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80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A diverse but uneven collection of stories
Any "best of" collection will succeed or fail -- in the reader's judgment -- according to how closely the editor's taste aligns with the reader's. Of the twenty stories in this volume, I think about half undeniably merited inclusion, and the other half aren't bad (although I suspect I might have chosen a different ten to replace them if given the daunting task of wading...
Published on October 4, 2011 by TChris

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77 of 89 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Weak Collection from BASS
This was probably the worst Best American Short Stories collections I have read. While they all the noteworthy critics and reviewers are professional and remain friendly, they don't seem to appreciate this 2011 collection either. Primarily a nonfiction writer, Ms Brooks became an award-winning novelist. Good for her, that's her niche. Not here, though. All of these...
Published on November 26, 2011 by Chris Custer


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80 of 86 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A diverse but uneven collection of stories, October 4, 2011
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
Any "best of" collection will succeed or fail -- in the reader's judgment -- according to how closely the editor's taste aligns with the reader's. Of the twenty stories in this volume, I think about half undeniably merited inclusion, and the other half aren't bad (although I suspect I might have chosen a different ten to replace them if given the daunting task of wading through hundreds of stories in search of gems). While the editors and I have somewhat different opinions as to what constitutes an outstanding short story, our differences are not vast. I particularly appreciated the diversity of the stories they chose and their recognition that the inclusion of a plot does not destroy the integrity of character-driven fiction.

I admired "Foster" -- the story of an Irish girl who leaves behind "shame and secrets" when she goes to live with another family for a time -- for Claire Egan's ability to describe characters and settings with high definition clarity. Both touching and heartening, it is my favorite of the twenty.

Some of the best stories in the collection are perceptive studies of characters responding to adversity: Tom Bissell's "A Bridge Under Water" examines the lives of a newly married couple who are only starting to understand their differences during the first days of an ill-fated honeymoon in Rome. In Ehud Havazelet's "Gurov in Manhattan," a Russian immigrant, reflecting upon a two year battle with cancer followed by his girlfriend's decision to leave him (and whose dying dog is now in his care), compares his life to the characters created by Russian literary masters. The death of small town America is the subject of Caitlin Horrocks' sadly funny "The Sleep." In "ID," the prolific Joyce Carol Oates puts us inside the head of a teenage girl who is asked to identify the body of a woman who might be her mother.

The stories I most enjoyed reading were funny, although the humor tended to be low-key: "The Dungeon Master," Sam Lypsyte's offbeat, engaging look at alienated teenagers, and "Phantoms," in which Stephen Millhauser describes and attempts to explain the phantoms that inhabit his town (and yours), both made me smile, but "Escape From Spiderhead," George Saunders' futuristic assault on chemically enhanced language and love, provoked serious laughter.

Some stories are good but fall short of reaching their potential for greatness: In "Dog Bites," Ricardo Nuila explores the relationship between an accomplished father and a son with an undefined mental illness. "Soldier of Fortune" by Bret Anthony Johnston tells of a high school boy's fascination with the girl next door and his eventual discovery of the secret she keeps.

Some of the stories are well written but not particularly interesting: In "Ceiling" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian contemplates his success and considers the possibility of change, knowing he lacks the courage to confront his insensitive wife, his superficial associates, or his corrupt benefactor, while indulging the fantasy of reconnecting with a former lover who has rejected him. "The Call of Blood" by Jess Row is an overly ambitious examination of history, ethnicity, and the burdens carried by a medic-turned-nurse who is caring for a dying patient. Megan Mayhew Bergman's "Housewifely Arts" is the story of a woman who makes a nine hour drive to Myrtle Beach with her seven-year-old son so she can hear a parrot speak in the voice of her dead mother -- a journey designed to help her face her guilt. Rebecca Makkai writes about an actor who loses both his ability to act and his relationship with a friend in "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart."

Allegra Goodman aims for poignancy in "La Vita Nuova," her story of a woman who, having been dumped by her fiancé shortly before her wedding date, babysits for a young boy and paints the histories of the people she knows (and her own) on Russian nesting dolls. I was unmoved. I had a similar reaction to "Property," an assemblage of clever sentences by Elizabeth McCracken that describe a man's life in the months following his wife's death, and to "The Hare's Mask," Mark Slouka's tale of a boy's attachment to rabbits during a dark and frightening time.

