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Look at me, expertly avoiding the dreaded post about The Marriage Plot (“I shall conquer this, I shall!”) and jumping ahead to the lovely The Peach Keeper. It’s probably my least favorite of Addison Allen’s novels, but it’s still kinda great. She’s that kind of author: a Deliverer. You want a bit of Southern comfort? You got it.

If you’ve read any of her books, you’ll recognize some of the elements: a couple of families in a Southern village, a strong sense of place and “roots”, a mysterious past, magic realism elements that are never enough to classify her books as fantasy, strangers who walk into town and heroines who are at odds with their lives.

The setting this time is Walls of Water, North Carolina. Although both descending from rich families, Willa Jackson and Paxton Osgood are now on difference wavelengths of society’s spectrum. Willa’s family lost their money and she now owns a hiking shop, while Paxton, still part of the élite, is the President of the local Women’s Group and the coordinator of their most ambitious project to date: restoring the mansion where both hers and Willa’s grandmothers used to live and where a mysterious event changed their lives forever.

Once again Addison Allen writes satisfying romances for both her heroines, but more than in any of her earlier books, this is a story about female friendship.

Paxton was particularly interesting because she had everything to be another Hilly Holbrook (The Help), or Lemon Breeland (The Heart of Dixie), or any other stuck-up rich Southern woman, but she breaks the stereotype and turns into an incredibly realistic character. With money and the pedigree comes an obligation to family and community, and while Paxton’s twin brother escaped by leaving Walls of Water, Paxton is trapped in her golden cage, her own dreams and aspirations becoming secondary. It’s a very fresh take on the Southern Belle.

Although food is less central in The Peach Keeper than in the other Addison Allen books, it’s still present (it’s Southern lit after all!), most noticeably though a funny cameo appearance of Claire Waverly from Garden Spells.

I’m now officially in count-down mode to her next novel – I hope she feels well enough soon to continue delighting us!

Read for the Southern Literature Challenge 2012.

 

 

 

 

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Other thoughts: Tiny Library, An Armchair by the Sea, You’ve GOTTA Read This, Estante de Livros (PT), Literature and a Lens, The Written Word,  The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader, Coffee and a Book Chick, AngievilleBoston Book Bums, St. Krishna’s Books, Alison’s Book Marks, Books Distilled, Always with a Book, Good Books & Good Wine, Literate Housewife, Book Addiction, Fizzy Thoughts, Page After Page, write meg!, Jenn’s Bookshelves, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Confessions of a Book Hoarder, Amy’s Book Obsession, Reflections of a Bookaholic, Book Maven’s Blog, Beth’s Book-Nook, A Few More Pages, Crazy for Books, Redlady’s Reading Room, Chachic’s Book Nook, Beyond Books (yours?)

This is what comfort Southern-lit is all about: eccentric characters, sense of community, and food. It’s no wonder that half-way through this book I finally ordered the Screen Doors and Sweet Tea cookbook, which had been on my wish-list for ages. Unfortunately, it didn’t include the cinnamon buns of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. I swear I could smell them…

CeeCee is twelve and has always lived in Ohio with her absent father and mentally-ill mother. CeeCee has leaned to cope alone with her mother’s extreme mood-swings and delusions (it’s 1967, but she believes it’s still 1951, when she was crowned the Vidalia Onion Queen of Georgia). When tragedy strikes, CeeCee is taken in by her mother’s Aunt, who whisks her off to Savannah, Georgia.

This is the promise of a new life: the care of Aunt Tootie, the comfort food of black housekeeper Oletta and the incredible stories of an array of unusual neighbors. But most of all, it’s the attention and love of them all that make CeeCee feel safe for the first time in her young life.

Not a lot happens, but the story manages to often be hilarious or touching. It follows in the tradition of The Secret Life of Bees, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Help, so although it’s set in 60s in the American South, and there are some hints of social unrest, the story doesn’t tackle head-on any of the ugliness of that period.

Instead, the story centers on female friendships (always a popular topic in Southern lit) and CeeCee’s coming of age through the support of her new community. Since the focus is on piecing together this girl’s confidence, and because CeeCee has reasons to be naïve about racism, the smoothing over of the not-so-nice issues doesn’t feel like a cop-out.

The only part of the story that didn’t feel just at it should be was Savannah’s role. The sense of place is there, but not as strongly as I’d wish – it’s such a wonderful city that it deserves to be a character in its own right. I don’t say this very often, but I wish there were more descriptions in Saving CeeCee Hioneycutt (disclaimer: I read Southern-lit mostly to get back a bit of the memories of my time living below the Maxon-Dixie line).

Still, it’s a very sweet book, the end ties up nicely and there’s a satisfying “Southern” feel to it.

(Springtime in Savannah, Georgia – photo credit)

Read for the Southern Literature Challenge 2012.

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Other thoughts: She is too fond of books, Books and Movies, Redlady’s Reading Room, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Devourer of Books, S. Krishna’s Books, SmallWorld Reads, Books in the City, write meg!, Word Bird, Rundpinne, Beth Fish Reads, The Literate Mother, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell, Steph Su Reads, Literate Housewife, Reading on a Rainy Day, Book Line and Sinker, Geeky Bloggers Book Blog, Life in the Thumb, Stacy’s Books, Reviews by Lola, Chocolate & Croissants, Prairie Horizons, Maggie Reads, Just Books, Novels Now, Purple Sage and Scorpions (yours?)

Sarah Addison Allen has become my top comfort-author and I know I’m not alone in this. I also take great joie-de-viver from Austen or Wodehouse, but as good as they are, Addison Allen has more of a quick-fix to her. Like a big caramel brownie vs. a glass of exquisite red wine.

There is a definite “sameness” to all her books but somehow that’s not a bad thing. How can it, if they deliver? Every. Single. Time. There’s always family feuds, skeletons in the closet and the feel-good environment of the clichéd small Southern town. (Actually, from my experience living in the American South, there’s a lot of truth to the Small Southern Town myth. When it comes to kindness to strangers, they beat every other place I’ve been –  a special wink to Marietta, GA.)

There’s also romance of course, but refreshingly, it’s not an end in itself. The touches of  fantasy are never enough for me to put Sarah Addison Allen’s book in my “fantasy” or “magical realism” mental filing cabinets. They come across as facts of life, accepted naturally by these communities, and I don’t remember any other author who does that, except perhaps Garcia Marquez in 100 Years of Solitude (is this comparison blasphemy?).

And there’s food! I wish Sarah Addison Allen would write a recipe book. I would proudly put it next to my other favorite Southern cookbooks: “Cornbread Nation”, “Mary Mac’s Tea Room” (oh how I miss your peach cobbler!) and “Screen Doors and Sweet Tea”.

I didn’t described the actual plot, but trust me: it’s less important than the general feeling the book leaves you with.

*Alex hums Georgia on my Mind*

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Other thoughts: My Reading Books, The Adventure of an Intrepid Reader, Angieville, write meg!, Lit and Life (yours?)

Urban fantasy is having a field day lately. I’ve tried the first of the Mortal Instruments series and was far from impressed, but still wanted to try again before putting the genre (or is it a sub-genre?) in the back burner for the near future.

I was especially attracted to Magic Bites because it’s set in Atlanta (where I lived for a while) and wasn’t disappointed with all the landmark references. Too bad they were all crumbling! You see, in an undefined future, the world of technology we’re enjoying today is slowly giving way to magic. When the lights are on, magic is subdue, but more and more frequently bursts of the supernatural hit the city, making human-made structures collapse.

(It’s a good start – I liked the opposition between science and magic.)

“Normal” people have learned to adapt to this world, including cohabitating with paranormal beings. Against this background, power struggles develop between several organizations of humans and other creatures. From the start you’re thrown into this world without the benefit of a slow intro and you’re hard pressed to keep up and differentiate the Pack, the People, the Guild, the Order and where all the renegades in between.

In the middle of all this there’s Kate Daniels, our heroine. She’s a mercenary without allegiance who enters the game when she’s asked to investigate the murder of her mentor. She also has powers she’s been trying to keep secret for a long time for reasons we never really understand in this first book.

