The Promise of the Grand Canyon by John Ross

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: A lot of heartache just to explore a big hole. 

Quick synopsis: A partial biography of John Wesley Powell focused on his exploration of little-known parts of the Grand Canyon. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Wesley Powell took on a crazy exploration of the Grand Canyon. He had one arm at the time.   

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Powell was a super smart dude. Many of the things he extrapolated and hypothesized turned out to be true. Most impressively, he clearly identified the massive problems with water scarcity in the American West which is still a huge challenge today.  

My Take: This is easily the type of book which can get boring when not handled right. If you focus too much on the rock nerdery of Powell then you can really get caught in the weeds. Ross does a really good job by sticking to the exciting parts but not ignoring the science altogether. 

Powell does make himself a pretty interesting subject. Ross gives a short biography of Powell before his exploration of the Grand Canyon, including losing his arm in the Civil War. You would think that would be enough to make someone stay home and enjoy their other arm. Not Powell! 

I am still not quite sure how he did 90% of the things he did while only having one arm. One of the most famous anecdotes about him is while he was scaling a cliff, he got caught and hung by his one arm until one of his fellow explorers helped out. It makes me feel like a very lazy person just reading it. 

The final section of the book digs into the science of everything and how Powell was able to come to many of his conclusions. This part of the book was presented simply but still made me feel dumb.  

Verdict: Great book with a great story that the author makes very approachable even for non-science nerds (like me!).  

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Peter Stark, Astoria 
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven 
  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory 

The Black Prince by Michael Jones

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This has nothing to do with the musician. 

Quick synopsis: A complete biography of Edward, the Black Prince of England. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: He wasn’t actually black. The name comes from…. well honestly, we still don’t know. Might have been the black armor. He might have had a dark complexion. Might also be because he was a war-fighting badass and whooped the French. Choose your own adventure!  

He also died of dysentery. Yeah, like on the Oregon Trail!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The whole “England owns parts of France” thing is always very confusing to me. This book does a great job actually explaining that part especially in reference to Edward and how it affected his life.   

My Take: Sometimes a book takes on a subject that most people will say, “I heard of him,” but actually they know nothing more than that. This is one of those books. 

I think even non-history folks will say they have heard of the Black Prince merely because his name is pretty cool, but they would fail to know anything else, including his name is Edward. Jones takes you through the entirety of Edward’s life and keeps the narrative flowing really well. I went from knowing very little about Edward to feeling like I knew all I can.  

And this is certainly a subject worthy of a full book. Edward is a bunch of contradictions and there is just enough mystery around him to make things really interesting. I would like to know where the hell his moniker came from. Seriously, it’s very frustrating. 

Verdict: Great book on a very interesting subject. Written for serious history readers and will not be a good read for a novice. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great 
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight 
  • Kristin Downey, Isabella 
  • Robert Massie, Peter the Great 
  • Elizabeth Lev, The Tigress of Forli 
  • Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King 

The Unexpected President by Scott Greenberg

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: May be the last time a politician pulled a sincere 180.

Quick synopsis: The life of President Chester A. Arthur.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Arthur had fresh flowers placed at the portrait of his deceased wife every day he was president. He never remarried.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Arthur was thought to have a part in his predecessor’s assassination. Charles Guiteau, who assassinated James Garfield, shouted something about Arthur being president now. He had nothing to do with it.

My Take: I was shocked at how interesting Chester A. Arthur was over the course of his life. I think most importantly, he is one of the few presidents in history who became a better person when he reached the highest office.

Arthur was a lawyer, devoted husband, and politically the product of one Roscoe Conkling. Conkling isn’t well known unless you are a politics nerd, but he was an extremely powerful senator and kingmaker. Conkling was the ultimate power broker and practiced patronage with absolute impunity. Arthur was part of the machine…until he became president. Arthur effectively turned on Conkling and supported civil service reform. It was an amazing reversal for someone who was seen purely as a lackey.

There are numerous other things about Arthur which are interesting. He has a presidency that looks better and better as time goes by. Go take a look!

Verdict: A good book on a very interesting man who bettered himself. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life
  • Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic
  • Candice Millard, River of Doubt
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals

The Faithful Executioner by Joel Harrington

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Who knew being an executioner for 45 years would be depressing?

Quick synopsis: A biography of Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg who was an executioner for 45 years and executed 394 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Executing was a family affair, literally. If you were an executioner, you passed it on to your child like a trust fund.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: How did Schmidt’s dad become an executioner? They pulled him out of the crowd and made him do it. Executioners and their families were shunned so that sucked.

My Take: Sometimes the best books are about people you never would have heard of otherwise. This is one of those books.

Frantz Schmidt was an executioner. The mantle was passed from his father who was plucked out of a crowd to be the new executioner. Officials needed to do that because no one wants to be an executioner. Besides the whole killing thing, it also brought shame to your family and you were shunned by the populace. So much for respecting civil servants.

Schmidt left a journal which gives Harrington amazing insight into his life and activities. It also talks about how Schmidt tried to have the stigma erased from his family line once he retired from executions. Turns out that is much harder than one would expect.

Want to know what else is hard? Killing people, apparently. I thoroughly enjoyed (in a macabre sense, obviously) how hard it is to execute people properly. Who knew?

Verdict: A truly amazing look into the man of someone who was not famous but left a lot of his life written. This is a history book and may not be for general audiences, but history lovers will find it fantastic.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Hallie Rubenhold, The Five
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight

Floodpath by Jon Wilkman

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Came for the flood, got too much else.

Quick synopsis: The story of the St. Francis Dam flood.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Mulholland Drive in L.A. is named after the designer and builder of the St. Francis Dam. He was alive when the flood happened and killed scores of people.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: L.A. as a city was a bully to the areas surrounding it and often used the scarcity of water to get its way. The St. Francis Dam was a perfect example. Building the dam forced many surrounding communities to join with L.A. in order to get at the water.

My Take: Books on historical disasters need to do two things: tell you about the disaster and make you want to cry. You need to feel the emotion come off the page as people’s lives are taken or taken apart. Wilkman in this book gets too bogged down into the details. Before you get to the flood, you had to wade through a whole lot of politics and quite frankly, uninteresting details.

Th St. Francis Dam disaster is steeped in dirty politics and some of these details are necessary to understand the flood and the repercussions after it. Unfortunately, Wilkman is not discerning enough with these facts and beats you down with names of people tangentially involved. The politics around William Mulholland is much better told in Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory and Krist does it faster according to page count.

Wilkman does not disappoint when describing the flood. He puts together a pretty compelling narrative of the dam break in the middle of the night and the details which come along with that. Unfortunately, that is only one third of the book.

The final third of the book which deals with the aftermath of the flood is interminable. It feels like a movie with too many endings in which you beg the lights to go up in the theater so you can leave. Wilkman needed to choose one narrative of the post-disaster (probably Muhlholland) and tie up loose ends swiftly.

Verdict: If you want all the details of the St. Francis Flood (and I mean all of them), then this will work for you. If you are looking for an entertaining story from beginning to end, see the list below.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, The Mirage Factory
  • Charity Vogel, The Angola Horror
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Such a big life from such a little man.

Quick synopsis: A (very) in depth biography of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Napoleon was once set upon by hundreds of rabbits during a hunt and needed to flee in a carriage just to get away. Everything I just typed is true.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Napoleon was way ahead of the curve when it came to religious tolerance. He is very much known as a brilliant, if warmongering, leader but he had some very positive traits. He generally let conquered peoples continue their lives and religion with little interference. Now was this due to it being his true feelings or politically expedient, we don’t know. However, it is worth pointing out that many tyrants never learned this lesson.

My Take: This book is very good. And at over 800 pages of actual writing, it is also very long.

Roberts takes on one of the most famous men in history and writes a very well rounded and all-encompassing biography. Nothing is left to the imagination. You learn about Napoleon’s family life and are taken through all of his campaigns.

Roberts does his best work when he focuses on these battles, actually. It is a fine line to take a casual reader through a battlefield. If you are too broad, then it’s hard to even understand how complex battle can be. If you are too detailed, people will be completely lost in the minutiae. Roberts gets the best of both worlds by explaining Napoleon’s genius without giving a blow by blow.

Roberts also doesn’t deify or vilify Napoleon. The good and bad of the man are on full display and it’s almost jarring to see how complex Napoleon was. He goes from attention loving tyrant to man madly in love with his wife on the same page. It’s a great book to understand a very famous man who is steeped in myth (he actually wasn’t short!).

Verdict: If you want to know as much as possible about Napoleon in one book then this is for you. It’s a great read but very dense.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Ron Chernow, Hamilton and Washington
  • Robert Massie, Catherine the Great
  • Kristen Downey, Isabella

Isabella by Kristen Downey

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Really depends who you are on whether you like her or not.

Quick synopsis: A complete biography of Isabella I of Castile.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yes, that Isabella. 1492, Columbus and all that.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Isabella was truly a badass woman both for good and bad. She was a warrior, built the Spanish Empire, was devout, brutal, and politically savvy. She was everything really. For history nerds, her reputation goes off a cliff because of the Inquisition. She is also the mother of Catherine of Aragon.

My Take: Isabella is one of the most amazing characters in history in my opinion. She has everything for the amazing and adventurous life people dream about. She had to take her throne by force and as a woman. This was not an enlightened world which would follow a woman blindly. She needed to be special and Isabella clearly was.

She married for love against her half-brother’s wishes. She immediately cleaned up his mess by refilling the treasury and fixing the justice system. She was a devout Catholic. Maybe a bit too Catholic.

She was the reason Columbus sailed across the ocean blue. She found powerful matches for her children. She was a force.

She also was instrumental in the Inquisition. That is what I meant by “maybe a bit too Catholic.” If you are Jewish, you are probably not a fan either. Yes, massive understatement.

This is a massive life to cover and Downey does a great job with it. She keeps the narrative flowing and also keeps all the characters straight. It can be exhausting when reading history and having to look up people because they disappear from the narrative.

Downey’s one shortfall is the Inquisition. She tries to let Isabella off the hook as being led astray by other people. However, when you look at her life as a whole, there is no way anyone led Isabella but herself.

Verdict: Great book on an amazing historical character.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Justin Pollard, Alfred the Great
  • Michael Jones, The Black Prince: England’s Greatest Medieval Warrior
  • Thomas Asbridge, The Greatest Knight
  • Giles Tremlett, Catherine of Aragon

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

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

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