Strangely enough, two stories are written in the second person, a technique that rarely works. For all her talent, Jennifer Egan ("Out of Body") doesn't pull it off. The underrated Richard Powers ("To the Measures Fall") is more successful in his homage to literature and a lifetime of reading.

Nathan Englander's "Free Fruit for Young Widows" attempts to explain, and perhaps to justify, wanton acts of multiple homicide by making a case for the philosophy of proactive self-defense, but the storytelling is too heavy-handed and the circumstances too contrived for the attempt to succeed. Fortunately, it's the only story in the collection I considered a clunker.
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77 of 89 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A Surprisingly Weak Collection from BASS, November 26, 2011
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
This was probably the worst Best American Short Stories collections I have read. While they all the noteworthy critics and reviewers are professional and remain friendly, they don't seem to appreciate this 2011 collection either. Primarily a nonfiction writer, Ms Brooks became an award-winning novelist. Good for her, that's her niche. Not here, though. All of these stories are linear with simple characters, plots and story lines that are easy-to-follow, and in 3rd person with a rather shallow emphasis on diversity in cultures, backgrounds, ethnicities, and in visceral shock value. These 2011 selections underscore Brooks' lack of enthusiasm, of curiousity, and of sophistication toward any of the elements that make a short story a short story. Her analogy on how a good well-told short story should mirror a good, well told joke is not as humoruous as she intended it to be. Uggh! I can only hope that the BASS series editor learns from this mistake of choice and returns to selecting true short fiction writers for its guest editors.

As a personal rule, I never read the Intruduction by a Guest Editor until after reading the entire selection of stories. For this year's collection, I wish I had read the Introduction first. Heck, I wish I had had a chance to read the introduction before I bought the book. Ms Geraldine Brooks doesn't even care for the short story genre. She has never even written a short story, nor does she care to read them. Worse, she spends most of the Introduction trash-talking the typical American short story writer for the sameness in plots, people, and scenarios. Remember, this example of bad propriety is coming from an author who has never written a short story and yet shows no respect toward writers who have spent years fully committed to the craft and creation of the short story. I say, pass on this collection and wait for next year.
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87 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quick review for busy people, December 17, 2011
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D. P. Birkett (Suffern, NY USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
This is a time-saving review for busy readers. I've marked the locales up front. Geographical diversity is strong this year. (In fact the American connection is tenuous in some cases). The editors grumble about the use of present tense and child's point of view, so if you're irritated by those I've marked them as PT and SPOV to save you time.
There are deaths in only ten, which is a low, score for this collection, although Tom Bissell has a church full of bones and Steven Millhauser has a town full of ghost, which raises the necro-count. Richard Powers was the only one to use the second person narration style. Seven of the stories are from the New Yorker. Here are the potted plots:

Nigeria: Outgrowing the first wife.
South Carolina: Dead mother, live parrot. PT.
Rome: Should we raise the kids Jewish?
Manhattan: Addict suicide. PT.
Israel: Homicidal Holocaust survivor.
Boston: Jilted babysitter rejects kid.
Manhattan: Cancer, lost girl friend, dying dog.
North Dakota: Town hibernates.
Corpus Christi,Texas: Fantasies of the girl next door.
Ireland: Surrogate child. PT, CPOV
Bergen County, New Jersey: Dungeons and dragons. PT, CPOV
Chicago: Gay actor's career skids.
Maine: Old house memories.
New England: Phantoms. PT.
Texas Badlands: Doctor's head injury. CPOV.
Atlantic City: Dead mother. CPOV.
Wotton-on-the-Wold: Old book. PT.
Manhattan: Korean-Jewish-Jamaican triangle, PT
Large Workroom: Designer drugs
Brno: Killing rabbits. CPOV
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best in the Collection are the Most Physical and Visceral, October 4, 2011
This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
This year's editor of The Best American Short Stories 2011 is Geraldine Brooks, an accomplished journalist and fiction writer. She says of her selections "that the easiest and the first choices were the stories to which I had a physical response". I would agree that the best stories in this collection are those that are most visceral and physical in nature. Ms. Brooks also states that "In the end, the stories I fell upon with perhaps the greatest delight were the outliers, the handful or so that defied the overwhelming gravitational pull toward small-canvas contemporary realism."

There are twenty stories in this alphabetically arranged collection. About half of them swept me away and the other half didn't move me as much as I'd hoped they would. Each year, I look forward to this collection with much anticipation and excitement. This year's collection felt a bit below par in consistency and quality.

