Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

For thousands of years, India has maintained a caste system, and even though it has been abolished legally, still it lives on, deeply ingrained in the psyche of the nation. The Brahmin caste, it is believed, had sprung directly from the gods, and so it was irrefutable that they were to be honored. The lower castes had surnames that described their occupations and their place in society, and the very lowest caste, the Dalit, were “untouchable.” Nothing they could ever do would change their fate or that of their children.

Isabel Wilkerson believes that all of humanity will organize itself into some sort of caste system in order to maintain structure in society. She has met Dalit Indian immigrants in the United States who cannot look other Indian Americans in the eye if they would have occupied a higher caste in India. She also traveled to Germany, where the mid-twentieth century produced a caste system based on religion and other factors that allowed those in power to blame everything on a scapegoat, a necessary feature of every caste system.

In the United States, caste is largely based on race. For a century and a half before the Declaration of Independence, the economy of at least the southern portion of the country was dependent on slavery. Wilkerson does not hold back on the descriptions of the cruelty of slaveholders and the ruthless ways that the white people in power kept hold of the reins of hierarchy. Furthermore, she shows— through scholarly research, news stories, and personal accounts— that it is easier to change laws than to change human hearts.

Wilkerson is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, The Warmth of Other Suns. This new work, subtitled The Origins of Our Discontent, is certainly the most scholarly and well-researched of the many anti-racist titles I’ve read in the past year. The author goes beyond the current headlines to delve into the human condition and discover the causes of such evil. Her research and presentation are thorough, yet readable, and her conclusions are convincing. Even in the smallest human groups—your office, your church, and your homeowner’s association, for example—we see people sorting into hierarchies. Some are helpful, while others are toxic. Those at the top will ruthlessly use their power to keep themselves on top. Those in the middle have a vested interest in maintaining the lowest caste, congratulating themselves that at least they are better than those beneath them on the ladder, while those on the very bottom, like crabs in a bucket, keep pulling each other back down so that they won’t be alone in despair.

Other titles that I have reviewed may have been more practical about steps that readers can take to heal past hurts, but this book will help many people to understand the concept of “systemic” racism. Wilkerson does have a pointedly partisan take on current politics, and some readers may be offended. However, it is important that we explore the origins of our unrest in a serious and unflinching manner. It’s not about the laws we pass or even the century or country we live in. Caste is a compulsion we all have as one of the darker sides of our human nature.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray

Clover stepped out of the shower one morning and started brushing her teeth. When she looked in the mirror, her toothbrush was suspended in midair. Otherwise, all she could see was the wall behind her. She was invisible. And not metaphorically.

Her husband was a busy pediatrician, and their son lived in his old bedroom after finishing a graduate degree in women’s studies, and neither one of them seemed to notice. She wore her usual bathrobe or outdoor clothes, and they didn’t skip a beat at her lack of a head or hands. Her best friend across the street, of course, noticed immediately and flew into a panic. Okay, so maybe a little metaphorical, after all.

One day, Clover was reading the newspaper’s classified section when she spotted an ad: “Calling Invisible Women.” There were others! They had meetings, and they knew what was causing it. They just didn’t know what to do about it. Good thing Clover hadn’t lost her investigative reporter instincts.

Jeanne Ray is the queen of the rom-com for older women. I read her Step-Ball-Change, Eat Cake, and Julie and Romeo years ago, and this novel came to my attention in connection with Women’s History Month. Her writing is light and humorous, but she jabs that stiletto point home about the real experience of most middle-aged and older women’s lives. Her perspective widens as the novel continues, and she deals with individual women’s private lives, the importance of community and friendship for women, age discrimination, and even Big Pharma. Quite a lot for a novel, and she does it all with panache and a giggle.

So travel along with Clover and her friends as they take on the world! Oh, but to be completely invisible for slipping onto planes and into corporate buildings, you’ll have to be completely naked. You’ll get used to it.

So fun and so fierce.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library downloadable audio of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Women’s History for Little Feminists

In celebration of the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, 2019 and 2020 saw the publication of a treasure trove of children’s titles. March is Women’s History Month, so this is a great time to gather up all of those books, as well as a few more. Here are two great feminist reads for kids, one that is a few years old and madly beloved, and one that is brand new and much-needed.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

One-stop shopping for women’s bios. This first volume of the series contains 100 one-page biographies of women who made a difference in the world, arranged alphabetically by first name. The book came into being through a Kickstarter program, and it has now been translated into 47 languages! The left side of each double-page spread has a quick summary of each woman’s life, while the right side has a full-page, colorful portrait with a quotation from the subject. All of the pictures are done by different artists, which gives the book exuberant variety. Some of the portraits are serious and classic, while others are almost caricatures. I had to laugh when I turned the page to the Brontë sisters. It is certainly a good likeness, but the artist put something a little spooky into their wide eyes that hinted at the eeriness of their writing.

