“Soon I Will be Invincible” by Austin Grossman (Week 10 – Book a Week)

The chapter titles and dialogue in “Soon I Will be Invincible” hit all the oldest and most beloved superhero clichés: “I will get you next time” or “We meet again.” Austin Grossman knows and loves the comic book world. He runs through its tropes, plot contrivances and double-crosses with all the majesty of a caped hero flying through the night sky. But what makes the story transcend, isn’t its note-for-note re-creation of comic book worlds with their Batman-type vigilantes and Thor’s Hammer power objects, it’s the world that goes on within the characters.

Much of “Soon I Will be Invincible” takes place in the heads of two characters, The Super Villain/Mad Genius who inspires the title, and an up-and-coming second tier superhero/vigilante cyborg. The villain, Dr. Impossible, has all the ambition, wacky weapons, and dastardly plans of a Dr. Doom or a Lex Luthor.  He also has an inferiority complex. To him the hero/villain clashes echo old popular kids vs. nerds feuds from school days.  People brave or weird enough to try unconventional acts are always cast out by society. In Impossible’s world, evil and genius just go together. Heroes are more likely to be good at gym than at science.

By putting the reader under the helmet of a super villain, Grossman exposes us to specific details of the interior life of an archetypal character. He gets laughs out of the character, not just because Dr. Impossible says, plans and does ridiculous things, (because, of course, he does them), but because we know why he’s doing it. We don’t want Impossible to take over the world, but we don’t want him to get hurt either. Sure he’s a deranged criminal mastermind but he’s also ambitious, and funny – it’s hard not to like him.

Our window into the hero’s world comes when an insecure cyborg with a shady past joins the preeminent super hero team. She is a half-woman half-robot struggling to make her way in a group of more established heroes with their own interests and goals, some of which involve saving the world, some of which involve getting even with stepmoms or showing up more super-powered beings.

The book is full of unexpected guffaws: “In later years we drifted apart, you can’t just take the same hostage every time.” But its most impressive feat is how much it makes us care about these ridiculous characters. Sure, they are endeavoring to save or destroy the world  but really we care about these people. We care about the slights, love triangles and Hammers of Ra because we care about the people involved.

The heroes resemble a clique. Sure, they smash super villains with mighty blows and go on patrol but they spend just as much time bickering and hooking up. The superheroes get to be popular. Sponsors, governments and corporations want use their images and influence.

The story speeds along toward the inevitable conflict between these two main characters,with the cyborg trying to fit in and to figure out Dr. Impossible’s evil plan. Dr. Impossible, meanwhile, gathers the necessary objects for his super machine.  Mysteries and fights keep the story crackling along. The story flashes back and tells character origins galore. The jumps in time can confuse but the background serves to enrich each of the characters.

Every superhero needs a good origin story.

“The Sigh” by Marjane Satrapi (Week 9 – Book a Week)

Marjane Satrapi is best known for her autobiographical graphic novel work, “Persepolis,” which was later made into a film. Her latest project, “The Sigh,”  goes in a new direction: Rather than stories from Satrapi’s life, “The Sigh” is a fairy tale about a woman in a fantastical world who’s trying to save her lost love. It’s told as an illustrated story rather than a work of sequential art.

The eponymous sigh, which begins the story, summons a magical creature, Ah the Sigh, from the Kingdom of Sighs. Rose, a merchant’s daughter, follows this creature back to its realm where she meets and soon loses a prince.

The story builds in traditional fairytale style with one important difference. Instead of allowing herself to be held hostage by her strange world, Rose becomes an adventurer who moves the story forward. Unlike Rapunzel or Cinderella, she’s not a damsel in distress waiting for a man to save her. Instead, Rose sets out to rescue her prince and ends up helping a number of families by saving their sons and husbands from various magical predicaments along the way.

The story reads quickly, with frequent pictures keeping the magical world present. The simple evocative backgrounds from Satrapi’s previous works are largely gone here. Because the book has prose passages, the illustrations no longer do as much of the storytelling. Instead, they show the emotions and reactions of the characters.

Though the art style will be familiar to people who have read “Persepolis,” rough coloring helps to highlight the fantastical material and whimsical subjects and to emphasize the contrast between Rose’s home world and the magical one she is brought to by the sigh.

