Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Mystery, #6) The trinity at the center of this series, Poke, Rose, and Miaow, has our allegiance. I prefer to think of them as a triumvirate because of their power. Poke has soul, Rose is sexy, and Miaow has knowledge of the streets that no child should ever have.

The Rafferty’s use their powers together in this latest installment of the Poke Rafferty series to bring down a corrupt power broker hiding in the police force. They had a little help (well, okay, a lot of help) from Andrew, Miaow’s best mate and school chum, and his contacts in the Vietnamese embassy. Hallinan keeps us riveted as Miaow escapes the nets laid for her and Andrew demonstrates his computer wizardry. They are teens, with all the confusion, angst, and drama of teens, and we ache for them…and their parents.

Hallinan may be unsurpassed in character creation. Miaow, Poke’s adopted daughter from the streets, is brought into clear focus when we listen to her confidence when confronting the hitmen who chase her. She learned too early how to escape the traps of bad men. The personality quirks of Rose and Poke, and their patter together, have the comforting tension of two distinct, discerning individuals who nonetheless respect and love one another. It is a pleasure to see what Hallinan will choose to highlight in his novels, because there is always a ring of truth.

A powerful cop is setting up kills that benefit him financially and “solving” the cases with the help of coerced police lower in the hierarchy. Things start to unravel when Miaow and Andrew buy an iPhone 5 on the black market. In pursuing the aggressor, Poke is mainly impotent except for his rage…but he has intelligent friends with mythic powers, and as a team, they each use their special skills to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Moments of finely-calibrated tension are seeded throughout the novel impelling the reader to the nail-biting finish.

Hallinan introduces us to two unforgettable characters. One is a cop in a backwater precinct who is brought to Bangkok to work on this case because of her extraordinary computer skills. Her name is Kwai Clemente, part Filipino, and she has eyes that people cannot help but comment upon. Though she barely says a word except “yes, sir” in this story, but one cannot help but want to see her again. Writers, take a look at how Hallinan did this. Hallinan creates characters that actually think, breathe, and bleed so that we feel some kind of connection with them.

The second person we cannot forget is the Western bank manager who refers to Thais as “these people” and who, after ordering only for himself at a luncheon, strongly suggests to his dining companions what they should order. “Pink-faced and closely shaven,” James Kalmenson is “a finger-snapper and finger-pointer,” “indulges in…imperious post-colonial behavior,” and “has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” We don’t long to see Kalmenson again because his type is easy to find, alas.

One reviewer calls this series a literary thriller, and I agree with that characterization, though I would put the emphasis on literary. I admit to a short attention span for thrillers as a genre because the characters often seem like cut-outs whose purpose is to propel the action. Hallinan’s thrillers are the opposite. There is riveting action, but it is the characters we come to see.

Poke is a hapless sort. The one time he could have done some damage to a bad guy he didn’t have his gun. (view spoiler) But we’re riveted anyway because—and this is another of Hallinan’s tone-perfect choices--women and children might be victims, and that we couldn’t bear.

If you haven’t read Hallinan yet, you do not have to start at the beginning, though you may wish to go back later to sop up every delicious drop of this mystery series. The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5), for instance, won all kinds of praise among taste-makers for its white-knuckled swerve into international espionage. Hallinan does it all.

You can start reading the series here. What you need to know is that Poke Rafferty is a writer who occasionally sidelines as a private investigator, Rose is a former Bangkok prostitute who has happily retired, and Miaow is a now-teenaged former street kid the two have adopted. This odd threesome has the love and joy and anguish of all the world within their encircling arms.


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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Secret History of Wonder Women by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore is a bit of a wonder woman herself, certainly a wonder of a historian. She uncovers, unclothes, and satisfactorily binds with ropes and chains (the better to dispose of it) the myth that Wonder Woman was a feature of woman’s liberation rather than one of male dominance. Sadly, the scantily clad Wonder Woman was modeled on the real-life live-in girlfriend of the psychologist who created her, and who himself exhibited the dominant male model all too well.

