Battle of the Books: A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez Vs. Brutal Journey by Paul Schneider

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Florida had crazy stories even back in 1528.

Quick synopsis: A group of Spaniards who attempted to colonize Florida end up in a battle of survival. The survivors end up walking across most of North America.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow survivors ended up crossing the lower U.S. from Florida to about Arizona or so. In 1528. I wouldn’t even do that now.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This is the same fact as above. I didn’t even know this happened. You would think this would merit at least a passing mention in elementary school books. “Wake up kids, wait until you hear about THIS!”

The survivors end up being slaves and traveling salesmen/doctors. Yes, in that order.

Book vs. Book: Both books tell this story pretty well. Honestly, it would be hard to screw this up because the basic facts are insane.

If you are very against imperialism and colonization, then this book is for you! A bunch of Spaniards go looking for their fortune. They get a little lax with their security after landing because the locals can’t do much right? Oh, and food won’t be a problem! What could possibly go wrong?

They started in 1528 with a few hundred people. 4 survived and made it back to civilization sometime in 1536. Now that’s a hell of a detour.

Both authors really make you feel the hardships from beginning to end. The searing and ungodly Florida heat in armor. The bugs. The swamps. Why does anyone go to Florida?

Verdict: A Land So Strange by a nose! Both of these books are good, I just liked Resendez’s approach better.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • Joan Druett, Island of the Lost
  • William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Wait until you get to the unneeded male nudity.

Quick synopsis: Story of an airplane crash during World War II in New Guinea. The survivors of the crash are caught in a valley which will require an ingenious exit strategy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: A drunk guy parachutes out of a plane.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The indigenous people in the area where the plane crashed were (almost) untouched by civilization until this incident. Zuckoff makes some hilarious corrections of the diaries at the time to show the contrast between what the Americans thought the tribesmen were doing and what they were actually doing. See alternate tagline for example.

My Take: This is a pretty fun book because Zuckoff does quite a few things really well to stitch this story together. First, he relies on his primary sources which were luckily kept by the survivors of the crash. Second, he also uses tribesmen or their descendants who were still alive to answer questions and add flourishes to the story.

Zuckoff creates a strong sense of the New Guinea military base and the people who inhabit it just as well as he does for the home of the indigenous tribes. His characters are vivid to the reader because Zuckoff gives you the facts you need to understand their psyche and also doesn’t shy away from their flaws either. The best example if Margaret Hastings who at various points is a damsel in distress, badass survivor, media icon, and pain in the ass. She is, in a word, a human and not a stock character.

Zuckoff’s story flies around to take into account everything from the valley, to the base, to the Homefront. He calls it straight and does not avoid assigning blame or pointing out hypocrisy and well intentioned stupidity. However, this story fizzles out at the very end. Once the paratroopers arrive the story slows down to a crawl until the extraction. And the extraction angle seems to take up too much space and needed to be shortened.

Verdict: Fun lark for those interested in adventure stories and/or World War II. Not recommended for people already scared of flying. Probably shouldn’t read it on the plane either. You know, just in case jinxes are real.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Lost City of Z
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation
  • William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone

When Montezuma Met Cortes by Matthew Restall

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: When good scholarship goes wrong.

Quick synopsis: A reexamination of when Montezuma first met Hernan Cortes. The author has many thoughts.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: N/A. This is historical scholarship that would put anyone not absolutely enamored with the time period into a coma.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Yeah, can’t really call these “facts.” I explain below.

My Take: The premise of this book is interesting. What if we reevaluated when Montezuma met Cortes and looked at alternate views of how it all went down.

There are two major problems. Restall is not convincing of his version of events and in fact seems to argue with himself. On the one hand, he calls out Cortes as a bungling idiot but the ultimate survivor. However, you also keep reading and then he will point out how Cortes was a master of playing the game. He can’t be both. At least, not with how Restall himself wants to paint him.

Secondly, and oh man this is a big mistake, most of the book looks at everything BUT the actual meeting. Restall jumps around and spends actually very little time on the actual meeting.

I am all for reevaluating history with a discerning eye. But Restall seems to only want to see a different view as opposed to having the evidence to back it up.

Cortes was a real psycho though. No arguments there.

