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Poetry as a salve. What grief can teach. Dinner and theatrics in Branson, Missouri. The pleasures of learning a musical instrument and a behind-the-scenes look at The Fugitive.

1. Ahead of Time

Kamran Javadizadeh | The Yale Review | June 12, 2023 | 3,285 words

Writer Kamran Javadizadeh’s sister, Bita, died a slow, agonizing death from cancer. Here, he writes about losing her through the lens of poetry he encountered during the experience: a volume of Langston Hughes he located in their shared childhood bedroom; a copy of The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds, filled with Bita’s notes from her reading of it in college; a Hafez verse that Bita herself texted to him one day. I adored this essay, a mix of personal history and literary analysis, and I also found it achingly familiar. Exactly 17 years ago this week, when I witnessed the sudden death of someone I loved, I was thrust into a private hell, a netherworld of despair. I struggled to connect with friends and family, and they with me. It was like I was trapped underwater, screaming, and they were looking down at me, unable to hear, much less help. Poetry, though, could breach the surface, offering me what I so desperately needed: a sense of empathy. I analyzed poems about death and mourning, pondering the words, meaning, and mechanics that made me feel the verses so deeply. Poems, as Javadizadeh reminds us in his essay about Bita, can be portals—to other people, to other planes, and even to ourselves. —SD

2. Mount Fear Diary

Joshua Hunt | The Believer | July 26, 2023 | 7,388 words

Struggling with how to grieve his Uncle Bill while on assignment in Japan, Joshua Hunt travels to Mount Fear, a place where the human and spirit world meet and one can go to console, pacify, and communicate with the dead. On the journey, Hunt begins to process his deep love and respect for the man who helped him navigate the trauma of his extended Tlingit family, a family Hunt distanced himself from while pursuing his writing career. Hunt’s faith and conviction in working through loss in words gives this piece life. He gives shape to the amorphous, ethereal, ever-shifting complexity of grief and grasps what it offers him: A chance to embrace his extended family in a new way. “Damp with sweat and rain, I wondered if the bus passengers could perceive the spirit walking with me,” he writes. “It had been there for eighty-five days, mute, but so real to me that I addressed it aloud. So real to me that the following week, while caught in a sudden downpour on the streets of Tokyo, I would burst into tears and thank it for the last gift it gave me: a sorrow deep enough to draw me back for the next funeral, and the next birthday, and all those other occasions when being together is more important than being free from pain.” At its core, this beautiful essay is not just about what grief takes, but what more importantly, what it can give. —KS

3. Dinner Theater and Loathing in Baptist Vegas

Amy McCarthy | Eater | August 2, 2023 | 3,258 words

I had never heard of Branson, Missouri, but after Amy McCarthy describes it as “either the Live Music Capital of the World or Baptist Vegas,” I wanted to know all about it. In Branson, “dinner theater” thrives, a phrase that for me conjures up shoveling down pasta at 5 p.m. before running to catch a show. But not in Branson. In Branson, show tunes come alongside your carbonara. McCarthy throws herself into this world, slurping soup in a 35,000-square-foot arena while watching “Dolly Parton’s Stampede,” complete with flashy costumes adorned with rhinestones, beautiful horses, and some problematic depictions of Native Americans. McCarthy is brilliant at conjuring the sights (and smells) that confront her, and I enjoyed her tepid reviews of the shows and food (particularly a desert that tasted “like the inside of a refrigerator”). But the essay really shines by analyzing what Branson actually is. Selling itself as a place for wholesome entertainment, this pretense of a “white, Christian, conservative utopia” is as thin as the cheerful veneer of the serving staff. Underneath Branson is a “huckster’s paradise” that sells God, guns, and country. I have now heard of Branson, but I don’t think I’ll go. —CW

4. What My Musical Instruments Have Taught Me

Jaron Lanier | The New Yorker | July 22, 2023 | 3,794 words

In the opening of this essay, Jaron Laniers sketches a scene of deep intimacy: His mother teaching him to play piano with her hands above his on the keys. I can imagine the touch of her hands on his, the pure and clear tones of the piano, and the joy that these moments of closeness, learning, and beauty must have brought him as a child before she was taken from him, killed in a car accident. These experiences formed a man with an insatiable appetite for musical instruments and the study of music itself, enjoyed in brief respites from other tasks throughout his day. “Holding an oud is a little like holding a baby,” he writes. “While cradling an infant, I feel pretensions drop away: here is the only future we truly have—a sacred moment. Playing the oud, I am exposed. The instrument is confessional to me.” As Lanier surveys his large instrument collection, he delights in the singular joy each invokes, recalling the muscles involved and the physical sensations that translate into their individual music. What I loved most about this piece is how Lanier thrills at moments of discovery in learning to make sounds, unshackled from expectation. “When I played my ‘U’/’V”’ xiao for the first time, I made the futile blowing sound familiar to beginning flutists,” he writes. “Eventually, though, I managed a few weird, false notes. I was surprised but also delighted. Some of my favorite moments in musical life come when I can’t yet play an instrument. It’s in the fleeting period of playing without skill that you can hear sounds beyond imagination.” You need not be a musician or rare instrument aficionado to love this story. Your heart will tell you it’s a piece that hits all the right notes. —KS

5. ‘I Didn’t Kill My Wife!’ — An Oral History of ‘The Fugitive’

Andy Greene | Rolling Stone | July 29, 2023 | 12,243 words

If you’ve watched The Fugitive more times than you can count—and let’s face it, you have—you probably think of the 1993 movie as a perfectly crafted thriller. Not so much, it turns out! As Andy Greene’s oral history makes clear, the classic result belies the seat-of-the-pants execution. A star who was convinced the film would tank his career. A screenplay that never got finished. An ensemble actor who constantly found ways to maximize his screen time. A cast member who fell out after most of the movie had already been shot (and, consequently, a janky fake beard). A climax that was plotted on set. Dialogue that, seemingly more often than not, came straight from the ever-fizzing brain of Tommy Lee Jones. As much as I usually despise the word, this story officially qualifies as “rollicking.” Harrison Ford may not have participated, but Greene’s reporting ensures that his presence is still felt, whether laughing over the movie’s impending dud status or inviting Sela Ward to improv their scenes together on the fly. At this rate, every movie is going to get an oral history on every major anniversary, and I regret to inform you that next year marks 30 years since Ernest Goes to School and 3 Ninjas Kick Back. Then again, as long as those inevitable pieces aim to replicate the good vibes and rich details of this one, there’s no such thing as too many. —PR

Audience Award

Here’s the piece our readers could not resist this week:

Fahrenheit 105: Why I No Longer Love the Texas Heat

Forrest Wilder | Texas Monthly | July 27, 2023 | 1,727 words

You expect heat in Texas, but Forrest Wilder remembers a far more forgiving climate growing up than the one he is experiencing now. A personal microcosm of climate change that really brings reality home. —CW