Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Wave

Work book club!  It's been ages since we've met, before Christmas I think.  Vacations and then illnesses and then one thing and another.  Finally we just said that we'd have to sit down and do it.  Turns out that one of the main things that was slowing us down was that nobody really liked the book.

Which is a shame, because it was full of potential.  The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean is about, as it sounds, crazy-big waves.  This is one of those science topics that I know nothing about, so pretty much any angle you want to take on this, you have a chance to tell me interesting stories from some little corner of science and/or history.

But I don't think I ever realized before how much skill goes into making a book like this.  There's a lot of good raw material here, but the author, Susan Casey, is a sports writer, and she doesn't know how to use her material to its best advantage.  What I think happened is that she had a great idea, but the more research she did, the more she realized that the science is either really complicated or largely unknown, and she bloundered.

From the end of the first chapter, I was itching to restructure the book, ask for big additions and rearrangements.  The first chapter is about surfers, which was a good approach--get interested, watch waves in action.  The second is about scientists at a wave science conference. Somewhere in one of these chapters, there should have been a breakdown of how waves word--what makes them break, what the difference between a breaking wave and a non-breaking one is, where the energy comes from.  I looked some of this up on the internet and it's fascinating--how the momentum of the wave is interrupted underwater, causing the top to move faster and break over the bottom.

So many questions I'm left with.  What's the difference between a regular giant wave and a tsunami?  How does a surf ride on a big wave work--how do you get off (barring a fall), what's it like in the foam, what is "the drop" that you keep talking about?  How big are the "normal sized" waves at one of the big surfing areas that she discusses--not the days that bring out the pros, but the regular days in between?

The structure of the book was basically switching back and forth between surfing and other wave stuff.  So every other chapter was about surfing.  Now, I can envision a really good book about pro surfers, but this wasn't quite it.  Every character is described with a one-sentence physical description, every one of them is level-headed and humbler than your average surfer, and I couldn't tell any of them apart.  There are tiny hints at the darker parts of the scene--when she describes how one of her calm, humble friends beat a guy up in a bar because he told everyone where the waves were (leading to overcrowding), when we meet one female surfer at the surfing awards (and she gets ogled and catcalled), when one of these great guys who's really in touch with life flies halfway around the world while his wife is nine months pregnant because he won't miss a wave.

There are all these moments that I interpret as kind of awful, but not only won't she pass judgement on them, she seems to be trying to make them seem okay.

There are a lot of really interesting bits.  The chapter on Lituya Bay, in Alaska, was fascinating; the world's largest tsunami was there only a few decades ago, and there were witnesses and evidence.  There's a lot of great info on how and why that happened.  There's a story about a ship that was caught for days in an enormous storm and, being a research ship, got some amazing readings.  There's a chapter on salvage companies in South Africa, and how they rescue ships and people and cargo when the ocean gets to be too much.

But there was no throughline, and no real episodic structure (as a Mary Roach book might have had).  The story had no spine, no buildup, and it was hard to tell what was going on when in one chapter, 20 foot waves are causing havoc and in another, 40-footers are being dismissed by the surfers as not very special. 

I kind of want Mary Roach to go out and write this book now--take this as a starting place, take all of Susan Casey's notes, and go write the book I wanted this to be.  It's not the charming digressions or the funny (often raunchy) side observations.  What's missing is the sense of there being something to be learned, something to be understood, even if you never do figure out exactly what.

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