In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park and Maryanne Vollers

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: North Korea is worse than I thought, amazingly.

Quick synopsis: The story of Yeonmi Park, who escaped North Korea only to end up being human trafficked in China.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Children are taught that Kim Jong Il wrote fifteen hundred books while at Kim Il Sung (his father) University. I’ll do the math for you. He would have had to write at least a book a day, every single day.  

Fun Fact for History Nerds: During the Korean War, the U.S. dropped more bombs on North Korea than in the entire Pacific campaign in World War II.

My Take: Yeonmi Park is pretty extraordinary. North Korea is a hellhole. Those two facts permeate this entire book which, ultimately, is a masterclass in understatement.

Park was born in North Korea only knowing one way of living. She does an amazing job of painting the picture of North Korea without belaboring the point. In fact, she seems almost restrained in many ways. Which makes it even funnier that North Korea has her on their hit list! I’d ask if they had anything better to do, but apparently starving your people to death is not all that time consuming.

Park escaped North Korea only to end up in a different type of hell. Turns out, escaping from North Korea runs you right into Chinese human trafficking.

Park’s story is amazing and she tells it in a way that seems unspectacular, when it most certainly is.

Verdict: It is riveting. Read it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial
  • Julian Rubinstein, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber and The Holly

The Book Was Better: Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow vs. Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes (HBO)

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Movie producers are perverts? Who knew? Except literally everyone.

Quick synopsis: The story of how Ronan Farrow took down Harvey Weinstein.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Ronan Farrow is also a lawyer and clearly an overachiever.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Weinstein actually reached out to Woody Allen to try and have the story about Weinstein’s abuses quashed.

Book vs. Movie: I should admit that when the Weinstein story started to explode a few years ago, and I heard Ronan Farrow was behind it, I immediately thought this was one of those “nepotism gets someone on TV” situations.

The moral of the previous sentence is that I am an idiot.

I read the book first. Catch and Kill is truly amazing in multiple ways. First, Farrow is not where he is because of nepotism. He has done the work and he is good at it. He walks step-by-step through the investigation with diversions to such people like Matt Lauer who would have his own scandal. The book reads easily because you can actually feel that Farrow is not impressed with himself and focuses more on the victims.

What I also found refreshing is that Farrow is not afraid to make himself look bad. He remembers how much he failed his sister, he talks about how whiny he could be with his fiancée (who sounds hilarious, by the way), and that he thought about giving up multiple times. The book is fantastic. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and it should have.

The TV series is good, don’t get me wrong. However, it misses so much of what made the book a page turner. Be honest with yourself. If you won’t read the book, then fire up your HBO subscription (that you bought to watch Wonder Woman 1984, you can’t fool me) and watch it. The story is important and well told.

Verdict: The book is better, and a must read. If you won’t read it, then watch the series.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain and Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Grant and Sherman by Charles Bracelen Flood

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The ultimate Civil War bromance.

Quick synopsis: A look at the friendship between Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and how it shaped the Civil War.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: One of the best quotes of all time: “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Grant gives Sherman all the credit for the March to the Sea, but this book shows just how much Sherman needed Grant. Most generals would never give the latitude (and spotlight) to a lower rank, but Grant never worried about credit. In fact, he often shirked it as much as possible.

My Take: Most people don’t realize that Grant and Sherman were not just the architects of the end of the Civil War. They were also colossal failures before becoming the leaders the Union needed to win the war.

Flood’s book is a great analysis of their triumphs and failures throughout their lives. When Grant and Sherman finally come together, you get the sense these men were made to fight alongside each other. Grant had to be the tenacious leaders who didn’t care about credit and let his successful subordinates shine. Sherman, in his own words, confirmed he could not operate without Grant who gave him the confidence and room to make decisions.

Flood wrote a fantastic book which gives each general the spotlight without overburdening the reader. His military acumen shows through as he also knows how to explain a battle without getting too deep in the weeds.

Verdict: Great book even if you know nothing about the Civil War.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Jamie Malanowski, Commander Will Cushing
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman

Lucky 666 by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Sure, why not just build your own plane during World War II.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Old 666, a B-17 bomber put together with scraps in Papua New Guinea in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The main event of the book is the longest continuous dogfight in U.S. Air Force History.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The crew is still the most highly decorated combat aircrew in U.S. history. 

My Take: Oh, sure. If no one will assign you a plane, just build one!

