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Books We’re Loving

March 24, 2015
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The April 2015 Indie Next Great Reads

March 11, 2015

roseApril? Already? Well, nearly so! Time to select some spring reading from the Indie Next Great Reads list:

#1 Pick: Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel, by Aline Ohanesian
(Algonquin Books, 9781616203740, $25.95)
“Debut author Ohanesian’s historical novel relives the nearly forgotten tragedy of the Armenian Genocide during and after WWI. Through deportations, massacres, and executions of Christian and Jewish Armenians, the Ottoman Empire and its successors eliminated 1.5 million citizens. Ohanesian’s beautifully written book shares a tale of passionate love, unspeakable horror, incredible strength, and the hidden stories that haunt a family. Highly recommended.” —Doug Robinson, Eagle Eye Book Shop, Decatur, GA

The Witch of Painted Sorrows: A Novel, by M.J. Rose
(Atria Books, 9781476778068, $25)
“Set in Belle Époque Paris, The Witch of Painted Sorrows features an American socialite fleeing from her husband in New York to the home of her courtesan grandmother in Paris. There, she uncovers family secrets, discovers both her talent as an artist and her own erotic nature, and confronts the witch La Lune, an ancestor who threatens to possess her. Rose proves herself once again to be a consummate storyteller in this provocative and entertaining novel.”

 — Fran Keilty, The Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT

At the Water’s Edge: A Novel, by Sara Gruen
(Spiegel & Grau, 9780385523233, $28)
“A trio of privileged Philadelphia socialites — Maddie, her husband, Ellis, and their friend, Hank — travel to the Scottish Highlands during WWII to prove the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. There, they find themselves among villagers dealing with the atrocities of a war that they have blithely ignored, and Maddie discovers that both the world and her life are not at all what she had imagined. Full of great period detail and richly drawn settings, At the Water’s Edge is another spellbinding tale from the author of Water for Elephants.” —Jill Miner, Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

World Gone By: A Novel, by Dennis Lehane
(William Morrow, 9780060004903, $27.99)
“In the prologue of World Gone By, Lehane describes his main character but certainly captures his own abilities as well: ‘Joe Coughlin had a gift for bringing the beacons of the city into contact with her demons and making it all seem like a lark.’ This is Lehane’s great gift: creating characters with the full scope of human dimensions — our inner angels and devils, our passions and our crimes — and immersing them in the timeless trials of our world while disguising his feat as the entertainment of a ‘good read.’ Lehane is a magician, a maestro, and a master of the written word.” —J.B. Dickey, Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Seattle, WA

Read the complete list for April at the American Booksellers Association site.

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Quiz Time: The Title’s the Thing!

March 3, 2015


Borrowing from the Bard is a surefire way to a snappy title.
Which Shakespeare play provided the titles for these famous works?

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February 4, 2015

Facebook is anti-aphorism. That should do as a negative definition. I mean that endless stream of out of context, mis-attributed Wise Guy (almost never Wise Women) quotes, that are registered to elicit immediate feelings of complicit agreement–a felicitous wording of received notions and consensus.

A genuine aphorism is more than a pretty way to say what everyone thinks they know and believe.  The best aphorism is like a dagger plunged into the heart–creates immediate cognitive dissonance with our cherished notions, and invites us to unravel its author’s context and intent–that begs us to uncover its deeper meaning, a meaning that will open our minds to ideas beyond those we already hold.

Sooner murder an infant its cradle than nurse unacted desires. Blake

The true way is along a rope that is not spanned high in the air, but only just above the ground. It seems intended more to cause stumbling than to be walked upon. Kafka

What are your favorite aphorisms… not truisms, but one’s that break the ice in the frozen sea of our complacent lives?

And let’s write our own! Give no ground to enshrined Wise Guys. There’s no Nobadday to pronounce the final word… it’s just us, walking around this tree in endless circles, hoping to entertain one another before the curtain falls.

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The March 2015 Indie Next Great Reads

February 4, 2015

Here’s a peek at the March Indie Next Great Reads List:

The Fifth Gospel#1 Pick: The Fifth Gospel: A Novel, by Ian Caldwell
(Simon & Schuster, 9781451694147, $25.99)
“One of the great mysteries of the Catholic Church, The Shroud of Turin, has inspired one of the great writers of our time to create this masterful thriller. Two brothers — Alex, a Greek Catholic priest, and Simon, a Roman Catholic priest — are drawn into the intrigue surrounding the Shroud and the origins of the Church following the murder of their friend Ugo, an eccentric curator obsessed with the Shroud who was preparing a major exhibit in the Vatican Gallery. Alex and Simon are dedicated brothers and priests, yet as different in temperament and faith as they are similar in conviction and loyalty. Caldwell unveils much about the world behind the Vatican walls, even as the intricate plot builds to a climax. A spectacular achievement!” —Luisa Smith, Book Passage, Corte Madera, CA

