Morbid Curiosity Reads

Ever wonder what it’s like to work in a morgue? Want to know what uses science has for human cadavers? You might have a case of what’s been dubbed “morbid curiosity,” or a fascination with the macabre. Inspired by this month’s Get Lit! Book Club pick, here are a few morbidly curious nonfiction titles that approach death from a unique, fresh perspective.

 

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The book that inspired this list, Stiff details the torrid relationship between science and human cadavers, from its origins in grave-robbing to today’s university owned “body farms.” This book is not Mary Roach’s first foray into the more macabre aspects of science, and her expertise in making the subjects approachable and fun is quite clear. Fans of this book will be glad to hear that she has several other in the same vein, including books on the science behind war, the void of space, digestion, and the afterlife.

 

Cover ImageSmoke Gets in Your Eyes: & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
Caitlin Doughty is not your average twenty-something. Instead of going a more traditional route after college, Doughty decided to indulge her morbid curiosity and start working at a crematory. Now a licensed mortician with her own practice, Doughty  intersperses hilarious anecdotes from her years working with the deceased with the answers to questions many of us are too afraid to ask, and compels readers to change the way they think about dying.

 

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and ObsessionCover Image by David Grann
This collection of twelve tales by David Grann, who originally published each of the true stories in the New Yorker, delves into what it means to be obsessed. The title is pulled from a particular story in which a man’s erratic obsession with Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually leads to his untimely demise. For fans of The Lost City of Z, this book features Grann’s signature writing style mixed with tales that will appeal to readers’ interest in the macabre.

 

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical ExaminerCover Image by Judy Melinek
Judy Melinek has worked as a forensic pathologist in New York City for over fifteen years. She has performed autopsies and death investigations through every New York catastrophe, from September 11 to the anthrax attacks to the crash of American Airlines flight 587. In this book, Melinek details the funny, morbid, and challenging aspects of being a medical examiner, and reveals what is fact and fiction about the morgue stereotypes portrayed by decades of police procedural television dramas.

 

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian MedicineCover Image by Lindsey Fitzharris
Medical practices in the Victorian age were shockingly brutal, including a lack of anesthesia, rampant infection, and entire theaters dedicated to the live viewing of surgeries. In this brutal climate, Joseph Lister began to hypothesize about sterilization and germs, eventually making discoveries that revolutionized the medical profession. In incredible detail, this book uncovers both the grisly past of Victorian medicine and the incredible changes Joseph Lister was able to bring to the profession.

 

Cover ImageMortuary Confidential: Undertakers Spill the Dirt by Todd Harra and Ken McKenzie
As opposed to the stories of just one mortician, this book features a compilation of greatest hit anecdotes from undertakers across the United States. From hilarious experiences with corpses to dramatic encounters with families and funerals, these morticians have stories that will make you laugh, cry, and grimace. This book is a must read for fans of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Stiff.

 

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab The Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell TalesCover Image by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
Have you ever wondered how forensic pathologists know how the human corpse reacts to so many different scenarios? The answer is simple: body farms. Body farms are places, often run by universities, where cadavers donated to science are put through a variety of stressors to see the different ways decomposition can set in. This book reveals the secrets behind one of the first body farms, and all that goes into running such a bizarre science experiment.

 

Cover ImageThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
This bestselling book reveals the never-before-told story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells, gathered in 1951, helped science discover the polio vaccine, explore cloning, and even further the field of gene mapping. The twist? Henrietta never knew her cells were taken, and was never compensated or credited for her incredible impact on the world of medicine and genetics. Now an HBO film starring Oprah Winfrey, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is crucial to understanding the history of genetics.

 

Cover ImageThe Invention of Murder: How Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders
With stories like Sweeney Todd and Jack the Ripper, it may seem that murder was rampant in Victorian England. In reality, murder was rare; it was the publicity and sensationalization of murder that swept through British society. This interesting book explains how the Victorian obsession with murder created the first of detective fiction, and some of the most famous Gothic stories literature has to offer.

 

Cover ImageAdvice for Future Corpses and Those Who Love Them: A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying by Sallie Tisdale
Written by a nurse, this book examines the idea of death, both in witnessing it and experiencing it. As stated by the title, we are all future corpses, and Sallie Tisdale hopes to make that transition as easy for us as possible. With an even mix of humorous and emotional anecdotes, Tisdale investigates what death truly means for us, and how we should approach it.

 

Related imageBonus: A Museum for the Morbidly Curious at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum
If you feel in the mood for a bit of a road trip, the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is world-renowned for its collection of medical oddities. From surgically removed tumors to a wall of real human skulls, this museum, owned by the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, has just about every medical oddity on display.

 

Related imageThe Origin of Morbid Curiosity
Many scholars trace the idea of morbid curiosity back to the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote in Poetics in 322 B.C.E. that the immensely tragic Greek plays allowed people to “enjoy contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight is painful to us.”

Westworld Readalikes

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As season two of Westworld draws to a close, viewers will be happy to hear that the show has been renewed for a third season. Until that third season comes out, here are a few great reads to fill the theme park-sized hole in your life!

Image result for jurassic park book cover

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
Fans of Jurassic Park won’t be surprised to learn that Michael Crichton also wrote and directed the original 1973 Westworld. Though many have seen the movies, Jurassic Park is a great novel that also covers the concept of a futuristic theme park gone wrong. Just like the hosts in Westworld, it doesn’t take long for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to misbehave. Even if you love the films, give the book a try!

 

Image result for utopia lincoln childUtopia by Lincoln Child
From acclaimed author Lincoln Child, Utopia tells the story of a futuristic theme park that utilizes robots in its attractions, several of which feature reproductions of past eras. The robots’ programmer is called in to fix the malfunctioning robots, only to discover that the park is being held hostage by a mysterious guest. This novel is a great read for Westworld fans, and the familiar plot elements allow for just as exciting of a story.

Image result for love in the age of mechanical reproduction coverLove in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Judd Trichter
Judd Trichter’s book takes readers to futuristic Los Angeles, where the main character Eliot falls in love with an android woman who gets sold for parts to the black market. Unable to let go of his love, Eliot travels all over the city to find her parts and put her back together. The novel covers many of the same issues as Westworld, such as the concept of love between human and machine, and the morality of artificial life.

Image result for do androids dream of electric sheep coverDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
The novel that inspired the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s classic novel tells the story of Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford in the movie), a bounty hunter tasked with hunting down and eliminating a group of rogue androids that have escaped from Mars. Just like Westworld, the novel brings into question what it means to be human as Deckard begins to wonder what makes the androids so different from human beings.

Image result for lonesome dove bookLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
For fans of Westworld’s cowboys and Wild West narratives, Lonesome Dove tells the tale of a group of retired Texas Rangers as they drive a herd of cattle across the country, coming to terms with their old age and the loss of love in their lives. Though it lacks the futuristic elements of Westworld, the story lines of the show’s fictional park mirror this tale in tone and themes. The deep emotional core of the friendship between the main characters makes this novel much more than your typical Western story.

Image result for civilwarland in bad declineCivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
This collection of six short stories and a novella follow various different people in a dystopian world. Each story takes place in the fictional futuristic theme park of CivilWarLand, which recreates the American Civil War, and the many things that go wrong there. The historic theme park connection to Westworld is clear, but the book’s focus on multiple plots through its short stories and novella may appeal to fans who enjoy the many different story lines the television series follows.

 

<p>Asimov&#8217;s groundbreaking series originated as a series of stories published in the 1940s and &#8217;50s. This book interlinks them, exporing the development of the robot and offering an unnervingly cogent vision of the near future. Buy it <a href="https://www.amazon.com/I-Robot-Isaac-Asimov/dp/055338256X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&amp;ie=UTF8&amp;qid=1524261156&amp;sr=1-2&amp;keywords=i+robot">here</a>.</p> I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Science fiction legend Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of short stories paints a future in which robots and artificial intelligence are a part of everyday life, and their positronic brains (a term Asimov developed for the artificial conscience in robots) create a host of complicated issues for humanity. Fans of the 2004 Will Smith movie will be surprised to learn that there is little in common in the book with the film. Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, outlined in this book, still effect science fiction to this day, and can be identified all over Westworld.

 

Image result for brave new world coverBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
Originally published in 1931, Brave New World set the groundwork for stories on artificial intelligence, futuristic technology, and robotics. There likely isn’t a single book on this list that has not been affected by Brave New World, and its influences can be found all over the Westworld television series. The book imagines a Utopian society achieved through technology and genetics, where the perfection of life is not all that it seems. This novel is a must read, especially for fans of Dystopias like Westworld and Blade Runner.

 

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


All the Light We Cannot SeeAnthony Doerr
‘s latest book, All The Light We Cannot See, tells the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France during World War II. The novel was ten years in the writing and highly anticipated. If you haven’t placed a hold for it and would like to, take a look at it in our catalog and request it here.

In the meantime, here are five similar books to tide you over until you can get your hands on it:


STONES FROM THE RIVER by Ursula Hegi

Follows Trudi Montag, a dwarf who serves as her town’s librarian, unofficial historian, and recorder of the secret stories of her people, in a novel that charts the course of German history in the first half of the twentieth century. This book is also stylistically complex and describes the challenges that the characters surmount to survive the Second World War.


