Best of 2020: Non-Fiction

Updated: January 29, 2021

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.

Apropos of nothing
Allen, Woody, 1935-
Call Number: 812.092 A432-3

Woody Allen's memoir is in two parts. The first half of the book is an illuminating, literary depiction of the author's childhood in Brooklyn and his early career in the entertainment industry. The second half of the book is a gossipy, backbiting chronicle of Mr. Allen's career as a film director and life as a celebrity.

Begin again : James Baldwin's America and it's urgent lessons for our own
Glaude, Eddie S., Jr., 1968-
Call Number: 323.1 G552

By looking at the life, struggles and work of James Baldwin, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., reminds us that the fight for equitable change is always with us. Baldwin's brilliant insights are matched by Glaude's brilliant ability to bring new light to old problems, and that complacency and weariness are not acceptable.

Caste : the origins of our discontents
Wilkerson, Isabel
Call Number: 323.30973 W681

This is a compelling examination of America's history of racism and injustice through the lens of caste systems, comparing American society to caste systems of Indian and Nazi Germany. The connections are startling, disturbing,awakening and offer us a different framework and vocabulary to come to terms with the fractures in our society today.

The chiffon trenches : a memoir
Talley, André Leon
Call Number: 746.52 T148-2

André Leon Talley is one of the best educated fashion journalists, who has been analyzing and reporting about fashion for over 40 years. And, he has seen it all, and then some. Without pettiness or anger, he melds memoir and fashion history.

City at the edge of forever : Los Angeles reimagined
Lunenfeld, Peter
Call Number: 979.41 L881Lun

A playful history of what makes Los Angeles unique. This looks at the cultural, economic, technological, social anomalies and literature of the City of Angels. From surf-girls to the Manson murders to JPL.


The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America's Urban Heartland
Thompson-Hernández, Walter
Call Number: 978 T478

What are cowboys, with stables, horses, and riding gear, doing in the city? These friends are doing good things for themselves and the community, by putting the kibosh on racial and neighborhood stereotypes, and instilling a sense of purpose and pride in children, teens, and adults.

Don't believe a word : the surprising truth about language
Shariatmadari, David
Call Number: 409 S531

David Shariatmadari takes us on a tour of what the study of linguistics tells us about language in this fascinating book that is written for the non-linguist’s enjoyment.

First principles : what our first four presidents learned from the Greeks and Romans
Ricks, Thomas E.
Call Number: 320.973 R539

Thomas E. Ricks takes us back to the founding of our country, and even further back--to the thoughts, concepts and works of the Greeks and Romans. The first four Presidents had foundational knowledge of the ancient classics, and Ricks examines how each man was influenced by thos works.

A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler
George, Lynell
Call Number: 813 B986Ge

A book that is as unusual in format and style as is its subject, Octavia Butler. This work is based on the research done by Lynell George, who had access to Butler's archive of more than 300 boxes, housed at The Huntington Library. Butler saved so much, and there are clues to the history of her life, how she created, and what it was like to be a woman of color during her time. The timing of this book's publishing is a match for the incredible work being done at the Los Angeles Public Library's Octavia Lab.

Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good
Turner, Tina
Call Number: 157.521 T953

Tina Turner is known as the Queen of Rock 'n Roll, but for this reader she is also the ultimate Queen of Survival 'n Success. Having overcome poverty, spousal abuse, racism and multiple personal tragedies, she turned her professional and personal life around. In this book, she offers guidance and hope for everyone who feels they want and deserve something better out of life.


Hell and other destinations : a 21st-century memoir
Albright, Madeleine Korbel
Call Number: 92 A342-1

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is indefatigable and not at all ready to retire, as she reflects on her life, her work, the state of our country and the world. 

Life on a String: The Yale Puppeteers and the Turnabout Puppet Theatre
Rice, Christina
Call Number: 793.18 R495

The Turnabout Theatre was a unique theatrical experience, and its creators, ensemble of actors, writers and other artists were equally unique and talented. There is a wealth of history in this book about a Los Angeles theatrical gem. The Turnabout Theatre archive is kept at the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Library, and is the resource for the book and an exhibit that was planned for April 2020. For now, you can see the exhibit virtually, and it is absolutely fabulous! For aficionados of Los Angeles, for theatre lovers, and everyone else, the book is a great holiday gift and can be purchased at the Library Foundation's Library Store.

The luckiest man : life with John McCain
Salter, Mark
Call Number: 92 M121Sa

Friend, advisor, sidekick and writer, Mark Salter reminds us about the life of a very decent man, John McCain, whose life encompassed many lives. "The luckiest man on earth," is how McCain felt about his own life that was full of adventures and misadventures, gains and losses, good and bad decisions, but always moving forward to better serve the country he loved.

Make Me Rain: Poems & Prose
Giovanni, Nikki
Call Number: 811 G5115-16

Poet and writer Nikki Giovanni's insights and words are as sharp and precise as ever. She speaks truth not only to power, but to all of us, and in language that is clear, bold and cannot be misconstrued.

The man who ate too much : the life of James Beard
Birdsall, John
Call Number: 641.092 B363Bi

James Beard is the doyenne of American cooking and cuisine. The James Beard Award is given out annually, and there is a James Beard Foundation. Behind the ebullient and happy demeanor, there was sadness and secrets. This is the first in-depth biography of the man who put American cuisine on the world map.

Mastering bread : the art and practice of handmade sourdough, yeasted bread, and pastry
Vetri, Marc
Call Number: 641.71 V589

To create good bread that has texture, substance and flavor has been the goal of Marc Vetri. This master baker and award-winning chef shows us how to achieve the same results at home that he has done for many years as a professional.

Minor feelings : an Asian American reckoning
Hong, Cathy Park
Call Number: 301.45095 H772

The most articulated expression of Asian-American -- to be clear, specifically of East Asian descent -- anxiety, and how to transform this anxiety into a palpable bridge to other oppressed groups and true self-liberation. Cast off the shackles of capitalist drive at the expense of the moral and political. Yes, yes, yes!


On all fronts : the education of a journalist
Ward, Clarissa, 1980-
Call Number: 809.295092 W257

International journalist Clarissa Ward has reported from every major battle front, natural disaster and troubled spot all over the world.  Part memoir and commentary on what it is like to be among the few women who do this kind of reporting and what motivates these journlists to do this type of dangerous work.

Our bodies, their battlefields : war through the lives of women
Lamb, Christina
Call Number: 364.153 L218

This is not a book for the faint of heart, but is a much-needed investigation into the lives of women who are the victims of international wars and conflicts. Even though there have been significant gains in women's rights, it is only recently that rape as a weapon of war has been internationally acknowledged. Rape used as a weapon to intimidate, to silence, to coerce women and young girls into submission, and the after effects on survivors are what Christina Lamb writes about.

A promised land
Obama, Barack
Call Number: 92 O116-4

Former President Barack Obama's memoir is his most revealing and honest look at his personal and professional life.  He writes openly about his wife and daughters and how being President affected all their lives. Most importantly he expresses his concerns for the future of the United States and the world.

Separated : inside an American tragedy
Soboroff, Jacob
Call Number: 325.11 S677

MSNBC correspondent Jacob Soboroff traces the heart-rending history of family separations at the southern border. What will surely go down as one of the biggest scandals of the Trump administration is presented in both macro and micro levels for a disturbing portrayal of migrant and asylum-seeking families being torn apart, sometimes permanently, in a bid to dissuade further families' attempts to enter the United States.

Slouching towards los angeles : Living and Writing by Joan Didion's Light
Nelson, Steffie
Call Number: e-Book

The title is a riff on Joan Didion's Slouching towards Bethlehem, and is an homage to the insightful work of a great journalist, essayist and novelist.

Solutions and other problems
Brosh, Allie
Call Number: e-Book

In Allie Brosh’s follow-up to her bestseller Hyperbole and a Half, she uses a deft combination of humor and empathy to delve into her grief, mental health struggles, and occasionally absurd coping mechanisms.  While interweaving text and drawings Brosh works through her relationships with strange children, strange dogs, and her own strange psyche. This book is unique in format and could be considered a graphic novel.

Something that may shock and discredit you
Lavery, Daniel M.
Call Number: 814 O766

With his signature wit, Lavery details his journey through transition. There are hilarious modernist-meets-Western-European-Classics-inspired spins on literature, fairy tales, and American TV culture (e.g., Dirtbag Sappho and transmasculine relationships in the Addams Family). Newer are the Biblical analyses and personal passages directly addressing Lavery's personal odyssey, all of which are illuminating, and dare I say it--hopeful?  

Spirit run : a 6,000-mile marathon through North America's stolen land
Álvarez, Noé
Call Number: 796.3092 A473

Noé Álvarez is a writer, a runner, and the son of Mexican immigrant parents descended from the indigenous Purépecha people. Raised in Yakima, Washington, he is the first-time author of thus memoir. As a disillusioned, nineteen-year-old first-generation college student, he left school, seeking deeper meaning and fellowship, to run with other Native Americans in a grueling relay run called the Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ). During months of running across America, anywhere from 10-30 miles a day, he learned to connect with himself, with the land and with Indigenous communities from Canada to Guatemala. His own memories are intertwined with the stories and struggles of his parents and the other PDJ runners, seeking healing from their painful pasts.

Stealing home : Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the lives caught in between
Nusbaum, Eric
Call Number: 796.231 L8788Nu

An absorbing account chronicling the dismantling of the Mexican American community of Chavez Ravine that paved the way for Dodger Stadium. Nusbaum revives the shady dealings and power players that have become part of L.A. lore, but his decision to focus on a single Chavez Ravine family instills a sense of humanity in this vivid and engrossing narrative.

