Setting Times stories to music: from Nick Cave to Dionne Warwick

By Kari Howard

This week, I came across a website called Six Word Stories. The website, its creators say, was inspired by a bet from Ernest Hemingway’s pals that he couldn’t write a story in six words.


So I thought I’d do six-word versions of this week’s five Great Reads. (No, I’m not giving Hemingway’s story until afterward. It would be like having the Beatles as your opening band.)

“She was done with hate. Freedom.”

“Papa. Mama. Why did they leave?”

“The big break, with $10 water.”

“Pi are squared? Pie are round.”

“In Oklahoma, he’s bigger than Jesus.”

And here’s Hemingway’s. It’s brilliant: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

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 soak in good writing. And you’ll also get the songs that inspired me while editing the stories, or reading them later. A story-song combo!


Monday’s Great Read:

Defector from anti-gay church struggles with her past

The house was empty, just as Libby Phelps had planned. Slipping inside that afternoon four years ago, she felt as if her heart would burst through her chest.

She peeked through the curtains, terrified that her aunt and uncle across the street would notice the cars parked in the driveway with doors and trunks open.

Moving quickly with three co-workers by her side, she shoved clothes, high school yearbooks, photo albums, a pillow and an old TV into boxes and suitcases. She felt like a thief in her own home. And, in a way, she was.

At age 25, Libby Phelps was stealing her life back.

She never dreamed growing up in Topeka that her last name would become so evil to so many. Her grandfather is Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, a place despised by many for its virulent protests against homosexuality at the funerals of U.S. troops.

For Libby, church and family had always been intertwined. Nearly all of Westboro’s 70 members descend from her grandfather. Libby’s father, Fred Phelps Jr., is the oldest of 13 children and a church leader. She is one of 55 grandchildren. The Phelps clan lives in a tight radius only a few blocks wide in central Topeka. The children attend public schools; the adults have professional careers. But they socialize almost entirely with one another.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls them “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.”

From the time she could hoist a sign that read “God Hates Fags,” Libby picketed with her grandparents, parents, brother and two sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, first in Topeka and then across the land. Her family and her faith told her that homosexuality was a sin and she was helping others find the path to salvation.

She believed it with all of her heart.

Until she didn’t anymore.

#storysongs combo: “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” by Dionne Warwick. Maybe if Fred Phelps Jr. listened to a little more Bacharach/David, he’d be kinder. Even though this video doesn’t have the whole song, it has two bonuses: She’s performing with Bacharach, and it includes “Alfie” too.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

Orphans, families in agonizing limbo

Andy and Bethany Nagel left photos of themselves at the orphanage for the little boy with Down syndrome who was going to be their son. We’ll be back, they told 4-year-old Timofey, blowing kisses from the doorway and retreating anxiously into the chilly street.

Their whole life was in the album they left that day in October: pictures of the room they’d fixed up for Timofey at their home in suburban Maryland; grinning images of their two American sons, ages 6 and 13, who would be his brothers.

The book sat beside Timofey’s bed in Baby Home No. 13, and staffers would help him thumb through the pages. “Where is your papa?” they’d ask, and he’d point to Andy’s picture. “Where is your mama?” And he’d find Bethany.

In January, Natalia Nikiforova, chief doctor at Baby Home No. 13, crept into Timofey’s room, quietly picked up the album and hid it in her office. There would be no American family.

The new Russian law banning adoptions by U.S. families that took effect Jan. 1 erased the Nagels’ plans to bring Timofey to America in March. In all, it stranded more than 330 families who had already begun stitching hoped-for Russian adoptees into the webs of their lives.

“We have all these sorts of feelings of grief that we could process — if we didn’t know he’s still out there,” said Andy Nagel, 31, an assistant pastor at a Presbyterian church in Germantown, Md.

#storysongs combo: “O Children,” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Yes, your basic Nick Cave feel-good song.


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Cannes: Kickstarter kids make an unlikely trip

A few months ago, Jeremy Saulnier had risen early for a flight to Cleveland when he saw a message in his inbox. It was in French.

The 36-year-old New Yorker was traveling to the Buckeye State to shoot corporate videos, which the director had been doing to pay the bills since his filmmaking career fizzled six years before with the disappointing performance of his first movie, a genre comedy called “Murder Party.”

The email that morning was from programmers at the Cannes Film Festival. They really liked a rough cut of his new effort, an unconventional revenge drama titled “Blue Ruin,” which he and his wife had liquidated their retirement accounts to make. The programmers seemed interested in showing it in the festival’s Directors’ Fortnight section.

“The email was all in French, and it said that at that point the movie’s status at the festival was ‘envisage,'“ recalled Saulnier, who had submitted “Blue Ruin” to Cannes on a lark after it was rejected by the Sundance Film Festival. “I had no idea what that meant.”

A strong possibility of acceptance, it turned out.

A few days ago, Saulnier found himself sitting at a table at this city’s landmark Grand Hotel, where throughout the day and night, industry movers and shakers break out bottles of rosé and shake on million-dollar deals.

The weather was an odd mix of sun, rain and sleet, but Saulnier was dressed in shirtsleeves. “I’m used to slaving away at Sundance, so this is just fine,” he said.

But he did a double take when the check arrived. “Eight euros? For a small bottle of sparkling water?” he said, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

#storysongs combo: “Hollywood Kids,” by the Thrills. The Irish band gave us a little tour of California in the lovely album this is on, “So Much for the City.” Favorite song: “Big Sur.”


Thursday’s Great Read:

Students ask, can science bake a better apple pie?

The three undergrads looked warily at the pulverized apples in their bowl.

The would-be pastry chefs had planned to drop dollops of the mixture into a chemical bath, creating fruity spheres with a filmy skin and an oozing interior. Their early attempts left a lot to be desired. The apple mush was bland, like baby food. The finished globules were teardrop-shaped rather than round. And they were chewy, like aging Jell-O.

“It needs sugar,” Amirari Diego said, with a sigh.

Diego and his two buddies, Stephen Phan and Kevin Yang, were playing with their food for the sake of science — and their transcripts.

They’re students in Physiological Sciences 7 (that would be Science & Food to you and me), a class at UCLA that teaches all about the physics that make lettuce crispy, meat chewy and dough springy; the molecules that make coffee bitter, and carrots sweet.

Students get to eat ants with Brazilian chef Alex Atala and watch “Top Chef” champ Michael Voltaggio make a complicated beef dish. They attend lectures by culinary luminaries such as Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters and Momofuku Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi.

At the end of the semester, 25% of their grade will hinge on what might be the world’s first “scientific bake-off” — a glitzy competition to create an American classic: apple pie.

#storysongs combo: “Promises Like Pie-Crust,” by Carla Bruni. Yes, the former model-actress-French-first-lady. I’m not a chanson snob, so think it’s not half-bad. Fans of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg might disagree.


Friday’s Great Read:

Putting an Oklahoma spin on twisters

Two days before the tornado hit, Gary England had an uneasy feeling. The wind patterns emerging over the weekend reminded him of the conditions that unleashed deadly storms in the region on May 3, 1999.

He began warning that trouble was just days away. England has been forecasting the state’s often capricious weather for so long — 40 years — that when he says to seek shelter, they do.

Reporting from his post at KWTV Channel 9, the TV meteorologist watched on Monday as monitors showed a mammoth tornado, spun by 200 mph winds, ripping through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Roofs, walls and chimneys hurtled through the air.

“Those are homes,” he told viewers, his voice steady but tinged with sadness. “It’s going through homes.”

He then addressed those in the twister’s path. “It is a life-threatening tornado,” he said, reminding them what Oklahomans learn from childhood: that the safest place in a tornado is below ground. “Take your precautions immediately.”

Monday’s tornado left 24 dead and more than 12,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Scores of people were rescued. When Republican Gov. Mary Fallin singled out the heroes this week, she included the state’s weathercasters, and England’s been at it longer than any of them.

At 73, he has chronicled some of Oklahoma’s most devastating storms in this part of the nation, known as Tornado Alley.

#storysongs combo: “My Tornado,” by the Raveonettes. They’re kind of the Scandinavian Jesus and Mary Chain, doing cool twists on American 60s pop-rock.


If you have ideas for story-song pairings of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATimesColumn1 with the hashtag #storysongs.