Category Archives: Book Reports

Summer Reading List

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For about a year now I have been in a bookclub that I absolutely love!  It consists of about 5 girls (women?? are we there yet??? 🙂 ) who meet once a month on a Saturday morning at a local coffee shop, IHOP, or even each other’s kitchens to discuss the month’s read.  It’s laid-back, fun, and totally indulges my bookworm self.  And I love it b/c everyone actually reads the book (most of the time) and we get some great discussions going on.  Reminds me of my college English days, except we get to pick what we want to read instead of having to succumb to the professor’s obsession with Charles Dickens.  (Bleak House……ugh! that was a bleak semester!)  And I also love how we rotate whose turn it is to pick the book, b/c it gives me the chance to branch out and read choices I’ve never heard of or ones I would have never picked for myself.  And we’ve decided to have a contest to see who picks the best book for the year and we’ll all chip in and buy her breakfast at the last meeting.  Currently, my friend Amy is getting my vote for one of her picks, but I’m determined to beat her out and get me some free buttermilk pancakes! 🙂

So if you know me at all, you know I get a little obsessive about things I passionately love (or don’t love) and I always want to share them with everyone.  “Here – read this book!…..You’ve GOT to see this movie!….. Have you tried this recipe yet???”   You get the idea!  Well here is a list of books that I’ve read over the past few months.  Some are bookclub picks, others are just my own thing. Let me know if you’ve read any and what you think!  Or if you decide to read one and then later, what your opinion is.  I love discussing books- whether I like them or not!

  • One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp –   There are only a handful of books that have truly altered the way I think and view the world (gosh i love that! the power of the written word!), and this is on that list!  This is the one I’m picking so far as the best book.  It’s written from a Christian perspective and it’s all about finding the beauty and the grace in the every day.  In the mundane.  Even in the tragedy.  And it’s so real and eye-opening and BEAUTIFULLY written!  Seriously- every page is like poetry and Voskamp has such a way of creating these visual word pictures that penetrate the essence of each thought. Just amazing.  I want to actually re-read it soon and maybe post some of my favorite quotes……she’s got some powerful stuff.
  • Moon Women by Pamela Duncan –  About a family of North Carolina women and the bonds they have through the generations.  Sort of like a Steel Magnolias type of book for mountain folks.  Duncan does an excellent job on the Southern dialect…..I could hear my grandmom’s voice throughout the pages.  Also I think she accurately conveys the close-knit, complicated, and emotional bond among women in a family.  Good read.  Also, it was fun hearing all the Asheville references. : )
  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – This was a re-read for me.  Saw the Gwenyth Paltrow movie, Sylvia, over the summer and it perked my interest in Plath again.  Read her years ago, but knowing more of her biography got me going.  I’ve since read all her poems and was pretty much obsessed with all things Plath during the month of July.  Bell Jar is in my top 10 for books.  The odd way she views the world, the cool and logical way she describes her mental breakdown, the poetry in her writing…..it’s all so good.  I just LOVE Plath! Which I realize makes me the cliche English major. But I’m ok w/that. 🙂  And her death is so sad- all that talent and potential.  Also, when you think about the time period she was writing in, the 1950’s, it’s pretty incredible how much she put herself out there- her ambitions, her desires, her mental illness.  In a day where every little thought we have is displayed for all the world to see, we take all that frankness for granted, but for her time period, it was pretty brave and revolutionary of her.
  • Wish Club by Kim Strickland –  Ugh! This book just sucks! And guess which brainiac used it for her bookclub pick??? Yep.  That’s be me.  We had just read a heavy one and so I tried to pick something that looked light-hearted and fun.  And Amazon gave it tons of good reviews.  But it was cheesy.  And cliche.  And just plain silly.  About a bookclub of women who decide to start chanting and using witchcraft to get their dreams to come true.  Just awful writing on so many levels.  Don’t read!
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett – We jumped on the bandwagon and read this book and I’m SOOOOO glad we did!  Such a great story – about the complex relationships b/w maids and their women employers during the Civil Rights Movement in Jackson, Mississippi. And the characters are the best!  The are so well-rounded and Stockett describes them so clearly, giving each one her own distinct voice, that you actually miss them (well some of them) when the book is over.  And though it’s fiction, it’s definitely grounded in real-life history.  It was neat b/c the book opens in the early 60’s – the time my mom was born – so I got a glimpse into more of what her life and my grandmother’s life was like during that time.  And it’s neat to think that just a mere 50 years ago, one generation removed, blacks and whites were still segregated.  I was reading this when I had to take my grandmom to the doctor one day and I thought it was interesting b/c  a black nurse was the one who drew my grandmom’s blood that day.  Just to think that 50 years ago that would never have been allowed and now it’s just common life.  I know racial tensions still exist, and always will in some way, but we also have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.  Anyways.  Good book.  Everyone else agrees- it’s been a top seller forever.  Also, the movie was good too!
  • Unwind by Neal Shusterman – Futuristic, sci-fi book about a world where parents can “unwind” their children when they become teenagers if their kids are behaving badly or cost too much money or whatever the problem is.  Unwinding involves dismembering them and donating their body parts to those who need them.  Yeah, it’s an icky concept.  But the “unwind” solution came after years of fighting over abortion, so there’s a bit of reality/truth in the book.  This book probably caused the most discussion in our club.  It’s also probably one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read.  Though it’s written well, fast-paced, and full of interesting characters, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to the tender-hearted :).  Also, I read it right after finishing the Hunger Game series (awesome!) and it was just too many kids-getting-killed-and-killing-each-other books for me to handle.  Finally, there is a scene in the book where one of the characters actually gets “unwound” and wow!.  That chapter still haunts me.  Let’s just say this is a book I hope never does get turned into a movie!
  • Mad Church Disease by Ann Jackson – Over the summer I’ve been working a small part-time job at my church in the children’s ministry.  I ran across this book about the burnout effect of people working in a church, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.  Very interesting to kind of go behind the scenes and see the church stuff from a different perspective.  Didn’t really take much from it personally, but I think if you have a tendency to overwork yourself in your job, especially if you work at a church, with all the emotions and expectations it brings, then this would be a helpful book.
  • Death by Suburb by David L. Goetz – LOVED this book!  Written for Christians who find themselves caught up in suburbia life, but want to live for Christ in the fullest.  Goetz is great at getting to the heart of the matter without being preachy or condescending, and he does it all with a heavy dose of humor.  He encourages Christians to not worry about the cookie-cutter, American-dream life, but to live fully with God and for God right where you are.  Even if it’s not in the middle of some 3rd world country being a full time missionary- we can, and should, still live out the life of love and service wherever we are.  Even if it’s in a beige neighborhood house with a white picket fence (next to 50 other beige homes with white picket fences). 🙂
  • The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis – Just finished this last night.  Oh Aslan……how I love thee!!! 🙂  Fell in love with reading (and Jesus) through the Chronicles of Narnia way back in 4th grade.  So these books will always hold a special place in my heart.  This is the last of the series; it’s about how Narnia ends and the “real” Narnia begins.  Lately thoughts of heaven and death and eternity have been hammering my head and heart, so I thought I’d read this again.   I don’t know how Lewis manages to take something so incomprehensible, like eternity, and make it feel somewhat understandable and even create a visual for it all.  But he does.  I guess that’s what makes him so genius.  But anyways.  This book is great.  And it just makes me want to go home even more than I already want to.
Well that’s it for my book recommendations. Share your opinion on any you’ve read! And please let me know if you have any good ones you think I’d like.  It’s my turn to pick next for bookclub and I want it to be really, really good! I have to redeem myself after my last pick! (and let’s not forget the pancakes!) 🙂

Scariest movie i’ve ever seen…

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Oh my goodness!

Tonight I logged onto Netflix to get my documentary fix.  I know that sounds crazy pretentious, but I honestly do love watching them.  I’m a nerd, I know!  Well what I thought was just an interesting little movie about the application process for preschoolers in New York, ended up being a horror flick! Seriously!

– $20, 000 a semester for tuition! (you read that right…..5 zeros! and that’s only for half the year!)

– a $4,000 consulting class that walks you through the application process.  (because really, did you think you were capable of filling out a preschool application on your own???)

–  droves of teachers staring down little 3 year olds during their “playtime” and taking notes on how well they shaped the play dough and how many boogers they ate in five minutes  (well, the booger thing might not have happened, but the way they were observing and analyzing these kiddos it might as well have!)

– a family that completely uproots and moves their family just b/c they can’t get into the preschool they want

Wow! This movie is just flat out crazy!  And I feel so sorry for the little kids- the expectations that are already being placed on their shoulders at such an early age. And then the money…..ahhhhh!!! All the money that is being thrown to a school that does little more than finger painting, learning ABCs, and singing class.  Could be put to such a better use……oh well!

Anyways- if you like to watch documentaries or are interested in social/education stuff revolving around kids, then definitely check this one out- called “Nursery University”, and it’s one of the instant watches on Netflix.  If you end up watching it, let me know what you think!

>Paring Knife

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The except I’m posting is one of the chapters in Girl Meets God, written by Lauren Winner. It is such a beautiful book. I was sad when it was over. About this brilliant young girl from Asheville, NC (woot! woot!) who grew up and became an Orthodox Jew. After years of following that religion, she felt Jesus calling her heart to follow him (i love that). This book is about that journey. It reminds me a lot of Blue Like Jazz in that it doesn’t have a direct storyline, more like a wandering set of vignettes that together make a whole story. Her writing is both funny and touching and always real. Reading it also reminded me of my friend Emily’s writing, which in an odd way made me feel closer to her than the thousand or so miles between us allows. Anyways. Read it if you get a chance. Even if you don’t, how powerful is this chapter?? I’ve read it a few times now and take something new away each time.
Paring Knife
I find it hard to describe God in terms that are other than abstract, even a God who took on hands and toes and feet. It is still hard to describe Him with words I can hold in my hand or carry around in my pocket. Most of the God-words I reach for fly away before they land, like ineffable and powerful and good. The best words I have found so far are those words that God Himself spoke, ostensibly speaking not about God, but His beloved; when God speaks about His people, He is usually telling us less about us and more about Him. In morning prayer, this first Friday of Pentecost, we read a verse from Luke 12: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” It is one of the best verses in the Bible, and one of the hardest things about God. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. The passive voice is deceptive. It appears to obscure who’s doing the action, who’s doing the giving and who’s doing the requiring. But it doesn’t take too long in God’s company to realize that it is He who does both.

Sometimes it is hard to explain what is being required. One week, I came to church late, over an hour late, after the Gospel reading, smack in the middle of the prayers for the people. I slipped into the back and started crying. I thought I was managing quiet, dignified tears, but I must have telegraphed my misery across the room, for a short black woman with a broad smile and a blue dress came up and hugged me and told me tears were the work of the Holy Spirit. You might have thought something terrible had happened – that I had just learned my mother had Alzheimer’s, that I had suffered through a terrible weekend, that my house had burned down or I had just lost my dearest friend to a car crash; none of those things had happened, but you would have suspected them all given how hard I cried in that Holy Spirit woman’s arms.

I cried, I think, because I was coming to understand in a new way just how much was required of me, how much God was going to strip away all my everything, like silver polish taking the tarnish off old forks. I cried because I know more and more how Chekov was right, how we are all running around desperate to make connections with one another, but mostly we are all just estranged. Because I know more and more that this glass here is so very dark, that this really is a long loneliness, that is both lonely and long.

Sometimes I feel God has taken a paring knife to me. I now know the way an apple feels.

>A look in the mirror

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>One of the absolute best gifts God has given me in moving me away from friends and family is the abundance of more time. Not that I don’t miss all my loved ones- I do! – but I’ve had more opportunities to devote to myself to things I would otherwise miss out on if I were constantly meeting up with friends and going to family dinners and things like that. God has put me in a situation where I have been forced to just stop. Listen. Breathe. Think. Pray. Search. Cry. Question. Wonder.

Those sound like simple thing to do, but in this crazy, busy life, for me at least, it’s easy to put those things off and stay so consumed with activities and appointments, that I get distracted from my inner self, from tending to my spirit. My friend Michelle and I were just having this conversation a week or so ago. Just discussing how most people feel that essentially we are all spiritual beings- it is our core. It is more who we are than any other aspect of ourselves- our bodies, our minds, even our emotions. Yet, for it to be the essence of who we are, it is the part that is most easily neglected and put off to be dealt with at some other time. And for a million different reasons.

So for God to put me in an place where a lot of my distractions are taken away, it truly has been a gift. Of course, I don’t always view it as a gift- sometimes I get sad and lonely and miss the comforts of home and the familiarity of grabbing coffee with an old friend or making a family dinner with Mom and Grandmom. But God has not left me to dwell in sadness or loneliness. He never does. Instead, He has drawn me closer to Him. I have been removed from all that feels “normal” and I’ve had to face my spirit and rely on Him. And there are not words to describe how thankful I am for that.

Over these last few months I have just had this unquenchable thirst for God….for knowing Him more and more and more. And it’s kind of a never ending cycle. The more I learn of Him, the more I realize I truly don’t know or grasp His love, and in turn it makes me want to learn and understand more, and so the cycle continues. It’s one I don’t mind getting caught up in 🙂

One way that God has been drawing me closer to Him is through reading. I know, I know….typical English teacher answer. But it’s true. I seriously cannot get enough of Christian/spiritual texts. I finish one and immediately feel lost until I get my hands on another. It’s kind of a sickness at this point….ha ha! Hi! I’m Renee and I’m an over-reader. J/k! Some books have been AMAZING……..Blue Like Jazz……Girl Meets God…….What Bothers Me Most About Christianity…….(please read ALL of them if you get a chance!!!), and others have just been ok. But none have affected me like the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan.

Honestly, nothing I have ever read has made me feel more convicted or made me question my lifestyle and my intentions more than this book. It’s written for Christians – specifically the American church – and it’s very blunt, to the point, challenging, full of love, and sometimes hard to swallow.

Francis Chan is this really passionate Chinese surfer-dude preacher out in California. Unique combination, huh? Basically in the book he dethrones the popular idea of the “American Dream”- the one where people set personal goals for themselves and spend their entire lives accumulating wealth and material possessions and savings all in an effort to be “successful” and financially “safe and secure” in this world. He doesn’t think those things are negative in and of themselves, but that as Christians, it is not what we are ultimately called to do.

Instead of setting our eyes on this world, all of our intentions and actions should be directed towards our heavenly home. (Btw- I LOVE that this world is not my home!!! I LOVE that I am called to dwell somewhere else……how my heart longs for my true home!!!!….) Chan believes that by storing up financial wealth we are really hurting ourselves: for one, as Christians we are called to give and to serve those in need, not to build up our own bank accounts, and two, when we are totally financially secure and every safety precaution in our lives has been taken, we don’t really trust and rely on God in the way that He wants us to. Instead we just rely on our own means to secure the future. And Chan doesn’t just mean we should give of ourselves financially; he discusses how our time is just as valuable when it comes to serving others in various missions and volunteer work and in our everyday relationships.

I’m sure some of what I just summarized doesn’t make much sense, and of course I can’t explain it as clearly as the book does (which is why you should read it!) -but I promise you- the ideas are Biblically based and are truly inspiring. And Chan doesn’t just talk the talk. In his personal life, he and his family sold their house so they could downsize and have a smaller mortgage in order that they might give more to those in need. And the church where he works, Cornerstone Community, gives away 50% of their budget! God calls us to give 10%, but they give half! And just recently they started making plans for an addition to their church sanctuary. After much thought and prayer, they decided to build an outdoor amphitheater instead in order to save $20 million, thus being able give more of it away. He writes, “I’m sure there will be days when it’s uncomfortable outside, but there will also be joy in knowing that we’re sitting in the cold so that someone else can have a blanket.”

This book, more than any other I’ve read, has made me take a hard look at my faith and examine my heart and where I put my money and my time. And in most cases, after that look in the mirror, I’ve been left feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself……hurt for how little I’ve been giving and doing for the One I call my Savior. But that’s ok. Shame and sorrow are repentance are welcomed emotions to my God. He tells me to leave them at His feet, at the Cross, and He will change me. I cannot change myself…..inherently I’m pretty selfish…..but that’s why He came to this broken earth. Oh how I adore Him!!!

Well I will of course leave you with the challenge to go out and read the book if you haven’t already. It can change your life. And also, here is a link to the website for the book. It’s full of video segments with Chan that go along with the chapters. If you have 15 minutes, I would encourage you to just watch the introductory one right now. It’s titled “Just stop and think” under the video category. Pretty amazing. – http://www.crazylovebook.com/

And finally, because I’m a hi-liter queen who loves to hi-lite my favorite quotes in all the books I read, here are just some of my favorites from this book. My whole book is practically green now from my hi-liter, but these are the best of the best. I know it’s a lot, but they are all thought-provoking, beautiful, challenging, and worth the read! –

Crazy Love Quotes:

The core problem isn’t the fact that we’re lukewarm, halfhearted, or stagnant Christians. The crux of it all is why we are this way, and it is because we have an inaccurate view of God.

Isn’t it a comfort to worship a God we cannot exaggerate?

Not being able to fully understand God is frustrating, but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit God to something we are capable of comprehending. What a stunted, insignificant god that would be!

Worry implies that we don’t quite trust that God is big enough, powerful enough, or loving enough to take care of what’s happening in our lives. Stress says that the things we are involved in are important enough to merit our impatience, our lack of grace towards others, or our tight grip of control. Basically, these two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. Both worry and stress reek of arrogance. They declare our tendency to forget that we’ve been forgiven, that our lives here are brief, that we are headed to a place where we won’t be lonely, afraid, or hurt ever again, and that in the context of God’s strength, our problems are small, indeed.

If life were stable, I’d never need God’s help. Since it’s not, I reach out for Him regularly. I am thankful for the unknowns and that I don’t have control, because it makes me run to God.

A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing.

It’s easy to fill ourselves up with other things and then give God whatever is left. . . . God gets a scrap or two only because we feel guilty for giving Him nothing. A mumbled three-minute prayer at the end of the day, when we are already half asleep. Two crumpled-up dollar bills thrown as an afterthought into the church’s fund for the poor.

God’s definition of what matters is pretty straightforward. He measures our lives by how we love.

Most of our thoughts are centered on the money we want to make, the school we want to attend, the body we aspire to have, the spouse we want to marry, the kind of person we want to become …But the fact is that nothing should concern us more than our relationship with God; it’s about eternity, and nothing compares with that. God is not someone who can be tacked on to our lives.

True faith means holding nothing back; it bets everything on the hope of eternity.

The answer lies in letting Him change you. . . His counsel wasn’t to “try harder”, but rather to let Him in. As James wrote, “Come near to God and he will come near to you “ (4:8)

There is nothing better than giving up everything and stepping into a passionate love relationship with God, the God of the universe who made galaxies, leaves, laughter, and me and you.

As we begin to focus more on Christ, loving Him and others becomes more natural. As long as we are pursuing Him, we are satisfied in Him. It is when we stop actively loving Him that we find ourselves restless and gravitating toward other means of fulfillment.

Having faith often means doing what others see as crazy. Something is wrong when our lives make sense to unbelievers.

Christians today like to play it safe . . . But if we truly desire to please God, we cannot live that way. We have to do things that cost us during our life on earth but will be more than worth it in eternity.

Jesus is saying that we show tangible love for God in how we care for the poor and those who are suffering. He expects us to treat the poor and the desperate as if they were Christ Himself.

How would my life change if I actually thought of each person I came into contact with as Christ- the person driving painfully slow in front of me, the checker at the grocery store who seems more interested in chatting than ringing up my items, the member of my own family with whom I can’t seem to have a conversation and not get annoyed?

The good things we cling to are more than money; we hoard our resources, our gifts, our time, our families, our friends. As we begin to practice regular giving, we see how ludicrous it is to hold on to the abundance God has given us and merely repeat the words “thank you”.

The concept of downsizing so that others might upgrade is biblical, beautiful, and nearly unheard of. We either close the gap or don’t take the words of the Bible literally.

There has to be more to our faith than friendliness, politeness, and even kindness. . . True love makes you stand out.

(in response to the cynics who said he was crazy for selling his house and downsizing) – If one person invests his resources in the poor – which, according to Matthew 25 – is giving to Jesus Himself – and the other extravagantly remodels a temporary dwelling that will not last beyond is few years left on this earth, who is the crazy one?

Most of us use, “I’m waiting for God to reveal His calling on my life” as a means of avoiding action. Did you hear God calling you to sit in front of the TV yesterday? Or to go on your last vacation? Or exercise this morning? Probably not, but you still did it. The point isn’t that vacations or exercise or wrong, but that we are quick to rationalize our entertainment and priorities yet are slow to commit to serving God.

It is not that this lifestyle should be crazy to us. It should be the only thing that makes sense. Giving up everything and sacrificing everything we can for the afterlife is logical. “Crazy” is living a safe life and storing up things while trying to enjoy our time on earth, knowing that any millisecond God could take your life. To me that is crazy, and that is radical. The crazy ones are the ones who live life like there is no God. To me that is insanity.

Fredrick Buechner: “The love for equals is a human thing – of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing – to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by saints. And then there is the love for the enemy – love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.

>The Shack

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>Last week was spring break and we went out to Colorado to visit the family and get in some snowboarding. I have to admit that out of all the stuff we did out there, the one thing I will forever remember and savor about the trip was picking up and reading the book, The Shack. It is absolutely, without a doubt, with zero competition, my most very favoritest book of all time. (And yes I made up the word “favoritest” because this book deserves such a superlative, so there!)

It’s kind of a big deal for me because I have never actually had a favorite book. Sure there are lots I love and hold dear to my heart, but never a favorite! Reading this book felt like going home. This sounds silly and I don’t even know if it makes any sense, but I feel like I’ve been waiting to read this book for 27 years. And now I have. And it all just feels so right.
So what’s the big deal about The Shack? I don’t know. I really don’t think I can do it any justice by describing it. Beauty…..grace……wonder………longing……peace……..love……….those are just a few of the feelings that are conjured up in my mind when I think of the story. But to sum it up in some sort of tangible terms, the book is about a middle-aged man whose youngest daughter is abducted and killed. Though he’s always been a “religious” person, he finds himself angry and distant with God after her death. After a few years he receives a letter from God (Papa) inviting him to meet him at the shack (where she was murdered) because God misses him and wants to talk. The man goes to meet God and the rest of the book is about their conversation……the anger, the questions, the unconditional love, the healing, the rage……..and so much more.
This book broke my heart over and over again. I swear, it was a miracle I didn’t dry out my tear ducts from reading it! But what I loved most was that it never left me in that place. It repeatedly broke my heart, but put it back together every time.
I said before that I hardly ever read books more than once, and generally that’s true. But there are a few exceptions- there are a few out there that have left my mind and heart altered after reading and those are the ones I go back to over and over again. The only other ones that have done this are The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Captivating, Letters from a Skeptic, and now The Shack. Steve is reading it right now and I can hardly wait for him to get done so I can get my grubby little paws back on it.
Obviously I encourage you to read it. I really want to know others’ opinion on it. So far I have yet to find anyone as enthused about it as I am. In fact, just the opposite. My father-in-law disliked it so much he put it down before finishing it. Even my trusted, to be counted on, bookworm friend Emily didn’t like it! (It’s ok- I still love you!). But I know there are lots out there who do love it like me and I can’t wait to find one to discuss it with me. Of course I’d love discussing it even if you didn’t like it!
So please- if you’re looking to read a good book (or at the very least an interesting, thought-provoking, maybe even controversial book), then consider The Shack. It truly is my favorite book ever. Took me 27 years to be able to say that about any book, but it was worth the wait! To me, it epitomizes the power of words, of writing, of storytelling. Reading it has changed and affected me in ways I wish I could convey on this silly, little blog. So please read it and let me know what you think – I would love to hear!