This book focuses on Old 666, a B-17 bomber put together by pilot Jay Zeamer and his crew. This book is ostensibly about Old 666’s most famous mission which was almost the perfect definition of a suicide mission you see in movies.

However, the bulk of the book is about how these crew members came together with Jay Zeamer and his bombardier Jay Sarnoski in the Pacific theater. With all the reading I do, I find the Pacific is often given short shrift in any history of World War II unless it is the sole focus of a book like this one. Drury and Clavin vividly describe what it was like to be in the Pacific with Japan dominating the area and the U.S. sending most of their resources to fight the Nazis.

The final air battle described in the book is the best part, but everything else is pretty fantastic.

Verdict: A great World War II book which puts the Pacific theater in a clearer light than most books.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mitchell Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La
  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Steven Collis, The Immortals
  • William Geroux, The Ghost Ships of Archangel

The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: So, this is why no one wants to go to therapy.

Quick synopsis: The story of Elizabeth Packard, who was forcibly committed by her husband for having an opinion. Yeah, really.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: In the 1860s, the leading cause of insanity in men was masturbation. Especially among shoemakers. No, I am not clever enough to have made that up.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Leading cause of insanity for women? Novel reading. I still believe this is true. Especially romance novels.

My Take: Imagine a world where you can forcibly commit someone if you could get two doctors to agree that they were insane. Now imagine this world where “insanity” is so ridiculously defined as to encompass having any strong feelings about any subject at all. It’s not hard to picture because this was basically the 1860s in America if you were a woman.

I especially love this book because it is a fantastic case of irony. Allow me to explain.

Elizabeth Packard became a real problem for her husband. She was starting to doubt his view of religion. While that may not sound bad, her husband was a pastor, and it was a huge problem for him. His plan? Throw her in the loony bin, of course!

Elizabeth would end up being committed and becoming an even bigger problem for her husband. In fact, she becomes a huge problem for any men in the U.S. who would ever try to pull what her husband did. Irony, indeed.

Verdict: A great read about a woman you probably never heard about.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Kate Moore, The Radium Girls
  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels
  • Gary Krist, Empire of Sin

The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn by Robert Watson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This book made me want to punch a British person.

Quick synopsis: A look inside one of the notorious British prison ships used during the American Revolution, the HMS Jersey.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: “HMS” in front of a British ship’s name stands for “His/Her Majesty’s Ship.” It is so obnoxiously simple. And so egocentric.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Estimates for battle deaths for the American side in the revolution is about 4,500. Estimated number of American deaths aboard British prison ships is about 8,000. Now you know why I want to punch a British person.

My Take: Man, everything with “Jersey” attached to it is terrible. (Just kidding, New Jersey friends! Kinda!)

The HMS Jersey was one of the British prison ships which were in New York during the American Revolution. These ships were much older than the newer battle ships (Jersey was built in 1736). Since they had limited utility then why not put the scummy rebels aboard them and treat them horribly? That’s what the British thought and that’s what they did.

The conditions were atrocious, and Watson puts the reader through the wringer emotionally. He expertly describes the oppressive conditions and weaves a coherent narrative along the way. The ships were so bad even some British higher ups called for investigations.

I will be drinking a few extra beers on July 4th this year. Also, I will be crank calling British people. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Verdict: This is a great book even if you are an American Revolution nut (like me!). This is a little-known part of the revolution and it is done well.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Bunker Hill
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition
  • Ron Chernow, George Washington
  • Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World

Faster by Neal Bascomb

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Apparently, Hitler would have loved the Fast and the Furious movies.

Quick synopsis: The story of how a French race car driver and American heiress embarrassed the German racing team on the eve of World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Car racing in the 1920s and 30s was ridiculously dangerous. The cars were already amazingly powerful, but no one cared at all about safety. People were killed during races regularly including spectators.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We are used to really fast cars nowadays, but cars were going very fast for a very long time. The world record during the time frame of this book was 301 mph by Malcolm Campbell. This was under specific conditions. Faster discusses a different record which goes awry.

My Take: I do not care about cars at all. If it has four wheels and gets me to my destination, then I am perfectly fine. That being said, I still loved this book.

Bascomb takes a look into auto racing on the eve of World War II. He focuses on a few different people and their reactions to what is going on around them, but the main character is Rene Dreyfus. He a French and Jewish driver who ends up in some very interesting situations. Also, on the eve of World War II, being a Jewish driver makes for some hairy situations, as well. His contract is Rudolph Caracciola, a German racer who becomes the darling of the Third Reich. Add into this mix, Lucy Schell, an American heiress who is the epitome of a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer.

The personalities of each person plus the global climate of the time make for a great book which will appeal to just about everyone. If you want bold characters, then you got it. Want to look at the world through the microcosm of racing, then you got it. Want to just read about racing and how it works, then you got it.

Verdict: Great book for everyone even if you don’t like racing, which I don’t.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Neal Bascomb, The Winter Fortress
  • Michael Zuckoff, Lost in Shangri-La

Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Idi Amin was a real whackjob.

Quick synopsis: The story of Operation Thunderbolt, an Israeli action to save hostages on a hijacked plane.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The flight crew was given the option to be released with non-Jewish passengers but refused.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The entire raid to save the hostages took 53 minutes from beginning to end.

My Take: Hostage situations are games of inches.

In 1976, an Air France flight was hijacked in the air and flown to Uganda. Why on earth would they fly to Uganda? Idi Amin was the dictator there and had decided to use this as a public relations coup. I didn’t know much about Idi Amin before this, but I am now fully convinced he was a psychopath of the highest order. Also, a terrible actor.

Saul David is very detailed oriented as a writer and that is on display here. He tells you about everyone involved from the terrorists to the Israeli government. If you know anything about Israel, you will recognize a lot of names that are still huge in politics. He also explains just how incredibly risky this mission was. The margin for error was zero for a multitude of reasons.

David knows how to tell a story and the details do not bog down the narrative. He ratchets up the pressure before finally getting to the actual operation which does not go off without some major hiccups.

Verdict: A great book which dives into the details of every aspect of the raid.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Saul David, Crucible of Hell
  • Stephan Talty, The Good Assassin
  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

The Good Assassin by Stephan Talty

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Of course he’s a good assassin. He’s killing Nazis.

Quick synopsis: The story of the hunt and killing of Herbert Cukurs, the Butcher of Latvia.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Ilha da Queimada Grande, an island off the coast of Brazil, has one snake for every 6 square yards. Is that fact material to the story? No. But come on, that’s nuts.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Hunting Nazis lost its luster relatively quickly after World War II. One of the protagonists, Tuviah Friedman, actually was fired for focusing too much on Nazi hunting.

My Take: This book is two amazing stories in one.

One part is how Herbert Cukurs became the “Butcher of Latvia.” I should warn anyone reading this that the book does not shy away from proving how he got the moniker. Talty describes the horrible things he did as well as what his underlings did. I have read a lot of World War II books about the evil of the Nazis and Japanese and this narrative is visceral. Also, f— Nazis.

The second part is how Mossad tracked down Cukurs, who escaped to South America, and made him pay for his crimes. This part of the book ends in no less a brutal fashion than the World War II section, but at least the victim wasn’t innocent this time.

It is a great read and done very well, but beware. This is not an easy read.

Verdict: This book is brutal but very good. Read it, but only if you can handle a truly high level of violence and sexual assault.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichmann
  • Saul David, Operation Thunderbolt
  • Ben MacIntyre, The Spy and the Traitor

The Confidence Men by Margalit Fox

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Maybe I’ve had fortune tellers wrong this whole time.

Quick synopsis: The story of how two British POWs in World War I make their escape… by using telepathy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: This may be the only example in military history of a conviction on espionage using telepathy.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I love this paragraph so much I need to reprint it in its entirety. Thank you, Margalit, for this gift.

“Below “Insanity” came a taxonomic free-for-all, a welter of gothic descriptions vying for alienists’ diagnostic attention. Among them were epileptic insanity, syphilitic insanity, gouty insanity, hysterical insanity, alcoholic insanity, moral insanity, idiocy, cretinism, erotic paranoia, reasoning mania, querulous insanity with a mania for lawsuits, spasmodic asthma with insanity, and sexual vampire delusion.”

I think I have three.

My Take: Well, if you are going to be a POW, you might as well have fun with it!

In World War I, many people forget about the fighting in many places where the news didn’t focus. In Turkey, the British were fighting and losing sometimes. In a very remote POW camp, it is nearly impossible to escape. Notice I said “nearly.”

Two British soldiers who never met before realized their captors were extremely superstitious. Oh, and also extremely gullible. What follows is a harmless prank with a homemade Ouija board growing into one of the most ridiculous escapes in the history of warfare.

Verdict: A really fun book which focuses on a very ignored theater of World War I.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Larry Loftis, Code Name: Lise
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Hampton Sides, Ghost Soldiers
  • Lynne Olson, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War