earth, sea, sky: nonfiction books

A few brief reviews of nonfiction books I've read recently, all variations on the theme of "extremes of the natural world and the people who love them." The Wave by Susan Casey (Random House, 2010)

In fourth grade I went to a birthday party at which we watched The Poseidon Adventure, and what I concluded that night while hiding in my sleeping bag in the back of the room has only been reenforced by this book: the ocean is terrifying because giant waves will come out of nowhere and devour you. The Wave is an engaging, well-written exploration of the various types of giant waves found in oceans around the world, from the reliable monsters sought out by surfers to tsunamis triggered by undersea earthquakes to the unpredictable rogue waves that laugh in the face of the best oceanography models.

I would have liked for the book to focus a bit more on the science and history and bit less on the surfing. I felt that a lot of the more interesting aspects of the story - such as the perspectives of the South African salvage crews, the complex process of insuring ocean vessels against inevitable loss, and the thankless scientific task of building oceanographic models as the climate changes rapidly - were brushed aside too quickly because the author really wanted to talk about surfing. But overall, it's a very enjoyable and engrossing read, and I shall give thanks every day for the fact that I am not on a fishing boat watching a 1,700-foot wave race toward me at several hundred miles per hour.

The Wild Trees by Richard Preston (Random House, 2007)

From very large waves to very large trees: The Wild Trees is about the small group of people who study and climb the tallest trees in the world, the coast redwoods that grow in remote, isolated groves on the California and Oregon coasts. I remember reading Preston's famous book The Hot Zone back in high school, finishing it in a day, and coming away from it with an awed terror of bleeding out of my eyes, so I was disappointed to find the writing and organization in The Wild Trees to be awkward and stilted in places. Maybe Preston is just naturally more comfortable writing about people bleeding out of their eyes than he is writing about people who study lichen.

By far the best parts are the descriptions of ascending into and exploring the redwood canopy. The world that thrives in treetops hundreds of feet above the ground is difficult to imagine, but Preston does an excellent job capturing what it's like. Other aspects of the narrative are less effective, but the net result is that I now have an urgent desire to move to the Pacific coast and learn how to climb trees.

Blind Descent by James M. Tabor (Random House, 2010)

And now to head in the opposite direction entirely: into the deepest caves in the world. Blind Descent is the story of two separate groups of cavers trying to find the deepest cave in the world. Tabor tries, somewhat halfheartedly, to frame the race between the American-led expeditions into caves in Mexico and the Ukrainian-led expeditions into caves in the Republic of Georgia as a sort of Amundsen vs. Scott scenario, which is not fair to the cave expeditions at all. (The only type of race in which an Amundsen vs. Scott comparison works is one in which one group is well-prepared and focused and does everything right, and the other group is so badly prepared and does everything so very wrong they all die horribly before the journey is over. That is not the case here.)

But aside from that questionable framework, and a few places where the author is probably oversimplifying the matter of relations between cavers and local populations, the book is delightful. The writing is extremely engaging, and the descriptions of the the caves, the methods of exploration, and the physical and psychological toll of spending days or weeks underground in extreme conditions were wonderfully vivid. I stayed up well past midnight two nights in a row because I couldn't bear to put the book down without finding out what happened next.