I buy books. And sometimes I read them. This blog is for the times when I do more than just store shelf candy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Flipped the Pages of Bill Bryson's African Diary

Photography by Jenny Matthews

My copy:
Hardbound Pocketbook
ISBN 0767915062
Purchased: August 7, 2010
from National Bookstore Greenbelt
Read: October 26, 2010

In 2002, CARE International commissioned travel writer Bill Bryson to write about a trip to Kenya, where they visited CARE communities. His musings were published in a pocket sized hardbound book. It was a fundraiser of sorts -- all book sale proceeds, plus the author's royalties, were coursed through CARE International to implement poverty alleviating projects all over the world.

Bill Bryson chronicles his eight days visiting places like Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi; and Kisumu, Kenya's poorest city. It would have been tempting for any writer to be patronizing or preachy, writing about the experience with extreme poignancy, riddling the piece with cliches about hope amidst poverty.

But Bill Bryson is not any writer. He narrates with abundant wit a journey that had him in a train that's part of a fleet that had "a tradition of killing its passengers" and a light aircraft that they were certain would send them to their violent deaths. Several times, I found myself chuckling out loud.

His honest and comical disclosures about his expectations being inspired by the movie, Out of Africa, and then his apprehensions about the dangers of visiting the country (bandits, beggar kids rubbing feces on their faces, etc.) were more about poking fun at himself than disparaging the country. Bryson ably balanced humor with relevant insight, while peppering the piece with quick descriptions of Africa's beautiful scenery and wildlife.

With his wry sense of humor, sharp observation, and engaging storytelling, Bill Bryson is the travel writer I want to be.

The main drawback of the book is its brevity -- only 49 pages plus a few more pages for information about CARE.

Though Bryson shared some specific, inspiring examples of the people he met, of how a micro-finance project for women is changing lives and brining in hope, this piece is merely a rippling of the surface. No time nor space for intelligent discourse on poverty and corruption here. A reflection of CARE's mindset: " It's not about spending huge amounts of money, but about spending smaller amounts intelligently."

Bringing this to a personal level -- I read that just before the hostage incident here in Manila, Leonardo di Caprio was supposed to come to the country, stay in one of our plush resorts for a week, and be paid a million dollars to give this country a better reputation. I wish somebody had thought of bringing Bill Bryson or some other intelligent travel writer here instead. We don't need to tell other people how beautiful our country and its people are, because that is just stating the obvious. What we need is somebody to present a balanced view that includes, and not clumsily hides, poverty, corruption, and other ills but balances all that with a message of hope, not just in miracles, but in the ability of the people to do something about their lot. But that requires positive change amonth the leaders and the citizens. Then, maybe we can start believing our own publicity.

The Flippers Visit the Basilica de San Sebastian

Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth is an astounding work of about a thousand pages. It is about the building of a cathedral in medieval Europe. It was the Flippers' book for our October bookdiscussion.

Last Saturday, October 23, 2010, we started the day with our pre-activity -- a tour of the Basilica de San Sebastian. The 2-hour tour gave us a breathtaking view of beautifully designed church and also lent visuals to the text we just read. I'll let the slide show tell the story.

After the tour, we headed to SM Manila for lunch at Shakey's. Then we hopped over to Caffe Ti Amo for gelatos and the book discussion. There's a slide show for that as well.

Sorry, I'm still figuring out how to organize my photos on Flickr, so I can't use the gadget function to post the slide show directly on this blog. I'm going to figure that out sometime this century. Promise. In the meantime, just follow the links:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

I Flipped the Pages of Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter

I really should be transferring my book reviews from a previous multi-themed blog to here. But my blogging life is a series of I should haves, wishful sighs, and Catholic girl guilt.

So, here's one transferred post that I'm posting in honor of 2010's Nobel Literature Prize awardee.

Reposted review follows:

Mario. Vargas. Llosa. For some strange reason that name conjured a vision of an extremely serious writer typing somber, tedious sagas spanning generations, replete with tumultuous political events and heartbreaking drama. How wrong I was. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is anything but serious. I should have been more observant and let the whimsical cover clue me in. Nothing somber about it. It's flashy, color splashed, and it looks like the artist had much fun reading the novel and was inspired in designing the cover art.

