The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

Literary Collywobbles and Readerish Bits: Books Too Pretty to Read

So, I have this book. It didn’t cost a lot of money; its not particularly old, or valuable, or fragile. I don’t even know for sure that I’m the one that bought it – it’s entirely possible that it’s one of the few my husband brought along that manage to survive the Great Move-In Cull of 20-whatever it was. Some of you (probably a lot of you, lets not lie) may even have the same book. Ready to know what it is?

arabian nightsThis is the leather-bound, gilt-edged, ribbon-bookmarked Barnes and Noble volume of The Arabian Nights translated, as you can probably read, by Sir Richard Burton. And it is even more beautiful in person – those lighter blues and golds are inlaid, and it just feels…weighty to hold. And I’ve wanted to read the collection for quite some time – I’ve heard The Arabian Nights described by some professors as the ultimate book about books, the grand ode to stories – but here’s the kicker. I never have. Every time I get the urge to read the book, I sit down, pull this lovely, weighty volume onto my lap and… that’s it. It just can’t seem to get in to reading from the leatherback collection. And this isn’t the only book it happens with. We have some really lovely editions (also leather bound from Barnes and Noble) of Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury(!!), the Little House books, even The Divine Comedy. And I haven’t read a one. And neither has my husband. And it’s not from lack of want – but then why!

I think I figured it out. And I really did spend quite a bit of time thinking about it recently (since I had to do some major book rearranging in order to get some long-stored favorites out of the back closet), and I’ve come to the conclusion that some books are just too nice to read. I realize that this isn’t exactly new news for a lot of people. There are, of course, people out there who collect some of the nicest volumes on Earth just to stick them on a shelf to look at because they’re too valuable and/or too fragile to interact with the common world. But part of me doesn’t wonder if that’s a bit wrong?

ray bradbury

Books are meant to be read, in the ways that plays are meant to be seen and music is meant to be heard. And I, really, don’t care if you have someone read your book to you on a CD, read it in a pixelated form on a tiny screen, or lug thousands of dead trees around with you from apartment to apartment. It’s the story and the reading that matter. But when we take books and make them non-functional art, we begin to do them a disservice. The beautiful blue edition that made my husband and I salivate isn’t actually doing me any good by just sitting there on the bottom of a stack of other leather bound volumes I’ve never read. But then part of me thinks that, maybe just maybe, the book is the point. Owning it. Having it as an option to read. After all, an unread book is still a favorite potential book, right? But if the book isn’t conducive to ever getting around to reading – is it worth having just because it’s pretty and fun to run my hands over and look at the pictures of? If I’d be more like to read the $1.00 paperback version I saw at a used bookshop, does that make it more valuable than the $20.00 volume I now own?

I don’t have any answers. I’d love to know what you think – if you own any books that are just to pretty (or old? or valuable? or that you’re just too protective over) to sit down with and really read – or if maybe I’m just thinking too hard, in this time of limited funds, about the books I spent money on that I haven’t read yet. Guilty as charged.

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[22] “Yesterday’s Whales”

large_whale

Mothers, I believe, intoxicate us. We idolize them and take them for granted. We hate them and blame them and exalt them more thoroughly than anyone else in our lives. We sift through the evidence of their love, reassure ourselves of their affection and its biological genesis. We can steal and lie and leave and the will love us.

This story is, so far, my hands-down favorite story in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Not only is the premise ironically hilarious, but, in case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a little bit of a sucker for mother-daughter relationship stories! The story here goes a bit outside the normal parameters of this kind of story, though, and I think that’s where Megan gives it its power.

Lauren and Malachi spend their days protesting childbirth, families, and anything the feel has to do with the people they call “breeders”. Malachi believes that humans are doomed to make themselves extinct, to populate to the point of wiping themselves out and allowing the planet to retake feral rule. He spends his nights, along with Lauren, recruiting people to his club of like-minded thinkers, trying to raise support for a movement of people who pledge to no longer bring any life in to what they view as a dying world. Until Lauren gets pregnant.

hipster thoreau

Then, of course, both Laura and Malachi have to figure out what they’re going to do. Which really means that Laura has to figure it out, because Malachi pretty much loads up on the “but what about our public image – I CAN’T DO MY WORK WITH A PREGNANT WIFE” train, and from then on out Laura is left alone to decide what she wants to do. She takes a break to her grandma’s mountain cabin, reflects on her childhood, mother, grandmother, and future. The animal tie here? A year before our story starts, Laura’s mother tells her two facts about whales:

1.) today’s whales sing lower songs, and no one knows why, and

2.) when a whale calf is born, the mother whale will push her baby above the water in order to breathe

You can imagine, given Malachi’s beliefs and Lauren’s struggles, what kind of influence facts like that may have on the fate of the story. But you have to read it to hear it expressed so artfully, with the lines between human and animal, mother and daughter, parents and breeders, brought in to a whole new and illuminating light.

One of the reasons I felt so drawn to this story is because of just how amazingly the characterization is done. Not only is it easy to see how Lauren has gotten swept up in a belief system she’s not actually sure if she believes, but I also know SO MANY boys who meet basically the exact same description given of  Malachi:

He was a vegetarian epicure who snuck bites of bacon out of salads…he always knew what he wanted – upscale Thai, an IPA, the Sunday New York Times, a bookstore without a children’s section.

I mean, maybe its fact that I’m somewhat recently out of a college town, or the fact that many of my friends are still in said college town, but I KNOW THIS GUY and he’s SO ANNOYING in real life but on the paper it’s worse in a kind of delicious way… I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Because I hated Malachi and wanted to punch his stupid face in, but at the same time he stuck to his philosophical guns and I have to give him props for that.

cwRating: OMFGZ!

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[21] “Saving Face”

wolf

There were no promises, no obligations between living things, she thought. Not even humans. Just raw need hidden by a game of make-believe.

This story is loaded with the kind of questions to which there are no answers and which, if allowed, will drive you mad – what if our narrator, Lila, had waited? Hadn’t been alone that night? Had given the wolf more anesthetic before beginning a small operation? Maybe she wouldn’t have been attacked, her beauty and top lip forever gone in a few short seconds.

Don’t worry, that’s no spoiler. It’s talked about early in the story. Another from Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise, the animal at hand this time is, primarily, the wolf who attacked Lila one night when he awoke from the local anesthetic Lila used before attempting to pull the quills from his muzzle. It’s this wolf who takes away Lila’s sense of beauty, a sense she’s had her entire life, a sense that, now gone, forces her to realize just how easy being pretty made life. She also begins to question the lines between love and pity after a tragedy, and, in a way, whether we need the love of strangers more than we need the love of those closest to us.

However, there is another animal involved, and I think that this second animal is perhaps the even more important one in the story. Part of Lila’s job is traveling to a local prison that is also a self-sustaining farm. The state, facing budget cuts, wants to close the farm and calls Lila in to assess how much they could get for the livestock on the property. While there, a prisoner named Romulus brings to Lila’s attention a sick calf who, basically, won’t survive if Lila doesn’t take her off the property. It’s this sick calf that forces Lila to confront her thoughts about compassion, about the idea of ‘doing what’s best’ for an animal which, in Lila’s mind, means no longer forcing those around her to pretend to love her. I also think it’s awesome that a character named Romulus quasi-attacks her to get her in to the barn in order to see this calf, thus dealing with her feelings: Megan is able to echo the same kind of feelings that Lila’s first wolf attack brought to the surface. It’s a subtle repetition that lends a really sad poeticism to the story as a whole.

While I didn’t like it quite as much as I liked “The Cow that Milked Herself”, I thought that the main reason for this is that I found myself sympathizing with the other narrator much more than Lila. While I thought Megan did an amazing job outlining the thought process that brought Lila to where she is at the end of the story, I just don’t know if I agree with the path the character chose to take. It’s definitely worth a read, even so, even if just for the discussion on the important of physical beauty!

Rating: Hell Yeah!

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[20] “The Cow that Milked Herself”

mm bergman

A breast pump is an awful lot like a vacuum milking cup, my husband said, untangling the gifted contraption. He held the suction cups to his chest.

Soon, she will be the cow that milked herself, he said.

So, as if the stories in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s first collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise weren’t enough to make me swoon, one of the first pictures of her that popped up was her with a goat. A GOAT. Maybe this means nothing to, like, all of you, but as a feckless-dreamer-future-farmgirl, this floppy-hatted picture of Megan made me girl crush. Hard.

tumblr_m7ugzf2Wgr1ql20dco1_500

To be honest, I’m a little ashamed to have put that GIF in a post dedicated to Megan Mayhew Bergman, because she seems like too classy a lady for that – but clearly it’s still there, so lets move on shall we? “The Cow that Milked Herself” is the second story of the collection and, like the rest of the stories, depends deeply on human-animal relationships to talk about just so many things. In this story, our narrator is pregnant and she and her boyfriend (husband?) Wood, a veterinarian studying frozen jaguar sperm, are basically just preparing for the arrival of the baby. Wood is, like, creepily clinical, and many times throughout the story our narrator and her child are referred to in very animalistic terms (her birth is compared to the kidding of goats, her breastfeeding to the milking of cows, the cries of her baby likened to the wails of a hungry cat) and, by doing so, Megan likens so much of how we operate as humans to our original animal ancestors.

Because this story isn’t really about pregnancy. Or about a vet. Or about any of the things that the plot really talks about. It’s about fear and trepidation and hope and all those things that pregnancy really brings to the forefront. And it’s about feeling the kind of cold calculation that passes through your body when you hear Wood talk about childbirth in such clinical terms and you realize that, while he’s not wrong, it still sounds so off to make it sound so…National Geographic. That’s quite possibly the most striking thing at the heart of Megan’s stories (others will, of course, be talked about soon): while none of them speak false, there is something strikingly, disturbingly true about just how animalistic we humans are at our core.

This story is only, like, ten pages long. But as I’m learning more and more with the short stories I read, the length or page number doesn’t really matter. The joy of the short story comes when the story is able to distinguish itself in however many pages it takes up. And Megan’s stories do that. Very, very well. I first heard about this story from three of my favorite podcasters over at Literary Disco, and it made their top reads of 2012 list, which I wholeheartedly endorse. And I’m not even fully done with the collection yet.

Tell me again about jaguar reproduction, I said.
The baby gestates for a little over ninety days, Wood said. If her cubs are taken from her in the wild, the mother will chase them down for hours, roaring continuously.

I would do that too, I said. I promise.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[19] Beautiful Ruins

beautiful ruins

Stories are nations, empires. They can last as long as Ancient Rome or as short as the Third Reich. Story-nations rise and decline. Governments changes, trends rise, and they go on conquering their neighbors. Like the Roman Empire, the Epic Poem stretched for centuries as far as the world.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (who is, actually, a dude, contrary to my initial belief) is a contender for the 2013 Tournament of Books – and the second Tournament book I’ve read, the other one being The Fault in Our Stars. No lie – I loved this one WAY better than TFIOS, but I think I might be in the minority on this one (or at least, don’t think that Beautiful Ruins will end up beating out TFIOS in the long run).

This story is a story about so many things. It flashes back in forth in time from Italy in the 60’s to Hollywood in the present day, and it offers such great commentary on things like reality TV, our obsession with movie stars, the magic of the early movies, as well as larger issues like regret, doubt, love, and creativity. Plot wise, we follow both Italian hotelier Pasquale as he meets, falls in love with, and loses a woman he knows only as Dee Moray. Dee Moray who, for a brief period of time, has an affair with Richard Burton and is starring alongside Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. Flash forward to the 21st century and we’re with Claire, production assistant to aging and desperate producer Michael Deane, the ‘Deane of Hollywood’. She’s about to quit, betting fate that unless one last good movie pitch walks in – enter Shane Wheeler, who sets in motion a chain of events that reunites Dee Moray and Pasquale almost 40 years after they saw each other, a chain that effects ever character involved, with beautiful language and a plot that pushes forward.

But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos– we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short car rides and regional jet lags– four states and twelve hundred miles traversed in an afternoon– but true quests aren’t measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant– sail for Asia and stumble on America– and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.

To be honest, there were some slower points in the novel, and while I enjoyed the different media included in the book (there is the discarded first chapter from Michael Deane’s memoir, as well as the first chapter of a book by aging writer Alvis Bender, and, of course, the screen pitch for the movie Donner! (a hopelessly depressing movie about the Donner party that Shane Wheeler brings to pitch to Michael Deane), sometimes they felt a bit jerky in their transitions between these portions and the narrative flow of the other chapters. I also had some issues with characters (Michael Deane is reprehensible, and I felt that some of the characters stories lines overlapped in a way that seemed too fortuitous, not to mention the sheer cast of characters that Jess isn’t afraid to return to), but on the whole I thought that this book was a really great social commentary on the way we’ve changed the way we view our entertainers and the world in which we live, entertainment wise. I felt like it was one of the better contemporary novels I’ve read in quite some time, and it left me feeling excited about diving in to the rest of the Tournament book list!

Rating: Hell yeah!

PS: If you’re interested in seeing even more discussion of the Tournament of Books books, then I urge you to check out Book Riot’s commentary on the competition, especially the discussion of Beautiful Ruins that they did!

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A Place Called Wonderland

Only, it’s not spelled Wonderland. It’s One-derland, and it’s kind of a big deal.

I’m sure you guys know the story. My story. I’ve heard it from so many others – overweight as a kid, ostracized, left alone and sad and driven to food (and books) because I was alone and sad. Even when I hit late junior high and high school, when I got friends, got involved in theater, and figured out how to turn my love of books in to a life path (HELLO, English major!), I still ate because I felt sad and alone. Only not alone – lonely. Some big girls out there can back me up on this – when you feel like you’re the co-star, like your best friends are more thin, beautiful, popular, and loveable than you, suddenly, however much you love them, you still feel lonely. And I was sad because I didn’t look like everyone else, and I knew it and they knew it, and we were just all being too polite to directly talk about it. Unless I made the joke, then it was fine – and that happened a lot. So much so that that became my defense method – point it out, make fun of myself, and beat them to the quick. But I was a smart kid, and I knew that eating a bagel and nacho cheese every day for lunch (unless it was pizza day, of course) and working out a couple times a month wasn’t going to fix the problem. It was too hard to do the other stuff, though, so I stayed fat and sad.

In college I was still fat, but I was less sad. More people who loved me, more ways to express myself, a universe of stuff to learn and brilliant people to teach it to me – I loved college. I also started to attempt to think about working out more. And then I moved off campus, got off the eating plan, didn’t want to drive to the gym, and I got gross. 250 pounds of a person I had no interest in looking at anymore. I don’t know, I don’t think I can put an exact date on it. It was right around the time I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; and I was watching movies on the true cost of food – on our bodies, our planet, or future. I realized that the food I was eating tasted SO DAMN GOOD because someone wanted it to taste that way. And it IS good! But the other stuff is better – not only for my body, but for my wallet, my planet, and being a mom someday. So I did all the stuff I knew the whole time I was already supposed to be doing. I started the Couch to 5k program. I switched to whole wheat, learned to eat oatmeal, stopped hating vegetables (or at least found ways to hide them in stuff), and realized that a diet of McDonalds and stuff from the freezer just wasn’t going to cut it.

