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A Crack in the Edge of the World (2005)

by Simon Winchester

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Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
Surprisingly little of this consistently lively book discusses the San Francisco event itself. Instead, Winchester effortlessly gives a beginning course on seismology, plate tectonics, the early history of California, and much more, all framed by a charming memoir of his travels in pursuit of the book. He finds a tone that gives the rudiments of complicated subjects in an agreeably accessible way which somehow never feels dumbed down. Charming anecdotes, and an endearing dash of silliness, liven the book. the central chapters on the quake and resulting fire are exemplary. ( )
  sjnorquist | Jun 7, 2014 |
My favorite Simon Winchester, by far. I don't know how many times I've read (and listened to) this work. Few authors could make so many loose threads into a meaningful picture. Winchester does. He makes science make sense, in a most lyrical way. ( )
  justplainoldcj | Dec 9, 2013 |
I love science, history, and trivia, but this book is terrible. It's dull, to start with, and right off the bat I felt like I was slogging through it. It's not about the 1906 earthquake; I have no idea what it is about. It is way more about Winchester than the 1906 earthquake, I can tell you that much. I couldn't even finish (and I almost never stop a book before finishing). I tried to keep reading because there were interesting tidbits scattered throughout, but it just wasn't interesting or useful enough to keep reading. I even started making a list of the things I didn't like:

- Offensive nostalgia for the 19th century and its portrayal as a simpler time with no acknowledgment of things like slavery or lack of women's rights, among others.

- Criminal lack of focus including the moon landing, the author's multiple road trips, his Oxford explorer's club trip to Iceland, the history of many other earthquakes, the history of California and the gold rush.

- Lots of disdain for southern and western Americans, but a song of love towards San Francisco and California in general. I've lived in San Francisco; it has downsides too.

- The author seems to think he is a lot funnier than he is.

- On p125 he decries the savagery of the greed and "barbarism" of the frontier towns during the Gold Rush, comparing them unfavorably to the "civilized" Eastern and Midwestern cities. Anyone who has read a history of Chicago or New York City in the mid-1800s should laugh at this notion. "There was murder, mayhem, robbery, alcoholism, depression, and suicide" - I'm sorry, what urban area in ANY era didn't have these things?

- Slut-shaming on p 126.

- P130; the actual sentence "indolent handful of Mexicans"

- Talking about the unpeopled west when native Americans definitely lived there. And a whole thing about "at this point [probably the 1800s, during western exploration by Americans] the Colorado River had been seen by relatively few people." I'm... pretty sure plenty of people had seen the Colorado River by the point it was the 1800s. Just not by white people. Speaking of which, this book was published in 2005 and he still uses "Indians" to refer to Native Americans. Really.

- Maligning someone for dying of syphilis; TONS of people used to die of syphilis.

- A story about him visiting a meteorite impact site and being told it was owned by people with a specific last name, and he recalls knowing a couple with that last name, so he calls them from the site and finds out of course it's the same people! So he puts the owner on speaker and the owner thanks the visitors for paying the fee because it keeps them in good champagne, which makes me want to have a class war and nationalize the site to make it a national park. Because how obnoxious is that. ( )
1 vote g33kgrrl | Apr 11, 2013 |
I read this book for research purposes. While I did fill it with sticky notes and found the read overall quite rewarding, I was also left with a strong sense that it could have been a much better book.

Winchester is a very knowledgeable fellow. The book is framed around his own travels to places like Iceland and then across North America, from Charleston, to New Madrid, and on westward to San Francisco. His goal is to explore tectonic theory and how the San Andreas Fault fits into the larger scheme of the living world. The data is quite interesting, but at the same time he rambles. It's like he came across too much good information and tried to squeeze it into one book. This creates a problem when a book about the 1906 earthquake doesn't get to the actual earthquake until page 241.

This also creates the odd dilemma in that it felt like little of the book was on the actual quake. Information on the aftermath is interesting, such as the struggle to get insurance companies to pay up (especially German-based ones), and the plight of the Chinese and the ensuing wave of "Paper People" who tried to take advantage of or were genuinely lost because of the loss of immigration paperwork. He then, however, devotes too much space to how the "wrath of God" aspect of the earthquake inspired the Pentecostal church movement. Even his trip to Alaska to discuss the fascinating matter of how the pipeline has been created to withstand earthquakes is colored by derogatory comments on towns along the way, including a slam against Wal-mart that felt out of place in its arrogance.

In all, its an interesting book that's diluted by too many tangents. Still worth reading, though, even if it caused me to roll my eyes or skim at times. ( )
1 vote ladycato | Feb 11, 2013 |
This account is heavy with technical information on geology and is pretty heavy going for one not too excited.by the technical aspects of its subject. There are no footnotesor source notes but there is an extensive bibliography. The account of the earthquake in San Francisco, when the book finally gets around to telling about it, is full on interest--certainly better done than the only other book I have read on the event:, The Great Earthquake, by Phillip Frankin (read 11 Nov 2005). The discussion on the inevitability of a future cataclysmic earthquake in California makes me glad I don't live theere. ( )
  Schmerguls | Feb 1, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
Geology is not, at first glance, the most inviting of subjects, but in this book Simon Winchester makes it engagingly, captivatingly readable.
 
Without slighting the human suffering of the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters, and with full attention to the irreducible particularity of their pain, Winchester places their tragedies in an almost cosmic context. The earth is not a stable structure, he teaches us, but a living system.
 
Me, I hated it. I wanted to drop-kick this book across the backyard. If Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough can lay claim to being the Miles Davis of popular history, Winchester is becoming the Kenny G.
 
Part tectonic textbook, part intimate travelogue, A Crack in the Edge of the World searches for the irrepressible primeval forces responsible for these periodic upheavals by examining the scars left along the temperamental North American plate, which stretches from Iceland in the east to the coast of California. Tugging the reader along from Greenland to Newfoundland, from New Madrid, Missouri, to Meers, Oklahoma, Winchester reconstructs a sequence of cataclysms as he closes in on the fateful events of that April morning.
 
This legendary natural disaster and urban catastrophe -- with its rough parallels to today's events -- is the subject of Simon Winchester's "A Crack in the Edge of the World." Unfortunately, Mr. Winchester explores the events of 1906 only after he has taken the reader for a long road trip of geologically significant American towns and 200 rambling and tedious pages on the history of "earlier American geology" and geologists.
 
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Epigraph
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve.

Robinson Jeffers, 'Carmel Point', 1954
Dedication
With this book I both welcome into this world my first grandchild,

Coco

and offer an admiring farewell to

Iris Chang

whose nobility, passion and courage should serve as a model for all, writers and newborn alike
First words
Some time ago, when I was half-idly browsing my way around the internet, I stumbled across the home page of an obscure small town in western Ohio with the arresting name of Wapakoneta.
So far as the ancients of China are concerned, 1906 was a year of the Fire Horse - a time of grave unpredictability that comes along every six decades, and a time when all manner of strange events have the mind to occur.
Quotations
Then he decided he should be taking pictures - except that he swiftly realized he had no camera. So he went to his dealer, a man name Kahn on Montgomery Street, and asked to borrow one. Kahn was only too well aware of the fires licking hungrily toward him, so told Genthe to take anything he wanted - anyway, it would all be molten scrap in a few hours at best. And so Genthe took a 3A Kodak Special, hurried off up the hills that looked down on the city-center destruction, and began to work. Later he wrote of the one picture taken from the upper end of Sacramento Street, close to where his house would soon be consumed by fire. He was peculiarly fond of it: There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the first morning of the first day of the fire (on Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay) which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed onto the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it. Several people upon seeing it have exclaimed, "Oh, is that a still from a Cecil DeMille picture?" To which the answer has been" "No, the director of this scene was the Lord himself."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060571993, Hardcover)

Geologically speaking, 1906 was a violent year: powerful, destructive earthquakes shook the ground from Taiwan to South America, while in Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted. And in San Francisco, a large earthquake occurred just after five in the morning on April 18--and that was just the beginning. The quake caused a conflagration that raged for the next three days, destroying much of the American West's greatest city. The fire, along with water damage and other indirect acts, proved more destructive than the earthquake itself, but insurance companies tried hard to dispute this fact since few people carried earthquake insurance. It was also the world's first major natural disaster to have been extensively photographed and covered by the media, and as a result, it left "an indelible imprint on the mind of the entire nation."

Though the epicenter of this marvelously constructed book is San Francisco, Winchester covers much more than just the disaster. He discusses how this particular quake led to greater scientific study of quakes in an attempt to understand the movements of the earth. Trained at Oxford University as a geologist, Winchester is well qualified to discuss the subject, and he clearly explains plate tectonics theory (first introduced in 1968) and the creation of the San Andreas Fault, along with the geologic exploration of the American West in the late 19th century and the evolution of technology used to measure and predict earthquakes. He also covers the social and political shifts caused by the disaster, such as the way that Pentecostalists viewed the quake as "a message of divine approval" and used it to recruit new members into the church, and the rise in the local Chinese population. With many records destroyed in the fire, there was no way to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, and thus many more Chinese were granted citizenship than would have otherwise been. Filled with eyewitness accounts, vivid descriptions, crisp prose, and many delightful meanderings, A Crack in the Edge of the World is a thoroughly absorbing tale. --Shawn Carkonen

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:20 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Winchester brings his storytelling abilities, as well as his understanding of geology, to the extraordinary San Francisco Earthquake, exploring not only what happened in northern California in 1906 that leveled a city symbolic of America's relentless western expansion, but what we have learned since about the geological underpinnings that caused the earthquake. He also positions the quake's significance along the earth's geological timeline and shows the effect it had on the rest of 20th-century California and American history.--From publisher description.… (more)

» see all 6 descriptions

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