“In writing about Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, Red Moon, Roxane Gay’s review transforms into a fascinating essay with bite. She sums up the challenge authors face when examining the militarization of everyday life since 2001: ‘It’s a tricky thing to address pressing issues of the day in fiction without making prose do the work of preaching.’ Artistic success has eluded great authors who took the subject head on and Gay suggests that allegory is the platform that can let the author speak loudest. When I started writing my novel The Blondes I didn’t know that is was about these same subjects but by the time it was finished the world had crept in.
“Since writing a novel about a worldwide calamity and how its narrative unspools through the media, I’ve been haunted by its resonances with real events, but tragedy and unspeakable crime have always been documented. Today, we crowd source reflexively filmed camera footage to solve cases, but in the aftermath of the Second World War a Hollywood contingent hunted down and sifted through the propagandists’ own footage to build evidence against the Nazis for the Nuremberg trials. Budd Schulberg was a morally complicated screenwriter and author of the classic Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? In ‘Budd and Leni’ Bruce Handy tells the story of how Schulberg arrested director Leni Riefenstahl. The story is complex, the material is harrowing, and the facts sometimes blur into strange humor, such as the Communist guard who is also a film critic.”
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The episode that really pushed me over the edge was one where a single father was looking to move into a tiny home with his tweenage daughter. Frankly, it was a bit repulsive and unseemly, but the father tried to make this bizarre choice palatable by sharing that he and his daughter wanted to use the money they would save traveling around the world. Having traveled a fair amount, I was, as I watched this episode unfold, quite certain there is no wonder, anywhere in the world, that would merit this kind of domestic sacrifice. Alas, the choice was not mine.
Tiny House Hunters isn’t just about judging strangers’ choices (although it is partly about that). It’s also a mechanism for papering over dismal American economic realities.
Often, though, couples and families want to downsize to save money. They say they need or want less space, but what goes unsaid is that they likely can no longer (if they ever could) afford the mortgage on their traditional home. Or they live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, cities where the median price of a home is more than a half-million dollars and well out of reach for a lot of folks.
There is no shame in any of this, none at all, but when we talk about the American dream, we never talk about what that dream costs. We never talk about how so many Americans are one financial crisis away from losing their savings or their homes. And we don’t talk about how the American dream should not be grounded in material things like large homes or fancy cars rather than, say, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, or a robust Social Security system.
The dream of homeownership, now with composting toilets.
Mark Sundeen, writing for Outside, traveled to the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last summer and talked to some of the tiny house movement’s pioneers, including its “godfather” Jay Shafer. Over a cigarette break in the woods — away from all the tiny space swooners, wannabe-minimalists, and sales reps — Shafer tells him a bit about his design philosophy and the purpose of material objects.
Shafer was raised in a large suburban house in Orange County, California. “I never had a true sense of home,” he said. After attending the University of Iowa, he got a master’s in fine art in New York City. But urban life didn’t suit him. He returned to Iowa City, where he taught art, living in a pickup and later an Airstream. Although he considers himself secular, as an artist he was drawn to sacred symbols and icons. “I got tired of building shrines I couldn’t live in,” he said.
I asked him if he’d been on any of the tiny-house shows.
“I was on Oprah.”
“What was that like?”
“Like watching Oprah on television, but in 3-D.”
During a commercial, she told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions. “I wish she would have said it on camera.”
Shafer went on to describe design in a language I had not heard at the Jamboree—or anywhere. “Integrity is my word for God,” he said. It was wrong to conceal structural elements or disguise materials, and purely ornamental features were like a comb-over. Both attempted to convince us that the homeowner (or the hair owner) felt secure but of course revealed insecurity. “My best designs come only when my ego gets out of the way, when the higher power flows through me.” He had a sense of humor about it all, too. “I spent weeks trying to design a dining table that would convert into a coffee table. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was turn the thing on its side.”
He described himself as a “meaning addict,” always looking for higher significance in material objects. “A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door,” he said, “is a set of symbols we recognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory toward the threshold of someone’s clandestine world.”
I finally got it. I had not understood why Williams’s house felt so authentic while so many of the blocks on wheels felt awkward or false. This subculture, although it seemed to be about nifty gadgets and Murphy beds, was at its heart the expression of our longing to find our place in the universe, to become as beautiful and functional as nature itself.
To understand the tiny house movement, Mark Sundeen attends its big annual gathering—the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs—to learn from its luminaries.
Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid.
For my husband and me, 2014 has been all about downsizing: we got rid of 80 percent of our belongings, moved out of San Francisco and into my parents’ home, and are currently building a 131-square-foot tiny house on wheels. While this path to minimalism is winding, our goal remains clear: to experiment and create a home that makes sense for us. Here are four pieces exploring different approaches to space and home—from living on wheels to escaping the grid. Read more…
[Fiction] A family of children escape starvation in North Korea:
“The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a beached cart, above the lintel of the post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.
“The younger brother Choecheol ran ahead. Like a child, Woncheol thought, frowning, though he too was still a child, an eleven-year-old with a body withering on two years of boiled tree bark, mashed roots, the occasional grilled rat and fried crickets on a stick.”
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in local reporting.
Writer covering socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The New Yorker and Harper’s online, The Guardian, Guernica, and many others.
The #MeToo Movement in Kansas (Hunter Woodall, Kelsey Ryan, and Bryan Lowry, The Kansas City Star)
While the spotlight falls on sexual-misconduct allegations in the nation’s centers of power — Washington, New York, Hollywood — reporters across the country localized the revolutionary #MeToo moment on their own turf, including often overlooked and unglamorous places like my home state of Kansas. When I opened my morning newspaper to this lengthy feature on alleged sexual misconduct at the Kansas State Capitol, I was struck by the tenacity of the reporting in a digital-media era rife with emotional, partisan opinion pieces. Kansas City Star reporters Hunter Woodall, Kelsey Ryan, and Bryan Lowry spared neither side of the aisle as they hounded male legislators and gave voice to women who were previously silenced.
As a personal essayist who began as an investigative reporter, I hold no writing in higher esteem than that which does the hard work of digging for obscured facts, without which a million think pieces could never exist. This single installment of the ongoing coverage of the statehouse scandal quotes some fifteen interviewed sources: four female former interns (two named and two anonymous), two male Democratic representatives, a male intern-program director, two university spokespersons, a female Republican senate president, a male Republican house speaker, a female former Democratic staffer, the male director of the legislature’s human resources department, a second Republican state senator, and a male Democratic house minority leader.
This last source, a Democratic candidate for governor in the state’s crowded 2018 gubernatorial race, is some liberals’ best hope to defeat far-right candidate Kris Kobach. Even if the reporters’ own politics might be liberal, as journalists do perhaps lean, they didn’t allow the legislator a pass, giving readers not just his statements but also when he “tried to change the topic,” “refused to answer the question” and “demanded to know” whether he’d been accused of harassment. This is local reporting at its finest and bravest — government watchdogs shining a light where secrets might live. This is the work of a free press that sets its society free, no opinion required.
Former editor-in-chief, OC Weekly, contributor to Curbed LA.
Orange County’s Informant Scandal Yields Evidence of Forensic Science Deception in Murder Trials (R. Scott Moxley, OC Weekly)
My former colleague at OC Weekly, R. Scott Moxley, is the most underrated investigative reporter in the United States. His work at the paper over the past 21 years has resulted in a six-year prison sentence for our former sheriff, the end of congressional and state assemblymen’s careers, and the freeing of at least three people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Last year alone, six murder convictions covered by Moxley were overturned.
And he continues. In December, Moxley published this blockbuster exposé in which forensic scientists switched their conclusions to help prosecutors win shoddy murder cases. It was the latest Moxley blockbuster in the so-called “Orange County Snitch Scandal,” which saw prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies use jailhouse informants to illegally get information and win cases. Moxley’s work proves again the value in local news, and especially in the alt-weekly world. Long may Mox reign!
Former DNAinfo reporter
Dignity In Danger (Kristin Dalton, Staten Island Advance)
In February, the Staten Island Advance published a multimedia package focused on the borough’s developmentally-disabled adults. “Dignity in Danger” is a well-reported piece of advocacy journalism, featuring the stories of those struggling, as well as the response of the city and state. It was compassionate journalism that held officials accountable for their lack of support.
What made this piece of local journalism stand out to me was how comprehensive it was. For any local paper struggling to keep audiences and stay on top of what’s happening, it was an impressive project on an often-overlooked subject.
For their coverage, the Advance also dug into their archive of their coverage of the Willowbrook State School, where hundreds of developmentally-disabled children were abused for decades. It says a lot about local journalism to have people on staff to recognize that and have the familiarity with a place’s history.
Where the Small Town American Dream Lives On (Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker)
After the presidential election, there was a sudden vogue for profiles of small towns in the grips of despair. So it was a pleasure to read Larissa MacFarquhar’s feature about Orange City, Iowa, and its “pure, hermetic culture.” MacFarquhar’s article is a delight for many reasons, not least its depiction of the endearing eccentricities of the town’s Dutch heritage. The author clearly grasps the centripetal and centrifugal forces at work, driving some townspeople away and luring others back. But what makes the article profound is the way it describes Orange City’s sense of place, which inspires a loyalty among the residents critical to the town’s continued success.
James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met
A Washington County That Went for Trump Is Shaken as Immigrant Neighbors Start Disappearing (Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times)
Voting has consequences, as story after story in the wake of last November’s surprising electoral outcome has endeavored to show. Yet to my mind, few if any of the attempts to explain the Trump voter have landed. This one does. That’s because Nina Shapiro doesn’t let her sources off the hook. The people in this story say they didn’t know they were voting so cruelly, but their friends and neighbors — arrested or deported or both — nevertheless paid the price. Shapiro, to her credit, is able to find the humanity amid the folly.
Education reporter for The Oregonian
Overlooked (Cary Aspinwall, The Dallas Morning News)
Praise for journalism has a standard repertoire. The old chestnuts include “shine a light” and “give voice to the voiceless.” Cary Aspinwall’s investigation for The Dallas Morning News truly earned such appraisal. Aspinwall looked where no one else was looking and showed her readers the human face of a problem that wasn’t being considered. Her investigation revealed that more mothers are going to jail in Texas, and that no one pays attention to what happens to their children when they do.
“Overlooked” is deftly told through an intimate portrait of five sisters:
The voices of these children are rarely heard — which is why the five Booker sisters agreed to tell the story of their mother’s arrests and their own abandonment by the criminal justice system. They told it over months, chatting in a bug-infested apartment complex, sharing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at a QuikTrip, trying tacos near the juvenile courthouse, driving almost three hours to visit their mother in prison.
Aspinwall’s extensive survey of mothers in jail gives readers a chance to hear perspectives we almost never hear. Her shoe-leather reporting to find people who could speak to the problem makes the data she found meaningful and personal.
Former editor-in-chief, LAist
Behind a $13 shirt, a $6-an-hour worker (Natalie Kitroteff and Victoria Kim, The Los Angeles Times)
Natalie Kitroeff and Victoria Kim’s damning exposé nails how fast fashion giants like Forever 21 avoid liability for wage theft violations at the factories where their clothes are made. The piece, which explains how the retailer “avoids paying factory workers’ wage claims through a tangled labyrinth of middlemen,” has national and international implications. It is also very much a local story.
Garment workers making $6 an hour “pinning Forever 21 tags on trendy little shirts” in stifling factories right here in Los Angeles. Although most manufacturing has migrated overseas, L.A. still holds onto a small production niche, which is largely staffed by underpaid, immigrant workers. (Little-known fact: Southern California is the nation’s garment manufacturing capitol). Forever 21 itself is a Los Angeles-based company and an immigrant story: It was founded in Los Angeles in 1984 by a couple who had emigrated from South Korea.
Kitroeff and Kim’s piece masterfully illustrates the layered steps behind the production of every garment, explaining labor law and humanizing the lives and wage claims of workers. Their reporting offered a powerful indictment of a massive retailer — and our own complicity every time we buy that $13 shirt — drawing much-needed attention to worker abuses in our own backyard.
Senior editor, Longreads
Lawrence Tabak’s reporting on Foxconn in Wisconsin for Belt Magazine
It began as a shady deal with a big promise: Wisconsin taxpayers would give Foxconn $3 billion to open a plant that would provide 13,000 jobs, ostensibly for locals. Belt Magazine’s Lawrence Tabak has been following the deal for months: He tracked down workers at a Foxconn plant in Indiana and discovered that the quality of these jobs was low for locals, and that management favored Taiwanese nationals in management, and also relied on undocumented workers hidden during ICE raids. In a series of stories, he explained step-by-step how governor Scott Walker was taken in by Foxconn’s deal and sold it to the state legislature:
The proposed plant combined everything that an ambitious Republican governor could want. Not only a lot of jobs, but manufacturing jobs. Never mind that these were not the sort of jobs that would revive the Rust Belt, let alone jobs that would employ a significant number of Wisconsinites.
Tabak’s reporting was journalism in action, even making its way to the Wisconsin State Senate, “which used Belt’s reporting in railing against Foxconn’s heavy reliance on H-1B visa holders for skilled positions at its stateside facilities.”
Tabak also did one of the best man-on-the-ground reports that had nothing in common with the kind of parachute reporting on Trump voters that was so reviled this year. Staking out an apple orchard next door to the proposed plant in Racine County, he asked the workers there what they thought of Foxconn and it’s promise of jobs. The workers of Apple Holler saw only environmental pollution on the horizon, and the betrayal of what this area of Wisconsin does best, and has always done best: agriculture.
Contributing editor and fact checker, Longreads
How Peter Thiel and the Stanford Review Built a Silicon Valley Empire (Andrew Granato, Stanford Politics)
Campus politics is local politics par excellence, and while Peter Thiel may be mediocre at his secondary pursuits, like investing and vampirism, he is by all accounts an excellent right-wing campus political operative. Thiel has spent nearly three decades trying to trigger libs at his alma mater, Stanford, not least by continuing to support the Stanford Review, a conservative publication he founded as an undergraduate in the late ‘80s. Andrew Granato really got the goods in his smart, even-handed account of how Thiel has cultivated the Review as both a source for hires and business associates and a way to try and keep his own, largely contrarianism-based sense of politics alive at a liberal university. It also serves as a reminder that Silicon Valley is very much a place and not just a metonymic device.