Museum Review: Mount Vernon

Museum Focus: George’s Washington’s home in Virginia.

Where is it: 3200 Mount Vernon Hwy, Mt Vernon, VA 22121.

What does it cost: About $20 per adult, $12 per kid.

How long should I plan to stay: Mount Vernon is 500 acres. You could probably take 2 or 3 days to see everything. However, a good amount of it is outside because it is still a working farm so be careful of the weather because it can make a big difference to your stay.

Best Exhibits: Mount Vernon might be one of my favorite places on Earth. I think all of it is great, but I’ll stick to the highlights.

The mansion itself is the main attraction as it should be. It’s a perfect glimpse of a mansion around the turn of the 19thcentury and they do an amazing job of keeping it looking first rate. My three favorite parts are the key to the Bastille, sent by the Marquis de Lafayette at the beginning of the French Revolution. It is the actual key which is crazy. Second, is Washington’s bed which he died in. It’s still there. And finally, the view out the backdoor is one of the best in the U.S.

If you have kids, there are animals! My daughter tried to play with the bulls. I’m not sure who would have won, but I didn’t let her find out. There are also hogs, goats, and horses.

You can actually head down to the wharf, which is a pretty steep walk but there are shuttles as needed. You can see the lower farm and even hop on a boat for a trip up and down the Potomac.

There are tour guides all around as well as plaques everywhere to give some idea what everything is. I especially appreciate that the history of slavery on the property is not swept under the rug. The slave quarters are still shown as they were and even the actors will talk about their hardships. The slave burial ground, which was only recently discovered, is a sobering reminder that slaves were not considered important enough to have grave markers.

Is it worth it: It’s more than worth it. It should be required.

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Came for the murder, stayed for the Troubles.

Quick synopsis: A true crime story which starts as a case of kidnapping but then becomes a microcosm of the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When some serious IRA hardcases came to America, they thought WE were a bit over the top with our support of the IRA. Yes, but hard cases I mean guys who killed people for a living.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Want to know what a hunger strike looks like? There are multiple in here and they do not sound fun at all. I do not recommend them for a weight loss regimen.

Oh, and Boston College had a whole secret archive of IRA members confessing to their crimes. Yeah, really!

My Take: The Troubles of Northern Ireland are probably not that well known anymore. However, growing up Catholic in a very Irish town (seriously, we have the 5thlargest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world), knowing your Irish history is a requirement.

This book does a little bit of a rope-a-dope. It is marketed as true crime and it very much is. However, it sells itself as the story of the disappearance of Jean McConville.  That story is told but also a chronicle of the Troubles through the lives of multiple antagonists. Keefe does an outstanding job of playing it right down the middle as much as possible but holy hell is there a lot of blood on people’s hands.

The whole thing is sad, brutal, and unbelievable. I had to force myself to go to sleep because I just wanted to keep reading.

Verdict: This is the best book I have ever read on the Troubles or Irish history in general. It is as fair as it can be given the subject matter and is an absolute must read.

If You Liked This Try (disclaimer: these are just other true crime books, I don’t have much yet in the way of the Troubles books to recommend):

  • Miriam C. Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights

Random Musing: Picking Your Next Book

What’s this musing about: The eternal challenge of picking which book to read next.

We all know that euphoric feeling when you finish your latest book. The feeling of accomplishment, the ego boost for sticking with it, and maybe even a little bit of lamentation when it was really good.

Then comes the dreaded question. Well, what next?

As a book addict (current number of books I own: 537, so try and argue with me), it can be a bit of a (first world) challenge. I’ll have a couple hundred of choices and depending on the length, my choice could end up being a time commitment of a few weeks. That’s a lot of pressure. It doesn’t help that I refuse to not finish a book no matter how bad it is.

Another weird quirk I have is the need to jump time periods between books. While I love the American Revolution, I would inevitably get bored if I only read about that time period. The bigger the time jump, the better.

And then my book OCD/nerdom kicks in. Is anything “calling” to me at that particular point in time? No, not literally. The books do not talk to me. I’m not that type of crazy.

Then, I take into account book length. Chernow is awesome, but you need to be in the mood to really dig in. It’s like Guiness. I love it, but I can’t drink a Guiness on a warm summer day.

And so, I will continue my eternal struggle.

The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is what happens when you ignore science

Quick synopsis: A story of S.A. Andree’s attempt to reach the North Pole via a balloon.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: S.A. Andree thought he could reach the North Pole via balloon. It went as well as you think it did.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Everyone loves a good mystery and the mystery of what happened has nothing to do with the balloon failure. Why the three explorers died where they did is still a mystery even though the bodies were found.

My Take: This is one of those stories that leaves you asking, “How stupid were these people?”

Turns out, they were both intelligent and incredibly stupid at the same time. Andree was an accomplished balloonist and did an extensive amount of planning both for his success and failure. When he and his compatriots died, there seems to have been plenty of food and survival equipment needed to last. Then they died.

And of course, he thought he could take a BALLOON to the NORTH POLE. Wilkinson even explains early in the book that a CLOUD could alter the volume of the balloon. A cloud. And they thought the North Pole would be fine. Also, the erroneous (which admittedly a lot of smart people thought) idea that the North Pole was on land completely invalidated all Andree’s calculations. This was like the first week’s auditions of a singing competition. Andree needed just one person to let him know this was a terrible idea and he will ruin himself. Oh wait, Greeley did after he almost died in the Arctic. Oh well.

The book is a fast read and is padded by Wilkinson explaining some of the other major Arctic expeditions. They are surely tangents, but well done.

Verdict: Great book for a newcomer to Arctic exploration. Arctic history buffs may find the recaps of other expeditions tedious, but Andree’s portion of the book is very interesting.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen Brown,Island of the Blue Foxes
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation

Battle of the Books Curse of the Narrows by Laura MacDonald Vs. The Great Halifax Explosion by John Bacon

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: These books are explosive! I am so sorry, I’ll do better next time

Quick synopsis: The story of the great Halifax explosion during WWI. A munitions ship collides with another ship and caused a massive explosion. Then it caused a tsunami. Then there was a snowstorm.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The explosion was so strong that people’s eyeballs exploded.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This is one of those books where you realize an amazing event happened that no one seems to know about. The entire event is a treasure trove of history nerd goodness, including the paranoia of port cities during the days of U-boats, class warfare, tragedy, and the heroism of people in the aftermath.

Book vs. Book: These two books are perfect contrasts of each other as they tell the same event over the same time period but take very different approaches. MacDonald uses her time and pages wisely by focusing on the overall psyche of Halifax and its surrounding areas and giving us glimpses into each person’s life who we will follow throughout the story (assuming they live). Bacon puts tremendous focus on Joseph Ernest Barss who plays a part in the narrative, but probably not as much as Bacon thinks.

Bacon follows Barss from his childhood, to the war, and then back again. It really slows down his narrative and definitely feels like a tangent. By contract, MacDonald seems to be able to dig deeper in the lives of her subjects with a lot less bloat. MacDonald also does a much superior job with the aftermath. The way she describes the impossible conditions faced by rescuers, nurses, and doctors even made me tired by the end. She made you feel their heroism.

Verdict: Curse of the Narrowsis a superior book in every single way. Well, Bacon’s name is awesome, because bacon, but everything else is done better by MacDonald from setting the scene, keeping the narrative going, and somehow making sure everyone gets the spotlight without droning on. It is a must read which even non-history nerds may like.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • A. Scotti, Sudden Sea
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Nothing better than hanging Nazis!

Quick synopsis: Story of the hunt for Adolf Eichmann in Argentina after World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When General Patton (renowned tough guy) first walked into a concentration camp, he threw up.

Also, there are people today who believe the Holocaust did not happen. These people are called, “Holocaust Deniers” but can also be called idiots.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Argentina really loved Nazis. Bascomb explains why so many former Nazis ended up there are World War II. Also, the Catholic Church helped. That will make mass weird this Sunday.

My Take: Listen, it’s always a good book when the bad guy gets his in the end, but Bascomb still does a great job with the story.

The story takes you through Eichmann’s escape from Germany as the Allies invaded (U!S!A! U!S!A!). Bascomb keeps the introductions relatively short but still gives you enough to understand Eichmann as much as any psychopath can be understood. The story then starts to focus on the new nation of Israel and the personnel chosen for this crazy mission. It’s like Argo only a Nazi gets hung at the end.

Bascomb keeps the story pretty lean but does give the reader the sense of how easily things could go wrong at any time. Since this is a well-known story of how it ends, it’s important for whoever is reading it to care about the details. If you want a Tom Clancy novel which has only the exciting parts, then this may bog down a bit.

Verdict: Fun and fast book which will be especially good for spying and espionage fans.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor
  • Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La

Expedition Unknown

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Lots of history with a little bit of showmanship and malarkey

Quick synopsis: Host Josh Gates and his team search for various historical items of real or dubious origins.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: During one episode (“Amelia Earhart”), Josh Gates searches under a home for remains. He finds them and then gets questioned by the cops.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The “Viking Secrets” episode is really well done and is a great mixture of thorough history and a little bit of fun. I’d like to be in a Viking fight, too!

My Take: This show is a hell of a lot of fun for a hell of a lot of reasons.

Josh Gates is the perfect host for a show like this. He can play the various characters needed to keep it interesting as the show’s tone can veer from deadly serious, to pensive, to incredulous, to snarky fun. Gates obviously doesn’t take himself too seriously but is game to do a bunch of things I would never do under any circumstances whatsoever. Two prime examples are climbing into a tunnel under a city which was no more then 5 feet tall by 18 inches wide or sleeping in a cave on top of 3 feet of bat guano.

Overly serious historians (read: fun killers) will complain about a few aspects of the show. Number one, there are various subjects of extremely dubious scholarship (there are literally alien episodes). However, I would counter that Gates never tries to tell the viewer something is real when he can’t prove it but he also doesn’t discount anything for the same reason. It makes for good TV because it never puts Gates in the position of telling a true believer they are crazy. He lets them talk.

Another aspect the fun police would complain about is the lack of huge findings. It is true to an extent but also not the point. The show is fun because of the journey and there have been some finds along the way and areas previously unexplored were mapped.

The final nitpick is that Gates is not an actual archaeologist but only has a degree in archeology. Additionally, he hosted a previous show called Destination Truthwhich was entirely about the paranormal. Who cares? Fun is fun!

Verdict: It’s a fun watch. You may need to turn your nose for hard evidence off for a little while but it’s a good time, nonetheless.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mysteries at the Museum

The Cruelest Miles by Gay and Laney Salisbury

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You won’t be able to argue the “man’s best friend” moniker after this book!

Quick synopsis: Description of the 1935 Serum Run to Nome, Alaska which was the precursor to the Iditarod.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One story about sled dogs entailed how a musher fell in a hole and the lead dog went to get help and came right back to where the musher was trapped. It was not a short trip.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The real (dog) hero of the story is often remembered as Balto since he was the lead dog on the last leg of the journey. However, Togo did the longest and hardest part of the trip and never did get the recognition he deserved. I want to get a dog and name him Togo, but my wife loves little dogs so it would look ridiculous.

My Take: Amazingly, there are not many books on this chapter in history and luckily the authors give you everything you need to understand the stakes from beginning to end. The opening chapters of the book are horrific in setting the stage. They carefully explain the genesis of the diphtheria epidemic in Nome and truly make the setting feel isolated from the outside world. This could easily turn into some zombie book with the way the tension is set.

Then we get to the dogs and their trusty human sidekicks. Unless you are a cat person (hey, no judgment), this is where the book will really grab you. Learning about how sled dogs come to be and just how unbelievably smart and loyal they are will bring tears to your eyes. Once the actual run begins, the authors make you feel the cold and the desperation as each sled team battles extreme conditions. I found by the end it was hard to believe this story had a happy ending. The amount of times something could have easily ended the run was hard to fathom.

There is a side story about various people trying to get a plane to carry the serum to Nome. I completely understand why the authors have it in their narrative. It is a big piece of the historical record. However, every time I heard about the plane I wanted to just jump back to the dogs.

If you are squeamish, there are various sections which can really turn your stomach. The descriptions of the babies and children with diphtheria learn little to the imagination. It goes without saying not all the dogs and mushers made it through completely unscathed.

If you really don’t like the cold you should probably stay away too.

Verdict: This is a must read. Except if you don’t like dogs. And if you don’t like dogs, then you need to reevaluate your life. And don’t come at me with why cats are better because that’s ridiculous.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • David Geren Brown, White Hurricane
  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard (Holy cow this one is sad. You’ve been warned.)

Random Musing: Is BookBuddy the greatest app ever?

What’s this musing about: Is BookBuddy the greatest app ever? And yes, it is.

Disclaimer: Kimico who created the BookBuddy app did not pay for my endorsement, but I wish they had because I’m going full fanboy.

History nerds will be the first to tell anyone calling something the “greatest” is an exercise in futility. Greatness is usually a matter of opinion rather than fact. Unless we are talking about BookBuddy which is the greatest.

Let me take you back to the beginning. I was finally getting settled in life and got back into reading on a regular basis. My library was starting to grow (along with my wife’s questions about why I keep books I’ve already read). Suddenly, I ran into two very big problems. First, how can I keep track of all these books, especially since mom likes to borrow them and lose them? Second, what about the dreaded “repeat purchase” where a book has such a generic title you buy it twice not realizing you already own it? (This is where you, snarky reader, think, “yeah, your life is hard Brendan.” Thank you for recognizing my struggle.)

The solution to my problems, like an angel from heaven, was BookBuddy.

Not sure how many books you have? It tells you.

Oh no, I bought 5 books on an irresponsible binge. I don’t want to type those all in! BookBuddy lets you scan the barcodes!

I don’t want to have to scroll though a huge list. BookBuddy can show your books in multiple lists with multiple attributes!

I am very specific about what attributes I add to my apps. BookBuddy lets you do that too!

I hate paying for apps! It’s free. Well, kinda. After a certain number of books you need to pony up $4.99 or so but it’s worth it!

In conclusion, if you got a lot of books, you need this app. You’re welcome.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: He didn’t just write Hamilton you know!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Washington was “land” rich but not often in the liquid sense. At times, he had to personally go to tenants on his land and collect. He was also obsessed with how his own land was cultivated and regularly sent extremely detailed instructions back to his groundskeepers whenever he was away.

My Take: Chernow is now known for his extremely in-depth portraits of historical figures. This one is no exception as he really digs into Washington’s life and spares no details. Chernow is one of the best at framing a perspective on his subject while backing it up with real details from their lives. An example, as mentioned above, is Washington’s mother was a real pill. Chernow pulls directly from their correspondence to give the reader the insight needed to accept his viewpoint.

The most interesting times are obviously during the American Revolution and his presidential years. Specifically, Chernow doesn’t shy away from highlighting Washington’s many missteps in tactical decision making during the war but does detail just how exceptional his leadership and logistical decision making made the difference. During his presidential years, Chernow digs into the estrangement with Thomas Jefferson as Washington often took Alexander Hamilton’s side (while trying not to overtly do so).

Chernow does his best work as a historian with how he handles slavery in his book. While often you will find authors will either try and explain away slavery (“he was nicer to his slaves than most!”) or will condemn him with our modern understanding, Chernow balances between the two viewpoints and does a great service to illuminating the contradiction that someone with such leadership and integrity as Washington could also be part of one of the most despicable parts of American history. Chernow shows this dichotomy by putting the historical context around slavery while also making it quite clear his more humane contemporaries (John Laurens/Marquis de Lafayette) urged him to purge himself of the horrible practice.

Verdict: It is a must read if you want to really know George Washington and his life from beginning to end. If you are a casual reader of this time period, don’t start here. This book crosses the 900-page mark and these are pretty packed with details in a chronological order. While all of these pages are a great read, if you are looking for something nice and breezy, man did you come to the wrong place.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton (duh)
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella