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Review: ‘Trapped Under the Sea’ by Neil Swidey

Review: ‘Trapped Under the Sea’ by Neil Swidey post image

Title: Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness
Author: Neil Swidey
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2014
Publisher: Crown
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: I’m sort of garbage at writing book summaries, so I’m just going to quote part of the back of the book on this one because it’s nice and concise and I’d rather focus on telling you how awesome this book is:

A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. The city had been dumping sewage into it for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of “black mayonnaise.” Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as “beach whistles.”

In the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel—its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the earth’s deepest ocean trench—to carry waste out of the harbor. With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort. Five divers went in; not all of them came out alive.

So… this book is great. Read it. The end.

Ok, just kidding, not the end. I know that I need to say more than that to persuade you that a book about the administrative and political failures behind a major infrastructure project is a great read.

Journalist Neil Swidey really nails this book by focusing almost entirely on the people who were most affected by the big picture failures of this project, the five commercial divers who were tasked with going into the tunnel late in the project to solve a problem that was only a problem because the bigwigs involved couldn’t come up with a more sensible compromise.

These men — DJ Gillis, Dave Riggs, Billy Juse, Tim Nordeen, and Donald Hosford– were used to danger and getting the job done in the most inhospitable conditions. But they were asked to work in a place with equipment that on investigator later described as “an eighth-grade science fair project gone horribly wrong.” Swidey anchors the book in their stories, which kept me turning the pages.

Part of what I loved and appreciated about the book is the way it made me, as a reader, think more carefully about the workers who make major projects happen. It’s easy to get focused on the politicians and engineers and managers who imagine, design and oversee projects… but the real work is done by people who, largely, aren’t given a voice. Swidey gives a voice to those workers and shines a light on the way managerial decisions affect safety and morale.

The book is incredibly detailed, but I appreciated all of the information. There are a lot of moving parts to these projects and this story, and Swidey doesn’t skip or skim over any of them. He brings a lot of character and personality to the five divers as well as the other major players of the book. I thought it was a really terrific read.

Special Giveaway!

I don’t normally do giveaways, but I enjoyed this book so much that I was excited when the publisher, Crown, offered one copy to giveaway to a reader. To enter the giveaway (open to U.S. residents only — sorry!), please fill out this form. The giveaway will be open until 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Holly @ GunInActOne February 19, 2014, 9:03 am

    I don’t think I would have picked that one up, but your review definitely intrigues me!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) February 19, 2014, 10:00 am

    That sounds like my worst nightmare! I would probably feel claustrophobic if I read the book but I’d like to read it anyway.

    • Kim February 20, 2014, 8:22 pm

      The parts in the tunnel are definitely hard to read… super scary!

  • Trisha February 19, 2014, 7:08 pm

    Books like this are both remarkably intriguing to me because of the topic and frustrating to read because of the people.

  • Susan February 19, 2014, 10:20 pm

    I came across this book on Amazon, and thought it sounded interesting, so I’m glad to see your review of it up here. Very good review. I am reading a fair bit of nonfiction right now, true life stories mostly (about mountaineering presently), so this one fits right in. I’ll look out for it when I’m out next. Thanks!

  • susan February 20, 2014, 9:28 pm

    I hadn’t heard of this book. Sounds interesting. thanks. I don’t recall about the five divers. Hmm. Quite an experience

  • Meg February 21, 2014, 12:30 pm

    So glad I accepted a review copy of this one now . . . it was outside my normal genre, but I figured that would be a good thing. And your review has me super pumped to check it out! Given I knew nothing about the harbor or its clean-up, I figured it would be interesting to learn something new. So glad you enjoyed it!

    • Kim February 23, 2014, 7:42 pm

      I really hope you like it! It’s a very readable book, which I think helps when you don’t read a lot of nonfiction.

  • Kailana February 21, 2014, 2:59 pm

    Sounds worth checking out!!

  • Sheila (Book JOurney) February 22, 2014, 9:53 am

    Wow you have introduced me to some pretty amazing books through the years!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey February 23, 2014, 9:33 pm

    Oops, sad to have just mixed the giveaway because this appeals to me for a lot of reasons! It sounds like a fun non-fiction adventure story and reminds me of Zusack’s book in that way. But it also sounds like it gives you an interesting perspective on a career I don’t know anything about, which is something that I’ve enjoyed about many other non-fiction books (Dead Center comes to mind). Definitely putting this on my TBR list 🙂 Thanks for the great review!