Mini reviews: nonfiction books about science & death

June 12, 2023

TITLE: Gory Details: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science
AUTHOR: Erika Engelhaupt
GENRE: Nonfic/Science
PAGES: 336pg

Science reporter Erika Engelhaupt investigates the gross, strange, and morbid absurdities of our bodies and our universe. From the research biologist who stung himself with every conceivable insect to the world’s most murderous mammals, this book explores oft-ignored but alluring facets of biology, anatomy, space exploration, nature, and more. Featuring interviews with leading researchers in the field and a large dose of wit, the author reveals the most intriguing real-world applications of science in all their glory.

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Gory Details is a great example of a nonfiction work that had the potential to be excellent, but tried to cover too many topics and each of those topics’ coverage suffered for it. If the author had trimmed down the subjects a bit and delved into each one deeper, I think I’d have been much more interested, but as it was, every time a topic really drew me in, it was too late and we were on to the next one!

The other issue was my own expectations: I think the title had me expecting more “gore” and less “gross-out”, but a massive chunk of this book was about bugs and bodily fluids. (If you’re interested in bugs, this one’s definitely for you – I, on the other hand, am only squeamish about one thing in life and it’s real-life parasites, so I skipped a couple of the audiobook chapters)

At the end of the day, I more or less had fun with this audiobook, but it left a lot to be desired and I probably wouldn’t reach for another book by this author in the future.

content warnings →
WARNINGS (click to expand):

death, corpses, decomposition, insects, parasites, cannibalism, necrophilia, animal violence, bodily fluids

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TITLE: Doctor Ice Pick
AUTHOR: Claire Prentice
GENRE: Nonfic/True Crime
PAGES: 85pg

In July 1952, Dr. Walter Freeman arrived at the gates of a West Virginia asylum. In his medical bag he carried two metal picks and a surgical hammer. He had invented a “cheap, easy” ten-minute lobotomy. The press described it as a miracle cure, a new frontier in psychosurgery.

That summer, in just twelve days, Freeman lobotomized 228 men, women, and children in West Virginia’s public mental hospitals. His blitzkrieg of brain surgery became known as “Operation Ice Pick,” named after the tools he wielded.

To some, the doctor was a hero, solving the crisis facing the nation’s underfunded and overcrowded psychiatric institutions. But many who watched him operate saw a dangerous risk-taker, a showman and a charlatan. This is the true story of a scientific pioneer whose misguided quest created one of the biggest tragedies in American medical history.

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Operation Ice Pick, when political power, medical orthodoxy, and an unquestioning press aligned behind a flawed man with a zealous belief in a dangerous and unproven medical procedure, should be remembered as a terrible parable of misplaced certainty and lax oversight.

What a challenging read, but I’m glad that I read it. I knew a little bit about the history of lobotomies in North American psychiatric hospitals, but I had no idea that so much of the horror of the procedure as we frequently think of it was attributed to one man’s desperate need for power and fame.

I thought at first that Freeman’s actions could partially be blamed on very misplaced intentions and a desire to help, but reading this take on his life and career makes it evident that the majority of the damage he caused was simply due to his own greedy, over-inflated ego.

On a happier note, Prentice’s writing is engaging and quick to read through, and I appreciate the emphasis placed not only on how tragic it is that these people’s lives were forever changed or cut short, but also the attention to how misogynistic and racist Freeman’s preferences for women and/or Black patients were. The end of the book wonders aloud if we could ever see such grand-scale medical malpractice as the likes of widespread lobotomies, and I’m genuinely chilled to imagine it.

content warnings →
WARNINGS (click to expand):

severe ableism, misogyny, racism, medical trauma, injuries, death, suicide

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TITLE: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
AUTHOR: Michelle McNamara
GENRE: Nonfic/True Crime
PAGES: 344pg

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” McNamara pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by McNamara’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer.

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This was such a tough, intense read at times. I can handle fictional horror all day, every day, but give me a story like this and I had to take it in small sips because I couldn’t stop thinking about the genuine terrors these poor victims went through and how appalling it is that the GSK went free for so long. It hurts my heart to no end that Michelle McNamara wasn’t here to see DeAngelo put behind bars, but wherever she is, I hope she knows how important her work was and how much her efforts and care must have meant to the people most affected by this small piece of justice finally being done.

content warnings →
WARNINGS (click to expand):

descriptions of rape, violence, murder, theft, child endangerment, mental illness, and Michelle McNamara’s death

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More about Destiny @ Howling Libraries

Just a horror aficionado/geek girl trying to juggle motherhood, reading, blogging, gaming, and everyday life.

    1. The story of the Golden State Killer is a rough one! I haven’t read the book but I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts and watched some documentaries.

    1. I’ll be gone in the dark is one of my favourite non-fiction books!!

      I want to read more but I find it a bit hard to choose. I like the idea of Gory Details but bugs are actually a thing that really bother me XD One of my only big squeamish things for books.

      1. If bugs are a hard NOPE for you, you honestly may want to pass on Gory Details! Not only is there a big section specifically on bugs, but they’re also mentioned a LOT in most of the other sections too 🤢

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