“The Sigh” is an all-ages book but it would be perfect for an intelligent nine-year-old. Adult comic readers and fans of Satrapi’s other work may find the story too light. It’s a charming adventure, enjoyable as long as you go in knowing you’re getting a snack, not a meal.

 

This review was originally published by NewCity and is also available on their website.

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (Week 8 – Book a Week): A Good Place to Start

Generally, Murakami is easy to read.  That doesn’t mean the works careen through a jumble of cliffhangers rushing toward an unearned payoff.  His characters are soulful thinking people* who consider the world around them.  But they don’t spend an entire book sitting around considering.  That’s what makes the books easy to read, they move.  They include action and conflict.  The magical worlds in Murakami’s writing are not static museums for characters to explain; they are dynamic, mysterious places that are full of cats for some reason.

Murakami has written a lot of books, and the critics all have their favorites.  The ones at the top of the list tend to weigh in somewhere around 600 pages.  The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite because of a story about the Rape of Nanjing and a  frightening scene in an unholy waiting room.  Some prefer Kafka on the Shore, another heavyweight. This book tells a story about memory, nostalgia, and lust.  I have yet to read 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, but the reviews have been very strong.  All that said, I don’t think any of these books offers a great place to start.

Reading a book isn’t like watching a show or listening to music; it is necessarily active.  Other media offer the possibility of full engagement, but not the necessity**.  So, if you engage with an author for the first time, I think the most accessible work is a good place to start.  Shorter works are often the easiest to digest because they don’t have enough time to become convoluted and the reveals can’t be held back as long.  With that in mind, I would suggest starting with the novella After Dark.

The story takes place after most of Tokyo has decided to either go home or stay out all night.  In a city that many people travel to for work and study, the hour when the trains stop running is an important concern.  Tokyo’s downtown world isn’t a community where people live; it’s a center for labor.  Love hotels, bars, and chain restaurants become weigh stations for people who find themselves stuck downtown after the traditional working day is done.

These downtown people are far away from the many places they actually live in order to do something that they can’t do in normal society.  Their band wants to play loud, they are running from someone, or they are taking prostitutes to the little hotels made specifically for that purpose.  Some of them want to sneak outside of traditional society, and some have been forced out.

It’s easy to slide into the world of After Dark.  Maybe it’s natural for people stuck in a daytime world to seek transgression or relief from that world, but where they end up is not a soft, easy or necessarily happy place.  The things that happen there can be violent or invasive, and as the story goes on, the reader becomes implicated in the illicit deeds that occur.  Desires go unfulfilled, crooks don’t all get caught, and the reader is called out for watching.  But eventually, day breaks.  The book ends quickly, but the ideas remain, floating in the reader’s mind.  Like a strange night that you keep thinking about long after it’s over.

 

 

 

*Except for the occasional soulless demon.

**Video-gamers may wish to make an argument here, but it’s just not a medium I know enough about to talk about.

 

 

 


“Machine Man” Interview with Max Barry and his Serial/Novel (Week 7 – Book a Week)

Australian author Max Barry recently published the science fiction thriller/dark comedy “Machine Man.” The novel is the second incarnation of a story he originally published online as a serial, one page at a time. Rather than a reprint of the online content, the novel “Machine Man,” is a distillation of Barry’s original idea: a future in which corporations turn people’s bodies into a product, a weapon or worse. The movie rights for the book have already been purchased, with Darren Aronofsky signed on to direct it. Max Barry recently talked to us about writing a serial, his Skype tour and the changing landscape of publishing.

How did writing in serial, on the Internet, affect your process—and your end product? 
The readers really helped me keep track of how the story looked to someone who’s not writing it. That is a difficult thing to keep hold of when you’re writing a novel. You tend to veer off into your own world. When you’re halfway through you can forget why you started and what story you mean to tell. You keep veering off in strange directions. [Writing in serial] was a really good way to keep me grounded. The story didn’t veer off into ridiculousness, which happens sometimes with my first drafts.

What kicked the whole thing off was that I’ve never been really satisfied reading fiction online. I found the Internet to be a really distracting medium. I can’t give myself over to a complete chapter to read. The idea was to write a serial where each page would be very short, something that people could just read for a couple minutes and then get back to what they were doing. It would be in their inbox and it would be just a distraction, competing with all the other distractions.

