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LARB Radio Hour

The Los Angeles Review of Books Radio Hour is a weekly show featuring interviews, readings and discussions about all things literary. Hosted by LARB Editor-at-Large Kate Wolf, Managing Editor Medaya Ocher, and Gender and Sexuality Editor, Eric Newman.
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Oct 14, 2021

Writer Dodie Bellamy joins Kate Wolf to speak about her latest collection, Bee Reaved. The book gathers nearly 20 essays Bellamy has written over the last few years, with a focus on the state of bereavement, examining not only the loss of her husband Kevin Killian, but the loss of other artists, physical objects, her own past lives, and radical social movements. As with all of Bellamy’s work, the pieces in Bee Reaved foreground the viscera of the body and other aspects of the physical world, while also engaging with ghosts, fairy tales, the internet, spirituality and a deep sense of community.
Then, in this week's second interview, Kate is joined by fillmaker Mia Hansen-Love to discuss her latest, and first English-language movie, Bergman Island, which follows a filmmaking couple during their residency on Fårö, the island in Sweden where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot many of his films. As the couple, Chris and Tony, work on their screenplays and tour the sites that inspired the great filmmaker, the line between real life and fiction becomes ever more ambiguous. Bergman Island opens in theaters October 15th and available for digital rental October 22nd.

Oct 7, 2021

Kate Wolf speaks with writer Kelefa Sanneh about his debut book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres. An exhaustive, enthralling breakdown of the last 50 years in music, Major Labels diagrams the American sonic landscape, Alfred Barr-style, in the discrete yet overlapping categories of rock, R&B, country, punk, hip hop, dance, and pop; it also pays close attention to the proliferation of genres within genres, covering everything from thrash metal to glitter rock, quiet storm to hip hop soul, and many more. The book reveals what these divisions mean not only for the way music gets made, but how it’s listened to, and by whom. In conversation, we learn what inspired, and continues to inspire, one of our leading music writers.
Also, Cynthia Cruz, author of The Melancholia of Class, returns to recommend a collection of writings by the late Mark Fisher "Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures."

Oct 2, 2021

Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher are joined by author Cynthia Cruz to discuss The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class. A mix of memoir, cultural theory, and polemic, Cruz’s latest work addresses the personal and social consequences of the marginalization of America’s majority population, its working class. Cruz speaks about what inspired her to write the book and how she came to focus on the lives of certain famous working-class people, like musicians Amy Winehouse and Ian Curtis (who both died tragically in their 20s), and Jason Molina (who made it to 39), actress Barbara Loden, and others. How did they and Cynthia contend with the hegemonic “middle-class” culture’s shaming of working-class characteristics? Denial and repression of working-class consciousness is encouraged in our society. This repression is seen as a precondition for success, but it mangles the soul and shreds the bonds of social solidarity that are the foundation of community and provide a sense of belonging. 173 years after Marx and Engels recast the working class as the protagonist of history in their Manifesto, Cruz does the same in hers.

Also, Amia Srinivasan, author of The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century, returns to recommend Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, who are both British sex workers.

Sep 24, 2021

Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher are joined by documentary filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who are perhaps best known for RGB, their Academy Award-nominated documentary about late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That film provided the impetus for their latest project, My Name Is Pauli Murray, which traces the career of a fierce warrior against injustice whose story has been confined to the margins of history. A pioneering African American attorney, activist, and priest, Murray shaped landmark litigation — and consciousness — around race and gender equity, including the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and the extension of the 14th Amendment to provide equal protection under the law to all Americans, regardless of sex.
Also, Maggie Nelson, author of On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint returns to recommend a major work scheduled to be released in November, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Graeber was working on The Dawn of Everything at the time of his death last year.

Sep 17, 2021

Medaya Ocher and Kate Wolf are joined by writer, critic, and philosopher Amia Srinivasan, whose new book is The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century. Amia is a professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College at Oxford and a contributing editor at the London Review of Books. The essays in her book probe how we think and talk about sex. Srinivasan grapples with the subject from a variety of angles, looking closely at the #MeToo movement, the history of feminism and pornography, and the larger political forces that shape our personal lives. She discusses the complicated relationships between sex and racial justice, class, and disability. As she asks in her preface, “What would it take for sex really to be free? We do not yet know; let us try and see.”
Also, poet Kaveh Akbar, author of Pilgrim Bell, returns to recommend Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry, a poetry anthology edited by Jane Hirshfield.

Sep 10, 2021

Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher are joined by Maggie Nelson to discuss her latest book, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint. In 2015, Nelson’s bestselling, genre-defying The Argonauts won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her other works of criticism, memoir, and poetry include The Art of Cruelty: A ReckoningWomen, The New York School, and Other True AbstractionsBluetsJane: A Murder; and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, and a Warhol Creative Capitol Arts Writing Grant, among other awards. Currently she is a professor of English at USC. Written in the wake of the 2016 election, On Freedom is an ambitious consideration of the complex knots of “sovereignty and self abandon, subjectivity and subjection, autonomy and dependency” that form under the blanket of liberation. Focusing on four topics — art, sex, drugs, and the climate crisis — the book challenges the notion of freedom as a utopian state toward which we might move untethered from our responsibilities to the planet and to one another. At the same time, Nelson carves out a notable amount of space within realms many would be quick to deem as uniquely unfree: caretaking, addiction, conflict, and negative affect, even the ticking time bomb of global warming that leaves so many of us feeling helpless. Here, we’re asked to consider what feeling free might have to do with feeling good — and what could be a better question than that?

Also, Rachel Greenwald Smith, author of On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal, returns to recommend Heather Berg's Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism.

Sep 3, 2021

Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher are joined by poet Kaveh Akbar to talk about his latest collection, Pilgrim Bell. Whereas Akbar's previous collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, meditated on addiction and the challenges of recovery, Pilgrim Bell figures a turn to the spiritual and the possibility of repair, focusing on the damaged self, the abuses of empire, penitence, the failures of the faithful, and untamable efforts at submission and devotion.

Because the work of faith and thus the work of the faithful, is never complete — indeed, as Akbar’s best lines suggest to us, is always inchoate, compromised, confused — the spiritual is an experience of cycling, of makings, unmakings, and remakings. The poems leave the reader suspended between action and futility, the generosity of love and the pain of loss. Like the pilgrim of the collection’s title, we listen for the words that will ring out to us and we wait, in the interim between the bell’s tolls, to determine how we will respond to its call. Akbar opens the interview with a reading from the collection.

Also, Matthew Specktor, author of Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, returns to recommend Emily Segal’s novel Mercury Retrograde.

Aug 27, 2021

Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher are joined by Rachel Greenwald Smith to discuss her new book, On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American IdealOn Compromise takes a critical look at liberalism’s persistent push towards the center in both political and artistic realms. Instead of Compromise as a measure of good in and of itself, Smith argues for the values of illiberalism, passion, and commitment to a cause, aesthetic or otherwise. Her book explores how conflict and democracy need not be thought of as opposing forces. In doing so, she interprets a wide range of contemporary cultural phenomena, from Beyoncé’s album Lemonade to David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, the history of poetry magazines, Guns N’ Roses, the far right, riot grrrl, and her own experience playing in an indie rock band.

Also, Nawaaz Ahmed, author of Radiant Fugitives, returns to recommend Shyam Selvadurai’s novel Funny Boy.

Aug 20, 2021

Matthew Specktor, one of the founding editors of the Los Angeles Review of Books, joins Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher to discuss his newest book, Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California. A memoir and cultural history, Always Crashing explores the work and lives of writers, actors, directors, and musicians who straddle the line between success and anonymity, and whose careers, though majestic, still leave questions about what might have been had circumstances or, in many cases, their temperaments, been different. These include the screenwriters Eleanor Perry and Carole Eastman, the novelist Thomas McGuane, the actress Tuesday Weld, and the filmmaker Hal Ashby. The book questions notions of both success and failure, especially as filtered through the distorted prism of Hollywood. It also touches on Matthew’s own experiences growing up and later working in the film industry, his mother’s brief turn as a screenwriter, and his father’s more abiding success as a talent agent. A native of Los Angeles, Matthew draws a vivid portrait of the city, with both love and disdain.

Also, Jeanetta Rich, whose first collection of poems, Black Venus Fly Trap, was released in June, drops by to recommend Federico Garcia Lorca's play Blood Wedding.

Aug 13, 2021

Eric Newman talks with Nawaaz Ahmed about his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, which loosely centers on Seema, a woman who makes a life for herself as a San Francisco-based campaign worker for progressive politicians after her Muslim family in Chennai, India reject her for being a lesbian. As the book opens, Seema is dying just as she is about to give birth to a son, conceived with a fellow campaign worker to whom Seema was briefly married. Gathered around are Seema's mother, Nafeesa, and Tahera, her deeply devout and jealous younger sister.

