Book Review: A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester

A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005) by Simon Winchester tells the story of the Great Earthquake of San Francisco in 1906 (and much, much more) in a way only Winchester could tell it.  Winchester has become one of my favorite writers simply because he writes about science, history, and travel in an engaging manner.  He also has the James Burke-like talent of making connections among seemingly disparate things.  For example, in the early chapters of this book he connects the website of Wapakoneta, OH and  geologist Tuzo Wilson as well as making California’s Mt.  Diablo a symbol for pretty much everything to come in this book.

According to Winchester, 1906 was a year of seismic activity worldwide, the California earthquake just one of many events.  Before we learn about the earthquake though, Winchester takes us deep into the geologic past.  Winchester then takes a tour across the North American Plate starting in Iceland.  As he travels the continent, Winchester visits the sites of numerous seismic events including such unlikely intraplate locations as Charleston, SC and New Madrid, MO. Finally arriving in California, Winchester takes us to Parkfield a hub of seismic activity and earthquake study.

Winchester prefaces the story of the 1906 quake with a fairly detailed, yet lively, history of San Franciso itself which rises from a wild west boomtown to the greatest city on the west coast.  Finally, he relates the story of the quake itself, filled with first person stories of the people who experienced it.  This includes some celebrities like operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, psychologist William James, writer Jack London, and four-year old Ansel Adams who broke his nose as a result of the earthquake.  Amateur photography also captured the human perspective on the quakes and the ensuing fires.

Winchester also documents the human response to the earthquake.  Scientist throughout the world use rudimentary devices to track the seismic activity (many of them in Jesuit institutions).  Insurance companies tried to weasle out of paying their claims much to national disapproval, even in Congress.  Long-term aftershocks of the earthquake include the rise of Los Angeles as the dominant western city due to its relatively more stable location.  Winchester also theorizes that the belief in the earthquake as divine retribution sparked the rise in Pentecostal churches that still affects public discourse today.  Another unfortunate aftereffect is the use of Angel Island to detain potential immigrants from China, many trying to claim relation to Chinese-Americans already living in the city because all the records were destroyed in the fires.

In an epilogue, Winchester continues his travels to Alaska where the famous pipeline traverses a fault and is susceptible to the viscious earthquakes of the state.  The effects of Alaskan earthquakes can be seen all the way in Yellowstone Park, itself sitting on a volcanic caldera which could blow with disasterous results for the Western States.  Winchester ties this up with the hubris of people building on land prone to seismic activity.

Since I’m commuting with my son and no longer have time to read on the subway, I got this as an audiobook to listen to while performing mundane tasks at work.  It’s narrated by Winchester himself in his charming, academic English accent.  He also amusingly immitates the various accents of the historical figures he’s quoting, such as Caruso’s Italian.  I enjoyed listening to this lively historical and geological work and reccomend it highly.  I’ve previously read Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Professor and the Madman, The Meaning of Everything, and The Map That Changed the World.  You can read my reviews of these books at LibraryThing.

Author Winchester, Simon.
Title A crack in the edge of the world [sound recording] : America and the great California earthquake of 1906 / Simon Winchester.
Publication Info. North Kingstown, RI : Sound Library/BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 10 sound discs (ca. 12 hrs. 36 min.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.

Pipe Wrench Fight

Those of you who grew up in the 80’s will remember the Golden Age of Music Videos.  Shows like Friday Night Videos and even MTV would play music videos that were often very creative, funny and/or artistic.  Of course, a lot of music videos had absolutely nothing to do with the song and didn’t make sense in any context.

On YouTube, a user name DustoMcNeato mashed the classic video for A-ha’s “Take on me” so that it is more literal.  It’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long while.  I love the internet.

South Station & Greenway Inaugural

Today, my son Peter & I took a tour of South Station, a continuing education for members of Boston By Foot (one of the reasons why you should become a member).  I love railroad stations so it was fun to poke around and see old artifacts, granite pilings, and even the exclusive Acela waiting room.

Unfortunately, railway stations are crowded, noisy places so I didn’t learn much to report back.  South Station is also difficult to photograph.  There are so many people and iPod ads in the way. The highlight of the tour for me was a story from a BBF docent who remembers riding in his friend’s aunt’s private train to go to New York for Mets’ games (the aunt of course was Joan Payson).  There’s a good history of the building online at the South Station website.

I thought about catching the commuter train to Forest Hills, but just missed it.  Instead we walked along the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and enjoyed the Greenway’s ignagural event.  It strikes me that the Greenway makes an excellent location for a street fair, so I hope other events like this will be held in the future.  Peter enjoyed boogieing in the grass to the Jewish-Cuban sounds of Odessa Havana.  After that we went home for a nap.


Movie Round-Up

Here’s a short list of movies I’ve watched recently, where recently = since the beginning of July!!!   I previously reviewed Ric Burn’s New York which also fell into this time period, but I’m sure not making good use of our Netflix account.  Maybe now that the baseball regular season is over I can catch up on my film viewing.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

A parody of cop/action films and a comment on the lack of cop/action films in England turns out to be pretty funny.  London’s top police officer is so good he makes his colleagues look bad so he is transfered to a sleepy village that turns out to have far too many “accidental deaths”.  Simon Pegg is awesome as the by-the-book, resourceful, and efficient Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a character completely opposite to his role as a bumbling loser in Shaun of the Dead.  Like Shaun, this movie is funny but also a serious gorefest, so don’t watch if you’re squeamish.

