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