Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Under the Banner of Heaven:

Multiple spouses just sounds exhausting.

Quick synopsis:

A book focused on Mormon Fundamentalism and a horrific double murder.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In the fundamentalist stronghold of Colorado City, 78% of the population receives food stamps.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

An actual sentence in this book ends with, “she unwittingly became a stepmother to her stepmother, and thus a stepgrandmother to herself.” Ew.

My Take on Under the Banner of Heaven:

This book is gross on so many levels. Jon Krakauer is doing two things in this book. First, he tells the story of a double murder in Utah where a woman and her baby are killed by her brothers-in-law. There is no big mystery, and you know precisely what happened very early on. The second part of the book is the unraveling of the fundamentalist Mormon teachings which led to the two men becoming radicalized.

If you just want a straight true crime book, then this will not really be for you. This book is more about the fundamentalist faith and what it does to the societies it touches. This also includes a look at the basic foundations of the Mormon faith and its history.

Krakauer is not trying to criticize the Mormon faith, but at the same time he doesn’t pull any punches, either. There are some really unsettling revelations about the founds of the church.

Also, this book recently became a miniseries on TV. The miniseries is much more about the double murder and takes some liberties but is also excellent, like this book.

Verdict:

A great book. Read it. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

The Black Joke by A. E. Rooks

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Black Joke:

If you can’t beat them, steal their ship and then beat them.

Quick synopsis:

A story of a slave ship turned freedom ship off the coast of Africa in the 1800s.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

A quarter of all the freed enslaved people were courtesy of The Black Joke during its time period.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

It used to require an act of Parliament in England to get divorced. Only 325 were granted over 150 years. There is a Henry VIII joke here, but I am not going to bother.

My Take on The Black Joke:

It is always enjoyable to read something in depth about a time period I know little about. The Black Joke by A. E. Rooks is one of those books. In the 1800s, England had done away with the slave trade but needed to back up this prohibition. They created what was called the West African Squadron (WAS) to track slavers and free their people. One of the slavers they caught was rechristened The Black Joke and sent after its fellow slavers. It was remarkably successful in reasons Rooks documents.

It is worth pointing out a few things about the narrative, though. This book is just as much about the WAS as it is The Black Joke. This is not a bad thing, but if you are looking for a straight maritime adventure, you will find this a bit too scholarly. Also, Rooks does not write like a normal scholarly historian. Rooks uses more modern vernacular at times and uses very complex sentences. I personally like simpler sentences and less tangents, but the book is a still a good read, nonetheless.

Verdict:

A good book on a little-known topic. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

I’d Like to Play Alone, Please by Tom Segura

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for I’d Like to Play Alone, Please:

Same.

Quick synopsis:

Various essays on life by comedian, Tom Segura.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

It’s not that kind of book.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Again, not that kind of book.

My Take on I’d Like to Play Alone, Please:

Full disclosure up front: I love Tom Segura and know enough of his stuff that I read it in his voice and cadence. As with any comedian who writes something, I suggest listening to their comedy first and see if it’s for you.

If you don’t like Segura’s comedy, then this book will not change your mind. Admittedly, Segura makes it pretty clear he has no intention to. This is a collection of random essays which are mostly hilarious and sometimes heartfelt. A few are stories you have heard in any one of his specials. I loved it and will probably now rewatch a special or two.

Verdict:

A really fun book if you like Tom’s humor. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

We Carry Their Bones by Erin Kimmerle

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for We Carry Their Bones:

Florida. Always Florida.

Quick synopsis:

The story of the Dozier School in Florida where basically children had been tortured and killed for 100 years.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

In 1865, Florida governor John Milton was so upset about the Union winning the Civil War that he went home and shot himself.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

By 1910, 14% of American farms were Black owned.

My Take on We Carry Their Bones:

Leave it to Florida to once again give us something to talk about. Unfortunately, this story is not funny in the least.

We Carry Their Bones by Erin Kimmerle is an important book with some riveting information. The book tells the story of the Dozier School in Florida where numerous children were sent to be tortured and killed some mostly minor offenses. Kimmerle and her team are ultimately called upon to investigate the unmarked graves at the school to bring closure to numerous families over the 100 years the school was open.

The good parts are very good. I liked hearing about Kimmerle’s own experience before this episode in her life which gives a lot of context around who she is. I absolutely loved the science and the process of excavating the school. It showed an extreme measure of care and illuminates the parts shows TV shows cut out. The stories of the boys and what happened to them are heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, there are a few missteps in the narrative which I feel really hamper the book’s flow. It certainly seems Kimmerle intended to settle some scores. Specifically, a blogger is mentioned multiple times as a hindrance in her work. While he certainly seems like a pain and devoid of empathy, he also seems mostly tangential. The book doesn’t explain how much of a problem he really ended up being. If he was so easily swept aside, then it would have been prudent to just ignore him entirely. There are also strange asides which seem out of nowhere. A crack about a relative makes about Catholics makes it into the book without a clear link. There is also a section in the end of the book with a rant on mansplaining. Kimmerle and her team did righteous work in the face of some strong opposition. These examples seem beneath her.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book for the most part and am happy people like Kimmerle and her team exist to bring the closure these families needed.

