April Books


This month features comic book, Irish writers, a couple of Nobel Prize winners and Willa Cather, and a special video for the Pfannkuches, or anyone who likes trains. Unfortunately, I am having trouble posting photos, so this post is not illustrated.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman (1986, 1991)

Spiegelman received a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 for Maus, a comic book. Sometimes classified as fiction, sometimes as history, this comic book was hard for the Pulitizer committee to put in a category, according to a New York Times article at the time. Many people are now aware of this unusual book, the narrative of a son interviewing his aging father about the father’s experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. The book tells of Vladek’s life avoiding and then being imprisoned by the Nazis and Art’s coming to terms with a difficult father, as well as the memory of his mother who had committed suicide 20 years earlier.

The story is compelling, as are the comic strip pictures. Jews, no matter their nationalities, are depicted as mice, non-Jewish Germans as cats, non-Jewish Poles as pigs, and other nationalities have each their own animal. Both of Spiegelman’s parents survived the camps, which is known at the beginning of the book, so that outcome is never a mystery. But how they did, and what they went through before they were put in the camps, and how the rest of their families fared slowly unfolds in the story.

I’ve read several  books about or set during the Holocaust. I have seen movies. I have visited five camps. I thought that I was going to avoid the Holocaust literature/movies from now on because I wouldn’t learn anything new and I understand as well as someone now can. But the book did teach me a lot and I am glad I read it. The book is two short volumes, published five years apart. It was easy to read a volume in an evening. Highly recommended. This was easily the most satisfying book I have read this month.

The Web and The Rock by Thomas Wolfe (1937)

Wikipedia tells me that Wolfe is renowned for his pioneering work on the autobiographical novel, his poetic descriptions, and his influence on other writers. He wrote long, giving his publishers huge manuscripts that were then cut down to marketable size. When he died of a type of tuberculosis that destroyed his brain when he was 38, his publisher had a large manuscript, from which he carved several publications, including this book. This is the second Wolfe book I read. It will be the last.

He can tell a good story and he can paint a scene like a master, but his characters are tedious and I just skim his “poetic” description. David, skimmed, parts of this book too, but I suspect we skimmed different parts. In this book of a small town southern boy (two chapters about childhood) goes off to college and then hits the big, Northern city of New York (the Rock in the title). The boy, George Webber, turns into a manic depressive, with the emphasis on depressive, and has an obsessive, emotionally abusive, love affair with an older woman. There is also a theme that he has the “sensitive” soul of an artist but a simian body, and the two do battle.

Stories and Plays by Flann O’Brien (1974)

Flann O’Brien was a pen name for Brian O’Nolan, who also wrote under the name Myles na Gopaleen. There were several pieces I liked a lot, some that were O.K. but not great, and a few I didn’t “get.” The first piece, Slattery’s Sago Saga, is an unfinished novel and draws Ireland and Texas together. It was a good beginning, I would have liked to know how it turned out.

           John Duffy’s Brother is a brilliant short story. Can’t tell you anything about it, or it will ruin the pleasure – but read if you can. It will only take 10 minutes. Or, you can see a beautiful 15 minute rendition narrated by Michael Gambon at this link:


The Pfannkuches will find this story particularly resonant.

            Faustus Kelly was well worth reading, funny and a new twist on the Faustus theme. I would love to see this play performed.

           Thirst was a play that had an obvious trick in it. Short so at least it didn’t get tedious, although you knew the ending pretty quickly on.

            The two I didn’t understand were A Bush in the Tunnel and The Martyr’s Crown, likely because of my ignorance about his references. The first was about Joyce (among other things) and I have only read Dubliners. The second had to do with early 20th century Irish history.

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather, first published in 1927

A pleasant evocation of the mid to late 1800s in southwest US from a French Catholic missionary’s perspective – when life was hard, but not as hard as the life of the earliest Spanish missionaries. Told with a sympathetic eye. I like her “clean prose” in which she can say a lot in a few words.

