Favorites 2009: Stories of California and beyond

The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson (Viking)
A richly reported, closely observed account of the clash of ideals and gallery of historic candidates leading up to the election of a lifetime.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The complex, tragic story of the biggest forest fire in American history, reconstructed at the grass-roots level.

A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age by Richard Rayner (Doubleday)
How the noir genre drew from devilish scandals in the City of Angels, written by a regular contributor to Book Review.

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press)
The British writer reflects on Greta Garbo, literary trends, Oscar parties and more in a lively, unself-conscious, rigorous, erudite collection.

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (Alfred A. Knopf)
A beautifully woven, deeply researched look at John Cheever's life (and it is a wild ride) and contributions to American letters.

The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster)
An unusual arrangement between the 42nd U.S. president and a famed historian has resulted in a splendid political chronicle that fills in the gaps of Clinton's "My Life."

Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve)
The author, who reported the 1999 school massacre from the day it happened, sticks with the story to sift out its truths.

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections From the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog (Ecco)
The director-auteur reveals the diary he kept of the making of 1982's "Fitzcarraldo," and what an arduous journey in the jungle it was.

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown)
Despairing of urban life, a nature writer reconnects with the wild in her backyard.

Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression by Morris Dickstein (W.W. Norton)
The author captures America's literary, artistic, musical and cinematic high points from the 1929 crash to World War II.

Dawn Light: Dancing With Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day by Diane Ackerman (W.W. Norton)
Reflections on human interconnectedness with nature and how forgetting this imperils the planet.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (Little, Brown)
From the author of "Everything is Illuminated": A plea against cruelty to animals that draws on his family history and circumstances as a young father.

Imperial by William T. Vollmann (Viking)
Another epic-sized work from an author known for a mix of empathy and distance and for looking at everything with an outsider's eye.

L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City by John Buntin (Harmony)
A dual biography of two dueling figures from Los Angeles' past: mobster Mickey Cohen and LAPD Chief William Parker.

The Lost Origins of the Essay edited by John D'Agata (Graywolf)
In praise of the essay: selected dialogues, character sketches, spiritual memoirs and satires, lists of aphorisms and more.

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding (Bloomsbury)
A chilling account of the demise of a small Iowa farming town because of the proliferation of the methamphetamine culture.

Not Now, Voyager: A Memoir by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Counterpoint)
Not a memoir exactly but a meditation, a series of riffs on the nature of coming and going, on what that offers and what it takes away.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)
Disasters bring out an altruistic side of people, at least briefly, the author says.

Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen by David Sax (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The history of a people found in a sandwich.

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (W.W. Norton)
An award-winning children's book illustrator revisits his childhood and how he sought escape from its bleakness in fantasy.

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder (Random House)
With his most recent book, the author asks readers to walk in the shoes of a refugee from Rwanda who flees to New York City.

Tiepolo Pink by Roberto Calasso (Alfred A. Knopf)
A critic's intoxicating efforts to describe an overlooked European painter.

The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement by Miriam Pawel (Bloomsbury Press)
A former editor at The Times takes an unsettling look at key figures relegated to working in the shadow of labor icon Chávez, and how that situation came about.

West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State by Mark Arax (PublicAffairs)
Much about California doesn't add up for the author, a former Times reporter, but he tries to sort it all out by examining those incongruities.

Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector by Benjamin Moser Oxford University Press
The life of a writer who forged a unique identity in between worlds.