Enjoy the best longform journalism. Every Sunday.

The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close by Wil S. Hylton for The New York Times

The week's best reads, carefully curated by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jacob Feldman. Today's guest editor is Sara Blask.



   SUNDAY — July 17, 2016   

EDITORS' NOTE: Happy Sunday! This week, Sara Blask was kind enough to take control of our weekly festivities.


Sara has reported for a slew of great outlets across multiple continents over the last decade or so, and she's currently based out of San Francisco. From there, she scoured the web this week and came back with a bunch of great reading suggestions, as well as some non-perishable pieces of advice on writing and a few datasets that demand your attention. Take it away, Sara!


Many thanks to Don and Jacob for creating this weekly inbox gem. I’m flattered to curate this week, especially given my outsider status on the far side of journalism these days.
It hasn’t always been this way though. I dreamed of magazine writing as a j-school student at Columbia. I ignored Sree Sreenivasan’s advice to take the school’s one online journalism course at the time because… um, the web? I spent six years as a reporter inside and outside of newsrooms here and abroad (Iceland, Hong Kong) before jumping into my first PR job at The Wall Street Journal in 2011. I left New York a few years ago for San Francisco and now run comms for a tech company called Premise. I love what I do, but I’m conflicted about San Francisco generally. Thank you to the 70 media organizations who banded together to shed light on the intractable homeless problem.
My heart will always be in a newsroom. Insofar as news goes, it’s been another intense and weird week: Nice, Turkey, 28 pages, Trump/Pence logo jokes, Pokemon Go, the KKK actively recruiting in San Francisco. The silver lining is that some remarkable journalism emerged from this haze of news.
An observation: I was paranoid about missing any big stories this week and found myself proactively going to websites I haven’t visited in ages (sorry, GQ.com). My paranoia was driven by the fact that nearly everything I read these days is surfaced organically via social or courtesy of newsletters I deliberately comb through every day (this is what I read). My website exercise yielded just one additional story to the round-up, which I suppose is emblematic of the meteoric shift underway as we cherry-pick across a transmogrifying digital landscape. As much as I believe in the wisdom of crowds and the power of social platforms, ensuring you have the right mix of people and wisdom in that crowd is just as important.
Onto the main event...


A Tender Hand in the Presence of Death

By Larissa MacFarquhar

 (~50 minutes)

This is the story of Heather Meyerend, a hospice nurse in South Brooklyn whose life’s work is bringing comfort to the dying. Like death itself, Larissa MacFarquhar’s portrait is as simple as it is complex, taking us into the homes of Heather’s patients and weaving together a series of soulful vignettes as Heather attends to each of their most human needs. What emerges is a poignant profile of a woman who helps people find dignity in the most fragile and vulnerable days of their lives. 


The Mysterious Metamorphosis of Chuck Close

By Wil S. Hylton

 (~40 minutes)

An extraordinary portrait of Chuck Close, and an equal triumph for the writer. Told in spectacular prose by Wil S. Hylton, this profile is as much about Close and the undulating forces now driving him to the canvas at the age of 76, as it is about the meta challenge of crafting a portrait of a legend who’s spent his life pushing the boundary of how we perceive human identity. When Close’s final moments inevitably arrive, we’re likely to go back and reread this piece again, not only to reflect on his fine spirit, but also to remind ourselves of the prevailing winds that ultimately set him free.



What It's Like to be Black in Naperville, America

By Brian Crooks

(~15 minutes)


Deeply poignant essay that went viral last week about the amalgam of racist experiences—overt and unintentional—that Brian Crooks endured growing up as a black man in America. 


Don't Mess with Roy Cohn

By Ken Auletta

 (~60 minutes) 


The only thing Roy Cohn cared about was winning. To win, he’d do whatever it took. Re-published this week in Esquire, this profile of Trump’s mentor, the attorney who rose to fame as Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel, gives us clues about how Trump has mastered—and rewritten—the rules of the game.


