Best of 2019: Non-Fiction

Updated: January 31, 2020

The best books of the year, as selected by Los Angeles Public Library staff. For more book lists and featured book reviews, check LAPL Reads.

The American story : conversations with master historians
Rubenstein, David M.,
Call Number: 907 R895

A panoramic view of American history as expressed by many notable historians:  David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro and others.

Anthony Bourdain remembered.
Call Number: 641.092 B768An

Anthony Bourdain's fans, personal friends and colleagues share their thoughts about the man with the big personality, who loved food, people and travel. Their remembrances remind us that Bourdain is irreplaceable. The full-page color photographs bring back memories of his adventurous travels and some daredevil food tastings.

The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City
Kun, Josh, compiler
Call Number: 027.47949 L881Ku folio

Inspired by the Los Angeles Public Library's autograph collection, this lavishly illustrated book, with an abundance of full-page photographs, documents the signatures of the famous and not so famous.The text by Josh Kun notes the significance of leaving your mark on the City of Los Angeles.

Because Internet : understanding the new rules of language
McCulloch, Gretchen,
Call Number: 301.55 M133

In this fun breezy book, Gretchen McCulloch, the Internet linguist, examines language differences and traces them to differences in experience, exploring how our interactions with the Internet are reshaping our language. McCulloch loves language too much to find anyone’s use of it wrong.

Bedlam : an intimate journey into America's mental health crisis
Rosenberg, Kenneth Paul,
Call Number: 362.2 R813

Psychiatrist Kenneth Rosenberg examines the mental health crisis in America. He has had personal experience coping with mental health issues--his own brother suffered from schizophrenia. He approaches every situation with empathy, and knows that there are no easy solutions to mental health issues, which affect individuals, families and society as a whole.

The body : a guide for occupants
Bryson, Bill,
Call Number: 612 B916

In a book as sweeping in scope as his Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson explores the human body with trademark humor and empathy.

Breathe : a letter to my sons
Perry, Imani, 1972-
Call Number: 301.45096 P463

Reflecting on African American life, culture and contributions, which are currently confronted by modern racism and violence, Imani Perry writes a letter of exultation and caution to her two sons. Generous in scope and thought, her words speak to all of us, no matter who we are, to do and be better.

Call sign chaos : learning to lead
Mattis, James N., 1950-
Call Number: 92 M4437

Three types of leadership are coverd by General James Mattis: direct, executive and strategic. He merges parts of his personal history with information about leadership, which has relevance for everyone, including civilians whether in a small business or the CEO of a megacorporation.

The catalogue of shipwrecked books : Christopher Columbus, his son, and the quest to build the world's greatest library
Wilson-Lee, Edward,
Call Number: 92 C719Wi

Christopher Columbus' son was on a quest to maintain his father's legacy through a grand collection of books, pamphlets, and prints. His attempts to collect and arrange these resources, provide an intimate view of the Renaissance, and a dream of the library that might have been.  Sure to please any bibliophile. 

Catch and kill : lies, spies, and a conspiracy to protect predators
Farrow, Ronan, 1987-
Call Number: 364.153 F246

This is the background story behind Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning New Yorker article that brought to light sexual predation allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.The book documents Farrow’s investigation and attempts to report the facts, as he and the women who stepped forward were subjected to a network of conspiracies and intimidation worthy of a spy novel. Farrow kicked a proverbial hornet’s nest, and the unimaginable lengths taken to quash his reporting and silence Weinstein’s accusers are equally appalling and riveting. 

The collected schizophrenias : essays
Wang, Esme Weijun,
Call Number: 616.8982 W246

Schizophrenia--or, in the author's case, schizoaffective disorder--can be a devastating and alienating diagnosis, cloaked in stigma and stereotypes. Wang's eloquent and incisive essays cut through this stigma, using wide-ranging topics (hospitalization, fashion, cinema, pilgrimage) to explore what it means to live with psychosis.

Country music
Duncan, Dayton,
Call Number: 781.9942 D911

A companion to the excellent Ken Burns documentary series, Country Music. The book illuminates the history of country music through photographs and stories. The role of African-American performers in the early development of country music is highlighted. Key figures in this narrative include Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Hank Williams.

Dead blondes and bad mothers : monstrosity, patriarchy, and the fear of female power
Doyle, Sady,
Call Number: 301.412973 D754-1

This is an engaging and funny survey of female monsters and horror figures from Tiamat to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. Doyle explores both the violence enacted on women in real life, and the terrible female monsters we meet in fiction, drawing out and examining the fears that give rise to both. 

Felidia : recipes from my flagship restaurant
Bastianich, Lidia,
Call Number: 641.5945 B326-11

Lidia Bastianich shares 115 recipes from her flagship restaurant, Felidia, established in Manhattan in 1981. The full-page color photographs of completed dishes will make you want to try the recipes, or catch the next flight to New York.

First : Sandra Day O'Connor
Thomas, Evan, 1951-
Call Number: 347.092 O18Th

There were many firsts in the life of Sandra Day O'Connor, and all of them are well-documented by Evan Thomas who had access to Justice O'Connor's personal archives, and was able to interview her. Thomas' writing style is perfect for bringing us this biography of an incredible woman.

Grinnell : America's environmental pioneer and his restless drive to save the West
Taliaferro, John, 1952-
Call Number: 570.92 T146Ta

This incisive biography brings deserved recognition to the overlooked life and achievements of George Bird Grinnell, a major American conservationist.

Happiness is Baking: Cakes, Pies, Tarts, Muffins, Brownies, Cookies: Favorite Desserts From the Queen of Cake
Heatter, Maida
Call Number: 641.71 H442-2

The Queen of Cakes, also pies, desserts and other treats, presents favorite recipes. The book has all of Heatter's clear instructions, with illustrations by Alice Oehr.  Everyone should know how to bake something, and with this book, everyone can.

How to : absurd scientific advice for common real-world problems
Munroe, Randall,
Call Number: 500 M968-2

There are right ways and wrong ways to solve problems, and then there are the methods that Ranall Monroe considers. These methods of problem solving are so extreme and ridiculous that you will actually learn something, even if it’s only how not to approach a problem. 

I will never see the world again : the memoir of an imprisoned writer
Altan, Ahmet,
Call Number: 079.092 A465

Turkish journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan was sentenced to life in prison, accused of having helped plot a 2016 coup d'état in Turkey. Altan recognizes his physical life of freedom is over, but the life of his mind is free, and that is what he writes about.

In a time of monsters : travels through a Middle East in revolt
Sky, Emma,
Call Number: 956 S629

The book's title is from Antonio Gramsci, "The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters." Returning to England, Emma Sky recounts how she struggled with the vapidity of life after the intensity of her time as an advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno in Iraq. She returns to the Middle East, and seeing that there is more conflict and human suffering than before, she reflects on her work during 2007 to 2010, and states, "All that effort and then to see it all unravel."

In the dream house : a memoir
Machado, Carmen Maria.
Call Number: 813 M149M

"When it started, I believed I was special. It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common," Machado writes of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her girlfriend and the relationship's cycles of suspicion, control, violence, and remorse. Domestic abuse may follow patterns, but Machado's fractured memoir, which ricochets from folktale to American gothic to confessional and back again, sheds new light on the realities and mythic landscapes of abuse.

Invisible women : data bias in a world designed for men
Criado-Perez, Caroline,
Call Number: 301.412 C928

What happens when you take all the people in the world, toss out half of them, and focus all of your research on the remaining 49%? It messes up your research. Medicines aren't tested on women, public transportation systems put women at a disadvantage, and uniforms and military body armor don't fit women. This well-researched book shows the cost of treating men as the default model of humanity. 

Joy of cooking
Rombauer, Irma S., 1877-1962,
Call Number: 641.5973 R762 2019

The latest edition of America's essential cookbook is a must for those who know how to cook, and for those who need some help. Basics are covered, older recipes have been revised, and there are numerous new recipes. Who y'a gonna ask for help in the kitchen?  Whether you are in a desperate situation and need first-aid cooking help, or looking for something new to cook, this is the book you want.

Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
O'Meara, Mallory
Call Number: 812.092 P3135Om

First time author Mallory O’Meara chronicles the life of one of the most interesting and influential people whose work you have seen, but whose name is not known: Milicent Patrick.  She is the only woman to design a classic monster, and it is far past the time for her story to be told. This is a compelling and enjoyable biography about the legacy of a female trailblazer in film, who not only worked, but excelled repeatedly in aspects of production dominated by men, both then and now.


Lee Krasner : living colour
Krasner, Lee, 1908-1984, artist.
Call Number: 759.14 K889-1

In poplular media and real life, Lee Krasner took a back seat to her rambunctious, talented husband, Jackson Pollock. This outstanding book places her front and center, with full-page color reproductions of her work, black and white photos of the artist at work, and interviews with Krasner by Gail Levin.

The man they wanted me to be : toxic masculinity and a crisis of our own making
Sexton, Jared,
Call Number: 301.411973 S518

The definition and enforcement of masculinity in our culture causes tremendous harm to the men trying to live up to unattainable and contradictory standards. Jared Sexton writes about the men he knew growing up, and the men he saw at rallies during the 2016 presidential election, and discusses his hopes for a better future for everyone. 

The map of knowledge : a thousand-year history of how classical ideas were lost and found
Moller, Violet,
Call Number: 001 M726

In school students learn that the books and knowledge rediscovered in the Renaissance escaped destruction through the work of Muslim scribes and scholars. During that time cities rose and fell, great thinkers rose to prominence and were forgotten, and libraries were built and burnt. Books that we now know about followed a miraculous path to get here, and we also sense there other books and libraries that have been lost, possibly forever.

John, Elton,
Call Number: 789.24 J65-1

Sir Elton himself takes us through the fantastical journey that is his life.  From small town England to topping the music charts, year after year, Elton brings the excesses of 1970s and '80s pop stardom to the light of day in a disarming, self-deprecating and always entertaining way.  An honest, raucous autobiography by a legend, who has no need to tell tales other than his own.

Midnight chicken : (& other recipes worth living for)
Risbridger, Ella,
Call Number: 641.59 R595

With the support of her family of friends, Risbridger wrote this autobiographical memoir and cookbook which saved her from despair over the loss of her beloved Tall Man, and gave her the resilience to move on with her life.

Murder by the book : the crime that shocked Dickens's London
Harman, Claire,
Call Number: 364.942 H287

In 1840, the savage murder of Lord William Russell--his throat slashed while he slept--sent shock waves through Victorian London. When his most trusted personal servant was arrested for the crime, it became a sensation. Then the accused claimed that reading England's most popular novel motivated him to kill his master, and a national frenzy ensued.

Notes to self : essays
Pine, Emilie,
Call Number: 301.4129415 P649 2019

Pine's essays cover difficult moments and milestones in her life, from caring for an alcoholic father to miscarriages, with an unflinching honesty that can be difficult to read, but impossible to turn away from.

Places and names : on war, revolution, and returning
Ackerman, Elliot,
Call Number: 359.34 A182

Eliot Ackerman, Silver Star veteran turned journalist, draws upon his combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan to reflect on the past wars in which he fought, the ever-present memories of those battles, and seeks to find some type of meaning for himself and for humanity.

Say nothing : a true story of murder and memory in Northern Ireland
Keefe, Patrick Radden, 1976-
Call Number: 364.92 M129Ke

Historian and New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe brings meticulous research to this examination of a murder committed during "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. On a December night in 1972, Jean McConville, a 38-year-old mother of 10, was abducted at gunpoint from her Belfast home by a group of masked intruders. No trace of her was found for over 30 years.


Sea stories : my life in special operations
McRaven, William H. (William Harry), 1955-
Call Number: 355.425 M174-1

Retired Navy Four-Star Admiral William H. McRaven recounts his early life growing up on U.S. military bases, where, as a young boy, he got into trouble by finding ways to gain access to high-security areas. A good deal of that unbridled intelligence and energy was guided toward more illustrious work as a Navy SEAL and other special forces. A master storyteller, McRaven weaves together his life's story and adventures in a captivating way.

She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement
Kantor, Jodi
Call Number: 364.153 K16

Journalists Kantor and Twohey present riveting documentation about their efforts to investigate, document and publish the sexual harassment of subordinates and actresses by entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein. Kantor and Twohey uncovered two categories of heinous and monstrous crimes. First, there was the physical abuse, sexual assault and intimidation of the victims. Second, there was an intricate web of concealment, which was accomplished by complex legal documents and intimidation against anyone, at any level, who would dare to reveal what Harvey Weinstein had been doing over many years.

Shuk : from market to table, the heart of Israeli home cooking
Admony, Einat,
Call Number: 641.59569 A238

Shuk is a market place, and an Israeli market has fresh food products and spices that represent Persia, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, various Balkan countries and parts of North Africa. These ingredients contribute to marvelous recipes that shake up the palate and taste buds in an unexpected way. Part of the narrative description for each recipe includes information about the country or culture of origin. Full-page color photographs make you want to start cooking now.

South : essential recipes and new explorations
Brock, Sean,
Call Number: 641.5975 B864-1

Sean Brock is an advocate for Southern cuisine: cooking methods, food, ingredients and a champion for restoring heritage produce and livestock. According to Brock the cuisine and traditions "are part of American history" and provide food that "is good for our bodies and good for our souls."  This is a large-sized book (8"x 11"), with terrific full-page color photographs, and a two-page, double-column resource list in the back

The Statue of Liberty : the monumental dream
Belot, Robert,
Call Number: 974.71 S797Bel

This book was published to coordinate with the opening of the Statue of Liberty Museum. There are diagrams, blueprints, historical photographs and stunning new photographs which document the history and symbolism of this unique monument to freedom and welcome.

Stay Sexy & Don't Get Murdered: The Definitive How-to Guide
Kilgariff, Karen
Call Number: 812.092 K48

This is the story of the women who create the podcast My Favorite Murder.  The lives and friendship of Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark are engaging, funny, and self-aware.

Talking to strangers : what we should know about the people we don't know
Gladwell, Malcolm, 1963-
Call Number: 301.5 G543-1

Gladwell's latest melange of social science and journalism concerns how humans are easily impressed by strangers who act in a predictable manner (Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff, e.g.) or a wildly unpredictable manner (the falsely accused Amanda Knox, e.g.), and ignore external evidence that can determine a person's trustworthiness. More controversially, Gladwell suggests that the delay in prosecuting Jerry Sandusky for child sexual assault at Penn State University was the result of an eyewitness not fully comprehending the heinousness of his ex-coach's behavior. On a lighter note, Gladwell examines the popularity of "Friends," a TV show in which big facial expressions were commonplace. Talking to Strangers is Gladwell's most provocative book.

Three women
Taddeo, Lisa,
Call Number: 392.6 T121

This book was filled with the most tragic, relatable and courageous stories of and about women I have ever read. Truly unforgettable for its honesty and heartbreaking vulnerability. If you only read one book this year...let it be this one.

Tiny but mighty : the kitten lady's guide to saving the most vulnerable felines
Shaw, Hannah Rene, 1987-
Call Number: 636.8083 S534

Do not judge this book by its cover: that kitten is not wearing clothing. That kitten is just shy of infancy (eyes are open) wrapped in a soft cloth, and sporting a crown because the wee thing was rescued and saved by Hannah Shaw, aka The Kitten Lady. She is a professional kitten rescuer and educator, and this book has everything that you need to know when confronted with an infant kitten (eyes still shut), and other kittens, a little bit older.  

Underland : a deep time journey
Macfarlane, Robert, 1976-
Call Number: 573.3 M143

The best nonfiction in style and substance since Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. Macfarlane fearlessly travels beneath the Earth's surface to uncover wondrous, frightening and alien settings.  Paragraphs are written with beauty, precision and clarity in what could be a master class in nonfiction narrative writing.

The Weil conjectures : On math and the pursuit of the unknown
Olsson, Karen, 1972-
Call Number: 510.92 W422Ol

This book is part biography and in part a thoughtful examination about mathematics and what can be known. Objectively it tells the story of Andre Weil, a well known 20th century mathematician, and his sister Simone Weil, a philosopher and social activist. Olsson uses this framework to tell of her personal journey and relation to the field of mathematics. Interesting in both style and content.

Where we find ourselves : the photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897-1922
Mangum, Hugh, 1877-1922, photographer.
Call Number: 770.914 M2775

Portrait photographer Hugh Mangum worked in North Carolina and the Virginias in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Traveling from town to town during a time of brutal segregation he took photos of everyone: black and white, rich and poor.  Where We Find Ourselves has beautiful reproductions of Hugh Mangum's photographs, as well as excellent essays about Mangum's life and North Carolina's cultural and political landscape at that time.


Wild LA: Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around Los Angeles
Higgins, Lila M.
Call Number: 570.9794 H636

After a review in LAPL Reads, there was and continues to be a phenomenal interest in this book. Librarian Andrea Borchert, who wrote the review, says it best, "Sometimes L.A. seems like an endless stretch of strip malls and freeways. But L.A. is more than that! L.A. is part of the California Floristic Province, a biodiversity hotspot. In its wide range of habitats, from deserts to beaches, there are many wonderful, fascinating plants, animals, and fungi figuring out how to live side by side with us."

Will my cat eat my eyeballs? : big questions from tiny mortals about death
Doughty, Caitlin,
Call Number: 393 D732-2

Mortician Caitlin Doughty answers a series of questions children have asked her about death and dead bodies, so as to help everyone, adults and children alike, understand death a little better, and hopefully be a little less afraid of it.