Essays, History, Non-Fiction, Sociology

Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen R. Ghodsee

Back in November I joined Libro.fm as they provide advance listening copies (ALCs) for booksellers. Libro.fm is the indie version of Audible with similar terms and selection. I finally put my free membership to good use and listen to Kristen R. Ghodsee’s book.

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
Unregulated capitalism is bad for women. If we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives – and yes, even better sex.

American women today are encouraged to lean in and pursue professional success, all while juggling relationships and the responsibilities of raising kids. But they face a rigged economic system that makes “having it all” impossible. What if there’s an alternative?

Kristen R. Ghodsee has spent years researching what happened to women in countries that transitioned from state socialism to capitalism. She found that, when done right, socialism can lead to economic independence, better labor conditions, and a better work-life balance.

Capitalism, it turns out, is the enemy. In the workplace, capitalism creates the wage gap between the sexes so that female employees are underpaid and overworked. it reinforces gender stereotypes at home, too, where women are tasked with a second shift as caregivers.

You are not a commodity. It’s time to improve women’s lives, and Ghodsee’s book is a spirited guide to reclaiming your time, emotional energy, and self-worth.

Review

I hate the title of this book, I ranted against it every night I read it to my husband. Who eventually decided to pick it up himself and start paging through it to see what had me so angry. And he said, “I thought you’d love this book.” And I do, goodness yes, I love this book. But I hate the title. I feel like the entire premise and point of the book is lost in the sensationalist nature of the title. It’s like a click bait-y headline in my newsfeed, not the title for a book about feminism and socialism.

While I cannot begin to understand what living under state socialism was really like, I doubt it was quite as rosy as Ghodsee paints it. But this book is not really about what Soviet socialism was like, but merely uses it to compare and contrast the experience of women in the west under capitalism (primarily in the USA) and that of women in the Eastern Bloc in the days of the Iron Curtain. And while the primary argument gets a bit repetitive, it is, at its basis, the root of feminism.

Capitalism is built on women’s unpaid labor. Because women work primarily in the home, they have consistently been dependent on male family members, especially spouses, for all their basic needs, from income to health care. Under socialism, when women work outside the home and receive a fair wage, more government and public funds are put into their support with public day cares, and other facilities to assist families in care taking responsibilities. The Scandinavian system of public welfare and socialism is held up as the supreme ideology that all nations should strive for.

Whether this is feasible or not in the US, I honestly don’t know. But it certainly and intriguing point and line of questioning that Ghodsee undertakes to explore and I would be interested to see how, after the next election cycle, our system of governance might change and evolve.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $22.00 • 9781568588902 • 240 pages • published November 2018 by Bold Type Books • average Goodreads rating 3.95 out of 5 stars • read in April 2019

Why Women

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology

So Here’s the Thing… by Alyssa Mastromonaco

I begged and begged our publisher rep for an advance copy of this book because I loved Who Thought This was a Good Idea? And when she didn’t send one, I was devastated, but of course, still read it when it arrived on the shelves for sale!

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
Alyssa Mastromonaco is back with a bold, no-nonsense, and no-holds-barred twenty-first-century girl’s guide to life, tackling the highs and lows of bodies, politics, relationships, education, life on the internet, pop culture, and spontaneous motorcycle trips along the Japanese coast. Whether discussing the future of diplomacy or high-profile dance-offs, working int eh West Wing or working on finding a pair of underwear that doesn’t make her look like a Teletubby, Alyssa leaves no stone unturned… and no awkward situation unexamined.

So Here’s the Thing… brings a sharp eye and outsize sense of humor to the myriad issues facing women the world over, both in and out of the workplace. Along with Alyssa’s personal experiences and hard-won life lessons, interviews with women like Monica Lewinsky, Susan Rice, and Chelsea Handler round out this modern women’s guide to, well, just about everything you can think of.

Review

I love Alyssa Mastromonaco. I did not love So Here’s the Thing… Which is upsetting to me. As a bookseller, my goal is to bridge the divide between readers and authors and also help to expose readers to something new and different. When I loved Who Thought This was a Good Idea? so much, I shared it with a middle aged woman who once walked into the store wearing a MAGA hat. She loved it. Bridging the divide, one step at at time. When she asked for So Here’s the Thing… I had to think long and hard about whether I recommended it or not.

The publisher’s marketing is misleading. Alyssa spends the first quarter of the book rallying against our president. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I wouldn’t be such a big fan if I didn’t find myself often agreeing with her. However, I feel there is a time and a place for such rhetoric. And based on the marketing of this book, I felt the publisher tried to hide the truly divisive language found between the front and back cover.

Additionally, the non-political parts felt like a rehashing of anecdotes from Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? I loved it, but this felt like the fat that was trimmed from the first one. And trimmed for a reason. I understood the point of the book to be on offering helpful advice to twenty-first century women, and while I still respect Alyssa and look forward to any further books she may write, I was left incredibly disappointed by So Here’s the Thing…

Rating: 6 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $27.00 • 9781538731550 • 240 pages • published March 2019 by Twelve • average Goodreads rating 3.92 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

So Here's the Thing

Essays, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Maeve in America by Maeve Higgins

In preparing for a weekday drive to my father’s place two hours away, I went searching for a fairly short and entertaining book to listen to on the drive – enter Maeve in America!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Maeve Higgins was a bestselling memoirist and comedian in her native Ireland when, at the grand old age of thirty-one, she left in search of something more. Like many people in their early thirties, she both was and absolutely was not the adult she wanted to be. At once smart, curious, and humane, Maeve in America is the story of how Maeve found herself, literally and figuratively, in New York City.

These essays – of not being able to afford a dress for the ball, of learning to live with yourself while you’re still figuring out how to love yourself, of finally realizing what sort of shelter dog you would be – will make you laugh out loud as they reveal a woman who shoots for the stars and hits the ceiling, but always finds the words to make sense of it all.

Review

Maeve Higgins is one of my new favorite people. Ten years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long) I traveled to Ireland for a study abroad opportunity. While certain circumstances led to the trip being an absolutely disaster, the vast majority of the people I met were wonderful, warm, gracious and welcoming. I was a young girl, traveling the country because my step-father’s ancestors hailed from the Emerald Isle (and my German was shaky, so English seemed the better bet). And one of the fascinating things I learned while there that has stuck with me ever since is this: pre-famine, Ireland’s population was nearly 9 million. Afterwards, it was 4.5 million. It is still roughly 4.5 million, though slowly growing. So why, after the famine, did it take 150 years for the population to start to recover?

Emigration. For the most part. And when someone emigrates from one location, they become an immigrant in another. Enter Maeve, Irish emigrant, US immigrant. Maeve arrived in the US shortly before the changing of the guard at the big house in D.C. And while the bulk of her book is about her experiences in NYC as an (elder*) millennial (*Iliza’s term) and details her struggles with her finances and dating (the two things that plague millennials most), she diverges to a few political and social justice oriented topics.

Maeve travels to Iraq with two other comedy writers/performers to do workshops with Iraqi and Kurdish comedians and she hosts an important podcast focused on immigration and the stories of those who have immigrated to America. Importantly, she addresses her privilege as an immigrant, being a native English speaking white female. But she is using the privilege to bring to the forefront voices of those far less fortunate immigrants, often to the chagrin of her podcast producer. Maeve Higgins is doing amazing things for the US and the world.

Yesterday, I got really angry. I was reading a Buzzfeed article, as I am wont to do when bored, and it was about Mike Pence and the Irish PM. It was a important story, well written, and made its point eloquently. However, the same picture is used twice, and the third person in the picture, the only woman, is Maeve Higgins. And her presence is not acknowledged. AT ALL. While she is not the focus of the article, due to lack of acknowledgement, readers have assumed a number of things about her role and reason for being in the picture. This article PERFECTLY highlights how often women (and immigrants) are completely overlooked by the media. All it would have taken was a quick caption: “Irish PM, VP, Irish writer Maeve Higgins and Irish PM’s Partner” (but instead of titles, put names, because all names are important).

Maeve has done tremendous things to advocate for a forcibly silent majority of immigrants. And when her visage is featured in a nationwide, widely read, publication, her presence is completely ignored–and, as a result, her accomplishments.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780143130161 • 256 pages • published August 2018 • by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.57 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

Maeve

Fantasy, Fiction

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

I’ve been trying to read Nevernight for the better part of two and a half years. Which is weird, because I really like it. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read it, save for my occasionally annoying new obsession with all thing nonfiction that makes fiction seem boring. Which again, weird. Fiction is supposed to be the opposite of boring.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
In a world where the suns almost never set, a woman gains entry to a school of infamous assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers that destroyed her family. Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she wanders a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and its thugs. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the hearth of a retired killer and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic – the Red Church. Deadly trials await her within the Church’s halls: blades and poisons, treachery and death. If she survives to initiation, she’ll be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder and be one step closer to the only thing she desires: revenge.

Review

I’ll admit, Nevernight is not an easy book to get into reading, let alone enjoying. It is dense and full of not just elaborate descriptions, but anecdotal footnotes. Lots of footnotes. And I’m not big on footnotes, I find they disrupt the reading flow and often unnecessary. It took me 100 pages to figure out that the footnotes were Jay’s way of filling the reader in on the history and customs of the world of Nevernight and as the world gets fleshed out, the footnotes taper off.

But once the world feels a bit more complete to the reader, it takes off like a shot. As I first picked up Nevernight because a friend told me it was an adult Throne of Glass, I kept waiting to feel like I was getting inside Mia’s head, a feat I think I finally felt I achieved when she arrived at the Red Church. From this point on, Mia’s physical journey slows down, but her mental and emotional journey accelerates and I found myself flipping page after page to get to the conclusion of the first book.

With the release of the third book swiftly approaching in September, I’m going to linger a little bit more on the second in the trilogy, but I am glad I waited until now to finish Nevernight. I have finally come to understand the people who wait until entire series are released to get started – after spending much of my reading life waiting for the next book in a series, or having to reread from the beginning because I’m forgetful (the primary reason why I haven’t finish the Throne of Glass series because I was an early reader) and I hate the feeling of having forgotten something major in a plot. This may also be why I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction…

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.99 • 9781250132130 • 464 pages • originally published August 2016, this edition published June 2017 by Thomas Dunne • average Goodreads rating 4.31 out of 5 stars • read March 2019

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

A Gross of Pirates by Terry Breverton

I love being an adult book buyer at a bookstore. When the publisher reps hear me getting particularly excited about something, they occasionally will send me a copy, and I was lucky enough to come home the other day to A Gross of Pirates sitting on the front porch waiting for me.

Synopsis

From the Dust Jacket:
It is no use pretending that these criminals do not evoke admiration – even envy. Part of the appeal is the democrati nature of their activities, characterised as far back as the 14th century by Klaus Stortebeker thieving in the Baltic – his crew were called the Likedeelers, the equal sharers. Author Terry Breverton has brought together the extraordinary stories of 144 pirates throughout history. They include Norman privateers, Barbary Corsairs, Elizabethan adventurers, Chinese pirates, the ‘Brethren of the Coast’ – and of course the pirates of the Caribbean.

Beginning with the 9th-century ‘Shield Maiden’ pirate Alfhild and ending with Mohamed Abdi Hassan – ‘Afweyne’ (Big Mouth) – who ransomed supertankers for tens of millions of dollars, A Gross of Pirates is an exciting journey under full sail across a millennium of blood and treasure.

Review

I’ve been working on a fictionalized retelling of the adventures of Alfhild, the Shield Maiden mentioned on the cover of A Gross of Pirates for years now, ever since I was first introduced to her story in Princesses Behaving Badly five and a half years ago. So little information exists about her (her actual existence is itself debatable), I get particularly excited every time I see her mentioned somewhere and because of that, I probably own every book that references her.

While A Gross of Pirates offers me no further information on my heroine, it does offer a great detail of helpful, factual, and entertaining information about 143 other pirates, many of whom this particular pirate enthusiast has never heard of. There are the typical suspects, Henry Morgan, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, of course, and Breverton even includes my distant relation, Sir Francis Drake, who kick-started my pirate obsession when I was in the fifth grade. The others, though, were new to me. And as an enthusiast of mini-bio books (my term for books that include short features on numerous people), it has been a long time since I’ve come across new names!

The pirates are grouped by time period, location, type of piracy, and each story seems more shocking then the one before. If you have any interest in a deliciously entertaining yet thoroughly researched pirate book, you cannot go wrong with A Gross of Pirates!

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $31.95 • 9781445682921 • 320 pages • published March 2019 by Amberley Publishing • read in March 2019

Gross of Pirates

Essays, Non-Fiction, Psychology

Girl Logic by Iliza Shlesinger

Self-Help January continues! This book originally came out in November 2017 and I still have an advance reader copy… I’ve been sitting on it for almost 2 years and decided now was finally the time to read it. I love Iliza, so much so that I decided to use her book for my first “bookface” picture!

