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Best Books of 2018 – Chapter 1

Happy New Year!  I thought I would begin the New Year with a tradition I started several years ago by posting around New Year’s Day my favorite books from the prior year.

And this year I started out January with a book backlog!  In the last few weeks of December 2017, five of the books on my Kindle wish list went on sale and so I snapped them up along with two other BookBub bargains that sounded interesting.

Added to these seven, I received four physical books as Christmas presents giving me eleven to chose from for my first books to read in the New Year.

And read I did!  Without setting a specific goal knowing I should have more time to read since I retired in 2017, I read a total of 51 books in 2018, but surprisingly of that total, only 18 fiction with the remaining 33 non-fiction (I came across a large number of very interesting non-fiction books in 2018 as you will learn over the coming weeks).  Not as many as the total of 58 books I read in 2017 mainly because I filled a lot of my new found free-time in 2018 with projects around the house.

The first book I read that also made my “best of” list was Skyfaring:  A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker.  This was a beautifully written book by a commercial pilot who achieved his lifelong dream of flying via a rather circuitous path.  The book was filled with personal anecdotes and many facts and technical details I never considered in spite of having flown extensively in the last 20 years.

One fact that stuck out for me was that globally, all flight times (and thus pilot schedules) are based in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).  Often when we travel, we either gain or lose time as we cross time zones.  But I never considered how confusing that would be for the crew or the on board computers tracking the flight.  Having a single time zone makes sense and eliminates the ambiguity of a location-specific time.

Also interesting was the fact that a plane’s altitude is only an approximation since many factors, not the least of which is barometric pressure changes (due to low and high pressure systems), can affect the altitude measurement.  Having often seen the altitude reading on those in-flight tracking screens, I never questioned its accuracy.

I love reading books about airplanes and flight but this is the first one that conjures such emotions while covering the technical aspects of flying and operating an airplane.  But even if you are not interested in the “how to” part of flying, you will still enjoy how the author interweaves stories from his childhood and commercial experience into a lovely tome.

My very next book to read in 2018, was The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone.  And what an incredible story it was, one I had never heard of before.  There have been a number of books published in recent years that highlight the untold and often unheard historical achievements of extraordinary American women—for many finally getting their overdue recognition—and I have read and enjoyed many of them.  But thanks to a Bookbub daily bargain, I snapped this one up (my wife and I actually both purchased it without knowing).

This is the American story of unquestionably the most talented and prolific code-breaking individuals who just also happened to be husband and wife, Elizebeth (intentionally spelled with an “e” rather than “a”) and William Friedman.  From their early beginning together in trying to discover hidden messages in 17thcentury Shakespeare’s plays for an eccentric millionaire, they became the premiere code breakers in the US.  Not long after their marriage, their paths went separate ways because William was allowed into male dominated fields and helped with breaking coded messages during the Great War (WW1).

On the other hand, Elizebeth’s star really began to shine brightly during the Prohibition years when working in as unlikely an agency as you can image, the US Coast Guard, Elizebeth deciphered the coded messages of “Rum Runners” allowing the Treasury department to apprehend and successfully prosecute the cases (the Coast Guard during that time was a part of the Treasury department specifically for this purpose).

After the repeal of Prohibition (1933), the coded messages presented to Elizebeth for deciphering took on a more sinister and international flavor as many plaintext messages (after being decoded) were written in German and Japanese.  It was unbelievable to read the techniques she used in breaking these codes and a monumental achievement of hers was breaking the German Enigma machine code without having access to the one on which the code was ciphered (working completely separately, the British broke the Enigma as well).  Being able to decipher these messages proved critical to helping to defeat Germany.

Her husband, William, still working in the Army for what would become the National Security Agency (NSA), continued to achieve as well and his group managed to break a highly secure Japanese code machine, which factored heavily in favor of the allies during the war in the Pacific (to avoid a spoiler-alert, I won’t say how).

If you have an interest in tales about spies, this story about the secret backroom of code breaking will enthrall you and you will find it hard to put the book down.  Because much of their work was “classified” for many years, only recently have some of the achievements come to light.  So next up to applaud the incredible achievements of this woman should be a movie to allow those who don’t read as much to become aware of this amazing story.

     To be continued…

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