The best peculiar nonfiction from an expert on weird history

Brandy Schillace Author Of Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul
By Brandy Schillace

Who am I?

I am peculiar. Really. I’m an autistic, non-binary, PhD historian who writes weird non-fiction books—and I read them, too. Among my friends are folks like Mary Roach (Fuzz, Stiff, Bonk, Gulp), Deborah Blum (Poisoner’s Handbook), and Ed Yong (I contain Multitudes, An Immense World). Yet, despite there being so many amazing books about strange facts, it's still hard to find them in one place. Your average bookstore doesn’t have a “peculiar” section, for some reason. That’s why I started my Peculiar Book Club YouTube show: I wanted there to be a home for authors and readers of the quirky, quizzical, curious, and bizarre. And then I thought, hey, why not make a book list, too.


I wrote...

Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul

By Brandy Schillace,

Book cover of Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey's Head, the Pope's Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul

What is my book about?

It’s not every day someone hands you a research notebook covered in monkey’s blood. But so begins my foray into the strangest scientific experiments of the modern era: Dr. Robert White’s bid to perform a human head transplant. Yes. A head transplant.

If you remove the brain from the body that houses it, what becomes of the self? Or as White put it, “Can you transplant the human soul?” This remarkable doctor, nominated for a Nobel prize, discovered a way to keep a brain going without any circulation, “dead” for all practical purposes — and then how to bring it back to life. Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher tells the incredible story of a “Frankenstein” event, a Cold War contest, and weirdest organ transplant of all.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage

By Rachel E. Gross,

Book cover of Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage

Why this book?

Women are more than their vaginas—but guess what? Vaginas are, themselves, utterly fascinating, powerful, provocative! This book takes a look backward through history, all the ridiculous things that make doctors thought vaginas did (like wandering womb syndrome), and then gives us the scoop of modern understanding. The clitoris, for instance, is so much more than we might expect—and made of erectile tissue, just like the penis! Speaking of penises, we hear a lot about ducks. Ducks are weird, man. It’s a delightful romp through anatomy and science, medicine and history, and it just might break us from thinking that vaginas are taboo. 

This book does my favorite thing: It takes peculiar historical and scientific facts, and then gives them back to readers as a riveting, funny, bizarre journey. It’s just the sort of book that makes you stop, call a friend, and say did you know?? I am, myself, a historian of the weird with a focus on strange and often creepy medicine, so this book is right up my street. After all, I wrote about head transplants.

Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage

By Rachel E. Gross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vagina Obscura as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Latin term for the female genitalia, pudendum, means "parts for which you should be ashamed". Until 1651, ovaries were called female testicles. The fallopian tubes are named for a man. Named, claimed, and shamed: Welcome to the story of the female body, as penned by men.

Today, a new generation of (mostly) women scientists is finally redrawing the map. With modern tools and fresh perspectives, they're looking at the organs traditionally bound up in reproduction-the uterus, ovaries, vagina-and seeing within them a new biology of change and resilience. Through their eyes, journalist Rachel E. Gross takes readers on an…


Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, a Deadly Disease

By Jason Dearen,

Book cover of Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, a Deadly Disease

Why this book?

Two pharmacists sit in a Boston courtroom accused of murder. The weapon: a fungus. The death count: 100 and rising. These facts set the stage for a true-crime thriller by investigative journalist Jason Dearen, and it has the makings of a horror movie. There’s scientific hubris, sketchy ethics, a cover-up, and a monster, too: a slimy, sticky, fungal mold that infected patients and began eating their brains alive. It’s riveting, packed with information about how fungal spores managed to contaminate a medical supply chain, and frankly hard to put down. I have done my share of forensic research, and never have I encountered killer fungus before; I consider this an unmissable book.

Kill Shot: A Shadow Industry, a Deadly Disease

By Jason Dearen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kill Shot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An award-winning investigative journalist's horrifying true crime story of America's deadliest drug contamination outbreak and the greed and deception that fueled it.

Two pharmacists sit in a Boston courtroom accused of murder. The weapon: the fungus Exserohilum rostratum. The death count: 100 and rising. Kill Shot is the story of their hubris and fraud, discovered by a team of medical detectives who raced against the clock to hunt the killers and the fungal meningitis they'd unleashed.

