Arts/Literature

Who's reading what: Scrogues Nightstand

What books have been sitting by the Scrogues’ bedside these days?

“My patterns are diverse to the point of randomness,” says Lex. Mike Sheehan echoes that sentiment: “There is no rhyme or reason to my reading patterns. I may buy a hot new book and let it sit for months or years before I crack it open, I may impulsively pick something up at a yard sale and start reading that night, or vice versa.” And anyone’s who’s followed my book reviews over the past twelve months can certainly tell there’s a scattershot randomness to the books I pull from the shelves.

A look through our libraries is a glimpse into the diverse interests and energies that fuel S&R as a blog and as a community of writers. Hopefully there’s something here to fuel you, as well.

Cat White

Merchants of Doubt:  Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detail the efforts of a small group of scientists and researchers to manipulate science to counter findings critical of the tobacco industry and create doubt about climate change and other topics.  Fascinating look at how the Fairness Doctrine was used to force the media to air fringe science reports (often scripted by the industries in question) to “balance” reporting about critical findings.  This is one of the last books I bought my father (he’d been telling me for years this stuff was going on and I was happy to supply him with the proof that he was right.  Unfortunately, he never got to read it–so I’m reading it in his place (I’m saving “Relativity for Everybody” the very last book I bought him, until I feel ready to tackle it).

Outlander:  I’m revisiting Diana Gabaldon’s debut novel in the wake of my trip to Scotland in June.  It’s the first of 7 hefty novels about Claire Beauchamp and Jamie Frazer that crosses time and continents.  I picked this book up first about 15 years ago when I was in the need of some junk food for the brain and discovered it wasn’t as light as I anticipated, but very addicting.  The history and atmosphere hold up well, though fortunately/unfortunately I did not suffer any side effects from leaning against multiple standing stones (including Callanish on the Summer Solstice).  I have a new appreciation for the “high” in “highlands” (you really can’t “there” from “here” in most cases, despite modern technology–there are just no roads over the true- and near-mountains).  Now that I’ve done some climbing and hill walking, and wandered around the battlefield of Culloden, I want to try the book on again.

Chris Mackowski

(My blurbs here are necessarily short because I have more reviews coming up.)

The Signal by Ron Carlson—One of today’s finest short-fiction writers, Carlson’s short novel starts out as a tale about a wounded marriage and turns into a wilderness adventure (it all makes perfect sense). Set in the mountains of Wyoming, The Signal has some breathtaking description, providing readers with a breathtaking—and emotionally difficult—hike in the wilderness.

Brida by Paula Coelho—A older teacher and his younger female student fall in love while she learns the art of magic. Problem is, she already has a lover. Could they both be her Soul Mates? What path should she take? This book hit uncomfortably close to home. Good stuff, though.

This Fragile Nest, a poetry collection by a friend of mine, Yvonne Rutford—Rutford, who lives along the shores of Lake Superior, captures the beauty of the natural world and the fragility of parenthood.

Lex

My patterns are diverse to the point of randomness (excluding fiction), and never moreso than when there’s a paper grocery bag from the library book sale in a corner of the office. That’s where most of my reading material has come from as summer ends and reading/beard season begins…though there are a couple of standard library books here too.

I recently did some air travel, realizing as we left for the airport that my carry-on reading consisted of Taliban by Ahmed Rashid, Infidels by Andrew Wheatcroft, and several books of Boston maps. Good thing the wedding occurred before beard season. The first is another solid work on Central Asia/Afghanistan by Rashid, covering the rise of the Taliban until shortly before Americans started giving a damn. I’m not far enough along in the second to comment.

The library book sale bag has yielded an amazing, large format book called The Illustrated History of Gardening, which i’ve only browsed for the incredibly images. I’m sure that the textual information will be impressive as well, as it comes from the Royal Horticultural Society.

I’ve nearly finished Ford: The Men and the Machine (1986), which has been an interesting mix of individual—but related—biographies, a history of the early automobile industry, and the shaping of Detroit between the end of the 19th century and the late-middle of the 20th. For some reason, Lacey decided not to include the Ford-Ferrari war in his book…an issue that i’m having a hard time overlooking.

