DJWriter
The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
 
In the Home Stretch
With just a few days remaining in the year, Book Challenge 2009 is winding down. It took more discipline than you can imagine, but I have managed to build up a comfortable lead in books finished versus books acquired. My advantage is safe enough that I asked for several books for Christmas, plus I can enjoy the post-holiday sales. More incredibly, my goal of reading 100 books this year is also within reach. I have fallen behind in blogging about each book, however, so let's get caught up...

Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History by Laura Lee - This book describes more than 50 historical events impacted by meteorological incidents from biblical times (the story of Noah's ark is probably based on a real flood) to the present (global warming, of course). An amusing recurring chapter title is "Gee, It's Cold in Russia," which describes failed invasions of Russia by Charles XII in 1708, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941, as well as the extension of the Crimean War in 1854. The tone is light and often humorous since the book is an entertaining survey rather than a history textbook. It is not comprehensive, but each chapter provides ample background info. Anyone with a casual interest in world history should enjoy Blame It on the Rain.

Christmas Sucks: What to Do When Fruitcake, Family, and Finding the Perfect Gift Make You Miserable by Joanne Kimes - I couldn't resist this book based on the title -- in fact, my mom put a copy in my Christmas stocking, not knowing that I already had it -- but it wasn't as funny as it could have been. For one thing, Kimes takes countless, unnecessary shots at men. There's plenty of humorous potential in holiday stress without conjuring a "lazy husband on the couch" stereotype. My wife enjoyed this book more than I did, although she agreed that the male-bashing was a bit much. As a humorist, Kimes is only so-so. I could have written a similar book (sans advice) better myself. And I sure as hell would have proofread it better, too.

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front by Francis MacDonnell - This book is predominantly about Nazi espionage, or at least the fear of it. Concerns were rather overblown (in part because the Germans had a bit of success in that arena during World War I), though the author recounts some amusing tales of bungling spies who were caught by the FBI. He also discusses how Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and others used spy fears to their political advantage. The fear of Nazi spies in the United States precipitated the "Red Scare" and Cold War paranoia of the following decades (I couldn't help noticing that even 70 years ago, people were ignorantly conflating fascism and communism/socialism just as many conservatives do today*). This book may not interest casual readers, but as a longtime student of World War II, I enjoyed reading about a topic that is barely discussed in most history books.

Turning Points in Rock and Roll by Hank Bordowitz - This is a different rock history book. Instead of weaving everything together in one big mess, Bordowitz selects 20 moments in rock history and describes a thread extending from each. For example, he starts one chapter with the founding of Crawdaddy! magazine as a jumping off point to write about rock magazines and criticism. Although I'm pretty well versed in rock history, I learned a lot from this book about people like Les Paul and Dick Clark. Bordowitz backs up his work with ample source information, something often missing in rock and roll books. Turning Points in Rock and Roll is far from exhaustive, but I'd recommend it to all but the most obsessive rock and roll fans for its fresh perspective.

Current tally: 98 books finished, 86 books acquired



* While I sincerely doubt that Barack Obama is either a socialist or a fascist, I know for certain that he cannot be both.

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
 
Finishing June with a Bang
Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal by David Konow - With the exception of Guns N' Roses, I was never a big fan of 1980s heavy metal. I loved AC/DC in the fifth grade when Back In Black came out, and Blue Oyster Cult (B.O.C.) is still one of my favorite bands, but I didn't listen to contemporary metal in high school despite (or maybe because of) its immense popularity. Nevertheless, when Ratt's "Round and Round" comes on the radio, I know every damn word thanks to MTV.

Especially in the "rise" part of the book, Konow makes questionable decisions about what is or isn't metal. Why include several pages about Boston and Queen? I don't know anyone who considers them heavy metal (at least there's some argument about Rush, though the author ignores that band). B.O.C. gets only a few brief mentions. I was particularly annoyed when Konow said Rob Halford had to shop in gay stores for his leather wardrobe in 1978 like it was a big deal. B.O.C.'s Eric Bloom was doing that at least five years earlier, and he wasn't even gay (which I think makes Bloom even more dedicated to his onstage look).

For the most part, Konow's idea of heavy metal is American, guitar-dominated, popular hard-rock music from the 1980s (a.k.a. "hair bands"). He writes a lot about Los Angeles bands from Van Halen to Motley Crue to Warrant. Metallica has a major presence. Slayer is the only speed/thrash metal band to get much coverage, and death metal is ignored. Konow also includes some East Coast bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and Twisted Sister. Def Leppard is just about the only non-American band post-1980 that's covered thoroughly.

