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Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 1+ hours
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Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal is another Audible original that will delight listeners. The comedy begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but the subject is at once unexpected and humorous. With Kevin Cline, Annette Benning, and so many others (including a star from Moana), the anonymous and unexpected nature of death is explored through humor and ridiculous situations in the public eye, as President David Murray appears to be losing his mind as he talks to himself in grocery stores, etc. Even as his conversations appear one-sided, he actually spends a great deal of time speaking to the anonymous grim reaper (Billy Crystal) and coaching him on how to be a good angel of death.

Even though there are twists in the story, which I found a bit predictable, I laughed a number of times while listening to this comedic story. It’s a tale of humor, but also demonstrates how we never know when death comes for us and we should live our lives with purpose and be sure things are in order before the angel of death does come. There are no second chances or do-overs for most of us.

Have a Nice Day by Billy Crystal was a delightful surprise. With the award winning cast, it should not have been. Aesop in comedic form.

RATING: Quatrain

Eraser by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant

Source: Purchased
ebook, 21 pgs.
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Eraser by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant, is a delightful children’s book exploring the nature of not only creativity but also team work. Kang’s character, the eraser, finds that all of her friends — pencil, crayon, etc. — get all of the praise for their creative and productive work. Only Ruler and Pencil Sharpener seem to appreciate her friendship and hard work. She’s bummed that she’s not as creative as the rest of the school supplies. She decides to leave and most everyone isn’t sad to see her go.

While she’s gone, the pencil and others soon realize that eraser enabled them to have a second chance when they made mistakes. Second chances are important in life, and she was a big part of their team.

Kang’s story is filled with not only puns and humor, but life lessons for parents and kids alike. We all have our own talents and we must learn to embrace them and the roles we can play in our own lives, especially as part of a team. Eraser by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant, should be part of every kid’s home library.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Authors:

Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant are the creators of Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner You Are (Not) Small and its follow-ups, That’s (Not) Mine and I Am (Not) Scared, as well as Can I Tell You a Secret? and Will You Help Me Fall Asleep? Christopher’s work can be seen regularly in The New Yorker, and his cartoons are syndicated worldwide. As an author, Anna routinely goes through first, second, and third drafts; Chris wears down many erasers while making his art. This husband-and-wife team lives in New Jersey with their two daughters and their rescue dog. Visit Anna and Christopher at www.annakang.com and www.christopherweyant.com.

Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell

Source: Publisher
Paperback, 241 pgs.
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“Although approximately one in six women will be sexually assaulted, more than 90 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.” (pg. XI)

Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell will inspire those who have been abused, trafficked, and left feeling unworthy to rebuild their self-esteem, create their own sacred places, and heal from their abuse. Axtell’s memoir is more than a look at her life and recovery, it is a call to those with similar stories and experiences.

She asks nothing of them but to care for themselves, to rediscover their own worth, and to find a community that can support them in that endeavor. Throughout the memoir, she offers poems she wrote throughout her experiences as a way to speak about the suffering and long road of recovery.

“Beautiful Justice is the art of taking back our lives and reclaiming our worth after abuse. It is a form of Justice that does not depend on what happens to our perpetrators. It is centered on our recovery as a creative process.” (pg. X)

Axtell’s recovery from abuse and trafficking was a long one. But with the help of her parents after a tumultuous time, she had two champions for her self-worth. At one point, her father praises her and reaffirms her as an intelligent young woman, while her mother helps her find places to seek out the help she needs. Even as she succeeds in some areas of her life, she is still battling demons.

“I strive for perfection in every dimension of my life — my dance, my studies, my spiritual path. I want to shine so brightly the shadows cannot consume me.” (pg. 16)

Axtell does not dwell on the horrors she experienced, but on the emotional trauma, the PTSD, and the dark shadows that follow her. Her recovery also provides lessons in how you can fool yourself into believing that all is right with your own world, even when you have not resolved the darkness that follows you. She offers moments of joy, her struggles, and her poetry in an effort to demonstrate the hard road of recovery but also the hope that can be found around you, if you are willing to ask the right questions of yourself. What makes you happy? How can you reclaim your life? How can you rebuild your worth without connecting it to what happens to the perpetrators of your abuse?

