HIS VERY BEST: Jimmy Carter, A Life, by Jonathan Alter | Book Review


HIS VERY BESTJimmy Carter, A Lifeby Jonathan Alter

Described by the author as “perhaps the most misunderstood president in American history,” this biography reaches wide to reframe the reader’s understanding of Jimmy Carter.  This important book, arguing to substantiate the conclusion that Carter’s presidency was exceptionally consequential, strives to offer an informed, revisionist view of the Carter presidency, sandwiched between thoughtful accountings of the formative and post-presidency years. This is a big book, nearly 800 pages.  Critics and fans of Jimmy Carter shall relish Alter’s thoroughness, and future Carter biographers shall accept this book as their formidable standard.

A specialist in the American presidency, Alter has interviewed Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama, and written three New York Times bestsellers (two on President Obama and one FDR).  He has been honored for his accomplishments in film, television, radio, and literary criticism.  This Carter project took five years to complete, involving unprecedented access to Mr. Carter himself, his family, and more than 250 of his life- and -professional associates, Americans and foreigners, including White House & Georgia government staff, generously listed in the book (Notes: Author Interviews). 

The book’s title is a takeoff on Carter’s U.S. Navy experience with legendary Admiral Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, “the smartest man I ever met,” and Carter’s disciplinarian supervisor whose demanding work ethic and relentless, “drilldown” curiosity even surpassed his own.  Upon reviewing Carter for possible assignment to his command, Rickover asked him had he always done his best.  After first answering “Yes,” then “No,” and when Rickover barked “Why not?” Carter did not answer, and the interview abruptly ended.  Though later hired by the admiral, whom Carter admits to having the most profound effect on his life, Carter was never able to answer to himself why he had not always done his best, and vowed privately to try to do his best for the rest of his life. 

The president’s dogged adherence to his personal vow and the “Rickover Way” of interrogation were manifest in Alter’s brilliant recap of the successful Egypt/Israel accords. Conversely, Carter’s failure to always do his best resulted in several of his most humiliating defeats (i.e., Shah residence in America; and Iranian hostage rescue attempt), examples thatillustrate shocking absence of the “Rickover Way”.  

Alter’s  book builds a strong case that the Carter presidency was, indeed, consequential in many dimensions—human rights; foreign policy; natural resource conservation; household and commercial energy consumption prudence; restoration of ethics and integrity of the White House and federal government; deregulation of the transportation industry; changing the rules across the board of regulatory rulemaking methodology to include compliance cost; fortifying defense and intelligence posture and military strategy (including modifying the inherited irresponsible strategy of “mutual assured destruction” with the more credible “countervailing strategy” which the Soviets unequivocally understood would render senseless their initiating a first strike); increasing domestic natural gas production; arresting rampant inflation and many other achievements, which have been erroneously attributed to his successors.

Alter fortifies his case by telling convincingly Carter’s ascendency from silence against the dominant racial intolerance of his rural-Georgia upbringing to a bold leadership role in the quest for racial justice in America.  He details Carter’s unsurpassed domestic record of infusing minority (and women, including “RBG”) appointments into the federal judiciary. 

While Alter’s description of President Carter’s painstaking leadership in crafting the Egypt/Israel accords argues well for his application of the “Rickover Way”, he omits important analysis of how this relentless technique was used in other complex situations, with enormously successful & consequential results, such as comprehensive regulatory reform (against the fierce headwind of the bureaucratic Washington environment) and fortification of U.S. national intelligence/defense posture (into the teeth of Congressional, post-Vietnam-Nixon-Ford budgetary wars). 

Deregulation and regulatory restructuring were passionate adventures for this president, but the stories, the adventure-players, and the enduring results were omitted by Alter. President Carter inherited annual expansion of regulations and associated paperwork of the Johnson-Nixon-Ford years, which produced 34% per year growth in the Code of Federal Regulations (doubling every 2½ years).  He reduced it to 2.5% per year by the end of his presidency, a rate nearly sustained for the next 30 years. Inheriting Carter’s extraordinary regulatory team (colorfully nicknamed Stealth, Ayatollah, and other unspeakables ) President Reagan received lasting, largely unearned and misplaced credit for President Carter’s obviously consequential work.

The baggage of  “weak president” was a false narrative about President Carter, which Alter deflates but could have dismantled more completely. Carter preserved the U.S.A. strategic, military superiority over the U.S.S.R. (amid much ballyhooed domestic and international enthusiasm for the S.A.L.T. process), by keeping cruise missile technology and Trident Submarine MIRVed capabilities off the negotiating table. Finally, he squelched the S.A.L.T.process, protesting Soviet aggression into Afghanistan (talks were later revived by President Reagan, who benefitted from Carter’s having husbanded our formidable strategic assets). Carter also reversed the inherited lack of readiness of U.S. conventional forces, through the successful,internecine leadership of a publically obscure Defense Department brigadier general, smashing through the near merciless congressional truculence on defense spending.  That Carter “foot-soldier” would later gain national and international identity as Chairman of the JCS and Secretary of State for Carter’s Republican successors, who, of course, would take credit for rebuilding our military’s strategic and conventional posture.  Future biographers will more completely analyze and report the effective execution of the Carter defense playbook. 

In addition, future biographers might elucidate more thoroughly the “nuts and bolts” of the general legislative methodology and its success under President Carter. Currently, his gradesfor legislative success range from a “failing F” to much more favorable characterizations like Alter’s.   And, other analysts surprisingly claim that Carter’s was the 3rd most productive legislative record in the history of the office (behind Johnson and Wilson).  Whatever, it needs documenting.  Alter correctly alludes to the remarkable success of Carter’s Congressional Liaison leadership, but the powerful, catalytic influence on “process” by the “Wexler Factor‘’, was mentioned but not detailed nor given its due.  Carter’s addition of Anne Wexler to the White House Senior Staff (coupled with her intellectual and personal compatibility with his #1 advisor, Rosalynn) midway into what had been publically characterized as his truly failing presidencyshall be detailed by the next biographer and shown to have been extraordinarily effective, with substance as a blueprint for his successors.

Alter’s descriptions of low points are vivid and reveal the president at his worst. Had Carter launched his normal fusillade of questions at his staff concerning the Shah’s medical condition and treatment options, the Shah would likely not have come to U.S. soil.

And, lack of Carter’s legendary grilling, prior to signoff authorization of the hostage rescue attempt, coupled with grossly inadequate operational drilldown, was fatal. Had questions been asked and answered about the complex system plans in the critical areas of simulated/practice in desert terrain in advance; qualifications of pilots including actual familiarity with the chosen helicopters; proper battle designed helicopters selected and pre-tested to at least minimum flight hours required and airtime readiness guidelines followed; and standard high risk, comprehensive, on-site, “go-no go” command & control instructions, prepared and followed (incredulously, none of the above occurred, as the subsequent, scathingly controversial Holloway Commission Report stated), the negative consequences could have been avoided. Alter’s book, to his credit, is not silent on some of these omissions, and although the president has never denied responsibility for the mission’s failure, as Alter points out, Carter bravely authorized the mission, and many others failed in its execution.  This distinction shall be left to future biographers.

I enjoyed and strongly recommend Alter’s book for delivering an unmistakably more positive assessment of Jimmy Carter’s presidency than had been generally proffered.  Alter’s assessment has bookended the presidential years with some richly informative descriptions of Jimmy Carter’s “before” and “after” growth.  As a result, his book has portrayed the life as one of extreme consequentiality, more effectively than any Carter book before it.   Yet, Alter has left room for future biographers to add to our understanding of Carter’s presidency.  Several knowledgeable figures are missing from the listed interviewees, (i.e., key persons had deceased prior to the project’s window).  Nevertheless, Alter’s formidable case leaves little doubt that future historical research shall support his favorable, biographical characterization of President Jimmy Carter.

—Jim Scott


Boys & Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Review by Claire Zito

I consider it a blessing to be a young woman growing up in the age of the #MeToo movement. While it has led to some tension and confusion, this is a fascinating time to be alive. The youth are constantly taking in information, and learning from strangers online about (oftentimes) what not to do. However, I have questioned whether seeing the life-changing consequences of adults on a daily basis due to toxic masculinity has ultimately led to resentment amongst young men. Boys & Sex provides the answer and so much more. Author Peggy Orenstein interviewed a thousand young men ages 14-25, asking them their opinions on many topics boys are often shunned from expressing. Reading this book has given me insight into many groups of young men I didn’t quite understand, but now just might befriend. The biggest example being jocks. As a nerdy theatre kid in school, I didn’t interact with them much primarily out of fear. But the unfiltered emotion in so many of the interviews helped me to understand their side of the story. When talking to customers about the book, I’ve found that no matter your relationship to a young man, you will find this to be eye-opening. Parents, teachers, and young men and women should all read this title. 

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No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

Book Review by Soumyaa Das, bookseller

No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

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In 2018, I first heard of a girl in Sweden that protested against climate change by missing a day of school. As an environmentalist myself, I finally had some hope that large corporations and businesses might actually listen to this rebellious teenager and start saving our environment for future generations. However, as time progressed, I began to believe that there was no chance that we would be able to revert back to emission-free days. In fact, climate change is the most concerning topic for younger generations (millennials and after). Greta Thunberg excellently portrays my exact apprehensions. The imperative and assertive nature of this book is bound to inspire older and younger generations to fix their carbon footprint, and hopefully salvage what we have destroyed. After all, we only have 1.5 years to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Excerpt: “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint – the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform – the bigger your responsibility. Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to given them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

The American Story – A Book Review by Jim Scott


The American Story, Conversations with Master Historians, by David M. Rubenstein

Recognized by award winning documentarian Ken Burns as “one of the best interviewers he knows,” David Rubenstein has written this book “to share with readers some of the wealth of historical knowledge that members of Congress have learned between 2013-2019,” i.e., during the running series of learning at the Library of Congress, Rubenstein’s Congressional Dialogues.  His purpose in creating the 38-session series was to increase for our national legislators their personal level of historical knowledge, that it may inform them better of future challenges and perhaps “help reduce the partisan rancor” in Washington.

Having generated prodigious, personal wealth on Wall Street, becoming a philanthropist of extraordinary dimensions, and long time host on PBS of The David Rubenstein Show (Peer to Peer Conversations), he is a critical thinker: aware of interrelatedness of critical questions, able to ask key questions at the right times, and being an active listener.  Fascinated lifelong with the power of books, he has structured here in his first book a dialogue series with authors who spent typically five to ten years, often longer, researching their published subjects, from the Founding Era to the late 20th century.  Himself educated in history and law, he has been a lifelong book collector, with a visceral understanding of the magnetic power between book-and-author and the radiant potential of that power waiting for release to the critical reader.  

Those who knew him as the master of detail and tireless deputy chief for domestic policy in Jimmy Carter’s presidency, attribute to Rubenstein the rigid rule for guest meetings in the stirringly historical Roosevelt Room: displaying conspicuously those books that may have been written by the specific guests or other books that were assumed logically to have been part of their personal libraries.  Effect: discussions were always more passionate and engaging, with a palpably positive impact on substance and productivity.

Thirty-plus years later, the Congressional Dialogues proceeded under the expert panning for gold by Rubenstein, interacting with the likes of David McCullough on ADAMS, Jon Meacham on JEFFERSON, Jack Warren on WASHINGTON, Ron Chernow on HAMILTON, Taylor Branch on MLK JR, Bob Woodward on NIXON, and many others.  The sessions were well attended and the proceedings effectively edited and reproduced in book-form.  

The book is eminently readable and enlightening.  Most readers will likely agree that Rubenstein’s educational objectives shall have been fulfilled, just as they may agree disappointedly that the “rancor in Washington” continues unabated, though not Rubenstein’s fault.


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Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson | Book Review

Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson, W.W. Norton & Company | Book review by Jim Scott

I.  Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, 2017

II. Letters from an Astrophysicist, 2019

Tyson is a contemporary American astronomer, science writer and communicator, perhaps as famous today as was the late-Carl Sagan in the ‘80s.

Sagan, as director of Cornell’s Laboratory for Planetary Studies and collaborator on Viking’s Mars probes, and Pioneer and Voyager probes outside the solar system, and Tyson, as director of Hayden Planetarium and television host of the National Geographic and Fox program series on the universe, have both earned prestigious public awards for their work.  Tyson has openly demurred to the prospect of filling Sagan’s shoes.  So be it.  But do not let his modesty tempt you to ignore these tidy books by Tyson!

His ‘Astrophysicsis a triumph of clarity and succinctness.  A small book of 200 pages, delivered in 12 chapters, starting provocatively with Ch. 1-The Greatest Story Ever Told”, ending with encouragement to the reader in Ch. 12 to grasp mankind’s place in the cosmos, and eschew the “childish view that the universe revolves around us.”  In between, Tyson delivers accessibility to some of the most mind-numbing concepts that the overwhelming majority of the public would otherwise never seek, never taste, much less digest.  Black holes?  Inter-galactic space?  Neutrinos?

But, then, you might ask, “So what?”  Do we, who do not wish to spend countless hours in labs or behind telescopes, really care what brainiac astronomers-astrophysicists-cosmologists think about?  Maybe, maybe not.  Or, is this another unread, cocktail-table adornment signaling to your house guests how scientifically sophisticated and intellectually curious you are?  Certainly not!

Tyson set out to capture your interest in joining him through his lens as a passionate educator in exploring the universe, and focusing on the nuts and bolts of his craft (astrophysics): that niche in the astronomer’s world that studies the physics and properties of celestial objects, including stars, planets, and galaxies, and how they behave; exploring the nature of space and time, exploring how mankind fits within the universe and how the universe fits within us. 

Tyson may indeed capture you as he has me.  Anticipating that, he has followed with ‘Letters’, a remarkably insightful, compact compilation of decades of his science correspondence (with whomever!), “a vignette of the wisdom (he) has mustered to teach, enlighten, and ultimately commiserate with the curious mind.”  As in art, one might recall having read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, advising a student of poetry to feel-love-seek truth in understanding and engaging the world of art.  “Go into yourself,” beautifully explained by Rilke.

Likewise, in science, brilliantly conveyed in Tyson’s thoughtful, sensitive letters.

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Book Review | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Book Review by Jim Scott | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Perhaps your magnum opus is your chicken liver rigatoni with cippolini onions and sage celebrated by your dinner guests.  Then share the table with “chef” Macfarlane, a master in non-fiction nature writing.  His meal, Underland, is a sumptuous dish of claustrophobia broiled slowly with a peripatetic discussion of deep thoughts while journeying into the bowels of the earth.  He and his companion (the reader, in true Aristotelian fashion) will stare into the face “of deep time…the chronology of the underland…the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretches away from the present moment…measured in units that humble the human instant…kept by stone, ice, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.”

This is no knockoff of James Tabor’s acclaimed, deep cave exploration Blind Descent.  Not as an adventurer seeking record-breaking cave depths, Macfarlane offers this brilliantly researched work to tease the reader’s understanding of the geologic ways of our planet and, along with it, to explore the writer’s take on the human impact against the natural backdrop.  He has done this with the humility of modern physicists (though physics is not his discipline), who recognize that human knowledge is an island in an ocean of ignorance. 

