Sin Eater by Megan Campisi

In this enchanting alternate history, a Sin Eater consumes the misdeeds of others, and may have a chance to right some wrongs.

Megan Campisi’s Sin Eater opens with a 14-year-old girl named May being arrested for stealing a loaf of bread, in an alternate version of Elizabethan England. The royal family of Angland is entangled in court intrigue and murders, including of babes, to secure favored heirs to the throne, even considering marriage to the hated Northern lords. Common people work hard for a meager living; some starve unless given special permission from the queen to beg in the street. The penalties for petty crimes are high: vagrants have a hole “burned through the gristle of [the] ear with a hot iron as thick as a man’s thumb.” The penalty for a second offense is death.

In this cruel world, below even dung men and woad dyers in the social order, lies a cursed role: that of the Sin Eater. “It’s always women who eat sins, since it was Eve who first ate a sin: the Forbidden Fruit.” Marked by the iron collar locked around her neck and her tattooed tongue, she may be neither seen nor heard. She is called to deathbeds to hear the Recitation, a confession of sins; she translates these sins into foods, which the family will prepare for the Eating. By taking the sins of others into herself, the Sin Eater absolves the deceased. Every child in the street knows the basics. “Salt for pride. Mustard seed for lies. Barley for curses.” When a deer’s heart appears on a noblewoman’s coffin, the city’s older Sin Eater will not eat it, for the terrible sin it refers to was never confessed. She is tortured and killed, leaving May on her own to wrestle with a deadly royal plot.

Recently orphaned and terribly talkative, May is now forbidden to speak. Her apprenticeship as Sin Eater was both silent and short; she’s still learning which foods match the more esoteric crimes. In her favor, May discovers the strange power of the Sin Eater: afraid to touch her, people move out of her way, granting her access to prison cells and royal bedchambers. Chance introduces her to a group of fellow misfits, including a disfigured man, a leper and a roguish theater player. But she must solve the royal mystery alone and, just maybe, create a new fate for herself.

Sin Eater is a fully fleshed work of speculative fiction, abundant with the fine details of Elizabethan life and, of course, food. May is a damaged and sympathetic heroine, at once intelligent and innocent. This is an opulently imagined debut, horrific and weirdly beautiful, filled with earnest feeling as well as cruelty. Set aside time to read this engrossing novel in one go.


This review originally ran in the March 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 small loaves of bread.

wild times, and a reading

Posts have been continuing as normal here, but I just wanted to pause and acknowledge that the world is turning upside down and all is not “normal.” I’m safe, as much as anyone is these days I think, but I’m… disrupted and upset and frightened. The college where I teach held our last day of in-person classes on March 12, and then sent all students home from the dorms, took a few days’ break, and reopened with online classes on March 18. So, a semester and a half into my teaching career, I’ve been undertaking a new format. It’s been a bit hectic. I’m worried for my students. I’m readjusting to a life lived in my house, in my laptop, and in round-the-clock contact with Hops (he is thrilled).

just as long as we’re together

I am lucky and privileged to be as safe and secure as I am, which is not entirely, but better off than many. This post is not meant to be self-pitying. But I needed to pause, as I said, my usual programming to say: we are all topsy-turvy. If you still want book reviews, they will still be here twice a week. They do get a little harder to produce, though, I confess.

If you are like me and you’re luckier than most, think about what you can do to help. I like the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports booksellers in times of crisis. We want independent booksellers to survive! I’m also looking into options like the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation and USBG National Charity Foundation for food & beverage service workers, whose work I so appreciate and who are mostly or entirely out of income just now. (Bars and restaurants have been closed in the state of West Virginia, and in many states and communities, and probably more will be closing; where they are allowed to be open, business is obviously slow.)

(I have loved some bars.)

If you can help someone else, do so. And obviously, please, isolate and take precautions – not just for yourself, but for others and for community.


