The Hijack by Owen Bennett-Jones
This ten episode podcast shows a lot of the potential of the podcast medium as Bennett-Jones explores what occurs when three men hijacked airplane in 1981 in an effort to force democratization in Pakistan. In many ways, the cause is one that reverberates well in western civilization—the quest for political freedom and the rights that come with it—however, kidnapping and murder are not tools that human rights advocates favor. In each of the ten episodes, Bennett-Jones explores the background to the crisis and the day-by-day development of the event through a combination of narration and actual interviews with survivors and even one of the hijackers. The whole thing is a tragedy however you look at it, but the podcast is absolutely riveting.
World War II by Thomas Childers
This is what a Great Courses book is meant to be. Short, clear, and decisive lectures give the background to the war and follow the developing conflict in all the major theaters. In addition to giving a clear account of the war, Childers is also unafraid to tackle controversial questions such as why the Allies did not bomb the deathcamps to slow the Holocaust, or why Eisenhower chose not to begin the assault on Berlin and “beat” the Soviets to that city, and of course, whether or not Truman should have used the atom bomb.
One of the things that stood out most prominently to me was Childers’ discussions on why the U.S. made such a difference in the war—especially on the economic front as the nation’s manufacturing capacity recovered from the devastation of the Great Depression to ramp up to its full potential. Childers also was extremely successful in demonstrating how Japanese tactics (which the Allies saw as evidence of extraordinary fanaticism) raised fears of horrific casualties if they were to invade the Japanese home islands. His discussion of whether or not Truman should have dropped the atomic bombs on Japan were similarly insightful when he argued that there was truly no decision to be made with most estimates predicting one million Allied casualties and no evidence that the government of Japan was even considering surrender. Perhaps the most striking part was his conclusion in which he discussed the horrendous costs of the war (the Soviet Union lost ten percent of its population) and how this led directly into the Cold War.
Anyway you splice it, this is a great introduction to World War II.
In Alpha Order by Author
The History of Bourbon by Ken Albala
When I think of bourbon, I think of the Whiskey Rebellion—a major crisis in the administration of George Washington in which the federal government attempted to raise tax revenue by taxing whiskey. Washington raised an army and led it into western Pennsylvania only to find that the rebels had departed and gone to Kentucky to make start making bourbon.
Albala shows that bourbon has a much richer history than that, tracing it from its possible medieval roots through the colonial period, through its growing importance in the nineteenth century, Prohibition, World War and finally to its early 21st century boom. It’s a very quick read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Decisive Battles of World History by Gregory S. Aldrete
This is one of the best Great Courses audiobooks that I have listened to. Aldrete offers a thoughtful look at more than three dozen major battles and argues for why they changed the course of the world. So not only do you get an introduction that provides the context of the battles and a description of the battle itself, you get a conclusion that cogently lays out how the battle altered the status quo in a way that affected an area for decades and often centuries. A wonderful account all around.
History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons they Teach by Gregory S. AldreteWhat makes this book interesting is that it flips on its head how we generally look at military battles. After all, each of these terrible blunders resulted in an amazing victory for the other side in the battle. But Aldrete is looking for lessons in how not to blow tremendous military advantages and so he examines the totally avoidable mistakes that often lead to dismal failure. Over confidence, hostility within a chain of command, failures of intelligence, unclear orders—it’s a fascinating look at the other side of a lot of battles you’re probably already familiar with, plus a few you may well have never heard of yet.
The Industrial Revolution by Patrick N. Allitt
When I teach the industrial revolution in my Western Civilization class, I spend about three hours covering it. In this superb Great Courses book, Patrick Allitt spends a little more than eighteen hours covering one of the most important phenomena in all of human history. Allitt doesn’t hide from the negative consequences that go hand in hand with industrialization, but neither does he lose track of the hugely consequential goods that have accompanied it—a population eight times the size of the preindustrial world, a standard of living unimaginably good in comparison to what came before, longer and healthier lives, greater security, greater leisure and entertainment possibilities, and the list goes on and on.
Allitt walks you through not just the impact on production, but social, political, and environmental changes that resulted from industrialization as well. It is a genuinely positive book looking to how the unintended negative consequences of industrialization are being tackled to make a better world for everyone. It’s a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the subject.
Medieval Myths and Mysteries by Dorsey Armstrong
This is one of the most delightful Great Courses books I’ve yet listened to. At its essence, Armstrong picks up a bunch of images from the Middle Ages that have filtered down to our modern society and explores both the modern story and the actual medieval roots. Some are about famous figures—Robin Hood and King Arthur. Others are about magical creatures like the Questing Beast. Still others are about events like the Black Death or institutions like the Templars. And at each point your understanding of the people who lived during the Middle Ages will grow, your understanding of how stories come into existence will evolve, and your appreciation of this rich and wondrous period of our history will expand.
