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s5It was with some trepidation I approached this much venerated book. I know Vonnegut only by reputation as a genial curmudgeon in his later years, also as an influential spokesman on the Arts, and of course, in no small part, through his regular inclusion on the list of America’s all time finest writers. Slaughterhouse 5 is also a perennial target for various Conservative factions within the USA who argue for it to be banned on account of its profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion. This lends it some extra Kudos of course.

It’s a short book, I found it concisely written, a style much missed in our more elaborate times. I was able to devour it greedily and easily over a couple of sittings, but the ideas in it are complex enough and big enough to warrant several re-readings. It’s a book that’s still being discussed after fifty years, still used as a study text on literature courses, all of which is sufficient evidence of its worthiness and its enduring relevance. As for the profanity, blasphemy and sexual perversion, it may have been considered risque in 1969, but seems quite tame now and I find the ongoing calls for its censorship deeply puzzling.

The book’s origins are factual and reasonably well known, that beginning on the night of February 13th 1945, the city of Dresden was repeatedly bombed by US and British air forces. The result was a firestorm that levelled the city and killed 135,000 people, mostly civilians. Sheltering from those raids was a group of American prisoners of war, billeted in the titular Slaughterhouse 5. The slaughterhouse was disused, everything on four legs having long ago been killed and eaten, but its shelters were deep enough to afford survival when many others, sheltering elsewhere, perished.

When the raids had passed, the prisoners and their bewildered guards ventured above ground to find the entire city now resembled the surface of the moon. One of those prisoners was the 22 year old Kurt Vonnegut who, along with his fellow POWs, was then set the harrowing task of recovering human remains.

Slaughterhouse 5 was therefore, in part, Vonnegut’s own way of getting his head around that traumatic experience, though it wasn’t until some twenty years later he was able to find the right voice through the somewhat loosened sense of reality afforded by his lingering post traumatic shock and depression. Published at the height of the Vietnam war, the book found immediate resonance. One of the striking points he makes is that accounts of war are generally written by older men, giving the impression they’re fought by men, when in fact they’re fought by children, by teenagers, at the behest of men, so the book is subtitled: The Children’s Crusade.

Asked at the time what he was working on, he said it was an anti-war book, and he was told he might as well write an anti-glacier book, meaning war and glaciers simply “are” and there’s nothing you can do about either. It’s a point Vonnegut accepts, and of the horrors of war themselves, he’s quite matter of fact, never judgemental, indeed almost anthropological in his presentation, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions regarding the fact we seem to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

He does not draw caricatures of good and evil, right and wrong, but simply says this is what happened, and the rest of the story is how I dealt with it. The conclusion we draw however is inevitable. How this influences our own contemporary lives, I suppose, depends on whether or not Vonnegut, as he says, gets to us before we become generals and politicians.

So anyway, he creates this alter ego called Billy Pilgrim whose experience loosely mirrors Vonnegut’s, at least in so far as events in Dresden go, but after the war, Billy finds himself coming “unglued” in time, so that no matter how many years he puts between himself and 1945, those events are never far away, and as real as they ever were. He can go to sleep in the present and wake up right back in the middle of the raid, then wake forward to somewhere else, then back again, the events of his entire life playing out in parallel rather than in a linear fashion.

Billy becomes an optometrist, marries, survives a plane crash, then claims to have been kidnapped by aliens who put him in a zoo. And it’s the aliens who explain to him the nature of life and time, that the passing of time is an illusion and the only authentic way of seeing life is the way Billy sees it now, all at once.

Although dealing with dark matters, this isn’t as pessimistic a book as it might sound. Rather, Billy’s experiences, his loosened time-frame, and his matter of fact acceptance of things grants us an elevated perspective on our own stupidity.

As regards genre, as with all the most influential books, Slaughterhouse 5 defies neat pigeon-holing. The nearest I can get to is it’s a satire on war and the post traumatic sufferings of a man coming to terms with it consequences. It’s also a meditation on the nature of life. I found it very funny in places, cautionary, thought provoking, and delightfully irreverent.

I enjoyed it very much.

A short read, yes, but this is definitely not a small book.

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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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AmsterdamNovel.jpgAlthough it took the 1998 booker prize, Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’ was far from being universally liked. Critical opinion was divided, and perhaps a little heavier on the negative, some pundits wondering how it was even nominated, let alone that it took the award. It was with some trepidation then I picked it up, all be it some twenty years after publication. But I enjoyed it, though I’m prepared to admit this says more about me than the book, or maybe some of the heat has died down in the mean time and the novel has grown into itself. It goes to show one should never be put off by bad reviews, no matter how erudite.

In a nutshell the story opens at the funeral of one Molly Lane, formerly a beautiful fashion photographer, grown old and stricken by a slow withering malady that ended in madness. Two of her former lovers join the gathering to pay their respects – the ageing Clive Linley, a composer, and Vernon Halliday editor of a struggling London Tabloid. Neither want to go the way of poor Molly, so resolve to see each other out, should the need arise, by way of euthanasia, which had recently (then) been legalised in Amsterdam.

Long time friends, they are united in their contempt for Molly’s husband, the rather dull and overly protective George Lane. They’re also aghast at her rumoured liaison with Julian Garmony, Conservative Foreign Secretary, an otherwise odious man touted as the next PM. When George discovers, among Molly’s effects, photographs she’s taken of Garmony dressed in women’s clothing, he offers them to Vernon for publication in his seedy rag, both men believing the resulting scandal will bring Garmony down. But Clive argues that no matter what any of them think about Garmony, publishing the pictures is morally indefensible, also a betrayal of Molly’s trust. This causes a rift between him and Vernon, and through a series of further misunderstandings, they wind up as bitter enemies.

Although Clive seems at first the more sensitive and likeable character, he’s actually quite a shallow and self centred aesthete. While out walking to clear his mind for composition, he witnesses a rape, but does nothing about it, and doesn’t report it either, seems actually to consider it of only passing importance and hardly relevant when compared with his artistic ambitions. He’s already mentioned the incident to Vernon, and given their later spat, Vernon seizes upon the admission as an opportunity for revenge, and dobs him in to the police.

Of the subject matter, perhaps euthanasia is the one we’d think of as being ripe for moral dissection here, and I admit I thought this was where McEwan was taking us, but he ends up using it as more of a plot device. The business of the closet transvestite politician is more unexpected – publication resulting not in the scandal Vernon (and perhaps we) are expecting, but rather the opposite, that instead it fleshes Garmony out, at least in the public eye, as the more sympathetic and wronged party – so if anyone gets the last laugh it’s him.

The actual denouement of the story was flagged quite early on, so I had a fair idea how things were going to end between Clive and Vernon – you can probably guess yourself. I’d hoped I was wrong because that seemed the least interesting outcome. I suppose, ever the optimist, I was holding out against their pettiness and stupidity and hoping for a reconciliation in Molly’s honour. There’s an element of farce too in the twists and turns, which many critics seem to have taken offence at, claiming the humour fell flat or wasn’t at all funny, and that was true in a way – transformed by the moral vacuity of the protagonists into something far more sinister, and lent instead an abrasive edge to the story that really got under my skin.

If you’re a fan of McEwan you’ve probably already read this one and have your own opinions on it. If not, don’t be put off by the poor reviews.

It’s a short read, and well worth it.

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long long wayIn this centenary of the first world war we’ve not been short of moving commemorations, and then there’s always a wealth of literature to remind us as well, and for me there’s been no more powerful and insightful an evocation of those awful years than Sebastian Barry’s 2005 novel “A Long Long Way”. Unlike other Great War fiction, which tends to treat the United Kingdom as a uniquely Anglo-centric affair, this story follows the life of Willy Dunne, a young Irishman who enters the war by way of volunteering for the Dublin Fusiliers.

We’re reminded that the Ireland that entered the war, was not the same Ireland at the end of it. At the beginning, largely Catholic Nationalists from the South were encouraged to join up, the thinking being their fighting alongside Ulster Protestant Loyalists from the North would speed Ireland towards a more harmonious transition to Home Rule. But then came the 1916 uprising when Nationalist ambitions took a more aggressive turn with an uprising that was put down by brutal force of arms. So, while Willie Dunne and his fellows were away fighting for King and Country, and dying in vast numbers, news was reaching them of the same King sending gunboats up the Liffey to bombard the Hell out of Dublin, and executing fellow Irishmen as traitors.

Thus, on top of the horrors they face on account of the war itself, they must now come to terms with the bewildering loss of all certainties at home. They enter the war as part of the United Kingdom and the Empire, are waved off by their countrymen as heroes, but end up despised by many of those same countrymen for their service to a uniform that is suddenly seen as an oppressive force against Irish freedoms. As the war grinds on, and the troubles deepen, they also lose the trust of their fellow (non-Irish)comrades-in-arms, facing casual racism and suspicion as well as the more familiar horrors of war hurled at them by the Germans.

At home on leave, Willie witnesses the shooting of a young rebel, and in a letter to his father, expresses his confused sympathies for the boy’s needless death. He’s looking to his father for comfort and reassurance that all will be well in the end, but his father, a police superintendent and a staunch Loyalist, considers the rebels to be traitors, and disowns Willie on account of his sympathy. So Willie has the sense of having lost his father’s love, as well as all he has come to think of as home, that even if he survives the war, there is nothing for him to return to.

While the turbulent history of Anglo-Irish relations is a story in itself here, Barry holds us to the view of the world through Willy Dunne’s bewildered innocence and its gradual loss – loss of love and homeland, and all in a cause that grows more opaque and futile as the years wear on, so that in the end all that’s certain is the terror of the war itself, a dwindling number of surviving comrades, and memories of intense friendships born of war in the flicker of an eye, then lost in moments of horrific violence. Meanwhile, the enemy, though certainly feared for their ferocity, are blurred out to an almost abstract concept, rarely encountered face to face, and spared even the venom levelled at Willy and his mates by their own side.

This is not an easy read, in part because we know Willy is doomed, that the manner of his death is merely an event in the future we must work towards, and largely irrelevant anyway because Willie has been dead from the moment he joined up, the story of his brief young life thereafter being more a foreshadowing, an account of the slow hollowing out of his soul. The imagery of this most brutal war is as vividly portrayed here as any I’ve read elsewhere, but I felt its grotesqueries were brought to a more painfully sharp relief by the incongruous lyrical beauty of Barry’s prose, also that additional layer of the almost unbearable shredding of Willy’s inner being as everything that grounded him as a boy sinks into the mud as surely as his mates sink one by one into the mud of an obliterated Belgium.

As war fiction of the cautionary kind, this novel scores very highly indeed, bringing humanity front and centre and cherishing its innocence in the face of the unspeakable evils and the sheer stupidity that we all know stalks the world still. Also, coming at us as it does from such an unusual angle, it highlights all the more the futility and the tragedy of those years. I found it an awe-inspiring, deeply moving read.

May the ghost of Willy Dunne for ever haunt us all.

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history of loneliness

A History of Loneliness is a novel about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in Ireland. It’s an important and unflinching work exploring the corruption of power on a vast scale, its systematic cover-up, and the devastating effect the scandal had upon the psyche of a nation when it woke up to the truth of its betrayal.

Odran Yates, is a good man, sent for the priesthood by his mother at the age of 17. He’s not sure if he has a true calling. It was simply the done thing and, in common with many other lads of his age, he simply went along with it. But he finds he enjoys the seminary life and excels at his studies. Scarred by tragic childhood events, and abused by the parish Priest – a thing he’s long suppressed – Odran is more damaged than he seems. Is the Church to be his rehabilitation back into  life, or an escape from it?

Reticent and bookish, he begins his career teaching at the Catholic school, thinking to settle into the quiet cloistered life. For decades, he keeps the real world at bay, only to find himself suddenly sent to cover a parish for his old friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle who, after only a short tenure, has been quietly “moved on”. Although promised it’s only a temporary thing, Odran finds himself marooned in the position, a hapless pawn in a grand power-play as the first paedophile cases begin to break, and the church seeks to cover itself. We learn it’s not the first time Tom Cardle has been moved on, and though it’s obvious to us now in hindsight why, to Odran it remains a mystery.

To be a priest in Ireland at the outset of Odran’s career, was to be man highly regarded and trusted. People gave up their seats on trains for him, bought him food and drink and generally prostrated themselves in hope of currying favour with God. But when the scandal breaks, the priesthood becomes at once universally reviled, priests reluctant to go about in their collars for fear of attack. Odran is accused of attempting to kidnap a small boy when he was only trying to help the child who had lost its mother. Such is the paranoia and hatred of the public, he is set upon in the street, punched to the ground, then treated appallingly by the Garda who are quick assume him to be a paedophile “like all the rest”.

As the story shuttles back and forth in time, pieces of the puzzle and the all too human weaknesses in Odran’s character are revealed and we are forced to ask: how could such an intelligent man really have been so naive as not to know what was going on? Did Odran, and all the other good men of the Priesthood, simply turn a blind eye? Or were the good men themselves also victims of the institution they so loyally served?

Worse is to come with Odran discovering how the corruption goes to the core of the Church, that rather than work with the authorities in exposing and punishing rogue priests like Tom Cardle, the Church has defended them, covered for them, because the Church could not be seen to be anything less than omnipotent, having set itself above all other authority, save God – above the state, and the law – that Ireland had become up to the time of the crisis a virtual theocracy, the Church unchallenged in its domination over the lives of the Catholic population, and under the cover of which many an appalling abuse took place.

All Odran wants is a return to the quiet life of the school, but as the layers of deceit unfold he looks back and asks himself has he not wasted his life in devotion to an institution that is morally unworthy, indeed responsible for ruining the lives of so many innocents? And as an outraged public turns upon anyone wearing the collar, including Odran, are the good priests not equally culpable and deserving of the public’s anger? But if that’s the case, with so many wrongs in world, who among us is entirely without sin? Who among us has never turned a blind eye to a thing out of a sense of one’s own powerlessness to make any difference whatsoever to a rottenness so deep?

Read this book if you can bear it. Put yourself in Odran’s shoes, then ask yourself, honestly, what would, what could you have done?

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The road from lamghom avenue new cover - smallThere are two major weaknesses of the spirit – well,… there are more than two but we’ll keep this simple. One is the misconception that change must be resisted at all costs, the second is our inability to move on when everything we believe in turns out to have been false, or when everything we have or hold dear is erased by what we perceive to be an adverse fate.

An early lesson is unrequited love. Part of the  psyche begins to break through and we project it with a terrifying vigour onto an unfortunate member of the opposite sex. We fall in love with them but, hampered by our own pathological reticence, we cannot make our feelings known. Instead we believe the other party must know we love them, because how can they not? This love we feel is so elemental, so visceral, so spiritual, it’s like a sickness we cannot shake. Surely, it’s inevitable they will pick up on it somehow and, as is the way of all true love stories, we will have our happy ending?

Eventually we wise up to the fact the object of our desire is not in love with us, never was and never will be, and worse, that we might have wasted years in sad lament for this one love that was not reciprocated, nor even guessed at by the other party. What we earnestly believed in was one thing, the truth of the matter quite another. We look back wondering what the hell it was all for, and the truth is, actually,… nothing. Worse, unless we can overcome the void it leaves behind, it will cast a shadow over our potential for future happiness, future love.

Another lesson some of us encounter is when we invest several decades in a particular profession, say as an engineer working for a vast organisation manufacturing something we think is important, something we love doing. Then the economic plug is pulled, the era of de-industrialisation is born and our profession goes through a decade of decline – year on year friends and colleagues are handed their redundancy notices. And then maybe we’re made redundant ourselves, coming up on our middle years, having apparently wasted most of our lives establishing and perfecting skills that are now useless.

The shock of change, the shattering of long held beliefs leaves us naked before that ultimate of all existential questions: what am I doing here? And what the Hell was all that about if everything and everyone we ever loved can so easily and arbitrarily taken from us?

The protagonist of The Road From Langholm Avenue, Tom, a designer of marine engines, is facing the closure of the factory where he’s worked all his life, the prospect of long term unemployment and he’s about to go through a messy divorce, so the whole bedrock of his life has crumbled. He’s also haunted by memories of an unrequited affair from his schooldays with a girl called Rachel, as if in calling him back to his past, Rachel holds the key to his future. Powerless in all other respects, Tom sets out to do the one thing he feels capable of physically doing, and that’s finding Rachel and, regardless of her circumstances after a quarter of a century, asking her on a date.

The story of the unravelling of Tom’s life is contrasted by this Quixotic quest through which we learn of a woman, Rachel, who, unlike Tom, has dealt with tumultuous change throughout her life, reinventing herself at every turn. It takes spirit and a certain ruthlessness to avoid getting buried in the wreckage of the past, and Rachel is an expert, still fighting, still making something of herself every day while Tom is imprisoned, overwhelmed by a cloying sense of stagnation and decay.

Only when we’ve untangled ourselves do we see the opportunities in the present clearly enough and realise our purpose is not defined by anything in our past, be they objects or mind-constructed things, or group loyalties, or past loves. More, the one thing we fear to lose as a result of sweeping change, our sense of self, is the one thing we cannot lose. What we do risk though is holding our selves hostage to the past, by our inability to let it go.

Tom has his denouement with Rachel, and rejects his dying profession, sees his past bulldozed to make way for a housing estate, and he steps out into the wilderness of a post industrial, post millennial Britain.

In simple terms the existential quandary boils down to the fact that every time we wake up, we know our life is not over and, to paraphrase a famous movie quote, we can then ‘either get busy living, or get busy dying’. We needn’t take dying literally here, we can read it metaphorically. And most of us, if we’re honest, risk dying a little each day, poisoned by stuff we know to be toxic yet can’t seem to let go of.

 

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Unless you’re involved in espionage it’s unlikely you’ll ever know what that world is truly like. We can hazard a guess it’s not the glossy shaken Martini and fancy sports car world we see portrayed in the James Bond movies, that the truth is rather less glamorous. John Le Carre worked both as a spy and a handler in the early cold war years, and it’s this formative experience we trust lends such authenticity to his work. Coupled with that we have a unique voice, bleakly charismatic, like an old English folksong. When it comes to writing about spies, there’s nobody else I can take quite as seriously as John Le Carre.

The emphasis of your typical Le Carre spy story isn’t the gadgets, fast cars and guns but the people themselves and through this the revelation that spies are often deeply vulnerable, flawed, fragile individuals, chosen by their handlers for the ease with which they can be manipulated. Then there are the handlers themselves – in Le Carre’s world usually of a classically educated public school background, as is Le Carre. Then there are the people they work for, and of course the tiresome bureaucracy of it, and then the politics, the ambition, the vanity. In other words it’s a distinctly human world, rich in deception, duplicity and betrayal, and one in which people occasionally meet with a terrible end.

In the Perfect Spy, we are introduced to Magnus Pym, an intelligence officer working under cover of the diplomatic service who finds himself sidelined to a posting in Vienna which is a bit of an espionage backwater. The reason? For years, and secretly, his masters, but especially the Americans, have doubted his reliability, and suspected he might in fact be a double agent. When he suddenly disappears, the assumption is that it’s true, that Pym has been spying for the other side and has now defected. The chase is then on to catch him and limit any damage he might do. But Pym has not crossed over – yet. He’s gone to ground in a nameless English seaside town, where he pens his life-story for the benefit of his son, Tom.

As Pym’s story unfolds we discover a man of many layers and many faces – always an actor playing to an audience, always walking a tightrope of love and betrayal. The son of a con-man and a black-marketeer, even his upbringing was one of deception and spin, but as the novel unfolds we begin to feel the yearning in Pym, and the search for the one thing that’s authentic in himself.

Too deliberate and nuanced to be called a thriller, this is more like reading a piece of existential literature, with giant characters, impossibly conflicted and totally believable. Le Carre’s bleak world-view is as infectious as it is at times repulsive, and nowhere is that world view better portrayed than here.

Pym’s potential nemesis is his one time handler, Jack Brotherhood, sometime friend, most times bully and arch manipulator, a man so deeply intimate with Pym over the decades that Pym’s disappearance has led to him being sidelined in the investigation. But while the career types chase their tails, and the CIA with its vast resources muscles in on the hallowed ground of British espionage, it’s Brotherhood, the crafty old field hand, who painstakingly closes in on Pym.

The story unfolds mainly from two viewpoints, Pym’s and Brotherhood’s, but remember both of these men are  spies, which makes neither of them entirely reliable narrators, leaving the reader to bounce around between them in the most dizzying and fascinating way in the search for our own truth amid the smoke and mirrors. Thus, slowly, we form a picture of where Pym has come from, what it takes to be the perfect spy, also the baffling nature of what it is, exactly, that Pym has done, and of course, as the net closes in, what it is he’s about to do.

Often cited as the best of Le Carre’s many novels. If you’re not familiar with him, this is a really good place to start.

 

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