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Genre: historical fiction

In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

InAnotherLifeWhat happens when love lingers long after death?  This is what Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life, which is a genre-bending tale set in the Languedoc region of southern France that explores the many varieties of love that we encounter during our lives.  Johnson combines a contemporary love story with a dramatic retelling of one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the 14th century Catholic Church launched the Albigensian Crusade to wipe out the Cathars.  Never heard of the Cathars?  Neither had I, which was a fascinating aspect of the novel.

The Languedoc region was the home of the Cathar faith, a medieval gnostic Christian sect that incorporated reincarnation into Christian doctrine.  Johnson centers the medieval events of the novel on the assassination of of the Archdeacon Pierre de Castelnau, a 13th century ecclesiastic whose death launched the crusade.  But those are just the facts that we’re handed down from history.  Johnson guides us through the last years of the Cather resistance by introducing us to Lia Carrer, a modern day graduate student who is writing her doctoral thesis on the Cathar faith.

Newly widowed, Lia Carrier returns to the Languedoc, where her closest friend, Rose, has settled as the wife of a successful wine maker.  Wounded and still grieving the seemingly accidental death of her husband Gabriel, Lia moves into Rose’s guest house and returns to work on her doctoral thesis.

On her first night in France, Lia is startled by the sight of a man at her window, who disappears by the next flash of lightning.  He’s quickly replaced by a Bonelli’s eagle, a bird so rare as to be facing extinction.  It happens so fast that Lia isn’t entirely certain what she’s seen.

She backed away from the glass with a curse of surprise but stopped as something white flashed just beyond the window. In the space between heartbeats, she saw the face of a man. Moonlight revealed fierce dark eyes and the etched planes of cheekbones. A seeping black streak marred the left side of his face, running from his temple down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. The palm of a hand came into view, reaching toward her. Her own hands flew up and smacked the glass as adrenaline, warm and electric, seared the weariness from her bones.

It should not — and does not — surprise the reader when Lia recognizes that face at her window as Rose’s new neighbor Raoul d’Aran, who has quite a few secrets of his own.  Woven into the events unfolding in the 21st century are scenes from the 13th, where we learn of Raoul’s history as a winemaker, husband, father and leader of the last Cathar rebellion.  As the plot quickly moves forward, Lia begins to see, impossibly, how the deaths of her husband and of the 13th century Archdeacon might just be intertwined.

Although the intrigues of medieval Church history might seem like a hard sell for a modern audience, Johnson brings enough of the personal into the 13th century events to make them relevant and alive.  It is, above all, love that moves the story forward and a shared grief that draws Lia to Raoul.

A gust of cold air pulled at her hair like the fingers of a ghost, tossing it across her face. Lia tucked the loose strands into her coat collar. “Your wife’s name was Paloma,” she said. Raoul winced, as though the sound of her name caused him physical pain. “What were your children’s names?”
“Bertran was my son,” he replied. “Aicelina was my daughter.”
His simple declaration broke her heart. There is no other way to say your loved ones are gone but was and were. “Those are old Occitan names.”
“My wife was from Languedoc, like your family.”
“Do you have family in Languedoc still?”
“No. There’s no one left.” His answer was a door clicking shut. Quiet, but final.

One of the best qualities of the novel is Johnson’s love of France, which comes through in the vividly depicted setting.  Drawing on her background as a wine buyer and frequent traveller, Johnson fills the novel with delightful sensory details that take the reader away.  Why not indulge in some of the delights of French wine country?

Lia walked into the covered pavilion of the marché. Fish caught before dawn released aromas of the sea that mingled with the scent of vanilla-sweet crepe batter on a hot griddle and the sultry whiff of cumin and cardamom as spice merchants opened their bags. A tiny patisserie stood tucked between the long, refrigerated cases of a cheese-monger and a vendor of cured meats. The shop specialized in the pastries of Catalunya, the territory just across the Spanish border that shared so much of Languedoc’s history and culture, and Lia made her last purchases there.

Delicious.  Don’t you want to go to France?  Isn’t this why we read?

Johnson’s writing is rich and the story line interesting and adventurous, filled with just enough of the mysticism between past and present to keep the pages turning.  Lia’s love and appreciation of the finer things in life are a delightful escape from the humdrum, but the real reward of the novel is discovering how the Cathar story really ends.  In Another Life brings a relatively unknown period of history to life by filling it with memorable characters and a love of the Languedoc region that will make you want to book a flight immediately.

  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • Publish Date: February 2, 2016
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • ISBN: 1492625205
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary, fiction, historical fiction, women's fiction
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The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti


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The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti, is my running favorite out of all the books I’ve read this year.  It is the sort of adventure that picks the reader up, introduces her to a broad spectrum of memorable characters, then races towards a creative and surprising conclusion.  Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals and asked to do things that repeatedly test the morality of his religious upbringing.  As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies.  Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you?  It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?

When the novel opens, Ren introduces us to the harsh world of the monastery that serves as his home.  Although he has no parents, he has found some love in his friendships with the unlucky twins Brom and Ichy and with his relationships with the priests who raise the boys at the orphanage.  Still, he longs for a family, as well as the answer to the questions of his origins.  And, perhaps most curious at all, how did he lose his hand?

When Benjamin Nab arrives at St. Anthony’s and adopts him as his long-lost brother, Ren thinks he’s going to finally have some answers to his questions.  But it quickly becomes apparent that Benjamin is a talented liar and shyster, who is dedicated to teaching Ren how to survive, at any cost.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Benjamin.  “I’ve never been to India.”  He bunched one of the blankets behind his head.  “You better get some rest.  We’ve got to be up in an hour or two.”

The boy took a step back.  “But you said–“he began.

“I know what I said.  Didn’t you listen?  What did I tell you before we went inside?”

“You told me not to say anything.”

“And what else?”

“To learn.”

“We needed a place to sleep.  And now we have it.  I told them what they wanted to hear so they’d give it to us.  It’s as simple as that.”

Charming and quick-witted, Benjamin shows Ren how easily people are manipulated, but also the cost that comes from doing so.  Benjamin, Ren and their partner Tom make their way to North Umbrage, where they become involved in stealing bodies for a local doctor — a vastly more profitable enterprise than the petty thievery that they’d been surviving on.  They rent rooms from a Mrs. Sands, a youthful widow with a hearing problem, who quickly steps as the mother that Ren longed for.  But her world is just as mystical as the other adults in Ren’s life, and her house is filled with mousetrap girls, a mysterious nightly visitor and stories of a drowned boy that give Ren more questions than answers.  When the hired thugs of the local robber baron discover their nocturnal activities, Ren and his friends finally face very real consequences for their crimes — and Ren discovers that getting what you’ve wished for is not always what you need.

The frogs were out.  Earlier it had rained, and now as the wagon passed the marshes in the dark, there was a chorus of syncopated croaking.  Benjamin sat in the driver’s seat, a lantern balanced on the floor.  Tom was beside him and Dolly and the boys were in the back, clinging to the sides as they bounced over holes in the rocky path.  The horse strained through the night against the weight of them all.  Every half-mile she stopped, as if she had given up completely.  Benjamin flicked the whip, and the mare trudged on.

“Where are we going?” Ichy whispered.

Ren glanced at Benjamin and Tom, their shoulders hunched together in the darkness.  “Fishing,” he said.

It is this sense of the mystical crossed with the mundane ordinariness of day-to-day life that makes Tinti’s storytelling so enjoyable.  She captures the setting well, using the picturesque backgrounds of early rural New England to create a world where her outlandish characters seem right at home.  Ren’s earnestness is delightful, as he comes to love the scoundrels that he’s fallen in with as the family that he never had.   Equal parts coming-of-age story and adventure novel, The Good Thief is a book that is hard to put down.

  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • Publish Date: August 26, 2008
  • Hardcover: 327 pages
  • ISBN: 0385337450
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: adventure, fiction, historical fiction
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The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver


the-poisonwood-bibleAs I have been watching the news unfold over the last few months, I have been reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which is a novel that I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since I read it. It seems that every week or two has brought a new story of black men being killed by police officers under questionable circumstances. Over and over again we’re hearing a narrative that we’ve long known to be true — that to be a young black man in this country is a particularly dangerous business.

The unfair treatment of black men by police has been a social problem that I have known about my entire life.  Likewise, the main subject of The Poisonwood Bible — the disastrous effect of colonialism in Africa — is another narrative that we’ve all heard over and over. As with our national narrative, we have heard the problem described so many times that any real change seems like a hopeless dream. Kingsolver, in writing a novel about the Congolese, has contributed in the way that writers do — she’s written a compelling story to give human faces and names to big social problems. She gives us the who and also the why, taking the abstract ideas of colonization, unimaginable poverty and political corruption and turned it into a story about these specific people in the Congo. She shows us faces and makes us care about her characters, while forcing us to examine the ideas we were taught about Africa as schoolchildren.

Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.

When the Prices arrive in the poor village of Kilaga, they are immediately thrown into culture shock. When they emerge from the plane from Georgia, Leah tells us that:

We stood blinking for a moment, staring out through the dust at a hundred dark villagers, slender and silent, swaying faintly like trees.  We’d left Georgia at the height of a peach-blossom summer and now stood in a bewildering dry, red fog that seemed like no particular season you could put your finger on.  In all our layers of clothing we must have resembled a family of Eskimos plopped down in a jungle.

The material sacrifices that the Prices have made to move to the Congo pale in comparison with their neighbors. When the Prices packed to leave, they were flummoxed by the weight limit of what they were allowed to bring on the plane, trying to fit all of the clothes and tools that they’ll need for the year into fifty-four pounds of luggage and whatever they can wear. The Congolese, on the other hand, have so little that the elderly of the village watch a hair dressing party

working their gums, dressed in clothes exactly the same color as their skin, from all the many ground-in years of wash and wear.  From a distance you can’t tell they have anything on at all, but just the faintest shadow of snow-white hair as if Jack Frost lightly touched down on their heads.  They look as old as the world.  Any colorful thing they might hold in their hands, like a plastic bucket, stands out strangely.

It quickly becomes clear that the native Congolese were given a deck of playing cards with all the diamonds stolen, while the Europeans are given another, more complete, set. When the Belgians release their hold on the Congo, the Europeans and Americans that the Prices have met flee, with as much of their stolen wealth as they can carry out.

And yet, while the economic situation of the Congolese could easily make the novel relentless in its depictions of the harm the Europeans and Americans have done, Kingsolver makes the political personal by involving us in the familial struggles of the Price family. Burdened with a mean and authoritarian father, whose religious zealotry isolates him from everyone around him, the Price girls must navigate their childhood carefully. It is a complex family relationship, where the girls compete against one another to try and find their father’s love, while also learning to survive in a foreign world. When Kingsolver stages the trials of adolescence against the missionary background and combines it with dysfunctional family dynamics, she creates a page-turning narrative that lingers with the reader for a long time after the final page is turned. Leah tells us that

our whole family was at odds, it seemed: Mother against Father, Rachel against both of them, Adah against the world, Ruth May pulling helplessly at anyone who came near, and me trying my best to stay on Father’s side.  We were tangled in such knots of resentment we hardly understood them.

Kingsolver writes powerfully and beautifully, bringing difficult social and family issues to life through her narration.  We get a sense of the beauty and promise of the Congolese, while not descending into a simplistic portrait of good versus bad, black versus white. Through their burgeoning relationships with their neighbors, the Price children discover beauty and absurdity within the world around them and within their own family. What at first seems bizarre and strange becomes comprehensible and natural as they learn the social context around the unfamiliar behavior of the Congolese. As their year in the Congo extends, it is American norms that begin to seem strange. When Patrice Lumumba comes to power, Leah Price stands in the crowd and dreams as a Congolese.

Nothing will take away the suffering of the thousands of black men that have wrongly become victims to the prejudice of our penal and legal system. Likewise, we can’t undo the actions of our government that have contributed to the political instability of the Congo. In both cases, we see the same theme — a status quo that works hard to keep itself, at the cost of fairness and justice.

Kingsolver, writing in 1998, asks a very similar question in The Poisonwood Bible to the questions we see being asked today about our legal system.  Will there ever be justice for the crimes committed by the Europeans and the Americans in the Congo? Can corruption be removed when it comes from the top? Can we escape the ideas of our past to create a fair tomorrow?

With over half of its wealth still being exported, continuing civil war and record-setting levels of poverty among its people, it seems that the majority of the Congolese are still waiting to find out.

More on the Congo:

Amy Ernst

  • Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • Publish Date: July 5, 2005
  • Hardcover: 546 pages
  • ISBN: 0060786507
  • Language: English
  • Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre: fiction, historical fiction
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Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier


Gwape_first_editionThis was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.

Chevalier’s characterization of Griet as an outsider looking in is quite brilliant. Griet is filled with apprehension as she realizes that she must leave her home to live among Catholics but she is also interested in the possibilities of living in an upper class household, even as a servant. These differences of class and religion give Griet an insight into the world of the Vermeers that pulls the reader right into their household and gives an idea of the larger conflicts of 17th century Dutch society.

But again it was the paintings that struck me.  More hung in this room than anywhere else.  I counted to nineteen silently.  Most were portraits–they appeared to be members of both families  There was also a painting of the Virgin Mary, and one of the three worshipping the Christ Child. I gazed at both uneasily.

The beauty of Chevalier’s writing lies in small details and a simple narrative style that fits  naturally into the mouth of a teenaged maid, while teasing the reader’s senses with lush descriptions.

I took up my candle, found the mirror in the storeroom and climbed to the attic.  I propped the mirror against the wall on the grinding table and set the candle next to it.  I got out my needlecase and, choosing the thinnest needle, set the tip in the flame of the candle.  Then I opened the bottle of clove oil, expecting it to smell foul, of mould or rotting leaves, as remedies often do.  Instead it was sweet and strange, like honeycakes left out in the sun.  It was from far away, from places Frans might get to on his ships.

Picked for the job as a maid in the Vermeer household partially because of her father’s professional associations, but also because of her artistic eye, Griet quickly becomes fascinated by Vermeer’s work. It isn’t long before Vermeer recognizes her talent and asks her to assist him in mixing paints.  As she spends more time with him, developing talents that would be unexpressed in any other household, Griet begins to develop a devotion for Vermeer that threatens her position in the household.

Although the daily world of the Vermeer household is filled with many small conflicts and jealousies, the pace of the novel picks up when Griet is exposed to Vermeer’s patron, de Reis, who serves as the villain of the novel. A rich man, he clearly believes that serving girls are one of the many luxuries that his wealth brings to him. When he discovers Griet’s captivating wide eyes, he becomes obsessed with having her sit in a painting with him. As the Vermeer household scheme to protect her without offending the patron that pays their monthly bills, her own family begins pushing her towards a young butcher that has his eye on her. Torn between heart and head, Griet must figure out how to appease her employers, her family and her own heart and mind.

Chevalier brings us on a coming-of-age journey that rings true, as Griet enters her adulthood in a complex but captivating world.  This is a novel that I come back to again and again for its complex simplicity and honest prose, as well as the immersion into an exotic and fascinating world.

Published: 1999 by Dutton, 256 pg.


Genre: fiction, historical fiction
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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf_Hall_cover“This morning Anne wears a crucifix on a gold chain. Sometimes her fingers pull at it impatiently, and then she tucks her hands back in her sleeves. It is so much a habit with her that people say she has something to hide, a deformity; but he thinks she is a woman doesn’t like to show her hand.”

The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.

Mantel tells us this story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of the sharpest minds around Henry.  He begins as a servant of Cardinal Wosley, who is the first to fall from power for not giving Henry and Anne a papal annulment for Henry’s first marriage.  Yet,  miraculously, as Wosley falls, Cromwell rises.  As the son of a brewer, his political success seems nearly impossible.  He is surrounded by aristocrats with titles going back a thousand years, but Cromwell rises on his merit.  A polyglot, lawyer and rich wool merchant, we watch Cromwell use his diplomatic skills to rise to become the right hand of the king.

There is a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand.  You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

Cromwell is a remarkable and powerful character. The brilliance of Wolf Hall is Mantel’s ability to slip inside a powerful brain and portray it convincingly. We are blinded by Cromwell’s quick thinking and cunning.  He has the ability to be ruthless, but we see that he is not ruthless by nature — while, like his King, he enjoys a good adversary, we see his compassion, even to those who would not do him the same kindness.  One of the long-running adversarial relationships in the novel is Cromwell and Thomas More, Henry VIII’s former tutor and Lord Chancellor. Mantel’s portrayal of More is not kind, but it is honest. We watch More’s rise and fall, knowing that Cromwell will follow. Perhaps it is this knowledge of his own fate that drives Cromwell to extraordinary lengths to try to save More from himself, but it also makes us love Cromwell for his adherence to his humanist principles.

