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Someone retweeted something about a new book about a WWII code breaker into my Twitter timeline, and the title caught my attention:  The Woman Who Smashed Codes.

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. She moved to the tycoon’s lavish estate outside of Chicago expecting to spend her days poring through old books. But the rich man’s close ties to the U.S. government, and the urgencies of war, quickly transformed Elizebeth’s mission. She soon learned to apply her skills to an exciting new venture: codebreaking—the solving of secret messages without knowledge of the key. Working alongside her on the estate was William Friedman, a Jewish scientist who would become her husband and lifelong codebreaking partner. Elizebeth and William were in many ways the Adam and Eve of the National Security Agency, the U.S. institution that monitors and intercepts foreign communications to glean intelligence.

In The Woman Who Smashed Codes, Jason Fagone chronicles the life of this extraordinary woman who played an integral role in our nation’s history—from the Great War to the Cold War. He traces Elizebeth’s developing career through World War I, Prohibition, and the struggle against fascism. She helped catch gangsters and smugglers, exposed a Nazi spy ring in South America, and fought a clandestine battle of wits against Hitler’s Reich, cracking multiple versions of the Enigma machine used by German operatives to conceal their communications. And through it all, she served as muse to her husband, a master of puzzles, who astonished friends and foes alike. Inside an army vault in Washington, he worked furiously to break Purple, the Japanese version of Enigma—and eventually succeeded, at a terrible cost to his personal life.

Fagone unveils for the first time America’s codebreaking history through the prism of one remarkable woman’s life, bringing into focus the unforgettable events and colorful personalities that shaped the modern intelligence community. Rich in detail, The Woman Who Smashed Codes pays tribute to an unsung hero whose story belongs alongside those of other great female technologists, like Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, and whose oft-hidden contributions altered the course of the century.

In short: a fascinating look at the birth of what is today an industry/agency of its own.  As usual, it’s infuriating to know that this woman was essentially erased from history by J. Edgar Hoover as he bolstered his own reputation and budget.

I enjoyed the book, but one line late in the book really got under my skin.  On page 265, when talking about German activity in Argentina: “…Juan Domingo Peron, the future three-time president of Argentina, now just a young army colonel with a taste for moral larceny. (He lived with a fourteen-year-old girlfriend whom he called “The Piranha.”)”  Was the parenthetical necessary?  Does it contribute anything? If the intent was to make clear how revolting a human being Peron was, well, it worked.  As a reader, I was seriously squicked not just by Peron but by the way the information was presented: in a casual way, tossed off almost as a joke, normalizing what would have been statutory rape.  Because does anyone think a fourteen year old would have agency when it came to a relationship (of any type) with a man in his forties?  Ugh.

 

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Setting

How important is setting?  That seems like a foolish question, since setting is a basic element of storytelling.  But I have been thinking about it in the context of how well readers/viewers know the setting in question.  Years ago Nora Roberts* set a book in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore.  And she got the neighborhood community feel down but the housing market, floor plan of row houses, and sidewalk/parking situation wrong.  They sound like little things but were important elements to the story, so being not quite right jarred me right out of the story.

Re-watching the first episode of Queer as Folk (US) this weekend, the theoretical setting was just so obviously NOT where it was filmed that I wondered if Pittsburghers who watched the series were as jarred as I was by the not-quite-right Baltimore in NR’s book.  Literally, as one building came into view, I thought to myself, oh, they are in Toronto — it was the Gooderham Building on Front Street.  Beyond that, the geography/topography is just not right.  Back when I first watched any of QaF, I’d visited PGH briefly once and had never been to Toronto, so I didn’t notice the location.  Since then I’ve been to Toronto once for WCoH and to Pittsburgh a number of times, which is what made it painfully apparent that they were not filming in PGH.

Does it matter that much?  I don’t know, maybe viewers don’t care, since the economics of film/television production means that things are seldom filmed in the locations they purport to represent in the final product.  But I’m interested to see if there is any attempt at more

*It feels like I’ve picked on NR in the last couple of posts, and I don’t mean to.  But that book and the housing it described was just NOT accurate.  (I wrote an entire post about it at the time, many books ago at this point.

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Catching up

My reading slump continues.  I need to figure out something to write about because I’m really out of the habit of writing thoughtfully about the media I consume.  I write a fair amount for work but the results are pretty technical and blunt, very to the point with a specific purpose and a different kind of analysis and use of persuasive language.  So, I’m going to make an effort with the goal of one post per week about some sort of media, even if it is not about published fiction.

I have managed to read some stuff this summer though.

June

  1. Come Sundown by Nora Roberts.  Rosario posted a very good review of this book, although she may have liked it more than I did.  It felt really derivative of Roberts’ Montana Sky, which was once a favorite.  It might still be, maybe, but I’m a little afraid to re-read after 5+ years, because what if it doesn’t stand up?  Or what if it irritates me the way this one did?  The clustered family felt really claustrophobic to me, and the dismissal of urban lives seriously pissed me off.  (Disclosure: I grew up in the middle of nowhere in an old house set in the middle of fields of cows and corn. I now live by choice in a sort of rust-belt city with serious race and crime issues. There are good and bad things about both. Community is not exclusive to small towns and rural life.)
  2. Skin After Skin by Jordan Castillo Price.  A new PsyCop novel.  Eh, I didn’t love it?  It was interesting to get a different POV on Victor Bayne and other PsyCops, but there were a lot of inconsistencies between it and the earlier novels that didn’t seem really attributable to just a change of POV.
  3. The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch.  A short story or novella in the Rivers of London series.  Really liked seeing Abigail and a plot that didn’t involve Leslie or the Faceless Man.

July – just Living on the Black: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember by John Feinstein.  This follows Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine during the 2007 season.  As someone who learned to love baseball via the Orioles in the late 90s, Mike Mussina was the ace, the starting pitcher, the hero. Glavine, eh, National League, so I didn’t pay much attention except for the occasional interleague series.  It’s interesting to read Mussina’s perspective on his contract negotiations with Angelos/management as he played his final year as an Oriole and then departed for The Enemy.  Feinstein writes that Mussina felt like the fans were critical of him; as a fan, I remember feeling like the ownership/management was shortchanging their ace.  In fact, the last game that he started, I remember seeing a season ticket holder with a sign that read, “If Mussina doesn’t come back, neither do I.”  Anyway, it was a good read but I would probably only recommend it to baseball fans.  For lack of a better phrase, it’s kind of inside baseball and assumes a certain base knowledge about the game and its history and operations.

August – nothing, according to LibraryThing. Is that right?  Nope, Amazon says I downloaded Lois McMaster Bujold’s new novella, Penric’s Fox.  Although this was just published in August, it fits chronologically as the third book/novella in the series, set after Penric and the Shaman and before his later adventures in Penric’s Mission and Mira’s Last Dance.  IMO, it is just as well, because I found Mira’s Last Dance to be fairly disappointing and appreciated the return to mystery/adventure.

September – I know it’s early for this, but I read at the beach and am likely to spend the rest of the month inching through the nonfiction I started on Friday, so…

  1. God Save the Queen by Kate Locke – steampunk + paranormal.  Steampunk has been really hit or miss for me, other than Meljean Brook’s work.  And I used to love paranormal but got vampired and werewolved out a long time ago.  (Would Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten stand up to a re-read, or would it irritate me now? I don’t know.)  But this was interesting in the set up of plot/conflict and some of the world-building.  I liked it enough to seek out the second book of the series.
  2. The Queen is Dead by Kate Locke.  Maybe I should have left this series at the first book?  Or perhaps not read it shortly after the first of the series?  In any case, I’m not wasting time or money on the third book.  The POV character’s use of the same phrase about having her trusty lonsdaelite dagger tucked into her corset became irritating after the fourth or fifth repetition, and she was a giant Mary Sue.
  3. Secrets in Death by JD Robb.  It was fine.  It was JD Robb.  There was bloody murder, Eve was conflicted about things, she and Summerset snark at each other, Roarke owns everything, etc.
  4. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner.  I’m only about 25% through this book.  The massive incompetence, outright fraud, criminal activity, hypocrisy, and bloated-ego-fest that was the CIA through its first decade or so (as far as I’ve read) is terrifying and infuriating and shame-inducing.

