Code Talker by Chester Nez & Judith Schiess Avila

Genre: modern history
Secondary genre: war
Format read: audiobook
Content warnings: violence, racism, cruelty to animals
Rep: Native American (Navajo)
Rating: planchet-4

Navajo is a very tricky language. It’s said that one has to be born into it to speak it fluently because there are so many subtleties in pronunciation and meaning that an outsider just can’t pick them all up.

This is why the US government selected Navajo as the basis for it’s code during WWII.

Code Talkers is the story of Chester Nez, one of the original Code Talkers, from his upbringing just outside the Navajo reservation in New Mexico through his service in the Pacific theater, to his life after the war. It covers the many hardships and abuses visited on his family and his people by the government, and the fierce sense of patriotism that still lived in him. It is told in his own words, recorded by journalist Judith Schiess Avila.

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve learned how bad things are for Native peoples in the US and Canada, even today. I was unprepared for the events at the beginning of this book, and that fact that Chester and his compatriots remained fiercely loyal to the US, despite everything, I think shows a strength that I would not have.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about life for Native Americans or the hidden history of WWII.

For more information on conditions in American reservations, I highly encourage you to look at the Navajo Water Project, which the readers of my main blog voted to sponsor as our 2019 charity.

The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Genre: nonfiction biography
Secondary genre: history, spiritualism
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

In the wake of WWI, The Scientific American magazine announces a contest: $5000 to any medium who can prove before a panel of investigators that their powers were real.

And among those investigating was the master of sleight-of-hand himself, Harry Houdini.

After years of failure, one promising medium finally piqued the panel’s interest: Mina Crandon. Unlike most of the other psychics the SA had tried, Mina was not some stage performer hard up for cash. She was a society wife who performed seances for her friends. In fact, for the purposes of the investigation, Mina went by her middle name, Marjory, to protect herself in the articles the Scientific American published after her seances. Her “spirit guide” was her deceased brother, a sarcastic and ribald man who had died some years before. In her private seances, Walter told his friends secrets, made off-color jokes, whistled, played with a photograph and a selection of musical instruments, and played practical jokes on the sitters.

From the first, Houdini declared Mina was a fraud. While he repeatedly mimicked her act, he never made the attempt to catch her red-handed, as he did with all the other so-called mediums he examined.

The book chronicles roughly a decade of investigation into the phenomenon surrounding Mina. Though Houdini continued to declare her a fraud and mock her outright on stage, she only ever voiced the utmost respect for him.

I think Mina was a classy lady who pissed off a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. Some of it was straight up sexism. Some of it was prejudice against her vocation. But whether you think she’s an actress or really had conversations with the dead, there’s no denying she drew the short end of the stick after the investigation.

I do think the book was misleading, however. From the title, one would think it was about Mina, but about 2/3 of the book is dedicated to Harry Houdini, from his upbringing to his death, while Mina seems to arrive fully formed on the scene around the time the Scientific American prize is announced. Whether this is due to a lack of sources regarding Mina’s earlier life (it’s implied that she had a shady past) or the author’s choice is unclear, but the sexism that ultimately spelled her downfall in society can be felt in the author’s recounting of her story. It’s not overt, and in fact many will probably disagree with me on this point, but it was in the way the author spoke about her, and the quotes form those nearest to her. She was improper for a woman, and therefore could not be trusted or respected.

Have you read this one? Do you disagree?

Master Thieves by Stephen Kurkjian

Genre: history
Secondary genre: heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

If you read yesterday’s review of The Map Thief, then this book ties in very nicely with it, but is much more enjoyable.

Art enthusiasts and fans of heist fiction might be familiar with the story of the Gardner Museum theft in 1990 when 2 security guards were tied up and locked in a room, 13 works of art were stolen, and other were damaged in what appeared to be a random act of vandalism.

This book follows a slightly different investigative route than the police, arguing that the plan to rob the Gardner and the plan the thieves followed was thought up by another man–a may who was serving a prison sentence at the time of the robbery and had no connection to the crime. Which begs the question: Who were the thieves? How did they find out about the plan? And above all, where are the missing artifacts?

A real life mystery, Master Thieves reveals how what at first appears to be a hap-hazard robbery leaves many questions and no clues.

I really really enjoyed the story, though on audio it was a little hard to follow, frequently jumping between different criminal elements and naming many people in quick succession. I think it would have been a bit easier for me to read if I’d had a hard copy or ebook, but it was still quick to get through and I wasn’t bothered by my few moments of confusion.

Aside from the obvious link of being about theft of cultural objects, there is one other link between Master Thieves and The Map Thief: The changes in how crimes involving museum objects and cultural items had a direct impact in how the crime at the Garden was investigated, and how it would have been prosecuted, had there been any leads on who committed it.

If you enjoy art history, mob stories, or books like Catch Me If You Can, then this is worth giving a try.

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Genre: biography
Secondary genre: history, heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet

Fans of Catch Me If You Can and White Collar might fight my next selection interesting.

The Map Thief is a biography of a dealer in antique maps turned con man. E. Forbes Smiley didn’t start out dealing maps, but rather fell into it through his interest in history.

For about twenty years he was above board and well respected, but then his high living finally caught up to his checkbook, and he started stealing from the libraries and museums he’d helped establish.

The case was huge, impacting American laws regarding cultural patrimony (that is, things of historical and cultural value that may or may not have a high monetary value). As someone trained in art history, restoration, and conservation, it was a fascinating read from that perspective.

Sadly, if this were a fictional account I’d say it was poorly written with flat, unappealing characters. Smiley is just another mediocre, middle aged man who can’t handle his money or manage to show respect for others, thinking the world owes him something. Through the book he takes criticism poorly, lashes out at those who challenge him, and justifies the thefts through the fact that he helped establish most of the collections his maps came from. From a cultural preservation standpoint, I have a hard time imagining he was even a very good thief, cutting and tearing pages, folding them, and retouching with materials that weren’t historically accurate.

I won’t deny he was treated unfairly by the justice system after his arrest (though nonviolent, he was put in solitary for months at a time and denied basic hygiene), but all in all I thought the book was dull and it’s subject unsympathetic. The author’s last name says it all, really.


Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Genre: biography
Format read: ebook
Rep: Jewish, women in STEM, autism coding
Rating: planchet-3

**This review contains minor spoilers**

The early part of the 1900s was not an easy time for women in STEM, even if they were exceptionally brilliant.

Rosalind Franklin had every advantage growing up–she went to a well respected grade school, where she left a year early out of sheer boredom to take up studying science at Cambridge. She came from an upper-middle class family known for it’s progressive values and charity work, which helped her not only financially, but also assisted in making the connections she would use later in her life.

A dedicated researcher, she was utterly meticulous in her study of crystals, gathering every possible piece of evidence before forming her conclusions, sometimes to the frustration of her research partners. Rigid in her habits and methodology, Roslind was not the type of person to be swayed by the opinions of other, in the lab or out of it, and it led to her making many enemies.

Despite this, however, she had many friends, and that is what makes the ultimate scientific betrayal of her career the worst: it came from two people she considered not only colleagues, but friends.

James Watson and Francis Crick are known for discovering the double helix structure of DNA. But what few people know–even after Watson’s tell-all book published in the 1960s–is that they came to their conclusions after accessing Franklin’s work through a back-door method and without her knowledge or consent.

I cheered for Rosalind through most of this book, even though I knew it would have a bad ending (spoiler: she never found out her research had been stolen, and died from cancer a few years later. This is possibly a good thing, since she never saw the way her friend Watson portrayed her in his book).

While I don’t agree with her on everything, Franklin led a fascinating life, and one that is worthy of both respect and remembrance. Like so many historical women, her contributions have been largely forgotten, except in a few small circles related to her field (Cambridge later dedicated a building in her name).

She never sought fame nor fortune, nor really to even change the world. She had her interests and wanted to pursue them, to ensure that her research was protected, and that she received credit for the work she’d done. She had little tollerance for 1920s-1950s England, where women were paid less, and limited to only 10% of college students, where they could complete the exams and class work but where not allowed to receive degrees.

Thankfully, this didn’t stop Rosalind Franklin or hundreds of women like her from studying, working, and changing the world–even if it was in their own quiet ways.