Baby God (HBO Max)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You obviously have to be a psycho to want this many kids.

Quick synopsis: An investigation into Dr. Quincy Fortier, who for over 30 years used his own sperm to inseminate patients without their knowledge.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The current number of children with Fortier’s DNA is at 24 and rising as of December 2020.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: In the early days of artificial insemination, doctors were a main source of sperm and donated often. In fact, doctors did not seem to care all that much whose sperm got used since DNA was not a thing yet.

My Take: I wanted to be more outraged. True crime is supposed to make you hate someone or something. Fortier was truly a loathsome person for a myriad of reasons, but it feels like the documentary doesn’t know that. It’s surprisingly sterile (I am so sorry; I could not resist).

I can’t articulate exactly why this story falls so flat. Fortier is a criminal and not just for what he did in his practice. However, while the documentary contains some very poignant moments with people who were hurt by him, they don’t hate him nearly as much as you may expect. Also, the documentary puts a few ideas out that it never fully investigates. I want my documentary to point out when things are open ended, but I also want it to hammer home something supported by fact. Baby God traffics in accusations too much to it’s own detriment.

Verdict: Everything listed below is better. Watch those.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)
  • I Love You, Now Die (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

The Agitator by Peter Duffy

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Commies vs. Nazis. Who ya got?

Quick synopsis: The story of William Bailey who boarded a German luxury liner and threw the swastika flag into the Hudson River.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Everyone knows that the Nazis hated the Jews. What most people don’t realize is that they really hated Catholics too. While they were not nearly in as much danger, obviously, the Third Reich took great pains to keep Catholics in their place.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Duffy gives an excellent street-level view of the societal structure right before World War II. He gives a great rundown of who the commies hated, who the police hated, and who just wanted to be left alone.

My Take: I have never even heard a hint of this story and it sounds like it was a pretty big deal at the time.

Long story short, William Bailey and his fellow communists boarded a popular German luxury liner in New York City. They caused a commotion and tore down the swastika flag and threw it into the (very dirty) Hudson River. It caused an international incident before World War II. It is an interesting time in history because this was when most people put their heads in the sand and pretended, “oh, the Nazis don’t seem all that bad.” This is what we would call a rather large miscalculation.

There was a trial with a twist and the rest of Bill Bailey’s life took some interesting turns. The problem is that much of Bailey’s life seemed more exciting than the event the book is tackling. I would much rather have had a full accounting of Bailey’s life then this specific event taking up so much real estate.

That said, it is well written and will hold your attention.

Verdict: The story is interesting but feels a little thin. Worth a read if you find the time period interesting.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels and Empire of Sin and The Mirage Factory
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl on the Velvet Swing

The Zealot and the Emancipator by H.W. Brands

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The Civil War era was crazy. Glad politics got so much better since then.

Quick synopsis: A dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Brown was seriously deranged, and we all are pretty clear about that today. But back in the day, John Brown was revered by abolitionists.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We tend to deify Lincoln nowadays, but he was never a staunch abolitionist.

My Take: A psychopath and a saint were both needed to end slavery in the United States. Oh, sure it took more than that, but I like being hyperbolic. Also, maybe I’m a little condescending (that means I talk down to people). I digress.

Brands’ book is pretty interesting because of how we see the two subjects today. John Brown was a psychopath who led multiple people (including a few of his own sons) to various early deaths. He tried to capture a U.S. military installation in one of the most ill-conceived operations in American history. When he was put to death, he was lionized as a hero and a monster.

Lincoln is now known as one of our greatest presidents. In his own time, that was very touch and go. Lincoln was always about keeping the Union together whether slavery existed or not. Ultimately, he did become the Great Emancipator, but he was a politician, first and foremost.

Brands focuses on major parts of Lincoln and Brown’s lives including some things you won’t get in other books. It’s a good read.

Verdict: This is a great book if you haven’t read too much on either subject.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Charles Lane, Freedom’s Detective
  • Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers

Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Be ready to be creeped out for oh so many reasons.

Quick synopsis: The murder of Dee Dee Blanchard by her daughter, Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her boyfriend.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: 95% of Munchausen syndrome by proxy cases are by the mother of a child.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The real name of Munchausen syndrome by proxy is actually factitious disorder imposed on another.

My Take: Prepare to feel sorry for a murderer!

Gypsy Rose Blanchard was sick her whole life. She was born prematurely, had brain damage, along with leukemia, asthma, and muscular dystrophy. She must just have terrible luck, right? Well, she did have bad luck but not the medical type. She has the misfortune of being the daughter of Dee Dee Blanchard who made everything about her daughter up. Gypsy didn’t have any of those conditions. Well, maybe asthma, but she was never allowed to leave the house so who knows.

Like all stories which go wrong, the problem began when Gypsy became a teenager (God help me in 7 years) and started getting more independent. Eventually, she met a guy online. I’d like to point out that he really tries to steal the title of creepiest person in this documentary and that is saying something. Dee Dee ends up dead and Gypsy and her boyfriend end up on trial.

This is an amazingly uncomfortable story. You feel sorry for Gypsy but she is interviewed at the end and it is unnerving. Dee Dee may have poisoned someone along with a lot of other issues and seems to be a severely mental ill woman (or just a scummy conwoman).

When it’s all over, call your mom and tell her you love her for not locking you up and making you think you can’t walk.

Verdict: A really unsettling documentary. It is very well done but don’t expect to feel anything resembling justice when it’s all over.

If You Liked This Try:

  • I Love You, Now Die (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Murder on Middle Beach (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Come for the murder, stay for the amazing amounts of family drama.

Quick synopsis: A documentary by Madison Hamburg about the unsolved murder of his mother, Barbara Hamburg.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Well, if you are the type of person who thinks police are either lazy and/or corrupt then you will thoroughly enjoy this.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The episode on “gifting tables” will blow your mind as to how people do not realize or accept that the practice is a Ponzi scheme.

My Take: Barbara Hamburg was murdered in front of her house on March 3, 2010. From there, nothing else is all that clear.

Her son, Madison, becomes obsessed with figuring out who did it and begins to film a documentary around his efforts. He directly interviews many people associated with it (some directly and some clandestinely). There is a very clear sense of who you would bet on as the murderer, but Madison does not spare anyone in this documentary. Including himself, actually.

Madison is clearly not the murderer and you know that early on. However, I found myself as a certain point wondering how much of this was really to solve the murder and how much of it is Madison being an aspiring filmmaker with a story that will sell. When I felt myself questioning his motives, he did something most filmmakers won’t do. He calls himself out on it. I won’t spoil that any further.

I hate documentaries that do not have a clear ending. This does not uncover who did it. I loved it anyway. By far, one of the best true crime docs I have ever seen.

Verdict: If you like true crime, then you must watch this.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • The Innocence Files (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Antarctica by David Day

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I really want to go here. Someone want to make a donation?

Quick synopsis: The story of Antarctica from the 1770s to today.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Antarctica is a desert. It hasn’t rained there in 2 million years. Go ahead, check my work.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Antarctica has no time zone.

My Take: Ice, baby! Antarctica has a ton of it and Day wants to tell you all about it.

Day takes you through the entire history of Antarctica from when humanity only thought it existed, to when we knew it existed, to when we tried to figure out what to do with it.

The reasons people thought it existed way back in the day are hilarious. They actually thought it had to be there to “balance” out the Earth. Isn’t that ridiculous? It would be like thinking the Earth is flat.

My favorite parts of the book are clearly the exploration times. Antarctica, like the Arctic, killed a lot of people who were trying to tame it. We still haven’t.

The last portion gets into the politics of how the world decided Antarctica belonged to no one. Admittedly, the book drags a bit here. It doesn’t have the same energy as people trying to find the South Pole.

Verdict: This book is not for everyone but for dorks like me it was wonderful.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce B. Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation

Commander Will Cushing by Jaime Malanowski

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This mofo was CRAZY! 

Quick synopsis: A biography of Commander William Cushing with a major focus on his bonkers actions in the military during the Civil War. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Cushing was basically an action movie hero. The big event in his life was during the Civil War when he placed a bomb on the Confederate ironclad CSS Albermarle and DETONATED IT WHILE HE WAS STILL THERE. YES, HE LIVED. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Cushing was one of many brothers who distinguished themselves. One of his brothers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Another was killed fighting Apaches after the Civil War and one other brother served but actually lived. So, the Cushing family had a 25% survival rate in the military. 

My Take: If you look at Cushing’s actions with the Albermarle in a vacuum, then you see a man who performed a heroic action in a very difficult time. However, Cushing was not a one hit wonder. 

He typified the term “suicide mission.” In fact, by the end of the book I really wanted to know if he suffered from some sort of mental illness where all regard for personal safety is snuffed out. It worked out pretty well for him. He was the youngest at that time to ever be promoted to Commander in the U.S. Navy. 

Malanowksi has both a lot to work with and at the same time not all that much. Cushing only lived to be 32 years old. He packed a lot of (suicidal) life into those 32, though. 

Verdict: Good book for Civil War buffs and novices. Read it. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman 
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising 
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals 
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman 

American Fire by Monica Hesse

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Bad sex life? Let’s burn down buildings. 

Quick synopsis: The story of an arsonist couple in rural Virginia. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The arson spree the couple committed ended in a tally of 70 fires. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: There are about 17,000 residential arson fires a year in the U.S.   

My Take: This is a very different true crime book than what most people gravitate to. 

The author doesn’t hide who did it. You know pretty early on who the perpetrators are. Instead, Hesse explains the community and how the fires caused a wide range of responses as the arson seemed to never stop. 

The part of Virginia where this all occurred is known to be on the poorer side and Hesse turns this into a study in sociology as much as true crime. This is a good thing. 

I found myself being moved by the entire story because of how it was presented. This easily could have been turned into a thriller, but Hesse wisely makes this a story of people doing a bad thing but not being bad people. 

Verdict: It is an interesting book for the subject. If you like your true crime with gore, then it’s not for you. If you want a nuanced story, then this is up your alley 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy