Yet Another Little Known, Yet Very Consequential Woman –The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking.  Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself.  She was raised in a small town in the Midwest.  She only went to college because she insisted upon it.  Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here.   Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college,  Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests.  She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves.  Undeterred, Friedman kept looking.  Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare.  Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War.  Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known.  Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.

The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice.  Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides.  This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.

Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there.  Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.


Little Ladies — Bold Women in Black History, An Inspiring, Informative and Very Important Book for All of Us

You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself.  You will learn something, and you will be inspired!

Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections.  As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of  American history from all sorts of perspectives.  I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible.  Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring.  Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it.  Really.  I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed.  I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to  spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions.   Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women.   The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements.  These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time.  The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual.  This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.

Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be.  It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included.  In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.

This book belongs in every child’s library.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 


The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!


To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.


The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer


Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.




Plucked from Writing Book Reviews and Sent to the McCarthy Hearings


In 1954, Mary McGrory was a single woman who had been writing spirited book reviews for a number of years.  After her boss at the Washington Evening Start ascertained that she wasn’t planning to get married any time soon, McGrory was suddenly transferred to the news desk at and sent off to cover the McCarthy Hearings.  What an amazing way to jump start a nearly fifty year career as one of the country’s most successful political columnists.  Somebody really needs to make a movie of about McGrory.  She was an epic character in an epic time.

In the meantime, John Norris has written an excellent biography of McGrory – Mary McGrory – The First Queen of Journalism.  While Nellie Bly enthusiasts may quibble about the “First Queen” designation, McGrory undoubtedly reigned as  queen of the Washington political reporting scene for half a century.  She could be imperious, selfish and demanding, but she wrote a heck of a column.  As a long-time columnist, she knew everyone and covered presidential campaigns from Adlai Stevenson through the George W Bush years.  The campaign stories alone are worth reading this book, particularly since McGrory started out at a time when reporters knew a lot of dirt about politicians, but didn’t necessarily spill it.  The stories of politicians trying to charm her or squirm out of answering deceptively mild yet go-for-the-jugular questions are priceless.

Although McGrory was an unabashed liberal and wrote highly opinionated columns, she did give politicians on both sides of the aisle a difficult time.  Bill Clinton was said to get apoplectic about her critical columns.  At the end of the day, McGrory was a very strong personality who was hard to pigeonhole.  She could be nice or she could be horrible to competitors.  The stories are hilarious, but they carry a serious bite.

I can’t help but wonder how McGrory would have reacted to the present school of journalism, where Fox is consistently conservative and constantly accused of skewing its news reporting accordingly and MSNBC often faces similar accusations from the other side.  In her day, unfazed by political neutrality niceties,  McGrory didn’t just express her political view point in her columns.  She took it a significant step further.  She could be a political activist and push people like Bobby Kennedy to run for office.  Despite the highly opinionated tone of her columns, McGrory’s column almost always appeared on news pages, rather than editorial pages, and she waged ferocious battles to keep it that way.  Issues  of journalistic ethics crop up throughout the book, but it seems that McGrory’s powerful personality held sway for her columns.

John Norris has done a skillful job of showing us McGrory, with all her fine points and her not-so-fine points.  Above all, I am just grateful that he has given us a highly readable record of a unique and powerful life.  I wasn’t familiar with McGrory’s story and am really grateful that now I know about her.  I strongly recommend this book.



Still More English Princesses


I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge.  The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun.  As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.

Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives.  Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother.  Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched.  Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative  leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story.  If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.

Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances.  Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier.  They were a loving couple, and they only had two children.  There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around.  It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.”  Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her.  Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education.  They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education.  They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided.  Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day.  One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education.  The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch.  That she has done.  She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way.  Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.

Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse.  Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children.  Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her.  In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all.  If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.



The Ultimate Jane Austen Biography


What could be better than reading snippets of Jane Austen’s own correspondence, where she surgically dissect the foibles and the pretenses of her circle of friends and acquaintances?  It is an absolute treat to read what the author of Pride and Prejudice had to say about some of the silly and self-important people around her, and it is reassuring to know that she took up a pretty wicked pen at times.  Austen’s correspondence with her sister, unbridled with the need to be kind or conventional, makes for especially wonderful reading and an enhanced understanding of Jane Austen’s personality and the inspiration for her books.

Sadly, very little of Austen’s own correspondence survives.   Much of it was destroyed by her family after her death.  The motivation for this inexcusable destruction isn’t altogether clear, but some of these literary vandals seemed determined to present a more prim and proper depiction of Jane Austen than her own correspondence would support.

Fortunately Claire Tomalin’s brilliant 1997 biography, Jane Austen – A Life, pushes through clumsy familial attempts to deify Jane Austen.  Tomalin makes full use of the correspondence of Austen and her family and friends, as well as a number of descriptions of Austen by her contemporaries, to provide a robust and convincing portrait of this transformative and beloved author.  Jane Austen, as described by Claire Tomalin, is highly intelligent, impatient and flawed.  She also craves independence.  Austen was often described in less than glowing terms by people who met her, but their negative comments often help delineate her personality and independence.  It is impossible to know all, but it seems that Austen was blessed with an independent spirit and wasn’t unduly hampered by the need to please and win over everyone she met.  This Jane Austen likely toned it down a bit when she wrote her novels.  As it happens, the Jane Austen presented in this masterful biography is far more endearing and affirming to a modern feminist readership than a well-behaved and conventional Austen could ever be.

Tomalin provides a comprehensive and compelling analysis of how, when and why Jane Austen came to write her glorious novels.  Full-time authors frequently struggle to find the time and the will to write.  For Austen, a maiden aunt distracted with the demands of a very large, extended family and struggling with genteel poverty, the impediments might have proved insurmountable.  Moreover, Austen lived in a period where women’s education was frequently hit or miss, where very few women wrote books and where access to literature was often limited.  Fortunately, she acquired sufficient education and access to literature to provide a springboard for her writing.  No matter how busy she may have been with household tasks and the needs of her family, Austen was lucky enough to have time to read the literature of her day and to begin writing plays and stories from an early age.  She was also lucky to have an encouraging family that read and listened to her writing and then to helped with the publication of her books.

Austen’s single status also seems to have been crucial to her development and success as a writer.  Her realization that she didn’t need to marry and that she might prefer life as a single woman, gave Austen far more freedom than the average woman of her time.   It must be noted that remaining single also kept Austen alive — the book is strewn with all too many accounts of women dying in childbirth after bearing as many as eleven(!) children.   Austen’s awareness of the relative benefits and risks of matrimony and motherhood provide fertile inspiration, particularly for the female characters in her books.

Tomalin shows that instead of being thwarted by her limited means and often parochial surroundings Austen used them.  Because Austen had no home to call her own and because she had a large extended family , she frequently traveled as a poor relation from one relative’s house to another.  This involuntary nomadic existence presented its own humiliations and challenges, but it also gave Austen the opportunity to observe how others lived and related to each other.  Although she may have been impatient with the constant travel and unvarying routines of these households, she was astute enough to use what she saw as the basis for the characters, settings and circumstances of her remarkable books.

As Malcolm Gladwell has written, when it comes to success there is no substitute for working very hard for a very long time.  Jane Austen produced relatively few books, but she really worked on them over periods of years.  She went through multiple revisions of her novels over the span of her short life.  There were periods of years when she doesn’t seem to have been able or inspired to work on her books at all, and yet she had the fortitude to return to them and keep writing.

Austen worked for years with no publishing success, and even when her books were successfully published, she made very little money from them.  Thought the financial returns were small, it is heartwarming to know how much Austen appreciated these small amounts, because they gave her, at last, some money to call her own.  With that money, came a blessed sense of increased independence.  It is good to know that she had that.  Even better, Austen’s books were successful in her life time. Before she died she knew that her books were widely praised and appreciated by her contemporaries.

This wonderful biography is enriched by its frequent references to the status of the various drafts of Austen’s books and where she may have gotten the inspiration for various characters, settings and plot lines.  Each of the novels receives its own review within the context of Austen’s development and intentions as a writer.  If you have missed or forgotten any of Austen’s novels, Tomalin will point you in their direction.

This is really the perfect literary biography.    Claire Tomalin provides a warm, yet brilliant, depiction of Jane Austen, her books and her times.



Channeling Captain Cook Across the Pacific


Tony Horwitz has written a funny and yet sobering book about the explorations of Captain Cook.  Blue Latitudes — Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before combines historical research into Captain Cook and his voyages with a sort of drunken buddy attempt to trace Cook’s travels.  Horwitz, together with a frequently drunk old friend, tries to visit virtually everywhere Cook has gone.  It isn’t clear what Horwitz expected when he visited these places, but what he finds are a whole bunch of island nations and communities that haven’t fared very well since Cook’s visits.  Even in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii that have quite well, Cook is no hero.  It isn’t really surprising that Cook is frequently regarded more as a villain than an intrepid adventurer.  Horwitz does a great job of getting people to talk to him and learning to appreciate how they might react negatively to certain questions.  With far less humor, it seems that Cook also demonstrated good people skills from time to time.

The fact remains that for many people, being “found” by Captain Cook wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  There is ongoing, bitter resentment.  Of course, as some of the people Horwitz visits acknowledge, if it hadn’t been Captain Cook, surely some other Westerner would have come and ruined their paradise.

Although the premise of this book sounds fun and romantic, the reality is often cynical populations who haven’t fared very well.  The book has a lot of strengths  —  I learned an almost numbing amount about Captain Cook, the author is a good and educable listener, and some of the author’s sailing in bad weather adventures are tremendously exciting and absolutely terrifying.  The Aleutian experience was particularly alarming.  Of course, as the author is careful to point out, any sailing he does in the course of this book is pretty much a luxury cruise compared to what Cook endured.

At times I did feel the story bogged down.  This may be in part because Cook wasn’t all that fascinating or romantic a person.  He doggedly organized amazing explorations and he recorded what he saw in matter-of-fact terms.  Of course he had to be highly imaginative to even conceive of and pursue his voyages, and yet he didn’t seem nearly as excited about it as one would have liked him to be.  In the end, the author’s careful piecing together of the miscalculations on Hawaii that led to Cook’s death provided the most interesting information about Cook.  In a way that is sad, because the author is careful to show that in his last days Cook was not  acting with his normal patience and acute awareness of his circumstances.

This is a great book for fans of exploration and Captain Cook.  Also, I can’t think of anywhere to get this information delivered so well and with such a clear appreciation of its application to current times.