Secrets of Great British Castles (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Castles were gross.

Quick synopsis: Author Dan Jones tells the stories behind a bunch of old British castles.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Want to know why rich people changed residences so much? Because they stunk, literally. When the privies were used too much, it stunk up the whole castle and they would move somewhere else while the poop aired out. Thank God for toilets!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Way too many to count. This has tons of great nerd stuff.

My Take: Ever say it would be great to live in a castle? Guess what, that’s a terrible idea!

This is a great documentary series and I am seriously annoyed there are only two seasons. But at least it is two great seasons.

Dan Jones tells the history behind one old British castle each episode. He walks through each of them, discussing how the castle was used throughout the time periods it was active including many gory details (the best kind!).

I especially enjoyed the practical understanding of living in many of these places. They basically enhanced whatever terrible weather the area was experiencing. They were cold and drafty, unless they were hot and stuffy.

Verdict: This is fun and interesting. Give it a try.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Tales of Irish Castles

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Quick synopsis: A full investigation of the Theranos scam by the reporter who discovered the corruption.

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: How Elizabeth Holmes made very smart people look very dumb.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Elizabeth Holmes’ voice is probably fake! Henry Kissinger got pulled into this! Walgreen’s almost went under because they fell for it!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Holmes’ scam of focusing on investors who did not know the medical science behind her work is both breathtakingly brazen and worrying since so many intelligent people fell for it. Anyone who looks at corporate crime will see all the hallmarks of a dangerous organization including, paranoia, institutional abuse, and cronies being hired for high positions.

My Take: This book is a perfect mixture of gossip, fact, drama, tragedy, and true crime. Carreyrou starts with a large amount of authority because he unearthed the Theranos scam and was essential to its downfall. Carreyrou doesn’t make himself a hero in the story, only a reporter doing his job when a lot of other people were not.

The amount of money Theranos made with no evidence of good faith results is absolutely astounding. Carreyrou does not overdue the big revelations either. He often states them as a matter of fact as he walks the reader through Theranos from Elizabeth Holmes’ upbringing to her (almost) complete downfall.

Along the way, you get to see how so many intelligent and respected men (yes, almost all men) are pulled into Holmes’ orbit and are so mesmerized by her that they lose all aspects of common sense and due diligence. Carreyrou does not try and paint them out to be fools. Instead he clearly explains how two strong business forces would allow them to miss the clear signs of fraud.

Carreyrou also does a great service to those who suffered the most from this tragedy. The employees and rivals of Theranos were put through hell (and sometimes worse) and get to have their say in this book. It is a must read.

Verdict: This is a must read for almost any audience. The sole issue with this book is what many contemporary books run into. Carreyrou wrote his book before the whole saga is over. The book ends before Holmes’ ongoing issues with the criminal justice system. However, the book does not suffer for it. Just google it all after finishing.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon

Musing: Stop Comparing Things to Nazis

What’s this musing about: The misuse and ignorance when it comes to Nazis.

(Approaches soapbox, climbs on)

Stop comparing things to Nazis. It shows a disturbing misunderstanding of history and annoys the hell out of me.

I don’t like speaking on American politics. Nowadays conversations end up with people yelling and spouting ignorant things.

Luckily, both sides seem to make the mistake of saying “Nazi!” in situations that do not warrant it. This fact makes it easy for me to offend both parties simultaneously. That’s my favorite pastime.

To recap, Nazi Germany was a bad organization full of terrible people who were a major force during the years preceding and during World War II. The basic principle behind their thinking was that the Aryan Race was superior and everyone else should die. Literally, everyone else should die. In some cases, they were okay with sterilization and then races dying off gradually, but some had to die straight away.

Also, add to that list Aryans who disagreed with Nazi Germany, Catholics, gays, and Nazis who sucked at their jobs. They are all on the “must kill them” list. Then they were the catalyst for WWII which killed 70-85 million people.

Somehow, people still think it is ok to invoke the evil listed above when speaking about inane government policies.

This all goes back to people not knowing history. Disagree?

“I’ve never heard of the Jerusalem Post, it’s probably slanted propaganda.” Ok, fine:

I can go all day.

The old saying goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

I’d like to suggest an update, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to say dumbass things.”