I liked Kate. She’s trying hard not to be the cliché tough-girl-with-a-big-mouth-and-a-dry-sense-of-humor, but it’s not quite working. While on her mission she meets Curran, the leader of the Pack (aka werewolves) and it’s easy to spot the future romantic hero, although their relationship is still very subtle in Magic Bites. Actually, Curran has the potential to make several “best fantasy hero“ lists, as he is, literally, the Alpha Dog. All that power and sensuality shimmering under a restrained personality… This might just be the book all Jacob-shippers were waiting for!

Credible world building – check. Kick-ass heroine – check. Interesting hero – check. Good story flow – check. So why did I only give it 3/5? I blame it on vampire and werewolf fatigue. Add to it a bunch of zombie-like creatures and you’ve lost me. Were vampires and werewolves always bitter enemies or was it something Meyer initiated and is now a given? Lately I’ve been having a hard time not to roll my eyes at any book or movie that follows this formula. Any urban fantasy out there that is re-inventing the wheel?

Bottom line, I won’t actively look for the next one in the series, but I might get it if our paths cross at a second-hand sale.

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Other thoughts: Giraffe Days, The Crooked Shelf.

I didn’t finish it in a few days as most people, it still took me a little over a week. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, because I was, but I felt a foreboding which I only overcame about two-thirds in. This already says something about how much I liked it, because I would have no problem in reading about the downfall of characters I cared nothing about. It also says something of Stockett’s ability to craft a story. She builds up tension, then releases it just to build it up again with a vengeance.

I won’t go into details about the plot, since everyone in the www seems to have read it already, but what amazed me about “The Help” was the way it managed to go beyond race and civil rights. Jackson, Mississippi was a microcosms (someone called it “harem-like”) too small to hold that amount of fractions, but which you know was replicated all over the American South in the 60s: employees vs. employers, high-class vs. low-class, women vs. men, south vs. north, conservative vs. liberal, white vs. black, dark-black vs. light-black. For me the biggest accomplishment of the novel was how the author made us aware of all these complex relationship. She gives us a peek at how Miss Leefolt treats Aibileen, but then we also see Minny’s judgment of Miss Celia. (By the way, I haven’t read many reviews mentioning Miss Celia, but she was one of my favorite characters, I just wish she was a little sharper and that her closure felt less abrupt.)

The book also made me think of the many untold heroes of the civil rights movement, people with quiet bravery, who didn’t make it to the history books and Hollywood movies. Do you ever think about what you’d do in similar situations? Would you write a book that might get people lynched? Would you hide Jews in the cellar at the risk of your own life and your family’s? My father was part of the underground movement during Portugal’s dictatorship, he was followed by the political police and the only thing that prevented him from being arrested was the start of the Colonial War, which instead forced him to fight in the African jungle. Would I do the same in his shoes? I like to think I would, but who knows?

But back to “The Help”, like I said, I didn’t start compulsively reading until later on, until That Moment happen. You know, the moment where you think “damn, this is good!” Mine was when Skeeter was driving back home, after being publicly humiliate and rejected at the Junior League meeting. She’s persona non grata, everything seems gloom, and then she hears Dylan singing “Times They Are a-Changin’” and thinks “I feel like I’ve just heard something from the future.”

Not flawless, but The Help does challenge you and makes you think, and that’s the highest praise I can give a book.

It seems I’m once again behind the bandwagon and that Garden Spells was already all over the book blogosphere some time ago. I’m usually 1 year behind on all fashions, like those ladies in The Age of Innocence, who store the dresses they’ve just bought until they lose their avant-gardeness.

We all know that certain plants have powers, but Claire Waverley has the ability to enhance and control them through her cooking. These “gifts” run in the Waverley family: her sister Sydney has a way of bringing out the best in people through hair cutting, her niece just knows where everything belongs and her aunt has uncontrollable urges to give people presents that sooner or later prove useful.

When we first meet Sydney, she’s escaping from an abusive marriage and heading to the family home she left 10 years ago. There she’s welcomed by Claire, who took over the house and its garden after the death of their mother and grandmother.

Claire runs a local catering company from her own kitchen and specializes in cooking with flowers, which she grows herself. She’s the “safe” sister who craves routine and a sense of belonging. Sydney is the adventurous one, who denies her family’s gifts, but eventually comes to realize there’s no place like home. It’s impossible not to compare Garden Spells with Practical Magic. They both include a long line of women with gifts, meant-to-be relationships, enchanted gardens and secret family histories. But in the end, it was such a fun book to read that I didn’t mind at all. Actually, the book strongly reminded me of several others. For instance:

Like Water for Chocolate. Tita crying into the wedding cake and ruining the party vs. Claire, also through food, bringing feelings of guilt to the women who humiliated Sydney.

A Prayer for Owen Meany. Owen’s conviction that he’s “God’s instrument” because he knows he’ll do a great deed in the future. He doesn’t know what that deed will be, but has images of it happening which don’t make sense… until the end. In Garden Spells, Sydney’s daughter has a dream about the moment after which “everything will be all right”. She tries to artificially replicate it, with no success… until the end.

Anne of Green Gables. In Avonlea, each family is neatly categorized. For instance, according to Marilla, “Pyes they always were and Pyes they always will be, world without end, amen.” and “The Sloanes are all honest people”. This is not very different from the village where the Waverlys live: everyone knows that there’s magic in the Waverly’s blood, everyone also knows the Matteson women are great in bed and that the Hopkins men marry older women. These details were very smartly used in creating the book’s fairy-tale feel. And now that I think about it, in the village where my mother was born things are not much different either. There, your family name also brands you for life as rude/lucky/bright/cunning, etc.

This was the first book in a while that make me read into the wee hours. Actually, because it was a weekend and I was home-alone, I read it between 10PM and 5AM (a sleepless reader indeed!). It’s light and sweet, and the romantic parts weren’t too sugary. Also, it’s set in South Caroline, and you know I can’t resist Southern Lit (any 2011 Southern Lit Challenges out there?), especially when there’s a food component. When I think about the book now, I see pastel colors, flowery cupcakes and lovely Queen Anne houses or Cath Kidston meets Nigela Lawson meets Fannie Flagg. The ideal story after almost 3 weeks of The Spring of the Ram’s intricate plot.

It also made me want to cook, which is not a usually feeling (can you be a foody without liking to cook?). But all those descriptions of scented vapors, tastes and colors did the trick – know any good recipes using flowers?

“He was interested in everything and almost everybody, and the way he looked at things with fresh eyes made me see them fresh too.”

Do you believe in the theory of the “7 basic plots”? I think there’s something to it – especially after hours of “Text and Image Semiotics” classes in college – but I’m not sure if they’re limited to the ones in Christopher Booker’s book. I’d like to officially add one to the list: Stranger coming to Town. This plot is one of my favorites, and no, I’m not a westerns fan. What I am attracted to is the idea of the agent of change, who with the power of his personality, shakes up the ‘ordinary’ world of the sleepy town. It’s all about microeconomics!

I might actually post a list of favorite “Stranger coming to Town”s… off the top of my head I would add Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (which actually starts with the line “Lymond is back.”). Pride & Prejudice, The Secret Garden, The Enchantress of Florence. Could Rhett be the ultimate Stranger? Jane Eyre? Any others you can think of?

Anywhooo, all this to say that Belle Prater’s Boy is another good example of the Stranger coming to Town, but packaged for kids. I can’t remember why or when I added it to my wishlist, but it was probably when I was looking out for recommended Southern Lit. The book is very short, very charming and very southern. It has none of the racial themes common to books set in the South in the 50s, but it’s still about difference and acceptance: in appearance, in wealth and in education.

At 5am on October 1953, Belle Prater leaves her bed and vanished from the face of the earth. Her son, Woodrow has to leave the “shack” where he’s lived all his life and go to his grandparents’ in town. “Town” is Coal Station, a village in the mountains of Virginia with only two streets, but where social hierarchy matters as much as in Antebellum Savannah or Charleston. Next door lives his cousin Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster. Gypsy is still trying to cope with the death of her own father, so both cousins can help each other in dealing with the loss of a parent. Also, Gypsy and Woodrow’s moms are sisters with a very shaky relationship because Gypsy’s father (the other Stranger coming to Town of the book) was once Belle’s boyfriend.

