Becoming a bookseller and other bookish news

Just as nature abhors a vaccum, it would appear when I find a hole in my schedule I race to fill it. The 40-hour a week day job (which has, of late, required loads of off-the-clock time training to boost me toward the position I’m hoping to move into) requires lots of mental agility and leaves me mentally exhausted. I wasn’t searching for another job, though more money is always a good thing, didn’t feel pinched or desperate. Serendipity threw the chance to become a bookseller in my path.

In modern parlance, that’s your classic no-brainer. I interviewed, I nervously sweated it out, I GOT THE JOB! Are there sweeter words in the language, aside from I WON THE LOTTERY!, in which case I’d buy my own bookshop, hire other people to run it, then refuse to sell anything? I think not. Then, haven’t I described a private library, not a proper bookshop?

I want the slanting rays of dusty sunlight filtering into dark interior, the rich smell of old leather, solid oak shelving, leather armchairs holding customers I’d allow to hold the books and flip pages if nothing else. All the while, I’ll sit and glower at them. I do love a good glower. When they inquire about price, I’ll growl-yell YOU CAN’T AFFORD IT! Then I’ll slam something, as one does.

My fantasy, my rules. And it’s this one (below), in particular, I want. Located in Lewes, England, I was there in 2017. It is a 15th-Century building, the interior of which has such a low ceiling you often have to stoop not to brain yourself on the original beams. No photography is allowed. I behaved only because the owner bore an impressively ferocious manner. I model myself and all my life choices after him. He is my spirit animal.

I want his shop, crammed as it is from ceiling to floor. Until then, a pretty and much more modern indie bookstore for me.

Those luxurious gleaming gems called Saturday and Sunday, in my household, stretch long and unstructured. I luxuriate in them and don’t we all. While I could and do argue gifting yourself unstructured time to follow your passions is a well-deserved oasis in the barren desert that is adulthood, I do have an awful lot of farfed-away time to spare. Structuring some of that unstructured time actually leads me to greater productivity. I will fit things around committments. During the work week, I throw in laundry before work, empty and fill the dishwasher on breaks, take out the trash and vacuum the rugs, etc. I get shit done in short bursts. I do the meal delivery thing (Hungryroot!) to keep my scheduled meals healthy and varied, partly because it frees me not to have to think about cooking. I do enjoy making the occasional recipe I find in the Sunday New York Times, but that’s not a consistent interest. I’d rather spend the time the pre-cut, easily assembled meals are cooking to scan through Paris Review interviews, read my Literary Critic feed on Twitter, open that ARC just arrived from the publisher, skim through, and read Facebook posts. Things I’m less great about are keeping track of bills that are due (not auto-paid), scheduling doctor appointments, other stuff falling outside everyday tasks. I’ll admit that. Life shouldn’t be totally about lack of structure, but I argue it should revolve around it.

Bookselling is technically a job, and does take up time, but if I’m honest it’s time I can afford. The money pays my grocery bills; that’s much-appreciated. But it’s obviously not about that, either. I’m a degreed librarian unable to find a local full-time job in my field. Grateful for my day job, it’s clear that’s necessary but utilitarian. If I can’t work in a library, guess what’s equally fulfilling?

Exactly!

I’ve been at it just a week. Already, working with the public in this stage of a pandemic brings me face to face with issues public-facing workers have dealt with this past year. Some of it charms. Most people are empathetic and kind, interesting and occasionally amusing, but a smaller and louder portion remains belligerant. The vaccine holds huge promise, but this virus isn’t in the rear-view mirror and my store isn’t dropping the mask mandate. True, it’s not a legal issue and can’t be enforced as such. But it’s very much the right of a private business to set the rules. Once a customer steps through their doorway, a customer has essentially agreed to abide by the owner’s requests. A certain sector of the public finds that intrusive, most turning away at the door. It’s the ones that don’t that present a problem.

Welcome to life in 2021. Locked down over a year, it’s not unexpected but is eye-opening. That won’t rule my experiences, though. My love of bookselling and all that accompanies it looms far larger.

Watch this space!

Speaking of bookish committments, I’ve asked for and been granted a judging role in the 2021 Chicago Writers Association Literary Awards. Offered the option of traditionally or indie-published fiction or non-fiction, I went against my normal preferences and chose indie non-fiction. It’s no bad thing getting outside my niche, giving other people the thrill of receiving books from the Big Five: Penguin Random, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. These five powerhouses own all the rest, every other big house. I revere them but don’t always admire their practices. There are loads of smaller presses out there – university and other – which also turn out an impressive list of titles. Graywolf and Coffee House, NYRB, Europa, and British publishers Persephone and Virago are some of my particular favorites, then Oxford University and other academics. These are also a force to be reckoned with.

I’ll receive a selection of books, narrowing them to the best. My top choices I’ll read deeply, passing along my verdict for final judging. It’s nowhere near as grueling as my stint as sole literary fiction judge for the IPPY (independent press) Awards, but no less an honor to have stood out in a crowd of applicants. I may attend if there’s an in-person ceremony. I’m not sure anyone knows how that will go.

Once again, other news has crowded out a post I’d meant to also encompass thoughts on books read and acquired, of which there have been a staggering number. Didn’t I declare, not long ago, my intention of slowing my book buying? Maybe I didn’t say it out loud. I don’t particularly want to be accountable when it comes to book whoring. The silent part’s been said out loud, cat’s out of the bag. I am an abysmal failure. More scary, my intention is to shift this behemouth ship’s course and focus in on more books recommended by indie sellers, somewhat outside my normal habit of skimming off the top of heavily literary writers I unashamedly favor. It’s become a necessity to acquire books influenced by booksellers. A necessity, I tell you!

Are you believe this? Buying it? Persuaded at all?

Buggery.

I do draw the line at books with pink covers, though. Sorry. No romances, either. I’ll read the best of genre fiction but when I start reading romances take that as an emergency signal I’m being held captive. Call the police to have me rescued, because I’ll have a gun held to my head.

Current reading and books acquired will have to wait for their own post, yet again. Between the new job, the judging, and upcoming writing-in-residence at Hemingway’s house, life’s busy. I’ve hit a wall, gone on long enough about peripheral book news. Some of the books are sitting next to me but it’s not just laziness keeping me from discussing them. It needs more space. I can use the time, anyway, to form thoughts in my tired brain.

