The new book “Love and Ruin” showcases some of the best long-form journalism from the digital magazine The Atavist. Contributors Brooke Jarvis, Jon Mooallem and McKenzie Funk will appear Monday, Aug. 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
In the age of Twitter, is there a place for long-form journalism online?
In 2011, Atavist Magazine co-founder Evan Ratliff and his colleagues decided there was.
Their belief turned out to be well-founded. The magazine won the 2015 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for the marvelous piece by James Verini that lends this collection its title.
Brooke Jarvis, Jon Mooallem and McKenzie Funk
Contributors to “Love and Ruin” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or elliottbaybook.com).
“Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from The Atavist Magazine” (W.W. Norton, 411 pp., $16.95) ranges from personal essay to true-crime investigation to history-minded reportage. Two of its best entries are by Seattle writer Brooke Jarvis and Bainbridge Island newcomer Jon Mooallem.
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Mooallem’s “American Hippopotamus” is a tale as preposterous as they come. It’s the story of two men with a murderous battlefield past in common (they fought on opposite sides in the Boer War). In 1910, they joined forces before Congress to argue the merits of importing hippos to the Gulf Coast to combat a supposed “meat shortage” afflicting the U.S. at the time.
The idea of H.R. 23261 was “to turn America into a nation of hippo ranchers.” One New York Times editorial re-christened hippo meat as “lake cow bacon.” The Washington Post argued, “Proposals which at first may look odd and chimerical to the mass of our readers will be seen to be matter-of-fact propositions when they become familiar.”
The oddity of the proposal, in Mooallem’s hands, is eclipsed by the personalities of the two advocates behind it: Frederick Russell Burnham, a charismatic “frontiersman and soldier of fortune,” and Fritz Duquesne, described by Burnham as the “human epitome of sin and deception.” Mooallem’s dandy account of how these “bitter enemies” found themselves fighting on the same pro-hippo-farming team, before falling out again, is a delight from start to finish.
Jarvis’ “When We Are Called to Part” is eye-opening in a more poignant way. It’s a memoir of her first job out of college, working at Hawaii’s Kalaupapa National Historic Park, the one-time leper colony on Molokai. Her portraits of the last residents of Kalaupapa, allowed to live out their final years there, are beautifully, quietly drawn. Her evocation of their strange plight and isolated home couldn’t be more vivid. The place’s transition from living community to preservation site clearly had a huge impact on her. “It’s an odd thing,” she observes, “to preserve history as it’s still being lived.”
Verini’s “Love and Ruin” likewise finds the personal in the historical, as he tracks down the fascinating real-life figure who inspired playwright Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul.” Louis Dupree and his wife, Nancy (the “homebody” of Kushner’s title), were ardent preservers of Afghan culture in the 1960s. The complications of their story and the disasters that swallowed Afghanistan from the 1980s on are masterfully explored in this handsomely written, deservedly award-winning piece.
Other highlights: David Dobbs’ “My Mother’s Lover” brings World War II America to photo-sharp life as it tracks down a hidden chapter in his family’s history. Matthew Shaer’s “The Sinking of the Bounty” is a savvy exposé of how a replica of the 18th-century ship (built for the film starring Marlon Brando) went down off Cape Hatteras in Superstorm Sandy.
Accounts of crimes — the bombing of a Nevada casino, a decades-long embezzlement case — by Adam Higginbotham and Ratliff himself are readable, sturdy pieces.
Not every entry is up to par. Sometimes “personal essay” just means flaky thinking or personal histrionics. Still, the best work here is not to be missed.