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Sep 01, 2018 10:21AM ● By Michael Harris

Code Girls


I've always been a big fan of codes and ciphers. When I was a kid, I had a Captain Midnight secret decoder ring. (Captain Midnight was a 1950s TV superhero sponsored by Ovaltine. The ring cost three Ovaltine labels.) The only other kid in the neighborhood with a ring was my buddy Skippy, so we could send secret encrypted messages back and forth that none of the other kids could read.


Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to read Liza Mundy’s Code Girls. It's "the untold story of the American women code breakers of World War II.”  Codes and ciphers have a long history in diplomacy and war, but World War II made code deciphering a necessity for the survival of democracy. The Japanese and Nazis had encrypting machines that sent coded messages to their diplomats, ships, and troops. Figuring out these secret messages became the obsession of a group of young women recruited from colleges and teaching jobs who had an aptitude for math and puzzles.


You've probably heard of the British mathematician Alan Turing, who broke the German enigma code during World War II. His story was even made into a movie. But I'll bet you’ve never heard of Dot Braden, Anna Carachristie, Agnes Driscoll, or thousands of other young American women who cracked hundreds of Axis codes, including the Japanese naval code that led to the American victory in the “Battle of Midway and changed the course of the war in the Pacific” in our favor.


Mundy “paints a vivid portrait of the daily lives of these energetic single young women” and takes extraordinary pains to explain how these math whizzes and small-town teachers helped defeat the Axis and save millions of American lives. My only criticism is the unbelievable detail Mundy uses to describe the personal lives of the "girls." In trying to “give so many women their due,” she crams in so much information about these women that “it’s hard to keep track of her vast cast of characters.”  Nonetheless, this book “brings to life this riveting story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment."


Another interesting book about an American woman is Cecile Richards’ memoir Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead. Richards was the longtime head of Planned Parenthood, but her story encompasses far more. Born into a progressive Democratic family in ultra-conservative Texas, Richards was a troublemaker since seventh grade, when she wore an anti-Vietnam War armband to school and got sent to the principal's office. She got much of her moxie and her sense of social justice from her mother, former Texas Governor Ann Richards.


Richard's memoir is intended to inspire women (and men) to get involved, much as Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. Richards “encourages readers to take risks, make mistakes, and make trouble along the way.” Helpful advice if you want to get something done.


If you're interested in suspense, consider Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant. After a flight to Dubai, flight attendant Cassandra Bowden hooks up with a passenger from her flight, an American businessman of Russian descent. They go back to his hotel room in a drunken stupor. Cassie has done this many times before, but this is the first time she's awoken the next morning in bed with a man whose throat has been slashed.


Did she kill him? She can't remember. Was he really who he said he was or did he have a more mysterious past? Her struggle to hide her involvement and find out who he really was and who wanted him dead make for an entertaining read.


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