Columbine by Dave Cullen

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: It’s worse than you remember.

Quick synopsis: The Columbine school massacre of 1999. If you were alive, I am sure you remember where you were.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Columbine is only the 5th most deadly school shooting in U.S. history.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the killers actually went to prom the weekend before the massacre.

My Take: I pride myself on remembering historical events accurately. At the very least, I know enough to identify things I don’t know. Turns out, I failed miserably when it comes to Columbine. There is cold comfort in knowing I am by far not the only one.

Things I remember about Columbine:

  1. The killers were goth kids
  2. They were bullied and committed the massacre to even the score
  3. They wore trench coats
  4. Columbine is in Colorado
  5. Their parents were neglectful
  6. Other than their parents, no one could have been expected to see this coming

I was only fully right on #4. #3 was only true for the first few minutes.

Klebold and Harris weren’t bullied. As I mention above, one went to prom with a date the weekend before. They were not goths. Their parents were not neglectful, but certainly guilty of underestimating the depth of evil in their kids. As for not seeing this coming, well, Dave Cullen will dive into that for you.

The book is great and scary all in one. Cullen tells the story out of order in a way that makes sense. He weaves a lot of people into the narrative without overwhelming the reader and his insight is earned through facts. Thank God he sticks to the facts because in the aftermath of massacre, it seems like no one else did. Including me.

Verdict: This is required reading.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harold Schechter, Maniac
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Damn Nazis are still causing problems.

Quick synopsis: The discovery and attempts to identify an unknown Nazi sub off New Jersey in 1991.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Back in 1991, when the book takes place, a diver could only be at a wreck for about 20 minutes before having to return to the ship. The time needed to decompress means a dive that lasts hours was mostly spent returning to the boat.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Salvage diving is very dangerous for a number of reasons. One of them is panic. If you panic because you get caught on something for instance, you will breathe faster. If you breathe faster, you expend your air faster. Which means…

My Take: A shipwreck story? Count me in! Oh, in New Jersey… ok, fine.

Let me get the one bad out of the way first. Kurson does a great job of explaining the dangers of salvage diving. However, I felt he came perilously close to hero worship for this particular breed of diver. That is the bad news. The good news is that this is a short part of the book and everything else is fantastic.

The book follows the story of two divers as they try to identify a submarine off the New Jersey coast in 1991. The book is a mixture of biography (of both the divers and the submarine crew), adventure story (people die trying to identify the sub), and history lesson on World War II submarine warfare.

There is a lot to cover in one book but Kurson does a great job making this accessible to anyone who wants to read this. If you aren’t a full-blown history nerd, don’t worry, you’ll love everything else. Kurson leaves no stone unturned but never belabors the point.

Verdict: A really great book that covers everything about this story you could possibly want.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons
  • Spike Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Michael Tougias, The Finest Hours
  • Michael Schumacher, Wreck of the Carl D.
  • David Mearns, The Shipwreck Hunter

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson Baker

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The same type of thinking which led us to anti-vaxxers!

Quick synopsis: The Salem Witch Trials. Literally every American knows this one.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Still one of the most badass examples of what we now know as “pleading the fifth.” Giles Corey, who was being forced to give evidence, was pressed by stones until he complied. When asked if he would, he would only reply, “more weight” until he was crushed to death. If you have to go, make it epic.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Still, to this day, not all of the victims are exonerated. Probably a moot point and all, but still. Come on, Massachusetts. Wicked uncool.

My Take: Yeah, I’m just kind of over the Salem Witch Trials.

I get it, it’s a perfect metaphor whenever you want to point to something not based on fact but on hysteria and misinformation. Lord knows that is a thing lately. However, it seems like this particular point in history is consistently analyzed to death. Is it an example of the effect of toxic masculinity? Feminism trying to work within the bounds it was given at this time? Pure greed and murder?

The history is the history and I think the entire thing has been mined to death. Baker’s book is certainly not “bad” by any means. If you know nothing about this (how is that even possible?) then it is a great look at it. He covers all the bases and explains his point of view. I guess I am just burned out on the jerks in Massachusetts being self-centered narcissists. Thank God that all changed!

