Crucible of Hell by Saul David

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Kind of puts The Karate Kid in a whole new light.

Quick synopsis: Story of the battle of Okinawa in World War II.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The movie Hacksaw Ridge is based on an actual action during the Battle of Okinawa.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: I mean, not “fun,” but Lieutenant General Buckner, who was killed during the battle, was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in World War II in combat.

My Take: This book is about the Battle of Okinawa, but it could also be a book about why we dropped the atomic bombs on mainland Japan afterwards.

The Pacific Theater of World War II is very often overlooked when history is taught or dramatized. I get it, it’s much better talking about killing Nazis. However, this view of thinking greatly underestimates the fanaticism of the Japanese Imperial Army. No one was safe, including their own soldiers and civilians.

Okinawa was not just a land battle. There were significant smaller battles at sea and in the air as Japan was preparing for the final phase of the war. Kamikaze and other suicide attacks became the norm. Saul David hammers home the desperation of the Japanese Army but also how the entire country of Japan was conditioned to think dying to protect Japan was not just preferred but required.

I appreciate David’s very clear thoughts on the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan at the end. I don’t like opinion in my history books unless the facts are there to support it.

Verdict: A great book that truly captures the horror of the battle and also makes a few strong points along the way.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Mark Obmascik, The Storm on Our Shores
  • Stephen Ambrose, D-Day
  • Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies
  • Lynne Olson, Last Hope Island
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles
  • James M. Scott, Rampage

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Great, now I’m afraid of hospitals, too.

Quick synopsis: The story of Charles Cullen who might be the most prolific serial killer ever.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Hospitals are very careful about their drugs… assuming they have street value. Otherwise, go right ahead, killer nurse!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Cullen ended up donating a kidney from jail to his ex-girlfriend’s brother.

My Take: Well, this is disconcerting. I’m dating a nurse and I may need to dump her after this book.

Charles Cullen is a serial killer and for a very long time was… actually kind of a good nurse? When he wasn’t killing people. There are two major aspects of his story which make it extremely unsettling even for true crime.

First, Cullen did not seem to enjoy his crimes like most serial killers. Usually, there is some sexual component, or revenge, or something. Cullen seemed to just kill people like most people choose something at McDonald’s. “Yes, the small fry and I’ll kill that guy with digoxin.” He doesn’t seem to be seeking fame and he’s not even sure how many people he killed. Literally, he did it so much he’s not sure. It could be as many as 400 people which would make him the worst serial killer in recorded history (non-Nazi division).

Second, he was able to be this prolific over 16 years of nursing! At multiple hospitals! Why? How can this be? Basically, like this: “Hey we think the Cullen guy is killing people. No, we can’t prove it. Let’s just fire him for another reason and then not tell anyone including other hospitals. Glad we agree.” This happened at more than 5 medical facilities. I literally lost count of how many did this. This only stopped because a nurse and pharmacist finally put an end to it.

I’m going to go work out so there is no reason for me to go to a hospital anytime soon.

Verdict: Great true crime. It reads like a novel.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood
  • Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown
  • Maureen Callahan, American Predator
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Mindhunter
  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing

Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Doctors playing God and being arrogant about it. Shocking.

Quick synopsis: A full investigation of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The most heartwarming part of the story is when a bunch of hillbillies show up with their boats to help out and promptly start doing it their own way. Sure, you make fun of them 364 days of the year, but that one time you need them….

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Fink’s entire epilogue is about how we really have not solved the problem with large medical emergencies. In fact, she speaks often about lack of ventilators. New York even procured a bunch of extra ones when they did a test run for a disaster. This book was written in 2013.

My Take: Sheri Fink does an absolutely amazing story trying to report the facts straight down the middle. She somehow juggles dozens of people, clearly articulates their thoughts and feelings, and puts everything in perspective in what I felt was extremely fair. As an author, she trusts the reader to make their own judgement based on the circumstances and actions taken.

I am left enraged by the actions of some of the staff at Memorial. While Fink clearly details the stress and uncertainty the entire hospital face, she also points out how other hospitals fared under the same conditions. Some were better, some were worse.

Euthanasia, triaging, and how to allocate scarce resources are the main themes running throughout. There is also the overall theme of being unprepared when things go completely sideways. When you don’t have enough equipment, who lives and who dies?

Without spoiling any more of the details, I will say that I believe people were murdered at Memorial Hospital in the days after Katrina. Read this book and make your own decision.

Verdict: A must read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Harry Markopolos, No One Would Listen
  • David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon
  • John Carryrou, Bad Blood

A Furious Sky by Eric Jay Dolin

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Don’t live in Florida. Or Texas. It’s science.

Quick synopsis: The 500-year history of hurricanes in America.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: When hurricanes started being given proper names, they were only women’s names. It led to some rather hilarious adjectives being attributed to storms like “moody.” Who doesn’t love their weather with a side of misogyny?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The deadliest hurricane in American history is not Katrina. In fact, Katrina is not even in the top 5. Number 1 belongs to the 1900 Galveston Hurricane which killed at least 6,000 people and maybe as many as 12,000.

My Take: Hurricanes are big business nowadays. The Weather Channel might survive just based on the hurricane season. In a weird way, the power of hurricanes is minimized by just how often we hear about them and all the information we now have.

Dolin takes you back to the beginning of America when a few Spaniards would look at the sky and say, “Well, that doesn’t look good.” And then there was a hurricane and a lot of people died. (Bonus fact: Columbus gave the first accurate forecast of a hurricane in the Americas. Granted it was only an hour or so before it hit landfall.)

Dolin does what he does best and covers a gigantic timeline of a topic and choosing the major things someone needs to know. He’s done it with American whaling, lighthouses, and now with hurricanes. If you love hurricanes, he won’t add to your knowledge because he’s very high level. Peruse the recommendations below for books which cover just one storm from beginning to end.

Verdict: Great book for someone who doesn’t know much about hurricanes. Even casual readers will enjoy it.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard
  • Daniel Brown, Under a Flaming Sky
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Wallace Akin, The Forgotten Storm
  • Gary Krist, The White Cascade
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours
  • Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm
  • Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm
  • R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea
  • Eric Jay Dolin, Brilliant Beacons

The Agitator by Peter Duffy

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Commies vs. Nazis. Who ya got?

Quick synopsis: The story of William Bailey who boarded a German luxury liner and threw the swastika flag into the Hudson River.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Everyone knows that the Nazis hated the Jews. What most people don’t realize is that they really hated Catholics too. While they were not nearly in as much danger, obviously, the Third Reich took great pains to keep Catholics in their place.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Duffy gives an excellent street-level view of the societal structure right before World War II. He gives a great rundown of who the commies hated, who the police hated, and who just wanted to be left alone.

My Take: I have never even heard a hint of this story and it sounds like it was a pretty big deal at the time.

Long story short, William Bailey and his fellow communists boarded a popular German luxury liner in New York City. They caused a commotion and tore down the swastika flag and threw it into the (very dirty) Hudson River. It caused an international incident before World War II. It is an interesting time in history because this was when most people put their heads in the sand and pretended, “oh, the Nazis don’t seem all that bad.” This is what we would call a rather large miscalculation.

There was a trial with a twist and the rest of Bill Bailey’s life took some interesting turns. The problem is that much of Bailey’s life seemed more exciting than the event the book is tackling. I would much rather have had a full accounting of Bailey’s life then this specific event taking up so much real estate.

That said, it is well written and will hold your attention.

Verdict: The story is interesting but feels a little thin. Worth a read if you find the time period interesting.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Gary Krist, City of Scoundrels and Empire of Sin and The Mirage Factory
  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl on the Velvet Swing

The Zealot and the Emancipator by H.W. Brands

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: The Civil War era was crazy. Glad politics got so much better since then.

Quick synopsis: A dual biography of John Brown and Abraham Lincoln.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: John Brown was seriously deranged, and we all are pretty clear about that today. But back in the day, John Brown was revered by abolitionists.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We tend to deify Lincoln nowadays, but he was never a staunch abolitionist.

My Take: A psychopath and a saint were both needed to end slavery in the United States. Oh, sure it took more than that, but I like being hyperbolic. Also, maybe I’m a little condescending (that means I talk down to people). I digress.

Brands’ book is pretty interesting because of how we see the two subjects today. John Brown was a psychopath who led multiple people (including a few of his own sons) to various early deaths. He tried to capture a U.S. military installation in one of the most ill-conceived operations in American history. When he was put to death, he was lionized as a hero and a monster.

Lincoln is now known as one of our greatest presidents. In his own time, that was very touch and go. Lincoln was always about keeping the Union together whether slavery existed or not. Ultimately, he did become the Great Emancipator, but he was a politician, first and foremost.

Brands focuses on major parts of Lincoln and Brown’s lives including some things you won’t get in other books. It’s a good read.

Verdict: This is a great book if you haven’t read too much on either subject.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals
  • Charles Lane, Freedom’s Detective
  • Brenda Wineapple, The Impeachers

Antarctica by David Day

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: I really want to go here. Someone want to make a donation?

Quick synopsis: The story of Antarctica from the 1770s to today.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Antarctica is a desert. It hasn’t rained there in 2 million years. Go ahead, check my work.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Antarctica has no time zone.

My Take: Ice, baby! Antarctica has a ton of it and Day wants to tell you all about it.

Day takes you through the entire history of Antarctica from when humanity only thought it existed, to when we knew it existed, to when we tried to figure out what to do with it.

The reasons people thought it existed way back in the day are hilarious. They actually thought it had to be there to “balance” out the Earth. Isn’t that ridiculous? It would be like thinking the Earth is flat.

My favorite parts of the book are clearly the exploration times. Antarctica, like the Arctic, killed a lot of people who were trying to tame it. We still haven’t.

The last portion gets into the politics of how the world decided Antarctica belonged to no one. Admittedly, the book drags a bit here. It doesn’t have the same energy as people trying to find the South Pole.

Verdict: This book is not for everyone but for dorks like me it was wonderful.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce B. Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation

Commander Will Cushing by Jaime Malanowski

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This mofo was CRAZY! 

Quick synopsis: A biography of Commander William Cushing with a major focus on his bonkers actions in the military during the Civil War. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Cushing was basically an action movie hero. The big event in his life was during the Civil War when he placed a bomb on the Confederate ironclad CSS Albermarle and DETONATED IT WHILE HE WAS STILL THERE. YES, HE LIVED. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Cushing was one of many brothers who distinguished themselves. One of his brothers was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. Another was killed fighting Apaches after the Civil War and one other brother served but actually lived. So, the Cushing family had a 25% survival rate in the military. 

My Take: If you look at Cushing’s actions with the Albermarle in a vacuum, then you see a man who performed a heroic action in a very difficult time. However, Cushing was not a one hit wonder. 

He typified the term “suicide mission.” In fact, by the end of the book I really wanted to know if he suffered from some sort of mental illness where all regard for personal safety is snuffed out. It worked out pretty well for him. He was the youngest at that time to ever be promoted to Commander in the U.S. Navy. 

Malanowksi has both a lot to work with and at the same time not all that much. Cushing only lived to be 32 years old. He packed a lot of (suicidal) life into those 32, though. 

Verdict: Good book for Civil War buffs and novices. Read it. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant and Sherman 
  • Tony Horwitz, Midnight Rising 
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals 
  • Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman 

American Fire by Monica Hesse

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Bad sex life? Let’s burn down buildings. 

Quick synopsis: The story of an arsonist couple in rural Virginia. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: The arson spree the couple committed ended in a tally of 70 fires. 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: There are about 17,000 residential arson fires a year in the U.S.   

My Take: This is a very different true crime book than what most people gravitate to. 

The author doesn’t hide who did it. You know pretty early on who the perpetrators are. Instead, Hesse explains the community and how the fires caused a wide range of responses as the arson seemed to never stop. 

The part of Virginia where this all occurred is known to be on the poorer side and Hesse turns this into a study in sociology as much as true crime. This is a good thing. 

I found myself being moved by the entire story because of how it was presented. This easily could have been turned into a thriller, but Hesse wisely makes this a story of people doing a bad thing but not being bad people. 

Verdict: It is an interesting book for the subject. If you like your true crime with gore, then it’s not for you. If you want a nuanced story, then this is up your alley 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy 

Labyrinth of Ice

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Just don’t go to the Arctic. It’s a bad idea.

Quick synopsis: The story of the Greely Polar Expedition in 1881. It went badly.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: You don’t get a cold in the Arctic. The lack of people and germs means you just won’t get it. You may die of starvation like most of the Greely Expedition but at least you won’t have an annoying cold. Yes, I am an optimistic person. Why do you ask?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Robert Todd Lincoln comes out of this episode looking like a huge jerk. He never truly supported the expedition and his foot dragging most likely led to the failure of one, if not two, relief expeditions. Daddy would have been upset.

My Take: The Greely Polar Expedition is a tale of two outcomes. On the one hand, they made it furthest north which was a huge deal in 1881. The team took a tremendous amount of scientific measurements that are useful even today. And they didn’t all die!

On the other hand, most of them did die. Three relief missions were needed to finally save what was left of the expedition. Accusations of cannibalism at the end marred what many saw as a tragic triumph. One expedition member even had to be executed.

In case you can’t tell, a lot happened on the Greely Polar Expedition and it is a fantastic story. Levy does what he does best here which is give you the details you need and keep the story moving. It is easy to get bogged down in the details and the personalities, but Levy focuses on the important aspects without losing the pace.

Verdict: A great book which is very accessible to even non-nerds.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Buddy Levy, River of Darkness
  • Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles
  • Alfred Lansing, Endurance
  • Bruce B. Henderson, Fatal North
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation