Bella's Bookshelves

O day of days, when we can read! - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Project Bookmark Canada: What it is and why you should support it

downloadI recently had the privilege of being featured on Project Bookmark Canada’s site as a Page Turner. What this means is that I wrote about what the project is, what it means to me, and how it ties in with my profound love of CanLit. And then I donated $20 to help the organization—spear-headed by author Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny, one of my favourite story collections)—put up bookmarks across Canada for the nation’s literary enrichment and cultural heritage.

You can read the post here (apparently, Google gets pissy if you duplicate content, so I can’t post it here as well). And you can donate, too, if you like!

The Back Forty

i-cant-keep-calm-its-my-birthday-bitches-66Back forty: n. wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this morning—I only know that it far exceeded what I could have imagined. My husband of 11 years woke me up with the best birthday card I’ve ever received. I was ugly crying before I even got out of bed. Then he led me around the house while I found and opened 50 gifts. Forty of them were wee baggies of candy with slips of paper describing beautiful, touching reasons he loves me. I was, still am, overwhelmed by them. It’s really amazing to see yourself the way someone who loves you see you. The rest of the gifts were treats to spoil me with. There was lots more ugly crying in my pjs and tons of bear hugs and so much freaking happiness!

I put 40 years of life behind me today. This was never going to be a big deal—until a couple of months ago when suddenly it was. Before that, I laughed about it. It sounded ridiculous. After all, I still thought I was going to be in my thirties forever, invincible, even.  I look younger than forty, I think younger, I act younger, I feel younger. But as the days passed, I suddenly found myself saying “forty” with emphasis, like this: FORTY. It sounds fat and old and ominous. Rationally, I know it’s not. But now I feel left behind by time. As though it’s passing without letting me do and be and have the things I want now. It’s leaving me in the dust. I don’t want to turn 50 and never have been on a tropical vacation! I wanted things to be different by now! But there’s no point in denying it: you can’t think that the day before. It’s happening whether I’m ready or not.

Over the past few months I’ve found myself questioning everything, unable to make decisions because what I once knew and liked and saw and did no longer hold the same certainty of interest. Whereas I simply went for the things I always went for, because they were me, now I’m not so sure about what I like and want to do and where I want to be. I’m not so sure of who I am. Plus I’m…softer. Just a little. Okay, ten pounds. Anyway, I’m in the process of some major shift (with any luck it will be more than just a gravitational pull of skin). I’m changing. I FEEL IT. I’m in the back forty, that wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area (the fifties, seventies, nineties?). This isn’t the time I’ve got everything figured out, even after thirty years. Hang on, Self, you’re in for a bumpy ride (that will likely, hopefully? never end!).

Today, though, instead of grabbing the sick bag, I’ve decided to raise my arms in the air and yell “Yeehaw!” That might be the Jack Daniel’s talking already, but it’s also reflective of the choice I want to make. For this new time to be fun. For the bumps to be so ridiculous I’m airborne and laughing. Hello, 40, and welcome! Let’s be fabulous. Let’s write better stories than we did in our thirties—and publish. Let’s go on that tropical vacation we’ve never had. Let’s help others write better stories. Let’s read more fantastic books out of which we’ll get more because we’re older and wiser and more empathetic. Let’s just do everything, only better, because now we can. Let’s celebrate!

That’s a pretty good segue into what I want to do next. One of my favourite things to do on my birthday is give. It makes me feel good, of course, and I love the anticipation and seeing others happy. I bought my sister and my husband a gift for today. They don’t know it yet (unless they’re reading this post or I’ve given it to them already). Admittedly, neither gift was a book, but that’s only because today I didn’t want to be predictable—to them.

To you, I’m going to be somewhat predictable. First I’m going to list forty books on my shelves that I really love. They’re not all of my absolute favourites, of which I have an insane number, and they’re in no particular order. They’re just forty books I very much enjoyed for various reasons.

