Book Reviews

From time to time I am asked to review a book or I come across a book that I am anxious to tell others about. The subjects are very eclectic, as is my reading taste. I hope you find the reviews to be thoughtful and helpful.

I am grateful to the authors, publishers, and editors for sending me these books. I occasionally purchase them or borrow them from the library. 

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Dear Barb: Answers to Your Everyday Questions

Barbara Godin (2021) www.barbgodin.com

When we’re going through a rough patch, or have a question about things happening in our life, it’s nice to be able to get support, and an objective opinion: something our family or friends can’t always supply. Barb Godin has been offering answers to everyday questions since 2003 when The Voice Magazine was looking for an “advice” columnist and Barb submitted a sample. She’d faced a lot of different traumas in her life, and she had found love and joy after thinking she might not. Her friends often asked for her advice when they needed someone to help them figure out their problems.

Eighteen years and more than 500 columns later, Dear Barb was born to help others facing any number of life’s issues including family disharmony, health problems, and concerns about pets, friendships, love, and marriage. Barb’s empathy is obvious but she’s not afraid to be blunt when needed. No doubt the writers of the questions found some good solid advice to follow.

The columns are divided by relevant sections so you can easily find the answers you might be seeking to your questions. It’s the type of book you will refer to again and again, and one that is hard to put down. 

Barb Godin is that friend who has had the life experience and the learned wisdom to help you with life’s little—and perhaps not so little—issues.

The book is available in easy to read paperback or e-book and can be ordered from your favourite online retailer.
Print/e-bookDear BarbAmazonKoboIndigo
Click to buy!

Dear Barb is also available to order online from a number of bookstores. Check Barb’s website to find one, and to learn more about her award-winning writing.

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Mothers, Mothering and COVID-19: Dispatches from a Pandemic

Demeter Press, March 2021. Edited by Andrea O’Reilly and Fiona Joy Green

 

Through scholarly essays, creative art, poetry, photography and creative writing, the contributors to this anthology show us their strategies of managing the complexities of working, schooling and caring for children and others during the coronavirus pandemic. They describe in vivid and often heart-breaking detail the experiences, knowledge, and wisdom gained on the frontlines of motherhood. Photographs and other images are especially telling.

Catherine Moeller’s embroidery art piece “Taming the Virus” on the book’s cover, illustrates the virus in a medium traditionally associated with domesticity. Experiences are shared by mothers of different races and gender identities. Indigenous mothers and grandmothers from Turtle Island as well as those living in Australia, Brazil, India, Korea, Mexico, Spain, South Asia, and the United Kingdom are included. The poem, “Women’s Witness” by Cali Prince ends with this scenario: “And who was it/ who was perceived as a tortoise?/ Yet more aptly/ was a multi-tasking hare/ or a triple headed- one hundred handed goddess?/ The women, they said.”

 Looking at a longer-term impact [of the pandemic] the book’s co-editor, Andrea O’Reilly, in her essay, “Certainly Not an Equal-Opportunity Pandemic,” quotes sociologist Caitlyn Collins who argues, “When something has to give, it’s often the women’s careers”

The book was inspired by the popularity of O’Reilly’s Facebook page, a place where mothers shared the impact of the pandemic on their mental and physical health. O’Reilly knew there were more stories to be told. “Finally, and most urgently”, she and co-editor Green note, “We want to explore how mothers are managing and what can be done to better support them in this pandemic.”

While many of the essays discuss difficulties presented during the pandemic there are noted examples of mothers meeting the challenges with what is referred to by Sara Hayden and Lynn O’Brien Hallstein as “gratitude and grace.” Some academics said they felt privileged to have a job that allowed flexible hours and the option of working from home, while recognizing that not everyone can do so. New ways of accessing work, healthcare, education and social connections provide some positive ways forward for the post-pandemic era. 

Published in Herizons magazine, Summer 2021.

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Glimpses in Time: A Collection of Memoirs and More

Barbara Godin (2021) www.barbgodin.com

Personal essays and memoirs are perhaps among the most popular genre of writing for writers—and they can be very difficult to write, especially to make the story or stories universally appealing. Barbara Godin has succeeded very well in this respect.

I definitely connected with a few of these stories and poems. I have been on some absurd camping trips and can easily relate to some of the situations Godin describes in “The Absurdity of Camping.” I also related to loving a sister even when you know you can’t really help them deal with difficult situations. “Grief: Mary’s Story” is an award-winning short story that shows the depth of Godin’s personal writing.

 In Part 1, Godin has gathered 25 of her stories not only to share glimpses in her own time but to help the reader connect with theirs.  Many of the stories Godin shares are not happy ones, or at least they come from a sad place, but the overall theme that connects these stories is that we are more resilient than we think we might be, and with love and support, we can grow stronger. Godin then moves to some fictional stories in Part 2, which are as reality-based as the previous stories. She also includes some of her poetry that, as written on the book jacket, “includes feelings and situations that help us to connect to one another.” In Part 3, Godin shares the first part of her upcoming autobiography, “Can I Come Home Now?”—something else that must not have been easy to write and yet may provide some catharsis for both writer and reader as others may relate to the story.

Personal essays, short stories and memoirs are among the favourite things I like to read and “Glimpses in Time” does not disappoint. It will evoke laughter, tears, anger, sympathy, and empathy. Most of all it will reaffirm your faith in the human spirit, endures, especially when we let others love us, and most importantly, we love ourselves.

To order: Print/e-bookGlimpses In TimeAmazonKoboIndigoAmazon Canada – Amazon.com-Kindle – Amazon.com – paperback 

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Joy of Movement 

How exercise helps us find happiness, hope, connection and courage

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Avery (Penguin) 2019

I learned of this book by watching an interview on the program The Agenda on TVOntario. It wasn’t so much the topic, or the book, that impressed me and made me want to read the book, it was McGonigal’s passion: Her passion for the work she’s done as a fitness instructor herself and her passion for wanting to impress people that it’s not necessarily the movement that will make them happier and more hopeful, find connections with others or courage, it is the joy they will feel during and after exercising. On her website she explains more about the process of choosing the title of the book.

Feeling that joy explains the happiness McGonigal says people can find when they exercise. What about the other things: the hope, connection, and courage? These are outlined in many of the stories told or sent to McGonigal. The stories of hope and courage that people found when they started an exercise program or went back to it after an illness or surgery are definitely inspiring. The psychological and social benefits of exercise do not depend on physical ability, health, or economic status. There are many examples of people finding more gratitude, love and hope, and feeling less anxiety, depression and loneliness when they engaged in some form of physical activity. Even if you are walking or running alone you may feel connected to others doing the same thing.

Connection was the one that I most identified with. Anytime I’ve engaged in physical activity, there definitely has been a connection to others and a sense of community that grew from that. I’ve always been one to look to the social side of exercise—the camaraderie you build in a group fitness class, a walking group, or a community of instructors teaching the same program that you teach.

The mental and physical benefits of exercise have been well-documented but McGonigal goes well beyond that and looks at those benefits from very many different perspectives including neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, and ethnography.

While each of those perspectives is important it was the chapter discussing music that resonated with me, especially the information on the importance of music in movement. Not exercising, just moving. McGonigal notes that musicologists call the impulse to move when you hear music “groove.” The stories in the book illustrate the impact of music on those with chronic conditions like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease but also on those recovering from injury or illness. Hearing favourite pieces of music got them moving again. Music is an integral part of Essentrics®, the fitness program I teach, as it sets the tone for each exercise in the program. I have taught occasional classes without music to better break down and explain the movements but they come together so much better when accompanied by music.

To me, the connection with others, especially when we are exercising to music, is the real joy of movement. 

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Chronic: A Sick Novel

Paul Lima

Paul Lima Presents (PLP) 2020

There is no gradual build up in “Chronic: A Sick Novel”. By the end of the first chapter, you are well-acquainted with the main setting; you’ve met all of the main characters and a few secondary characters. Their personal and professional lives are not rolled out quite as quickly but details are given as needed and the story moves along quickly.

Two sets of friends, Paul and Deena, and Bolton and Albert, arrive almost simultaneously to view a flat to rent. Paul has Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Deena has Parkinson’s disease. Bolton is a paraplegic, Albert is has cancer. They all love the flat, but neither pair can afford the rent due to their limited financial situations caused in part by their illnesses. The four decide to share the flat. They quickly sort out the logistics and this becomes much more than an agreeable financial arrangement. They learn how to support one another so each can keep living their lives and each time one of them helps another, the support is reciprocal in many unexpected ways.

There is a lot of emotion brought out in the story but at no time do you, or should you, pity these folks. They are doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. Each has a strength they can give to the others and together they make a formidable team of friends who become almost like family. Sometimes the story is a little too happy, but there are several setbacks for all of them. In the end the most important thing they do for each other is to just be there, no matter what happens.

Juxtaposed with what’s happening in the lives of these four friends are the main character Paul’s dreams, which open each chapter. The dreams are varied, and usually connected with what’s going to happen with Paul and his friends, presenting an interesting way of drawing the reader in. 

In the epilogue, Lima provides information about MS, Parkinson’s, cancer and paraplegia. That brings the novel back to reality, but in an informative way.

This book is for anyone who likes a feel-good story, and it’s especially for anyone who is dealing with a chronic illness or knows someone who is. You, and they, might just learn how important it is to just keep going, no matter the odds.

To order “Chronic: A Sick Novel” visit Paul’s website

For more information about the book and Paul Lima read my interview with the author on my Personal Writing page.

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Environmental Activism and the Maternal

Edited by: Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, Noemie Richard, Olivia Ungar, Melanie Younger, and Maryellen Symons

Demeter Press, 2020 

           

Given the increasing number of hurricanes, floods, wild fires, and other environmental disasters in 2020, along with heightened awareness of the need for protection of Indigenous lands, this book is well-timed. The anthology outlines the many and varied ways that feminist, Indigenous, and environmental activism are connected and that we all are grounded in Mother Earth whether we realize it or not.

The three sections: “Mother Earth in Indigenous Frameworks”,“Tensions in Maternal Activism and “Expressions of Apocolyptic Themes”, deal with a different aspect of environmental activism. One essay reflects the environmental activism of Anishinaabe wome Winona LaDuke, Josephine Mandamin, Shirley Ida Williams and Liz Osawamick.   Another examines the use of the terms Mother Earth and Mother Nature within the context of the legalities of the Keystone XL Pipeline debate.

Environmental Activism and the Maternal’s academic nature is demonstrated by its sesquipedalianism, exhaustive literature reviews, and cited works. Contributors’ expertise includes psychology, sociology, anthropology, literary studies and legal studies. There are also contributions from writers, poets and artists. The well-placed illustrations deserve as much consideration as the essays. If “a picture is worth a thousand words,” these images speak volumes. Most of the poems are reflections on the immediate and longer term effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in Louisiana, one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history.

Each of the essays, poems and illustrations offers a perspective fitting the book’s theme. The editors point out in the Introduction, “Activists involved in environmental advocacy are often mothers, and moreover, many women within environmental justice serve as mothers to movements.” The last entry, “An Old Tree” illustrated by Janet Fraser and written by her grandmother, Blanche MacDonald Markstad, an early European settler in Alberta, is a fitting conclusion and a call to keep taking care of Mother Earth.

An Old Tree 

An old tree standing by the windswept road/With broken limbs outstretched/Seeming to hold back the time that has/Upon its branches stretched/The ravage if a thousand years/That left the trunk unharmed/The winter winds have claimed the bark/ Pathetic there it stands amid/The younger and the fair/As if to shout in one last breath/I’ve known the world. /Take care.

Published in Herizons magazine, Spring 2021

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Girls Need Not Apply 

Kelly S. Thompson

McLelland & Stewart Canada (Penguin Random House) 2019      

Kelly Thompson is an award-winning writer. Now she’s turned her talents to telling her own story in her memoir, Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces (McClelland & Stewart 2019), a recollection of her experiences in the Canadian Armed Forces. As Thompson writes in her Author’s Note, some events have been compressed, eliminated or rearranged, and names have been changed for privacy. She’d initially thought of writing a work of fiction, but this is definitely a true story.

It’s a compelling read, filled with humour, sadness and some anger – the same gamut of emotions I felt reading the book as she describes her military life, from her arrival for basic training in 2003 to her medical release in 2011. Thompson learned the importance of following rules and protocol, but she also had to learn the often unspoken rules of accepting gender inequality and sexual harassment – rules that seemed to be set and followed by both the men and women in command. In many ways, some of her fellow female cadets and officers made her life more difficult than the men did. Some of the events during her years in the military Thompson tells in painstaking detail, and you feel her emotional, mental and physical pain. Other events, particularly a sexual assault of a fellow female cadet and the suicide of a male cadet, seem to be glossed over. Details of those events are definitely compressed because, as Thompson told me, there was not a lot of information forthcoming, which was typical of military culture. “You were always told to be moving on, with no time to grieve losses.”

In describing situations that led to her finally lodging a complaint of harassment against a superior officer, which led to her transferring out of that department, Thompson writes, “I’d been told in countless ways that the military was not the life for me. But sitting in the Chief of Staff’s office that day, I finally listened.” She describes her transfer as finally saving herself, and with her last posting, she finally felt that she was being accepted, and things were getting better – just as she was going to be leaving.

After her military service, Thompson moved to British Columbia to continue her studies. She reunited with, and married, a man she’d first fallen in love with during their basic training, and began her writing career, using her BA in Professional Writing from York University in Ontario and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She returned to Ontario a few years ago and now lives in North Bay, writing full-time and continuing her studies as a PhD candidate in Literary and Critical Studies at the University of Gloucestershire.

Leaving the military led to many mixed feelings. She writes, “I knew…..that I would miss the military in a way that would drag me into dark mental places, but that I would be okay. I would learn. I would write.” She has definitely done that, and done it well.

An edited version of this article was published in “The Poke”, newsletter of the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), February 2020. PWAC has now become a partner in the Canadian Freelance Guild (CFG)  

My article “Taking Aim at Misconduct” is available on my Captions Communications Published Writing page. It discusses sexual misconduct in the military and was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Herizons magazine.

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Writing Menopause

Edited by Jane Cawthorne and E.D. Morin

Inanna Publications and Education Inc.  2017

“Menopause. Say the word in public. See what happens.” So begins Writing Menopause. This anthology isn’t about menopause from a clinical perspective–although there are a few too many references to night sweats, mood swings and heavy bleeding. As editors Cawthorne and Morin point out, there is no shortage of books about menopause yet there is a shortage of good stories. This book attempts to fill that void, and in doing so it will leave readers emotionally spent yet emotionally charged. From the opening montage of “The Chrissie Hynde Stories” (yes, that Chrissie Hynde) to the closing short piece “Last Blood”, there will be laughter and tears, and some pieces will haunt you enough to want to read on quickly. These pieces lay bare some of the raw emotion surrounding this part of a woman’s life.

If there is a common thread throughout the book, it is that women really feel this change of life; that it somehow gives them permission to be more creative, more powerful and more passionate, which not only describes the work, but the writers and the poets.

“The menopause experience is not simply something to survive……those in menopause climb mountains, take on lovers, create art, daydream, undertake scientific explorations, and transform themselves with an urgency that springs from the bittersweet realization that their time is short,” Cawthorne and Morin write.

The titles of the three sections in the book, Un/Done, In/Fertile and Un/Known, the editors say, are meant to show the multiplicity of experiences within this common menopausal time. Within each section, the essays and poetry show that there is indeed a lot of life left to live after menopause. Women have to be open to all of its joys and challenges, and if anyone thinks differently, then this book will have them think again. While you may not relate to all, or perhaps any, of the feelings expressed in Writing Menopause, the book will definitely make you think differently about the M word. It may even get you talking about it in public, and then waiting to see what will happen.

Published in the Summer 2018 issue of Herizons

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Gluten  Freedom 

Fasano, Alessio M.D. with Susie Flaherty
Wiley General Trade (Turner) 2015

Gluten Freedom is divided into four sections, taking you from looking how gluten entered the world to looking towards the future with new therapies and new treatments that might make it easier for us to live gluten-free, and maybe even are able to better tolerate gluten. The layout of the book also allows you to choose where to start, depending on where you are in your life.

I started with the chapter Gluten in Your Golden Years, because I was in my 50s before I was diagnosed. I don’t know if your 50s are considered your “golden years”, but that seemed like a good place to start.  It was interesting for me to learn that while Celiac Disease is often diagnosed as a paediatric condition, it can come on later in life. Or, it may be that while the disease actually never goes away, the condition can improve due to diet changes—and then come back if those diet changes are not made permanent.

It was also good to read stories from others who had a later-life diagnosis.
The personal stories are a definite asset to the book, but at times they are a bit too long. That said, it’s good to have them, so that reader knows he/she is not alone. By the same token, the research is a bit too detailed, which made me, and perhaps might make other readers skip over it at times, which is unfortunate, because it’s important research. We can learn from both the research and the stories.

The research comes from Fasano’s Center for Celiac Research & Treatment, which he founded in 1996. Since it’s definitely become easier to live gluten free, it is difficult to imagine dietary hardships and other problems faced by those with CD in the earlier years, or the need for a research facility dedicated to this. Clearly there is a need for the center*, and I for one, am grateful for the research done there.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions, and there is a need for more research (hence the Center) For example, why is CD diagnosed in some people as children, yet not until later in life for others? Why are there only intestinal problems for some while others experience symptoms affecting different systems in the body, including the brain?

Whether you are seeking Gluten Freedom for yourself, or you know someone who is, I urge you to read this book. You’ll understand more about what affects your gut health, and how important a healthy gut is to your overall health.  Then you can decide whether there is a need for a CD test, or whether you or someone in your family may have developed Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). I wish I’d known before I removed gluten from my diet the importance of the tests, so that I would have had a more accurate diagnosis.

Living with NCGS  is not fun, but it is manageable, and there are more products available, which makes it easier. Information and research being done by Dr. Fasano and others is welcome.

*I am sticking with the “American” spelling of center, as the Center for Celiac Disease is located in Boston, Massachusetts. I would normally use the “Canadian” spelling of “centre.” Either is correct.

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Strangely, Incredibly Good

 Heather Grace Stewart

Morning Rain Publishing, 2014

Simply, Incredibly Good

When talking about Montreal-area writer Heather Grace Stewart’s novel, “Strangely, Incredibly Good”, I muffed the title and called it “Simply, Incredibly Good.” Hence the title for my review—because this is a novel that is simple on some levels, highly complicated on others, and is—well—good. Really good.

I wasn’t surprised at how good it was. I’ve followed Heather’s work for a few years, and have read a lot of her poetry, which is nothing like the poetry we studied in school. Heather’s poems come from the heart, rarely fit a pattern, and touched me on a deeply emotional level. I expected the same from the novel—and it exceeded those expectations. Belief has to be somewhat suspended to really get into this book and follow its characters.

Heather’s heroine, Cat Gilmour, an overweight 38-year old divorcée, is hard on herself, and gets down easily sometimes but she also has a wicked sense of humour. She readily laughs at herself or society. She also has an inner strength that she doesn’t even know she has sometimes. It takes her teenaged daughters, her 91-year old grandmother and a Genie to help her find that strength. A Genie?

A wish-granting Genie pops out of Cat’s exercise machine and leads her to discover, own and change her past so she can forge a better future for herself and her family. The Genie doesn’t always get it right though meaning that he and Cat have some amazing experiences.

We all may not be able to change our past but we certainly are in control of our present and our future, and if there doesn’t happen to be a Genie around to help, it’s up to us to make our future what we want it to be. Sometimes we don’t always know how to stand up for ourselves but we can learn. Whether Heather Grace Stewart meant there to be these messages in her book or not I don’t know but that’s what I was left with.

I was also left with a hope that there would be a sequel—and I recently found out there would be. Heather’s hoping it will be out by late 2015. So, Cat’s adventures with her girls and her “Badass Grandma” will continue and who knows, her Genie just may be along for the ride. I know I will be.
During a recent interview, I asked Heather how and why she made the transition from writing poetry and non-fiction to writing a novel that is so full of emotions, mostly funny ones.

“I write for myself and hope my audience will follow. Right now, I’m concentrating on the fiction and that seems to be a good place for me to be,” Heather says. “We’re all complicated, multi-sided human beings so I think I always had that in me. I’ve always liked humour and being funny. With my writing I like to make people laugh and cry and be entertained. Poetry and non-fiction don’t always lend themselves to humour though so I needed to find another outlet. It started with “Leap” (my second book of poetry) and there was a little more in the next book, “Carry On Dancing.” My humour comes out in my writing and when I’m speaking at a book signing or other event. I am a serious journalist with this fun side that likes to poke fun at herself and society. Cat likes to do that too so my humour comes out through her except she thinks and says things that I don’t dare.”

As Heather says, she is sticking with the fiction for now and I, for one, am happy for that. I’ve enjoyed her poetry but her fiction is such fun to read.

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Chocolatour: A Quest for the World’s Best Chocolate, Volume 1 

Doreen Pendgracs                                                                    

Wizard of Words Productions, 2013

This book should come with a warning, “Do not read unless you have a supply of chocolate handy.” After reading even a few chapters about how the people make chocolate and the beautiful places all over the world where they live and work, you will definitely be reaching for some chocolate.  How could you meet cocoa producers and farmers in Ecuador, Peru and St. Lucia, discover cocoa’s many health benefits and the reasons we crave it, then meet chocolatiers, chocolate makers, and chocolate masters, without wanting to devour some chocolate? As the saying goes, “resistance is futile.”

In this first volume of Chocolatour, after talking about how the cacao beans that get transformed into chocolate are grown, Pendgracs then introduces us to chocolate masters in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Holland, as well as the UK. There is also a chapter on the health benefits of chocolate. She is not talking about your typical “candy bar” but the artisan chocolate made so carefully and with such craftmanship by the people she met on her “chocolatours.” Finally, there is the A-Z Chocolate Lovers’ Guide so you can plan your own global chocolate journeys.

If there is any confusion between the terms chocolatier, chocolate maker, and chocolate master Pendgracs explains them in the Introduction and then the terms are more fully explained in Chapter 1.  It’s a marvel to see the passion, flair, and personality put into the making of this delectable treat. Speaking of personality, did you know chocolate has one and that you have a “chocolate personality” too? This may explain why, when you have a craving for a certain kind of chocolate you may not be satisfied until and unless you can find it. Fortunately, Pendgracs makes that easy for us.

She also makes it easy to figure out just which chocolate to eat when by offering some pairing sensations and recipes! Pendgracs has also compiled her list of Chocolatour Awards for Chocolate Excellence. 

In addition to being a book about chocolate, this is also a travel guide. In addition to being a “chocolate adventurist”, Pendgracs is a travel writer. So, along with where to find the best chocolate in the countries highlighted in the book, Pendgracs points out many tourist attractions.

With many of the photos taken by Pendgracs, the book is as beautifully illustrated as it is well-written and edited, and here’s my warning: you will definitely want to have some fine chocolate on hand as you are reading it.                                                                                                                                                         

To read more about Doreen Pendgracs, the chocolate adventurist and Wizard of Words, visit her website.  

You can order Chocolatour Volume 1 here. 

 Vol. 2, which will highlight the chocolatiers, chocolate masters, and chocolate makers in North America is currently in production. 

This review was updated from the original one that appeared on my blog in 2013. 

 
 

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