History

THE WOMAN ALL SPIES FEAR by Amy Butler Greenfield

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I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

When Elizebeth Smith accepted a job studying Shakespeare’s First Folio on a wealthy man’s estate, her primary motivation was to escape her domineering father’s household. But this unusual opportunity would set her life on a new and unexpected course. On the estate, she met fellow employee William Friedman and the two began collaborating on code breaking projects. Their partnership would become both professional and romantic, skyrocketing them both into positions as elite cryptanalysts for the United States government. Though William would become famous for heading the team that cracked the Japanese code machine “Purple” and for his role in the fledgeling NSA, Elizebeth’s contributions to her country were less celebrated and in some cases attributed to others–men, of course. But Elizebeth’s incredible work not only saved American lives in both World Wars but broke down barriers for women in intelligence work and pushed the boundaries of code breaking.

Spanning two wars and featuring colorful characters from eccentric millionaires to rumrunning gangsters, this true story at times feels like fiction. Though marketed to teens, adults will enjoy this fascinating biography just as much as younger readers. Greenfield is honest about holes in the historical record but still manages to uncover enough information to piece together a cohesive picture of Friedman’s secretive life and contribution to counterintelligence. Bits of code included in the text along with instructions for deciphering it add a beautiful interactive element to the book. I highly recommend this one to teens and adults alike!

THE PRINCESS SPY: THE TRUE STORY OF ALINE GRIFFITH, COUNTESS OF ROMANONES by Larry Loftis

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Though Aline Griffith’s contributions to the war effort in 1940s Europe were entirely clandestine, her life after leaving the OSS was anything but. She married into Spanish nobility, attended parties with stars like Audrey Hepburn, and published a series of sensational memoirs about her time as a spy.

But how much of Aline’s memoirs was sensationalism, and how much (if any) was truth? Larry Loftis set out to answer these questions and in THE PRINCESS SPY, brings the real Aline Griffith to light. Though there were fewer murders and death-defying feats than her memoirs suggest, Aline’s impressive fieldwork, her involvement in a lesser-known theater of the war, and her courtship with various bullfighters and noblemen make her a fascinating figure by any measure.

Though Aline’s story anchors the narrative, Loftis includes deep-dives into the overall work of the OSS in Spain, especially where it involves her recruiter, Frank T. Ryan, and colleague Edmundo Lassalle. For this reason, I would recommend THE PRINCESS SPY not only to biography readers but also to any WWII or military history enthusiast who enjoys narrative non-fiction.

BAD BLOOD: SECRETS AND LIES IN A SILICON VALLEY STARTUP by John Carreyrou

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For years Theranos was the “it” company in the Silicon Valley. It was the perfect startup–using technology to create an unprecedented medical device that promised to save lives. Theranos bragged that with just a finger prick, its devices could run hundreds of blood tests with a higher degree of accuracy than traditional lab tests. The icing on the cake was Theranos’ young, charismatic, female CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Investors, scientists, and pharmacies were lining up to get in on the ground floor with this female Steve Jobs and the technology that would revolutionize the industry.

But not everyone was so excited about Theranos’ product, as investigative journalist John Carreyrou first discovered when approached by a fearful whistleblower. Despite threats of litigation, and NDAs, and a toxic culture of secrecy and bullying, a handful of Theranos’ former employees felt compelled to speak out about the faulty devices and numerous lies Holmes was feeding to investors and consumers. Her aggressive and secretive tactics may have been part of Silicon Valley’s tech culture, but Theranos had a key difference: they manufactured medical devices. Their lies were putting people’s lives in danger.

Fighting a multi-billion dollar company and its lawyers was no small feat, but Carreyrou pursued the truth and ultimately published a series of articles in the WSJ that brought Theranos to its knees. In this gripping book, he describes the corruption of Theranos in detail and demonstrates the frightening ways that Holmes exploited a “fear of missing out” to lead investors and business partners to completely disregard regulations, business protocols, and basic common sense.

THE ALICE BEHIND WONDERLAND by Simon Winchester

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Famously, the story that would become the enduring classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began as a tale told aloud to a young girl named Alice Liddell. The author, Charles Dodgeson, had done some writing in the past under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, but he did not dream of becoming a novelist or a children’s entertainer. Instead, he spent his pittance of a salary from his low-level position at Oxford on the new and exciting art of photography. Much of the surviving evidence of his relationship with the Liddell family comes from the photographs he took of the children. A particularly enigmatic photograph of Alice dressed as a beggar serves as the focal point for Winchester’s examination of Dodgeson’s photographic passion and his relationship with the girl whom he would immortalize in his tales of Wonderland.

Although I have enjoyed some of Winchester’s other works, I found this book underwhelming. He devotes a significant amount of time to discussing photography practices and other photographs Dodgeson took, occasionally losing the focus on Alice and the Liddell family. Furthermore, the book contains no reproductions of the many photographs it discusses–a true limitation since the comparison and contrast of Dodgeson’s relationship with the Liddell siblings and other children largely depends on the reader’s ability to imagine and mentally compare the photographs. Winchester also mentions Dodgeson’s diary frequently when discussing his relationship with the Liddells and his relationships with and attitudes toward young girls, but the book would have benefitted from more direct excerpts from these diaries to help support Winchester’s conclusions.

Overall, if you are interested in the subject matter, this is a brief and interesting read, but it lacks a certain amount of depth and supporting material which could have elevated the book to a truly engaging narrative.

LAST OF THE GIANTS: THE RISE AND FALL OF EARTH’S MOST DOMINANT SPECIES by Jeff Campbell

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How would you feel if you encountered a 12 ft. tall bird? Or a 6 ft. tall, 10 ft. long ox?  As strange and potentially alarming as they might sound, these and other giant creatures ruled their ecosystems until humans hastened their extinction.  In his book, Campbell describe the origins, history, role, and extinction of thirteen “giants” of nature.  Each account is incredibly interesting, but detailed and written with a sophisticated, scientific style that may not appeal to all of the teen readers to whom it is marketed.  Despite a few half-hearted and awkward references to social media, and an occasional break in tone for an attempt at teen-speak, the book reads like a scientific article.  So while it won’t attract a broad teen audience, it is fantastic for high schoolers and adults who are interested in the subject matter and looking for a well-researched, thorough narrative about the evolution, impact, and decline of each species–as well as a glimpse into the future of possible back-breeding to restore giants into the ecosystem. 

An engaging read which I recommend to older teens and adults who are interested in biology and/or history.

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.

THE GREAT COURSES: THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES taught by Professor Philip Daileader (2004)

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Nerds that we are, my husband and I enjoy watching educational television programs in the evenings. We have found this one to be particularly exceptional. Taught by one of my favorite college professors from William and Mary, this course includes 24 lectures about the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages. Professor Daileader has a dry sense of humor and inserts amusing historical tidbits, jokes, and anecdotes throughout his lectures, such as Diocletian’s penchant for cabbage growing or Justinian’s wife’s rumored association with geese. We have found these lectures both informative and entertaining and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in learning a little more about this period in history.

LONE SURVIVOR: THE EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF OPERATION REDWING AND THE LOST HEROES OF SEAL TEAM 10 by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson

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In 2005, Marcus Luttrell and three other members of SEAL Team 10 began tracking a Taliban leader in the mountains of Afghanistan, a mission called Operation Redwing.  But when several Afghan goat herders stumbled upon the SEALs, Marcus and his teammates made a decision that would cost them their lives.  Unsure of whether the goat herders had allegiance to the Taliban, and unwilling to execute them for fear of being prosecuted for war crimes upon their return to the States, the SEALs released them.  The goat herders immediately reported the SEALs to the Taliban, who had them surrounded within hours.  In the bloodbath that followed, Marcus’ three teammates on the ground—as well as every SEAL in the rescue copter that came to help them—were killed.  Marcus survived (barely) and struggled to evade the Taliban warriors who were tracking him through the wilderness, hoping for a rescue he wasn’t sure would ever come.  But ironically given the source of the SEALs’ betrayal, Marcus’ salvation would also come in the form of Afghan goat herders.

Lone Survivor is part biography, part military history, and part survival narrative.  As far as the writing/storytelling goes, it took me a really long time to get into the book.  The first half was a bit scattered and confusing as it jumped back and forth in time and in and out of story and political commentary; it took me a really long time to get into it, and I almost gave up.  But about halfway through, beginning with Luttrell’s description of SEAL BUD/S training, the narrative got more straightforward, and it became very engaging.  The account of the battle is gruesome, horrifying, and heartbreaking.  I have not seen the movie yet, but my brother, who is in the Navy, has this to say, “The movie was better, even though I know the book was more accurate.  The movie was more believable, because it was simplified, and when you hear everything those SEALs went through it is so crazy it’s hard to believe.”  He also says the storytelling in the movie flows better, which does not surprise me now that I have read the book.  I do hope to see the film someday, but it will have to be at a time when it doesn’t matter if I have a few sleepless nights.  A horrifying and thought-provoking account of the reality of war, and a heartfelt tribute to the friends Marcus lost.

OVERDRESSED: THE SHOCKINGLY HIGH COST OF CHEAP FASHION by Elizabeth L. Cline

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Have you noticed a change in American clothing stores?  I didn’t until I read this book by Elizabeth Cline.  In the past several decades, clothing in mainstream “department” stores has gotten cheaper and more uniform.  But to drive down costs, manufacturers also sacrifice quality, creating a sustainability nightmare and a culture of overstuffed, homogeneous wardrobes.  Overdressed traces the history of clothing and shopping habits in America and predicts where our bargain-driven clothing culture will ultimately lead.

This book was interesting, but didn’t keep me engaged the whole way through.  I think a more concise article on the topic would have better fit my attention span.  But if you are really interested in clothing and social history, it is definitely an intriguing topic.

FORTUNE’S BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM by Marilyn Nelson

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Commissioned by the Mattatuck Museum in Connecticut, The Manumission Requiem mourns the death and celebrates the life of a man named Fortune, a slave owned by Dr. Preserved Porter who—after Fortune’s death—dissected his body and hung his skeleton for display in his office.  Fortune’s bones passed through many hands, finally coming to rest in the Mattatuck Museum, and Fortune’s identity was only recently rediscovered.  The collection poems with which Marilyn Nelson remembers Fortune is short but powerful; it is a Coretta Scott King Award Honor book.  I would recommend Fortune’s Bones to teens and adults who are interested in reading stories about slavery or who enjoy thought-provoking poetry.