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August 14, 2006 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I need a book suggestion...something slightly off the beaten path in the biography, history, science, or world politics categories. (more details inside)

I recently had a series of business meetings with a guy and over lunch one afternoon we wandered into a discussion of a book he was reading that caught my attention (Francis Crick biography). Several days later the book showed up on my desk with a nice note. I would like to reciprocate but I am struggling to come up with something as interesting and unusual for a really nice guy that I just met.
posted by cyclopz to Writing & Language (32 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The Devil in the White City - definitely off the beaten path. Part popular history, part biography, part suspense and a serial killer!
posted by meerkatty at 8:06 AM on August 14, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel?
posted by j at 8:06 AM on August 14, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson?

pretty good book
posted by edgeways at 8:08 AM on August 14, 2006

Best answer: You might want to go play with librarything. I'm finding its recommendations to be an order of magnitude better than Amazon's these days.

I pulled "The Astonishing Hypothesis : the Scientific Search for the Soul by Francis Crick" out of the hat and asked for recommendations based on it, and it threw back this
posted by Leon at 8:17 AM on August 14, 2006

Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox by Victoria Finlay. Part travelogue, part natural history. I really loved it and consider it as good as Guns, Germs & Steel and "Short History...".
posted by GuyZero at 8:19 AM on August 14, 2006

Pendulum: Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science is a quite readable biography of the man who proved that the Earth rotates.
posted by nyterrant at 8:21 AM on August 14, 2006

I recommend Copies in Seconds, about the birth of the Xerox machine and the man behind it. He grew up in grinding poverty and did NOT have an easy time of convincing people the world could use a copy machine.

Also, two longtime favorites of mine are Mark Kurlansky's books Cod and The Basque History of the World.
posted by veggieboy at 8:28 AM on August 14, 2006

Barrow's Boys

Part history, part biography, it recounts the efforts of the British Admiralty to map the North West Passage and find the mouth of the Nile in the 19th Century. Stuffed with memorable characters and tales of heroism and endeavour (as well as tales of failure, arrogance and incompetence).

I found it fascinating and nicely constructed, as most chapters tell the tale of one if the expeditions, so it's easy to leave it and then come back to it, which is always handy if you have a few books on the go.
posted by drill_here_fore_seismics at 8:36 AM on August 14, 2006

If you can find it Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow is a fantastic read.

It's a bit old, published in 1989, but is still one of my favorite books. The thing I really liked about it is that instead of assuming the reader "understands the subtext", it's all layed out in copious footnotes, which are frequently larger than the text being noted.
posted by jaded at 8:40 AM on August 14, 2006

One of my favorite biographies: Churchill: Visions of Glory. It's the first of three delightfully readable volumes and deals with his extraordinary early life. (How many people know WSC first became famous as a very young man for escaping a POW camp?)
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:50 AM on August 14, 2006

I'd caution you before buying Devil in the White City - it is one of my favorite books, but if your new acquaintance is from Chicago, it is definitely NOT off the beaten path and he's probably read it before. It's the one book that I can honestly say every single one of my friends has read (and a few times, I've given it as a gift and heard wow, that is one of my favorite books...from the recipient. I no longer consider that a book to give).

I liked A Death in Belmont. It's along the same lines as Devil in the White City, but it's a little more fast-paced. It's written by the author of The Perfect Storm. It's sort of a biography with a crime drama thrown in.

In a more biographical sense, I really enjoyed Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. It's a biography of Michelangelo and Pope Julius II focused on the time period when Michelangelo
frescoed the Sistine Chapel.
posted by MeetMegan at 8:51 AM on August 14, 2006

You can't go wrong with Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I just finished Bury Me Standing, a great study of European gypsies written by a woman who stayed with Roma families all over Eastern Europe and learned about an entire culture that most Europeans despise or dismiss. Neat stuff.
William Powers' Blue Clay People follows a Peace Corps volunteer's mission to Liberia, and it offers an incredibly emotional and humane account of living in one of the most unstable countries in the world.
Also, I've heard good things about Mark Kurlansky's works, Salt in particular, though I've yet to pick it up.
posted by zoomorphic at 8:51 AM on August 14, 2006

Oh, and Salt, by the same guy who wrote Cod.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:51 AM on August 14, 2006

damnit zoomorphic. read it though - it rocks.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:52 AM on August 14, 2006

Has he read Watson's Double Helix? It's on the short list of readable and enjoyable science classics, and though it will likely cove ground already gone over int he book on Crick it's still quite lively.
posted by rogue haggis landing at 8:54 AM on August 14, 2006

I recently finished the River of Doubt by Candice Millard, documenting Theodore Roosevelt's exploration of an unknown portion of the Amazon River. Very good adventure and portrait of Roosevelt. I'd strongly recommend it.

