Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “england”

Karo’s #CBR4 Review # 26: Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry

While at university, I met Stephen Fry’s German translator. This was (and probably still is) the most exciting, nerdy thing to have happened to me, because I fall squarely into the camp of Stephen Fry worshippers. It was only when I tried to explain to my family how exciting this meeting had been that I realised that it was hard to describe to a bunch of Germans just how amazing Stephen Fry is. He is an actor, yes, but Jeeves and Wooster is not very well known in Germany, and Wilde was… well, just one movie. The whole aspect of him being the intellectual overlord and infuriatingly clever man of Britain does simply not translate. To this day, my parents roll their eyes when I start a sentence with “Stephen Fry says…”. I have read all the novels and The Fry Chronicles, but somehow never got round to reading Moab Is My Washpot. Well, the time has come.

I have only read a handful of autobiographies, because the thought of making the private public in such a manner scares me. Also, there is a significant risk of disliking the author, simply because any justification can so easily be seen as self-important dribble and arrogance. Fry knows that, and he keeps apologising for it. He is acutely aware of how he comes across, so much that sometimes it’s exactly this self-awareness and apologising that made me angry. You just can’t win…

It took me a while to make my peace with this, Fry’s account of the first twenty years of his life. He describes his school days at elementary and boarding schools, the development of his character, talents and vices (again, focussing on the vices), and a slow descend into adolescent angst and crime. He tries his hardest to spell out exactly how deplorable his crimes were, but it’s hard to imagine all this in hindsight. The moment he turns his life around is clearly described, and you feel safe in the knowledge that he will go on to become the great man he is now. Everything before that feels alien and unreal. Or maybe that’s just my impression. Life at boarding school is both terrifying, with the young boy’s fear of sports and the need to lie and be evasive that turns into a real need to lie and steal, but you realise before he decribes it more explicitly that he still mourns the loss of this regulated, carefree school life. Then, of course, sex and love enter the picture, and things get more… intense. It’s been described as a candid book, and there are many, many scenes of an explicit nature, but Fry never strays from his friendly, slightly apologetic and sincere tone. It’s his life, and it is as it is. It’s the moments when he makes a subject into more than a personal anecdote that put me off the book for a while. I have always said that I’d like nothing more than have a long conversation with the man, and make him explain the world to me. Now, I’m not so sure. I just don’t like being lectured, and I beg to disagree, even with Stephen Fry. I can tell you exactly where I started thinking “No! Please don’t generalise here, Stephen!” It is this point of a list of things nobody should be apologetic for:

“To find anything or anyone of any gender, age or species sexually attractive.”

No. Just no. I get what he’s saying in regards to schoolboys fancying each other, but paired with his earlier observation that caning pupils is not an act of abuse, every part of me objects. Again, I see how he never considered being caned an abuse, but in my eyes, it is, whether it immediately or in retrospect affects the child or not, an abuse of authority. I find the “age” bit of the above quote incredibly ill-considered. Brrrr.

This nearly ruined the whole book for me. In most aspects, I agree with Fry. He knows stuff, he values language and knowledge. It’s actually quite sobering to realise that even such a great guy says things I cannot agree with. All in all, it’s a pleasure to read. There are so many true things in the book, from childhood terrors to moments of self-realisation and the agonising transformation from the adolescent clarity and immensity of feeling to an adulthood that threatens to bury all that under daily drudgery. The much-used phrase “My whole life stretched out gloriously behind me” sums it up perfectly. So, by all means, read this book. And tell me if you agree.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #23: So He Takes The Dog by Jonathan Buckley

This cost me 10p in the big library clear-out, and while I was reading it, I went back and forth on whether it was worth more, or perfect as a library book. I’m still undecided.

So He Takes The Dog is the story of how one day, in a quiet southern English town, a homeless man is found dead, and how the police are trying to piece together his life in order to get to the bottom of the crime. Henry had been hanging around town for years, but nobody knew anything about him other than that he was odd, if helpful enough, and seemed to do nothing but walk along the beach and mutter to himself. The police officers in charge quickly realise that finding out anything about such an elusive character’s life is quite difficult. Slowly, they track down the few people who had ever known him, and uncover a secret from Henry’s past that may or may not explain his life and death.

Several things about this novel are strange, some deliberate, some not. It quickly becomes clear that just like there is no coherent backstory for Henry, the plot is a bit of a meandering mess. One officer’s private life slowly moves into the focus of the story, and it never becomes clear why this is. The officer himself does not take the form of an omniscient narrator, but rather talks a bit about himself here, stoically describes the drudgery of day-to-day police work there, slips into his colleague’s head and recounts his memories somewhere else. It’s hard to know who knows what when it takes a while to even establish whose point of view we’re taking. Eventually, I either got used to it, or the plot become more straightforward. In any case, the novel turned into a quick read.

A fulfilling read, or even just a pleasant one, it was not. Not because of any gory details (there weren’t any), or because it turns out the crime is never solved (by the time you realise that, you have stopped caring anyway). The characters just never really come to life, and the emotionless way in which the case is described makes it hard to connect with anyone. I don’t doubt that this is deliberate on the part of the author – the main character does suffer from disillusionment and the realisation that his life has turned sour. Jonathan Buckley has done everything right in his way. The language mirrors the characters’ sense of displacement and a kind of spiritual homelessness – which brings the story full circle. It’s all very neat and interesting, but you can only get through so much coldness before you stop caring altogether. Interesting? Maybe. A book you might like? Probably not.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #22: The Old Silent by Martha Grimes

Although I kept quiet about it in the beginning, so as not to lose too much street cred and to conceal my disappointment, it’s a fact that I came to live in England because of pretty, and pretty damn inaccurate, pictures in my head. Every single one of those pictures was either taken from old Miss Marple movies, Beatles lyrics, Victorian novels or Martha Grimes. I devoured every single one of her novels in my formative years, and even though I’ve been living on this freakishly damp island for almost 8 years now, there are still lots of places in this country that I’ve never been to but feel I know well, simply because Richard Jury once solved some crime there. I think it’s fair to say that Martha Grimes is solely responsible for the slow but constant heartbreak and disillusionment I’ve been suffering. The fact that she herself is not British should have given me a clue back then…

Ever since Richard Jury’s first outing in the 80s, Grimes has been writing a new case for Scotland Yard’s most charming superintendent almost every year. I read them all until a few years ago, when it all went a bit Schroedinger’s cat, and a talking cat at that. (Animals have always played a big part in Grimes’ novels, but recently they have turned into detectives, and Jury, who should be way too old to solve crime and be attractive anyway, is basically drinking wine and pondering parallel universes. Booooring.) And although I’m a literary snob, I am not ashamed to say that I love the Richard Jury novels, and they are much, much more than just detective stories. I chose to re-read them, and started with my favourite, The Old Silent. It’s a bleak book, full of solitary characters walking the Yorkshire Moors, Richard Jury among them. The story of the kidnapped boy and his grieving stepmother is heartbreaking, and nobody really wins in the end, even when the crime is solved. Grimes is a good writer, if a bit too manipulative when it comes to comic relief (she has her own recurring characters for that). Her stories are believable and sad, and her characters stay with you for a long time. Richard Jury is my hero, and although there are too many of them, even the animals and kids are likeable and memorable. I sound like a real child-hater now as well, don’t I? It’s just that if you read those novels without giving it a few months between them, the formula of withdrawn kid/clever dog/only Jury understanding them and solving the crime gets a bit tedious. But really, one should admire a writer who basically pulls off the same novel 24 times in a row, and you still want to read it, love it and live it. Yes, I want to be one of them, I want to live in Long Piddleton with the former Lord Ardry and his mad aunt, have a pint with Richard Jury in a cosy London pub and visit all the places he haunts with his depressive presence. I love the world Martha Grimes has created, and realising that it doesn’t exist still breaks my heart.

In short, go read them all. Stop after the 18th. And then tell me which one is your favourite.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #101: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

This is a tricky novel to review, as it had elements I both loved and hated. I know it has generated some strong reviews on both sides of the divide, and I would recommend that people read it with a measure of open-mindedness, a sense of humor, patience—and perhaps a dictionary of British slang in hand. And if you are easily offended, this book is not for you.

This is the story of the title character Lionel, an amoral thug from a low-class dystopic London (dubbed Diston in the novel) who rampages his way through the novel causing the reader to cringe at every turn. He makes his living as a “debt collector” with the help of two alcohol-and-Tabasco-fueled pit bulls, earned his anti-social behavior order (ASBO; get it?) at the tender age of 3, and views his regular stints in jail as moments of calm where “at least you know where you are.” Women are an unknowable source of angst, friends can’t be trusted, and the future doesn’t exist for the likes of Lionel. Money is all.

Our anti-hero is the youngest of 7 dysfunctional offspring from a variety of disappearing fathers, whose promiscuous mother Grace finished her baby-making by age 19, and then began a slow slide into dementia. Her daughter Cilla is dead at the start of the novel, and Cilla’s 15-year-old mixed-race son is being “raised” by Uncle Lionel, just six years his senior. The best advice “Uncle Li” can offer his nephew Desmond is to learn to use a knife and to choose porn over sex. However, Des yearns to find true love, to go to college, and is teaching himself languages and philosophy in between driving cabs to help defray costs.

The lonely Des gets seduced into having sex with his 39-year-old “grandmum,” and the rest of the novel is overlaid with his terror over how the murderous Lionel will respond to this when it ultimately comes out. But before that can happen, Lionel hits a lotto jackpot, winning himself a vast fortune which both gives him license to  gratify his every low desire and simultaneously takes away his raison d’etre. Lionel disappears into celebrity nightmare, is captured by a gold-digger smarter than him, and is pursued and mocked at every turn by the sensationalist media. We follow Lionel’s descent into hell—hysterically funny at times and yet painfully sad and often horrific at others—along with the simultaneous evolution of Des’ relationship with his lover Dawn into marriage, and eventual fatherhood.

Amis’ novel has been described by some as a sort of Dickensian commentary on the decline of the social order in which we live, and I found that when I managed to decipher the sometimes unintelligible British slang and get past the sometimes unnecessarily grotesque scenes, there was penetrating satire here definitely worth the slog.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#38: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ novels and I think I have now read them all. Year of Wonders was her first novel. A journalist by trade, Brooks always does thorough research on the historical time periods she covers and often is inspired by an actual event in developing her plots. In Year of Wonders, Brooks imagines what actually happened in a plague village in England in 1666, where the populace agreed to quarantine themselves from neighboring villages and towns until the plague passed so as not to spread it. Two-thirds died and it is believed that the plague was introduced to village via a bolt of cloth.

The protagonist, Anna, has lost her sons, husband and a potential new spouse. As fellow villagers perish, she and some others manage not to catch plague (a wonder) and Anna finds herself doing work that she never would have imagined herself capable of doing (wonders!) such as learning herbs and healing, mining and befriending Elinor Mompellion, the educated wife of minister Michael Mompellion. Other wonders during the plague year include the way in which ideas concerning religion and faith change, how differences matter less, how some go mad and others take advantage of gullibility of poor villagers, how some with more were so generous while others were so cowardly.

I’m a big fan of Brooks’ novels. She goes to great trouble to learn the details of her time periods and creates interesting female characters, often women who desire knowledge and learning that is forbidden to them and who have to find unorthodox means of acquiring it. While the descriptions of the ravages of plague upon the body are disturbing, even more unsettling are the descriptions of the horrors that villagers perpetrated upon each other, in particular the punishments for suspected witchcraft. The ending of the novel surprised me a little, as it seemed a bit far fetched, but I’ve no doubt that her setting for it was accurately depicted.

Quorren’s #CBR4 Review #33 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Normally I find slice of life style stories to be dull.  This book was a bit better than most, having a twist of bittersweet to override the mundane.  However, the overall theme of the book lacks any type of subtlety and will repeatedly jump out of the pages and slap you in the face, lest you forget that being so caught up in your own insular world without stopping to smell the roses is a BAD THING.  *slap*

The story centers around the life of Stevens, the butler at Darlington Hall.  He has worked for several decades for the house, which has now passed ownership to a wealthy American.  He gives Stevens some time off and the use of his car, so Stevens decides to drive around the English countryside and visit the old housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton.  As he travels, he reminisces about his job and his previous work under the Lord of Darlington Hall, a mover and shaker in the political scene in the time leading up to WWII.

Imagine Carson of Downtown Abbey.  Now take away all the humanizing moments the show gave him.  Then you have Stevens.  Lord Darlington was hosting a summit to prevent WWII when Stevens father took ill.  Instead of staying with his father, Stevens instead attends to the guests because that’s what a perfect butler would do and because Stevens overestimates the importance and influence a butler has.  You want to feel sorry for him, but he’s so clueless about the world outside of his pantry and what really matters that it’s near impossible to do so.

In the end, Stevens finally gets to see Miss Kenton (who has married which is why she left the Hall in the first place).  It finally dawns on him that she was in love with him when they ran Darlington Hall together.  Which was a great reveal for no one.  In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro had a good grasp of handling the bittersweet.  While he shows some of that same mastery here, he does venture into maudlin too often for my taste.

Goddess of Apathy’s #CBR4 Review #5, Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Says…….I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with an independent will………

I ‘m addicted to film based on the books of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.  I was enraptured by the recent Cary Fukunaga version with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. If Jane Eyre  is advertised on PBS Masterpiece Theater  on a Sunday afternoon or I’ve run across it on Netflix, I’ve  watched it.  I am sucker for a period piece of dark Gothic romance.  Strangely enough, I had never read the book, except for an adapted version that I used for a remedial class at work. The adapted version was bland and boring, and I never thought I’d tackle the real Jane Eyre.

I’m rife with confessions in my book reviews and admitted in review #4 that I was a cheapskate.  This miserly behavior led to my download of a free version of the Jane Eyre e-book for my Kindle (and yes, it’s the cheapest Kindle sold!)

The kids, my mom, and I went to the beach for a couple of days for spring break and I brought along the Kindle just so I would have something to do while the kids swam in the still-freezing pool. I decided to tackle Jane Eyre, and I cannot believe I waited so late in life to finally read this novel.

The story focuses  on the title character, Jane Eyre and her growth from a young girl into a woman. Jane is the saddest of girls because she is an orphan forced to live in the care of her aunt– the typical Victorian tale of woe. As trite as this situation may be to the modern reader familiar with Dickens, Charlotte Bronte creates the most heartfelt and broken scenes of Jane’s life and misfortune using the most gorgeous vocabulary I have read voluntarily in a long time.  You may find it antiquated, but it warms my heart to read SAT vocabulary used in elegant prose.

Jane’s story is divided into several acts. The first act focuses on her life with her maternal uncle’s family at Gateshead. Her parents are dead and now so is her uncle and Jane is cared for by Aunt Sarah Reed who treats her like a servant.  Further, the cousins are mean and the male cousin is mentally and physically abusive. “You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mama says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us.” — cousin John Reed. 

Whereas many heroines will take the abuse as if they deserve it, Jane rebels and fights back.  She is punished for her refusal to be abused by being locked in the very room where her uncle died. Jane is terrified, but upon her release, she is brutally honest, I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty.–Jane Eyre .  

