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Sussan Casey
The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2010

Doubleday / Random House
USA Trade Hardcover, First Edition
ISBN 978-0-767-92884-7
Publication Date: 09-14-2010
352 pages, $ 27.95
Date Reviewed: 09-25-2010

Index:  Non-Fiction

The ocean is our most intimate, immediate, physical contact with the infinite. Standing on any shoreline where the ocean extends to the horizon, we can see and feel the immense power, the unknowability of what lies before us, and by extension anything.

Yet there's a feeling that we do knows the ocean, that it is of our planet, that science and culture have long captured everything about the waters that surround us. Susan Casey's new book 'The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean' is the perfect way to connect, as a reader, with the beauty and danger of our infinitely unpredictable planet. Casey writes gripping prose, finds a cast of engaging characters, and paces her book with exciting scenes that will literally immerse readers in a world few ever suspected might exist.

'The Wave' begins in the middle of a storm in the North Sea, in February of 2000 when the RRS Discovery, en route from England to Iceland to measure sample ocean water and test for changes in salinity, oxygen and other factors, found itself being slammed by waves that some thought could not exist. Months later, the data they collected while their computers and crew were being tossed around showed that they had encountered the largest waves ever measured by science. Waves this large had long been dismissed as exaggerations and legends. But the ocean clearly had surprises in store for us.

Casey's book then takes the reader to Hawaii, where tow surfers ride the biggest waves they can find. We meet Laird Hamilton, one of the inventors of tow surfing, and one of the most enjoyable characters to walk out of life and into the pages of a book. You've probably seen his photo if you've ever glanced at a surfing magazine to check out a photo of a surfer flying across the face of an enormous breaker. You'll get to know him and the sport of surfing a lot better in this book. His story is, like much of the book, quite amazing.

'The Wave' is an utterly and constantly enjoyable work of non-fiction. Casey's prose is peerless. She knows when to turn on the poetry and when to dial back and document the astonishing sights she travels around the world to see. The book is excellently paced, with cliffhanger chapters that alternate between her examination of the tow surf culture and her look at the science and business of big waves.

Casey is an interesting writer, and she manages to make whatever she is looking at as fascinating to the reader as it is to her. She digs deep into surf culture and examines the society and personalities that drive it. She's not enamored or everything she sees and everyone she meets. This becomes quite clear when she attends a glitzy awards show in Anaheim. But even there, she finds the kind of grounded passion that makes her whole enterprise so captivating.

'The Wave' is not simply about surfing giant breakers, however. The primary focus is the existence of what are called rogue waves, huge giants that come out of nowhere and capsize ships. For this part of the investigation, Casey talks to scientists and manages to get enough science in to make the book informative, but not so much as to slow down her considerable momentum. But she goes farther as well, talking to the folks at Lloyd's of London, the weather forecasters and even salvagers. Everywhere she goes the reader will be riveted. Casey writes great descriptions of the jagged landscapes and oceanscapes she visits and populates them with people you'll enjoy knowing.

The unknowability, the unpredictability of the ocean and indeed the elements of our planet informs every part of this book, including a backbeat of impending drastic climate change. Here, Casey really shows her skills by getting the reader to see as the scientists see; that is, with uncertainty. We are truly confronted here with a simple planet that is, in the final analysis, infinitely unpredictable, just as are the personalities who inhabit it. 'The Wave' hints at the profound changes to come, but lets the reader surf the giants, live in the now, in the overwhelming nature of nature.

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