Deciphering the life of a codebreaker

Elizebeth Smith Friedman
(source: NSA)

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

3 words: engaging, journalistic, myth-busting

Holy Toledo, people. This book.

I didn’t want to put it down. It just kept surprising me at every turn.

Here’s the situation: In 1916, a young woman visits Chicago, looking for a job. A librarian at the Newberry Library, after talking with Elizebeth Smith, calls an eccentric millionaire, who zooms up in a big car, grabs Elizebeth by the arm and whisks her away. (That part freaked me out.)

Dude was George Fabyan, whose grand estate, Riverbank, is only a couple of miles from our house. So that had my eyes bugging out. But then I read on, and the story of Elizebeth’s life became even more surprising.

Fabyan hired her to work on his highly questionable quest to prove that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. But then, thank goodness, she directed her sharp mind to the other work of Riverbank Laboratories: codebreaking.

And during her years at Riverbank, she began her work as one of the most influential pioneers of cryptography. Thing is, partly because of the highly confidential nature of the work, and largely because of her gender, history has tended to overlook the contributions of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

The thing that had me spitting tacks was learning that J. Edgar Hoover claimed credit for much of the work Elizebeth Smith Friedman did. And she could do nothing about it, because she was sworn to secrecy. Infuriating!

So this book reveals many such truths and grants her the credit she deserves.

It’s also the story of the remarkable partnership she shared with her husband, William Friedman. They met at Riverbank (where they lived in a windmill after their marriage; I find this completely charming) and together wrote important textbooks about codebreaking. The early years of their marriage, when they truly worked in partnership as cryptographers, are a beautiful thing to read about.

Then: war. And another war. During the two world wars, the Friedmans both worked on codebreaking, but they no longer worked together. And the secret nature of the work meant that they no longer worked as partners. This made me sad, and it also seemed like it could have diminished the incredible synergy of their collaborative work. But still, they both continued to break codes that saved American lives during war. It’s pretty amazing that two self-taught people could develop such ability.

This book astonished me on many levels.

  • First: I learned the life story of a woman I wish I’d known about earlier. Why haven’t we heard of her? [rhetorical question, obviously]
  • Second: It tells the truth about the contributions she made, and it reveals the lies of those who claimed credit.
  • Third: It’s stunning to think about the unlikelihood of her being hired to do work that morphed into codebreaking — her natural talent.
  • Fourth: Living so near the place where she began her work makes the story even more exciting.

Give this book a whirl if you like… narrative nonfiction, the early days of codebreaking, really smart women, stories of marriages, WWII espionage, celebrating a woman who never got her due

What’s the biography that most astonished you recently?

Alexander Hamilton: it’s simply amazing

shirt courtesy of

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

3 words: detailed, absorbing, lush


It’s no secret that I’m hooked on Hamilton. But there’s much I’ve left unsaid on this topic. So, today: an exposé!

Welcome to… True Confessions and Contradictions


The 1st confession

It took me 14 months to read this book, even though I loved it.

Granted, it’s 818 pages long, but sometimes a person races through a long book. This biography is packed to the gills with details, and each sentence is worth reading with a fair amount of care.

Which is not to say that this is a tough read — it’s the opposite. In the Acknowledgments, Chernow says he read aloud every word of the book to his wife. When I saw that, I thought, “Ahhhh! So that’s why the thing is so darn readable.”

Take this section: “Words were his chief weapons, and his account books are crammed with purchases for thousands of quills, parchments, penknives, slate pencils, reams of foolscap, and wax. His papers show that, Mozart-like, he could transpose complex thoughts onto paper with a few revisions. At other times, he tinkered with the prose but generally did not alter the logical progression of his thought. He wrote with the speed of a beautifully organized mind that digested ideas thoroughly, slotted them into appropriate pigeonholes, then regurgitated them at will.” (p.  250)

So the book is long, the writing is lovely, and the subject matter is almost too weird to be true. Alexander Hamilton led a wildly unlikely life.

This leads us to…


The 2nd confession

I admire Hamilton’s genius and his work ethic and his professional ethics, but I despise his decision to betray his wife.

The heights this man reached, particularly considering the early obstacles he faced, are nothing short of astonishing. And then Chernow uses the perfect words to sum it up: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” (p. 481)

I don’t know about you, but sentences like that stop me in my tracks and sometimes set me to weeping.

And then there are things like this: Jefferson gave Gallatin the task of uncovering fraud committed by Hamilton, and Gallatin came back with, “‘I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders and committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.’” (p. 647)

Again: stunned and awed.

And then I remember Hamilton’s torrid affair with Maria Reynolds, and I think: Dude, there’s never any call for that, and I think harsh thoughts about his character.

Which brings us to…

The 3rd confession

I find Hamilton a completely fascinating character, but I’m pretty sure that if I knew him personally, I wouldn’t like him.

There’s his decision to disregard his marriage vows and humiliate his wife, there’s his abrasive personality, there’s his ego. I don’t like any of i

t. And I know: without being abrasive and egotistical, he might not have accomplished all he did. But I still get to think I don’t like that personality.

And yet! There are other moments in his life that fill me with joy: the collaboration and writing of The Federalist (this part of the book made me so happy) and his partnership with Washington. I remember a reference question about political speechwriters from my early days as a librarian, when I learned that Hamilton and Washington had co-written Washington’s farewell address. And reading about it here caused me some mild ecstasy.


So, like the very best of books, I’m left pondering and weighing ideas and rethinking. It’s one of those satisfying reading experiences that carries on even after the final page. I’m leaving my page of reader’s notes inside the book when I shelve it, so I can easily refer back to the parts I loved best. (I’ve never done that before.)


Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, American history, historical scandal, complex historical figures, in-depth biographies, Hamilton the musical


Anyone else out there a Hamilton fanatic?

George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years


So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.


Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.


The office at Locust Grove


Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures


So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?

That sports book that’s way more

Chasing Water: Elegy of an Olympian by Anthony Ervin and Constantine Markides

3 words: introspective, unflinchingly honest, surprising

The book I can’t stop talking about? It’s this one.

Ervin and Markides have written themselves one doozy of a memoir / biography mash-up.

This book’s got in goin’ on in multiple ways.

First, the structure is fascinating. If you like books with multiple viewpoints, you’re gonna love this thing. Ervin and Markides share the storytelling, and the story is so much more interesting than it would’ve been with only one viewpoint. Ervin tells his story in his own words, which brings an intimacy and an immediacy to the narrative. But Markides’s writing about Ervin is equally fascinating, because we see him from two angles.

Second, Ervin’s story is so outrageous and complex, it’s only believable because it’s actually true. No way you’d get me to buy this story if it were fiction.

Dude won the gold medal in 50 meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, then fell off the face of the Earth.

Except really, he fell into and out of school, drug abuse, homelessness, tattooing, rock & roll, cigarette smoking, nearly every type of high-risk behavior imaginable, and all kinds of different belief systems. He nearly wrecked himself.

Then, in 2011, he started swimming again.

And by 2012, he qualified for the Olympic team.


It’s pretty stunning.

Roll in there, the fact that he has Tourette’s, is half African-American and half Jewish (but doesn’t particularly identify with either group), and is training for the 2016 Olympics right this minute, and People, We’ve Got Ourselves a Story Here.

This book is a very intriguing look inside the mind of an elite athlete who’s also a philosopher.

And the book contains remarkable descriptions of Ervin’s form as a swimmer. Markides had me breathless when I read these words:

“It was strange to reconcile the unhurried, cerebral Ervin I knew with the swift aquatic creature slicing toward me. But it wasn’t even his speed that astonished me so much as the way in which he traveled through the water–although ‘through’ isn’t even exactly right. There was something in his swimming I’d never seen before: he seemed to swim not through the water but over it.” (95)

Yowser, guys. That’s some good stuff there.


(He’s the one in mint green.)


So yeah. This book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s not the usual heroic sports story; it’s way more more nuanced than that.

I’m grateful to Ervin for “torching his soul” to write this book, and to Markides for writing such a stunning, close third-person view of Ervin’s story thus far.

Anyone else gonna be watching the Olympic trials to look for the guy with the sleeves?


Nixon, we hardly knew ye

Reflecting pool at the Nixon Presidential Library…

for the man who was totally *not* into self-reflection

Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
3 words: psychological, fascinating, insightful
So this was a weird one. I read a review of this book last year, thought I might like it, saw the page count (619), and thought, “Yeah, I think I’ll pass…”
Then it showed up on some “best books of the year” lists, and I felt bad for skipping it. But still not enticed.
Then one day we were in a bookstore and I picked up a copy and told the Dear Man, “Yeah, I’m feeling guilty about not reading this book…”
And as soon as I opened the book, I was hooked.
It was the typeface.
And here’s the thing: I’m not a typeface snob. I’ve always found it weird when books announce their typeface at the end of the book. But in this book’s case, man, it made a difference. (In case you’re wondering, the typeface was Sabon.)

There was also really beautiful spacing on the pages.
And a photo at the beginning of each chapter.
My friends, I read this book.
And from page xi, on which the author describes Nixon’s adoration of the movie Around the World in 80 Days and the way he’d get all enthusiastic about the scene with the elephant… I was a goner.
But the thing that most delighted me about this book is how sad it made me.
I know that sounds nuts. But stay with me, guys.
Because of my mild Watergate obsession, I’ve read me a book or two about Nixon. And many of these books have explored his psyche.
But none of them were like this.
This book delved deep into the contradictions in Nixon’s character, ambitions, and view of himself. And man, it’s nothing but fascinating.
He strove to be inspiring and positive and joyful.
And mostly he just wasn’t any of those things at all.
It kind of breaks my heart.

I have new sympathy for the man. 

This book breaks new ground, and it’s that rarest of rare things: a true original in a packed field. 

Supremely fun

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

3 words: smart, inspiring, fun

I’m pretty sure Shakespeare was anticipating Ruth Bader Ginsburg when he wrote, “And though she be but little, she is fierce.” 
This woman is tough, people.
One of my favorite anecdotes from this book shows RBG, only days after having a stent put in her heart, saying, “Tell them I’ll be back doing pushups in a few days.”
(Her workout includes 20 pushups. No joke.)
Gotta admire that.
This book is like a playground for Supreme Court geeks. And if you’re inclined to like Justice Ginsburg even before reading this book, afterward you’re probably gonna want to tattoo yourself with her image.
(Or maybe not.)
So: playground!
Beyond zippy, fascinating stories about RBG’s life (and she’s led a fascinating one; I especially love reading about her nearly 60-year marriage, which was a true partnership), this book contains tons of color photos, entertaining illustrations, timelines, and annotated court decisions and dissents.
It’s the kind of book that makes you smarter while you’re having fun.
Seriously, the book’s format is happy-making. All that visual interest really makes it a lovely book to hold in your hands, and then it’s packed with stories like the one about RBG wearing her special dissent collar when she’s going to read an oral dissent from the bench.
And you can keep on living the dream on Tumblr, where the book’s seed sprouted.

Totally inspired, and also perfectly entertained. A wonderful reading experience.

Me & LBJ


Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency by Mark K. Updegrove
LBJ, signing the 1968 Civil Rights Bill
(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)
OK, first: the author of this book has one of the coolest jobs in the world. He’s the director of the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum (a
place I want to visit so bad it hurts).

