Books: best of 2016

by anneMoore on December 20, 2016

A very satisfying year in books. Below, my favorite reads.

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

Characters linked by the devastation of a bomb set in a crowded marketplace. They grow up and old in surprising, unsettling ways.



Christodora, by Tim Murphy

A sprawling read set in lower Manhattan, 1970’s to the near future. AIDS, class, subzero winters, art and artists, drug addiction. Dark and moving.



Eccentric Orbits, by John Bloom

Jaw-dropping story of Motorola’s development, and abandonment, of the Iridium satellite system and the retired airline executive who saved it. My favorite non fiction of the year.


Heroes of the Frontier, Dave Eggers

I’m an Eggers fan; this one’s another misanthropic pleaser. The story of a woman escaping her life for Alaska with her small children in tow.




High Dive, by Jonathan Lee

Fact-based fiction: three people forever changed by the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England.




Mr. Monkey, by Francine Prose

From a musical that never goes out of style — Mister Monkey — we enter the lives of actors, the director, the author, a man and his grandson in the audience. A delightful web.


The Nix, by Nathan Hill

Mostly set in and around contemporary Chicago, this is a coming of age story, a love story, a satire, a terrifying on-the-ground retelling of the 1968 Chicago riots.



They May not Mean to, But they Do, by Cathleen Schine

Funny, sweet, real, heartbreaking. The family Bergman: the decline and death of Aaron, wife Joy’s grief and aging.




When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

A seamless memoir of a young neurosurgeon’s last year of life.




The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota

Via four characters, we experience an India each must leave and the England where they learn to survive. Beautifully told, harrowing.




Let us honor the life and work of Shirley Hazzard (1931 – 2016) a worldly author, both nonfiction and fiction. Her novel The Transit of Venus (1980) is one of my favorite reads, about orphaned Australian sisters who make new lives for themselves in post-war England, entangled with three men. Thematically Hazzard is in company with Henry James but I find her writing more beautiful and accessible.


Finally, the folks at Artsy asked me to post a link to their site. I agreed because I’m a fan of their mission, to make all the world’s art accessible via the Internet. For example, their Mark Rothko offering.


Happy New Year, thanks for reading.

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Reading: comfort and wisdom

by anneMoore on December 2, 2016

Here’s what I’ve been reading and liking lately.

shoppingEvicted is a thick work of nonfiction by sociologist Matthew Desmond, about tenants and landlords in a poor part of Milwaukee. The book is richly told, detailed, Dickensian. I liked the telling more than the tale, which is depressing, heartbreaking, hopeless. Women and children, the disabled, the underemployed, the drug addicted losing their homes. Housing as a human right? I’m sold.

imagesOn to a big read, The Nix, by Nathan Hill, which tells the story of a young man who must reunite with the mother who abandoned him as a child, who has resurfaced as a political terrorist. This read is a wild ride that spans continents and decades, mostly set in and around contemporary Chicago. It’s a coming of age story, a love story, a satire, a terrifying on-the-ground retelling of the 1968 Chicago riots. 620 pages, so much to like.

images-1In my post-election funk, I needed comedy. Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey was my salve. From a musical that never goes out of style — Mister Monkey — we enter the lives of actors, the director, the author, a man and his grandson in the audience. What a delightful web! Each of their stories entrances; I especially loved the grandfather in the mix with today’s fussy parents and the school teacher on a first date from hell. Sweet, funny, surprising. A rollicking read.

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Books: Recent reads

by anneMoore on October 12, 2016

Most recently I read and enjoyed Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, a modern Hamlet narrated by a full-term fetus. Trudy, the pregnant mother, has dismissed her poet husband John from his childhood home, a imagescrumbling mansion in a fashionable part of London. Taking his place? His brother Claude. Together, Trudy and Claude conspire to murder John Cairncross, inherit the house, sell it to developers, abandon the baby. Say what? asks our charming narrator. Life in the projects?