Robert Macfarlane is a passionate environmentalist and Fellow in English at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, where he is Director of Studies in English and University Reader in Literature and the Environmental Humanities.  He is a winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award (2017).  Underland recounts his cave explorations in England, France, Italy, Finland, Norway, and Greenland, supplemented with exhaustive research into biology, ecology, geology, history, glaciology, and astrophysics.  His prose has the transcendent beauty of that expected from an English professor, combined with mythological darkness of literature from the underworld, human imagination of ancient Greek, Hindu, Aztec, Mayan, Inuit, and Finnish storytellers.

  He is a profound believer in climate change who pulls no punches in delineating man’s degradation of the environment.  He speaks both to serious laypersons and scientists, asking without preaching, “did we do that?” as he tackles the issues of whether we stand today in a man-made world gone nuts, or whether that change is yet one more manifestation of nature’s power and variability of the Holocene (the official epoch of the planet’s current history).  Implicit in Underland is his suspicion that the “gone nuts” theorem is a popular by-product of the yet unproven exit from Holocene to Anthropocene (the age of man), which he defines as the “crowning act of  (man’s) self-mythologization…and technocratic narcissism” instead of recognizing the vast forces of the agency of nature.  Readers may recall Nobel Prize physicist, the late Richard Feynman, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

This is no global warming polemic, nor a denier’s playbook.  This is a learning springboard and a summons to get beyond political convenience, to acquire more actionable knowledge of planet Earth and mankind’s feckless stewardship.  Do not be surprised if this book surpasses Macfarlane’s previously acclaimed The Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Old Ways (2012), and Landmarks (2016), and is acknowledged as his magnum opus.  Take the time to read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Book Suggestion by Angella Meanix, Bookseller

If you’re looking for a long-drawn-out book with lots of complicated characters and convoluted storylines, don’t read this book.

Turbulence by David Szalay was a great read. It’s a book of short stories that took me on a journey of brief escapades. I love that I didn’t have to get too involved or keep too much track, rather I enjoyed little insights – moments, decisions, and actions. Each character’s life felt brief and transient mirroring the structure of the book itself; boarding flights, Uber rides and layovers. I still felt connected to each of them and wondered how things would turn out though.  I was completely absorbed.

I am a fan of short stories.  Not all ideas have a full 300 pages in them.  This type of book is great for a quick escape.  Curled up on the couch, the stories played out around me.  The Fall season coming on, a cup of tea and a blanket seemed particularly conducive to the delicate relationships in these tidy chapters.

If you find yourself saying “I don’t have time to read”, you might consider this book or any collection of short stories.  Interpreter of Maladies, Fly Already to name a couple.


GRU to YYZ:  The next morning she had to lose the pilot before she could leave.  He was still in her bed.  Asleep. “Hey”, she said, “Hey, I have to go.”  He opened his eyes (light blue).  There was reddish stubble on his big jaw.  He looked around still not sure where he was.  Outside the last rain of the São Paulo summer was falling audible in occasional plinks and tinks on the window.  “What time is it?”, he finally asked propping himself up.  “Almost eleven”, she told him, “I have to leave in ten minutes”.

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The 60s: The Story of a Decade (New Yorker: The Story of a Decade)

The 60s: The Story of a Decade/ The New Yorker Ed. Henry Finder

| Book Review by Jim Scott |

This is the third of The New Yorker’s ambitious series, The 40s, The 50s, and now, The 60s.  Following the style of its previous collections, The 60s presents historic New Yorker pieces from the decade, accounting in real-time many seminal events of the tumultuous period.   The series’ project director is Henry Finder, the editorial director (since 1997) of this influential and talent-packed magazine.  (The highly respected Finder is also responsible for editing the magazine’s editor-in-chief, David Remnick’s, prolific authorship of books and magazine articles.)

