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Archive for the ‘Ben Marcus’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: SAUTI SOL-“Love or Leave” (Field Recordings, May 30, 2012).

Here is another Field Recording [A Morning Walk With Sauti Sol] filmed at SXSW.  But this one is on a bridge. The four members of Sauti Sol are up at dawn (one even sings “good morning.”  As a guy runs past them, they realize “We didn’t have our morning job, today” so two of them run around the other two, to much laughter.

Their happy mood is clearly reflected in their wonderfully colorful jackets (and amazing harmonies.

“Love or Leave” is terrific, with a great riff.   There’s only the one acoustic guitar and their voices fill in everything else.

I don’t know anything about Sauti Sol.  So the blurb says:

In spite of the early hour and chilly air, Sauti Sol arrived at the Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge in Austin, Texas, in good spirits — not to mention colorful jackets that provided a welcome contrast to the cloudy sky. There, the Afro-fusion quartet from Nairobi greeted the morning birds and joggers with a version of its recent single, “Love or Leave.” The song amply demonstrates the group’s signature acoustic sound, which is anchored by the guitar of Polycarp Otieno and vocal harmonies of Bien-Aime Baraza, Willis Chimano and Delvin Mudigi.

There’s some pop elements including a kind of choreographed dance but the way the minor key hits in the chorus is outstanding.

It’s great that bands from Nairobi come to SXSW, and it’s even cooler that we get to hear them.

[READ: January 31, 2018] “On Not Growing Up”

I don’t really understand what this is supposed to be.  It is listed as fiction according to Harper’s.  It is written as an interview but neither party is introduced.

The first question is “How long have you been a child?”   The answer is “seventy-one years.”

The second question puzzles me even more and I think I’m thrown off from there.  “Who did you work with?”

Meyerowits for the first phase: colic, teething, walking, talking. He taught me how to produce false prodigy markers and developmental reversals, to test the power in the room without speaking.  I was encouraged to look beyond the tantrum and drastic mood migrations that depended on the environment, and if you know my work you have an idea what resulted. The rest is a hodgepodge

The interviewee says that the term adult is problematic.  It’s too easy to say that his childwork is directly divisive to Matures. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: YUJA WANG-“Toccata in D minor, Op. 11” (Field Recordings, February 19, 2014).

I have never given much thought to the physical creation of a piano.  This Field Recording [On A Chilly Factory Floor, Yuja Wang’s Piano Sizzles] is set on the factory floor of Steinway & Sons.  As it opens you can see the craftsmen putting some touches on a piano, which really makes you think about how these machines are created.

This episode also introduced me to Chinese-born pianist Yuja Wang.

She is a [at the time] “27-year-old ultra-glam artist” who came to the factory in

one of her trademark dresses, significant stiletto booties and a Gucci fur stole, as well as some wrist warmers as a concession to the temperature.

The piece she played was also one I was unfamiliar with, played a piece that would chop shrinking violets to mulch: Prokofiev’s “Toccata in D minor, Op. 11.”

The blurb calls the piece “blisteringly difficult” and I totally agree.  It is nonstop notes for nearly five minutes.  Wang is up and down the keyboard, banging out notes in a nearly atonal piece (how she even remembered it much less played it is amazing).  And to see her pressing pedals in stilettos is pretty amusing too.

On a third listen, it’s not so much atonal as just very busy.  The melody is in there, it is just surrounded by so much else.  And watching the blurs that are Wang’s hands is jaw-dropping.

[READ: January 6, 2017] “Cold Little Bird”

I feel like Ben Marcus stories resist me, somewhat.  But this one was fantastic.

Martin and Rachel have two boys: a ten-year old-and a six-year-old.  As the story opens, Jonah, the ten-year-old says he doesn’t want to big hugged anymore. That he doesn’t like it.  He hopes that they will respect his decision about this.  He tells them that they can always cuddle with Lester, the six-year-old.

The parents shrug this off and think it is a phase.  Even when Jonah flatly says “I don’t love you.”

His parents tried to respect his wishes even as it went on for several weeks.  Martin was getting more and more exasperated, but Rachel seemed to be okay with it–telling him to back off and give the boy some space.

