A Review of Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory

January 28, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione

To read Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief  is to step inside the making of a sculpture, to feel the deft hands of an artist carving a body of language from scraps of memories, histories, trauma, and hope. Dear Memory is a masterful work that births a new genre-bending narrative, a true experiment in capturing the experience of the generational effects of losing a language to migration, a culture to assimilation, silence, grief, and the profound effects of racism. Chang delves into Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory when she quotes Hirsch from her book Memory and Migration explaining postmemory  as “the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.”

After the death of her mother, while concurrently losing her father to dementia, Chang uses the epistolary form to write letters to the living and the dead, former teachers, fellow poets, high school bullies, her body, memory, silence. In these letters she engages with the experience of absence, burrowing deep into that which is lost, questions unanswered, stories now buried with the dead. She reflects on her upbringing as a Chinese American, being “remarkably Chinese” with no idea what that meant, nor what being American was. She captures the effects of racism with a razor’s edge when she posits:

The racist act is not always the most harmful. It’s the surprise of it, the fraught waiting, each moment like a small trip wire. You never know when you might confront it, so to survive, you live your life in stillness, in self-perpetuated invisibility. And then there’s the aftermath of shame.

Within this devastation, Chang positions herself a most compelling narrator, capturing what it was like to grow up in the outline of a Chinese family in the American Midwest, the disconnection between her and family when she visits them in Taiwan, and the shame and pain of a lost tongue.

I first met Victoria Chang at Antioch’s low-residency MFA program. I was a mom with two young children, a burgeoning teaching career, and 100 pages of a memoir that I could not see my way through to an ending. I could not see my way through motherhood to a writing career. I could not see myself through a grief reignited by the process of writing and remembering. Victoria Chang caught me in a moment when I was trying to compose myself. She asked if I was okay, and I told her I wanted to quit. How was I ever going to do this with two kids? She said to me that I would do it because of my kids. I include this memory, because it draws a dotted line between the narrator I experienced in Dear Memory and the mentor I encountered in a moment of grief and how her words saved me. It was her use of the word because that writing my story and my family’s history of secrets and silence—deceptions by omission—became imperative. Chang dissects these family survival skills with her  language and imagery to cut right to the heart of so many family institutions, “…while my parents may have maintained silence as a form of survival, silence had a heartbeat, grew up, and became the third sibling.”

She quotes poets and writers in nearly every letter, and in her letter to Silence she quotes Mary Ruefle who wrote “what words will do to a poet” when speaking about writing painful experiences. In reflection, Victoria Chang makes this sentiment her own by musing, “I don’t think though, that Ruefle meant that we should only write about painful life experiences or feelings, but rather that we should write to put language at risk.” This is precisely what Dear Memory does. It experiments with this risk and in so doing it weaves together a family history through visual clippings of conversations pasted over unearthed photographs of her family and their migration from China to Taiwan to the United States. She tracks the fracture of this family, an identity lost, a language besieged, when she writes, “I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in a family where everyone spoke the same language. The only language we had wholly in common was silence. Growing up, I held a tin can to my ear and the string crossed oceans.”  Chang knits together a history of largely missing pieces. “The problem with silence,” she writes, “is that you can’t undo it.”

While writers are sure to experience an extra layer of skin in reading Dear Memory,  Chang examines big universal themes in this hybrid creative nonfiction work, stitched together with a poet’s sensibility. When watching a video of her daughter running in a track and field event, she writes, “it was a wonder, beautiful, like watching a hummingbird resting on a branch, escaping itself and its history for a moment that seemed to last a generation.” I can’t help but feel a particular adoration for Chang’s letters that feature glimpses of her daughters. I hear her words “because of your kids” and I can’t help but take away hope. In one letter to a teacher, Chang writes, “…to learn from you that writing was a possibility, not as a career, but simply as a way to move into and out of pain, was the real gift.” Dear Memory is more than a gift. It is an intimate portrait of grief, a reflection on what it means to be estranged in one’s family, culture, and country:

When people leave a country, they leave everything. The land, the smells, the people. The objective is simple: to build a better life, without the incisions of the past.

But what does this do to memory? In a letter to her mother, Chang ponders this concept more deeply when she writes:

I wonder whether memory is different for immigrants, for people who leave so much behind. Memory isn’t something that blooms but something that bleeds internally, something to be stopped.

Victoria Chang’s Dear Memory is a lifeline, a beating heart for all that is lost, taken, or stopped in the quest and hope for a better life: “the making of a person.”
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Lindsey Anthony-Bacchione writes creative nonfiction and book reviews. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her work can be seen at About Place Journal, Sentience Literary JournalBrevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and a book review forthcoming in The Rumpus. She is currently working on a memoir and can be found on Instagram @thingsivelearnedfrommydaughter and Twitter @LABacchione.


 [MOU1]I don’t understand “what I misunderstood.”  It would seem it is or isn’t a memoir, whether it’s good or not or whether you can see your way to the end. Maybe just leave out this phrase?

A Review of Kathy Biehl’s Eat, Drink, and Be Wary

January 14, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Keema Waterfield

Twenty-one months into pandemic parenthood, the thing I most often pine for (after a vaccine for my toddler) is a mail-order intravenous food option for my entire household.

My youngest child was eighteen months old when we first locked down. He’d just recently been assessed by an oral therapist, because he grew so tired while chewing that he’d pocket his food in his cheeks like a squirrel, only to choke on it later. This was when I pre-chewed his food for him like a mad woman. My oldest had just turned four and was going through a taste change. Foods she’d previously adored were suddenly repellent. Goodbye curry and strawberries and garlic potatoes. Goodbye pepper. Goodbye quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese!