Tightrope : Americans reaching for hope
Kristof, Nicholas D., 1959-
Call Number: 309.73 K925

Pulitzer Prize-winning, married, international correspondents, Kristof and Wudunn, focus on the United States. They visit the rural Oregon community where Kristof grew up, and many other communities across the country, to chronicle the lives of places rife with economic and spiritual despair. Kristof and Wudunn offer an empathetic portrait of working class Americans struggling to survive.

Undaunted : my fight against America's enemies, at home and abroad
Brennan, John O., 1955-
Call Number: 351.74092 B838

John Brennan, former CIA Director, comes clean about his early life as the son of an Irish immigrant, his curiosity, rebellious behavior and demeanor (he once had a diamond earring and rode a motorcyle), and his rise through governmental ranks to become a trusted keeper of America's security in a very dangerous world.

The Undocumented Americans
Cornejo Villavicencio, Karla
Call Number: 325.1 C813

Karla Cornejo Villavicenco was one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard. She writes lovingly about her family, friends and otherts who have come to this country in search of the American Dream, trying to escape from violence and hopelessness in other countries. With her personal knowledge and experience about the sacrifices that are made, she writes about the mental and physical damage that undocumented people endure for a better life and future.

The Watergate girl : my fight for truth and justice against a criminal president
Wine-Banks, Jill
Call Number: 973.924 W767

At the time of the Watergate investigation, she became known as "the girl" in the mini-skirts.  Woman, attorney and legal analyst, Jill Wine Banks gives us the inside scoop about the investigation and eventual prosecution of those who were involved in the Watergate crimes. The legal calculations and strategies provide insights into what goes into these major prosecutions. It was beyond three-dimensional chess, where legal contingencies were weighed against pending indictments and testimony. Add to this, Ms. Wine Banks' experiences as to what it was like being the only "girl" who was a lawyer on the team.

The well-gardened mind : the restorative power of nature
Stuart-Smith, Sue
Call Number: 615.8515 S932

If there are some people who need a reason to get outside and do some gardening, then this is the book for you. Sue Stuart-Smith presents well-documented scientific evidence about the benefits of gardening. For those who are home gardeners, this book will validate their addiction.

When time stopped : a memoir of my father's war and what remains /
Neumann, Ariana
Call Number: 940.5315296 N492Ne

Ariana Neumann grew up as the daughter of a very successful businessman in Venezuela. Time stopped at her father's willingness to talk about his past life in Europe, but Ariana's curiosity opened up another world of family, friends and others who filled in blanks and opened up pain, sorrow, and some resolution.

White tears/brown scars : How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color
Hamad, Ruby
Call Number: e-Book

Australian journalist Ruby Hamad exposes the phenomenon by which some white women, leaning into the trope of the damsel in distress, can weaponize their literal or figurative tears to get what they want at the expense of BIPOC. For example, a white woman accused of racism by a BIPOC co-worker can employ strategically shed tears to evoke sympathy from other co-workers, effectively inverting the positions of villain and victim. This phenomenon was particularly apparent in the summer of 2020 as people agitating for a racial reckoning butted heads with ostensible allies unprepared to turn their attention inward.

Why we swim
Tsui, Bonnie
Call Number: 796.9 T882

Swimming is not a natural activity for humans, the way running, walking, engaging in all kinds of sport are. Tsui sets out to explore why humans make the effort and take the time to learn how to swim. She investigates unique forms of swimming: in extremely cold water, deep depth diving without equipment, swimmers who have very unique bodies for regular swimminng, and the psychological effects of swimming for pleasure and for competition.

Wow, no thank you : essays
Irby, Samantha
Call Number: 817 I65-2

Another hilarious and heartbreaking collection of essays regarding everyday trials and tribulations of the author's life.

Wuhan diary : dispatches from a quarantined city
Fang, Fang, 1955-
Call Number: 614.592414 F211

From one of China's modern leading writers, Fang Fang, comes this book that began as a blog, detailing what it was like living in Wuhan China, during the nascent days of COVID-19. She was candidly critical about the government's lack of communication, its corruption in dealing with the administration of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which may have been the source of the virus, and she wrote about daily life in a lockdown.  At the present time, she is being trolled as a traitor and liar, and publication of her books in China has stopped.


The year 1000 : when explorers connected the world -- and globalization began
Hansen, Valerie, 1958-
Call Number: 909 H249

Globalization is not a modern concept, but goes back centuries. Yale scholar Valerie Hansen takes us back centuries as she writes about the ancient world, where globalization was a practical way of life. A fascinating book for borth history lovers and for those who think the subject is dull, dry and boring.