I agree with Ms. Brooks that the best stories in this collection are those to which I had a physical response. They tended towards themes of violence and/or grief. One such story is by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. In `Ceiling', she writes about a man who realizes he is in the wrong life. He feels lassitude in his marriage which is superficial and without depth. He yearns for his college sweetheart who he's built up in his mind as perfect. As Ms. Brooks states, this story "perfectly captures the yearning spirit of a man who has settled for the wrong wife, the wrong life, in the stultifying salons of Lagos's corrupt upper class".

In `Housewifely Arts' by Megan Mayhew Bergman, a single mother drives nine hours to visit her dead mother's parrot because the parrot is so perfectly able to mimic her mother's voice. The parrot has more of her mother inside her than the daughter does.

Nathan Englander's story, `Free Fruit for Young Widows', opens with a violent act and continues with acts of violence. The story examines the roots of violence as it explores the possibilities and rationales that make violence an appropriate act. Part tale of vengeance and part philosophy, the reader puzzles the situations as does the young son whose father is telling him the story.

Allegra Goodman's `La Vita Nuova' is a haunting story of grief. A woman who is a children's art teacher is left by her fiancé. She brings her wedding dress to school and lets her students paint all over it. The story is about the depths of grief and loss.

`Soldier of Fortune' by Bret Anthony Johnston tells about Josh, a high school freshman who is in love with his neighbor Holly, a senior. When Holly's three year-old brother accidentally gets severely scalded by boiling water and the family has to spend weeks at the hospital, Josh takes care of their home and dog. He grows up during this pivotal time.

In `Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart', by Rebecca Makai, a man and his friend, Peter, have known each other since high school. Both are gay and they initially bonded over that commonality. Peter was beautiful and charismatic and went on to become an actor. At one of his performances he has a meltdown and can't work again. His friend gives his all to Peter getting nothing in return. The reader wonders why his friend would risk so much for Peter.

Joyce Carol Oates, in `ID', tells about Lisette, an eighth-grader who is recovering from a shattered eye socket and broken nose incurred by a beating from her estranged father. Lisette lives with her mother, a black jack dealer in Atlantic City. Lisette's mother has been gone for several days, leaving Lisette alone with no idea of when she'll be back or where she went. The police appear at her school and ask her to ID a corpse that they think might be her mother.

George Saunders writes about prisoners who are used in an experiment where they are given psychoactive drugs that take them to the deepest recesses of their souls. `Escape from Spiderland' is about these prisoners, the experiment, and the feelings of ultimate love, eloquence and sexuality that these drugs render. The prisoners can be brought to the depths of despair and the height of exaltation and then returned to their baselines in a few seconds.

Overall, there are some very good stories in this collection and some that are just mediocre. The ones that stand out are definitely the ones that feel like a visceral gut punch and that pound on the reader's psyche. Ms. Brooks did not want "small-canvas contemporary realism" but sometimes it is the small canvas that shows the most detail and beauty. One just needs to look at it from the right angle.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Despite a refusal to change and a New Yorker fetish, it's good, October 26, 2011
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
I have been reading this collection since Heidi Pitlor took over as series editor (this is her fifth edition). When I heard that Geraldine Brooks was editing this year's collection, I was a bit nervous and uncomfortable, considering how I had never even heard of her before until that moment, even though she had won the Pulitzer Prize. I also felt that, coming off Richard Russo's superb collection last year, this would be a disappointing one. And while this collection has some flaws, it is still and excellent read and a worthy addition to the Best American canon. The biggest problem I have with this collection is its inability or lack of desire to publish more innovative fiction, such as flash fiction or more unconventional fiction. Almost all stories are at least 10 pages long and come from major magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Granta, or Tin House, and while those are superb magazines, why can there never be any stories from magazines such as Barrelhouse, Bomb, Electric Literature, or Ninth Letter, all in their own right tremendous magazines but may not publish "mainstream" literary fiction, preferring something edgy and unusual. The most unconventional story here would probably be Saunders' "Escape from Spiderhead", and that's really only because it's sci-fi where the others are all realist. While I enjoy any good story, I get tired of reading about characters living in NYC or Paris or Chicago, working at a museum or as a musician or a poet, falling out of love with their intensely written partner with some oblique deeper meaning. I also grew tired of reading stories from The New Yorker, which I think the editors publish because of their big name rather than their content sometimes. I understand The New Yorker publishes weekly rather than monthly or quarterly, and therefore has more stories than others, but can we at least get some variety? No Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Paris Review, Ecotone, Zoetrope, Hudson Review, American Short Fiction, and New England Review? All of those magazines publish stunning works, and none of them are included in this year's edition.

