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Customer Review

19 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dyspepsia at Sea, May 20, 2014
This review is from: Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush (Hardcover)
You've probably seen a documentary or two about life aboard an aircraft carrier. Or read articles about how these giant craft function like small cities at sea. This book isn't like those documentaries or articles.

You'll still learn a lot about life aboard a carrier, but Geoff Dyer isn't your average journalist or documentary maker. Although he has some background in reporting, he is better known as a novelist and essayist. And unlike most documentary makers and reporters, (Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore are exceptions) he doesn't fade into the background. Dyer is front and center, moaning about the food, discreetly admiring the physically fit sailors of both sexes, and letting his mind wander as interviewees earnestly answer his questions.

At first I had some doubts about how this would work out as a book, but I was surprised to find that this anti-journalistic method worked pretty well. Aside from Dyer's over-sharing regarding his digestive issues, I learned a lot about the carrier and its crew. Although Dyer's poor memory, poor note-taking, and indifferent attitude toward details like names and ranks leave you with less detail than you might expect, he still manages to give a pretty full picture of what the crew does, how they interact, and what they think about it all.

Dyer's two weeks aboard the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf were courtesy of a Writer-in-Residence program, and goodness knows what they were thinking in assigning a British writer in his fifties with no military experience to an American carrier in a war zone. Brilliant!
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 20, 2014 11:04:29 AM PDT
John Joss says:
This book was excerpted in the New Yorker a month ago and the story was so replete with errors and failures to grasp the realities of carrier work and carrier aviation that I was aghast. Two examples will suffice: the aircraft he called an "F-18" is actually an F/A-18, denoting its dual purpose as a fighter (F) and as an attack aircraft (A). This is no trivial, nitpicking distinction but represents a multi-billion-dollar decision by the US Navy to address a serious issue. Then there is the matter of safe 'traps' (landing aircraft are 'trapped' on the deck by the tailhook catching one of the wires stretched across the flight deck for this purpose). It is made possible, in safety, by a series of critical inventions: the Fresnel mirror landing aid that enables the pilot to see his orientation vs. the deck, the presence of the LSO (Landing Signal Office) who advises the pilot as he approaches and the AOA (Angle of Attack) indicator seen by the pilot and by the LSO that ensures a safe approach speed. The steam catapult, angled flight deck and mirror landing aid were invented by the Royal Navy in the 1950s and adopted by other nations (the first US Navy carrier to use these features was the Antietam).
This reviewer questioned why they would have such a writer undertake the task and notes his many professional failings as a competent journalist. Good question. Dyer has the reputation (earned or not) and got the gig, plus a book contract and New Yorker material. What a pity he didn't have the skills.

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2014 11:51:53 AM PDT
You bring up good points. I noticed Dyer's ignorance of U.S. military conventions, ranks, etc, some of which were due to his not being American, some due to having no military experience at all. As I noted, at first these things put me off, and there's no doubt that the important omissions and inaccuracies you mention are important.

But I still found that Dyer's reporting was informative in a way that I rarely see in reports on the military. He wasn't unquestioningly admiring of those in uniform, like so many reporters are. He was skeptical, without being insulting or sarcastic. He noted, for instance, that most people in the military are there, not because they are gung ho, but because the military was the best option available at that time in their lives. That rang true to me, since that was my own experience many years ago, and that of nearly everyone else I knew who ever joined.

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2014 11:57:22 AM PDT
John Joss says:
Many thanks for your thoughtful observations. I am myself British (though living in the US), trained as a pilot in the Royal Navy, and have spent time with various US military branches as a journalist and book writer. The military life is demanding, not only of the warriors but of their families, and I have met many outstanding individuals in many activites around the world who do a difficult job with high levels of integrity and commitment. They worry, justfiably, about the quality of reporting on what they do because the public assessment of the military has been, uh, dubious in the past (note, specifically, the public attitude to the military during the Vietnam era).
I hope others will comment and much appreciate your civilized discussion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2014 10:08:57 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 29, 2014 10:34:55 AM PDT
Andre 2015 says:
On the spot, John! Great "review"!

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2014 10:55:58 AM PDT
John Joss says:
I wrote to the New Yorker after they published the edited excerpt and noted a few of the technical errors and discrepancies. As a professional writer (books, magazine and newspaper articles, many corporate projects) I value background research to 'position' me vs. a subject but from what I read in the New Yorker Dyer did little or no research. Sending such a writer, despite his 'reputation,' baffles me. It would be a little like sending a Martian to discuss the automobile if the Martian had never visited Earth. This is particularly egregious because there is a wealth of background data on every aspect of carrier aviation available at the click of a finger, not to mention some excellent documentaries and videos that would provide thorough background research, but this was apparently beyond the skills level and professional commitment of Mr. Dyer. But he is only one of many 'popular' writers who have gained a reputation, deserved or not, and acquired the approval of editors. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.

In reply to an earlier post on May 23, 2014 11:09:07 AM PDT
Andre 2015 says:
Someone probably thought Dyer would sell more mags... Maybe they should have sent Lady Gaga... might have sold even more ...

Posted on Jul 13, 2014 2:53:28 PM PDT
I think the movies call it "casting against type," putting an actor in a role different from the character they usually play. So I can understand putting an older, not American, not military writer on a US Navy carrier in hopes of getting a fresh perspective. But Dyer just goofed off and phoned it in. The insights he uncovers are almost by accident (see my review)
I didn't expect a respectful documentary on the US Navy, but another 100 pages or so of some details about how the ship works (with some casual attempts to discover why) would have justified the price of the book and shown some respect for the organization that gave him the grant for the project.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 13, 2014 3:04:28 PM PDT
John Joss says:
These are vital points. There is such an immense body of research available about carrier ops, in virtually every medium, and Dyer got so much wrong and missed so much. As it is, with his failure to present an outside or contrarian view in any lucid way, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
This is yet another example of a 'name' being heard regardless of genuine value and skill (e.g. the material published in the New Yorker, which has stated in the past that it never accepts material offered to it: they must ask).
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