If you know me in person, you know I’m a bit of a history nerd.
I spend my spare time writing novels about little-known lady pirates and con artists, reading hefty books about the fall of the USSR, pre-Nazi Germany, the Black Panthers. And if there’s a free online lecture about queer vikings or Medieval sex jokes, you can bet I’ll be signed up.
And one of the things I think is a damn shame in this world is how inaccessible history can be. It can feel daunting and difficult, not like an escape.
Which is why for the past couple years, I’ve started collecting historical stories that feel escapist. Podcasts, books, essay collections. Everything I’m listing below should feel like a treat, a laugh, a lark, an adventure. It’s historical, but it’s not dense. It’s fun and wild and weird and human, as history should be.
So, if you’re looking for an easy way into some really badass history, here are my recommendations:
This hidden history is about Anna Genovese – mob wife, speakeasy owner, queer icon, survivor, and goddamn badass. The podcast is, by turns, funny, dark, and surprising in the best ways possible. This podcast is a single story and should be listened to in order from episode one.
Welcome to a podcast about the worst people in history. From the YA author who inspired Hitler to naked Alex Jones wandering the forest, the show showcases not only history’s villains, but the weirdest, least-known things about them.
This show jumps around and doesn’t need to be listened to in order. Some of my personal favorites if you’re looking for a place to start:
- Steven Seagal (part I, part II)
- The bastards who killed the Black Panthers (part I, part II)
- Hitler: YA fiction fangirl
- The war of eggs
Medical history is some wild shit, and this podcast proves it. Join a doctor and a comedian for a wild ride through history’s medical kerfuffles, including the times when doctors thought peeing on wounds or tying a chicken to yourself sounded like fabulous ideas. Episodes are standalone, so you can listen in whatever order you choose. This one’s also family-friendly.
This short podcast series explores the queerness of the vikings. I was particularly tickled by the parts about Odin, who modern people seem to think is a very manly dude (spoiler: he’s more genderfluid than that). This one’s best listened to in order.
With each episode featuring a historian and a comedian, this is one of the most accessible history podcasts out there. From Old Norse literature to the Harlem Renaissance to Stonehenge, this covers a bit of everything. Note that they have radio edits (family-friendly) and regular edits, so you can choose whichever strikes your fancy. Episodes are standalone and can be listened to in any order.
Some favorite episodes:
This one’s a podcast about language, but language is often tightly wound together with history and so I’ve learned a lot about the past from Helen Zaltzman. Episodes are standalone and can listened to in any order.
A few favorite episodes to get you started:
With a special focus on recent history, this podcast tackles topics that the general public (as the title suggests) wrong about. Like that McDonalds coffee incident where we all roll our eyes at the woman for suing over hot coffee…until we learn that the coffee was skin-meltingly hot and McDonalds had been warned time and again about the dangers. The hosts are both writers with a great sense of humor and strong sense of justice. And episodes are typically standalone or short series’, so you can hop around and start listening wherever you like.
Some interesting places to start:
A funny podcast about women from history? Yes, please. This features two friends discussing the stories of women throughout history. Each week one of the hosts tells the other a story. Episodes are standalone and can be listened to in any order.
Some starting points:
- The Lioness of Brittany (there are a few misconceptions in here based on my own research on the life of Jeanne de Clisson, but overall great episode)
- The rival lady kingpins of Australia
- Queen Liliʻuokalani
Description: The stories we tell about our past matter. But those stories have been shaped by prejudice, hoaxes and misinterpretations that have whitewashed entire chapters of history, erased women and invented civilisations.
Today history is often used to justify xenophobia, nationalism and inequality as we cling to grand origin stories and heroic tales of extraordinary men.
Exploring myths, mysteries and misconceptions about the past – from the legacies of figures like Pythagoras and Christopher Columbus, to the realities of life in the gun-toting Wild West, to the archaeological digs that have upset our understanding of the birth of civilisation – David Mountain reveals how ongoing revolutions in history and archaeology are shedding light on the truth.
Description: Illustrated in a contemporary animation style, Rejected Princesses turns the ubiquitous “pretty pink princess” stereotype portrayed in movies, and on endless toys, books, and tutus on its head, paying homage instead to an awesome collection of strong, fierce, and yes, sometimes weird, women: warrior queens, soldiers, villains, spies, revolutionaries, and more who refused to behave and meekly accept their place.
An entertaining mix of biography, imagery, and humor written in a fresh, young, and riotous voice, this thoroughly researched exploration salutes these awesome women drawn from both historical and fantastical realms, including real life, literature, mythology, and folklore. Each profile features an eye-catching image of both heroic and villainous women in command from across history and around the world, from a princess-cum-pirate in fifth century Denmark, to a rebel preacher in 1630s Boston, to a bloodthirsty Hungarian countess, and a former prostitute who commanded a fleet of more than 70,000 men on China’s seas.
