Posts Tagged ‘biography’

#CBR Cannonball 25: Dancing under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's GulagDancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Side Note: If you can help it, try not to read too many books about death camps too close together. It can get very depressing and then, even worse, you could become numb to the suffering.

My friend let me borrow this book at the same time that she lent me Unbroken, and I was cautiously optimistic about it. But it was a mistake to read the two so close together because I couldn’t help but to compare the writing, and Dancing Under the Red Star, sadly, could not compare.

Karl Tobien, the author, is the son of the book’s subject, Margaret Werner Tobien. In some cases, an author close to the subject is able to add depth to the story by virtue of personal knowledge and a more intimate understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, a lack of writing ability will trump all of that. It’s not that Tobien is a terrible writer; he’s adequate, I suppose. It’s just that his level of writing ability can’t really do justice to his mother’s amazing story.

Margaret Werner moved to Gorky, Russia, when she was a little girl. Her father worked for Ford, and he moved to the factory’s plant in Russia during the Great Depression, hoping to improve his family’s situation. Unfortunately, things were even worse in Russia than they were back home. But Carl Werner was not one to go back on his word, so he kept his family in Russia.

russian yoda

Because he was American, he was eventually arrested and sent to a work camp. His family never saw him again. A few years later, Margaret was also arrested for treason and espionage. She spent ten years working as a prisoner. She survived, and eventually became the only American woman to survive the gulags (and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s right there in the title).

Margaret’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, but Tobien’s telling of his mother’s story is oddly lackluster. He kept emphasizing that his mother was the only American in all of the camps. Who cares? Did she suffer more because she was American? Countless Russians died, too. Were their lives worth less? Stalin’s cruelty knew no bounds; we’ve got that. Does it make him so much more of a monster because he wrongfully imprisoned an American woman?

I also had an issue with the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a small part of the story even then.

russian breakdancing

Karl Tobein is a Christian, and his mother became a Christian later in her life, too. I can appreciate that the cruelty of the gulag helped her to believe in the existence of God, which primed her to believe in the gospel later on. But the inclusion of so many random references to God, with only brief mentions of Margaret’s later faith in the appendices, made them seem tacked on just for the sake of mentioning God. I’m a Christian, so I can understand that urge, but if Tobien wanted to share her testimony of faith, I wish he would do it straight out and all at once, instead of scattering it throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s an amazing story that isn’t told very well. I blame his editor.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 22: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve lived in Long Beach pretty much all my life, and have lots of friends who’ve lived in Torrance. I’ve passed by Zamperini Field numerous times without stopping to wonder who it was named after. Well, now I know.

Louie Zamperini was a world-class runner on the way to breaking the barrier of the four-minute mile when, suddenly, his country needed him. He heeded the call and joined the Army’s Air Corps as a bombardier. I just finished reading Catch-22, and I’m glad that I got to read a little of it before reading Unbroken because it helped me to create a backdrop of absurdity for what I was about to read.

Zamperini crashed in the middle of the ocean, survived on rainwater and fish for over a month, and was then captured and tortured by the Japanese.

My parents are Korean, and many people of their generation dislike the Japanese, a propensity passed down to them by their parents before them. I’d always known it was because of the Japanese occupation of Korea, but I’d never learned about the brutality of that occupation. After reading this book, I can understand a little better why my parents have such an aversion to the sound of the Japanese language. What happened in those death camps was inhuman at the basest level.

It makes me really sad and ashamed to know that POWs in American prisons are treated with similar cruelty and lack of dignity (Abu Ghraib, I’m looking at you). Maybe they’re not being starved, but we do know that they’re being humiliated. I get that some of them might have done awful things, but most of them were just following orders. Nothing gives us the right to torture them, no matter what they’ve done to us. This is the one time I’m going to have to disagree with Jack Bauer.

jack bauer

Anyway, Zamperini’s story is nothing short of amazing. The fact that he was able to survive so many different hardships is boggling. Hillenbrand’s writing is strong, precise, and honest, which I really appreciate. I appreciate that she didn’t try to gloss over his struggle with alcoholism after coming home, as well as his conversion to Christianity later in life. She told the story of the real Louie Zamperini without pulling any punches.

He’s still alive, by the way. He’ll probably outlive us all. Louie Zamperini is a survivor if ever there was one.

