• We’re Reading This Fall 2020


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

    Two American heroes, a married couple, played major roles in winning World War II: William Friedman, recognized as the founder of American cryptography, and Elizebeth Friedman, known before the war for breaking the codes of gangsters and smugglers.

    As her husband’s prominence grew during the war, Elizebeth Friedman’s history was largely forgotten. After the war, Elizebeth’s wartime cryptographic accomplishments were hidden away. Now after 50 years, her WWII code work files have been declassified.

    Jason Fagone based this book on a codebreaking manual Elizebeth Friedman wrote, which was stored in her personal archive. Although the public still views her husband as the first U.S. cryptanalyst and the father of the National Security Agency (NSA), Elizebeth Friedman was certainly his equal and went under the public radar to outwit the Nazis. They never knew she had broken their communications systems. The Nazis never understood American codes thanks greatly to the expertise of Elizebeth Friedman.

    Born Elizebeth Smith, she started her life in the Midwest as a schoolteacher. In 1916, she went to work for an eccentric Chicago tycoon who thought there were secret codes in William Shakespeare’s plays. His connections with the U.S. government and her expertise in language soon led to the early start of code-breaking ventures.

    At the tycoon’s institute, Elizebeth Friedman met and married her husband. He worked originally in the institute as a geneticist. Later the couple worked together on code projects. Going into WWII, Elizebeth Friedman was hired into the Coast Guard and her husband into the Army. They did their covert missions separately. Not being able to share the nature of their code-breaking efforts probably played a role in her husband’s emotional breakdowns.

    During WWII, Elizabeth Friedman’s role was to discover and expose Nazi spy rings in South America. Hitler’s plan was to isolate then invade the United States from South America and he was alarmingly close to doing so. Every country sent their encrypted radio messages across the world. Her discoveries of the Nazi code systems as well as her ability to crack German Enigma machines led her to reveal the identity of spies, their locations, their relationships with one another and the overall Nazi strategies. She was not just a codebreaker, she was an expert counterintelligence agent. Amazingly, this happened independently of the efforts of English mathematician Alan Turing.

    Following the war, it was revealed that her husband had broken the Japanese version of the Enigma machine, called Purple. His accomplishments and manuals led to NSA’s establishment. Elizebeth Friedman’s post-war duties continued as she set up the secure codes of communication for the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which later became the CIA. She strived to archive and catalogue only her husband’s work and not her own. She didn’t disclose her work, and when her achievements were mentioned, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would take credit for them. Any view that men dominate encryption, mathematics and communication is easily shattered after reading Fagone’s history of Elizebeth Friedman.

    When interviewed at the age of 80 and asked about her work during WWII this humble hero answered, “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there.”

    No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing
    By Joe Bonomo
    Reviewed by J. Kemper Campbell, MD

    Roger Angell is one of the handful of writers enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He may also be the only living American to have seen Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs in Yankee Stadium. Readers who do not recognize Angell deserve to know him better.

    Author Joe Bonomo is an essayist and poet who teaches creative writing at Northern Illinois University. His book, “No Place I Would Rather Be,” published by the University of Nebraska Press, is an excellent introduction to an erudite observer of the American scene whose oeuvre literally spans the past century.

    As a respected editor for the New Yorker magazine, Angell was a firsthand witness to the rise and fall of print journalism and has been adaptable enough to blog during the latter stages of his career. This book is a review of his development as a trenchant witness to professional baseball’s maturation from a 16-team regional pastime into one of the sports behemoths competing for the world’s economic jackpot.

    By using quotations from Angell’s vast output on the subject, Bonomo illustrates his growth from a schoolboy compulsively filling out scorecards into a wizened and rueful chronologist of the game’s gradual transformation from a sport into a business. He makes the astute observation that Angell was the first sportswriter to write about baseball from the viewpoint of a fan. He also documents his increasing willingness to subjectively assess the “grand old game.”

    Angell eventually becomes a writer capable of engaging athletes in lengthy and perceptive character studies. His piece on Omaha’s enigmatic Bob Gibson is classic, and David Halberstam deemed his study of all-star pitcher Steve Blass’s sudden, inexplicable inability to throw strikes worthy of inclusion in “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.”

    Of course, Roger Angell’s long life has involved much more than baseball and deserves a full reappraisal and definitive biography. However, Bonomo should be commended for this compilation of thoughts concerning the influence of baseball upon Angell’s success as a writer and a person.

    Those readers who will now seek to discover more of Angell’s original work should begin with, “This Old Man,” his 2015 book. Angell turned 100 years old in September and suffers from macular degeneration. One can only hope that this truncated and dismal season will not provide his final glimpse of the sport he loves.

    Blink
    By Malcolm Gladwell
    Reviewed by Levi Bowers and Marcia Carney, MD

    Summarized by Howard Gardner of the Washington Post best as “compelling … Blink satisfies and gratifies readers featuring fascinating case studies, skilled interweaving of psychological experiments and explanations, and unexpected connections among disparate phenomena that are [author Malcolm] Gladwell’s impressive trademark.”

    Blink is about the immediate impressions, fact-finding, and rapid problem-solving that occurs almost instantly upon encountering a given situation. Gladwell argues that complex cognition, fact-finding, and integration do not have to take years to produce a functioning result and plan. We do it every day, in a matter of seconds.

    According to Gladwell, “ ‘Blink’ is a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye.” He coins this type of rapid cognition as “thin slicing,” in which the bare minimum of information produces an adequate summary or answer to a complex question or idea.

    Applied to the emergency room, a summary of information and rapid diagnosis and treatment led to more compact and efficient care in heart attack victims. Paying attention to only blood pressure and electrocardiogram readings in patients at Cook County General Hospital demonstrated that more testing did not yield better outcomes, indicating the “power of thin slicing” or keeping testing to a minimum when assessing cardiac victims in the emergency room.

    Gladwell elaborates: “When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. ‘Blink’ is a book about those two seconds.” He describes the two seconds as a period of rational thinking which “moves a little faster and operates more mysteriously than the deliberate, conscious decision-making we usually associate with ‘thinking.’” He refers to it as rapid cognition, which is totally appropriate, but different from our usual slow and deliberately researched thoughts.

    Gladwell indicates that he is ultimately attempting to separate good rapid cognition from bad rapid cognition; to provide context for when thin slicing can benefit or conversely hurt us. In sum, Gladwell has created what he describes in his last chapter as, “an intellectual adventure story … [in which] the core of the book is research from a very new and quite extraordinary field of psychology that hasn’t really been written about yet for a general audience.”

    George Marshall: Defender of the Republic
    By David L. Roll
    Reviewed by Alfredo A. Sadun, MD, PhD

    Why did David Roll write a book now about a mid-20th-century hero?

    Because he thought we needed a reminder of what quiet leadership looks like. Ability, aptitude and attitude are necessary, but insufficient without character.

    U.S. Army Gen. George C. Marshall was a man of remarkable integrity and intelligence. But what made him so effective then and what made his legacy so important to us now were the elements that contribute to character: dignity, discipline and perspective. Marshall was a quiet man; a man who held his ego in check. A man who played the long game and for the broadest possible good.

    Consider his mission: Marshall was the man in charge of both the European and Pacific campaigns during WWII. Marshall had to resist the limited thinking of winning battles. He knew that battles win glory. Logistics and political will win wars.

    Early in his career, Marshall created a new curriculum and course of study for the Army War College. This positioned him to prepare for modern war strategy and also enabled him to identify the most intelligent and dedicated men available.

    Marshall then invested in them. He was a mentor who inspired with his character and imagination. Then he entrusted these same men. He was in charge of logistics for almost a million men in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (World War I) and 8 million in World War II.

    Marshall was the man in charge of generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to choose the general, who would lead allied troops in Operation Overlord (the invasion of France that began with Normandy), Marshall wanted the honor.

    FDR told Marshall that he could have the job by asking, but Marshall demurred. He didn’t want to influence FDR with personal considerations. Marshall trusted Eisenhower and FDR needed Marshall in Washington, D.C., in charge of the whole U.S. military. That was best for the U.S., so Marshall set personal glory aside. What mattered was the Republic … until we won the war.

    Then, remarkably, Marshall widened his scope of thinking, both in time and space. He knew that a lasting peace meant rebuilding Europe and so he envisioned the Marshall Plan. FDR didn’t have the political capital to get Congress to make such an investment. But Marshall did. That ultimately won the Cold War against communism. Marshall’s personal stature as a man allowed him to put the free world above the U.S. and the U.S. above Party and partisanship.

    Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg was swayed by Marshall’s broad views, so he joined forces with the Democrat, FDR in entrusting it to George Marshall, who became U.S. secretary of state. For this, the military man who led the U.S. to complete victory over Germany, Italy and Japan in WW II, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1953.

    More than a general, more than a secretary of defense, more than a secretary of state — Marshall was a statesman. When given an honorary degree at Harvard, Marshall was described by the president of Harvard as the only man who could be compared to George Washington. Both put our country on firm ground at times of great crises, providing not just victories, but showing steadfastness and magnanimity.

    Why think of this now? Marshall served under 10 presidents and had a great influence on the 20th century. The commentator, George Will, called George Marshall the greatest American of the 20th century. As Roll said, these lessons are badly needed today. “If you want to test a man’s character — give him power.”

    The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz
    By Erik Larson

    Reviewed by M. Bruce Shields, MD

    This is another example of the recent genre of historical literature that focuses on a narrow time frame of events, in this case 1940 and 1941.

    But “The Splendid and the Vile, A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz” by Erik Larson is not only a must read for aficionados of World War II history, but should be a captivating read for anyone with the slightest interest in world history (which is hopefully all of us).

    After occupying Poland, Norway and then France in early 1940, Adolf Hitler turned his attention to England, where Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain seemed inclined to negotiate. Who can say what course history might have taken if Chamberlain had remained in office?

    But he was replaced that year by Winston Churchill, who refused to negotiate. Hitler thought the defeat of England would be as easy as his prior conquests and began a massive bombing campaign. He failed, however, to account for the resiliency of the British people and especially Churchill.

    The book focuses primarily on Churchill, his family and close circle of colleagues, during the first two years of his tenure, as he struggled to keep his country from falling into the hands of Germany. He pleaded with President Roosevelt for massive military supplies but lacked the money to pay for them. This led to the Lend-Lease Program, which Congress approved in early 1941.

    Despite this assistance, one can only wonder how much longer England could have survived the devastating bombing that continued into 1941 (between September 1940 and May 1941, Britain registered 39,000 civilian deaths). But two events occurred in 1941 that would alter the trajectory of world history. First, Germany turned their attention to Russia. And then, of course, on Dec. 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the Yanks into the fray.

    The narrative of the book ends with America’s declaration of war in December 1941, although four more years of European combat lay ahead. In the epilogue, however, the author describes one final irony. Two months after the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, the British people voted the Conservative party out of power, and Churchill was forced to resign.

    The Fifth Domain: Defending Our Country, Our Companies, and Ourselves in the Age of Cyber Threats By Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
    Reviewed by Thomas S. Harbin, MD, MBA

    How much do you really worry about cybersecurity?

    Okay, you have strong passwords and vary them, but is that enough? This book offers a sweeping history of cyber security, or lack thereof, in our country for the past 40 years. The authors have both worked in the White House and have great expertise on this problem.

    They state that our national policy on cyber defense has been the same for 40 years across multiple administrations and advocate for cyber “resilience,” defined as the ability to withstand cyberattacks and come back even stronger.

    Two cyberattacks in 2017 damaged many companies and even governments around the world. Russia’s GRU has been carrying out cyber-attacks against us and other companies for years. The details of these and other attacks are sobering and concerning.

    After a thorough examination of this problem, they end with advice about what we personally and our practices can do to further protect ourselves. Well written and worth your time.