Then there’s a book called The Parable of the Beast by John Bleibtreu. To the best of my knowledge, Bleibtreu only wrote this one book and a handful of essays for The Atlantic and The Realist. It’s a fascinating read, even if one must accept that the early ethology research Bleibtreu discusses may be out of date. He moves effortlessly between the collective behavior of slime molds and Pyotr Kropotkin; argues that life has molecular memory; and produces a worldview that is both scientific and spiritual. As Bleibtreu ends his work, “Being is transient, but life itself is immortal.” This turns out to be an uncommon book (the two copies at Amazon are $60 and $106), but the real value is in being a book that i see returning to again and again.

Mike Sheehan

There is no rhyme or reason to my reading patterns. I may buy a hot new book and let it sit for months or years before I crack it open, I may impulsively pick something up at a yard sale and start reading that night, or vice versa. I’ve passed up classics to read graphic novels, and ditched favorite authors mid-book to finally start on some renowned work that’s gathered dust for ages on my shelves. I haven’t yet read things I should’ve read by now, and I’ve been consumed by things others consider frivolous pap. I usually read several books at once because that’s how I roll. I keep every book, even if I have no plans to ever re-read it or doubt I’ll ever finish it once (ahem… Rand). My home office is filled with stacks of ’em, my nightstand teeters with reads in progress, even my porcelain throne is flanked by mags and paperbacks.  I’m a slow reader, too, so this lifestyle will continue until I die. At any rate, here’s where I’m at now:

Recently finished reading:

Daddy’s Boy by Bob Elliott and Chris Elliott, a short, sweet, hilariously bizarre yarnspinography by two brilliant nutters (father and son) in which Gold Toe socks feature heavily.

I Killed, compiled by Ritch Shydner and Mark Schiff, a catalog of wild stories from the road as told by virtually all of great stand-up comics and comedy figures of our time who hadn’t yet OD’d by the publication date; I was particularly surprised to read something from Carlos Mencia that didn’t make me want to kick him down a flight of stairs.

In Search of Ancient Mysteries by Alan and Sally Landsburg. I’m a total sucker for (pseudo)scientific cheese from the 1960’s and 70’s, before the Internet and cable TV went and ruined everything. Yes, I’ve read von Däniken, seen the old In Search Of‘s with Nimoy hosting, believed we could rebuild Steve Austin, etc. This old book by the Landsburgs takes me back to my innocent, impressionable youth when I fully believed that in just a decade or two, we’d be living on moon bases and leisurely zipping through space. We know how all that turned out, and before I depress you and myself any further, back to the book: the best part of this dated nonsense was the fixation on the Inca empire, in particular its architecture, technology and spirituality. That stuff still fascinates me, as historians and archaeologists continue to struggle to piece together a magnificent culture largely destroyed by Eurogreed.

Currently reading:

As I’m always reading something by Hunter S. Thompson, I’m a third of the way through The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, a collection of letters written when he was quite young.  Even in his early twenties, HST was a total badass.  I wouldn’t dare to dream of ever being as natural, compelling, humorous and rewarding a writer as he was even when he was barely out of his teens.  He remains my very favorite writer and probably always will be, as I have yet to even finish reading his entire repertoire.

Brain Droppings by George Carlin, re-reading for the… hell, I don’t know how many times, I’m constantly thumbing through it and savoring George’s gleeful loathing for all things extant.

The Outer Space Connection by the aforementioned Landsburgs.  It’s even wackier than their first book, and with its probing examination of the validity of crude brain transplants and immortality, even revolting and terrifying.

The Last Emperor by Edward Behr, a sort of companion book  inspired by the marvelous Bernardo Bertolucci film of the same name.  Behr is a messy writer, or maybe the book was rushed to coincide roughly with the film’s release, I don’t know; he also seems obsessed with the sex lives and sick tactics of the rich and powerful. It’s forgivable, though, since his subject is the dwindling royal family of China that met its end in the brief reign of Emperor Pu Yi, a catastrophically weak and weird dude who’s nevertheless compelling to read about, as are the rapid and violent changes that hardened China into a modern superpower.

Lastly, Larry Niven’s futuretale Ringworld.  This is considered a classic by many, and undoubtedly Niven knows how to sling the technical jargon; but as with most heavily hyped sci-fi books I’ve read, his characters have yet to really interest me.  But it’s not about them anyway, it’s about the ring itself, and I’m just getting to that part with a bit of excitement.

Will soon be reading:

The Real Frank Zappa Book (autobiography); Generation of Swine, Hunter S. Thompson; The Celestine Prophecy (for shits and giggles); War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (gonna try); The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (it’s time); Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (overdue read); One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (see Ellison); UFOs, JFK, and Elvis, Richard Belzer (a favorite comedian); Brother Sam, Bill Kinison (re-read); The First Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny (put off finishing this for too long); The Psycho Ex Game, Merrill Markoe (she’s funnier than Jerry Lewis, you know) and Andy Prieboy; and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, which I first tried to read years ago, stopped to watch the movie, and forgot to finish.

Russ Wellen

Getting History Right the First Time:

German novelist Hans Fallada’s last book, Every Man Dies Alone, was written shortly after World War II ended and he was released from a hospital for the criminally insane to which the Nazis had relegated him for refusing to write an anti-Semitic novel. It was published in German in 1947 but, for a reason that I have yet to discover, it wasn’t until 2009 when it made its way into the English-speaking world, where it exploded on the literary scene.

Typical of the reactions to Fallada’s narrative of war-time Berlin was that of a reviewer who exclaimed that the response the book elicited was “the journalistic equivalent of a collective dropped jaw.” Having recently finished reading Every Man Dies Alone, I can confirm that’s a normal response for any reader.

A first impression while reading it is how closely Fallada’s portrayal of Nazis, especially the Gestapo, jibes with those we’ve seen in the years since. Apparently, the author required no hindsight to see them with 20/20 vision. Though one imagines that the broad strokes with which the Gestapo operated didn’t leave much room for mystery or misinterpretation.

Not a book primarly detailing the treatement of the Jews, it’s written from the viewpoint of gentile Germans, especially the middle-aged Quangel couple. The rigid, but righteous, Otto, a factory foreman, and Anna, his idealistic wife, decide to discreetly protest the Nazis and the war by writing polemical postcards and dropping them in public places. Far from political, though, their motives are personal.

Otto Quangel is inspired to act not only by the death of his son in combat, but by the cronyism with which the Nazis run his workplace. Others also resent the Nazis on a day-to-day, personal level. They don’t understand why Nazis feel the need to persecute Jews, often local store owners with whom they’ve done business for years and who haven’t harmed anyone. One woman harbors a fugitive from the Gestapo because it has seized her husband. Another, in a state job, narrowly escapes consignment to a concentration camp when she refuses to join the Nazi party, in part because it has turned her son into a war criminal. Another sticking point for Germans is the dues required to be a member of the Nazi party, as is the “Winter Relief Fund” to which citizens are pressued to donate.

Don’t expect much in the way of redemption — though some can be derived from the fate of the Gestapo detective who tracks and finally captures the Quangels. While it weighs in at well over 500 pages, the book provides you with the best of both worlds: its pace that of a thriller, its emotional depth that of great literature. In fact, Every Man Dies Alone is the next best (or worst) thing to living through the war years in Berlin, replete with the capricious effects of Allied bombing, as you’ll find.

When It Comes to Terrorism, History Reveals U.S. Is Second to None:

Until he was killed in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, head of al Qaeda in Iraq, was implicated in the death of thousands. Back in 2003, he engineered the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Iraq that killed, among others, the UN Secretary-General’s special Iraqi envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello (immortalized by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Powers in her 2008 book Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World).

Zarqawi was likely responsible for the 2004 beheadings of American civilians Nicholas Berg and Olin Eugene Armstrong. Worst of all, also in 2004, he is considered to be the driving force behind the attacks on the Shia shrines in Karbala and Baghdad that killed at least 180 and kicked sectarian violence in Iraq into high gear.

We in the West tend to think nobody does terrorism like al Qaeda, as well as Middle-Easterners in general, such as the Taliban. But terrorism is not only an opportunistic infection, but an equal-opportuntunity one. In other words, the United States, too, has suffered outbreaks.

