Read This: Somewhere in Between by Katie Li

Somewhere In BetweenSomewhere In Between by Katie Li
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Katie Li’s Somewhere in Between is a Murakamiesque roller coaster ride through love, friendship, and time itself. (Not sure this “roller coaster” metaphor is working, but stick with me.) Magnolia, collector of lost things, and Rom, a shy gamer guy, form an unlikely connection as teens. Their friendship deepens when they discover a portal to another realm—the in-between place. Every time they visit, it’s different. When they go back to reality in their lovably ramshackle Boston neighborhood, the real world has shifted—sometimes in subtle ways, other times in major ways—as well.

Somewhere in betweenThis is no ordinary reading experience. It’s not the kind of book you can sit back and lose yourself in—but that’s a good thing. It requires the reader’s careful attention. In the Wizard of Oz movie, Dorothy leaves black-and-white Kansas and steps into the technicolor wonderland of Oz, giving viewers a huge visual clue, in case we didn’t quite get it: You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy! In Somewhere in Between, the font switches from boldface to roman, helping the reader track the shifts from one realm to the other. At chapter breaks, the book’s pages are intricately designed, festooned in flowers and vines.

One of my favorite passages is a discussion between Magnolia and Rom in the In-between Place. “Do you ever imagine what time looks like,” asks Magnolia. Rom doesn’t exactly understand why she’s asking, but she tries to explain it to him: “I don’t know—it just dawned on me the other day that when I think of time, it has a shape.” She asks Rom to close his eyes and describe how he thinks of time. He thinks of a calendar, of pages tearing off one by one. She says she sees time differently—like a roller coaster:

It’s a roller coaster, but it’s not fast. And you’re not sitting down. You don’t even really have a body. It’s just the feeling of moving in a roller coaster, January starts, and then it moves forward, sort of—I guess toward you? If you were looking at it. And then February goes, like, upward. And March gets higher, but then sort of plateaus.

somewhere in between2I love this conversation because it’s exactly the way people get to know each other—really know each other. It’s how young people’s friendships deepen. They sit around and talk—not just about life and school and books and movies, but about how they think, how they view the world. You can’t have these conversations with just anybody—you wouldn’t want to! You reserve them for the people you trust. You feel like, if you just had enough of these kinds of conversations, you’d achieve some sort of perfect communion. They would get you, and you would get them, too.

Katie Li and I interviewed each other, author to author. As she said on her Instagram, we “chat about books, love, friendship, our cities, fomo, and the writing life.” Check out the interview here!

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Book review: Shari Goldhagen’s In Some Other World, Maybe

In Some Other World, MaybeIn Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first I wasn’t sure I should give In Some Other World, Maybe five whole stars. It had pulled me in so completely that when it was over, I wasn’t sure if the tingling feeling it left me with was the aftershocks from an intense crush rather than true love. I wondered if Shari Goldhagen’s second novel was the equivalent of that handsome bad boy who sweeps you off your feet, takes you on 100-miles-per-hour motorcycle rides on ocean-side cliffs, tells you you’re beautiful, and then rides off into the sunset without leaving so much as his number. This book took me by surprise and did the right thing, in the end: it stuck with me.

In Some Other World, Maybe reminds me of the movie version of Short Cuts, where a lot of different stories happen to a large cast of characters, and slowly but surely, their paths cross and you start to see how everything and everyone is connected. The novel opens in the early 1990s, when all our main players catch a different screening of a large-budget sci-fi film called Eons & Empires. This gives all our characters a common experience, and it introduces a theme that resonates throughout the novel: Our lives intersect with other people’s lives—sometimes by chance, sometimes because of decisions we make. In some other world, maybe . . . things would have gone differently. But we live in this world, and we have to make the most of it. We have to make sure not to take the people in it for granted.

The characters at the center of the novel are Phoebe and Adam. They were both in high school when Eons & Empires came out, but they don’t meet until they’re in their twenties. Both aspiring actors, they’re roommates who hook up sometimes. They’re drawn to each other, attracted to each other, but for various reasons have never managed to make it work as a committed, monogamous couple, even though deep down, that’s what each of them most desires.

Over the course of the book, twenty years go by, and the relationship between Adam and Phoebe evolves. They go from friends to lovers to friends again. Years into their friendship, a family tragedy brings them closer together, and they’re forced to confront their feelings for each other. They resemble no one I know in real life—Adam is a handsome television actor with a chip on his shoulder, Phoebe is glamorous and spoiled, her body perfected by plastic surgeons, her heart wide-open and true. Still, they emerge as fully-developed three-dimensional characters. I became immersed in their relationship drama to the point that I cried—actually shed real tears!—at four separate points in the book. I just really believed in them, and longed for them to make it work. The obstacles they faced rang true, even if I did want to shake Adam by the shoulders at several points and yell in his face, “Don’t let her go, you idiot!”

Other characters orbit Adam and Phoebe’s world, too. It’s always a risk to crowd a book with too many characters. Readers might be tempted to skip over the characters they don’t like to get to the “good stuff.” For me, this wasn’t a problem. I found myself really rooting for all of them.

Over the years, the paths of each main character and several minor ones zigzag back and forth over each other. Sometimes they realize it—Oliver will recognize Phoebe’s mother while on a trip overseas, for example. Other times, they don’t—one time, Adam is standing in line next to Sharon in an airport, but they are (at that point) strangers to each other. It might sound unbelievable, as if the plot relies on too many of these coincidental connections, but those connections reinforce the point the book is trying to make—that all of us are tied together in ways we don’t even realize.

In Some Other World, Maybe is the book I wanted The Interestings to be. It is relevant, engrossing, moving, and an all-around entertaining read. Five stars!

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Shirley is Fascinating and Engrossing

ShirleyShirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started Shirley, I thought this book is going to be amazing. Much of it was–especially if you’ve read a handful of Shirley Jackson’s novels and are familiar with her short stories. Shirley reads like a Jackson novel in both style and subject-matter.

For about one school year, a young couple moves in with Shirley Jackson and her husband, the academic Stanley Hyman. The town, Shirley and Stanley, and the house itself begin to take their toll on the young couple. Rose, our innocent (un)trusty narrator, wants nothing more but to become BFFs with Shirley. She wants to be “seen” by her. She wants to be understood.

We read this in my book club, and we had some discussion of the fact that this creepy, not exactly flattering fictional story was written about real-life people. Some of us thought that Shirley and Stan aren’t tucked back far enough in history to be subjected to something like this. Personally, I found this approach innovative and a bit ingenious; imagining Shirley Jackson in different contexts—as a wife, as a mother, as a literary figure—lent me an interesting perspective on her and her work. But that’s the danger of it, right? Fact, fiction, and the work itself have been all tangled up.

(Side note: I even appreciated the name-dropping: J.D. Salinger, Betty Friedan, Dylan Thomas [did that interaction really happen?!], et al.)

I was all set to give this entertaining novel five stars . . . until the ending happened. What started as a tightly-plotted novel began to unravel in the last quarter. The party scene went on and on, not adding much to the characters or story. Too much time got devoted to explaining how things worked out with Rose and Fred, too.

The ending did circle back to the “does anyone see me?/am I important?/will I be remembered?” theme introduced in the beginning, and the resolution to that was quite satisfying. Therefore, I will settle on a solid four-star rating. I enjoyed it!

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Portland: A Food Biography Will Make You Fall in Love with Portland

Portland: A Food BiographyPortland: A Food Biography by Heather Arndt Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tourists and Portlandia fans may have certain ideas about Portland’s food scene. Visions of food carts, hippie vegan restaurants, grilled cheese buses, blue cheese ice cream shops, and mile-long brunch lines dance in their heads. Yes, those are all a part of Portland’s bustling and dynamic culinary culture today–but how did it all begin?

In Portland: A Food Biography, Breakfast A History author and Portland native Heather Arndt Anderson starts from our fair city’s not-so-humble beginnings, when the land was wild and teeming with native plants and animals. The book shows how the first Portlanders (from the Chinook and Kalapuya tribes) fished, hunted, and gathered Camas and wapato for sustenance.

Later, immigrants from around the world settled in Stumptown, bringing with them their own varied culinary traditions. What will be especially interesting to Portland residents today is seeing the remnants of this history in the corners of our current neighborhoods. Those fig trees dropping their fruit on the sidewalks of Southeast Portland? Those were planted by Italian families around the turn of the twentieth century. Commonly referred to as the whitest city in America, Portland–as revealed in this book–has a richer, more diverse culinary history than I would have imagined.

Portland was also home to its share of lovable oddballs, and Arndt Anderson found them all. Farmers, feminists, prohibitionists, teetotalers, vegetarians, barkeeps, restaurant owners, and canning factory managers populate these pages, often spouting off amazing quips about their love for Portland. Take this one, for example:

American publisher and early game law reformer Charles Hallock wrote effusively in 1891 of the variety of waterfowl that the Northwest has to offer, of “the exquisite preparation nature has made for their accommodation and the long season for hunting them, with which we sportsmen are blessed,” and insisted that the tales of Oregon’s duck-hunting affluence bore repeating until they “resolve themselves into blood-curdling, hair raising traditions similar to the Icelandic sagas and the mythical legends of the dark ages.”

Hallock’s rhapsodizing was not unique to him. Dozens of other newcomers found themselves similarly enthusiastic about the possibilities and abundance in this fertile land.

The journey from the past to the food cart and artisanal ice cream shops of twenty-first century Portland is a delicious, captivating one. Portlanders, especially, will find themselves swept up in this mouth-watering history. Outsiders are advised to read this book with caution, as they may feel the desire to pack up and move to Portland immediately. I have a feeling our mile-long brunch lines are about to get even longer.

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Scent and Subversion

Scent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative PerfumeScent and Subversion: Decoding a Century of Provocative Perfume by Barbara Herman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been fascinated by scents for years now—not perfumes, but everyday scents: cedar closets, wet earth, cement, tea leaves, tree leaves, fir and pine needles, pencils, basements, matches, old books. When I started learning about perfume, my interest was really more solipsistic than academic: I dreamed of finding the perfect concoction that somehow perfectly expressed my thoughts and moods. Herman says we can “see perfume as instructive, a bridge between the world and our oft-neglected sense of smell. Like reading poetry to understand the lyricism in demotic, everyday speech, perfume connects us to the olfactory wonderland that is around us.” Scent and Subversion moves beyond—way beyond—the personal connection we have to scents and digs into the history, art, and science of perfumery.

Most of the book is like an encyclopedia of landmark vintage perfumes, organized chronologically. For each scent, author Barbara Herman provides cultural, historical, and social commentary; describes, analyses, and interprets the fragrance; and lists the top, heart, and base notes. We have different taste in fragrances: she favors animalic chypres and I suppose I’m more into minimalist woody scents. But Herman had a knack for imbuing each fragrance with mystery and allure, almost tempting me to bid on decants of Bandit so I could smell “a bouquet of flowers wrapped with a black whip” and Tabu, “the prostitute’s perfume.”

I was so taken with Herman’s descriptions of perfumes that I started a long list of scents I want to sniff or re-sniff. I’m especially curious to smell the perfumes I remember from my childhood and early adulthood now that I know more about them. It turns out that I have memories and associations with many, many perfumes. As a preteen, I had a small sample of Dior’s Fahrenheit for men (1988), which Herman describes as “classically masculine.” I was surprised that she didn’t mention what I’ve always found so striking and appealing about Fahrenheit—that unmistakable petrol note that rises up out of the fresh, citrusy opening.

Another one on the re-sniff list is Bulgari Black (1998). I’ve never quite understood they hype surrounding this one, which Herman declares a “masterpiece of twenty-first century perfumery.” For me, after the initial blast of rubber, which is so intriguing, the scent charges straight to the dry down. On my skin, the rubber turns into a bland, powdery vanilla and stays there. I want to try it again and see if I can get the complexity. I want to pick out the lapsang souchang in the top notes. The base sounds more dynamic than I remembered, with a blend of cedar, sandalwood, and leather in addition to the vanilla/musk/amber I could detect the last time I tried it.

Throughout the book, Herman rants against the banality of the insipid fruity and shampoo-y clean scents that have dominated the perfume scene for the last two decades. She makes a great case for embracing older, more complex formulas that blend pleasant smells with darker, animalic notes. Though I’m not sure I’d ever grow to love the musky and civety concoctions of ages past the way Herman has, I feel like I get them now—or I could learn to get them. Maybe it’s time to give Shalimar and Chanel No. 5 another sniff!

Scent and Subversion is a well-researched, well-written, fascinating tour of modern perfumery (from the 1880s to now). Barbara Herman makes a compelling argument for considering perfume as an art form, “as an aesthetic of pop culture that is worth of analysis, shaped by and shaping the culture in which it is embedded.”

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Book review: Office Girl

Office GirlOffice Girl by Joe Meno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At first I thought I was reading about millennial hipsters, riding their bikes around snowy Chicago, defacing public property with paint pens. (I like this book’s alternate title: “Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things.” It suits the story much better, as only a fraction of the book is from the “office girl’s” point of view.) Soon I realized I wasn’t reading about millennial hipsters at all. The story takes place in 1999, making them . . . GEN-X hipsters!

The first section of the book (Odile) didn’t quite captivate me. Parts felt like creative writing exercises. Long passages of internal monologue, chapters in list-form, quirky line drawings, and a Tao Lin-esque writing style felt contrived rather than original.

It all pulled together once the point of view character switched to Jack. Finally, the contrivances fell away and the story and characters began to emerge. Odile and Jack ride through the snow on bicycles. They’ve semi-ironically started a new art movement. I was no longer annoyed with them at all. I liked them, I felt for them. I even enjoyed their fake art.

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Book review: The Woman Upstairs

The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read the now-famous interview with Claire Messud before I ever picked up The Woman Upstairs. The interviewer asks Messud about her character Nora: “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” Messud responds: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?” (She goes on to list many other fictional bad boys of literature.)

Implicit in Messud’s response is the idea that we tend to embrace unlikable male characters—the Humbert Humberts, the Walter Whites and Don Drapers of our fictional worlds—more readily than female ones.

I agree: we readers shouldn’t need our books populated with likable characters. Still, I love so many books because I love the people who inhabit them. Anne of Green Gables, Jo March, Laura Ingalls. I don’t know if I wanted to be their friend or if I wanted to be them, but I definitely liked them. I loved them.

But perhaps, as Messud suggests, this is an unsophisticated way of reading. We grow up, we learn to look for more than kinship and friendship in our characters: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” Messud says. “We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’” In other words, we don’t have to love them; we have to believe in them.

So I went into The Woman Upstairs knowing that Nora wouldn’t necessarily become my friend. And sure enough, she wasn’t an especially pleasant person to be around for all those pages. Nora describes herself as “the woman upstairs.” She’s not quite the woman in the attic, the one who goes nuts and burns down the house. Nor is she downstairs with all the other characters. She’s the woman down the hall you say hi to but don’t know anything about. In Nora’s case, she’s thirty-seven and already resigned to spinsterhood. She figures life has passed her by.

But there is a bit of irony in Messud’s angry response to the interviewer’s question: The Woman Upstairs is a book about friendship. When Nora befriends the family of one of her pupils, life opens up to her. Friendship awakens her the way love awakens people, shakes them out of old routines and reveals opportunity. So then, the question of whether Nora would make a good friend becomes relevant to the story. Is the family as enthralled with Nora as she is with them?

The book reminds me (and many other reviewers) of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. Barbara Covett was a “woman upstairs,” too. It’s difficult to take these self-professed nobodies, push them to the center stage, and expect everyone to watch with rapt attention. Heller pulls it off, giving schoolteacher Barbara enough wit and realness to make her misanthropic views bearable. More than bearable—fascinating and funny.

In The Woman Upstairs, Nora was too much inside her own head, and her voice began to grate on me. (Weirdly, I kept reading her interior monologues with the inflections of Hannibal Lector.) The ideas and themes in the novel captured my attention and imagination, but the details of Nora’s personality and life (she is a popular teacher who loves kids; she’s beautiful; she’s a runner; she’s the “woman upstairs;” she’s a thirty-seven-year-old childless spinster) didn’t add up. Messud doesn’t ask me to like Nora; she wants me to believe in her. I just couldn’t do it.

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Book review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best book I’ve read all summer! Okay, I know this isn’t saying much. I think I’ve read only twelve books so far. But still. I loved it. I cried at least five times, six if you include this morning when I retold the entire story to my seven-year-old. I choked up when I recounted the ending, and the waterworks started up all over again. She didn’t really get it. Partly because she’s seven and partly because I had to give her a sort of G-rated version of story.

I bought the connection between Eleanor and Park, and I wanted them to be together. It’s a deceptively simple thing for a book to make me do. How many rom-coms have I watched or books have I read that tried to do that and failed? I’m left throwing popcorn at the screen or tossing the book aside, yelling, “You’re all wrong for each other!” or “He’s a jerk! What do you even see in him?” or (most damning) “Who cares?”

I was dreading the ending. [Spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the ending!] I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy.[I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy. (hide spoiler)]

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.

Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.

It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:

I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.

When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d’être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.

Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.

Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off a cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?

I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.

But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time.

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Book Review: Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as “date night.” Dee’s writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.

The subsequent pages don’t pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen’s husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce–and Helen doesn’t have any sort of emotional reaction. She’s not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter’s response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn’t blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?

I did enjoy Helen’s career trajectory, even if it wasn’t entirely believable that she could go from housewife to “crisis management” genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread–which serves as the conclusion of the entire book–doesn’t ring true.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee’s prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work.

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