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My Ten Favorite Books of 2011

I finished a Baker’s Cannonball (that’s fifty-three books) for CBR-III, but I only really finished forty-eight in 2011. But that’s plenty of books from which to choose a Top Ten.

10. Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan
y: the last man

This is actually a graphic novel series in ten volumes, and not a single book. But it’s a graphic novel, so it’s a quick and fun read. The premise of the story is that a mysterious plague has caused every male organism on Earth to die: except for Yorick Brown, an aspiring escape artist, and his helper monkey, Ampersand. It explores a lot of gender issues, but does so in a witty and interesting way. There are plenty of meta references and jokes, and a few parts even made me laugh out loud, which rarely happens when I’m reading.

But this is a graphic novel series for grown-ups, and not a comic book for kids, so be forewarned that there are some squicky parts that prudes like me don’t appreciate, including some nudity.

9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
things fall apart

Culture changes with every generation. The dominant people of one generation can quickly become obsolete and shunned by the next. Things Fall Apart explores what happens when someone cannot let go of the past in order to adapt to the future. Okonkwo, the most powerful man in a remote Nigerian village, is unable to change as the times do, with tragic consequences. This book is a quick read, but a heavy one.

8. John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
john macarthur: servant of the word and flock

Iain Murray is, in my opinion, one of the finest biographers of our day, and certainly the foremost Christian biographer of our generation. His proto-biography of John MacArthur is a brief but encouraging look at the life of one of my spiritual heroes. Murray himself reminds the reader that a full biography can’t really be finished until the subject’s life and testimony are complete, but this is a great glimpse at what that full testimony will look like when it’s ready to be written.

I can only wonder who will write Murray’s biography when he is gone.

7. John Adams by David McCullough
john adams

John Adams is an historical figure who doesn’t get much play time in the American classrooms of today. But he’s certainly one of the most important patriots who ever lived, and historian David McCullough brings him to life in the pages of this book. Adams was a man of deep integrity and passion, and I appreciate that McCullough chooses to write about men of character instead of those who lived more glamorous and superficially exciting lives.

6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
high fidelity

This is a book that will speak to anyone who’s ever loved and lost and pined after someone they couldn’t have. Hornby has a knack for writing about common human experiences with a humor and with that makes them seem somehow glorious because of how pitiful they are. Rob Fleming is everyman, and laughing at his romantic misadventures helps you to laugh at your own.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
the hiding place

One of the few books I re-read in 2011, I was surprised at how much richer this book was for me upon re-reading it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate God’s love and care for His children since I first read it back in high school, but I was very personally encouraged by this book, and the testimony of Corrie ten Boom’s life, especially in how God used her time in a German concentration camp during WWII to teach her more about His power, grace, and love. This is a book that I’ll keep in my heart for the rest of my life.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
extremely loud and incredibly close

I hear that the movie version of this book is retaaaaahded, but don’t let that stop you from reading this beautiful, tragic, poignant book. One of the first novels to be set against the backdrop of 9/11, it came under some fire for being “manipulative” because of its setting. But I think time has been kind to it, and I found the story of young Oskar Schell’s search for a way to make sense out of life after losing his father in the 9/11 attacks to be profoundly moving.

3. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
black swan green

What High Fidelity is for relationships, Black Swan Green is for growing up. Jason Taylor is unpopular, unconfident, and uncomfortable. His parents are on the verge of splitting up, the girl he fancies fancies the class bully, and, to make matters worse, he has a stammer that makes King George VI look like Cicero. He’s the Rob Fleming of junior high, and David Mitchell writes this semi-autobiographical character with honesty, compassion, and feeling. It’ll make you look back on the miserable memories of junior-high awkwardness (if you have them. I have them in abundance) with fondness — not because they weren’t really miserable, but because that misery shaped you into the person you are today.

2. Native Son by Richard Wright
native son

Native Son may well be one of the most important works of American literature. It’s well-written, thought-provoking, and harrowing. It tells the tale of Bigger Thomas, a black man ironically forced into a terrible situation by the kindness of people in a class oppressing his own. Part of me wants to say it’s a sad story, but it’s also a very cold story. Wright himself described it best when he said of its creation, “I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.”

1. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller
prodigal god

I guess you could accuse me of copping out because I put a Christian book at the top of my list. But while this book may not change the world at large, it certainly changed my life, and my view of God’s love and grace. We’ve all heard the story of the prodigal son, and we think that the word “prodigal” means “lost” or “wayward.” But what it really means is “wastefully extravagant,” and Keller posits that the real prodigal in this story is the Father, who lavishes his love and riches on a son that doesn’t deserve it. I can’t even write about this book without being moved to tears because I know that God has given me so much more than I could ever hope to deserve. Because of His prodigal love, all the riches of heaven are mine, and there’s not a thing I can do to lose it or earn more of it. This book is a must-read for Christians who want to glimpse into the depths of God’s love for them.

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What were your favorite books of 2011?

Cannonball 41: John Adams by David McCullough

John AdamsJohn Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no secret that I loves me some David McCullough. He’s like the Iain Murray of American history.

McCullough takes a lot of flak in some circles because of his narrative writing style, but as a nonacademic history buff (well, as nonacademic as a history buff can get), I appreciate that he’s not just reciting historical facts to his reader. He’s painting a picture of a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

And John Adams was a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

Adams was a simple farmer with strong convictions about the land where he lived. He believed that he and his fellow colonists ought to be free to pursue a fair living without being bossed around by a king who lived thousands of miles away. He got pulled into politics for the sake of this budding nation, and he served her faithfully, and often without thanks.

He was a man of integrity who was loathe to fight fire with fire when he was attacked, even when people were spreading untrue rumors about him.

abigail adams

Abigail Adams

He shared a remarkable marriage with a remarkable woman. He and his wife Abigail were apart more than they were together for much of their marriage. Adams often traveled abroad as an ambassador to continental European nations, trying to garner support for the budding American nation.

McCullough clearly did his homework. He read tons of letters and documents so that he not only knew what the historical facts were, but also so that he could imagine what Adams must have felt at certain points in his life. McCullough has a rare gift for sympathy that he uses to really get into the lives, heads, and hearts of these historical figures.

I really appreciate that McCullough chooses noble subjects to write about. He could’ve chosen to write about the life of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. These two were more popular figures at the time, both a magnetic personality and commanding presence. Instead, McCullough chose John Adams, whose opponents mockingly called him “His Rotundity.” He wasn’t dashing or charismatic, but he had integrity. He didn’t own slaves, and he extrapolated the value of freedom to all men, not just to those who were like him. He chose a man of virtue to write about and immortalize, and I respect him more for it.

John Adams was well-written, compelling, and a great in-depth look at the life of a simple man whose country demanded more of him. He was a rare man, and his story inspires courage and duty.

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Cannonball 37: The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine extended an unusual invitation to me: she invited me to go grave-hunting. As it turns out, Corrie ten Boom is buried in Santa Ana, and you can go visit her grave.

I was in high school when I first read her book, The Hiding Place. At the time, I read it more as a Holocaust book than anything else. I remember thinking, “Man, concentration camps suck.” But I don’t remember much else.

Well, before hunting for Miss ten Boom’s grave and standing there wishing I remembered why I thought I ought to admire her, I thought it might enhance the experience to reread the book. Boy, am I glad I did.

I missed so much the first time around. The book isn’t just about the horror of the Holocaust — it’s also about God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of difficult times. Of course the book talks about the amazing ways in which God answered prayers during Corrie’s time in the concentration camps. But it also talks about how He used it to teach her more about Him, and how her faith in Him grew through these terrible trials, and even of how He used various circumstances before Hitler came to power in order to teach her about God’s love.

I was especially impacted by her singleness. I remembered that she died a spinster, but forgot that, at one point, she was deeply in love with someone who ended up breaking her heart. After this happened, her father comforted her by reminding her that, yes, she did love Karel (the young man who ended up marrying someone else), but that God loved him more than even she could. And he encouraged her to pray that God would help her to love Karel with His love. She prayed that prayer and, in years to come, learned to pray it for people who did far worse things to her than disappointing her hopes for marriage.

The Hiding Place isn’t necessarily the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly a great testimony of God’s power and faithfulness. It’s easy to see why Miss ten Boom was traveling the world for speaking engagements well into her eighties, until a stroke took her ability to speak in public.

corrie ten boom

And if you ever get a chance, and you’re in the area, visit Corrie’s grave. It’s nothing fancy, and it might take you a while to find it in the section of the graveyard it’s in. But, much like Miss ten Boom herself, it’s simple, unassuming, and faithfully proclaims that “Jesus is Victor.”

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Cannonball 36: John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and FlockJohn MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I meet someone new at church and strike up a friendship, one of my favorite questions to ask is: “So, how did you become a Christian?” Many people light up as they recount with joy how God opened their eyes to the beauty of the gospel, and how He has done such a mighty work in their lives and hearts.

Iain Murray’s new biography of Pastor John MacArthur was a joyful testimony of God’s work in and through this remarkable man.

Murray is, in my opinion, one of the best biographers of our day, and certainly the best Christian biographer. He brings his subjects to life on the page. He doesn’t just rattle off dry facts about their lives, but gets enough inside their heads to show you the man behind the writings. His two-volume biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was extensive and in-depth, and it was clear that it was a labor of love for Murray, who served as Lloyd-Jones’ assistant for three years.

His biography of John MacArthur is admittedly just an overview of the man’s life so far. As he’s still alive, the full story is still being written. But Murray is a friend and admirer of MacArthur, and he saw fit to commit to print the testimony of some of the more major events of MacArthur’s life, including the significant impact he has had on evangelicalism today.

twelve extraordinary women

One of my most prized possessions: an autographed copy of MacArthur's Twelve Extraordinary Women, made out to "Jelinas." That's right: MacArthur calls me by my nickname. (Click pic for backstory)

I personally owe a great debt of gratitude to John MacArthur for much of my own Christian growth through his books, sermons, and even for the establishment of the Master’s Seminary, the school from which my own church’s pastors graduated. So it was stirring to read about how God called MacArthur to pastoral ministry, and then gave him an exceptional commitment to preaching and teaching the Bible and making it the authority, letting it inform his convictions and views instead of simply imposing pre-existing opinions on it. It shows in his writings, it shows in his preaching, and it shows in his life.

Murray touches on most of the important events of MacArthur’s life and public ministry, and reading about God’s faithfulness to glorify Himself through this faithful servant of God was a real encouragement. I love reading Christian biographies because I often marvel at the ways in which God has used ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and this always reminds me that the same God who made them extraordinary is the same God who makes me extraordinary.

There may never be any interest in my biography, but God knows my testimony, and He rejoices in it as much as He does MacArthur’s. Someday in heaven, MacArthur will hear me share the testimony of God’s faithfulness to me in my life, and his heart will be filled with praise because of it.

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Cannonball 36: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith 1939-1981 by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading Murray’s first volume on the life of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, I was practically foaming at the mouth to read the second volume.

It did not disappoint.

This look at the second half of Lloyd-Jones’ ministry covers his ministry at Westminster Chapel, his relationship with InterVarsity, his eventual rift with this ministry, spiritual depression, illnesses, and, above it all, his supernatural faith in a supernatural God.

Murray painstakingly researched his subject. I’m sure that his personal admiration for the man made that process a lot easier. And, through Murray’s faithful research, people for generations to come will have a clear picture of this man, whom God used so mightily in His kingdom’s work.

It’s hard to put into words what I enjoyed most about the biography. I enjoyed so many different things. Murray shows Lloyd-Jones’ unwavering conviction that the Word of God is God-breathed and useful for teaching, correcting, rebuking, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). He also shows Lloyd-Jones’ spiritual sensitivity in dealing with controversial issues.

But he also paints the portrait of the pastor as a family man. He was devoted to his wife and daughters, and could hardly stand to be separated from them. He was a die-hard patriot, and Wales was the home that he loved more than any other place in the world, despite his faithful ministry in London for so many years.

He looks at the Lloyd-Jones’ life during World War II, and how it changed them as it changed the nation.

Above all, Murray faithfully shows what Lloyd-Jones himself believed with fervor: that he was just an instrument, and the true skill lay in the hand of the One who wielded it. While it’s clear that Lloyd-Jones was mightily used to promote the gospel and the kingdom of heaven, all the praise goes not to Murray or to Lloyd-Jones, but to the God of heaven.

I benefited greatly from reading about Lloyd-Jones, as well as from reading excerpts of his writings that the author saw fit to include. I look forward to reading more of Murray’s biographies in the future.

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Cannonball 34: D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years, 1899-1939 by Iain H. Murray

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones the First Forty Years 1899-1939David Martyn Lloyd-Jones the First Forty Years 1899-1939 by Iain H. Murray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I actually didn’t know much about D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones before my friend Mark lent me this book. I’d heard his name attached to Christian quotes here and there, but I didn’t really know much about him, his ministry, or his legacy as a pastor and preacher in England.

Well, Iain Murray has opened my eyes to the treasury of wisdom contained in the words of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

Murray is a faithful biographer who actually had the privilege and blessing of working for the subject of his biography. He presents a faithful telling of Lloyd-Jones’ early life, upbringing, conversion, early medical genius, and sacrifice of that genius for the sake of God’s call to a pulpit ministry.

Lloyd-Jones loved the Word of God. God gave him a special gift to understand and teach the Scriptures to people. He also had a special gift for evangelism. God used his gifts many times to convict people of their sinfulness and need for a Savior: Jesus Christ. God used him to bring about a sweeping spiritual revival in England.

Murray includes excerpts from Lloyd-Jones’ sermons that really drive that point home. I wish I’d written down the passages in the book that impacted me most; he had such a clarity when it came to the Word of God.

And Murray is, in my opinion, the most talented Christian biographer of our generation. I was first introduced to his biographies when Cornerstone Bible Church‘s pastor James recommended his Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography.

His account of Lloyd-Jones’ early ministry is a gripping read, and a testament to God’s faithfulness in the life of one man. One of my biggest takeaways from reading both of these biographies is that the same God who used Edwards to spark the Great Awakening of the 1700s and the same God who used Lloyd-Jones to bring revival to England in the 1900s can bring revival to us today.

I pray that this would start with Cornerstone Bible Church, and in my own heart.

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Cannonball 32: My Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary

My Own Two Feet: A MemoirMy Own Two Feet: A Memoir by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My dear friend Minna (mother to my buddy JN, the one who always lets me borrow his books) let me borrow this book along with The Luckiest Girl. She loved it and was certain that I would, too.

Being the anal reader I am, I had to read A Girl from Yamhill first. But, after having read My Own Two Feet, I have to say that I think it can stand alone without having to read Beverly Cleary’s account of her early life.

My Own Two Feet picks up where A Girl from Yamhill left off: young Beverly Bunn is leaving Oregon for sunny Southern California. She’s never been away from home before, but has been longing for freedom and independence for just about her entire life.

This volume follows Cleary’s college education, decision to become a librarian, her courtship and marriage, and living through World War II, and Cleary writes her account in the same unassuming, lively prose with which she writes her books about Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse.

She has really lived a remarkable life, and she writes about it in such a compelling way that I finished the book in no time. I love biographies that read like fiction. And Beverly Cleary is a master at that.

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Cannonball 30: Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen Ambrose

Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: I watched the miniseries before I read the book. And maybe that’s a good thing, since I wasn’t picking at the miniseries, comparing it to the book.

As far as I could tell, the miniseries was a pretty faithful adaptation. But I digress. I come to discuss the book, not the miniseries.

The book follows a company of paratroopers through their experiences in Europe during World War II, from their basic training to their drop into Normandy on D-Day through the end of the war. The author follows a few of these men with particular care, and his telling of their personal war stories adds a human element to the historical accounts.

What makes Band of Brothers such a remarkable book is that the stories are true. Men really fought with this sort of bravery. They really endured these harsh, unbearable conditions. These men from all over the United States were largely ordinary, blue-collar men, but they fought with extraordinary courage.

Stephen Ambrose spent years gathering all of the information for this book. He got to know many of the men he wrote about, and heard these stories from their own lips. Despite receiving conflicting accounts regarding certain events (which he discloses), he writes about them as faithfully as he can.

Ambrose writes directly; his language isn’t too flowery, which is appropriate, considering the horror of war. He matter-of-factly describes the grim realities of war and, in doing so, echoes the matter-of-factness that many veterans show when they describe their experiences in the trenches. They don’t see that they’ve done anything particularly heroic. They simply fought hard because it was the right thing to do.

This book is a rare achievement. Kudos to Stephen Ambrose for capturing the remarkable story of Easy Company for generations of Americans to read, enjoy, and remember.

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