The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Laurie Penny, Josh McColough, Will Di Novi, Kent Russell, and Christian Wallace.

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

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1. Dislodged

Josh McColough | The Missouri Review | April 15th, 2022 | 5,508 words

I was drawn this week to a few reads about California road trips, including one on Joan Didion, as well as an essay by Josh McColough in The Missouri Review that recounts part of a West Coast road trip with his teenage daughter, when a road closure in Northern California leads to an unexpected delay. At one point in their journey, they approach a dangerous section of Highway 101 that’s prone to landslides — the Last Chance Grade — and must decide whether to wait until the highway is fixed, or turn around. “Sometimes in order to move forward, you have to stay put for a bit—one of the many lessons imparted to us from the virus,” writes McColough. And so they decide to wait, which opens up the space to be still: to notice all the tiny banana slugs on the forest floor, to ponder just how long it took for the old-growth redwoods to grow that tall, to watch the coastal fog creep inland and do its thing. Reading about their experience on this beautiful spot of earth made me feel small in a humbling yet positive way, and McColough makes poignant observations throughout about humanity, our vulnerable environment, and our place within it. I paused a number of times while reading to allow myself to feel sadness for our world, but also to feel joy — because how lucky are we, ultimately, to be able to live in such a place? “Our inability to see ourselves as tiny points on a much longer ecological or geological spectrum is our uniquely human blind spot,” he writes. “It’s where and how we fall short.” Take the time to read this thoughtful piece. —CLR

2. All the Best Things About Europe with None of the Genocide

Laurie Penny | Penny Red | May 14th, 2022 | 1800 words

I love the Eurovision Song Contest. It is an annual four-hour extravaganza (yes, four!) that mercilessly drags me back and forth between tears and cackles of joy. (There is usually some drinking involved.) This year was no different — with the performances last Saturday ranging from bonkers acid trip pop songs to beautiful ballads. I am not even sure what genre to call the entry of my home country, the United Kingdom, but the singer took some surprising linguistic liberties with the term “spaceman.” (Just to let you know, we came second, our best position in 25 years.) Anyhow, I digress, and Laurie Penny explains the madness much better than I can in this breezy, fun essay: “Every year, forty-something countries serve up musical interpretations of a theme that sounds like knockoff body spray – this year it’s The Sound of Beauty. Almost anything goes except subtext.” Eurovision voting tends to be a bit political — this year particularly so. Penny notes “It’s hard to get banned from Eurovision, but invading a neighboring country and massacring tens of thousands of people will do the trick.” Without Russia competing, Eurovision asks us, “What if, instead of killing each other, we all just got hammered and did karaoke?” Ukraine won Eurovision 2022 with a landslide public vote. I cried again. —CW

3. The Magic of Alleyways

Will Di Novi | Hazlitt | May 16th, 2022 | 3,200 words

Vibrant. Countercultural. Places of rest. These aren’t descriptors that leap to mind when I think of alleys, the hidden veins of cities everywhere. At least, they weren’t until I read this ode to alleys by Will Di Novi. Inspired by an incident outside his apartment in downtown Toronto, Di Novi takes readers on a tender journey through these misunderstood urban spaces. That alleys are relegated in our vernacular to the category of things dark and dirty is a mistake — a classist and racist one. Throughout history, alleys have been sites where people without power and privilege “meet and make mischief,” Di Novi writes, “[a] city’s unofficial social laboratory.” He invites readers to look on alleys in their own burgs with fresh eyes. He hopes they’ll find pleasure, as he did, in witnessing “mundane wonders,” among them “the adolescent love notes scattered on the walls; the sun-bleached vines shaking in the breeze; the shadows of the power lines merging on the blacktop: fishing poles at noon, pyramids by dusk.” —SD

4. Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Kent Russell | Harper’s Magazine | May 11th, 2022 | 6,982 words

Like Kent Russell, I’ve always been a sucker for the otherworldly and occult. UFOs? Yes, please. Conspiracy theories about the reptoids living under the Denver airport? Put it in my veins. It’s in that spirit that I mainlined Russell’s long journey into the world of John R. King IV, a man who claims to have studied enough ancient grimoires to be able to communicate with demons. The journey isn’t fruitless, though neither is it fulfilling — which is exactly the point, I suppose, when you’re dealing with something that’s empirically unprovable. Yet, throughout, Russell renders King’s quiet insistence, and his own (remarkably sanguine) explorations into the world of dark forces, with a flair both literary and relatable. “Reading King,” he writes, “I felt myself vacillate between terror and wonder like a compass needle brought near a magnet. Here was a man who had punctured the airless dome of modern existence, and, what’s more, was really goddamned cocksure about it.” Put down the Ouija board and pick this up instead. —PR

5. The Bronc-busting, Cow-punching, Death-defying Legend of Boots O’Neal

Christian Wallace | Texas Monthly | May 11th, 2022 | 6,139 words

“This morning’s chore: Boots and three of his Stetsoned coworkers must round up some two dozen bulls scattered across a vast grazing pasture, drive them to a set of pens about a mile away, and load the one-ton beeves into a livestock trailer so they can be hauled to another division of the Four Sixes, the legendary West Texas ranch that sprawls across 260,000 acres…To an outsider, this might feel like a scene straight out of Lonesome Dove. For Boots, this is Tuesday morning. He’s repeated this task countless times—his career began during the Truman administration and has now spanned seven decades—but if given the chance to be doing anything on earth, this is what he would choose every time.” Now is probably a good time to mention that this particular Boots, out on a horse rounding up Angus bulls in rural Texas, is 89-years-old. While Boots (a.k.a Billy Milton O’Neal) has decades on me, I am at the age where I’m starting to think more about aging not just with grace, but also vitality and a side of sass. What are the keys to aging well? If you take some pointers from Boots in this superlative profile by Christian Wallace at Texas Monthly, aging well means not just doing what you love, but being intentional, and becoming part of a community of people who share your joy. Oh, and let’s not forget the dancing. “Boots and Nelda were happy together. Perhaps more than anywhere else, they found common ground on the dance floor. They would dance to country music, waltzes, and rags, and they loved to two-step.” —KS