You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Martian Time-SlipMartian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Philip K. Dick just couldn't be bothered by some of the standard verities of science fiction. He knew sf should often take place in outer space, but whereas other novelists placed their narratives in the 22, 23, or some unimaginable distant future, in the novels Dick wrote in the 1950's and 1960's, he thought that 40 or so years was plenty of time for man to start populating the universe. He also didn't pay much attention to the news coming out from astrophysicists that the weather on other planets seemed to be uniformly bad. Martian Time-Slip takes place in 1994. Mars has scattered settlements and townships, mostly sponsored by national groups from Earth. The exception, and the most powerful group of all, is a Plumbers Union. I assume Dick had had some unpleasantness involving plumbers when he sat down to write this book.

But plumbers are essential to the workings of the settlements. The weather is bearable if a little dry. One good trade-off is that you only weigh about fifty pounds, and housewives slip into halter-tops and Capri pants to visit neighbors. But water is in short supply and closely rationed. Arnie Kott, the vulgarian union boss, is one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet, although that may change. Rumor has it that the U.N. is planning to develop the FDR Mountains, drilling deep water wells and creating self-sustaining luxury living complexes. The land grab is on.

Wikipedia has a coherent synopsis of the book. and I congratulate whoever wrote it. Topics touched on include: schizophrenia (which is almost epidemic), black marketing, adultery, extensive drinking and drug ingestion, pesky neighbors -- in other words, it is Dick's Northern California neighborhood transfered to Mars. Much of the plot hinges on Manfred, an autistic child who becomes a test subject for the main character's experiments with communication and ultimately time travel.

And let's not forget the Beakman, the remnants of the Martian race who are now reduced to wandering the deserts or working in the homes of wealthy earthlings. Dick always presents himself as progressive in terms of race and social policies in general, but his portrait of the Beakmen is among his strangest concoctions. Just as he didn't care much for astrophysics, Dick also didn't seem to keep up with physical anthropology. The Beakmen are described as Negroid and descended from the same source as  earthly Africans. (Phil, all homo sapiens come from common stock, long predating any division into races. And so unless you are saying some Central African natives somehow found their way to Mars 30,000 years ago, you are really off on this one.) Also, this is a novel written in the early sixties, and Dick was certainly aware of the Civil Rights movement. So what does it mean that Mars has a society somewhat reflecting the Antebellum South. The word slave is never used, but wealthy settlers have "tame" Beakman working for them, refer to the as niggers, and enjoy giving them such high-falutin names as Heliogabalus. But of course, the Beakman have deep, secret knowledge. Where was Dick going with this?

This is one of Dick's enjoyable train wrecks of a novel. I don't want to slip into biographical criticism, but it reads like a combination of Dick's marital problems, his extensive experience with psychiatrists, a general dislike of land speculators and plumbers, and some cock-eyed ideas about autism. And as nutty as the whole thing is, the conclusion is not only satisfying on many levels but genuinely strange as well.

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Thursday, April 21, 2011


More and more often I find myself no longer the demographic for certain cultural events. Perhaps I have less patience than I had twenty or even ten years ago. Sometimes it's the "been there/done that" syndrome. And sometimes, I admit, I am just too old. I hate to show up places where I look like some one searching for his runaway teenage daughter.

 I am using the term "cultural event" here in the broadest possible sense. Music, art, movies, books, fashion, and those new roller coasters where you strap in but dangle from the actual machine and experience the sensation of dying. Sorry, I meant flying.

Music was never that big a part of my life and now even less so. I do listen to the radio rather than CD's in the car. I want to hear what's out there on the progressive rock stations -- if they worked at it, they could come up with a more pompous term for that genre -- as well on what passes for country stations. If I  might lower the tone of the discussion here, what I really liked about music from my teenage years on were songs that made me think about fucking. I still like those songs and they are many and various.  A few years ago I taught a class of college juniors and asked them to recommend some music. Radiohead was at the top of the list. What is Radiohead least likely to make you think about? Right. Bring back The Georgia Satellites.

