Adult Fiction Mental Health Novel “In Two Minds”…and I am.

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in two minds

I couldn’t resist the lure of a new novel featuring mental illness and its effects, from one of Australia’s leading psychiatrists, no less, and so here we are today with In Two Minds by Gordon Parker, founder of the Black Dog Institute.  We received our copy from Ventura Press for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Dr Martin Homer is a GP with a naturally sunny disposition. Honourable, attentive and trusted by all of his patients, Martin has only ever loved one woman – his wife, Sarah.

When his mother dies suddenly, Martin’s comfortable life is thrown into complete disarray. After sinking into the black dog of grief and depression, he ascends to new heights in a frenzied, manic high. Now, he’s never felt better!

In between riding his new skateboard around the streets at night and self-medicating from his stash at work, the artificially elated and self-entitled Martin crosses paths with Bella, a beautiful and sexual young woman profoundly damaged by trauma of her own.

In Two Minds takes you on a quirky, rollicking journey that unveils the complexities of mental illness with wit and warmth. Gordon Parker’s impressive career in psychiatry reveals itself through extremely rich descriptions of depression, bipolar and borderline personality characteristics.

It must be said that when you’ve read a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, featuring mental illness of one form or another, things do tend to get a bit samey.  This is one of the reasons I am in two minds about In Two Minds – if this had been the first novel I had read in which the protagonist has a breakdown and ends up in a psychiatric unit, I may have been more interested in the outcome.  Indeed, if I had not had the pleasure of spending some time in a psychiatric hospital myself, I may have been more entranced by the ins and outs of what happens when you are deemed no longer able to manage your own affairs without cocking things up in spectacular fashion.  If you have not had such an experience yourself, and you aren’t elbow deep in the back catalogue of “books about people losing their marbles in various painful and unexpected ways” then you should find In Two Minds to be compelling reading.

Martin Homer is an all-around good bloke.  He loves his wife, is wholeheartedly devoted to his work as a GP and generally sets the standard for good behaviour and personal growth everywhere he goes.  Bella is a woman with a past and a borderline personality disorder (**I’ve always wondered why the “borderline” part is added to the “personality disorder” part of that description, because there ain’t nothin’ “borderline” about Bella’s crazy, vitriolic antics**).  When Martin’s self-medicating after the death of his mother leads to a manic episode, the trajectories of Bella and Martin cross and Martin’s prior grip on his identity, his marriage and his work is shattered.

The story is told in alternating sections between Martin and Bella, with Martin’s story taking the primary position.  Really, this is a story about Martin and Bella is a bit player, albeit one whose back story is essential to the plot for her actions toward Martin to be in any way believable.  The author mentions the Madonna-whore complex early on in the story and all of the women presented here in any detail are indeed Madonnas (Edina, Martin’s mother, and Sarah, Martin’s wife) or whores (Bella, the Trophettes).  Bella’s early history, which the reader discovers at the end of the book, even indicates that she was a literal whore, working as a prostitute.  There was something unsettling about this for me, and I would have liked to have seen a few chapters written from Sarah’s point of view.  It seemed a little unfair to have such a focus on the man-slaying Bella and the existential crisis of Martin (post-mania) and so little focus on the woman who chooses to “stand by her man” as it were, despite the fact that he’s just undergone a major change in personality and behaviour.  In fact, had there been more of a focus on Sarah, this would have been a point that set this novel apart from the multitude that have gone before it; as important as the perspective of the sufferer of mental illness undeniably is, it would be instructive to read something from the point of view of the supporter – the spouse, significant other, family member – of the sufferer.

