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All American History Coverage

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Kliph Nesteroff’s We Had a Little Real Estate Problem: The Unheralded Story of Native Americans & Comedy is an intriguing look at how Native Americans have influenced the world of comedy. Starting with the Wild West shows of the 1800s, Nesteroff chronicles the presence and impact of Native comedic performers through the decades. His lively narrative draws on in-depth research and interviews with today’s up-and-coming comedians. Entertainment stereotypes and representation in media are but a few of the book’s rich discussion topics.

Set in Nashville in the 1920s, Margaret Verble’s novel When Two Feathers Fell From the Sky tells the story of a Cherokee woman named Two Feathers who performs as a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. After an accident occurs while Two is performing, strange events take place at the zoo, including sightings of ghosts. Two finds a friend in Clive the zookeeper, and together they try to make sense of the odd goings-on at Glendale Park. An enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, Verble paints an extraordinary portrait of connection in defiance of racism in this moving novel.

In Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, Nicole Eustace builds a fascinating narrative around a historical incident: the killing of a Seneca hunter by white fur traders in 1722 Pennsylvania. The murder occurred right before a summit between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and the English colonists, and it heightened tensions between the two sides at a fragile moment. Eustace brings the era and its seminal events to vivid life as she examines Native attitudes toward retribution and reparation. 

Cree Canadian author Michelle Good’s novel Five Little Indians follows a group of First Nation youngsters who must find their way in the world after growing up during the 1960s in a Canadian residential school, a boarding school for First Nation children designed to isolate them from their culture. As adults in Vancouver, British Columbia, Lucy, Howie, Clara, Maisie and Kenny struggle to make lives for themselves and escape painful memories of the past. Clara joins the American Indian Movement, while Lucy dreams of building a future with Kenny. Good explores the repercussions of Canada’s horrific residential school system through the divergent yet unified stories of her characters, crafting a multilayered novel filled with yearning and hope.

These Indigenous stories are perfect for your book club, from a history of Native comedians to the true story of a murder in colonial Pennsylvania.
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From 1932 to 1942, Joseph C. Grew served as the United States ambassador to Japan, where he was devoted to cultivating peace between the two countries. Despite his extraordinary efforts, he left the post in 1942 following six months of internment in the Tokyo embassy after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Author Steve Kemper draws on a wide range of sources, including Grew’s memoirs and diary, diplomatic messages and Japanese accounts of events, as he recounts the lead-up to America’s involvement in World War II in Our Man in Tokyo: An American Ambassador and the Countdown to Pearl Harbor.

Grew was an unlikely career diplomat. His background—Boston, Groton, Harvard—indicated a different path, perhaps a career in business or banking. But he sought adventure. On his way to assume new duties in Tokyo, he wrote in his diary that of all his 14 posts, Japan “promises to be the most adventurous of all.”

Kemper takes readers behind the scenes to see the complex realities that Grew coped with on a daily basis. He tried to alert America’s leaders to the challenges of Japan’s increasing militarism and fervent nationalism while doing what he could to keep their foreign policy in check. Where he was open-minded and pragmatic, his boss, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, had a fundamental distrust of Japan. Grew strongly protested Japan’s many devastating acts against Americans, but he was also concerned by the ignorance of American isolationists and pacifists at home who saw the U.S. as a warmonger. 

On January 27, 1941, long before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ambassador first heard the rumor that if the Japanese government broke with the United States, it would plan a surprise mass attack. He passed that word along to the U.S. State Department—however, the Navy had already studied the possibility of a Pearl Harbor attack and considered it unlikely.

Grew’s tireless efforts to avert war with Japan demonstrate both the value and the limitations of any one person in international power politics. This enlightening and well-written history should be of interest to a wide range of readers.

Steve Kemper’s splendid portrait of the American ambassador to Japan during the lead-up to World War II will be of interest to a wide range of history lovers.
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World War II is remembered as a conflict between democratic and fascist countries. But during the 1940s, nearly 10% of the residents of the world’s largest democracy were considered second-class citizens because of their race. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, chronicles how Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home.

The irony of this was not lost on African Americans, who were acutely aware of how segregation kept them from full citizenship. Adopting a “Double Victory” strategy, Black Americans treated the war as a means of defeating foreign fascism and domestic racism. Half American recounts the history of this struggle, from Langston Hughes’ newspaper coverage of the Spanish Civil War to the mistreatment—even murder—of returning African American veterans. Furthermore, Delmont demonstrates that this story is not frozen in the past but is key to understanding—and changing—our present.

This book would have been a significant contribution to our knowledge of World War II history even if Delmont had only focused on the performance of African American combat troops. The Tuskegee Airmen are famous, but fewer people are aware of the Black Panthers, a Black tank battalion that served in Italy, or the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African American marines and fought valiantly at the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. But Half American is more than an excellent introduction to this underappreciated chapter of military history. It is also a groundbreaking illumination of African American civilians’ complex involvement in World War II.

In addition to official records, Delmont used archives, oral histories and contemporary coverage from the Black press to document his work. As a result, Half American gives voice not only to prominent African American leaders such as Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall, but also to Black soldiers, factory workers and other everyday people who contributed to the war effort—people who are rarely mentioned in history books, even though they created history.

During World War II, Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home. In Half American, Matthew F. Delmont chronicles that fight.
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In 1778, when future U.S. president John Adams arrived in Paris to solicit aid for America’s revolutionary cause, most Frenchmen were disappointed that they wouldn’t be meeting with John’s older cousin Samuel, the renowned theorist and provocateur of American revolution. In spite of this past fame, the man some have called the most essential Founding Father is now more closely associated with a Boston beer than American independence.

In her terrific new biography, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff (The Witches, Cleopatra) presents readers with a vivid sense of this complicated man and how, using “sideways, looping, secretive” tactics, Samuel Adams steered Massachusetts and the vastly divided colonies toward asserting their rights and separating from Britain.

Adams was born in September 1722, a privileged son of a prosperous malt maker (hence his association with the contemporary beer). However, he ran the family business into the ground and spent most of his life in penury. “Alone among America’s founders,” Schiff writes, “his is a riches-to-rags story.” But what he lacked in monetary wealth, he made up for in intellectual and moral capital.

Adams was shaped by his abstemious Puritan background; unlike his boastful, self-promoting colleague John Hancock, Adams’ signature on the Declaration of Independence was self-effacingly small. But the impact of his eloquent arguments for American rights was huge, galvanizing the citizenry and causing some British officials to call for him to be hanged for treason. The British troops who sallied forth toward Lexington and Concord in April 1775 were likely seeking not just hidden stores of weapons but Adams himself. He was considered such a lightning rod that many who later gathered in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress mistrusted him. For the sake of unity, he took a tactical back seat during the deliberations, allowing others their moments of glory. This may be one reason his essential contributions to the cause have been minimized or forgotten over the years.

Schiff’s biography focuses on the 1760s and 1770s, the period when Adams’ revolutionary activity was unparalleled. Her dense early chapters especially require a reader’s undivided attention, since she tells the history prospectively rather than retrospectively. We read through a confusing, riotous moment of conflict, for example, that we later realize is what we would now call the Boston Tea Party. The effect is electrifying, and Schiff writes with keen insight and wit throughout. By the end of The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, attentive readers will vibrate with questions about the parallels between Adams’ political era and our own.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Stacy Schiff vividly renders the man some have called the most essential Founding Father: Samuel Adams.
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Angelina Grimke and her sister Sarah were the white daughters of South Carolina slaveholder John Faucheraud Grimke and his cruel wife, Polly. When the sisters fled the South and, as Quakers, sought redemption for their family’s racist ways, they became celebrated 19th-century abolitionists and women’s rights activists, blazing a trail through the turbulent antebellum Northeast with speeches, writings and protests against America’s “original sin” of slavery. This story looms large in the popular American imagination, but in The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family, Tufts University historian Kerri K. Greenidge reveals a counternarrative—one of a complex, conflicted Black and white Grimke family that was often at odds with their country, their own progeny and themselves.

Following the Civil War, white mobs in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York City torched Black homes and churches, lynching people with impunity as they fought to keep the institution of slavery alive. Greenidge unflinchingly relays the horrors that Black Americans endured before the Civil War and during the days of Reconstruction. She also reveals that, during this latter period, the Grimke sisters overlooked their own Black nephews until the boys’ mother, Nancy, who was enslaved by the Grimkes’ brother, begged for help.

The stories of Nancy’s sons—Archie, Frank and John—and their entanglements with their famous white aunts in the postbellum North are rich with ironies. The aunts’ often ambivalent support helped Archie through Harvard Law School and Frank at Princeton Theological Seminary, but there were odd strings attached. For example, the young men had to abstain from flashy clothes and avoid any familiarity with the “negro masses” struggling beneath them. Later, as part of the “colored elite” of the Gilded Age, ​​Archie mingled with Black leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. But these relationships did little to influence Archie’s work as consul to the Dominican Republic and his racist treatment of Black workers there.

