Five stories that you must stop and read, right now: last night’s winners in the National Magazine Awards for feature writing, reporting, essays, multimedia and fiction (you don’t need us to remind you that there’s a lot to learn about narrative nonfiction from short stories and novels). Below are the five must-reads — plus bonus reads — followed by the finalists in those categories. For the American Society of Magazine Editors’ full list of nominees, go here.
1) “A Loaded Gun,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker, about the killer Amy Bishop and the questions surrounding her long-ago shooting of her younger brother. Winner, Feature Writing. Excerpt:
When I spoke to Amy on the phone, she said that she was “horrified” by her brother’s death. She insisted that it had been an accident, but said that she nevertheless felt “guilty.” For months after the shooting, she crawled into bed with her parents. During the day, friends had to coax her to leave the house. Today, a young person who had witnessed—or been responsible for—the violent death of a sibling would almost certainly receive therapy. But Amy received no counselling or psychiatric evaluation after Seth’s death. Her father was not a big believer in psychiatry, and Amy told me that she had not wanted to confront what had happened. “I was very insular, sticking to the house and trying to get over things,” she recalled. “I felt terrible. I didn’t want to explore feeling terrible.” The Bishops chose not to move, so Amy continued to eat meals in the kitchen where her brother had died, and to walk past his bedroom, which her parents had left intact, with its Revolutionary War wallpaper and a handmade sign above the door—an old woodworking project that bore the chiselled letters “s-e-t-h.”
Also read Keefe’s:
—”The Hunt for El Chapo,” The New Yorker, about the capture of the world’s most notorious drug lord.
—”The Jefferson Bottles,” The New Yorker, about a rare-wine collector’s search for the truth about the authenticity of the most expensive wine ever sold at auction.
—”Buried Secrets,” The New Yorker, about a massive iron-ore deposit in Guinea and the Israeli billionaire with the mining rights.
2) “The Dream Boat,” by Luke Mogelson, New York Times magazine, about the perilous water route refugees take from Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Winner, Reporting. Excerpt:
The sea was still big when the sun went down, taking with it the warmth. Those of us who had spent the day on our feet now began staking claims on places to try to sleep. The deck became a claustrophobic scrum of tangled limbs. Few could recline or stretch their legs. Each time someone tried to reposition a foot or knee, say, to restore some circulation, the movement would ripple out in a cascade of shifting and grumbling as the surrounding bodies adjusted to the new configuration.
Also read Mogelson’s:
—”The River Martyrs,” The New Yorker, about the dead of the River Queig, in Aleppo.
—”Which Way Did the Taliban Go?“, New York Times magazine, about the Afghan National Army’s move toward independence.
—”The Great Taliban Jailbreak,” GQ, about the escape of hundreds of prisoners.
3) “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” by Ariel Levy, The New Yorker, about losing a baby while on assignment in Ulaanbaatar. Winner, Essays and Criticism. Excerpt:
He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.
Also read Levy’s:
—”Breaking the Waves,” The New Yorker, a profile of the swimmer Diana Nyad.
—”Trial by Twitter,” The New Yorker, about an infamous rape case, in Steubenville, West Virginia.
—”The Perfect Wife,” The New Yorker, a profile of Edith Windsor, whose lawsuit successfully challenged the Defense of Marriage Act.
4) “The Last Chase,” by Robert Draper, National Geographic, about the death of a storm chaser. Winner, Multimedia. Excerpt:
It’s shortly after six in the evening on May 31, 2013. Sitting in the passenger seat of the white Chevrolet Cobalt, the 55-year-old, bookishly handsome storm chaser momentarily gapes at the video camera that the driver of the car is pointing at his face. Then he looks back through the window at the outskirts of El Reno, Oklahoma. The wheat fields are eerily aglow and shudder from a vicious wind. No more than two miles away from the car, twin funnel clouds spiral downward from an immensity of blackness. What we hear in the man’s voice on the videotape is not quite terror. Nor, however, do his words sound clinically factual, in the manner of the scientist he happens to be. “Oh, my God. This is gonna be a huge one,” he says.
5) “The Embassy of Cambodia,” a short story by Zadie Smith, The New Yorker. Winner, Fiction. Excerpt:
Also read/hear Smith’s:
—White Teeth, a novel.
—NPR interview on essay writing and process.
—Ten rules of writing, which includes, “Don’t confuse honours with achievement.”
“The Way of All Flesh,” by Ted Conover, Harper’s, about the cattle processing industry:
First the cattle are weighed. Then they are guided into narrow outdoor pens angled diagonally toward the entrance to the kill floor. A veterinarian arrives before our shift and begins to inspect them; she looks for open wounds, problems walking, signs of disease. When their time comes, the cattle will be urged by workers toward the curving ramp that leads up into the building. The ramp has a roof and no sharp turns. It was designed by the livestock expert Temple Grandin, and the curves and penumbral light are believed to soothe the animals in their final moments. But the soothing goes only so far.
“Nineteen,” by Kyle Dickman, Outside, about the death, on the job, of 19 elite firefighters in a single Arizona blaze:
Indeed, by midafternoon, the flames had reached the doorsteps of the outer line of houses in Peeples Valley. But none of them would burn. At approximately 3:50 P.M., the wind began to shift. The thunderstorm stopped sucking in air and started blowing it out. The vacuum was now a leaf blower. Truman compares the way the fire bellowed to a volcanic eruption—a storm within a storm that was suddenly pivoting and heading straight toward Yarnell.
“Crimes Unpunished” and “The Horror Everyday,” a two-part series by Emily DePrang, the Texas Observer, on police brutality. From “The Horror:”
Sebastian Prevot watched helplessly as three police officers advanced on his wife. Prevot was handcuffed and bleeding in the back of a cop car. Half of his left ear dangled where it had been torn from his head. The Houston Police Department doesn’t deny that its officers gave Prevot these injuries during a late-night arrest in January 2012. The only dispute is whether he earned them.
“Jahar’s World,” by Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone, about the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:
All of the Tsarnaev children went to Rindge, as the school is known, but it was Jahar who assimilated best. Though he’d arrived in America speaking virtually no English, by high school he was fluent, with only a trace of an accent, and he was also fluent in the local patois. (Among his favorite words, his friends say, was “sherm,” Cambridge slang for “slacker.”) Jahar, or “Jizz,” as his friends also called him, wore grungy Pumas, had a great three-point shot and became a dedicated pot smoker – something a number of Cambridge teens tell me is relatively standard in their permissive community, where you can score weed in the high school bathrooms and smoke on the street without much of a problem. A diligent student, he was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team. “He was one of those kids who’s just a natural,” says Payack, his coach, who recalls Jahar as a supportive teammate who endured grueling workouts and runs without a single complaint. In his junior year, the team made him a captain. By then, everyone knew him as ‘Jahar,’ which his teammates would scream at matches to ensure the refs would never mispronounce his name.
“The River Martyrs,” by Luke Mogelson, The New Yorker, about Aleppo, and the bodies washing up in the River Queiq:
The corpse, a middle-aged man shot through the neck and head, lay on a plastic grain sack, still wet. Two young men grabbed the edges of the sack and lowered him to the ground. He gave off a sharp smell of sodden carrion; flies buzzed around his wounds. From the street, a child wearing the signature headband of the Free Syrian Army, the F.S.A., which encompasses the majority of rebel groups fighting the Syrian government, watched through the bars of the fence. Apathetic old men stopped, stared, pulled their sweaters up over their noses. When a lanky, bearded man wearing black boots, black nylon pants, and a black pleather jacket appeared, the crowd deferentially made way. The man, Hisham, buried the first victims here after the massacre in January, and had subsequently made it his job to attend to some of the war’s unidentified dead. Officially, he is the head of the Office of the River Martyrs, which consists of Hisham and one helper, a defector from the Syrian Army who goes by the name Derawi. They work out of an abandoned kindergarten a few blocks away.
