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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

An End of road sign is seen overgrown in bushes two years after Hurricane Sandy damaged much of the area on Staten Island. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Emily Raboteau, Joe Bernstein and Davey Alba, Jen Doll, Kate Harris, and Lisa Franklin.

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If You Were a Sack of Cumin

Two people walking down a destroyed Aleppo street, on August 28, 2014. Karam Almasri / NurPhoto / Getty

Khaled Khalifa | translated by Leri Price | an excerpt from the novel Death Is Hard Work | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | February 2019 | 18 minutes (4,899 words)


Hussein soon suggested that they toss the body out on the roadside, asking his brother and sister how confident they were that they would pass other checkpoints without trouble. They would be right back where they started if the next checkpoint agents discovered that their father was a wanted man. He added that the dogs were eating plenty of bodies nowadays, so what difference did it make? Why didn’t they just leave it or bury it anywhere and go back to Damascus?

Bolbol could tell that Hussein wasn’t joking this time; he wanted an answer, wanted his brother and sister to make a decision. Bolbol wanted to ignore him, but suddenly a great strength welled up inside him, and he declared he wouldn’t abandon his father’s body before his last wish was carried out. Fatima agreed and asked Hussein to speed up, even though it would be impossible for them to arrive at Anabiya that night in any case. The highway came to an end a few kilometers before Homs, and they would have to use the side roads, which were dangerous at night; no rational being would even consider traveling them in the company of a dead man. Read more…


Bénédicte Kurzen and Noor

Allyn Gaestel, Photos by Bénédicte Kurzen / Noor | Nataal | February 2019 | 16 minutes (4,113 words)

If you look closely you’ll notice
That the pattern on this soft broadcloth shirt
Is made of working man’s blood
And praying folks’ tears.

If you look closer you’ll notice
That this pattern resembles
Tenement row houses, project high rises,
Cell block tiers,
Discontinued stretches of elevated train tracks,
Slave ship gullies, acres of tombstones.

If you look closer, you’ll notice
That this fabric has been carefully blended
With an advanced new age polymer
To make the fabric lightweight
Weatherproof, and durable.

All this to give some sort of posture and dignity
To a broken body that is a host for scars.

— From ‘Soldier’s Dream’ by YASIIN BEY


I took a photograph on election day in 2015. It was golden hour. I was new in town. Though I had a writing fellowship that had nothing to do with electoral politics, I was a recovering news journalist. So I registered with the electoral commission and got my press pass and badge and drove around the ghostly streets of Lagos with some local reporters. It was largely an exercise in futility. I felt adrift. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. The story I wrote rambles about the stories people tell. My fellowship editor thought it was useless.

But, driving home, I shot this photograph. In it, a teenager is crossing the road. We are in the neighbourhood of Ebute Metta, and he is wearing the most beautiful hoodie, covered in a twirling, swirling motif. He stares at me through glinting shades. Between the patterned sweatshirt and his shorts — also printed black and white but in a different design — he has layered a striped shirt. He stands in front of the Wasimi Community Mosque, a burnt-red building in the 1970s tropical modernist concrete that blankets much of mainland Lagos. Round concrete circles are embedded like a screen for privacy and ventilation at the top corner of the building. The pattern looks classically Lagosian now, but an architect once told me those cutout blocks were imported from Israel.

Photographs flatten reality. They squash three dimensions into two, and turn bodies and buildings into patterns and shapes. They still the world; they solidify a moment. You can breathe with a photograph, though the instant captured was briefer than your exhale. I was driving when I shot this, and my subject was walking; its stillness is stolen. And yet this split second is layered with everything inside the photograph and also everything ephemeral emanating from the image: emotion, history, foreshadowing. The photograph illustrates an obsession I had not yet noted; a string to a web I had yet to pull and untangle.

I liked it when I shot it. I thought: this looks like Lagos. (And I find Lagos beautiful.)

I later became transfixed by both this swirling pattern and by the thought, “This looks like Lagos.”

I saw the pattern everywhere. I took buses around town, little orbs bouncing through the city filled with uncountable lives, personalities, roles, all squished hip to hip on wooden benches. The clothes people wear express just a fragment of their personas. Sometimes it’s obligatory — white garments for Aladura churchgoers, pleated burgundy skirts for school — and sometimes it’s more loosely prescribed: suits and heels for office workers, individual designs in matching aso-ebi for weddings. But there is also a wide range of freedom both within and beyond this criteria, and cosmopolitan Lagosians are unrelentingly expressive and well-dressed. The sweatshirt in the photograph is of a style worn mostly by the young, fly dreamers of Lagos’ lower social strata — street hawkers, bus conductors, entrepreneurs with many hyphens: real estate agent-used car salesman-blogger of a fictional Yoruba playboy in Dubai. I came to call this style, and the concepts it encompasses, “Versage”. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Christian Senyk / U.S. Navy via Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Christian Miller, Megan Rose, and Robert Faturechi; Robin Hemley; David Gauvey Herbert; Ian Parker; and Meghan Daum.

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Writing for the Movies: A Letter from Hollywood, 1962

AP Photo

Daniel Fuchs | The Golden West | Black Sparrow Books | May 2005 | 42 minutes (8,396 words)


Dear Editors:

Thank you for your kind letter and compliments. Yes, your hunch was right, I would like very much to tell about the problems and values I’ve encountered, writing for the movies all these years. I’m so slow in replying to you because I thought it would be a pleasant gesture—in return for your warm letter—to send you the completed essay. But it’s taken me longer than I thought it would. I’ve always been impressed by the sure, brimming conviction of people who attack Hollywood, and this even though they may never have been inside the business and so haven’t had the chance of knowing how really onerous and exacerbat­ing the conditions are. But for me the subject is more disturbing, or else it is that I like to let my mind wander and that I start from a different bias, or maybe I’ve just been here too long.

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Stalin’s Scheherazade


Brian J. Boeck | an excerpt adapted from Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov | Pegasus Books | February 2019 | 29 minutes (8,255 words)

Between April of 1926 and September of 1927 Mikhail Sholokhov performed a literary miracle. Never before — and never again — would a similar feat be accomplished. During those incredible months he managed to generate hundreds of typed pages of some of the most engaging prose ever to appear in Russia, a country blessed with Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and numerous other gifted writers. On an epic scale he narrated events that occurred in far-flung trenches of World War I, distant centers of power, and revolutionary meetings. He described multiple historical figures he had never met, and he painted vivid verbal pictures of battles that took place when he was still a boy. Brief periods of mad, feverish writing were sandwiched between moves, multiple trips to Moscow to meet with editors, and the birth of his first child.

His literary output during those months exponentially exceeded the accomplishments of his whole career up to that point and most decades of his career afterward. The improvement in quality was incredible. None of his colleagues wept with rapture when they read his early, formulaic, communist short stories. Early editors sometimes had to apply a heavy, corrective hand just to get some of them into print. Suddenly seasoned editors were in awe of his prose. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that this rapid, unexpected literary metamorphosis occurred at the age of twenty-two.

How did he manage to pull off such an improbable literary feat? Some locals insisted that he acquired manuscripts that were left behind when the Cossack side was routed by the Red Army during the civil war. At a minimum the archive he acquired appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. Read more…

Lean On

Getty / Bloomsbury Publishing

Briallen Hopper | excerpted from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions | February 2019 | 25 minutes (6,215 words)

I like to lean. Too much of the time I have to hold myself up, so if an opportunity to swoon presents itself, I take it. When I’m getting a haircut and the lady asks me to lean back into the basin for a shampoo, I let myself melt. My muscles go slack, my eyes fall shut, and there is nothing holding me except gravity and the chair and the water and her hands on my head. I feel my tears of bliss slide into the suds.

In photos I am often leaning. When I’m not resting my head on someone’s shoulder, I am hugging a column in a haunted castle in Great Barrington or bracing myself against a big block of basalt on a pedestal in a Barcelona park. At home alone, I improvise with bookshelves and doorjambs, but sometimes I need to lean on something alive. Seeking support on a stormy night, I run out into the rain and lean against the dogwood tree in front of my house until the wet bark soaks through my coat. The world is my trellis.

Ten years ago, I bought a Gordon Parks print of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward leaning against each other by lamplight on a big brass bed. They are sitting side by side, eyes closed, serene. He is leaning more heavily, his body slanted into hers, his head on her shoulder. She is resting more gently, her cheek against the top of his head. Her face is half-illuminated, half-eclipsed. They seem solemn and private and young. He is quiet in her shadow.

I hung the photograph over my bed. Next to it I tacked another 1950s Paul and Joanne picture I tore out of a book. They are leaning on a bed again, and he is still slumped against her shoulder, but this time the lean seems more in league with an audience. They are both meeting the photographer’s gaze and smiling small smiles. Her eyebrows are slightly raised; she might be sly or smug. She is holding a cup of tea in one hand, and his head, proprietarily, with the other. He is supine and sated and holding a glass of wine.

Paul and Joanne liked to lean for the camera. For their 1968 LIFE cover promoting Rachel, Rachel (she starred, he directed), they are layered on wall-to-wall carpet; she is reclining in the foreground, and he is her blue-eyed backrest. In yet another famous photo from an earlier era (Joanne is still in gingham, not yet in Pucci), they are leaning back to back with their shoulders against each other, their mutual pressure holding each other up, with an isosceles triangle of space between them, and a sturdy baseline of brick patio beneath them.

I like to fall asleep under images of leaning every night and wake up beneath them every day.

I like to believe that leaning is love.
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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Thailand Cave Rescue
Linh Pham / Getty Images

This week, we’re sharing stories from Shannon Gormley, Jasmine Sanders, Esmé Weijun Wang, Kevin T. Baker, and Gabrielle Bellot.

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The Paths of Rhythm

Pfife, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest in the recording studio in New York City on September 10, 1991. Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Hanif Abdurraqib Go Ahead in the Rain | University of Texas Press | February 2019 | 17 minutes (3,425 words)


In the beginning, from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown. In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned, with the songs to go with it. When slaves were carried to America, stolen from places like West Africa and the greater Congo River, with them came a musical tradition. The tradition, generally rooted in one-line melodies and call-and-response, existed to allow the rhythms within the music to reflect African speech patterns—in part so that everyone who had a voice could join in on the music making, which made music a community act instead of an exclusive one.

Once in America, where the slaves were sent to work in America’s South, this ethos was blended with the harmonic style of the Baptist church. Black slaves learned hymns, blended them with their own musical stylings that had been passed down through generations, and thus, the spiritual was born. In the early nineteenth century, free black musicians began picking up and playing European stringed instruments, particularly violin. It started as a joke—to mimic European dance music during black cakewalk dances.

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How Diderot’s Encyclopedia Challenged the King

The encyclopedists meet at Diderot's home. Hulton Archive / Getty

Andrew Curran | an excerpt adapted from Diderot: The Art of Thinking Freely | Other Press | January 2019 | 19 minutes (5,105 words)

Denis Diderot’s incarceration at Vincennes took place exactly halfway through his seventy years on earth. Prison became the dramatic pause that gave shape and meaning to both sides of his life. Before prison, Diderot had been a journeyman translator, the editor of an unpublished encyclopedia, and a relatively unknown author of clandestine works of heterodoxy; on the day that he walked out of Vincennes, he was forever branded as one of the most dangerous evangelists of freethinking and atheism in the country.

During Diderot’s three-month imprisonment, his jailer the Count d’Argenson and the count’s brother the marquis had looked on with amusement while this “insolent” philosophe had bowed and scraped before the authority of the state. In a diary entry from October 1749, the marquis related with glee how his brother the count had supposedly broken Diderot’s will. Solitary confinement and the prospect of a cold winter had succeeded where the police’s warnings had failed; in the end, the once-cheeky writer had not only begged for forgiveness, but his “weak mind,” “damaged imagination,” and “senseless brilliance” had been subdued. Diderot’s days as a writer of “entertaining but amoral books,” it seemed, were over. Read more…