I Refuse: A Novel

I Refuse: A Novel


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Per Petterson's I Refuse is the work of an internationally acclaimed novelist at the height of his powers. In the same spare but evocative style that made readers fall in love with Out Stealing Horses, Petterson weaves a tale of two men whose accidental meeting one morning churns up a fateful moment from their boyhood thirty-five years before.

Editorial Reviews

Per Petterson garnered worldwide recognition in 2005 with his powerful sixth book, Out Stealing Horses, about a solitary widower whose chance encounter with a childhood friend causes him to recall the fateful summer of 1948, when he finally came to understand his father's puzzling wartime comings and goings. Also framed in crystalline language that evokes the stark, hushed clarity of the cold Scandinavian landscape, subsequent novels such as I Curse the River of Time and this one, I Refuse, continue to explore boyhood memories that cast long, dark shadows over adulthood.

The simultaneous American publication of I Refuse and Petterson's first book, a slim volume of short stories called Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (originally published in Norwegian in 1987), provides a window into the development of this spellbinding writer. While both books showcase his central preoccupations with time and memory, I Refuse brings together recurrent themes — close boyhood friendships, absent or disappearing parents, and chance meetings after long separations — in an intense, profoundly moving story that, unlike Out Stealing Horses or I Curse the River of Time, doesn't involve politics or history. I Refuse is about a different kind of resistance fighter and refusenik than those who fought Nazis and Communists; its characters are struggling to find their way to what matters in the bewildering drift of time, which shrouds and reveals memories like fast-moving, ever-changing cloud formations.

The novel opens with a chance encounter between two boyhood friends who have not seen each other in more than thirty years. They meet — significantly — on a suspension bridge connecting an island outside Oslo to the mainland, early on a September morning in 2006. Jim, "on the wrong side of fifty" and shabbily dressed in an old jacket from his teens, has been fishing under the bridge with the motley regulars. "His life was at half-mast," corroded by mental illness. "As long as I remembered to take my pills, one day slid nicely into another," he says.

But this long September day, which makes up the novel's present, is different from the start. Jim is all too aware that his yearlong medical leave from his library job is set to expire, and it's unclear what he'll do next. On his way to his fishing spot, he nearly hits a pedestrian who emerges from the dark roadside. "For a moment I thought it was my father. But it wasn't my father. I had never seen my father," he says. Two hours later, his old friend Tommy, driving a fancy new gray Mercedes on his daily commute from his affluent island home to his finance job in downtown Oslo, recognizes him on the bridge and stops. Awkwardly, he comments about how their positions have changed, and he makes matters worse by offering assistance to Jim if he needs it.

Both men are deeply shaken by the encounter. It sets in motion a series of painful recollections and reckonings that turn out to be life-changing. The novel circles back to their hometown of Mørk, sixty kilometers outside of Oslo, in the 1960s, when Tommy was the one needing aid. Since his mother's disappearance, he and his three younger sisters lived alone with their vicious father, a garbageman whose weapon of choice was his foot. Tommy periodically sought refuge with his friend Jim, who lived alone with his devoutly Christian mother, a teacher. Finally, at thirteen, Tommy struck back savagely. His broken father disappeared, and the Berggren children were divided among several foster homes. Jonsen, a kind bachelor neighbor who ran the local lumberyard, agreed to take in Tommy.

Petterson zigzags between past and present, and between sometimes overlapping first- and third-person points of view to reveal what happened to Tommy and Jim to cause such damage to their lives and their friendship. With clearly marked chapter headings to avoid confusion, the book's fractured chronology leads to a richly layered narrative that builds to a heightened pitch as pieces of each character's heartbreaking history shed light on what's at stake when they cross paths again.

Resistance and refusal are recurrent themes. When, just a few weeks before running into Jim, Tommy pays a hospital visit to Jonsen, his dying benefactor and the closest thing to family he has had, he urges the old man to fight death. "You can't refuse to die, my friend," Jonsen tells him. But for Tommy, a survivor who stopped reading fiction because he "didn't have time to be moved," refusing to capitulate is everything.

