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7 deadly reads

Sitdown Sunday: 'She lost herself in Elvis' - Sofia Coppola on her Priscilla Presley biopic

Settle down in a comfy chair and sit back with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. Plastic-eating bacteria

plastic-waste-part-of-an-exhibition-to-highlight-the-daily-use-of-plastic-products Plastic waste. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A fascinating look at how scientists are trying to develop the potential of microbes to solve the world’s waste crisis. But just how far can it go in tackling the problem?

(The Guardian, approx 22 mins reading time)

In the years after their discovery, Oda and his student Kazumi Hiraga, now a professor, continued corresponding and conducting experiments. When they finally published their work in the prestigious journal Science in 2016, it emerged into a world desperate for solutions to the plastic crisis, and it was a blockbuster hit. Oda and his colleagues named the bacterium that they had discovered in the rubbish dump Ideonella sakaiensis – after the city of Sakai, where it was found – and in the paper, they described a specific enzyme that the bacterium was producing, which allowed it to break down polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most common plastic found in clothing and packaging. The paper was reported widely in the press, and it currently has more than 1,000 scientific citations, placing it in the top 0.1% of all papers.

But the real hope is that this goes beyond a single species of bacteria that can eat a single kind of plastic. Over the past half-century, microbiology – the study of small organisms including bacteria and some fungi – has undergone a revolution that Jo Handelsman, former president of the American Society for Microbiology, and a science adviser to the Obama White House, described to me as possibly the most significant biological advance since Darwin’s discovery of evolution. We now know that micro-organisms constitute a vast, hidden world entwined with our own. We are only beginning to grasp their variety, and their often incredible powers. Many scientists have come around to Oda’s view – that for the host of seemingly intractable problems we are working on, microbes may have already begun to find a solution. All we need to do is look.

2. Romeo and Juliet

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, the stars of the 1968 film, sued Paramount over 50 years later for abuse. Lila Shapiro writes about Hussey’s what led to the lawsuit, and what the then-teenagers alleged happened on the film set.

(Vulture, approx 38 mins reading time)

Over the next five decades of her life, Hussey drifted. A few months after the royal premiere, she told a reporter she was broke and struggling to find work. On the shoot, she had grown ashamed of her body, which led to bouts of bulimia and more diet pills, and in the wake of the premiere, as she was stalked by paparazzi, she developed crippling agoraphobia. She couldn’t quite seem to motivate herself anymore — to work, to leave the house, to do much of anything. She didn’t act for nearly two years after Romeo and Juliet, talking herself out of big roles in major films, including True Grit, starring John Wayne. When she finally did take a role, it was in a little-seen independent film, which she agreed to do only because the director showed up at her mother’s house and Hussey thought he seemed nice. She did most things that way. If someone took an interest in her, she trusted them immediately and would do whatever they asked. She moved to L.A. at the urging of a manager who told her it would help her career. It didn’t. Into her 60s, she acted in dozens of films, but either they were small, or the roles were small, or both. She worked with dozens of managers, but they never seemed to have her best interests in mind. One persuaded her to sign bad contracts for his own enrichment. Some stole from her outright. In 1993, a manager named Jay Lawrence Levy was arrested after forging checks in her name and taking out a mortgage on her house off Mulholland Drive; Hussey lost her life savings and was forced to sell the home. She went bankrupt not long after. “I trusted everybody I ever met,” she said. “That was my weakness.”

3. Group chat culture

womenshandtypingonmobilesmartphonelivechatchattingon Shutterstock / oatawa Shutterstock / oatawa / oatawa

Faith Hill looks at how popular group chats have become, and how being part of several at a time with notifications constantly popping up on your phone can often be overwhelming for some of those involved.

(The Atlantic, approx 7 mins reading time)

Group texts are hardly the only demand on our time and attention these days. And yet, the researchers I spoke with agreed that they can be uniquely unwieldy. They both contribute to and reflect the complexity of our social worlds, Kate Mannell, a digital-media researcher at Deakin University, in Australia, told me. Creating a grext is so easy that you can end up with a separate chat for nearly every iteration of any group, each with its own particular dynamic. You might start with one chat, and then create another without one member who moved away, and then another to bring in a friend of a friend. (When I want to text my high-school friends in New York, I actually have to stop and think: Should I use “Big Juicy Apple” or “The Actual Big Apple”?) Compared with a one-on-one thread, in which the other party will typically pause until you respond, group chats aren’t so easy to manage. Messages can flow in all day, whether you’re free to reply or not—and if you aren’t on your phone when a particular conversation is going down, you might miss it entirely.

4. A new form of gun control

Last year, lawyer Josh Koskoff sued Remington, the creator of the AR-15 assault rifle, on behalf of the families of victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy and won. The victory has raised the prospect of similar lawsuits being filed going forward. 

