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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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As we grind our way through winter (I’m trying to embrace it, but grey days and sleet make it hard), I’m taking delight in a newish enjoyment: watching, and identifying, the birds in my neighborhood.

I’ve long loved the sight of a cheery robin redbreast, and the squawks of a bluejay send me to the window to search out that flash of bright cobalt against the bare branches. I adore the cheeky house sparrows who perch on my windowsill, and I like watching the mourning doves who sometimes take up residence there. But lately, I’ve been trying to pay attention to other breeds as well.

I found an Audubon guide at a used bookstore last summer, and I’ve been using it to try and identify a few of the birds I see on my windowsill or on my morning runs: black-capped chickadees, bright goldfinches, the terns who swim in the harbor. The gulls and hawks are easy to spot, but so many of the smaller gray and brown birds (known, apparently, to birders as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs”) require a bit more attention. I’m not always sure I’ve gotten it right, but it’s fun to try and puzzle out the name of a new species.

The other week, on a walk with my friend Sharon, I stopped in Piers Park to watch a flock of birds on the water. We spent a few minutes debating: they were ducks, clearly, but what kind? We squinted in the fading light, studying the white rings on their necks and the little spikes on the backs of their heads. Sharon pulled out her phone, consulted a birding app, and we decided: they were probably red-breasted mergansers.

I get a little thrill from identifying a bird, as Mary Oliver describes in her poem “Bird in the Pepper Tree.” But I get a different, deeper satisfaction from simply watching: noticing, observing, trying to see these birds as separate from my categorization of them. I loved watching the flock of birds bobbing on the water, knowing some of them were mergansers but some might be other species. The snapshot, in my memory, of leaning against the railing with Sharon, watching their black bodies against the waves blue with reflected light, was better than knowing their names.

As Oliver notes, “a name is not a leash” – though it can be, or enhance, a true joy.

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What Can I Say

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

I found Oliver’s collection Swan at the Booksmith this fall, and this first poem stopped me in my tracks, especially the lines about where to take “your busy heart.” As we enter a new year, I am hoping to take my heart to all those places: engaging with the world, noticing and absorbing beauty, and taking time to be in nature and be still.

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We are (somehow) halfway through December, and the world feels twinkly and dark and (sometimes) chaotic. Here’s what I have been reading:

Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons, Jeremy Denk
I spotted this book at Three Lives this summer, and snagged it at the library recently. Denk charts his journey from piano-nerd kid to classical pianist, via lots of lessons with idiosyncratic, brilliant teachers (and some personal growth). Writing about music can be hard to do, but Denk pulls it off. Entertaining, witty and wonderfully geeky.

Peril in Paris, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is thrilled to visit her dear friend Belinda in Paris. But once Georgie gets there, she becomes entangled in both a Chanel fashion show and a mysterious death – which leaves a police inspector convinced she’s a criminal. I love this fun historical mystery series and this was an entertaining entry.

What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest, ed. Susan Wittig Albert, Susan Hanson, Jan Epton Seale and Paula Stallings Yost
I stumbled on this collection in an Airbnb in Amherst, and immediately got it from the library when I came home. It’s a stunning anthology of essays and poetry: incisive, moving female perspectives on how we interact with the land, what we take from and give to it, what we leave behind. I loved reading this slowly in the mornings.

Killers of a Certain Age, Deanna Raybourn
Billie, Natalie, Helen and Mary Alice have spent 40 years working as assassins for the Museum, a secret extra-governmental organization. On their retirement cruise, someone targets them, and they work to find out why – and take out their would-be killers. A hilarious, incisive romp showcasing the skills (and ingenuity) of older women.

Maureen, Rachel Joyce
I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which follows a man taking a much-longer-than-planned walk that turns into a journey of self-discovery. 10 years later, this slim novel shares the perspective of Harold’s wife, Maureen. She makes a pilgrimage of her own – which doesn’t go quite as she expected. Lyrical, sad and moving. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7, 2023).

Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya H
I enjoyed this unusual memoir by a queer Muslim woman exploring all the intersections of her identities. A lot here about Muslim faith and practice; many familiar Bible stories retold as they appear in the Quran; and an honest examination of inner struggle. Heavy at times, and thoughtful. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 7, 2023).

The Holiday Switch, Tif Marcelo
Lila Santos is ready to plunge into the Christmas season (and work all the hours at her local inn’s gift/book shop to save for college). She’s also an anonymous book blogger. When her boss’s nephew, Teddy, shows up to work the holiday season, the two of them clash – but gradually find themselves drawn to one another. A super fun YA holiday romance featuring Filipino-American characters; I also love Marcelo’s adult fiction.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are nearly halfway through October – and between bike rides, a major work event and daily life, here’s what I have been reading:

Picture in the Sand, Peter Blauner
In 2014, a young Egyptian-American man leaves his home suddenly to join a jihadist uprising overseas. His grandfather, Ali Hassan, decides to share his own story with his grandson: his experience working on the movie set of The Ten Commandments and getting swept up in political forces larger than himself. I flew through this – it’s part thriller, part historical epic, part love story, part intergenerational family saga. Fascinating and layered. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 3, 2023).

Book Lovers, Emily Henry
Nora Stephens is not a rom-com heroine: she’s the other woman, the sharp-edged, stiletto-wearing city person who loses the guy. When her sister Libby begs her to go to a tiny North Carolina town, Nora reluctantly agrees – and even begins to enjoy herself. But the presence of a handsome, infuriating editor from the city throws a wrench into Nora’s plans. A fun, sometimes steamy rom-com with plenty of bookish references, but at its heart this is a story about sisters, family, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Seasons: Desert Sketches, Ellen Meloy
I picked up this collection at the Desert Museum in Arizona last spring. They’re short, bracing essays (originally recorded for radio) on life in southern Utah: flora, fauna, human community. Meloy is smart and salty and often hilarious. Perfect for morning reading.

The Verifiers, Jane Pek
Claudia Lin is loving her new hush-hush job working for an online-dating detective agency. But when a client turns up dead, and it turns out she was impersonating her sister, things get complicated fast. Claudia, like any good amateur sleuth, keeps digging into the case, even after she’s warned off. I loved this smart mystery about choices and expectations (our own, our families’, our potential partners’). Well plotted and I hope the author writes more.

The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights, Kitty Zeldis
Brooklyn, 1924: Catherine Berrill is desperate for a child to complete the family she’s started with her kind husband, Stephen. Dressmaker Beatrice Jones, newly arrived from New Orleans with her ward Alice, has a secret that connects her to Catherine’s past. I really enjoyed this twisty historical novel about three different women trying to make their way. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Jan. 3, 2023).

The Vanderbeekers on the Road, Karina Yan Glaser
I loooove this warmhearted middle-grade series (and loved meeting Karina in person recently!). The Vanderbeekers (plus assorted animals) pile into a friend’s van for a cross-country road trip. As is often the case with road trips, not everything goes to plan. Sweet and funny, like this whole series.

Take My Hand, Dolen Perkins-Valdez
Montgomery, Alabama, 1973: nurse Civil Townsend is working at a women’s clinic purporting to serve poor patients, but she grows concerned about the side effects of birth-control shots (and the necessity of giving them to young girls). A powerful, often heavy, brilliantly told novel about a woman who gets caught up trying to save the lives of the people she’s serving. Highly recommended.

The Woman with the Cure, Lynn Cullen
As polio infects thousands of young children, the race for a cure is on. Too-tall Dr. Dorothy Horstmann, obsessed with detecting the virus in the blood, becomes caught up in the science – and the politics – around finding a vaccine. A well-done historical novel (with lots of real-life characters, including Horstmann) about science and feminism and sacrifice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 21, 2023).

Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels, Laura Everett
Everett, a minister and four-season cyclist, shares what she’s learned about spiritual practice from riding the streets of Boston. Thoughtful, forthright and wryly funny – I loved reading about her journeys around my adopted city. (I haven’t met her yet, but we know a lot of the same bike folks, including my guy.)

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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There are asters all over my part of East Boston, peeking out at the bottom of hedgerows and growing thick among the milkweed and mulberry at the end of the greenway.

They were a little late to show up this year. The long, hot summer days lingered, and I wondered if the drought in Massachusetts would fry them on the stem. I was delighted – and relieved – when they showed up in mid-September, in (most of) the usual places. Along with cosmos, morning glories and stubborn late-summer roses, they herald my favorite season: the long golden days of summer-into-fall, the time of year when I was born. This time always feels like a new beginning to me, even as the world begins to prepare for its winter sleep.

I always knew asters were my birth flower: I remember seeing their name alongside sapphire, my birthstone, on those lists of symbols associated with each month. But I didn’t know what they looked like for many years. Like so many of the plants that grow in New England, they don’t grow in West Texas. I read about them in the Anne series and The Secret Garden, but I didn’t encounter them in living color until I was an adult.

These days, their presence – peeking over scrub grass or sticking out of fences – feels like a secret sign. Asters don’t shout, not like bold dahlias or tall sunflowers or creamsicle-orange daylilies. But they are distinctive: purple or white or sometimes hot pink petals, yellow or purple centers, charming nicknames like farewell-summers and Michaelmas daisies. I love that they appear in my season, in my neighborhood, mingling with the other plants as green begins to turn to gold. Their friendly faces feel like a wink, as I run or walk by on my neighborhood rounds: right here, in this moment, I am where I’m supposed to be.

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And just like that, it’s October – the asters are out, the nights are drawing in and we’re nine days away from our big fundraising gala at work. Here’s what I have been reading, to cap off September:

The Littlest Library, Poppy Alexander
After her beloved Mimi dies, Jess Metcalfe moves to a tiny country cottage on a whim. When she creates a little library out of the red phone box near her cottage, Jess finds herself becoming part of the community – but can she stay there? A sweet British rom-com – I found the ending a bit disappointing, but it was still fun.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I loved these vivid essays about various “wonders” – trees, insects and other creatures – mixed with the author’s personal experiences. Nezhukumatathil is a poet, and you can see it in her language. Beautiful, thoughtful and often unexpected.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid
Everyone from my sister to my book-blogging friends recommended this novel about a reclusive Hollywood star who finally decides to tell her life story to an up-and-coming reporter. I blew through it in an evening – Hollywood glamour, compelling storytelling, some well-drawn characters – though it ultimately made me really sad. Marriage was always a calculation for Evelyn, and her decisions ended up hurting a lot of the people she loved. Still a fascinating story.

The No-Show, Beth O’Leary
Three different women are stood up by the same man on Valentine’s Day – what’s going on? Is he a cad, or is there more to the story? O’Leary’s fourth rom-com follows Miranda, Siobhan and Jane as they deal with the implications of his actions. Really fun and clever; I liked this one a lot better than The Road Trip, but not as much as The Switch.

The Gilded Girl, Alyssa Colman
When Emma Harris comes to Miss Posterity’s school of magic, she finds it challenging, but things are going okay – until her father dies and she’s forced to work as a servant. With the help of Izzy, a servant girl with magic of her own, Emma searches for ways to keep learning magic. This had a fun premise but was just okay; very much inspired by A Little Princess. I loved Tom, the newsie who befriends the girls. Found at Phoenix Books in Burlington, VT, this summer.

Animal Life, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
As a historic storm approaches Iceland at Christmastime, Domhildur reflects on her own midwifery career and that of her great-aunt, who left behind a series of manuscripts musing on coincidences, birth, humankind and light. This slim novel was both odd and oddly charming; I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but enjoyed the journey. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Dec. 6).

The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson, Misty Copeland
I enjoyed Copeland’s first memoir, Life in Motion, and have the greatest admiration for her work. This book pays tribute to Raven Wilkinson, a trailblazing Black ballerina who mentored Copeland for several years. Copeland charts her own growth and struggles alongside stories of Raven’s career, and calls out the enduring racism in the ballet world. Thoughtful, vivid and warm. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 15).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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September is flying by so far – amid work and daily adventures, here’s what I have been reading:

The Lost Summers of Newport, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White
I enjoy Team W’s richly detailed historical novels (and I’ve devoured nearly all of Williams’ books). This one follows the intertwined stories of three women connected to the same Newport, R.I., mansion during different eras: architectural preservationist Andie, music teacher Ellen, and Italian-American socialite Lucia. Rife with family secrets and dripping with diamonds – great escapist reading.

The House of Eve, Sadeqa Johnson
Ruby Pearsall is on track to be her family’s first college student – but a forbidden love may derail her plans to escape her rough neighborhood. Meanwhile, Eleanor Quarles, a brilliant young woman from small-town Ohio, struggles to find her place at Howard University and with her rich boyfriend’s family. Their lives collide in an unexpected way. A powerful, sometimes wrenching novel about the struggles of Black women in the mid-1950s. So much here around shame and womanhood and making choices. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 2023).

Love, Lies & Spies, Cindy Anstey
Miss Juliana Telford is more interested in publishing her research on ladybugs than diving into the London Season. Mr. Spencer Northam is far more preoccupied with espionage than with matrimony. But all this might change when they encounter one another by chance. A witty, hilarious, romantic tribute to Jane Austen and a really fun love story. Recommended by Anne.

Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, Adam McHugh
After years as a hospice chaplain, McHugh found himself burned out, and needing not just an escape but a whole life change. His love of wine led him – several times – to California’s Santa Ynez Valley, where he began a career working in wine. An honest, sometimes snarky, well-researched, thoughtful memoir about wine and transformation. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 11).

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man, Emily J. Edwards
Our titular heroine loves her job as secretary/girl Friday to NYC private eye Tommy Fortuna. But when she finds an unconscious man in the office and Tommy disappears – right after taking on a case for a wealthy client – Viv must marshal all her wits to solve the case and stay alive. A fun romp with an engaging heroine, though the dialogue read almost like a send-up of 1950s phrases. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 8).

Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration, Sara Dykman
I picked up this memoir last fall at the Harvard Book Store and have been reading it sloooowly. Dykman takes a months-long solo journey starting and ending in Mexico at the monarchs’ overwintering grounds, following their trail and giving presentations about the importance of these beautiful creatures. She’s a lovely writer, though the trip logistics dragged sometimes (as I’m sure they did in real life!). Fun bonus: she went through my dad’s tiny hometown in southwestern MO.

What Comes from Spirit, Richard Wagamese
I picked up this collection at the wonderful Savoy Bookshop in Westerly, R.I., in June. Wagamese was an Indigenous Canadian writer who wrote extensively about his journey away from and back to his Native identity, as well as noticing the natural world, building community and paying attention. Short, lovely meditations – exactly my kind of thing for slow morning reading.

The Star That Always Stays, Anna Rose Johnson
When Norvia’s parents divorce, she and her siblings move from rural Beaver Island to a small Michigan city with their mother. Norvia must navigate a new school, a tricky blended family and her own shyness and anxiety, while striving to be a heroine. A sweet middle-grade story (though the middle dragged a bit); I loved Norvia’s family, especially her spunky younger sister, Dicta. Reminded me of Emily of Deep Valley.

Saving Main Street: Small Business in the Time of COVID-19, Gary Rivlin
Americans idolize small business – though we give a lot of our money to the colossal chains. It’s common knowledge now that small shops were hit hard by COVID-19. Veteran reporter Rivlin follows several business owners, including a restaurateur, a pharmacist, a Latina hairstylist and three Black brothers making chocolate, through the first 18 months or so of the pandemic. Full of fascinating anecdotes and a thorough explanation of the government’s confusing (but ultimately sort-of-effective) struggle to help small businesses. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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My guy and I love a good bike ride, and he, in particular, can rarely resist a new trail. So when a friend of his told G about a recently completed project that links Cambridge with Watertown – and takes you from a busy retail area to the quiet of Fresh Pond – we had to check it out.

We started in Watertown on a humid Sunday, picking up the trail behind the Arsenal Mall and riding it through neighborhoods neither of us had ever seen. The area is a mix of residential and old industrial buildings, and it’s all suddenly lush with early-summer green. We crossed a few streets G knew, but so much of it was unexplored territory to him, and it was all fresh to me.

We took a snack break near Fresh Pond, eyeing the sky because a storm was rumored to be blowing in. The wind did kick up, but we decided to take our chances, and it was a beautiful ride (my first) around the pond.

I’ve been riding in Boston for several years, but there’s still so much I don’t know about the bike paths in the area. It was a particular treat, though, to explore a trail that neither of us knew – G’s delight in discovery was evident at every turn.

We’ll be riding more this summer, of course, and having other local adventures. I’m looking forward to every single one.

What local adventures are you having, these days?

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I’m back from a local dog-sitting stint and then a whirlwind weekend in NYC – and catching up on mini book reviews. Here’s what I have been reading:

The Ghosts of Paris, Tara Moss
This sequel to The War Widow (which I enjoyed) takes private eye Billie Walker to postwar Paris in search of a wealthy client’s missing husband. While there, she searches for her own husband, who disappeared in Warsaw but may still be alive. I like Billie and her assistant, Sam; the pacing of this story felt a bit off, and the ending was a bit disappointing. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 7).

A Full Life in a Small Place: Essays from a Desert Garden, Janice Emily Bowers
I picked up this collection at the Desert Museum in Tucson. Bowers writes so well about cultivation and different climates and insects (so many insects!) and paying attention. Lovely and thoughtful.

Vacationland, Meg Mitchell Moore
Louisa Fitzgerald McLean has been going to her parents’ summer home on the coast of Maine for her entire life. But this summer she’s there with three kids in tow, minus her husband, who’s slammed with work back in Brooklyn. Louisa’s father is ill; her mother is struggling to cope; and a new woman in town has a mysterious connection to the family. Moore writes juicy, thoughtful, compulsively readable summer dramas and this one delivers. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 14).

Murder at Mallowan Hall, Colleen Cambridge
Murder is mostly literary at Mallowan Hall, Agatha Christie’s country estate. But when it becomes literal (a body discovered in the library), housekeeper Phyllida Bright takes it upon herself to investigate. A really fun mystery with Christie herself as a minor character; I did think the narration harped a bit on Phyllida’s mysterious past. But a highly enjoyable start to a new series.

Here for the Drama, Kate Bromley
Winnie has spent the past five years being a brilliant assistant to playwright Juliette Brassard – at the expense of her own budding playwriting career. When Winnie and Juliette hop over to London for a restaging of one of Juliette’s plays, Winnie not only falls for Juliette’s handsome nephew, but starts to question where her decisions have led her. A smart, funny theater-nerd rom-com with wonderful witty banter; I read this one in a day. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 21).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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We are (nearly) halfway through April, approaching Marathon Monday, and smack in the middle of cherry blossom season. Here’s what I have been reading:

Freedom is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World, Zainab Salbi
Salbi is a well-known activist for women’s rights, but she spent years hiding from her own fears and insecurities. This memoir charts her journey through relationships, body image struggles, professional and other challenges, toward a more peaceful, holistic vision of herself. Reading about her divorce was particularly striking to me; some other moments fell rather flat. Found at Bluestocking Books in San Diego.

Five Things About Ava Andrews, Margaret Dilloway
Ava Andrews has lots of ideas – but her anxiety often prevents her from speaking up. She also has a heart condition. When her best friend moves away, Ava pushes herself to try an improv class and a few other new things, with surprising results. A sweet, funny middle-grade novel with a realistic picture of invisible disabilities. Found at the Book Catapult.

The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams
Esme Nicoll, motherless child of a lexicographer, spends her childhood in the Scriptorium – a garden shed in Oxford where James Murray and his team of assistants are compiling words for the Oxford English Dictionary. As Esme grows up, she begins to collect words that have been left out – mostly words used by women and working-class folks. I loved this fiercely feminist, gorgeous novel set in my beloved Oxford. Recommended by my (also fiercely feminist, gorgeous) friend Shanna.

Reading the Water: Fly Fishing, Fatherhood, and Finding Strength in Nature, Mark Hume
Hume has loved to fly fish since he was a boy in rural Canada. This lyrical, thoughtful memoir traces his fishing journey through the years, and how he has passed the love of fly fishing and the natural world on to his new daughters. Quiet, moving and lovely. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 10).

Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead, Elle Cosimano
After pulling off a hit job almost by accident, Finlay Donovan is trying to catch her breath, prep for the holidays and work on her new novel. But some suspicious posts on an online forum have her convinced someone is trying to off her ex-husband – and the forum might be connected to a certain Russian mobster. A fun, fast-paced follow-up to Finlay Donovan is Killing It; I can’t wait for more adventures from Finlay and her nanny/accountant/partner-in-crime, Vero.

A Natural History of Now: Notes from the Edge of Nature, ed. Sara J. Call and Jennifer Li-Yen Douglass
I picked up this weird little collection for $4 at Bookmans in Tucson – the price and the blurb from the late, great Brian Doyle sold me. It’s an odd, often startling, sometimes beautiful group of essays (and two short stories) mostly set in the American West. Some gross, some gorgeous, all surprising.

The Year of Miracles: Recipes About Love + Grief + Growing Things, Ella Risbridger
I found this sweet memoir-cookbook both healing and heartbreaking; Risbridger’s partner, Jim, died a few years ago and she writes about grief, building a new life, cooking for and with her new housemate, and how that all shifted during 2020. The recipes are a mix of simple and fiddly, but all are for home cooks with plenty of side notes. My grief is different than Risbridger’s, but I still often felt seen by her words. To review for Shelf Awareness (out July 26).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my local faves Trident and Brookline Booksmith. Shop indie!

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