Gun Deaths in America

By Ben Casselman, Matthew Conlen and Reuben Fischer-Baum



Nearly two-thirds of the 33,000 annual gun deaths in America are from suicide. This monumental package of work—a mix of beautiful data visualization coupled with reported stories about of gun death—explores what it would take to bring that number down. This story about a man in Wyoming who survives his attempted suicide is particularly strong. 


How the CIA Hoodwinked Hollywood

By Nicholas Schou

 (~20 minutes)

Fascinating story about the CIA’s decades-long campaign to charm Hollywood in order to ensure flattering portrayals to the American public. The story cites Jason Leopold’s excellent piece for Vice last year (also worth a read) about the CIA’s controversial role in the production of Zero Dark Thirty. More recently, Jason revealed the CIA also helped with an episode of Top Chef Covert Cuisine, which entailed cooking for Leon Panetta, naturally. 


Iceland's Historic Candidate

By Adam Gopnik

 (~25 minutes)

A smart, funny treatment on the historic—and unexpected—rise of Gudni Johannesson, a historian who was recently elected Iceland’s new president. I happened to work with Gudni’s wife, Eliza, when I lived in Reykjavik from 2006 to 2008. I recently dug through my old emails with her and laughed when I read this: “Guðni might work from home next semester because we have an office here with two desks. Only trouble is he has so many books and we have no storage space.”  

Traffic Stop

By Gina Kamentsky and Julie Zammarchi

 (~5 minutes)


In this powerful animation, Alex Landau, an African American man raised by adoptive white parents, tells his mother the devastating story of his first encounter with police. 


Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport

By Eli Hager and Alysia Santo

 (~20 minutes)


An angering story about the hellish conditions and patterns of abuse that plague the unregulated world of private prisoner transportation services. The accompanying 360-degree interactive images are nauseating. 

The ISIS Correspondent

By Isaac Chotiner

 (~30 minutes)


An engrossing interview with New York Times foreign correspondent Rukmini Callimachi about life on the terror beat. A line that stood out: “My poor husband who sleeps next to me at night when I’m in the States—we basically have a rule that I shouldn’t be flipping through my phone when we’re both about to go to bed because he doesn’t want to accidentally see a beheading video.”
Highly recommend this two-part Longform Podcast interview with Rukmini last year if you admire her work as much as I do.


The Fake Factory that Pumped Out Real Money

By Mario Parker, Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Bryan Gruley

 (~15 minutes)


Wild story about a con artist who managed to make $100 million and rip off big oil companies by gaming the biodiesel credit business.  


The Bikini Body Cult of Kayla Itsines

By Claire Suddath

 (~10 minutes)


I can tell you from personal experience that Kayla Itsines’ app, Sweat with Kayla, will kick your ass. It also happened to generate more revenue than any fitness app this year. This is the story of how a 25-year-old Australian built a global fitness empire one body plank at a time. 



The Emails of Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer

By Jonathan Safran Foer

 (~20 minutes)

Friends for 15 years, Portman and Foer reconnect online after the archive of emails they exchanged for over a decade mysteriously disappears. These are lovely.


The Power of Collective Memory

By Henry L. Roediger III and K. Andrew DeSoto

 (~5 minutes)

How does the human act of remembrance impact our identity?


Holden Caulfield's Goddam War (2011)

By Kenneth Slawenski

 (~20 minutes)

The horrors that J.D. Salinger, whose The Catcher in the Rye turned 65 years old Saturday, saw during World War II and how he transmogrified them into his art.


Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.


An emerging set of new indicators is helping us to better understand how modern society is evolving...


The Modern Economy

As Quartz displays in a new tool launched this week, by measuring alternative economic indicators like bitcoin transactions, Facebook MAUs, and drone registration numbers over time, we can get a new pulse on how the global economy is fundamentally changing. 



Fatal Force

The Washington Post’s database cataloguing every fatal shooting in the U.S. by police officers continues to be indispensable. And updated far too frequently. As of yesterday, 522 people have been killed so far this year.



Gender Gaps

The LedBetter Index tracks the number of women in leadership positions at the world’s top 230 consumer brands and companies. For the bottom eight companies—Nissan, Samsung and Icahn Enterprises, to name a few—it’s all up from zero.


