Showing 31 - 40 of 75 annotations contributed by Ratzan, Richard M.

Skunk Hour

Lowell, Robert

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Skunk Hour is the penultimate poem in Lowell’s 1959 volume of poetry, Life Studies. It is composed of 8 sestets with an internal rhyming scheme in each sestet that can only be called irregular from sestet to sestet. The poem moves slowly, beginning with a descriptive tone that is somber ("she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."), progresses to frankly pessimistic ("the season’s ill") and ultimately becomes confessional and egoistically relational ("I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, / they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . . / My mind’s not right.")

The poem opens with a series of portraits of people and phenomena that comprise the poet’s current landscape: "Nautilus Island’s hermit heiress" who is "in her dotage"; the "summer millionaire" whose nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen"; the decorator who brightens his shop but appears as hopeless as the narrator, who draws yet another contrast between appearance and reality, remarking that the decorator knows "there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry."

The fifth sestet marks a turning point and, to signal it, Lowell takes as his first line the famous "Una noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross, another dour poet/mystic: "One dark night". (In a collection of essays cited on the Internet (reference 1) Lowell writes, "Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.") This line begins the first of two consecutive sestets that are concerned with corporal love, bracketing a middle line that announces, to no reader’s surprise, "My mind’s not right."

The second of these sestets moves from a maudlin song refrain to a frankly depressive, almost suicidal pose: "I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." and ends with "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here --", which, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us, is a quotation from Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost. (ref.1)

Enter the titular skunks: as a parenthetical predicate to the final line of the preceding sestet ("nobody’s here --"), the poet corrects the apparently psychological meaning of "nobody’s here --" to refer to physical presence, noting that in fact there is someone here, namely a family of skunks.

The final two sestets are among the most visually powerful images in poetry with the paradoxically high drama one would not expect from skunks. The hungry skunks "march on their soles up Main Street" in search of food with fiery red eyes as the poet, in response to their upward march, stands "on top / of our back steps" and takes a deep breath of the "rich air", watching the mother skunk jab her head into a cup of sour cream--a mother skunk who, in a fitting yet curiously ambiguous final line, "will not scare."

reference 1. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/skunk.htm accessed January 5, 2005.

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Banishing Verona

Livesey, Margot

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Banishing Verona concerns a 22-year-old house painter living in London. One soon realizes that Zeke Cafarelli is not normal. He has had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier; collects clocks--he has nine at the beginning of the novel and adds two more by novel's end--which he takes apart and restores; he has basic questions about interpersonal relations that, were it not for his illness, mentioned once, briefly and vaguely (24), one would describe as childlike naiveté.

For example, he wonders why people lie. Or, why is it so easy to identify vegetables (his parents are greengrocers) but not people each time one encounters them in even slightly different settings? Several times the author describes Zeke's mother or father (whom Zeke calls Gwen and Don, respectively) while their son is trying to confirm their identity as his parents.

Quite early in the narrative, like a dea ex machina, Verona MacIntyre enters Zeke's life. Or perhaps Venus on the half shell would be a more specific identification of the dea, since Verona is pregnant, and soon becomes as naked as Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli, to whose paintings Zeke is likened with his angelic appearance and lustrous hair. The two become oceanic--if not star-crossed--lovers-at-first-sight since Verona has to traipse off to Boston to help bail her sociopathic brother out of yet another financial and amorous mess of his own making. Despite the appearances of Jigger (Verona and Henry's grandfather in the persona of a long letter to Verona), and Toby (a mutual lover-friend of Verona and Henry), and Maurice (Gwen's lover), the plot does not seem unwieldy.

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The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

Jensen, Liz

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Louis Drax is a nine-year-old boy living in France with his stay at home mother and Air France pilot father. Such an apparently normal family description is the merest tissue of appearances. The father is probably an alcoholic and unfaithful; the son is "accident-prone" (a nearly fatal episode of SIDS at two weeks of age, a near fatal electrocution at age 6 after falling on the tracks of the métro in Lyon; salmonella, tetanus, botulism, meningitis, etc. [or, as Louis is fond of saying, "blah, blah, blah."]) and the mother has issues that only emerge as one becomes more deeply involved in what is a mystery story.

Like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or Janet Lewis’s superb The Trial of Søren Qvist, one knows the ending early on (page 16 in Louis Drax), but not the details. The why and the how are the stuff of the novelist’s art in all three books.

