The second read for January was part of my self-challenge of reading more books by South Asian authors this year. The author, Sana Balagamwala, is Pakistani and apparently grew up in Karachi, where the book is set.
I like the idea of a house narrating a story. The house in question is a bungalow located in Karachi. House Number 12 Block Number 3 tells us about the lives of its inhabitants, Haji Rahmat, his wife Zainab and their two children, Nadia and Junaid. The story spans the four months after the patriarch of the family is dead. But, of course, the house remembers all the years leading up to this terrible event and how they shaped the family’s response to this unexpected crisis.
Each chapter reveals new shades in the personalities of the characters that populate the house. Spoilt little Nadia as a child, and later as a headstrong young woman; superstitious but warm-hearted Zainab; an almost passive Junaid with his carefully-repressed emotions. Dialogue is deftly used to establish and unfold the little conflicts that brew between these characters.
The house observes, not impartially, but with much vested interest in the future of its inhabitants. It notices details that they miss out on in each other’s demeanors. The house is sentient but not insightful. It cares deeply for its family; or perhaps it is simply filled with their feelings. Yet, it makes no profound observations or leaps of faith – it is a house, after all – and much is left for the reader to surmise. It’s a neat little trick – having a house as narrator. But it’s not necessary.
The book chronicles historical events through discussions between characters. Partition, wars with India, natural disaster in East Pakistan, and later the separation of Bangladesh; not to mention, political turmoil within Pakistan. These events show us that the characters lead inconsequential lives on the backdrop of history. And yet, every event in the characters’ lives is a small crack; and even the little cracks on the surface of history have huge consequences for those involved. Another neat little trick, but this one worked for me.
Overall, it’s a good book, even if a bit gimmicky. I can’t believe this book has only 40-something reviews on Goodreads. The writing is delicate. And it talks about trauma with great intensity of feeling. It’s worth a read.
I haven’t read as much as I wanted to this year, but I’ve miraculously loved almost all the books that I’ve read. So, quality matters, right? It’s been a good year. Here are the highlights:
Biggest Comfort Read:The Ship of Magic (The Liveships Trilogy) by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb made my year this year! The Liveship Trilogy by Robin Hobb was the greatest source of warmth, love, and adventure. The incredibly immersive writing made every 900+ page tome a breeze to read.
Robin Hobb’s writing has such a cinematic feel. Every character brought their own charm, and I just wanted to keep reading and see where the pages took them. Highly recommended if you like fantasy, dragons, ships, and sweeping, character-driven stories.
Most Surprising Find: Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
I have tried reading graphic novels before but it somehow never stuck. Daytripper was a haunting, beautiful turning point! The story offers glimpses from the life of a Brazilian obituary writer – a man who writes about other lives when he can barely make sense of his own.
What are the moments that matter the most in his life? How will he write his own obituary? The book tells you: the important moments in life are when you’re alive. It’s the only lesson that counts.
Most Layered Read: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Has a book ever made you feel like you’re travelling through a maze? The back cover says that it’s the story of a North Korean man named Pak Jun Doe, the son of the orphan master, who must escape the orphanage and find his one true love. But that’s not even the tip of the iceberg of what this book offers!
This is one of those novels that are crafted, not just written. North Korea makes for a dreary setting and the dark humor gives you guilty laughs. Hope, when it does peer through, seems like an illusion. I will need time to peel back every layer.
Favourite New Author: The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
Which is to say, I’ve spent days devouring interviews and would love to read more of his writing, even though some parts of this book did not fully satisfy me.
The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam is about five people living in post-9/11 Afghanistan. The writing is deeply metaphorical, ambitious, and emotionally-charged. A quote:
“His shoes are worn the way the edges of erasers become rounded with use. As though he walks around correcting his mistakes.”
Best Accidental Find: The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
In post-climate disaster Alberta, a woman infected with a mysterious parasite must choose between a rare opportunity to work far from home or help rebuild her community.
The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed moved me to tears in a way that no book has in a long time. There was just something about its innocence and brutality.
It came as a Scribd suggested read and the name and cover intrigued me enough to pick it up. What an amazing find. I do hope the world continues to unravel in a series.
Favourite Non-fiction: Fifty Sounds by Polly Barton
The story of an English-speaking woman who moved to Japan to become a literary translator.
Thought, theory, and ideation corroborate with experience. She writes as a linguist, but also a learner, teacher, and a true translator of cultures and people, along with words. Each chapter represents a sound word and memories she associates with it.
Her writing is candid, chaotic, and often self-deprecating, but I found it easy to relate to, and even in moments when she’s not her best.
One of those obscure books that I can’t tell you why I picked up, but I can assure you I’m glad I read it.
We (urban animal-loving folk) tend to talk about conservation in black and white terms devoid of socio-political content. The book questions this tendency. It reminded me of a quote from Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide.
“Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? …This whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil.”
The author goes a step further in The Snow Leopard and the Goat. He says that the conversationist spectacle of free wild animals roaming in vast stretches of wild forest presumes that animals cannot coexist with humans. However, historical data and years of research states otherwise. He points out that the real conflict is not between animals and humans encroaching on their habitat, but urban conservationists and farmers settled near wildlife zones. He writes,
“In Baltistan I have encountered numerous situations in which villagers openly demanded that since people in New York and London want to protect the snow leopards, they should take the animals away with them.”
A key takeaway is that we cannot generalise the behaviour of all animals in the wild. The reasons for tiger endangerment may be different from snow leopard endangerment, depending on the ecological roles, habitats, preferences of that species. The writer argues that the primary reason for the declining number of wild snow leopards is not human encroachment, but hunting and the sale of exotic products like pelts. Snow leopards used to destroy local game animals, and therefore were seen as vermin. These practices were carried out by the same class of social elites that are now proponents of conservation.
Furthermore, there is no use denying that farming has encroached upon habitats. But even here, why does subsistence farming by villagers bear the brunt of the blame? In fact, the majority of habitat degradation is a direct effect of the increased consumption by industrial societies. Yet, we don’t bat an eyelid when entire rural settlements are cleared and rehabilitated to create safe wildlife zones. Either way, villagers bear the costs of our conservation effort. The author discusses how working with the farmers, through schemes like insurance of their livestock, has a better chance of success than “raising awareness.”
The Snow Leopard and the Goat forces you to reconsider assumptions. How are conservation projects marketed? Who are the major donors? When countries work together for conservation, are they really working together? What information do the donors get of the difference they make? Would conservation groups benefit from under-reporting wild animal population numbers? Why not? Why is our idea of the wilderness devoid of humans?
The book douses your conservationist’s passion with some layered facts and references. Not everything the author says rings palatable or unbiased. It’s also a little tedious for someone who isn’t an expert in snow leopards or conservation. But it gives what it promises: a glimpse into the politics of animal conservation. The larger lesson here is: question what information you are fed and whose interest it serves.
The other day, I finished reading a book called Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, a study in sexuality, romance, abuse, and identity. It is a short story collection with well-crafted stories that fall somewhere in the realm of gothic fiction, psychological horror, dark fantasy, magical realism, and weird fiction. Go figure, right? I found myself drawing comparisons to the writings of Angela Carter. For weeks now, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this book.
The book is intensely imaginative and plays with form and structure to a fault. As I read, I felt like I was trying to force-fit explanations onto the different narratives in the book, to consciously make meaning. Is that how anyone reads magical realism? Or am I so dull and obtuse that I need this process? What questions do you ask to tease out the meaning in a dense, perhaps inaccessible, text? Is there a toolkit for this genre that will make me a better reader? Would love to hear your thoughts. Meanwhile, here’s what I thought about some of the stories in the book.