Second, one of you will receive a SIGNED (to you!) copy of Sarah Selecky’s superb collection This Cake is for the Party! (Finalist for the 2010 Giller, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, CBC Bookie Award for Best New Writer, and Globe 100 Best Canadian Fiction). No, it’s not a new book, but it’s a great book. The writing is crystal clean, strong, evocative, and memorable. This book did so much for me, I can’t even tell you, not least of which was to introduce me to Sarah, a wonderful, beautiful, talented woman who has inspired me, hired me, and made me a better person. I’m celebrating with her cake.

To win: comment and tell me your best birthday ever. I’ll pick one of you and let you know you won. And then I’ll send you the book. (If you’d like to comment without entering the contest, you can! Simply let me know you don’t want to enter.)

Thank you all for reading and supporting and encouraging and sharing the book love!

~40-year-old Steph

 Forty Books I Recommend

  1. The Carnivore, by Mark Sinnet (ECW Press)
  2. The End of the Alphabet, by C.S. Richardson (Anchor Canada)
  3. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen)
  4. The Bear, by Claire Cameron (Doubleday Canada)
  5. A Blessed Snarl, by Samual Thomas Martin (Breakwater Books)
  6. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (Europa Editions)
  7. Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh (Simon and Schuster)
  8. Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt (Anansi Press)
  9. Sandra Beck, by John Lavery (Anansi Press)
  10. Dead Politician’s Society, by Robin Spano (ECW Press)
  11. The House on Sugarbush Lane, by Méira Cook (Enfield and Wizenty)
  12. On Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman (Anansi International)
  13. The Kept, by James Scott (HarperCollins)
  14. The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Riverhead Books)
  15. The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell (short stories) (Little, Brown)
  16. A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash (William Morrow)
  17. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Anchor Canada)
  18. The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly (Simon & Schuster)
  19. The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie (short stories) (HarperCollins)
  20. Sleeping Funny, by Miranda Hill (short stories) (Anchor Canada)
  21. Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell (short stories) (Coach House)
  22. Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong (short stories) (Anansi)
  23. Radio Belly, by Buffy Cram (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  24. Bird Eat Bird, by Katrina Best (short stories) (Insomniac Press)
  25. The Divinity Gene, by Matthew Trafford (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
  26. A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson (Douglas & McIntyre)
  27. And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (short stories) (Cormorant)
  28. All We Want is Everything, by Andrew F. Sullivan (short stories) (Arbeiter Ring Pub)
  29. The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc (ECW Press)
  30. Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W. Wilson (short stories) (Penguin Canada)
  31. Bull Head, by John Vigna (short stories) (Arsenal Pulp Press)
  32. Pilgrims, by Elizabeth Gilbert (short stories) (Penguin)
  33. I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro (short stories) (Grove Press)
  34. Tenth of December, by George Saunders (short stories) (Random House)
  35. We Live in Water, by Jess Walter (short stories) (Harper Perennial)
  36. How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (short stories) (Invisible Pub)
  37. Welding with Children, by Tim Gautreaux (short stories) (Picador)
  38. The Help, by Kathleen Stockett (Berkley Trade)
  39. Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee (short stories) (Hamish Hamilton)
  40. The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black (short stories) (Nightwood Press)

Shit! Am I at forty already?? (SEE WHAT I MEAN?)

There are so many I missed. There may be some overlap but you can check my reviews page, and also always feel free to ask me for recommendations. I have SO MANY to recommend beyond these forty here.

