I did this last year, so why not do it again? 2012 was a great year for reading long things in magazines and on websites that are neat, so here—in no particular order—are a few things that I found neat enough that I remembered them when I decided to make a list of neat things to read that are…
Michael Kruse, an award-winning staff writer at the Tampa Bay Times who also contributes to ESPN’s Grantland, this year gave a TEDx talk and had a story make the anthology Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.
1. Chris Jones on the animals in Ohio. What a way to start: The horses knew first. And want to know how to make people keep reading? End paragraphs and sections with sentences like this: He saw what was unmistakably a bear, giving chase. And: Then Kopchak saw the lion. And: Next she called 911. And: … and they knew that they didn’t have enough time or tranquilizers to stop what was coming.
2. Michael Mooney’s Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever. Because of the question. Will he or won’t he? I had to know. But also because Mooney made me care about Bill Fong. He could’ve taken me anywhere. I would’ve read forever. And because come on—who doesn’t love a well-told tale with a twist at the end?
3. Kelley Benham’s Never Let Go. Granted, Kelley’s cubicle’s not too far from my cubicle, so maybe I’m not too impartial, but I feel like this is a fact: This story is one of the best things that ran in a newspaper in America in the last 12 months. Three parts. One miracle. Life.
4. Caballo Blanco’s Last Run by Barry Bearak. Classic quest story. Looking for True. Also, in print, it was beautifully designed. Which matters.
5. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Cocaine Incorporated. Details. Details like the ghostwriter composing letters to the mistress. Like the dope-stuffed submersibles floating down the Amazon. The Sinaloa pot farm … on U.S. National Forest land … in the remote North Woods of Wisconsin … surrounded by Mexican farmers with AK-47’s. The catapult! The chili-pepper business! The air-conditioned tunnels with trolley lines! Surprises are such intoxicants. Oh, and this sentence: In the trippy semiotics of the drug war, the cops dress like bandits, and the bandits dress like cops.
Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.
Disclaimer: I know many of the people on this list. One of the wonderful things / occupational hazards of working for a site like The Rumpus is that I’ve come to meet a lot of great writers. These stories stand on their own regardless.
Chris Colin sells a $50 will call ticket to see Miranda July using Craigslist and never gets paid, spurring him to contemplate all the debts he himself owes (after some anger-fueled internet stalking, of course).
Maybe this is catching him at a hard time, I thought. But truth was, Joe seemed to be having a pretty normal time. With his ample tweeting and active Facebooking — well over 1,000 friends! — he allowed for robust stalking. There he was on a sailboat. On a golf course. With some bros. Dancing goofily. Doing his handsome face. Doing some artsy stuff. He looked like someone you’d gone to camp with. Apparently he works for some progressive-sounding start-up, the kind whose Web site speaks of community and so forth.
Nicole Pasulka, a former copywriter for a tourism company in Hawaii, examines the messy history of the Aloha State through the riveting life of surf legend Eddie Aikau.
That night Hōkūle‘a rode fifteen-foot swells. The boat began listing from water leakage, and eventually stopped dead in the water. The panicked crew huddled to one side of the craft in an effort to balance out the lilt of the boat with their weight. Around midnight, a rogue wave capsized the canoe, tossing the crew into the water and destroying their radio. The crew clung to the boat. Waiting to be spotted by a plane, they drifted farther from the flight patterns between the islands. Huge swells hammered the vessel. Less-seaworthy members of the crew were seasick and exhausted from exposure. Eddie eventually asked if he could paddle his surfboard nearly twenty miles to the island of Lāna‘i for help. Captain Lyman refused until, seeing no other option for rescue, he gave Eddie permission to go.
Mac McClelland jumps into the product-stacked trenches of a major online retailer’s shipping house to expose the truth behind how those little brown boxes get to your doorstep.
