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A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon 23 November 2005
Describing an earthquake isn't easy. Too many bizarre things are happening simultaneously. Building rafters groan mournfully. Massive objects twist or shift position while fragile ones remain contentedly in place. In still air, trees sway alarmingly, perhaps shedding leafs. Fireplace chimneys will jump from a row of houses, sprawling across lawns and gardens. When calm returns, you will hear the inevitable question: "Did you feel that?"
Simon Winchester hasn't felt it, relying on others for description. The feeling of an earthquake, however, is less important to him than its causes and effects. In this sweeping account of the Great San Francisco and Fire of 1906, he ranges from the global movement of continental plates to the precise location of the actual spot where the rocks slipped in that April morning. San Francisco is but one city located in that violent circuit around the Pacific Ocean known as the Ring of Fire. From Tokyo to Valparaiso, places Winchester notes have had their share of destructive 'quakes, the surface of our planet is in constant motion. He recounts how the movement builds up pressure which is suddenly released to achieve a temporary equilibrium. Still, it wasn't the moving rock that destroyed much of San Francisco, but the fires that raged unchecked for four days as firemen remained helpless without water to combat them.
Winchester's depiction of the Earth's structures and their travels is interrupted by a detour of the history of the city. Fuelled by the Gold Rush, The City [it's always referred to in capitals by natives] grew at an astonishing rate. Originally a Spanish, then Mexican, community, the 49ers overturned the traditional lifestyle by sheer force of numbers. The bucolic rural population of the area gave way to urbanised "enterprise" and capitalism. Fortunes were made and lost almost as quickly as the changing tides. Although the burgeoning city suffered 'quakes and fires alike prior to 1906, the focus on the Main Chance prevented planning or even consideration of disasters. Everybody, except the Chinese, according to Winchester, was too busy making money or having fun. Or both.
An unexpected and severe upheaval in a community is bound to turn up surprises - and no few legends. San Francisco's mayor, a violinist selected as a figurehead by the local "Boss", proved amazingly stalwart and unperturbable as he coped with events. Eugene Schmitz had given San Francisco the unenviable reputation of being the tool of the Tammany Hall of the Pacific Coast, run by an Abe Ruef. Yet Schmitz rose to the occasion admirably, working in tandem with another surprising individual, Gen. Frederick Funston, who had been sequestered in the local army base to calm his rambunctious nature. Their combined efforts, which appeared draconian to many, prevented a calamitous situation from growing worse. Relief stations, temporary shelter, and swift transportation to safe havens helped many to survive and prevented outbreaks of diseases.
The author's description of various 'quakes and the processes deep in the Earth leading to them is presented from a sound scientific base. New instruments, such as those measuring the tiny ripples of rock movement beneath Parkfield, California, have achieved almost astonishing precision. Yet the hard science retreats to a shrugging of shoulders with hesitant and qualified murmuring at the inevitable question: "Where and when will the next one strike?" All the instruments and calculations leave us no wiser. The origins of earthquakes are buried deep in the Earth and the measurements would have to be continental in scope to be effective. Winchester turns from "historian" to crusader in his description of Portola Valley, a bedroom community south of The City. There, housing developments sit smugly astride the San Andreas Fault. With the working population divided between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, one would expect more care had gone into placing homes there. Winchester almost achieves an invective tone as he condemns the thoughtlessness of builders and buyers alike. When, not "if", Portola Valley will be devastated.
As he did with "Krakatoa", Winchester can't avoid finding a religious tie to natural disaster. Here, it's the bizarre sect known as the Pentecostals. A fringe group of fervent beliefs, the Pentecostals might have remained in obscurity with so many others of the type, had the 1906 shake not occurred. Taking the disaster as a divine signal, they used the event to propagate their message of more wrath from supernatural sources. It's an easy message to spread among the credulous and the Pentecostals have gained enormous membership and political clout. Fear is a great promoter of simple answers.
Although some fulminate against journalism as "history", Winchester works hard to impart his story. He's always an entertaining read, and if his approach and delivery are light, at least the account isn't fabricated. He piles in a wealth of interesting detail, most of it relevant and to the point. If he promotes a idea, even if it seems far-fetched or unrelated to our lives, his sincerity and caring sense make up for the vehemence. In addition to a compelling story, vividly told, the author gives us numerous maps and photographs to add to the narrative. If the story of The Great Earthquake and Fire are new to you, this is a good place to start. If nothing else, Winchester has brought the tale up to date. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 24 September 2006
I could hardly put this book down; for me it communicated clearly and with some force a complex web of related issues. I teach geology, and found explanations of plate tectonics and much more here in a form that was accessable but not simplistic. Thankfully, Winchester paints a detailed context, geologically but also socially, culturally and economically for the 1906 event and, disturbingly, for the consequences of future natural disasters. What more could be asked?

Perhaps there could have been more on the 'quake itself, particularily the aftermath (as presented in a recent TV documentary) and the consequences of that for San Francisco. Not quite a tour de force, but in many places approaching it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 July 2011
A lot of people have clearly rated this book highly, and it came to me from a friend who said it was "very good", so I feel a bit mean giving it two stars. I read it with care, but cannot say I really enjoyed it. The author has a degree in geology, and writes with the aim of giving us an entertaining and informative experience. Unfortunately, I don't feel it really comes off, for several reasons.

Winchester's journalistic style, when it works, is good, and he teases us in the first few pages with some nice snippets of first hand experience of the San Franscisco earthquake, before taking us off for an extended explanation of the geology of plate tectonics, with special reference to the San Andreas fault. This is a theme he returns to several times later in the book, and the human narrative of the quake and its aftermath - in itself fascinating - is interspersed with a broad palette of seismological details. With tighter editing, this could have been an excellent way of keeping our attention. For me, however, there were too many self-indulgent travelogue-style or autobiographical digressions, which added little to our appreciation. The book could have lost at least 50 pages, and been the better for it.

Others might find this personal stuff interesting, so that is purely a matter of taste. However, I also found the geological explanations far from lucid. I have a reasonable layman's understanding of plate tectonics, gathered from other reading and television documentaries - probably as much as many other readers will have. Without this background, I would have found his explanations pretty impenetrable, especially as the pictures are poor and thin on the ground.

This book is printed in the same format as popular novels, and all the illustrations, whether photographs or geological diagrams, are fuzzy and hard to make out. Peering closely at small maps printed in eleven shades of mid-grey, with tiny black writing overlaid, doesn't make for a pleasant experience. Some of the charts and tables in the appendices suffer from the same problem.

I feel this is a good opportunity missed. If Winchester had submitted the text to the attentions of a good critical editor, and the publishers had indulged us with better quality paper, more and larger pictures, perhaps even - gasp - some colour, this could have been a fabulous book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
This book was not quite what I was expecting, or if I'm honest, hoping for. I was looking for a history of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. And this is that history, but only if you start about 150 million years ago. I suppose I was looking for a social history, and what I got was mostly a geological history!

I learned more than I ever wanted to about New Geology, seismology, plate tectonics, fault lines, slip-strike lines, seismographs - but what I really wanted was the personal histories, the experiences of people who lived through the quake, the impact on the community, the rebuilding, the tragedies, the triumphs. There is some small element of this, but not enough for my tastes. The actual quake doesn't even hit until page 201!

That Winchester managed to keep me reading that long, that I not only read this but read it in a matter of days and still enjoyed it, despite all the geology, is testament to his skills as a writer. I've read a number of his other books, and he is truly an excellent writer and historian - he manages to make what in other hands might be an immensely dull read relatively engaging, and that's a real gift.
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Given that almost half of the book is devoted to an exploration of the world's geology - particularly the New Geology of plate tectonics and how it relates to the phenomenon of earthquakes - you might expect A Crack in the Edge of the World to be on the dry side; but not at all. I found it riveting, and came away better informed, infected by Winchester's obvious passion for his subject and mildly relieved not to be living in, say, Olema (where during the 1906 earthquake one highway was cut in two and the ends shifted, relative to one another, by twenty feet), or Petrolia (which has a measurable seismic event every couple of hours); or indeed any of the hundreds of communities that sit astride the San Andreas fault - including, of course, San Francisco - where the Pacific and North American plates slide inexorably past one another at an average rate of one point five inches a year. The operative word seems to be 'average', because this sliding movement has taken place over millions of years not in a controlled and predictable way but in a series of paralysing lurches (Winchester uses the phrase 'pitiless irregularity') - wholly unpredictable, more or less, as to size and timing and capable, as in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and ensuing fire, of inflicting catastrophic damage and loss of life.

I have read several of Winchester's books and he presents the story in his usual rhythmic and very readable style, combining correctness with verve and rendering the complexities of the subject clearly but not simplistically. Without sensationalising, he manages to tease our expectations and crank up the tension towards the actual event by a skilful balance of back story and forward glimpses worthy - I hope he wouldn't mind the comparison - of the best disaster movies. Indeed, at one point he uses the 1936 Clark Gable film San Francisco to give colour to his description of the immediate aftermath of the main shock; and it works well because by this time his credentials as an arbiter of veritas have been so comprehensively established over 250 pages that you are almost prepared - I was anyway - to accept the celluloid version as a reflection of the real thing.

The book ends on the ominous certainty of more to come: 'All that man does, and everywhere that man inhabits, is for the moment only...' A Crack in the Edge of the World doesn't half make you think, but above all it's a good read. I thoroughly recommend it.
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on 9 April 2015
If you are like me and are interested in the geology of a particular country or area I am sure that you will find this book very informative. However, According to the title of the book, the subject is supposed to be about the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which in fact you don't start reading about until you are approximately halfway through. I almost got the impression that he was more enthusiastic in telling his readers about the trip he made across the States with all the geological details that he saw and then suddenly realised that he had better start talking about the actual subject in hand. San Francisco was still a very young city when the quake happened and it must have been terrifying and horrific to be witnesses to such a natural phenomena. The extraordinary thing was that even though they knew - or many of them did - that they were in a major earthquake zone they went ahead and re-built the city in exactly the same place and yet they are still surprised when they experience a tremor today! If like me you are interested in geology then this is a fascinating book to read but it is not all about the subject title - beware!
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on 17 February 2011
This is a most remarkable book based on remarkable research. It is an essential read for anyone who wishes to learn about the causes and subsequent effects of the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906. But the book also goes into great detail about earthquakes in general, the links with volcanoes and what causes them and the likelihood of future quakes.
In summary, a masterpiece.
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on 8 December 2012
I thought I understood plate tectonics but this took me well beyond where I was. Simon has a way of making a vey short event into a full story.
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on 16 January 2014
Wonderful book by a great author. The events leading up to the great San Fran earthquake are examined in detail. A great book to read.
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on 6 August 2014
Good book - bought it as I was studying tectonics in geography and thought I could get some good facts/extra knowledge
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