The Buried Giant: A Novel, by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Knopf, 9780307271037, $26.95)
“Ishiguro’s new novel is a work of wonder, transport, and beauty. A recurrent theme in his earlier books, always shown with great originality, is the matter of what happens after we have lost our way. In The Buried Giant, Ishiguro explores losing direction, memory, and certainty, as the primary characters cling to remnants of codes of behavior and belief. Which is the way through the forest? Where might our son be? And where is the dragon, and who shall seek to slay her? Set in the time just after King Arthur’s reign, Ishiguro’s tale, with striking, fable-like rhythm and narrative, shows how losing and finding our way runs long, deep, and to the core of things.” —Rick Simonson, The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, by Marie Mitsuki Mockett
(W.W. Norton, 9780393063011, $26.95)
“Mockett’s journey begins in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and encompasses a nation’s grieving as well as her own. Through her beautiful descriptions of traditions, rituals, conversations, and quiet moments, she shows the nuances of a people picking up and moving on. By seeking out the cultural context of her subject’s very human reactions and emotions, Mockett walks a fine line that globalization has tried to erase entirely, and our understanding of the events and their aftermath is richer for it.” —Rachel Cass, Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA

Read the complete list for March at the American Booksellers Association site.

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Kill Your Darlings: What We’re Talking About

January 23, 2015

2014 is in the rear-view mirror, and 2015 well underway. Are you ready to abandon those resolutions? How about making a new one? Resolve to sign up for the BookBalloon Forum and join the conversation! It’s free, painless, and will transform you into the person you’ve always known you could be. Well, I don’t know your life! You WILL find hilarious and well-informed folks, and probably spend too much money on books, and finally find a place to trot out that William Vollmann joke you thought up in 2006. This time next year, you’ll be resolving to spend less time here. And once again, I predict failure. But you’ll feel so good about it! Just see (discussion topic titles are helpfully set in bold type):

  • As anyone at the Salvation Army can confirm, January brings out CarnabyStreetthe purging instinct in us all. Let’s just say it can get a little fraught. I am still MOURNING the loss of the Carnaby Street sweatshirt I ineptly cut up à la Flashdance. Lopsided, but still so cool. I mean, you don’t even KNOW. But now, we mourn and/or revel in de-acquisitioning our books. What stays? What goes? What gets turned backwards like a book in a Pottery Barn catalog? OR A CARNABY STREET SWEATSHIRT? Book Shelves is the place to figure it all out.
  • See the post below for the only Best Books list you really need. Sure, there are other lists, but this one comes from the random internet people you can TRUST. There’s also talk about the best books of the 21st century. I don’t know about this. Somebody could have written a novel in, for example…2003 (no special reason), and just really feel as though writers and readers (and publishers and agents and that guy working at Borders who said he liked to read work from promising new writers) shouldn’t be held hostage by something completely ARBITRARY like calendars or being IN PRINT. I personally think we should just wait a couple more decades before we go around talking about the best this or the greatest that. Yes, I know Borders went out of business a while ago.
  • A lot of what’s happening in 2015 can be summed up as “in the wake of.” So in the wake of “in the wake of,” what are the politically complicated or sensitive works in today’s library collections? Talk about it in the Literary Loft.
  • New Books: As 2015 gathers steam, what’s hooking our tenters, literarily speaking? (Please bear with as I explain how/why this is clever: Tenterhooks fasten cloth to a tenter, or drying frame. What rises from drying cloth? STEAM. Get it? And yes, “gathers steam” is more of a transportation thing, and I’m not really sure much steam actually rises from drying cloth unless you iron it, but I don’t believe in killing your darlings, obvs. Sorry, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.)
  • WHAT ARE YOU READING NOW? Don’t think of this as a demand, but more as a sort of collective entreaty from a DrJonesworshipful audience looking to you for advice and inspiration. Anyway, that’s the way I like to imagine it! Feel free to imagine a scenario that reassures and comforts you.
  • I can honestly say the conversation in Culinary Arts has ranged from fruitcake to flounder. Fruitcake & Flounder is also the name of my Mumford & Sons cover band, which will be on tour as soon as I finish distressing my banjo. (NOT a euphemism.)
  • You know, at this time of year it’s not hard to find discussion on the various moving picture awards and their attendant controversies and contretemps and etc., but only in the BookBalloon Movies thread can you consider such topics as the subtler Vincent Price roles. Think a delicate shaving of Prosciutto di Parma vs. an epic slab of Canned di Hormel.
  • In Music, it’s mainly the Sleater-Kinney Appreciation Society right now, and if you’re interested in something else, well, all I can say is…“That’s absolutely FINE! Totally change the subject!” I am one thousand percent sincere. You’d just better know your stuff. LIES! This is not Pitchfork! 9.3
  • The Sports thread probably gets short shrift recap-wise, even though it’s usually a busy discussion. So consider the shrift lengthened! N.B. short shrifts are definitely work-appropriate during the winter months—just pair them with leggings or heavy tights.
  • Oh, and if you think nobody’s watching during this second Golden Age of TV, you would be WRONG. Game Hall of Wolf Thrones, Baked-on Abbey, Real Mad Housemen, The Late Show with Stephen Vollmann, Broadbent (both the American and British versions), Stab the Midwife, American Wigs—we’re excited about it ALL!

Done and dusted. Cheap and cheerful. Rising up and rising down. WHAT ARE YOU READING NOW?

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They were the best of books, they were the…well really, they were just the BEST of books, weren’t they?

January 14, 2015

People here…read. We read a lot, and we talk a lot about what we read. And every year, Forum member Julie organizes and compiles BookBalloon’s best reads of the year. Join the talk in the Best Books thread in the BookBalloon Forum

These are the books we raved about, lost sleep over, overdrew our bank accounts for, and generally pushed onto friends and acquaintances and anyone who would listen. Without further ado….


(not necessarily published in 2014)

Two non-fiction books are tied! How weird is that?
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me by Emma Brockes

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys by Viv Albertine
Euphoria by Lily King
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
The UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
The Bees by Laline Paull
In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides

Honorable Mentions
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy) by Jeff Vandermeer
Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley
Evergreen by Rebecca Rasmussen
Eyrie by Tim Winton
The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
HHhH by Laurent Binet
Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House by Boris Kachka
I Am Pilgirm by Terry Hayes
Longbourn by Jo Baker
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
The Martian by Andy Weir
No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod
Orfeo by Richard Powers
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
The Secret Place by Tana French
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (winner for 2013)
The Weekend by Peter Cameron
The Wilds by Julia Elliot

See you in 2015!

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The February 2015 Indie Next List Great Reads

January 9, 2015

How about curling up with a good book while the winter storm rages? Here’s a sampling of the Indie Next Great Reads list for February:

#1 Pick: The Nightingale: A Novel, by Kristin Hannah

(St. Martin’s Press, 9780312577223, $27.99)

51akGWxnrVL._SL250_“Filled with sacrifice, betrayal, suspense, courage, and ultimately, forgiveness, The Nightingale offers a haunting glimpse of what it was like for women to survive during WWII. Set in a small town in France, The Nightingale tells the alternating stories of two sisters, their father, and the friends and enemies that occupy their lives during this tragic period of history. Based on a true story, The Nightingale weaves a riveting tale around the heroism of Isabelle, a young woman who serves as a key player in the underground Resistance, and her sister, Viann, who is back home under German occupation, near starvation and struggling to save Jewish children. In the end, however, perhaps this novel is more about the sisterly bonds of love that, although stretched to the limit, still endure. You will not forget the song of The Nightingale.” —Marnie Mamminga, Redbery Books, Cable, Wisconsin

Etta and Otto and Russell and James: A Novel, by Emma Hooper

(Simon & Schuster, 9781476755670, $26)

“Eighty-three-year-old Etta Vogel quietly sets out one day to walk 3,200 kilometers to the coast of Canada for her first view of the ocean. As Etta travels, author Hooper gently and poignantly reveals a lifetime of morally charged events that shaped Etta as well as her husband, Otto, and her lifelong friend, Russell. This is a beautiful and sometimes hauntingly stark portrait of three WWII-generation lives, sprinkled with the wise counsel of a loyal coyote named James. I loved it!” —Susan Tyler, The Book Bin, Onley, VA

A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel, by Anne Tyler

(Knopf, 9781101874271, $25.95)

“Tyler’s story of three generations of the Whitshank family has all the hallmarks for which she is so well known. There is drama, dysfunction, and sorrow aplenty here, but Tyler has an amazing way of exposing family life in both its ugly and beautiful glory. These characters love each other, except when they don’t, and every interaction is crackling with Tyler’s quirky and unassuming wit. A Spool of Blue Thread shows how lives intersect — very rarely neatly — and how that messiness gives meaning to every human connection. Tyler is a master of her craft — this being her 20th novel — and she is a treasure to read.” —Dinah Hughley, Powell’s Books, Portland, OR

Of Things Gone Astray: A Novel, by Janina Matthewson

(The Friday Project, 9780007562473, $19.99)

“In London, a group of people have lost that which they hold most dear. A girl stands in the airport waiting for her lover while her feet turn to roots and her skin to bark. A recluse loses the front wall of her home, while a workaholic cannot find his office building. Piano keys, a sense of direction, and a boy’s relationship with his father all have gone astray. Slowly, each victim adapts, unwittingly helping one another during the briefest encounters. Each loss is heartbreaking and each character’s struggle to survive is inspiring. With stunning prose and insight, Matthewson uses magic to illuminate truth in this hauntingly beautiful debut novel.” —Amelia Stymacks, Northshire Bookstore, Saratoga Springs, NY

Read the complete list for February at the American Booksellers Association site.

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My Christmas Message, or The Ends Justify the Means, or I Regret Nothing

December 21, 2014

Dear Friends (and assorted journalists and international investigating bodies):

After the events of last week, I received many requests to share my views on planning, creating, and hosting the perfect party. And really just to explain my ideas…my thinking…in a sort of statement if you will, from start to finish. Don’t think of it as a checklist. Every party is a unique experience, and every hostess must find her own way. Whether that way leads to despair or triumph, I can only say I believe the past is a closed book. Nothing is gained by dwelling on any one or two things you might, in retrospect, have changed. As my attorney likes to say, Christmas is a time when good intentions should trump actual circumstances. Wise words.

Let’s get started!

First, no matter what sort of party you’re planning—Mustard Gas and Mischief: Christmas in the Trenches or Merry Molokai: Christmas in the Colony—avoid choosing a date too early in the season! Before the holiday mood really sets in, the traditional activities you plan might make people feel silly or a little inclined to be stubborn. I understand the temptation to steal a march on everyone else and set the bar high (believe me, I really understand), but please learn from my experience. For example, you might detect a significant attendance drop-off during a caroling party on a muggy mid-November afternoon, and a corresponding lack of enthusiasm in both carolers and carolees as the evening wears on. I’m not being critical, just recognizing that not everyone shares my zeal for all things authentically festlich. And that’s fine. Really, it is.

Speaking of last year’s Weihnachten Schreien (Christmas Screaming): A Black Forest Rite of Celebration and Trudging, my research revealed that the chained gangs of carolers in nineteenth-century Bavaria began their rounds as early as November 1. Scholars debate why to this day, but I believe it had something to do with either the Black Death or the Massacre of the Innocent Lutherans or even the legend of Edeltraud, the Bird-Headed Girl, and the Christmas Worm. Sources differ, but the date is fixed! But the point is that times have changed and most people don’t want to sing or hear Strafe Gesang (punishment singing) on November 13, even if dirndls and lederhosen were provided and there is traditional midnight Blut Talg Strudel (blood suet strudel) and Gewürzkaninchenmilch (spiced rabbit milk) as a reward afterward. Lesson learned, my friends. Point taken.

But onward and upward, as my parole officer likes to say!

For this year’s Bludgeon the Dollymop: A Mid-Victorian Fantasia, I enlisted science to determine the optimal date for maximum Dickensian jollity! Extrapolating from original research I sponsored at Cal Tech’s Institute of Calendrical InfoMetrics (you can email the Institute for the extract if you want—it won a prize in Zurich!), I simply provided the post-docs with a few crucial party variables—kitchen work triangle dimensions, average guest weight (unclothed for accuracy), cocktails or mocktails, ratio of friends to hired re-enactors (will differ from party to party, obviously, depending on theme complexity), the number of guests’ sexual partners (as I have repeatedly explained, a “guesstimate” would have thrown off the results. The Google Docs poll was completely anonymous, so I really don’t know why there were so many complaints) etc., etc., and hey, presto: the perfect date/time for the perfect party for the perfect people. That’s you, my dear friends!

A number of you asked how (or maybe it was why) on earth I decided on Monday, December 17th, twelve minutes before moonrise (hence the Farmer’s Almanac in the September 23rd pre-party research packet) and now you know. Of course, nothing EVER goes just exactly to plan, so a slight error rate is of course factored in. A sad necessity in today’s slipping standards of guest responsibility.

I am aware some of you were the tiniest bit surprised/offended when the weekly save-the-date postcards/research packets and daily email blasts started in mid-August, but I find those extra little reminders pretty useful for us busy, forgetful types. I know how mortified I am when I realize I have INADVERTENTLY neglected to keep my hard-working hostess apprised of any illnesses, sudden childbirth arrangements, or financial exigencies that may jeopardize my attendance at her carefully planned event. And I certainly wouldn’t call such entirely natural and common-sense efforts HARASSMENT. We live in an age of hyperbole.

