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Sitdown Sunday: The best longreads of the year

Here’s our annual guide to the best reads of the year.

The crushed barriers at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, where 66 people died after the crowd disaster featured in one of our longreads of the year.
The crushed barriers at Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow, where 66 people died after the crowd disaster featured in one of our longreads of the year.
Image: PA

EVERY SUNDAY, WE bring you seven great longreads to enjoy. Taking in a wealth of subjects – from murder investigations to family secrets, sports stars to Hollywood stars – it gives you hours of great reading.

But if you missed any of the articles this year, fear not. Here’s our annual guide to the best reads from across the year. 

January  

Splendid isolation

Confronting the realities of turning 40, getting older, and wondering about his place in the world, Irish writer Mark O’Connell headed to a forest to spend 24 hours in nature.

(The Guardian, approx 25 mins reading time)

This resource being as limited as it was, should I not be doing something better with it, something more urgent or interesting or authentic? At some point in my late 30s, I recognised the paradoxical source of this anxiety: that every single thing in life took much longer than I expected it to, except for life itself, which went much faster, and would be over before I knew where I was.

 The doctor, the dentist, and the killer

The story of a couple, a breakup, and a murder.

(Texas Monthly, approx 30 mins reading time)

The killing sent shock waves through Uptown. Young women were hesitant to stroll the neighborhood’s sidewalks or linger over cocktails at night with their friends. Kendra’s coworkers at Smile Zone, the Irving practice where she worked, gathered one evening outside the entrance to the Gables Park 17 garage. They held flowers, candles, and posters with Kendra’s picture on them, and they told reporters that Kendra was kind and congenial, with a smile always on her face. They could not imagine who would want to kill her.

February  

I did not go to heaven

A Christian bestseller claimed that a young boy died and saw heaven. But years later, he renounced the book.

(Slate, approx 27 mins reading time)

Although The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven has been off shelves for years now, yanked by the publisher after Alex’s disavowal, the drama around it has quietly continued to roil. In 2018, Alex filed a lawsuit against Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher based in suburban Chicago, accusing the company of defamation and exploitation, among other charges. He’s seeking a payout at least equal to the book’s profits. Alex, who turned 21 in 2019, now lives with his mother. He was valedictorian of his high school, but he has been a quadriplegic since the accident and requires full-time care. 

The Last Garden

In this essay, originally published in Winter Papers, Paraic O’Donnell writes about his MS diagnosis and his garden.

(Irish Times, approx 26 mins reading time)

And then, when S. had left, I couldn’t see straight to strip the bed, to bundle the sheets into the wash. Because the crying had started. I hadn’t even noticed, but when I did I couldn’t stop. And this crying, it was not fucking around. It wasn’t the decorous glistening you see in films. No, it was epic, this performance, it was unrestrained and operatic. This was crying in the high style, the heroic mode. This was a balls-out Wagnerian tempest of sorrowing that suspended all other functions and went on for a week.

March

 My journey into a survival bunker  

Irish author Mark O’Connell shares an extract from his new book, where he meets the people prepping for the end of the world.

(The Guardian, approx 22 mins reading time)

One of the more perverse aspects of this obsession was a months-long binge of doomsday prepper content, of blogs and forums and YouTube videos in which burly American guys, most of whom were called things like Kyle or Brent, explained how to prepare for a major catastrophe – your global pandemics, your breakdowns of law and order, your all-out nuclear wars – by pursuing various strategies for “tactical survival”. And this had opened out on to a broader vista of apocalyptic preparedness, and to a lucrative niche of the real estate sector catering to individuals of means who wanted a place to retreat to when things truly went sideways.

Strike for climate

Greta Thunberg’s mother talks about her daughter and what she’s experienced over the last few years.

(The Guardian, approx 23 mins reading time)

Greta was 11, had just started fifth grade, and was not doing well. She cried at night when she should be sleeping. She cried on her way to school. She cried in her classes and during her breaks, and the teachers called home almost every day. Svante had to run off and bring her home to Moses, our golden retriever. She sat with him for hours, petting him and stroking his fur. She was slowly disappearing into some kind of darkness and little by little, bit by bit, she seemed to stop functioning. She stopped playing the piano. She stopped laughing. She stopped talking. And she stopped eating.

April

The holiday village run by spies

Arous was a holiday resort in the Sudanese desert, by the Red Sea… and it was also a base for Israeli agents.

(BBC, approx 14 mins reading time)

The Sudanese International Tourist Corporation was also happy. It had leased the site to a group of people introducing themselves as European entrepreneurs, whose venture brought some of the first foreign tourists to the country. The only thing was, unbeknown to the guests or the authorities, the Red Sea diving resort was entirely fake. It was a front, set up and run for more than four years in the early 1980s by operatives from the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. 

Diary of an ER doctor

A New York-based doctor shares their Covid diary.

(New York Times Magazine, approx 45 mins reading time)

A few days from now, I will come across the name of Guido Bertolini, a clinical epidemiologist who studies intensive care. Through a colleague of his, I reach out to him over Whats­App, and we begin corresponding. He had been high up in the Italian Alps through the last day of February, when the distressing messages started to come in from colleagues asking him to join a new Coronavirus Crisis Unit for Lombardy, a region in northern Italy. Some of the pleas had an Excel file attached. When Bertolini opened it, he tells me, he couldn’t believe the numbers. He had to see the situation for himself.

May

 At the clinic

Here’s Sally Rooney’s first short story, published in the White Review, which is online now.

(The White Review, approx 20 mins reading time)

They are now the only two people in the upstairs waiting room of the dental clinic. The seats are a pale mint-green colour. Marianne leafs through an issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and explores her mouth with the tip of her tongue. Connell looks at the magazine cover, a photograph of a monkey with huge eyes. That night last week, Marianne had called him first to tell him that she and Daniel had broken up. Connell was in the bathroom when the phone rang and his flatmate Barry answered. When Connell came back, Barry said innocently: Hey, what’s the name of that rich girl you went to school with? You know, the one you like to fuck. Believing the query was sincere, Connell replied: Marianne, why? Then Barry tossed him the phone. She wants to talk to you, he said. When Connell lifted the phone he could already hear her laughing.

Evidence against her

Nikki Addimando shot her abusive partner, but when she got to court the prosecution saw her as a cold-blooded killer.

(Gen Magazine, approx 45 mins reading time)

On September 27, 2017, at around 10 a.m., two caseworkers with Child Protective Services arrived at Nikki and Chris’ apartment on Van Wagner Road. Six days earlier, according to CPS notes, an anonymous caller had reported that “on a weekly basis, the mother has had visible bruises to her face and chest.” When the caseworkers arrived, they recorded that Nikki denied being threatened. A caseworker spoke with Chris, who told them he had no criminal history, substance-abuse issues, aggressive behaviors, or mental health diagnoses. The caseworkers talked to the kids. Ben said his parents yelled about adult things, that his father grabbed his mother. “Normal fights,” Chris told CPS. “All parents argue,” Nikki added.

 June  

 How Big Brother changed my life

Participants in the iconic series Big Brother talk about how it changed everything for them.

(The Guardian, approx 12 mins reading time)

When you’re in there, there are moments when you do forget about the camera. That’s the genius of Big Brother. We’re all nosy – we love to see what’s going on in other people’s lives. If my neighbours are having an argument, I’m the first person to lean over the fence to listen. Big Brother was the first show to encourage voyeurism, but it made it public, so there was no shame attached to it. Anyone could do it. 

Screen time

You’ve been spending a lot of time on screens these past few months. So how do you cultivate a better relationship with your laptop or phone? Here are some tips.

(New York Times, approx 10 mins reading time)

Once you’ve identified your screen time “essentials,” it’s time to think about your leisure time (or what passes for it these days). Identify which of these “C”s feels good to you, and in what doses. Then brainstorm ways to do each both on- and off-screen. Bonus points if you ask yourself what kind of consumption, creation and connection makes you feel the best. For example, many people have been turning to old-fashioned phone calls instead of texts.

July  

Romanian Orphans

The story of how dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu ordered the construction or conversion of hundreds of structures around the country to house a generation of unwanted or unaffordable children. 

(The Atlantic, approx 44 minutes reading time)

We walk into a pitch-black, freezing-cold building and discover there are youngsters lurking about—they’re tiny, but older, something weird, like trolls, filthy, stinking. They’re chanting in a dronelike way, gibberish. We open a door and find a population of ‘cretins’—now it’s known as congenital iodine deficiency syndrome; untreated hypothyroidism stunts growth and brain development. I don’t know how old they were, three feet tall, could have been in their 20s. In other rooms we see teenagers the size of 6- and 7-year-olds, with no secondary sexual characteristics. There were children with underlying genetic disorders lying in cages. You start almost to disassociate.

Why are Americans so angry about masks?

A detailed look at why mask-wearing has become such a partisan issue in the US.

(BBC, approx 8 mins reading time)

Bob Palmgren tried to be polite – at first. He told a customer he had to wear a mask inside his restaurant, RJ’s Bob-Be-Que Shack in Mission, Kansas. The customer, a man in his forties in a Make America Great Again (MAGA) cap, had flashed a gun and said that he was exempt from a state-wide mask requirement. He said that he could explain the exemption in the law to Mr Palmgren.

August  

 Trump and intelligence agencies

A look inside Trump’s battles with US intelligence agencies,

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(New York Times, approx 39 mins reading time)

According to multiple officials who saw it, the document discussed Russia’s ongoing efforts to influence U.S. elections: the 2020 presidential contest and 2024’s as well. It was compiled by a working group consisting of about a dozen senior analysts, led by Christopher Bort, a veteran national intelligence officer with nearly four decades of experience, principally focused on Russia and Eurasia. The N.I.E. began by enumerating the authors’ “key judgments.” Key Judgment 2 was that in the 2020 election, Russia favored the current president: Donald Trump.

My life as a test tube baby

A young woman writes about her discovery that her dad isn’t her father.

(Medium, approx 10 mins reading time)

They had struggled to have children, she explained, so my parents made the choice to undergo IVF using both his sperm and sperm from an unidentifiable donor. (Just a few months after I was born, the legislation changed so that all UK sperm donors became traceable — timing that leaves me feeling somewhat hard done by.) But the use of two sets of sperm floated an inevitable possibility, a 50/50 chance that my dad could be my biological father. The hope almost made it more cruel.

September  

 The therapeutic power of gardening

In this gorgeous piece, Rebecca Mead meets Sue Stuart-Smith, a psychiatrist who has written about gardening can help our mental health. 

(The New Yorker, approx 20 mins reading time)

Her book describes a middle-aged patient, Kay, whom she was treating for depression. As a child, Kay had experienced neglect and violence; as an adult, she often had conflicts with her two adolescent sons, whom she raised alone, in a flat with a small garden that the boys had destroyed with their antics. When her sons moved out, Kay reclaimed the garden. One day in therapy, she made a striking observation: “It is the only time I feel I am good.” Stuart-Smith explains that feeling one is good—rather than merely feeling good—is an example of gardening’s reparative power. Gardening provided Kay a refuge and an engagement with the world beyond herself; it also gave her confirmation of her capacity to provide care and tenderness, in a less fraught context than that of her family relationships.

I have weeks to live – here’s what I want to pass on

Elliot Dallen sadly passed away this week. Here, he writes about his lessons from life, which he reflected on during lockdown.

