The Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

Best Books of 2014

An unprecedented presidential biography. An unfiltered essay collection by a writer who might just be the voice of her generation. A revealing look at the surprising history of a colorful American icon. Seriously scientific answers to supremely silly questions. Enough mouth-watering recipes to fill your freezer for a month.

The unbelievable true stories and indomitable personalities within Barnes & Noble’s picks for the year’s top nonfiction books will make you laugh, change the way you think, teach you something new, and, above all, keep you glued to the page.

41: A Portrait of My Father, by George W. Bush
Only twice in history has the son of a U.S. president followed in his father’s footsteps, and in this unprecedented hybrid of biography and memoir, George W. Bush offers both an affecting, unashamedly admiring account of his father’s remarkable political career and an unexpectedly candid glimpse into his own. It’s a book that only George W. Bush could have written, an intimate look at a family life lived on the world stage.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande
In his years as a surgeon, Gawande dedicated himself to doing whatever he could to save patients’ lives. But he also came to understand that there are limits to what medicine can do, and, perhaps, what it should do. In this heartfelt work, Gawande offers hard-won perspective on elder care, end-of-life treatments, and hospice practice. In the end, he argues, what truly matters is using medicine to offer comfort, and helping patients to face death on their own terms, in peace and with dignity.

Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, by Robert Gates
After a decades-long political career working for the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council, Robert Gates thought he’d left the beltway behind. Then, in 2006, he received a call from the White House asking him to accept a nomination as Secretary of State. The job presented impossible challenges: two unpopular wars, conflicts abroad, and unrest at home. But Gates accepted, feeling it was his duty to serve his nation. This clear-eyed reflection on his time in the office offers invaluable perspective on the inner workings of a government in crisis.

Factory Man, by Beth Macy
Amid omnipresent headlines about companies closing down manufacturing in the U.S. and moving jobs overseas, Beth Macy reveals how one dedicated businessman managed not only to keep his hundred-year-old Virginia furniture business’s doors open, but actually managed to grow it even while competing with cheaply manufactured imports. It’s a story of American spirit and unflappable entrepreneurial resolve, with an ending so irresistible, HBO and Tom Hanks plan to turn it into a miniseries. 

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, by Michael Lewis
When the stock market crashed in 2008 and the economy nearly flew right past the tipping point into oblivion, we all shouted “Never again!” Risky investment practices and questionable actions by the powerhouse hedge funds steering the economy were exposed in financial journalist Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short. Now, five years later, Lewis has followed up with Flash Boys, a meticulously researched account of a team of traders using new technology and the market’s ongoing volatility to their advantage in order to make a quick return, at unknown risk to the wider market. Is it the makings of the next financial crisis, or just Wall Street business as usual? The answer is that, like last time, we might not know until it’s too late. This propulsive work is a warning and a revelation.

In the Kingdom of Ice, by Hampton Sides
Bundle up before sitting down to read this harrowing account of the doomed 1879 voyage of the USS Jeanette, which set sail from San Francisco on a mission to the North Pole—one of the last unexplored blank spots on the map—and never returned. Two years into the voyage, the ship became trapped in the ice a thousand miles north of Siberia. The hull was breached, and within the hour, the Jeanette sank to the bottom of the ocean. The 32 souls onboard were forced to abandon ship, their only hope a long, lonely march across the endless ice. With the narrative skill of a novelist, Sides recounts the struggle to survive an unimaginable ordeal.

Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive, by T.D. Jakes
The clamour of the modern world outside means it is harder than ever to listen to that little voice inside—the voice compelling you to live your own truth and accomplish your dreams. In simple, actionable language, T.D. Jakes’ new book teaches us to listen to that God-given voice within, and take advantages of the opportunities it offers to help us overcome hardship, find success in business, build stronger relationships at home and with friends, and, most of all, trust our instincts.

Killing Patton, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
The latest entry in Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing series recounts the questionable circumstances surrounding the death of George S. Patton, the decorated World War II general, who died due to injuries suffered in an auto accident at the tail end of the conflict. Through a detailed account of Patton’s final years in command, the book considers the myriad parties that benefitted from his untimely death, from Joseph Stalin to an American spy looking to remain cozy with the Soviet Union. In clear, accessible language that takes us inside the minds of historical figures, O’Reilly and Dugard create a blend of fact and fiction as riveting as any thriller.

Make It Ahead, by Ina Garten
When we buy cookbooks, we like to think we’re also buying the time to make all the delicious meals within, but more often than not, life gets in the way. That’s the brilliance of this new cookbook from celebrated Superchef Ina Garten: every tasty, accessible recipe in it is designed to be made when you have the time to spare, then saved until you’re ready to serve. Whether planning for an upcoming soirée or just preparing for the work week ahead, you’ll turn to these recipes again and again.

Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming is known for his ability to disappear inside of the lives of others on both stage and screen. But when an appearance on a UK-based celebrity genealogy series in 2010 uncovered shocking secrets about his family history, the chameleonic actor began to question his own identity. With fearless, forthright wit, he recounts a tumultuous upbringing, reveals how his relationship with his abusive father helped shape the person he would become, and questions how he can move forward when everything he thought he knew turned out to be a lie. It’s a book that will make you laugh even as you ache for the real man underneath the outsized public persona.

Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham
At an age when many of us are still trying to figure out who we want to be, Lena Dunham was well on her way to becoming a star: creating a zeitgeist-defining television series, directing a feature film, and, most recently, penning this bestselling memoir. Just as remarkable as the breadth of her accomplishment here is the depth—no mere celebrity vanity project, these honest, revealing, deeply personal, and truly funny essays collect her thoughts on work, success, love, sex, and friendship with the unfiltered honesty that has gained her respect in the industry and a legion of loyal fans.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman is unquestionably the most popular female superhero of them all, but underneath the can-do spirit, satin tights, and indestructible bracelets lies the amazing, untold story of her creation in the early 1940s. The brainchild of American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman comes with backstory rife with the barely-concealed feminist theory of the day. Part biography of Marston, himself a feminist and a polyamorist, and part tribute to the character’s role in shaping the then-nascent “women’s movement,” Lepore’s book is a wholly fascinating account of one of the indelible icons of the 20th century.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs
In 2011, novelist Jeff Hobbs received terrible news: Robert Peace, his Yale roommate and a great friend, had been murdered in an apparent drug deal gone wrong. It was an event made all the more shocking by the fairy tale narrative of Peace’s life: a gifted boy from the slums of New Jersey, he triumphed over a troubled upbringing to graduate from the Ivy League. In a work that is both a touching biography and a sobering cultural critique, Hobbs, who is white, confronts head-on the cultural divide between himself and his departed friend, and asks why someone who seemed to have made it out would allow himself to be pulled back in.

Wars of the Roses, by Dan Jones
George R.R. Martin has often said he found the seed for his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire in the real-life struggle for the throne of England throughout the Late Middle Ages, and it’s easy to see why as you read Dan Jones’ richly detailed, immersive accounts of the years-long conflict between the Plantagenets and the Tudors. This is history that twists and turns like the best fiction, filled with characters both heroic and villainous, and an immediacy that speaks to us even hundreds of years later.

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe
Randall Munroe isn’t afraid to answer the tough questions. The questions that leave us lying awake deep into the night, pondering. Questions like, “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?” (Answer: It would not go well.) For years, Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, has explored the absurd side of mathematics and technology in his popular webcomic xkcd, and he brings the same skewed genius (and endearing stick-figure drawings) to bear answering off-the-wall questions with as much scientific accuracy as he can muster (even when the question is, “Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?”).

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
If Amy Poehler felt any pressure to live up to the success of best friend Tina Fey’s Bossypants, you wouldn’t know it from reading her assured, revealing, and above all, hilarious debut memoir. In these essays, she reflects on succeeding in the comedy scene as a woman, finding success in a cutthroat industry, struggling with fame, facing doubt, and becoming a mother. She tells her story with the candor and honesty you’d expect from the woman who created the unflappable Leslie Knope.


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