Category Archives: Environment

A log jam of books

Several new novels have been piling up in the “having read waiting to post” pile. The new Barbara Kingsolver, the new Andrew Miller and the new Philip Teir.


These are each in their own way, brilliant. I regard Barbara Kingsolver as one of the best women writers from America in the last 25 years. She is, to my mind the Rachel Carson of the fiction world. Each of her many books has behind it a message for the planet. Whether it is the changing habits of Monarch butterflies (Flight Behaviour) or changing attitudes to evolution, there is behind each novel a scintilla of historical truth. But as with the butterflies, the changes are mirrored in the lives of the characters.

In Unsheltered, the reader is drawn into the nature of houses themselves, what does an old house tell us, if anything, about the people who lived in it before? In the present day, Willa is being given the horrific news that the house she and her family live in is no longer stable and should be pulled down.  Several rooms are already no longer inhabitable.

This leads back to the same block in the same town, but to a historic period when a teacher at the town school finds himself in difficulties with the strict Creationist beliefs of the founding patriarch of the new development, Vineland – Mr Charles Landis. Thatcher Greenwood, a biologist interested in the works of Charles Darwin, also lives in a house that is crumbling and he has not the means to pay for repairs, not least because the very building design – his father-in-law’s – was flawed from the start.

His neighbour, a botanist, is another “real-life” character in this novel. Mary Treat is a distinguished but mostly forgotten botanist who corresponded with such luminaries as Charles Darwin, Charles Riley and Asa Gray, and whose contribution to the understanding of environment to the life of plants such as the Venus fly-trap were singular and admired by these (unjustly) more famous men. Charles Landis is also a true character, as is one of the more startling events in the book. 1868 was a rather turbulent time in America, it seems.

There are many layered meanings in the title, not only the shelter of the roof over our heads but the discoveries and obfuscations that often follow any new idea, when the certainties of old belief system are uncovered by the discoveries of new science.

This is a marvellous blend of fact and fiction, a seamless combination of past and present as exemplified by the houses, slowly sinking back into their foundations. If someone famous lived there, can the house be saved? There is much to savour in this wonderful book.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also an historical novel, set at the time of the Peninsula War.  Captain John Lacroix arrives home from the setback at Corunna. It is a love story, a murder story and a study of the human will to survive against all the odds. In modern parlance, Lacroix is suffering from PTSD, once he is back on his feet physically, he is expected to return to his regiment and the war with France. Instead, he turns North.

But all is not absolutely as it seems, grief and remorse are deeply lodged in his heart, and while he is fleeing from these emotions, there are other men who are in deadly pursuit. Merciless to himself, Lacroix is being pursued by an enemy even more desperate and implacable towards him.

Miller gets into the mind of his characters in a combined skill of both observation and description, so that the landscape and the weather are principals in the drama, as much as the human characters themselves.

The ending…it is sublime.

The Summer House is translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunally, she also translated his debut novel The Winter War.

Several families have left the city for their summer houses, near water and the sea. For Erik and Julia, it begins as a perfectly normal family holiday in her parents’ summer house, they have with them their two children, Alice and Anton. In a neighbouring house there seems to be a single woman, Kati, she does not make contact and seems to shun society.

Further away, but in a house that Julia knows well from her childhood and which she has included in her first novel, is a disparate group of neo-environmentalists. Led by Chris, they are of the view that climate change and its eventual outcomes are now inevitable, therefore peddling hope that we may find a solution in time to stem the catastrophe is pointless, so we should aim to live to the best of our abilities in the knowledge that we can change nothing, but to live with despair in a pre-industrial wilderness as hunter-gatherers with internet connection.

Among this group, is her childhood friend Marika. Summer progresses and things will never be the same again, for any of them.

This is not a plot driven novel, it is more a meditation upon the secrets and lies that every family has, little lies and big secrets – Erik has lost his job and not told Julia; she is still trying to decide whether their relationship is still worth keeping; Marika and Chris have a whole different set of problems, most of which they are trying to keep secret. It is about the barriers we put up to protect our masks, and the little things or events that happen that may eventually reveal the truth.