(Steps down from soapbox)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Damn, white people look really bad after reading this one.

Quick synopsis: Investigation into the Osage Indian murders of the 1920s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Osage Indians in the 1920s were the richest people per capita in the world because they were settled on an area that turned out to be rich with oil.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Grann’s description of how American Indians decide tribal rights is fascinating. It takes up more space than I have here but is worth the read to see how even in the 1920s there was a heavy discussion around genealogy.

My Take: I am not sure if this can be considered the “good” part, but the entire book is a breakdown of widespread corruption where nearly all aspects of local government is involved. Grann slowly pulls back the veil in the communities in and around the Osage land and it truly gets worse and worse every time he reveals a new perpetrator or a new victim. This book is proof not all conspiracy theories are theories. Sometimes the government is out to get you. Grann does a great job of setting the stage and slowly illuminating facts of the case.

And when you get towards the end and you begin to think, “thank God there is no more horrible things done to these people” …. nope. It gets worse to the very last pages. As my tag line suggests, white people do not look good in this one. I needed a drink when this was done.

Grann’s title is the one misleading aspect of this book. While the FBI is involved in the case, I am not sure Grann earns the “Birth of the FBI” tagline. Grann does discuss some of the internal politics and shows how it helped and hurt the case from beginning to end. However, I think if someone were looking for a good book centered on the FBI, they would be disappointed with this one. That being said, the book still works wonderful as a true crime tome.

Verdict: This is a must read. It is factual and well-paced.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, The Lost City of Z
  • Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Sherpherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science
  • William Oldfield, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

Random Musing: George Washington and Slavery

What’s this musing about: Washington and slavery. Warning: White guy giving his opinion on something to do with slavery.

George Washington was in many ways a great man. He was beloved by the American people before there even was an “American people.” In multiple instances, he could have easily tried to become “king” of the United States and in my personal opinion, the American experiment probably fails if he were not our victorious general and first president.

However, he owned slaves. He owned a hell of a lot of slaves to put it bluntly. There are very few ways to try and explain this away, although people will often try. The most common to me are: historical relativism and “he was one of the nice ones”. Let’s start with the more ludicrous one!

But he was a pretty benevolent slaveowner! I liken this sentiment akin to being “kinda pregnant.” You either are a slaveholder or not. Just because you (probably) don’t actively rape, and/or assault your slaves like some other Founding Fathers (hey Tommy J!) does not take away the fact that you OWN people.

Historical relativism is a much more nuanced argument. We can’t use our own understanding of our time and apply our judgment to a different era. Washington was one of many links in the slavery chain in the 18th century. He was not an anomaly. Slavery existed for thousands of years so how can we pin guilt on Washington? They didn’t think the way we do now, right?

Except, they did. Or at least they started to. Two of Washington’s closest confidants were anti-slavery: John Laurens and the Marquis Lafayette. Laurens was a virulent anti-slavery advocate and convinced Lafayette of the same. While Laurens died young, Lafayette was a surrogate son to Washington for his entire life. There is even a famous scheme where Lafayette suggested to Washington that they move his slaves to a Caribbean Island and free them. Lafayette felt if Washington was part of this plan, others would surely follow. Washington’s response (or rather non-response) was to compliment Lafayette on his compassion.

Washington himself on numerous occasions opined that slavery would ultimately be a tragic test the United States would sooner or later have to pass. Washington’s own words and final will and testament bear out that he knew right from wrong. And slavery was wrong. That is why he freed all the slaves he owned when he died and was the only Founding Father to do so.

My final word on this is to point out an amazing historical irony. Washington’s grave was moved some years after his death to a much more fitting crypt down the hill from his home on Mount Vernon. On frequent trips, I still find myself moved standing so close to both George and Martha’s final resting place. However, it was recently discovered that if you turn around while staring at Washington’s crypt, you are looking at a slave graveyard. There were no markings for the graves and the caretakers of Mount Vernon has erected an equally moving monument to those buried there. They do not know how many bodies there are. I suppose there is a justice in Washington overlooking a slave graveyard for eternity.

If you read enough history, I think you come to the same conclusion about all characters of history. Even the greatest of men can have the worst kind of flaws.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why you shouldn’t eat radioactive materials.

Quick synopsis: The story of the “Radium Girls.” Two groups of women who worked at plants painting materials with a mixture containing radium.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: File this under, “how can people be so stupid?” Radium was seen as a health food for a little while. People drank it. Guess how it turned out!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The Radium Girls are one of the main reasons we know how radioactivity can destroy the body fast or over time. Many submitted to invasive tests for years and donated their bodies after.

My Take: Try and hide your surprise, but this story is about a company trying to screw people over! During and after World War I, there was a huge demand for radium dials, which we know as the watches and gauges which glow in the dark. Well, when they first started making those, they used a mixture containing a small amount of radium. No big deal, right? It’s not like they are eating the mixture.

Actually, the dial painters did. The young women, and they were all young women due to the war, would need to lick their paint brushes to make a fine point to paint with. They’d like their brushes probably a few hundred times over a week.

The dance as old as time then began. The women get sick. The company denies it has anything to do with them. The company tries to cover it up. Women get called whores. Company continues with their shenanigans. Women find a lawyer. Then the real fireworks begin.

The book is really well paced and sad as hell with some triumph scattered in. Moore does a great job of sticking to the story but still keeps a focus on the girls and their hardships.

I don’t think I’ll wear a watch for a while. I’m not sure what makes it glow.

Verdict: Great book which carefully balances tons of details without bogging down the overall story.

If You Liked This Try:

  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels
  • Gary Krist, Empire of Sin

Battle of the Books: White Hurricane by David G. Brown vs. November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The perfect storm was a drizzle compared to this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Great Lakes (Snow) Hurricane of 1913.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This storm was so destructive that 12 ships sank and over 248 people lost their lives. And you’ve probably never heard of it.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This fun fact is for the weather history nerds specifically. This story is a perfect mix of splendid incompetence and political cowardice. Weathermen were afraid to put up a signal for hurricane. It was bad for business! Better to just let a bunch of people die, apparently.

Also, the best way to survive a Great Lakes storm? Stay away from the shore.

Book vs. Book: The good news is that these are both great books! The sad news is that this is a pretty devastating story.

The storm you never heard of encompasses all the Great Lakes (except Ontario from a ship perspective) and needs to take into account dozens of ships which for some ungodly reason went out into one of the worst storms ever in the Great Lakes. Both authors actually take you through those ungodly reasons and of course it comes back to money. The ship captains wanted to get their last runs in so they would have good reputations going into next season. Owners wanted more shipments moved. And the weather service didn’t want to get in the way.

The difference between the books is mainly in the narrative flow. Brown jumps constantly between ships and shore while moving along chronologically. Schumacher is a bit more linear and has a little less detail. Neither is better than the other, and Brown’s is not nearly as discombobulating as I thought it would be. In fact, his narrative just ratchets up the tension.

Verdict: White Hurricane is my pick, but just barely. Both of these books are great and really do this story justice.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Schumacher, Wreck of the Carl D.

Rampage by James M. Scott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’ll cancel your hibachi reservation after reading this.

Quick synopsis: Story of the battle of Manila in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Nothing “fun” about this subject matter. More people were killed in the Battle of Manila than in the Battle of Britain.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book makes you realize just how much pure evil existed in the Axis powers. Americans are very familiar with the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor, but the Rape of Nanking and the Battle of Manila are proof WWII Japan could be just as bad.

My Take: This is a great story which is well written on an important subject. But holy hell, this makes for some vicious reading.

Scott does an excellent job of setting the stage for the battle. He gives a very balanced understanding of MacArthur and Yamashita, the two generals battling it out. He puts the battle in perspective of the war and sets the stakes.

When the battle begins, he takes us into the walls of some POW camps and chronicles the terrible conditions which left many starving to death.

Then it gets really disgusting. The Japanese massacre of soldiers and civilians alike seems to go on forever in the middle of the book. Scott does not shy away from the brutal depiction of the atrocities committed. As a reader, you start to wonder if all the stories are needed in the book and by the end you understand the need to understand the scope of the death and destruction. It’s important for the stories to be told.

Verdict: Amazing book which is quite lengthy but doesn’t feel that way. Not for the squeamish because it is quite brutal but honest depiction of a vicious battle.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Stephen Ambrose, D-Day
  • Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles