Book Review: 'The Survivors Club' by Ben Sherwood

By Dan Zak,
a writer for The Post's Style section.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

THE SURVIVORS CLUB

The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life

By Ben Sherwood

Grand Central. 383 pp. $25.99

Please do not review the aircraft's safety features in the seat-back pamphlet in front of you, and instead continue to read your Dan Brown. Do not heed the flight attendants' Kabuki of precautions, and instead pop a Xanax. And do not expect to survive should something go wrong. Even if you've flown a million times, you are neither prepared nor alert enough. In the unlikely event of an unanticipated loss of cabin pressure or a water landing, you will be the first to panic and make bad decisions. And then . . . Crash. Boom. You're dead.

"The Survivors Club" reminds its reader to approach each day with a healthy dose of paranoia. Death is just around the corner, courtesy of the cement truck, the coked-out maniac with a knife, or the gaggle of geese that gets sucked into your plane's engines over the Bronx. The book has an ingenious built-in marketing hook: Read this if you want to live! Join the Survivors Club, why don't you? We're hanging by a thread, as Ben Sherwood repeats throughout his pseudo-self-help book, but there are ways we can tighten our grip on that thread. Such as by honing a healthy will to live. Or being mindful. Or crossing our fingers. Or praying.

Blah blah blah. These conclusions hardly warrant a 383-page treatment, even from a novelist/journalist who subjected himself to military survival training for the book. Tucked between these obvious feel-good tenets, however, are more compelling tips.

1. Always nab a seat within five rows of an exit, preferably behind the wing, and keep in mind that you'll have 90 seconds to evacuate before a crashed plane becomes inescapable.

2. When you break through ice on a frozen lake, you have 60 seconds to thwart hyperventilation, 10 minutes of muscles sufficiently limber to paddle you to safety and 60 minutes before you lose consciousness.

3. Avoid getting stabbed, shot, or smashed into a brick wall. In terms of survivability, if you have to choose among the three, go for the knife first, then the gun, then the brick wall. Just FYI.

"The Survivors Club" is not for those who feel faint at the mention of blood. Beyond Sherwood's tips -- the only practical ones have already been mentioned in this review -- is an impressive parade of survivor anecdotes. The book is essentially about bearing witness to survival. It is suitably graphic.

There's the woman who got a knitting needle through the heart, the man who escaped a capsizing freighter in stormy seas, the woman flayed within a millimeter of her life by a mountain lion and, most miraculously, the man trapped in the fiery impact zone of the North Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They all made it out alive despite microscopic odds. How? Sherwood interviews dozens of survivors -- often relating their stories with nauseating drama -- but one wonders if a survival thesis can be drawn from both the man who drunkenly tumbled over the side of his cruise ship and the woman who withstood the torture chamber of the Holocaust. Yes, they survived, but such disparate, disorganized examples make "The Survivors Club" more of a pulse-pounding scrapbook than an enlightening how-to manual or definitive dissertation.

Sherwood pads the rest of the book with platitudes and statistics. He chews over some provocative topics (the existence of an alleged "survivor gene," the quantifiable power of prayer) but does not spit out a provocative, cohesive conclusion other than: be prepared because bad things are going to happen. It's good advice -- the survivors of the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River last week escaped the sinking cabin by acting quickly, deliberately and calmly -- but hardly revelatory.

As a consolation prize, the end of the book instructs you to get a Survivor IQ by visiting www.thesurvivorsclub.com. There you take a personality test. Your answers are sent to a "cluster of computers" at a "highly secure data center in Boca Raton" (a gated fortress of survivors if ever there was one). Then Boca Raton categorizes you into a specific type of survivor, and Sherwood spends the final 30 pages of the book defining Survivor Types and their corresponding traits.

My IQ? I am a "realist" with psychological strengths of "ingenuity," "adaptability" and "flow."

As a realist, I can't see how reading "The Survivors Club" will give me an edge when adversity strikes. Most things are out of our control, and there's no way we can really change how we deal with a crisis. We just have to hope for the best. Hone a healthy will to live. Be mindful. Cross our fingers. Pray.


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