Real Women Have Bodies
In this story, Machado tackles the use of body positivity as a handy marketing technique and the notion of selling clothes for “real bodies.” In this fantastical story, there is a new epidemic on the block. Women are fading away. Literally, turning translucent, and then, transparent. Not dying, just becoming incorporeal. Machado asks us, how would fashion respond to this crisis? Will the fashion industry survive when women have no bodies? But wait, doesn’t fashion thrive on existential crises?
The main character is a salesgirl at a clothing boutique, who falls in love with a fading woman. It is through her eyes that we uncover the underbelly of the fashion world. What happens to the fading women, their minds, their identities? Their fate seems to tell us that we are what we wear, style and fashion make us relevant, our bodies make us real. What is a woman without a body? What is a woman?
The narrator goes to an artists’ retreat at Devil’s Throat, which is the site where she’d suffered a childhood trauma, a place in the mountains where she’d once visited as a Girl Scout. In the present day, in the form of a surreal half-fantasy, she finds herself revisiting her past and reliving it, facing it and learning about herself in an effort to slowly come to terms with her mind.
Machado has dissected the gothic trope of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ – think Jane Eyre or Rebecca. She asks, what’s worse: being locked outside of your mind or locked inside it? What is worse: writing a trope or being one? What about being more than one? The narrator undertakes a bold journey into the deep recesses of her mind, commands your respect. Machado allows the madwoman in the attic to assert her identity, to revel in it, and her self-reclamation is cathartic.
Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU
Now, to start off, I haven’t watched Law & Order, but I have watched my share of detective / police procedural series that go on and on for decades. Machado has written this story in the form of episode synopses across 12 seasons on Law & Order, borrowing the characters Stabler and Benson from the series. What we get is an over-arching love story between the detective partners as they solve the grizzliest crime cases, mostly comprising of violence against women.
And that’s how most of these crime dramas are, aren’t they? Gruesome violence packaged as entertainment. Every new episode showcases new depravity, and you’re supposed to quickly rejoice when they find the rapist or the killer. And then you move on the bar scene when they bond over their drinks, and that’s what you care the most about; the tension between the detectives, their family troubles, these well-worn narratives that get increasingly convoluted with every new season. All on the backdrop of what should have been the real focus, i.e., the crimes themselves.
Every once in a while, they give you an episode that truly makes you think, and cringe, and seriously consider these pertinent social and psychological issues. But those episodes are rare, and they’re not the hot topic when the newest episode comes out, and you wonder, for the umpteenth time, just when Booth will finally kiss Bones or Lucifer will confess his love for Chloe.
Machado mimics that detective-partners’ chemistry arch in her story, creating the most cloying and tangled romance. She makes you shudder and wonder why you’d ever watch something so glib. Meanwhile, her characters are haunted by the true nature of their jobs; something that most TV shows would hesitate to show us.
This is a collection of eight powerful stories, I’ve only found space to talk about three. I’m still chewing on all of them. There is a story about eating disorders and body image called Eight Bites, inspired by the advice that it takes eight bites to get a sense of what you’re eating, and that’s enough. A story that hits too close to home! The first story, The Husband Stitch is one of the best stories I have ever read, but I can’t bring myself to write about it. Instead, I share this Electric Lit article shared by a friend that prompted me to buy this book in the first place.
Overall, there are several layers to peel back when reading this book. The experience has made me intensely aware of being a woman, not something I’m used to thinking over. I felt seen and heard, guilty, unabashed, and emotionally satisfied. Those seem like just hollow labels and for now, that’s all they’ll remain.
Machado’s writing demands that I take many steps forward for every step that she took. I am not yet ready to go to some of the places where she tried to lead me. I may return to the book, someday, and allow myself to be carried down those uncharted passages of my mind. Not something to look forward to.
The title, Ich war dabei, is German for ‘I was there.’ The subtitle is a haunting summary of what the book is all about – Geschichten gegen das Vergessen – literally stories against forgetting, or like a battle for remembrance.