The short biographies are not meant to be comprehensive, but rather to point out general facts and the reasons that the reader should care about this person. Hopefully, children will be especially interested in a few of these heroines and will seek out full biographies and other information about them.

Inspirational reading for little rebels. Princesses need not apply.

An Equal Shot, by Helaine Becker

Title IX went into effect when I was in high school. Yes, I am that old. Although it was passed in 1972, it was not explained in detail and implemented until 1975, and even after that, some organizations were slow to get on board. When we were buying a house in a small town in Georgia in the 1990s, I called the mortgage banker to get an update. He told me that he was communicating with David about it, and if I had any questions, I could ask my husband. These days, he could be fired for that, and I would throw a party on his front lawn.

But I digress.

This nonfiction picture book tells about the need for the law and how it has changed our country since its passage. The text is very simple, and it is accompanied by illustrations in pleasing colors by Dow Phumiruk. The artist portrays diverse groups of girls in the beginning as disappointed and dismayed that they cannot play on sports teams, but even in the protest march, there is no hint of violent anger. The history of our country’s discrimination against women is explained clearly and persuasively. I found it particularly telling when the girls are searching giant editions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and realizing that women’s rights are not found in these great documents.

It seems that the battle for freedom never ends. We abolish slavery and end up with Jim Crow. We pass the 19th amendment, but women can still be fired from their jobs for getting married or becoming pregnant. Liberty takes constant vigilance. Becker frequently points out that Title IX has only 37 words; that’s all it took. The text of the law is written out on one of the last pages.

We often think of Title IX as the law that allowed girls to have sports teams, and it is, but its application is so much broader than that, even for men, who are now able to work in what were traditionally considered women’s jobs, such as nursing or flight attendants. The backmatter has a more detailed account of the bill’s passage, including important individuals who worked to make equality a reality for girls and women. The author also points out areas where there is still “More Work to Do,” such as pay discrimination, and she includes a list of resources for further information.

Essential reading for girls and boys.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Think Again, by Adam Grant

Black and white, red and blue, and scores of other binary choices; our world has drawn into camps. The sudden slowdown caused by the pandemic may be the best time in our lives to re-examine those opinions to which we cling with the greatest fervor, especially those we hold just because “it’s always been that way.”

Adam Grant is a professor at Wharton and a frequent TED talk presenter. In Think Again, Grant details the results of research that were surprising even to him. He has discovered that people who are willing to listen to opposing opinions and be flexible in their thinking are often the most successful. The book is divided into three sections: individual rethinking, business flexibility, and building organizations of lifelong learning. The very best academics are eager to listen to opposing opinions and are willing to admit that they were wrong. They are thrilled to find new insights. The most successful managers will readily unlearn and re-learn processes and strategies in order to keep their teams producing at the top level. Any group of people who remain curious and open-minded will grow and flourish, rather than becoming stale and rigid.

When I first heard of this new book, I was intrigued, since I am beginning what will be a few years of transition in my life. The book turned out to be somewhat more business-focused than I had anticipated, but it is an enjoyable read with many universal applications. Grant is a young father of three, and his illustrations include relatable stories of family life.

The ability to change his mind is why you know who Steve Jobs was, but you probably don’t know who Mike Lazaridis is, even though he was a smashing success before Apple made it big. Lazaridis and his colleague, Douglas Fredin, invented the Blackberry, the very first hand-held data device. When the iPhone came along, Lazaridis thought it was ridiculous to think that people would want to tap on glass instead of using a real keyboard, as on the Blackberry. Besides, no one would want to use a hand-held device for personal things; it was only meant for business emails– and that was the end of the Blackberry. On the other hand, Steve Jobs was happy with the success of the iPod for music and the iPhone for talk and text. However, when his team was enthusiastic about putting music on the iPhone, he agreed, even though it would mean the slow death of the iPod. The company he was building continued to expand as they stayed open to even more creative ideas, evolving and thriving.

Grant gives many other stories of success through flexibility. He devotes a section to persuading others to think as you do, and the key ingredient is listening more than we talk. That’s a tough one for those of us who love to talk! One of his discoveries concerning lifelong learning is that we do not necessarily learn best the way we enjoy the most. Study participants who were most comfortable and content listening to lectures did not always retain the information as well as they did when asked to perform experiments or conduct research and compile reports. In other words, venture outside of your comfort zone to learn new skills or fields of research.

It is encouraging to see books like Think Again being published at this critical time. Our culture has become reactionary to the point of violence, as we have seen over the past year, and it is time to take a step back, cool down, and listen. Our sources of information seem to lack any attempt at neutrality, so even our input is already tainted. It is so important to read beyond the headlines and to have real conversations with people with opposing viewpoints in order to understand one another’s thinking and to work toward peace and cooperation. On an individual level, we need to live a larger life, keep learning new things, and remain open to creativity and discovery. We can do so much better than this.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title, read by the author. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith, was not feeling well. She was lying on a pallet on the floor, slick with feverish sweat, and eleven-year-old Hamnet was the only one home. He ran all over the house, then all over the village, looking for his family, finally calling for the village doctor, but he couldn’t find anyone to help. His father, Will, was in London working with his theater troupe, and he only visited them a couple of times a year. Eventually, Hamnet gave up hope and went home to check on Judith. She was no better, so he curled up next to her on the pallet and went to sleep.

Agnes was working with her bees. Her brother had sent word that the hive was swarming, and no one controlled the bees quite like his married sister. Their mother, too, had had a way with the natural world. They say she walked out of the woods one day and charmed their father, gave him children over the years, and then went back to the wilderness. Now, Agnes was a healer. She grew herbs and put together cures for all the people who stopped by their window. She had never expected to live in the town, along with her playwright husband’s family, and then, over the years, their own children, all in one house with a glove-making shop attached. She missed Will. He had been gone for a long time now, but she knew he was happy writing and performing for the London crowds.

The shock and dread that greet the family members as they all return home takes the length of this beautiful novel to tell. O’Farrell alternates between the tragic fate of Hamnet and the story of Will and Agnes Shakespeare’s courtship and marriage, leading up to this crisis and then beyond. Agnes is a mysterious, yet sympathetic, main character. She remains unmoved by social norms, and is motivated only by her love for her family and the guidance of her heart.

The storytelling in this novel is breathtaking. The reader will be lost in the 16th century, living in historic plague years during a very present pandemic. O’Farrell’s anatomy of a romantic relationship is generous and realistic, allowing space for these two very different people to grow into themselves without losing each other. She takes many pages to tell the critical scene, during which I cried so hard that my dog climbed into my lap to comfort me and my husband patted my arm with a worried expression. The writing was just that intense. So, yes, bring your tissues, but also your sense of wonder.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library ebook of this novel. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Black History for Children

Here are two new, exceptional nonfiction works for kids that are great reads anytime, but particularly in February.

Jump at the Sun, by Alicia D. Williams

Zora loved to listen to the grownups telling stories down at the general store. Mama would send her on a ten-minute errand, and after an hour of waiting, she’d have to call the girl back home. After a while, Zora became well-known for her storytelling, or, as her Daddy called it, lying. But Mama approved of her stories, and she always told Zora to “jump at the sun!”

After her Mama died and her preacher father went on the road, he put her in boarding school where Zora spent her time reading everything she could. Soon, though, her father remarried and the money dried up, so Zora Neale Hurston spent a decade or more trying to get an education anywhere she could. She went through Howard University and, finally, Barnard College. She was friends with many of the greatest figures of the Harlem Renaissance, especially her best friend, Langston Hughes. For her last project in college, she travelled the South, collecting African American folklore. When she assembled and published those stories, she truly landed on the sun.

Jacqueline Alcántara illustrates this exuberant children’s biography with paintings that dance and jump across each page. She uses colors that convey the humid heat of the South, the excitement of New York, and the hopeful glow of the sun itself.

Zora Neale Hurston went on to become one of America’s greatest writers, probably best known for her classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The fact that she was able to produce such enduring works is all the more amazing for a black woman in the early twentieth century. Everything was stacked against her, but she remembered what her mother told her: “Jump at the sun!”

Unspeakable, by Carole Boston Weatherford

In 1921, Greenwood was a thriving community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The nearby oil wells had created prosperity for all, and Greenwood had hotels and hospitals, great schools and restaurants. The residents had two newspapers to read and libraries to read more. The citizens of Greenwood were well educated and thriving, but not everyone was happy about that, because Greenwood was a completely black community.

Not that the people had a choice. Segregation forced a line down the center of Tulsa, and all of the black residents had to live on one side of the line. Of course, they sometimes had jobs that took them into the white section of town, and on one unforgettable day, a white teenaged girl accused a seventeen-year-old black shoeshine boy of assault. That one spark ignited the tinder of resentment in the white community and exploded into one of the worst race riots the United States has ever seen.

When I first learned of this chapter of our country’s history in Latasha Morrison’s book, Be the Bridge (reviewed here), last summer, I was stunned that I had never known that an entire section of a city was burned to the ground. The violence lasted for sixteen hours and left 300 people dead and 8,000 homeless. Most people left for good. Weatherford leaves out a part that Morrison relates: This is the first and only time that the federal government dropped bombs on its own citizens.

Shortly after writing the review of Be the Bridge, I read that there would soon be a children’s book about this shameful incident in our history. Carole Weatherford Boston is an award-winning North Carolina author who spends the first half of the book describing the good and peaceful life that the residents of Greenwood enjoyed. The brilliant artist Floyd Cooper fills this picture book with his signature oil paintings, depicting first a prosperous neighborhood, and then a tragic massacre. Cooper grew up in Tulsa, and one night his Grandpa Williams told him and his family about a terrible thing that had happened in his past. Now it is time to share that story.

Although descriptions of race riots and massacres make for uncomfortable conversations with our children, it is essential for them to learn about all of our shared history. Ms. Weatherford limits the description to a child’s level in the easy text of the book, and only gives more detail in smaller font in the back matter.

Highly recommended for parents to read with their school-age children.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these books. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

Somewhere in my study of the Sermon on the Mount last year, which lasted for months and kept on evolving, I came to the conclusion that I had to read Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy. If one does a lot of reading in a specific field, eventually the same names will pop up over and over, and you begin to get the uncomfortable feeling that everyone else is in on something you’ve missed.

In the first chapter, Willard launches into research studies demonstrating the decline of the church and religion in general, and although the book was written in 1997, we would only see an increase of “nones” and “dones” if the study were conducted today. After setting up his reasons for the book, however, Willard’s writing becomes much more winsome, and he moves into the main points of his thinking.

First, when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he spoke in the present tense. “The kingdom is among you,” “the kingdom is within you,” and so on. Willard believes that the church will not make disciples if the kingdom is a pie-in-the-sky heaven that is in the future but does not affect our daily life. We must learn to live in the kingdom now.

Secondly, Willard delves more deeply into kingdom living in several chapters on the Sermon on the Mount. There are so many wise insights here, only one of which is that the Beatitudes are not a list of aspirations. Nor do they espouse Salvation by Situation. “Blessed are those who mourn” does not mean that we should seek to be mourners, and Willard deplores centuries of Christian sanctimony that caused people to avoid happiness and laughter by misunderstanding this verse. His teaching on anger and malice—and the chilling difference between the two– is worth the price of the book by itself.

Thirdly, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but the church seems merely to want to make converts. Willard spends some time exploring discipleship, and in the last chapter, he lays out a practical curriculum on how to become a disciple of Jesus.

This hefty volume of fine print took me almost three months to read, not least because it is so chock-full of startling insights that one can only read a small amount without pausing to consider this latest bit of wisdom. Although it is complex and theologically rich, the entire book is so hopeful and positive that the reader comes away not only knowing God better, but, more importantly, loving God more.

For those who wish to deepen their spiritual journey, this classic book is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Return of the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner

Eugenides, Thief of Eddis, married the queen of Attolia, and now, through a series of unimagined twists and turns, he is the high king of the entire peninsula, including Eddis, Attolia, and Sunis. His cousin is queen of Eddis, and his friend is king of Sunis. The powerful Medes are not happy to see the little countries unified, and so they launch an attack that may end them all.

Pheris is the young heir to Baron Erondites’ family, and his grandfather berates his mother for not killing the crippled boy when he was a baby. Eugenides has asked for the baron’s heir to be raised at the palace in order to create a bond with this dangerous family, but everyone thinks that the heir is Pheris’ younger brother. When Pheris arrives, drooling on the floor, Gen sees something in him that no one else does. Even though he realizes that the Baron sent him to humiliate the new king, Eugenides insists that he stay in the capital. The entire book is written as Pheris’ journal.

Megan Whalen Turner does not rush to get a book out every year, so when she does publish a new title, it is An Event. In October, after twenty years of writing, she released the last of six titles in her beloved “The Queen’s Thief” series, Return of the Thief, and it is a perfect resolution. The title has many meanings, only the first of which is the return of Eugenides as the main character of the story. “Gen” has often been voted the best hero of YA literature, and readers missed him in a couple of earlier volumes when Turner focused her story on secondary characters. Now, however, he is front and center, but the title also hints at the deep character study Turner unfolds throughout the story. All human beings are more complex than meets the eye, but brilliant and powerful people are able to indulge their desires in ways that may be dangerous to those around them, and the revelation of one’s darker nature can be unsettling, even to those who love them. Eugenides is a king, but before his ascension to the throne, he was born to be a Thief.

This series has never fit comfortably in the Young Adult category, and this particular volume continues the political intrigue and subtle deception while adding thoughtful explorations of marriage and other adult relationships. “The Queen’s Thief” is set in a pseudo-ancient Greek world, with rugged terrain, hot weather, and a panoply of pagan gods and goddesses. The series reads mostly as historical fiction, but it slips into fantasy territory with the occasional visitation from the gods. Eugenides is startled to discover that he is not the only person able to see the goddess Moira.

I cannot recommend this series highly enough for everyone from smart young teens to adults. The layered plots and intricate relationships stand up to repeated readings, as I can attest after reading earlier volumes over again as each new one came out. It is best to read them in order, as they are not stand-alone novels, and the details are complex. Turner certainly stuck the landing. The last few pages and the epilogue fairly sing off the pages.

*Postscript: The Hollywood Reporter has announced that Disney has picked up The Thief for the screen. It will be tough to do the books justice. Here’s hoping!

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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A Long Road on a Short Day, by Gary D. Schmidt

When Mama says that she would love to have a brown-eyed cow to give milk for the baby, Samuel’s father takes his best knife off the mantle and sets out with Samuel to make a trade. A snowstorm is brewing, so Papa says to Samuel, “Keep up. It’s a long road on a short day.”

Samuel and Papa walk from their farm to a neighbor’s barn, meet travelers on the road, and visit houses and businesses in town. Each time, they trade for another item in this cumulative tale set in an earlier time. Samuel is often wistful when they have to leave dogs, kittens, and ponies behind, but he is always polite and helpful, and his positive spirit is rewarded in the end with an extra gift just for him.

Gary Schmidt is a Newbery Medal-winning author (also reviewed here), and Long Road is based on a manuscript by his late wife, who wrote as Elizabeth Stickney. The nostalgic story is reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, and it is refreshing to read about a young boy learning how to be a man of admirable character by observing the older men around him. This early chapter book is punctuated by Americana-style illustrations by Eugene Yelchin.

A perfect winter read for loving families.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Nonfiction Gems for Exceptional Children

Teatime Around the World, by Denyse Waissbluth and Chelsea O’Byrne

Tea is a beverage that has been enjoyed all over the world for a very long time. Every nation and culture has rituals surrounding the service and consumption of tea. Some people drink tea in glasses with lots of sugar, others add spices and milk, and some countries enact elaborate rituals to honor their guests with cups of tea.

I grew up drinking tea. My Scottish grandmother drank tea with milk and sugar, and my mom would occasionally have a cup, as well. My best friend, Eithne, whose parents were from Ireland, lived next door to us in New Jersey in a house of perpetual teatime. Her father was a professor, and the whole family was bookish, as I was. At any time of the day or night, one or more of the six family members would be sitting at the large kitchen table with a book, a cozy-covered teapot in the middle and scones or some other baked treat close at hand. When my own son was growing up, I could usually be found with a big mug of Earl Grey in my hand, with sugar and milk, of course. I remember how my Japanese friend jumped and exclaimed, “Oh, no!” when I offered her some tea, anxious to avoid her family’s complicated tea ceremony, and then she wondered aloud when I just poured some boiling water onto a teabag. Some friends who were African missionaries taught us to make chai, and these days my tea of choice is a spicy rooibos blend that needs no sugar.

Bring a world of tea culture to your home with this Canadian import filled with artwork depicting children and parents around the globe enjoying the many varieties of this delicious beverage.

Big Ideas for Curious Minds: An Invitation to Philosophy

Why did you yell at your mum and knock over your little brother’s blocks? Think about it. Are you really angry at your mum or your brother? No, something that happened at school is still bothering you. Let’s see what Socrates had to say about that.

This very accessible volume from Britain’s School of Life Press presents the main ideas of twenty-five philosophers from a child’s-eye view. While there are many elementary philosophy books on the market, generally ranging from dry to dessicated, this clever text introduces a story about a child’s life first, engaging children to take a closer look at their own thoughts and behaviors. Once the child becomes curious about the reasons for her emotions or actions, the authors offer two or three pages about a philosopher who ruminated about these very same problems. Just enough, not too much, and totally relevant. Some of these names will be familiar, and some more obscure. The editors take care to present thoughts from the east and the west, from men and from women.

The pages presenting situations in the child’s world are generally plain with perhaps a hand-drawn chart or graph, but the two-page spreads about the philosophers are richly illustrated with pictures of the subjects and their world. Don’t be fooled by the somewhat uninviting cover. This is an excellent, kid-friendly introduction to philosophy.

Disclaimer: I read library editions of these titles. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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