When each of us inevitably leaves this world, we unfortunately don’t leave much more than memories behind, and those are bound to fade away with time as well, until not even the memory of a memory remains. This has never boded well with the amount of self-importance we tend to give ourselves, and while we haven’t figured out immortality yet, we have been looking for ways to immortalize ourselves.
Statues, drawings and paintings were some of the most obvious choices, but they only reminded people of someone’s external appearance, and said nothing of their inner worlds. The next obvious choice was quite obviously literature, and the idea caught on like wildfire.
Countless people from all walks of life and time periods have sought to immortalize themselves or even others by writing true accounts of their lives, forever preserving the essence of their inner worlds on paper. I’ll be the first to admit not all biographies are equally interesting, there are some giving us unique and unprecedented insight into aspects of life or events in history we knew nothing about.
Below is a collection of biographies and memoirs which I believe to be not very well-written, but also exceptionally insightful about certain specific subjects and can be of interest to almost literally anyone on the planet.
Paul Newman is a name requiring no introduction, a veritable Hollywood icon, the kind who endured the test of time and has managed to avoid reputation-ending scandals. In 2022 a project which he concluded almost two decades earlier was published, titled The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man – A Memoir, edited by David Rosenthal. In it, both Newman and many of those who knew him offer their unfiltered views on the man’s history and all the remarkable travails he was forced to endure.
Rick Bragg has written on a vast number of topics both as a an author and a journalist, and in his most recent work, The Speckled Beauty, he branches out further once again. In this autobiographical book, the author explores the many ways in which his life was transformed when a half-blind, misbehaved stray dog unexpectedly walked into his life.
Ben Macintyre has an evidently profound interest in the world of espionage, as evidenced by his large number of non-fiction books in the matter. In A Spy Among Friends, one of his bestselling books, he explores the life, relationships, thoughts and actions of Kim Philby, a British MI6 agent who spied for the Soviet Union for over three decades before being successfully extracted.
Ross King, while dabbling in fiction at times, seems to have made his greatest literary impacts in the realm of non-fiction, as he recently did once again with The Bookseller of Florence. Taking us back to the fifteenth century, it tells the true story of Vespasiano da Bisticci, known in his day as the king of the world’s booksellers and perhaps the greatest propagator of knowledge, ultimately setting Italy on the long road to the Enlightenment.
Larry Loftis is quickly becoming a voice worth listening to in the realm of biographies, and he has recently reinforced this notion further upon publishing The Princess Spy. Mixing small bits of inconsequential fiction with hard, cold facts, it recounts the life of Aline Griffith, a regular girl from suburban New York who really wanted to do her part and serve her country during World War II.
Patricia Lockwood had a childhood unlike most people, being even uncommon for the realm of religious upbringing. In her memoir titled Priestdaddy, Lockwood looks back on her childhood, adolescence and young adulthood which were strongly marked by her father, Greg Lockwood, a larger-than-life Catholic priest who defied all conventions.
Doris Payne is without a doubt one of the most unusual women one could hope to meet, boasting a six-decade long career as a notorious international jewel thief. Now almost ninety years old and still getting regularly convicted for theft, she has decided to write her autobiography to share her unique life story with the rest of the world. In Diamond Doris she recalls as much as she can from her life, showing her true face to all.
Julian Barnes has long ago distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually-stimulating authors of our times, and with The Man in the Red Coat he puts his talents to use once again, taking us to the heart of the Belle Epoque Paris. Through a journey on which we are guided by Samuel Pozzi, a pioneering gynecologist of his times, we make the acquaintance of the many remarkable people who populated the end of the 19th century, and the unexpected parallels drawn between this epoch and our own.
Marie Benedict is one of the many authors today who have decided to delve into the lesser-known pages of our history, and her most recent efforts have resulted in the publication of Lady Clementine. A biographical novel, it follows the story of Lady Clementine Churchill, the strong and ambitious wife to one of the nation’s most famous leaders. From saving her husband multiple times to forging on against the world’s expectations, her life was nothing if not extraordinary.
Karen Abbott has certainly found her niche in exploring the rich history the United States of America has to offer, and with The Ghosts of Eden Park she continues her journey by exploring the life of George Remus.
Somewhat overshadowed by Al Capone’s efforts, Remus was actually the first “King of the Bootleggers” in America during the earliest days of the prohibition, and his life ended up being far stranger than fiction.
Joseph Horace Greasley is one of countless veterans from the Second World War who haven’t let their experience and memories go to waste, writing his autobiography shortly before his passing titled Do the Birds Still Sing in Hell?. In this book, the brunt of the focus is placed on his time spent as a prisoner of war in a German camp, and his hundreds of successful attempts to sneak out and meet with his love interest, and then back in with anything to help his comrades.
Holly George-Warren is an authority like few others when it comes to the storied yet short history of Rock & Roll, having dedicated a large portion of her life to studying the phenomenon. As such, who better than to write a profoundly-researched and intimate biography of Janis Joplin, the Queen of Rock & Roll? In Janis, George-Warren aims to show the legend not only as a counterculture icon filled with suffering, but also as a passionate artist and perfectionist musician who was, in the end, human like the rest of us.
Edward Snowden is a name which comes up time and time again in news articles all around the world, but the truth is most people aren’t familiar with the importance of his whistleblowing below the surface level. In September 2019 he published his first work as an author: Permanent Record. Autobiographical in its nature, Snowden details in his book how he helped to build the United States’ mass surveillance system, and how he came to be on the other side of the hill, trying to take it down.
Human history holds many small marvels and curiosities for those willing to plunge below the surface, and Marie Benedict displays one of them to us in her biographical book The Only Woman in the Room. It traces the story of Hedy Lamarr, Austrian-American Hollywood superstar whose invention revolutionized not only the field of modern communication, but also challenged the entire world’s perspective on what women are capable of accomplishing.
Many are the people eager and willing to forget the history of yesteryear, but thankfully there remain authors such as Larry Loftis who believe in the importance of knowing about our past and the heroes in it. In Code Name: Lise, Loftis returns once again to the Second World War to tell the story of Odette Sansom, a mother of three daughters who became an invaluable Allied intelligence officer and perhaps one of the most celebrated members of the British Special Operations Executive. Sabotaging, spying, and surviving torturous imprisonment, she became the first woman to be awarded both the George Cross and appointed as a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur.
Michael Benson is an author who has dedicated much of his career to studying and understanding outer space, with many of his works exploring the recent strides and discoveries made in the domain. For his latest book, Space Odyssey, he has decided to venture into the land of fiction, chronicling the eventful making of what is perhaps the most renowned and profound science-fiction movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey, created in a joint effort between Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.
Scott A. Huesing is an author unlike most others. While most of those who write books about war have either researched or imagined the ordeal, Huesing is a man who lived through it first-hand and spent 24 years of his life in service of the U.S. Army. Recently he decided to share a slice of his experience with the rest of the world in his autobiographical memoir titled Echo in Ramadi. In it, he recounts the period from winter 2006 to spring 2007 during which he led Echo Company through the deadly streets of Ramadi, Iraq, where fighting kept raging on a daily basis and took its toll on everyone involved.
Alex Kershaw has used his exceptional knowledge and writing prowess to bring to life the stories of quite a few people from the Second World War, memoirs that may have otherwise been forgotten forever. In The Liberator he returns to the helm of his ship and brings us the biography of a man whose path through the war was a strange and revealing one: Felix Sparks. More precisely, we follow the journey of the 157th Infantry from 1943 and onwards as they carve their way from Italy all the way to the liberation of the infamous concentration camp at Dachau.
Kati Marton has dedicated much of her life to humanitarian causes, whether it’s furthering their progress by herself or helping to educate others. She has helped to shine the light where it was most needed many times, and one of her most memorable works came in the form of a book about a forgotten hero from the Second World War: Raoul Wallenberg. Simply titled Wallenberg, the book is the man’s biography, detailing his ingenious exploits that helped save thousands upon thousands of Jews from the clutches of Nazis… as well as the macabre reward he got for it in the form of illegal imprisonment and death in a Soviet labour camp.
George Christie is the kind of man whose life reads more like a novel than an actual autobiography. He quit a job at the U.S. Department of Defense to be a full-fledged member of the Hells Angels, eventually founding the Ventura chapter (one of the most well-known and high-profile ones) and serving as its president for over three decades. A thinker, he was a far cry from the stereotypical image of a gang biker, being a calculated thinker who counted many artists and celebrities amongst his friends, even carrying the torch for the 1984 Olympic Games. After four decades spent as a Hells Angel, Christie finally decided to retire, and in Exile on Front Street he personally reveals what all those years were actually like.
Larry Loftis has written a number of legal books and articles, but it is only with Into the Lion’s Mouth that he decided to venture into a narrative. More precisely, he decided to tell the sadly-overlooked story of Dusko Popov, a young Serbian playboy who arguably became the greatest spy in human history and without a question served as the inspiration for James Bond. This book is a completely factual narrative that seeks to transpose a true life in all of its veracity into a thrilling story that will hopefully enlighten the world about a historical figure whose world-shaping actions remain largely in the shadows today.
Candice Millard takes us back to the Boer War, a time during which one of the most famous historical figures emerged: Winston Churchill. While his exploits during that more or less forgotten time didn’t make it into most history books, Millard pushes them into the spotlight in her tremendous biographical work, Hero of the Empire. While most of us will always remember Churchill for his demeanour and leadership during the Second World War, we would do well to remember that just like any great figure in our history, he was forged through deadly trials that pushed him to greatness, and they certainly deserve a book of their own.
J.D. Vance opens up to the world about his life and takes us on a difficult and thought-provoking tour of his past spent growing up in poverty and abuse in America’s Rust Belt, casting the light on a declining part of American culture many choose to shamefully ignore. He calls upon us to witness the hidden misery insidiously poisoning the working class in what is a desperate cry to get people to notice what’s happening right under their noses and finally do something about it. There is no pampering or hand-holding; only the often-harrowing and heavy truths Vance saw for himself.
Mosab Hassan Yousef was destined for an unusual life from day one, being the oldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist organization that claimed many terror attacks in Israel over the past decades. After he arrived in the United States he wrote a book called Son of Hamas where he shares his inside view on that world and details his collaboration over the course of ten years with Israeli intelligence.