The Year in Reading

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first, some personal news: Some friends and I are starting a podcast about the works of John le Carre. It’s called Tinker, Tailor, Podcast, Spy. You can follow it HERE.

I’m loathe to engage in personal blogging, so I’ll just say that 2020 has been a difficult year. Nevertheless, there have been numerous bright spots both personally and professionally. One such bright spot was that after a lengthy bout with depression in 2019, I got back into reading voraciously again. Extended periods in lockdown helped, as did the desire to beat my Goodreads challenge (for some unknown reason, several books are counted multiple times on it. I swear I didn’t do this on purpose!!).

I don’t read very many newly-published books – I find it difficult to keep up with new releases. So my personal best books of the year are hopefully much different than other lists. With all of this being said, here they are, in roughly chronological order from when I read them. I’ll link each title to Goodreads because that’s where I sort all my reading, and I think it’s the most useful book website out there. Just don’t trust the ratings on Goodreads because most people on there have dog brains.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti
For those who ignore all of my Ligotti-posting: Thomas Ligotti is a mildly obscure, reclusive horror writer who writes in a genre referred to as “weird fiction.” His works center around the central tenets of philosophical pessimism and existential horror. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is a Penguin Classics edition of two short story collections by Ligotti, and contains some of his finest work.

True Grit by Charles Portis
True Grit is a matter-of-fact narrative by Mattie Ross as she recounts her childhood journey to avenge her father’s murder by the scoundrel Tom Chaney. If you’ve seen the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of this Western novel, you’ll be delighted to learn it was exceptionally true to the book. Portis had a singular ear for dialogue and a way of sketching extremely vivid characters that makes every page sing.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Wolf Hall trilogy covers the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was born in relative obscurity and rose to dizzying heights as Henry VIII’s chief minister before his execution in 1540. An integral proponent of the Reformation in England, his dogged advocacy for evangelical Christianity (evangelical in the historical sense, not the American interpretation!) turned out to be his undoing, as did his failure with Anne of Cleves. This series captivated me for months and turned me into the kind of person who gives impromptu Ted Talks on Cromwell and Tudor history to other people, which is a shameful but inevitable consequence of mainlining these novels.

Solaris by Stanislas Lem
I’ll admit I haven’t seen the Tarkovsky film yet since I watch like, three movies a year. However, Solaris is one of the best examples of the science-fiction genre out there: something that truly grapples with what it would mean to come in contact with the unknown and the truly unknowable. It’s a science fiction novel wrapped around an exceptionally poignant meditation of grief and memory, and an excellent reminder of what genre fiction can be at its best.

The Lost Writings by Franz Kafka
The Lost Writings is actually a 2020 release! It’s the first English translation of some of Kafka’s fragments. Each of the fragments are in the kind of strange, dissonant, and irreverent tone you would expect. A lot of translations tend to read as wooden, but this is beautiful and clear.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
This book is an extended dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo that takes the form of Polo giving short descriptions of imaginary cities. Every city is beautiful, distinct, and written in prose I can only describe as “crystalline.”

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
It is extremely difficult to summarize this series, but I’ll try my best: Warhammer 40k for lesbians. The first book is an intricate, locked-room mystery with a wide cast of characters that takes place on a mysterious planet in a far-future version of our solar system, where an Emperor known as the Necrolord Prime has resurrected the universe after an unknown catastrophic event. 10,000 years later, this has resulted in an Empire of necromancers and the planets they seek to conquer, along with decaying aristocratic houses. The second book in the trilogy is impossible to summarize without spoiling the first book, but it’s even better and you’ll read it immediately after finishing Gideon the Ninth, anyway. The third book has unfortunately been postponed to 2022, something I try not to think about.

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout
Fer-de-Lance is the first book in a 33-novel detective series by Rex Stout. It was published in 1934, and the final Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1975. The series features a brilliant but eccentric detective, Nero Wolfe, who lives in a brownstone in NYC and refuses to leave his home on principle, preferring instead to eat meals made by his personal chef and spending hours a day tending to his collection of thousands of orchids. To conduct his detective work, he relies on a confidential assistant, a young wise-cracker named Archie Goodwin, whose job is to do the legwork and fetch witnesses, experts, and run errands for Wolfe. These books are essentially comfort reads. They usually follow the same pattern, but what sets each one apart is the quality of the banter between Archie and Wolfe and the delight of reading something so firmly grounded in the period: the very first scene of the books deals with Wolfe’s distaste for bootlegger beer. As the series goes on, the times change around Archie and Wolfe, but the heart of the series never does: their deep respect and rapport with one another.

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson
I am on a lifelong mission to get people to read this series. The Baru Cormorant books are one of the most skillful, nuanced, and thoughtful explorations of empire in science-fiction/fantasy out there. After the brutal Empire of Masks colonizes Baru Cormorant’s home island, she vows revenge. The form her revenge takes is by turning herself into one of the Empire’s finest subjects and eventual agents, all with the goal of freeing her homeland. But how far can she go and how many people can she betray in service of this goal without crossing the line into collaborator? Will she ever be able to undo imperial expansion as just one person, or is she doomed from the start? Dickinson will break your heart over and over in this series. It’s not for the faint of heart—the first two books are relentlessly bleak. But the third book is where Baru truly shines and the series comes to a point where the reader can be satisfied with Dickinson’s answers to some extremely complex questions. Dickinson is frank with readers in the afterword to the third book: he struggles with depression and is unsure if the series will continue. However, the third book is enough of an answer to the question of the series that readers will be satisfied with it even if the fourth book never arrives. And his frankness with readers (I have corresponded with him on the Something Awful forums) is refreshing.

12 Rules for Life (in An Airport Thriller)

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1. You are a girl in a cabin, a window, a train, or at a specific street address.

2. Your connection to the Internet will be lost at some point. You will not regain it until the critical moment. There will also be a moment when you’re past the carnage and reading coverage of the previous week’s events from a position of safety.

3. The ex is not the one who was crazy.

4. You will smash crockery during a significant conversation, potentially alerting people to your presence, or you will hear crockery smashed while having a significant conversation, indicating the presence of a concealed eavesdropper.

5. You think you know how many siblings or members of your extended family you have? Ha. Think again.

6. You’re not like other girls—you’re deeply flawed and full of rich inner complexity. You wear clothes that don’t fit right and your bangs might be uneven, for example.

7. The author’s attempt to introduce a fair-play mystery while contriving to get rid of cellphones as a plot destroyer means you are in for some record-breaking weather.

8. The man with the cruel, sardonic twist to his mouth is never on your side.

9. Take heart: in your sleep, you will no longer be plagued by nonsensical dreams. Instead, every dream contains relevant insight, an epiphany about the central mystery, or is prophetic in nature.

10. The precocious teenager is a material witness at best.

11. You will escape, but you’ve either got a showy head wound or a nasty sprained ankle to show for your trials.

12. You should have left when the Internet connection was lost.

A Friend for Every Fear: What to Read This Month

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Besides spy fiction, my greatest love is gothic fiction, thrillers, and horror. I hope this reading guide has new and interesting recommendations for people looking for some spooky reading this month.

Vampires

Dracula, Bram Stoker.
A lot of people think they’re too cool to be freaked out by Dracula since the book is mostly just an extended metaphor for being afraid of sex and Romania. However, if the scene where Jonathan Harker is shaving and realizes he doesn’t see Count Dracula in the mirror behind him doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what to tell you.

“The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.”

Salem’s Lot, Stephen King.
This book accomplishes something scientists thought impossible: making vampires scary after 1900. Also, if you squint, there’s a lot to unpack in it about the parasitic draining of small towns and the American underclass. Only if you really squint, but it’s definitely there. It’s also one of the few Stephen King books with an alright ending, so it’s worth the investment.

Werewolves

I am not sure a scary werewolf book is possible. However, North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud has a fantastic story called “Wild Acre” that might be about a werewolf. It also might not.

Ghosts

Affinity, Sarah Waters.
Sarah Waters writes lesbian Victorian historical fiction, usually about the Victorian underworld (spiritualists, dancehall singers, etc). This is the one about spiritualists, and it’s delightfully creepy.

The Turn of the Screw, Henry James.
This is a classic Gothic novella: governess, ghosts, a country manor, a distanced narrative framework. It’s also the basis for The Haunting of Bly Manor, which is a pretty excellent new Netflix show.

Houses (haunted)

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.
This might be the scariest book I’ve ever read. Every once in a while when I’m trying to fall asleep, I think of the scene where Eleanor and Theo are being terrorized by the house, and Eleanor grabs Theo’s hand and holds it, only to realize when Theo asks her a question from across the room that she’s HOLDING HANDS WITH A GHOST.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

The Shining, Stephen King.
On Trump’s Inauguration Day, I went to a dive with my friend Josh and we just stared at a small tv playing The Shining. The book gives you a similarly uneasy experience: a man is tasked with taking care of an old, majestic hotel in remote conditions, and once a snowstorm traps his family, things start getting wild. Like most of King’s novels, it has a rushed, stupid ending. However, the body of the book is so good that it’s worth it.

Houses (other)

House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski.
House of Leaves is about a house that gets bigger, and a photographer who decides to explore it. Good luck explaining your weeks of nightmares about a hallway bigger than the dimensions of the house. It’s fairly famous for its postmodern typography, but honestly (and I may get yelled at for this) you can just ignore everything in the typewriter font.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.
After the death of most of their family, two girls live alone in a decaying house. Things deteriorate.

Witches

The Witches, Roald Dahl.
I’m dead serious, these witches are scary. Sorry if you disagree and weren’t scarred by this book as a small child. The titular witches turn the main character into a mouse and his only consolation is that due to his newly-shortened lifespan, he will likely die together with his grandmother. It’s messed up! Roald Dahl has so much to answer for! Read for the nostalgia factor. Another recommendation: Dahl’s short stories. Man from the South is basically a perfect example of the form.

General Gothic Stuff

Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier.
Rebecca is about an unnamed young woman who becomes the second wife of the mysterious Maxim de Winter, whose first wife, a beautiful and captivating woman named Rebecca, died in an accident. Once they arrive at Maxim’s estate, Manderley, the narrator is tormented by the fact that she doesn’t belong—why does the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, hate her so much? And what really happened to Rebecca? Du Maurier was a master of the Gothic novel, and if you like Rebecca, you should check out Jamaica Inn, or anything by Mary Stewart.

The Companion, Katie Alender.
I hardly ever read YA fiction, but this is as perfect of an example of a Gothic novel as you can get. It has the requisite themes of isolation, fear of hereditary weakness, discovered manuscripts, an old estate, family secrets, and prophetic dreams. Alender clearly knows her stuff, and it’s a delight to read this modern story of an orphan brought to an old house to care for a catatonic heiress.

Existence in General

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, Thomas Ligotti.
If you know me at all, you know I had to include Ligotti. This is a Penguin Classics edition that collects two of his hard-to-find collections of short stories. Ligotti is obsessed with philosophical pessimism and the idea that life is “malignantly useless.” My personal favorite in this collection: The Spectacles in the Drawer.

songs about werewolves, ranked

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5. Werewolf Heart, Dead Man’s Bones

Dead Man’s Bones is Ryan Gosling’s long-defunct goth band. They released one album, also called Dead Man’s Bones, which featured backup vocals from a children’s choir. It’s a perfect Halloween album, and I now rank “singing spookily about zombies” as one of Ryan Gosling’s many talents, which also include “playing characters that are extremely repressed but inwardly tormented by emotion” and “wearing ¾ length coats well.” Werewolf Heart isn’t really about werewolves so much as stock deathly imagery, but it’s a jam and warrants inclusion.

