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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 27, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Reacher, Picture Books for Christmas, Acrophobia

Let's get one thing out of the way right now. The Jack Reacher sequel -- Jack Reacher: Never Go Back -- is good. We enjoyed it immensely.

But it is not as good as the previous movie (Jack Reacher), for one simple reason: Much of the charm of both movies comes from Jack Reacher's off-the-grid life, his rejection of many of the modern conveniences. Like cars and credit cards and flying in planes where i.d. is required.

That stuff is still there in the sequel, but you can't see something for the first time twice.

The writers (Richard Wenk, Edward Zuick, and Marshall Herskovitz) understood that, and did not try to surprise us with the things we already knew. Yes, there are characters who are puzzled and distrustful of somebody who leaves no trail of hotel and gasoline charges, plane tickets, or even luggage behind him. But the audience is not expected to be blown away.

Instead, we're blown away by the puzzles that Reacher solves just a step or two ahead of us; by the moments of astonishing violence, which partake only a little of the idiocy of superhero movies, where people whose superpower is not instant healing nevertheless seem to take no damage from blows and falls that would put ordinary people on the slab in David McCallum's morgue in NCIS.

They have a strong-willed teenage character who looks like she's going to be your standard disobedient-idiot, I-can-take-care-of-myself film adolescent; but then she turns out not to be. Turns out, in fact, to do just a little bit of scene stealing.

And Cobie Smulders of How I Met Your Mother is much better employed in this movie than she was in whichever bit of Avengers nonsense she appeared in.

No, I'm not going to tell you the story of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. I'm only going to tell you that it's as good as the first movie, just not as surprising. I would happily watch it again, and certainly will when it comes to cable.

*

It's not yet Halloween, and I'm going to talk about Christmas. Those of you who clutch your garlics and crosses and scream when someone does something Christmasy before Halloween: get over it.

That's because Christmas requires preparation. My wife just finished doing her needlework on a stocking for the one-year-old granddaughter who will be celebrating Christmas with us. The wonderful decorator who designs and builds our outdoor Christmas decorations came by this week and measured everything.

Christmas doesn't just happen. It requires forethought. Planning.

And that includes buying children's books for the Christmas season. I'm a writer, and we're in the publishing business. I know perfectly well that all the Christmas books that appear in the stores after Halloween aren't thought of at that time -- the writers finished the manuscripts at least a year ago, and the publishers have taken these books through the editing and printing process all through the year.

All of this year's Christmas books are already printed and boxed and most of them have probably been shipped to your local bookstore -- or to the Amazon warehouses. Long before Christmas.

This is why people who operate shops and stores have few qualms about putting up Christmas decorations and displays as early as possible: Many stores are only profitable to the degree that Christmas sales go well; the rest of the retail year is just struggling to keep their heads above water.

So the second that people like me start thinking of Christmas -- which in my case means the first chilly morning of autumn -- they want to have displays that signal us: Here! Here is where you can shop for Christmas!

Now that Caryl's Christmas Shop is gone, my favorite Christmas store is Fleet-Plummer, on Battleground. It used to be "Fleet-Plummer Hardware" but they've finally removed the last traces of the hardware store they used to be. Now the official website name is Fleet-Plummer: Gracious Living, Southern Style.

I was there shopping for Christmas stuff a couple of weeks ago -- and they were ready. If Christmas decorations before Halloween offend you, don't go there till after Halloween. If you think Christmas never lasts long enough, though, get yourself over there right away, y'hear?

Which brings me back (at last) to Christmas books for children.

If the children you would be giving these books to are sane, their interest in them will disappear on Christmas day. You can't give a book about Christmas to a child as a Christmas gift. It has to come weeks before Christmas.

In fact, that's actually true of almost all books given as gifts. Even when you're giving books to a true book-loving child, they are always vaguely disappointing as gifts on Christmas.

Here's why: Even after you unwrap them, gift books are still wrapped. You look at the cover and the title and you still know nothing about what the experience of reading them will be like. That would take time; on Christmas morning, nobody's going to stop the gift-opening to read a book right then.

OK, yes, well, I've done that, but only for a few moments at a time. And I knew it was crazy. Meaning, I knew I was crazy. Most people aren't.

The usual fate for Christmas-gift books is to be stacked up and set aside, only to be discovered again when, usually late in January, the child (or, for that matter, the adult) says, "There's nothing to do," and the parent (or spouse) says, "What about those books you got for Christmas?"

This year, I've been checking out the Publishers Weekly advance reviews of upcoming fall releases and ordering them to arrive the moment they come out. (Thank you, Amazon!) This means I can review these books early enough that you have time to find the ones you're going to give -- early enough that you can give them before Christmas.

First, any book about Christmas stuff -- Jesus or Santa -- has to be given by December 15th to have any chance of being noticed, of becoming part of the Christmas celebration.

Second, any book at all should be given before Christmas so it won't be set aside as a vaguely disappointing gift on Christmas morning.

What we're doing is choosing at least twelve books for each of our assemblages of grandchildren and wrapping them up as the "Twelve Books of Christmas." The total will be higher than twelve, but on several days there'll be books for older kids along with the picture books for the little ones.

Every day from December 13th to the 24th they'll open one gift and discover the book or books within. The first few will be books about Christmas. But soon they'll change to be books that we think are wonderful.

If you don't think that the kids will be clamoring to open each day's book, you don't know children. Opening the gifts will help build the anticipation for Christmas, and the books will not be stacked up and ignored on Christmas Day. Everybody wins. Except maybe parents searching for shelf space.

We knew we were right when the parents posted a picture of our youngest grandchild, who had picked up a book and headed for the bathroom. She's a year-and-a-half old and she can't read at all. But there she sat on her older sister's little potty, "reading" the book. She had no intention of using the little toilet for its original purpose -- her pants were still on -- but she knew that when you want to read something undisturbed, you go to the bathroom and sit on the pot.

Thus proving my genetic connection to this grandchild. Bathroom reading is apparently a dominant gene.

My intro to these reviews is much longer than the reviews will be, but I'm really not going to give the books a deep critical analysis. I'm just telling you, These are good picture books. Consider them when you're planning what to give to your children or grandchildren for Christmas.

(Or buy them for yourself, as my wife and I did even before we had children; children's literature is some of the best stuff being published today.)

Books About Christmas

1. Agostino Traini's The Birth of Jesus is a pop-up book with only six double-page spreads. You open each display only until the upper page is vertical, the bottom one horizontal, forming an L shape.

The pop-up displays don't do anything, they just sit there being three-dimensional with layers of art. But I think they'll be fascinating to most young children. The art is charming and absolutely clear.

The narration of the birth of Jesus is very simple yet as complete as it needs to be for pre-readers. Correctly, the wise men (and the horrible and doubtful story of the slaughter of the innocents) are omitted -- they had nothing to do with Christmas Eve, since it took time for them to journey from the east.

In this book, it's just Mary and Joseph, the baby, and the shepherds, with angels here and there.

This book needs to be read to and with the child at first. If you turn it over to pre-readers, chances are very good that the panoramas will be torn up in no time. If you want it to last, you can't give this book to them as a toy.

But it might be a lovely way to focus your Christmas Eve retelling of the story of Jesus' birth.

2. The Christmas Boot, by Lisa Wheeler, with illustrations by Jerry Pinkney, is a magic-Santa story with nary a mention of Christ -- but Jesus doesn't show up in "The Night Before Christmas," either.

It's the story of an old woman, living in poverty on a snowy Christmas day. She happens to find a single boot, and she's grateful that at least one foot will be warm as she goes about gathering sticks for her meager fire.

But it's not just any boot. It has a way if listening to what she wishes for ... and giving it to her.

It could have been your standard three-wishes story, which would have meant an ironic ending where the first two wishes messed everything up so badly that the third wish had to be used to get rid of the first two.

This isn't that story. In fact, it's a sweet and generous story about a good woman who is in great need, but fends for herself. It's filled with true Christmas spirit, and I think children and their older siblings and parents will all enjoy it.

3. The Biggest Smallest Christmas Present, by Harriet Muncaster, is a delightful story about a little girl -- a very little, Thumbelina-sized girl -- who is always frustrated at Christmas because Santa keeps bringing her regular-sized toys, which are way to big for her to use as intended.

Not that she's ungrateful -- she finds a way to have a lot of fun with the too-big gifts. But it would be nice to have a gift that showed Santa actually knew something about her.

