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Best of 2013: Non-Fiction

Updated: January 28, 2014

The best books of the year as selected by LAPL staff.  Perfect for holiday gift-giving!

Savage, Dan.
Call Number: 301.4157092 S263

Inveterate iconoclast Dan Savage, fresh from the successful founding of the It Gets Better campaign, has written another book that’ll have prudes clutching at their pearls. Part memoir, part advice column, and part essay collection, Savage once again revels in butting heads with conservatives and other culture warriors.

Rice, Christina, 1974-
Call Number: 812.092 D988Ri

A brilliantly researched and beautifully written biography of the talented actress who fought the studio system and paid the price of stardom deferred. This book transcends most film biographies because of the exhaustive study of Ms. Dvorak’s personal and public life that unfolds in Christina Rice’s polished prose full of real affection for the subject. A must read for those interested in the star system and the life of one of Hollywood’s leading ladies who paid the price for being truly independent.

Smith, Ali, 1962-
Call Number: 809 S6425

Expanding on lectures delivered while she was a visiting professor at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, Ali Smith melds literary criticism, essay and fiction with affecting, delightful results. The fiction, in which the grieving narrator, seeking solace and understanding, puzzles over the unfinished lectures of her dead lover, serves as an alternately funny and heartbreaking reminder that art exists not apart from the personal, from love, and the complications of life, but as a means of grappling with it.

Grandin, Temple.
Call Number: 370.157 G753-4

Dr. Temple Grandin summarizes the latest scientific literature on autism, gives advice to parents raising autistic children, and tells stories about her own struggles with the disorder in this well-researched book. Dr. Grandin emphasizes that autistic individuals are better at spotting patterns than people without the disorder, and therefore may find suitable work in some scientific and technical fields.

Evans, Peter, 1933 December 10-
Call Number: 812.092 G226Ev

Recorded back in 1988 two years before her death, these candid conversations are a treasure trove of anecdotes from Hollywood’s earthiest goddess. She talks about her poor Southern upbringing, the photograph taken of her as a teenager that caught a talent scout’s eye, the strokes that partially froze her gorgeous face, and her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra (who was “good in the feathers”), as well as her relationship with billionaire Howard Hughes “before he was a nut.”

Bernstein, Joshua M.
Call Number: 663.4 B531-1
If you ever needed an excuse to drink craft beer, this is it. In the last ten years American brewing has changed more than in any period since Prohibition, and The Complete Beer Course breaks down this dizzying array of libations in pursuit of one thirst-quenching question: “What makes each beer delicious and different?” Readers are led on a tour that explores beer's four essential ingredients, and the brewing techniques that create each beer’s unique flavor... with tasting suggestions you'll want to study in earnest.

O'Brien, Edna.
Call Number: 823 O13Ob-1

Irish novelist, short story writer, and literary grande dame, Edna O'Brien looks back on her life.  She is unsparing and unsentimental in reminscences about convent schooling, marriages, divorces, the wild sixties in London, the brouhaha, banning and burning of her first novel Country Girls which later became a modern classic. O'Brien may have been born in the country but she had precociously sophisticated yearnings which became realities. 

Krampner, Jon, 1952-
Call Number: 641.65659 K89

Peanut butter is not as all-American as once thought. The plant and the butter have their origins in South America.  Because of Spanish and Portuguese traders the plant made its way to India, Malaya, China, other parts of Asia, and Africa where it came to the United States on slave ships.  Many more facts are in this informative and entertaining history, with recipes and a "Peanut Butter Time Line" for its history in America, 1894-2011. 

Call Number: 789.24 D249Da

The beautifully produced companion catalog to the landmark exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum includes photographs and ephemera from Bowie’s personal collection. Original lyric sheets are reproduced alongside personal and performance images and stage costumes to create a visual feast. In-depth essays are provided by Camille Paglia and Jon Savage, among others, as well as interpretation from the exhibition’s curators. As Bowie’s career experiences a reboot with a critically acclaimed new album this year, the book traces a line back through his various incarnations as musician and actor.

Stewart, Amy.
Call Number: 581.632 S8485

The history and inventiveness of alcohol is explored in colorful detail, leaving the reader wondering, “What hasn’t been fermented and drunk?”

Dedman, Bill.
Call Number: 92 C5938De

Multimillionaires are not like everyone else, and Huguette Clark is a prime example of that difference. She owned mansions she never set foot in, spent time ordering splendiferous dollhouses and wrote her favorite nurse checks totaling over $36 million. Huguette was the daughter of copper king W.A. Clark, one of the original Robber Barons of the late 19th century. The section on W.A. Clark alone is an engrossing read. And Huguette, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 104, lived a long, odd, interesting life—ornate, imaginative, even artistic—but ultimately rather empty, too, like her many dwellings.

Oxford, Kelly.
Call Number: 071.092 O98
Social media blogger Kelly Oxford has written a refreshing new memoir that is a joy to read. Her stories are not only wickedly funny and cool, but also touching at the same time.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., 1964-
Call Number: 324.73 P282

The first two presidential elections in the U.S. saw George Washington chosen without any opposition. But when Washington retired, American political culture started to take its current form. Both sides, the Federalists backing John Adams and the Republicans backing Thomas Jefferson, slung mud at each other for nearly a year. The winner of the election wasn’t known for months because there was no set Election Day and the states pretty much made up the rules as they went along. And yet, the country still survives.

Wasson, Sam.
Call Number: 793.324 F752Wa

This jazzy biography of iconic director/choreographer Bob Fosse is so vibrant it zips by, despite being a hefty 723 pages. Sam Wasson shines a revealing spotlight on the dancing contradiction that was Fosse, a man whose limitless talent, creativity, ingenuity, dedication, and perfectionism, was rivaled only by the devastating depression, despair, recklessness, insecurity, and self-loathing that destroyed him by age 60. The reader leaves this razor-sharp account of the only person to win the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony awards for directing in a single year (1973), not so much saddened by Fosse’s premature passing as amazed that he lasted as long--and accomplished as much--as he did.

Roach, Mary.
Call Number: 612.3 R628

Roach explores scientific research into eating and the digestive process. It’s a potentially off-putting subject, but as always, Roach gets you through the icky moments with disarming humor and good-natured charm.

Streever, Bill.
Call Number: 551.45 S915

What Bill Streever relates in this skillful work of literary nonfiction will keep one in cocktail party chatter for days. Through the theme of heat, the author explores Death Valley, volcanoes, and coal mines among other fire-related places and things. Throughout he revisits theories about what heat and flames are by scientists like Michael Faraday and John Tyndall. His many fact-filled tangents on natural history will surely spark the reader’s curiosity.

Brosh, Allie.
Call Number: 812.092 B874

A collection of some of Ms. Brosh’s most popular entries from her award-winning blog as well as a few print exclusives, Hyperbole and a Half is both hilarious and painfully true. Using her biting wit to poke fun at her own worst fears and habits, Brosh manages to capture the trials and tribulations that comprise modern adulthood.

Choi, Roy,
Call Number: 641.595 C545

Angeleno and rising star in the L.A. culinary landscape, Roy Choi chronicles--with charisma and sincerity--the story of his life and the Los Angeles food scene. From Korean taco inventor with his Kogi truck, to Chego to community-based inititiatives in the inner city, Choi is much more than a celebrity chef. Includes 85 recipes.

Sandberg, Sheryl.
Call Number: 658.31242 S213
Sheryl Sandberg, Harvard-educated, formerly with Google, and more recently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, writes a notably attention-getting, compelling, and provocative book. Her insights draw from personal experiences and perspectives, as well as data and research, and offer practical advice about how women in the workplace can overcome the internal and external obstacles to enable them to do more for both personal and career achievement and how men can be more supportive of women.

