Friday, March 25, 2011
Susan Casey has written a thriller of a nonfiction book
If I had read this book a month ago I would have thought the author was given to hyperbole, but reading it the weekend of the horrific Japanese tsunami disaster I was riveted to the story. Susan Casey has written a thriller of a nonfiction book. She alternates her story between the history and science of rogue and tsunami induced waves and the lives of the “tow surfers” – extreme athletes who are towed by jet ski onto the face of enormous (50 feet plus) waves .
Casey has traveled the world to get her story. She opens with a scientific expedition caught in a storm off the coast of the Scotland. For a week the researchers are pummeled with waves over 75 feet high. The only recourse for the ship is to face the waves bow first and ride it out. What a nightmare! She outlines maritime disasters from history with a trip to Lloyds of London where all ship losses are recorded. She visits South Africa where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic and the turbulent waves have wrecked havoc on shipping for centuries. We get details about the mega tsunami that hit Litya Bay in Alaska. That tsunami wave was 1791 ft. high, for comparison the Empire State building is 1431 ft. high – how’s that for scary! Throughout this riveting history Casey explains the science (as much as is known) about oceanography and geology that causes these freak waves. Her ability to translate these physics based concepts for the layman is exceptional. The impacts of rising seas that well may cause more and more extreme weather and potentially an increase in earthquake inducing tsunamis is thoughtfully presented.
The other half of Casey’s story features the tow surfers. Calling this sport a dare devil activity way underrates the risks that these people take with each ride. She tells the story of Laird Hamilton, a Hawaiian surfer who was one of the pioneers of this sport. Riding the storm created giant waves off the coast of Hawaii and Tahiti Hamilton is fearless in his approach to riding these waves. Casey gets the jargon and atmosphere of this group just right, her writing has an authentic feel to it. Despite all this I was left thinking that these tow surfers were an enigmatic group, hard to know, hard to understand. Possibly this is due to the fact that I have trouble understanding why they take these risks. I can’t think of anything more scary that surfing down the face of a 100 ft. wave, let alone doing it when a spouse and a couple of children are involved.
I listened to the unabridged audio edition of this book narrated by Kirsten Potter. The narration was excellent but I longed for photos of both the waves and the people who were part of this story. I sometimes think that these nonfiction books that have real characters are best to have in hard copy for that reason alone. Oh well you can always google to see pictures.
I do strongly recommend this book. I love writers who are talented enough to take difficult science and make it understandable to the rest of us. Casey is surely one of those and the story she has to tell is one we all would benefit from knowing.
I listened to an audio download from the Free Library of Philadelphia