Years that Changed History: 1215 by Dorsey Armstrong
I love history books that connect events happening in one part of the world with another, even if the only connection is that they are occurring at the same time. That’s what Dorsey Armstrong does here. She takes snapshots around the world 1215 to show how fundamental change was happening everywhere: Magna Carta, the Fourth Lateran Council, Genghis Kahn, Japan, Africa, and North America. It’s a delightful little set of lectures.
Ancient Civilizations of North America by Edwin Barnhart
Before reading this book, I had a pretty good idea of what life was like in North America before the coming of the Europeans, but Edwin Barnhart’s Great Courses book showed me that my image was a rough pencil sketch by comparison to the truth. In fact, Barnhart’s book often shocked me by making very vivid comparisons to the development of human life in other parts of the world at the same time. The country was more heavily populated than I had realized with many cultures demonstrating amazing architectural skills and astronomical learning. The trade networks were also far more expansive than I had realized.
The two things that stood out most strongly to me were Barnhart’s descriptions of complex hunter-gatherer societies on the west coast—a term I had not heard before that showed how truly bountiful territory can produce a very different and sustainable lifestyle. And DeSoto’s trek through the southern portion of North America, raping, pillaging, and murdering those who had greeted him with friendship so that he so destabilized that part of the continent so severely that the civilization he had plundered collapsed.
This is a fascinating set of lectures.
Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed by Edwin Barnhart
This is one of the best Great Courses books I have yet read. Edwin Barnhart offers forty-eight extremely lucid lectures on the history of Mesoamerica (roughly modern day Central America and Mexico). Part of what makes these lectures stand out is the effortless interweaving of the historiography that has revealed this history with the history of the region. You get the impression that unlike in Egypt where most of the great finds have probably been discovered, that we have barely scratched the surface of uncovering the remains of the great cities of the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs. Barnhart makes both the history and the uncovering of that history come to life.
If you are like me, and listen to audiobooks in the car or while taking
walks for exercise, you are probably going to want to listen to this series
more than once. The basic problem—no fault of the author’s—is that the place
names and the names of the majority of the rulers—were not familiar to me before
I started the course. That means that I was constantly checking maps a couple
of lectures behind where I was in the course. Next time through, I’ll be better
A History of British India by Hayden J. BellennoitIf all you know about the British interventions in India can be summed up in the words Plassey, Sepoy Mutiny, and Ghandi, you’ll want to read this Great Courses book. It offers a fascinating look at how Britain influenced the subcontinent and its people in both positive and negative ways, and how British policy changed over time. It also shows the birth of modern India and Pakistan as opposition to British rule grew. All in all, this is a quick, fascinating look at one of the archetypal imperial states.
Medical Mysteries across History by Roy Benaroch
This is a great idea for a Great Courses book. Roy Benaroch presents ten sets of medical symptoms, each taken from a different historical figure, then slowly fills in details that doctors would seek out regarding the patients’ lives on his way to making a diagnosis. In addition, the reader also gets to guess who the historical figure is. (I got 7 out of 10, which naturally made me feel good, especially when I had never heard of one of the three I missed.)
So this book teaches you a bit about modern medicine, historical medical practice, and a bit of history on top of everything else. A very pleasant way to spend your afternoon.
Edgar Allan Poe by Mark Canada
When I was in seventh grade, I recited Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart in a speech contest and I’ve had a soft place in my own heart for the author ever since. In high school and college I read a couple more of his stories and I’ve dabbled in his work in the decades since then. Yet, I didn’t know very much about the man himself until I stumbled on this excellent Great Courses book. Put simply, Poe was a mess, yet somehow out of the often-self-created disaster of his life, he transformed world literature creating the detective story and opening up the genre of horror fiction. It’s an amazing story, filled with tragedy and self abuse, but somehow out of all of this crushing difficulty came works of literature that continue to influence the literary and popular fiction worlds today. This one is well worth your time.
A History of Christian Theology by Philip Carey
Theological disputes within Christianity have been a critically important part of the development of Western Society. They were at the root of the Nike Riots, countless anti-heresy conflicts, the Albigensian Crusade and, of course, the Protestant Reformation. Philip Carey isn’t interested in the political fallout of these disputes, but he gives a wonderful, highly comprehensible, series of lectures on the development of theology from Gospel times to the present day including spending approximately one third of the book exploring changes in and differences between the various Protestant denominations.
As a medievalist, I felt very comfortable with the pre-Reformation
theology before starting the series, but I was totally captivated by the
discussion of Protestantism and Catholicism over the last five hundred
years—especially the ways in which Catholics and Protestants have been drawing
closer together over the last century.
The 1759 Battle of Quebec by Charles River Editor
The Battle of Quebec marks a sea change in the politics of colonial North America. Before the battle, France had a major foothold north of the English colonies—a foothold which frightened English Protestants, who imagined their Catholic neighbors to the north coming down to force their religion upon them. After the Battle of Quebec, the French were gone from the north and with it a major perceived threat to the safety of those northern British colonies. In essence this meant that one of the major reasons those colonies “needed” Britain was gone.