We are the untamed.
We are the unashamed.
We are beautiful justice
Just watch us rise. (pg. 143)

In addition to her story, she offers journal prompts in the back to help other survivors get started on their own recoveries, she provides them poems of strength and hope, and she provides mantras they can use to reaffirm their own worth. While she speaks a lot about how her ties to Christianity helped in her recovery, she also cautioned readers on how some doctrine and those who offer it can lead you away from your recovery journey. Axtell says that you need to find your own touchstones and paths to recovery, and many of the answers are within yourself. Self-reflection, self-care, and creativity can help those in recovery blossom and rebuild their lives. Beautiful Justice by Brooke Axtell is a journey of reclaiming self-worth and identity, while manifesting the beauty inside in the form of art and celebrating the value we bury inside.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet and Author:

Brooke Axtell is the Founder and Director of She is Rising, a healing community for women and girls overcoming gender violence and sex trafficking. Her work as a human rights activist led her to speak at The 2015 Grammy Awards, The United Nations and the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Her work as a writer, speaker, performing artist and activist has been featured in many media outlets, including the New York Times, LA Times, Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Steve Harvey Show. Brooke is an award-winning poet, singer/songwriter and author of the new memoir, Beautiful Justice: How I Reclaimed My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse.

Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 32 pgs.
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Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton, which won the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Chapbook Series from L+S Press, is an exploration of the universes we immerse ourselves in as children, the moments in time that etch themselves on our psyches, and so much more. It is a collection that speaks to the immensity of moments in our lives and the connections we feel and lose, but also the longing we have for moments that have passed long ago. “How to get back to you, Barcelona,/to nineteen years old, to fervent and pious trust/” the narrator laments in “To Barcelona”.

Time can pass quickly in some of these poems, like in “Mrs. Stockwell” where as a girl she watched the antics of boys dismissively only later to become a first grade teacher. Her universe became that school yard she remembered as a girl, and she lives her life there.

Bolton encapsulates moments in her poem that are chock full of emotion and wonder, as if she is gazing at the vast, starry sky trying to puzzle out the constellations. Just Universes by Diana Smith Bolton is a powerful chapbook collection. Don’t miss it.

RATING: Cinquain

So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters

Source: the publisher
Paperback, 154 pgs.
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So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters, a collection of prose and poetry, is an exploration of the soul, a look at a soul struggling to love itself. This self-discovery journey travels from trailer parks to Paris and more internal worlds of faith, love, and self-confidence. Some of the poems exploring faith were meandering, like most journeys of faith can be, and often lost me on where they were going or what they wanted to say. But there are poem that read like confessions in personal journals and diaries. Some are incredibly raw and those are the poems that spoke the loudest about the pain of the journey and the sense of loss. Like in “AWOL Icon: A Love Song Without Music” (pg. 15), the narrator says, “Thunder breaks something and it’s not just the sky.”

From "Luster (Less)" (pg. 29)

Bad whiskey tastes sick sweet
like     forgetting
and that's enough to make me
              suck
      it
down.

Waters’ daughter, Desiree Wade, illustrates a few panels of comic like prose poems and the images are just as jarring and heartbreaking as the poems themselves. This team has great potential if they work together again on a graphic novel or another poetry collection.

These poems are fierce, particularly “Labor Pains,” which speaks about a mother’s fierce love and need to protect her child from the world. It’s beautiful and desperate and loss because as mothers we all know that our powers of protection are limited — inside and outside of the womb.

So Speak the Stars by Tawni Waters looks to foster self-love and faith and explore those concepts through religious-like experiences as told through poems and illustration. There is a lot to digest in this collection, but it is a journey worth taking. You may learn something about yourself along the way.

RATING: Quatrain

For Every One by Jason Reynolds

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 112 pgs.
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For Every One by Jason Reynolds is a poetic letter to dreamers, those who find themselves longing for something outside of their current lives — whether a poet looking to write poems or an artist looking to paint a masterpiece. These dreams may or may not come true in two years, thirty years, or at the end of their lives, but the point is that they continue dreaming and moving toward that dream.

All of us out here,
slumped over wearing
weird fake
broken smiles,
trying to avoid the truth:
that we all got road rage.

Although there is no sage advice from Reynolds about how to make that dream come true, he does offer a sense of camaraderie with the dreamers. He’s here in the trenches with you. He understands your passions and your need to achieve that impossible-possible dream, and he knows your heartbreak. For Every One by Jason Reynolds is a realistic pep talk for those frustrated with their own lack of progress toward their dreams, even if those dreams are simple ones like having a spouse and children. Just remember that you need to take that leap!

RATING: Quatrain

The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec

Source: the poet
Paperback, 30 pgs
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The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec is a chapbook that melds imagery with poetry so that readers look beyond the confines of structure to see the potential in each poem and drawing. Fox’s poems explore reality with surreal or dreamlike sequences, but they also are grounded in situations that readers will recognize from their own lives.

In “Ribs, Cat Claws,” Fox examines the notion that we all must “grow up sometime” with a cast of characters who on one hand seem to be out of their minds with mental lapses and disease and on the other hand lament the dreams they once had that are not fulfilled. Other poems delve deep into the unwritten rules of following doctors’ orders, only to secret believe they are useless orders — like many of the unwritten rules of society we follow. Should we just blindly follow them? Question them, only to follow them anyway? Or simply throw the rules out the window?

Fox’s slanted perspective on life and how rules guide us and are so easily set aside — our societal structures are artificial and yet they confine us. Where is the “real sky?” How do we break those invisible binds to see the light and the expanse of possibility? Niemiec’s sketches dovetail into these themes nicely, painting a physical picture for the readers.

The Real Sky by Valerie Fox and Jacklynn Niemiec is a multilayered collection that bends genre to incorporate not only the visual, but also fictionalized accounts and reality into a surreal mesh for readers to fall into and explore. A great deal of food for though in this slim volume.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Authors:

Valerie Fox’s most recent book is Insomniatic [poems] from PS Books, and her other volumes include The Rorschach Factory (Straw Gate Books) and The Glass Book (Texture Press). Her poems and stories have appeared in The Cafe Irreal, Juked, Sentence, Across the Margin, Cleaver, Hanging Loose, West Branch, Ping Pong, and other journals.

She has taught at various institutions, including Peirce College (Philadelphia) and Sophia University (Tokyo). Currently she teaches writing at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she is a writing fellow with the Writers Room. Much interested in collaboration, Valerie has published writing (poems, fiction) with Arlene Ang in journals such as Blip, Cordite, Apiary, Qarrtsiluni, and New World Writing. Ang and Fox also published Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press).

Jacklynn Niemiec teaches with the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design at Drexel University in the foundation year design studios, and coordinates their architectural representation sequence. Her creative interest and research lies in developing visual methods for understanding and representing space with the added and intangible layers of time, movement and memory. Her current creative work and interdisciplinary research project is Variable Space.

Jacklynn is a Registered Architect in the State of Pennsylvania and is LEED Accredited. She received her undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University and Master of Architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

Source: TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 352 pgs.
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The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman follows Eva Cassidy aboard the Lurline on its way to Hawaii where she will serve as an army nurse in Pearl Harbor. She has secrets, and she’s hoping that despite her new name and faked documents, she will be able to use her nursing skills and send money to her sister, Ruby, who was struck with polio, in Michigan. Aboard the ship, she is immediately drawn to Lieutenant Clark Spencer, a man with secrets of his own.

“He reminded Eva of her father, who was always requiring her to answer her own questions and solve her own problems.” (pg. 29)

Ackerman’s WWII setting is well rendered, and the scenes where the Zeroes attack and the harrowing chaos of the hospital are vivid and frightening, especially viewing it from the point of views of her characters. Whether with Spencer trying to save himself and the men around him as bullets shower down on them or with Eva running from a lecture hall to the hospital.

“With fewer new injuries coming in, the nurses busied themselves cleaning up the place in between surgeries and tending the wounded. You could hardly see the linoleum under mud, soot, and blood. Beds and sheets were soiled, and so were the men.” (pg. 250)

The love triangle between Eva, Clark, and Billy — her hometown boyfriend who helped her get her job and wants to marry her — is wrapped up a little too neatly in the end. There also is a government conspiracy that is a little too thin, given that one of the key players is not as high level as one would expect, as well as some other nuances. None of this detracted from Ackerman’s lovely story about a woman wronged and looking to still fulfill her dreams and build a new life in paradise. The attack on Pearl Harbor looms large but it is not the heart of this story.

The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman’s well-researched novel is a delight in terms of its heart. The resilience of humanity and its ability to pull together in times of crisis are its main themes. Eva Cassidy is a strong woman who lost her compass — her father — only to find she’s as strong as she was when he was alive. She just needed to tap into her strength for herself and those around her.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Sara is the bestselling author of Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. Born and raised in Hawaii, she studied journalism and earned graduate degrees in psychology and Chinese medicine. She blames Hawaii for her addiction to writing, and sees no end to its untapped stories. When she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find her in the mountains or in the ocean. She currently lives on the Big Island with her boyfriend and a houseful of bossy animals. Find out more about Sara and her books at www.ackermanbooks.com. Connect with Sara: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Source: Berkley
Hardcover, 400 pgs
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The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a novel of lasting friendship — one that surpasses the bounds of culture and war, as well as separation. Elise Sontag, a German American, finds that life during WWII becomes increasingly complicated when her father is arrested by the FBI in Davenport, Iowa. When her father is gone for months, his bank accounts are frozen, and the family is left to fend for itself, Elise learns that her school chums can be less mean than the world around her. Although she’s shunned at school, the sneers of passersby and neighbors, as well as the distrust from her father’s co-workers, are far worse. Through it all, she must be strong for her mother.

“Months later, in the internment camp, Mariko would tell me she believed there were two kinds of mirrors. There was the kind you looked into to see what you looked like, and then there was the kind you looked into and saw what other people thought you looked like.” (pg. 28)

When the entire family is reunited in Crystal City, an internment camp, she learns that even among the perceived “sympathizers” there are more Americans like her. But camp politics can be hard to navigate as someone who doesn’t see how she is perceived by those in the camp. Her focus is on trying to return to a normal life at the Federal School in the camp and befriending Mariko Inoue, a Japanese American from Los Angeles, who also feels more American than Japanese.

Meissner tackles a lot of larger themes, but the theme running through Elise Sontag’s narrative is one of identity. When our home country considers us the enemy, how do we reconcile that with who we know ourselves to be? How can we retain the goodness of our souls without succumbing to the perceptions of others? Can we hold onto what we know about ourselves when others see us as the enemy and send us to a place we feel is hostile to us because they also see us as the enemy?

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a stunning novel about the last year of World War II from the untenable situation of a young American girl thrust behind enemy lines by her own nation. It is about the friendship that can blossom amidst terrible and heartbreaking conditions. This is a WWII novel that will grip your heart, squeeze it and leave readers wanting more. (I personally would want to read Mariko’s story!)

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Susan Meissner is a USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction with more than half a million books in print in fifteen languages. She is an author, speaker and writing workshop leader with a background in community journalism. Her novels include As Bright as Heaven, starred review in Library Journal; Secrets of  Charmed Life, a Goodreads finalist for Best Historical Fiction 2015; and A Fall of Marigolds, named to Booklist’s Top Ten Women’s Fiction titles for 2014. A California native, she attended Point Loma Nazarene University and is also a writing workshop volunteer for Words Alive, a San Diego non-profit dedicated to helping at-risk youth foster a love for reading and writing.

Visit Susan at her website; on Twitter at @SusanMeissner or at Facebook.

Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester

Source: the poet
Paperback, 96 pgs.
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Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester explores the degrees of fear we face throughout our lives as things change. The first section of the collection sets the tone for the whole, as each poem focuses on change — a desire to be something you’re not in “Mermaid to Woman” and a re-imagining of Beethoven as a whale in “The Making.” There is a certain fear in change, but Nester calls on the reader to see the beauty in being something different, something that evolves.

 From "The Making" (pg. 3)

If Beethoven were a whale, he would
groan a song as monumental as his bulk,
one the waves would write -- always
in suspension. They would take an hour
to break along a shore so distant
none of us could fathom where it was.

Nester explores the changes that happen during childhood, traveling miles and moving to a new home, and how scary those moments can be. But there are times where the reader still sees the wonder of change as the narrator plays “capture the moon” with a compact mirror. Imagination takes center stage in the second section, and my daughter really enjoyed these poems when I read them aloud to her. She was reminded of the tents we made in our old house’s living room, and she began thinking up her own games to play in the car.

Section three explores the darkest reaches of fear, including a poem for the Sandy Hook school shooting. There’s also a lament for what America has become.

Sandy Hook (pg. 33)

...The teacher tries
to hide us, but bullets fly
so fast. Now she won't 
wake up, no matter how
I shake her. No crayon
could ever be that red.

In the final sections, Nester explores the fears of the past and places them into context. She broadens the scope beyond the fears of a younger self about her unruly hair and the wiser self who sees those imperfections as par for the course of life. “My past/quivers beneath the lens of memory,” she says in “Picture of a Life.”

Narrow Bridge by Robbi Nester is an exploration of life — its bumps and moments of joy — to find the light. She reminds us to push through and “recognize the stranger” in ourselves. She calls on us to reach beyond our fears and ourselves into the unknown to find beauty in the vacillation and uncertainty of change.

RATING: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Robbi Nester is the author of three other books of poetry: a chapbook, Balance (White Violet, 2012), and two collections—A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014) and Other-Wise (Kelsay, 2017). She has also edited two anthologies: The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! (Nine Toes, 2014) and an Ekphrastic e-book, Over the Moon: Birds, Beasts, and Trees—celebrating the photography of Beth Moon, published as an issue of Poemeleon Poetry Journal.

Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 37 pgs.
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Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones is a chapbook of unsettling poems about the life in a mobile home park and beyond — travailing experiences of abuse (physical, mental, emotional, sexual) and the consequences of those experiences. The childhood explored in these poems is dark, but there’s also a strength in them — a sense that the narrator can look upon these terrible moments and be better than them. Moments of stumbling occur in teen years, but there still is a thread of light in the collection.

From "Beginner's Guide to Failing" (pg. 1)

Listen to your stepfather say
how much you look like your mother.
Look into a mirror and see
a white face too old to be yours.

There are no apologies in this collection of highly intense poems of survival.

 From "Souvenir de Mortefontaine Cinquain"

We are
not those women
who play with leaves and fruit.
We swing the axe. Blister. Splinter.
Ignite.

Jones’ poems range from outright frustration and anger to a deep sadness about a lost childhood. Her verse and images are striking throughout, and readers will feel the turbulence of the violence and the abuse. But “strength seems to make things buoyant,” the narrator says. Lies I Tell Myself by Sarah Jones is a testament to all of those people who have survived abuse and lived to see the beauty still in the world. The narrator is vulnerable but never weak in exposing her wounds to the world to tell her story and bear it all again.

Rating: Cinquain

About the Poet:

Sarah Jones is a poet and content specialist living in Seattle. She is the author of Lies I Tell Myself (dancing girl press & studio). She holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her poetry has been featured on NPR and The Bridge. Her poems have appeared in New Ohio ReviewThe Normal SchoolEntropy magazine, Maudlin HouseRaven Chronicles, City Arts Magazine, Yes, Poetry, and many other places. She is a reader for Poetry Northwest, and her poem “My Mother’s Neck” was nominated by the New Ohio Review for a 2019 Pushcart Prize.

STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 52 pgs.
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STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss is a collection of haiku celebrating the four seasons. The poems in the winter section cleave space and time into separate parts as the narrator looks to connect to the past and a time when her father was alive and reachable.

Spring is a focus on rebirth, but how does someone become reborn in their later years when family has passed away. The narrator learns through trial and error that time moves forward and things change whether we want them to or not. There must be a letting go.

digging
roots in damp soil
white hair

Summer has a heavy atmosphere of nostalgia as the narrator explores her childhood, moments with family, and the wonders of nature.

Fall comes and the reader is thrust into the loneliness of time passing — a lone heron swimming, zinnias on the verge of death, a deceased monarch. Even amidst this loss, there is a moment in the final haiku in which the narrator is still looking — searching for something beyond that horizon, a moment of hope for the future.

end-of-summer wind
scattering of empty chairs
nothing moves the stone

STONE, Empty Chair by Erica Goss is a gorgeous collection of haiku that does not hinge solely on nature to propel the narrative. These haiku are more personal.

RATING: Cinquain

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Erica Goss served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California from 2013-2016. Her latest poetry collection, Night Court, won the 2016 Lyrebird Prize from Glass Lyre Press. She is the author of Wild Place (2012, Finishing Line Press) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (2014, Pushpen Press).

As Poet Laureate for Los Gatos, she organized the first St. Patrick’s Day Poetry Walk, created Poems-in-the-Window (local businesses displayed poems during National Poetry Month), recorded The Poetry Podcast (50-plus recordings of poems in a variety of languages), established the first Los Gatos Poet Laureate Scholarship, and launched The Poetry Kitchen, a poetry reading series at the Los Gatos Library.

Erica’s work is featured in numerous anthologies and journals, including Pearl, Ekphrasis, Main Street Rag, Café Review, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, Eclectica, Up the Staircase, Lake Effect, Consequence, Stirrings, Convergence, Passager, Atticus Review, Gravel, Tinderbox Review, Caveat Lector, Rattle, Zoland Poetry, Spillway, San Pedro Rover Review, Comstock Review, Contrary, and Innisfree Poetry Journal. She received the Many Mountains Moving Prize for poetry in 2011. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010, 2013, and 2017, Best of the Net in 2016 and 2017, and received the first Edwin Markham Prize for poetry, judged by California Poet Laureate Al Young. Wild Place was also a finalist in the 2010 White Eagle Coffee Store Press Chapbook Contest, and received a special mention from Jacar Press’s 2010 Chapbook Contest.

Erica was the host of Word to Word, a Show About Poetry, on KCAT Cable TV in Los Gatos, and wrote The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. She is the co-founder of Media Poetry Studio, a poetry-and-film camp for teen girls. In 2018, Erica founded Digital Storytelling of the Pacific Northwest, an arts education program for teens and adults. Erica lives in Eugene, Oregon, and teaches classes in poetry, memoir and video.