[The shipping company] has estimated that we pickers speed-walk an average of 12 miles a day on cold concrete, and the twinge in my legs blurs into the heavy soreness in my feet that complements the pinch in my hips when I crouch to the floor—the pickers’ shelving runs from the floor to seven feet high or so—to retrieve an iPad protective case. iPad anti-glare protector. iPad one-hand grip-holder device. Thing that looks like a landline phone handset that plugs into your iPad so you can pretend that rather than talking via iPad you are talking on a phone. And dildos. Really, a staggering number of dildos.
Saeed Jones recollects being gay bashed by a “straight” man in Phoenix, Arizona, and delves into what it means to put oneself at risk in the supposed name of art.
Daniel’s shift from sucking me to punching me happened so quickly, I could still feel my erection pressed against his stomach even as his arms came down from above me like lightning bolts. Trapped under a body I suddenly realized was all muscle, all I could do was watch the thunderstorm. It all felt so distant. He wasn’t beating me. He was beating the desire I had brought out in him. And this is one of the reasons why the phrase “gay bashing” feels misplaced. There, on the floor under him, when I looked up at Daniel, I didn’t see a gay basher; I saw a man who thought he was fighting for his life.
Best Essay: Lisa Taddeo, “Why We Cheat,” Esquire
“The dateline is Elyria, Ohio, a city of 55,000 about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. You know this town, even if you have never been here. A place buffeted by time and the economy, a place where the expectations have been lowered, but not hopes for better days to come. A place where politicians, in this election year, say the American dream is still possible.”
“A bunch of songs later, after a run-through of the set-ending ‘Thunder Road,’ Springsteen hops off the stage, drapes a towel around his neck, and sits down in the folding chair next to me. “ ‘The top of the show, see, is a kind of welcoming, and you are getting everyone comfortable and challenging them at the same time,’ he says. ‘You’re setting out your themes. You’re getting them comfortable, because, remember, people haven’t seen this band. There are absences that are hanging there. That’s what we’re about right now, the communication between the living and the gone. Those currents even run through the dream world of pop music!’ ”
Best Collection of Stories From a Writer in 2012
Thomas Lake, Sports Illustrated
“On Feb. 17, 2000, Rae Carruth’s attorney filed an answer to Saundra Adams in Mecklenburg District Court. It was one of the more brazen counterclaims in the annals of U.S. jurisprudence: a demand for permanent custody of Chancellor Lee Adams. ‘The Defendant,’ the filing read, ‘is a fit and proper person to exercise care, custody and control of the minor child and it is in the best interest and welfare of the minor child that his care, custody and control be vested with the Defendant at the conclusion of the Defendant’s legal proceedings.’
“No, it wasn’t enough that Saundra Adams had to spend 28 days watching her only child die. Had to watch her grandson spend the first six weeks of his life in a tangle of wires and machines. Had to become a single mother again at age 42. Had to hide from reporters day and night. Had to worry about more than $400,000 in medical bills that her descendants had racked up while fighting for their lives. None of that was enough. Now she would have to draw from the little time and energy and money she had left and fight to keep the sole remaining heir to the Adams name away from the man who had wanted him dead.”
“After the autopsy, when the doctor found white blossoms of scar tissue on Wes Leonard’s heart, he guessed they had been secretly building there for several months. That would mean Wes’s heart was slowly breaking throughout the Fennville Blackhawks’ 2010—11 regular season, when he led them in scoring and the team won 20 games without a loss. It would mean his heart was already moving toward electrical meltdown in December, when he scored 26 on Decatur with that big left shoulder clearing a path to the hoop. It would mean his heart swelled and weakened all through January (25 against Hopkins, 33 against Martin) even as it pumped enough blood to fill at least 10 swimming pools.”
“The most infamous roster decision in high school basketball history came down 33 years ago on the edge of tobacco country, between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, in an old town full of white wooden rocking chairs. The decision took physical form in two handwritten lists on a gymnasium door, simultaneously beautiful for the names they carried and crushing for the names they did not. A parade of fragile teenage boys passed by, stopping to read the lists, studying them like inscriptions in stone. Imagine these boys in the time of their sorting, their personal value distilled to a binary question, yes or no, and they breathe deeply, unseen storms gathering behind their ribs, below their hearts, in the hollows of fear and exhilaration.