Now I was ordering groceries online in a small city with limited options, because I wasn’t taking my rambunctious offspring inside a grocery store where they could lay all sixteen octopus tentacles on every surface in sight. But fresh fruit and vegetables weren’t always available for delivery. I had to get creative with a game I call Pandemic Whack-a-Mole. Will they eat frozen carrots and peas? Nope. Canned corn and peas? Acceptable, but rarely. Forget the canned beans. By five o’clock, after preparing three experimental meals and four hundred snacks for my littles, I despaired at the thought of thawing, roasting, dicing, and plating my own grown-up dinner.

“One day I’m going to take you to a restaurant and let someone else break your heart by putting jam on your toast,” I told my youngest last week. Then it hit me: he doesn’t remember restaurants. I barely do. It’s been so long since I’ve experienced indoor dining, or cooking for pleasure, that I’ve forgotten what that forbidden fruit even tastes like.

This is what makes Kathy Biehl’s witty food memoir Eat, Drink & Be Wary: Cautionary Tales such a delicious reminder of what awaits me on the other side of the food desert I’ve been living in.

The collection is neither straight memoir nor explicit food critique. Most of the works gathered here fell through the cracks of mainstream assignments over her three decades of food writing in Houston and New York, many culled from Biehl’s self-published zine and related blogs. It’s a foodie’s photo album in narrative form, with vignettes ranging from philosophical musings on the timeless power and connection of food in “The Cellular Memory of Food” to fantastically absurd situational humor. “The Omni-Directional Scud Lust Missile Rears Its Unwelcome Head Again (And This Time She’s Brought a Friend)” reads like a scene written from the point of view of Tom Cruise’s mask at the ball in Eyes Wide Shut.

There is cuisine, yes, of the fine and ordinary varieties. And crowded venues, empty bars, fascinating guests, a few recipes, and dreamy far-off places. But you won’t find the next hot eatery here. Instead, Biehl’s conversational joviality is an invitation to join her in recalling this hole-in-the wall someone told her about. Taste the chicken, smell the bleached Formica, hear the pans rattling on a stove just out of reach, and gorge on the unexpectedness of it all.

With Biehl as my guide, I wandered into memories I haven’t allowed myself to touch in nearly two years. I sat alone at a table with her, nearly swooning when she says of her solo outings, “I don’t feel lonely at all; I feel lucky to be alone.” Through her, I recalled the revelation of a new menu, the power of junk food, the connection a shared plate brings. When her friend finds an insect in his Scotch, I time travelled to the moment, a decade ago, when I discovered a fried cockroach in my takeaway burrito (half eaten, alas).

“What’s so great about going out to eat?” my son asked, when he caught me laughing at an early chapter, where Biehl is ensnared by a food surveyor at the mall and asked to participate in a mayonnaise review. (“[A]n offer no self-respecting magnet for weird could pass up.”) 

I had to think about it. What is wondrous about the experience for children? I can’t really say. I only grew comfortable at restaurants deep into adulthood.

Dining out was such a rare treat growing up that it holds a place more precious than Christmas in my memory. Except during one brief spell, when my single mother worked part-time as a server at the Armadillo Tex-Mex Café in Juneau, Alaska. Unlike her house cleaning gigs, with this job I could sometimes stop in and share her shift meal with her, always crunchy nachos piled high with chicken, beans, olives, tomatoes and jalapeños. She was usually too tired to talk, so I quietly admired the way she made a silk neck scarf seem fancy beyond our means while picking at the crusty cheese on our plate. I’ve never held a taste on my tongue so perfect, before or since.

For my kids, it’s a global crisis, rather than poverty, depriving them of the marvel of cramming eight chairs around a four top simply to break bread and bump elbows somewhere not home, while practicing having a say about what they graze on.

For the first time, it occurred to me that my son may never enjoy the noise and energy of dining out. His eyes glaze over in crowds, and he claps his ears at loud sounds. He still has trouble chewing. I can’t predict how he’ll move in the world after spending half his life apart from it. I hope he’ll find, as Biehl has, that it’s about more than being fed.

“I’m looking to be nourished,” she writes, contemplating what’s left after the novelty of thirty years of food writing has worn off, “to be amused, at least, entertained at best, and, if I’m lucky, to be so surprised and delighted that I want to stomp my feet or pound my hand on the table.”

“I don’t know what will be great about going out to eat for you,” I told him. “Maybe you’ll love it, and maybe you won’t. I hope we get to find out soon.”

For now, I’m grateful for the reminder Eat, Drink & Be Wary brings: there is gobsmackingly good food out there waiting for us, and good people who can’t wait to share it with us.
____

Keema Waterfield is the author of Inside Passage, a nomadic childhood memoir set along the wild coast of Southeast Alaska. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesWIREDBrevity, and others. She resides in Missoula, Montana, with her husband, two children, a bunch of extra instruments she doesn’t know how to play, and a revolving cast of quirky animals. She lives and writes on Séliš and Qlispé land. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @keemasaurusrex.

Review of Karen Salyer McElmurray’s Voice Lessons

January 7, 2022 § 2 Comments

By Zoe Zolbrod

I bought Voice Lessons, the new book of personal essays by Karen Salyer McElmurray, out of writerly solidarity, but I didn’t necessarily plan to read it. Like so many others, my brain has been scrambled by the tenor of the news and the pitch of the country’s conflicts. Individual reflections had started to seem like a broken umbrella as the violent threats and acts rained down, and I turned toward full-length works of broader scope, novels, and history. I put Voice Lessons on the maybe someday pile.

But it tugged at me—that writerly solidarity, to the essay form as much as to this particular writer—and one night I picked it up, thinking I’d dip in for twenty minutes. I started at the beginning, the prologue, “Before I was Born.”

Before I was born. My father tells me there was a shootout in Floyd County involving the Baisden’s and the Gray’s, my mother’s kin. I do not know if this is true. A history of Floyd County says one of my ancestors was Belle Star.

Instantly, the tide of my interest turned. Those four short sentences mapped a path back to the place where the personal connects to the world. The placement of I do not know if this is true reverberated, reminded me:Even with apparently factual sources laid out before us, what do we really know about anything to do with humans if we haven’t turned over the stones of the contradictions, considered contexts and motivations, plumbed the emotional depths?

