Far too frequently, memoirs are nakedly self-justifying. Often so much so that even a casual reader can pick up on the author’s agenda without difficulty. This is especially true of memoirs by politicians and entertainers. In fact, a large proportion of those books about politics and entertainment are written by ghostwriters. (To the best of my knowledge, that is not true of any of the memoirs I’ve reviewed.) In selecting autobiographical books to read and review, I’ve attempted to find books that offer insight and historical perspective, not just a personal story. The nearly two dozen excellent memoirs listed here all do that. A few are truly outstanding examples of the genre.
These books are listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is followed by a link to my review.
This post was updated on December 2, 2020.
(Almost) two dozen excellent memoirs
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder – A true story of high finance and murder in Putin’s Russia
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg – Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act
Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox—Life undercover in the CIA chasing suitcase nukes
Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken – Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny
The Secrets of the Notebook: A Woman’s Quest to Uncover Her Royal Family Secret by Eve Haas—One woman’s obsessive quest to learn how her grandmother died in the Holocaust
Six Car Lengths Behind an Elephant: Undercover & Overwhelmed as a CIA Wife and Mother by Lillian McCloy—Under deep cover in the CIA during the Cold War
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris—A peek inside the editorial process at The New Yorker
Becoming by Michelle Obama—The Michelle Obama memoir is an extraordinary story
A Promised Land by Barack Obama—Barack Obama’s memoir is a literary tour de force
Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani – A brilliant, muIti-dimensional picture of Indonesia today
From Kraków to Berkeley: Coming Out of Hiding by Anna Rabkin – “Survival is sweet revenge”: The odyssey of a Holocaust survivor
Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory by Elizabeth Rosner – The Holocaust, mass trauma, inherited PTSD, and genetics
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system
Little Failure: A Memoir by Gary Shteyngart – From the gifted novelist Gary Shteyngart, a hilarious memoir
A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren – Speaking truth to power
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover – A remarkably candid memoir about growing up survivalist
For further reading
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.