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Did you know the sports bra wasn’t invented until 1977? Yeah, neither did I. I’m an active person who exercises multiple times a week and sometimes teaches yoga, and this essential part of my fitness wardrobe predates me by only four years.

When I read that fact, I expressed my shock aloud—and author Danielle Friedman was just getting started. Let’s Get Physical: How Women Discovered Exercise and Reshaped the World bulges with tidbits like this, drawing readers into this history of exercise and modern women. The factoids boggle the mind, but Friedman goes further, providing a rich story for each fitness trend she examines, from jogging to Jazzercise, bodybuilding to yoga and beyond.

Friedman uses her award-winning reporting skills to profile the fads of the past century, the women who instigated them and the challenges they faced. Whether through clothing that offered freedom of movement or movement that offered freedom of expression, Friedman demonstrates that women’s growing interest in and access to fitness has often granted them a sense of liberation and strength.

But the fitness industry has also created obstacles for women, of course, by pressuring them to conform to whatever physical ideal is currently in vogue. Even in activities that sought to break those norms, such as bodybuilding, participants have couched their efforts in the belief that women’s muscles shouldn’t be too big.

America has historically idolized white bodies, as well, which is a truth Black bodybuilder Carla Dunlap faced head-on. Even when she won contests, lower-ranking white contestants would snag magazine covers. Friedman also examines the classism inherent to these often-expensive activities and the privilege—whether related to time, money or access—that gives some women a chance to move but restricts other women from doing the same.

Let’s Get Physical incorporates the stories of dozens of women, including the author herself. Friedman shares just enough of her own experience to grant the book a defined point of view: that of a woman approaching middle age, seeking strength and release in movement. Her research is thorough, and her storytelling is as energetic as the exercises she describes. Let’s Get Physical is full of stories that humanize an industry that sometimes seems to prioritize perfection over people.

Let’s Get Physical bulges with factoids you will scarcely believe, drawing readers into the history of exercise and modern women.

The iconic images that accompany the conventional narrative of World War II depict American military service as a force for good—like soldiers handing out candy bars to children. But to interpret World War II this way, writes Elizabeth D. Samet, a professor of English at the United States Military Academy at West Point, requires “a selective memory.” Terms such as “the good war” and “the greatest generation” were shaped by “nostalgia, sentimentality, and jingoism” after the fact, causing “the deadliest conflict in human history [to become] something inherently virtuous.”

In her compelling, enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness, Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the facts. She draws on a broad range of cultural expressions that came about during the war and the years that followed. Especially noteworthy are writings by veterans and other firsthand observers of war, which Samet uses to contrast their ambivalence at the time with how later generations understood the conflict. Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle, for example, found little romance in war. As he traveled with the troops in 1944, he wrote, “I am sure that in the past two years I have heard soldiers say a thousand times, ‘If only we could have created all this energy for something good.’”

There was an increase in racial violence during those years, as well. In 1942, there were more than 240 riots and other racial incidents across the United States, and segregation was still the official policy of the armed services and in many other places. “One of the chief ironies inherent in the project of bringing democracy to the rest of the world remained the signal failure to practice it at home,” Samet writes.

After the war, violent crime films were the most commercially successful stories featuring veterans. The veteran with amnesia was a staple of postwar noir, even though it didn’t reflect the reality for most veterans who were trying to readjust to civilian life. A 1947 survey of ex-service members found that more than 50% of them said the war “had left them worse off than before.”

This richly rewarding and thought-provoking book splashes World War II history across a broad canvas, with insightful discussions of the works of Homer and Shakespeare and the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln. Along the way, Samet convincingly argues that we should reflect on our current relationship to war in the light of wars past. “The way we think and talk about force will influence not only the use of American military might abroad,” she writes, “but also our response to the violence that has increasingly been used as a tool of insurrection at home.”

In her enlightening and elegantly written Looking for the Good War, Elizabeth D. Samet compares popular myths about World War II to the brutal facts of war.

Nonfiction is the broadest publishing category, with books that delve into the past, present and future of every aspect of our world. There are books that rifle through our innermost emotions and books that search the outer universe. Books that strike while the iron is hot and books that are cool and classic. You’ll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.


20. Cultish by Amanda Montell

In her incredibly timely book, Amanda Montell’s expertise as a linguist melds with her research into the psychological underpinnings of cults.

19. Cuba by Ada Ferrer

With interesting characters, new historical insights and dramatic yet accessible writing, Ada Ferrer’s epic history of Cuba will grab and hold your attention.

18. Fuzz by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s enthusiasm and sense of humor are contagious in her around-the-world survey of human-wildlife relations.

17. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi generously shares both their wounds and their wisdom, offering aspiring artists fresh inspiration for creating new forms of being.

16. American Republics by Alan Taylor

Pulitzer Prize winner Alan Taylor’s latest American history, covering the United States’ expansion from 1783 to 1850, is sweeping, beautifully written, prodigiously researched and myth-busting.

15. My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Joyful, righteous, indignant, self-assured, exuberant: All of these words describe Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir.

14. Blow Your House Down by Gina Frangello

Frangello’s raw, eloquent memoir is singed with rage and tinged with optimism about the power to recover one’s life from the depth of suffering.

13. Unbound by Tarana Burke

Unbound is Tarana Burke’s unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

12. The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

For readers seeking to understand the twists, turns and amazing potential of gene-editing CRISPR technology, there’s no better place to turn than The Code Breaker.

11. 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows by Ai Weiwei

This heart-rending yet exhilarating memoir by a world-famous artist gives a rare look into how war and revolution affect innocent bystanders who are just trying to live.

10. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s unique combination of personal narrative, a search for higher meaning and comic ingenuity will leave you pumped up and smiling.

9. Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

This epic, transformative book covers 400 years of Black history with the help of a choir of exceptional poets, critics, essayists, novelists and scholars.

8. A Most Remarkable Creature by Jonathan Meiburg

Gorgeously written and sophisticated, Jonathan Meiburg’s book about a wickedly clever falcon will move readers to protect this truly remarkable creature.

7. Chasing Me to My Grave by Winfred Rembert

From surviving a lynching to discovering the transformative power of art while imprisoned in a chain gang, Winfred Rembert recounts his life story in his distinct and unforgettable voice.

6. Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown

Most of the Japanese American patriots who formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment are gone, but their stories live on in this empathetic tribute to their courage.

5. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

Beloved author George Saunders shares invaluable insights into classic Russian short stories, unlocking their magic for bibliophiles everywhere.

4. How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

Clint Smith’s gifts as both a poet and a scholar make this a richly provocative read about the ways America does (and doesn’t) acknowledge its history of slavery.

3. Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

In jaw-dropping detail, Patrick Radden Keefe recounts the greed and corruption at the heart of the Sackler family’s quest for wealth and social status.

2. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

In her debut memoir, Michelle Zauner perfectly distills the palpable ache for her late mother, wrapping her grief in an aromatic conjuring of her mother’s presence.

1. A Little Devil in America by Hanif Abdurraqib

Hanif Abdurraqib’s brilliant commentary shuffles forward, steps sideways, leaps diagonally and waltzes gracefully throughout this survey of Black creative performance in America.

See all of our Best Books of 2021 lists.

You’ll find a little bit of everything on our list of our most highly recommended nonfiction books of 2021—from timeless instant classics to breathlessly of-the-moment reports.

While the Middle Ages may seem like ancient history, the proliferation of medieval-themed festivals testifies to our enduring interest in knights, jousting and chivalry. Such gatherings present only the thinnest veneer of the times, of course, masking the rich details that characterized the Middle Ages. With fast-paced storytelling, historian Dan Jones’ captivating Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages carries readers over the expansive history of the years 410 to 1527. We meet kings and philosophers, clerics and bankers, theologians and scientists, and explorers and navigators as Jones illustrates an era full of the sorts of challenges we still grapple with today: pandemics, the privilege of a moneyed merchant class, war, climate change and more.

Jones’ magisterial history opens with the fall of Rome in the early fifth century. Mass migrations and a changing climate contributed to an already weakened imperial government, and invaders eventually tore down the walls of the empire. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the first Islamic empires came to power, ushering in new developments in politics and science. Jones examines the roles of monks and knights during this time and explores the age of the Franks, who established a pseudo-Roman Christian empire that gave birth to the Crusades. Jones also helpfully points out that the Crusades did not always feature conflict between Christians and Muslims in battle for control of Jerusalem, but in fact several Crusades grew out of intra-Christian disagreements about orthodoxy and heresy.

In all, Jones introduces readers to the “merchants who invented extraordinary new financial techniques to make themselves and the world richer; scholars who revived the wisdom of the ancients and founded some of today’s greatest universities; and the architects and engineers who built the cities, cathedrals, and castles that still stand five hundred years on, as portals back to the medieval world.” A sprawling book to cover a sprawling history, Powers and Thrones is essential reading for everyone interested in the ways a 1,100-year period changed the course of our cultural history in profound ways.

With fast-paced storytelling, Dan Jones introduces the kings, philosophers, clerics, bankers, theologians, scientists and navigators who defined the Middle Ages.

History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations. There are even lessons in how to survive a sea monster attack—because you just never know.

Relics

Relics: A History of the World Told in 133 Objects is my idea of the perfect coffee-table gift book. Billed as “four billion years in the palm of your hand,” it’s small enough not to be cumbersome, weighty enough to be substantial and full of colorful photos and intriguing text. Open it to any random page and get lost in the images of tiny relics and their histories, ranging from a 4.5-billion-year-old asteroid fragment to a tiny piece of Winston Churchill’s faux leopard-skin hand muff. (Poor circulation in his later years caused Churchill’s hands to get cold.) The book is part of the Mini Museum project, intended to share a collection of hand-held bits of wonders from around the world—a whole exhibition, Polly Pocket-style. 

Young and old will be enticed by the variety of natural, historical and cultural tidbits, including a specimen of petrified lightning from the Sahara, a piece of a Martian meteorite, coal from the Titanic and a morsel of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding cake. Enjoy at your leisure, with no museum crowds invading your space. 

★ Original Sisters

Award-winning artist Anita Kunz certainly made the most of her COVID-19 lockdown: She began researching and painting portraits of more than 150 extraordinary women from ancient times to the present, many whose stories have been lost to history or whose glory has been stolen by men. The result, Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage, brings these heroines to life in wonderfully bold portraits, each accompanied by a paragraphsummarizing her notable life. These portraits are so vivid that readers will feel as though they are meeting these women face-to-face—and believe me, you will feel their power.

You’ll recognize many women’s names, like Temple Grandin, Nina Simone and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but others may be new, such as Amanirenas, the partially blind African warrior queen who defeated Augustus Caesar. Patricia Bath, the first Black female ophthalmologist, invented a medical device to remove cataracts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a Chinese American suffragist who led a parade on horseback in New York City to advocate for voting rights. A wonderful gift for friends, family or yourself, Original Sisters is an inspiring springboard for further study of these noteworthy souls.

★ The 1619 Project

For any lover of American history or letters, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is a visionary work that casts a sweeping, introspective gaze over what many have aptly termed the country’s original sin: the moment in 1619, one year before the Mayflower arrived, when a ship docked at the colony of Virginia to deliver 20 to 30 enslaved people from Africa. While many books have addressed enslavement and its repercussions, few, if any, have done so in such an imaginative, all-encompassing way, incorporating history, journalism, fiction, poetry and photography to show the cataclysmic repercussions of that pivotal moment.

A superb expansion of the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” issue, this book contains 18 essays as well as 36 poems and stories that examine how slavery and its legacy of racial injustice have shaped the U.S. over the last 400 years. Each piece was curated by MacArthur “genius grant” winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, who pitched the original “1619 Project” to the Times and won the Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to it. The book’s many talented contributors include Ibram X. Kendi, Terry McMillan, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, ZZ Packer, Darryl Pinckney, Claudia Rankine, Jason Reynolds, Bryan Stevenson and Jesmyn Ward. Seven essays are new, and existing essays have been substantially revised and expanded to include additional details. Black-and-white portraits have also been added—both historical and present-day images—as another way of allowing readers to look history in the eye.

A new concluding essay from Hannah-Jones explores economic justice, and her wonderful preface is a special standout. It’s a powerful, personal essay in which she notes that she is “the daughter and granddaughter of people born onto a repurposed slave-labor camp in the deepest South, people who could not have imagined their progeny would one day rise to a position to bring forth such a project.”

The sheer breadth of this book is refreshing and illuminating, challenging each and every reader to confront America’s past, present and future.

Make Good the Promises

As Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “Slavery was mentioned briefly in the chapter on this nation’s most deadly war, and then Black people disappeared again for a full century, until magically reappearing as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech about a dream.” What happened in between? Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies, edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo, attempts to fill in those gaps, leading readers through Black history from 1865 to today. 

Presented by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the book has a beautifully rendered and highly accessible narrative that’s also methodically organized, with helpful timelines, colorful illustrations and photographs. The book does a particularly good job of laying out the long view of events and their consequences while shining a light on more recent incidents, such as #SayHerName, George Floyd’s murder and the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Make Good the Promises is a distressing yet essential, enlightening read.

How to Slay a Dragon

Medieval historian Cait Stevenson admits that she has sometimes “trampled over scholarly conventions in ways that will leave other medievalists curled up in agony.” But armed with her passion for the Middle Ages, she has carved out a unique niche for herself, straddling the worlds of scholarly and popular history. Her fervor is contagious in How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages

In a tongue-in-cheek but firmly historical way, Stevenson addresses the stereotypical events that happen in popular media set in and inspired by the Middle Ages, like saving a princess, digging for treasure, slaying a dragon and defeating barbarian hordes. Her writing is informative yet humorous (there’s a chapter titled “How to Not Get Eaten”), so even if you’re not a gamer or “Game of Thrones” fan, you’ll find yourself riveted. In a section on bathing, she notes, “Twelfth-century abbess and prophet Hildegard of Bingen went so far as to suggest that natural hot springs were heated by the underground fires of purgatory, cleansing bathers’ souls as well as their bodies.” Stevenson may not be able to tell you where to find real dragons, but readers will have a blast getting ready for their quests. 

The Baseball 100

Major League Baseball fans, you just won the lottery. In The Baseball 100, noted sports writer Joe Posnanski presents 880 pages of sheer baseball bliss, discussing the history of the game by examining the lives, obstacles and achievements of his nominations for the 100 greatest players of all time, including MLB stars and players from the Negro Leagues. It’s a true masterwork, and his writing is so good that it’s likely to engross even those who know nothing about the sport.

Avid baseball fans will easily become absorbed in these pages, and when they reemerge, they’ll be all too ready to debate Posnanski’s rankings. He’s prepared for this, writing, “I stand firmly behind them, and I expect you to come hard at me with vigorous disagreements. What fun would it be otherwise?” In fact, the author even teases, “I have a list of more than 100 players who could have made this list. I think I’ll save them in case the Baseball 100 ever needs a volume 2.” Perhaps he’d better start writing now.

Patented

At over 1,000 pages, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents is thicker than an old phone book but much more fun to thumb through. Architectural designer Thomas Rinaldi frequently found himself getting lost in “odd internet searches” of design patents, eventually realizing that he was uncovering “a design historian’s El Dorado, a proverbial rabbit hole of unfathomable depth.” He sifted through more than 750,000 patents issued from 1900 to the present to come up with this collection of visual treats. 

The patents are presented chronologically, with line drawings and key information such as the date and designer’s name. It’s an interesting mix of many universally owned, everyday objects—ranging from teapots to barbecue grills, from salt and pepper shakers to the Fitbit—along with patents for much larger things, such as Pizza Huts and Boeing airplanes, unusual entries like the Mars Rover and famous designs like Eames chairs.

For some, this will become a trusted reference, but Patented will also appeal to historians, engineers and kids interested in how things used to look, plus anyone passionate about design, innovation and technology. One could even turn the pages and play a “name that item” game. Some are a cinch to guess, while others, like a 1930 “ozonizing apparatus,” will likely leave you stumped. Once you start browsing, however, you may find yourself hooked.

Find more 2021 gift recommendations from BookPage.

History fans have big treats in store this year, including groundbreaking gift books on American history and baseball, plus visual extravaganzas devoted to legendary women and design innovations.

When we think of women’s contributions to World War II, what often comes to mind are bandanna-headed Rosie the Riveter types taking over factory work while the men were away. However, women journalists also reported on the war, facing challenges that male journalists did not, and their contributions are frequently overlooked.

Biographer Judith Mackrell’s wonderful new book, The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II, examines the war through the eyes of six reporters from this time. Mackrell posits that, though these women had a harder time accessing the front lines or the important political and military figures of the day, creative workarounds led to more nuanced and interesting coverage. “Over and over again,” Mackrell writes, “it was the restrictions imposed on women which, ironically, led to their finding more interestingly alternative views of the war.”

The six women Mackrell focuses on are Virginia Cowles, an American correspondent who started her career as a New York City society reporter; Sigrid Schultz, a brilliant and brave Berlin-based reporter whom readers may remember from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts; Clare Hollingworth, an ambitious and idealistic young Brit; Helen Kirkpatrick, whose college internship in Geneva led to a lifelong love of covering international relations; Virginia Cowles, an upper-class Bostonian who covered the war while remaining “disconcertingly glamorous in lipstick and high heels”; and Martha Gellhorn, a dazzling writer whom history primarily, and unfairly, remembers as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.

Mackrell effortlessly weaves together the personal and professional stories of these six journalists, producing a hearty biography that feels almost like a novel with its rich details. She brings each woman to life, tracing her childhood and entry into journalism, as well as her work and romantic life, against the backdrop of a simmering conflict that boiled over into a disastrous war. Although these women covered hard news, delivering scoops about impending military moves, they also wrote human stories that almost certainly would have been underreported had the war been left entirely to male correspondents.

For example, Martha Gellhorn, one of the first reporters to bear witness to the Dachau concentration camp, wrote about one Polish inmate in the camp infirmary who was so wasted that his jawbone “seemed to be cutting into his skin.” After that experience, she wrote, “I know I have never again felt that lovely easy lively hope in life which I knew before, not in life, not in our species, not in our future on earth.”

Judith Mackrell’s biography of six female journalists during World War II feels almost like a novel with its rich details.

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