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London Film Festival 2018/7

If yesterday was a marathon, today was a double marathon! I had not fully taken on board that the first film was three and a half hours long. Then they added a fifteen minute interval (which says a lot about the decision of the director) so my scheduling became critical.

The plan

The Plan that came from the bottom up is a documentary about labour relations in the 1970s, seen through the lens of the Lucas Aerospace company. Director Steve Sprung clearly believes in “slow cinema”. There was a huge amount of mood setting, relevant once or possibly twice but not more. The film started in Lisbon, in a terrible fog and then there was a billboard which stated in three languages, Portuguese, English and Chinese, that “you can buy this view”. Following that there was an equally magnificent aerial view of London, with the legend “London, open for business”.

I do not want to trash this film as it is important, both for its message about top down industrial management, about the level of government payback to big business (leaving aside the bank bailout of 2008) and how this affected both the workforce and manufacturing in Britain.

The talking heads were all one-time workers at Lucas. Now retired, (actually they were sacked) but who, when they were shop stewards created a cooperative committee who tried, but failed, to persuade the management that the workers were able and willing to diversify production to more community based products – like wind turbines. Unbelievably, Lucas Aerospace felt that this did not fit with the company image and turned it down, the workers also created a proto-type of an electric bus that could run on rail and road. Also vetoed, although it would save millions in under-developed countries because it would run on concrete, rather than rails, what’s not to like? But no, Lucas preferred making killing machines.

With substantial editing this would be, as it is described above, “a gripping essay”, reflecting on the darker side of capitalism. What is really astonishing though, is the level of behind the scenes collaboration between the Labour government of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan and the management of these vital industries.

There were figures, which I did not copy down, but which showed that after a turnover of tens of millions, what with cost of production and Labour government subsidies, Lucas Aerospace paid only £470,000 to HMRC in tax. Does anyone else immediately think of Amazon and Starbucks?

I wish I could say this was a must see. Maybe a four-part-series on television. Because what it has to say about our choked up cities, about climate change and industry, and the death of manufacturing, is important; because there are people out there who have ideas that would help, if only they had been listened to in the 1970s!!!

It was a rush to get to the next film, which was a shame and this was redoubled by the fact that my neighbour (not the friend I was with but on the other side) seemed oblivious to the fact that a garlicky, chilli wrap followed by smelly, crunchy tacos are not suitable fodder for the cinema. I felt like asking her if she thought she would starve if she waited to eat until after the film.


Bisbee ’17 was not exactly the film I thought it was going to be. 2017 makes it one hundred years since a mass deportation of striking copper miners and other supporters was effected in Bisbee.

The town decides on an re-enactment. This film is the result. And while shining a light on the trauma of a single town, is probably a good thing for the town, I suspect that there would have been better ways to do this for the cinema. It was fractured and over-sentimentalized, which rather drowned the horror of what actually happened.

In July 1917, over 2000 people, nearly all of them Central Americans and Eastern Europeans, were transported into the desert in cattle trucks and left to die. No amount of re-enactment is going to bring to life the absolute inhumanity of that act; yet Bisbee survives – with the visible scars of copper mining all around them and the Mexican border just a short distance away – what better reminder is there?

Finally tonight a beautiful French film set in Paris and India. Two men get off a French Republic flight and are greeted by François Hollande. In spite of public denials, these two are hostages freed with a slush fund, held under wraps for the French Government.

This is another film with a female director, Mia Hansen-Love. Beautifully realised and filmed, but a bizarre choice of music – as Gabriel wanders around Indian cities, throbbing with colour, noise and traffic – we are hearing Shubert – why?


After a few weeks, young Gabriel goes off to India, a country where he grew up until his parents separated. We travel to India with him and it is utterly gorgeous, as he also travels. Starting from Goa, where his godfather has a hotel, he travels throughout the Indian subcontinent.

Maya is both a love story and a commentary upon what tourism is doing to India, to the farming community and to the still unspoiled places, with unscrupulous developers forcing sales of land and houses by fair means and foul. And possibly a gibe at the French government whose aid programme is dwarfed by the funds paid out to rescue French hostages.