Guest verses about star-crossed lovers: 1.
Plinking high notes on a piano: yeah.

4. Werewolf, Cocorosie

Cocorosie is an extremely irritating duo of sisters who dress like Amanda Palmer and sound worse (freak folk is not a good genre). Somehow, they made this banger about werewolves, which includes catchy hooks like “I used to have eyes the color of sky / now I can see in the middle of the night” and lyrics like “in a dream I was a werewolf / my soul was filled with crystal light.” There’s something hypnotic about the song, even though the live version is one of the worst things I have ever seen committed to video.

Verses about Hamlet: 1.
8tracks fanmixes I put this song on as a teen on Tumblr: at least 4.

3. She Wolf, Shakira.

It’s mildly deranging to me that this song is eleven years old but there’s also something very “early Obama era” about it that makes this fact acceptable to me. Shakira’s “She Wolf” is the quintessential 2009 song: a pop anthem of female empowerment that has a David Guetta remix. Lest you think this song is not about werewolves, Shakira actually says “Darling, it is no joke— this is lycanthropy” in the song.

Millions of views on YouTube: 280.
Radio station I first heard it on: Hot 95.7.

2. Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, Tracy Morgan

“It’s a full moon….on the Sabbath.” This song might be one of the finest things to come out of 30 Rock, one of the last funny sitcoms on TV (RIP). One of the funniest things you can do with a really good bit is extend it past the point of hilarity, which whoever wrote this understood well: “this whole premise is sweaty.”

Verses: 13.
Years since it came out: also 13.

1. Werewolves of London, Warren Zevon

This is a perfect song. No werewolf song covers the both menacing and ridiculous nature of the werewolf as well as Warren Zevon’s 1978 hit. The image of a werewolf that both walks around “with a Chinese menu in his hand” and “will rip your lungs out, Jim” encapsulates the inherent contradiction of how centuries of terrifying folklore have focused on what is essentially a big feral dog.

The line “I saw a werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s” is so beautiful that it belongs up there with misinterpreted quotes from Lolita for things that people make art of on Etsy.

Dish the werewolf was looking for: beef chow mein.
Times Spotify has placed this at the top of my year-end list: 3.

an ode to thomas ligotti

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I first found out about Thomas Ligotti in a way I think he would appreciate: a slow-moving thread on a long-past relevant forum. Prominent posters in the thread made fond offhand references to “Thomas” and his frequent puppet motifs. It was later that I learned that he was the inspiration for Rust Cohle in True Detective, whose monologues about the rapture of self-negation have been famous for years.

Here is a short history of Thomas Ligotti. He was raised Catholic, which he describes as an initiation of sorts into the terror of life. He worked in publishing for a long time, but now works as a freelance editor. He identifies as a socialist, but the policy that he expounds upon in most interviews is the right to euthanasia, which he considers the hallmark of a civilized country. In one interview, only recently translated from Polish (this is the experience of a Ligotti reader: creeping from one dusty archive to the next for a scrap) he derails a question about influences by ranting about the right to die.1 Ligotti is severely mentally ill, and openly so. He is frank about his bipolar disorder, he refers to himself as a depressive, and he constantly talks about his resentment of medication that he feels disables him. He says in one interview, “only in a good mood can I think about my existence or existence itself without thinking about wanting to be euthanized by anesthesia.”

He’s fond of watching jai alai. He has what appears to be an all-encompassing fascination with clowns, puppets, masks, and theater: anything that highlights the unreal and throws reality into sharper contrast. He wrote an unfilmed episode of The X-Files. One of his books is a manifesto of anti-natalism. He describes his work as entertainment, but also as a service of sorts: to tell others who can see the strings pulling us all that they are not alone. So that, paradoxically, they can become interested in the man whose work proclaims that there is nothing interesting. Mostly, he would likely be irritated at this recital of facts, since he says “I definitely don’t perceive myself as having a strong core identity. I don’t believe that anyone possesses anything of the sort, which is why I don’t believe in what some people refer to as a “self,” one that can exercise free will.”

