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JFK’s Last Hundred Days

JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President (Penguin, 2013)
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“Certainly demonstrates that three often painful years in office had taught Kennedy valuable lessons… Clarke delivers a thoroughly delightful portrait.”
—Kirkus (starred)

JFK’s Last Hundred Days is listed in Amazon’s best books of July 2013 and iTunes’ best books of August 2013

More reviews below


A revelatory, minute-by-minute account of JFK’s last hundred days that asks what might have been

Fifty years after his death, President John F. Kennedy’s legend endures. Noted author and historian Thurston Clarke argues that the heart of that legend is what might have been.

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JFK’s Last Hundred Days reexamines the last months of the president’s life to show a man in the midst of great change, finally on the cusp of making good on his extraordinary promise.

Kennedy’s last hundred days began just after the death of two-day-old Patrick Kennedy, and during this time, the president made strides in the Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam, and his personal life. While Jackie was recuperating, the premature infant and his father were flown to Boston for Patrick’s treatment. Kennedy was holding his son’s hand when Patrick died on August 9, 1963. The loss of his son convinced Kennedy to work harder as a husband and father, and there is ample evidence that he suspended his notorious philandering during these last months of his life.

Also in these months Kennedy finally came to view civil rights as a moral as well as a political issue, and after the March on Washington, he appreciated the power of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., for the first time.

Though he is often depicted as a devout cold warrior, Kennedy pushed through his proudest legislative achievement in this period, the Limited Test Ban Treaty. This success, combined with his warming relations with Nikita Khrushchev in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, led to a détente that British foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas- Home hailed as the “beginning of the end of the Cold War.”

Throughout his presidency, Kennedy challenged demands from his advisers and the Pentagon to escalate America’s involvement in Vietnam. Kennedy began a reappraisal in the last hundred days that would have led to the withdrawal of all sixteen thousand U.S. military
advisers by 1965.

JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a gripping account that weaves together Kennedy’s public and private lives, explains why the grief following his assassination has endured so long, and solves the most tantalizing Kennedy mystery of all—not who killed him but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.

More Reviews of JFK’s Last Hundred Days

“Thurston Clarke has done the seemingly impossible: he has found a revealing new angle of vision on John F. Kennedy that brings the president and his times back to vivid life. This is excellent narrative history.”
—Jon Meacham, New York Times bestselling author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

“Clarke makes the drama, the excitement, and the dark side of Camelot seem like only yesterday—indeed, you feel as though you’re right there, in the Kennedy White House, at Hyannis Port, and aboard Air Force One with JFK, today.”
—Strobe Talbott, President, Brookings Institution

“Certainly demonstrates that three often painful years in office had taught Kennedy valuable lessons… Clarke delivers a thoroughly delightful portrait… few will put it down.”
» Read the full starred review

“The three-months before President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas were frenetic times: civil rights, Vietnam, Berlin and reelection were on his mind. Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days does a marvelous job of reliving Camelot’s fragile promise. Clarke is a masterful storyteller and able researcher. This book sings. Highly recommended.”
—Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

“A fascinating close-up look at the final dramatic months of a young president’s life. Thurston Clarke’s portrait of Kennedy is masterful in this compelling convergence of history and biography.”
Bob Herbert, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former Op-Ed Columnist for the New York Times.

“A graceful, bittersweet chronicle of President Kennedy’s final months… Those who remember Kennedy and those too young to do so, will find this an absorbing narrative.”
—Karl Helicher, Library Journal Review
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“As we approach [its] 50th anniversary… there will be a slew of books on John F. Kennedy’s death, but the early prize goes to historian Thurston Clarke’s meticulous reconstruction of JFK’s Last Hundred Days. Here we see a president in action, a man maturing and developing as a thinker and executive, and so we are haunted all over again by what might have come next.”
—Jimmy So and Lucas Whittman, “Brainy Beach Reads,” The Daily Beast/Newsweek

“Thurston Clarke takes a fresh look… [a] compelling portrait of one of the towering figures of 20th-century America.”
The Christian Science Monitor, 10 best books of July

“Clarke has written a real page-turner… deftly weaving together the private, personal, and intimate with the public, the political, and the-then-secret public and political.”
—Harvey J. Kaye, author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, in The Daily Beast
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“…There will be few, if any, contributions more entertaining and informative than Thurston Clarke’s comprehensive chronological telling of his last 100 days in office… Now, as Clarke underlines so well, we can still only wonder what might have been.”
—Jurek Martin, Financial Times
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“Mr Clarke is a good storyteller, and his account—one of many JFK books timed for the 50th anniversary of the assassination—offers an enjoyable snapshot of the day-to-day workings of the presidency.”
The Economist
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“…A superb piece of writing—richly detailed and, considering that the end is all too well known, surprisingly enthralling.”
—Frank Gannon, Wall Street Journal
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“A wonderful new book…”
—Marc Ambinder, The Week

“A gracefully written, fresh look at the oft-told story… Clarke throws light on personal details to bring his subject vibrantly alive.”
—Don Graham, The Dallas Morning News

“Thurston Clarke has written a superb book… We see… a composite portrait of a ‘casually gracious’ man who, despite his flaws, was principally characterised by ‘nobility and sacrifice.’”
—Roger Lewis, The Daily Mail (U.K.)
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“All of the upcoming retrospectives will be hard-pressed to match the haunting work of Thurston Clarke…  Agree with him or not, Clarke has delivered a compelling history in an interesting manner… That he has done so while writing about the nation’s most glamorized presidency borders on the miraculous.”
—Erik Spanberg, The Christian Science Monitor
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Ask Not

Ask not penguin
Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America (Penguin, 2012)
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“[Ask Not] has the happy effect of bringing quite fully to life that brief, hopeful hour in our nation’s history…”
Washington Post


A narrative of Kennedy’s quest to create a speech that would distill American dreams and empower a new generation, Ask Not is a beautifully detailed account of the inauguration and the weeks preceding it.

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During a time when America was divided, and its citizens torn by fears of war, John F. Kennedy took office and sought to do more than just reassure the American people. His speech marked the start of a brief, optimistic era.

Thurston Clarke’s portrait of JFK is balanced, revealing the president at his most dazzlingly charismatic and cunningly pragmatic.

More Reviews of Ask Not

“Insightful and fascinating… [Kennedy] comes off as a skilled, eloquent, and inspired craftsman.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Earnestly exuberant… Ask Not is a short book, but there are many berries on the bush…Clarke is an intrepid researcher.”
—Louis Menand in The New Yorker

“Part of the fun of this book is that Clarke writes good gossip…This is an entertaining and instructive book.”
The Press-Republican (Plattsburgh)

Ask Not is an elegant and literate celebration of one of the past century’s pinnacles of literacy—and a valuable addition to the Kennedy canon.”
Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Thurston Clarke has taken a brief, beautiful speech and re-created an extraordinary moment in time. He understands the power of words, the way they can animate an age and move the world.”
Evan Thomas, coauthor of The Wise Men, author of John Paul Jones

“This fine book is part textual criticism, part archival detective work, but most important, a compelling and fascinating story… Clarke has reminded us once again that there was substance behind the charisma, and much to admire about John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
The Herald-Sun (Durham)

“Insightful and engaging… In the end, Sorensen stands revealed as what he’s always claimed to be: not Kennedy’s ghostwriter, but his scribe. And Kennedy? He comes off as original and eloquent.”
The Providence Sunday Journal

“A spirited narrative…fine social history.”
Library Journal

Ask Not stirs us again with the eloquence of Kennedy’s oratory, and deepens our understanding of its place in history.”
—Sally Bedell Smith, author of Grace and Power

“JFK’s inaugural has gotten the book it deserves from an author who is himself a master of words. Anyone who wants to understand why this president changed all our our lives need only open these pages to see him at his finest during his finest, most captivating, and memorable moments.”
—Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, author of The Russia Hand


On a low curving wall in Arlington National Cemetery seven sentences from the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy are chiseled into granite tablets below the slain president’s grave. The granite, known as Deer Island after the place in Maine where it was quarried, has a pinkish tinge that becomes brighter when worn. It also covers the pavement in front of the wall where the feet of 150 million visitors have turned it pinker every year. The tablets, too, are changing color, but more slowly, as mourners slide their fingers across the three-inch letters, the closest they can come to touching the man who is buried here.