I’m just kidding! Mostly!

Verdict: The book is good. It’s not the author’s fault I am sick of all the theorizing.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Benjamin Woolley, Savage Kingdom
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown
  • David Hackett Fisher, Champlain’s Dream

Operation Odessa (TV)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I’m mad my parents didn’t buy me a helicopter when Soviet Russia fell.

Quick synopsis: Three gangsters try to sell a nuclear submarine to a drug cartel. It’s so much more than that but honestly, it’s really hard to sum this up quickly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The federal agents have to stifle their laughter during their interviews for the documentary. That is all you need to know.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Wait until you hear how much you could buy a nuclear submarine for back in the day!

My Take: A Russian mobster, a Miami playboy, and a Cuban spy walk into a bar. Actually, it was a car lot. It’s not really important. What is important is how absolutely insane this documentary gets in the first 15 minutes. And then it gets more insane. And more.

I don’t want to spoil too much. I’ll try and hint at the highlights. There are a lot of drugs and strippers. A lot of used Russian military vehicles. A lot of double crosses and a lot of people who really should have been killed by now.

It is Miami Vice only real and much funnier.

Verdict: This is bonkers. You are going to love it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Class Action Park
  • Tiger King
  • Abducted in Plain Sight
  • Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

Empire of Sin by Gary Krist

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Never had a title been so apt.

Quick synopsis: The story of New Orleans in the early 1900s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Guess which city had the first legal red-light district in the country? Yup, you got it.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Louis Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans and got his start there. If you asked, “who is that” or said something like “the guy who walked on the moon” then I want you off my site right now. Go to Wikipedia and come back. Wait, go to Wikipedia, then Spotify, and then come back.

My Take: Gary Krist has three books which center on a city during a specific and important time in its development. I can’t stress enough how much I usually dislike this genre. I find trying to encapsulate the development of something as large as a city is usually too unwieldy for a single book. Well, I hate this genre unless Gary Krist is writing it.

Krist focuses on a few different people to center his story around. New Orleans has one of the most complex histories of any city and its mishmash of cultures is a perfect illustration of that. Tom Anderson is the major standout and encapsulates the decadence New Orleans is known for. I don’t know personally. Whenever I went there, I only went to church. Shut up.

Along the way, you will hear about various prostitutes, corrupt politicians, and the aforementioned Louis Armstrong. It’s a great book, go read it.

Verdict: Krist can make the phone book interesting. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels
  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World
  • David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

Operation Varsity Blues (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Never trust a man who wears warmups too much.

Quick synopsis: The story of all those rich jerks who paid to have their kids fraudulently get into college.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Aunt Becky from Full House went to jail because of this!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Upwards of 50 people have been charged over this thing.

My Take: True crime doesn’t always need to be about murder.

It would be very hard not to have heard about this scandal, but in case you didn’t, a man named Rick Singer bribed, cajoled, and straight cheated to get a bunch of kids into colleges. What makes it amazing is how it is very involved, but at the same time also pretty simple. Rick Singer looked at a system and found out multiple ways to beat it.

The actual show is a mixture of documentary and reenactments. I know what you are thinking, reenactments are often horrible to watch. Fear not, they went all out and got Matthew Modine to play Rick Singer! (He has two children, I don’t know where they went to college. Just saying.) The reenactments are based on actual conversations which means fiction isn’t sneaking into this. You will be blown away by how stupid people can be with what they say on the phone.

Verdict: It’s worth a watch. Especially if you hate rich people. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Tiger King (Netflix)
  • Class Action Park (HBO)
  • Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
  • Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)
  • The Inventor: Out of Blood in Silicon Valley (HBO)

The Ratline by Philippe Sands

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Nazi blood runs deep.

Quick synopsis: The story of Nazi Otto van Wachter and his family.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The path many Nazis took to avoid prosecution was called the “Ratline.” I don’t know of a term that was so apt.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Punishing the architects of the Holocaust required the legal use of a term we know today pretty well: “crimes against humanity.” It was used before but was never used to charge a government for killing its own people.

My Take: This book packs a lot in.

