Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

by Simon Winchester

Hardcover, 2003

Call number

551.21 W



HarperCollins (2003), Edition: 1st, 432 pages


"The author examines the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the earth's most dangerous volcano - Krakatoa." "The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa - the name has since become a byword for a cataclysmic disaster - was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogota and Washington, D. C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island's destruction was heard in Australia and India and on islands thousands of miles away. Most significant of all - in view of today's new political climate - the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims: one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

Media reviews

Most controversially, Winchester attempts to credit Krakatoa with the rise of militant Islamism in Indonesia.

User reviews

LibraryThing member adamclaxton
This is the first book that I have read by Simon Winchester and I must say he has done a great job in explaining the history, culture, geology and timeline of the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. He builds what could have been a rather dry story into a captivating tail; building the suspense throughout.
Bouquets – Simon’s detailed overview of the period focussing on the local Indonesian population and their Dutch overlords was expertly written. The same can be said for his explanations of geological and ecological theories and their relationship to the eruption.
Brickbats – the author has tendencies to waffle on a little and labour some of the points he tries to make. His use of footnotes was somewhat excessive and in many cases irrelevant to what was being discussed.
Overall I give this book a solid four stars and I look forward to reading a few more of his titles.
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LibraryThing member seldombites
Ever since I was a little girl learning about volcanoes in school, the name Krakatoa has been enough to inspire fear and awe. Therefore, I jumped at the chance to read this historical account of the great disaster that befell Java and, indeed, the world in 1883. Simon Winchester pieces together contemporary accounts and modern evidence to paint a fascinating picture, not just of the horror of the eruption, but also of life in Java and elsewhere at the time.

There are a couple of minor inconsistencies, but these can be put down to discrepancies between various sources. The story is engaging, and I was finished reading almost before I knew it. Importantly, the book includes a bibliography for those wishing to delve deeper into the subject, and index for those looking for specific information.

Overall, this is a great introduction to life in the Dutch East Indies, and the beginning of mass communication, as well as the effect a single catastrophe can have on world history.
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LibraryThing member AspiringAmeliorant
Winchester does it again. This book tells of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. But it isn't just about the science. It's about the discoveries that Krakatoa led to (plate tectonics, airstreams, metereological advances), the historical circumstances (the beginning of the end of Dutch colonialism, Victorian fascination with the exotic, oceanic telegraph cables), and the historical consequences (climate change, civil unrest).

The work certainly shows Winchester's background in geology more than other works, but it also shows his wit, insight, and research skills
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LibraryThing member bell7
In 1883, the volcano on the island of Krakatau shocked the world by literally blowing the island apart. This detailed account that begins with trading and the Dutch control of the area, describes the science of plate tectonics (which wasn't fully understood until some 80 years after the eruption), and then gives various eyewitness accounts of the volcanic eruption itself.

It's a fascinating account, and there is a lot of information packed into this book. I was rather surprised by the breadth of topics covered (trade, plate tectonics, even some biology) over a couple of hundred years (1600s-1900s). Still, Winchester writes engagingly without many technical terms, and there are ample pictures and graphs to aid as well.
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LibraryThing member klarusu
This is the recounting of the history of the eruption of Mount Krakatoa. It's an interesting examination of many of the factors in play at the time, garnered from many different sources and containing both scientific and historical perspectives on the events. I come from a background of undergrad geological science, so found the chapters detailing the geology interesting - if you were less inclined in that direction, I can imagine they might prove slower going (but maybe I'm wrong, as you were obviously interested enough to buy the book!). There were interesting windows onto life at the time as well.

Despite all of this, for some intangible reason I felt that the book missed the mark slightly. I can't really explain why but despite the fact that it was an easy and engaging read and that I came away more informed than I was before, I still felt slightly disappointed by this one - as if it was almost there but just fell short. Nonetheless, a worthwhile read.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
The book deals with the explosive eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia on August 27, 1883, an event that led to over 36,000 deaths, mostly due to the resulting tsunami, which was heard almost 3,000 miles away, caused spectacular sunsets and affected the climate globally for months--and which Winchester credits with triggering a militant Muslim resurgence that led to rebellion against Dutch colonial rule and eventual independence.

Winchester is a journalist who is a geologist by training, thus well suited to tell this story. He takes his time building the context--it's over 200 pages before we get to the eruption itself--so the reader can fully appreciate the scientific, technological and historical circumstances that made this such an important world event. Winchester explains the scientific concepts of evolutionary biogeography, plate tectonics, vulcanology and meteorology very lucidly. I thought I learned quite a bit of both earth science and Indonesia as a result of reading this book. Some facts stood out in particular--that "Indonesia... has... more volcanic activity than any other political entity on Earth" and that it's the world's "most populous Muslim country" and that there's a rather clear line bisecting the nation with the western part filled with Indian flora and fauna and the eastern part filled with Australian creatures such as kangaroos. It has a fascinating history as the "Spice Islands" of legend growing pepper, cloves and cinnamon and then as the Dutch East Indies became a major exporter of rubber and coffee.

So why isn't this rated higher? In short what's missing is awe. When I think of the best non-fiction books I've read about the power of nature, I think of The Perfect Storm about a fearsome Northeaster and Into Thin Air about a tragedy on Mount Everest. In terms of lives lost and global consequences, neither is anywhere near as important as the eruption of Krakatoa--but they're wonderful books that bear reading more than once and with unforgettable passages. I don't think this book rises to that level. It's a good, solid book about an interesting subject--but it's not fascinating and awe-inspiring and moving in the way of great books such as those two.
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LibraryThing member Gold_Gato
Krakatoa. Krakatoa! Krakatoa.

Simon Winchester does it again. He lured me into purchasing this book because of the subject itself... the monstrous volcanic explosion that became the byword for catastrophe. And once again, Winchester let me down. The man does his homework, he gets the research done, and he has his facts in line.

But. He. Is. Boring.

How can a book about a volcano that obliterated an island and launched a massive killer tsunami be dull? I mean, Charlton Heston should be running through the pages or something. The reader should be cowering beneath the bedsheets with a flashlight, terrified of what might erupt from the next page to be turned. We're talking about a disaster that lifted a SHIP and carried it into the jungle, where it rested with its entombed sailors for decades. Wow.

But. He. Is. Boring.

Three stars for excellent research and factual knowledge, but a finger puppet re-enactment would be more thrilling.

Book Season = Summer (never turn your back on the sea)
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LibraryThing member ladycato
I have wanted to read this for years, and finally got around to it for research purposes. It ended up not helping much in that regard, but it's still an interesting read. Just as with Winchester's book on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he goes into exhaustive detail on the geologic background to the point where I was rolling my eyes and thinking, "Just blow up the stupid volcano already!" Once that happens, it's much more interesting. Krakotoa created the loudest sound known to modern man, with the blast heard over 3,000 miles away. Bodies washed up in Africa. The sheer scoop of the disaster is hard to comprehend, even after the recent tsunamis in Thailand and Japan.

Krakatoa completely exploded, though in the past century its "son" had emerged in its place. The historic impact was also interesting, with Winchester citing (controversially) a spike in Islamic fanaticism in Indonesia afterward that likely contributed to the Dutch expulsion and current religious/political climate.
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LibraryThing member JohnMunsch
After reading Simon Winchester's super cool book The Professor and The Madman I jumped on this book. Unfortunately, that was a huge mistake. There was enough interesting information there for a great book that was approximately one half to one third the length of this book.

It's about the enormous eruption (better described as an annihilation) of Krakatoa in the late 1800's. The island was never a population center so it wouldn't have mattered much if not for the tsunami it created and the dust it threw into the atmosphere world wide. But oh, what a disaster those things caused... It's unfortunate that this book is so long and boring that it is a similar disaster.… (more)
LibraryThing member santhony
This non-fiction work looks at what was one of the greatest natural disasters in history, the eruption and explosion of the Indian Ocean volcanic island of Krakatoa in 1883. The explosion was heard over 3,000 miles away, generated enormous tsunamis, killed over 35,000 people and altered world weather patterns for several years as the ash ejected into the atmosphere blocked the sun’s rays.

