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Disaster! The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 Paperback – April 16, 2002

3.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a monster earthquake struck San Francisco, leveling virtually the entire city and sparking a fire that would burn for three days. In this harrowing, exhaustively researched account, Kurzman calls the catastrophe "probably America's worst peacetime disaster," with 10,000 dead. The author focuses on the human drama, following more than 100 different characters over several days, to illustrate the extremes of courage and cowardice that tragedy can evoke. Some tried to ignore it, like actor John Barrymore, who put on his white tails and strolled to a Union Square club for a brandy. Others were utterly absorbed by it, like the San Francisco Call reporter who dashed around the crumbling city in a frenzy, agog at the opportunity to "record the end of the world." And yet others went berserk, like the drunk prostitutes and pimps who staged an orgy on the steps of the U.S. Mint, apparently deciding to meet the world's end "in the style to which they were accustomed." Heroism also manifested itself in many forms, such as the exhausted firefighters who fought literally at the water's edge to keep the blaze from consuming the last pier connecting San Francisco to the rest of the world. Kurzman, a veteran chronicler of catastrophe (Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis; etc.) and winner of the George Polk Memorial Award and the National Jewish Book Award, has put his experience to good use here. A Titanic-like tragedy, absorbing characters and an astute and sympathetic storytellerthis book has it all. 16-page b&w photo insert; 1 map. (May)Forecast: Fatal Voyage sold a total (in cloth and paper) of 150,000. This new book, appearing exactly 95 years after the pivotal event, should be a natural in the Bay Area and among disaster enthusiasts, particularly those readers who enjoy the thrill of reliving danger from the safety of their favorite reading chair.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, destroyed most of the city. The fires afterward, however, leveled what remained and rendered the entire population homeless; perhaps ten thousand died all told. While the great opera singer Enrico Caruso rushed to save his clothes and valuables, the poor ran for their lives; and as firemen valiantly fought the firestorm in a futile effort to save the city, Mayor Eugene Schmitz organized an ad hoc committee to control panic, aid victims, and supervise relief efforts. The disaster made heroes out of beggars and beggars of rich men. Corruption reached new lows, and human generosity blossomed under adversity. Kurzman (former Washington Post correspondent and author of 14 books) portrays a city in panic as it faced the worst disaster in its history. Working from diaries and papers that survived the fires, Kurzman brings history alive as he weaves together individual stories. The concluding chapters summarize the new society that sprang from the ashes, based on a person's ability to work rather than the accident of birth. In addition, Kurzman reviews contemporary San Francisco's ability to combat disaster. This riveting history belongs in public and academic libraries. Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060084324
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060084325
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,415,150 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
The title says it all. Kurzman is a sensation story writer. While the book itself may be a good read in the sense of historical fiction, I would not count on it to provide any insight.
On the positive, his bibliography is pretty good, and it may be that his popular press editors dumbed down the text in order to make it more accessable to the general public. BUT the section on the bubonic plague has enough problems (confusing U. S. Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage with California Governor Henry T.Gage, for example) to weed it out as a reliable secondary source. Kurzman claims that the first plague outbreak was caused by rats transported by ships from China carrying Chinese sex slaves, that San Francisco mayor Eugene Schmitz had a stake in the slave trade, and that he covered up the second outbreak of bubonic plague to protect his business interests. Kurzman goes on to claim that the second outbreak was brought on by infected rats fleeing from Chinatown into the rest of the city. This is all a little too speculative and sensational for my taste. Since there is no evidence, either in his footnotes, nor in the literature I know of, which would back up either allegation, I'm afraid that I cannot endorse his assertions. That being the case, it casts the rest of the book in the same weak light.
There isn't a lot of new ground covered in this book. People interested in this period of San Francisco history would be better served by reading from Kurzman's bibliography rather than relying on Kurzman to filter their history. On the San Francisco graft trials, no better book exists than Franklin Hichborn's "The System." For a revisionist view of the earthquake and fire, try "Denial of Disaster" by Gladys Hansen.
mms, Grad. Student, Department of History, San Jose State University
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Format: Hardcover
I am a former history major at Stanford University, a Bay Area native who now lives in the Midwest, someone who reveres San Francisco history. I have been meaning to write this review for a long time. The NY Times was brutal in its review of this book, which prompted Mr. Kurtzman to write back, attacking the reviewer, who called this book completely episodic. It is that and then some. I have not read Mr. Kurtzman's other books, but after this effort, I'm not likely to. This book is just one lazy, meandering vignette after another, with no structure, theme, or cohesion. Even the title, "Disaster", is a blatant use of Glady's Hansen's brilliant, seminal work "Denial of Disaster." I knew I was in trouble when I read the credits in the front: Kurzman refers to the great historian Malcolm Barker, author of Three Fearful Days, as "Malcolm Walker." The use of other people's structure and story lines is appalling. In their ground-breaking 1971 book The San Francisco Earthquake, Max Witts and Thomas Gordon open with a description of Enrico Caruso coming to San Francisco, fighting with his co-star, escaping Mount Vesuvius, and lines like "Caruso decided he would need more protection than the insurance policy...He bought himself a revolver and fifty rounds of ammunition...By the time the train reached San Francisco, Caruso had become a passable gun handler." Now look what Kurtzman does on Page One. After telling us about Caruso's fight with his costar, his escaping Mount Vesuvius, etc.; he writes "And so he purchased a pistol and fifty bullets...And while crossing the western plains, he spent his time learning how to load the gun and draw it with a flick of his wrist.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
"Disaster" was a disappointment for me, mainly because I'd greatly enjoyed two of author Dan Krzman's previous books, "Fatal Voyage," and "Left to Die," about the U.S.S. Indianapolis and U.S.S. Juneau disasters, respectively. Those books, in addition to being informative history, tell great stories. Alas, "Disatser" makes a similar attempt in the storytelling department but fails. The book contains plenty of facts and first hand accounts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, but it is strangely disjointed. There are so many stories of numerous survivors interwoven together that individually they are hard to follow. And since the book checks in at a fairly brief 256 pages of text, each snippet of each story usually gets only a couple of paragraphs before moving on. Together, the stories blend into a rather shapeless mass that all start to sound alike. Kurzman would have been better served to tell his story from the larger perspective and using individual stories where they fit in. This approach served David McCullough extremely well in his excellnt "The Johnstown Flood," which serves as the ideal model for this type of book.
Overall, if you are interested in the subject matter or are a disaster buff, this book should be worthwhile with the above caveats. If you are a casual reader, you may want to consider taking a pass on this one.
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Format: Hardcover
Disaster seems to want to be a lively, fiction-style approach to the events, but suffers from a lack of depth and from the absence of any usable central characters. So we don't quite get a point of view strong enough to paint a compelling subjective experience, nor enough depth and detail to create a strong objective study.
Instead we land somewhere in between. Not a bad book, though some of the historic conclusions seem open to debate. It does have some nice little anecdotes, and can be read cover to cover in a light afternoon, so this might make a good overview or starting point for someone approaching the subject. Young readers would also find this handy.
If you want to see this type of historical writing done well, pick up David McCullough's book about the Johnstown Flood.
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