Lepore not only gives us the background of William Moulton Marston, Harvard-trained psychologist and developer of the systolic blood-pressure polygraph, but also of his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, herself an almost-PhD (All But Dissertation) who studied psychology and law. Olive Richard Byrne is the younger woman, a former student of Marston’s, who shares their homes, their children, and their beds. Marston and his smart and admiring women lovers lived unconventional family lives in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s in New England, with Marston fathering the children of at least two of the women in their large and ramshackle house to which they moved near the coast in Rye, New York.

Although Marston had lots of experience with strong women and claimed to like, admire, even love them, he (and the women themselves) never really progressed beyond the idea of equality between the sexes to the thing itself. Feminists in name only, I’d have to say, but one might argue that Marston was simply a failure as a wage-earner rather than a dependent louche. His wife Elizabeth earned wages for family upkeep, Olive took care of the children, and Marston…must have…hopefully…kept them happy sexually, though they probably could have done without him there, also.

Lepore probably knows more about W.M.M. (in my mind I call him Willie) than any single person alive and she was frank about his delusions. He began his comic Wonder Woman as an answer to male superheroes and debuted Wonder Woman in hot pants and a tiara in December 1941. Maybe he wasn’t such a talented guy, though his women were pretty admirable and talented. No wonder Wonder Woman. But there was not to be a straight line from 1920s feminism and the right to vote to Wonder Women and equality for women. Marston died in 1947, someone else took over the writing of the comic, and all advances made with a woman forging a new path during the war years were rolled back.

Somehow Wonder Woman never really made the leap from helping out to helping herself. Marston may have been enlightened for his time (god bless his little willie) but he would have been sacrificed at the altar of equality long before this at the hand of Amazons living today in America. Lepore does a good job of reminding us of our past, present, and future --if we don’t manage to prove her wrong. She would like that. Wonder Women Live!

I listened to the Random House Audio production of this title, read by Lepore herself. Lepore has an energetic style and a young-sounding squeaky voice: I appreciate having her add the emphases where she intended, as well as wringing the humor from her writing. I can’t say I found the history of the self-important Marston and his often bound-and-chained Wonder Woman as interesting as Lepore did, but she fortunately puts Marston’s self-promotion in the perspective of the times, and he and his ladies tried for something different with their educations and their lives.


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Monday, October 27, 2014

The Snowden Files by Luke Harding

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man Radio and TV coverage of the Snowden leaks were spotty. This book helped to fill in the details, background, and what happened since Snowden showed up in Moscow. Snowden himself, and his girlfriend Lindsay Mills, are fleshed out a little more, and I learned why an American would go to British journalists, the Guardian, with the information he had purloined. It turns out the British, specifically their top-secret telecommunications monitoring arm, GCHQ, collaborated with the NSA: “We have the brains: they have the money. It’s a collaboration that’s worked very well.” [Sir David Omand, Former GCHQ Director] No shortage of egoism and despotism to go around, then.

Snowden was a right-wing libertarian in early writings on the web as a user he called ‘TheTrueHOOHA’. It was frankly unsettling for me to read/listen to his thinking as a teen, and see his progression to action. To use his words, he would like to be viewed as a patriot who believes in the right to privacy enshrined in the U.S. constitution. When I’d first learned of his leaks, I was startled. Listening to his first interview on TV, I was admiring. After reading this book, I am unsettled.

Luke Harding, a Guardian reporter, outlines the Snowden action for us with a minimum of sensationalism but with some incredulity at the scope of the revelations. And the news is pretty sensational. Harding gives a little background into Snowden’s early development, and his foray into working as a U.S. government contractor specializing in the protection of U.S. government communications. Snowden’s amazed and amazing reach into the lives of others via their private data transfers must vindicate the paranoid. While I have my doubts that any world leader or business executive thought their telecommunications were truly secret, Snowden’s revelations are startling in the scope of the data collection and in the holes in the system, e.g., a relatively low-level contractor had access to the material.

