same elements. Jan

Update, Nov. 2010: Cyber Hymnal is now NetHymnal, and the links in this post have been changed to reflect it.

Today I was looking for facts to add to a quote of the day about a Thanksgiving hymn and found a site called NetHymnal that lets you listen for free to the music of more than hymns and Gospel songs.  NetHymnal also has the words and background of tunes, pictures of authors or composers, a few musical scores and more. It offers 29 hymns by J. S. Bach alone, including such chart-busters as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and “Von Himmel Hoch.” The site is just what its name implies — the online equivalent of a hymnal you might find slotted into a pew except that it lets you listen to the music instead of reading the scores. And you can download for free anything that’s out of copyright.

So this is the place to go if you’d like to hear the Thanksgiving hymns “Now Thank We All Our God,” “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “We Gather Together” (the only one of the three that’s non-Trinitarian in all verses). Cyber Hymnal also lets you listen to Christmas carols and patriotic songs such as “O Canada,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” (the Navy Hymn). And if you’re getting married in a church soon, you can hear any hymn that could be played at your wedding. Be sure to listen to the traditional — and best — version of the classic wedding hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” on Cyber Hymnal before somebody talks you into the alternate setting that has become popular without my consent. (Are you going to invite me to the wedding?)

If you don’t care for Thanksgiving hymns but want to hear to some of the most stirring music ever written, use the title search tool on Nethymnal to look for “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” (the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony), “Thine Be the Glory” (“See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus) and “Be Still, My Soul” (“The Song of Peace” from Sibelius’s Finlandia). Like the Colorado Rockies, that quote of the day that I planned to post will have to wait till next year, because I’m off to Cyber Hymnal to listen Beethoven’s “The Heavn’s Resoundeth” (“The Heavens Are Telling”), nearly as glorious as the “Ode to Joy.”

The picture above from the old Cyber Hymnal shows Catherine Winkworth (1827-78), who translated “Now Thank We All Our God” (“Nun Danket”) from the German.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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