Tuesday, November 1, 2022

"Dark" Nonfiction Book Recommendations

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You remember nonfiction from school, right? It's dry and tedious, and you'd happily stab yourself in the eyeball with a pencil if it meant you didn't have to read another page of it? Today, I'm here to change your opinion of nonfiction! It's not all boring. Sometimes, it's fast-paced and fascinating. It'll alter the way you see the world. Here are 10 nonfiction books that I couldn't put down. Since I'm a strange creature, the books on my list all have elements of death, destruction, and survival. They're a bit dark. (But the best books are always a bit dark.)

🌒  "Dark" Nonfiction Book Recommendations  📖

The Last Girl: My Story Of Captivity, And My Fight Against The Islamic State by Nadia Murad


Nadia Murad was born and raised in Kocho, a small village of farmers and shepherds in northern Iraq. A member of the Yazidi community, she and her brothers and sisters lived a quiet life. Nadia had dreams of becoming a history teacher or opening her own beauty salon.

On August 15th, 2014, when Nadia was just twenty-one years old, this life ended. Islamic State militants massacred the people of her village, executing men who refused to convert to Islam and women too old to become sex slaves. Six of Nadia's brothers were killed, and her mother soon after, their bodies swept into mass graves. Nadia was taken to Mosul and forced, along with thousands of other Yazidi girls, into the ISIS slave trade.

Nadia would be held captive by several militants and repeatedly raped and beaten. Finally, she managed a narrow escape through the streets of Mosul, finding shelter in the home of a Sunni Muslim family whose eldest son risked his life to smuggle her to safety.

Today, Nadia's story—as a witness to the Islamic State's brutality, a survivor of rape, a refugee, a Yazidi—has forced the world to pay attention to the ongoing genocide in Iraq. It is a call to action, a testament to the human will to survive, and a love letter to a lost country, a fragile community, and a family torn apart by war.

Why you should read it: It's about what happens when people see problems and choose to ignore them. There's a quote on the back of the book from The Economist that says, "horrific and essential reading." I'd agree with that. Why are genocides still happening in modern times? And, why are terrorists using Facebook to sell sex slaves? (Seriously, WTF Facebook?) This memoir will make you want to punch people, but it's necessary reading. We should never ignore genocide.

Buy it on Amazon

An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook's Battle For Domination by Sheera Frenkel & Cecilia Kang


Once one of Silicon Valley’s greatest success stories, Facebook has been under constant fire for the past five years, roiled by controversies and crises. It turns out that while the tech giant was connecting the world, they were also mishandling users’ data, spreading fake news, and amplifying dangerous, polarizing hate speech.

The company, many said, had simply lost its way. But the truth is far more complex. Leadership decisions enabled, and then attempted to deflect attention from, the crises. Time after time, Facebook’s engineers were instructed to create tools that encouraged people to spend as much time on the platform as possible, even as those same tools boosted inflammatory rhetoric, conspiracy theories, and partisan filter bubbles. And while consumers and lawmakers focused their outrage on privacy breaches and misinformation, Facebook solidified its role as the world’s most voracious data-mining machine, posting record profits, and shoring up its dominance via aggressive lobbying efforts.

Drawing on their unrivaled sources, Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang take readers inside the complex court politics, alliances and rivalries within the company to shine a light on the fatal cracks in the architecture of the tech behemoth.

Why you should read it: Seriously, WTF Facebook? This is one of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read. What happens when a company grows so quickly that it can't keep up with the problems it creates? What happens when it causes problems that the world has never experienced before? This book is a must-read for anybody who wonders how technology shapes the way we think.

Buy it on Amazon

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life In The Business Of Death, Decay, And Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein


Homicides and suicides, fires and floods, hoarders and addicts. When properties are damaged or neglected, it falls to Sandra Pankhurst, founder of Specialized Trauma Cleaning (STC) Services Pty. Ltd. to sift through the ashes or sweep up the mess of a person’s life or death. Her clients include law enforcement, real estate agents, executors of deceased estates, and charitable organizations representing victimized, mentally ill, elderly, and physically disabled people. In houses and buildings that have fallen into disrepair, Sandra airs out residents’ smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes.

