Some Books That May Help If You Need Help With These Things

Self-help is not my thing whatsoever. When I started this blog, it was with the intention to show how much nonfiction actually encompasses beyond areas like self-help. When telling people I only read nonfiction for years, I often got that response: that I must read a lot of self-help. Um, no. I’m perfect. But seriously, it’s a genre I feel very wary of. I think it can be useful but I also think it can be manipulative, oversimplified, and even damaging when outside help — like medical or therapeutic — is what a reader might really need. Among other complaints. I have many! (I also have a pathological need to not be told what to do so all of this might say more about me than anything else.)

But I wanted to challenge myself for the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge by reconsidering what I would classify as self-help. Certainly there have been a lot of books that have helped me immensely, including when I couldn’t afford medical care or therapy (sad I know, but also: America).

Just in the last month or so, I’ve read these three which have all been massively helpful, in their own way.

Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss (Why Intermittent Fasting Is the Key to Controlling Your Weight), by Jason Fung

If you’re not a diet book reader either, stay with me.

I feel it’s worth mentioning that I’m not obese, which isn’t to brag about it but just to say that I probably approach this with a different level of emotional investment or medical need than others might. Although I would never, ever read a diet book, I was intrigued by The Obesity Code because I’d heard that it explains the science behind weight loss and how hormones affect body weight very well. And did it ever! This was so illuminating and well written, I could follow all of nephrologist Jason Fung’s scientific explanations — and retain them enough to explain to others, which feels like information well learned.

Through his work with diabetic patients and those with kidney disease, Fung concludes that we have to challenge the accepted rule of calories in, calories out as the key to weight loss. He insists that we must know this is true by now — saying clinicians themselves know it, anyone who’s plateaued on a weight loss regimen knows it, even Oprah knows it.

His walkthroughs of the medical and scientific workings behind weight gain and loss and its difficulty are clear, evidence-backed, and framed with examples from clinical practice and his research in the practice of intermittent fasting. He looks at what fasting is and isn’t, its historical usages, and its processes and effects in the body. He also medically debunks so many long-held myths, like that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — or that you need to eat it at all — and points out things like how, as with all animals, we don’t eat when we’re sick, and it’s important to apply the biological and evolutionary reasonings behind facts and feelings like these to how we approach weight loss and management.

It comes down to our bodies having a set point weight, and anything beyond it is going to be very challenging to achieve, with hormones like insulin and cortisol playing the major roles. The good news is that managing these can reverse or avoid a lot of problems that they cause, so I think it’s helpful reading for anyone — it’s compelling and accessible pop science, and totally fascinating regardless of if you’re trying to lose weight.

And, at least from my own anecdotal perspective, I can say that the times I’ve lost the most weight without effort and felt the best while doing so were when I inadvertently did intermittent fasting because of busy work periods. Well worth a read for anyone curious about how intermittent fasting works and its benefits, weight-related or otherwise, and the importance of proper insulin regulation for anyone’s health, whether or not you suffer from diabetes or kidney ailments.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott

I went through a weird phase during a weird life period where I read a bunch of Salon.com articles – like every day – and Anne Lamott seemed to always have essays there and I felt pretty lukewarm at best about them. She also struck me as being a bit churchy, which is another thing I tend to avoid. HARD.

But truly, her collection of writing and life advice is as delightful as its reputation holds. It’s funny and practical and applicable, and she practices what she preaches so beautifully on every single page.

I loved her message to tell all your weird awful painful stories because if you felt it and tell it authentically, someone else will have felt the same. It wasn’t saccharine like I was expecting, either. The way she addresses topics like jealousy, failure, setbacks and generally feeling like shit are brilliant. She makes it somehow reassuring in a realistic, not relentlessly sunny way, which is how I prefer it.

And you know what? As much as I was like “ugh, yes, I KNOW you’re supposed to write a little bit every day, my god I AM after all the owner of a Creative Writing BA it took me five years to get”, that task has still seemed insurmountable and when I did manage to put something down it seemed so awful or cringey I couldn’t look at it again. Try again next year! Or don’t. Ever. That’s also fine. But she hammers that message home so often that I thought, ok fine, let’s try it her way instead. And can you guess who was right?

I did flinch a bit every time she mentioned praying over a problem, or discussing something at church, but that’s my own issues and I’m sure she’d tell me to write about why they exist. I get it now, Anne. And honestly, those moments weren’t even as bad as I was bracing for. She makes everything so amusing and upbeat and just somehow imbued with a sense that it’ll all be fine.

So, deeply worthwhile lessons on writing and life and although I also cried and sometimes felt desperate and sad and scared, I also felt hopeful and that it showed me better where to go and how to get there and what’s worth your worry and what’s not. And I’ve even been writing, so long story-review short, after more than 25 years this book is still wonderful and helpful and I wish I’d read it sooner. But maybe you read it when you need it.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk

Working with trauma is as much about remembering how we survived as it is about what is broken.

Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist and trauma researcher who became especially interested in the lingering effects of trauma in his work with Vietnam veterans. This book is the culmination of a career in that heavy but very necessary field of mental health. My library copy was falling apart so badly that the librarian re-taped it while I checked out. We agreed that at least its worn-out state meant that this book was reaching a lot of people who needed it.

It’s a bit clinical so I could see it not being everyone’s cup of tea but I do hold a minor in psychology (thank you, hold your applause) and we had some awfully dry clinical stuff to read back then and I still mostly loved it. If you don’t though, this might not always be so gripping. It’s a mix of clinical research, neuroscience, personal insights, and case studies from his work with people suffering trauma in various forms and at various levels. He examines different techniques for treating trauma, like EMDR — an intriguing method of which he was initially skeptical but that’s had outstanding results, biofeedback, talk therapy, physical options, different kinds of group work, and pretty much any other method applied today.

One of the most disturbing elements, for me, was how much babies and very young children can be affected by parental neglect or even just anger and anything that diverts from steady, security-enforcing care and nurture. I knew this, of course (see above re: my educational qualifications) but van der Kolk’s case studies and examples were sobering.

The most illuminating — if terrifying — is how trauma and holding it affects the body. We know now that mental health isn’t some separate entity from physical health, but rather that systems are deeply interconnected. The implications of how long-held trauma can affect bodies are alarming, simply put.

It felt very positive overall though – as horrible and complicated and life-altering as trauma is, there are a lot of options for healing, depending on the person and the specific trauma. And you’ve got to do it – it’s affecting all parts of brain and body, badly. This was really what I wanted to learn here: exactly how held trauma trickles into physical areas, and it didn’t feel there was quite as much as I wanted to know but what’s there is still very helpful to understand. Maybe because the research here is relatively new, maybe because on some level it’s just all affected.

It did put me in a weird state all week while reading because inevitably you’ll be thinking a lot about childhood, and your parents, and bad relationships, among other potential dark cloud summoners, so make sure you read it at a time when you feel up to handling these.

Have any of these helped you? What’s your favorite helpful but not-self help read?

Entered for the Self-Help category of the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.

40 thoughts on “Some Books That May Help If You Need Help With These Things

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    1. Thank you! And ugh, I’ve had to hear it so many times. Self-help is such a massive genre, I suppose, and apparently there are lots of people who read it obsessively. I’m sure it has its benefits but I also suspect there’s a lot of misinformation running through it that would be better served by professionals.

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      1. I suppose I file it under the category of cook books and dog training manuals which, while technically non fiction, I don’t really think of them that way.
        And yes, self help books can often lead to more harm than good, but I hope most people who buy them think that owning them is sufficient to get the benefit and they don’t actually have to read them. 😂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, EXACTLY that category! 😂 Even in a bookstore, you have to wade through all of these types to even find the other nonfiction options, but anything instructional and self-helpy gets prime place.

        Yes, let’s hope they exercise a placebo effect of just existing…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think most of the nonfiction I’ve found helpful probably falls into the “churchy” category, but I can think of a couple of exceptions. One is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (of Being Mortal fame), which is all about the development of the WHO surgical checklist and which genuinely made me a better-organised person/less intimidated by big projects. The other is All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister, which was just exactly the right book for me to read a few years ago when all my friends were getting married and having kids, and it was becoming apparent that I was on a different path. Not that I was (or am) bothered about being single, but it was strange to be so increasingly different from all the other women I knew, and I appreciated the companionship and validation of seing singleness being presented as a perfectly valid way of living. Neither of them are self-help books, but they were certainly both helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, I’m so glad to get an endorsement from you for both of these! Being Mortal has been on my list but I hadn’t looked at his other titles and I could definitely use anything with some wisdom about being intimidated by big projects.

      I’ve heard a lot of praise for All the Single Ladies, and it’s one I really wish had been around when I was single (not that I’m lamenting being married, but I didn’t have relationships for many years and felt really off and different and upset about it and so could’ve used it then!). But it sounds like a worthwhile read now regardless.

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  2. All these books you reviewed seem to present a lot of options for healing and provide good insights. I’ve read Lamott’s quite a while ago but didn’t have the same reaction, maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind? My most recent ‘helpful’ read – “This Explains Everything”. I’m only about a quarter of the way in, but it’s interesting to read variety of articles by ‘scientific thinkers’.

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  3. I love Anne Lamott, even the churchy stuff, but that’s because her church/version of God is so welcoming and not fundamentalist that it doesn’t seem threatening to me. This book in particular is fabulous, but Traveling Mercies and Plan B are also just great. She certainly doesn’t sugar coat anything awful about life but always gives people reasons for hope. And I love her self-deprecating humor too.

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    1. That’s good to know, that her framing of it doesn’t seem threatening. I think even mild religion is enough to repel me though, which kind of bums me out in this case because like you said, she doesn’t sugar coat the awful parts of life but has a way of highlighting what you can be hopeful about and I loved that. And yes, she is so funny! A friend said her book about raising her son was really good too so I might try that one at some point.

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  4. As a neurotic, would-be author with a creative writing degree, I read Bird by Bird years ago. I too found it helpful when I finally tried applying her words of wisdom. (Full disclosure — it’s a good book, even though I’m still a neurotic, would-be author).

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  5. Ooo I’m definitely interested in the one on trauma. If I can add one, the only self help (well, mental health) book I have read is Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. I seriously think everyone can find something important in it. She is a therapist on Instagram so scrolling through her page will give you a good idea of what her book is like!

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    1. I think you and I have so many nonfiction interests in common, so if you say it’s that’s good I believe you! I’ll add it to my list, thanks for the rec!!

      The Body Keeps the Score is a must read if you’re at all interested in trauma and therapy techniques for it. It was great.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes for sure!! And I agree that our taste is the same – I definitely resonated when you said nonfiction is so much more than self help (and business and cookbooks for that matter)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This year I’ve been getting into self help books more. I haven’t read a whole lot yet but I do search for them. The one I read mostly deal with meditation and inspirational things.

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  7. I wouldn’t think of The Body Keeps the Score as self-help as such, I know I also probably can’t face reading it, having seen a good few reviews! I do read books about business and managing stuff etc but find they all say the same thing over and over again (and I just DNF’d one which claimed although written by a Christian was for everyone then every chapter had advice for running your church / church group and Bible examples!).

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    1. The Body Keeps the Score is great but absolutely one you need to be prepared for or that you feel you really need. It can be very upsetting and triggering. I’d say avoid it if you think you’d be disturbed by it, because it really doesn’t shy from exploring some truly awful situations and feelings! I felt weird the entire week, as I said. To me it felt worthwhile ultimately, but I was pretty out of sorts nonetheless.

      I would imagine business and management books have quite a lot of similarities out of necessity. But yikes, would not be happy with a churchy one!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow, all of these sound so good? I’ve been meaning to read Bird by Bird for a long while, it’s good to be reminded I still should. The other two, I probably never would’ve picked up on my own- I doubt I would’ve gotten past the titles. But it does actually sound very helpful and interesting to understand how weight loss works and get a crash-course on insulin; I may have to worry about diabetes someday (if my family’s any indication) and it could help to know a bit more about insulin regulation before I might have to consider that more seriously. I also wouldn’t have thought of myself as traumatized or in need of guidance out of trauma, but then you mentioned childhood/parents/bad relationships that lead to poor mental and physical health, and it turns out I can definitely relate, I just hadn’t thought of it that way. Perhaps that’s my issue with self-help; it tells you what you think you want to hear/see right up front, while the best payoff might actually come from books you have to dig a little deeper to find!

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    1. Bird by Bird was one that’s just been recommended to me forever, to the point that I thought it wasn’t for me out of sheer crazy popularity, if that makes sense! But it really deserves its reputation, it was such a great and surprisingly heartwarming, very reassuring read. I would say don’t wait as long as I did to read it!

      That’s exactly why I was interested in The Obesity Code, the reasons you mention around insulin — my dad is diabetic and it’s both disappointing and scary to see how he’s handled it, especially as it worsens 😦 His dad had it too and it’s something I want to avoid at all costs. I have pretty good nutrition now but I definitely didn’t always, and I gained belly weight over the last year or so (I have no excuse since I already worked at home pre-Covid and I know the drill!) but that concerns me because it’s linked to insulin resistance, cortisol, etc. If you’re concerned about the potential for insulin resistance because of family connections I think this is super helpful – the good news is that so much of it is reversible or vastly improvable with the right management!

      And you hit the nail on the hand – self-help feels so oversimplified and watered down to me, most of the time, or just reiterating talking points or pretty but empty sayings without actually forcing you to dig a bit deeper! I mean if it really helps people, great, but I’m skeptical.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m so sorry to hear about your dad’s struggle, and that you’re also concerned about your future health! It’s just grandparents for me so far with diabetes, but one case was pretty severe and my parents certainly aren’t as careful about nutrition as they should be so I worry about it every time they’ve got a new ailment. Like you I’m fairly healthy at present, though I too slip sometimes, including during this Covid era. I definitely haven’t been as active as I should be, and while my weight hasn’t really changed I have definitely noticed the ratio of fat to muscle has skewed in the wrong direction over the last year unfortunately, and I wouldn’t say I was particularly athletic to start with, haha. I’ve got to get back to it. But I really know very little about how insulin works and which steps to take for prevention or reversal, so The Obesity Code does sound like a helpful read!

        That’s exactly how I feel about self-help. I think perhaps it could help people in that it affirms what they already are doing or suspect they should be doing, which may be enough for the average person (if we can say such a person exists); an affirmative reading experience that isn’t followed up by drastic changes in behavior probably feels like a positive, I suppose. But I too would worry about more vulnerable readers who pick up such books in order to take actionable steps against a real problem, when they might need a professional moreso than a good read!

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      2. You put this perfectly. I think it tends to affirm people’s preexisting beliefs too much, or waters down concepts to the point that they’re nice soundbites but not actually helpful where a professional would be!

        And my issue with weight sounds similar to yours, it’s that skewed ratio and mine was definitely precarious to begin with! I’ve been sticking to the principles I learned here though and I’ve definitely lost weight though. So there’s something to it, and I feel like anything is worthwhile if there are greater health benefits like regulating insulin. I think you’d get a lot out of this one!

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  9. I’m so glad you had a positive experience with Bird by Bird, and the other two sound fascinating as well – particularly The Obesity Code. This has really got me thinking about what is a self-help book and what isn’t – I’ve read a couple this year, like Anders Bortne’s Sleepless, that specifically say they aren’t self-help, but provide so much information and support in the form of understanding shared experiences. I’d also say I never read self-help, but I love informative and ‘helpful’ books like these – they probably deserve a category in their own right!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t know of Sleepless, I’ll look that one up! Trying to pick what I’d read for that category really got me thinking about it too…there ARE so many books that have helped me, but I’m just so hesitant about the concept of self-help as it stands in general. I think you put it so well – books that provide information and support and a kind of reassurance of shared experiences are incredibly meaningful.

      The Obesity Code was fantastic, if you’re interested in it. Not like what I’ve seen of other “diet” books whatsoever, very no-nonsense, science-based, and I loved his writing voice!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “I also have a pathological need to not be told what to do.” That made me laugh! I am exactly the same and I’ve never been able to cope with self-help books for that particular reason. Books which give me knowledge (for instance about how the body works) or books about how other people have tackled different situations are my self-help books. And they are 100 times more inspirational than “7 habits of highly effective people” or similar (at least I think they are, even if I bought the latter, I never managed to read it…). The Obesity Code sounds interesting. I am not obese either, but I still think it’s important to know about these things.

    Less certain about Bird by Bird and suggestions of praying over a problem would definitely make me flinch (possibly even scowl 😉 ) as well.

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    1. I’m glad I could make you laugh!! Sometimes when I write things like that I think someone is going to latch onto that to tell me exactly what’s wrong with me (in a mean way; effect of social media’s existence) so I’m relieved we could have this in common instead 😂

      You make such a good point about books that give you knowledge, especially that’s applicable, being better self-help. I’ve been reading all of these pop science/medical books over the last few years and they’ve helped me more than I can even adequately express! I regret not being more open to the topics a long time ago, because it would’ve saved me a lot of trouble and time.

      Thankfully, her mentions of anything around prayer or religion or VERY brief or I would’ve been out of there. Her mention of church is just of asking people there about a problem she was having, and she mentions here and there as part of her process that she’ll pray over something. It’s pretty brief and painless! I’m disappointed because as I understand it most of her other nonfiction is churchier so that might be it for me of hers.

      And if you think the topics covered in Obesity Code are at all interesting I can’t recommend it enough – it was so good and he’s a great communicator of what had seemed to me more complex medical processes!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I read Bird by Bird so many years ago I’ve forgetten almost everything about it. This was before I started blogging as a way to better remember what I’ve read. The only thing I do remember is “shitty first drafts”, which is a little gem that might be worth the price of the whole book all by itself. Thanks for these reviews.

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    1. So very true! I got so much out of it but interestingly that’s the bit that keeps ringing in my head too (mostly when I’m writing something and about to stop because it feels like garbage). I’m so glad I finally read it.

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  12. I’m not a big self help person either but these do sound worthy. I’ve been very slowly reading Lamott’s book over the last year. Probably a terrible strategy but I thought if I read it all over the course of a week, I’d forget most of it. She’s very entertaining as well as informative.

    I’ve somehow managed to maintain a healthy weight throughout my life. Never dieted and love to cook but I also skip meals–breakfast being chief among them. Both of my parents did the same thing so I guess it simply became part of how I live without giving it a lot of thought. The obesity book sounds interesting simply to see how much of it aligns with my actual practices.

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    1. Oh that’s so interesting, because skipping meals and especially breakfast — or at least only first eating breakfast when you’re actually really hungry, and not eating first thing out of habit — is one of his biggest tenets. So you seem to be doing something right there for sure! It’s one of those things I came to later in life, my family was very much all about forcing me to eat breakfast even if I wasn’t hungry and like you said, it just becomes a part of how you live.

      You’ll probably retain much more of Lamott’s book reading it more slowly. It’s easy to get lost in the humor and entertainment of it and not hold on to all of the helpful points she makes. I borrowed it from the library but want to get a copy so I can go back to it, it’s worth getting to know better!

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  13. Late to this post, but it really struck a chord with me. I first read Bird by Bird when I came across Shitty First Drafts, and really liked it. You’re right, the author comes believes praying helps a lot, because she greatly believes that “grace” is something that can help you through many things. You can leave the parts that don’t resonate with you. She also has a very good TED Talk that briefly goes across her life experiences. Body Keeps the Score also left me in a weird state, and so I never got to finish it. It’s an intimidating book if you’re not looking for something specific.

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    1. I was actually pleasantly surprised that it didn’t focus as much on praying, she only mentioned it a couple of times. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been of much help to me at all. As it was I found it really helpful though, and easy to move past the religiousy bits quickly.

      I agree the Body Keeps the Score is an intimidating one. I put off reading it for a long time but I did end up finding it more helpful even than I imagined. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own experiences and how to frame and explain them. But I agree, it’s definitely one that depends on what you need from it!

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  14. No surprise, but it seems like we share the same views on self-help books. I avoid them as often as possible, which seems to be getting harder in my late twenties. It seems like friends left and right are tossing out books on dating, dieting, and other dangers. So I really appreciate how you approached all of this because, really, a book doesn’t have to be classified in a special section in the bookstore in order to be helpful.

    Bird by Bird has been sitting on my bookshelf for ages at this point … it’s getting embarrassing. But I figured I should actually read something else by Anne Lamott before reading writing advice from her. However, you’re making me think I should go ahead and dive in.

    And the Van der Kolk book sounds especially powerful.

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    1. YES! I don’t know why but so many friends are constantly recommending self-help books to me, maybe because they know I only read nonfiction and again, people tend to automatically assume it’s mostly that. Ugh. Of course I use books to help me with questions, problems, worries, etc. but there’s something about the tone and structure of books specifically framed as self-help that rubs me wrong. All I can think reading them is that these are really issues better directed to a doctor or therapist. I’m glad I’m not alone in this!

      I really did love Bird by Bird, much more than I even imagined I would. I would almost say read this before anything else of hers, because from what I understand it’s very different from her other nonfiction, at least. When I told a friend recently how much I loved it she said she did too, and wished her other books had been like that! It’s also a good one to read a chapter a day to retain it better, I think.

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  15. I must admit that I’m dubious about intermittent fasting and I’d not have considered picking up The Obesity Code on my own, but your description of how evidence-based it is definitely appeals to me! I know I’ve read elsewhere about how the calories in/out thing is a myth, so nice to see that lines up with what this book says.

    I’ve heard exclusively good things about The Body Keeps Score, so I’m guessing other people aren’t finding the clinical stuff too dry. For some reason, I’m just not excited about this one. It might just be that the topic seems heavy, I’m not sure!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was dubious about it too, I lumped it in with any other fad diet-type thing. But he breaks down so well exactly how weight loss and gain works and why calories in/out also only works to an extent, but with other factors clearly at play. It was really fascinating and he made the science of it easy to understand without watering it down, which is hard to do so felt impressive!

      I think you’d definitely have to be interested in the topic for Body Keeps the Score, otherwise it’s just a bit too involved or esoteric, I guess!

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