Being born. In photographs, my mother’s face is tired and angry. Her eyes squint at the sun. This was in Kansas, and she was far from Kentucky, her sisters, and the only place she’d known.

Another reminder: the way the language can land a truth. The alliteration of squint, sun, and sisters, of Kansas and Kentucky, conjuring the expanse between the pained, stubborn mother and contentment. The iambic beats of the last phrase emphasizing the weight of home.

The prologue continued, each short passage opening with a phase-of-life lead line. Being young. Being young. Being young. Young.

Less young. I wanted to be a hippy, and I was, after the fact, I ran away from home. I had a son. I heard him cry. Once. I surrendered him and never saw him again for a million years. I was married at sixteen. We strung up a quilt to divide the trailer in half where we lived.

No longer young. Less young. The three introductory pages played for me like an overture to an opera, suggesting a whole arc while luring me in with recurring themes. I read until 2 a.m., something I rarely do anymore, as my life is structured around duty and regularity. I woke up and finished the book, leaving the cats mewing to be fed.

What particular alchemy compelled me? The details of place were exotic but also familiar to me as someone who grew up Appalachia-adjacent and drawn to classic country music—names like Harlan County and East Van Lear, preacher’s voices and miner’s wives. They highlighted the way the rough-hewn past is distant from the striving present but also ever there, especially for those of us who have moved far physically or culturally from our origins.

McElmurray’s situation is specific. She was raised by a severely OCD mother from a clan of mountain people. The details she provides about being washed by her mother’s chapped hands, loved by a grandmother who saved “slag coal to burn,” took me deep inside someplace new. But I recognized myself in her desire, her need, to move outward—she goes to Crete, Nepal, graduate school—while simultaneously hearing the call to return, both in person and in writing. She illuminates how reading and writing itself are a kind of home, a place as definite as the long, narrow outbuilding in Johnson County, Kentucky, where she watched her grandfather work with wood.

In “Hand-Me-Down,” McElmurray describes taking her oral exams, talking to her professors about Jean Rhys’s Good Morning Midnight and the character of Sasha.

I told them she is adrift, that she feels most connected to her past, despite the great pain it has brought her. I realized, after some minutes had passed that I had forgotten, really, whether I was talking about Sasha or about Jean Rhys or whether I had somehow ended up talking about myself.

The essays in Voice Lessons all stand alone. Many of them have been published before. I could have cracked the book open in the middle, read one or two pieces, and been satisfied. It’s a gift that I started with the prologue, heard the overture. Introduced in that way, the repetitions endemic in collected personal essays serve as refrain and variation. Even the pieces that are most associative and lyric contribute to a narrative. I experienced the structure of the book as true, the way images, moments of childhood consciousness, and tugs from the ancestors ebb, flow, and circle even as we move linearly through life’s stages: Being born. Being young. Less young. No longer young. Sick. Old. Watching a fearsome parent retreat into death.

The book broke a dam in me. Back into personal essays I poured, as both a reader and writer. Yet my consciousness seems permanently changed by the political upheaval in our country. I’m sadder. More distrustful. More afraid of people and for people. McElmurray herself is not immune to the cynicism of the current era. In the essay “Teaching Rapture,” there’s a section dated 2019.

I am older now. These days when the world is full of random acts of violence and political machinations, I can feel far less hopeful about the ability of language to transform our lives. I can feel completely empty of possibility.… Is rapture something we can try? Perhaps. Or is it a gift, an unexpected wonder that lies at the heart of the best of our words and, I hope, the best of what we have to teach.

Sometimes at a concert, during a perfect set, I fantasize about being a singer-songwriter. The distillation of story, the way a singing voice and chords can square the power of words, seems a feat of both craft and magic. I experienced Voice Lessons along these lines. It provided me with rapture and brought some light to these dark times.
__

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. She has published essays in Salon, The Guardian, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. @zoezolbrod

A Review of Beth Kephart’s We Are the Words, the Master Memoir Class

January 5, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Marcia Meier

Beth Kephart’s latest book on writing, We Are the Words, the Master Memoir Class (Juncture Workshops, 2021), is a series of essays that seek to illuminate what memoir is, how to write it, and how to become more aware of yourself and your goals as a writer. Many of these essays previously appeared in Literary Hub, CRAFT, Ploughshares, Brevity, Publisher’s Weekly, Hippocampus, Entropy, and other literary magazines.

In section one, The Stuff of Craft, Kephart provides instructions on the various forms of memoir and essay writing, including numerous prompts to get writers going. There are two sections focused on the writer herself: The Self-aware Writer, and The Writers’ Life, and a fourth section called Ideas on Form, where Kephart analyzes several essay forms and illustrates approaches employed by writers who have mastered the essay.

Much of Kephart’s advice can be found in other treatises on essay writing, but her questions —what she calls “question cascades”—prompts, and exercises make this book exceptional. This book would be especially helpful to writers who are new to memoir, essay writing, or both.

The question cascade invites writers to consider not just a broader question, like “What do you know about your childhood wardrobe?” but probes deeper with questions like:

  • Did you get all the hand-me-downs?
  • Were your sleeves always too long?
  • Were your hems always too short?
  • Were your fabrics full of itch?
  • Did your zippers break?
  • Did your mittens match?
  • Were your clothes the cause of pride, or were they the cause of confusion?

These are the kinds of deep, probing questions that help writers get to the heart of the essay or memoir. I’ve worked with memoirists for many years as a coach and book editor, and these sections of the book stand out as useful and thought-provoking tools/prompts for any writer.

In the chapter Matters of Voice, Kephart deftly discusses style, something that is often nebulous and ungraspable. Many writers have no idea what style is or how their own style influences their writing. She’s spot on with this advice:  

Literary style is like a fingerprint. Every writer has her own. A thing for big words or small ones, long sentences or short ones, nervous persuasions or booming declarations or first-person hush. Style is punctuation and it is white space, titled chapters versus numbered ones, footnotes or dreamscapes, curvy descriptions instead of snapping dialogue. If plot is what happened, style is why what happened matters and what music was playing throughout the happening.

As an extra benefit, Kephart offers examples of essays/memoirs to illustrate her points and in the process gives readers a compendium of memoirs to add to their TBR list (if they haven’t read them yet). Kephart gives us Road Song, by Natalie Kusz, which I read in graduate school and made the basis of a major paper on the influence of mothers when children suffer severe trauma. “Road Song contains everything I believe memoir should stand for—something I must have intuited all those years ago,” she writes. “It is the better angel of the memoir breed, an antidote to wallow, a clear-eyed tenderness, a deeply layered text built of an entire family’s reminiscence, proof of the universal in the personal.” I agree.

Kephart offers examples from Jordan Kinser’s Thin Places, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Heather Christle’s The Crying Book, Mark Doty, Paul Lisicky, Claudia Rankine, Yiyun Li, Margaret Renkl and many others, using specific passages with insightful commentary. One could build a formidable library of memoir and essay collections from her suggestions alone.

Ultimately, We Are the Words is indeed a master memoir class, offering both examples and advice for writers attempting what is one of the most difficult forms to execute. You can’t go wrong picking up this latest offering from Beth Kephart. It is a fitting follow to her March 2021 release of her lovely collection of essays, wife/daughter/self.
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Marcia Meier is the author of six nonfiction books, including her most recent award-winning book, Face, A Memoir, released by Saddle Road Press in January 2021

An Interview with Social Media Star Zane L. Walker

December 31, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Phyllis Brotherton

It’s been quite a challenge, but I was finally able to land an interview with Zane L. Walker, best known for his social media presence as the recalcitrant feline gazing into the windows of author Nicole Walker’s house (who happens to be his owner/mom), begging or rather demanding to be allowed back in. We met on a sunny Friday morning in Flagstaff, Arizona, under the striped umbrellas of the Cedar House Coffee Shop. I waited for some time before he sauntered in, all gray and white smugness, jumped up on the nearest chair, and turned his steely eyes toward me, as if to say, let’s get this agonizing interaction over with ASAP. Worried he could just as quickly sashay away in a hot minute, I rushed to shuffle my notes into some kind of order and began.

Phyllis: Zane, thank you so much for coming today to discuss Nicole Walker’s latest book, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster,. But first, my curiosity is killing me. What’s the “L” stand for in your name and how did you manage to get away from home today to meet with me?

Zane: It wasn’t easy, I can tell you that. Nicole dogs me everywhere I try to go, outside the backyard, that is. When you see my face staring in the house windows, which I swear she posts almost every damn day, you might be led to believe I always actually want inside, when all I really want is to leap over the fence to freedom. But that’s a whole other story and I don’t have much time, so let’s get on with it.

Phyllis: And, your middle name?

Zane: I was hoping to ignore that question. Did anyone ever ask T.S. Eliot what the “S” stood for? Loverman, OK? Loverman. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Phyllis: Oh, that’s fine. I certainly respect the fact there are some subjects you’d rather not discuss, so let’s dive right into the “meat” of this interview.

Zane: (groans, rolls his eyes) Yes, by all means, let’s.

Phyllis: It occurred to me that you might have a unique perspective on Nicole Walker’s book, Processed Meats, given your closeness to the subjects addressed, both in actual physical proximity, as well as in your personal relationship with the author herself.

Zane: I am naturally an expert on just about anything, actually. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a bit commenting on Nicole’s book, but well, I sort of have to, you know, given all the reasons you’ve already mentioned. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to be brutally honest about what I think. Why would I feed you a bunch of bologna?  

Phyllis: Great. I appreciate honesty. So, actually, what do you think?

Zane: Meh. If you’re looking for some high drama or a page-turner, this is not your cup of joe, nor my bowl of water, if you will.  

Phyllis: Why’s that?

Zane: First off, you’d think the book would be mostly about, what, processed meat?? Like the different varieties, the history, how to make it, include lots of recipes, you know? And, in her research, you’d have thought if she actually tested some recipes, she would provide samples to those closest to her, like, for instance, Moi? Heck, no. To this day, she’s never offered me one tiny bite, nor have I witnessed any actual making of processed meats. Then again, as you and the social media universe well know, I’m outside a lot and not even close to her delicious food, or privy to the deep inner workings of her household or her mind, for that matter.

Phyllis: Kirkus Reviews calls Processed Meats, “An effective illumination of the profound difference between right thought and right action.”

Zane: (heavy sigh) Whatever that means.    

Phyllis: Kirkus continues: “When Walker settles in, she produces observations as beautifully written as they are thoughtful. One of her specialties is pithy remarks, and some of her more intriguing phrasing causes us to view certain topics from unique angles.” Kirkus provides a great example:

Fried chicken is a testament to the beauty of the disarticulated chicken. Every piece its own integrity. The coating wraps a thigh like snow, a breast like a scarf, a leg like a stocking to protect it from the cruel world of hot oil. 

What is your reaction to that?

Zane:  All I can say is, please God, give me one of those stockinged legs. OK, OK, I’ll admit, it’s damned good writing.

Phyllis: Indeed, it is. As you well know, Processed Meats is also about motherhood. One of my favorite essays in the collection is “Move Out,” in which Walker deftly interweaves the apparent disparate subjects of the smog and other pollutants of Salt Lake City, her daughter’s hospitalization for a serious respiratory condition, breastfeeding, a decision to relocate, and making sour cream. Yes, sour cream.

It’s easy to make sour cream, just like it’s easy to stay put. Open up some windows and let the lactic acid in. But here, you’ve got to do something harder. You’ve got to take that sour cream, turn it back to milk, ride the car east, the other direction from the one your ancestors trekked, the way against open spaces and wild animals. You’ve got to turn against your own nature, your own desire to stay, your own love of what you know. You’ve got to turn that dam to stream, virus to new host, and get out before you get stuck.

