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Sifting through the aftermath of a disastrous blaze. The romance that launched a thousand Supreme Court opinions. A poetic ode to a simple life, well lived. Tracing the arc of food writing. And examining the hidden costs of a particularly sensitive surgical procedure. Our favorites of the week, pulled from all of our editors’ picks.
Megan Greenwell | Wired | June 27, 2023 | 7,987 words
Megan Greenwell’s piece does what the best longform features do: It mesmerizes you with an opening so powerful and a story so compelling that you deliberately read it slowly, just to make it last. This piece—about a devastating fire at a branch of the National Archives and Records Administration that happened to contain records belonging to Greenwell’s grandfather—is nearly 8,000 words long, but the prose is so sharp and cinematic that you’ll wish it was longer. “The National Personnel Records Center fire burned out of control for two days before firefighters were able to begin putting it out,” she writes. “Photos show the roof ablaze, a nearly 5-acre field of flame. The steel beams that had once held up the glass walls jut at unnatural angles, like so many broken legs.” Even were it not set against a backdrop of the U.S. government, this would be a fascinating mystery: What or who started the fire and how do workers attempt to uncover precious facts from seriously damaged files? Did Greenwell’s grandfather’s records survive the blaze? Be sure to take it slow and let this story smolder. I’m certainly glad I did. —KS
Kerry Howley | New York | June 21, 2023 | 7,555 words
My husband sent me this story while I was reporting in Idaho last week, with a message that said, “Isn’t this by that writer you like?” The answer, reader, is yes. Kerry Howley’s 2022 story about anti-abortion activist Marjorie Dannenfelser was rightly named a finalist for a National Magazine Award—one of several nominations Howley’s work has received in the last several years—and I suspect this piece about Clarence and Ginni Thomas will be in the running for many, many honors. Whereas with Dannenfelser, Howley was shedding light on a powerful person who isn’t a household name, here she tackles two of the better-known political (yes, SCOTUS justices are political) figures in America. She does it without access to them, instead surveying pre-existing material on the Thomases with remarkable facility, mustering everything she needs, and nothing she doesn’t, to tell the story of their marriage. Take the seemingly mundane detail of Ginni telling a bunch of right-wing youth that her favorite charm on a bracelet Clarence gave her is a pixie because, to her husband, she is “kind of a pixie…kind of a troublemaker,” which Howley convincingly positions as a metaphor for the havoc Ginni has wreaked on American democracy. Consider this brilliantly constructed sentence: “They take, together, lavish trips funded by an activist billionaire and fail, together, to report the gift.” And that’s just in the first section! This piece is one for the ages in both substance and style. I mean, damn. —SD
Jeremy B. Jones | The Bitter Southerner | June 6, 2023 | 1,580 words
I have never before picked an obituary for our Top 5, but Jeremy B. Jones’ ode to his grandfather deserves recognition. At just over 1500 words, it’s not a particularly long piece, but it’s a particularly poetic one, and is enough to get to know—and respect—Jones’ Papaw. Ray Harrell lived a simple life on a little bit of land in Fruitland, North Carolina. To many, it would not be enough; for Harrell, it was plenty. After all, as Jones writes, he had “a reliable tractor and a fiery woman.” It was a good life because he appreciated what he had, was contented with his lot. Jones notes that these quiet lives often slip past unnoticed, “yet those are the lives in our skin, guiding us from breakfast to bed. They’re the lives that have made us, that keep the world turning.” A small essay about a simple life that I found hugely moving. —CW
4. Mother Sauce
Marian Bull | n+1 | June 15, 2023 | 3,978 words
In reviewing Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, Marian Bull looks at how infusing recipes with introspection and experience begat the cooking memoir. What I loved about about this piece—besides spurring me to pick up Small Fires, which also appeared in our recent feature “Meals for One”—is that while Bull surveys chef memoirs, she hails Johnson’s book as one for the home cook, the self-trained enthusiast. “Johnson has inverted this form by writing a memoir of a recipe, rather than a ‘memoir’ with recipes,” she writes. Johnson looks at cooking as translation and recipes as a form of performance, which is comforting for someone like me who views a recipe as a guide: “The unpredictable ‘I that cooks,’ who resists the recipe again and again, generates new translations.” How inspiring and affirming to be invited to take a seat at this generous table where nothing is lost and everything is gained in translation. —KS
Ava Kofman | ProPublica and The New Yorker | June 26, 2023 | 8,601 words
It’s easy to think that “men trying to upgrade their dongs” is a journalism cheat code of sorts. Having written about them myself many years ago, I can assure you that it’s not. Pitfalls abound. Tone is everything. Jokes are easy; reserve is hard. (So is avoiding double entendres.) Yet, Ava Kofman manages to thread every needle in her stunning examination of the state of penile-enlargement procedures, which focuses primarily on issues surrounding the popular Penuma implant. She writes compassionately about the patients, not dismissing the complex psychological situations that led them to pursue surgery. She writes unblinkingly about the doctor who popularized the procedure, and whose practice seems at times to operate with all the care of a 30-minute oil change joint—and about the surgeon who “was doing such brisk business repairing Penuma complications that he’d relocated his practice from Philadelphia to an office down the street.” And speaking of unblinking, I dare you not to wince as she plays fly on the wall during an implantation; you may never hear the phrase “inside out” the same way again. This story may have drawn you in with its imagined salaciousness, but it delivers something far better: truth. —PR
What piece did our readers love most this week? One that makes clear that the kids are not all right.
Bloodied Macbooks and Stacks of Cash: Inside the Increasingly Violent Discord Servers Where Kids Flaunt Their Crimes
Joseph Cox | Vice | June 20, 2023 | 2,111 words
Those looking for dirty deeds to be done seem to be going no further than the Comm, a series of Discord communities in which people order violence, including commissioning robberies for bitcoin, and organizing swats against vulnerable people for perceived slights and insults. For Vice, Joseph Cox infiltrated this vile, testosterone-fueled world of crime. —KS