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Great Reads: Democracy and free speech and crazy dreams

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 (and some lowercase great reads) of the last week, plus their soundtracks.

Democracy, jailhouse-style — giving L.A. inmates a voice

Citizens lined up with complaints. Officials dutifully listening. It could be a city council meeting anywhere in Los Angeles. But this one is behind bars — in L.A. County jails. Welcome to democracy, jailhouse-style, complete with representatives elected by other inmates and a meeting agenda handwritten in pencil — ballpoint pens aren't allowed because they might be used as weapons. Biggest topics of discussion? The food (with "Scariyaki" and "Brain Matter" leading the way as least favorites) and the jail clothing. "The clothes we get here are like garbage. The shirts look like floor towels," said Angel Tristan, a council member with a mustache and shaved head serving three years for burglary, as two laundry supervisors listened. "The boxers are boy-sized boxers. They're for little kids. They will rip."

An inmate council meeting at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic in June. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Democracy," by Leonard Cohen.  His deeper, older voice always comes as a shock. The first time I heard it, on the very bitter "Everybody Knows," I couldn't believe it was the same Leonard Cohen who sang "Suzanne."

If you build it, it will fly: a beautiful obsession in a Nairobi backyard

People sometimes ask me, what makes a Column One (or Great Read, as the case may be) a Column One? From now on, I'll just point them to this story by Robyn Dixon about a man who has been trying to build an airplane in his tiny Nairobi backyard for eight years now. She captures the madness and the beauty of his obsession. Gabriel Nderitu has built THIRTEEN planes over the last eight years and had 13 failures. But he's sure Project 14 will finally fly. His patience (and, more amazingly, that of his wife) is a lovely thing to behold — as is his refusal to let go of his dream, even if everyone else thinks he's crazy. He's my new personal hero. I'll be crossing my fingers for him next week when he tests Project 14. (Oh, and the kicker to the story is priceless.)

Gabriel Nderitu has a second plane in his tiny backyard, one that he hopes will take off after the purple one takes to the skies. (Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Come Fly With Me," by Frank Sinatra. Such a perfect album — and surely one of the first "concept" albums. Even the cover makes me smile: the bright blue sky and jets behind him, promising adventures; and then Sinatra himself — his thumb pointing to the jets, his fedora and cuff links, and, especially, him holding the hand of a barely seen woman.

I'll never look at the art at my thrift store the same way again

This idea is so cool: Artist Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia finds handmade art in thrift stores and creates new art inspired by it. But then he does something radical — he donates the art back to a thrift store. In this story by Carolina Miranda (who finds the most interesting stories), he says: "I think of a thrift store as a hopeful place for pictures. These are things that someone made by hand. And somehow this picture ended up at a thrift store. So I think that the piece had to have been emotionally valuable enough for the person donating it, otherwise they would have thrown it away. It's like they're hoping someone will pick it up." That's so lovely. Note to self: Look more closely at the (mostly sad) paintings and drawings that are piled up in a heap at the thrift store I go to most weeks.

An installation view of Hurtado's "Segundas" series at CB1 Gallery. The works are inspired by paintings the artist finds in thrift stores. (CB1 Gallery)

The soundtrack: "The Lonely Little Thrift Store," by Jonathan Richman. I could have written this about my little thrift store — well, if I had Richman's talent, that is. Like me, he creates little stories about the imagined pasts of the cast-off items, once loved and now selling for 99 cents. (Favorite bit, the story of the popcorn popper.) I love how he combines humor and sweetness in his songs.

A world where the words "China" and "free speech" coexist

You don't often hear the words "China" and "free speech" together. But hundreds of Chinese high schoolers are catching the debating bug in a league created by expats (with government permission, natch). Julie Makinen hung out with the teens at the three-day national championships, which she nicely calls a "cross-cultural spectacle of nerves, intellect, ambition, hormones, tears and joy." Watch as they wade though treacherous waters — topics such as international intervention. How nervous do you think the kid was who had to sound like Dick Cheney and defend military invasions? It's comforting to think that although the Chinese students are very different from their American brethren, the debate nerd culture is universal.

Cloris Zhang, 15, makes a point during the National High School Debate League of China championship. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Debate Exposes Doubt," by Death Cab for Cutie. Sure, they do great pop. But my heart belongs to their Barsuk Records label mates Nada Surf. If you don't know them: highly recommended. Start with "Let Go," a near-perfect album.

What I'm reading

The headline in The Millions got my attention: "Raymond Carver's first short story." Luckily, I also saw the overscore: Annals of Japery. A classic spoof of the hard-bitten Carver. The intro is priceless: "As it turns out, his distinctive style was established surprisingly early, as this recently-discovered story — found among the yellowing papers of his third-grade teacher at Yakima Elementary School — will attest." So many lines bought my eye, but this is a great one: "I took out a pack of Lucky Stripes, shook out one of the candy cigarettes, and put it in my mouth. The sounds of the children in the house came to me clearly now, their laughter and screams. I inhaled and puffed forth a cloud of powdered sugar." Even the commenters were funny: "Just think what a 14-year-old Gordon Lish [his famously heavy-handed editor] could have done with this."

If you haven't read Nathan Masters' "L.A. as Subject" dispatches for KCET, I recommend them. They're these great little slices of the city's past, usually with wonderful pictures. I came across this older one about when the famous streets and boulevards of Los Angeles were dirt roads. One photo shows a woman in a very large hat driving a horse-drawn carriage down the road that became Pacific Coast Highway. A 1904 shot of Hollywood Boulevard shows a jalopy traveling down a road that could be the rural America of Terrence Malick's "Badlands."

What's on my bedside table

Finally, two weeks after the modern-day "Travels With Charley" team came back from their drought road trip, I finished the book that helped inspire the journey. Although he heads back east after reaching the Pacific (like a literary Lewis and Clark), his thoughts about his home state and childhood near Salinas resonated the most for me as the book neared its end. On the terrifying majesty of redwoods: "Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?" And this wonderful anecdote about his parents' love: "On one of these oaks my father burned his name with a hot iron together with the name of the girl he loved. In the long years the bark grew over the burn and covered it. And just a little while ago, a man cut that oak for firewood and his splitting wedge uncovered my father's name and the man sent it to me."

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: "Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell," by ... well, I guess that's obvious. I picked this up at the thrift store because I have a soft spot for both of them — and because you've gotta love the late '60s polyester duds and hair on the cover. These aren't my favorite songs by either (that would be "Wichita Lineman," which is one of my favorite songs, period), and they rush the wonderful "Gentle on My Mind," but still a fun listen.

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