By the 1960s, the magazine had fully transitioned in twenty years from a lighter, oft-time comedic, societal commentary magazine to one that approached problems and issues boldly.  Under editor Remnick from 1998, The New Yorker continued to celebrate its maturity as “fully politically engaged, daring and intellectually exciting.”  The decade series, launched under his tenure and Finder’s leadership, gives vibrancy and substance to that claim of successful, committed transition.

Many timeless works and authors of the ‘60s found place weekly in The New Yorker, and are included in The 60s, such as James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, Bob Dylan, Cassius Clay, John Cheever, John Updike and many others.  The anthology is organized in parts, titled: Reckonings (environment, race, crime); Confrontation (University integration, Berkeley, Chicago, Washington, Prague); American Scenes (Cuba crisis, The Great Society, Missile silos, Woodstock, Assassinations); plus Artists & AthletesPoetryCritics (Cinema, Art & Architecture, Television, Theater, Music, Books).

Current New Yorker writers, including Jill Lapore, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Remnick himself, provide thoughtful, contemporary, historical context for the selected works.  The result is a fascinating time capsule portraying rising awareness or calls to action during what was, undeniably, a turbulent period.

One may pose several questions on editorial decisions driving this otherwise superb ‘60s collection: Where is Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) who ignited the contemporary women’s movement?  Where is Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird, 1960) whose Atticus Finch lionized “white” courage in the face of racial prejudice? Where is Malcolm X’s Autobiography, 1965, which changed the way many Whites and Blacks looked at their worlds?

Despite these omissions, the book deserves your attention and a place on your bookshelf, along with its predecessors, The 40s and The 50s.  Finder’s works are towering celebrations, which should be read by anyone wishing to visit or revisit the trauma and upheaval of the ‘40s, the tensions, and innovations that underlay the placid ‘50s, and the “shattering of glass” which marked the ‘60s.

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Book Review: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

| Book Review by Mike Wall |

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland 

by Patrick Radden Keefe

In Belfast, Northern Ireland in late December of 1972 as many as eight men shoved their way into the apartment of Jean McConville, a 37-year-old widow and mother who had just stepped out of her bath. They ordered her to dress and come with them. All but two of the men were masked. Jean’s oldest son recognized the unmasked men as neighbors. One man carried a handgun. All 10 of her children were present. Downstairs more masked men waited. Jean was bundled into a van. A man put the muzzle of a gun next to her son’s face and told him to leave.

Her body was discovered in 2003. A blue diaper pin she kept clipped to her blouse helped identify her. No one had been prosecuted for her murder.

Using the murder of Jean McConville as the lodestar, Keefe tells the story of The Troubles, the internecine violence and open warfare that has taken the lives of more than 3500 people since 1969. Brokered by the United States, The Troubles ended with The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.

This book records the aftereffects of this conflict, how the participants, years later, “nursed old grudges and endlessly replayed their worst abominations”, and how “they never stopped devouring themselves (322).”

We learn what happened to Jean McConville.

Decades later Gerry Adams. an IRA leader was heckled while giving a speech. The man in the crowd yelled, “Bring back the IRA!” Adams shot back, “They haven’t gone away, you know (319).”

That is a moment to make you gasp, that it could all come back. Yeats in his great poem on the Irish revolt against British rule, “Easter, 1916” asked if all the deaths were worth the gain.

Jean McConville’s death was not. She is the person who matters, the name and story that forces us to move beyond statistics and slogans and into the real pain of political violence.

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A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

avid reader

From The Avid Reader Show, Sam’s latest interviews from a history of over 450 interviews over the past decade:

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck is set in a boarding school in New Hampshire where we meet Ben and his unique teacher, Pierre LaVerdere, who teaches reason and the art of skirting around the truth.  Though Pierre’s students leave him, he never really leaves them.  It’s not difficult to relate to Ben, when Ben leaves boarding school he wonders as we all often do with periods of our lives – what did that experience really mean?  His whole life shaped by a couple of years … why?  When you read the book that why will be answered.  Listen to the podcast:  THE AVID READER

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