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. Here are a couple of this week’s Storyboard articles, and their soundtracks:
Annotation Tuesday! Jon Mooallem’s “Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort of) Rattled the Scientific Community. I love the British site The Idler, and for years kept its Freedom Manifesto posted above my computer at work. Its first line is “Death to the Supermarkets,” and it goes on to urge you to “Stop Consuming. Start Producing” and “Be Creative.” But it’s the last three lines that I’m fond of quoting:
“Life Is Absurd. We Are Free. Be Merry.”At least in part, the manifesto inspired me to make the move from Los Angeles to Maine. So of course I loved this story, which is about the man behind the Idler site, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, and his amateur cloud-spotting society. Although the ostensible subject is a skirmish over a new cloud called the asperatus, the theme of the story is finding joy in the little, unexpected things in life. It’s about keeping your eyes, and your mind, open. So often we trudge trudge trudge on our little paths, and if you pay attention, even your commute to work can be a thing of beauty and wonder.
Soundtrack: Both Sides Now, by Natalie Prass. This song has a lovely cameo at the end of the story. I know Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins had the big hits with this, but Natalie Prass is one of my favorite female singers of the past few years. Her debut album is a stunner; I had the song “Violently” on repeat last year. When I saw her at a small show at the Echo in L.A., she had a Blanche DuBois meets manic pixie girl feel; the gig had a quiver of extra excitement when her boyfriend Ryan Adams got on stage.
The Pulitzer at 100: Katherine Boo and “Invisible Lives” in group homes. The theme of the upcoming Pulitzer at 100 festivities at the Nieman Foundation is power. On the broader issue — abuse by the powerful against the powerless — Katherine Boo’s series in the Washington Post about mistreatment of the mentally disabled at Washington’s group homes is one of the most beautifully written, heartbreaking examples of the genre. But what I particularly love about Garrett Therolf’s “Why’s This So Good?” essay is a different kind of power: the power to inspire. Garrett was a student at Georgetown when he read the series back in 1999. And it inspired him more than any other story to try to follow Boo’s example. He has gone on to dedicate much of his career to the subject of children and their abuse. That’s powerful.
Soundtrack: “Helpless,” by Sugar. Have I talked about my tuning fork theory in this column? I think everyone has a tuning fork in their chests, and when it hears a certain type of music, it starts humming in sympathy. This is a tuning fork song for me. Those guitar chords, especially at the end! (Oh, I also love the more famous “Helpless” song, by Neil Young, but it’s not quite tuning fork.)
What I’m reading online: Two stories really drew me in this week. One is by Kate Miles, and it’s running in the Boston Globe magazine on Sunday but is already the most-read story on the Globe’s site. For years now, Kate has been following the story of a lost hiker who survived more than two weeks on the Appalachian Trail in Maine in 2013 without food before dying, alone, in her sleeping bag. Her remains weren’t found for more than two years. Kate’s reconstruction of her last days is pretty stunning — and the woman’s journal entries as she counted down the days to her death may make you cry. I see a movie in this one.
The other story is by one of my favorite writers at the L.A. Times, Jeff Fleishman. It actually has a moving parallel to Kate’s story: It’s about thousands of telegrams sent during the Civil War. Like the lost hiker, these are messages from beyond the grave. Death, for many, is also imminent. “We will not remain undisturbed tonight,” one reads. “Even the Rail Road men have been ordered to leave.” The recently discovered telegrams were written by the famous — Abraham Lincoln among them — and the unknown. It’s the latter ones that get me more. This could inspire a movie too, no?
What’s on my bedside table: Strangely enough, the book I’ve just started reading, “An Unnecessary Woman,” by Rabih Alameddine, reminds me of one of Jeff’s stories. We worked together on it, and it’s one that will stay with me forever. The story is about a woman who lives on a rooftop in Cairo. She once lived inside the building, but her life has become more and more hopeless; now she has been exiled by her circumstances to the roof. The whole piece is very interior: It’s as if we’re inside her head. The story is wonderful — I think the first two grafs are as beautiful as anything I’ve ever read. “An Unnecessary Woman” is also about an aging woman in the Middle East (this time it’s Lebanon), and it’s also very interior. The novel has little dialogue — the main character lives alone, childless and friendless. But it feels very alive and conversational, a testament to Alameddine’s writing.
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: “Greatest Hits Volume 3,” by Diana Ross & the Supremes. As summer winds down (and the first hint of fall rustles the air in Maine), there may be no better music than Motown to keep the summer spirit going. And the Supremes are the masters of that. Though it’s a funny thing — the melody of the songs makes you so happy, you almost don’t notice that nearly every one of them is about heartbreak.
If you want to suggest story soundtracks of your own, or just want to chat about storytelling or music, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.