Soon enough, Jonah started playing with Lester–being very chummy and lovely with him.  And yet he did not warm up to his parents. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BRODY DALLE-“Dressed in Dreams” (Field Recordings, July 15, 2014).

For this Field Recording [Brody Dalle: Raging Into the Light], Brody Dalle plays in an Indian Restaurant!  I fancy myself a knowledgable punk fan, but I’ve never heard of Brody or either of her bands.

Throughout her career, punk icon Brody Dalle has embraced her aggressive side. Best known as the lead singer of The Distillers and Spinnerette, Dalle has a sandpaper- and velvet-tinged voice that speaks to rebellious young punks who are curious about the world yet vulnerable to its sharp edges. “I’ve never understood why there was such a fuss about aggressive women in music,” Dalle says. “To me, aggression is a human instinct. … I’ve felt provoked for most of my life, especially as a child. I guess I’ve carried those feelings into my songs.”

So it was a pleasant surprise that Dalle was open to the challenge of crafting a stripped-down version of her song “Dressed in Dreams.” An anthem about getting back up when you’ve been kicked down, the song is personal to Dalle: After overcoming addiction, she almost immediately faced a brutal bout of postpartum depression. “I had a hard time getting myself up and running before I wrote this record,” she says. “I felt worthless. I was embarrassed and lost.”

Luckily, Dalle was able to use her songwriting as a way to fight back. Earlier this year, she released Diploid Love, her first solo album, and she says she happily embraces her day-to-day life as a working rock mom and wife. As Dalle set up her gear at New York City’s Panna II, we noticed the way the chili-pepper strands that covered every surface of the restaurant bathed her in a weirdly fierce yet serene red light. They provide a nice little visual metaphor for the way raging against the darkest points in life can help bring you into the light.

I love the fuzz she gets on an acoustic guitar.

But I have since listened to the recorded version and I like it a ton more.  The extra guitar really helps make what is an otherwise simple and repetitive song far more interesting.  Her voice also sounds a lot better on the record.

But the weirdest thing is how long this song is.  The Distillers songs were proper punk songs, last about 3 minutes or less.  This one, running over 4 doesn’t have enough variety to sustain that length.

[READ: February 5, 2018] “A Failure of Concern”

I wrote this about a Ben Marcus story published in Harper’s in 2011:

It goes on for several pages.

There is some degree of amusing shock value in the way he speaks … but as with much of what I’ve read from Marcus, I feel like I could have read half of this and gotten enough.

No explanation is given for the problem (and, fair enough, it is only an excerpt) and anyway, by the end, I didn’t really want one.

And I feel exactly the same about this story.

The nutshell story is that the narrator’s father and a lodger in their house are both missing, possibly murdered.  There is a detective there looking for clues.

The narrator is a lunatic, a mental case, and idiot, a deviant, a murderer, something, whatever.  The narrator gets common quotes and facts wrong. The narrator seemed to hate both his father and the lodger and seems likely very guilty. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ALYSON GREENFIELD-“Mama Said Knock You Out” (2011).

I found this song about 4 years ago and meant to post about it but never did.  I just saw it in my notes and decided to check it out again.

Alyson Greenfield is a pianist.  She sings (and plays) a bit like earlier Tori Amos.  And, like Tori, she takes an unlikley song to make an interesting cover.

The basis of this song is a wonderfully busy and complicated piano.  She doesn’t rap the verses exactly, but she does recite them quite quickly.

She is verbally dexterous, all while she’s playing a complex and beautiful arrangement on the piano.

The second chorus quiets down completely with a gentle piano melody and her singing softly but not un-menacingly.

It’s a fairly radical reinterpretation of the song.  There is no music in the original–just a sample of a simple musical motif), so everything that she plays is rather interesting and inspired.

I honestly don’t remember how I found this song.  But I have just looked her up and I see that it comes from an EP of covers of this ilk. The other songs include “Bad Boys” (a song I never had to hear again, even in her version).  “All That She Wants” which aside from being on piano instead of dance doesn’t sound all that different.  “Milkshake,” which I ‘d never heard of and “Gangsta’s Paradise” played on glockenspiel.

None of these covers is especially interesting because they lack the awesome musicality of “Mama.”

Since putting out that EP she released a one-off goof song called ‘Michael Cera C​*​ckblocked Me at SXSW,” and a song called “Uncharted Places,” which is kind of interesting–dancey but with toy instruments.  Her voice certainly sounds good in a poppy way.

But that was four years ago.  I’ve no idea what she’s up to.

[READ: January 5, 2018] “Blueprint for St. Louis”

I printed out this story from the web.  But apparently I missed the first page.  I was delighted that the story started with no introduction. I thought it was really cool that the first line was just:

What consumed them both right now was the situation in St. Louis.

What a wild opening.

It was said that in St. Louis there were thirty dead souls, but everyone knew that that number was low.  By a couple of decimal points. There had been a bombing and it was big.  It emerged that the explosives had been buried in the foundation of the building when it was being built two years earlier.

Terrorism wasn’t really the term anymore.  “Tax” seemed more like it.  This time it was levied on St Louis.  It was New Orleans the previous year.  Tuscon three years ago.  A tax on comfort and safety.  You learned not to be surprised.

It was Roy and Ida’s job to honor the site, honor the dead.  They designed large public graves where people could gather and maybe cool food trucks would park. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKBAHAMAS-Live at Massey Hall (February 5, 2016).

Afie Jurvanen is Bahamas, an indie folk act.  For this set he is joined by Jason Tait, Felicity Williams, Christine Bougie, and Darcy Yates in various roles.

This set opens with “Like a Wind.”  Jurvanen’s voice is rough and scratchy  and quite nice. But its his backing vocalist (not sure which one) that really launches this song into the ether.  She sounds amazing.  There’s a nice touch a of a slide guitar and the rumbling drums are a great addition as well.

It was some time around “Southern drawl” that I realized he sounds a bit like Tom Petty.  It’s a pretty poppy song–perfect for summer.

“Caught me Thinking” is another poppy song with a rocking 1-2-3-4 rhythm for the verses and “I Got You, Babe” has a wonderful pop riff (but is not a cover).

“Alone” is a new song that he says he’s been working on.  It’s just him and the staccato guitar plucking is quite arresting.  I love the lyric

“men and women equal, but we’re not the same.”

It’s a great song–shame it gets interrupted by his interview.

The final two songs are “All the Time” which has a great solo at the end and “Never Again.”

[READ: February 5, 2016] “The Glow Light Blues”

This story started off doing one thing and then quickly went in a direction I did not expect.

As the story opens, Carl Hirsch is going to a party.  He rarely goes to parties, especially work holiday parties.  And when he shows up, the host greets him with alarm.

There’s some weird things mentioned in the opening paragraphs too. He compares going to the party to going to a dog house where you have to sniff ass and compliment the host.  He hopes there’s food: “even if he was only permitted to sniff…because of his feeding regimen.”

What the heck is going on? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ILL CAMILLE-Tiny Desk Concert #746 (May 25, 2018).

I don’t know if Ill Camille’s style is West Coast, but it definitely differs from a lot of rappers.  Her style is smooth, almost gentle.  “Her voice is like a cool drink on a summer’s day: smooth, clear and replenishing.”

But her lyrics are powerful and thoughtful:

Her refreshing self-awareness and raw honesty are inherent in each song, pairing nicely with the jazzy, melodic rhythms provided by her close knit crew of musicians.

Ill Camille strays a bit from the hip-hop zeitgeist. She raps about love and family serving as the source of her strength, the importance of self-worth as a woman, and the necessity to nurture oneself from within. That core keeps her secure even when confronted by the despair of poverty and the difficult grind of a young artist. And you can hear all that front and center in her music.

She plays 4 songs with a live band.

The first two songs, “Spider’s Jam” and “Live it Up,” feature long time collaborators of Camille’s, Iman Omari on keys and drummer Greg Paul of Inglewood collective The Katalyst.

“Spider’s Jam” is about her uncle.  She sounds almost casual in her delivery, like she;s just speaking not rapping (which is why it’s so cool that it works so well).  The chorus of “handed it down” is pretty cool–very different from pop hip hop.

