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Best of 2021: Biographies and Nonfiction

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In my previous blog post, I shared a list of what I felt were some of the best Fantasy and Science Fiction books that were published in 2021. In this post, I am going to list some of my top picks for Biographies and Nonfiction books for adults that were published in 2021.

 

Biographies

Cover art for Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

 

 

 

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Expanding on her popular 2018 New Yorker essay, pop star Michelle Zauner discusses growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity in this powerful memoir. Throughout the narrative, Zauner includes musings on food and culture and the role food has in building connections and memories with family.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

 

 

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Acclaimed biographer Isaacson focuses on the life and career of biochemist Jennifer Doudna in his latest biography. Doudna, winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is a pioneer of the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR. Based on the defense system bacteria use to combat viruses, CRISPR can cut human DNA sequences to change genes. Isaacson explores how CRISPR is being used to potentially cure diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cancer. He also discusses the fears there are about creating “designer babies” since this tool could also be used to enhance things like intelligence, strength and beauty. He provides a cautious consideration of the moral issues and risk of misuse of a biotechnology like this. He includes a final section describing how CRISPR is being used to combat COVID-19.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

 

 

 

The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

In his first book, Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Grohl chronicles his rock ‘n’ roll career. He shares stories about jamming with friends in high school, his time in the punk band Scream, joining Nirvana, and fronting his band Foo Fighters after the shocking loss of his friend Kurt Cobain. He also includes loving stories about his parenting experiences of raising three girls with his wife.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Will by Will Smith

 

 

Will by Will Smith

In his highly anticipated autobiography, Will Smith opens up fully about his life. He talks about his early life in Philadelphia in a tense home with an abusive father and also shares stories about his career. He discusses his early success as a rapper, as well as his further rise to stardom as an actor. Will also shares stories about his life as a father and husband and about the work he has done on himself throughout his life and career.

 

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

 

 

 

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Wang shares her story growing up in the United States as an undocumented immigrant in her debut book. Born in China, Wang and her family come to the United States when she is 7 years old. Her parents, who had been professors in China, decided to leave China during the Cultural Revolution. They believed they could live a better life in America, known as Mei Guo in Mandarin (meaning “beautiful country”). Being undocumented, her parents are forced to slave away in sweatshops and live in poverty. Wang discusses the change in her parents and the difficulty of this live they were living, and how it shaped her into the successful civil rights lawyer that she is today.

 

 

 

Cover art of Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson

 

 

Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson

Published just a couple of days before her death, Tyson recounts her extraordinary life and career in this moving memoir. She shares stories about her childhood and reflects on the journey of her decades-long, multiple-award-winning career. She discusses the racial and gender stereotyping and discrimination she encountered and the ill-behaved men that were a part of her life. She also shares her philosophies on life, acting, health, and faith.

 

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Going There by Katie Couric

 

 

Going There by Katie Couric

Kate Couric has been an iconic presence in the television news scene for over 40 years. In this brutally honest, entertaining memoir, Couric shares what was going on behind the scenes in her personal and professional life – a story she’s never shared, until now. She starts with her early childhood and works her way through the various steps in her career and life, candidly discussing the high points (such as becoming the first woman to solo anchor a network evening newscast) and low points (such as battling an eating disorder, the trauma of shocking losses in her family, and dealing with sexism and misogyny in the news industry). She also talks about recent important cultural and social revolutions and the issues behind them.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Vanderbilt by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

 

 

Vanderbilt by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper works together with New York Times bestselling historian and novelist Katherine Howe to recount the rise and fall of his mother’s legendary family, the Vanderbilts. They discuss Cornelius Vanderbilt and how he amassed his fortune and how subsequent generations would ultimately cause that fortune to dwindle (except Cornelius’s son, Billy, who was able to double the money his father left him). Cooper’s mother, Gloria, became the last to truly experience “a Vanderbilt life” and he talks about her traumatic childhood and her out-of-control spending and dysfunctional relationships as an adult. He shares stories about the different generations of the family, triumphs and tragedies, and turns up some family secrets.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Taste by Stanley Tucci

 

 

Taste by Stanley Tucci

In this fun, charming memoir, award winning actor Tucci tells his life through food. Growing up in an Italian American family in New York, he was surrounded by amazing culinary experiences from a young age. He shares stories of his life based around food, including the Italian family dinners of his childhood, memorable restaurant experiences while on location for work, and the food he prepares for his family now. Non-food related stories are shared as well, as are some favorite family recipes. With humor, warmth, and sincerity, Tucci shows how important food really is in his life.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Three Girls from Bronzeville

 

 

Three Girls from Bronzeville by Dawn Turner

Turner tells the story of her, her sister Kim, and her best friend Debra and their childhood growing up in Bronzeville, an African American hub in Chicago. These three girls shared a strong bond, and Turner talks about the harrowing ordeals they each went through throughout their life from adolescence to adulthood to try and understand how three girls starting in a similar place could end up on such different life paths. She describes the community’s horrible conditions, the cultural and social issues of the post-civil rights era she grew up in, and the difficult family issues and life changes that shaped their lives. She entwines their stories with those of her mother, her aunt, and her maternal grandmother and explores how her family came to come to Bronzeville.

