The Top 10 Longreads of 2012

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About This List

Thanks to everyone who has participated in the Longreads community this year, and to all of our guests who shared their favorite stories of 2012. The below list represents our editors’ favorite stories of the year, for both nonfiction and fiction.

Longreads is edited by Mark Armstrong and Mike Dang, with Kjell Reigstad, Joyce King Thomas, Hakan Bakkalbasi, Jodi Ettenberg and Erika Kussmann.

Thanks to all the writers and publishers who create outstanding work.


2012 Nonfiction Picks

1. Grace in Broken Arrow

Kiera Feldman | This Land Press | May 24, 2012 | 56 minutes (14,008 words)

The story of a sex abuse scandal inside a Tulsa Christian school, where church leaders were in denial and where the crimes shattered the lives of victims and their families:

“No more sleepovers. No more babysitting, or car rides home. No more being alone with children or ‘lingering hugs given to students (especially using your hands to stroke or fondle).’ Aaron Thompson—Coach Thompson to his PE students—sat in the principal’s office at Grace Fellowship Christian School as his bosses went through the four-page Corrective Action Plan point by point. It was October of 2001, the same month Aaron added ‘Teacher of the Week’ to his resume.

“Grace’s leader, Bob Yandian—’Pastor Bob’ as everyone calls him—wasn’t there: no need, he had people for this kind of thing. Pastor Bob’s time was better spent sequestered in his study, writing books and radio broadcasts. His lieutenant, Associate Pastor Chip Olin, was a hardnosed guy, ‘ornery as heck,’ people said. Olin brought a USA Today article on the characteristics of child molesters to the meeting. At age 24, Olin explained, Aaron was acting immature and unprofessional, and someone might get the wrong idea.”

More stories from This Land Press


2. State of the Species

Charles C. Mann | Orion | October 25, 2012 | 32 minutes (8,232 words)

A brief history of Homo sapiens—and a prognosis for our survival:

“Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

“Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

See also: “The Art of Waiting” (Belle Boggs, April 2012)

Books by Charles C. Mann on Amazon


3. The Yankee Comandante

David Grann | The New Yorker | May 21, 2012 | 88 minutes (22,146 words)

A story of love and revolution in Cuba. William Morgan was a free-spirited American drawn to Cuba to help Castro fight, only to grow disenchanted with his embrace of communism:

“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.'”

See also: “The Caging of America” (Adam Gopnik, January 2012)

Books by David Grann on Amazon


4. Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek

John Branch | The New York Times | December 20, 2012 | 70 minutes (17,639 words)

The story of 16 world-class skiers and snowboarders who decided to go skiing together in Washington’s Cascades in February 2012, and what happened to them when an avalanche hit:

“‘Just as I had the thought about what I’m going to do, wondering if it was going to bury me, that’s right when I could feel it,’ Castillo said. ‘It was like a wave. Like when you’re in the ocean and the tide moves away from you. You’re getting thrashed and you feel it pull out and you’re like, O.K., I can stand up now.’

“Castillo saw daylight again. His camera captured snow sliding past his legs for another 13 seconds. The forest sounded as if it were full of sickly frogs. It was the trees, scrubbed of their fresh snow, still swaying and creaking around him.

“Castillo turned to look back up the hill.

“‘Where there were three people, there was nobody,’ Castillo said.”

See also: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” (Charles Duhigg, David Barboza, January 2012)


5. The Innocent Man

Pamela Colloff | Texas Monthly | October 11, 2012 | 113 minutes (28,149 words)

A two-part series deconstructing the case against Michael Morton, who was convicted in 1987 of killing his wife but has maintained his innocence:

“Michael was breathing hard. ‘Is my son okay?’ he asked.

“‘He’s fine,’ Boutwell said. ‘He’s at the neighbors’.’

“‘How about my wife?’

“The sheriff was matter-of-fact. ‘She’s dead,’ he replied.

“Boutwell led Michael into the kitchen and introduced him to Sergeant Don Wood, the case’s lead investigator. ‘We have to ask you a few questions before we can get your son,’ Boutwell told him. Dazed, Michael took a seat at the kitchen table. He had shown no reaction to the news of Christine’s death, and as he sat across from the two lawmen, he tried to make sense of what was happening around him. Sheriff’s deputies brushed past him, opening drawers and rifling through cabinets. He could see the light of a camera flash exploding again and again in the master bedroom as a police photographer documented what Michael realized must have been the place where Christine was killed. He could hear officers entering and exiting his house, exchanging small talk. Someone dumped a bag of ice into the kitchen sink and stuck Cokes in it. Cigarette smoke hung in the air.”

