Tag Archives: nonfiction

Recently read

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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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.


  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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Nonfiction I want

I’m sure there’s fiction coming soon that I want to read, but nothing springs to mind right now.  Instead I’m wishlisting a bunch of nonfiction.

Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre — available in the UK, not available in the US until January 2013.  But in the meantime, I’ve also got Goldacre’s Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks.  Goldacre is a research fellow and psychiatric registrar in the UK.

Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr.  Most people probably think of Alaska if they think of Seward at all, but he was pretty awesome as Lincoln’s Secretary of State.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t by Nate Silver.  I’m interested mostly because I’ve been watching Silver’s numbers for the election and am curious to get a peek into his philosophy.

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.L. Max.  What it says on the tin.  I don’t quite get the DFW adulation that so many feel.  Yes, he wrote beautifully, but no more so than many others.  Yet his suicide in 2008 seems to have lead to a literary canonization of sorts.  Maybe this will help me understand it.

(Okay, what is up with all the colons and subtitles? Can’t nonfiction writers and publishers come up with simpler titles?)

A People’s History of London by Lindsey German and John Rees.  Ackroyd’s London histories are just too dense and intimidating but this looks manageable, maybe as a jumping off point.


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SBD: Shakespeare according to Bill Bryson

Today’s SBD:  Shakespeare – what do we really know about him?  He wrote a lot of plays and some sonnets; he was from Stratford upon Avon, where his wife remained even as he spent years in London as an actor and playwright.  That seems pretty basic, and then there are the dedications to the Earl of Southampton and the poems to a beautiful youth, which encourage speculation that he was at least bisexual, and the dark lady of other sonnets.

Okay, really, what do we know for certain about Shakespeare?  That’s the question that Bill Bryson asks and addresses in his Shakespeare – the World as Stage.

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a wild supposition arranged around scant facts.  With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.  His Shakespeare is like no one else’s — the beneficiary of Bryson’s genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

That blurb indicates that Bryson reveals Shakespeare the man, when in fact Bryson very clearly indicates that he has NO IDEA who the man was as an individual and that there is little surviving information that would provide enough detail to draw any conclusions that were not purely speculative.

Bryson breaks the book, which is relatively short, coming in at only 196 pages, into an introductory chapter followed by chapters on the early years (what is known of his youth, primarily a function of his father’s position); the lost years (no one knows what he was doing or where he was); the London years; the plays; the years of fame; the Jacobean years; death; and claimants (the publication of the First Folio, and later speculation about provenance of his plays).  Bryson first disabuses readers of the notion that there are many primary sources of information from Shakespeare’s time.  He spends the vast majority of the book talking about academic speculation built on the scraps of verifiable evidence and textual analysis.  He himself does not engage in textual analysis, but hypothesizes who Shakespeare might have been as a man and a citizen of England and London during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.  The main difference between Bryson and the academics he chides seems to be his open acknowledgement that what he is doing is pure speculation, in addition to the fact that he draws no particular conclusions.

I found the book interesting in the sense that it questions things that the average person thinks s/he “knows” about Shakespeare, but generally preferred the more generic sections in which Bryson discussed the history of London or the tension between Protestants and Catholics to the sections specific to the man.  I haven’t read anything else by Bryson, so I can’t really compare; the blurb touts his wit and storytelling gift, which seemed a little flat here.  Still, I’d recommend the book as an antidote to the “biography” that is fed to students in standard high school and college survey literature courses.

Afterthought: I didn’t realize that in real life Derek Jacobi belongs to the Oxford camp, which makes his appearance in Anonymous that much more interesting.


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Loved, liked, and meh

Book I read last week that I loved: Novik’s latest Temeraire book, Crucible of Gold 

Several years and books ago, Novik hinted about the alternate history of the New World as a result of the existence of dragons, and in this book readers get to learn more.  But better than that, the dull, dragging narrative and clunky pacing of the last book have vanished.  While I understand intellectually that Tongues of Serpents was a set up book, it needed better editing and pacing.  (Like the second and third books, which felt like a single long book chopped in two for marketing/business purposes, I wondered a little if it would have been better off coupled with either Victory of Eagles or Crucible for better pacing and plotting because it was a disappointment on its own — that seems to be the general consensus among the readers I know.)

Anyway, I love the way the Inca and Tswana dragons and their view of their human families are a foil for the European mindset about dragon ownership, and yet at the same time highlight the possessive natures of the dragons in Temeraire’s coterie.

One particular part left me goggle-eyed and startled, because I did NOT see that coming.  Not shocked or offended in any manner and it sort of fits in retrospect, but just startled.  Sort of the way I felt when JK Rowling casually announced that Dumbledore was gay.

And the ending was good, circling back perhaps to clear up some dangling threads in the next book.

The book I liked well enough:  Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

I liked but didn’t love this book and I haven’t quite figured out why beyond a few general quibbles.  First, Anna’s development from cowering and fearful in the first book of the series to organizing and managing in this third book.  Told not shown, and not particularly believable to me given how hard Briggs worked to present her as hesitant, self-doubting and reticent.  Second, in the early books, Anna’s delicacy and short stature were made much of IIRC but in this book she is average height or taller.  Did she suddenly have a growth spurt after maturity?  Lastly, I’m growing uncomfortable with serial killers and rapists in urban fantasy and Briggs’ use of rape and/or threatened sexual assault to the female narrators and characters in her books in particular.  It’s all down to personal taste and YMMV, obviously, since a lot of other readers really loved this book.

The meh book:  Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

Some of the entries in this short survey are obvious (Joan of Arc); others are less so (Carry Nation); and still others are original and inspiring (Ida B. Wells).  The tone and style are extremely casual and informal, with the author making comparisons to Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc. — very pop culture referential, as if the author felt she had to equate each woman    It’s hard to condense the history of a complex character like Eleanor of Aquitaine to 15 pages or less, and the difficulty is very apparent here; in many of the biographies, the emphasis is on the trivial and the titillating rather than substance, which is an unfortunate waste of an opportunity.  There’s no significant analysis and the approach is not serious , and the bibliography and citations are somewhat lacking IMO.  Perhaps I’m the wrong audience; maybe a 20 year old who knows very little about history would be fascinated by this introduction to the wild women of days gone by.  Or maybe they could find the same information at Wikipedia for free.


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Currently reading and circling back to

Right now I’m reading Scandalous Women, a short volume with very brief biographies of women through history that were scandalous or infamous for their behavior.  I like the concept and the organization of the book but feel pretty ambivalent about the tone and style of writing, which is extremely casual and informal.  On one hand, it makes sense to use a contemporary approach to language, metaphor, and comparisons in order to introduce readers to historical figures they may never have heard of.  On the other hand, it seems a little too pop culture referential to me, since I don’t need names like Lady Gaga to be dropped in order to be engaged by the material.  But perhaps I’m not really the target audience for the book?

Last week Dear Author linked to an allegation of plagiarism of film content in a m/m book.  It just so happens that I reviewed the book in August and gave a negative opinion based on the editing, noting the similarity in plot to the movie although possible plagiarism didn’t occur to me at the time.  I’m contemplating doing a re-read of the book and a re-watch of the movie in order to examine (yes, I know others are doing the same and don’t necessarily think I have anything original to contribute to the discussion), yet am reluctant to read the book again — a lot of readers loved it, but I thought it read like a first draft and needed a lot of editing and polishing.  Worth it?  I don’t know, especially since the TBR is bumping up again.


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Post-holiday SBD

In theory, I should have a lot to say for SBD about books and leisure reading, namely genre romance, after having a long weekend to read brain candy.  Especially since the weekend included hours spent in hurry up and wait fashion at the airport and on jam-packed-full airplanes.

I had good intentions.  I downloaded a bunch of samples to try on Tuesday.  Skimmed and discarded them on Wednesday.  Bought a copy of Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk on Sunday in anticipation of the return flight.  The Black Hawk, which I bought because Adrian was the most intriguing character in Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, didn’t really grip me in the first 10 pages so I’ve set it aside momentarily.  (Of course, “momentarily” could mean “in perpetuity”, given my reading ennui and extremely short attention span.)

What did I read instead?  Nonfiction and magazines.

Last week, Rosario reviewed Through the Language Glass: How Words Color Your World, which sounded fascinating.  And I toddled off (metaphorically speaking) to Amazon to download a copy.  I’m about half way through, with lots of notes and highlighted passages.  Absolutely worth $9.99 if you’re interested in language or linguistics at all.

First magazine up, the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.  There’s a fascinating article on Russia’s demographic decline since 1991, as well as one on the euro zone.  The lead article, “Is America Over?” should be mandatory reading for every elected official in Washington and all members of the military-industrial complex.  The reviews of recent publications have me itching for more nonfiction, except some of the prices are INSANE.  $170 for a book on the evolution of the European Convention on Human Rights?  I’ll borrow it from a library or go without, thanks.  Of course, one book that sounds interesting, Oil of Russia: Past, Present, Future, is available for free online.

Second magazine:  Holiday Entertaining from Cook’s Illustrated.  Years ago, one of my roommates corrected me when I said that I couldn’t cook — she’d eaten many meals cooked by me, and thought it was more accurate to say that I was not interested in cooking but that I was capable of doing it well when necessary.  Which is true, I suppose — there are some recipes that I rock, but for the most part  steamed vegetables, pasta, roasted/baked/seared meat, etc., are the default when I have to cook (and microwave meals are not acceptable).  (There’s a reason behind that disinterest but it isn’t worth unpacking, thx.)  Anyway, if I’m so disinterested, why this magazine?  Because the table of contents included two articles/recipes that I love and will attempt to cook at home:  cassoulet and a Spanish tortilla.  Yum.  Roasted pear salad, sweet potato casserole, and butternut squash soup are not beyond me either.  We’ll have to see.

And there’s more nonfiction on the horizon:  TheBiochemist gave me a copy of History of the World in 100 Objects!  It is beautiful.  And huge.

Let’s see, what other book related things went on?  Well, the book club selection was made — A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.  H’s analysis:  Twilight for grownups, which cracked me up since I know exactly what she thought of Twilight (I gave her my copy and she used it as a doorstop after DNF’ing it after 1 chapter) and that whole mess.  Of course, most of the people in her book group loved Twilight, so…I’d love to sit in on that book discussion.



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