I Refuse is filled with both coincidental meetings and frustrating near-misses, which highlight the precariousness of life and love. Petterson is a writer who likes to tie up loose ends, which means we learn the fate of each character, including Tommy's mother — often from surprising sources. Chance plays a large role — this aspect of Petterson's sensibility recalls that of Thomas Hardy or Shirley Hazzard — and (as in Hazzard's Transit of Venus) a key to what happens in the end is so subtly buried in the very beginning of the book that readers may need to circle back to understand its import. Despite the appearance of serendipity, Petterson is always in control. Without giving away too much, let me flag the way Jim describes his circumstances on the morning in which he so jarringly runs into Tommy. In Don Bartlett's smooth and I assume accurate translation, Jim says, "Back then, during Jens Stoltenberg's first red-green coalition government, I lived to the north-east of Oslo" — words that imply a future from which he is recalling "back then," that September 2006 day.

Time, whose elasticity is often captured in short staccato bursts or long run-on sentences connected by series of "ands," is central to Petterson's work. Racing along the highway in his sleek Mercedes on this long day's journey into night, Tommy thinks, "How much can a normal weekday in mid-September contain, is time like an empty sack you can stuff any number of things into, does it never go just from here to there, but instead in circles, round and round, so that every single time the wheel has turned, you are back where you started." Then he realizes, "But that's not the way it was. I used to be young. I wasn't young any more. I would never be young again."

Arvid Jansen, Petterson's recurrent alter ego who also appears in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time, is first introduced as a small boy in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes. Sensitive and wise beyond his years, Arvid is already bewildered by the passage of time at the age of six. When he sees a photograph of his mother from before he was born, he's thrown for a loop: "He tried to work out what could have happened to her, and then he realized it was time that had happened and it was happening to him too, every second of the day." Petterson follows Arvid's mother's attempts to comfort him with a statement ripe for discussion: "And time withdrew to the large clock on the wall in the living room and went round alone in there, like a tiger in a cage."

Petterson's early stories contain many of the seeds of his later fiction, including Arvid's close friendship with Jon Sand, who, along with his older brother Trond, reappears in somewhat different form as Jon Sander in Out Stealing Horses. Most moving, however, is the tender portrait of Arvid's working-class parents that emerges in stories like "Ashes in His Mouth," in which young Arvid is taken into their double bed when he has nightmares in which "the house is full of ashes, there are ashes in his mouth and ashes in his pockets." Published three years before the devastating 1990 Scandinavian Star ferry fire in which 159 people were killed, including Petterson's mother, father, younger brother, and niece, there's an eerie prescience and haunting innocence to the story. But what really hits home is that even before that loss, Petterson's work was suffused with a melancholic ache for bygone times and vanishing youth — a nostalgic yearning that has deepened with each transfixing book.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

Publishers Weekly

★ 02/02/2015
This latest from the internationally acclaimed novelist (Out Stealing Horses) might be his saddest, most powerful take yet on families torn asunder, missed opportunities, lost friendships, and regrets that span a lifetime. As the story opens, Tommy, a successful financier, unexpectedly encounters his estranged childhood friend Jim, who is fishing off a bridge during Tommy’s early-morning drive. In chapters that switch among several narrators and periods (the 1960s, ’70s, and the present story in 2006), the history of Tommy and Jim’s relationship unfolds. Tommy grows up in a dysfunctional household in rural Norway, in a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and their business. Tommy’s father beats him and his three younger sisters daily; the mother disappeared two years earlier without a trace, although her fate is eventually revealed in a striking subplot. After Tommy stands up to his father, the four siblings are separated by the authorities. Having lost his family, Tommy and Jim become inseparable until a seemingly minor incident on a frozen lake one night during their teens forever changes their relationship. Set against a stark landscape, this is a brilliant, meditative story about how one small, impulsive act can have an irrevocable impact upon one’s life, as well as a rippling effect upon the lives of others. (Apr.)

Financial Times

Per Petterson stands unsurpassed among contemporary writers for existential truth-telling.

The Boston Globe

Readers will find that they're in the hands of a master whose quiet, unforgettable voice leaves you yearning to hear more.

The New York Times Book Review Stacey D'Erasmo

Subtly incisive . . . Clean sentence after clean sentence, Petterson conveys both the melancholy and the demi-pleasurable sensation of being fundamentally untethered.


Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting--all shafts of light and clear palpable chill.

From the Publisher

Praise for Per Petterson
“Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting—all shafts of light and clear palpable chill.” —Time
“Subtly incisive . . . Clean sentence after clean sentence, Petterson conveys both the melancholy and the demi-pleasurable sensation of being fundamentally untethered.” —Stacey D’Erasmo, The New York Times Book Review
“Readers will find that they’re in the hands of a master whose quiet, unforgettable voice leaves you yearning to hear more.” —The Boston Globe
“Per Petterson stands unsurpassed among contemporary writers for existential truth-telling.” —Financial Times

Library Journal

These titles are true bookends, as the story collection Ashes in My Mouth was Petterson's debut in 1987 and I Refuse his latest novel, a huge best seller in his native Norway, sold to 16 countries so far. The story collection is set in the early 1960s and introduces Arvid Jansen, seen in subsequent Petterson works, including the recent I Curse the River of Time. In I Refuse, two men meet by accident after a dark incident on a frozen lake 35 years previously shattered their relationship. Then, Jim stood by troubled Tommy; now, Tommy drives a Mercedes, while Jim fishes alone. From the author of Out Stealing Horses, an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner.

Kirkus Review

★ 2015-01-22
Norwegian Petterson (It's Fine By Me, 2012, etc.) shows his considerable gift for exploring the darker crevices of boyhood in this elegiac story of two long-estranged friends whose lives have not turned out as they expected. In 2006, Tommy and Jim speak briefly on a bridge in Oslo where Jim is fishing and Tommy is driving his Mercedes. While Tommy is a successful if lonely businessman, emotionally fragile Jim has not worked at his job at the Oslo Libraries for a year, and his sick leave has run out. More than 30 years ago, the two were best friends growing up together in the working-class neighborhood of Mørk. Back then, Jim—raised by his devoted single mom, who taught religion and instilled in Jim the belief that "you had to make yourself worthy"—seemed headed for success. Tommy's childhood was a disaster—after his mother's disappearance in 1964, his father abused his three younger sisters until 13-year-old Tommy attacked him with a bat and his father disappeared, too. The children were sent to different homes. While living with kindly neighbor Jonsen, Tommy tried to maintain a bond with his sister Siri, although her heavily Christian new parents considered him a bad influence. In adolescence, Siri was no longer close to Tommy but began a romance with Jim when he started attending her high school. The triangular connections became complicated, but all three had a sweetness and innocence about them. Then one afternoon Jim had a moment of what he considered cowardice while skating with Tommy and never forgave himself. Going about what turns into a trying day for each in 2006, both middle-aged men are drawn back to memories of that earlier time and each other, exposing how the scars from their (and Siri's) pasts formed them. Don't expect redemption here, but hope for connection. Without pyrotechnics, Petterson brings his characters and working-class Norway vividly, even passionately, to life; days after they finish the novel, readers may still have dreams of ice cracking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555977405
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 808,965
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

I Refuse

By Per Petterson, Don Bartlett


Copyright © 2012 Forlaget Oktober, Oslo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-699-6


Dark. It was half past four in the morning. I was driving towards Herregardsveien from Hauketo. Just before Ljan station I turned off to the left over the railway bridge, the lights were red, but there was no one else around, so I turned anyway. When I was over the crossing and further down the road, past the shop there, they called it Karusellen, a man plunged out of the darkness into the headlights of my car. He was about to fall when I saw him. I hit the brakes, the wheels locked and the car skidded sideways for a few metres with a sickening squeal and stopped right by him. The engine died. I was certain I had hit him with the bumper.

And then he didn't fall. He leaned against the bonnet, took three steps back and swayed. I saw the light flooding in through his eyes. He stared at the windscreen, but he couldn't see me, he couldn't see anything. His hair was long, and his beard was long, and he had a grey bag tucked tightly up under his arm. For a moment I thought it was my father. But it wasn't my father. I had never seen my father.

Then he was lost in the darkness on the other side of the road, where the path led steeply down into Ljansdalen. I sat with my arms straight out in front of me, my hands pressed hard against the wheel and the rear of the car halfway into the opposite lane. It was still dark. Darker, even. Two headlights approached from down the hill. I twisted the key, but the car wouldn't start, and I tried again and then it burst into life. I felt my breath at the top of my throat, I was panting, the way a dog does. I backed into the right-hand lane before the other car could reach me, and I turned and drove slowly down to Mosseveien and turned right at the bottom, towards Oslo.

Back then, during Jens Stoltenberg's first red-green coalition government, I lived to the north-east of Oslo, in Romerike, and yet less and less I drove the easy way into Oslo – along the E6, but instead made a long detour around our capital in the east, from Lillestram via Enebakk to Hauketo, because it brought back sweet memories.

Of course it was a lot further that way and took more time, but it was not so important, I had been off work for a whole year and had no idea what would happen next. A letter from Social Security came in the post telling me to show up at their office, but I guessed I wouldn't have to go back to work straight away. As long as I remembered to take my pills, one day slid nicely into another.

I drove at just under the speed limit along Mosseveien to the suspension bridge connecting the island of Ulvøya to the mainland. There was still no traffic. I moved slowly across the bridge as it swayed beneath me, a nice feeling, as if on the deck of a boat, I liked that feeling.

I parked in the lay-by to the right, on the bend there, and leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes and waited. Breathing from my stomach. Then I opened the door and swung my legs out and walked around the car and took out the old, black bag with the fishing equipment in it. Nothing fancy, a bait rig with a line and twenty hooks and a weight at the end.

The regulars were already there, standing alongside the railings, where they had stood for ten years or more. I was the only newcomer for perhaps just as many years, but no one asked me why I had suddenly appeared. I had been coming here at least twice a week for three months now.

The man closest to me turned when I stepped on to the bridge, the bag in my hand. He saluted with three fingers to his cap, like a Boy Scout. He had two sweaters on, one over the other, the top one blue, the one underneath white, well, off-white, and they were both in rags, they called him Container Jon. On his hands he had fingerless mittens, or maybe they were normal gloves he had cut the fingers off. I had seen newspaper boys do the same. These ones were an unexpected reddish colour, pink, almost.

'Any bites,' I said. He didn't answer, but smiled and pointed to the newspaper he had spread out on the ground by his feet. On it were a medium-sized cod and two mackerel, one still wriggling. He winked with his left eye and raised his right hand and flashed five fingers three times.

'In fifteen minutes,' I said with a low whistle.

A plastic bag had been tossed up against the railings, ICA, Co-op, whatever, it wasn't his, that's for sure, and two scrunched-up paper cups likewise tossed, and a light-coloured paper napkin smeared with ketchup and mustard, and further up a tangled mass of lousy fishing line. Container Jon coughed a few times with a mitten covering his mouth, it was an ominously hollow sound, and he turned and said into the darkness:

'Damn foreigners. Fishing during daytime.'

I walked past him and stopped between two suspension cables. Each stretch between two cables had been given a number, this was the niner. Then I loosened the last hook from the rig and pulled out half a metre of line and leaned over the railings. With a few clumsy twists of my wrist I let the line with the weight on the end slowly unwind from the bait rig and into the water. Around the top of each hook I had wound a bit of shiny, red tape. When my uncle did some serious fishing a little further south from here, in the Bunnefjord not far from Roald Amundsen's house, in a rowing boat he had hired free and for nothing, he always used mussels as bait. He wanted salt water to fish in, this was right at the beginning of the 1960s, and he drove for miles and miles in the grey Volvo PV to walk in his high waders in the shallows out by Bekkensten quay with the shiny surface of the water only just below the tops of his boots and his shirtsleeves rolled up in a vain attempt to keep them dry each time he bent over to catch the mussels and put them in a bucket cut in half that was floating in front him.

But all this was too much trouble for me, and I certainly didn't go anywhere near the distance he did to get his bait, and the fish didn't bite any different for me than they did for my uncle back in those days. You don't need bait, the others on the bridge said, they'll go for anything shiny.

I fixed a wheel hub I got off a bike to the railings, using mudguard struts to secure it firmly around the top handrail, it was called a windlass, that kind of device, and was usually attached to the gunwale of fishing boats and you could probably buy it in a shop if you wanted, but this was my personal patent. I placed the fishing line in the groove and in that way I could gently raise or lower it without the line wearing thin on the railings until eventually, it snapped with a loud crack. Which of course had happened to general amusement.

Day was slowly breaking. I had been standing there for more than two hours and hadn't had a single bite. It annoyed me, but frankly, fish wasn't my favourite dish any more. Not like it was in the past. The fish I did catch, I always gave away.

As a rule I drove home before the first cars came down the hill towards the bridge, but today I had frittered my time away. I hadn't even started to pack my bag, and the cars that were coming were classy cars, expensive cars. I turned my back to the road, my frayed navy blue reefer jacket wrapped tightly round me. I'd had that jacket ever since I was a boy in Mork, and only one of the old brass buttons was still intact, and I had a woollen cap on as blue as the jacket, pulled down over my ears, so from behind I could have been anyone.

I tied the bait rig to the railing, turned round and crouched down to take a cigarette from the pack I had in my bag. I really ought to stop smoking, I had started to cough in the mornings, it was a bad sign, and then a car stopped right in front of me with the window on the driver's side level with my face. I had the cigarette between my lips, and as I stood up, I lit it with a match behind my cupped hand. I always used matches, I didn't like that plastic.

It was a grey Mercedes, brand new, and the paintwork was shiny as skin can be shiny at certain times, in certain situations. Then the window slid down without a sound.

'It's Jim, isn't it,' he said.

I knew him at once. It was Tommy. His hair had thinned and was greying. But the horizontal scar above his left eye was still evident, white, luminous silver. He was wearing a purple coat buttoned to the throat. It didn't look cheap. He was the same, and yet he looked like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State. Leather gloves. Blue eyes. Slightly out of focus.

'I guess it is,' I said.

'Well, I'll be damned. How long has it been. Twenty-five years. Thirty.' And I said:

'About that. A bit more.'

He smiled. 'We each went our separate ways that time, didn't we.' He said it neither this nor that way.

'That's true,' I said. He smiled, he was happy to see me, or so it seemed.

'And here you are on this bridge, fishing, with your cap on, and here I come, in this car. It didn't come cheap, I can tell you that much. But I can afford it. Hell, I could have bought two, or more, if I wanted, cash down. Isn't it strange,' he said with a smile.

'What's strange.'

'The way things can turn out. The opposite.'

The opposite, I thought. Was that it. But he didn't say it to put me down. He never would have, not if he was who he was when we were young. He just thought it was strange.

'Yes,' I said. 'You may be right. It is pretty strange.'

'Fish biting,' he said.

'Not worth a shit,' I said. 'I guess it's not my day.'

'But you don't need the fish, do you. I mean, for eating or anything, you know what I mean.'

'No,' I said.

'Because if you did, I could help you,' he said, and I said nothing, and then he said: 'That was badly put, I'm sorry,' and his face went a bright red, and it looked like maybe he drank a little too much.

'That's all right,' I said.

It wasn't all right, but he was so important back then. We went through thick and thin.

More cars came down the hill towards the bridge, there was only one lane, so they queued up behind him, and inside one car someone leaned on the horn.

'It was really good to see you, Jim. Maybe another time then,' he said, and I felt a little uncomfortable when he said my name, like having the beam of a torch straight into my face, and I didn't know what he meant by 'another time', or what would happen if there was. Then the tinted window slid up. He raised his hand, and the car set off, picking up speed over the bridge, and turned left at the other end, heading for the city. It was almost day now. It would be a clear one.

I wound the line round the bait rig as clumsily as I'd unwound it and tucked the last hook inside the roll and walked by the railings with the weight dangling and flicked the cigarette I had barely smoked over the edge, over the cable, in a glowing arc towards the water and put the rig in my bag and the bag in the boot and closed the lid and walked round to the passenger side, by the bushes, right at the end, and fell to my knees and wrapped my arms tight round my body and tried to breathe slowly, but I couldn't do it. I started to cry. I held my mouth wide open, the noise wasn't as loud then, and the air flowed easier in and out, and I didn't groan so much. It was a bit odd.

It took time for the rushes of pain to subside, I had to get exhausted first. So I let it take its course. It's strange what you can teach yourself. Finally I stood up with one hand against the car door, wiped my face with the other and walked back around the car. The others on the bridge were busy with their own affairs. Three of them were about to leave. I got in. I was the only one of us with a car. I didn't know where the others lived, but I guessed it wouldn't be too far away if they could walk. Or maybe they just took the bus, if there was one. One time I asked if anyone wanted a lift, and they all said no.

Across the bridge, I chose the shortest route home, which was straight through Oslo city centre although the queue was building up on Mosseveien. Then I had to go in through the toll gates, it cost twenty kroner, but if I had taken the simplest route to get to the bridge instead of the detour I now preferred, there was a toll gate on that side too, coming in from the east, so it was even money.

I drove out of town in the opposite direction to the one I came in, and in my lane, heading east, there was hardly any traffic and little competition for space. In the opposite lane they were all going in to the city centre, bumper to bumper, links in a chain, barely moving, while on my side I was driving into the tunnels by Valerenga, Etterstad, and then out into the morning light along the E6 and off to the right towards Lillestrem, past Karihaugen, and the entire Lorenskog area was under reconstruction, had been demolished and razed to the ground and was now being hauled up again with shopping malls and multi-storey car parks, and there were bottomless craters everywhere and cranes and hillsides sliced off like pieces of bread after the Solheim crossroads. And it was autumn already, September, well into it, and the few trees that were left in scattered clusters either side of the motorway glowed dimly red and yellow, and cold, damp air came rushing in through the open window on my way towards Rslingen Tunnel.

From the garage I walked the stairway two floors up to the ground floor and unlocked the door to the three-room apartment where I lived alone. I was tired. I stretched my neck and a few times rolled my head in a circle and took off my shoes and placed them with their heels against the skirting board, right below the coats hanging from their pegs on the wall, and hung the reefer jacket on one of them and put my fishing gear in a large metal box with a picture of a good-looking rooster on the lid, which had once contained a selection of the finest biscuits from the S[??]tre Kjeks factory and pushed it on to a shelf in the closet and went to the bathroom and filled my hands and carefully washed my face. I studied myself in the mirror. The skin was dark under my eyes, and my eyes were red in the corners by the bridge of my nose. I must have been driving under the influence. It didn't strike me until now.

I rubbed my face hard with the towel and walked in my stockinged feet through the living room to the bedroom and peered in. She was still asleep. Her dark hair on the pillow. Her unfamiliar lips. I stood on the threshold waiting. One minute, two minutes, then I turned round and walked to the sofa and sat down at the coffee table and lit a cigarette. I could only smoke half of it. I would have to give it up soon. I could try this week.

I stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and stood up and walked to the hall and found a blanket in the closet and walked back and lay down on the sofa. My eyes were so sore. My eyelids would barely open and close, and the skin on my face chafed stiff and dry like a mask against my cheekbones. I was sure I wouldn't sleep. But I did, and when I woke up she was gone. I tried to remember her name, but it was gone with her.

Tommy, Tommy! Hurry, Tommy!

It was Tya calling, it was my mother, I could hear her so clearly, I remember that I did, but today I cannot remember what it was that made her voice hers, what made it different from others. It faded a long time ago.

I, Tommy Berggren, remember how cold it was that day, below freezing point, and I turned ten the day she called me. Tommy, Tommy! Hurry, Tommy! she called, and I ran down the flagstone path to the postbox and on to the road where I saw the stiff sheets hanging on the washing lines like stretched canvases in front of every house and they were just as stiff when the women took them down, they stood out like flags in the wind, like white flags, I surrender, they said.


Excerpted from I Refuse by Per Petterson, Don Bartlett. Copyright © 2012 Forlaget Oktober, Oslo. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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