Bros Before Prose

In the new issue of GQ (April 2013), there’s a feature called The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read. It’s not something that I take too seriously, since this is the same magazine that decided last year to promote bucket hats as a spring/summer accessory. Still, I’m compulsive about literary lists, especially when they provide the opportunity for me to see how far I’ve journeyed off the contemporary literature track.

The list, as the introduction puts it, is “numbered but not ranked,” which is to say that it provides no guidance at all, except perhaps how to fit these entries in for space. It’s also exclusively fiction, which is fine, since I don’t read poetry and that issue already has a column on “this season’s best memoirs,” a genre that really could take a break.

So here’s the numbered but not ranked list:

  1. The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
  2. The Human Stain – Philip Roth
  3. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  4. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
  5. True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
  6. 2666 – Robert Bolano
  7. Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
  8. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
  9. The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
  10. Pastoralia – George Saunders
  11. Runaway – Alice Munro
  12. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald
  13. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  14. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
  15. The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
  16. Netherland – Joseph O’Neill
  17. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
  18. The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
  19. Saturday – Ian McEwan
  20. The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers
  21. The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri

Not bad! I was expecting more knuckle-headed bro-prose, a fiction equivalent of Tucker Max or Timothy Ferriss out there. Lucky for me, I’m so outside the loop on contemporary writers that I don’t even know who would qualify for that category.

So how do I measure up to GQ‘s literary bar? I’m amazed to see that I’ve read eight of the 21 books on their list. I thought I was far more esoteric than that:

The Corrections • Back when it came out, before I worked out my belief that life is too short for shitty novels. I read it in the month after 9/11, so I wasn’t thinking straight. Cut me some goddamned slack, alright?

The Human Stain • Maybe my least favorite of Roth’s American Pastoral books. The GQ writeup cites it as “the best book on sex, scandal . . . and political correctness in the Lewinsky Moment.” It’s also about a black guy passing for white, but that’s part of what makes it my least favorite of those books, and probably why GQ doesn’t include that in the “best” part. Also, they write, “Roth coined the famous phrase ‘ecstasy of sanctimony’,” which I swear to God I have never heard/read until this weekend.

Austerlitz • Hands-down best book on this list. You need to read all of Sebald’s books. I was going to write “novels” there, but Sebald’s writing defies the fiction/non-fiction categories in a much more interesting way than the spate of writers who spice up their memoirs by creating utterly false events. Stop wasting your time reading silly blogs and go read Sebald!

Cloud Atlas • I’m a fan of Mitchell’s work and loved the Pynchon/Calvino meta-structuring, where the novel is built like a series of nested narratives in a symbolic logic sequence (not, as GQ writes, “six rollicking story lines connecting disparate-seeming characters through reincarnation”). It jumps genres and offers plenty of thrills, along with profound thoughts on various modes of art. Give it a read.

Gilead • I’m hoping to get Marilynne Robinson on my podcast someday, once I’ve read some of her essays. She’s able to write about quietness, earnest faith and day-to-day life much better than her contemporaries. I want to reread this one before I start on her followup to it, Home.

Netherland • One of the first novels I read on a Kindle, so I’m thinking maybe I need to cut it some slack, because I wasn’t used to the reading experience and not knowing how far along I was in a book. I enjoyed the first chapter, but felt it dragged on pretty interminably after that. Enough people I respect dig it enough that I think I need to give it a reread.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao • I’ve gone on record saying that it’s a good novel that feels like a prose-adaptation of the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets comics, with the Dominican Republic standing in for the Palomar parts. I mean that pretty much as a good thing, but I also mean, “Those characters feel like they were lifted from Beto and Jaime’s strips in ways that feel really obvious to me but might not occur to critics and readers who aren’t familiar with the source matter.” That said, I consider my recommendation to be far better than GQ‘s: “Because we’ve heard heard a book talk like this one: ‘Dude, you don’t want to be dead. Take it from me. No-pussy is bad. But dead is like no-pussy times ten.'” Seriously: that’s the entirety of their recommendation. Nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic, nothing about nerd culture, nothing about the female punker characters.

Saturday • I was on a bit of a McEwan kick a few years ago, but wound up feeling like he was a writer who was working almost completely to match E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. This one, about a London surgeon whose life gets uprooted when he’s stuck in traffic because of an anti-war (Iraq) march, didn’t feel as formulaic as Amsterdam, but still felt somehow . . . modeled. It gets points for having a House-like medical diagnosis play a major role in the plot.

That wasn’t so bad. The only one I regret spending time on was Franzen.

What about the ones I haven’t read? I’ve got that Cormac McCarthy book on my Kindle, but never started it. Never saw the movie, either.

I feel like I would’ve been compelled to read Zadie Smith if she’d been around when I was a student at Hampshire, and that notion has totally repulsed me from even giving her a shot. Which is to say, I’m quite cognizant of my irrational biases. I try to overcome them, but there are only so many hours in a day. I went to a college that had no course requirements but did have a “third-world expectation”.

I was intrigued by the PR for 2666, but I lay down and it passed.

I thought about reading Tree of Smoke several times over the years and even considered buying it this morning when I saw it on bookcloseouts.com, but I opted to buy some John Hodgman books and the Complete Poems of Philip Larkin instead.

I’ll likely get around to that George Saunders collection; I really dug CivilWarLand in Bad Decline when I read it (c. 1996), but I haven’t been much of a short-story guy in recent decades. Now that he’s in vogue again, I’ll put off reading him for a while.

I know I really need to get to Alice Munro, and will.

I think I have a copy of that Lethem novel in my library, but I may have traded it in when I went through The Mid-Life Culling.

I heard that The Art of Fielding is utterly mediocre. That’s another one that got a huge PR push from literary venues, and apparently left some readers feeling like they’d been swindled. B.R. Myers tore up the publicity machine behind it, which was fun.

I don’t know anything about the other ones. Let me know if you think I’m missing anything there.

What would I have swapped onto that list? I don’t have a ton of post-2000 novels on under my belt, but I’d make a place for Gould’s Book of Fish by Ricahrd Flanagan. I’d also replace The Human Stain with Everyman, Roth’s book about an old Jew who dies. Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil is more compulsively entertaining than any book on the list. I’d put Max Brooks’ World War Z on, as well as Richard Price’s Lush Life and Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Maybe Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is better than one of the books I didn’t read. I bet it is. Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air? Probably that, too. Which kinda makes the point that there’s no way to establish a “canon” nowadays, especially not an instant one like this. I still wonder what books from, say, 1980 onwards will be read in 25 years, but that’s the sorta thing that occupies my otherwise idle cycles.

I have to give the GQ editors some credit, even if some of their actual recommendations/precis were laughably bad. Unless these selections were just bought by publishers’ PR departments, they seem to have some interest in relatively intelligent contemporary fiction. Their recommendations certainly weren’t as horrific as I feared it’d be.

Still, doesn’t mean I’m going to buy a bucket hat any time soon. Nor these.

[More literary ramblings await at my podcast, The Virtual Memories Show.]

Unrequired Reading: MARCH!

It’s time for another month’s worth of tweets and funny links, dear readers! Remember, you can keep up with these more easily by following my feed at twitter.com/groth18!

The Things He Carried (he being @acontinuouslean)

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Even in @ArcadiaBroadway I am. yfrog.com/gy1r6hvj

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Great @michaelbierut piece on 15 years of design-work for United.

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EVERYONE has trouble finding their way around #neworleans

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Wisdom from #TomFord: (I still wear shorts, but I’m in the ‘burbs, so hey.)

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NYC: dancing in the ’70s wasn’t all Soul Train

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@jeremoss lays a palimpsest over 7th Ave. bet. 47 & 48: #vanishingNY

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The Arab world’s greatest contribution to society? #Coffee! #justmyopinion

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My top symptom of depression is when I’m convinced I’d fail a #TuringTest. Spambots have it easier than I do

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Kindasorta pet sounds (via @bldgblog) #bringthenoise

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@thebookslut (whom I’m hoping to interview soon for my podcast) on writers and their politics: #KnutthePolarNazi

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I gotta get around to reading #Lanark sometime, since a trusted pal gave it to me a while ago: #andIshouldvisitGlasgow

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Good thing they didn’t goof on @DeadliestCatch: #nabokov

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Explaining the Northern Lights: #auroraborealis (make sure you watch this time-lapse video that shows up at the end)

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

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Why do people get angry? #theydriveinNJ #iwouldhaveaskedforHappyGilmore

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Cutest thing ever: greyhound puppy edition #greyhound #sickeninglycute

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Mallrats of 1990: I was no great shakes back then either: #napoleondynamite

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RT @radleybalko – Prosecutor: “You bet your ass I ain’t gonna be mean to Willie Nelson.”

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I did a #screenhijack of the electronic billboard at the Annapolis Mall in ’94 and posted some @danielclowes messages.

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I’m loving me these Out of Print t-shirts: #nakedlunch #mobydick

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“Militant” bombing of bus stop in #Jerusalem: #goodthingitsnotterrorism

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GREAT piece on the big problem with Big Idea books: #jointheclub #iwouldntjoinanyclubthatwouldtakemeasamember

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Holi isn’t the same without #karlpilkington #anidiotabroad

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The (Frank) King of Gift Shops: #gasolinealley

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Fear & Loathing in LV, 40 years later. #hst

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I really gotta get to re-reading #thucydides sometime. http://bit.ly/i6mQmJ

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Coincidentally, I have #Impromptu coming in from @netflix tomorrow: #chopin #liszt

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Cheech & Chong should sue for royalties: #nicedreams

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How to kill a zombie: #themoreyouknow

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No pic of Spencer Tracy playing Ultimate Frisbee? (thanks, @kottke!) #katherinehepburn

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Hey, @kottke! I see your #katherinehepburn and raise you a #farrahfawcett!#sk8ergirl

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Swaziland’s king faces strikes! He should name Richard E. Grant as his successor! #withnailandswazis #wahwah

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Speaking of #richardegrant, let’s have lunch! #whenisthenextbookcomingout

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Is @gsk about to relive #officespace? #ibelieveyouhavemystapler

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Neoconservatives: advocates of a new managerial state. Also, kindasorta fascist?

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@simondoonan on the flattering adjacent and the $12k jacket: #pythonsareexpensive

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@nytimes to conduct digital experiment on Canadians! #greatwhitepaywall #blamecanada

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@gregbeato offers an ode to the mall: #somehowradioshackisstillinbusiness

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Who watches the watch, man? #bespokewatch

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George Michael’s beard: Iron and Wine covers “One More Try”

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My cholesterol dropped 60 points within a year after I got a dog (who needed regular walkies) #gogreyhound

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The bank is closed, bitch! #bankshot #hoopitup #timduncan

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I was so hoping @therealshockg was part of this article on the N. Korean Digital Underground. #humptyhump

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Henry Miller: Brooklynite #tropicofhipster

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Should I take my #coffee more seriously? done and done! #pourover #caffeinedreams

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Unreal City #dubai #moneychangeseverything

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Before/Ater palimpsest pictures of earthquake & tsunami damage in Japan. #disastersunday

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Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 25 years later. #disastersunday #atomicsafari

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Louisiana gulf coast ecology, post-Katrina & BP: #disastersunday

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Awesome Sam Lipsyte piece on cheating and the new #Monopoly. #goreadTheAsk #nownownow #SamLipsyte

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I’m very happy that there’s a Montaigne renaissance going on. #nowforplutarch

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Via @AlexBalk of @theawl, an encomium for Local Hero, one of the most wonderful movies ever.

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Whither the big box? Wither, the big box!

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Chuck Person had something to do with DEFENSE? I call shenanigans. #firsttimeforeverything #nba #lalakers

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My God, it’s full of stars” #afghanair (whole set here)

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The Torah is wheat, the Bible is not Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. #itrynottodiscussreligiontoooften

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What happens to the Aerotropolises that fail? #justwondering

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New Orleans documentaries, in black and white. #mardigras

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Financial Times = Scientology: “every time you reach one level, you realize there’s another, more expensive level awaiting you.”

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100 Days of Designitude: via @designobserver

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V5 Precise is my office-pen of choice, but I use Pilot G-2 05 for travel: retractable, less leak-prone. #mypenishuge

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Who needs therapy? Here and here – #iprobablydo #drugsandvideogames

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The bottom of the world: beautiful pictures from Antarctica! thx, @in_focus!

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I wondered what became of Mats Wilander: #havegamewilltravel #bywinnebago

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I gotta get out west to In-N-Out and hit up that secret menu. #bestburgerever

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I’ve pretty much bailed on contempo fiction. Does it still suck?

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NYer interview with Tom Stoppard about @arcadiabroadway. #whatiscarnalembrace

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Yay! Drugs cost nil to discover! No wonder R&D productivity is falling apart and FDA approvals are at record lows!

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How To End A Conversation“: I usually feign death.

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I guess I have to catch up on those American Masters docs, huh? #pbs #americanmasters #lovedLOVEDtheschultzone

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“This could be the greatest critical roundtable in Comics Journal history.” #dilbert #noseriouslydilbert

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Ron Rosenbaum on the man who questioned the bomb. #youdroppedabombonme

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#charliesheen via #wittgenstein via @walterkirn

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I used to play the Journey vid just so I could kill #steveperry. #videogamedeaths #nosinistar?

What It Is: 11/30/09

What I’m reading: I took last week off so’s I could keep our new dog, Otis B. Driftwood, from getting into trouble. To that end, I spent a lot of time on the loveseat, trying to give affection to both doggies (I didn’t want Rufus to feel like he’s being ignored/replaced). So I had some reading time on my hands.

I read Stephen King’s On Writing this week. One of my author-acquaintances asked me, “Why would you read a book about writing by an author whose writing you’ve never read?” I’d heard the memoir section was good and, even if I have no other experience with his prose, I was curious as to what he’d offer about the practice of writing. So it was illuminating, although I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading his fiction.

I continued to slog through Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball, which has some good points but is poorly written in a way that the author would likely contend is its strength. He’d be wrong about that; huge swathes of it are just extended columns with overwritten jokes. He once described writing the book out of sequence and eventually figuring out the overall structure for it. After 250 pages, I can see the incoherence but not to emergent order.

And I read Jeff Lemire’s Essex County trilogy. This is a collection of comics by Lemire about a small farm-town in western Ontario, and several families whose lives have intertwined over generations. While his artwork is expressionist, the stories themselves aren’t filled with any formal trickery, outside of extensive use of flashback in the second book (about a guy with Alzheimer’s, so hey). I enjoyed the collection overall. It’s no George Sprott, which continues to subtly blow my mind, but I thought it was a good, solid collection by a young cartoonist.

And I started Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air, after reading the sample chapter on my Kindle. I know I don’t really travel too much for work, but an awful lot of the narrator’s Airworld observations resonated with me. Apparently, the movie is All That. I’m kinda jarred by how so many of the airport scenes are pre-9/11.

What I’m listening to: Not a lot. I didn’t drive much this week, and the dogs & I mainly hung out in the living room, away from my iTunes liberry.

What I’m watching: Chandni Chowk to China, a Bollywood movie about a poor potato-slicer who gets mistaken as the reincarnation of an ancient Chinese warrior and has to go save a small village. I was aghast when our Netflix DVD showed up and the movie turned out to be 2 hours and 30 minutes long (!). But it’s actually pretty darn entertaining (we split it up into two viewings), even if the Indian lead looked like John Turturro’s handsomer brother. We also watched The Third Man, which I’d never seen before. Loved it, and returned the next day to Ron Rosenbaum’s essay on Kim Philby.

And there was Unforgiven, some NFL, and Role Models again, because I’m a mark for Paul Rudd and The State guys.

What I’m drinking: Desert Juniper gin and Q-Tonic.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Ru is just taking things as they come. He and Otis are getting along fine in the house. Otis, however, is still pretty hyper when we go for walks. He doesn’t bark, but he pulls pretty powerfully when he gets his prey-drive on.

Where I’m going: Nowhere. (Well, maybe a dinner or two in NYC next weekend.)

What I’m happy about: Having a nice Thanksgiving meal at the home of my neighbors across the street.

What I’m sad about: Being too on-the-verge-of-sick to make it to my 20-year reunion in Philadelphia over the weekend. And discovering that our water heater was leaking and needs replacing, an hour before I was supposed to get together with old friends in NYC on Sunday.

What I’m worried about: Not a lot. I mean, I’m a little burned out on my low-level anxiety of trying to train Otis to walk without going after everything he perceives as prey (squirrels, chipmunks, other dogs, deer, crows, etc.). I guess the draining aspect of this is that I have to exert power in a way that I can’t just “explain” to the dog. It’s tough on me, Having to be the Big Boss and pull him along when he starts going into his statue mode. So I guess there’s a worrisome aspect to that: my discomfort at the exercise of force. Boy, this has been one long What It Is post, huh?

What I’m pondering: The eschatological significance of my father’s decision to shave his beard, which he’s been sporting since before I was born.

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