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“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

thingsfallapartBy Marc Murr

This classic novel of African literature is the first in a trilogy that traces the colonization of Africa. Wrapped in rich mythology and delivered in a terse style, it unfolds in three levels of conflict.  The universality of its appeal, however, is in the third, or macro, level – the individual versus society. (The others: individual vs. him/herself; individual vs. other individual). From the treatment – and resolution – of these conflicts, Achebe describes the successful administration of African tribal societies in a pre-colonial world, until the arrival of European religious missionaries and the political forces behind them. Then, “[t]hings [f]all [a]part.”

Okonkwo, though whom the author speaks as the main character, is moody. A warrior, leader, and father, “[he] was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements.” He prevailed over Amalinze the “Cat” to be a champion fighter; he climbed the ranks of authority in his clan; and, he oversaw a family of three wives and children. He might fall into despair or sadness over a death or other misfortune, but Okonkwo is remarkably unconflicted. He has to be, because he’s the author’s mouthpiece and telescope in presenting the tragedy of European colonization of Africa. These moods reflect his humanity, and his actions in executing tribal custom sustain a theme of Africa’s largely peaceful and productive existence before the “White Man” comes.

Okonkwo’s champion strength and status give him much moral authority in his clan. As he climbs the rungs of power and prestige, he does not have to engage much serious competition. At this level, the author uses the lack of conflict between individuals to portray a society that works. It has rules and customs that, when enforced, allow its members to thrive and for the  clan to grow and prosper. The source of authority traces to the Deity, and a corresponding clan of helper gods, who enforce a clear code of conduct through direct interventions, even appearances, in daily tribal life. Things, in a word, work.

Achebe’s theme states that the Colonial forces that invaded Africa corrupted an in place civilization without any moral authority to do so. It is emphatically told from the subject’s perspective, not the conqueror’s, a perspective with which we are ingrained to this day by Western schooling. The conflict of individual vs society, Okonkwo vs his clan, derives directly from the forces being loosed upon him and his clan when white missionaries arrive and attempt to convert his people to their own religion. If they just presented options, Achebe implies, it might be fine. But, the Europeans operating under the authority of the “Queen,” brought a governing apparatus also, a District Commissioner, whose messengers were called by the clan “Ashy Buttocks,” because of their ash-colored shorts. They were the enforcers of an alien system of rules, laws, and religious customs. The Europeans belittled Okonkwo’s religión of “gods [who] are not alive and cannot do you any harm…[t]hey are pieces of wood and stone.” The clan easily exposes the irony of the invaders’ entreaties: forsake your gods and risk punishment. Would not that be the invaders’ destiny also, if they denied their god? Moreover, the Church of England’s head was the monarch herself, not any cleric or deity; and, weren’t her cathedrals and statues and icons also made of wood and stone? Achebe’s insight reveals the invaders’ religious hypocrisy in the light of gentle, piercing questions and metaphors. At heart Achebe demonstrates how remarkably similar the belief systems are, and thus evaporates any semblance of moral superiority.

Okonkwo’s conflict with his Society foreshadows the destiny of Africa. He warns them, “[y]ou do not know what it is to speak with one voice. An abominable religion has settled among you. A man can now leave his father and brothers. He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master.” For this conflict over the path to immortality, Achebe indicts those European forces that instead brought mortality, symbolized by the tragedy of how Okonkwo resolves his own conflict.

This universal theme of subjugation in the name of righteousness hits close to home – remember the horrific treatment of Native Americans in the latter half of the 19th century, wrought by a central government of white European immigrants, led by, among others, none other than William Tecumseh Sherman. And, preaching peace and prosperity, the African colonizers’ ultimate evil plays out through the ploy of a peace conference. The six tribal chiefs attended in good faith, but “were handcuffed and led into the guardroom.” “We shall not do you any harm,” said the District Commissioner, “if only you agree to cooperate with us.” For defending their land, customs, and people, the chiefs were punished, as the Commissioner dictated “[t]hat must not happen in the dominion of our queen, the most powerful ruler in the world.” The encircling irony of the religious conflict is that the supreme deity of the tribal religion also is female – the Earth Goddess or “Mother Supreme.” But, political (and military) power ultimately resolves the collision between civilizations, not any moral suasion. Indeed, having grasped the magnitude of Achebe’s theme, the reader realizes that “bury my heart at wounded knee” happened here, and there in Africa, and, sadly, in so many other places and times.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, February 3.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, February 5 for a discussion of Things Fall Apart at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