And now, a reading. If you’re here, maybe, like me, you’ll appreciate a restorative by way of Paul Kingsnorth, whom I love. I find his truths to be beautifully expressed, painful, and exquisitely true. So “in the time of the great, strange plague,” here is “Finnegas” (h/t Pops for finding this). I find it comforting, and beautiful. “We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us.” (Shades of Savage Gods.) Read, and be safe. Book reviews will be back on Friday. Take care of each other. Thank you.

Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden

I had my composition students read this excellent article by Jemele Hill at The Atlantic, as we discussed issues in higher education and the rhetorical tools that make for good argument. I felt the memorable book title mentioned, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, rang a bell. I was motivated enough to go looking for a copy; I ended up getting it through interlibrary loan (ILL) at the college library, which fit neatly into our library instruction period – I got to show the students how to make the request, and I brought it to class when it arrived, so we could see how far it had traveled (just down the highway from Morgantown’s West Virginia University) and how long I’d get to keep it (sixteen weeks!). After all that, I was interested enough to read it, too.

William C. Rhoden’s deliberately provocative title comes from a racist comment made by a white fan at a Lakers game, and refers to the problematic relationship between Black labor and white profits. There’s a paradox at work here: the highest-paid Black athletes in professional sports pull truly unimaginable sums of money, but they still lack power over their own circumstances in some vital ways, and the owners, coaches, and powers-that-be in sports are still overwhelming white. It might seem counterintuitive to call someone a ‘slave’ who makes tens of millions, but Rhoden has some strong arguments to make about power dynamics. His book is partly a history of Black American athletes since the beginning of commercial sports in this country, and even before that. It is also partly a call to action: Black athletes have contributed for too long to the enrichment of white authority figures.

Because I’ve been trying to teach my students the strategies of argument this semester, I thought of this book in those terms. Rhoden has a strong thesis; we know from the outset his position on the question of Black athletes in the contemporary American sports scene. He offers substantial and substantive evidence, throughout history and in examining several perspectives (athletes, agents, parents, coaches, owners). Some of my students balk at arguments that voice a strong opinion; they have gotten it into their heads somewhere that ‘neutrality’ is desirable, but I argue that neutrality is first of all dishonest, and secondly, how will you ever convince anyone of anything if you are afraid to take a stand? Yes, Rhoden’s stance is clear from the start. And it’s worth noting that, as his audience in this instance, I was prepared to follow him: I was predisposed in his favor. But I think I can still say that his evidence, and the means and organization of his audience, were well-designed.

I learned a lot of history from this book. Major Taylor I knew, of course, but I did not know Isaac Murphy (horse jockey), Moses Fleetwood Walker (baseball), or Jack Johnson (boxer from Galveston). I knew Jackie Robinson, but not Curt Flood or Rube Foster. Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolf were vaguely familiar at best. A number of individual stories, these and many more, I found fascinating, so involving that I was in danger of heading down a rabbithole until Rhoden brought me back to the larger picture. Also, I learned in this book that the alley-oop originated not in basketball but in football!

Chapters are named for the dilemmas he identifies as running through history: the dilemma of illusion, the dilemma of physical bondage, of exclusion, of inclusion without power, of neutrality, of the double burden (being both Black and female), etc. He coins the term “Jockey Syndrome,” for what happens when those in power change the rules in order “to maintain control in the face of a perceived challenge to white supremacy.” As the term suggests, this began with horse racing. When I read about this concept, I immediately thought about the unspoken ‘rule’ and general resistance against the jump shot, early in basketball history, and the NBA’s official rule against the slam dunk in the 60s and 70s. (Tell me that wasn’t racist.) He comments meaningfully on the “Conveyor Belt” that carries young Black talent from lower-income or at-risk areas through college and into professional sports, all the while impressing upon them that they should feel grateful for the opportunity, and meanwhile capitalizing on their skills. He decries Michael Jordan’s neutrality on social and political issues – race issues – as a lost opportunity. “Black athletes like Jordan have abdicated their responsibility to the community with an apathy that borders on treason.” He criticizes Bob Johnson, founder of BET (later owner of the Charlotte Bobcats), for using race and Black culture to make his billions but failing to deliver much in return.