After her aunt  finds a way to rid herself of the orphan, Jane is sent to the Lowood School for Girls, which is exactly as awful as you can imagine.  Here, the girls aren’t always physically abused, but they are barely fed and rarely loved.  However, it’s far better than what she escaped from: I would not now have exchanged Lowood with all its privations, for Gateshead and its daily luxuries–Jane Eyre. Jane also meets Helen Burns and they strike up a friendship.  Even though conditions here are mostly awful, Jane excels in her education spending six years there as a student and two additional years as a teacher. What else is a girl to do but study  and work when she is poor?

The pivotal act of the book for me was when Jane is employed as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where Jane’s only charge shall be the young French girl, Adele Varens.  The house itself is Gothic and foreboding,  All these relics gave…Thornfield Hall the aspect of a home of the past: a shrine to memory. I liked the hush, the gloom, the quaintness of these retreats in the day; but I by no means coveted a night’s repose on one of those wide and heavy beds: shut in, some of them, with doors of oak; shaded, others, with wrought old-English hangings crusted with thick work, portraying effigies of strange flowers, and stranger birds, and strangest human beings,–all which would have looked strange, indeed, by the pallid gleam of moonlight …

The master of the house is the mysterious Mr. Rochester, the perfectly Byronic hero of the book. He is mad, bad, and dangerous to know—-a man of secrets and moral ambiguity. He had a dark face, with stern features, and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now. Even though he is threatening, there is something about Rochester that intrigues Jane, but she is not the type of heroine to give in to his demands or desires just because he is the man in charge.

Jane is very strong, fierce and independent. Although she was created in a time of  suppression of the female gender, she does attempt to have a fulfilling life on her own terms.  She is a woman before her time and I so wish that Jane Eyre could be valued more in a modern audience, rather than the insipid Bella Swan.  I know all of us wonder, “Why Am I Here? What is my Purpose in Life?” Jane questions her own life and purpose just as much as any of us still do today, but she doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself. She makes the best of what she has.

Jane Eyre is in my mind a romance.  There were the moments of swooning (mine and Jane’s), when Jane admits at one point, her true feelings for Rochester, I had not intended to love him: the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me. It may not have the sweeping gestures of a typical modern romance, but Jane does find satisfaction.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#21: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall and the 2nd book in what is going to be a trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister/Master Secretary to Henry VIII.  While you could read  Bring up the Bodies without reading Wolf Hall, I wouldn’t recommend it. Wolf Hall won both the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award and was absolutely riveting and brilliant. It was the sort of book that I looked forward to reading every day and was sorry when it ended. Certainly, the life and times of Henry VIII provide rich fodder for novelists, but Mantel’s work focuses on Thomas Cromwell about whom little is known despite his great influence and power. It’s a new perspective on an era that has been covered so often in literature.

Cromwell was a commoner, the son of a blacksmith, who found work as a mercenary soldier and as a banker/moneylender in Europe before returning to England and working in the law for his patron Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall focuses on this first period of his life, which involves Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the execution of Thomas More, Wolsey’s falling into disfavor with Henry and his death, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Cromwell is a rich and powerful man, close to the king, but given his common status, he is not welcomed into the King’s circle of noblemen. Feared, revered, hated and sought out by turns, Cromwell uses his intelligence (both his intellect and the information that his spies pick up on others) to serve the king and to protect his own family and retainers. In Bring Up the Bodies, the king is dealing with the aftermath of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his deteriorating marriage to Anne Boleyn and his attraction to Jane Seymour. Mantel is skillful at drawing the political rivalries at court and managing a large caste of characters, remaining faithful to the historical record but also using a vivid imagination to fill in critical gaps.

I am surprised at how much I find myself liking Cromwell. Mantel makes him a tough, self-made man who is intelligent, practical and often charitable. This is a man who has loved, been married, had children and seen them die of plague. His household includes young men learning law and politics alongside him and servants who are loyal and who esteem him. Cromwell is not driven by ideology or religious zeal so much as the desire to enrich the king and England and to ensure political stability in the realm. One of his ideas for Parliament was a sort of works project program — tax the rich to create jobs for the poor building and fixing roads, bridges, walls and harbors. By improving the country’s infrastructure, revenue from trade would increase and by keeping the poor working, fed and sheltered, crime would decrease and prosperity would result.

On the other hand, Cromwell was not the sort of man you would want as an enemy, and he was driven by what we might call reasons of state or realpolitik — the ends justified the means when it came to the king’s desires. The case of Anne Boleyn illustrates the point. The facts surrounding the case of Anne Boleyn and her supposed infidelities (including the charge of incest with her brother) are few. She and four others were put on trial and found guilty of treason and were executed shortly thereafter. Mantel doesn’t make it clear to the reader whether Anne and her “lovers” actually committed the acts for which they were charged, and the point is that for Cromwell, it really didn’t matter. What mattered was that the king was done with Anne and wanted to be rid of her. As Mantel describes it: “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”  Anne had many enemies at court (including Cromwell, who remembered her role in the downfall of Wolsey), and those enemies were powerful nobles who had supported Katherine and her daughter Mary’s rights. Anne’s enemies also detest Cromwell, but they see that he is the man who can bring her down and so they form an alliance with him. But Cromwell, the savvy politician, understands that, “They want him as deep in the matter as they can contrive, and their own hands hidden, so that if later the king expresses any regret or questions the haste with which things were done, it is Cromwell and not they who will suffer.”

Even if you don’t know your Tudor history, you can guess that ultimately Cromwell will meet the same fate as those he helped send to the executioner’s block. I look forward to reading Mantel’s third book to see how she imagines the details of Cromwell’s downfall. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are great novels for lovers of historical fiction, particularly anything to do with the Tudor period.

[Edit: This book is also available as an an audiobook from Macmillan Audio, narrated by Simon Vance (MP3 clip) –mswas]

Valyruh’s CBR#4 Review #34: The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth

First of all, I love the title of this book. It is taken from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and is one of my favorite speeches of all time. It also has a special resonance in this book which, as the sequel to Sacred Hunger (which I reviewed earlier this year), is a worthy read in its own right but made especially powerful for knowing the back story. Unsworth’s The Quality of Mercy takes place in England, 1767, where banker Erasmus Kemp has finally brought back in chains the handful of surviving crew members who had mutinied on his father’s slaveship 14 years earlier and who he had relentlessly pursued to their hidden colony in Florida. Back in London, Kemp wins their conviction on piracy charges and their execution, but achieving his revenge for his father’s indebtedness, bankruptcy and suicide does not fill the emptiness of his soul.

Unsworth moves the bulk of this story to the battle over abolition of the slave trade inside England, and to another form of slavery, that of the coal miners in northern England trapped in an endless grind of child labor, poverty, and an early grave. Kemp recognizes that the advent of the industrial age makes coal a lucrative investment for his bank, and sets his sights on the coal mines of Durham which happens to be where one of the escaped crew members from his father’s ship is headed. At the same time, Kemp hopes to fill the void in his life by courting Jane Ashton, sister to the fervent abolitionist lawyer who is leading the fight against slavery in England. Despite their dramatically different viewpoints, Jane and Kemp are drawn together but Jane is disturbed by Kemp’s fierce rigidity. It takes Jane’s cautious but loving admonitions, as well as coming face to face with the escaped crew member and experiencing the emotional strength of a coalminer’s son who has just lost his dad in the mines, for Kemp to finally get in touch with his own humanity.

Unsworth portrays the entitled lives of British aristocrats and the enslaved existence of the British coalminers with equally exquisite attention to detail, and his courtroom scenes are brilliant. The reader suffers with the condemned men on their way to execution and with the 7-year-old about to put away childhood and enter the mines with his father and brothers. Unsworth recreates the drama of the period, while taking the time to paint portraits of his main characters who are in truth flawed, but also susceptible to change. Therein lies the magic of his book’s title, and of his talent.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #5: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman

Follow the escapades of King Richard I (the Lionheart) and his (sometimes) merry band as they head for “Outremer.” Read more at my blog.

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