Edward Eager

Category: children’s fiction / fantasy

Rating: G. A very small amount of cartoon violence

The captivating children’s books by American author Edward Eager are among the classics in children’s literature. I remember being spellbound by them when I was first introduced as a young reader, and my then seven-year-old daughter enjoyed them when I read them to her.

The seven books are, in order, Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Magic or Not?, The Well-Wishers, and Seven-Day Magic. Not really a series, there are overlapping characters, and it’s best, but not necessary, to start with Half Magic.

As fantasies, these might count as forerunners to the modern urban fantasy genre, being grounded in the real city of Toledo, Ohio. There are no paranormal creatures; the magic comes into play from a coin found on the sidewalk, or from a book borrowed from the library. Some of the stories are set in the 1950’s, when Eager was writing, but Half Magic and Magic by the Lake are set in the 1920’s, when he was a teen, and abound with period detail, from Model-T Fords to the songs played by the orchestra at a dance pavilion.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with one of my favourite tropes: Be careful what you wish for. The theme of needing to think through the consequences before you speak or act runs throughout the set of books, but is most evident in Half Magic, where the coin the children find grants only half a wish, and they endure painful mistakes before learning how to phrase their wishes to get what they want. I enjoyed this problem-solving aspect of the books as a child—maybe related to the fact that I grew up to be a programmer—and as a parent, have an even better appreciation of the lessons so gently imparted here.

The illustrations by N M Bodecker are delightful, and humour and wordplay add to the charm. In Magic by the Lake, four siblings spend the summer in a lakeside cabin with a nameplate by the door saying Magic by the Lake. When one of the girls says,

“Don’t you wish it were true?”…

The turtle stuck its head out of its shell. “Now you’ve done it… You couldn’t be sensible, could you, and order magic by the pound, or by the day?…You had to be greedy, and order magic by the lake…”

These books aren’t without faults. There are a small number of scenes of cartoon violence that might disturb the more literal-minded young readers, and the 1950’s attitudes towards race and sex, though mild for the time, make me wince. Use them as opportunities for discussions on how attitudes change, and you should be fine. The faults aren’t serious enough to avoid these stories over, because these books are gateways to more serious reading. Eager invites his readers in to a richer, wider literary world through frequent references to other books and authors his characters are familiar with, and if that leads other children to the tales of King Arthur, or Little Women, or E Nesbitt, or any of dozens of others, then that’s surely a good thing.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost

Category: Historical mysteries

Rating: NC-17. Violence, sexual assault, gore.

This, my friends, is a fingerpost:

How often do you get to learn a new word just by reading the title of a book? I love historical mysteries, but I was intrigued enough to read An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, just to make sense of the title.

This heavily-researched novel, ostensibly about a young woman’s conviction for a murder she didn’t commit, is told by four narrators, the first three of which are clearly unreliable. The 4th, claiming to be the fingerpost—the reliable guide showing the true way—does seem the most trustworthy, as he does a better job than the others of acknowledging his shortcomings, and sheds light on the plot twists and turns made increasingly murky by the 2nd and 3rd narrators. But on watching him fall into religious mysticism, and after being led so badly astray by the other three narrators, there’s room to doubt even him.

So while the true murderer is unmasked, I was left scratching my head on some other aspects of the story. This story’s plot is, if not the most complicated I’ve ever dived into, certainly one of the top five. Despite being nearly seven hundred pages long, it was dense, with little wasted or repetitious. Whenever I found myself skimming, I had to back up and re-read sections to make sure I didn’t miss some plot point. Having a scorecard would have helped. If I hadn’t discovered at the back of the book the list of characters, nearly all historical individuals, I would have gotten quite lost.

The book has been compared to the movie Rashomon, with its conflicting points of view. I don’t know; I haven’t seen it. The movie that came to mind for me was Memento, with its under-current of delusion, and constant, disorienting reassessments.