At the same time, the larger French and Indian War that the Battle of Quebec was one part of put tremendous strains on Britain—especially the cost of the war. British efforts to make the colonists shoulder part of this burden were a major impetus of the American Revolution. So this battle is very important and Charles River Editors did a nice job of laying out the causes of the French and Indian War and walking the reader through the battle.
I received this book from Free Audiobook Codes in exchange for an honest review.
Great American Best Sellers by Peter Conn
Here’s a great look at 24 books that captured widespread attention in the North American British Colonies and the United States over the past few centuries. Odds are high that you haven’t heard of—much less read—all of them, whereas others are books you are quite familiar with even if you haven’t actually read them all. It’s a great collection and I am very pleased I read the book.
Conn roughly divides each lecture into three parts, starting with what is happening in America historically at the time the book was written and published and then describing the action of the novel and finally talking about its influence. I enjoyed it from beginning to end, but for me the best part of the lectures was for Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, which Conn used as an excuse to describe the development of the mystery novel from Edgar Allen Poe to Hammett. The final lecture on the modern best seller market was also very interesting. Mostly I enjoyed this book for the walkthrough of the plots and the discussion of influences and sometimes controversy. In today’s world, there are simply too many books out there to have read everything. This is a great way of familiarizing yourself with some very interesting novels you were always planning to read.
The Catholic Church by William R. Cook
Even people who are knowledgeable about the long history of the Catholic Church can benefit from this Great Courses series of lectures. Cook sets out to describe the major ups and downs, and ins and outs, of the two-thousand-year-old institution. He spares no punches, calling out shameful practices quite often, but he also takes the time to dwell on the inspirational moments and to explore the context in which the various actions of the church were taken.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the lectures was the inclusion of the non-Roman rites of the Catholic church, highlighting a diversity of the Catholic faith that many have forgotten or never knew existed. But there is much more worth learning about in these lectures and Cook makes it very easy to follow the institution and many of the people who comprised it through the ages.
That being said, there were moments when Cook throws out a tangential fact that was not accurate. This often happens when historians veer out of their specialty, but it always makes me wonder what else they’re getting wrong that I missed because it came in an area where I’m not as well read.
Caesar’s Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins
I like the idea behind this book, which traces the Tenth Legion from its creation until it was disbanded. Most of the book is dedicated to the legion’s role in fighting for Julius Caesar, which means Dando-Collins gets to walk the reader through a number of famous battles. This is both a strength and weakness of the monograph as for much of the book it feels as if we are really getting a sort of bio of Caesar, but then suddenly Caesar is wrapped up at extreme speed and killed and the legion goes on to other things.
There were two other things I found disappointing about the book. I would have liked to have seen a lot of time put into what life in the legion was like, and I just never got that sort of day-to-day life view I was hoping for. Also, Dando-Collins chose to use modern ranks like colonel and general to describe Caesar’s officers. I understand he’s trying to make these men’s roles more accessible to the modern reader, but I found it jarring every time a modern rank was mentioned.
Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt
I started playing Dungeon and Dragons in the sixth grade with the basic boxed set and quickly graduated to the Advanced Players Handbook and the related books. In eighth grade, I started gaming with a guy whose older brother had started playing in college and using the original books—Greyhawk, Blackmoor, etc. We were all very proud of that connection and considered ourselves to be second generation gamers. So it was with great excitement that I stumbled across this book on the history of Dungeon and Dragons by David M. Ewalt.
Ewalt’s greatest strength is that he provides a coherent history of the development of the game from its beginnings as a war game, to those early days in Gary Gygax’s basement, to the development of the first of many iterations of TSR, to the intense infighting within the company, and its eventual sale to Wizards of the Coast. He also traces the development of the game through multiple editions and the influence of major figures. He even goes into some of the spinoff events and talks about the scandals. Overall, he builds the case that the introduction of D&D was a transformational event in the history of playing games.
There is also a lot of Ewalt’s personal experiences with roleplaying games, which seems to be a necessary and expected part of any book of this nature. Gamers are storytellers and they love to share their stories as much as other people love hearing them. Those stories also permit Ewalt to give a little insight into the dynamics of game play and player interactions.
While I suspect that this book appeals much more to gamers than to the larger world, if you have some interest in the subject this isn’t a bad place to start. Of course, if you’re really curious about Dungeons and Dragons, the best way to learn about it is to join a game and start playing.
This Cider Still Tastes Funny! by John Ford Sr.
When I was in high school I found a lot of enjoyment in backpacking on the Appalachian Trail and crawling around in caves with my friends. Thirty years later—not so much—but I still enjoy reading clever accounts of backwoods happenings. The sort of stories told by Patrick McManus, Bill Heavey and now John Ford. Unlike McManus and Heavey, Ford wasn’t a professional writer—he was a game warden in Maine, but his stories are just as entertaining. If you think you’d enjoy a good humored look at life trying to enforce the hunting laws, you should give this book a try.
I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.
A Concise History of Germany by Mary Fulbrook
The advantage to a concise history of anything is that you can read it quickly and get a nice overview of the subject. The downside is that you never get enough information concerning the areas that truly interest you.
