Read Recently — June 2016 — Non-fiction

Krakatoa: the day the world exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

After Tambora gave us the Year Without A Summer, the next big thing was Krakatoa. Somewhat more famous because more people saw it happen, Krakatoa’s violent eruption was eventually made into a movie (Krakatoa, East of Java which, as Winchester points out, puts the Volcano on the wrong side of Java) but as of late has mostly been forgotten in the west.

Winchester gives us a thorough grounding in the history of the area, including the fact that Alfred Wallace came to his understanding of Evolution here. The science of plate tectonics, vital to any understanding of volcanism, is also presented. And of course, since no volcano only erupts once, the history of Krakatoa itself is looked at, though some of it has to be inferred, as some eruptions were not observed directly.

When we finally get to the main event, it is well worth the wait. Winchester presents the destruction calmly; there is certainly no need for histrionics as the volcano itself provides more than enough excitement and the people who wrote about it at the time provided enough exclamation points.

I’m not selling this very well, but it’s a good book, well-written and well-edited, and recommended.

Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the remarkable story of the Hudson’s Bay Company by James Raffan

You grow up in Canada, you learn about the Hudson’s Bay Company. At the very least, you learn where the store is and what kind of products they sell. But originally, the Company was formed to exploit the economic resources of the Canadian Northwest, for the economic benefit of rich investors in Britain. That it succeeded well enough to become a Canadian institution is mostly due to the drive of Sir George, a clerk and trader originally from Scotland, turned business magnate and, eventually, Canadian success story.

This isn’t really a biography, since it focuses not only on Simpson but also on the company at large. And what enjoyment you will draw from the story depends to a large extent on how much you care about Canadian economic history. The prose is good and the editing acceptable; I myself am always astounded at how ignorant I am of my own country’s history and delighted to find out new things about it: I had no concept of George Simpson at all and found him very interesting to meet. Mildly recommended, unless you are a history buff in which case, highly recommended.


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