Are you crying, Zane?

Zane:  No, I’ve got something in my eye, that’s all.

Phyllis: You mentioned earlier that Processed Meats is not, for the most part, actually about processed meats. In fact, Jenn Gibbs, in her review of the book for Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, aptly states, “[Nicole Walker’s] latest collection of creative nonfiction is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective […], revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a heathier planet.”

Zane: Excuse me a moment, while I upchuck a hairball.

Phyllis: (Zane returns) Personally, I can totally relate to Gibbs’ comment. I feel guilt and angst for my sometimes lackadaisical or expedient attitudes toward all manner of things, including less than diligent recycling, idling my car in the Starbuck’s line, ordering gourmet birdseed on Amazon or driving to three grocery stores in a desperate search for Reddi Whip Sweet Foam, my new secret craving; one of the many reasons I love Walker’s book. She explores our human failings and her own, in such an honest, funny and self-effacing way. Wouldn’t you agree?

Zane: I suppose. But that essay, “On Anger,” where she imagines a mountain lion creeping by outside the window? That gave me such a case of the heebie-jeebie’s, I almost never wanted to go outside again. Of course, she made me; picked me up and plopped me on the patio, like a tasty morsel of cougar food and not the beloved family pet I supposedly am. Which is why I’m always staring her down to please let me back in the house. Now you know the real truth about it.

Phyllis:  But that important essay is about wildlife’s shrinking habitat and nature’s losing battle with ever-consuming, ever-plodding forward, ever-destructive human beings. Doesn’t that strike a chord in you to try to do something about it? 

Zane:  Not really. What can I do? I’m just a cat. And, I’ve got bigger fish to fry and mice to find. All I can say is, buy the book. It’s kinda good.

Look, gotta split. How about a double cappuccino, extra dry, to go? I need to get back to my catbird seat outside her window for my next Facebook photo op. I’m working on building my platform.

Phyllis: Already? Well, OK. Thanks so much for your time.

Zane:  No sweat. It’s been real.        

___

Zane L. Walker, autodidact and all-around feline-about-town, having gained a wealth of knowledge and experience over time, prides himself on knowing pretty much everything about everything. As part of expanding his horizons, he is available for speaking engagements for a healthy fee. He currently resides in Flagstaff, Arizona, and can be reached at…oh, just Google him.    

Phyllis Brotherton holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Essay Daily, After the Art, Brevity Blog and elsewhere; receiving two Best of the Net nominations. Her collaborative essay, “Water,” recently won 3rd place in Streetlight Magazine’s Essay/Memoir Contest, with co-author, Armen D. Bacon. Find her on Facebook, Twitter @phyllisbwrites, and Instagram, phyllis_brotherton.

A Review of Sonya Huber’s Supremely Tiny Acts

December 20, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Emily Dillon

You probably know Sonya. You may know her award-winning essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. You likely know her from her Brevity blog post in October. If you do, you know her like I know her: as an empathetic intellect charging through the halls of writing with a megaphone for the disabled and the outsider.

I know Sonya in other ways too–as a colleague, professor, and friend–and yet, if I’m being honest, I’ve had difficulty reading her work about pain in the past. If I’m not in the right frame of mind, it takes me back to the webbed fog of uncertainty, those times when I felt like I was losing my body to terror, wondering if–not how–I would get out of uncontrollable pain.

You see, like Huber, I have also been diagnosed with chronic pain and so her stories echo through my bones. My journey with pain, though, has been different than hers: for the most part, I identify as being in remission. Which only means that I don’t always want to go back to the hard parts. With lots of help and time and luck and perseverance, I have unspooled the lightning laces of pain and wear only small whispering shadows; it’s hard to be reminded of the looping mind through the searing.

Therefore, when I first heard of Sonya’s new project, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of A Day, I was interested in it not because of its content–which, though I knew little about it, had proved challenging for me in the past–but because of its form. How cool to try a memoir in a single day! How rare to write nonfiction with form at the forefront!

And then I began reading.

The truth is that form is deceptively sneaky. As any poet will tell you, write about the color of a glass figurine in your front office and you might end up telling your whole family history. It is when we are most unguarded, frolicking through the details, that we accidentally turn a corner into the deepest grove of our writerly hearts. And Sonya’s grove has a heart for pain: social and personal, emotional and physical.

On its surface, Supremely Tiny Acts is about a day that Sonya went to court, seeking dismissal of a charge for protesting climate change, and then later, took her son to get his learner’s permit. It swirls with every theme and subject she has ever covered: Hillary Clinton, modern political activism, her German grandfather, chronic pain, teaching, parenting, Buddhism, growing up white and poor. With every theme, she works hard to separate the true from the false in our relative world, admitting when she doesn’t know (“Am I a good teacher? I don’t know”) and claiming her ground when she does (“I know both to keep doing the next right thing and to push myself to do what I’m scared of”). It swirls and swirls and then, like water going down the drain, eventually gets to the last dregs that make the biggest noise: she recounts the day in her life that seemingly drove the energy of the book, a day with her ex-husband. Though I had entered her book with form, I was leaving with what that form led to: revelation and catharsis about pain. As she says, “naming it was a blade that hurt but also cut me free.”

As a pain person, I wanted this moment without knowing it. I wanted her rage, the curse words, the origin story. I wanted it from Sonya because it’s what I wanted for myself in the midst of my pain: to find an explanation. It’s not always as easy as a single explanation or a single day of course, and there is always more than one reason to untie, but it’s a start. And for anyone who has been spiraling into anything–pain, addiction, self-harm–we always need a start.

As I closed the book’s cover, gathering all of Sonya’s work into one hand, I realized that the title, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day, ended up being a prophecy: the form of a day-long memoir becoming a powerful, supremely tiny act, for Sonya and for the reader. It revealed the power of form to expose the secret waves of trauma, how they trough and crest around the other parts of our lives. It was only looking back at the end of the book that I saw how the toxic relationship with her ex-husband roiled through the day: how she wished in the final pages that she could “tell that girl that love and compassion don’t have to end with you laying your organs on the lawn for another person” and yet the book began with her literally laying her body in the streets of New York City for future generations; her inordinately immense pleasure at throwing away a plastic food container earlier in the book, even after participating in a climate action, because “my relationship with that piece of plastic is over” [first italics my own]; her then-inexplicable fear of a male judge after he apologizes to the courtroom: “I had expected for an irrational moment that somehow we had irritated him, and that the apology would be followed by a lashing out at us, that making him say “I’m sorry”—did we make him?—will lead to it being so much worse for us.”

For all of these reasons, Supremely Tiny Acts is perhaps the most courageous nonfiction that I’ve read in a long while, allowing the scrappy details of a single day to open into personal surprises. I can only hope that it will inspire more like it and we will see more form-first nonfiction, the structure forcing us to face ourselves. How glorious our shelves and notebooks will be then, when we know ourselves as the words do!

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Emily Dillon is a writer and educator from Maryland whose creative work ranges from nonfiction to poetry and all the lyrical places in-between. An avid reader, she also publishes book reviews and teaching guides. Currently she is the managing editor for Speculative Nonfiction and an English educator in higher education. She holds a Masters Degree in English Education from the University of Maryland and an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University. www.emilydillonwriting.com

A Review of Ona Gritz’s Present Imperfect

December 10, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

I first came across Ona Gritz’s work when she submitted an essay to my literary publication, Thread, in 2015. The piece was titled “Should I Feel Anything Yet?” and I was in from the first sentence: “It was the eighties but we wanted it to be the sixties, those of us in divided Boulder who claimed Pearl Street, ‘the mall’ as opposed to ‘the hill’ where the University of Colorado students fratted or whatever they did besides look down on us through their Ray-Bans.” 

I was immediately struck by the poetry, details, and contrasts. The eighties versus the sixties, “the mall” and “the hill.” How she othered herself from the University of Colorado students who “looked down on” her through Ray-Bans.

Gritz captured those transitional twenties by nimbly moving from falling for “the classical guitarist with green basset hound eyes” to concerns over her runaway older sister to a square of blotter acid that looked like “the sugary button candy of her youth.” She tells us that she had “guiltily smoked pot twice in high school,” but ultimately decided to take that tab of acid. That between she and her sister, she was “the angel,” and her sister, who was murdered along with her boyfriend and infant child, was an angel of another kind.

“Now that she was the angel of the family,” Gritz writes, “who should I be?”

It was Gritz’s agility in juggling opposite truths at the same time that won me over, and the essay was published in Thread’s Fall 2015 issue.

So earlier this year when I learned that she was releasing a collection of essays, I wanted in again and was delighted to discover this tension of twos is a deep theme in Gritz’s life. The notion that two contrasting things may be simultaneously possible appears in many of the essays in this sensitive and elegantly composed collection.

From the first few lines of the opening essay in Present Imperfect, we learn that Gritz lives with a form of cerebral palsy she describes as dividing her in half. She determines the temperature of water with her left hand. With her eyes closed, she would have to move a coin into her left hand to distinguish it from a paper clip. And there’s a limp.

But it’s not only her body that is divided.

There’s her sister Angie, the runaway, who did heroin and meth and didn’t like school and called Ona “Miss Educated.”

“My two hands are sisters,” Gritz writes. “Left beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs.”

There’s a marriage that failed in part because it was with an able-bodied man, which, at first, felt like it meant that she wasn’t truly disabled but she would later come to understand after being in a successful bi-disability one. After her divorce, she writes, “Thankfully, by then I understood that my tie to him wasn’t what made me whole.” Of her second marriage to a man who is blind, she writes, “These days, disability is a mere factor in our daily routines.”

There’s raising an able-bodied son who is learning to drive. He is “almost a man now, testing his power. Carrying both of our lives, the way I once did, but with none of my fear.”

In “Deluge,” she writes, “Love can be the wall of water, the brigade of rain. It can drown the things you felt sure you couldn’t live without, dependable things you thought were just humming along.”

Like her essay that was published in Thread, which I was delighted to see as one of the fourteen  essays in this collection, Gritz investigates a life that feels split. These essays strike me as an exploration of opposites. The book’s title, Present Imperfect, is a grammatical reference to action in the present tense that is continuous. Action implying something in the past. Continuous, suggesting that it is not yet over. It’s as if she is suggesting that we drag the stuff of our life around with us into the present, whatever that may look like.

Ona Gritz on the page is a warm, wise, and concise confidant who deftly turns the craggy rocks of life into touchstones.  

“Maybe it’s not about the body and its limits,” she writes. “Maybe it’s a destination, everyone hobbling there as best we can.”
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Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.

A Review of Laura Davis’ The Burning Lights of Two Stars

December 8, 2021 § 4 Comments

By Debbie Hagan

I stare at my eighty-seven-year-old mother, who stands in the hallway, sweaty and flushed, breathing hard and telling me how she’d tried to walk around the block, then fell and crawled into the bushes, hoping no one would see her.

Really? Mom’s knee is so bad, she can barely hobble from the living room to the kitchen…never mind walking around the block. Still, her pale, sweaty face and deer-in-the-headlights stare tell me something happened. What? I’ll never know, because Mom is too confused.  

My mother, queen of Sudoku, master of crossword puzzles, reader of just about everything, no longer knows which button to push to turn on the television. She forgets her pills, forgets to brush her teeth, forgets to eat, forgets where her purse is hidden (thieves looking for spare change might find it stuffed in the cushions).

Mom forgets that she forgets, and if I tell her that she’s forgotten, she’s snaps back, You just don’t know! Where are you getting your facts?

Laura Davis’ mother, Temme, in The Burning Lights of Two Stars, reminds me of my mother—stubborn, independent, and feisty. Both, in their later years, live in an alternate reality.

“Why did you make me move out here anyway?” Temme asks her daughter, after she moves her entire household into a trailer park, in California, just to be near Davis and her children.   

Of course, Temme has forgotten this was her idea…and one, in fact, that concerns Davis. As a young adult, she saw her mother as “a poisonous spider,” who would wrap her in her web.

When Davis came out to her mother as a lesbian, “she carted out every stereotype about being a dyke.” When Davis was writing her now classic The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, she told Temme that her grandfather (Temme’s father) had sexually abused her. Not only did Temme refuse to accept this, but accused Davis of having false memories.

Years later, they’d arrive at a “shaky peace,” but Davis knew “3,000 miles still separated us for a reason. Our reconciliation went only so far.” Even as Temme saw her life drawing to a close, she would not accept that her daughter had been abused by her father. Maybe there was a reason. Maybe Temme had been abused too, Davis speculates, but “she was never going to look me in the eye and tell me the truth about her father.” 

After Temme moves to California, her health declines. She forgets (or ignores) her doctor’s orders (particularly the one about not driving). Davis writes,

After the dishwasher accident, and her close call with kidney failure at the ICU, Mom recovered, but after that, her life was never the same. She’d entered the endless cycle of medical interventions that plague the lives of the elderly. She’d become a cog in a wheel, a number on a chart, a birthdate on a computer screen. She’d gone from being a healthy elder, physically strong with a poor memory, to an elderly patient with a different doctor for each part of her body.

Davis shuttles Temme to appointments, dispenses medications, checks in, and buys groceries. Whatever time is left, she works, manages two teenagers, and hopes to spend time with her partner.

Everything changes when Temme is found “passed out in a parking lot, sitting in her car with the engine running. Her horn [is] blaring, and she [is] nonresponsive….” Davis realizes her mother can no longer live alone.

Embedded in this fast-paced memoir is a story all too familiar to boomers with aging parents. We’re grateful for medical advances in cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases, because it enables us to enjoy our parents longer. Yet, treatment and prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has not caught up.

What do we do when our elderly loved ones cannot live on their own? Take them in? Hire in-home health aides? Move them into independent, assisted, or full-care facilities that will eat up  every bit of their life savings? Each decision comes with a cost.

“I wanted Mom to have help, so she could stay in the little home she loved, doing the things she loved for as long as possible,” writes Davis. But Temme resists in-home health care and finds fault with the care worker.

Davis’ story flows back and forth over time, old stories deepening the main narrative. To keep readers on track, Davis uses a numeric countdown, marking the days until her mother’s death, posted under each chapter heading.

While The Burning Light of Two Stars gives readers a first-hand look at some of the elderly health care dilemmas today, it’s also a painful story about an emotional break between mother and daughter caused by lack of trust, honesty, and empathy. As the countdown numbers grow smaller, Davis and her mother keep reaching toward each another, hoping to reclaim what they’ve lost.    
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Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.

Puerto Rico and Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls

November 22, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Ashley Espinoza

I grapple with my identity as a Puerto Rican. My mother is Puerto Rican, but she was born in America. When my grandfather was eight he moved to New York and when he turned eighteen he joined the United States Army and spent his years as a father moving his family all over America and various countries. Though my mom has been to Puerto Rico more times than I have, she has never lived there. My grandmother was born in Puerto Rico but was mostly raised in the United States, in New York and Chicago. I have the Puerto Rican blood, but my culture has been mostly lost.

So when I picked up the book Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz and read that it was a book about her life in Puerto Rico and Miami as well as Puerto Rico’s history with colonization I knew it was the book for me. Díaz is Puerto Rican, like me, my mother, and both of her parents. Though, unlike Díaz, I have only been to Puerto Rico twice in my life. Once when I was two-years-old and have no memory of it, but plenty of photos to prove I was there; a photo of my mother and I jumping into a lake, me at a payphone, and more photos of me visiting a family-owned grocery store. I visited again at twenty-two when my grandpa invited me to Puerto Rico over Christmas break. I had the chance to visit a family orchard, to eat oranges picked right from the tree. I took shots of pitorro, a moonshine rum, at each home I visited.

Jaquira Díaz grew up in Puerto Rico until she was eight years old, then she moved to Miami. She writes about Puerto Rico in details and memories like those of my mother’s, like hearing the coquis, small frogs, sing at night. Díaz gives a description of Puerto Rico that makes me feel at home, although Puerto Rico has never been my home.

The year after I got my bachelor’s degree I visited the island I heard about my whole life. I went to the famous-in-my-family ice cream shop in Poncè and ordered the most delicious peanut ice cream. I still dream of going back just to eat that ice cream one last time. My grandfather showed me downtown Poncè, and when we saw a church he told me that maybe someday I could get married there, or somewhere like it. I couldn’t say out loud that I didn’t plan on getting married. I could not break his heart right there in his hometown. He dreamed of my wedding day, I did not.

While I was visiting Puerto Rico we stopped at Wal-Mart and checking out a lady made a remark to me in Spanish. I smiled as you would to a stranger seemingly telling a joke. I had no idea what she said but at that moment I was proud, I was Puerto Rican. She couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was from Colorado and that I didn’t know Spanish. To her I was just like any other Puerto Rican on the island. I never felt more Puerto Rican in my life. Except for the fact that I had no idea what she said and I couldn’t respond back.

I often wonder what my family in Puerto Rico thinks of me. Not many of my family members spoke English and I don’t speak Spanish. My great-uncle didn’t speak to me most of the trip. He only talked to his brother, my grandfather, in Spanish. The day before I was to leave he started talking to me in English. I did not know he spoke English at all. I wonder if he thought of me as a spoiled American girl who knew nothing of her culture.

Throughout her memoir, Díaz gives her readers the past and the history of Puerto Rico. In 1937, citizens of Poncè, Puerto Rico wanted independence from the United States. Cops surrounded protestors and shot them in the streets. In Poncè, Puerto Rico in 1950, a date that resonates with me as both of my grandparents were born in Poncè in 1950, citizens were not allowed to speak out against the US government or fly their Puerto Rican Flags.

Towards the end of her memoir Díaz visited San Juan and stopped at the prison that was called La Princesa, but instead of a prison when she visits, it’s a tourist location. D́iaz writes about a moment when she is standing in a prison cell and someone asks her to take their photo, without thinking she asks for her photo to be taken as well. Then she writes “How strong our collective desire to erase our history, our pain. How easily we let ourselves forget.” Those words ring true in a thousand ways. I too have stood in that same tourist location. I have photos of me in those prison cells. I too fell into the trap of contributing to the erasure of history. Is this what my great uncle thinks of me? Some tourist coming into his home and forgetting Puerto Rico’s history?

My great aunt only spoke one English sentence right before I left Puerto Rico. She grabbed both of my hands and said, “Come back, and when you do you will know Spanish.”

“Yes.” I said.

“Promise?” She asked as she held my face in between her hands.

“I promise.”

I think of that promise often. Sometimes I study Spanish really hard to keep that promise. Other times I forget. I have one problem; I have no one to talk to in Spanish to practice. My family prefers to speak in English and only a few Spanish words come out every now and then. Not enough for full conversations.

I want to keep that promise for my great-aunt and for myself. But most importantly for my daughter. I don’t want her to grow up with dark hair and big brown eyes and for her to feel insecure that her mom never taught her Spanish. I don’t want her to visit Puerto Rico and feel insecure with each family member that she meets. I want her to feel her Puerto Rican culture. I want to feel it too. I hold Ordinary Girls in my heart. For its history of Puerto Rico, for reminding me what the island feels like, and for giving ordinary girls like me a chance to see themselves in a book.
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Ashley Espinoza is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her work has been published in Hobart, Assay, The Forge Literary Magazine, Orion Magazine, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey and (Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Coronavirus Pandemic. She is a nonfiction editor for The Good Life Review and is currently writing a memoir.

A Review of Laurie Easter’s All the Leavings

November 15, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Sandra Eliason

The things we leave behind, from the first home with a lover to the view of who we are, from our youthful sense of invulnerability to life’s inevitable losses, are described in lyrical detail in All the Leavings, a memoir in essays by Laurie Easter.

Her daughter Akela’s near death from a ruptured appendix in “Her Body, a Wilderness,” colors Easter’s future ways of thinking. After a forest fire, she does not want the burnt residue managed. Instead, she wishes the wilderness left to its own regeneration. When Akela becomes septic, Easter witnesses the wilderness of her daughter’s body raging with fire. She understands the body is as vast a wilderness as a forest.

Just as “humans have tried to conquer the wilderness of outdoor nature to wield it to serve and benefit our own desires,” she muses,we seek to control our inner wilderness by conquering disease. Similarly, we have tried to conquer our inner wilderness by manipulating and controlling disease and pain within our human shells….”

While Akela’s wilderness recovers, it is “not by any natural process of recovery, but by the commitment to dominate, subdue, and manage that wilderness.”

The essay “Relics” describes a memento box holding reminiscences of past people and events, followed by the lyrical essay, “Something to do with Baldness,” an ode to a friend dying of cancer. Although Easter has difficulty explaining why she shaved her head, she knew by becoming “bald sisters,” they had “stripped down to the bare minimum, exposed, nothing left but pure essentials.”

Reading how Easter lives off the land reminds me of dreams I had years before marriage and career took me in other directions. She describes a daughter’s birth on a plywood living room floor between a woodstove and bathtub, an outdoor shower she uses in winter and summer, feeling a cougar’s eyes penetrating her in the dark, and listening to the scream of animals being caught in the night. Her husband encounters a bear. Her children catch tadpoles and release frogs. These experiences are foreign to me, yet in Easter’s voice, they are accessible and understandable. These circumstances and others speak to the grit she needs to navigate her daily life, while her losses speak to the grit her heart needs to navigate all the leavings.

In “Crack My Heart Wide Open,” Easter describes an adolescent suicide, her daughter Lily’s crush, someone who had confided his intent to Lily, but promised he wouldn’t do it. Easter sees the boyfriend’s mother at school at the moment the son kills himself at home. How does a mother comfort her daughter, help her not blame herself? Easter ponders her own period of suicidal thoughts and wonders what it takes for someone to follow through. Seeing the sorrow and guilt the community experiences after a suicide helps her to put aside suicidal ideation.

A meth-addicted friend who disappears, her husband’s diagnosis of hepatitis C, and a friend dying of AIDS and has knowingly infected others, prompt Easter to ponder disease, choices, and medical decisions.

“The Polarity of Incongruities” describes money Easter receives from a friend’s estate—money that allows opportunities that otherwise would be unavailable; thus, she experiences “gratitude and grief—simultaneously.”

The essay “All the Leavings” is a perfect meditation on endings, goodbyes, and leavings. Easter explores the disparate words and phrases, tones and colors used for leaving:

Children are often expected to run along; then, as adolescents, they learn how to give the slip, and later, in defiance, tell adults to take a hike. Sometimes it is best to let one alone to solve her own problems. Sometimes, though, when problems seem insurmountable, she may withdraw into herself, which presents a bigger challenge than, say, withdrawing money from the ATM before disappearing from town or withdrawing before climax because no condom was handy. Sometimes there is an urge to ride off into the sunset. Always, if there is a fire, one needs to exit the building.

Set against the rugged backdrop of an Oregon forest home, Easter’s book gives poignant, readable, and gentle observations in the ways loss and remembrance affect a life.
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Sandra Hager Eliason is a retired doctor who won the Minnesota Medicine Magazine’s Arts Edition writing contest in 2016. She has been published in Bluestem, Brevity blog, and in the ebook anthology, Tales From Six Feet Apart. She has a piece forthcoming in West Trade Review. Find Eliason on twitter @SandraHEliason1 or Instagram @sheliasonmd.

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