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A.J. (Maryland)

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by William Shakespeare
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
46 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars The ultimate tale of jealousy, June 9 2003
This review is from: Othello (Mass Market Paperback)
Jealousy is perhaps the ugliest of emotions, an acid that corrodes the heart, a poison with which man harms his fellow man. Fortunately for us, Shakespeare specializes in ugly emotions, writing plays that exhibit man at his most shameful so we can elevate ourselves above the depths of human folly and watch the carnage with pleasure and awe.
In "Othello," the "green-eyed monster" has afflicted Iago, a Venetian military officer, and the grand irony of the play is that he intentionally infects his commanding general, Othello, with it precisely by warning him against it (Act 3, Scene 3). Iago has two grievances against Othello: He was passed over for promotion to lieutenant in favor of the inexperienced Cassio, and he can't understand why the Senator's lily-white daughter Desdemona would fall for the black Moor. Not one to roll with the punches, he decides to take revenge, using his obsequious sidekick Roderigo and his ingenuous wife Emilia as gears in his transmission of hatred.
The scheme Iago develops is clever in its design to destroy Othello and Cassio and cruel in its inclusion of the innocent Desdemona. He arranges (the normally temperate) Cassio to be caught by Othello in a drunken brawl and discharged from his office, and using a handkerchief that Othello had given Desdemona as a gift, he creates the incriminating illusion that she and Cassio are having an affair. Othello falls for it all, and the tragedy of the play is not that he acts on his jealous impulses but that he discovers his error after it's too late.
It is a characteristic of Shakespeare that his villains are much more interesting and entertaining than his heroes; Iago is proof of this. He's the only character in the play who does any real thinking; the others are practically his puppets, responding unknowingly but obediently to his every little pull of a string. In this respect, this is Iago's play, but Othello claims the title because he -- his nobility -- is the target.

Rabbit at Rest
Rabbit at Rest
by John Updike
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.80
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4.0 out of 5 stars R.I.P. Rabbit, June 5 2003
This review is from: Rabbit at Rest (Paperback)
The last novel in John Updike's famous tetralogy finds that life is finally winding down for Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, as America heads into 1989 with a new President and an ever-evolving set of cultural icons and reference points. After three decades of making mistakes -- both personal and professional -- and working like a dog, Harry is ready for retirement from his position as sales manager of the Toyota dealership his wife Janice inherited from her parents, and he and Janice are dividing their time between their native Brewer, Pennsylvania, and their new condo in Florida.
Now fifty-five, Harry is besieged by the deleterious effects of aging and careless eating. Despite his concern for the burning pains in his chest and his excessive weight, he can't stop snacking on junk food, and the consequences are nasty: He has a mild heart attack while taking his granddaughter Judy sailing and, even after having an angioplasty, defies his doctor's advice to change his diet. The man has never been able to control his insatiability, and we, the readers, wait patiently for the crash and burn.
However, it is Harry's son Nelson who is going through the worst travails. Having been left in charge of the car dealership and, like his father, never one for self-discipline, he has developed a cocaine habit which he finances partly by siphoning profits from the business and which makes him a danger to his wife Pru and their two children not to mention the entire Angstrom family fortune. It is typical of Harry's impudence that his extramarital sexual activity, a subject of every Rabbit novel, this time extends to his daughter-in-law, while Nelson is trying to clean himself up at a treatment center.
Updike has always fashioned Harry and Janice as a married representation of all the combined good and bad of the national ethic, a sort of warped suburban American Gothic. At the end of the decade in which AIDS entered the public conscience and S & L scandals wracked the economy, there is something wistful about Harry's participation in a Fourth of July parade dressed as Uncle Sam, a symbol of post-Reagan America -- proud, overbearing, bloated, dying.
Harry as a character hasn't changed much since "Rabbit is Rich," but his immutability is part of his appeal. His peculiar thoughts on the practical aspects of mundane things -- a tour guide's chirpy attitude, the sexual implications of a waitress's hairstyle, the idiosyncrasies of television news anchors -- are always illuminating. The novel is a vehicle for Updike's flowing commentary, delivered in his inimitably witty prose, on pop culture as it existed in 1989, which is still recent enough for the memories to flicker in all their pastel-highlighted tackiness.

