American Midnight by Adam Hochschild

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for American Midnight:

All was not fine on the Homefront.

Quick synopsis:

A look at the American home front around the time of World War I.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

On June 5, 1917, all eligible men were required to register for the draft. Although there were concerns on how many would do so, nearly 10 million did so.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

So much food was needed for the war effort that meatpacking companies saw their profits soar over 400%.

My Take on American Midnight:

It’s hard to review a book which has so many positive attributes but has one major and fatal flaw. The review becomes even harder when the author is Adam Hochschild who wrote one of the best books I have ever read, King Leopold’s Ghost.

The positives of American Midnight are considerable. Hochschild has chosen a very interesting time in American history and has put the focus on an often-ignored part of World War I, the home-front. Specifically, he focuses on the unions and war opponents. As you would expect from an exceptional author, the history is sound, the prose is easy to read, and extremely interesting people are highlighted. There is a lot to like about this book and its story.

However, I could not get passed the fatal flaw of this book which is Hochschild’s clear bias when wading through this history. This is not a hidden bias as Hoschschild makes it clear in the prologue what he is going to present and why he is doing so. I have no problem with his theses and often, I was very much in agreement with his observations.

However, the bias can get to the point where it is significantly distracting even when you agree with the author (and I agreed with a good amount of Hochschild’s point of view). An example is when Hochschild mentions a military member (who he is clearly not a fan of) complimenting the Confederate flag. While this is certainly something we would analyze today if a public figure made such pronouncements, mentioning this specific event in 1917 is clearly a manipulative tactic. It would not have been strange to hear or see something like that in 1917, but today it is a hot button item. The history is sound as I have no doubt Hochschild is reporting the truth. However, the choice to include this is clearly meant to inflame today’s reader with something not inflammatory in its own time. To make this choice even more jarring, this particular passage is followed soon after by a positive presentation of someone who was implicated in an attempted murder.

Ultimately, it becomes a question of how distracting you find things like the examples I have mentioned above. History is told from a point of view and there is no way around that. However, these episodes proved too blatant and repeated for me to enjoy the rest of the book which is quite good. If you can glide past such episodes better than me, then you will enjoy it immensely.

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

Verdict:

There is a lot to like, but it may lean too hard one way for some readers. Buy it here!

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Espana by Giles Tremlett

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Espana:

¡Este libro es genial!

Quick synopsis:

A brief history of Spain up until the present day.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

The elephants Hannibal took over the Alps were only 3 meters tall. They are an extinct species of elephants. Yeah, I thought they were bigger, too.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

The Spanish Armada got destroyed by England, right? Nope, only 35 of 127 ships was sunk.

My Take on Espana:

Sometimes history is better when you keep it short. Espana by Giles Tremlett is proof.

Tremlett writes about the entire history of Spain since before you could even call it Spain to when Covid hit. Along the way, you get introduced (briefly) to all the major Spanish names you should know and learn a lot of very interesting little tidbits. Want to know where bullfighting came from? It’s in here. Why wasn’t Spain part of the Allies or the Axis in World War II? Come find out.

The possible criticisms someone may have is that the book doesn’t delve deeply into any specific point and makes some generalizations from time to time. These would be ridiculous as the subtitle is, “A Brief History of Spain.” In this case, getting to the point is an excellent way to tell the story.

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

Verdict:

A great, high-level history of an entire country. Read it. Buy it here!

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Nothing but the Night by Greg King/Penny Wilson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Nothing but the Night:

Who’s more innocent? Well, they both suck.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in Chicago.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Grandpa Walton from The Waltons on TV knew Richard Loeb and thought he was a smart kid.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Leopold and Loeb became teachers in prison and taught the other inmates so they can earn degrees.

My Take on Nothing but the Night:

Nothing but the Night by Greg King and Penny Wilson is exactly what you want from great true crime. Tell the story in an interesting way, don’t over-exaggerate, and if you throw out a new theory or two, back it up with facts or admit we may never know. This book does all those things.

The story follows the murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb in the 1920s. Many authors claim they write about the “trial of the century” but this is truly one of the enduring cases. “Leopold and Loeb” is shorthand for a “thrill killing” even to this day. The reason why it endures is because of many factors King and Wilson lay out throughout the narrative. It’s not easy to retell a story which has so many previous books and works written about it, but the authors do a fantastic job.

I will say, I don’t know if there is a ton of new material on Leopold and Loeb that hasn’t already been written. However, I only need the basic outline and I loved this book.

(This book was provided to me as an advance copy by Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press.)

Verdict:

A great true crime book. Read it. Buy it here!

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Wise Gals by Nathalia Holt

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Wise Gals:

Women spies want the same pay? Who would have thought.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the first women in the CIA.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In Egypt, American money helped build a massive concrete spire to broadcast a radio station. Its nickname was, “Roosevelt’s erection.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Author John Steinbeck offered to spy for the CIA while he was abroad after World War II.

My Take on Wise Gals:

There was sexism in the early days of the CIA? I am as shocked as you are.

Nathalia Holt tells the story of multiple trailblazing women in the early days of the CIA and how they tried to dispel the notion that only men could be good agents. What I really appreciate about Holt’s approach to this book is that they actual fight for equal pay and access takes up very little of the narrative. Holt highlights the absurdity of the CIAs unspoken (and sometimes spoken) policies by telling short vignettes on each of the women throughout their career. This is not a treatise on equal rights. Instead, Holt lets the women’s actions speak for themselves.

This book flies by. Holt does not spend a tremendous amount of time on any one woman or episode. For someone who wants a deep dive into the CIA in a particular timeframe, they will be left wanting much more. For someone like myself, who did not know much about the internal workings of the CIA, this book was a great read.

Verdict:

A great read which moves quick but covers a lot of ground. Buy it here!

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Prisoners of the Castle by Ben Macintyre

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Prisoners of the Castle:

Life is so much more civilized without Nazis.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Colditz Castle and the prisoners and guards placed there in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

“Augustus the Strong” lived in Colditz where he played “fox-tossing” (yes, it’s what you think it is) and had over 365 children.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

1.8 million Frenchmen were taken prisoner during the Battle of France which was about 10% of the male population.

My Take on Prisoners of the Castle:

If Ben Macintyre wrote the phone book I would pre-order it. He’s that good at finding the most interesting aspects of a story and Prisoners of the Castle is no different.

Admittedly, the story of Colditz in World War II gives him a lot to work with. Macintyre slowly builds out the entire world of the prison without losing the main narrative around this small little story in the midst of a world war. There are multitudes of tales that are funny, serious, heartbreaking, but always human. Macintyre also doesn’t shy away from a huge nuance that is often ignored in World War II stories. Not all German soldiers were murderous Nazis.

This book is great from beginning to end and I highly recommend it even if you are not a World War II buff.

Verdict:

A great book for anyone. Read it. Buy it here!

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The Red Widow by Sarah Horowitz

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Red Widow:

There might be a correlation between amazing arrogance and sociopathy.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Margeurite Steinheil and the murder of her husband and mother.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Margeurite apparently got sick of her husband within two weeks of marrying. A match made in heaven it was not.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Paris at the time of the murder was 80% poor. Yeah, you usually only hear about the rich parts.

My Take on The Red Widow:

Not every book contains a hero. This one certainly doesn’t.

The Red Widow follows the life of Margeurite “Meg” Steinheil. Meg was a very popular topic in the late 1800s/early 1900s. She flaunts certain rules while abiding by many others of the era. She does have a habit of people dying around her and some are definitely not natural. I will not reveal any more due to spoilers. However, there is certainly enough material for the book to cover.

What makes this a very good read is that the author, Sarah Horowitz, is one of the few people who does not fall for Meg’s charms. Yes, there are many things Meg had to face that we object to nowadays. However, Meg is also a narcissistic, anti-Semitic opportunist. I have read many historical true crime books which fall in love with their subjects and bend the narrative to portray them in the best light. Horowitz avoids this and gives a clear-eyed picture of the events as they are known or unknown.

You will not like Meg, but that doesn’t mean her story isn’t fascinating. It is.

Verdict:

A great historic true crime book. Read it. Buy it here!

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Black Snow by James M. Scott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Black Snow:

It wasn’t just two atomic bombs that were dropped.

Quick synopsis:

The story of how the U.S. bombing strategy evolved right before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

More American airmen died in the skies over Europe than the Marine Corps would lose in the entire war.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

“Little Boy” was 9,000 pounds and had the equivalent explosive power of 20,000 tons of TNT. It would take 2,000 B-29s to drop the same payload with conventional bombs of the day.

My Take on Black Snow:

Are you ready to talk military bombing strategy? It’s towards the end of World War II and the U.S is preparing for the final push to the home Japanese islands. The question becomes, how badly can the U.S. bomb population centers without seeming like villains at the end? One general would lose his job trying to be as precise as possible. The other would bomb all of Japan into oblivion.

Before you say, “military strategy bombing is boring,” let me assure you that it absolutely can be. This book, however, is not. James Scott knows how to write about the Pacific Theater of World War II. There is philosophy, there are character studies, and there are harrowing tales of bombing runs from both on the ground and in the air. There is no slow part to this book because Scott keeps the story moving forward while revealing facts you never knew before. His ability to also describe what life was like in Tokyo around this time is especially moving. You won’t be disappointed.

Verdict:

He’s one of my favorite authors for a reason. A must read. Buy it here!

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