Do yourself a favor: Don't take this deadly school of books to the beach. I did, and it was a mistake. Every sprig of passing seaweed was a reef shark. A floating chunk of Styrofoam was the belly of a great white.
Michael Capuzzo's Close to Shore details the attacks that took place on the swank New Jersey shore in 1916. While men practiced the new art of plein-air painting and women sunned themselves in full-length dresses, a shark tasted the lower extremities of Charles Vansant as he swam in only 3-1/2 feet of water.
This attack, like the others that followed, stunned citizens and whipped the East Coast into its first shark frenzy, with wild headlines and mass speculation. The Philadelphia Eagle crowed: "Skippers say sea is alive with sharks." The nation's most distinguished ichthyologist, however, said a killer whale had done the deed.
An equally ghastly and unexpected attack happened to young Lester Stillwell just 11 days later as he floated in the brown soup of Matawan Creek, a sluggish river near Staten Island. Richard Fernicola, the author of Twelve Days of Terror, in which the attack is recounted, says most of the town flocked to the river to take in the spectacle.
That night, no less than 15 nets lined Matawan Creek's passages. Men, hungry for the $100 reward the mayor offered to anyone who killed the shark, hung legs of lamb and slabs of beef over bridges. Underwater blasts of dynamite rocked the river in hopes of flushing the beast from hiding. A member of the US House of Representatives speculated that steamship companies, restricted by the wartime situation, had been dumping horse and cattle carcasses overboard.
Both books are immersed in the details of these attacks, but they also move to the shore to reconstruct the culture of fear that swelled up in pre-war America. A number of outrageous characters played on this anxiety, and sharks have paid the price ever since.
Shark Attacks, by Thomas Allen, chronicles many attacks that have happened around the world. It also explores theories of how and why the animals attack, and puts into perspective the relative rareness of such tragedies. Sometimes sharks strike out of curiosity. Other times they're protecting territory. Often, an attack is a case of mistaken identity - the shark thinks a surfer is a seal. According to one study, in nearly 70 percent of Australian attacks, the sharks did not return after their first bite.
These books, filled with gory details and exhaustive information, are definitely not for the timid. But for those who want definitive accounts, sink your teeth into these three - in the safety of your backyard hammock.
Lane Hartill is on the Monitor staff.
Close to Shore
By Michael Capuzzo Broadway 317 pp., $24.95
Twelve Days of Terror
By Richard Fernicola The Lyons Press 330 pp., $27.95
By Thomas Allen The Lyons Press 293 pp., $24.95
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor