Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My expectations for this book were pretty high: I’ve followed Jason Fagone’s magazine work for a while and know him as a strong writer and evocative storyteller. I bought The Woman Who Smashed Codes for myself as a birthday gift and was excited to crack it open.

Let me tell you: It delivered above and beyond my expectations.

First, let’s just look at the physical hardback. Published by Dey St., an imprint of HarperCollins, the book is 444 pages thick (don’t let that scare you — notes and the index occupy a sizable chunk) and is beautifully designed. Many of the chapters have an accompanying photo on the first page and a quote to set the tone for the oncoming narrative. The typeface is welcoming to the eyes, and the paper is soft and thick.

Now, the writing. Fagone’s nonfiction narrative draws you into the story and introduces you to scenes and characters in a way that makes you want to keep reading and reading. The book is divided into three sections, each of which encompasses a specific period of time in Elizebeth Smith’s (later, Friedman’s) journey in codebreaking and in life with William Friedman. Each chapter ends with questions that drive the narrative forward, propelling the reader into the next chapter and then the next.

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is truly narrative nonfiction. Thoroughly researched (with pages of notes to prove it) and grounded in history, it doesn’t at all read like a textbook. It reads like a story. One with surprises, mystery, intrigue, and even romance in various corners. The narrative about Nazi spy operations in South America was especially interesting to me, as I wasn’t familiar with that part of history, and the drama around U.S. government agencies, particularly the FBI versus everyone else, was fascinating.

This book followed through on the promise to educate and inform regarding World War II history and a particular woman codebreaker, while also entertaining and delighting on a storytelling level — from overarching narrative all the way down to the sentence level. I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks they know everything about World War II, has an interest in women’s history, or simply enjoys a good book.

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Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime: StoriesMusic for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book after attending a reading by Rebecca Makkai and connecting with her writing. This collection of short stories marries creativity and originality with compelling characters in sometimes absurd situations. Stories vary in length and subject matter, but all connect somehow to the theme described in the title, “Music for Wartime.” I’ve read collections before where every story is melancholy and depressing; this is no such collection. Some end sadly or on bittersweet notes, but all of them challenge the reader’s narrow vision of herself and others. And several of the stories wrestle with the question of forgiveness and when it can, cannot, should, or should not be extended to: Nazis, false lovers, relatives who carried out unquestionable wrongs. Highly recommend.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nonlinear narrative composed of straightforward, at times lyrical, writing, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave girl whose escape of the plantation leads to conflict and loss and love and meditations on what it means to be free. Whitehead’s writing is solid, but it took me a while to get into The Underground Railroad due to the conflict evoked in my brain by his portrayal of the railroad as an actual railroad running underground. Other than that detail, the story is richly textured with historical accuracies, many of which stirred up anger in myself toward the brutal history of this country and the so-called peculiar institution. I haven’t read much historical fiction since upper elementary and middle school, when I was basically obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s work, so it was interesting to jump back into the genre as an adult reading historical fiction written for adults. This work was eye-opening in a way that makes me want to go back and relearn history, which isn’t a bad idea considering the times we’re living in. Told in third person with sections devoted to different characters, but the core of the story being Cora’s journey out of slavery and into freedom, The Underground Railroad takes you along for the journey. I recommend climbing aboard.

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You may have noticed almost all of my reviews have 4 or 5 stars. That’s because I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life’s too short to read bad books. I only review the good ones.

Good reads: Quests, real and hypothetical

Longform stories I’ve read lately and enjoyed.

Keepers of the Secrets by James Somers, The Village Voice
Step into the archives at the New York Public Library and meet “the most interesting man in the world.” He’s 39 and knows the archives more intimately than many parents know their own children. Those boxes of paper artifacts may look like tinder for your campfire, but this keeper of secrets knows they tell stories just waiting to be told.

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request by Spenser Mestel, Longreads
FOIA. Freedom of Information Act. It’s the piece of legislation that makes government “secrets” available to the people. All you have to do is submit a request. And wait for the bureaucracy to handle it. This piece is an interesting look at the history and current state of FOIA, and the process required to receive a response.

Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter by John Cotter, Guernica
Join author John Cotter as he spends a month in a Colorado facility for the homeless, where he teaches a writing class and doesn’t go home at night. This is a moving, well-written consideration of homelessness and the people impacted by it. There are parts that brought tears to my eyes.

Dwayne Johnson for President by Caity Weaver, GQ
Last week, I dreamt that I completely forgot about an interview I’d scheduled for a story I’m working on because Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, was hanging out with my family in our living room. This piece may have helped The Rock invade my subconscious. It’s a fun introduction to Johnson, who is apparently a big teddy bear who works out a lot.

What have I missed? If you’ve read something excellent lately, tell me about it by commenting below.

a poem for a world of wrongs

the world needs more pretty words
less ugly deaths

more dandelion wreaths and butterfly kisses
less flying vitriol and bullets

more hearts beating in unison as we look across seas of faces and realize
our differences are nothing in comparison to our sameness.

Book Review: The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

The Shock of the FallThe Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A stream-of-consciousness narrative tackling dual themes of mental illness (schizophrenia, in particular) and grief, “The Shock of the Fall” follows 19-year-old Matthew Homes as he seeks to write his story, partly on his treatment program’s computer and partly on the typewriter his grandmother gave him. He’s grappling with the death of his older brother a decade earlier — a tragedy he’s always blamed himself for. His brother had Down’s Syndrome. Matthew felt (and was often held by his parents as) responsible for Simon. Now, he’s gone. Actually, he’s been gone since a nighttime fall (hence, the book’s title).

This book moves quickly in chapters of varying lengths, moving back and forth in the time frame. It takes a little while to adjust to the non-linear storytelling style, but the style keeps you on your toes in a way that makes the book more intriguing. You’re in Matthew’s head, which is a fascinating, sometimes confusing, sometimes frightening place to be. And even though it’s a book about mental health that doesn’t try to tie things up in a pretty bow, the ending is satisfying, not hopeless. I, personally, felt better for having read it.

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Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lot of nonfiction books get so bogged down with detail that they have no narrative drive. Unbroken doesn’t have this problem. From the beginning, Hillenbrand’s writing sets the story in driven, organized motion, drawing the reader in emotionally and painting clear portraits of characters, events, and settings. You get to know Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American with unequivocal speed and a childhood marked by thievery. Hillenbrand traces Zamperini’s life from childhood to adulthood, track race to Olympic trials to military service in the Pacific, where his plane goes down and he’s faced with a new war aimed at survival. Along the way, Hillenbrand writes about the necessity of maintaining dignity in the face of suffering and abuse. Human resilience is one essential theme. There’s also the theme of forgiveness, which dominates Part V.

Unbroken is long, but not droning. Every word and passage is merited, there for a purpose and carrying detail and development essential to the (true) story line. It’s a feat of nonfiction story construction that testifies of the author’s incredible understanding of her subject. The story moves at varying paces, but never left me bored. Like all great writing, it’s not just interesting, it’s thought-provoking and spurs inward reflection.

Highly recommend.

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Good Reads = crazy true stories + great writing

Some of my favorite longform stories from the last few months.

The Girl Detectives by Marin Cogan, Topic
A student club at the University of Pittsburgh takes on unsolved, real world mysteries — and just happens to be dominated by women.

Escaping Kakuma by Louis Bien, SB Nation
I hadn’t read an SB Nation feature in a while, so I sought this one out. It’s an up-close account of soccer in a refugee camp where the sport seems like the most likely route to a better life.

The teenage whaler’s tale by Julia O’Malley, High Country News
When a celebratory post following an Alaskan teen’s successful whale hunt goes viral, it draws much worse than criticism. This story shows the other side: life in a remote Alaskan village, the necessity of the hunt, and a glimpse of the hunter as a young man trying to find his way in the world.

What Goes Up: The daredevil, his helicopter, the risk of flying too high, and the birth of modern news by Jack Hitt, Epic
Epic is one of those publications that you can always count on to deliver well-written, designed, and produced stories that provide you, the reader, with a textured experience you’re unlikely to forget. This story might by my favorite on this list. There are layers, lots of moving people, compelling characters, and broader questions that left me pondering. Read it.

My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
This is a must-read for 2017 (and had it been published earlier, it should have been required for 2016). The author, Alex Tizon, opens up about the woman his family kept as a slave since before he was born. There’s a complexity in this story that you don’t often find in pieces involving such black-and-white issues. Tizon draws out the gray areas in this particular case, without white-washing the wrong or making excuses for his family. Beautifully done.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich by Julia Cooke, The Atavist
I’ve never been disappointed by an Atavist story (that’s why I bought their book for my birthday last year — highly recommend), and this one stuck to suit. Paula Zoe Helfrich is not a woman who can be reduced to a few lines or words. What’s true about her? What’s not? This story tries to figure those things out.

Book Review: Fighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

Fighting for LifeFighting for Life by S. Josephine Baker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First of all, Sara Josephine Baker lived an incredible life. Second of all, she has a totally relatable way of sharing her story.

Originally published in 1939, this autobiography tells firsthand the story of a woman doctor (at a time when that brought strange looks) who engineered the saving of thousands of infant lives in New York City slums at the turn of the century and became the first woman to earn a Doctor of Public Health through the program at NYU (because, when she was asked to lecture in the program that only accepted men, she refused to do so unless she could also enroll for the degree, opening the door for other women to enroll as well).

I originally read an excerpted version of her memoir (in Written by Herself: Autobiographies of American Women <– highly recommend). I enjoyed the excerpted version so much, that I almost immediately ordered her book.

The beginning takes a little while to get into, but soon enough, you’re following her to New York as she enrolls in medical school and later sets up her own practice with a fellow woman doctor and then gets involved with preventive public health and on and on it goes, as she steps into different roles and situations and seeks to fill the gaps she finds.

Baker has a no-nonsense style to her writing. Don’t come to this book seeking lyrical prose or a literary masterpiece. Her writing flows, as if she’s sitting and talking with you, recounting her life. I learned a ton — about her, her work, and the world as it was back then (think, women’s suffrage, “little mothers,” Soviet Russia — oh, and baby care).

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning, values the work of women in the world, and is curious about history.

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Book review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A private plane crashes in the middle of a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Before the Fall tells the stories of the characters involved: the painter who survived, swimming the four-year-old child to safety; the flight attendant and the copilot; the media magnate and his political friend; the wife and mother, now survived by one child and a sister married to a struggling writer. This is a story told in scenes and glimpses. Hawley cuts back and forth through time and space, from character to character, weaving the complexity that, though fiction, is convincing enough that it could be reality. Why do accidents happen? Or do they? Is there truly such a thing as an accident? Was this plane crash intentional on some earthly or cosmic level?

I highly recommend this book. Hawley’s prose is textured with detail that paints vivid portraits of people and events without weighing down the story. Chapters vary in length, but all of them move quickly, and you’re left wondering, “What if …?” This was a book I had to discipline myself with late at night, forcing myself to stop and go to bed even though I could have kept reading and reading. I’m about to track down more books by Noah Hawley because one was definitely not enough.

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