Greenidge bookends this history with moments from the life of another Angelina Grimke in the 20th century: Archie’s daughter, Angelina Weld Grimke, who was abandoned by her white mother. Family members despaired over her immodest dress and, later, her impassioned voice as a celebrated playwright and poet. Her stories, as well as her ancestors’, belong in the wider Grimke history. Now, thanks to Greenidge’s provocative and well-written account, they are.

Kerri K. Greenidge complicates the accepted history of the abolitionist Grimke sisters with the full, complex story of their Black and white relatives.
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American Wildflowers

American Wildflowers: A Literary Field Guide exists at the intersection of two important movements: the protection of native plant populations from climate change and shortsighted development, and the decolonization of literature. Editor Susan Barba has gathered a captivating bouquet of plant-inspired writings, with prose and poetry from contemporary greats like Jericho Brown, Lydia Davis and Aimee Nezhukumatathil alongside the words of perennial canon-dwellers like Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. “The best writers closely observe not only the plant but our words in relation to it, and in doing so they focus our attention and clarify our intentions,” writes Barba. What first drew me to this book were Leanne Shapton’s atmospheric watercolors of pressed flowers, which are as ephemeral as the specimens they interpret. A significant addition to the tradition of writing about plants, this anthology urges us to notice the lessons offered by the tiniest bluet.

The United States of Cryptids

Speaking of overlooked (possibly) living things, I can’t get enough of the names of creatures featured in The United States of Cryptids. Snarly Yow? Snallygaster? Woodbooger? Wait, back up. What, you ask, is a cryptid? It’s “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven,” and that right there is a freakishly wide net, folks. But author J.W. Ocker’s emphasis is on the lively lore surrounding Bigfoot creatures, et al., and how these tales both shape and are shaped by the animals’ supposed stomping grounds. “Wherever cryptids are celebrated, the story is so much more important than the science,” he writes, and boy does he have a lot of fun telling said stories. There’s even a “world’s largest chainsaw-carved bigfoot” in a state otherwise light on cryptids (looking at you, South Dakota), a wooden beast born of idle hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Seems about right for a contemporary cryptid.

Toil and Trouble

Toil and Trouble examines the ways in which women throughout history have found agency, self-expression, financial gain and political influence in witchcraft, tarot and other practices with a spiritual element. Remember Joan Quigley, astrologer to Nancy Reagan? She’s among the fabulous cast of characters included here, along with the witches who hexed Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, spiritualist Achsa Sprague, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau and so many more. Ultimately, authors Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson (Monster, She Wrote) argue that the occult offers women a way to rebel against the patriarchal Christian constructs of womanhood. Anyone who has dabbled in the craft by way of #witchtok will deepen their knowledge immensely by reading this book, which is as historically thorough as it is fueled by the modern ascendance of the occult in popular culture. With a final chapter titled “100% That Witch,” you know you’re going to learn a lot and have some fun.

This month’s lifestyles column runs the gamut from nature-inspired beauty to straight-up monsters. Brush up on your preferred form of magic with the help of these three enchanting books.
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Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks.” James Lawson, a key figure in developing the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement, said, “Protracted struggle is a moral struggle that is like warfare, moral warfare.” With these war analogies in mind, Pulitzer Prize winner and war historian Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the movement in his illuminating, engrossing, deeply researched and vividly written Waging a Good War: A Military History of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954–1968.

Segregation was deeply rooted in midcentury America, and many white people were willing to go to extremes to preserve it. Thousands of the civil rights movement’s participants were jailed, many died, and others lived with fears of being bombed, shot, beaten and arrested. In response to these threats, strategic thinking, decision making, recruiting, training and communications all became crucial to the movement’s success, just like in the military. Self-discipline provided the movement’s foundation, along with careful planning and an understanding that the final step must be reconciliation.

By drawing connections like these, Ricks argues that the civil rights movement was militant from the beginning, even though it was nonviolent. As a strategy, nonviolence was not passive resistance; instead, it was an aggressive way to demonstrate “superior skills in resisting.” And because it was so different from militant violence, it confused the foe.

Each location where nonviolent actions took place presented unique challenges, and the movement’s leaders planned their approaches carefully. The bus boycott in Montgomery, sit-ins in Nashville, demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, the March on Washington and other actions were not, for the most part, spontaneous. Reporters and television studios were invited to capture events so the public could read about, see and hear what was happening as Black citizens demanded to be treated as equal members of American society.