Various people have tried with varying degrees of success to try and do Twitter stories. I felt like each of those were interesting in their own way, but I thought something on Twitter was too short for me to do something interesting. And a chapter was too long. So I thought I could do something in between a couple hundred and six hundred words. They would vary. Some days I would give pages that were just a single sentence. Being able to control the passing of the story like that is something that I just can’t do with a normal novel.

I started doing it five days a week. I had to figure out and then respect the strengths and weaknesses of the medium. For example, each page I had to start with some sort of subtle reminder of where we were in the story. I had to make the thing fairly self-contained, without too many references—to make the thing satisfying in its own right. And, ideally, I had to leave the reader on some sort of cliffhanger or looking forward to the next page. So it’s a series of cliffhangers: 185 cliffhangers.

Did producing a cliffhanger every day end up being useful for your final product of the novel that you published in print? Did it fuel you in creating cliff hangers you wouldn’t otherwise have come to, or did it lead to a lot of ridiculous things that hit the cutting room floor?
It was a bit of both. I pulled out all the stops so if I had a way-out-there idea I would run with it. See how it went. When it came time to distill this thing down to a novel I had all this material to choose from. But the problem was when I actually read the serial straight through, start to finish, it didn’t work as a novel at all. Because of all this cliffhanging, you couldn’t go two minutes without a cliffhanger knocking you out of the story. It felt incredibly stop-start, and I had to do a lot of work to retell the story as something that you could sit down and tear into for a few hours. I had to do a lot of rewriting to fit the format of a novel.

The serial is about 50,000 words and the novel is about 85,000 words. It’s the same core story. I feel like if you described the serial in three sentences it would sound exactly like the novel, whereas if you actually picked out a part of them they are quite different.

What was it like putting a piece of writing out there every day and getting instantaneous feedback on it?
The actual writing part was not too dissimilar from what I normally do, because it’s me sitting at my computer writing a few hundred words every day. But posting one page of this thing on my website each day and then having people read it straight away… They were reading a first draft ostensibly and then posting their comments that I would read. That would guide the story. That was completely different to how I’ve operated before. I don’t think it’s something that I could have handled if I was any earlier in my career. It’s quite intimidating writing with someone reading over your shoulder.

It was on my website, so I hoped for kind of a positive bias—if you sign up for maxbarry.com presumably you like what I write. I didn’t get that negative feedback that made me curl up in a ball, and be unable to write any further. The readers really helped keep me motivated and keep me going on with the story. People suggested all kinds of ideas, some of which I used, some of which I didn’t.

There was pushback. At first, the publisher offered me a contract that said I would have to take the serial off the Internet. I felt that was self-destructive. First of all, I didn’t want this serial to disappear from the net. I felt it was an end product in its own right. It was similar to the novel but it was not the same story. But also in terms of marketing I didn’t think it made sense. They can read the book and the serial or just the serial if they want. But it’s all just helpful. People can find and choose the content they like. We convinced the publisher to allow us to keep that material up as long as we made it clear that the serial is different from the novel.

I heard you did a Skype tour.
The publisher wasn’t doing [a traditional book tour]. I thought, “Well, it’s always good to actually get to talk to people. It’s like my one opportunity to actually go and physically meet the people who read my books. It would be insane to miss that altogether.” And I had the idea of doing the Skype thing.

I had been bracing myself for a lot of insane people. The sort of person who really wanted to talk to me. But the people were wonderful. There was not one insane person among them. I had eight or ten minutes to talk to each person. When it’s in line, it is nice to actually sign a book for someone, but they get maybe thirty seconds tops and then that’s it.

Many authors have print books that are now going digital. How is it going the other way?
A lot of reading is moving from print to electronic, and I feel like I’m out in front of that since I have always dealt with an electronic medium. I don’t think that people switching to e-books from print is such a bad thing at all. [In the past,] I don’t think it’s been that easy to find good books. You have to talk to people who share your interests or read newspapers with reviewers you agree with. With the Internet, we have these vast data networks that can actually figure out with a fairly high degree of accuracy which book you’re likely to love next based on what books you’ve liked in the past.

I think the reason that people don’t read more books is they read a few bad ones, or they read a few that don’t engage them, and they give up. They go watch television or movies or browse the Internet. If we’re moving to a model where you can reliably find good stories then that’s going to be fantastic for the industry. I think people fundamentally want to read great books and the only reason they’re not buying more of them is because it’s too hard to find them.

Who are your greatest influences, beyond your commenters? Maybe because I love Vonnegut, I got a Vonnegut vibe.
Yeah, look, Vonnegut is one of my favorite writers as well. That’s not something that I consciously dealt with while I was writing. But I have read a lot of Vonnegut and I would be surprised if that didn’t influence me in some way.

I feel like this was kind of a Philip K. Dick story as well. Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of short stories about people discovering that their physical forms are less important than they think. So that’s very much at the core of this kind of story. And when I was a teenager I read so much Stephen King—now and again little elements of horror pop out.

What’s next?
I would like to do another serial. The idea I have for the next novel jumps in time and involves different characters’ perspectives, so I really need to be able to work on my own for twelve months so I can rearrange pieces. But if I have another idea that fits a serial than I’d love to do another one. It’s been a couple years since I started the serial. So I feel like I’m due for another one.


“American Vampire” by Scott Snyder, Raphael Albuquerque, and Stephen King (Week 6 – Book a Week)

Let’s get the Twilight comparison out of the way first.  No, these vampires don’t sparkle.  They’re smart, what they do isn’t pretty, and the vileness of the act of drinking human blood is out there in the open.  Illustrator Raphael Albuquerque knows how to draw a beautiful woman, a western vista, and a hideous creature of the damned.

It’s telling that “vampire” is the second word in the title of this series, because the story is just as concerned with the United States at the turn of the twentieth century as it is with the mythos of vampires in general.   The first arc takes us through a manhunt in the Old West and ties it to a story from a generation later of two young women trying to make it in the golden age of Hollywood.

Initially, American Vampire got a lot of attention because of Stephen King’s writing in that first arc.  King’s novels, or the worlds explored in his novels, have been made into comics before, but this was his first time writing for comics directly.  The story is split in half, with Scott Snyder writing one part in the story’s present and King writing another part taking place in the story’s past.  The background story that King writes is exciting and is told from the point of view of an author (something he has done in a number of his novels), but in the end it is outdone by the story sharing its issues, written by Snyder.

One of the challenges of writing a comic at the beginning of an ongoing series is that you have to produce something that sets the tone and the world for a larger work, while delivering a satisfying story.  Many great TV shows begin with a pilot that isn’t so great.  American Vampiredoesn’t have that problem, thanks in large part to Albuquerque’s artwork.  A lot of the world building in the story is done visually.  The backgrounds aren’t color swatches, they’re richly illustrated towns and deserts.  Part of the strength of Snyder’s stories comes from his restraint.  He puts fewer words on the page so that the reader can watch the drawn characters act out the drama.

That restraint is also evident in the fact that there is no big information dump.  American Vampire doesn’t need pages of exposition to get started.  It borrows from western and horror genres that the audience knows well.  When it wants to tweak those genres, it doesn’t do so in a ponderous prose passage, it does so in a big reveal.

Trade Paperback Release

The series, which has now reached issue 19, finally released its first trade paperback.  (Comic “trades” are softcover collections of several issues, in this case numbers 1-5.) This may be a move to sell some horror books in connection with Halloween, or maybe they heard about Josh’s Horrorfest.  In any case, I think these collections are a great way to experience the story.  As a reader more accustomed to novels and movies than comic issues, I find this to be a satisfying way to read comics in general and this series in particular.  Folks who would rather be reading the latest books can pick up this month’s collection.  I am currently reading the second hardcover and can say that the series continues to deliver.  The first trade covers two full story arcs and includes the work that Stephen King did on the series, though for my money that story places a strong second behind the one crafted by series creator Scott Snyder.  Before this series started, I was already a King fan, but this book made me a big Snyder and Albuquerque fan, as well.

“Dune Messiah” by Frank Herbert (Week 5 – Book a Week)

Last week, I reviewed The Magician King, fussing and moaning and worrying about sequels.  Dune Messiah embodies the core of those fears.  It’s an unnecessary slog through what happens after all the mammoth problems and conflicts of the previous book have been resolved.

