Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Recommended Reading for Armchair Adventurers

Last night I spent a wonderful evening in my pajamas, eating a cupcake and watching Shark Attack Survivors! on the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. My friend Curtis maintained that I would be too scared to watch more than five minutes of the program, but I assured him that I'd be okay -- the show, after all, was about survivors.

"But they have the most hideous wounds!" he said.

"No, no, no. I'll watch the whole show and then just continue to boycott the ocean out of fear," I said smugly. I know my own limits.

The ocean and I are not friends. It doesn't matter how much sunblock I slather on, because I will always fry to a crisp at the beach. As for going into the water -- well, my favorite movie of all time is Jaws, and I've seen it so many times that the nagging thought of a shark attack is with me even when I'm paddling about in a suburban swimming pool. I prefer to experience my sharks vicariously, thank you very much.

I'm going to jump on Discovery's Shark Week bandwagon and recommend a couple of thrilling(and perfectly safe) books about sharks, each of which describes in greater detail events that are mentioned in Jaws:

Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore relates a bizarre and terrifying series of shark attacks that occurred along the New Jersey coast in 1916. Public swimming was just becoming a popular pastime; up until then, shark attacks were extraordinarily rare and victims were primarily sailors far out at sea, so the public felt little if any fear about wading near the shore. But in 1916, a young white shark strayed from its usual territory and began a frenzied series of attacks on swimmers that left four people dead and beachgoers terrified. Very little was known about sharks at the time, and most people had never seen one, so speculation at first was that something else, perhaps a killer whale, was the predator. (My favorite bit of misinformation was that sharks were thought to be poisonous -- as if poison and not those razor-sharp teeth had done a person in!) The final victim was killed not in the ocean, but in a freshwater river the confused and probably frightened shark had ventured into, adding a seed of doubt as to which bodies of water are safe from maneaters. The manner in which the rogue shark's rampage was stopped is both thrilling and strange. In Jaws, Sherriff Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper reference these events in a tossed-off line as they try to convince the mayor to shut down the beaches. Do yourself a favor and read the full account in Close to Shore.

In Jaws, the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis takes center stage in Quint's low-key yet impassioned monologue about why he will never go in the ocean again. It's the best scene in the movie, and I thought the account was pure fiction until I read Doug Stanton's In Harm's Way, which is, hands down, simply one of the best books I have ever read. On July 30, 1945, after delivering the bomb that would be dropped on Hiroshima, the U.S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and went down in minutes. Her surviving sailors spent four-and-a-half horrific days in the Pacific Ocean, where saltwater destroyed their skin, sun glare blinded them, they had no food or water... and innumerable circling sharks, perfectly visible hundreds of feet down in the clear ocean water, began picking them off. Only about a third of the 900 sailors cast into the sea made it out alive; questionable naval policies probably prevented more from being saved. This true story is the most thrilling, scary, heartbreaking adventure tale I've ever read. Sharks are only one of the terrifying elements in the book, true, but you'll understand Quint's decision to stay dry after reading this account. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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