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Setting Times stories to music: Radiohead to Staple Singers

Ever since I started working with Raja Abdulrahim on her Syria stories two years ago, I’ve listened to Radiohead while editing them.

It didn’t start out as a running soundtrack to a writer and the conflict she still covers, but Radiohead’s music has that combination of sorrow and alienation and dread and vulnerability that runs through the Syria conflict.

I remember choosing “Talk Show Host” for the first story. (Warning: There's a bit of Anglo-Saxon language.) Its line about “I’ll be waiting with a gun and a pack of sandwiches” seemed to echo the story’s juxtaposition of violence and everyday life.

This is the lede of the piece. Still knocks me out:

“Scattered around the house that Abu Nadim once shared with his wife and five children are hints of its former existence: a SpongeBob SquarePants pillow, a baby's crib, a woman's purse.

Now the four-room home is a bomb-making workshop.”

For Thursday’s Great Read, which featured the unforgettable photo above, also taken by Raja, I chose “Bulletproof ... I Wish I Were,” from “The Bends” album (which happens to have at least three other songs that fit the mood, either musically or lyrically: “High and Dry,” “Black Star” and one of my favorite Radiohead songs, “Fake Plastic Trees.”)

Great band, great reporter.

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!


Monday’s Great Read:

Resurrection story inspires on Prophet's campaign trail

The kids at Compton YouthBuild can be a tough audience. Many come from broken homes, flunked out of multiple schools, even spent time in jail.

By the last day of Black History Month, some at the alternative school — which looks boarded shut from Compton Boulevard — had gotten their fill of talk about hope and perseverance.

On this late Friday afternoon, though, a tall young man strode into their big multipurpose room and flashed a flawless smile. He looked a bit like the rapper Drake. Or so said a girl near the front, giggling.

When the visitor began, "How many people here are familiar with Nickerson Gardens?" some of the students stopped mugging and poking one another. They not only knew the housing project where their guest came up, they knew other young men not unlike him whose mothers struggled with addiction, who had children while still nearly children themselves, who had let violence win them over.

#soundtrack: “Redemption Song,” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Obvious, perhaps, but it works. Here’s a live version with a cool wop-doo-wop jam in the middle.


Tuesday’s Great Read:

A Central Valley high school goes Bollywood

Luckily, Shandeep Dhillon's cousin had recently gotten married.

That meant he alone could outfit much of Fowler High School for its first Bollywood night. His uncle's regal, embroidered sherwani coat went to the Central Valley school's principal, Hank Gutierrez. The outfit Shandeep, 13, had worn but outgrew went to Gutierrez's son Jordan, and Shandheep wore another cousin's, on down the line of his extended family's wedding clothes.

The Punjabi girls at school all had salvar kameez outfits they could lend to their Latina, Armenian and Swedish classmates.

“We go to lots and lots of Indian weddings and you dress up and feel like a princess,” said Manpreet Shaliwal, 16, in silky, peacock blue.

Even girls she had never talked to before had been introducing themselves over the last month, hoping to borrow one of her colorful outfits.

The cafeteria's ceiling was transformed by a parachute of tulle. That Pinterest vision had cost more than $200. But Harcoover Singh Bhatti, the Punjabi club president, argued that it would be worth it for the gasps now being emitted as students entered.

More students than he had dared expect bought $10 tickets to the dance. The 18-year-old ran about in a happy panic checking the supply of samosas.

“This was three years in the making. Three years!” he shouted as he sped past in his usual black turban. “It's a first!”

#soundtrack: “Surrey,” by Jazzy B. The kids danced to Jazzy B. at the Bollywood ball, and I loved listening to him as I edited. Dancing in my chair time.


Wednesday’s Great Read:

Ex-lawyer is on a mission to keep schools fair

As Sally Smith strode to the lectern, a few people in the audience rolled their eyes. Behind their nameplates, members of the San Diego school board fiddled with a cellphone, stared at laptops and rustled papers.

They knew what she would say — she's said it dozens of times and repeats it at nearly every meeting.

“In this district,” she said firmly, her eyes fixed squarely on the board members facing her, “…we have educators who exploit students to generate revenue.”

The ceramics teacher who charges $20 if students want to keep their clay art projects? That's illegal, Smith contends.

“Taxpayers paid for this toothpick and noodles,” she said, pointing to a brooch on her blouse that her daughter made in elementary school. “Just as we paid for that clay.”

“It has to stop,” she said, her words punctuated by a buzzer indicating that her speaking time was over.

With the persistence of a gadfly, the zeal of a civil rights activist and the know-how of a lawyer, Smith has made it her mission to challenge the San Diego public school system and many others across California that require students to foot the bill for basic school activities.

She bounces around the state meeting with administrators. She blasts off emails to reporters — often a hodgepodge of legal complaints, case law and bemusement at those who try to ignore her. In about a year, she's filed 200 formal complaints around the state, a huge number of appeals and countless California Public Record Act requests.

The San Diego Unified School District gets the brunt of her focus.

“There are times where I think you can say she can be considered an irritant,” school board member Scott Barnett said. “Certainly, some of the legal staff — given the amount, the breadth and depth of her requests — I think are irritated at times, to say the least.”

#soundtrack: “I Won’t Back Down,” by Johnny Cash. I like this cover slightly more than the Tom Petty original. Something about the lyrics contrasted with Cash’s fragility at the time he sang it resonated with me.


Thursday’s Great Read:

In Syria, war is woven into childhood

The baby-faced boy waited patiently for his turn at the small ice cream shop, his Kalashnikov balanced precariously over his shoulder. The rifle was pointed down and his hand occasionally cupped the muzzle, far from the proper way to carry a gun.

He stood just a few inches taller than the wafer cones stacked high on the side of the freezer. When it was finally his turn, he ordered cherry and pistachio ice cream in a waffle cone.

His soft, light brown hair was mostly pulled back by a green-and-black kaffiyeh, revealing a pre-pubescent face without even a hint of facial hair. He said he was a fighter with the Suqoor al Sham group, a member of the Islamic Front, and fought on the front lines nearby.

He didn't hesitate when asked his birth date.

“1989,” he said, putting him at the improbable age of 24 or 25.

“You made yourself older than me,” said a fellow child fighter, who looked several years older but still well shy of his professed age of 19.

The older boy also carried his Kalashnikov like an amateur: muzzle pointed toward his feet, finger on the trigger.

It was clear that they lacked the sense of entitlement of many rebels, who demand immediate service and priority, whether it be at the bakery bread line or in the hospital's emergency room: They stood quietly until those before them had been served.

The younger boy had yet to acquire the steely, hard stare of other children here — those who had seen too much, spent time on the front lines or worked the dusty streets selling cigarettes or candy bars.

As he stood for a few hastily shot photos, he briefly puckered his lips as if flirting with the camera.

#soundtrack: “Bulletproof ... I Wish I Was,” by Radiohead.


Friday’s Great Read:

Rebuilding limbs with ingenuity and a 3-D printer

Mick Ebeling arrived in Sudan with little more than a toolbox, rolls of plastic and two microwave-size 3-D printers.

He had endured a weeklong journey from Los Angeles, with stops in London, Johannesburg and Nairobi before reaching Juba, the capital of South Sudan. From there, he flew on a small twin-engine plane to Yida, where at a refugee camp he found Daniel Omar.

Ebeling had read a magazine article a few months earlier about the 16-year-old, whose hands and forearms had been blown off two years ago during an airstrike launched by the Sudanese government. The boy's plight resonated with Ebeling, who tracked down the remote hospital where Daniel had received treatment. Over Skype, Ebeling told Daniel's doctor: I think I can help.

After meeting in Yida, Ebeling and Daniel caught an 11-hour ride in the back of a Land Cruiser to Gidel, Sudan, a volatile region in the Nuba Mountains where Daniel's doctor tends to amputees and other victims of the civil war plaguing the country.

In a small tin shed, Ebeling connected a 3-D printer to a laptop. The printer began melting plastic to form three-dimensional pieces, which he then joined together like Legos. He worked off a design created by a carpenter friend who, after accidentally severing four fingers with a table saw, had built his own prosthesis.

It took two days for Ebeling to print and construct a skeletal plastic hand bolted to an arm-like cylinder. Nylon cords attached to each plastic finger snaked up the length of the apparatus so that when the wearer flexed his or her elbow, the cords tightened and pulled the fingers into a fist.

Once the prosthetic device was fitted to Daniel's upper arm, the boy was able to wave, toss an object and feed himself with a spoon, major feats for someone who had been forced to rely on others for the most basic everyday tasks.

It was, Ebeling recalled later, “on par with watching my kids being born.”

#soundtrack: “Give a Hand, Take a Hand,” by the Staple Singers. What a voice.


If you have ideas for story soundtracks of your own, tweet the title and artist to @karihow or @LATgreatreads with the hashtag #soundtrack.
Twitter: @karihow

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