This is a tale well told from a unique vantage. (Bravo, Ian McEwan.) The fetus has opinions on wines, poetry, his parents, world affairs, his dumb uncle, the lovers’ treacherous plan. Funny and wise. Fluid.

My one gripe, and it’s a big one: none of the characters are likable. I felt nothing when John met his poisoned end, nothing when the gig is up for Trudy and Claude.

No complaints on this next read: Tim Murphy’s Christodora is my favorite of the year. I had terrible book grief when I finished: what will I read now? How will anything other book be so pleasing?

images-1It’s a sprawl of a read — my favorite kind — set in lower Manhattan, in and around the Christodora apartment building, from the 1970’s to the near future. It’s about AIDS, class, subzero winters, art and artists, drug addiction. The drug parts are hard to read.

We follow several lives: artists Milly and Jared, from their young love to their understandable mid-life hate; Hector, an AIDS activist turned junkie; Issy, who becomes an AIDS activist as she dies from the disease; Mateo, her child and eventually a junkie, adopted and raised by Milly and Jared.

It takes a little while to figure out who’s who and how they relate, but once hooked there was no putting this book down. Dark and moving. No false notes.

I’ll read anything by Dave Eggers and his latest, Heroes of the Frontier, is another misanthropic pleaser. It’s the story of a woman escaping her life, for seemingly good reasons, with her small children in tow.

9780451493804Josie, a dentist in Ohio, takes off to Alaska with kind, beautiful son Paul and small daughter Anna, who is a terror. There she rents a mobile home, and off they go! Are they ever going home? Why are the other kids going to school? This is a road-trip story, and the stops along the way are frightening and heartening, often at the same time. I liked watching Josie learn things about herself and the marriage she left behind.

This isn’t a page turner (as I’d been told); rather, it’s a deeply engaging meditation on work, family, America, adventure.


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Books: Summer Reads

by anneMoore on August 19, 2016

I am just returned from my favorite reading spot, our home on Lac Pythonga, where I sit with a book on the dock or the beach or Pythongastretch out on our new couch and/or reading chair with ottoman (thank you, Georgia Dent) — quiet spaces all. What a treat: to read for hours at a time in the woods, by the lake, in a space that’s off the grid. There’s no phones, no television, no Internet.

Sure, I did other things: yoga on an unscreened porch, spa treatments on the dock, hot sauna/cool lake runs, long hard swims with my friend Sharon, to and from her dock, where we’d rest a bit and chat. At night with my family we played Scrabble or Giant Jenga while Evan and Harry listened, via Sirius satellite radio, to Chicago Cubs games.

Here’s what I read and can recommend:

Eccentric Orbits, by John Bloom, is the jaw-dropping story of orbitsMotorola’s development, and abandonment, of the Iridium satellite system and the retired airline executive who saved it. My friend Joe was reading the book, too, and we’d come to breakfast sharing outrage at Motorola’s stubborn resistance to saving the system and its complicity in Iridium’s bankruptcy: shocking, like watching an animal eat its young. Joe and I agreed that the book went on too long, but otherwise, this is a deep and satisfying read.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante, part two of the four part Neapolitan novels.

ferranteI read the first of these last year and while I liked it a lot, was exhausted by the story’s everyday violence and granular telling: after 331 pages, the girls (Lila and Elena) were only 16 years old. That said, I’m glad I picked up part two, because now I’m hooked and will read all four.

What’s so compelling? The character of Lila, who marries at 16 and immediately — at the wedding! — rejects her husband. From there it’s an affair, a child by another man, and later, flight with still another man. Studious Elena goes off to college in Pisa and manages, despite her poverty, to succeed. Part Two ends on a note of hope, which will get me to Book Three.

Earlier this summer I read:

yearofrunawaysThe Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeen Sahota. This is the story of contemporary Indian immigrants in England. I loved every page and held this big book (484 pages) close. Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it’s a full-bodied read that takes us, via four characters, to an India they each must leave and the England in which they must learn to survive. A fitting, rueful ending; my favorite read of the year.

