A. N. Devers‘ work has appeared online in Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and in other publications. Her most recent essay, about poet Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel, California, is in the Winter 2011 issue of Tin House. She is the founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, a website dedicated to literary pilgrimage.
Maghag (n.): 1. A compulsive reader and hoarder of periodicals and magazines to a magnitude that endangers the well-being of the hag’s housekeeping ability, family relationships, and punctuality. Identified by a pruney skin that develops from spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathtub 2. Writer and procrastinator known as A. N. Devers.
1. I always go for Scientology exposes. I’m cheap that way. “The Apostate” by Lawrence Wright for The New Yorker, with its heroic fact-checking effort, is so Xenu-shattering that it inspired a rebuttal from the Church of Scientology in the form of a poor-executed satire of The New Yorker.
2. My fandom of Paul Collins goes back a ways. His work exposes my periodical-weeding inability. If you came over to my apartment and demanded some Paul Collins, I’d be able to run to dusty stacks and the file cabinet and deliver a dozen essays of awesome. So I’m not surprised that his piece about the disappearance of child-writer Barbara Follett in the Lapham’s Quarterly Celebrity issue is perfectly constructed story of intrigue and wonderment, mystery and disturbia.
3. Anything I can say about Hungarian industrial designer and ceramicist Eva Zeisel’s Prison Memoir (A Public Space, issue 14) of being arrested in Stalinist Russia doesn’t do her charm and intellect justice. Just listen to this voice: “He put a number in front of my chest and I thought, This will make me look like those pictures of criminals one sees, Wanted for Murder. Then they took me to be fingerprinted, one finger rolled in the ink after the other, and again I thought, It’s like the movies. Again, we walked through many courtyards and the funny thing was that I did not see anybody. It was all empty. Finally, I was in my cell, and I still did not know what it was all about.”
4. Once upon a time, I was a professional archaeologist. Freelance survey and excavation work paid some of my bills my last year of college and my first couple of years out of school. I was waitlisted for a PhD to study caves with a famous spelunking archaeologist at Washington University and had determined if I didn’t get in I’d go a different route. By then I realized that archaeology and literature have more in common than people realize—and I love them for the same reasons. They are both, I believe, about our need to seek and excavate truth. But archaeologists, like many breeds of scientist, aren’t natural storytellers, and I am always glad when a writer happens upon archaeology and finds a way to explore the people and projects of a fascinating field. John Jeremiah Sullivan does this in his wonderful Paris Review essay, “Unnamed Caves” (purchase req.), and it’s now in his excellent collection, Pulphead. Go spelunking with him. Here’s a bonus: another favorite writer of mine, Elif Batuman, dug into Turkish archaeology in her essay, “The Sanctuary” for The New Yorker (sub. required). She visits the world’s oldest temple and deftly unravels its history and mythology.
5. I would be lying by omission if I didn’t admit to reading a ton of celebrity dish in the tub. I think my favorite this year was “Lowe, Actually,” the excerpt in Vanity Fair of Rob Lowe’s memoir. I don’t really have a thing for Rob Lowe. Never have. (For instance, I loved West Wing but for the overuse of pancake makeup on Lowe’s face.) But I spent 6th grade idolizing S. E. Hinton for The Outsiders. And I was hooked again when I finally got to see the movie. So, yes, Rob Lowe had me at his mention of Ponyboy. Stay gold, y’all.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
I’ve always been fascinated with religion, Russia, and missing persons stories so these five nonfiction pieces really captured my attention this year. The fallout from The New Yorker‘s Scientology piece turned out to be as compelling as the essay itself—and I had to put The New Yorker on here twice because the recent piece on Vladimir Putin is spectacular and continually evolving. Paul Collins’ piece on missing Barbara Follett was utterly haunting and Paul is a master of uncovering long-hidden mysteries. Everyone should check out all of his work, and I’m sure many have after reading that piece. And really, for the other two, who can turn away from secret cults and dead bodies found on beaches? Not me.
Say what you will of Ms. Love, but she’ll always have a fan in me.
I found myself endlessly quoting this piece on screen legend Lauren Bacall.
NY Times’ fascinating obituary of Loretta Young’s illegitimate daughter with Clark Gable, Judy Lewis.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
(Left to right: Choire, Carrie, Alex)
Because there are three of us, we trilaterally decided to go for 15. But it’s not really five each; that becomes complicated, too, but… well, anyway, no matter how you cut it, surely at least one of us hated some of these stories. Also to be fair, this list, which is not in order, should really be called “The 15 Best Longreads That We Can Still Remember From 2011—What A Year, Am I Right, Oh Man, It’s December Somehow—After Extensive Googling and Mind-Nudging (Also Only Stories That We Didn’t Publish Ourselves, Because We Could Easily Cough Up 25 Longreads From Our Own Archives That Are Totally As Good Or Better And Also Have Better Gender Parity Probably But Anyway We Don’t Roll Self-Promotionally Like That).” FUN BONUS: Only three of the 15 best stories of the year (yes, sure, that we can remember) were in The New Yorker, so they are ranked in order. — Alex Balk, Carrie Frye, Choire Sicha of The Awl. (See their #longreads archive here.)
The year’s three best New Yorker stories, in order:
ACTUAL BONUS BONUS:
Paul Collins’ “Vanishing Act” (Lapham’s Quarterly), about Barbara Newhall Follett, was published in the last twelve months, but on December 18, 2010, so to avoid the problem of the year-end list that’s published before the end of the year, ahem, we include it here honorarily.
Announcing: Our first-ever e-book!
Longreads: Best of 2011 includes seven of our favorite stories from the past year.
The e-book is a unique partnership with the writers and publishers—we want to help celebrate outstanding storytelling, and this is just another way for us to do it. Additionally, money from the ebook sales will be shared with the creators, and we’re excited to have them participating.
Longreads: Best of 2011 is available now and includes:
• “Travis the Menace,” by Dan P. Lee (New York magazine)
• “Vanishing Act,” by Paul Collins (Lapham’s Quarterly)
• “In Which We Teach You How to Be a Woman in Any Boy’s Club,” by Molly Lambert (This Recording)
• “What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447,” by Jeff Wise (Popular Mechanics)
• “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” by Amy Harmon (New York Times)
• “The Girl from Trails End,” by Kathy Dobie (GQ)
• “Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library,” by Maria Bustillos (The Awl)
I should preface this by saying I didn’t plan to do a list, because all of your Top 5 Longreads of 2011 really represent what the Longreads community is all about. But, in true WWIC form, I couldn’t resist.
Thank you for an incredible year. Special thanks to the entire Longreads team: Joyce King Thomas, Kjell Reigstad, Hakan Bakkalbasi and Mike Dang.
-Mark Armstrong, founder, Longreads
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The heartbreaking, horrifying story of a chimp named Travis and the Connecticut couple that raised him like a son. Lee followed Travis’s path from local celebrity to fully grown (and violent) adult:
“Travis” was the first in a “tabloid-with-empathy” trilogy from Lee: He also brought humanity to the story of Anna Nicole Smith (“Paw Paw & Lady Love”) and wrote about Harold Camping, the elderly doomsayer who never quite got his apocalypse calendar right (“After the Rapture”).
A child-prodigy author mysteriously disappears. Barbara Follett was 13 when her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in 1927:
This was from December 2010, but it came out after last year’s best-of list was published. It’s also on The Awl editors’ best-of-2011 list. I still think about this story constantly.
A manifesto for the modern woman:
A political conspiracy in Guatemala and the murder of lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg, who created a video predicting his own killing in 2009:
Obviously, with David Grann, it’s never so straightforward.
A reporter retraces the last years of a woman who slipped away from society:
Once you finish this piece, read the annotated version of this story, in which Kruse breaks down exactly how he reported each fact from Kathryn Norris’s life. Incredible.
A fatal human error, repeated over and over again, as the reader observes helplessly. Writer Jeff Wise uses pilot transcripts to deconstruct, conversation by conversation, wrong move by wrong move, how bad weather and miscommunication between the pilots in the cockpit doomed this Airbus 330, which plunged into the Atlantic in 2009, killing 228 people:
This, along with “Travis the Menace” and Wired’s “The Incredible True Story of the Collar Bomb Heist,” was one of the most heart-stopping of the year.
A year in the life of an autistic teen moving into adulthood—a time when support systems can begin to fall away:
Harmon’s was one of several outstanding pieces this year on the subject of autism. Also see Steve Silberman on John Elder Robison, an author with Asperger syndrome.
Revisiting the Texas gang-rape story, and a reminder about protecting our youngest victims. Dobie spends time with the girl’s family and attempts to understand how some members of the community could jump to the defense of the 19 men and boys accused:
Just one of many outstanding pieces from GQ this year, including “The Movie Set that Ate Itself,” essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph High School Basketball Scandal,” and a fun collection of oral histories.
The final moments, and unforgettable last words, of a technology visionary’s life:
Steve Jobs tributes poured in during October and November, including a touching tribute from veteran tech journalist Steven Levy. Some of the best reading came from Steve himself, with his 2005 Stanford Commencement speech.
The ultimate DFW fan goes on a road trip to see what was on his bookshelves and pore over the marginalia for clues about his life:
Barbara Newhall Follett, the child prodigy who began her first book The House Without Windows at the age of 8, and the subject of Paul Collins’ essay “Vanishing Act.”
“My dreams are going through their death flurries. I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together — with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money.”
Did you read this yet?
Tobias Carroll | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,601 words)
Since the 2009 publication of her first novel O Fallen Angel, Kate Zambreno has had one of the most fascinating careers in American letters. Her work has included harrowing explorations of alienation (Green Girl) and evocative forays into literary and cultural history (Heroines). The year 2019 has brought with it two new books from Zambreno: Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, an addendum to Book of Mutter, her 2017 collection of writing on grief; and Screen Tests: Stories and Other Writing, which places a series of short autobiographical fictions in the same volume as several longer works of nonfiction, mainly art and literary criticism. The bifurcated structure of Screen Tests hints at something profound and disorienting about the not-so-clear dividing line between narrative and reality: many of the short fictions, or “screen tests” à la Andy Warhol, in the book’s first half feature real people — Zambreno herself, as well as writers and artists ranging from Amal Clooney to Susan Sontag. The screen tests grapple with their subjects’ work while addressing questions of identity and community and continuity; the critical essays in the book’s second half seem to echo themes that emerged in the screen tests. That the lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurred here is precisely the point.
Zambreno’s work offers readers an intellectually rigorous experience alongside the thrill of discovery. She has several other books in the works which will also explore fiction and nonfiction in equal measure. Her next novel, Drifts, will be released in 2020, and she’s working on a book about writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, To Write as if Already Dead. Zambreno talked with me earlier this month about Screen Tests, the challenges and pleasures of writing about visual art, reading the same books over and over again, and satirizing her own role as a “minor author.” The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. Read more…
Casey Rae | William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘n’ Roll | University of Texas Press | June 2019 | 28 minutes (4,637 words)
Naked Lunch is inseparable from its author William S. Burroughs, which tends to happen with certain major works. The book may be the only Burroughs title many literature buffs can name. In terms of name recognition, Naked Lunch is a bit like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which also arrived in 1959. Radical for its time, Kind of Blue now sounds quaint, though it is undeniably a masterwork.
Burroughs wrote the bulk of his famous novel Naked Lunch in Tangier, Morocco between 1954 and 1957. During those years, Burroughs was strung out and unhappy, living off of his parents’ allowance and getting deeper and deeper into addiction. He had friends but rarely saw them, preferring to spend days at a time staring at his shoes while ensorcelled in a narcotic haze.