Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk was mentioned at Chick With Books.

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous was mentioned at The Heart Is a Lonely Reader.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart was mentioned at Snowbell's Reads.

The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Schine was metioned at Bookfan.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Parenthood: What a long strange trip...

This parenting gig is worse than a roller coaster. I mean, yesterday, when asking my oldest about school, I also suggested that since the kids had the day off (today too) perhaps he'd like to call a buddy and have him come over. W. looked at me patiently and with pity in his voice, "Mom, I don't have any friends at school." I'm honestly not certain if the pity was for himself being friendless or for me because I'm so damned clueless about the state of his (non)social life. Don't you know that this long-suffering and yet somehow matter-of-fact admission just about stabbed me in the heart?

I mean, sure, he can be a colossal pain in the ass but for the most part this child of mine is the kindest, most loving, thoughtful and loyal kid around. He's even generally nice to his younger sister and brother (not that he doesn't have his moments). And somehow the other little shits at his middle school haven't cottoned on to what a wonderful friend he can be. I know W. has struggled for years with the social thing. He's never been completely at home in his own skin since we moved away from Ohio when he was going into 3rd grade. And that makes me sad because he's great. Really and truly great and not just because I'm his mom either.

Last year adjusting to being here was a struggle and he had some issues with behaviour at school. And now I wonder if he'll ever be able to overcome the fact that he cried in class. The teachers last year warned him he'd be ostracized if he kept it up but the fact that he was being ostracized before it happened seems to have passed everyone by except for overly sensitive mom. And given the fact that I burst into tears when I am angry or frustrated or upset too, no one tends to take me terribly seriously either. I wish I didn't do it and I sure as shootin' wish that W. hadn't inherited the low frustration threshold and the overactive tear ducts from me. At least his friendlessness put his younger brother's poor test results in perspective a bit.

And then today, while I have been moping around wondering how on earth I can fix life for the 7th grader (I know. I know. I can't.), the second grader asked if we could go shopping. Now I'm not big on shopping but I thought getting out of the house and out of my own head would be good. So T. and the $3 he had burning a hole in his wallet since that delinquent tooth fairy finally showed up and forked over cash for his grungy teeth and I went shopping. And I bit my tongue as he spent every last penny he had to his name on whoopie cushions. He even had to borrow some change from his sister to pay for tax. So I got to listen to wild farting and giggles and blame flying back and forth all the way home from Target. And I suspect the joke won't wear off any time soon either. Might be the best $2.99 anyone in this family has ever spent.

Sometimes kids break your heart and sometimes they make your belly hurt from laughing so much. I guess you can't have the one without the other but man the latter is way more fun.

Review: The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

This is not the cover on the book I own. When my grandmother was paring down her belongs to move from her largish condo to a smaller home in another state, she let me go through her books and decide which, if any, I wanted to keep. As I rescued books I remember reading as a child (Tales of a Korean Grandmother anyone?), I also stumbled across The Brandons by Angela Thirkell. I had fallen in love with Thirkell's writing some time before but had thought her to be fairly obscure. And perhaps she is not well known to the current generation of book lovers but she was obviously much better known at one point in time. Her relative obscurity now is a shame because she is a wonderful and wonderfully prolific author. So despite the fact that I already had a copy of this book, I happily set my grandmother's 1939 hardcover aside to keep instead of my more recent paperback copy.

The Brandons is one of Thirkell's Barsetshire series of books, set in her imaginary English countryside and is as delightful as the book which precede it in the series. Set before WWII, The Brandons focuses on the eponymous family. Opening when wealthy, elderly Aunt Sissy, a bit of a termagant, is starting to fail more substantially than she has been for these many years. She has called upon Mrs. Brandon and her three mostly grown children to attend to her, as she has done periodically over the years. When they visit, the family meets Aunt Sissy's self-effacing nurse, Miss Morris, as well as another relative who has as much claim on Sissy's fortune as Francis Brandon.

But this is no struggle over an inheritance, instead it is a gentle, mocking novel with flashes of Thirkell's formidable wit focused in many ways more on the characters rather than the situation at hand. As a matter of fact, neither Francis nor Hilary Grant, the other relative, want to be saddled with Aunt Sissy's stately, though rather frightening and damp, home. And Aunt Sissy's health and eventual death are really a background to the relationship machinations detailed herein. We watch as Mrs. Brandon gamely and somewhat unconsciously accepts the devotion of all the men in her orbit, being obliged to listen politely to the poetry and lengthy prose each of them has undertaken. She also quietly and off-handedly tries to manipulate one of her admirers into professing an attachment to Miss Morris instead. Her own children regard her with fond amusement and she is not only masterfully drawn, but she is a fantastic foil for Hilary Grant's abrasive mother.

Thirkell's character construction is outstanding and her grasp of human nature is spot on. Her books rarely shout out for recognition but their understated elegance and their high entertainment value should garner them that recognition anyway. She has been compared to Jane Austen and in some ways, the similarities of their drawing room comedies barely masking social commentaries do deserve the comparison. But in most ways, they are very different writers, tackling very different societal norms and expectations. I do love Thirkell and her precise characters, the gentle tone, the sparkling, unexpected humor, and English village plots of her novels. I only wish more people would discover the delightfully entertaining Thirkell.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading Questions

Reading questions from Readers Guide by way of Necromancy Never Pays:

Most memorable experience reading a book? I guess the most memorable experience would have to be when I was in labor with my youngest child. I am, of course, never without a book and heading to the hospital to have a baby certainly didn't mean I wouldn't have a book with me. Once I had a blissful epidural, my husband and my mother headed off to the cafeteria to find food and I sat reading Susan Orleans' The Bullfighter Checks Her Make-Up, a book of essays. I mean, I'm not totally insane. I knew I'd need something I could pick up and put down if necessary. So no novels. ;-)

Most unusual place for reading a book? Can I repeat the above answer? If not, I will admit to reading at red lights. But only if I'm not the first car in line. I don't like to be distracted by having to constantly check and see if the light has changed. Bet none of you want to be on the road anywhere near me now, do you?