At the center of the problem he identifies is the relationship of Black Americans to the larger American culture and socioeconomic systems in which they live. It’s vital that he takes this longer-term historical perspective, beginning with slavery and following through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and whatever we’re going to call this present ugliness we’re living. Had the first Black owner of a major sports team come a generation earlier, Rhoden argues, the community would have celebrated; it would have meant the beginning of substantive change in power structures. But the success of integration, he writes, has led to the disintegration of Black communities and a certain sense of solidarity. What we have in place of a more segregated but more self-sufficient Black community is the Bob Johnson model. For example, the integration of Southern minor-league baseball meant the dissolution of the Negro Leagues. “A pattern was set: A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration.” Johnson’s mentality, “of using backness as a way to get a piece of the pie without necessarily feeling any reciprocal responsibility to sustain black institutions… was the natural outcome of a half-finished mission.” That half-finished mission was integration, perfectly represented by highly-paid but powerless professional athletes. In other words, Rhoden’s argument about Black athletes is about something much larger than sports.

Rhoden has been a sports journalist since I was born, credited with elegantly handling the intersection of race, sports, and social history. This book was proposed in 1996 and published in 2006, and feels a bit dated already, in some of its details; but the essence of the problems he identifies has absolutely not changed. It’s an important argument; these are important conversations to have. Recommended.


Rating: 8 dollars.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kawai Strong Washburn

Following Friday’s review of Sharks in the Time of Saviors, here’s Kawai Strong Washburn: That Isn’t the Way the World Works.


Kawai Strong Washburn was born and raised on the Hamakua coast of Hawai’i. His short fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, among others. He has received scholarships from the Tin House and Bread Loaf writers’ workshops and has worked in software and as a climate policy advocate. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and daughters. Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, March 3, 2020) is his first novel.

How does a story with multiple protagonists come to be?

photo: Crystal Liepa

I think a lot of writers gravitate toward what they love, and I love books in which you get to think into multiple consciousnesses. You get to expand your initial impressions. And it’s possible to do this with a third-person perspective, but it can feel less rich, or it can move me less that way.

I knew early on that it was going to be about a family, and I really wanted to dive into each person and challenge myself to create characters that would have perspectives that were nothing like mine. With all the different family dynamics involved, pushed in different directions, each has their own blind spots and their desires and their failures. It was a challenge, but one I wanted to try, because I felt it made for a richer experience as a reader, and so I wanted that as a writer as well.

How do you handle the storytelling challenge of shifting points of view?

For me it is very hard, partly because none of them are based on me. I read a section a few years ago, that was excerpted in Electric Literature, in which Dean hits his mother. Somebody came up to me after I read that and said, oh, you’re so brave to write about having hit your mother! And I said, this is not my life! None of these characters are me, or my family. They’re not based on anyone I know. With Dean, the challenge was to write a character who would have tried to beat me up in high school. If I encountered him in most walks of life, he would feel like an antagonist. Is there a way that I can write this character and understand what makes him tick with a sense of empathy but without letting him off the hook for his faults? Create this whole character who has problems and stupidities and issues with anger management, but in a way that challenges me to think about how he might justify his feelings to himself.

I love language. I really love it when writers take risks with language and render a new way of speaking and thinking that I haven’t experienced before. It takes me to a new place. I wanted to do that with the characters as well, and so in addition to creating these different psyches, I then had to create a different language for each, so that they each felt like a different consciousness. There were so many revisions to get sentences right. Given a thought that might be the same for Kaui and Dean, how would that feeling play itself out in different sentences? What would their voices feel like in their head? It was a ton of work. It was awful. I would never do it again. If I’d known at the time what a challenge I was setting for myself, I probably would have been like, no. But once I was in there, that was the work that was before me.

So this is not autobiographical.

I share very little with the characters. All the locations where all the scenes happen are places I have been. I could draw on my own experiences in those places to describe the smells and the ambient details. And there are times when I indirectly brought in observations that I had, as someone from Hawai’i moving [to the mainland], the cultural dissonance. Observationally I drew upon that, but there are almost no experiences in the book that I drew from my personal life directly. Having lived and grown up in Honaka’a, I experienced the place long enough that I had an innate sense of the culture and how most people think and feel and act.