Woodrow is the new kid in town, but he puts his sense of humor to good use and in no time he makes a name for himself in school and in his new family. He reminded me of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbs, because he always comes to mind when I think about the kind of kid I’d like to have (Alex, beware of what you ask for!!). Like Calvin, Woodrow is fascinating because he’s confident in what makes him different and becomes loved for it. I was also reminded of Leslie from Bridge to Terabithia – see the type?

The book unravels juicy mysteries and secrets from the past, but it’s worth it just because of this most peculiar of Strangers. A natural-born story-teller with crossed-eyes, who knows exactly where chiggers have their nests.

I’ve decided to take part in the Dewey’s Read-a-ton: 24 hours reading and blogging about it! It will be held of Saturday 8 October and we’ll all start and finish at the same time. Unfortunately in Brussels that’s 2pm, smack in the middle of the whole weekend. If by any chance I do manage to be 24h reading, I can’t go to bed at 2pm Sunday or else it will be hell to pay on Monday.

Anyhooo, it sounds like fun and I’m curious to try it. There’s already over 200 book bloggers signed up. I’m already happily making a mental selection of the (very thin, very easy) books I’ll read then. André says if he ever did something like that he wouldn’t be able to pick up a book for months :)

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This was one of the kind gifts by the ladies of the Marietta Bookcrossing Group (to which I belonged during my time in Atlanta) when I told them I loved southern lit. That was back in 2004 and it has followed me when I returned to Portugal, when I moved to The Netherlands and then later to Brussels. This book’s been around! After all this time I finished it this weekend on the Eurostar somewhere in the Channel Tunnel.

It was a great read, quick-paced and beautiful. The Southern accents just popped out of the page (Gawd!) and the generous amount of cursing and politically-incorrectness made it fresh and real.

It’s an account of Conroy’s year (1969-70) teaching on Daufuskie Island (called Yamacraw in the book), South Carolina. The island had no bridge to the main land and treacherous waters made the crossing by boat a risky business, so at that time it was almost completely isolated. The big majority of the population was black, poor and not surprisingly received a sub-standard education. As Conroy describes it:

It is not a large island, nor an important one, but it represents an era and a segment of history that is rapidly dying in America. The people of the island have changed very little since the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, many of them have never heard of this proclamation.

Conroy’s students are between 10 and 13 years old and early on he finds out that of the 18 children in his class, 18 did not know what country they lived in, the name of their president, or what ocean that surrounded their beach; some couldn’t read or write, recognize the alphabet, write their names, count to ten or add 2 + 2. What Conroy understood after the initial shock was that he had before him an empty slate and that normal teaching techniques did not apply.

The one great knave that I hunted was boredom, and if I caught him lurking anywhere in the room, in corners, by blackboards, behind the covers of books, or in glazed, anesthetized eyes, we went to something else quickly, shifted in midstream, danced, sang, fought, or milked rats.

He invented games, organized karaoke sessions, planted a garden, teaches them to swim, took them on field trips to his home-town and Washington, D.C., asked friends and family to come and speak to the class and generally made his students realize there’s a world beyond the shores of Yamacraw. I loved the scene when Conroy gets them interested in classical musical. His students start to recognize several tunes and they realize that contrary to popular belief, they can learn. The book has many of these touching scenes. On the road-trip to Washington, one of the students asks about the lines on the road, something we all take for granted:

To Jasper, who was accustomed to unpaved roads, they represented something strange, unexplained, and beyond his framework of experience. For the rest of the trip Barbara and I decoded road signs, billboards, and numbers painted on bridges and overpasses. Things I had not noticed for ten years now assumed great significance. I regretted that I could not be making this trip with the freshness of insight and beautiful innocence of Jasper and the others. I regretted that I was old, that I could no longer appreciate the education afforded by an American highway, and that I could not grasp the mystery of a single line painted down a road going north.