Thank you again, everyone, for reading! I look forward to your b-day stories!

xxx

The Bear, by Claire Cameron. A Reaction

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

The Bear, by Claire Cameron

Perhaps even more so because it’s based on a true story in a place I’m well familiar with, The Bear by Canadian author Claire Cameron absolutely devastated me. A family of four goes camping on Lake Opeongo in Algonquin Park, at Bates Island. In a horrifying and chaotic sequence of beginning pages, the parents are attacked, killed, and—yes, as is naively, gruesomely witnessed by Anna, our narrator—eaten by a black bear. The children, a five-year-old (Anna) and her toddler brother (Alex, aka Stick), who have been shoved into a Coleman cooler by their father in a desperate effort to protect them, do not comprehend what is happening. When they finally emerge from the Coleman, Anna takes tear-inducing instructions from her dying mother to canoe off the island to be safe. Run aground on a nearby island, the children struggle to survive as their young psyches compute what is happening only enough to get by. I should say here: while the children in this book are added (the true story involves only a man and woman), we are never asked to suspend our belief for the sake of the story: the children’s experience and the narrative voice are wholly acceptable. Anna’s sentence structure and thought process set a pace that never falters, even as she struggles to make sense of her surroundings and what is demanded of her; her many tangents serve as anchors with which we she keeps herself moored, things she can still identify, recall, and depend on.

Very rarely do I read a book in one sitting, but last night I picked it up at 10:30 and finished it in just over two hours. I actually went back through, thinking I must have skipped things in my eagerness, but everything I looked at I remembered. After the first few pages, I had wanted to stop. An almost overwhelming feeling of resistance to the book made me close it, at first. I’m not sure whether it was the point of view of a young child, which did take a little getting used to, or something else. Maybe that other feeling you get at the same time as being morbidly fascinated. Maybe fear.

But I opened it again, obviously, and tore through it (let’s not make the comparison to a hungry bear through a campsite). An excellent choice, the ending. Very well done. While it has a necessarily different tone, Cameron manages to make it flow seamlessly from the previous part and finish on a hopeful note.

Still, The Bear made me cry and subject my husband, when he came to bed, to my reflections on life and death especially, but also empathy for the kids (I won’t subject you, too. I was blubbery and went on about how this couple went through life, making choices, growing up, meeting, being together, deciding to go camping, and then BAM! they’re attacked by a bear and eaten. La fin. One day you’re there and then you’re not. I said, so fine, maybe we don’t all live to a hundred, but why can’t we all just die in our sleep, whatever age we’re meant to go? Why so many terrible ways? Eaten by a bear. It’s so utterly horrific and sad and overwhelming. I mean, this really happened: I remember it. It was 1991, and I remember, because I was both fascinated and freaked out).

It may be inevitable that this book gets compared to Emma Donoghue’s Room, but it would do the reader well not to hold up one against the other. It wouldn’t be entirely fair. While both are based on true stories and told from the perspective of a five-year-old who experiences a traumatic event, the voices are quite different. Like Room, though, this novel is going to stay with me a long time. I hope I can go camping in Algonquin again…

PS. As a bookseller, I met many people who were afraid to read Room. I dare you to read The Bear. These kinds of books: they’re not just reads, they’re experiences. What books are meant to be.

Hello Again, Plus Simon & Schuster’s Winter Survival Pack

It embarrasses me to say I haven’t posted here in almost a year. I wanted to, but I didn’t know how all of a sudden. Aside from freelance work, writing short stories, and teaching creative writing, I was having an existential crisis as a book blogger. I goggled at the piles of books sent me that I hadn’t yet read, was overcome with guilt, and also, unrelated to the guilt, began to wonder why I was reviewing. Which then made it increasingly difficult to review. I asked myself who really cared, who really read, what it really meant to be a book blogger in the grand scheme of the book world. Was it worth all the effort? Certainly, from blogging came new and exciting jobs, and a shitload of wonderful new acquaintances and pals, and of course, the great books. I’m very thankful.

But it’s hard to keep up, man. There are so many books, so many people. It’s a cool but overwhelming world. As for blogging, I do it for free, but it’s still a lot of effort and time because I want to give you consistent quality, and I’m a perfectionist who’s always trying to anticipate what everyone might respond. I fear sounding dumb or like a fraud or that I missed something essential in the writing. So I started lagging in motivation. In the meantime, I gained a sister, a dog, and ten pounds. I started smoking (after 13 years of having quit!) and drinking coffee. (Never mind the Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort and Gibson’s. Hard liquor has always been a given.)

But I missed blogging, after I stopped feeling guilty for not doing it. I’m not promising that I’ll be back every week, but I’d like to still contribute in some meaningful way to the book world. I may not publish long reviews anymore, but whatever I write, it will still be thoughtful.

UPDATE: One thing before I get to the fun stuff: it is completely coincidence that I decided to say hello again on the day that CanLit author and enthusiast Chad Pelley decided to shut down his popular site Salty Ink. Just so you know, he’s got a new endeavour called The Overcast. Check it out. I’m following it, even though I don’t live in the area. Newfoundland is an exciting contributor to CanLit and the arts scene.

To push off again, I’m starting light. Simon & Schuster created their Winter Survival Pack to promote some of their new books but also treat readers with other goodies in appreciation. What fun! And you, dear reader, can win this stay-warm kit!

The Kit includes:
- 1 pair of mittens
- 1 pair of reusable hand warmers
- Scented candles
- 1 pair of socks
- 1 hot water bottle
- 1 Simon & Schuster Canada signature mug
- 1 Sower’s Blend tea
- The Ultimate Survival Guide (Canadian Edition)
- The Demonologist
- The Troop
- The Best Cook Book Ever
- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Wonders of Winter

- Hyperbole and a Half
- Octopus’s Garden
- Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants

Go to S&S’s site Five Ways to Stay Warm for Winter and enter the contest. Good luck! PS. Hyperbole and a Half is a laugh and a half, I swear!

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

S&S Stay-Warm Prize Pack

 

Short Stories for Breakfast Weekly Recap

20130519_110722I’m really enjoying this practice, you guys! It hits so many spots: an enriching start to the day, an entrance into the creative state of mind, a way to sample as many authors as I can, to get through the many books I have I’ve not yet touched. Christians often read daily devotionals, and you know, I get it. My daily devotional is a short story in the morning. It is truly edifying.

On that note, I’m reminded that last year I drew up a book proposal for an anthology of short stories. It’s a special one, and I’ll say more when I can confidently do so. But this series of recaps as well as my kitchen bookshelf has got me thinking even more about this proposal, about the stories I would include. I’ve been reluctant to submit the idea, though I know it’s good, in case I can’t follow up with the work because of how much time it may take. But I’m already doing much of the “work,” I see. I’m now prepared to revisit the proposal. I’ll keep you posted on any news.

And now for the week’s recap:

May 12: Er…I seem to have lost what I read. I have no idea. I’m sorry to whoever that was!

May 13: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Precious” by Miranda Hill, from SLEEPING FUNNYRandom House, 2012. A different kind of mothering with a fantastic twist at the end.  A brilliant story from a superb, original collection. Miranda made me so jealous with this book! Do read it.

May 14: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Price of Acorn,” by Natalee Caple, from THE HEART IS ITS OWN REASON. Insomniac Press, 1998. A couple sells their child in exchange for a washing machine. Great twist at the end. Really enjoyed this story!

May 15: “Throwing Cotton,” by Sarah Selecky, from THIS CAKE IS FOR THE PARTY, Thomas Allen, 2011. Two couples share a cottage. Sexy. This story has a Margaret Atwood feel somehow, though it’s Sarah’s own. Her way with words is my inspiration. I reviewed the book here. Sarah is my coach, my cheerleader, a kindred friend. I love her heart. I lent this book to my sister in England last July when she visited and she took it back with her because I insisted she keep it so she could finish it. I have missed it so much I bought another copy.

May 16: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Two-Step,” by John Vigna, from BULL HEAD. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2012. Excellent. Difficult to summarize, as there’s more going on than just a man visiting his brother in prison for three days. Think I’m going to really enjoy this collection. Gritty. I want to sink my teeth in. Even though I hate the cover. PS. How could I not like an author who has a website honouring his beautiful, sadly deceased dog? The pictures are mmm.

May 17: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Ordinary Life,” by Elizabeth Berg, from the collection of the same name. 79-yr-old Mavis decides she needs a retreat and locks herself in the bathroom with supplies for a week, while her husband Al tries to make her come out. Sweet, funny, insightful. I love this author. I read Open House soon after my first marriage broke up, and I was hers.

May 18: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Eight-ball,” by Samuel Martin, from THIS RAMSHACKLE TABERNACLEBreakwater Books Ltd., 2010. One of the hardest stories I’ve ever read. Absolutely tragic. This chiaroscuric, insightful collection has always been a big inspiration for me. Thanks, Sam. Review of collection here.

May 19: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Master of Disaster,” by Guy Vanderhaeghe, from THINGS AS THEY ARE. I’ve been wanting to read Vanderhaeghe since university and this is my first time. I’m an idiot. This is gold.

Just before I go, I’ll leave you with a short interview I did with Open Books Ontario. They said really awesome things about this blog and me, which made my day! Also, I lie just a little bit about my day. Since I got myself a mobile, that’s really my ideal day I’m talking about.

Hope you’re enjoying these posts. Know what I’ve found? Short story a day keeps the reading slumps away!

Short Stories for Breakfast Weekly Recap

393136_10151598020025935_137351792_nHi guys! Apologies: I’ve been preoccupied with other things lately, and I missed the last two weeks’ recap. I’ll include them here with this week’s. Just a note: There isn’t a single book in this pile I wouldn’t recommend. God, I have good books!

April 22: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: Spending time with Saleema Nawaz Webster, who currently deals with the aftermath of a fire having ravaged her home last night. Reading “Scar Tissue,” from her collection MOTHER SUPERIOR. Freehand Books, 2008. Thinking of you, Saleema.

April 23: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Miracle Mile,” by Alexander MacLeod, from LIGHT LIFTING. @biblioasis. I LIVED (not a typo!) this story. Superb. Great tension, and so evocative, especially of school track meets. Fantastic similes and metaphors. Very glad I own this book! If I had time now, I’d read one by his father.

April 24: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Some Wife,” by Jessica Westhead, from AND ALSO SHARKS. Cormorant, 2011. Hilarious and so astute you’ll recognize everything in it as truth even if you don’t know anyone like these guys. A man becomes obsessed with his coworker’s wife.

April 25: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Slatland,” by Rebecca Lee, from BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES. Penguin, 2012. Holy moly, this writer. I can’t wait to read this entire book. A story about a relationship but so original in its delivery. Also funny in parts! Penguin president and publisher Nicole Winstanley said to me: “It’s better than a kickass hot coffee first thing in the morning.” I agree.

April 26: “How We Avenged the Blums,” by Nathan Englander, from WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK. Knopf, 2012. A young Jewish boy is beaten up and the boys on his side plan revenge. Excellent! Very much liked this story. PS. This is one of the most best-smelling books I’ve had the pleasure of smelling in ages (hardcover edition).

April 27: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Gaining Ground,” by Robin Black, from IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS. Great narrative voice and characterization. And funny! Random House, 2011.

April 28: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Slough,” by Pasha Malla, from THE WITHDRAWAL METHOD. Anansi Press, 2008. This is a freaking awesome story. I have to read it again.

April 29: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Guy in a Hoodie,” by Binnie Brennan, from A CERTAIN GRACE, Quattro Books, 2012. Two middle-aged teachers get tanked and try their luck scoring a joint. Funny, not so funny, and short. I think it could have worked a little harder at being better.

April 30: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Where the Bodies Are Kept” by @BarbaraLambert4, #JourneyPrizeAnthology No. 11, @writerstrust. Excellent. Reminds me somewhat of Carol Shields, but this has more of an edge. And so cool, now that I know Barbara, to recognize personal things in the story. Find Barbara’s site here. She’s the author of Cormorant’s The Whirling Girl.

May 1: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Mud Below,” by Annie Proulx, from CLOSE RANGE. Scribner, 2003. Damn, woman! When I grow up, I want to write like Annie! Such a good story.

May 2: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Killers,” by Hemingway, from MEN WITHOUT WOMEN. Two hitmen walk into a lunch room… Well-paced, funny, fantastic dialogue. Oh, pfft. Saying anything cheapens it. Perfection is what it is. But of course. [1928] Arrow Books, 2004.

May 3: #shortstoryforbreakfast, “Corduroy,” by Adam Giles, finalist in the 2013 U of T Magazine short story contest. Sad, but good. Don’t want to give it away: you can read it here yourself!http://www.magazine.utoronto.ca/alumni-writing-contest/corduroy/.

May 4: Hmm. This seems to be missing. I have no idea what I read, if anything.

May 5#shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Across the Lake,” by Deborah Eisenberg, from ALL AROUND ATLANTIS. Many thanks to David Penhale for the reco! Washington Square Press (Simon & Schuster), 1997.

May 6: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Loving Wanda Beaver,” from the collection of the same name, by Alison Baker (O. Henry Awards). Mmm. Takes me back to my summers in Chatham in the fields detasseling corn. Chronicle Books, 1995.

May 7: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Flirtations,” by Carrie Anne Snyder, from HAIR HAT. Penguin, 2004. Really great story, excellent, natural dialogue, too. A couple with a dubious relationship goes to an academic function together. Penguin, 2004.

May 8: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “The Reverse Cowgirl,” by David Whitton, from the collection of the same name. Freehand Books, 2011. Not at all what I expected! The weirdest story I’ve ever read, I think, and I loved it. Enjoyed the narrative voice, the imaginativeness, the structure of the story. It involves time travel through a very interesting medium.

May 9: Was in TO and enjoyed freshly baked banana chocolate chip muffins instead for breakfast with friend AmandaLeduc (author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men, ECW Press, 2013) chez the other beautiful friend Allegra Young.

May 10: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “A Drowning Incident,” by Cormac McCarthy. 1960.www.cormacmccarthy.com/works. He wrote it while still in college. An awful story: the content I mean. 

May 11: #shortstoriesforbreakfast: “Ghost Stories,” by Alex Leslie, from PEOPLE WHO DISAPPEAR. Freehand Books, 2012. Very well-crafted! Excellent dialogue and such original use of language. A girl and her uncle trek through forests looking for a ghost town. ‘Course, there’s more to it than that. You’d have to read it to know.

Saleema Nawaz Updates Us on Fire Damage—And Her Books

To all who’ve read and so generously responded to my previous blog post Help Canadian Author Saleema Nawaz Rebuild Her Book Collection After Fire:

THANK YOU. Your responses showed kindness, understanding, empathy, and also a kindred love of literature. I feel certain that your comments have buoyed Saleema’s spirits even while she’s faced with the destruction of her home. As Sam Gamgee said to Faramir a long, long time ago, you have shown your quality, the very highest.

However: Saleema has posted an update on her blog. Please read her post. There are pictures, too. Importantly, she gently requests that since their books were mostly undamaged except by smoke, it’s not necessary for us to send her any to help her rebuild her collection.

Again, I thank you so much for your responses and suggest instead, as Denise Bukowski commented, that you buy Saleema’s books. Mother Superior is a collection of, well, superior short stories. Bone and Bread, her new novel, has already been welcomed with high praise, and the Quill & Quire has called her Anansi’s new star.

This post serves to end the campaign to send books. Even if I jumped the gun, for which I apologize, I don’t feel the posts were in vain. Saleema saw your gracious, caring comments, and at a time when all was uncertain, felt us as the ground beneath her feet.

Thank you all again.

-Steph

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