In a fashion similar to his thematic approach in "Krakatoa", Simon Winchester has chosen a specific natural disaster - the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake - as the centerpiece for a multi-course banquet entitled "A Crack in the Edge of the World". But, like the ill-advised chef who has tried to put too much into a single meal, Winchester has made a few culinary mistakes as well - some dishes are overcooked; others with great promise are left underdone; some courses are served in a strange order while others are split into multiple portions and served up in small doses throughout the course of the meal; some tantalizing confections are sampled but the diner is left unsatisfied and sadly wishing for more. As one reviewer very cleverly observed, there is the germ of a great popular science and history book buried in "A Crack in the Edge of the World",but it seriously wants editing and greater organization to clarify Winchester's chosen sub-themes.
Make no mistake though (to stretch the culinary metaphor to its breaking point), Winchester certainly provides lots of meat for his readers to chew on - the current state of seismology and plate tectonics; the history of both sciences; the natural history of the San Andreas and related faults; tsunamis and volcanoes; the shameful treatment of the Chinese in California through the early years of the twentieth century; the surprising relationship between the earthquake and the explosive growth of the Pentecostals in the USA; and the history of California and San Francisco, most notably, how their genesis has been so clearly affected by the 1906 earthquake specifically and the overwhelming probability of a recurrence of a major seismological event in the near geological future.
Certainly a fine book and anyone who enjoys science, history, or the history of science will be pleased to have read it. But, here's the rub ... "Krakatoa" was compelling and mesmerizing whereas "A Crack ..." was merely interesting and informative.
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