Ten Plays by Euripides
Ten Plays by Euripides
by Euripides
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.95
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5.0 out of 5 stars More a dramatist, less a tragedian, May 19 2003
Euripides is not a definitive tragedian (in the Aristotelian notion) like his contemporary Sophocles; although he mines the same subject matter, he exhibits a number of stylistic differences and peculiarities. His plays tend to begin with a single character delivering a soliloquy that introduces the background of the story, and he makes frequent use of a "deus ex machina" at the end in order to set things right, or as right as they can be.
The biggest difference between Sophocles and Euripides is their approach to tragedy. Sophocles uses tragedy as an enhancement of nobility, an illumination of heroic dignity and grandeur; to Euripides it is just ugly, crude, and awkward, like a ketchup stain on your shirt. Tragedy elevates the Sophoclean hero to a state of fearsome awe, but it merely reduces the Euripidean hero to an object of pity and even derision. In this sense Euripides is more of a realist and a humanist, and therefore more modern.
Euripides's plays transform classical mythology not into morality lessons but into drama in a very basic, empathic mode. He makes the most of every dramatic situation: Medea, who kills her children to punish her unfaithful husband Jason; Hector's widow Andromache, who is enslaved by Achilles's son Neoptolemus and is accused by his wife Hermione of seducing him; Ion, son of Apollo by the rape of Creusa and attendant at his temple, in a classic plot of mistaken identity; Pentheus, king of Thebes, who is murdered by frenzied Bacchantes, one of whom is his own mother; Iphigenia, who is sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to ensure Greek victory in the Trojan War. There is a very clear path that connects Euripides with the conventions of two and a half millenia of Western literature. He might not have been as famous or as respected as Sophocles, but he is no less important a dramatist.

Song Of Solomon
Song Of Solomon
by Toni Morrison
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Dead legacy, May 14 2003
This review is from: Song Of Solomon (Paperback)
Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" is a masterful example of the tradition of American mythical literature as developed by the giants Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner. Like other Faulkner-influenced authors such as William Gass and Cormac McCarthy, Morrison combines an impressionistic writing style with a special folklore, which she accents with portentous and often eerie moments of magical realism and individualizes with an original voice of the American black experience.
The subject of the novel is the morbidly named Dead family who, like Faulkner's Compsons and Bundrens, are entangled in a web of dynastic secrets that are revealed gradually throughout the story; their realm is not in the South but an unspecified city in Michigan. The father, Macon, is a landlord whose prosperity is due to his inflexibility with his tenants but whose failure as a family man is due to his strictness and cruelty to his wife Ruth and their three children. His son, who has acquired the humiliating nickname of Milkman as a result of being nursed by his mother long past the normal age, grows up to take over the family business and becomes the central character in the story.
Macon has a sister named Pilate who, after years of wandering around the country as a vagrant, has finally settled in a seedy neighborhood in Macon's city with her daughter and granddaughter and makes bootleg wine for a living. Possessing several mythical attributes, Pilate is like a figure out of folk legend: Her navel disappeared at birth, she has visions of her dead father, she keeps a dead man's bones in a sack in her house and her father's only written word in a small box hanging from her earlobe, and she seems able to alter her size at will. Macon sternly warns Milkman to keep away from her, which only adds to her mystique.
The plot thickens when Milkman, who has been kept under his father's wing all his life and seeks to escape, learns about some gold hidden in a cave near his father's boyhood farm in central Pennsylvania. His adventure to retrieve this treasure brings him to a fascinating woman named Circe who seems as mythical as Pilate -- not only are her name, indeterminate age, witchlike aura, and her pack of golden-eyed dogs allusions to the Homeric sorceress who turns men into swine; her appearance as a lonely and disgraced matron dwelling in an abandoned decaying mansion evokes images of Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations."

