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Woman: An Intimate Geography

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National Book Award finalist
A New York Times notable book


"A tour de force, a womderful, entertaining and informative book." —Abraham Verghese, New York Times Book Review

After fifteen years in print, Woman remains an essential guide to everything from organs to orgasms and hormones to hysterectomies. With her characteristic clarity, insight, and sheer exuberance of language, bestselling author Natalie Angier cuts through the still prevalent myths and misinformation surrounding the female body, that most enigmatic of evolutionary masterpieces. Woman is a witty and assured narrative with a reliable grasp of science.

 

512 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Natalie Angier

19 books151 followers
Natalie Angier is a nonfiction writer and a science journalist for The New York Times.

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5 stars
1,889 (43%)
4 stars
1,473 (33%)
3 stars
721 (16%)
2 stars
193 (4%)
1 star
63 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 396 reviews
Profile Image for Emma.
13 reviews2 followers
September 29, 2012
This was a weird one. On the one hand, the actual information contained in the book was fascinating and important. I learned a lot about ovulation, for example, and menopause, and breasts, and enjoyed the learning immensely.

But the prose. I suspect lines like, "by Hecate!" and, "the Grand Canyon, the world's grandest vagina," are meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek, but I just found them off-putting. Some of this is I think par for the course with feminists of a certain age (the book is PACKED with mom-jokes, the kind of thing my mom puts in her Facebook status and makes me facepalm--'she yam what she yam' and so forth).

But I think underlying problem was that the prose assumes a certain conception of "woman" that I find restrictive. Even when talking about the wide variation in female bodies and minds, it makes broad, sweeping statements about the desires and personalities of both women and men. It assumes that women are straight and cisgendered, for example, when in fact many women are neither. Mind you, the CONTENT of the book is generally inclusive and demonstrates variety, but the prose, the little throw-away lines and jokes, really don't.

That concept of "woman" is also philosophical, and leads to incredibly tedious pages and pages about, for example, which sex came first, which one is our 'default' setting? (Who cares! Does biology care?) So much talk about mothers and daughters and grandmothers, like being female-bodied makes you part of this grand sisterhood.

I'm a woman and a feminist, and I'm proud of both. I just wish that I'd been able to access the information in this book without having to wade through such a wall of over-lofty ideas and prose.
Profile Image for Kevin.
463 reviews68 followers
February 1, 2020
This book needs illustrations! You can't scrutinize and analyze and critique the geography of the vagina (chapter 4) without providing visual aids to those of us who don't possess one or haven't sighted one in... well... a long time. You might as well be talking about the album cover of Sgt. Pepper - yes I vaguely remember the layout, no I don't recall exactly where Ringo was standing.

That said, Angier doesn't just explain female physiology, she celebrates it. Loudly. Intelligently. Frankly. This is no college textbook, but maybe it should be. Women 101, freshman syllabus, M-W-F, 9am - noon.

And it's not just physiology, it's also biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, chemistry, and primatology. (I laughed rather loudly at the labeling of the rhesus monkey's capacity for social compromise as "rhesus peaces"). Science geek nirvana.

Speaking as a man, I was humbled and sometimes horrified. For all the splendor and beauty of the female body, there is a lot there that can go wrong. Even when it goes right it's still messy and complicated. A nice place to visit, but I would not want to live there.
Profile Image for Ann.
187 reviews9 followers
July 8, 2010
I wanted to like this book. Oh, how I wanted to. And I will say, it was packed with interesting information. I did learn a few things. I shared any anecdote or theory my husband would listen to.

But, I finally got fed up with her writing style. This writer cannot pass up any chance for wordplay, puns, double entendre, thesaurus-izing, or clever euphemism. Since I'm such a word-lover, you might think this was a good thing, but I couldn't get past it. I found it annoying, stupid, distracting, flippant, and not funny--sometimes all at the same time. She takes several major female body parts a chapter at a time. So, in the chapter on say, the uterus, you would think that she would use the word uterus a zillion times. No. She appears to be frightened to do so. Instead, she uses every alternate word, every slang term, known to man (or woman). It got old. It was confusing at times since I was sometimes not familiar with the slang terms (not ashamed to admit that). And it contributed to the overall tone of the book that was a little baffling. Here she is having spent untold hours researching and writing a book on a topic she obviously thinks is fascinatingly important, yet at times she talked about it like she was a 14-year-old boy in the locker room.

It's also interesting to me the kinds of questions she asked in order to write the book. Her "why did evolution do it this way?" approach wasn't my favorite, but I am certain I would have been able to hang with her on that if it hadn't been for her usage, as I discussed above.

I read about half of the book.
Profile Image for Chris.
636 reviews2 followers
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January 24, 2014
Fascinating topic but I hate Natalie Angier’s writing style: the forced metaphors, the whimsical nouns, the strained adverbs. I wish she’d put down the thesaurus and just tell us what she’s learned from her reporting.
Profile Image for Tracy Rhodes.
56 reviews51 followers
April 2, 2007
This book taught me so much about what it means to be a woman from a physiological perspective. Angier writes in a witty, conversational style - not condescendingly, but in a way that keeps the reader willing to stick with her through some pretty hard-core biological science stuff. Just as importantly, she talks about the psychology of women and how we relate to our bodies and their sometimes mysterious ways. Every woman should read this book (and men who want to know more about what makes women tick under their skins should, too).
Profile Image for Kara.
112 reviews8 followers
August 14, 2007
When I first read this, I was enamored with it - so much so that I was about ready to drop my business major and start majoring in Women's Studies! Luckily my dad stepped in on that one. ;)

This book is great and is written with a witty tone to it that only a fellow woman could have. It's frustrating to go through life being told how your body *should* act, by panels of men, no less. I felt like I could related to this book because it was written by someone who not only cared enough to research its contents, but by someone who had a vested interest the topic.
Profile Image for Sidewalk_Sotol.
42 reviews
October 7, 2010
I could see giving this book 3 stars. It really depends on what you're looking for. I tried to use this book as a supplement to my anatomy & physiology textbook. Not a good idea. I did not get to finish it, but since the organization of the book depends only a bit on linear reading, there is not too much lost by not getting to the conclusive chapter.

What Natalie Angier does well is pull together a lot of different perspectives of feminist or feminist sympathetic researchers into one volume that asks a lot of good questions about the androcentrism of most Western scientific writing about women and female bodies. Thus, if you are a layperson with an abiding curiosity in Western biology and contemporary cultural meanings of female bodies and read it primarily for this reason, it provides a lot to consider.

However, Angier also interjects word play and innuendo very frequently, making it a difficult book to use for consultative purposes without lots of underlining. Unfortunately, her interruptions and very-clever references rarely provide greater depth to her material, which is based upon scientific research with some anthropological and personal speculation here and there.

Also, while Angier provides a good deal of her own speculation, she never gets around to questioning the heteronormativity and cisgender assumptions of scientific research. This is particularly noticeable when she starts talking about individuals with intersex conditions and references such queer scientists as Anne-Fausto Sterling. Angier cherry picks the individuals who most support her specific arguments about how people with intersex conditions prove her points against clitoridectomy, are just like straight women except for anatomy, etc.
Profile Image for Michelle.
579 reviews23 followers
May 5, 2017
If you're looking for a comprehensive atlas of the embodied female, then you cannot do much better than Woman: An Intimate Geography. Even 18 years after its original publication, Natalie Angier's book remains relevant, provocative, and thoroughly educational. Women's bodies remain mysteries only to the extent our societal ignorance compels us, and that certain doctors and scientists continue to neglect it in favor of the supposed simplicity of the male form. Angier trods well-worn territory for know-thyself works such as periods and the female orgasm, but where her research truly excels is in debunking hormonal myths and the tired tropes of "evolutionary psychology" in explaining women's behavior. And if you aren't yet aware of X-inactivation and mosaicism, prepare to have your mind blown.

While Woman is an explicitly feminist work, it's hardly dogmatic; she's fair and thorough with the science. One memorable example is her treatment of competing theories to explain the robustness of human menstruation, which ends without a clear conclusion (but isn't the intellectual exploration so interesting?). An overarching theme of the book is the welcome story that women and men aren't so different after all, and that these pat stories we've been told about our hormones and genes sharply differentiating us are a vast oversimplification.

Some may find Angier's eccentric narrative and enthusiasm a bit much, but I mostly enjoyed it. If I had one criticism of this enduring work, I'd say it would be that queer and trans women are largely unacknowledged - but much has changed in recent years, and some inclusive updates would strengthen the book.
23 reviews20 followers
February 12, 2012
Best book I read in 2011, by a long shot. Continues to resonate. My dad gave this to me as a present in 2000 or 2001 and naturally I refused to read it. An argument with a friend prompted me to look for an answer in one of its chapters, and I was riveted, started from the beginning and worked my way to the end, intrigued by subjects that had never held any interest at all for me, like menopause, and hormones, and ones I have never seen discussed with half the wit or dynamism, such as female aggression and monogamy. I am not of a remotely scientific bent, but Angier is such an elegant prose stylist, and an imaginative and spunky thinker that I swear I fell in love with her over a discussion of mosquito sperm or some such. The last two chapters, in which she stands evolutionary psychology on its head, pointing out its anti-feminist tendencies to boot, wooed me all over again, and I think I would go to great lengths for this woman if I got the chance. It is so refreshing also to read someone who takes her feminism for granted - that is, of course she is a feminist, how could she not be? I am so disgusted by the reluctance of many women I know to self-identify this way, but this rant I will leave for another space, as I want only to heap praise and gratitude on Ms. Angier. I don't have the book with me right now, but I might try to do it more justice in this forum when next I lay my hands on it.
11 reviews1 follower
January 12, 2008
An informative investigation into female physiology. I know I sound like a dunce when I say this, but I’ve never been into science. Didn’t do well in it at school and never found it particularly interesting. This book has been on my “to read” list for a while -- I even bought a copy for a friend as a gift, at her request, years ago. I finally got around to reading it. It was a tough read for me in a couple of ways. I had to overcome my distaste for science, I am opposed to testing on animals and I don’t like reading about the results of those tests even if some were enlightening (this may be partly why science turns me off), and then there’s Angier’s prose to deal with. Sometimes it’s poetic and fascinating but more often than not, her writing style is just way over-the-top and even a bit silly. Then again, maybe that’s unfair; she does do a good job making science accessible to non-scientists. When I could get passed the book’s roadblocks, the work was really fascinating. I learned a lot about women’s biology from hormones to the uterus to breasts to the almighty clitoris to the sum of these parts. I also love when she directly states her opinions. Instead of hemming and hawing on the subject of female genital mutilation (twice in my lifetime I’ve heard people actually defend the practice), she condemns it. Definitely a good read.
Profile Image for Genya.
34 reviews
May 9, 2007
This is such a great book. I just reread it. It is all about the biology of the female body, but it is funny, brilliant, totally accessible, and a little subversive. Her first paragraph reads, "This book is a celebration of the female body - its anatomy, its chemistry, its evolution, and its laughter. It is a personal book, my attempt to find a way to think about the biology of being female without falling into the sludge of biological determinism. It is a book about things that we traditionally associate with the image of woman - the womb, the egg, the breast the blood, the almighty clitoris - and things that we don't movement, strength, aggression, and fury."
December 6, 2015
This is an awesome book, loved learning all sorts of secrets about women (ha ha). Actually, this should be required reading for men and women. There is a lot of good information presented in a fun and engaging way. My only gripe was that the author heaps a ton of praise on old women, and basically dumps on old men as being useless. I think older men and women have a lot to offer younger generations.
Profile Image for Nancy Schober.
324 reviews10 followers
October 25, 2018
Favorite quotes:"Women need muscle, as much as they can muster. They need muscle to shield their light bones, and they need muscle to weather illness& And being strong in a blunt way, a muscle headed way, is easier than being skilled at a sport. It is a democratic option, open to the klutzes and the latecomers, and women should seize the chance to become cheaply, frowzily strong, because the chance exists, and let us be honest, we don't have many. Being strong won t make you happy or fulfilled, but it is better to be sullen and strong than sullen and weak."

Women never bought Freud's idea of penis envy: who would want a shotgun when you can have a semiautomatic?

