Bette Pesetsky has borrowed Barthelme's method, but not his madness, eschewing the surreal for a firm attachment to the quotidian. Her world, though, is the familiar made strange: "I was a student of people who call on the telephone to voices who talk on the radio"


Bette Pesetsky, Cast a Spell, Harcourt, 1993.
                    
After an early childhood of desertion and betrayal, Raemunde Howard is sent from Chicago to New York to live with her woe-is-me grandmother, who is already busy raising Rae's two cousins, Carrie and Lila. The three girls grow up together, united by the "common enemy" that this grandmother represents. Carrie and Lila attempt to civilize Rae by harnessing her unbecoming obsession with magic. The encourage her work as a fortune-teller at community functions, where she tells people things they don't want to hear. Then they watch her marry a succession of men and rise to fame as a world-class conjuror who sprinkles her spells with a little bit of Yiddish. Now Rae is Miz Magic, a magician with her own children's TV show, and cousin Carrie is jealously determined to dig up some dirt to sell to a scandal rag. "Rae was a strange girl, " Carrie writes to the Sunshine Publishing Company. "Rae is a strange woman. Does she dabble in the occult? In black magic? I'll find out - of that you can be certain." Miz Magic, the central mystery of Cast a Spell, is not psychic but observant; she learns that tricks and children keep her this side of tragedy. In Rae, Pesetsky has created a remarkably stalwart character, who serves to warn us that every point of view has its limitations and distortions and that what is touted as scandal just might be common pain.

Raemunde ``Miz Magic'' Howard has passed beyond fortune-telling gigs and birthday party performances to become a highly successful children's TV magician. Perhaps she possesses occult powers? Neither she nor her cousin Carrie really thinks so, but Carrie wants to break through in journalism and is prepared to serve Rae up to the tabloids (``I believe in the existence of secrets, Mr. Rosencantz'') as her own passport to notoriety. Mr. Rosencantz, of the Sunshine Publishing Co., is willing to go along, but Carrie's inept efforts are less titillating than required. Pesetsky ( Midnight Sweets ; The Late Night Muse ) steers this droll comedy of Carrie, Rae and Carrie's sister Lila through a medley of narrative shifts--Carrie's letters, Carrie's narration and what may be Carrie's yellow journalistic prose, along with passages from Rae and transcriptions of taped interviews--but eventually seeks to straighten out the comic twists to yield a more standard account of marriage, divorce and child neglect. In the final paragraph comes her formulation, expressed in Rae's voice: ``I learned that behind every trick, every illusion was the explanation. And knowing that made me a realist at an early age.'' This conclusion seems too simple a payoff for the narrative's many voices and strategies. - Publishers Weekly

    Maddeningly uneven--like much of Pesetsky's work (The Late Night Muse, 1991; Confessions of a Bad Girl, 1989, etc.): the story of an orphan who becomes a thrice-married professional magician and of the jealous cousin who tries to ruin her. Raemunde Howard, abandoned, is shipped from Chicago to a six- room apartment in Washington Heights, where she stays with grandmother Minnie Howard and cousins Carrie and Lila. If the three girls sometimes join forces against the grandmother's hostility and the indifferent world, that evaporates soon enough, and the novel begins with cousin Carrie writing to a scandal sheet, volunteering to ``tell all'' about Raemunde, who has transmogrified into ``Miz Magic,'' host of a children's TV show. The scandal-sheet editor eggs her on: ``Real secrets about women are always sexual.'' Rae's story--told first by Carrie and then by Rae herself--begins with her practicing ``that magic of hers like a nut.'' That magic is her forte, in fact, and though Carrie deprecates it in her correspondence with the editor, Rae herself exults in it: ``Once you do fortune-telling, it sticks to you''; ``The first time I heard someone call out Miz Magic, I felt as if my identity had suddenly appeared.'' Pesetsky's attempt to use such magic-making as a metaphor for writing is her strong suit here. Too often, though, the story rambles and veers as we learn about the men in Rae's life and about her rise from exuberant weekend magician at birthday parties and insurance receptionist to world-famous Yiddish magician. Pesetsky's seventh book is a sometimes brilliant cross between the ethnicities of Grace Paley and the theatrics of Ellen Gilchrist--at other times, it's hurried and episodic, more an outline-still-in-progress than a finished novel. - Kirkus Reviews

Maddeningly uneven--like much of Pesetsky's work (The Late Night Muse, 1991; Confessions of a Bad Girl, 1989, etc.): the story of an orphan who becomes a thrice-married professional magician and of the jealous cousin who tries to ruin her. Raemunde Howard, abandoned, is shipped from Chicago to a six- room apartment in Washington Heights, where she stays with grandmother Minnie Howard and cousins Carrie and Lila. If the three girls sometimes join forces against the grandmother's hostility and the indifferent world, that evaporates soon enough, and the novel begins with cousin Carrie writing to a scandal sheet, volunteering to ``tell all'' about Raemunde, who has transmogrified into ``Miz Magic,'' host of a children's TV show. The scandal-sheet editor eggs her on: ``Real secrets about women are always sexual.'' Rae's story--told first by Carrie and then by Rae herself--begins with her practicing ``that magic of hers like a nut.'' That magic is her forte, in fact, and though Carrie deprecates it in her correspondence with the editor, Rae herself exults in it: ``Once you do fortune-telling, it sticks to you''; ``The first time I heard someone call out Miz Magic, I felt as if my identity had suddenly appeared.'' Pesetsky's attempt to use such magic-making as a metaphor for writing is her strong suit here. Too often, though, the story rambles and veers as we learn about the men in Rae's life and about her rise from exuberant weekend magician at birthday parties and insurance receptionist to world-famous Yiddish magician. Pesetsky's seventh book is a sometimes brilliant cross between the ethnicities of Grace Paley and the theatrics of Ellen Gilchrist--at other times, it's hurried and episodic, more an outline-still-in-progress than a finished novel. - Kirkus Reviews
Bette Pesetsky's new novel, "Cast a Spell," has a more palpable story to feed a reader's appetite for coherence. At the opening, one Carolyn(Carrie) Howard writes to the Sunshine Publishing Company of Oleana, Fla., proposing to do an expose of her cousin, Raemunde Howard, better known as a famous children's magician, Miz Magic. Throughout the first half of "Cast a Spell," we are shown Rae Howard from a distance: her skill as a prestidigitator, her way with children, her unstable personal life, her three less-than-successful marriages.
In the second half of the novel, we see things from Rae's point of view. It gradually becomes apparent that her magic is a metaphor of female creativity and independence, a theme that has obsessed Ms. Pesetsky in all her previous fiction, which includes "Stories Up to a Point" (1982), "Author From a Savage People" (1983), "Digs" (1984), "Midnight Sweets" (1988), "Confessions of a Bad Girl" (1989) and "The Late Night Muse" (1991). In the final pages of "Cast a Spell," we learn of the childhood trauma that made it necessary for Rae to develop her sleight of hand.
The trouble here, unhappily, is that things are upside down and backward. The symbol overwhelms its referent. Throughout most of the story, we don't care in the least that Rae's cousin resents her or that Rae has become a magician, because we have no reason to believe that there is an explanation coming. It is only in the end, when Rae's trauma is unearthed, that her sublimation suddenly matters and we have to reconsider the story in retrospect. Then finally a spell is cast.
As with Mr. Kopf's "There Is No Borges," the assumption of "Cast a Spell" seems to be that towers of symbolism can be erected without any foundation or that text can be written without reference to reality. But isn't this exactly one of the complaints of the doomed professor in "There Is No Borges": that there is no ground anymore, that the shadow has lost its substance? In such ways, literary art threatens to be obscured by its own vapors, and despite the obvious talents of writers like Mr. Kopf and Ms. Pesetsky, the reader is left frustrated and hungry. - CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT


Bette Pesetsky, The Late Night Muse: A Novel, Perennial, 1993.

Pesetsky excels in creating offbeat characters with distinctive voices whose behavior is often obsessive if not slightly demented. Bernadette Amy Marrkey,spok the narrator of her latest novel (after Midnight Sweets ), is no exception. A self-styled poet (her work has been published only in obscure magazines), Marrkey learns in her late 30s that the wasting neurological disease from which she suffers will soon be fatal. Serenely confident that "everyone loves a dead American artist," she decides to collate the artifacts of her life for benefit of the scholars who will surely want them once she is gone. The novel consists of episodic, chronologically random journal entries that correspond with the contents of the boxes she fills with the detritus of a very unorthodox existence. Bernadette's tough, streetwise, ironic voice is initially provocative as she catalogues her memories: abandonment by her unwed, ditzy mother to the care of her brisk, unsentimental grandmother (the latter a wonderful portrayal); encounters with a series of mentors, lovers and odd characters; marriage to an accountant, and children. Eventually, however, her delivery becomes tedious. While Pesetsky's comic eye is often piercingly acute, the novel is ultimately too arch and improbable, the plot clever but too obviously manipulated to fit the central device. - Publishers Weekly

Pesetsky's fourth novel (Confessions of a Bad Girl, 1989, etc.)--purportedly the collected journals and archives of a 30-ish little-known poet dying slowly of a fatal illness--is a vervy, muscular hodgepodge that reads like a collaboration among Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, and Erica Jong: part ethnic stew, part sitcom, part frenetic affairs of the heart. Bernadette Amy Berne has been sick for years with a disease of the nervous system: ``The nerves sizzled and greedily danced to a heathen melody that I didn't control.'' She decides to catalogue her life--``I have recreated my life....Packed away all these meaningful scraps...the necessary journal entries.'' In a series of boxes or archives, given to us as snapshots, we learn that Bernadette reached her vocation of poet early--before she met her husband (``If ever I had a calling, he was it''); her first mentor, Mrs. Talmadge (``Sex is always going to be a woman's fate. Write poems about that''); as well as Cousin Helene, whom she chooses as her literary executor, and the Cousins, a group of people (who may or may not be her relatives) who meet on Long Island from time to time. The story is not so much a straightforward chronicle, however, as an orchestration of an ensemble of secondary characters (Bernadette: ``Whenever we moved, we acquired people'') around whom the stricken poet, who exasperates her husband by becoming celibate and her professor son by taking her poems seriously. ``To whom does the artist bequeath his life?'' Pesetsky's answer is this novel of ``papers...that will illuminate my life.'' The result is occasionally flimsy or fragmentary, but often the surreal non sequiturs and an idiosyncratic voice keep the reader off-balance but entertained. Pesetsky comments brightly on the need to take art and life seriously in a world that sometimes seems to have little time for either.  - Kirkus Reviews

In Raemunde Howard, the "Miz Magic" of Bette Pesetsky's fifth novel, "Cast a Spell," Pesetsky has created an appealing, maligned protagonist. The people surrounding Raemunde seem driven to hurt her and damage her reputation, from her cousin Carrie who is trying to research and publish an expose about her to the adults who neglected or exploited her when she was a girl. Raemunde, pronounced Ray-mund-day, or Rae for short, is appealing because she doesn't seem to bear grudges, is not egotistical, but is single-minded, professional and sincere in her devotion to magic. She has pursued a career as a magician despite opposition since she was a young child, and has prevailed to become a television success beloved by children.
The novel quickly raises the following questions: Why is Carrie after Rae? What damaging secret from Rae's past does Carrie think she will uncover? Who is the mysterious male sleuth also making inquiries about Rae, and what is his motivation?
We soon learn that Rae, born to unmarried parents in 1952, was abandoned, first as a baby by her mother and then by her father and stepmother when she was 11. Courtesy of Child Welfare, she then arrived at her stingy, mean and ailing grandmother Minnie Howard's large and gloomy New York apartment. Here she grew up with her cousins Carrie and Lila, whose father had died and their mother gone crazy with grief.
The questions soon multiply: What happened to Rae's parents? What has recently motivated her to place ads in newspapers seeking news of her father? Why do so many people object to this undertaking? What responses has she received?
Meanwhile, we also learn that Rae has been married three times--to Whalen Clarke, a handsome, well-bred WASP who had once dated Carrie; to amusing, ugly Leo Littweiler, Rae's best friend as a teen-ager and now a Hollywood success; and to academic Peter Anson, orderly and protective, whose wife she still is.
Carrie's motivations quickly become apparent: her need for money, her envy of Rae's success and her anger at her for supposedly stealing Whalen. The answers to the other questions, however, are not forthcoming. Pesetsky hints of solutions to the mysteries she weaves when Rae discovers in her early 20s that her grandmother had secretly been sending her father money. But this clue never leads to anything. The problem is that Pesetsky sets up expectations, but she doesn't deliver on them. She blazes trails that go nowhere. She teases her readers, even omitting a confrontation between Carrie and Rae.
The novel begins with a series of letters that reveal Carrie's plaintive coaxing and awkward efforts to interest her dubious publisher. Soon the novel becomes a narrative told by Carrie, Rae or the omniscient narrator. These changes occur suddenly, without transition, and it's often hard to tell who the speaker is, since there is little differentiation between the voices. The novel moves confusingly back and forth in time so that it's often hard to place when an event is occurring.
If on the grand scale Pesetsky disappoints, there are compensations. She's a witty writer, with the ability to deliver a judgment or coin a phrase. Of an artist, Rae observes, "He is a salon painter. He does the perfection of unreality."
Pesetsky's descriptions of food are praiseworthy. Since the story "Ulcer" in her first book, "Stories Up to a Point" (1982), she has, in her attention to what her characters eat, granted to food its crucial place in human life. In "Cast a Spell" are a number of appealing descriptions of food, particularly of deli meals: "Caraway-seeded rye bread, roughly cut. A trembling embankment of pickles. Moist pepper-speckled coleslaw, potato salad sprinkled with Hungarian paprika."
What is most interesting about the novel are Rae's pronouncements about her profession. "People misunderstand what a true magician is. They confuse those skills with the role of seance-holders, oracles, fortune-tellers. You can learn to be a magician." "Conjuring--the true art, the making of magic--came to me when I was very young. I knew all the basics--the rope tricks with clothesline, the seesaw, the magic box, the dropping coin. I learned that behind every trick, every effect was the explanation. And knowing that made me a realist at an early age."
Despite these sparkling moments, "Cast a Spell" founders on its false leads and becomes a series of episodes and digressions. It's full of tricks, but lacking in magic. - Anne Whitehouse

