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:
Writer Caroline Paul: Adventures are simply stories in action. At the recent Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, Romania, the novelist and nonfiction author Caroline Paul told a funny story about her disastrous attempt to be a star in the luge world (where her nickname was “Crash”). She said she came in last in the National Championships, but so what? She was still the 11th-ranked female luger in the country. Paul, who spent 13 years as a San Francisco firefighter, said that failure taught her something she’s used in writing since: “I learned something the hard way and remembered that experience when I was writing books.” She also learned another thing: how important it is to find your niche.
The soundtrack: “My Way,” by Sid Vicious. Everything comes together in this cover of the Frank Sinatra hit (which is one of my least favorite Sinatra songs, his voice ragged, bombastic). Vicious clearly treats it as a joke, but the punk fury comes through. And the nihilism, which seems to predict the rest of his fast-burning, squalid life.
5 Questions: Alex Tizon and “In the Land of Missing Persons.” This is another installment in our cool series “Tomorrow’s journalists exploring the masters of today,” with Missouri Journalism School students giving their favorite articles the Storyboard treatment. I particularly love how this week’s writer, Jillian Deutsch, admitted that she had to muster her “young-reporter courage” to reach out to writer Alex Tizon to talk about his Atlantic story on two unconnected men named Richard who went missing in Alaska, and how their fates eventually intertwined. It’s a story of two families, and a terrible (but terribly understandable) mistake. I like this quote from Tizon: “I think that stuff happens more often than anyone would be willing to acknowledge, unfortunately. It was such a human thing. The whole story was full of human flaws and frailties.”
The soundtrack: Missing, by the xx. This is about a love gone wrong, but some of the lyrics could apply to the parents and siblings of the missing men. “My heart is beating in such a different way/Been gone such a long time.” And the music is somber, slightly spooky, the computer percussion running through it like a heartbeat. This is a band I’ve found it hard to warm to because of their chilliness, but they ride a Portishead mood here. (Now that’s a band whose influence is criminally underrated.)
What I’m reading online: I’ll read most anything by Zadie Smith, especially if she’s talking about the rhythm of dance and how it applies to writing. In this piece for the Guardian, she really nails what differentiates Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly — the aristocrat and the proletariat. While admitting that Astaire is otherworldly in his talent, she says she prefers the earthiness of Kelly — perhaps because it seems more achievable for us. She connects the dancers to her writing: “When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating.” And Beyoncé (and Madonna) are all about control and power. Like Joan Didion and Muriel Spark, she says: “Such writers offer the same essential qualities (or illusions): total control (over their form) and no freedom (for the reader).”
What’s on my bedside table: “The Passport,” by Herter Müller. With our newest Nobel literature laureate — that would be Dylan, of course — on my mind, I thought I’d turn to the Romanian-born Müller, the 2009 winner. This novella isn’t an easy read. Each page in the book, set in village in dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, is shot through with physical disgust and a sense of oppression. You feel the utter absence of love. The writing is like poetry, spare and deliberate. “Last summer, Widow Kroner plucked linden blossoms from the cooper’s tree. The tree stands on the left-hand side of the churchyard. Grass grows there. Wild narcissi bloom in the grass. There’s a pool in the grass. Around the pool are the graves of the Romanians. They’re flat. The water drags them under the earth.”
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: Stan Getz & Bill Evans. In my book, Bill Evans can do no wrong (even the slightly cheesy electric keyboard he played later in his too-short career). And Stan Getz has such a great feel for bossa nova. So this is now officially my second-favorite collaboration with Evans (the first being the one that actually made me like Tony Bennett), not the least because it features one of my favorite songs, “But Beautiful.”
If you 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.