 

 

 

 

Nonfiction

 

 

The 1619 Project, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones

This book expands on the award-winning, special issue of the New York Times. Starting with the arrival of the first enslaved people in 1619 and then continuing through four centuries, the project explores the contributions that Black Americans have made in U.S. history and looks at how slavery and resistance to oppression have definitively shaped America. Present social issues are also discussed, including double standards in the application of self-defense laws, Black Lives Matter, and the January 6 Capitol riot. Our library started a discussion group for adults and teens to talk about this project. Anyone in those age groups is welcome to join. There are sessions coming up on Wednesday, January 5 and Wednesday, February 2. In each session, a portion of the original special issue of the New York Times is discussed. Printed copies of these portions can be picked up at the Information Desk.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

 

 

These Precious Days by Ann Patchett

This book contains a collection of essays by beloved novelist Patchett. Her essays cover several different topics, including friendship, family, and life choices she’s made. She also has essays about different aspects of the writing life and her literary influences. With these essays, Patchett shares life lessons she’s learned, and shows the struggles, failures, and triumphs that have shaped her life.

 

 

 

 

 

Cover art for What Happened to You by Oprah Winfrey and Bruce D. Perry

 

 

 

What Happened to You? By Oprah Winfrey & Bruce D. Perry

Winfrey teams up with child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Perry to examine traumatic injury caused by childhood abuse. The book is formatted in an interview format, and Winfrey shares stories of her own abusive childhood. Perry shares his knowledge about stress, the biology and functions of the brain, and physiological response. Using her experiences and his knowledge, the authors discuss how what happens to us in early childhood can influence the people we become. They also look at how to best approach trauma so that you can more effectively heal and overcome the effects of trauma.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Killing the Mob by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

 

 

 

Killing the Mob by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard

In this tenth book of the Killing series, O’Reilly and Dugard explore the history of 20th century organized crime in the United States. Covering the 1930s to the 1980s, the authors discuss many of the most notorious criminals and mob bosses, including Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and more. They also cover many other organized crime-related topics, including the growth of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, the creation of the Mafia commission, the power struggles within the “Five Families,” and the personal war between Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa.

 

 

 

Cover art for The Premonition by Michael Lewis

 

 

The Premonition by Michael Lewis

In this book, Lewis examines the Coronavirus pandemic and how the U.S. government has responded to it thus far. He explores the stories of a group of epidemiologists and other medical visionaries who long predicted the pandemic and researched what the best strategies would be to combat it. This includes a group of doctors who wrote the U.S.’s pandemic response plan in 2007 after George W. Bush read a book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and asked what our government would do in such a situation. With these stories and an analysis of the pandemic so far, Lewis answers the question where did we go wrong and how can we get it right?

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Peril by Bob Woodward & Robert Costa

 

 

Peril by Bob Woodward & Robert Costa

Woodward and Costa do a deep dive in to the 2020 campaign, election, and aftermath in this investigative book. They interviewed over 200 people who were at the center of the turmoil and ended up with over 6,000 pages of transcripts. They discuss both Trump’s and Biden’s campaigns, Trump’s refusal to accept the election results and attempts to overthrow the election, and even touch a little bit on the January 6 insurrection. One of the most shocking revelations is from General Mark Milley, who talked about how he felt he had to reassure his counterpart in China that Trump would not launch a surprise attack to try and improve his chances of staying in office. They also discuss Biden’s first actions after becoming elected president.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

 

 

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Bill Gates has spent a decade studying climate change, and in this book, he provides information about how we can avoid the worst effects of climate change. He shares detailed plans that he has created in order to reach his goal of reducing greenhouse emissions to zero. He focuses on five emissions-generating activities: making things, plugging in, growing things, getting around, and keeping cool and warm. His plans include steps for both individuals and governments to take to become a part of the solution.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

 

 

Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain

Kendi and Blain have compiled a collection of essays, biographical sketches, and poems by Black writers that explore the entire 400 years of the Black experience in America. Ninety different Black writers provide the content of this book, with each writer taking on a 5-year period from 1619-2019. At the end of each 40-year section, there is a poem that captures the essence of the historical period that is covered. In addition to main historical events, a light is shone on lesser-known historical events as well. This powerful collection shows that African American history is American history; it is essential to get a picture of American history as a whole.

 

 

 

 

Cover art for Think Again by Adam Grant

 

 

Think Again by Adam Grant

In this book, Grant argues that people tend to be stuck in their own beliefs and ideas and that it is critical that people rethink those ideas and know what you don’t know. He stresses that open-mindedness and lifelong learning are important parts of rethinking. There are three areas of rethinking that he focuses on: the individual, changing others’ minds, and collective environments. Grant believes that if we are unable to evolve our thinking, then we’ll inhibit our growth both individually and as a society.

 

 

 

 

 

Cover art for The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

 

 

The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell examines the events that led up to the firebombing of Tokyo by U.S. forces in 1945, one of the deadliest air raids of World War II. He starts off by talking about the creation of the Norden bombsight in the 1920s, which gave pilots the ability to aim bombs at specific targets rather than haphazardly dropping them. He then focuses on the careers of Generals Haywood Hansell and Curtis LeMay, who commanded the U.S. bomber units during World War II. Gladwell explores the bombing strategies these men employed and the bombing missions they directed. He also poses some interesting questions about the morality of warfare.