The Longreads Blog

Shades of Grey

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Ashley Stimpson | Longreads | October 2020 | 26 minutes (7,001 words)

It’s been nearly a decade since the numbers were tattooed in her ears, but they remain remarkably legible. In the right one, dots of green ink spell out 129B: Vesper was born in the twelfth month of the decade’s ninth year and was the second in her litter. The National Greyhound Association (NGA) gave that litter a unique registration number (52507), which was stamped into her moss-soft left ear. If I type these figures into the online database for retired racing greyhounds, I can learn about her life before she was ours, before she was even Vesper.

Smokin’ Josy was born to a breeder in Texas, trained in West Virginia, and raced in Florida. Over three years, she ran 70 races. She won four of them. In Naples on May 12, 2012, she “resisted late challenge inside,” to clinch victory, according to her stat sheet. In Daytona Beach on April 17, 2013, she “stumbled, fell early.” Five days later, after a fourth-place showing, she was retired.

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An Atlas of the Cosmos

Illustration by Glenn Harvey

Shannon Stirone | Longreads | October 2020 | 16 minutes (4,288 words)

When I was 8, I noticed an atlas on the bookshelf in my room. I had just started amassing large art books from family museum trips but this was the first abnormally sized book in my posession — it was so oddly shaped its pages spilled over the edge of the shelf. One day I used all my strength to wiggle it down off the bookcase. I sprawled on my bedroom floor and began sifting through the long pages. It must have been from the ’50s or ’60s. It smelled old but it was clearly a book that had been cared for over the years. Its pages were a mix of pastels so dizzying and complex; in how pinks separated from light green and the skinniest blue rivers cut across the pages. Once I was old enough to read, my grandpa started ceremoniously gifting me books from his shelves.

One by one, every time I saw him, a piece of his library became mine. He had travelled all over the world and knew how much it could change a person. And whenever I’d visit him, I’d browse the books on the lower shelves and run my fingers along the spines like a car’s wheels over speedbumps, each cover sort of yellowed from years of his cigarette smoke and constant reading. Once this book and I were formally introduced, I began having regular dates with the atlas. Each day I would lay on my stomach and then sit cross-legged hunched over the pages, running my fingers down the rivers in Africa — the Nile, Limpopo, I’d take a trip to France or Chile. I would attempt to pronounce Czechoslovakia and many other long words that threw me into a joyous tizzy. Every mountain range, every body of water, every large city I would look at longingly wondering one day when I got older, how many of these mysterious places I would see with my own eyes. My wanderlust grew as I grew. There was so much to be explored, there was so much space that existed around my little home in Los Angeles. There was so much I didn’t know.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Peter Eisler, Linda So, Jason Szep, Grant Smith, Ned Parker, Jaed Coffin, Sarah Gilman, Katy Kelleher, and Irris Makler.

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1. Dying Inside

Peter Eisler, Linda So, Jason Szep, Grant Smith, Ned Parker | Reuters | October 16, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,936 words)

Nearly 5,000 inmates have died in U.S. jails without getting their day in court. Reuters investigates the fatalities in America’s biggest jails.

2. The COVID Cruise Ship and the Maine Fishing Town

Jaed Coffin | Down East | October 1, 2020 | 15 minutes (3,964 words)

“Eastport tried for years to lure mega cruise ships. Then, amid a global pandemic, it got one, along with a skeleton crew of coronavirus exiles.”

3. The Island That Humans Can’t Conquer

Sarah Gilman | Hakai Magazine | October 6, 2020 | 10 minutes (2,600 words)

“A faraway island in Alaska has had its share of visitors, but none can remain for long on its shores.”

4. Russet, the Color of Peasants, Fox Fur, and Penance

Katy Kelleher | The Paris Review | October 20, 2020 | 7 minutes (1,923 words)

“But russet means more than red-like, red-adjacent. It also means rustic, homely, rough. It also evokes mottled, textured, coarse. The word describes a quality of being that can affect people as well as vegetables.”

5. The Kindness of Strangers

Irris Makler | Griffith Review | July 26, 2020 | 9 minutes (2,278 words)

“Many women arrived here with only the clothes on their backs and the recipes inside their heads. Cooking again, having a kitchen in which to cook, was a sign of rebuilding; cooking the dishes they knew from home was a comfort and a pleasure, and a way to retain some European identity. You anchored your new family in the tastes of your old home.”

The Toll of Separation

Safa and Marwa Bibi, Caters News Agency

This week, 3-year-old twins Safa and Marwa Bibi went back home to Pakistan — having been away since August 2018. As Rachael Buchanan reports for the BBC, this was the time it has taken to separate the twins — who were conjoined at the head.  

Conjoined twins develop from one fertilised egg and so are always identical.

There are two theories about why they are fused together – either the split into two embryos happens later than usual, and the twins only partially divide, or, following the split, parts of the embryos remain in contact and those body parts merge as they grow.

When it occurs, twins are more commonly connected at the chest, abdomen or pelvis. 

Safa and Marwa’s particular commingled physiology presents a unique set of challenges for the GOSH team. The girls are joined at the top of their heads – crown to crown – facing opposite directions.  

They have never seen each other’s faces.

The twins were treated by a team of 100 people at Great Ormond Street Hospital, in England. One of their surgeons, Professor David Dunaway, described their case as the hardest they have ever undertaken, partly because of their distorted brain shape, and partly because of their age — younger twins have a greater chance of success, but due to problems raising funding, Safa and Marwa were 19 months before they were brought to England. This led to some agonizing decisions being made on the operating table, which in turn took an emotional toll on the girls’ doctors.  

That’s when Marwa’s heart rate plummets and they fear she may die on the table.

There is suddenly quiet and stillness around the operating table as all eyes are on the instrument screens. The only sounds are the accelerated beeps of the heart monitors.

The crisis passes, but not without serious consequences.

It is clear to the surgical team that Marwa is the weaker twin. So they decide to give her a key shared vein. It will increase her chances of survival.

It is a hugely difficult decision. Jeelani knows that it may have a serious impact on Safa, until now the stronger twin.

But the team agrees that it is the right thing to do. The operation lasts more than 20 hours. Jeelani is exhausted and hands over to plastic surgeon Juling Ong to close.

“I am relieved. We thought we might lose Marwa at one point,” he says. “But if they wake up as we hope they will, it’s gone well.”

…. In the late afternoon, Jeelani telephones the hospital from home to check on the girls. He is told that Safa is in trouble, making no effort to breathe and her skin is mottled.

“I thought, ‘Safa is dead’,” he says, and recounts how, emotionally exhausted and sleep-deprived, he collapsed on his kitchen floor and started to cry.

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The Power of a Judith Krantz Sex Scene

Author Judith Krantz (Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images)

Kristin Sanders | Longreads | October 2020 | 12 minutes (2,551 words)

Decades later, the paperback edition of Spring Collection still arouses me: A tall, thin woman who is clearly a model strides across the cover, wearing a glamorous white ‘90s dress, slit open to the top of her right thigh. Her white high heels are dated, but everything else from the image, which cuts off just above her nose as if to prevent her from appearing as a real woman, is timeless in the way that images of objectified women usually are: just boobs, legs, and arms. The book has the one Judith Krantz sex scene I still remember, have always remembered, between the character Maude and a girl whose name doesn’t matter, a girl who should have been me.

I must have been in seventh or eighth grade when I found my mother’s copy on our bookshelf. It was published in 1997, so I would have been 14.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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This week, we’re sharing stories from Lauren Smiley, Reid Forgrave, Susan Casey, Michael Rosenberg, and Lucy Jones.

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1. The True Story of the Antifa Invasion of Forks, Washington

Lauren Smiley | Wired | October 8, 2020 | 36 minutes (9,000 words)

A false report on Twitter about violent leftist activists traveling by bus exploded into a call to arms. Then a bus, carrying a family and two dogs, rolled into a remote Northwestern town best known as the setting for the Twilight series. Chaos ensued.

2. Lives, on the Line

Reid Forgrave | Star Tribune | October 2, 2020 | 43 minutes (10,816 words)

Six lives changed forever, as COVID-19 swept across Minnesota.

3. How Iceman Wim Hof Uncovered the Secrets to Our Health

Susan Casey | Outside | October 12, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,900 words)

“In a world addicted to comfort, it isn’t easy to convince a vast audience that what they really need is to take teeth-chattering swims and ice baths—but Hof has managed to do this.”

4. USC’s Dying Linebackers

Michael Rosenberg | Sports Illustrated | October 7, 2020 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

In 1989, USC had a depth chart of a dozen linebackers. Five have died, each before age 50. Football was inextricably tied to their mortality. These are their stories.

5. Pathways in the Urban Wild

Lucy Jones | Emergence Magazine | July 27, 2020 | 8 minutes (2,120 words)

“As Lucy Jones and her daughter encounter wildflowers in a housing development, Lucy considers the healing benefits of an attentive relationship with the living world and the complex barriers to that relationship within urban areas.”

Longreads Honored with 14 Notable Mentions in ‘Best American’ Series

Longreads is delighted to announce 14 notable mentions for 13 pieces across the spectrum of the 2020 Best American series, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Please see below for the full list of pieces included in each edition and those honored with notable mentions. Congratulations to all!

The Best American Essays

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Travel Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Food Writing

Included in the anthology:

Notable mention:

The Best American Sports Writing

Notable mention:

Summer Mother

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Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | October 2020 | 6 minutes (1,720 words)

Though my mother was an only child, I grew up surrounded by many aunts. These women, mom’s “play sisters” as she called them, were not siblings by blood, but were connected by long friendships, residual remembrances and childhood memories, as with Aunt Carol and Aunt Margret, who grew up with her in the Pittsburgh community known as the Hill District. After relocating to New York City in 1953, mom attended George Washington High where she had classes with Aunt Bootsie and Aunt Charlotte; after graduation, she began to hang out in various Harlem night spots including Carl’s On the Corner and the Brown Bombers, bar-hopping with my future godmother Aunt Myrna as well as with roommates Jill and Barbara, the only ones of her sisterly crew that I didn’t call aunt.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

NEWTOWN, CT - MARCH 31: The exterior of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, CT is pictured on March 31, 2019. The new school building was completed in 2016. (Photo by Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from John Woodrow Cox, Nathaniel Penn, Len Necefer, Aymann Ismail, and Michael Venutolo-Mantovani.

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1. Only One of Their Children Survived Sandy Hook. Now School Posed a New Threat: The Virus.

John Woodrow Cox | The Washington Post | October 7, 2020 | 19 minutes (4,762 words)

“After losing their 6-year-old daughter in a mass shooting, can Isaiah Marquez-Greene’s parents bear to let him return to high school during a pandemic?”

2. The Last Patrol

Nathaniel Penn | The California Sunday Magazine | September 27, 2020 | 78 minutes (19,500 words)

“In 2019, President Trump pardoned Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who was serving a 20-year sentence for ordering the murder of two Afghan civilians. To Lorance’s defenders, the act was long overdue. To members of his platoon, it was a gross miscarriage of justice.”

3. Water is Life

Len Necefer | Alpinist Magazine | October 5, 2020 | 17 minutes (4,391 words)

“As I climbed and skied over rapidly receding snowfields, the journeys felt akin to doing final rounds of visits with my elders who are sick and soon to walk on into the next world.”

4. The Store That Called the Cops on George Floyd

Aymann Ismail | Slate | October 6, 2020 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)

“A teenage clerk dialed 911. How should the brothers who own CUP Foods pay for what happened next?”

5. From Tragedy to Trailblazer

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani | The Bitter Southerner | August 25, 2020 | 12 minutes (3,152 words)

“After three of her dear friends were murdered in 2015 — a case that drew national attention and triggered calls for stronger hate crime legislation — Nida Allam took to politics.”

Deconstructing Disney: Motherhood and the Taming of Maleficent

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Jeanna Kadlec| Longreads | October 2020 | 3,234 words (12 minutes)

How do you tame a witch? Historically, you don’t: You kill her. Burn her. Hang her. In tales, the witch is often a her. A she-devil, if you will, a woman who sleeps with Lucifer, who is Satan’s mistress, who bears a demonic mark. Read the 15th-century witch-hunters’ Malleus Maleficarum, it’ll tell you. Her very existence, her body itself, is a portal from this world to others, and she must be put down, lest she tears a rip in reality itself.

Wicked witches, the stuff of historical legend and nightmarish fairy tales, inspire a terror that verges on the sublime, that feeling Edmund Burke articulated so long ago — of standing on the edge of a cliff where you feel the simultaneity of danger and spectacular awe. Mountains are sublime. Milton’s Satan is sublime. Sublimity only exists in things that could kill you, which bring you to the edge of yourself. The untamed feminine, then, surely falls into this category: Witches exist on the margins, in the shadows, ever threatening to invade and disrupt the sanctity of the social order.

These days, Disney doesn’t kill witches — at least, not as often as they used to. These days, Disney is interested in the ultimate rehabilitation project: How do you make these archetypal wonders, this sublime femininity, less frightening? Less powerful — particularly to people invested in women and queers behaving in normatively gendered ways?

You make the witch a mother.


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