It is a fun book. The back cover blurbs use adjectives like funny, extravagant, madcap, uproarious. All descriptions accurate.

The story revolves around Varguitas, a young law student and aspiring author who is paying his dues by writing slash plagiarizing news for radio. Set in the 50s, the story happens at a time when TV is not yet the ubiquitous medium it is now. Radio rules as the channel for entertaining and informing the masses.

Two Bolivians come to town.

One is Pedro Camacho, a talented but twisted writer who writes scripts and directs radio drama. His radio shows hook listeners and soon he becomes the buzz of Lima.

When Varguitas, peculiar in that society because he prefers books over the radio, asks his grandma why she likes radio serials so much, she says 'It's more lifelike, hearing the characters talk, it's more real. And what's more, when you're my age, your hearing is better than your eyesight." His other relatives explains their addiction by saying, "because they set a person to dreaming, to living things that are impossible in real life, because there are truths to be learned from them, or because every woman remains more or less or a romantic at heart." And that explains why Camacho's following grows. As his popularity rises to mythic proportions, his manic madness worsens, and soon he's out of control.

The stories that Camacho writes are central to the story. They are narrated in chapters alternating with the main plot chapters. So the reader actually reads many little stories within one book. Stories that entertain, shock, and end the chapters in cliffhangers and intriguing questions the way serials are wont to do. To me, this is interesting because the book uses similar devices to a book I read recently, Ricky Lee's Para Kay B. But Llosa's book ties the stories more cohesively to the main plot.

The other visitor from Bolivia is Aunt Julia, related to Varguitos only by law, recently divorced, and out to find a husband. She did not count on having a romance with a relative 14 years her junior. What ensues is mayhem as irate relatives, well-meaning friends, queer mayors, and a violent father get involved in this comedy that twists, convolutes, and climaxes (ooops, spoiler alert) in the most exciting and tiring wedding I've ever read about.

Monday, October 18, 2010

I Flipped the Pages of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games Trilogy

The Series:
Hunger Games
ISBN: 0439023483 - hardbound - 374 pages
read March 8, 2010
Catching Fire
ISBN: 0439023491 - hardbound - 391 pages
read October 1, 2010
ISBN: 0439023491 - hardbound - 390 pages
read October 2, 2010
Borrowed the whole set from my niece Daniela. i shall wait for the boxed set to buy my own copies.

I hate Suzanne Collins.

I hate how she had me flipping pages furiously, breathlessly. Sitting at the edge of my seat, afraid to turn the page for the next twist, wanting to slow down, but compelled to know what's going to happen next.

I hate how she has lobotomized my brain so she can poke my nerve centers and shamelessly manipulate my emotions, filling me with fear, anger, misery, and other emotions a jaded, sophisticated adult is not supposed to feel reading a Young Adult book.

I hate her for killing the people I loved. Oh, okay. They're fiction, Gege, they're fiction. No one real really died in the writing of that book.

There's hardly any need for me to summarize the plot; Google will give you 2,680,000 reviews that will do a better job than I would of detailing the Hunger Games story.

I'm here to tell you what the trilogy has been about for me. It's about 2 main themes. Love and war -- how prosaic, right? I shiver a little typing something as cheesy as that. Isn't every novel about love anyway and every other Hollywood blockbuster about some kind of war? Maybe so. But I'll stick with this, because this is my blog, okay?

Let's first talk about love. And I'm not just talking about the love triangle of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. Love is splattered all over the trilogy's pages. It's ironic that it takes a story so violent, so gory to show the potency of love, how it moves people to do the most astonishing of things, whether good or bad, even if it would cost them their lives. It's love that drives Katniss to volunteer for the Hunger Games -- her desire to protect a sister she loves. It's love that moves the other characters in the book, like Finnick who loves Annie, and Peeta who loves Katniss. It's the absence of somebody to love that makes Johanna so fearless, like she has nothing else to lose. And then, there's Haymitch, who deadens with alcohol the ability to love anybody who's destined to die in the Hunger Games.

And then, there's war. Collins sends a strong message that war, though necessary, leaves people broken. Or dead. Of course, I'm stating the obvious. The angle I want to focus on about war is this -- Collins has, all throughout the series, been very obsessed with form, with symbols. Each Hunger Games contender has a styling team who preps the Tribute with costumes and makeup. When Katniss becomes the symbol of the rebels' war against the Capitol, she goes through another round of makeovers and mouths a propaganda script, the writing of which happened years ago, even preceding the choice of the Mockingjay as the war's symbolic leader. This makes me think about the things we fight about, fight for, fight against. I've always questioned the necessity of war, especially when the cause seems to be some abstract ideal. How many lives, in real life in the real world, have been lost in the name of democracy, and communism, and freedom, and somebody's idea of heaven? How many of these symbols are real? Are they worth all the loss of lives, property, family, psyche? Are the warring sides really fighting about opposing, irreconcilable ideologies? Or are they, like it turns out in this trilogy, just two sides of the same coin? Is war really ever justified, or are we all just like children throwing tantrums and threats of nuclear war because we cannot get what we want?

I've heard a lot of the comments from those people who didn't like the series, especially the final book. And I agree with some of them. Like the criticism that with all the violent turns and cinematically-compatible twists, it is the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, and this series is just begging to be moviefied. Collins, having worked for television, surely saw the commercial potential for this in film.

I do not agree with the criticism about Katniss's character being a disappointment at the end, that she should have been more empowered and not just a pawn in a power game. I think that's precisely the point -- she is a pawn and a mere symbol for propaganda. Young people have no business being part of grown-ups' war; no matter how much they have had to endure in life, no matter how much their character should have been built up by pain and circumstance, they do not have the emotional maturity, nor true motivation, to be in one, much less to lead one. And for her to break down and be weak is more realistic than her becoming some mini Angelina Jolie amazon warrior. I wish she had spent less time hiding in closets and behind curtains, but in the end, she did what is right, what must be done.

At one point, I really did hate Suzanne Collins. At one particular death close to the ending of the saga, I honestly considered not going on with the reading. And when I closed the book, I needed the time to mourn, to process what just happened.

But after hours of thinking hard about Mockingjay, Catching Fire, and Hunger Games, I decided that I liked the series. I liked how it ended -- it was the most logical, acceptable conclusion that could have done justice to the story build-up. So, don 't worry about me; I'm not going to be one of those trying to write an alternative ending. Collins thought this out well enough. Yes, there's a bit of moralizing. And she certainly has an agenda to communicate. But she remained true all throughout the series.

There is no doubt that Suzanne Collins is a deft storyteller who knows how to draw the reader in -- I was there. I saw what happened. I felt all the emotions. I hated. I loved. I mourned. Eventually, I healed. If you take away all the symbols, messages, and lessons, this would still be an entertaining read. And that probably is my bone of contention with the book. Will young adults, or even adults for that matter, see beyond the exciting violence? Will they pick up the lessons? Or will this be just another spectacular, shallow piece of entertainment?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Better Late than Never: The Conclusion of My Read-A-Thon

It's done. My read-a-thon hymen has been broken. I would have been back here sooner to report on the experience, but I was sore. Just kidding. It was my internet connection that's to blame; every time I tried to log in and blog, it would die. And after a number of attempts, I had to attend to other priorities. And then, inertia set in.

Oh well, better late than never.

So, how was my first time?

It was an interesting experience. It probably would have been more fun and productive if I had done all the things the right way. Like starting exactly at 8 PM, staying up the whole 24 hours (which I've done a number of times for the flimsiest of reasons), doing the mid-event survey, taking on a couple of challenges, and cheering other readers.

But I was overwhelmed, ill prepared, and distracted. Facebook and all its shiny, bright applications kept on calling my name. Caffeine failed me in the wee hours of the morning. And Sunday was pretty much eaten up by family socials.

I did not do a diligent count of my actual reading hours, but I probably totaled 8 measly hours *coughattentiondeficitdisordercough* . It was an epic fail by Dewey's standards, but since my objective was only to try this out and learn from the experience, then I shouldn't beat myself up about it. The underachiever tells herself.

Plus I made a dent on Pillars of the Earth's 900++ pages; I read more than I would have read that weekend if I had not participated in the read-a-thon. So, yeay me!

I certainly would do this again. But next time, I will take it more seriously, preparing myself physically, begging off from other commitments, planning and using strategies to make the most of those 24 hours.

So, here's my post-event report:

1. Which hour was most daunting for you?

At a little after 6AM (11th Hour ), I felt I could still continue if I pushed it, but I would not have done justice to the reading. I would have missed out on the excitement and the details of the story, so I decided to nap for an hour. The alarm went off, but my upper eyelids refused to let go of my lower eyelids, so I remained asleep until 9AM. By the time, I awoke, I already had to get ready to leave for a family lunch.

But the toughest hours were when I found myself at a funeral service, listening to the longest eulogies I've ever heard in my lifetime. I was struggling not to pull out my book and read, which would have been rude. And then I also struggled not to lie down on the pews and start my personal sleep-a-thon, which would have been beyond rude.

2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?

My strategy was to read 1 looooong door stopper of a book. I don't think there's anything wrong with that strategy at all -- it's a good way to read your bucket reading list epics in one sitting, especially those books written by authors born in the regions of the world where vodka was rumored to have been invented. The strategy would have worked better if I had holed myself up in a room with very few distractions; I probably would have finished the book.

So maybe next time, I should tackle War and Peace? *grimace*

But for next year, I'll probably take Blooey's advice and go for a variety of highly visual, easy-to-read books.

3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

I find it unfair that the Northern American readers start reading at dawn with a full bar of energy while we start 4 hours before midnight. BUT, I realize that's just how things are, so I really just have to prepare better next time by sleeping in the hours immediately preceding the event.

Other improvements would be to have an online forum where people can chat and update each other of progress.

I am definitely pushing my book club to do this together in one place next year.

4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?

That there are many read-a-thoners all over the world just made it such an exciting experience -- the thought that all these people are reading and are engaged in the challenge made it a novel experience and gave it a sense of community, of global bonding among reading enthusiasts. Priceless.

5. How many books did you read?

1/4. Sigh.

6. What were the names of the books you read?

Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth

7. Which book did you enjoy most?

Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth

8. Which did you enjoy least?

Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth

9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?

I appreciated all the cheers, but I liked the customized ones better than those which were generic for all readers. Like when the cheerers mentioned the book I read, I felt good that they actually read my post.

10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?

I will surely participate again and get my book club more actively engaged. I want a full production number -- get us all in one big, brightly lit place with a fabulous coffee and cookie spread, hold hourly gimmicks and quick physical games, announce challenges, and give out prizes. I need as many lazy boys and a couple of vibrating massage chairs. Tattoo booths. Roving massage therapist. Plus a lot of noisy musical instruments.

So there. Read-a-thon virgin no more.

Thank you to all those who cheered me on!! I enjoyed my first read-a-thon.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

3:15 AM: I'm Still Reading-a-thon - And other Updates

3:15 AM Manila time:

I started late and slow. Had to attend to some "administrative matters" first before I eventually overcame inertia and settled into actual reading. I'm on page 243 now. Not an impressive accomplishment given that the read-a-thon is already on its eighth hour. But it's progress nonetheless.

I only took a break to drink water after an exciting, fiery segment. And I'm now checking in to update you of my progress. Thank you for the cheers!

And now, I should get back to reading soon so as not to break my stride. I'll be back to check on other read-a-thoners when I need a break from reading. It'll be great to know how others are doing.

This is an interesting exercise. To be doing this with other book readers from other parts of the world. I'm starting to see the appeal.

*Cracking the whip at myself* Okay, back to the book!

6:03 AM Manila Time

I have passed the 300 page mark for the book. I'm about ready for a 1-hour nap. I can still push it, but the words and letters are starting to blur and swim in a dyslexic jumble. That signals the need to rest my eyes. And what better way to rest them than sleep?

The Pillars of the Earth is not my kind of book. But so far, so good. A little too much detail at times, especially when one is trying to keep awake. But it has its page turning moments.

How is everybody?

9:38 AM Manila time:

Just woke up from what was supposed to be a 1-hour nap. Tearing myself away from the bed on a Sunday morning was one of the hardest thing I had to do in my whole life. :)

I'm not doing this right this first time. In a few minutes I will have to get ready to leave for lunch with family. I really have not logged in a lot of reading hours and have only plowed through a little less than 200 pages. I just realized that the next time I do this, I just really need to:
  • set aside time
  • bow out from other engagements, and
  • do a lot of those little pesky must-do's before the read-a-thon starts.
I'm beginning to see why doing this together with my book club friends in one public place might be a good idea.

I'm excited about April.

6:30 PM Manila time:

Argh. Just got back from what I thought was going to be just lunch but turned out to be a funeral service. And I mean no disrespect, but those were the longest eulogies I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. I knew then as I sat on the wooden pew, as I struggled to stay awake and resisted the urge to whip out my book and read, that my first read-a-thon was an epic fail.

As this picture shows, all I ever really have to show after this exercise are eyebags that only a dermatological miracle can eliminate.
I'm on page 347. With barely 1 1/2 hours to go, I won't even hit the halfway mark.

But I'll do the best I can.

And there's always next year.

11:57 PM Manila Time

The first thing I did after the read-a-thon was to take a shower, to wash away the stench of failure. Haha. But seriously I had fun. I failed in completing Pillars of the Earth, but like i said in my first blog post about this read-a-thon, my expectations are low. I just wanted to give it a try and learn from the exercise, so that I can do better next time.

Internet was down for some time, and now that it's back on, I'm just too sleepy to work on a final blog. That will have to wait until tomorrow.

Thank you to all the cheerleaders! You guys were great.

So for now, good night! Enjoy your sleep. Didn't know reading could be this tiring. :)

The Read-a-thon - My First Time

10:12 PM, Manila Time:

Just starting the read-a-thon. Just got back from dinner at my parents' place. I tried to start reading around 8, but the waft of dinner and the pressure to socialize with family won out. Plus my 6 year old nephew gave me a full page from his coloring book all to myself to watercolor. How could I say no to that?!

Coffee's ready. The logistics will be a challenge. I will read here in the masters' bedroom where air-conditioning is on. But I need to use a low light that will not bother my sleeping husband. I normally use a little flashlight while reading, but that's not something I can do for long periods of time.

So, I better get on with my reading.

But first, I have to answer these. I didn't realize that the read-a-thon involved a lot of interaction with other readers. I thought it was just reading on your own and reporting after.

Where are you reading from today?
Home in Paranaque City, Philippines.

3 Facts About Me
  1. I am 43, look 33 (or so I say), feel 53, have the attention span of somebody who's 3 and the memory of somebody who's 83.
  2. My personal library's book count is inching towards 2,000. Even if I don't ever buy any other book, I will still not be able to read all those books in this lifetime.
  3. My dream is to have my own island where all i need to do is read in a hammock sipping from a straw connected to a tub of iced tea. And I will eat a lot of seafood during breaks.
How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?

I hope to finish Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth. I'm starting at page 127 and should be on page 991 by 8PM tomorrow. That is if I don't get attracted by shiny, sparkly objects, also known as Facebook.

Because this is my first time, I have no idea if this is a reasonable target. I'll be happy just to make a huge dent on this reading assignment.

Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?

Oh gosh, I'm overwhelmed already. I'll just play it by ear this time. Maybe next year, I will have goals.

I guess my breaks will be spent taking quick naps and getting online. I have no strategy other than imbibing caffeine intravenously. Kidding.

So, this is my first time, and I just plan to enjoy it.

Enjoy reading, everyone!

I am a Readathon Virgin, but not for long.

Finally. I get the chance to join Dewey's 24 hour read-a-thon.

I am a recovering insomniac. That does not mean I no longer keep strange hours. It only means I get enough sleep as far as health advice goes; it's 5 to 7 hours, right? You see, my body's time zone is out of whack compared to that of normal people (e.g. my husband who hits REM 2 seconds after the bed connects with his back and wakes up precisely at 6AM the next morning, no matter how tired or drunk he was.). Back to me--my body is here in Manila, Philippines, but my body clock is hovering somewhere in the vicinity of Saudi Arabia. I sleep around 3 AM and wake up around 9, give or take a few hours. And then, there are days that I get in bed just as my neighbors are waking up to get ready for work. So reading till the wee hours of the morning is pretty normal for me. But for some reason, I have never joined this read-a-thon.

But enough preamble about my weird sleeping hours. About the read-a-thon. Well, I'm doing it. By the power vested upon me by caffeine, I'm going to do it.

I'm only reading one book. I'm going to plow through Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth, like Fantaghiro23 of Coffeespoons will be. The POTE is our October book for our book club, and I need to make a serious dent on its 991 pages of size 9 font. Thus far, I'm on page 120.

The situation's not promising. In a couple of hours, I need to get out of the house to my parents' house to join them for dinner. And tomorrow, we have another family lunch set. Lunch at a restaurant that shovels into our all too willing mouths a lot more than the 15 grams of carbs Dr. Atkins prescribes. Translation: it will be a killer lunch that will likely bring about siesta time lethargy.

Argh. This is starting to sound like a litany of excuses. It's not. I will give it my best shot. My goals are simple - I will just break my Dewey read-a-thon hymen. That's all. Taking that metaphor further, they say that the first time is never ever perfect. So, let's just manage our expectations and enjoy this without any performance anxiety.

I better shut up now, and stop all these kinky, and rather lame metaphors, and get at least an hour's sleep to get ready.

Aah, the things I do to have the honor of being called a geek.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I'm Back, My Dear Book Blog

The prodigal blogger resurrects from the bowels of inertia land. (Sorry for the mixed metaphors.)

The truth is - given a choice between blogging or reading, I chose reading.

The ugly and embarrassing truth is that given the choice between reading and playing with my Facebook games, I chose the one with the least cerebral exertion. Facebook is the quicksand of my waking hours. Yes, I’m proud to say I now occupy the number one slot in Mall World; I’ve closed the gap between my sister and me in Farmville; and there are weeks when I come close to toppling the Family Feud King Czar. To achieve such progress, something‘s got to give, and that’s why my blogging life is in shambles. My other blogs are still covered with a dense layer of cobwebs. And I’m behind in my 70-book challenge.

It’s not that I never thought of this blog. So many times, I found myself blogging in my head. If only one can upload one’s thoughts into blogspot through the process of staring at the computer.

Though not as diligent as I want to be with my book activities, I remain a booeek (book geek -- I just made that up.) immersing myself in bookish matters. Flipping pages. Falling more in love with books.

Last night, we had our unofficial discussion of the Hunger Games trilogy. Though the discussion was declared unofficial, our moderator Jan Ruiz took her role like a career tribute (kinareer) and prepared the most stimulating discussion questions presented fabulously through Keynote. Stylish transitions that would make Plutarch and his propos gang proud. And we even received bookmarks depicting District 13; thanks Peter and Rhett! 3 designs to choose from! Woohoo.

And then there was the Filipino Book Bloggers’ meet-up. I arrived late and left early, so I have nothing much to report. It’s a good thing Michelle presented an excellent reportage of the event. This group promises to be another way for Pinoy book readers to have a voice to reach out to book suppliers (publishers, retailers, etc.)

Oh yes, I have to mention here the Future of the Book Publishing Conference. Again, I wasn’t there for the whole event. So you’re better off reading the update from someone who was. Honey did a splendid job of summarizing the event highlights. I was one of the speakers, sharing my experience with online social networks for the bookish. Of course, I was more than a little nervous and intimidated having to speak in front of academics and people who are part of the publishing industry. Smart, scarily serious people. And I was presenting what can be construed as fluff since not one philosopher or theoretical framework was cited. But I immensely enjoyed the experience because I was talking about something close to my heart -- Flips Flipping Pages, the community that has made my reading life so much richer.

I'm still not used to blogging again. Do you hear the sound of my rusty joints?

So there. I’m back, book blog.


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