Before this becomes all Stephen King, all the time, I thought I'd do some quick write-ups of nonfiction I read a while back. All of these are survival stories of plane crashes. I am putting them in order of quality, from best to worst.

Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. A meticulously researched and very readable account of the plane crash in a corn field fictionalized in Peter Weir's haunting movie Fearless. Gonzales (author of the fantastic Deep Survival) tells a gripping story of tragedy and heroism, of chance and courage and survival. I ended up skipping the chapter which gets into overly technical details of the exact cause of the mechanical failure that caused the crash, but otherwise it's a very well-done book about a tragedy that could have been so much worse.

About a third of the passengers died; if not for the quick thinking of the pilots (including one flying as a passenger who got recruited to help out), probably everyone would have; if not for their decision to try to land in a cornfield at great risk to their lives, probably people would have been killed on the ground. There are also a number of individual rescues, plus a fascinating account of the emergency response on the ground.

The book has a haunting quality, not just because of the deaths but because of the strangeness of the incident; many passengers found themselves lost in a cornfield, with the plane invisible, as if they'd been transported to another world. And like all large-scale incidents, some questions will never be answered. One man remembers a woman with perfect clarity, but no woman matching that description was on the flight. This is the crash where a man climbed back into the burning, smoke-filled plane to save a baby, whom he miraculously found unhurt in a luggage compartment. I knew that part, but there's a heartbreaking sequel that I didn't know: the baby girl committed suicide at the age of fifteen. No one knows why, or if the crash had anything to do with it.

Highly recommended, if you like that kind of thing and you're not feeling emotionally fragile.

81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness, by Brian Murphy is the story of Leon Crane, a WWII test pilot who was the sole survivor of a crash in Alaska, and made his way back to safety in 81 days despite virtually no supplies or wilderness training, through a combination of grit, intelligence, and some incredibly good luck involving where he crashed - even ten miles in any other direction might have led him to miss something without which he would have been very unlikely to survive.

This is biography, not memoir, and is somewhat hampered by Crane's reluctance to talk about what happened, apparently not due to trauma but to a combination of natural reticence, humility, and the sense that it was a profound experience which could not be put into words, or which words might spoil. So a lot of the story is reconstructed from second-hand accounts, yet gets into enough detail of what Crane might have been thinking and so forth that I would consider it creative nonfiction rather than strict nonfiction, as the next two books are.

If you like survival stories, you will like this. Despite some hiccups, it's generally well-written, clear, vivid, and engrossing. I would say it's good but not great.

My trade paperback omits dialogue marks apparently at random for the first few chapters; I assume this is an error, because if it's a writing choice it's inexplicable and distracting. Hopefully it is an error and your version will not have it.

Nine Minutes, Twenty Seconds: The Tragedy & Triumph of ASA Flight 529, by Gary M. Pomerantz. This is similar to Gonzales' book, but tells the story of a different crash. It's good but not as good; it also has a lot of descriptions of horrific, month-long deaths by burns that I found hard to read. It's also haunting in other ways: the stewardess who saved many people's lives got PTSD and never really recovered; she had to stop flying, and while she finally did get on a plane many years later, as a passenger, she never managed to appreciate the lives she saved, but only blamed herself for the people she couldn't save.

As you can tell, I am fascinated by plane crashes. They seem to cause more and more severe PTSD in survivors than other types of accidents, perhaps because everyone but the pilots feel out of control and because survival is primarily about where you were sitting, not what you did. People don't seem to do well with terrible incidents that rub in how much chance is a factor. The freakish, unusual nature also seems to not help. (PTSD from car crashes occurs, but not that frequently. I think it's because drivers have some sense of control, and car crashes are relatively normal and common, unlike plane crashes.)

The Light of the Moon: Life, Death and the Birth of Advanced Trauma Life Support. A memoir by a man whose father, a doctor, crashed his small plane in a rural area at night with his entire family in it. His wife was killed, but his children survived with severe injuries. He was not happy with their treatment at the hospital they were initially transported to, and discovered that there were no nationwide guidelines for treating mass trauma victims. So he created and implemented them, nationwide, no doubt saving thousands and thousands of lives.

The author was a boy and unconscious after the crash, so he apparently interviewed his father to get an account of it. That part is very good. The rest of the book… Well, he's clearly not a pro author. There's endless accounts of the search for the plane which are sometimes interesting and sometimes incredibly tedious. His account of his own research as an adult into what happened is generally awful - he literally has pages and pages detailing how he googled stuff.

The parts I was really curious about - his and his family's recovery, and how his father managed to implement medical protocols nationwide - are mainly skipped over. He says that his nine-year-old brother lost ALL his memory of everything that happened before the crash. If he means his entire life, WOW do I want to hear about that and how he coped - he would have never remembered his mother, for instance. But since the author says nothing more about it, I assume it was a poorly worded sentence and he means that his brother had some degree of anteretrograde amnesia - maybe days, maybe even months - but not his whole life.

Interesting story, not told too well. Bad or flawed memoirs typically have this issue of too much filler and a failure to distinguish between what the author and reader is interested in.
So, I basically didn't read anything for the last six months due to being unable to do anything but what seemed absolutely essential in that time. This eventually came down to two things: 1) not dying, 2) not losing my internship. There were also a couple things that for whatever reason were more do-able, which were reading and responding to email (in 15-minute chunks, with hours or sometimes days or even weeks in between), watching TV (ditto), reading anything other than email (ditto), writing fiction (ditto) and… nope, that was about it.

However, before this I was reading normally, and so acquired a backlog of books I would have written up had I been capable of doing such things. Is anyone interested in probably-brief reviews, or rather impressions, of books that I may not recall accurately, given the circumstances? (You are of course more than welcome to comment with factual corrections.)

Poll #17235 Brief and possibly inaccurate review poll
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 91

Would you like to see me review...

View Answers

Frances Hardinge's "Cuckoo Song" (probably my favorite YA of the year)
50 (54.9%)

Handcuffed to the Bear, by Lauren Esker (Sholio), a charming paranormal adventure with romance
28 (30.8%)

The Space Queen books by Isla Sinclair, filthybadwrong noncon femdom porn with a Space Queen and a square-jawed hero straight out of the pulps, very very hot if you like that kind of thing
35 (38.5%)

Every Patient Tells a Story, by Lisa Sanders, inspiration for Dr. House. Not actually what it says on the tin.
24 (26.4%)

Nor Iron Bars a Cage, by Kaje Harper. Sweet fantasy MM h/c romance with an actual plot
26 (28.6%)

TS Joyce's "hillbilly bears" paranormal romance series. Believe it or not, these were actually my favorite PNR discovery of the year.
28 (30.8%)

Golden Witchbreed, by Mary Gentle (worldbuilding anthropological sf; re-read)
34 (37.4%)

Stephen King, The Long Walk. Flawed but vivid early book.
18 (19.8%)

Barbara Hambly's later James Asher vampire novels (repetitive plots, excellent atmosphere and characters)
26 (28.6%)

Amends, by Eve Tushnet. I beta'd this. Satirical literary novel about a rehab reality show but actually about larger social and psychological issues; really excellent prose.
21 (23.1%)

No Dreams Allowed, by Sonora Sheldon. Unusual take on the billionaire romance genre, very nice voice.
12 (13.2%)

Dragon menage romances by Terry Bolryder. Exactly what it says on the tin.
15 (16.5%)

Fool's Assassin, by Robin Hobb. I don't even know what to think about these books, they are SO WEIRD and just keep getting weirder.
35 (38.5%)

Penric's Demon, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Slight but charming novella in the Chalion world.
26 (28.6%)

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton. I REALLY wish I had written this up earlier, because it was extremely worth detailed discussion
31 (34.1%)

The Last Dive, by Bernie Chowdhury. Diving and disasters.
10 (11.0%)

Nine Minutes, Twelve Seconds. Detailed account of a plane crash.
12 (13.2%)

Flight 232. Another detailed account of a plane crash.
9 (9.9%)

The Light of the Moon, by Randy Styner. Ditto
5 (5.5%)

Rocannon's World, by Ursula Le Guin. Re-read
40 (44.0%)

I recently read Ben Sherwood’s The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. It wasn’t terrible, and the style is lively, but I can’t recommend it; it’s a significantly less-good variation on what I think is the gold standard for books exploring how and why people live and die in extreme circumstances, Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. (Avoid Gonzales’ Everyday Survival. It’s terrible.)

The Survivor’s Club starts off well, then devolves into a mess of dubious studies, shallow analysis, and lengthy claims that since most people who survive extreme danger felt that faith in God got them through, then you need to have faith in God to survive. Most people believe in God, and many believers feel that faith gets them through hard times in general. Of course most survivors applied the tools they already had. But to say those tools should be acquired or would be useful to people using different tools is ludicrous. By that reasoning, most people have two ears, so most of his survivors have two ears, so you need two ears to survive a shipwreck. Faith undoubtedly does help believers survive, but that doesn’t mean that non-believers would do better if they had faith. It means that non-believers use different tools.

That’s the example that annoyed me the most, but as I read, I frequently found myself muttering, “Was this study ever replicated?” and “Correlation is not causation!” and “If this study was disproved, why did you devote so much time to it?”

But it did make me notice that there are a couple of aspects to survival that none of the books on it I’ve read have addressed, or addressed in detail. Probably because those aspects are insufficiently macho.

But first, let me explain what I mean by “survival.” I don’t mean to guilt people who die. We all die. And I especially don’t mean to guilt people who lived through traumatic, dangerous, or horrendous times, but feel that they weren’t tough enough, brave enough, enough of a survivor – that emotional survival means coming through stronger than ever, undamaged, or bent but not broken.

First of all, survival is literal. You walk away from a flaming car crash, you survived, whether or not your actions made that possible. Secondly, survival is emotional. By that I do mean living through awful things, and eventually coming to a place where you’re glad you’re alive. But there’s no deadline for either of those. As long as you literally survive, you have time to emotionally survive.

Since I made it through a horrendous childhood, twenty years of major depression and PTSD, two flaming car wrecks, one non-flaming car wreck followed by four years of physical therapy, and a number of encounters with people who were physically menacing me, I think I’m well-qualified to discuss my own survival.

My tips may not work for you, since you are not me. But I offer them on the theory that at least some will be relevant for some people.

Failure IS an option

There is a very unrealistic belief that if you completely fall apart emotionally and become a sobbing wreck, you have failed to survive and will forever stay in that state. This is not true at all.

The single most helpful belief you can have is not “I can get through anything in one piece,” but rather, “If I do fall apart, I can put myself back together again.” You don’t have to be unbreakable, or believe that you are. You just have to believe that whatever happens, as long as you still live, you can eventually recover from it.

It’s also helpful, if this isn’t too recursive, to believe that this is possible even if you don’t, at that moment, believe that it’s possible. This is particularly relevant if the thing you’re trying to survive is mental illness.

Fear is not the enemy

I’m not just talking about The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence here, though that’s true too. I mean that trying not to be afraid is a waste of time and energy. Fear is information. It may be information about the outside world, in which case it’s worth paying attention to. It may be the information that your brain is sending you inappropriate signals of anxiety or panic. It’s important to register the fear, analyze which it is, and then proceed appropriately. Just being able to say to yourself, “I know that I’m afraid, but I’m going to do this anyway” is often sufficient to force yourself into action.

Fears that you should pay special attention to: admitting or acknowledging that something is wrong, making a fuss about something everyone else is ignoring, overreacting/being hysterical in public, and being mean/acting crazy.

If you feel yourself having those fears, consider that they may be signals that something is very, very wrong, that everyone else is in denial, and/or that the person you feel guilty or stupid for being scared of is genuinely menacing you.

You don’t have to react instantly

There are very few situations in which freezing momentarily will get you killed. (And if you do get into one of them, it’s very likely so extreme that you wouldn’t have made it out anyway.) If you’re aware in advance that freezing is a natural human instinct, you will hopefully notice when you’re frozen. You can then take a moment to take stock of the situation and decide upon a plan of action. (A very, very simple one!) If you can do that, by the time you’ve decided, you should be able to move.

Also, time feels like it’s moving slowly in an emergency. Don’t panic because it feels like you were frozen for hours. It’s probably only been a few seconds.

You don't have to be a Navy SEAL

If you're an ordinary person, and you encounter a situation in which you would need special training or great strength to survive, honestly, it's probably bad enough that whether you survive or not is purely up to luck anyway. The strongest guy in the world can still get squashed by a cement truck.

But for the situations ordinary people are likely to encounter, you need the qualities you already have or can acquire if you decide to work on getting them. Everyone has some degree of endurance, courage, intelligence, and common sense. And everyone can acquire the ability to cut through denial that something is wrong, the willingness to look foolish in public, and the belief that recovery is possible.
Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales.

A fascinating analysis of how people survive accidents, disasters, or other extreme circumstances, complete with gripping accounts of people who survived shipwrecks, getting lost in the wilderness, or (in one case) falling out of an exploded plane and waking up still strapped into your seat, in the middle of a rainforest, with a broken collarbone and possessing nothing but the Communion dress you're wearing. The book has clear and logical explanations of the biological, biochemical, psychological, and sociological processes involved in getting lost, feeling fear, doing stupid things, getting into dangerous situations, and surviving them. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys well-written and (I think) accurate popular science books or survival stories. I think [ profile] yhlee, [ profile] tweedkitten, and [ profile] branna would particularly enjoy it.

Trauma Junkie: Memoirs of an Emergency Flight Nurse, by Janice Hudson.

The title pretty much says it all. If this sounds like something you'd enjoy, you will, and if it doesn't, you won't. I love true medical stories, so I liked this, but it's not well-written enough to lift it above that category and become recommendable to anyone, as James Herriott's books, say, are terrific whether you care about veterinary medicine or not.

The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain's Journey, by Linda Greenlaw.

Memoir of the world's only female swordboat captain, this has the exact same problem as the Hudson book: it's fascinating if you're already interested in the subject matter, but less so if you're not. I am not especially interested in boats, fishing, or the ocean, so although this was reasonably well-written I didn't find it gripping and ended up skimming much of it. In contrast, I was positively glued to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm-- in which Greenlaw makes a cameo appearance.

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, by Jennifer Traig

A childhood memoir about the young Traig's experience with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder which took the form of compulsive and excessive religiousity. Although Traig's family was not only not observant but loved bacon, poor Traig's OCD latched on to Judaic law as the central ordering principle of her life-- and the more obscure and weird the law, the better. Her family was extremely supportive and understanding despite her bizarre behavior, and had a good sense of humor about it, so this memoir is surprisingly positive in tone. In fact, it's one of the most family-friendly memoirs I can recall reading.

The trouble is that there isn't enough material to support an entire book. So while the first few chapters are lively, thought-provoking, and funny, by the halfway mark Traig is clearly padding with long accounts of her family background and peccadillos that have little or nothing to do with her OCD, and are only mildly amusing in and of themselves. This would have made a terrific long feature article, but ultimately there's not enough there there.


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