Everybody has a story
October 5, 2009 1:53 AM   Subscribe

I like biographies of ordinary/non-famous people with interesting stories to tell, or stories from before they became notable. Can anyone recommend any?

Recent-ish books I've enjoyed were Rhona Cameron's 1979: A Big Year In A Small Town, Noelle Howey's Dress Codes, Ken Dornstein's The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, Quentin Crisp's The Naked Civil Servant, and Alexander Master's Stuart: A Life Backwards - all of which featured the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary events, ideas or feelings, like novels about real life...I only like 'famous' people's biographies if they're resolutely un-dry and un-deferent, and am open to reading stories of people about which I know nothing if they're interesting enough. (I'm still disappointed that Boy George's autobiography was ghostwritten - Marc Almond's was a much more fun read.)

I'm currently reading War Paint, a biography of Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, which, while covering the careers of both women, is as much about myth creation, social history and marketing. Any similar books which you can recommend?
posted by mippy to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
'Into the wild', by Jon Krakauer is about a young man leaving everything behind to live alone in Alaska.

'The headmaster', by John McPhee is about a teacher who ruled supreme for about sixty years in a prep school.

'Homicide' by David Simon and 'Friday Night Lights' by Bissinger are more mosaics than biographies, but they are interesting depictions of everyday life of non famous people.

'The Power Broker', by Robert A. Caro is not about an ordinary person (Robert Moses is quasi-famous after all), but it's certainly un-deferent, and it's possibly the best biography ever written.
posted by NekulturnY at 1:58 AM on October 5, 2009

Two lives by Vikram Seth. Let me quote the back-cover blurb, with which I wholly agree: "... the story of a century and of a love affair across a racial divide. It tells of the extraordinary lives of Vikram Seth's great-uncle Shanti, brought up in India and sent to Berlin in the 1930s to study, and of his great-aunt Henny, whose German-Jewish family took Shanti in as a lodger. What follows is an extraordinary tapestry of India, the Third Reich and the Second World War, Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Israel and Palestine, post-war Germany and modern Britain."

Hope you enjoy it.
posted by aqsakal at 2:05 AM on October 5, 2009 [4 favorites]

I loved "The Boy Who Fell Out Of The Sky", too.

I'd really recommend Peter Godwin's "When a Crocodile Eats the Sun" - a sort of family biography of his parents' life as emigrants to Zimbabwe and their time living their as it collapses.

I've also just finished Patrick Hennessey's "The Junior Officers' Reading Club", about his time as an officer on the front line in Afghanistan.

Also, if you haven't read it yet, Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" is a rollocking old read.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:17 AM on October 5, 2009

Their/there. Natch. Back to homophone remedial class for me.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:18 AM on October 5, 2009

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson.
posted by mittenbex at 4:15 AM on October 5, 2009

Teacher Man fits your criterion.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:25 AM on October 5, 2009

I second Caro's bio of Robert Moses.
I also recommend:
- Caro's bio of LBJ (it's a series of his pre-famous days). He has yet to finish the bio of his presidency

- Carlo D'Este's bio of Patton. Patton is the guy I'd call far from ordinary if I ever met one. But then again the bios I'm recommending here are people who are in many ways not ordinary. That's why they're famous.

- Also there is Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Stalin's life long before he came infamous, describing the harsh Georgian frontier that helped shape him.
posted by fairykarma at 4:37 AM on October 5, 2009

Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy might be your thing, assuming you've not read it already - wet-behind-the-ears would-be IRA bomber then a few years in youth detention in England, told with some style.
posted by Abiezer at 4:41 AM on October 5, 2009

I think you'll love the Moth Podcast.
posted by SebastianKnight at 5:09 AM on October 5, 2009

I very much enjoyed Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Haven has gone on to be a fairly well-known novelist, but this first book about her childhood was quite a wonderful and quirky read.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:43 AM on October 5, 2009

I just finished Here If You Need Me, by Kate Braestrup. It's about a woman who becomes a chaplain to the Maine game wardens after her husband is killed. It has some really interesting thoughts about religion and god that didn't turn off this atheist. It makes you wish all religious people (Braestrup isn't actually very religious, believe it or not) were like her. Lots of stories of search and rescue, tragedy, etc.
posted by bondcliff at 6:09 AM on October 5, 2009

Uncle Tungsten - Oliver Sacks
All the Conspirators - Christopher Isherwood
Lions and Shadows - Christopher Isherwood
Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain
Motion of Light and Water - Samuel R. Delany
Boswell's Life of Johnson - James Boswell
posted by mr. remy at 6:18 AM on October 5, 2009

Russell Brand's My Booky Wook has more about his pre-celebrity life than not; he's led an interesting life and is very candid about his struggles with addiction. Lots of strange stories in there.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 6:33 AM on October 5, 2009

So far, out of suggestions here I've read already:
Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain
Into The Wild - John Krakauer
A Girl Named Zippy (I didn't really get into this, perhaps it resonates more for people who've grown up in the US)
The Andrew Collins books (bar the last - on my wish list)

I find Russell Brand a little annoying!

Another book similar that I've enjoyed recently - Karen Armstrong's book on leaving life as a nun (The Spiral Staircase?). Keep suggestions coming :)
posted by mippy at 6:45 AM on October 5, 2009

Oh that reminds me

Peter Hill's Stargazing: Memoirs of a Lighthouse Keeper

is on my list to be read
posted by handybitesize at 7:04 AM on October 5, 2009

Carl Berstein - Loyalties, his childhood growing up with parents who were under surveillance for being Communist Party members. Not at all grim.
posted by x46 at 7:11 AM on October 5, 2009

Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William Iggiagruk Hensley is an astonishing memoir by an Alaska Native whose childhood predated US statehood and the coming of most technology to most of Alaska.

An interesting memoir (which, full disclosure, is by a dear friend of mine) is Meeting Faith, which is a double narrative of a biracial (Nigerian and Scandinavian-American) woman's time at a Thai monastery in the 1980s and her later perspectives on it in the early 2000s. It's also a beautifully designed book, if that's of interest to you.

Actually, if I may be permitted the dreaded self-link, I review lots of memoirs and autobiographies on my daily Twitter book review, so you can get more recommendations from that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:17 AM on October 5, 2009

I'm seconding Two Lives. Incredible biography that really makes you realize everyone has a story rich as any famous, notorious, Nobel Prize winning actor musician global superstar.

Almost a novel in that there were two separate threads, two separate lives, that you knew were going to come together at some point but you couldn't quite see how until it happened; the lives of each individual were depicted as significant and meaningful before they came together, instead of making the point of describing their past only in view of what came later.

Really the best example of ordinary made extraordinary I've ever read. And now I know what I'm going to take to read on my commute this morning..
posted by variella at 7:27 AM on October 5, 2009

Gregory David Roberts: Shantaram.

semi-autobiographical story of escaping from an aussie maximum security prison, absconding to mumbai, of all places, living in a slum, joining the underworld & going off to fight in afghanistan against the russians. amongst other things.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:56 AM on October 5, 2009

The Snoring Bird about a guy who collected birds and insects across a particularly interesting section of European history in a particularly interesting location. The writing is good, the subject is good.

My mother really liked Mrs Milburn's diaries : an Englishwoman's day-to-day reflections 1939-1945 by Clara Milburn, Peter Donnelly. In fact she liked the book so much that she was looking for it for many years after first reading it while we were living in the UK. I found it again in January of this year - always exciting finding a book based on a limited number of clues - and she really enjoyed it. I haven't read this myself, but I am looking forward to reading it in the near future.

A biography which I feel is one of the best I've read in recent memory, but is of someone moderately famous, I suggest a biography of Bruce Chatwin by Nicholas Shakespeare. Chatwin was an enigma to his friends and family and Shakespeare manages to not over simplify but let the reader enjoy the contradictions of the guy.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:20 AM on October 5, 2009

If you're going to read about Chatwin, might as well go this his mentor Patrick Leigh Fermor.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:42 AM on October 5, 2009

Nthing Two Lives and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, great stuff.

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah is a great read (about the author moving to Morocco)

Now the Hell Will Start by Brendan Koerner - a fascinating story about a soldier in WWII that you're unlikely to have heard before, or to have heard anything like before. (He kills someone and hides out in the Burmese jungle, marries a headhunter's daughter and lives like a king... while the US military is hunting him down.)

Great question by the way.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 9:59 AM on October 5, 2009

I thought about bringing up PLF and decided that if I went there, I'd have to bring up all the wonderful travel memoirs, and there are quite a lot. Since you've called my bluff (not really, but I'm just enough encouraged now), I'm going to spend some time coming up with a list of some of my favorite travel writing.

IndigoJones, I blame you for this.
posted by sciencegeek at 9:59 AM on October 5, 2009

You'd probably enjoy I Thought My Father Was God, a compilation of stories from the National Story Project/NPR. There are funny stories, scary stories, sad/horrifying/uplifting... you name it.

Also, Shirley Jackson's book Life Among the Savages is a classic about raising kids in the 1950s(?). Much funnier than you'd expect.

You might also check out Me, by journalist Brenda Ueland. It starts with her childhood in Minnesota and goes on to describe round-the-world travels in the era of WWI, among other things.
posted by Madamina at 10:00 AM on October 5, 2009

A Street in Marrakech by Elizabeth Warnock-Fernea is the story of the author's stay in Marrakech and her interactions with the city and her neighbors.

William Least Heat Moon's book Blue Highways about the author's meandering trip across the US on the small roads.

Pico Iyer's Four Season in Kyoto about the author's time in Kyoto.

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr.

The weirdly ego-centric scatterbrained book, Journey with Elsa Cloud. This book has a story behind it and it is ugly.

I'm a big fan of William Dalrymple, his book In Xanadu is just one of his books that I've enjoyed. His history books are also largely readable by the non-academic. The Age of Kali is pretty good too.

Maximum City Bombay is less a memoir of a person and more a book about a city.

Oliver Sacks writes delightfully both about his field and when he waxes biographical I especially enjoy it.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Urgh, I forgot Catfish and Mandala.
posted by sciencegeek at 11:08 AM on October 5, 2009

I really loved Nigel Slater's Toast. It's a bittersweet memoir with food as a thread throughout.

Paul "Freaks and Geeks" Feig's Kick Me : Adventures in Adolescence is another funny story about growing up.
posted by vespabelle at 12:38 PM on October 5, 2009

Two about growing up in Silicon Valley (before it was silicon!):

Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family
Blue Sky Dream
posted by vespabelle at 12:52 PM on October 5, 2009

Studs Terkel spent a lifetime interviewing ordinary people living ordinary lives and writing about them. Working is the best in my opinion, but his entire catalog may suit you; each book is generally centered around a particular topic such as race or war.
posted by Kwine at 12:55 PM on October 5, 2009

Oh, oh To War with Whitaker which is my current "recommend to everyone" book. The diaries of a woman who defied to War Office and smuggled herself into the Middle East to be near her husband when WWII broke out. She worked as the secretary for various generals and diplomats. The book gives a great view on life in war, a different perspective on the Middle East and a view into the role of women in the forties. Great all round.
posted by cluck at 1:54 PM on October 5, 2009

This guy does wonderful interviews with everyday folk... and sometimes vaguely well known people. His style is quite charming and I really enjoy hearing about the really diverse lives he delves in to.

It's not a book, but a daily podcast. Sorry if it is completely not what you wanted... but you might enjoy.
posted by taff at 2:47 PM on October 5, 2009

Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Cherry are two of the best memoirs I've ever read.

I also highly recommend Stephen Fry's Moab is My Washpot.
posted by MsMolly at 5:41 PM on October 5, 2009

Madeleine L'Engle's memoir of her marriage, Two-Part Invention is absolutely wonderful. She is famous and so was her husband (he was an actor on a soap opera!), but the book conveys their careers as just part of the fabric of their lives and certainly celebrity is not the most important aspect.
posted by Sublimity at 6:31 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Liars' Club. Loved it!

Bitter Is The New Black is really good, and made me laugh a lot.

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko is one of the best biographies I've ever read.

And okay, so he's really famous now, but Barack Obama certainly wasn't when he wrote Dreams from my Father.
posted by SisterHavana at 10:04 PM on October 5, 2009

I want to second Studs Terkel, especially The Good War, his book of interviews about WWII. It is gripping reading and you get perspectives on life during the war that get short - or no - shrift in other contexts. Also, The Sun magazine has a wonderful section called the Reader's Write where readers submit short autobiographical pieces relating to a chosen theme (Laundromats, Mothers, The First Time, etc.). It is often surprising to see what these generic topics summon up for people. I always read that section first - sometimes the stories are incredibly touching (or hilarious!) and I love that they are from regular people's real lives.
posted by sumiami at 10:33 PM on October 5, 2009

I have Cherry to read, and always wished Freaks and Geeks was shown in the UK. Bitter Is The New Black is on my Amazon and Bookmooch wishlist (I liked Save Karyn, and it seems like a smarter, sassier version).
posted by mippy at 5:24 AM on October 6, 2009

IndigoJones, I blame you for this.

Sorry, man.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:38 PM on October 7, 2009

Sorry, ma'am

(Jesus. Red faced. A thousand pardons.)

See also P.Y. Betts People Who Say Goodbye and Steven Runciman's A Traveler's Alphabet.
posted by IndigoJones at 3:52 PM on October 7, 2009

Okay, I'm on percocet and a little cranky about now, but I'm going to disagree with the Madeleine L'Engle thing. It claims to be about a marriage, but heavens! What a lot of I, I, I, and me, me, me. The many proposals I had. The many experiences I had. Oh yes, the husband - he is dying. So very tragic. How do sensitive I feel about such a tragic event?

You want a nice book about a truly well loved spouse and a final illness, go with Calvin Trilling's About Alice.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:05 PM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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