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. Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? | Susan Dominus | New York Times Magazine | May 25, 2011 | 28 minutes (7,108 words)
Krista and Tatiana Hogan are 4-year-old craniopagus conjoined twins—joined at the head and sharing a neural bridge. Not only are they physically connected, but doctors and the family believe the girls can share senses:
“I listened to the family’s stories with some amount of skepticism. Perhaps they were imagining it or exaggerating for the sake of a good story. Then in one of the many idle moments of the five days I spent with the family, the girls were watching television, and I absent-mindedly gave Tatiana’s foot, which Krista could not see, a little tickle. She turned to me and smiled, and then Krista spoke: ‘Now do me,’ she said. Had she felt the sensation but wanted the emotional experience of knowing that she, too, was receiving that kind of playful attention?
“On another day, Simms picked up a thermometer that had been left on the kitchen table and, just for fun, placed it in Krista’s mouth. Almost immediately, Tatiana got a distant look in her eyes. ‘Not in mouth,’ she said, sounding angry. Then she was quiet, and her focus seemed to tack hard. Her tongue, visible in her half-open mouth, was moving in an unusual way, curling. I wondered if I was imagining something. But Rosa, her 8-year-old sister, noticed it, too.”
2. Falling Comet | Michael Hall | Texas Monthly | May 23, 2011 | 30 minutes (7,647 words)
The lonely final days of rock ‘n’ roll legend Bill Haley. The “Rock Around the Clock” singer, who died in in South Texas in 1981, battled alcoholism and his widow was reticent to discuss her husband’s life even three decades later:
“I tried to get Martha to talk about Haley’s lost years back in 2005, on the fiftieth anniversary of the explosion of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ but got nowhere. Her son, Pedro, who lives outside Dallas, told me how devastated she was about her husband’s death—still. She would not talk about him.
“Six years passed, and I tried again as we approached the thirtieth anniversary of Haley’s death. Again I called Pedro. He huddled with his sister Martha Maria, and they sat down and talked to their mom. ‘We want Daddy to be remembered and given proper credit,’ they told her, ‘and your behavior has been damaging to his legacy.’ Martha knew that that was true, she told them, but she wanted people to remember him the way they already did—smiling, happy, the way he’d been when she first met him. She didn’t want anyone to know that he had had demons. ‘Mom, look at Elvis,’ Pedro told her. ‘He had problems with drugs and he died terribly. But he’s still considered the King.'”
3. Homelessness in the Age of Bloomberg | Steven Boone | Capital New York | May 21, 2011 | 10 minutes (2,518 words)
One of a series of first-person dispatches from inside New York City’s homeless shelters. Here, Boone lays out the choices for a person living on the streets:
“A housing liaison gathered all the newcomers in a room to give us the rundown. We had four options: join Ready Willing and Able’s program, which prepared men to become street sweepers and janitors; sign up for a Bloomberg administration program which presents participants with a one-way ticket out of town, so long as the applicants could provide a contact person in the destination city who would agree to host them; enter the city’s shelter system, which the liaison accurately portrayed as a horror show, with gang-and-drug-infested death traps like Wards Island (Said one of my brethren, ‘Yo, I was at Wards Island one night, woke up and a dude was laying there dead, all cut the fuck up.’); or hop in the van with him to tour Brooklyn’s three-quarter sober houses, which were private residences that sounded a lot more promising than a shelter.
“I opted for the last one, and ended up staying at a three-quarter house in East New York, Brooklyn for seven months, until the economic crisis that fall brought in a whole new influx of desperate homeless. Then, suddenly, our utopia on the first floor was disrupted by violent, mentally ill housemates and a rodent problem that I tried in vain to solve with traps and an adopted cat. Since I had a job at that point and was paying rent just to stay in a room with three other guys and some very gregarious mice, I decided to leave. (At the time, I had no idea that these three-quarter houses were mostly illegal operations that conveniently siphoned off some of the city’s homeless ranks. No wonder the liaison pushed option number four so aggressively.)”
4. Just Desert | Wil S. Hylton | GQ | May 26, 2011 | 24 minutes (6,037 words)
How did an American soldier end up being accused of desertion after he was already discharged from the Army? The strange case of Phil McDowell:
“The day McDowell crossed the border was a turning point in more ways than one. It was the day he became a fugitive from military justice, but it was also the day he accepted that fate; the day he stopped wondering whether the stop loss was legal and began to call himself a deserter. After all, the army believed he was a deserter, and if they caught him, they’d put him in jail for it. Besides, McDowell didn’t mind the word. He liked the other deserters he met. Although the community of deserters in Toronto does not tend to socialize as one group—they have dispersed, like any young Americans would, into different neighborhoods and different scenes—when they do gather at fund-raisers and protests, McDowell feels a certain kinship with men like Chuck Wiley and Dean Walcott, who followed their conscience into service and then, like him, followed it back out.”
5. The Life and Times of Harvey Updyke | Wright Thompson | ESPN | May 24, 2011 | 12 minutes (3,021 words)
Face-to-face meeting with a football fan who took his obsession too far. Sixty-two year-old Alabama fan Harvey Updyke faces felony charges after allegedly poisoning the historic oak trees at Alabama rival Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner. Police connected Updyke to the confession of “Al from Dadeville” during a call-in radio show:
“So, anyway, he dials the number for Finebaum and is on the air.
“Al from Dadeville: The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Ala., because I lived 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer’s trees. I put Spike 80DF in ’em.
“Paul: Did they die?
“Al: Do what?
“Paul: Did … they … die?
“Al: They’re not dead yet, but they definitely will die.
“Paul: Is it against the law to poison a tree?
“Al: Do you think I care?
“Al: I really don’t! And you can tell Tammy, I hope … never mind. Roll Damn Tide!
“Harvey Updyke hung up the phone. He had just ruined his entire life in 62 words. Soon, the police would connect him with Al from Dadeville and nothing would ever be the same.”
Featured Longreader: Andrea Valdez @andreamvaldez
Andrea is an associate editor at TexasMonthly.com.
“My favorite Longread of the week was The People vs. Goldman Sachs, by Matt Taibbi, in Rolling Stone. In July 2009 Taibbi wrote the best sentence about the 2008 financial crisis—and possibly the best sentence in 21st Century journalism—when he described Goldman as ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.’ Though some may argue that there’s only so many times Taibbi can dip into the Goldman-Is-Evil well, I’ll happily read every word he writes about the crisis and the corporations that brought America to her knees.”
The People vs. Goldman Sachs | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone | May 11, 2011 | 24 minutes (6,039 words)