Great Reads: Dick Dale and the down-and-outs

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 get inspired by songs I think fit the article's theme — a soundtrack.


I'm catching up after vacation, so here are some Great Reads of the past few weeks, plus their soundtracks.

A broken city, filled with broken people

Joe Mozingo is one of my favorite writers, and Francine Orr is one of my favorite photographers, so I knew this story about the down-and-outs in California's most down-and-out city, San Bernardino, was going to be stunning. For all the sweep, I found myself staying with the little moments: The meth addict who bathes in a drain-pipe "spa" fed by water from the city's geothermal heating system. The motel manager who stands in the parking lot "watching with sadness as their children play between the freeway’s sound wall and a swimming pool with just enough water for mosquitoes to breed."

Liz Gonzales and Tim Wilburn bathe together in the "spa," a drain pipe in San Bernardino near the Second Street bridge. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Broken," by Jake Bugg. The whole song gives me goose bumps, but that moment when his voice soars like a modern-day Roy Orbison — the hair on the back of my neck stands up. And he was a teenager when he wrote and recorded it.

The ground shifting beneath his feet

When Cal State Fullerton civil engineer Binod Tiwari traveled to Nepal to study the effects of April's massive earthquake, the destruction hit home: He was born and raised in the country. He once lived in a a mud-mortar house, the kind of building that proved deadly during the quake. As members of his team traveled across the country, they saw children and elderly Nepalese sleeping in the open, huddling under tarps near flattened and crumbling houses. It's "devastating," Tiwari says. "You want to cry."

Cal State Fullerton geotechnical engineer Binod Tiwari looks grim as he surveys the damage around the Katmandu Valley after Nepal's April 25 quake. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Solid Ground," by Maps & Atlases. I have to be in the mood to listen to this band, but sometimes they really hit the spot. The bass line in this one is tremendous.

Owls: the beauty and the terror

Recently an owl flew right past me, and it was both beautiful and terrible. At first, it appeared to be this monstrous, headless thing. But the sound of its wings and its grace in flight moved me. I can understand why some people believe them to be supernatural beings. In many parts of Africa, they're seen as omens of death. But one group is hoping to change that. The Township Owls Project is using the birds to help control the rampant, and at times dangerous, rat population in crowded townships and is educating people about their value.

Two owlets rescued from a township by EcoSolutions, a South African urban ecology company that places owls in townships to control the rampant rat population. (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Owls," by the Handsome Family. I would listen to this for the band's name alone. But I also have a soft spot for old-time country sounds.

The story you didn't know about the 'Rugrats' director

Paul Demeyer is legally blind in one eye. He has no peripheral vision. And yet he's a successful animation director, the man behind "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie" and the popular TV series "Miles From Tomorrowland." Read this and be inspired by the story of how he overcame the odds when he was told he might lose his sight completely. He says wryly: "I always tell people if they knew what I see, they wouldn't give me the job I have." 

Paul Demeyer holds a small telescope, usually fastened around his neck, that he uses for work. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Tunnel Vision," by Yo La Tengo. This is an unreleased demo on the reissue of the band's great album "Painful" (which they cleverly called "Extra Painful"). I can play one of the songs on the album, "I Heard You Looking," probably 20 times in a row.

Method acting -- the extreme version

What if you almost died trying to get from your homeland to the promised land? What if you had to relive that traumatic experience, night after night, as you perform your story in a play? As Europe faces a staggering influx of people fleeing poverty and war, that's what some migrants to Greece are doing. The theater group hopes to turn suffering into art, and art into catharsis. And the migrants say it's working.

Migrants from different nations rehearse for the play "We Are the Persians" in Athens. (Elina Fessa)

The soundtrack: "Living Like a Refugee," by Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. Like the performers on the stage in Athens, the members of this band use their stories to heal and to inspire. Love this from their website: "The band is a potent example of the redeeming power of music and the ability of the human spirit to persevere through unimaginable hardship and emerge with optimism intact."

What I'm reading

Newsletter chieftain Claire Noland tipped me off to this wonderful Longreads story on the last honky-tonk in Bakersfield. A karaoke singer (and Elvis fanatic) named Indio steals the story; every time the writer leaves him, you wait impatiently for him to return. The story made me wish for the millionth time that I could have seen Buck Owens play Trout's in a Nudie suit, singing that great line, "You don't know me, but you don't like me."

Sad Animal Facts is the opposite of a long read, but sometimes the one-line caption including a little-known fact about an animal is just as moving (while at the same time funny; see my fondness for lunacy and sorrow below). A recent favorite is captioned, "Kiwis can remember a bad memory for five years." In the drawing of the kiwi, there's the voice bubble, "This was our song."

What's on my bedside table

"A Visit From the Goon Squad," by Jennifer Egan. I have no idea why it took me this long to read this 2011 Pulitzer winner, because it could have been written for me. It's about the music industry, it has brilliant writing, and it's filled lunacy and sorrow (my favorite combination). Recommended.

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: "Surfers' Choice," by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones. I'm listening to this for a couple of reasons. One, it's summer, and Dale's twangy guitar is summer. Two, it has a version of Sloop John B, and I just saw the great Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy." The song is on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," one of the best albums ever.

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