Disaster prone

Life on the brink, from Tambora to now

When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815 on one of the islands of Indonesia, the surrounding countryside and towns were smothered by a blanket of pumice and ash. Those who didn’t instantly die starved to death from the resulting contamination of food and water. The following year, because of particles in the stratosphere, no summer came as far away as Europe; crops failed and populations around the globe suffered from epidemics and food shortages. Rachel Lebowitz anchors her new collection of lyric essays in these apocalyptic years—years that spawned a host of social and spiritual upheavals around the globe as well as a flurry of artistic works including J.M.W. Turner’s turbulent paintings of sunsets and Shelley’s Frankenstein. She then spirals around it toward the present, pausing to dive into another, more recent disaster: the boggy battlefields of the First World War. Her essays abound with allusions to fairy...