The biography portion is straightforward enough. Otto van Wachter was a high-level Nazi. He was an active killer who very often hid behind his jobs being classified “administrative.” There is no point where you believe he wasn’t a murderer. Oh, and he might have been murdered. I won’t say more.

The other portion of this book is where I was riveted and enraged. Philippe Sands, the author, got his start on this book by first creating a documentary and then a podcast based around the sons of two Nazis. Hans Frank’s son and Otto’s son, Horst. Horst appears throughout the book as he continues to try and frame his father as a cog in the machine and not an active murderer. Read for yourself, but “unconvincing” is not a strong enough term to describe him.

However, Horst’s refusal to accept facts is fascinating. After all, don’t we always want to believe the best about our families even in the face of overwhelming evidence? Horst’s closeness with his mother (spoiler alert: she’s no saint herself) adds another level of interest.

The book would be great either as a historical biography or psychological profile. It happens to be both.

Verdict: A great book on multiple fronts. It is part biography, part history, part investigation, and finally part psychological profile of the children of Nazis.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress
  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Interview with Eric Jager (Part 2) Author of The Last Duel and Blood Royal

Here is part 2 of my interview with author Eric Jager. (Missed part 1? Go here first.) Will add link to first post

(HNU) As I mentioned, The Last Duel is becoming a movie with some real star power behind it. How does that process work? I suspect it is a long road from writing the book to having a movie deal for it.

(EJ) Thanks to my wonderful literary agents, the book was optioned three consecutive times, first by Paramount for Martin Scorsese, then for Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, and finally for Sir Ridley Scott. (It seems fitting that a man with a knighthood would direct a film about knights in combat!) From the first option to the planned release later this year, fifteen years will have gone by. Authors eager to see their books adapted should not hold their breath. As to how the process works, it remains almost a complete mystery to me and seems to depend largely on serendipity. The producer who brought the book to Matt Damon, who in turn enlisted Ridley Scott, told me he found the book on a library table. Another producer once said to me, “You have managed to transfer your obsession with this story to us.” That was a telling remark. As an author, you’re understandably obsessed with your own book. But for it to become a film, others must become obsessed as well.

(HNU) Will you invite me to the premiere? Related question, why not?

(EJ) Ha! I have no idea whether I’ll be there myself. It may premiere overseas, in France, before it hits the theatres here. Given what the pandemic has wrought, I’ll just be thankful if the film enjoys a semblance of what we used to think of as a normal theatrical run.

(HNU) Obviously, a book needs to be tweaked to fit into a movie, but then there are movies like Braveheart which eschew accuracy to an extreme degree. Do you worry about Hollywood playing loose with historical facts or do you see the medium as something completely different?

(EJ) Books always have nuances and details that do not survive screen adaptation, and I knew this would be true for my book from the first show of film interest years ago. Each time it was optioned, I sat down with some of the people involved, and I was fairly confident afterwards that the resulting film would capture at least some of the book’s spirit. In two cases, I also read multiple versions of the script, allowing me to see the blueprint for the film. After reading the nearly final script for Sir Ridley’s production, I was thrilled that it caught not only the spirit but a great deal of its substance as well. The writers — Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener — did a great job.

(HNU) If you could win either a Pulitzer for History or an Academy Award for a screenplay, which one would you choose?

(EJ) I doubt that my straight-forward prose will ever win prizes. And screenwriting is way above my skill level. But I’d love to see Sir Ridley and his cast and crew of more than five-hundred people walk away next year with some Oscar gold. They all worked really hard, and brilliantly, through a pandemic no less, and any awards or accolades they receive will have been richly earned.

(HNU) Who are your favorite authors? Are you reading anything right now?

(EJ) Oh, I love this question! Because at the end of the day, I’m sick of my own writing and grateful to be able to sink back into a great book or an absorbing story. I read more nonfiction but love well-wrought fiction, too. Chekhov is a favorite, and the master John McPhee, and that genius Margaret Atwood. Besides literature, as you might expect, and history, for obvious reasons, I also read popular books about anthropology (e.g., Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet), paleontology, and historical artifacts or ancient languages (e.g., Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth). Recently I read a superb book about the Shakespeare author controversy, Contested Will, by my good friend and former Columbia colleague, Jim Shapiro. I like good writing on just about any subject, and I’m always studying how other writers practice their craft.

(HNU) You are an extremely accomplished individual, but the pandemic has caused people to do things they would not normally do. One of those things is trashy TV. Will you admit to watching trashy TV and reveal to the world which shows are your guilty pleasures?

(EJ) Peg and I love to stream from Netflix or Prime and watch film classics on Criterion. Among recent series, The Americans was superb, while The Blacklist (with an ebullient James Spader) has been a guilty pleasure. We’re now watching J. K. Simmons in Counterpart, a dark Cold-War sci-fi thriller. Anything adapted from the brilliant Kate Atkinson is a must. So, too, with the late John le Carré — e.g., The Night Manager. We’re also big fans of Robert Glenister (Prime Suspect, with Helen Mirren), who years ago read an abridged version of The Last Duel for BBC Radio’s “Book of the Week” and kindly came back to read the unabridged audiobook.

(HNU) Speaking of TV, a stereotype is always that majoring in English or anything of that ilk will only lead to being an English teacher. Are you proof that those people are stupid and need to update their material?

(EJ) I keep hearing (and reading) that various professions and industries are always looking for smart people who can read critically, write clearly and speak persuasively. I can’t think of any professional line of work where none of these things matter. In recent years, I’ve written letters of recommendation for UCLA English majors who’ve gone to law school, med school, and also into publishing. They’re all flourishing, not because of my letter but because they’re smart, talented, and they worked hard acquiring and polishing certain skills, including the ability to work well with others. I’m not interested in creating clones of myself, which is one reason I enjoy working with undergrads more than grad students, because undergrads are still considering a world of possibilities and often show more intellectual curiosity than older students who have already chosen, or resigned themselves to, a certain path.

(HNU) Your next book is Duke John’s Skull: The Murder that Made the Hundred Years’ War. When can we expect that or does putting a time out there put too much pressure on you?

(EJ) I’m glad to say it’s pretty close to being finished. But I keep wondering: who wants to read a book about yet another dead French duke? (Author’s Note: Me, Eric. Me.) American readers are fascinated by just two historical assassinations: Lincoln and JFK. Two other presidents were assassinated, Garfield and McKinley, but you hardly ever hear about them. That leaves very little room for murdered Frenchmen, no matter how important in their time! Still, I had great fun researching this 1419 murder mystery, studying signed depositions by eyewitnesses and getting curators to show me plaster casts of the murdered man’s skull, massively fractured by what was probably a heavy ax blow from above. That was a blow felt by millions, since it changed the course of a whole war, enabling Henry V to conquer much of France and setting the stage for Joan of Arc.

Interview with Eric Jager (Part 1) Author of The Last Duel and Blood Royal

I don’t have much of an ego when it comes to this site (in my actual life, people may disagree). This is niche blogging to say the least and I am okay with it. Every now and again, however, something happens which makes me think maybe this whole thing isn’t me screaming about history into the void.

A while back, while cleaning the spam folder (which fills up much faster than the comments section), I saw an email from what looked like an actual person. Reading further, I realized it wasn’t just a fellow nerd. It was Eric Jager, whose book The Last Duel I had just reviewed.

Many thoughts went through my mind at once. Thank God I check this filter. Why would a published author give a damn what I think of his book? Why would he also take the time to tell me thank you? And he thinks the History Nerds United name is great!?

One more thing. Isn’t The Last Duel about to become a movie with people I’ve actually heard of? (Spoiler alert: Hell yeah.)

When my hyperventilating stopped and I called my mother to tell her I finally made it in this world, I came up with a plan. I must take advantage of this man’s kindness and selflessness for my own purposes. Luckily, he played along. Here is part 1 of my interview with Eric Jager.

(If you want to know more about Eric before starting, head here.)

(HNU) Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions for my tiny blog. You are an accomplished professor, author, and your fantastic book The Last Duel is becoming a movie. You wear many hats, but did you always want to be an author?

(EJ) Thank you for your kind words, Brendan, and for having me as a guest on your wonderful history site.  Writing books was not actually one of my childhood dreams. I wanted to be a major league baseball player or an astronaut. Still, I loved reading, and there were lots of books in our home, plus weekly trips to the library. Books have always been a big part of my life, and I’m usually reading three or four concurrently.

