The 15 best advice, memoir, and history books that aren’t works of fiction
This is part of the L.A. Times 2022 Gift Guide. See the full guide here.
What makes nonfiction books so tricky as potential gifts is also the most wonderful thing about them: their infinite variety. Do you want gossip? Advice? History? Are you into musical theater? Politics? Shamanism? Bono? Below you’ll find 15 books, including memoirs, histories, essay collections (and one art calendar) that are sure to have staying power through the new year and beyond. All you have to figure out is which one goes in whose (heavyweight) stocking.
The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times
Leadership books from influential people are a dime a dozen (while also north of $30 a pop). But former First Lady Michelle Obama’s follow-up to her blockbuster, “Becoming,” is more focused on how to become an example to others — even if millions of people don’t look up to you. Enumerating the principles she’s picked up throughout her life, the former First Lady focuses on building interpersonal relationships. You can start building yours by giving the gift everyone’s going to want on their shelf.
$33 at Crown retailers
Shy: The Alarmingly Outspoken Memoirs of Mary Rodgers
Born into Broadway royalty, Mary Rodgers wrote songs, scripts, children’s books — but could a memoir, with an assist from New York Times critic Jesse Green, be her masterpiece? Cocktail-hour wit bursts from every page as Rodgers (who died in 2014) recalls an upbringing by difficult geniuses and encounters with pretty much everyone — but especially “the love of my life,” Stephen Sondheim. A must-read for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a single musical.
$35 at Macmillan
Solito: A Memoir
Tired of being spoken for, immigrants who have made the perilous border crossing to the U.S. are speaking for themselves. Javier Zamora’s memoir isn’t just notable for being a visceral account of a 9-year-old unaccompanied boy traveling for months from El Salvador through Arizona. It’s also written compellingly through that boy’s point of view, from his parting words to his grandfather all the way to his complicated feelings about the home his parents have made in the U.S.
$28 at Hogarth
Out of the Corner: A Memoir
One of the smartest things Jennifer Grey does in this very smart memoir is to dispense with the nose-job stuff right away. The “Dirty Dancing” veteran rolls through her fascinating youth and middle age with abandon, openly discussing sex, reproductive choice and cosmetic surgery without shame. She is also refreshingly clear-eyed about what Hollywood demands of its stars — and how it can be survived.
$30 at Ballantine
Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story
This isn’t the type of celebrity memoir that generates clickbait revelations. If someone you know loves Bono, or even just likes U2, they’ll be curious to read his surprisingly self-deprecating thoughts — arranged as essays, each pegged to a song — on everything from navigating funding for Africa to what on earth he was thinking with that compulsory iTunes album. (He regrets it.)
$34 at Knopf
The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir
A Colombian-born novelist’s memoir puts the real in magical realism, beginning with an episode of severe amnesia that eerily echoes her own mother’s traumatic event. Ingrid Rojas Contreras goes on to explore her family’s history as curanderos — South American shamans like her grandfather, whose bones the family decides to disinter in accordance with his spectral request. A spiritual journey for readers who want something more idiosyncratic and culturally rooted than spiritualist self-help.
$30 at Doubleday
American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis
Sure, Adam Hochschild’s latest is technically a World War I book, placing it firmly in the “Dad gift” category. But the historian’s focus is on the home front, and its lessons are shockingly urgent. As the U.S. entered the war it clamped down on dissent at home, leading to suppressions of speech and civil rights rarely seen since — along with lynchings and white riots we are still unearthing today. It’s an under-explored era uncomfortably resonant with our precarious current moment.
$30 at Mariner
A uniquely constructed memoir of the late Hollywood icon Paul Newman offers the best of several genres: an oral history surveying Newman’s friends and colleagues fleshed out with hours of archived interviews with the subject himself, published (by editor David Rosenthal) at a point when the distance of time allows for candor without rancor. The result is a full portrait of a man who was never quite sure of himself, battled many demons and came out of it all a great actor and good person.
$32 at Knopf
A great gift for Angelenos and the Angeleno-curious, Natalia Molina’s place history of a foundational Echo Park Mexican restaurant has the force of memoir (her grandmother founded the place) along with the thoroughness and cultural context that only a trained historian can provide. But mostly it’s a fascinating portrait of a gathering place and all the people — diverse working-class immigrants, progressive artists, queer pioneers — who made it a crucial community anchor. (This selection also appears on our history buffs gift guide.)
$30 at UC Press retailers
Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe
It doesn’t matter what kind of sports fan you’re shopping for; David Maraniss’ subject, a Native American man once deemed the nation’s greatest athlete, excelled at almost all of them. The story of his great and early accomplishments, followed by later disappointments and marred by the nation’s shameful treatment of its first people, is gripping in the hands of a biographer who has previously told the life stories of Vince Lombardi and former President Barack Obama.
$33 at Simon & Schuster
Art Day by Day: 366 Brushes With History
Art history for people who don’t want to read eye-glazing art history tomes, Alex Johnson’s gift-perfect (but never trite) compendium is organized by date, so you can read it from beginning to end or go day by day. Each calendar date touches on an event — say, Michelangelo acquiring the marble for his David or the discovery of the Lascaux caves in France, which reportedly inspired Picasso to declare, “We have invented nothing!”
$25 at Thames & Hudson retailers
High-Risk Homosexual: A Memoir
There is no longer a template for the coming-out story; times have changed and so, fortunately, have the opportunities for new voices to speak. Edgar Gomez’s version is bright, nervy, hilarious and particular to his upbringing as a Nicaraguan-descended Floridian. Raised on cockfights and machismo, he progresses through a confusing and amusing mix of identities and micro-cultures; consider this a memoir as millennial queer culture travelogue.
$17 at Soft Skull retailers
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
People like to say criticism is a dying art; you’d never know that from reading Margo Jefferson. Having detailed her upbringing among the Black elite in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Negroland,” the legendary critic returns to document all the influences that formed her — whether by inspiring her or giving her something to push back against. Bing Crosby, Ike Turner, W.E.B. Dubois, George Eliot and many others came together to form Jefferson — and American culture at large.
$27 at Pantheon
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
Princeton historian and Alabama native Imani Perry’s return to the region that brought her up is the best kind of tour you can have in 2022, if you care about history as it is lived. Talking to people, reading through archives, thinking about her own past, Perry unearths a South synonymous with America in ways expansive rather than reductive. Stereotypes and old tropes are shattered in favor of a true portrait: respectful, complex and eye-opening.
$29 from Ecco
Easy Beauty: A Memoir
It’s hard to grow up being told beauty is only skin deep, only to see it valued above nearly all else. Chloé Cooper Jones dismantles the notion of “easy beauty” from the inside out, beginning with her own visible disability, which provokes pity in others — if not erasure. Drawing on philosophy and art history, she emerges with an homage to “difficult beauty” — the kind truly worth seeking out. A spiky and inspiring book for any reader at odds with a superficial culture.
$28 at Avid Reader retailers