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Setting Times stories to music: From Mikal Cronin to the Smiths

This week I came across quite a lovely story by a writer who has found beauty and sorrow in the unlikeliest of places: the world of YouTube comments.

First off, I admire his willingness to wade deep into what he calls a “semi-literate cesspool.” But then he manages to pluck out comments filled with such yearning they bring to mind one of the most haunting lines in film. It's in "Citizen Kane," when Kane's assistant Bernstein is remembering how he saw a woman on a ferry decades earlier:

“I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all. But I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.”

Inspired by the story, I thought I’d look at the comments on the soundtracks for this week's Great Reads (one of which was about ... YouTube). Perhaps tellingly, some of the songs were so below-the-radar there were no comments at all. But I was sure I’d have luck with one of them: The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”

Sure enough, I found many poetic comments. Unfortunately, they were all quoting Morrissey’s lyrics.

Beyond that – and a lot of LOLs and OMGs -- I got slightly queasy reading a running battle that appeared to involve a bunch of guys ganging up on a woman.

After reading hundreds of comments, I finally found one true moment:

“I lost hope there are people who won't hurt me. The closer they get, the more I get hurt. I wish I could live on a deserted island. I hope you'll find more confidence in people than I did, there will be people who you can trust and people who let you know you are loved unconditionally, always.”

Broke my heart a bit.

Anyway, in these roundups of the week gone by, I’d like to offer the first paragraphs of each Great Read (or, as they’re known in print, Column One) -- maybe they’ll buy your eye and you can settle in for a good weekend read. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later if my fellow editor Millie Quan ushered them through. A story soundtrack!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Family hopes genome test will help cure girl's mystery disease

Honors student Lilly Grossman sat propped up daintily in an armchair in her family's sunny living room, talking about what it was like being homecoming princess of her junior class.
The night of the game — a come-from-behind victory for the La Jolla High School Vikings — she rode around the school's field in a Jeep. At her side was the homecoming prince, a handsome football player in uniform.

Lilly held court the next night in a royal blue dress, her hair twisted into an up-do. When the moment came to dance, she offered her hands to the prince. He looked at her sheepishly, unsure what to do.

“That was awkward,” Lilly said with a smile and just the slightest bit of world-weary exasperation.

It isn't easy being 16, social, smart — and sitting in a wheelchair.

Lilly has never been completely “normal” (quotation marks her emphasis).

Afflicted with a mysterious form of muscle weakness since infancy, she has trouble walking, talking and eating. It's hard for her to hold her head up. At any moment, she might fall forward, slumped, until one of her parents lifts her back into position, wedging her into place with an ever-present pillow or two.

Because her speech can be difficult to understand, she depends on text messages and social media to gab with her friends. Sleep eludes her. Seizure-like fits rouse her at night, bringing her parents running to her bedside.

Perhaps worst of all, she spent most of her childhood not really knowing what was wrong with her.

Lilly and her parents wanted answers — even if the journey of discovery would bring both hope and heartbreak.

Story soundtrack: “Peace of Mind,” by Mikal Cronin. A lovely video – it’s like a movie in miniature.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Tavi Gevinson rockets from Rookie to teen pop-culture heights

In her Beatlemania schoolgirl outfit — gray miniskirt, knee-highs and electric-blue suede shoes — Tavi Gevinson looks like any other fashion-obsessed teen as she wanders the crowded aisles of Los Angeles' American Rag Cie.

“I can't afford, like, anything here on my allowance,” the 17-year-old says, scanning the store's horizon for any gems she might have missed.

She pulls out her iPhone and responds to a text.

“My dad, he'll be here in about half an hour to pick me up,” she says, heading toward a carousel rack of vintage-image postcards — “the one thing I actually can afford!”

Gevinson is decisive as she plucks out certain moody postcards and quickly discards others. When the wobbly rack catches on the carpet and fails to turn, the petite Gevinson lifts the metal display and firmly plants it a few inches away, where it swirls freely.

“There” she says sweetly. “I'll take these four.” After paying, Gevinson tucks the cards away in her floral backpack. “Now, what were we talking about again?”

One can forgive the high school senior for being a bit distracted. After flying in from Chicago, she was up late the night before finishing an essay. But the assignment wasn't for school. It was the editor's letter for Rookie, the online pop-culture magazine she started when she was 15; now she oversees a staff of about 80. There was also a photo shoot this morning, followed by a meeting with her agent and then another whirlwind shopping trip in Hollywood.

Story soundtrack: “Belong,” by Pains of Being Pure at Heart. If they ever remake “The Breakfast Club” (or any John Hughes movie, for that matter), they need to call this band.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

YouTube is a lifeline for transgender young people

Behind the counter at Starbucks, Niko Walker wants to be seen as “just a guy.” A guy who craves In-N-Out Burger and burns it off with P90X. A guy who looks like Jeremy Renner. A guy who dreams of making films.

On YouTube, he bares his chest to show his mastectomy scars, tracks his shifting hairline and shows how he injects testosterone. Hundreds of people watch. Questions pop up from strangers. At his Westchester home, facing the tiny camera on a laptop, the 21-year-old feels safe.

“I almost forget that I'm trans because I've had surgery,” Walker tells his YouTube audience. But he keeps making the videos anyway, to support his transgender “brothers” still looking for help.

“I can't be quiet when three or four years ago, I was in the same position,” he said one afternoon before he started to record.

As a high schooler, Walker stumbled across a video online and was transfixed as a faraway stranger started talking. Like Walker, the person on camera was born in a female body but identified as male.

Back then, classmates at Culver City High School knew Walker as a girl who liked other girls, a tomboy who goofily lip-synched to Justin Bieber. But Walker had never really felt like a lesbian, he said.

When the teen saw that video, “it was like, 'Oh my God. This person reminds me so much of myself.' “

Story soundtrack: “How Soon Is Now?” by the Smiths. “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does.”

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Thursday’s Great Read:

His 'Boyhood' screens at Sundance to rave reviews

When Ellar Coltrane was growing up in Texas, his friends would razz him about a movie he claimed to be shooting with the director Richard Linklater. Over the years, they would ask Coltrane if it was ever coming out, and why he was always disappearing to allegedly “make a film” with the man behind “Before Midnight” and “Slacker.”

“Some people had a hard time grasping what was going on,” the 19-year-old said.
No wonder: Since he was 7, Coltrane has been involved in an audacious — and patient — feat of filmmaking.

Every year, Linklater and a film crew would whisk him away from his Austin home to another set of Texas locations and ask him what was happening in his life. Then they would put him together with a fake family that included Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and the director's daughter, Lorelei Linklater. Finally, they would shoot scenes from both a script Linklater had written and the boy's own year, merging it into a character called Mason.

They did this for nearly a week every year until last year, when Coltrane turned 18.

Child actors are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. But none have had, and perhaps none will ever have, the experience of Coltrane. He is the boy at the center of “Boyhood,” Linklater's ambitious 12-year project to follow a child growing up in real time, in what might be called a sprawling epic of the intimate.

The movie is scripted, but its story was adjusted over time as Coltrane changed. Linklater then blended it all into a single three-hour narrative film, which premiered this week to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released in theaters later this year.

The festival screening ended at nearly 1 in the morning, followed by some spirited celebration at a local resort. The next day, Coltrane was running the gantlet of photo studios, mike-in-face questions and the general frenzy of Sundance.

“It's very strange. I've been on the set side of things, but not really on this one,” Coltrane said of the star-making machinery. “I felt a little like an alien from another planet.”

Story soundtrack: “Next Year About the Same Time,” by the Apples in Stereo. Like pop? Then you'll like this band.

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Friday’s Great Read:

At Mammoth, he molds the snow to launch Olympic hopefuls

The snowcat lurches up a steep incline, all 9 tons of diesel machinery bucking and jolting under the strain.

“Snow's hard tonight,” the driver says.

TJ Dawoud has put in a string of long shifts, working from early morning past midnight. His wife would like him home for dinner in a half-hour but there is much to be done.

Well after the sun has slipped behind the Eastern Sierras, Dawoud fusses over a massive snowboard jump that rises more than two stories high, smoothing the surface with a bulldozer-like blade. Then he backs away and shines a spotlight.

The beam illuminates a slight hollow in the otherwise even slope, an imperfection that Dawoud, with all his experience, quickly notices.

“Still not 100%,” he says.

The 30-year-old with curly black hair and a goatee designs terrain parks at Mammoth Mountain ski resort. His job seems almost like playing in a giant sandbox as he piles snow into endless shapes so snowboarders and free skiers can do their jumps and tricks.

The halfpipe must be exact, a 575-foot-long chute where riders launch themselves off the high sidewalls, spinning into the air. The slopestyle course he is working on can be more impromptu, a long downhill run filled with metal rails for hopping onto and sliding along, followed by big jumps.

U.S. Snowboarding officials chose Mammoth for their final pre-Olympic test last week, holding a series of competitions to determine the halfpipe and slopestyle teams for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. In the days beforehand, Dawoud fretted over every detail.

Story soundtrack: “Slippery Slope,” by the Dø (yes, there's a slash). I just came across this band. I like the MIA feel, but not sure I’d listen to them all the time.

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If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.

@karihow

kari.howard@latimes.com

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