Description: In concise, deeply researched vignettes, accompanied by charming illustrations, Porath illuminates these fearsome women, explores their lives, and pays tribute to their accomplishments. Here are famous women as well as lesser known figures from around the globe who have left their indelible mark as they changed the course of history, including:
- The Mother Who Sued to Save Her Children from Slavery—Sojourner Truth
- The Mother of Rock n’ Roll—Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- The Mother of Holocaust Children—Irena Sendler
- The Mothers of The Dominican Republic—The Mirabal Sisters
- The Mother of Yemen’s Golden Age—Arwa al-Sulayhi
Description: For centuries, royal families have feared the gut-roiling, vomit-inducing agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family s spoons, tried on their underpants and tested their chamber pots.
Ironically, royals terrified of poison were unknowingly poisoning themselves daily with their cosmetics, medications and filthy living conditions. Women wore makeup made with lead. Men rubbed feces on their bald spots. Physicians prescribed mercury enemas, arsenic skin cream, drinks of lead filings and potions of human fat and skull, fresh from the executioner. Gazing at gorgeous portraits of centuries past, we don t see what lies beneath the royal robes and the stench of unwashed bodies; the lice feasting on private parts; and worms nesting in the intestines.
The Royal Art of Poison is a hugely entertaining work of popular history that traces the use of poison as a political – and cosmetic – tool in the royal courts of Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the Kremlin today.
Description: The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive — until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Description: In Secondhand Time, Alexievich chronicles the demise of communism. Everyday Russian citizens recount the past thirty years, showing us what life was like during the fall of the Soviet Union and what it’s like to live in the new Russia left in its wake. Through interviews spanning 1991 to 2012, Alexievich takes us behind the propaganda and contrived media accounts, giving us a panoramic portrait of contemporary Russia and Russians who still carry memories of oppression, terror, famine, massacres—but also of pride in their country, hope for the future, and a belief that everyone was working and fighting together to bring about a utopia. Here is an account of life in the aftermath of an idea so powerful it once dominated a third of the world.
* BEWARE: Some of the interviews in this book go VERY dark. Only read if you’re in the right headspace.
Description: Why did democracy fall apart so quickly and completely in Germany in the 1930s? How did a democratic government allow Adolf Hitler to seize power? In The Death of Democracy, Benjamin Carter Hett answers these questions, and the story he tells has disturbing resonances for our own time.
To say that Hitler was elected is too simple. He would never have come to power if Germany’s leading politicians had not responded to a spate of populist insurgencies by trying to co-opt him, a strategy that backed them into a corner from which the only way out was to bring the Nazis in. Hett lays bare the misguided confidence of conservative politicians who believed that Hitler and his followers would willingly support them, not recognizing that their efforts to use the Nazis actually played into Hitler’s hands. They had willingly given him the tools to turn Germany into a vicious dictatorship.
Benjamin Carter Hett is a leading scholar of twentieth-century Germany and a gifted storyteller whose portraits of these feckless politicians show how fragile democracy can be when those in power do not respect it. He offers a powerful lesson for today, when democracy once again finds itself embattled and the siren song of strongmen sounds ever louder.
Description: This essay collection from renowned journalist and novelist Slavenka Drakulic, which quickly became a modern (and feminist) classic, draws back the Iron Curtain for a glimpse at the lives of Eastern European women under Communist regimes. Provocative, often witty, and always intensely personal, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed cracks open a paradoxical world that through its rejection of capitalism and commoditization ends up fetishizing both.
Examining the relationship between material goods and expressions of happiness and individuality in a society where even bananas were an alien luxury, Drakulic homes in on the eradication of female identity, drawing on her own experiences as well as broader cultural observations. Enforced communal housing that allowed for little privacy, the banishment of many time-saving devices, and a focus on manual labor left no room for such bourgeois affectations as cosmetics or clothes, but Drakulic’s remarkable exploration of the reality behind the rhetoric reveals that women still went to desperate lengths to feel “feminine.”
Description: Estonia s coveted position between Europe and Russia has lured wave after wave of occupiers. The nation’s darkest chapter, though, dawned in 1939 with the arrival of the Soviets. It seemed this time that the Estonian nation might vanish completely; yet the Estonians waited, and fought, and sang and ultimately, survived.
The Singing Revolution narrates the remarkable story of this tiny nation s struggle for independence, illuminating how the Estonians kept their identity alive even under the oppressive weight of the Iron Curtain through a rich tradition of song. Here, people have joined voices for centuries, and their Laulupidu an immense song festival offered glimmers of Estonian culture and connectedness in even the bleakest periods, proving to The Singing People that their national spirit still smoldered. When the Soviet nation finally began to crumble in the 1980s, the Estonians saw their opportunity: free speech became song, and song became a soaring anthem of independence.