On “Live It Up,” Greg Paul plays a kind of lite jazz drums style.  Camille says, “This is my version of trap.”  Iman Omari on keys sings the chorus and adds a Jamaican flair to the song.

“Fight On” features guest vocals from emcee Damani Nkosi, who’s been rocking with Camille since her debut album.

Aneesa Strings, a bassist from the Bay Area, provided the low end foundation while also lending her rich vocals to “Fight On.”

I like the shout outs to everyone to fight on.

 “Again,” is an ode to happiness and self-actualization.  It’s got a cool funky bass line.  The break it down section is pretty great and when it comes back out to that great bass line, the song is very cool.

[READ: May 22, 2018] “Stay Down and Take It”

This is a story about an older couple fleeing a storm and something else.

James is home early and he says “goddammit we seriously need to pack.”  They are to “pack light and pack smart.”  Despite the clear skies, something mean and serious is barreling down on them.

James is very stressed and prefers that she not speak on the phone while they are evacuating.  She is annoyed by this but also realizes she is the passenger and the driver should not be stressed out–for her own sake.

She admits “I guess I want James to die.  I don’t want this actively.  Or with malice.  But in a dim and distant way I gently root for James’ absence so that I can proceed to the other side of the years I have left.”

(more…)

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moors SOUNDTRACK: CHRIS FORSYTH & THE SOLAR MOTEL BAND-Tiny Desk Concert #549 (July 15, 2016).

solarIn the blurb about The Solar Motel band, Lars Gotrich says that Chris Forsyth’s group usually plays high energy and maximum volume.  But here, they have picked some of their more mellow pieces.  And I frankly think they are all fantastic (I actually don’t even want to hear their louder stuff).

“Harmonious Dance” opens with four single repeated notes before the slow echoed chords fill the room.  The drummer is playing with brushes and dangling some bells (which he eventually holds in his mouth while playing with both hands).  There’s a feeling of Explosions in the Sky on this song–but without as much drama.  Rather, the mid section turns away from the vibrato to a more structured picked section which allows room for a guitar solo.  The blurb says the song “meditates on a gently unfolding melody shared between Forsyth and guitarist Nick Millevoi.”

Speaking of the drummer, the blurb tells us that “due to touring conflicts, The Solar Motel Band’s rhythm section is different here than on record, but bassist Matt Stein provides a grounding force, as drummer Ryan Jewell … loosens the very ground beneath it all.”

Forsyth introduces the second song with the strange comment: “It gives me great pleasure to say the title of this next song: ‘The First Ten Minutes Of Cocksucker Blues.'” Why great pleasure?  Anyhow, the title refers to the unreleased Rolling Stones documentary directed by Robert Frank.  There’s a kind of funky, rougher edge to this song that has Forsyth playing some simple chords while Millevoi plays some wailing classic-rock-style solos.  In fact, the whole thing has a classic rock feel, except with a more contemporary jamming feel.

A buzzing drone segues into “Boston Street Lullaby.”  Unlike the other two songs this one is very mellow and kind of trippy. At times (especially the way that Millevoi bends some of his guitar licks it feels distinctly like Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.”  The end has some cool jangly spacey guitar and Jewell is doing all sorts of interesting things to the kit, including changing the sound of his snare by pressing on it at different spots.

I am curious to hear what other kinds of stuff they play.

I am bummed to read that they opened for Super Furry Animals this summer.  I really wanted to get to that show, but I was out of town.  That would have been a great double bill.

[READ: November 14, 2016] The Moors

Back in 2014, I ordered all 16 books from Madras Press. Unfortunately, after publishing the 16 books they seem to have gone out of business (actually they are switching to non-fiction, it seems). They still have a web presence where you can buy remaining copies of books.  But what a great business idea this is/was

Madras Press publishes limited-edition short stories and novella-length booklets and distributes the proceeds to a growing list of non-profit organizations chosen by our authors.  The format of our books provides readers with the opportunity to experience stories on their own, with no advertisements or miscellaneous stuff surrounding them.

The format is a 5″ x 5″ square books that easily fit into a pocket.

Proceeds from Marcus’ book go to the Friend Memorial Public Library in Maine.

This is a story that is set in the time it takes for a woman to fill up her mug of coffee.

It begins with the amusing concept that our protagonist Thomas saying that he felt bad about speaking in baby talk to a colleague.  And then it pulls back so we can see just what is happening.

Thomas has incredibly low self esteem.  He immediately takes a dislike to this colleague who is so composed and together.  He wonders if there’s a word for the contempt that he imagines she feels for everyone around her (based on the way she walks and is dressed).

And then over what seemed like three dozen too many pages, we learn the extent of his insecurities.  He is too fat, he might have erectile disfucntion, he believes that they are throwing pigeons at the windows every hour to mark time.

He is so insecure and his lashing out is just so unpleasant that I really didn’t want to read about why he acts this way (which we do sort of learn at he end).

Essentially this is man at a loss.  The way his home life has been going has certainly compounded his loss.  But the road to get there felt too long and either too misogynistic or self-pitying most of the time.

If this had been half as long I would have liked it much better.  Although I really don’t think I could ever actually enjoy reading about this character–baby talk or not.

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dec20133SOUNDTRACK: HANGEDUP-Clatter for Control [CST034] (2005).

clatterClatter for Control is Hangedup’s third and (so far) last album.  As Kicker was an evolution from their debut, Clatter feels like an evolution as well.  It feels like a more experimental work with fewer “proper’ songs proper and more soundscapes and ideas.

“Klang Klang” is a fast, yes, klanging song.  The viola is slightly discordant and the riffs are abrupt and staccato and it builds into a frenzy.  “Alarm” is more spooky sounding with tape manipulation. “A Different Kind Of Function” starts with some staccato notes and then builds into merging lines of viola and feels almost like a remix song.  “Kick-Back-Hub” is 90 seconds of squeaking bowing and metal clanking along with some very fast drums. It melds into “Eksplozije” which is 2:25 and is more feedback and big noisy drums.

“Go Let’s Go” feels like an actual song with riffs and chords, while “Derailleur” is another short piece, just under 2 minutes of noise and rattling and wildly untuned viola sounds.  “Fuck This Place” has a bass guitar although you wouldn’t necessarily know it (there is more bottom end), it feels like the viola is actually vocal samplings which is neat. “How We Keep Time” is a slower song with languorous viola sounds and sparse drumming.  “Junk The Clatter” feels like the most song like of the bunch. After a minute intro a fully realized riff comes out.  There’s some beautiful melodies and when the song ends it has a cool rocking section.

I prefer Kicker in Tow, but there’s record is a lot of fun too, full of unusual and discordant sounds–if you like that sort of thing.

 [READ: May 5, 2014] “I Can Say Many Nice Things”

I wound up reading about 3/4 of this story in one sitting and I loved it.  But when I came back to finish the end, I didn’t really like it as much.  I though the first part was engaging and complex without being convoluted.  I was interested in the direction the story was going and I was disappointed that it went where it did.  The ending ultimately makes sense within the context of the story, but I enjoyed so much of what happened before that I guess I didn’t want it to end.

So what was so great?

Fleming is an writing teacher.  A disgruntled and unpopular writing teacher.  He has been given a chance to teach a writing class… on a cruise!  A five day cruise with all expenses paid and ten well-paying students signed up for a morning and afternoon class.  Everyone he knew thought he was so lucky (colleagues pretended to be jealous)–it would certainly be an easy way to rack up positive evaluations from happy cruisers?  But Fleming is a pretty miserable guy.  He’s even more miserable because he intended to get in shape for the cruise, but in fact he got fatter, and he feels lousy about himself.

Even though at heart this is a story about teaching and writing (typically not great story topics), the set up is unusual–especially as we slowly come to realize that he is trapped on this ship. And when you add in some of the other details, I thought this was a really interesting setup.

Here’s some details that i found compelling. (more…)

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5.20SOUNDTRACK: SAVAGES-Live at KEXP (May 16, 2013).

savagesI heard some songs from the Savages album, and I loved them–that combination of 80’s punk and goth all wrapped up in current technologies and attitude.  A couple of their songs are some of my favorite of the year so far.  I’d also heard that they were even better live.  So here are four songs played live in the studio from KEXP.  And while the audio is awesome, they are a lot of fun to watch.

In fact, the more I watch the less I know who I am most impressed by–the amazing guitarist?  the great unaffected bassist?  the wild drummer?  They’re all a pleasure to watch.

But it also sounds great.  There’s some great soaring guitar sounds on “City’s Full” which really has a Patti Smith meets Siouxsie vibe.  And there’s that whole goth feel–the bass up front and dominant but with really big guitar chords and cool riffs.  And the drums, man she rocks out in the whole first half of “City’s Full.”   Then listen to the fabulous bass line that runs through “Shut Up.”   I love the way the low bass plays off the high guitars  (and the vocals sound very Siouxsie there).    And the drummer is amazing at the end of the song.

A great 80s echoey riff opens “She Will.”  I love when the song almost stops and it’s all fast cymbals and faster guitar (which is really cool in and of itself) until it builds back up.  And just look at her drumming at 10:20.  Wow. 

And the closer, Husbands” just gets more and more intense.  Like the crazy noisy cymbals.  And the way her voice soars and soars until it just stops.  Wow.

[READ: May 23, 2013] “The Dark Arts”

Julian is sick. Very sick.  So sick, in fact, that American doctors can’t seem to help him, can’t even seem to effectively diagnose him.  So he and his girlfriend Hayley have traveled to Europe for new medicines that the AMA hasn’t approved yet.  They travel to a few places first as a kind of romantic vacation and their ultimate destination is Düsseldorf.  It’s there where Julian will have his bone marrow drawn out, then boiled and tinkered with and then injected back into him.

Ouch.

But there’s been a snag.  On their way to Düsseldorf, they had a fight and Hayley stayed behind.  So Julian went to Düsseldorf to a hostel.  Every day he goes to the train station hoping to see Hayley show up.  He imagines what he must look like to the locals–a skeletal American wearing what must look like a death shroud.  He barely eats, he barely does anything.  In fact, he has more or less given up.

But his father and Hayley, they believe in him, they believe that these cures can help.  Indeed, his father has been so great through all this offering him anything he needs–money they don’t really have and unwavering support.

And then the story gets even more interesting–we find out that American doctors not only couldn’t diagnose him, but actually believed that there as nothing wrong with him. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WILD FLAG-World Cafe, November 10, 2011 (2011).

I’ve been really enjoying Wild Flag’s debut album.  Wild Flag consists of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney, Rebecca Cole, who I don’t know but who has been in a few different indie bands, and Mary Timony from Helium.

This World Cafe episode is a brief interview (mostly with Carrie, although all four women are present), in which they talk about the origins of the band and what it’s like to play as a foursome. 

There are three songs and the band sounds tight and perfect.  In fact they sound so perfect I almost wondered if they were really playing live (but there’s one keyboard flub that proves that humans are involved).

It’s a great sample of the record, which is all great, and it’s a good chance to get caught up with these rocking women. 

[READ: November 15, 2011] “The First Venom”

This is an excerpt from Marcus’ forthcoming novel, The Flame Alphabet.   I’ve read a number of Marcus’ things in the past and I realized that most of his McSweeney’s pieces I do not like.  Some of the short stories in the New Yorker I have enjoyed, although usually not right away.  So, clearly Marcus and I don’t see eye to eye on fiction.

And that’s the case with this excerpt.  It’s hard for me to say I wouldn’t read a longer piece based just on an excerpt because who knows what else the rest of the book contains (this could be a small fraction of a much different story), but this excerpt absolutely didn’t make me want to read any more.

In the excerpt, a married couple is sickened by their daughter.  Literally.  All of the words that she says and whispers and scribbles wash a sickness over her parents.  They cringe and try to get away but she keeps talking and talking.

At first this seemed like a metaphorical sickness–who hasn’t grown tired of their kid’s incessant chatter, but it soon becomes clear that this is very real. (more…)

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