I wrote a first novel that will never see the light of day. I think that that’s where I got the classically autobiographical elements out. In this book, in any moment when I felt like a character was doing something that I would have done, or when I winced at their decision-making or their biases or their thoughts or feelings because those were not thoughts or feelings I would have, or they made me uncomfortable, I would push toward those things and away from things that felt like me, in a conscious attempt to move away from the autobiographical.

What aspects of the book required research?

When you come from what is traditionally an underrepresented perspective and an underrepresented place, you carry this burden of authenticity that some writers don’t have to grapple with as much. When I wrote earlier in my career, I didn’t write about Hawai’i, partly because I was scared that it would be autobiographical. Or there was an expectation that because I’m from Hawai’i I should write about Hawai’i. But also I was scared, because there wasn’t a lot of literature out there based in Hawai’i, that I would fail to present the sort of universal feeling or experience of people from the island.

I spent a lot of time doing research into the mythology and native Hawai’ian religion that I had passing knowledge of, being born and raised there. You remember those things, but not fully or accurately enough to be a cultural ambassador. So I went back and spent a lot of time researching Hawai’ian culture and folklore and knowledge and history, because I had just enough incomplete knowledge to be dangerous if I just wrote from what I knew.

Do you have a favorite character?

I do. I don’t know if you’re supposed to say that, it’s like a kid. But I really enjoyed Kaui.

I see the novel as a kind of metaphor for the Big Man theory of history. All the great inventions, the important moments in the collective history of this country, are almost always filtered through the lens of a particular actor, usually a man. That’s what Nainoa came to represent to me, the Big Man theory of the events early in their lives. Particularly Malia is really invested in the idea of Nainoa as some sort of savior. He’s going to be this special, important Big Man. As I was working through revisions, Kaui became the answer to that. I believe that most positive change that has happened in the world has come about because of collective action and a lot of small, simple sacrifices in ways that no one ever sees or celebrates. The right person happens to be in the right place at the right time and gets on the apex of that groundswell, and they’re the one that gets the credit for it. Kaui embodied an answer to that. She’s back in Hawai’i and she has to learn to accept that she’s made mistakes, but the way forward is to reconnect with her family and the land. She has to give up a sense of complete individuality, something that Nainoa was reaching for incorrectly, that was placed on him as a burden. He’s supposed to be something so big that he can fix everything. And to me, Kaui’s reckoning in the latter third of the book is a sort of answer, that that isn’t the way the world works.

I really like the idea of having her be an engineer, having her build things with her hands and be a very physically grounded character, as a woman. I don’t think women necessarily get rendered in literature and in pop culture in a way that I kept wishing they would. I tried to not direct my gaze too much at the body. The way some male writers talk about female bodies can be really creepy and gross. When I was writing Kaui, I wanted her to not be some idealized femme fatale. She was living in a body that was strong and that she was comfortable in. She didn’t have anything to do with beauty or the standard female values that are upheld in a lot of pop culture. She was more driven by friction and velocity and fear, and a lot of things that don’t get associated with female characters. It became a lot of fun and that’s one of the reasons I enjoy her as a character.

What are you working on next?

I’ve started another novel. It has to do with climate change, has some elements of reincarnation, it spans around 200 years, there’s a band of female pirates: it’s cool. I’m enjoying it. It tries to blend a couple of genres, and celebrate both the internality of the human experience and the things I love about plot.


This interview originally ran on March 4, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on March 4, 2020.


Kawai Strong Washburn’s entrancing first novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, spans years and crosses over to the mainland and back again, following the Flores family–Malia and her husband, Augie; their sons, Dean and Nainoa; their daughter, Kaui–and the myths and gods of Hawai’i.