As far as historical novels go, this is one of the most effective I’ve ever read, bringing 17th century Restoration England to life with a wealth of detail and consistency of voice. (The detail is the sort to make a reader glad to be living in an era benefiting from electric lights, basic sanitation, and—in enlightened countries, anyway—publicly funded health care. This is not the kind of story that inspires romantic yearnings to return to some picturesque and unrealistic days of yore.)

As gripping novels go, however, it isn’t as effective. The reviewer who said it “has you reading by torchlight under the bedclothes” didn’t match my experience. It was a bit of a slog to start with, until the first section turned into an eye-witness account of the experimentation with blood transfusions and other anatomical discoveries that began the transformation of medical practice, and then it took off. That narrator was a charming fellow; it was a shame to discover he was an out-and-out liar.

The 2nd and 3rd narrators didn’t fare as well. Both were so cruel and self-centred I didn’t enjoy the time spent with them (nearly half the book). I came close to giving up halfway through the 2nd narrator, but by then I really wanted to know how it resolved, and other reviewers said it picked up again with the 4th narrator. They were right; it did.

The 4th narrator was the most sympathetic of the four, and the one with the strongest emotional connection to the young woman at the centre of the story. The last quarter was enough (barely) to make up for the long dry section in the middle.

Earlier I said this was about a murder. That’s the plot driver, but the book is really about the nature of truth and delusion. What, if anything, that any of the four narrators have said can we believe? Are they lying outright, or are they self-deluded, and how do we ferret out the real truth, if there is one?

The reviews that call this book a tour de force are right, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for light, easy escapism, forget it. But if you have a deep interest in either history, particularly English history, or the nature of truth, and don’t mind a challenge, then give it a go.

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Windy Wellington

On a fine day, Wellington is a wonderful place to be outdoors. With the sun shining and the air calm, it’s gorgeous. Occasionally, the wind dies completely, and the harbour is as smooth as glass, not a ripple in sight.

And then there are days like today, when the wind rattles the windows and tries to knock you down when you go outside. While stopped at a traffic signal, my little car quivers like a frightened bunny as the wind plays with it, and tries to skitter across the westbound lanes of Cobham Drive when sea water slaps its windshield—water that leapt over the pedestrian walkway, bicycle path, the band of rocks and vegetation between, plus two lanes of eastbound traffic and a grassy median.

Today, of all days, the window washer came by, cleaning the outsides of the windows on the building I work in. Seemed like a futile gesture.

In the eight years we’ve lived in Wellington, the wind has snatched the glasses off my face twice. The first time was at a busy intersection; my husband chased after them into traffic, his arms windmilling. The traffic stopped for him; he and the glasses both made it back unharmed. (I was glad he was with me. If it had been up to nearsighted me they would never have been seen again.) The chip in the lenses is from the second time, when the wind grabbed them and flung them against the side of an office building. Now I hold on to them whenever the wind picks up.

But even with the problems it causes, I love it. I lived for a while in a place where it was warm and sunny, day in and day out for months, and I got bored. I missed real weather. We need days like today to make us appreciate the nice ones. Here, I’m more aware of the weather—the shapes of the clouds, the colours of the sky, the rainbows, the constant changes—than I remember being in anywhere else I’ve lived.

Sometimes, living in Wellington is a real blast.

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Julie and Romeo

Category: Chick lit

Rating: PG-13. Mild sex, violence, and profanity

Can you imagine Romeo and Juliet retold with the two lovers being 60-year-old grandparents? I wouldn’t have either, but I’m glad Jeanne Ray did, because her novel Julie and Romeo is the lighthearted result.

Julie Roseman is a divorcee, Romeo Cacciamani a widower. They are both florists in a Boston, Massachusetts suburb, and when they fall in love things get complicated. Star-crossed lovers aside, this story is as much about tangled family relationships as it is about romance: mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, ex-husbands, and, of course, the generations-long hostility between the Rosemans and the Cacciamanis. When both sets of children act to keep their parents apart, and the 90-year-old Cacciamani matriarch sticks her oar in, the cold feud escalates into war.

