A Book Review
I picked this book up because first, it was written by one of the most brilliant and humanistic writer/person I know, and second, because my hometown was destroyed by Kilauea Volcano when I was 18 and I was curious to see if there would be any similarities between Pompeii and Herculaneum and a simple plantation village in Hawaii called Kapoho.
Pellegrino took me not only to the sites of destruction by Mt. Vesuvius but to the Titanic and to the Twin Towers on 9/11, with side trips to Hiroshima. He took my hand and pointed out the incredible similarities in the sciences of how things happen and the strange connections among these sites of destruction. He hid nothing, exposing the weaknesses and strengths of humanity and as a bonus, into his own awesome personal journey . He took me on a time machine, to Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, down to the Titanic in 1912 , to the Twin Towers in 2002, and to Hiroshima in 1945 and dropped me off in Kapoho.
Not being of the scientific mind, (I turn to the comics first on Sunday mornings and prefer to think magic takes care of the unknown), I didn’t expect such a fascinating trip. I wept, laughed, gasped and froze in awe, as I read each word of this genius of a storyteller. The most astonishing thing was, I understood what I was reading. I was stunned at the similarity in human behavior in people of my village to the Romans in A.D. 79, to passengers on the Titanic and the unforgettable people of 9/11.
Aw, come on, you’re probably thinking, how can a little village be compared to such historical events and sites? Because when your own village is destroyed by lava and earthquakes, it is as significant.
I stood in front of my freshman speech class in college during the Kapoho eruption and blasted the students who spoke of the beauty of the eruption while my village was being destroyed. For the rest of the semester, a stranger paid for my snacks and coffee at the coffee shop.
I wrote a paper for my Sociology class about the sudden physical strength of people who could lift stalled cars to help clear the road in the evacuation. I wrote a paper for my English class titled, “In the Base There is Good,” honoring one villager who was labeled the bad egg, and potential criminal of the village. He was the last to evacuate because he remained to help others load their household furniture into trucks.
I created a unit of study for the Hawaii State Public School System Literature Program, on Madame Pele, the Goddess of Fire who is believed to live in one of the craters. My father, out of respect for Madame Pele, accepted the erroneous radio announcement that our house was covered by lava by saying, “IF Pele wants my house, she can have it.” This was preceded by his total denial that it was our house.
My grandmother was the first to lose her house, and stories spread that it was punishment because she must have refused Goddess Pele some fruits from her yard. Why else would her house be the first in the path of the lava flow? The belief in Goddess Pele was stronger than any feelings of sympathy and empathy. The Japanese called it “bachi.”
Goddess Pele was believed to take many forms; often as a white dog or an old woman. Myths, acts of denial and bravery and even strange happenings that can’t be explained through scientific data, were common threads among all of us from Pompeii to Kapoho. We had different names in Kapoho because of our Hawaiian beliefs like Pele’s tears (threads of glass) that also fell on the Roman cities.The howling of dogs in Kapoho were the first signals for disaster just as the cats disappeared from the Titanic.
So how do I draw you into this book? I can’t, except to say, you must experience this yourself, just as I can’t do justice to the first yellow burst of that daffodil in our front yard right now after weeks of heavy fog and rain, by telling you it’s beautiful.
If this book doesn’t humanize you, nothing will.
Ghosts of Mt. Vesuvius DVD and book are also available on the History Channel. I’ve ear-marked over 35 pages because they gave me pause over the author’s story-telling skills, the humor, the language, the poetry, the humanity, the scientific content and people stories. I hope to discuss these pages with you someday which includes author’s own art.
On a personal note, after certain chapters, I returned to my own writing and rewrote or I would like to say, improved my own writing craft. It’s this kind of a book.
I feel way smarter now, too. Come talk story with me after you read this book.
The following comments came in from Red Slider:
I give “Ghosts of Vesuvius four stars, based on the small flaws that other reviewers have already treated (some of them arguable). I give it a solid five stars (more if they had them) for entirely different qualities which other reviews have not mentioned and, perhaps, not noticed.
Some who reviewed Pellegrino’s work were disappointed. It wasn’t about the Roman Empire, or volcanoes and Vesuvius, or Pompeii, or the WTC catastrophe, or their favorite or expected subject. They complain that it “drifted” or “got off topic” or was “stream of consciousness”, “digressive”, “repetitive”. It seems obvious why some would make such complaint.
I don’t believe Mr. Pellegino intended this work to be about any single subject or to fill in anyone’s gap in their knowledge about some specific slice of history or particular event. I believe he meant for us to come upon it the same way he does, as a forensic scientist examining the aftermath of a catastrophic event: examining, wondering, supposing, connecting small fragments of history and humanity and space and time as he came upon them.
It is not for its author to put it all together into one neat narrative, complete with its beginning, middle and end. Rather, I believe he leaves it for us, the forensic reader, to take these pieces, splayed out into the book like the surge of some original catastrophe. The text as metalogue. It is our job to examine the pieces, to ask, “what does this thing found over here have to do with that thing over there? Indeed, the author cannot tell you what narratives, insights, understandings a reader will find in the debris of GoV, any more than the dead of Pompeii will tell you exactly what was going on at the moment they were buried in 60 feet of hot ash – what was going on, what the different objects scattered around mean or how they relate. He couldn’t even predict what you might find, as reader.
Only that if you just see it all as unrelated scatter, it will look like a mess, a drift, a fragmented work that digresses and goes “off topic.” But if you dig and examine and wonder and imagine, then perhaps you will arrive at something resembling the same joy he experiences when he digs through the ruins of who we are and what happened to us along the way.
There is one serious shortcoming of the work, about which Mr. Pellegrino could do nothing. It was published long before March 11, 2011. The tragic catastrophe of the Japan tsunami and earthquake certainly need to be included to finish the work. But it is an error that can be corrected, provided Mr. Pellegrino’s publisher will insist that he revise the work for a new edition. It won’t be an easy task. He can’t simply tack on a chapter at the end of it and call it done. He will need to sift and scatter the experiences of that catastrophe, its sorrows and heroics, throughout the book in keeping with the metalogue that it is. Nothing less will do.