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Setting Times stories to music: From Yo La Tengo to Blur

August 03, 2013
  • James Weatherwax, 11, rides in the back of his grandfather's truck. James was born with Apert syndrome, a rare genetic mutation that fuses the skull prematurely, distorts the bones of the face and melds the muscles and bones of the fingers and toes.
James Weatherwax, 11, rides in the back of his grandfather's truck.… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

By Kari Howard

The other day I started reading Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” for about the millionth time. And I realized: This is my favorite book. (I’d do a list of my top 5 books, but that would be too “High Fidelity.”)

Yes, the riffs on pop music are brilliant. Witness this bit, which opens the movie version – miraculously, almost as good as the book, perhaps because of John Cusack, the thinking women’s sex symbol (No. 2 or possibly 3 on my list, not that I’m necessarily a thinking woman):

“What came first, the music or the misery? ... Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

But the novel also has that magic combination of humor and heart -- its meditations on love are funny, but they ring absolutely true.

Kind of like NPR journalist Scott Simon’s live tweets of his mom’s last days (see Tuesday’s Great Read below).

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. A story-song combo!

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Monday’s Great Read:

Old baseball scout tells of when play, not money, was the thing

The old baseball scout pulls his cap down over his face, peering through one of the eyelets sewn into the crown. It is a trick he learned in the 1940s.

“Like I've got a camera,” he says. “I can zero in on one player.”

Sitting in his usual spot overlooking the third-base line at Dodger Stadium, George Genovese focuses on the talented rookie, Yasiel Puig, in center field.

With everything else blocked from view, Genovese watches and waits, listening for the crack of the bat.

“The best fielders know how to anticipate where the ball is going,” he says. “They take a step before it's hit.”

A hint of New York marks his accent, a remnant from his youth. And there's an occasional boyish smile that belies the shock of white hair on his head. All his years in baseball — a lifetime of playing, managing and prowling for fresh talent — have not dampened the thrill of the ballpark.

“It's in my blood,” he says. “You know?”

These days, Genovese considers himself retired. But the 91-year-old still serves as a consultant to the Dodgers, and the team leaves him a ticket at the gate for home games.

#storysongs combo: “Song 2,” by Blur. Why? Because it reminds me of one of my favorite Dodgers, Shawn Green—and I didn’t like him only because he chose a Britpop song as his walkup song. (Same era as the great “Welcome to the Jungle” intro for closer Eric Gagne.)

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

NPR host Scott Simon tweets his mother's dying days

Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?” She means pain, dread. “No.” She says, “But we'll go on forever. You & me.” Yes.

These are the words of a son saying goodbye to his mother in the 21st century.

Mother called: “I can't talk. I'm surrounded by handsome men.” Emergency surgery. If you can hold a thought for her now...

For Scott Simon's 1.2 million Twitter followers, the end of his mother's story began with that wisecrack sometime around July 16.

Mother cries Help Me at 2;30. Been holding her like a baby since. She's asleep now. All I can do is hold on to her.

Most Americans know Simon by his voice: worn but fun, brightening up NPR's “Weekend Edition Saturday.” But on this weekend he was telling his story in 140-character installments on a medium more commonly used for ephemera than for navigating the suffering of an aging parent.

I love holding my mother's hand. Haven't held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.

For several days, in a hospital somewhere in Chicago, the end-of-life struggles of Patricia Lyons Simon Newman Gilband, 84, have been watched the world over. Many readers have been moved to tears, while others have had to look away, taken aback by the intimate view Scott has shared of his mother's suffering, all the way to her last breath.

I don't know how we'll get through these next few days. And, I don't want them to end.

#storysongs combo: “The Last Beat of My Heart,” by Devotchka. As to the question raised by "High Fidelity" above, I’d say that we listen to such songs when we’re already miserable, and they can make us feel more miserable – but they also make us feel less alone.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

Immigration reform predictions are mathematical and personal

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