Dinner tonight’s a Hungryroot stir-fry, chicken sausage and broccoli in some sort of sauce and accompanied by rice. And no, I’m not an affiliate. But wouldn’t that be great. Maybe I’ll show you, next time. Are you squandering prescious reading time cooking needlessly? There’s a fix for that.

Off you bugger and leave the books on your way out. You can’t hear it, but I’m slamming something quite loudly.

Well, now, 2021 is taking a turn for the better – it could hardly have been worse.

Miss a little, miss a lot around here, I guess?.

Where do I start? The new job as a bookseller, the upcoming inclusion of one of my interviews in a poetry textbook, or my upcoming writing-in-residence at the library of Hemingway’s Oak Park birthplace?

It’s as if life is attempting to make up for the suck-fest that was 2020, all the anxiety and grief it brought. Doing a right good job of that, I will say. It cannot replace what I’ve lost, or instantly cure the mental strain I’m starting to realize the extent of now that things are looking up pandemic-wise (how often does one get to say that), but I won’t give any of it back.

You can try prying it from my cold, dead but odds are not in your favor.

“Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that were written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to. – Alain de Botton

Let’s clarify: I am not quitting my day job for a bookselling gig. I only wish life were that perfect. The salary and benefits provided by a job in the finance sector pay for rent, food, utilities, and books. These things I cannnot live without. A few hours a week working in a charming indie bookshop, in a charming town, on an actual town square, is the reality. Anything over and above that is metaphorical gravy.

I’m an idea person, one obsessed with pitching a million project ideas to an employer – stretching myself thin with great enthusiasm, because potential. How ’bout I write a bit for you? Review? Interview? Attempt to pull strings and get a few writers to visit, zoom, interview via the new podcast I just recommended you start? How ’bout we raise your shop’s visibility?

How ’bout not, how ’bout you’re tiring me out and I’ll rescind that offer. It’s a gamble.

It’s a shop selling new books, which explains why they were hiring. It’s a lot tougher in the used book business, but thanks to grants and kind souls who’ve been supporting indie bookstores during the pandemic, this store has maintained near-status quo. And thank the gods for it.

I’m thrilled, they’re thrilled, WE ARE ALL THRILLED HERE! And I start next Saturday.

I’m a degreed librarian, have a lit degree, and of course do all this reviewing silliness. Once before, I was half of a used/rare online bookshop business. And I have returned to roost.

It’s almost like I’m singular-minded. Is that a bad thing? If you say yes, I won’t care, mind. Just throwing that out there.

The Square, Woodstock, IL

The Importance of Being Ernest

Writing from Hemingway’s… Yeah. A day here and there, over at least the next year, writing from Ernest Hemingway’s actual library in his actual birthplace in Oak Park, IL. I only hope I do the opportunity justice. Will I make it past looking at the titles on his shelves? It boggles.

I have no idea what I’m going to write but the time cannot be squandered. Do I write about Hemingway and his work? Do I write blog posts randomly raving about the experience?

DO I WRITE FICTION.

*Faints*

I’ll be there from 9 – 5 the days I’m visiting, breaking for lunch. I expect 9 – 12:00 will consist of open-mouthed gawping, followed by an hour for lunch, in which I shove food into my mouth very quickly so I can get back to the house. From 1:00 to 5:00 there’ll be mad capering, incorporating hysterical giggling, all the while dodging people there for tours. At least, I imagine they’ll still be open for business? I never asked.

Yoinked from hemingway birthplace site…

Hemingway has been taking up a lot of rent-free head space in my noggin this year. Odd, considering the amount of energy I’d devoted to him previously likely amounts to just a tad over what I’ve given him this January – May. I’ve not read a whole lot of his stuff, but I’ve visited his homes in Key West and Oak Park, as well as his haunt in Paris – Shakespeare & Co.

In college I read a few of his Nick Adams stories for a course in American Lit. I’d be lying if I said I was smitten. I grew up a Brit Lit afficianado, never too keen on American writers – beyond Faulkner (genuflect). Hemingway is so masculine, so spare, his prose style deceptively simple. The Old Man and the Sea was assigned in high school.

It bored me to tears. FFS, REEL IN THE GODDAMN MARLIN AND PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY.

But, and it’s a big but, my opinion began to shift without even reading his stuff, just from what I read about the man. Then, the Ken Burns special totally ignited my interest. I can’t say RE-ignited, because there wasn’t much there to start. But even before this heart-stopingly wonderful opportunity, my thoughts had begun to turn toward Ernest.

More on that later.

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

Have you not heard about my interview with Billy Collins? That happened loads of years ago. Gosh, was it 2014?

It’s a marvelous story about what can happen when you act like you belong somewhere, advance yourself forward, and approach a former-Poet Laureate’s publicist with a request for an interview. I was not commissioned. I had no business whatsoever taking up his time. I had a blog and ambition.

I just wanted to talk to Billy Collins and write about it. Which I did. His publicist set up a time for him to call me. I pulled out my laptop, sweated out a few questions onto a legal pad, and I’m still amazed I had the guts to talk to him. Me! The ultimate introvert, terrified of the world. Once initiated, there was no way I was going back on this. He called, we talked, I typed it out and posted on my blog.

Two weeks later, I came home to a message on my answering machine (it was that long ago). It was an apologetic Billy Collins, calling to apologize for having missed our interview and offering to make it up to me. Missing our interview? I called him back. I had Billy Collins’s number on my ancient answering machine. It may still be sitting in my ex’s house somewhere, though he likely tossed the thing.

Anyway, I told him we’d already spoken. He replied, “How was I? Was it any good?”

I assured him it was, indeed, very good. Good enough for a publishing company to track me down, years later, and send me a contract requesting publication rights.

Tell me it gets any better than that. All the writers I’ve interviewed through the years, the self-pubbed, the Pulitzer and Booker winners and everyone in-between, and it’s this one that gets pulled and published. So far beyond appropriate, so fitting. So redemptive.