Jaglom, Henry, 1939-
Call Number: 791.92 J24

Legendary director Orson Welles provocatively discussed his film making career, political beliefs and prejudices with director Henry Jaglom--who taped the conversations. The lunches took place in the early 1980s at Ma Maison, a Beverly Hills restaurant.

Shipton, Alyn.
Call Number: 789.14 N712Sh

Well researched, detailed bio of 1970s singer/songwriter Harry “The Fifth Beatle” Nilsson. Nilsson wrote songs that were hits for other recording artists (One for Three Dog Night, Cuddly Toy for the Monkees) and racked up some notable hits as a singer of songs written by others (Everybody’s Talkin’, Without You). He tended to repurpose his old material, such as the catchy theme song for the TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, whose opening line was originally “People let me tell you ‘bout my girlfriend.” Harry was, by all accounts, a very likeable man but his hard-partying antics in and out of the recording studio led to an untimely demise.

Bryson, Bill.
Call Number: 973.91 B916

From Babe Ruth to Charles Lindbergh, the summer of 1927 was full of adventure and portent. Aviators were desperate to push the boundaries of flight, movies were changing forever, and Babe Ruth was trying for a record. Bill Bryson has talent for taking the known and the unknown, the familiar and the forgotten, and weaving them together into something exciting and new.

Call Number: 958 O945

With a new PhD, all that forty-six-year-old Christine Dumaine Leche wanted was a full-time tenure-track position.  Through a series of serendipitous events she lands a job at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan and at an FOB (forward operating base) near the Pakistan border teaching writing to the troops.  The soldiers' candor in these essays is compelling and horrific, but this is about men and women in battle.

Cooper, Artemis, 1953-
Call Number: 92 F361Co

Patrick Leigh Fermor was a decorated World War II veteran, scholar, author, adventurer with so much charm and good looks he could have been a real life James Bond. The son of an eminent British geologist, Fermor was a restless student who did not fit into a structured school, and at eighteen decided to walk from the Hook in Holland to Constantinople and wrote about the adventure in A time of gifts: on foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube. Artemis Cooper was a friend who had access to many of Fermor's previously unavailable personal records.

Baxter, John, 1939-
Call Number: 641.0944 B355

John Baxter is a transplanted Australian who has lived in France for many years and loves the country and the food.  He began to notice that many staple foods of French cuisine were disappearing so he set out across the country interviewing and questioning chefs and cooks. Of course he eats and writes about the food, the cultural history behind ingredients and methods of preparation.  It is almost as wonderful as being there.

Olen, Helaine.
Call Number: 332.01 O45
A longtime freelance journalist, blogger, and former writer for the Los Angeles Times writes a critical look at the personal finance industry, including the banks, brokers, financial advisers, well-known media gurus (David Ramsey, Suze Orman, David Bach, Robert Kiyosaki, etc.). She shows how popular personal finance and investment advice and campaigns offering financial literacy and self-help promise more than they can deliver - and often mislead - in their claims and efforts to help people succeed as they face the vagaries of the stock market, real estate market, job market, recessions, banking practices, income inequality, dwindling pensions and benefits, and health issues.

Raphael, Jody.
Call Number: 364.153 R217-1
At a time when the division between what constitutes rape and what doesn’t seems increasingly distorted by politicians and the media, Jody Raphael’s Rape Is Rape has come to stop that slide in its tracks. This should be required reading for every gender studies and social science course.

Dalrymple, William.
Call Number: 958 D151

This is the history of the first modern battle for Afghanistan waged by the British in 1839. It resulted in a disastrous defeat for Britain and a chain of events which have relevance and repercussions today. Historian and travel writer William Dalrymple had access to newly translated documents and previously unavaible materials.