The story has a happier ending that Shakespeare’s play. I won’t give away anything more, but I did enjoy this funny, easy read about passion and romance between mature adults—who don’t always act like mature adults. Why should the kids have all the fun?

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The Witches of Karres

Category: Science fantasy

Rating: G. No sex, minimal violence, a few mildly scary bits

The Witches of Karres, a whimsical space opera by James H Schmitz, is an old favourite. I think I must have first read this in high school, but it still appeals.

A young man, Captain Pausert, is on his way home from his first trading run, having made enough profit to begin paying off his heavily mortgaged spaceship. Pausert, while not overly bright, is honourable and kindhearted, and when he runs across a man abusing a teenage female slave, he intervenes. A few minutes later, so does the law, and soon he finds himself with a good deal less profit in his pocket and a troublesome girl in tow. Rescuing her two younger sisters eats up the rest of his profits.

On their way home, the three girls use magic to give his ship a boost to outrun space pirates. When he delivers them to their home planet, Karres, the grateful inhabitants attempt to repay him by restocking his ship with their luxury goods. On leaving Karres with his cargo holds full of contraband, a young stowaway witch, and both legal authorities and pirates after his rumoured new drive mechanism, his troubles really begin. When he finally settles down to read the Space Regulations to find out what he’s gotten himself into, he doesn’t find the information he needs under either ‘W’ or ‘K’. The key word is PROHIBITED.

An adventure follows, in which Pausert, out of necessity, develops his own newly-awakened magical talents, shows more intelligence than was obvious at the beginning, and saves the human race from an alien menace—a feat for which he is unlikely to receive any credit, except on Karres. This is lighthearted, undemanding entertainment, with no grounding in real science, and a plot that doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny. Don’t expect to be intellectually challenged, just relax and enjoy the ride.

One of the most appealing—to me, anyway—aspects of this romp is the relationship between Pausert and his young witch companion. Once over some initial friction, they treat each other with mutual respect and work well as a team. (In everything I’ve read by Schmitz, his female characters are terrific—smart, competent, brave, and proactive—and he was writing half-a-century or more ago. I prefer them over the women in a lot of more recent fiction. Sigh.)

The worst bit? The end sets the stage for a sequel that Schmitz never got around to writing. A trio of other writers teamed up much later on a sequel, The Wizard of Karres, that I haven’t gotten around to yet. (After waiting decades for it, it lost its urgency. It’s on my TBR pile; I’ll get to it someday.)

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Introductions to SFF, again

Going back to a subject introduced in an earlier post, Introductions to SFF, here are some of the speculative fiction works my daughter (and the rest of the family) enjoyed. The age provided is only a guess at a lower-bound for when children might read them on their own; many of these books continue to appeal to much older readers. Similarly, they may appeal to younger children with a parent reading to them.

  • The Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne (beginning readers),
  • Edward Eager’s children’s book: Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, The Well-Wishers, Seven-Day Magic… (elementary school readers),
  • The Oz stories by Frank L. Baum (elementary school readers),
  • The Dr Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting (elementary school readers),
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norten Juster (elementary school readers),
  • The Silver Crown and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C O’Brien (elementary school readers),
  • The Hobbit (preteens) and The Lord of the Rings (mid teens) by J R R Tolkien,
  • The Mad Scientists’ Club stories by Bertrand Brinley (Preteens. Strictly speaking, these stories aren’t science fiction at all. The teens in them were solving real engineering problems.)
  • The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan (preteens),
  • The first few Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer (preteens),
  • Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones (preteens),
  • The Harry Potter series (early teens),
  • Heinlein’s juvenile novels, particularly Red Planet and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (early teens),
  • The Witches of Karres by James H Schmitz (early teens),
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K Le Guin (early teens),
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C Clarke (mid teens),
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (mid teens),
  • Graceling by Kristen Cashore (mid teens),
  • Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson (mid teens),
  • A Spell for Chameleon, by Piers Anthony (mid teens),
  • The Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett (mid teens).

