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169 of 183 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Winchester Relates This Tragic Event with Masterly Vividness
By late summer of this year, 120 years will have passed since the greatest natural disaster to occur on this planet since mankind began recording history some 30,000 years ago.
It was exactly 10:02 a.m. on Monday, August 27, 1883 when the small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra blew itself out of existence with an explosion that...
Published on April 5, 2003 by Bookreporter

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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I agree with the others
Very interesting topic, good narrative about the eruption itself, but WAY too much background information (sometimes seemed to be a stream of consciousness) and very Euro-centric in viewpoint. I thought the meteorlogical background and coverage was excellent and really added to my understanding of this event, but he went WAY overboard in his discussions of plate...
Published on November 4, 2005 by S. Heinen


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169 of 183 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Winchester Relates This Tragic Event with Masterly Vividness, April 5, 2003
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
By late summer of this year, 120 years will have passed since the greatest natural disaster to occur on this planet since mankind began recording history some 30,000 years ago.
It was exactly 10:02 a.m. on Monday, August 27, 1883 when the small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra blew itself out of existence with an explosion that was heard thousands of miles away and that resulted in the deaths of over 36,000 people. That eruption is believed to be the loudest sound ever heard by human ears.
As Simon Winchester points out in this latest of his detailed historical-scientific investigative books, the vast majority of those 36,417 victims were killed not by the explosion itself, but by the enormous tsunami it created. This moving mountain of seawater wiped out whole towns; devastated the social and economic life of a region measured in thousands of miles; and was recorded on tide gauges as far away as France.
Winchester specializes in detailed accounts that shine light into odd or forgotten corners of history. His two most recent successful efforts in that genre were THE MAP THAT CHANGED THE WORLD and THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN. Now he has crafted a vividly written book of 400-plus pages about an event that was over in a matter of hours. KRAKATOA is certainly full of digressions that have only tangential relevance to its main subject --- but those digressions are so well researched, beautifully written and just plain interesting that they become assets rather than liabilities. The reader does not really object to the fact that the eruption doesn't begin until past the halfway point in Winchester's text.
The preliminaries that lead Winchester up to August 27th involve, among other things, giving proper credit to people like Alfred Russel Wallace --- whose theories of evolution paralleled those of Charles Darwin --- and Alfred Lothar Wegener, whose prescient views on continental drift, once ridiculed, were scientifically confirmed only in the 1960s. We get lengthy side-essays on subjects such as the science of plate tectonics; the spread of information technology spurred by the laying of the Atlantic Cable; the flora and fauna of the southwest Pacific; the history of colonial exploitation in that area by the British and Dutch; and the growth of international trade that placed Krakatoa directly on one of the busiest sea lanes in the world on that August morning. His thesis, backed by impressive geological evidence, is that Krakatoa had certainly erupted many times in the distant past --- before recorded history began --- and that it will inevitably do so again sometime in the unforeseeable future.
The small volcanic island had given plenty of warning. There had been a serious eruption the previous May and the warning signs of the big bang of late August were obvious. Yet, as so often happens in both natural and manmade catastrophes, no one put the pieces of the puzzle together in time. The eruption actually began on Sunday the 26th, but no one was prepared for the incredible disaster of the next morning. The captain of a passing British ship, awestruck, wrote in his log: "A fearful explosion...I am writing this blind in pitch darkness...The eardrums of over half my crew have been shattered. My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the day of judgment has come."
The island of Krakatoa --- six miles long and two miles wide --- was largely destroyed. Only tiny fragments of it remain today, along with an island, locally known as "The Child of Krakatoa," which has risen from the seabed where the volcano's crater once stood.
Winchester tells this story with masterly vividness. His research is thorough and he has the ability to translate things like the records of the pressure gauge at the gas works in Batavia (present-day Dakarta), 90 miles away, into telling historical evidence. He does seem, however, to be on somewhat shakier ground in contending that the catastrophe contributed to a rise in Islamic Fundamentalist fervor that has survived, grew and fed the political turmoil that grips independent Indonesia to this day. That may be stretching things rather further than is logical.
For American readers, KRAKATOA will serve as a vocabulary builder, with its references to genever (an alcoholic drink), godowns (warehouses), pye-dogs (??), solfataras (volcanic fissures) and other such technical terms. But readers will also learn about "subduction zones" and the prime role they play in the continuing slow-motion subterranean dance going on beneath the feet of all of us as continental plates rub up against each other, causing volcanic matter to gush up or be dragged down to await further Krakatoas. It seems that, if mankind somehow escapes blowing itself up, nature may do the job for us down the road in a few million years.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Account of the World's Most Famous Eruption, April 22, 2003
By 
A few volcanoes have had larger eruptions. One volcano -- also located in what is present-day Indonesia -- killed more people. But no volcano has gripped the public's imagination all over the world like Krakatoa.
Simon Winchester explains that this was as much a matter of timing as it had to do with the deadly power of Krakatoa's eruption. When it exploded in 1883, the world had just been linked together by underwater cables over the previous two decades. News readers in the West were thus linked to events in the East with an immediacy they never had before.
All around the world, scientists of the time were able to use this information when measuring and observing certain phenomenon in their own localities. As Winchester points out, this was significant, marking the first time that scientists had proof of the interconnectedness of the world, that the globe was not just a hodgepodge of separate regions.
As some reviewers have already mentioned, perhaps the most remarkable part of the book is the chapter called "Close Encounters on the Wallace Line". Here Winchester shows how Alfred Russel Wallace's observation of distinct fauna on the Indonesian Archipelago, narrowly separated by the eponymous line that splits through the middle of the group of islands, in a way foretold the twentieth century discovery of continental plates and subduction -- the processes responsible for the volcano's terrible eruption. (Wallace himself seems to have had an intuition that geological processes were responsible for two such different groups of animals being clustered together.)
After Winchester gives this context, he then moves on to the actual eruption of Krakatoa. Here he explains in such detail about the events (and who wrote them down) leading up to the final eruption that he becomes more recorder than storyteller, and the story surprisingly becomes more comprehensive than interesting.
I hasten to add that this part of book is still very hard to put down, but the sheer bulk of detail about who saw what, and how reliable they are as a witness of the event, might have been edited down a bit when the subject matter is so compelling. Winchester is a good -- not a great -- writer, and he doesn't seem to have the ability to be both comprehensive and fascinating. Some people may actually enjoy Winchester's decision to carefully go over the time frame, the witnesses, their reliability, and other details, but I found this focus on minutiae to detract somewhat from the overall quality of the book.
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61 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars FASCINATING PAGE TURNER...HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, April 22, 2003
By 
At first glance Simon Winchester's true account of this absolutely catastrophic (surely an understatement) volcanic event of the late 1800s appears to be structured a bit like a text book with carefully chosen and interesting illustrations and maps...but after you are a few chapters into the book his rich narrative begins to grab you and won't let go! The compelling details of this infamous chapter in history (which claimed 40,000 lives mostly from tsunamis following the eruption) is fascinating enough. Even more interesting though are the correlations which Winchester examines between these events and the Dutch abandonment of the region resulting in the civil and religious unrest still existing today.
A surprisingly good read, carefully researched and full of rich historical details and illustrations. You'll want to spend at least a few evenings travelling to the South Seas for a real adventure in historical Krakatoa.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I agree with the others, November 4, 2005
By 
S. Heinen (Tulsa, OK United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Very interesting topic, good narrative about the eruption itself, but WAY too much background information (sometimes seemed to be a stream of consciousness) and very Euro-centric in viewpoint. I thought the meteorlogical background and coverage was excellent and really added to my understanding of this event, but he went WAY overboard in his discussions of plate tectonics and Darwinian theory. There were literally CHAPTERS of that stuff that I eventually just skipped over. His discussion of the actual eruption and its precursors and successors was excellent, although he was prone to throw out firm platitudes with very little support.

If you like accounts of disasters, "Ship Ablaze" (General Slocum fire), "Dark Tide" (Boston Molasses Flood) and "Cherry Mine Disaster" (Cherry, IL mine fire) were much better than this one (especially the first two).
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sometimes meandering but always fascinating account, May 4, 2004
By 
Amazon Customer (Barrington, RI USA) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
In "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded" Simon Winchester has produced a comprehensive account of one of the most widely known, but perhaps least understood, natural disasters of the last 200 years. While his account often drifts far afield of the title material, he has a knack for always finding his way back to the topic at hand. Which is a good thing because that topic, the largest explosion ever recorded by modern man and one that was responsible for the death of 36,000 people, is more than ample material for any book's purview.
What makes Winchester's writing appealing is that he uses the more conversational narrative style that has become the preferred approach in popular history and science today; one might call in the Stephen Ambrose Effect. Winchester largely paints his story with a broad brush (albeit across a host of topics), and as such, those who may be intimidated by science writing shouldn't avoid "Krakatoa". While the author does delve into a large variety of scientific disciplines, he is at heart a teacher, and the passion he has for the subject matter comes through as he strips down potentially complicated subjects to their basic elements.
That said, Winchester by no means "dumbs down" his material. His explanation of the geological pressures that created and ultimately lead to the demise of Krakatoa are comprehensive and detailed. Rather, he presents this material in a manner that is approachable for those without much of a scientific background, without detracting from it intellectually. As such, those (like myself) who are more disposed to a scientific bent should be no more discouraged from reading "Krakatoa" than those who are not. Winchester has basically laid out an intellectual smorgasbord and leaves it for the reader to determine how much they will consume. The beauty of the "Krakatoa" (much like Robert Zubrin's on space exploration) is that the reader can skim the heavier science without losing the narrative flow.
What makes the book most appealing, though, is how Winchester vividly describes the eruption and then most importantly places it within a historical context. This seems to be the area where some readers have felt he bogged down, but his descriptions of the region, its fauna and peoples, including a detailed consideration of Dutch colonial rule, provide critical information for understanding the scope and impact of the disaster. In particular, his descriptions of the impact of the eruption on the rise of a more militant brand of Islam in Indonesia were particularly engaging, and eminently logical in spite of the seeming stretch.
Moreover, this historical element accomplishes two things. The first is to put a human face on the tragedy: with 36,000 victims it is easy to lose one's frame of reference for the scale of the tragedy and suffering. By including individual stories, including background, Winchester is able to humanize what otherwise has the potential to be a statistic. The second is that it allows Winchester to explore the eruption not just as an event, but as a catalyst for the scientific community that had a host of long term impacts. Thus, the massive shockwaves and wave effects are again removed from scientific the realm of scientific arcana and grounded in what they meant to a community barely on the cusp of understanding the world around them.
"Krakatoa" is an eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable account of a well known but little understood place and time. Winchester wanders through a host of different scientific disciplines and historical periods, and to be fair, there are probably those who will find this off-putting. However, if the idea of a book that explores biology, geology, politics and history all while detailing one of the most spectacular natural events the world has ever seen appeals to you, "Krakatoa" is definitely right up your alley.
Enjoy!
Jake Mohlman
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Krakatoa : The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, September 4, 2003
By 
Markus F. Robinson (Berkeley, Ca. United States) - See all my reviews
If ever a book cried out for the services of a good editor, Simon Winchester's Krakatoa is that book. After writing his fascinating The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary it was hugely disappointing to plod through and then eventually abandon in frustration this bloated odyssey into minutiae and self-absorption. And like a bad B-movie, the monster, the volcano Krakatoa itself hardly puts in an appearance until page 150 only to have its dramatic tension decimated by a digressive chapter about the development of underwater communications cables.
The book suffers from at least three major flaws that render it so disappointing. The first is that Winchester simply cannot resist pouring everything including the kitchen sink into his book. The second is that the author seems to believe that the longer a sentence is, the better. And finally Winchester cannot resist injecting himself repeatedly into the book. This reader suspects that Winchester's publisher was in on the fraud knowing that there was a problem and chose to hide it from perspective buyers rather than demand a rewrite. Read the cover sleeves and one is lead to believe that the book is all about Krakatoa. There is not a word about the fact that 90% of the book is about such varied topics as Dutch colonialism, plate tectonics, the early history of undersea cables, and even personal events from the life of the author. Call me stupid, but I expected to read a book about Krakatoa, not about the personal life of Simon Winchester and every non-volcanic tangent that the author found personally interesting. Had the sleeve synopsis borne any resemblance to the book, I would certainly not have started reading it.
There were some good parts, but they were few and frustratingly far between!
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Colourful account with a slightly tepid climax, May 18, 2003
The cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which killed over 36,000 people, produced tidal waves of well over a hundred feet that inundated the shores of Java and Sumatra, and whose detonation produced a sonic boom that was heard 3,000 miles away and ejected such a mass of volcanic ash into the atmosphere that gave rise to a drop in global temperatures as well as eerily beautiful sun-sets around the world, has never failed to grip the public's imagination as one of the most awesome display of the powers of Mother Nature.
In this latest account of the titanic geological upheaval, Simon Winchester has successfully placed the event in its proper geological, historical, political and social contexts. So much so that the description of the final paroxysm actually occupies less than half of its pages. On the other hand, Winchester sets the scene brilliantly (and beautifully) by describing, often in fascinating detail, the colourful early colonial days of the East Indies, the installation of the worldwide network of telegraphic cables (which rendered the eruption of Krakatoa to be one of the first events which received immediate global attention and press coverage) as well as the unique distribution of flora and fauna along the Indonesia archipelago. There is also a discussion on the theory of plate tectonics and its rather tortuous road of discovery by generations of earth scientists. Also included is an analysis of the political and religious repercussions that the eruption had for the East Indies, a chapter on the gradual return of life to the remnants of the site of devastation. Winchester ends the book on a personal touch - an account of the author's visit to Anak Krakatoa, the "successor" of the previous volcano that has gradually been building itself out of the caldera after the 1883 eruption. Given that Winchester writes in a very fluent style, and that there is also a sense of humour where appropriate, these portions of the book, although being digressions to be main story, do make an enjoyable and often enlightening read.
What Winchester does not develop to the full, however, is the eruption of Krakatoa itself and its immediate consequences. Winchester has, of course, quoted and summarized statements from eye-witnesses from different locations and these portions are as vivid as ever. Yet, after all the preparation, the climax of the story comes a little tepid and, as I reader, I am slightly underwhelmed by the account. Somehow Winchester has not quite captured the full horror and magnitude of the event. Perhaps a lengthier treatment and more extensive quotes from eye-witnesses may have helped. For example, Winchester has taken some material from the diary of Mrs Beyerinck on her and her family's dramatic escape to the hills just before the onslaught of those massive waves that subsequently annihilated their village. Yet, Winchester's account stops at the point when the family has succeeded in scrabbling to safety in their hillside refuge. As the Beyerincks are not mentioned again after that, readers may assume that their ordeal was over by then. Far from it! When Krakatoa finally blew itself apart the following morning, the place where the Beyerincks were lodging was actually still very close to the volcano itself and the fiery ash clouds descended upon the hillside, incinerating and killing many of the natives that had also gathered at nearby locations. There, an injured and greatly traumatised Mrs Beyerinck penned a most harrowing (and somewhat incoherent) account of their plight, which virtually resembles a ghastly sojourn in Dante's hell that only ended days later when they were rescued. Similarly, there are too few accounts on the horrors wreaked by those monumental waves. Those missing eye-witnesses statements can all be found in <Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects> by Tom Simkin and Richard Fiske, referred to in high esteem in Winchester's bibliography and is a very substantial volume which is obligatory reading for those who want to know everything about the eruption.
Other than that, there are also far too few photographic illustrations (sketches and maps dominate), in particular given the colour and exoticism inherent to the story. Some of the maps have failed to identify several of the major towns, villages and other locations that play important parts in the narrative and their absence can give rise to difficulties when the reader wishes to follow the path of destruction geographically. These are things that can be remedied in future editions of the book.
If this book were to be compared to a formal multi-course dinner, I would say that it is rich and delightful in its entree, soup and dessert while the main course is somewhat below expectations. But I suppose that it can still whet the appetite of those who are yet unfamiliar with the event such that they can themselves explore further should they wish to lay their hands on a more exhaustive account of the eruption itself. After all, this book is still very well written and, despite the afore-mentioned flaws, can be recommended to the general reader and those who want to read the story from a wider perspective.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The death and re-birth of an island., June 8, 2003
By 
'Popular Science' has a slightly pejorative ring to it that is undeserved, as good examples serve to increase general awareness and dispel urban myths - this book is one of those good examples.
Written in Mr. Winchester's energetic, entertaining style, this book is well-researched and peppered with neat little snippets of information and pertinent anecdotes, backed up with solid evidence.
He goes into much historical detail about the East Indies and its importance in world trade and politics during the run-up to the cataclysmic explosion that devastated the island.
One quibble; in extolling the virtues of Batavia, he forgets that the place was reviled by seamen in the 18th C (Anson, Cook, Dampier, Davis et al) as a suffocating hell-hole of disease, stench and filth.
He examines the explosion of scientific theories that arose in the aftermath of the event, and the small part he played in proving that plate tectonics works (the chapter on The Wallace Line contains the most lucid crash course on plate tectonics I've seen).
Most of this has been said before, but the difference here is he attributes the area's political and religious changes directly to the explosion.
Some of this information seems extraneous to the main thrust of the book, (e,g, Wallace and Darwin), but it has a purpose ... It serves to underline the tremendous, slow forces that drive plate tectonics (unheard of then), and the devastating results of any blockage.
Given all this background data it should come as no surprise to learn that Krakatoa has exploded many times in the geologically recent past (60,000 years), and most assuredly will in the future.
Eruptions are an everyday occurence, but this gigantic 'throat-clearing' was the first global-scale event to be reported within minutes of it happening, and Mr. Winchester draws on many first-hand accounts to describe in horrendous detail the titanic scale of the event.
The explosion shook the world to its core, both physically and metaphorically; long-held beliefs of the solidity of the Earth and Man's significance were blown away. Religious and scientific establishments had to re-think their stances; but amazingly, some still clung (and cling now!) to the old immutable doctrines, even in the light of such solid evidence.
The sterile islands that formed in the wake of the explosion were a clean sheet for Nature, and observations of new life colonising them became the new focus of scientific study, in a less human-controlled way than E.O. Wilson did in the Florida Keys.
As with most of Mr. Winchester's books, this is a very instructive and entertaining read, thoughtfully & thankfully containing an appendix on further reading, which I recommend to any popular science/history fan. *****
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Three books in one, May 22, 2003
By 
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Simon Winchester's new book, "Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded", more or less consists of three shorter books woven together by a gigantic stitch. For some readers this might be an enticement but for others I would suspect the opposite to be true.
The first "book" is a mini-history of the Dutch involvement in present-day Indonesia several centuries ago with an emphasis on the Dutch East Asia Company. Winchester is good at giving a "flavor" of the times, and, while harsh on the Dutch, sets a nice tone for "Krakatoa". The second "book" contains the reason I give the work four stars instead of five. If the reader bought "Krakatoa" purely for learning about its eruption and demise, then the third chapter of "Krakatoa" might be where one stops. It is an overlong technical class concerning tectonic plate movements and scientific theorists proven and debunked. I began to have second thoughts about continuing "Krakatoa" while reading this chapter. However, having gotten through it, the remaining parts of this book are very good. Winchester's narrative is especially effective in two places.....his actual description of what it would have been like to have been near Krakatoa (and indeed, WAS like for some who gave the few surviving accounts of August 27, 1883) and the recounting of his own visit to Anak Krakatoa (the island formed in Krakatoa's wake) not too long ago.
I would recommend Winchester's book but with a caveat....be ready for "Krakatoa's" rises and falls...and by this I refer to the book and not the volcano, itself.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow., May 8, 2003
I really enjoyed this book. It was history written very much the way I like to read it.

