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Father, son and values tested in superb WWI novel

June 8, 2014

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cartographerThe moral life takes center stage in P.S. Duffy’s “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” a World War I novel that centers around a family and village in Nova Scotia and the impact of the first “war to end all wars.”

To go to war or not, to fight or to give up, to love or go through the motions, to admire or be repulsed by, to change or carry on — the story lines come at the reader like the torrent of artillery shells pounding at the trenches one chapter and like the waves of the North Atlantic sweeping fishermen overboard the next.

Caught in the middle are a father and son, and the novel jumps back and forth between their thoughts and dreams, their expectations and the experiences life throws their way.

Along the way Duffy sneaks in the dirty bit of history of bigotry that put ethnic-German Canadian citizens in detainment camps along with prisoners of war and “suspicious” aliens.

Those familiar with the writing of ancient Greece will appreciate references to the classics scattered throughout. Phrases from Scripture pop up, too, as wartime puts long-accepted values to the test both in France and back on the home front.

World War I garners a small percentage of battle literature in comparison to WWII, it seems to me, and the stories of Canadian soldiers even a smaller spot on the shelves compared to books about U.S. and British forces.

“The Cartographer of No Man’s Land” puts a dent into those imbalances with a handful of captivating parallel plots, meaty characters, splashes of intense action and superb writing.

This Liveright Publishing Corporation release last fall is a marvelous example of the writer’s craft, and it offers great possibilities for a sequel. Introduced to these intriguing people, readers will surely want to know what happens next in their lives, and Duffy has set the stage well with plenty of ambiguity.

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Story of Jesus perfect for 4-to-8 year olds

May 12, 2014

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Jesus coverLittle children run to Jesus on the cover of this Eerdmans Book for Young Readers, a wonderful image to draw the target age group — 4-to-8 years — into the story of Jesus’ life.
Benedictine Anselm Grün’s retelling of Gospel events is true to Catholic teaching, from the visitation through the nativity and more than a half-dozen highlights of New Testament stories up through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The translation by Laura Watkinson keeps the language simple and age-appropriate, and Giuliano Ferri’s colorful artwork adds to the storytelling, bringing to life the calling of the disciples, for example, the stories of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, the Prodigal Son, and the Last Supper.
Parents and teachers will find “Jesus” an excellent choice reading to children in a home schooling setting or early faith formation.

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‘Brother Hugo and the Bear’: cute and informative

May 8, 2014

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brother hugo and the bearAuthor Katy Beebe has crafted a cute story from a sliver of what may or may not be a true anecdote from the 12th century. Did a bear really devour much of one monastery’s copy of St. Augustine’s letters to St. Jerome?

Beebe’s fictional Brother Hugo gets the task of replacing it, and a good chunk of the tale illustrates how manuscripts were created by the monks in those monasteries in the Middle Ages.

Illustrates is the perfect word, too, because artist S.D. Schindler’s superb use of the style of those medieval illuminators adds a whimsical period touch that puts the story into the proper historical timeframe.

This is not just a good tale for young readers but an educational one as well.

There’s church and human history embedded in the Eerdmans book, with salutes to those ancient monasteries, the Benedictine’s Cluny and the Cistercian’s La Grande Chartreuse, and even a glossary that includes both church and manuscript making vocabularies.

What a nice idea, and nicely done.

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Murder of John Paul I — from the inside?

April 25, 2014

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UnknownThe pages are yellowing in the this English-translation of “The Last Pope” that I couldn’t resist in an antique store, and the copy looked as though it had never been touched.

That should have been one tip that “The Last Pope” was no “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” but the glossy cover of the hardback claimed it was an international bestseller, so I sprang for the $7.

“The Last Pope” was probably worth the $7, but not a cent more. Its premise is that rather than dying in his sleep, as is the official word on the passing of the former Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who was pope for only 33 days in 1978 was killed because he had made plans to remove high-ranking Vatican officials. Several cardinals from that era are implicated in ordering the pope’s death.

In the story, copies of John Paul I’s supposed plans have made their way out of the Vatican archives, and the bad guys are killing folks to get them back. A beautiful female reporter and a mysterious “Rafael” get involved, and, well, no spoilers here.

What the novel by Luis Miguel Rocha is, of course, is a vehicle to paint the Vatican Curia as corrupt and the church itself as behind-the-times on all kinds of contemporary issues. John Paul I was going to change all that, so the story goes, and the usual Catholic punching bags — birth control, homosexual relations, priestly celibacy, female priests — take their lumps.

That’s too bad, because “The Last Pope” isn’t a bad novel. But it does explain why the eight-year-old copy was sitting untouched in an antique store.

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Time for your Catholic parish to change?

February 12, 2014

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HolinessCultureDoes your parish have lackluster Sunday Masses where people mumble the responses, where only a third of the people sing and where almost everyone skips past the cup at Communion time?

Is the culture of your parish one that allows its members to come and go, live and die, without really being engaged in their faith?

If you’d like to get started helping to reinvigorate your parish so its members have the kind of encounter with Christ which leads to conversion, a richer community life and action that serves others — one that draws others to it because it is so attractive a lifestyle — then Bill Huebsch has a book for you.

“A Culture of Holiness for the Parish” (Acta Publications) is a mere 82 pages in the size of paperback that easily fits into a pocket or purse, but it’s filled with wisdom about the Catholic faith. Huebsch, who is director of pastoral planning, com and its online Vatican II Center, has grasped the meat of what the Second Vatican Council expects of Catholics, and his well-structured process to help Catholic parishes meet those expectations are presented in language others can grasp, too.

Pastors, parish ministers and core leaders of parish ministries and organizations show the way by sharing their own personal stories of seeing God active in their lives. As parishioners feel comfortable telling others about the holiness they feel and see, about the times they’ve been touched by an event or times they’ve felt God in their lives, “home lives are imbued with hospitality, forgiveness and love,” Huebsch writes, and “a new orientation of self-giving love seeps into parish life and reaches out in action to the wider community.”

Through “A Culture of Holiness for the Parish,” any parish can plan, launch and sustain a Catholic community which others will notice for the way its members love God and love their neighbor. Worth a try?

 

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Another chance to read — not see — ‘The Book Thief’

January 2, 2014

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200px-The_Book_Thief_by_Markus_Zusak_book_coverRecent release of the movie of the same title blessedly returned attention to Markus Zusak’s 2005 novel, “The Book Thief,” giving lovers of great writing a second chance at this superb read.

So many forms of the reality of the human character — the harmful, the hateful, the uplifting, the depressing, the heartwarming and the inspiring — pour from the pages of this World War II-based novel of a young girl’s experiences in a small German town.

It humanizes the German populace in ways few stories from that era do.

As good as the story is, it’s the way the book thief’s story is told that sparkles with creativity.

First, the narrator is unique: “Death,” who throughout the tale gathers souls when, well, when you might expect Death would

Sprinkled here and there are little bursts of bold type in a slightly larger size that serve to further explain or clarify — something like the narrator thinking aloud.

The book isn’t written in the typical story-within-a-story technique, but the text of little books or booklets do appear twice; both times Zusak uses them briefly and with just a perfect touch.

Amid the horror of Nazism, Zusak bring us characters fully human — mean at times and kind at others, foolish yet wise, smart-mouthed yet shy, downhearted yet hopeful. You’ll love the surprises.
Don’t miss another chance to read a great book.

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Catholic writer J.F. Powers remembered through his letters

November 22, 2013

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“Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of a Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963,” edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 2013. 450 pp., $35.

powers cover

Spending the last few weeks peeking into the life of the late Catholic writer J. F. Powers through a collection of his letters made me wonder, does anyone write letters like these any more?

Powers, the long-time professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John University in Collegeville, used his gift for the language in frequent missives to friends and colleagues, which makes this collection of his letters read much like a memoir, or better yet a novel.

Perhaps cyberspace holds all the emails and social media messages we peck out nowadays, and perhaps and a tech-minded historian will be able to pull them down and gather them into book form. But I’d be surprised if any achieve the literary quality of those that Power’s daughter Katherine A. Powers has adroitly edited and packaged.

Take this sample from a letter in which he describes the long-time leader of St. John’s Abbey, Benedictine Abbot Alcuin Deutsch:

“He is a good man, but his last name is Deutsch, and if he’s like a lot of other Germans, and I think he is, he expects to get to heaven for not having made any impractical moves during his stay on earth. I have often wondered why they didn’t try to prove, somewhere along the line, that Jesus Christ received a gold watch for 33 years of service.”

That Powers ended up living much of his life in Minnesota’s German-plentiful Stearns County and working for the German Benedictines at St. John’s is just one of the ironies of the man’s life.

An good writer, but a poor one

“Suitable Accommodations” makes for interesting reading because it takes us into the mind of this unique character, a man author Evelyn Waugh tabbed “one of our greatest storytellers,” an author who won the National Book Award for his first novel yet never achieved the success he felt was his destiny.

Perhaps because his specialty was priests his was a limited audience and not populist fare.

