Enjoy the best longform journalism. Every Sunday.

Lost in America by Luke Cyphers and Teri Thompson for Bleacher Report

The week's best reads, carefully curated by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jacob Feldman. Today's guest editor is Albert Samaha.



   SUNDAY — JUNE 19, 2016   

HEADS UP: We will be off next week but will return July 3rd.

EDITORS' NOTE: Good morning! Another week, another incredible guest editor. This week, give a warm welcome to Albert Samaha, who writes about criminal justice for BuzzFeed.


Based out of New York, Albert has given us heartbreaking narratives and eye-opening investigations from the Deep South to Chicago. If you haven't been following his reports, you really should change that.


Anyway, he was nice enough to take on the entire newsletter duty this week, selecting his favorite recent stories as well as adding seven older stories that have influenced him (see below).


What’s up, world. Many thanks to Don and Jacob for giving me the opportunity to fill this space this week. It’s an honor to be here. I had a lot of fun putting this together.
You probably don’t know who I am, so let’s get a quick backstory out of the way. Before I joined BuzzFeed in 2014, I came up in alt-weeklies and have worked for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, SF Weekly in Frisco (and here’s why you should indeed call it Frisco), and The Village Voice in New York City.
Those were fun, hard, fast-paced years. We alt-weekly staff writers grinded out a blog post a day and a longform feature every five weeks and there were many sleepless weekends of deadline work, but where else in media could a fresh-out-of-school twenty-something write eight-to-ten long reads a year under the guidance of experienced and skilled editors? It was a great setting to learn the craft in — to develop sources, study the ins and outs of a city’s neighborhoods, build and juggle a constant stream of fully-baked story ideas, turn those ideas into artfully structured four-to-six thousand-word narratives then trade half a dozen edits and rewrites with an editor in about a week, and then jump right into the next story when the sun comes up on publication day.
So shoutout to alt-weeklies. They fill a unique role in the media ecosystem and they continue to produce good journalism. May they live long.
This is a shaky industry, man, and I’m lucky to be able to make a living writing these stories. Here are some of the ones I’m most proud of from the past year or so: about a 17-year-old boy murdered in Chicago; a Mississippi man lynched by a group of white teens; and an exonerated man’s struggle in the “so-called free world” after two decades of wrongful imprisonment. (You can find a collection of my stories here:
Anyway, there were many good stories out this week. Here are the ones I enjoyed most.

***Given all of the awesome material Albert brought this week, your e-mail provider might clip this newsletter. You can view it in full here.***

The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus's Wife

By Ariel Sabar

 (~55 minutes)

This story is a testament to persistent reporting. It begins with an ancient scrap of papyrus that seems to suggest that Jesus had a wife. From there, Ariel Sabar takes us on a winding, intriguing journey, full of twists and reveals, tracing back the origins of this potentially groundbreaking document. The road to truth passes through Walter Fritz, a mysterious and strange man who has worked, at various times, as an amateur Egyptologist, a museum director, an auto-parts company owner, and an internet adult filmographer. And not long into this read, the story’s core question suddenly shifts from “So did Jesus have a wife or nah?” to “Wait — what’s the deal with this Fritz guy?” The question grips tighter and tighter all the way to the satisfying end.
And for after reading the story, here’s a follow-up with thoughts from the Harvard scholar who for years defended the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”

Kim Kardashian West Has a Few Things to Get Off Her Chest

By Caity Weaver

 (~25 minutes)

An insightful and unpretentious portrait of Kim Kardashian West lined with some legit funny (laughing with, not at) moments. A fine example of what a celebrity profile should accomplish. 

Inside the Underground Economy Propping Up New York City's Food Carts

By Jeff Koyen

(~20 minutes)

“Today’s mobile food vending business is one of day laborers and shift workers who, despite hustling all week long, may not earn minimum wage,” writes Jeff Koyen in this fascinating look behind the scenes of a world we New Yorkers see everyday.
Home Free

By Jennifer Gonnerman

 (~40 minutes) 


When I worked at The Village Voice, I sometimes scoured the backroom archives for old Jennifer Gonnerman stories. Her byline remains a must-read, and her latest in The New Yorker explores the experience of Derrick Hamilton, who spent his days over many years in prison diving into law books and writing longhand briefs in an effort to prove his innocence.
(For more on this subject, here’s a story I wrote about Louis Scarcella, the infamous NYPD detective accused of framing Hamilton and many other innocent men.)
Lost in America

By Luke Cyphers and Teri Thompson

 (~60 minutes)

George Flint, founder of a prep school in Georgia, promised teenagers from around the world an American education and a shot at their professional sports dreams. But when they arrived on campus, as this hefty Bleacher Report investigation details, they found a much different reality, one so stark that it drove some of them to risk their student visas and run away.  
Who Owns Southern Food?

By Tunde Wey and John T. Edge

 (~20 minutes)


"White privilege is an obscene thing," writes Tunde Wey, a Nigerian-American chef living in New Orleans. "It takes everything, quietly, until there is only silence left." In this tag-team essay with food writer John T. Edge, Wey explores the nature of appropriation in food culture — and the way too many white people deny this reality, therefore denying America's history of oppression and exploitation. The wisdom in this essay — and the whole thing is a verbal manifestation of the fire emoji — applies far beyond the culinary world.
Double Jeopardy

By Raillan Brooks

 (~5 minutes)


In the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre, this clear and thoughtful essay — which Raillan Brooks turned around fast enough for it to be the cover story of this week’s The Village Voice — untangles homophobia from Islam, an unfair connection loaded with complicated historical context. “People like me were massacred for who they were, and people like me get blamed for it because of who they are,” writes Brooks. “Neither side realizes it's being played against the other.” 

There was a lot of powerful writing in the wake of last week’s tragedy. Dominic Holden, who has covered LGBT issues more prolifically and insightfully than perhaps any other reporter in the country, filed a vivid piece of on-the-ground reportage less than a day after the attack. Shannon Keating provided a collection of quotes and anecdotes that help illustrate “why queer bars matter.” In The Atlantic, Matt Thompson, who wrote that he remained closeted from his parents for years, imagined “the possibility that someone like us was hurt or murdered at Pulse on Sunday morning, outed in the very worst way, in a phone call every family dreads.” And at the Tony Awards, reciting a poem, Lin-Manuel Miranda said, “Love is love is love is love.”
In Oakland, a Team and a City on the Verge of Gentrification

By Tarin Towers

 (~15 minutes)


I grew up in the Bay Area and remember the nights when I spent less than $20 for a nose-bleed ticket to watch Donyell Marshall or Jason Richardson or Monta Ellis keep a game close for three quarters before faltering to a superior team in the end. Those nights are long gone now, and the price of Golden State Warrior victory has been steep. But it is not merely historic success that has driven up tickets to near-Hamilton level cost and demand. As this smart piece by Tarin Towers illustrates, the franchise's rapid evolution has mirrored the region's. The rabid working-class fan base that made "Roaracle" the most rowdy, loud, and vibrant arena in the league has been pushed out by a wave of newer, richer, perhaps less-raucous fans  — just as the working-class residents that made the Bay Area one of the most diverse and vibrant places in the country are being pushed out by a wave of newer, richer residents.
Three Days On The Trail With America's Most Radical Pro-Gun Candidate

By Nick R. Martin

 (~35 minutes)


This story opens with a congressional candidate from Nevada explaining to voters why the area’s empty mine shafts would be the perfect place to stash Senator Harry Reid’s body if, hypothetically speaking, he was murdered. Nick Martin unveils a hell of a lede and the rest of the story, about a candidate dubbed the “female version of Donald Trump,” keeps up the pace. 

Ebbu and the Rise and Fall of a Modern Weed Dealer

By Alex Halperin

 (~40 minutes)

A promising start up. A CEO who says things like “It’s about creating something that’s going to be bigger than Facebook or Google.” A series of deceptions by that CEO. All together, this is a classic tale of a company’s rise and stumble — with weed science and complex new marijuana policies thrown in. 

A Lab-Grown Diamond is Forever

By Chavie Lieber

 (~30 minutes)

Synthetic diamonds are becoming more and more indistinguishable from the real things, and there is a push to have the lab-grown variety replace the authentic ones mined from the earth. Of course, not everybody is on board with this plan, including the diamond mogul who, in real life, declared, “The woman expects the man to give her something valuable that retains value just like their relationship. Snapchat Millennials or not, getting engaged to be married is not about creating a snap-relationship with a snap-synthetic diamond that does not retain value.” 
PNL's World or Nothing

By Atossa Abrahamian

 (~20 minutes)


French rapper duo PNL, a hip and enigmatic pair of brothers so hip and enigmatic nobody knows their last name, makes music that captures the economic despair and political frustrations of the country’s young people.  Or as Atossa Abrahamian puts it, “In 2016, when so many twentysomethings are united by the threat of no future and a love of the rapper Future, PNL are combining the two to seize the world they claim as their own.”
Occupied Territory

By Ryan Lizza

 (~30 minutes)


In this story, on the GOP’s internal dilemma over whether or not to accept Trump as the party’s leader, Ryan Lizza paints a sober and fair narrative without shying from the true ugliness of Trump’s candidacy: If, in the near future, a younger, more likeable politician picks up Trump’s message and adjusts it just enough to be palpable to a wider range of voters — the way Richard Nixon built a winning strategy on the foundations of Barry Goldwater’s extremist platform — “then we will remember Trump for reintroducing overt racism into mainstream politics and for imbuing the Republican Party with a new economic populism.” 

Zika: The Epidemic at America's Door

By Janet Reitman

 (~30 minutes)

Janet Reitman’s dispatch on the fear of Zika virus looming over Puerto Rico, which expects a deluge of infections from the swarms of mosquitos that emerge after spring and summer rain. 

Who Owns Star Trek?

By Adam B. Vary

 (~40 minutes)

A decades-long chronicle of “how fans have exerted their power over one of the most valuable properties in Hollywood.”
In the Depths of the Digital Age

By Edward Mendelson

 (~20 minutes)

“For the first time, practically anyone could be found and intruded upon, not only at some fixed address at home or at work, but everywhere and at all times,” Edward Mendelson writes in this essay. The digital age has altered our sense of self — in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. But, optimistically, what has not changed over the centuries is that we still retain agency and control over how we choose to use our technology. 

96 Minutes (2006)

By Pamela Colloff

 (~50 minutes)

Charles Whitman ushered in the American tradition of the mass shooting 50 years ago when he climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower and started blasting. This oral history tells the story.

Jack Shafer writes about media for Politico.


These are some stories, both non-fiction and fiction, that I think have shaped my writing the most, and I like to share them whenever I can, along with some words on what I learned from them. 

The Man Child

By James Baldwin

I couldn’t find a link to this, but that’s probably for the best because everybody should own Baldwin’s short story collection Going to Meet the Man. “The Man Child” doesn’t carry the social, racial, and sexual weight embedded in most of Baldwin’s work, but it is a searing narrative, a masterwork of subtlety and pacing and subtext that seems to gain speed to the end. 
The Silent Season of a Hero (1966)

By Gay Talese

 (~40 minutes)

Years before I realized that Gay Talese is a Problematic Fave, I read this story and it is what made me want to write literary journalism (or narrative non-fiction or magazine writing or features or longform or whatever you want to call it). Talese structured his stories through a handful of scenes, but the hard part is getting the scenes and catching the relevant details and figuring out how each scene ties into the context and thesis of the story, and sometimes when I’m having trouble with that, I go back and re-read this. It’s a reminder that the foundation of a smooth read is excessive reporting. 

Cell One (2007)

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 (~25 minutes)

This story, about a teenage boy’s descent into delinquency, sizzles with an understated realism. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie conveys depth of emotion so clearly and efficiently with the slightest details, like: “The policeman on duty, the one with tribal marks on his cheeks who always said ‘God bless you’ when he took his bribe, looked away when he saw us, and I knew that something was wrong.”

Strange Rumblings in Aztlan

By Hunter S. Thompson

I picked up a lot of bad habits from Hunter S. Thompson during my college newspaper days and it took a while to iron them out and I probably still have a few left. But what I really appreciate about him is the way he shows how much fun you can have writing journalism and how malleable journalistic formulas can be — to really think about stories creatively, to let loose on the page. 

Politics and the English Language (1946)

By George Orwell

 (~30 minutes)

Before I read this, the words in my stories were purple and pretentious and indulgent (even more than they are now). My favorite lesson from this essay is that the value of a piece of writing is not in the relationship between the writer and the work, but between the work and the reader. In other words, clarity and simplicity.

Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream

By Joan Didion

 (~35 minutes)

I admire the way Joan Didion injects Big Ideas About Society into her stories, without it seeming forced or heavy handed. This one, about a murder in southern California, pulls you into time and place so forcefully with perfectly selected details like “a modest house on the kind of street where there are always tricycles and revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets.”




By Junot Diaz

Negocios (sorry, no link here either), read alongside the other stories in Junot Diaz’s Drown collections, uses point of view like Mike Tyson used his uppercut. In the other stories we learn about a son in the Dominican Republic whose father left for America, and then suddenly, in Negocios, the book’s last story, we see it all through the father’s eyes. The words flow so effortlessly: the casual prose, the vernacular, the way Diaz doesn’t use quotes and you can still tell when the narrator picks back up — and it all sets a tone that fits the world he has pulled us into.

Three Days On the Trail with America's Most Radical Pro-Gun Candidate For Congress

Michele Fiore stood at the front of the meeting hall at an American Legion Post in the small casino town of Laughlin, Nevada, and told the crowd about the circumstances that had led her to run for Congress. The seat, she explained, is currently held by Republican Joe Heck, who’s leaving to run for the Senate. The Senate seat, in turn, is being vacated by the most powerful Democrat in the chamber, Minority Leader Harry Reid, who is retiring after more than three decades in Congress.
Fiore, 45, had no need to use Reid’s last name or title. Around here, the name Harry was enough. He was born about 40 minutes away from Laughlin and has represented the state for longer than Brooklyn-born Fiore has lived there. A hint of Fiore’s New York upbringing came out as she said the name with an extra-long vowel in the middle: Haarry.
“This area is Joe Heck’s area,” she said. “And Joe is running for Harry’s seat, ’cause Harry’s retiring.” A hallelujah came up from the center of the room.
“Finally!” said Bobbie Burcar, an 82-year-old dealer at one of the local casinos. “I can’t imagine how come he hasn’t been shot before now.”
Fiore laughed and went with it. “I know! I know,” Fiore said. “I can’t believe he lived this long with all these empty mine shafts. Anyway…”
“Good idea!” Burcar interjected.
“You know, they’re abandoned, so it’s not like anyone’s going to be hiking out there, right?” Fiore said. “And there’s a lot of rattlesnakes. So god forbid they did find his body, they’d find lots of poison. So it’d be just perfect.”



The Big Interview


“If you came from eatin’ cereal with roaches in it before, Dawg . . . Feel what I’m sayin’? You wouldn’t want to do that again, right? Once you’ve seen the lowest of the low, you don’t want to go back.”


—Marshawn Lynch



By Kevin Powell

 (~25 minutes)

June 16th would have marked Tupac Shakur’s 45th birthday. Among his immense talents, Pac was a great storyteller — vivid and clear and empathetic. When people ask me how I ended up writing about criminal justice, I say it was because I listened to so much Pac as a kid. And here’s the New York Times obit for Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, who died last month and was perhaps his greatest influence.