Most dangerous place I’ve ever read a book? Quite probably the red light thing applies here too. The other (marginally) dangerous place I read consistently is on my walk to the bus stop in the afternoon. It's dangerous because there's a section of the sidewalk that has heaved upwards by about an inch or two and I trip on the doggone thing *every* blasted day. Of course, I trip on it whether I have my nose in a book or not.

Most luxurious experience reading a book? Probably on one of D.'s business reward trips. We were at some all-inclusive resort in Puerto Rico and the pool had shaded cabanas with reclining couches. So I spent all my time at the pool in one of these, lounging on pillows and sending the cabana boy (or girl--I didn't look up enough to really know) back and forth to the bar for pina coladas as I read Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan.

Funniest experience reading a book? I don't think I really have any funny experiences to share. The closest would be recently when I was sitting in my car, sort of lurking outside my daughter's dance class. They don't have much seating inside the studio and parents often let their children take all the seats even if there are adults standing, a lack of courtesy that makes my old-fashioned little self a bit nuts so I don't go in if I don't have to, choosing to stay in the car (at least until the season makes all the light to read by go away). So I was sitting in the parking lot, finishing up Still Alice by Lisa Genova and had tears pouring down my face. The few times I paused and looked up there was always a mother sort of peering into the windshield, probably to make sure I wasn't some scary child predator. Each one would catch sight of the tears falling off my nose and would immediately move to shield her small ballerina from the sight of me and hustle the kiddo past as if sorrow was catching. It definitely made me chuckle, which was very incongrous given what I was reading.

Do you have good responses to these questions? Play along and let me know you've done it. And please tell me I'm not the only person around who can tell you what I was reading at certain points in my life. I mean, I know I am generally a bookish freak, but there must be others who have this odd ability too, right?!

Review: Dragon House by John Shors

Iris's father is dying when she promises him that she will continue his work in Vietnam, building and opening a school and home for Vietnamese street children. Noah is the son of old family friends and as a Gulf War vet he is struggling with many demons, including the loss of a limb and alcohol. When his mother begs Iris to let Noah accompany her to Vietnam, Iris is skeptical but knowing that demons nipped at her Vietnam vet father's heels his whole life, she is unable to say no. And so these two very different Americans, searching for very different answers in their lives head off to Vietnam to try and make the much anticipated Center a reality.

Once there, the story changes the focus from solely on Iris and Noah, spreading out to include some of the children who will be served by such a center, the young, drug-addicted thug who controls their lives, a grandmother and her terminally ill granddaughter, the police officer who battles his own disability and his deep distrust and anger towards Americans even while he hopes that Iris and Noah are legitimate in their desire to help the scores of homeless orphans living on the streets, and the Center's lovely, upbeat employee who rescues both Iris and Noah in different ways. As the lives of these disparate people weave together, the tapestry of the story gains great depth and meaning.
Shors has painted a very realistic, heartbreaking picture of the lives of homeless Vietnamese children. He captures well the conflict involved with Americans trying to help ameliorate the suffering given our past history in the country, never making things too easy for Iris and Noah to be believable. And he treats the culture with respect and love, despite or perhaps because of its imperfections. While the story was in many instances predictable, it was an enjoyable read and shines a light on a plight few of us realize exists. For those who enjoy novels set in foreign countries, those who like to read novels where the main characters grow and change substantially, and those who support the notion that just one small act can make the world a better place, this will be a good and worthwhile read.

Make sure to check out the book's website for more information on the homeless children Shors is hoping to help support through Blue Dragon Children's Foundation. Each person donating $100 to this worthy organization will receive an autographed copy of Dragon House. Details are at the book's website.

Thanks to author John Shors for providing me with a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook

This memoir of a self-described pampered Jewish American Princess who marries the man of her dreams and immediately moves to Japan for his two year teaching job is an interesting look at culture clash and the sometimes difficult adjustment to married life. Cook is generally light and flippant about her experiences in Japan although she does touch on a few deeper issues here and there, mentioning the treatment and perception of women, the anti-Semitic movement in Japan, the evolution of long-standing friendships, and the every day challenge of living with another person.

Separated into sections headed by generally mundane domestic tasks, Cook uses the challenges she faced doing laundry in a small, ineffective, and completely foreign washing machine, shopping in the overwhelming, neon-lit shops, and mastering public transportation, to name just a few, to highlight her ex-pat experience. Her frustrations with tackling things differently than she is used to comes through the text loud and clear. And she is not only having to learn all of this in a foreign country where she doesn't speak the language, but she has to come to a sense of acceptance of herself as the person who will cook, clean, and sew. Eventually she does take on a group of Japanese women for English conversation lessons, teaches at a school, and gives well-received speeches but she never seems particularly happy living in Japan, not even allowing herself to open up completely for friendship with the one fellow teacher who shares her interest in films.

As much of an adjustment as it was for this tall blond woman to move to Japan, sticking out like a sore thumb, it is as much of an adjustment for her to adjust to married life. She doesn't think to call her husband when she is going to be very, very late, not understanding how frantic that will make him. They argue about how they will spend their money, cash or credit. But these and other petty squabbles are learning experiences that serve to make them closer in the end.

Also woven throughout the narrative is Cook's friendship with her best friend at home and the changes that it undergoes with the two of them living so far apart. In many of the exchanges between the two, Cook comes off as fairly self-centered, unhappy with living in Japan and wanting to vent but not reciprocating when her friend needs to discuss her shaky marriage or her own unhappiness.

Cook does grow as a person throughout this first year of their planned two years in Japan although I never did get the impression that she much liked Japan or the Japanese people. She connected with a few people but never more than superficially. And while she understood that she was trying to impose her idea of correct behaviour and cultural norms on them (as they were on her), there was never a sense that she came to understand and accept their norms as different but equal to hers. Her adjustment to marriage was a much smoother path and one more flexible in terms of give and take. Her husband, who had lived abroad before, seemed very understanding and compassionate with regard to all the life changes being thrown at her at once.

Overall this was a fast and mildly entertaining book. There were some cliches offered and some awkward transitions in the middle of the chapters but in general, for those readers not looking for an in depth exploration of Japanese culture or of a Western experience in Japan, most people will find this a light and fun read.

Be sure and visit these other blogs on the book tour to see their reviews as well.

The Life (And Lies) of an Inanimate Flying Object
The Neverending Shelf
Drey’s Library
A Sea of Books
Libby’s Library News
Bookin’ With Bingo
That’s A Novel Idea
Starting Fresh
Just Another New Blog
Blog Business World
My Friend Amy
Chick With Books
My Book Views
So Many Books, So Little Time
Keep on Booking
Reading at the Beach
Found Not Lost
Brizmus Blogs Books
I Read

Thanks so much to Sarah at Pocket Books for sending me the review copy of this book.

Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?

This meme is hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog. I was cooking along with reviews at the beginning of the week but sort of lost steam both reviewing and reading at the end of the week. We'll see what this coming week brings!

Books I completed this week are:

Meeting Mr. Wrong by Stephanie Snowe
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Terra Incognita by Sarah Wheeler
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Feinberg Cook

Reviews posted this week:

The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
Appassionata by Eva Hoffman
Ruined by Paula Morris
Now and Then by Jacqueline Sheehan

Giveaways on the blog:
Friends Like These by Danny Wallace

Monday Mailbox

It's still officially my unbirthday month so I am still finding lovely surprises in the mailbox from my bookish friends but I think this may be the end of the goodies for me. I've gotten so spoiled; how am I going to go back to being regular girl? Especially regular girl who is trying to stay strong and not request or accept more books until I'm though the never-ending backlog? Check back next week to see how I manage! This past week's mailbox arrivals include:

Wrestling With Gravy: A Life, with Food by Jonathan Reynolds came from Melissa for my unbirthday month.
I adore food related memoirs. Reading about other people eating or cooking keeps the boredom snacks out of my mouth. Food on the page is good. Even better if the food is too exotic for my plebian tastes as promises to be the case here. I won't gain weight reading the book or making any possible recipes. Win, win.

Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days by James and Kay Salter came from Melissa for my unbirthday month.
With a sort of Farmer's Almanac kind of feel to it, I could spend all year reading this one day at a time. Then again, I'm not nearly that patient but I love the idea of having it so I can refer to appropriate times of the year.

Japan Took the J.A.P. Out of Me by Lisa Fineberg Cook came from Sarah at Pocket Books for a tour.
I am a total sucker for memoirs billed as hilarious. A Jewish girl from the West Coast moving to Japan? How can this not be giggle territory?

The Other Mr. Darcy by Monica Fairviewwas a contest win from Laurel Ann at Austenprose and Jane Austen Today.
If you read this blog with any sort of comprehension involved, you will already know that I adore all things Jane Austen and so it was a guarantee that I'd manage to get my paws on this one somehow so getting the "congratulations" e-mail was music to my ears.

Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick is from Jenny for my unbirthday month.
A novel about van Gogh? Totally cool, right? How intriguing to read about the young prostitute who had a deep and abiding relationship with the troubled van Gogh.

Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan is from Algonquin Books.
I didn't ask for this one because it strikes me as potentially scaring me a bit but I do really generally enjoy the Algonquin books I get so I am willing to give this a try.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance by Elna Baker was mentioned at Reviews By Lola.

Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher was mentioned at Book End Babes.

East Hope by Katharine Davis was mentioned at Bookfan.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman was mentioned at Maw Books.

The Girl From Foreign by Sadia Shephard was mentioned at S. Krishna's Books.

Casting Off by Nicole Dickson was mentioned at S. Krishna's Books.

Surviving Paradise by Peter Rudiak-Gould was mentioned at At Home With Books.

Becoming George Sand by Rosalind Brackenbury was mentioned at She Reads and Reads.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Friends Like These Giveaway

What with Halloween coming up and my thoughts turning to the packs of kids with whome I used to roam the neighborhoods of my childhood, I thought the subtitle to this one was entirely appropriate: My Worldwide Quest to Find My Best Childhood Friends, Knock on Their Doors, and Ask Them to Come Out and Play. So I decided to run the giveaway of Friends Like These by Danny Wallace that the uber-generous folks at Hatchette Book Group have told me I can do.

And if you are skeptical about my reasoning, check out what amazon says:

Danny Wallace has friends. He has a wife and goes to brunch, and his new house has a couch with throw pillows. But as he nears 30, he can't help wondering about his best childhood friends, whose names he finds in a long-forgotten address book. Where are they now-and where, really, is he?

Acting on an impulse we've all had at least once, he travels from London to Berlin, Tokyo, Australia, and California, risking rejection and ridicule to show up on his old pals' doorsteps. Memories of his 1980s childhood-from Michael Jackson to Ghostbusters-overwhelm him as he meets former buddies who have blossomed into rappers and ninjas, time-traveling pioneers, mediocre restaurant managers, and even Fijian royalty.

Danny's attempt to re-befriend them all gives remarkable new resonance to the age-old mantra, "friends forever!"

How could you not want to read a memoir written by a guy who is searching out the people with whom he watched and played Ghostbusters? Seriously. "Who ya gonna call?" Danny Wallace of course.

To enter, leave a comment with your email (without an email, your entry won't count).
Extra entries for being a follower, twittering the contest, or posting it on your blog.
All entries can be combined in one comment.
Open for residents of the USA and Canada
No PO Boxes
Five winners will be chosen by Oct. 31 and posted Nov. 1

Good luck!

