Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

Picking out books with my nonfiction book club is such fun. Death in the Air is very similar to Devil in the White City, or so I’m told, and it was a good fit for the nonfiction book club!

Death in the Air

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
London was still recovering from the devastation of World War II when another disaster hit: for five long days in December 1952, a killer smog held the city firmly in its grip and refused to let go. But in the chaotic aftermath, another killer was stalking the streets. All across London, women were going missing – poor women, forgotten women. Their disappearances caused little alarm, but each of them had one thing in common: they had the misfortune of meeting a quiet, unassuming man, John Reginald Christie, who invited them back to his decrepit Notting Hill flat during that dark winter. They never left.

The Great Smog of 1952 remains the deadliest air pollution disaster in world history, and John Reginald Christie is still one of the most unfathomable murders of modern times. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson braids these strands together into a taut and gripping true-crime thriller about a serial killer and an environmental catastrophe with implications that still echo today.

Review

Death in the Air really wants to be Devil in the White City according to my book club. I, on the other hand, have read many Eric Larson books (Isaac’s Storm, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts), but I have not yet read his best known work so I feel my assessment of it is not clouded by a previous read.

I was first introduced to the Great Smog through the Netflix series The Crown and was instantly intrigued. With all the discussion today of climate change and environmental disasters, its worthwhile to know that what we’re experiencing today truly is not a new, or even a unique, occurrence. Smog has been a regular characteristic of London and is featured or mentioned in numerous works of English literature. But the Great Smog of 1952 is unique.

Before reading Isaac’s Storm I wouldn’t have considered weather history a great interest of mine. But it never ceases to amaze me how destructive natural forces can be. And while the smog is trigger by the activity of men, it is, at it’s root, an environmental phenomenon. The best parts of the book are those where the author focuses on the smog and how it affected every day Londoners.

The serial killer side of things, however, felt mismatched. He wasn’t really active during the smog, but it was when his crimes were exposed. I got the feeling the two narratives just weren’t as compatible as the author would like us to believe. I found myself frequently skimming the chapters of murder and savoring the chapters detailing the natural disaster.

All in all, not a bad book, and definitely an informative read, but the narratives felt like they should have been two separate books.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.99 – 9780316506830 – 368 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published November 2018 by Hachette Books – average Goodreads rating 3.50 out of 5 stars – read in April 2019

Non-Fiction, Psychology

Calm the F*ck Down by Sarah Knight

I’ve always been a worrier, and in my adult life was diagnosed with anxiety and suffer from panic attacks. But, I try to find books to help me cope that are helpful, but not overly serious. Calm the F*ck Down seemed like it would fit the bill.

Synopsis

From the back cover:
Do you spend more time worrying about problems than solving them? Do you let unexpected difficulties ruin your day, and do “what ifs” keep you up at night? Sounds like you need to calm the f*ck down. Just because things are falling apart doesn’t mean YOU can’t pull it together. Whether you’re stressed about sh*t that hasn’t happened yet or freaked out about sh*t that already has, the NoWorries Method from “anti-guru” Sarah Knight helps you curb the anxiety and overthinking that our making everything worse. Calm the F*ck Down explains the four faces of freaking out – and their flipsides, How to accept what you can’t control, productive helpful effective worrying (PHEW), the three principles of dealing with it, and much more!

Review

Ugh. I like Sarah Knight, I like her sense of humor. And I broke my no bestsellers rule for this book. The entire book is summed up by its subtitle: “How to control what you can and accept what you can’t so you can stop freaking out and get on with your life.” Great – how do I do that? Sarah starts by talking about how she did it – moved to a Caribbean island. Thanks Sarah. Think I can pull that off? No.

Everyone’s anxiety is different, a point Sarah acknowledges. And I think if this book were my first trip to the anxiety self-help book subgenre, I’d react to what she’s writing a lot differently. I’d probably find bits and pieces of it helpful, but it really boiled down to the fact that everything she said I’d a, heard before, and b, contributed to making my anxiety worse, not better.

Sarah is not a fan of the current president of the US. That’s okay, I refuse to use his name and love Alyssa Mastromonaco so I think that should make my position quite clear. But please, I need help dealing with my anxiety over the disappearance of women’s basic rights and fear that we’re about to go to war with some of our most unstable enemies, I don’t need reminders of how much his presence in the Oval Office terrifies me. Don’t tell me to take a nap and deal with it tomorrow.

While Calm the F*ck Down reminded me a great deal of my all-time favorite self-help book, You’re Not That Great (But Neither is Anyone Else) and I appreciated Elan’s approach to dealing with disappointment and accepting that we are not all going to be the best at everything (especially when anxiety is triggered by a need for perfection). I feel like Sarah ran away from the causes of her anxiety, and then attempts to help other people from her tropical paradise, which undercuts her credibility in my eyes. Elan Gale might be a Hollywood producer, but I found his position much more relatable.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover – $19.99 – 9780316529150 – 304 pages – published December 2018 by Little, Brown and Company – average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 – read in April 2019

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

History, Non-Fiction, STEM

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

After a few years of being without a book club to lead (I still participate in my former club), I felt the nagging urge to start one that better suited my current tastes, nonfiction! Below is my review for the inaugural book, Isaac’s Storm!

Nonfiction Book Club (2)

Synopsis

From the back cover:
September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history – and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline’s own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man’s heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Isaac’s Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.

Review

So, I missed the first book club meeting of my own book club. I had to go to the Hudson Valley in New York for a book buyer’s retreat (which was a lot of fun) and so my coworker, Su, filled in for me. Three ladies showed up, a strong presence for a brand new club, and apparently they had a lively discussion. I absolutely cannot wait to join in for the next meeting – if you want to follow along with our reading from afar, check out our book club page here!

I have now read three works by Erik Larson, Dead Wake (my favorite), In the Garden of Beasts (my least favorite) and now Isaac’s Storm (my middle choice). Unlike the first two works I read, Isaac’s Storm focuses on one main storyline, that of Isaac and the town of Galveston before, during, and after the storm. Other people and places make brief appearances, but the primary narrative sticks to the Texan Gulf coast.

As one of Erik’s earliest works, it is not surprising that what we think of as his trademark storytelling style, epitomized in Devil in the White City according to my coworkers, is not present in Isaac’s Storm. It is still an enjoyable book and a fascinating portrait of the early days of the American weather service. It is also difficult to fathom that Erik wrote this book before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf coast. The bureaucracy involved in getting word out to the area that a storm was coming is laughable, but still in place today.

Unfortunately, I walked away from Isaac’s Storm without much more than a “I’m glad I didn’t live in turn of the century Galveston.” I didn’t particularly care for Isaac and I couldn’t tell you the names of any of the townspeople mentioned throughout, they just didn’t stick with me the way the people in his other books did. It wasn’t a bad read, just not Erik’s strongest (also not surprising, at it is one of his earliest works).

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.95 • 9780375708275 • 336 pages • originally published August 1999, this edition published July 2000 by Vintage • average Goodreads rating 4.06 out of 5 stars • read in March 2019

Isaac's Storm

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

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

Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle

Given that we recently traveled to Doune Castle, the filming location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I wanted a bit more background on one of my favorite comedy troupes, the infamous Pythons. Also, please ignore the badly photoshopped photo, I have a bone to pick with Michael Palin’s bookstore, Aberfeldy’s Watermill Bookshop about that…

Synopsis

From Inside the Dust Jacket:
We know him best for his unforgettable roles with Monty Python – from the Flying Circus to The Meaning of Life. Now Eric Idle reflects on the meaning of his own life in this entertaining memoir that takes us on a remarkable journey from his childhood in an austere boarding school through his successful career in comedy, television, theater, and film. Coming of age as a writer and comedian during the Sixties and Seventies, Eric stumbled into the crossroads of the cultural revolution and found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Harrison, David Bowie, and Robin Williams, all of whom became dear lifelong friends. With anecdotes sprinkled throughout involving other close friends and luminaries such as Mike Nichols, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Paul Simon, and Lorne Michaels, as well as the Pythons themselves, Eric captures a time of tremendous creative output with equal parts hilarity and heart.

In Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, named for the song he wrote for Life of Brian that has become the number one song played at funerals in the UK, he shares the highlights of his life. and career with the kind of offbeat humor that has delighted audiences for five decades. The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Pythons, and Eric is marking the occasion with this hilarious memoir chock-full of behind-the-scenes stories from a high-flying life featuring everyone from Princess Leia to Queen Elizabeth.

Review

Eric Idle was friends with everybody. Anybody who was anyone of notes in the late ’60s through early ’90s in the comedy and rock-and-roll world was his friend. From Mick Jagger to Robin Williams and most celebrities in between, Eric Idle knew everyone in Hollywood, New York, London, and everywhere in between. His memoir reads less like a story of his life and more like a who’s who list.

Three chapters in particular, though, stuck with me. I listened to the audiobook, which Eric Idle read himself, and it was obvious which two chapters were hardest for him to write. Those that recount two deaths, that of his best friend, George Harrison, and his friend Robin Williams. I cried listening to him recount how George was assaulted and later passed away. I felt the pain he felt at loosing his best friend of nearly four decades. In his recounting of his friendship with Robin Williams, he shared that his friends also felt blindsided by his death. The public, those who knew him best, no one expected him to take his own life. The emotion Eric evokes is heavy and weighs on the narrative.

The third chapter that remains with me is that of the journey from Holy Grail to Spamalot. Eric was the musical genius of Monty Python, responsible for the vast majority of the songs in all of their works. As such, he was the driving force in adapting Holy Grail from film to stage. It’s been a show I’ve always wanted to see and one my husband saw with the original cast. Eric’s delight in the success of the show is inspiring and an uplifting moment to motivate anyone to follow their dreams.

All in all, if you love Monty Python and the British celebrity scene of the late mid-20th century, this book is a riot and perfect for you.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Hardcover • $27.00 • 9781984822581 • 304 pages • published October 2018 by Crown Archetype • average Goodreads rating 3.85 out of 5 stars • read in February 2019

Always Look On the Bright Side of Life (2)

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

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