Musing: My Favorite Authors Right Now

Writing for history nerds like myself is a complicated game. While a fiction writer can pour his or her brain out and have a book done in 6 months (not hating, just saying), a history writer needs to have the story and then start their research. Then there is the tightrope of cutting out the boring stuff without leaving your reader confused about what is going on and who people are. It’s really hard work and that’s why I would like to present my favorite history writers right now.

My criteria is pretty simple. They need to write history books. They need to have published more than one that I have read and loved. Also, if they published something tomorrow on a subject I didn’t care about would I still buy it?

So here are my 4 favorites right now. Why not a Top 5? Because I only have 4 and I refuse to pander. So there.

  1. Candice Millard: She is my nerd crush. She’s published three major works and all of them took me less than 2 days to read. It’s a cliché but I could not put them down. She makes reading her stories seem effortless and is truly a master at eliminating any fluff. The narrative just continues to move forward without slowing down. She is my number one because she has written three books on subjects which are not necessarily in my wheelhouse, but I loved every single one. If she published a book on underwater basket weaving tomorrow, I would be the first in line.

Read: Destiny of the Republic, Hero of the Empire, The River of Doubt

  • Nathaniel Philbrick: My man. He wrote a few books about subjects I am well versed in, such as the American Revolution, the Mayflower, and Cape Cod. And admittedly, I came away from a couple of the books without adding much knowledge I didn’t already have. However, I also enjoyed the hell out of his books. I think it’s a testament to him that I can read something I already knew and not get bored. And when he writes about something I don’t know already, he is even better.

Read: Bunker Hill, In the Heart of the Sea, In the Hurricane’s Eye, The Last Stand, Mayflower, Sea of Glory, Valiant Ambition

  • Ron Chernow: In my opinion, the master of biography right now. His books can be crushingly long and absolutely packed with information. However, when I finish, I always feel like I got a complete picture of the subject. And I mean complete. Biographies can be tricky because an author can really focus on what they want to show the reader to see in order to impose a way of thinking about the subject. Chernow gives you all the information and lets you decide who the person is.

Read: Alexander Hamilton, Washington, Grant (full disclosure: didn’t read it yet, but c’mon, he’ll nail it)

  • Gary Krist: My dark horse candidate. Krist does not have the name recognition of the other three but he should. Recently, Krist is doing amazing work with focusing on specific time periods of big cities. None of these books should work nearly as well as they do. There are lots of characters to introduce while giving a real feel to the character of the city as well. I was introduced to him by his book on the Wellington avalanche and it felt like a horror story. The tension he created is better than anything on TV and it was all true.

Read: City of Scoundrels, The Mirage Factory, The White Cascade, Empire of Sin

The River of Doubt by Candice Millard

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I don’t recommend exploring uncharted tributaries of the Amazon.

Quick synopsis: The story of when Teddy Roosevelt decided to take a vacation and explore a tributary of the Amazon. Didn’t go well.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Did you see the synopsis above? I am a history nerd and I knew nothing about this. Roosevelt was crazier than I thought.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Two for the price of one! Roosevelt had an old injury which left him extremely susceptible to death if he hurt himself under the wrong circumstances. You know, like being in the middle of the Amazon.

Also, Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon was legit. Not very well known in the US, but he is a big deal in South America. Even his Wikipedia entry is amazing.

My Take: Every now and again a history nerd gets humbled when they read about an amazing story they never head about before. This is one of them.

The very simple premise denies belief. Roosevelt lost out for a third term. Roosevelt then needs to do something crazy because he loves challenging himself but also is one of the ultimate spotlight hogs in history. He decides to head to the Amazon and explore an unexplored tributary of the Amazon. Hilarity ensues. Just kidding, death and starvation ensue.

Throw into this already crazy story Candido Rondon who is someone I never heard of before but is just as fascinating as Roosevelt. I don’t have enough space here to go through his accomplishments, but Millard gives you just enough to know he was an amazing human being.

Add in to all of this that Candice Millard is our author. She has written 3 books and they are all amazing. Yes, I have a nerd crush.

Verdict: Great book period. Even non-history nerds should read it and will enjoy it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic
  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • David Grann, The Lost City of Z
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness

Saints & Strangers (2015 TV Miniseries)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: So good, even my wife watched half of it.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Mayflower passage through the first Thanksgiving and the establishment of the Plymouth colony.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You know Squanto, but you don’t know Hobbomock. He was part of Massasoit’s tribe and a complete badass. He was such a badass, it was believed he could not be killed in battle. That would be a nice trait to have.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This show does a masterful job with the character of Squanto. While most know him as the friendly Indian who helped grow corn, this series really makes him a friendly but also perhaps two-faced character. The show does not tell you what to think and that’s what makes it a great portrayal.

My Take: This is my favorite TV miniseries and I have no compunction about going total fanboy over it.

The show sticks very much to the real-life script. While a true scholar of the time period (i.e. not me) could find some tricks played with time, characters, and specifics, the main beats are true to history as best as we know. The amazing part is taking all of these big and little details and keeping the story going without completely sacrificing historical accuracy. The only obvious exception being the woman look entirely too clean (especially their teeth) for the time period and the situation. Blame the patriarchy, but I could overlook it.

By far my favorite choice was to give the American Indians their own voices both literally and figuratively. Literally meaning they have actual descendants of American Indians playing American Indians and they speak in their own tongue. What a concept. Also, we see the evolution of their politics throughout the show. These are not the “savages” the Pilgrims often think they are but a system of treaties and alliances just as complex as any in Europe at the time.

I also liked hearing all the American Indians pronunciations of words which are still prevalent in the New England area. As a frequent visitor of Cape Cod, I look forward to obnoxiously correcting everyone’s pronunciation of Massasoit. My family will hate it.

Verdict: Seriously, go watch it now. Watch it and then come right back to this site and keep reading. But I give you permission to take a break and go watch it. Now. Go on.

If You Liked This Try: *Note: None are as historically accurate, but they are lots of fun. In fact, some are ridiculously inaccurate (enjoyable) trash but hey, nice costumes!

  • Vikings
  • Hatfields and McCoys
  • The Tudors
  • Versailles
  • The Crown

The First Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: George Washington, assassins, and overwrought prose.

Quick synopsis: The story of the assassination conspiracy of George Washington right before the Battle of Long Island.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: New Yorkers in 1770 consumed an average of 6.7 gallons of rum year per person. That is the equivalent of 8 shots per day. And that is ONLY for rum. Everyone was drunk all the damn time. How did the Constitution even get written under these circumstances?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: New York colonial governor, William Tryon, fled to a British ship in New York and sat there for a really long time while the Continentals took over the city before the Battle of Long Island. It would be like if Kim Jung-Un was just sitting in Philly right now, talking smack.

My Take: This book was so infuriating that it ruined my night when I finished it. I was told to calm down.

The good news is the story and research are pretty impeccable. This story is not readily available, and Meltzer and Mensch will in a lot of blanks. The story is mostly complete and pretty compelling to a point. If you are an American Revolution addict, you must read this for the scholarship.

You’ll notice I said it is compelling to a point. The bad news is the compelling part is 150 pages long, but the book is over 300 pages. Meltzer (and I’m blaming him since he’s the big name here) tries way too hard to make this a thriller. Sorry, dude, we know Washington doesn’t get assassinated. Even non-Americans who could not care less about American history know that. Ending a chapter with allusion to maybe it being too late is patently ridiculous.

Another major sin is intertwined with a minor one. The minor sin is Meltzer going out of his way to mention Alexander Hamilton. Yes, I know he’s huge right now. He also has nothing to do with this story. And while Meltzer mentions Hamilton, he completely forgets to address what happened to most of the characters! We only know what happens to one conspirator and none of the others. Now you know why I was so cranky when this book ended! I had to go google it!

Verdict: The actual story is very good and the research is top notch. The prose and narrative really stand in the way of this being a great book. If you love this time period, it’s a must read because of the lack of other scholarship on the subject.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition
  • Ron Chernow, George Washington
  • Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World

They Shall Not Grow Old

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Peter Jackson made a masterpiece. I’m not talking about Lord of the Rings, though.

Quick synopsis: A documentary on World War I that uses new technology to blow your freaking mind hole.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When it goes from black and white to color….as the kids say, “OMG!”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I’m not even giving one this time. If you care about history at all, go see this thing.

My Take: You know how everyone talked about the movie Avatar when it first came out and mentioned how revolutionary the technology used to film it was?

Peter Jackson said, “hold my beer.”

Here’s the set up. Take World War I documentary footage. You know, the type that almost looks stop motion and grainy? Clean it up, colorize, and make nerds scream.

Jackson talked a lot about how important this movie was to him. The care he took is obvious.

There is no other footage or dialogue in the movie except from actual participants. Jackson hired voice actors from the same place as the people in the movie. A guy from the middle of Wales would be dubbed over by a guy from the very same place for accuracy since sound recordings were not quite up to snuff back in the day. But what you hear are his words in what would have been his accent.

And what they choose is also masterfully done. The dialogue is almost mundane which makes it that much more moving. This isn’t a general talking about how important this or that was. It was the guy getting eaten by lice in the trenches.

This movie should have made two billion dollars at the box office.

Verdict: Amazing. Powerful. And downright freaky when you first see the color change.

If You Liked This Try: Incomparable with anything else I have seen.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: In Soviet Russia, things go boom!

Quick synopsis: An in-depth look at the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Russia in 1986.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Marie Curie and her husband discovered polonium and radium. Her notes on them are so radioactive they are still kept in lead boxes to this day.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You want to see a very specific account of how screwed up Communist Russia was? Here you go!

My Take: Who would have thought a nuclear power plant would be so complicated?

Higginbotham has written a very fast paced and in-depth look at the Chernobyl disaster. It goes way behind what went wrong that night and instead details how years of Soviet cost cutting, compressed timelines, and bureaucracy made Chernobyl a matter of time and not the one-off disaster which was portrayed immediately after.

Higginbotham’s narrative jumps consistently but not unnecessarily. In a way, his need to list out all of these government players is the perfect illustration of just how endless the Soviet hierarchy could be. People drop in from nowhere with very vague powers to do some things but not others and no one is ever on the same page.

The author also doesn’t turn this into a book meant to skewer certain individuals. Obviously, some people are more at fault than others, but Higginbotham makes sure to lay blame evenly and identifies people who were scapegoats throughout the process.

This book is great and by far one of, if not the most, complete study of the disaster.

Verdict: Fantastic book which will probably be interesting even for non-history fans.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky

Random Musing: Book vs. eBook

What’s this musing about: Why I like physical books better than ebooks.

Sometimes I think I like making my life more difficult for no reason. This has always been true, especially when considering technology. Case in point: it took me years to buy my first iPod. No big deal if you are not a music lover. Except, I am a huge music lover. I was the fool with the CD sleeve attached to his driver’s side visor. And yes, I was also the fool who listened to two songs on a CD and then immediately wanted to switch to another CD to be eclectic. The iPod was MADE for people like me. And to this day, I have no good reason to explain what the hell took me so long.

Which brings me to ebooks. I don’t use them. I have a Nook from way back when and I don’t even know if my wife threw it out without me paying attention. She probably did, but I’ll forget to check. An ebook would be perfect for my lifestyle. I take a train and a solid mile trek to work every day. Limiting the weight in my backpack is probably optimal. And I travel from time to time as well. And guess what happens? I end up lugging around a brick of a book (thank you, Mr. Chernow) wherever I go. Don’t even get my started with weight limits on checked bags. It kills me every time.

And yet, the current count of my library behind me 543 history books. They currently take up a whole room in the house and much to my wife’s consternation, I do not intend to slow down. It has been pointed out to me (repeatedly and correctly) that an ebook would make a hell of a lot more sense.

My retort is usually the same. I love the feel of a physical book. Holding it in your hands, putting in the bookmark when you take a break, feeling the weight of it. All of these things are valid. History nerds are aware of just how valuable a book used to be. The mark of a person could be directly correlated to how big their library was. That is true.

But, really, it’s about my ego. I love having the physical manifestation of the book I read. I love trying to convince non-history nerds that they are missing out. I recently had a party at the house where a few people challenged some of my historical perspectives. When challenged, I went right to the source in an effort to soothe my own ego, of course, but also to see if I could find yet another convert. They didn’t fall for it. But I still have the book just in case.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Life is hard for a woman. Then Jack the Ripper kills you.

Quick synopsis: The life stories of the women killed by Jack the Ripper.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The number of women killed by Jack the Ripper is not completely known. The five women in this book are called the “Canonical Five” because most experts agree they are definitely Ripper victims. But there may have been more.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Rubenhold explains work houses and various other places to “help the poor” in this time period including the rules and regulations which were and were not followed. Dickens wasn’t playing around when he wrote Oliver Twist.

My Take: Who was Jack the Ripper? Hallie Rubenhold doesn’t care, at least not when it comes to this book.

I began this book very wary about ignoring one of the most fascinating serial killers ever. Rubenhold thinks this is a dumb mindset and seeks to remedy the anonymity of the women he killed. She succeeds.

Rubenhold is obviously very annoyed all five women are branded as prostitutes and don’t deserve the type of scholarship of their unnamed killer. It turns out, Rubenhold is able to pull together a lot of information on the women (well, four out of five anyway) and writes what becomes a series of biographies. There is the biography of each women but also a biography of London during this time period.

Spoiler alert: a lot of London was really gross. Rubenhold’s book would definitely make a germaphobe take an extra shower. And in really setting the stage for the murders, we are able to understand a bit of the desperation of these women. And we feel for them as their sections of the book get closer and closer to the finale.

Rubenhold makes the reader see the Ripper story not as a sensationalist murder spree but the tragic ends of five women who had pretty bad lives leading up to their demises. And stop calling them all prostitutes.

Verdict: Really great book if you like understanding more about the history surrounding major events like the Ripper spree. Non-history nerds may get sucked in but probably not. Their loss, as usual.

If You Liked This Try:

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