Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Revolution and Other Essays by Jack London

A mulligan stew with a few choice chunks
The problem with Revolution and Other Essays is that there’s too little “Revolution” and far too much “Other”. This collection is a hodgepodge of Jack London’s early nonfiction writings, in which he waxes poetic on subjects various and diverse, among them architecture (“The House Beautiful”), globalization (“The Shrinkage of the Planet”), literature (Maxim Gorky in “Fomá Gordyéeff” and Rudyard Kipling in “These Bones Shall Rise Again”), zoopsychology (“The Other Animals”), and the rise of Asia as a world power (“The Yellow Peril”). Uncharacteristic of London, the majority of these pieces are written in rather decorative prose, adorned with flowery language and gratuitous literary references. Even diehard fans of London will find most of these essays too esoteric in subject matter and too antiquated in style to be considered a necessary read.

Fortunately, a few worthy pieces redeem this volume and elevate it to the realm of readability. The title piece, “Revolution”, is a state-of-the-union address for socialism in the year 1905. It serves as a stirring call to arms to the world’s 7,000,000 comrades, and a warning to the uninitiated that the revolt of the working class is imminent. “What Life Means to Me” is a mini-manifesto of London’s political thought. In it he provides an abbreviated autobiography charting his gradual transformation from a naive child with grand illusions to an educated socialist confronting the hypocrisy of a capitalist society. The only piece of fiction in this volume is a masterful short story entitled “Goliah”. It’s a sci-fi thriller about a seemingly omnipotent mystery man who appears on the world stage, cripples the military forces of the superpowers, and demands that society reorganize itself into a rational utopia. It is an audacious and exciting tale which bears some similarities to London’s brilliant novel The Iron Heel.

With the exception of the pieces I’ve singled out above, Revolution and Other Essays is a volume casual readers of London would do best to skip. “The Somnambulists” and “The Dignity of Dollars” will also be of value to those with a fervent interest in London’s politics, but if you’re looking for a really good collection of London’s political writings, I would suggest War of the Classes. For those who are only interested in London’s fiction, just read “Goliah”.

Essays and stories in this collection
The Somnambulists 
The Dignity of Dollars 
The Golden Poppy 
The Shrinkage of the Planet 
The House Beautiful 
The Gold Hunters of the North 
Fomá Gordyéeff 
These Bones Shall Rise Again 
The Other Animals 
The Yellow Peril 
What Life Means to Me 

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

A triumphant trifecta
This book by Katherine Anne Porter, originally published in 1939, consists of three short novels, each about fifty pages long. Though the three pieces vary in style and subject matter, they are all of exceptional quality and admirably showcase Porter’s estimable talent for crafting short fiction.

In the first piece, “Old Mortality,” two young sisters grow up listening to the family stories told by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, which over time develop into a sort of mythology. The most romanticized character in the family saga is the tragic figure of Aunt Amy, who, praised for her beauty and perfection yet criticized for her free spirit, suffered from tuberculosis and died at a young age. Though written in the third person, the novel is related through the eyes of Miranda, the younger of the two young girls. As she grows into womanhood, Miranda begins to understand that the reality of the past does not live up to the romanticized mythology she grew up with, and that family, beyond its sheltering comforts, has a dark side as well.

The second novel, “Noon Wine,” takes place on a farm in southern Texas. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, despite having two young children, are growing aged and infirm. They cannot keep up with the farm work as they used to. Salvation comes in the form of Mr. Helton, a stranger who shows up at their gate one day asking for work. Mr. Helton is a Swede from South Dakota, and a relentlessly hard worker. As a farmhand he is truly the answer to the Thompsons’ prayers. Yet, as most good things are too good to be true, the Thompsons soon begin to suspect that this laconic stranger may have some dark secrets in his mysterious past.

The final piece, “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” also stars a young woman named Miranda, whom we can assume is the same girl from the first piece, though it’s never explicitly stated. Now 24, alone and independent, she works as a theatre critic for a newspaper in a western “hick town,” which sounds a lot like Denver. Miranda falls in love with a soldier who will soon depart for the European battlefields of World War I. She despises the war and the jingoism that accompanies it, and dreads the day when her new love will depart for his inevitable doom. War is not the only manifestation of death that looms ominously on Miranda’s horizon, however, as an influenza epidemic also rages through the city.

My personal taste in literature usually leans toward more antiquated works of romantic, realist, and naturalist stylings, but as far as the literature between the World Wars is concerned, Porter is clearly the best of the American modernists. She utilizes the linguistic experimentation and psychological probity characteristic of modernism to her advantage, without indulging in the gratuitous verbal games to which so many of her contemporaries succumbed. Her writing straddles the line between the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser and the modernism of William Faulkner, combining the best characteristics of both while dispensing with their faults. “Noon Wine,” which is primarily a naturalistic piece, is the strongest work in the book, while the more abstract “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” is the weakest. At times it seems the main purpose of the latter piece is for Porter to demonstrate her prowess at depicting surrealistic, influenza-induced hallucinations. Nevertheless, all three novels are very strong works of literature and will appeal to readers of all stripes who appreciate writing that’s both proficient and profound.

Stories in this collection
Old Mortality 
Noon Wine 
Pale Horse, Pale Rider 

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Farewell by Honoré de Balzac

Like an epic war novel in a pint-sized package
Honoré de Balzac
Two friends, Colonel Philippe de Sucy and the Marquis d’Albon, get lost in the woods while out hunting. They stumble upon a dilapidated old convent where they find a remarkable woman, bewitchingly beautiful but wild like an animal, who seems to possess the mind of a child. An investigation into this mystery woman’s past reveals a flashback to the retreat of Napoleon’s army from Russia in November of 1812. The defeated French forces, starved and freezing, amassed upon the shore of the Beresina River in Belarus, with the pursuing Russian horde close upon their heals. This scene of human wreckage provides the setting for a pivotal moment in the lives of both Philippe and this mysterious, savage woman-child, Stéphanie, who was once his childhood love. Reunited at last, can they overcome the lasting effects of that horrifying ordeal?

Farewell (French title: Adieu) is a novella by Honoré de Balzac, first published in 1830. It is a brief work penned in deceptively brisk prose which flows by quickly and effortlessly. Balzac is a master at quickly establishing scene and characters, thereby ensnaring the reader immediately in the world of his story. Once involved in the lives of these characters, the reader is swept along by a stream of revelations and surprises. Like many works written during this time period, the expressions of love may seem a little over the top for today’s audience, but the occasional sickly sweetness is tempered by the stark and gruesome descriptions of the Beresina battlefield. The relationship between Philippe and Stéphanie is really quite moving, and the war sequences offer plenty of exciting action. In addition, Balzac treats the subject of mental illness with thoughtfulness and dignity, and raises interesting philosophical questions about the limits of love, the fragility of the mind, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Farewell is part of Balzac’s magnum opus, the Comédie Humaine, but like all works under that heading it can be read as a stand-alone novel. I would recommend it to diehard fans of Balzac or to general enthusiasts of classic literature who are newcomers to this great author’s work. Though not one of his better known pieces, it is a pleasant surprise and deserves a higher degree of notoriety. The slight investment you’ll make in reading time is more than rewarded by a satisfying emotional richness that far surpasses the brevity of its page count.
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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Introducing Kant by Christopher Kul-Want

Introduces Bewilderment
This is the second book I’ve read in the Introducing series, having first read the volume on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which I found to be well-written, interesting, and helpful. The Introducing series promises succinct, in-a-nutshell overviews of a variety of scholarly topics, combining concise text with graphic art. Upon picking up this volume on Kant, I could tell right away the art was horrible and would offer little help in elucidating the subject matter. However, I purchased the book anyway, solely for its text, based on my experience with the Rousseau volume. Unfortunately, Introducing Kant proved to be a major disappointment.

The reason philosophy is not commonly read by the general public is because it utilizes heavy amounts of field-specific jargon that hinders the understanding of the average uninitiated reader. The reason one buys a volume from the Introducing series is to avoid that very jargon. If difficult terminology is necessary, then it should be clearly defined before being implemented. Apparently Christopher Kul-Want did not get the memo. Though Kant’s philosophical writings are notoriously difficult to understand, Kul-Want seems determined to give the master a run for his money. I pity the students of undergraduate philosophy courses who may be assigned this book as a text. The only portions of the book that are clearly understandable are the brief passages offering historical and biographical details. The examination of Kant’s thought, primarily focused on his three Critiques, is rendered in prose that is largely unintelligible. Kul-Want presupposes a knowledge of theory and a familiarity with philosophical jargon on the part of the reader that is inappropriate for this venue.

I’m not qualified to argue with Kul-Want’s conclusions concerning Kant. Perhaps among his peers this book is considered a revelation. The fault here really lies with the publisher. Shame on Icon Books for including this as part of their Introducing series. The purpose of these books should be to summarize and to simplify. Introducing Kant fails its intended audience. The only readers who will understand this book are those who already have a thorough understanding of its topic. The rest of us, hoping for an education on Kant, are left to scratch our heads.

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Monday, October 22, 2012

La Bête Humaine (The Human Beast) by Emile Zola

A thriller with depth
In this book, Emile Zola dives headlong into his fascination with “the human beast” by examining the psychology of murder. The novel is also a detailed portrait of the lives of railroad workers. The main character is Jacques Lantier, son of Gervaise Macquart (of L’Assomoir), a railroad engineer who works the line between Paris and Le Havre. Jacques feels a nagging compulsion to kill every woman he’s attracted to. Fortunately, up to this point he has been able to control himself, but who knows how long he will be able to restrain the killer inside? Jacques is not the only character with murder on his mind; in fact, everyone in the book seems to be plotting to kill someone. Murder for love, murder for greed, murder for revenge are all represented. Zola has crammed so much violence and suspense into the plot, that on the surface he’s written a fabulous piece of pulp fiction. Though the book pushes the boundaries of believability, it’s also a fascinating study of human nature. The reader gains a window into the minds of the characters that reminds one of Edgar Allen Poe’s best tales. Underlying the criminal plot threads is a deeper level of social commentary, scientific inquiry, and philosophical debate. Zola shows how the rise of industrial technology contributes to the moral degeneration and dehumanization of the populace. He portrays Jacques’ relationship with his engine as a symbiotic, almost romantic relationship. Meanwhile Jacques’ Aunt Phasie and her family operate a crossing/switching station in the middle of nowhere, where their only interaction with the outside world comes in split-second views of nameless passengers being carted off to unknown destinations. While the railroad provides speed and convenience, it also generates social isolation and anonymity. Fans of Zola or readers of classical literature in general will certainly enjoy this book. Even fans of contemporary suspense fiction should find it entertaining and thought-provoking.
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Friday, October 19, 2012

A Daughter of the Snows by Jack London

A false start on the road to greatness
Jack London achieved great fame with his adventure tales of the Klondike Gold Rush, most notably the extremely popular novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. His very first novel, however, has since faded into obscurity. A Daughter of the Snows, originally published in 1902, tells the story of Frona Welse, a white woman born in the Yukon Territory, who, after being educated in the United States and Europe, returns to the mining town of Dawson to reunite with her father. London deserves to be commended for creating the character of Frona, a strong-willed, intelligent, and independent heroine that was years ahead of her time. Nevertheless, he may have overdone it, as Frona comes across as a bit of an unrealistic superwoman. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, she also excels at everything she attempts, whether mushing a team of dogs across the frozen tundra, acting the part of Nora in Ibsen’s Ghosts, or, when the occasion arises, even practicing law.

A Daughter of the Snows is not a typical Jack London adventure story. It’s more a comedy of manners, like a Jane Austen novel set in the frozen North. Shortly after her arrival in Dawson, Frona attracts two opposing suitors, and the predictable plot revolves around which man shall win her hand. The setting within the Yukon is almost irrelevant. Most of the narrative takes place in the parlors and saloons of Dawson, though some wilderness adventure does occur in the last several chapters. When Frona and friends are not reciting poetry to one another or agonizing over whether or not it is proper to associate with a dance hall girl, they are busily engaged in dialogues in which London showcases his peculiar preoccupation with race. In the opening sentence of chapter eight, Frona asks, “And why should I not be proud of my race?” Thus begins a series of conversations about how the Anglo-Saxon is destined to conquer the world. Words like “race”, “breed”, and “blood” are tossed about so casually between Frona and her peers, at times their evening salons sound like the committee meetings of a eugenics society.

London’s writing is a bit clumsy throughout. There is often a general lack of clarity in simple matters like who’s speaking to whom in a conversation, or how people and things are arranged in a given space. It’s as if London had a vivid picture of the scene in his imagination, but was unable to adequately translate that scene to the reader. The book is also unnecessarily lengthy. Several of the thirty chapters are merely conversational digressions that do nothing to move the plot forward and could easily have been eliminated. At times it feels the book was padded simply because London was being paid by the word.

Enthusiastic fans of London’s writing will find some entertainment value here. It’s interesting to see the nascent seeds from which sprang such an illustrious career. Many of the themes and plot devices introduced in this book would be developed by London more thoroughly and successfully in later, better works. For the casual reader of London, however, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been covered to far better effect in the short stories found in outstanding collections like The Son of the Wolf, The God of His Fathers, Children of the Frost, The Faith of Men, or Lost Face. In fact, of all the works from London’s Klondike period, A Daughter of the Snows is the least worthy of reading. It’s not a bad novel for a beginner, certainly not a horrible failure, but with an author as prolific as London, who wrote masterpieces like The Call of the Wild, The Iron Heel, or Martin Eden, why waste your time reading one of his inferior works?

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Octopus by Frank Norris

The Great American Novel
Literary scholars often debate the existence of the “Great American Novel”—one work of literature that authentically encapsulates the American experience. This mythical work does exist, and has been around for more than a century. It is The Octopus by Frank Norris, originally published in 1901. Based on the real-life incident of the Mussel Slough Tragedy, The Octopus tells the story of a conflict between a group of California wheat ranchers and an all-powerful railroad corporation. Set in the farmlands of Tulare County, California, the novel features an indelible ensemble of characters, among them Magnus Derrick, the elder statesman of impeccable integrity; Buck Annixter, the irascible but good-hearted ranch owner; Hooven, the German immigrant and war veteran; Vanamee, the ascetic drifter and mystical prophet; and Presley, the surrogate for Norris himself, an educated, city-bred poet who immerses himself among these country folk in search of his great, as yet unwritten “Epic of the West.” The railroad, not content to gouge the ranchers with their exorbitant shipping rates, sets out to snatch the very land itself. When the ranchers resolve to defend their homes and livelihood, an altercation arises which produces tragic consequences.

The Octopus deserves the designation of Great American Novel not only for its exceptional literary merit, but also because it deals with issues that are quintessentially American—a person’s right to own land, the right to derive a living from that land, and conversely, the right to pursue great wealth, even at the expense of others. The scope of the novel encompasses the realms of business, agriculture, the press, the arts, politics, and family. It celebrates the beauty of nature, the triumph of love, and the defiance of the human spirit. Whether depicting the small dramas of everyday life or the cataclysmic clash of inevitable forces, Norris’s writing is perfect throughout. As the foremost representative of the Naturalist school in American literature, Norris showcases his preternatural ability to accurately depict nature and society in almost photographic detail, yet he also displays a Romanticist’s penchant for larger-than-life events and heroic conflict. The result is a gripping novel of ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Some critics complain that the stoic, fatalistic tone of the book’s epilogue betrays the fiery social consciousness that precedes it. Fellow “muckrakers” like Jack London or Upton Sinclair would have ended the book with a socialist polemic, but Norris refuses to take the easy way out and rightly realizes that such an anthemic ending would belie the book’s realism. When one character does seek a socialistic solution to the railroad problem, Norris immediately points out the folly of such a simplistic answer. The Octopus was influenced heavily by the French author Emile Zola’s masterwork Germinal, which tells the story of a coal miners’ strike. Like Zola, Norris primarily concentrates on the plight of the working class, but also allows the opposing side to be heard, objectively acknowledging that the dispute is not so cut and dried as it appears. The conflict between the railroad and farmers is not merely one of predator and prey, but a manifestation of universal forces which operate above and beyond the lives and deaths of these characters.

Though the famous corporate trusts of the 19th century have come and gone, the struggle between big business and the individual continues, and The Octopus is still relevant. Due to its charged political content, it will probably never be required reading in high school English classes, but it should be. This novel is a masterpiece and should be ready by all.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

More a chase than a puzzle
The Sign of the Four, originally published in 1890, is the second Sherlock Holmes novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Following his successful resolution of the case of A Study in Scarlet, London’s most ingenious detective is consulted by Mary Morstan, a young woman whose father had vanished years before. Since his disappearance, an unknown benefactor has been sending her a valuable pearl each year. Having received a note from the mysterious personage asking to meet her that evening, she invites Holmes and Watson to accompany her to the rendezvous. It soon becomes apparent that the disappearance of Ms. Morstan’s father is somehow related to his military service in the Andaman Islands, a penal colony located between India and Burma.

When compared to many of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the actual crime that takes place in the book is not particularly mysterious. Many secrets are revealed early, and the guilty parties are determined midway through the book. All that remains is to track them down. The final chapter, in which the apprehended villain reveals a most engaging back story, does much to redeem the book as a whole. Although Sherlock Holmes is considered the quintessential literary detective, one must keep in mind that at the time this book was written the mystery genre was yet in its infancy, and Conan Doyle was still experimenting in style and form. This book represents an embryonic stage towards what we recognize today as the typical structure of a mystery novel, in which clues are doled out over the course of the narrative, in preparation for the big reveal at the end. As in A Study in Scarlet, the unconventional structure of The Sign of the Four is actually quite refreshing when compared to some of the later, more formulaic Holmes stories.

Though the mechanics of mystery may be a bit awkward in this early effort, Conan Doyle’s excellent writing still shines through. This book goes a long way in developing the Holmes mythos, the relationship between the two principal characters, and the personality quirks of each. In the opening scene Holmes’s cocaine habit is revealed, and over the course of the book Watson finds romance. The true value of the Holmes mysteries lies not in the unusual crimes depicted or the deductive reasoning employed in solving them, but rather in the inimitable characters of Holmes and Watson themselves. Though most of Holmes’s adventures were written in the form of short stories, it is in the longer form of the novel that Conan Doyle really excels, as it gives him the opportunity to explore these exceptional characters further. The Sign of the Four is a classic work of detective fiction and a must-read for any Holmes fan.

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Riding the Rap by Elmore Leonard

An inferior sequel to Pronto
Originally published in 1995, Riding the Rap is the sequel to Elmore Leonard’s 1993 novel Pronto. Both books feature Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, the character who now stars in the television series Justified. This second installment picks up where Pronto left off, and Harry Arno is in trouble again. Looking to finally retire for good, Harry the bookie sets out to collect all the outstanding debts from his clients. When he goes missing, his ex-girlfriend Joyce worries that foul play might be involved, so she asks her new boyfriend Raylan to look into it.

Pronto was very much a character driven novel. Leonard introduced us to a crop of intriguing personalities, complete with complex pasts. In Riding the Rap, the characters are already established, and Leonard does little to develop them further. They are merely chess pieces arranged in an intricate cat and mouse game. Little is revealed about Raylan, Joyce, or Harry that we didn’t already learn from the first book. In fact, Raylan’s story tends to take a back seat to the interaction between the brutal yet bumbling criminals. The bad guys in this book are nowhere near as interesting as the mobsters in Pronto. Only one new character, Reverend Dawn the psychic, stands out as a compelling new addition to the cast. Despite all the twists and turns in the plot, there are few surprises, as Raylan spends the entire book working to find out things that Leonard has already revealed to the reader.