Golden State Warriors Vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

By Ximo Pierto

 (~10 minutes)

One of my favorite recent developments on the internet: meaty, 10-minute long “full highlights” of basketball games, containing every significant moment and momentum shift and nearly every made shot, posted on Youtube just hours after the final buzzer. Here’s the one from the best regular season game of the year, the epic February clash between the Warriors and Thunder:


Interview With a Woman Who Recently Had an Abortion at 32 Weeks

By Jia Tolentino

 (~40 minutes)

Jia Tolentino announced that she is leaving Jezebel for The New Yorker in June. This extensive, emotional interview is one of the many unforgettable pieces she'll leave behind.

"Campaign gurus" for Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz reflect on losing to Donald Trump

By Sam Stein

 (~30 minutes)


The Big Interview: Marshawn Lynch

By Jon Wertheim

 (~10 minutes)

Jon Wertheim speaks to the man we've been waiting to hear from for so long.


Best Finals Games

By #NBARank Panel

 (~5 minutes)

Happy Game 7 Day, everybody. Go Dubs. Here are the best NBA Finals games, ranked. 

An Oral History of Hyphy

By Steven J. Horowitz

 (~25 minutes)

The Hyphy Movement’s sound and style leaped from Bay Area street scenes to mainstream radio — and then evaporated almost immediately after that.
The Oral History of Nicktoons

By Caseen Gaines and Mathew Klickstein

 (~25 minutes)

In Nickelodeon’s early (and somewhat revolutionary) cartoon block, “Your broccoli was Doug. Rugrats was Spaghetti-O’s. And then dessert was Ren & Stimpy.”

An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar

By Vijith Assar

 (~5 minutes)

I love this interactive guide on the virtue of precise language, designed by Vijith Assar. Be sure to read through to the end.


From The Wall Street Journal: 
Job-Seeking Ph.D. Holders Look to Life Outside School

"The percentage of new doctorate recipients without jobs or plans for further study climbed to 39% in 2014 from 31% in 2009, according to a National Science Foundation survey released in April. Median salaries for midcareer Ph.D.s working full time fell 6% between 2010 and 2013."

From Torkildson:

A Ph.D. ain't worth much now.
There's too much milk, not enough cow.
A doctorate means
no hill of great beans;
try using the sweat of your brow.


Tim Torkildson is a retired circus clown. His work has appeared in The New York Times and The Huffington Post. He is currently re-inventing the limerick, one anapest at a time.

SF Marks the Very Middle of Town, More or Less

By Steve Rubenstein

 (~5 minutes)

A short, delightful, wonderfully subtle piece on the location of San Francisco’s geographic center. And after you read that one, read this for a bonus chuckle.

Chance The Rapper - Summer Friends ( Coloring Book)

      Summer Friends

By Chance the Rapper

Read Later
Founder, Curator: Don Van Natta Jr.
Producer, Curator: Jacob Feldman
Senior Editor of Recycling: Jack Shafer
Senior Limerick Editor: Tim Torkildson

Contributing Editors: Taffy Akner, Bruce Arthur, Alex Belth, Sara Blask, Chris Cillizza, Rich Cohen, Pam Colloff, Maureen Dowd, Brett Michael Dykes, Maggie Haberman, Reyhan Harmanci, Jena Janovy, Bomani Jones, Mina Kimes, Tom Lamont, Jonathan Martin, Betsy Fischer Martin, Ana Menendez, Kevin Merida, Eric Neel, Anne Helen Petersen, S.L. Price, Albert Samaha, Bruce Schoenfeld, Joe Sexton, Dan Shanoff, Ben Smith, Wright Thompson, Pablo Torre, John A. Walsh, and Seth Wickersham


Header image: Edward Linsmier

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