Review: Beneath The Surface By Stanley Yokell

This book full of fictional diving incidents kicks off with two accomplished scuba diving friends, Joe and Thura, in the popular scuba resort in Cuba, where they are intrigued by their encounter with some playful mermaids – so why is their guide so concerned about the sighting?

In this globe-trotting collection of short stories we follow a group of young people as they try out scuba diving spots in just about every continent, and the friendships and romances they develop on the way.

Yokell’s style reminds me of a simplified Michel Tournier with his literary descriptions of people’s lives and characters, leading to a simple encounter beneath the surface. This is certainly the case with the second tale of the book; a racist husband, overbearing and inadequate, tries to intimidate his wife with an abusive marriage until a life-changing dive sets her free.

There are issues: The Spanish language used for color in the first story is plain wrong (I’m more or less fluent) – “este ayer” translates as “this yesterday” – I think it should be “está allí” – “it’s over there”, “mucho gracias” instead of  “muchas gracias” and “cervasa” instead of ” cervesa”, all from characters that are supposed to be fluent or native in Spanish. I would have expected the author to have this proof read before publication – this breaks the illusion of reality in the story.

Also I do find some of the author’s sentiments a little old-fashioned in the telling – given he’s writing about women and their inner worlds and sexuality, it would be prudent to have maybe lost some of the male perspective in the writing of these characters’ secret thoughts – that is, his female characters tend to come across as women written by a man with an opinion of how a woman thinks rather than genuinely as individual voices. I’m also not keen on the idea that a lesbian would “try on a man for size” but still, maybe it’s what a male scuba diving audience would enjoy. My same bugbear sits with the male characters, who tend to be over-achievers – good-looking, fit and sporty, multilingual and super-academic as well as perfect divers – while his females tend to have quite a lot of weak spots, despite their obvious education and skill.

However, I let the author’s voice in, instead of fighting it, and he became a kind of narrator instead of an invisible author in the story, and this softened the macho effect somewhat and allowed me to enjoy the book more.

There are some great anecdotes, in particular about a mutiny on board a dive ship, and also some real detail in the descriptions of Israel and Jericho – and this is where the author shines. He hits the subject he is very knowledgeable on, and rolls with it. Often the techniques of diving are described in comprehensive terms for a layman such as myself to enjoy also. I may have liked more detail on the actual sea and what they saw on the dive, and perhaps a bit more about the creatures they see – I’d like to know something of the anatomy or look of the creatures he mentions.

The stories are short and fast, so easy to read on holiday or when traveling, and I would recommend this book as a treasured addition to the vacationer’s suitcase, especially for those planning on a dabble with going beneath the surface.

Barnes & Noble

  • Stanley Yokell, Author

    As the son and son-in-law of strong women, who were early feminists and the husband and father of two equally strong feminist women, I am puzzled by the reviewer’s comment that I portray women as weak and with inferior accomplishments to the men in my book. It is not surprising that a male author could not really get into the minds of his female characters.

    With respect to the Lesbian character’s “. . .trying on a man for size” it came from personal experience with a lesbian friend who, after a enjoying a long-term lesbian relationship, decided to do so. She concluded that bisexuality was a more interesting and satisfactory life style. This may be upsetting to lesbian readers. But bisexuality and experimentation are part of the human experience.

    I am currently working on corrections to the misused Spanish language – my Spanish came from the streets – and another correction to the back cover and will work with Outskirts Press to make the corrections and reissue the book before I offer any copies for sale.

    Background for the book was my nearly 1,000 Scuba dives in all of the places described in the book, in cold Atlantic and Pacific waters and warm ones elsewhere, with dive buddies and alone, daytime and nights and as deep as 225-feet. A previous book, “An Old Timer’s Scuba Tales” published by Amazon.com is an illustrated recounting of many of these dives.

    I truly appreciate Ms. Baum’s thoughtful review and hope it inspires her and others to go Beneath the Surface.