Leviathan by Eric Jay Dolin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Leviathan:

Poor whales. What did they ever do to us?

Quick synopsis:

The history of whaling in America.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Yeah, there’s three pages on whale penis in here. You’re welcome.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Right whales couldn’t swallow humans even if they wanted to because of how its throat is structured. It could however destroy your boat very quickly if you piss it off.

My Take on Leviathan:

Whales were way more important than you realized for a very long time in the history of the U.S.

Turns out, we were very good at it! Coupled with the fact that numerous parts of the whale can be used for different purposes like candles, perfume, and the structural integrity of women’s clothes. Yes, you heard that right. In fact, that is one of the many truly crazy things you can do with whale oil. I don’t want to spoil it all for you already.

Dolin goes back to the very beginning of whaling in America. He takes you through the early documentation of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower up until the very last whaling ship leaving port (it went badly!).

I generally stay away from books which span long time-frames, but Dolin is the master at making it readable and enjoyable. Go read it even if you don’t necessarily care about whaling. Dolin is one of my favorite writers because it doesn’t matter if you care about the subject. He will find a way to make anything interesting and readable.

Verdict:

Great book spanning a lot of years. If you have any interest in whaling, this is the book for you. Buy it here!

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Hitler’s Boy Soldiers by Helene Munson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Hitler’s Boy Soldiers:

Just when you thought the Nazis couldn’t get any worse.

Quick synopsis:

The story of how Hitler and the Nazis indoctrinated young men even before World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

What was a good exercise for these young men? Manning anti-aircraft guns! Yes, really!

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Nazi math included figuring out how much it cost to help the old, invalid, and those with special needs. Yes, to make it easier to have them executed later.

My Take on Hitler’s Boy Soldiers:

Helene Munson’s Hitler’s Boy Soldiers is a deeply moving story of a little studied portion of World War II. Cobbling together the life of her father as a child in the German army, Munson takes the reader through his journey while doing some soul searching herself. The result is a book that, while very small in scope, tackles some much bigger questions about responsibility, generational guilt, and mental health.

Make no mistake, this book will make you feel sick to your stomach. The indoctrination is diabolical and mostly effective. It certainly made me look at Nazis in a slightly different way. When you are told from a very early age how to look at the world, do you have a chance of breaking away from that?

Munson’s book is on the shorter side and does not give an in depth look at the greater events of World War II. However, it does not suffer for it as the story she tells is focused more on family and understanding than anything else.

Verdict:

A brutal but well-written book. A must read for World War II nerds. Buy it here!

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Bad Vegan (Netflix)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline:

She’s bad because of the crime, not the veganism. Allegedly.

Quick synopsis:

The story of how vegan restaurateur Sarma Melngailis became a fugitive.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Once again, I need to say this. If someone tells you they are a spy or in some sort of black ops, then they are definitely not any of those things.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Melngalis’ restaurant was taking in $7 million a year at its peak. Yes, $7 million for plants.

My Take:

I feel like a lot of this was left out. Ever finish a documentary and think, “I still have a lot of questions.” This is one of those.

It’s a tale old as time. Very successful vegan restaurant owner falls for fake spy-type dude whose story never makes any sense. He slowly takes over her life with promises of… hell I am not even sure. Is it an afterlife?

Sarma Melngailis is actually in the documentary explaining herself. Except, by the end, she still really hadn’t. She taped calls with her conman husband Anthony Strangis and they make no sense. Melngailis often sounds like she already knows Strangis is full of it and challenges him often, but ultimately still goes on the run. It feels like this was all rushed to get out on the airwaves instead of giving this story the deep dive it needed.

Verdict:

It’s a good binge watch but not the best one out there. Watch it here!

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The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Last Days of the Dinosaurs:

Poor dinos…

Quick synopsis:

A look at the time right before, and then way after, the stupid asteroid killed all the dinosaurs. The asteroid is a jerk.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The asteroid impact released the equivalent energy of 100 teratonnes of dynamite or 420 zettajoules. I don’t know what that means either but I’m almost positive it’s a lot.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The asteroid also threw into the air 350 billion tons of sulfur and 460 billion tons of carbon dioxide. I know those numbers. They are very big.

My Take on The Last Days of the Dinosaurs:

Well, I didn’t think a book could make me sad about dinosaurs but here we are.

Riley Black’s The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is like nothing I have ever read before. It follows the time right before and then very long after the impact of the asteroid which killed the dinosaurs. Black focuses in on various animals and how they cope with the massive changes around the globe in a way which makes you actually feel like the dinosaurs are old friends of yours. I anticipated there would be times where the science would bore me, but Black sidestepped all of that by creating an actual narrative about animals which went extinct millions of years ago.

Black’s love of dinosaurs truly comes through in this book and it is all the better for it. Jurassic Park references certainly help as well. “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Verdict:

It’s got real dinosaurs. Do you really need me to say any more? Buy it here!

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Who Killed Jane Stanford? by Richard White

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Who Killed Jane Stanford:

Stanford was ridiculous when it was founded!

Quick synopsis:

The murder of Jane Stanford, one of the founders of Stanford University.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Stanford was founded due to the death of the Stanfords’ only child.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

A line written by the author after explaining multiple ridiculous business decisions by Jane Stanford: “Universities were not supposed to run like this.” I am still laughing.

My Take on Who Killed Jane Stanford:

When is a murder not a murder? When an entire university is at stake, apparently.

In this highly readable true crime book by Richard White, we are introduced to the absolute insanity that is the founding and early years of Stanford University. Leland and Jane Stanford found the university in honor of their young son who passed too soon. After the death of Leland, Jane begins a tyranny over the university with increasing capriciousness that ultimately leads to her murder. White dives deep into the surviving documentation to try and understand how what was very clearly a murder was ultimately deemed natural causes by some authorities.

How can I be so sure Jane Stanford’s poisoning was murder? Because the murderer tried to poison her a month before but failed. You can only believe in so many coincidences.

White writes a wonderful book which is easy to read and will appeal to anyone who loves true crime or even just the absurdity of early Stanford politics.

Verdict:

A great true crime book which will continually surprise you. Read it! Buy it here!

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Spare Parts by Paul Craddock

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Spare Parts:

The “spare” part is very misleading. Generally, the owner still needed them.

Quick synopsis:

The history of transplants from the first skin grafts to the present day.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The first target of a transplant? The skin or specifically the nose. How? Oh, you just cut your arm and sew it to your face. No, I’m not kidding.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

List of animals whose blood you could transfuse and what ailment they would cure:

  • Cat – falling sickness and herpes
  • Ox – dysentery

You know what? I’m just going to stop there. Also, don’t ever do this.

My Take on Spare Parts:

I have to admit, I was wary about this book. I normally don’t make it very far into books on science before my eyes glaze over and I feel like I’m back in freshman year bio.

Well, I was dead wrong. I loved this book. Paul Craddock’s Spare Parts is more than just a history of medicine. It’s also part sociology, a little bit of religion, and not a small amount of comedy. The story chronicles all of the parts of science and medicine as they come together to finally bring us to present day (and possible future) transplants.

I can’t stress how many tones Craddock balances throughout the book. He gives you just enough science to understand what is happening without overdoing it. He praises many of his characters without shying away from the fact that some of them were really bad people otherwise. (Doctors could be narcissists? Who knew?!) Craddock plays it right down the middle and it makes for an easy and very entertaining experience.

Oh, and the poor animals. If you are squeamish…well you might been in for a rough time. In the end, it’s worth it, though.

Verdict:

Anyone will find something to love here. Read it. Buy it here!

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Benedict Arnold: Revolutionary Hero by James Kirby Martin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline:

He still sucks.

Quick synopsis:

A look at why Benedict Arnold became the traitor we still love to hate.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Arnold had two wives named Peggy. Not at the same time. That would be scandalous. Oh, wait…

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Arnold is often thought of as having a close relationship with George Washington, which made his treachery so unbelievable. However, Arnold and Washington only crossed paths briefly a few times and mostly spoke through letters or intermediaries.

My Take:

At the end of this book, I still think Benedict Arnold sucks. However, Martin closes the gap between “greedy jerk who is the devil” and “you know, he really should have been treated better and then maybe he wouldn’t have gone off the deep end.”

Martin focuses on Arnold’s life from childhood right up until the point where he becomes a turncoat. There is a powerful theme of someone who is obviously obsessed with his honor and just cannot seem to get along with most people. While Martin points out that many of his detractors were less than stellar human beings, the long list of people who hate Benedict Arnold just seems to grow every time he meets someone new. Arnold had no idea how public relations and politics worked and it cost him dearly.

Martin takes on many of the myths surrounding Arnold and tries to humanize him as much as possible for an American audience. Does he succeed in making Arnold a sympathetic figure? No, but you’d be surprised how close he gets to making you understand how a gifted general could go from patriotic hero to ultimate villain.

Verdict:

This is a great book for anyone who wants to learn more about Arnold and see the petty squabbles of Revolutionary War generals. Buy it here!

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Born to Be Hanged by Keith Thomson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Born to Be Hanged:

The title is already really good.

Quick synopsis:

The story of one of the most audacious pirate raids ever on the Pacific Coast of the Americas in 1680.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The pirates immensely enjoyed a sour beer with their native hosts at one point. They did not know it was made from the spittle of old women in the village.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Here is a list of the nicknames for special women in Port Royal: Unconscionable Sam, Salt-Beef Peg, and my favorite, Buttock-de-Clink Jenny.

My Take on Born to Be Hanged:

I very often watch TV shows and groan when a big twist happens. Usually, a main character is in a seemingly impossible situation but somehow survives. It feels cheap and contrived. What does this have to do with Keith Thomson’s Born to Be Hanged? Well, his book is full of these types of situations and somehow the pirates don’t all die immediately.

Thomson follows the true story of a band of pirates who cross Panama on foot with the intention of freeing a native princess and maybe doing some plundering. This trip becomes a two-year odyssey of the most inexplicable decision-making I have ever read.

While the story alone is amazing, the book is further elevated by Thomson. He realizes just how absurd his characters are and he leans into it. I laughed out loud quite often from Thomson’s humorous asides. This is a highly readable adventure which anyone can enjoy.

Verdict:

If you like pirates or adventure, then this is a must read. Buy it here!

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