One-Minute Book Reviews

December 7, 2007

A Boy and His Dog Enjoy Christmas Without Commercialism in Cynthia Rylant’s ‘Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days’

The snow sparkles, and so do the words and pictures in this book for beginning readers

Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days: The Fifth Book of Their Adventures (Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read). Words by Cynthia Rylant. Pictures by Suçie Stevenson. Aladdin, 48 pp., $3.99, paperback. Also available in hardcover and audio editions. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The books known as “easy readers” are paradoxically among the hardest to write. They need to have simple words yet enough depth to captivate children whose thoughts are more complex than the sentences they are able to read.

Strong pictures help – that’s partly why the Dr. Seuss easy readers are so effective – but children’s books begin with good stories. And writing them for 6-to-8-year-olds is difficult enough that even the gifted Kate DiCamillo has so far come up short in her new “Mercy Watson” series for that age group.

Cynthia Rylant is a master of the art of the easy reader, and in Suçie Stevenson she has found an illustrator whose comic style suits her work the way nutmeg suits eggnog. Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days consists of three short stories, each about enjoying a winter pleasure – the first snowfall, a Christmas Eve dinner and a family walk at night followed by a quiet time in front of a fireplace. This sort of material reduces lesser writers and artists to utter sappiness.

But Rylant and Stevenson invest it with high drama, whether Mudge is destroying Henry’s snow angels or crying in a bedroom because he “hadn’t been invited to the fancy Christmas Eve dinner because he was a dog.” Their story has real warmth and emotion, rooted in family members’ love for one another and their pet.

These virtues alone might earn Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days a spot on a young child’s reading list. But there is something else: Rylant achieves her effects without pandering to children. All of the stories focus on simple pleasures of home and family, not on expensive gifts. Stevenson’s Christmas Eve scenes show a tree strung with popcorn, a house decorated with greenery and two discreetly wrapped presents (which may or may not be for Henry and Mudge). Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days www.henryandmudge.com is about a holiday without what’s usually called “commercialism.” But it doesn’t moralize or engage in self-congratulation. It dramatizes, with clarity and wit, its theme that Christmas is about the people (and animals) you love. And that makes it a book worth rereading in any season.

Best line/picture: Stevenson’s picture of Henry in a snow gear, including a ski mask, is a hoot. Henry has his arms outstretched as if to say, “What am I doing in all of this stuff?” The picture fits the text perfectly, because on the next page we learn that Mudge “barked and barked and barked at the strange creature.”

Worst line/picture: None

Furthermore: Rylant’s 30 Henry and Mudge books include Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas (Aladdin, $3.99, paperback), which I haven’t seen http://www.henryandmudge.com. But School Library Journal said that “Rylant’s words and Stevenson’s pictures work together to create a charming and funny holiday title” that children and adults will enjoy all year long. Rylant www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Cynthia_Rylant also wrote Missing May, which won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org.

Published: 1997 www.simonsayskids.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

www.janiceharayda.com

December 6, 2007

After ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ — Joan Didion’s Greatest Hits

A lot of book clubs are reading The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, $13.95, paperback), Joan Didion’s National Book Award–winning memoir of the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. And for groups or discussion leaders who would like to read more by Didion, the good choices include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, the early nonfiction collections that helped to make her reputation as one of America’s finest prose stylists.

But perhaps the best “next book” is the first chapter of her 1992 essay collection, After Henry (Vintage, $14.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/vintage/. Didion writes in the chapter about an early editor of her books, Henry Robbins, who died on his way to work at the age of 51. And her comments on death relate, perhaps more directly than anything she has written, to her views in The Year of Magical Thinking. She also notes, correctly, that the relationship between writers and great editors has little to do with changes in manuscripts:

“The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if he was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down and do it.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 4, 2007

No Salute for the Cover of ‘Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

One of the delights of the syndicated Miss Manners etiquette column is that it has always had a distinctive voice – a bit arch and Victorian yet also witty and commonsensical. You would never know it from the covers of some of its companion books.

Martin’s advice finds a deft balance between the ideals of two eras – the years before and after the upheavals of the 1960s, which swept away many traditional etiquette rules. You see that trait clearly in the cover of Miss Manners’ Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium (Fireside, 1990), which shows of a photo of a fountain pen next to a personal digital assistant. The title floats above them in the John Hancock-ish script that is Martin’s trademark. And the harmonious coexistence of the quasi-archaic font and sleek PDA reflects her style perfectly.

You can’t say that for the cover of the more recent Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say (Crown, 1998), part of her “Basic Training” series. The regimental stripes seem intended to carry out the mild joke in the title – Martin as a drill sergeant sending you to the boot camp. This is too clever and clashes with her tone. Martin isn’t the John Wayne of etiquette so much as its strict but benevolent headmistress. Worse, the colors of the cover – especially that stop-sign yellow – are shrill, which she isn’t. And on a lunch-hour dash through Borders, who would stop to read a nine-line subtitle in white-on-navy-blue reverse type?

Why does a writer with such a steady voice come across on her covers as a teenager who doesn’t know whether she wants to wear a lemon-meringue prom dress or a flak jacket to the party? Well into her career as an author, Martin moved from Simon & Schuster to the Crown imprint of Random House, which gave her a new look. The mismatch may have extended beyond her covers. Martin’s latest book, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, written with Gloria Kamen, was published by Norton www.wwnorton.com.

If you’re interested in book covers, check out Rekya’s Bookshelf www.rekya.blogspot.com, a site that focuses book design. It has a great blogroll with links to many good book-design sites and designers’ portfolios.

The review of Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say appeared on Nov. 21, 2007, before a second post on Cyber Hymnal that appeared the same day. To read it, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/21/.

All cover reviews on this site consider not just aesthetics but how well the cover reflects the contents of the book. That’s why the cover reviews don’t appear until after the review has been posted (or, if I have only a line or two to say, in the section of extra material that follows the review, not in the body of the review). These reviews aren’t just about design but about truth in publishing.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2007

Alice Sebold’s Ghastly Scenes, Written at a Fourth-Grade Reading Level, Infest ‘The Almost Moon’

A woman with “control issues” murders her mother fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer — “I should have stayed in therapy,” she admits – And you thought you had “control issues” because you alphabetize your CDs

The Almost Moon: A Novel. By Alice Sebold. Little, Brown, 291 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Novelist Charlotte Moore eviscerated The Almost Moon in a review I recently quoted at length and agree with in most particulars. Yet even that review — brilliant as it was – didn’t suggest all the distasteful aspects of this novel about a 49-year-old woman who murders her mother and fantasizes about stuffing her in a freezer.

Moore rightly warned that “nasty revelations occur about once every ten pages, like the sex scenes in the Harold Robbins novels we used to pass round at boarding school.” But “nasty” may be a euphemism for the thoughts Helen Knightly has while cleaning her mother’s excrement-smeared corpse: “And there it was, the hole that had given birth to me.… This was not the first time I’d been face-to-face with my mother’s genitalia.” “Face-to-face” doesn’t seem quite the right phrase for those body parts, does it?

The Almost Moon reads like a Mitch Albom novel in reverse. Albom writes a third-grade reading level and Sebold at a fourth-grade level, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word. The difference is that The Almost Moon serves up grim pseudoprofundities instead of the saccharine ones in For One More Day. “It was a bitter truth – my discovery – that daughters were not made in cookie-cutter patterns from the genes of their mothers alone,” Sebold writes. Apart from the clunky phrasing and clichés in that line, it is hardly news that daughters differ from their mothers. Such observations are what pass for wisdom or originality in The Almost Moon.

Novels infested with ghastly scenes can succeed in either of two ways: by entertaining you, as good mystery and horror novelists do, or by offering insights that make the ghoulishness worthwhile. The Almost Moon brims instead with banalities like this one from last chapter: “There are secret rooms inside us.” Close the door, please.

Best Line: None.

Worst line: The “worsts” fall into several categories. First, the cringe-inducing, like that line about being “face-to-face” with “genitalia.” Second, the pop-psychological. After murdering her mother, Helen explains that she has “control issues” and that “I should have stayed in therapy.” Third, the padded, redundant or clichéd: “When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” “I had prepacked a bag for the hospital before Sarah was born.” “I like to think, when I think about it, that by that time she was busy taking in the scent of her garden, feeling the late-afternoon sun on her face, and that somehow in the moments that had elapsed since she’d last spoken, she’d forgotten that she ever had a child and that, for so many years now, she’d had to pretend she loved it.”

How to find the reading level of a text: Enter the text into a computer and run the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. If you have Word 2004, you will see the words “Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level” at the bottom of the window that opens when the check is finished. This tells you reading level. [If you don't see a list of "Readability Statistics" after you complete a spell check, search Word Help for "readbility statistics," then choose "Display Readability Statistics" from the list of options you see.] The first six pages of The Almost Moon had a reading level of Grade 5.5. To see if this was too low, I entered three 300-word passages from pages 23–24, 123–124 and 223–224. The reading levels for these passages averaged out to Grade 4.3. If you average 5.5 and 4.3, you get an overall fourth-grade level, 4.7, for all the passages. The text of this review (from the word “Novelist” through “please”) has a reading level of Grade 10.8.

Published: October 2007 www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com

Furthermore: I quoted from Charlotte Moore’s review in the Spectator www.spectator.co.uk in a Nov. 14 post www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/ and wrote about the first four chapters of The Almost Moon Nov. 23 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/23/. Sebold, who lives in California, also wrote the novel The Lovely Bones and the memoir, Lucky www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Sebold.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 29, 2007

Why Do We Need Etiquette Books When the Old Rules of Etiquette Are Disappearing? Quote of the Day (Judith Martin/Miss Manners)

Do books about manners serve a purpose in an age without manners? Is etiquette about more than using a fish fork properly? Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners column, suggests an answer:

“You can deny all you want that there is etiquette, and a lot of people do in everyday life. But if you behave in a way that offends the people you’re trying to deal with, they will stop dealing with you….There are plenty of people who say, ‘We don’t care about etiquette, but we can’t stand the way so-and-so behaves, and we don’t want him around!’ Etiquette doesn’t have the great sanctions that the law has. But the main sanction we do have is in not dealing with these people and isolating them because their behavior is unbearable.”

Judith Martin, who writes the Miss Manners syndicated advice column, in a 1995 interview with Virginia Shea, as quoted by Wikipedia www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin. The picture shows fish fork from Wikipedia www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fork.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2007

Carol Saline and Sharon Wohlmuth’s ‘Sisters,’ a Holiday Gift for Women Who Think That Having a Sister Is ‘Like a Marriage Without the Sex’

Sisters of many ages talk about what they give to and get from each other

By Janice Harayda

“It’s like a marriage without the sex,” the folksinger Anna McGarrigle says of her relationship with her sisters, Kate and Jane. If you know a woman who has similar feelings, your search for an ideal holiday gift book might begin with Sisters: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Running Press, 164 pp., $29.95) www.sistersbook.com.

Since 1994 more than a million people have bought this attractive coffee-table book that has 36 brief essays by the award-winning journalist Carol Saline www.carolsaline.com and wonderful black-and-white photos by Sharon J. Wohlmuth, who shared a Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer. What accounts for its staying power? In part, an inspired mix of sisters – pairs, trios and a quintet — who talk about their relationship. Some are celebrities — Chris Evert, Melba Moore, Gail Sheehy, Dixie Carter, Barbara Mandrell, Christy Turlington, Coretta Scott King, Wendy Wasserstein. But the most memorable essays involve women unlikely to appear in “Got Milk?” ads – a Vietnamese refugee, a pair of nuns, a trio of police officers, and a 7-year-old girl who tries to comfort an 11-year-old sister with AIDS.

The tone of Sisters is warm but not cloying. And Wolmuth’s photos often have a low-keyed wit, as in a picture of three sisters in their 80s who relax at a pool in what appears to be a Miami retirement complex. One member of the trio, in a Betty Ford hairdo, stands in chest-high water and lights a cigarette. What are ashes in the pool, the picture seems to ask, when you’ve got love like this?

Caveat lector: This review was based in the first edition. The 10th anniversary edition has some new material, including updates on sisters in the first edtion.

Furthermore: The authors also wrote Best Friends and . Mothers & Daughters, which have a similar format.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 21, 2007

What to Say When Uncle Elmer Burps at Thanksgiving Dinner – And Other Holiday Dilemmas Resolved by Judith Martin, Miss Manners

The syndicated etiquette columnist tells how to deflect rudeness without being rude

Miss Manners’ Basic Training: The Right Thing to Say. By Judith Martin. Crown, 179 pp., $17.

By Janice Harayda

Judith Martin has written more than a dozen etiquette books under her nom de guerre of Miss Manners, but this is the one you need this week. The Right Thing to Say is a brisk field manual for anyone who wonders how to parry to all those rude questions and insensitive remarks that can occur in any season but peak at events like Thanksgiving dinner. As in her syndicated column, Miss Manners typically offers ideas that are witty, apt and polite, all dispensed in a question-and-answer format.

Are you single and wondering what to say to say when Cousin Herman asks you why you haven’t married? Miss Manners suggests, “Oh, Cousin Herman, you know I’m waiting for someone just like you.” Would you like to know how to silence an aunt who tells you that you’ve gained weight or gone gray? Miss Manners recommends, “Oh, thank you; how kind of you to notice.” Or perhaps you’re pregnant again and have heard too many comments like, “I’m glad it’s you and not me!” Miss Manners advises you to try, “I’m sure you mean to wish us the best.” And if you don’t know what to say when Uncle Elmer says “Excuse me” after burping, she offers the comforting: “No reply is appropriate.”

Miss Manners’s answers are entertaining even if you haven’t weathered the insults heaved at her correspondents. And if you get through Thanksgiving needing her advice, just wait. The office Christmas party is coming up.

Best line: “Why would anyone say ‘Congratulations’ to a couple who has just announced an engagement or the expected birth of a child? Congratulating people is what is now done at funerals. Anyone who has suffered a loss can expect to be told: ‘It’s really a blessing, you know’ … Those who are most skillful at comforting the bereaved with such congratulatory statements are able to go for a second round, Miss Manners has observed. When they have elicited a fresh outburst of woe, they congratulate the mourners again, this time for ‘dealing with’ or ‘working through’ their grief, or tell them what stage of grief they are at, as if grief were a subway stop. Thus they have the enormous satisfaction of having done something for their friends. Driven them to tears.”

Worst line: None, but the structure of the book is confusing. Instead of being grouped together, for example, related questions about dating and marriage appear on pages 79 and 109. And the index is so inconsistent, it’s all but useless.

Published: May 1998 www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 18, 2007

Good Picture Books About Thanksgiving for Children Ages 4 and Up

Popular authors show how Pilgrim boys and girls — and their parents — lived

By Janice Harayda

A lot of families must have given thanks for The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving (Scholastic, $4.99, paperback, ages 4–8), because this lively picture book is still selling well on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere after more than three decades in print. And no wonder. This may the best book for anyone who is looking for a traditional Thanksgiving story that touches all the familiar bases – the voyage of the Mayflower, the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the help the settlers received from Squanto, and the feast that marked the successful harvest of 1621.

Ann McGovern www.annmcgovern.com tells an engaging story salted with details easy for children to grasp. The Mayflower was “as big as two trucks,” and its passengers had little tableware after they went ashore: “There were no forks. The Pilgrims used shells for spoons.” And unlike some recent books that expunge all references to the early settlers’ faith, McGovern makes clear in a low-keyed way that this is partly a story of religious freedom: The Pilgrims, she says, “left their old country because they could not pray the way they wanted.” Elroy Freem, the pen name of a veteran picture-book artist, illustrates the book with warm tones that help to make this an upbeat story despite hardships of life in the Plymouth Colony.

Kate Waters takes a more contemporary approach in her deservedly popular Sarah Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy and Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times (Scholastic, about $5.99 each, paperback, ages 4 and up) www.scholastic.com. In these appealing books she uses documentary-style color photographs to describes the lives of a Pilgrim girl and boy and a Native American boy of their era.

Waters’s books about Pilgrim times are popular in schools, particularly in the second and third grades, so by searching the Web you can find teachers’ guides with related activities you can adapt at home. Their stories have a natural appeal this week, but don’t forget them next year when you want to get children excited about a trip to a historical museum or village.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 2, 2007

Rebecca Gowers’s First Novel, ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the Orange Prize Along With Books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley

A young British writer with septic arthritis tries to cope after her husband unexpectedly announces that their marriage is “defunct”

When to Walk. By Rebecca Gowers. Canongate, 235 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rebecca Gowers writes in When to Walk that the Victorian poor gave their babies a substance called Venice Treacle, “which induced an opium stupor while the mothers went out to work.” That line – interesting in itself — also suggests the emotional state of the narrator of this novel, longlisted for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize: She sometimes seems to be in an opium stupor without the opium.

Early on, the narrator’s husband of three years announces that their marriage is “defunct,” and the novel describes her attempts to cope during the following week. Gowers’s publisher calls the story a “ramble into familial failures, urban isolation, unreliable relationships” and more.

That’s true, but for a ramble, When to Walk is oddly overdetermined. The surname of the narrator, for example, is Ramble. Nearly every character has a name freighted with so much baggage, you sense that Gowers doesn’t trust you to figure such things out on your own. Ramble’s husband, Constantine, known as Con, acts like an emperor and gets involved with small-time con artists. Her gay best friend with a bisexual past has the doubly phallic name of Johnson Pike, and if that suggests to you that he might be tempted at some point show her his johnson, you’re right. Her half-batty grandmother, Stella Ramble, is always referred to that way, never as “Gran” or Grandma,” implying a distance between the two characters that the story doesn’t entirely support.

The overdetermination is all the more distracting because the novel is underplotted. Gowers sets up minor subplots that go nowhere – one about a friend her heroine is helping with her English and another about a Holocaust-era photograph she finds amid her grandmother’s belongings. Ramble also has septic arthritis – similar to Lyme Disease – presumably intended as a metaphor for the creaky joints of her life and marriage. But the relation between her physical and emotional states isn’t clear: To what degree, if any, is the illness responsible for her bad marriage and dull job writing travel articles about places she hasn’t seen? Little enough happens overall that the novel crawls along until the whiz-bang final chapter, where the story gains the steam it has lacked until then.

So When to Walk is less successful as a novel than as a collection of anecdotes, many about the Victorian era. Some of these tell stories more interesting than that of the book as a whole, including one about the author of the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “I can state for certain that at some point in the early 1840s, when she was still a child, Christina Rossetti was taken to Madame Tussaud’s on a treat that was a total failure,” Gowers writes. “Why? Because she’d been taught that it’s rude to stare.”

Best line: “For all the time I’ve known her, Stella Ramble has, in the old phrase, been ‘living on unkindly terms with her years.’” Old phrase? I’d never heard it but know a lot of people to whom it applies.

Worst line: An e-mail message from a character who works for a college, whom Ramble is helping with her English: “Boustrophedon is when the lines of the inscription go left to right, right to left (retrograde means the characters being r to l too as in a mirror), left to right etc. Boustrophedon translates to mean the way oxen turn back and forth over a field when they plough. Whereas, false boustrophedon, alternate lines instead of having vertical orientation will curl around upside down, this also being called Schlangenschrift which means snake-writing.” As mangled English, this isn’t funny enough. It is hardly, if all, distinguishable from much of what passes for acceptable in academia today.

Published: October 2007 www.canongate.net

Furthermore: Gowers also wrote The Swamp of Death: A True Tale of Victorian Lies and Murder (Penguin, 2004). When to Walk was one of 20 books on the longlist for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, formerly the Orange Prize www.orangeprize.co.uk, which also included novels by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley.

Cover story: Joe Berger’s cover for When to Walk differs by a mile from what American publishers typically choose for books about young women and their relationships — in part because it isn’t pink — and this is much to the credit of the Edinburgh-based Canongate Books. The spirit of the cover is very Scottish, though it contains none of the usual Scottish cliches such (such as kilts, thistles or Nessie), and the story is set in an unnamed British city. The cover is mainly green, the same shade that many of the spear-pointed iron fences in Edinburgh were until painted black after the death of Prince Albert. Some fences have been repainted in the shade.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site in the world on Google on Sept. 6, 2007 www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 1, 2007

A Review of Rebecca Gowers’s ‘When to Walk,’ Longlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize, Coming This Week

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:23 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

If you live in the U.S. and want to read any of the three novels by women on the shortlist for Man Booker Prize www.themanbookerprize.com, good luck to you and the New York Mets. At least one of the novels, Anne Enright’s The Gathering, is listed as in stock on www.amazon.com. But I came up empty-handed at — and was told that, in fact, Enright’s book and the two others by women are not yet available in the U.S. — by a major Barnes & Noble store and two good independent booksellers.

But you can find Rebecca Gowers’s first novel, When to Walk www.groveatlantic.com, longlisted along with books by Anne Tyler and Jane Smiley for the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) www.orangeprize.co.uk, a major U.K. award open to female writers of any nationality. One-Minute Book Reviews will post a review later this week of Gowers’s book, first published by the Edinburgh-based Canongate, which established its international reputation with the Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi.

By the way, all three of the Man Booker finalists by male authors are available here, and I had no trouble finding the two I wanted to read, Mister Pip and On Chesil Beach, which recently have blanketed Fifth Avenue bookstore windows.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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