Unfamiliar Fishes

by Sarah Vowell

Hardcover, 2011

Call number

996.9 VOW



Riverhead Books (2011), Edition: First Edition, 256 pages


From the bestselling author of "The Wordy Shipmates" comes an examination of Hawaii's emblematic and exceptional history, retracing the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England.

Media reviews

It’s a fun book, which is reason enough to admire it. As a resident of Hawaii and a descendant of both natives and missionaries (I stem from Abner Wilcox, the “Connecticut-­born proselytizer” mentioned on Page 84), I’m probably not supposed to have a good time when contemplating the near-extinction of the native population. I’m not supposed to chuckle about the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, or the corrupt and inept King Kalakaua, or the depraved (though technically legal) antics leading up to Hawaii’s annexation. Greed, death, cultural desecration, manifest destiny — what a lark! But with Vowell as tour guide it does, at times, manage to be just that.
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Publishers Weekly
Freely admitting her own prejudices, Vowell gives contemporary relevance to the past as she weaves in, for instance, Obama's boyhood memories. Outrageous and wise-cracking, educational but never dry, this book is a thought-provoking and entertaining glimpse into the U.S.'s most unusual state and its unanticipated twists on the familiar story of Americanization.

User reviews

LibraryThing member GBev2011
I'm not sure what's happened to Sarah Vowell, but this is the second straight book from her that I didn't like. Assassination Vacation is one of my favorite books, but this one and "Wordy Shipmates" are seriously dull. The subjects are somewhat interesting, but Vowell's snarky, biting humor is nearly absent in both books. That's what makes her books fun to read is her style at presenting history. The last two books just seem like dry history readings that any stuffy professor could churn out.… (more)
LibraryThing member bragan
Sarah Vowell presents a short history of Hawaii, with specific emphasis on the early 1800s, when missionaries from New England landed on the islands and Hawaiian culture and government underwent a series of massive, rapid changes.

Unfortunately, this didn't work for me quite as well as some of her previous books. For one thing, she tends to jump around in time a little bit, interspersing her discussion of history with mentions of her present-day researches or allusions to things that happened decades after the time period she's concentrating on. (In particular she talks quite a bit about the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani well before the point where said queen actually shows up in the chronology.) In her books about mainland US history, I had no problem with that kind of structure, even found it charming and insightful, but when dealing with a corner of history about which I knew practically nothing going in, it's a little disorienting. Wait, what date are we up to here?, I kept stopping to ask myself. And how is Liliuokalani related to these people I've been reading about again? It didn't help matters any that I also had trouble keeping track of many of the other people involved. I'd like to be able to blame that on the long and often very similar-sounding Hawaiian names, but the truth is, I couldn't keep the missionaries straight, either. And while I found the details of native Hawaiian culture and government fascinating, those were never really delved into in nearly as much depth as I would have liked. Honestly, I'd have preferred to read a lot more about the Hawaiians and a lot less about the missionaries. (I must admit, I've never been particularly fond of missionaries.)

I don't want to be too negative, though, because it's really not a bad book. The subject matter genuinely is interesting, even if it only whetted my appetite on certain topics. And I'm particularly glad to have read it now, since I'm planning a trip to Hawaii later this year, and it's nice to have relieved at least some of my profound ignorance about the place before visiting. In particular, the somewhat shocking story of how Hawaii came to be annexed by the US deserves to be better remembered. Also, Vowell can be quite witty and insightful, and there are certainly moments when she displays those qualities here. And, as always, I very much appreciate her nuanced approach to her subject matter, her ability to see everyone's point of view, as displayed, for instance, in the way she expresses genuine admiration for the missionaries' bravery, dedication and sense of community, while also acknowledging their ingrained racism and their disturbing role in the history of American imperialism.
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LibraryThing member jmchshannon
I have been fascinated by Hawaii's history since I read James Michener's Hawaii in my pre-blogging days. From the moment the Polynesians set sail to establish a new life on the islands to be called Hawaii, its history has been bound up with various invaders of all types, from other Polynesian neighbors to whalers to missionaries and other explorers. The cultural mish-mash that exists today is a result of this legacy and worthwhile for any historian to explore on one's own. Sarah Vowell does just that with her focus on the Americanization of Hawaii in Unfamiliar Fishes.