Studying Germany has always been problematic because Germany as we think of it today didn’t come into existence until the second half of the nineteenth century. And yet we talk about Germanic barbarian tribes and German peoples going back to the Roman Empire. So studying Germany makes the scholar deal with the very fundamental question of what makes a German and this is not an easy question nor is it answered very satisfactorily. Clearly part of the solution is in language, but there are a wide variety of German cultures and a dizzying array of political entities that included peoples that spoke Germanic languages and had an arguably German culture.
Still, it’s a very interesting exercise to meander through. I would have liked to see much more focus on the medieval period, but alas, it’s a “concise” history and the middle ages and before usually get cut to the bone. Fulbrook obviously has a deep mastery of her subject and she’s a good writer who can convey complex topics in an easy-to-follow fashion. If you’re interested in Germany, this is a good place to start.
Turning Points in Middle Eastern History by Eamon Gearon
Let’s be clear about this—this collection of lectures is both well written and very interesting, but it also seems to be misnamed. First off, it begins with Mohammad and focuses very much on the growth of Islam as a political (and religious) force. Nothing that happens before Mohammad is even mentioned. It also covers events that happen in North Africa, Spain, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, areas that we do not classically think of as the Middle East. This led me to think that what Gearon was really writing was a history of Islam, but it’s truly that either as it doesn’t cover important events that brought Islam further around the globe.
The focus is also very heavily on the Middle Ages, and as such I thought was very light on the twentieth century. I would have liked to see an analysis of the ousting of the Shah of Iran and the resulting Hostage Crisis and radicalization of that country. The two Persian Gulf Wars also would have made interesting material. And I could go on. So this is a highly informative book about Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, and neighboring regions that would seriously benefit from an addendum that covers the region since World War I. This was a great start, but I feel it ended prematurely.
American Titans by Michael Gray
Looking for a quick overview of some of America’s most famous titans of industry (or Robber Barons if you prefer that point of view)? American Titans opens with chapters on Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P Morgan giving quick but decent bios of each man. Then it moves into what I thought was the best part of the book—an analysis of how industrialism factored into the election of 1896 followed up by a look at the trustbuster, Theodore Roosevelt. Finally he wraps up with a quick look at Nicola Tesla whom I knew the least about and thus enjoyed the most. (Actually Gray finishes with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson, which was interesting even if I didn’t understand why he chose to include Jefferson and put him out of chronological order).
So Jefferson aside, if you’re looking for a quick survey of some of the men who helped to build modern corporate America, Americans Titans is a great place to start.
The Hidden History of Holidays by Hannah HarveyThis is the sort of book that you ought to listen to slowly, over the course of a year, as each new holiday occurs. It’s packed full of trivia about holiday celebrations and how they originated. It’s more for fun than deep thought, but who doesn’t need a little more fun in their lives?
The Real Sherlock by Lucinda Hawksley
This is a quick and informative biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What I liked most about it was the biographer’s decision to delve into Doyle’s Professor Challenger character and not just the more famous Sherlock Holmes. A significant amount of time is also spent on Doyle’s obsession with spiritualism—something that often surprises people who expect Doyle to be more like his character Sherlock. If you’re looking for a very quick look at a famous author’s life, this is an enjoyable one.
Dallas: A History of “Big D” by Michael V. Hazel
If all you know about Dallas came from the television series, you might want to take a look at this short history of the city. Starting with settlement of the area by Americans before the territory became part of the United States, Hazel walks the reader quickly through the development of the town/city—the arrival of different ethnic groups, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the domination of the city by elite business men, the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the struggle to more honestly represent the diverse groups that compose modern Dallas. For a quick survey of a famous American city, this book does a fine job.
A History of the Supreme Court by Peter IronsSupreme Court decisions factor heavily into American history, but I had never before read a book that focused on the history of the third branch of the government by itself. In 24 lectures, Irons both explores the major personalities that have shaped the court and analyzes the important decisions the court has made. But he also puts both the personalities and the decisions into their historical context and shows how politics of a given era have influenced the court—both in its composition and in the decisions it has made. A quick and interesting guide to the least known branch of the U.S. government.
Ten Big Questions of the American Civil War by Caroline Janney
I have read a lot of books on the American Civil War that trace the development of the war, often in excruciating detail, from beginning to end. Caroline Janney brought a refreshingly new perspective to discussing the war and in doing so made the subject matter extremely relevant to modern times. She does this by asking pressing questions that modern audiences raise about the war and then tracing their answers in enough detail to show their complexity while also being convincing. For example, Did Lincoln Free the Slaves? The answer, of course, is yes he did, but he didn’t do it in a vacuum totally by himself and Janney shows how he came to do so. The parts I found most interesting were those that involved why the war was fought and how we remember it. Humans being human, we have changed our thinking about these things as time went on. When the Civil War began, the South very much thought that it was about slavery, but after losing the war they edited their story in an attempt to make their cause seem more high minded and just. Similarly, at the start of the war Northerners did not the war to be about slavery and insisted it was about preserving the union, but after the war it was the emancipation of the slaves that they most focused upon, recognizing it to have been a noble outcome of the struggle. Overall, this is one of the best books I’ve read on the Civil War because of its focus on issues and Janney’s willingness to tie those issues to modern debates in our society.
