Category Archives: Guest Pick

Circus, Interrupted: Watching an Accident at Cirque du Soleil

Circus Trapeze Artists
Wikimedia Commons

I’d been leaning forward in my seat, hands over my mouth, for the entire show. This was the premiere for Luzia, a Cirque du Soleil performance inspired by the culture, history, and nature of Mexico. The acrobats were dressed in white costumes decorated with pale turquoise and coral-colored flowers; the women in flared skirts, the men in long sleeves and full length trousers, a band of turquoise painted across their eyes. I followed the swings, back and forth, acrobat flying between them. There was an impossible flip down to the leading edge of the opposite swing. The music was loud, the lights bright on the center of the stage.

Then she fell. She went down like a plank, right on to her back. The acrobats gathered, then the stage crew, until she was surrounded by people dressed in black. At the back of the stage a woman dressed like a monarch butterfly put up her hands in an X over her head and the clown next to her did the same. The lights went up, the music stopped, and eventually, the acrobat was carried from the stage strapped to a board. The crew broke the set and after 15 minutes or so they launched into the finale.

The mood was broken, of course. I was worried and anxious throughout the finale and applause. As we headed to the car, I wondered what happened to the acrobat. I later read that she was okay, but there was little detail. I found, instead, a Wall Street Journal article (paywall) from 2015 about Cirque du Soleil’s safety issues.

The article centers around the death of a performer in 2013 at Ká, the troupe’s Las Vegas show, which uses a treacherous, vertical stage. It also shines light on how punishing circus work is for the performers—and how difficult it can be to receive compensation for those injuries.

Tension over the trade-off between spectacle and safety in circuses has been inherent since trapeze performers began flying 30 feet in the air about 150 years ago. “A circus tent is not an ancient Roman arena or a modern prize ring,” wrote the journal Circus Scrap Book in 1931.

Experts said serious injuries and fatalities can, and should, be prevented with safety harnesses, nets and other protocols, so that, despite the stagecraft, the workplace is safe. “Most of the accidents that have happened in recent times have been preventable,” said Jerry Gorrell, a theater safety consultant in Phoenix.

In the past 15 years, separate from the Cirque death, at least three circus performers—including one at major Cirque competitor Feld Entertainment Inc.’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey—have fallen to their deaths during shows in the U.S., according to federal records and company reports.

“The body is the tool [in the circus], and sometimes the tool gets broken,” said Vladislav Dunaev, a former Cirque performer in Florida. Mr. Dunaev said Cirque had “very good safety measures,” but even so, he suffered seven significant injuries over roughly a decade, state records show, the last a 2011 shoulder injury requiring surgery. In 2012 he reached a $90,000 settlement with Cirque and its insurer after disputing his benefits through an administrative process.

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Hygge: The Dark Side of Danish Comfort, a Story by Dorthe Nors

Dorthe Nors | Longreads |  August 2015 |  8 minutes (1,904 words)


Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Danish writer Dorthe Nors, translated into English by Misha Hoekstra, and chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“I first came across the intriguingly sparse work of Dorthe Nors in the pages of the literary magazine, A Public Space. And then the magazine went on to publish her first short story collection translated into English, Karate Chop, in partnership with Graywolf Press, and it became one of my favorite books last year. Although her stories are quite short, they are flashes of sharp and bright light into the otherwise obscure and dark corners of life. Last winter, a particularly cold and brutal season for New York, I helped curate a reading series for a temporary exhibition space called Winter Shack, themed around the idea of exploring the concept of “coziness.” In Denmark, I’d learned the pursuit of being cozy is a particular philosophy with its own rules and traditions, undertaken to beat the winter doldrums. We were lucky that Nors was game to send along an introduction to the Danish custom of cozy as well as an original short story that demonstrates the dangers of pursuing its creature comforts. Longreads is proud to be the first publisher of this eye-opening story about the happiest people in the world.”

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Six Stories About the Swimming Pool

I don’t know where you live, but where I live, it’s 97 degrees on a Friday in June. After a brutal winter, I try to remember this is what I longed for. My commute home liquidates. Drips slide down my spine, disappearing into the waist of my government-approved pencil skirt. Yesterday, I couldn’t take it: I wore shorts. I’m yearning for my grandparents’ swimming pool; its strange shape and dense vegetation are different from the community pools I frequented as a child. Theirs is utterly private, difficult to maintain, and very, very cold. Ready to grab your towel? Take a dip in these six stories about swimming pools.

1. “Who Gets to Go to the Pool?” (Brit Bennett, New York Times, June 2015)

Oasis or battleground? Swimming pools have long been sites of racial tension in the United States–this month, a police officer pulled a gun on a black, unarmed, bikini-clad young woman after she was attacked (physically and verbally) by white poolgoers.

2. “Woman Overboard: How Swimming in a Rooftop Pool Saved Me From Addiction.” (Susan Shapiro, The Observer, July 2014)

Susan Shapiro traded unhealthy habits for a new obsession: swimming laps atop her apartment building. Her fondness for exercise accidentally landed her in physical therapy, where she learned the importance of pacing herself.

3. “Size.” (Leanne Shapton, The Paris Review, July 2012)

Two summers ago, I read and loved Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton’s memoir of her life in pools. Beautiful meditations on training for the Olympic trials as a teen and descriptions of swimming pools all over the world accompany photos of bathing suits and miniature paintings. What better to read poolside? Here, the Paris Review excerpts Shapton’s book.

4. “The Wet Stuff: Jeff Henry, Verrückt, and the Men Who Built the Great American Water Park.” (Bryan Curtis, Grantland, September 2014)

A water park is a swimming pool on steroids, right? Grantland introduces you to Jeff Henry, the Steve Jobs of water parks. (Henry’s latest ride is called “Verrückt”–that’s “insane,” in German. It’s over 17 stories tall; it’s the tallest water slide in the world.)

5. “The Purest Form of Play.” (Miranda Ward, Vela, April 2013)

This award-winning essay is a favorite of Vela editor Sarah Menkedick: “[It’s] one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out.” Maybe the summer heat is getting to you, too. Maybe someone pooped in your metaphorical (or literal) pool. Ward’s essay moved and encouraged me, too. It’s about perseverance and acceptance, in or out of the pool.

6. “Too Fat to Swim.” (Ragini Nag Rao, Rookie, October 2014)

I was 18 the first time I swam. I took a step into a sectioned-off part of Calcutta’s biggest lake, and I was scared. Ragini dreamed of performing daring athletic feats and reveled in basketball and cricket. But her size, self-consciousness and the taunts of her family held her back from embracing her true self. After years of struggling with an eating disorder, she shakes off the haters and plunges into the depths of self-love.

The Novel That Was a Key to Solving a Polish Murder Mystery

Bala had since moved abroad, and could not be easily reached, but as Wroblewski checked into his background he discovered that he had recently published a novel called “Amok.” Wroblewski obtained a copy, which had on the cover a surreal image of a goat—an ancient symbol of the Devil. Like the works of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, the book is sadistic, pornographic, and creepy. The main character, who narrates the story, is a bored Polish intellectual who, when not musing about philosophy, is drinking and having sex with women.

Wroblewski, who read mostly history books, was shocked by the novel’s contents, which were not only decadent but vehemently anti-Church. He made note of the fact that the narrator murders a female lover for no reason (“What had come over me? What the hell did I do?”) and conceals the act so well that he is never caught. Wroblewski was struck, in particular, by the killer’s method: “I tightened the noose around her neck.” Wroblewski then noticed something else: the killer’s name is Chris, the English version of the author’s first name. It was also the name that Krystian Bala had posted on the Internet auction site. Wroblewski began to read the book more closely—a hardened cop turned literary detective.

— This recently unlocked New Yorker story comes recommended by Eva Holland, a writer based in Whitehorse, Yukon who writes:

David Grann’s “True Crime,” is a strange story of a Polish detective who becomes fixated on a disturbing, provocative, postmodern novel that may be the key to a brutal unsolved murder. The story is fascinating and layered, and I’m guessing I’m not the only ex-liberal arts student who will find aspects of the main suspect’s character uncomfortably familiar.

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Photo: Via YouTube

Two Stories by Rachel Aviv About Parents, Children, and Our Legal System

“You’re not showing any remorse, Dakotah. I’m not saying it in a bad way, but is something wrong with your head? Do you have problems with thinking? I mean, because you’re a very intelligent young man.” Steve told him to imagine what would happen “if you weren’t my kid, and I was in this room with the person that shot my dad.”

Ester Bloom, a writer and editor, recommends two stories by Rachel Aviv from The New Yorker: “These pieces by Aviv are about parents, children, and a legal system that tries to do its best by both parties as well as society at large, and ends up shortchanging everyone.”

“No Remorse.” (Jan. 2, 2012)

A 14-year-old is tried as an adult for killing his grandfather.

Where Is Your Mother? (Dec. 2, 2013)

A mother whose child is taken away becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to win him back.