King and John Lewis are major figures in the book, but we also learn about the crucial roles played by other important strategists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel. If you want to understand how the people of the civil rights movement went about changing the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, this is the book to read.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks gives us a new way to understand the civil rights movement in his illuminating Waging a Good War.
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Many books have been written about the pressure cooker effect of working in the White House. But as chief speechwriter during some of the most pivotal days of President Barack Obama’s time in office, Cody Keenan has a unique story to tell. In Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America, Keenan recalls an unimaginably intense week and a half during which the Supreme Court issued decisions on same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act and a white supremacist murdered nine Black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Keenan’s job was to help craft remarks that met the moment. What could President Obama say on gun violence that he hadn’t said after Sandy Hook, Aurora and so many other mass shootings? How would he frame a historic court decision that either affirmed or denied LGBTQ+ individuals’ right to marry their partners? And how would he respond to the result of yet another challenge to his signature health care legislation?

Keenan divides his story into chapters, one for each day. It’s an extremely effective approach that adds tension to an already powerful story. Along the way, readers get a fascinating backstage pass to Keenan’s easy writing partnership with President Obama, an unparalleled writer and communicator in his own right who made every first draft better. Keenan also vividly describes daily life in the West Wing: a blur of meetings, emails and deadlines that started early and sometimes ended well after midnight. In particular, we spend a lot of time with Keenan as he hunches over his computer in his windowless office, where the light was “permanently neglected—a jaundiced fluorescence that never varied a wavelength.” (Most West Wing offices are anything but glamorous, as it turns out, and White House doctors actually supplied Keenan and his team with vitamin D pills to counteract the gloom of what he called “the Speechcave.”)

It’s no spoiler to say that the Supreme Court upheld the legality of the Affordable Care Act and affirmed the right to marry. (Who can forget the White House lit up in rainbow colors that night?) And of course, President Obama’s speech at the Charleston memorial will long be remembered for his impromptu performance of “Amazing Grace.” What’s fresh here is Keenan’s wry, occasionally self-deprecating recollection of his role in these historic events. No matter your political persuasion, Grace is a generous, lively and worthwhile read.

Chief speechwriter for the Obama administration Cody Keenan offers a unique perspective on 10 unimaginably intense days that shaped his boss’ legacy.
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American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America’s First Paramedics reveals a hidden slice of history about the emergency services that we all depend on but largely take for granted. Kevin Hazzard (A Thousand Naked Strangers), a print and television writer who worked as a paramedic in Atlanta for nearly a decade, does an excellent job of transforming his exhaustive research into a compelling narrative suitable to its gripping subject.

While the book is replete with white-knuckle medical emergencies, the real story here is the inspiring saga of how the paramedic profession was born. Before the 1970s, emergency services were “slapdash and chaotic,” with ambulance runs “treated like a Frankenstein limb rather than a full-fledged arm of public safety.” Hospital transportation might have been provided by the police, firefighters or a funeral home, with little regulation involved and a shocking absence of training. As Hazzard writes, “On any given day, the patient in an ambulance may have been better qualified to handle their own emergency than the person paid to save them.”

In 1966, medical pioneer Peter Safar, known as the father of CPR, lost his 11-year-old daughter to an asthma-induced coma while he and his wife were away at a medical conference. He channeled his grief into designing and implementing an entirely new model of ambulance care, partnering with Freedom House, a grassroots organization in the Black, immigrant neighborhood of Hill District in Pittsburgh, to train ordinary people to administer lifesaving techniques. After intensive training, a group of Black paramedics took their first call on July 15, 1968, and went on to respond to nearly 6,000 calls in the Hill District that year, saving more than 200 lives. Their response abilities got better and better under the direction of Safar and medical director Nancy Caroline, and their curriculum was eventually chosen by the Department of Transportation to serve as the model for standardized EMS training.

Astoundingly, Freedom House’s achievements were met with “the city’s unyielding resistance,” and their groundbreaking program was eventually turned over to Pittsburgh’s local government. A crew of lesser trained white men took over in 1975. Meanwhile, the longtime Freedom House paramedics who knew how to intubate in the field were asked to carry the bags.

American Sirens is a stirring, ultimately heartbreaking story in which jaw-dropping medical innovation meets racial prejudice. After finishing Hazzard’s memorable account, readers will never hear an ambulance siren the same way again.

