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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.