Category Archives: review – fiction

We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve been meaning to get at Joyce Carol Oates for a while. I even heard her speak in the fall of 2009 at the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference (a grand old time). But yeah, it took me until fall 2011 to pick up one of her novels. And honestly, in part, this was because i was intimidated by the sheer volume of her bibliography. The woman has written over fifty novels (some YA, some for kids, most under the name of JCO, but some under one of her two noms de plume), as well as an impressive selection of drama, poetry, essay, memoir, and short stories. This woman is prolific. So how on earth, i wondered, was i supposed to pick just one work to start with?

In the end, it was a matter of convenience. Avery happened to have a copy of We Were the Mulvaneys on her shelf (which was, i believe, purchased at that same Women Writer’s Conference). WWtM is one of Oates’ more popular novels, perhaps due to its membership in Oprah’s book club.

What struck me the most about this novel, initially, was its male protagonist, Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaney brood. This not an interesting fact in and of itself, but i have found that men authors tend to write from the point of view of female protagonists more often than women write from male protagonists’ POV, at least in my reading experience. This aspect became even more intriguing when the central conflict of the novel became apparent: the rape of the protagonist’s sister, Marianne, and the repercussions this violent act cause in her life and in the lives of her family members.

Oates is masterful in the simultaneous primacy and mystery she grants Marianne—the reader is almost never given access to Marianne’s thoughts—indeed, for a good part of the novel, she is not even present. Yet, she remains in the forefront of the reader’s mind throughout, and the characters’ minds. In fact, i take back my designation of Judd as the novel’s protagonist simply because he is the one “telling” the story. In fact, Judd’s voice and perspective is often latent, resurfacing only at crucial intervals; the collective voice of the Mulvaney family, which tells the story of Marianne, speaks louder than Judd, who ultimately is little more than a figurehead.

In this sense and in many others, WWtM is a spectacularly subtle novel. Though it is driven by a violent, devastating act of rape, it refrains from becoming morose or frightening or, more to the point, either glamorizing or sensationalizing of the rape itself. The novel instead is permeated by an insidious tension, sadness, and silence that feels exceedingly authentic. *SPOILER ALERT* As a result of the rape, Marianne is sent to live with a distant relative; oldest son Michael moves out and becomes a drunken womanizer; middle son Patrick goes away to school and distances himself from the family; parents Michael and Corrine are forced to declare bankruptcy and sell the family farm; the Mulvaney family and Michael and Corrine’s marriage deteriorates. But none of this is dramatic or overwrought—rather, it is a slow, sneaking, sorrowful process. Oates is so good at drawing the reader in that i almost felt like these characters were my people, that their problems were my own.

It’s a depressing novel, no doubt, but in the best way, and doesn’t end on an overly sad note, either. If you want a dense, character-driven novel that you can sink into—and keeps you interested—We Were the Mulvaneys—or many of Oates numerous other titles, i’m sure—may be for you.

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Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown

How much could Rubyfruit Jungle and The Well of Loneliness have in common, besides being novels about lesbians? After all, their basic stats are very different: They were published 45 years apart, Rubyfruit in 1973, The Well in 1928. The Well takes place between around the 1870s to the turn of the twentieth century; Rubyfruit, from the mid 1940s to the late 60s. Their physical settings, too, are quite different, as are their protagonists: Radclyffe’s Steven is a refined, reserved, horseback-riding, book-writing Englishwoman who divides her time between her beloved manor in the countryside and a community of lesbian expatriates in Paris; Brown’s Molly is a corn-fed American girl who, though very intelligent and motivated, comes from an impoverished, broken family and grew up in a tiny Pennsylvania farming community and a rural working-class Floridian town. What the hell could these protagonists and their stories have in common beside the fact, as mentioned, that they are both sapphic? Well, as it turns out, a hell of a lot.

Well, firstly, both of the novels are bioptic in scope, ranging from their heroines’ childhoods to developed adulthoods, and both of their childhoods contain such elements as isolation from their families and communities, especially their mothers; the desire to act “like a boy”; a close, empathetic bond with their fathers; strength of character with which their mothers disagree; the sudden death of said fathers who were among the only people in their lives to understand them; ill-fated childhood infatuations and adolescent affairs. In fact, as i was reading Rubyfruit, it felt a little like a condensed version of Well fast-forwarded sixty or so years and translated into folksy American dialect. One may wonder if Brown lifted some of her ideas from an invert author foremother. But it must be pointed out that Rubyfruit is a highly autobiographical novel—as is, indeed, The Well. So what do these similarities indicate?

I think they point largely to the commonalities shared between closeted lesbians as an oppressed group, similarities that span time and space—and also indicate how little changed for lesbians between Radclyffe and Brown’s lives—despite the arrival of radio, television, the microwave, and airplanes in the intervening years, it still was common for young lesbians to feel at odds with their mothers over their gender identities to the point of total alienation. And for adult lesbians to write novels based on their own troubled childhoods.

Plotwise, Rubyfruit is a textbook Bildungsroman, tracing Molly’s evolution from child to young woman. Like Radclyffe’s Steven, Molly encounters a tough relationship with her mother, the death of her father, gets cast out from her home, and makes a name for herself in a more glamorous place than from which she came (New York City). However, unlike Steven, Molly is consistently unashamed of her sexuality, revels in sex and having multiple partners, and is very open about her sexuality with others—and Rubyfruit, unlike The Well, contains somewhat (homo)sexually explicit scenes. As such, of course, it joins the ranks of The Well, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Go Ask Alice, and scads of other frequently banned books.

Like The Well, Rubyfruit Jungle is not a literary masterpiece. Its plot is somewhat predictable and its protagonist is static and flawless. However, it serves its purpose as a Great Lesbian Novel if nothing else, especially gaining weight as it is written by an author popular in the mainstream for her mystery novels. Perhaps Rubyfruit was to second-wave lesbians that The Well may have been to those of the turn of the century: a rallying point, a sliver of solidarity in a world where they were either ignored or hostilely rejected. And, highfalutin’ conjectures aside, it’s a fun, light summer read. (Ed. note: Because i did read this in the summer and am only just now posting it due to K College-induced time constraints on pleasure reading.)

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The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Alison Bechdel

Like many others, my sole experience with comics for a sizable chunk of time ended with the newspaper funnies, and even that interaction was limited to Zits, Baby Blues, and Speedbump (how on earth can Dave Coverly pack so much humor into one panel while Brad Anderson, AKA father of Marmaduke, fails so miserably?). But in winter quarter of my first year at K i took a class called, half-truthingly, Reading the World: Identities—i say half-truthingly because although the texts of the class were concerned with identity, all of them were also graphic memoir, which became far more of a focal point than the identities bit.

I wasn’t exactly skeptical about this development, but—well. I guess i was. I’d like to say i was extremely open-minded to the possibility that some comics could go far deeper than, say, Peanuts, but i will be transparent and admit that when i first realized that the course would be taught in graphic memoir, i felt a little duped and disappointed. But it didn’t take me long to change my tune. We started with all-around classic Maus by Art Spiegelman which is, of course, just badass, poignant, intense, and masterful all at once, moving on to the simply drawn yet powerful Persepolis, David Smalls’ marvelous Stitches to, finally, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, which i’d been looking forward to since reading the synopsis (Bechdel’s memoir loosely about coming out in collage and her relationship with her father, whom she learned was gay after his death). I was struck by the intelligence of Bechdel’s work, her humility, and her honesty. So, i was overjoyed when a friend of mine presented me with a belated birthday present of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, a collection of a long-running comic strip by Bechdel.

Basically, DTWOF is a twenty-one-year chronicle of the lives of a group of mostly lesbian friends. Because the strip ran for so long, it’s fun to watch how the characters, style, and animation grow and change over time. The plot points never fail to excite—and yet, in truth, they’re pretty down to earth. Stuff that would happen in anyone’s life. Which was Bechdel’s main purpose in creating the strip: to show that lesbians are just people, too. Well, one of the main reasons, anyway, the other being to critique current events and politics, especially as they related to the queer world. And critique she did. I mean, Alison Bechdel is so fucking smart. And i already knew she was after reading Fun Home—she’d pack a whole dissertation’s worth of literary references into one page—but DTWOF is equally amazing in its social and political consciousness, its attention to detail, its careful consideration of the world around us through its characters.

Which is a lot of the reason why Bechdel put the strip on indefinite hiatus in 2008. According to an interview with Roxanne Samer from the blog Gender Across Borders, the pressure to keep up to date on current events, especially with all the race and gender politics packed into the 2008 presidential election, made keeping up with DTWOF an intimidating prospect. Plus, it had been going on for twenty-one years. Bechdel claims she’d like to do a little tying up of loose ends, as the final comic is drastically inconclusive, but who knows if this will happen. And i’m not so sure that it should, at this point. Because DTWOF is so of its time, it would seem out of step to pick it back up three years later. And anyway, Bechdel wanted the comic to be like real life, which it is, and since when has real life been neatly summed up in 9 panels? It seems poignantly appropriate that the strip should end on an inconclusive note—not a cliffhanger, but definitely with some questions hanging in the air. And it’s up to the readers to decide if Mo and Sydney ever work it out, if Toni and Clarice ever finalize their separation, if Sparrow and Stewart ever adopt another baby.

So, for those of you L Word fans out there, let me just say, this strip reminded me a lot of the show if it was dragged back in time twenty years, if its characters were about 93% less physically perfect, and if the diversity of the cast was amplified by about 3005 times in terms of not only race but also class, gender identity, looks, age, and physical ability. Sound good to you? Sound good to me.

 

 

 

(Not that i’m knocking The L Word. Because i like it. A lot.)

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No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July

I feel like short stories are a greatly overlooked form of writing. People are way more likely to read novels or memoir, which are equally great, but it’s kind of strange to me that the general attention span today is lessening, yet people still generally read novels more than shorter fiction. Like, a novel is to a film as a short story is to an episode of a television show. But then again, just because a short story is short doesn’t mean it’s lacking in quality. So, in conclusion, nothing i just wasted eighty-eight words on is true, and i’m being deeply transparent about my failure to make a compelling observation about the world we live in today.

But anyway, I read No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories by Miranda July, which was actually my first experience with a short story collection. I found i rather liked it. Some stories were shorter than others, but it was fun to experience tales of varying lengths, as well as different subject matter. I must say, though, content-wise, i was a little put off at first. No One is very clever and very bizarre, two elements which distanced me from her characters and stories initially. Or, bizarre is inaccurate, i guess: it wasn’t like none of the situations she created, such as a woman laying in bed fearing that she is about to get robbed, could happen, but the characters’ reactions to the situations are bizarre and detached. And sometimes the situations themselves, such as a woman giving swimming lessons to a group of elderly people in her living room, were too quirky for me to find heart in. So, for the first third or so of the book, i was entertained, but not especially drawn in. Until i reached “Something That Needs Nothing,” one of the longer pieces in the collection.

Oh, my goodness. Maybe it was just pulling at my queer heart strings, or maybe i felt more invested in the characters, or maybe it was just easy for me to identify with a story of two recently-graduated girls. Whatever it was, this one really got me. When one girl leaves the other for a new girl she has fallen in love with, i literally felt a stab of pain in my heart. And from this point on, for one reason or another, i was able to relate more closely to the characters of each story, long or short, especially culminating in the last story in the book, “How to Tell Stories to Children,” a poignant and provocative tale of the friendship between a middle-aged woman and the daughter of two of her friends.

Another winning point of this collection was the variety of protagonists, which included the young, the old, males, females, gays and straights. As Josh Lacey points out in his review of the work on the Guardian’s website, all of these narrators (all the stories are told from the first-person POV) sound largely similar, which could become tiresome if you read the book for large chunks of time, but if some breaks are taken in between, it’s less noticeable and hardly offensive.

July’s talents don’t end with prose: in fact, she’s primarily a director who has dabbled in multimedia visual art, performance art, acting, and punk music. Cool tidbit relating to an earlier post: July was once best friends with Johanna Fateman, who is a part of the dance-punk band Le Tigre, which is headed by who else but the great Kathleen Hanna, and has also appeared in a music video of riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney. Also notable is her now retired online project, Learning to Love You More, the results of which also collected into a book.

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Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume

I guess i kind of missed the boat on children’s lit. Which isn’t to say that i didn’t read—just that i read the same select few books over and over again, namely: the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series (which i would love to do some kind of project on in regards to gender; details pending); the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar; Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, by Judy Blume, the title of which i didn’t recognize as a musical reference for several years, as well as Superfudge; and A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. Now, these weren’t the only books i read as a kid, but they were a lot of the books i read (is that grammatically correct?), and each book/series has made a small part of me what it is today: Wayside School and Unfortunate Events helped shape my generous if odd sense of humor. Here’s to You and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle inspired my love of voyeuristically observing others’ problems form a safe distance.

Despite these gifts, i can’t help but feel i missed out on some classic kids’ books, and i’m sorely reminded of this fact whenever i discuss childhood reading habits with Avery, who was a much more well-read youngster than me. But hey! Just because i’m in college doesn’t mean i can’t play a little catch up, right?

So. A major girlhood classic is Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I’m surprised this one evaded me, since i, like most girls, was interested in My Changing Body, as well as realistic tales of childhood drama. Even so, i didn’t find my way to it until i was far past puberty. Go figure. But it’s still a valuable book.

A little background: this book is often banned for, i guess, either its frank discussion of menstruation or religion—specifically, not having a religion. I’m not sure which tends to offend more, but obviously these topics aren’t worthy of discussion, especially not with kids—quelle horror! Anywho, Margaret is a top-banned book, and Judy Blume is a top-banned author and all around BAMF for daring to realistically deal with such topics as teenage sexuality, divorce, bullying, and female puberty. She has some lighter stuff too, which doesn’t catch as much flack. And i guess people who ban her books feel that they’re too grave or upsetting or inappropriate for young readers, but the truth is, these topics have long been of importance in kids’ lives, and i would imagine that reading about them in book should make kids feel less abnormal if they’re dealing with them, less alone.

The story is pretty simple but true to the average girls’ feelings about puberty, school, friends, and family. One of the aspects i enjoyed the most about Margaret was its positive portrayal of menarche. Margaret and her friends form a club that regularly discusses periods as part of their meetings—namely, what they think it will be like. The first of the group is to immediately report when they get their first period. And sure, it’s presented a little competitively, even compelling the ring leader of the group to lie and say that she got her period before she really had (*spoiler alert*), but it’s presented as an undoubtedly positive life change, unlike so much other media, in which it’s presented as uncomfortable, dirty, inconvenient, etc. My friend Kelsie, who did read the book when it was a bit more applicable in her life, even said it made her want her period and look on it with a positive perspective.

Margaret‘s generally a permissive book, gently exploring themes of body changes, life changes, and questioning major things, such as the decisions one’s parents make, or the religion one should follow. But it never feels heavy or melodramatic, which is an accomplishment. If i ever have a daughter, i would definitely encourage her to read this—and if i had a son, Blume’s got me covered too: Then Again, Maybe I Won’t serves as a sort of companion book to Margaret in that it’s about a boy’s pubescent experiences. Yay for gender equality, sensitive exploration of childhood experiences, and Judy Blume.

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Middlemarch, George Eliot, with guest blogger Avery Smith!

As mentioned previously, i don’t care much for long books, so no way was i gonna read two (Well and Middlemarch) in a short span of time. So, i’ve subcontracted a post on Middlemarch out to my dear Avery Smith, who was more than happy to oblige.
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I started reading Middlemarch in the search for a “classic” novel that was also a Feminist one. Published in 1871 by the pennamed George Eliot (born Mary Ann or Marian Evans), I’d heard it spoken highly of and, when, in the first few chapters, I was introduced to the independent and idealistic central character of Dorothea Brooke, I considered my search satisfied. But as I continued to read—plowing steadily through upwards of 700 pages—I realized that even though Middlemarch is written by a woman and has a strong female protagonist, it cannot be simply classified as a Feminist novel. It cannot be simply classified as any kind of novel. Its scope is simply too large, its plot too all-embracing, its realism too successful.

Anyway, as I learned from both the book itself and from reading the introduction by Margaret Drabble, such expansive realism is sort of the point of Middlemarch. It’s a novel intended to display the way society worked—in Midlands mid-nineteenth century England—and in the end it’s the fact that it does so so broadly that makes it successful. Rather than presenting just one viewpoint (be it Feminist, conservative, or otherwise), Middlemarch is a novel of crossing boundaries, of acquiring sight and understanding where once we were blind or blinkered on all levels and all perspectives.

It was a bit of a struggle for me to accept this at first, because, like Chelsey, I don’t find 19th century Brit-Lit the most riveting. However, what I liked in Middlemarch was that, as Drabble writes in the introduction “On one or two occasions, George Eliot chooses to shock us by displaying the rents in the social fabric.” She goes on to explain that one way in which Eliot does this is by making the reader intimately familiar with characters located on all levels of the class system, and then demonstrating how some of these characters, even while living in the same small provincial town, have no familiarity with each other. The upper-class Brookes and Chettams don’t even know the names of the Garths and Vincys, for instance, families of poor characters whom the readers have been induced to feel much fondness for and familiarity with. Such an example shows clearly how divisive the class system was, and brought home to me for the first time the inescapably restrictive and all-consuming nature of rank in the society of the era (and how it can persist even now).

On the other hand, Drabble points out that Middlemarch also effectively demonstrates the way in which “no group can afford to ignore any other group.” Every rank relies on and interacts with the ones above and below it, families intermarry and gossip, and the community leaders (both official and informal) condemn or condone the actions of those in the neighborhood. What I found most brilliant about Middlemarch was how powerfully it illustrated this sort of community—and how honestly. Eliot does not idealize community life nor married life, showing time and again how restrictive each can be. It is in this way that I think the novel can most be read as a Feminist one: as a 19th-century British woman, after all, Eliot “should” be portraying married life as a sort of ultimate goal and community as a helpful, cooperative resource. Instead, she shows strong individuals—both female and male—who are stymied by a patriarchal society and an unquestioning resistance to change.

Eliot was apparently very similar in character to her idealistic protagonist, Dorothea, who advocates charity and social progress often at personal expense. Nonetheless, both Eliot and Dorothea seem to realize that as much as each individual can be a change agent, they will only care to change what wrongs they see in their society because they are a part of that society. So though I didn’t find quite the feminist epic that I was expecting, I did still find something of a call to action in Middlemarch, and recommend it for its breadth and bravery in exploring society’s every layer and intricacy. To sum up in Eliot’s own words, a quote from page 722. “Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she [Dorothea] felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.”

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*Classic Alert, with pictures!* The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall

If I may make a blanket statement, I am not a huge fan of classic British literature. Perhaps this disdain stems from my trying to read such tomes before my time in an attempt to feign precocity. Or the time in tenth grade when I refused to read Pride and Prejudice at the rate prescribed by our teacher and ended up having to read it in four or so days in order to catch up. Regardless of my reasoning, I’ve often found it to be too dry, too stuffy. Just kind of boring. Yet, there are certain forces at work (the sources of which I won’t get into in this particular post) that have instilled in me the notion that a Brit Lit-y is the inarguable mark of good writing—that if any piece happens to smack of Dickens’ diction or Austen’s allegory (for which I don’t think she’s noted; I just wanted to be alliterative), it is a good, “real” piece of writing.

So, it felt almost unreal for me to read a piece of classic Brit Lit that involved lesbians. Because Brit Lit, to me, is the paragon of literary propriety and status, it felt downright unreal that here was a thick tome by Brit Radclyffe Hall all about gays, a group of people largely ignored in lit as a whole, let alone the hallowed halls of classic English literature that seem so high-brow in my little mind.

Collage! Look how lovely and old it is!

Yet, so it stands. And though I usually avoid reading from this genre for pleasure, I decided to break habit for a work as iconic as The Well of Loneliness. And I came across a particularly handsome copy: a 1929 edition with thick, creamy pages and a plain green cover, complete with an publisher’s defensive note on why they chose to publish the novel despite the negative press it had received on account of its “obscene” content (despite the fact that only twice in the novel is sex even obliquely alluded to).

The Well of Loneliness is a member of that subgenre of books that are quite long and concern themselves with the majority a certain character’s life, à la Gone With the Wind and Les Misérables. Here I broke another rule for The Well: I am not a huge fan of long books. I often feel that many things could be cut out and the work would be either unchanged or else enhanced. And perhaps that’s true for The Well, but even so, things kept interesting enough for me to not rue the length of the novel.

The Well was written by BAMF Radclyffe Hall, a self-identified “invert,” as lesbians were once called, poet, novelist, and player.

Radclyffe to the right**

Hall lived proudly as a butch invert by rejecting her given name of Marguerite, wearing masculine clothing, and having two long-term relationships with relatively well-known women of the time.  Most of her novels dealt with lesbian themes, not the least of which being The Well, whose main character, Stephen, is identified from birth as an invert. The plot follows Stephen’s life from birth, to her first crush on a maid in her family’s manor, from her ill-fated affair with an American socialite, to her career as a writer and eventual settling down in Paris with her long-term partner Mary. Of course the novel ends sadly—perhaps Hall felt it would be too unrealistic to end otherwise, or else feared that a happy ending would prevent it from being published.

Despite its depressing conclusion, The Well is infused with pleas for tolerance for inverts, as well as a core defense of homosexuality as natural. For example when Steven’s mother discovers her sexual nature, the protagonist stands her ground: “’…but what I will never forgive is your daring to try and make me ashamed of my love. I’m not ashamed of it, there’s no shame in me…Good and—and fine it was…the best part of myself…” (229). Stephen and Mary’s relationship, closely mimicking the stereotypical passive homemaker and dominant breadwinner, deepens Hall’s presentation of homosexuality as normal. (Though such a power structure is not the “natural” or necessarily ideal way to structure a relationship/family, it certainly would have been perceived as such in 1928, when The Well was published.)

Further, The Well presents several predicaments that could very well be applied to queer people of our own time. For example, when one woman falls ill, her partner is forced to pretend that she is just a friend, and therefore unqualified to make any decisions about her partner’s treatment.  This scenario is familiar to many modern gay people who are not allowed to make medical decisions concerning their incapacitated significant other or even be in the hospital room with them after certain hours unless they have gone through the trouble of securing a marriage or carefully preparing legal documents for such a happening in advance.

If not The Best Novel Ever Written, The Well holds its significance as one of the few works of its time to deal honestly and kindly with a queer character, let alone a queer protagonist. Interestingly, there has been recent scholarship that suggests perhaps Stephen is best described as not a lesbian, but as transgender, given, of course, her name, her penchant for masculine clothing, her interest in honing her body and hunting, and her overall demeanor. Indeed, in the same conversation referenced above with her mother, Stephen states that “[i]f I loved her the way a man loves a woman, it’s because I can’t feel that I am a woman. All my life I’ve never felt like a woman, and you know it…” (228-9). This hypothesis is perhaps aided by the fact that though other inverts appear in The Well, they are not described as particularly masculine.

Whatever Stephen might have identified as if she’d been around in our time, and despite Covici-Friede’s anxiety over publishing such a controversial text*, The Well helped end the conspicuous lack of gay characters in literature and endures as celebrated piece of queer fiction.

*Perhaps not without reason: The novel was seized from the publisher’s offices after one of the company’s owners sold a copy to a representative of the New York Society for Suppression of Vice. Smooth move.
** Credit to these people

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