Nonfiction November 2019 Week 3: Be the Expert

Last week Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves hosted Nonfiction November and this week another great blogger, Katie of Doing Dewey has agreed to host.

Three ways to join in this week! You can share 3 or more books on a single topic that you’ve read and can recommend (be the expert); you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you’ve been dying to read (ask the expert); or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Last year I wrote about women leaving religion, featuring seven memoirs by, and two anthologies about women who’d left various versions of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. The year before that I discussed books about Iran by Iranian authors. This year I’m going to talk about my six favorite prison memoirs.

Why I have a fondness for prison memoirs is beyond me. Although at times I suspect it might be related to my fond memories as a young child watching a made for television adaption of The Count of Monte Christo one night on TV. (Incidentally, Linsel Greene, the son of the movie’s director, David Greene would go on to be a buddy of mine, as well as one of my favorite bartenders.) So without further delay, here’s six prison memoirs I have no problems recommending.


  1. Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos – While Jack Gantos might have made a name for himself writing fiction for young adult audiences at one point in his young adulthood he was a wannabe drug smuggler. His brief life of crime earned him a spot in a prison cell but it also served as a wake-up call to get his life together. Most prison memoirs aren’t funny but this one is.
  2. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover – One of the many cool things about this memoir is it’s from the perspective of a guard. Conover went undercover as a guard in one of New York’s largest and most infamous penitentaries in to learn what it’s like to  work in the prison system.
  3. The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn – This book was assigned reading for my Russian literature class in college centuries ago. Many have argued it’s  the best prison memoir ever written and I have a hard time disagreeing. (By the way, if you end up reading The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2 you MUST follow it up with Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History.)
  4. Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman – I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never scene the Netflix series based on this great memoir. I used to be skeptical whenever I heard calls to radically reform or even abolish the so-called drug war – until I read Kerman’s memoir.
  5. Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons by Cullen Thomas – Cullen Thomas thought he could make some easy money smuggling drugs into South Korea. After getting busted he was sentenced to three and half years in a South Korean prison where he rubbed elbows with a number of imprisoned foreign nationals from the United States, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.
  6. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg – Sick of writing death notices for a local newspaper, Steinberg, a Harvard-educated Orthodox Jew went to work as a librarian in a Massachusetts prison. Much to his surprise he ended up hating the guards and respecting the inmates.

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky once said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. If that’s the case, then there’s much to learn about humankind by simply reading these six memoirs.

26 thoughts on “Nonfiction November 2019 Week 3: Be the Expert

  1. This is a really interesting topic. You might like American Prison by Shane Bauer, which is about the private prison system. It’s a really good book.


  2. That’s an interesting tendency – reading prison memoirs. Very important subject, though! Have you heard of the Literature for Justice reading list put out by the National Book Foundation? They’re focusing on mass incarceration. I’m going to try to read them next year – as many as I have time for. If you’re interested, check it out. It has some memoirs, I believe.

    Also, I decided to make a social justice challenge for next year (though I’m starting it now). I’ll put a post on my blog for people to link up their social justice reviews. My first post will be December 1. Feel free to stop by and drop in some of your reviews. 🙂


  3. This is a really important topic for us to know more about – plus I need a book written in prison for the Read Harder Challenge and haven’t found anything yet. Hole in My Life sounds perfect, or the book by the librarian. Thanks for the recommendations!


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  6. This isn’t a topic I’ve read much on, but I have to recommend Solitary by Albert Woodfox, from this year’s National Book Award longlist. It was really moving and definitely fits this topic well. The Gulag Archipelago sounds fascinating. It seems like it must be very well done!


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