Thursday, August 21, 2003

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester

Boring. Veddy British. Dry as a saltine cracker encountered during a nasty bout of cottonmouth with nary a beer in sight.

And it's irritatingly unclear about some crucial facts. The whole reason I read the thing was to discover how far the sound of the explosion carried. I'd read on a website that the sound went around the world 8 times. That's not true. The sound did travel as far as 3,000 miles, so they heard it in Western Australia and Southern India. No, it was the inaudible pressure wave that went around the globe 7 times. But here's where it's unclear; it's reported that it took the pressure wave approximately 19 hours to go halfway around the world and meet itself at the antipode, but Winchester doesn't make it clear whether the wave fronts clapped together and went off in the opposite direction (which is what I think he meant), or if they crisscrossed, or passed, one another and went on their way. You'd think a crucial fact like that would be spelled out. (Maybe he's saving it for the sequel.)

The only other interesting factoid was the skeleton-encrusted pumice rafts that washed to shore and bumped against the prows of ships for a year or so afterward. As you can see in the illustration from the book, the bones of the dead were mixed into the pumice like M&Ms stirred into a batch of Rice Crispy treats. The descriptions from the time definitely carry the tone of nauseous repulsion mixed with fantod-laced horror so wonderfully portrayed by the Priest in Harold and Maude as he conveys his disgust at Harold commingling his young, firm flesh with that of a geriatric woman.

I don't recommend Krakatoa for a cover-to-cover read, or even a purchase. But if you're curious about the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa, this is about the only best current source for info. If you're interested in the political currents that led up to the distribution of the population of the area, the trade routes and spices traded, and the existence of communication technology available to the media at the time, you'll have a blast, ahem. But for folks like me who could have preferred all of that stuff, including detailed lessons on plate tectonics and Darwinism (!?!?), be dealt with in a short introductory chapter rather than the first 7 lengthy chapters (perhaps he was trying for some literary device that matched the pressure wave's 7 trips across the globe as that was what those chapters felt like), you'll wanna skip right to chapter 8, then read the epilogue where he visits the newly formed volcano today, and then get the hell on with your life already.

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