"Bloodthirsty" is how doctors described the fungal microbe that contaminated thousands of drug vials produced by the New England Compounding Center (NECC). Though NECC…


The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Book cover of The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

Why this book?

From the moment the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: mankind’s military technology had wildly surpassed its medical capabilities. Bodies were battered, gouged, hacked, and gassed. But we often forget to ask the most important questions: who put the soldiers back together? And how? I’m a medical and scientific historian, so these are often the queries that haunt me most. With powerful prose, Lindsey (a dear friend of mine and an incredible author) recounts the early days of plastic surgery, of men who needed their faces rebuilt, and the man who made it happen. This book reads like an adventure and an emotional roller-coaster in one, packed with gripping and unusual facts about a uniquely modern surgical specialty.

The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I

By Lindsey Fitzharris,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Facemaker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Bestseller
Finalist for the 2022 Kirkus Prize

"Enthralling. Harrowing. Heartbreaking. And utterly redemptive. Lindsey Fitzharris hit this one out of the park." —Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile

Lindsey Fitzharris, the award-winning author of The Butchering Art, presents the compelling, true story of a visionary surgeon who rebuilt the faces of the First World War’s injured heroes, and in the process ushered in the modern era of plastic surgery.

From the moment the first machine gun rang out over the Western Front, one thing was clear: humankind’s military technology had wildly surpassed its…


All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's Work

By Hayley Campbell,

Book cover of All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's Work

Why this book?

I write about death. A lot. I might also be a death-expert, in fact (deathxspert?). My first book was on death, dying, and grief, and since then, I’ve been interviewed by NPR, Jodi Kantor for the NYT, various news outlets, and an awful lot of podcasts. Frankly, I thought I knew everything there was to know—then I read Hayley Campbell’s book. I was asked to consider not the dying, nor the grieving, but the death workers. Who cleans the body? Who embalms? Who tidies a crime scene? I was shocked to discover there are companies that specialize in plane-crash management, or that someone is still sifting through the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire and collapse. This book is a literal journey, weaving a take from peculiar unknowns and delivering an utterly riveting story.

All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life's Work

By Hayley Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked All the Living and the Dead as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A deeply compelling exploration of the death industry and the people—morticians, detectives, crime scene cleaners, embalmers, executioners—who work in it and what led them there.

We are surrounded by death. It is in our news, our nursery rhymes, our true-crime podcasts. Yet from a young age, we are told that death is something to be feared. How are we supposed to know what we’re so afraid of, when we are never given the chance to look?

Fueled by a childhood fascination with death, journalist Hayley Campbell searches for answers in the people who make a living by working with the…


Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex

By Rachel Feltman,

Book cover of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex

Why this book?

Why are there so many sex books on my peculiar list? Because sex is one of those subjects we often ignore or treat as taboo—despite it being around since, well, according to Feltman, a particularly amorous pre-historic ameba-like critter. This book also appeals to me because, as a gender-fluid person, I love the idea that the evolutionary status quo used to be essentially pansexual, with exploded gender categories (basically, that ameba was going to try its luck with anything it came across). Along the way, this book stomps on myths and instead shares true facts, which are often much weirder. You will love it.

Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex

By Rachel Feltman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Been There, Done That as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A rollicking, myth-busting history of sex that moves from historical attempts at birth control to Hildegard von Bingen’s treatise on the female orgasm, demystifying plenty of urban legends along the way.

Roman physicians told female patients they should sneeze out as much semen as possible after intercourse to avoid pregnancy. Historical treatments for erectile dysfunction included goat testicle transplants. In this kaleidoscopic compendium of centuries-old erotica, science writer Rachel Feltman shows how much sex has changed—and how much it hasn’t. With unstoppable curiosity, she debunks myths, breaks down stigma, and uses the long, outlandish history of sex to dissect present-day…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in medications, funerals, and women's rights?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about medications, funerals, and women's rights.

Medications Explore 13 books about medications
Funerals Explore 21 books about funerals
Women's Rights Explore 32 books about women's rights

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Biased, A Face for Picasso, and Hellhole if you like this list.