1. Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant is still underrated, this book is highly readable and to the point and not to fusty. Someone should get Paul Krugman (a Grant fan) to review this book.
2. Jeffrey Edward Green, The Shadow of Unfairness: A Plebeian Theory of Liberal Democracy. “There will always be some plutocracy, don’t get bent out of shape too badly” is my brief summary of this one. This book could be more readable, but it is highly intelligent.
3. Esther Schor, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language. I hadn’t known that almost all Esperanto words are accented on the penultimate syllable (bad for poetry), the system of correlatives and “table words” can be quite difficult (“It also has nine groups of word endings, not only for place but also for time, quantity, manner, possession, entity, etc.”), and how much the entire movement was influenced by the intellectual climate of late 19th century Russian Jewish thought. Recommended.
4. Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia. A revealing look into the mind of the author, but this one works only if you know and love her novels already. Ferrante’s “children’s” story The Beach at Night is worthwhile, very dark, you can read it in a small number of minutes. Here is a good NYT review.
5. Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone [Dream of the Red Chamber], Penguin edition, vol.I. I am not confident of my ability to follow along all of the longer plot lines, but it is more absorbing and readable than I had recalled from a much earlier attempt to read it. And overall it does make upper middle class life in 18th century China seem more civilized than its counterpart in Europe.