Although I wasn't a fan of most of the aforementioned bands, I knew enough about them from living through the 1980s to be interested in reading about them. Once one gets over his or her favorite band getting short-changed, this book is very entertaining. It is full of interesting nuggets about the signing, recording, touring, and lifestyles of metal bands, although some readers may be disappointed that little is written about the music itself. Some parts are hilarious, like how so many bands hated being parodied in This Is Spinal Tap and how Kip Winger blames Beavis and Butt-head for his band's decline. I wish Konow had adhered more closely to chronological order; sometimes it gets confusing. For fans of the bands covered in detail, this may be a five-star book, but I'd give it three for all the bands that are missing.

The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans & Bands by Henry Owings - I bought this immediately after finishing Bang Your Head and read it in only a few hours (could have been faster, but I read it aloud to my wife). I could not have picked a better companion piece for Bang Your Head! The Rock Bible mocks all the narcisistic excesses of rock music, and almost every entry brought to mind a band from the 1980s L.A. metal scene. My only problem with this book is the list price. Sixteen bucks is a lot to ask for such a slim volume (I got it on sale for less, of course). Any fan of rock music will laugh often while perusing this book.

Unsolved Mysteries of American History by Paul Aron - The author takes a scholarly approach to answering such questions as Did Leif Ericsson discover America?, What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?, Why did Lee order Pickett's charge?, Why did Truman drop the bomb?, Who killed JFK?, and What did Reagan know about Iran-Contra? First he sets the scene and describes what happened. Then, instead of merely giving the reader what he thinks are the correct answers, he presents the findings of historians and others over the years. If one answer rises above the others, he says so, but he is also willing to admit where there is no definitive answer. Aron provides a short bibliography after every question with comments about each book. The curious reader (perhaps one who doesn't have as many unread books as I do) can use this book as a starting point to explore these topics in greater depth.


On Sunday, I went to The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Naturally, I had to buy some books to support this great local business. Congratulations to Suzy T, and my apologies for whatever impact my New Years resolution has had on the store's profits this year.

Current tally: 53 books finished, 48 books acquired

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Friday, May 15, 2009
 
Keeping My Head Above Water
On Mother's Day, my aunt asked how my book challenge was going. "I'm up by five," I proudly announced. Well, on the way home I stopped at Borders and they were having a big clearance sale... and suddenly I was in the hole again. Fortunately, I was close to finishing several books, so now I'm breaking even just a few days later.

Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times by Geoff Nunberg - The title may sound like a Bush-bashing book, but it's not. Going Nucular is a collection of articles and commentaries about words and grammar, especially how meanings have evolved and certain words have gained or lost favor. I bought this at Powell's in June 2007, started reading it a few months later, and then set it aside for over a year. I rediscovered it two-thirds finished a month ago. I mention all this because it illustrates my problem with this book. While I enjoyed most of the essays, I couldn't read many in a row. Even making a concerted effort, I could only get through five or six in one sitting. Yet in small doses, it's an interesting book for anyone who is into words, linguistics, etymology, media, or writing. If you're the kind of person who plays "dictionary roulette" (I can't be the only one), you'll enjoy Nunberg's book.

History's Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them by Stephen Weir - This book, which is titled Encyclopedia Idiotica in the U.S., is a good idea weakly executed. The book briefly examines 50 fateful decisions throughout history, ranging from Adam & Eve to the December 2004 tsunami. As a U.K. book, its choices are biased toward British history. Weir also divines the motivations of the bad deciders, classifying them among the Seven Deadly Sins or the three Cardinal Virtues, but this adds little to the book. I bought the illustrated edition ($9.99 at Barnes & Noble), which is indeed a lovely printing. Weir's writing, however, is another matter entirely. First, his tone is inconsistent. Early entries include funny, sarcastic remarks (my wife asked if this was the same author as in Who Hates Whom), but he doesn't keep them up with any regularity. Worse, his sentence structure is atrocious. Run-ons and lengthy fragments abound, which makes History's Worst Decisions annoying and difficult to read aloud. To top it off, Amazon reviewers note some obvious errors. Being poorly written, factually suspect, and only sporadically funny, this disappointing book isn't worth your time.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers - I'm a little surprised that I bought this since I'm not much for "indie rock" -- I like many bands that fit the description, but as a category, it's far too broad to have much meaning (ditto for "alternative"). What sold me is the first half of the book. Like me, Sellers was born in 1970, so we experienced many of the same fads and music growing up. His reminiscences about the early days of MTV are hilarious. The book is entertaining until he gets into "indie rock." Then he writes about bands that don't interest me (the Smiths/Morrissey, Joy Division/New Order, Pavement, Guided By Voices). I had to work to plow through those chapters, encouraged by the occasional reference to something I cared about. The appendices are amusing: A is a collection of lists, B is a goofy formula for determining how good a band is, and C is a list of "judgements" rendered on current bands. Bottom line: if you were born when I was, you'll probably like the beginning of the book, but the rest of the book might bore you if you're not into Sellers' favorite bands, especially Guided By Voices.

Current tally: 40 books finished, 40 books acquired

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Friday, April 10, 2009
 
A Solid Week of Reading
The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked - I went through a heavy Beatles phase about 20 years (not coincidentally on the heels of a Charles Manson phase). Back then, I bought and read at least a dozen books about them. Although I still like their music, I'm not the Beatle-ologist I used to be. But while I was looking for something else at Half Price Books, this book by Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh caught my eye.

I enjoyed the way this book reawakened brain cells last accessed years ago, but it's not a good book. Most of it is trivial or esoteric, and I disagree with some of the authors' debunkings. For example, they contend that John Lennon was not a pacifist. Aside from an admittedly unconfirmed allegation that he gave money to the IRA, their argument is based on several incidents where Lennon got into fights. But that just proves he was a mean drunk, not that he supported war or violence as a solution. I hardly think punching some guy at a party in 1963 makes Lennon a non-pacifist any more than it makes him a pugilist. There's a lot of crap like that in this book. Many debunkings are merely conjecture and opinion. I expected some eye-opening revelations, but I found little that I didn't remember from somewhere in the deep recesses of my teenage mind. This book does have a lot of info about the early years in Liverpool, but I was never particularly interested in the details of the band's origins. There is little about the music (less than 20%), which is ultimately the most important thing about the Beatles. Also, I found it ironic that their selected bibliography criticizes books that lack indices since this book doesn't have one, either.

One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) - I wasn't sure whether I'd like this 1986 John Madden book, but when I saw the chapter titled "Why Payton Is The Best," I figured I couldn't go wrong. Actually, I know the players of the 1970s and 1980s much better than I know the current NFL, so this book was a lot of fun to read. My favorite chapters are the meat of the book where Madden names his favorite players at each position and explains what made them great. There are many good anecdotes, too. This is easily the best book out of the four here, and it only cost me $1!

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages - This book is a disappointment. I've read several similar books, and Stupid History repeats many stories I've seen before. Author Leland Gregory employs too many corny puns, and some of this "stupid history" is just random "fun facts" with little or no historical value (isn't there enough real history to fill a book?). Even worse, there are mistakes. For example, Gregory asserts that Eugene Debs is the only person ever to run for president while in prison. But Leonard Peltier ran for president in 2004. The book is copyright 2007, so the author should have known. Amazon reviewers cite other errors, as well. I wouldn't recommend it and I definitely wouldn't trust it.

50 Ways to Build Muscle Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Muscles - I started reading this late last year and came back to it this week. I put it down because I didn't agree with some of author Dave Tuttle's suggestions, but in retrospect, I was being a bit hard on him. Aside from the typical volume training/isolated body parts silliness and a bit too much rah-rah about supplements (Tuttle's specialty), there are some good ideas here. There isn't a lot of new info, but it is useful as a quick refresher about a variety of training concepts. The end of the book is primarily motivational, which never hurts. All in all, there's nothing "ultimate" about this guide, but it's worth reading if it's cheap (as my copy was).

Current tally: 31 books finished, 26 books acquired

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Sunday, February 15, 2009
 
Debunking History: 152 Myths Exploded
First, I must quibble with the subtitle. While "myths exploded" certainly grabs one's attention, "152 Issues Examined" would be more accurate. The questions posed aren't always myths, and the authors don't always come up with definitive rebuttals. One chapter of the book is even titled "Unresolved Problems", so clearly the authors know these aren't all exploding myths. My guess is that the misleading title was stupidly concocted by an editor or publisher (like when my publisher turned "60 Great Road and Trail Rides" into "60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides").

That said, most of the issues and the authors' examinations of them are worth pondering. Many historical events are not as simple as a high school textbook presents them, and the authors are usually careful to consider each question from multiple points of view. All in all, this book is better suited to people who appreciate nuance (like me) as opposed to those who want answers in black & white. Sometimes, however, the authors clearly fail, such as in their weak assessment of the JFK assassination (basically, the Warren Commission says blah blah blah, and a thousand books have been written questioning their findings, but, um, they can't really prove anything). Why bother to include this topic if that's the best they can do?

Most issues originate in the past 350 years of European/British history with a few American "myths" from Paul Revere to Ronald Reagan thrown in for good measure. Although I learned a lot, especially about British and French history, some issues were too foreign (literally and figuratively) or too esoteric. For example, "Did Harold Wilson Lie Over the Devaluation of the Pound, 1967?" As an American born several years after that event, my primary knowledge of Harold Wilson is that he's the "Mr. Wilson" mentioned in the Beatles song "Taxman". Plus currency devaluation is pretty trivial compared to other lies politicians have told. My wife's scattershot approach to reading (which normally drives me nuts) might be better for Debunking History than my insistence on reading every entry.

Aside from a few lame "answers" and some not so interesting "myths", Debunking History is a thought-provoking book that certainly gives the reader a new perspective on many historical events.

Current tally: 13 books finished, 9 books acquired

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Thursday, May 04, 2006
 
Lyrics of the Day
Easy choice today, the 36th anniversary of the Kent State shootings:

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Neil Young wrote "Ohio" after seeing photos of the massacre in Life magazine. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded it in one night, and it hit the airwaves just weeks later. Well, it didn't hit all of the airwaves, as many AM radio stations refused to play it (FM was still in its infancy). Young's lyrics were scathing for the time. Few people dared to name names, but Young laid those four dead at President Nixon's feet. For his part, Nixon said, "This should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy." In other words, those kids should have known better; they were asking for it. The song ends on a haunting note with the ad-libs "Why? Why?" and "How many more?"

This anniversary finds Young about to release Living With War (full coverage here), a protest album that has already upset the current Establishment. Of course, many of the people responsible for the Iraq War thought Vietnam was a good idea, too, even though most of them weaseled out of it one way or another (TANG, anyone?).

Decades later, the spectre of Kent State still looms over every war protest, indeed every peaceful demonstration, in America. It is a reminder that violence can unfold and escalate suddenly and without warning or just cause. We're really never more than an itchy trigger finger away from violent suppression.

I can only imagine the emotions I would have felt hearing "Ohio" in its day. Four weeks after Kent State, in another college town less than 400 miles away, I was born. Three weeks after that, "Ohio" hit the Billboard charts.

Further reading: Neil Young Ohio Lyric Analysis, May 4 Archive

UPDATE 05/05/2006 - Bob Geiger wondered yesterday what it would take for Kent State to happen again. He said it comes down to five letters: D-R-A-F-T. If college students feared that their own butts might wind up dodging IEDs in Iraq, they would be just as agitated about this lying administration's war as those Kent State students were about Vietnam 36 years ago. Judging from the current regime's feelings about dissent, the authorities would react as the Ohio National Guard did. And Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Hannity would be cheering them on, claiming that the students hated America and deserved to be shot.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006
 
Grant and Logan, and Our Tears
A recurring discussion with my wife is centered on her Chicago public school education compared to my suburban public school education. It's not something I gloat about in an "I'm smarter than you" way. It's just that I took for granted all the things I learned and assumed everybody learned those things.

My wife came home after walking the dog on Sunday and told me that one of her favorite neighborhood dogs had died. She said his owners now have another dog whose name is Logan. I replied, "Grant and Logan, and our tears, Illinois, Illinois." She had no clue. Didn't they teach you the Illinois state song in school? Nope. I tried the opening lines, because surely everyone knows those: "By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois/O'er thy prairies verdant growing, Illinois Illinois." Not ringing a bell. I was stunned. I learned that song when I learned such trivia as the state bird (cardinal), state tree (white oak), state flower (violet), etc. It was all in a free book, although the lyrics of the song may have been a separate handout. Here is the Illinois Handbook of Government 2003-2004 online. You can download just the official state symbols or the whole thing (3.2 MB).

Okay, but who the heck was Logan anyway? They never taught me that.

John A. Logan was born in Murphysboro, IL. A U.S. Representative prior to the Civil War, he resigned from Congress to serve as a general in the Union Army. A speech he gave in Marion is credited with keeping southernmost Illinois in the Union when there had been talk of secession. Indeed, Logan was to southern Illinois what Ulysses S. Grant was to northern Illinois. After the war, Logan was elected again to two terms in the House. Then he became a Senator.