(HNU) Do you see yourself as a professor who writes on the side or a writer who teaches? Am I being completely reductive?

(EJ) Teaching at a large research university, I’m expected to publish. And I published my first two books, very scholarly ones, to earn tenure and a full professorship. Then I began working on The Last Duel, a story I’d been mulling over for nearly a decade, hoping it would appeal to a more popular audience. So, I guess I’m a professor who writes, but not exactly “on the side,” since research and publishing are central to my work. That said, I really enjoy writing. And for the past few years I’ve also enjoyed teaching a nonfiction workshop in my department alongside my usual courses in medieval literature — Beowulf, Chaucer, etc.

(HNU) How do you possibly find the time to do everything you do?

(EJ) I’ve been fortunate to have reasonable teaching loads and regular teaching leaves, and a few years ago I gave up summer teaching to free up more time. Also, my wife, Peg, has joined me on my research trips to France over the years and has been a big help in reading my work critically, suggesting revisions, and also strategizing about book promotion. In fact, it was thanks to Peg that The Last Duel got its first major review shortly after publication.

(HNU) The Last Duel and Blood Royal, both of which I read and loved are books about very little-known historic events. Do you find these events because you are a scholar of medieval literature or do you stumble on them by going down a Wikipedia rabbit hole late on a Saturday night like me?

(EJ) Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed them! Years ago, I stumbled across the 1386 duel in the well-known chronicle by Jean Froissart, and I went looking for a book that would tell me more about this famous, controversial trial by combat. But no such book existed. So, I decided to write one myself, in part to answer my own questions about the case. As for Blood Royal, the impetus lay in the final chapter of The Last Duel, where the young king who witnessed the duel goes mad a few years later. This brings to power his widely hated brother, who gets himself brutally murdered one dark November night, plunging France into civil war. When I learned that a detailed police report on the murder investigation had survived, that clinched it.

(HNU) Both of these books ultimately hinge on the way crimes are dealt with during their time periods. Did you ever stop and think about how insane the methods (or lack thereof) of the time were? It seems amazing any crimes could be solved.

(EJ) You’re right. It seems crazy to us today to settle a rape accusation with a duel. But in trying to understand this story during my research, I learned that the purpose of trial by combat was to test the competing oaths sworn by the two combatants just prior to fighting. Of course, today we expect judges or juries to decide between the competing stories told in court. But if you take the view, as many did back then, that God oversaw a duel and would assure a just outcome, you can begin to think your way back into a medieval outlook. As for the murder mystery in Blood Royal, I saw the courageous investigator, Guillaume, as one of history’s first detectives, and the almost scientific rigor of his methods as a glimmer of modernity in that dark medieval city.

(HNU) A historic event may be very interesting, but it does not necessarily have enough content to be a full-length book. How do you decide what is book worthy? Do you start writing about something but find there isn’t enough material to work with?

(EJ) You’re right that some fascinating moments of history are only thinly documented. I was fortunate with The Last Duel that so many sources had survived, including detailed records from the Parlement of Paris and even one of the lawyer’s private notes on the case. And I never would have been able to write Blood Royal without the thirty-foot parchment scroll left behind by the chief investigator, complete with an autopsy and eyewitness testimony. Such a thing is incredibly rare from that era. It enabled me to track his inquiry in detail and even to figure out how he cracked the case. Such records are essential. Without them you hit a brick wall or opt to write historical fiction.

(HNU) How much time writing a book is devoted to research as opposed to actual writing?

(EJ) It’s hard for me to say, since I don’t strictly separate the two. Still, there might be several years of collecting and studying sources, then drawing up outlines or timelines, and so forth. Also, the archival research often punctuates the writing. With my current project, I’ve been to France several times since starting it, bringing back more material each time. The Last Duel came out only four years after my previous book, but as mentioned, I’d been thinking about that story a long time. Blood Royal took another ten years. And for the past seven years I’ve been working on my “new” project. Clearly, I’m not a fast worker!

For Part 2, come back to the site on Thursday!