Just in time for the weekend, here’s a little list of some of the things I’ve been listening to and reading this week, some of it online — Storyboard included, natch — and some of it on vinyl or actual ink and paper.
Two of my biggest loves are narrative journalism and music, and I’m lucky that my days are filled with both. When reading stories, I get inspired by songs I think fit the article’s theme — a soundtrack. To start out, here are a couple of this week’s Storyboard articles, and their soundtracks:
“Now might be a good time to reread a few great stories about Putin, don’t you think?” With high-profile stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times reporting that Russia tampered with the U.S. presidential election and Twitter ablaze with references to “The Manchurian Candidate” (one of my favorite movies), it seemed a good time to look at some of the best literary journalism about President Vladimir Putin and the Russia he has shaped. I found some favorite stories: from Sergei Loiko at the Los Angeles Times; Julia Ioffe at the New Republic; Masha Gessen for Vanity Fair; and David Remnick for The New Yorker. If you have a favorite that’s not on the list, let me know. I suspect we’ll be needing to read about Putin for some time now.
The soundtrack: I’ll be obvious and pick “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” by the Beatles. The Beach Boys meets the Cold War! “Well, the Ukraine girls really knock me out/They leave the West behind/And Moscow girls make me sing and shout/That Jo-Jo is always on my mind.” Complete with doo-wop backing vocals.
“5(ish) Questions: Peter Frick-Wright and “What Happened to Eastern Airlines Flight 980?” How many reporters would climb to a 20-foot glacier field to try to find the wreckage of a decades-old plane crash? I’m guessing not many. But Peter Frick-Wright had both the physical ability and the writing chops to do it. As the story says, it’s like Sherlock Holmes meets “Into Thin Air.” (Oh, and it’s included in the Longreads list of best longform of the year, below.) The story also has a subtext of global climate change:
It’s not like the flight recorders have been sitting up there for 30 years waiting to be found. The plane crashed in a huge snowstorm, and once it was buried, the wreckage was basically gone. If anyone had gone looking, there wouldn’t have been anything to find until that glacier melted. My best guess is that the flight recorders have been out of the ice for a year, maybe two. So we got lucky in several ways.
The soundtrack: “Down Is the New Up,” by Radiohead. Radiohead just seemed to be the right band for this story. Majestic and spooky at the same time, like they were made to be played at great altitudes when you’re a bit lightheaded, listening to Thom Yorke audibly taking great breaths as he sings and you seeing your own breath in the bitter cold. This song is from the extended release of “In Rainbows,” which I think is underappreciated. “Reckoner” pops into my brain monthly.
“5 Questions: Nathaniel Rich and “The Invisible Catastrophe.” I think recent Mizzou grad Katherine Knott got some really insightful comments from Rich about his approach to this New York Times Magazine piece on a massive methane gas leak near a well-off suburban Los Angeles community. She asks him how he decided to not focus on a central character to drive the narrative. His answer made me think about my own editing past, and sometimes embracing this style of narrative a little too often. I do think it’s a valid approach, but he has a good point:
I think that’s a cliché. There’s something boring about that idea. I mean, it can work depending on the story, but I wanted to give a sense of this whole community.
So many other stories have been written about the gas leak. In any disaster, it starts with a person and their sob story and takes it from there. I think it’s very tedious to read stories like that. I want as a writer to not fall into those patterns because they are not conducive to original thought. You start to get into a familiar call-and-response type thing. I try to avoid that as much as possible. If it’s boring to me, then it’s going to be boring to readers.
I think it’s funny that in fiction, if you see a familiar narrative like that, it becomes genre or considered bad writing when the writer is so obviously following a formula. But in journalism, I feel like often the formula is what’s taught. But I don’t think the literary standards are different. When a reader is reading something, they can see the artifice in it and feel familiar patterns. It’s boring, and there’s no point in reading it. It’s strange that the level of discipline enforced in fiction is not enforced in journalism.
The soundtrack: “Invisible,” by Modest Mouse. I’m not sure why I don’t listen to this band more. They’re clearly influenced by the Pixies, one of my favorites, and they’ve had Johnny Marr as their guitarist. Hard to top that. New Year’s resolution: Listen to more Modest Mouse.
What I’m reading online: I decided to take a break from politics and read something for pure pleasure: “The Secret Story of the POWs Who Tunneled Through a Toilet to Freedom,” on Narratively. One of my favorite movies since childhood has been “The Great Escape.” A strange one for a girl, I know. But maybe for a lover of stories, even as a child, it makes sense, because it’s like a Dickens novel with all these characters and their interconnecting stories. Steve McQueen as the Cooler King. Donald Pleasance, going blind, and James Garner taking him under his wing so he can taste freedom, if only for a little while. This piece, by Stephen Dando-Collins, is like “The Great Escape” in narrative form. Take this passage, for instance:
As the pump began to wheeze, Ash entered the darkened tunnel. At its deepest, it sank to seventeen feet below ground, to avoid German seismic detectors buried to pick up the sounds of digging. The tunnel was little more than two feet high and two feet across; coffin-sized dimensions dictated by the length of bed-boards taken from camp barracks to line the tunnel walls and ceiling. Ash had personally donated every single bed-board from his own bunk bed, replacing them with a lattice of string, which was concealed from prowling guards’ eyes by his mattress.
Oh, and Longreads has done us all a favor and compiled all of their favorite longform journalism for 2016. A really great tip sheet — I even found a few I had missed along the way.
What’s on my bedside table: Actually, it’s on my kitchen table. I’m a big fan of vintage cookbooks, mostly from the 50s and 60s, because they had the best graphic design. Just look at the cover of “Cooking for Christmas,” by Charlotte Turgeon — a midcentury mod dream. Now, the recipes inside might not be the best thing for a vegetarian (or a fan of vegetables, period; the favorite one seems to be potato, and iceberg the go-to green), but it’s fun to look at the recipes and imagine the aproned housewife fretting over her party menu. “Should I go for the stuffed dates, or would that be too ‘exotic?'” “That grapefruit wreath sure sounds pretty.” And then the party itself — imagining a “Revolutionary Road” soiree, with cocktails (“Tom and Jerry for 20”) and bad behavior and recriminations and self-loathing in the suburbs.
What’s on my turntable: Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: I’m going to stay with a holiday theme and go with “Merry Christmas,” by Bing Crosby (strangely, called “White Christmas” on Spotify. They must have released different covers?) This doesn’t hold a candle to the Sinatra Christmas album, but I don’t have that one on vinyl, so it’s a good alternative. I love the rivalry between the two singers: Bing the old school, fond of those little crooning trills, Sinatra the young punk who made the girls scream and swoon. They play off that rivalry in the wonderful “High Society,” which is pure pleasure throughout, but especially in the scene where the two of them playfully rib each other and sing the unbeatable Cole Porter lyric, “What a swellegant, elegant party this is.” The whole thing looks like joyful improvisation. Even if you’re at work, watch it now and make that weekend start a bit early.
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), you can reach me at email@example.com. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.