For the last few days, we’ve been sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. Now it’s time for the Top 10. For our full list, check out Longform’s Best of 2013.
1) Into the Lonely Quiet
Eli Saslow • Washington Post
The Barden family after Newtown.
The Bardens had already tried to change America’s gun laws by studying the Second Amendment and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. They had spoken at tea party rallies, posed for People magazine and grieved on TV with Katie Couric. They had taken advice from a public relations firm, learning to say “magazine limits” and not “magazine bans,” to say “gun responsibility” and never “gun control.” When none of that worked, they had walked the halls of Congress with a bag of 200 glossy pictures and beseeched lawmakers to look at their son: his auburn hair curling at the ears, his front teeth sacrificed to a soccer collision, his arms wrapped around Ninja Cat, the stuffed animal that had traveled with him everywhere, including into the hearse and underground.
Almost six months now, and so little had gotten through. So maybe a Mother’s Day card. Maybe that.
2) The Impossible Refugee Boat Lift to Christmas Island
Luke Mogelson • New York Times Magazine
Along for the ride with a boatload of refugees risking their lives.
It’s surprisingly simple, from Kabul, to enlist the services of the smugglers Australian authorities are so keen to apprehend. The problem was that every Afghan I spoke to who had been to Indonesia insisted that no Western journalist would ever be allowed onto a boat: Paranoia over agents was too high. Consequently, the photographer Joel van Houdt and I decided to pose as refugees. Because we are both white, we thought it prudent to devise a cover. We would say we were Georgian (other options in the region were rejected for fear of running into Russian speakers), had sensitive information about our government’s activities during the 2008 war (hence, in the event of a search, our cameras and recorders), traveled to Kabul in search of a smuggler and learned some Dari during our stay. An Afghan colleague of mine, Hakim (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), would pretend to be a local schemer angling for a foothold in the trade. It was all overly elaborate and highly implausible.
A rivalry gone awry.
What ended Kevin’s run of good fortune and plunged him into the world of conspiracy chasing was something he saw one night while cleaning out a clogged blood sump in the hospital morgue. Kevin was ordered off his usual beat in the ER to go tend to the mess. “I’m slipping and sliding in blood and guts. After three hours, I’m dehydrated, sweating, burning up. I gotta have something to drink.” In search of Dr Pepper, he peered into a seemingly innocuous Jenn-Air refrigerator, something Curtis and just about everyone who knows him wishes he could undo.
The first thing I saw was an arm, wrapped in plastic with a bar code, and a leg wrapped in plastic—the whole bottom portion of the refrigerator was legs, arms, feet, hands, and eyes, and a brain.” In the upper compartment, Kevin says, “was the severed head of a man I had seen alive in the ER a couple of nights before.
The discovery soon became a virus with an appetite for all that had been American Dream–like in Kevin Curtis’s life.
4) Thanksgiving in Mongolia
Ariel Levy • The New Yorker
Heartbreak at the edge of the earth.
My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover—even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.) Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.
People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.” I wasn’t truly scared of anything but the Mongolian winter. The tourist season winds down in October, and by late November, when I got on the plane, the nights drop to twenty degrees below zero. But I was prepared: I’d bought snow pants big enough to fit around my convex gut and long underwear two sizes larger than I usually wear.
5) The End and Don King
Jay Caspian Kang • Grantland
The crumbling of an American icon.
Don King no longer sits on boxing's throne, but he has nostalgia by the balls. Fights are best enjoyed through old film, which means that if you want to watch Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes or Mike Tyson or Julio Cesar Chavez or Evander Holyfield raise his arms in triumph at the end of a fight, you're also going to see the big man with the bigger hair climbing in through the ropes. You see him in the Philippines in 1975, hovering over a near-death Muhammad Ali after the Thrilla in Manila. You see him in Japan, 15 years later, looking more or less like the same man, crowding in on a battered and finally defeated Mike Tyson. He has negotiated deals with Mobutu Sese Seko and counted Hugo Chavez as a personal friend. Nobody alive, save some presidents, has taken more photos with world leaders and celebrities. As a boxing fan growing up in the '80s and early '90s, I cannot remember a single fight that didn't end with Don King in the ring, cigar clamped between his teeth. He is one of those big American men who distort our collective memory — I'm sure King's rival Bob Arum promoted some of the fights I watched as a kid, but when I think of the final bell, I still see the menacing hulk of Don King smiling for the cameras.