That all being said, my favorite stories are as follows:

"La Vita Nuova", by Allegra Goodman, is a simple yet wonderfully beautiful story about a woman who pairs up with a young boy she babysits in order to get over her ex-fiancee.

"Soldier of Fortune", by Bret Anthony Johnston, about a young boy whose dangerously attractive neighbor goes through a horrible family ordeal when her little brother is badly burned, coinciding with his friendship with a troubled youth falling out. A good twist to this story.

"Foster", by Claire Keegan, revolves around a young girl who is sent to a stranger's house during her sibling's birth in a heartwrenching story or neglect, loss, and love.

"Phantoms", by Steven Millhauser, is a creepy but interesting and original tale about a town that is possibly haunted by ghosts, telling how its residents both fear and crave the appearances of these spirits.

"Escape from Spiderhead", by George Saunders, a hilarious but moving account of criminals going through experimental rehabilitation by temporarily falling in love through chemicals, only to be forced to watch their former lovers suffer from a chemical that causes unendurable happiness.

Despite all my negative comments earlier, most of these stories are truly exemplary, and this is a collection worth buying.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My Favorite Collection in Several Years, December 10, 2011
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
I am a big fan of short fiction, and I am always looking for opportunities to read a good short story or two. In the years gone by, when I was not as busy with my work, I'd probably read a story or two a week, mostly in the New Yorker or some similar magazine with a literary bend. Recently, though, I've drifted away from those publications and don't get a chance to read short stories as often as usual. I still make a point of going through the "Best American Short Stories" collections at the end of each year. They keep me abreast of what has been written lately, but each year's edition can swing widely in terms of the quality of writing. I felt that in recent years stories, incredibly literary and well-written as they were, have become stale and too workshop-like. Fortunately, after reading this year's collection I have a renewed sense of optimism about American short story. In my opinion, this is perhaps the best collection in three to four years and well worth reading.

The first few stories in this collection did not really impress me all that much. The American authors still seem to be more obsessed with the inner states of the protagonists minds, interpersonal relationships, and overall moods and sentiments than they are with the plot development and a delivery of just good old storytelling. However, the quality of the stories picked up and soon enough I was reading stories that had a lot of emotional impact and had you thinking and coming back to them for days after I finished reading them. A few of the stories that stood out for me were Nathan Englander's "Free Fruits for Young Widows," Ricardo Nuila's "Dog Bites," and George Sunders' "Escape From Spiderhead." Many others took chances with the narrative style, plot twists, and the points of view. They were as interesting and provocative as they were well written. Overall, I am really happy with this year's choices and hope to see many such good stories in the upcoming edition of this collection.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stories so taut they twang, October 4, 2011
This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
The most compelling part of the 2011 American short story anthology just may be the introduction by this year's editor, author Geraldine Brooks.

She writes about short story form: setup, reveal, reversal and release. "If one element fails, the edifice crumbles." Brooks writes that she likes stories that, well, tell a story.

She doesn't care for short stories that treat plot "as if it were a hair in the soup." If a story is bleak it ought to have clearly earned its bleakness. The best short stories she tells us have a lot in common with the good joke. Each relies on economy and suggestion and I'd add timing.

Brooks tells us why she admires those she has selected. She offers advice to a new generation of writers who chose the short form: go out and live life, and if possible go someplace where "you have to think in one language and buy groceries in another."Carry home in your soul what you learn and then write about it," Brooks advises.

Every story has earned its place in the anthology but a number of the stories especially grabbed me and won't let go.

"Housewifely Arts" by Megan Mayhew Bergman hangs on more than any of the other nineteen. It's a wrenching tale of a single mother reaching for atonement by seeking out the parrot that had been her dead mother's pet so she could hear the bird mimic her mother's voice. It's a story that looks at the things in life that define our humanity. "What maniacs we are - sick with love, all of us."

"A Bridge Under Water" by Tom Bissell is hilarious, erotic and ultimately sorrowful story that follows a young couple as their new marriage begins to crumble during a honeymoon tour of a Rome synagogue. Bissell throws in descriptive zingers that include people with "hydraulically sincere eyebrows" or American tourists from "one of the overfed states."