I should probably state from the get-go that I do not fear my government. I grew up in an age where inaction was much more to be expected than action; incompetence and bureaucratic bungling was much more common than overreach. I was not subject to the kind of totalitarian control experienced in Eastern Bloc countries, the Soviet Union, or China, but we have those examples to know it can happen. I believe the president and his minions who claim that the government is not listening to the communications of private citizens. They simply do not have the capacity, nor the interest, to do that. However, they now apparently have the means, and individuals within governments can have a deleterious effect upon the stated objectives of government. Snowden has shown us a place where an individual might have an outsized effect to his purported role.

Knowing just what I know now, if I had to make a judgment on Snowden’s fate, I might say he should go to court congruently with the leadership of the NSA and the GCHQ. I don’t think it would have been possible for him to “go up the chain of command” to protest this data collection. It is ridiculous to contemplate that anyone would have listened to him, given the reaction from our fearless leaders upon learning of his revelations. But I wish things had gone differently…for him and for us.

I listened to the Random House Audio version of this title, very ably read by Nicholas Guy Smith. I had a look at the paper copy as well, and found it concise enough that the momentum never lagged. Since Guardian reporters were the ones that initially broke this story, it is reasonable that they are the ones to write the details of what happened and the follow-up. I can’t imagine there is a person out there who wouldn’t be interested in this topic. Inform yourselves. This is going to be a political topic for some years to come.


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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher Mantel, eerily observant and wickedly funny, is a strange combination of self-conscious fear and lashing wit. Faced with her precision, I am reduced to the inarticulate: a laugh, a sigh, a whispered outbreath, G’ol. Sometimes she uses just a word, an adjective or a verb, that brings a smile, a wince, a world to life: “At six, the steeple-headed Saleem had lost his baby fat, and his movements were tentative, as if his limbs were snappable.”

The story “How Shall I Know You?” speaks directly to my fears. An author is persuaded to speak to a book group outside of London and it is a loathsome destination: her lodging “was not precisely as the photograph had suggested. Set back from the road, it seemed to grow out of a parking lot, a jumble of vehicles double-parked and crowding to the edge of the sidewalk.” The place had a “travelers’ stench…tar of ten thousand cigarettes, fat of ten thousand breakfasts, the leaking metal seep of a thousand saving cuts” recalling her struggle with a biography about a man who accidentally cut his throat while shaving. The author recalls an earlier, presumably more luxurious accommodation:
”In Madrid, by contrast, my publishers had put me in a hotel suite that consisted of four small dark paneled rooms. They had sent me an opulent, unwieldy, scented bouquet, great wheels of flowers with woody stems. The concierge brought me heavy vases of a grayish glass, slippery in my hands, and I edged them freighted with blooms onto every polished surface; I stumbled from room to room, coffinned against the brown paneling, forlorn, strange, under a pall of pollen, like a person trying to break out of her own funeral.”
The story speaks to my fears because I am struck with terror when someone suggests actually meeting an author, or asking them a question. What on earth could I possibly ask? Haven't they already told us what they wanted to say? Good lord, and what, have those x-ray eyes turn in my direction, to withstand that funny, devastating, vampiric wit?

This is a slim collection, beautifully printed with vast spacing and acres of white. There is room for your mind to wander to what she might have said but did not. Mantel uses words in a way that have no precedent. Her vision is unique. Mantel doesn’t need as many words as others often do to convey her devilish vision. You would have thought, if you’d tried to read her award-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell, that she could not write only a little, but you’d be wrong. She can, and she does, here. These are perfect little gems that speak to her (and our) deepest fears, the deepest held secrets of the heart.


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Monday, October 20, 2014

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell

Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever We probably should have known better. When something is too good to be true… I can't help it; I feel like we need to take some of the blame for the failures of Lance Armstrong. We wanted to believe in this level of sports competence…every year…for seven years…by a man who would be considered old in any other sport…and by a cancer survivor.