By the way, I have to mention that some adults complain children these days have no attention spans, and pronounce that books that appealed to their parents are not exciting enough for the generations brought up on the internet and smart phones. When I introduced my daughter to the Dr Doolittle and Oz books at the age of nine or ten, I felt they were dated and slow, but she loved them, and wanted more. Go figure.

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On Reading Aloud

I began reading to my daughter before she could talk. I’d sit her on my lap with the simplest of picture books and page through, describing what we were seeing, just to get her used to the routine. We worked our way up from there, reading chapter books to her while she was still in preschool. I always assumed that when she had progressed to reading on her own, she would tire of me reading to her.

She never did. I kept reading.

As she got older, some of the books I read aloud were her choice—books she was capable of reading to herself (Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl, among others, in the middle grades) but that she claimed she got more out of from hearing me read them. Other books I chose because they were slightly ahead of her reading level, or were ones I remembered from my own childhood and wanted to pass on.

In hindsight, it seems as if I read to her all the time: at bedtime, while Dad fixed dinner, in the car (Dad drove) on our weekly 45-minutes-one-way trips to my mother-in-law’s. Dad listened, too (he couldn’t avoid it, stuck in the car with us), and would get interested in the story, whatever it was, and started coming to sit on the end of her bed at bedtime so he wouldn’t miss out.

I kept on reading. Now, when she’s home from University, when I call out “story time,” my daughter comes and sits on the end of our bed with her needles and yarn, and knits while I read for 15 to 30 minutes. Then we say goodnight, turn out the lights, close the door, and go to sleep. She stays up for another hour or three, playing video games and chatting with her boyfriend.

When she’s not home, I read more adult fare to my husband.

Weird, eh?

Well, we are, but not just because I read out loud to the family. I thought we were the only ones that did that until a friend said she read to her adult family. (Thanks, Lisa!)

In the nearly two decades I’ve been reading aloud, I’ve read, among others:

  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy (not including the appendicies!),
  • The Harry Potter canon,
  • More of Piers Anthony’s Xanth books than was probably healthy,
  • Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (loved The Golden Compass, didn’t love the others),
  • A hefty assortment of Edward Eager, Bertrand Brinley, Hugh Lofting, Larry Niven, Robert Heinlein, Christopher Stasheff, Mary Stewart, Ellis Peters, Mercedes Lackey, Randall Garrrett, Louisa May Alcott, Rick Riordan, Eoin Colfer, …
  • And, naturally, multiple drafts of the stories I’m working on.

The stories we’ve read—both good and bad—have been jumping off points for long discussions of religion, ethics, science, history, politics, sex, philosophy. You name it, we’ve probably touched on it. And regularly laughed ourselves silly. As a mechanism for family bonding, and passing on our family’s values, it’s hard to imagine anything that could have been more effective.

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Category: Historical fiction

Rating: R. Sexual assault, emotional abuse, and some violence.

If you love huge multi-generational family sagas, meaty soap operas encompassing love, lust, cruelty, murder, and revenge, Cashelmara by Susan Howatch may be for you. This 700-page novel, covering thirty years and three generations of an aristocratic English family, is set in 19th-century Ireland, against the backdrop of the Irish potato famine and struggle for independence from British rule, but the basic plot comes from much earlier events. The story is a fictionalisation and transposition of real events from the reigns of three kings of England—Edward I, II, and III—in the early 14th century. That the novel is a retelling of the lives of real people made it all the more compelling and emotionally wrenching.

The story is told in six parts, each with a different narrator:

  • Edward, representing Edward I,
  • Marguerite, his wife, representing Queen Margaret
  • Patrick, his son, representing Edward II
  • Sarah, Patrick’s wife, representing Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella,
  • Maxwell, as Roger Mortimer, Queen Isabella’s lover, and
  • Ned, Patrick and Sarah’s son, representing Edward III

The narrators are all, to a greater or lesser degree, somewhat unreliable, and believably human, with both good and bad qualities. Their likability scores are in inverse proportion to how hard they try to make themselves look sympathetic. The most honest and self-aware are Edward and Ned (and to a lesser extent, Marguerite), bookending the story and trying to cope with the mess made by Patrick and Sarah in between.