I’m amazed, humbled, thrilled to pieces. If I never accomplish anything else in my foray into writing, this is enough. A nobody like me, a redneck from Mississippi who endured a painful childhood so brutal I developed selective mutism. My only solace was books. I dreamed of writing, dabbled, edited my high school newspaper. I earned a BA in lit, after a dozen years raising children I was hired to work at a library, doing a job that terrified me – booking programs, announcing speakers, going onto write their PR, social media, and newspaper copy. Around the time I earned a library degree, I started reviewing. Paying it forward to a new writer, interviewing her for Public Libraries, she mentioned me in The New York Times. People saw it. Friends congratulated me before I’d seen it myself. I published lots of other places.

It’s not a high-profile career, not in the first tier. But it’s a part of my story and it’s pretty remarkable.

I suppose it’s a testament to my strength of will I survived the shit I did, ultimately regaining my voice and using it to approach Billy Collins and all who came after. It’s the power of books that did it. That first fall down the rabbit hole with Alice, the first proper, solo novel I read.

To perfectly round things out, I eventually saw Billy Collins live and in person. It was at the Woodstock Opera House, when he came for a reading. I could have approached him in person but didn’t I still regret that.

The last I saw of him, he was walking through the Woodstock Square, away from me, as I sat in the window of a restaurant having lunch with friends from the writing group I’d formed at the library I was working at. We’d attended the reading together. As they talked I watched his retreating back. He walked so slowly, I could have caught up to him. No doubt it was the charm of the town delaying him. If I could have that moment back, I’d go after him and tell him the story I know he’d forgotten all about.

I think he’d find this as amazing as I do, if he’s the person I believe him to be.

I believe he is that person.

2021, thanks for the blessings.

New books!: a Confessional

 

“When you steal from the library, you are preventing anyone else from reading that book, and the very notion makes me want to drop you in the Void.”

  • Piers Anthony

 

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been, oh, a week since my last confession. The sin’s the same, which should make it easier doling out penance.

I miss my books. Those poor orphan children of mine are sitting, boxed, in a storage unit back in Illinois, keeping the bulk of my furniture and other bits and bobs company. Fortunately, I am living with a man who has a healthy number of books himself and enjoys the used book hunt as much as I. I won’t run out anytime soon, but temptations there are a-plenty.

Sure, you have a nice collection, but you don’t have this book, or that book, which I desperately need before someone else snatches it away.

Yes, NEED!

What I’ll do with the books and other possessions left behind in the move will be decided when it must. Meantime, I’m trying to restrain myself from buying too much – and failing miserably. But something has to fill that void.

I try and schedule Amazon deliveries for when Chris isn’t here. It’s not that he doesn’t get it, but the money’s tight. I’m living off my own savings; it’s not like I’m draining his account. But with mounting bills it’s taking away funds perhaps more rightly earmarked for household expenditures. Compounding the guilt, this morning we found out Chris’s car needs hundreds of pounds worth of repairs. It’s always the unexpected the comes back to bite you in the arse.

I could argue what’s mine is his, but our reading projects don’t match. I’m concentrating on early Scottish female novelists, as well as modern stuff I can count as research, helping inform the fiction I’m writing. I need examples of how other writers use unreliable narrators to create suspense. The best way to learn is by example.

So, yeah. Legit.

I’d rather he didn’t hear the SMACK of books coming through the letter slot and hitting the mat. It just makes me uneasy. Next week he’s on break from classes and I have two more on the way. My palms are already sweaty.

At least he’s fine shopping at bookshops like this one in Glasgow, which we visited together yesterday:

 

Nirvana

 

Holy mother of god and all the saints

 

He’s clearly an enabler.

Did he buy books here? Why, yes. Yes, he did. So the books popping through the letter slot have nothing to do with him. Details.

Anyway, here’s yesterday’s haul:

 

Penguins and Brunton and Oliphant, oh my!

 

This may be a bit difficult to read, I realize. Here’s a bit of help:

 

The Sailors Return & Beany-Eye by David Garnett

Scottish Short Stories

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Dr Johnson & Company by Robert Wilson Lynd

Lady Hester Stanhope by Joan Haslip

Ten Years Under the Earth by Norbert Casteret

The Southern Gates of Arabia by Freya Stark

England Made Me by Graham Greene

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (book group read)

Mary Brunton: The Forgotten Scottish Novelist by Mary McKerrow

Autobiography and Letters by Mrs Margaret Oliphant

 

I consider my penance to be reading these, lest they go to waste. And before the next group arrives. But really. I’m going to slow down.

Really.

Honestly.

Would this face lie?

 

 

Daily Scotland: Settling In

 

The familiarity gained from last year’s three-month stay in Scotland’s shortened the re-acquaintance process with life here. It already feels familiar walking to the market to pick up simple things like milk and bread. There’s a small shop, a mini-mart we’d call it in the States, five minutes away. The nearest supermarket’s further than I can walk. A taxi would add a lot to the cost of buying just a few items, but there’s the British equivalent of Walmart anchoring the local mall. In that mall is, among other things, a Waterstones. I can take a taxi there when I have a longer list of needs than just vanilla and cake pans.

In preparation for making two pies with apples from the tree directly behind the house, I mistakenly bought “sponge” flour in place of self-rising, to go along with the folly of “caster” sugar in place of regular granulated, for my coffee. Thank God Chris put me in my place as far as caster sugar, since “no restaurant would ever serve caster sugar for my coffee.” As far as I can tell, caster sugar is more coarse than granulated, not so coarse as what we’d call “crystal” sugar, which is decorative. That’s used on top of baked goods to make them look more appealing and fancy, I guess you’d say.

 

We don’t have so many choices for baking ingredients in the States. There’s brown sugar, powdered sugar, granulated, and crystal sugar. As for flour, there’s self-rising, standard flour with no baking powder or baking soda (if you need to add specialized amounts), wheat flour, specialty flours made with other grains for the gluten-intolerant, but as far as I know, that’s it. For sponge cake, we’d use regular self-rising. If it needs a finer texture, we’d run it through a sifter. British bakers, you’re much more sophisticated.

Today I was looking at the flour and sugar I bought to stock the pantry, thinking as long as I had these maybe I should just bake a sponge cake. Exploring the kitchen cabinets for other critical ingredients, I found he had none. Add those to the list for a trip to the shopping mall. Heaven forfend I should have to go shopping, but what does what one must.

 

Lots of excitement two days ago, when the remnants of a hurricane barreled through southern Scotland. Growing up in the Midwest I’ve seen huge thunderstorms, but never an actual hurricane. Fascinating watching detritus hurtle past the windows, like a Scottish-set The Wizard of Oz. I half expected the Wicked Witch of the West to cycle by. I’m glad it came through so early in autumn. The leaves have only just begun changing; I’m crossing my fingers there’s no tree-baring repeat nearer peak color. I’d love to drive up into the Highlands for spectacular photos.

Colors become brilliant in Scotland later than the Midwest – between late October and early November. Colorful leaves are long gone by November in Chicago, and it’s not particularly stunning where I lived. Two charming possibilities in the Highlands are Aberfeldy and Pitlochry. I picked them out while researching hamlets with bookshops. These two fit the bill. Right next to each other in Perthshire, they’re approximately an hour and a half away. Chris mentioned Perthshire as a beauty spot. Cross fingers the weather cooperates.

 

I can’t escape without admitting the number of books I’ve bought so far – in just over two weeks. It’s not staggering – well, maybe to a non-reader – but decent. Charity shops netted me a few finds, but Amazon.co.uk has been no slouch, either. Considering a blog devoted to Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, I found several here and there. Edinburgh is his home town; no worries about finding all the volumes.

I may have picked up a sequel to Cold Comfort Farm I never realized existed, as well as the same Bloomsbury edition of The Brontës Went to Woolworths I used to own, once upon a pre-Scotland purge. Then, there’s Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, a book by an up and coming Edinburgh author named Sam McColl, Alexander McCall Smith’s first book in The Sunday Philosophy Club series, a book about bookshops, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for a book discussion group meeting in Edinburgh. And no, you may not see my Amazon shopping cart.

 

Speaking of the book group, I attended my first meeting last evening at a lovely little cafe called Nom de Plume on Broughton St. in Edinburgh. Jean Brodie provoked a brilliant discussion, and I was very interested in hearing what actual Scots thought about this iconic title written by one of their iconic writers. All sorts of fascinating points were brought up, lots of bits and pieces I’d never have picked up on my own. This is the wonder of book groups.

 

I’m looking forward to the weekend, hoping it brings travel – weather permitting. A Scottish author and friend recommended a couple of abandoned sites I’m keen to see. One’s an old manor, the other a railroad tunnel no longer in use. The manor sounds delightfully creepy, though potentially dangerous. There are beams perilously near falling, and a staircase in the same condition. She warned of drop offs, so if you don’t hear from me again, you’ll know why. It’s Chris’s chance to wander off, whistling innocently.

I’m still working out adding photos without the Windows snipping tool, and I have some lovely ones to show. If I must, I’ll post those separately. If you see photos in this post, I was successful. Yay!

If not, they’re coming. Gives you a reason to keep living.

 

Yup, still breathing.

 

April brought violets.

 

Thanks to all who’ve sent notes asking if I’m still alive. Sorry I wasn’t able to reply to all, but I’m popping in to reassure you I haven’t yet left this earthly plane. For some of you, hopefully that’s what you’d hoped to hear. For the rest of you, I know lots of Scottish swear words and insulting phrases. But I’ll let you slide this time.

Time really gets away from you. This year’s halfway over already, can you believe it? I’d been blogging religiously through most of it, then life reared its head. I had things to attend to, and everything plummeted into the roiling pit of despair.

I pretty much read nothing the entire month of April. I slowly returned to reading this month, but just couldn’t summon the energy to write about it. Welcome the tail end of May, when finally I rear my curly red head.

Once I’ve gathered the few books I’ve not shared about, I’ll do my best to form sentences summarizing thoughts. Then I’ll get myself back on track, as I’d done so well the early months of 2018.

Lots of personal things going on right now, like the continuing search for a librarian position. As I’m willing to go nearly anywhere in the U.S., it’s both easier and tougher. Try hunting for a job in a country of over 300 million people occupying gawd knows how many thousands of square miles.  Narrowing it down is tough, even eliminating areas I’d never want to live. Sift the remainder, and that’s still an awful bit pile.

Uprooting again will be an undertaking, once I do find that mythical job, though not nearly as tough as last year’s wee jaunt to Scotland. I never filled up my new home, anticipating the wanderlust itch was still great with me. I’m not sure the furniture I’m left with wouldn’t be best sold off, new things bought at my destination, considering the cost of moving. But that’s jumping ahead.

Meanwhile, time to get back to life’s plans – both big and small. I aim to post about books over the coming weekend. I may not blow you away with what I’ve read, but I sure as hell will with books I’ve bought and received for review. Still buying back some I sold before I moved away last year, and, as always, adding some everyone would agree are necessary.

Until then.

 

March in Review: Much more reading, many more books. That’s more like it.

I had faith March wouldn’t let me down, unlike my crappy January and February. Lie: I had no such faith, but told myself things could hardly go further south. And there were no Olympics, no television distracting me. The TV reverted to its usual function: background noise for napping and covering the surface of my TV stand, while looking impressively large.

Size matters, friends.

Of course, March brings out my Irish. It’s also my birth month, meaning I have an excuse to binge buy books. This year, March threw in a nasty virus, gratis, getting me three days off work in which I was too sick even to read.

Still, I managed to fit in a few.

I’d hoped to take a short vacation in March. SPOILER: that didn’t happen. I was too ill, no desire to leave the warmth of my home and comfort of my sofa. It’s still cold here in Chicago. Distressingly so. On this April 1, it’s the coldest it’s been in years, hovering around freezing.

Will spring ever come. I’m beginning to wonder.

Books Read March 2018:
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (for library classics book group)

I’ve been putting off reading this one since the upset wrought by the first few minutes of the Kubrick film. Not a fan of random violence and rape, I wrote this off as not for me.

It’s about a young man literally addicted to violence, the leader of a pack which wreaks nightly havoc on an English town. The first part was difficult to read, partly for the made-up language Burgess creates (which wore on me) and constant, gratuitous violence. The second part is much more interesting, once main character Alex is finally arrested for his crimes, and re-programmed, for lack of a better term.

The best thing I can say about ACO is I finished it. Not a fan.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The lovely Jesmyn Ward has written another moving story set in Mississippi, this one about a family ripped apart by the slow death of the matriarch from cancer. Told from shifting perspectives, including that of the ghost of a young black boy lynched decades ago, it’s a short and rich novel.

It deserves to be shortlisted.

Ruby by Cynthia Bond

This one, good God. Absolute brilliance, beginning to end. It’s been a while since I’ve read a modern book I believe has the staying power to become a modern classic. Ruby is it and then some.

The story, the brilliant and sensuous language, the characterization and use of magical realism… It’s huge in scope, so difficult to summarize.

The title character is born a beautiful young girl, her life of poverty dooming her to prostitution starting from a very early age. Having escaped the South for a privileged life with a relative in New York City, upon the death of a woman she’d loved she makes the fatal mistake of returning home. Ruby loses her mind, becoming feral, as she’s again pulled back into sexual abuse and violence.

Love enters, and Ruby resists, unable to believe anyone could truly love such a damaged, broken woman.

I can’t recall the last time I finished a book and wanted to turn back around and re-read it immediately. If I weren’t engaged in other projects, I’d have done so.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Schmidt’s book is a novelization of the story of possible murderess Lizzie Borden, she of the axe murders of her father and step-mother.  Generally, I don’t care for historical fiction, but this was an exception. What bothers me about it is the inability to know what’s true and what’s imagination. I’d far rather read non-fiction, getting to the truth of the matter.

 

The Notorious LB

 

I enjoyed Schmidt’s approach, telling the story from different perspectives. And while the case remains unsolved, she lets the reader know what she believes truly happened. It’s what I’ve always believed, as well, minus a few suspicions on the details.

Though an enjoyable read, I’d be surprised if this one makes the shortlist.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

Merchant shipman Jonah Hancock, one of his ships lost on a voyage, is handed a small, shrivelled “mermaid” as recompense. His only choice to help re-coup some of his losses is to display it as a curiosity, in PT Barnum fashion.

In the course of its travels, it lands in an upper class whorehouse, at which Mr Hancock meets the lovely courtesan and former mistress of a nobleman: Angelica Neal. Struck by her beauty, he’s lost.

Later, in order to win her love, she demands he bring her another mermaid, this one genuine. Believing it impossible, she believes she’s seen the last of him. When her fortunes change, however, Mr Hancock becomes much more desirable.

Ultimately, the creature Mr Hancock presents her with induces a terrible melancholy on everyone associated with it, begging the question what is the price to be paid when you get everything you think you want.

Not a candidate to win the Women’s Prize by any means, it’s an overly long book I nearly gave up at the 3/4 point. It meanders, interesting lesser characters never fully fleshed out. I finished it to find out what happens, and because I’d ordered it from Ireland and paid enough in shipping I didn’t want that to be for naught.

 

Books Bought March 2018:

In addition to a couple from the Books Read in March list (See What I Have Done and The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), there were these:

Happy by Nicola Barker (Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlist)

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg (for review)

And these:

And, for my birthday:

 

Nothing new read for the Muriel Spark project, unfortunately, but I’ll resume that in April. I thought I owned a copy of The Bachelors – next up chronologically – but can’t find it anywhere. Hesitant to buy more books after my slutty indulgence this month, I may have to skip over it for the next, bite the bullet and order it, then read it out of sequence.

I hate doing that, but needs must. One last search of my library, then I’ll do what must be done.

 

Such was my March. I’m happy with what I managed to read, definitely happy with the stream of new books. April needs to be a less expensive month. I went a little crazy, and need to re-coup. Still searching for that elusive sugar daddy to support my habit. Ah, but rare as mermaids are they.

April will hopefully herald spring, lifting my mood. I’d be lying if I said the first quarter of the year hasn’t brought me down. Still too early to plant flowers in the Chicago area – we’ve had frost as distressingly late as May, in years past – a warm-up, at the least, would be more than welcome. At least the days are lengthening, so there’s that. Sorry not to be more perky. I just don’t have it in me at the moment.

Spring’s hope’s eternal.

 

Early February check in: Spark & Shelley & Bowie (and abject misery)

 

Screw April; February is the real Cruelest Month

 

February heard me telling it to sod off. It’s only the 10th, and it’s already wiped the floor with my pasty arse. Hell, so far all of 2018 hates my guts. Yes, I said I wanted an exciting year. But my definition of “exciting” is not being medicated with a variety of different pain killers.

Counting down to a life abroad, yes. That was exciting. This, not so much. GET IT RIGHT, 2018!

The fractured rib is old history. A week ago, I also broke a toe by accidentally kicking a wall while getting dressed (don’t ask). Ever broken a toe? Tried wearing shoes after? Every step is excruciating, like pardon me while I sob excrutiating. I’ve been clomping around in snow boots two sizes too big, just to walk at all. It’s not the best look.

And last night, a crown fell off my tooth, leaving an exposed root. You can’t put big snow boots on a tooth missing a crown. It hurts like son on a bitch. A friend recommended trying a temporary crown compound. Having no choice, I ventured out in a driving blizzard to find it. The plan was to shove this stuff in my tooth hole, then call my dentist the next morning for an emergency appointment. Satisfied the pseudo-crown wouldn’t fall out and choke me, I went to bed.

With big snowstorms come very loud snow plows. Waking in the middle of the night to the ear-splitting sound of metal scraping cement, I peeked out to see at least four to five inches of white, fluffy, frozen are you even kidding me on my balcony. Tapping the  fake crown with my tongue, I jiggled it a tiny bit. A piece fell off. Trying not to panic, I told myself maybe it’s just a little extra material. Half an hour later, another piece fell off. Then another. HOLY MOTHER OF GOD! By morning, out it popped, right in my hand.

 

Snowmageddon: February 2018

 

You know those nightmares about your teeth falling out? How horrifying they are? That’s for a reason: it IS horrifying. Fortunately, my dentist was able to fit me in at 9 a.m. While working on my tooth, he said, “You know, to fix this right I’d need to remove part of your gum. Or you may lose the tooth.”

What.

Long story short, I’m sitting here now with a swollen, throbbing mouth, a temporary crown atop the gaping chasm, disposable sutures holding stuff together – stuff I really need to not picture in my mind’s eye right now. In a month, another two-hour appointment will find the permanent crown installed, one long nightmare ended.

You really do suck, February.

And 2018.

 

Spark & Shelley

 

Credit: The New Yorker

 

Muriel Spark’s bio of Mary Shelley nearly read, I went ahead and jumped into The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I couldn’t wait, sorry. I’m already ahead of heavenali’s reading schedule, but the way my luck’s going god knows what may happen to derail me. May as well take advantage while I’m upright and conscious.

Now this is the Muriel Spark I enjoy. I’m not ready to discuss it since I haven’t finished, but there’s a fascinating Scottish main character – Dougal Douglas – a very funny, very mischievous man. Up ’til now she hasn’t written any Scottish characters, not any central to the plot.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Why now, and why Dougal. And why Dougal Douglas, the humanities man.

I love village stories like this, character-driven tales of living in small towns. This one’s wonderfully funny; the taste of Memento Mori has been washed from my mouth – along with a lot of blood and some gum tissue. Sorry for that grotesque image. I’ve been so careful with it, haven’t I.

Sorry to the squeamish.

Anyway, I’m enjoying it immensely, and should finish over the weekend. I’ll talk about it then.

 

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

 

As for Mary Shelley, my sympathy for her continues to grow. I didn’t realize she’d only had eight years with Percy. How sad she lost him so early, but then reading about his possible affairs with other women, I don’t see this as the grand romance I’d once imagined.

Of course it’s still sad he died tragically, even if he was kind of a mooch, as well as a lech. Kind of? Very much so. Not long before his death, he fell hard for first an Italian woman named Emilia, then a mutual friend of Mary’s. Only after he was gone did Mary learn the truth about the second woman. The first he didn’t bother concealing. She was his muse, of sorts, for a brief while. Now, what kind of man does that to his wife, especially one who’s given birth to and buried three of his children. Not just that, her devotion to him knew no bounds.

Did he love Mary? No doubt, of course he did. Still, that doesn’t give the spoiled genius another reason to act badly. I’m just not a fan of this man, am I. Let’s leave Percy for now.

What’s very saddening is how lonely she was after her husband died, how almost desperately she searched around for someone to love. A man whose love she rejected, but wanted to see her happy, tried pairing her with Washington Irving, of all people. Washington Irving, the American author of – among other things – “Rip van Winkle”. Sounds so odd, I can’t even say why.

The whole story is embarrassing, or would have embarrassed her, had she known. She really did seem to have a crush on Irving, and her would-be suitor knew it, so he showed Irving letters in which she’d “jokingly” made vague reference to her esteem for him. You know how 19th C letters go. Something as simple as, “Weren’t his boots so shiny, though! La! How well-dressed and mannered he is!” is like today’s “God, he has the tightest ass!”

SPOILER: It didn’t work out. Irving ignored it.

I’ll talk about the bio over the weekend, as well. Both books should be finished by then.

Bowie 100

 

Bowie 100 Read: The Fire Next Time

 

In Bowie reading, I already admitted Hawksmoor wasn’t to be. I bought a copy of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to read for March. Thing is, I haven’t seen Duncan Jones actually discussing Hawksmoor. Maybe I’ve missed it on Twitter, but it hasn’t been obvious.

Mental note: CHECK, FFS.

If he hasn’t, and needs help with Baldwin, I wouldn’t mind stepping it up a bit. It is a short book, after all, Baldwin’s a masterful writer, and February (ahem) is Black History Month. A few discussion tweets wouldn’t kill me.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll continue reading the Bowie 100 if Duncan isn’t talking about what the books meant to his father. That was the interesting hook. But, again, I need to actually check on that.

I’ve been busy, what with bleeding and all.

Book Haul!

I still haven’t caught up with purchased, but here’s one recent haul:

 

 

I’m kind of also showing off my mid-century modern chair, too. And impeccable taste. But mostly, the books.

 

 

So, we have two Brontes, a Spark novel and work of criticism, and replacements of my Julian Barnes and Eudora Welty titles. Not in the detail are the wee Penguin books I love so much, and am slowly replacing.

 

This is what’s been keeping me so busy, not all of it pleasant. Truly, this year has been a downer.

I hope it turns around, I really do.

I’ll talk to you all this weekend, February willing.

 

Bookmarks: As the books come marching in.

 

My treasured little black Penguin editions. Found more this side of the pond!

 

Re-building my library is a whore’s paradise, I ain’t gonna lie. But it’s also terribly sad. Why? As I search the shelves of bookshops I see titles I used to own, but can’t afford to buy back. It would cost a fortune. Visions of grabbing a couple dozen of them, running out the door – pages whipping in the breeze as I flee – dance in my head.

What I need is a good distraction. A really good distraction. Anyone want to run interference for me?

It pays, buddy.

My collection of rare and out of print books was staggering. amassed over more than 20 years. Carefully culling them every few years  like a gardener his roses, I had myself a prime library. Some of my collectibles are in showcases at Half Price Books. I absolutely loathe their ridiculous buying policy. Books they bought from me for a dollar or two sit there with $ 1,000 price tags.

What the ever-loving freak.

I owned the complete Folio Library set of George Eliot’s works. At HPB they’re marked $ 300. I didn’t pay anywhere near that, and I’m pretty doubtful that’s what they’re worth (NOTE: I haven’t actually checked). Such a smarmy business practice. I could stand by my principles and boycott them, but then where would I shop? For the interesting, older, more eclectic stuff there is nowhere else to go.

Interesting, older and eclectic. Stick that on my shortlist of memoir titles.

 

Not the exact set, but same publisher.

 

Oh, for the time and luxury to have sold them myself. God, I could have made a small fortune. I miss bookselling sometimes. It’s crossed my mind I could give it another go, for a bit of side income, but it’s incredibly time-consuming. Not only is there the locating of inventory, but entering it into a database, packing and shipping is a pain in the arse. To run a bookshop, you need a partner.

Alas, I’m partner-less.

My ex-husband despised me for all the books lying around the house, the piles by the computer, the shelves upon shelves in the basement. One time, he gathered them up from around the house and threw them down the basement stairs. I happened to be standing there, but he wasn’t aiming directly at me. Not physically. It felt violating and awful. Pages were folded, dust jackets ripped, smaller books bent by behemoths.

