Books and Book Reviews: March 2005 Archives

The Purpose Driven Life

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First--Alleluia, He is Risen! Easter Greetings to all.

A number of people are responding to an upsurge in interest over the Rev Rick Warren's religious self-help book and this link will take you to my original response to it.

My tone may have mellowed as the book has slipped completely out of my thoughts, but time has not changed my mind. As with many books from the Evangelical Self-Help shelves the glow passes almost before you get it out of the shop. If you're really interested in improving any aspect of your religious life and you want something out of the Catholic fold, I would recommend almost anything by Dallas Willard (you can read some samples of his writing). In particular, I found The Divine Conspiracy insightful and helpful.

Richard J Foster, a modern Quaker writes some extremely helpful books. My favorite among them because it enters into its subject with such great depth and delicacy is The Freedom of Simplicity. In this work Foster rediscovers and refurbishes the truths of the faith known since Gospel times.

And on the Philosophical side the entire Plantinga Family: Cornelius (Neil) with the magnificent Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin , Alvin, and Harry, who runs the magnificent e-text site Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

It is wise, however, to remember that the Catholic Church has all of this ground covered and more. We do not need to stray outside the fold to learn about how to love and serve others--Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta and St. Katherine Drexel teach us in both short writings and their lives. And so with all the other aspects of The Purpose Driven Life--such purpose is easily found by those who steep themselves in the richness of Catholic tradition.

There are many places from which to take substantive nourishment, do not be lured by the heightened popularity of a single source. Like The Prayer of Jabez, you may experience a momentary heightened emotional sensation, but when it passes, you will find nothing memorable--at least, if you've been a Christian for more than a few years. Perhaps Warren's attraction is more for those new to the faith and learning. But think about Warren's book as a tent-rivival between hard covers. That will give you a sense of what goes on in the text. There is nothing evil here, simply shallow, vacuous, and ultimately unsatisfying.

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My small book group has taken up for its next read (the last was St. Dale) Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. I am by no means a fan of Roth's writing--there is something in it I find tremendously off-putting most of the time. But this book may crack that open and allow me to investigate Roth's works more extensively.

The Plot Against America is about an alternative USA in which Lindbergh wins the 1940 election and signs a concordat of understanding with Hitler. (I had not realized how very anti-Semitic some of what Lindbergh said and did was.) The story is the tale of a Jewish family in the aftermath of that election and what happens to them. I've only read about 100 pages (about 1/3) but I find the prose compelling, and while I don't particularly like some of the characters, I find their plight appalling.

I guess part of what drives this home for me is that I had not realized how very strongly anti-Semitic some groups within the Catholic Church are. All the while denying their anti-Semitism, I have read in several place on St. Blogs the lies and the filth that through the ages have weighed down our Jewish brothers and sisters with the onus of Christian hatred. The modern world has changed that a lot. But it should come as no surprise when Jewish people are hesitant to believe that, especially when we have the likes of the writing of some extreme elements.

During Holy Week, we do well to keep in mind that the Jewish people did not kill Christ. While some of the leaders of the Sanhedrin (we must be very cautious about how we say this remembering both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) were complicit in the events that led to Christ's death--they were merely the instruments--we, all of us, today and throughout time, are the cause. The question is less, "Who killed Christ" than it is "For whom did Christ die?" As He said in the passion of St. Matthew, "Do you not think at this very moment I could give the word and more than 12 legions of angels would come to my aid? Nevertheless, how would it be fulfilled according to the scriptures?" As it is said, Christ went to His death for us. We arranged it, and we were responsible for it, but He took it up and bore it. Questions as to who was responsible miss the point entirely. As in any murder mystery, the most likely culprit is the one who benefits most.

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Some Final Words on Helena

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I finished the book some days ago and have held off writing about it for a number of reasons. But now it is time.

The book, as I said before, is wonderful and distinctly different from the other works of Evelyn Waugh. There is still the biting observations of the foibles of men--as for example what Constantine decides to do with the nails brought back from Helena's search for the cross. In addition, his skewering of Fausta and her pet Bishop Eusebius are both highly pointed and entertaining.

The book has one minor flaw, which actually redounds to its credit is odd ways. To understand the title of the last chapter, one must read Waugh's introduction to the book. "Ellen's Invention of the Cross" makes no sense from the narrative point of view. But when you read the genesis of the tale, rather like Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic you'll see what it is all about.

Get and read this book. It should take only a couple of days (if that). It will serve as an introduction to some of the finest prose of the 20th century and perhaps those who have been Waugh-shy to take up some of the other 15 or so novels. The oeuvre, like that of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, is not dauntingly large (unlike that of Graham Greene). A normal person can hope to have read the entire works in a year or two, interspersing them with other things to leaven out the bitterness. But Helena is a sweet start--yes, the curmudgeon is there, mostly hidden, but occasionally popping out to tweak us; however, the work as a whole is a magnificent tribute to the wonders of faith in general and the truth of Catholicism in particular.

Not merely recommended--required! Test on Thursday next.

(Later: My thanks to those who made the typos evident--sorry.)

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The Moment of Definition


from Helena
Evelyn Waugh

"There are people in this city," said Sylvester quite cheerfully, "who believe that the emperor was preparing a bath of children's blood to cure himself of the measles. I cured him instead and that is why he has been so generous to me. People believe that here and now while the emperor and I are alive and going about in front of their faces. What will they believe in a thousand years' time?"

"And some of them don't seem to believe anything at all," said Helena. "It's all a game of words."

"I know," said Sylvester, "I know."

And then Helena said something that seemed to have no relevance. "Where is the cross anyway?" she asked.

"What cross, my dear."

"The only one. The real one."

"I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. I don't think anyone has ever asked before."

"It must be somewhere. Wood doesn't just melt like snow. It's not three hundred years old. The temples here are full of beams and paneling twice that age. It stands to reason God would take more care of the cross than of them."

"Nothing 'stands to reason' with God. If he had wanted us to have it, no doubt he would have given it to us. But he hasn't chosen to. He gives us eanough."

"But how do you know he doesn't want us to have it--the cross I mean? I bet he's just waiting for one of us to go and find it--just at this moment when it's most needed. Just at this moment when everyone is forgettting it and chattering about the hypostatic union there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I'm going off to find it," said Helena.

The empress dowager was an old woman, almost of an age with Pope Sylvester, but he regarded her fondly, as though she were a child, an impetuous young princess who went well to hounds, and he said with the gentlest irony, "You'll tell me, won't you?--if you are successful."

"I'll tell the world," said Helena.

Just one of many examples of exactly the right touch, exactly the right exposition, exactly the right weight and understanding that guides Waugh's hand throughout the novel. If my other carryings-on have not already convinced you, let the prose carry you to go and get this novel. Rather like dipping into Flannery O'Connor, you'll be very pleased that you did.

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La Belle Hélène


In reading Helena last night I stumbled across a large number of passages I would like to share. But I thought the more important thing to share was an observation. Evelyn Waugh liked this best among his books. There are a good many reasons why this might be so: it is splendidly written--both the prose and the coherence are several notches above some of his earlier, more frenetic work. It is tightly done, with just the right strokes and exactly the right selection of detail.

But I suspect the reason Waugh prized this above all the other works is that in the course of writing it, he became a different person. No other piece of his writing has such deep insight and appreciation for a single character. Yes, the old Evelyn is there nipping at the heels of nearly every person in the book other than Helena. However, his obvious admiration for and reverence of Helena effects a transformation in his prose to create a work unlike anything else He had done.

I claim no deep familiarity with the entire Opus of Evelyn Waugh; however, at this point I feel that I have read widely enough through his career to understand and appreciate the comment of the woman who said that Mr. Waugh was not a very nice man. Strongly evident in the early works, present and pronounced in Brideshead and recidivus in The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh, the novelist comes across as strongly misanthropic, perhaps even more strongly misogynist, and terribly bitter.

If Helena were your only acquaintance with Waugh's work, you would certainly smell the cologne, but would assume that the real Evelyn Waugh had left the room. There are moments of Vile Bodies reserved for some of the more repulsive characters, and yet there is never the stunning detraction, the sheer biting nearly vindictive character assassination that makes some of Waugh's work so hilarious.

And so, while there are a few chuckles, this is another uncharacteristic work in that it is not terrible humorous. There is a slyness and a cleverness to what is going on; but there isn't the savageness nor the hilarity to be found in many of his books.

As a direct result, I suspect, this among Waugh's fictional works, is one of the few to fall in and out of print. Publishing history suggests that many of the works have been available from the time they were published to the present day. But Helena apparently makes a rare appearance and then bows out. That said, the wise Amazon consumer will dutifully make a discrete purchase at the earliest possible opportunity. It would be a shame for this greatest of this religious "biographies" to vanish.

And that is another point. Waugh's nonfiction lives, St. Edmund Campion and Msgr. Ronald Knox fall woefully short of the wonder of his fictional prose. Perhaps Waugh needed to reign in his natural animosity. Whatever the reason the biographies are strangely stilted and oddly disjunct works that try the patience of the most determined reader. Incident piles on incident without any real insight into the life of the person about whom Waugh is writing.

Not so Helena, because Waugh abandoned any pretense of being able to say anything truly definitive about the character, and because he allowed himself his usually jabs at other characters, Helena is not merely a compendium of events, but a view of a person through the eyes of an admirer. We see her grow and mature and become progressively more holy, and the detractions of ages past, whether reportage or Byzantine fabrications are stripped away to show the circumstances of the time and how they "built" holiness. In many ways, you read in Helena Waugh's "redemptive" work. It is a work in which one feels that the Spirit of God was active in the author.

So, that Waugh considered this his finest work is not surprising. For him, it appears to have been a work in the transformation of understanding that would define for him what his lifelong quest had been and would continue to be. Yes, the old Waugh returns, but transformed by his late encounter with Helena. The child that transforms the parent for the better is nearly always the best loved child.

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How's that for elitist and snooty? Nah, on second thought, the only way to really enjoy these is with a crowd--that's why I invited y'all into my secret lair of "the-things-I-really-oughtn't-to-admit-to-even-knowing-about-but-which-will-
dispell-the-odd-notion-of-me-that-some-seem-to-have." AKA Guilty Pleasures:

The Mabinogion--and yes, even the Evangeline Walton series of four novels that takes the four branches and turns them out at bombastically amazing length. Everyone should know about the four branches--not because it's essential cultural information, not because it's great literature (although it is that too), not because it will make your brain bigger--no, just because it is fun. It's like the Tain Bo Culaigne translated by Lady Guest (you can even fine some of the older versions of the Mabinogion in the magnificent Lady Guest translation). What's more, often the translations include "side-stories" like "Culhwch and Olwen," a riff on the Arthurian Legend with a giant magical stew-pot. Yep--the Mabinogion is simply a treasure.

Locked Room Mysteries--Okay, it's a very tiny genre, tried by many, but perfected and executed at least fifty times successfully by John Dickson Carr under a variety of names. As with all of the prolific Golden Age writers, read enough and you'll see the plots repeated--sometimes shifting from short story to novel, often picked up and moved from one novel to another. However, if you are to dip into this genre, you should have a roadmap. It Walks By Night while not a favorite because it stars the least robust of the detectives does have the unique feature of being the only mystery I know of dealing with a decapitation in the locked room. The Three Coffins featuring the most frequently recurring of the Chestertonian Detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell. This has the unique distinction of a lecture on locked room murders and a subtle twist--a murder that takes place in the middle of a street watched from both ends by witnesses and yet not seen by either. Among my favorite of the Fell series--The Man Who Could Not Shudder, The Mad Hatter Mystery, and The Problem of the Wire Cage--not a locked room, this last one, rather a tennis court that shows only one set of footprints going out to a dead body that experienced a definite "hands-on" end. And finally, my favorite of the Chestertonians--Lord Henry Merrivale--these under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, erratically in print, and even paperback copies of some of these are incredibly expensive. I collected them more than twenty years ago when I had access to the amazing world of genre used-book stores in and around Washington D.C. My favorite of these Death in Five Boxes The Skeleton in the Clock and one considered the finest of the locked room genre The Judas Window in which a person in a room with one entrance, locked from the inside, and no secret passageways (I should have mentioned that Carr does not cheat) is murdered by a crossbow bolt. All of these are very rarified intellectual puzzles--characters are fun, but central to the action (as with Dame Agatha) is the puzzle under consideration.

Treasure Island, mentioned below. I don't know if this is just a boy's book, but I've read it two or three dozen times and no other book about the sea remotely approaches it. It may be quirky like my greater than forty-five readings of Tom Sawyer which I like much, much better than Huckleberry Finn.

Finally, I have a thing for time travel science fiction. I've read some fairly bad recent stuff which has gotten acclaim--Swanwick's Bones of the Earth moves from bad paleontology through bad morality into simple dullness, Cryptozoic, now much less well known, is Brian Aldiss's infinitely more sucessful version of the same. Julian May's highly literate "Pleistocene Saga" starting, if I recall with The Golden Torc, Robert Silverberg's uncharacteristically funny Up the Line, to the poignant, frightening, and tremendously well written The Domesday Book. One mustn't forget certain classics of this genre, Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder" and C.L. Moore's (I think) "Vintage Season." (It was written under the pseudonym shared by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, but I think it is now attributed almost entirely to C.L. Moore.)

And let us not forget the highly Christian, highly symbolic, very eerily misshapen world of Cordwainer Smith--"Scanners Live in Vain," "The Game of Rat and Dragon," "The Ballad of Lost C'mell" and a great many others. These are so odd and of such startling originality that there is simply nothing else to compare them to. People have borrowed from them and ripped them off, but they have never succeeded in recreating the astonishing sense of Otherness that Smith attains. Very highly recommended.

Okay, enough for the short walk through the field of the less-than-highly-erudite that constitutes a good 70% of my collection of books. I think one of the reasons I read so many classics now is to make up for the years of wasted youth reading "mind-numbing rot." Well, so it has been called by others who have failed to acquire the taste.

(It should come as no surprise that among my favorites are Jack Vance and C.A. Smith, whose highly ornate prose is ever a pleasure. Nor should any be astonished when I say that I don't share their enthusiasm for Gene Wolfe. Some of the Short Stories have been very fine, but I'm afraid that most of the full length works have yet to find a warm space in may heart. I've read many of them and can appreciate the finer qualities, but they simply don't speak to me the way many of these works do.)

To come, perhaps later--the amazing world of the lesser-known Golden Age--Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit and Anthony Boucher, Frederic Brown, and if that hasn't bored you completely to tears, you can listen to me wax enthusiastic about the wonders of the prose of Lord Dunsany, David Lindsay, and E.R.R. Eddison--an author with a book having the unlikely title A Fish Dinner in Memmison. And this doesn't even mention Joy Chant and Hope Mirless.

And if there's too much hissing and spitting, you may be subjected to my disquistion on Mary Roberts Rinehart, the queen of the "Had I but known then what I know now" school of mystery--who nevertheless created some of the fanciest tricks in the mystery book. And finally, you might be subjected to my life-long affection for Dame Agatha and everything she wrote, from autobiography through romance. Could create a character any thicker than tissue paper, but boy could she plot! Unlike the much better stylist Ngaio Marsh, whose writing and characters are quite fine, but whose mysteries are somewhat thin and unsatisfying. But I do go on when I had intended to stop.

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One of the great delights of any work of historical fiction is to find out things that were previously unknown; to see how a writer works historical fact into a fictional work. I've already shared with you one interesting fact that, had I known it before, slipped my mind entirely. Waugh peppers his work with them and deals with them slyly. Today's example is particularly fine.

St. Helena's father, according to some sources, was King Coel, or King Cole. Yes, indeed, he of the rhyme:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
and a merry old soul was he.
He called for his pipe
and he called for his bowl
and he called for his fiddlers three.

Well indeed, in the course of the beginning of this novel we are treated to a scene in which King Coel entertains the visiting Constantius with a long and wearisome musical evening celebrating his lineage. Latter, Coel is considering whether or not to allow Constantius to woe his daughter.

from Helena
Evelyn Waugh

"Mead," roared Coel, "and music. No, not your"--as all the bards came bundling in--"only the three strings and the pipe. I have to think."

What a wonderful and sly working in of the material of a nursery rhyme.

Overall in the novel, Waugh has not lost his edge and edginess--there are still sharp jabs at human nature and foibles; however, the overall tone of the book is much less sarcastic and misanthropic than the majority of his fiction. There is about the work a surprising gentleness and cleverness that shows Waugh at his very best.

My only question and lament is, why couldn't his biographies be nearly so interesting? Waugh is obviously as master of narrative prose. Was he unable to get close enough to those he would chronicle to turn their stories into the stuff of readable, entertaining, and entrancing art? Whatever the reason for the failure, such a lack is not part of Helena. A masterful storyteller and novelist at his very best. The novel is perhaps not so good (as a novel) as say, A Handful of Dust or even Vile Bodies, but that may be due, in part, to the limitations of the particular genre. The prose is rich and beautifully crafted--the novel is a breeze to read. I haven't finished yet, so stay tuned, but if the work continues in the same high quality it has presently, I anticipate a very strong recommendation.

One important note: of all of Waugh's fiction, this is the only book that is not consistently in print. There is a paperback version available now from Loyola Press and I would recommend that if you plan to read it, you get a copy now. There is no telling how long it will remain in print.

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The First Supercool Thing

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about Helena was a little known fact, that had I read it before, I failed to remember. I looked it up and found confirmation:

Sometime towards the end of 259, or at the beginning of 260, Valerian was caught and made prisoner by the Persians. It is said that he was subjected to the greatest insults by his captors and later executed. After his death his skin was stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy in the chief Persian temple.

Now, I know Samuel (bloodthirsty little beast) would get a real kick out of that.

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I'm thrilled to have gotten my copy of Helena today. I hope as a novel it is better than most of Waugh's biographical writing. I'll look into it soon and let you all know.

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Present Reading

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My present reading list is quite short, although the "add-ons" tends to grow.

Presently I am reading

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt, which is a kind of lliterary biography of Shakespeare's "cryptic" life. Using a variety of evidences, Greenblatt teases out what can be known of the Bard's enigmatic existence. Not prominent enough in his time to have had a lot of serious literary attention, most of the great biographies written many years after his death and the death of those whom knew him intimately, Greenblatt relies on documentary evidence and traces and suggestions in the plays to suggestion the shape of a Shakespearian life. Very fine reading.

Great Expectation Charles Dickens. I last read this book in 8th grade and recall only the merest outlines of its events and the ending not at all. So I thought it was a good time to reread this, considered one of Dicken's finest, and certainly spare by comparison to The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas NIckelby or even the great autobiographical David Copperfield.

Msgr. Ronald Knox Evelyn Waugh I shall probably give this up as a lost cause. For some reason Waugh's biographies leave me absolutely cold. They seem to be a narrated chain of events with little real feeling for their subject. I don't feel as though I am growing to know Knox through this biography so much as I am growing to know how little Evelyn Waugh wanted to do with the world of people. Disjointed and unclear, the only other work by Waugh that I found so completely unreadable was the biography of St. Edmund Campion, about whom I remember nothing from the book.