So it's a little sad to sit across from Don King at the Carnegie Deli and see the tourists line up at our table to take a photo with him, and to overhear them talk about the man in the past tense as if he were already dead. Not because Don King deserves our sympathy, but because it's always jarring to see a once-robust American institution fall into disrepair and decay. The cuffs on King's "Only in America" denim jacket — the same coat he wore to the Thrilla in Manila — are badly frayed. He sometimes stumbles over his words. There's a distinct sag in his once-static face. Don King never thought he would live past 50. He is 81 years old now and has been in the public's eye since the early '70s.
6) Invisible Child
Andrea Elliott • New York Times
The story of one of New York City’s 22,000 homeless children.
Dasani’s own neighborhood, Fort Greene, is now one of gentrification’s gems. Her family lives in the Auburn Family Residence, a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. It is a place where mold creeps up walls and roaches swarm, where feces and vomit plug communal toilets, where sexual predators have roamed and small children stand guard for their single mothers outside filthy showers.
It is no place for children. Yet Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.
Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.
7) Jahar's World
Janet Reitman • Rolling Stone
The multiple lives of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
An uneasy panic settled over Boston when it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers were not, as many assumed, connected to a terrorist group, but young men seemingly affiliated with no one but themselves. Russian émigrés, they had lived in America for a decade—and in Cambridge, a city so progressive it had its own "peace commission" to promote social justice and diversity. Tamerlan, known to his American friends as "Tim," was a talented boxer who'd once aspired to represent the United States in the Olympics. His little brother, Jahar, had earned a scholarship to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was thinking about becoming an engineer, or a nurse, or maybe a dentist—his focus changed all the time. They were Muslim, yes, but they were also American—especially Jahar, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen on September 11th, 2012.
8) 19: The True Story of the Yarnell Fire
Kyle Dickman • Outside
How 19 of the 20 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives.
His first sighting of the Yarnell Hill Fire would have come after rounding a bend just south of Rancho El Oso Road, eight miles from the blaze and on the outskirts of the horse ranches in Peeples Valley, a dispersed community of 428 people five miles north of Yarnell. For the team’s four rookies, like Robert’s cousin Grant McKee, whom Robert had talked into joining the crew that winter, the fire would have seemed entirely unimpressive: a few strands of white smoke drifting near the top of the ridge. Desert fires are deceptive, though, and Robert knew it. He’d worked blazes in the redwoods of California, the spruce stands of Minnesota, and the lodgepole thickets of Montana, but chaparral, where the Yarnell Hill Fire was burning, is a mix of scrub oak and brush that grows so dense it’s a struggle to walk through. When it’s dry, it’s a tinderbox. “It’s the brush that scares me most,” he used to tell his dad. “Fires just move faster in it.”
9) The American Cloud
Venkatesh Rao • Aeon
How America’s heartland powers its coastal fantasies.
Gilman anticipated, by some 30 years, the fundamental contours of industrial-age selling. Both the high-end faux-naturalism of Whole Foods and the budget industrial starkness of Costco have their origins in the original A&P retail experience. The modern system of retail pioneered by Gilman—distant large-scale production facilities coupled with local human-scale consumption environments—was the first piece of what I’ve come to think of as the ‘American cloud’: the vast industrial back end of our lives that we access via a theatre of manufactured experiences. If distant tea and coffee plantations were the first modern clouds, A&P stores and mail-order catalogues were the first browsers and apps.
10) Blood Spore
Hamilton Morris • Harper's
The murder of magic mushroom pioneer Steven Pollock.
In July 2011, on the hottest day of the year, I received a fragile-looking Maxell compact cassette from a retired psychology professor and gerbil-aggression researcher named Gary Davis. I had been told the cassette contained a recording of two police officers discussing their involvement in the robbery and murder of one Steven Pollock, a physician and pioneering mycologist who—despite invaluable contributions to the field, including an improved technique for growing psychedelic mushrooms on Purina Dog Chow—remains largely unknown. Carefully labeled police crook 6/17/81, the cassette had for thirty years been stored in a toolbox under two dozen inoperative WWII-era Geiger counters in Davis’s mother’s house. I had offered to pay for the tape but Davis refused, insisting he just wanted it to be heard by as many people as possible, then backtracking and suggesting he wouldn’t mind terribly if I sent him twenty dollars for beer. I was worried about the tape’s integrity and had been reading anxiously about the myriad problems that befall aging magnetic media—binder embrittlement, remanence reduction, even fungal contamination—and the transaction was further charged by a stern warning from another source: “This information should be treated with due caution. Some of these cops, if still living, could be very dangerous.” ”
For more of the year’s great writing, check out Longform’s Best of 2013.