This morning, we told you about our favorite things that we wrote in 2013. As it turns out, other things were written in 2013. Good things, even! Here are our favorites—from reported articles in respected magazines to perfect single tweets; from novels to personal blog posts.
"The Elvis Impersonator, the Karate Instructor, a Fridge Full of Severed Heads, and the Plot to Kill the President" by Wells Tower in GQ An investigation into the small town rivalry that launched one of the year's more bizarre news stories.
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury (Grove) The best novel I read this year. A strange, hilarious, and, eventually, very moving story about a dozen or so characters living in a fictional county in Iowa. There are two other books—Hunts in Dreams and Pacific—based on the same characters that I can't wait to read.
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (Penguin) An elliptical, semi-autobiographical novel about opium addicts living in Bombay over two decades. To be honest, I can't remember much about it (I read it in January) other than that I loved it.
"Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History" by Alexis Madrigal on TheAtlantic.com Alexis Madrigal writes about technology like no one else can, and this is the perfect Alexis Madrigal article. Take something everyone talks about (Silicon Valley), take something no one talks about (architecture), and combine them to learn a lot about both. It's like Malcolm Gladwell, if you reversed the lobotomy.
"Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks" by Steven Poole in The New Statesman This was a great one to bookmark and use on Facebook when friends post bullshit articles. Some of the best reads are the ones that help you tell other people to shut up.
"Rembert Explains America: Putting It All on the Line on Pre's Trail" by Rembert Browne on Grantland I don't really know what this article is about (sort of nothing?), but I loved reading it. Rembert Browne in August of this year was horribly out of shape after eating disgusting American junk food all summer, and then he went for a long run on a famous path that almost killed him. If anyone else wrote this it would be boring nonsense, but that's what makes it perfect.
"Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie" by Stephen Rodrick in The New York Times Magazine This article was an incredibly entertaining, sometimes tragic look at how a project with potential—a great actress, writer, and director, all looking for a comeback—went completely and totally off the rails. It's the ultimate "making of," and both contextualizes and outshines the sad final result that became The Canyons.
"A Scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet" by David Remnick at The New Yorker Fascinating look at the brilliant, oppressive Bolshoi Ballet, centered on a violent acid attack that blinded the ballet's director, Sergei Filin. It reads more like a Russian tragedy than a news report, thanks to the story's colorful cast of characters and the bitter-cold-vodka-tinged cloud that they all seem to exist under.
"Summertime" by Charles Simic on The New York Review of Books web site Charles Simic, bored in the dog days of summer, writes leads like this: "What kind of birdie are you? Whistling outside my window as if a pretty girl was passing by?" Charles Simic is the best blogger in the world.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday) A deeply unsettling but gorgeously written novel. It tells the tale of a scientist who, during an anthropological expedition to a remote tropical island in the 1950s, discovers a turtle that, when eaten, confers eternal life. But also he brings home urchins from this island and rapes them. It's Nabokov on the South Seas.
"Why Did Jodon Romero Kill Himself On Live Television?" by Jessica Testa on Buzzfeed If you read this web site regularly, there's a good chance you saw Jodon Romero die. In 2012, he stole a car in Phoenix and, after a substantial car chase that was broadcast live on Fox News, shot himself in the head as a news helicopter looked on. The video was shocking. We posted it, Buzzfeed posted, others posted it. There was hand-wringing. But months later, Buzzfeed's Jessica Testa returned to the story, tracing out the human impact of an ephemeral news hit and humanizing someone who didn't even have a name other than "that guy who shot himself on TV."
Richard Lawson's Tumblr On occasion, newly minted VanityFair.com columnist Richard Lawson will deliver to his Tumblr these finely wrought, episodic little set-pieces about drifting, in fits and starts, into adulthood while your youth continues shimmering in the past: "We sat at the bar at an Italian restaurant, talking about grad school (for me) and baseball (for him), and I had two glasses of wine, and, emboldened by my sudden thirtysomethingness, a bourbon, right there, in front of my dad. I felt like a man! A man out with his dad, watching the Sox." Bring back Richard Lawson.
Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn (Virago UK) Thorn was one half of Everything But the Girl, a band I never really got. But her down-to-earth, literate, bemused tales of the rise from indie artistry to pop stardom and back are a lovely read whether you like her music or not.
"The Return" by David Finkel in The New Yorker David Finkel's reconstruction of an Iraq veteran's experience with P.T.S.D. is terribly sad, emotionally raw, and perfectly told. This is one of those rare pieces I've found myself raving about in conversation for more than a week, a piece so flawless that I'm thankful it's not online, because it's too beautifully spun to be cannibalized into a "heart-wrenching" listicle. This is the very best thing I read this year, by far, and that's not an insult to the other great work that's been done this year—this piece is just that important.
"George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You'll Read This Year" by Joel Lovell in The New York Times Magazine Joel Lovell's excellent George Saunders piece is functionally a profile, but it's also a meditation on so much more, thanks to the subject's tremendous humanity. In the process of sketching the fiction writer for "our time," Lovell works through the short-story author's words and dialogue to think about weighty things like mortality, clarity, the capitalism's insidious captivity. Lovell quotes the conversations he had with the Saunders, and I would pay good money to hear a recording of those dialogues.
"Charles Manson Today: The Final Confessions of a Psychopath Charles Manson" by Erik Hedegaard in Rolling Stone It had been nearly two decades since America's most famous convicted murderer cooperated (using that word loosely) for a lengthy and thorough interview, and Erik Hedegaard's portrait of the man circa-2013 is absolutely fantastic. Manson doesn't disappoint, dependably volunteering chilling asides and offering some transparent manipulation, but he also starts phoning the writer so much that Hedegaard avoids his calls. And it's with lonely details like that where the icon of evil starts to shrink to self-caricature and this piece grows even more historically remarkable. But then Manson spits out something terribly vile and you remember why he is who he is, and why we're still talking about him more than 40 years later.
The Media, a (mostly) bi-weekly ad-free webpaper The fullest disclosure: Founder Liz Pelly quoted me, and this web site, in her mission statement for starting this advertising-free online paper in the wake of the Boston Phoenix's untimely shuttering. But I'd hope that I'd recognize the significance and ambition of The Media without the personal connection: a DIY-minded alt-bi-weekly "experiment" that realizes traditional ad-based media models are broken, and is attempting to work from contributions and benefit shows and other ingenious fundraising methods. Besides, former Galaxie 500 mensch Damon Krukowski, who knows nothing about wine, has a wine column. This is important.
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. (Ballantine) This incredibly fascinating biography of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark has it all: insane mothers, mansions frozen in time, a $300 million fortune, secret French boyfriends, missing artwork, manipulative nurses, New York City, Reno, California, pink diamonds, and creepy dollhouses. Empty Mansions is so thoroughly American, so deeply fucked up, and it's easily the most compelling book I read this year.
"The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick" by Chris Heath in GQ Is Sture Bergwall a killer or are his murderous confessions just a part of his fictional history? This creepy profile of a potential monster is so good it encouraged me to start reading about serial killers this summer. It all started with a harmless dip into the Jeffrey Dahmer Wikipedia page and it quickly spiraled into an off-putting literary pastime. As it turns out, some people don't like talking about Ted Bundy often or at all and I've yet to be rewarded with a "Serial Killers" category at bar trivia. Don't repeat my mistakes.
"Schizophrenic. Killer. My Cousin." by Mac McClelland in Mother Jones Mac McClelland's devastating tour through the American mental health system highlights just how difficult it can be for families to get help when they most need it. If this piece doesn't convince you that the mental health system is broken, nothing ever will.
"Rape Joke" by Patricia Lockwood on The Awl On the internet, where the default methods of discussing serious social-justice issues are super-solemn essays and furious tweets (I'm no stranger to either), taking on rape culture in the form of a narrative poem called "Rape Joke" is brilliant and good for a zillion different reasons.
Nelson Mandela's Rivonia Trial speech The three-hour speech Nelson Mandela gave in his defense at the Rivonia Trial in 1964 was the most satisfying thing I read in the wake of his death. It's very good, and, for my money, a better way to understand Mandela and his complicated history than any of the thousands of obits—both positive and negative—that now exist.
"Jameis Winston Isn't The Only Problem Here: An FSU Teacher's Lament," by Adam Weinstein on Deadspin I highly recommend reading my colleague Adam's essay about being an instructor inside a college that values its football program to the detriment of its academic rigor and campus safety. Even if you don't watch sports—I don't—I think the piece is a worthwhile use of your time.
You'll occasionally hear people who advocate for college sports in spite of the industry's many problems by saying that college athletics are some kids' sole opportunity to get a college education. But that's only true if, once at college, these "student athletes" are given an education commensurate with their athletic instruction. If that doesn't happen, it seems like what many players end up doing is devoting their minds and bodies to a college team for four years or more—or until they suffer a devastating injury—only to come out the other end not good enough to play professionally and not educated enough to get a different job. But, hey, the college made a ton of money off of them while they played.
I'm not sure how to fix the problem. Perhaps they could set up a real amateur league for young athletes separate from colleges and scrap the charade that is the "student-athlete lifestyle." Regardless, it seems clear that the current system is very much in need of repair.
Ol boy passed out at the barber shop lol http://t.co/jZgePfwmdz
— Chester M. Hanks (@CHETHAZE) August 25, 2013
Why is this so funny to me? I don't know, but it is.
"Joy" by Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books "It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy," begins an essay that in lesser hands would have been devoid of either, just lofty and insufferable nonsense. But this stunner that ran in The New York Review of Books fuses personal anecdote with social theory, and as a result is a terrific lesson in the mass-use potential of talking about oneself. Everyone on the internet should inspire to this.
"Often, it is a parking lot of strollers, a basic part of life for homeless families: these rolling mini-worlds are the single unchanging point of reference that many homeless kids know. The strollers proceed awkwardly through the security scanners, they queue up in a caravan going back and forth in lines in front of the admission desk, they occupy the middle of the floor of the building's elevators while standees press themselves against the walls. Plastic bags of possessions drape the stroller handles, sippy cups of juice fill the cup-holders, Burger King paper crowns ride in the carrying racks beneath. Kids sleep peacefully while consultations and long waits go on around them. Some lean back and watch with a numbed, listless patience that suggests how much of their childhood has already been spent like this. Others hunch and squirm and scream their heads off."
Before the New York Times weeklong epic about Dasani, a homeless child struggling in Bloomberg's city, there was Ian Frazier's illuminating story in the New Yorker about the shocking rise of homeless families during our current gilded age. Frazier's article was the year's first big piece about the children and families who make up the "invisible homeless." Thanks to his especially vivid description of these moms and kids with battered suitcases traveling between shelters on the subway, this population suddenly became very visible to better-off New Yorkers. The new mayor inherits a humanitarian nightmare. Articles like this one ensure that he'll have to address it.
A fax machine called my #twilio voice number, this is how @twilio transcribed it.... pic.twitter.com/RYh19Pg2pG
— E.J. Brennan (@EJ_Brennan) October 31, 2013
Next year, in Her and Transcendence, we get two movies about artificial intelligence. Because of storytelling necessities and certain ideological assumptions on the part of the filmmakers, both movies, like all artificial intelligence movies before them, have an anthropocentric understanding of machine intelligence, the danger of which—it is imagined—lies in its dark mimicry of human thought and emotion. Machines, which in this formulation exist only in relation to humans, seek not only to become us but to sweet-talk and seduce us, all the better to take our place atop our imagined hierarchies of being.
But machines are not interested in the things we imagine them to be. What we should fear isn't machines talking to us, emoting, tempting us in Scarlett Johansson's whispery voice, ready to beguile and control. What we should fear is machines talking to each other. When it comes, the singularity won't be sexy and malevolent but distributed and algorithmic and utterly incomprehensible; not @horse_ebooks but @googuns_staging. The best we can hope is that sometimes our weird jokes and nonsense pranks will get swept up and included: a bit of odd human noise amidst the great throbbing machine signal.
"White Girls" by Hilton Als in Guernica Als writes difficult pieces, in every sense of the word, pieces that wiggle inside your skull like loose teeth. "White Girls"—about his friend and lover and twin, Sir or Lady, and the multiple ways in which he, SL, and the women orbiting around and between them structure their lives and identities—moves and works according to some different, maybe higher, kind of logic, one I feel lucky to witness. His is the kind of genius that, like Joan Didion's, is all the more terrifying because it's already trained its withering gaze on its master: Als himself.
"Royal Bodies" by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books Speaking of white girls! My favorite thing about Hilary Mantel is her understanding of the weight and heft and aches and pains of bodies. (She herself suffered for years from a severe and painful form of endometriosis.) Here she seeks to provide a material account of the royal family, especially its queens and princesses and duchesses—their aches and pains, their sizes and positions, the blood and bones behind and around the plastic smile and empty womb.
"When Dickens Met Dostoevsky" by Eric Naiman in The Times Literary Supplement An insane, amazing academic detective story. Trying to describe it does it a disservice. Go read it: It's too long but it kind of needs to be.
"In Renderings for a Library Landmark, Stacks of Questions" by Michael Kimmelman and "Shadows over Central Park" by Warren St. John, both in The New York Times In a city of immense institutions, civic engagement sometimes requires an immense institutional voice. Twice this year, the New York Times challenged New York to be more than a passive bystander to projects that will change life in the city. In January, architecture critic Michael Kimmelman attacked the conceptual and structural underpinnings of the Public Library's plan to "improve" the main branch by destroying the stacks at the heart of the building; in October, Warren St. John warned that the new wave of luxury ultra-high-rise building will cast a long, literal shadow over Central Park.
.@parisreview So is Paris any good or not
— Patricia Lockwood (@TriciaLockwood) January 9, 2013
Why do we even go on tweeting when the greatest tweet of all time has already been written? We do it to pay homage to the memory of perfection.
"A Prayer For Steve Bartman" by Will Leitch on Deadspin Will Leitch is one of those writers who reminds you why you got into the maddening profession of writing with his annoyingly brilliant prose, while making you hate the fact that you got into the madening profession of writing while people like Will Leitch are still getting paid to write. This excerpt about the Chicago Cubs' playoff curse was published in 2010, but picked up steam this year, on the 10-year anniversary of the Steve Bartman Incident. Leitch's recounting of what it was like to be a fan during a make-it-or-break-it playoff game puts you right in the center of Wrigley Field, complete with the deafening sound of a dead-silent ballpark. It's beautiful, climactic, and quite nearly as nerve-wracking as being at the game itself.
"Captain's Log" by Mark Lisanti on Grantland I know, including a former Defamer editor is kind of cheating, but I loved this column, a hilarious take on what Derek Jeter's diary would read like, back when I was gullible enough to believe that it was actually being written by a very self-aware Jeter (I'm embarrassed to say I believed this for upwards of 3 months). Now that I know it's just Lisanti writing e-novellas, I almost didn't want to admit my love for it out of jealousy, but hey, BuzzFeed still hasn't produced a GIF-laden listicle of their feelings towards 2013's best listicle, so here we are I guess.
Inferno by Dan Brown (Doubleday) Every so often in the Gawker Campfire chat, our more cultured writers will debate the merits of new works coming out by some of literary's finest (Eggers! Sedaris! Morrissey!), and I have to sit there and pretend I, too, am a page-turner of the highest order. But you know what? I love Dan Brown, critics of his grasp on the English language be damned. I devoured this, because even though i'm Indian, and female, and like everything Mindy Kaling likes, Jhumpa Lahiri's new book just didn't do it for me. Zadie Smith? No thanks! Khaled Hosseini? A fine paperweight! Dan Brown? SORRY WE CAN'T HAVE SEX TONIGHT BABE, I'M TOO BUSY FINDING OUT IF THE WORLD DIES OF A NEW PLAGUE.
@USInterior on Instagram There is only one unimpeachable act of patriotism: reading the Instagram feed from the U.S. Department of the Interior. It reminds you that the country is a vast expanse of earthly delights through vistas that often look like they're from another (purer) planet. Time and space squash you down to size—all from the window of your smartphone.
"Buried Secrets" by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker With all the attention and vitriol directed towards titans of Wall Street and the tech industry, the colonizing schemes of low-profile billionaires can go unnoticed. Patrick Radden Keefe's story about diamond king Beny Steinmetz and his attempt to control untapped iron ore in the Simandou Mountains—a potentially lucrative resource for a poor West African country like Guinea—reads like a Joseph Conrad novel, except with sophisticated shell companies and a pit stop in Davos.
"Dropouts Tell No Tales" by Jamaal Abdul-alim in Washington Monthly Jamaal Abdul-alim returns to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to investigate why black college students at UWM post lower graduation rates than their white peers. The author balances a clear-eyed assessment of statistical data with uncommonly deep reportage of the situation on the ground, as lived by struggling students each day, illustrating how institutions can drift in their mission to serve those who need education most.
"My Job Search" by Emilie Shumway in The Point Twenty-something Shumway has achieved something rare with this essay: A confession of Millennial striving that manages to avoid the form's tendency to lump the generation's members into a giant mass of either laziness or misguided ambition (depending on the columnist). "To come of age among this cohort, have a dream, and then subdue it, feels cowardly, yet now we are faced with the consensus that we overrate what was fed to us," she writes.
"What Is the Business of Literature?" by Richard Nash in Virginia Quarterly Review Nash expertly reconfigures the present narrative about the book industry—and book culture—without sliding into limp justifications for the coming Singularity: "Books aren't sitting grumpily in economy class on the airplane to the future. They're in the cockpit." His manifesto: "Let's restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian."
"When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland" by Tressie McMillan Cottom Dissecting the racial politics of Miley Cyrus's widely-watched performance at the Video Music Awards in August, Cottom situates the performance within the larger (and often ignored) history of capitalism and its systemic subjugation of black women. "This political economy of specific types of black female bodies as a white amusement park was ignored by many," she writes, "mostly because to critique it we have to critique ourselves."
"Honor and deception" by Dave Phillips in The Gazette Drawing from dozens of hours of interviews and dogged use of the Freedom of Information Act, Phillips exposes the Air Force Academy's shadowy "secret informant program," under which the military college enlisted young cadets to spy and report on their peers. Shocking in its own right, Phillips' investigation shows how public records laws, when combined with shoe-leather reporting, shed necessary sunlight on our government's most secretive institutions.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Picador) The first thing that you should know about this book is that it is called Bring Up the Bodies, not Bringing Up the Bodies. I've been calling it by the wrong name for months now and only realized my mistake a few moments ago when I sat down to write up this recommendation. If you get confused, remember that "bring up the bodies" is a command, which starts with "C", like "Cromwell," which is the last name of the historical figure at the center of this book (Thomas). "Bringing up" is a gerund (I think), which starts with "G," as in the phrase "Gotta be wrong if you're thinking the title of this book starts with a gerund."
Even though I had no idea what was on the cover of this book for the entire time I read it and several months afterward, I promise I read the inside part very closely and loved it. Bring Up the Bodies is the second installment of Hilary Mantel's marvelous (as-yet-unfinished) Thomas Cromwell trilogy. I would recommend this book and its predecessor Wolf Hall (and its successor, which is not scheduled to be released until 2015) to anyone who is interested in the court of King Henry VIII but intimidated by the fact that there were so many people at court and all of them have their own names. The second chapter in Cromwell's biography (as fictionalized by Mantel) is as absorbing as the first. It's the kind of book you feel guilty reading because it's such a pleasure from start to finish.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Random House) For me, the sign of a great book is one that makes you think "Oh my God, I could never write a book." The ambition of Johnson's novel is staggering in terms of subject, scope, and even technical execution. I refuse to ruin the magic of the book for potential readers by describing its incredible plot in any detail; suffice it to say it tells the life story of an orphan in Kim Jong-il's North Korea, and that I've never read another book like it. The Orphan Master's Son is not for everyone. though; I recommended it to a bookworm friend who appreciated the skill of Johnson' storytelling but found many of the scenes too graphic (and/or flat-out depressing). If you like to play the favorites, this book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and more importantly, the Caity Weaver prize for A Book That I Read This Year That I Liked.
"Open Waters" by Simon Winchester in Lapham's Quarterly Are you not obsessed by the sea? By the mystery that lies beyond the edge of what you know, even now, in the 21st century, at the alleged high water mark of human knowledge? "Ignorance—or more kindly put, a profound unfamiliarity—has long dogged mankind's relationship with the sea," Winchester writes, while dropping a ton of experience and knowledge on the reader that somehow deepens, rather than unravels, the mystery of the deep.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly) Shacochis, an irascible curmudgeon and war reporter with a genius for understanding people and the world they make (or destroy), won the National Book Award for his first book nearly 30 years ago. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul—part autobiography, part American history—took him more than a decade. Ostensibly a murder mystery that ranges from Croatia in World War II to Haiti to 9/11, it is the Great American Foreign Policy Novel—if Dos Passos, Hunter S. Thompson, LeCarre, Conrad, and Styron put on an epic drunk and worked together to tell the story.
"Game of Tribes" by Diane Roberts in Oxford American "I'm a Democratic-voting, tree-hugging pinko. I have four degrees in English lit. I'm a feminist, for God's sake, an academic," Roberts cries. "Yet I can't quit college football." In a hilarious brief essay, Roberts explains why that's a problem: Football is fascist. Militarist. Brutal. Retrograde. And awesome. Conflicted about your fandom? You should be. And you will be after reading this.