Being a story about a white progressive teacher in the South in the late 60s, this is also a portrait of the early days of integration, of the struggle between a new generation committed to change and the resistance of the old-guard, fighting to maintain the status-quo. Conroy himself admits his own journey from a casual but eager teen racist (“Those were the years when the word nigger felt good to my tongue”) to the committed liberal of his teaching days. Like him, in the book we see other people making this journey, with more or less difficulty.

The only reason this isn’t a 5/5 is because the last chapters shifted too much away from the kids and the island, into Conroy’s own battle against the established powers. He actually admits he wrote The Water is Wide to give his own account of what happened in the island and the injustices done to him. This isn’t a story of miracles and at the end of the book Conroy questions if he ever made an impact in his student’s lives. I don’t doubt for a minute he did.

I really liked how the book ended – a good last paragraph is a thing of beauty: “Of the Yamacraw children I can say little. For them I leave a single prayer: that the river is good to them in the crossing.

This book brough back memories of my early school days, in what only many years later I realized was a very problematic neighbourhood. I don’t think what Conroy faced is dated or only due to racial segregation, but like him I do passionately believe that education is the only way towards equally – every type of equality.

Back in 2004 I lived for little over a year in Atlanta, Georgia and ever since I’ve been an enthusiast of southern literature, cuisine and culture. It’s strange even to me the power of the connection because I struggle to find any similarities between my background and my experiences in Dixieland.

For instance, until then I’d never been so aware of my gender, skin color, social class and (lack of) religion.  By itself this was already a fascinating experience – you should have seen me for the first time in my life filling out an official document with my ethnicity: was I Caucasian? Or perhaps Latino since Portugal is part of Europe’s Latino culture? And what’s an “Irish traveler”?! Add to that sweet ice tea and peach cobbler, a hay ride in Tennessee, listening to improvised blues is a tinny bar off Bourbon Street and bluegrass in a local BBQ, being called to speak about myself at an all-black Southern-Baptist congregation, and it’s not hard to imagine why I fell in love with the place. I don’t know if it was because I was young or a foreigner or a woman, but no one beats Southerners when it comes to kindness to strangers.

One of the first things I did when I arrived was become member of the Margaret Mitchell House, which is also the Center for Southern Literature (the funny thing is, I only read Gone With the Wind last summer…). I also joined the Marietta Bookcrossing Group and thus begun my immersion in Southern Literature. I read Tennessee Williams, Pat Conroy, Barbara Kingsolver, Mark Twain and Harper Lee, got introduced to the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the Whistle Stop Café, the Secret Life of Bees and the Garden of Good and Evil. I also discovered the fabulous world of garage sales, yard sales and each-bag-of-books-for-5-dollars sales – I was a happy cookie :)

All of these good memories came back recently while reading “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man” by Fannie Flagg, which is about a young girl growing up in rural Mississippi in the 50s. The story is told through journal entries, which suits Daisy’s witty personality and sharp observations. Soon after the book starts, Daisy moves from small-town Jackson to the even smaller community of Gulf Coast Shell Beach, at the End of the Road of the South. As with most good southern literature, Daisy is surrounded to a group of exotic characters, from drinker Jimmy Snow, who uses his crop-dusting plane for carrying out revenge to Mrs. Dot, the leader of the local Jr. Debutante club (“Sincerity is as valuable as radium!”), not to mention her own father, always ready for the new  infallible scheme to make money, such as turning Daisy into a miracle child through a fake resurrection. It’s impossible not to laugh out loud several times.

Although still a fine specimen of Fannie Flagg’s style – good fun and heart warming – I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did her others (Fried Green Tomatoes, Welcome to the World, Baby Girl). She was trying to keep the humor in the story while introducing serious issues like alcoholism, rape, teen pregnancy and insanity, but sometimes my laughter had to stop too abruptly. Also, certain episodes were also just waaaay too over the top to be believable even for a Southern small town (and that’s saying a lot!). The story could have been simpler but more touching if the reader wasn’t asked to suspend its disbelief quiet so often.

Despite that, I’m still looking forward to Flagg’s “Standing in Rainbow2 which is waiting in the TBR pile.

Hope y’all have a good weekend!

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