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All through December, we’ve been featuring Longreads’ Best of 2023. Today, we’re sharing a list of every story that sat atop our weekly Top 5 email. These story picks tend to be important pieces that, over time, chart the course of history. Watch the year unfold as you revisit our selections.


No Way to Live

Ethan Ward | Capital & Main | December 27-28, 2022 | 7,714 words

Last month, Karen Bass, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, declared a state of emergency with regard to homelessness in the city. In a matter of days, teams began moving unhoused people from outdoor encampments into hotel and motel rooms as part of a new government program called “Inside Safe.” But as this poignant three-part series shows, street homelessness accounts for only a fraction of LA’s housing crisis. People like Sarah Fay, the 28-year-old subject of the series, live on the precipice of homelessness, a position that requires a daily hustle to find a safe place to sleep. The reasons for this kind of housing insecurity are complex, going well beyond low incomes and soaring rents. Fay’s story, told so well by reporter Ethan Ward, is shaped by generational trauma, the burden of debt, maddening bureaucracy, and cultural stereotypes about what it means to be a person in need. Read this story, and send it to your elected officials, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. —SD

Vigilantes for Views: The YouTube Pranksters Harassing Suspected Scam Callers in India

Andrew Deck and Raksha Kumar | Rest of World | January 10, 2023 | 5,737 words

Justice can mean equality, and it can also mean retribution. In the case of Artsiom Kulik and Ashton Bingham, who have carved out a robust career orchestrating “scambusting” videos, their conception seems to skew heavily to the latter. But Kulik and Bingham’s gleeful payback has a discomfiting subtext. Somewhere along the way, Trilogy Media graduated from simply annoying phone scammers to releasing mice and cockroaches into a Kolkata call center — and as the stakes have gotten bigger, so has the sense that this isn’t really about justice at all. Andrew Deck and Raksha Kumar’s piece is a profile on its face, and an investigation at its core. With the fake Best Picture Oscar on display in their office, the Trilogy duo sees itself as destined for bigger and better things; what they don’t see is that they’ve gone from coming up to punching down. This isn’t the first story to reveal the craven heart of a content creator’s ambition, but it’s the rare example that goes a step farther to tease out the troubling power dynamics at play. —PR

In a Famed Kenyan Game Park, the Animals Are Giving Up

Georgina Gustin | Undark | January 4, 2023 | 2,363 words

Once a wildlife paradise, Kenya’s Amboseli National Park has become a wasteland. Tourists on safari arrive excited but leave traumatized, reports Georgina Gustin, as carcasses of starved animals litter the terrain: “Wildebeests are gray-brown lumps with quote-shaped horns. Gazelles, small piles of suede. Zebras, bloated disco-era carpets.” Previously a lush wildlife sanctuary, Amboseli has been plagued by climate change-fueled drought for two years and braces itself for a third. In addition to a parched and changing landscape, clashes between herders and farmers and an increase in illegal poaching also contribute to the dire situation. Wildlife photographs by Larry C. Price accompany Gustin’s piece, and while they may be hard to look at, they’re an important reminder that no creature can escape a warming planet. —CLR

Corky Lee and the Work of Seeing

Ken Chen | n+1 | 11,542 words | January 25, 2023

After Corky Lee passed last year, the photographer and community organizer was memorialized in his hometown’s most conventionally prestigious outlets: The Times offered a sizable obituary, as did Hua Hsu in The New Yorker. This week, on the first anniversary of Lee’s death, Ken Chen rendered an altogether different kind of portrait in n+1. Much of the same biographical information is included, as are a number of Lee’s iconic photographs of Asian Americans in New York throughout the last six decades. Yet, when Chen writes about his encounters with Lee, and about the 14 photographs he selects to represent Lee’s work, the grief that suffuses his words isn’t solely about Lee, but about the many atrocities visited upon the Asian American community, up to and after Lee’s death. Chen’s critical acumen here is reason enough to read: “His images lack a charismatic subject,” he writes of Lee. “Those whom capital dismissed as surplus, he saw as beautiful. He commemorated the multitude, the striking waiters and seamstresses whose unruly abundance crowded away any beatific composition.” But he brings a similar understated poetry to the social conditions Lee’s work served to illuminate — and with violence against Asian American elders and others seemingly unending (including a horrifying recent attack in my own hometown), that juxtaposition makes Chen’s piece nearly as indelible as the images it contains. —PR

— February —

Molly’s Last Ride

Peter Flax | Bicycling Magazine | January 31, 2023 | 8,136 words

Exactly two years ago, 12-year-old Molly Steinsapir got onto an e-bike with her best friend, crashed, and died. I remember when it happened — the tragedy was covered widely, in no small part because Molly’s mom took to social media to talk about it. Now, in a moving and nuanced feature, Peter Flax examines the question of who, if anyone, is liable for Molly’s death. Flax, who owns two bikes made by the manufacturer of the one Molly rode, a company her parents are now suing, illuminates how the explosive growth of the e-bike industry, while a seeming net good for people and the planet, isn’t without dangerous consequences. There aren’t a lot of industry regulations, and there are pressing concerns about the quality of popular equipment. “As a country we have decided we value entrepreneurship and business and letting people just go to market,” Molly’s mom, Kaye, tells Flax, “and then we find out if the thing is safe or not as it is sold and marketed and used.” This is one of my favorite kinds of magazine feature, the personal story that serves as a lens for a bigger one, which in turn asks people to wrestle with urgent questions. Molly is gone, but her death may well save another 12-year-old girl somewhere. —SD

The Hunt for Russian Collaborators in Ukraine

Joshua Yaffa | The New Yorker | January 30, 2023 | 9,078 words

“About all anyone can trust in war is that everybody lies.” As I read Joshua Yaffa’s piece about accusations of betrayal among residents of a Ukrainian city liberated from Russian occupation, I kept thinking about this sentence. It comes not from Yaffa’s piece, but from a story about the treatment of ISIS fighters after Iraqi forces retook the city of Mosul, which I had the honor of editing six years ago. So often in conflict coverage, the media are quick to draw blunt distinctions: Ukraine good, Russia evil; military righteous, ISIS monstrous. It’s easier, I suppose, than acknowledging that war is a hideous enterprise from which virtually nothing and no one will emerge clean. In the aftermath of violence, it can be hard to discern the truth from what people wish it to be, and administering justice, while an essential moral endeavor, is also a deeply fraught one. In his haunting feature, Yaffa doesn’t seek to untangle facts so much as he listens to the stories people are telling. They are talking to him, of course, but you get the sense that they are telling stories to themselves as well: They are remembering, processing, contextualizing, rationalizing, and in some cases rewriting. What do these stories and their contradictions reveal? The picture is messy, which is to say, it’s true. —SD

