Saturday, October 22, 2005

Interview: Simon Winchester, The day the Earth didn't stand still

The day the Earth didn't stand still

Simon Winchester excavates the San Francisco earthquake of 1906


By Edward Nawotka


Sunday, October 23, 2005

The New York Times has called him the "Dean of Disaster," but that's not quite right. If anything, Simon Winchester should be called the "Don of Disaster" — he is an Oxford man, after all, and it wouldn't be right to get the nomenclature wrong. Then again, it wouldn't do to reduce Winchester to such a narrow profile. The geologist-turned-journalist-turned-author has written on subjects from the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary (in "The Professor and the Madman") to the history of modern geology (in "The Map That Changed the World"). As a travel writer, he's covered the damming of the Yangtze River and written books on the Balkans and Mumbai, and just this year he took over as publisher and owner of Art AsiaPacific magazine.

Still, Winchester is the first to admit that he's familiar with the topic of disaster. His 2003 book, "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 17, 1883," looked at possibly the most devastating volcanic eruption in history. In his latest book, "A Crack in the Edge of the World," he retells the story of what some consider to be the most tragic natural disaster in American history: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which leveled the city, killed hundreds and left a quarter-million people homeless.

"Both events underline the point that there are spasms in the Earth's history," says Winchester, "and there are occasional years, such as 1906 or (2004-2005), that are very, very bad years." Winchester points out that 1906 was "one of the worst years of all time." In addition to the San Francisco earthquake, 20,00 people were killed by an earthquake in Valparaiso, Chile; 200 were killed by an earthquake on Formosa; and Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted. The past year has been similarly awful: There have been devastating earthquakes in Iran and Pakistan, and a brutal tsunami struck Asia at the end of 2004.

In "A Crack in the Edge of the World," Winchester serves up a succinct lesson in the history of plate tectonics and how the Earth's shifting crust threatens us all. The long-term consequences of these disasters are sometimes surprising. "One result of the Krakatoa explosion was an upsurge in interest in fundamentalist Islam throughout the region," says Winchester. "Likewise, in San Francisco there was an upsurge in Pentecostalism. It was essentially born then and got its enthusiastic push off from (the earthquake)."

In his latest book, Winchester also travels across the North American continent, visiting the site of other earthquakes, offering insight into specific fault lines, such as the San Andreas. Which brings up the question: As an Englishman who spends most of his time living in New York, does Winchester worry about the safety of Californians who live in the shadow of "The Big One?"

Winchester's answer is circumspect. "I do question them," he says, "but I also understand that the reason people live in such risky places is that they offer extensive geological history and are very beautiful. If we live near a mountain, that mountain is itself evidence of geological violence. The likelihood is there will be more violence. In Kansas, nothing ever happens."

Nevertheless, Winchester predicts that it's not the crazy Californians who should worry most of all. Instead, those who should be looking to move are the residents of . . . Missouri. "A seismic event will likely take place sometime in our lives at a spot 150 miles south of St. Louis, and will affect the people of Cincinnati and Indianapolis," he says. "Wait for it. It will astonish people."

Edward Nawotka is the former programming director of the Texas Book Festival and a free-lance book critic.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Interview: John Berendt, Sinking into the Lifestyle of Venice

Sinking into the lifestyle of Venice

'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' author John Berendt returns to print with a portrait of the world's most enigmatic island.

By Edward Nawotka

This article originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

Sunday, October 9, 2005

It's been more than a decade since John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" became a publishing phenomenon, spending an astounding 42 months on the best-seller lists. Berendt's follow-up, "The City of Falling Angels," exchanges Savannah for Venice, Italy, where he finds a cast of titled aristocrats, high society patrons and artists equal in eccentricity and intrigue to Jim Williams and Lady Chablis of "Midnight."

In 1996, Berendt was just three days into a visit to the city when a suspicious fire destroyed the Gran Teatro La Fenice opera house (where Verdi's "La Traviata" and "Rigoletto" debuted). Sensing a story, Berendt began a casual investigation, interviewing witnesses and other interested parties, from an elderly Murano glassblower who interpreted the fire in a series of vases, to a variety of wealthy American expats.

While the book does unravel the mystery of the fire, it is more of a travelogue than a true crime tale. The reward of reading it is in the way Berendt decodes dramatic episodes from day-to-day life along the canals of this ancient watery port city, from the annual ritual of the masked Carnevale to whose palazzo is most prestigious and why.

Berendt, whose book tour brings him to Austin on Wednesday, spoke with the American-Statesman by phone from his home in New York City.

Austin American-Statesman: You quote the writer Mary McCarthy in her book "Venice Observed" as saying of Venice that "Nothing can be said (including this statement) that has not been said before." Yet, you persisted in writing a book about the city. When did you realize that there was indeed a story there for you?

John Berendt: Venice is a magical city that I just loved. I'd been there a dozen times since 1977, and initially I went there looking for a book. ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") had a very strong sense of place and I thought it would be worthwhile to do another book where the locale was strong. I had been living there a little less than half the time since the fire, but I didn't commit to writing a book until 2000.

Unlike your first book, which is driven by a true crime story, "City of Falling Angels" is much more a series of vignettes about various people, many of them eccentrics, whom you meet along the way. Was this deliberate or did you find that the story of the opera house was less dramatic than you initially hoped?

While the book is bracketed by the fire and the rebuilding of the opera, what I wanted to do was give a sense of what life was like in Venice. I found I was much more interested in what the natives and the expatriates were like, and less interested in issues like the high water or gondoliers.

Very soon after I got there, someone told me "Everybody in Venice is acting," which intrigued me. I do tend to gravitate toward eccentric people. In Venice, I found the same thing that I found in Savannah: people who regard their lives as works of art in progress. An eccentric is a person who is creating their own reality.

Is that why so many expats, writers in particular, live there? You mention Henry James, of course, Byron, and Ezra Pound, whose story you recount, but I'm reminded of many others, such as Joseph Brodsky (author of "Watermark"), Harold Brodkey (author of "Profane Friendship") and, recently, people like the mystery novelist Donna Leon (author of the Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries).

In general, Venetians are open to befriending foreigners and there are a lot who are integrated into Venetian society. There is an awful lot of doubletalk there. People tend to say whatever they feel like saying, and they tell stories even if they are not true. If you don't exaggerate, they will write you off as a bore. There is a great deal of imagination, pretense, playacting and role playing.

Whenever you're an American outside the U.S., you get a better sense of who you are in relation to other people in other countries. Maybe that's it. Being in Venice, I felt I was in a special place. It's very cut off from the outside world.

Was that what was meant by the poet Mario Stefani, who joked that "If Venice didn't have a bridge, Europe would be an island." Or is that more an indication of the pride Venetians take in their city, however at risk it is?

In a sense. Some people feel it is confining and claustrophobic, but Venice does have a constancy about it that is unusual. You really know that you are quite removed from the rest of the world.

One of the things that they say about Venice is that the history is right in front of you. The republic, which was the most powerful in the world at one point, lasted for 1,000 years and it has a spectacularly beautiful culture that is unique and has for the most part survived.

Another thing that Stefani said was that "Anyone who loves Venice is a true Venetian, even a tourist, but only if the tourist stays long enough to appreciate the city. If he stays only one day just to say he's been to Venice, no."

The ones they don't like are the ones that come in on the cruise ships. They don't go to restaurants, since they eat on their boats. They don't spend money. That's why they don't like them.

In restaurants, if you're noticed as a regular customer, they will give you a nice big discount.

That said, the old cliché is that the best way to see Venice for the first time is by water. Does that still hold true?

Yes. The best way to go into the city is across the lagoon in a boat. You can go in a water taxi or a motorboat. It's not cheap, it will cost 80 and 90 euros, and it takes 20 minutes. Or you can go in by mass transportation, but that takes 90 minutes. It's worth the splurge.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Review: The March by E.L. Doctorow

Sherman's War on Barbarity

The March by E.L. Doctorow


This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Civil War has a long literary history, beginning with Walt Whitman's poetry and Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" and peaking in the 1930s when Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" became a national phenomenon, both in print and on film.

In 1990, Ken Burn's 11-hour PBS series "The Civil War" reignited war fever, a fire that turned recently deceased Civil War historian Shelby Foote into a best-seller for the first time. In recent memory, there have been a number of undeniably good books about the war, the most notable of which is probably Charles Frazier's 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Cold Mountain."

With "The March," E.L. Doctorow makes a fine contribution to the Civil War bookshelf, one that offers a panoptic view of one of the most notorious military campaigns in U.S. history: Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous march through Georgia and South Carolina in the final months of the war.

Doctorow begins in the days after the burning of Atlanta in November 1864. With a scorched-earth policy intended to break what remained of the South's will, Sherman orders his 60,000 troops to burn crops, kill livestock and destroy any buildings (except churches and Masonic temples) in the Army's path. Plantation owners and other Georgia gentry are fleeing toward Savannah. Most have left slaves behind, who wait in expectation of the liberating army:

"And, as they watched, the brown cloud took on a reddish cast. It moved forward, thin as a hatchet blade in front then widening like the furrow from the plow. ... It was not fearsomely heaven-made, like thunder or lightning or howling wind, but something felt through their feet, a resonance, as if the earth was humming." The terror is not that of God, but of man. Where the slaves see the Union as sowing freedom in the furrowed earth, the Southerners see it as sowing death.

As the novel progresses, Doctorow shifts smoothly among a dozen points of view, from slaves to civilians to enlisted men and officers on both sides. Among the characters through whom we experience the war are Sherman himself (known to his men as "Uncle Billy"), a German battlefield surgeon named Wrede Sartorius, and Pearl, a 13-year-old "white negro" who is the illegitimate offspring of a plantation owner and one of his slaves.

Throughout, the portrayal of the characters constantly shifts. Sherman is alternately depicted as a ruthless warlord and an asthmatic and insomniac troubled by the deaths of his young sons. Sartorius, renowned for "removing a leg in twelve seconds" (an arm "took only nine"), appears at first with a bloody saw in hand, "inviolate in the carnage around him." But he also is a brilliant medical mind and predicts that there will be a time when "we will have other means. We will have found botanical molds to reverse infection. We will replace lost blood. We will photograph through the body to the bones."

At various times, Pearl will pass for white and black, a boy and a girl, a child and an adult, a nurse and Sherman's drummer boy. Southern belles profane themselves to maintain some semblance of status. In one of the finest turns in the book, a cowardly Confederate soldier who has previously commandeered the uniform of a slain Union soldier in order to save himself adopts the identity of dandified war photographer and very nearly becomes a hero of the Confederacy.

Despite his sympathy for the plight of the innocents, Doctorow make it clear that Sherman's barbarity is the evolution of an ancient militaristic impulse toward seeking glory through war, one that casts a shadow over all humanity. As an English journalist named Pryce remarks, "These chaps were industrial-killers, they had repeating rifles that could kill at a thousand yards, grape that could decimate an advancing line, cannon, fieldpieces, munitions that could bring down entire cities. Their war was so impersonally murderous as to make quaint anything that had gone on before." But at the same time, "the brutal romance of war was still possible in the taking of spoils. Each town the army overran was a prize. In this village was an amazing store of wine, in that a granary brimming to the rafters, a herd of beef here, an armory there, homes to loot, slaves to incorporate. There was something undeniably classical about it, for how else did the armies of Greece and Rome supply themselves?"

The cruel irony, of course, is that Sherman's brutal methods seem to have hastened the end of the war. He established a haunting precedent, one that probably contributed to the thinking that justified the dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, which helped to hasten the end of World War II. But aside from the cost in human lives, what is the intangible price of waging such warfare?

Doctorow seems to answer, in the voice of an elderly and dying Marcus Aurelius Thompson, chief judge of Georgia, as he flees from Sherman on the back of a wagon: "The wretched war had destroyed not only their country but all their presumptions of human self-regard. What a scant, foolish pretense was a family, a culture, a place in history, when it was all so easily defamed. And God was behind this."

It's a haunting valediction and one that echoes through parts of the South, even today.

Edward Nawotka lives in Austin, Texas, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.