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Ghosts of Vesuvius: A New Look at the Last Days of Pompeii, How Towers Fall, and Other Strange Connections [Hardcover]

Charles R. Pellegrino
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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  • Hardcover: 489 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow & Company (Aug 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380973103
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380973101
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,792,946 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Volcanoes. Call them Alpha and Omega. Read the first page
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Philosophising forces 15 Aug 2005
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Calling Pellegrino's writing "eclectic" is almost abuse of a useful term. Ranging in time from the Big Bang to the collapse of the World Trade Centre, Pellegrino dabbles in astrophysics, geophysics and spiritual discourses. He's a man of wide knowledge and experience, and a great deal of both is incorporated in this narrative. While the title imparts the demolition of two Roman towns, there is a long sequence introducing the reader to the forces that led to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Included in the slowly advancing journey are such events as the Spartacus Revolt, which used the volcano as a bastion, and the Histories of Josephus, Jewish scholar and apostate.
The core of this narrative is "forces". The eruption of Vesuvius performed some intriguing and inexplicable antics. These, of course, remained buried under the layers of volcanic debris produced by the explosions. Vesuvius sent tonnes of ash and gas high into the stratosphere in the early stages of the event. The ash, encountering moisture aloft, rained down on Pompeii in the form of pumice. Those who could find their way out of the city could move in this mostly harmless deluge. Later, magma ejected from the crater, cooled to become hardened rock which proved more deadly. Nearby, Herculaneum suffered similar falls, allowing people to leave the town. A later blast, however, sent a high-velocity stream of gas into the town, killing thousands in a stroke. The temperature and velocity of the "pyroclastic flow" was such that, according to Pellegrino, the victims were dead before their brains could register the pain.
The victims of Pompeii and Herculaneum become symbols for a task Pellegrino tried to avoid - analysing the circumstances of the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  37 reviews
33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vesuvius in New York, or, How CRP Dealt with September 11 2 Oct 2004
By Andrea H. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I originally began reading this book out of a desire to find a thorough account of the exact events of the famous Vesuvius eruption in August 79 CE. I quickly realized that I had got more than I bargained for: along with a minute-by-minute report of those fatal 24 hours on the Bay of Naples, Charles Pellegrino provides a book that is equally a primer on the geological prehistory of the Earth and life on it; a melancholy meditation on some of history's most poignant what-ifs; a spiritual review of and an agnostic's indictment of the early (ugly) history of the Roman Catholic Church; a summary of the beliefs of Egyptian Gnosticism; and an impressionistic, rigorous account of the events of September 11 in New York City from the viewpoint of a volcanolgist-cum-paleontologist-cum-astrobiologist-cum-physicist-cum-ad infinitum. Along the way it becomes clear that Pellegrino has led one of the most interesting lives in recent memory; he name-drops a who's-who of the scientific community from Stephen Jay Gould to Stephen Hawking, and calmly recounts, in footnotes, such spectacular incidents as the time when he was nearly blown up with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Does this sound exhausting? It is, but more importantly, it is fascinating. "Ghosts of Vesuvius" is one of the most engrossing books I have read in a long time. Though the narrative follows an associative rather than linear logic, Pellegrino manages, for the most part, to keep the connections he wishes to illuminate clear in his reader's mind. Herculaneum, Pompeii, and New York City are in the end far more alike than they are different, and Pellegrino's largest point comes through perfectly, though he never says it in so many words: our civilization may be ending. And it's our own damn fault.

Still, "Ghosts of Vesuvius" has flaws, some of them worth mentioning. At a stylistic level, Pellegrino loves ellipsis...far too much... He never learned, or doesn't care, that three dots is not an acceptable end to a sentence, let alone to a sentence fragment, and the ellipses become wearying. (As do his endless paragraphic, paranthetical remarks.) Furthermore, Pellegrino makes a few factual errors: the books of Lucretius were not burned by the Roman Church; they were in fact copied and recopied by monks. The upheaval in the Byzantine Empire of 537 CE (which Pellegrino contends was caused by a volcanic eruption in the Pacific) did not lead to that empire's 'downfall,' as that polity continued to exist, albeit never so gloriously, for another nine hundred years. Similarly, Pellegrino makes much of the fact that Marcus Tullius Cicero 'disappeared' in 43 BCE, when any competent classicist (or student of third-semester Latin) can tell you that Cicero was murdered by Mark Antony's goons on the Appian Way, and his head and hands were displayed on the Rostrum in the Forum as a warning to others who opposed Antony.

Yet these are minor quibbles. In the end, although Pellegrino's book provides a treasure trove on information on many more topics than the 79 CE Vesuvius eruption, it is far more an account of Pellegrino wrestling with the fact of September 11 than it is a work of nonfiction. Much as Bruce Springsteen did with "The Rising," and Art Spiegelman did with "In the Shadow of No Towers," Pellegrino stares into the abyss of humanity's nadir, and emerges with a flawed but brilliant masterpiece.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars suspend your English Comp notion of how a book should be wri 23 Sep 2004
By Atheen M. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
First of all let me say that I really learned a lot from this book. I had read some of the forensic information on the victims of Vesuvius in a journal article written in the 1980s and have often wondered what else had come of the work there. When I discovered Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino, I felt I would at last learn a little more. I did indeed learn a great deal more but not all of it about Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Dr. Pellegrino is obviously a person of diverse interests and experience who has worked and corresponded professionally with researchers like Haraldur Sigurdsson (volcanology), Carl Sagan (cosmology), Issac Asimov (cosmology), Stephen Jay Gould (paleontology), Robert Ballard (marine science), Arthur C. Clarke (space engineer and astronomer), and Sara Bisel (forensic scientist). He also appears to be able to propound competently on both religion and philosophy and to speak knowledgeably about historical figures, events, politics, law and society. In short, he is an exceptionally well rounded individual. (E. O. Wilson would probably approve of his efforts towards consiliance).

The book is not probably for everyone, however, since it seems almost stream of consciousness in style. It took me a while to stand aside from the English Comp expectation that there be a beginning, middle and end with smooth transitions between concepts and a clear, up-front development of a central theme. I had the feeling that the author had a great deal to talk about and had decided to say it all in one book!

For those able to take information of various sorts and fit it into what they already know without necessarily needing a continuous thread, the author is a gold mine. Among other topics, he discusses the origin of the cosmos, the solar system, and the earth, the evolution of life, reveals our position in time by taking the reader backwards in leaps that double in length back to the big bang, discusses the mistakes and ambition of various Roman emperors and the development of Roman legal systems especially those regarding the rights of former slaves. He also discusses the effects of other volcanic events on the world, including that at Thera during the Minoan period and of Krakatoa during the 19th Century and analyzes the Old and New Testaments for indications of the psychological impacts of the AD 79 eruption on biblical stories. He outlines the various Gnostic sects of Christianity, their setting in the Roman world, and their beliefs vis a vis the Roman Catholic Church. He describes the historical background of the Vesuvian eruptions, points out the characteristics of what has become labeled a Plinian type of eruption, and describes some of the forensic data that provide insight into the human drama of the event. He narrates details of the 9/11 attack including the physics of the collapse of the buildings and of the odd pattern of survival of various individuals.

An excellent discourse, but suspend your English Comp notion of how a book should be written.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Editor, Schmeditor 18 Jan 2006
By Baudelaire - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
To the carpers below who have a difficult time reading a book whose scope extends beyond its beginning-point and title, the world is a complex place and always has been, and to limit those complexities and interconnectedness is unrealistically to reduce the scope of human understanding of how things work together. In fewer words, ----> :-P

More than almost any other author, Pellegrino has a sense of the diverse interconnectedness between and among events. Where other authors would take the less-complicated (and ultimately less-interesting) task of restricting their focus specifically to the events of AD 79, Pellegrino's vision stretches from Genesis to Apocalypse, from the big bang to the big crunch (or chill, as the case may be), from Pompeii and Herculaneum to the WTC and 9/11. The "connective tissue" linking these apparently dissimilar events is Pellegrino's discussion of force and change -- sometimes rapid and explosive change in the status of an apparently dormant volcano, and other times the change that this explosion wrought not only on the immediate surroundings, but on the story and progress of human civilization itself.

Pellegrino is a surprisingly accessible writer with the ability to have an almost binocular vision of events: one lens is focused on the vast expanse, the "big picture" of not only human history but the history of the cosmos, and the other lens is focused on the individual: Justa, Pliny the Younger, a young girl in the ashes holding not a valuable family idol, but a beloved doll to comfort her in the darkness. Never has this explosion come to life for me in this way; never has my understanding of the effects of a surge cloud or plate tectonics been so clear.

In short, the only carping in which I will engage is to say that to please the carpers, perhaps the book should have been given a different title beyond _Ghosts of Vesuvius_ -- maybe something that mentions how towers fall or the strange connections that can exist among apparently disparate events.

Oh, whoops. Guess it did already.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the power of cataclysms 27 Mar 2006
By Carol A. Kalwaitis - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book starts out a bit strange, but bear with it. The overall premise is that human life--and all life on earth--has been caused by forces beyond our control, and beyond our full comprehension: earthquakes, meteors, volcanoes, etc. Extinctions of animals, and extinctions of advanced civilzations, have been caused by these same forces. But Pellegrino, an agnostic, stops just short of calling these "acts of God". He wants to, but.... he defines agnostic in the original sense, as "one who does not know". Throughout the book, however, he seems to be in search of God, in search of the ground truth (from archeology, geology, etc.) about the books of both the standard Bible and the Gnostic gospels. If you've ever been fascinated by Discovery Channel/History Channel/PBS shows on the extinctions of the dinosaurs, Bible archeology, or volcanoes, this book is for you. (Plus life during the Roman Empire, some general ancient history, the history of the early Christian church, evolution, 20th century politics, and the Titanic--how many topics can you cram into one almost stream-of-consciousness book??) Major volcanic events throughout history are compared on a scale of kilotons and megatons, with comparisons to the Hiroshima bomb and the Twin Towers' collapse, showing that "acts of God" (or natural forces, if you're Pellegrino) are far more powerful than mere humans can ever devise. The book ends with Pellegrino applying his knowledge of volcanic surges and volcanic collapse columns to the Twin Towers' collapse. After taking you through the essential physics of such things in the Pompeii and Herculaneum excavations, he then applies these principles to NYC... and then reminds you that the collapse of the Twin Towers was far less powerful than Vesuvius, which was in turn miniscule in comparison with the Thera (Santorini) eruption that ended the Minoan civilization. I'm hooked; now I've ordered Pellegrino's "Unearthing Atlantis".
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing look at Vesuvius (79 AD) ... and 9-11 (2001) 18 Aug 2007
By Darby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
[Review of Hardcover edition]

This is a tremendously interesting and engrossing book, on many different levels. "GoV", contrary to what the title might lead one to suspect, is NOT just a book about Mt. Vesuvius - it's a tour de force exploration of the effect of volcanic forces on people, on civilizations, on religion(s), on species and evolution in general, on the landscape, and even on the very formation of life itself ... and the author draws upon a wide array of scientific disciplines in order to tell the tale effectively.

In similar fashion to Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe", the book opens with a bang ... or more specifically, with the origins of the universe, the formation of heavier elements in the hearts of stars, the evolution of solid matter (planets, asteroids and dark matter), the formation of volcanoes on those planets, and the role that volcanic forces play in the formation of life. From there, the author gives the reader an introductory taste of some of the possible connective threads between volcanic calamities of recent millennia, their appearances in (and possible influence on) religious accounts & beliefs, and how the tripartite aspects of creation, destruction, and preservation directly mimic the aspects of certain deities recurring throughout human history in various different religions ... a theme touched on indirectly by Fritjof Capra's Hindu-slanted poetic paradigm for viewing physical reality "The Tao of Physics".

From there, the authors pauses (in Chapter 3, "The Time Gate") to neatly tie together a broad range of different fields of human study into a single and innovatively coherent view of time. In it, the author telescopes backwards, in accelerating fashion, as he zooms further and further outwards - from recent history, through archeology (deep history), past paleontology (biological history), past geology (planetary history), and onward into astrophysics (stellar history) ... with major volcanic events as the connective thread every step of the way. A larger and more robust treatment of this material is also covered in a stand-alone novel entitled "Time Gate".

Next, the author reels the reader's time focus back in closer to home again, and delves into the heart of the book, and the author's chief love: archeology. In this case, the primary focus are the twin cities destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD: Pompeii and Herculaneum. The author treats us to a veritable smorgasbord of some of the written accounts dating near, relating to, or directly affected by the eruption:

* Historical accounts (ex: the Plinys, Democritus, Josephus, Spartacus the Gladiator, etc),
* Biblical references (ex: the Council of Nicea that originally collated, edited and winnowed down the scattered accounts of the time into "The Bible" as we know it today),
* Legal records (ex: the legal case of the ex-slave Justa who was suing to retain her freedom at the time of the eruption) recovered from the carbonized remains of a large cache of library scrolls.

Reading those accounts drives home in dramatic fashion the terrible and lasting impact Vesuvius had on both the personal lives of the people nearby, on the surrounding nations and empires, and on the bible itself ... effects that are being felt even today, in ways that we're only just now beginning to understand.

From classic archeology, the author then re-focuses closer still into the subtle nuances and intimate details offered by forensic science, and the oh-so-human stories that the latter is allowing to emerge from the archeological strata. The bones can literally speak to us now ... telling us their exact age & gender, their most likely profession and social status, their dietary habits, wounds and diseases they suffered from, and so much more ... details that truly reinforce that archeology is not just about biology or dead civilizations - it's also about individuals.

It was shortly after the author finished writing the draft of this book that history and fate played a cruel joke ... on September 11th, 2001, hijackers crashed two passenger jets into the Word Trade Center in New York City. The buildings subsequently imploded and down blasted into the Manhattan Bedrock, and massive debris clouds radiated throughout southern Manhattan, burying, damaging and destroying much in it's path. The resemblance to Pompeii and Herculaneum was uncanny ... and that brings us to Chapter 10, the final chapter of GoV, in which several archeologists (including the author) converge on NYC to study the still-fresh archeological record.

Central to Chapter 10 is the story of NYFD Ladder 4 that emerged from the archeological evidence, and subsequent attempts (by certain unscrupulous people) to censor/delay/suppress the publication of this very book for daring to tell the truth ... a truth that exposed an earlier journalistic claim (of looting) as a slanderous hoax. For the details on that matter, I refer interested readers to the author's official discussion forum, which contains a thread on that subject, with additional information by the author.

To conclude, GOV is a must-read for anyone who's interested in the sciences in general, in history (both real and biblical), and in the ongoing efforts by determined researchers to carry forward the bright torch of knowledge & truth across the dark wastelands of time, superstition, ignorance ... and sometimes across the barbed wire boundaries of 'accepted theory', through toxic pools of opportunistic lies, and through suffocating clouds of censorship.

To quote Dr. Pellegrino: "History [and Truth] will eventually have it's way ... it always does."

I enjoyed it immensely, and I was engrossed throughout, from cover to cover.

I'd also like to compliment the author for his steadfast commitment to "Keep faith with the dead", regardless of the risk to his career as a published author. I've seen some of the consequences of that decision, first hand.
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