Island on Fire by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Island on Fire:

Who would have thought little Iceland could cause so much trouble?

Quick synopsis:

The story of Laki, the volcano in Iceland which erupted in the 18th century and messed a lot of stuff up.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

When Krakatau erupted in 1883, it sent out shock-waves which circled the Earth seven times.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

For a different Icelandic volcanic eruption in 1973, Icelanders sprayed seawater at lava to keep it from destroying a harbor.

My Take on Island on Fire:

Volcano go boom and everyone dies. You’ve heard the story and seen the movies. But that’s not how Laki in Iceland rolls, and Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe are here to tell you about it.

Island on Fire is really good even though it is not what I expected at all. I thought it would be another disaster book where it follows a few people as they attempt to run from a lava spewing volcano. A Pompeii redux, if you will. No Laki is more of a slow burn which slowly kills a ton of people through famine and ash. And since it was 1783, there was little anyone can do about it.

The book jumps around quite a bit from the science of volcanos to the effects on Iceland folk when Laki erupts to what it did to people outside of Iceland. Laki had far ranging consequences and you learn all about them.

Often, it can be aggravating when a book covers so much ground, but Witz and Kanipe keep everything to the point while digging into the lives of those effected by LAki’s eruption. I really liked this book, and it has a little something for everyone.

Verdict:

A great read for just about everyone. Buy it here!

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Heaven on the Hudson by Stephanie Azzarone

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Heaven on the Hudson:

At one point, New York City wasn’t all potholes.

Quick synopsis:

The story of how Riverside Park and Riverside Drive came to be in New York City.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Raven” while staying in a farmhouse on 84th Street.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

11th Avenue used to be called “Death Avenue” because of the number of collisions.

My Take on Heaven on the Hudson:

Have you ever read a love letter to a city? Well, you are in luck if not because Stephanie Azzarone has written one to Riverside Park and Riverside Drive in New York City. “Heaven on the Hudson” looks at the often-ignored portion of the city which doesn’t have the instantly recognizable aspects of Central Park or downtown Manhattan. 

A book like this can be very niche if not handled delicately. Azzarone is a longtime resident and her prose bears that out. (Additional fun fact: I grew up 25 minutes away!) She talks lovingly about various buildings and events which matured Riverside since the 18th century. She chooses her stories wisely to keep things interesting and moving along. This book is the equivalent of the friend at a party who loves a story so much that you get sucked in as well. I highly recommend getting the print version as the pictures are a huge part of the story.

Plus, there are a few scandalous episodes as well. That never hurts.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and Fordham University Press.)

Verdict:

If you love New York or architecture, then this is a must. Buy it here!

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The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari:

Don’t walk on a volcano when it’s due to go off.

Quick synopsis:

The story of a deadly volcanic eruption in New Zealand in 2019.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The heat of pyroclastic flows is somewhere between 390-1300°. It’s not a great place to be.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Whakaari has been releasing volcanic gas since it was discovered by Captain James Cook in 1769.

My Take on The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari:

So, here’s what you need to know. If you go to New Zealand, there is a volcano called Whakaari. This volcano is on a pretty regular schedule as far as when it goes off with a big ol’ explosion. 2019 is one of those years where an eruption would not be out of the ordinary. This documentary is about a trip to the volcano in 2019 where a bunch of tourists walked right up to the damn volcano. Guess what happened?

The documentary is told by the people who were there that day and survived as well as the rescuers who did some pretty heroic things. Needless to say, not everyone did make it out alive. I would warn people that the ones who survived did not make it out clean, either. There are some hard to look at burns even three years later. This is a very sad but well-done documentary.

One thing you will not see is any sort of follow up on lawsuits. If this happened in the U.S., I am 100% sure there would be a million lawsuits but the documentary points out that there was no real protections in place for these tourists. So, when the show ends and you think, “Wait a minute! What about….” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Verdict:

Watch it. Watch it here!

If You Liked This Try:

N-4 Down by Mark Piesing

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for N-4 Down:

Airship in the Arctic? What could possibly go wrong?

Quick synopsis:

The story of Umberto Nobile’s attempt to explore the North Pole in an airship.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The first time Santa was said to live in the North Pole was by poet Thomas Nash in the 1860s.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Ancient Greeks thought the North Pole contained a race of mythical giants.

My Take on N-4 Down:

I am an Arctic/Antarctic exploration enthusiast and I have never heard this story before. Centered around the exploration of the North Pole by Umberto Nobile in an airship and its subsequent crash, this book is great for anyone who loves a good, cold narrative.

The book is at its best when talking about the exciting aspects of the story such as the actual explorations and does a great job explaining the science without ruining the readability. The episodes over the ice are obviously the best but getting an understanding of airships is a close second. Even if it means I would never, ever get on one. The rivalry between Nobile and explorer extraordinaire Roald Amundsen is also fascinating.

I would caution someone who expects the book description to cover all the topics in depth that it promises. Amundsen’s fate is a small part of the overall book and there is a fair amount of politics mixed in which leaves the actual exploration episodes a bit shorter. None of this ruins the book, but this is much more of a biography of Nobile than anything else.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by HarperCollins and Netgalley.)

Verdict:

A really fun read. Buy it here!

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Don’t Pick Up the Phone (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Don’t Pick Up the Phone:

If someone tells you to strip a coworker, just don’t.

Quick synopsis:

The story of a string of hoax phone calls by a police impersonator who makes supervisors strip search their employees.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Some of these phone calls lasted over 3 hours.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

There were at least 70 cases of these types of calls.

My Take on Don’t Pick Up the Phone:

Maybe I am giving myself too much credit, but I am pretty damn sure if someone told me over the phone to make a coworker take their top off, I’d give the creeper a big old f-you. Apparently, that is not true for everyone. Big time.

“Don’t Pick Up the Phone” chronicles some of the most insane hoax phone calls ever. If someone tried to write this as a novel, it would be written off as completely outlandish. The first and main phone call covered in episode 1 goes to lengths which would be unbelievable if it wasn’t ON VIDEO. I won’t tell you exactly what happens, but I guarantee you that you cannot guess.

The whole series is 3 episodes, and it covers a lot of ground. It looks into the crimes, the investigation, and the aftermath. I know there is a glut of true crime documentaries out there. However, this one will stick with you and make you ask yourself a pretty complex question. If an authority figure is telling you to do something, where is your line?   

Verdict:

Watch it. Watch it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Season 2 Episode 1 is up!

Let’s investigate! Season 2 starts off with retired Toronto homicide detective, reporter, and author Steve Ryan. Steve talks about his new book, what Canada is like, and becoming the media after being a cop for so many years. This was an amazing interview. Come listen!

*Warning – this interview does explicitly discuss cases which involve murder and torture. Please listen with care.

Buy The Ghost That Haunt Me

Woman, Captain, Rebel by Margaret Willson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Woman, Captain, Rebel:

I would not recommend living in Iceland in the 1800s.

Quick synopsis:

The life of Captain Thurídur, Iceland’s most famous female sea captain, in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In 1783, a massive volcanic eruption decimated Iceland which would ultimately kill 25% of the population from the event and resulting famine.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Thurídur separated from her husband relatively easily while it was nearly impossible most other places in the world.

My Take on Woman, Captain, Rebel:

This book is basically Forrest Gump, only the main character is a woman, born in Iceland in the 1700s, and doesn’t fight in any wars. I mean this in the most positive way possible.

Woman, Captain, Rebel follows the life of Thurídur Einarsdóttir. She was a woman born in Iceland in 1777. She would lead an amazing life which saw her become a sea captain, landholder, repeated litigant, shop worker, and probably a few other things I am missing. Very often, authors will hold up a person as having a varied and exceptional life. Thurídur truly did and what made it even more extraordinary is that she very often ended up destitute and clawed her way back.

More than just a biography, this is the story of a small Icelandic town and their way of life. In just telling Thurídur ‘s story, Margaret Willson actually writes a very strong history of Iceland and vividly portrays the challenges of their day to day lives. This book has a lot going for it and it never seemed to slow down.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and Sourcebooks.)

Verdict:

A great book at a very little-known place and time in history. Read it. Buy it here!

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