Verdict:

It’s an interesting book about an event which was not well covered. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbott

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Liar Temptress Soldier Spy:

Don’t judge a book by their cover. Or forget to suspect a woman as a spy.

Quick synopsis:

The story of four women during the Civil War and how they gave to their respective causes.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

As many as 400 women served in the Civil War dressed as men.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

There were an estimated 15,000 sex workers in D.C. during the Civil War.

My Take on Liar Temptress Soldier Spy:

It is an overused cliché to say something “reads like a novel.”

Anyway, this book reads like a novel! And it’s not!

Karen Abbott follows the lives of 4 women during the Civil War. Two are secretly helping the Union (including one in uniform as a man) and two are Confederates (and I hated them). I don’t want to give too much away as to their adventures or their fates, but I guarantee you will not guess what happens to any of them. Abbott found four amazing stories at the same time, and she wrote it in the best way possible.

Abbott jumps between each woman as they go about their espionage activities. This can often be kind of confusing when reading a book but each woman is so markedly different that it never becomes an issue. Their personalities are entertaining to say the least and the fact this is all true makes it even more amazing.

Another overused cliché. “I couldn’t put it down.”

Well….yeah, I couldn’t! It’s a cliche for a reason.

Verdict:

Amazing book. Read it. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

The Pope at War by David Kertzer

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for The Pope at War:

I’m going to skip mass this week.

Quick synopsis:

The story of Pope Pius XII during World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like #1:

The Nazis took over 1,000 Jews from Rome during World War II. Only 16 survived.

Fun Fact for History Nerds #2:

The Allies actually dropped a bomb on the Vatican by mistake. They denied it.

My Take on The Pope at War:

The Pope at War is a very tough read but that has everything to do with me being a Catholic and not how well written the book is.

There is a lot of debate about Pope Pius XII and his action (or inaction) during World War II particularly in regard to the Holocaust. While no one would read this book and consider Pius XII very brave, I don’t think this work is a hit job either. David Kertzer meticulously details all of the politics, considerations, and challenges of being the pope during World War II. Pius XII did not have a love of Hitler, but his coziness with Mussolini alone is enough to sullen his name. Ultimately, the argument is that Pius XII tried to be a politician when he needed to be a moral leader.

This book is very readable even while being heavily sourced. Kertzer focuses on the things you need to know to understand the situation without bogging down the narrative.

Verdict:

An enlightening story which balances a lot of viewpoints. It’s a really good read. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Black Flags, Blue Waters by Eric Jay Dolin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Black Flags, Blue Waters:

The English are the reason we can’t have nice things like a Pirate Republic.

Quick synopsis:

An overview of piracy in the Americas.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

Blackbeard was actually one of the least violent popular pirates. He used theatrics (like lighting fuses and sticking them behind his ears) to scare his prey and make them more pliable. He wasn’t an angel, though.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

Ned Lowe was the opposite of Blackbeard. He was famously depraved including once making a captured captain eat his own lips.

My Take on Black Flags, Blue Waters:

Eric Jay Dolin usually takes on huge subjects and breaks them down into the highpoints. Here he does it with pirates and, as usual, it’s great.

Pirates are a notoriously difficult subject for serious historians because there is so much mythology and not a lot of hard facts. Dolin walks you through the famous stories while putting them into context of their times and dispelling the folklore.

Dolin has a talent for choosing stories which move the narrative forward but are also interesting for anyone who is reading. If you like pirates at all, then you will want to read this.

Verdict:

A great read for anyone even slightly interested in pirates. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

Rebels at Sea by Eric Jay Dolin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline for Rebels at Sea:

Whoop’em by land, whoop’em by sea.

Quick synopsis:

The story of American privateers in the American Revolution.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like:

One of the privateer boats was named Tyrannicide. Name a better boat name. I dare you.

Fun Fact for History Nerds:

At the time of the Revolution, the British sugar trade brought in about 3 million pounds yearly which was twice the amount of American imports.

My Take on Rebels at Sea:

American privateers are the subject of this book. It’s a can’t miss prospect.

Eric Jay Dolin is once again doing what he does best. He takes a very big idea and distills it down for anyone to access the amazing aspects of the subject. You want to hear about funny boat names? He’s got you covered. You want to hear about how the British were sadistic scum in handling American prisoners? Oh, plenty of that.

I don’t want to undersell how hard it is. The American Revolution and the people in it leave so much to go over. Very often, these types of books meander about and tell you stories only the author finds interesting. Dolin tells you the stories you need to hear, want to hear, and gets to the next point.

Verdict on Rebels at Sea:

Amazing book. Read it. Buy it here!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try:

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!

If You Liked This Try: