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This edition features stories about:
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his GOP-donor-funded fancy travel.
- One man’s obsession with profiling Robert Johnson, blues genius.
- What you should know before you allow your dog off-leash at the beach.
- Life as a woman working as a long-haul trucker.
- A love letter to kitschy cookie jars.
1. Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire
Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski | ProPublica | April 6, 2023 | 2,936 words
No matter where you get your news, you’ve likely seen this story sometime in the last 24 hours. It’s a bombshell investigation that reveals how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received lavish gifts from a billionaire Republican donor named Harlan Crow, likely in violation of federal law. Said gifts include international cruises on a staffed superyacht, a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, flights on a private jet, and annual vacations to Crow’s luxury compound in upstate New York. Anyone with an iota of respect for democracy should be appalled — albeit unsurprised, given everything we already know about Thomas’s associates, including his wife. Read it and rage. But also read it and admire the craft that went into telling the story. It is rich in detail, yet precise. Its tone is finely tuned. The selection and placement of quotes are [chef’s kiss]. The writers dole out gobsmacking information throughout the piece, right down to the kicker. This is top-notch reporting and delivery. A+ all around. —SD
2. Hellhounds on His Trail: Mack McCormick’s Long, Tortured Quest to Find the Real Robert Johnson
Michael Hall | Texas Monthly | April 4, 2023 | 8,672 words
The legend of Robert Johnson dwarfs the man himself in many ways. Johnson wasn’t the first recorded blues musician, nor the most prolific of his era. Yet, his brief career and early death shrouded him in mystery and mythology, ultimately influencing the evolution of popular music itself — and confounding would-be biographer Mack McCormick. McCormick, who spent much of his life chasing down the stories and music of men like Johnson, is the focus of this remarkable story, but he’s by no means a hero. He may have been once, when Texas Monthly executive editor Michael Hall first profiled him 20 years ago; that was before his obsession overwhelmed his clarity, and his remarkable research into Johnson’s life turned into something far more toxic. Now, Hall revisits McCormick’s life after his death, teasing the truth from hagiography and telling the long, twisting tale of a man crushed by his own masterwork. Having helped titans like Lightnin’ Hopkins find the spotlight, McCormick long ago achieved his own legendary status. The question that persists is whether a legacy like his can be tainted by a flawed final act. —PR
3. Gone to the Dogs
Ben Goldfarb | Hakai Magazine | April 4, 2023 | 2,400 words
A reported essay on the intricacies of dog-leashing rules could have felt like a real slog. But Ben Goldfarb’s piece lifts off the page. In the opening paragraphs, we meet Kit, Goldfarb’s dog, as she runs along the beach with the wind flying through her floppy ears. It’s an image I could instantly relate to: Like all dog owners, I love watching my own dog dash around off-leash. (Well, meander around. She isn’t the speediest.) But, sometimes, there can be an environmental cost. Goldfarb meticulously takes us through the problems of letting dogs off-leash on a beach, raising some concerns I had never considered. I felt for the shorebirds trying to rest after a long migration; as a contributor eloquently puts it, “Imagine you’ve just gotten home from work and want nothing more than to chill on the couch with a beer — and then a pack of barking dogs tears into the house and chases you outside, over and over again.” Combined with some horrific facts about little blue penguin deaths, this piece will make you think about when to unclip that leash. —CW
4. Highway Star
Meg Bernhard | n+1 | March 2, 2023 | 3,367 words
This week, Meg Bernhard’s piece hit the sweet spot for me as a reader, offering insight into a world I know nothing about: what it’s like to be a female long-haul truck driver. I’m fascinated by the minutia of others’ jobs and this piece delivered. You’ll meet members of REAL Women in Trucking, a rights advocacy group for women drivers, and get to know Jess, age 39, who escaped an abusive relationship to see America behind the wheel of her rig dubbed “The Black Widow.” “Jess kept a secret credit card,” Bernhard writes, “and left their home only with the clothes she was wearing. She went to her stepdad’s, applied for a trucking job, and was on a bus to a training facility in Indiana four days later. Halima spent fifth grade on the road. They solved math problems with dry erase markers on the truck’s windows and played catch in warehouse parking lots.” —KS
5. How Cookie Jars Capture American Kitsch
Angela Burke | Eater | March 24, 2023 | 1,533 words
At an early age, I had mastered a critical skill in our house: lifting the lid on our humongous cookie jar to pilfer a treat, then replacing that lid in complete silence. As a cookie burglar, I was an apple that hadn’t fallen far from its tree. My Dad was always there first. And when my mom complained about dwindling stock, dad pointed the finger directly at me and my brother. (The nerve!) That cookie jar (a brown ceramic wooden stump with a creepy, grinning gray squirrel on top) sits on their kitchen counter to this day. At Eater, in this love letter to the kooky cookie jar, Angela Burke introduces us to artist and vintage ceramic cookie jar maker Hazy Mae. Her custom jars, in homage to Dolly Parton, Andy Warhol, Elvis, and Madonna (among others), can run $800 or more. That may feel steep, but can you really put a price on a vessel that could eventually contain fond memories, too? —KS
This is the piece our audience loved most.
“Blurred Lines,” Harbinger of Doom
Jayson Greene | Pitchfork | March 29, 2023 | 4,435 words
Yes, it has one of the best hed/dek combos I’ve seen this year, but Jayson Greene’s look back at the spuming cultural wave known as the pop-R&B gigahit “Blurred Lines” doesn’t stop there. It aims primarily at Robin Thicke, though Greene’s got heat for everyone from Thicke collaborators Pharrell Williams and T.I. to Miley Cyrus. Sometimes the best culture-crit is steeped in a vat of acid. (That said, I regret to inform you that “Shooter” still goes superduperhard.) —PR