And today at the gym a weighed in. At 195. I didn’t have to move that huge sliding block to the 200 mark just to start. And it’s FUCKING amazing. I’m sure you can imagine. Hopefully – it’s accomplishing a goal and the rush that comes with it. Not that I’m accomplished. But I’m closer. WAY closer. And that’s something. Something awesome.

horizontal running

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OHEMGEE THIS IS A THING!!!

boy meets world

I don’t know if you know this, but as a quintessential child of the 90s, Boy Meets World basically makes the list of the most-influential-pop-culture on my young life. I mean, COME ON! Eric Matthews, i.e. Mr. Plays-With-Squirrels? Young Topanga, with that HORRIBLE crimped hair? I grew up with these people, you know? So you can keep your Seinfeld‘s and your South Parks and any of your other pop culture bastions – BOY MEETS WORLD 4 EVA (so says my slap-braceleted, overalls-wearing, Spice-Girls listening young self).

There is a point to all this. Seeing as how I love the awesome-sauce that is a 30 minute shot of BMW (the lessons of Full House with a quarter of the sap and all the drool-worthiness of Rider Strong), you can imagine how much I PLOTZED with I heard that yes, ladies and gents, THIS IS A THING: Cory and Topanga 4-ever: Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel set to return to Disney ‘Boy Meets World’ spinoff! I’m sure many of you already know that this is happening. Maybe you don’t. I’d heard rumors, and brushed them off in the way I do when I hear people talk about a 4th season of Veronica Mars or that maybe they’ll renew Freaks and Geeks – never going to happen. But, my pretties, THIS IS HAPPENING. Oh yes, this is happening. And, from what the article says of Daniel Fishel’s tweets, pretty much the whole cast is coming back – Rider Strong and Will Fridel included (the best cast members, let’s be honest!)

In honor of basically the most monumental day in pop culture (okay, not really, but still a pretty cool one for us 90s kids), here are my Top 5 Favorite Boy Meets Word Moments of All Time:
1.) The episode where Topanga meets that ADORABLE guy at the art museum and he invites her to come to Paris (1.) it’s Jonathan Jackson, and he’s adorable 2.) HE INVITED YOU TO PARIS! come on!):

2.) The scene where Sean sees Mr. Turner for the first time since Mr. Turner’s motorcycle accident (I LOVE YOU RIDER STRONG, my 11 year old self will yell for all time):

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuTU8sTynQM

3.) That one time when Cory read a poem and Angela heard it, only it was Sean’s poem and BOY WAS HE MAD:

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nevwnJYvPzM

4.) Eric Matthews is Mr. Plays-With-Squirrels. This is quite possibly going on record as one of the funniest moments in all of TV:

http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cS903AfgOUo

5.) Because Cory and Topanga breaking up basically wrecked an entire week in my childhood:

Also, you should check out this place. They’ve got a pretty good video clip list, too. And I *heart* video clip lists.

PS: I realize this post is over the top, silly, and self indulgent. It doesn’t bother me. It shouldn’t bother you. Watch the clips again. They’re awesome-sauce.

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February Short Story: “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

Amy-Hempel.full

The story had made her hungry, she said—so I took the elevator down six floors to the cafeteria, and brought back all the ice cream she wanted. We lay side by side, adjustable beds cranked up for optimal TV-viewing, littering the sheets with Good Humor wrappers, picking toasted almonds out of the gauze. We were Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda in extremis. The blinds were closed to keep light off the screen.

For those of you who missed in January, Ann Kingman from Books on the Nightstand has declared 2013 the Year of the Short Story, which is crazy amazing. Part of that involves her focusing on one short story every month. For January, the story was “Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu; February brings us a truly, truly wrecking tale about female friendship “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hemple.

The story follows two female best friends as they spend time together in the hospital. One of the friends is dying from some kind of long-term illness (cancer isn’t ever specified, unless I missed it, but it’s clearly something along those lines). The one who is well walks to the beach, reflects on memories of earthquakes and long flights with her friend, and when she tells her friend she has to leave, her sick friend expends the rest of her energy trying to chase after her. The story rips out your heart and jumps up and down on it and the minute I started to think about what it would be like to have myself and my best friend in this same position – lets just say I had an empty house to do all my ugly crying!

I think one of my favorite things about this story is just how beautiful the language is to describe so much sorrow. And it’s not just the sorrow over death – it’s the sorrow over lost memory and the pain that comes with survivors guilt mixed the the sheer boredom of spending day after day doing the same thing in a confined hospital watching someone you love die. It’s a position I’ve not had to be in, but that we all must inevitably share. The story isn’t long, but in it we get so much of the love between these two un-named women! I’m still not sure what significance there is to the fact that the cemetery is the same one Al Jolson is buried in, other than perhaps the fact that her sharing her final resting place with such a famous entertainer – an uplifting soul who still seems to be pushed to the sidelines of history, to the category of miscellaneous trivia – I’d never heard of him before my trip to wikipedia.

I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out of that room, I would drive it too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air. A stop in Malibu for sangria. The music in the place would be sexy and loud. They’d serve papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice. After dinner I would shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, life, and stay up all night.

PLEASE read the story and let me know what you think. If you’ll notice, this post is almost shockingly sparse of any kind of snark or sarcasm (and/or funny and inappropraite GIFs) and it’s because I want you to take me seriously when I say that you need to take the 20 minutes of your life that it will take you to read the story in order to bring Amy Hemple’s beautiful world into yours, for however briefly. Ann did, yet again, a wonderful job selecting for the month and I can’t wait to see what kind of discussion unfolds over on the comment section!

Rating: OMFGZ!

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[18] “Diving Belles”

Diving Belles

“Diving Belles” is the title story of a collection written by Lucy Wood, and it’s a collection I’m sure you’ll see make it’s way on to this blog at least one more time! Lucy Wood has basically created these slightly dark, slightly creepy adult fairy tales, that exist in worlds that are what they are, and that make no explanations or apologies for the rules they abide by. YOU NEED TO READ THIS BOOK. SERIOUSLY.

The tale follows our narrator as she begins the process of going underwater in a diving bell (see the word play there? eh?! Did you catch that?) to look for her husband who, 40 years ago, was taken under the waves by mermaids. . The beauty of the world that Wood creates, however, means that this isn’t the strange part – this getting kidnapped by mermaids bit. Apparently this is quite a common thing, and there are some men in the town who have been kidnapped and returned multiple times. In fact, the part of the story that is so odd is that the narrator hasn’t gone looking for him in the last 40 years. The reasons why she’s waited, and how she felt to come home and see her husband gone, the floor wet and smelling of sea brine, are what compose the bulk of the story, as we flash back in time from the diving bell to the disappearance.

hipster arielHow can you talk about mermaids without talking about Hipster Ariel?

Wood just creates this punch-you-in-the-gut adult fairy tales that so blur the lines between this world and the ‘other’ that it’s hard to see where the line was to begin with, or even if there was a line. The world Wood creates under the water is one of the most hauntingly beautiful but lonely locations I’ve read in quite some time. The ending of the story left me sad, and when our narrator leaves the water, she leaves the reader with more questions than answers – questions about love, age, time, loneliness, awareness, and about a million other things that I didn’t think I’d be questioning when I started reading the story. The ending also left me wanting for more about the side of the story that Wood didn’t tell us – what about the other men in this village, and their wives, and how they handle this situation? What would her husband have been like if he’d been with her this whole time? What were these human-stealing mermaids like? It’s not that I was left feeling unsatisfied – in fact, I think that Wood creates a story and pulls us as readers in to it with the questions she creates, as much with the things she doesn’t say as much as the ones she does.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, this story begins and ends at the ocean, that ultimate symbol of something bigger than we are, of being pulled away, of something magical and mysterious – all of which could basically also be a metaphor for Lucy Wood. Basically.

Rating: OMFGZ!

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