 

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“The Personality Brokers” by Merve Emre

personalitybrokersThe Personality Brokers delves into the fascinating, yet strange, history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test.  MBTI, by far the most popular personality test in the world, is used by Fortune 500 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military.  Through a series of innocuous questions which are geared to capture individual preferences, it scores the results along four different spectrums or types. The test purports to separate all of humanity into 16 possible configurations.  The broad brush of types is given from the introductory page of the MBTI website:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

The purpose of the MBTI is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung (a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology) understandable and useful in people’s lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in behavior actually is quite orderly and consistent, due to basic differences in the way individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment.

“Perception involves all the ways of becoming aware of things, people, happenings, or ideas. Judgment involves all the ways of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived. If people differ systematically in what they perceive and in how they reach conclusions, then it is only reasonable for them to differ correspondingly in their interests, reactions, values, motivations, and skills.”

I first took the test back in the mid-80s and came out an INFP – I’d rather read a book or play the piano than go to a party – no surprise there.  I re-took the test while reading this book and came out the same.  I’d still rather read a book than go to a party – unless it’s a book club party.

I, like most people, assumed the name Myers-Briggs was the hyphenated last names of two white, male psychologists.   Surprisingly, it was first conceived in the 1920s by a mother and daughter team (Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers).  Both were dedicated homemakers.  On the side, Isabell was a novelist and Katherine a Carl Jung devotee and tinkerer of his theories.  Katherine’s laboratory for her personality experiments was Isabell, later branching out to other neighborhood kids.  Isabell began testing other housewives.  Later, Isabell was part of the wave of female participation in the labor force during World War II.  Synchronistically (a Jungian term), she took a job with Edward N. Hay and Associates, which specialized in developing workplace aptitude tests for white-collar workers.  This was a first step on a long journey for the MBTI, which continued to flourish after Isabell’s death eventually taking on a life of its own.

The MBTI has inspired television shows, online dating platforms, and Buzzfeed quizzes. Yet despite the test’s widespread adoption, experts in the field of psychometric testing, a $2 billion industry, have struggled to validate its results – no less account for its success. Like a detective, Merve Embre researches how Myers-Briggs, a homegrown multiple-choice questionnaire, infiltrated our workplaces, our relationships, our Internet, indeed our lives.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, January 6.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“Virgil Wander” by Leif Enger

virgilwanderVirgil Wander, the titular narrator of the novel, lives in the quaint, rustic, town of Greenstone, Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior.  By day, he serves as the city clerk, but by night, he is the proprietor of the Empress, a fledgling movie theater that specializes in projecting its exclusive and illegal film collection.  He describes himself as “cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” But Virgil’s peaceful ordinariness is interrupted in the opening pages when he loses control of his car on a snowy day, sails over the guardrail, and plunges into Lake Superior. Saved by the local junkman, who luckily saw the accident, Virgil awakens in the hospital with a “mild traumatic brain injury” that affects his memory and vocabulary.

After his near-death experience, Virgil embarks on a journey of rediscovery through interactions with fellow townspeople, each of whom are engaged in their own respective journeys. There’s Rune, the genial Norwegian kite-maker who is in town seeking information about his deceased son, Alec Sandstrom, whose disappearance is central to Greenstone lore. Alec was a minor-league baseball prospect who had one moment of glory that he was never able to repeat. An eccentric young pitcher with a fastball so uncontrollable it had its own nickname—the “Mad Mouse”—he pitched a no-hitter and soon after flew an airplane out over Lake Superior and disappeared. Neither plane wreckage nor a body were ever found. Nadine is Alec’s widow, whom Virgil not so secretly pines for. Nadine’s son, Bjorn, seeks to both engage with and escape from his father’s memory.