The award-winning “Morte D’Urban,” the novel about a charming Midwestern priest who is as much a man of the world as he is a man of God, sold only 25,000 copies or so, and failed to receive the kind of promotion one might expect from a publisher like Doubleday.

Many of even the earliest letters — the collection covers 1942 to 1963 — foreshadow the life James Farl Powers was to live.

He refers to a steady job as “prostitution . . . masking itself as ‘honest labor.’ ”

He decries people who take the “safe” way through life with “a good position” or “in business for himself” with “nice homes.”

The irony, and it’s in the title of this collection, is that Powers was consistently writing in his letters about trying to find “suitable accommodations” both for his then-growing family and for a place with the peace and quiet to allow him to write.

Every so often he leans for money on his good friend Father Harvey Egan, pleading to the priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for funds to keep the wolf from the door until the mail brings a much-anticipated check for a short story he has submitted to The New Yorker or to one of the small-circulation literary magazines that have purchased his work over the years.

The late Father Egan, a one-of-a-kind himself as the pastor in later years of ultra-progressive St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, gets credit for preserving many of Powers’ letters.

None of which fits, however, when you read in a 1947 letter to Father Egan that Powers’ tastes in liturgy lean toward the conservative. Living in Avon, not far from where Powers is teaching at St. John’s University, he writes:

“We like to go to St. John’s [Abbey Church] because there is no lay participation, or I do. I am only slowly getting the idea that I am surrounded by people who are working night and day for things like the dialogue Mass. Imagine my dismay at the discrepancy between the party line and my own feelings in these matters.”

Later he’ll refer to himself as “anti-laical” but also “anticlerical.”

Along with letters Powers wrote, his daughter has included a handful of entries from his journal. Often they show a man in despair: “May 18, 1959: Out of gas — creatively . . . I feel absolutely powerless these days to prevent financial ruin. Ideas for stories don’t come.” And just eight days later: “Money, money, money — this is the answer to every question confronting me.”

Man of many interests

Scraps of Powers’ varied interest show up regularly. He’s fond of playing the horses, especially during the family’s several stints living in Ireland.

He follows the minor-league St. Paul Saints baseball team, keeps abreast of the gossip surrounding the design of the new Abbey Church at St. John’s, chimes in a number of idea for names of the new National Football League team being established in the Twin Cities in 1961, would have preferred the Democrats had nominated his friend Eugene McCarthy instead of John F. Kennedy to run in the 1960 presidential election.

“I did not, and do not, like Kennedy. That doesn’t mean he’s no better than Nixon. . . . Gene McCarthy nominated him . . . in the best speech of the convention. Too bad it isn’t Gene instead of Jack, if we have to have a Catholic. I understand Pope John’s already packing. I think we can use him, too.”

He refused military service during World War II, was imprisoned for it and released to do compulsory work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

A curmudgeon if there ever was one, he  was against the Legion of Decency (which rated movies for decades according to Catholic morals), wasn’t thrilled that fasting regulations were eased, agreed with author Evelyn Waugh that he was more of a short story writer than a novelist and presciently had this to say about Calvin Griffith, the tight-fisted owner of the then new Minnesota Twins baseball team: “I do not think Cal will ever put our welfare before his own.”

It’s such good writing you’ll be disappointed that the letters end with 1963. You’ll want to know the rest of the J.F. Powers story, but daughter Katherine explains well at the volume’s end why that won’t happen.

That epitaph one should read on one’s own…bz

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Living in Alaska, she’s got a prayer

August 25, 2013

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107633I’m just catching up with a book that’s been in print for seven years, but the lag in time doesn’t do anything but add richness to Heather Lende’s fine work, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska.”

Haines might be any hamlet in a unique geographic environment, but Lende lifts the southeast Alaska coastal area and the people who live there to a level that turns her writing into a literary classic.

The fact that Lende writes obituaries for the local newspaper isn’t the only reason this ought to be on the required-reading list for journalism majors. How she gathers the details of the deceased lives — face-to-face with the people who knew the person best — is a lesson to be remembered, and the quality of what she learns about them is evidence that her methodology isn’t to be ignored.

Sprinkled through chapters with titles like “Nedra’s Casket” and “When Death Didn’t Stop for Angie” are snippets of her column, “Duly Noted,” tasty snacks to enjoy between the meals that are the satisfying entres. They’re newsy bites, subtledly humorous, frequently ironic, and help give a fuller picture of the goings on in this neck of the woods, from the mundane to the fascinating.

The picture includes spirituality in a variety of traditions, including a mention or two or three of the ministry of Father Jim and Sister Jill from Sacred Heart Catholic Church. In how many other books that make the N.Y. Times bestseller list do you think you’ll read the “Hail Mary” or about the author’s discovery of the rosary and learning how to pray it from a parish prayer group. “The rosary prayers are directed to the Virgin Mary,” this Episcopalian author wrote, “I liked that. It would be easier to talk to a woman, a mother like me, than to God himself.”

Living simply, living in tune with nature, caring about environmental issues, hunting, fishing, family, snowshoeing, skating and life-and-death drama — it’s all in there.

The uniqueness of Alaska makes great copy for those of us in the lower 48, but how Lende tells the stories of life there, that makes great reading.

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Take a peek inside the Vatican

March 8, 2013

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Vatican Diaries coverJohn Thavis, who covered the Vatican as a journalist for 30 years, betrayed his Minnesota roots when he wrote, “Attending these Rome academic conferences was like fishing on a slow day — you waited a lot and hoped something would bite.”

Thavis, a native of Mankato, Minn., and a graduate of St. John’s University in Collegeville, hooked an author’s dream: His book on the inner workings of the Vatican was ready to be released when Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly announced his decision to retire.

Viking moved up the release date, making “The Vatican Diaries” as timely a read as a writer might hope for.

Thavis, whose byline ran in The Catholic Spirit for many years, retired just last year as Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.

That post and the many friends and sources he made in and around St. Peter’s often put him in unique position to observe and hear of any number of interesting goings on, some foolhardy, some machiavellian, some scandalous.

Anecdotes, even atrocities

There is, for example, the blatant disregard for an ancient cemetery by one Vatican City functionary, who is intent on bulldozing the monuments and the remains to add more parking to the cramped tiny space.

A lengthy chapter on the finally denounced, cult-like Legion of Christ gives a vivid picture of how power works in the Vatican, and it’s not a very nice portrait.

Thavis details how the once-revered founder of the Legion of Christ was protected by people in high places who refused to believe accusations made against him over the course of decades, and it was only when Father Marcial Maciel Degollado’s double life was revealed — that he had fathered children by two women, sexually abused his own son and hidden secret assets of nearly $30 million — that the Vatican finally intervened.

The incident has left an obvious black mark on the late Pope John Paul II’s record, but Thavis presents insight here that echoes in other Catholic locales around the globe.

He writes, “To a good number of Vatican officials, the calls for transparency and full accountability [in the Maciel case] were typical of moralistic (and legalistic) Americans, but not necessarily helpful for the universal church. . . As one Vatican offical put it, ‘We have a two-thousand-year history of not airing dirty laundry. You don’t really expect that to change, do you?’ ”

Thavis dives into the ongoing squabble over the ultra-conservative, breakaway Society of St. Pius X, sharing probably more than the typical Catholic would want to know about the battle over the validity of Vatican II by this hard-core group of naysayers.

Superb reporting, writing

There’s a terrific chapter that’s really a personality profile of the American priest who was one of the Vatican’s top Latin language experts — the fun, enlightening and eccentric Father Reginald Foster.

Foster — Thavis eschews his title throughout — is a reporter’s dream, someone on the inside who knows a lot, isn’t afraid to share and shares in colorful language. The chapter on “The Latinist” is of the quality of a piece you’d expect to read in the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker.

Thavis went along to some 60 countries with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and “The Vatican Diaries” includes hilarious anecdotes about life as a reporter on papal trips. There’s plenty about life covering the Vatican to enjoy reading, too, including the story about the pope’s preacher admitting he used Google as a source.

Readers will find that the halo they may have imagined above the heads of some high-ranking residents of Vatican City ends up, shall we say, “less glowing,” to describe it the way a Vatican official might, avoiding the use of the more accurate “tarnished.”

And that may be what Thavis does best here.

Important contribution

He offers sound reporting and analysis, to be sure. But he’s at the top of his game explaining how “The Vatican” sees things.

He translates Vatican-ese, putting in plain language what official statements really say, and in many cases what those statements say by not saying something directly.

Even when he gets into such minutia of a story that you wonder if all these details are necessary, Thavis seems to perfectly sum it up by interpreting the event’s significance. It’s as if, without using these words, he’s says, now here’s why this is important.

“The Vatican Diaries” is not only informative and entertaining. Published as the Catholic Church prepares to welcome a new leader, it gives us valuable insight into the organizational challenges the new pontiff faces.

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Baseball’s Jewish slugger: Hank Greenberg

February 23, 2013

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GREENBERG COVERHank Greenberg’s name comes up less often than that of other baseball greats, even though he hit 58 home runs in a season, four times led the American League in both homers and runs batted in, twice was named most valuable player and is in the Hall of Fame.

But the slugger from the World Series-winning Detroit Tiger teams of the 1930s and ’40s deserves a place along side Ruth, Gehrig and Aaron, and Minneapolis writer John Rosengren presents persuasive evidence and compelling reading in a new biography, “Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes” (New American Library).

It’s a book about a man’s life, about homers, RBIs, slugging percentages and dramatic moments on the diamond in the era when the nation was glued to radio sets to catch the games. But Rosengren’s meticulous research makes the case that Greenberg is due recognition not just for the way he played between the chalk lines, not just for volunteering for military service after Pearl Harbor when he was the highest-paid player in the country, but for lifting up an entire people in an atmosphere of religious and ethnic prejudice

Greenberg was Jewish.

Jews didn’t play baseball. Jews themselves thought it not a worthy profession, and much of society at the time thought Jews weren’t built with the strength or attributes to play sports.

Hank Greenberg changed that, pushing assimilation forward for a generation of immigrant Jews and their children.

Sept. 10 was Rosh Hashanah in 1934, and the Detroit Tigers were in a pennant race. Jews were to neither work nor played on Rosh Hashanah.

But on that Rosh Hashanah star first-baseman Hank Greenberg went to the synagogue in the morning and in the afternoon hit one home run to tie the Boston Red Sox then another, walk-off homer in the ninth inning to win the key game that led to the Tigers winning the pennant.

With that balanced approach “He had begun to change the way Jews thought about baseball,” Rosengren writes, ”and the way baseball fans — Americans — thought about Jews.”

Outright bigotry

Much the way Jackie Robinson would be heckled in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he became the first Black player to break the major league’s color barrier, Greenberg faced the anti-semetic prejudice of the 1930s. Opposing fans and players alike called out slurs like “kike” and “sheeny” when he came to bat.

Rosengren shares several anecdotes that tell what that was like for Greenberg, none better than the following.

Playing against Chicago one day, Greenberg was harassed all game from the White Sox dugout. As he was running down the first base someone shouted, “You big, yellow Jew bastard!”

After the game, Greenberg walked into the Chicago clubhouse and announced, “I want the guy who called me a ‘yellow Jew bastard’ to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

“No one moved,” Rosengren writes. “Hank walked slowly around the room and looked at each of them. . . . Not one of the dared stand up.”

Rosengren puts the ballplayer’s biography into the culture of the times, combining baseball stories with references to what was going on around the globe as well as what was happening in American life — Shirley Temple dancing in the movies, Walter Winchell gossiping on the pages of the nation’s newspapers and Detroit’s own Father Charles Coughlin spewing diatribes on the radio against bankers, Jews and Franklin Roosevelt.

The prejudice Greenberg faced plays against the background of quotas that were prevalent to limit the percentage of Jews in various areas of life in the United States, the bias he found in the media and the world stage, where Hitler’s ethnic cleansing would have a fateful impact on Greenberg’s career.

Warts and all

Greenberg is no saint, though, and this is no hageography. The star’s competitiveness at times makes him his own worst enemy. After four years serving in the Army Air Force during World War II – including duty overseas — steals what may have been prime years from his already outstanding career, Greenberg gets involved in the front-office end of baseball as a general manager and part owner, and at times is as ruthless as the front office people he battled when he was a player himself.

He crafts a team that in 1954 breaks the strangehold the New York Yankees have on the American League pennant, but his lack of skill in the public relations realm eventually gets him fired.

Yet he was also a man ahead of his time, advocating for a pension plan for ballplayers, arguing for baseball to drop the reserve clause, calling for a football-like draft to equalize the talent among the teams, championing interleague play and urging expansion to California, all of which eventually happened.

What Rosengren has done, it seems to this fan of baseball past as well as present, is bring to life a man and a baseball era worthy of being better known by those who love the game.

Like another Henry when Aaron was harassed by bigots as he chased the then elusive 60 home run mark, Greenberg too heard the catcalls and received the threatenting letters in the year he hit 58. America’s prejudices die hard, if they ever die.

But given the background of Nazism abroad and bigoted ignorance at home, Greenberg’s accomplishments deserve an airing with just the excellence Rosengren’s source-filled, reader-friendly, baseball-loving treatment provides. Perhaps he put it best:

“In a dark time, Hank was certainly giving the Jewish community something to cheer, but he was doing something even more significant: In an age when Jews were considered weak, unathletic and impotent, Greenberg stood as a mightly figure and, in his image as a home run slugger, a symbol of power. He changed the way Jews thought about themselves. And the way others thought about them.”

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