Archive for the ‘Billy Bragg’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: WILCO-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (July 29, 2017).

Every year, NPR goes to the Newport Folk Festival so we don’t have to.  A little while afterwards, they post some streams of the shows (you used to be able to download them, but now it’s just a stream).  Here’s a link to the Wilco set; stream it while it’s still active.

I have been really enjoying Wilco’s most recent albums, but it’s their live shows that are exceptional.

Opening with “Random Name Generator” they segue into a very string-heavy “Via Chicago” (a one-two punch of greatness that would leave me flabbergasted).  The recording of this song is particularly great because you can really hear the craziness that Nels Cline adds to the noisy sections.  And the strings also loom large, which I find interesting.  It sounds like a full string section, but maybe its’ just synths?

Wilco have so many albums and so many songs.  Most of their live shows run over two and a half hours.  So this barely-over-an-hour set means excising.  And yet they don’t just play a hits set.  There’s quite a few songs from their latest album, Schmilco and a deep cut from Wilco (The Album).  That particular song “Bull Black Nova” has a cool guitar solo back-and-forth between Cline and whoever else was on guitar at the time.

A mellow “Reservations” leads to a lengthy “Impossible Germany” with an extended guitar solo from Cline.  “Misunderstood” gets a big round of applause (and a suitably chaotic middle section–a mini freakout).

Earlier, Jeff Tweedy said “I don’t feel like talking” but before “Heavy Metal Drummer he says, “I guess I feel like talking a little bit…  Nah.”  Then “Hope we didn’t ruin your lovely day, we didn’t mean to if we did.”

They play a fairly shambolic “I’m the Man Who Loves You” which means not that they play it sloppily but that they play it noisily–from time to time one instrument or another has a little noisy fun while everyone else keeps playing like normal.

As the set starts winding down and Tweedy starts to chat with the crowd, someone shouts something and he says

Happy birthday?  Don’t bring that up.  It’s nowhere near my birthday.  [pause] I might never have another one. [groans from the audience] I just wanted to draw everyone’s attention back to our mortality.  I thought we were having too much fun… it sucks. [pause]  You guys have been heartwarming and reassuring.  Every time I think that everything in the world completely sucks we get to play in front of an audience and share something with people that I know is real and I know it exists and will always exist…  And there will always be more of this than whatever the fuck that is.

They play a lovely “Hummingbird” and a crowd pleasing “The Late Greats.”  Tweedy tells us that “my dad says ‘life is happy and sad and it hurts,’ I wrote about 1,000 songs to say that.”

Tweedy can’t help impart some more advice for our troubled times:

Just show up.  Just show up for everybody and things will be all right.

Before the final two songs, he says, “A lot of people have been yelling for this song, which is understandable.”  It’s from the Billy Bragg & Wilco album of Woody Guthrie songs and it’s called “Christ for President.”  It’s more true now than ever.

For the final song, Billy Bragg himself comes out (that’s what so cool about Newport Folk Festival) and they play a rousing rendition of “California Stars.”

Festivals are never quite as good as regular concerts if you really want to see one band. The sets are always shorter than you want.  But this is pretty fine.  And the recording quality is superb.

[READ: June 20, 2017] “The Countess’s Private Secretary”

This issue has a section of essays called “On the Job,” with essays about working written by several different authors.

Jennifer Egan was indeed the private secretary to a Countess.  The Countess was a woman of some authority.  One time Egan was on her way to work for her.  There was some kind of fire emergency in the building and pedestrian traffic was halted.  The Countess shouted out the window to the emergency crews insisting that Egan be let through.  And she was.

Egan said that being the private secretary often meant “becoming” her–starting at 1PM their lives were more or less the same. It helped that Egan herself was tall and slender, Catholic and full of nervous energy.  She was also short-tempered, just like the Countess.  Indeed, even their handwriting matched pretty well.  Although the Countess told Egan that she liked and her, Egan always knew she was just a servant.  The Countess was not above telling her that garlic oozed from her pores for days after she ate it.  Plus her cowboy boots were coarse, her spelling was atrocious and so on.



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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Tiny Desk Concert #281 (June 17, 2013).

I really like Billy Bragg.  Not necessarily all of his music, but I like a lot of it and I certainly love what he stands for.  If you like his instantly recognizable voice (which I do), then just about anything he does sounds good.  But no doubt some songs are catchier than others.

Bragg played a Tiny Desk Concert in 2016 with someone else as part of a duo.  I’d listened to that one first, but I liked this one more.

For this one he is accompanied on the first two songs by dobro player C.J. Hillman.

Bragg talks a lot–he has many lengthy stories between songs–and he’s pretty much always funny or thoughtful.  He introduces the first song by saying that moving into a new building always has troubles–you’ll always need someone to fix things up.  With that, his first song is called “Handyman Blues.”

It’s a great story song.  I especially like this line:

Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed / but I can write a song about how much I love you instead.

It’s amusing that in the next song workers actually interrupt his song.  They were “met with lot of hammering on our rooftop by some real handymen as they put the finishing touches on NPR’s new home.”

For the second song they

channeled the spirit of legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie, with whom Bragg collaborated — albeit posthumously, in Guthrie’s case — when he took Guthrie’s unsung words and set them to song with the help of Wilco. Here, he takes a song Guthrie himself co-opted and altered: a gospel tune (“This World Is Not My Home”) he’d turned into an anthem against inaction.

Bragg introduces this song as saying he took it over when the U.S. was having the debate about universal health care.  He says that people still face all the same problems that this classic song talks about–people losing homes to banks or families struggling to make ends meet.  But the middle verse is about a wife who dies on the floor for want of proper health care.  Bragg says that that doesn’t happen in his country anymore and it’s hard for people in his country to imagine that a generous country like the US still hasn’t resolved that issue (and five years later things are even worse with Trumpcare–#ITMFA #RESIST).

Guthrie called the song “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore”).  After he sings a verse, the hammering starts and they pause the song to wait for the work to finish before he re-starts the song.  In the meantime they talk about what his band should do in Washington.  Someone says the National Archives and he jokes the Nashville Archive?  He says that they really enjoyed Nashville.  Then he mentions the National Archive to CJ and says

We can find out how the Americans started the war of 1812.  (chuckles).  I just played Annapolis, they’re still sore about it over there.  Never mind who won the war but who started it.

It’s another nice story song.  The dobro works perfectly with it.

“Sexuality” is the only song on this set that I knew.  It’s an old favorite that is serious and funny as well (and very progressive for when it was written).  It sounds terrific and is super catchy.  Although he comments that the acoustics aren’t that great in this new building–there’s not much bounce back off the walls “for those of us who technically aren’t great singers.  But for those of us who are buskers like myself, it’s not bad.”

Introducing the final song, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” he says he read an article on the BBC about a kid who proved that economics professors were wrong and the article commented that “the trouble with economics is that no one knows nothing anymore.”  He says that had just written a song with that same name, so he’s with the zeitgeist.

He also interjects that there will be pedants–“and there are one or two who listen to NPR, I’m sure” who will write in to say it should be ‘no one knows anything any more.’  But the first thing they teach you at songwriting school is that alliteration trumps grammar.

And then he starts strumming “Sexuality “and says “Oh, I’ve just played that.”

“No One Knows Nothing Anymore” is a nice folkie, very-Billy Bragg song–good melody and really good lyrics.

At the end, as the camera fades to black he says “Chris, pass the hat around.”

I’m so happy that Billy Bragg is still making music.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis

This graphic novel is legendary, and I’m embarrassed it has taken me 13 years to read it.

Persepolis is a memoir of a young girl growing up in Iran during the 70s and 80s.  I appreciated the contextualizing introduction in which she explains the history of the country.

The introduction lays out a basic outline of the history of Iran and the Middle East (that goes all the way back to B.C years).  She explains that Iran has always been a rich nation and has constantly been under attack.  When oil was discovered, the West came calling.  Great Britain wielded a powerful influence over Iranian economy.  During WWII, Iran remained neutral but then was invaded by the west.

The Prime Minister of Iran (not the Shah) nationalized the oil industry in 1951 which led to an embargo and a coup organized by the CIA.  The leader, Reza Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah–known simply as the Shah of Iran.  The Shah stayed in power until 1979 when he fled to escape the Islamic Revolution.

She says that since the Islamic revolution Iran has been associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, but she knows that this is far from the truth.  And that’s what inspired her to writ this book.


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TNY 11.24.08 cvr.fnl.indd SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY-Tiny Desk Concert #572 (October 17, 2016).

bragg-henryI don’t really know who Joe Henry is (although I see that he has released 13 albums).  I’ve heard his name mentioned a bunch of times, but I can’t really place him to any specific music.  Billy Bragg, on the other hand, I know very well.

The two recorded an album this year.  And the NPR blurb is pretty interesting:

Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they’d grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.

Their voices sound very different and as a result they play off each other very well.

The duo used Lead Belly as a jumping off point for much of this music.  Bragg explains that the jumping off point for this music is a book he has been working on about when British pop music went from being jazz influenced to being guitar led.  In 1956 Lonnie Donegan became the first Briton to get into the charts playing the  Lead Belly song “Rock Island Line.”

On the second song “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry explains, the railroad is a mythic poverty–railroads conjure a romance in all of us even if we’ve never ridden a passenger train.  As they start, Bragg hasn’t re-tuned his guitar.  He says it’s always him who messes up.  But he usually plays solo, so “If I put something in the wrong key I just sing it in that key and hope no one notices–fortunately my audience… no one comes to hear me sing.”

As they are about to start, he says, “Sorry mate it was a beautiful intro.”  Henry looks at him and says, “It was,” to much laughter.

Before the final song, Henry says he was listening to Lead Belly since he was 15.  “Midnight Special” was a train that ran past Sugarland Prison in Texas.  The story was if the train’s light shined on you as it swept across the yard, that you would be the next to get paroled.

Even though these songs are old,

This concept record could be seen as a nostalgia trip, but both Bragg and Henry will emphatically say that it’s not. These songs and this journey celebrate the modern railroad as a major economic engine and a still-vital form of transportation.

[READ: March 10, 2016] “Ghosts”

Danticat often writes about Haiti and the troubles that arise there.

This story is set in Bel Air–the Baghdad of Haiti. Children in the neighborhood enter art contests by drawing posters that say “It’s not polite to shoot at funeral processions.”

The protagonist is Pascal Dorien.  He is a good kid who tries to stay out of trouble.  His parents own a small restaurant which has the unfortunate location of being in the heart of gangland (his family lives in a nearby town which is a little safer).  Luckily for them (sort of) the gangsters who make the restaurant their evening hangout are kind to the family and think of their place as their haven.

The family originally sold pigeons (both live and as meat) but then the gangsters started buying them to use in a ritual which involved drinking the pigeons’ blood mixed with evaporated milk.  His parents hated this and eventually stopped selling the bird.   Nevertheless the money they made for this ritual allowed them to expand and make even more money.  Which they hoped would allow their children to flee Haiti for safer locations. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_07_01_13Brunetti.inddSOUNDTRACK: AMANDA PALMER–Live at Newport Folk Festival (2013).

palmernewAmanda Palmer has been in the news a lot lately, although more for her actions than for her music.  First she crowdsourced for her album (earning praise and vilification), she gave a TED talk about the experience and recently made the British tabloids because her nipple popped out at the Glastonbury Festival.  (Of course, unlike another famous incident like that. Palmer handled it wonderfully, criticizing not only the Daily Mail but also the entire media industry for caring so much about (female) nudity).  I’ve gained a lot of respect for Palmer in the last year or so and yet I (still) didn’t know all that much about her music.

So there she is at the Newport Folk Festival.  I don’t really know what her “normal” music sounds like, but nearly this whole set was performed on a ukulele (as befits a folk festival).  She plays a few songs on piano and also has some surprise guests–her dad (duetting on Leonard Cohen’s “One of Us Cannot be Wrong” and Neil Gaiman (her husband) coming out to sing the very disturbing song “Psycho”).  She also did a Billy Bragg cover (which was actually a cover of a cover, but Bragg’s version is more well known) of “The World Turned Upside Down.”

The rest of the set included, as I said, mostly ukulele songs (with an occasional foray into piano).  Some highlights include “Map of Tasmania” (a very funny song based on Australian slang) and “Coin-Operated Boy” a Weill-ian song (which is very vulgar).  The rest of the songs are long(ish) meanderings about Palmer and her reactions to life.  Her songs are interesting in their story-telling sensibilities.   Like, “The Bed Song” and “In My Mind” and “Bigger on the Inside” (which is her response to things around her and a fan’s questions to her–it’s very long and rather samey, but lyrically it’s quite effective).   Her delivery is a bit over the top (in perfect theatricality that some will hate).  Her melodies are quite nice (although it must be admitted the piano based song “The Bed Song” has some of the prettiest music)–you can’t really do a lot with melody on the ukulele.

My favorite song is “Ukulele Anthem” a funny song about rocking the ukulele.  I think it speaks to Palmer’s strengths–stream of consciousness, funny and sardonic lyrics set to a simple melody.  It’s a fun song to listen to and see how it evolves.

So overall I enjoyed this set quite a lot.  Although interestingly I still don’t really know what her music normally sounds like.  I assume she doesn’t often play the ukulele, but who knows.  This was an interesting set and Palmer is proving to be a fascinating person.

NPR had this show online although I don’t see it anymore.

[READ: July 30, 2013] “Mastiff”

I read this story the day after I read “Stars,” and while I know there’s no connection between the two, this story also features a woman walking in the woods.  She is also something of a misanthropist (“Sometimes, in the midst of buoyant social occasions, something seemed to switch off.   She could feel a deadness seeping into her, a chilly indifference…and the coldness in her would respond, I don’t give a damn if I ever see any of you again).  And there is a big dog (never described like a wolf but it is about as a big).  That’s a bit too much coincidence for me.   In fact, JCO is so prolific I wouldn’t be surprised if she read McGuane’s story on Monday and wrote her response to it for the following issue.

This story begins with a man and a woman on a trail.  They see a huge mastiff pulling a youngish guy up the trail.  The woman is terrified of the beast (and is embarrassed to have shown that to her boyfriend), but she has a huge sense of relief when the dog and the young man take a different trail.

Her companion makes a joke about the woman’s unease.  They have been dating for a short period and she hated her role in their relationship (she also hated that she was petite which tended to keep her submissive, anyhow).  She resents his comments but says nothing.  They continue hiking.

The man loved to hike and he asked her on this hike as a special treat.  He had told her to pack accordingly but she didn’t listen—no backpack, no extra layer, not even a water bottle.  This seemed to upset him (and made him patronize her).   [We have a third person narrator who is mostly with the woman but occasionally seems to peek into the man’s head—I found this a little disconcerting].  After a few minutes when they reached a plateau (and she was ready to leave), he took out his camera and started taking pictures—more or less ignoring her.

While the man is taking pictures she muses about him and her bad relationships in the past.   She as popular among her fiends, but she was insecure especially around men.  After the dog incident, she had made a point of being friendly to other dog owners (there were a lot on the trail)—just to show him, you know, that she wasn’t afraid.  She also spoke to the strangers, although he wondered, “What’s the point of talking to people you’ll never see again.”

As happens in a story named “Mastiff.” they run into the dog again.  There’s a part earlier in the story where we learn that she was attacked unprovoked by a German Shepard.  Once again, we have an unprovoked dog attack–the mastiff charges at her growling and snarling [although the breed is not known for this].  But then the man jumps in to save her—absorbing much of the abuse himself.

And suddenly the story goes in another direction, with the woman accompanying the man to the hospital, going through his things to find his cards and suddenly feeling much closer to him than she felt that far—being rescued will do that.

There were some wonderful turns of phrase that I liked: “Naked and horizontal, the man seemed much larger than he did clothed and vertical.”  Although I had to take issue with this character owning an art gallery—that easiest of cliche professions—although it wasn’t really relevant to the story.  But aside from that, this was an enjoyable fast paced story.  It explored people’s darker moments and used the dog as a catalyst for human interactions.

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SlexOUNDTRACK: FRANK TURNER & THE SLEEPING SOULS Live at the Newport Folk Festival (2013).

frakWhenever NPR streams and saves festivals shows, I like to check out the bands I love (of course), but I also check out some of the bands I’d never heard of before.  And sometimes it leads to a fantastic discovery.  Like Frank Turner.  I had no idea who he was, but he was described as folk-punk which is quite accurate.  He reminds me of Billy Bragg in his younger, harder days.  Turner is British, he has a very thick accent when he sings and while he is nowhere near as political as Bragg, he treads in that same line of folkiness.

His lead off track, “Four Simple Words” (the words are “I Want to Dance”) begins as a folkie song, but it quickly morphs into a rollicking stomper (louder than most bands at Newport, he theorizes).  But a song like “Try This at Home” seems to speak to his overall ethos—music for the people by the people:

Because there’s no such thing as rock stars There’s just people who play music
And some of them are just like us And some of them are dicks
So quick, turn off your stereo Pick up that pen and paper
Yeah, you could do much better Than some skinny half-arsed English country singer

There are a few more specifically pointed messages like “Glory Hallelujah,” whose chorus goes “There is no-o-o God, so clap your hands together.”  As well as a funny (but not really) song which he introduces as being written because he read Gene Simmons’ autobiography.  Simmons says he slept with 4,600 some women which he knows because he has taken a Polaroid of each one.  Turner is appalled “what an ass” and wrote “Wherefore Art Thou, Gene Simmons” as a response.

But the majority of songs are about love and life, going home again and playing music.  And, in this live setting Turner is fantastic—getting the crowd to sing along, having great banter and being a wonderful showman.

The final song is a great sing-along with the simple but effective chorus of: “I won’t sit down and I won’t shut up.  And most of all I will not grow up.”  I’m totally enjoying Turner’s music and now I’m going to have to check out his actual releases (he has four or five).  See more about him at his website.

[READ: July 20, 2013] Lexicon.

Virginia Woolf has gotten a hold of a word which has caused untold destruction in a small town in Australia.  W.B. Yeats has sent T.S. Eliot and a non-poet named Wil to get the word back and, if possible to kill Virginia Woolf.

Intrigued?  Yeah me too.

I saw this book in Barnes & Noble and was really excited that Barry had a new book out.  And when I pointed it out to Sarah she said , “I already have a hold on it.”  So, when it came in I took it from her pile and now it has to go back before she gets a chance to read it.

Imprinted in the crazy cover image are a series of odd characters and amid them it says 4 why did you do it.  I was trying to figure out if there was more to this secret message, but there isn’t.  However, it is a clue to what lies inside.

I guess in the grand scheme of things, the story is pretty simple (if not a little confusing).  What I laid out above is the skeletal outline; however, Barry interweaves the story with past and future (and a whole lot of mind control) and he begins the book right in the middle of utter chaos. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (2009).

Billy Bragg is one of the great holdouts of aggressive political liberalism in music.  For every “American Idiot” that young bands play, Billy can whip out “There is Power in a Union” or the more prescient, “No Power without Accountability.”  Lyrics:

I hear these words just every place I go
Who are these people? Who elected them?
And how do I replace them with some of my friends?

He’s an old school American folkie, despite the fact that he is so outrageously British that his singing accent is stronger than most British folks’ speaking voices.

But he’s not all politics (well, yes he is, but sometimes he disguises it).  Like on his minor hit “Sexuality.”  With some of the first gay positive lyrics I can remember hearing on the radio: “I’ve had relations with girls from many nations/I’ve made passes at women of all classes/And just because you’re gay I won’t turn you away/If you stick around I’m sure that we can find some common ground.”

Billy’s set is pretty great.  He plays the electric guitar for most of it (with an amusing moment where he switches to the acoustic guitar and references Dylan), and really, he needs no accompaniment.  He plays several of his own songs as well as a number of Woody Guthrie songs (both ones that Guthrie recorded and ones that Bragg and friends recorded for the Mermaid Avenue project).

Bragg also talks.  A lot.  His stage banter is as funny as it is impassioned.  And he urges people not to give in to cynicism about their newly elected President (the task is too great for him to please everyone).   Sometimes he comes across as really inspirational and other times as simply idealistic.

The only part of the show that I don’t really like is the “cover” of “One Love.”  I don’t particularly like the song to begin with and this version is 6 minutes long.  True, he modifies the lyric, but the basics are  the same.  Aside from that it’s a pretty rousing set (even if the DJs interrupt him about 40 minutes in, apparently thinking he was going to be end).

[READ: August 1, 2011] Zeitoun

I loved A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.  And I liked You Shall Know Our Velocity quite a bit too (and I just found out that YSKOV was rereleased as Sacrament with an extra 45 page section from Hand’s point of view–and that apparently there is only one copy available anywhere in the world and it costs $250!).

Anyhow, It was through Eggers that I found McSweeney’s (and its vast empire).  And yet during that time, I sort of gave up on reading Eggers’ published works.  When Zeitoun came out, I wasn’t all that interested to read it.  Mostly because I knew the book was about Hurricane Katrina, and I didn’t think I could handle a book about such a tragedy.

But recently, several people in book clubs had mentioned how good (and quick) of a read it was.  So I decided to give it a read.  And I’m really glad I did.

The book is about Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian born American.  He was living in New Orleans and was the owner of a very successful remodelling business (as well as the landlord of several properties around New Orleans).  Zeitoun is a hard-working, exceptionally conscientious man (the flashback to him running to work, carrying his broken bicycle on his back is as inspirational as it is amusing).  He rarely takes a vacation (much to his family’s chagrin) and oftentimes his wife has taken their kids on a vacation without him.  (One time they dragged into the car with his bags already in it without telling him they were going away for a weeklong vacation). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Talking to the Taxman About Poetry (1986).

I’ve liked Billy for ages now.  I’ve seen him live a few times, and I’ve always loved that his accent is so prominent when he sings.  Over the years he has become somewhat less overtly political, but he is still a man of issues and causes.

This is Billy Bragg’s second full length.  He was still primarily a man with a voice and a guitar at this stage.  His melodies are strong, and since there’s no other instrumentation, all that’s left to talk about is the lyrics.

“Greetings to the New Brunette” is an adorable love song, followed closely by the anti-marriage “The Marriage”: “If I share my bed with you Must I also share my life Love is just a moment of giving And marriage is when we admit our parents were right.” (which doesn’t quite jibe with Sophia, but it’s close.

But really what you come to Billy Bragg for is the politics.  LIke in “Ideology”:  The voices of the people Are falling on deaf ears Our politicians all become careerists They must declare their interests  But not their company cars  Is there more to a seat in parliament  Then sitting on your arse.”

He also covers a public domain song which I wondered how well it would fit here.  “There is Power in a Union” seems like it’s saying the right thing, but some of the characters here would disagree about the end: There is power in a factory, power in the land Power in the hands of a worker But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand There is power in a Union.”

This album also features the great track, “Help Save the Youth of America.”

Over the years Billy would expand his sound (he even worked with Wilco on two discs), but he always sings for the people.

[READ: Week of July 2, 2010] Letters of Insurgents [Fourth Letters]

As I’ve been going along in the story, I began to wonder if the two letter writers were going to be rehashing the same arguments in each letter.  I had confidence in Perlman that the story would be interesting (it sure had been so far), but I couldn’t imagine how he would keep it original, especially since Yarostan was in jail for so long–he has no information except secondhand.

This week’s reading gave two examples of how he’d do it:  Jasna comes to visit Yarostan and she updates everyone about what had happened to all of their fellow workers, and Sophia reveals a horrible situation in which she hits rock bottom–a real physical bottom, not a philosophical one. (more…)

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