LOCAL L.A. Now

Setting Times stories to music: Nick Lowe to Afrika Bambaataa

Until I read Monday’s Great Read, I had no idea that NASA had space junkyards. I find the idea of them very cool, but also slightly sad: These things that once touched the stars lie forgotten, never to soar again.

When I used to take the Gold Line to work, it passed a junkyard as it neared downtown. It was your average yard -- junked cars, scrap metal, spare parts.

But then there was the spaceship. It looked like a UFO from a 1950s schlock movie, or the kind of thing that flitted through the Jetsons: a disk with a little bubble of a cockpit.

I found myself looking for it each day, anticipation mixed with anxiety. Would it finally be gone, either sold as a prop or flown away home? It became a talisman of sorts, a lucky charm. Last time I looked, it was still there.

I love the unexpected, like the junkyard spaceship. In music, it can be the surprise of an unexpected lyric. In stories, it can be the rhythm of the language or the who-knew subject (see above). That’s a hallmark of the Great Reads.

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:

NASA shuttle veteran gives old parts new life for L.A. exhibit

It was the type of weather that would have scrubbed a space shuttle launch.
The rain was relentless. Water streamed down Dennis Jenkins' glasses, dripping off the tip of his nose, as he surveyed the scrap yard not far from where the shuttles once blasted into orbit.

A box overflowing with keyboards and wires. Nearly a dozen file cabinets tipped on their sides. A small mountain of cardboard boxes, falling apart in the downpour.
Each box bore a sticker emblazoned with the blue NASA logo. “CRITICAL SPACE ITEM,” they read. “HANDLE WITH EXTREME CARE.”

Jenkins directed his team to a pair of 7-foot-tall contraptions next to a chain-link fence — escape baskets that once sat near the top of the shuttle, ready to slide astronauts to safety should something go wrong before launch.

It took all four men to carefully move the baskets, using a forklift to hoist each up and set it into a trailer. Once they were settled, Jenkins circled the trailer, pausing to tuck a canvas flap back into place.

He turned and gave his crew a thumbs up. “Perfect,” he said.

Jenkins spent 30-plus years — his entire career — sending the shuttles into space. Now, with the program part of a bygone era of exploration, the 57-year-old works for the California Science Center, helping officials figure out how to display their own orbiter, Endeavour.

The Exposition Park museum wants to showcase its crown jewel as if it's on the launch pad, a display that will take thousands of pieces to pull off — parts that are scattered at NASA facilities, museums and other places across the U.S. Most are one of a kind and impossible to replicate.

So for the past year, Jenkins has crisscrossed the country, scouring NASA scrap yards and asking old colleagues if they have what he needs to rebuild the shuttle launch stack, piece by piece.

#soundtrack: “Space Junk,” by Wang Chung. Never thought I’d say these words, but this isn’t a bad Wang Chung song.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

'Blackfish's' director, now its 'steward,' finds it hard to move on

Gabriela Cowperthwaite looked out the window of a train at the ocean and the bros surfing and the fish taco stands whizzing by.

“I'm antsy,” she said, shifting in her seat. She checked her cellphone, which she had largely been ignoring all day. There were a few messages about work prospects, and another from her husband about their 7-year-old twin boys.

Usually, Cowperthwaite drives her sons to their school in Venice. But on this Monday in February, she had been with thousands of other kids, touring middle schools to answer questions about her documentary “Blackfish.”

This wasn't where she thought she'd be a year ago, when the film about the plight of killer whales performing at SeaWorld premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. But “Blackfish” has since become one of the most controversial documentaries to hit theaters in a decade.

High-profile musicians have canceled gigs at SeaWorld, and dozens of celebrities have tweeted about the movie, urging their followers to stop going to the theme park. Animal rights activists turned up at both the Macy's Thanksgiving and Rose parades to protest the company's whale-centric floats.

In December, SeaWorld bought full-page ads in eight newspapers, rejecting allegations of animal mistreatment. Jim Atchison, the company's president and chief executive, insists most park guests “see the story for what it is — an activist agenda.”

The experience has engulfed the 43-year-old Colorado native, who had only one feature film under her belt before “Blackfish.” She spends her days sitting for interviews or traveling to screen her film. Because her movie was nominated for a handful of prizes, she also braved the awards season gantlet, walking red carpets and attending stuffy rubber chicken dinners.

#soundtrack: “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” by Frightened Rabbit. I thought the title of the song could fit the captive killer whales, but also the director. And it’s also a lovely song.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

In China, restaurants supersize their menus

A Peking duck dinner might inspire a twinge of guilt about indulging in some decadent, fatty fowl. But health-conscious diners at the high-end Da Dong restaurant chain here in the Chinese capital can at least rationalize that they did a little weightlifting before their meal.

That's because the menus at Da Dong are heftier than a small gym dumbbell — 5 pounds, 4 ounces, to be exact. Measuring 20 inches tall, 15 inches wide and more than an inch thick, the 140-page menu outweighs National Geographic's Global Atlas.

Packed with rich color photos, the volume is divided into chapters with sumptuous red-and-white calligraphy paper. The brown binding bears the restaurant's name, and a table of contents listing about 200 dishes runs four pages. And diners are handed two other menus: a selection of seasonal items (24 pages) and a wine list (a relatively svelte 19 pages).

Da Dong's massive menu may be among the most eye-popping in town, but it's hardly alone in its heftiness or artistic ambition. Even as a trend toward in-season and locally grown food has helped shrink the list of dishes at many au courant establishments in the United States and Europe in recent years, transforming their bills of fare into single-sheet affairs printed daily on ordinary paper, high-end restaurateurs in China have been supersizing.

Middle-8th in Beijing, specializing in dishes from Yunnan province, employs a 128-page, 3-pound carte. At Pure Lotus, a pricey vegetarian hideaway, customers contend with a golden-paged volume stretching 2 1/2 feet wide and weighing 4 pounds, 5 ounces; and if that isn't enough, the nine-course $133 tasting menu is carved into an inch-thick wooden plank, also 2 1/2 feet wide. Countless run-of-the-mill restaurants offer customers menus as large and colorful as American high school yearbooks.

#soundtrack: “When I Write the Book,” by Nick Lowe. And may I suggest a good companion song? “Everyday I Write the Book,” by his pal Elvis Costello. Speaking of which, the two of them perform a countrified version of the former song in the video.

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Thursday’s Great Read:

Resurrecting a stealthy giant

It wasn't long after the morning sun came up over the Mojave Desert that Sean Byrne noticed a black speck fluttering just above the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

He knew what it was, as did the other workers from Northrop Grumman Corp. surrounding him. They were waiting on this wind-swept tarmac at the company's plant in Palmdale to catch a glimpse of the aircraft nicknamed “Lazarus” — the plane that died in a fire on the island of Guam only to be resurrected.

The dot grew larger and larger. Suddenly, the unmistakable bat-winged silhouette of the B-2 stealth bomber emerged. As it touched down for a landing, the crowd erupted in applause, hugs and tears.

“After all that time, it finally made it back home,” Byrne said. “In some ways, we couldn't believe we pulled it off.”

The four-year operation to rebuild the military's rarest — and most expensive at $2.1 billion — aircraft involved hundreds of hard-to-find parts, thousands of labor hours, and 300 Air Force and Northrop workers. Many of them, mechanics such as Byrne, left their families in Palmdale and flew 6,000 miles to Guam to work seven days a week for months at a time to restore the stealth bomber.

They spent so much time working on the island, they started calling their temporary home “Guamdale.”

#soundtrack: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” by the Gap Band. Love the rhinestone fatigues in the video. Get up on the military-industrial complex dance floor!

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Friday’s Great Read:

The man who killed Pluto searches the heavens for new worlds to conquer

The shutters to the dome sheltering the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain open with a clunk. With a steady purr of the two-horsepower motors, the twin panels, 115 tons each, begin to part.

A twilight sky slowly breaks over the curved edge. Girders and beams, the optical tube and horseshoe mount emerge like a fantastic engraving from the past imagining the future.

But Mike Brown — Pluto slayer, dwarf-planet hunter — has little time for wonder. He booked his time on the telescope seven months ago and has a schedule to keep. Tonight and tomorrow he hopes to photograph about 30 objects in space between Jupiter and Neptune, and he’s worried.

Sitting in the observing room with three computer monitors glowing before him, he focuses on a radar image of Southern California, where a cloud the size of Ohio is moving on shore. Getting time on the telescope is difficult, and the loss of one night could set him back a year.

Since killing Pluto in 2006 — his intentionally dramatic expression for the role he played demoting the onetime ninth planet — Brown is eager to put his celebrity behind him. The mock funerals and hand-wringing, the obscene phone calls and earnest debate, he feels, waylaid the real agenda: to understand how the solar system developed.

“Killing Pluto was awesome,” he says, “but we need to find out how we got here.”

#soundtrack: “Planet Rock,” by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force. Perhaps the most remixed song ever? I counted about 30 on Spotify.

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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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