May 20th, 2013

_Shadow Divers_, Robert Kurson

This was last month's book group selection; I didn't attend because I was at WDW.

Subtitled: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II

This non-fiction work published in 2004 describes the dives and research of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler in their successful attempts to identify a U-boat about 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey.

Do I REALLY have to say SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER? There was a PBS special or two. There has been newspaper coverage. Etc. Did they figure it out? Yes. Was it what it obviously was based on the carved name on the knife? Yes. Were people surprised to learn that the WW2 reference books about what sank where had some problems? Apparently. Some people have led a more sheltered existence and retained their faith in the written word to a somewhat more advanced age than I would have expected.

This link, without following it, is a spoiler:

Kurson is a capable writer. He maintains narrative thrust without resorting to cheap tricks (You could probably find at least one instance of a story cut off at a chapter ending with the next chapter about something else, then the suspenseful bit continued later, but I don't recall any specifically or generally -- that's the kind of thing I mean.) Kurson does a much better than average job of showing the character of the men he is describing. He's a lot more sympathetic to these idiots than I would be -- and he does a fantastic job of showing _that_ as well.

Chatterton, Kohler and various other divers were based in the Northeast. They were self-funded (completely, as near as I can tell) scuba divers, mostly in dry suits altho some still in wet. Virtually everyone at the beginning of the story is using compressed air, altho towards the end they switched to trimix; no one in the events of this story is using rebreathers. Taking things from wrecks is/was common among the characters in this story/community, altho Chatterton and Kohler are already changing over to focusing on video and understanding rather than collecting trophies. I don't think anyone in the entire group had any navy or other armed forces dive experience whatsoever, and it _really_ shows.

Self-funded dives in personal gear has limitations that kill people who start working in deeper waters and more complex environments. If you're diving for the Navy, they're setting the priorities and they won't let you go off and do something hare-brained on your own (they have more than enough official hare-brained, thank you very much). If you're diving for the Navy, they won't let you go below a certain depth with compressed air (certainly not just because you either lost track of who should get the trimix or lacked the funds, which seems to be approximately what killed two of the divers). They'll stage an investigation to ensure safety, because safety is what leads to success. Etc. And, as Chatterton and Kohler discovered over and over and over again, military investigators don't necessarily care quite as much about pulling one damn tag off of one damn box out of one damn electric motor room to "prove" this was U-869, especially when they had more than enough evidence in support of that theory anyway.

Think of this like one of Krakauer's books, and you'll have a pretty good sense of what was going on: a couple of boomer men doing something the hard way, nominally to discover something. It does make for a riveting story.

All that said, and as much as I'll take reading about a Ballard expedition over this kind of thing any time I have the choice, it is worth noting that people in the lives of explorers die much more often of much more mundane causes than of horrifying and avoidable dive accidents. Just in this book, Nagle drinks himself to death and one of Kohler's loves is murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Ballard's son died in a car accident. Etc.

Kurson has produced a widely accessible story that makes a lot of the details of diving accessible to a general audience, including some of the technical transitions that have occurred over the last couple decades. He has produced a nicely detailed explanation of how history gets written, and how it gets corrected. There were moments where I eye-rolled (notably at how long it took anyone to go digging for the radio communications to U-869. These were Germans. This was post-Enigma. We have virtually all the traffic. You can go fucking _read_ it all quite easily. Why did it take them so long to think to do so?), but those moments were not that common and honestly, they were unfair on my part. Good work was done here and Kurson depicts it without sucking all the life out of it.

Fun stuff. I might read more by him.

ETA: A few personal notes. My ex-husband was a huge Ballard fan -- probably the only reason I don't read Ballard more often now. While I did not dive until after we divorced, and abandoned it as a hobby almost as quickly as I took it up, reading Kurson's descriptions of the deadliness of getting certain things wrong reminded me vividly of why I gave it up so fast. Also, super weird that the radio guy who didn't sail because he had pneumonia was the son of a couple JWs (not called that at the time).

_Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal_, Jeanette Winterson

This month's book group pick. It's a memoir and the local library shelved it as biography.

I had a horrible time keeping the title straight: it's a toxic message and I keep "fixing" it in my head to be a message aligned with my values ("Why Be Normal When You Can Be Happy"). And I'm not the only one: the local librarian, and the librarian in Mayberry (<--not its real name) both made the same error, and my friend A. recognized the assbackwardness of the quote every time she thought of it but was able to keep it straight.

I haven't read anything else by the author, and I don't plan on starting now. However, as disturbing-memoirs-of-my-fucked-up-childhood-and-recovery go, this is a pleasant one. Winterson has incredible get-up-and-go: her zest for life, her passion and intellect are absolutely non-stop. She's got a real way with words and seems to be quite good at attracting people to herself who are fantastic and wonderful and supportive. But wow was it a fucked-up-childhood, and lots of evidence of multi-generational fucked-uped-ness for both of her adoptive parents and her bio-parents.

Many aspects of her childhood were relentlessly unfamiliar: running out of money and/or food on Thursday, not having meat very often, a coin-op gas meter, an outside loo, being locked in the coal bin for hours or out of the house on the doorstep over night. Most are things familiar to me at the distance of a generation or more (not the coin-op gas meter, and allowing for substitutions like being horsewhipped versus locked in a coal bin), but Winterson seems to be only about 10 years older than me. Adult baptism and mixed feelings about church -- that it supplies something to do and that's kind of a positive, say -- as well as the insanity of people obsessed with End Times, however, were very familiar, as was retreating to the worlds within books and hiding books from a hostile parent.

While the childhood details are quite horrifying, the true terror of this memoir lies exactly where one might expect it: when Winterson attempts to reconnect with her core self in latter years and finds the attempt harrowing and self-destructive. Her descriptions of her rage a separate and monstrous self are evocative and all too believable, however, I could not help but feel that she has not yet connected to the sadness within the anger, and that prevents her from feeling wholeness and belonging. The book ends with her confusion and fear over the anger she expresses to her bio-mother at a third meeting. Well, duh. Winterson is a super smart, really amazing woman; that particular freight train barreling down on her should have been expected and, ideally, an after-care plan should have been in place in advance. But I don't think that's the way she thinks about things, because that smells way too much of relying on the love and support of others and She's Not There Yet.

We had an interesting debate about whether we regarded this book as "hopeful". One person did. One person found Winterson's writing (and probably her person) too chaotic to tolerate. Two of us did not regard this as hopeful at all, altho I could sort of see how that kind of zest for life, that kind of get-up-and-go that Winterson sees embedded in the "hap" of "happiness", could be viewed as "hopeful" -- it strikes me as Sisyphean. This book reminded me slightly of _A Girl Named Zippy_; perhaps someday Winterson will write another memoir that tells us how the next bit went.