Non-Fiction, History, 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

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

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)

Essays, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman

After watching Making It and meeting Nick in June at Book Expo, I figured it about time I read one of his books. When I realized that I read so many books by famous women that are thinly veiled self-help memoir-y type books, I realized I owed to my inherently bias self to pick one up for men and give it a go.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
When it comes to growing a robust mustache, masticating red meat, building a chair, or wooing a woman, who better to educate you than the always charming, always manly Nick Offerman, best known as Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson? Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in carpentry, Paddle Your Own Canoe features tales from Offerman’s childhood (born, literally, in the middle of an Illinois cornfield) to his theater days in Chicago to the, frankly, magnificent seduction of his wife, Megan Mullally. Offerman also shares his hard-bitten battle strategies in the arenas of manliness, love, styles, and religion, and invaluable advice on getting the most pleasure out of woodworking, assorted meats, outdoor recreation, and other palatable entrees.

Review

I feel like most books I read this days are a 7 out of 10. I enjoyed them while reading, and then almost immediately forget them. Maybe a passage or two stands out here and there, but for the most part, they’re in one ear and out the other, particularly so as I’ve found I enjoy listening the celebrity read memoirs as audiobooks these days. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have the patience for them.

But, Nick Offerman has a gentle voice and so I’ve been listening to Paddle Your Own Canoe to help me fall asleep at night. It certainly isn’t boring, but it does put me in a sleepy state of mind (though my husband says I’m practically narcoleptic, so there’s that…). The tales he shares of his childhood and young adulthood are funny and interesting, a bit raunchier and irreverent than I was expecting, but still enjoyable. Men are definitely the target audience, but I enjoyed his tales and especially his words of wisdom to men.

There are a lot of rich white dudes who say things about masculinity and women that are toxic and misogynistic. Nick Offerman, thank goodness, is not one of those men. His advice is practical and reasonable and boils down to “be a good person, don’t be an asshole,” words we can all strive to live by. But overall, I would say Paddle Your Own Canoe is about on par with Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me as far as parts memoir, humor and life advice.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780451467096 • 352 pages • originally published October 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Dutton • average Goodreads rating 3.67 out of 5 stars • read February 2019

Paddle Your Own Canoe (2)

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

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Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

When I was looking for a fun new book to read, one of my coworkers recommended As You Wish. As is my habit this year, I immediately went searching for an audiobook and discovered that Cary, and the entire still living cast of The Princess Bride, with one exception, read the audiobook! 

Synopsis

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princes Bride, comes a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the family favorite and cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

Review

My mom first bought me The Princess Bride one day when I was in upper elementary or middle school and had been home sick for a few days. The Princess Bride and 10 Things I Hate About You were supposed to cheer me up and make me feel better. I begrudgingly let her put The Princess Bride into the brand new DVD player in her bedroom where I had taken up residence. I was hooked immediately. I had a handful of films that were known as my “sick day movies” and The Princess Bride jumped immediately to the top. At this point, the movie was about 15 years old and I was a member of the new generation of millennials falling in love with it for the first time.

It’s been a few years at this point since I watched the movie, it’s not readily available on any streaming service and my DVD player hasn’t seen any use in the last few years with the emergence of streaming, but as soon as I started listening to the book, I pulled the movie out and was thrilled that it was just as wonderful as I remembered. And then I had to watch every other movie staring Cary Elwes, but that’s a different story.

Cary’s book follows the production schedule as the structure/timeline for As You Wish so I advice watching the movie first if you either a, have never seen it before, or b, for a refresher of the chronology of the plot. Interspersed in his narrative are a great number of interviews with other cast and production members. While Cary does a great job of telling the nuts and bolts of the filming as well as his own feelings and reactions during production, the other cast members interjections are my favorite parts.

This collaborative writing process makes me love the movie and the cast even more. The fact that 30 years after the movie was released, the cast are still in regular contact and still get on well enough to all contribute to the book is an absolute delightful thing to witness. The way the different cast members memories are woven together is pitch perfect for the movie and you often feel like you’re on set with Cary, Robin, Mandy and the others as the narrative moves forward. If you have any sort of love or enjoyment of the film, I wholeheartedly recommend reading As You Wish, it was one of my favorites of the year and I cannot think of a better final review for 2018.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9781476764047 • 272 pages • first published October 2014, this edition published October 2016 by Touchstone • average Goodreads rating 4.11 out of 5 • read December 2018

As You Wish-1

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

 

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