El-Feki, Shereen.
Call Number: 392.60962 E397

Shereen El-Feki is a British journalist, who has a Welsh mother and an Egyptian father.  She dared to crack the secrecy on a very taboo subject in the modern Arab world--sex.  She examines the history of the region going back to the tenth century; analyzes the influences of colonialism; conducts her own interviews with medical professionals, groups of women; questions standard statistical data on aborton, prostitution, STDs, genital mutilation, lesbianism.  In its candor and surprising conclusions, this book is very much analagous to Simone de Beauvoir's The Second sex.


Kirsch, Jonathan, 1949-
Call Number: 940.5315296 K61

In 1936, 16-year-old Herschel Grynszpan's Jewish parents tried to save their son from Hitler's brutal anti-Semitism by sending him from Germany to France. From Paris, he followed reports of the atrocities committed against his own and other families by the Nazis. Then, at the age of 18, Grynszpan casually walked into the German consulate and shot a low-level Nazi diplomat, becoming one of the few Jews who actively sought vengeance against the Third Reich. Following the thread of this murder mystery in history, Jonathan Kirsch tries to determine what kind of person young Grynszpan was, how his act of vengeance affected history, and what his final personal fate might have been.

Mulley, Clare.
Call Number: 351.74092 S626Mu

Christine Granville was beautiful, intelligent, rebellious, daring and courageous, and left behind a slew of admirers and lovers.  Not a fictitious character in a spy novel, she was one of the most successful World War II spies who was awarded the George Medal, the OBE, and the Croix de Guerre.  She died, not on the war front, but as the result of a brutal murder in 1952.  This well-researched book reveals all aspects of her life and offers reasons why such a complete biography may have been thwarted in the past.

Ferris, William R.
Call Number: 810.8 F394

William Ferris, professor, writer and senior director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, interviewed and photographed 26 writers, artists, musicians and scholars.  He wanted their thoughts and feelings about what is special and different about Southern culture, and how the South has shaped their views and creativity. Among the 26 are Pete Seeger, Eudora Welty, Ernest Gaines, and Robert Penn Warren.

Finkel, David, 1955-
Call Number: 956.7044 F499-1

In Good Soldiers David Finkel wrote about his experiences with a battalion of soldiers during the surge in Baghdad.  The story continues as he follows some of the same men as they return home to begin a normal life.  He combines a journalist's investigative analysis with compassion to portray life after war for soldiers, families and the professionals who attempt to help everyone reintegrate and move forward with their lives.

McLellan, Todd.
Call Number: 778.4 M164 folio
Part history lesson, part art project, this wonderfully innovative book is a collection of photos of pieces of equipment meticulously taken apart. The items range from the basic, such as a Swiss army knife, to more complex items along the lines of an upright piano. Readers will marvel at how craftsmen were able to put together 1,465 separate and distinct pieces to form a 1960s Argus accordion. Readers will puzzle over many of these items, such as why an iPod has only 80 components while a cassette Walkman from 1982 requires a full 370.

Rivera, Jenni.
Call Number: 789.14 R621

Jenni Rivera was strong, determined, talented and very smart. This is her autobiography told her way, as she did everything else, including damaging choices in men.  She toughed it out to succeed in the male-dominated world of banda and norteño music to become an international sensation.


Bhagwati, Jagdish N., 1934-
Call Number: 330.954 B5742-2

Columbia University economics professors (and Indian expats) Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya argue forcefully from the example of India that the best way to lift millions of people out of poverty is economic growth (hence the book's title), promoted through liberalizing reforms. Bhagwati and Panagariya make what could be eye-rolling, dry economic theory lively and passionate as they apply the lessons of Indian reforms to the rest of the developing world.

Westwick, Peter J,
Call Number: 797.6 W538

Peter Westwick, editor of Blue sky metropolis:  the aerospace century in Southern Califorina, a Best Nonfiction Book 2012, and Peter Neushul are professors, historians, and surfers.  At the University of California, Santa Barbara, they have taught a very popular class on the history of surfing which analyzes the sport's popularity based on social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental factors.  Surfing is past being a California/Hawaii phenomenon--it is global, and this book, based on the class and major research, is proof as to why the sport continues to grow in popularity.