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Great Reads: Blimps and movie stars and suicide pills

Hey 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.

Witnessing the execution of a Goodyear blimp -- and nearly crying

If you'd told me a few weeks ago that I'd almost weep over the death of a Goodyear blimp, I would have laughed. But that's what happened when I got to the end of this story by Deborah Netburn and Eryn Brown. As the story begins, the aging Spirit of America is on her last flight before being "decommissioned" (which seems a "Logan's Run"-style euphemism for what happens: She's going to be deflated and cut into little pieces). THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, CALIFORNIA, flashes on her side. But as she approaches the hangar in Tustin where it will all end for her, she seems to revolt, like an animal heading to slaughter. It takes the strength of 13 men to bring her down. Her death is told like an execution, a minute-by-minute description of her systems shutting down, at the same time clinical and incredibly moving.

Crew members hold a rope tied to the back of Spirit of America as a truck moves the front of the airship toward a huge World War II-era hangar in Tustin, where it would be decommissioned. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Blimps Go 90," by Guided by Voices. One of the great '90s American indie bands. That combo of jangle pop and lo-fi noise is like catnip for me. They lose me only when they veer toward progressive rock.

Before the band, U2 was a spy plane -- complete with suicide pills

I think the only reason I knew about the U-2 spy plane when I was young was because I wanted to know the origins of the band of the same name (minus the hyphen). This story about the looming obsolescence of the plane told me so many cool facts about it. Fact No. 1: During marathon flights, pilots eat "go-gel," an amphetamine-laced paste that keeps them alert. Fact No. 2: Its motto is "In God We Trust. All Others We Monitor." Fact No. 3 (and favorite): Sewn into the seat — in case the pilot is forced to eject — are a serrated knife, inflatable life raft, tourniquet, magnetic compass and radio. U-2 pilots once carried suicide pills but stopped in 1960 after a pilot flying above Bulgaria mistakenly popped one into his mouth, believing it was a lemon drop, according to declassified CIA documents. After noticing it tasted funny, he spit it out before any illness set in.

Maj. David Brill pilots a U-2 spy plane -- a single-seater capable of flying to 70,000 feet, or more than 13 miles high -- out of Beale Air Force Base in California. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the Buggles. I kept hearing this while reading the story. Just like video killed the radio star, drones killed the U-2. I love that this was the first song that they played on MTV when it went on the air in 1981. I have this vague memory of seeing the launch of MTV when I was young, but it could be a false one -- that I saw replayed years later and took it as a real memory.

Hanging out with Nick Nolte in Malibu, shooting the breeze

I don't read that many celebrity profiles, but this one by Jeff Fleishman is so wonderful, it makes me want to drive to Nick Nolte's house in Malibu and demand that he hang out with me. This is what happens when a great storyteller interviews a great storyteller. (For some reason I'm picturing one of those Escher drawings.) Favorite story, on working on the "Mulholland Falls" screenplay and cribbing from James Ellroy: "We got into Ellroy's books," Nolte says. "But after a while we had stolen so much that I said, 'Greg, call Ellroy.' Ellroy answers the phone and says, 'Dog, here.' 'Cause he calls himself Dog. Greg explained who he was and what we were doing. Ellroy said, 'Well, what are you taking?' Greg had the quotes down. This line and this line. And I said, 'Give me the phone. James, it's Nick Nolte. Here's what we've taken so far. I think we're right at the edge of taking too much.' Ellroy said, 'Look, I'll meet you at the Pacific Dining Car in three days at eight o'clock.'"

Actor Nick Nolte. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The soundtrack: "I Am What I Am," by Spiritualized. I've been listening to this band nonstop since seeing them at last weekend's FYF Fest -- my favorite set of the whole weekend. It was in the L.A. Sports Arena. You descended to the floor through a haze of smoke machines into near-total darkness. (And when they began to play, it didn't get much lighter: I think Jason Pierce has a stipulation in his contract that no spotlights can illuminate his face.) It was stultifying and a bit claustrophobic down there, and we were all sweating. But it was a transcendent experience. And this song seemed to fit Nolte.

Be inspired by the story of the world's oldest backpacker

Who hasn't felt a twinge upon hearing that quote about how at the end of life, you're haunted not by the things you did, but by the things you didn’t do? But then we get on with our lives (of things we didn't do). But Korean immigrant Hyo So booked a hostel bed in Cairo and took off solo from his Pico-Union apartment on his first-ever backpacking trip. Since then, he's traveled to 40 countries. But he's no teenager looking to find himself: So is 76. These are the things he takes along: a frayed white baseball cap to keep out the sun, a fishing vest for its myriad pockets, well-worn sneakers in which he’s walked miles on end. Four shirts and three pairs of pants, unassuming enough to discourage robbers but not too ratty to deter conversations with other travelers or locals. Malaria medication, spare glasses and small, dark-colored pill bottles in which he stashes rum to get through airport security. One thing he doesn't carry: a camera. His only photos are ones other travelers have taken and emailed to him.

Hyo So, 76, with Maasai tribesmen in Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Hyo So)

The soundtrack: "Around the World," by Daft Punk. I'm not crazy about this song, but it seemed to work for the story. I'm in the camp of people who think Daft Punk is a little emperor's new clothes -- disco by another name.

What I'm reading

"That Time a Gypsy Told Me My Future," by Jason Smith on Medium (a good clearinghouse of interesting writing). The best thing about this piece is that I can't tell if it's fiction or nonfiction. Either way, it really drew me in. He tells of taking a train to Bern on the spur of the moment, not knowing even what country it was in. When he arrives and sees a bunch of junkies standing around, he says, "It was chaotic depravity, but in an overly-controlled, organized setting. Ahh. I must be in Switzerland." One of the junkies, a Gypsy, sidles up to him and calls him by name, which stops Smith in his tracks.  “Jason … it be ok.” “Wha- How do you know my name?” He paused, looking at me to make sure the words sank in. “Jason … it is ok. Always, ok.” The rest of the fortune is more specific, but that's my favorite part. The Gypsy sounds a lot like my mom.

This is more listening and watching than reading, but I love Blank on Blank's animated "lost" interviews of famous people. The latest one was with one of my writing heroes, Hunter S. Thompson. For some reason, I had never heard him before. His voice surprised me -- not nearly as deep as I imagined. But it had the same stop-start-veer-rush rhythm of his writing. In this interview with Studs Terkel in 1967, Thompson talks about covering the Hell's Angels, and the violence that's in all of us. He has a great line about the Angels and how they might have started in the postwar years: "They get to be 30 and suddenly they wake up one morning and realized there are no more chances. It's all gone. It makes them meaner."

What's on my bedside table

My bedside table mocks me. The books pile up. The books go unread. Two weekends this month I've been at music festivals until past-bedtime hours. This weekend is going to be my lazy reading weekend (famous last words).

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: "Rapping" by Curtis Mayfield. My copy has the telltale hole in the cover signifying it's a promotional copy. But I didn't realize that it only came out as a promotional record. One side is a pretty great interview with Mayfield, and the other some of his greatest hits, including the wacka-wacka "Superfly." (His definition of Superfly on Side 1: "It means many things. Up, hip, all the high fashions, Cadillacs, Rolls-Royces. Hip things that just might turn you on.")

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