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?

Spies & lies

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer
3 terms:
twisty, quick, clever

Think: Gone Girl. Then add international spies.

And that’ll
give you this tantalizing little espionage thriller—a book I challenge you not
to race through.

story has the highest number of lies-per-page of anything I’ve read in recent
history. The thing’ll keep you guessing.

set-up is this: a man and a woman—ex-lovers—meet for dinner, some years after
the woman left the CIA, where they had both worked as spies. So they’re both
adept at the lying, spying game, but wow! it gets pretty intense there. As they
talk about the old days, this isn’t your usual story of exes reliving the past.

And the
book is short—just 304 pages. So if spy books aren’t exactly your thing, you’re
only in for a short time, and it’s totally worth it.

and betrayals and surprises and “Who’s
the good guy here?” 

Perfect for a stormy summer day. 

Sinfully good

Original Sin by Beth McMullen

By far, this is the funnest book I’ve read all year. It’s even got zippy cover art and everything.

Lucy Parks Hamilton isn’t really named Lucy Parks Hamilton. Neither is she really named Sally Sin, but that really was her code name when she worked as a spy for a CIA-like agency that tracked down weapons of mass destruction.

And now she’s a stay-at-home mom. …who drops her 3-year-old son Theo at preschool, only to keep the preschool under surveillance the entire time he’s there. Apparently old habits die hard.

And so do rogue spies who turned.

Lucy/Sally’s old nemesis, Ian Blackford, was a master spy until he went to the dark side and became a deadly arms dealer. (Dude’s also deadly handsome. And has a habit of kidnapping Sally for kicks.)

And now he’s resurrected himself from the dead, so Sally’s old boss visits her to recruit her to lure Blackford. And it ain’t so very easy to balance motherhood and espionage…

Lucy/Sally can kick some serious you-know-what, and she’s also a darn good mom. It’s a charming combo.

Readers of Janet Evanovich will find that Original Sin is not as over-the-top with the humor or bizarro situations, but it has the same light touch.

And I suggest this nonfiction pairing, which, to me, feels like an even better read-alike: Lindsay Moran’s Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy. Moran worked for the CIA, and her book is a hoot.

The good news for us is that Original Sin feels like it’s going to be the first of a series. I can’t wait for more.

One of the things I can’t read about

The Jackdaws by Ken Follett
Here’s what I was wondering throughout this audiobook: Can I really count it, in good faith, as a “book I’ve read” if I skipped about 5 tracks of the CDs? Because I had to skip 5 whole tracks in order to avoid hearing scenes of torture (which I completely can’t handle as a reader/listener*). That’s a lot of torture, guys.
If I’d’ve known, I’d’ve picked a different book for the genre study, but I got partway in (and this already was my 2nd choice book, so time was a-wasting) and then discovered that one of the main characters was a Nazi who specialized in “interrogation.”
The plot: A team of women spies have to sneak into a Nazi stronghold to take out the phone system in the days before D-Day. A tough, but (of course) beautiful, woman named Flick leads the team, which runs into all kinds of horrible obstacles. Blah blah blah.
So I already knew I couldn’t handle torture scenes, but I’ve learned from this book that I really just don’t like Ken Follett. His characters seem flat to me, and I’m not all that jazzed by the plot.
Same thing with Night over Water, which I read some years ago.
Yeah, I know The Pillars of the Earth is said to be his best work, but you won’t find me reading it. I am moving on…

* Other things I can’t read about: prison, mental institutions, medical procedures, cruelty — especially cruelty to children (the first time I started a Harry Potter book, I had to put it down — that cupboard under the stairs was too much), and animals dying. I also detest “heartwarming.”

Real Short Re-Cap: The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep: A Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer

I adore husband-and-wife dual memoirs. When I discovered All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President by Mary Matalin and James Carville many years ago, there was some seriously blissful reading happening.

And here, we got spying going on, so what’s not to like?

Actually, this is the kind of book that could look promising as all heck and then crash and burn.

But it didn’t happen. (You were worried there for a minute, though, weren’t you?)

The authors both have engaging writing styles, plus a great story, so this thing has the power to keep a person reading straight through to page 143 before getting up from her chair to get more coffee. (true story)

Historical Romance Bonanza!

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig
So this is a cool thing. I’ve been sort of reading (actually listening to) some historical fiction novels.
Sort of.
Because… the books in this series (which begins with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation) actually start in the present, but then launch back into the past via the coming-alive of the research done by Eloise, the main-character-in-the-present-day. (She’s having a conflict/flirtation with a guy named Colin, who’s a British chap descended from one of the spies she is researching. Lots of Romantic Tension.)
The story-in-the-past is thoroughly entertaining and is the main focus of the book. It’s all about British spies during that nasty war England had with France back during the Jane Austen days—and about the romance those spies each had with a strong-willed woman (each also a spy, kind of).
It’s light stuff, even though there are some moments where things get all action-packed. These puppies are heavier on the romance than on the espionage, and I think it’s good.
I think I liked this second book even better than the first in the series, which is always a wee thrill.
In the first book, I was certain I had the plot all figured out early on, but I Did Not. (Love that!) This, the second book, also has a who’s-the-secret-spy question, but it felt a bit more homey because it was set in England rather than France. I liked that.
So I’ve been getting in the car and hitting “Play” straightaway and then not driving too awful fast, because I didn’t want to have to leave the story behind. Not too shabby an endorsement, eh?
And I’ve got the third book (The Deception of the Emerald Ring [dear heaven, I love that title—it reminds me of my Nancy Drew days!]) all queued up and ready to go…

I Am a Female Reader

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

Perhaps (probably?) because I am a woman, I find that the prose of Ian Fleming leaves me cold. The reason I read this book is that it was our book club selection for the month. I confess that otherwise, I would never have attempted it. But when a friend selected it for the book club, I was glad, because it would coerce me into reading something I would otherwise not have read. For good reason, as it turns out. I think 007 is pretty horrid as a character; I would not like to know him. So hanging out with him throughout 181 pages was a prescription for pain.

Also, this book is full of three things I don’t enjoy: detailed action scenes (yawn), lots of French phrases (pretension!), and descriptions of card games/gambling (another big yawn, because I’m happily clueless about that topic).

One thing I did like: the page numbers appear as “002,” “010,” etc. That I liked. How’s that for damning with faint praise? I’ll leave this one on the shelves for the fellas.

More Spies

Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy by Lindsay Moran

In stark contrast to Valerie Plame Wilson’s book Fair Game, with its somber tone, Blowing My Cover is a lighthearted romp. In Wilson’s book, she comments that she is surprised that Moran was able to include so much detail about CIA training in Blowing My Cover. I confess that I felt pleased (and, yes, a small bit smug) to think that I already had Moran’s book in my pile of books to read—and opened it the minute I finished Wilson’s book (which had consumed my full attention while I was reading it—this is a rare situation for me, so kudos to Wilson.)

Again, in contrast to Wilson’s story, Moran’s account of her days in the CIA had me laughing out loud occasionally. Moran is not shy about poking fun at herself, and there are many ridiculous situations there she recounts with great humor. Some of the scenes at the Farm, during her training, are downright hilarious. But she also describes the loneliness of keeping secrets, being separated from family and friends, and lying to protect her cover. A startlingly frank account of a remarkable young woman’s experience as a spy.

Spies Like… Them

Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House by Valerie Plame Wilson

Two confessions:

Confession #1: I read the last part of this book first! I never do this. But here’s the situation: The Afterword (by Laura Rozen) provides some necessary context for Wilson’s story, because Wilson herself was prevented from sharing some key details about her experiences in the CIA. More about this later… after I reveal…

Confession #2: I got the idea to check out this book when I heard the Decemberists’ song “Valerie Plame” a couple of times on The World Café. First, let me declare that I feel bad for Ms. Wilson: she had built a career, and it was destroyed due to some nasty political wrangling that had little to do with her personally. That’s rotten. And I also feel kind of bad that I like the song, which seems to make light of her plight. (How about that rhyming there?) But here’s the thing: the song led me to the book, where she relates her own version of events, and I’m glad I read it. The prose is not stellar (neither is it flawed), but the story—yikes, what a story—carries a reader right along.

Here’s the reason to read the Afterword first: One tantalizing, frustrating, fascinating element of the book is that Wilson has left the blacked-out text in place—so the reader can see the sections (sometimes a word or two, sometimes two consecutive pages) that were disapproved for publication by the CIA. There are some surprising gaps in her story, which I imagine would have appeared in the blacked-out sections. And some of the gaps appear to be fairly innocuous information, based on their context—but truly, what do I know?

The true oddness of my reading these books about espionage is that I am truly chickenhearted and would pass out cold if I were in any situation that was even remotely as treacherous as the ones encountered by CIA case workers.

By the book’s end, I was even more fully on Wilson’s side in this whole debacle. She, her husband, and their children had moved to New Mexico by the time the book closes, and I have this sad vision of these two active, involved former Washingtonians in exile, slowly going stir crazy in the beautiful desert. Here’s hoping I’m completely wrong and that they’re living their dreams in the Southwest.

Spy Girl

The Spy Wore Red: My Adventures as an Undercover Agent in World War II by Aline, Countess of Romanones

Some people have comfort foods; I have comfort books. When life turns stressful, this is one of the books I turn to. This true story of a young model-turned-spy during WWII is enormous fun. When the OSS was new, Aline Griffith was recruited to join the agency as a spy, code-named Tiger. Her mission is to infiltrate Spanish high society to uncover a Nazi spy. And, oh yes, along the way she meets her future husband, a handsome, wealthy Spanish count. Romantic as all heck.