“The chief decision-maker loved those boys, which made his choice all the harder. He gave them his time seven days a week, whether they needed shooting practice at six in the morning or a slice of his wife’s sweet-potato pie. His house was their house and his old green Ford Maverick was their car and his daughter was their baby sister, and he liked the arrangement. He was tall and slender, like the longleaf pines that covered Cape Fear, and when he smiled in pictures, his dark eyes were narrow, hazy, as if he’d just awakened from a pleasant dream. His nickname, Pop, evoked some withered old patriarch, but Clifton Herring was only 26, one of the youngest varsity coaches in North Carolina, more older brother than father to his boys, still a better player than most of them. They’d never seen a shooter so pure. One day during practice he made 78 straight free throws.”
Best Election Story
There are no wide-open spaces in presidential life, only nooks and crannies, and the front of Air Force One is one of them. When he’s on his plane, small gaps of time sometimes open in his schedule, and there are fewer people around to leap in and consume them. In this case, Obama had just found himself with 30 free minutes.
“What you got for me?” He asked and plopped down in the chair beside his desk. His desk is designed to tilt down when the plane is on the ground so that it might be perfectly flat when the plane is nose up, in flight. It was now perfectly flat. “I want to play that game again,” I said. “Assume that in 30 minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”
Best New Writer Discovery
“Most people think perfection in bowling is a 300 game, but it isn’t. Any reasonably good recreational bowler can get lucky one night and roll 12 consecutive strikes. If you count all the bowling alleys all over America, somebody somewhere bowls a 300 every night. But only a human robot can roll three 300s in a row—36 straight strikes—for what’s called a ‘perfect series.’ More than 95 million Americans go bowling, but, according to the United States Bowling Congress, there have been only 21 certified 900s since anyone started keeping track.
“Bill Fong’s run at perfection started as most of his nights do, with practice at around 5:30 pm. He bowls in four active leagues and he rolls at least 20 games a week, every week. That night, January 18, 2010, he wanted to focus on his timing.”
Best Business Story
“There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. ‘Can you give us a list?’ the marketers asked.”
Best Obligatory Stories from David Grann and Chris Jones
“One day in the spring of 1958, while Morgan was visiting a guerrilla camp for a meeting of the Second Front’s chiefs of staff, he encountered a rebel he had never seen before: small and slender, with a face shielded by a cap. Only up close was it evident that the rebel was a woman. She was in her early twenties, with dark eyes and tawny skin, and, to conceal her identity, she had cut her curly light-brown hair short and dyed it black. Though she had a delicate beauty, she locked and loaded a gun with the ease of a bank robber. Morgan later said of a pistol that she carried, ‘She knows how to use it.’
“Her name was Olga Rodríguez.”
“(Sargent Steve) Blake was parked near downtown Zanesville, sipping his coffee, when his radio crackled shortly after five o’clock, two hours into just another shift. ‘I had no idea that was going to be one of the worst calls of my life,’ he says. He flicked on his lights and sirens. Maybe ten minutes after five he was at the start of Thompson’s driveway, where the fence narrowed into a pipe gate, still locked in place. Deputy Jonathan Merry, an open-faced twenty-five-year-old, arrived only a minute or two after him. They stood at the bottom of the driveway and saw the bear, now circling down by the gate. The lion was farther up and to their right. Blake told Merry to go to the Kopchak house, the second house down the road, and take a statement from Dolores Kopchak. She might help them form a clearer picture of what they now faced, and clarity was important in a situation like this. He also told Merry that if the bear or the lion pushed its way through the fence, he should shoot it.
“Sam Kopchak could see across to the bottom of the driveway from the little window in the door to his tack room, tucked away in a corner of his barn. He saw the officers talking to each other and thought, They’re going to need more than two.”
Best Food Story
“ ‘The favor of your company is requested,’ read the invitation, ‘for the most local of harvest meals.’ I sent this to a healthy mix of 30 eaters both adventurous and particular, and set a date. On the menu: juleps made with the mint growing from my compost pile, coconut curry simmered with the mysterious squash that had taken over the backyard, dinosaur kale, cornbread, and the main event: a thick burgoo, featuring ‘heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game.’
“I didn’t expect nearly all of the invitees to accept, but evidently curiosity about urban squirrel’s viability as a protein source isn’t merely a weird, solitary obsession. A few days before the event I defrosted and cut up the legs and saddles, seared them off in a pot, and deglazed it with Madeira, a la James Beard. I sauteed diced bacon, onions, and garlic, added homemade chicken stock and the squirrel pieces, and braised them slowly.”
Best Stunt Story
“Many times, I had to skip a question because I couldn’t figure out the answer, and then I got that paranoia that’s unique to someone taking a standardized test. I became fearful that I had failed to skip over the question on my answer sheet. So every five seconds, I’d double-check my sheet to make sure I didn’t fill out my answers in the wrong slots. One time I did this, and so I had to erase the answers and move them all forward. Only I had a shitty eraser, which failed to erase my mark and instead smeared the mark all over the rest of my sheet.”
Jodi Ettenberg is the founder of Legal Nomads, a contributing editor to Longreads and Travelreads, and the author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook.
It is always hard to narrow down my favourites from a full 12 months of longreading, so here are five—but certainly not all—of the standouts from the last year. They’re food-themed, mainly because my last year has also been focused on writing and learning about food.
1. ”The Cosmopolitan Condiment,” Dan Jurafsky, Slate
I’ve sent this article to more people than I can count, and love the responses I’ve received “Ketchup comes from China?!” The full piece is worth reading, in part because what makes food so fascinating is not only where it is eaten but also where it came from, and how it is what it is today. Ketchup, once a fermented fish sauce from China, is now a sweet tomato condiment we all know and many of us love. You’ll never look at a bottle the same way again once you read this great piece.
2. “Adjika: Sauce of Glory, Pride of Abhazia,” Oliver Bullough, Roads & Kingdoms
Adjika holds a special place in my heart, having brightened up many a meal and been a source of great conversation on the road. A red and fiery condiment from the Caucuses, adija is brought to life beautifully in this Roads & Kingdoms piece.
“It was like the sun had risen in my mouth. Instead of the cold lumpiness of wood pulp, there was a spreading glow of summer: garlic, chilli, salt, and a dozen other spices I could not identify. I looked up in amazement and picked up the little dish of red sauce to smell it. The old woman smiled again.
“That’s adjika,” she said.”
Worth a read for anyone who likes food and travel.
3. “Manufacturing Taste,” Sasha Chapman, The Walrus
As a Canadian, I grew up referring to Kraft Macaroni & Cheese as “KD”, and had no idea this was not a worldwide phenomenon until midway through 2010, and I was appalled to hear that my American friends did not adopt this affectionate nickname. I’m not the only one. As author Sasha Chapman notes: ”The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised ‘dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,’ we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.”
The Walrus investigates the history and current state Canada’s strange love for KD.
4. “Bread of Beirut,” Annia Ciezadlo, Granta
A beautiful piece about communal bakeries in the Middle East and how these centuries-old traditions become new again during times of war.
5. “A Fish Story,” Alison Fairbrother, The Washington Monthly
A must-read about a tiny silvery fish called the menhaden and how crucial it is to the ecosystem of our oceans.
Bonus non-food longreads:
• “Another Night to Remember,” Bryan Burrough, Vanity Fair
• “Ivory Worship,” Bryan Christy, National Geographic
• “The Soul of a City,” Matt Goulding, Roads & Kingdoms
These are the stories that I emailed, posted, and tweeted the most this past year (and filed away in the digital filing cabinet for further reading). They are all remarkably reported, artfully written, and help us make sense of living in what feels like an increasingly crazy time.
For a story about a mass shooting, “The Long Road” is remarkably hopeful. That it was reported and written just days after the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, makes the work itself that much more impressive.
I know everyone already picked this. I don’t care. Colloff’s massive two-parter is stunning in its ability to so smartly and compassionately tell this complicated story of crime, punishment, and exoneration without out being overwrought or preachy or sentimental.
My favorite profile of the year; like all great portraits, this one is actually much more: it’s about sports, gender, sexuality, family, race, and America.
I’m a sucker for a good business story. But it’s especially hard to resist a “business” piece that details the workings of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and includes lines like: “As a mirror image of a legal commodities business, the Sinaloa cartel brings to mind that old line about Ginger Rogers doing all the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backward and in heels.”
Spare, cinematic, brutal.
The Best Thing I Read About A Woman Who Got Blamed For Everything
I tend to steer clear of stories about finance because I assume they’ll either go over my head or bore me or maybe even disgust me. This one only disgusted me. I admire how patiently Susan Dominus reported and told Ina Drew’s saga. We never hear from Drew herself, and yet we’re still given as complete a portrait of her and her tenure at JP Morgan as was possible.
I’ve worked in environments with all men and found certain anecdotes that Dominus picked up to be incredibly relatable—even though the subject is one of the most powerful people in all of Wall Street. Consider:
One of the rare women to rise steadily into the management ranks on Wall Street, Drew stood out, sometimes awkwardly so, in a mostly male work environment. Havlicek recalls hearing her address a roomful of 200 male traders not long after Chemical merged with Manufacturers Hanover in 1991. “I didn’t plan any of this for my career,” she told the traders. “For God’s sake, I was captain of the twirling team in high school.” Her words were met with silence. “There were dozens of guys that were just cringing for her,” Havlicek says. “She didn’t fit their picture of what a senior trader should look like.” For Drew, there were a lot of moments like that: guys rolling their eyes, muttering under their breath about something she just said. “She never seemed to care,” Havlicek says. “She just kept doing what she was doing.”
In general I would say that my favorite unofficial genre of Longreads is the kind that when I finish I think, “that woman is a badass.”
The Best Thing I Read About Girls
I read so many words about Lena Dunham’s HBO series this year that by the time I actually got to sit down and watch the series, I’d nearly lost track of how I would have watched it “on my own.” There was so much said about what Girls had gotten wrong that it became difficult, for me at least, to focus on what the show had gotten right. Then I read Elaine Blair’s breakdown of Dunham’s treatment of sex in the New York Review of Books and remembered: Oh, I can just watch Girls as a girl, and that is valuable, too. I appreciate criticism that puts you in your place.
The Best Thing I Read About Fiona Apple
I read Dan P. Lee on Fiona Apple three times before I’d even listened to Fiona Apple’s new album once. Even Fiona Apple, creative genius, can get stuck watching Mob Wives for four hours.
The Best Thing I Read About A Former Olympian
This was my favorite edition of Tell Me When It’s Over, a Deadspin series by Rob Trucks. It’s such a straightforward but brilliant idea: Trucks talks to former world-class athletes about “the moment they knew their playing days were over.” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, talked a lot to Trucks about her career, but also about the sexual assault that defined the later half of her career, in plain language and detail that we don’t normally hear from rape victims. (Monika Korra deserves recognition for doing similarly this year.)
The Best Thing I Read About Guns And America
This is a very biased selection that I’m including anyway because I think everyone should read it. Kiese was my professor and friend at Vassar College. I’ve been reading his writing and learning from him for a while, and he is very much the reason that I pursued writing after college at all. His work gets at an honesty that I think all personal narrative should aspire to. In person and in his writing, he talks a lot about “reckoning”—facing ourselves fully and refusing to glance over our own weaknesses and fuck-ups. I admire that a lot.
I read this story on his blog, Cold Drank, and asked him if we could republish it on Gawker soon after. I think I’ve read it about once a month ever since. This piece hits you in the gut a few times and makes you want to be a better human being.