I think the two main themes of the novel are “living with the unknown” (fate is fickle) and “second chances”.  Virgil sums it up “Why am I still surprised when it turns out there is more to the story?…A person never knows what is next—I don’t, anyway. The surface of everything is thinner than we know. A person can fall right through, without any warning at all.” The characters are living with the unknowns of the past, present and future.  The town may never know whether Alec is dead or off living a new life somewhere.  “Stuff” happens at any time out of the blue: Virgil’s car flys into Lake Michigan, Rune finds out he had a son only after the disappearance, a local father is found dead after ice-fishing, a seemingly harmless handyman is planning a terrorist attack.  And then, randomly, some people get second chances while others don’t: but for a quirky happenstance that the junkman was out in the storm, Virgil would have died; both of Virgil’s parents died in a train accident while on a trip Virgil at the last minute opted out of; Rune is electrocuted when his kite hits an electric wire – he survives; Nadine gets to move on only after choosing to believe Alec is dead.

Overall, Virgil Wander is a fast-paced, humorous and mystical novel about hope, friendship, love and the relationship between a town and its people.

Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, November 4.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Russian Five” by Keith Gave

russianfiveThe Russian Five, written by Detroit sports journalist Keith Gave, recounts the story of the Detroit Red Wings of the 1980s and the early- to mid-90s. The team was stuck in a long losing streak.  It had not won the championship since 1955.  The morale of the players and fans was abysmal – so bad they were dubbed the Dead Wings.

The franchise was sold in 1982 to Mike Ilitch, the founder of the Little Caesars pizza chain who had a mission of restoring the Red Wings former glory. The team’s management, under leadership of head coach Scotty Bowman, moved forward with a risky plan: to recruit star athletes from the Soviet Union.  Getting those players into the United States from behind the Iron Curtain was going to be tricky.  Bowman made history by drafting them – all that was left was to figure out how to get them out. That’s when Keith Gave entered the picture: he spoke Russian and was able to travel as a journalist with a clandestine mission.  His trip to Helsinki, Finland, was the first phase of a of a years-long series of secret meetings from posh hotel rooms to remote forests around Europe to orchestrate the unlawful departures from the Soviet Union.

They are the Russian Five: Sergei Fedorov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Konstantinov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Igor Larionov. Their individual stories read like pulse-pounding-Cold-War spy novels.  One defection created an international incident and made global headlines. Another player faked cancer, thanks to the Wings’ extravagant bribes to Russian doctors, including a big American car. Another player who wasn’t quite ready to leave yet felt like he was being kidnapped by an unscrupulous agent. Two others were outcast when they stood up publicly against the Soviet regime, winning their freedom to play in the NHL only after years of struggle.

Bowman noticed that Soviet teams frequently put their forwards and defensemen together on five-man units.  And it wasn’t until all five players were put on the ice as a unit that the gears clicked into place and the Russian Five could finally display their spectacular prowess. Viewers were quoted as saying it looked like they were playing keep-away from the other teams, denying all attempts at defensive maneuvering.

The unit played an instrumental role during the Red Wings’ success of that decade. They helped the Red Wings reach the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals, and eventually win the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup.

The Russian Five is a 2019 Michigan Notable Book and was made into a documentary just released this past June.  The book was chosen as the 3rd annual “One Book, One Community” for the White Lake Area, sponsored by friends of the White Lake and Montague Libraries.  In addition to the book discussion that was held on October 2 at the Book Nook, the upcoming events include:  a movie screening of the documentary at the Montague Branch Library at 7pm on Wednesday, October 16;  a lecture by Blue Lake Public Radio’s Foley Schuler on “The Original Russian Five” – a group of five Russian nationalist composers at 7pm, Tuesday, October 29 at the Book Nook; “Pints and Pucks” hockey talk and beer at 7pm Wednesday, October 30 at Pub 111; and wrapping it up with a Community Potluck at 5pm Sunday, November 3 at Lebanon Lutheran Church, followed by a book talk with the author Keith Gave.  For more information call the Montague Branch Library at 231-893-2675.

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“On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Book Review by Marc Murr

onearthOstensibly, this poetic novel is written as a letter from the author to his mother.  In reality, I think the author has written a letter to himself.  Thus, in a more complicated way, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is of that literary genre that explores the theme of initiation.  That is, how we all become – grow into – the people we are.  Like Mark Twain with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ocean Vuong takes the reader on his own path of maturation, confronting along the way troubling issues of our time.  Unlike Sawyer’s presentation as easy reading narrative in the third person, Vuong has created a poetic masterpiece that is dense with literary devices and trenchant observation about who he is – and, therefore, who each of us is.  In fact, Vuong has written one chapter entirely in verse.

 

Tracking from his birth to a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier father, Quong’s journey through a turbulent youth in Hartford, Connecticut, detours back two generations to his grandmother’s and mother’s experiences in Viet Nam.  Through his Grandfather Paul, an American GI, Vuong touches on the poignancy of love, and marriage many times, of those seemingly brief relationships during the Viet Nam war, but also of their enduring consequences for, like Vuong, their progeny.  So, for the reader, how unusual to hear from the immigrant’s perspective that “color,” which is an extended metaphor through the novel, implies something negative in this country, when, for Quong, it had meant happiness.  “And because I was six, I remember believing color was a kind of happiness.”  But, “[w]hen we arrived in America in 1990, color was one of the first things we knew nothing about…[T]he rules of color, and with it our faces, had changed.”   Black, yellow, red, white, and brown faces all connote something, and thus Quong examines the challenges of this new social structure and its effects on the individual.

 

And, through irony, Quong the Poet redeems Quong the autobiographical Novelist’s negative experience with color.  Back in Saigon to return his deceased Grandmother’s ashes to her birth land, he comes upon a garish, though traditional, funeral service on a city street late at night.  Officiating the service for the dead, singers perform in sequined outfits and “primary colors sparkled so intensely it seemed they were donning the very reduction of the stars.”  Stars for Quong symbolize divinity.  These ministers were men dressed in drag:  color, beauty, divinity fuse and present in surprising ways.  So, Quong confronts everyone’s typical trials:   rejection, love, hate, sickness, addiction, prejudice, sex, war, politics, and death.  His poetic treatment of them with piercing observations redeems their threat, and shows how to grow.

 

Through the plot of the novel, the reader empathizes and sympathizes with the brutal life Quong and his family endure.  But, that’s not the point.  The poet’s point is that Quong, born in the “epicenter” of war, like his Grandmother Lan learned to claim beauty “and made that beauty into something worth keeping.”  Quong completes his initiation:  “[a]ll this time I told myself we were born from war – but I was wrong, Ma.  We were born from beauty.”  But, if we are beautiful or “gorgeous,” that is we properly realize that internally, why only “briefly”?  What does that mean?

 

Quong the Novelist presents the reader with a number of the most fundamental questions whose answers are key to being initiated into lives of meaning and harmony.  Quong the Poet offers stunning symbols and metaphors to suggest answers – far too many and too meaningful to explore in this limited space.  Oddly, and honestly, Quong remarks that his writing is a “mess,” and on another occasion “I don’t know what I am saying…I don’t know what or who we are.”  Quong is not completely correct:  this poetic novel unfolds just as life really does, and life is not always organized or clear.  Like Huck on the Mississippi, Quong confronts the river of life with all its unpredictability.  Moreover, what he gives the reader through wise examination and observation are tools to find a self that is briefly gorgeous.  In conclusion, Quong assures the reader that we have freedom to make the most of this process:  “I run thinking I will outpace it all, my will to change being stronger than my fear of living.”  Again, there is redemption, and it comes from Quong’s mother, to whom the letter is ostensibly written and who cannot read, who laughs after she tells him the secret to her – and, therefore, his – remarkable survival.

 

Marc Murr is co-manager of the Book Nook & Java Shop.  Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, September 3.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

theoverstory

Book Review by Carol Biedrzycki

of The Overstory by Richard Powers

 

The Overstory is a wild ride.  It is written in rich prose.  I frequently found myself backtracking to make sure I got the point.  I’m also not ashamed to admit I learned a few new words like coeval and ursine.

The Overstory is about the environmental crisis while it examines the human condition and tries to explain why it is not at the top of our agenda every day.  The information about trees, forests and the assault of buildings, subdivisions and cities on our forests is sobering.

The Overstory tells the stories of seven individuals and one couple whose lives have a unique connection with trees.  In this section of the book I was beginning to think I was reading a collection of short stories.  The magic is in how Powers weaves all of their lives together.