One thing that really does set this book apart is that it isn’t focused on talking therapy in any way.  Much is made in the early chapters of Martin’s past and the various tragedies and triumphs that shaped who he is.  I was expecting that this information would be somehow revisited later in the book as part of Martin’s recovery, but this wasn’t the case.  Instead, the section of the book dealing with Martin’s recovery is focused almost entirely on the various medications he is treated with, their side effects and the way they interact.  This may explain the slight disconnect I felt between the early parts of the story, in which Martin’s family and Sarah play such a strong role, and the latter parts, in which all of the key stressors and factors that almost certainly factored into Martin’s illness are glossed over in favour of his response to medication.  Even though it wasn’t what I was expecting, this certainly was a point of difference that makes this book stand apart from others on a similar topic.

The author may have even not-so-subtly inserted himself into the story by means of Saxon Marshall, Martin’s treating psychiatrist.  The name of this character struck me as interesting, and this may just be me receiving coded messages through the TV and novels here, but Saxon is the surname of the Master as played by John Simm in David Tennant’s run of Doctor Who, while Marshal is the given name of one of a psychiatrist character in Irvin Yalom’s Lying on the Couch (see below).  I can’t help but wonder if this was a conscious choice of character moniker and if so, what does it say about ol’ Gordon Parker, eh?  (**Probably not much because it’s probably not a conscious naming device, and just me projecting.  It should have been though – mashing the two characters together is quite evocative, imo**).

I was a little confused at the ending of the book.  There is an ambiguous ending for Martin, which I think worked well given we, as readers, leave him so soon after his diagnosis and early recovery.  It was a clever move to end his story at this point and leave us wondering what became of him.  More curious however was the ending of Bella’s narrative trajectory.  Toward the very end of the book, we are privy to even more of Bella’s backstory and the introduction of a new key character in Bella’s life.  I couldn’t get a grasp on why this was included, unless it was only to set up Martin’s ambiguous departure, because it certainly didn’t heighten my empathy for Bella in any way and felt like too much of an information dump after the climax of the story.

Having finished up the book, I had a quick flick through some similar books of my acquaintance and, as I mentioned at the beginning of the review, books featuring mental illness of one kind or another do tend to blend together after a while.  I definitely experienced shades of The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence (female protagonist with bipolar disorder), Terms and Conditions by Robert Glancy (professional male protagonist coming to terms with a change of identity concept and mental trauma), and most obviously, Irvin Yalom’s, Lying on the Couch (multiple psychiatrists go through various psychiatrist-y problems and as in all of Yalom’s work, boobs are mentioned a lot).

If you are looking for a truly original story about the whirlwind of depression, mania and psychosis, then I would suggest trying Kathleen Founds’ brilliant When Mystical Creatures Attack!  If you are an entry level journeyperson regarding novels about mental health or you have an interest in bipolar disorder, depression and mania generally, definitely give In Two Minds a go.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge for 2017 in category #51: a book about a difficult topic.  You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

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The Radium Girls: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review….

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If you are into historical nonfiction stories that will leave you gobsmacked at the levels to which people will stoop to avoid paying compensation to someone they’ve hurt, then today’s book will be right up your street.  We received The Radium Girls from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and by gum is it a cracker of a read!  Check out the blurb from Goodreads and then tell me that you’re not interested in finding out more…go on, I dare you!

Ordinary women in 1920s America.

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for.
 
‘The first thing we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’

1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.
  As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives  – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.

radium girls

And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

1. Exhibiting a “glow” is not always an indicator of good health.  

2. When addressing someone who has recently lost an arm due to industrial poisoning, it is inadvisable to assert that they “look like they have nothing wrong with them”.

3. If the company for which you work takes out full page ads in all the major papers proclaiming how safe their working environment is, it’s probably a good time to consider getting the WH&S people in.

4. People will lie blatantly, repeatedly and to one’s face if they fear having to pay compensation to a wounded party.

5. It’s okay to pretend to be a doctor and carry out medical tests for which you are woefully unqualified provided you (a) are a man and (b) are being well paid by a dodgy company boss.