Edifice Complex

Bench Ansfield | Jewish Currents | January 3, 2023 | 3,358 words

I might have recommended this essay based on the excellent headline alone, but in fact the substance is the star of the show. Like many millennials, I have adopted the term “burnout” into my vocabulary as a way of describing the feeling of working too hard, juggling too much, and feeling depleted by the grinding expectations of late-stage capitalism. After reading this piece, I’ll be endeavoring to use the word differently. As historian Bench Ansfield shows, the true origins of burnout as a concept have been obscured over time. Burnout isn’t a reference to a candle burning at both ends until there’s nothing left, but to the shells of buildings left by a wave of arson that ravaged Black and brown neighborhoods in New York City in the ’70s. Much of the damage was caused by landlords looking for insurance payouts. “If we excavate burnout’s infrastructural unconscious — its origins in the material conditions of conflagration — we might discover a term with an unlikely potential for subversive meaning,” Ansfield writes. “An artifact of an incendiary history, burnout can vividly name the disposability of targeted populations under racial capitalism — a dynamic that, over time, has ensnared ever-wider swaths of the workforce.” If this were the premise of a college class, I’d sign up in a heartbeat. —SD

The Case for Hanging Out

Dan Kois | Slate | February 15, 2023 | 2,753 words

Raising a young daughter and feeling socially disconnected as an adult, I constantly think about where I want to live, but also how I’d like to live. I wrote recently about seeking “community,” but I’m unsure what that even means. So this piece, which explores why Americans spend less time these days hanging out with people, really speaks to me. Perhaps what I long for isn’t some kind of mythical tight-knit tribe to be part of, but something far simpler: more opportunities for casual hangouts. But is this simple? Dan Kois reaches out to Sheila Liming, author of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, and asks if he can fly to Vermont to spend time with her, a total stranger, for a day. The piece that emerges from the visit is delightful and relatable. I can’t help but recall my college years and my 20s: wandering over to friends’ dorm rooms to see what they were up to, piling onto couches in someone’s living room to sit and chat and laugh for hours, frequenting the dive bars and weekly club nights where I knew I’d run into familiar faces. To borrow Liming’s words, these were “effortlessly social” times — and they seem so long ago. Social media, over-scheduled lives, and the pandemic have all made hanging out harder. While I also attribute my isolation to age, Kois notes how young people, including his teenage daughters, still find it hard to put themselves out there or carve out time for casual socializing. While I may not be brave enough after reading this to knock on my upstairs neighbors’ door and sit on their couch to shoot the shit, I’m inspired by Kois’ openness and curiosity. —CLR

— March —

What Happened to the Women Prisoners at Hickman’s Farms

Elizabeth Whitman | Cosmopolitan | February 15, 2023 | 3,897 words

Even during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear that, as so often happens in America, the toll of the historic event would prove heaviest for the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly, disabled individuals, and essential workers. And the incarcerated. The virus tore through the country’s overcrowded prisons and cut their populations off from the outside world more than they were to begin with. Arizona decided to take these horrors a step further by agreeing to set up a prison labor camp — yes, you read that right — at Hickman’s Family Farms, a large egg producer. Hickman’s had long paid for incarcerated individuals to work in its facilities; the workers only got paid after the state took a huge chunk out of their wages. “This is groundbreaking,” a driver told a female prisoner as he transferred her to the camp, the first of its kind in Arizona and possibly the country, where she would live and work alongside other incarcerated women while COVID exploded. “You guys are gonna be a part of history.” Apparently, history included illness, injury, and indignity, as this investigation by Elizabeth Whitman shows — the women whose voices the story elevates were told they were necessary, and treated as if they were disposable. —SD

The Mercy Workers

Maurice Chammah | The Marshall Project | March 2, 2023 | 7,750 words

When we look at the face of a criminal in a mug shot or in a courtroom, what do we see? Many adults facing the death penalty have been shaped by childhood trauma or violence they experienced or witnessed in prison as juveniles. Mitigation specialists work to uncover traumas and dig into the personal and family histories of people on death row — not with the aim to excuse or justify their crimes, but to help paint more complete portraits of them as human beings. Maurice Chammah spends time with mitigation specialist Sara Baldwin as she works on the case of James Bernard Belcher, a man on death row for the 1996 murder of Jennifer Embry. It’s a complex story that Chammah reports and tells with great care and empathy, and highlights a little-known profession that helps to illuminate why people hurt one another and are led to violence. —CLR

Police Killed His Son. Prosecutors Charged the Teen’s Friends With His Murder

Meg O’Connor | The Appeal & Phoenix New Times | March 14, 2023 | 7,576 words

It’s been nine years since Laquan McDonald was killed by police in Chicago, shot in the back while walking away. It’s been seven years since Philando Castile was killed by police in the Minneapolis suburbs, shot while his empty hands were raised during a questionable traffic stop. And it’s been four years since Jacob Harris was killed by police in Phoenix, seconds after he emerged from a car, his back turned. You’ve likely heard less about Harris’ death than you have McDonald’s and Castile’s, but Meg O’Connor’s thorough investigation makes clear that you won’t forget it. The gross miscarriages of justice are plentiful: the circumstances of Harris’ killing and the shifting police statements around it; the money and valuables police took from Harris’ father’s home before informing him his son was dead; the fact that Harris’ friends are currently serving decades-long prison sentences for his death, while the officers who pulled the trigger (and unleashed an attack dog on his prone body) walk free. We’ve heard far, far too many names like McDonald’s and Castile’s and Harris’ over the past decade, and nothing makes me think we won’t continue to hear many more. That’s what makes this sort of journalism so necessary — not because it can bring these young men back to life, but because it makes brutally clear how unjust their deaths are, and how broken policing is. —PR


Anne Fadiman | Harper’s Magazine | February 10, 2023 | 5,816 words

“There are two kinds of pets — the ones you choose and the ones that happen to you,” Anne Fadiman writes as she considers her family’s various pets, a menagerie that included a goldfish, a hamster, guinea pigs, a dog named Typo, and Bunky, an African clawed frog that the family raised from a tadpole. In eulogizing Bunky, who looked “as if a regular frog had been bleached and then put in a panini press,” Fadiman remarks on his noble species, one that helped spawn (ahem) the first widely established pregnancy test, earned a Nobel Prize for a British biologist who used an African clawed frog to clone the first vertebrate, and helped establish that reproduction can be possible in zero gravity after a trip on the space shuttle Endeavor. All this, from a pet who was defined by not being a dog: “Bunky was the anti-Typo. An unpettable pet. Cool to the touch. Squishy, but not soft. Undeniably slimy. Impervious to education. A poor hiking companion. Not much of a companion at all, really. Couldn’t be taken out of his aquarium and placed on a lap.” Fadiman’s piece will make you laugh and make you think more carefully about your role as a pet owner. —KS

A Scammer Who Tricks Instagram Into Banning Influencers Has Never Been Identified. We May Have Found Him.

Craig Silverman and Bianca Fortis | ProPublica | March 26, 2023 | 4,629 words

If you’ve ever lost your Instagram account to a hacker or requested aid from Meta in any way, you understand feeling helpless trying to get a faceless corporation to pay attention. Egregious tech company irresponsibility and complete disregard aside, where Meta failed, ProPublica may have succeeded in tracking down a man known for hijacking accounts by exploiting security loopholes, then hounding their owners for money. A scammer known as OBN claims to have made hundreds of thousands of dollars plaguing people who earn a living on Instagram “because their content verges on nudity and pornography, which Instagram and its parent company, Meta, prohibit.” Not only does he shut down lucrative influencer accounts, he antagonizes account owners with taunts and threats. Meta’s response? They intend to offer a program that would charge for customer support from a real person, something that most tech companies consider not just the right thing to do, but table stakes for being in tech: “Meta has acknowledged that it needs to invest more in customer support. In February, founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that Meta would offer people the ability to pay for account verification and enhanced support, including ‘access to a real person for common account issues.’” —KS

— April —

Clarence Thomas and the Billionaire

Joshua Kaplan, Justin Elliott, and Alex Mierjeski | ProPublica | April 6, 2023 | 2,936 words

No matter where you get your news, you’ve likely seen this story sometime in the last 24 hours. It’s a bombshell investigation that reveals how Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has received lavish gifts from a billionaire Republican donor named Harlan Crow, likely in violation of federal law. Said gifts include international cruises on a staffed superyacht, a Bible that once belonged to Frederick Douglass, flights on a private jet, and annual vacations to Crow’s luxury compound in upstate New York. Anyone with an iota of respect for democracy should be appalled — albeit unsurprised, given everything we already know about Thomas’s associates, including his wife. Read it and rage. But also read it and admire the craft that went into telling the story. It is rich in detail, yet precise. Its tone is finely tuned. The selection and placement of quotes are [chef’s kiss]. The writers dole out gobsmacking information throughout the piece, right down to the kicker. This is top-notch reporting and delivery. A+ all around. —SD

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein | Lux | March 3, 2023 | 3,498 words

I hate the South, and I love it. This internal conflict is my inheritance. My roots in the region run deep and strong, but I have no illusions about who and what fed them. “We bury the people we do not care about in the South,” Tressie McMillan Cottom recently wrote for The New York Times. “It is where we have put migrants and poor people and sick people.” As Cottom rightly notes, however, “Americans are never as far from the graves we dig for other people as we hope.” Needless to say, I’m forever grappling with the South and its sins, which lately include two high-profile mass shootings, threats to reproductive rights, two Black men’s ejection from the Tennessee legislature, and Florida circling the policy drain even more than usual. What a joy, then, to read a story with a different vision of the South. Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein introduces readers to Zac Henson and his band of leftist rednecks who run a mutual aid auto repair shop in Alabama. “The organizers,” Kaiser-Schatzlein writes, “believe that people in the South, conservatives especially, just need to be given the chance to operate in institutions that harness their most altruistic, communal, and caring tendencies — or, as Henson describes it, ‘positive reinforcement to not be fascist.’” I too want to believe this. Here’s to hope. —SD


Renata Brito and Felipe Dana | The Associated Press | April 12, 2023 | 4,355 words

People call them “ghost boats,” the small vessels — at least seven in 2021 alone — that have washed up in the Caribbean and Brazil carrying dead bodies. The boats come from West Africa carrying desperate people bound for Europe via the Canary Islands, a complex, treacherous route. Somehow, somewhere the boats were forced off course and drifted out into the Atlantic, all but ensuring the deaths of the people on board. But who are those people? What are their stories? Who back home is missing them? This years-long investigation uses a handful of clues — a SIM card and scraps of clothing, for instance — to identify the dead found in one ghost boat in Tobago. Renata Brito and Felipe Dana do an impressive job situating a sensitive story about the impacts of global policies and politics within the framework of a mystery. A moving feature, and beautifully designed too. —SD

How the War in Ukraine Has Forever Changed the Children in One Kindergarten Class

Elissa Nadworny, Claire Harbage | NPR April 12, 2023 | 4,700 words

This piece takes war down to the micro level, the story of a conflict told not through politics or death tolls but through the fate of one class of kindergarten children. It makes for a blisteringly relatable read. Elissa Nadworny and Claire Harbage have carried out meticulous reporting, meeting several children and their families from a classroom in Kharkiv with “bright yellow and green walls and long, gauzy curtains.” (Such attentive details are sprinkled throughout.) Some children remain in Ukraine, but more than half have fled around the world, separated by thousands of miles. Some are struggling with new languages. Some can’t sleep. Some are still scared. They all miss each other. Beautiful photographs and snippets from their group chats help to bring their new realities to life. A small war story but a powerful one: These few children represent so many. —CW

— May —

A Trucker’s Kidnapping, a Suspicious Ransom, and a Colorado Family’s Perilous Quest for Justice

Chris Walker | 5280 | May 2, 2023 | 5,292 words

Through a special visa program, transmigrantes are able to drive goods and vehicles from the U.S. to Central America via Mexico, without paying for high import and export fees. These truckers, many originally from Central America, are able to connect with their home countries through this line of work, while the industry as a whole transforms America’s excess items into valuable goods abroad. In 2014, one trucker, Guatemalan-born Enrique Orlando León, took a contract job from a Colorado employer to deliver a truck, apparently full of furniture, to his homeland. It was a journey he’d taken many times before, but this time, it all went horribly wrong. Chris Walker recounts the kidnapping, explores the unknowns around Orlando’s capture that still plague him, and describes how this terrifying ordeal has affected his entire family. Through this one man’s story, Walker exposes a dark side of the transmigrante industry. —CLR

Amor Eterno

Skip Hollandsworth | Texas Monthly | May 8, 2023 | 7,580 words

Years from now, when I think about this story — which will happen, because it’s that good — I will hear, no, feel the pounding of feet. Skip Hollandsworth’s profile of Kimberly Mata-Rubio opens with the subject jogging through Uvalde, Texas, pausing at a mural of her daughter, Lexi. The scene echoes the moment when, immediately after learning that there had been a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, Mata-Rubio began to run, barefoot over asphalt and through traffic, toward the building where her daughter was in the fourth grade, only to learn that Lexi was dead. “Kim could feel her feet throbbing,” Hollandsworth writes. “They were so bloodied and bruised she could barely walk.” A year after the massacre, the jog past Lexi’s mural is one of several ritual motions Mata-Rubio has adopted. She also goes to her daughter’s grave once, sometimes twice a day, never leaving Lexi alone for more than 24 hours, and regularly drives to the state Capitol to lobby for gun control. Mural, grave, Austin: Mata-Rubio goes and returns, again and again, like the tide. Other Uvalde parents do the same. Their patterns, like those of so many people who have lost loved ones in mass shootings, remind me of a Robert Frost poem: “The heart can think of no devotion / Greater than being shore to ocean / Holding the curve of one position / Counting an endless repetition.” How many more parents, children, spouses, friends will join this grieving army in their aching, unspeakable form of love? Will you be one of them? Will I? —SD

Reclaiming a North Carolina Plantation

Cynthia R. Greenlee | Garden & Gun | April 24, 2023 | 3,050 words

I went to college in North Carolina, where I took a history-meets-writing seminar about Stagville, a former slave plantation near campus. By trawling through historical documents and walking the site, I learned how a 30,000-acre operation was made possible (and profitable) by the labor of roughly 900 Black people held in bondage. Stagville is now maintained by the state; it never occurred to me as a student that the land might be used for anything other than studying and honoring the past. As this story in Garden & Gun shows, there is another way to approach land once tended by slaves, one that can provide for local communities, now and in the future. Two remarkable sisters have been transforming Snow Hill, a former plantation not far from Stagville, into an incubator for gardeners and small farmers. They are promoting sustainability and battling food insecurity while at the same time promoting land access to populations long denied it. The sisters currently lease the land, but as Cynthia R. Greenlee explains, “using a conservation easement, which restricts development rights and lowers property values,” they plan to buy the acreage, likely worth millions, for just $37,000. “Land isn’t just a source of the compounded traumas of slavery, sharecropping, migration, and food insecurity for Black Americans,” Greenlee writes. “It’s also a wellspring of pride, knowledge, economic power, and spiritual connection.” —SD

The True Cost of Tuna: Marine Observers Dying at Sea

Lee van der Voo | Civil Eats | May 23, 2023 | 5,262 words

Marine observers collect data about the fish caught at sea and monitor the practices of crews aboard commercial fishing vessels. They are the eyes and ears on the water: the people that ensure safe and responsible fishing. But the canned tuna you eat may not be as safely caught as you think. As Lee van der Voo reports in this excellent investigation, the people tasked with upholding sustainable seafood standards face dangerous situations. Many of them, like Fijian observer Simi Cagilaba, experience harassment and abuse, while others have disappeared or been murdered at sea. Stronger safety measures, action from major retailers to push for better practices, and more robust technology to track illegal activities would help to improve observers’ work conditions. Van der Voo exposes the dark underbelly of Big Tuna, and will make you think twice about the origins of those tins of tuna in your pantry. —CLR

— June —

Have Assisted Dying Laws Gone Too Far?

Meagan Gillmore | The Walrus | May 30, 2023 | 5,422 words

What does it say about a country where it’s easier to request medically assisted death than it is to get support for a disability? Tarra Carlson lives with autism and ADHD. Her provincial disability benefits ceased because her husband earns too much money. She receives about $800 CDN per month from the Canada Pension Plan. “If her husband dies before her, she may have no way to access financial support,” writes Meagan Gillmore for The Walrus. “She’ll lose her biggest advocate and support system—and her home.” We already know that Canada has explored expanding the Medical Assistance in Death (MAiD) program to include those with disabilities, angering disability advocates. Gillmore’s terrifying piece reveals that some with disabilities facing poverty from the margins of Canadian society may choose MAiD, failed by a crumbling and byzantine Canadian health care system. For the government of Canada, what started as a program to allow the terminally ill to die on their own terms is starting to become a way for the government to legally rid itself of those they have failed: their most vulnerable citizens. —KS

What Happened to Heather Mayer?

Andy Mannix | The Star Tribune | June 2, 2023 | 10,330 words

This investigative feature comes with a warning at the top to “read at your own discretion,” and I feel obliged to say the same thing here. What follows is a deeply upsetting story about the suspicious death of a woman who was part of the BDSM community in the Minneapolis area. Heather Mayer was found naked, hanging by a chain that had been locked around her neck; she was covered in bruises and scars, with the words “Daddy Knows Best” carved into her arm. Police ruled her death a suicide, but that never sat right with the death investigator on the case or with Mayer’s mother, who was immediately suspicious that her daughter had been killed by Ehsan Karam, a “dominant” with whom she was in a relationship. Reporter Andy Mannix does a brilliant, sensitive job interrogating the lines between sex and violence, pleasure and pain, consent and coercion. There’s no judgment here, except of the dangerous assumptions many people (including members of law enforcement) make about BDSM practitioners—and of men like Karam, who crossed lines willfully and often, at the physical and emotional expense of their partners. —SD

Lady Vols Country

Jessica Wilkerson | Oxford American | June 6, 2023 | 3,644 words

I don’t just love that Jessica Wilkerson* takes on tough topics in her work, including racism, feminism, and outdated female gender roles; I love how she does it. In her writing, she gets comfortable with being uncomfortable, which allows her to go deep, probe difficult questions, and most importantly, come to some sort of (sometimes uneasy) understanding of what it means to live in a world that’s flawed. This is one of the great gifts of powerful writing. In “Lady Vols Country,” Wilkerson examines outdated southern gender roles through portraits of two women who were very important to her: her grandmother and Pat Summitt, the former head coach of the University of Tennessee’s Lady Volunteers basketball team. In remembering two strong women and the change they stood for, Wilkerson finds the permission she didn’t know she was looking for—to be true to the life she wants for herself. —KS

Everyone in Stephenville Thought They Knew Who Killed Susan Woods

Bryan Burrough | Texas Monthly | June 20, 2023 | 15,736 words

Looking back over the past couple of years, I realize I don’t often recommend true-crime investigations. Make no mistake: I like a killer-on-the-loose podcast or docuseries as much as the next media omnivore, but the explosion of the genre has sent a lot of true-crime writing into that uncanny valley of journalism that I internally call Please Option This Story and Make Me Rich, Hollywood. All that said, Bryan Burrough’s lengthy cover story for Texas Monthly falls into no such traps. It’s a curveball that you know is a curveball, yet still dips and weaves and otherwise stymies your expectations. There’s not much I can say by way of synopsis that distills more or reveals less than the story’s headline, so I’ll leave it there; however, know that part of the piece’s excellence lies in its reserve. Another writer might have made Susan Woods’ murder more lurid. Another magazine might have tried to tell the tale in half the length, robbing the characters of their depth. And another form—like the aforementioned podcast or docuseries—might have overweighted the narrative with ominous music cues or hacky video transitions. (Don’t worry: the story also exists as a podcast.) Instead, you get what true-crime journalism can and should be: unsparing, revelatory, and human. A monster’s death doesn’t undo the damage they inflicted, but Burrough’s reporting manages to wring a measure of redemption from the unseemly proceedings. —PR

The Night 17 Million Precious Military Records Went Up in Smoke

Megan Greenwell | Wired | June 27, 2023 | 7,987 words

Megan Greenwell’s piece does what the best longform features do: It mesmerizes you with an opening so powerful and a story so compelling that you deliberately read it slowly, just to make it last. This piece—about a devastating fire at a branch of the National Archives and Records Administration that happened to contain records belonging to Greenwell’s grandfather—is nearly 8,000 words long, but the prose is so sharp and cinematic that you’ll wish it was longer. “The National Personnel Records Center fire burned out of control for two days before firefighters were able to begin putting it out,” she writes. “Photos show the roof ablaze, a nearly 5-acre field of flame. The steel beams that had once held up the glass walls jut at unnatural angles, like so many broken legs.” Even were it not set against a backdrop of the U.S. government, this would be a fascinating mystery: What or who started the fire and how do workers attempt to uncover precious facts from seriously damaged files? Did Greenwell’s grandfather’s records survive the blaze? Be sure to take it slow and let this story smolder. I’m certainly glad I did. —KS

— July —

They Followed Doctors’ Orders. Then Their Children Were Taken Away.

Shoshana Walter | The New York Times Magazine and Reveal | June 29, 2023 | 7,167 words

I’m not sure that there’s anything more American than making it difficult for a person to be a mother. I don’t mean physically giving birth—thanks to anti-abortion zealots and the Supreme Court, many states are now literally forcing people to do that, with horrific consequences. I mean being a person, with everything that alone entails in a country defined by inequality, precarity, and prejudice, who also has a child. Exhibit A: As Shoshana Walter found in a feat of investigative reporting, people swept up in the opioid crisis, who’ve done exactly what they’re supposed to do—who got clean and take prescription drugs to stay that way—are now having their babies seized by the government. “They don’t want you on illicit street drugs,” one of Walter’s subjects says, “so here, we’re going to give you this medicine. But then if you take this medicine, we are going to punish you for it and ruin your family.” The injustice doesn’t end there. “We also found women who were reported after taking antidepressants, anxiety and ADHD medications and even over-the-counter cold medicine during pregnancies,” Walter writes. “Some women were reported after testing positive for the fentanyl in their epidurals.” The emphasis is mine; my jaw dropped at the Helleresque insanity of that detail. —SD

A Good Prospect

Nick Bowlin | The Drift | July 9, 2023 | 7,602 words

The mining sector is having a moment. Due to people’s growing—if absurdly belated—concern about climate change, demand for alternative materials that can power the future is skyrocketing. We’re talking lithium, cobalt, and copper, the stuff needed to build electric-vehicle batteries, solar panels, and other items that are likely to be staples of a decarbonized economy. It’s no surprise, then, that mining interests are talking a big game about being on the right side of environmental history. Journalist Nick Bowlin heard it loud and clear while reporting on the world’s largest mining conference, which was held earlier this year in Toronto, Ontario. As Bowlin smartly details, in a story that never once gets boring despite being about—let me repeat—a mining conference, there’s an ugly underbelly to this touting of green bona fides. Extractive industries are notoriously and unrelentingly colonialist, and above all they’re eager for profit. They will strip land, exploit people, and smile as their rampant devastation earns them billions. If the mining sector were really serious about a green future, it would drop its maximalist mindset. Indeed, we all would. “The mining industry,” Bowlin writes, “benefits from the self-satisfied consumerism of the E.V. buyer. For all of its disdain for environmentalists, the industry needs green consumers who seek absolution for their carbon-intensive ways of life. With their complacent inattention to the injustices inflicted by the green economy, these consumers not only fund the industry’s expansion but give it moral cover.”  —SD

The Balkans’ Alternative Postal System: An Ad-Hoc Courier’s Tale

Ilir Gashi | The Guardian & Kosovo 2.0 | July 13, 2023 | 4,061 words

In 2012, I lived in Pristina, Kosovo for a few months. Much to the chagrin of my mother, I couldn’t receive mail at my apartment. I had no postal box or number; as far as I could tell, no one in the brutalist residential complex did. I informed my mom, who wouldn’t take “no address” for an answer, that she should send mail to the nearby NATO base; I had met someone posted there who offered to serve as a middleman. (Thanks again, Drew.) I had the privilege of being an American with a connection to a powerful institution. Still, I did what many people in the Balkans do when they need to get something from point A to point B: I asked a friend. Ilir Gashi’s essay—a runner-up for a European Press Prize—details how informal networks that move packages, letters, and passengers have developed in response to the Balkans’ disputed borders and entrenched poverty. Gashi worked as an ad-hoc courier, delivering medicine, documents, homemade food items, and even a doll, which a little girl on a trip to Belgrade left behind when her family returned to Pristina. “While the weather map on Radio Television of Serbia shows Pristina as part of Serbia,” Gashi writes, “as far as the Serbian postal service is concerned, this city doesn’t exist, just like other places in Kosovo where Serbs aren’t the majority. Private delivery services are way too expensive. The only way the doll could reach Pristina was for somebody to take it with them.” This is a beautiful story of everyday resilience. —SD

We Are All Animals at Night

Lana Hall | Hazlitt | July 12, 2023 | 3,210 words

As a sex worker in a Toronto massage parlor, Lana Hall earned her living from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., three to six shifts per week. In preparing for a particularly repellant final customer one night, Hall is humbled, not by the man she must shower with, but by the kindness of a fellow worker who curls her hair before the dreaded appointment. Reader, this small gift cut me so deeply that I found myself stifling sobs. “I felt so much care in that moment I could barely breathe,” Hall writes, “and it occurred to me that I’d never had a woman, before or since, handle my hair so tenderly.” As Hall recounts how the powerful, and society in general, look down on people with “low skill” jobs, she deftly reminds us that those who must work the wee hours serving the “incessant hungers of others” are often the most adept at conflict deflection and resolution—ironically the skills so often highly prized by those who work in sunlit ivory towers. Hall imparts with grace and nuance that the humanity on offer from those in low vs. high skill occupations is often as stark as night and day. —KS

— August —

Ahead of Time

Kamran Javadizadeh | The Yale Review | June 12, 2023 | 3,285 words

Writer Kamran Javadizadeh’s sister, Bita, died a slow, agonizing death from cancer. Here, he writes about losing her through the lens of poetry he encountered during the experience: a volume of Langston Hughes he located in their shared childhood bedroom; a copy of The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds, filled with Bita’s notes from her reading of it in college; a Hafez verse that Bita herself texted to him one day. I adored this essay, a mix of personal history and literary analysis, and I also found it achingly familiar. Exactly 17 years ago this week, when I witnessed the sudden death of someone I loved, I was thrust into a private hell, a netherworld of despair. I struggled to connect with friends and family, and they with me. It was like I was trapped underwater, screaming, and they were looking down at me, unable to hear, much less help. Poetry, though, could breach the surface, offering me what I so desperately needed: a sense of empathy. I analyzed poems about death and mourning, pondering the words, meaning, and mechanics that made me feel the verses so deeply. Poems, as Javadizadeh reminds us in his essay about Bita, can be portals—to other people, to other planes, and even to ourselves. —SD

The Ones We Sent Away

Jennifer Senior | The Atlantic | August 7, 2023 | 13,585 words

Fair warning, dear reader: This will be among the best stories you read this year. Prepare yourself to be wrecked. In this masterpiece of longform journalism, Jennifer Senior reports on her aunt Adele, a woman later diagnosed with Coffin-Siris syndrome 12, a genetic condition that manifests in intellectual disability and physical delays. Adele was institutionalized at 21 months old on the advice of doctors who insisted that a care placement was the best thing for her, leaving her older sister Rona bereft “as though she’d lost an arm or a leg.” At its core this story is about trauma and loss, suffered chiefly by Adele who was deprived of her family and early chances to expand her intellectual capacity, warehoused in the notorious Willowbrook State School. The shockwaves of loss extend outward to Adele’s mother, father, and sister, deprived of Adele’s presence in their lives, and to society at large, deprived of Adele and the person she could have become had she received more enlightened, loving care much earlier in life. Glimpses into Adele’s psyche, including her need for order, her penchant for needlepoint, and delight in matching her clothing, hint at the contours of Adele’s personality. Senior, in trying to name her aunt’s condition to attempt to understand the scope of loss, confronts the many ethical concerns of writing about someone who is not able to give consent. Tracing her aunt’s living conditions and likely treatment at Willowbrook makes for extremely difficult, but absolutely necessary reading, to ask and attempt to answer a vital question: How do you comprehend the cost when, despite the best of intentions, we fail to provide essential care to the most vulnerable among us? —KS