In Honoka’a in 1995, Malia remembers, “The kingdom of Hawai’i had long been broken–the hot rain forests and breathing green reefs crushed under the haole commerce of beach resorts, skyscrapers–and that was when the land had begun calling.” She addresses one of her children: “When I close my eyes we’re all still alive…” and she thinks back to the night “when your father and I were naked in his pickup truck, Waipi’o Valley, and we witnessed the night marchers.”

The night marchers are the first sign of magic in a story that plays with the concept throughout. What is magic and what is imagination; what is myth and what truth; which are the forces for good? Where does modern medicine meet the inexplicable, and what alchemy results?

When middle child Nainoa (“Noa”) is seven years old, he falls overboard in the waters off Kona and is surrounded by sharks. But instead of attacking, they carry him carefully back to the boat unharmed. This event is hailed as legend, a miracle, mark of the gods; in the years that follow, Noa’s strangeness will help to bring his family partly out of the economic depression brought on by the fall of the sugarcane industry, but his gifts are dubious and unreliable. His siblings have talents of their own to offer, but are alienated by the obvious specialness of Noa, the chosen one.

The novel’s perspective shifts, chapter by chapter, from Malia’s to each of her children; Augie’s voice will be heard only at the very end of this astonishing debut. Noa’s chapters are precise and observant, Kaui’s and Dean’s variously disgruntled and colorful and more vernacular, Malia’s reveal a close attention to larger meanings. Washburn’s prose style shifts with these voices, but throughout he showcases lush description and stark contrasts. In Kaui’s voice, “We set our toes and fingertips on razored bits of stone and slipped ourselves into the veined cracks of sheer walls of limestone or granite or basalt, all of it ceilinged by a thunder-brained sky.”

All three children travel to the mainland in search of education and opportunity. In Spokane, basketball star Dean has earned a full scholarship but grapples with the pressures of school and sport. In San Diego, Kaui discovers drugs and free climbing and falls in love with a woman who does not want what Kaui wants. After Stanford, Noa moves to Portland, where he saves lives as an EMT. He has a good partner and loves her daughter, but still struggles with his gift. Perhaps his lifesaving ability is not what it seems. Despite the family’s constant focus on Noa, the chapters that cover their separate lives offer refreshing views of Kaui and Dean, who are intriguing, flawed, engaging characters unto themselves. Their parents may center on Noa, but the novel resists doing so.

Amid various crises, each adult child will cycle back to the islands they call home. Noa, as always, leads the way, but Dean and Kaui have roles to fulfill within the family and on the islands, too. Their parents’ needs are both burden and gift. Malia continues to question the apparent favor bestowed upon her middle child: “If you were more of the gods than of us–if you were something new, if you were supposed to remake the islands, if you were all the old kings moving through the body of one small boy–then of course I could not be the one to guide you to your full potential. My time as a mother was the same as those last gasping breaths of the owl.” Each character is torn by the need to belong to a place and a people, the need to rescue and be rescued, to persist.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a gorgeous, rich, multifaceted novel. As it shifts between the mindsets of Malia and her three children, it poses questions behind their stories, interrogates joy and love and faith and loss, rage and redemption, the price and reward of returning home. This is a story about a small number of central characters and their often sad and painful daily lives, and also about more universal struggles. It’s about past, present and future Hawai’i, including the racial tensions between native Hawai’ians and the haoles that have changed their world so much. It’s about family, hope and risk.

Memorable characters, richly evoked settings, heartbreaking realism and alluring myth combine in a magical, expertly plotted, completely absorbing novel. Washburn takes his readers into a world that is both known and entirely new.


Rating: 8 owl feathers.

Come back Monday for my interview with Kawai.

The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family by Bettye Kearse

A descendant of enslaved Africans and a president tells her family’s story with pain and dignity.


Bettye Kearse grew up hearing a line of advice that had been handed down in her family through generations: “Always remember–you’re a Madison. You come from African slaves and a president.” In The Other Madisons: The Lost History of a President’s Black Family, she works to explore this statement and its implications for her life.

West African griots (masculine) and griottes (feminine) have, for many centuries, been caretakers of the oral traditions of their families and communities. It is a role that is passed down and serves an important function in, for example, enslaved families, where literacy was illegal and “even their pockets were not their own.” Bettye’s mother was the seventh griotte in her family, tracing back to a girl who was kidnapped from what is now Ghana and renamed Mandy on the shore of Virginia, where she would be treated as a possession of James Madison, Sr., and bear him a daughter. As this book opens, Bettye’s mother delivers to her the box of records and memorabilia that generations of “Other Madisons” have compiled. This spurs the author on her own path to become a griotte, to retell the story of her family.

The Other Madisons includes a family tree documenting Kearse’s links back to Mandy and to the Maddisons (with two Ds), then Madison, Sr., whose son James Madison, Jr. would be a U.S. president. Her family has long felt proud of the Madison name, but for Kearse, the connection is a reminder of rape.

Kearse’s research, and that of the griots who came before her, is impressive. In search of deep truths, she travels from her home in Boston to Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, New York City and Madison’s plantation in Virginia, walking in her ancestors’ footprints and grasping ever more deeply the magnitude of the tragedy of slavery. While there is surprisingly solid evidence (slave records being notoriously poor) to support much of the lineage back to Mandy, Kearse is unable to prove a genetic link to James Madison. She accepts this, but it doesn’t change her sense of the relationship. For a family that relies on the griotte‘s oral history to know its own past, the oral history’s confirmation of the Madison connection is enough.

The Other Madisons, as a thorough history of one family, may offer answers for other descendants of enslaved people as well. It is part personal quest, as Kearse works to understand and reconcile her own origins, and a carefully researched and documented correction to the American historical record.


This review originally ran in the March 3, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 steps.

Later: My Life at the Edge of the World by Paul Lisicky

Paul Lisicky’s memoir of early ’90s Provincetown illuminates his own coming of age and portrays gay romance under the shadow of AIDS in lyrical, thoughtful prose.

In his searing, lovely memoir Later: My Life at the Edge of the World, Paul Lisicky (The Narrow Door; Lawnboy) looks back at Provincetown, Mass., 1991-1994. It’s a place for a young gay man to find a community; a haven for artists; a belated coming of age; the height of the AIDS epidemic; a place known simply, in the author’s mind, as Town. It is “the edge of the world” both geographically and metaphorically. “Town a lyric bubble outside past and future. Town a dream that rips up all your intuitions about narrative.”

Paul is in his early 30s when he moves to Provincetown as a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, after years of graduate school. Early pages express his difficulty in leaving his mother, breaking up an interdependence. In Town, he finds a community where it feels safe to be openly gay, where sex is readily available. “I’m a good ten years behind them, a hormonal teenager in adult skin.” This is a revelation, but with a heavy-looming shadow. Young men are dropping all around him; Town is also a place to die. “AIDS takes hold of a life, with all of its ideals and aspirations, and throws it to the pavement like a jar.” Even as Paul’s life blossoms, sex and death are interwoven. Later realizes that they will never be separated again.

This is not a memoir purely of loss and mourning, although those themes are always present. Young Paul wants a boyfriend, enjoys flings and explorations, settles down and breaks up. He sees sex and death and politics all around him, the patterns of the summer people (“summer is as wonderful as it is awful”), economic and cultural shifts. The literary life of Provincetown serves as background for his life there, taken as a beautiful given; careful readers will recognize other famous writers even when they are noted only by first name.

Lisicky’s prose showcases his precise ear for language and eye for descriptive detail. “If horniness weren’t narrowing my perception, I’d be able to step back and see how cinematic it is to see these bodies moving–it is like a scene out of Fellini if Fellini had been queer. No wonder the moon likes it here.” Under such loving observation, Town is both microcosm and macrocosm. Later is a personal memoir but also a witness to the way in which the gay male experience is forever, irreversibly changed by disease. “Tender boat, still afloat, even though it’s springing leaks…. As easy to tear open as skin.” This is a book of yearning, of love and sorrow and wanting and, yes, hope: deeply vulnerable and attuned to the divine. To be read for historical context or simply for its stunning truth and beauty.


This review originally ran in the February 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 ice cream cones.
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