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Best of 2021: Non-Fiction

Updated: January 19, 2022

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.

A beginner's guide to America : for the immigrant and the curious
Ḥakkākiyān, Ruʼyā
Call Number: 325.1 H155

Cleverly written in the second person, Hakakian synthesizes multiple refugees’ experiences--including her own escape from Iran--into a composite narrative that readers can experience themselves, including accessing unredacted websites, and what it is like for a woman to go out in public with her hair uncovered in a society that demands the opposite.


Black food : stories, art and recipes from across the African diaspora
Call Number: 641.5973 B6275-3

The spectacular cover of this book is an entrée to the contents, which include recipes, recipes, history, stories, photographs and art work that are printed on heavy paper that has a beautiful tactile quality.


Brat : an '80s story
McCarthy, Andrew, 1962-
Call Number: 812.092 M1226

If you grew up with '80s movies, chances are you know Andrew McCarthy, an unlikely heartthrob. ​This memoir gets into the mind of the actor, a quiet introvert, who battled his demons and shared with the world only a portion of himself. Excellently written, and swiftly devoured, are McCarthy's tales about the time he was at the top of his career in the film industry.

Comeback season : my unlikely story of friendship with the greatest living Negro League baseball pla
Perron, Cam, 1994-
Call Number: 796.23109 P459

Sometimes it takes a person way out in left field, filled with passion, to bring attention where needed. Cam Perron was just that person, who helped bring long overdue recognition to professional Negro League Baseball players. Along the way he formed some wonderful friendships with many players.

Every Day is a Gift: A Memoir
Duckworth, Tammy
Call Number: 92 D836

Senator Tammy Duckworth represents her constituents and her country. She is biracial, multiethnic, multilingual, a highly decorated war veteran with a Purple Heart and the Air Medal and Army Commendation Medal for having sustained life-threatening injuries (a double-leg amputation) while piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004. There is even more to her autobiography because nothing stops Tammy Duckworth from doing what she knows is best.

Except for Palestine : the limits of progressive politics
Hill, Marc Lamont
Call Number: 327.569 H647

In a blistering excoriation of the American political left, Hill and Plitnick trace how the West has allowed Israel to frame support for displaced Palestinians as anti-Semitism, and how successive presidential administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Donald Trump have repeatedly blocked UN resolutions meant to censure Israel after it seized land from Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in the Six Day War.

A farewell to Gabo and Mercedes : a son's memoir of Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha
García, Rodrigo, 1959-
Call Number: 863 G216Gar

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of the giants among modern writers. This is a remembrance and homage, by his son, about the last years of his father's life, and of his mother, Mercedes. Garcia Marquez was affectionarly known as Gabo, and he and Mercedes were a power couple, each with their own unique persona. For a writer who depended on his memory, Gabo's last years were unfathomable, suffering from debilitating memory loss.

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way
Gaines, Caseen
Call Number: 812.09 G1422

A show-stopping theatrical history about contributions made by artists of color, beginning with the story of the 1921 Broadway hit, Shuffle Along, whose influence continues today, and was created and performed by people of color. The creative team behind that hit fought, incorporated, endured and overcame every type of impediment: the Spanish Flu pandemic, Prohibition, the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression and World Wars I and II. During the twentieth century, in the theatrical world, as elsewhere, artists of color were challenged by prejudice and what white audiences expected of them.

The ground breaking : an American city and its search for justice
Ellsworth, Scott (Historian)
Call Number: 309.76686 E47-1

More than a history of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre, Scott Elsworth recounts the more than fifty year suppression of what took place. This horrific racial tragedy was made real by solid investigative journalism, criminal investigation, archaeological methods, and by people who would not allow this history and their memory of it to pass from our collective memory and history.

Here, right matters : an American story
Vindman, Alexander S.
Call Number: 355.092 V779

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman decided to do what was right and reported the phone call that led to the first impeachment of President Trump. Now retired, he recounts his family's life as his father fled from the Soviet Union seeking freedom and a better life in the United States. In 1999 Vindman was a commissioned infantry officer, and received a Purple Heart medal for wounds suffered as the result of a IED attack in the Iraq War in 2004.

