02 January 2019

2018: Last Year in Review


Oh, 2018.  What a wild ride it has been.  2018 was a year of fresh starts and difficult losses and everything else in between. I said goodbye to a beloved job to take a chance on a new one. I moved for the third time in three years (not recommended) to the other end of the state. My father died. My new job was challenging and fulfilling, but also exhausting. I sorely missed my old home and friends in western MA and found it more difficult than expected warming to my new home and making new friends. However, I visited new places and old friends. I joined the board of my regional trade association and felt recognized for my contributions to New England bookselling for the first time. I bonded with my stepmother and realized that I still have family in MS even after my father’s passing. I have friends deep in my heart who helped me through many rough patches, even if I’ve never met some of them in person.

This may also be my last blog post. My new job is more demanding than my last one, and while I’m extremely pleased that my annual reading is back on track, or at least on its way to being back on track, I’m not sure that I will have the time and inclination to continue. We’ll have to see...

Here, then, is a summary of my reading for 2018, and a glimpse or two at some of my travels that I didn’t cover on my blog. I met my goal of reading 80 books and then exceeded it by two for a total of 82. A secondary goal for the year was to read with intention, diversifying my selection of books and the authors who wrote them. Here are some stats:

Books by female writers: 45
Books by male writers: 35
One anthology, one book written by one man & one woman
Books written by non-binary genders: unknown

Fiction: 63
Non-fiction: 19
Short stories: 9
E-books: 7
Graphic Novels: 5
Middle Grade/YA: 15
Diversity challenge: 30

I read so many excellent books this year, giving 4* or 5* to a much higher proportion of my reading than usual.  One thing I delighted in was the freedom to read anything I desired, whether it was previously published or not, once I started my new job, and I think my ratings reflect that.  In no particular order, here are the best books I read this year (not including any re-reads):

Sorry for the formatting issues.  Blogger isn’t cooperating with letting me put more than one image per line.  It’s unusual that three short story collections would make my top ten, but they were all incredible. Four of these books are by debut authors, which also seems like a high percentage. I sometimes have to fudge the numbers to include a children’s book or any nonfiction in my top ten reads for the year, but the Walter Isaacson and the Sy Montgomery, while being radically different, were both superlative. Ditto for Holly Black’s second series installment and Jarrett Krosoczka’s heartbreaking graphic memoir. 

My new work crew, accepting a local award
Despite starting a new job, commuting back & forth for a few weeks and then moving, and then being away to care for my father and my stepmom, I was able to do a little traveling. I started the year in Memphis with a trip for work that I combined with a visit to see my best friends. I made fun day trips to Brattleboro, VT, and Newport, RI, one with my beloved and one with his family. We bought season tickets to Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, NY, and have traveled there to see Les Miserables and other shows (with Hamilton to look forward to later this year!). We also spent a week near Acadia, Maine, reconnecting with a friend from high school, getting to know his family and friends, and seeing some of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever witnessed.

I suppose that 2018’s high and lows weren’t necessarily more numerous than other years, but the lows in particular were certainly more intense. I’ve had much to reflect on, with much more yet to come. Along the way, I was grateful to share the journey with the people in my life who mean the most to me. I’m looking forward to 2019 and the new adventures it will bring, including trips to Albuquerque for work, to Memphis to see friends, and to London for the very first time. I’ve completed my first book of the year on the first day of the year, so I hope that bodes well for a good reading year to come. I thank everybody who is reading this, whether you found me for my book reviews or my traveling writing, and I hope that 2019 becomes a year of possibility and hope for us all. 

11 April 2018

The Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Work has been keeping my very busy these last couple of weeks.  I’m grappling with questions about my future and my job, all while trying to stay on top of myriad deadlines.  In the midst of all of that, my book reviewing and blogging have fallen behind a little, so to make myself feel a bit better, here’s a mini review of a new collection of short stories.

Heads of the Colored People is a debut that simply blew me away, particularly the titular story, which is a true powerhouse (with a nod to Eudora Welty). Subtitled “Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology,” it plays with the fourth wall, turns readerly expectations upside down, makes you laugh, and then utterly guts you. I mean, seriously sucker punches you.

I picked up this collection of stories because of the provocative title and stayed for the sheer writerly talent contained within.  Thompson-Spires’ narrative voice is so distinct, so self-assured, that it defies belief that this is her first book.  Edgy but always accessible, she’s a new literary talent to be reckoned with. Put this book on the shelf with Junot Diaz and Roxane Gay, where it will be in good company. Seriously. Just buy this book.

