Sometimes the best stories are those that are real. People’s memoirs provide an amazing insight into actual events and social history. From war to being a midwife in the 1950’s, autobiographies are enlightening, enriching and entertaining books made all the more incredible by the fact that they are true accounts. So if you feel like reading an autobiography here is a list of the best autobiography books to give you a rough idea of what is out there.
My Booky Wook is the eccentric, intriguing and downright ballsy autobiography of stand-up comedian Russell Brand. His story is electric. Brand holds nothing back, as he reveals in a blunt honesty how he had bulimia at the tender age of 12 and started drugs at just 16. He then reveals in an eloquent style how he became addicted to drugs, alcohol and sex and only turned to rehab after being told he would either die, go to prison or end up in a psychiatric hospital. The revelations about his drug addiction are touched with a twist of humour as he talks about his ethics during that time, “Even as a junkie I stayed true [to vegetarianism] – ‘I shall have heroin, but I shan’t have a hamburger.’ What a sexy little paradox.” True to his stand-up, the jokes are fresh and stylish as Brand writes in a highly-sophisticated English. His story is touching, gritty and very real, making Brand more human and likeable. He doesn’t try to make excuses for his decisions or the life he has lived and offers comic but very honest insights into social problems such as racism: “All penguins are the same below the surface, which I think is as perfect an analogy as we’re likely to get for the futility of racism.” Sometimes celebrity autobiographies can be absolute drivel, usually a cleaver ploy to promote a tour, show or film. However, Brand really does bring something different. He lays bare his life and asks you not to judge him, and with such a frankness it would be hard to criticise him. An elicit and tantalising read!
In this emotional and heart-warming book Hellen Keller describes her life as a deaf and blind woman. The Story of My Life is a beautifully written memoir that appears fresh to a modern audience. Keller is a vibrant young girl who appears trapped in a body that is discordant with her wild nature and frustrates and angers the author. Her world is truly moving as she describes the dedication of one teacher, Anne Sullivan, who managed to work with the young Keller to break down the difficulties posed by her disabilities. Sullivan taught Keller how to spell words out on the palm of her hand, until she had a wonderful grasp of language. This is clear in the beautiful, sensory imagery that Keller conjures in her text. Smell and touch seem to jump from the page, as she describes her home and the surrounding garden, as you follow this young girl’s journey through adversity. One of the truly most inspirational stories you could ever read and a must in any best autobiography books list!
Jenny Lee (now Jennifer Worth) is a midwife in 1950’s East London. She works at Nonnatus House, the actually named Sisters of St John the Divine, and throughout her story depicts the trauma involved in midwifery. Written in an incredibly accesible style, Call The Midwife is a brilliant book that reveals the social history of 1950’s London, and particularly a woman’s role during this epoque. Worth’s story is touching and compelling, as she reveals the squalor and poverty of East London post WWII and the agonising process women go through with childbirth. The very graphic depictions of labour are not for those with weak stomachs, but are incredibly emotional and educational as Worth does not shy away from the blood and the mucus. Admittedly women will probably take more away from this book but is nevertheless one I would urge everyone to read. A true story about what it is to be human.
World War One had a huge impact on many peoples lives and in Goodbye To All That Robert Graves gives us his account. In a very detached and almost comical way, Graves depicts the true horrors that faced the soldiers on a daily basis. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers and fought alongside another famous war writer Siegfried Sassoon. This book is raw and incredibly emotional, as Graves describes bombardment and warfare. His fear comes across acutely, as he describes one incident in France where he sweated through the night at the sound of the artillery. Graves also tackles death with a bluntness that drives home the futility of war. In one incident he describes how “comrades joke as they push it [a corpse] out of the way”. Grave’s style makes WWI feel more than just a topic you cover in school, his memoir manages to conjure it before your very eyes. The vivid descriptions further highlight how fragile all of the soldiers were when up against rifles and bombs, and his bitterness forms like bile in your own mouth. An incredible account of what hundreds of men went through in 1914.
England 1997, New Labour rose to power and had a new poster boy, enter Tony Blair. A Journey is Blair’s riveting account of his time as Labour leader and is a fascinating read. Written in an unconventional style, Blair starts by his own admission as “tackling sone of the hardest [chapters] first, and the easiest last”. There are entire chapters dedicated to Princess Diana and the 9/11 crisis, which offer startling new insights into Blair’s thoughts and feelings during these difficult periods of his leadership. Blair carefully documents the thought processes that led to him forming “New Labour” with great depth and lays out his political ideology in a way that communicates his ideas easily. This makes the book easy reading, even if you don’t have a huge in depth political knowledge. He offers very truthful opinions on Gordon Brown and George Bush, showing a different side to the Blair that was created by the media. Written in a down to earth style and lacking in air and graces that would complicate his ideas, Blair manages to very simply describe the journey that led him to becoming one of the most famous Prime Ministers of Great Britain and his role in great historical moments of the 21st century. A truly fantastic and engaging read. A must read book for everyone!
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Half way through this best autobiography books list is a truly inspirational book written by one of the greatest political leaders in the world: Nelson Mandela. During his youth Mandela fought for the end of apartheid in a struggle that led to his imprisonment in 1962. After 27 years in prison, Mandela was released and went on to become President of South Africa, turning the country into a democracy. Long Walk to Freedom is clear and concise, begininning with Mandela’s younger life as a student and progressing to describe his role in the Afrikaner National Party. The earlier stages of his life are evocative and the insight he allows into the Thembu tribe is incredibly interesting and offers a unique standpoint of tribal culture. The next most compelling sections of this book focus upon Mandela imprisonment. Through these sections you really get a feel for how Mandela developed politically and as a human, to become one of the greatest political minds in the world. This book is not a fast read containing over 700 pages, however it is a worthwhile and enriching read which really conveys the restrictions Mandela faced living in South Africa. Through his tale he argues his points of view without melodrama. A truly inspirational book.