What a fantastically absorbing read! I suspected that the story of the “Radium Girls” as they became known would be a pretty interesting one, but the pacing and informative style adopted by Moore really set this book apart. The book begins by introducing the reader to the young women who gained work at a factory painting luminous clock dials with radium paint in New Jersey in 1917. Some as young as fourteen, the workers fought hard to bag these painting jobs because the pay was above average for similar positions, and came with the added benefit of a “healthy” glow – the radium residue on the girls’ clothing, skin and hair literally made them glow when they left the factory. As we meet each of the girls in turn and soon become privy to the horrifying sicknesses that begin to plague them, Moore brings in a second set of dial-painters, this time from Ottawa, so we are able to see the whole shocking pattern played out simultaneously in two different cities.

Two scenes in the book stood out particularly for me, but for different reasons.  The first, quite early on in the piece, recounts how one of the women’s dentists, Dr Knef, was working inside his patient’s mouth and ended up lifting out her entire jawbone.  Let that sink in for a moment.  He pulled out HER ENTIRE JAWBONE.  Talk about developing a healthy fear of dentists.  Not satisfied that this was an extraordinary enough experience, he then decided to keep the jawbone in his desk drawer because he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I can’t help but feel he might have at least offered it back to the woman out of whom it came.

The second scene that stood out for me came toward the very end of the book, during which a foreman who was well known as a company man for many years in Ottawa and oversaw the dial painters, blatantly lies while under oath in one of the compensation hearings, stating (in front of the women he worked with, no less!) that he never even worked for the company. Ever.  This might be a good tactic to keep in the back pocket for the next time you find yourself in a sticky situation – just pretend that obvious, long-held facts that can be corroborated by any number of pieces of evidence is simply untrue.  After reading this bizarre attempt to avoid trouble, I myself felt like leaping through the pages and punching this bloke in the face, so I can’t imagine how the women at the hearing felt having to actually hear it themselves.
The descriptions of the suffering of these women can be quite harrowing at times – gazing over a photograph of one of the women, I assumed she had adopted a stylish, cross-legged pose for the camera, but the author reveals that her hip bones actually became fused that way, so that the woman was unable to uncross her legs at any time – but by the end of the epic journey to justice, one can’t help but feel admiration for these two separate groups of women who fought not only against blatant lies and injustice from the company that employed them, but from gender bias that placed mens’ health above women’s. More frustrating still is the fact that similar stories of corporations valuing profit over the safety and health of their workers are still ridiculously common today.  While I felt quite moved by the women’s stories and the courage and determination they showed under enormous misfortune, I couldn’t take away any lasting satisfaction because I could think of at least one major fight going on in the world against a company in South America for similar dastardly behaviour as well as the recent fight of victims of asbestos-related diseases against James Hardie here in Australia.
Moore has done a good job of dividing the story into sections so as to avoid information overload. Each section is deeply engaging in its own right and the stories have been structured so that just as the New Jersey women begin to pursue (and in some cases, achieve) some sort of recompense, the Ottawa women seem to begin the process anew, with all the same frustrations and rather more sinister misdirection from their employer.

The book contains some photographs of the women and other major players in a section in the middle. While this was an interesting addition, I would have also have liked to see a “cast of characters” as it were, at the beginning – this might have added a whole new dimension to the story if we could see who suffered what and in what timeframe.

I thoroughly recommend this book as an eye-opening jaunt into the lives of some incredibly inspirational women and their supporters.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Shouty Doris Interjects about…Madness: A Memoir

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Shouty Doris interjects

Welcome one and all to a new feature here at the shelf – Shouty Doris Interjects! Every so often you come across a book that will arouse strong emotions. When this happens, you may find yourself shouting (in your head, mostly), at the book, the author, the characters – whatever it is that has you all het up. Well around the shelf we have someone who takes this interjection to the next level. She is known as Shouty Doris. She is a denizen of the shelf and often takes it upon herself to loudly interject when happening upon certain emotion-provoking reads. And so we have given her a feature. She is a vocal non-fan of modern technology, so I was forced to create an artist’s impression of her countenance for the feature button. It’s quite a good likeness, I think. So enjoy this new feature – I hope Shouty Doris’s shoutiness will give you some sense of the complex issues behind today’s book.image

I’m also popping this one in for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by The Introverted Reader, hence the  comfy armchair.

The book is Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Madness is a real world for the many thousands of people who are right now living within it. It never apologises. Sometimes it is a shadow, ever present, without regard for the sun. Sometimes it is a well of dark water with no bottom, or a levitation device to the stars. Madness, a memoir is an insight into what it’s like to live with psychosis over a period of ten years, in which bouts of acute illness are interspersed with periods of sanity. The world is beautiful and terrifying and sometimes magical. The sanctity of life is at times precious and at times precarious and always fragile. It’s a story of learning to manage illness with courage and creativity, of achieving balance and living well. It is for everyone now living within the world of madness, for everyone touched by this world, and for everyone seeking to further his or her understanding of it, whether you think of madness as a biological illness of the brain or an understandable part of the continuum of the human condition.

madness a memoir

Right from the start, I found this to be a harrowing read. I had just picked it out for a bit of pre-naptime reading and was treated to a very graphic and frankly, stomach-churning description of the author’s attempt to amputate her own arm. While this was definitely not what I was expecting as an opening gambit, it was undoubtedly compelling and I knew that this would be an engaging read.

Shouty Doris interjects

It was bloody disgusting, all that talk about fatty tissue and seeping blood. I nearly had to reach for the sick bag. Honestly, books like this should come with a warning. I had to take one of my tablets to calm down.

This was not the first memoir I’ve read from someone diagnosed with Bipolar, but what set this one apart was the fact that it was written by a trained medical doctor and deeply explored the effects of her psychosis on everyday life. An author’s note at the beginning informs the reader that the book has been put together using the author’s notebooks as a basis for describing the periods during which she was unwell, and I found it interesting that while the descriptions were quite harrowing and shocking, we were also dealing with a narrator who, by her own admission, was unreliable. I questioned, for instance, the fact that none of her colleagues (who were all medical doctors, you will recall) picked up on the obvious signs of her psychosis.

Shouty Doris interjects

What you mean is, it beggars belief that she could turn up to work wearing multiple layers of odd clothing, with seeping wounds from a self-inflicted hydrochloric acid burn, after nights spent awake and imbibing large amounts of alcohol and not one of her learned, medical doctor colleagues noticed anything was amiss. And her being in and out and in and out and in and out of hospital and missing work! Surely her boss would have figured out that something strange was going on!

That aside, the book really raised the complexity of mental illness and the services available to people who suffer from its many variations.

Shouty Doris interjects

How did her workmates not notice the smell? The unkempt hair? I mean, how could you not notice the seeping wounds?!! WHY WOULDN’T ANYONE HELP THIS WOMAN??

The author had quite a negative view of psychiatrists in general as well as the specific psychiatrists of whom she was a patient. This was a recurring theme of Richards’ personal narrative, despite the fact that during much of the book she was too unwell to comply with the psychiatrist’s recommendations.

Shouty Doris interjects

Why did she stop taking her medication? She was doing so well! WHY IS THIS WOMAN NOT CHAPERONED DAY AND NIGHT?! She obviously can’t take care of herself. It was just a revolving door – self-harm episode, hospitalisation, out the door with some medication, and start it all again. For Pete’s sake woman, put away the alcohol! Follow the Doctor’s orders! Wait, now she’s going to New York? And Israel?? On her own? WHOSE STUPID IDEA WAS THAT? THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL!

Overall, this book was an in-depth look at one woman’s experience with severe mental illness over a period of years and her journey through the public health system. Reading it has stirred up a lot of questions for me about the glaring gaps in provision of mental health services generally, and especially for those who don’t have the money to afford private health care. In essence, while it was a difficult read in places, Madness is an engaging addition to the literature on mental illness in an Australian context.