To this day I’m sure he has no clue how hurtful that was. If he did, he wouldn’t care.

That foul thief Amazon drove my first venture out of business. I had a dear friend in Florida who partnered with me, each of us with our own inventory, but after a couple of years it became all too obvious we were spending way more than we made.

But God it was fun while it lasted.

 

One of my first book purchases back in the Colonies.

 

How should I show you my library? With pictures? Videos? A combination thereof?

Maybe I’ll do a combination of blog posts and vlogs (video blogs, if you’re scratching your head) (video blogs, even if you’re not). And Goodreads. I need to delete the stuff that’s gone and enter what I actually own.

I’d like to keep closer track of what I own. Already, they’re getting away from me. And each one has meaning. I don’t collect indiscriminately. Every book tells a story so much larger than what’s between the covers.

So little to do, so much time.

Strike that. Reverse it.

While it’s still manageable, I’d like to share what I own and why I own it. I smell a feature here. Or maybe it’s the dog.

WHERE IS THE DOG.

I like the idea of an irregular feature. I’ll show you mine without expecting you to show me yours. Wait. I’m getting ripped off.

Gather yourself, woman!

I need a couple more bookshelves, the perfect opportunity to start fresh arranging books and telling you about them. I’ll get those over the weekend, slap them together, and as soon as I can I’ll work on the first proper Bookmarks installment.

We have a plan.

 

Daily: Bits & Bob’s yer uncle

 

 

After a long stretch of feeling pretty okay, insomnia and that black dog depression reared their ugly heads once again. The all too familiar slide began before Christmas. I thought once the holidays passed I’d bounce back; a couple weeks later, I realized that wasn’t going to happen without intervention.

You can’t be proud when it comes to your health. I talked with my doctor, he prescribed a “nudge” medication, and I’m back to sleeping like a baby.

I can feel the slightest deviation in mood. My brain’s like a Stradivarius, without the market value. There’s no need to suffer when you don’t have to, especially when it compromises something as important as sleep.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Reading-wise, I’m accumulating a lot more books than I’m reading.

I know: GASP.

Five or six books joined my vintage Penguin pile (I’ll tell you later), along with publisher freebies and the fruits of several ill-advised visits to bookstores. I say “ill-advised” only because I’m carrying a balance on my credit card I’d theoretically very much like to pay off.

Among other things, I found this gorgeous copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Andrea D’Aquino:

 

 

Mistress Alice

 

The White Rabbit

 

The caterpillar & his hookah

 

ABSOLUTELY STUNNING.

* * * * * * *

What to do with five days off…

Poor me, I requested my birthday (March 28) and the four days following off work. Now I have to choose a destination. Don’t you even say Scotland.

Just NO.

One thing I neglected to consider: late March is prime spring break season. Anyplace warm will be packed with thousands of college kids vomiting their brains out in the streets. Outstanding. There goes Nola, for sure. Right before Easter, at the height of party season? Nice planning, idiot.

I need to pick a place kids don’t care about, far from the madding crowd. Something tells me they won’t be hunting things literary like I will. I know, I’m probably giving them short shrift. Of course American kids are erudite.

Nope. Can’t manage a straight face.

Here are the options I’ve chosen:

 

Native of Asheville, NC

Option One: Asheville, NC.

Asheville is on my shortlist of possible places to move. It’s roughly a ten-hour drive, so close enough I can zip back to the Chicago area to visit the kids with relative ease. It’s kind of in the South, along the Atlantic seaboard, so it’s milder. It’s also damned beautiful.

A towering figure in American letters – Thomas Wolfe – hails from Asheville, plus it’s roughly two short hours to gorgeous Charleston, right on the Atlantic. The drive there would be beautiful, and there’s plenty to see and do.

 

Harper Lee and Truman Capote

Option Two: Alabama!

A literary loop in Alabama, now that’s not a bad idea.

Yes, I said Alabama.

Harper Lee was from Alabama. Truman Capote visited her in Monroeville every summer, as a child. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald owned a home in Montgomery, where Zelda was born.

The state’s actually blessed with literary connections. And losing Republican senators.

 

Burlington, VT

Option Three: Swoon.

New England. Lovely, lovely New England. Choices here are limitless. So limitless I can’t choose. What an awful problem to have.

But… And this is a very big but… It’s six hours further than Asheville. Thirty-two hours driving in the space of five days? I love road trips, but holy mother of gawd.

 

Sweet home, Chicago

Option Four: Staycation in Lovely Chicago.

I don’t take enough advantage of living next to this beautiful city. All the architecture, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute… It’s true you neglect what’s right under your nose.

And I don’t mean your mouth.

Hotels are expensive in the city, sure. But no more than I’d be paying on long road trips, not to mention gas – and wear and tear on the car. Of course, it’s also minus Asheville and Alabama and New England.

Blimey.

If you were me, which would you pick?

My generally crappy week in review: reading and other complaints

Books mentioned in this post:

Muriel Spark – The Comforters

Muriel Spark – Robinson

Muriel Spark – Memento Mori

AJ Finn – The Woman in the Window

Peter Manseau – The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost

Michael Wolff – Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

All the Louis Penny

Charles Dickens – Nicholas Nickleby

Peter Ackroyd – Hawksmoor

Martin Stannard – Muriel Spark

 

A combination of seasonal depression, big changes at work, and a slew of exaggerated, looming negative thoughts combined to bring back insomnia with a vengeance.

The general rule is I tire myself out mentally every day, so when my head hits the pillow I’m out like the dead. A couple nights this week I lay wide awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, dropped off abruptly, then woke an hourish later, up for the duration.

At that point, you may as well say screw it.

I made good use of time knocking out household tasks that wouldn’t piss off the neighbors who share walls with me, enjoyed a decent breakfast, and treated the dog to extra outdoor adventures.

Of course, I felt like shit by evening.

What’s nagging me is a confluence of small things blown out of proportion by virtue of an ongoing battle with depression. That’s how it works. Grounding is a practice useful to combat insomnia. Lying in bed, notice and be grateful for the warmth, the roof over your head, the food in your kitchen, the clothes on your back. You’re safe, nothing’s going to happen in that moment. Then, the next moment, then the next. I’ve had days it’s been necessary to practice that moment by moment for hours, very dark days in the grip of a serious and dangerous slide into the pit. I’m not there anymore, thankfully. It’s not that dark.

Routine is equally important. Rituals are a good thing, training mind and body that sleep is preceded by set steps.

I know all these things, but threw them out the window.

 

Memento Mori (1959)

Moving on … Reading!

In Muriel Spark news, after recently finishing her first novel The Comforters and second astonishing Robinson earlier in the week, I’m working on her third novel, Memento Mori. Funny, when you think about it. I had this grim week, and the literal translation of memento mori is “remember you can die.”

Uplifting, that.

I won’t talk a lot about it now, but thus far it’s extraordinarily depressing, wickedly sniping at older people. It deals with, among other things, the dismissive way they’re treated, and the horrors of dementia.

I need to see where she’s going with all this before I decide if I’m enjoying it. Then, I’ve not been reading it with full attention. Once I’ve finished I’ll go back through and re-read parts I haven’t granted full justice.

Sometimes that happens. Readers get it.

In general Spark news, I asked the incomparable Ian Rankin which were his favorites of her novels. Here’s his reply:

 

The undeserved IT book of 2018

 

Also knocked off this year’s Gone Girl, the big-ass book and film adaptation combo of 2018. SPOILER: Unimpressed.

It’s an extremely fast read, very unsubtle and undemanding. A thriller needs to be razor-sharp, lean and menacing. The Woman in the Window is none of these. Yes, it’s a great premise. A woman with agoraphobia spies on her neighbors, sees a horrific crime, and no one will believe her because she’s a drunk who mixes heavy depression medication. Her erratic behavior soon brands her as unreliable.

It would have been a wise move to leverage that a bit more than Finn did, to do so with stronger writing.

 

I know what I saw.

 

 

The problem was the plot played on a loop, dragging on without much advancement for more than 100 pages. It should have been at least that many pages shorter.

Good thrillers aren’t repetitive. Hence “thrill.” They’re lean and mean, menacing and horrifying. Finn never quite managed to hit these notes, though I’ll grant him at least one decent revelation. Despite a promising start, the main character’s love of old thriller movies hinting at use of Hitchcockian understatement, it didn’t deliver.

The writing wasn’t bad. It was actually better than average, and his outline has merit. It just lacked urgency, for which major points are deducted. I wasn’t on the edge of my seat, and I should have been. I wasn’t cringing, worried about the main character’s safety more than a brief moment. I should have been.

I haven’t even touched on the worst part. The denouement is related flatly, almost in monotone. Don’t set up a book with the promise of nuance then deliver bland prose. The last 75ish pages twisted and turned so quickly it was like watching a tennis match, after not much happening for ages. While you want twists in a thriller, you also want more development, more doubt put into the reader’s mind this could be true, before yanking the rug out from under again.

Stephen King loved it? Gillian Flynn? I gotta read this! Sigh. It’s all part of the game.

 

Read this in place of The Woman in the Window…

 

No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life.  – Mathew Brady

 

In recent nonfiction, The Apparitionists is an utterly fascinating book about the early history of photography as well as its use in spiritualism: the hoax perpetrated by a certain group of 19th century photographers purported to have the ability to capture images of the dead in photos of the living.

It also covers Mathew Brady, famous Civil War photographer, and his peers, explaining how they got the images they did. Shockingly, many of the images we’ve grown to associate with the Civil War dead were staged. Some were live soldiers posed dramatically, borrowed from the war then sent back to fight. Begs the question if any of them wound up legitimate subjects later in the war.

Gruesome thought.

 

Photographer Mathew Brady

 

Photojournalists of the time were attempting to convey the war’s true horror and devastation. Those without family or friends on the front lines saw only lists of the dead. In cities like New York, especially, it was an irrelevant, far-off happening. Photos brought everything home.

It’s gripping, packed full of fascinating detail. Love the photos, as well, though being a proof copy they’re not the sharpest. I expect I’ll be back to it this evening.

 

Playing on desperation of the grieving

 

The principle of the thing

 

God, I hate seeing that face on my blog.

Do I think this is totally nonfiction? No. Do I believe it’s politically motivated? Absolutely. But I hate this man with a vengeance. He tried to censor the book, threatening to sue to stop publication. Then the publisher moved up the release date…

Superb!

I don’t know that I’ll read it. We all know he’s unbalanced, stupid, inept, a lech. I see enough of him in the daily news. I bought the book because he didn’t want me to, because it’s my First Amendment right.

I have enough on my reading plate. It can sit on my Kindle.

 

Cha-ching!

 

This is what happens when you hobnob with editors and other literary folk. I regularly bump into Louise Penny’s US editor on Twitter, largely because we share the same political views. I mentioned I’d owned several Penny titles, but had to sell them when I moved to Scotland. She said, well, then, let me fix that.

Swoon!

If you’re bookish you won’t ask the question. The answer: when I can get to her.

Etc.

Some books have slipped by the wayside, as tends to happen when you’re a greedy binge reader. I didn’t make this month’s meeting of the classics group at my library, and hadn’t finished Nicholas Nickleby, anyway.  I intend to, mind. I’m largely enjoying it, though unusually frustrated by some of the side-track plotting.

Also languishing are Hawksmoor, for the Bowie read, and Stannard’s bio of Muriel Spark, which I’m reading but slowly.

Then there are two books I’m overdue in reviewing. Glasgow Review needs a date from me regarding a book I’ve had since my summer in Scotland, and NYJB hasn’t asked, but I owe them one immediately, as well. It’s timely, so I need to get off my arse. Another in the NYJB queue awaits, partially read but nowhere near reviewed.

 

That’s a wrap on the basics of my reading week. I have today’s New York Times sitting beside me, which is a good slow simmer guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, I also have a headache from hell (allergies), and work I need to get done.

Ah, but it feels good firing off a summary post.

Next post will likely be personal again. Much to say that doesn’t fit well in the scope of a bookish theme. Until then, good news is the days are lengthening and I have so much exciting stuff ahead.

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