His work fosters devotion, not in small part due to the fact that Ligotti is a recluse, which gives him an allure. A few days ago, it was announced that he will soon release his first work in eight years. This is not unheard of: his previous break was about a decade long. The new work is ten “apocalyptic poems” that will accompany an album by Current 93, a prior collaborator. (They previously worked on an incredibly eerie album with spoken word that made my neighbor bang on the wall in annoyance.) The best resource for Thomas Ligotti information is Thomas Ligotti Online, a site that looks very much like it must have ten years ago.

Ligotti’s stories are usually set in derelict towns, which one Ligotti scholar refers to as Ligotti’s depiction of the void capitalism leaves in society.2 They usually feature clowns, puppets, masks, and theater: anything that highlights the unreal and throws our own reality into sharper contrast. The prose is elliptical and dry, but has traces of black humor: “his affinity with the immanent schemes of existence had always been much deeper than ours. So we buried him deep in a bottomless grave.”3 The Lovecraftian influence is obvious in some of his work, but whereas Lovecraft describes the quest for meaning and knowledge, Ligotti says it’s useless. The writer he cites the most in interviews is Vladimir Nabokov.

So why read Ligotti? Because, even though he insists that “mortification of one mystery after another has no terminus beyond that of the seeker’s own extinction,” the black hole of this human void is interesting.4 I’ve seen pictures of Vantablack, a black pigment that is one of the darkest materials ever discovered. It’s hard to avert your gaze. You keep looking into it, waiting for something more. The fact that it is a hole in the world is what makes it uniquely compelling. Ligotti’s pessimism is Vantablack literature.

It’s not nihilism, to be clear. Nihilism is a type of belief. True pessimism is beyond that. It’s like what Emil Cioran, a pessimist philosopher said: “I couldn’t care less about the relativity of knowledge, simply because the world does not deserve to be known.” It’s self-evident, instead of the grasping search for meaning. Ligotti is someone who sees an innate lack of free will and thus concludes that the human quest for identity and meaning is ultimately futile.

As an eternal optimist, I know Ligotti would not characterize me as one of the elect demoralized, but as a loser: “we are each either among the demoralized showing the way to a future of eternal nightmare, or we are losers celebrating our moment in hell.”5 The fascination of being a loser celebrating my moment in hell in the Ligottian schema is perusing his work at leisure and coming away uplifted by the adventure and intrigued by a novel perspective. I’m a fellow depressive, but in my personal night there are stars.

1 Wojciech Gunia, “‘They say I should kill myself and not try to spoil their enjoyment in being alive’: An Interview with Thomas Ligotti,” Vastarien: A Literary Journal 1: 1: 83.

2 Michael J. Abolafia, “‘Eccentric to the Health Social Order’”: Inversions of Family, Community, and Religion in Thomas Ligotti’s ‘The Last Feast of Harlequin,’ Vastarien: A Literary Journal 1: 1:73.

3 Thomas Ligotti, “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World,” Songs of a Dead Dream and Grimscribe, 448.

4 Thomas Ligotti, “The Spectacles in the Drawer,” Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe, 299.

5 Thomas Ligotti, “Metaphysica Morum,” The Spectral Link.

minor tweaks to the outdoor experience

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  • hikers should be able to rent a big, dumb, friendly dog to hike with.
  • all tubers should be issued a dull knife for full-contact tubing: each deflated tube presented to referees will be rewarded with a can of white claw.
  • at scenic overlooks, you should be able to purchase small pellets to throw at tubers, etc below.
wouldn’t it rock to be able to throw stuff off of here

coronavirus daily briefing, 7/18/2020

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Hello, and good morning, I see there’s a lot of people here today in the Rose Garden and why not? Why not? It’s a beautiful day. I even see some members of the fake news media here, though they say they don’t like to cover my briefings, about the virus, though some say it’s a plague. And look, the little red light is going off. They’re not filming anymore. That’s CNN for you, or, as many call it, the CLINTON News Network.