Hiding in plain sight : Lady Bird Johnson in the White House
Sweig, Julia
Call Number: 92 J6754Sw

Lady Bird Johnson was wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who came into office as the result of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Lady Bird was one of the most astute First Ladies, who was a staunch environmentalist, possessing an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the greater ramifications of environmentalism that included numerous socioeconomic factors. Because of the times in which she lived and worked, her program was promoted as a beautification program, but it was a great deal more, as was the woman behind the program.

Kamala's way : an American life
Morain, Dan
Call Number: 92 H3146Mo

Morain, a former editor for The Sacramento Bee, chronicles the meteoric rise of the first female, African-Asian American Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris. This biography provides important background information on a political trailblazer, the daughter of immigrants, who went from the San Francisco District Attorney's Office to the second highest elected office in the country, and all of it accomplished in a decade's time.

Life on the line : young doctors come of age in a pandemic
Goldberg, E.
Call Number: 614.592414 G618

As six young doctors prepare to graduate from medical school, they are thrust into service in March, 2020 to be part of medical teams caring for patients ill with COVID-19. This experience was more than the usual grueling life of new physicians. In-depth interviews reveal what it was like for inexperienced doctors fighting a pandemic, in its early days, in major New York City hospitals.


Mean...Moody...Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend
Rice, Christina
Call Number: 812.092 R964Ri

Christina Rice offers the first biography about Jane Russell, the film actress and activist, perhaps best known for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and the marketing campaign behind Howard Hughes' The Outlaw (1943).  Beyond the screen, she was a complex and confident woman who worked to create the WAIF Foundation (World Adoption International Fund), which was actively engaged in adoption advocay. Christina Rice's extensive research offers a fresh perspective on a star whose legacy endures not simply because she forged a notable film career, but because she effectively used her celebrity to benefit others.

Mike Nichols : a life
Harris, Mark, 1963-
Call Number: 791.92 H315

Mark Harris's work is both the most entertaining and the most detailed biography of Mike Nichols, a singular directorial talent, who won all four major entertainment awards, aka EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), during his lifetime. The book is full of wonderful anecdotes from film sets and theater backstages, covering over six decades of Nichols's career, beginning with his collaboration with Elaine May in Chicago. On a darker note, Nichols's period of drug addiction and depression in the 1980s is also explored, in-depth, in this comprehensive tome. 

My name is Selma : the remarkable memoir of a Jewish resistance fighter and Ravensbrck survivor
Perre, Selma van de, 1922-
Call Number: 940.5315296 P455

During the Holocaust, at least three fourths of the Jewish population of the Netherlands was murdered, or died of illness or exposure in concentration camps. Selma van de Perre was one of the few survivors. At the age of 20 she took on a false identity so as not to be recognized as a Jew, joined the Dutch resistance, but was eventually captured and sent to the all-women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück, as a political prisoner. She credits her survival to using her wits and sheer luck. After the camp was liberated, she was able to reclaim her real name and identity as a Jew. She wrote this memoir at the age of 98, “as a testament to our fight against inhumanity.” The level of storytelling is top notch. Perre is an excellent, compelling writer, detailing the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the acts of bravery by the resistance, and the lives and deaths of camp prisoners that she came to know.


Nine nasty words : English in the gutter : then, now, and forever
McWhorter, John H.
Call Number: 427.9 M177

John McWhorter is one of our foremost linguists and analyzes the power that certain taboo words have when uttered as curses towards other people. He provides historical context to all of this in a very lively and knowledgeable way.

On Juneteenth
Gordon-Reed, Annette
Call Number: 326.09764 G6655

Juneteenth is a federal holiday that celebrates the freedom of enslaved peoples at the end of the Civil War. The collection of essays are primarily based on historical research written by Annette Gordon-Reed (historian, lawyer, law professor, multi-award-winning writer, and native-born Texan). However, these essays thoughtfully weave together personal remembrances and history because Gordon-Reed is a native Texan and Black woman, whose family has roots going back to the 1820s and 1860s.

Poet warrior : a memoir
Harjo, Joy
Call Number: 811 H2816H-2

This is a sequel to U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s autobiography, Crazy Brave: a memoir  Continuing her poet-warrior path, she reflects on her life and many roles as a mother, a wife and member of her community. Harjo writes honestly about the tragedies and triumphs that she has experienced and how her community's traditions and values have sustained her, along with poetry, music and spiritual traditions. Also, look at: Joy Harjo, Library of Congress.


