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Setting Times stories to music: From Al Green to Beck

Joe Hunt
Los Angeles’ Joe Hunt was one of the great tennis champions of the 1930s and ‘40s. He won the U.S. Nationals in 1943, the precursor to the U.S. Open, beating rival Jack Kramer, but died during World War II in a training accident.
(Joe Hunt family)

The soundtrack for one of this week’s Great Reads, about a forgotten tennis Adonis who could have been one of the greats of the sport, was a departure for me.

For starters, it wasn’t even a song. It was a tennis match. Or actually, a series of them.

In this cool experiment, the U.S. Open teamed up with James Murphy, the frontman for the band LCD Soundsystem, to use real-time data from the matches at this year’s Open to create some very minimalist music.

I’m not a big fan of tennis, and the music created by the matches isn’t exactly my cup of tea – a cross between the sound effects for that early video game Pong and the chilliest of the German electronic music of the 1970s. But I love the creativity involved. And the graphics are mesmerizing.

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Today, just for fun, I played the music created by the Granollers-Federer match on my computer while I simultaneously played the LCD Soundsystem music-nerd-one-upmanship song “Losing My Edge” on Spotify. It totally worked.

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:

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Unmarked trophy serves clue to lost tennis champion

On a cluttered card table at a Westside estate sale, Sandy Marks spotted an antique silver trophy. It was a large bowl, so deeply tarnished that she struggled to read the inscription:

Ojai Valley Tennis Club

Men’s Intercollegiate Singles Champion

1938

Won by

The winner’s name had never been filled in. But Marks, who regularly resells used goods on eBay, knew there was a market for old trophies. She paid $10 that day in December and promptly put the trophy up for auction.

The winning bidder, an L.A. tennis buff, paid $65 for it and donated it to the Ojai tournament, which is still played every spring.

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“Nobody knew who the 1938 champion was,” said Steve Pratt, the tournament’s marketing chief. “So I did some digging and found out the winner that year was a pretty big deal. Turns out this was one of the great tennis champions, could’ve been the greatest of champions, but nobody really remembered him or what he’d done. I mean, who in the world ever heard of Joe Hunt?”

#soundtrack: The U.S. Open Sessions, by James Murphy.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Legal clinic polishes non-lawyers’ civil suits

Henry Kornman’s window looks like one at a ticket office, with a metal grille to speak through and an opening for papers to be passed. People jot down their names with a pencil affixed to a plastic spoon and patiently wait to be summoned.

Clutching stacks of papers curled at the corners, they have come here to this window at the end of a fluorescent-lighted hallway in the federal courthouse — the soon-to-be foreclosed, the small-time copyright infringers, the mom-and-pop shop operators.

In a courthouse where six-figure cases are made, gang bosses are tried and senators are indicted, the cases that bring people to this free legal clinic for people representing themselves have decidedly more modest stakes. Yet they are fighting for a home, a Social Security check, a small business that’s everything they’ve worked for.

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To spend a day at the courthouse clinic is to get a glimpse of the daunting U.S. justice system through the eyes of an everyman: the do-it-yourself lawyer.

At 9:30 a.m., the clinic opens for business, and Kornman, its bespectacled paralegal-slash-gatekeeper, greets those waiting at his window.

“First time to our clinic? Welcome,” he says warmly. “Get comfortable, and I’ll call you in a second.”

#soundtrack: “Go It Alone,” by Beck. Love how this builds slowly to a great groove. Reminds me of the Beta Band.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

China entrepreneur turns to film to take on social issues

At first blush, Zhang Wei hardly seems like the kind of guy who cares about the social justice issues of the factory floor.

Five Harley-Davidson choppers gleam in the sun in the driveway of his mansion in Beijing’s exclusive Silver Lake Villas neighborhood. (He says he first fell in love with the bikes on Sunset Boulevard.) Inside, the Chinese entrepreneur is showing off his extensive collection of whiskeys from around the world.

“Do you want to try some Macallan, 17-year?” says Zhang, 49, pulling out a personalized bottle from one of the dozens of cabinets stretching from floor to ceiling along a long corridor. “Look, it’s got my name on the label!”

Zhang moves to the dining room, surveying a Lazy Susan table laden with lunch dishes his staff has prepared. “All organic — from my garden outside,” he says, pointing at some vegetables. When a visitor jokingly asks whether the pork is homegrown too, Zhang leaps up and throws open the patio door. “Piggy!” he calls. A black pig comes oinking up the back steps, disturbing a pen of ducks and chickens nearby.

A onetime migrant worker from Hunan province who amassed millions making video intercom doorbell systems in the southern city of Shenzhen, Zhang clearly enjoys the trappings of his wealth. But, it turns out, he’s also the creative force behind an unusual new film about Chinese sweatshops.

Although the exploitation of Chinese assembly line workers has been making headlines for years, it’s a sensitive subject that’s rarely been touched on by China’s filmmakers. Zhang has changed that by directing and producing “Factory Boss,” a drama that sometimes feels more like a documentary.

#soundtrack: “Factory,” by Bruce Springsteen. A friend once mocked the trudging beat and lyrics of this song. But that’s the point, surely?

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Thursday’s Great Read:

Defrocked pastor defends gay rights at new pulpit

The pastor walked the streets of Lower Manhattan, his hands trembling. A day earlier, he’d been stripped of his ministry, defrocked by the United Methodist Church for presiding over his gay son’s wedding. He was afraid he’d never lead a church again.

Then his cellphone rang. A woman he’d never spoken with was on the other end: Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the liberal-leaning head of more than 350 Methodist churches from Southern California to Saipan.

“Brother Schaefer,” she said, “you have support here on the West Coast. You have a community that welcomes you. You acted in the spirit of Jesus, and we invite you to come minister here.”

Schaefer and Carcaño both recall weeping as they spoke that December day. As far as she was concerned, even if he were no longer ordained, he could still preach. She vowed to find him a congregation in California.

Being a Methodist pastor was the core of Frank Schaefer’s identity. He couldn’t imagine himself any other way.

“Bishop, you made not just my day,” he said. “You made my life.”

#soundtrack: “Let’s Get Married,” by Al Green. On the always-on-replay “Greatest Hits” album.

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Friday’s Great Read:

Honduran parents, daughters are a family at last — for now

When Silvia Padilla was pregnant with her second daughter, she and her husband, Marvin Varela, hatched a plan that broke their hearts: They would go to America and leave their girls behind.

Marvin left Honduras with a smuggler one night in 2004. Silvia joined him in Los Angeles three years later and immediately wanted to go back. “She didn’t think she could endure life without them,” Marvin said. “But time passed and she adapted.”

For seven years they lived with other immigrants in small apartments near MacArthur Park. Using fake identification papers she bought on Alvarado Street, Silvia found a job at a factory. Marvin worked for the building contractor who had paid his way to the United States. At the end of every month, they wired money to Honduras.

In Internet video chats, they watched as their daughters lost their baby teeth and grew taller. “Come home,” the girls sometimes begged.

Their parents told them that one day, when they had earned enough, they would return to Tegucigalpa, open a store and build a house.

And then, in nervous phone calls, friends and relatives in Honduras started telling them the gang that had long roamed the dirt streets of their slum was getting bolder. Several of Marvin’s childhood friends were killed for refusing to join. His mother and brothers were threatened. One day while Katheryn, their elder daughter, was at a soccer match, assassins armed with automatic weapons walked up to a spectator and shot him to death.

So Marvin and Silvia forged a new plan. In October, they wired $8,000 to a stranger to smuggle their daughters north.

#soundtrack: “Family Reunion,” by the O’Jays. Not crazy about the retro-patriarchal rap at the end, but ...

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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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