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Great Reads and their soundtracks: From Nina Simone to Spiritualized

Hi there. I'm Kari Howard, and I edit the Great Reads (a.k.a. Column Ones) for the Los Angeles Times.

Two of my biggest loves are narrative journalism and music, and I’m lucky that my days are filled with both: When reading the stories, I become inspired by songs I think fit the article's theme -- a soundtrack.


Here are this week’s Great Reads, plus their soundtracks.

The Mafia don’s brother and his matzo ball soup

What do you do if you’re the brother of Mafia don John Gotti and you don’t want to go into THAT business? Bill Gotti created a different kind of family. His Hollywood restaurant became a kind of community clubhouse, where people could walk in and count on catching up with neighbors and friends. But the neighborhood started changing. People drifted away. And Gotti decided to close his restaurant's glass doors forever. "I've had a good run," he kept telling customers as he rubbed away tears with the heels of his hands.

Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

The soundtrack: “Say Goodbye,” by Beck. It took me awhile to warm to Beck after the smart-alecky slackerdom of “Loser,” but the maturation that started taking hold in “Sea Change” might have reached its peak with last year’s lovely “Morning Phase.”

With a diagnosis, she lost everything she loved

Angie Bloomquist describes her life as like being a butterfly in reverse -- once, she flew free, and now, she’s trapped in a cocoon. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with ALS. Today, she can’t move, she can’t speak, and she wants the state to let her die. When you read this story, you realize it could happen to anyone. It could be you. It could be me. The words of her husband made me cry: "I've had some deliriously happy times in my marriage," he says. "And I know that those moments, unlike the human body, are everlasting."

Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times

The soundtrack: “Death Take Your Fiddle,” by Spiritualized. This band has sneaked up on me and become one of my favorites. At one of the best concerts I’ve been to in recent years, they played the brilliant album “Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” in its entirety, with an orchestra, at the inaugural show at the fab new Ace theater in downtown Los Angeles. Singer Jason Pierce looked so fragile, sitting in a chair the whole time, singing about heartbreak, pain and redemption.

The bot doesn't know when to hold 'em or fold 'em

Do you remember when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess? When Watson crushed the top "Jeopardy" players? Meet Claudico, the poker-playing computer program. He doesn't have to worry about keeping a poker face -- because he doesn't have a face at all. But can he beat some of the best (human) poker players? Won't spoil the ending, but ... he's no Deep Blue.

Doug Oster / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The soundtrack: “Poker Face,” by Lady Gaga. Note to Daft Punk: This is how you do synth-pop right.

'They want to kill us. Kill us.'

I'm trying to imagine how it must feel to be adrift on the ocean for three months. First, your smugglers beat and tortured you, then they abandoned you. Two countries turned you away, leaving you to fend for yourself on the open sea. When shipmates died, you tossed them overboard. This is the chilling story of 700 refugees who were finally pulled ashore by Indonesian fishermen.

Christophe Archambault / AFP/Getty Images

The soundtrack: “Lost at Sea,” by Guster. I love the sweetness of this pop.

She's 64. She's not a Size 0. And she's a hit at Cannes. Deal with it.

"Krisha Fairchild descended the stairs from the street above with white hair askew and a body type that would draw a dismissive hand wave from a Paris designer. Fairchild did not look the part of a Cannes habitué. She looked, perhaps, the part of an enthusiastic vendor at a Sunday flea market." Steve Zeitchik had such fun with this story about an unlikely star at the status-obsessed Cannes Film Festival. When I was editing it, I found myself leaving all these notes like "nice line" and "love it."

Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times

The soundtrack: “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” by Nina Simone. I started listening to Nina before reading this story, then realized her I-am-woman-hear-me-roar attitude really fit the story. And the mood of this song especially worked.

What I’m reading

I'm one of the new fans of Karl Ove Knausgaard after being knocked out by his New York Times Magazine "Passage Through America" piece. Here, he tries to go inside the mind of mass killer Anders Brevik, who shattered Knausgaard's native Norway four years ago. "He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me." (I'm now building up to Knausgaard's multi-volume book, "My Struggle.")

With Letterman's last episode this week (sob), it seemed the right time to read David Foster Wallace's short story called "Late Night," which ran in Playboy and was the first time he was published in a national non-literary magazine. It's told from the point of view of an aging TV actress with a producer husband who appears on the show. I love that a twentysomething guy understood this character so well -- and made her the most honest person in the story.

The Morning News website has been running a series of stories about random calls to people across America. In this one, the writer calls an assortment of Walmarts. He chats with the optician in Midland, Texas, who's a drag performer in his non-Walmart life. The baker in Prescott, Ariz., who says, "I really like decorating cakes. I can't help it." The tight-lipped 72-year-old widower in Richmond, Va., who says nothing exciting ever happens at the store, and he likes it that way.

What’s on my bedside table

“High Fidelity,” by Nick Hornby. I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this now, but it’s probably more times than any other book. Yes, it has the music obsessiveness. Yes, it’s hilarious. But it also has such insight into relationships. And such heart. (And the movie, even though it was transplanted to America, is absolutely wonderful.) Oh, and I quote this line with regularity: “What came first -- the music or the misery? Did I listen to the music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to the music?"

What’s on my turntable

Although I spend most of my time listening with headphones to Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. That’s why I have a turntable in my office -- and two at home (one inside, and a battery-powered one outside when the weather’s fine --which it usually is in Southern California). This week’s vinyl: “The Stone Roses.” Don’t get me going on how this may be the only perfect album in pop history. (Seriously, don't get me going. Unless you have all day, that is.)

Want to chat? Have a great idea for a Great Read? I'm @karihow on Twitter and kari.howard@latimes.com on email.

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