Narrated by Seema's newborn son, Ishraaq, Radiant Fugitives moves back and forth in time and space, from Chennai to London to the United States, charting the struggles of a family in the throes of rupture and reconciliation. Set against the backdrop of the Obama era, the novel explores what it means to belong, to be free, to love, to understand, and to forgive across countries, cultures, and desires.

Also, Rivka Galchen, author of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, returns to recommend a book that was featured on the LARB Radio Hour just two weeks ago — Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies.

Aug 6, 2021

Eric Newman and Medaya Ocher are joined by Hogir Hirori to talk about his latest film, Sabaya, which documents the heroic efforts to rescue women and girls from ISIS slavery at a refugee camp in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border. Sabaya, which premiered at Sundance and is now available nationwide, is a moving and visceral documentary that follows a team of volunteers from the Yazidi Home Center in northern Syria as they try to rescue Yazidi girls, some as young as seven, who have been kidnapped and sold into sexual and physical slavery by ISIS. Armed with just a mobile phone, a handgun, and information from “infiltrators” indicating where the captured girls are being held, Mahmud Ziyad and his team face incredible odds. After the rescued girls return to the Yazidi Home Center, we witness their palpable relief and learn of the horrific treatment they’ve been forced to endure. Sabaya is a harrowing story of both the best and worst of humanity, told from a place, and by a people, who are too often just words in headlines across the world. It also testifies to the power of documentaries and to the courage of filmmakers, who put their lives on the line to tell stories the world needs to hear.

Also, Katie Kitamura, author of Intimacies, returns to recommend German author Anna Seghers’s Transit, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, about a refugee attempting to leave Vichy France in 1944 through the port of Marseilles. Katie also recommends German director Christian Petzold’s 2018 film adaptation of the same name, which is set in contemporary France.

Jul 30, 2021

Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher are joined by Katie Kitamura to discuss her latest novel, Intimacies, an existential thriller that follows an unnamed narrator who has recently moved to The Hague to serve as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court. Worldly, well-travelled, and multilingual, she excels at her new job, but grows increasingly uneasy. A similar sense of discomfort permeates her close relationships with an art curator, and with her love interest, a married man. Yet it is the Court, where she is interpreting for a former President of a West African nation who has ordered the carrying out of unbelievable atrocities, that gives rise to her strongest anxieties and to her questions about power, confrontations with violence, and the possibility of neutrality.

Also Claire Fuller, author of Unsettled Ground, returns to recommend Anne Michaels’ award-winning 1996 novel Fugitive Pieces

Jul 23, 2021

Kate Wolf and Medaya Ocher are joined by Rivka Galchen, whose new novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, is set in the Holy Roman Empire in 17th-century Germany, amid the plague and the Thirty Years’ War. It fictionalizes the real-life story of Katharina Kepler, the mother of astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Katharina, an elderly widow who seems to care most for her cow Chamomile, is accused of being a witch by another woman in the small town of Leonberg. Soon everyone in town is testifying to Katharina’s wickedness. Her own side of the story is told by her neighbor, Simon, who acts as her guardian — but as a bookseller later tells him, “People don’t like an old lady’s story.” The novel is told through both fictional testimonials as well as actual translated historical documents.

Also, Zakiya Dalila Harris, author of The Other Black Girl, returns to recommend Raven Leilani’s acclaimed first novel, Luster.

Jul 16, 2021

Boris Dralyuk and Medaya Ocher are joined by author Claire Fuller to discuss her new novel, Unsettled Ground, this season’s selection for the LARB Book Club. Born in Oxfordshire, Claire Fuller is the author of four novels: her Desmond Elliot Prize-winning debut Our Endless Numbered Days, as well as Swimming LessonsBitter Orange, and her latest, the griping, intensely evocative, and often unsettling Unsettled Ground, a finalist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The book begins with the death of a woman, which sets her 51-year-old twin children on a difficult journey of survival and discovery.

Also, Kate Zambreno, author of To Write As If Already Dead, returns to recommend Bhanu Kapil's book of poetry How to Wash a Heart.

Jul 9, 2021

Eric and Medaya are joined by Zakiya Dalila Harris to discuss The Other Black Girl; her sharp and often funny debut novel that centers large contemporary questions about the politics of race as it encounters diversity, inclusivity, and representation through the unique lens of working in the publishing industry. 

The novel opens from the perspective of Nella Rogers, the only Black girl in the editorial department at a prestigious publishing house.  Nella has to navigate the familiar landmines of race in the modern workplace: microaggressions from her white coworkers, diversity initiatives that no one takes seriously, and the daily exhaustion of navigating the elite cultural spaces she's managed to gain access to but which definitely are not built nor maintained for her.

Then, shortly after Nella raises concerns about racist stereotypes in the manuscript of one of the publisher's most famous white male authors, she starts receiving anonymous notes telling her to leave the publisher if she knows what's good for her. What was previously claustrophobic and uninviting begins to feel much more sinister. 

Bouncing between mystery, satire, and an indictment of the modern publishing industry, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL keeps the reader guessing right up to its haunting end and we're thrilled to have Zakiya here with us to break it all down.

Also, Davarian L Baldwin, the author of The Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, returns to recommend Ralph Ellison's ever-brilliant 1952 novel, Invisible Man. 

Jul 2, 2021

Kate and Eric speak with writer and historian Davarian L. Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies and founding director of the Smart Cities Lab at Trinity College. His newest book is In The Shadow of the Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, an exploration of the often uneasy relationship between universities and the cities they inhabit. The book draws on numerous examples, such as Yale, Columbia, NYU, University of Chicago and even Trinity College, to show the impact schools have on their surrounding neighborhoods. As often as not, these universities are drivers of inequality, displacement, and gentrification. In an era of post-industrialization, universities have replaced factories to regularly become the largest employers of their cities, with tax-exempt status to boot, giving them an undue amount of power, while their focus remains on self-enrichment. 

Also, we are joined by Susan Bernofsky, author of Clairvoyant of the Small, a book length study of the the life and works of Robert Walser. Susan recommends Kate  Zambreno's To Write as if Already Dead, which is itself a study of the work of author and artist Herve Guibert, who died in his early thirties from AIDS.

Jun 25, 2021

Eric and Medaya talk with queer writer Kristen Arnett about her knew novel, With Teeth, which centers on the troubled relationships between Sammie, her wife Monica and their son, Samson.  As Samson grows up, it becomes clear that he isn't quite like the other children. He is emotionally aloof and prone o outbursts. As a teenager, he's even more of a mystery: a loner and a threat to the image of a normal family that Monica is so desperate to present to the world. As the stay at home Mom, and narrative focal point, Sammie is tasked with trying to understand both her mysterious son; and herself, as her marriage and seemingly every else begins to deteriorate around her - or so it seems. As With Teeth spins through its insightful portrayal of queer parenthood, the struggle for identity and autonomy amidst the disintegration of a marriage, Kristen Arnett keeps us guessing until the final moment when it appears that everything we think we know about Sammie, Monica, and Samson might be wrong.

Also, Joan Silber, author of Secrets of Happiness, returns to recommend two recent novels: The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter; and The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey.

Jun 18, 2021

On this week's show we're joined by two authors, Kate Zambreno and Susan Bernofsky, who have both written a magisterial work about a past literary master.

First, Medaya Ocher and Kate Wolf talk with Kate Zambreno about To Write as if Already Dead, a study of the writing and photography of Herve Guibert (1955-1991); and, in particular, his work To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, which documents Guibert's diagnosis and disintegration from HIV, and portrays a character based upon his close friend, philosopher Michel Foucault.

Then, Kate is joined by Susan Bernofsky to discuss Clairvoyant of the Small, her biography of Swiss author Robert Walser (1878-1956), one of the most influential modernist writers in the German language.  Susan’s biography portrays Walser not just as the eccentric outsider figure he’s often made out to be, but as a fully formed artist, with serious creative aspirations, proliferate charms, and many complications. Clairvoyant of the Small offers a nuanced picture of his turbulent life—much of its drama stemming from financial precarity, family legacy, and the sweeping pendulums of early twentieth century European history—as it also illuminates the complexity and beauty of his writing.

Jun 11, 2021

Author Joan Silber, whose previous work Improvement won both the National Book Critic’s Circle Aware and the Pen Faulkner Award, joins Eric and Kate to discuss her new novel Secrets of Happiness, a multi-vocal story that radiates out from a single family dealing with a father's intimate betrayal.  He has a secret family that he told nobody about.  As it moves across characters and continents, Secrets of Happiness considers the weight of love, family, and other attachments in a world where nothing is as it seems, and happiness is a fleeting experience best savored in the presence.

Also, Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show: A Political History of Act Up New York, 1987-1993, returns to recommend Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir as well as Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones.