At number four in this list of the best autobiography books comes A Child Called ‘It’, a brutally honest tale by David Pelzer who grew up in a violent and abusive domestic sphere. There are not many books I find difficult to read, however Pelzer’s story really did push me to the edge of my comfort level. Starting with a beating on page one, the emphatic “SMACK” Pelzer receives from his mother, not only stings him but also you as the reader. The book starts in the present tense with an account of the day the police visited Pelzer’s school and the true nature of his and his Mother’s relationship was revealed. This adds even more emphasis to the events of Pelzer’s life as they appear to unfold in the present time of reading, transposing his helplessness onto you. The rest of this extraordinary autobiography is narrated in the past, as Pelzer bares the whole of his story bare and describes in graphic detail how his alcoholic mother starved him, beat him and forced chemicals down his throat. A Child Called ‘It’ is very difficult to read in places, but shows the incredible strength David Pelzer possess at being able to retell his inspirational story. Pelzer does not revel as a victim and instead shows his sheer tenacity to survive his horrific ordeal. This autobiography should be read by everyone, and is a truly fascinating and emotional read.
Perhaps the most controversial entry to this best autobiography books list is Adolf Hitler’s account of his life and political ideology, Mein Kampf. At times it almost borders on propaganda for the Nazi Party, but nevertheless remains a compelling and fascinating read. This book is difficult to read but for entirely different reasons to Pelzer’s A Child Called ‘It’, as it concerns perhaps the most infamous political leader of the 20th century. Hitler writes in a convoluted style, as he fills Mein Kampf with his political ideas and his anti-semitism. Due to its loaded political content, Mein Kampf becomes increasingly more difficult to judge as a text on its own due to prior knowledge about the atrocities the Nazi’s committed during the Holocaust. In the beginning chapters, Hitler’s hatred for social degradation comes through as he recounts his time in Vienna, and attacks institutions such as cinemas and “obscene books” for “spreading poison among the people”. This hatred comes into its own as he lays down his opinions concerning the Jewish community, and the insults permeate throughout the entire of his book. It is of course impossible to agree with Hitler’s radical ideas at any level, but I urge to read this book as it reveals Hitler’s confused thought processes and offers a fascinating insight into the most notorious mind of W.W.II.
Gypsy Boy is the moving memoir of Mikey Walsh, a Romany Gypsy who grew up in England during the 80’s. In his autobiography, Mikey offers a vibrant insight into the closed Gypsy community and reveals a lot about his painful upbringing. Being born into a family of fighters, Mikey’s dad forces his son to compete in brutal battles for honour, and Mikey’s suffering only continues when he is sexually abused by his Uncle. These segements of the book are incredibly difficult to read but also make Gypsy Boy impossible to put down, as you begin to admire Mikey’s courage and loyalty towards his Gypsy heritage. Walsh writes in a brutally honest, funny and un-melodramatic way and it is wonderful to read the development of this young man. This is a book that will make you laugh, cry and gasp in horror, as you follow Mikey’s haunting tale to escape such a cruel environment. One of the most moving and inspirational stories to make this best autobiography books list.
It is not many times in life that you read a book that remains with you long after you have closed that final page, but The Diary of A Young Girl is most certainly one of them. Anne Frank is a bright, observant and vibrant girl who receives a dairy for her 13th birthday. From this day on she documents her life as a Jewish girl growing up in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation, and reveals her family life in a secret annexe. Frank is just like every other young girl and documents in startling honesty her difficult relationship with her mother, the bodily changes her body goes through during puberty and the stress of hiding in the annexe. Her voice is fresh and wonderfully innocent, making it incredibly difficult not to fall in love with this skilled and funny writer. The most difficult moments of this book come when Anne expresses her wishes of wanting to be a writer when she grows up and the uncertain future, made all the more heart breaking as you, the reader, probably know of her fate. Even I must admit it is incredibly difficult not to cry when the diary reaches its abrupt ending, as the Frank family are captured and placed in concentration camps. An incredible tale of a young girl’s unwavering determination and strength during such a difficult and unimaginable time in history. Truly moving and truly brilliant.
The range of memoirs out there is vast and there is no way a top ten could encapsulate all of the best autobiography books. Other fantastic reads include Peter Mandelson’s fascinating memoir The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour. This text offers an incredible insight into the tense relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, as well as a fresh look at the modern politics behind New Labour. Another brilliant read is Mikey Walsh’s sequel to his amazing debut book Gypsy Boy: Gyspy Boy On The Run. In this sequel, Walsh documents the difficulty he faces in the outside world, as he is now a wanted man by his Gypsy community. This text equally matches its predecessor as a masterpiece and Walsh develops as a writer to tell this moving part of his story. Finally, another must read is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. This book documents the tale of McCourt who grows up in a poverty stricken family, in Brooklyn. His family are Irish immigrants who struggle due to a lack of money and his father’s drink problem. Angela’s Ashes is a remarkable tale and incredibly moving, as it does what any autobiography sets out to do and tells the story of a unique individual with verve and sophistication.