Obviously, there is nothing nice about a natural disaster that wipes out a whole city. When I use the word "nice," referring to Nicholas Shrady's book The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, what I mean is, Shrady does a great job of relating a lot of history in 209 pages.
Perhaps I just appreciate it more because I'm STILL, what feels like five years later, trying to get through Alison Weir's biography Queen Isabella on CD. Why are her books so long? I know I should stop checking her stuff out, but she does write biographies on a lot of major characters in British history (and mainly women to boot) so I feel like I have to. But 528 pages? Come on.
I don't know how he did it, but Shrady manages to tell the entire story of the 1755 earthquake, tsunami, and fire (what a trifecta) that completely leveled the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon. He also manages to relate a pretty good history of Portugal, its exploration and exploitation of its colonies (particularly Brazil), how the Catholic Inquisition* played out in the region, the life story of the man who masterminded the rebuilding of the city, and how philosophers and religious figures of the day responded to the disaster. In 200 pages. That's pretty impressive. And talk about descriptive:
"In the choir, the priests had just begun their sonorous chant of the introit Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum...when the whole church began to pitch and sway like a ship tossed in a tempest. The great bronze bells in the twin towers rang in violent fits, their chimes muddled and flat below the deafening roar of seizing earth. Candles toppled and snuffed, stained glass shattered, saints were knocked from their pedestals, and priests and parishioners alike panicked. Dozens were crushed by falling timber and a rain of marble...Those who did make it outside found the square enveloped in a cloud of dust and as dark as a moonless night. Whole blocks of houses had been reduced to rubble; chasms had swallowed lanes; and landslides had smothered alleys..." (p. 14.)
Geez. And I'm nervous when severe thunderstorms roll through. All in all, fascinating stuff. I'm toying with the idea of getting his other books, Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa, or Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail.
*Actually, what sticks with me most about this book is not the natural disaster, but the question of, who thought the Inquisition was a good plan? Yikes. Time to read a history of that too.