Henry takes off his embroidered cap, throws it down, runs his hands through his hair.  Like Wyatt’s golden mane, his hair is thinning, and it exposes the shape of his massive skull.  For a moment he seems like a carved statue, like a simpler form of himself, or one of his own ancestors; one of the race of giants that roamed Britain, and left no trace of themselves except in the dreams of their petty descendants.

Portraying well-known figures such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn presents a special  challenge for any writer — feelings run high about them.  It would be easy to villainize Henry, who casts off his first wife, beheads two more and sends yet another to a nunnery. Or, perhaps, to look at and judge him for the religious mayhem that he caused, which sent both Protestants and Catholics to the stake.  Although often credited with bringing Protestantism to England because of his break with the authority of the Pope, Henry was a Catholic conservative who blocked the religious reformation that figures close to him, like Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, risked their lives for.  Mantel holds him to account for these moral crimes, but she also shows us a king that is often generous, passionate and fair.  Cromwell respects him, as one fox might respect another. We find ourselves wondering if maybe there’s something more to this wife-slaying autocrat that our grade school history textbooks led us to believe.

Likewise, Mantel removes the romanticism of Anne Boleyn, giving us a fascinating portrait of the woman who played such a pivotal role in English history. Anne is not beautiful, but she is sharp and vicious, with an understanding of the game being played that Cromwell can’t help but respect.  Like Cromwell, the Boleyns are courtiers without a pedigree, but Anne’s relationship with Henry raises her from being the niece of the Howards to a Marquess in her own right and then, briefly, a Queen. Anne has not yet fallen from power by the end of Wolf Hall, but the writing is on the wall. Her crime is the same as Wolsley’s — she failed to give the king what he wanted most, so she is sacrificed as well.  Cromwell leads us through it, pointing us at Henry’s next moves before Henry knows them himself.

Often darkly funny, dry and witty, Mantel’s telling of Henry VIII’s court is well worth the read. She brings the story to life, while entertaining us with an invitation to step into the shoes of brilliant and extraordinary man.  We grieve with him and celebrate with him and wonder, at the end of this 650 page journey, why the book has come to an end.  Luckily for us, Wolf Hall is just the first in a trilogy and the second novel, Bring Up the Bodies, came out in 2012.

 


Genre: historical fiction
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The Paris Wife by Paula McLean


The-Paris-WifeOne of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage. We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.

There are times, particularly in the beginning of the novel, when McLain’s storytelling becomes more biography than fiction and the narrative loses itself in a collecting of facts. This is always a danger when an author takes on such a well-known topic — the facts must be accounted for, in a way that doesn’t contradict what the reader already knows. We meet many of the emerging American writers of the day; Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound. We meet their families, their lovers. We come to understand how they worked together to form a young artist, who still had much to prove. Hadley, by being his first wife, witnessed as the world came to know her Ernest, and her point of view brings us along on the journey of Hemingway’s artistic development.

I wanted very much to not like Ernest Hemingway. It is easy and natural for me to sympathize with Hadley Richardson, who supported Hemingway for years before he sold enough of his writing to support himself. Yet McLain charms us with a young Hemingway, who is enthusiastic, romantic and intense. As his peers are urging independence and freedom, Hemingway explains to Hadley that he needs her to steady him. We see, as he fights with his night terrors from his war injuries, that he clearly does. When we learn the similarities in their families, the domineering mothers and their fathers, both lost to suicide, we can understand how two young people from thousands of miles away from each other, before an age of email, text and telephone, were so inevitably drawn together. We can feel the strength of their love.

And then, as we follow them through the five years of their marriage, I found myself identifying with what it is like to be newly married, to compromise with your new life where you must now always consider the desires of someone else. And then, as we follow the Hemingways to Paris and Pamplona, we see the effects of fame and success on them, as Ernest Hemingway graduates from the advice of his mentors and becomes a successful artist in his own right, his success eclipsing theirs with the very novel that he is revising as his first marriage dissolves.

The Paris Wife is a must-read for Hemingway fans, because it is true and honest. Although we can never truly know — and maybe we shouldn’t know — what happened between Hadley Richardson and Ernest Hemingway, McLain paints a picture so vivid that it’s easy to forget that we don’t.


Genre: historical fiction
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