Obviously, that's a statement that has a lot to do with personal taste, and I can certainly understand why some reviewers here didn't react to this title in at all the same way. Simon Winchester has not given us a straightforward, journalistic, dispassionate, just-the-facts narrative of a discreet event, in which the mountain explodes on page one and the text ends when the ash stops falling, with an epilogue meditating on the event from the perspective of 120 years later. If that's what you're expecting, or the way your preferences run, you're going to be truly disappointed.

No, what Winchester has given us is much more of a narrative in the true sense of "story," full of explanation, characterization, interesting asides -- I literally pictured myself sitting by a campfire as Simon the Storyteller wove a great yarn. If you take this book as a story and settle in for it, instead of tapping your feet impatiently and checking your wristwatch, I think you'll get a lot more out of it.

In fact, this book reminded me a lot of the books written and TV shows hosted by James Burke (one of which -- coincidentally? -- was titled The Day The Universe Changed). Winchester weaves together history, sociology, geology, physics, biology, and much more. The reader is taken through Dutch colonial administration, the state of nineteenth-century volcanology, the validity of "ethogeological prediction," and quite a few other things before the mountain finally gets around to detonating somewhere about page 207. That part of the story, the actual day the world exploded, is told in an excellent chapter titled "The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom."

After that, effects are tabulated, lessons are learned, and -- after a quick narrative of the author's own visit to Anak Krakatoa, the "son" of the original volcano, the book ends.

Winchester's style shouldn't distract the reader from the quality of the work he's done. The breadth of the story reveals the breadth of his research. The one area where I thought the research, or at least the presentation of evidence was a little on the thin side, was in the argument that seems to be capturing the most attention from reviewers, namely that the Krakatoa eruption precipitated a growth in Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia that is still affecting us today. My fear was that this would turn out to be largely a case of the *post hoc* fallacy. Now I'm willing to accept there may be a causal relationship. But I still wish Winchester had buttressed this point more fully.

On the other hand, that didn't seem to have as much weight in the book as it's being given in reviews. And on the whole, this is a very good work of both history and storytelling. I thought it was much better *writing* than I've found in the massive tomes of various bestselling "popular" historians, and much better *history* too. Now I need to track down some of his older titles: Tell me another story, Simon!
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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester (Paperback - July 5, 2005)
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