1. Michael Meyer, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China. Adam Minter has a very good and useful review of a very good book. The main lesson, beyond the specific and often fascinating vignettes, is that history is everywhere, and everywhere is interesting if only you know how to read the open book.
2. Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East. An engaging look at a time and place of increasing relevance for today’s global problems.
3. Bill Gifford, Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying). An informative, entertaining, and yet non-sensationalistic account of recent (and some not so recent) attempts to conquer aging. It avoids the temptation of exaggerating the science and also turning all of the profiled individuals into “colorful characters.” A genuinely good book.
4. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers. Imagine taking an underdiscussed (by most people) book of the Bible and showing its connections to politics and the legitimation of authority, to spiritual yearning, to overcoming trauma, and to Freudian and other psychoanalytic theories of the ambiguity of desire. This is all done from a theologically Jewish point of view, incorporating the midrash as well. That may sound like a bit much, but I found this book fully captivating — virtually every paragraph is substantive and interesting — and it will definitely make my “best of the year” list. I will buy more books by her as well.