Despite my complaints, Leonard is an entertaining writer. His snappy prose is an effortless joy to read. Like a yummy bag of junk food, once you pick up the book it’s difficult to put it down. Upon completion, however, you may scratch your head and ask, “Is that it?” Riding the Rap is a better than average crime thriller, but should by no means be considered a must-read by fans of Justified or other Leonard enthusiasts.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Swords from the West by Harold Lamb

Familiarity breeds contempt
Adventure was considered the most prestigious pulp magazine in America. . . . And the very best author in Adventure was Harold Lamb.” So proclaims the introduction by Robert Weinberg. This volume collects 17 of Lamb’s historical adventure tales, originally published from 1921 to 1953 in Adventure and other pulp fiction periodicals. Most of these stories feature a crusader as protagonist, yet for the most part they’re not typical tales of the Crusades. Often they feature a former crusader, or descendant of crusaders, now a resident of the Holy Land, who wanders farther afield and gets mixed up in a fracas with some eastern empire, such as the Persians, Tatars, or the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Other conflicts are also represented, including the Roman Empire vs. Attila and the Huns in “Secret of Victory,” England vs. France in “Lionheart,” Teutonic Knights vs. Poles in “Knights with Wings,” and the German Empire vs. the Swiss in “The Bells of the Mountains.” There’s even a mystery story set in India (“The Village of the Ghost”) in which a British officer goes up against a local gang of thugs. No matter the time or place, Lamb unfailingly gives careful attention to historic detail and loads his stories with generous helpings of local color.

While I love classic adventure fiction and had previously enjoyed the Swords from the Desert volume in this series, after now having read almost 1,000 pages of Lamb’s work I’m beginning to think I like the idea of a writer like Harold Lamb more than I like his actual writing. Although there’s nothing wrong with these stories, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about them either. Rarely do they inspire any profoundly memorable moments, genuine surprise, or edge-of-your-seat excitement. After reading several of Lamb’s stories, one begins to discern the same patterns repeated over and over. This redundancy, coupled with the mammoth size of this volume, makes the whole of the book inferior to the sum of its parts. Though the centuries, empires, and races may vary, the hero always resembles Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in chain mail. No matter how far east this voyager may venture, the damsel in distress almost invariably possesses fair skin and “red-gold” hair. The wandering swordsman will sign on as bodyguard to some merchant or diplomat traveling to the exotic East. After trudging across endless deserts they come to a spooky mountain pass that represents the point of no return. The hero soon discovers the master he serves has set him up for a fall, and he ultimately ends up a third party participant in a battle between two powerful empires. Victory is followed by rich rewards of booty (in both senses of the word). Half of the book is taken up by two long novellas, “The Grand Cham,” and “The Making of the Morning Star,” which more or less follow this format, although the former is unique in that it thankfully dispenses with the obligatory maiden. Lamb is exceptionally skilled at depicting sword fights or battle scenes, but his characters often resemble cardboard cutouts and he never, ever, finishes a story with a surprise ending.

Swords from the West does have its entertainment value, but after having devoted an inordinate amount of time to this collection of stories, I can’t help thinking that effort would have been more rewardingly spent on the works of Alexandre Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo, or Henryk Sienkiewicz, the very writers Lamb strove to emulate.

Stories in this collection
The Red Cock Crows 
The Golden Horde 
The Long Sword 
Keeper of the Gate 
The Tower of Ravens 
The Grand Cham 
The Black Road 
Knights with Wings 
The Making of the Morning Star 
The Bells of the Mountains 
The Faring Forth 
Secret of Victory 
The Village of the Ghost 
The Iron Man Rides 
Doom Rides In 

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