Tag Archive: Bookshelf


Today’s selection:

Shadow Divers

by Robert Kurson

Plot: A group of amateur divers discover the wreck of a WWII German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey, and proceed to ruin (and in some cases, forfeit) their lives attempting to explore and identify it.

Review: Playing the game Endless Ocean, we take a lot of diving experiences for granted: exploring shipwrecks, tickling deep sea monsters, swimming below 500 feet while eating a box of Fiddle Faddle. But in the oceans of the real world, diving is not so convenient. Or safe. It’s often cold, and dark, and filled with very real risks. Even with sharks out of the picture, Davy Jones can find any number of ways to kill you. You can get stuck in a cave or a wreck; you can get lost and run out of air; you can overstay your visit and shoot back to the surface without decompressing, turning your blood to champagne; you can even lose your mind, think you’re a fish, and draw in deep lungfuls of seawater. Scuba Diving: Just Don’t Do It.

This public service announcement has been brought to you by Shadow Divers, the scariest freaking book about diving I’ve ever read.

Shadow Divers—which is nonfictionbegins by introducing a trio of distinctive characters—Vietnam vet John Chatterton, working-class salvage pirate Richie Kohler, and alcoholic treasure seeker Bill Nagel, crazy mothers all—and charting the disperate paths that bring them together and ultimately bind them over the wreck of a mysterious submarine lying under 250 feet of dark, turbulent water off the Jersey Coast. On one of the first dives to explore the wreck, a less experienced diver dies by succumbing  to nitrogen narcosis, a disaster that unfolds with the slow-motion logic of a nightmare.

Although the sub is definitely identified as a German U-boat, none of the wartime records acknowledge sinking one in the area. Which U-boat is it, and what brought it to the bottom of the sea? Because Chatterton and Kohler are not your average weekend wreck raiders, they begin to dig for answers.

The second part of the book resembles a cross between History Detectives and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as Chatterton and Kohler comb archives and interview veterans on both sides of the Atlantic for details that can help identify the wreck they’ve come to call “U-Who,” returning for yet more ill-fated dives while charter captain Nagel slowly drinks himself to death.

The final chapters, which alternate between recounting the last days of the doomed U-boat crew and the divers’ ever more desperate attempts to find something, anything that can identify the wreck, are so suspenseful and harrowing that ultimately, the book is exhausting. I put this down with a sense of relief many weeks ago, and haven’t wanted to revisit it until now. Not light reading, no. But recommended.

Journalist Robert Kurson had a great story on his hands when he began writing Shadow Divers, and he delivers it well with careful documentation and a terse, hard-boiled style. Moreover he produces a complex and unsparing portait of determined, sensitive but flawed men and the mystery that changed, and in some cases, cost them their lives.

Next time you return from grabbing loot from the wreck of  HD-9 in the Zahhab Depths and think that someday you’d like to go treasure diving for real, give Shadow Divers a read—it’s a thorough reality-check.

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I can’t spend all my time in front of the Wii. Sometimes I’m at work or visiting the in-laws, in forced exile from EO. Other times I just need a break. When the jones gets especially bad, I reach to the bookshelf for an old nautically themed paperback, something dog-eared and sandy that will tide me over until the next time I log on. Most of these I’ve read before, some of them not since I was in 7th grade.

Today’s selection:

Dolphin Island

by Arthur C. Clarke

Plot: Young Johnny Clifton escapes his dreary life in the midwest by stowing away on a passing land/sea hovercraft. When the ship wrecks off the Great Barrier Reef, Johnny is rescued by a pod of dolphins, who guide him to the titular island. On shore, he finds a research laboratory headed by a Professor Kazan, who is attempting to learn the language of dolphins. Together with his more experienced pal, Mick Nauru, Johnny has many adventures on the reefs around Dolphin Island until an unstoppable force of nature strikes, providing an action-packed excuse to arbitrarily end the book.

Review: Of course, Arthur C. Clarke is most famous for collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey. In SF circles, he’s celebrated for game-changing novels like Childhood’s EndCity and the StarsRendevous with Rama—great reads all. But in his early years he also wrote his share of young adult fiction, one of which is Dolphin Island

Aside from the hovercraft (I don’t see too many of those passing down the street) this barely rates as science fiction. The ‘futuristic’ technology on display probably won’t blow your mind, and most of the experiments in dolphin communication were old news even in 1963, when this was published. To direct the dolphins Susie and Sputnik, Johnny uses a crude wristwatch gadget I saw once in an old issue of Popular Mechanics in my grandpa’s basement. Things do take a certain fanciful turn when Professor Kazan’s computer interprets the speech of the dolphins, who narrate epic poems about the ages-long war between dolphins and killer whales and a ‘singing’ asteroid that crashed in the Pacific Ocean eons ago.

In its outlook, this is very much a book of its time. The professor is the great white father, the natives are cheerful but none-too-bright, and the marine life exists primarily to serve Bwana and his team of similarly starchy white researchers. Some of the experiments, like a skull-implanted transmitter that conditions orcas to behave against their nature (“Not to eat dolphins, that is the law!”) and a plan to cordon off the world’s oceans, are downright chilling in retrospect. Near the end, when Professor Kazan succumbs to pneumonia, I half expected him to gasp about “The horror! The horror!”, but he’s a hero to Johnny, so he recovers to carry on his mad science.

Where this book really earns its place on the Nineball Island bookshelf is in its accounts of Mick and Johnny’s leisurely exploration of the tidepools and reefs around Dolphin Island. Clarke was an early diving enthusiast, and he falls into an easy rhythm whenever he’s describing the wonders of the ocean. There’s a stunning description of bioluminescent organisms lighting up a waterspout that, like all inconceivable sights, I know I’ll keep in my mind forever.

Dolphin Island isn’t a good introduction to Clarke, but it’s a fine, easy read that will keep your head underwater until you can break out the pulsar and start zapping fish again.