Every character is somehow connected to trees and tries to reverse the course of civilization’s destruction of our forests.  All of the characters make exceptional life changes for the trees.  Their activities are diverse.  There are protests.  Two protesters live in a redwood tree.  A botanist makes startling discoveries about plant communication and starts a forest tree seed bank.  A psychologist studies the behavior of the activists.  A lawyer reasons that trees should have standing in court.  Some of the characters have federal charges hanging over their heads and have to start new lives.  A computer wizard designs games that shape behavior and attitudes toward consumerism and the environment.  The book takes the time to walk us through their trials, tribulations and successes although successes are few and far between.

The reality of the story is that our problem is not resolved and is getting worse.  As a society we can’t change our lifestyle even when faced with the toll we take on the forests, air quality and global temperatures.  Despite the sacrifices of the characters in the book, the destruction of the forests continues at an alarming rate.  The messages are simple and profound.  1)  The world doesn’t have to change.  We do.  The forests will heal themselves if we can stop cutting and let them grow.  2)  When you make something from a tree it should be at least as marvelous as what you cut down.  This is an excellent rule of thumb for conserving wood. 

The Overstory is about the environmental crisis.  I won’t remember the names of the hundreds of species of trees and plants or the specific scientific explanations of how trees live in a community and communicate.  What I will remember is this.  The world doesn’t have to change.  I do.  Anything made from wood should be at least as marvelous as the tree that was cut down to make it. 

The Overstory changed the way I think about trees and our forests.  Changing the way people think is a superpower.  I hope that those who are not yet convinced that we need to save and rebuild our forests will read this book.

Carol Biedrzycki, an avid life-long reader, is a retired Executive Director of a non-profit in Austin.  She is spending the summer in Montague working at the Book Nook.  Watch Bryan Uecker on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, August 5.  Join the book club at 6pm the first Wednesday of the month at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too. 

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“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

myexlifeIn Stephen McCauley’s brilliant novel, “My Ex-Life”, David Hedges’ life has hit “a season of aggrieved discontent.” He helps San Francisco rich kids get into the colleges of their (parents’) choice – the legitimate way: essays, scoring high on entrance tests, and community service. Having to convince kids to care and parents to have realistic expectations is exasperating. His younger boyfriend has left him for a richer, better catch. And the cherished carriage house he rents at a reasonable rate in the city with the country’s highest rents is being sold, and he is getting kicked out. His only comfort these days is the Thai takeout joint that delivers 24/7.

Out of the blue, he receives a call from Julie Fiske. It’s been decades since they’ve spoken, and he’s relieved to hear she’s healed from her brief, misguided first marriage: to him! She’s on the East Coast and wants David’s help organizing college plans for her 17-year old daughter Mandy.

David flies east, and he and Julie find themselves living under the same roof. They pick up where they left off thirty years ago – still best friends who can finish each other’s sentences.

Julie has issues of her own: her second husband has recently left her for a younger woman, and she’s desperate to hold onto her home (a crumbling, ocean-view 19th century manor on Boston’s North Shore) by buying him out with money she doesn’t have. As an art teacher, she tries to make ends meet by renting rooms on Airbnb. Her daughter, Mandy, is a troubled teen who is smarter than the other kids in school, but is distant and making bad choices.

The whole situation is great fodder for McCauley’s dazzling wit and turn of phrase. The novel is packed with one-liners. About some demanding guests: “[t]hey were probably in their thirties, that awkward age when people still believe they matter and that life is going to go their way.” About wine connoisseurs: “incipient alcoholics with money.” A woman describing her rich husband: “Leonard doesn’t have friends. He has opportunities wearing socks.”

The characters are rich – even the secondary ones. To avoid the threat of scathing reviews from her guests, Julie hires an Airbnb consultant. She recommends some tricks of the trade: to save money on breakfast buffets, don’t cut up the fruit and, to discourage sex (walls are thin), add mountains of throw pillows and elaborate Victorian window treatments.

The novel is a breather from the big picture, heavy issues of the day: race, politics, immigration, etc. Its focus is on the fears and foibles of everyday domestic life: money, love, family and home.

Stephen McCauley lives in Boston and is an author of several novels, three of which have been adapted into film: one American and two French. “My Ex-Life” would translate well to the big screen.

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, July 1. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 3 to discuss “My Ex-Life” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.

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