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Our Longreads Member Pick: The Prophet, by Luke Dittrich and Esquire

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For this week’s Member Pick, we’re excited to share “The Prophet,” the much-talked-about new story from Luke Dittrich and Esquire magazine investigating the claims made by Dr. Eben Alexander in the best-selling book Proof of Heaven, about Alexander’s own near-death experience.

Dittrich, a contributing editor at Esquire since 2008, has been featured on Longreads many times in the past and his work has appeared in anthologies including The Best American Crime WritingThe Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and his article about a group of strangers who sheltered together during a devastating tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He is currently writing a book for Random House about his neurosurgeon grandfather’s most famous patient, Henry Molaison, an amnesiac from whom medical science learned most of what it knows about how memory works.

Read an excerpt here. 

Become a Longreads Member to receive the full ebook. 

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Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Our Longreads Member Pick: The Prophet, by Luke Dittrich and Esquire

Longreads Pick

For this week’s Member Pick, we’re excited to share “The Prophet,” the much-talked-about new story from Luke Dittrich and Esquire magazine investigating the claims made by Dr. Eben Alexander in the best-selling book Proof of Heaven, about Alexander’s own near-death experience.

Dittrich, a contributing editor at Esquire since 2008, has been featured on Longreads many times in the past and his work has appeared in anthologies including The Best American Crime WritingThe Best American Travel Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and his article about a group of strangers who sheltered together during a devastating tornado won the 2012 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He is currently writing a book for Random House about his neurosurgeon grandfather’s most famous patient, Henry Molaison, an amnesiac from whom medical science learned most of what it knows about how memory works.

Read an excerpt here. 

Become a Longreads Member to receive the full ebook. 

Source: Esquire
Published: Jul 23, 2013
Length: 42 minutes (10,525 words)

Longreads Best of 2012: Esquire's Chris Jones

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Chris Jones is a writer for Esquire and ESPN and the winner of two National Magazine Awards.

Favorite new writer discovery of 2012

I’m always scared of making lists like this, because a year is a long time, and I read a lot, and invariably I’ll forget writers and pieces that I liked very much. But this category is easy for me: Michael J. Mooney. He wrote back-to-back stories for D Magazine this summer that are so different but the same in that they both knocked me on my ass. First he wrote about a brutal rape in “When Lois Pearson Started Fighting Back.” (It is a difficult read, but the ending is more than worth it.) And then he wrote the most amazing bowling story ever in “The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever.” Plus, he’s a straight-up good dude. Love this guy so much.

Best election story

I’m going to seem like a homer here, but I don’t care: Charlie Pierce did journalism on Esquire.com during this entire election cycle that bordered on heroic—and I don’t use that word lightly. In its ideas, in its language, in its sheer volume, his account of this election, taken as a whole, is humbling and inspiring at the same time. Start with the end, “The Greatness of Barack Obama is Our Great Project” and go back from there.

Best personal blog post/essay

I’m going to pick two stories here, both sports stories. Writers hate hearing athletes say, “You never played the game,” but it’s hard to deny that former athletes understand the games they played better than most of us do. Just the other day, The Classical posted a meditation by former basketball player Flinder Boyd about Ricky Rubio, “The Ricky Rubio Experience.” I’m not sure I can say why, exactly, but I was really moved by this story. Some of The Classical guys can be snide little shits, far too Internet cool, but Boyd wrote with real heart here. I love this story.

The second is by one of my most favorite friends, Kevin Van Valkenburg of ESPN. He wrote about the death of a semi-pro football player in a story called “Games of chance.” Kevin played college football at the University of Montana, and he writes beautifully about the pull of the game as well as the charge that comes from hitting and with being hit. Sometimes the first person interrupts; here it informs.

Best crime story

I see the great David Grann has already picked this one, but I’ll echo his pick, because it was that good: Pamela Colloff’s “The Innocent Man” for Texas Monthly is an epic, immersive, amazing story. And full credit to the gang down in Austin for committing so completely to longform journalism. That this story even exists makes me hopeful about so many things.

The story that made me feel the most awesome about just about everything

I’ve always been an optimist about writing, or at least I’ve always tried to be an optimist about writing, and 2012, for me, has been filled with reasons for optimism (like Pamela Colloff’s story above, which is really a multi-layered testament to the power of belief). Yes, this business remains in flux, and yes, many good writers continue to put more love into their writing than their writing returns to them. But I still feel like we live in a golden age, filled with possibility. One of the stories that most made me feel that way—both because of the story itself, and because of its subject—was “How One Response to a Reddit Query Became a Big-Budget Flick” by Jason Fagone in Wired. The title describes the tale exactly, and it’s just as improbable and fun and crazy as it sounds. I feel like this story sums up the modern writing business as well as any: There’s still plenty of lightning out there, and there are still lots of bottles, and every now and then, someone still catches one with the other.

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.

Longreads Best of 2012: Esquire’s Chris Jones

Longreads Pick

Chris Jones is a writer for Esquire and ESPN and the winner of two National Magazine Awards.

Read more guest picks from Longreads Best of 2012.

Source: Longreads
Published: Dec 11, 2012
Length: 2 minutes (648 words)

Not All Smurfs and Sunshine: Profile of Esquire's Chris Jones

Not All Smurfs and Sunshine: Profile of Esquire’s Chris Jones

Not All Smurfs and Sunshine: Profile of Esquire’s Chris Jones

Longreads Pick

“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones now says of “The Things That Carried Him” which Esquire published in May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home, structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the writing. The piece won the 2009 National Magazine Award for feature writing.

Published: Dec 16, 2010
Length: 16 minutes (4,062 words)

Tim Pawlenty: The Esquire Interview

Longreads Pick

The Minnesota governor, whom many expect to run for president in 2012, on bailouts, health care, whether Obama is a socialist, and where Republicans go from here

Source: Esquire
Published: Mar 1, 2010
Length: 35 minutes (8,854 words)

Bill Clinton, Then and Now: The Esquire Interview

Longreads Pick

In a sprawling discussion of his past and our common future, the former president compares his administration’s early years with Obama’s and talks about what he believes — in health care and next year’s midterms — is about to happen

Source: Esquire
Published: Sep 1, 2009
Length: 51 minutes (12,949 words)

Lady Gaga, Celeb Profiles, and the Third Remake of “A Star is Born”

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Lady Gaga attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "A Star Is Born" at The Shrine Auditorium on September 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

John Caramanica declared the celebrity profile dead a few weeks ago. Yet Rachel Syme’s story on Lady Gaga for New York Times Magazine about her new film, the third remake of A Star is Born, does everything the best profiles are supposed to: It draws the subject as a fascinating main character and gives us a peek into what she does and why. It illuminates a specific moment in time.  It tells the audience what the writer thinks is interesting or compelling about its subject and how that relates to us all. It offers an origin story, not just of the main character, but an origin story of the origin story — revealing the social world the main character inhabits and how it explains something essential about who she is.

For her interviews with Syme, Gaga, possibly one of the last true pop stars, was not very forthcoming:

Now, as we toured her house, Gaga was as opaque as Ally is transparent. She spoke carefully, in a breathy tone, as if she were in an active séance with an old movie star whose press agent advised her to remain enigmatic and demure. She showed me a bizarre bathroom, where she had found a bed over the shower; she gestured delicately at her backyard, announcing: “Some beautiful lemon trees. It’s a nice place to come and just create.” When we got into the studio, she tiptoed through the cavernous live room, pointing out a grand piano in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. We made our way to a small alcove with whitewashed walls and 20-foot ceilings, which looked like the storage room of an art museum — an echo chamber, she explained. I asked about the acoustics, in part because it seemed the polite thing to do, but in part because I was trying to open any conversational tap I could find. Whether she was feeling legitimately shy or was simply method-acting as a restrained ingénue, she had yet to speak at full volume.

In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece on Gaga’s co-star, Bradley Cooper, also the film’s director, Cooper’s dull aphorisms only make Brodesser-Akner’s insights shine more brightly. “His voice is not yet as good as it would become,” she writes of seeing the first time Cooper and Gaga sing together, in footage from before they made A Star Is Born. Watching Brodesser-Akner watching Cooper tells us more about his journey in making the film than anything he says in the entire piece.

Similarly, I’m not sure whether less reticence from Gaga would have helped us understand more about her first major film role or the mystique and mythology of A Star is Born. Some of the most memorable and probing profiles ever written don’t even include interviews with their subjects. It’s Rachel Syme’s trenchant musings on Gaga’s rise, her performance as Ally, and “the grueling machinations behind celebrity” that are a delight to read.

“A Star Is Born” has never really been a film about an unknown actress shooting across the screen like a rare comet. Instead, from the very beginning, it has always been a film about an already superfamous woman shooting a movie. That’s the real reason the franchise works: It comes with a built-in insurance policy. In 1937, when Janet Gaynor stepped into the role of the farm girl Esther Blodgett in the first version (which was itself a remix of a 1932 drama called “What Price Hollywood?”), she was making a comeback, but she had been a box-office titan of the silent era, the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for acting. Judy Garland, who tackled Esther in 1954 (a studio executive quickly changes her name to Vicki Lester in the film), was a household name at 17, no longer a vaudevillian striver but a minted studio girl, kept on a steady infusion of amphetamines and barbiturates and praise. In 1976, Barbra Streisand, whose character’s name was Esther Hoffman (we have to believe she goes from mieskeit to swan), was already an Oscar winner for playing Fanny Brice, and fresh off another nomination, for “The Way We Were.” These actresses were all at least a decade into their careers, and they used the material less as a coming-out party and more as a victory lap. Of course the Esthers would succeed; their real-life counterparts had already pushed through every obstacle.

This is why the lead role is so alluring to divas who want to explore the boundaries of their fame and what they had to endure to lasso it. These actresses, in drag as younger versions of themselves, get to wrestle with their flaws and air out their darkest fears. But we don’t fear for them, not really, because we know how the story turns out. Garland, who always felt so intimidated by the leggy army of MGM blondes that she spent her life making self-deprecating jokes, fashioned herself into the world’s most beloved brunette. Streisand, whose line “Hello, gorgeous” was soaking in wry irony, turned a prominent bridge into a locus of desire.

Gaga’s innate New York City toughness brings a different flavor to the role than her predecessors. Where Janet Gaynor plays the starlet as pure and cornfed, Garland plays her as a plucky troubadour in pert ribbon bow ties and Streisand plays her as a wisecracking prima donna in colorful ponchos (hey, it was the ’70s), Gaga’s Ally is more world-weary and knowing. She is the kind of woman who gets into fistfights, who alternately sasses and fusses over her father (Andrew Dice Clay), a chauffeur who once had showbiz aspirations himself but never had a lucky break. When Cooper offered Gaga the role, he told her that “this is what it would be like if you were 31 and had never made it,” and she readily embodies the ferocious hunger of the would-be famous. She’s no innocent when she walks onstage to sing. She knows exactly what to do, and exactly what this will mean for her career. She’s ready to go.

Ally’s journey is not about a singer developing her talent — that’s already there. It is about finding her way toward an aesthetic once she has the world’s attention. She dyes her hair Tang orange, begins working with a choreographer and sings springy pop songs about butts, all of which she does without wavering, even when Jackson drunkenly criticizes her for being inauthentic. Some viewers may read a rock-versus-pop hierarchy into Ally’s transformations — that she is more “real” when she is harmonizing with Jackson’s twangy melodies or sitting at her piano — but Gaga’s onscreen mastery over both genres is a pre-emptive rebuttal to what is essentially a gendered bias. What “A Star Is Born” makes clear about Lady Gaga is that she possesses the dexterity to make whatever kind of music she likes.

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