John O. Brennan does everything you’d expect in his 2019 memoir Undaunted: My Fight Against America’s Enemies, at Home and Abroad. He lived a CIA life. But this isn’t all clandestine stuff, like watching a season of Homeland. While there are some parallels, Brennan was an analyst not a field operative. And, of course, due to national security he shares publicly available generalities rather than precise details. 

However, if you’re curious for more of the story behind the inevitable sound bites and misinformation, then give this book a go. In typical memoir fashion, Brennan starts with background about his Irish immigrant father and his mother, a New Jersey born grandchild of immigrants also from Ireland.  His New Jersey childhood is exactly what you’d think—a simpler time with strong family and church roots.

And then everything changes for Brennan as he heads to college and graduate school, where he started his pathway into the history and current affairs of the Middle East. This was my favorite section of the book, as it’s fascinating to learn how someone gets from there to here. Brennan studied in New York City, Texas, and even in Cairo, Egypt.

As he finds his footing at the CIA, he tells plenty of stories about being a junior guy at the Agency. And of course, he covers the various steps he takes to reach his final position there as Director. In this section of the story, be prepared for contact with various Presidents and other names you’ll recall. Brennan really dives into the details here, with an analyst’s mindset of creating a complete briefing. Well, at least as much as the CIA lets him tell.

My conclusions

Reading Undaunted is like drinking a cup of strong, black coffee. It’s unadulterated by anything that might be construed as lighthearted gossip or innuendo. Brennan is a just the facts kind of guy. That’s a big advantage if getting his complete perspective is important to you, especially on topics like enhanced interrogation techniques. But it does have the downside of sometimes being a little intense.

There are moments when the story works like a well-crafted narrative. And others where it feels boggy and difficult to wade through. But I suspect the heavy national security content is responsible for this dichotomy, rather than Brennan’s actual writing style.

I’m glad Brennan persisted in creating his memoir, despite complete lack of customary cooperation from the CIA during the Trump era. His side of the story needs to be told. And when I see him providing commentary on a TV news program, having this background creates valuable context.

I recommend this book if you like books about government, world affairs, and national security issues. It’s a strong memoir of career ascension and political interplay.

Pair with A Higher Loyalty from James Comey, for a similar type of story with a different trajectory. It also fits with any fiction or nonfiction set in 20th century Middle East, like A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.


Many thanks to Celadon Books and the author for a copy of the book in exchange for this honest review.