Heads of the Colored People went on sale in the US yesterday, published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster.  I read an advance reading copy provided at my request by the publisher. My coworker and I liked this book so much that we made it a selection for my store’s signed First Editions Club, and I am very much looking forward to meeting Nafissa Thompson-Spires in person at the end of this month.

02 April 2018

Last Month in Review: March 2018

Image found here.

March was full of so many good books, two of which I actually got around to reviewing already. Out of the nine books, two were nonfiction, one was a re-read, one was an audio, two were graphic novels, and three were by authors of color. I really liked or loved each of them, too, so all the winning for me!

1. Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano. This book was a useful reminder that I should read more graphic novels.  This one follows a young boy named Ebo in his desperate quest to leave Ghana, cross the Sahara, and make his way to Europe to keep his family together and make a better life. It’s an incredible read. Review here.

2. The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This debut novel follows a quartet of classical musicians from their years in graduate school through adulthood, children, relationships, etc.  It’s a very good book, and one of the few books I can think of that explores the importance of work relationships and non-romantic intimacies when people’s livelihoods are intertwined. The music writing is pretty incredible, to boot.

3. Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett. This is one of the two nonfiction books I read this month and the other review I happened to have written.  I had no idea who Michael Bennett was when I picked this book up to read, but it turns out that he’s a professional football player who is also an activist, and he has some pretty terrific things to say.

4. Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple.  I can’t tell you how long it’s been since I read a book that was already published, but I was in a bit of a book slump and not interested in anything I’d brought home from work to read, so I grabbed this one from the shelf.  I liked it.  It has the same wry, bordering on dark, humor that marked Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and the same kind of brilliant and neurotic protagonist, too.

5. America for Beginners by Leah Franqui.  Another debut novel, and this was the right book at the right time for me.  Featuring the widow Mrs. Sengupta from Kolkata takes a trip to the US, where she is accompanied by Ronnie Munshi, her tour guide guide, and Rebecca, her companion (for modesty’s sake). These three unlikely pilgrims make their way across the US, but Mrs. Sengupta has a hidden agenda: to find and meet the partner of her gay son, whom her husband disowned. I love road trip stories, and this one had so many rewarding moments.

6. The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons.  This is another debut, this time a story collection that feels like it’s the love child between Kevin Wilson and Kelly Link.  Each story is dark, leading either to a dark & twisted or dark & titillating conclusion. Lee Boudreaux edited this one, and she’s my favorite editor in the industry.  I will blindly read anything she had a hand in, and a ridiculously high percentage of the time I will come away better for having encountered her books.

7. Sisters by Raina Telgemeier. I can’t remember the last time I read two graphic novels in one month, but the one arrived damaged at my bookstore -- too damaged to sell -- so I was able to take it home to read for free.  So much fun, so much truth about sibling and family dynamics! I had read and loved Telgemeier’s Drama and I’m not sure why I never got around to this one until now.  Good stuff here.

8. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I am a bonafide fiction girl from way back, but this collection of essays just may be my favorite book by Ann Patchette.  This is maybe my third (fourth) time reading this book and this time I was listening to the audio.  Patchett reads the book herself, so hearing her voice in the car on my daily commute made me feel like I was in the company of a friend.  This book is incredibly useful and insightful if one wants to be a better writer, but I actually think it is just as useful and insightful if one wants to be a better human being. 

9. The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.  I had the great pleasure of having dinner with Thrity and a couple dozen booksellers last week, courtesy of Harper Collins.  This is the sequel, of sorts, to The Space Between Us, which I had read years ago and enjoyed, but this book, after getting off to a somewhat slow start, became a book that I really loved. The politics of gender, class, and sexuality converge in this heartfelt tale of women and the hardships and indignities they’ve had to survive in 20th and 21st century India.

And just because I happened to have found old photos, here are pictures of Parnassus, the beautiful bookstore in Nashville that Ann Patchett co-owns with the marvelous Karen Hayes.  Wouldn’t it be great to revisit your childhood and find a place for kids that is as magical as the children’s space at this bookstore, complete with a child-sized entrance that requires passing through the pillars of the Parthenon?

28 March 2018

Book Review: ILLEGAL by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin, illustrated by Giovanni Rigano

Oh, graphic novels. Why don’t I read more of you?  I know the studies that tell me that reading you stimulates both hemispheres of my brain.  What’s more, I know from my own experience how rich and rewarding reading them can be, whether it’s a book that retroactively informs my own childhood (see: Roller Girl) or something that renders the unspeakable down to a distilled form so the reader can grasp at understanding the unimaginable (see: Maus). I can’t answer my own question, but every time I encounter a great graphic novel, I remind myself anew that I should read more of them, and the one that has done that most recently for me is Illegal. This is the same writing team that brought us the Artemis Fowl series, which I have not read, and if I should ever stop being a bookseller (god forbid!) and have more time to read books already published, their efforts here would certainly prompt me to pick up those books.

 When I was in Memphis for Winter Institute in January earlier this year, I picked up an advance reading copy of this graphic novel in the galley room, that mystical, magical place where books are piled high on tables and booksellers walk through, helping themselves to all the free books they want. The cover was compelling, and what’s more, the advance reading copy was complete, not just a blad, and rendered in full color, so I tucked a copy away into my book bag for future reading.

Illegal is told by Ebo, a young boy from Ghana, who follows his older brother Kwame across the Sahara, who in turn has set off on a journey to find their older sister, who left Ghana years ago for Europe to try to make a better living for the family. Whether it’s the menacing human beings they encounter on their way, or the peril of survival at sea, Ibo and Kwame face danger after danger as they make their way to Tripoli across the desert, only to be launched onto a small boat little better than a life raft and set adrift in the Mediterranean.

The story is poignant and Rigano brings the story evocatively to life with his illustrations that are often bleak, but not without tenderness. Ebo intersperses his present day narrative, which begins on an overcrowded dinghy at sea, with stories of how he came to be floating on the open ocean with his brother and a group of desperate strangers.  Rigano differentiates the stories to great effect using cooler tones for the present day and a neutral palette for the past:

Authors Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin don’t pull many punches with the narrative. Young Ebo’s life is defined by constant struggle and haunted by tremendous loss, and yet there is still something indomitable in his spirit that keeps him going. The ending is more bitter than bittersweet, but it’s also not without hope, and I would love to know more about Ebo’s story. 

Jabberwocky, a division of Sourcebooks, will publish this book in August 2018. I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough.  The book says that it’s rated for ages 10 and up, but I’d suggest for readers that young that an adult read in tandem to answer the inevitable questions this book raises.  If you’re looking for a book that will build readerly empathy in your child, though, this can’t be beat. 

21 March 2018

Book Review: Only Child

Rhiannon Navin’s debut novel, Only Child, broke my heart.  I read an advance reading copy of it in November 2017, but the book didn’t publish until February 6, 2018. It takes as its subject the wake of a school shooting, following one family through their grief, loss, anger, and inability to cope with the enormity of their feelings. While the author seemed to use circumstances from the Sandy Hook shooting as a jumping off point for exploring the emotional aftermath, this book immediately took on new immediacy when the Parkland, FL, school shooting took place less than one week after it was published. 

Zach Taylor is the young narrator of our book, and he’s in first grade when his teacher rounds up his class to hide in the cloakroom. POP POP POP. He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he’s scared every time he hears POP POP POP. Once the police arrive, things get really chaotic for young Zach and his classmates; they’re herded out of the school to a small church to wait for their families, but now the police officers are yelling at them, barking orders for them not to turn around and look at anything, and in general making the situation even scarier. 

When Zach learns that his older brother Andy died in the shooting, his first thought is one of relief.  You see, Andy was always loud and mean to Zach, so Zach thinks that finally he can be happy, that family meals will be peaceful, that mommy and daddy won’t yell at each other so much either, now that Andy’s uncontrollable mood swings won’t be disrupting the family. He’s still trying to process the happy potential of being an only child while his parents fall apart, clearly incapable of taking care of Zach in the face of their overwhelming grief. 

Once Zach finally does grasp what it will actually mean to be an only child, the reader’s heart breaks all over again for him.  He doesn’t have the language skills or emotional intelligence to understand the feelings of guilt to which his family abandons him; his mother has been hospitalized for hysteria and his father is so incapacitated that he barely notices that Zach is in desperate need of attention. Even Zach’s grandmother, who comes to stay with them, doesn’t know how to be there for Zach, so he tries to cope in his own limited way: he builds a hideout in Andy’s closet, draws pictures, and models his behavior on what he imagines his heroes Jack and Annie from The Magic Treehouse series would do. 

While there were times when reading this book last fall that I felt the author was verging on being emotionally manipulative, in retrospect I don’t see it that way at all.  Like the young narrator of Emma Donoghue’s amazing novel, Room, the author uses a childish perspective to great effect, casting light on the emotional horrors of a situation without ever being graphic. One could argue that the limited perspective is even more successful for building readerly empathy, as we are required to fill in more blanks on our own with what Zach leaves unsaid and unobserved. 

It’s difficult to imagine that a book depicting a school shooting and the effects it has on both family and community can end with hope or forgiveness; Navin doesn’t push the envelope that far, but she lays the groundwork for redemption and understanding, which is more realistic, and she lets a little child lead them. Navin’s accomplishment in creating Zach as narrator stands shoulder to shoulder with Room, as I mentioned before, and with the narrator from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, creating an indelible voice poised perfectly to direct the story, allowing the reader to see life from a distinctly different perspective. I recommend this book highly.

14 March 2018

Book Review: Things That Make White People Uncomfortable by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin

Talk about provocative titles, right?  I picked this book up in January when attending Winter Institute, an independent booksellers convention, in Memphis, TN. There’s a magical place there called The Galley Room, where tables groan under the stacks of books piled thereon. All the booksellers have to do is wander around the room and help themselves to complimentary copies of anything that looks good. Like many readers and booksellers, I actively try to diversify my reading (which for me also means intentionally choosing some non-fiction sometimes amidst the literary fiction that comprises my main reading interest AND making sure that I read works from small publishers), so this book ticked all the boxes.

It turns out that Michael Bennett is an important player in the NFL, a fact that no doubt many readers would know, but which took me completely by surprise.  I have since asked myself whether I would have picked this up to read if I had known that, as I have zero interest in footfall, despite having grown up in Mississippi, where football is less a sport and more a religion. As of my reading of this book, he was a player for the Seattle Seahawks, but as of this writing, he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.

At any rate, I’m glad I picked this book up to read because first of all, Michael Bennett is talking about things that make white people uncomfortable, and second of all, he’s doing it in a very accessible and conversational tone.

If you know football, then you quite likely know some of the things that Bennett has been involved with, starting with the support of Colin Kaepernick and his kneeling during the national anthem, but moving beyond that to his participation in the Black Lives Matter movement.  So far, so awesome.  But what I really loved about this book was Bennett’s passion for intersectionality and the many ways he’s become involved with his community and speaking out against (or in some cases, FOR) various things: the institutionalized racism of the NFL and the NCAA, the importance of providing affordable and wholesome foods in the poorest urban centers, the marginality of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people in every aspect of our society -- really, the list goes on.

In one case, Bennett had been invited to Israel to play an All-Stars exhibition game, which he was really excited about because he loves to travel and meet new people. But not long before departure, he took a closer look at the itinerary and realized that it was a very sheltered trip, he would not be allowed to visit Palestine, and that the trip was not just a goodwill trip, but a political one. He canceled, voiced his reasons publicly, and spent months researching Israel and Palestine, and then booked his own trip there.

On the subject of becoming an activist: “It’s so much easier to talk shit than to do shit, because once you are out there representing what you believe, people see the real you. Most everybody in the world wears a mask, and very rarely do people unveil who they really are...So I’m going to be judged by strangers on the core of who I am, and yes, that makes me vulnerable and it can even feel terrifying. Nobody wants to lose his job like Kaepernick...but if the price of employment is silence, I just can’t do it anymore.”

On the subject of politics and personal activism: “As much as I was into Bernie, I also believe that just electing someone and expecting them to make real change happen for us is a dead end. I believe in intersectionality because Bernie Sanders -- or anyone else - isn’t going to end racism or bring resources into underserved communities. We are going to need to connect with each other to bring about the shifts we need. I hope we have more political candidates who express the values Bernie was talking about, but we still have to do the work.”

On becoming woke to gender discrimination: “Knowing that sexism and gender violence and employment discrimination are going to be real obstacles in their [his daughters’] lives makes me want to fight for girls and women with all my heart.  I wish it didn’t take having daughters for men [and me] to realize that this is their struggle, too. It should be enough that we are all human and we should want equality. But the reality is we live in a world where women -- especially Black women -- aren’t valued, and that often means that until we are looking at the world through our daughters’ eyes, we just don’t get it like we should.”

Amen to all of that.  Whatever Michael Bennett has next in store, I look forward to it.  It’s not every day that somebody can get me to consider football, really consider it, and I’ll be the first reader in line for his next book.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable will be published by Haymarket Books on April 3.  Go out and get yourself a copy to read, why don’t you? 

01 March 2018

Last Month in Review: February 2018

For being such a short month, I got a good bit of reading done, and I’m maybe 10-30 pages away from finishing two other books I started in February. Did I consider fudging on those and including them here? Absolutely. But I was able to refrain and they will show up for next month’s stats instead. 

In reverse chronological order, then, here’s what I finished:

1. Hamilton: The Revolution. Dayum. I was slow to come to this musical, but that just makes me a fool. It’s just utterly brilliant, and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack while reading the book.  I have basically zero background in hip-hop, but that doesn’t matter one bit when it comes to how much I love and appreciate what Lin-Manuel Miranda has accomplished here.  I’ve rarely been as convinced of someone’s genius as I am with this guy.  

2. The Wicked King by Holly Black.  This is the sequel to The Cruel Prince, which came out in January, but this book won’t pub until January 2019. Holly’s books regularly make my year end best-of lists, and this likely will keep in line with that. Here she’s accomplished the improbable: she has written a sequel that is even better than the first book of the series. I pick up Holly’s books to read when I want an escape, since her world building is utterly immersive, but then I remember how sharp an eye she has for the politics that transcend the human realm and therefore how much reading her books can inform my current world.

3. Black Panther: World of Wakanda. This was the first comic I’ve read in years, certainly in my adult life.  Review here

4. A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker.  This book won’t be out until May, but since our store will be doing his book launch, we had access to the complete F&Gs.  This book is, in a word, gorgeous.  Becker’s illustrations are lush and thoughtful, full of layers that the reader can unpeel a bit more with each encounter.  Like his Journey trilogy, this book is also wordless, but oh! What stories the imagination can weave in the face of images like these. 

5. Florida by Lauren Groff.  This collection of short stories is just stunning.  I’ve read Groff’s novels before and have long considered her a master of language (you can see my review of Arcadia here), but this book also brings a powerful self-awareness to bear, particularly in the recurring character of The Mother.  The state of Florida is itself a sort of character here, too, its sights, sounds, and oppressive humidity lending flavor to the narrative. This book will pub in June, and I hope to get around to reviewing it. 

6. Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is another story collection from a debut author.  The first story, from the which the book takes its title, is a real powerhouse. Subtitled "Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology," it plays with the fourth wall and and turns readerly expectations upside-down. While not all of the stories are as strong as the first one (frankly, I think that would be nigh-impossible, it's just SO DAMN GOOD), the collection taken as a whole is an important contribution to the narrative of race in America.

7. Last but not least, I finished the audio book of Code Girls by Liza Munday early in the month, and many of the stories she shares here have stuck with me since.  You can read my full review here.

How about y'all?  Was February a good reading month for you?  What did you love?  

20 February 2018

Book Review: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell

This is the first book I’ve ever picked up by Maggie O’Farrell, but it was so incredible that I’ve ordered in her earlier books so that I can read those, too. This book is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes with Death” which sounds grim, but actually turns out to be a brilliant conceit. Maggie O’Farrell tells her story as a series of essays, each concentrating on a near death experience. The first chapter, in which she encounters a murderer, is certainly one of the most gripping.  In it, the author is just turned eighteen and is out hiking in a remote area on her own. She meets a man on the trail whose presence absolutely chills her, but she walks on by. A few minutes later, he has somehow gotten in front of her and cuts her off, lassoing her with the leather strap of his binoculars to look at some birds.  Thinking quickly, she immediately ducks out of the strap and starts to babble loudly about how she’s expected at work, powerwalking down the hill toward the village. She reports the incident to the police, but they dismiss her as hysterical. Two weeks later, another young woman from the village is found strangled on the same trail – and all of this is recounted as a way to explain why the author is a bit spooked by the thought of  hiking with her young daughter alone, and why to this day she doesn’t like to wear scarves or have anybody touch her neck.

Not all of the chapters are as edge-of the seat as the opening one.  In one of them, she recounts some of the foolish decisions she has made in her life, like jumping off a high pier at night into the sea below, only to find herself stuck in an undertow, and utterly unable to detect whether she was swimming towards the surface or dragging herself farther under. Or when she was a child and ran into the street, straight into the path of a car.

She also juxtaposes the pernicious childhood disease that she survived against the life threatening allergies that her daughter has. Her writing is luminous and soul-searching, whether she’s recounting her childhood or reflecting on her adulthood. And I think the most amazing thing is how she turns each of her seventeen brushes with death into a jumping off point for an essay that examines life. 

Also, the cover is very pretty, with the feather done in a shiny, coppery gilt.

16 February 2018

Book Review: World of Wakanda comic

I’m not 100% sure, but I think that Black Panther: World of Wakanda is the first comic that I’ve read in my adult life.  It is, without a doubt, the first comic that I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked up this prequel to the Black Panther series when I was browsing at the delightful White Square Books in my new hometown. Despite working in another bookstore, I am incapable of leaving a good bookstore without a purchase, so I decided to give this a go. I chose World of Wakanda for various reasons, but mostly because I like to vote with my pocketbook: I wanted to support the efforts of Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I also figured that reading a comic prequel would put me in good stead for watching the forthcoming Black Panther movie when the film is released.

Alas, the book was not for me, but I rush to add that I think it’s more to do with my inexperience with the comic book world and my general lack of enthusiasm for super heroes in general*. Although in retrospect it should have been obvious, I should have expected that disjointed feel going into my reading, since it’s actually the bound copy of the first six issues printed together.  Naturally that would result in large jumps in time, locale, and character for each issue, but the lack of cohesion really threw me off.  Also, the entire thing is written in ALL CAPS. This was hard to read, and I’d love for someone to enlighten me: is this a typical thing in comics? It drove me batty. On an even pettier level, the grammatical errors distracted me out of the story every single time.

All of that being said, in no way do I regret my purchase, as I am happy to support this franchise and the much-needed diversity it brings to the world of Marvel comics. Moreover, I dug the story of the Dora Milaje, the fierce warrior women of Wakanda, sworn to protect the royal family, who evolve into something more, and I really dug the love story between Captain Aneka and Ayo.

If you read comics of the super hero variety, and particularly if you’re interested in supporting diversity in a field that has for too long been dominated by white cis-male characters and readers alike, you’d probably like this.

Full list of authors and illustrators: Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yona Harvey, Rembert Brown, Alitha Martinez, Roberto Poggi, Rachelle Rosenberg, Afua Richardson, Tamra Bonvilain, Joe Bennett, Rahzzah, and Joe Sabino

* I felt the same way about watching last year’s Wonder Woman film.  Super glad I voted with my pocketbook to show the powers that be that it’s important for super heroes to reflect more than the white boys who grow up to be heroes. And I loved the first half of the movie. But like with any super hero story, I quickly grew weary of the ever-increasing unbelievability of the exploits. 

10 February 2018

Book Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

In an effort to work a little more nonfiction into my reading this year, I picked up the audio book to Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II when my store was sent a box of complimentary items that included both the audio and regular hardcover versions of this book.  Thank you, Hachette!

The title is pretty self explanatory -- this book is an overview of women’s involvement as cryptographers and cryptanalysts during the war, and the author does a creditable job of bringing these women’s stories to light.  More than 10,000 young women worked as code breakers during the war, but because they took secrecy oaths under penalty of death and also because most of the women were forced out of work once the war was over, their stories are not part of our shared lore and history of that war. Until now, that is.

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US government started sending letters to young women attending various colleges in November 1941, inviting them to secret meetings where they were judged on various aptitudes for numbers, patterns, and languages, as well as their character. Those deemed worthy enough then pursued further training before being invited to Washington, DC, after graduation.

This book ranges from the thrilling to the mundane, talking about the desperation for breaking both the Enigma machine on the European front and the various Japanese codes on the Pacific front, but also ranging into the daily lives of these women -- the hardships they faced, but also the simple joys of having escaped the dreary confines of the proper lives they had, up until recently, been expected to assume.

One thing I enjoyed was hearing more about the involvement of Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges for the war effort (since they’re both local to me) both in terms of the number of their young women who joined the ranks of codebreakers and the training grounds that they became for female officers, once the Army and Navy decided to admit women.

While the author did a terrific job describing the raging sexism and misogyny that these women were facing, I would have appreciated hearing a bit more about the rampant racism of the age since the reader only gets to know white women and their contribution to the war effort. It remains mostly unspoken that it was only white women who were college educated at the time, and of good enough pedigree for the US government.

Erin Bennett was the reader for this book and while I don’t recall anything that stood out about her performance, she was a solid reader. Mundy’s research seems solid, based on the footnotes in the physical book, but I do wish that the narrative had been a bit more streamlined. There were multiple times when the narrative diverted to epistolary excerpts between one of the women codebreakers and the young man who was in love with her -- they didn’t advance the storyline and they weren’t interesting enough, either from a romantic or a historical point of view, to include them. Overall, however, this is a book I could easily recommend to the general reader, but particularly to readers of historical nonfiction and those interested in knowing more about the stories of those people who have traditionally been marginalized.