She presents her research in the form of a narrative, intertwining quotes from direct sources with her own observations made during her journeys to the various local sites on the islands. She does so with a fresh, tongue-in-cheek appreciation for the damage Americans have done to the native culture without pontificating too much. The reader gets a clear picture of what life was like before the missionaries ever set foot on the islands, and a sense of sadness at all that has been lost.

The problem, however, is the fact that those readers who do not have a detailed understanding of Hawaii's history may struggle with some of what the author is discussing. Unfamiliar Fishes works best as a companion piece to a greater, more in-depth history. Without this prior familiarity and depth of understanding, some of the cultural differences mentioned by Ms. Vowell may unfavorably bias the reader against the message she is actually trying to share. For example, the brief discussion of sister/brother marriages may so appall the reader that the message about its cultural significance is completely lost.

The other problem is the narration itself. While having the actors become a unique voice for the various real-life figures quoted in the book lends credence to the narration and gives it a true documentary-type feel, the author as the primary narrator is not a voice that lends itself well to easy listening. Her self-deprecating manner never lets up, making almost every sentence read sound unintentionally sarcastic, which again diminishes the message she is trying to make. Her voice is rather high-pitched, whiny and not necessarily soothing to the ear. The story she is telling is fascinating enough to hold any listener's attention, but there are times where Ms. Vowell's voice is a bit unnerving and detrimental to the material.

Beautifully told, Unfamiliar Fishes is well worth reading to get a better insight into Hawaii's struggle for autonomy against a country that was flexing its expansionary claws. Like most of history and one culture overpowering another, it is a tragic story that leaves the reader with a better understanding of and appreciation for the Hawaiian culture. Unfortunately, it is a story that is best read and not listened to via audio.
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LibraryThing member yarmando
Vowell focuses her attention on another intersection of missionary zeal and the founding of our country

Why I picked it up: I heard Vowell read selections from this work a year ago, and was eager for more. I love the way she pulls people out of history's shadows and makes past events real, present, and personal.

Why I finished it: I kept listening for my favorite line from the reading last year, when Vowell has built up her contempt for the oligarchs that conspired to overthrow island government and get it annexed by the U.S., then suddenly remembers, "I hate monarchy." But the line wasn't in the book, and I felt curiously let down.

I'd give it to: Die hard fans only. This is no "Assassination Vacation."
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LibraryThing member Othemts
As an East Coaster, my knowledge of Hawaiian history is close to nothing. And yet it was New Englander's like myself who initiated the process that transformed Hawaii into a United States territory. Well, maybe not entirely like myself as they were missionaries who insisted that the indigenous Hawaiians should become industrious Protestants. Arriving in the 1820s, the New England missionaries would be followed by the industrialist who sought to raise sugar and the imperialists who sought naval bases. If you know anything about how things works with Americans and native populations, the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 by a group of American business leaders seems inevitable. Vowell does an excellent job of piecing together the clashes of culture and swiftly changing alliances that occurred in this century of turbulent change that still leaves its mark on modern Hawaii. Like other Sarah Vowell audiobooks, the voices of historic figures are read by an all-star cast.… (more)
LibraryThing member dchaikin
28. Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell (2011, 238 pages, read June 1-20)

Before I review this, I should spend a couple paragraphs on Hawaii history in the 19th century. The century saw a complete overturning of the make-up of the Hawaiian Islands. In 1800 the newly discovered islands held a large population wholly within a rigidly hierarchical Kapu religious and cultural structure, with a powerful king at the top. In 1900 Hawaii was an American territory, recently annexed and completely controlled, economically, by American interests. The Hawaiians were a minority population, devastated by disease. Their kingdom had ended, and their culture and religion was no longer of any official significance. The ethnographic make-up of the islands now included American haole and large populations of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and other ethnic groups. The Philippines would come later.

In the interval, American Christian missionaries arrived and converted a King to Christianity, and few other key individuals. They also created a Hawaiian alphabet, and saw the Islands obtain 70% literacy in mid-century, about the highest in the world at that time. Then, a strange thing happened, the people who took over the country, American in all but citizenship, almost all had one thing in common – they were the sons of the original missionaries.

It is unfortunate that Hawaiian history isn’t quite this simple because it makes Sarah Vowells’ efforts in Unfamiliar Fishes rather complicated. Unfamiliar Fishes is her attempt to look into this century and try to understand what happened. She tried to keep it light and entertaining, but at the same time made a serious effort to find some truth, to read between the lines and really try to see and present the motivations involved. I really appreciate her efforts and her insight and recommend the book to anyone interested in Hawaiian history. However, one problem here is that Hawaiian history is complicated enough that you really need a simplified historical summary before you can approach the history at any depth. You’ll need to find that summary elsewhere.
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LibraryThing member zibilee
In this crisp and witty non-fiction selection, Sarah Vowell elucidates her readers on the events leading up to 1898 American annexation of Hawaii, and shares how this surprising development impacted not only the people of Hawaii but how the repercussions changed the course of history for America as well. As Vowell pushes backward into the past, she gives us a taste of what Hawaii was like before this momentous change, when it was ruled by monarchs thought to be blessed by the gods, and how the arrival of American missionaries changed the political and historical landscape of this beautiful and picturesque archipelago. As Vowell relates this incredible story, her trademark humor comes bounding off the pages and her succinct observations on the mingled American and Hawaiian cultures will leave readers aglow with anticipation and wonder. Sharing her insights and the very particular components of this strange event in history, Vowell comes to understand the Hawaiian people in a way that she never has before and shares with her readers how the act of annexing Hawaii could not only be interpreted as an act of possession and domination, but as an act of military imperialism gone tragically overboard. Both witty and wise, Unfamiliar Fishes seeks to understand not only the culture and inhabitants of Hawaii before the annexation, but also after, when it was thrown into the melting pot of America to be boiled down to it most basic elements.

I’ve read a lot about Sarah Vowell and her writing, but until I sat down with Unfamiliar Fishes, she was an unknown quantity in my reading life. Some words I’ve heard used to describe her books are: funny, fascinating, engaging and witty; and after reading this book I would have to agree with all of these adjectives. Vowell gets right to the heart of her material but isn’t afraid to follow the occasional non-sequitur to its very end. She crafts history into a story that even those who are apathetic on the topic can savor and enjoy, and she has a sense of humor that kept me giggling along with her throughout. Though I didn’t know much about Hawaii before reading this book, I now feel that I could talk intelligently about the subject, as well as regale my family over dinner with the Hawaiian importance of belly buttons.

It was surprising to learn that before the missionaries arrived, the islands had no written language, and it was the missionaries who created the first Hawaiian alphabet (12 letters instead of 24, if you are curious). They also made education one of the premiere focuses of the island, first getting the king’s approval and teaching him. It would have been great if everything the missionaries ended up doing in Hawaii was that altruistic, because although that contribution was huge, the missionaries were mostly the harbingers of a change that many Hawaiians were not comfortable with. They wanted to change the fundamentals of Hawaiian religion, politics, land ownership and marriage laws. They brought disease that ravaged the population, and they started many territorial wars with the sailors that used the islands as a stopover on their whaling trips. With one hand they blessed and with the other they snatched away, creating a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion in the native population. As years went by and the missionaries became more at home on the Islands, their priorities began to change from ideas of benevolence to ideas of ownership.

But Vowell doesn’t only share the history of the American missionaries on the island, she really digs deep and shares the history of Hawaii from its earliest origins. She speaks of the Hawaiian reverence of nature and how the kings and queens also revere their people and their responsibility to them. She shares the strange customs of royal incest that Hawaiians believe produce the most powerful of monarchs, and shows how these hardworking and compassionate people ended up at the mercy of a country that didn’t understand them or their way of life. She gives us many examples of a people who are still bitter over the usurping of their home into the jaws of a country that seems to want to swallow other territories whole, never realizing or appreciating the differences of other lands. Vowell writes at length about the seizure of the Hawaiian queen and tells her readers just how her power was stripped from her, leaving the islands at the mercy of foreigners that wanted nothing more than to add them to a collection of other militarily advantageous lands.

Part of the reason this book appealed to me, despite my tepid regard for full-on historical reads, is the fact that Vowell stands in the unique position of making her book historically accurate while also seeking to entertain her readers. I can’t imagine wanting to read about these subjects had they been penned by another author. Vowell is never dry nor repetitive, and the sense of wonder that she feels while exploring these events comes across clearly as she shares them with her reader. She also has a unique gift for being sympathetic to all parties in the drama and never resorts to stereotyping or name calling within her reflections. It’s obvious that some parties bear more responsibility for the problem than others, but Vowell lets her readers decide just how much and how to feel about all the players in this event. It’s to her credit that she takes on all sides of this quibble equally and doesn’t resort to mudslinging at any point. Her all-encompassing need to get the facts straight provided an unbiased reflection of the Hawaii/ American conflict.

Unfamiliar Fishes was a very interesting read, made more enticing because it wasn’t vague nor taxing. Vowell has a way of getting to the kernel of her material and expanding her study in a way that’s not only instructive but invigorating. It’s history yes, but written in a sometimes playful and sometimes grave way. If, like me, you haven’t had the experience of losing yourself in Vowell’s writing, I would recommend it heartily. If you’ve read previous books by this author then you know what I’m talking about. I’m eager to continue my history lessons under Vowell’s tutelage and will probably grab The Wordy Shipmates from my stack very soon. An intriguing and engrossing read, written with candor and intelligence. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
The author's prejudices shine through in this short volume dealing with the history of Hawaii. She is very anti-missionary and very anti-United States. While I certainly do not agree with all of the methodologies that may have been utilized in the past, the author only approaches it from her prejudiced views and fails to adequately represent the other side of the story. I would love to see what someone who examined those same primary resources who wrote a truly unbiased account of the story would write. I think the story here is a worthwhile one to tell, but it needs to be told with all the viewpoints represented and not just the author's left-leaning one.… (more)
LibraryThing member kqueue
A slice of Hawaiian history from the time the missionaries arrived until the U.S. overthrew the monarchy and annexed the islands. Vowell provides a humorous, balanced approach, being both sympathetic to the native Hawaiians and yet understanding of the American sensibilities of the time. As an ardent fan and occasional visitor to Hawaii, I found the book to be very enlightening to understanding modern Hawaii, and the tensions simmering among the native Hawaiians.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lavinient
Back in January I read and enjoyed The Wordy Shipmates by this author. I looked forward to reading another by Vowell and was excited to read her newest because I was very much lacking in knowledge of Hawaiian history. In fact I hate to admit too much of what Vowell talks about in this book was new to me. It was fascinating and I plan on reading some of the books she suggests at the end of her book.

Vowell can be pretty funny without putting down the events or people she is talking about. And I like that fact that I feel like she is telling me a story (a true story) and not like I am reading a long list of people, dates, and events. I guess for me it makes the people and events a little more real.
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LibraryThing member johnsshelf
The story is a sad one--the conquest of a nation and the trampling of its culture by outside religious & business forces--but Sarah Vowell's snarky wit in the telling elicits a lot of laughter. Though I'm familiar with much of the history, I've never experienced it in such a lively & engaging way. After finishing Unfamiliar Fishes, I immediately moved on to another Vowell book--and I'm looking forward to reading all of the rest, as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member tiamatq
I've taken to just picking up Sarah Vowell's latest book and listening to it, without regard for content or review. All I knew about Unfamiliar Fishes was that it was about Hawaii's history. It made for an interesting read (actually, I listened to it) and I learned a lot about Hawaii's past and the influence of the missionaries.

Like The Wordy Shipmates, I miss Vowell's ability to mix her own travels and reflections with the history of her subject matter. Yes, there are the occasional mentions of her nephew Owen (I loved his statement that he would marry Hawaii if he could), but they're far too few. Still, if you enjoy Vowell's other books, you'll most likely enjoy this one.

If you'd like to know more about a major turning point in the United States' history, this is an excellent book. I grew up taking Hawaii's statehood for granted. This will give you an entirely different perspective on it.
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LibraryThing member kevinyezbick
My least favorite Sarah Vowell book, sadly, as I love her other stuff. Perhaps it was just my ignorance in how to pronounce Hawaiian names that made this one trudge along. I just couldn't get into it. I suppose I learned a little about the history and the people of Hawaii that I wasn't aware of, but I had a hard time developing any emotional attachment or sentiment for any of it. I suppose I'm just not surprised anymore when it comes to the United States in the era of Manifest Destiny or how our Imperialist tendencies are still alive and well today and we've come to learn nothing from it. Still, there was something lacking from this piece that has resounded in her other works. I think, perhaps, it was the dry wit and sarcasm that usually permeates her writing. It was spotted, here and there, but not with the same dark humor I've come to expect. I'll gladly look forward to her next work.… (more)
LibraryThing member splinfo
A history of Hawaii and it's colonization by the US in the uniquely humorous style that Sarah Vowell is known for.
LibraryThing member melissavenable
I lived in Hawaii for a couple of years but sadly never took the time to appreciate the history or really understand the protests that were taking place on the anniversary of statehood. This book provides some much needed context and helpful resources. Part storytelling/part investigative journalism, it's both entertaining and informative. Why aren't history textbooks more like this?… (more)
LibraryThing member FredB
The story of Hawaii's takeover by missionaries and their sons and daughters between 1820 and 1898. The native Hawaiians really got screwed over by the puritans from New England who came in the name of God and ended up gaining wealth. The Hawaiians lost their land and much of their culture in the process. The book contains a lot of fascinating quotes by missionaries and natives alike.… (more)
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
The history of Hawaii starting with early white contact told in the wry ironic voice of Sarah Vowell, author of 'Assassination Vacation' and 'Wordy Shipmates'. She retraces the impact of New England missionaries who began arriving in the early 1800s to remake the island paradise into a version of New England. A view of Americanization that is close to home.… (more)
LibraryThing member spounds
This book is a retelling of the history of the Hawaiian Islands from the time the New England missionaries arrived until annexation to the US in 1898. It took me awhile to get used to Vowell's voice, but eventually it grew on me. I liked the mixture of history and her social commentary and humor even when I didn't agree with it all. It certainly kept it lively and made me think at the same time--a nice combination. I will say that the use of multiple narrators got a little annoying after awhile when Vowell would stop reading in mid-sentence and someone else would take over.

The themes that it covered--evangelism, imperialism, liberty and self-determination--are important ones even today more than a hundred years after Hawaii became a US territory and fifty years after she became a state.

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LibraryThing member Sullywriter
The history of Hawaii up to and including annexation by the United States with assorted asides and digressions along the way. Entertaining, informative idiosyncratic.
LibraryThing member bookworx
We are our own worst enemies and this book is as delightfully painful as all her works, you'll-laugh-you'll-cry.
She goes with me in the car and Sarah is the argument of authors reading their own work. If you don't like her voice try listening to your own...
If you think the Irony is heavy handed try to imagine Owen her nephew or Stephen Hawking reading it?
Lot's you can judge about the book by it's cover, the tilt-shift focus on tin preacher action figure might suggest good examples of bad solutions ahead. She pulls taffy out of disbelief and rage (if you're out there, please write about the great Boston molasses flood & 1919 in general). Her amazing sense allows you to move forward after reflection and understand that time is at the wheel of the convenient truth mobile, unless they actually make one and it's already in the hands of a child.
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LibraryThing member bookworm12
Sarah Vowell has earned a well-deserved reputation as a historian with a great sense of humor. Her sarcastic jabs are laced in with the facts, giving the reader a history lesson with some serious bite. In her latest book she covers the Americanization of Hawaii and the events that led to its annexation in 1898.

Vowell includes her own experiences as she researches the material. I loved the occasional comments she included from her young nephew, Owen, and his reactions to what he sees. Vowell also makes a lengthy reference to Moby Dick in the book. I happened to be reading that at the same time and so I loved that!

It’s not my favorite book of Vowell’s, but I’m a fan of her work and I’ll read whatever she writes. I love that she makes me laugh and she teaches me so much at the same time. I knew very little about Hawaiian history and this was a great introduction.
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LibraryThing member delphica
Sarah Vowell is always enjoyable, and sure enough, I enjoyed this book about the early contacts between Hawaiians and non-natives, the establishment of missionary activities, and other various events leading up to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. Shortly after starting the book, as in, around the third sentence, I realized I didn't know anything about Hawaii that I hadn't learned in multiple re-readings of "Liliuokalani: Young Hawaiian Queen" in the Childhood of Famous Americans series, and seeing as she came to the throne when she was in her 50s, I am starting to suspect that maybe the Childhood of Famous Americans wasn't the most rigorously researched series ever (although, goofy as it is, it really sparked a life-long love of American history in me, so I can't complain too much).

It's intentional that her interest in Hawaii coincides with the election of the first U.S. president to have been born in Hawaii. Despite my love for Sarah Vowell, sometimes her politics intrude overly much (and I say this as someone who agrees with her politics) but in this case, I think the connections and context of the Obama presidency are appropriate and thoughtful.
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LibraryThing member cat-ballou
I love Sarah Vowell on the radio. I thought, hey, I bet she could do great things with an audiobook! Stands to reason, right? (Also, the paper copy I bought had to be sent on before I could finish it.) I have to say, I think I would have liked this book better had I read it instead.

Live and learn.… (more)
LibraryThing member rdwhitenack
A good book, but one I thought I would like more than I did. Vowell's research was impressively thorough, but more impressive how she used that research to keep the reading funny and full of voice. As far as faults go I just didn't like how it was organized, and that I went in thinking a good part of the book would focus on the few years leading up to annexation in 1898. There was a lot of info leading up to 1893, but after that I lost track of any timeline because it flew by so fast.

Basically, I would recommend the book to adult readers, but for the teens in my Library I will keep looking for quality NF material.
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LibraryThing member justabookreader
In September 2011, I went to hear Sarah Vowell speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. I stood in the back and laughed as she read her snarky take on the history of Hawaii. I bought the book that night at one of my two favorite bookstores. Yes, I have two favorites.

In the 1800s, missionaries began arriving in Hawaii with plans to educate the good people of the islands on what it meant to be a good Christian. Upon arrival, they take on the task of reforming a society with some strange customs (royal incest was normal and encouraged) and impose on them some strange new customs of their own, forgetting the entire time they were no longer in New England but Hawaii.

History can be, and is, strange. I’m always fascinated when I come across something so out of the ordinary, especially when it concerns something I feel I should know more about. Hawaii is a state I don’t know much about. I’ve never been there, not for lack of trying to convince my husband, but a place I do hope to one day visit and not for the beaches alone although that would be cool too. What I want to now see is the original Hawaii. What it was before America decided it needed to have it. And no, I’m in no way trying to start any kind of argument about statehood here. This book made me think about the complications that statehood certainly entailed, but also about what we all lose as days go by and we see things though a camera or screen without actually seeing what’s there.

This isn’t my first Vowell book (The Wordy Shipmates was) and it won’t be my last. I enjoy the witty way she looks at a slice of history and imposes her own past on it which might annoy some people but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that because not only are we trying to understand others but ourselves through that process of learning. I’m looking forward to reading Assassination Vacation which she takes a look at places made famous by, yes, assignations.
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