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Setting Times stories to music: the Replacements to Pulp

April 12, 2014|By Kari Howard
  • Dozens of people crowd the driveway and garage as Julio Marquez performs folk songs during the Alivio open mic night at the garage of Eric Contreras in Bell.
Dozens of people crowd the driveway and garage as Julio Marquez performs… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

One of the qualities I value most in the writers of the Great Reads are their powers of observation. I’m a big believer in showing, not telling -- in giving those little scenes and details that make readers connect to people whose lives might seem impossibly remote from theirs.

The writer of Friday’s powerful Great Read, Raja Abdulrahim, is particularly gifted: She finds those moments when she’s directly in the line of fire in Syria.

In Friday’s story, Raja, who has made her way into rebel-held territory many times during the three-year conflict, wrote from Aleppo, where life alternates between terror and a grotesque version of normalcy.

The ending of the story movingly showed that life, in just a single scene:

“Hours later, the broken glass and concrete had been swept and the blood washed away. Children gathered around an ice cream stand, standing on tippy-toes to peer at the available flavors, and men bought produce from a fruit vendor, the color of the oranges bright against the gray of fallen concrete.”

When Raja was safely out of Syria, she emailed saying that it was raining when she arrived in Turkey – and she thought how nice it was to once again hear the sound of thunder and know that it was only thunder, not a bombardment from above. A lovely and haunting thought.

By coincidence, the song I had chosen as the soundtrack for her story had thunder imagery in it: It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning," by the Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks. The song is a sonic bombardment, full of dread and power. It knocks me out every time I hear it.

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: Sadly, it held because of breaking news.

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Tuesday’s Great Read:

Environmental SWAT team tests runoff to nab polluters

It's just after midnight when it starts to drizzle near downtown Los Angeles.

Lara Meeker, a short blond wearing a purple rain jacket, pulls into a fast-food parking lot a few blocks from the Los Angeles River, watches the sky and waits.

The watershed manager for Los Angeles Waterkeeper is tracking this late February storm by radar on her smartphone. Already, she has sent out a flood of text messages, maps and assignments to a small crew of environmentalists.

It's going to be a long and soggy night monitoring the murky water sloshing off metal scrap yards, auto dismantlers and waste facilities in one of the biggest storms of the season.

Meeker, who heads the environmental group's DrainWatch program, is overseeing a special corps of volunteers called Storm Water Assessment Teams — or SWAT — who fan out across the region to collect water samples in an effort to force polluters to clean up.

Whenever a storm hits and gutters start to gurgle, they pull on their parkas, headlamps and rubber boots. Working mostly after business hours or in the middle of the night, they make unannounced visits to lonely streets on the county's industrial fringes.

Their work has a black-ops feel. As they bottle up dirty water, investigators keep a low profile, look over their shoulders and eye passersby with suspicion — and not without reason. Though they collect the samples from public sidewalks or streets, they've been chased off and even threatened by hostile property owners.

Targeted businesses often contest the results or complain about “bounty hunter tactics” aimed at extracting settlement money through lawsuits. But Meeker says it's about holding them accountable.

“It's one of the few opportunities we have to demonstrate the pollution that is coming from these facilities every time it rains and going unnoticed,” Meeker says. “If we're not out there collecting samples and making a stand, then nothing will change.”

#soundtrack: “Dirty Water,” by the Standells. Goes on my list of best opening riffs in rock.

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Wednesday’s Great Read:

A couple's commitment to skid row doesn't waver

The draft dodger is 68. The ex-nun nears 80. But on a cold early morning in March, they have trundled to a street corner for their regular trip passing out donated pastries to men and women who sleep near the Los Angeles River and underneath its bridges.

At the corner, they are confronted by several typed sheets of paper plastered to a utility box. “Homeless guy, go away, you are not welcome here,” the sheets read. “We don't pay thousands of dollars in rent every month so that you can have a nice, safe place to squat.”

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