After finishing Kevin Hazzard’s memorable account of America’s first paramedics, readers will never hear an ambulance siren the same way again.
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 All the Living and the Dead

We are not born with the innate knowledge that we, and all those around us, will die. At some point, someone has to tell us. A beloved pet or grandparent might pass into the great beyond, prompting a bedside conversation with a parent about the finitude of life. Alternatively, if you are journalist and writer Hayley Campbell, you might absorb the concept of death while sitting in your father’s drawing studio as he studies the decomposition of a kidney. In the background, perhaps crime scene photos of the long-ago victims of Jack the Ripper stare down from a bulletin board.

As the daughter of the artist who created the classic graphic novel From Hell, which fictionalizes the brutal Whitehall Chapel murders, Campbell grew up fascinated by death. In All the Living and the Dead, she takes readers on a tour of the professionals of the death industry, interviewing embalmers, executioners, midwives who work exclusively with stillbirths and more.

In one chapter, Campbell assists two employees in a funeral home as they care for a body and prepare it for burial, and she is moved by their admission that they got into this line of work because of their desire for a meaningful occupation. Most of her subjects are driven by this kind of loving kindness for the deceased and their bereaved, but not all of them. In another chapter, she interviews the boss of a death cleanup crew that scrubs blood from carpets and removes other physical signs of death from a home. This business posts exploitative photos of gruesome and sad scenes to Instagram for shock value and advertising.

But for the most part, All the Living and the Dead shines a light on those with a tenderness for death, and Campbell is an equally entertaining and sensitive guide to these interesting people and their grisly but indispensable jobs.

Over My Dead Body

It is this same appreciation for the dead, as well as for history, that drives journalist Greg Melville as he explores America’s cemeteries in Over My Dead Body. Melville escorts us through 17 of America’s most notable burial grounds, from the mossy colonial graveyards of New England to sparkling Hollywood memorial parks, all with a perfect balance of geeky joy, deep reverence and a meticulous knack for research.

Melville’s prose is pure pleasure mixed with wry asides. A running theme throughout is the difficulty Melville has in convincing any of his friends or family to accompany him on his explorations (Melville, if you are reading this, I am available), but even among his most amusing anecdotes, he never loses sight of the gravity that still vibrates through the stories of the dead. Upon visiting segregated cemeteries across the American South, underfunded and unmapped, Melville’s writing grows hot and indignant. The same tone arises again when Melville visits Arlington National Cemetery: A veteran himself, he flatly rejects the notion of war providing a glorious death, and he is not afraid to challenge this very American idea.

Though one covers the bodies of the dead and the other covers the ground they are laid to rest in, Campbell and Melville meet in their shared belief in the continuing importance of lives that have ended, and in their willingness to examine the complexities of the death industry. For them, the dead continue to speak to us from beyond the grave. Are you listening?

Dying leaves, dying crops, the dying light of a crackling fire. If October fills you with macabre joy, you will find kindred spirits in the authors of these books.
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Mark Twain wrote that “Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.” Gould’s fellow Gilded Age robber barons were more positive. Cornelius Vanderbilt called him “the smartest man in America,” and John D. Rockefeller said Gould had the “best head for business” of anyone. In American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune, Greg Steinmetz briskly tells financier and railroad leader Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of this man of contradictions and why he matters.

Gould originally made his money through various ventures in New York. However, when the Civil War ended, railroads became the most important and powerful industry in the country, and thus the focus of Gould’s business dealings. By investing in various railroads, Gould did as much as anyone at the time to generate economic growth and steer the country toward becoming a world power. As the owner and manager of multiple railroads, Gould was one of the largest employers in the country and made rail travel faster, safer and more comfortable. At the same time, he bribed politicians and used deception to ruthlessly manipulate competitors.

The qualities Gould demonstrated in taking control of the Erie Railroad illustrate his strengths throughout his career: “his brilliance as a financial strategist, his deep understanding of law, a surprising grasp of human nature, and a mastery of political reality,” as Steinmetz writes. Above all, Gould was a pragmatist. He could be a visionary, but only when it didn’t clash with his primary objective, which was to make as much money as he could for himself.

Outside of work, Gould seemed to be less ruthless. Most evenings, he left his office to have dinner with his wife and six children and to read in his library. He did not drink alcohol. He loved flowers, owned the largest greenhouse in the country and cultivated a new breed of orchids. Despite their wealth, he and his family were not part of the city’s social aristocracy. “I have the disadvantage of not being sociable,” he once said.

Steinmetz’s fast-moving and eminently readable biography shows how Gould thrived within the context of his times but also that his greed led to necessary reforms for the health of the country’s economy.

In American Rascal, Greg Steinmetz tells robber baron Jay Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of why he matters to American history.

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