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David Kyle Johnson
Free Will, Time Travel, Pacifism, Euthanasia—these are only a few of the topics that David Kyle Johnson introduces to the reader through the use of science fiction movies and television shows. It’s frankly an inspired way to help people to both engage in important philosophical topics and to show them that philosophy is very present in the major issues of our life. On that level alone, this book is well worth reading.
Yet it’s not the only reason to pick up this Great Courses volume,
because Johnson also introduces you to many great science fiction movies and
series and, in the event you have already seen them, helps you to see them in a
new way. In doing so, he’s given me a new appreciation of many shows I was
familiar with and encouraged me to go out and experience many others.
This a quick history of the complex struggle for Irish independence—a subject I do not know as much about as I would like to. It starts with a swift overview of Ireland and England in the Middle Ages which showed what I considered to be a moment or two of clear English bias by the author. For example, Johnson states that the introduction of English law benefited everyone in Ireland—an assertion many would argue with. The Irish had a well-developed legal system that was complicated but governed their affairs well into the period of English conquest. It was remarkably different than the English justice system, but that does not mean that many were not well-served by it. The English system was administered by the English and biased in favor of English (and later Protestant) subjects. It’s hard to say with a straight face that all the Irish benefited from the transition to the new legal system.
Similarly, I felt that Johnson went out of his way to justify the slaughter of Irish garrisons and civilian populations by Cromwell—beyond simply setting a context that this sort of behavior happened elsewhere as well. It worries me when I see bias like this in the areas I know about, because it makes me wonder what I’m missing in the areas I’m ignorant regarding.
That being said, this is quick passage through the early modern and
modern efforts of many Irish to gain independence. It shows how the forces of
nationalism found support among both Catholics and Protestants before being
increasingly divided over the issue of union. It also showed how England
fumbled many opportunities to improve this situation. The Land Law issues
(first stealing almost all the land in Ireland from Catholics and then the
efforts to restore the land to Catholics) was among the most interesting to me.
Welcome to Undershaw by Luke Kuhns
I thought I’d picked up quite a bit of information about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the various introductions to his books, but this delightful short biography showed me how wrong I was. Doyle was a much more complicated man that I had realized. He longed for adventure but rarely found it. He hated his character Sherlock Holmes because he didn’t feel his mystery stories were quality literature. He trained as a physician but was totally unsuccessful at creating his own medical practice. And so forth…
This book is a very quick read, but it really brought Doyle to life for me as a sympathetic and interesting figure. It also introduced many of his stories and novels by showing what was happening in Doyle’s life when he wrote them. And it sets all of this around the home he had built for his chronically ill wife in a way that was both interesting and endearing. What it doesn’t do, is bring the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle beyond his estate of Undershaw, ending the biography when he sold the family home.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
World War I by Vejas Gabriel Lielevicius
As one would expect from the Great Courses series, Lielevicius gives a solid overview of the First World War and takes the time to look at more than the battles—topics such as how technology changed the war and the impact of ideology. He also spends a good amount of time examining the consequences of the war. All in all, it is a solid account of the period, although I thought he was a little generous to Woodrow Wilson and I can’t really understand why there wasn’t a lecture dedicated to the impact of the Spanish Flu. Still, if you are interested in this subject, this is a fine place to start.
The Great Trials of World History by Douglas O. Linder
I enjoyed this book, but it’s important to recognized that it is badly misnamed. All of these trials have to do with western civilization and the vast majority have to do with the United States. That being said, I very much appreciated the chance to walk through the working of many interesting cases—several of which I had only a passing acquaintance with. So whether it’s an obscure trial such as that of Giordano Bruno or the far more well-known courtroom dramas of Nelson Mandela or the Scottsboro Boys, there’s a tremendous amount to learn in this Great Courses volume.
Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
I always enjoy a chance to think about the way that the world is constructed physically and how that impacts geopolitics. Prisoners of Geography is a nice introduction to the topic for anyone who hasn’t thought about it very much. It’s also a nice quick overview of the geopolitics of the world. What it is not is a deep, insightful, account that will change the politics of nations or the way in which history is taught. It is not nearly in depth enough to have any hope of accomplishing that.
But as a brief overview, Prisoners of Geography is a pleasant, easy to digest guide. While there are plenty of little points to quibble with, I enjoyed the book over all.
Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary
Autism is an increasingly prevalent part of our world. If you don’t have an autistic member of your extended family, you almost certainly know someone who is autistic or has autism in their family. If you’re looking for an opportunity to gain some understanding into their experiences and relate them to your own life, this is a great place to start. After all, who hasn’t felt tremendously uncomfortable on occasion? Sitcoms are built around social awkwardness and feeling out of place. And with that same sort of self-conscious humor, Michael McCreary walks us through his own life from his initial diagnosis of autism, through his difficult school years, and into the start of his career as a standup comic. He has the remarkable gift of making you feel empathy while simultaneously making you laugh. It’s a remarkable talent that will help you through the genuinely tough times he also describes. McCreary is still young. I’ll look forward to him updating his story in a few years.
Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller
In the 1890s, the role of women was changing radically in American society. The growing use of short hand and typewriters in business led to radical growth in the number of “proper” women who entered the work place and challenged social conventions that said that a “proper” woman couldn’t be in the same room with a man she hadn’t been properly introduced to. To make matters worse, the men thought that because women were their subordinates or were “mingling” with them in an office situation, that meant that they were sexually available to them. Yet many of these “proper” women pushed back against the sexual harassment and ideas about proper behavior began to change. Add to that that the suffragette movement, purity crusaders, and other women’s rights movements were mobilizing and one of their major complaints was that the moral standards that men were held to differed from that that women were held to.
That is the background of Bringing Down the Colonel in which a young woman from poor background sued one of the most powerful men in Congress for breach of contract when he married another woman after promising to marry her if his wife ever died. The trial rocked the nation and illustrates how strongly social opinions were changing. A generation earlier and the colonel’s efforts to destroy the woman’s reputation would have won him the case. Now those very same efforts not only cost him the trial, but they cost him his seat in Congress setting up nearly a century in which misdeeds in a man’s “private” life could destroy his public career. This is a truly fascinating story.
The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F.X. Noble
I’ve been teaching Western Civilization for nearly twenty years now and I always enjoy listening to another expert talk about the development of the west. Noble gives a highly coherent account of why western culture is important and of the many factors that contributed to developing it. He doesn’t just spend his time discussing the major players—Greeks and Romans and the developing states of England and France. He takes the time to explore the important contributions of many of the smaller groups of ancient peoples like the Hebrews and the Phoenicians, and other European peoples such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Iberian kingdoms, the Islamic states, the Byzantines, the various Italian city-states and kingdoms. This gives a broad view of the developing political, economic, and intellectual developments that led to the creation of the western civilization we now know. This is a very good introduction to an important topic.
The History of Video Games by Jeremy Parish
Parish provides a quick, if dry, overview of the development of video games. It will interest anyone who has more than a passing interest in the subject, but I was disappointed that the lectures were not more captivating. I listen to a lot of Great Courses books and this one had a subject matter that I expected to enthrall, yet it never fully captivated my attention.
This short entry in the Great Courses series provides a nice tight
account of William’s famous conquest of England. The narrative is fairly
conservative/traditional in covering the actual conquest. If you know a lot
about the Conquest and the political situation in England, Normandy and the
Viking territories of the north, then this account will likely be too short for
you. I found the greatest value in Paxton’s analysis of the importance and
impact of the Conquest for later generations and wish she had spent more time
on it. Overall, this is well worth the three hours it takes to listen to
it—especially if you have little knowledge of how the Normans came to rule England.
The History of Spain by Joyce E. Salisbury
I’ve been very interested in the history of Spain since my Freshman year in college when I took a course on the Reconquista and Salisbury does a wonderful job of detailing the history of this fascinating peninsula from the earliest human peoples to the modern day. Her lectures are engaging and informative and the course moves very quickly. If you have an interest in Spain, this is a great place to flesh out your understanding of its history.
I used to think I was a pretty strong Stevie Nicks fan back in my college years. I’m not much of a concert goer, but one of the three I’ve been to was Stevie Nicks. I had all her albums up to that time, knew tons of the lyrics by heart, and knew it was only a matter of time until she got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Then I came across this Audible Original and realized that for me Stevie Nicks was just a passing phase. Rob Sheffield has been breathing Stevie’s air for his entire life and he clearly thinks in her lyrics. The whole book could almost be described as stringing versus from her various songs together to make a narrative whole. And what a narrative it is. If you’ve any interest in Stevie or Fleetwood Mac this book is a must listen. Everyone knows that the band had romantic problems—hookups and breakups—during the making of Rumors, but I had no idea just how long lasting and how crazy the drug-fueled romantic madness really was.
Through it all, Stevie’s strong voice resonates as Sheffield successfully articulates why she is so important to rock and roll and why her music continues to resonate with so many fans. I’m very glad I stumbled across this book.
Into the Raging Sea by Rachel Slade
If you enjoyed The Perfect Storm you’ll find a lot to like in this chronicle of the loss of the El Faro. Instead of a fishing vessel, we look at a cargo ship which sinks in a hurricane due to the cost cutting neglect of the company that owned it, the failure of the U.S. government to apply safety regulations to old ships, and some very bad decisions on the part of the El Faro’s captain. It’s a very sad tale which Slade works hard to keep focused on the humans who lost their lives when the vessel sank. It also teaches quite a bit about the modern cargo business and its recent history.
Break Shot: My First 21 Years by James Taylor
Everyone knows at least a couple of songs by James Taylor. Fire and Rain, Carolina in My Mind, How Sweet It Is—the list gets really long when you stop and think about it. So when Audible offered a free copy of this short autobiography of Taylor’s early life, I was quite happy to take advantage of it. I really didn’t know anything about Taylor other than I like a lot of his music.
James Taylor was born to affluence but didn’t take well to his family’s plans for him. His childhood was clearly rough. He ended up in an asylum when people feared his depression could lead to suicide. Perhaps the best line of the book was when he said that the asylum fixed him not because of anything it did, but because being committed ended all of his family’s plans for him and gave him the freedom to seek out his own path through his music.
Taylor thinks of his music as therapy and I think any fan would benefit from learning what motivated the lyrics they love. For example, I had no idea that Fire and Rain was about a friend of Taylor’s who committed suicide. It makes total sense now that I know it. Maybe I never paid that much attention to the lyrics and just enjoyed the beautiful melody.
If you’re a fan of James Taylor, it’s hard to imagine how you wouldn’t enjoy this chance to better understand him and his music.
The Vietnam War Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil and Dwayne Walker
Looking for a quick overview of the Vietnam War? The Trivia Book series has produced another winner here. It’s a little shorter than I would have liked but still covers the major issues and events of the war as well as providing the context within which the fighting began. The things that makes these books stand out, however, are the short vignettes that add humanity to the larger discussions. If you’re curious about this period of history, this is a good way to get introduced to the topic.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.
The World War I Trivia Book by Bill O’Neil
This may be the perfect introduction to World War I for the non-specialist. It’s fast moving, entertaining, and remarkably informative. World War I is a highly complex topic, but O’Neil brilliantly breaks it down into digestible nuggets covering an amazing amount of territory in just four hours of audiobook. Not only does he cover expected topics like the causes of the war and the big battles, he gets into a lot of the smaller but important factors in the war like why the U.S. was so reluctant to get involved and the background to the eruption of communism in Russia.
If you’re interested in history but tend to find the typical scholarly monograph overly dry, this is a great book for you. When you’re finished you’ll have a general understanding of the war and its causes, plus it’s entertaining enough that you’ll be sad when you’re done.
The World War II Trivia Book by Dwayne Walker and Bill O’Neil
I am a big fan of the World War I Trivia Book and the World War II Trivia Book maintains the prior volume’s high standards. I’ve been reading about World War II for decades and I can’t think of a better way to introduce someone to the complicated mess that spiraled into the most destructive war in human history. The authors feed you the narrative like a seven-course meal, breaking it up in easy to follow themes and then further dividing into bite-sized sections that make digestion easy and enjoyable.
I already knew the basic narrative so I focused most strongly on the many vignettes—such morsels as the Battle of Stalingrad or examples of sacrifices made on the home front. The most moving sections had to do with the Holocaust—especially their discussions of Anne Frank.
If you’re looking for a quick introduction to World War II, this Trivia
Book is a wonderful place to start. I’m going to continue with their history of
Central Europe by Ralph Racio
If you’re looking for a lightning guide to the history of Central Europe, this is a great book for you. It starts back in the days of Rome and goes through the fall of the Iron Curtain and while there is very little dwelling upon any single period, it will help you see the overall story of several peoples holding on to their identity while various outside powers occupy their lands. The narration is punctuated with many quotes from original sources that contribute well to the overall account. This book makes for a very quick but informative read.
Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories by Michael Shermer
There is no denying that this is a fascinating book, but it is not the book I expected it to be. Where I was expecting each lecture to be dedicated to a famous conspiracy theory or two, most of the book is dedicated to the psychology of people who believe in conspiracy theories and trying to understand what attracts them to them. It turns out that everyone believes in conspiracy theories of some sort—the political left and right, the rich and the poor, people of every race, people of every religion, the young, the old, and everyone in between. The book is a lot of fun, but you won’t come away knowing a lot more about specific conspiracies and conspiracy theories.
Broken Wings by War History Journals
This is a book that is presented as history but written as historical fiction. It doesn’t appear to be an autobiography, but is written as if it were. The purpose appears to be to convey the “history” as entertainingly as possible, and in that regard it was certainly effective.
Lieutenant Ryan was an American who was obsessed with flying—so much so that when World War I broke out he traveled to Canada to enlist in their air force so he could test his skills against the Germans in aerial combat. He was a skilled and successful fighter pilot who gives an interesting account of his training and the basic problems fighter pilots encounter—problems which eventually led to his being shot down in enemy territory.
Ryan was captured and made a prisoner of war, yet his idealism won’t permit him to sit out the rest of the war. While being moved to a new prison further from the lines, he makes a daring escape and then spends 72 grueling days trying to get back across the lines rejoin his own side. His efforts would make quite an exciting movie and the authors do a good job conveying the intense peril and morale-breaking frustrations he had to contend with. While the “novel” like structure makes it difficult for me to judge whether or not it is good history or not, it is certainly an entertaining tale.
Mission to Ireland by War History Journals
This is the second volume of the War History Journals that I have read and their decision to add an introduction and afterward that helped to place the events of the book in its historical context greatly enhanced the utility of the volume. The rest of the book is written in the first person and purposefully comes off as historical fiction as War History Journal strives to make history more accessible.
I enjoyed it, learning about a German effort to supply the Irish with weapons for the coming Easter Uprising. The effort to sneak their cargo ship into Ireland is quite dramatic and informs the reader about English precautions to keep just such a thing from happening. It would be easy to forget that these were actual real events being depicted because the whole book reads like a spy thriller complete with a prison escape.
It’s hard in this format to evaluate the history itself. There are conversations reported and the first person narrative style prevents the reader from having any real sense of what is invented for dramatic story telling purposes and what is strictly true, but I think that it is still a very effective way to give people a sense of the challenges inherent in the mission and to learn a lot about a seldom discussed part of World War I.
Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Andrew Wilson
This Great Courses series offers brief overview of the thoughts of many of those great military minds you’ve doubtless heard of but don’t really know anything about—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Jomini, Clausewitz, and more. These are men who built the foundations of strategic thinking in the military world and its interweaving with political thinking. It’s a fascinating discussion made more so as author, Andrew Wilson, adds into the conversation the advances in warfare—steam navies, air power, nuclear weapons, terrorism—that forced strategic thinkers to evolve their views. As an added bonus, he covers not only some of the major battles of history—Midway, the Peloponnesian War, Napoleon’s Campaigns—but a number of smaller but equally fascinating military actions such as the War for Irish Independence and the Algerian War for Independence. If you’ve an interest in the development of strategic thinking in the military, I think you’ll find this an engrossing overview.
American Nations by Colin Woodard
American history is often presented as the friction between two poles—loyalist versus revolutionary, north versus south, Republican versus Democrats. The great strength of Colin Woodard’s American Nation is its development of multiple (eleven) culturally distinct groups of Americans whose values often conflict with each other and who have remained identifiable over the last four centuries. This concept resonates quite convincingly as Woodard walks the reader through American history from colonization until the present day (although most of the book focuses on the 17th to the 19th century).
A lot more work needs to be done on this concept, especially as it relates to the later periods, but I found the basic idea plausible. After all, neither the north or the south is monolithic and this concept helped to explore the more complex nature of both regions. The primary weakness probably comes from the tendency for Woodard to describe his eleven nations in the same monolithic terms. That problem could be resolved with further research and exploration. Overall, the book has given me a lot to think about.
The Battle for Saipan by Daniel Wrinn
You can always count on Daniel Wrinn to write a stirring, yet accurate, account of World War II battles. The Battle for Saipan is no different, continuing Wrinn’s chronicle of the U.S. Marines’ battle across the Pacific Ocean. With an extremely well-balanced mixture of narrative and quotations from personal accounts, he lays out what was at stake at Saipan, why the battle was different and much more difficult than those which had come before, and what the consequences were for the conflict with Japan. (Hint: Saipan was one of the critical turning points in the War in the Pacific.) I always find myself sad when I come to the end of a Wrinn book and I look forward to reading his next chapter of the war.
Bullets and Barbed Wire by Daniel Wynn
This is a gripping account of three battles for Pacific Islands during World War II. Taken together they show the evolution of Allied fighting strategy in the Pacific as the U.S. marines learned how to handle their Japanese opponents.
Despite a thick level of detail, this book reads very quickly. It’s an exciting account and often tragic as there are a significant number of men who die after we’ve followed their actions. I’ve read a lot of books on World War II and this one really brings you onto the sand and into the jungle, making you understand the stakes and the challenges as it accounts the actions of these very courageous men.
Operation Watchtower by Daniel Wrinn
How much do you know about the Battle of Guadalcanal other than that the U.S. Marine Corps played a critical role in the fighting? After reading this short book you’ll have a deep understanding of why it was so important and why it’s the battle that turned the tide of the War in the Pacific during World War II. Afterward, Japan’s ability to threaten the U.S. and its allies was severely curtailed. But the price was incredibly high on both sides.
Wrinn has written a short account packed with details and crafted into a narrative that flows very rapidly from beginning to end. If you’re looking to understand a key point in the War of the Pacific and don’t want to get bogged down in a long tedious narrative, this book is a great place to begin.
36 Books that Change the WorldThe Great Courses publishers have compiled 36 lectures from throughout their many series on books that have made a major impact on the world. Some of these books live up to the billing. It’s difficult to argue that the Koran, or Wealth of Nations, or The Communist Manifesto didn’t have a major impact on the development of the world. Other books clearly do not meet that standard. For example, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a fascinating insight into a Roman Emperor written by his own hand, but as the professor admitted in the lecture, it was not published during Aurelius’ life and was barely known for more than a thousand years after his death—hardly a book with tremendous world-shaking impact. At the bare minimum, this collection is an opportunity to learn about 36 major works of literature. Odds are high that you don’t already know about all of them.