Blood & Ivy by Paul Collins

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Murrrrrderrrrrr at Haaaaaaavaaaaad.

Quick synopsis: The story of a murdered Harvard alum in 1849.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Most people don’t realize this, but surgeons often had a very hard time practicing their craft. Dead bodies for study were hard to come across and aspiring doctors often took to grave robbing.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Harvard paid professors really badly.

My Take: Even the fanciest schools in the country have their deep, dark secrets. Harvard is no exception.

In 1849, a very rich Harvard alum went missing. Since it seems all the rich people were Harvard alumni, the entire city of Boston became interested in what happened.

I don’t want to get too much into detail because while it is not hard to decipher who did it early on, there is some utility in now having all the information up front. Collins is not so much writing a mystery but chronicling the crime which sent Boston into an uproar.

Collins takes you through the whole story chronologically and makes sure to mention all the very important Harvard men you’ve heard about in English class. It’s a breezy read and has a couple of surprising twists.

Verdict: A great book if you like historical true crime. It is not a whodunnit but is a great chronicle of the crime and an easy read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans

Podcast Review: The Dream Season 1

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Prepare for a different perspective of a lot of people in your Facebook feed.

Quick synopsis: A look into what multi-level marketing (MLM) is and why it can literally ruin people’s lives.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You have seen MLMs all over the place. Most likely, you’ve seen a friend doing a video on Facebook trying to sell their wares. Most likely, they are selling for an MLM.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Here is a non-exhaustive list of MLMs: Advocare, Beachbody, LuLaRoe, Mary Kay, Pampered Chef…the list goes on.

My Take: An MLM is not a pyramid scheme. Why do I say that? It’s not because it doesn’t look a hell of a lot like one, but mostly because I don’t want to get sued.

It can be very dicey trying to suss out what an MLM actually is and explain why it is so dangerous and misleading. This podcast slowly takes you through why the structure of an MLM (hint: it looks like a pyramid) is unsustainable for the vast majority of people who are part of it. The numbers are staggering and the way it works is worrisome to say the least.

The most effective episodes are when one of the podcast staff actually joins an MLM and talks through the process. This podcast never looks down on the people who get caught up in MLMs and even shows just how easy it is to buy into what they are selling. The podcast staffer talks about how she has an ulterior motive but still gets caught up in the hard sell.

Everyone should listen to this podcast.

Verdict: This is an important podcast because people very hard-working people are getting ripped off on a daily basis.

If You Liked This Try:

  • A Killing on the Cape
  • The Gateway
  • Uncover Season 1: Escaping NXIVM

Diamonds, Gold, and War by Martin Meredith

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Boer, what’s it good for?

Quick synopsis: The story of how South Africa went from a backwater British colony to one of the most sought-after prizes on earth. (Spoiler alert: It’s in the title, obviously.)

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The Boer Wars have nothing to do with pigs.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Winston Churchill was a prisoner of war during the Second Boer War and escaped.

My Take: So what the hell is a Boer? I’ll tell you.

When European nations started sailing around Africa to get to Southeast Asia, they realized they needed a place to stop on the way. South Africa seemed like the perfect spot. Over a whole bunch of decades, white Europeans from Holland, the Netherlands, Germany, etc. populated the area of South Africa for trade. It was a nice spot and basically only served as a stopping off point and not much else.

Until in 1871, diamonds were found. A lot of them. Fifteen years later, gold was found. A lot of it. You can guess what happened when people realized how much money could be made by digging. Just like anywhere else, people began to clash, kill each other, and started taking over swaths of land. Wars broke out and a lot of people were caught in the middle.

Meredith fills in all of the details of the events above in a great narrative. He focuses on some key players, but he adeptly gives the reader vivid visions of what it was like to be sent into one of these mines or to be in the middle of a pitched battle. It covers a lot of ground, so if you are don’t care about the topic at all it may be too much for a non-nerd.

Verdict: This is an enormous piece of work which covers an amazing amount of time and events. It should not be nearly as riveting as it is. Great book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire
  • Neil Thornton, Rorke’s Drift
  • Mike Snook, Like Wolves on the Fold
  • Martin Meredith, Diamonds, Gold, and War

Home Game (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sports are just like people, the weirder the better.

Quick synopsis: A TV series which identifies fun and weird sports from across the globe.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Kyrgyzstan has a sport where the ball is a dead goat. Yes, you read that correctly.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Florence has a sport that is part MMA, part rugby. It has been going on for 500 years.

My Take: This history nerd also loves sports. This show gives you some awesome ones you never heard of.

There are 8 episodes which go around the globe to find some pretty wild ones. The show also explains the origins of each of the sports which can go back hundreds of years. Even if you hate sports, there is some really interesting background information.

If you hate sports or can’t understand why some people would dedicate their lives and health to it then you probably won’t like it. If you do, and if you like weird stuff then you will enjoy the hell out of these.

Verdict: If you like sports at all then this is for you. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • (Un)well
  • High Score
  • The Tiger King

Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Popes behaving badly.

Quick synopsis: It’s about the Pope. All of them.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Pope Stephen VI put Pope Formosus on trial. The catch? Formosus was dead for 7 months. They exhumed him and had him sit there during the trial. It’s called the Cadaver Synod for hilariously obvious reasons.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: You would think an antipope would be a rare occurrence. An antipope is someone who claimed to be the pope and had followers but was not the “real” pope. There was probably at least 30 or so. My favorite? Innocent III. Obviously, you weren’t, bro.

My Take: John Julius Norwich was a very revered historian before his death in 2018. I had never heard of him before reading this book. When I finished it, I realized how great he was with massive pieces of history.

There are many ways to go wrong when taking on something as massive as the papacy. There is a lot of material obviously, but also uncountable situations where your personal feelings can sneak it. The popes were not all saints.

Norwich pulls this off (and as an Englishman, no less!). He sticks to the history and never editorializes and spends what I consider the right amount of time on each pope based on their importance. Norwich’s own introduction greatly downplays his skills as he makes this interesting but informative throughout.

The papacy is an amazing story with its fair share of heroism and villainy. Norwich gives you all of it and you don’t need to be a Catholic to enjoy this.

Verdict: The best book on the subject. May not be “fun” enough for non-history folks but comes close. A must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio
  • Antonia Fraser, The King and the Catholics

High Score (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: One word – Nerdgasm.

Quick synopsis: A documentary which illuminates us all on how video games came to be.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The aliens in Space Invaders are actually sea creatures set to pixilation. Go look. I’ll wait.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Nintendo wasn’t a video game company originally. It was founded in 1889 to make playing cards.

My Take: (Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee)

A lot of entertainment options nowadays try to bring you back to old time periods. I find most are very unsuccessful in this endeavor. They will lean too heavy into a time, like the 80s, and overwhelm you with too many details that assault your senses and ultimately end up seeming forced.

Then there is High Score. During the episodes, there will be a cut in between shots with pixilated graphics and I was transported every damn time. Whoever made this knew what 8-year-old me wanted to see and they delivered. There is a ton of information you never knew about behind the scenes.

The battle between Nintendo and Sega, the move to 3-D, multiplayer, and how arcades came and went are all covered. The show never spends to long on any one thing and adds a lot of interesting information along the way.

Please excuse me, I’m going to figure out how to go play The Legend of Zelda.

Verdict: I was transported back to playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Nintendo. If you ever played video games, go watch this. 

If You Liked This Try:

  • The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

Last Man Off by Matt Lewis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I didn’t join the navy.

Quick synopsis: First person retelling of the sinking of the Sudur Havid, a fishing boat which sank near Antarctica.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When the Sudur Havid went fishing they put about 15,000 hooks in the water at one time.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Same fact as above. That’s a lot of hooks!

My Take: This is a first-person retelling by Matt Lewis who was aboard the Sudur Havid when it sank. He admits he needed to reach out to the other survivors to fill in a lot of blanks and freely acknowledges not everyone agreed on every point which is refreshing more than concerning. Lewis tells a brisk story, giving very little introduction to both the boat and the people. In a way, it feels very much like he describes how he met everyone. Quick introduction and off to work. Before you know it, the boat is going down and the fight for survival begins.

Lewis is especially effective when describing the situation in the life rafts after the abandon ship (spoiler alert: it’s really cold). As a self-professed lover of the cold, his descriptions of South Georgia and the cold waters had me running for an extra blanket. Lewis is very often at the forefront of leadership when the ship goes down but also readily admits his own failures throughout the incident which lends credence to his reliability.

Verdict: This is a great book told from the first-person point of view. If you don’t care about survival stories, then there is noting in the book for you. It’s short, quick, to the point, and then ends.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Brian Murphy, Adrift
  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master

Under a Flaming Sky by Daniel James Brown

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Well I’m certainly going to be nice to Forest Rangers after reading this.

Quick synopsis: The story of the 1894 firestorm in Hinckley, Minnesota which burned 350,000 acres in 5 hours and killed over 400 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Think it’s safe to jump in a well if you see a fire coming? You would be wrong. The fire will suck out all the oxygen and asphyxiate you. Some people in Hinckley found out the hard way.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The fire was so strong it began to make its own weather including fire tornados. Yes, you read that correctly.

My Take: I had never heard of the Great Hinckley Fire. This is one of those history books that is screaming for a movie. The setup is right out of a hacky screenplay. Quiet logging town out in the center of the country. Wholesome people just doing what they can to make ends meet.

The logging town detail is crucial. We know now that the way logging was done in the 1800s created the perfect storm for a vicious fire to wipe out entire towns. In this case, that is exactly what happened.

Brown’s book gives you everything to truly feel everything that happens in the book. The sense of dread as the fire moves towards town. The panic as people begin to realize what they are up against. Most importantly, Brown highlights the many heroes who do absolutely incredible things under the worst of circumstances. This includes a train engineer who nearly dies holding the train as long as possible in order to save the maximum amount of people.

Everyone should have heard this story and I don’t know many people who have.

Verdict: An amazing book about a disaster you’ve probably never heard of before. It reads like a movie.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Timothy Egan, The Big Burn
  • Stewart O’Nan, The Circus Fire
  • Denise Gess and William Lutz, Firestorm at Peshtigo
  • Ed O’Donnell, Ship Ablaze

God, War, and Providence by James Warren

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Massholes.

Quick synopsis: A look at how Roger Williams and Rhode Island came to be and also how the other colonies (especially Massachusetts, they come off looking really bad) screwed over their Indian neighbors and tried to destroy Rhode Island.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When an Indian party set fire to most of Providence, including his own house, Roger Williams walked out of the house and scolded the Indians doing it. Badass.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Oh man, if you hate the Boston Red Sox as much as I do, this book goes a long way to piling on the great state of Massachusetts from the beginning. (For the record, still love you Cape Cod.) Warren thoroughly chronicles how Massachusetts insidiously went after Williams, Rhode Island, and their Indian neighbors.

My Take: James Warren lives in Rhode Island. It certainly goes far in explaining why this book is a hit job on Massachusetts. Warren does not hold back! However, it does help that he has all the evidence to back it up.

Warren tries to cover a lot of ground in his book. It is part biography of Roger Williams, part chronicle of the Pequot War and King Phillip’s War, and the founding of Rhode Island. Warren is only partially successful mainly because any three of these subjects deserves its own lengthy book. Roger Williams alone is fascinating as truly being a precursor to the America we know now.

Ultimately, if you know the time period pretty well, then this book will leave you wanting more but in a good way. I wanted Warren to spend a lot more time on his subjects than he did. If you are just beginning to learn about the time period, then this is a fantastic book to get your feet wet. Warren has a sly sense of humor which adds a nice touch to the endeavor.

Verdict: Colonial history nerds may not be completely satisfied, but everyone else will love it and probably start buying other books which expound upon everything in the book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
  • Richard Archer, As if an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Prohibition was so stupid.

Quick synopsis: The story of George Remus, a famous bootlegger who became famous for something else afterwards.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: George Remus was the “king of the bootleggers” and at one point owned one seventh of the bonded liquor in America.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: George Remus named his daughter Romola. What a dork. If you don’t get it, ask a friend versed in Roman history.

My Take: Prohibition was one of the dumbest things America ever did. First is slavery, second is Prohibition. Third is probably country music. Fight me.

Anyway, George Remus was a very successful attorney. He was the jazz age version of the overly effusive guest lawyers you would see on Law & Order. He wailed, he cried, he trashed around the courtroom. He got bored and Prohibition came along. He decided to become a bootlegger and damnit if he wasn’t really good at it!

Of course, as with any truly successful kingpin, he got caught. The story then focuses on his wife and a few other people whom I won’t spoil. No one in the story is particularly heroic. This is more a “Breaking Bad” kind of story.

It’s a really easy read and a great start if you want to dip your toe into historical true crime.

Verdict: A really breezy read although you won’t find many heroes in this story. Read it if you love true crime or the time period.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Simon Baatz, The Girl in the Velvet Swing
  • Skip Hollandsworth, The Midnight Assassin
  • Gregg Olsen, Starvation Heights
  • Douglas Starr, The Killer of Little Shepherds
  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • J. Robinson, Mystery on the Isle of Shoals
  • Miriam Davis, The Axeman of New Orleans