The novel's title is not just a Biblical allusion but a clue to Milkman's obscure ancestry, and the story becomes his quest to uncover the mystery of his family's identity. I was surprised and pleased by the ending, which seemed to be heading for emotional closure but instead builds into a crescendo of dramatic intensity and leaves the outcome ambiguous. Such uncompromising writing makes "Song of Solomon" a modern classic -- on every page it refuses to conform to any standard except that of true literary quality.

Hard Times
Hard Times
by Charles Dickens
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 7.95
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dickens sings the blues., May 7 2003
This review is from: Hard Times (Mass Market Paperback)
Despite the explicit title, "Hard Times" is not so much an ode to poverty and misery as it is a commentary on the increasing impact of industrialization on the fragmentation of society and on the dehumanization of education. The result, as Dickens implies, leads to lives hollowed by the emptiness of work for work's sake and wealth for wealth's sake.
The setting is Coketown, a factory town befouled by industrial smog and populated by underpaid and undereducated laborers. The novel's most prominent character is one of the town's richest citizens, Josiah Bounderby, a pompous blowhard who owns a textile mill and a bank and whose conversation usually includes some boastful story about his impoverished childhood and the hard work that led to his present fortune.
Bounderby is the commercial projection of Thomas Gradgrind, a local schoolteacher and an extraordinarily pragmatic man who instills in his students and his own children the importance of memorizing facts and figures and the iniquity of indulging in entertaining activities. Gradgrind offers to Bounderby his son, Tom Jr., as an unwilling apprentice, and his daughter, Louisa, as an unwilling bride.
On the other end of the town's social scale is Stephen Blackpool, a simple, downcast man who works as a weaver at Bounderby's mill and slogs through life misunderstood and mistreated. When he refuses to join his fellow workers in a labor uprising, he is ostracized; when he criticizes the economic disparity between Bounderby and the workers, he is fired and forced to leave town; when Bounderby's bank is robbed one night, he is suspected as the thief. So halfway through the novel, Dickens grants his reader an interesting, albeit somewhat contrived, plot element to embellish the narrative.
If this novel contains a ray of sunshine, it is in Sissy Jupe, a girl abandoned by her father and adopted by Gradgrind, whose oppressive educational method nearly breaks her. However, she grows up with her own intuitive sense of propriety, which she uses as a tool to eject a dishonorable character from the novel. Her strong and independent spirit will allow her to do much better in life than Louisa, who withers away in an unhappy marriage, and Tom Jr., whose boredom renders him vulnerable to temptations.
Compared to his other novels, "Hard Times" is relatively short and straightforward and has few characters, as though Dickens felt that what he had to say was so important, it had to be said quickly and bluntly. He is less interested in realism than in making a point, and it's really the poetic power of his prose that enables him to get away with the overbearing sentimentality and often ridiculous caricatures that accompany his poignant human truths.

Put Out More Flags
Put Out More Flags
by Evelyn Waugh
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grimness beneath the humor, April 28 2003
This review is from: Put Out More Flags (Paperback)
Not even the traumas of World War II could put Evelyn Waugh's delightfully satirical pen on hold; the horrors of war expose the grimness beneath his humor and invite a new kind of irreverence. Consider a scene in "Put Out More Flags" (1942) in which a woman's husband has just been killed in combat and the man with whom she's been having an affair wastes no time in proposing marriage. Her lackadaisical response to this most solemn of requests: "Yes, I think so. Neither of us could ever marry anyone else, you know."
Like Wodehouse, but with greater subtlety, Waugh finds an underlying silliness in all types of characters and sets them up to be knocked down like ducks in a shooting gallery. In "Put Out More Flags," he dredges up some characters from previous novels and introduces them into comic situations within the context of the incipient European war (1939-1940). Foremost among them is Basil Seal, a thirty-six-year-old who is as unemployable as a six-year-old. His mother tries to help him get a prestigious position in the Army, but he blows it when he unintentionally and unknowingly insults the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Bombardiers. Fortunately, he is able to get a job with the War Department where he discovers that the secret to success is to level charges of Communism and Nazism against his (mostly) innocent friends and inform on them.
Basil's friends and family also make the most of war time. Ambrose Silk, a Jewish atheist, takes advantage of his job at the Religious Department of the Ministry of Information to start a fustian periodical. Alastair Trumpington, a pampered aristocrat, dutifully enlists as a soldier because he believes that "he would make as good a target as anyone else for the King's enemies to shoot at," while his wife Sonia waits for him in the car outside the training camp like a mother picking up her kid at school. Meanwhile, Basil's sister Barbara is allowing the use of their country estate as a shelter for poor people evacuating London for fear of German bombing raids; among them are a trio of insufferable brats named the Connollys who provide Basil with the fodder for an irresistible extortion scheme.
Waugh's great insight was the immediate recognition of the potential humor of the war's impact on the British class conflict, and therein lies his brilliance. His books are funny, but more importantly, they're every bit as intelligent, perceptive, and well-written as any "serious" novel, whose level of social consciousness they rival. The twentieth century needed an Evelyn Waugh, and we certainly could use one now.

The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business; The Manticore; World of Wonders
The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business; The Manticore; World of Wonders
by Robertson Davies
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 23.10
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5.0 out of 5 stars Whimsical mythology made modern, April 24 2003
If there is a boundary beyond which realistic fiction crosses into the fantastical, it seems to have been explored and even blurred by Robertson Davies in this trio of novels which represent the broadest imaginative range of realistic fiction. The closest contemporary comparison I can make is John Barth, but Davies, possibly by way of being Canadian, establishes his originality by balancing North American folk charm with a British style of sophistication.
The subject is the turbulent and often hilarious lives of three men whose hometown is the rural village of Deptford, Ontario. They are Dunstan Ramsay, a history teacher, hagiographer (somebody who studies saints and sainthood), and decorated World War I veteran; the arrogant but vulnerable Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton, a wealthy confectionery businessman, politician, and Dunstan's lifelong friend; and the pitiable Paul Dempster, whose premature birth was precipitated by his mother's injury from being hit accidentally by a snowball thrown by Staunton at Ramsay on a fateful winter day in 1908. The event that provides the basis for the trilogy is Staunton's death sixty years later, when his Cadillac mysteriously plunges off a pier into a harbor.
The three novels form a complex story that is structured almost like a murder mystery but has much more psychological depth and detailed characterization and is more studious of the nature of consequences. The first two novels, "Fifth Business" and "The Manticore," discuss the life of Boy Staunton through the respective viewpoints of Ramsay, who tells all in an extensive, sarcastically toned report to the headmaster of the academy from which he is retiring, and Staunton's son David, now a successful criminal lawyer, who recalls his relationship with his father during a series of sessions with a Zurich psychiatrist.
But it is the third novel, "World of Wonders," in which the continuation of the story really takes flight. This novel covers the fascinating life story of a brilliant magician and master illusionist named Magnus Eisengrim who, from humble and sordid beginnings as a carnival underling, has become famous throughout the world for his spectacular stage shows and now lives in a palatial Swiss chalet with his manager and consort, a strange woman named Liesl. That he has enlisted Ramsay as his biographer is not his only connection to Deptford or to the events surrounding Boy Staunton's watery death.
Combining the themes of Ramsay's inquiries into the qualifications for sainthood, David Staunton's chimerical dreams, and Eisengrim's spellbinding but essentially mundane magic, "The Deptford Trilogy" maintains its narrative thrust by a thorough cross-pollination of ideas from reality and mythology. The insight revealed is that every human life, real or imagined, has qualities that are mythical because none of us can personally experience everything that happens to everybody else. This seems like an obvious precept of fiction, but it takes a marvel-minded writer like Davies to illustrate it with so much vivacity and wonder.

by Kate Chopin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 7.25
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5.0 out of 5 stars A proto-impressionistic gem, April 7 2003
This review is from: Awakening (Mass Market Paperback)
To say Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" is a tragic novel about an unhappily married woman who liberates -- or attempts to liberate -- herself through an extramarital affair would invite an inevitable comparison to "Madame Bovary," so let's get this out of the way first: Like Flaubert's antiheroine, Chopin's Edna Pontellier is selfish and puts her own needs ahead of those of her husband and her two little sons; but she is a more sympathetic character because she is more deserving of her desire, which is true love rather than a romantic and materialistic fantasy world.
The story begins on Grand Isle, off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, where the Pontelliers are spending the summer at a pension run by a woman named Madame Lebrun. Mr. Pontellier, a successful New Orleans businessman, is thoroughly devoted to his wife Edna and sons, provides for them a high standard of living, and is generous with gifts; but he is a snob who likes to be assured that his wife isn't associating with anyone commonplace or doing anything that would lower their esteemed social status or compromise their "financial integrity." Edna, annoyed and estranged by his attitude, seeks solace with Madame Lebrun's good-looking but slacking son Robert; but before their relationship has a chance to turn into a full-fledged fling, he impetuously runs off to Mexico to seek some kind of employment.
Later, languishing at her regular residence in New Orleans, Edna socializes with her friends Madame Ratignolle and the wizened Mademoiselle Reisz while her dutiful husband is off somewhere making money. The Reisz lady has been getting a steady stream of letters from Robert, and Edna naturally wonders with chagrin why he hasn't been writing her. Robert does return eventually, however, and his presence now, near the end of the novel, establishes his true significance in her life: the love that "awakened" her out of a lifelong dream, a love that her husband, with all his riches, could not offer her.
On the surface this may sound like trite romantic fluff that, if written today, would barely raise an eyebrow; but taken in the context of the 1890's when a woman was considered to be nothing other than a wife or a potential wife, it has very deep implications about sexual revolution and the propriety of marriage as an institution. Most appealing to me about this novel, though, is its style, which combines keen psychological insight with a sort of impressionism that anticipates Virginia Woolf. Augmented by the steamy, swampy, Creole-spiced southern Louisiana setting, the novel achieves a fever pitch of eroticism.

The Devils
The Devils
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 21.95
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Politically prescient, historically significant, March 26 2003
This review is from: The Devils (Paperback)
I've always felt that fiction is like a window to the past, and with "The Devils," Dostoevsky gives us a clear glimpse at the underground politics brewing in Czarist Russia. At the same time, his propensity to write about criminals and people with criminal hearts is nowhere more emphasized among his major novels than in this one. There is not one character I could identify as a traditional hero, not even the semi-anonymous narrator, who relates the novel's events with the impartiality of a security camera; they are all antiheros -- a room full of Raskolnikovs.
The novel concerns a small band of Russian intellectuals, atheists, socialists, anarchists, and various other rabble who are distributing subversive leaflets in an attempt to incite the proletariat to revolt against the government. They are a motley group, destined to fail because they lack general competence, organizational skills, a clear agenda, definite plans, and even uniform ideas. The only thing they have in common is that they don't like the way things currently are in Russia and intend to change them, violently if necessary.
Among this group we meet Nicholas Stavrogin, an obnoxious, insensitive young man who is only looking out for himself and is not above having affairs with his friends' wives. The group's prime mover and instigator is Peter Verkhovensky, whose father Stepan had been Nicholas's tutor and is still living platonically with Nicholas's widowed mother, one of the wealthier citizens of the town in which the novel takes place. The group's rank-and-file who figure most prominently into the plot include the suicidal Kirilov, a former member (and potential informer) named Shatov who just wants to put it all behind him, a useless drunkard named Lebyatkin who acts as the group's stooge, and an escaped convict named Fedka who becomes the group's henchman.
That many of these people are dead by the end of the novel is not as surprising as how they get that way. The plot is built around intrigues, disloyalties, and the type of drawing-room confessions and revelations that characterize the best mysteries. It's not difficult to guess that there is a juicy secret about Lebyatkin's crippled, mentally disturbed sister Mary, or that the elegant fete arranged by Julia Lembke, the Governor's wife, will culminate in a spectacular, outrageous, and perhaps deadly climax; Dostoevsky likes sensationalism and never misses a chance to use human frailty and folly as hosts upon which the morally hollow feed like parasites.
Dostoevsky's description of these men as "devils" is a biblical allusion to the book of Luke, translating Christ's power to drive the devils out of a possessed man into a herd of swine to the cleansing of Russia of its nefarious political elements. It would appear that "The Devils" is Dostoevsky's effort to demonize the soulless, devilish radicals who have no moral underpinnings and who would replace everything he considers good about Russia (namely, the Eastern Orthodox Church) with Western ideas. There is an obvious parallel to the Bolshevik Revolution of nearly half a century later, which shows that such Socialist sentiment had been bubbling under the Russian mainstream for many years prior to its twentieth century emergence. In that sense, this is a prescient novel of historical and political interest.

by Carl Sagan
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars "All that is", March 19 2003
This review is from: Cosmos (Mass Market Paperback)
As one of the great astronomer-writers of the Twentieth Century, Carl Sagan was extraordinarily communicative with the non-scientific public, able and willing to take the time and trouble to break down the mysteries of the universe into comprehensible fragments. The purpose of this book, which can be considered a companion to the acclaimed television series, is to explain what we know about the universe from a cosmological perspective and why we need to know more about it.
Physicists often talk of the unity of the branches of physics: the interrelation and application of mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and optics to the motion of everything from galaxies to subatomic particles. Similarly, Sagan's major theme is the unity of cosmology with the natural and physical sciences that define what we know about the Earth. Does the stifling, carbon dioxide-choked atmosphere of Venus imply anything about the greenhouse effect on Earth? Was a nearby cosmic explosion called a supernova indirectly responsible for the disappearance of the dinosaurs? What would be the biological consequences for the survivors of a global nuclear war? The answers to these questions are vital to the continuation of life as we know it.
Sagan also identifies cosmology with its own history. He lavishes reverent detail on the ancient Greek and Alexandrian study of the stars and planetary motions, the pioneering work by the Renaissance scientists Brahe, Kepler, Copernicus, Huygens, and others, and the men who revolutionized science with the formulation of laws of motion, Newton and Einstein.
The scope of "Cosmos" is tremendous, from the farthest expanses of the universe containing a hundred billion galaxies in addition to our own Milky Way, at the end of a spiraling arm of which our solar system is located; down to the lone electron circling the nucleus of a hydrogen atom, the most plentiful single entity in the cosmos and the source of everything we know, love, and are. In between there is discussion of the unmanned spacecraft expeditions to investigate "our" planets: Mars with its boulder-strewn, desert-like terrain; the gaseous giant Jupiter; Io, a Jovian moon of incredible redness, spotted with volcanic orifices and resembling an unappealing sauce-covered meatball; Saturn with its ice rings. Would these worlds contain life? Using what we know about the evolution of life on Earth, Sagan hypothesizes how different types of lifeforms might develop on worlds with different environments.
Even a casual interest in cosmology requires a fascination with astronomical distances and unthinkably long spans of time in which a human lifetime is but a blink of an eye. However, Sagan seems to write also for those who would rather relate cosmic arcana to familiar terms, and in this sense he is a grand entertainer: A thought experiment that provides a simple but fanciful illustration of the concept of black holes uses the tea party scene in "Alice in Wonderland" as a setting. "Cosmos" neither complicates unnecessarily nor insults your intelligence; very few "popular" science books will capture your imagination so well.

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