One of the central themes of this space epic is dealing with success.  The main characters in a recently conquered universe worry about what their power has wrought.  They don’t have anything else to conquer or anyone else who can conquer them.  So, the central conflict is mostly in the heads of the characters.  “Should I or shouldn’t I?”  This might be an engaging subject.  I am sure great empires were undone from within, that rulers engage in exciting internal battles, but in this book it makes for a lot of waffling, some abrupt arguments and very little actual action.

This is not to say that a book should only be measured by how much shooting there is.  A lot of the excitement in the first Dune book was in the build-up and the planning.  But in Dune Messiah, the empire is already built.  Characters argue with themselves about visions that are never shared with the audience. It’s not mysterious, it’s boring.

It’s easy to make a connection between a hero who has conquered many worlds and an author who has already written his great work.  The main character, Paul Atreides, worries that his past victories will undo his future.  Dune Messiah is undone by Dune.  That book ended with such totality, there wasn’t a lot of mess left to clean up.

Are there people out there who would love this book?  I am sure they are legion.  It’s got the characters that were so exciting in the first adventure.  It’s got a couple of intriguing additions (Bijaz, the riddling dwarf, in particular).   The world is consistent, there just doesn’t seem to be much left to do in it.  If you would like to go deeper into the world of Dune, I recommend you reread the original.

Not Recommended

Upcoming

Week 6 – Machine Man

Week 7 – The Glass Key

“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman (Week 4 – Book a Week)

American Gods is as good a book as you can hope to read.  It tells a massive story with the scope and gravitas to encompass gods and nations, but it remains so specific that you feel as if your friends are living it.   The locations are real.  Gaiman lovingly describes the Great Lakes states.  Peru, Illinois and The House on the Rock are note-for-note perfect.  He may be just as good on Reykjavik but, as a Midwestern boy, I can speak with more authority on his observations of Wisconsin.

The cast of American Gods mostly contains mythic figures on the brink of a huge conflict, but a few humans find their way into the story through an accident of history.  In a way, it is easier to write a fictionalized version of character who exists already.  They carry a certain cachet and the reader can picture who they are.  But the difficulty in working with characters who exist in the collective conscious is that if the author hits a wrong note it jars the reader.  So when Gaiman introduces Loki, he needs to be the close enough to the Loki of our imagination that we recognize him, but the story needs to be engaging enough that the character doesn’t get lost in its own shadow.  Gaiman does this beautifully.

The novel is an epic.  It builds up a number of stories, starts a number of conflicts and then pays them off beautifully.  The Dude would call this book “a fucking Swiss watch.”

A Note on the Medium

I originally borrowed this book from the library in CD format.   But it was too exciting for me to wait for someone to read it to me.  I wanted to eat through it in big bites.

Recommended

Housekeeping

I had originally said that I would review Machine Man this week and I still plan to do it but I would like to post that review as a companion piece to the interview that I did with the book’s author, Max Barry and I am waiting for the Max Berry article to be published before I write that review.  If you’re waiting on that review then bless you.  You’re an angel.  If you aren’t… Well, I am going to write it anyway

 

Upcoming 

Week 5 – Dune Messiah

Week 6 – Machine Man

“The Magician King” by Lev Grossman (Week 3 – Book a Week)

Sequels

Sequels and fantasy go together like hot dogs and grilled onions.  The fantasy genre, which requires world-building and myths, has room for huge word counts and long volumes.

Still, I carry a small suspicion of sequels in any genre, they make too much sense from a marketing perspective to be motivated primarily from a creative perspective.  I know the world of Middle Earth had more to explore than the world of the Transformers in their recent movie incarnations, but it’s easy to see why editors and movie studios would be hungry to make sequels of both properties.  A successful story has a market built in.

I am happy to admit that I am part of that built-in market for The Magician King.  The Magicians, which precedes this book, is as good as anything I have read in the last year.

Review

Judged on its own merits, The Magician King is an exciting, emotionally affecting story that I zoomed through.  The characters felt real and were given interesting things to do. I cared about everything they did.

Even with those merits, this is an excellent book that falls short of its predecessor. The Magician King is about finding the proper path, so it feels unfair to criticize it for wandering around in the doldrums, or suffering through uncertainty before powering toward a climax.  There is gold in the early adventures, the introduction of a swordsman protector (Biddle) for the hero (Quentin) is particularly engaging but, as the story moved along, I found myself wanting to jump forward into the meat of the adventure.