With visual art I see a lot of reinventing the wheel, but I remain curious to see where things are headed. And sometimes individuals have to first reinvent the wheel before they can decide to either give it all up or find their own way.

I often see movies that I am sure the producers, usually at Lion's Gate, were not counting on me to help them make their money back. After a day of business appointments, I saw Hostel  in a sold out New York City theater where I feel pretty certain I was the only person wearing a suit and top coat and carrying a briefcase. But I enjoyed it as much as the kid next to me. Other things I see in an effort to stay somewhat in tune with the Zeitgeist. The DVR has upped my consumption of such things as the Twilight films. Sex in the City 2, Adam Sandler's latest, and films starring Jason Stratham -- although there are extenuating circumstances there I choose not to go into.

With books I draw the line on keeping up with the Zeitgeist. Books take too long. I will eventually watch most if not all of The Da Vinci Code on television, but I am not going to waste my time reading it. I know it's junk. Same goes for John Grisham, James Patterson, et al. And please never tell me that you know the one Stephen King book I would really enjoy.

Sometimes my reactions to something can catch me by surprise. It doesn't make me feel old, but I wonder if on some level I am slowly slipping out of it. I am by and large unshockable. I have never closed my eyes during eye gougings or disembowelments; when Seann William Scott ate the dog turd in American Pie Number Whatever I laughed my ass off. I've seen several of those serious European films where the characters have real sex and thought some were better than others. But then there is the case of Gasper Noe.

Noe is a forty-seven-year-old French director who, if such a thing remains possible, is "controversial." I have seen two of his films. Irreversible (2002) and Enter the Void (2009). The formal trick to Irreversible is that the story is told in reverse. It starts, or ends,  with a brutal beating death in a gay bath house. The victim has raped his killer's girlfriend in one of the most prolonged and painful sequences ever put on film. As the story continues to move backwards we get to know this couple, who are not particularly appealing. We go with them to a party full of drunken French assholes. In the final, or the first, scene we learn that the girl is pregnant and we see Vincent Cassel's semi-erect penis. I left the theater feeling the film was equal parts serious filmmaking and hooey.

I watched Enter the Void about a month ago on DVD, and the idea for this now overlong blog posting came to me that night. I no longer, however, remember much of what the movie was about. It was set in Tokyo, the central characters were an American brother and sister, there was a lot about drugs with names I had never even heard before, and towards the end there was a shot taken from inside a vagina as a penis head plunged toward the camera. This was followed by a really pretty version of a sex ed film depicting the tiny sperm attaching itself to an egg. As much as I remember, the story of Enter the Void seemed to be that we all start out as zygotes and then shit happens.

I was happy to write it off as flashy nonsense, but a few days later I read on a website, for which I was obviously not the demographic, a report by a very articulate young man who said Enter the Void was the film he had been "waiting to see all his life." I couldn't write this guy off as an idiot, but I had to admit that we came from different worlds.

Two years ago, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth -- this, by the way is not a digression -- hosted a series of French New Wave Cinema. They invited me to introduce Jean Luc Godard's Breathless. I was surprised that so many of the audience were seeing the film for the first time, and I assured them they were in for a treat. But the bulk of my introduction concerned the negative responses the film drew upon its release, especially in the United States. It was immoral, incoherent, an insult to all things decent, cast with unappealing actors, etc. Bowsley Crowther, the critic of record for the New York Times, was particularly vehement in his put downs.

And so is this the formula? I am to Gaspar Noe as Bowsley Crowther was to Jean Lun Godard. Fifty years from now will the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth be hosting a Gaspar Noe retrospective, with some know-it-all standing before the audience and assuring them they are in for a treat?

Am I slipping not only into late middle age but even worse into the irrelevancy of the fuddy-duddy who just doesn't get it?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


White Chappell, Scarlet TracingsWhite Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is it possible to enjoy a book while aware that you are not "getting it"? Obviously, yes, at least three stars worth.

