This is something of a belated "best of year" list, although there are some older titles I only got to last year included. An eclectic list, modestly offered -- a bit heavy on books on music, but many others, and perhaps something will strike the interest of other readers.
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young (Blue Rider
Overlong, rambling, confounding, raging, searching, random, profound, silly, sweet, goofy, personal, obtuse, nonlinear, casual, touching, simplistic, baffling, moving, wise, childish, deep, obscuring, detailed, repetitive... finally. A book like one of his albums, to be treasured by his many grateful fans.
How Music Works by David Byrne (McSweeneys)
The Talking Heads Figurehead confirms his commitment with a geekily dedicated book about the history, science, business, and technical aspects of his chosen field. Not for everyone due to it's size and detail, but the musically-minded will profit. I liked his previous book, about bicycling, better though.
This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band by Levon Helm and Stephen Davis (Chicago Review Press, 2000)
The leader of The Band, Levon, died in 2012, so I finally read his book. The Band were the greatest ever, with or without Dylan, and this is a slice of inspiration and anger, eventually triumphant.
Jimmy Cliff: An Unauthorized Biography by David Katz (Interlink)
My lifelong love of good reggae was sparked by Cliff, even before Marley and the rest. But there's been very little published on his life and work, considering how much a leading Jamaican musical figure he's been since the 1960s. This fine book remedies that, even though, as noted, not "official." Almost 70 years old now, Cliff still put on fantastic stage shows in 2012 as well.
Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America by Adam Winker (Norton, 2011)
All too tragically timely, this is an extremely informed, as well as balanced, history of the gun battles. My San Francisco Chronicle review is here.
Joe Brainard: The Collected Writings by Ron Padgett, Ed. (Library of America)
Artist, diarist, poet, and some kind of genius of the New York literary scene of the 1960s and 70s, Brainard's work has been hard to find, other than his classic memoir/poem I Remember. That book is here, along with much else, including his legendary Bolinas Journal. "If I'm as normal as I think I am, we're all a bunch of weirdos," he noted.
The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower edited by Kenneth Brower (Heyday)
A collection of recollections/tributes by many who knew the late environmental icon, covering his many battles, victories, and losses as head of leading "green organizations." Plus some cool climbing stories and personal recollections.
The Fate of The Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It by Fred Guterl (Bloomsbury)
By the executive editor of Scientific American, so no B.S. here in this look at the "mass extinction event" now underway, thanks to... us. As the subtitle indicates, though, it's not all doom and gloom... maybe.
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Anchor)
Many young Japanese women were brought to California as "picture brides" a century of so ago, and this is a novelization of there real lives. It is short and simply stunning in evoking what life was like for them, and well deserved it's nomination for a National Book Award.
Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie (Grove)
Perhaps the leading Native American writer, yes, and that informs much of his work, but even setting that aside, his skill, wisdom, and humor would shine through. A modern master.
Ring of Bone: Collected Poems of Lew Welch (City Lights) Perhaps my favorite of all the so-called 'beat" poets, this is a "new and expanded" edition of the wonderful work of this poet who vanished into the mountains in 1971. My writeup of an enthralling tribute event launching this edition is here.
I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets by Tom Sexton (University of Alaska, 2011)
My favorite poets are also the Asians of hundreds, even a thousand years ago, and Sexton blends their timeless sensibilities into his own Alaskan world.
Song of Myself and Other Poems by Walt Whitman
Selected by Robert Haas. (Counterpoint, 2010). I finally read Whitman, aloud, in a mass reading, and have been hooked since. For a description of what I modestly called "the greatest poetry reading ever," see here.
Kenneth Rexroth: In the Sierra: Mountain Writings (New Directions).
Renowned Western poet Rexroth loved the high areas, especially the Sierra Nevadas, and wrote eloquently about them in both poems and essays. As Gary Snyder notes, this book establishes him as an equal to Robinson Jeffers in celebrating Western wildness in words.
The Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth by Jacob Needleman (Tarcher Penguin)
Needleman is one of our most respected explorer of philosophy and the "big questions" which any thinking person might encounter. This brief book is his personal journey into, but beyond, "conservation" and such into what might be called earthy spirituality -- but without any trace of the maudlin. Real-world wisdom.
The John Lennon Letters Hunter Davis, Ed. (Little, Brown)
I've often wondered and shuddered at the prospect of having one's personal letters, scribble, photos, etc. eventually published for all to see. How embarrassing. But how great that Lennon's stuff, spanning from childhood to death, have appeared here.
Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan by William Hjortsberg (Counterpoint)
Life and times indeed, an exhaustive and exhausting biography, decades in the making, of this once-revered west coast author. My Chronicle review is here.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Picador)
By now everybody should know what a twisted brilliant master of fiction Johnson is. This novella only re-confirmed that, yet again (originally published in 2002, but who cares).
The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the End of Their Lives by Jessica Pierce (University of Chicago)
My beloved longtime "pets" Buddy and Tubby died in 2012. Non-pet people don't understand how big and rough such events can be. This is an overdue and very welcome book on just that topic. Practical, personal, profound.
The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World by Michelle Goldberg (Penguin, 2009)
Controversies about contraception exploded with the advent of Obamacare in 2012, and abortion wars have never abated. This book explores brilliantly the broader conflicts at issue, and is now a standard work in this arena.
The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America by James Patterson (Basic Books)
There was a good book about 1968 a few years back, and now this one about a pivotal point in the Sixties, when momentous changes in politics, war, the arts and culture began to bubble over -- boil over, really. Great historical detail.
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot (Free Press)
San Francisco in the 1960s/70s, starring the widely-known cast of heroes, villains, criminals, diseases, and much more. Not a new story, but told differently and all brought together here in a very compelling manner.
Walking the Circle: Prison Chronicles by Tony Serra. (Grizzly Peak Press)
The famous True Believer star attorney walks his walk, doing prison time for principled, non-secret tax evasion. Unique, compelling, maddening, stirring stuff, with more than you might want to know about life on the "inside" -- even if only in a "gentleman's prison."
The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance-Enhancing Drugs by Andrew Tilin (Counterpoint, 2011)
An all-too-timely personal recounting of using oneself for a human guinea pig, like, say, Lance Armstrong. My Chronicle review is here.
The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters by Rose George (2008)
Yes, a book about poop and pee. From my public health person's perspective, essential reading. But worthy for anybody who wants to open their eyes, if not their nose, to a giant fact of life we prefer to just flush away.