'The Lost Girls of Rocky Mount': A Guest Pick by Douglas Williams

Douglas Williams is currently a doctoral student in political science at the University of Alabama, where his research centers around public policy and politics as it relates to disadvantaged communities and the labor movement. You can find him on Twitter at @DougWilliams85, at a collaborative blog on Southern progressivism called The South Lawn, as well as at The Century Foundation, where he blogs about the labor movement.

The Lost Girls of Rocky Mount

Robert Draper | GQ | June 2010 | 22 minutes (5,382 words)


This article, y’all. Whew.

I happened upon this article a couple of years ago while doing some unrelated research, and it is something that has stuck with me ever since. It is hard for a story like this to not have some effect on you, for the author provides the grim details of the murders and their investigation with such vividity as to allow readers to place themselves smack dab in the middle of the story. It was also an article that reinforced a lot of concepts that have lived with me since birth: the gut-wrenching despair of persistent poverty; the lack of importance placed on Black women’s bodies; and the fecklessness of law enforcement when it comes to investigating crimes in communities of color, particularly when there is such a large separation between those communities and the political establishment that represents them. It is all here for you to dissect, with few stones, if any, unturned.

This is one of the easiest recommendations that I have ever been able to make.


Photo: Harris Walker

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The Lobotomy Files: A Longreads Guest Pick By Nicole Greenfield

Nicole Greenfield
Nicole Greenfield is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

I must admit it was the photo of 90-year-old Roman Tritz, clear blue eyes and a blank stare to the camera’s side, that initially drew me into one of my favorite longreads of the week. But the photo didn’t prepare me for the truly harrowing nature of Tritz’s story, a deeply personal look into one of the thousands of forced lobotomies the U.S. government performed on World World II veterans, the details of which are uncovered for the first time in this multimedia feature. The in-depth, but straightforward reporting of such a horrendous trend, performed in the absence of answers, begs all kinds of questions. How could this happen? And, importantly, could it happen again? For it’s impossible not to connect Tritz’s struggle and the stories of veterans today also suffering from PTSD, also without adequate assistance, also afraid, also wondering, as Tritz himself did pre-operation, “Does anybody really care?” This is one that will stick with me for a while.

The Lobotomy Files

Michael M. Phillips | The Wall Street Journal | December 13, 2013 | 48 minutes (12,000 words)


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How A Black High School Basketball Coach Transformed A White, Mennonite Town: A Longreads Guest Pick By Chris Mahr

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen, a college sports website and athlete database.

“Talk to any young sportswriter today and odds are that their introduction to both Sports Illustrated’s long-form journalism and renowned writer Gary Smith are one in the same: ‘Higher Education.’ Smith’s March 2001 masterpiece tells the tale of Perry Reese Jr., a black Catholic basketball coach at Hiland High in the predominantly Mennonite town of Berlin, Ohio. A man whose force-of-nature personality on and off the court transformed a town ‘whose beliefs had barely budged in 200 years’ and forced his players and neighbors to rethink their long-held tenets on race, religion and life.”

Higher Education

Gary Smith | Sports Illustrated | March 2001 | 35 minutes (8,619 words)


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The Future of Online Education: A Longreads Guest Pick by Teddy Worcester

Above: Sebastian Thrun

Teddy Worcester resides in San Francisco and helps to build products that support the free and open web.

Max Chafkin’s Fast Company story covering Sebastian Thrun’s change of course for Udacity is a must-read for anyone interested in online education. The brilliant Thrun admits that MOOCs are not necessarily the right course for Udacity, with staggeringly low class completion rates and weak test performance. Chafkin eloquently covers Udacity’s pivot toward offering a vehicle for “academic branding.” Highlighting Udacity’s recent deal powering Georgia Tech’s AT&T-sponsored academic program, Chafkin quotes Thrun lauding corporatized higher education, “If you focus on the single question of who knows best what students need in the workforce, it’s the people already in the workforce. Why not give industry a voice?”


Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Sasha Belenky on Jeanne Marie Laskas's 'The People V. Football'

Sasha Belenky is a senior editor at The Huffington Post.

Whether it’s negotiating murder-for-hire with a fake hit man or visiting old stomping grounds with the vice president of the United States, if you’re in the car with Jeanne Marie Laskas, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the story will be good. I’ve found myself most riveted, however, by her 2011 profile in GQ of Fred McNeill, former star linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings — which similarly begins in the car. It’s a heart-wrenching scene, with McNeill’s wife, Tia, fighting his dementia along with the Los Angeles traffic, and it’s a great example of Laskas’ gift for capturing language. As journalists continue to shed light on the concussion crisis in football, Laskas’ article stands out as one of the most personal, most devastating accounts of the long-term damage being done on the field.


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