The book starts off with Edward looking like an old fool fallen for the lures of women interested in him only for his position and wealth, but then he slowly reveals himself to be much more savvy, and to have a genuine loving relationship with his young wife, as well as the respect of his Irish tenants.

Edward, Marguerite, and Ned are decent, responsible people struggling to deal with the hard punches life throws at them. The 200-page saga of the relationship between Edward and Marguerite could have been a book on its own, and in some ways a more satisfying one. But the primary plot driver—the conflicts between Patrick and Sarah—doesn’t kick in until a third of the way into the book.

Patrick is a closet homosexual in a culture that considers his sexual orientation perverted. He could have been a sympathetic character, if he hadn’t also been an easily-led man-child caught by accident of birth in a position of great authority. His choices of despicable lovers and his own foolish and irresponsible behaviour does serious damage to dozens of other people, most particularly his wife and children.

His wife, Sarah, isn’t without fault or blame. She’s a spoiled brat, neither she nor Patrick have the slightest bit of self-control, and her affair with Maxwell puts what she claims to value most—her relationships with her children—at risk.

Maxwell seems, at first, the most ambiguous character. I was inclined to be sympathetic towards him, as the underdog Irishman unwilling to bow and scrape before the English overloads. Patrick’s claim early on that he was a murderer didn’t seem to have any facts to back it up. But then Maxwell gets his turn at narration, and shows us what kind of self-aggrandising, murderous thug he really is. But even he isn’t completely irredeemable; he treats Sarah and her children as well as knows how.

These three—Patrick, Sarah, and Maxwell—are not nice people. The story bogged down for me in the second half of the book, because I didn’t particularly like being in their heads. Maxwell was the most unpleasant, and far too much of his section was a diversion from the main plot. I would have quit reading then if I hadn’t already invested so much time getting to that point, and I wanted to know how it turned out.

I’m glad I didn’t give up because the narrative momentum picks up again in Ned’s tale, and he is the most appealing character of the lot. From an early age, he shoulders adult responsibilities and faces up to grim choices. As strong as his father was weak, he reduces the animosity between two sides in a long-running local feud by sheer force of will and personality, marries the woman he loves over his elder’s objections, tells his shocked English uncles he is not English, he is Irish, thank you very much, and exacts revenge on his parent’s generation for their follies. All while still a teenager.

I see this book only appealing to adult readers. While large parts of the novel are engaging with fully fleshed-out characters, it is long and rather dark, with some sections that are hard to get through. The sexual assault is not graphic, but the impacts of the famine are. Not an easy read, but with the exception of Maxwell’s tale, an engrossing one.

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Mercy Thompson

Category: Urban fantasy

Rating: R. Violence, a fair amount of it, and a bit gory. No sex in the first two books, sexual assault in the third book. Buyer beware.

In the urban fantasy Moon Called, by Patricia Briggs, our world is awash in the preternatural: werewolves, vampires, the greater and lesser fae, and other assorted oddities. The fae have recently been forced out of hiding; concerned over the pace of scientific discoveries, in a carefully controlled PR move the darker powers have outed some of the more charming and innocuous fae. Despite their non-threatening nature, the humans view them with considerable suspicion, and have forced them into guarded reservations.

Werewolves have not yet been exposed, although in this world they are not inherently evil. All once human, they retain their human capacities for both good and evil, and, for the most part, don’t want to be at war with human society. A newly turned werewolf on his own will attack humans, but the alphas have learned through hard experience to control themselves, and through the pack structure force their members to behave.

Among the others still in hiding is one Mercedes (Mercy) Thompson, auto mechanic, and owner of a garage in Kennewick, Washington state, USA. Part Native American, she can shape-shift at will into a coyote. Raised by a werewolf pack, she has a troubled history with them, and now has an arms-length relationship with her next-door neighbour, the alpha of the Columbia Basin Pack.

That relationship comes under pressure when a newly-turned teenage werewolf walks into her garage, looking for work. Mercy’s maternal instincts kick in, and in trying to watch out for him, she kills another werewolf, and lands smack in the middle of a werewolf power struggle. Pretty soon she has another dead werewolf and a seriously injured one on her hands and an abducted human girl to rescue, and is forced to ask for help from the pack she ran away from years earlier.

As female protagonists go, Mercy Thompson is a winner. She is a responsible adult, and she doesn’t give up, ever. Smart, strong, caring, loyal, and proactive, she has more guts than are good for her. In the second book in the series, Blood Bound, when she is challenged to sing before an audience of hostile fae, she belts out O Holy Night. So maybe not always so smart. She walks a fine line between being forceful enough to keep the werewolves from pushing her around, and being so forceful she pisses them off.

I have read the first three books in the series, and there are at least ten. While each one is a satisfying read in itself, with a neat conclusion, they are part of a longer plot arc ratcheting up Mercy’s involvement with the werewolves, fae, and vampires. Each one picks up directly after the previous books ends, with a large cast of recurring characters. Read them in order.

The supporting characters are well-developed, the pacing and plotting are good, and Mercy’s snarky attitude entertaining, but they aren’t what I would call an easy read. Briggs doesn’t pull any punches on the emotional cost of Mercy’s actions. I got so caught up in the story that the end of the third book, Iron Kissed, was quite wrenching. That won’t stop me from reading more.

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Reader’s Journal

Years ago, when my daughter, now in university, had just started elementary school, my sister gave me a blank book for Christmas. Physically, it is a lovely object: spiral-bound to lie flat for writing in, about a hundred sheets, with a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies on the smooth hard cover. Several times in my life I had attempted to keep a diary, but the entries tended to get bogged down in day-to-day trivia, and the truly momentous events kept me too distracted to bother.

With this blank book I began, instead, keeping a reader’s journal, logging every book I read, either to myself or out loud to my daughter. My intention, then, if memory serves, was simply to record which authors we liked or disliked, to help me remember who to search for or avoid in library or bookstore. In the beginning, the entries were minimal: title, author, date finished, with at most a sentence or two (often not even that) about the story and what I liked or disliked about it. The first year (2003), covering forty-five books, about half of them children’s books, took up all of eleven pages.

But the entries grew as I kept adding to it. Sometimes, a terse statement along the lines of “police procedural, with too abrupt an ending,” wasn’t enough to trigger any memory of the plot or characters. So I started adding synopses, and going into more depth, and outgrew the original blank book. Now, for the first six months of 2017, my reading log takes up fifty-five pages in a subsequent, fatter volume.

But what’s the point, you may ask. Why bother? Putting pen to paper, and forcing a coherent analysis of the good and bad points of any work is always a useful exercise in critical thinking, and the log has helped me hone my own writing. I’ve become a more careful reader, I can more easily articulate what aspects of a story matter to me, and I’ve built a catalog of examples, both good and bad, of plot twists, character development, scene descriptions, etc. to refer to when I need help on my own stories.

Isn’t this a bit too much like writing book reports for school? Well, no, because I’m not being graded on it and I’ve never had any plans to show it to anyone else. My log is all about what attracts or repels me, and what repels me may be—often is, apparently—what someone else is looking for.

Looking back through my log triggers a flood of nostalgia. The lists of children’s books bring back fond memories of reading to my daughter. Notes on other books evoke strong memories of other things going on in my life at the time. I listened to the audiobook version of Sandra Brown’s The Crush on the Garden State Parkway commuting to a job I hated. Watership Down helped us through a case of traveler’s tummy in a guest house in Hyderabad, India. I lay on a leaking air mattress in a rental soon after we arrived in New Zealand (our furniture was in storage while we looked for a house) and read Alison Goodman’s Two Pearls of Wisdom with the Wellington wind whipping clouds past the windows of our flat.

So in a sense I’ve kept a diary after all, measuring my life in units of books read. My only regret is that I didn’t start keeping this log decades earlier.

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