What surprised me about the information I learned here is Lance’s early home life. His mother never finished high school and was pregnant with Lance at sixteen when her father threw her out. Lance was an exceptional and driven athlete as an early teen, but when he wanted to compete in triathlons with strict age requirements that precluded his participation, his mother modified his birth certificate. So he learned early that the rules did not really apply to him. And that grasping behavior? When enough is never enough? I guess we know where that came from.

I didn't like reading this book one little bit, not only because the writing is more breathless and sensational than it needed to be. The documents collected tell the story of a man who is immensely unappealing and manipulative and the worst sort of role model. We also learn something about the other folks involved in the sport: the teammates, the spouses, the officials, the medical staffs, the press. It was big business, and their business was to sell a product. I may have been a dupe, but I don’t believe for a second all those other folks were.

Even when a former teammate came out with allegations, dates, remembrances of drug doping during races, it was still tricky to prove. One cannot help but feel just a little betrayed by all the folks that agreed to go along with this. They did it because “everyone else did.” Yes, the Tour de France is a hard race. And the world can be a tough place. At least they got to wear spandex in their work rather than body armor.

O’Connell and Albergotti corral a huge amount of material for this exposé. A few less details and a little more reflection would have gone down better with this reader. Journalists don't have a responsibility to tell us what to think, I suppose, but biographers can help us place Lance’s megalomania in perspective. A character of this dimension is unusual and we the public could use a little help in dealing with the details of someone else's life choices, given his great talents. Is the lesson to strive, but not that much? Is celebrity addicting? Armstrong was not just an ordinary guy with a dirty little secret. This misses the size of his delusion, and ours. Forget Lance for a moment. In a sense, his future has already been written. What are our lessons? Did we do this?

I listened to the Penguin Audio of this book, read by Santino Fontana. Fontana read well, though he is perhaps too gleeful in sections of heart-rending discovery. I supplemented listening with the text by Gotham Books, an appropriately-named publisher for a manuscript depicting characters with such outsized lives.


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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Truth and Lies in Literature by Stephen Vizinczey

I don't usually review older books in this space, but I decided to make an exception for this classic book of reviews and essays by Stephen Vizinczey. Vizinczey is so vital in his expression that one forgets this book was compiled from his work in the 1970's and 80's and that many of his literary heroes wrote a century before him. This is classic, and is about classics, for those who care for such things.

Truth And Lies In Literature: Essays And Reviews This is the way to write book reviews: funny, clever, opinionated, knowledgeable, and often more interesting than the books he writes about. Stephen Vizinczey is a novelist who also taught the art of writing. His essays and reviews are arguably his best work. Selected and introduced by his editor, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson at the Atlantic Monthly Press, these essays include "A Writer’s Ten Commandments" as well as essays on Vizinczey’s literary heroes ("at least once a year I reread almost everything by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Balzac. To my mind [Heinrich von] Kleist and these 19th-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven…").

A section of the book is devoted to Russian writers: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Vizinczey's beloved Gogol. Every essay brings to light something unique about their writing and something in the authors’ lives which brought this uniqueness to fruition, or how the raw material becomes the art.

Reviewing the book Gogol: The Biography Of A Divided Soul by Henri Troyat and translated by Nanci Amphoux, Vizinczey starts out:
There is hardly a page of this book on which there isn’t something that I find deeply offensive. Henri Troyat’s subject is Gogol, but what this biography is really about is that warm, cosy sense of superiority that mediocre people feel when confronted by genius.
Vizinczey then goes on to discuss Gogol for a page or two, pointing out moments of great comic genius, only to return to M. Troyat and point out ways he missed his mark completely.

In his titular essay commissioned by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, Vizinczey produced two versions, the one not published in the magazine beginning:
I read Billy Budd, Sailor some fifteen years ago but the passage of time has not softened its impact: I am still overcome by nausea whenever some admiring reference reminds me of it. Melville’s story fleshes out the grossest, meanest lie in all literature, the lie that a man can love his executioner…In Melville’s last book Authority does not ill-treat its subjects out of indifference, venality, incompetence, callousness, but for the common good. However arbitrary and cruel it may seem in its actions, it is always benign at heart… What disabling misconceptions about human nature, and society are inspired by such lies!
Later in the same essay, Vizinczey turns to speak how readers influence the idea of literature:
There are two basic kinds of literature. One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; the first helps you to be a free persona and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. One is like astronomy, the other is like astrology…Orwell said that most people cannot see artistic merit in novels which contradict their views, and this is the beginning of all aesthetics…Reading is a creative act, a continuous exercise of the imagination which gives flesh, feeling, colour, to the dead words on the page; we have to draw on the experience of all our senses to create a world in our mind, and we cannot do this without involving our subconscious and baring our ego. In short, we are extremely vulnerable when we read and are only happy with authors who share our inclinations, concerns, prejudices, illusions, pretentions, dreams, and who have the same values, the same attitudes to sex, politics, death, etc.
Vizinczey goes on to speak of Dickens, Stendhal, Proust, Balzac, but in a way that is so full of life and argument, full of recognition and the thrill of discovery, that one can see what Vizinczey is saying about truth and lies by his pairing of these writers.

Vizinczey is piquant, daring, vociferous on the subject of his literary heroes. In the section on German writers is reprinted his essay on the German writer Heinrich von Kleist commissioned by The Times. Vizinczey compares Kleist favorably with Shakespeare and tells us a time is due in which Kleist will get the approbation he yearned for. Vizinczey is so passionate and persuasive that we forget that Kleist wrote in the early 19th century. “If Stendhal tells us how people become lovers, Kleist tells us how people become murderers. It is hardly ever for a good reason.” He is describing Kleist’s very first play "The Schroffenstein Family" (1802) which
has one of the most potent love scenes ever conceived…Kleist’s Romeo undresses his Juliet and exchanges clothes with her while describing how he will undress her on their wedding night….the boy, knowing that his father is coming to kill the girl, talks her into exchanging clothes with him to save her life…they are murdered by their fathers—each killing his own child, thinking it’s the other. It’s hatred that kills, not love….We cannot understand anything profoundly unless it moves or shocks us so deeply that it touches our subconscious; great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.
Kleist committed suicide at the age of 34. Impecunious and starved of critical attention, he despaired of being able to earn enough money to live. When a young woman of his acquaintance recently diagnosed with uterine cancer mentioned she would like to die but not alone, Kleist agreed that such a thing was better in company and obliged. Vizinczey uses letters, essays, and Kleist’s body of work to compile his history:
No writer can create a single character or a single scene beyond his emotional range. Kleist, whose works are charged with suddenly swelling passions, had an abnormal capacity for extreme emotions—for extreme joy as well extreme despair, extreme love as well as extreme hate. He lived, in the words an army friend, ‘exposed to the storms of his inner self’…Happiness, he now saw, was to ‘till a field, to plant a tree, to father a child’. He soon renounced these simple ambitions, but he felt them so deeply that they survive everywhere in his work, and all the ‘fiendish business’ of his stories and plays is set against the soundest longings of the heart for love, a home and family.

Vizinczy, born in Hungary in 1933, did not begin to learn English until the age of twenty-four. He writes in English, having learned his craft while working with The National Film Board of Canada. His editor compares his nuance in English to Conrad and Nabokov before him. He is a remarkable writer of enormous personality and skill as this book of essays, and his own classic novel, In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, attests. Writers will thrill to read his enabling and energizing “Ten Commandments,” and reviewers would gain much from his own loosely-styled criticism so distant and so distinct from what we often read by professional reviewers. These are reviews for the ages.

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Law of the Jungle by Paul M. Barrett

Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who'd Stop at Nothing to Win It is difficult to comprehend how the relatively straightforward attempt by Ecuadorian plaintiffs to extract damages from oil companies for pollution caused in the course of their work became the perfect definition of a clusterf**k. Everybody got screwed.

Barrett goes through the history of the decades-long lawsuit on behalf of Ecuadorian peasants and tribespeople against Texaco, now part of Chevron, and highlights the bad judgment, culpable wrongdoing, bribery, fraud, and coercion committed by and on behalf of the plaintiffs and the defense.

Petroecuador, the national oil company of Ecuador, should have been named as co-defendant in the case to clean up pollution from seeping pits of oil byproduct left by the oil extractors because they partly owned the oil wells and pits and derived revenue from it but also because they already received some compensation from Texaco toward alleviating the environmental damage. They were not named as co-defendants, however, and did nothing to ameliorate the damage or the plaintiffs’ suffering. The plaintiffs were represented in Ecuadorian court by American lawyer Steven R. Donziger, who began as part of a legal team in 1993 and emerged as lead counsel in 2003.

In February of 2011 the Ecuadorian court ruled against Chevron, ordering them to pay damages for clean-up of USD$18.1 billion. The award was later reduced to USD9.5 billion. Chevron filed countersuit in New York District Court, alleging misconduct by the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, Donziger, and after several iterations of decisions, managed to obtain an injunction against collection of the damages anywhere in the United States. It is not over yet. Chevron may be named in a lawsuit in another South American country which may seek to recover that big payoff from Chevron.

What struck me about this fiasco is that everyone played to their worst selves. In wanting so badly to avoid being victimized, each group managed to create an environment of social toxicity to go with the demonstrated environmental toxicity. The Ecuadorian state did nothing to demand and enforce clean-up from its own state enterprise which was shoveling profits to them, and once the peasants were offered incentives to claim damages, some appeared to develop illnesses attributed to the illegal oil runoff. Everyone was implicated, everyone was venal, everyone failed.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Donziger, spent so much time and money on the case he had to bring in a series of investors to keep the case going. Donziger promised percentages of the take to investors once the case was settled (read: won)—so much in fact that had investors all been paid back for their capital infusions, nothing would be left for clean-up!

Donziger, just out of Harvard Law School when he entered the case for the plaintiffs, stated early in the proceedings that he wanted this case to be a “business” model for future attempts to secure damages from large corporations operating without sufficient environmental controls overseas. Even a blatant cynic might blanch at the thought of such stupendous arrogance and this surely went some way to alienating and hardening the positions of Chevron executives, who could have easily fixed the environmental damages with some arm-twisting of Petroecuador, because they came to the case knowing Texaco’s legacy in the country.

But one might say the Americans were the dupes in this fight. They were stupid and arrogant and stubborn, but it was the corruption in Ecuador that really brought both sides to their knees and exposed their idiocy. In a state where the legal system is so little developed that politicians, judges, and lawyers are free to line their pockets at the expense of the people they are sworn to protect, all attempt to recoup losses by legal means are chimerical.

The author, Paul Barrett, is also a Harvard Law grad, and now works as an investigating journalist for Bloomberg BusinessWeek. He has written several other nonfiction books, one of which is called Glock. He manages to bring the mass of information produced by this case into manageable form so that we can understand the progress of the case quite well. He does not appear to take sides, though it is clear he found Donziger’s behavior an affront to his profession.

I came away thinking that this should be read by every law student dreaming of working in international or corporate law for the lessons and warnings it contains. A corporation cannot carry on in this manner and escape unscathed. Needless to say, one would want no law student to imagine they could emulate the hubris of Donziger; failure, in this world or the next, must surely be their fate. This history is positively Dante-esque in the venality of the actors.

I listened to the audio presentation of this book, published by Random House Audio and read by Joe Ochman. Ochman does a good job, threading the legal morass and making it comprehensible. The writing, and therefore the reading, was not completely dispassionate: there was some level of editorial disdain for the parties (who could help it?). There were times I wished I had the hard copy while I was listening, so if you have the opportunity to buy or borrow one or the other, you might like to get both. The hard copy is published by Crown.


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