So, what is this book about? This is a collection of stories written from the perspective of people who were children (preteens and teens) during the Nazi regime, in different parts of Germany, Poland and Czech. It’s a book that documents the indoctrination and the casual horror of the Third Reich.
Some of the stories refuse to leave my mind…
In the very first story titled, ‘Er war noch warm’ or ‘It was still warm,’ we witness the confusion of a child as his family visits a neighbour’s house to eat the lunch laid out on their table. They are one of many neighbours flocking in to pick and choose from the things left behind by the Jewish family when they’re taken away.
In the story, ‘Die Wertvollen und die Minderwertigen,’ a woman recalls a high school lesson on the physical differences between ‘the superior and inferior races.’ She’s been singled out by her teacher, who points out that the child has ‘typical oriental features,’ therefore labelling her inferior. She talks about that day as having given her that first blossoming feeling of rebellion.
I can’t forget the story about the silent house where no one lived… and the village which buried its past ‘for the sake of the tourists.’ The story about the young boy and his first ‘kill’ and about the old Polish couple who traced their way back to the house they had abandoned years ago for one last glimpse of something that no longer existed.
It was difficult to contain my shock at the purposeful sincerity and candid narrative style. I know that my lack of German fluency must have failed me a few times. I would like to reread the book to discover the nuances I have missed. I wonder if there is an English translation – I would love to share this with students.
It is interesting to explore a bit about the writer here, and about why I chose to read this book. Gudrun Pausewang was a German author of young adult and children’s literature. According to a Spiegel obituary, Pausewang was born in 1928 in Mladkov, which is now in the Czech, and fled to West Germany with her family after the war. She was a teacher, and taught in schools in South America before coming back to Germany. Her writings revolve around war, climate change, privilege, and a myriad other battles in life.
It was one such children’s book that inspired me to look up this author. I have inherited (read: stolen) a set of German storybooks from my aunt, who was a German teacher. Among these is an dark and richly illustrated board-book called ‘Die Kinder in der Erde,’ or ‘The Children in the Earth.’ It is a beautiful little fairytale about a conversation between the earth and man, through the innocence of children. Sharing the cover illustration and the first couple of pages here –
I will certainly be looking up more by this writer. And I would love to know if there are English translations of any of her books, so that I can immerse myself better in the message of her books.
This upcoming Top Ten Tuesday topic was too cute to leave for next month. So I chose to fast-forward to it right away, just so I could post this. Check out today’s topic and other posts over at That Artsy Reader Girl.
You know how books follow similar title patterns? The Adjective Noun like The Silent Patient, or The Noun of the Noun like The Call of the Wild. Here’s a quick and fun grammar practice lesson that you can conduct in your classroom or school library, or even virtually. All you need is a bunch of books!
Place buckets or racks across the room, or virtually, folders or other organisers, labelled after each of the title categories. Ask your students to find and place the books in the suitable buckets. Students can also come up with their own categories.
You can later discuss why certain formulaic titles work for books, movies, and stories. Students can share examples of titles which are truly original, and do not fit any formula. Do they like or prefer such titles?
The [Adjective] [Noun] of [Noun] books
1. The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer
2. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson
3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend
4. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
5. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
The [Noun] of the [Adjective] [Noun] books
1. Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
3. The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage [and others] by Enid Blyton
4. House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones
5. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott
Which other common adjective-based patterns can you find in book titles? Try out this game in your next ESL class and share what your students come up with!
Here is a list of ten books I read this year that really surprised me. These are not books released in 2021, by the way. Writing a post for the ‘freebie’ topic for Top Ten Tuesday. Here goes my list –
1. Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb – The book (and the Rain Wild Chronicles series) is the story of the first dragons returning to a society that has long lost these beasts. What surprised me was the intense first person narration of the dragons. I didn’t expect a fantasy book to be so lyrical.
2. You Took The Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston – A book of poetry like no other I have ever read. Each of the poems plays with words and tests the limits of language. Poems drawn in silhouettes, Venn diagrams, Excel sheet, character limits – you name it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a poetry collection this quickly.
3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – One word – overrated. I love Matt Haig’s social media posts, so I was shocked to read a book that made so little sense, a book so irresponsibly lazy.
4. Peter the Great by Robert K Massie – What surprised me was how deep and wide the scope of the book was. It’s an account, not just of the life of Peter the Great, but a biography of the whole of Europe during the long reign of this Russian Tsar.
5. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui – This book is so niche, I’m surprised it exists. It detailed the experiences of passionate swimmers and survivors across the globe. It answered questions I’d never thought to ask, and left me pondering the anthropology, physiology, mythology, psychology and linguistics of swimming.
6. Momo by Michael Ende – I love children’s books that seemingly talk about ‘simple things,’ that aren’t really simple. Momo is a perfect example of that. What would happen if the world were taken over by monsters who have the power to make you more productive? Sounds more like reality than fantasy, doesn’t it?
7. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – This book is so absurd. It was not completely my cup of tea and I didn’t appreciate the cliffhanger (I rarely do) but I am fascinated by how absurd it was.
8. Brain by Robin Cook – A very run-of-the-mill medical thriller that did keep me on the edge of my seat (as the blurb promised). What surprised me was how sinister and ruthless the book was for something that breezy. Patients disappearing, brains getting stolen, mysterious symptoms of nausea – nothing short of macabre.
9. Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch – A book on the linguistics of the internet, I can’t imagine a more me-topic than this. I was surprised by how detailed and seriously the book was written. I’d recommend it to everyone, but especially to language teachers.
10. Not a particular book, but this is the first time in years that I’ve crossed 50 books on my Goodreads challenge. My goal was 100, which I didn’t have time to reach, but I’m at a respectable 67, hoping to read 70 by the end of the year. One day, I’ll return to my 100-books-a-year diet, but today I’m happy about 67!
I was so looking forward to this book! The premise is excellent – it’s exactly my kind of Faustian story. A young woman makes a deal with a dark god – she wants to be free… escape her village and her marriage… and live forever… The devil answers her prayer. Except, no deal is quite that straightforward. And so, while she escapes from her small life, she is cursed to remain alone, forgotten. No one remembers her, and anything she says, writes or makes is wiped from the world, from memory and history. She is not only out of the grasp of time, she’s cut out of life itself. Three hundred years of anonymity until… she meets him. Henry. And he remembers her.
The Good: You know, I expected it to be as cheesy as any period / fantasy romance. A good kind of cheesy! The book did start out that way. Those sweeping parallel storylines flitting between the 1700s and somewhere close to now, 2014, New York. Rich, silken prose dripping off the pages, vivid descriptions of the city-life and art and poetry… It was all so Ooh! But Ooh! is all there was.
The Bad: Pages and pages, and some more pages, of: nothing. Repetitive lines, overused similes, cluttered ideas, name-dropping, and so much maudlin drama. Here’s what I mean. These two lines are set in 17-something Paris (I guess) –
He does not say he will walk her home. And if it were midday, she would scorn the offer just to spite him. But it is late, and only one kind of woman walks alone at night.
You know what that last line means, don’t you? You know exactly what she means by a certain kind of woman – what it says about her, him, their times, the world. And yet, what the author gives us is two more paragraphs about it:
Addie has learn that women – at least, women of a certain class – never venture forth alone, even during the day. They are kept inside like potted plants, tucked behind the curtains of their homes. And when they do go out, they go in groups, safe within the cages of each other’s company, and always in the light of day.
To walk alone in the morning is a scandal, but to walk alone at night, that is something else. Addie knows. She has felt their looks, their judgment, from every side. The women scorn her from their windows, the men try to buy her on the streets, and the devout, they try to save her soul, as if she hasn’t already sold it. She has said yes to the church, on more than one occasion, but only for the shelter, never for the salvation.
I mean why – WHY – was that needed? This happens all the time in the book. What she has already said in ten words, she dwells on for forty more, throwing in the misplaced metaphors and the inconsequential details.. why? Because it sounds good? Does it even manage that? Half the book could have easily been chopped – the great premise was throttled by bad editing.
The Ugly: And yet, the lack of editing was not the biggest of my concerns. The most annoying bit was how all the existential questions that the book raised went conveniently unanswered in the end. What was the point of this book? What was the grand takeaway? It’s not a surprise to me that the author writes for young adults, because this book reads like YA, except with sex and a 300 year old character – wait no, it reads exactly like YA.
P.S. No issues with YA, I read it – just didn’t expect this to fall into that bracket.
Here are some of my favourite poems found on Instagram that I have shared, or would want to share, with my students – and I recommend you share them with yours. I’ve added ideas for discussion questions right below the poem.
1. Unnamed Poem by Diana Levy
How has the poet personified nostalgia?
How has the poet used the five senses to create evocative imagery?
Describe the memories of your childhood.
Which sensory images would you use to capture your country?
2. Have You Ever Noticed by Rudy Francisco
Comment on the form and structure of the poem (title, punctuation, stanzas, etc.)
How has the poet personified water?
What is the lesson conveyed through the poem?
Can you think of another lesson that one can learn from water? (e.g. its flexibility, transparence, life-giving nature, its paradoxical calm and force, etc.)
3. A Letter to the Playground Bully by Andrea Gibson
Comment on the title of the poem and how it relates to the content.
What is meant by ‘reading between the lines,’ and what information about the poet can we glean from reading between the lines of this poem?
What kind of people does the poet’s mother describe? Explain the metaphor of heartbeats used here.
Do stereotypes affect our self image – how?
4. The Problem of Writing Poems in the Shape of Deciduous Trees by Brian Bilston
Comment on the shape of the poem.
Why can we still read the poem in spite of the missing letters?
Where is the poet? How do you know?
Make a list of the missing letters. Where have they gone?
Do you use poems in class? Which poems do your students read and like?
Man, I wish someone had introduced me to Kwame Alexander’s writing when I was a kid. Growing up, poems meant Wordsworth and Frost – the first I would never grow to love, and the second was never taught as more than a maudlin, sentimental version of what he had to offer. Poems were distant, archaic and dull. I was too obtuse for poetry and poetry took itself too seriously for me.
About two years into my teaching career, I stumbled upon The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. I had been looking for “books about sports for boys” – such a common request from parents of reluctant readers who hate to empty their pockets (not surprisingly) on the favourite Wimpy Kids and Captain Underpants-es. The Goodreads blurb of the book sounded too good to be true. It goes something like:
Summary – “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.
What a fitting search result to my query. I looked up The Crossover with some apprehension, because I don’t exactly understand basketball, or any sport for that matter; not entirely sure I understand the mind of a 12-year-old reluctant reader. But it was the middle of the school year and I was out of options for this kid, so I picked it up. And there was no coming back! Enter: unapologetic 27-year-old fangirl.
Last month I read the “second instalment” in the series called Booked, an unrelated story, this one about a young soccer player, but a similar pattern of writing. I knew what I was going into, and it didn’t quite have the same impact as The Crossover, but it was pretty good nonetheless.
Kwame Alexander does what I wish someone had done when I was a kid – he makes poetry seamless, flowing and fun. I thought that the verse would be a part of the book that I’d get used to, you know, something I’d learn to ignore after a while. But NO. I loved it! The ridiculously no-holds-barred experimentation in writing; it was so enjoyable. He pulled out all the stops. You leave these books with a new understanding of the narrative breadth and depth of poems. Here’s what I mean:
The writing is simple, without being simplistic. It’s clear. It comes from a good place, but it’s not preachy. It sounds unapologetically like its characters; not like what grown-ups think kids sound like… It has a casual sense of humour. And it does a very serious job of promoting the exploration of language as a means of expression, and family values and friendship, and bullying, and life-choices… and it does all that without a hint of self-indulgence or pretension!
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