The Year’s Best Longreads to Catch Up On Over the Holidays

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I’ve always thought that the reason books sell so well at Christmas is because we all need the means of escape from our families so desperately. But sometimes on vacation, a book is less useful than a good, long, deep magazine article. Here are 20 of the ones I most enjoyed in 2013, in no particular order.

This Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie,” Stephen Rodrick (New York Times Magazine)

Lindsay Lohan moves through the Chateau Marmont as if she owns the place, but in a debtor-prison kind of way.

Facebook Feminism, Like It or Not,” Susan Faludi (The Baffler)

The congregation swooned as she bounded on stage, the prophet sealskin sleek in her black skinny ankle pants and black ballet flats, a lavalier microphone clipped to the V-neck of her black button-down sweater. “All right!! Let’s go!!” she exclaimed, throwing out her arms and pacing the platform before inspirational graphics of glossy young businesswomen in managerial action poses. “Super excited to have all of you here!!”

The Welfare Queen,” Josh Levin (Slate)

“In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record,” the former California governor [Ronald Reagan] declared at a campaign rally in January 1976. “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” As soon as he quoted that dollar amount, the crowd gasped.

Royal Bodies,” Hilary Mantel (London Review of Books)

Last summer at the festival in Hay-on-Wye, I was asked to name a famous person and choose a book to give them. I hate the leaden repetitiveness of these little quizzes: who would be the guests at your ideal dinner party, what book has changed your life, which fictional character do you most resemble? I had to come up with an answer, however, so I chose Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, and I chose to give her a book published in 2006, by the cultural historian Caroline Weber; it’s called Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s not that I think we’re heading for a revolution. It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore. These days she is a mother-to-be, and draped in another set of threadbare attributions. Once she gets over being sick, the press will find that she is radiant. They will find that this young woman’s life until now was nothing, her only point and purpose being to give birth.

Animals Were Harmed,” Gary Baum (The Hollywood Reporter)

American Humane Association monitor Gina Johnson confided in an email to a colleague on April 7, 2011, about the star tiger in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. While many scenes featuring “Richard Parker,” the Bengal tiger who shares a lifeboat with a boy lost at sea, were created using CGI technology, King, very much a real animal, was employed when the digital version wouldn’t suffice. “This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side,” Johnson wrote. “Damn near drowned.”

Learning How to Live,” Jenny Diski (The New Statesman)

Stop what you’re doing. I don’t mean stop reading this, or whatever you’re doing while you’re reading (brushing your teeth, eating, waiting for the water to boil). I mean consider the possibility of stopping whatever your answer is to the conversational gambit, “And what do you do?” Try putting the appropriate response in the past tense: “I used to be [. . .]” It’s very likely, unless your interlocutor gives up on you at that point (as an academic sitting at a Cambridge “feast” once did, turning to her other neighbour for the rest of the meal when I told her I was a novelist), that the follow-up question will be: “So what do you do now?” You might attempt to circumvent this with “I used to be [. . .] but now I’m retired”, if you look old enough, or if you’re younger you could try, “I used to be [. . .] but now I’m vastly wealthy”, but the chances are that the next question will still be in the conceptual area of “What do you do now?”, such as: “How do you spend your time? What do you do with yourself? What are your hobbies?” If you wanted to avoid the whole party chatter thing (but what are you doing at this vacuous party, anyway?), you could say: “Unemployed, thanks to the government’s economic policy, and lacking the financial resources for hobbies to pass the time until I die.” Or in a more passive-aggressive mode just answer, “Oh, these days I skive and scrounge.”

The Poorest Rich Kids in the World,” Sabrina Rubin Erdely (Rolling Stone)

The black Chevy Tahoe picked up speed as it careened down the curving Wyoming mountain road, the two frightened children inside clutching their seats, certain that they wouldn’t make it alive to the school bus at the bottom of the hill. It was only 7:30 in the morning, but their stepmother at the wheel already had liquor on her breath. The kids had seen her this way before; two years earlier they’d been in the car when she was pulled over for a DUI. This morning, she seemed even more wasted.

The Death Dealer,” Matt Stroud (The Verge)

Many had spent more than $10,000 to be there, in what Ray called his “sweat lodge.” It culminated five days with the self-proclaimed “catalyst for personal transformation” at Angel Valley Spiritual Retreat, a ranch near Sedona, Arizona. During his “Spiritual Warrior” program, he’d asked participants to shave their heads, spend 36 hours in the desert meditating without food or water, and play the “Samurai Game,” in which a white-robed Ray, playing “God,” declared people dead, forcing them to remain motionless on the ground. Before they entered the dome, he warned them his final test was a symbolic death. “You are not going to die. You might think you are, but you are not going to die,” he said, according to several attendees. Around 2:30PM on October 8th, 2009, he lowered the tarp, closing off the only source of light and oxygen. The ceremony began.

The Child Exchange,” Megan Twohey (Reuters)

Todd and Melissa Puchalla struggled for more than two years to raise Quita, the troubled teenager they’d adopted from Liberia. When they decided to give her up, they found new parents to take her in less than two days – by posting an ad on the Internet.

This Is Punk?,” Nitsuh Abebe (New York)

The punk mentality used to be a default ethos among rock kids, but over the past decade that fell apart; punk-think, which used to feel joyful and liberating, has started to look crabbed and guarded as well. Who, at this point, needs to lob spitballs at a monoculture that anyone with an Internet connection can easily escape? It seems bolder now to embrace things with reckless innocence and delight in artifice—which is exactly what some of the earliest New York punks, and some of the best to follow them, were aiming for.

Nobody’s Looking at You,” Janet Malcolm (New Yorker)

There is a wish shared by women who consider themselves serious that the clothes they wear look as if they were heedlessly flung on rather than anxiously selected. The clothes of Eileen Fisher seem to have been designed with the fulfillment of that wish in mind. Words like “simple” and “tasteful” and colors like black and gray come to mind along with images of women of a certain age and class—professors, editors, psychotherapists, lawyers, administrators—for whom the hiding of vanity is an inner necessity.

Fog Count,” Leslie Jamison (Oxford American)

It’s early morning and I’m hunting for quarters. Downtown Fayetteville is quiet and full of stately stone buildings: mining money, probably. We’re in the heart of coal country. The corner diner isn’t open yet. The “Only Creole Restaurant in West Virginia” isn’t open yet. City Hall isn’t open yet. One of its windows displays a flier raising money to build a treehouse for a girl named Izzy.

Two Gunshots on a Summer Night,” Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber (New York Times and PBS’s Frontline)

Michelle O’Connell, 24, the doting mother of a 4-year-old girl, was dying from a gunshot in the mouth. Next to her was a semiautomatic pistol that belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff for St. Johns County. A second bullet had burrowed into the carpet by her right arm. Ms. Maynard quickly escorted Mr. Banks, who had been drinking, out of the house. “All of a sudden he started growling like an animal,” she said. With his fists, Mr. Banks pounded dents in a police car.

Jahar’s World,” Janet Reitman (Rolling Stone)

Peter Payack awoke around 4 a.m. on April 19th, 2013, and saw on his TV the grainy surveillance photo of the kid walking out of the minimart. The boy, identified as “Suspect #2” in the Boston bombing, looked familiar, thought Payack, a wrestling coach at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. On the other hand, there were a million skinny kids with vaguely ethnic features and light-gray hoodies in the Boston area, and half the city was probably thinking they recognized the suspect. Payack, who’d been near the marathon finish line on the day of the bombing and had lost half of his hearing from the blast, had hardly slept in four days. But he was too agitated to go back to bed. Later that morning, he received a telephone call from his son. The kid in the photo? “Dad, that’s Jahar.”

The Serial Killer Has Second Thoughts: The Confessions of Thomas Quick,” Chris Heath (GQ)

Sture Bergwall woke up at 5:30 a.m. this morning, as he does every morning, and at 6 a.m. he walked for an hour in the interior yard of the secure psychiatric unit at Säter hospital, his home for the past twenty-three years. He likes to do this every day, pacing a figure eight over and over again. Sometimes he listens to music, but more often to the morning news, eavesdropping on a world he was separated from more than two decades ago.

Google Invades,” Rebecca Solnit (London Review of Books)

The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.

Long Night at Today,” Joe Hagan (New York)

If Matt Lauer doesn’t want to be seen with sharp knives, it’s because last summer his co-host Ann Curry was discovered with one in her back. She was swiftly replaced by a younger, more genial woman, Savannah Guthrie. Ever since, Lauer has been the prime suspect in Curry’s virtual demise. Five million viewers, the majority of them women, would not soon forget how Curry, the intrepid female correspondent and emotionally vivid anchor, spent her last appearance on the Today show couch openly weeping, devastated at having to leave after only a year. The image of Matt Lauer trying to comfort her—and of Curry turning away from his attempted kiss—has become a kind of monument to the real Matt Lauer, forensic evidence of his guilt.

The Prism,” Jill Lepore (New Yorker)

The opening of Mazzini’s mail, like the revelations that the N.S.A. has been monitoring telephone, e-mail, and Internet use, illustrates the intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. Mazzini considered his correspondence private; the British government kept its reading of his mail secret. The A.C.L.U., which last week filed a suit against the Obama Administration, has called the N.S.A.’s surveillance program a “gross infringement” of the “right to privacy.” The Obama Administration has defended both the program and the fact that its existence has been kept secret.

Last Meals,” Brent Cunningham (Lapham’s Quarterly)

In January 1985, Pizza Hut aired a commercial in South Carolina that featured a condemned prisoner ordering delivery for his last meal. Two weeks earlier, the state had carried out its first execution in twenty-two years, electrocuting a man named Joseph Carl Shaw. Shaw’s last-meal request had been pizza, although not from Pizza Hut. Complaints came quickly; the spot was pulled, and a company official claimed the ad was never intended to run in South Carolina.

Taken,” Sarah Stillman (The New Yorker)

“The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.