“The Sinking of the Bounty,” by Matthew Shaer, The Atavist, about the ship that sailed directly into the path of Hurricane Sandy, with deadly results. (Paywall.) From the intro:
It was one of the strangest sights the Coast Guard pilots had ever seen: a tall-masted wooden ship, the kind that sailed centuries ago, capsizing in the wind and towering waves of Hurricane Sandy off the coast of North Carolina. It looked like something out of a movie—and, in a way, it was. The ship was the Bounty, a replica of a British merchant vessel of the same name whose crew famously mutinied in 1789. She had been built for a Marlon Brando film in the 1960s—and now she was sinking, her sixteen-person crew fleeing into the sea amid the splintered wood and torn canvas.
“Dangerous,” by Joshua Davis, Wired, about the troubled life and flight from justice of software developer John McAfee:
It was a Monday, about 4:50 am. A television flickered in the guard station of McAfee’s newly built, 2.5-acre jungle outpost on the Belizean mainland. At the far end of the property, a muddy river flowed slowly past. Crocodiles lurked on the opposite bank, and howler monkeys screeched. In the guard station, a drunk night watchman gaped at Blond Ambition, a Madonna concert DVD. The guard heard the trucks first. Then boots hitting the ground and the gate rattling as the lock was snapped with bolt cutters. He stood up and looked outside. Dozens of men in green camouflage were streaming into the compound. Many were members of Belize’s Gang Suppression Unit, an elite force trained in part by the FBI and armed with Taurus MT-9 submachine guns. Formed in 2010, their mission was to dismantle criminal organizations.
“Bret, Unbroken,” by Steve Friedman, Runners World, about a near-death experience and the healing discovery of running:
You were 6, a kindergartner, and it was October, and you were running across the street in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, on the outskirts of Milwaukee, to see your best friend’s new toy truck. His grandmother had been visiting from North Dakota and he was hollering for you to come see it, so you broke from your older brothers, Eric and Mark, and darted into the street. Approaching from behind a curve at the bottom of a hill, the driver of a pickup truck happened into the worst moment of his life. On one side, a little boy and his grandmother and his toy truck and five other children, all waiting for the school bus. On the other side, your brothers. All of them gaping at you, in the middle of the road.
“The Day Before, by David Kamp, Vanity Fair, about the day before the Newtown shootings:
Father Bob Weiss awoke in an upbeat mood, nothing but good things on his calendar. Today: his eighth-graders’ annual pre-Christmas trip to New York City. Tomorrow: a day off. Earlier in the week, he had pleasantly surprised himself by getting ahead of schedule. By Wednesday he’d somehow powered through the completion of his routine church business along with the inscribing and mailing of the 800 or so personal holiday cards that he felt compelled, as the pastor of St. Rose of Lima, Newtown’s only Roman Catholic church, to send out. Plus, he had already taken care of most of his holiday shopping, and the rectory’s decorations had gone up. All he was going to do on Friday, apart from take it easy, was wrap presents.
“Orders of Grief,” by Lisa Miller, New York magazine, about the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.:
For weeks, nobody slept. On the first night after the shootings in December, Raul Arguello lay awake in his bed in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, listening to the sirens coming from the direction of his daughters’ school. His children, thank God, were warm and breathing under his roof, but the sirens reminded him that bodies—twenty of them first-graders—were being taken from the building under the cover of darkness and brought somewhere, maybe the morgue. The next day, in their large, comfortable house on a high hill, Robert and Debora Accomando made meatballs and spaghetti sauce for all the families, feeling that it was the least they could do; one of the murdered boys had been on the same wrestling team as their son. Twenty minutes down the highway, in Waterbury, Lisa Brown was riveted to the cable news. Ten years earlier, her own daughter had died, suddenly, of an asthma attack, and now she felt the parents’ pain like a hole in her own heart. Lisa heard her daughter that first night telling her what to do: Raise $15,000 to buy a bronze angel, and donate it to the town in honor of the dead.
“The Misfits,” by Stephen Rodrick, the New York Times magazine, about Lindsay Lohan:
Lindsay Lohan moves through the Chateau Marmont as if she owns the place, but in a debtor-prison kind of way. She’ll soon owe the hotel $46,000. Heads turn subtly as she slinks toward a table to meet a young producer and an old director. The actress’s mother, Dina Lohan, sits at the next table. Mom sweeps blond hair behind her ear and tries to eavesdrop. A few tables away, a distinguished-looking middle-aged man patiently waits for the actress. He has a stack of presents for her.
“Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building,” by Wright Thompson, ESPN The Magazine, about the basketball legend at age 50:
Back in the office after his vacation on a 154-foot rented yacht named Mister Terrible, he feels that relaxation slipping away. He feels pulled inward, toward his own most valuable and destructive traits. Slights roll through his mind, eating at him: worst record ever, can’t build a team, absentee landlord. Jordan reads the things written about him, the fuel arriving in a packet of clips his staff prepares. He knows what people say. He needs to know, a needle for a hungry vein. There’s a palpable simmering whenever you’re around Jordan, as if Air Jordan is still in there, churning, trying to escape. It must be strange to be locked in combat with the ghost of your former self.
“Coronado High,” by Joshuah Bearman, The Atavist, about 1970s surfers who doubled as criminal masterminds. (Paywall.) From the intro:
Nobody would’ve figured the kids from the sleepy beach town of Coronado, California, for criminal masterminds. They were just some hippie surfers, high school friends who’d come up with the idea of swimming bundles of marijuana across the border from Tijuana during the summer of 1969. Within a decade, however, the Coronado Company had become the largest pot-smuggling operation on the West Coast, a $100 million empire with outposts from Mexico to Morocco to Thailand. And sitting at the top of it all was the most improbable of kingpins: Lou Villar, a former Spanish teacher and swimming coach at Coronado High School.
“Roe v. Wade Turns 40,” The Daily Beast, about the landmark abortion case’s birthday, and a call to action:
Following a year in which female legislators were silenced and sanctioned for daring to say the word “vagina” in a debate about onerous abortion restrictions, when politicians attempted to justify denying abortion to rape survivors, and when too many other assaults on abortion rights occurred to list here, it is imperative that we tell our stories and explain why the right to abortion is fundamental to achieving women’s equality and providing families with the opportunity to thrive.
“A Game of Shark and Minnow,” by Jeff Himmelman, New York Times magazine, about who will control the South China Sea:
On the deck of the Sierra Madre, with morning sun slanting off the bright blue water and the crowing of a rooster for a soundtrack, Staff Sgt. Joey Loresto and Sgt. Roy Yanto were improvising. Yanto, a soft-spoken 31-year-old, had lost an arrow spearfishing on the shoal the day before. Now he had pulled the handle off an old bucket and was banging it straight with a rusty mallet in an attempt to make it into a spear. Everything on the Sierra Madre was this way — improvised, repurposed. “Others came prepared,” Loresto said of previous detachments that had been briefed about life on the boat before they arrived and knew they would need to fish to supplement their diet. “But we were not prepared.”
“Vision Quest,” by Clive Thompson, Wired, about the transformative effects of technology on art, and the creator of the art/performance project Station to Station:
In the past half-century, technology has endowed us with crazy new modes of perception and creation: satellites, digital cameras and filters, CAD, 3-D printing, Google. These are the new center of gravity for emerging art. The latest generation of artists has grown up with their lives brokered on social networks, recorded by omnipresent cameras, sorted via search algorithms, connected instantly across hemispheres—a life full of behavioral nudging and corporate logic. Like Aitken, they’re not just talking about the effects of all this technology. They’re using the technology itself as the clay for their art—producing works made of code that run in your browser, on Google Maps, on videogame systems. This is a scene where art is made out of everything from Facebook to satellite feeds. The UK writer, artist, and technologist James Bridle has called it simply the New Aesthetic.
“If He Hollers Let Him Go,” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, The Believer, about the search for Dave Chappelle, the comedian who walked away from fame:
Although the city of Dayton is small and has been hit hard by the decline of industry, in Xenia and Yellow Springs the land is green, fecund, and alive, even in the relentless heat of summer. Xenia is three miles from where the first private black college, Wilberforce, opened, in 1856, to meet the educational needs of the growing population of freed blacks that crossed the Ohio River. Yellow Springs, a stop on the Underground Railroad, was initially established as a utopian community in 1825. In 1852, Horace Mann founded Antioch College and served as its president. During the ’50s and ’60s, Antioch and Yellow Springs were hamlets of anti-McCarthyism and antiwar and civil rights activism. Today there are a lot of hippies and there’s even more tie-dye. Between the villages, you can drive over rolling hills and pastures and not see another car for miles, and only far off on the horizon will you be able to spot a farmhouse.
“The Old Man at Burning Man,” by Wells Tower, GQ, about a trip, with his father, to the famed desert festival. Tower is also a finalist in the fiction category, for “The Dance Contest,” which ran in McSweeneys. From “The Old Man:”
The land, the very atmosphere out there, is alien, malignant, the executioner of countless wagon trains. I am afraid to crack the window. Huge dervishes of alkaline dust reel and teeter past. The sun, a brittle parchment white, glowers as though we personally have done something to piss it off. An hour out here and already I could light an Ohio Blue Tip off the inside of my nostril. One would think we were pulling into this planet’s nearest simulation of hell, but if this were hell, we would not be driving this very comfortable recreational vehicle. Nor would there be a trio of young and merry nudists capering at our front bumper, demanding that we step out of the vehicle and join them. These people are checkpoint officials, and it is their duty to press their nakedness to us in the traditional gesture of welcome to the Burning Man festival, here in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
“Sliver of Sky,” by Barry Lopez, Harper’s, about a predatory physician:
She was grateful. Harry was pleased to help. Shier conducted himself around Mother like someone considering serious courtship. She was a handsome woman of thirty-nine, he a short, abrasively self-confident, balding man of fifty-six. He complimented her on the way she was single-handedly raising her two polite, neatly dressed sons. He complimented her on her figure. Occasionally he’d take her hand or caress her lightly on the shoulder. After a while, Shier began dropping by the house in the evening, just as my brother and I were getting into our pajamas. He’d bring a tub of ice cream along, and the four of us would have dessert together. One evening he arrived without the ice cream. He’d forgotten. He suggested I accompany him to the grocery store, where I could pick out a different dessert for each of us. A few minutes after we left the house, he pulled his car up alongside a tall hedge on an unlit residential street off Lindley Avenue. He turned me to the side, put me facedown on the seat, pulled down my pajama bottoms, and pushed his erect penis into my anus. As he built toward his climax he told me, calmly but emphatically, that he was a doctor, that I needed treatment, and that we were not going to be adding to Mother’s worries by telling her about my problem.
“Life as a Terrorist,” by William T. Vollmann, Harper’s, about FBI record keeping and what it means to be an American:
In 1966, John Steinbeck completed a book called America and Americans — an appropriate subject for the writer I have always considered the most American of us all. Ruefully clear-eyed and sometimes furious about our national faults (“From the first we have treated our minorities abominably”), this brave, decent, sentimental man, a sincere thinker but not a deep one, a patriot who loved the idea of freedom — which for him included the proposition that a migrant farmworker deserves to hold his head up as high as any priest or president — will have my affection as long as I live. In America and Americans, he gently ridicules and sweetly praises the “home dream.” Our national form of this archetype is predicated on memories of a log cabin or sod house in the wilderness, a place we built for ourselves according to our own free notions, ours to cherish or abandon, and, most of all, “a place to which a man could return with joy and slough off his weariness and his fears.”
“The Dance Contest,” by Wells Tower, McSweeney’s
“I Am Asleep But My Heart Is Awake,” by Nicole Krauss, The New Republic
Congratulations to all, and thank you for your work.