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London Film Festival 2018/4

Thrills and spills don’t get any worse than this, I imagine. Seeing The Quake in BFI IMax is to say the least, fully immersive.


This Norwegian catastrophe movie begins by reminding us of the director’s previous film The Wave. There is a national news report of the disaster and the man who saved so many lives is invited on to the programme. Then we see the geologist, Kristian, waiting for his daughter, Julia. His life, still in the same valley as before, is clearly chaotic and although he saved his entire family, three years down the track he still feels unbearably guilty for the 200 or so he did not save that night.

But that was then. Soon after he has prematurely sent his daughter back to Oslo, a colleague dies in one of the road tunnels beneath the city – having sent Kristian a phone message which he has, perhaps fatally, ignored.

These two things send Kristian to Oslo, where in the study of his friend and colleague he finds his worst fears amplified. There will be another earthquake and it looks as though it will be soon.

See this on the big screen, IMax if at all possible. Although in some ways less convincing than The Wave, this was a nail-biting thriller and the special effects were especially effective. If you read the script at the end, you will see that Norway has more seismic activity than any other European city, so if you are staying there – use the stairs!!!


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Not the Man Booker 2018

The laptop catastrophe has meant lots of reading and no blogging. Here are four excellent novels of merit that I have read recently, anyone of which could have been on the Man Booker list:

Michael Arditti – Of Men and Angels

Patrick Gale – Take Nothing With You

Melissa Harrison – All Among the Barley

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls

ArdittiOf Men and Angels is a strange books, it is really the story of how the Angel Gabriel, Michael and other angels, but especially Gabriel, have been portrayed in human storytelling. Going back particularly to the part played by the angels in the telling of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the saving of Lot and his family.

Each section, and there are five, brings us nearer and nearer the present day. The opening section, By the Rivers of Babylon, deals with the familiar story and its origins in various scriptures, The Bible, The Koran and other Babylonian texts; the next section tells the story of the traditional Guild that staged the Lot story in the York mystery plays of the Middle Ages; moving on from the fifteenth century we arrive in Florence at the time of Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities and finally more or less to the present day to Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

As a quick run through literature, painting and poetry this is quite a feat. There is drama, passion, humour and imagination. Each section is prefaced with a short introduction in the “voice” of Gabriel, but then the narrative takes off into a realm of its own. His/her wonderment at the way men imagine angels, at what point they acquired wings, sex and other attributes. It is a researched and well trodden topic, but here is gets the full panoply of treatments from the forbidding flaming sword of Michael, to the number that can dance on the head of a pin and finally to the creation and destruction of the modern city of the plains, Los Angeles.

GaleAn entirely different book from a prolific and favourite author, Take Nothing With You is a love story with a terrible difference. The narrator has only recently recovered from the loss of his long term partner and has found, online, a new friend; Eustace has just a day to reflect on his life and his new happiness before embarking on a radical, aggressive treatment for thyroid cancer.

The novel covers his strange childhood, his love of music and his cello teacher, Carla Gold, his adolescence and growing awareness of his homosexuality and the dramatic turn of events that leads to his parents’ separation.

This is set still in the age of Aids and HIV as a deadly disease, Eustace is surviving and the cancer is just the beginning of what might be the downward spiral. Meeting someone online throws up difficult decisions, about revealing his cancer and the treatment.

Patrick Gale’s writing is informed, insightful and full of gentle humour. There is a tremendous sub-plot which the intuitive reader will have understood immediately, but which the young man, the narrator, remains entirely unaware of. It is never spelled out, so it becomes distinctly possible that Eustace remains ignorant even to the end.

This is a stunning coming-of-age novel, complex, transitory, confusing. Patrick Gale never disappoints and this one has all the hallmarks of a masterly pen.

Melissa HarrisonAll Among the Barley is set in the years immediately before the Second World War, even the shadows have not started to fall. In a rural community a young girl, Edie Mather, watches as her life slowly disintegrates; with the coming of a journalist, Constance FitzAllen from London, the young girl begins to see her life from a different perspective.

She is not aware how very destructive are the motives behind Constance’s questions, and Constance inveigles herself well and truly into the farming community, only in the end to upturn the tables.

The narrative is bookended with the voice of an elderly woman returning to her community after a near lifetime in an institution – care in the community is the name of the movement, and that did not go well for anyone.

Melissa Harrison has a wonderful eye for detail and ear for cadences. Like Jon MacGregor we are made aware of the seasons. For lives in a farming community at that time, before mechanisation and industrial farming methods, the seasons and the weather were key.

Belief in influences that were unseen but deeply felt, tradition, superstition and magic were commonplace. Health and ill-health were transparently part of daily life, hospitals and doctors came at a cost, so why not go to the healers, who were mostly women.

England in all its past magnificence and glory is on these pages, and read now it is possible to take fully on board what was swept away by the coming conflict. The absolute unawareness of impending disaster hangs over this novel from start to finish.

The ending is one familiar to many farming families in its bleak tragedy.

Barker GirlsFinally, back to a re-telling of The Iliad. This must be the most richly mined resource in literature, after perhaps The Holy Bible. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Miller and many, many more have mined this great epic and Pat Barker is no exception.

Abandoning the First World War, she has turned her gaze on to the Greeks and Trojans. In The Silence of the Girls, she reminds us that there were two women at the heart of the Trojan War.  Helen obviously, since her abduction (or elopement) led to it all and Briseis, a Trojan princess who is abducted after the sack of Lyrnessus and awarded to Achilles, filtched from him by Agamemnon when he was forced to give up his own prize and all that followed from that fateful decision…

The narrative is Briseis’ summation. Long after the war is over and Achilles is dead, she looks back at the lives of the captive women in the seemingly endless war at the base of the walls of Troy. Slaves and concubines to their captors, they still had to make a life. It might not have been the one they had chosen, but to survive they had to put up and shut up. And that it the point really. The Iliad is all about the men; this novel is also all about the men, and Achilles mostly but the women are there, ever present and not speaking much.

There is an exquisite moment when Briseis’ silence speaks volumes…

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Off piste – not The Man Booker

Two other books I have completed are neither of them alternatives to the Man Booker Longlist. Tracy Borman‘s first novel, The King’s Witch is possibly the start of an historical trilogy and Red Sparrow is a spy story.

Red SparrowJason Matthews, the author of Red Sparrow, was once in the CIA, so like Ian Fleming and John le Carré, he writes about something he knows intimately: spying against the Russians.  The Cold War while technically over, continues to fascinate readers and writers alike. This book is set in present day Russia and comes with glowing recommendations from various sources. It is American, unlike the other two authors cited. The story is gripping and the book an absolute page turner. A riveting novel, for me it slightly disappoints because there is an element of magic involved.

One of the main characters, the eponymous heroine, is a synesthete – this is a relatively rare condition in which the person emotionally sees and feels everything in colour, Domenika however, is an extreme case and can also “see” personal auras, which gives away the moods and feelings of the people she is with. And here is my problem – whether or not such a condition exists, in a spy novel this capacity becomes part of the toolkit and for me that makes it magical.

Everything else is as one would hope: suspenseful, alarming and first rate. And there is another novel to follow this one, and naturally a major motion picture to be released!

BormanThe King’s Witch [hopefully the first of three novels, which is suggested in one of the tributes] is set just at the point at which Elizabeth I dies and James I of England and VI Scotland arrives on the throne of England.

As history relates, this was a difficult time for Catholics and for healers.  James had a phobia about both and many, many innocent women died as a result of his obsession with witchcraft, and the machinations of his sycophantic disciple, Robert Cecil, eventually created Baron, Earl of Salisbury as a reward for delivering both Catholics and witches to the evils of torture, burning and disembowelment.

Frances Gorges ( e pronounced as in Ganges) is a young woman, a herbalist and daughter to two secret Catholics.  Longford Castle in Wiltshire is their family home, still standing and now owned by the Pleydell-Bouverie family. She becomes, against her wishes, companion to Elizabeth, the daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, but she is caught up in the web of fear, conspiracy, suspicion and licentiousness that dominates James I’s court.

Tracy Borman has filled in the gaps of this remarkable story, with a believable ingenuity. The characters all exist in the historical sense, quite how strong and to what extent their relationships follow exactly this pattern, is part of the craft of historical fiction writing. Like Hilary Mantel, the research is thorough, the inspiration and imagination still abides by certain rules, but expands and elaborates for the enormous benefit of the readers

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/8

A first novel is always a joy to find, whether good or bad, it is a new voice with new potential. In this case, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, the writing has already been recognised in the short story genre, but sustaining a novel is quite a different task.

2018 BLL MackintoshThis is a mildly dystopian novel.  Three girls and their parents are holed up on what the daughters think is an island, surrounded by protective wire, they are under the impression that they are being saved from pollution, and male savagery.

Their father takes a boat and gets stores; in the early days women (no men allowed) used to come in various states of weakness, to be cured. They were tended by the mother until they were well enough to undergo the water cure, total immersion in a salt bath with incantation.

One day, the father does not come back. They wait and then their mother vanishes…

The writing is good enough for this story to become compelling, although once read to the end it seems to have been slightly flimsy. There are so many “whys” that remain unanswered. It is not really my sort of novel, so maybe I am being unnecessarily harsh, but with other more believable and more engaging dystopian fictions abounding, many of them on the subject of female disempowerment, I think that this one rather misses the mark.

My alternative offerings are completely different. Both are love stories, one a defiantly gay novel, the other slightly adulterous in the human sense and utterly focused in another way.

Alan Hollinghurst is well known and unashamedly a gay writer of gay novels. His early novels, The Swimming Pool Library might have been a bit lubricious for general taste, but his new novel is more refined and covers the English homosexual scene from before the time it was legal right through to the present day.

SparsholtThere are two main characters in The Sparsholt Affair, though this is not quite accurate, they are the hooks upon which the whole book hangs. David Sparsholt and Evert Dax. We see them first in a University setting (Oxford as it happens) just immediately before the Second World War takes young men from their studies, David is learning to fly and Evert is undecided. In the final intense flurry before the war collects them and mashes them up in its jaws, these two form a strong and abiding friendship that lasts to the end of their lives.

At University they belong to a small group, men like Freddie Green who is doing something secret at Blenheim Palace and women like Connie who is also there in a different capacity.

Hollinghurst describes and covers all the situations that have taken and destroyed men and reputations; then the changes that made the whole thing different but privately acceptable and finally brought the rainbow spectrum fully into the open. This is a very subtle and complex history and it is beautifully discovered and displayed in this delightful novel. The relationships between the older men and their younger companions, the women that have admired and adored them, the unrequited and the fulfilled loves are all here in this loving and delicate story.

VickersThe second, The Librarian, is also a love story, but the main characters are the children’s books that the librarian of the title helps her young readers to enjoy and explore. In this novel, Salley Vickers is doing two things. She is writing about a beautiful love story between the librarian and the local doctor, and banging the drum for the importance of libraries in the development of the imagination of young children. In fact, libraries in general, but especially those for children.

Set in East Mole, the first part of the book is about the arrival of Sylvia Blackwell as the local children’s librarian. The Senior Librarian, a Mr Booth, is a decidedly reprobate character, his envy of her ability and evident success leads on to its bitter conclusion; the second part of the book tells of one of the characters returning, now herself a successful children’s author, to speak up against the closure of the East Mole library, and what happens as a result.

Salley Vickers has paid tribute to the librarian who inspired her as a child, her name was really Miss Blackwell. She also helpfully lists all the books that she has cited in the novel, many of them real favourites, especially Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, which links lots of the characters who have read it (or not read it). She also reveals that two of her own children also write, Rowan Brown (one of three dedicatees, the others being Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson) and Richard Kingfisher – which I never realised and am please to learn, since I love their books too.

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Man Booker Longlist 2018/7

My post today is unusual in that I am including a non-fiction book as an alternative to the longlist novel.

Tree huggers and arboriculturalists will have understood the pun in the title of Richard Powers new novel. It is a book about trees and forests, and for the rest of you I will explain the hidden meaning in the title.

A true forest contains units which are trees – roots, trunks and branches; when there are a lot of trees together the upper leaves and branches are the canopy; down on the forest floor there will be an assortment of smaller bushes, vines, young trees and this is called the understory.

2018 BLL PowersThe Overstory introduces us to several main characters and for the whole of the first part of the book, entitled Roots, they have no connection with each other, and each one is a short story in itself; it is not until the second part of the book that some of these characters end up in the same place and it is not until the final part of the book that the threads that pull them together, finally knot up into a complete whole.

Each of the characters has a relationship with a particular tree or species of tree; for Nick Hoel it is the American Chestnut, planted by his great-great-great-great grandfather in Iowa, and which because of its isolated spot has not succumbed to the disease that killed all its other families in Connecticut and Massachusetts, a tree which had ‘built’ America: houses, fences, furniture, paper pulp and more besides. Every fourth tree in a forest stretching two hundred miles would die.

For Mimi Ma, daughter of Chinese immigrants fleeing from Chairman Mao, it is the Mulberry Tree. Her grandfather had handed over three jade rings carved in miniature with the delicacy of a magician; The Lote – the tree of life for the Persians; Fusang – the mulberry tree and Now, the tree of the future plus a precious scroll of wizened men, one leaning on a staff at the edge of a forest, one peering through a narrow window and one seated under a twisted pine: the adepts who have passed through the Enlightenment and know the answers to life.

Adam Appich is an artist, he is somewhere on the spectrum of autism but that doesn’t matter; eventually he ends up as a research student studying under Professor Rabinowski.

We meet Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly who plant trees in their back yard on the anniversary of their getting together; Ray is a property lawyer dealing in copyright and Dorothy is a stenographer in court, which is where they meet.

We first meet Douglas Pavilcek when he takes part in an experiment and is placed in a jail situation; this is to earn money and eventually the experiment fails but he gets a taste of what confinement is like and the powerlessness of it. He has been a typical American, a war veteran and an odd job man, but he takes a trip North and on his way discovers that the forest he supposes he is driving through is only a spectre, that behind the concealing strip, loggers are clear felling the trees by the thousand – so he takes up tree planting.

Another character we meet is Neelay, the Gujarati son of poor parents. But one day when he is about eight his father comes home with a computer kit and together they put it to work. Neelay learns coding, and ends up inventing internet games.

The two last characters we meet are Patricia Westerwood, an early illness has caused deafness and she is mildly mute, though can be understood with patience. Patricia makes up for physical disability with an extraordinary mind, eventually she publishes a paper that states that trees have means of communication that humans have failed to recognise; this study get panned and she retires from public life and writes a book which she calls The Secret Forest. Olivia Vandergriff is a student, she has married far too young and is just freeing herself from this when she electrocutes herself. In the few minutes in which she is dead, her life changes…

We have reached page 152 and so far, none of these characters have anything in common. That all changes in the second part which is entitled Trunk.

This is part novel and part environmental polemic, everywhere on every continent and country, trees are being chopped down at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Campaigns to prevent this devastation bring some of these characters together with differing and terrible results.

There are two more parts Crown and Seeds, and by the end of the book everything is clear; but not for the trees which are being slaughtered at an increasing rate. The ill-effects of this are widespread and known, but somehow the destruction cannot be stopped.

Richard Powers cannot write a bad novel, his imagination is vivid and wild and his books, eleven novels so far, range over a lot of different subjects. The Overstory is quite a hard book to read, since its apocalyptic message is written across most of the latter parts of the book. Is this what people want in a novel? There is an encyclopaedic amount of information about trees and growing, seed formation and suckering, regeneration and death. Salutary, naturally. It is a book that appealed to me but then, I might be considered a bit of a tree hugger; I hope lots of people read this book but it may already be too late.

WildingMy non-fiction offering is the story of a Sussex farm who are trying to turn the clock back a bit. It too is a riveting if depressing read.  We have practically destroyed the butterfly population already in Europe, we need many more farms like this to take up the challenge, and it too may already be too late. Wilding by Isabella Tree is hopeful, if only a small voice crying out against the loud hum of the combine harvester.

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