Search Results for: susan straight

(Who Gets to) Just Up and Move

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Nicole Walker | Longreads | January 2020 | 21 minutes (5,273 words)

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could. — Louise Erdrich


Like white settlers did in the 1800s, the trees are moving west. Unlike the pioneers/white settlers, they’re not going very fast. About 10 miles a decade. It will take a long time for the trees to decimate buffalo populations, turn prairie into wheat, kill indigenous populations, and establish Walmart as the largest employer. Still. They’re coming. Thirsty, trees of the east move westward, as, due to climate change, the rain in the east is drying up. Fortunately, rains in the Midwest grow heavier. The trees, tempted by this, send their seeds a little further to the left. It’s mainly broadleaf, deciduous plants like the Scarlet Oak that want to move. Beware Gambel Oak, you scrubbier version. The big trees are coming for your rain.

Salt Lake City had once been the home of the Ute People. Utah gets its name from the Utes, but no one really talks about them. They had escaped white settling for longer than other Native Americans — mainly because of the time it took to bring first trees, then backhoes, then politics to the Salt Lake Valley.

In the 1600s, they were among the first to procure horses from the Spanish and they traded with Hispanic settlers, but remained unmolested until 1847 when the Mormons arrived. Before that, the Utes and some bands of Shoshone people had lived among the rivers and the lakes, catching fish and organizing plants alongside the banks. The rivers were everyone’s and no one had fences, but then the Mormons came and, although the Mormons didn’t kill the Utes straightaway, they pushed the Utes toward the Uintah Basin where there are few rivers and few fish. After moving Utes to a reservation and then taking that reservation back, they forced them into allotments where, even with irrigation, the ground was too salty and sandy to be of much agricultural use. The Mormons shrugged their shoulders and went back to plan their Days of ’47 Parade. The Ute children were sent to Indian Boarding Schools like Albuquerque High, from where half of them never returned home. Move out, the white settlers said as they pulled lines from the Book of Mormon to claim this as their one true home, where God himself told them to come in, make yourself comfortable.
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Longreads Best of 2019: Crime Reporting

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.

Pamela Colloff
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine staff writer.

Show of Force (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker)

Every Rachel Aviv story is a marvel, and “Show of Force” — which looks at the intersection of domestic violence and law enforcement — is no exception. In language that is both spare and foreboding, Aviv builds detail upon detail as she sketches the contours of a troubled new marriage in Spalding County, Georgia. She notes that Jessica and Matthew Boynton, the protagonists of her story, left their wedding reception “after less than an hour” and that “Matthew wore a titanium wedding ring with a blue stripe, to signify that he was in law enforcement.” As these small but revelatory details accumulate, so, too, does a growing sense of dread. Aviv illuminates the real human cost behind the chilling statistics that suggest law enforcement officers are more likely to abuse their spouses, making it clear that Jessica, despite being in grave harm, has nowhere to turn. By the time I reached the story’s denouement, my heart was in my throat.

Susan Chira
Editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Chira worked for The New York Times for nearly 40 years as a reporter and editor, and shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment.

The King of Dreams (Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project)

This grippingly-written and deeply-reported story exposed the scams of a Texas con artist who made millions promising prisoners’ families their most cherished dream: bringing their children home. Thompson, a staff reporter for The Marshall Project, describes how this conman falsely promised them he could obtain reduced sentences and led them on to exhaust their life savings, in many cases. It’s a window into the desperation and vulnerability of the millions of Americans who love someone who is incarcerated.

Taken: How police departments make millions by seizing property (Anna Lee, Nathaniel Cary, and Mike Ellis, The Greenville News)

One of the great truisms about criminal justice is that it’s local. At a time when local journalism is increasingly endangered — along with the prospect of accountability for local wrongs — here’s an example of a compellingly reported and written investigation by the intrepid staff of this Greenville, S.C., newspaper. They examined statewide civil asset forfeitures over three years and found that not only did the state seize more than $17 million in property, but also that black men were disproportionately the targets.

Aura Bogado
Investigative immigration reporter at Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting

Bound by Statute (Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis, Reveal)

When reporter Ko Bragg spotted a story about a 13-year-old who was being tried as an adult in Mississippi, she wondered if there were others like him. Her investigation, meticulously examined with data reporter Melissa Lewis, uncovered that nearly 5,000 children were charged as adults in the state in the last 25 years. They found that racial discrepancies abound: three in every four of the children are black; sentences for black minors tried as adults average twice as long as sentences for white minors charged as adults; and even when white kids are handed longer sentences, they’re released much sooner than black kids.

Bragg’s elegant writing follows the devastating story of a child named Isaiah who spent nine months in pretrial detention — sometimes in solitary confinement, other times with adults — before being dragged into court shackled at the waist and ankles. Photographer Imani Khayyam captures intimate moments between a son and mother who illustrate the toll that the state’s laws have taken on their family. But perhaps most compelling is the way the work seemlessly reaches into history to find the origins of this inequity in chattle slavery. The writing explains how the practice of robbing black children of their childhood was upheld through Reconstruction, then made a feature of white mob violence, and finally codified into law — the same law that prosecutors and judges say bind them to perpetuate the inequity today.

Josie Duffy Rice
President of The Appeal, a news publication that publishes original journalism about the criminal justice system. Co-host of the podcast Justice in America.

False Witness (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)

Pam Colloff’s story on jailhouse informants is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. It’s a topic that sounds like it could get technical — Pam’s reporting drew on thousands of pages of public records, covering half a century of criminal cases in Texas and Florida — but in true Pam fashion, this piece is completely and totally fascinating. It’s also enraging. The main character is a real piece of work, manipulative and charming and unrepentant. The ways in which he’s charmed women, cops, and juries, destroying peoples lives in the process, must be read to be believed. Incredible reporting, remarkable storytelling. I remain in awe.

Sign up to get email updates from Pamela Colloff about her investigation into jailhouse informants and how she reported the story.

Sarah Weinman
Author of The Real Lolita and editor of crime anthologies, including the forthcoming Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsessions

The Minnesota Murderess (Christine Seifert, The Atavist)

Seifert’s historical yarn starts out as a true crime tale but looks more broadly at the ways in which media has always incited panic about women exercising any form of independence in their lives.

He Cyberstalked Teen Girls For Years — Then They Fought Back (Stephanie Clifford, WIRED)

Stephanie Clifford’s story of repeated and sustained harassment of high school girls in a small New Hampshire town is infuriating and enraging and impossible to stop reading.

Catherine Cusick
Longreads Head of Audience and host of The Longreads Podcast

How judicial conflicts of interest are denying poor Texans their right to an effective lawyer / How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans (Neena Satija, Texas Tribune and Texas Monthly)

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required, under the Sixth Amendment, to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own counsel. How states should pay for this defense, crucially, is left up to the states. For Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, Neena Satija exposes the undeniable structural flaws that prohibit funding indigent defense properly in Texas. Satija has done readers an incredible service by recreating the bewilderment of encountering these judicial paywalls from both sides of the bench, bringing much needed humanity to straightening out so many convoluted conflicts of interest.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.

The Longreads 2019 Holiday Gift Book Guide

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Let Longreads help you with your holiday shopping! We’ve made a catalog of books we featured in 2019 that we think would make great gifts for everyone on your list.


Books of friendships & feuds.

Yuval Taylor’s Zora & Langston is a lavishly detailed account of the friendship, literary collaboration, and epic falling out of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes; Dylan Jones’ Wichita Lineman tells the parallel life stories of Jim Webb and Glen Campbell in the years after they came together to create the enigmatic eponymous song; and Andrew Curran’s Diderot: The Art of Thinking Freely chronicles Diderot’s intellectual sparring with Rousseau, Voltaire, and Catherine the Great.

Books of conspiracies, coincidences, & cover-ups.

Tim O’Neill’s Chaos lays out the evidence he collected during his 20-year investigation of the Manson family murders; Anna Merlan’s Republic of Lies takes a tour of some of the major conspiracy theories haunting the American psyche today; Evan Ratliff’s Mastermind pieces together a vast criminal network that is astonishingly controlled by just one man; Kate Brown’s Manual for Survival examines the extent to which the aftereffects of Chernobyl were covered up by world governments; Brian J. Boeck’s Stalin’s Scribe  hypothesizes that one of Russia’s most beloved classic novels was plagiarized; and Erik Davis’ High Weirdness is a study of the symbolic “synchronicities” that seem to have recurred during three famous psychedelic experiences of the 1970s.

Books about family.

The bonds of family bend and break across vast distances in Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Patsy; Mira Jacobs’ graphic memoir Good Talk meditates on mothering in a mixed-race family in America; Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls are memoirs that celebrate family while also reckoning with legacies of neglect and abuse; and Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House is a 100-year history of her family’s New Orleans home, which was lost during Hurricane Katrina.

Books of investigations & revelations.

Nicole Weisensee Egan’s Chasing Cosby details how the case against Bill Cosby unfolded and why the story took so long to gain traction in the media; Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky reveals that drone surveillance has become widespread in American cities without much public awareness; Ronnie Citron-Fink’s True Roots investigates the real cost of hair dye to humans and the environment; Reniqua Allen’s It Was All a Dream chronicles black millennials’ experiences of income and racial inequality in the 21st century, and explores how this black generation is persevering in transformative new ways; Emily Bazelon’s Charged explores how the power of prosecutors has grown out of control in many American cities; and Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women provides an almost painfully intimate window into the romantic lives of three women who have recently been deeply, obsessively in love with a man.

Frightening books for your fearless friends.

Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall is a nailbiting novella of iron-age reenactors and parental abuse; Japanese Ghost Stories is a reissue of Lafcadio Hearn’s foundational collection of ghastly tales; and Mona Awad’s Bunny is a delightfully terrifying novel of sex, magic, and MFAs.

Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments reconstructs the free and experimental lives that black young women and girls were living in the second and third generations born after slavery; Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs revises what the role of the suburb has been in American history, showing that they were sometimes havens for radicals; Robert MacFarlane’s Underland investigates the human underground world, revealing us to be a surprisingly subterranean species; Daniel Immerwahr’s How To Hide an Empire rewrites the history of the United States from the perspective of its imperial territories; Amir Alexander’s Proof! argues that the discovery of Euclidean geometry profoundly influenced social and political thought; and David Teuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee tells the history of Native America since the Wounded Knee Massacre, reclaiming Native history after the point of its so-called demise.

Compulsively readable fiction.

Bryan Washington’s Lot, by turns heartbreaking and hilarious, is a collection of interlocking short stories named after cities and streets in Houston; Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha is a too-real satire of the world after Trump’s coming apocalypse; Mary HK Choi’s Permanent Record explores how modern lives and romances are mediated by technology; Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina is a collection of interlocking short stories set in Denver, and in each one a woman has suffered violence at the hands of a man; Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise is a straightforward story of teenage romance that becomes more complicated with every twist of the narrative; and Téa Obreht’s Inland is a sprawling Western based on the true story of the U.S. Camel Corps.

Essays & Criticism.

Shapes of Native Nonfiction, an anthology edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton, showcases the craftsmanship of contemporary Native storytelling; Luke O’Neil’s Welcome To Hell World is a vital and despairing collection of essays on modern American life; T Fleischmann’s Time Is a Thing the Body Moves Through uses the artworks of Felix Gonzáles-Torres to reflect on how the bodies we inhabit affect our relationship with art; Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing is a manifesto that calls for a radical winding down the attention economy; Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain is a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest; and Jess Row’s White Flights is a literary dissection of whiteness in literature.

Minds & bodies.

Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying reconstructs her experience of living with Bipolar II; Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary is a philosophical meditation on menopause; Anne Boyer’s The Undying is a lyrical manifesto against the cancer industrial complex; Keah Brown’s The Pretty One is a lighthearted collection of personal essays that challenge the idea the idea that disability precludes self-love, romance, and happiness; Cameron Dezen Hammon’s memoir This Is My Body reflects on the painful contradictions of harboring deep Evangelical faith in a female body; and Andrea J. Buchanan’s The Beginning of Everything is a memoir of her marriage and mind falling apart.

Extraordinary memoirs.

Ahmet Altan’s I Will Never See the World Again was clandestinely written in the Turkish prison where he is being held as a political dissident; Marc Hamer’s How To Catch a Mole chronicles his rediscovery of the lost art of molecatching; Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is the inventively told tale of how she survived domestic abuse at the hands of her partner; Carolyn Forché’s What You Have Heard Is True is the story of her experiences in El Salvador as during the civil war, which she famously recorded at the time in verse; Delphine Minou’s I’m Writing You From Tehran is her account of falling in love with the city from which her family had fled; and Matt and Ted Lee’s Hot Box is a whirlwind look at the fast-paced world of high-end catering in New York City.

Book about just one thing.

Semicolons, wind, and beef.

Happy Holidays!

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Live Through This: Courtney Love at 55

Mick Hudson / Getty, istock / Getty Images Plus, Michael Ochs Archive / Getty, Vinnie Zuffante / Getty, pidjoe / Getty, Illustration by Homestead

Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | July 9th, 2019 | 24 minutes (6,539 words)

It’s hard to tell whether Thurston Moore is being sarcastic or sincere. It’s probably a bit of both. “The biggest star in this room is Courtney Love,” says the Sonic Youth singer and guitarist in a scene from 1991: The Year Punk Broke. The documentary follows Sonic Youth’s summer 1991 European tour and features performances and backstage antics from their tourmates, including a pre-Nevermind Nirvana, Babes in Toyland, and Dinosaur Jr.

Moore comments during an interview with 120 Minutes, an MTV program that spotlighted alternative music in the days before the music channel became the home of teen moms and spoiled Laguna Beach brats. As Moore declares his love of English food to the host — most definitely sarcasm — Love is behind him trying to get the camera’s attention. She waves and appears to stand on something to make herself taller. Her efforts pay off and soon she is in front of the host, all brazen, blond, and sporting blue baby doll barrettes.

Tongue-in-cheek or not, Moore was right. Love’s band Hole wasn’t on the European tour bill that summer and their debut album Pretty on the Inside hadn’t even been released yet, but Love was already on MTV.

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The Brazilian Healer and the Patron Saint of Impossible Causes

Illustration by Aimee Flom

Leigh Hopkins | Longreads | July 2019 | 25 minutes (6,131 words)


The roosters started at 4:30 in the pasture behind the inn. On the second crow, I rolled onto my back and blinked at the jalousie window’s slatted light, considering my first day at The Casa. We were allowed to ask three questions, no more. A visit with the world’s most famous spiritual surgeon was like going to see the wizard.

Mariana was silent in the bed next to me, the sleep falling in loose spirals across her face. I pulled back the sheets and slipped inside. “Bom dia.”

“Bom dia, meu amor.” A soft sound from a distant place.

Seven and a half years later, I receive a text from a friend in Rio: “Did you see the news?” She links to a New York Times article: “Celebrity Healer in Brazil Is Accused of Sexually Abusing Followers.”


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An Audience of Athletes: The Rise and Fall of Feminist Sports

womenSports, Bettmann / Getty

Britni de la Cretaz | Longreads | May 2019 | 26 minutes (6,609 words)

The idea for womenSports magazine was born in a car suspended over the San Francisco Bay by beams of steel. Several weeks before she captivated the nation by beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the fall of 1973, Billie Jean King sat in the passenger seat of a car and stewed. At the wheel was her then-husband, Larry, driving the couple from Emeryville near Oakland toward San Francisco on the Bay Bridge, and as Billie Jean flipped through an issue of Sports Illustrated, she complained, which is what she always did whenever she picked up an issue of SI. Read more…

‘Little Grandpa’ and The List

Illustration by Giselle Potter

Abigail Rasminsky | Longreads | May 2019 | 17 minutes (4,208 words)

It’s a long plane ride, so I puke in midair, grunting and coughing up the last remnants of breakfast. My mother holds the paper bag open for me, an encouraging look on her face. When I am done, she closes it up, wipes my face with a tissue from her purse, and carries the slosh to the bathroom. Down the row, a bald man in a suit looks away in disgust.

I am 10, it is May, 1988, and we are on our way to my grandfather’s funeral in Los Angeles. In the locker room at school the day before leaving, in the loudest fourth grade voice she could muster, my friend Laura announced that it was my fault that he had died. I suspect this can’t really be possible — I live in Montreal, which is in a different country, after all — but it still worries me. On the plane, lying my head across my mother’s lap, I tell her about Laura and the locker room. She glares down at me from behind the thick frames of her oversized oval glasses, then looks up and starts fiddling with the tray table. “Sweetheart,” she says. “I think it’s time for some new friends.”

My grandfather is being cremated, and I am spellbound by the word — I have learned its meaning especially for the occasion, and let it cycle through my mouth over and over again, the “eemmm” sound turning into a hum at the back of my throat. Last night, my mother explained that a lot of people didn’t like the idea of being put in a coffin and buried in the earth. Instead, she said, some preferred to be cremated, which turned out to be a fancy word for being burned into ashes. But the word seems slightly suspicious: too lovely to mean something so violent.

In bed the night before, I wondered where we’d visit Grandpa if he wasn’t lying in a cemetery next to Grandma — the two headstones side by side, their bones resting together underneath. “Cremation” made it sound like he would just disappear.


We arrive in L.A. in the afternoon. It is bright everywhere. Since I still feel a bit like throwing up again, the warm breeze feels good on my body. As we wait at an outdoor baggage claim, my mother yanks my long, thick hair into a tight ponytail, the tip tickling my spine. A little yellow stain, evidence of the unsettling flight, has dried on my pink-and-white striped T-shirt.

Even though she has a bad back, my mother drags our big beige bag off the carousel by herself, her red sundress riding up the back of her thighs. Once she takes hold of the handle, she yells for people to get out of the way, then drops it, the tiny wheels crashing to the cement. I stand a bit away, wishing Dad were here.

The four of us usually rent a car when we come to visit Grandpa in L.A., but since my father and older sister will arrive later in the week, we take a cab, my mother talking in a feverishly speedy tone all along the freeway. Once in the city, I roll down my window, and the familiar smell of L.A. — a cocktail of palm trees and dry grass — calms my stomach.
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After a Fashion

Vianney Le Caer / AP, Illustration by Homestead

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2019 |  8 minutes (2,349 words)

Rufus: Models help people. They make them feel good about themselves.
Meekus: They also show them how to dress cool and wear their hair in interesting ways.
Zoolander: I guess so.

The schadenfreude was swift and it was sharp the moment the Met Gala announced this year’s theme: camp. “do you ever wake up in the middle of the night because you remembered the met ball is camp themed this year and so many celebrities are going to have to explain what they think camp is,” tweeted New Yorker fashion columnist Rachel Syme. The idea that the fashion industry, infamously out of touch, was not only bypassing urgent matters of the present to focus on the past, but that the past it chose is defined by its indefinability — Susan Sontag’s attempt, “Notes on Camp,” is a series of contradictions for a reason — was too delicious. We were all Divine, in drag, crouching next to that puli, waiting for that shit. And when Lady Gaga and Celine Dion showed up vamping their souls out, it was the perfect symbol of fashion’s near-constant missing of the mark even when it is the mark. Because camp, a lurid pink flourish on the margins of society, is at its core the opposite of what fashion has become: a sanitized institution that sets itself apart from the mess of our reality. “Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp,” wrote Sontag, “what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.”

The stars who seemed to intrinsically understand camp, from Danai Gurira to Natasha Lyonne, are familiar with the fringes of Hollywood. And it was a surprise to no one when Billy Porter — who made his name in Kinky Boots — arrived like the second coming of Tutankhamun, in head-to-toe gold, carried by a coterie of beefcakes. This is the man whose name few knew three months ago, whose style alone threw him to the top of the red carpet, above the old A-listers in the likes of Chanel and Valentino. Like Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, he is fashion precisely because he poses outside of it. Established fashion these days is a place where tradition trumps trendiness, and the biggest couturiers seem to be moving backward rather than forward. Prada, Gucci, Burberry, and Dolce & Gabbana, among others, have lately made missteps so basic it has become clear that being clueless is not the exception but the rule. “Fashion is old-fashioned,” says Van Dyk Lewis, who has worked as a designer and teaches fashion at Cornell University. “The clothes might be cool, but actually the sentiment of fashion in our moment isn’t.” Read more…

‘I Don’t Think Those Feelings of Self-Doubt Ever Go Away.’

Heather Weston / Henry Holt

Amy Brady | Longreads | April 2019 | 10 minutes (2,627 words)

The truth has never been a universally agreed upon concept. As most psychologists will tell you, a shift in perspective can alter how a situation feels as well as what it means. And most historians agree that the “truth” of any significant event changes depending on who’s telling the story.

In her astounding fifth novel Trust Exercise, Susan Choi plays with both perspective and narrative structure to tell the truth, or “truth,” about a group of suburban performing arts high school students. The book begins with Sarah, a fifteen year old in deep lust with her peer, David. Their friends, Karen and Joelle, and outcast Manuel, round out the teenage cast. Martin is a theater teacher from England who spends a couple of weeks at the high school, and Mr. Kingsley is their beloved theater teacher who makes the students participate in trust exercises usually reserved for older, more experienced actors. His questionable teaching style and Martin’s over-familiarity with the students are clues that the adults view the teens as both children and grown-ups, as needing guidance to navigate the professional world of acting but as also already possessing the emotional development needed to withstand the cruelty it bestows upon them.

As the novel unfolds, Choi captures the rage and lust of teenage life with thrilling verisimilitude. Who hasn’t felt the devastation of unrequited love as a horny fifteen year old? Or felt mistreated in a friendship? Or held a secret from a parent? Choi’s descriptions of her characters’ psychological interiors are equally adept: The teens walk assuredly into a classroom one moment, only to feel crushed by self-doubt the next, their self-confidence ruled by roiling hormones.

The novel’s authenticity is what makes both of its structural shifts, when they arrive, so shocking; the lives of these teens feel too real to be anything but the truth. But after each shift, everything in the story that came before is changed — changed but not entirely undone. It’s as if we had been reading the novel through a telescope only to be handed a kaleidoscope to finish it; the story’s pieces are all still there, but now they are arranged in different and surprising ways.

The shifts bring revelations about what the students endured from their teachers and parents and each other. Some of the revelations are amusing in their familiarity. Others are heartbreaking for the same reason. Trust Exercise is a novel that resonates with the #MeToo movement, but it’s also a story as old as time — it’s about those in power taking advantage of those who are powerless to stop them. Read more…

Orwell’s Last Neighborhood

Barnhill on the Isle of Jura, Scotland. (David Brown)

David Brown | The American Scholar | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,796 words)

It’s hard to know what would be a good place from which to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture. Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure up a dystopia?

Apparently not.

We’d been walking more than an hour. The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass. The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea. A half mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows. Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet. Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

This was where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides. It was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, and couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Orwell lived here for parts of the last three years of his life. He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and a boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home. When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanatorium or hospital.

I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland. My purpose was to drink single-malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, where Orwell’s landlord had lived. I was not on a literary pilgrimage. Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 235 residents remembers Orwell. Read more…