Be Free or Die by Cate Lineberry

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: How is this not a movie yet?!

Quick synopsis: A recounting of the life of Robert Smalls, Union hero during the Civil War.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Robert Smalls stole a Confederate ship and sailed it out to the waiting Union blockade right under the guns of a Confederate held fortress.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Read the fact above! I don’t care who you are, that is straight gangster! Then he bought the house he was born in as a slave! And let some of the white family members come back and live there with him!

My Take: This is a fantastic story which, unfortunately, the book does not live up to.

Lineberry certainly does not waste time. She immediately starts with the pilfering of the ship and the heading out to sea before adding some background. The first portion of this book is well-told, well-paced, and then really peters out. It is somewhat inexplicable because Smalls had a lot of life to live after this, but much of the very interesting times of his life post grand theft boat are banished to a short epilogue.

Lineberry tries to explain the other people in the story and provide an understanding of the Civil War at that time but she goes too far. You will find yourself thrilled by the opening chapters and then feel very much let down by the pacing and focus of the book thereafter. She doesn’t go deep enough into the time period for history buffs but spends too much time explaining things for a lay reader.

Robert Smalls had a gigantic life including being a long-time member of the House of Representatives. Quite frankly, I would have loved to see this story in the hands of Candice Millard. She understands better the need to keep your narrative focus and not ignoring portions of the subject’s life.

Verdict: Great story but will drag after the initial adventure.

If You Liked This Try:

  • James Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

John Adams (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Paul Giamatti playing a jerk. He’s the best at it!

Quick synopsis: The events of John Adams’ life covered by the book of the same name by David McCullough.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Adams was the lawyer for the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. He got most of them acquitted. If you didn’t know that then you need to read this blog more.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I can’t pick just one! Don’t make me!

My Take: Ah, yes. This is my sweet spot. Give me some good American Revolution TV and I am in heaven.

Sometimes Hollywood casts characters perfectly. John Adams was a very smart and acerbic man who was short and stocky. They got Paul Giamatti. No brainer.

Abigail Adams was an amazingly intelligent woman who would not suffer fools. Laura Linney? You’re damn right. (Side note: If you don’t know how amazing Abigail Adams was just start with Wikipedia. Can I have a historical nerd crush? I can and I do.)

Once you knock those two roles out of the park then the rest is easy. A lot of other characters are well cast but this whole thing hinges on John and Abigail and they are perfect. I actually read some reviews who complained Giamatti was miscast. People are stupid sometimes.

The series takes the viewer from right before the Revolution to Adams’ death and covers all the major aspects you would expect. Is it perfect history? No. There are some understandable liberties taken for dramatic effect (and some which are just baffling), but for the most part it keeps the history pretty well intact. It’s also interesting and an easy watch.

Verdict: Watch this. Now. Go. I give you permission to stop reading this blog but come back right after.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers

Catherine the Great (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Bold move by the screenwriters making Catherine the Great suck.

Quick synopsis: Part of Catherine the Great’s life but not really.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You can watch the first episode. All of it is exposition in a very distracting and terrible way.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Don’t watch this if you are a history nerd. You will lose your damn mind.

My Take: Chernobyl was really good on HBO. This is not.

Small confession up front. I am not a professional TV critic. Please hold your shock. This is a good thing because I only had to watch the first episode of this miniseries and then I could walk away. I did.

The first episode is just one gigantic and annoying exposition dump and not even a good one at that. Exposition is important in catching the viewer up on what is happening and who people are. However, when a character explains something to another character you need to be careful not to pull the viewer out of the moment by doing something stupid. Such as, it makes no sense to have a character explain to Catherine the Great her own life. SHE IS CATHERINE THE GREAT. SHE KNOWS HER OWN LIFE.

Another example: multiple characters talk back to Catherine the Great. That would not happen in Russia during this time. You’d be killed. Catherine the Great was (comparatively) humane. It’s Russia, though.

Another problem: Helen Mirren is an amazing actress. However, she is also not young. I spent the entire episode trying to understand when this was all happening chronologically because the details were all over the place and Helen Mirren looks her age.

I finished the first episode, dear reader. I am sorry, but I refuse to go any further. I’ll probably watch one of the recommendations at the bottom all over again.

Verdict: Don’t. Just don’t.  

If You Liked This Then I Can’t Help You. If You Want Something Good:

  • Chernobyl
  • Saints & Strangers
  • John Adams

The Finest Hours by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Two shipwrecks for the price of one!

Quick synopsis: The story of two oil tankers in distress off Cape Cod in 1952 and the effort to save the crew by the Coast Guard.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Both distressed ships split in half! And kept floating for hours! Did you know they could do that because I certainly didn’t?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Even an old Army vet needs to give props to the Coast Guard here. The book lets you know their regulations on going out in bad storms. I hate boats, and this made me hate them more.

My Take: Tougias knows about shipwrecks. He has written quite a few and can write a hell of a yarn about the crews and their efforts to survive. As someone who has spent a lot of time on Cape Cod, I may be biased, but I think this is his best work.

The book is a quick read even though there is a lot of ground to cover. Tougias and Sherman need to explain why the ships broke apart in the first place, introduce all the crew and Coasties, and then tell the story. It moves very fast, but you don’t feel like anything has been left out.

While the rescue tells some truly harrowing stories of life and death, the aftermath comes across even more poignant. Without giving away too much, sometimes heroes are not heroes to everyone.

Stories like this are why I went in the Army and not the Navy or the Coast Guard. Screw that!

Verdict: Great book and could be read by any audience. It doesn’t give more detail than it needs to and moves at a great pace for general audiences.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Spike Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Joan Druett, Island of the Lost
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • David Geren Brown, White Hurricane
  • Michael Schumacher, Wreck of the Carl D.

Musing: I Hate Thomas Jefferson

What’s this musing about: Thomas Jefferson was a moody and terrible hypocrite.

I hate Thomas Jefferson.

Oh, you want to know why? I’d be happy to let you know. And now, I will employ one of my favorite things: a numbered list.

  1. His supporters talk about how madly he loved his wife. There is evidence to that. There is also evidence he raped his slave, Sally Hemings. Then he didn’t even emancipate her when he died. His daughter “kinda” did. Yes, I use “kinda” the way you say someone is “kinda” pregnant.
  2. He was a hypocrite, especially politically. Case in point: Jefferson always railed against Washington and Hamilton for being evil Federalists who wanted a strong central government. Then he became President and made the Louisiana Purchase which he technically had no right to do. Is that not enough to convince you? He originally wrote that slavery was evil and England was complicit in the Declaration of Independence. He freed almost none of his slaves upon his death.
  3. He was so whiny. Seriously, just look up any letter written by Jefferson and you will find a deeply insecure individual.
  4. He was terrible with money. When he died, he left an absolute mess for his relatives.
  5. He believed America should never industrialize and should stay an agrarian society. Yes, hindsight is 2020 (get it?), but c’mon.
  6. He sued anyone who annoyed him. Especially people who said he fathered a child with one of his slaves. That slave was Sally Hemings. And he did.
  7. His economic policy was a nightmare. Not only did he nearly destroy the economy with his embargo, it did not do a thing to stop the coming war of 1812.
  8. Even by the standards of the day, he was a pretty bad dad. He left his youngest in the care of others while he was Foreign Minister in France. No qualms there. When he decided to bring her over and she didn’t want to leave? They let her fall asleep on a ship she was playing on and then sailed away. Not terrifying at all. Abigail and John Adams welcomed her halfway to France. When Abigail told Jefferson he should really come get her as she was traumatized, he ignored her. He sent someone else. Why? Waiting on his (probable) married mistress.
  9. He fought with John Adams for years! (That’s a history joke. Everyone fought with John Adams at some point.)
  10. Even George Washington got sick of him.

Need more evidence?

Tom Chaffin, Revolutionary Brothers

Tags: American History, leadership, slavery, musings, Jefferson

A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Braveheart was such a stupid movie.

Quick synopsis: A complete biography of Edward I of England.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Other than the fact Edward I and William Wallace existed, Braveheart got everything else wrong.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Edward I effectively took control over Scotland by tricking them. After the Scottish royal line died out, Scotland’s leaders asked Edward I to mediate between arguing factions. He let them know he couldn’t do so without taking control of Scotland, at least on paper (suckers!). That’s the gist, but Morris really gives a great background to all the machinations.

My Take: Morris always writes well-thought-out and researched books and this is no exception. He writes about Edward’s life chronologically and gives a great overview of all the major players. For those new to British history, even an overview of the major players can be insanely convoluted. This is what happens when royalty keeps marrying other royalty. I recommend getting yourself a whiteboard and just draw the family trees out.

Morris does a great job of explaining how Edward’s upbringing formed who he became as a king. In a tale as old as time, his father was a king who failed in his martial duties, so Edward of course spent his entire life at war killing people in various places including on crusade, France (kinda), Wales, and Scotland.

The book is pretty lengthy, and Morris does not spare the details. It feels very much like Morris went day to day throughout Edward’s life. It is definitely recommended for someone interested in Edward I, but probably not a good place to start if this is your first foray.  If this is your kind of history, it will be very insightful. If not, this will seem interminable. The story does drag in a few places where Edward is not actively at war and you can get tempted to start skimming. That being said, Morris gives you everything you can ask for on the subject and Edward I was at war a lot.

Oh, and if you liked Braveheart, don’t read this book. It truly shows how dumb the whole movie was.

Verdict: Great book for people interested in the English monarchy. Won’t be for people who are not or novices to the endless number of names.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
  • Michael Jones, The Black Prince: England’s Greatest Medieval Warrior
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight

My Favorite History: The White Hurricane

From November 7th through November 10th, 1913, the Great Lakes were hammered by what was called the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, or much more ominously, the “White Hurricane.”

I love history when I have absolutely no insight before I start digging in. I am huge lover of shipwreck stories and came across White Hurricane by David Brown. It looked interesting enough and had great reviews. Little did I know what was coming.

The storm wreaked such savage destruction due to two major man-made issues. First, shipping on the Great Lakes was a massive industry. There was a lot of pressure on ship captains to keep sailing until the last possible moment. For the Great Lakes, the last possible moment is early November. And sometimes, like with the White Hurricane, it’s past the last possible moment.

The second factor was the fledgling weather service. We complain about meteorologists being wrong constantly, but back in 1913 it was much worse. The weather service was not good at predicting the weather. However, what was worse was the politics. Weathermen were often scared to declare a massive storm was coming. They often feared they would damage shipping interests and had tremendous pressure to downplay or ignore their instincts.

The results would be disastrous. Nearly 40 ships were destroyed including 12 which were completely lost with all hands killed. Over 250 people lost their lives. The most poignant for me was Lightship LV-82, Buffalo, which was the only vessel lost on Lake Erie. The men on board disappeared with the Lightship. During a time of absolute catastrophe, it stings more when the people out there to protect others end up being victims as well.

I ended up reading two full length books on the storm, White Hurricane as mentioned above and November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher. I compared them in a battle of the books. Both books are excellent, and the facts are basically the same. Both authors did their homework. The biggest similarity is the feeling of being completely overpowered by Mother Nature. Couple that with a deadly irony which the books explore: you are better off staying in the middle of a lake in a storm than running for shore. I don’t know much about shipping (actually, literally nothing) and this fact was amazing to me. The ships which fared the best were the ones who braved the storm in the middle of the lakes. It let them control their boats to keep moving with the storm without smashing into rocks. Many of the ships mentioned above were the ones who tried to make a mad dash back to port.

The old adage in that part of the country is true. Don’t get on a boat come November.

For more:

White Hurricane by David G. Brown

November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher

If you’re lazy,

Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’ll never think of a sugar rush the same way again.

Quick synopsis: A recounting of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. You heard me right.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: In 1919, a giant vat of molasses in Boston burst, sending a flood of molasses through a Boston neighborhood and killing 21 people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Read the fact above! What?! Molasses?!

My Take: What the ever-loving hell?

Has anyone even heard of this story? I only came across it because I fell into one of those Wikipedia holes where you just keep jumping between articles until you find something really nuts. I found this and then looked up a corresponding book. And now here we are.

The molasses flood is not well known and, as such, does not have a lot of information on it. Puleo pulls as much as he can about the victims and the circumstances around it to make you feel for the victims and their families.

The world is a crazy place.

Verdict: The disaster itself is not in the league of some of the others recommended below, but it is an interesting read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Like mother, like daughter. Almost literally.

Quick synopsis: A dual biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, a very famous feminist writer and her daughter Mary Shelley who wrote a little book called Frankenstein.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Basically, Frankenstein got written because Mary Shelley was on vacation and someone dared her to come up with something. Turned out pretty well.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: As mentioned in the synopsis, Mary Shelley isn’t some weird genius from a family of nobodies. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft was extremely important in the early (and I mean early) feminist movement. She died about a month after giving birth to Mary Shelley.

Oh, the dudes around them were kind of a big deal but who cares about them.

My Take: This book has two major things going for it.

First, Mary and Mary are supremely interesting as people. Nowadays, feminist means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Mary W. was a pioneer and devoted her life to championing feminism. She also got called a whore and people tired to discredit her. Thank God we have moved on from doing that. Oh, wait….

Mary S. is just as interesting. And complex. These are not women who always lived by society’s rules even today. Their writings are not just good books. They are works of genius. And again, they got called names and then people tried to say men wrote their books.

The structure of this book takes it from being very good to amazing in and of itself. Gordon alternates between mother and daughter each chapter. It changes it from a dual biography to almost a comparison of the women. Amazingly, you see such similarities between their lives that it becomes eerie. It makes all the difference in making this a book you hope doesn’t stop.

Verdict: This book is so well done that you don’t even need to know or even care about the ladies. Gordon makes you care.

If You Liked This Try (badass women addition):

  • Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella
  • Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War
  • Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli