Battle of the Books: Rorke’s Drift by Neil Thornton vs. Like Wolves on the Fold by Mike Snook

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Welcome to a badass last stand.

Quick synopsis: The story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War. 150 British soldiers made a last stand against 4,000 Zulu warriors in defense of the field hospital located in Rorke’s Drift.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When the thousands of Zulu approached Rorke’s Drift to attack, they did so silently while the ran in formation. That sounds like the scariest damn thing I have ever heard.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Serious scholars who don’t like fun point to Rorke’s Drift and decry the significance it has taken on. Strategically it was not a major battle. In terms of pure badassness, there are few stories where both sides were so evenly matched. Those serious scholars just don’t get it.

Book vs. Book: Admittedly, these two books are not necessarily a perfect comparison. Snook intends that someone pairs his book with his other book on the Battle of Isandlwana. (Note: Snook swears it’s not a money grab and I believe him!) However, each book gives just a little bit extra in certain areas to really round out the entire story. Also, the pacing is drastically different.

Thornton’s book is laser focused on the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and his pace is very quick and to the point. Thornton gives a quick primer on Isandlwana to set the stage but moves quickly to the main battle. He really keeps everything moving without skimming many of the details. The book will really get your heart going as almost all of Thornton’s narrative is jumping from one area to another and making you feel the desperation of the British soldiers.

Snook takes a more academic approach. He assumes (due to his other book) that you have a certain understanding of the circumstances that led to Rorke’s Drift. His pacing is much slower, but since it is, it allows the reader a better understanding of who, what, when, and where as the battle rages. His maps make it much clearer what is happening and when. It’s a question of Thorton’s rush of adrenaline vs. Snook’s thoroughness.

Verdict: Rorke’s Drift is the winner in this comparison. Snook’s book is not at all deficient, but I prefer to feel the stress and emotions in extreme circumstances like this. Thornton just tells a better paced story, but you can’t go wrong with either book, ultimately.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, The Last Stand
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War

The Mirage Factory by Gary Krist

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: L.A. was full of crazy people from the beginning.

Quick synopsis: The story of the origins and early years of L.A. as it was becoming the city we know today.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: In trying to bring enough water to the fast-growing population of L.A., a dam was built to allow for water delivery. The St. Francis Dam broke and was one of the worst dam disasters in U.S. history. And if you’re not from the West Cost, you probably never hear of it.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The birth and early years of the movie industry are fascinating, and Kirst takes special time on D.W. Griffiths, who made Birth of a Nation. The racist one, not the new one.

My Take: This is the third of Gary Krist’s biographies of a city by focusing on three major players in the development of said city. This is probably his best too.

Krist focuses on William Muhlholland, who is the engineer that made it possible for L.A. to have the water it needed to survive; Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelist who set L.A. aflame with religious fervor; and D.W. Griffiths, one of the visionary directors of early Hollywood.

This kind of scale can make a book seem very disjointed and disorienting. Krist is up to the task by keeping the narrative tight and never spending too much time with any particular subject. It also helps that he found three subjects who have pretty crazy stories which encapsulate what we think of when we talk about L.A. today.

Verdict: It’s a must read and easily accessible to all audiences. Even if you hate L.A.!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels
  • Gary Krist, Empire of Sin
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

Presidents At War

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: George H.W. Bush was a badass this whole time and we didn’t know it.

Quick synopsis: A look at all the U.S. Presidents who served in WWII.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George H.W. Bush was the youngest naval fighter pilot ever. And he volunteered for it. Even though it was the deadliest position in the armed forces.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Richard Nixon was always a conniver, even in WWII. While the story about him making money off his fellow soldiers probably wasn’t that bad, it just feels like it portends to him being a future mess.

My Take: This series can really be broken down into three tiers of presidents:

The “Real American Heroes” Division – Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush

The “Served Their Country with Distinction but Not as Cool as the Real American Heroes” Division – Nixon, Reagan

The “They Were Actually in This Show? I Didn’t Notice” Division – Johnson, Carter, Ford

Seriously, Johnson got a Silver Star because he got on the right plane. I may remember his story, but he still goes in the bottom tier. I digress.

This show is very good to introduce you to all the presidents before they came to office. World War II allowed for some of them to truly distinguish themselves and per my rankings above, some did, and some didn’t. The stories come quick and fast with a lot of interesting tidbits.

Some of the presenters lay it on a little too thick for my taste, but it doesn’t ruin the show.

Verdict: Good show that even non-history nerds will like.

If You Liked This Try: Pretty much any WWII documentary on Netflix. Even the bad ones are pretty good.

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: If this book doesn’t make you cry then you are a sociopath.

Quick synopsis: The story of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest which surprised the heartland and caused massive sadness.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Weather forecasting used to be much worse! And in the Midwest, it meant a massive snowstorm could come out of nowhere and leave people to die.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: While it is evident children are much more closely watched nowadays, this book brings you back to a time when even the youngest children might go miles by themselves. And it leads to the tragedy.

My Take: This might be one of the most horrific stories ever. This is not for the squeamish or probably for anyone with young kids. Wish someone could have warned me!

The blizzard of 1888 is mostly known as one of the worst storms the east coast has ever seen. However, Laskin tells the story of the blizzard at its nexus when it blasted through the Great Plains. Laskin gives a great recap of the then capabilities of the weather service. Spoiler alert: They sucked.

Laskin tells a masterful (and goddamn depressing) story by making you feel everything the characters are fighting against. This is one of those books where when the author tells you how cold it is you can actually start to feel it.

As I’ve pointed out, this is a really sad story. The blizzard came out of nowhere when the vast majority of children were on their way home from school (hence Children’s Blizzard). Needless to say, many of them never made it home.

Laskin does a great job with a terrible story and it is worth a read. Only if you can handle it, though.

Verdict: A must read provided you can handle the subject matter.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles

Hitler’s Circle of Evil

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The Third Reich was more like high school than you think.

Quick synopsis: The story of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle throughout the rise and fall of the Nazi party focused on Hitler’s underlings.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Hugo Boss was a Nazi! He wasn’t just a garden variety Nazi either. He designed some of their uniforms!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: There were varying levels of antisemitism in Hitler’s inner circle. Goebbel’s probably gets the “super antisemitic” award while Goring fell much lower on the scale. Himmler would probably have killed anyone with a specific color eyes if he thought Hitler would like it.

My Take: Welcome to the most evil popularity contest of all time: the Third Reich!

This miniseries takes you through the formation and destruction (hell yeah!) of the Third Reich by focusing entirely on Hitler’s inner circle and how the power shifted between them. It’s as petty as you expect!

You get some wonderful heartwarming stories such as the reconciliation of Joseph Goebbel’s and his wife, Magda. Oh wait, that only happened because Goring spied on him and turned evidence of his affairs into Hitler. But c’mon, putting two lovebirds back together is a good thing right? Oh wait, they both committed suicide after murdering their 6 children at the end of WWII.

Another beautiful story is the creation of Hitler’s retreat home in the mountains where he can relax with his subordinates and really get to know them. What’s that you say? It was a Machiavellian retreat where everyone backstabbed each other, and the Holocaust was planned? Sick.

My favorite part is when the various authors and historians who provide commentary talk about Martin Bormann. He is the only subject of the entire series that is explicitly called a psychopath. That is some kind of award when you are hanging around Himmler and Goebbels but you get painted as the arch-psychopath.

I will say I have one quibble with the series. It really seems to take agency away from Hitler as the leader of all this evil. It is inevitable when you are focusing on his underlings, but you don’t ever want to forget to hate Hitler the most.

Verdict: Really great series and very interesting for all audiences (but not kids, duh).

If You Liked This Try: Pretty much any WWII documentary on Netflix. Even the bad ones are pretty good.

Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Here’s another reason never to go to New Jersey.

Quick synopsis: The story of a rogue shark which terrified the New Jersey Shore in 1916.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Ever wonder why when you watch an old movie all the telephone operators are ladies? Turns out, it started out as an all-male job. However, men were too argumentative and were replaced quickly by women who got along with the callers better. Cue a million women saying, “See?”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When female sharks give birth, their bodies automatically depress their hunger. The reason? To give baby sharks a chance to swim away before mom tries to eat them.

My Take: Jaws was way closer to reality than I thought.

In 1916, people were just minding their business when a rogue shark started eating people right on the Jersey Shore. Unlike today when it seems like these incidents are more random and the shark is usually confused more than trying to kill, this shark was an absolute psycho.

Without giving too much away, this shark does more than attack people with crazy frequency. He also did something I didn’t even know great whites could do.

Capuzzo tells a great story and keeps you guessing throughout. He gives stories on some of the victims and near victims without slowing down the narrative. However, he does make you feel very bad for those left behind. As with any book like this, the villain is the most fascinating and the shark lives up to the hype.

Great summer read book. Unless you plan on going into the water, that is.

Verdict: Great book for anyone. Reads like a novel but is all true.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Spike Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea

Rant: No Politics

What’s this rant about: Why I don’t deal with current politics on this site.

Many people asked me (just kidding, not enough people read the site to be considered “many”) whether or not I will cover current politics on History Nerds United. After all, we are currently making history every day. Also, today’s politics will be the major components of our cultural history soon enough.

All true. And screw that.

I hate contemporary politics. The sheer amount of books on the Trump presidency is sickening and I mean that in the worst way possible.

Not only that, you can tell which bias basically by reading their titles. For example, The Case for Trump, Everything Trump Touches Dies, Siege: Trump Under Fire.

I have zero interest in any of this for all of the reasons you see below:

  1. This is all still happening! It only takes one day to make what you wrote completely obsolete. Not to mention, the presidency is a complicated history to tell anyway. Eisenhower was known as a terrible president right after his terms in office. Now, he is at least known as a good if not great president. And dealing with a living being is always a tricky thing for authors. Ask the guy who wrote Cosby: His Life and Times in 2014. He probably wants to make that book go away.
  2. People get stupid about politics. Nowadays, you cannot wade into any conversation unless you are willing to get in a knife fight. People think we are at the end of times, especially in the United States. Guess what, we fought the Civil War. That is a hell of a lot worse than anything going on today (that we know of, that’s why we need more time!).
  3. I haven’t read about all the interesting dead people yet. Quite frankly, I don’t see anyone alive exciting enough to read about their (still going) life.

I’m not naïve enough to think history isn’t written through a certain lens. However, when you let enough time pass then you at least have different sources to pull from to check the facts. Plus, time is a great equalizer. Heroes are born and villains are reveled. Just ask King Leopold.

Marooned by Joseph Kelly

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I would’ve stayed in Bermuda.

Quick synopsis: The founding of Jamestown and the absolutely crazy set of circumstances and difficult people that made it last. Also, a lot of Joseph Kelly philosophy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Stephen Hopkins was sentenced to death for mutiny in Bermuda. Years later he would be on the Mayflower. He is a wonderful example of how far a good apology can go.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Kelly, the author, wonderfully illustrates how the English felt superior to the hated Catholic Spanish who plundered and murdered their way through the Americas. Kelly then more or less pinpoints exactly when the English started doing the same thing without a hint of irony.

My Take: This is a tale of two books. One is good, the other not so much.

When Kelly is focused on the history of Jamestown, this book really shines. He has a great handle on the characters, of which there are many, and I found he was able to put a lot of things in perspective. John Smith was an egomaniac who ruled with an iron fist. Kelly doesn’t shy away from also pointing out that without John Smith, everyone would definitely had died. Kelly also does a pretty good job of putting the English mentality (read: superiority complex) on trial as they slowly realize the Spanish might have the right idea. The right idea (in their minds) kill everyone and then they should be sufficiently afraid of us.

The other book within the book is much less successful. Kelly too often sidetracks to start philosophizing on the thoughts and feelings of the “lesser” sort of settlers. These sections completely break up the flow of the book and, quite frankly, usually aren’t very convincing. Kelly meant to make Jamestown the true jumping off point of American thought. He didn’t convince me.

(Tangent: Rhode Island is the true jumping off point of American thought. Fight me.)

Verdict: Come for the history, skip the philosophy. A good book for someone who knows a little bit about this time period but not all of it. Too in depth for beginners.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Benjamin Woolley, Savage Kingdom
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown

Random Musing: Disaster Books and Guilt

What’s this musing about: Am I messed up in the head for liking disaster books so much?

I love disaster books. They are all my cup of tea from blizzards and firestorms to shipwrecks (personal fav) and Arctic survival. There is something about the desperation, the heroism, and the adrenaline rush or reading about real people and how they deal with incredibly dangerous circumstances.

There are always casualties in these books. In fiction, you may feel for the characters if the author is good enough. You may really get caught up and lament the loss of a beloved character. But in history, these are real people who faced unimaginable stress and sadness. People walking around with full lives that are very often ended or changed irrevocably. The survivor’s story doesn’t end at the last chapter.

You might wonder if liking this genre is just a slight indication you might be a serial killer who revels in the destruction of people and property. (I also like Investigation Discovery but that’s for another post entirely.)

Then, it hit me when I sat down to write this article.

I’m not reading for the death and destruction. I’m reading hoping they all get out alive. You know from the jacket cover or the summary that many will not. But, it’s like watching your favorite movie when you know how someone will get the axe, but you hope somehow the movie suddenly changes and goes a different direction.

Also, extreme circumstances bring out the worst but also the best in humans. Often beyond anyone’s comprehension when reading along. The sailor who runs into the bowels of a ship to find a friend or the brother who braves a blizzard to find his sister. Or the ones left behind who sometimes can try and take down the ones responsible. Or the last stand of a valiant group of soldier’s just trying to stay alive.

When I really think about it, I’m not reading for the disasters. I’m reading for the miracles.