Monday, April 29, 2013

The Year Without Summer: 1816 (William and Nicholas Klingaman)

As many people know, I actually have two Bachelor degrees--one in history, the other one in literary studies (aka literature). And both of my degrees are generalist degrees; the University of Colorado at Denver is not set up to specialize one's degree (not that I didn't end up with some areas that were more well-known than others). Therefore, I feel that I am the perfect person to review the book, The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History (William K. Klingaman & Nicholas P. Klingaman).

The book starts off with an account of the April 5, 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora. It is an event that even knowing something of modern meteorology (it was something of a childhood hobby) that I would not immediately associate with the effect on the weather that it caused. And at the time, no one alive had a clue what caused the strange weather that occurred the following summer with cold temperatures, strange rain and snow patterns, followed by vast crop failures; this led to people praying for better weather--if it was to happen today, I would imagine some of the same wild theories that were put forth in 1816 to be dusted off and put forth despite modern science.

In 1816, many of the people that one encounters in Revolutionary History (both American and French) were alive and writing their impressions of the year. So were many of the writers one encounters in Gothic and English literary studies (ex. Jane Austen). In fact, reading this book brings another layer to Frankenstein, a book that I had to read four times during the course of my literature program--I would like to argue that some of the weather that one encounters in that book was actually based on the strange weather of 1816; if nothing else, it caused Mary Shelley to stay inside a lot, something that tends to force writers to work on their craft.

Due to the wideness of my studies, I can see how Klingaman could argue that the events of 1816 had long term effects on politics (for instance, in emigration, and attitudes and governmental policies dealing with poverty). But the long term effects tend not to be well-spelled out by the authors--I am not sure that someone who wasn't exposed to the strange mixture of classes I endured will be able to see the long term effects. Still if one is actually interested in the era, hopefully one can fill in the blanks.

This book quotes heavily from primary sources, and the bibliography is excellent; I was able to easily follow up on something that I became curious about while reading the book. I wish that the book had an index; if I ever have to use the book to support one of my wild theories (either in history or literature), I fear that I might have to re-read the entire book--not that would be a problem, it is just not something you want to have to do while fulfilling your Masters program. (Yes, I know that the Masters program is supposed to be a lot of reading; but considering how much is already piled on one's desk walking in, one wants to have indexes handy.)

In places, I will admit that I was not completely invested in finishing the book, or remembering what it said--it is a history book, of course, it gets dull if you do not already know the players involved. Between the lack of an index and those spots, this book should get only four stars; but the overview of a single year (a little about 1815 and 1817) was generally interesting enough that as soon as my wallet recovers, I suspect that I am going to hunt down other books by William Klingaman--therefore, I am going to give it the full five stars.

[This review was based on an Advance Reader Copy that I won in a Goodreads contest.]

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