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May reading

Where the Dead Lie (St. Cyr mystery) by C.S. Harris – I know I read this book, which I borrowed from the library, but I can’t actually remember much about it.  *shrug*

Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen-Turner.  Part of her Attolia series, narrated by Kamet the Mede slave.  I guessed early who the Attolian was and the “twist”.  It was interesting, but not really a page turner for me, and the pacing was pretty slow.

A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong.  I find the set up for this series to be interesting, and I tend to like Armstrong’s narrators – they are strong, independent women who are often flawed and/or violent.

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February and March reads

Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley – This is an older/earlier book, and it shows in the development of the plot, such as it is.  The ending of the baby mystery was out of nowhere and didn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the piece.  It felt sort of wedged in, as if the author had written herself into a corner with the paranormal bit and then – voila! – came up with a practical/real solution that hadn’t been signaled in any way earlier in the book.

Echoes in Death by J.D Robb – Meh. Guessed whodunnit as soon as the character was introduced and the “twist” earlier on (during the post mortem).

The Chemist  by Stephenie Meyer  – Really trope-y heroine. Dreamy and not really believable hero. Split with twin to get all skills. Author had a couple of faux pas re: DC, especially re the Metro (there are no ladies rooms in Metro stops).

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs – Glad this was a library loaner, because paying for it would have irritated me.  Miscellaneous sloppy typos missed in copy edits (the for then, ambitions for ambitious, etc.).  Disjointed narration. If you have to tell me at the outset of each chapter the setting, then you are doing something wrong, too much telling. More everyone loves Mercy. More power pulled out of nowhere to serve the plot. Meh.

Mira’s Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold – The writing was fine, but this novella felt kind of purposeless to me.  Penric’s situation wasn’t really advanced from the end of the last story, on the run with a potential ladylove and her refugee brother.  They are in a slightly safer locale, but the conflict isn’t resolved or even moved forward at all.  It was vaguely interesting to get a different personality of Desdemona has a role, but absent actual progression, I felt like the novella was a disappointment; I wouldn’t call in a money-grab, exactly, but it felt purposeless and like fluff or filler.

Currently reading Empires of Light (nonfiction) and a biography of Ida Tarbell.

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January reading

I finished three books in January!  There was a time when three books read in a week would have been a slow week, but at this point of my multi-year reading slump, I’m thrilled by three in a month.

  1.  The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by KJ Charles.
  2. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman – really interesting look at some of the more popular spices of American cooking, which aren’t all exactly what I was expecting.
  3. City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong – new mystery series, female detective as narrator, found on the new books rack at the library.  I like the premise of the book and series, but the whodunit was given pretty short shrift in the end, all TELL TELL TELL rather than show.  It was disappointing, given all of the set up, but maybe a function of being the first in a new series.  I’d be willing to try the next book in the series.

Non-book consumer-y things lately:

  1. Graze – tried it after hearing an add on Gastropod (I think).  I like the ability to select flavors or block ingredients.  The weekly box is too much, but maybe every other week.  Or just buying certain snacks.  So far, my favorite snack is the cocoa orange bites, which come with green tea.
  2. Third Love – bras.  Not cheap, but really comfortable and well-fitting.  Also, they ship and you have 30 days to try and return, which is not something you can generally do with bras
  3. MeUndies – Xmas gift!  Love these, so comfortable.  Most of the patterns aren’t really me, but they are comfortable enough that I don’t care.

 

 

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The Hanging Tree

This was better than the last book.  Primarily because it was set in London and was centered around the Faceless Man.

But there were still some irritating things.  First, the complete absence of direct address commas.  Where have they all gone, editors?  Second, references to events that occurred in the graphic novels.  Aaronovitch has spent a lot of time and creative energy on them, I get it, but they are a completely different media that not everyone enjoys, and it is irritating as hell to see something, and making a reference to them as canon is a way to alienate some readers. Third, a lot of the characters and events of this book felt like they’d retconned by Aaronovitch to me in some ways.  Tyburn suddenly likes Peter on a personal level?  And other stuff that would be serious spoilers.  But some of it felt really inconsistent with the world as previously established.  Unless, of course, Peter as narrator is even more unreliable that I thought.

Eh.

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