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. The Hard Luck and Beautiful Life of Liam Neeson | Tom Chiarella | Esquire | Feb. 15, 2011 | 21 minutes (5,192 words)
Standout celebrity profile. Neeson speaks for the first time about the 2009 death of his wife, Natasha Richardson—while wondering when, if ever, is the right time to open up to a reporter about a personal tragedy. He still has reservations about walking Richardson’s dog in public, for fear of the “drama” and sadness that paparazzi photos could create.
“Liam Neeson and I last spoke a week before I wrote this sentence. At that time, I asked him what he remembered about the interview I’d done with him at a restaurant in New York almost three weeks before that. He said, ‘I remember you told me that story about your accident, and that was pretty hard for you. I remember that you made me draw that picture of my house, and I remember that we talked about Natasha. I started to worry: Why would I tell him that? Why did I speak about the hospital? And then I thought, No, he’s a man. This is not some newspaper story. So I wasn’t sorry. Except about your accident. That was bloody awful.’
“Then Liam Neeson asked me what I remembered about the interview. I echoed him: ‘You told me about your accident. You told me about your wife’s accident. That was hard for you. You were upset. You got very quiet. So I traded stories. I told you something bad that happened to me. I have the picture of your house right here. I remember that your hand was shaking.’
“‘You have to be careful,’ he told me, ‘in how you describe it.’ I told him that was my job, to be careful with descriptions.”
2. Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail? | Matt Taibbi | Rolling Stone | Feb. 16, 2011 | 25 minutes (6,189 words)
A former Senate investigator sums up: “Everything’s fucked up, and nobody goes to jail. That’s your whole story right there.” Taibbi’s latest investigation dissects the relationships between the SEC and Justice Department and the financial institutions, to find out why prosecutors have not pursued criminal charges against executives:
“In the end, of course, it wasn’t just the executives of Lehman and AIGFP who got passes. Virtually every one of the major players on Wall Street was similarly embroiled in scandal, yet their executives skated off into the sunset, uncharged and unfined. Goldman Sachs paid $550 million last year when it was caught defrauding investors with crappy mortgages, but no executive has been fined or jailed — not even Fabrice ‘Fabulous Fab’ Tourre, Goldman’s outrageous Euro-douche who gleefully e-mailed a pal about the ‘surreal’ transactions in the middle of a meeting with the firm’s victims. In a similar case, a sales executive at the German powerhouse Deutsche Bank got off on charges of insider trading; its general counsel at the time of the questionable deals, Robert Khuzami, now serves as director of enforcement for the SEC.”
3. Making Chicago’s Top Chef | Christopher Borrelli | Chicago Tribune | Feb. 15, 2011 | 23 minutes (5,676 words)
The story of a culinary rivalry and the quest for three stars in the Michelin Guide. Chef Grant Achatz wowed Chicago with Alinea, battled tongue cancer and taunted his former employer, Chicago legend Charlie Trotter (who called Achatz’s work “nonsense upon stilts”). Achatz also was about to unseat Trotter in the Michelin rankings:
“The night before Achatz receives three stars from Michelin, we speak on the phone. A leaked list of Chicago restaurants and the stars awarded each had been circulating, and he sounds astonished by the news, and conflicted. ‘If this list is right, Trotter, the guy who put Chicago on the map, he gets two stars, and the guy who he told would never amount to anything, that guy gets three stars? Trotter implodes? He fizzles?’
“The next morning we meet at Achatz’s Bucktown town house. We drive and wait for the call from Michelin. The thought of Trotter still weighs on him. He feels a mix of respect and revenge, but catches himself before it curdles. ‘I’ve done a poor job of embracing this stuff in the past,’ he says. ‘I want to enjoy this.’“
4. The Sabotaging of Iran | Financial Times | Feb. 11, 2011 | 18 minutes (4,421 words)
The November 2010 assassination of Majid Shahriyari, one of Iran’s leading nuclear scientists, raises questions: Was his murder linked to recent attempts (such as the Stuxnet worm) to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, or was he killed by his own government?
“Two and a half months after Shahriyari’s death, the answer is still a mystery. Iran has pointed the finger at its enemies in the US and Israel, claiming the assassinations are part of a broader campaign to derail their nuclear programme. ‘Shahriyari was the top when it comes to the nuclear programme; in terms of his knowledge, he was irreplaceable,’ says a former Iranian official. ‘His death is truly damaging to it,’ he adds. ‘The gallows will soon be earmarked for the retribution of the blood of Shahriyari,’ Mohammad-Reza Naqdi, head of Iran’s Islamic Basij militia told local media. But in the west, another possible explanation has been offered: perhaps the Iranian regime instigated the killings, taking revenge on men whom it had started to regard as suspect and politically dubious?
“What is not in doubt, however, is the timing. The murders have taken place in a period when intelligence agencies in Israel, the US and the west have embarked on a high-risk, and high-tech, bid to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program — whether or not it is aiming for nuclear capability or to build an actual nuclear bomb.”
5. Tabloid Takedown | Howard Kurtz | Playboy | Feb. 16, 2011 | 25 minutes (6,246 words)
A moment-by-moment account of how the National Enquirer broke the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter story—and how the tabloid’s continued obsession with Edwards cost it some of the credibility it had earned.
“After the denouement, the tabloid’s pickings on the story seemed to grow slim. At one point it was reduced to running a story on the ‘lonely life’ of Hunter’s two-year-old daughter, complete with a picture of a toddler.
“And the Enquirer sometimes undercut its own credibility by running thinly sourced stories that never quite cleared the bar. When the paper carried the headline ‘Elizabeth Edwards’ Chilling Confession to a Pal: “John Beat Me!”‘ the words ‘to a pal’ were in tiny type. The charge was attributed to an unnamed ‘close friend.’
“[Executive editor Barry] Levine staunchly defends the accuracy of each piece. ‘To some people it may be an old scandal. John’s admitted it; now it’s over,’ he says. ‘But at the National Enquirer it’s never over.'”
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