The rollercoaster of losing your health. Analyzing the film The Zone of Interest. An unusual con artist. Calculating love versus genetics. Recalling a dark childhood. All that—and more—in our first edition of 2024.
Tom Scocca | New York Magazine | January 2, 2024 | 6,677 words
Sometimes it feels like medical mystery stories are everywhere. Long COVID. Rare disorders. The New York Times’ ever-popular “Diagnosis” column. It’s a genre to itself, and by now we know that genre’s beats: onset, frustration, revelation, closure. Tom Scocca’s own experience, though, enjoys no such arc. From the moment he notices symptoms—innocuous at first, but not for long—uncertainty is his only constant. “I’ve told the story over and over, to various doctors, till it almost sounds like a coherent narrative,” he writes. It’s not a coherent narrative, of course. That’s not how these things work, no matter what similar stories may suggest. But Scocca meets the incoherence head-on with spare, even wry, prose: “I started buying five-pound bags of rice from H Mart instead of ten-pound ones. Then I just started getting rice delivered.” His malady takes root during a professional down period, and financial dread lurks in the background here, making each new physical issue that much more harrowing. He finishes a recruiting call before going to the ER; he has a phone interview hours after he wakes up from a muscle biopsy. All the while, his body betrays him in novel and confounding ways. That’s not to say he doesn’t find some measure of relief. He does. What he doesn’t find is answers, which is exactly what makes this piece so destabilizing. “This is what disability advocates have said all along,” he writes, “not that it usually sinks in: The able and the disabled aren’t two different kinds of people but the same people at different times.” —PR
Giles Harvey | The New York Times Magazine | December 19, 2023 | 4,710 words
I have seen The Zone of Interest, the film that this article is about, twice now. It is a hypnotizing, unnerving masterpiece. For the unacquainted, a quick description: the movie is about Rudolf Höss, the real-life commandant of Auschwitz, who lived in a home that shared a garden wall with the camp. Director Jonathan Glazer never shows audiences what goes on inside the camp—though you hear it; god, do you hear it—choosing instead to focus his lens on the quotidian existence of Höss, his wife, and their five children. The effect of this bifurcation of sight and sound is extraordinary, as writer Giles Harvey explains in this essay. “The average viewer is unlikely to see himself in the figure of a death-camp C.E.O., but a family that sleepwalks through their own lives, heedless of the suffering that surrounds them, may feel closer to home,” Harvey writes. “To a greater or lesser extent, we all ignore and deny the pain of others, including—perhaps especially—when that pain is inflicted by our own governments on designated enemies.” It is fitting that such an astonishing movie is the subject of one of the best pieces of film criticism I’ve read in ages. Harvey pulls from philosophy, history, and conversations with Glazer and his team to situate The Zone of Interest both in the canon of Holocaust films and in our present moment. See: Trumpism. See also: Gaza. “When I first started on this, I genuinely couldn’t get my head around how a society could have gone along with these hideous ideas,” Glazer tells Harvey at one point. “During the time of making the film, it’s become blindingly obvious.”—SD
Chris Walker | 5280 | December 29, 2023 | 6,863 words
As I browsed links I’d missed over the holidays, André Carrilho’s colorful illustration for this 5280 story caught my eye. I’m glad I clicked. In my post-holiday COVID haze, not many stories have held my attention, but this piece by Chris Walker, about a con artist named Aaron Clark, was easy to read and enjoy. Clark was a rising star in Colorado’s tech scene in 2020: a promising Black businessman who could spark change at a time when companies pledged to invest more in DEI efforts. But the only thing Clark brought to the table, in any venture, was financial chaos. As Walker follows the trail of breadcrumbs into this mysterious man’s past, he finds a history of business scams in California and abroad in Nairobi’s emerging tech community and a man with a habit of disappearing, changing identities, and starting fresh. But why would someone with the ability to really make an impact resort to this? “In key ways, he never fit the mold of a classic con man,” writes Walker. Ultimately, Clark’s deceit seeded distrust in Colorado’s startup world, now making it harder for Black entrepreneurs and DEI consultants to get buy-in and attract investors. A curious tale of grift. —CLR
Krithika Varagur | Harper’s Magazine | August 1, 2023 | 8,133 words
I had missed this piece when it was originally published by Harper’s in August, but, luckily, it caught my attention after The Guardian published an edited version in December. Nkechi and Subomi first met at work. They first spoke while doing community service together. They first went for a drink at a dive bar, and Nkechi first revealed her genotype after a few days. From the beginning, they knew they had “no business” dating. Subomi had two abnormal S genes for hemoglobin, meaning he had sickle cell disease. Nkechi was a carrier—with one abnormal S gene and one normal A gene. There was a 50 percent chance their children would have the disease. Opening with their love story, Krithika Varagur instantly pulls you into a world where sharing genotype screening is typical, and a social norm is consolidating against two people with sickle cell genes from dating. Perhaps understandable in a society where nearly six million people carry the disease (Nigeria is the sickle cell capital of the world). But what about when love happens, “like a coconut dropping on your head while you’re walking down the street?” Varagur meticulously delves into the people behind the stats, talking to many disease carriers: single, married, separated, parents, and non-parents. But Nkechi and Subomi’s story is the constant thread, and the investment in their tale sheds the most light on how devastating genotype calculations can be. —CW
N.C. Happe | Guernica | December 11, 2023 | 5,021 words
It can be appealing to try to blow the dust off the old you and reinvent yourself in a place where you’re a stranger. As N.C. Happe recounts her move to Canada in this beautiful but sometimes difficult read for Guernica, she recalls her Minnesota childhood and her father’s dark moods and explosive temper alongside the casual—and sometimes invited—violence of the playground. Cinematic details make this essay an immersive read. You can hear a dying deer bleat and imagine its accidental and untimely death. You can feel the author’s cracked dry lips; you can taste the copper when they bleed. “The realization dawned: violence runs in the blood of everything, everywhere,” she writes. “For me, it took leaving the country to learn this. For the doe from my childhood home, it had been as simple and as quietly done as jumping a fence.” What Happe shows us through this thoughtful piece is that while sometimes you can jump the fence and leave home, you might be surprised by what you’re unable to leave behind. —KS
What was our first editor’s pick winner of the year?
Lila Shapiro | The Cut | December 20, 2023 | 6,405 words
At times, this is a slightly uncomfortable read—particularly in discussing why men value younger women. However, it also offers a more balanced and nuanced approach than many a take on this topic, and Lila Shapiro’s writing is as sharp as ever. (The photographs of couples taken on their beds are also strangely fascinating.) —CW