Read part two of “The Innocent Man”

See also: “Portrait of the Artist as a Postman” (Jason Sheeler, September 2012)


6. ‘I Just Want to Feel Everything’: Hiding Out with Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit

Dan P. Lee | New York magazine | June 17, 2012 | 29 minutes (7,287 words)

A lost weekend, or several weeks, with Fiona Apple:

“A week later, my phone beeped. It was a heavily pixelated video. She was wearing glasses, looking straight at me:

“‘Hi, Dan. It’s Fiona. [She moves the camera to her dog.] This is Janet. [She moves it back.] Um, are you coming out here tomorrow? Um, I, I, I don’t know—I’m baffled at this thing that I just got, this e-mail shit, I don’t know what these people—are they trying to antagonize me so that I do shit like this, so that I start fights with them? I don’t understand why there are pictures of models on a page about me. Who the fuck are they? What? What?’

“The text attached read: ‘And are you western-bound? And hi there! F’

“I had no idea what she was talking about. Two days later, I landed at LAX.”

See also: “A Life Worth Ending” (Michael Wolff, May 2012)


7. The Queens of Montague Street

Nancy Rommelmann | January 1, 2012 | 41 minutes (10,299 words)

[Ebook, 99 cents] Memories of life as a truant teen in 1970s Brooklyn:

“Most of the time we just hung out, in front of the newly opened Baskin-Robbins, on the corner of Montague and Henry Streets. This corner was the epicenter of Brooklyn Heights, a community unaccustomed to seeing its daughters straddling mailboxes and flicking cigarette butts into the street. Nor were we used to fielding the looks we began to get: wary, unhappy, every father coming home from Wall Street and every mother on her way to Key Food shooting us stern, silent reprimands. It made me squirm, but it also pissed me off: What was I doing that was so horrible? And if they had something to say, why didn’t they say it? While our little petri dish of a neighborhood evidently considered hanging out anathema, I was on the fence; my dad had grown up in Greenwich Village, an Italian kid playing stickball and rolling tires in the Hudson River. Isn’t this what teenagers did?”

See also: “The GOP and Me” (Rany Jazayerli, November 2012)


8. How A Career Ends: Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist

Rob Trucks | Deadspin | July 31, 2012 | 21 minutes (5,369 words)

A first-person account of an Olympic career, a violent attack, and what happened next:

“My coach calls me up and says, ‘Listen, If you want to keep your scholarship’—by the way, he’s totally devious here—he said, ‘If you want your scholarship, all you have to do is show up for the meets. Don’t do anything else. Just show up. You don’t have to come to a single practice. You don’t have to warm up. Just show up at the meet.’

“Well, I was unhappy with how the first warmup went. I didn’t think I was in good enough shape for the first warmup, but I won all my events, OK? And so before the second time I thought, I’ll just go to a few workouts, you know. And then slowly, but surely…

“He was just so spot on. So then, sure enough, I’m now going to two workouts a day. I’m lifting weights and I totally get the hunger in a big, big way and my time was the third-fastest in the country. It wasn’t like the end-of-the-year time, which would be much faster, but I was really psyched that I could go that fast and do that well with just the amount of training that I had had.”

See also: “What Happens When A 35-Year-Old Man Retakes The SAT?” (Drew Magary, March 2012)

Books by Rob Trucks on Amazon


9. The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever

Michael J. Mooney | D Magazine | June 20, 2012 | 18 minutes (4,622 words)

It’s still remembered as “That Night”—when bowler Bill Fong stunned the crowd at the Plano Super Bowl:

“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.”

See also: “The Honor System” (Chris Jones, Esquire)


10. Come On, Feel the Buzz

Alex Pareene | The Baffler | November 5, 2012 | 26 minutes (6,530 words)

A critical look at the political newspaper and website Politico:

“One classic method of unleashing irresistible Drudge bait on the Internet is to boil another outlet’s story down to a couple salacious-sounding excerpts, or (failing an effective condensing strategy) to simply reinterpret the material to fit a Drudge-friendly narrative. This past May, for example, Vanity Fair published an excerpt from Maraniss’s biography of Barack Obama. (The liberal media vetting blackout continued apace, in other words.) Politico’s Dylan Byers took the excerpt and turned it into a little micro-news story: Obama admitted to Maraniss that certain figures in his first memoir were ‘compressions’—i.e., composite characters. Byers completely missed that Obama explicitly said at the outset of his own book that some characters were composites, but Drudge didn’t care. ‘Obama Admits Fabricating Girlfriend in Memoir,’ went his headline, with a link to Politico instead of Vanity Fair—and another false right-wing meme got its wings.”

See also: “Dead End on Shakin’ Street” (Thomas Frank, July 2012)


2012 Fiction Picks

1. Cold Pastoral

Marina Keegan | The New Yorker | October 5, 2012 | 28 minutes (7,023 words)

A college student grapples with the death of her on-and-off boyfriend:

“We were in the stage where we couldn’t make serious eye contact for fear of implying we were too invested. We used euphemisms like ‘I miss you’ and ‘I like you’ and smiled every time our noses got too close. I was staying over at his place two or three nights a week and met his parents at an awkward brunch in Burlington. A lot of time was spent being consciously romantic: making sushi, walking places, waiting too long before responding to texts. I fluctuated between adding songs to his playlist and wondering if I should stop hooking up with people I was eighty per cent into and finally spend some time alone. (Read the books I was embarrassed I hadn’t read.) (Call my mother.) The thing is, I like being liked, and a lot of my friends had graduated and moved to cities. I’d thought about ending things but my roommate Charlotte advised me against it. Brian was handsome and smoked the same amount as me, and sometimes in the morning, I’d wake up and smile first thing because he made me feel safe.

“In March, he died. I was microwaving instant Thai soup when I got a call from his best friend, asking if I knew which hospital he was at.

“‘Who?’ I said. ‘Brian,’ he said. ‘You haven’t heard?'”


2. Break All the Way Down

Roxane Gay | Joyland | May 26, 2012 | 24 minutes (6,184 words)

A baby’s arrival stirs up difficult memories:

“I sat with the baby in the living room, setting her on a clean blanket. When I tired of watching her, I stretched out, resting my hand on her stomach. I fell asleep with the baby staring at me, her eyes wide open.

“In the morning, my boyfriend kicked my foot with his heavy work boot. ‘What the fuck is this?’

“I sat up quickly, holding a finger to my lips. I stood and pulled him into the bedroom. ‘Anna Lisa brought the baby last night. She can’t take care of her anymore.'”

Books by Roxane Gay on Amazon


3. Miss Lora

Junot Díaz | The New Yorker | April 23, 2012 | 21 minutes (5,357 words)

A teenager’s grief and its aftermath:

“Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care. I’d fuck her.

“You’d fuck anything, someone jeered.

“And he had given that someone the eye. You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.”

Books by Junot Díaz on Amazon


4. Hello Everybody

A.M. Homes | Electric Literature | September 12, 2012 | 27 minutes (6,868 words)

A grieving family’s privileged, plastic life:

“She hears his car grinding up the hill. At the edge of the driveway, the engine shudders, continuing on for a few seconds before falling silent. Walter buzzes the front gate; Esmeralda, the housekeeper, lets him in. The gate closes with a thick metallic click.

“‘Where are you?’ he calls out.

“‘I’m hiding,’ Cheryl yells from the backyard.

“He enters the through the pool gate.

“‘Shouldn’t that be locked?’ she asks.

“‘I remembered the code,’ he says.

“‘The pool boy’s code, 1234?’

“He nods. ‘Some things never change.'”

Books by A.M. Homes on Amazon


5. Ice Man

Elmore Leonard | The Atlantic | June 22, 2012 | 9 minutes (2,351 words)

A run-in with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer after a rodeo:

“Victor saw Nachee and Billy Cosa looking toward the entrance and turned his head to see a Riverside County deputy talking to the manager. Some more law was outside. They’d go around to the kitchen and check on Mexicans without any papers. Victor saw the Riverside deputy look his way. No, he was looking at the white guy at the next table, the guy wearing a straw Stetson he’d fool with, raising the curled brim and setting it close on his eyes again. Never changed his expression. He had size, but looked ten years past herding cows. It was the man’s U.S. Government jacket told Victor he was none of their business.”

Books by Elmore Leonard on Amazon


6. Casino

Alix Ohlin | Guernica | May 1, 2012 | 16 minutes (4,225 words)

A sisters’ weekend and an unexpected encounter bring back memories:

“When Trisha comes to town we have to go out. She’s the bitterest soccer mom of all time and as part of her escape from home she wants to get drunk and complain about her workaholic husband and over-scheduled, ungrateful children. No one appreciates how much she does for them. All she does is give, give, give, without getting anything back, et cetera. I don’t really mind—I enjoy a good martini, and while Trisha rants I don’t have to worry about getting sloppy, given that she’s always sloppier—except that even her complaints are part boast. She has to mention her busy husband and the two hundred thousand he rakes in a year. Her children’s after-school activities for the gifted are just so freaking expensive and time-consuming. There’s a needle in every one of these remarks, pricking at my skin, saying See, Sherri? See?”

Books by Alix Ohlin on Amazon


7. Onward

Emma Donoghue | The Atlantic | August 24, 2012 | 17 minutes (4,385 words)

A close-knit family’s struggles in Dickens-era England:

“Caroline always prepares Fred’s breakfast herself. Her young brother’s looking sallow around the eyes. ‘We saved you the last of the kippers,’ she says, in a tone airy enough to give the impression that she and Pet had their fill of kippers before he came down this morning.

“Mouth full, Fred sings to his niece in his surprising bass.

“His brow is wet with honest sweat,

He earns whate’er he can,

And looks the whole world in the face,

For he owes not any man.

“Pet giggles at the face he’s pulling. Caroline slides her last triangle of toast the child’s way. Pet’s worn that striped frock since spring. Is she undersized, for two years old? But then, girls are generally smaller. Are the children Caroline sees thronging the parks so twig-like, under their elaborate coats? ‘Where did you pick that one up?’ she asks Fred.

“‘A fellow at the office.’

“‘Again, again,’ insists Pet: her new word this week.

“Caroline catches herself watching the clock.”

Books by Emma Donoghue on Amazon


8. West of the Known

Chanelle Benz | The American Reader | October 1, 2012 | 20 minutes (5,136 words)

Loyalty, betrayal and a final judgment for a brother-sister duo in the Old West:

“My brother was the first man to come for me. The first man I saw in the raw, profuse with liquor, outside a brothel in New Mexico Territory. He was the first I know to make a promise then follow on through. There is nothing to forgive. For in the high violence of joy, is there not often a desire to swear devotion? But what then? When is it ever brung off to the letter? When they come for our blood, we will not end, but go on in an unworldly fever.

“I come here to collect, my brother said from the porch. If there was more I did not hear it for Uncle Bill and Aunt Josie stepped out and closed the door. I was in the kitchen canning tomatoes, standing over a row of mason jars, hands dripping a wat’ry red when in stepped a man inside a long buckskin coat.

“I’m your brother, Jackson, the man smiled, holding out his hand.”


9. The Semplica-Girl Diaries

George Saunders | The New Yorker | October 8, 2012 | 35 minutes (8,979 words)

A father uses his lottery winnings for an extravagant birthday party for his teenage daughter:

“September 3rd: Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate of one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really? How clothes smelled and carriages sounded? Will future people know, for example, about sound of airplanes going over at night, since airplanes by that time passé? Will future people know sometimes cats fought in night? Because by that time some chemical invented to make cats not fight? Last night dreamed of two demons having sex and found it was only two cats fighting outside window. Will future people be aware of concept of ‘demons’? Will they find our belief in ‘demons’ quaint? Will ‘windows’ even exist? Interesting to future generations that even sophisticated college grad like me sometimes woke in cold sweat, thinking of demons, believing one possibly under bed? Anyway, what the heck, am not planning on writing encyclopedia, if any future person is reading this, if you want to know what a ‘demon’ was, go look it up, in something called an encyclopedia, if you even still have those!

“Am getting off track, due to tired, due to those fighting cats.”

Books by George Saunders on Amazon


10. Frogs
Mo Yan | Granta | October 11, 2012 | 14 minutes (3,591 words)

An aunt recalls how she met her husband:

“‘If you want to know why I married Hao Dashou, I have to start with the frogs. Some old friends got together for dinner on the night I announced my retirement, and I wound up drunk – I hadn’t drunk much, less than a bowlful, but it was cheap liquor. Xie Xiaoque, the son of the restaurant owner, Xie Baizhua, one of those sweet-potato kids of the ’63 famine, took out a bottle of ultra-strong Wuliangye – to honour me, he said – but it was counterfeit, and my head was reeling. Everyone at the table was wobbly, barely able to stand, and Xie Xiaoque himself foamed at the mouth till his eyes rolled up into his head.'”

Books by Mo Yan on Amazon

Our Top 10 Longreads of 2012

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