Jane Eyre (2007)

This is a recent Masterpiece Theatre take on the Charlotte Bronte classic.  It plays up the spooky & creepy parts of Jane’s childhood and remains faithful to the book.  Lots of pretty English scenery and drama make for a nice romantic movie for your wife’s birthday.

Barton Fink (1991)

An earnest playwright ends up assigned to write “wrestling pictures” in Hollywood and ends up having to deal with mosquitoes, pealing wallpaper, a William Faulkner-like character, writer’s block and a mysterious murder.  A quirky and entertaining film.  Would make a good triple-feature with The Player and Adaptation, in “Films that take the gloss off of Hollywood.”

Waitress (2007)

A movie filled with awkwardness, furrowed brows, and pies (yum!).  For all the cliches and uneveness in Waitress it somehow manages to still be quite charming.  Andy Griffith has a great supporting role as a cranky dinner owner/customer.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005)

Kind of an odd documentary about the great songwriter/musician that is half a concert film of other artists singing Cohen’s songs and half interviews, photos, and artwork of Cohen himself.    I suppose the concert footage displays the greatness of the songs and lyrics as interpreted by a diversity of artists, but mostly it just made it more of a treat when the man himself performs a song with U2 in a highly-stylized video at the end of the film.

Banned Books Week 2008

So, it’s Friday, and the ALA’s Banned Book Week is coming to an end and I haven’t posted about it yet.  Thus, here’s my post and a reminder for you to go to your library or bookseller this weekend and get a banned or challenged book to read.  And yeah, go in person, don’t be a wuss and order from Amazon.  You need to go to the counter, hold the book over your head and announce in a loud voice: “I’d like to get this banned book!”

If you’d like to know why opposing book bans and challenges is important, you need to watch this episode of The Facts of Life on Hulu.  Now!!!

Okay, now if you’d like a less-contrived and more thoughtful statement on the freedom to read, check out this blog post by jamie posted on myliblog last summer: Uncle Bobby’s Wedding.  This is the best response to a book challenge I’ve ever read.

Here’s some other news from Banned Book Week:

As for me, since I’m now a parent, I decided this year to pick up a couple of children’s books for my son:

  • First, a book about penguins that is the most banned book two years running: And Tango Makes Three.  Apparently these penquins live in Manhattan, and thus are liberal elitists.
  • Second, a classic book about nightmares, In the Night Kitchen.  Some folks think this book should come with little fig leafs.

Have a great weekend and enjoy a banned book!

Previously: Banned Books Week 2007

Beer Review: Paulaner Oktoberfest

A Märzen from Bavaria to celebrate the season!

Beer: Paulaner Oktoberfest
Brewer: Paulaner Brauerei München
Source: Draft
Rating: *** (7.4 of 10)

Comments: In the glass, this beer appeared a dark caramel color with a lot of fizzy bubbles and not much of a head.  After drinking the bubbles fizzed merrily on but there was no lace on the glass.  Both the aroma and taste of the beer had a nice musty, malty sense to it.  This is definitely not one of those hoppy beers, very smooth and no bitterness.  There’s a nice tingle of spice on the tongue as well.  Yum!  I like it.

Previously: Harpoon Octoberfest

Book Review: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) begins with a pre-teen boy arriving to move in with the father he never knew, hoping to avoid going to military school.  In a sense it’s the same premise as Ricky Schroeder’s 1980’s sitcom Silver Spoons.  Unfortunately for Joel, the young protagonist of this novel, he does not find his father to be an affable man-child who drives a train around his mansion.  In fact, Joel does not find his father at all until more than halfway through the novel, Mr. Samson being mysteriously hidden at his own home at Skully’s Landing.

Instead, Joel becomes acquainted with the eccentric cast of Southern Gothic figures who live on and around Skully’s Landing.  There’s his grouchy step-mother Amy, odd-ball cousin Randolph, a maid named Zoo Fever who helps Joel settle in but dreams of running away, and the tomboy Idabel who becomes Joel’s only friend.  Unable to escape from Skully’s Landing, Joel escapes further into his mind (the “other room”) as the only way to keep above the nuttiness around him.  When he finally meets his father, well lets just say it’s not very pleasant either and they don’t end up playing Pac-Man together.

There’s not so much of a plot in this novel, just more of vignettes of Joel’s daily life as he sinks more into the morass of Skully’s Landing.  Capote’s prose is beautiful, if just plain weird and full of the grotesque.  It’s kind of reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird in tone but lacking the hope and wonder of that novel.  Here the discoveries that come with growing older are not edifying but demoralizing.

Author Capote, Truman, 1924-1984
Title Other voices, other rooms.
Publication Info. New York, Random House [1948]
Description 231 p. 22 cm.