(New York Times, approx 36 mins reading time)

Koskoff’s unexpected victory jolted the gun industry and energized gun-control advocates. Soto “pierced the shield that PLCAA provided,” says Adam Winkler, a U.C.L.A. law professor and Second Amendment expert. Koskoff’s win came against a backdrop of despair about gun violence in America. Mass shootings have become commonplace; there were over 600 in each of the last three years, according to the Gun Violence Archive (mass shootings, by the archive’s definition, involve injury or death for four or more people, excluding the shooter). Despite polls showing strong public support for stricter gun-control measures, most congressional Republicans are unwilling to take steps to limit access to guns. Some broke with their party last year to help pass the first gun-control bill approved by Congress in nearly three decades. But the legislation was modest in scope: For example, it included making background checks slightly more stringent for buyers under 21. Many observers think that the firearms industry, through some of the weapons its sells, AR-15-style rifles in particular, and how it markets them, has contributed significantly to the prevalence of mass shootings. Soto raised the possibility that gun makers could yet be constrained through the time-honored tradition of using litigation to induce more responsible corporate behavior.

5. Revolution

Wanqing Zhang writes about the rise of the online feminist movement in China, the influence it is having on society, and how the government is trying to put a stop to it. 

(Rest of World, approx 15 mins reading time)

The Chinese government, always preoccupied with maintaining social stability, has over the past five years persecuted feminist activists and commanded social media sites to ramp up restrictions on feminist content. Similar methods have successfully diminished campaigns for social causes such as labor rights and LGBTQIA rights, and overt activism for women’s rights is now all but impossible, too. But while the loudest voices have been silenced, feminist ideals are shared more broadly than ever. The flame of Chinese feminism still burns — nowhere brighter than online. Given the aggressive censorship of China’s online feminist movement, Hong Fincher said, “It’s quite extraordinary how influential it is.”

“I feel like today, every woman who uses social media is a member of the feminist community,” Xiaoniao, a 28-year-old #MeToo accuser, told Rest of World, speaking under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from Chinese authorities. The impact of the women’s rights movement on China’s internet is so profound, she said, that “as long as you are online, you cannot escape the influence of feminism.”

6. Sofia Coppola

venice-italy-04th-sep-2023-venice-italy-september-04-sofia-coppola-and-priscilla-presley-attend-a-red-carpet-for-the-movie-priscilla-at-the-80th-venice-international-film-festival-on-septe Sofia Coppola and Priscilla Presley attending a red carpet for the movie ''Priscilla'' at the 80th Venice International Film Festival earlier this month. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The director of Lost in Translation and The Virgin Suicides – and the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola – speaks about her upcoming film which sets out to tell Priscilla Presley’s story. 

(W, approx mins reading time)

“I read her book years ago,” Coppola explained. “It was a fun vacation read. I remember taking it on several trips and my daughter Cosi saying, ‘Are you still reading that book?!’ [Coppola has two teenage daughters, Cosima and Romy, with her husband, Thomas Mars, the lead singer of the band Phoenix.] I could see how Priscilla’s book could be a movie: When you’re reading it, you feel like you’re part of her experiences. For instance, she describes going into Elvis’s bedroom for the first time, and how big the bed was and how she thought about all the women who had been there before. I remember thinking, It’s intimidating enough to be in a normal guy’s room for the first time, and then imagine that guy is Elvis!”

Priscilla was 14 when she met Elvis, and 17 when she persuaded her parents to let her live in Graceland. “By day, Priscilla went to Catholic school in Memphis for her senior year, and at night she would party with Elvis,” Coppola continued. “I found that reality fascinating: She wasn’t allowed to have friends over to Graceland, and she’d hear other girls whispering about her. She was so isolated. It was strangely relatable: In my 20s, I remember having a crush on a guy, and part of it was, if I was with him, then I wouldn’t have to develop an identity of my own: I could just be the girlfriend of this guy, and that would be so much easier. I was devastated when that relationship didn’t work out. But it forced me to find my own personality, and that’s a similar story to what happened with Priscilla—she lost herself in Elvis.”


A longread from 2020 about Jeanne Calment. She was said to be the oldest person who ever lived. In 1997, she died at 122 years of age. But was that really her age?

(The New Yorker, approx 43 mins reading time)

At a hundred and ten, Calment was still living alone, in the Rue Gambetta apartment, where she had never bothered to install a modern heating system. One day, she climbed up on a table to unfreeze the boiler with the flame of a candle, starting a small fire. She agreed to move to a local retirement home, the Maison du Lac, until the weather improved. She ended up staying, and, in 1988, at a hundred and twelve, was briefly recognized as the “doyenne of humanity,” the oldest person in the world. Soon afterward, the title was given to a Florida woman three months her elder, who had spent seventy-five years in a mental hospital after being diagnosed with “post-typhoid psychosis,” a disease that doctors no longer believed existed. After the woman died, at a hundred and sixteen, in 1991, Calment became the oldest person ever known to have lived.

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