Bette Pesetsky, Confessions of A Bad Girl, Ivy Books, 1990.

While not all of the 15 linked stories in this collection are equally successful, their cumulative effect is impressive. Pesetsky ( Midnight Sweets ) is an original writer who belongs to no school; though her style is spare and pithy, she is not a minimalist, and her distinctive voice--she writes in straightforward, sometimes staccato sentences packed with meaning--conveys the essence of characters who are ordinary and quirky at the same time. Most of the stories concern two families linked by one character who moves between them. Cissie (the tough, pragmatic but secretly vulnerable "bad" girl) and Sylvester are siblings in a fractious, disintegrating family living in Milwaukee. For a time, Sylvester tries to establish ties to another family, the Spacedons, who have a strange secret--all four of the children are orphans adopted as young adults--yet the Spacedons seem to have a cohesion lacking in Cissie and Sylvester's family. In reality, however, Pesetsky's characters are all metaphorical orphans: children are alienated from their parents, and vice versa in the next generation. The narratives concern missed emotional connections, yearnings for intimacy that cannot be achieved. "Closeness may be a myth," Sylvester laments, a conclusion readers will share. - Publishers Weekly   


It is difficult to say why this collection of stories is such pleasurable reading. Perhaps it is the lack of pretension, so evident in the flat, stripped-down writing and quickly sketched characters, the absence of the original insights we seek in literature. As we read we are breathlessly carried from one story to another via short, choppy sentences that cause pleasant emotional crescendos--little waves of sadness, or nostalgia, or joy--all arising from observations about mundane but pivotal events that befall such characters as a pregnant wife and her philandering husband ("Family Planning in Summer") or a middle-aged woman contemplating a facelift ("Orphans"). These are people we know and understand. A collection that will have broad appeal. - Alice Shane

In a second baggy collection of stories, Pesetsky (Stories Up to a Point; Midnight Sweets; etc.) both delights and disappoints: one group of interlinked pieces tells a quirky and affecting coming-of-age saga, while others are ragged and unconvincing. Many center on precocious Cissie and her brother Sylvester, with occasional forays into the lives of the Spacedons, a family of orphans. In the rambling ""Foul Play,"" Cissie finds a lover in N.Y.C. by inventing (or elaborating upon) stories of her Wisconsin childhood. In ""The Spacedons,"" a touching story, Sylvester--initiated into this adopted family of boisterous good cheer who ""went around turning on lights""--experiences first tragic love with Athena Spacedon. In ""Family Planning in Summer,"" a slice-of-life, Cissie gets pregnant twice as her graduate-student husband finishes his dissertation and her mother dies. All these are written nervously, obliquely, in a style that lies halfway between Grace Paley and J.D. Salinger. Meanwhile, the best stories in the sequence take the characters into the ambiguities of middle age: ""The Survivors of Mrs. Spacedon."" is a letter to Sylvester from Clement Spacedon, written when his mother died; the astute and moving ""Penny and Willie"" chronicles the bittersweet spiral of Sylvester's marriage and divorce; and the spry ""Lists and Categories"" effectively uses the structure of a psychological questionnaire to dramatize Cissie's own surreal marriage and family life. Other stories, though, either stretch the interlinked chronicle too thin (the title story) or fail to pull off an interesting concept (""Challenge,"" ""Work Habits""). Altogether, then: a number of quaint, inventive explorations into the nature of family life--but marred by too much obliqueness and clutter. - Kirkus Reviews



Bette Pesetsky, Midnight Sweets, Ivy Books, 1989.

Pesetsky's third whimsical novel (Author From a Savage People; Digs) is a high-caloric confection without the slightest bit of nutritional value. A putative ""Zen and the Art of Cooking Baking,"" this affectless tale of zoned-out adolescence and marital infidelity seems the product of a sugar-shocked imagination. Because Theodora Waite, a successful businesswoman known as ""The Cookie Lady,"" divides her life by cookies, her narrative assumes this rather odd shape, with her various creations occasioning non-chronological autobiographical musings. Theo's quest for the perfect cookie has had terrible consequences for her life. Her first husband, a suicidal artist, resentful of his wife's material success, leaves her with two kids and her baking. Husband number two, a scholar of the grotesque in world culture, also takes up with other women, after 11 years of marriage and three more children. Even Theo's five kids think her strange, partly because of her culinary obsession, but also because she sends them away to school at very early ages. Cookies, for this otherwise uninteresting woman, are ""an affirmation of her existence,"" and baking allows her to avoid everyday problems even as it makes her so blissful. Eventually, we're to understand that Theo's confectionary inventiveness resulted from her bizarre family history--a mother who died tragically young, a father who just walked out and left Theo with her helpless stepmother. While baking her way through Home Echonors and a scholarship to college, Theo also became an expert burglar--a skill detailed here--though sometimes she would clean up a dirty kitchen rather than search out the loot. All of this contributes to her ""bitter, warped, and twisted view of family life""--a phrase that's pure boilerplate for today's with-it young writers. Padded with cookie lore and ephemera, the end of the novel reaffirms Theo's organic relation to sweet innovation. Turn the pages quickly, and this literary soufflÉ collapses. - Kirkus Reviews

Pesetsky is a distinctive voice in American fiction: her characters are always eccentric, just this side of bizarre (as in Digs and Stories from a Savage People ), yet she makes us believe in and care about them. Theodora Waite, the protagonist of this novel, is the founder of a franchised line of high-quality cookies, made from recipes that she creates with the dedication and sensibility of an artist. Theo names her cookies after significant events or people in her life; all of her cookies represent an attempt to be loved and needed. The once-divorced mother of five children, Theo is on the verge of a breakup with her second husband when the story begins. Her fear of being abandoned once again causes strange physical symptoms and spurs Theo to remember the other occasions in her past when she was betrayed by loved ones: her mother's death, her father's disappearance, etc. A complex character who reveals the sad details of her life in a clipped, offhand manner, Theo speaks in an ironic, oddly detached voice, because she is protecting herself from her emotions. It's no coincidence that the year she began her search for the perfect cookie was also the one in which she became a thief, or that baking is the only time she feels ``real love, excitement, adventure.'' Written in short episodic takes, with scenes intercut in cinematic flashes and the chronology deliberately obscured, the novel requires the reader's strict attention, but it rewards with an intriguing, unforgettable story. - Publishers Weekly

Theodora, the protagonist of "Midnight Sweets," tells her story in a succession of oblique feints. It is a cheerful story that comes out pretty well, but it has a lot of sadness in it, and a little awfulness.
Sadness is out of the question, though. Someone has declared it irrelevant. It is a third dimension in a two-dimensional world; a world of post-modern connections and disconnections.
To say: I am sad, I suffer, would be meaningless. It would mean that you disappeared. If the world is surfaces and facets, to go deep is to vanish.
Bette Pesetsky gives voices of discouraged buoyancy to people who must find tactics of deflection to tell you of their humanity. In this, she resembles Donald Barthelme. Three or four comical sentences succeed one another, each matter-of-fact in itself and seemingly devoid of much more than fancifulness.

It is in their juxtapositions that they resound. They have not grasped sorrow; they have--skipping, slithering--surrounded it.
Theodora, a prosperous entrepreneur--she makes designer cookies on a large scale--and an eccentrically successful mother of five children, has minor collapses from time to time. At one point, she feels disconnected from her left side. At another, she becomes unable to buy clothes.
She engages a shopper to choose for her, and she accepts the choices docilely. Except for jewelry; that she insists on picking out herself. And in a few sentences, ostensibly talking about necklaces, she gives us her deprived and painful childhood. It is worth quoting, as an example of how Pesetsky writes in seeming deafness so we can hear.
"I have a necklace made of rather nice wooden beads that my daughter Bonita made for me when she was five. That is one of the advantages of sending your child to a good school. When the children make something to take home--the ingredients used are of reasonable quality. The beads are oak and waxed to show the natural luster of the wood.
"Of course, Bonita's gift to me is not a bit like the necklace I made. I have one shell left, and the paint still rubs off. My second-grade project. I brought the necklace home. Mother was in the house, perhaps with someone. Either they didn't hear me or they didn't want to open the door. I sat on a step and waited. In Leeward Elementary School I passed the test with a grade that the teacher said was too high."
Theodora's voice is funny, rueful and seemingly scatty. It is only bit by bit that we realize that this woman, who, as in Stevie Smith's poem, seems to be "not waving but drowning," has, in fact, patched driftwood together and is making precarious but purposeful headway.
We meet her in mid-babble. It is funny babble and there is a point to it, but for a while it is hard not to be suspicious of the way she has chosen to tell about her life. Where some mark off the leading events of their lives in terms of love affairs, or places lived in, her own benchmarks are cookies.
Childhood is the beginner's ice box cookie. Her first marriage to a self-sufficient artist is evoked by the cookie named for him. The "Mortimer" is thin, elegant and topped with bitter chocolate. Her oldest daughter gets a sweet and sunny cookie. When Bonita becomes a teen-ager and more assertive, Theodora reduces the sugar to give it more bite. Bonita immediately phones hysterically from school. Altering her cookie is tantamount to disowning her.
And when Theodora comes to a bad patch in middle age--her second husband, as unfaithful as the first, has also left; all her friends seem to know about it, and one or two may not be entirely innocent--she inaugurates a series of movie-star cookies. Pola Negris are made of cherries in cognac, Laurence Olivier in "The Entertainer" is "a nut chunk with a slither of bitter chocolate."
The device risks cuteness and crumbling. Pesetsky's story does lapse from time to time into fancifulness. The continual skipping back and forth over her life's chronology corresponds nicely to Theodora's own difficulty in thinking about herself. But it tends to make the other people in the book--her husbands, friends and children--considerably less distinct, what with being fetched out and put back so arbitrarily.
But Theodora is fully the point; and Pesetsky's maneuvers, for all their trickiness, turn out to be justified.
What we see, in fact, is a woman saving her life. Not triumphantly or inevitably, but through a quiet insistence on being herself, even when she doesn't know who she is; and on refusing to let herself be crushed, even when refusal means danger.
Making cookies becomes much more than a whimsical image when we see a child whose mother hates her, and whose father, an amiable thief, comes and goes unpredictably. From the time a neighbor shows her how, Theodora takes up the study and practice of her skill as another prodigy--perhaps to effect a similar balance--might take up the violin. - RICHARD EDER

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Bette Pesetsky, Author from a Savage People, J.K. Hall & Co., 1986.

