The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The English are the reason we can’t have nice things like a Pirate Republic.

Quick synopsis: The story of how pirates tried to create their own society and the man who destroyed it.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Golden Age of Piracy was relatively short (about 80 years). As such, many of the famous pirates knew each other and interacted in Nassau such as Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and Sam Bellamy.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Captain Woodes Rogers, who destroyed the pirate republic, is also famous for saving a deserted castaway named Alexander Selkirk. He was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.

My Take: Pirates still capture the popular imagination. I mean, they still keep making Pirates of the Caribbean movies after all. There is something about them which makes them the perfect antiheroes. They operate outside strict societal guidelines and are fiercely democratic. It is easy to seem them as benign escapism. That is, until you remember the murdering, raping, and pillaging of innocent people.

In any case, history once again is stranger than fiction. It turns out, a republic of pirates did exist for a little while. It wasn’t a formal agreement, but a pirate code did exist and many of the famous pirates we remember were a part of it. Turns out, when a colonial empire just decides you aren’t worth the trouble, you are left to your own devices.

Of course, cause too much trouble, and that colonial empire will once again start paying attention. Colin Woodard’s book explores all of this, including the arrival of Captain Woodes Rogers, who put an end to the pirate party. His biggest weapon? Pardons. Well, pardons and then hangings. Go read about it.

Verdict: A great book read for anyone interested in piracy.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Steven Johnson, Enemy of All Mankind
  • David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag

Scholars of Mayhem by Daniel Guiet and Timothy Smith

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: PhD in killing Nazis.

Quick synopsis: The story of Jean Claude Guiet and his team of saboteurs in World War II France.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Once France was liberated, you could tell which women collaborated with the Germans by their telltale shaved head which was done against their will to shame them.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: One of the inventions which was born of World War II espionage? A cold weather vehicle known as the “weasel” which was the precursor of the snow mobile.

My Take: Spying was nasty business in World War II.

There are a lot of books on spying in World War II. What makes this book different is one of the authors is the son of the subject, Jean Claude Guiet. His son tells the story almost as a parable of a time his father is not particularly excited to relive. Anyone who is the child of someone who has seen combat will know what it’s like when a parent wants to avoid the subject altogether.

The story is very streamlined and personal which allows the reader to be more immersed and gain a better understanding of the day to day as a spy. It also makes it pretty clear how easy it is to make one wrong move and end up on your way to execution.

If you don’t want to read a sprawling book on World War II or just need an introduction to espionage in World War II, this book if definitely for you.

Verdict: A great book for anyone who likes their World War II history more focused on a small group as opposed to the whole war.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ben Macintyre, Agent Zigzag
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Tim Brady, Three Ordinary Girls

This is a Robbery (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Editor wanted.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft in 1990.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This is the largest art heist in history.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The thieves stole wisely when they poached a few Rembrandts, Degas, and a Vermeer. However, they skipped Michelangelo. Guess they weren’t Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans.

My Take: My reaction to episodes 1 and 2 of this series: you got me hooked! Episodes 3 and 4: get it over with.

This series needed to be one episode shorter. It also has a problem with tone. Unlike Operation Odessa which firmly highlights the absolute hilarity of the criminals without glossing over their crimes, this series has a tone problem. I felt like sometimes it wanted to be darkly funny, but then the final couple episodes dive deeply into the sheer murderousness of the prime suspects. What started out as a bloodless art heist becomes a total bloodbath.

Ultimately, the final two episodes drag and if it were shortened to three total, then this would be a much better watch. It’s not bad, it’s just not nearly as good as it could have bee.

Verdict: This is one episode too long and really drags at the end. It’s worth a watch if nothing else is on.  

If You Liked This Try:

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

Six Days in August by David King

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Who wouldn’t fall in love with their kidnapper?

Quick synopsis: The story of the Norrmalmstorg bank robbery in Sweden in 1973.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Why do you care about a bank robbery with a funny name? This is how “Stockholm Syndrome” entered the public consciousness.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Even though it sounds like an official psychological disease, Stockholm Syndrome is not recognized as an actual disease by most medical authorities.

My Take: I don’t think it’s bold to say that almost everyone knows generally what Stockholm Syndrome is. I don’t think it’s bold to say that very few people know the crime which gave rise to the term.

In an effort to not have to spellcheck every single word (seriously, Sweden, what’s with all the consonants?), I am just going to say this all happened in Stockholm at a bank.

The entire episode was wild. It was a single robber who took over an entire bank and the cops showed up right away. The gunman ultimately let go of a lot of the hostages. He also got the Swedish government to release a friend of his from prison to come hang out with him. Yes, you read that right.

The entire hostage situation would last sex days, in case the title of the book didn’t give it away. I seem to remember thinking it was all much more nefarious and deadly. Nope, no one died. In fact, mostly people were very nice to each other.

King writes a short book that captures everything you need to know. I really liked it because many authors would double the page count with unnecessary facts and conjecture. King gives you what you need and nothing more (in a good way!).

Verdict: A great read for everyone. It reads fast and sticks to the facts.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harold Schechter, Maniac
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Dave Cullen, Columbine
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Crazy Not Insane (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Irony: Naming your documentary how it makes the viewer feel.

Quick synopsis: A documentary about psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis. Or her theories. Or her thoughts on the death penalty. Honestly, I’m not sure what it was going for.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Dissociative identity disorder (DID), or multiple personalities, is an actual diagnosis.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Dr. Lewis thought David Bundy had DID. Probably not, though.

My Take: There is a much better documentary which can be made with the same material.

Dr. Lewis could make a compelling case about the fairness of the death penalty because of the very real evidence connecting brain injuries and crime. There is probably 15 minutes on this topic which could make you think.

Unfortunately, there’s over an hour of other stuff. It starts as a biography of Dr. Lewis, then a treatise on DID, then brain injury, back to the biography, and back and forth forever.

Ultimately, I asked myself before it was over, “what does this documentary want me to think about?” I still don’t have the answer.

There is also a complete lack of skepticism which is required for a good documentary. For me to believe Dr. Lewis, I need to hear all of the strongest arguments against her work and have them taken apart. You only hearing passing references to the criticism. In fact, Dr. Lewis at times seems a bit…out there. She basically loses it in a courtroom at one point and the documentary shrugs it off as, “Dorothy doesn’t think linearly, and you have to go with it.”

That’s basically how the documentary is. Oh wait, maybe that was the point.

Verdict: This is way too all over the place to be very good.

If You Liked This Try:

  • American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)
  • Murder Among the Mormons (Netflix)
  • Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (Netflix)
  • Abducted in Plain Sight (Netflix)
  • Night Stalker (Netflix)
  • Sasquatch (Hulu)

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: North Korea is worse than I thought, amazingly.

Quick synopsis: The story of Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea only to end up being human trafficked in China.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Children are taught that Kim Jong Il wrote fifteen hundred books while at Kim Il Sung (his father) University. I’ll do the math for you. He would have had to write at least a book a day, every single day.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: During the Korean War, the U.S. dropped more bombs on North Korea than in the entire Pacific campaign in World War II.

My Take: Yeonmi Park is pretty extraordinary. North Korea is a hellhole. Those two facts permeate this entire book which, ultimately, is a masterclass in understatement.

Park was born in North Korea only knowing one way of living. She does an amazing job of painting the picture of North Korea without belaboring the point. In fact, she seems almost restrained in many ways. Which makes it even funnier that North Korea has her on their hit list! I’d ask if they had anything better to do, but apparently starving your people to death is not all that time consuming.

Park escaped North Korea only to end up in a different type of hell. Turns out, escaping from North Korea runs you right into Chinese human trafficking.

Park’s story is amazing and she tells it in a way that seems unspectacular, when it most certainly is.

Verdict: It is riveting. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial
  • Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber and The Holly

The Book Was Better: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow vs. Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Movie producers are perverts? Who knew? Except literally everyone.

Quick synopsis: The story of how Ronan Farrow took down Harvey Weinstein.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Ronan Farrow is also a lawyer and clearly an overachiever.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Weinstein actually reached out to Woody Allen to try and have the story about Weinstein’s abuses quashed.

Book vs. Movie: I should admit that when the Weinstein story started to explode a few years ago, and I heard Ronan Farrow was behind it, I immediately thought this was one of those “nepotism gets someone on TV” situations.

The moral of the previous sentence is that I am an idiot.

I read the book first. Catch and Kill is truly amazing in multiple ways. First, Farrow is not where he is because of nepotism. He has done the work and he is good at it. He walks step-by-step through the investigation with diversions to such people like Matt Lauer who would have his own scandal. The book reads easily because you can actually feel that Farrow is not impressed with himself and focuses more on the victims.

What I also found refreshing is that Farrow is not afraid to make himself look bad. He remembers how much he failed his sister, he talks about how whiny he could be with his fiancée (who sounds hilarious, by the way), and that he thought about giving up multiple times. The book is fantastic. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and it should have.

The TV series is good, don’t get me wrong. However, it misses so much of what made the book a page turner. Be honest with yourself. If you won’t read the book, then fire up your HBO subscription (that you bought to watch Wonder Woman 1984, you can’t fool me) and watch it. The story is important and well told.

Verdict: The book is better, and a must read. If you won’t read it, then watch the series.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
  • 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

Musing: Why No Politics

I have been asked why I don’t delve into current politics. The world, and especially the U.S., seem to be filled with people taking very strong stances on literally everything. I can affirm this by looking at my Facebook feed.

My response is simple: history does it all for me.

Case in point, here’s the basic synopsis of Last Men Out by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin:

  • A group of U.S. Marines are the last U.S. service-members in a war-torn country where the U.S. is actively evacuating
  • Government personnel have a ridiculously rosy view of how the evacuation will happen
  • The occupying power is taking over the country with alarming speed and is surrounding the final U.S. troops
  • U.S. allies are part of a large contingent of people trying to get away from the occupying power that will definitely kill them
  • A large portion of these allies will be left behind
  • U.S. Marines are killed at the gate of an airport during the evacuation

You may ask, how did these authors write a book about Afghanistan so quickly? This all just happened.

Oh, that’s because this is a history book about the last days of the Vietnam War.

What is that saying about people who don’t know history? I forget.

Grant and Sherman by Charles Bracelen Flood

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The ultimate Civil War bromance.

Quick synopsis: A look at the friendship between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and how it shaped the Civil War.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the best quotes of all time: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Grant gives Sherman all the credit for the March to the Sea, but this book shows just how much Sherman needed Grant. Most generals would never give the latitude (and spotlight) to a lower rank, but Grant never worried about credit. In fact, he often shirked it as much as possible.

My Take: Most people don’t realize that Grant and Sherman were not just the architects of the end of the Civil War. They were also colossal failures before becoming the leaders the Union needed to win the war.

Flood’s book is a great analysis of their triumphs and failures throughout their lives. When Grant and Sherman finally come together, you get the sense these men were made to fight alongside each other. Grant had to be the tenacious leaders who didn’t care about credit and let his successful subordinates shine. Sherman, in his own words, confirmed he could not operate without Grant who gave him the confidence and room to make decisions.

Flood wrote a fantastic book which gives each general the spotlight without overburdening the reader. His military acumen shows through as he also knows how to explain a battle without getting too deep in the weeds.

Verdict: Great book even if you know nothing about the Civil War.

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