O! Pioneers by Willa Cather, first published 1913

The American Corner at the Khujand public library had a copy of three other novels by Cather, so I decided to pick it up and read two of them. O! Pioneers satisfied me as much as Death Comes to the Archbishop. I like her characters in general, particularly her women character. This books is more sparse than Death…, but I like the realistic approach she takes to human relationships.

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, first published in 1915.

            This was the longest of the three books I have read by Cather in Khujand, and overall not as satisfying as the previous two. What kept me going through the tedious parts is Cather’s ability to depict realistic, individual women. The book is about Thea who is born in a provincial town in Colorado, moves to Chicago to train as a pianist and ends up as a celebrated soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The theme is about what a person must do and must give up to develop her art, if she is in fact an artist. I suspect it reflects some of Cather’s attitudes toward her own life. Cather writes about sexual relationships (unhappy marriages, relationships between Thea and a married man) that would not be considered acceptable in her time. She treats them somewhat within the moral conventions of her time, but she depicts them in a way that is honest and unsentimental. Unsentimental may be a good way to describe her work in general.

I thoroughly enjoyed her depiction of Chicago and especially her trip to the Chicago Art Museum. As a child, I saw several of the paintings that she writes about, including Song of the Lark by Jules Breton. In fact, I had a poster of it in my bedroom.

I finished the first Cather at the end of the month and finished this one on April 30. Now I have read four (including My Antonia a long time ago) and have one left to go, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel set in World War I called One of Ours.

Open Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 by Seamus Heaney, published in 1998

Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, and so I figured this would be a good way of learning why he won. This book also included his Nobel speech as well as a few poems not published previously. I have to admit I did not read the entire book, but I read at least some poems from each of the previous 12 collections and spent some quality time with his work. It was interesting reading chronologically and noting how he worked in different styles, including one collection of prose poems.  I really liked several of the poems and wish that I had copied or at least noted their names before I gave the book back to the American Corner here in Khujand.  My favorite part of the book, however, was the Nobel speech.

One of my projects is to read some major works by every Nobel Prize winner in literature, and with this book and his translation of Beowulf, I can tick him off the list.

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry by William Butler Yeats, originally published in 1886

The title tells it all, and there are some fun stories. Most of the stories are actually told by some of Yeats’ friends and acquaintances who have collected them, but he edited the book and provides comments and context. In order to be able to tick him off the Nobel reading list, I am now reading a collection of his poetry and will read, when I get home, some of his plays.

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On the road

On the Road

Tajik university students performed The First Thanksgiving and Cinderella, sang American pop songs and danced to hip hop music to standing room only crowds of public school children around the Sugd District in March and early April.

Our friend Dildora Toshmatova taught a class on American Culture and Folklore at Khujand State University, Faculty of Foreign Languages, and the students prepared skits, musical numbers and audience participation activities that they took on the road. The class and theater production was made possible through a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Khujand, the second largest city in the country, is the largest city in the northern district, the Sugd District.

Dildora developed her interest in US folk traditions and culture when she was able to study for a semester at Penn State Harrisburg on a US grant for “junior teachers” at Tajik universities.

The 90-minute production included two skits (The First Thanksgiving and Cinderella) as well as a performance of a medley of pop songs, a hip hop dance number, poetry recitations, and games and quizzes for the audience to participate in. Below you will find a video of the highlights, as well as the complete performances of the two musical numbers.

The students took the show on the road, performing at five schools in the area on Saturdays in March and April. Saturday is a regular school day in Tajikistan. The schools are comprehensive – elementary through high school. They included:

  •  March 3 — Rumon Village, B. Gafurov District, School No. 26
  • March 10 – Kistakuz Village, B. Gafurov District, School No. 5
  • March 17 – Kairakum School No. 1
  • March 31 – Patar Village, Kanibadam District, School No. 20
  • April 7 – Khujand School No. 24

In addition, the students gave a command performance to their teachers, deans and peers at Khujand State University on April  11, at which time they were given their certificates for completing the class and also the special gift of having the final exam for that class waived.

David and I were able to attend the performances in Kistakuz and Patar Village, and the photos and videos are from those performances. I was also able to be at the performance at the university.

Here is the highlight video of the performance.


Here is the hip hop dance in its entirety.


Here is Farzona’s solo in its entirety. This video may be blocked in the US and other countries because of copyright. An abbreviated version is below. Please let me know if you were able to access this video in the US.


Here is the abbreviated version of Farzona’s solo. Please let me know if you were not able to access this video.


And last, here are some random photos and moments that I wanted to share in Before, During and After. The music is Joe Deranne’s Reel performed by De Dannan.


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Sugd District Historical Museum in Khuhand

David filmed several of his students from Khujand State University while they gave us a tour of the museum on Sunday, April 15. He made a video to share with his students and colleagues at the American Language Institute, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio. The video was more than 19 minutes long, so he had to break it into Part 1 and Part 2. In some parts of the museum, the lighting was not good. You can’t always see the face of the students, but don’t worry — they pop up again. And if you check out the videos, you will also see Shaboz, who was our guide in Khujand on Navruz, and Kaykhusrav, who was our guide in Istaravshan.

I wanted to post a couple of photos with these videos, but I keep getting the message “http error.” So, I guess my troubles with nancystan are not over — but hopefully I will take care of them soon.

As usual, if you have trouble with these videos, please let me know.

Part 1

Part 2

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Off the Grid

Most Tajiks who live in cities have access to electricity and running water – some have it all day (barring outages), some have it for specific hours during the day, some have it for only a couple of hours a day. People living in towns and some of the larger villages usually have it for at least a couple of hours a day. But there are some, including those who live near towns, that do not have it at all. One such family is related to our friend Dildor, and when her student mobile theater group performed in Patar Village, next to the town of Kanibadam, her uncle graciously had the cast and guests [David, Rukiya (another Khujand State University English teacher) and me] come to their house for lunch after the performance.

Dildor’s uncle name is Alisher. He is often in Russia working because he can make more money there than in Tajikistan, but this means long separations from his family. Citizens of the former soviets of the Soviet Union, such as Tajikistan, can travel to and work in Russia without visas, and are a supply of cheap labor. His home is typically middle class, but without the amenities of electricity or running water.

Here is a “filmstrip” illustrating their house. The song is Apeainen by the Finnish group Kardemimmit. I took the photos and produced the video.



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Dear friends and family: If you cannot access this YouTube video, please let me know.

High school senior Zarina and her cousin, university freshman Farangiz, volunteered to take me shopping for traditional Tajik clothes on March 30. We went to the large “Chinese” market outside of the city-proper on the way to the airport. I was told I would see a lot of Chinese people, but I didn’t. That’s because I was looking for the majority Chinese ethnic group, Han. Later I found out that the Chinese in this market are Uyghurs from the far Western province of China, Xinjiang, which borders Tajikistan. Uyghurs are a Turkic people and are more closely related to Tajiks than they are to Han Chinese.

The following slide show was built from a few photos I took on this shopping trip. It is an experiment to see if I could do it technologically. I will be working on a longer, more coherent and complicated slide show for another posting about Khujand State University’s student mobile theater project on American culture.

Here’s a photo of me wearing one of the two outfits I bought that day — along with several students and teachers from Patar Village school, in Kanibadam District, where the student mobile theater performed. But more on that later.

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Apricot Blossom Time

View from the school window in Patar Village, in the Kanibadam District: Apricot blossoms frame a window. Photo by Nancy

David writes about our stay in Tajikistan for his own email list. Sometimes I crib a thought or two, but this time I wanted to repost in its entirety. We both took the photographs. As to the writing, I put in the paragraphs. Otherwise, the following narrative is David’s. The photos follow.

Navruz really has ushered in the spring. For 35 miles or more along the road south of the Kairakum Reservoir, apricot trees are lavishly blooming in orchards that straddle the road and stretch down to the reservoir in the north and back sometimes almost to the mountains in the south. And they vie with each other like weeds for every patch of spare ground in the villages.

Dependent now on a water table fed by runoff from the mountains, in Soviet times, the trees were irrigated by means of electric pumping stations and miles and miles of concrete aqueducts. Now the aqueducts are broken and tumbled and the pumping stations frozen up with rust because there’s no longer enough electricity.

In every village and town, on both sides of every residential street, natural gas pipes with about a two-inch diameter run along the walls that enclose the houses. You can reach up about a foot or so over your head and touch them. They rest on metal struts secured to the ground. When the pipes reach an intersection, they bend up, cross the street and bend back down in a serious of right angles that provide a passageway for cars, vans, and busses. Smaller pipes diverge from these larger ones and run into each house along the street.

I wouldn’t call this delivery system safe because any vehicle could ram and destroy the supporting struts. And a suicidal vandal with a hammer and a match could unleash the furies. But in Soviet times it got the gas to where it needed to be, and I’ve seen on the Russian documentary channel the same system today in rural Russia. But now since the Uzbeks have closed the gas valves, the pipes scale and buckle and sunder and would need to be replaced from square one if the Tajiks and Uzbeks should ever strike a deal.

Thus as the wave of empire recedes, it leaves a technological jetsam and a cultural vacuum. So Hadrian’s Wall stands abandoned and crumbling at the high water mark of Roman expansion. And when Rome could no longer afford to maintain its legions in Britain, the Britons were abandoned to defend themselves against the pesky Picts as best they could.

And thus as economies wither, cultural beacons retreat from the far-flung corners they once illuminated and settle back toward the centers of contracting wealth and waning power from which they emerged. So the libraries of Khotan and Bukhara and a thousand others, past, present, and future, fall prey to the worms when taxation and ordered authority can no longer nourish them. So the flourishing entrepôts of the Silk Road vanished under the sands, and the empty shopping malls of northwest Ohio wax weedy and crooked as fingers are sacrificed to the cold when blood is needed at the heart.

Apricot orchards line the road, from the Kairakum Reservoir on the north to the mountains in the south. Photo by Nancy

Apricot blossoms, March 31, 2012, near Kanibadam, Tajikistan. Photo by Nancy

Apricot orchard near Kanibadam, Tajikistan on March 31, 2012. Photo by David.

Boys working in an apricot orchard along the road near Kanibadam, Tajikistan, on March 31, 2012. Photo by David.

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March Books

Another productive month of reading. This set includes two fat classics and two Man Booker Prize winners.

Dorothy Gish as Tess and William Powell as Tito in the 1924 movie Romola.

Romola by George Elliot (serialized 1862-63).    I thought this was the last of the George Elliot novels yet to read, it has set on our book shelf for about a decade. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The 1924 movie starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William Powell and Ronald Coleman was a melodrama, and not a very satisfying one. However, the novel is much richer, with lots of explanation for character development and not very subtle psychology. The book ends differently from the movie, as well, which I welcomed. Many contemporary reviewers did not like this novel. Because it is historical (set in Florence during the late 15th century and Savonarola plays a large part), Elliot did a lot of homework into the era and the book was considered too scholarly. But, some of the characters, in particular the heroine Rom0la, seemed too 19th century. Plus, many reviewers seemed to miss Elliot’s main point, a comparison between Florence at that time when a liberal culture was in battle with a renewal of fundamentalist religion and Britain in its contemporary time.

Clearly, this was not her best novel, in fact, I would rank it last among the seven that I have read. But still, it was an interesting read and deserved better treatment in film. I have learned that she wrote one more novel, “Impressions of Theophrastus Such” – her last and her most “experimental.” I have downloaded it onto the iPad, but it may take another decade before I get to it.

Martin Chuzzelwit by Charles Dickens (1884)    Can’t go wrong with Dickens. Even those that are not his best are an enjoyable read. And that’s a good thing as this was more than 1100 pages long. But who is the title character? The elder Martin Chuzzlewit is the spine of the tale as many act in reaction to him, and he has a change in character by the end. But his grandson is one of the main actors, goes off to America and returns a changed man as well. Perhaps Dickens was referring to both.

Everyone is a caricature, as is Dickens’ style, with delightful names and idiosyncratic quirks to their speech and personality. Only the “good girls” are boring. Some of my favorite characters were Mr. Pecksniff, who is so unctuous and hypocritical he believes his own lies; Mark Tapley, born to be helpful and jolly, but he keeps seeking circumstances that are difficult so he can get some credit for it; and Tom Pinch, with the least pinched of hearts and souls.

This book is full of coincidences, reconciliations, comeuppances, revenge and happy couples – all part of Dickens’ popularity and lasting appeal. He writes silly but appealing stories with a virtuous moral message and delightful (albeit, could use some editing) prose. But my first Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities, is still my favorite.

The cover of Oscar and Lucinda, before the 1998 movie was made.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)     This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 1988, and like many other of those winners that I have read (my goal is to read them all), it is odd.

The cover of the book has Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as they starred in the 1998 movie based on the book, and I cannot think of better casting. If the movie had been made in the 1960s (which would have been impossible considering when the book was written), Peter O’Toole fresh out of Lawrence of Arabia would have been the spot-on Oscar. In an even earlier period, young Kate Hepburn (if she could muster an Australian accent) would be dead-on for Lucinda.

The theme is how two misfits in England and then Sydney find each other and almost accomplish the impossible. He’s a crazy Christian who gambles and she is a proto-feminist in the 1860s. The book is full of good stories, interesting characters and the misfits are particularly well drawn, and despite (or because of?) their lack of social graces quite likeable. It was a romantic novel, except it does not have a typical ending for a romantic novel. In fact, I really disliked the ending and can think of dozens of better endings for these two deserving characters. I hope when I eventually get to see the film, they change the ending. Despite this the first 378 pages of the 432-page book makes for fine reading and I highly recommend it.



The Sea by John Banville (2005)  Winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Oscar and Lucinda, another Booker winner, had big action, in that it covered a lot of land geographically and a lot of time. This book has almost no action and all the drama is internal. The narrator has come to the Irish seaside, where he spent his summers as a child, after his wife dies. At about 60, he is reeling from her recent death and also remembering his first love at 11 and the traumatic events of that summer. The sea, as one can guess, figures heavily in a symbolic way. The details of the climax of his 11th summer are kept from the reader until the end (unless you read ahead) and that was part of why I read this book quickly and deep into the night. Also, Banville really cares about words, individual words, and has a huge vocabulary. By the end, I didn’t like the character of the narrator, or for that matter, many of the other characters, but that was O.K. At least he knew his own shortcomings.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome Klapka Jerome (1889)    A jolly good read of three men (supposedly still relatively young) and a terrier taking a holiday by boating up the Thames in order to escape the hustle and bustle of London life. The narrator is full of wry comments, self-deprecatory humor, and historical information of the places they pass, and always has his tongue (or pen) in cheek. I believe it was as much my mood as the book itself that resulted in me not being particularly amused. On another day (and it can easily be read in a day or two), the book would have appealed to my funny bones.

Short Works by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1877

Stain-glass window in the Rouen Cathedral that inspired Flaubert to write The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller. The Dance of Death is a prose poem that starts with Death talking to himself, and then to Satan. Next thing you know, Satan is talking to Nero. Romantic, as in big "R" romantic. Lots of wind and thunder and elemental elements.

The Dance of Death is a prose poem that starts with Death talking to himself, and then to Satan. Next thing you know, Satan is talking to Nero. Romantic, as in big “R” romantic. Lots of wind and thunder and elemental elements.

The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller. Julian loved slaughter – animal or human. He learns of a prophesy that he will kill his mother and father, and so he runs away as a young man. And of course, we all know what happens, which in its turn, transforms him into a saint. The story was inspired by a stained glass window in the Rouen Cathedral.

A Simple Soul.  This is the life story of a servant who wasn’t all that bright and thus was able to be a simple soul. She was able to love fully, even when she was not loved back. A parrot plays a large, symbolic part in this long, short story. Full of loving details about a woman who made no difference in the world, but in that aspect, is probably more like most of us. Lovely to read.

Flaubert’s Herodias was inspired by a bas-relief on the tympanum of the Rouen Cathedral. Notice how she stands on her hands; that was the part of the dance in this short story that I liked the best.




Herodias was also inspired by art  in the Rouen Cathedral, a bas relief. This is Flaubert’s retelling of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. I enjoyed the writing generally and particularly liked the description of Salome’s dance.



Efuru by Flora Nwapa (1966)   Efuru is a Nigerian village woman – beautiful, intelligent, generous and a good business woman. But she is unlucky with marriages and children, which is a problem in a Nigerian village. The book is full of interesting characters and description. It was definitely not written by a European or from the perspective of a Nigerian who has lived abroad too long or is educated to the extent that she is “deracinated,” a term used by the Times Literary Supplement. It almost made me nostalgic for my Senegalese village of Koubanao, almost. Another book sitting too long on our shelves that we brought along. Recommended.

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March Trip to Istaravshan, Part Four, Mazar I Chor Gumbaz (Mosque with Four Domes)

March Trip to Istaravshan, Part Four, Mazar I Chor Gumbaz (Mosque with Four Domes)

Our last stop was the most interesting. The humble Mazar-i-Chor Gumbaz (Four Domes) mosque has some gorgeous ceiling paintings inside the prayer room. We were told there is another mosque with four domes in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

All three photos of the ceiling were taken by David. Notice the Ottoman sign of the sultan and the six-pointed star, which might be a symbol of Judaism, or perhaps a symbol of something else. No one could tell us why these symbols were painted into the ceiling decorations.

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March Trip to Istaravshan, Part 3, Two More Mosques and a Market

March Trip to Istaravshan, Part 3, Two More Mosques and a Market

Next stop was the 19th century Hauz-i-Sangin Mosque, which has a dry well, a mausoleum and beautiful painted ceilings on the front porch of the mosque.

Here is a sample of the porch ceiling paintings. They have recently restored the paintings, but left pieces of the original intact. You can mark the difference on the bottom two panels of this photo. David took this photo.

The 17th century Sary Mazar (Yellow Tomb) complex was one of my favorite stops on this trip because of the ancient plane trees, at least one more than 800 years old. The legend is that when the founders of the first mosque on this site came to this place and decided to build, they staked their horses with wooden pegs that grew into these trees.

You can see the sign declaring this tree is more than 800 years old, as well as one of the two tombs that this mosque features.

Here is our friend Dildor as she passes by the trees.

Before we went to the last mosque on our list, we passed by the market. Vendors were pleased to have their photos taken.

These apple vendors gave us an apple as a gift. I don’t know if it was because we took their photo or because we were foreigners, or both.

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March Trip to Istaravshan, Part 2, Hazrit-i-Shah Mosque and Kok Gumbaz Medressa

March Trip to Istaravshan, Part 2, Hazrit-i-Shah Mosque and Kok Gumbaz Medressa

Istaravshan has several interesting mosques that are open to visitors. It seems that the Prophet Mohammed has at least two cousins buried in this city, which the friendly imans will tell you about as they are happy to share the history of their mosque and the ciy.

One such mosque is the Hazrit-i-Shah Mosque, the main Friday mosque of the town.

Our student guide Kaykhusrav and the oman at Hazrit-i-Shah Mosque.

Couldn’t resist posting this photo of the friendly imam.

Next we went back to the Blue Dome (Kok Gumbaz) mosque that I took photos of when I was in Istaravshan in February with some embassy folks. It turns out that it’s not a mosque after all, but a 15th century medressa.

Since I have already posted a photo of the stunning blue dome, here is a detail of the beautiful entryway to the Kol Gumbaz.

Here are some children that followed us into the medressa. David took this photo.

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