Tag Archive: Review 18

An angry Ocean

I picked up The Wave by Susan Casey the day after the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami hit.I had ordered the book almost two months ago to be put on hold (it was apparently very popular) and I got notice that day that it was in– oh the strange irony of it all.  Now, having grown up in Los Angeles, I know earthquakes pretty well. There is nothing more rude or scary as being sound asleep when a big quake hits (in my case the Northridge quake) and you are thrown out of bed by the shaking and therefore are barely awake as you try to crawl your way across the bedroom floor while the walls heave at you. I remember thinking “this might be it” and I crouched in a ball on the floor– the noise of a quake is terrific– you never knew your house could groan that way and still remain standing. A friend was spending the night and I remember her screaming as stuff came crashing off the walls, my parents yelling from down the hall, the neighbor’s dog howling, and the deep angry growl of the earth. I was silent, huddled on the floor with a stuffed animal over my head.  I know earthquakes well, so I really feel for those in Japan– I know the terror that is a quake– but the idea of a huge Tsunami is something else. It is beyond my imagination.

As it turns out, The Wave is not really about Tsunamis per say– it is about giant rogue waves- chiefly the kind that destroy ships in the middle of the ocean, and the kind that surfers ride while looking for the ultimate high. The author, Susan Casey, travelled the world, seeking out wave scientists, mariners, and surfers in order to learn more about giant waves, which as it turns out, are more common than we think they are.

Rogue waves have long been a part of shipping lore. With an astonishing regularity, large ships sink (at about a rate of 1-2 a week- and yeah you never hear about it unless it is a ferry carrying a lot of people or something of that ilk) and more often than not, they sink and leave behind no survivors. A few ships survive and report that monster rogue waves arose from the oceans (often in a storm or rough seas) and took them out. However, since it is hard to measure such waves, they are often never really recorded. Its sorta like a Bigfoot sighting. People say they see him but there are no pictures. Big waves are like that too. And we are talking BIG waves- 100 footers.

So Casey travels the world in search of the waves and the people who have experienced/studied them. But the heart of the book turns out to be her experiences with Big wave surfers, a small tribe of (mostly) men who defy the ocean to ride the monster waves. This tribe is led by the famous Laird Hamilton, Big Wave surfer extraordinaire. Casey documents the surfers who surf Mavericks, Todos Santos, Ghost Tree, Jaws, and the awesome, mythical, Egypt. (These are surfing spots in Hawaii and California if you don’t know your surfing breaks.)  Hamilton acts as her guide, and the tribe of big wave surfers open up their world to her with amazing hospitality, good humor, knowledge and grace. As it turns out, about 2/3s of the book focuses on this, and frankly I think Casey should have simply just focused on writing a book on Big Wave surfing and surfers– because essentially that is the meat of this book.

Casey documents the new fronts in wave science, but she shines in dealing with the surfers and the way they approach 50-100 foot waves. For them it is a spiritual experience, something that humbles you before God and the ocean, and Casey captures that nicely. The basic line in Casey’s book is that the ocean is an angry, unknowable place, and that while man thinks he can conquer it, he cannot. The ocean gives life, and it destroys life (as we saw in Japan last week) and we cannot control it. The book overall, was an interesting read– especially the parts about Big Wave surfing, but it was a bit uneven. Like I said before, the author should have simply focused on the surfers– because I think in the end she fell in love with them more than the Big waves.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

The Ambiguity of Knowledge

One of the things I’ve decided to do with this blog is to revisit books or authors that I read in high school and, for whatever reason, that either I didn’t appreciate at the time or I’ve just plain forgotten.  Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz falls into the latter category.  I’m fairly certain I enjoyed it when I read it freshman year in high school for a Western Civ class, but my memory of the story was pretty hazy, so I decided to pick it up again.  (A side motivation for reading a book like this is that I’m always on the lookout for fiction that I might incorporate into class, which, given my subject matter and setting, often leads me to Catholic fiction.)

Miller’s book is a fascinating sci-fi take on the relationship between Church and State, faith and reason, technology and human sinfulness, and the need for grace.  The novel is set in the distant future after a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of civilization and focuses on a monastery in the American Southwest dedicated to the Order of Leibowitz.  The story is divided into three parts.  The first describes life in the dark period that followed the nuclear holocaust and continued for centuries upon centuries.  In the second part, the secular world is beginning to rediscover much that had been lost in the war, and it is on the cusp of a new Renaissance.  The third and final part is set in the distant future, after human beings have recovered the learning of the pre-nuclear war civilization and moved beyond it.  Colonies have been established in space, cars now transport people to their destination with no need for a human driver, and machines can take dictation in one language and translate it to another.  In the midst of this technological renewal, however, the threat of another nuclear threat hovers over civilization, poised to sink the world into yet another Dark Age.

Miller paints a grim picture of the world after the first nuclear war.  Radiation has left countless unfortunates maimed and mutated, thought by some to be sub-human, but referred to as “the Pope’s children” by the Church; food is in scarce supply, even for the monks of the abbey; travel is long, tedious, and dangerous.  These harsh conditions serve as a backdrop for one of the main themes of the book, the ambiguity of the Church’s role in preserving knowledge.  The ambiguity lies not in the typical new atheist rant about how the Church suppressed science and learning – in Miller’s story, as in any fair-minded assessment of medieval times, it is the monks who preserve learning, fiercely protecting the fragments that survived the nuclear holocaust.  No, the ambiguity lies in the use to which that knowledge is put.  As Norman Spinrad notes in the introduction to the edition I read, one of the running questions in the novel is whether humankind, once given the technological capability, will inevitably choose nuclear destruction rather than the ways of peace.  In Miller’s story, the answer seems to be yes.  At first glance, this seems like a rather bleak picture of humanity.  And yet, as we look back on the last century, indeed, on the history of the world, can we really think it’s an unrealistic one?  Given the atrocities we humans have perpetrated on one another, one could argue that it’s nothing short of a miracle that we haven’t yet blown ourselves to oblivion.

Regardless of whether one accepts Miller’s seemingly dismal view of the world, the book touches on a number of deep and important themes, and is well worth a read.

Eighteen down, (at least) thirty-four to go.