Jun 4, 2021

Professor Carol Anderson, whose previous work White Rage won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award, joins Eric and Kate to discuss her latest book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America.  The Second takes a long historical look at the emergence and development of the second amendment—"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"—against the backdrop of anti-Black violence, fear, and public policy. Professor Anderson reveals the various ways in which slavery—and, in particular, white slaveowners' fears of slave insurrection—shaped the Second amendment from the very beginning, with long-reaching effects that we continue to face today, a year after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. America's most infamous constitutional amendment was not about guns, but about the racial divides through which a white man wielding a gun receives Constitutionally-lauded legal protections, while in the hands of a Black man in America, a firearm can so often be a death sentence.

Also, Jacqueline Rose, author of On Violence and On Violence Against Women, returns to recommend both Anna Burns' The Milkman, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2018, as well as Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. 

May 28, 2021

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman joins Eric to talk about his latest documentary, THE BOY FROM MEDELLIN, which centers on reggeton superstar J Balvin (the voice and creative force behind such massive hits as MI GENTE, I LIKE IT,, AGUA, and countless other songs). Heineman's camera turns its gaze on Balvin as the pop star returns to his home city of Medellin for the last stop on his world tour. That homecoming takes a dramatic turn as the country is plunged into anti-government protests led by Colombian youth. Heineman shares what it was like to capture a superstar caught between the desire to entertain and the demands of fans on social media that he speak to the political crisis of his homeland; to witness a brilliantly talented performer with his reputation and tour all on the line. 

Also, Claire Phillips, author of A Room with a Darker View: Chronicles of My Mother and Schizophrenia drops by to talk with Kate and recommend Schizophrenia: A Brother Finds Answers in Medical Science by Ronald Chase.

May 21, 2021

Writer Sarah Schulman joins Kate and Eric to discuss her new book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York 1987-1993. A longtime activist, Sarah was a participant in the history she writes about. Back in 1987 Sarah joined The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, known as ACT UP, in New York City.  Let the Record Show is a focused, exceedingly thorough look at ACT UP’s organizational tactics, its diverse range of members and intersecting causes, and its profound impact in fighting for access to treatment and more national attention for people with AIDS at a time when the US government was barely addressing the crisis. The book builds on over 200 oral histories Sarah and her collaborator and fellow ACT-Upper Jim Hubbard conducted with former members. In an ecstatic review, the New York Times wrote that "it’s not reverent, definitive history. This is a tactician’s bible."

Also, Helen Oyeyemi, author of Peaces, returns to recommend James Robertson's To Be Continued, or, Conversations with a Toad.

May 14, 2021

Kate and Medaya are joined by feminist critic Jacqueline Rose to discuss her new book On Violence  and On Violence Against Women.  Jacqueline's addresses the prevalence and persistence of violence through the analytical lenses of feminism, history, psychoanalysis, politics, and literature. Jacqueline argues that violence in our times thrives on a form of mental blindness; and elucidates its relationship to the rise of politicians like Bolsonaro and Trump as well as broader society's complicity in these horrors.

Also, Larissa Pham, author of the collection Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy, returns to recommend Annie Ernaux's A Girl's Story (2016), which was released last year in translation.

May 7, 2021

Brooklyn-based artist and writer Larissa Pham joins Medaya and Eric to discuss her debut collection Pop Song: Adventures in Art and Intimacy. Larissa contributed to the collection KINK (previously covered here), with a piece that deals with themes of violence and desire, which are equally reflected in the new collection - and which Larissa addresses throughout the conversation. The entries in Pop Song shift between memoir and an acute attunement to various art objects and experiences in the present, POP SONG explores what it means to want a life and to strive for it: to navigate relationships, to build and rebuild a self, and to appreciate and even desperately rely upon the encounters with art that give such a life meaning. 
Also, Nick Pinkerton, author of Goodbye to Dragon Inn, returns to recommend The Dog of the South by Charles Portis.

Apr 30, 2021

Eric and Daya speak with the acclaimed short story writer and novelist Helen Oyeyemi. Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in England, and her first novel, the Icarus Girl was published while she was still in high school. Her other work includes the short story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, along with five other novels, including Mr. Fox, Gingerbread and Boy, Snow, Bird. In 2013, she was named one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists. 

She joins us today to talk about her latest novel called Peaces, published this past month. Peaces is about two young lovers, Otto and Xavier Shin, who board an unusual train to celebrate their unofficial honeymoon. Accompanied by their pet mongoose, the two begin to explore the cars and the meet the three other passengers on board. The book can be described as a madcap existential mystery at the center of which is a question about how we see other people and what it means to be seen or not seen.

Rachel Kushner returns to recommend The Autobiography of Chuck Berry.

And there's also special bonus gushing over the recently completed season of Drag Race.

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