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:
5(ish) Questions: Ted Conover and “Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep.” Journalist Ted Conover has spent the last 30 years immersing himself in others’ lives. He talks here about going beyond the “cardboard versions” of people, and the ethics of undercover reporting. One of his books is about his time as a guard at Sing Sing prison, a reporting feat very similar to Shane Bauer’s piece in Mother Jones that just won the reporting category at the annual National Magazine Awards. Conover says: “Deception is the nature of undercover reporting, and as a reporter you need to own that deception. You need to realize that good readers are going to be picturing you deceiving people and making up their own minds about whether it was worth it.”
The soundtrack: “Undercover,” by Pete Yorn. I always wondered why Pete Yorn wasn’t a big star: He had the hooks, he had the looks. (Hmm, a song lyric? Not quite as good, admittedly, as “I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks/Let’s make lots of money.”)
“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks a host at the door.”
Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek.” Click here to read why we think it’s great.
5(ish) Questions: Inara Verzemnieks and “Life in Obamacare’s Dead Zone.” We like being topical on Storyboard, and it’s hard to get more of-the-moment than this New York Times Magazine article about those who fall outside the Affordable Care Act net. With President Trump vowing to repeal Obamacare, millions more might fall outside the net. The thoughtful Verzemnieks says, “There is this real, sort of strange way that facts and ‘fake’ are being used as a rhetorical political bludgeon. … Reporting and creative writing are both absolutely necessary and don’t have to happen at the expense of one another. The critical thing is to see how both combined can offer a way to counter some of this.”
The soundtrack: “Cover Me,” by Bruce Springsteen. “The times are tough now, just getting tougher/Whole world is rough, it’s just getting rougher.” Lyrics that resonate right now. On a musical note, I wish that Springsteen would redo this album and make it less 1980s poppy. He should do it unplugged, or like “Nebraska.”
What I’m reading online: The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS, by Luke Mogelson for The New Yorker. If there’s a better piece of war reportage this year, I’ll be stunned. This is a tour de force of reporting, taking a boatload of bravery that is admirably understated. The writing is memorable too: It’s probably 20,000 words, but it has incredible velocity. I’m hoping to feature it soon on Storyboard.
And I loved two stories in my old paper, the Los Angeles Times. One is by Tom Curwen, about the lonely life of L.A.’s celebrity mountain lion, P-22, who roams the Hollywood Hills looking for love — and dinner. Speaking of which, Tom makes little moments lyrical: “On this night, his ears twitch to a distant rustling, another creature’s lapse of caution.” And the other is by a talented young reporter named Hailey Branson-Potts, about a Libyan immigrant to Southern California who has spent decades being a foster father to dying children. He’s buried 10 of them.
What’s on my bedside table: I’m one of the no-doubt-thousands of college writers who were handed a book by Tom Wolfe by a professor and told (in unspoken rebuke): “This is how it’s done.” In my case, it was “The Right Stuff.” Now I’m coming back to Wolfe and reading “The Pump House Gang,” a collection of stories by “America’s foremost pop journalist,” as the groovy cover says. In the title piece, he hangs out with a group of surfer kids who hate anyone older than 25. It’s one of many of Wolfe’s studies of the “statusphere” (examined by Storyboard here). He’s a classic outsider, an “old guy” (over 30!) in a seersucker suit at the beach. And I think that’s why it works — he wasn’t trying to be their buddy. He was an observer, something he does better than most of us.
What’s on my work table: I’m adding this category for just this week, so you can see the lovely gift a new friend gave me, knowing I have a collection. It’s a very early typewriter, by L.C. Smith & Brothers. The keys are a thing of beauty, and the space bar is actually made of wood. Sadly, the ribbon is tattered, but it inspires me as I work on a slightly newer typing device called a laptop. And I thought Storyboard readers might be fans of vintage typewriters too. The main photo at the top of this post is a close-up of the keys.
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: “To Be Continued,” by Isaac Hayes. Someday I’m going to do an entire Storyboard post on Isaac Hayes and his storytelling. If you don’t know the monologues he does setting up the pop songs he covers, they’re stupendous. In this one, he talks for four minutes giving the backstory for “Our Day Will Come,” backed by just a few-note refrain from a piano, guitar and — what the? — crickets until the orchestra starts swelling and then … that baritone transforming a white-bread song into something some kind of wonderful.
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.