Writer Brendan I. Koerner: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of Now the Hell Will Start and Piano Demon. He is currently working on a book about a spectacular 1970s heist and its decades-long aftermath, and he blogs daily at Microkhan.

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I’m a thousand percent certain that I’ll wake up in a cold sweat tonight, having suddenly remembered a slew of tremendous stories that I really should have given some year-end love. With that important caveat, I do hope you’ll check out the five tales below; each one is guaranteed to occupy a hallowed place in your brain.

“Death of the Tiger” by Jon Lee Anderson (The New Yorker, sub. required) 

I was sorely tempted to fulfill my New Yorker quota by shouting out David Grann’s “A Murder Foretold,” about the assassination of a powerful Guatemalan attorney. As with all Grann stories, I literally cut that piece apart with a pair of scissors, then pinned the various sections to a cork board in an effort to better understand his mastery of structure. But Anderson’s account of the Tamil Tigers’ violent twilight gets the nod, primarily because it features the year’s most chilling scene: an alleged female spy is dragged in front of the author by a louche guerrilla commander, then carted away to be shot in the head. That brief passage may well be the most vivid description of casual brutality ever committed to the page.

“Crashing Down” by Brad Melekian (Outside)

The official story was that surfing superstar Andy Irons died of dengue fever, allegedly contracted during a competition in Bali. But the reality, carefully concealed by friends and family alike, was that Irons was an addict, one whose self-destructive habits had nearly killed him at least once before. Melekian’s heartbreaking story illustrates how the deeply troubled Irons was failed by those around him, who felt that no real harm could possibly come to such a prodigiously talented athlete.

“The Instigators” by David Wolman (The Atavist, $1.99)

When I first read this story, about the young activists who helped launch Egypt’s revolution, I was bowled over by the characters’ bravery and gumption—it’s no small thing to risk torture for the sake of righteous principles. But in light of how Egypt’s political situation has changed in recent weeks, the piece reads quite differently now—you can see the haziness of the activists’ idealism, and perhaps even a dash of arrogance in their tactics. The fact that “The Instigators” contains such varied narrative strands at its core is a testament to its expert craftsmanship and deep reporting. And the use of video in the iPad version is an object lesson in how storytelling can be enriched by digital technology—one brief glimpse of the central character in the thick of the protests adds volumes to the yarn.

“The Confessions of a Former Adolescent Puck Tease” by Katie Baker (Deadspin)

Confessional writing seems so easy in theory, especially since there is seldom any original reporting involved. But, man, is it ever hard to pull off with any appreciable degree of success. The vast majority of such stories get bogged down in artificial sentiment or cheesy philosophizing. But that’s not the case with Baker’s glorious tale of adolescent mendacity, in which she recounts a minor scam she ran on an older guy—a scam that ended in hilariously embarrassing fashion. As The Great Gatsby showed, there are limits to America’s tolerance for personal reinvention, a lesson that Baker had to learn the hard way. But there is also solace to be had in the company of like-minded souls, a task now easier than ever thanks to the power of the Internet—a realm that, as Baker so eloquently puts it, provides “a clean, well-lighted place for your real self.”

The Comments for “Michael Nida, 31” (The Los Angeles Times)

The Homicide Report, an online project of The Los Angeles Times, tabulates and describes every single killing in my native city. When it first began, I focused on the brief accounts of each death—there’s no better way to be overwhelmed by the senselessness of daily violence. But I’ve since become a devotee of the project’s comments, which are frequently provided by acquaintances of the deceased—as well as blog regulars who possess, shall we say, hard hearts. When those two sides clash, the resulting mess makes for some epic reading. This year’s best example is the thread that follows the entry on Michael Nida, killed by the Downey police in bizarre circumstances. Was he involved in a bank robbery? Targeted because of his race? The victim of out-of-control cops? The commenters battle it out, and in doing so provide a snapshot of the fundamental beliefs that divide us. The comments admittedly contain large heapings of idiocy, insensitivity, and racism. But keep reading—the unabashed rawness of the views on display is what makes the “story” so compelling.

Honorable Mentions: “Anthrax Redux” by Noah Shachtman (Wired), “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Paul Ford (The Morning News), “Teodorin’s World” by Ken Silverstein (Foreign Policy), “They Always Come in the Night” by Dinaw Mengestu (Granta), “A Murder Foretold” by David Grann (The New Yorker), “Voicebox 360” by Tom Bissell (The New Yorker), “Punched Out” by John Branch (The New York Times)

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