cover image Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes

Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes

Clive Oppenheimer. Univ. of Chicago, $27.50 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-226-82634-9

“Volcanoes loom at a thrilling crossroads of nature, spirit, climate, geology, technology, society and culture,” according to this sizzling study. University of Cambridge geologist Oppenheimer (Eruptions That Shook the World) weaves together the history of volcanology with tales from his own work, discussing how 16th-century Spanish colonizer Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés summited the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua to investigate why the mountaintop appeared to glow, and how French volcanologist Haroun Tazieff undertook daring expeditions to film active volcanoes in the mid-20th century. Detailing volcanoes’ stunning power, Oppenheimer explains that pyroclastic flows are “searing hurricanes of gas, ash, pumice and blocks of lava” that can exceed 30 miles per hour, burning everything in their path. He also offers harrowing stories from his own fieldwork, including being captured by rebels wielding AK-47s in Ethiopia and getting caught in an Antarctic blizzard while climbing Mount Erebus. The fervent prose captures the force and excitement of Oppenheimer’s subject, and the enlightening science is bolstered by fascinating insights into volcanoes’ role in myth (the Mount Paektu volcano was believed by ancient Koreans to have been the birthplace of demigod King Tang’un, and the Incan capital, Cusco, asserted its authority over conquered territories by demanding sacrificial subjects to kill on the Láscar volcano, in modern-day Chile). This will blow readers away. (Sept.)