Verdict: Don’t bother.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador

The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well I’m certainly going to be nice to Forest Rangers after reading this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the “Big Burn,” the largest forest fire in American history and Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to create and protect national forests.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Camp Fire of 2018 which was (understandably) a huge news story burned 153,000 acres. The Big Burn burned 3,000,000 acres.

Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt loved to strip down and wrestle with his guests.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book basically breaks down into three major narrative threads and they are all interesting.

Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot are the main drivers of the conservation movement with a few peripheral weirdos. Some may call them naturalists and loners, but if we are being honest, they seemed like weirdos living in the woods by themselves. No judgment, but I just can’t imagine liking camping that much. Anyway, this book is the first one where I really saw the machinations of Roosevelt in his drive for conservation. I had never even heard of Pinchot before this.

Another thread is the founding of the forest service and the literal and figurative attacks they survived. Rangers would literally be threatened and killed by frontier folks while legislators tried to kill them in Congress. They may have never survived (figuratively) without…

…the Big Burn! In another one of life’s hideous ironies, the Big Burn probably saved the Forest Service from dying in the cradle. The brave rangers who held their ground and sometimes didn’t survive ignited popular opinion which allowed them to grow and prosper. The Big Burn takes less space in the book than you would think but the other threads are necessary, and the book doesn’t suffer for it.

Verdict: A good book any history nerd will enjoy. The narrative may not move fast enough for a non-history nerd, though.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo

Dodge City by Tom Clavin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Came for the Wild West. Stayed for the ridiculous nicknames.

Quick synopsis: Part biography of Dodge City and what it was like in the time of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Part biography of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Part random cowboy stories which are almost completely tangential but hilarious.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Here’s the list of nicknames I giggled at like a 10-year-old: Big Nose Kate, Texas Dick, Happy Jack, Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce, Gopher Boy, Deadwood Dick, Mysterious Dave, and Hoodoo. I did not make any of that up. You can even check the index.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Not as many people got shot in the Wild West as you thought! There still was plenty of gunplay, but especially for Earp and Masterson, they had to avoid it as much as possible to keep Dodge City out of the national papers as a crazy town. They were modestly successful for a certain period of time.

My Take: Clavin is obviously having a lot of fun with his subjects. He makes it very clear in his introduction that he did the best he could with what he had. He tries not to ruin too much of the fun by pointing out a whole lot of this stuff could be complete poppycock. However, he will admit when something most definitely did not happen. He will still tell the story anyway because why the hell not.

Clavin gives a pretty good rundown of the genesis of all three of his subjects, Dodge City, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson. Anyone who reads about this period of time in American history knows the whole thing is a muddle of names, nicknames, aliases, and newspaper reports which make no sense whatsoever because “facts” do not sell newspapers in the 1800s.

The whole thing makes for a light and airy read which also demands your attention to names who will jump in and out of the story multiple time until someone shoots them or they disappear. Clavin tries to give everyone their moment to shine when warranted, but it can be maddening at times when you want the story to keep moving. Then again, I probably would also be the idiot saying out loud, “But what happened to Gopher Boy, Tom?!”

Verdict: A fun read if you want to learn more about the time period and want a good deal of facts mixed in with some outlandish and funny stories. Clavin is never boring, but the details can sometimes become distracting.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Paul Andrew Hutton, The Apache Wars
  • Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp
  • Jim DeFelice, West Like Lightning

1917

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Holy S—!

Quick synopsis: Two British soldiers in World War I are sent to stop Allied Forces from walking into a trap. Yes, it’s fiction but I don’t care even a little bit.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The entire movie is shot in three continuous shots. The camera just follows the action through some truly insane scenarios.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: All of it. Peak nerdgasm. The detail is ridiculous.

My Take: Normally I don’t review anything fiction. This is too good for me to ignore.

The movie follows two soldiers sent through no man’s land to head off a possible massacre. The first few minutes is just the two of them walking through the trenches. The detail is so rich you don’t have enough time to take everything in. I’m going to see it again soon just to be able to be more observant.

If you are not a history nerd, the story alone is easy to follow and flows really well. You definitely get invested and will learn some things along the way (God forbid!).

As mentioned above, the movie is actually three long shots. The camera just follows as the plot moves along. This should win all of the awards. I actually read the negative reviews of the movie to see what people actually complained about. Their comments were stupid.

And then the end. Big rousing set piece. Quiet character moment. Not a dry eye in the house.

Verdict: See it. Do it now. Go.

If You Liked This Try: They Shall Not Grow old.