(The Guardian, approx 10 mins reading time)

During my worst moments – the shock of cancer diagnosis, the mental lows and debilitating symptoms of chemotherapy – it was difficult to picture any future moments of joy, closeness or love. Even so, at those times I found comfort in remembering what I have: an amazing family, the friends I’ve made and times I’ve shared with them, the privilege of the life I’ve had.

October  

Inside the airline industry’s meltdown

Coronavirus has hit the airline industry hard – very hard. Here’s how things are going for those working in the business.

(The Guardian, approx 26 mins reading time)

Boet Kreiken, the executive vice-president for customer experience at the Dutch carrier KLM, recalled a meeting early in the pandemic, in KLM’s offices near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. His colleagues had brought in the latest figures for new bookings and the dismal projections for the summer ahead. “I’ve seen some crises in my time – the Iraq war, 9/11, Sars, the Icelandic volcano eruption,” Kreiken said. “I know in the gut what that feels like. But this was something else. I was staring at the chart and got so involved in thinking about the consequences that the others had to tell me twice: ‘Boet, start the meeting!’”

 2. The store that called the cops on George Floyd

Before George Floyd’s death, a teenage clerk called the police on him. What should the store were he worked do? 

(Slate, approx 25 mins reading time)

Frantically, his employee explained what was happening: A police officer had pinned a customer to the ground outside the store, and that man was saying he couldn’t breathe. Mahmoud manages the day shift at CUP Foods at the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in southern Minneapolis, but that night, young employees were working the store alone. There’d been a brief confrontation with a man accused of passing a fake bill. Then an 18-year-old clerk dialed 911. The man was named George Floyd, and minutes later, a cop was kneeling on his neck.

November

 A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can’t Crack

Amateur sleuths online have been trying to crack this case since 2018. 

(Wired, approx 21 mins read time) 

The story pulled people in. Everyone, at some point, has wanted to put their phone in a garbage can and head off with a fake name and a wad of cash. Here was someone who had done it and who seemed to have so much going for him: He was kind, charming, educated. He knew how to code. And yet he had died alone in a yellow tent. Maybe he had been chased by demons and had sought an ending like this. Or maybe he had just been outmatched by the wilderness and the Florida heat.

December  

Cartoon Saloon

A lovely piece on the work of the Irish animation studio behind Wolfwalkers.

(The New York Times, approx 6 mins reading time)

When Tomm Moore and 11 friends in the small city of Kilkenny, Ireland, set out to make an animated movie in 1999 based on Celtic mythology, they could hardly imagine their labor of love would become a studio that would revolutionize the animation industry in Ireland, revitalize interest in folklore at home and connect with a global audience.

British football’s forgotten tragedy

In 1971, 66 fans were killed during a crush at a Rangers v Celtic game in Scotland. 

(The Guardian, approx 21 mins reading time)

Several fans on the steep, wide and dilapidated stairway 13 tried to get back up to join the wild celebrations, just as thousands of others – singing, chanting and, in many cases, drink-fuelled – moved towards the stairs to leave. This was a time when football fans were used to standing closely packed on the terraces, and took crushes on stairways for granted. But these five flights were dangerous at the best of times. Millions of feet had worn down the long, narrow dirt steps, leaving their wooden rims exposed and easy to trip over.

The Plague Year

A look at America’s fight against Covid-19 in 2020. 

(The New Yorker, approx 123 mins reading time)

When Redfield learned that, among twenty-seven reported cases, there were several family clusters, he observed that it was unlikely that each person had been infected, simultaneously, by a caged civet cat or a raccoon dog. He offered to send a C.D.C. team to Wuhan to investigate, but Gao said that he wasn’t authorized to accept such assistance. Redfield made a formal request to the Chinese government and assembled two dozen specialists, but no invitation arrived. A few days later, in another conversation with Redfield, Gao started to cry and said, “I think we’re too late.”

More: The best reads from every previous Sitdown Sunday>

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