Speaking of St. Edmund Campion, and interesting passage in Will in the World suggests that it was possible that the path of this Saint and that of Shakespeare himself crossed at one point in Lancashire.

from Will in the World
Stephen Greenblatt

The Heskeths and the Hoghtons: it is altogether possible, then, that in the guarded spaces of one or the other of these houses Will would have seen the brilliant, hunted missionary for himself. Campion's visits were clandestine, to be sure, but they were not narrowly private affairs; they brought together dozens, even hundreds of believers, many of whom slept in nearby barns and outbuildings to hear Campion preach in the early morning and to receive communion from his hands. The priest--who would have changed out of his servant's clothes into clerical vestments--would sit up half the night hearing confessions, trying to resolve moral dilemmas, dispensing advice. Was one of those with whom he exchanged whispered words the young man from Stratford-upon-Avon?

. . . For his part, whether he actually met Campion in person or only heard about him from the flood of rumor circulating all through 1589 and 1581, Will may have registered a powerful inner resistance as well as admiration. Campion was brave, charismatic, persuasive, and appealing; everyone who encountered him recognized these qualities, which even now shine out from his words. But he was also filled with a sense that he knew the one eternal truth, the thing worth living and dying for, the cause to which he was willing cheerfully to sacrifice others as well as himself. To be sure, he did not seek out martyrdom. It was not his wish to return to England; he was doing valuable work for the church, he told Cardinal William Allen, in his teaching post at Prague. But he was a committed soldier in a religious order organized for battle, and when his general commanded him to throw his body into the fight, against wildly uneven odds, he marched off serenely. He would have taken with him young Shakespeare or anyone else worth the taking. He was a fanatic or, more accurately, a saint. And saints, Shakespeare understood all his life, were dangerous people.

Or perhaps, rather, it would be better to say that Shakespeare did not entirely understand saints, and that what he did understand he did not entirely like. In the huge panoply of characters in his plays, there are striking few who would remotely qualify. . . .

As well, I continue with Sr. Ruth Burrows's Ascent to Love and I have about five other Carmelite source lined up behind that one. Also looking to Brookhiser's brief biography of Washington and Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers. Finally, Anna Karenina continues in a languorous way in the background.

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Ross King has crafted a remarkable slice of history centered around the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine chapter. In this book we have architecture, art, history, and sociology all wrapped up in the story of how the fresco was conceived and painted.

At the time of the painting Michelangelo had had little experience painting frescoes. In a chapter that discusses what frescoing is and what it entails the author makes clear to us just how difficult the art form is and how rapidly one has to work with an area that has been prepared in order for the fresco to "take." So in addition to being a remarkable work, it is also an act of providence and grace that the work ever occurred, given the difficulty of the medium.

But in addition to discussing the painting of the fresco, we also learn about Pope Julius. The insights into his reign as Pope help immeasurably in understanding why Martin Luther eventually broke from the Church. It also helps immeasurably in understanding that today's crisis in the Church is nothing new. The corruption and large-scale sin of the past is simply projected into the present.

It is helpful to know for example that while not explicitly ordered, the slaughter of an entire city of people (Prato) was condoned and even celebrated by the Pope as a great victory. It is further helpful to realize that at the character of Julius II shaped much of what was happening in the Church and church politics. The Church was both a religious institution and a secular kingdom. If anyone wishes a cogent argument against a theocratic state, the reign of Julius II might well be invoked.

In addition to all of this, we learn a great deal about the rivalry between Raphael and Michelangelo. For example, at one point it seems, Raphael jockeyed to be able to complete the ceiling. Ultimately his suit was rejected.

If I have one criticism of the book it is that the photographs of the ceiling are far too small to make out the details that King wishes to discuss. If color plates were limited, it would have been better to leave out the Raphael frescoes (which while important in the discussion, were not the centerpiece) to allow for some larger pictures of the Chapel ceiling.

Overall, a wonderful excursion into the world of the Popes and Renaissance Italy. Well worth your time and attention.


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