Another nitpick I have is that Grossman employs an A plot B plot technique — switching perspectives as the story unfolds — and what happened for me (as happens with almost all books using this device) is I found myself more interested in one plot than the other.  I was pushing through the part about the magician’s underground to get back to the present and the adventure happening in the current time-line.  In the end, both stories paid off and tied up beautifully and I probably wouldn’t be complaining about either story if I hadn’t had have to jump between the two.

So give it a B+/A-, 4 ½ out of five stars, or the silver medal.  I loved this book, maybe it is so up my alley that I graded it on a curve but, for me, it was just short of great.  Perhaps the most ringing endorsement I can offer is that If Grossman writes ten more of these books, I would happily read them all.


 

Recommended

 

Schedule

Week 4 – Machine Man

Week 5 – American Gods

Week 6 – Dune Messiah

“The Mission Song” by John LeCarré (Week 2 – Book a Week)

The Performance

I listened to this book on CD’s borrowed from the Lincoln Square’s Sulzer Library and, first, let me highlight the performance of the actor, David Oyelowo.  He doesn’t need my praise to lift his career, Oyelowo has gone on to act in many successful television shows and films.  As far as I can tell, this is his only performance in an audio book, but what a performance.  He is just as believable as a female British newspaper editor as he is as a grizzled Bembe warrior.

There is no stock Pan-African style voice gets trotted out every time an African character speaks. Oyelowo narrates men and women from all over the world and makes every voice distinct and real. African voices are hard to do and they don’t always come off, see Steve Bucsemi’s reading of Pagan Babies.

With The Mission Song, Oyelowo drew as difficult a read as an actor could hope for and doesn’t just pull it off he impresses the whole way.

The Work

The book itself is a spy thriller.  We follow an interpreter hired by a shady, nameless organization to negotiate a shady and nameless deal to start a war in the Congo.

Unlike older spy novels that followed familiar Cold War dynamics, this one deals with the more unfamiliar political situation in the Congo. Though it’s not as easy to grasp, the novelty makes the book feel fresher and more interesting than yet another story about mounting an attack on the Nazis or the Commies.

The political world makes the creepy syndicate that much more creepy, and makes the many cogs in the machine that much more helpless arousing painful empathy for the characters.

I found some of the situations so uncomfortable that I had to switch over to the radio until I had the courage to move on.  For some reason, it is much easier for me to skip a page when I’m reading than to jump to the next track in an audio book.

Politics

It’s a common knock on LeCarré these days that with time his books have become less fun and more political.  I don’t know that I line up on that complaint.  If the author doesn’t have a point of view, what is the point?  I don’t think every book should be as strident as say, The Jungle, but if LeCarré is paying attention to European intervention in Africa I am happy to be filled in.  The political polemics add to the intrigue.

Ultimately, the book satisfies, not as a pamphlet for a cause, but as a story with characters the reader cannot help but care about.

 

Recommended (especially audio version)

 

Schedule

Week 3 – Machine Man

Week 4 – The Magician King

“The Magicians” by Lev Grossman (Week 1 – Book a Week)

The fantasy genre has a small but committed group of superfans.  There are shelves and shelves of stories about magic and elves that no one but the deeply committed fan has ever heard of.  But, the canon has its crossover hits.  The Magicians takes many of those beloved works (particularly Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia) and builds his book on their sacred ground.  But it’s no rehash.

The idea of magic is inherently tied to power.  The idea of young people gifted with the ability to do more than mortal men is a fantasy in its purest sense.  Power is what makes magic so tempting as an idea in fiction.  Doing impossible feats by conjuring unknowable powers is a sexy possibility.  But what happens when there is no menace to turn those powers against?  With no Sauron, what would Gandalf do all day?

The idea of a group of listless recent college students and graduates with superpowers is a scary one.  The book has its share of adventure and derring do. But it’s the frank way that the book looks at sex and death that raises the stakes.  One scene where a female wizard slits the throat of an anthropomorphic ferret stands out as more honest than genre generally allows.   The consequences in this world are real and that makes the wonderland all the more wonderful.

 

Recommended

 

Schedule

Week 2 – The Mission Song By John LeCarré

Week 3 – Machine Man By Max Barry

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