What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Every parent’s worst nightmare.

Quick synopsis: The life and suicide of Madison Holleran, a young University of Pennsylvania athlete.

History Fact: The University of Pennsylvania is in the Ivy League. Who knew?

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Important Note: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255.

My Take: This book will chill any parent to their core.

Madison Holleran was, by all accounts, smart, beautiful, and driven. She was a star athlete. She had numerous friends. She had the same trials and tribulations as any teenager but nothing too major.

Maddy began her college career at the University of Pennsylvania. She began to become withdrawn, stressed out, and not quite herself according to her parents. One night, she committed suicide by jumping from a parking garage.

I read this book because mental health and my daughter are both very important to me. This book touches on parenting and dealing with the vagaries of teenagers.

Ultimately, Maddy’s story is very important and Fagan treats her and her family with respect. Unfortunately, it seems Fagan showed too much respect. The title of the book asks what made Maddy run but Fagan never tries to answer that question fully. She mentions the possibility of mental health issues in the family but backs off before digging in.

The book is well written, but if you want answers, you may feel disappointed like I did. You will, however, be terrified of how subtle the signs of depression and suicide are.

Verdict: A very soul crushing read. It’s well written but not as incisive as I felt it needed to be.

If This Interests You:

  • Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

The Book Was Better: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild Vs. King Leopold’s Ghost

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: You’ll never look at rubber the same way again. 

Quick synopsis: The story of King Leopold II of Belgium and how he took over. 

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Leopold II of Belgium is responsible for the death of about 10 million Africans. Some people today still think he was a swell guy! 

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Would you like a crash course in how the legacy of imperialism has left many places in Africa still struggling to find identity? I don’t like being heavy handed, but holy hell, there is a lot of messed up stuff here. 

Book vs. Movie: If you read the book or watch the movie you will end up feeling the very same: haunted and horrified. 

When the European powers began carving up Africa, Leopold II of Belgium saw the opportunity for overseas expansion. He found a way to get a small piece on the Congo River and began a colony focused on rubber. 

So far, so good. He was bringing civilization and commerce to Africans, right? He also brought sadists who would cut off the hands of anyone who didn’t meet their quota. They didn’t give the workers the tools needed to get rubber safely and let’s just say, you may want to cry reading or watching it. 

The book and the movie/documentary tell the same story in different ways. The movie focuses on the visuals of course and shortens the whole story while obviously the book can go into much more detail. 

If you are in a good mood and want to stay that way then don’t take on either.  

Hitler is responsible for the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. No intelligent human being considers him anything but the epitome of evil. Leopold is responsible for the deaths of 10 million Africans. Enough said. 

Verdict: Both are important and well done. Do both. 

If You Liked This Try: 

  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea 
  • Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman 

The Book Was Better: In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick Vs. In the Heart of the Sea

Quick synopsis: The story of a whaling ship sunk by a whale in the Pacific Ocean and the fight to stay alive after.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Moby Dick exists partially because of this story. Don’t hold that against the book if you were forced to read it in high school. This is a lot more interesting!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Philbrick is, as usual, chockfull interesting information. Specifically, why whalers needed to go to the Pacific, how whaling was done, and especially the culture of a whaling town.

Book vs. Movie: I think it is important for me to point out that Ron Howard is a prolific Hollywood legend and his name will be remembered for a long time.

His movie still sucks, though. And it broke my HEART! I was so excited for this movie. The story is amazing, and the cast is perfect. The aesthetics are amazingly fake. The story is changed from reality in very strange ways which are totally unnecessary. Tonally, it never actually picks a genre. This needed to be like Master and Commander, but instead comes off as trying to be action/adventure/horror/meditation on human suffering. It fails at all of them.

The book? The exact opposite. You understand the entire lives of these men and where they come from. Their personalities come alive and you understand how and why they do everything they do. The ones who survive are scarred forever and you feel for them. Philbrick’s book is the perfect mix of story and history. He nails both of them.

Verdict: Not even close. Skip the movie, read the book.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
  • Ron Stallworth, Black Klansman

The Polar Bear Expedition by James Carl Nelson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: We invaded Russia? We invaded Russia!

Quick synopsis: Story of the Polar Bear Expedition, where the Allied Powers at the end of World War I invade near Archangel, Russia to…. well no one was quite sure what the hell they were doing there.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Yeah, we actually invaded Russia and stayed there a bit after World War I ended. Who knew?!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This has to be one of the dumbest moves by a U.S. President ever. Woodrow Wilson eventually agreed to sending U.S. troops to Russia to protect military equipment and reopen the Eastern Front. Or maybe to fight the communists. Wilson’s orders are so horribly unclear no one was ever really sure.

My Take: This whole scenario was so weird.

Americans sent to Russia to help end the war. The war ends and the Americans remain. Until people really start complaining and mutinying. This entire story is the archetype of the question, “Why the hell are we even here?”

Nelson moves through the episode pretty fast and covers seemingly all the major functions and units for the Americans. He adds some interesting anecdotes and really gives time to those who were killed during the battles.

Nelson definitely takes the time to show just how badly run the entire operation was while making sure the soldiers doing the fighting are seen as the heroes they are.

And another historical cliché is confirmed. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Verdict: Good book on a little known event in history. Very high level, so it won’t satisfy military history buffs looking for tactical breakdowns. And if you don’t care about World War I at all then you should skip this.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Laura MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows
  • Michael Zuckoff, Lost In Shangri-La
  • Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles
  • Neal Bascomb, The Escape Artists

Sea People by Christina Thompson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Where the hell did they come from?!

Quick synopsis: A look at the people of Polynesia: how’d they get there and how do we know (or not know, actually).

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Page 147 contains the term, “cow-titty.” You’re damn right I giggled.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: We have made amazing strides in science. We can tell things like how old the Earth is and tell the relationships of people through their DNA.

Guess what we can’t figure out? How did the sweet potato get to Polynesia?! It’s native to North America only! How did it get there?! No one knows!

My Take: This book had a high probability of reading like a textbook. Dry facts and scientific studies which would bore the hell out of you. Luckily it doesn’t!

Polynesia is one of the coolest places to me. I love reading sea voyages about the early explorers in the area, especially my man Captain Cook. I am obviously not the first person who thought, “how the hell did anyone even make it out here? It’s water, water, water.”

Thompson does a great job of breaking down these thoughts by looking at how the people and languages dispersed through the regions and even how they physically got there. Well, kind of. Simply, we are still not 100% sure and probably never will be. Which makes the whole thing even cooler!

Seriously, look at a map and find Easter Island. How the hell did the first people get there? They must have been nuts! I love beachfront as much as anybody but come on be realistic.

Verdict: Enjoyable book which is more analysis than stories. Probably won’t be a fun book for people not interested in the area or only want a fun story.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Caroline Alexander, The Bounty
  • Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea
  • Scott Ridley, Morning of Fire
  • Martin Dugard, Farther Than Any Man

The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Drink this Kool-Aid! The book I mean.

Quick synopsis: The story of Jim Jones from his childhood to Jonestown and the mass suicide of over 900 people.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” as a saying is because of this story. 900 people committed mass suicide or in the children’s case, were murdered. Yeah, it’s a really screwed up reference!

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Jim Jones actually did some nice things! He did try and promote racial equality, donated a lot of money, and helped some people get back on their feet. Yet, still responsible for a mass suicide and child murder. He and Hitler must have the most interesting conversations while burning in hell. Good.

My Take: This is an awesome book for two very big reasons.

First, Jeff Guinn researched the hell out of his subject. Guinn has an amazing amount of material on Jones, even from when he was a child. I have read a lot of books and it does not get more thorough than this. Additionally, Guinn does not let the details slow down the narrative. He builds the story and does not take a side. He does not shy away from pointing out when Jones did good, but also shows the fraying around the edges of his psyche.

The second reason this book is amazing is that Jones is a psychopath with contradictions. Guinn finds an example which makes you rethink Jones. Apparently, there was a woman in his childhood who treated him well during tough times with his family. Jones never lost touch and always made sure to drop her a friendly line until the end of his life. Whenever you read about this level of evil, they almost always keep up relationships until they not longer have utility. Jones seems to break that mold a bit. And as I mention above, if you didn’t know how it ended, this book might be about the burgeoning career of a great leader in racial equality. Instead…

Verdict: Fantastic book that is both in-depth and a riveting read.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Patrick Radden Keefe, Say Nothing
  • John Carreyrou, Bad Blood
  • Simon Baatz, The Girl on the Velvet Swing
  • Sinclair McKay, The Lady in the Cellar

Deadliest Sea by Kalee Thompson

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: This is why I hate fishing.

Quick synopsis: The story of the sinking of the Alaska Ranger and subsequent rescue by the Coast Guard in 2008.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: People have been revived from drowning an hour after they were thought dead. This may be dubious. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: When a rescue helicopter tries to lower people onto a boat via their metal gurney, they have to wait for it to touch the ground otherwise you get electrocuted by the static electricity caused by the helicopter.

My Take: This is a good “rescue at sea” book. What makes this different from a lot of other books of this ilk is that there is a lot of things done right instead of a lot of things done wrong.

Since this occurred in 2008, many of the safety features ignored for years are actually on the Alaska Ranger when it sinks. Most books covering sea rescues follow a very familiar pattern. Boat owners and officers are incompetent and lazy then the boats sink and most of them die. See any of the books below for this storyline (but they are still good!).

However, in Deadliest Seas, the story is only half right. The Alaska Ranger actually had the water survival suits, the strobe lights, and the life rafts. Now, the owners and captain still didn’t take care of the ship as well as it should have, but most of the crew were saved by the Coast Guard and a Good Samaritan boat.

It makes for a much longer story than you would usually see and actually illustrates that life saving equipment actually saves lives. What a concept!

Also, Alaska is really cold.

Verdict: A really good rescue story. If you don’t care about sea rescues at all then skip it. However, how can you be one of those people? They are very exciting!

If You Liked This Try:

  • Scott Walker, Coming Back Alive
  • Matt Lewis, Last Man Off
  • Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, The Finest Hours

Battle of the Books: A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez Vs. Brutal Journey by Paul Schneider

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Florida had crazy stories even back in 1528.

Quick synopsis: A group of Spaniards who attempted to colonize Florida end up in a battle of survival. The survivors end up walking across most of North America.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow survivors ended up crossing the lower U.S. from Florida to about Arizona or so. In 1528. I wouldn’t even do that now.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: This is the same fact as above. I didn’t even know this happened. You would think this would merit at least a passing mention in elementary school books. “Wake up kids, wait until you hear about THIS!”

The survivors end up being slaves and traveling salesmen/doctors. Yes, in that order.

Book vs. Book: Both books tell this story pretty well. Honestly, it would be hard to screw this up because the basic facts are insane.

If you are very against imperialism and colonization, then this book is for you! A bunch of Spaniards go looking for their fortune. They get a little lax with their security after landing because the locals can’t do much right? Oh, and food won’t be a problem! What could possibly go wrong?

They started in 1528 with a few hundred people. 4 survived and made it back to civilization sometime in 1536. Now that’s a hell of a detour.

Both authors really make you feel the hardships from beginning to end. The searing and ungodly Florida heat in armor. The bugs. The swamps. Why does anyone go to Florida?

Verdict: A Land So Strange by a nose! Both of these books are good, I just liked Resendez’s approach better.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Peter Stark, Astoria
  • Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard
  • Michael Wallis, The Best Land Under Heaven
  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador
  • Stephen R. Brown, Island of the Blue Foxes
  • Joan Druett, Island of the Lost
  • William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: Wait until you get to the unneeded male nudity.

Quick synopsis: Story of an airplane crash during World War II in New Guinea. The survivors of the crash are caught in a valley which will require an ingenious exit strategy.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: A drunk guy parachutes out of a plane.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: The indigenous people in the area where the plane crashed were (almost) untouched by civilization until this incident. Zuckoff makes some hilarious corrections of the diaries at the time to show the contrast between what the Americans thought the tribesmen were doing and what they were actually doing. See alternate tagline for example.

My Take: This is a pretty fun book because Zuckoff does quite a few things really well to stitch this story together. First, he relies on his primary sources which were luckily kept by the survivors of the crash. Second, he also uses tribesmen or their descendants who were still alive to answer questions and add flourishes to the story.

Zuckoff creates a strong sense of the New Guinea military base and the people who inhabit it just as well as he does for the home of the indigenous tribes. His characters are vivid to the reader because Zuckoff gives you the facts you need to understand their psyche and also doesn’t shy away from their flaws either. The best example if Margaret Hastings who at various points is a damsel in distress, badass survivor, media icon, and pain in the ass. She is, in a word, a human and not a stock character.

Zuckoff’s story flies around to take into account everything from the valley, to the base, to the Homefront. He calls it straight and does not avoid assigning blame or pointing out hypocrisy and well intentioned stupidity. However, this story fizzles out at the very end. Once the paratroopers arrive the story slows down to a crawl until the extraction. And the extraction angle seems to take up too much space and needed to be shortened.

Verdict: Fun lark for those interested in adventure stories and/or World War II. Not recommended for people already scared of flying. Probably shouldn’t read it on the plane either. You know, just in case jinxes are real.

If You Liked This Try:

  • David Grann, Lost City of Z
  • Jennifer Niven, The Ice Master
  • David Welky, A Wretched and Precarious Situation
  • William Carlsen, Jungle of Stone

When Montezuma Met Cortes by Matthew Restall

Brendan’s Alternate Tagline: When good scholarship goes wrong.

Quick synopsis: A reexamination of when Montezuma first met Hernan Cortes. The author has many thoughts.

Fun Fact Non-History People Will Like: N/A. This is historical scholarship that would put anyone not absolutely enamored with the time period into a coma.

Fun Fact for History Nerds: Yeah, can’t really call these “facts.” I explain below.

My Take: The premise of this book is interesting. What if we reevaluated when Montezuma met Cortes and looked at alternate views of how it all went down.

There are two major problems. Restall is not convincing of his version of events and in fact seems to argue with himself. On the one hand, he calls out Cortes as a bungling idiot but the ultimate survivor. However, you also keep reading and then he will point out how Cortes was a master of playing the game. He can’t be both. At least, not with how Restall himself wants to paint him.

Secondly, and oh man this is a big mistake, most of the book looks at everything BUT the actual meeting. Restall jumps around and spends actually very little time on the actual meeting.

I am all for reevaluating history with a discerning eye. But Restall seems to only want to see a different view as opposed to having the evidence to back it up.

Cortes was a real psycho though. No arguments there.

Verdict: Don’t bother.

If You Liked This Try:

  • Buddy Levy, Conquistador