Michael Capuzzo tells the harrowing story of the real-life Jaws that helped inspire Peter Benchley's classic novel (and movie). Modern science now tells us that shark attacks are exceedingly rare and limited to just a few species. Yet they do occur, and one of the most terrifying episodes of fatal attacks occurred near the New Jersey shore in 1916, when a renegade great white shark went on a man-eating spree that left three adults and one boy dead. Capuzzo likens the shark's abnormal behavior to that of a person "who goes off the deep end and starts shooting." Whatever its motives, the shark captivated the public's imagination along the Eastern seaboard, devastated the resort economy, and even drew the attention of President Woodrow Wilson.
Close to Shore is a bit slow to get going and could have been a much shorter book. There is a fair amount of stage setting, and the first shark attack doesn't occur until about one-third of the way through the narrative. But Capuzzo does much with limited source material and includes lots of interesting asides on everything from the lore of sea monsters to the bathing-suit fashions of the day to nearly everything science knows about great whites, which, it turns out, is surprisingly little.
Alternating from the victims' perspectives to the shark's, Capuzzo's descriptions of the attacks are a blend of horrors and thrills: "Charles Bruder felt a slight vacuum tug in the motion of the sea, noted it as a passing current, the pull of a wave, the tickle of undertow. He could not have heard the faint, sucking rush of water not far beneath him. He couldn't have seen or heard what was hurtling from the murk at astonishing speed, jaws unhinging, widening, for the enormous first bite. It was the classic attack that no other creature in nature could make--a bomb from the depths." If this book were on any other subject, it would make for good beach reading. --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
Beginning July 1, 1916, a spate of shark attacks off the Jersey shore befuddled maritime experts and terrified the public. In the first incident, an unsuspecting vacationer's thigh was bitten off; he eventually died. Over the next 12 days, three more people were killed and another seriously injured. These two books by New Jersey authors re-create differing theories as to who, and what, was responsible for the carnage, a subject that scientists still debate today. Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Capuzzo (nominated four times for a Pulitzer) unwaveringly adheres to the most popular theory (that a single, juvenile great white shark was responsible for all the carnage), but his book's strength lies in its lively reconstruction of the age and its consciousness, in which a new leisure class was emerging, with many of its members venturing into the ocean for the first time. (He also recounts the shark's movements and supposed feelings from an omniscient, third-person perspective to strained, unintentionally comical and inevitably misleading effect.) The encounters between people and sharks make for some tense and gruesome reading, and the rest of the book is equally page-turning: the zeal to find the "Jersey man-eater," the sensational "feeding frenzy" of the press and the befuddlement of a scientific community, which then devoutly believed that sharks did not bite humans. On that last front, Fernicola, a physician specializing in post-stroke and post-injury recovery, adds to his own investigation of this episode an exhaustive review of shark science today and theories of shark aggression toward humans, including possible environmental factors (heat, changes in human bathing habits, even bathing suit styles), speculations on the perpetrator's exact species, and well-reasoned arguments and conclusions. Fernicola is a recognized authority on the 1916 attacks (his work has provided the basis for Discovery Channel and History Channel documentaries on the subject), but he marshals so much data that his book fails to live up to its lurid title, giving its looming competitor the edge. (May; Capuzzo on-sale: May 8) Forecast: With bathing suit season just around the corner, these books are well timed. Fernicola's, which will be the subject of an upcoming spread in USA Today and is scheduled for coverage on Good Day New York, will provide grist to shark enthusiasts and fans of the Jaws films. Lyons Press has high hopes for its book and has committed to an unprecedented (for this house) 50,000 first printing. Capuzzo will tour six major cities on both coasts, along with stops on Cape Cod and, of course, the Jersey shore. His compulsive potboiler just may be the hot read on the beach this summer.
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