Richard Powers' "To the Measures Fall" examines a woman's entire adult life and records the cultural and political events of a generation by reflecting how an obscure English novel (a fictitious book by an author who doesn't exist) can have influence over a lifetime. Reading the book for the first time as a student bicycling in the Cotswolds, the woman is captivated. "The thing took you underwater and held you there for the better part of thirteen hours, and two days later you're still winded."

Each of the twenty stories in the 2011 edition has that power to pull the reader underwater. Of the hundreds of stories Brooks read she said she was seeking out those "so taught they twang." I don't think there's any question that she found them.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mediocre, strangely edited collection, August 3, 2013
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This collection from 2011 was not one of the most effective of the Best series, and it was disappointing in many ways. That said, there were some moments that stood out as masterful - Englander, McCracken, and Saunders were some of the most notable and pleasurable pieces in the book, but some of the other pieces felt as though they were included to pique the interest and tastes of all audiences, and I felt like Brooks' editing was all over the place in tone, scope, and even the general ordering of the pieces seemed not to make much sense. The central thread seemed as though there was a non-fiction journalistic sort of approach, and while I tend to normally enjoy these books, this collection was disappointing in this manner as some of these choices weren't very pleasant or refreshing. I felt some of the pieces were bland, and I was not enjoying getting through them. I felt like it was a classroom of writers exercise in collection, rather than an exercise in editing and choice. This is one of the few times I have been disappointed in Best American, so I will certainly continue to read them, but the energy that is normally infused in these collections is simply a cold rubber bladder rather than something I enjoyed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong Collection, March 8, 2013
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
Another wonderful short story collection. Favorites included Tom Bissell's "A Bridge Under Water" (which reminded me a bit of "Hills Like White Elephants"), Sam Lipsyte's "The Dungeon Master," Steven Millhauser's "Phantoms" (which actually frightened me), Joyce Carol Oates's "ID," Richard Powers's "To the Measures Fall," George Saunders's "Escape from Spiderhead," and Mark Slouka's "The Hare's Mask." That's a lot of favorites, but that's how good this collection is. To me, the best things about an anthology are quality of writing ("best of..."), variety of style, and the chance to discover new writers. This year delivers on all three.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Diverse collection rates well, but not the best vintage of recent years, May 7, 2012
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This review is from: The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Paperback)
I have to give 2011 Best American Short Stories (BASS) guest editor Geraldine Brooks credit: she chose a diverse selection of stories for inclusion in this year's volume. Unlike some guest editors who bias their selections according to their own standards or whims, Geraldine Brooks chose stories from a variety of styles, genres, settings, moods and scopes. As a result there really aren't any interconnections between the stories, and when you finish one and start another, you are well advised to recite the old Monty Python segue: "And now time for something completely different".

This leads me to believe that she has indeed assembled a sampler that is somewhat representative of the state of the American short story in the year 2011. However the overall quality level of the stories, while mostly strong, was harmed by a few duds.

That said, I did have my favorites, which were:

--Richard Powers' "To the Measures Fall", which illustrates how subjective our appreciation of literature (and all art) is, and how it evolves over time based on our own life's stages and changes in society. This story is the most likely one in this volume to become a classic.

--Rebecca Makkai's "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart", a touching and at times humorous story, set among the Chicago arts scene, about an actor who suddenly loses his acting ability and his friend who gives him another chance. The story does a wonderful job of portraying an extreme case of a fear that most people have, to some degree, of someday just losing "it".

--Jennifer Egan's "Out of Body", a gripping coming-of-age story set among the urban college set and the various social challenges and distractions they face. This story more than any other in the book keeps the reader on edge until the very last word.

--Steven Millhauser's "Phantoms", a story about a town inhabited by phantoms that illustrates the many ways, both bad and good, that people treat folks who are strange or different than them.

Two stories which I absolutely couldn't understand why they were chosen were: Tom Bissell's "A Bridge Under Water", which has a completely unappealing, pretentious, self-centered main character; and Ehud Havazelet's "Gurov in Manhattan", which was thankfully short but lacking in any lessons or observations I could relate to in my world.

The 2011 BASS is worth reading if you are, like me, a fan of short stories. I also recommend short story anthologies in general as a great way to quickly expose yourself to the talents of a good number of other authors Then, if you find a story and author you like, you can probably find more good works to read.
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The Best American Short Stories 2011
The Best American Short Stories 2011 by Geraldine Brooks (Paperback - October 4, 2011)
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