Jackie and Mamie rode from the White House to the Capitol in a Cadillac limousine together with Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire. It was a moment neither woman could have anticipated with much pleasure, but here they were: Mamie in a gaudy “tomato red” suit, matching hat, and bulky mink, Jackie in Cassini’s fawn coat trimmed with a whisper of sable; Mamie, who had shared a bed with her husband during forty-five years of marriage, and Jackie, who did not plan on sharing the same bedroom with her husband on their first night in the White House; Mamie, who had spent most of her White House evenings sitting next to her husband as they ate their supper off trays perched in front of his-and-hers televisions, and Jackie, who would fill her husband’s evenings with intimate dinner parties and concerts; Mamie, the daughter of an Iowa meatpacker who had never attended college and loved canasta and mahjong, and Jackie, the daughter of a philandering, alcoholic New York stockbroker, who had attended Vassar and the Sorbonne and been named Debutante of the Year. Here they were, then, two women riding together to the Capitol who, because neither suspected the infidelities the other had endured in her marriage, believed they had nothing in common.

As Jackie descended the Capitol steps, the crowd rose to its feet, cheering and applauding. Cassini sensed victory. Her fawn coat, with its understated sable collar, matching pillbox hat, and small sable muff, communicated youth, simplicity, and elegance. She was the gorgeous petal in a dowdy bouquet of fur. He had promised she would stand out but was still astonished when it happened exactly that way. He sensed he was witnessing a turning point in fashion history—the celebretization of fashion, and the iconization of Jackie Kennedy—and once her husband began speaking, he realized that her outfit perfectly complemented his spare and elegant prose.

He had not just dictated, but had lived the words. They told his story, ‘born in this century,’ ‘tempered by war,’ and ‘disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.’ As he delivered them, he became more emphatic and passionate, turning his right hand into a fist and pumping it up and down as he said, ‘The torch has been passed.’ It was here that his nervous energy, heightened by the delays and prayers, began surfacing in his delivery, and he began forging an emotional bond with the audience. Those appropriating the words and themes of Kennedy’s address have failed to appreciate that the text was only part of the magic. There was also an extraordinary convergence of people, events, and history. There was the snowstorm, Jackie’s wardrobe, Frost’s recitation, and an audience already longing for his words. There was a man who left nothing to chance—not his tan, his haircut, or teeth, not even the cut of his suit, or the seating of dignitaries on his platform—and who spoke with the urgency of someone who has narrowly escaped death and cared passionately about the judgment of history. There was a speech he had not only composed but lived; one that was a distillation of the spiritual and philosophical principles forming his character and guiding his life, and that he delivered with a passion that reached deeply buried hearts and elicited from the American people, as Gore Vidal had predicted, ‘a remarkable emotional response.’

Searching for Paradise

Searching for Paradise: A Grand Tour of the World’s Unspoiled Islands (Ballantine, 2002)
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“This enchanting hymn to our ceaseless fascination for islands and insularity is brilliant, quite without equal. Thurston Clarke’s wisdom and sensitivity radiate from every page: he fills us with an inexplicable longing for the land and the people glimpsed above the cliff top, and through the grasses beyond the beach.”
—Simon Winchester, Author of The Professor and the Madman

More Reviews and an excerpt below

In a penetrating, brilliantly written book that weaves sociology, history, politics, personality, and ancient and popular culture into one compelling narrative, Thurston Clarke island-hops around the oceans of the world, searching for an explanation for the most enduring geographic love affair of all time–between humankind and islands.

Along the way Clarke visits the remote and silent Mas À Tierra, the island off the coast of Chile that inspired Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe; sleepy, simple Campobello, the Canadian island where Franklin D. Roosevelt spent his boyhood summers; Jura in the Hebrides, where George Orwell wrote 1984. A stunning work of wit, adventure, and incisive exploration, Searching for Paradise brings a unique passion to dazzling life.