Now we’re making a lot of progress on the pandemic, there’s lots of, lots of moving parts. I’m on the phone all day trying to get the best deals for the American people on the, the masks and equipment, though we’re needing less than we did. Or less than we would if Obama was president. Lots of things would be different. But that’s not why we’re here, though in a sense it is, but that’s not why I’m talking to you right now. I want to talk about something very exciting, that a lot of people don’t know about. But they will, very soon and that’s an exciting thing for all of us.

I’ve been on the phone with some very incredible people, who are working very hard, and they’re telling me some very interesting things about the THETANS. It turns out we have higher thetan levels than any other country, even CHINA. And thetans, it’s not like testing positively, it’s good. If we keep testing, we see more cases, and it’s the same with the thetans, but in this instance it’s good, and our thetan levels, wow, they are off the charts. The auditor told me he has never seen a higher operating thetan level than me, and you know, Ronny Jackson and some other very fine doctors agreed, they say I have tremendous thetan levels. I tested very positively for thetans. The auditor had tears in his eyes: “sir, your thetan was a noble individual, probably a very respected galactic warrior, straight out of central casting, sir.” And that’s wonderful.

In our past lives, a lot of people didn’t see it coming, when Xenu loaded us into the generational ships, the really big ships: you can’t even see them. They’re invisible. And they didn’t see it coming, when Xenu parked them by the volcano and detonated the bombs. I was the only one saying, hey, I don’t know about Xenu, I think he is making some very bad deals for the galactic people. But they didn’t listen. Sometimes people don’t listen until it’s too late even though you tell them. If I were Xenu, I would have done things a LOT differently, believe me. And we’re still trying to go clear and get rid of the past-life trauma patterns that this very nasty guy made.

We’re working on some methods to go clear as a nation, and we’re looking very strongly into some ways to deal with the, the SUPPRESSIVE PERSONS. Like nasty Robert Mueller and cryin’ Chuck Schumer. And Nervous Nancy. Some very suppressive persons, who are trying to prevent the American people from going clear. If we’re going to get through these very bad times as a country, we’re going to abolish the reactive mind and make some very strong case gains. And that’s all I have to say right now, since it’s something we’re looking into and working on, and we have some very good people, the best people, working on it. Thank you.

Fictional Birds I Have Imagined Spotting from My Apartment Windows

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Airborne Finch: like any other bird, except only ever seen in flight.

Long-necked Curmudgeon: sharp beak, long neck, territorial. resentful of leaving chosen terrain. not to be confused with the Western Curmudgeonly Longneck, which is virtually identical, but has faint frown-like markings adorning the upper beak.

Washington Crested Senator: small, migratory, rarefied. regularly engages in what ornithologists colloquially refer to as “call time,” several hours of repetitive appeal.

The Rock Dove: hum your favorite guitar solos at this fine specimen, and it will faithfully reproduce up to sixteen bars with perfect recall.

Italian Hopper: contemporary mores prevent me from describing this further.

***CRIMSON SHRIEKER***: just a cardinal–but now it sounds a lot cooler, right?

free ideas pt 2

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  • a device that prevents glasses from fogging up when wearing a mask. I’ve read about sprays you can use but some sort of tiny robot wiper would be much cooler.
  • business hours for websites. Websites should not only have webmasters again, they should be literally closed at night and maintain 9-5 hours based on the location of the proprietor.
  • a button on Netflix to skip the climate change parts of nature documentaries
  • black rifle potato chip company: finally, a snack for men™. comes in woodsmoke flavor with EXTRA sodium and fat.