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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week
March 10, 2012

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1. What Happened to the Girls in Le Roy
Susan Dominus | New York Times Magazine | March 7, 2012 | 30 Minutes (7,584 words)

Teenagers in a small town mysteriously fall ill, suffering from uncontrollable twitching. Was the cause environmental, or psychological?

"Before the media vans took over Main Street, before the environmental testers came to dig at the soil, before the doctor came to take blood, before strangers started knocking on doors and asking question after question, Katie Krautwurst, a high-school cheerleader from Le Roy, N.Y., woke up from a nap. Instantly, she knew something was wrong. Her chin was jutting forward uncontrollably and her face was contracting into spasms. She was still twitching a few weeks later when her best friend, Thera Sanchez, captain of one of the school’s cheerleading squads, awoke from a nap stuttering and then later started twitching, her arms flailing and head jerking. Two weeks after that, Lydia Parker, also a senior, erupted in tics and arm swings and hums. Then word got around that Chelsey Dumars, another cheerleader, who recently moved to town, was making the same strange noises, the same strange movements, leaving school early on the days she could make it to class at all. The numbers grew — 12, then 16, then 18, in a school of 600 — and as they swelled, the ranks of the sufferers came to include a wider swath of the Le Roy high-school hierarchy: girls who weren’t cheerleaders, girls who kept to themselves and had studs in their lips. There was even one boy and an older woman, age 36."

More Dominus: "Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind?" (May 2011)

2. No Pulse: How Doctors Reinvented The Human Heart
Dan Baum | Popular Science | Feb. 29, 2012 | 25 minutes (6,348 words)

For years, doctors attempted to create artificial hearts that mimicked the real heart—using methods that recreate blood pumping. Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier instead developed a continuous-flow device that has worked on calves and some humans, including patient Rahel Elmer Reger:

"The little quilted backpack held two lithium-ion batteries and the HeartMate II’s computerized controller, which are connected by cable through a hole in Reger’s side. Needless to say, she has never left her backpack on a bus. 'My cousin once disconnected me, though, by mistake,' she said. 'I was showing her how to change the battery. She disconnected one, and then—I was distracted for a second—the other. I yelled, "You can’t do that!" and then passed out. The device blares at you. She reconnected it, and I came back. I was probably out for 10 seconds. She was completely freaked out.'"

More Popular Science: "The Terminator Scenario: Are We Giving Our Military Machines Too Much Power?" (Dec. 2010)

Baum on Amazon: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

3. The Siege of September 13
Matthieu Aikins | GQ | March 6, 2012 | 31 Minutes (7,782 words)

A moment-by-moment reconstruction of last year's U.S. embassy attack in Kabul:

"In an image that remained strangely fixed in her mind afterward, Howell watched as he slowly peeled the skin off. As he was peeling off the very last bit, there came a heart-stopping screech and then the bang and shock of an impact. Something had just blown up in her waiting room, and though the thick glass had protected the office, they had all felt the concussion and could smell the acrid stench of burning.

"'That was an RPG!' one of her Afghan colleagues said as they scrambled to their feet. All Howell could think of was the other recent attacks in Kabul, where explosions had been a prelude to armed strangers coming in on foot and slaughtering anyone they could find. She called out to see if everyone was all right and then told her staff to evacuate. As they were moving toward the door, security officers came through, shouting, 'Let's go, let's go!'

"Howell glanced back at the glass that looked out on the waiting room, where the little girl had been playing before. There was just an opaque wall of smoke."

More Aikins: "Our Man in Kandahar" (The Atlantic, Sept. 2011)

4. Bearing Witness in Syria: A Correspondent's Last Days
Tyler Hicks | New York Times | March 5, 2012 | 11 Minutes (2,992 words)

Photojournalist Tyler Hicks on his last trip into Syria with New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid, who died on the way out:

"The ammunition seemed evidence of the risk we were taking — a risk we did not shoulder lightly. Anthony, who passionately documented the eruptions in the Arab world from Iraq to Libya for The New York Times, felt it was essential that journalists get into Syria, where about 7,000 people have been killed, largely out of the world’s view. We had spent months planning to stay safe.

"It turned out the real danger was not the weapons but possibly the horses. Anthony was allergic. He did not know how badly."

See also: "How Reporting Almost Got Me Killed, Before It Saved My Life" (Eli Sanders, The Stranger, May 2011)

Anthony Shadid on Amazon: House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

5. Undercover Billionaire: Sara Blakely Joins The Rich List Thanks To Spanx
Clare O'Connor | Forbes | March 9, 2012 | 14 Minutes (3,708 words)

[Not single-page] Sara Blakely went from auditioning to play Goofy at Disney World to founding an undergarment empire: Spanx. She still owns 100% equity in the company, making her the youngest female billionaire at age 41:

"Like many startups, Spanx began life as an answer to an irritating problem. The panty hose Blakely was forced to wear at both Disney and Danka were uncomfortable and old-fashioned. 'It’s Florida, it’s hot, I was carrying fax machines,' she says. She hated the way the seamed foot stuck out of an open-toe sandal or kitten heel. But she noticed that the control-top eliminated panty lines and made her tiny body look even firmer. She’d bought a new pair of cream slacks for $78 at Arden B and was keen to wear them to a party. 'I cut the feet off my pantyhose and wore them underneath,' she says. 'But they rolled up my legs all night. I remember thinking, "I’ve got to figure out how to make this." I’d never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn’t exist.'"

More Forbes: "Clayton Christensen: The Survivor" (David Whelan, Feb. 2011)

Fiction Pick: M&M World
Kate Walbert | The New Yorker | May 30, 2011 | 19 Minutes (4,904 words)

Taking a trip to Times Square:

"Ginny had promised to take the girls to M&M World, that ridiculous place in Times Square they had passed too often in a taxi, Maggie scooting to press her face to the glass to watch the giant smiling M&M scale the Empire State Building on the electronic billboard and wave from the spire, its color dissolving yellow, then blue, then red, then yellow again. She had promised. 'Promised,' Olivia said, her face twisted into the expression she reserved for moments of betrayal. 'Please,' Olivia whined. 'You said "spring."'"

Walbert on Amazon: A Short History of Women

See more Longreads fiction picks

Featured Longreader 
Sujatha Santhanakrishnan

Sujatha is a political/economic analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

"My favourite longread of the week is 'The Emperor Uncrowned,' by Vinod K Jose in this month's issue of The Caravan. It's a compelling, well-researched portrait of Narendra Modi, an Indian politician and the chief minister of Gujarat. During his watch, Mr. Modi presided over a horrific anti-Muslim pogrom that claimed more than 1,000 lives—the first instance of 'communal violence' that played itself out on live television. Despite the atrocities, and allegations that Mr. Modi did nothing to stop them, he appears to have reinvented himself over the past decade, and his name is often bandied about as a potential future prime minister. This whopping profile (18,000 words long) is deeply researched and makes for compelling reading, for those looking to understand the man, as well as the forces at play in contemporary Indian politics. I'd also recommend it to any aspiring longform writer—you learn by reading the best, and this is one of the best examples of political profiles I've read in recent times."

The Emperor Uncrowned
Vinod K Jose | The Caravan | March 1, 2012 | 73 minutes (18,302 words)

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