..it is natural for girls to fatten up when they mature, but what natural means is subject to cultural definition, and our culture still hasn't figured out how to handle fat. & we are intolerant of fatness, we are repulsed by it, and we see it as a sign of weak character and sloth.

Girls, poor girls, are in the thick of our intolerance and vacillation. And then they are subject to the creed of total control, the idea that we can subdue and discipline out bodies if we work out very hard at it.

Any sane and observant girl is bound to conclude that her looks matter and that she can control her face as she controls her body, through makeup and the proper skin care regimen and parsing her facial features and staying on guard and paying attention and thinking about it, really thinking about it& .If she is smart she knows that it is foolish to obsess over her appearance. But if she is smart, she has observed the ubiquitous Face and knows of its staggering powers. By all indications, a controlled body and a beautiful face practically guarantee a powerful womanhood.

Life is lived by the day, and most days aren't Christmas.

Thereis a principle in evolutionary thinking called the naturalistic fallacymaking the mistake of assuming that what is, is for the best.

You don't want to look muscular? You want to look toned? But your not a Gregorian chant: you're a century-in-waiting. Pray to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, for her huntswoman's quadriceps and her archer's orbed arms. You'll be happy to have them when gravity, ruthless gravity, starts fingering your merchandise and toying with your heart.

What is wrong with looking muscular? Muscles are beautiful. Strength is beautiful. Muscle tissue is beautiful. It is metabolically, medically, and philosophically beautiful. Muscles retreat when they're not used, but they will always come back if you give them good reason. No matter how old you get, your muscles never lose hope. Few cells of the body are as capable as muscle cells are of change and reformation, of achievement and transcendence. Your muscle can be sanctimonious, it is true, adhering to a materialist, puritanical, goal-oriented mentality, but at least they are reliable. You can spend every day on a therapist's couch and still wake up to your old frail spirit, but if you work out every day your muscles will grow strong.

I've noticed in nearly every gym where I've worked out that women on the weight-training equipment use far too low a setting for their strength, particularly when they are exercising their upper body, where they are convinced they are weak. They'll stick with twenty or thirty pounds that they could handle twice what they're pressing, but they're not doing it, and nobody's telling them to do it, and I want to go over and beg them to use a higher weight and tell them, Look, you're blowing it, here's your chance, your cheap and easy chance, to own a piece of your life and strut and be a comic-strip heroine, so please, stack it up, heave-ho, do it for yourself, your daughter, your mother, the International Maidenhood of Iron.

In the real world of the two-career family, most women will breastfeed for the first few weeks or months of their baby's life, and then they will supplement or replace breast milk with formula. Like women throughout history, they will do the best they can under the constraints of work, duty, and desire. They will be generous and selfish, mammals and magicians, and they will flow and stop flowing. Whatever they do, they will feel guilty for not doing enough.
Profile Image for Nicole.
84 reviews
December 27, 2016
This whole book got me saying, "Preach, sister, preach", every few minutes. What a journey it was and what a beautiful book about femaleness in all its myriad complexity and unfathomable-ness.

Angier's "Woman" is a must-read for every woman. Much more than just a simple exploration of women and their bodies, "Woman" dives deep into the cultural biases that have affected evolutionary research and perpetuated an incorrect view of women as the inferior sex. Calling her book a "fantasia" for womanhood, Angier manages not only to convey her intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of a woman's body, but to do so in a way that isn't boring or stuffy or chock-full of complicated scientific terminology that only leads to confusion instead of enlightenment. Biology was my most dreaded subject in school, but Angier manages to infuse it with zest and an uncanny, wry sense of humor and a voice of genuine love and awe for the female body in all its complexity. Language isn't sacrificed for science; they're intertwined and Angier's book is a testament of that.

Trust me when I say that if you read this book, you will walk away knowing so much more than just facts about the biology of women. The book does contain a lot of that, touching on everything from the properties of breast milk and the importance of the clitoris, to menstruation and the work that our ovaries do for us. I learned many things that I had had no clue about prior to reading "Woman." But Angier, through "Woman", ultimately makes the case for all of us women to pay "Dionysian respect" to our bodies, to love every inch of ourselves just as we are, free of judgment and fear, and marvel at just what our unique feminine body can do for us. "Liberation biology" is what she calls it and "Woman" is the Bible for this new branch of biology: calling all women to love ourselves, love what we have been given, know what we have been given, and use that knowledge to educate others about what it actually means to be a woman.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,651 reviews1,485 followers
May 6, 2008
Angier makes the "scince of women" very accessible, although her writing is chock full of scientific and biological terms. She explains complicated things in a very simple manner, perhaps because she really does know what she is talking about. She is a very knowledgeable and witty teacher. She questions everything and usually finds scientific studies to illustrate her views. She keeps your attention. It is just that so much is turned topsy turvey that I began questioning her statements too. I began seeing divergent ways of looking on issues. Sometimes I became less sure of what I thought, at the end of a discussion than at the beginning. But is that bad? Isn't it good to understand how little we really understand?
Profile Image for Elissa.
145 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2017
Incredible book about the scientific and societal existence of women. I want to buy a copy for pretty much every female person I know. I learned a lot about the landscape of my own existence, and appreciated a voice that dissected a lot of problematic gender assumptions.

As much as I loved it, there were a few glaring gaps, including:
— no recognition that the baseline cultural assumptions of the author/readership are white people living in the U.S.,
— no discussion of racial identities and its effect on the experience of women,
— pretty much exclusive bucketing of people into men/women hetero/gay and no space for gender non-conforming people or non-binary sexual identities.
Profile Image for okyrhoe.
301 reviews84 followers
August 18, 2009
I expected less from this book. Or rather, I didn't expect that Angier would provide so much irrelevant material. This is an important book, certainly, but she could have said it in half the space/time it takes here.

Yet I still recommend it. Science still has a long way to go to understand women's bodies and psyches; many questions raised here are not discussed in other books concerning the female gender, body, & sexuality.
Profile Image for Erin.
10 reviews1 follower
May 4, 2007
I have never read a more in depth book on "woman." I am talking everything from physiology, to biology, to psychology. Although the book it quite dense and at times chalk full with complicated medical jargon, it will answer all your burning questions and shed light on the history and reasons behind why and how women came to be.
Profile Image for Shaenon Garrity.
19 reviews24 followers
March 2, 2008

Angier is sometimes a little too in love with her own playful, punning prose style, but this is an eye-opening book with a wealth of information and ideas on human biology. A great antidote to simplistic "woman make many babies with alpha male" pop evo-psychology explanations of female instincts and behavior
Profile Image for Ellen.
8 reviews
June 13, 2012
Seminal (or should I say ovular?) read in my personal formation as a feminist. Like the female body, Angier's prose is both tender and strong, and it's absolutely bursting with insight and information. Quite funny, too!
Profile Image for Jo.
3,221 reviews116 followers
May 13, 2021
Angier looks at the biology of women's bodies, the way it differs from men's but also the things that are the same. It's a more relaxed type of science book with anecdotes and puns but still interesting and informative.
Profile Image for Nancy Lewis.
1,100 reviews38 followers
May 24, 2022
This would be a good gift for a girl on the cusp of womanhood, or for any woman who is curious to know what the gyno hasn't told her.
Profile Image for Jessica.
579 reviews27 followers
May 31, 2010
I loved this book but found it challenging and eventually had to assign myself 5-10 pages a day. Every paragraph of Angier's study of women's physiology is packed with enough scientific concepts and ideas to fuel a half-day discussion, and she is one of those writers who makes you use your dictionary, who makes you think, and who also makes you think "I could never write that." She starts with a study of the human egg cell and takes you into the operating room where a woman is donating her eggs. From there, Angier explores the uterus, menopause, breasts and breast milk, female hormones and the menstrual cycle. Throughout the book, she considers why nature made women the way they are, how much is evolution and how much is influenced by culture. She dips into chemistry, anthropology, literature and psychology in an attempt to explain biology.

You could pick up some of the science in this book in any number of places, and she quotes myriad studies and interviews scientists and researchers and ordinary women. But only here can you find Angier's stylized and stylish prose.

"We are all yeses. We are worthy enough, we passed inspection, we survived the great fetal oocyte extinctions. In that sense, at least— call it a mechanospiritual sense— we are meant to be. We are good eggs, every one of us."


Profile Image for Katie.
21 reviews2 followers
February 8, 2016
I loved this book.
Contrary to what others are saying, I loved the poetic way the book was written. If you're a real science buff, and just want the cold-hard-facts, this book is not for you. I, however, have always loathed reading about science but am fascinated by the actual wonder of what it creates-- which is why I like this book so much. This piece is crammed full with interesting information which helped me relate to my body and had me popping up with weird new facts to tell my friends: "Did you know your vagina is the cleanest part of your body?!" I really enjoyed this piece. It is important to note that although called "Woman", it is not particularly intersectional to the trans* community. I feel a book about trans women's reproductive bodies would need a volume of its own, and therefore could not be encompassed on this text. There are moments when the author does make an effort to mention the community, and their inclusion or exclusion on the cause, but this book is by no means tailored to that demographic. Provided, I don't think it necessarily should be.
113 reviews
December 30, 2008
I recently re-read this book for a book club with female inmates. Direct quote from one of the women: "I didn't even know books like this existed!" I was reminded just how powerful information, particularly timely information, really is. Here is a book that looks in depth at the biology of the women's body and questions traditional assumptions about females as the "default" sex and more. Angier is a woman passionate about science and about women and the combination is inspiring, refreshing, and empowering. While the chapter on the clitoris seems to garner the most attention, I prefer the chapter entitled, "Cheap Meat," which is about muscle. Angier describes women's muscle as resilient and powerful -- muscle is our right. Just love it -- it's a chapter I read (and re-read) at the top of my lungs! This is a book I recommend highly to all women -- and girls.
Profile Image for Steve.
89 reviews4 followers
July 10, 2009
Woman: An Intimate Geography examines many different aspects of "femaleness" from the cellular level all the way to psychological and sociological levels. It's much more "chatty" than a textbook, and it is obviously geared more towards starting a conversation rather than educating you. In fact, you need to take this book with a grain of salt because the author mixes equal parts of her own opinions and theories with actual scientific research, and it's not always completely clear where one ends and the other begins. Nevertheless, it was still thought provoking and I learned at least a couple of things that I had never heard before. I also can't wait for my wife to read it so that I can ask her opinion about some of Angier's more, um, provocative theories.
Profile Image for Rebecca Reid.
283 reviews28 followers
September 24, 2011
I liked bits of Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier (1999), and then the author started really irritating me. My main issue was a misunderstanding of what Ms Angier hoped to accomplish in her volume. When I began reading, I thought I was picking up a pop science book about the majesty of woman’s body, scientifically examined. That is not what this is. After a hundred pages, I realized that this is a personal view of women as written by a journalist with a background in science.

Too political, too opinionated. I just didn't like the author's voice in this at all.
Profile Image for Heidi.
142 reviews6 followers
July 29, 2016
I learned so much from this book and for the information, the basic information, I got it should be a four-star review. However, I just could not get over the (perhaps flowery? overly poetic? If that is a valid critique?) style and tone of the writing. I got a bit eye-roll-ish every five pages--and it takes a lot to get me to that point.

That said, I'll repeat again that there are facts and theories in this book that are fantastically interesting and wonderful. So, don't just pass this one up too quickly.
Profile Image for Cathy.
13 reviews9 followers
November 26, 2014
A fantasia of the female body. This sang with the vivacity of a 3-D full-color National Geographic documentary, in prose form. It never ceased to inform, inspire, enlighten, surprise, and impress. With dependable laugh-out-loud wit.

Perhaps more a creation of whimsy than true science-writing, but Woman enriched my view of the world, and what more could you ask for from a book?

I was hooked from Angier's whimsical portrayal of fetal egg-cell apoptosis, and couldn't stop turning pages until the very end. Possibly my favorite work of non-fiction this year.
Profile Image for Natalie.
478 reviews111 followers
December 3, 2008
Women are so much more interesting than men, biologically speaking. The clitoris, for instance, is the only organ strictly for sexual pleasure, and contains thousands more nerve endings than a penis (which is just an overgrown clitoris anyway, as one learns in this book). I've read it twice and passed it on to my mom and other female friends. It's truly fascinating.
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