JACOB’S OATH by Martin Fletcher

As World War II winds to a close, Europe’s roads are clogged with twenty million exhausted refugees walking home. Among them are Jacob and Sarah, lonely Holocaust survivors who meet in Heidelberg. But Jacob is consumed with hatred and cannot rest until he has killed his brother’s murderer, a concentration camp guard nicknamed “The Rat.” Now he must choose between revenge and love, between avenging the past and building a future. This book is also atmospheric and depicts the brutality of the War, with characters experiencing its emotional and psychological effects.


THE ENGLISH PATIENT by Michael Ondaatje

With unsettling beauty and intelligence, Michael Ondaatje’s Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II. The nurse Hana obsessively tends to her last surviving patient. Caravaggio, the thief, tries to reimagine who he is, now that his hands are hopelessly maimed. The Indian sapper Kip searches for hidden bombs in a landscape where nothing is safe but himself. And at the center of his labyrinth lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions-and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of heat lightning. This moving, stylistically complex novel is similar in that it reflects on the brutality of World War II and its lingering effects.


SARAH’S KEY by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah, a ten-year-old girl, is taken with her parents by the French police as they go door to door arresting Jewish families in the middle of the night. Desperate to protect her younger brother, Sarah locks him in a bedroom cupboard-their secret hiding place-and promises to come back for him as soon as they are released. Sixty Years Later: Sarah’s story intertwines with that of Julia Jarmond, an American journalist investigating the roundup. In her research, Julia stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah, and to questions about her own future. This book is moving and lyrical, and gives a perspective of family relationships in the desperate times of World War II.


THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer

Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he promised to deliver. But when he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter’s recipient, he becomes privy to a secret that will alter the course of his-and his family’s-history. From the small Hungarian town of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in labor camps, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a family shattered and remade in history’s darkest hour.

Click the titles to visit our online catalog and place a request for any of these books. Descriptions and cover images are from the library online catalog, descriptors of how these books are similar to All The Light We Cannot See are from Novelist.

Spotlight on New Historical Fiction

If you enjoy history, but like a good story to go along with it, you may have already discovered the genre of historical fiction. If not, consider this your introduction.

Your librarian can help you to find a great historical novel set in any era using tools such as NoveList. Or follow the link to our library database page and under the heading for literature, click on ‘NoveList’ (or ‘Remote Access’ from home) to access this useful resource for readers.

Take  a look at these works of historical fiction, recently added to the shelves at Sewickley Public Library. You can follow the linked titles to find them in the library catalog, where you may request a copy for pickup.

 


THE PAGAN LORD: A NOVEL by Bernard Cornwell

The seventh and latest in the ‘Saxon Tales Saga,’ also referred to as ‘The Warrior Chronicles’ and ‘Saxon Stories,’ this book is by “the move prolific and successful historical novelist in the world today,” according to a Wall Street Journal review. The Pagan Lord continues Cornwell’s epic telling of the making of England in the middle ages and the struggle to unite Britain, centering on the stories of Alfred the Great and his descendents. If you are an Anglophile or love Viking stories (or both!), this book and series will have appeal.

The full list of books in the ‘Saxon Stories’ can be found on Bernard Cornwell’s website. If this series and setting sounds intriguing and you’d like to begin at the beginning, the first in this series is The Last Kingdom: A Novel.


THE GHOST OF THE MARY CELESTE by Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin’s latest work of historical fiction explores the unanswered questions surrounding the Mary Celeste, an American merchant vessel found adrift off the Spanish coast in 1872, cargo intact but the entire crew vanished with no signs of foul play.

Martin has written other acclaimed works of historical fiction. Mary Reilly, a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the point of view of a young female servant, won both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. And Property, which tells the story of a plantation master’s wife and her slave on a sugar plantation near New Orleans in 1828, won the Orange Prize (now called the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) and was named one of the 10 best historical novels by The Observer in 2012.


THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS by Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon’s debut novel, set in Jazz Age New York, The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress is an fictionalized account of the real disappearance in 1930 of Justice Joseph Crater. The investigation is undertaken by newly promoted police officer Jude Simon, who proceeds by questioning three women in Crater’s life: his wife, his mistress, and his maid (who also happens to be Simon’s wife). The mystery winds its way through speakeasies and involves the most notorious gangsters of the day.

 

Of course, these are only three recently written historical fiction novels, set in three eras, and in three different geographic settings. There is sure to be a great work of historical fiction set in whatever time period or in whatever place interests you.