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Have you ever been pissed because you’re not pretty enough, and then gotten even more pissed that someone didn’t find you as pretty as you think you are? Have you ever obsessed over the size of your thighs while eating dessert, all the while saying you’ll work out extra tomorrow? Or spent endless hours wondering why you have to bear the brunt of other people’s insecurities? I mean, after all, I’m pretty great. Why cope with insecurities I don’t already have?

That last one’s just me? All right, then.

But if the rest sounds familiar, you are experiencing girl Logic: a characteristically female way of thinking that appears contradictory and circuitous but is actually a complicated and highly evolved way of looking at the world. You end up considering every repercussion of every choice (about dating, career, clothes, lunch) before making a move toward what you really want. And why do we attempt these mental hurdles? Well, that’s what this book is all about.

The fact is, whether you’re obsessing over his last text or the most important meeting of your career, your Girl Logic serves a purpose: It helps push you, question what you want, and clarify what will make you a happier, better person. Girl Logic can be every confident woman’s secret weapon, and this book shows you how to wield it.

Review

Last week I wrote about what I call “Self-Help January” and my doubts about how helpful self-help books written by middle class female white millennials can be. And I came away without a clear answer to my question. And now I’m back with another white female middle class (elder) millennial written self-help book. As this is my primary demographic, it is the subset I am most drawn to for self-help, but I also want to find books to review and recommend that are applicable to those outside this narrow subset as well. And Iliza, how I love you, seems a bit more helpful than last week’s Adulting.

If you haven’t seen or heard of Iliza, allow me to introduce her to you. She is a stand-up comic (but so much more!) and she won Last Comic Standing – the youngest and first woman to ever do so. She has a handful of Netflix specials, two (short-lived) television shows, Forever 31 on ABC and Truth and Iliza on Freeform. Her most recent Netflix special, Elder Millennial, is her best thus far.

Her honest and confident approach to life make her a role model for all young women, as well as her peers. And she freely admits that she doesn’t have everything sorted out – that her life is still a work in progress and her success is not a measuring stick for others’. The topics she covers in Girl Logic stem from the female-centered topics of her stand-up and focuses on three primary relationships: the relationship with have with ourselves, with other women, and with men.

The relationship with men section entertained me, but as someone who’s been in a relationship for the entirety of my twenties, I didn’t find much to relate to there but I know a lot of my friends who have also read Girl Logic found her advice here to be most helpful. For me, I have had a crappy on-off relationship with my body it feels like. I hate it, I love it, I’ve starved it, coddled it, over-fed it, under-exercised it, etc. It is always helpful to hear about other women’s similar struggles, if only for a reminder that it’s something we all do and our inner-monologue (aka Girl Logic) is both helpful and harmful in this relationship.

Iliza’s last point starts with a bit of an apology in regards to her previous acts – acts where she hasn’t always been as kind to other women as she would like. And that particular section is tremendously helpful. Women should support other women, but not blindly follow them just because they are women. But lead with kindness and respect – that’s really all that matters. You don’t have to be friends, but with mutual kindness and respect, life will be a lot happier all around.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $15.99 • 9781602863347 • 256 pages • first published November 2017, this edition published November 2018 by Hachette Books • average Goodreads rating 3.90 out of 5 • read January 2019

img_20190126_151537_097

 

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction, Sociology, Travel

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn

In continuing my war correspondent memoir/biography trend, I figured it was time I pick up Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. Those who know who she is typically think of her as Hemingway’s third wife, but those who care about journalism, know her as one of the first female war correspondents, and inspiration to my favorite journalist, Marie Colvin.

Synopsis

As a journalist, Gellhorn covered every military conflict from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam and Nicaragua. She also bewitched Eleanor Roosevelt’s secret love and enraptured Ernest Hemingway with her courage as they dodged shell fire together.

Hemingway is, of course, the unnamed “other” in the title of this tart memoir, first published in 1979, in which Gellhorn describes her globe-spanning adventures, both accompanied and alone. With razor-sharp humor and exceptional insight into place and character, she tells of a tense week spent among dissidents in Moscow; long days whiled away in a disused water tank with hippies clustered at Eilat on the Red Sea; and her journeys by sampan and horse to the interior of China during the Sino-Japanese War.

Review

Martha Gellhorn has fascinated me for quite some time, given my present obsession with female war correspondents this should not be surprising. Her life, one wholly unconventional for her time, is inspiring, but also, in light of twenty first century sensibilities, one I had to remind myself, began over a century ago.

A feminist at her core, Martha, M as UC (unwilling companion, AKA Hemingway) calls her, sets off on each “horror journey” as she’s dubbed them, without a great deal of pre-planning, other than the bare minimum required by her destination. The era of traveling by your bootstraps, hopping flights when you need them, hoping to stumble upon a hotel with available rooms each night, etc. is simply unheard of today. Even when Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman went around the world and south through Africa on motorcycles, they still had reservations and accommodations, or at least tents to sleep in each night. Did Martha? No.

When I think of a single woman traveling in the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, I feel a sympathetic sense of dread. I keep waiting for something to go thoroughly wrong, but by her wits or the kindness of others, she avoids any great gender related danger. M doesn’t typically discuss how her gender has anything to do with her ability to travel and I LOVE IT. I felt the real sense of, “If M can do it, so can I!” much more so than when reading Lynsey Addario’s autobiography and Lindsey’s biography of Marie Colvin (apparently a disproportionate number of my favorite journalists are Lindseys…) – they went to the front lines of war. Martha, due to either her gender or the time period, goes to the back lines of war. The war that we don’t see that isn’t quite as dangerous as the war everyone saw on the newsreels each night.

When M and UC (Hemingway) go to China during World War II, it never feels like there is a great threat on their lives. When M goes to the French islands of the Caribbean, I learned a great deal about how the Vichy government affected their lives, but I was never fearful of M’s survival. These adventures, and M’s quite frequent poor decision making – when the pilot of the boat tells you he won’t wait for you to scale a dormant volcano because he can’t dock safely, you should probably heed his warning and not be surprised when you get up in the morning and he’s gone – just a thought. But all these adventures are learning experiences for M and for us, her readers, 40 years after the original publication, 70 years after the adventure. But the real sticking point for this collection for me is M’s trip to Africa.

Holy mother of colonialism. In January of 1962, Martha Gellhorn went to Africa. I found the map in my photo in my collection of vintage maps with a copyright date of 1960 – pretty darn close to how the continent was divided politically at the time of Martha’s travels. Given that Martha’s trip to Africa is by far the longest and move life-affecting of this collection of essays, it seemed a fitting backdrop for the book. But to think of Martha’s approach to the continent, it makes me retch a bit inside.

It seems so foreign to me that we, as human beings, particularly white people, could stereotype an entire continent of people and refuse to get to know them, learn about their communities, and simply label them as selfish, liars, etc. The thing that terrifies me the most is that M was probably considered progressive for her time. While I’m sure there are readers who would find it difficult to turn off their 2018 filters and would find her recounting of her trip to Africa offensive, at it’s core it is a compelling historical and sociological exploration into the changing nature of how we travel and interact with people, and is definitely worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $17.00 • 9781585420902 • 320 pages • first published 1979, this edition published May 2001 by TarcherPerigee • average Goodreads rating 3.83 out of 5 stars • read in December 2018

Travels with Myself and Another

Fiction, Historical

Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce

Working six days a week at the bookstore for the holidays is crazy and I’m way off of my normal posting schedule. But it’s probably one of my favorite times in the store – I get to tell people about my  favorite books all day and they’re most inclined to buy them as gifts! Each year everyone on the staff picks 3 books for our top “gift giving books” of the year and Dear Mrs. Bird is one of mine.

Synopsis

Emmeline Lake and her best friend Bunty are doing their bit for the war effort and trying to stay cheerful despite the German planes making their nightly raids. Emmy dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent and when she spots a job advertisement in the newspaper she seizes her chance, but after a rather unfortunate misunderstanding, she finds herself typing letters for the formidable Henrietta Bird, renowned advice columnist of Women’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird if very clear: letters containing any Unpleasantness must go straight into the bin. But as Emmy reads the desperate pleas from women who may have Gone Too Far with the wrong man, or can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she begins to secretly write back to the readers who have poured out their troubles.

Review

I have loved a good World War II novel for a very long time and have been a deep lover of the genre of historical fiction as a whole for more than two decades (which is more than two thirds of my life given that I’m just shy of 30). A few years ago, though, it seemed to be all I read – great for giving recommendations as at the bookstore, not so great for mental health and reading enjoyment. I felt broken – scenes in concentration camps no longer elicited any feelings from me. I should be bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t. I should have felt something more than simple blase. So I took a break.

Then our Simon & Schuster sales rep gave me and ARC of Dear Mrs. Bird. When it came out and I still hadn’t read it, he sent me a finished copy. When he stopped in to see us and I still hadn’t read it, he very kindly told me (lectured me) about not doing so. He thought it’d be perfect for me. I should have listened to him sooner.

When the holiday staff table was looking like it needed a jolt of historical fiction, I figured it was the perfect time to read this most delightful of books. Did I cry? Of course I did – it’s a World War II novel and is not without it’s share of doom and gloom. But that’s not the main point. That’s not the main plot. It’s not the driving force of Emmy’s life. Is it perfect? No. It’s a debut and the pacing and plot can be clunky and lacking. But it is a most enjoyable and delightful read and an excellent addition to the genre.

So, if you’re a WWII lover like me but are feeling a bit broken by each book trying to be the next Book Thief or Nightingale, take a look at Dear Mrs. Bird. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $26.00 • 9781501170065 • 288 pages • published July 2018 by Scribner • average Goodreads rating 3.81 out of 5 • read in December 2018

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Bestsellers intrigue me. I don’t read many, which seems to confuse bookstore patrons until I tell them that I read other books so that when they have finished a bestseller and want something similar, I have a recommendation for them. But when The Woman Who Smashed Codes started to fly off the shelves, I was intrigued enough to take a look.

Synopsis

In 1916, a young Quaker schoolteacher and poetry scholar named Elizebeth Smith was hired by an eccentric tycoon to find the secret messages he believed were embedded in Shakespeare’s plays. But the urgencies of war quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission, forcing her to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking – the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner.

Review

A number of customers at the bookstore came in looking for The Woman Who Smashed Codes because their book club had decided to read it. Each time I showed it to them, I’d flip it over, read the back cover myself, and think it was interesting before ultimately putting it back down. Then came holiday (over)ordering at the bookstore and when The Woman Who Smashed Codes came off the bestsellers and we still had a few too many copies on hand, I decided to make it my pet project to sell it myself, without the “bestseller” status, but with the “staff recommends” qualifier.

The holidays are the ultimate time for recommending books to customers. While we are always helping people find a book for themselves, now is the time when people come in with their holiday list and ask us to pick out books for their loved ones. Most of the time they give us some basic information: they like history books, fantasy, science, they’re accountants, etc. and then we take that information to pick out books for them in the store. With that in mind, I’ve decided to change up my review for this book today to my bookstore pitch, but in the opposite way, for customers who come up and ask us if a book is any good. (This is an idealized conversation, but I do have many that go somewhat like this)

Customer (holds up The Woman Who Smashed Codes): Is this book any good?
My Coworker: My manager, Sarah, loved it! Let me ask her to help you!
Me: I really enjoyed The Woman Who Smashed Codes! Is there anything in particular you would like to know about it?
Customer: Who would enjoy it?
Me: It would be a great gift for anyone who is fascinated by World War II history, or someone who enjoys lesser known stories from history, or anyone who loves a great biography of a unique person.
Customer: What was your favorite part of the book?
Me: I love stories about how people we’ve never heard of today played major roles throughout history. Elizebeth, the subject of the book, worked tirelessly to break the codes of Nazis during WWII and her work played a key role in the Americans’ decryption of the German Enigma machine. Additionally, it was her husband who broke the Japanese decryption machines – they were a fascinating couple and I loved how the author, Jason Fagone, really delves into their relationship instead of just focusing on Elizebeth’s work for the government.
Customer: That sounds really neat! I think I’ll give it a shot!

As booksellers, we know, especially during the holiday season, that we may only have a minute or two to share with a customer why we really love a book. Every customer can read the back of the book for a description of the plot/subject, but that information (and what I always include as the “synopsis”) comes from the publisher. I figure my role, as bookseller and blogger, is to put the personal emphasis on the books I love, the books that may also get overlooked on a store’s shelves if they don’t have colorful spines or staff picks tied to them.

When I can’t find the time to personally tell every customer about the books I think they’ll love, I write short little “blurbs” to put under the books on the shelf or print the blurbs up on bookmarks as we do at the store annually for our top holiday gift picks. That being said, my question to you, dear readers, is: When you go into a bookstore during the holidays, or any time of year, to you seek out staff picks? Do the staff’s recommendations hold any sway with what you end up deciding to read or take home?