For a long time, she and her parents try to figure out a way to communicate to Santa just how very small she is. Until finally, with a memorable encounter, he gets it -- and comes up with exactly the right present.

4. The Day Santa Stopped Believing in Harold, by Maureen Fergus, illustrated by Cale Atkinson, has bold illustrations and a delightful twist on the starting-not-to-believe child. It's not the child who's in doubt. Santa is concerned because he is having serious doubts about whether the child named Harold exists or not.

There are more words in this book than the picture books for younger children; you'll probably find this more appropriate for kids who are starting to wonder, not for little ones. For them -- and for the parents and older siblings -- the story is pure delight, as Santa finally encounters proof of Harold's existence. (Come on, did you think for one second it wouldn't have a happy ending?)

Regular Picture Books

1 & 2. Liz Climo is an illustrator who has worked for some time on The Simpsons. Because drawing is her day job, I find it rather incredible that she still finds time to do regular comics for the Web -- and also a couple of our favorite new picture books this year, both of them about Rory the Dinosaur.

Rory the Dinosaur: Me and My Dad is a delightful story about a young dinosaur who does everything with his dad. But when his father insists on having some alone time to rest and read a book, Rory decides to go off and have adventures completely on his own.

And he has some wonderful and sometimes scary adventures, never realizing that someone is watching over him and helping him every step of the way.

This is a book that loves children and sees a role for fathers in their lives. I found it cute and sweet -- until it became, for me at least, quite moving.

Rory the Dinosaur Wants a Pet begins with Rory playing with his friends on the beach. One of them, a sloth named Hank, has found a pet -- a hermit crab named Sheldon. They have a lot of fun playing with Sheldon, playing fetch (one of the funniest illustrations in the book) and other games.

Then his friends go home, and Rory decides he wants to have a pet of his own. He checks with a lot of other animals, who are inappropriate for various reasons (though it's hard to imagine a pet less appropriate than a hermit crab). Some of the animals simply don't want to be a pet.

Just when Rory gives up, a pet of sorts falls from the sky and Rory can honestly say to his dad, "He followed me home. Can I keep him?"

The answer, of course, is yes. A charming follow-up to Me and My Dad.

3. Sleep Like a Tiger, by Mary Logue, with illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski, is one of the most charming bedtime books I've ever read. It's the story of a little girl -- wearing a princess's crown as a sign of her richly imaginative life -- who decides that even though it's dark outside, she's not tired; she's just not sleepy.

Her parents don't argue. They tell her she doesn't have to go to sleep. But she should brush her teeth and get dressed for bed and then climb into bed. Along the way, the girl asks about the other creatures she knows of: Does everybody sleep?

Well, certainly the cat does. And the bats out in the barn. And whales in the ocean. And tigers.

She settles down and sleeps like all of them.

The illustrations are extraordinary with imaginative (and imaginary) details that really bring this tale to life.

4. Sector 7, by David Wiesner, has no words. The story is told through wonderful pictures, as a young lad goes to the observation deck of a skyscraper with his class on a field trip.

There he encounters a wee cloud, which seems to hover around him, trading clothing and playing pranks until finally the cloud takes him on a private jaunt to the headquarters of Sector 7, which produces the clouds for this section of the world.

There the boy sees supervisors showing blueprints to the various clouds, so they know what shapes to adopt.

The boy has a better idea -- he's a talented artist, and he draws plans for sea creatures. Imagine the consternation when he gets back to his class and they find themselves surrounded by clouds that follow his designs.

It's quite funny, and the drawings are wonderfully detailed -- real works of finished art, as well as entertainment. I suggest, though, that parents familiarize themselves with the story so that they can guide younger children through the tale. By school age, kids will need no such help; they'll enjoy discovering it all for themselves.

5. Before Morning, by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Beth Krommes, shows why both writer and artist have been previous awards for previous work.

The illustrations are styled to look like woodcuts, which gives them a kind of solemnity, which is appropriate for the story.

We see, without any words, a family coming home on a chilly night. The parents are happy, life is good -- but the girl has some inexplicable longing. Only when she's in bed do the words begin.

It is a poem that is also a prayer, but not directed explicitly to anyone. It's an invocation asking for the night to bring snow before morning, and the lovely verses describe the transformation of the world as the illustrations demonstrate it.

In fact, the illustrations do a fine job of literalizing metaphors so that if this is a child's first introduction to real poetry, the illustrations make the poetic figures as natural as breathing.

This book works for people who believe in no particular deity, who will read the invocation as a wish; it also works for people who believe in God, who will read the invocation as a prayer.

The illustrations are full of love and light. Because of the snow theme the book works for the Christmas season; but it also simply works, no matter the time of year.

(I only wish that the writer had not succumbed to the hideous temptation of ending with a note to adult readers that essentially reviews her own poem. The invocation absolutely works; the arty, condescending, overly-self-aware afterword takes away all the magic. Do not succumb to the temptation to read it aloud to a child.)

6. What to Do with a Box, by Jane Yolen, with illustrations by Chris Sheban, is exactly what you expect from the title. In a way, all books about children's imaginative play are bringing coals to Newcastle -- no child has ever needed an adult to tell them how to imagine cool things to do with a big cardboard box.

Then again, in this age of screens, maybe they do.

What matters here is that Jane Yolen -- one of the great children's writers of all time, and a kind and wonderful person I'm happy to count as one of my very few writer friends -- has written a lovely, simple narration in verse, but the verse is so scattered through the pages that you're hardly aware of the poem-ness of it.

Instead, the illustrations, lush and dreamy, carry most of the storytelling. Sheban captures exactly the semi-dream, deeply real mood of childhood play, and even if there were no words, the book would work superbly. It's a beautiful work of literary and illustrative art, and adults will enjoy it even if for them it's nostalgic rather than expressive of their present lives.

7, 8, 9. Journey, Quest, and Return are a trilogy of picture books by Aaron Becker, whose gorgeously imagined drawings tell stories without words. A boy and a girl travel through a world of perils and delights, armed only with crayons they use to draw, and thereby create, whatever they need in every situation.

Even though the artwork is delightful, there is a sketchy quality about them at precisely the level of detail where it can be a little frustrating to decipher what's going on. The action always becomes clear within a few pages, but at first the crayons don't necessarily look like crayons, and young "readers" might need a bit of guidance just to understand what's going on.

However, that's exactly where parental guidance should end. Because the glory of these books is that they do not explain exactly what's happening. Why is the king being arrested? What is the children's purpose?

Here is where adults contribute most by explaining nothing. "Why do you think these men might be leading away the king?" "What will the children do if they catch up with them?" While the stories deal with familiar tropes, they're all new to children, and they are likely to come up with wonderful stories explaining why things are happening. Don't get in their way!

That's the end of the books I've received so far -- but there are more on the way. Plus, there are some Young Adult novels to look at before your Christmas shopping is done.

*

I'm not just an acrophobe. My fear of heights is worse than that. I can overcome my fear of heights well enough to climb ladders. I've stood on roofs. I've leaned on railings at Grand Canyon, at Niagara Falls, on high floors of tall buildings. I can cope.

What's unbearable is to watch someone else stand or sit close to the edge of a steep drop. My worst, most memorable nightmare as a teenager was a dream in which the family was at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and my youngest brother, then still an impulsive six- or seven-year-old, came running toward us and did not stop.

With the terrible inevitability of dreams, he realized there was a cliff with no guard rail; he tried but his momentum was too great; I grabbed for him but couldn't even come close. Off he went. I woke up sobbing with grief and fear. It didn't really happen, of course; my siblings are all doing fine. But the dream forced me to face two things: The death of a family member, and the actuality of that plunge off of a high place.

So sympathetic acrophobia is the mindset I brought to the television this week, just so you understand that when movies and TV shows depict a person teetering on the brink of a terrible fall, I kind of go insane. It's a physical, visceral reaction. My legs tingle unbearably, almost like when they're recovering from having been numbed. I have to look away; I can't bear to look away.

There are lots of people who never had such a fear of heights. I've seen them as children, climbing everything, scrambling around as if gravity didn't apply to them. That was never me. A lot of people are scared of roller coasters. But I'm terrified on ferris wheels.

This week, it seems like everything on my TV set has conspired to put me through acrophobic hell. It began with this week's episode of Lethal Weapon -- a show which, by the way, is getting better every week as the actors and the writers make these characters their own.

But the episode began with Clayne Crawford, as Martin Riggs, holding a beer and standing on the narrow wall surrounding a rooftop patio with a steep drop to the ground.

Now, I know, intellectually, that there's no way he was really in that precarious place. The actor was standing on a narrow wall with no serious drop on either side. The steep drop we saw was either CGI or judicious editing.

But I couldn't bear to watch it, because they did too good a job of making it seem real. The episode began and ended on that roof edge, with Riggs almost forcing Murtaugh to sit beside him on that ridiculously narrow wall.

In the middle of the episode, a bad guy they're chasing leaps from a roof into nothingness. Only a moment later do we see that he landed on the top of a truck, and then jumped from there to the ground and ran off. The writers were merciful to me that time. Neither of our heroes even thought about following him -- mostly because that convenient, coincidental truck had moved on.

By the way, I really don't think that, when you jump from a 40-foot roof and land on a truck only 25 feet below instead of 40, you get up and run away. In fact, I don't think that after a flying leap from a roof, it's easy to hit that trucktop and stay there. But in all likelihood, a stuntman actually did it. So shut up me.

After that, it seemed like every movie and every series episode had a sequence in a very tall place, with people hovering at, or falling off, the edge.

But the clincher came when I watched Tuesday's episode of Tosh.0. He ran footage of a guy who was wearing a camera on his head. A little camera, I'm sure, but ... we got his point of view as he scrambled around, scaling brick walls and doing other insane things.

Then he got to the edge of a roof with a pool so far below that it looked like a bathtub.

And the guy jumped.

The sounds I made were not loud. But they were completely involuntary. Even though he actually hit the water and did not die, it never seemed possible, even for a moment. The pool was far enough from the building he was on that he had to jump far out from the edge. How far? Well, apparently he knew how far, because he didn't land on the side of the pool.

But I didn't know that, because a lot of Tosh.0's clips end with jumpers hitting rocks or the edge of the pool or whatever other bad landings the location made available. Then Daniel Tosh makes fun of them as we watch the clip of their death or maiming several times, including slow motion.

Tosh explained that this guy actually does this habitually, jumping off tall places into tiny bodies of water far, far below him. It seems to me that he's the most incompetent, unlucky would-be suicide of all time. He is obviously trying to die, and failing at it.

I really don't think I'm of the same species as him. Nor do I feel much genetic kinship with people who like to get on roller coasters and other gut-wrenching, terrifying amusement park rides. The log flume at ... well, wherever the log flume is, it looked slow and safe. Nobody told me about the horrible plunge at the end. Barely, just barely, I was able to get out of the "raft" wet in only the appropriate places.

I just wish that the TV and movie ratings systems had an additional warning: PH, for Precarious Heights. Yeah, I guess I'm asking for a trigger warning.

Then again, I think I've now seen the worst stuff they can throw at me (and yes, I did attend the movie Cliffhanger, but I didn't actually watch the scene where the girl falls. I know how to squint or look at my hands or something when it's obvious we're dealing with precarious heights.

But the horrible moment in The Great Waldo Pepper, when the girl does not follow the main rule of wing-walking and lets go with one hand before she has hold with the other -- that came as a complete surprise (as it did to the characters, which was the point of it). That one still brings a shudder to my entire body whenever I think of it.

The essence of movies and fictional TV shows is to make us care about people and the story they're living through. But along the way, there are visual effects that are meant to enhance the story. For me, though, an upsetting moment of precarious heights or sudden falls replaces the story completely in my memory. I don't know the plot of Cliffhanger and I remember nothing else about Waldo Pepper.

Nor could I tell you, only a couple of days after watching it, what the actual storyline was of that Lethal Weapon episode.

It's possible to make the spectacle so real, so terrifying, that it wrecks the overall story.

Give the heights a rest, guys. Please. I mean, sure, use it but then lose it -- five seconds, instead of Two Whole Minutes. I beg you.

*

*

Even though I've seen several movies and many television shows since I saw The Accountant, it still is dwelling with me -- or at least, that gun-to-the-head moment when J.K. Simmons's character has to judge himself. Your kids are grown; were you a good father?

After my review of The Accountant, a good friend in a faraway place wrote to me about his own father, and about his own child-rearing.

My father was not pleasant to me (nor my brother, who had it worse), growing up. I was very angry about it as a boy.

He was tough, and I was not. He was gruff, and I was emotional. He shouted and ordered. I was more passive.

My brother lacked even my thin veneer of normalcy, and my father was pretty awful with him.

When I was in college, we had it out, and things went better after that. I came to respect my parents better as a grown man than I ever did as a child. And I started to see something important.

My father taught me one thing above all: to have honor. Different people define honor, well, differently. But my father told me that the measure of a man was not how he treated people he liked or were kind to him; that was easy.

No, the measure of a man was how he treated people he disliked, or who had been unkind to him.

Now, I was a weird kid. My brother pushed particular books on me when I was way too young. So I read "Nineteen Eighty Four," "Brave New World," "Animal Farm," and "The Grapes of Wrath" before I was ten years old. Plus too much H.P. Lovecraft. Fortunately, I also read "The Count of Monte Cristo." And the juvenile novels of Robert Heinlein saved me, I think.

My poor mother didn't know what to do with these bookish kids of hers. Except remind us to never ever brag about anything, ever. Psychologically Amish, I guess. She also insisted we read, and educate ourselves.

But I remember two vignettes with my father that are always with me.

When my first son was born (and I was an older first time father---42), my father said, "Kid, now you have the tough job. You have to be his father, not his friend."

It took me some time to realize that he wasn't talking about my firstborn at all, but his own losses and fears.

The other took place while I was still single. My father was watching a guy down the street playing with his kids in a little park.

Pointing his cigarette down the street, he said "Look at that guy. He lost his job six months ago, and his wife went back to work. He just plays with those kids every day." He paused. "What must they think of him?"

Without thinking, I responded "That their father is at home, and plays with them."

And it took me a while to realize I wasn't talking about that scene down the street, either.

Now, my mother and father were Depression era babies. They carried their own psychological Samsonite everywhere. We all do, I know, but given their upbringing, theirs weighed so much more than mine.

When I was a grown man, I finally understood that they really were trying their best. And I could honor them for that. I had the opportunity to tell both of them that, before they passed away.

I think that my father's lesson came through in a harsh way. I do not believe he liked his sons. He loved them despite what he thought of as being normal. He did his best for these kids who were weird mysteries to him. Especially when it would have been easier to just shrug his shoulders and move on.

Honor.

So all I can do as a father is provide the kind of environment I wanted...for my kids. It won't be perfect. But I am trying. That's all there is, really.

I hug them every day, and tell them that I love them (my father didn't tell me that until my late 20s). I listen to their problems, especially when they seem minor to me. I let them know I have their backs, no matter what. Particularly when we disagree.

Sorry for the speech, but this has been much on my mind.

That's the end of my friend's letter. But I do see something more than I could ever see looking just at my own life. My friend's father might seem to have failed, or partly failed. But I know what kind of father my friend is, and so even though I never met his dad, I know one measure of a man that his father passed: What kind of father is his son?

By that measure, his dad did just fine. He did not fail. Yes, much of what my friend does right is by contrast with his father -- he's trying to learn from his dad's mistakes. But that's not failure.

Failure would be if his children refused to have children of their own. Or if his children repeated all his mistakes, as children of abusers often grow up to abuse their own children (or other people's). Unpleasant as some times in their childhood might have been, this man's children grew up with the strength of character to decide for themselves who they would be.

So I looked again at my own children. The two oldest have grown up and have children of their own. They married wisely, as I did, so they have good partners in child-rearing -- and in everything else. I watch them being more patient with their children than I was; I watch them speak to their children openly and candidly; I see that they are creating happy homes, full of love and joy, learning and encouragement.

(We had a home like that, too -- but my contribution was to choose a calm, reasonable, kind, and encouraging mother for my kids.)

So even though I have no illusion that I did everything "right," it can't have been too awful.

Gun to my head, I'm going to give myself a passing grade. It can't match J.K. Simmons's line: "I got that right." My own self-judgment is, "I didn't suck." But hey, maybe that's enough. I don't know if not-sucking gets you into heaven, but I sure don't think it sends you straight to hell.

Thanks to my friend for letting me share with you a letter he wrote only for me.


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