I have been looking forward to reading Iain Sinclair, and have built up a small battery of his books. This is the first one I've tackled, lured in by its brevity and the plot lines that promise dissolute used book dealers and Jack the Ripper.

The book dealers, given my slight contact with the British used book trade, I found completely believable. There is razor thin Nicholas Lane who, due to stomach ulcers constructing a coral reef in his gut, lives off cocaine and what nutrients he can absorb from his meals before he regurgitates them. He and his crew are introduced on a Mr. Toad's wild ride through the English countryside, scouting,or rather scrounging, for books, waking up one dealer in the middle of the night who, having forgotten his key, is happy to kick in the front door of his shop so they can have a look. Inside is the dealer's night crew is busy removing remainder marks and forging autographs. Lane and company find Elmore Leonard first editions and one true prize, a rare variant of Study in Scarlet they expect to net thousands from. So much for that plot line.

Now the bits about Jack the Ripper. Historical Victorian characters take over or rather permeate the proceedings, especially Dr. William Guy, a popular but largely discredited contender for the Ripper himself. The prose is brilliantly fevered at it best but so chock-a-block with place names and historical references that I decided to let it just roll on rather than work to hard to puzzle it all out. I enjoyed the ride, but I have to admit I was glad, or I should say, relieved when it was over.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2011


The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never been big on Alternative History novels. Never been tempted by those Harry Turtledove books that show spacecraft flying Confederate flags or Doughboys crouching behind armor-plated dinosaurs. But this is Dickian alternative history, and the novel that won him the Hugo award. He claims in a letter from the mid-sixties that he was not that crazy about this book. Maybe like Henry James he craved success but then tended to look down on works that brought him the most attention. In James' case it was Washington Square, Daisy Miller, and The Turn of the Screw. And that is the only comparison I would ever think to make between Philip K. Dick and Henry James.

The Allies have lost WWII. The United States is now officially only those states on the Eastern seaboard, and they are under Reich Rule. No one has shown much interest in the Midwest, and, although still part of a conquered empire,  it exists as a marginally freer buffer zone. The Japanese control the Pacific States of America, and the bulk of the novel takes place in San Francisco. In the PSA, most Americans have made their peace with the Japanese occupation. No Patrick Swayze has risen to the fore and led a group of teenagers, strangely proficient in advanced military weaponry, to stage a Red Dawn style insurgency. Most San Franciscans are working profitably with or for the Japanese, but in alliances that are marked with crippling levels of anxiety. This is, after all, a Philip K. Dick novel.

Dick establishes a dozen or so characters, several of whom are even who they claim to be, and sets things rolling so that paths seemed destined to cross in disastrous ways. But in fact things run rather smoothly with the exception of a couple of spectacular outbreaks of violence. This is a novel of anxiety, not action. It's a story where anxiety can arise from the excruciating decision of what will be the proper gift to "graft" in a given situation, or by the discovery that the Nazi's are planning a massive nuclear holocaust. Linked characters are scattered across the continent, and I was worried that somehow everything was going to tie together neatly as in one of the machines-for-winning-Academy-Awards like Crash. But the stories run parallel more often than they cross. One character does save another's life, but he never meets the man and acts because he is pissed off and wants to exert some authority.

And then there is the man in the high castle, the reclusive author Hawthorn Abendsen --how does Dick think up these names. Abendsen is the author of the controversial and absurdly titled novel The Grasshoper Lies Heavy. This is an alternative history in which the allies win the war, and although banned by the Nazis, Japanese and American readers are snatching it up. The final question in Dick's novel centers on the possibility that Abendsen's novel is not fiction. The Allies did win the war. History is not  a progression of events but an infinite play of possibilities. But still a play where some people get killed,some go insane, and some plan to blow the whole thing up.


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Thursday, April 14, 2011


(For other "Disturbing" posts, follow the "disturbing" label.)

My family did Christmas on Christmas Eve. The grandparents came over to my family's house mid-afternoon, we opened presents, ate something light, and then my father tried to assemble toys as quickly as my brother and I could play with them, passing from one to another in a frenzy of acquisition. A wooden train -- a very early gift although I think they still make them for high-end toy stores. A motorized race track with a flimsy plastic track that made a figure eight and that was really only fun when you could make the cars fly off the elevated turn. A chemistry set that could create the smell of rotten eggs (big hit). On the higher end, a telescope one year, a go-cart another. Then we got older and it was mostly clothes we had picked out for ourselves.

Later in the evening, a second tier of relatives would arrive. Aunt Ivy was my paternal grandmother's sister. She lived in Akron, Ohio with her husband, Uncle Dee. I was always told that I had not been named after Uncle Dee, despite the eerie similarity of our names. They were in town to celebrate Christmas with their daughter's family, Jerry, her two sons, considerably younger than my brother and I, and, if she had one at the time,  her husband. They brought us boring gifts. Some years the soap-on-a-rope went in the cabinet next the previous year's soap-on-a-rope. The bottle of English Leather sat unused next to the British Sterling I doused myself in for special occasions. These were gifts that proved most valuable when school friends insisted on having birthday parties for themselves well into their high school years.

I was in tenth grade when this disturbing event occurred. The doorbell rang and Aunt Ivy and company arrived. We convened to the living room, which in itself marked the ritualized formality of the event. The tree and actual family event took place in the den. But the seldom-used living room was closest to the front door and that's where we sat. There was conversation, I suppose, and cookies and complaints of being too full to eat another bite. Then came the desultory passing out of gifts, with all the lowered expectations we had come to expect.

Until my brother married some years later, my family traditionally distributed all the gifts and then everyone tore into them at once, holding up whatever they found in the box and shouting "Thank you" across the room before moving on to the next package. My brother's wife, however, introduced the time-consuming tradition of opening one present at a time. But this was not yet the case, and so the room full of relatives started in all at once on their packages.

My box from Aunt Ivy and Uncle Dee had an unusual shape. It was a cube, weighed almost nothing, and was flimsy to the touch. Both soap-on-a-rope and cologne were out as possibilities, and I was preparing myself for the wrong kind of socks. I didn't know exactly how they would be wrong, but I knew that wrong they would be.

While everyone else in the room was busy with their own gifts, I opened mine and saw what I at first took to be some sort of packing material. It was fabric, light-weight fabric, some patterned and some solid. Where were the bad socks? Once I fished my way deeper into the box and touched what could only be an amply sized brassiere did I know for certain that I held in my lap a box of Aunt Ivy's soiled underclothes.

"What have you got there?" someone asked, but I was speechless. I think I had a pair of panties in  my hand at that time because the next thing I remember was Aunt Ivy, a woman of a certain age and considerable girth, leaping across the room, grabbing the box from hand and saying something. I wish I could be more specific here, but Aunt Ivy was never well-spoken and was understandably as flustered as myself. It was all something about packing for the trip, knowing that she needed to do laundry when she arrived, and somehow making the terrible mistake.

This should have been a moment a general hilarity and a treasured Christmas memory for the Mitchell family, but I do not believe it was ever spoken of again. I retold it this past year to my niece's and nephew's families. It was the afternoon after my mother's funeral, many photo albums were being passed around, and the younger people were curious about who was who in some of the pictures. A picture of Aunt Ivy--incidentally  not the picture of total strangers I have used with this post -- prompted me to tell the story of her unusual Christmas offering. But memory is selective. Of those who witnessed the event, only myself, my brother, and father are still alive. As my niece and nephew and their spouses screamed and laughed and rolled on the floor, both my father and brother claimed to have no memory of the event. Of course, neither of them had dug into that box and touched that well-worn Playtex living bra.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


The Cosmic PuppetsThe Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If written today, this could have been Dick's foray into YA fantasy fiction. He would have needed to change to protagonist into a plucky teenager instead of a full-grown man, but other than that all the elements are in place. On a road trip to Florida with his almost estranged wife, Ted Barton wants to stop off at Millgate, the Virginian town he left as a young man eighteen years before, They find the town, but everything about it has changed. (Cue the Twilight Zone theme music here.) Street names, buildings, people, everything is different and slightly decrepit. Then Ted finds his name in an old newspaper, a victim of scarlet fever in 1935.

The Cosmic Puppets is pure fantasy -- no science fiction involved. There are two children, Peter who makes tiny clay golems to report of Ted's movements, and Mary who gets regular reports from moths and bees on Peter's activities. Mary and Peter do not get along.  Peter reveals to Ted the enormous beings who make up the valley's mountainsides and whose heads reach into the heavens. Little Millgate, Virginia, has become the host of an epic battle between the forces of good and evil. (Just their bum luck.) Ted and the town drunk who somehow escaped "the change" have to will the real Millgate back into existence.

There are some creepy elements here, mostly dependent upon how you fell about spiders and rats. But the Twilight Zone theme continues to hum along in the background, and Rod Serling could make an appearance at any moment.

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Saturday, April 9, 2011


The Book of JokesThe Book of Jokes by Momus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever feel like your life is a joke? Meet the Skeletons: Young Sebastian, his sister, and their parents. They live in a glass house where their lives are ruled not by the laws of nature, but by the laws of jokes. The family history and its present, ongoing predicaments are the subject matter or a repetitive series of for the most part rather well know jokes. Do I even need to mention that they are almost entirely dirty jokes. Sebastian seems somewhat aware of this situation, but powerless to do break the pattern -- or even very concerned about doing so. When he finds himself in his drowsy Grandfather's bus, he knows he will be among the screaming, panicked victims of the fatal crash and not go peacefully in his sleep like Grandpa.

Sebastian announces that this is his prison diary, an institution where his only friends are a murderer and a child molester. Their decision to break out and commit the crimes of which they have been falsely accused provides some forward narrative for the book, interspersed with Sebastian's childhood memories. For a time his family adopted the lifestyle of Japanese aristocrats of the Heien period, but whatever their affectations they never escape their glass house, the embarrassments and ordeals of their father's ongoing affair with a goose, or their mother's decision to leave them for a lesbian lover. Another source of the children's embarrassment is the prodigal growth of Dad's penis, which becomes so enormous that he must either wrap it around his body or arrange for its special conveyance on wheelbarrows or other contraptions.

Momus, the author, is the Scottish songwriter Nick Currie, and throughout the book he proves himself to be one of those people who, when given the chance to tell a joke, lights up with a special verbal fire, treasuring every word as he reaches the usually already known punch line. When Dad takes the children on one of their joyless beach holidays, the sail to the Isle of Bute for the staged entertainment. The narrator writes of these shows, "In avant-garde vaudeville this was axiomatic: you needed to go further to get to, essentially, the same place."

So it is with The Book of Jokes. The book is less than 200 pages long, but not very far into it I wondered how Momus would be able to keep this up. But I realized, towards the end, that it was not a matter of how well he could perform his joke, it's a matter of how well we, the readers, can take it.


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Thursday, April 7, 2011


...our eyes and other senses will commonly deceive us; it may be, to thee thyself upon a more serious examination, or after a little absence, she is not so fair as she seems...It may not be that she is so fair, but her coats, or put another in her clothes, and she will seem all out as fair; as the poet then prescribes, separate her from her clothes: suppose thou saw her in a base beggar's weed, or else dressed in some hirsute attires out of fashion, foul linen, coarse raiments, besmeared with soot, colly, perfumed with opoponax, sagapenum, asafoetida, or some such filthy gums, dirty, or about some undecent action or other...Suppose thou beheld her in a frosty morning, in cold weather, in some passion or perturbation of mind, weeping, chafing, etc., rivelled and ill-favored to behold. She many times that in a composed look seems so amiable and delicious, of so elegant an appearance, if she do but laugh or smiles, makes an ugly sparrow-mouthed face, and shows a pair of uneven, loathsome, rotten. foul teeth; she hath a black skin, gouty legs, a deformed crooked carcass under a fine coat. It may be for all her costly tires she is bald, and though she seem so fair by dark, by candle-light, or afar off, as Callicratides observed in Lucian, "if though should see her near or in the morning, she would appear more ugly than a beast."...if you reflect on what issues from her mouth and nostrils and other orifices of her body you will say that you have never seen such filth. Follow my counsel, see her undressed, if it be possible, out of her attires, stripped of her stolen colours, it may be that she...will be loathsome and ridiculous, thou wilt not endure her sight; or suppose thou saw'st her sick, pale, in a consumption, on her death-bed, skin and bones or now dead, she whose embrace was  so agreeable, her aspect will be horrible. As a posy she smells sweet, is most fresh and fair one day, but dried up, withered, and stinks another...thy lovely mistress who erst was dearer to thee than thy eyes, once sick or departed, is worse than any dirt or dunghill. Her embraces are not so acceptable now as her looks are terrible; thou hadst better observe a Gorgon's head than Helena's carcass.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Some of Your BloodSome of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Theodore Sturgeon wrote some of the best and most formally inventive sf of its day. But remember, Sturgeon's Law states. "90% of everything is crap." This book is by no means crap, but it has a couple of stylistic choices that put it pretty far down on the Sturgeon list as far as I'm concerned.

Letters between doctors, transcripts of psychiatric sessions, journal entries -- these are Sturgeon's nod to Bram Stoker's epistolary construction of Dracula. And it all works well except for a long, narrative section that is supposed to be the patient, George, writing his life story in the third person. George turns out to be an excellent writer, a natural storyteller, and Sturgeon requests an enormous willing suspension of disbelief on the reader's part if we are to find this conceivably the work of the character. The exposition is necessary, and maybe there was really no other way to handle, but George is quite the stylist. What works much better is the psychiatrist's ability to take his story, detect the gaps and lies in it, and pull those from George using hypnosis, that tried and true technique certainly practiced more and with better success in fiction that anywhere else.

George drinks blood. I don't think that's a spoiler given the book's title and references to vampires all over the back cover. Further details, on the other hand, are genuinely creepy and convincing as pathology. George is not well. He is glad that his doctor is going to fix him up, but I doubt that he will be leaving the institution anytime soon. Or I would hope not.

Some of Your Blood is a quick read that effectively presents some really disgusting material in such clinical format that some of it takes a moment to really sink in. George is a kind of innocent, but one that you would want to keep locked up for life.

Sturgeon's other stylistic blunder is a prologue and epilogue in which he addresses the reader and frames the novel in what sounds like one of Boris Karloff's commentaries on Thriller, It's beneath him, or maybe i'm pretending that the novel doesn't have the pulpy origins it does.

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Saturday, April 2, 2011


The Face That Must DieThe Face That Must Die by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The psycho killer has a wonderfully Dickensian name, John Horridge -- horror and porridge, how British. He is limping about the streets of 1970's Liverpool possessed of a homophobia so intense and irrational that he convinces himself that an "obvious homosexual" he sees on the street is responsible for two brutal killings of what sound like young rent boys. After he finds his deceased father's old straight razor, he resolves to do something about getting this filth off the street.

Horridge is a very sick individual, and it is disconcerting to read in the Afterwards of this reprint edition that Campbell modeled the character on his own mother. In fact that, for me,  was the most unsettling moment in the book. Perhaps in 1979 the novel touched on more taboo topics than it seems to now, and the immersion into Horridge's mind is well handled; but, as he goes after his primary victim and then finds it necessary to do some clean up killing I found the whole enterprise mildly entertaining. And yet this book is listed as one of the best horror novels of all time.

The setup is Patricia Highsmith-lite. Innocent people meet a psychopath and they are either too stupid or too self-centered to grasp the situation. Campbell's novel is a potboiler compared to the ambiguities and sophistication HIghsmith brings to these situations. The novel has a kind of "uh-oh" moment at the end that presupposes the reader has found all the proceedings more frightening that I did. I am curious to read one of Campbell's supernatural books, of which there are many,  to see why he is so highly considered

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