Setting the ravages of the CIA aside for the moment, we need only go back to the U.S. Civil War. In fact, let’s get a one-year jump on its 150th anniversary by dredging up its ugliest side and weigh how it stacks up against al-Qaeda.

For sheer cruelty, perhaps nothing in the Civil War matches the war between two states — Kansas and Missouri — in the War Between the States. Kicked off when John Brown attacked slave-holding Missouri, it reached a climax when the South’s William Quantrill led his guerillas in an attack on Lawrence, Kansas forgotten by many today. About 200 homes and businesses were destroyed and 150 killed, many shot up-close and personal.

Quantrill soon bowed out of the action (though he was later killed by Union troops). Carrying on, though, were some of his lieutenants, among them Bill Anderson, who gained notoriety  for his raid on Centralia, Kansas and subsequent attack on the North Missouri Railroad, after which he ordered the execution of 24 Union soldiers. In Blag Flag: Guerilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865, Thomas Goodrich (Indiana University Press, 1995) describes the fate of another, larger Union force that surrendered to Anderson and his men. Think of Anderson like this: he trumped Quantrill in savagery as Zaraqawi did bin Laden and Zawahiri.

Goodrich quotes a surviving captive who Anderson was holding in hopes of exchanging for his men who were held prisoner by the Union.

“Surrendered, as we did at Centralia, with assurances of humane treatment. . . . No sooner was this accomplished than Hell was suddenly transferred to earth. . . . Men’s heads were severed from their lifeless bodies, exchanged . . . exchanged to bodies . . . stuck upon their carbine points, tied to their saddle bows, or sat grinning at each other from the tops of fence stakes and stumps around the scene.”

Nor were such atrocities enough to prevent Confederate General Sterling Price from enlisting Anderson and his men in the effort to drive Union forces from Missouri.

As we can see from incidents such as these, not to mention the, uh, cavalier way in which American forces have regarded the lives of Iraqi civilians, those we currently label terrorists have no monopoly on barbarism. Worse, when it comes to institutional, policy-driven savagery, considering that the forces it set in motion have resulted in the killing of as many as 1,500,000 Iraqis, the United States currently brooks no competition.

Samuel Smith

I’ve been reading quite a bit since the last Nightstand, and I don’t have time to do all the books justice here. But a brief comment or two, perhaps.

I’m currently working through William Gibson’s latest, Zero History. This is the third novel in his third trilogy (assuming his historical form holds) and it’s a marvel to watch a writer who can turn the world of marketing and branding into something interesting. Granted, he has envisioned a world of marketing and branding that isn’t terribly real, but still. What I find most fascinating is how certain characters and types begin to really assert themselves here—I find myself again and again noting symmetries between the current cycle and the Cyberspace Trilogy, to the point where I wonder if he’s working his way around to another engagement with SF when this one is done.

On the recommendation of my colleague Brian Angliss I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Very different from the only thing I’d read by him before, which was the marvelous collab with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. The old gods aren’t quite dead, after all, but find themselves in a life and death struggle with new gods like Technology and Media. The lasting image I suppose I’ll take away is that of these gods feasting on the flesh of America—both literally and figuratively. Not terribly different from what we have with our acknowledged gods, when I think about it.

Speaking of Pratchett, I’ve also read a few more in his Disc World series, including Mort, Sourcery, Equal Rites and Wyrd Sisters. Pratchett is a wonderful storyteller and, speaking as a fan of the pure craft of writing, simply a marvel to study. We all get off a great line now and again, a turn of phrase that’s a cut above, the sort of thing we remember when we think of our own cleverness. He does it once every page or two, which is enjoyable, but depressing. He also manages to be an outstanding social critic – Wyrd Sisters, for instance, is a wicked exercise in power relations.

Let’s see, what else. Did I mention Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask? I first became aware of its existence in reading a review that framed it out as a definitive novel of Generation X. Two words for that reviewer: Blow. Me. Every generation has its feckless losers, and if you’d like to characterize this as the definitive novel about Gen X’s feckless losers, fine. Beyond that you’re just looking to stir up gratuitous bullshit.

I also read the first two installments in Stieg Larson’s much-hyped series, and I can see why people admire them so much. My experience is a little different than some, perhaps, because I’m friends with so many Swedes. Firsthand knowledge of that particular national character I think adds an extra layer of depth to the personalities and I suspect makes you appreciate the books even more. I’ll get around to the third one at some point.

I read the most recent in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series and continue to hold that True Blood is a rare example where the book is not better than the film/television adaptation.

Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked is as brutal a portrayal of musical micro-cultures as you’re ever likely to read. If you’re an uber-fan of the late Jeff Buckley this novel will either enrage you (because you’re offended by the fact that you’re the model for this crowd) or you’ll think Hornby doesn’t really get it (because you don’t recognize yourself in the narrative). In any event, it’s a wonderful book – his grasp of the life and insecurities and introspection of his heroine is subtle and profound.

I re-read John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. You should, too.

Finally, I’ve obviously read the texts for the class I’m teaching, so let’s add Graham Hooley, et al: Marketing Strategy and Competitive Positioning, which is incredibly detailed and well researched. It’s not exciting reading, to be sure, but you learn a lot. The other text is Ben Gilad’s Early Warning: Using Competitive Intelligence to Anticipate Market Shifts, Control Risk, and Create Powerful Strategies. Smart, and best of all very willing to smack around conventional wisdom and the market losers who have parlayed their lack of vision into epic failures that are useful when teaching grad students how to and how not to.

And now, I’m off to finish Gibson.

Wufnik

I’ve been holding off on reading books on the financial crisis until some distance passed, and it has, so I’ve been plowing through a bunch, in the hope of getting a multiple book review together. Which I will do in a couple of weeks. So I’ve just finished Simon Johnson and James Kwak’s 13 Bankers, after having knocked off Andrew Lee Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and Barry Ritholtz’s Bailout Nation. Next are Yves Smith’s Econned and Joseph Stiglitz’s Freefall. None of it is pretty, and it was, yes, worse than you thought—it was worse than I thought, and this is my world—and it hasn’t been fixed by a long shot. In fact, it’s barely been fixed at all. So that really depresses me. I’ve actually been looking for someone to tell the other version of he story—you know, the one that tells me that the problem wasn’t that bad, that it wasn’t the inevitable result of twenty five years of the complete deregulation of the financial sector, not to mention regulatory capture, and that the solution is just to leave everything alone. Funnily enough, I haven’t been able to find that book.

So I’ve also been reading a whole lot of science fiction, which does indeed cheer me up. This has included Greg Egan’s new one, Zendegi, set in a future Iran, a clever mix of real life and gaming technology, and politics, and…you know, I bet Iran is just the most interesting place, and what a place it could be if it weren’t for the fanaticism of the leadership. Of course that’s true of lots of places, but it seems particularly poignant given Iran’s history. Very satisfactory. As is Greg Bear’s Mariposa, the sequel to Quantico, a political/sf thriller with global warming kicking in, and the US facing the prospect of being taken over by a private army/security company that bears more than a passing resemblance to Blackwater. Great stuff, but read Quantico first. I also read the first volume of John Meaney’s new trilogy, Absorption, based on, in part, Norse mythology, and which moves back and forth between past and future elegantly. High drama, some great concepts, and lots of action—what really good sf is supposed to be.

I also recently read Howard Norman’s most recent novel, What Was Left the Daughter, a wonderful little novel about mistakes, regret, and the cost of love. I love reading Norman’s stuff—like most of his novels, this one is set in a small town in Canada, and is characterized by some of the most wonderful dialog you’ll ever read.

The books still waiting for when I finish the Smith and Stiglitz books are John Le Carre’s new novel, Our Kind of Traitor, about the modern Russian crime syndicates and their penetration into British politics; the late and greatly missed Tony Judt’s last book, Ill Fares the Land; and Peter Watson’s The German Genius. Since Watson’s book is about 600 pages or so, that should keep me busy for a couple of weeks. Then there’s Philip Ball’s new book, The Music Instinct, and that biography of Monteverdi I’ve been trying to get to before my next concert, which happens to be Monteverdi. The days are just packed!

And I’ve been doing something I don’t do very often, and that’s going back and re-reading a book I read about a year ago, because it’s one of those books that just sticks in my head and won’t go away—Kenneth Fearing Clark Gifford’s Body. An astonishing book, especially considering when it was written.

12 replies »

  1. Yeah, and then there’s me (which is why I didn’t include myself this time around), reading mostly the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet specification, the EIA/TIA-422-B differential signaling specification, the PCI Local Bus specification with the PCIMG Compact PCI addendum. Oh, let’s add the ever-so-exciting Xilinx FPGA datasheet and both user guides, the datasheet for the Xilinx Platform FLASH XL configuration PROM, and another dozen or so component datasheets.

    Or I could have included the books I read to my kids, like Goldilicious, One Naked Baby, Winnie The Pooh, and Big Al.

    I love reading to my kids, but the stuff that I’ve been reading to them hasn’t exactly been the most challenging or interesting, especially after reading the same book eleventyhundred times. And reading 1500+ pages of datasheets, userguides, and specifications for work tends to destroy my ability to read much of anything else.

  2. As for my technical reading, how about because it’s not on my nightstand, because it’s not literature, because it’s boring, because it’s tedius, because it’s work instead of fun. And because it’s not of interest to anyone, up to and including me, beyond bitching about it.

    As for the kids’ books, I’ll have no problem claiming Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter as my Nightstand contributions when I start reading them to my kids. But 10-page kids books with maybe 200 words that are heavy on the moralizing? If we were doing a “kids’ books” edition, sure, but not this time around.

  3. And actually, I could probably make an argument that my technical reading isn’t in English.

    The Automatic MDI/MDI-X state machine facilitates switching teh BI_DA(C)+ and BI_DA(C)- with the BI_DA(D)+ and BI_DA(D)- signals respectively prior to the auto-negotiation mode of operation so that FLPs can be transmitted and received in compliance with Clause 28 Auto-Negotiation specifications. The correct polarization of the crossover circuit is determined by an algorithm that controls the switching function. This algorithm uses an 11-bit Linear Feedback Shift Register (LFSR) to create a pseudo-random sequence that each of the link uses to determine its proposed configuration.

    See? Impenetrable technobabble written using English words doesn’t necessarily mean it’s written in English. And that’s about average – it gets a LOT worse than that in the IEEE 802.3 spec.

    And here’s one from the Xilinx user guide I’m talking about:

    To deliberately create an error in a 72-bit word, configure the ECC decode-only mode and create a 72-bit word with one or two bit errors. Write the word into the block RAM. Reading the 72-bit word automatically corrects the single-bit error and asserts the SBITERR error flag or it detects the double-bit error and asserts the DBITERR error flag.

    Yay.

  4. Brian, I think the Winnie the Pooh stuff is actually delightful stuff to read, so don’t feel bad. (Or, perhaps feel worse because you’re in company w/me!)

    • I’m discovering that Winnie the Pooh is not my thing. It’s really hard to read, harder to read aloud, and my kids can’t seem to follow it that well (or maybe that’s because their dad is doing such a poor job of reading it to them). I can appreciate how some people would love it, however, it just seems that I’m not one of them.

  5. Which reminds me, I started a post a while back on reading to kids (now that I’m reading to my grandkids, when I get to see them) and what a treasured memory it is. I need to get back to it. How old are your kids, Brian? There is so much great kids literature, even picture books. We never actually did all that much Pooh, now that I think of it. Lots and lots of Margaret Wise Brown, though–The runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Little Fur Family, Sailor Dog (which was my favorite book when I was a kid). My grand-daughter loves them just as much as my daughters did. And James Stevenson–they just loved his books, and they were incredibly fun to read. Now that I think of it, I’ll get back to that post. Something I have strong, but warm and fuzzy, feelings about.

  6. I’m reading Life of Pi, because I’ve had it for six years but never got around to reading it. But I’m going to balance that with The Tiger by John Valliant. Both are very good, but entirely different. I highly recommend each, but I’m never going to Russia…by boat.

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