Most interesting true-life tales?
June 26, 2006 9:11 PM   Subscribe

Looking for unique and offbeat biographical book/article recommendations. More specifically lives/events that have played out in the last 70 years or so.

I had an unfortunate snafu posting this last week, so here goes again: I am looking for really great autobiographies or biographies about people who aren't necessarily in the mainstream public knowledge, but who have led very interesting lives. In-depth articles would be great, too.

A book example of what I'm looking for: "To Reach the Clouds" by Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who crossed the WTC towers.

I'm most interested in true-life stories that have happened in the last 70 years, and less interested in the types of regular memoirs about a man/woman dealing with tragic loss, dysfunctional family, etc.

I love learning about crazy stories about people who have led fascinating lives, or been a part of a strange event that people don't know much about. Bonus for offbeat history, politics, inventors, cutting-edge technology, or outsider art. Etc.

Please point me in the direction of some of these gems!
posted by np312 to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
kind of well known but ive always loved richard feynmans books, especially surely youre joking mr feynman and what do you care what other people think?
posted by atom128 at 9:41 PM on June 26, 2006

A Man on the Moon goes into significant depth on all the Apollo astronauts and all the people associated with the program. Very interesting stuff about the astronauts themselves, the geologists, the engineers, etc.
posted by frogan at 9:56 PM on June 26, 2006

seconding Feynman. Surely You're Joking.... changed my life.

posted by sperose at 10:12 PM on June 26, 2006

Well, these aren't the least known people/events/companies ever, but they're excellent "biographies":

Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson

J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry

Education of a Felon

Playing Off the Rail: A Pool Hustler's Journey by David McCumber

A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe and just about anything written by Derrick Jensen

Winchell by Neal Gabler

Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations by Jerry Mander

The Dirt : Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band by Motley Crue

Life 102: What To Do When Your Guru Sues You by Peter McWilliams

Please Kill Me & The Other Hollywood by Legs McNeil

The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

Down to This by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

My Dark Places by James Ellroy

Players: Con Men, Hustlers, Gamblers and Scam Artists Edited by Stephen Hyde

Newjack - Guarding Sing Sing by Jack Conover

The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans (good documentary, too) (make sure you get unabridged)

An Unlikely Prophet by Alvin Schwartz

Boggs by Lawrence Weschler

In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen

Hackers by Steven Levy

Swoosh - The Unathorized Story of Nike by JB Strasser and Laurie Becklund

Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay

Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood by Nancy Griffith

The Tender by JR Moerhinger (not a fascinating life but a beautifully written memoir)

Low Life: Drinking, Drugging, Whoring, Murder, Corruption, Vice and Miscellaneous Mayhem in Old New York

The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David W Maurer

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch

The Myth of Sanity : Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness by Martha Stout

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Blood in the Face by James Ridgway

Con Man by JR "Yellow Kid" Weil

The Telephone Booth Indian by A. J. Liebling

The Coming Plague : Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance by Laurie Garret

Divine Invasions : A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin
posted by dobbs at 10:20 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oops, that should read The Tender Bar not just The Tender.

And so this isn't just a spelling post, I'll add A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power.
posted by dobbs at 10:27 PM on June 26, 2006

Darkness Visible : A Memoir of Madness by William Styron is another I meant to include.
posted by dobbs at 10:43 PM on June 26, 2006

Center of the Cyclone by psychedelic (& dolphin) researcher John Lillly.
posted by treepour at 11:04 PM on June 26, 2006

The works of Augusten Burroughs, notably"Running With Scissors", certainly qualify as offbeat...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:26 PM on June 26, 2006

He was a child of Harlem. One of his pseudonyms was Runt Wolfe. An early windtalker, he and a Princeton teammate would communicate on-field in Latin, one of the dozen languages he mastered. He also attended the Sorbonne and Columbia Law School before playing for the White Sox. He volunteered to become their catcher, where his "rifle arm" proved an asset. During a 1934 All-Star tour to Japan, he sneaked onto a rooftop to make a clandestine film of Tokyo's skyline and harbor, which may have been used by Jimmy Doolittle in planning his bombing raid. He joined the OSS (forerunner to the CIA) in 1943. Among his assignments was attending a lecture by Werner Heisenberg to evaluate Germany's chances of developing an A-bomb, with orders to assassinate the physicist if he was deemed a threat. After the War, he left the Service and mooched off family and friends for two decades, never holding a job. He planned to write his memoirs, but when his co-author confused him with Moe (Howard) of The Three Stooges, he quit the project. He died in 1972 after a fall. A nonobservant Jew, his ashes were scattered in Israel. His final words were, "How did the Mets do today?"

He was Moe Berg.
posted by rob511 at 11:39 PM on June 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

I thought Tom Reiss's book The Orientalist was one of the most amazing biographies I've ever read. As the linked blurb says, it is about "Lev Nussimbaum, a Jew who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a best-selling author in Nazi Germany." In addition to the obvious sensational aspects of Lev's life, the book was filled with intereresting history about the early days of the oil industry in the Caucasus, and early incarnations of terror. Really interesting history, and surprisingly relevent to events today.
posted by extrabox at 4:34 AM on June 27, 2006

I'll second Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil, which is an oral history of punk rock, and the Augusten Burroughs books.

I like Word Freak by Stephen Fatsis, which profiles the competitive Scrabble scene and its players.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horowitz- a look at how the people in the US are still obsessed with the Civil War.
posted by kimdog at 6:38 AM on June 27, 2006

oops, typed that really fast and now it's all bold for some reason. sorry.
posted by chococat at 10:57 AM on June 27, 2006

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