The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Mstyslav Chernov, Deborah Cohen, Marina Benjamin, Johanna Hoffman, and Gabriella Paiella.

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. 20 Days in Mariupol

Mstyslav Chernov | The Associated Press | March 21st, 2022 | 2,400 words

“The Russians were hunting us down. They had a list of names, including ours, and they were closing in.” So begins video journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s account of the siege of Mariupol, Ukraine. In spare, blood-chilling prose crafted by Lori Pinnant, an AP colleague in Paris, based on conversations with Chernov, this feature recounts the extraordinary lengths journalists have gone to in reporting on Russia’s senseless bombardment of the city — and the extraordinary efforts Vladimir Putin’s forces have taken to suppress the truth. Chernov conveys the fear, shame, grief, anger, sadness, and — above all — sense of responsibility that comes with bearing witness to an unfathomable tragedy. This is war reporting at its finest, its most clear-eyed, its most humane. If you read one thing about Ukraine this weekend, make it this. —SD

2. The Book that Unleashed American Grief

Deborah Cohen | The Atlantic | March 8th, 2022 | 4,854 words

Nowadays, we are used to people sharing personal information about themselves: Social media and reality television operate as vehicles for shouting out much — and as loudly — as possible. With a few clicks, you can find out more about a perfect stranger — and their current mood — than you know about your gran. This influx can make it easy to forget how much things have changed. In the buttoned-up years pre-Second World War, over-sharing was still very much a taboo. Deborah Cohen’s fascinating essay explores how John Gunther’s book, Death Be Not Proud, led the way to public discussion of cancer and death, as well as “divorce, pain, and parental remorse.” Gunther’s book was a memoir: an account of the death of his son, Johnny, from a brain tumor. Written in 1947, it was the very first chronicle of cancer. It feels crass to portray Gunther as paving the way for today’s social media stars — but Cohen’s poignant essay did make me consider the changing social norms around emotion and the role of memoir in instigating these changes. Gunther making his grief public was brave — founding the process of making connections with others through shared experiences. This essay is not a light read, but it is powerful and meticulously researched. I will be thinking about it for a long time. —CW

3. Personal Growth

Marina Benjamin | Granta | March 11th, 2022 | 5,563 words

My brother was forever small for his age and pale; he simply refused to eat foods he didn’t like. In our house in the ’70s, that meant he was made to stay at the dinner table until he ate what was on his plate. Many nights, he would eventually push his plate away, put his head down on the table and go to sleep, his food long congealed. Years later, my parents discovered dozens of calcified dinner rolls in a little-used cupboard near the stove, evidence of his attempts to clear his plate. Distant and tenuous are two words that accurately describe his relationship with our parents. He hasn’t been at a family dinner in nearly two decades. I can’t say I blame him. In this stunner of an essay at Granta, Marina Benjamin recounts similar experiences at her own family’s table, suffering pleas and threats and edicts around eating and food. Although my brother never suffered the physical violence Benjamin endured, it’s clear my parents left their marks on him. Benjamin’s essay is one of the most gorgeous pieces of writing I’ve read this year. It’s about the fog of memory, the imbalances of power and control inherent in families, the irreparable harms even mostly well-meaning parents can do by abusing their children, and the lifetime of work some have to do to overcome it: “To refuse what the world imposes on you when you possess no other means of resisting is a strength. But refusal is a delusory power, too, because it divides you against yourself. Breaks you in two. One half of you submits to the ordeal while the other half protects the self by dissociating.” —KS

4. Futures From Ruins

Johanna Hoffman | Noēma | March 17, 2022 | 3,882 words

In the mid-20th century, Bombay Beach saw brighter days as a vibrant California resort playground on the Salton Sea. But agricultural pollution, water issues, and toxic air led to its demise, and by the ’80s, this once-thriving desert town to the southeast of Los Angeles fell into decay. In recent years, an art movement and community are breathing life back into it, with a festival, the Bombay Beach Biennale, transforming the tiny town into a post-apocalyptic wonderland. Johanna Hoffman visits and speaks with its residents, exploring how this tight-knit, compassionate community — one that’s lived and survived in such a harsh landscape — continues to reenvision itself and emerge from ruins. Can art really remake Bombay Beach? Is this just another place lost to gentrification? Or does this town at the edge of a toxic lake offer us a glimpse into our collective future? Photographs from Tao Ruspoli, who co-founded the Biennale, add a nice visual layer to Hoffman’s story. —CLR

5. Nicolas Cage Can Explain It All

Gabriella Paiella | GQ Magazine | March 22, 2022 | 6,673 words

As someone who’s been on the journalist side of plenty of celebrity profiles, believe me when I tell you that it’s not easy to break people out of autopilot press mode. Just because you sat in Jennifer Lopez’s house or walked around with Shia LeBeouf or enjoyed a cordial but stilted breakfast with Eric Bana (all real examples) doesn’t mean you’re going to leave having gotten a single milligram of candor from them. But not every celebrity is Nicolas Cage. And not every writer is Gabriella Paiella. Paiella, whose GQ profiles of Diplo and Lil Dicky have already cemented her as the magazine’s preeminent anthropologist of White Dudes, captures Cage at the perfect moment: coming off a tear of 46 movies to pull himself out of bankruptcy, and looking to the future. Yes, as a subject he delivers everything you hope he might — the guy opens the door in a goddamn kung fu suit — but it’s Paiella’s assiduous secondary reporting and lovely arm’s-length affection that makes the piece a gem. “Nothing about him feels like an affectation,” she writes. “Not the kung fu suit, not the talking crow. He is a true eccentric holdout in the increasingly banal landscape of American celebrity. You never see him posting on social media, flashing his veneers above a faux self-deprecating or inspirational caption, or giving pithy sound bites on a red carpet. The man is physically incapable of pith.” You already knew Cage was in National Treasure; now you’ll know he’s one himself. —PR