Excerpt from Earth by Richard Fortey, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio


An Intimate History

by Richard Fortey

  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Nov 2004, 448 pages
    Nov 2005, 448 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse Review Team

Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

Chapter 1
Up and Down

It should be difficult to lose a mountain, but it happens all the time around the Bay of Naples. Mount Vesuvius slips in and out of view, sometimes looming, at other times barely visible above the lemon groves. In parts of Naples, all you see are lines of washing draped from the balconies of peeling tenements or hastily constructed apartment blocks: the mountain has apparently vanished. You can understand how it might be possible to live life in that city only half aware of the volcano on whose slopes your home is constructed, and whose whim might control your continued existence.

As you drive eastwards from the centre of the city, the packed streets give way to a chaotic patchwork of anonymous buildings, small factories, and ugly housing on three or four floors. The road traffic is relentless. Yet between the buildings there are tended fields and shaded greenhouses. In early March the almonds are in flower, delicately pink, and there are washes of bright daffodils beneath the orchard trees; you can see women gathering them for market. In the greenhouses exotic flowers such as canna lilies can be glimpsed, or ranks of potted plants destined for the supermarket trade. Oranges and lemons are everywhere. Even the meanest corner will have one or two citrus trees, fenced in and padlocked against thieves. The lemons hang down heavily, as if they were too great a burden for the thin twigs that carry them. The soil is marvellously rich: with enough water, crops would grow and grow.

This was an abundant garden in Roman times, and it still is, even if crammed between scruffy apartments and scrap-metal yards. Volcanic soil is rich in minerals; it is correspondingly generous to crops. Outside the city, Vesuvius is more of a continuous presence; the ground rises gently towards its brown summit. New buildings cling on to the side of the mountain, even high up among the low trees and broom bushes that clothe its flanks. The buildings are indistinct, however, hidden by a creamy-yellow haze of petrochemical smog spreading outwards from the frantic centre of Naples towards the mountainside. You pass a road sign to Pompeii, but from the road there is little to distinguish this suburb from any other, for all its fame.

When the road rises into the hills that abut the southern margin of the Bay of Naples, the urban sprawl begins to thin out. The orange groves are more orderly, with the trees neatly planted in rows inside cages made of makeshift wooden struts, draped over the top with nets. The slopes become much steeper than on the volcanic flanks—close terraces piled one upon the other, each banked up with a wall of pale limestone blocks. Medium-sized trees with small grey-green leaves—which appear almost silvery in the afternoon light—cling to the most precipitous terraces. These are olive trees, the definitive Mediterranean survivors, oil producers and suppliers of piquant fruit. Their deep roots can seek out the narrowest cracks. They relish limestone soils, however poor they are in comparison with volcanic loam. The villages in this part of the bay are as you would expect of regular, tourist Italy, with piazzas and ristorante-pizzerias and youths with slick hairstyles on the lookout for a fast buck. Even this long before the summer season there is opportunity for a smooth operator. You find yourself agreeing to hire a cab for a day for ¬200 to hug the congested roads, when you could travel faster on the excellent Circumvesuviana railway for a tiny fraction of the price. Somehow, you, the visitor, have become the rich volcanic soil primed to yield a good harvest.

Excerpted from Earth by Richard Fortey Copyright © 2005 by Richard Fortey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member
and discover your next great read!

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: So Say the Fallen
    So Say the Fallen
    by Stuart Neville
    Noir crime fiction – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett anyone? – is an American invention...
  • Book Jacket: The Mothers
    The Mothers
    by Brit Bennett
    Every now and then the publishing industry gushes about a young author destined to become the next ...
  • Book Jacket
    by Tom Jackson
    Growing up in Mumbai in the '70s, I still remember herbs kept fresh in small glasses of water, ...
Book Discussions
Book Jacket
The Bone Tree
by Greg Iles

An epic trilogy of blood and race, family and justice.

About the book
Join the discussion!

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Cruel Beautiful World
    by Caroline Leavitt

    A fast moving page-turner about the naiveté of youth and the malignity of power.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Next
    by Stephanie Gangi

    Fast-paced, wickedly observant, and haunting in the best sense of the word.

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    The Comet Seekers
    by Helen Sedgwick

    A magical, intoxicating debut novel, both intimate and epic.

    Read Member Reviews

Win this book!
Win The World of Poldark

Win the book & DVD

Enter to win The World of Poldark and the full first series on DVD.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

One S D N M A S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.


Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!

Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.