The OF Blog: September 2008

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

September 22-30 reads and October plans

Fairly slow reading week, as I'm still working on wrapping up this unit on the Gilded Age. Fall Break can't get here soon enough!

309 Elizabeth Bear, Hell and Earth - Good, solid complement to Ink and Steel. Bear's prose is unobtrusive, which aids in developing a fast-moving plot with Kit Marley and Will Shakespeare's character interactions deepening in an appropriate fashion. Pleasant, light read that makes me curious to see how Bear will develop this time-spanning urban fantasy series.

310 Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels - I hope to write a full review of this in the next couple of weeks. Suffice to say, I loved this novel and will have lots more to say later.

311 Theodora Goss, In the Forest of Forgetting - Excellent 2006 short story collection. Goss mixes real-world scenes and issues with more fantastical characters and plot developments to create a surrealistic bent to many of her stories. Her prose is outstanding and there were very few near-misses; no true duds and many excellent stories.

312 Jonathan Carroll, The Ghost in Love - If you've read one Carroll novel... Seriously, this was a well-executed novel with some interesting characters, but there were times that Carroll's thematic motifs, as well as some of his characterization, felt as though he were recycling elements from earlier novels. I liked it, but because of this sense of deja vu, it just felt a bit flat, like reading reheated leftovers.

Currently reading:

Jorge Ramos, La otra cara de América
- I first read this book by Univisión's lead anchor back in 2004 and these short stories of Latinos, both native-born and immigrant alike, has provided lots of food for thought. I just used this in one of my classes yesterday to illustrate how nativist attitudes from the late 19th century are alive and well today.

Thomas M. Disch, The Wall of America - Posthumous short story collection coming out in November. Only have read the first story, "The White Man," and if that story is any indication, this might be the type of short story collection that I enjoy - witty, moving, and full of social commentary without ever straying towards that "preachy" territory that certain people despise.

Mark Schultz, The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA - OK, this January 2009 graphic novel release has made me curious to see how genetics can be explained in a graphic novel format. So far, I can see how this would be use in many high school classrooms, even if there are some in my native region that would be offended that God isn't referenced here...

October Plans:

Hopefully, I'll finish the above-mentioned books before the weekend, then I hope to get some long-delayed reviews up and running. With more luck than I've had the past four months, I might have a half-dozen reviews, some of them shorter than my norm, posted on a wide variety of books, including some that I'm reading at intervals for my professional background reading. After all, teaching doesn't end when that last bell rings these days...

Why not write about politics?

Read two interesting posts by Paolo Bacigalupi and John Scalzi this evening on the issue of whether or not a fiction writer ought to discuss politics on his/her blog. Scalzi in particular makes a very important point, one that hits very close at home for me:

Why yes, fiction writers should write about politics, if they choose to. And so should doctors and plumbers and garbage collectors and lawyers and teachers and chefs and scientists and truck drivers and stay-at-home parents and the unemployed. In fact, every single adult who has reason enough to sit down and express an opinion through words should feel free to do just that. Having a citizenry that is engaged in the actual working of democracy matters to the democracy, and writing about politics is a fine way to provide evidence that one is actually thinking about these things.
As a teacher, I have felt rather constrained by the nature of my profession. It has been drilled into my head from my earliest days on the job that there are just certain things that one does not discuss at length in the hearing of students or their parents: religion, one's personal opinions of certain school/community leaders, and politics of course. I have taken that to heart for the most part; I keep my personal life (including this blog) as far apart from my professional one as I can manage.

However, Scalzi is right (and how I wish he wasn't joking about preferring my beloved Vols over UGA...) in that when it comes to matters of import, why are people being reticent in declaring their preferences? I'm not exactly constrained by the Hatch Act, but there is that sense that I shouldn't be prosetlyzing when lecturing about the Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century. I'm not shying away from talking about the perniciousness of racism and nativism, for example, but yet when it comes to coming out and stating directly that I prefer the politics of Eugene Debs over that of James Blaine, I hesitate.

Could it be it's a worry that what I say might just lead to my dismissal, since I don't have tenure? Perhaps, since I do recall quite well being chewed out by an assistant principal my first year of teaching 9 years ago, all because I noted that some people have argued that the 4th Amendment's strictures on searches and seizures have been stretched to the breaking point; apparently I was being "anti-cop" and one student's father is a state trooper and they were upset that I would "imply" that he was "bad" or "not doing his job." I believe there was even a hint that I might not be rehired if I said anything else like that again. I resigned that position the following year and moved to another state to get away from that small town political atmosphere.

But yet it is something that looms over the heads of many teachers. We are held to a different standard. Joe Schlomo can spout out whatever he pleases about Obama or McCain (often with various slurs mixed in), but teachers are expected to shut our yaps and "learn them well." It is much easier to state one's opinions when one's job is not potentially on the line. But I am learning how to skirt around this a bit.

That being said, the Debs comment ought to be a hint about my political persuasions, even if I will rarely say it out loud. Nice to see Michael Palin is up there with McCain in contesting for second place, though...

September 29-30 Book Porn

Five books so far this week, four being books sent to me by various publishers and one being a novel by Arnold Zweig that I want to re-read as preparation for the World War I unit I'll be teaching in a month or so (care to guess what era is my favorite in both American and World History? ;)). The first picture is of the three books I received Monday, and the other picture is of the two books (including the Zweig) that I received today.

Left: Richard Morgan, The Steel Remains (I've liked his other work and am curious to see how it'll translate to a fantasy setting); Thomas M. Disch, The Wall of America (posthumous book by an author whose classic Camp Concentration will be reviewed/discussed here and on several other books on the week of October 13-17); Mark Schultz, The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (OK, this ought to be an informative read at least, right, since I'm a social studies/languages person? Hrmm...)

Left: Scott Westerfeld, The Killing of Worlds (reprint of a series of his. Need to read the first book sometime); Arnold Zweig, The Case of Sergeant Grischa (I originally read this for a WWI History class back in the Spring of 1995 and I decided now would be a good time. Too bad I was dumb and sold my copy back then for money...)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A socio-cultural/political question involving Fantasy

I'm taking a break from writing my lesson plans for this week, because a thought struck me while I was in the middle of trying to decide how much I ought to incorporate today's immigration debates (in both the U.S. and in many other parts of the world) with the 19th century mass migration of peoples from Southern and Eastern Europe and from China and Japan to the U.S., Canada, and Argentina (among others). In thinking about how to portray the nativist/anti-immigrant attitudes in a way that wouldn't be setting up a straw man (despite my own personal irritation at the antics of such odious groups as the Minutemen), I tried to think of which fantasy stories dealt with the migrations of peoples in a fashion that didn't indicate possible author biases against the migrants.

For the most part, I have failed to think of many positive examples. Tolkien, for example, has been criticized numerous times over the years for having a possibly racist overtone to his portrayal of the peoples of Rhûn and the Harad (not saying I agree with those criticisms, but rather noting that they exist). Elsewhere in other fantasy novels, even many of which purport to be about the "strangeness" of the world around, there is that sense of a vague threat looming, whether it be the newcomers (from the perspective of the main character(s) ) or the protagonist him/herself.

Perhaps I'm just missing the copious counterexamples that could be cited as proof that fantasy (I'm purposely leaving out SF, since I do know of examples there of a benign or at least non-threatening "first contact") stories are not uniformly filled with a sense of unease at the "alien" groups that are "moving in." Anyone care to share examples of stories that explore how such wildly different groups are seen to reach out and to integrate themselves in a fashion that runs counter to the notion that "different equals threatening"?

A political blog poll

Because the U.S. Presidential elections seem to generate some discussion on various blogs/forums, I thought I'd post a list of the top 8 (plus 1) candidates for the office of President (because if I limited it to just the Big Two, I'd likely hear about it from someone). Curious to see if there's a correlation between my own political leanings (which I'll leave to the imagination for now) and those of the readers here. Plus for those who dislike politics and love humor, there is a choice just for you...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

My Non-English Library: Part III

All the titles are now added, making for 114 total books in these ten photos and 222 non-English books total in my personal library.

Left: José Eustasio Rivera, La vorágine; Alberto Fuguet, Las películas de mi vida; Gabriel García Márquez, El amor en los tiempos del cólera; Alejo Carpentier, Los pasos perdidos; Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Viste del amanecer en el trópico; Julio Cortázar, La autopista del sur y otros cuentos; Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad y otras obras; Horacio Quiroga, Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte; Adolfo Bioy Casares, La invención de Morel.

Left: Julio Cortázar, Libro de Manuel; Cortázar, Rayuela; Cortázar, 62/Modelo para armar; Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Rimas y leyendas; Sergio Ramírez, Sombras nada más; Alberto Fuguet, Sobredosis; Fuguet, Mala onda; Fuguet, Tinta roja; Carlos Fuentes, La muerte de Artemio Cruz; Mario Vargas Llosa, Conversación en La Catedral; Vargas Llosa, La Tentación de lo imposible.

Third from Left: Mario Vargas Llosa, Pantaleón y las visitadoras; Vargas Llosa, La guerra del fin del mundo; Vargas Llosa, La Fiesta del Chivo; Arturo Pérez-Reverte, La Reina del Sur; José Saramago, La balsa de piedra; Saramago, Ensayo sobre la ceguera; Saramago, El cuento de la isla desconocida; Saramago, Casi un objeto; Saramago, Todos los nombres; Saramago, La caverna; Saramago, El hombre duplicado.

Left: Isabel Allende, Zorro; Arturo y Carlota Pérez-Reverte, El Capitán Alatriste; Carlos Cuauhtémoc Sánchez, Los ojos de mi princesa; Edmundo Paz Soldán y Alberto Fuguet (eds.), Se habla español: Voces latinas en USA; Anonymous, The Poem of El Cid; Allende, Paula; Allende, La casa de los espíritus; Ciro Alegria, El mundo es ancho y ajeno; Allende, La ciudad de las bestias; Harriet Beecher Stowe, La Cabaña del Tío Tom; T.H. White, Camelot: Las aventuras de Arturo, Gínebra y Lanzarote; Gabriela Mistral, Selección Poética.

Third from Left: Roque Dalton, Las historias prohibidas del pulgarcito; Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño; Roberto Arlt, El jorobadito; Miguel A. Asturias, El Señor Presidente; Rubén Darío, Azul.../Cantos de vida y esperanza; Federico García Lorca, Poeta en Nueva York; Jorge Ramos, Detrás de la máscara; Ramos, La otra cara de América: Historias de los inmigrantes latinoamericanos que están cambiando a Estados Unidos; Gabriel García Márquez, Relato de un naufrago; García Márquez, La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada; García Márquez, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba; García Márquez, La hojarasca; García Márquez, Ojos de perro azul; García Márquez, Noticia de un secuestro; García Márquez, La aventura de Miguel Littín clandestino en Chile; García Márquez, Memoria de mis putas tristes.

Eighth from Right: Gabriel García Márquez, El otoño del Patriarca; García Márquez, Crónica de una muerte anunciada; García Márquez, El general en su laberinto; García Márquez, Del amor y otros demonios; García Márquez, La mala hora; García Márquez, Los funerales de la Mamá Grande; García Márquez, Doce cuentos peregrinos; García Márquez, Vivir para contarla.

Left: Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges; Isabel Allende, La suma de los días; Ignacio Padilla, Amphityron; Carlos Ruiz Zafón, La sombra del viento; Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, El Rey de La Habana; Roberto Bolaño, Los detectives salvajes; Bolaño, 2666; Goran Petrović, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna.

Second from Left: Liliana Bodoc, Los días del Venado; Bodoc, Los días de la Sombra; Javier Cercas, La velocidad de la luz; Lionel Sosa, El sueño americano: Como los latinos pueden triunfar en Estados Unidos; Ana Frank, Diario; Sandra Cisneros, La casa en Mango Street; Tomás Eloy Martínez, Santa Evita; Giannina Braschi, Yo-yo Boing!; Paulo Coelho, El Alquimista: Una fábula para seguir tus sueños; Frank Herbert, Dune; Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970 (bilingual); Manuel Puig, El beso de la mujer araña; Mario Vargas Llosa, Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto; Federico García Lorca, La casa de Bernarda Alba.

Second from Left: Ernesto Sabato, Abaddón el exterminador; Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; William Golding, El señor de las moscas; Pablo Neruda,The Heights of Macchu Picchu (bilingual); Oliverio Girondo, Scarecrow & Other Anomalies (bilingual); Alejo Carpentier, Concierto barroco; Gabriel García Márquez, Diatriba de amor contra un hombre sentado; José María Arguedas, Los ríos profundos; Antonio Machado, Antología poética; José Martí, Obra poética; Federico García Lorca, Romancero gitano/Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías; Lorca, La zapatera prodigiosa; Mario Vargas Llosa, Diario de Irak; Jorge C. Oliva Espinosa, El tiempo que nos tocó vivir: Una novela sobre Cuba; Neil Gaiman, Humo y espejos; R. Scott Bakker, En el principio fue la oscurdidad; Ildefonso Falcones, La catedral del mar; Miloš Urban, Las siete iglesias.

Left: Isabel Allende, Inés del Alma Mía; Ernesto Sabato, El túnel; Miguel Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares I; Cervantes, Novelas ejemplares II; José Zorrilla, Don Juan Tenorio; Lope de Vega, Fuente Ovejuna; Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de soledad.

My Non-English Library: Part II

The following 8 pictures are of one half of a bookcase devoted solely to my Spanish-language books, so I won't be labeling the language this time.
Left (all are Premio Alfaguara winners, in chronological order): Eliseo Alberto, Caracol Beach; Sergio Ramírez, Margarita, está linda la mar; Manuel Vicent, Son de Mar; Clara Sánchez, Últimas noticias del paraíso; Elena Poniatowska, La piel del cielo; Tomás Eloy Martínez, El vuelo de la reina; Xavier Velasco, Diablo Guardián.

Second from Left (first five listed are also Premio Alfaguara winners, from 2004-2008): Laura Restrepo, Delirio; Gabriela Montes y Ema Wolf, El turno del escribo; Santiago Roncagliolo, Abril rojo; Luis Leante, Mire si yo te querré; Antonio Orlando Rodríguez, Chiquita; Xavier Velasco, El materialismo histérico; Xavier Velasco, Luna llena en las rocas; Edmundo Paz Soldán, Desencuentros; Edmundo Paz Soldán, Sueños digitales; Edmundo Paz Soldán, La materia del deseo.

Third from Left: Carlos Fuentes, Los años con Laura Díaz; Carlos Fuentes, Todas las familias felices; Carlos Fuentes, Inquieta Compañía; José Saramago, Ensayo sobre la lucidez; José Saramago, Las intermitencias de la muerte; José Saramago, Las pequeñas memorias; Ignacio Padilla, La Gruta del Toscano; Mario Vargas Llosa, El Paraíso en la otra esquina.

Third from Left: Rafael Ramírez Heredia, La Mara; Sergio Ramírez, Mil y una muertes; Julio Cortázar, Cuentos Completos I; Julio Cortázar, Cuentos Completos II.

Left: Subcomandante Marcos, La historia de los colores; Miguel Cervantes, Don Quijote: El ingeniero hidalgo; Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial; Angélica Gorodischer, Las Jubeas en Flor; Manuel Mujica Lainez, Misteriosa Buenos Aires; José Hernández, Martín Fierro; Roberto Arlt, Trescientos millones; Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo; Alejo Carpentier, El siglo de las luces; Jorge Volpi, En busca de Klingsor; Ernesto Sabato, Sobre héroes y tumbas; Ernesto Sabato, Antes del fin.

Second from Left: Alejandro Dolina, Crónicas del Ángel Gris; Carlos Fuentes, En esto creo; J.J. Benítez, Jerusalén: Caballo de Troya I; Umberto Eco y Carlo Maria Martini, ¿En qué creen los que no creen?; Javier Negrete, Buscador de sombras/La luna quieta; Javier Negrete, La espada de Fuego; Ernesto Sabato, La resistencia; Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo y El llano en llamas; Mario Vargas Llosa, Lituma en los Andes.

Second from Left: Jorge Luis Borges y Adolfo Bioy Casares, Crónicas de Bustos Domecq; Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones; Borges, Historia universal de la infamia; Borges, El libro de arena; Borges, Historia de la eternidad; Borges, La memoria de Shakespeare; Borges, Evaristo Carriego; Borges y Bioy Casares, Seis problemas para don Isidro Parodi; Borges y Bioy Casares, Dos fantasías memorables/Un modelo para la muerte; Borges, Siete Noches; Borges y Alicia Jurado, Qué es el budismo; Borges, Otras inquisiciones; Borges, Prólogos con un prólogo de prólogos; Borges, El idioma de los argentinos.

Sixth from Left: Borges, El informe de Brodie; Borges, El libro de los seres imagineros; Borges, El Martín Fierro; Borges, Elogio de la sombra; Borges, El Hacedor; Borges, El Aleph; Borges, Biblioteca personal; Borges, Discusión; Borges, Obra Poética.

Seventy-three books listed in this section. Might wait until tomorrow to finish this bookcase and do the other shelf and a third on yet another bookcase.

My Non-English Library, Part I

Dark Wolf asked me earlier this week if I would take pictures of my personal library, as part of a meme in which he's participating. I said I'd try to have something up this weekend, time permitting. But since all I have is a cell phone (an LG Chocolate, for those who are that damn nosy) with a crappy battery life to take photos, I have decided to modify the meme a bit to suit my own needs and interests.

In this post and at least two others tonight, you'll see a series of photos of the 200 or so non-English language books that I own. For the most part, these are mixed in with a few English-language titles, but I tried to have the photos focus on the foreign language ones. I have books published in Spanish, Latin, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Serbian, and Hungarian in these photos. I'll try to give at least some description of the title and language under each photo:
Left: Jose Saramago, Memorial do Convento (Portuguese); Luís de Camões, (Portuguese); Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro (ed.), (Portuguese); Selected SonnetsComo era gostosa a minha alienígena!Ficçõoes: Revista de Contos Ano VIII - Número 15 (Julho de 2006) (Portuguese); Fábio Fernandes, A Revanche da Ampulheta (Portuguese); Ričard Bah, Galeb Džonatan Livingston (Serbian translation of Jonathan Livingston Seagull); Italo Calvino, Ako jedne yimske noći neki putnik (Serbian); Ј.К. Роулинг, Хари Потер и Дворана Тајне (Serbian Cyrillic edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets); Frenk Herbert, Arakis: peščana planeta (Serbian translation of the first third of Dune).

Left: Змберто Еко, Тајанствени Пламен Краљице Лоане (Serbian Cyrillic translation of Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana); Antoan de Sent-Egziperi, (Serbian); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Mali PrincRegulus: Vel Pueri Soli Sapiunt (Latin); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Der Kleine Prinz: Mit Zeichnungen des Verfassers (German); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Il Piccolo Principe (Italian); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, El Principito (Spanish); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (French); Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, A Kis Herceg(Hungarian); Umberto Eco, Il Nome Della Rosa (Italian); Umberto Eco, Il Pendolo di Foucault (Italian).

Second from Left: Dino Buzzati, La boutique del mistero (Italian); Italo Calvino, Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (Italian); Vergil, Æneid Books I-VI (Latin); Vergil, Æneid Books VII-XII (Latin); Victor Barocas, Fabulae Mirabiles: Fairy Tales in Latin (Latin); Friedrich Schiller, Don Carlos: Dramatisches Gedicht (German); Stanley Appelbaum (ed.), Great German Poems of the Romantic Era: Berühmte Gedichte der deutschen Romantik (German); Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat (French).

Second from Left: Andrzej Sapkowski, La Espada del Destino; Andrzej Sapkowski, Tiempo de Odio.

Third from Left: J.R.R. Tolkien, El Hobbit; El Señor de los Anillos I: La Comunidad del Anillo; El Señor de los Anillos II: Las Dos Torres; El Señor de los Anillos III: El Retorno del Rey; El Silmarillion; Los Hijos de Húrin (all in Spanish).

Thirty-five down, around 160-165 left to go...

September 22-26 Book Porn

Four books received from publishers (two of them being the finalized versions of galley ARCs that I had received months before), along with one purchased short story collection.

Left: Jonathan Carroll, The Ghost in Love (I've enjoyed each Carroll book I've read, so I'm likely to read this one this weekend or next, time permitting); Theodora Goss, In the Forest of Forgetting (I've been curious about this short story collection ever since this interview Lotesse conducted with her last year); Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (finished reading it last night and it was superb, one of the best YA novels I've read this year).

Left: Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner, Juggler of Worlds (apparently this is a co-written prequel of sorts to Niven's Ringworld novels, but I'm uncertain as to whether or not I'll get around to reading this, in part because I've never read Ringworld); Kage Baker, The House of the Stag (I've only read one novella by Baker, The Empress of Mars, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, so I might get around to reading/commenting on this one after I read the first book in the series, as this is the second volume).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Using a fantasy book in the classroom

Ever since I read Shaun Tan's The Arrival, I have thought it'd make for a perfect illustration of how immigration impacted families as well as demonstrating the strangeness of the new country for the immigrants themselves. So I decided to incorporate it into a lesson on the immigration experience, a lesson that incidentally was being observed by my principal as the first of three scheduled evaluations this school year. So for those of you curious about how a fantastical tale can be woven into a social studies course, read on, or else be forewarned that there's some history stuff intertwined with this.

I began the lesson by having a simple question on the LCD projector: What is your ancestry? After a brief discussion in which the students discussed their ethnic origins (from virtually every continent on this planet, which was cool to learn in and of itself), I then had them in small groups for 5 minutes, working on coming up with at least three reasons why they thought people would immigrate. After they came up with answers such as "better life," "religious freedom," "political freedom," and "opportunity to get rich," there then was a short 15 minute Powerpoint presentation on the problems immigrants faced from the time they boarded the ships to the time they arrived - sleeping in bunks where they had to sleep on their side, no showers for hygiene, lack of sanitation, diseases like trench mouth - after 4-12 weeks of travel. So far, OK but nothing "Wow!" about it.

Enter the handout I made from the first chapter of The Arrival (with proper attribution, lest any worry about me violating Fair Use). Focusing solely on the images of the family home and the husband packing away and his wife and daughter crying as he boarded the station, I had the students describe what they saw in each and every frame. By the time I finished, just before the bell rang to dismiss class, I had several people saying, "Man, that's so sad!" or "Wow! This is moving!" I had a few requests for having more of the story presented to them next week when I continue the unit on immigration. The principal told me she really liked what I did with this part and that it really engaged the students and helped them realize just how human the story was.

And to think that this book technically is a "fantasy," because it is set in an imagined land and has some fantastical creatures in it. I guess it just goes to show that when presented properly, fantasy tales can hit a raw spot, one that helps us to better understand others and their experiences. Just thought a few of you might be curious to see how I incorporate this blogging element of my life with my paid profession.

New Heroic/Epic Fantasy Award announced

Saw this posted on Post-Weird Thoughts and found it to be interesting:

Heroic Fantasy has an award of its own. The David Gemmell Legend Award for Fantasy will choose among the best heroic fantasy titles of 2008. The first winner will be known somewhen next year.

As Cheryl Morgan said, that's great news for fans and writers alike. Heroic Fantasy hardly hits the big awards' radar.

We'll definitely keep an eye on this one.

Looks like the deadline for submissions is late December 2008. Curious to see who'll win the inaugural award.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

YA Lit: Just what is it?

Still musing over this review of Brent Weeks' The Way of Shadows over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Although when I first read it, there were other elements that annoyed me more, after reading a rebuttal posted on Fantasy Book News and Reviews yesterday, Pat's use of the label "YA" (Young Adult Literature) puzzles me more and more:

I reckon it's meant to be another dark and gritty fantasy epic, but it clearly doesn't fall into GRRM's "school of hard knocks" category. Although The Way of Shadows explores some very mature themes such as child and sexual abuse, the overall tone of the narrative is definitely YA. The resulting work makes for an uneven read, as the author tackles themes you'll never see in a YA work, yet the narrative appears to be aimed at a more adolescent readership. I have a feeling that Weeks might have been too ambitious to a certain extent, and thus he failed to deliver the emotional impact that would have made some scenes truly powerful.
Raise of hands for any others here reading this who might be confused by what Pat says there? Further raise of hands of any who immediately thought of Margo Lanagan's work, namely "The Goosle" and the upcoming Tender Morsels (fortutious timing on the latter). I'm going to guess that he is thinking that YA lit isn't supposed to deal thoughtfully and with a high quality of prose with certain troubling issues, but let's quote one more passage from what might be one of the more discombobulated reviews I have read in months:

Azoth and Durzo Blint will no doubt remind you of Salvatore's Artemis Entreri, Jarlaxe, and Drizzt. Entertaining characters, no doubt, but relatively clichéd. Some of the supporting cast seemed to possess more depth at first, yet as the story progresses you realize that it wasn't meant to be. And, though there are plenty of mature themes and graphic violence throughout this novel, the dialogues are a bit juvenile at times and not up to par in terms of grittiness. Again, the more YA tone of it all I mentioned -- not unlike R. A. Salvatore's works.
While all I know about Salvatore's work is that a large percentage of his readership was made up of those in his late teens, I don't think I've ever really heard of anyone else trying to make the case (regardless of how shallow and unsupported this case might be) for D&D-type novels of the sort Salvatore writes as being "YA." I'm just baffled at how Pat comes to such a conclusion with nothing cited as evidence, outside of an apparent lack of grace in the prose, a failing of a great many authors writing in a plethora of styles for a diverse range of intended audiences.

As I thought about this before going to bed last night, I couldn't help but wonder at the apparent vagueness of this "Young Adult Literature" label. I receive dozens of books each year that are labeled as "YA" somewhere in the press kit, from Cory Doctorow's Little Brother to teen writer Isamu Fukui's debut novel Truancy to D.M. Cornish's Lamplighter, not to exclude the aforementioned new Lanagan novel. I enjoyed each of these novels for very different reasons; each has their own style and storytelling mode. However, if pressed to define a common trait among these and other novels (from the Harry Potter novels to the ones just now hitting the market), it would be that there is a centering of the principal character focus around the needs and desires of an adolescent who is trying to comprehend a world that shifts much, much faster for the 12-20 year-olds with each passing year than it does for those older than that cohort group.

The language can be chaste or peppered with all sorts of choice profanities. Such a story could deal with vaguely sexualized "crushes" without there being graphic portrayals of sex; another such story could deal with the confusion that revolves around the unfolding of one's sexuality. There is nothing inherently "fluffy" or "light" in such stories, even if the emotions expressed might seem puerile to those of us who are older and more cynical about matters of the heart and loins. I have found that the best-written YA lit (defined here as being stories that focus on common adolescent themes and worries, often with a teen protagonist) is very frank and honest with its audience, even if the said audience is as disparate and divided as the stereotypical school lunchroom seating arrangement.

Perhaps others have a better, more concise definition than my own. I'm curious to hear some feedback on this issue, even if I'm supposed to be working on my presentation tomorrow. Thoughts, comments?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Margo Lanagan book, Tender Morsels: First thoughts

There are plenty would call her a slut for it. Me, I was just glad she had shown me. now I could get this embarrassment off me. Now I knew what to do when it stuck out its dim one-eyed head.

OK, this first paragraph from the Prologue to her upcoming October novel, Tender Morsels, made me curious when I received the book in the mail today. After having read the first 50 pages, this is a very promising start, as before I had read only her short fiction. It is shaping up to be one of those dark, brutal, yet touching stories, one that seems to address some very harsh and uncomfortable topics (for example, the lead character seems to be the victim of parental incest) that might make a few "critics" *cough*Truesdale*cough* eager to scream "pornography" to the high heavens. Needless to say, such people would have missed the beautiful pine forest for a few pine needles jabbed in their eyes and orifices.

Although I have a very busy couple of nights ahead, once Thursday's work is done, I'm looking forward to indulging myself further with this novel, as past experience has shown me that Lanagan really is a writer to make time for, regardless of the pressing deadlines.

Because I can...

Something that I'll be using in a lesson on Thursday:

- Zbogom, odgovori lisica. Evo moje tajne. Sasvim je jednostavna: čovek samo srcem dobro vidi. Suština se očima ne može videti.

- Suština se očima ne može videti, ponovi mali princ da bi zapamtio.

- Vreme koje si uložio oko tvoje ruže čini tu ružu tako dragocenom.

- Vreme koje sam uložio oko moje ruže...reče mali princ da bi zapamtio.

- Ljudi su yaboravili tu istinu, reče lisica. Ali ti ne smeš da je zaboraviš. Ti si zauvek odgovoran za ono što si pripitomio. Ti si odgovoran za svoju ružu...

- Ja sam odgovoran za moju ružu, ponovi mali princ da bi zapamtio.

One of the more meaningful phrases I've ever read. I'll leave it for my occasional stalker or another to guess/tell what I was just now quoting. Night.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

September 14-20 books read

Some of these books were partially read before this time, plus I took the day off Thursday, so there are more listed here than shall be the norm for most of the rest of the year.

301 Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard - I ended up liking this quite a bit. I have a soft spot for the English Romantics and having the lamia/vampire storyline serve as a symbol for drug abuse and excess made for an engrossing read.

302 Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco - Although I had heard of him before this year, I never really read more than a single short story until very recently. I need to buy more of his collections, despite their prohibitive costs, because these stories contained in this collection are haunting, with taut but beautiful prose that serves to lead the reader on, like a lamb to the slaughter, to conclusions that are frightening without ever devolving into splatterpunk explicitness.

303 Steven Erikson, Toll the Hounds - see my review in the post below.

304 Paolo Bacigalupi, Pump Six and Other Stories - I'll be saying much more about him in December, as this short story collection has a place reserved for it on my Best of 2008 shortlist for story collections.

305 Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho - Chilling, especially in all the banality that surrounds Bateman's horrific actions. That juxtapositioning made for a truly remarkable read.

306 Guy de Maupassant, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories - Maupassant is the 19th century French short story master. These are some of his more well-known stories. I think you can guess my thoughts on these...

307 Elizabeth Bear, Ink and Steel - this third Promethean Age novel and the first of a duology set in late Elizabethan era England explores having Marley/Marlowe and Shakespeare as being agents that protect the realm from sorcerors, among a great many other things. Bear's story moves at a fast clip and while I ultimately enjoyed it, compared to the novels before it was rather light on the symbolism. Sometimes, one needs a little break, I suppose...

308 Nisi Shawl, Filter House - I had read many of Shawl's stories before now, but this new collection that came out late last month reminded me again why I think so highly of her stories. She mixes in African folk magic with futuristic elements to create a form that is pretty much sui generis without ever failing to be accessible and marvelous at the same time.

Currently reading:

Elizabeth Bear, Hell and Earth
- About 50% done, this novel is shaping up to be a worthy complement to Ink and Steel.

Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That - I first read this for a Cultural History of World War I undergrad course back in the mid-90s, but I wanted to re-read this remarkable memoir in preparation for a unit I'll be teaching in November on World War I.

Shaun Tan, The Arrival (re-read that won't count in my yearly total, since I read it again back in January) - I'm in the process of selecting images that'll be used in a classroom presentation later this week, time permitting.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A few simple banned words

Or rather, words that I wish people would refrain from using in their commentaries and reviews:

1. Mainstream - it's just gauche and makes me think of very conservative talk show hosts and their audience who use the title as a pejorative. "Mainstream" literature means what, pray tell? Things you don't like? If that's the case, just shrug and move on.

2. Gritty - I find that sensation when I am ill, lay in bed for most of a day or two, and don't brush my teeth. I don't find it in literature. I have read bleak, unforgiving stories on occasion, but none of them contained sand in one's mouth/body parts or the similar sensation when one's teeth have not been brushed for a day or two.

3. Controversial - it's such a passé claim now. Controversy is manufactured more often than not and if I want something pre-fab, I'll buy something from IKEA, not from someone trying to stand out.

4. Edgy - sharp points annoy me, just like paper cuts do. "Edgy" I associate with those, not with literature that attempts to force the issue without just cause.

5. Scintillating - That word is to be used by Dicky V only. Got it? Good.

6. Best, (debut), novel - if these words are used in conjunction with a year without any real justification provided, forget it, I'm not buyin' it.

7. Shatneresque - oh wait, this isn't a banned word, but instead ought to be the epitome of what all should aspire to be.

Any comments, suggestions, snide remarks?

Steven Erikson, Toll the Hounds

"Bless you, that you not be taken. Bless you, that you begin in your time and that you end in its fullness. Bless you, in the name of the Redeemer, in my name, against the cruel harvesters of the soul, the takers of life. Bless you, that your life and each life shall be as it is written, for peace is born of completion."

Reviewing eighth volumes of series as massive as Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is not exactly a thrilling task, as this late into the series (there are only two more books remaining in the planned main sequence) most readers will have already formed their own opinions about the series as a whole, not to mention have already weighed in on the thematic elements contained in each book. Therefore, there will be those readers here who will want to know if Erikson returns to a more action-packed storytelling mode, while others will be eager to learn whether or not Erikson has learned to curb his tendency to be verbose, utilizing too many points of view in an effort to shoot that plot/thematic development fly with a cannon. For those readers, Toll the Hounds may prove to be a problematic read, but for others who are not quite as dissatisfied with Erikson's work, this book may prove to be one of the more revealing novels in the series, both in regards to its own plot and theme developments as well as to furthering an understanding of the series itself.

The action here has shifted back to the continent of Genebackis, specifically to the cities of Darujhistan and Black Coral, somewhere around five years after the events of the third book, Memories of Ice. This region, devastated first by the ten years of war between the invading Malazan army and later by the depredations of the Pannion Domin and its cannibalistic Tenescowri, still feels the effects of these conflicts. Erikson utilizes many PoVs, from the former Bridgeburners Picker, Blend, and Antsy to the former caravan guard Gruntle and his companion Stonny, to the various members of Darujhistan's council to show what changes have taken place in the interim. As a whole, it is an effective reintroduction to a locale that has not been visited for five books, although Erikson skirts close (as he tends to do in most of his novels) to providing too much information, too fast.

In this region between Darujhistan and Black Coral, two new cults have developed. One is dedicated to worshipping the futility of life, its ever dying moments full of despair and its rapacious frenzy to claim and to use up before the life spark is extinguished. Embodied in the patchwork puppet-like body of the Dying God, this delirious, maniacal force is at odds with the second cult, that of the Redeemer, whose willingness and ability to grant absolution serves as the antithesis of the Dying God. But this Redeemer, whose cult began around Itkovian's barrow, is very young and weak and throughout the novel, the question of whether or not redemption and its attendant spirit of forgiveness can overcome the rapaciousness and destructive forces of hatred and nihilistic self-denial looms large.

Toll the Hounds also contains the continuing subplots of the Tiste peoples and Mother Dark's abandonment of them to their own fates of tragic murder and betrayal. Anomander Rake serves not just as a principal character in this novel, but also as the symbol of a people who struggle to find a purpose in a life filled with regret and the burdens of brutal, bloody mistakes. In addition, the Dying God has begun infilitrating the Tiste Andii, with the early takeover of the mind/body of Clip, Rake's "Mortal Sword" serving to illustrate the very potent threat of nihilism to a people inured to millenia of despair and seemingly futile attempts to redeem themselves to Mother Dark and to they themselves.

Traveller's quest to reach Darujhistan for a fateful encounter with a force that has devastated his past serves as the third main beam of this novel. Driven by revenge and bearing a sword that has the dual names of Vengence and Grief, he relentlessly pushes on towards the city to a long-fated confrontation, one that his companions, including Karsa Orlong, cannot comprehend. His search for redemption in retribution and its aftermath symbolizes a very common reaction of people who believe they shall find their redemption in revenge. All too often, the consequences are more than what most can imagine.

These thematic elements drive Toll the Hounds and made for a mostly compelling read for me. Although Erikson many times comes close to drowning these elements in dozens of PoVs that are not fully developed, many times little elements, such as that of two Teblor girls and their mangled canine companion, eventually come to represent some very key components to redemption. Those wanting hundreds of pages of battles or convergences may find themselves frustrated by the slow build, same goes for those who would prefer Erikson to pare down his PoVs to fewer than a dozen, but for those readers who enjoy seeing how an author can take certain themes and develop them in various subtle ways over the course of a novel, then those readers may find Toll the Hounds and its conclusions to the issues I hinted at above to be quite enjoyable and thought provoking. I myself was left thinking that Erikson's treatment of these themes of redemption, nihilistic self-denial and self-loathing, revenge, and the recovery from deep loss to be one of the best-developed in fantasy, especially in epic fantasy. While others may bemoan the lack of action for the first 4/5 of the novel, I found that there was a lot that was occurring under the plot surface that led to a plausible, satisfying conclusion, one that has left me excited again about the possibilities of this series and where it might conclude.

Publication Date: July 2008 (UK), September 16, 2008 (US). Hardcover and Tradeback.

Publishers: Transworld/Bantam (UK), Tor (US)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

September 16-18 Book Porn

Six books pictured this time, although a seventh I ordered, Shaun Tan's The Arrival, is but a replacement for one that I sent overseas to my favorite stalker. First three books pictured are galleys or review copies sent to me by Random House or Tor, the others being books that I ordered from Amazon.

Left: Laurell K. Hamilton, Swallowing Darkness (Nov. release - doubtless even darkness itself has a sexual connotation now); David Sherman and Dan Cragg, Starfist: Wings of Hell (Dec. 2008 release, with a title that makes me wonder if it's military SF or demonic fisting).

Left: Steven Erikson, Toll the Hounds (eighth Malazan volume to be released next Tuesday according to the press release, but which might already be available in stores, currently 240 pages into it); Thomas Ligotti, Teatro Grottesco (almost done with this, with a review forthcoming in the next month or so)

Left: Paolo Bacigalupi, Pump Six and Other Stories (read the first story and am really curious about the others now); David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (OK, I was curious. Bite me...)

Guest Blogging?

I took the day off today. It is rather odd looking at this screen on a workday morning and not having it on educational/news-related sites, or hearing dozens of student voices. It is a reminder, however, that I really haven't had as much time these past couple of months to devote to blogging (particularly reviewing, which I haven't done in full since June) as I would have liked.

Every now and then, I ponder whether or not inviting people to write posts for this blog might be a good or bad idea. Although this blog technically is a "team" blog (there are four others who have access to posting/editing here), for the past year and a half, I've basically flown solo. But perhaps there has been a stagnation that has set in as a result; the work demands might just be an excuse. That is something that does worry me on occasion, since I would rather have a "conversation" than a "monologue" here. Maybe new voices would inject more life into this blog, ignite discussion/controversy on occasion, and just make this blog more worth people's time to visit.

Or maybe the opposite would take place. Perhaps the person/people chosen to make guest posts would be dull and their commentaries and reviews would detract from the overall focus and feel of this blog. Possibly having this could be a monumental mistake that would weaken this blog and its appeal to its vast readership that has swelled into the mid-hundreds in recent months. Or maybe not. I just am undecided right now.

So me being me, I thought I'd just float this idea out there. There's a poll available now regarding this idea (nothing is confirmed or set in stone as to which direction I'll go), so feel free to vote on it. Most curious to see how the vote goes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Author Spotlight: Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti may very well be the best horror author I never read until this year. Umm....let me rephrase that a bit. He just might be the creator of some of the creepiest stories that I've come across this year. A bit better, although this too does not do justice to his stories. However, based on the recent graphic novel adaptations of eight of his stories, The Nightmare Factory: Volumes 1 & 2, I believe Ligotti is deserving not just of my attention, but also that of readers of dark fantasy and horror.

In the two graphic novels (covers pictured to the side), Ligotti uses several motifs most familiar to those who enjoy Edgar Allan Poe's darkest tales: Outsiders, outcast in some form from society; inversions of ritual and ceremony; explorations of human attempts to "master" self and fate. In addition, in tales such as "The Last Feast of Harlequin" and "Dr. Locrian's Asylum," there are certain supernatural elements present, if only hinted at for much of these two tales, that resemble some of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous tales.

But Ligotti does not merely ape these two acclaimed writers. While most of my reading to date has been of these graphic novel adaptations, even there in modified form, there is a great sense of pacing and word choice that is distinctive. Hopefully, tonight and later this week I'll have the chance to read the just-released (as of Sept. 16) American paperback version of Teatro Grottesco, which contains 3 of the 8 stories found in the two graphic novels, in addition to 10 others. I hope to have at least a capsule commentary up this weekend (I'll be off work on Thursday and might have the time to complete three long-delayed reviews, if I'm luckier than I have been; if so, then Saturday's commentary might expand into a 750-1000 word review).

But based on what I have read, Thomas Liggoti is one of the rare few authors of horror that I actually can stomach reading; Poe and some of Stephen King's earlier short stories, as well as Ray Bradbury's occasional forays into horror motifs being the few examples of works that I enjoyed greatly. Shall be interesting to see how I'll view the graphic novel adaptations after I finish reading this collection. Looking forward to the experience, even if it might cost me some dearly-needed sleep.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

September 8-14 Reads

Not as many books read this week due to near-daily meetings either before or after school that sapped me nearly of the will to live, much less to read. But hopefully these very short capsules will contain things of interest to people here:

297 Taha Muhammad Ali, So What - I've already blogged this past week about this Palestinian poet's collection of translated poetry and I'll just reiterate here that I found this collection to be a very strong, direct, and sometimes cathartic collection of poems from the 1980s-early 2000s.

298 Thomas Ligotti, et al., The Nightmare Factory: Volume 2 - This second graphic novel adaptation of four more Ligotti stories continues the excellent combination of spooky illustrations and very good storyboard adaptations of Ligotti's stories. Highly recommended for those who are curious about Ligotti's works and want to read them for an affordable price (although the paperback reissue of his Teatro Grottesco is coming out on Tuesday), as well as for those who are curious about how Ligotti's stories translate into the graphic novel medium.

299 Brian Evenson, Last Days (ARC edition) - This is an expansion of a 2003 limited-edition novella. It is a dark mystery (among many other things - going to be busy unpacking this more at length near the end of the year, since the book isn't going to be released until February 2009) which ultimately left me satisfied. But a re-read is going to be in order before I can determine just what it was that affected me during the reading, not to mention noting the book's strengths and weaknesses.

300 Ma Jian, Beijing Coma - Forget any possible biases against "mainstream" novels. This isn't a stereotypical bourgeois novel. Instead, it is in turns funny, biting, sad, serious, and most importantly, a very imaginative work that details the experiences of narrator Dai Wei's limbo-like existence as he spends a decade recovering from a bullet head wound received at Tiananmen Square during the 1989 democracy riots. Floating between the past and present, Ma's Dai Wei and his lovers, his troubled family life, and his associations from the 1960s to 1989 serve as powerful metaphors for the horrors, cruelties, and transformations that take place in China both then and afterwards. This is one of the better 2008 releases I've read and those writing novels in particular might benefit from seeing how Ma utilizes character perspectives and scene breaks to construct a novel that is as ethereal and dream-like as it is based on the realities of China's emergence as an economic and military world power.

In progress:

Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard
- Took a mini-break to read the above works this past week, but I'm 3/4 into the novel and hope to finish it later tonight. Very good read so far. Nice analogy can be made to the lamia afflicting Crawford and the Romantic poets and the various chemical/pyschological demons that cause so much suffering today.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

September 10-12 Book Porn

An additional 9 books have been bought or received from Wednesday-Friday and for those of you (apparently less than half according to the latest poll figures) that are really interested in these, the first two images are of the five review copies and the final one of four books I bought in a local store on Friday. Can you tell a difference here in my reading/buying habits as compared to much of what I receive these days?

Left: Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner (eds.), Wolfsbane and Mistletoe; William C. Dietz, When Duty Calls; Anya Bast, The Chosen Sin.

(I wonder if there's an unintentional fertilization image in that Dietz cover art...)

Two more publisher-sent books, one of which contains a rather odd-looking naval battle, the other with a "spunky lass" cover shot. What to make of these?

Left: Taylor Anderson, Destroyermen: Crusade; Talia Gryphon, Key to Redemption

And finally, four books that I purchased. Three are by late 20th/early 21st century writers, the other by a 19th century French short story master. How do their cover arts match up to the ones above?

Top-left: Dave Eggers, You Shall Know Our Velocity!; Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

Bottom-left: Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Guy de Maupassant, A Parisian Affair and Other Stories

Between this and the other books bought/received this week, I have lots of reading ahead. And with a week-long vacation coming up in 4 weeks, it'll be a nice time to read, I hope. Now off to watch some college football and to work on composing my first true review in months.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Breaking the Tie for the Blogger Book Club selection

Good to see there was a fairly equal distribution of books voted upon in the previous poll. But since both Thomas Disch's Camp Concentration and Tim Powers' Last Call both received the same amount of votes, I guess I'll have to end up choosing the book myself.

While both are very worthy and would make for excellent discussion/review pieces, I believe Disch's book packs much more per page and therefore deserves attention just a bit more. Therefore, Camp Concentration is the inaugural pick for this informal blogger book club. For those participating, buy or borrow a copy and on the week of October 13-17, post a review of the book and give me a link, so I can edit it into a post I'll have available. Also, don't forget to leave comments and questions on the various blogs that may participate in this.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask it here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Taha Muhammad Ali

One of the benefits of seeking out and reading books and poems written from different cultures and languages is the sense of the greater story that emerges inside their writings. I just started reading the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali's So What and the poem "Ambergris" just grabbed my attention. Notice how bitter Ali is here, but also take note of the references to land, age, delay, and betrayal, as each element is interwoven in a different fashion to produce an excellent poem, even in translation:


Our traces have all been erased,
our impressions swept away -
and all the remains
have been effaced...
there isn't a single sign
left to guide us
or show us a thing.
The age has grown old,
the days long,
and I, if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk
that was here before,
dozing like Arabian jasmine,
shimmering like the gleam of dawn,
pulsing like a star -
I, if not for that lock of camphor,
would feel not a thing
linking me
to this land.

This land is a traitor
and can't be trusted.
This land doesn't remember love.
This land is a whore
holding out a hand to the years,
as it manages a ballroom
on the harbor pier -
it laughs in every language
and bit by bit, with its hip,
feeds all who come to it.

This land denies,
cheats, and betrays us;
its dust can't bear us
and grumbles about us -
resents and detests us.
Its newcomers,
sailors, and usurpers,
uproot the backyard gardens,
burying the trees.

They keep us from looking too long
at the anemone blossom and cyclamen,
and won't allow us to touch the herbs,
the wild artichoke and chicory.

Our land makes love to the sailors
and strips naked before the newcomers;
it rests its head along the usurper's thigh,
is disgraced and defiled in its sundry accents;
there seems to be nothing that would bind it to us,
and I - if not for the lock of your hair,
auburn as the nectar of carob,
and soft as the scent of silk,
if not for the camphor,
if not for the musk and the sweet basil,
if not for the ambergris -
I would not know it,
and would not love it,
and would not go near it...

Your braid
is the only thing
linking me, like a noose, to this whore.

The rest of this en face bilingual poetry collection is promising to be around that same level of quality. This is some good shit, especially for a day like today, when I often would find myself questioning what keeps people working hard in my own country, when so many around just seem to take it for granted or would rather exploit it and its people more than anything else.
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