I'll half-second The Devil in the White City. I think the author fell just short of tying two stories together; the creation of the Worlds' Fair and the tracking of a serial killer. Still a lot of fascinating detail there, though.
posted by yamel at 8:54 AM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: meerkatty...great suggestion...I read it last summer but it completely slipped off my radar screen...and leon thanks for the point toward librarything...some of the ideas it threw out based on the choice of the Crick book look like they might appeal to me but may be too hard science oriented for a guy that I don't know very well...
posted by cyclopz at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2006

I see you marked it as best answer but I would agree with MeetMegan - The Devil in the White City has been a bestseller for ages and everyone I know has already read (and loved) it too. Go for something a little more obscure.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:55 AM on August 14, 2006

I thoroughly enjoyed the new Oppenheimer biography, but given that it won a Pulitzer, it may not be obscure enough either.
posted by epugachev at 9:07 AM on August 14, 2006

Longitude by Dava Sobel, is quite interesting. Emporer of Scent was far out. But if you are really cool, get past the title of Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea for one of the most amazing stories ever.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 9:07 AM on August 14, 2006

I recently finished The Soccer War by Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuscinski. Came highly recommended by a few war correspondents I know as being the writing of a guy "who gets it". It's a little gonzo, meaning it's sometimes hard to separate the journalist from what he's supposed to be covering, but that makes it all the more entertaining and intriguing. The situations are serious, but Kapuscinski's take on it all makes it funny, poignant, sad, meaningful and all the other usual platitudes bestowed on good literature. Felt to me like what you'd get if you made a decent This American Life piece about the mid-20th century struggles in Congo, Nigeria, Algeria, El Salvador and Honduras. The big picture is always there, but it's the intimacy and idiosyncracies of life in conflict that remain always in focus.
posted by msbrauer at 9:09 AM on August 14, 2006

Frogs, Flies and Dandelions is interesting, obscure and topically related to the Crick biography.
posted by sulaine at 9:11 AM on August 14, 2006

Best answer: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts. It fits the bill and is a fascinating and pleasurable read.
posted by Heminator at 9:11 AM on August 14, 2006

I've heard good things about A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler.

One of the best autobiographies of all time is Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman, which tells anecdotes from the life of brilliant quantam physicist Richard Feynman.
posted by Iridic at 9:42 AM on August 14, 2006

The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin is an easy read narrative history of science and technology from the ancient world to about 1900. It's divided up into sections covering time, geography, the human body, etc.

I've come back to this book several times. One of my favorite books.

It's also in a series including "The Seekers, about philosophy and The Creators, about art"
posted by Andrew Brinton at 10:19 AM on August 14, 2006

I second the Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, which I just finished last week. Fantastic read, not only in the sense of a riveting narration, a quirky lead character and a sense of humor, but also because it is a great glimpse into the reality of post Communist Eastern Europe and the history of Hungary itself. Absolutely great book.
posted by spicynuts at 11:12 AM on August 14, 2006

The Orientalist, true story about a Jewish man from the Caucuses who managed to convince the Nazis that he was a Moslem and also author of what is considered to be a modern classic of Azeri literature (an admittedly narrow category), Ali and Nino. Could not put it down.
posted by xetere at 11:14 AM on August 14, 2006

What about "Kitchen Confidential," by Anthony Bourdain? Its part autobiography about how he became a chef and part seedy look into the culinary world. I thought it was quite good...but Bourdain does curse like a sailor so the language might be a bit strong for someone you just met...but it was hilarious =)

(Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour is great as well...about him travelling around the world, sampling different cuisines and dealing with a Food Network camera crew he isn't too fond of...also very graphic, though)
posted by Eudaimonia at 11:34 AM on August 14, 2006

Simon Singh's Code Book. It's 843857146038316553924754.

I keed. It's really good.
posted by LDL_Plackenfatz at 12:48 PM on August 14, 2006

Brunelleschi's Dome has made the circuit among my friends. Good history mixed with interesting science/architecture.
posted by forrest at 1:46 PM on August 14, 2006

American Ceasar - The biography of Douglas Macarthur, the famous American general. I read it a few months ago and couldn't put it down.

And one of the greatest used-book-bin finds in recent years for me was a book called Beautiful Swimmers, written arond 1970, which details the life cycle of the Chesapeake Blue Crab, and the people and industry who depend on it. It's a Pulitzer Prize winner and just a wonderful read.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:50 PM on August 14, 2006

Response by poster: Took the advice on White Devil to heart...Ballad of the Whiskey Robber on the way...Thanks for all the suggestions...some new ones here for me to add to my list.
posted by cyclopz at 1:50 PM on August 14, 2006

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