The remnants and mementoes of these people’s lives resonate with Sandra. Before she began professionally cleaning up their traumas, she experienced her own. First, as a little boy, raised in violence and excluded from the family home. Then as a husband and father, drag queen, gender reassignment patient, sex worker, small businesswoman, and trophy wife. In each role she played, all Sandra wanted to do was belong.

The Trauma Cleaner is the extraordinary true story of an extraordinary person dedicated to making order out of chaos with compassion, revealing the common ground Sandra Pankhurst—and everyone—shares with those struck by tragedy.

Why you should read it: This biography is completely captivating. Sandra Pankhurst is not likeable, and she doesn't always make good decisions, but her compassion for other people is admirable. I loved learning about her life. She really was an extraordinary woman.

Buy it on Amazon

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest To Transform The Grisly World Of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris


In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery on the eve of profound transformation. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, working before anesthesia, who were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These medical pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than their patients' afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn't have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the deadly riddle and change the course of history.

Fitzharris dramatically recounts Lister's discoveries in gripping detail, culminating in his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection—and could be countered by antiseptics. Focusing on the tumultuous period from 1850 to 1875, she introduces us to Lister and his contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and takes us through the grimy medical schools and dreary hospitals where they learned their art, the deadhouses where they studied anatomy, and the graveyards they occasionally ransacked for cadavers.

Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.

Why you should read it: It'll make you grateful that you don't live in the 1800s. That century was nasty. (The top hats were cool, though.) I like that the author and Joseph Lister both acknowledge that scientific discoveries don't happen in a vacuum. Lister couldn't have made his medical advancements without building on the work of other scientists. Biographies sometimes glorify one person and ignore everybody who helped or influenced that person. This biography spreads the credit around, so the reader really understands how much effort went into the discovery of disinfectants. Changing the world isn't easy.

Buy it on Amazon

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes—And Why by Amanda Ripley


Today, nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Tomorrow, some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims?

In her quest to answer these questions, award-winning journalist Amanda Ripley traces human responses to some of recent history’s epic disasters, from the explosion of the Mont Blanc munitions ship in 1917—one of the biggest explosions before the invention of the atomic bomb—to the journeys of the 15,000 people who found their way out of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. To understand the science behind the stories, Ripley turns to leading brain scientists, trauma psychologists, and other disaster experts. She even has her own brain examined by military researchers and experiences, through realistic simulations, what it might be like to survive a plane crash into the ocean or to escape a raging fire.

Ripley comes back with precious wisdom about the surprising humanity of crowds, the elegance of the brain’s fear circuits, and the stunning inadequacy of many of our evolutionary responses. Most unexpectedly, she discovers the brain’s ability to do much, much better—with just a little help.

Why you should read it: If you're new to survival nonfiction, please start with this book! It's a great introduction. The author interviews survivors of disasters and analyzes why they survived while others didn't. How does the human brain react to a sudden catastrophe? The Unthinkable is an engaging, readable book that will (hopefully) make you aware of how your brain might sabotage you in an emergency.

Buy it on Amazon

Another Day In The Death Of America: A Chronicle Of Ten Short Lives by Gary Younge


On an average day in America, seven children and teens will be shot dead.

In Another Day in the Death of America, award-winning journalist Gary Younge tells the stories of the lives lost during one such day. It could have been any day, but he chose November 23, 2013. Black, white, and Latino, aged nine to nineteen, they fell at sleepovers, on street corners, in stairwells, and on their own doorsteps. From the rural Midwest to the barrios of Texas, the narrative crisscrosses the country over a period of twenty-four hours to reveal the full human stories behind the gun-violence statistics and the brief mentions in local papers of lives lost.

This powerful and moving work puts a human face—a child's face—on the "collateral damage" of gun deaths across the country. This is not a book about gun control, but about what happens in a country where it does not exist. What emerges in these pages is a searing and urgent portrait of youth, family, and firearms in America today.

Why you should read it: It's the best book I've read this year (so far), and I think it's a must-read for every American. It's a thought-provoking look at the stories behind the statistics. It's not a book about gun control or the second amendment. It's just a story about what happens when children have easy access to guns.

Buy it on Amazon

Hey, Kiddo: How I Lost My Mother, Found My Father, And Delt With Family Addiction by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Memoir Graphic Novel

In kindergarten, Jarrett Krosoczka's teacher asks him to draw his family, with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett's family is much more complicated than that. His mom is an addict, in and out of rehab, and in and out of Jarrett's life. His father is a mystery—Jarrett doesn't know where to find him, or even what his name is. Jarrett lives with his grandparents—two very loud, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children until Jarrett came along.

Jarrett goes through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through drawing even as so little is being said to him about what's going on. Only as a teenager can Jarrett begin to piece together the truth of his family, reckoning with his mother and tracking down his father.

Hey, Kiddo is a profoundly important memoir about growing up in a family grappling with addiction, and finding the art that helps you survive.

Why you should read it: The art is so pretty! Drug addiction isn't the main focus of the story. It's mostly about the author and his love/hate relationship with his grandparents. If you come from a messy chaos family (like I do), then the book is extremely relatable. I definitely saw myself in the author. (He's way more successful than me, though. That's why he has a beautifully illustrated graphic memoir, and I have . . . a blog with memes I steal from Pinterest.)

Buy it on Amazon

Stiff: The Curious Lives Of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach


Mary Roach takes the age-old question, "What happens to us after we die?" quite literally. And in Stiff, she explores the "lives" of human cadavers from the time of the ancient Egyptians all the way up to current campaigns for human composting. Along the way, she recounts with morbidly infectious glee how dead bodies are used for research ranging from car safety and plastic surgery (you'll cancel your next collagen injection after reading this!), to the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

Impossible (and irreverent) as it may sound, Roach has written a book about corpses that's both lively and fresh. She traveled around the globe to conduct her forensic investigations, and her findings are wryly intelligent. While the myriad uses for cadavers recounted are often graphic, Roach imbues her subject with a sense of dignity, choosing to emphasize the oddly noble purposes corpses serve, from organ donation to lifesaving medical research.

Readers will come away convinced of the enormous debt that we, the living, owe to the study of the remains of the dead. And while it may not offer the answer to the ancient mystery we were hoping for, Stiff offers a strange sort of comfort in the knowledge that, in a sense, death isn't necessarily the end.

Why you should read it: It's a modern classic for a reason. I love Mary Roach's nonfiction because she asks the morbid questions that normal people are afraid to ask. This book is about what happens to bodies that are donated to science. It's fast-paced, funny, interesting, and never disrespectful to the corpses. I couldn't put it down.

Buy it on Amazon

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Memoir Graphic Novel

You only think you know this story. In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer—the most notorious serial killer since Jack the Ripper—seared himself into the American consciousness. To the public, Dahmer was a monster who committed unthinkable atrocities. To Derf Backderf, “Jeff” was a much more complex figure: a high school friend with whom he had shared classrooms, hallways, and car rides.

In My Friend Dahmer, a haunting and original graphic novel, writer-artist Backderf creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a disturbed young man struggling against the morbid urges emanating from the deep recesses of his psyche—a shy kid, a teenage alcoholic, and a goofball who never quite fit in with his classmates. With profound insight, what emerges is a Jeffrey Dahmer that few ever really knew, and one readers will never forget.

Why you should read it: It does an amazing job of showing Dahmer's troubled teenage years without making him a likeable character. I love how the author contrasts his normal teenage life with Dahmer's extremely abnormal teenage life. There were many times when someone could have stepped in and questioned Dahmer's bizarre behavior, but people are so caught up in their own problems and successes that we don't really pay attention to each other. Hindsight is 20/20, right? If you're interested in true crime, I highly recommend the book. It's sad and unsettling, but since the events all occur before Dahmer became a killer, it's not gory.

Buy it on Amazon

The 57 Bus: A True Story Of Two Teenagers And The Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

True Crime

If it weren't for the 57 bus, Sasha and Richard never would have met. Both were high school students from Oakland, California, one of the most diverse cities in the country, but they inhabited different worlds. Sasha, a white teen, lived in the middle-class foothills and attended a small private school. Richard, a black teen, lived in the crime-plagued flatlands and attended a large public one. Each day, their paths overlapped for a mere eight minutes. But one afternoon on the bus ride home from school, a single reckless act left Sasha severely burned, and Richard charged with two hate crimes and facing life imprisonment. The case garnered international attention, thrusting both teenagers into the spotlight.

Why you should read it: The crime and the questions it raises are fascinating. What should society do with children who commit crimes? Should they be locked up forever, or should we give them leniency because they're kids whose brains aren't fully developed? Can teens be rehabilitated? This book might change the way you think about crime and punishment.

Buy it on Amazon

What's your favorite nonfiction book?


  1. So many of these sound so fascinating! Definitely adding The Unthinkable to my TBR.

  2. I've only read My Friend Dahmer but it was fascinating!

    Lauren @ www.shootingstarsmag.net

  3. What a unique and cool list! I hadn't heard of many of these.

  4. I want to read My Friend Dahmer. It's on my TBR. A lot of these look interesting, but the content is heavy so I'd have to be in the right mood to check them out.

  5. Some very interesting looking books here!
    My TTT: https://jjbookblog.wordpress.com/2022/11/01/top-ten-tuesday-392/

  6. I totally agree, Aj: "the best books are always a bit dark," whether nonfiction or fiction.
    Mary @ Notes in the Margin

  7. Wow they sound interesting. I struggle with non fiction, but try it every so often 🤣

    Have a great week!

    Emily @ Budget Tales Book Blog
    My post:

  8. Such an interesting list!

    Pam @ Read! Bake! Create!

  9. These all look interesting. Mary Roach is good at delving into dark subjects. My favorite (Dark) non-fiction is probably Erik Larson's "The Devil and the White City" about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and one of the first serial killers

  10. Oooo I want to read ALL these books! Adding them all to my TBR.

  11. Whoa these are pretty dark! Like you said. Maybe I need an adventure survival story. That I could probably handle. Have you ever read the WWII book We Die Alone? that's an epic escape if you need one.

  12. I like this topic. I'm going to book mark this post so I can come back to this for reference.

  13. I agree with Wendy - this is a great topic and I love that you added the "why you should read this" - that clearly explains the value you see in the book. And honestly, they all sound fascinating. I'm also bookmarking because I want to read them - but I'll have to space all that darkness out. :)
    Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

  14. I loathe textbooks. And required reading. These two things do more to kill a love for reading than anything else I think. Thanks for sharing these with us.

  15. I have to admit I've been trying but struggling to read nonfiction, but this list has so many fascinating picks!

  16. I never thought I liked non-fiction, but then I discovered narrative non-fiction and it was like a whole new world! Now, I'm always up for interesting NF reads. I haven't read any of the ones on your list. Some of them are too dark for me, but others sound absolutely fascinating. I definitely want to read STIFF, THE BUTCHERING ART, and THE UNTHINKABLE. Thanks for the recs!

    Happy TTT (on a Wednesday)!

  17. I've only read 57 Bus and Hey Kiddo, but they were both excellent.

  18. I don't read a ton of non-fiction, though I'm trying to read more, so I should add some of these to my list! Interesting topic for a recommendation list! :)

  19. I've read Stiff (amazing!), and I see a few here I'd like to read, including The 57 Bus. Great list!!

  20. This is a great topic. I've been wanting to read Last Girl. Killers of the Flower Moon is another I'd recommend. I also loved The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.

  21. I don't read much nonfiction, but Another Day in the Death of America sounds like a must-read. The Facebook one sounds really intriguing too.

  22. wow, definitely not the most uplifting list, lol. But they do sound essential.
    Actually, my favorite nonfiction this year was quite depressing as well!
    Digital Hell: The Inner Workings of a “Like”: https://wordsandpeace.com/2022/08/13/book-review-digital-hell-the-inner-workings-of-a-like/

  23. Great post idea! The Last Girl sounds like it would be a very interesting read