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 past week, plus their soundtracks.
The DWP, a 2-acre compound in Pacific Palisades, and a dog with a past
OK, time to praise a lead: "Beat a dog once," observed the late Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "and you only have to show him the whip." The same cannot always be said about the beaten dog's master. Especially when the affronted canine happens to be a Pacific Palisades mutt named Ralph. I'm not sure when I've had more fun with a story in recent memory. Peter Jamison has the perfect touch in it — at times wry, at times serious. And in addition to the lead, the story has a particularly brilliant paragraph: "In audiences with a reporter, Ralph was a near-caricature of canine benevolence, liberal with sloppy kisses and eager to show off his knack for delivering rolled-up newspapers in his mouth. But no angels inhabit the City of Angels, even in the idyllic canyons of the Palisades, and on close inspection it turns out that Ralph is a dog with a past." Yes, he has created a new genre: dog noir. Someone sign him to a book deal!
The soundtrack: "Who Let the Dogs Out," by Baha Men. I apologize. I know it's a terrible song, and I know it will stay in your head. (Remember — chew some gum. That's supposed to be the antidote to an earworm.) But it just fit the story perfectly!
Don't pray for rain — pray for snow
Writer Diana Marcum and photographer Robert Gauthier wrapped up their #DrylandsCA drought road trip where it all starts: the top of the headwaters. They paid homage to the water gods at the sign for the town of Tamarack, which holds the U.S. record for the deepest snow (454 inches in 1911) and the most Sierra snow in one season (884 inches in the winter of 1906-07). Because, as Diana writes, it’s snow that holds the water through the winter and come spring melts into gurgling creeks and rivers that fill the reservoirs below. Melted snow is 30% of California’s water supply — and the snowpack this year was the lowest on record. I so enjoyed this tires-to-tarmac view of the drought. By getting to corners of the state that are easy to forget about, as one housekeeper at the wonderfully named Hideaway Lodge and Motel said, they saw firsthand how the drought was affecting just about every single person they met. But the thing that moved me the most was how people endure, how they hold on to hope — and how they find the joy that's possible even in the littlest moments. Nice job, Drylands crew.
The soundtrack: "Let it Snow," by Frank Sinatra. Yes, it's August. It's 90 degrees outside and even the most craven stores don't have a hint of Christmas decorations. But I couldn't help hearing this song while reading the story. (Kind of like a prayer.)
The lost films of the silent era — and the obsessives who love them
This story about a film-festival-slash-detective-show for an oddball subset of the film obsessives set — silent movie buffs — had a cool detail in just about every paragraph. Some of the best: An 11-year-old (!) who's one of the biggest fans of an art that died three-quarters of a century before he was born. The person who managed to identify a marginal actor in one of the "lost" films who had only shown his posterior. That the festival is held in a former Federal Reserve bunker in Virginia. And, finally, the revelation that the Library of Congress, which has the biggest film library in the world and puts on the festival, owns a copy of the notorious unseen Jerry Lewis comedy about the Holocaust, "The Day the Clown Cried."
The soundtrack: "Moving Pictures Silent Films," by Great Lake Swimmers. Sometimes only indie-folk will do (and sometimes it's incredibly grating — but maybe that's just me). And this is good indie-folk.
Uncovering the long-lost bunkers and greens of the Los Angeles Country Club
This story is so cool that it's like an archaeological excavation at a golf course, discovering its ancient civilizations, in this case bunkers and greens from "the Golden Age of course design." It's as much a story about one man's efforts to uncover the bulldozed-over relics of the Los Angeles Country Club as a story of its 1920s designer, George C. Thomas. Love this bit: The 15th green had a mound dead-center — some members claim it was Thomas’ homage to the belly of the late Joseph Sartori, who co-founded the club in the early 1900s.
The soundtrack: "Underneath the Bunker," by R.E.M. Sure, it's a different type of bunker. Or at least I think it is — the band's lyrics are ever-opaque. (Which reminds me of my favorite misheard lyric. A friend in college thought that in "Talk About the Passion," Stipe wasn't singing "combien du temps," but this: "Gumby into town." Makes me laugh still.)
What I'm reading
I suppose all of us have that friend — the one who, when coming from Houston to Los Angeles, will fly to New York first so he can get the extra airline miles. As someone who just wants to get to my destination, I think that's craziness. But no — this is craziness: Ben Schlappig, 25, is one of the biggest stars among an elite group of obsessive fliers whose mission is to outwit the airlines. They call themselves Hobbyists. For the last year, Schlappig has come down to earth only to get on another plane, where he's greeted with Champagne and flight attendant groupies (literally, in one case). But his loneliness is the recurring refrain. One anecdote in this Rolling Stone piece really got me: Sometimes he sits alone in a corner of Indira Gandhi International Airport and studies the arrivals hall. "You see a whole family, 20 people, picking up someone at the airport," he says. "People with signs, people with balloons, with flowers. There's something beautiful about that."
Did you know the advice column was born 300 years ago? And that the writer was hilarious? I didn't either until yesterday, when I read this Atlantic piece on The Athenian Mercury, a long (long) dead British periodical of the 1690s. I'll say "right on" to this response: "Q: Is it proper for women to be learned? A: All grant that they may have some learning, but the question is of what sort, and to what degree? Some indeed think they have learned enough if they can distinguish between their husband's breeches and another man's.... We see no reason why women should not be learned now. For if we have seen one lady gone mad with learning ... there are a hundred men could be named, whom the same cause has rendered fit for bedlam."
What's on my bedside table
I just started reading "Every Eye," by Isobel English. I haven't gotten far enough to tell you much about it, but I do know one thing: I will like it. How can I be so sure? Because it's been put out by Persephone Books, possibly my favorite publisher. It's a London outfit that reprints neglected books from the 20th century, most of them mid-century. They range from the sweetest stories ever ("Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day") to a haunting novel about a missing child ("Still Missing"), all of them in the prettiest dove-gray covers. Even if they weren't great comfort reads, they look wonderful and calming on your bookshelf. (If you're planning a London trip, I recommend their bookshop, on the lovely Lamb's Conduit Street.)
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: "Natalie Prass," by Natalie Prass. She's the first act on my long list of bands to see this weekend at San Francisco's Outside Lands music festival, so I wanted to get in the mood for the show by listening to this album, with fantastic production by Matthew E. White (absolutely love him). When I first got the album version, I had "Violently" on repeat — not an easy thing on vinyl!