I’d recommend this one to anyone interested in individuals’ experiences with mental illness, particularly Bipolar, but if this is your first foray into memoirs about mental illness I’d probably start with something a little less “in your face”, lest you be overwhelmed with the enormity of the subject.

Shouty Doris interjects

Thank goodness it did end well. Or well enough. Although that should have been obvious, seeing as she wrote the book. I need a cup of tea and a good lie down after that debacle. It’s enough to give an old woman heart failure.

Non-Fiction Reading Challenge Progress: 4/10

Until next time,

Bruce (and Doris)

 

 

The Thinking Person’s Double-Dip Review: Therapeutic Felines and The Mysterious Brain…

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Welcome to a brainy edition of the Double-Dip Review! Today I have two low-fat, high-firbre options for those interested in the workings of the mind and its more tangible cousin, the brain.  Engage your central nervous system and let’s scoop up the dish on these two informative reads!

Purr Therapy: What Timmy and Marina Taught Me About Love, Life and Loss by psychotherapist Kathy McCoy delves into the little known and not-often-encountered practice of cat-assisted psychotherapy.  While most people have seen or heard about dogs assisting in various therapeutic enterprises (such as in the nursing home, which you can find out more about here), McCoy, to her surprise, accidentally discovered two cats perfectly suited to assisting her clients and so her foray into animal-assisted therapy began.  Throughout the book, McCoy relates the story of how Timmy and Marina came to live with her family and how each cat took on the mantle of therapy-feline in unique ways.  McCoy features some specific clients (names changed to protect the innocently guilty, of course) and outlines how the cats’ individual natures changed the course of the therapy journey for clients dealing with a range of issues such as anxiety, grief, marital difficulties and parenting troubles.  The book concludes with a round-up of the important lessons that McCoy has learned through working with animals in her personal practice.

21817417Dip into it for…

…a well-documented recollection of how cats (yes, cats!) can cut the mustard against their canine counterparts in deeply emotional situations.  Being more than mildly interested in psychotherapy and other forms of treatment for mental illness and emotional trauma, I was clearly going to be positively disposed to this book from the start, and it does provide a good insight into the benefits of using an animal to assist people in emotional distress. Because McCoy came upon the idea of using cats in her practice due to serendipitous circumstance, she provides a good overview of the issues she ran into initially, such as how to manage when and where the cats would work, how to deal with clients with allergies and fear of cats, and how to ensure that every client who wanted to, was able to engage with the cats.

The book is broken up into parts, the first of which focuses on Timmy – the first cat McCoy took into her therapy room – and his journey into McCoy’s family and practice.  The second part of the book focuses on Marina, McCoy’s second therapy cat, the differences between Marina’s approach and Timmy’s and how each cat was suited to particular client needs.  Each part is wrapped up with a handy summary of the most important learnings that McCoy took from her experiences working with the cats and how she applied these to her own life.

Don’t dip if…

…you don’t like books in which animals die. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, because McCoy mentions it very early on in the book, but BOTH CATS DIE UNTIMELY DEATHS.  You’ve been warned.  The deaths of Timmy and Marina, and McCoy’s and her clients’ emotional reactions to the deaths are dealt with in surprising detail.  I actually found the recount of Timmy’s unexpected illness and death quite distressing – which was no doubt a reaction to the distressing nature of the actual event as experienced by McCoy and her husband – so if you don’t like to read about animals suffering and/or dying, this might not be the book for you.  Or perhaps you could skip those bits, although they do take up quite a significant portion of each cat’s story.

Overall Dip Factor

This is a very accessible and, for the most part, interesting read that really opens up the conversation as to the benefits of using cats in therapeutic situations.  It’s going to be a hit with cat-lovers and fans of real-life animal stories and would be good to keep on the bedside table and dip into at leisure.  I was hoping for a bit more focus on the therapy part of the deal, but while McCoy does feature a number of clients’ stories per cat, I felt that the therapy part was glossed over a little in favour of the cats’ antics.  This was bearable for most of the book, but by the time I got about halfway through Marina’s story I was beginning to doubt the veracity of McCoy’s recollections – surely no cat could have such astute timing and such perfectly anthropomorphic reactions as these two! Nevertheless, apart from that slight irritation, I’m glad I delved into this book, for the novelty value of cats bucking the stereotype of indifference to human suffering if nothing else.

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole: A Renowned Neurologist Explains the Mystery and Drama of Brain Disease by Dr. Allan H. Ropper and Brian David Burrell comprehensively explains, through the lived experiences of a number of patients, the complex and sometimes utterly bizarre nature of the brain and the things that can go wrong with it.  In a completely accessible way, Ropper recounts stories of the strange and heart-breaking, from the salesman who is found driving round and round a traffic roundabout, seemingly unable to get off, to the young mother diagnosed with ALS forced to make profound decisions about continuing on despite being unable to move anything but her eyes, or breathe on her own.  With a liberal dose of humour, Ropper delves into the challenges and triumphs experienced with and by these patients, and relates the difficulties inherent in diagnosing diseases of an organ that can play tricks on itself. 

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…the most accessible and gripping book about neurology that you will ever read.  I know that’s a big claim, but I’m assuming that only a tiny percentage of those of you following this blog are qualified neurologists or neurosurgeons, so I feel quite justified in making it.  I was initially quite reluctant about requesting this for review because I thought it may be quite dry and technical and not turn out to be very readable at all. Thankfully, I was completely wrong, and I found myself glued to the book, reading at least a chapter every night before retiring.

Together, Ropper and Burrell have hit on a fantastic and engaging narrative style that is matter-of-fact, personal and touches on all the existential fears floating around in the human psyche relating to the potential for death or permanent disability and how one might reasonably (or unreasonably) face these fears.  Another interesting point in the book is Ropper’s up-front acknowledgement that doctors and medical professionals are not infallible and are subject to the same pressures, doubts and muck-ups that plague the rest of us.  In one memorable story, Ropper recounts how, in a spectacular stroke of cumulative bad luck, one mistake by a clinician incorrectly reading a scan, followed by a number of unlikely follow-up mistakes by subsequent medical staff assigned to the case, caused a patient to be initially misdiagnosed and delayed the discovery of the actual cause of his illness until it was too late to administer any really effective treatment.

This story is in the minority however, as most of the situations recounted demonstrate the commitment of medical staff working in a difficult field and the resilience or othewise of their patients as they come to terms with the scary possibility that there might be something wrong with their brain.

Don’t dip if…

…you’re not into recollections of medical procedures, potentially life-threatening illnesses and more than one patient death.  Really, I suspect this book is going to have a niche audience of people interested in either particular neurological disorders, or neurology in a general sense, and if that’s not you, you should probalby move right on by.

Overall Dip Factor

I was really surprised at how deeply I got into this book, and how much of its content has popped up in my thoughts since I finished reading it.  Coincidentally, the ALS/Motor Neurone Ice Bucket Challenge started hitting the internet while I was making my way through this book and while I already knew a small amount about the disease, it was nicely topical to be able to read into the topic more deeply just at that time.  If you’re a fan of Michael J. Fox (and who isn’t, really?), it turns out that Ropper has been involved in treating and advising Mr Fox through his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, so there’s a bit of bonus celebrity-related material in here too. While I was engaged and challenged by the more emotional and worrying patient stories, I also very much enjoyed the initial chapters of the book which aptly described the range of bizarre cases that can pop up in the neurology department and the interesting and unexpected ways in which medical staff go about trying to figure out what’s wrong.

All up, if you’re interested in the brain in all its mysterious glory you should probably keep this book on your radar.

So there you have it – from mind science to brain science, I hope you’ve found something to fire some neurons in this double-dip!  I received both of these titles from their respective publishers via Netgalley.

Until next time,

Bruce

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