A few of my favorite pieces on writing, both elegant and practical, starting with two from the incomparable John McPhee...




By John McPhee

 (~25 minutes)


On choosing what to leave out while weaving in references to Lincoln, Michelangelo and Hemingway within a page of one another.




By John McPhee

(~40 minutes)


Developing a structure is hard because of the inherent tension between chronology and themes, but “as themes prove inconvenient, you find some way to tuck them in.”


How To Give A Speech Like President Obama

By Charlie Burton

 (~5 minutes) 


Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau shares some practical tips. 


David Foster Wallace on Good Writing

By Maria Popova

 (~5 minutes)

Don’t make people work to read. Use a dictionary. “A usage dictionary is one of the great bathroom books of all time. Because it has the appeal of trivia, the entries are for the most part brief, and you end up within 48 hours — due to that weird psychological effect — actually drawing on exactly what you learned in some weird, coincidental way.” 


...and then there's a gem of advice excerpted from the Slate interview with Rukmini Callimachi posted above:


"My formation as a writer was as a poet. I tried very early on to be a poet and I published about a dozen poems in America and in American journals before I realized that this was a totally dead-end street as a career. In terms of poetry, one of the people who really marked me was Ezra Pound, who was a modernist poet and talks about the importance of distilling an image. The idea is that you have an image that you want to convey. Beginning and even intermediate writers will end up drowning that image in prose. The idea is that you look at the prose almost like a tree. You have to pare it down. You have to take out all of the extra limbs, all of the extra shrubbery so that you can really see the form. That idea, which I tried to practice in poetry, is one that I very much try to practice in journalism: to try to distill the language. I pick my adjectives carefully. I try to build stories around images because I think that’s the way that the human brain works when you are reading a story. Why is it that we love cinema and TV so much? Because we are looking at images."


Here's What it Was Like at Lin-Manuel Miranda's Final Hamilton Performance

A Meowth on 46th and 6th almost made me miss a historic night on Broadway, the last performance of Hamilton for star/creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, as well as Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr. (Aaron Burr), Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton), and ensemble member Ariana DeBose. I was blocks away from the Richard Rogers Theatre, with my head down, looking at my Pokémon Go screen, and out of nowhere, one of my favorite Pokémon shows up. I needed to get to the theater, because I knew the scene outside would be a biblical shit-show, but this was Meowth. So I turned and walked the opposite direction from the theater, in an attempt to catch it.


La Cage aux Follicles: French President Employs Personal Barber for $11,000 a Month

Heavy is the head that wears the pricey French haircut.


At Nix, Vegetables Get a Dash of Sex

There’s a lot of heavy eye contact going on at this restaurant. One of the most strenuous competitors is a guy at the next table who’s staring down the woman across from him while giving her a ferocious, what-big-teeth-you-have grin. I’d call his expression carnivorous, but we’re at Nix, and there’s nothing to eat here but vegetables.




Ruth Bader Ginsburg, No Fan of Donald Trump, Critiques Latest Term

I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president. For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.”

“Now it’s time for us to move to New Zealand.”
—Ruth Bader Ginsberg


44 Fake Presidents from Worst to Best

By Don Steinberg

 (~5 minutes)

Option #1: Dear WSJ, thank you for blessing us with some levity this week.
Option #2: Where on this list should @realDonaldTrump go?


From the Wall Street Journal: 
Microsoft Wins Appeals Ruling on Data Searches

Microsoft Corp. won a major legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department Thursday when a federal appeals court ruled that the government can’t force the company to turn over emails or other personal data stored on computers overseas.


From Torkildson:

Our government's hunger to snoop
grows thicker than any pea soup.
The less that they trust us
the more they will bust us—
and leave freedom out of the loop.


Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.

The Strumbellas - Spirits


By The Strumbellas

Read Later
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr.
Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman
Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer
Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson

Contributing Editors: Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara Blask, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Anne Helen Petersen, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham


Header image: Christopher Anderson/Magnum

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