Inside Barbados’ Historic Push for Slave Reparations

Janell Ross| TIME |July 6, 2023 | 4,309 words

It’s been nine years since Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his seminal essay “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. Today, the idea of compensating Black Americans for the horrors of slavery and institutionalized racism remains fringe at best. The same goes in other countries that were once complicit in human bondage. But in the island nation of Barbados, where slaves made sugar plantations wildly lucrative, support for reparations is very real—and growing stronger. This year, under the leadership of President Mia Mottley, the country is asking European countries for a “Marshall Plan-like public investment,” as opposed to the individual payments we usually associate with reparations. Mottley, though, isn’t at the heart of this feature about Barbados’ groundbreaking efforts. Instead, writer Jannell Ross showcases Esther Phillips, the country’s poet laureate, who went from believing reparations were radical, to viewing them as unlikely, to arguing passionately for them. Phillips hopes that other people, particularly in Europe, will undergo transformations of their own. “If something of such horror is revealed,” she tells Ross, “and you’re still benefiting from the proceeds, you cannot turn you head and say, ‘Well, what has to do with me?’”—SD

The Atomic Disease

Rachel Greenley | Orion Magazine | August 1, 2023 | 3,504 words

Despite medical science’s many advances, anyone who has ever supported a loved one through a catastrophic illness knows that science has much farther to go. Where you need answers, often there are only questions. For Orion, Rachel Greenley considers America’s love affair with nuclear bombs and nuclear power—a race for supremacy in the name of war and science that has killed countless, both directly and indirectly, as those who live downwind and downstream endure water and soil contaminated by toxic waste and the cancers that ensue. “It’s clear as thirst when life leaves a body,” she writes. “The heavy vessel left behind is void of the personality and warmth that brightly colored the world. My world…He was thirty-five years old.” It’s not that Greenley doesn’t believe in science; rather, as she so poignantly notes in this gripping essay, she cannot trust fallible officials in charge of managing nuclear projects and disasters, those who deflect concern and downplay the danger of a threat that cannot be seen with the naked eye, one that may have taken her husband and the father of her children. Is ignorance to blame, or ambivalence, or perhaps a combination of both? For Greenley and so many others, it’s a question that deserves to be answered. —KS

— September —

When Wizards and Orcs Came to Death Row

Keri Blakinger | The Marshall Project | August 31, 2023 | 4,584 words

A great longread educates, and in doing so, offers an unexpected poignancy. Keri Blakinger’s profile of Tony Ford and Billy Wardlow, two men who bonded over games of Dungeons & Dragons while incarcerated in Texas, does just that. She gives us a glimpse into death row, where there are no educational or social programs because the men will never return to society, where the isolation is so extreme that the United Nations has condemned these conditions as torture. For Ford and Wardlow, Dungeons & Dragons gave them purpose. The men were incarcerated as teens, well before they had to earn a paycheck or pay rent, and D&D helped them learn to manage money. But most of all, as Blakinger so deftly reveals, Dungeons & Dragons gave them something to look forward to, a simple yet necessary form of hope. Ford and Wardlow built not just a friendship, but a deep connection in a place where the only human contact comes when the guards handcuff you. In a stroke of journalistic brilliance, Blakinger uses details from Wardlow’s D&D character Arthaxx d’Cannith, a magical prodigy, to deepen our understanding of Wardlow and his true character. “Every day, Arthaxx used his gifts to help the higher-ups of House Cannith perfect the invention they hoped would end a century of war. At night, he came home to his wife, his childhood sweetheart,” she writes. If only this Dungeons & Dragons dream could have come true. —KS

I Never Called Her Momma

Jenisha Watts | The Atlantic | September 13, 2023 | 11,129 words

Journalist Jenisha Watts was raised in Kentucky, in part by her mom Trina Renee Watts, and in part by her granny. At one time, Trina was a promising track star. She loved words and was accepted to Western Kentucky University. But when she became pregnant with Jenisha, she dropped out. Soon, Trina was addicted to drugs, with five children from five different fathers, often leaving the kids alone when she left to get high. How did everything go wrong, seemingly so suddenly? Jenisha, a senior editor at The Atlantic, unravels a tangled family history skein by skein, discovering that Trina was sexually abused by her stepfather, Big Dishman, childhood trauma that became generational when Trina spiraled into addiction. Jenisha goes to Florida to live with relatives; her siblings went into the child welfare system. They never gained a stable living situation, causing damage that spurred their own addictions. This is a very tough read. It is a master class in craft, a bold testament to courage in the face of repeated humiliation. The final line of this piece is the most triumphant and inspiring sentence I have read this year. I won’t spoil it for you. It speaks to a truth: that we come into this world with part of our story written for us unless we can stand up, take the pen, and start to write the story for ourselves. —KS

The Kids on the Night Shift

Hannah Dreier | The New York Times Magazine | September 18, 2023 | 7,705 words

The past week saw no shortage of quality investigative reporting—Wired putting the lie to Elon Musk’s claims about Neuralink lab monkeysProPublica uncovering how Columbia University protected a predatorial doctor—but work like Hannah Dreier’s exposé of the child labor powering poultry plants doesn’t come along often. It begins with 14-year-old Marcos Cux getting his arm nearly torn off by a conveyor belt at 2:30 in the morning. It ends, multiple surgeries and untold heartbreaking stories later, with Cux going back to another night shift at an even more dehumanizing job. He has to; his family in Guatemala is depending on him. In between, Dreier brings you into the migrant community of rural Virginia: Dreamland, the trailer park where many of these child workers live with their relatives and guardians. The high school where exhausted children sleep through class and teachers keep their students’ overnight work schedules on sticky notes. The convenience store where teen after teen cashes in their paychecks to send money home to their families. This isn’t a drive-by, it’s a live-in, fueled by tireless reporting and peerless scenework (and phenomenal photography, courtesy of Meridith Kohut). And crucially, it’s a wake-up call. Everyone knows how the factory farming industry disrespects the animals it turns into food. They even know how that same industry feasts on the people who keep its slaughterhouses running. But until now, many of us could plead ignorance of how the Perdues and Tysons of the world, buffered by the third-party contractors they hide behind, chew through the childhoods of those who have no choice. That time is over. —PR

The Villa Where a Doctor Experimented on Children

Margaret Talbot | The New Yorker | September 25, 2023 | 14,695 words

Margaret Talbot’s story about Evy Mages, a woman who was held as a child at a mysterious psychiatric facility in Innsbruck from 1973-74, was the first piece I dove into at the start of the week—and I’m still thinking about it. For the past few years, Talbot has helped Mages investigate her own family history and recall the memories from this cruel place, where children were observed, humiliated, abused, and even given shots of epiphysan—a veterinary drug derived from cattle—to try and suppress sexual urges. This “villa” was as horrific as it sounds, run by a Nazi-trained psychologist named Maria Nowak-Vogl whose sole purpose was to destroy children and extinguish their inner light. This is a devastating story and a hard one to read. But I’ve thought a lot about the long journey Mages has made since that awful experience, and how incredible it is that she’s come out the other side—now a loving mother to her own grown children, and helping other survivors report the abuse they experienced. Talbot deftly writes a moving story of one woman’s resilience and the harrowing child psychiatry of postwar Austria. —CLR

— October —

The Race to Catch the Last Nazis

Tom Lamont | GQ | September 12, 2023 | 6,622 words

Thomas Will is the bureau chief of—wait for it—the Central Office of the State Justice Administration for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes. He is a Nazi hunter. The last to hold the role in the same capacity; it will end here, in the 2020s, with the final generation of perpetrators already in their 90s. Tom Lamont has spent a great deal of time with Will for this piece, much of it in offices. Yet, somehow, in setting scenes of bureaucracy, Lamont creates a searing, chilling atmosphere. At one point, Will uses a packet of sugar and an empty espresso cup on a conference table for a demonstration. The cup represented mass murder, and the sugar the limits of criminal culpability. The sugar is now at the outer limits. They are investigating secretaries, not camp commandants. People who would have sat in similar offices at similar tables, typing up death orders. The Holocaust was so efficient because every day, civilians turned up at an office and did their jobs. Incredibly uncomfortable to think about. Incredibly necessary. At one point, Lamont asks Will: “What if Hitler’s army had conscripted him and sent him to work in a camp? Would he have gone?” His answer: “I don’t know.” Some people question sending nonagenarian office workers to trial—but it is noticed, it is discussed, and therefore worthwhile. There is such powerful writing here, with many subtle messages. I could not stop thinking about it. —CW

My Brain Doesn’t Picture Things

Marco Giancotti | Nautilus | October 4, 2023 | 3,644 words

Marco Giancotti has aphantasia, which means “the absence of images” in Greek. Ask him to picture a top hat or recall a sound or a smell and he can’t imagine it. He has trouble remembering events unless he can deduce their timing by assembling facts such as where he was living and the people in his circle at the time. For Nautilus, Giancotti does a terrific job breaking down his lived experiences and the studies he’s participating in so that science, society, and the lay reader can begin to understand more about this fascinating condition. “As soon as I close my eyes, what I see are not everyday objects, animals, and vehicles, but the dark underside of my eyelids. I can’t willingly form the faintest of images in my mind,” he writes. “I also can’t conjure sounds, smells, or any other kind of sensory stimulation inside my head.” What’s most beautiful and poignant about this piece is how, by learning more about aphantasia and contributing to its study, Giancotti comes to appreciate his condition as an example of what makes humanity so beautifully diverse. “The question I started with—what’s wrong with me?—was both rhetorical and itself wrong. The better question is one we all ask ourselves at some point: ‘What makes me who I am?’” Can you imagine how much better our world would be, if we all dared to do so? —KS

The Crimes Behind the Seafood You Eat

Ian Urbina | The New Yorker | October 9, 2023 | 9,573 words

Where does your seafood come from? Who caught and handled it? The more I read about overfishing, illegal industry practices, and horrific work conditions, the more it stinks. Each year, China catches more than five billion pounds of seafood, much of it squid, through its distant-water fleet. These ships roam all over the world, often in unauthorized areas; analysts believe the country disguises some of them as fishing vessels when they’re in fact part of a “maritime militia” surveilling the sea, looking to expand control over contested waters. Onboard, workers are abused and held against their will. Ian Urbina, who runs The Outlaw Ocean Project, spent four years visiting the fleet’s ships and investigating their conditions. (To communicate with fishermen on ships that prohibited him on board, he tossed up plastic bottles, “weighed down with rice, containing a pen, cigarettes, hard candy, and interview questions.”) He also tracked where squid caught irresponsibly would end up: first to plants in China, some employing Xinjiang labor, and then continuing on to the very places we buy our seafood, like Costco and Safeway. This is a massive report on how China has become a fishing superpower, but Urbina also weaves within it an emotional, devastating story of an Indonesian worker who joined one of these ships in order to give his family a better life. Extraordinary reporting that’ll make you reconsider your next plate of calamari. —CLR

I Loved “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” Before I Loved Myself

Zefyr Lisowski | Electric Lit | October 26, 2023 | 3,553 words

Apparently, this month marked the 49th anniversary of the seminal horror film Texas Chain Saw Massacre. (That odd-number-ness might explain why you haven’t been bombarded with oral histories, retrospectives, and inane listicles like “11 Times Leatherface Gave Glam-God Chic While Dismembering Hippies and We Can’t Stop Crying About It.”) I’ve never seen the movie, but that didn’t stop me from being mesmerized by Zefyr Lisowski’s essay about its outsized role in her life. Though the piece will linger with you, “haunting” is the wrong word here. Nothing about Lisowski’s prose is uncertain or vaporous; she shows the reader her scars from sentence one, and the next 3,500 words are equally stark and vulnerable. She came to Chain Saw in high school, a miserable adolescent desperate for the distraction of a watch-it-if-you-dare YouTube challenge. What she found was revelation: a brightness and beauty that helped her embrace her Southern roots, and ultimately her own self. “There are marks that are left on us, and there are marks we leave on ourselves, and I’m not sure there’s a significant difference between the two,” she writes. At multiple turns, she expresses a thought with such economy that it becomes nearly aphoristic, escaping the borders of an individual experience to become universal. That’s the mark of a great essay—whether you can stomach horror movies or not. —PR

— November —

‘I Remember The Silence Between The Falling Shells’: The Terror of Living Under Siege as a Child

Zarlasht Halaimzai | The Guardian | October 31, 2023 | 3,572 words

In the last few weeks, the Israel-Gaza war has amassed horrific statistics: the number of hostages, the number of refugees, the number of injuries, the number of deaths—and the number who were children. Yes, the number who were children. As Zarlasht Halaimzai states in this extraordinary, harrowing piece for The Guardian, “Children bear the brunt of war.” Writing of her personal experiences—of another war, at another time, with the same consequences—Halaimzai pulls us down from lofty statistics into the raw reality of being bombed, day after day. She was 10 years old when US-funded mujahideen bombarded her home city of Kabul. Ten years old when “bedtime, schooltime, playtime, and dinnertime all vanished.” Small things make her retelling incredibly powerful: How, after the rockets stopped, her granny would “produce a jar of honey and feed us children a spoonful, trying to wash the taste of terror out of our mouths.” How Halaimzai “couldn’t look at my little sister and my little brother because somehow, I felt ashamed that this was their childhood.” And how “The sound of a rocket hitting a solid object enters your body and lives there forever.” Sentences to pierce your psyche. This essay reminds us of the many conflicts that have come before; Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine—to name a few. It reminds us of the many children who have suffered. Of the many killed. The many to learn the same life lesson as Halaimzai: “that there are no monsters in the dark. Only adults who are terrified enough to kill.” If you want to restore your faith in humanity, this is not the piece for you. If you want to understand the humanity beneath the bombs, it is. —CW

“I Am Still Alive. Gaza Is No Longer Gaza.” 

Atef Abu Saif | The Washington Post | October 30, 2023 | 5,279 words

This week marks a month since, in response to attacks by Hamas, Israel launched a campaign of unconscionable violence against the Palestinian people. As of this writing, Israel has slaughtered more than 10,000 men, women, and children. Much has been written about the unfolding genocide—it should not be controversial to use that word—and this stark diary of life under siege is among the most arresting. A raw draft of history, its contents began as voice notes that Atef Abu Saif, a novelist and the minister of culture for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, sent to friends abroad. He was in Gaza, enjoying a morning swim, when the bombing began, and he describes the horrors of the present through the crucial lens of the past. “I often think about the time I was shot as a kid, during the first intifada, and how my mother told me I actually died for a few minutes before being brought back to life,” he says. “Maybe I can do the same this time.” This memory, like many in the diary, is a stark reminder that Israel has oppressed Palestinians in a system of apartheid built on the heels of the mass dispossession of their land 75 years ago. And that is the wellspring: the violence that begets more violence in a devastating cycle. “Just as life is a pause between two deaths,” Atef Abu Saif says, “Palestine, as a place and as an idea, is a timeout in the middle of many wars.” —SD

Not One Tree

Grace Glass and Sasha Tycko | n+1 | October 26, 2023 | 16,313 words

Whether you’ve been following the Cop City saga closely, only just heard about it this week, or have no idea what I’m talking about, you should read this essay. For those who fall into the third category, here’s a quick primer: Cop City is the nickname of a law enforcement training campus under construction near Atlanta, on forested land once inhabited by Native people before they were forcibly removed, then turned into a slave plantation, then into a farm worked by prisoners. (“The plantation, the prison farm, the police academy: it sounds like a history of America,” Grace Glass and Sasha Tycko write.) Opponents of the project are known as “forest defenders,” and in an incident last January, one of them was shot and killed by police. This essay is an insider account of the Stop Cop City movement. It is detailed, smart, and very moving. It is about the beauty and the bloodshed of progressive activism, the stories that the land beneath us holds, the racist history of policing, and much, much more. In a word, it is epic. —SD

Inside the Weird and Wonderful World of Miniatures

Scott Huler | Esquire | November 20, 2023 | 5,653 words

In summer 2020, I ordered a miniature house kit, thinking it would be the first of many cute dioramas I’d construct while stuck at home. As I write this, however, I glance over at the unopened box, a bit embarrassed that I have yet to experience the joy of making it. For Esquire, Scott Huler immerses himself in the world of working miniaturists, and a movement that exploded during lockdown and grew even more popular thanks to Instagram and TikTok. Speaking with collectors and artists, such as professional miniaturist Robert Off, Huler explores the why behind this art. What makes a roombox—the boxed display that houses a miniature 3D environment—so irresistible? I love what Huler discovers: for many miniature makers and viewers, a roombox provides a way to focus, a place of relief. An entire world in which to escape, or to control. An outlet to imagine and dream that “just offstage, there’s more going on if you could just get small enough to walk through that little doorway.” This piece brought me joy, not just because I was wowed by the skilled craftsmanship of miniaturists working today, but it also reminded me of the peace we can find within our interior world, and the power of our own imagination. —CLR

— December —

After the Hit-and-Run

Mari Cohen | Jewish Currents | September 28, 2023 | 7,745 words

In 2015, I was on an Amtrak train that derailed, killing eight people, including the young man sitting next to me. I was lucky to escape with relatively minor physical injuries. In the years since, I have thought often about the engineer of the train, who was acquitted in a jury trial of a series of charges related to the crash. He had no intention to cause harm, and he certainly wasn’t responsible for the systemic issues that, had Amtrak addressed them proactively, might have mitigated the scale of the tragedy. I don’t think he should be made to suffer—I have no doubt that living with the knowledge of what happened while he was driving the train is a terrible enough burden. But this doesn’t mean that I’m not upset about the crash, a feeling that wasn’t really assuaged by the compensation that Amtrak provided victims. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to talk to the engineer, because in the exchange of words there might be some measure of healing for both sides. A similar notion is at the heart of Mari Cohen’s beautiful essay about being the victim of a hit-and-run. In the aftermath, Cohen began reporting on restorative justice approaches to traffic crashes, which advocates believe can “better serve the needs of all involved, creating a confidential space where drivers could express remorse without legal consequences, and where victims could receive the apologies they were looking for.” Through readings, interviews, and her own experience, Cohen considers whether restorative justice is a viable alternative to criminal justice. She suggests that it might be if we can shift our perceptions about closure. “I am trying to let go of the idea that a solution has to do everything,” she writes, “in order to do something.” —SD

When the Coast Guard Intercepts Unaccompanied Kids

Seth Freed Wessler | ProPublica | December 7, 2023 | 8,359 words

Since summer 2021, the US Coast Guard has detained more than 27,000 people at sea, including an alarming number of Haitian refugee children traveling alone. Immigration policy offshore is different than on land—asylum doesn’t apply at sea—and the system in place, reports Seth Freed Wessler, is opaque and dangerously inconsistent. Coast Guard immigration patrols are often closed off to journalists, but Wessler obtained internal documents about one boat detained in March that carried a group of Haitians, including three unaccompanied children: a 10-year-old boy and two sisters, 8 and 4. Wessler tracked down these kids, along with 18 others from the boat. He does an incredible job recounting the experience from the boy’s perspective: Tcherry started his journey at a smuggler’s house in the Bahamas and endured 12 hours inside the packed cabin of a shabby boat. The plan was to land in Florida, and then somehow make his way to Canada to join his mother. (There are many heartbreaking details in this story, but one I can’t get out of my head is that some kids on these boats are so young, they don’t even know their parents’ names or the country in which they were born.) After five days at sea, the Coast Guard has no choice but to send Tcherry and the two girls back to Haiti. As Wessler notes, detainments at sea aren’t just scarring for refugees: the work has taken a toll on Coast Guard members, too, such as the conflicted officer who encounters Tcherry and the girls on the boat—and later wonders what has become of them. A gut-wrenching look into the immigration crisis at Florida’s maritime border. —CLR

What Kind Of Future Does De-Extinction Promise?

Sabrina Imbler | Defector | December 6, 2023 | 5,436 words

Ever imagine what it would be like if a long-lost species roamed Earth once again? Colossal, a well-funded company at the forefront of the de-extinction business, plans to make this a reality. On the surface, this sounds like an ecological dream, as well as a way for humans to do good and reverse some of the destruction we’ve caused on this planet. But what does de-extinction entail? In this fascinating read, Sabrina Imbler explains that a recreated dodo would not actually be a dodo, but a genetic hybrid of the dodo and its closest living relative (the Nicobar pigeon). What, then, would teach this lone dodo how to be a dodo? Or, in the case of the mammoth, which would be developed with the genetic help of the Asian elephant, how would the animal physically come into being? The uneasy answer: a surrogate elephant mother who would never be able to consent to carrying another species. (In the hope of an alternative, Colossal has a team focused on developing an artificial womb, which—depending on your perspective—might be even creepier.) There’s a lot more to ponder here, including the key question of who, ultimately, de-extinction is for. As Imbler asserts, it’s not for the animals, but for Colossal’s VCs and investors, who include Paris Hilton. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Always, always click on a link with a Sabrina Imbler byline. They write my favorite kind of science writing: curious, thoughtful, and accessible. This piece is no exception. —CLR

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