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May 12 2011

15:15

What we’re reading: Hitchens speechless, marathon lunacy and a problematic police sting

From Leslie Jamison’s account of the extreme, bizarre Barkley Marathon to Christopher Hitchens’ meditation on what it means to lose the thing that has helped define him as a writer, here are some of the most interesting things that have been sent to us or that we’ve stumbled across so far this month.

The Immortal Horizon,” by Leslie Jamison in The Believier (via @longreads/@gangrey). The craziest race you’ve never heard of and don’t want to run.

The first race was a prison break. On June 10, 1977, James Earl Ray, the man who shot Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary and fled across the briar-bearded hills of northern Tennessee. Fifty-four hours later he was found. He’d gone about eight miles. Some might hear this and wonder how he managed to squander his escape. One man heard this and thought: I need to see that terrain!

Over twenty years later, that man, the man in the trench coat—Gary Cantrell by birth, self-dubbed Lazarus Lake—has turned this terrain into the stage for a legendary ritual: the Barkley Marathons, held yearly (traditionally on Lazarus Friday or April Fool’s Day) outside Wartburg, Tennessee. Lake (known as Laz) calls it “The Race That Eats Its Young.” The runners’ bibs say something different each year: SUFFERING WITHOUT A POINT; NOT ALL PAIN IS GAIN. Only eight men have ever finished. The event is considered extreme even by those who specialize in extremity.

The Long Con,” by Brendan Kiley in the Stranger (via @somethingtoread). Underground culture, conspiracy, and a sting operation that stretched on for years.

Because this story has to start somewhere, let’s begin on any given night in early 2009. It’s probably drizzling, and a cluster of people is standing outside the wooden apartment building on the corner of 11th Avenue and Pike Street, the one with motel-style exterior hallways and severely chipped paint. A lightbulb above one door is glowing green, a signal that visitors are welcome. When the lightbulb glows yellow, visitors are supposed to come back later. When the lightbulb glows red, they are supposed to keep away.

Sometimes when visitors enter the apartment, they’re asked to hand over any weapons they might be carrying—hardly anybody ever is—and sometimes there’s a cursory pat-down. Inside the apartment are a lot of artists, plus a military guy or two on a night away from the base. Some are sitting around a card table playing poker. Others are sitting on couches and chairs, smoking and drinking.

They’re all being watched, but only one of them knows it.

Unspoken Truths,” by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair. Hitchens, still not going gentle into that good night, talks about what it means for a writer to lose his voice.

To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Rewrite,” by Robert Sanchez from 5280. The bitterness and hope of life after death.

Todd woke up three weeks after the accident in the intensive care unit at Littleton Adventist. He regained a bit of weight and was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, a world-renowned center for spinal cord injuries. Six weeks after the crash, he was relearning how to walk and could speak well enough to carry on a conversation. His parents thought he was finally ready to know.

One morning at Craig, Todd Sr. led his son, still in a wheelchair, into a conference room and closed the door behind them. Maryanne was already there. A social worker and a psychiatrist, both from Craig, were also there.

Todd’s father spoke. Three friends were with you: Tony. Michael. Sean. You hit another man in a car. They’re all dead. Todd, they said you were going 93 miles per hour.

Church Burners,” by Pamela Colloff in Texas Monthly. Ten churches burned down in six weeks. Who would do that?

The catastrophic damage caused by fire typically leaves little forensic evidence behind, making arson cases notoriously difficult to solve. (Almost three years after the Governor’s Mansion was nearly destroyed with a Molotov cocktail, no arrests have been made.) ATF agents working on the church fires case had only one advantage: There were ten different crime scenes to be plumbed for clues. By meticulously sifting through the remains of each conflagration, they hit upon a few critical pieces of physical evidence. Culled from the ruins were two distinct sets of shoe prints, a lone fingerprint on a piece of glass, and two microscopic samples of genetic material: skin cells that had been left on both a brick and a rock, each of which had been used to smash in a church window. But who, exactly, this evidence pointed to remained a mystery.

March 08 2011

18:21

What we’re reading: death in all its guises

A week into March, we’re anxious for spring, but the narrative stories we’ve unearthed lately consistently offer up darker themes that go against the promise of the season. We’ve rounded up a few that focus specifically on death: murder on campus, suicide at work, death in combat and perhaps most surprising, a delicately crafted obituary for a rat. So as not to leave you in a winter funk, we’ve added two posts on craft to the end of the list: a primer for profile writing and an essay exploring the first use of cinematic scenes in writing.

What made this university scientist snap?” by Amy Wallace of Wired. “Bishop stood near the loading dock, unarmed. On her way down from the third floor, she had ducked into a restroom to stuff her Ruger 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and blood-spattered black and red plaid jacket into a trash can. The 45-year-old assistant professor had also phoned her husband, James Anderson, and instructed him – as she often did – to come pick her up. ‘I’m done,’ she’d said.”

Lt. Gen. John Kelly, who lost son to war, says U.S. largely unaware of sacrifice” by Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post. “Before he addressed the crowd that had assembled in the St. Louis Hyatt Regency ballroom last November, Lt. Gen. John F. Kelly had one request. ‘Please don’t mention my son,’ he asked the Marine Corps officer introducing him.”

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?by Joel Johnson in Wired (via @longreads). “It’s hard not to look at the nets. Every building is skirted in them. They drape every precipice, steel poles jutting out 20 feet above the sidewalk, loosely tangled like volleyball nets in winter. The nets went up in May, after the 11th jumper in less than a year died here. They carried a message: You can throw yourself off any building you like, as long as it isn’t one of these. And they seem to have worked. Since they were installed, the suicide rate has slowed to a trickle.”

S.F. kids spend recess toasting the best rat who ever lived,” by Steve Rubenstein from the 2002 archives of the San Francisco Chronicle (via @gangrey). A sendup of a classic obituary, this tribute to a classroom pet parodies the form while delivering a touching eulogy.

THOUGHTS ON WRITING

Profile Writing: The Basics” by Chris Jones, Esquire correspondent. Jones offers some fundamental rules, including that “Good features often have a ‘theme’ as well as an ‘idea’ – they’re about something, but they’re also about something else, if that makes any sense. They’re about beauty or art or the fragility of life. They’re inspirational or devastating. They’re not just a story; like fairytales, they have a moral, too.”

Zooming Out: How Writers Create Our Visual Grammar” by Rob Goodman on The Millions (via @TheBrowser). Did literature teach us how to connect scenic jumps and read panoramic shots centuries before moving pictures appeared?

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