The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [12]

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Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

1. Obama’s Young Mother Abroad | Janny Scott | New York Times Magazine | April 20, 2011 | 25 minutes (6,215 words)

Scott conducted nearly 200 interviews over two and a half years to examine the life and relationships of Stanley Ann Dunham, a white mom with a half-African son, living in Indonesia at the height of unrest in the country in the late 1960s. She never got to see Barry become president:

“In the preface to the 2004 edition of ‘Dreams From My Father,’ issued nine years after the first edition and nine years after Dunham’s death (in 1995), Obama folded in a revealing admission: had he known his mother would not survive her illness, he might have written a different book — ‘less a meditation on the absent parent, more a celebration of the one who was the single constant in my life.’

“Dunham, for whom a letter in Jakarta from her son in the United States could raise her spirits for a full day, surely wondered about her place in his life. On rare occasions, she indicated as much — painfully, wistfully — to close friends. But she would not have been inclined to overstate her case. As she told him, with a dry humor that seems downright Kansan, ‘If nothing else, I gave you an interesting life.'”

See also: “The West Wing, Season II” (John Heilemann, New York Magazine, Jan. 2011)

2. How These Two White Guys Wound Up In This Kendrick Perkins Family Photo
| Alan Siegel | Deadspin | April 20, 2011 | 11 minutes (2,663 words)

Former Boston Celtic Kendrick Perkins befriends two goofy kids who run a fan blog; they end up invited to his wedding, his bachelor party, his house and the NBA Finals:

“Perk married his girlfriend, Vanity Alpough, on July 25, 2009, near Houston. Brian and Justin, who was bound for Providence College that fall, were guests. They flew out a few days before the ceremony and showed up at Perk’s house in The Woodlands, a posh planned community. Their luggage had been lost, and Brian wore an oversized white T-shirt he’d bought at a drug store. Justin was in a Star Wars shirt he’d worn on the plane.

“They figured they’d be able to hang out, relax, and then crash at the hotel. They were wrong. As soon as Brian and Justin arrived, they were told to get ready for the bachelor party. ‘These white dudes are my boys from Boston,’ Perk explained to his assembled friends, among them Rajon Rondo. ‘They run Perk is a Beast,’ Perk said. ‘They’re from out of town. They don’t know how we do it.’ Justin and Brian soon found out how it was done. ‘We’re [at a club] in downtown Houston, with a cavalcade of the hardest-looking dudes you’ve ever seen,’ Brian said. ‘Right behind Perk is Justin, in a Stormtrooper T-shirt and shorts.'”

More Deadspin: The Loneliness of the American College Transfer Student (Drew Magary, Feb. 17, 2011)

3. The Possibilian
| Burkhard Bilger | The New Yorker | April 18, 2011 | 37 minutes (9,275 words)

Neuroscientist David Eagleman uses a studio full of drummers and a Zero Gravity thrill ride to test how we perceive time passing, and how our senses report back to the brain. For his amusement park experiment, Eagleman aimed to show how fear can cause time to slow down:

“One of the seats of emotion and memory in the brain is the amygdala, he explained. When something threatens your life, this area seems to kick into overdrive, recording every last detail of the experience. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. ‘This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,’ Eagleman said—why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass.”

More Bilger: “A Better Brew: The Rise of Extreme Beer” (Nov. 2008)

4. Where Does Good Come From?
| Leon Neyfakh | Boston Globe | April 17, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,349 words)

Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, at 81, offers an alternative explanation on the origins of altruism—countering the widely accepted evolutionary theory that it’s a product of “kin selection”—that we help others because of our genetic link to fellow humans. Wilson now calls the kin selection theory a “gimmick”:

“The alternative theory holds that the origins of altruism and teamwork have nothing to do with kinship or the degree of relatedness between individuals. The key, Wilson said, is the group: Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations. This so-called group selection, Wilson insists, is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism — a position that other scientists have taken over the years, but which historically has been considered, in Wilson’s own word, ‘heresy.'”

More Neyfakh: Out of Options: The Surprising Culprit in the Nuclear Crisis (March 20, 2011)

5. Elif Batuman: Life After a Bestseller
| Elif Batuman | The Guardian | April 21, 2011 | 13 minutes (3,211 words)

Having a critically acclaimed bestseller doesn’t make social gatherings any easier. Batuman writes about a long voyage from her home in Turkey to New York City for the National Book Critics Circle awards, where she reconnects with an old flame and, during a dinner, asks Jonathan Franzen if he has any weed:

“‘Wheat?’ Franzen’s agent repeated, frowning. ‘Why would you need wheat?’

“‘Not wheat – weed.’

“She stared at me blankly.

“‘Weed,’ my agent repeated.

“‘There’s some in my freezer,’ Franzen said. ‘But it’s all the way uptown.’

“The night began to unwind with increasing rapidity, like a spool of thread. A and my agent were debating whether I should hire a young, impoverished writer to be my personal assistant. My agent thought that writers made great assistants, because of their communication skills, but A felt that writers couldn’t be relied on to leave any employment without producing a tell-all memoir.”

More Batuman: “Kafka’s Last Trial” (New York Times, Sept. 2010)

Featured Longreader:
Michelle Legro @michellelegro

Michelle is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly

“I was sixteen when I first saw Titus Andronicus, the slasher of a Shakespeare tragedy that gets no respect. It was a film adaptation of a stage play by an ambitious director who luxuriated in blood-red banners, fascist architecture, and metal breastplates. I loved it. And I’m worried that the woman who directed it, Julie Taymor, may go down in theater history as getting no respect, either. Her well-documented failures, both on stage and on screen, are something to think about because they don’t fail out of laziness or lack of vision. In ‘Why She Fell,’ Daniel Mendelsohn deconstructs her latest disaster Spiderman: Turn off the Dark with the usual grandiosity of a NYRB review—Ovid! Leitmotifs!—but it’s worth reading about the sad fall of an artist who began her career working with the simplest shadow puppets, only to let them take over her entire world.”

Why She Fell | Daniel Mendelsohn | New York Review of Books | April 22, 2011 | 16 minutes (4,012 words)



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