Freedom on Trial by Scott Farris

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Freedom on Trial:

Technically it was the KKK on trial. So “Idiots on Trial” would also work.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the Ku Klux Klan trials of South Carolina right after the Civil War.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

During the Ku Klux Klan trials, the juries were mostly black. The KKK was so prevalent, and you needed to take an oath saying you weren’t one to be on a jury. That left only Black people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

We take testifying in your own defense for granted. Maine, in 1864, was the first state to allow the accused to testify.

My Take on Freedom on Trial:

Reading anything about the post-Civil War era in the South is usually quite soul crushing. Freedom on Trial by Scott Farris has some triumph mixed in with the soul crushing. Not only that, Farris identifies one of his own family as a former KKK member who took part in some of the actions of the Klan in South Carolina. Lots of people avoid airing dirty family laundry. Farris leans right into it.

We know the basics. After the Civil War, the KKK was born and started terrorizing Black Americans and any White Americans (read: Republicans) who tried to stop them. The Klan took over most aspects of southern American life. Who is going to do something about it? Good ol’ Ulysses S. Grant of course! Well, and a few former Confederates it turns out.

Farris writes a detailed story, but it doesn’t drag. Some justice is found, and some is elusive. It may make you wish you could go back and create an anti-Klan force, but time travel isn’t available. Yet.

Verdict:

This is a good book especially if you don’t know about the time. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Revolutionary Brothers by Tom Chaffin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Revolutionary Brothers:

This is a lovely reminder of why Thomas Jefferson sucks.

Quick synopsis:

A shortened dual biography of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson after the American Revolution and leading to the French Revolution.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Thomas Jefferson had his own daughter kidnapped. Go ahead, read the book.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

This is a fun little book which will clearly explain why I think the Marquis is awesome and Thomas Jefferson was over all pretty terrible. Chaffin does not have an axe to grind (I do! Reminder: I hate Thomas Jefferson) and he reports just the facts and some innuendo. When you report the facts then one of these guys looks a hell of a lot better than the other.

My Take on Revolutionary Brothers:

Tom Chaffin is a really good writer. His prose is free and easy and he keeps the story moving at a steady pace which can even keep a non-history nerd riveted.

I do have one overall complaint. The title of the book hinges on the relationship between Lafayette and Jefferson. Ultimately though, their interactions were not frequent and mostly happened through correspondence. Someone who doesn’t know this time in history may find the title misleading even though it was how most relationships during this time period. It’s ultimately minor, but worth pointing out if you are a history newbie.

All of that being said, Chaffin keeps it all interesting. You get the important parts of their lives during this time. Lafayette being too passionate and prideful for his own good. Jefferson being a creepy, slave-owning, and elitist jerk. It’s all I needed!

Verdict:

A great book if you don’t know either of the subjects very well. Great for someone who wants to dip their toe into the history pool. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Charlotte Bronte by Claire Harman

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline:

Jane Eyre was way truer to life than I thought.

Quick synopsis for Charlotte Bronte:

The biography Charlotte Bronte, best known as the writer of Jane Eyre.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Charlotte’s sister, Emily, wrote Wuthering Heights, another book you probably dodged in high school unsuccessfully.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Two people who loved Charlotte (and her sisters) published poems before they were famous were Florence Nightingale and Alfred Tennyson.

My Take on Charlotte Bronte:

Before any of you macho types stop reading because “who cares about a romance writer?” allow me to be clear. Charlotte Bronte’s life was deeply weird. She was deeply weird. It makes for a very good read.

Not many, including myself, know much about Bronte’s life. I seem to recall the word “sad” associated with her very often. After reading Harman’s biography, I get it now. In fact, sad may not even cover it.

Before Bronte became famous for Jane Eyre, she was almost a complete shut-in with her siblings. They did not socialize much and wrote their own stories which highlighted their talent and just how insular their lives were.

Some things happen. A lot of people die. Charlotte becomes world famous. I cannot stress enough how unprepared she would be for that eventuality. Oh, she may even try to steal someone’s husband. She packed a lot of life into the relatively short time she had. My biggest surprise was Jane Eyre is not her only celebrated book.

Ultimately, sad does not quite cover her story but I found it very interesting.

Verdict:

A very in-depth biography which cuts no corners and highlights the good and the bad of Bronte. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline Liar’s Poker:

This has aged hilariously badly.

Quick synopsis:

The short career of author Michael Lewis as a bond salesman for the Salomon Brothers in the 1980s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Most of the people in this book either went bankrupt, got fired, or went to jail. Good luck guessing who! Wikipedia is your friend!

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Liar’s Poker is an actual game. You stand in a circle and everyone holds a one-dollar bill. Each person then makes a “bet”, such as there are a total of nine 7s in the serial numbers of everyone’s cash. You call them out or move to the next person.

My Take on Liar’s Poker:

The stock market and things of that are ilk are just a dressed-up casino. Michael Lewis would agree!

Lewis (he wrote Moneyball which you may know better) takes you through the fall of the Salomon Brothers on Wall Street in the 80s. I’ll give him credit; I hate finance stuff and he still keeps it interesting. It is very clear he could see the excess and bad management from his place in the pecking order and he articulates how things went horribly wrong for the company.

Lewis is a funny writer, but this book will not be for everyone. He does explain the markets and how they came to be as well as how they work. However, if you don’t care at all about the stock market then there isn’t enough of everything else to keep your attention unless stuffy stockbrokers are your bag.

Verdict:

This book is fun for the nostalgia and Lewis is a good writer. Buy it here!

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Episode 5 is Up! Tobey and Matthew Pearl join the podcast!

Two for one episode for you, nerds! Husband and wife team Matthew and Tobey Pearl join the podcast to discuss mansplaining, how to balance being an author and parent, and their new books (Tobey – Terror to the Wicked and Matthew – The Taking of Jemima Boone)!

Make sure to check out their websites:
Tobey – https://www.tobeypearl.com/
Matthew – http://www.matthewpearl.com/

Don’t forget to buy their books too. Use the links below to get a great read and support the podcast. Thanks in advance, nerds!

Terror to the Wicked

The Taking of Jemima Boone

Terror to the Wicked by Tobey Pearl

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Terror to the Wicked:

Seems like everyone wanted to kill each other all the time in early America.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the first jury trial in the American colonies.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Rockabye baby is actually based on an American Indian song.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

It took two years before Harvard got its name. It’s the name of the guy who left some money to it. Yeah, the colonists were never big on creativity.

My Take on Terror to the Wicked:

This book could have been much shorter.

There are certain stories which probably only need a short Wikipedia article about them. Now and again, an author sees a way to turn a short story into something worth writing a book about it. Tobey Pearl somehow did this with the first jury trial in America.

Here’s what happened. Four indentured servants decide they don’t like the “indentured” or “servant” part of their job titles. They make a run for it. Unfortunately, they didn’t have what anyone would consider a plan. While stuck in the middle of nowhere, they decide to kill an innocent American Indian to get some food and/or money.

A chase ensues. They get caught (obviously, or the jury trial would be stupid). The trial happens. As you can see, there doesn’t seem to be a book’s worth of material here. You would be wrong.

Pearl puts all of these events in context. The constant state of near war between the American Indians and the colonists. The infighting between the different colonies and even the divides within each colony. The outcome of the trial was far from a sure thing. Pearl fleshes this all out and makes this much more thrilling then it had any right to be.

Verdict:

A great read, especially if you are an early American history nerd (like me!). Buy it here!

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Three Pianos by Andrew McMahon

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Three Pianos:

Sex, drugs, rock and roll. A tale as old as time.

Quick synopsis:

A memoir of Andrew McMahon. He was the lead singer/songwriter of Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin, and Andrews McMahon in the Wilderness (duh).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Andrew drinks a lot and does a lot of drugs! Cue shocked emoji face!

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

It’s a memoir. There usually isn’t much for history nerds in these.

My Take on Three Pianos:

Andrew McMahon has been in a few bands. I am a big fan and took a shot on this one.

I…kind of liked it? Here’s the thing, memoirs are anathema to a history nerd. The subject is writing about themselves in a generally salacious way. Andrew is 39 and he seems to be working through some things. He’s in therapy and it seems like he is starting to see how he can be difficult with those around him. Also, he doesn’t spill the tea (as the kids say). He often glosses over big moments by not naming names or even naming the songs they inspire.

There is a germ of a very good biography here but written by McMahon everything kind of gets crushed by his overwrought prose and lack of distance from the material. He’s a good writer, but I don’t know that he is the best judge of his own choices.

If you love his stuff, you may like it. If not, I don’t think there is any chance you do.

Verdict:

If you don’t know his music, there isn’t much here. If you are a fan of his music, there is some very interesting tidbits which you will enjoy reading. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Star Spangled Scandal by Chris DeRose

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Star Spangled Scandal:

A famous dad does not make you bulletproof.

Quick synopsis:

The murder of Philip Baron Key by Daniel Sickles in 1859 right in front of the White House.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Philip Barton Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, the writer of the Star-Spangled Banner. You may have heard of it.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The trial was strange for a bunch of reasons, but my favorite was the lawyer who called himself to the stand when no one asked. He wasn’t even part of the trial.

My Take on Star Spangled Scandal:

This is why you should never cheat or help someone else cheat. The significant other may come out of the house and shoot you in cold blood right in the middle of Lafayette Square in D.C. in front of the White House. Sure, that sounds incredibly specific, but it is what happened.

Philip Barton Key was the son of the writer of the Star-Spangled Banner. Barton was a very successful lawyer in his own right. He was also quite the philanderer! This included the wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles. Danny-boy did not appreciate this fact and shot Phil dead.

No, I didn’t spoil the book for you. It’s right in the book jacket. There are plenty more twists and turns to the story and the build up to the event is really well done. Historic true crime can be difficult to write well and DeRose nails it here. The murder ends up being the least interesting part of the book.

Verdict:

Politics! Adultery! Murder! Old time lawyers doing things which would get you disbarred immediately nowadays! This book has it all. Read it. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

The Taking of Jemima Boone by Matthew Pearl

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Taking of Jemima Boone:

Daniel Boone, the original American badass.

Quick synopsis of The Taking of Jemima Boone:

The story of the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter and essentially the founding of Kentucky.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Kentucky was almost called Transylvania.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Daniel Boone never wore the coonskin caps you always see him wearing in pictures. He did wear a beaver hat. I mean who can’t tell the difference between a coonskin and beaver hat? Idiots.

My Review of The Taking of Jemima Boone:

I really didn’t know much about Daniel Boone. Of course, any American kid hears about Daniel Boone and him being a frontiersman. I doubt many people know more than that if you asked them.

Here are some things I learned from this book. Daniel Boone was the closest thing to a superhero or serial killer depending on how you want to interpret his superhuman ability to track other human beings. He also had a daughter who was fantastically capable of giving him, or any American Indian who kidnapped her, a run for their money.

The book’s title focuses on the kidnapping of Jemima Boone, but the book is much more sprawling. The setting is in Kentucky before it was Kentucky. To say the founding of Kentucky was touch and go would be putting it lightly. Matthew Pearl writes a great story and makes the entire thing exciting.

Verdict:

This is a fun book for anyone, even non-nerds. Give it a whirl of your beaver hat. I am so sorry. I will make better jokes next time. (No, I won’t.) Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Benjamin Woolley, Savage Kingdom
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower
  • Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith, The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown
  • Tobey Pearl, Terror to the Wicked