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The L.A. Times' favorite books of 2008: nonfiction

December 5, 2008 | 11:44 am


The L.A. Times favorite books of 2008 will appear in Sunday's paper, but we've got the list online now. Below you'll find our nonfiction list with links to our reviews. We've organized the books here alphabetically by author; for your convenience, we've got it alphabetically by title, too.

Gustavo Arellano, "Orange County: A Personal History"
Arellano, a contributing editor to The Times' op-od pages, grew up in Orange County and describes it as home to "Rep. Robert Dornan and Mickey Mouse, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and extraterrestrial basketballer Dennis Rodman, not to mention the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam."

Julia Blackburn, "The Three of Us: A Family Story"
The daughter of a poet and a painter, Blackburn was raised in a narcissistic household, rent by her parents' battles. Here, she tells that story with an unflinching clarity.

Steve Coll, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century"
While the name "Bin Laden" arouses but one image in people's minds, Coll's stirring history centers on the wealth, prestige and power that Osama's family wields and its deep interaction and shared strict interpretation of Islam with Saudi Arabia's Al-Saud family.

Drew Gilpin Faust, "This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War"
The Civil War, Faust argues, was a turning point not just in the nation's history, but also in the way we dealt with issues of "death and dying -- how Americans prepared for death, imagined it, risked it, endured it and worked to understand it."

Dexter Filkins, "The Forever War"
In the witness tradition of combat journalism, Filkins' meticulously constructed vignettes don't claim to form a narrative but illuminate and humanize the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Patrick French, "The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul"
French's biography of the Nobel laureate may be authorized, but it is hardly sanitized. Rather, this is a candid account of the 20th century's unlikeliest literary giant.

Annette Gordon-Reed, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family"
Starting with Thomas Jefferson and his slave and mistress Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed explores master-slave relations in Virginia and the dichotomy of slavery's presence in a society claiming to be based on freedom.

David Hajdu, "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America"
The battle over comic books in the late 1940s and 1950s was really a battle over the soul of America, with the forces of tradition on one side and an anarchic youth culture on the other.

Mark Harris, "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood"
Harris uses the five Academy Award nominees for best picture of 1967 as a window on a revolutionary moment in Hollywood, when the focus of the studios shifted, and film became more gritty and political.

Ann Hood, "Comfort: A Journey Through Grief"
Hood rejects the concept of "closure" after the sudden death of her 5-year-old daughter from a virulent form of strep. She does not miss her daughter any less as time goes by, though the heart must stretch to accommodate new love.

Fred Kaplan, "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer"
Abraham Lincoln was, Kaplan tells us, "the Twain of politics." In this charming and unexpected biography, he frames a part of the 16th president's greatness in his having a "personality and a career forged in the crucible of language."

Hooman Majd, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran"
In the "best book yet written on the contradictions of contemporary Iran," according to our reviewer, Majd dissects a paradox of a country both ancient and modern, Persian and Islamic, morally lax in private and supremely puritanical in public.

See the rest of the list after the jump.

Leonard S. Marcus, "Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, and the Shaping of American Children's Literature"
In this enlightening, vivid history, Marcus unravels many of the myths about children's literature. Children's books, he writes, are "messages forged at the crossroads of commerce and culture."

Louis P. Masur, "The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America"
Many have seen the photograph: a white man, outside Boston City Hall during a 1976 anti-busing protest, about to spear a black lawyer with an American flag. Here, Masur tells the story behind that image.

Honor Moore, "The Bishop's Daughter: A Memoir"
Moore tries to reconcile the public image of her father, a devoted family man and once Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of New York, with her discovery that he led a secret existence as a gay man. In the end, she realized "that to me his living of his passion was heroic."

Rick Perlstein, "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America"
Richard Nixon, Perlstein tells us, worked on the resentments of the so-called silent majority to achieve his power, thus helping facilitate a culture war that we're still fighting in which what separates us, rather than what unites us, defines who we are.

Andrew X. Pham, "The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars"
Pham's story of his father's fleeing occupation and war after a childhood of privilege in Vietnam is one of devastation and radiance, highlighting the history of a benighted land.

Stanley Plumly, "Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography"
It took Plumly, an award-winning poet in his own right, more than 20 years to get a handle on this meditation on John Keats' life, but the book is, as our reviewer noted, "very much worth the wait."

Barry Siegel, "Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets"
The Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times reporter shows the vast implications of a 1953 Supreme Court case that ushered in the legal state secret. The decision enshrined the ability of the executive branch to refuse to turn over evidence to those suing the government simply by asserting that national security would be threatened.

Deanne Stillman, "Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West"
Inspired by the 1998 killing of 34 mustangs near Reno, Stillman's tale of wild horses becomes a saga of the American West that blurs boundaries between essay and reporting, history and literature.

Paul Tough, "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America"
Tough offers an inspiring look at Geoffrey Canada, who created the Harlem Children's Zone, a program to provide children with the support they need from birth until graduation from high school.

Thomas Travisano, editor, with Saskia Hamilton, "Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell"
Bishop and Lowell met in 1947 and remained confidants until Lowell's death 30 years later. "Words in Air," our reviewer wrote, is "not only an intimate, detailed history of American literary life . . . it's also an exhilarating document on the art of friendship."

Rick Wartzman, "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath'"
In 1939, the Kern County board of supervisors banned John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." A former Times editor and columnist uses that story as a lens on California labor history.

Joan Wickersham, "The Suicide Index"
In this understated memoir, Wickersham recalls the suicide of her father and her inability to come to terms with it. Her book resonates with the complexity of love and the inability of memory to sustain us, even (or especially) when it's all we've got.

James Wood, "How Fiction Works"
Wood is our Edmund Wilson, unafraid to approach criticism with the seriousness and intention of art. Here, he looks at fiction's mechanics and aesthetics, arguing in favor of literary realism.

-- Posted by Carolyn Kellogg