With premonition of more danger, Louis goes on a family picnic (see below for the author’s biographical basis for this tale) and winds up at the bottom of a ravine, dead. Drowned and dead. A few hours later, in the morgue, he is found to be alive. Comatose and in a persistent vegetative state but alive. He is therefore transferred to the care of a neurologist specializing in comatose patients at the Clinique de l’Horizon (formerly l’Hôpital des Incurables).

It is here that the mystery unfolds. The questions are: How did Louis end up at the bottom of the ravine? Did his father, now missing, push him as his distraught mother alleges? What role does the clearly neurotic mother play in this tragedy? And who exactly is Louis Drax? Lastly, how do the mysterious letters allegedly from him, written while still in a coma, come to be?

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The Echo Maker

Powers, Richard

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mark Schluter, a 27 year old beef-processing plant worker, becomes involved in a car crash outside Kearney, Nebraska, the locus of this novel. The car crash---on February 2, 2002, a date that the author wishes to impress the reader as one that seems too numerically mystical (02/02/02) to be co-incidental--clearly has mysterious elements about it since it occurred far outside town on desolate flat country roads and amidst the tire tracks of another car. Too, just after Mark is hospitalized, there appears an undecipherable note of anonymous provenance:

I am No One
but Tonight on North Line Road
GOD led me to you
so You could Live
and bring back someone else.

Mark has an initially troublesome route to recovery, including a temporary ventriculostomy to relieve the pressure in his head. Meanwhile his only sibling, Karin, 31, rushes to his side from Sioux City, a move that becomes permanent and costs her her job. Mark eventually awakens but with an unusual mis-identification syndrome, called the Capgras syndrome (more commonly encountered in patients with psychiatric condition), in which the patient fails to recognize those closest to him as such. For a Capgras patient, there is a disconnect between the visual ability to recognize their faces and emotional response to them as close relatives or friends. He recognizes the visual similarity but considers the significant other an impostor.

This rupture in the usual see-sister's-face-acknowledge-as-sister apparently occurs, in the Capgras syndrome, in connections between one's "primitive" or "reptilian" brain, including the amygdala, and the cortex. Much is made of this failure of neuronal circuits to connect, and reminds one of the parable in His Brother's Keeper (see database) about the Chinese Emperor and the failure of the transmission of a message to explain the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As Karin remembers the neurologic explanation, " 'His amygdala, she remembered. His amygdala can't talk with his cortex" [original italics] (80). This amygdala-cortex dichotomy becomes, in behavioral terms, feeling versus reason. As discussed by the two neurologists involved in Mark's case, "But no emotional ratification. Getting all the associations for a face without that gut feeling of familiarity. Pushed to a choice, cortex has to defer to amygdala"; "So it's not what you think you feel that wins out, it's what you feel you think" (131).

Out of desperation, Karin emails a request to Gerald Weber, a famous cognitive neurologist-author modeled primarily after Oliver Sacks but with a little A. R. Luria, whose "To find the soul it is necessary to lose it" is the epigraph of the novel. From the time Weber meets Mark and Karin, the book becomes an intricately entangled design of various metaphysical threads all of which, directly or indirectly, revolve around Mark's syndrome and identity--in fact the identity of all the characters. Karin becomes involved-- re-involved-- with two men from her earlier days in Kearney, Robert Karsh, a developer, and Daniel Riegel, a conservationist. Later the two men become ideologically more opposed than ever when Karsh tries to develop the annual nesting grounds of the cranes, Grus canadensis, who return to Kearney, thousands of them, every February. Barbara Gillespie, a guardian angel to Mark at the extended care rehab center, and Gerald Weber, until then a man happily married to a prototypically liberal intellectual woman, Sylvie Bolan, become romantically drawn to each other. Weber's own doubts about his work and his public image after unprecedentedly critical reviews of his latest book torment him and lead to concerns about his own identity as a physician who may be using, rather than trying to understand, his patients.

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Elegy

Bang, Mary

Last Updated: Aug-02-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Elegy is a poetic journal, comprised of 64 short poems, describing the year following the poet's son's death. Ms Bang's 37 year old son, Michael Donner Van Hook, died in June 2004 in lower Manhattan of an overdose of prescription medications. Giving herself a year to write the poems in Elegy, Ms Bang submitted many of them individually and then published them in the current monograph form in 2007.

The elegy is a poetic form going back over 2500 years and originally consisted of elegaic couplets, alternating lines in hexameter and pentameter. Traditionally they were initially used for lament. Since the earliest Greek and Roman poets, many poets have written poetic laments, very few of them any longer in elegaic couplets. The most famous elegies in English have been Milton's Lycidas, Shelley's Adonaïs, and of course Tennyson's In Memoriam. Modern poets writing elegaic poetry include Heaney, Hardy, Stevens, and Plath, the last particularly when writing about her father. 

Ms Bang's Elegy, written for her son, is a powerful collection of individual poems, not a long flowing poem of parts; it consists of mainly short poems rarely exceeding a page in length, with the exception of "The Opening", four pages long. She often addresses her son directly.  All the poems depend on tropes that recur frequently, e.g., clocks and numbers to discuss hours and time, the cycle/circle of past/present/future (in this case, a non-future) time; the irony of the cyclical nature of memories but not the physical presence of her son's ashes in a box; many Classical mythical figures; dreams; the sea; and the interplay of vision, glass and mirrors.

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Summary:

John Romulus (also known as Richard) Brinkley was a physician (in the diploma-mill sense of the word) who, in 1917, pioneered, in the U.S. at least, the notion of goat testicle transplant. "Transplant" must be understood in the loosest sense of the word since Brinkley simply removed the testicles from young goats and sewed them into the abdominal wall and scrotal tissues - without any attempt to connect blood or nervous tissues of either goat testicles or human  - of men for the alleged purpose of relieving impotence. From 1917 until his downfall at the hands of Morris Fishbein, a medical crusader esconced in the AMA, which organization Dr. Fishbein helped establish as the premier advocate of organized medicine in the U.S., Dr. Brinkley was perhaps the most recognizable physician in the U.S.

He ran for the office of Governor of Kansas in 1930 (losing by technicalities that today would have overturned the results), and established the most powerful radio station in the land, XERA, that promulgated his glandular chicanery all across the continental U.S. As a proponent of such skullduggery, Brinkley was continually in the sights of Dr. Fishbein, whose main reputation nationally was as an exposer of medical fakery. Eventually Fishbein lured Brinkley into a libel trial that resulted, in 1939, in the catastrophic downfall of an immensely talented and wealthy man who spiraled into bankruptcy and death in 3 short years.

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Summary:

The film opens with the discovery of Dr. Victor Frankenstein's will in his Transylvanian village. A skeleton, presumably Dr. Frankenstein's, and a man wrestle for the box holding the will. The man wins, takes it to a town meeting where the will is read and calls for the transfer of the property to the dead scientist's grandson, Frederick. Following this scene we meet the grandson, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), a surgeon who is busy instructing medical students in clinical neuroanatomy (comparing the brain to a cauliflower). When asked about his grandfather by a medical student, Freddy, who pronounces the family name "Fron kon steen", declares that Victor was "a cuckoo". The student is relentless in pursuing the family ties, exasperating Freddy, who finally plunges a scalpel into his thigh, a sight gag paying homage to Peter Sellers' stabbing himself with a letter opener in A Shot in the Dark (1964). When the courier from Transylvania arrives, he persuades Freddy to return to his ancestral castle for the execution of the will. A hilarious railroad platform scene in which Freddy bids goodbye to his "beautiful, flat-chested" (as described in the online original etext of the script by Gene Wilder) fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), only highlights the incredibly neurotic natures of the two lovers -- Wilder as a possessed but wacky scientist and Kahn as a narcissistic and apparently remote and shallow woman.

In Transylvania, Freddy and the viewers meet the remainder of the major characters. Inga (Teri Garr), a bosomy and mindless but beautiful and dedicated blonde, escorts him to the castle, where he meets the hunchback Igor, played by the incomparable Marty Feldman, who instructs Freddy, with one of the lines all Young Frankenstein addicts love to quote, to "walk this way", by which he means with a limp and a cane, not directions to anywhere at all. After remarking that the huge castle doors have huge knockers (which they do) -- which Teri Garr winsomely mistakes for a compliment on her equally huge knockers -- Freddy and his entourage enter the castle and meet Frau Blücher (played magnificently by Cloris Leachman), the spinster who keeps the castle, nourishing an undying flame for Freddy's dead grandfather. Soon Freddy and Inga discover, by means of a secret passageway behind a  -- surprise! surprise! -- revolving bookcase wall in Freddy's room, his grandfather's hidden subterranean laboratory (Brooks used the same electrical apparatus as the 1931 Frankenstein film) and scientific journals. With the materials and methods now at hand, Freddy undergoes a spiritual transformation, embracing his forebear's obsession with creating life from dead bodies, rejecting his earlier rejection of Victor's work as "Doo-Doo!".

At this juncture we move into the scientific creation mode and of course meet the Monster, exuberantly portrayed by the talented Peter Boyle. When Igor tries to steal a brain from a neighboring morgue there occurs the infamous mix-up of an "Abnormal" brain (labelled "DO NOT USE THIS BRAIN!") for the intended brain of H. Delbrück ("the finest natural philosopher, internal medicine diagnostician and chemical therapist of this century" and also the author of 17 cookbooks) making at least this viewer wonder if Mel Brooks had in mind a real scientific genius, Max Delbrück, who had received, only 5 years before, a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for his work on bacteriophages.

The predicted spoofs ensue: the actual process of transforming the very large corpse of Peter Boyle into the very large body of the living Monster (with Inga remarking, after Freddy states that for the experiment to be a success, the monster must have enlarged body parts, that he "vould have an enormous schwanzstucker" -- a pseudo-German/Yiddish word that everyone in the audience immediately comprehends); the inclusion of Gene Wilder's rendition of the legendary exclamation, "It's alive!" by Colin Clive in the 1931 Frankenstein; the monster's mercurial disposition; the wildly comic scene with the Monster meeting the Blind Man (Gene Hackman); the Monster's fascination with music and antipathy to fire -- they all give rise to set pieces of Brooks's unique mix of lowbrow comedy with intellectual puns, Yiddish asides and the ubiquitous combination of visual and physical jokes.

After Elizabeth unexpectedly arrives in Transylvania we witness an apparently unlikely, and therefore uproariously believable, liaison with the Monster outside the castle, with Madeline Kahn eventually taking on the classic Marge Simpson type hairdo of Elsa Lanchester in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. The last important scene before the ending involves Freddy nostalgically summoning the Monster back to his natal castle for a transference of Freddy's calm brain to the Monster's. The ending, with the Monster a fully acculturated and now sophisticated man about town, and with Freddy and Inga still in love in Transylvania, is a brilliant win-win result for Freddy, Inga, Elizabeth and the Monster, although hardly predictable. Without giving away too much of the denouement, suffice it to say that the movie ends on a high note transforming, as it were, a linguistic pun into a musical one.

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Summary:

When Jamie Heywood, the eldest of three brothers in a tight New England family of engineers, learns that his middle brother Stephen (they all are in their 20’s at the outset of this drama which begins, for them, in early 1998) has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he has just assumed the position of entrepreneur in technology transfer at Gerald Edelman’s Neurosciences Institute, the prestigious think tank of the 1972 Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine, in La Jolla, California.

Jamie quickly announces his resignation and simultaneously his decision to devote his life to helping his brother in the only way he can--as manager, CEO, COO and staff of, initially, a loosely organized team effort to develop a cure for ALS, an insidious wasting disease of the nervous system that progressively leaves the person with the merest remnants of voluntary motor function.

Jamie’s resignation and his move from the West to East coast is but the mildest of changes in the weather for what becomes a perfect storm of technology recruiting, fund-raising, career-rebuilding and the emotional equivalents of El Niño, profoundly affecting at least four families, three of them Heywoods: Stephen Heywood, the strapping carpenter/house-restorer with ALS, and his wife, Wendy; Jamie, and Melinda, his belly-dancing wife with a PhD in medieval French literature; the brothers’ mother, Peggy, and father, John; and, lastly, the author and his father, Jerome, and mother, Ponnie (a Polish diminutive).

Concomitant with Stephen’s development of ALS, Ponnie begins to evidence the dementia of Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome, also known as progressive supranuclear palsy, a form of brain decay uncannily similar to ALS. (Fortunately for the Heywoods, ALS involves only the motor nerves, not the cognitive apparatus.)

The author’s decision to include his family’s ordeal is wise, generous and instructive. The Heywoods and Weiners are both engineering families with an academic engineer as the pater familias and both are trying their best to cope with a deteriorating illness that dismantles the center of all cerebral engineering activity, the brain. The comparison of the diseases and the responses of all the players involved are culturally and psychologically dissected with the author’s trademark precision and kindness. But this book, as the title indicates, is more about the keeper than the brother.

Within minutes of his learning of Stephen’s diagnosis, Jamie becomes a man possessed. He moves quickly, as though by intuition and almost a fated skill, from technology transfer to technology-bricolage; genetic therapy on the fly; and people-, funding- and support-transfer. In fact, when there is no transfer involved, Jamie creates in order to transfer.

Like Gregor Samsa, in the short story by Franz Kafk, from whom Weiner also deftly borrows another parable, "An Imperial Message," (to illustrate, metaphorically, the pathophysiology of ALS as a disease in which neural messages, like the Imperial Message, go awry), Jamie undergoes a metamorphosis, albeit admittedly much less drastic than Gregor’s. He molts his undergraduate degree in engineering at MIT to emerge as a self-appointed manager of any and all ALS research and gene therapy in the U.S. that might help retard the progress of his brother’s illness.

Recruiting, petitioning, nourishing, cajoling, funding, and courting researchers and clinicians alike, Jamie meets, entertains, enlists and co-ordinates the efforts of gene therapy researchers and other medical scientists. He becomes a fund-raiser with the help of Melinda and her family of belly dancers, raising $240,000 as a result of the First Annual Belly Dance Extravaganza. His efforts involve the Heywood and Weiner family members, as epicentric waves of activity inevitably affect them all.

We watch, through Weiner’s eyes (and the diaries of Wendy and Melinda, whom he cites with permission), as the four families experience the predictable mood shifts that accompany a devastating illness and the great adventure of a risky attempt to work a miracle (a miracle that Jerome E. Groopman grumpily and stuffily bemoans in a cited Wall Street Journal editorial): excitement when a genetically engineered ALS mouse outlives its cohorts and money starts to flow; and disillusionment, when Stephen’s disease relentlessly progresses, Jamie’s marriage dissolves for a lack of boundaries, as Melinda, Jamie’s wife, records in her diary, and the author’s mother slips deeper into a dementia that Lucretius, Weiner’s authorial inspiration of the book, would easily recognize as part of the world explored in his famous treatise De Rerum Natura.

By the end of the book, there is an air of exhaustion yet surprising calm--perhaps the calm after the storm--as we witness the normalcy of Stephen, in his motorized wheelchair, playing with his son. As Stephen repeatedly affirms to Weiner, now a family friend and no longer merely a reporter, "I’m fine."

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Summary:

Body of Work is a cleverly crafted memoir - or, rather, the first chapter of a memoir - of the author's medical school experience at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island. Ms Montross relates the chronological course of her team's dissection of a female cadaver with no discernible umbilicus and whom they therefore name Eve. (She neglects to comment on Eve's ribs and whether she has the normal complement or a supernumerary, more masculine, rib.) As she and her team of four (later three as one student drops out of school) proceed with the orderly dismantling of Eve, bone by bone, nerve by nerve and blood vessel by blood vessel, she uses this experience as a springboard to analyze her and her team's emotional reactions to the often unnatural process of deconstructing, literally (at times with a saw), a former person now cadaver, as well as the gradual, almost imperceptible acculturation that transmogrifies medical students into doctors. In fact, she devotes the final pages to this metamorphosis and what it means to the person undergoing the transition from caring student to detached physician, and whether one can retain enough caring, while remaining sufficiently detached to function as one must as a clinician, to become both a whole person and competent physician: "How much of becoming a doctor demands releasing the well-known and well-loved parts of my self?" (page 209)

Although it primarily revolves about the axis of her gross anatomy (cadaver dissection) course, the author's narrative includes tangents that have variably relevant relationships to this course, e.g., a trip to Italy to inspect first hand the anatomy theater of Vesalius in Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony; another trip to the anatomical wax sculptures museum in Bologna, where the author also observes the "incorrupt corpse of Santa Caterina" in a "small church called Corpus Domini" (pages 223-224); interspersed histories of the traffic of corpses for dissection, including the infamous Burke and Hare story; some flash-forwards to her second and third years; and a prolonged narration of the final illnesses of her grandmother and grandfather. This last bit of family history is worth the price of the book alone. Despite the apparently incongruous collection of such asides, the author makes it work smoothly, if not seamlessly.

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Tomorrow

Swift, Graham

Last Updated: Mar-21-2008
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This novel begins as it ends - as an interior monologue, a soliloquy only the reader hears. Paula Hook, married 25 years to her husband Mike, who is asleep beside her throughout the entire novel, is reflecting on the discussion she and her husband have decided to have with their fraternal twins on their sixteenth birthday (June 10, 1995), which is the "Tomorrow" of the title. Although the book begins with "tomorrow" yet to come, it ends on "today" around dawn. The twins, Nick and Kate, have no idea that this revelation--that they are the products of artifical insemination (AI), i.e., that Mike is not their biological father--is forthcoming.

Paula Campbell and Mike Hook met casually but experienced love at first sight, despite Mike's making the sexual rounds of Paula's friends and roommates. Mike was initially a biologist but becomes a publisher of popular biological publications. Paula is a director in an art gallery in London. Both gradually become more successful and prosperous, have infertility problems and undergo AI. The discussion with the twins never takes place in the novel, which ends at dawn.

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