The author takes a comprehensive look at both the region and the geology which explains the event. He begins with Portuguese “discovery” of the Spice Islands and the subsequent capture of the rich trading region by the Dutch in the 17th century. He then moves to geology and the work that resulted in the now accepted (then universally panned) theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. I was not aware that the theory of continental drift was not generally accepted until the mid-1960s.

The volcanic event of 1883 and its ramifications actually only comprises a relatively small part of the book. Some of the reviews cite this disapprovingly, and I understand that much of the pre-eruption and post-eruption information, which is a majority of the book, might not have the same appeal to those solely interested in the event itself. Personally, I enjoyed much of the background and some of the post-eruption coverage, though not necessarily all of the aspects covered by the author.
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I'm jealous of Simon Winchester, which always leaves me in pouting mood when I read his books: He writes about the subjects I would write about, too, if I had my proverbial act together, with a multi-disciplinary elan reminiscent of wood-paneled studies, lairs of 19th century British men of leisure.

I picture Winchester's desk, as he writes, piled high with the skeletons of small (exotic) mammals and absolutely adorable, anachronistic scientific devices made all of glass and brass. I want this man's life, and also the impossible, romanticized Victorian era his craft hearkens to: every man can be an expert, a trailblazer of natural science, but, as I am not a man, none of this would have ever been open to me, so I am nostalgic over something nonexistent.

My geographic ignorance of the Indonesian island arc is profound. Was profound. Reading Winchester's work on the enormous exploding of a volcano here in 1883 helped, on a layman's level, to patch up this problem for me. Wichester covers the subject holistically, with snatches of biography, biology, political science, geology and geography. This is very much how I roll, and this book--coupled with an atlas and occasional scampers off to Wikipedia to elucidate (or provide bogus information about) a point mentioned in passing--was key in filling in one of the last areas of the earth that I wouldn't be able to fill in on a map.

Now I can point at Sumatra, Malacca (AND the Moluccas), Bali and other sundry constituents of Micronesia and Polynesia with gusto.

That is, Winchester's books, like the books of anyone worth his salt in this genre, gives a reader that sense of learning across the sciences, that generalist thrill and the actual sensation of new wrinkles forming in one's brain. He doesn't assume any prior specialized knowledge--though this is quite unfortunate when it comes to the long chapter on the nuts and bolts and history of plate tectonics; anyone with even a passing understanding of the mechanics here will probably glaze over. I did. Not to mention I'd already basically read that chapter in one of his other books on the San Francisco 1906 earthquake.

Winchester spends about two thirds of the book foreshadowing the earth-shattering kaboom that is about to occur (well, in August of 1883). So much so that he has run out of bombastic overstatements by the time he gets there. His writing, if not exactly purple, sometimes bangs out and feels over-endowed; the man has a love of meaningless words like 'unfathomable', 'unutterably', 'unimaginably.' Is it not his job to fathom, utter and imagine for us?

Because of this, the giant rafts of pumice floating around the Indian ocean with thousands of DEAD PEOPLE on them feels somewhat glossed over. His treatment of the eruption's concomitant tsunami(s) is not dismissive or careless, but suffers from lack of scale and what sounds like a likely irreconcilable lack of sources. It's simply hard, perhaps impossible, to talk about the sweeping death of tens of thousands rationally, to make it sound like a part of the same story as the anecdotes about British spider experts and headstrong explorers.

What I could not abide, however, were a couple of the book's technical drawings. One in particular, a sketch of the island group's metamorphosis (Krakatoa, or, more accurately, Krakatau, was actually a small group of islands, not just one, in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java), portrayed cardinal north pointing off to the bottom left of the drawing. Giving as this serves as the main reference map to the descriptions of all subsequent tales, this is inexcusable. I spent the entire book being confused about which way was up (north), compounded by the fact that the islands' shapes and existence were constantly changing and that none of the other supplied drawings or maps or charts seemed to agree with each other. Unacceptable! You have just confused your audience!

Winchester also makes a few claims that felt dubious. One that I knew was not true: as part of his consistent condescension to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, he claims that the sounds of the explosion were not heard outside of the mountain range it was in. My stepmother heard it loud and clear in Boise, Idaho, several hundred miles east of the source. Another phenomenon that he mentions is that residents of Batavia (basically Jakarta), to the east of the event, did not really hear anything, but just felt air pressure shock waves. This is the same thing that happened in Portland, Ore. (my hometown) during the St. Helens eruption. The current going theory is that it has something to do with the way that sound waves go up from the volcano and then eventually bounce off the atmosphere and come down. In the area underneath that arc--the areas closest to the volcano--there is silence. Outside it, booming sounds. No one in Portland heard the Mt. St. Helens eruption. It was silent here. In Eugene, Ore., 100 miles south, and thus further from the source, it was quite loud.

This is the strongest of the Winchester books I have read to date. It's a pleasure to read for those intrigued by geographic and geologic histories of earth. Winchester does a lovely job crafting a narrative, and makes me jealous of him once again.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
Just finished this one. It seems to be very typical of Simon Winchester's books, the good and the bad. Certainly no one could complain that he did not set the scene - he took a very long time to do so. In fact, it was well over 100 pages in before the eruption was really discussed at length. But most of the information was really interesting - the history of Dutch colonialism, the theory of plate tectonics. However, when we got to the actual eruption, I felt that more could have been included. Worth reading, but not always a page turner.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
Winchester composes a symphony around the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in the successful mode of popular science of such books as Longitude and Salt. The detail-oriented author succeeds in delighting my inner geek, while at the same frustrating me with his constant foreshadowing (“Will the island just explode already!”). Winchester likes to illustrate that the eruption is no isolated event but of global scale, both in the shock waves and ash that reached around the earth as well as being the first disaster to receive world wide media attention due to the telegraph. He also uses the event to delve into broader issues such as colonialism, scientific discovery, geology, biology, folklore, and popular history. The last chapter recounts the author’s nail biting visit to the volcanic island that has arisen from Krakatoa’s remains.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Book on CD read by the author.

On August 27, 1883 the volcano Krakatoa exploded in a cataclysmic eruption that literally annihilated the island. The explosion resulted in more deaths than any other natural disaster – over 36,000 people lost their lives (most due to the resultant tsunami). This is a natural history of the island, the geological forces that led to its formation, destruction and rebirth, and the aftermath of that event.

The enormous magnitude of this eruption is hard to imagine. Dust swirled around the planet for years, resulting in blood-red sunsets as far away as England. Average temperatures dropped worldwide. Barometers in Washington DC and in Columbia were affected. Bodies floated on pumice “islands” as far away as Zanzibar. The sound of the blast was heard in Australia and on islands thousands of miles away. The most surprising effect, to me at least, was the political unrest. A Muslim zealot had predicted a series of events that would herald the coming of the Mahdi and a holy war against the infidel. The eruption and its aftereffects seem to be an exact fit for this prophecy. And the slow response of the ruling Dutch colonists to assist those displaced and injured by the disaster helped fuel in Java a wave of anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims; one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings followed.

Winchester is a geologist as well as a writer, and so is the perfect person to pen this history. However, he seemed determined to include every bit of scientific research he uncovered. The reader must wade through 150 pages (over 3 discs) of background before the eruption begins; I found myself talking back to the CD player “when is it going to explode?!” I’m sure I was influenced by having seen the PBS show about the volcano; I was expecting more action. Still it’s a fascinating story and I was mesmerized for most of it.

Winchester narrated the audio version himself. He does a very a good job of this, though he does tend to sound like a professor delivering a lecture in many sections. The text version has quite a few illustrations and maps which cannot be part of the audio book. The audio also left out the many footnotes (which is NOT a bad thing).

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LibraryThing member LynnB
Things I Liked:

Simon Winchester pieces together contemporary accounts and modern evidence to paint a fascinating picture, not just of the horror of the eruption, but also of life in Java and elsewhere at the time.

He describes the effect a single catastrophe can have on world history. Not only this, but it also hints at the beginnings of globalization, and documents the spread of news around the world.

Mr. Winchester covers the subject holistically, with bits of biography, biology, political science, geology and geography.

Things I Didn’t Like:

It didn't have an adequate map.

The footnotes usually disrupted the story rather than enlarge it.

The actual eruptin comes so late in the book, it is almost anti-climactic. The deaths of thousands of people is described in the same way as the study of the re-emergence of insect and plant life on Anak Krakatoa.

It may be a bit of a stretch to suggest that Krakatoa's eruption influenced the beginnings of fundamentalism in Java.
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LibraryThing member refashionista
I have to say upfront that I really love Simon Winchester's style of writing and multidisciplinary approach to his subjects. This book was no exception.

He starts with a thorough, but engaging, look at the geology and social history of South East Asia before focusing on the formation of Krakatoa and then walks us through the, often hour by hour, lead-up to the devastating eruption. He misses nothing -- covering the societal destruction, the devastating ecological impact, and the far-reaching effects felt of the eruption felt around the world.

I found this book riveting and quite literally couldn't put it down until I was done. Part travelogue, part geology textbook, part social drama -- this truely has something for everyone!
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LibraryThing member PoohGrandpa
Three disasters have fascinated me since I was a lad, Krakatoa, Tunguska, and the Titanic. So when I saw Winchester's Krakatoa while browsing Amazon, I had to have it. It's been well worth the money. Read at a leisurely pace (after all, it's history, not a novel), it holds one's interest from start to finish. There's always more to learn about Krakatoa, and new information is always being discovered, but this book is as good an account in one volume as one is likely to find.… (more)
LibraryThing member noirem
Today, off of the Discovery Channel, I watched a docu-drama about the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which really just made me want to read the book of the same title (though not, I hasten to add, the basis for the tv episode) by Simon Winchester. I was going to digress briefly on the subject of television vs. print as media but, of course, the Ferret beat me to it.

I'm glad I saw the show before reading the book; I feel a faint sense of a shame admitting it, but I didn't know the story of Krakatoa (other than what I got from the back of the book - that it was a huge volcanic eruption and registered as An Important Historical Event to everyone except me), and while the special effects were cheesy and the historical characters overly dramatized (how, I kept asking the tv, do you know they had this conversation? How much are you making up and how much is true? Shouldn't they be more visibly injured?), it was a captivating series of events, one well worth pursuing, namely in the form of a book that hadn't particularly grabbed my interest, except in that it was written by an author I admire. (His other works on the making of the OED and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake being of greater initial interest.)

I love Simon Winchester's anecdotal approach to history. In the prologue, contextualizing the importance of Java in regards to trade and spices, he quotes the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder's writings on pepper, and then goes on to explain that Pliny went to investigate the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, was trapped by falling ash and rough seas, and asphyxiated on the clouds of ash and fumes. Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger, observed the volcano from a safer distance and his letters are the first scientific observation of a, wait for it, Plinian eruption.

At one point he was describing the terror those people recorded and it's funny 'cause part of me went "yep, that's what it's like." The difference of course being that my terror was less than two minutes and theirs went on for more than a day and then I, homeless, went to stay with friends until we could find a rental and they, homeless, had to clean up dead bodies. But the terror resonated.
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LibraryThing member dickcraig
Another good Winchester book but not my favorite. It is about the eruption that changed the face of the world.
LibraryThing member delphica
(Book 19 in the 2005 Book Challenge)

Wow, this book was amazing! First off, volcanos are just cool in general. I picked this up at the bookstore when I was in one of those moods where I was feeling guilty about buying books so I figured it would help if I included a book that was educational. I realized I needed education on this topic because I didn't really know anything about Krakatoa other than that it has a nifty name (a la the B-52s, that's how I always say it in my head). I couldn't even locate it on a map, and that was pretty bad because there was a map in the book, and even after looking at that, I couldn't quite place it on a world map.

The first part of the book is about how volcanos work in general, so there was a lot about plate tectonics. I am now so pleased with myself for learning about plate tectonics work that I keep hoping it will come up in casual conversation so I can say something knowledgeable about subduction zones. I suspect this is unlikely, but a girl can dream.

The second half was about Krakatoa in particular, and it was CHOCK FULL OF AMAZING FACTS. I got very annoying because I kept saying to James "Fact! The sound of the final eruption was so loud, it was heard over 2,900 miles away!" That's like if something happened in New York City, and you could hear it in San Francisco. I mean really. That's out of control.

The book also contained a very handy map of subduction zones, so I can know to never go to those places.

Grade: A
Recommended: To people who like learning about natural disasters, and people who enjoy creeping themselves out at the thought of massive volcanos erupting.
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LibraryThing member GoofyOcean110
Also some very good and vivid science writing. This has perhaps the best description and explanation of plate tectonics and suduction and their role in volcano eruptions that I've read anywhere. Winchester clearly loves geology and compels the reader to love it, or at least respect it, too. It may be a bit of a stretch to suggest that Krakatoa's eruption may have influenced the beginnings of fundamentalism in that part of the world, but it does so circumspectly, and the book provides ample evidence on other grounds that Krakatoa was a major global event in its day. Well worth your time.… (more)
LibraryThing member GMac
Considers the global impact of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, documenting its cause of an immense tsunami that killed 40,000 people, its impact on the weather for several years, and its role in anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism.
LibraryThing member Niecierpek
I am slowly making my way through Simon Winchester’s books.

Krakatoa, his book from 2003, is about the biggest recorded volcanic eruption in human history that annihilated both the volcano and the island bearing its name, and caused the highest and longest lasting recorded tsunamis, which killed about 35,000 people.

Krakatoa, a volcanic island between Java and Sumatra began erupting in May 1883, and continued until August 27. On that day, the island exploded with a fantastic force of 100 megatons. The sound of the explosion was heard and recorded as far 3,000 miles away. The effects of such a powerful explosion were noticeable around the world with a global average temperature drop lasting for a few years following the explosion, and amazing sunsets caused by the dust in the atmosphere seen as far as Norway and England for three years afterwards.

Besides an almost minute by minute chronicle of the eruption, the book is full of interesting geological info and detailed historical background. Winchester credits Krakatoa and the research that followed it with a big advancement in our understanding of meteorology and in particular the workings of the jet streams and gas and particle movements in the stratosphere.

He also discusses the political and social aftermath of the eruption. He ventures an opinion that the Krakatoa eruption, seen by the local population as a punishment from the gods, together with the indolent and exploitive colonial Dutch rule have given rise to fundamentalist Islamic sentiments in the region.
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LibraryThing member nancygrahamogne
Actually listened to the audio of this while driving out of state. It's engagingly read by the author and I thoroughly enjoyed it; will probably seek a copy of the book for my library.
LibraryThing member Foxen
This book is about the eruption in 1883 of the volcano Krakatoa just off the islands of Java and Sumatra. It takes a kind of "butterfly effect" approach, exploring just about everything that affected the outcome of the eruption and just about everything that the eruption affected- Winchester's point being that this one event had tremendous consequences in places and fields far removed from Indonesia and vulcanology. It's an interesting book, although I found it dragged in sections where he explored effects or causes that I, personally, was not interested in. His description of the eruption itself, though, which is what drew me to the book in the first place, was riveting. I'd recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in volcanos, geology, natural history, or the history of natural history- it's a good, wide-ranging exploration of these topics in relation to one interesting event.… (more)




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