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062430519 • first published September 2017, this edition published August 2018 by Dey Street Books • average Goodreads rating 4.19 out of 5 • read in November 2018

Woman Who Smashed Codes

 

Biography, Non-Fiction

In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum

I first came across In Extremis when going through front list (new release) publisher orders and, thanked my lucky stars I have such a good relationship with the rep because when I begged her to send me an advance copy, she happily obliged. And I think it is safe to say, In Extremis is my favorite read of the entire year.

Synopsis

When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.

Review

I love war correspondents’ memoirs and biographies – It’s What I Do was one of my favorite reads of last year. And, just, oh my goodness. In Extremis dethroned Lynsey from the top of my personal ranking. Granted, I’ve only read two to completion so far (I’m reading Martha Gellhorn’s, the role model for both Lynsey and Marie, right now), but goodness gracious, it will be a long time before I find another book like this. And it caused one of the longest book hangovers I’ve ever had. And, through In Extremis, I had the opportunity to check off a book seller life goal and be the first review for a title on Goodreads and Lindsey Hilsum responded to my review!

My husband, Ben, and I have been together for almost a decade and he could not recall a single instance in that time when I stayed up past midnight to read. I absolutely love to read, but am borderline narcoleptic so I’m not a big night time reader. But for days on end, I stayed up far later than I should have, unable to put down Lindsey Hilsum’s marvelous biography of her friend and fellow journalist, Marie Colvin.

Lindsey Hilsum is, in the humble opinion of someone who has not personally met her, the best person to write Marie Colvin’s biography. A friend, but not an intimate acquaintance, she approaches her subject with the kind and caring hands of someone who felt a deep loss when she died, but removed enough to offer a fairly objective perspective on the life decisions she made that led her to that final, fateful trip to Homs, Syria in 2012. Marie kept extensive journals her entire life and they serve as the basis for the bulk of In Extremis, making it as close to an autobiography as it could possibly be. Sprinkled in are excerpts from Marie’s reporting for London’s Sunday Times, and they offer an even deeper glimpse into what inspired and drove her to seek out war zones and report on the stories of the people who live there.

A few years ago, Ben & I visited the Newseum in Washington D. C. which triggered my current obsession with journalism. I’d always loved writing and have been a news junkie from a very young age (the day does not start until I’ve checked the BBC, CNN and my custom Google newsfeed), but I never appreciated just how important journalists are worldwide until that trip. They are responsible for keeping the world apprised of the goings on in far reaches of the world and at home. And nothing, well, almost nothing, in regards to my country’s current political climate, makes me angrier than the unofficial war on journalism and the president’s constant claims of fake news. As I rally against it, and uninformed fellow Americans, I remind myself of the fact that Marie Colvin had to stand up to people who challenged the authenticity of her reporting and she did so with kindness, grace, and style.

Even though Marie’s personal life may have been a bit of a mess, okay, quite a big mess, she played a crucial role in ensuring that the western world knew exactly what was going on in the war zones of the world, particularly the Middle East. It is easy enough for those of us sitting in our living rooms in the Northeast of the US to ignore the challenges facing not only that area of the world, but also in Europe as they struggle to accommodate record numbers of refugees, and to dehumanize those who are struggling because their struggles don’t affect us directly. But Marie wouldn’t let us. She did everything in her power to bring that suffering, the plights of the people who were displaced from their homes, and the challenges they faced daily, into our collective consciousness.

When reading, and therefore constantly Google-ing Marie Colvin, I came across the production of A Private War, Matthew Heineman’s cinematic depiction of Marie’s life. While the movie is based on the Vanity Fair article published immediately after Marie’s death and not on Lindsey’s biography, the two, given their near simultaneous release dates, will become inexorably tied to each other in future. I was very nervous when I found out that Rosamund Pike is playing Marie – I adored her in Pride & Prejudice, but is she the best choice to play my new hero? After reading articles about production and how much the process of portraying Marie affected her personally, and the fact that a documentary filmmaker is at the helm, I’m far less concerned and a great deal more excited.

Lindsey’s writing is tremendous, Marie’s life equal parts inspiring and cautionary tale, and I truly hope that her story reaches as many people as possible and helps us all recognize that we are all human. We all share this world, and the sufferings of a few are the sufferings of us all.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374175597 • 400 pages • published November 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux • read September 2018

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In Extremis