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I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

books

I only discovered in the past year a little genre of books that seem to be called bibliomemoirs. These are memoirs based on books read in a lifetime. They generally will talk about how a book was read at various points in time and how the reading reflects on the person at that time and shaped their life or character.

Some titles that were mentioned online include The Unexpected Professor by John Carey, How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, Books for Living by Will Schwalbe and Maureen Corrigan’s in Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading. The better ones, for me, are not so much book lists but true memoirs where books offer a structure to the life stories.  That kind of book follows the often given advice to writers to find the universal in the particular.

I just picked up a copy of a new one in the genre, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues. The author, Pamela Paul, looks like a college student but she is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and has four other books to her name already. Like myself 25 years earlier, she started recording what she was reading while in high school. She started with a basic Excel spreadsheet but lost it at some point and switched to a paper “Book of Books” (the Bob of her title). This new book doesn’t cover all the books she has read (thank goodness) but selects ones as chapter titles for parts of her life.

Bibliophiles will identify with this even if they don’t record all their reading or reflect in writing on them. These days I tend to just list titles in a journal and write about selected ones online (as I’m doing here). I wish I had kept a memoir of books in a kind of journal along the way, but I’m not sure that my reading has always mirrored or reflected on my life at the time.

For Pamela Paul, Swimming to Cambodia is the book that heads the section about her living and traveling in Asia for two years after college. She uses The Wisdom of the Body for the chapter about an assignment to work on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  It’s a bit of a cheat on the idea that your life and reading run parallel. For example, she returns to the book A Wrinkle in Time as a chapter title in writing about reading with her three children and editing reviews of children’s books.

She gives all of us some credit for being writers, even if we don’t publish or publish in the traditional sense.

“Aren’t we all writers these days? We live through text. With our status updates and our e-mails, many of us spend our days writing down more words than we speak aloud. Anyone can write a book or post a story and find readers. Even those whose book reviews live exclusively on Amazon or Goodreads or in diaries or in the text of e-mails are still active creators of the written word.”

I enjoy looking back at my lists, but without commentary, the titles don’t mean as much. Looking at the posts I have written here about books, I have a much better sense of how the book fit into my life at the time. Some of those posts have some of “me” (as in memoir) in them, but some do not.

I’ve written a number of times about Moby Dick, a book I return to pretty regularly, but I don’t think I have really examined why I was reading or rereading the book at certain times in my life. That might an interesting experiment or post. Just this past week, I dipped into it again and the line that jumped out at me as relevant to this Trumpian time was “But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him?” 

Another book I return to is Walden. When I say “return” I don’t always mean “reread.” I sometimes only reread sections, and with a good number of books I love, like Walden, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, A Confederacy of Dunces and others, I listen to them as audiobooks which is a very different experience (and one I now prefer). I first read Walden in high school and though it may have been for school work, I know it was at a time in my life when both the environment and the idea of getting away and writing were very much a part of my thinking.

I went through a Ray Bradbury period when I was in my early teens. I’ve written here about his Dandelion Wine as a book that certainly reminded me of earlier and more innocent summers. His novel Something Wicked This Way Comes is a novel about losing your youth and trying to hold onto it. It is a scary book I returned to when I shared it with my sons when they came to that point in their lives.

More recently, I came to the books by Marie Kondo on organizing and giving or throwing away the unneeded things in your life. Her books are mostly about real things, but her “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is something that appealed to me literally and figuratively. They appeared when I needed to clean out junk in the cellar and garage, get rid of stuff from previous jobs and also get rid of a lot of the mental junk I have been hoarding for years.

My “book of books” would contain, like Pamela Paul’s Bob, lots of titles that really don’t connect to my life at the time when I read them. I can’t see any connection to my life at the time recently when I read The Goldfinch.  I just read George Saunders’ highly praised novel Lincoln in the Bardo and I can’t draw any parallels to my life – and I’m glad about that.

I just finished the novel 4 3 2 1 and that very long story has many connections to my life – not my current life though, but my past.  I am still sorting this one out and will write about it here some day.

Of course, like many bloggers, I have imagined that it would be great to take all my blogging and turn it into a book, but unlike Ms. Paul, I haven’t gotten to that stage yet.

I started reading The Goldfinchthe third novel by Donna Tartt, when it was released. I really enjoyed her first novel, The Secret History (1992), but at almost 800 pages The Goldfinch didn’t grab me.

I’m tough on books lately. I tend to get library books most of the time nowadays – too many books in the house and it is getting harder to get rid of them. That means, especially for new, popular books, that I have two weeks to read them probably without renewal. I read slower than ever before and I only made it about 100 pages into the novel and didn’t renew it.

Tartt only produces a book about every decade, so there is plenty of time to read her work. And then The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. Amazon selected the novel as the 2013 Best Book of the Year, and it was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review

I am not the only reader who misses something in a book that is critically acclaimed later. One review of The Goldfinch reminded us that “It isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention,” was part of a review in The New York Times at the release of Nabokov’s Lolita. I liked that novel a lot when I read it in college.

The NYT (well, their critic) also declared that  Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was “Kind of monotonous… He should’ve cut out a lot about these jerks and all at that crummy school.” And I loved that book when I read it at 13 and every time I reread it.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is in my top ten novels list and many others, but it was called “An absurd story” by The Saturday Review while the New York Herald Tribune said it was “a book of the season only.”

My local library now offers me ebooks and audiobooks online via Overdrive and I saw that The Goldfinch was available as an audiobook. I downloaded it and once again had two weeks to finish. I started at the beginning again and this time I made it through the 32 hours and 29 minutes.

The novel can be called a Bildungsroman, which is the fancier German word for a novel of formation or education, and is sometimes called a coming-of-age story. The  first-person narrator is Theodore Decker who we meet at age 13. He survives a terrorist bombing at a NYC art museum. His much beloved mother dies in the blast. As he escapes the museum he meets two other victims and half-consciously takes a small, Dutch painting, The Goldfinch. 

Those two people will change his life path, as will having that stolen work of art.

The painting (shown above) is one of the few surviving works by Rembrandt’s most promising pupil, Carel Fabritius. I doubt that it is coincidence that almost all of Fabritius’ work was destroyed in an explosion in 1654 which also killed the artist.

The goldfinch in that painting is chained to its feeder perch. In the painter’s time,  goldfinches were popular pets. They could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting, Het puttertje, pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this training and translates literally as “little weller.”

I see goldfinches at the feeder outside my window. they are American goldfinches and more beautiful than the one in that painting.

goldfinches

American Goldfinches at a feeder – male on the left

I don’t find the painting that extraordinary but, as the novel makes clear, my review doesn’t match that of most critics.  With the painting, like the novel, maybe I am missing something.

The painting is nice. The novel was okay this second time around. But I can’t give either one a rave review. I don’t like reading reviews before I read a book or watch a film. But I did read reviews for the novel in between my first and second attempts. Some people loved it. Some did not.

But those goldfinches outside get five stars. They are perfect.

I may have started out as a voracious reader, moved on to be an English major and then a teacher, but now that all that life has pretty much passed, I find myself more fascinated by what is actually outside my window. Real birds. Real stories. Real people.

I haven’t abandoned the arts. I even make some attempts at them myself.  And I’ll still recommend Tartt’s The Secret History, and Gatsby, Lolita, and Catcher. But I strongly recommend looking out the window and then stepping out to encounter the world more often.

 

 

68ali

1968

I still subscribe to and read a few magazines printed on paper. One of those that I have subscribed to pretty much without a break is Esquire. I realized while looking through a few old issues that I saved that I have been reading it for 50 years.

Esquire is an American men’s magazine, published by the Hearst Corporation in the United States. It was first issued in October 1933.

Its boom time was probably during the Great Depression when it was guided along by one of its founders, Arnold Gingrich.

I started reading it when I was in high school at the end of the 1960s. As someone who planned on being an English major, I figured I had to read magazines such as Esquire and The New Yorker.

But The New Yorker, despite poetry, John Updike and friends and great cartoons, was very expensive for a high school kid saving for college. I subscribed once and the weekly issues kept piling up. I couldn’t just throw them away and tried to go through every issue, but it was overwhelming.

Esquire lacked regular cartoons and didn’t run poems, but it had its own set of famous writers like Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald and André Gide back in the early days, and starting in the 1940s, it had Petty Girls and Vargas Girls. Those pinups moved to Playboy in the 1950s but Esquire provided some occasional sexy or semi-nude photos, but it never became a “men’s magazine” in the Playboy way.

Esquire

October 1970

I started reading Esquire in 1967 and probably subscribed around 1969. That was the time of  “New Journalism” and the magazine featured writers as Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Terry Southern.

One of the issues I still have is the October 1970 issue with Hemingway on the cover. It is a nice time capsule of the fall of my senior year of high school when I was full of thoughts of college, reading literature and becoming a writer. That issue has “Bimini” the first publication of a major episode from the forthcoming novel by Hemingway, Islands in the Stream. As I page past ads for the Chevrolet Vega, a Yamaha 60cc mini-bike and a section on Johnny Carson’s new fashion wardrobe, I read about “Esquire’s Heavy 100” who’s who and who isn’t in rock music, and “Lost Chapters” of Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan, and an article on Sundance Kid Robert Redford. That’s a pretty good time capsule.

women

David M. Granger became editor-in-chief in 1997. No surprise, the magazine has changed over the years and as editors change.

It still picks up National Magazine Awards, but there is less fiction and more non-fiction and politics.

It changed, but so did I. I’m less in love with the magazine these days, but we have been friends for so long that I can’t give up on it.

These days the writers I read most regularly there are the profiles and essays of Tom Chiarella, Scott Raab and Tom Junod.

The women are still there. In a time when even Playboy gave up on the nude photos because no magazine can compete with the Internet, Esquire has its annual “Sexiest Woman Alive” issue and regularly has “Women We Love.” I’m sure that many women still find all that to be sexist, but I think it’s done in good taste – and often with humor.

The magazine published its 1,000th issue and is still going strong.

Penelope Cruz, Sexiest Woman Alive in 2014

Penelope Cruz, Sexiest Woman Alive in 2014. I agreed then. I agree now.

The magazine has online “Esquire Classic,” a subscriber service archive that allows you to read “anything Esquire has ever published.” I probably don’t have time for any of the unread 50,000+ articles they have published.  It also has audio and there was a free podcast (I think that is done) and you can read and listen to things like F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” or “Superman Comes to the Supermarket” by Norman Mailer ,”  or “A Few Words about Breasts” by Nora Ephron and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese.

There was a Donald Trump Cover in 2004 to accompany an article titled “How I’d Run the Country (Better).” In it, he pulls Esquire into his Iraq War fantasy. You should have read in 2004. You really should have read it in 2016. You’d better read it in 2017.

 

Trump cover from 2004

Trump cover from 2004

I know it’s hard times for print publications, but you can subscribe to Esquire for $5 (10 issues) and I can guarantee that in a year you are going to find a lot more than five dollars worth of entertainment in there. Support print!

“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”
~ Henry Miller, The Books In My Life

If you want to keep something precious
You got to lock it up and throw away the key
If you want to hold onto your possession
Don’t even think about me
~ Sting, “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free”

I wasRead and Release at BookCrossing.com... cleaning up my browser bookmarks and came upon the link to BookCrossing.com. Looks like I haven’t visited the site in a few years.

BookCrossing.com (AKA BookCrossings) started in 2001 as a world library and early social networking site. It’s designed to allow you track and connect with other readers, particularly someone who picks up a book that you have “set free” into the world. There are currently 1,574,649 BookCrossers and 11,303,107 books traveling throughout 132 countries.

After registering on the website, to label a book with a code number and message and leave the book somewhere for someone to find. Each BCID is unique to each book so that you can follow the book’s journey and read other finder/reader’s thoughts on the book.

Of course, it does rely on the finder going to the site and also logging in to report their find, and that effort is where things probably break down.

People give books away all the time. You give them to friends, the local library, charities, perhaps used book stores or exchanges. I’m not sure that everyone follows Sting’s dictate that if you love some-one-thing you should set it free. (Sidenote: Was that song really released in 1985? Yipes! music video from when MTV meant something) Personally, I am holding on to my most beloved books but setting free paperbacks and ones that I know I will never reread.

Here are the top 10 BookCrossing countries:
USA 29%
Germany 16%
United Kingdom 13%
Netherlands 11%
Finland 10%
Canada 8%
Australia 5%
France 4%
Portugal 3%
Spain 1%


Read and Release at BookCrossing.com...
Looking at my own GoodReads bookshelf, I find that my traveling books have not had a lot of activity. Disappointing. Laziness on the part of finders. That’s why I have ignored my account. But, since I have been making an effort to empty my bookshelves lately, I am reviving my labeling of books in the hope some folks will journal the finds.

Here is the journaling path of one of my releases.  It is for the novel The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I released it on 9/29/2004 at Duke Farms during the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Somerville, New Jersey USA.

This is what I wrote at the release:

Saw the movie version first (very good debut of Sofia Coppola as a director) then bought the book. It’s a strange suburban portrait of a family and particularly the 5 sisters. It’s set in the 1970’s. It’s a first novel and it is also a coming-of-age novel (those two go together a lot) and I’m a sucker for both. The book & film work well together, though I didn’t find either as shocking as the cover & movie posters proclaimed. More like black comedy than shock.

It was found there and happily “AnonymousFinder” from Mount Vernon, New York posted (a year later)

This book was sitting on a folding chair at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October 2004, and yet I did not get to this site to make this entry until now, because I didn’t know anything about BookCrossing. (Now I do.)
The book lay on the folding chair for quite some time, unclaimed. People glanced at it, but skirted it, as if they were respecting that it might be someone’s property. The poetry reading began, the chairs filled, and I wanted a place to sit down. I hesitated, because I thought it might be “saving” the seat. But then I sat down, holding the book on my lap, in case the owner came to claim it. No one did. I enjoyed the poetry reading a great deal. Then opened the book, as I was about to leave, because of the note taped to the cover. I saw that, strangely enough, the book was meant to be taken, and so I carried along with me.

And then AnonymousFinder posted again on October 02, 2005 after reading the book.

I’m sorry I waited a whole year to read this book. This is one of the best “first books” I’ve read in a while. About the Lisbons, a troubled family of five sisters in a Detroit suburb. The first thing that struck me, aside from the wonderful writing, is the voice. This book is told in first-person plural (as “we”), in the collective voices of the boys who were watching the Lisbon sisters growing up. First time I’ve seen this since Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily,” which is also told by a sort of Greek chorus of townspeople, witnessing death, sex and tragedy from the outside.
I am going to pass this on through PaperBackSwap.com. There’s a waiting list for the book, so I’m sure it will be out traveling into the world again in just a few days.
Sent off, via PaperBackSwap.com, to New Hampshire. Hope the next reader enjoys it.

And there is where that story ends. For now.

I have also found a few books. (There is a map system for finding books and you can track activity in your town and towns around you.)

LAC from New Jersey left a copy of I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb that I found. LAC wrote:

OK, I admit I don’t remember a lot of specifics about it because it’s been awhile since I read it and my brain is a sieve. I do remember being rather hooked on it while I was reading. I thought the characters and the story were really good–much better than Lamb’s other book. It kept me interested enough that I zoomed through it even though it’s almost a 1000 pages. I hope you enjoy.

Being a good BookCrosser, I journaled after I read it.

Good – not as good as his She’s Come Undone. psychological insights, characters that stand on their own as a unique and flawed beings. Must have done a lot of research for this. Good dialogue. Long for me, a slow reader, at 889 pages. I would have been more ruthless as his editor. Your life is not as complicated, thank goodness. Uplifting as bizarre as the people are in it.

There are other websites for tracking things such as dollar bills and pictures, but tracking your books (particularly ones you enjoyed) is much more satisfying.

Give it a try. How wonderfully serendipitous it would be if you found one of my books.

http://www.bookcrossing.com/images/bookcrossing-banner.swf

One of favorite books when I was younger was Ray Bradbury‘s novel of summer wonderment, Dandelion Wine. It is a  semi-autobiographical novel that he published in 1957. It is set back in a sleep 1928 in the fictional Green Town, Illinois which is based on Bradbury’s childhood hometown of Waukegan. I have read that the novel  grew out of a short story with the same title that he published a few years earlier, but I have never read the earlier version.

The title refers to that rather magical wine made with dandelion flowers and citrus fruit. In the story, the wine is made by the young Douglas Spaulding’s grandfather. In my childhood, it was old Mr. Hurley who made dandelion wine and shared a glass with me when I was at the tender age of 13.

For Douglas, that wine contains all the best of summer preserved into a single bottle.

Douglas is 12 years old and the story is nostalgic as can be, so I could see a modern young reader finding it “corny.” It is Bradbury looking back at his childhood through the yellow-amber, slightly cloudy bottle of dandelion wine that filters your view a bit softer and kinder on the past.  I find his day-to-summer-day routines in a small town of yesteryear to be very appealing.

I wrote about this book a few years ago, so I won’t go into detail again, but I picked it up and read some parts again this past week after seeing a recipe for DIY dandelion wine online and considering trying to make some myself.

No wine yet, but it did yield a short ronka poem on my Writing the Day website yesterday.

Overnight, a field of yellow and white.

Dent-de-lion, “lion’s tooth” for leaf not flower.

Years ago, blossoms boiled, yeast, sugar, slices

of orange and lemon fermented, and then

we would siphon summer off the lees.

Here’s a nice passage from the novel about grandfather’s wine:

“And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day – the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabitated with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, color sky from iron to blue.

Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.”

My title for this essay, “All Summer in a Bottle,” alludes to a Bradbury short story titled “All Summer in a Day.” I also read that when I was quite young and later taught it my middle school students.  It is about a class of kids who live on Venus, which is a place where every day is rainy. The exception to that is the hour or two of one day every seven years when the Sun is visible.

The protagonist is a girl named Margot who moved to Venus from Earth five years earlier. She is the only student in her class to know sunshine, which she knew every day on Earth.

She lovingly describes it to her classmates (who have never seen it) but they don’t believe her. In fact, they bully and reject her for her stories of sunlight. The story tells what happens as that magical day arrives for the class – but you can read that part yourself.

Those are my two Bradbury tales that are part of my summer reading memories.

I finally read Bradbury’s Farewell Summer recently. It’s the sequel to Dandelion Wine and I avoided it since it was published in 2006, because the synopsis made it seem like the opposite of what charms me in Dandelion Wine – a story about summer ending, growing old and dying.

It turns out that this novel also started as a short story. The first chapter is the story “Farewell Summer” that Bradbury published in the excellent collection, The Stories of Ray Bradbury. I must have read it when I bought that book back in 1980, but I didn’t recall it rereading it this year.

It is a much more modern take of youth. Though it takes place during the Indian summer of October 1929, it is more of Doug’s coming-of-age, including his “sexual awakening” as he turns 14 and gets his first kiss, rather than Dandelion Wine‘s nostalgic look at childhood.

It is a tale of autumn, and one that is viewed through the eyes of a much older writer.

When October comes and you get that first chilly night before Halloween, that is the time to get a copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and shiver a bit from the cold wind and from his Gothic tale about when Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show arrives in Green Town and two boys wishes become nightmares.

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