Grant by Ron Chernow

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: When is Lin-Manuel Miranda going to make a musical out of this?

Quick synopsis: A (very) in depth biography of Ulysses S. Grant.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Battle of Shiloh had more casualties than the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War combined. Gettysburg would more than double that.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Grant’s groomsmen at his wedding were James Longstreet, Cadmus Wilcox, and Bernard Pratte. All of them would later surrender to Grant at Appomattox.

My Take: Ulysses S. Grant (not his real name, actually) is one of those historical figures who can be lionized or vilified using bare facts. He made it quite easy, actually.

Ulysses S. Grant was a master of the battlefield and is recognized by many military luminaries as a genius.

Ulysses S. Grant was hilariously bad at business ventures and choosing who to trust under those circumstances.

Where Chernow is a master is in supporting his conclusions. The Pulitzer Prize winning Grant by William S. McFeely is a horrible book which paints Grant a villain using pop psychology and sparsely supported conjecture. Chernow backs up everything he says with primary sources, takes the good with the bad, and uses the opinions of people relative to their times. The last part is very important. Many of Grant’s detractors had strong reasons to try and bring him down, whether because they lost to him on the battlefield (hello Bobby E. Lee!) or refused to bend to his will in politics.

However, Chernow does not allow Grant off easy for his shortcomings which were readily apparent. Grant was extremely naïve in multiple areas and they marred much of his legacy. He is rated lowly as a president, but Chernow resurrects his legacy as the archenemy of the KKK. Chernow also points out that much of the scandals which erupted under Grant didn’t actually start with him. Grant tried to work within the system he inherited and the fact no one ever truly accused him of being crooked himself is testament to that. Even still, Washington he was not.

Verdict: If you are a history nerd, everything Chernow writes is required reading. If you are new to the genre, 900 pages is a bit intimidating, but worth it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Andrew Roberts, Napoleon
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella
  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman

Grant by William S. McFeely

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book is one of the reasons to hate the 80s.

Quick synopsis: A terrible biography of U.S. Grant.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This terrible book won the Pulitzer Prize. It annoys me to no end.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This book is an example of an author having an axe to grind for no apparent reason.

My Take: This book absolutely enrages me.

U.S. Grant is one of the most complex characters in American history. He was a drunk, a hero, an amazing judge of character in military matters, but a horrible judge of character in business matters. He was gifted a slave, whom he freed while broke when he could have sold him. He was madly in love with his wife at a time when that wasn’t always the case.

The first person who would tell you Grant was an extremely flawed human would be Grant. And he did, in his own autobiography.

Then you have this hatchet job by William S. McFeely which somehow won the Pulitzer Prize. It is full of amateur pop psychology. He makes wild accusations about Grant based on nothing, as far as I can tell, because he never explains why he feels that way.

Contrast that with Ron Chernow who takes great pains to explain his point of view. When he says George Washington had a complex relationship with his mother, he supports it by referencing letters between the two and placing them in historical context.

Don’t read this book. Awards don’t guarantee quality.

Verdict: Read anything below. For the love of God, please. Just not this.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jamie Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman
  • Ron Chernow, Grant
  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman

Triangle by David Von Drehle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why we have fire safety requirements.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. It is one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the US and one of the main reasons for a lot of major reforms.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: 146 people died during the fire. One of the main reasons was because one of the owners locked the doors to keep everyone in. He even did it AGAIN after the fire.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the biggest shifts politically was the view of Tammany Hall. Long seen as merely a corrupt political contraption (they were), their leaders took on the cause of reform based partly on the Triangle Fire.

My Take: The book is great; the event was horrific.

The factory conditions were beyond belief. The factory was on three separate floors which did not have any way to quickly communicate (there was a phone by it didn’t have a way to contact one of the floors). There was no real fire prevention. Doors were locked to keep the workers from sneaking out. There was a fire escape, but it was put in because the owners refused to put in a third stairwell in the building.

The fire started. The foreman with the keys ran out without unlocking the doors. The fire escape collapsed. The 9th floor had no idea what was happening. People started jumping from the windows. Yes, shades of 9/11.

This book is two different stories. The first is the fire as a disaster story. The second is what happened after which is partially heartening, but also with a lot of frustrations and lack of justice.

Read it.

Verdict: Great book and very important in understanding a major event in labor reform.

If You Liked This Try:

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

The Movies That Made Us: Season 1 (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: 12-year-old Brendan was so psyched for this!

Quick synopsis: Mini-documentaries on some of your favorite movies…and Dirty Dancing (I kid, ladies).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Home Alone was nearly cancelled when it almost completely finished.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Dan Aykroyd’s family is really into the occult and that’s how we got Ghostbusters.

My Take: I don’t care too much about movie making. I like to just see what gets put up on the screen and just enjoy the ride. I know some people want to see the artistry and the camera angles and what not, but I like to see stuff blow up without thinking too hard. Oh, and really fancy dramas…those too.

However, it was really hard not to love this series of documentaries. I even watched the Dirty Dancing one! No, I didn’t have the time of my life, shut up. It was good though.

These documentaries take you through the whole process of the four movies they cover. Literally, from who wrote it (and often rewrote it) all the way through to when people thought the movies would bomb. As you may guess, these movies are in this show because they didn’t.

These are more than just a nostalgia trip. Go ahead and watch.

Verdict: Go ahead. You’ll have a great time.

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
  • High Score (Netflix)

Last Stands by Michael Walsh

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book should have been titled “Get Off My Lawn!”

Quick synopsis: This is a philosophy book masquerading as a look at famous last stands in history.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: None of those in this book!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: None of these, either!

My Take: This book is one of the reasons I have this site.

As of today, Last Stands has a 4.7 out of 5 stars review on Amazon from 278 ratings. It is listed as a military history book. It is not.

I won’t get into the politics of this book, and let’s be clear, this is a book about our current politics. I hate discussing politics because it inevitably leads to arguments which have no end. I am not naïve enough to think books don’t inherently require a political tilt, but that is why there is a VERY important thing to have in any history book: a bibliography. Guess what this book does not have?

A bibliography is the way an author presents the real work of a book by documenting their research. If they say something you heartily disagree with, you can go back to primary or secondary sources to check where it came from. Maybe it changes your mind, maybe it doesn’t. Many historians think George Custer was a dashing figure undone by outside forces. I think his arrogance lead to the death of him and his soldiers. Both can be right, and both can be supported by primary sources. Custer died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. This is historical fact. Why it happened is up to an interpretation by the presenter and it is their job to prove their viewpoint as much as is possible.

Walsh does none of that.

Also, the actual “last stands” in this book take up shockingly little page count. Walsh actually expects you to know more about them than he presents.

And now I will do my solemn duty and point you to actual history books about the battles…. mentioned?… in this book. All of them have bibliographies.

Verdict: Uh, if you like QAnon then you’d probably like this.

Here are books on actual last stands:

  • Custer’s Last Stand – The Last Stand by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift – Like Wolves on the Fold by Mike Snook and Rorke’s Drift: A New Perspective by Neil Thornton
  • The Battle of Chosin Reservoir – On Desperate Ground by Hampton Sides

The Ripper (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Apparently, it’s not a big deal to murder prostitutes in England.

Quick synopsis: A documentary on Peter Sutcliffe, also known as the Yorkshire Ripper, who murdered at least 13 women.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Sutcliffe was interviewed 9 times by the police but was only apprehended when he was caught with a hooker, phony license plates, and a kill kit nearby.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Sutcliffe was able to murder 3 more women and attack 2 others after a man named John Humble sent hoax letters and a recording to police which sent them in the wrong direction.

My Take: It is hard to find a more bungled investigation than this one.

Peter Sutcliffe killed and attacked women over a period of five years from 1975-1980. Except, when the investigation was reviewed years later, he was on police radar as early as 1969. He was quiet and unassuming but was not invisible to law enforcement. However, he might as well have been with the way the police mucked it all up.

The series is good but does start to drag and then feels rather rushed at the end. It is 4 episodes long and Sutcliffe and the investigation fallout doesn’t appear until episode 4. There is a clear attempt by the documentary to highlight how badly misogyny was at the heart of the police incompetence. I was very unconvinced until I did my own research. As a history nerd, additional research can be very enlightening. However, if you bring something up in your documentary, and there is ample evidence to prove it, you need to do a much better job than this did.

If you love true crime, you will like this. It does a great job explaining and showing how much the Ripper out England in a constant state of fear when the sun went down. It is not the best out there, though.

Verdict: This series is good, but it does not seem to be complete and has an extremely rushed ending.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mommy Dead and Dearest (HBO Max)
  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • Night Stalker (Netflix)

A Most Wicked Conspiracy by Paul Starobin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I should have been a gold miner in the 1900s.

Quick synopsis: The story of how a crooked politician tried to steal the gold right out from miners in Nome, Alaska around 1900.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Gold was literally just sitting around waiting to be found. The process wasn’t necessarily easy, but you didn’t have to dig hundreds of feet into the earth. In fact, you could just go to the beach, literally.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We tend to forget that senators were not always directly elected. Until 1913, they were appointed by state legislatures which, as we clearly know now, is a recipe for corruption.

My Take: This book should have been boring. Ultimately, it is about a scandal which was not widely publicized, involved people we mostly never hear of, and was settled without any murders or other major outbreaks of violence.

And yet, I loved this book.

Starobin does precisely what you should do when writing about a little-known story in history: get on with it. Starobin sets the stage to understand the main characters and the setting of Nome, Alaska and gets to the story. He doesn’t waste time and focuses on the pivotal points of the story. He explains who someone is and then highlights their attributes in the way they act during this episode in history. His pacing makes what could have been a very humdrum story into something you don’t want to stop reading.

He also points out a few scenarios where American politicians, lawyers, and judges did their jobs because they cared about the country. Well I’ll be damned. It did happen once.

Verdict: This is a fun and easy read. It’s a really well written account of a crazy time in American history.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • William Oldfield, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society

The Imposter (Prime)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is impersonating a good true crime documentary.

Quick synopsis: The disappearance of Nicholas Barclay and the imposter who tried to take his identity.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The imposter, Frederic Bourdin, has impersonated at least 3 actual missing teenagers.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nicholas Barclay was a 13-year-old American kid with blonde hair and blue eyes. Bourdin was a 20-year-old French guy with brown eyes. Go figure.

My Take: This documentary commits a cardinal sin of the true crime genre (that maybe I just made up) which is that if you are not going to completely solve something then don’t bring it up or make sure the audience knows they will leave with an unsolved mystery. You know, like Unsolved Mysteries. They do it right. It’s right in the name.

The story is very weird and leaves a lot of be desired. As explained in the fun fact for history nerds, Nicholas Barclay looked nothing like Frederic Bourdin. To say they look nothing like each other is a hilarious understatement. Pair that with Bourdin’s very heavy French accent and the whole story gets weirder.

The problem with this documentary is that it builds up to a few possible reveals but then never actually settles anything other than Bourdin being an imposter which we have known since the beginning. It seems like some significant accusations are hurled and never truly explored.  His ruse falls apart relatively quickly but too much runtime is taken up by it. I was left pretty frustrated.

Verdict: There are better crime docs out there (see below). Skip this one.  

If You Liked This Try:

  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Holy Hell (Netflix)
  • The Innocence Files (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I wouldn’t even do what they did in 1839 today. Forget that.

Quick synopsis: Two guys went into the Jungle and discovered the Mayans were way more legit than anyone gave them credit for.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The archaeological site of Copan, in Honduras, was a treasure trove of ancient Mayan architecture and culture. John Lloyd Stephens bought it for $50. Manhattan all over again.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I cannot stress this enough. Frederick Catherwood’s art is absolutely amazing. When you compare what he did IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE IN 1839 with pictures of the site today, it is utterly unbelievable. It’s as if he took a photograph.

My Take: I never would have been an explorer. Correction: I will never be an explorer.

John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood met in London. They read an account of ruins in Honduras and thought, “this will be fun.” I’ll never understand the mindset but thank God people like this exist.

The Maya were not unknown at this point in history, but more unappreciated. What we now know today is they were an extremely complex society which challenged the European views of the world when Stephens and Catherwood “rediscovered” them and highlighted their extensive accomplishments and culture.

It’s also nice that unlike many explorers, they were not absolutely terrible people who treated people like garbage. That’s saying something.

Verdict: A great book for anyone who loves exploration.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Labyrinth of Ice
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Andre Resendez, A Land So Strange
  • Candice Millard, River of Doubt