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Great Reads: Funeral gowns and '60s pop

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.


Here are the Great Reads of the past week, plus their soundtracks.

The cue card king of 'Saturday Night Live'

As a kid, Wally Feresten longed to write for television. He just never imagined that he'd be doing it with a felt marker on 14-by-22-inch pieces of recycled cardboard. For 25 years now, Feresten has been the cue card guy at "Saturday Night Live." Two of my favorite bits in this fun piece: That the cards for even a short sketch are as heavy as a well-fed cat, and that his "SNL" debut was for a "Sprockets" sketch starring Mike Myers. (One of the best catchphrases ever on the show: "Do you want to touch my monkey?")

Wally Feresten holds a cue card on "Late Night With Seth Meyers" on May 14, 2015. (Lloyd Bishop / NBC)

The soundtrack: "Saturday Night," by the Bay City Rollers. Sure, it's cheesy. But I always sing along with the chorus. Come on — you do it too, right?

The Nazis took her property. Poland won't give it back.

She fled the Nazis. Escaped a Siberian prison camp. Survived hunger and homelessness in Central Asia. Battled malaria, dysentery and lice on deportation trains and overloaded ships. Landed, finally, in Middle East exile. All by the age of 7. Now, three-quarters of a century later, Maria Finder Tasini is still fighting to recover her family's multimillion-dollar property from the Polish government. She deals with a lifetime of injustices with patience and serenity, sounding more baffled than angry when told that her claim was being dropped because she didn't have paperwork proving ownership. "My grandfather was shot and killed by the Nazis when he refused to board the train for Auschwitz," she says. "He didn't have the opportunity to take his shares with him."

Miriam Finder Tasini recently learned that her quest to recover her family’s property in their native city of Krakow is being dropped from the Polish claims registry. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles)

The soundtrack: "Roads," by Portishead. I don't think Portishead gets the kind of credit it deserves for inspiring legions of bands that followed. The album this is on, "Dummy," is one of my go-to records when I'm in the mood for something spooky-moving.

The guerrilla art treehouse of Griffith Park

What I wouldn't given to have gotten this invitation. On a small piece of wood with a laser-burned message, it read, "June 30, 2015. Please join us for tea and wishes overlooking the city. Sunrise, Griffith Park." The only other instructions directed recipients to meet at the Griffith Observatory parking lot at dawn and "follow the lights." Finally, after climbing past the Hollywood sign, writer Carolina Miranda and nearly three dozen other people arrived at a thing of beauty: the Griffith Park Teahouse, which didn't exist until Monday night, when it was surreptitiously installed by a loose collective of artists. It was made from trees killed in the 2007 blaze there. I hope it stays there forever, or at least until nature again claims its own.

Tiffany Williams pours tea for Stacey Abarbanel, Karin Huebner and Michele Raitano at an artist-built teahouse that was built overnight in Griffith Park. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Ashes & Fire," by Ryan Adams. This a live version recorded at Carnegie Hall. You can hear the beauty of the acoustics in this simple rendition, just one voice and one guitar.

'She was a force of nature'

Sometimes obituaries are the best reads in the paper, especially when they tell us about amazing people who never made many headlines while they were alive. The story of Susan Ahn Cuddy, who died last month at 100, is one of them. She was a pistol: She is believed to be the first Asian American female U.S. Navy officer and became the Navy's first female gunnery officer during World War II. Her first application to the San Diego Navy Board to join the officers' program was rejected because, as she later learned, she "was an Oriental."

Susan Ahn Cuddy enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942. (Courtesy of Susan Ahn Cuddy family)

The soundtrack: "Girls It Ain't Easy," by Dusty Springfield. I definitely needed a fierce woman who defied expectations and didn't follow traditional paths for this story's soundtrack. One of the best voices ever.

The bravery of a dressmaker's grandson

It took courage, and it took love, for Paul Valdez to wear a dress at his grandmother's funeral. Valdez, a gay man and drag queen, was best friends with his dressmaker grandmother, Eva Griego. As she watched, he made a special dress. The last section of the story is so moving: At his grandmother’s bedside, Valdez cradled her head and called her "Mama." She craned her neck to see his face. "That black dress," she said to Valdez. "Is it done?" He told her it was close. She had a request, and what she asked of him would have to be their secret until the funeral. Eva Griego lived more than 50 years in Santa Fe, N.M. She knew its culture, its mores, its taboos. So she must have known very well what the request would bring — the trouble it would cause her grandson, the disapproval it would create at church. "When they lay me in the ground," she said, pointing to his masterpiece hanging within reach, "wear that."

Paul Valdez at his grandmother Eva Griego's casket. (Courtesy of Valdez family)

The soundtrack: "Old School Rules," by Danger Doom (featuring Talib Kweli). The reporter, Nigel Duara, insisted that this be the soundtrack. I didn't know the band, although I do know one of the collaborators, Danger Mouse. But I loved the mix of hip-hop, '60s horns and Beta Band groove.

What I'm reading

On the 40th anniversary of the release of the movie "Jaws," it seemed like the perfect time to read the 1967 article by Peter Benchley in Holiday magazine that led to his novel -- and the Spielberg movie, of course. I love this scene: "For a time the ladies stood around staring at the water, evidently expecting the sea to regurgitate a mass of unspeakable horrors. Then, as if on mute cue, they all at once packed their coolers, grills, rafts, inner tubes and aluminum beach chairs and marched to their cars."

Don't start looking at the Humans of New York website if you're in a hurry. You'll find yourself drawn in by the stories and photos of everyday New Yorkers. Some are mundane, some unexpectedly soul-baring. There are stories of love, stories of heartbreak, stories of struggle. And then there's the man with the big mustache who says: "All of my ex-wives were pains in the ass. And I love every one of them."

What's on my bedside table

"How to Be Both," by Ali Smith. I read the first of the two stories that make up this brilliant book several weeks ago and loved it. It took me longer to get into the second story, about a Renaissance artist who is secretly a woman, but I am now totally in its groove.

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: "Fresh Blood," by Matthew E. White. I don't buy that many new albums because they're so pricey (I love old, cheap vinyl with great covers), but I had to get both of the records by White, one of my current favorites. One pop critic wrote that he's what you'd get if you crossed Isaac Hayes and Spiritualized. I think that nails it.


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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