Recent self-reflections

I ran my hands through my hair the other day in an effort to help it dry and came away with a lot of grey hairs. Actually, not a one of the hairs that fell out was brown. I guess that's a good thing. Maybe the browns are holding on tight, afraid of being outnumbered. Or maybe I should have lived in a time when powdering your hair was a la mode since the greys do seem to be coming in at a rapid clip. I'd say I frost my hair given the current state of my head but the 70's are on their way out again and frankly, I don't look great in plaid (madras, now, that's a whole other thing).

I suspect that doing a measly ten push-ups a day isn't going to do much for my flabby upper arms. But really, is it too much to ask to not look like a flying squirrel (a *grey* flying squirrel) when I hold my arms out? Of course, my little hand weights seem to have disappeared and I refuse to try D.'s. Not only are they chunky and ugly, but they are heavy. You could really hurt yourself with those suckers!

I also wonder how effective the push-ups are if you only lower your body until your squishy, pendulous, stretch-marked tum grazes the floor. I mean, I don't know who I could possibly be describing here at all (not me, no way, um huh) but if you barely have to bend your arms and you're there, well, it can't be much of an exercise. It's like there needs to be the midsection equivalent of a sports bra to keep all wayward swinging bits appropriately in check. Oh, and yes, I know I shouldn't have my head down enough to be looking at my stomach anyway but it's a bit like a gawking at a train wreck. There might not be any blood but it is an ugly, ugly sight. One from which you just can't look away. Or so I imagine it would be, if it was me, which it's not.

Yesterday morning I hopped on the scale and the first of three readings was a number I haven't seen in quite some time. Of course, times two and three were just 0.2 lbs. enough more to make it a number that was not nearly as psychologically lovely. Don't ask about the obsessive compulsive three times on the scale thing. I am who I am and that's all there is to that. But that first number sort of excited me. So I celebrated by having cheesecake at bookclub. Seriously, I wrote the book on sabotage.

And further more, that Weight Watchers leader who said that every ten pounds was a pants size is a lying piece of caca-poo-poo. Almost ten pounds later and some of my cutest pants still strangle me about the waist (although the pendulous flab I don't admit to means that I can relocate the fat enough to actually get them buttoned) and give me the ever attractive camel-toe look. These suckers are going to be long out of style before I ever get to wear them in public.

I'm also thinking of seeing if any of the local laser hair removal places have any folks that need to bone up on their skills because I'm happy to offer up my chin, free of charge, for experimentation. Home depilatory methods are akin to picking bristles out of an ox-hair brush, one bristle at a time. And the last thing my husband needs is beard burn on *his* face given that he's already suffering the ignominious fate of having married the bearded lady. But I have a plan to distract him from my five o'clock shadow. If I neglect to shave my legs, the prickly badness of those bad boys should effectively deflect all focus on the chin, right?

So, after all that, let me please remind you all. Please don't hate me because I'm beautiful. ::snort::

Review: Now and Then by Jacqueline Sheehan

Her marriage having failed after a series of miscarriages and having packed in her job as a lawyer, Anna is returning from a trip to Ireland when she gets the news that her brother has been in a terrible car accident and is barely clinging to life. Worse yet, the accident happened as he was on his way to New Jersey to get teenaged his son out of jail. Springing her sullen nephew and breaking the news of his father's critical condition falls to the jet-lagged Anna and she takes the unommunicative teen home to her house, where she hasn't even unpacked yet. In the middle of the night, she hears a noise, goes to investigate and finds Joseph going through her suitcase. As she reaches for him, he touches the cloth that an odd woman in Ireland gave to her and immediately both of them are sucked into darkness. Upon waking, Anna is injured and alone. She is also more than 150 years in the past in Ireland. Now she must find Joseph and figure out how to get them both back to their own time.

Told in alternating chapters, with Anna or Joe narrating in turn, Sheehan has captured the reality of rural Ireland before the Famine. Her native Irish characters and the landowning Anglo-Irish gentleman are worlds apart in all the ways that they should be. The decision to have Anna land with the poor but cautiously welcoming native Irish and to have the immature, surly teen end up in the home of the wealthy Anglo-Irish was inspired. It highlighted Joe's inability to make the best decisions and his willingness to be flattered. He was a typical teen, even if he was thrust backwards in time. Anna, on the other hand, learned to be grateful for the gifts she did have, even if a baby was not one of them, and the value of a deep and abiding friendship.

This was a light and entertaining book with a very bittersweet ending. The themes of love and family and healing the wounds of the past are very much woven throughout the narrative and through each and every character, major and minor. It was easy to read, taking only a few hours from start to finish and I never tired of the characters. And while the romantic in me might have wanted a different ending, the one it had was appropriate and fitting and ultimately hopeful. Don't be misled by the cover into thinking that Irish wolfhounds are more important than they are here. That particular thread seemed a bit frayed and only mentioned occasionally. The other thread that is also important to the story but underplayed is that of the culture of violence in Anna's family. If Anna and Joseph are in the past to make the future better, a more in depth background to their complicated relationships with their fathers would have been helpful. Overall though, this was a nice book and one that fans of time travel will likely enjoy. Historical fiction fans who don't mind a modern sensibility inserted into their stories (on purpose, not unintentionally) will also be happy reading this book.

Thanks to Book Club Girl and Avon Books for providing me with a review copy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Review: Ruined by Paula Morris

I am a colossal coward. I don't like to be scared. I don't like otherwordly things in my reading. They are almost never portents of anything good or happy or positive. And yet when I was offered this book with the telling subtitle of A Ghost Story, there was something about it that kept me from turning it down immediately. Even more surprisingly, I eventually decided to take a chance on it. To push the boundaries not only of my preferences, but of what my psyche could take. Because when I've pushed myself before, I have woken in the middle of the night with raging nightmares. But somehow, this book didn't trigger the self-preservation thing with me and I took the chance.

Rebecca's father must leave for China so he sends her to New Orleans to live with an old family friend and her daughter. Rebecca is not happy about this at all. Wny is she being ripped from all that is comfortable and familiar and thrust into life in post-Katrina New Orleans with an eccentric friend of her father and late mother? She's being sent to a snobbish all-girls' school where she certainly doesn't fit in, finding it difficult, even impossible, to make friends. So despite her "aunt" Claudia's admonition to stay away from Lafayette Cemetery, when she sees some of the mean girls from school and the sons of the scions of New Orleans society entering the grounds one night, she doesn't stop to consider and obey. She follows them.

Once inside the cemetery, almost caught spying on the group she's followed, she meets and speaks with a young girl, Lisette. Captivated by this girl, she wants to find her again and to become friends even after she realizes that Lisette is a ghost. Soon Rebecca is juggling an exploration of New Orleans through Lisette's eyes with the potential interest of one of the boys she'd followed on her initial foray into Lafayette Cemetery.

Through the ghost character of Lisette, Morris is able to weave a fictional history for a New Orleans family, bringing echoes of the real past to life without seeming as if she is determined to get all of her background research into the novel. Setting the book to culminate with Mardi Gras helps to bring to the forefront some of the more sinister elements of New Orleans' early history and to enhance the growing tension in the novel. Rebecca as a character is completely in the dark about all the machinations that seethe under the surface of polite society and her naivete, compassion, and generousity set her apart from the other major players in the book. She is, in essence, both main character and foil.

The narrative picks up speed towards the end and the impending menace almost comes too quickly for the story to be satisfying. Rebecca's understanding of the events that came to pass seems to be slight and even I, as the reader, re-read the last bits to make certain I didn't misinterpret what I thought had happened. So the ending was more rushed than I would have liked but the pacing change was necessary to ratchet up the tension so perhaps there was no other way to end it other than in a flurry. I was surprised that I enjoyed this as much as I did and even more pleased that I didn't suffer even one nightmare. It is a YA title but certainly adults who enjoy ghost stories or stories set in New Orleans will enjoy this as well.

Thanks to Dina at Big Honcho Media for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tennis anyone?

It's been a while since I played tennis. I partnered W. this summer through two sets which we lost 6-0, 6-0. But it had been months before that that I had picked up a racquet. And I don't know why. I thoroughly enjoy tennis. I love the skirts. I like the socialization. I thrive on the low level competition. So when a friend and her husband needed a mixed doubles pair to sub for their team, I didn't hesitate to commit D. and myself to the game.

I paid no attention to the fact that I haven't played in months (or even that months ago when I was playing occasionally, my skills weren't what they were last year when I played four days a week). I ignored the fact that D. has played all of twice in the past year and has never played doubles. And most of all, I blocked from my mind the extra twenty pounds that would make the cute tennis skirts bulgy and not cute (and borderline obscene). Any normal person would have declined the offer of a match, especially a match that counts against the team's season totals. But no, I only saw that it would get us out on the court again and went all seat of my pants and agreed to it. I did feel a bit of misgiving when K. told me that T. (our friends and team captains) was really competitive. I admitted we'd likely lose and if she wanted to ask people who had a prayer in h*ll of winning, I wouldn't be offended. She didn't back off of the offer but I suspect that we were the last resort before forfeiting the line and that had more to do with not backing out than her having any confidence in our non-existent rusty skills.

The day of the match dawned cold as a witch's tit and so I pulled some sweat pants on under the cute skirt, making it look from the rear as if I was smuggling lumpy grapefruit. On the pluse side though, no one actually had to see this same resemblence sans sweat pants so I will maintain it was all material and none of me. Yeah, I'm selling bridges cheap this week too. I also threw on a hot pink warm-up type jacket, only to discover that it seems to have gotten shorter in the past year, perching cheerily off the front of the spare tire but not quite making it to the top of the lumpy skirt. Suited up like a schizophrenic skank (do I go with skin tight, sexy over top of the unappealing muffin top or do I go unwashed, schlumpy frump in baggy sweats? Hey, I'll do both! What a plan.) at Walmart, I grabbed W., took him, and promptly abandoned him at his match. Then I collected D. from the bar where he was watching football (always a good plan before playing anything that counts, right?) and away we went to the match.

When we got there, the matches before ours were still going on so wimpy, newly minted southerners that we are, we huddled in the toasty, warm pro shop instead of out in the chill and bluster. I eyed the cute skirts they had on the wall while D. continued watching football on their tv. It was pretty hard to get him to leave the game when it was actually our turn to play. We warmed up and proceeded to intimidate the snot out of our opponents. Ha! The only good news was that they were as dismal and uninformed about the game of tennis as we managed to be.

We managed to get way up in the first set and then have the wheels come crashing off the bus, letting the other team come back and almost catch us. We were mostly being good natured about the whole thing at this point although I admit to trying to explain to D. how doubles is played most effectively. "Keep your poaching @ss on your own side of the court if I've said I got it." "Hello?! That was your alley." "Would you just put it away so I don't get it rammed right back down my throat?" (And those of you with dirty minds, get right out of the gutter, right now!) I can't imagine why D. spent a lot of the set shaking his head.

As we finally finished up the first set, we noticed that all the other teams were wrapping up their second sets. Umm. Yeah. We were playing the match that never ended. It was my serve and I swear I was living in a scene from Groundhog Day: "Deuce." "Ad-in." "Deuce." "Ad-out." "Deuce." "Ad-in." "Deuce." "Ad-out." The second set eventually rolled around and we were up by a lot before preceeding to collapse even worse than in the first set. I don't think we could have paid for one of our shots to go in. And the other team came roaring back, taking the second set. More good advice on my part was completely ignored on D.'s. I can't imagine why when I was clearly playing so very well, missing the lines by miles only inches. ::snort::

By the time we lost the second set, I was hot but unwilling to peel off any of the lumpy clothing, especially in front of the audience we had attracted. Oh yeah. An e-mail must have gone out to come and watch the clowns on court 5 because it was suddenly a bit like being on Center Court at Roland Garros, aside from the fact that our crowd was coaching us all through the vagaries of the tie-break to ten thing to determine who would ultimately win the match. Now mind you, I've generally lost quickly enough in the past that I've never had to even consider learning the tie-break protocol. So whenever I've been instructed in the whole, "serve once but everyone after that serves twice and switch sides after 6 points and again after another 6 points and always start serving on the ad side" and all that jazz, I've tuned it out. Be honest, you didn't finish reading that convoluted sentence either, did you? Apparently our opponents usually lose quickly as well since they didn't know procedure any better than we did. So, the peanut gallery chimed in to keep us honest, and probably to keep from having to admit, when they submitted scores, that they each had two complete nimrods on their teams. ;-)

Things dragged along with a point for us and a point for them. Three for us, one for them. Four for them, zero for us. Basically, the match was never going to be over. And then D. was serving. He's got a mean-@ss first serve, hard and fast and totally out of control. When it's in, it's pure gold. When it's out, it whistles past your ears while still in mid-air as you stand behind the baseline. So basically, he has no control over his balls. (Yes, D., I did just say that. You can strangle me later. ::grin::) When that zinger of a first serve missed too far right though and nailed me in the back, the sickening thud of flayed flesh was heard in a tri-state area. That sucker hurt like you would not believe. And I was ticked. I couldn't get hit with his blooper of a second serve. Oh no. I got the 90 mile an hour fastball. On the plus side, it hit the back fat pad below my bra strap so it didn't hurt nearly as much as it would have had I been in decent shape and as thin as I want to be so I guess there's that. T., who as team captain was in our peanut gallery waiting for the outcome of the match, immediately shouted that D. was welcome to his guest room. This probably breaks protocol at Roland Garros. Once I got over being totally steamed at D.'s serving incompetence (and we'll just ignore the fact that I double faulted a shameful number of times even with my powder puff of a serve), I started to flinch and slam my eyes shut every time he served. You can imagine how effective it is to have your partner at net with her eyes closed tight, offering up prayers for no more beatings. Amazingly we finally managed to pull off a win (and no one was more surprised than we were) and the afternoon's entertainment was over. Now I'm wondering if we should never, ever, ever play together again and keep our by the skin of our teeth perfect record?

Oh, and K. (she wasn't at the match) picked W. up from his match for us (thank goodness since we were busy with the marathon match). He won and enjoyed hearing her say that we should win easily because we were playing the worst team in the league and fourth line at that. So when he found out we barely eked out a win, he laughed so hard I though he might hyperventilate. And in true kid fashion, he has reminded me of it each of the three days since then. Because apparently your parents almost getting humiliated by the worst pair on the worst team in the league never gets old.

Review: Appassionata by Eva Hoffman

I am not musical, nor do I know one whit more about the world of music than I learned (and promptly forgot) during recorder lessons in elementary school. Or if you'd like a more recent musical lesson, during my reading of the exquisite An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. I am also not political, and while I do have some knowledge of the Chechen situation, I live a pretty insular life so my understanding of said situation is sketchy at best. These two holes in my cultural/political knowledge did not bode well for this book right off the bat.

This is the story of internationally acclaimed, rising star pianist, Isabel Merton. She travels all over Europe for her concerts but she is adrift and rootless, having left her husband shortly before the tour series. But then she is introduced to a man who is exiled from Chechnya and who tells her he is trying to get support for the exiled government. When he continues to show up at her concerts, they fall into an affair. Isabel dutifully trots along to political meetings where she understands nothing, not only because she doesn't speak the language but because she can't recognize zealotry even when it swirls in the very air surrounding her. Meanwhile, she also continues to call home to her excessively accomodating husband (ex-husband?) and to use up all his good psychic energy in an effort to stay on an even keel herself.

While I didn't understand much that was musical here (as admitted above), I did recognize and dislike the stereotypically narcissistic artist, the center of her own narrow, very specialized world. Despite being a book ostensibly fueled by passion, the descriptions were cold-blooded and I didn't truly believe that the affair was a consuming thing that could only be subsumed to causes even greater than love. Actually, I saw precious little love of any sort in this unless zealotry counts. I would have loved to see real passion rather than wavering insularity. This was a lot of florid philosophizing coupled with tepid characters.

The plot builds to a predictable crescendo but the question is whether I cared at all. And the short answer was no. By that time I already wanted to quit reading. Yes. Me. The compulsive reader who finishes every book she starts. Reading this made for a painful reading experience. I was bored out of my gourd. I don't mind being stretched. I even enjoy being stretched. Hell, I cheerfully signed on for many extra years of school simply for the joy of books, reading, and learning. But this book, this book was brutal. Its cardinal sin? I was bored. Certainly other people disagree with me as the book is a WNBA Great Group Read this year, but in all honesty, of all the reading groups I've been in over the years, from pretentious literary groups to light beachy read groups, there's not a one to which I'd recommend this book. It sucked the very life out of me and briefly extinguished the joy of reading.

Thanks (I think) to The Other Press for sending me a review copy of this book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Review: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

Mr. Malik is a quiet, gentle, unassuming man. He is one of the many who show up every week to go on bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society and led by Rose Mbikwa, a redheaded Scottish woman, the widow of a Kenyan opposition politican who moved to Kenya and fell in love both with her husband and with the country. Mr. Malik not only enjoys the birds they see on these outings, but he is also more than a little in love with Rose.

The book's conflict comes in the person of an old school acquaintance of Mr. Malik's, one who humiliated Mr. Malik as a young boy and who now seems poised to barge into Rose's life despite Mr. Malik's misgivings. When both men want to invite Rose to the Asadi Club's annual ball, instead of making Rose choose, the men come up with a contest to determine the more worthy suitor. The man who spots the most different varieties of birds will win the honor of asking Rose to the ball. The ways in which the two men go about finding their birds and the things that impede them along the way illustrate quite a lot about their respective characters. The outcome will surprise and delight the reader in this charming, light book.

The characters as drawn are delightful. Mr. Malik is generally respectful and courtly. The bits of his life beyond the contest to win Rose are rich and full, intriguing and compassionate. Harry Khan is more opaque to the reader but his character is teased out well enough by a few choice incidents as well. The reader definitely roots for one man over the other but getting to the conclusion of the contest is sheer brightness and light and worth every small page it takes to get there.

I thoroughly enjoyed this simple and heartwarming book, laughing with the gentle humor and enjoying the unusual premise and tone. Not for those seeking something fast paced but lovely for someone seeking a slower, richly rewarding afternoon's read.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review: The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan

Well-known for his heartwarming and charming book about his mischievious, entertaining, and wholely unrepentant dog, Marley, in Marley and Me, Grogan has written an equally charming story about his childhood and coming of age as a son in The Longest Road Home.

Growing up in suburban Detroit to devout Catholic parents, Grogan's memoir opens with his mother waking the four children for their summer vacation, driving to see a saint's shrine 7 hours away. This sort of religious devotion was a part and parcel of Grogan's idyllic childhood. He went to Catholic school, served as an altar boy, and attended Mass almost daily. But he was definitely not a sedate Catholic school boy, drinking the communion wine, trying to grow a marijuana plant in his garden, coming up with ways to torment the neighborhood's crotchety old man, and publishing an underground student newspaper among other boyish misdeeds. He chronicles high jinks and high spirits and his parents' unwavering faith in and unstinting loyalty to him, despite his "stretching" of the truth.

Grogan doesn't shy away from admitting that he falls away from his parents' faith early and only maintains a facade for them because he doesn't want to disillusion them. As an adult, he starts to make more and more choices at odds with the Church's teachings and it is only through looking dispassionately at his choices and at why he has made them, despite his parents' disappointments, that he comes to a full sense of who he is and how he is still inextricably bound to his loving and forgiving family. While he may not have grown into the faithful Catholic they had hoped to raise, I feel certain that his parents were and are proud of the man he became.

In some way, Grogan has written a memoir of every man. His mother and father are vividly and lovingly drawn. His rambunctious childhood reflects so many others' and highlights the best of a middle class Midwestern upbringing. There is a sweet poignancy in his chronicling, a hearkening back to a sweet and uncomplicated time. But there is a desperation as well, especially once the memoir moves into the realm of John's adulthood. The reader knows that his octogenarian father's advancing leukemia is dangerous and terrifying and that his parents' advancing ages, slowing down, and the scattering of his siblings and his childhood friends are all inevitable parts of his life.

Beautifully written, this is a paean to a past childhood, to his parents' faithful religion, and to the coming of age of a son who is resigned to not being the man his parents envisioned but who is a good human being even so. Like Marley and Me, this is an accessible and charming memoir and readers will not regret an afternoon spent with the Grogan family.

John Grogan's website can be found here and his blog can be found here.

Visit other blogs on the tour to see their reviews of the book:

Wednesday, October 21st: The Novel Book Worm
Thursday, October 22nd: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Monday, October 26th: Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, October 27th: Readaholic
Tuesday, November 3rd: Bookstack
Thursday, November 5th: The Book Zombie
Monday, November 9th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Thursday, November 12th: Cozy Little House
Tuesday, November 17th: Starting Fresh
Date TBD: The Book Lady’s Blog

Thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?

This meme is hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog. OK, it may look like I've been at my slack review-less best again but I have written more reviews than I've posted. I am just anal retentive enough to need the reviews to come out in the order in which I read the books (with a few stress inducing exceptions, I might add). So despite appearances, I am doing much better on the reviews, writing them as soon as I finish a book. I'm actually back down (pitiful to use this term, isn't it?) to a grand total of 22 books to review at the moment. Now if the front end of the logjam would loosen up, all would be good!

Books I completed this week are:

The Recipe Club by Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel
Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen
The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell
Weekends at Bellevue by Julie Holland
Divided Lives by Elsa Walsh
The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Terra Incognita by Sarah Wheeler
Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner

Reviews posted this week:

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
That Summer by Sarah Dessen
Cost by Roxana Robinson
My Horizontal Life by Chelsea Handler

Mailbox Monday

It's still officially my unbirthday month at one of my online groups affiliated with On the Porch Swing, a great group if you are looking for more book talk delivered directly to your mailbox and so I am still finding lovely surprises in the mailbox from my bookish friends. And while it looks like I've gone back to being bad about requesting or accepting books before I get myself caught up on the backlog, I promise this is not the case! I blame this week on the vagaries of the USPS (but I can't be too grouchy since I appreciate all they do and love getting books too, so...). This past week's mailbox arrivals include:

Meeting Mr. Wrong: The Romantic Misadventures of a Southern Belle by Stephanie Snowe came from Swan for my unbirthday month.
I like quirky, offbeat memoirs so one about a woman who posts an honest, no-holds barred ad on her re-entry into the dating pool totally picqued my interest. I don't know if she's found Mr. Right, but I'm looking forward to going along for the ride.

Breaking the Bank by Yona Zeldis McDonough came from Swan for my unbirthday month.
An ATM that magically dispenses money (without deducting the money from an account), really? How can I get one of these for myself?! Oh yeah, and the book looks cute too.

The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan came from Trish at TLC Book Tours for a tour.
I enjoyed Marley and Me and figured that Grogan's memoir of growing up and coming of age would be touching as well.

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperbergcame from Trish at TLC Book Tours for a tour.
I read about Alex the parrot in the news a couple of years ago I think and thought at the time that it was rather fascinating. Tales of the intelligence found in the animal world do grab my attention, even though my own fur-baby is dumber than a box of rocks.

Spellbinder by Helen Stringer came from the publisher via Shelf Awareness.
I thought this story of a girl who can speak to ghosts, including her own parents, looked cute, not scary, and quite possibly a good read for my tween daughter. Of course, I'll be reading it too because it looks like fun.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Review: My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One Night Stands by Chelsea Handler

I needed a light and quick read one day, having spent a lot of time in depressing and heavy reads, some of which were wonderful but still rough. So when I ran across a review of this book on Shannan Loves Books, I remembered it was on my tbr stacks and decided that it would be the perfect antidote to hugely depressing. And it was.

Short story essays chronicling Chelsea's love affairs with men of all shapes and colors, some of these stories are hysterical; some are less so but overall, this is a light, fluffy entertainment. I couldn't stop myself from laughing over the tale of the dog who showed up gnoshing on skidmarked underwear just as Chelsea was making a clean getaway. It was both disgusting and side-splittingly funny. She is definitely no holds barred in discussing her own sexuality but she can be a bit nasty when she takes on other people: the subjects of her failed and consummated one night stands as well as her roommate. The mean-spiritedness takes away some of the entertainment value and certainly no one would argue this book is anything but designed for entertainment value.

It did for me what I was looking to have it do but I would be wary in recommending it to anyone with a reasonably sophisticated sense of humor (not me) or to someone looking for an in-depth look at what Handler's choices mean or even to someone who prefers to have a person show growth before the end of the book. Hilarious, low-brow humor leavened with not much else, this is decent for chuckles and a superficial skim of a life I've never led.

Sunday Salon: Lose a book

Am I the only one? Have you ever lost a book, knowing full well that you've never taken it out of your house, searching the stacks and all of the logical areas it could be and then even searching the illogical areas? You'd think I would never have this happen since I am meticulous about alphabetizing my books by author, seperating them by physical type. So finding a book at my house should be easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. And yet it's not. There are, of course, the books that I swear have been awol since one of our moves. And their absence in my stacks makes me angry. But I don't think I misplaced them myself. The misplaced by self books make me completely and totally crazy. They can inspire multiple hunts and second guessing of my alphabetical skills as I scan the shelves around where said book should be with rising levels of frustration and dread. If not here, where?

This is a whole different level of losing a book than that of setting one down, walking off, and then having to do circuits through my house trying to remember which table or counter or stack I balanced the book on top of. I do this type of losing as well, of course. But how do books seemingly wander off if they have been properly filed? I suspect librarians feel this sort of pain a lot. But then they have to let the public monkey around with their collections and I don't. I'm the only one to blame if a book has gone walkabout. And I can't get the titles of the books I can no longer locate out of my head. The fact of their disappearances pops into my head at random times and I sometimes come up with one more place to look or am driven to look in exactly the same places I have looked before. Maybe I filed it under the author's first name by accident. Maybe I transposed two letters of the author's last name, moving it to another shelf alphabetically. Maybe my copy is actually a hardback even though I am pretty certain it's a trade paperback.

And I usually find the book eventually. Oftentimes in the exact place I had looked countless times before. How on earth does that even happen? It almost makes me believe that books act like the toys in Toy Story, coming to life and galivanting around to visit friends and having their own, unscripted adventures. Just how fun would that be? Don Quixote could tilt at some interesting stuff in my house. No windmills, but I'm sure he could find other things to try and conquer. Or maybe he's found a new girlfriend in one of the chick lit books and they sneak off to canoodle when my back is turned. One can only imagine the possibilities given the odd mixture of volumes on my shelves.

Yes, I am just a tad obsessive compulsive about my books. But I can't be the only one can I? Oh, and the latest book that disappeared for months just surfaced this past week, balanced precariously on the top of a stack right next to my desk. I should probably read it soon before it wanders off again.

Review: Cost by Roxana Robinson

Julia is an artist. She is divorced and her children are grown. The summer that the book opens finds her at the shabby Maine farmhouse on the coast that has been such a touchstone for her ever since she and her ex-husband found it many years before. Her parents, older and failing in small or large ways, are with her and she is struggling to manage her relationship with them when her oldest son grudgingly concedes that he thinks her younger son is quite probably addicted to heroin. As she tries to cope with the despair and denial she is feeling, she must try to also reach her most mercurial child, Jack, before he is so lost to her that he cannot be pulled back. As much as the focus in this novel is on Julia's efforts to save Jack, she must also face truths about herself and who she is as her life spins out of control, slave to her child's addiction.

Robinson uses multiple narrators in an effort to round the story out and to show the effects of addiction on a family as a whole but I enjoyed reading certain characters more than others so the constantly shifting narrator caused me some irritation--serious irritation at times. Jack's narration in particular, while perhaps authentic, was difficult and swampy to read. She's probably drawn precise and real characters in the throes of this situation but I couldn't find much sympathy in me for any of them.

Older son Ben wants to absent himself from the whole situation, angry he's been forced to "out" his brother. Ex-husband Wendell doesn't really want to be bothered or involved. Julia herself prefers to live in denial, searching for a magic bullet. Their quiet desperation and ineffective choices of coping skills are desperate but ultimately uninteresting. Throughout, the narrative felt very slow and heavy going, probably because of the heavy subject matter and the inevitable train-wreck. Robinson really captured the "slowing down of time" that seems to be a mark of heroin addiction but that very drawn-out feeling of being underwater is part of what made this such a difficult read to stay engaged with for me.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu was mentioned at A Striped Armchair.

Cinnamon City by Miranda Innes was mentioned at Snowbell's Reads.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

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