They May not Mean to, But they Do
, by Cathleen Schine. I’ll read schineanything by Schine: her work is about everything and nothing and always funny, sweet, real, heartbreaking. Also, typically about New York and its people. (If you haven’t read her “Fin & Lady,” do.) This one is about the family Bergman: the decline and death of paterfamilias Aaron followed by his wife Joy’s grief and aging. Their adult children are well meaning but hilarious in their attempts to care for Joy, then outraged when Joy brings an old boyfriend into the family fold. Little girls, a wandering grandson, women in love: Schine gets everything right.

tribeI also enjoyed Tribe, by Sebastian Unger, a slender (136 page) collection of writings on homecoming and belonging. Deeply personal but expansive, historical, topical. Many dog-eared pages.

Too, I was surprised to thoroughly enjoy Clementine, by Sonia Purnell, a biography of the wife of Winston Churchill, which I read because I’d been invited to a book talk. (Thank you, Jennifer.) What a life! Clementine loved andclementine devoted herself to Winston (a fascinating, brilliant tyrant) at the expense of all else, including their children. Reads like a Mitford novel.

About Girls on Fire, by Robin Wasserman: I loved its lyric beginning and end. In between is a gruesome and not very believable “mean girls” tale.

hillbillyRight now I’m reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy. Great reporting and storytelling, about L.A. homicide detectives tasked with solving black-on-black crime. Also Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, about white Americans left behind in the post-industrial Midwest. Violent, telling.

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New York City: touring and eating

by anneMoore on July 28, 2016

The college tour continued, in New York, where we stayed in Union Square with my sister Mary Beth (thank you) and visited two of mbandmeColumbia University’s undergraduate colleges: Columbia College and Barnard College. Each deserves a day, and that’s how we toured.

We were in Morningside Heights, so we visited the magnificent Cathedral of St. John the Divine and stjohndivpicked up pastries at The Hungarian Bakery (1030 Amsterdam Ave., at 111th St.), unchanged since I was a Barnard student in the barnardmosaic‘80s. I looked fondly at the V&T Pizzeria marquee,  also unchanged. If we hadn’t already had lunch, I’d have been happy to revisit. Some tastes never fade.

Among the places we ate well: Le Monde (2885 Broadway at 112th St.), one of eight French restaurants in the city. I’m always pleased to dine with them: excellent French food, good service, lively bistro settings.

fifthaveCloser to my sister’s place is the newly opened Union Fare  restaurant and bakery. It’s huge, stretching from 18th street to 17th street, with entrances on both. We were a table of eight and had a delicious, reasonably priced dinner, with bang up service. Don’t miss their oyster bar, charcuterie, seasonal spreads. I had the seared black bass entree, with lentils, clams, fiddleheads, fava beans and so on: yum. The next morning, we picked up caffe lattes and breakfast pastries: lavender blueberry muffins, almond croissants, soft oversized pretzels (a New York City must).

Speaking of New York treasures, we dined on Bleeker Street at John’s (Brick Oven) Pizzeria. See above, about tastes one never forgets.

tessanneAnother spot I liked a lot, Le Grainne,  is near the High Line. There I had my kind of breakfast — a giant bowl of cafe au lait and a serving of yogurt with fruit — with my college roommate and dear friend Tess, who had a croque madame alongside her bowl of coffee. Le Grainne is the New York I remember: small, tin ceiling, tight tables, a place for a leisurely meal.

I can’t recommend the High Line at that hour (Sunday noon): clogged with people and more crowded than the streets below. Do go, of course: it’s a spectacular urban space, but go early morning or after dinner.

Another thing I love about New York: the city still has bookstores. Tess needed Father’s Day gifts, so we dropped in at the well curated 192 Books.

Final shout out: to New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Hadestown, a musical (I know, I’m not a fan, but I loved this one) based on the myths, love stories both, of Orpheus and Euridyce and of Hades and Persephone. Its industrialized mill town setting (Hades’ underworld) was eerily contemporary, with his calls for building a wall. We loved the folk opera score, the musicians, and the actors’ use of the small theatre, aisles and all.

Of course I read; I’m saving reviews for next post. ‘Til then.

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Reading: Big books for summer

by anneMoore on June 6, 2016

Ah, summer. Some readers head to fluff, others head to big, long, challenging reads because summer offers unbroken stretches and quiet at the beach, by the pool, on a dock.

Here are three deep reads I can recommend.

imagesJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015). Krakauer is the ace reporter and storyteller who has given us Into the Wild, Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, each an unsettling, deeply researched read.

Same goes for Missoula, which details four years in this Montana college town, when young women who’d been raped by football players and other students forced police, the state’s attorney and university leaders to take action. An absorbing read.

images-1Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of Isis reads like a thriller, but it’s the true story of the missteps by Presidents Bush and Obama that led to the powerful rise of al-Zarqawi.

Freed from prison in 1999, the radicalized Zarqawi aimed to create an Islamist caliphate throughout the Middle East; his terror attacks included suicide bombings and beheadings. A 2006 airstrike killed Zarqawi, but his organization lives on: when the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Zarqawi’s followers stepped in, raising the black flags of ISIS. Most interesting to me was Al-Quaeda’s initial rebuff of Zarqawi, whose leaders considered him a thug. A must read.

images-2And finally, fact-based fiction: Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, which imagines three people forever changed by the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England. The target was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the long-delay-timer bomb was the master work of the Irish Republican Army, then fighting for independence from England.

Lee’s magnificent story unfolds the lives of IRA bomb expert Dan, hotel manager Moose, and teenage daughter Freya. We come to know the hotel’s every day workings, the life and times of Moose (a champion diver), his motherless daughter and her teen friends, Dan’s IRA initiation and fraught home life in Belfast.

At times I thought this book too long, but now that I’ve finished I wouldn’t know where to cut. I savored this read.

Happy summer, happy reading.


Eating, touring: U.S. road trip

by anneMoore on May 5, 2016


We took our daughter Alex on a college tour that began in Berkeley atriceand ended in New Orleans, with stops in between in Austin and Houston. Along with the touring, we did a lot of good eating. Here’s a report.

Our host in Berkeley did all the cooking (thank you, Carl!) so I have no restaurants to recommend, only glowing reports of outrageous views, varied and interesting architecture, lush vegetation, and the magnificent University of California campus, carlsviewwhich, like the rest of Berkeley, is tiered. If you’ve never been, include Berkeley on your next trip to San Francisco.

Next stop: Austin, where we stayed at an unexceptional Hyatt on the Colorado River, nearish to University of Texas (which we loved for its sunny campus, happy students, many swimming pools.)

A short walk from the hotel, we found Coopers Old Time Pit Bar B Que, Home of the Big Chop. There, ribs and chicken and other texasmeats are sold by the pound. Sides include a jalapeno-bacon mac & cheese (spicy and delicious), tangy coleslaw and all-you-can eat beans. Yelpers complain about dry/overcooked meats, but that wasn’t our experience. Delicous que in a comfortable, casual spot.

On to Houston, to our favorite hotel of the trip. The Lancaster is an historic hotel in downtown Houston’s Fourth Ward; they upgraded us to a two-bedroom suite, which spoiled us forever. Downtown Houston is not a lively place, but we enjoyed the hotel’s European style breakfast, excellent service and central location for touring Rice University and later, the Rothko Chapel.

Mediocre dinners downtown forced us into Houston’s sprawl, goodecowhere we found Goode Company Seafood, a high temple to Southern seafood housed in a former railroad car.  Not to be missed.

We spent the rest of our trip in New Orleans, touring Tulane University, haunting the French Quarter from our charming and centrally located hotel,  and tulanespending time in our son’s Bayou St. Jean neighborhood, which is picture-postcard New Orleans. (Thank you for hospitality and Easter dinner, Evan and Sara!) There we had a tasty po’ boy lunch at Liuzza’s by the Track and twice took a walk to City Park, looping through the Museum of New Orlean’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden.

Memorable dinners downtown at Luke, a Franco-German brasserie. (We were the ones swarming a tower of seafood.) On Magazine Street, we savored the seasonal French food and fine service at Lilette.  Among my souvenirs, a pound of French roast from Cafe du Monde, like no other.


Books: Reading on the Road

by anneMoore on April 14, 2016

Two weeks of planes, trains and automobiles gave me plenty of time to read. Here’s what I liked:

images-5My sister Liza works in medicine and had two copies of Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm and so gave me one. Marsh is a British neurosurgeon and a very good storyteller. He brought me inside the heads and heart of his patients and himself and into the managed lunacy of England’s socialized healthcare system. There’s never enough beds, and he can’t operate on someone who doesn’t have a bed. A great read.

I’d never read Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and if you haven’t either, don’t be shy. Published in 1983, the story holds up. It’s a novel images-1about a marriage falling apart, based on Ephron’s failed marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. Set among droll New Yorkers and Washington power brokers, the book is both very very funny (‘natch) and achingly sad. A swift read. Loved it.

I was quickly hooked by the teenage character in Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman, (1951) one of the oddest reads ever. Natalie Waite is 17 and on her way out of her parent’s home, to college. As her overly-intelligent parents bicker, Natalie has a different soundtrack running through her head: she’s images-6being questioned by a policeman. “Confess, she thought, if I confess I might go free.” Later, she is the unwilling sex partner to a houseguest, but buries the event. “I will not think about it, it doesn’t matter…I don’t remember, nothing happened.” Life at college is similarly unsettling. Is all of this happening, or is Natalie losing her mind? I enjoyed this smart, spooky read.

Another creepy read was Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a character images-7that will live on in my head for a very long time. In a rundown house, motherless Eileen is a slovenly young adult who cares for her alcoholic father. She works in a prison for teenage boys and pines for one of the guards. When a beautiful counselor arrives at the prison, menace follows. Moshfegh unspools this uncomfortable tale slowly, brilliantly.

I’m always looking for a New York read and lapped up Kristopher images-3Jansma’s Why We Came to the City, which follows five college friends as they marry, die, grieve, grow up. Nicely told.

Happy Spring! Next post: Eating our way through Austin, Houston, New Orleans.


Spring CHF: Style

by anneMoore on March 18, 2016

Expanding on what they do best, the Chicago Humanities Festival will present a themed four-day event this spring, their first ever. (April 28 – May 1.) The subject is style.

Headliners include fashion icon Iris Apfel, media entrepreneur imagesArianna Huffington, Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan, Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza, photographer Sally Mann, actress Mary Louise Parker. Featured writers are contemporary historian Andrew Solomon, “Negroland” author Margo Jefferson, “My Struggle” autobiographer Karl Ove Knausgaard.

“It’s a theme I’ve wanted to explore for a long time,” says Alison Cuddy, program director. “Style is everywhere and yet it’s elusive. It goes beyond fashion, it concerns the global economy, media, politics, communication, protest.”

CHF had been hosting one-off events outside the fall festival for several years. While successful, single subjects didn’t create the buzz and good will that comes from a thematically grouped festival. “When we looked at what people were most passionate about CHF, it was the theme, an uber theme that allowed for different experiences as one moved through the festival,” says Phillip Bahar, executive director. “We thought, ‘How do we create another moment like that?’”

And so, a spring “mini” festival was designed, with more than 20 events. It’s a lot like the fall festival, bringing authors, thinkers, doers, dreamers to Chicago under the umbrella of a broad common theme, in this case, style.

images-1 Begun as a one-day event in 1989, CHF’s fall festival runs over five weeks and draws 38,000 to 120 events in multiple sites across the city. CHF achieves its long-sought goal of year-round programming with the spring festival.

Also this spring, CHF hosts “H is for Hawk” memoirist Helen Macdonald May 11.

And a one-day event cohosted with the MacArthur Foundation May 15 brings together WBEZ journalist Natalie Moore, Story Corps founder Dave Isay, Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond in a conversation about cities, stories, words and images.

“Programming is not a formula,” says Cuddy. “These events reflect who we are.”

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Books: Reading on airplanes, reading in bed

by anneMoore on February 5, 2016

With two weekend trips that involved air travel and a week in bed with a respiratory flu, I read a lot.

Here goes: Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a seamless memoir of a young neurosurgeon’s last year. Woven into his dire situation is the story of his life: a happy, active Arizona childhood, his quenchless thirst for literature and learning, his reasons to go into medicine, a repaired marriage, the decision to father a child. We are with him as he becomes a doctor — his mistakes, his triumphs — and with him as he becomes the patient. He is so alive on the page I still can’t picture him dead. shoppingThis is a book I will press into the hands of others. It’s perfect.

Because my father died from the long-term effect of blows to the head, I have an interest in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease to the brain found in football players, boxers, ice hockey players and others. There I was in the Phoenix airport with nothing to read, so I picked up Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas. (Will Smith stars in the movie.) Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, is a forensic pathologist working in a Pittsburgh morgue. He handles the images-1autopsy of a troubled young Hall of Fame football player: how did he end up like that? Omalu decides to study the player’s brain, and discovers CTE. This is the story of Omalu standing up to our country’s entrenched racism and the NFL. Cheesy storytelling, fascinating tale: I couldn’t put it down.

A summer friend pressed me to read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, saying it was the future of literature. Hmm. I will say it is a images-2minutely observed story of a mostly grueling life in the Midwest. As a neglected toddler, Lila is stolen from her family and raised by a vagabond named Doll. They traipse the country, working on farms, in homes, in hotels. When Doll stabs and kills a man that may be Lila’s father, the two are separated. Lila settles in a shack outside a small town in Iowa, and wanders into a church to stay dry. From there, life changes for the better. She and the minister marry (a sweet love), but Lila is forever outside society. She’s odd; she’s always dreaming and talking of moving on. I didn’t appreciate Robinson’s layered storytelling until later, when I picked up…

shopping-1Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, expecting a great read. Nope. A daughter and mother reunite in a New York City hospital room and share gossip from the rural town in Illinois from which Lucy escaped. It’s an airless read; I didn’t care about anyone back home and Lucy won’t reveal the why for the troubled marriage she’s in. She pines for her young daughters, but we don’t get a sense of how they live, the day to day life Lucy is missing. No one in this story is fleshed out. This book got (undeserved) rave reviews. Strout wrote Olive Kitteridge, the portrait of a difficult woman and the town she lives in; it’s among the best fiction I’ve ever read. Lucy Barton is a pale effort.

images-3From there I read Chicago authors, which I study for work. Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers is a sturdy and dark first novel, though I’m still not sure who was pulling the strings. The book is set on a group of mostly uninhabited islands off the coast of California. Its only residents are scientists studying the area’s wildlife. When a photographer arrives to live among them, menace follows: bullying, sexual assault, drowning, death by birds, slips that end in broken limbs. By accident, or by design? Geni vividly describes the islands’ landscape, its creatures, the scientists’ way of life. A rich and terrifying read.

shopping-2Finally, I savored Vessels: A Love Story, Daniel Raeburn’s Chicago-based memoir about loss and love and becoming an adult. Raeburn and his wife, a potter, suffer a miscarriage and then a stillborn child, whose absence informs their lives. They go on to have two girls and struggle with how to tell those girls about their first born, whose ashes are stored in a plugged vase that is sometimes in a closet, sometimes on a shelf. Raeburn gets right both the joy and exhaustion of raising children, the messy business of marriage. My only complaint: I wanted more, especially about his friends.

And now, for all you grammar nerds, a funny Valentine’s Day infographic  from Grammerly. Enjoy!

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