His most lasting legacy is Memorial Day. While scattered communities honored Civil War dead earlier, it was the 1868 General Order by Logan, then Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic (a powerful Union veteran's organization), that designated a national day. It was known as Decoration Day because the graves of soldiers were to be strewn with flowers or otherwise decorated. He poignantly wrote
Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us as sacred charges upon the Nation's gratitude, the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.
Logan has been largely forgotten, even here in Illinois. Most Chicagoans don't even know him, although many have seen his statue in Grant Park, and some might guess correctly that Logan Boulevard and Logan Square were named for him. In southern Illinois, John A. Logan College is located halfway between Marion and Carbondale, and General John A. Logan Museum is in Murphysboro.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005
 
Rethinking Brother Joe
Amid the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, some Russians are getting a little nostalgic and misty-eyed over Joseph Stalin. Joe wasn't such a bad guy, they say. Movements are underway throughout the country to erect and re-erect statues, and a nationwide poll in March found "that 53% of Russians thought that on balance Stalin's rule was 'positive'."

One man born more than 20 years after Stalin died brushed aside the massive purge of political opponents: "This was right and necessary in this period. These were enemies of the people and the state. It was not possible to investigate and try them all." There is a slight discrepancy between the official number killed (which this young man cited) and the number historians believe: officially 750,000 died, but historians say it was more like 20,000,000. Then again, I suppose Stalin apologists might argue that those would just be more mouths to feed, so we should be glad they aren't around.

Russia also suffered perhaps 26,000,000 deaths during World War II (according to a recent, no longer free Los Angeles Times article, volunteers still search for ID tags). Unmentioned in the story of Stalin's resurgence in popularity was the likelihood that Russian losses would not have been so great had Stalin not killed so many of his best military leaders in the purges before the war. They may have threatened his absolute power, but apparently he didn't consider that he might need them someday.

Sure, Stalin led Russia to victory in World War II, but I suspect that the Russian people deserve more of the credit and that another leader could have succeeded with a lesser loss of life (a pretty safe bet considering the millions who wouldn't have been purged before WWII even started). And Stalin certainly shoulders plenty of the blame for starting the Cold War, a struggle that poised the world on the brink of nuclear destruction for a quarter-century after his death. So let's not put him on the fast track for sainthood.

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Friday, March 25, 2005
 
Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest
While doing research for a book I am writing, I visited a bargain book store in Springfield, IL. Naturally, there were many books about Abraham Lincoln. As a native Illinoisan, I have always taken Honest Abe for granted in some respects. I've heard many stories, but I never read an entire book about him. I was drawn to Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest because I thought the outsider's perspective of a Welsh writer might give me a new appreciation for the man.

Author Jan Morris spins an interesting tale, a mixture of biography, travelogue, and historical fiction. While it reads nicely, it has enough errors that I had to double-check the publisher. Expecting a small publishing house, I was shocked to see "Simon & Schuster" on the spine. A few sloppy typos caught my eye, but the author began to lose credibility when I found a glaring error:

...and in 1846 Springfield waved bon voyage to the fated hopefuls of the Donner Pass party, the last of whom were all too soon to eat each other's corpses in a final extremity of starvation in the Rocky Mountains.
I may have a morbid fascination with the Donner Party, but any fact-checker worth his salt should have caught this. The Donner Party was caught by snow in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, not in the Rocky Mountains, which are hundreds of miles to the east. This error is compounded by calling them the "Donner Pass party" (I've never seen "Pass" in the name before). Look up "Donner Pass" in a dictionary, and it will tell you that it is in the Sierra Nevada. Morris may be from another country, but this is not a difficult fact to get right. When I find an error in a book, I wonder how many other errors I do not recognize because the information is entirely new to me. In fact, I found several other events in the book where her version of history didn't match mine.

Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest has a rather awkward ending. After what I consider a balanced assessment of Lincoln throughout the book, Morris declares that Lincoln's presidency fomented America's imperialistic attitudes and policies. She follows with a harsh assessment of American militarism in the twentieth century. This is an interesting idea, something that I never considered before, but it doesn't fit with the rest of the book. In hindsight, I can see parts of the book that might argue for this conclusion, but such an indictment deserves better support. Instead, it comes across as a strong opinion without much corroboration. It is as if she slapped a proposal letter for a different Lincoln book on the end of this one. Indeed, her conclusion merits further exploration, and I might like to read an entire book about that topic.

Overall, this book provides a brief overview of Lincoln embellished by visits to the places he knew. While I enjoyed it, I wouldn't particularly recommend it. Though entertaining, it misses the mark. Someone less familiar with Lincoln might get lost in the author's non-chronological organization. And while Morris hits most of the highlights, there are important things left out or glossed over. Lincoln's vaunted
Second Inaugural Address gets sparse mention, and accounts of his political campaigns lack sufficient detail. At the other extreme, a Lincolnologist would find little value here. In other words, it is too scattershot for students and too frivolous for scholars. For those of us in the middle, it is a nice read but not a good history. I think I will have to read another Lincoln book to get a better picture of the man. Any recommendations?

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