And he’s put together a terrific book.
I guess this style of book is sometimes called an oral biography (which is such an unfortunate
phrase), but I think in this case it’s not an accurate description, because it
also involves print sources. This one is a mix of snippets from interviews,
memoirs, and biographies, all strung together to create a cohesive narrative.*
So, on one page, for example, we have a section from an LBJ interview, followed by an excerpt from a Barry Goldwater interview, then a
paragraph from a book quoting Warren Rogers (bureau chief for Hearst
Newspapers), followed by a Ted Kennedy interview snippet—all dealing with the complex relationship between LBJ and the Kennedy family.
This style of book—you can pick it up and read a little bit, and
then put it down, knowing that you can dive right back in again where you left off. (Some books require a running start to resume reading them; this kind doesn’t.) So for a reader who’s feeling scattered, I highly recommend this format.
And with this book, I experienced that thing that happens with biographies: the feeling of dread as I reached the end of the book—because the
person dies. And at the end of this book, I was blinking back tears. Of course, I already knew LBJ has the power to make me weepy. 
And it happened again with this book. Here’s how:
After leaving the presidency, LBJ spoke of a story he’d been told
by one of the Apollo 8 astronauts, who said that he went into his backyard and looked up at the moon and wondered if could be true that he had really been there. LBJ said he’d told that story to some friends and said, “Perhaps… the time would come when I would look back on the majesty and the power and splendor of the presidency and find it hard to believe I had actually been there.” Of the first night back on his ranch, he said, “But on this night I knew I had been there. And I knew that I had given it everything that was in me.” (p. 322)
Reading these words (that last part!) just a few pages before the end of the book, and then reading the final words about LBJ being buried near an oak tree on his ranch—it just did me in.
[Let’s pause, as I collect myself…   Hang on, it’ll be just a moment…
All right. Now we may proceed.]
This portrait of LBJ paints out a few of the unpleasantnesses, and as long as a person recognizes that, I think it’s OK. But there also are some surprises here, and one of the big ones (BIG!) is that LBJ made the transfer of
power (from himself to Nixon) go very smoothly. He was generous. In the words of Walt Rostow: “[The transition] was a magnificent performance to observe. But I think it goes back to a strand in President Johnson that I think is important and hasn’t been caught much, which is that he is a man of government—politics.” (p. 315) 
A simply wonderful look at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential years, told by those who were there.
*Some other fine examples of this style of book:
Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, as Told by Its Stars, Writers and Guests by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller
Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career by George Plimpton

Yup, he’s still my favorite

Jack Kennedy:
Elusive Hero
by Chris Matthews

Chris Matthews, along with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, are
heavily responsible for that political science degree of mine. Matthews’ Hardball and Woodstein’s All the President’s Men were too good
to resist. I needed more.
It’s been a year or two since that first semester of college
[understatement, anyone?], and I’m still hooked on this stuff.
So this new book, by Matthews, about my favorite president (even
though yes, I know: Lincoln
was nobler) was beyond irresistible.
It’s a glowing portrait of JFK, and I’m OK with that. 

Here’s a
sense of Matthews’ take: “In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting
prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world
he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than
he ever wished us to know.” (p. 11)

Given that I’m already a Kennedyophile, those two sentences nearly
did me in.  
Plus, Matthews has a fine writing style that flows right along,
and you gotta like that.
Also, it was a comfort to me to read the old story* again. I’ve
known the basics of JFK’s life story since way back when I was still playing
with Barbies (yeah, so 4th grade was maybe a little old for dolls,
but hey). Back in those days, once I’d planted the Barbies in their dream
house, I’d head for the presidential and First Lady biographies. And JFK was my
fave back then, too.
So, yeah, I know the bio. Boyhood illnesses and bookishness:
check. PT-109: check. Malaria and back surgeries: check. “Irish Mafia”: check.
So, I gotta say, there wasn’t too much new information here.
But—the thing that sets this book apart is that Matthews incorporates snippets
of interviews and memoirs of those who knew Kennedy well, and that makes it
feel very fresh and somehow current.
So if you’re in the mood for an adoring biography of JFK, this book’s
probably gonna do it for you.

OK. Hymn flashback here. The phrase “the old, old story” kept running through
my head while I was reading this book, which launched my brain’s secret stereo
into this fine number imprinted on me during my younger years. It’s a grand old hymn that really demands
to be belted out with some gusto. In keeping with the 4th grade
Barbie recollections, we’re going to hear it from the Oak Ridge Boys. Hello¸early ’80s!

(But guys? I am not suggesting that we compare JFK to Jesus. That really doesn’t work.)

Merry Christmas! Let’s talk about the Nixons…

Mrs. Nixon by Ann Beattie

If you like your books to be all one thing, cut and dried (perfectly fictional, or perfectly nonfictional), then this book will drive you straight up the wall.
For the rest of us, who maybe are intrigued by the occasional mash-up: Splendor!
(Though. If I owned a copy of this book, I’d have to put it in nonfiction for 6 months of the year, and then move it to fiction for the remaining 6 months. There’s a small element of literary/shelving stress here.)
Beattie does some zany stuff in this book, including writing an entire chapter in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s style, about two characters who haven’t appeared before in the Nixon narrative. The man is writing a love letter to the woman. Turns out, we learn at the end of the chapter that the text of the love letter was the actual text of a letter Richard Nixon wrote to Pat. The rest of it is all made up, characters and all.
This book is interesting, guys.
You turn the page, and you don’t know if you’re going to get a literary interpretation of the short story “The Necklace” or social commentary in Pat Nixon’s voice or the author’s musings on why she felt drawn to write about Pat Nixon of all people. (She even writes a false version of events to explain why she chose this subject. Then confesses immediately that the previous chapter was A Lie.)
And it all ties together.
There were several moments while reading this book that I gave thanks to my 18-year-old self, who knew that majoring in English would have been a bad idea for me. There was just enough literary analysis in this book to remind me that I just don’t like doing that stuff. (Hello, readers! You ain’t gonna find nothing deep on this here book blog.)
Anyway. Pat Nixon. She’s one of those so-placid-she’s-nearly-invisible political wives. So that’s actually pretty intriguing, because you know she was having secret thoughts inside that perfectly-coiffed head of hers. So why not have a
novelist imagine what those thoughts were? And also, she was married to Richard Nixon! So there’s some built-in tragedy there.
I’ll say it again: This book is interesting.
Thanks to NetGalley and Scribner for the ARC.

BAND August Discussion

The Bloggers’ Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees topic for this month is:

How did you get into nonfiction? Do you remember your first nonfiction book or subject? If so, do you still read those subjects?

Who: Unruly What: got hooked on nonfiction Where: in small town Iowa When: in 3rd grade Why: because of biographies.

Yes, biography was the gateway, and I remember it vividly.

First, there were the biographies of the Presidents and First Ladies. There’re whole sets of biographies of all of them, written just for kids, and I just may have read them all. (Type A 3rd grader? Yes.)

Beginning that year, anything that was a biography—I would read it.

Yes, I’m talking biographies of Evel Knievel, Harriet Tubman, Leif Garrett (though that was serious research, because I intended to marry him), Eli Whitney, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, and Barry Manilow.

This biography thing has stuck. I’ve branched out into other nonfiction reading, but the biographies maintain their stronghold. Of the nonfiction books I own (because I can’t live without them—that’s my criterion for book-buying) the biggest category is biography.

You know how they say that looking at a child at age 7 is the best predictor of the adult that child will become? Well, a wide swath of the reading I do now is freakishly similar to the stuff I was reading way back at age 9 or so: biographies of presidents, aviators, and the occasional celebrity.

We’re gonna hope that’s because the die was cast and I am who I am. (Either that, or I’m just stuck at age 9 for life. Though I have gone off Leif Garrett. Sorry, Leif. I had to go and change on you.)