Even metaphorical whimsies need to be convincing on their own fanciful terms--and this first novel from the author of Stories Up to a Point (1982), though often stylish in its urban/literary/domestic vignettes, never gives its iffy central premise either the authority of realism or the power of fantasy. Pesetsky's narrator is May Alto, twice-divorced mother of three, a ghost-writer of unprecedented talent, output, and nerve: she has produced scores of books, it seems, on a vast number of difficult subjects; past-haunted, she has inserted characters from her family history (her leftwing mother Sonya, her Aunt Giselle and Uncle Trasker) into each and every text--a so-so running gag; and now that one of her clients, Dr. T. E. Quayle, has won the Nobel Prize (supposedly on the basis of two slim books actually written by May, she has decided to blackmail him. Unfortunately, however, this engaging short-story notion becomes increasingly irritating as Pesetsky stretches it out to short-novel length--especially since the specifics of the Nobel-winning books are left unpersuasively vague. (The few references suggest, disastrously, a cross between Carlos Castaneda and Dr. Wayne Dyer.) There's even, in fact, the sneaking feeling--perhaps an intentional effect, but a murky one in any case--that May's whole narrative is a delusion. So, as May begins her blackmail crime, suffering a series of severe physical ailments along the way (""I am alluding to the possibility of psychosomatic disorders, a body filling with guilt""), one follows her only half-heartedly. And the premise runs out of steam entirely in the novel's later, desperately churned-up chapters: May visits a therapist (a bland cartoon) to shake her guilt; she sleeps with Quayle but keeps demanding major cash; she attends a Quayle lecture; and Quayle threatens to kill her. . . as Pesetsky flirts more vigorously with the fantastical (is May a ghostwriter for Salinger and Malamud too?) and the metaphorical (a pretentious, copout closing). The talents on display in Stories Up to a Point--wry mother/kid dialogue, a feel for middle-aged urban irony, a clipped/hip style--pop up throughout May's crisis. The themes--especially that of female-writer subservience and frustration--snake through provocatively. But, by trying to have it both ways, with a shifty mix of realism and pipe-dream, Pesetsky fails to provide steady involvement on either level. - Kirkus Reviews

THE world is divided between those who actually do the work and those who try to get the credit, Lord Chesterfield advised his son. Try to be in the former group, he said, because there is much less competition. Whatever charm this advice may have held in the 1700's, it has little appeal to today's women, and still less to the legions of ghostwriters who each year churn out books and articles for a growing assortment of celebrities, generals, statesmen. Hardly a season passes without some heretofore mute, inglorious Milton going public with disgruntlement at having to make a living by putting words into the mouths of boobs and pooh-bahs.
Naturally, the condition of ghostwriters has not been overlooked in modern fiction, either. But no one so far has tried what Bette Pesetsky gets away with in this savage, funny small novel - that is, using ghostwriting as a metaphor to dramatize the view that women do most of the work of creation while men (unfairly) get most of the credit. Happily, the author does not huff and puff about it. Her book is a model of brevity and wit, her plot, pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. But the story is suitably studded with domestic details that give it a grainy edge of realism, like all those saws, hammers and faithful pets that Daniel Defoe provides to make you believe in Robinson Crusoe's island adventure.
Mrs. Pesetsky's protagonist is May Alto, first seen in the Emergency Room of a Manhattan hospital after her arm has been slashed by a pair of young muggers. May is rather a tough cookie, with three children and two ex-husbands. She is also an ace cook, when she wants to be.She lovingly controls her kids with whims of irony.Against the cowardly advice of her friends (''Who will want you at this age?''), she has tossed out her second husband, a handsome loser named Harry, rather than put up with his casual adultery. When Harry first told her about the other woman, May was prepared. ''Four friends had been in similar circumstances,'' she reflects. ''He tells you, you cry, he cries. Never, he promises. And then for a long time you carefully check the clock, the calendar, who is where.'' None of that for May. ''Out!'' she says. And changes the lock on the apartment.
Most of all, as Virginia Woolf (''A Room of One's Own'') and James M. Barrie (''The Twelve Pound Look'') reminded everybody before Equal Pay for Equal Work was dreamed of, a woman is strong because she is financially independent. For years May has been a successful ghostwriter. Now, though, as her wounded arm suppurates and she feverishly copes with her children and Harry - who turns up now and then in hopes of getting dinner or a small loan - May is into blackmail.
Her pigeon is a smoothie named Quayle. Handsome, quasi-academic, a talk show personality, he is the author of two books, ''Permissible Love Play'' and ''Eine Leerstelle.'' May wrote ''Eine Leerstelle'' for him, and, largely because of it, Quayle has just been awarded the Nobel Prize. May threatens to expose him unless he gives her all the prize money. At first he blusters, speaks of mere background research, says she can't prove anything. Then he comes to heel, offering $25,000. May refuses. A whole series of scenes, meetings, threats and phone calls ensue.
Eine Leerstelle means an empty space. The words are used in German, when one gives dictation, to be sure a space is left between words or lines. Wisely Mrs. Pesetsky keeps the book's real subject vague, though it is still hard to accept, even in fantasy, that the insignificant Quayle could have won the Nobel Prize. He does not, after all, come from some tiny socialist country above the timberline. Mrs. Pesetsky is more convincing about the details of May's ghostwriting trade. May is a tiger for research (before ghosting a new biography of Balzac she rereads the entire ''Comedie humaine''), but she finds most clients hardly glance through the finished product. Their concern is just that the books give them the kind of image they ask for: A banker would like a family history that links his name with significant banking families in 18th-and 19th-century Europe; a Congressman needs a new and more appropriate childhood for his autobiography. And so May begins writing what she wants, readjusting history with changed dates, invented scenes, imaginary footnotes, new anecdotes. And, as she explains to Quayle, into each book that she ghosts, as a sign of scorn and a kind of name tag, she somehow stitches in the same three character: her mother, Sonya, a trampishvampish aunt named Giselle and Trasker, ''a sort of'' uncle.
There is a running joke, evolving from May's feverish fantasy, that her ghosting gradually extends to most of Western literature. In this outrageous game that goes on in May's mind, Aunt Giselle turns up in a biography, offering herself to the amorous young munitions king, Alfred Nobel, if only he will establish a Peace Prize. And there is a creative cross-reference to ''A la Recherche du Temps Perdu'' when Sonya offers the narrator cherry strudel: ''The narrator stamped his foot. 'Madeleines,' he insisted.''
Long before this, May and the reader have faced the fact that where Quayle is concerned, money is not enough. ''Wasn't the fame also mine?'' she fumes. She wants scenes in which Quayle will quail before her, revenge for a lifetime of being slighted. Quayle has a sumptuous office; she writes on a steel-legged table in an alcove. Her husbands, both of whom she supported at her typewriter, habitually referred to her writing as ''Mother's work, like a hobby.''
THERE are fine moments, suitable for framing in a feminist cartoon strip entitled ''Dreams of Glory.'' May, at lunch with Quayle, spurning a shopping bag in which he has brought $25,000 in cash. May in the kitchen, being called by Quayle, who is now half mad with anxiety, desperate to come to terms somehow. ''Could you call back later,'' she says, ''I have to prepare a cream filling.'' (This is the equivalent, one supposes, of the line: ''Patience, my dear, I'll kiss you after I finish my cigar.'')
Some lines are purest Bombeck. ''How can you plan a crime while frying bacon, being careful to make it thoroughly crisp with no soft, moist edges?'' The rueful rites and wrongs of women in New York, caught in the crossruff between what their mothers believed in and what the middle-class world has come to, are by now an overworked literary sandbox. Mrs Pesetsky has established her own turf, however. She uses parody to save time, like the prisoners in that famous joke who know all their own stories so well that they give them numbers, to speed things up, but laugh at the end just the same. There is also a glint of grim Nabokovian playfulness, and a thread of cruelty that suggests Humbert Humbert gleefully stalking Quilty at the end of ''Lolita.'' As in her recent short story collection, ''Stories Up to a Point,'' the author makes you read, she makes you laugh. She is a literary sharpshooter, small calibered, perhaps, but with a high muzzle velocity, who does not like to waste a single shot. - Timothy Foote

In Bette Pesetsky's awkwardly titled but inventive novel, Author From a Savage People, women are the "savage people" and the heroine, May Alto, is the "author," a much put-upon ghostwriter…. [Its] central emotion is its heroine's intense ambition, her anger and the pleasure she takes in wreaking vengeance, in feeling powerful for a change. May is an uncredited "helper": to her many clients; to her two former husbands, who used her and deceived her, one shamelessly continuing to do so; to her three children. (p. 738)
May is guided throughout by advice (often banal) from her mother and aunt, both long dead—a nice fictional equivalent of the mother-mentor voice we carry in our heads... - Barbara Koenig Quart

Women are the "savage people" in the title of Bette Pesetsky's effective first novel, "Author From a Savage People"—at least according to the book's epigraph, which reads "'You're savages,' the politician said. 'Women are savages. I've always known that Civilization has never reached women.'"
As for the "author" in the title: it obviously refers to the story's protagonist, May Alto, who is both a writer and a woman, and thus an "author from a savage people." But it also could refer to an author that the "savage people" as a class are addressing—a male writer, possibly, who, the women might feel, was exploiting them and thus would need to be petitioned in a letter sent to the "author from a savage... - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt


Bette Pesetsky, DIGS, Knopf, 1984.

After coming into a sizable inheritance, Walter and Sara Simon leave Manhattan for the country. The house they move into rests over a long-forgotten monument to Atlantis, and Walter begins excavating. The novel swirls, takes sudden and fast leaps, moves backward and forward in time, and shifts perspective. PW found the work marked by "wit, shrewdness, energy and buoyancy." - Publishers Weekly

Like Author from a Savage People (1983), this second Pesetsky novel tries to hang a variety of contemporary vignettes (some of them engaging) on a slippery, gimmicky frame--with not much success. The Simons, Sara and Walter, are a New York couple in their fifties. With sons grown and with careers solidly unexciting, they move (thanks to an inheritance) to the country, buying an old house. And while Sara may yet resume her once promising talent as a painter, it's Waiter who's the first to find a new raison d'être. The house, he's discovered (through the guidance of a local history buff), may be standing near the site of an unusual apartment building designed and erected in 1910 by a visionary builder named Lazarre. So Walter commences digging for it, which results in an enormous backyard hole out of which pieces of tile, bricks, and parts of a fountain are unearthed--and which also earns Walter the title of loony local eccentric. Then Walter is injured in an accident in the Hole; the Simon sons--Norman and Alex--now enter the picture; and, though these unlikely diggers suspect fraud and funny-business (Walter also had invested in a motel/brothel), they are soon drawn, despite themselves, into the symbolic hole of their parents' late-life independence and folly. Pesetsky's clipped, episodic style scores repeatedly when Sara and Walter are giving free rein to their outlandishness, less often when concerning the sons' follow-ups. (The novel is largely presented as a series of notes between the characters.) But while the Hole is a fine image, it's too vague, strained, and metaphorical to serve as the novel's central premise. And the bright, funny fragments here never come together in any affecting or convincing way.  - Kirkus Reviews

IN the first half of her new novel, ''Digs,'' Bette Pesetsky fulfills and even surpasses the considerable promise of her first two books - ''Stories Up to a Point,'' a collection, and ''Author From a Savage People,'' a novel.
In the new work, Walter and Sara Simon, inveterate New York City dwellers with two grown-up sons, suddenly inherit money and decide to move two-and-a-half-hours north to the little rural community of Shilton. Or rather Walter, an abstracted seventh-grade math teacher, decides. Sara, who narrates the opening section of ''Digs,'' seems satisfied with her job at a small foundation, which leaves her enough free time to indulge her passion for painting, though she always destroys the results.
But the move to the country unhinges their relationship. Walter begins to behave erratically. He buys a failing motel. He joins the local historical society, where he hears rumors of an apartment building that once stood on the site of his farmhouse. This moves him one day to begin digging a hole, an enormous hole, a hole that surrounds the house, a hole so vast and huge that a neighbor telephones one day and laughingly asks, ''Tell me, do the people in China really walk upside down?''
Soon the hole goes public in the local edition of the Gannett newspaper. ''MAN DIGS HOLE.'' Soon Walter becomes so passionate in his quest that Sara moves out of their bedroom and begins to sleep alone. She also paints pictures of the hole - pictures that for the first time ever she likes enough to keep. Religious fanatics come to worship the hole. An Indian from the East Village claims the spirits of his ancestors are being disturbed. Local teen-agers throw bottles. A doctor pronounces Walter's behavior ''eccentric but permissible.'' And then, catastrophe: Walter finds proof that the apartment really existed and ends up comatose in the hospital. Sara falls into a deep psychological depression. The children are informed. The family rallies round.
Up until this point, Mrs. Pesetsky is in perfect control. The black hole is perversely radiant as a symbol - of yearning for the past, of the loss of urban roots, of male conspiracy and, as one character wryly observes in language more pungent than can be quoted here, of Walter's simultaneously regressing and performing sexual intercourse. Yet the hole is also the vibrant center of a fast-paced farce. It focuses Sara's rage. Her language seethes with mordant wit. The reader's eyes race over the pages lickety-split.
But then, with the climactic catastrophe, the novel dies. The author's control falters, the tone wavers, the narrative runs down, and the action deteriorates into mere activity. Occasionally, the story hiccups to life again - for instance, when the seemingly moribund motel turns to be a thriving house of prostitution and one of the Simons' sons tries to raid it, or when the other son gets sucked into his father's obsession with the hole - but throughout the latter half of the book, the activity is essentially pointless.
In a way, this had to happen. For it is when Sara Simon threatens to fulfill herself as an artist that the vital world of the novel comes to a stop. As Mrs. Pesetsky has said several times before with her fiction, the world as it exists cannot tolerate female artists - or, to put it the other way around, when a female artist emerges, the world as it is must end.
The pieces in her earlier collection, ''Stories Up to a Point,'' might be said to have been stories only up to the point that the male world moved in to squash them. The heroine of ''Author From a Savage People'' was a woman who could only succeed as the ghost of a male. In ''Digs,'' it is as if Sara Simon were saying, ''If I can't have it nobody can, including the female artist who created me.'' This is the fallacy of imitative form raised to the level of nihilist ideology.
But ''Digs'' - so wittily titled - also turns up several spadefuls of hope. If Sara literally remains in the closet as an artist, until one of her sons finds her paintings and burns them, at least she has done her own work. This is progress beyond the heroine of ''Author From a Savage People,'' who resentfully hides behind the man she has helped to win the Nobel Prize, and beyond any of the people I can recall from ''Stories Up to a Point.''
Mrs. Pesetsky is too intuitive an artist for mere intelligence to release her from whatever fetters are holding her back. But with each successive book she has tugged at them harder. Sooner or later, they are likely to break. - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt



Bette Pesetsky, Stories up to a Point,  Knopf, 1981. 

Like rhinestone chips, Pesetsky's teentsy stories glitter briefly in an odd and affectless way. The narrator of all of them is a much-married, much-divorced, middle-aged Jewish woman who sets down jottings--snippets of her incapacities. . . and everyone else's. Family is as bewildering as strangers are; life lurches from one disappointment to another in the space of two sentences--and sometimes this encapsulated manner pays off. There are efficiently cute stories, like ""Dyslexia""--in which an older woman in college tries to keep up with the books that her teachers, husband, lover, and children urge on her (for her enlightenment and their ego satisfactions). And there are a few genuinely good pieces--especially ""A Theory of Sets,"" in which a woman's plain life from girlhood on is barely summarized, nearly in outline form, with the spareness of its line thrown into relief by the use of the exact names of everyone she's ever known: these people come to seem like store mannequins parked around the woman's life--a strange and powerful effect. But the great majority of the story-ettes here are merely cubed too small, hacked of zest by their compactness. And when Pesetsky attempts to write about pity and love, the terseness is a real drawback: it seems smirky. A handful of successful, wise stories, then--amid many more which are merely glib or precious. - Kirkus Reviews

Among the several titles that Gordon Lish has held over the course of his long career (teacher, author, editor, publisher), he is perhaps best known for his nearly twenty years as a fiction editor at Alfred A. Knopf. He worked on everything from Don DeLillo to David Leavitt, Cynthia Ozick to Walter Kirn. A striking number of the books he edited were story collections by women, many of them debuts: Christine Schutt’s Nightwork, Dawn Raffel’s In the Year of Long Division, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live, Noy Holland’s The Spectacle of the Body, Diane Williams’s The Stupefaction, Mary Robison’s Believe Them, Yannick Murphy’s Stories in Another Language, Jennifer Allen’s Better Get Your Angel On, Janet Kauffman’s Obscene Gestures for Women. (All but the Williams, Kauffman, and Robison were first books.)
Lish has a well-earned reputation as the champion of certain aesthetic principles: repetition, minimalism, radical confession, and an acoustical/structural approach to the sentence that (as Gary Lutz has reported in this magazine) he calls “consecution” (“The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” January 2009). Nonetheless, it is difficult—and in a certain sense pernicious—to try to generalize about these books. There’s kinship between them, sure, but similarity is a long way off from uniformity; Lish’s methods have never been half so codified or rigid as his detractors have insisted they are. (If you can’t see the difference between Amy Hempel and Gary Lutz, or Mary Robison and Harold Brodkey, you’re on your own.) For those of us partial—even partisan—to this thing that it is neither precise nor fair to call the “Lish style,” the large and variegated back catalog is a deep, wide ocean in which to dive for treasure and pearls.
Let me share with you just one fine find from my expeditions: Stories Up to a Point by Bette Pesetsky. First published in 1981, Stories was Pesetsky’s first book. The narratives—fifteen of them, in a book that runs only 114 pages—are almost all in the first person, and deliver “the fragmented news of combat recollected by women whose lives have been tested against the action of time and loss and betrayal.” That’s from the jacket copy, which I’d bet my last dollar Lish wrote himself. He leaves out one major characteristic of the book—which is that it’s funny as hell—but Francine du Plessix Gray covers that ground in the book’s sole blurb (“tragicomic,” “telegraphic irony,” etc.).
Pesetsky reveals the lives of flinty, streetwise women of the midcentury Lower East Side. She’s like an alternate-dimension Grace Paley: rougher around the edges, with a most welcome mean streak: “I used to say that I wanted a place in the country with a high barbed-wire fence. Randolph, my first husband, thought I was joking. Armel, my fifth husband, knew I was serious.” Her writing is merciless and swift.
Eastern European Jewish immigrants, communists, and other artifacts of yesteryear New York are strewn throughout. The pell-mell energy of the prose keeps you alert and enjoying yourself even as the individual stories mostly blend together. That said, “Moe, Nat, and Yrd,” “Offspring of the First Generation,” and “Care by Women” each stand as well on their own as they do in the group. “Slim yet thunderous,” wrote Lish of this volume; “a mature voice speaking with all the force of its hard-earned knowing.” Yes, and yes again. - Justin Taylor

With their compactness, their flat tone, their arresting elisions and juxtapositions, Bette Pesetsky's "Stories Up to a Point" read like telegraphic dispatches from the battlefield of modern life. The telegrapher is in almost every case a woman, anonymously reflecting upon her failures and disappointments as wife, mother, lover, friend, urbanite. Generally these women sound shellshocked. But the messages are clear. They carry, some of them, important news from the front.  
The news is all bad…. The only relief Miss Pesetsky offers, throughout her dispiriting reports on the state of human relations, are deft writing and flashes of hilarious pessimism. A testament to these strengths—her craftsmanship and her mordant humor—is that the volume is, against all odds, enjoyable.
This is still more surprising in that "Stories Up to a Point" is her first book…. [The stories] show a controlled originality, a distinctive and consistent vision. Ironically, the book's chief flaw is that very consistency of vision. In the weaker stories, the endless succession of injuries-numbly-adapted-to molds into a blur, and the mood of cool despair seems programmatic or facile. Yet even these few, which don't work well as whole stories, fail interestingly and contain at least touches that do work.
Of the rest, some are terrific. "The Person Who Held the Job Before You" is a small wry parable about the psychic toll of work in a dull office, compressing into four pages and a punch line much of what Joseph Heller pursued throughout "Something Happened." "Moe, Nat, and Yrd," about a self-confessed student of radio call-in shows and the people who make them possible, at first seems to promise only rambling and eccentric comedy, but then snaps closed at the end like a high quality strongbox. Both "Dyslexia" and "The Theory of Sets" are ingeniously constructed and emotionally potent, the sort of short story for other short-story writers to look at and envy.
Social disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity (especially as they afflict women) are the main themes of all these stories, and so the author's use of narrative disjunction, dislocation and discontinuity is apt; at its best her off-rhythm, quirky technique is impressive. (pp. 11, 34) - David Quammen

When a character in the title story [of "Stories Up to a Point"] declares that "misery is specific," he could be stating this collection's epigraph. These are first-person tales narrated in a sardonic, slightly depressed voice with the hatchet-edged impact of simple declarative sentences. They have the sort of disarming artifice that seizes attention: shocking misfortunes announce themes that are not pursued; stories of dissecting satire carry titles like "Ulcer," "Scratch," and "Dyslexia." Pesetsky's people collect and document dust; write pamphlets, graphs, business letters of regret, threat, or supplication; are victimized by anonymous commuter abuse, city crazies, their own disconnected families. Funny, absurd, and troubling—the most refreshing challenge to the traditional boundaries of the short story since Barthelme. - Mary Soete

Care by Women, the best of Bette Pesetsky's Stories up to a Point is … a skeletal sketch of a marriage, the arrival, adolescence and later life of three daughters, their relationship with their mother, their father's desertion—he'd wanted a son. It is but nine neat pages long (sorry, short). That it could so easily be decked with flesh, knocked into an excellent novel, is irrelevant. The scratches on its surface are exceptionally skilful. This first collection, with its admirably ambiguous title, contains fifteen tight, slightly antiseptic snippets, concerned with the loss of a lover, love, or both. Care by Women is significantly the most striking, as one of only two told in the third person. Pesetsky's speakers, cool, almost emotionless, sound too improbably similar, too mannered to be individual. Fractured in form, some pieces are maddeningly insubstantial. To snatch at a point and miss is agreeably tantalising: not to glimpse one is, well, pointless. - Bill Greenwell

Bette Pesetsky assembles short declarative sentences into very short stories, the kind that are now usually called fictions, their traditional "story" elements having been minimalized…. [Pesetsky] reflects the influence of Donald Barthelme, revered in creative writing classes for his apparent imitability. All fifteen stories in this first collection incorporate Barthelme's early "see-Jane-run" manner and his "fragmentary" method of construction. Typically, Pesetsky's narrator (always a woman) presents a mosaic of autobiographical episodes linked thematically or by association (the title story, an exception, comprises six récits in no particular order). If the resulting arrangement appears to skip inconsequentially between two points, this is because it is designed only, in Barthelme's words, to "supply a kind of 'sense' of what is going on".
Pesetsky has borrowed Barthelme's method, but not his madness, eschewing the surreal for a firm attachment to the quotidian…. Her world, though, is the familiar made strange: second-hand echoes of Kafka—as distilled, that is, through Barthelme—permeate these stories. Their heroines are anonymous inhabitants of anonymous places; when familiar locations are named, they have no more substantiality than that of words on the page; other people exist only as one-dimensional shadows. Neurotic, lonely, sad, Pesetsky's women endure lives of quiet desperation and write anxious, jerky... - David Montrose

I admire the strong silences that exist among the words, between the sentences, and hover everywhere over the events in Bette Pesetsky's Stories Up to a Point…. These are original and unusual stories … [in which we notice both] the bleakness of her vision and her barren prose. The only difficulty I had with these poignant pieces is that her prose leaves large air holes through which, if one happens to put the book down in mid-story, memory escapes. Then there is no shortcut back into the story: you must start over….
[Pesetsky's] is wholly a feminine vision…. She is preoccupied with women's lives, their particular brand of hopelessness, their acceptance of their hopeless futures. - Doris Grumbach

Not much has been said, as far as we can determine, about Lish’s editing of Bette Pesetsky. Nothing was found about her work in Lish’s archives.   Stories Up to a Point was published by Knopf in January 1982 — 15 stories in 114 pages.

Justin Taylor wrote a review in the January 2011 issue The Believer. Pesetsky’s stories are terse and similar, just a bit, to Janet Kauffman’s work.  Like both (and Carver and Hannah, etc), Lish’s editorial hand is evident in every sentence and even the titles.

Look at some opening setences:
I was a student of people who call on the telephone to voices who talk on the radio.(“Moe, Nat, and Yrd”)
These old clippings say that my mother was an anarchist. (“The Theory of Sets”)
Mrs. B killed her spastic child. (“The Hobbyist”)
I have a garden of memories I visit as needed. (“Scratch”)

Lish published two other books by Pesetsky, both novels: Author from a Savage People and Digs, both which we will talk about at a later date.  After that, she moved away from Knopf, for unknown reasons, to various publishers like Harcourt and Harper & Row.
- gordonlisheditedthis.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/stories-up-to-a-point-by-bette-pesetsky/

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