More reviews of Searching for Paradise

“Delightful… Inquisitive and intelligent, this book will take you far and open your eyes.”
The Seattle Times

“An intelligent, passionate, absorbing book that manages to pull together the threads of history, myth, travelogue, personal reflection, and social commentary into a delightful narrative.”
Toronto Globe and Mail


If I look east from my house above Lake Champlain, I can see four of the least promising islands you could imagine. They are called the Four Brothers and are mostly gray cliffs, rocky beaches, and skeletal trees picked clean by gulls and cormorants. But from the way they excite people you would think they were Maui, Mykonos, Tahiti, and Capri.

Most Maldivians will survive the catastrophe and a hundred years from now they will probably gather in the Sri Lankan villages and European gust worker slums where they will then live to fan the embers of their dying culture. They will teach their children to speak their vowel-crammed language and bewitch them with stories of an Atlantis of planetarium skies, blinding beaches, and teardrop islands. They will stand out, a race of Lilliputians smothered by their hand-me-down overcoats, resembling refugee children befriended by soldiers. Like Kurds, Armenians, and Palestinians, they will nurse ferocious grudges. Their Great Satan will be the industrialized West, whose air-conditioned desert cities, energy-hungry industries, and sport utility vehicles have made a disproportionate contribution to the greenhouse gases that warmed the oceans and submerged Maldivian islands inhabited for five thousand years.

The church courtyard held the largest amount of food I have yet seen in one place. I estimated there were already six thousand coconuts in palm frond cradles, three thousand bundles of sugar cane and taro, and three hundred dead pigs, skinned and oozing blood, stacked in piles of six, one for every twenty-seven Kosraeans, including babes in arms. Every minute, pickup trucks delivered more pigs, which were tossed into heaps and sorted by village. Spectators circled them like judges at a county fair, hands behind backs, whispering and pointing.

I believe that islomanes sense that islands nudge us toward becoming more human—“better people”—by providing this simplicity, and making us shake hands with our neighbors, listen to ourselves (and perhaps to God), respect history and natural limits, and live surrounded by wilderness and beauty. They do not always do this, but they are more likely to than a similar-sized fragment of continental land, which is why when an island is lost to the Global Village or global warming, more is lost than an inhabited piece of earth where at least one sheep can graze.

Pearl Harbor Ghosts

Pearl Harbor Ghosts: The Legacy of December 7, 1941 (Ballantine, 2001)
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“Clarke’s ability to evoke the feel and mood of Hawaii then and now will remind readers of Jan Morris and Joan Didion.”

The Washington Post


A landmark book published to rave reviews a decade ago, Pearl Harbor Ghosts has now been updated to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the surprise attack that forever changed the course of history.

More Reviews below
Excerpt below

Book on Television: Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis for a two-hour prime time CBS documentary introduced by General Normal Schwartzkopf.

Full of gripping drama and vibrant details, here is the intimate human story of the events surrounding that fateful day of December 7, 1941–the glamorous tropical city that seemed too beautiful to suffer devastation . . . the stunned naval personnel whose lives would permanently be divided into before and after Pearl Harbor . . . the ordinary Honolulu residents who were tragically unprepared to be the first target in the Pacific war . . . the Japanese pilots who manned the squadron of deadly silver bombers . . . and the island’s community of Japanese-Americans whose lives would never be the same again.

Blending meticulous historic recreation with lively reporting, Clarke counterpoints the freeze-frame nightmare of the 1941 bombing with the disturbing realities of present-day Honolulu, where hundreds of veterans, both American and Japanese, converge each year to relive every hour of the attack. Wealthy Waikiki landowners and native Hawaiian farmers, admirals and nurses, Navy wives and government officials–all take their part in Clarke’s rich tapestry of memory and insight. In the end, Pearl Harbor emerges as a trauma that spread from Oahu to engulf the nation and the world–an event that continues to reverberate in the lives of all who experienced it.

More reviews of Pearl Harbor Ghosts

“Filled with fascinating stories told by ordinary people who lived through the extraordinary weekend of December 5 to 7, 1941.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An extremely sensitive book by a sensitive writer.”

Christian Science Monitor

“Thurston Clarke’s Pearl Harbor Ghosts stands apart from other 50th anniversary examinations of that tragic day.”

Chicago Tribune

“A penetrating and provocative study of the attack’s evolving impact on Japanese-American relations and on Hawaii itself over the past half-century. It is distinctly the most illuminating volume among the wave of books being launched…to coincide with the impending 50th anniversary.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“Unforgettable… Clarke is masterful in the personal realities… Woven into the dreamlike tapestry are sharp, provocative bits on contemporary Japanese-US realities… Powerful, compelling prose lays this ghost to rest with dignity and painstaking honesty.”



In 1941, Honolulu was a city where people advertised for a ‘Hawaiian yard boy who can sing, dance, and play the guitar,’ and taxi drivers used call boxes attached to palm trees, and you requested a favorite driver by name. It was a city where a siren ordered minors off the streets at eight o’clock, beachboys had names like Hankshaw, Steamboat, Panama, and Tough Bill, who played the ukulele and tucked hibiscus blossoms behind their ears, policemen wore leis and sat on high stools under umbrellas, waving at friends as they pulled ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ levers, and Pete the ‘Hula Cop’ directed traffic with the arm motions of a hula dancer, and was honored by a downtown plaque thanking him for having ‘smiled his way into the hearts of the people.’ It was a city where the most serious civic nuisances were an absence of shade trees along Kalakaua Avenue and bad-mannered children on the trolley buses, politicians wore white suits and panama hats, and promised the moon in several languages, and hostesses descended from early missionaries used ti leaves as tablecloths and sang the doxology before dinner.

Trace the paths of the Japanese fighters and bombers over a map of Oahu and the island begins to resemble an insect caught in a dense spiderweb of lines and arrows, and you can appreciate how confusing the attack must have been for American forces on the ground. The most chaotic and damaging period was the first half hour, from 0755 until 0825, when more than twenty ships were attacked by 183 Japanese fighters and torpedo, dive-, and high bombers. This was when Oahu’s defenders suffered the heaviest material losses and casualties, when great battleships capsized and sank in flames and Japanese pilots destroyed or damaged most of the 188 Army and Navy planes lost on December 7.

On the night of December 7, the first night of a blackout and curfew that would last almost three years, civilians saw shells flashing like sheet lightning, and the dull red glow of burning battleships, projected onto the night sky. At midnight, they saw a rare lunar rainbow, which native Hawaiians believe symbolizes an imminent victory. All night, they felt the ground shaking from trucks trailering artillery pieces, and heard the rifle shots of nervous guards, the antiaircraft fire of panicky gunners, and the grinding gears of mortuary wagons transporting the dead to cemeteries in Nuuanu Valley.

California Fault

California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas (Ballantine, 1997)
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“Delightfully eclectic . . . Move over, Alexis de Tocqueville. When Thurston Clarke makes the UFO-earthquake connection halfway through Fault, he elevates himself to the first rank of America’s social observers.”
Los Angeles Times


California has always symbolized the good life, but social problems and natural disasters have tarnished the image of the Golden State.

To find out what happened to the California Dream, Clarke sets off on a remarkable journey down the San Andreas fault searching for earthquakes and good news.

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From the “sensitive” whose headaches predict earthquakes with uncanny precision to a determined dreamer at the Salton Sea who hopes someday to build a blue-collar resort along the abandoned shores, Clarke introduces us to a memorable cast of eccentrics, asking each the provocative question: What is it like living in a place that–no matter how beautiful–might suddenly, while you opened the cereal, combed your hair, or bathed the baby, strike you dead?

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“Vivid and continually surprising… The author has an unerring ability to search out exactly the right despoiler, utopian, or local eccentric to illuminate the history and character of each stop along the way.”
The New Yorker

“His enthusiasm is infectious… he entertains and illuminates, writing gracefully, and with a fine sense of irony…The book is so deftly written, so relentlessly good-humored, that I gobbled it up…He’s funny and he’s fair and he swims well against powerful cultural cross-currents.”
New York Times Book Review

“He has a nice touch and a close eye. Like novelist John Updike, he has the ability to raise the stature of the mundane and to make an interesting prose purse out of a sow’s-ear situation.”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“Clarke’s acerbic wit and vivid description are a pleasure throughout…As tough in its critique of the Golden State as it is shrewd in its understanding, California Fault is a book to savor.”
Seattle Times

“Witty, engaging… It gave me much pleasure.”
Washington Post Book World

“A wonderful book from one of our best travel writers.”
Portland Oregonian

“A nearly edible travelogue — smooth as mousse, full of savory tidbits, and memorable.”

“Provocative and absorbing… Clarke’s clean, punchy prose and his novelist’s eye for detail make California Fault a breezy, trenchant read.”
Santa Cruz Sentinel

“I lived in the Golden State in the Seventies, just before the tarnish, the fool’s gold, and Proposition 13. Now comes Mr. Clarke, an adventurous investigator. In his persistent wandering he uncovers a cornucopia of America’s disappointed dreams. We hear the voices of wanderers, settlers, ex-communards, and working philosophers. The closeness of dream and dread is still thrilling and comes through. I wiped my eyes.”
Andrei Codrescu

“This is a brilliant, mordantly funny book, and Clarke’s vision of the San Andreas Fault is powerful and true. He’s a dark millenarian who’s given us a beautifully complex metaphor, and if California at century’s end is America’s future, then we’re all living on the Fault, and the Big One’s due any minute.”
Russell Banks


Along the north coast, gas stations had been good places for meeting people, but here they were designed to protect employees from customers and you paid a cashier in an upright Plexiglass coffin before you pumped, a double reminder of how little you were trusted. It was no good trying to talk to people at the K-Marts or Long’s Drugs either. They were not places to linger, and the clerks were busy and bored. Most towns no longer had thriving downtowns because, despite the advertising nostalgia for Norman Rockwell Main Street America, Californians were like most Americans: cold-blooded community killers. Ready to administer the coup de grace to merchants who had sponsored decades of Little League teams and high-school yearbooks in order to shave some pennies off a tube of Colgate.

[Berkland] had become a clearinghouse for seismically sensitive pet stories…The week before the 1980 Eureka earthquake they fielded 853 complaints of dogs wandering on highways and cows on the wrong side of a field. A Dr. Deshpande in India, who had documented abnormal animal behavior before subcontinent earthquakes, sent him a paper by Soviet scientists mentioning how an hour before the 1988 Armenian earthquake, ‘a very tame pet hamster bit his owner for the first and only time.’ A veterinarian reported crystals forming in the urinary tracts of cats just before an earthquake…A pigeon fancier in Danville called to report a ‘smash race’ from Nevada… It seemed obvious the magnetic energy preceding an earthquake was disturbing the pigeons’ sense of direction.

South of Gilroy I smelled garlic, not the bitter stink of a cheap ethnic restaurant, but a gentle garlic perfume. I opened the windows and filled my lungs….Don Christopher’s sheds were…several stories high and reeking of garlic. Cloves overflowed wooden crates, boiled away in kettles, and rolled down conveyor belts to women in masks for sorting and cleaning. Even their names made me smile. There was Flor, Giant, Jumbo, Extra Jumbo, Super Jumbo, Colossal, and Super Colossal. I chewed on a Colossal and felt as if my sinuses, closed for weeks by pollen and pollutants, had been irrigated by high-pressure hoses. I was suddenly lightheaded, drunk on garlic.

The next morning [Taft] was a bleak, blue-collar town of deep porches, rusty air conditions, and small windows, a place built for scorching summers. Pumps pulled oil from one of the richest fields in North America and the air smelled of asphalt. It was so unlike anywhere else in California that I declared a vacation, staying another night in my twenty-five-dollar motel, lunching on perhaps the cheapest and best nonfranchised burritos in California, and reading that in 1926 a “mouse army” of thirty million had swarmed into town, terrorizing the oil-field roustabouts and devouring sheep. State officials had dispatched an exterminator named Piper.