Republic of detours : how the New Deal paid broke writers to rediscover America
Borchert, Scott, 1986-
Call Number: 973.91 B726

This book focuses on five individuals who were part of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. We learn how the project impacted their lives, as well as back stories about the creation of the guides and pamphlets that highlighted the nation. The Los Angeles Public LIbrary owns many of the specific guidebooks that were produced under the auspices of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration, and therefore made the stories that Borchert dissected and discussed even more powerful.

Shelf life : chronicles of a Cairo bookseller
Wassef, Nadia
Call Number: 085.462 W321

Starting an independent bookstore is no easy task, but doing so in modern Egypt had more than the usual obstacles, especially one opened by three women, who had no business degrees or business plans, but had a lot of moxie and drive. This all began in 2002 and business is thriving. As told by the chief instigator, Nadia Wassef, this book sparkles with vitality, humor, candor and joy.


Steve Kerr : a biography
Howard-Cooper, Scott, 1963-
Call Number: 796.252 K415Ho

This biography examines the obstacles faced by NBA player and head coach Steve Kerr on the path to basketball championships with the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors. Kerr overcame many obstacles: the loss of his father during his freshman year at the University of Arizona; doubts by NBA executives who believed that he was too slow and short to have an NBA playing career; and a lack of formal coaching experience prior to taking over the Warriors job. In addition, Howard-Cooper's book examines Kerr's activism against the Trump Administration, and his intense relationship with former Chicago teammate, Michael Jordan. 

There is nothing for you here : finding opportunity in the 21st century
Hill, Fiona, 1965-
Call Number: 330.973 H645

Fiona Hill is a foreign policy expert and was a deputy assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. She was a key impeachment witness during the first impeachment of President Trump. Her extensive knowledge of modern Russia offers a warning to how the United States must persevere to save its democracy. The most moving revelations are her memories of growing up in an impoverished area of northern England that is straight out of Charles Dickens. It was her exceptional hard work that made it possible for her to attend the University of St. Andrews, where exclusionary class-consciousness was, and still is, endemic to British culture. Her experiences with class-consciouness resonate in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. Her coal miner father told her to “seek her fortune elsewhere” and not stay in England. 

To Asia, with love
McKinnon, Hetty
Call Number: 641.595 M158

Hetty McKinnon set out to capture the foods that her mother cooked that were "uncomplicated, colorful, soul-enriching."  Those foods were Cantonese-based, but this cookbook has recipes that are not strictly Chinese, and are more generaly Asian. A beautifully produced book on solid paper, with full-page color photographs and chapters that are centered around noodles, dumplings, rice, salad and sweets that are "not too sweet."

Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future
Kolbert, Elizabeth
Call Number: 575.3 K81

Kolbert expands on her investigation of the destruction wrought by humanity in what we now call the Anthropocene epoch, from her previous book, The Sixth Extinction. She examines large-scale technological solutions to environmental problems, from electrifying rivers to deter invasive fish to spraying aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight away from the planet, and the strange side effects of our vicious cycle of altering natural systems.


Walking with ghosts : a memoir
Byrne, Gabriel, 1950-
Call Number: 822.092 B995-1

If you've ever seen Byrne act, then you know his command of the art of acting. Delve into his boyhood in Dublin and his travels to England and America. From priesthood to actor and through addiction and stardom, Byrne weaves an engrossing tale of his life. Treat yourself to hearing Byrne read his book in emedia audio format.

When Harry met Minnie : a true story of love and friendship
Teichner, Martha
Call Number: 636.7 T262

Tough-minded journalist Marth Teichnor becomes involved in some unlikely matchmaking between two bull terriers, Harry and Minnie. There is more to this heartfelt tale as she and other New Yorkers became " ... characters in a remarkable story, a very New York story, about friendship and community ... about Life and Death, as gloriously rich and funny as it inevitably turned out to be achingly sad."


World travel : an irreverent guide
Bourdain, Anthony
Call Number: 641.5 B768-4

Not the usual travel/eatery guide, this is a collection of Bourdain’s written commentary about places and foods that also includes essays by friends, family members and colleagues about the man and his life.