Tag Archives: post-boom

Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

Triburbia, a first novel from author Karl Taro Greenfeld, is set in Tribeca, an upscale, trendy neighbourhood located in Lower Manhattan. This unique historic neighbourhood was a commercial centre for the textile industry in the 19th century, and for its vast lofts, the area became an artistic mecca in the 70s, but then morphed into a popular and pricey residential area.  

Triburbia is described as a novel about a  “group of fathers” who meet “each morning at a local Tribeca coffee shop after walking their children to their exclusive school.” I suppose we have to start somewhere with the description, but that description doesn’t quite fit and argues for a structure that isn’t there. While there are a couple of meetings between the fathers at the coffee shop, it’s not a main event. Triburbia is a series of inter-connecting stories exploring the convergence of various residents and the sometimes-uneasy, underhand and competitive relationships between them. If it’s the author’s intention to argue that location! location! says a lot about who we are, how we live, and the values we hold, then in Triburbia, an extremely entertaining, lively and witty novel, he succeeded admirably.

Set in the post-boom of 2008, the neighbourhood has gone through gentrification, the explosion of property values, and now is in a downward slide. For the families who live there, it’s the place to live, but some of its cachet is fading. Some of the residents moved there while the area was affordable, while for others, it’s just one more move in the never-ending movement upwards. Through the chapters told by various narrators, both male and female, we learn the circumstances surrounding just how each person ended up in Tribeca. One character, a puppeteer, the poorest of the lot, moved from a dump on Second Avenue to a roomy loft for $280 a month rent. Compared to the other characters, the puppeteer has lived in Tribeca for the longest period of time, and he’s seen the businesses move out, the artists move in, and then the gentrification process that rocketed the neighbourhood into affluence. While his artistic career never took off, he remains working as a repairman, in his rent controlled space with his daughter like “aboriginals who were slowly being driven out by the wealthier, colonizing settlers.” The puppeteer’s daughter, Sadie, rubs shoulders with the extremely wealthy through babysitting and takes her father’s advice to be “ruthless” when it comes to getting what you want from life.

While the puppeteer’s story is a sad tale of failed talent and ambition, the other stories range in levels of humour. There’s the memoirist, married to former magazine editor, Marni, who has written a number of bestselling and sensational books about his troubled past–including one titled Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up about beating a “nasty drug habit with a combination of martial arts discipline–picked up during my years in Japan–and a tough, go-it-alone ethos.” The memoirist’s stellar and affluent career comes to a screeching halt when some nasty rumours surface questioning the book’s authenticity. There’s also a gregarious celebrity chef who tests the patience of his wife, and Brick, the sculptor who realises his wife looks a lot like his mistress.

Then there’s Asian-American, Mark, a sound engineer who’s married to Brooke, the only living child of a very wealthy Connecticut family. Now a landlord whose main non-wifely income comes from the rents he collects, he feels that he’s ‘landed’ in the upper echelons of American society by pure accident. The vague feeling that he’s somehow a fraud in his own life is accentuated when stories circulate about a neighbourhood teenage girl who was molested. The sketch of the child molester looks uncannily like Mark, but he gets little sympathy from his pot-smoking wife or film producer, Sumner, the man who thinks his neighbourhood is under assault by pedophiles.

Here’s Mark discovering flyers about the suspect in his daughter’s backpack:

“Why do you have so many?”

“I took a lot  because they look like you,” Cooper says.

“We’re gonna draw on them,” Penny adds.

I say that they shouldn’t have them and that I am throwing them away. The suddenly angry tone of my voice shocks them and Penny starts crying, running into the dining room where Brooke is flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. I can hear Penny sobbing, “Daddy yelled at me in a mean voice.”

As she consoles our daughter, Brooke looks at me sternly. Her eyes are red, veiny; she’s already had her late afternoon/early evening toke.

You have to keep on your toes when reading Triburbia as a character can be central in one chapter and then is mentioned in a minor aside a few chapters down the line. While the characters in Triburbia are not as eccentric as those in Daniel Kehlman’s Fame, nonetheless, the format and the humour connects the two books. Of course with books with multiple narrators, it’s inevitable that you end up with favourites, and the author doesn’t aim to get us to like these people who are all frauds on some level or another–in fact by the time the book, you’ll probably dislike most of them. My two favourite characters are Rankin, the predatory gangster, and the utterly delinquent, morally reprehensible playwright, Levi-Levy.

Here’s Rankin on his wife, Sydney:

Rankin had been pleasantly surprised that Sydney, a stripper-turned-mother-and-wife, was mothering and wifing like the outer-borough Jewess she was supposed to be, albeit one with artificially enhanced cleavage. Baked brisket and roast chicken and her sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage and she never failed to collect the kids at 2:50 p.m. and deposit them as required at Little League or Hebrew school or soccer practice. He originally thought he had been marrying down but actually he had married up. The woman was a warrior mother, as efficient at cajoling broccoli into Jeremy’s gullet as she had been wheedling bills out of the wallets of her lap-dance clients.

Rankin and Sydney’s Waterloo occurs when their 8-year-old daughter falls foul of the class princess, Mark and Brooke’s snotty daughter, Cooper. Rankin contemplates, for just one second, hiring a nine-year old to beat up his daughter’s arch-enemy, but then Sydney opts for the more reasoned route.

Playwright Levi-Levy warrants a whole novel to himself.

“So erratic was Levi_Levy’s parenting, fidelity, and wakefulness that his abandoning his loft following an argument with his pretty (if always exhausted-looking) wife, Charmaine, elicited neither comment nor even notice in the neighbourhood.”

Levi-Levy is thrown out of his home for two unforgivable events: 1) a credit card bill for a month’s out-of-control spending which exceeds $10,000 along with the fact he had an “urgent errand” and told his ten-year old son to drive the family SUV “to go pick up Mommy.” Levy-Levi is, according to his wife, an “unrepentant recidivist.

Charmaine guesses that her errant husband is having yet another affair and decides to strike back:

Instead of anger or betrayal of frustration or jealousy she felt that perhaps it was for the best. She had noticed among her circle, among the fellow parents, an enhanced friskiness in the air; an upsurge in mufky-fufky that was leading to some divorces, separations, and broken homes. She wondered, how many other affairs simply were being quietly buried? Why shouldn’t these husbands and wives have a fling now, during this last stage where they might pass as sexually attractive, or at least before the sight of their own naked bodies repulsed even themselves They were going soft, losing hair on their heads, and sprouting new hair everywhere else. They worried that a missed period meant the beginning of menopause rather than an unwanted pregnancy. They lived in fear of the moment arriving when they could see, however distant, but certainly there, the end. before we are all horribly gone to seed, why shouldn’t we fuck our brains out one last time, Charmaine concluded.

Triburia is being compared to the novels of Tom Perrotta, and I think it’s a fair comparison. Perrotta has a knack for showing the pathology that lies beneath American suburban domestic life, and that same theme of the pathology of so-called respectability is here too. The real estate boom-and-bust is in the background with our mostly wealthy characters grumbling about decreased rent and property values along with the sense that it’s time to move on to greener pastures. Greenfeld has authored a number of non-fiction books (haven’t read any of ’em) and also published some short stories.

Review copy

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

“Here’s what I’m trying to tell you: this case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example of how to get everything right. By every rule in the book, this should have been the dream case.”

Those two opening lines from Irish author, Tana French’s fourth novel, Broken Harbor tell us a lot about Dublin Murder squad detective, 42-year-old Mick Kennedy: 1) he cares deeply about his job 2) he’s an engaging narrator, and 3) this is a man who places a great deal of importance on the rules. If you stop and think about it, murder is an instance in which rules are broken; I’m not just talking about laws because that’s obvious. But murder also breaks the rules of what we expect: parents kill their children, children kill their parents; spouses vow to love and cherish ’till death do us part,’ until murder suddenly and inexplicably becomes an alternative to divorce. Even neighbours sometimes engage in feuds that end in death. We’re all supposed to grow to a ripe old age, yet murder violates these expectations and breaks the so-called rules of these trusted relationships. As regular readers of this blog know, I read a lot of crime novels, but Broken Harbor is ahead of the pack for lots of reasons but more of that later.

The novel begins with Detective Kennedy and his rookie partner, Ritchie Curran on a new case. Kennedy, whose nickname is Scorcher, appeared in Tana French’s earlier novel Faithful Place and he’s back here as the narrator. Scorcher had the “highest solve rate” in the department but his success took a beating after a case went wrong, and now down to “second” he’s been given a chance to redeem himself by his boss, who hands him the case.

The second it hit the floor, I knew from the sound that it was a big one. All of us did. Your basic murder comes straight to the squad room and goes to whoever’s next on the rota, or, if he’s out, whoever happens to be around; only the big ones, the sensitive ones that need the right pair of hands, go through the Super so he can pick his man. So when Superintendant O’Kelly stuck his head around the door of the squad room, pointed at me, snapped, “Kennedy, my office,” and vanished, we knew.

The case is a triple homicide: dad, Pat Spain and his two children, Emma and Jack are dead, and Pat’s wife, blonde beautiful, Jenny Spain lies in hospital in a coma hovering between life and death. Right from the outset, the big money is on Pat as the suspect:

When it plays out like this, it’s usually the father: a woman just takes out the kids and herself, a man goes for the whole family.

The Spains lived in a large new home in Broken Harbor, a coastal town–now renamed Brianstown in a housing estate called Ocean View:

At first glance, Ocean View looked pretty tasty: big detached houses that gave you something substantial for your money, trim strips of green, quaint signposts pointing you towards LITTLE GEMS CHILDCARE and DIAMONDCUT LEISURE CENTRE. Second glance, the grass needed weeding and there were gaps in the footpaths. Third glance something was wrong.

That “something wrong” is a housing estate that started to be built during the economic boom but fell flat shortly after the economy tanked. Only a few houses on the estate are occupied. Other cheaply made houses were in various stages of being completed before the builders abandoned the project. There are “random collections of walls and scaffolding,” many houses lack windows or interior finishing,  some rooms are “littered” with remnants of building materials. It’s as if an alarm sounded and everyone walked off the job leaving the desolate housing estate semi-completed. A few families live on the estate, but squatters have moved in. The Spains lived in one of the occupied houses, and the feeling that there’s something radically wrong with Broken Harbor increases when the detectives enter the Spains’ home.

Scorcher is an engaging narrator who through training Curran also trains us about police procedure. Rule number one, according to Scorcher, (back to those rules again), “no emotions on scene.” Curran argues that his impoverished background and working in Motor vehicles has prepared him for “pretty bad stuff.”

All of them think that. I’m sure I thought it too, once upon a time. “No, old son. You didn’t. That tells me how innocent you are. It’s no fun seeing a kid with his kid split open because some moron took a bend too fast, but it’s nothing compared to seeing a kid with his head split open because some prick deliberately smacked him off a wall till he stopped breathing. So far, you’ve only seen what bad luck can do to people. You’re about to take your first good look at what people can do to each other. Believe me: not the same thing.”

And here’s Rule Number Two:

When someone’s behaviour is odd, that’s a little present just for you, and you don’t let go of it till you’ve got it unwrapped.

I’ve exchanged comments with Max at Pechorin’s journal regarding the creation of literary detectives. It’s ok to have a barely functioning low-rent PI who’s boozed up to his eyeballs, but once you have an alcoholic murder detective who’s on the skids, as a reader, I get fed up with this type of character appearing repeatedly. Scorcher is different. He’s a bloodhound on the scent of the killer, and once he has his teeth in a case, he doesn’t let go, and if that means working 20 hour days, then that’s what it takes. Part of the novel’s power can be found in the way the story is told. Scorcher and Curran arrive at the fresh and relatively undisturbed crime scene and we effectively arrive with them. Author Tana French creates a visceral shock and an intensity as we accompany the detectives through every room in the house.

When you get a chance to see a scene that way, you take it. What waits for you there is the crime itself, every screaming second of it, trapped and held for you in amber. It doesn’t matter if someone’s cleaned up, hidden evidence, tried to fake a suicide: the amber holds all that too. Once the processing starts, that’s gone for good; all that’s left is your own people swarming over the scene, busily dismantling it print by print and fiber by fiber. This chance felt like a gift, on this case where I needed it the most; like a good omen. I set my phone on silent. Plenty of people were going to want to get hold of me over the next while. All of them could wait til I had walked over my scene.

As you can tell from that passage, Scorcher is possessive about his crime. It’s his to solve–no one is going to take it away or screw it up for him, and this brings me to another story thread involving Scorcher’s past. Broken Harbor has a lot of bad memories for Scorcher, and these memories are impossible to bury as the investigation continues. By creating this thread, French draws some nice parallels between Scorcher’s past and the crime, and the case inevitably causes Scorcher to question his carefully constructed belief system. The story is also loaded with some sharply drawn secondary characters:  Office slouch, Quigley who’s viciously jealous of Scorcher’s success and can’t wait to stab him in the back if he gets the chance, Cooper the pathologist who goads Scorcher every chance he gets, Jenny Spain’s sister, Fiona who makes Scorcher uneasy for some reason he can’t fathom, and then there are the Spains’ low-life neighbours, the resentful Gogans who thought the Spains were snobs. Even Broken Harbour seems to become a character–a relic of smashed dreams of suburban success and rising affluence, and a place where violent events seem to be the natural results of a world in which everything went wrong.

While this is a who-done-it police procedural, there is also, rather interestingly, equal weight given to the ‘whys’ of the crime, and perhaps this is yet another reason that makes Broken Harbor stand out from the pack. Bottom line, for this reader, it’s Scorcher’s intelligence and single-minded drive that makes the book a riveting read, and here with one final quote is Scorcher’s “dirty secret” about murder:

I know this isn’t what we get taught on the detective course, but out here in the real world, my man, you would be amazed at how seldom murder has to break into people live’s. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it gets there because they open the door and invite it in.

Review copy from the publisher

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The Darlings by Cristina Alger

An alternate title for Cristina Alger’s novel, The Darlings could be How the Other Half Lives, but of course, we’d scale down the word ‘half’ to the term ‘top 1%.’ Yes, this novel is a look at how the top 1% of America’s elite class live and the lives they ruin in order to bank the big bucks in their fraudulent Wall Street shenanigans. The Darlings could only have been written post-boom, post-Madoff debacle, and so that gives you more than a hint as to the book’s content. First time author Cristina Alger worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and she is also an attorney. All that behind-the-scenes experience pays off when it comes to setting the backdrop to the story of the Darlings, one of New York’s most prestigious families. 

The novel begins the night before Thanksgiving with an event that opens up the possibility of an investigation into the business practices of Carter Darling, the CEO of the Delphic hedge fund, and in a while-Rome-burns fashion in New York high society, his wife, chairperson and press-hungry philanthropist Ines Darling is busy hosting the fantastically ostentatious New Yorkers for Animals Gala at the Waldorf Astoria. Also attending the event is attorney Paul who is married to the eldest Darling daughter, Merrill. Paul reluctantly started working for his father-in-law when the law firm he worked for folded (another story of financial misdoings there). There’s a strange atmosphere at the Gala event–almost a determined defiance of the economic realities:

The mood was slightly more somber than it had been the previous year, but not by much. The women had turned out in couture. Maybe it was last season, but Paul couldn’t tell the difference. Necks still dripped with jewelry, the kind that spent the rest of the year locked away in a safe. Town cars and chauffeured Escalades idled their engines out front. Of course, it was all an illusion. It had to be. This was a finance-heavy crowd in a finance-heavy town. There wasn’t a single person in this room–not a one–who could claim they weren’t worried. They all were, but they were dancing and drinking the night away as they always had. They had to know the end was coming; it was probably already here. It was like the final peaceful moments at the Alamo.

Some of the bigger financial players are noticeably absent thanks to the recent Wall Street debacle and subsequent bankruptcies. When the company Paul worked for folded, he was reluctant to take the job with his father-in-law but saw little alternative. Cutting back on expenses or alternately taking money from Merrill’s trust fund seemed out of the question, so that left employment with Delphic. The Darlings’ other son-in-law, Adrian, married to youngest daughter, Lily also works for Delphic–although his role seems to be professional client smoocher more than anything else. When gross financial thievery at Delphic becomes apparent, Paul must choose between his loyalty to the Darling family or his own skin….

The novel’s plot concerns Paul’s choice, but he’s not the only character here who has to make some extremely difficult decisions. Various characters are introduced into the novel, and before the plot is well advanced, the author lines up her main players like chess pieces. There are 2 SEC employees hot on the trail of the Delphic Fund, and then there’s Carter Darling’s friend and lawyer, Sol who’s ready to conduct damage control and throw a scapegoat or two to the bloodhounds at the SEC. In many ways, the novel unfolds rather like a mystery, and this really is a page turner. The novel’s greatest strength (apart from its pacing) can be found in its lifestyle descriptions. Here’s the Darling family at Thanksgiving spent in their swanky East Hampton home:

The house was, as ever, eerily perfect. The outside had white trimmed gambrels and a porch that caught the breeze just so. The footpaths were constructed out of brick, eaten away at the corners, the colors as varied as the back of a tabby cat and faded by the sun. Inside, the house had all the trappings of a family estate. Ines favored old silver for meals, the kind that was supposed to be passed down, never purchased, and was slightly worn around the handles. A painting of Carter’s grandfather hung on the library wall; across from it was a framed car company’s stock certificate that supposedly bore his signature. Everything that could be personalized or monogrammed or customized was: the crisp white sheets, the soft blue towels, the L.L. Bean canvas bags that were lugged everywhere, from the beach to the golf course to the farmer’s market. Yet there was something manufactured about it, as though Ines had opened the pages of Architectural Digest and said, “Give me this.” 

The author fleshes out her characters with details of their personal lives. Lily Darling, for example, who hasn’t truly worked a day in her life, now has a line of pricey designer dog accessories–her “first and only attempt at gainful employment” funded, naturally, by daddy. Meanwhile Adrian, feeling the pressure to economize, “fired their maid, Marta, as part of an overzealous campaign  to reduce household expenses. Marta had actually seemed grateful for the release.” And by the time we arrive at that section of the novel, we can understand Marta’s relief at her termination. This brings me to my one complaint about the novel.  Unfortunately, the plot also explores the ‘human side’ of all of its characters, so just one example, Ines who is built up as a prize bitch who has taken materialism to the level of fanatical religion has a moment of collapse and humanity. There’s nothing wrong with having a few selfish, greedy villains in a story such as this. Anyone can make mistakes, but that’s not what we’re talking about here, and to explore the vulnerability of some of the nastier characters undermined the book’s message. Still that complaint aside The Darlings is a page turner. Given the subject matter, this could be a dry tale, but instead, Alger gives us a gripping plot with Paul in the centre of a maelstrom of divided loyalties. 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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Spring by David Szalay

Think of the thousands of people you meet over the course of a lifetime. Then deduct the ones you can’t stand. Of those left, how many can you actually maintain a relationship with for, let’s say, an hour, a month, six months, a year? If you start looking at relationships in terms of reduction, it seems amazing that people ever live together let along manage sustained relationships that last decades. Then I begin to wonder if relationships are simpler when you’re younger. After all relationships in middle age tend to bring a lot of baggage to the table, and this is just one of the problems in David Szalay’s relationship novel Spring.

From the description of the book, it was difficult to gauge whether this tale, ostensibly about a relationship between a couple of Londoners, would be something I’d enjoy, and a surface glimpse of the description could lead to the conclusion that this is a ‘light’ romantic read. Instead Spring is a clever look at the difficulties in a burgeoning relationship between the main characters James and Katherine. It’s 2006, post-boom, and that in itself is a grabber for me.  James is on the downside on the economy and leading a severely diminished life: “For quite a few years the space in which he lives has been shrinking.”  But now he’s in the process of trying to edge his way back up, and middle-class life is beginning to look like an attractive prospect. James has a “checkered past” which includes being a film producer (0nce), a pizza shop owner, and the owner of a dodgy internet site which offered racing tips. At the top of his game, he owned an internet start-up worth millions, lived with a trophy girlfriend, and was the owner of a posh house on Victoria Road that “was never properly finished.”  

And then nothing, and the liquidators seized the house on Victoria Road while the Milanese artisans were still tiling the single-lane swimming pool…

 He stirs the razor in the scummy water. The next spring–après le deluge–found him washed up in Fulham. Then there were other places, each smaller than the last, and finally Mecklenburgh Street. The ex-local-authority flat is in an unfaced terrace of London brick. The front doors of the houses are painted black-dust-bleared fanlights, massed doorbells. The basement flats have their own entrances. Metal steps, textured like a fire escape, tack down via a square landing. The area is littered with dead brown leaves. The bedroom curtains are permanently closed.

He pulls the plug and the shaving-water noisily sinks away. No more magnificence. Now he just wants things to be okay. He wants somewhere okay to live. An okay job. One or two holidays a year. Perhaps a few modest luxuries. A middle class life in other words. And a woman. Of course a woman.

The woman James hopes to make a permanent fixture in his life is Katherine–a woman he met at a wedding. She works as a manager of a luxury hotel, but her life is complicated by the fact that she’s still married and separated from her photographer husband. This makes Katherine a woman in transition. Are people in transition more vulnerable? When the novel opens, James and Katherine have been seeing each other for a couple of months, and James is no nearer to gauging Katherine’s true feelings for him. A recent getaway to Marrakech didn’t seem to stir the romance James expected, and instead for part of the trip Katherine seemed oddly detached.

The novel goes back in time to their first sexual encounters–no overly detailed passages here, but the author does not spare his characters any humiliation in their initial awkward sex. There’s no real question of love between these two, or even of passion. It’s more about how two people got to this point in their lives, and how they deal with loneliness while trying to recoup their lives from disaster.

The author’s focus on the delicate and often desperate politics of James and Katherine’s relationship has both its funny and poignant moments, but one of the primary difficulties James faces is trying to understand just where he stands with Katherine. While neither character is particularly likeable, they are not unsympathetic. Author Szalay doesn’t put all of his character cards on the table immediately, so we discover things about James, for example, at the same moment as Katherine. While James has an edge of shadiness (just what is going on with his part ownership in a racehorse, for example?) Katherine is a cipher. She can’t seem to make up her mind about what she wants–sex or  no sex, time alone or time together. For his part, James isn’t able to read Katherine well. Should he push her? Is she too passive? Does she just need time or is this an excuse?

I just need some time on my own, she said. I need a weekend on my own. I need to get my head together. I haven’t stopped moving since we got back from Marrakech. I haven’t had any time to myself. I still haven’t finished unpacking  … I’m sorry.

Then she said, Thanks for understanding. Thanks for making it easy for me.

Later he wondered whether he had made it too easy for her. What should he have done though? Made a scene? Tried to force her to see him? Even if he had wanted to do that, he just didn’t seem to feel enough at the moments when it might have been a possibility. He only felt a kind of numbness, and the infantile frustration of not getting what he wanted.

The two main characters engage in a somewhat tepid relationship that ostensibly is supposed to allow them to get to know each other better, and while James and Katherine eat together and sleep together, they seem to be worlds apart. Spring explores the painful difficulties that encompass that well-worn phrase ‘getting to know’ someone, and Szalay reveals what a hopelessly bogus statement that is even as James and Katherine negotiate their pasts, morality, personal space and parties attended by a few truly desperate souls.

Spring is not a perfect novel. At a couple of points the narrative shifts to a different point-of-view and this proves to be distracting and jarring–especially since the author has spent such effort on the intense relationship focus between the two main characters. That complaint aside, Szalay writes marvellously. Here’s Freddie, long-term acquaintance of James:

On Monday they meet in Earls Court–one of those streets of trucks stampeding past exhaust-fouled terraces, of youth hostels, and veiled slummy houses full of subletting Australians, and other houses with tarnished nameplates in Arabic on the doors and the paint falling off in stiff pieces. There, under a two-star package-tour hotel, they meet. Freddie is piquey and jaundiced. In one of his down moods. His hair looks like it has slipped off his head–there is none on top, where the skin has the look of a low-quality waxwork, or the prosthetic scalp of a stage Fagin, but plenty further down, where it trails like the fringe of a filthy rug over his collar–the old collar, white-edged with age, of an otherwise blue Jermyn Street shirt stolen from his landlord.

One last point, the back cover states that Szalay was born in Canada and that he’s named as “one of the twenty best British novelists under forty.” Does Canada claim him too? How does that nation-claiming thing work?

Review copy courtesy of publisher.

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