Speaking of email, I highly recommend a service that lets you track and analyze which recipients actually OPEN your messages, micro-targets your demographic, and gives recipients the opportunity to opt out if desired. I found the IP address spoofing/dark internet features vey helpful, but they’re certainly not necessary if your budget needs trimming. You may not find submitting to the NSA inquiry worthwhile. I did.

I will say I was a little hurt that so many of you actually chose to opt out—I tried hard to make each message informative and entertaining—and frankly surprised so many overlooked returning the postage paid RSVP packet with checklist and costume reservations by the October 17 deadline. Sorry about the resulting flurry of phone calls (and I promise I WON’T call you at work next year, or visit your employers at home—at least not at NIGHT) but those velvet capes and bonnets really needed the lead time.

I hope you agree the final splendid effect as we stood under the gas streetlamp at during the midnight carol service and life-size Punch and Judy show was well worth the slight apparel surcharge. (For which, I do apologize. But with the recent volatility in world velvet markets, it was hard to predict in June what claret-colored velvet would cost in October. I could have gone with spruce, but once the soot-clouds burst, I knew the effect just wouldn’t be the same.)

For those unreachable few who “opted out” of the RSVP process but trustingly showed up anyway, I know the Workhouse Family Celebration in the garage might have felt as though you were missing out or punished, but I promise you it was as fully researched and authentic as any of the other party settings. You certainly can’t deny that the children looked absolutely adorable shivering in their authentic muslin shifts, sipping from their little wooden bowls of gruel, and happily sorting all those buttons! “Please sir, can I have some more?” Ha! I had hoped to share the photos on Facebook, but I will honor your requests and court orders.

Which leads me to the question that seems to have interested people the most! Why mid-Victorian? Why the cold and soot? Why all the tubercular orphans? Why the small-scale abattoir? Well, I can only say, “WHY NOT?” What is more fun than combining food, fun, and drink with strictly accurate and brutally enforced historical authenticity?

From the sooty barefooted urchins chasing your cars, to the steaming bowls of tongue puddings and jellied snoutlings and brandied whelk spawn, to the roving pickpockets with nasty coughs, to the spirited theological harangues in the Low Church Chapel, to the rousing games of My Lady’s Biscuit Barrel and Burn Down the Workhouse and How Many Gin Bottles Are in My Corset and Slimy Cobblestones, to the phrenology readings (I know some of you were upset by the whole “sloping forehead” thing, but it was all in good fun!), to the feminine trembling in the Laudanum Parlor, to the exhausting rounds of orphan baiting, it was a completely immersive experience.

For those of you who memorized your character dossiers, blackened your teeth, laced up the whalebone corsets (shh, Greenpeace!) or applied the cold-pressed Macassar oil sent in the final research pack, and cultivated a taste for straight gin, I know you agree it was worth the effort and slight discomfort. For those not quite willing to go all the way, I trust you enjoyed the more casual but authentic atmosphere in the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison Path for Guilty Pacing painstakingly installed in the garden.

I will always view my months of work—including the extensive house renovations (especially the earth closet installation), the drug-resistant giardia I picked up from undercooked tongue pudding, defending myself from the UN’s child labor sanctions, the QUESTIONS when the opium poppies finally bloomed—oh ALL OF IT—as time incredibly well spent. The look of total appreciation on all your faces during my recreation of the Great Stink of 1858, well, I can only say how moved I was. You finally just got it. (And thanks again for your forbearance when the Health Department insisted on that totally anachronistic round of gamma globulin injections.)

You’ve all had time to think since were last together. I know a few feathers were ruffled (and I don’t mean in the Clever Little Fingers Hat Trimming Workshop), a few chilblains reopened and now festering, a few stomachs pumped, a few lawyers retained, but I hope in retrospect everyone can AT LEAST agree I meant well. I’m sure once you’ve rested up and finished your CDC-mandated course of penicillin, you’ll understand why I did what I did. And that it really was worth it in the end. Some of my measures may have seemed strict, but they were harsh times, weren’t they? The human spirit prevails. And I guess that’s the true meaning of Christmas, isn’t it?

Finally, drum roll please! Not to spoil the surprise…but I am literally agog with plans and ideas and simply can’t resist sharing!

Mark all of December for Oculos Tuos (Close Your Eyes): Saturnalian Decadence and Regret in Late Empire Rome! You don’t have to switch to lead-glazed dishes in preparation, but I definitely believe the pros outweigh the cons!

It’s going to be TERRIFYING.

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BookBalloon Links for December 19, 2014

December 19, 2014
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