On Revolution by Hannah Arendt. German-American political philosopher wrote this in 1963, inquiring why some revolutions (America) lead to stable governments while others (France, Russia) go horribly wrong. Her explanations combine political culture (authoritarian or republican), existing institutional structures, and the behavior of leading elites toward the mass public (restrained or dictatorial). Very thought-provoking as we Americans consider what might be made out of the hash in Afghanistan and Iraq.
    Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. Young adult suspense novel set at the University of Chicago and the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. Calder and Petra pursue an art heist they hear about in their sixth grade class. As the situation becomes increasingly weird, they must decide which events are clues and which coincidences.
    The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Thoughtful if controversial biblical scholars take on the life of Paul, the foremost apostle of early Christianity. Based on the scholarship of others, they focus on seven Pauline letters (Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon) widely acknowledged to have been written by Paul, while ignoring the others where authorship is more doubtful. Their idea is that if you focus on these and interpret them in the right context, Paul emerges as a political and social radical, not a hypertheological grump. Provocative and mostly persuasive... best read with Bible at one's side.
    The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President by Taylor Branch.  A fascinating book, like none I've ever read. Taylor Branch, a brilliant historian best known for his trilogy on the civil rights era, taped a series of secret interviews with Bill Clinton throughout the latter's presidency that will be invaluable to future historians. This is Branch's story of the project, how he became reacquainted with Clinton after working with him briefly on the McGovern campaign, the complications involved in getting him into the White House on short notice for interviews, his dogged yet friendly approach to the sessions with Clinton. He's a brilliant writer who gives a unique portrait of himself as historian-at-work.
    The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.
Cisneros uses the impressions of a fictional teenage girl to create a vivid depiction of a northwest Chicago neighborhood. Chapters average about 2 pages in length, which makes for a fascinating literary pointlism. Destined for my course on place this fall.
    The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen. Meteorologist's effort to translate the raft of climate science into probability-based forecasts of climate impacts over the next 40 years, focusing on highly sensitive areas such as the Arctic and the Sahara Desert, but also New York City. Works pretty well. She tries to factor in political responses, which add another variable... generally she's cautiously optimistic that eventually some steps will be taken to mitigate the effects but not the causes so much.
    The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. Probably best known for his anti-colonial manifesto justifying violence, this collection of essays also includes interesting reflections on spontaneous uprisings, how ethno-nationalist liberation movements often decline into petty dictatorships, and the psychological effects of colonization on the individual.
    Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. A chatty but intriguing look at the multiple factors that predict success, which include individual talent and effort, but also socially-constructed opportunity and fortuitous timing. Unfortunately, Gladwell never is precise about what he's claiming to predict: "success" is varyingly identified with high-achieving individuals like Bill Gates, distinctively-performing groups like Asian Americans, and private schools in inner cities that offer a different formula for education. Still the stress on external factors is eye-opening, and a cut above the usual pablum of self-help and motivational books.
    Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend by James Hirsch. Well-written biography of one of baseball's all-time greats, good detail though it verges on apology at times. I came in on the end of his career, so it was good to read about him in his prime.
    Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. I wish Nick Hornby would clone himself so he would write more novels. This one is set in the English seaside town of Gooleness, where Duncan and Annie have a 15-year relationship that has settled into a quiet mutual boredom. Duncan's real passion is the music of reclusive American singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe. No sooner does Duncan decide to leave Annie than Crowe contacts her. Hornby writes the characters with compassion and good humor; the implausible and awkward situation becomes plausible from the point of view of each character, and no more awkward than most of life.
    The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (3 volumes). Three volumes is a lot to go through, but well worth it for a great insider account of the Roosevelt administration, from inauguration through Pearl Harbor. Ickes was Secretary of the Interior, among other administrative posts, throughout FDR's presidency and into Truman's. He's a bit of a fusspot, but I'm also a John Adams admirer so that doesn't bother me. He describes vividly Roosevelt's inspiring public leadership as well as his blatant manipulation of the people who worked for him. An ongoing subplot is Ickes's attempt to have the Forest Service moved from the Agriculture Department to Interior; FDR kept promising to do it, but never did, and it's still there!
    Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. NYU historian's diagnosis of what ails Western civilization: unfettered individualism leads to rampant economic inequality, while the abandonment of public goods leads to poverty of the soul as well as the wallet. The political system, bereft of principle, becomes a contest among special pleaders from which many people are justifiably alienated. The book is briefly and elegantly argued, sacrificing the detail/data that might have buttressed the argument at some cost to the reader's patience.
    Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. An incredible book... Kaplan's diary of the first three years of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw (1939-1942), smuggled out of the country notebook by notebook. He reports every detail of the Nazi assault on Poland and its Jewish population, clearly and passionately--and along the way invents an alter ego named Hirsch for those times when he's of two minds about something! Utterly riveting.
    Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress by Harry Katz et al. A wonderful coffee table book for any baseball fan, particularly one interested in the sport's history pre-1970. Wads of historical photographs of players and memorabilia, with some interesting short features including panorama photography, early baseball cards, and baseball in World War II. Interesting artifacts include a diary excerpt from a Princeton student in 1786 who is spending too much time playing "baste ball;" pictures of baseball games from young adult books from 1787 on; and the cover of the dime novel "Base-Ball Player" from 1868.
    The Travel Diary of a Philosopher by Count Hermann Keyserling. Not so much a diary as Keyserling's formal musings inspired by a world tour he began in 1911 as an effort to break out of a personal stagnation. A good deal of speculation about how varieties of geography, religion, government, and so forth affect human development, which is occasionally interesting but often turgid and reads a lot like "national character" gunk. Two volumes.
    I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years by Victor Klemperer. Outstanding chronicle of the Nazi era, told by a Dresden Jew who was somewhat protected by his marriage to a Christian. His methodical, detailed descriptions make for a powerful statement about the Nazi regime. The book ends in June 1945 following a journey from Munich to Dresden through bombed-out postwar Germany.
    The Diary of H.L. Mencken. H.L. Mencken was one grumpy bump. Reading these selections from the last couple decades of his life raises the question of whether it's worth being correct--if indeed he was--about politics, society, language, &c. if it makes you alienated from people around you.
    You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. Computer scientist Lanier, present at the creation of virtual reality, expresses concern about the loss of individuality in many aspects of the contemporary digital world (such as MIDI files, Wikipedia, Facebook pages, and comments). His presentation is occasionally herky-jerky, but his passion shines through and his anecdotes are frequently amusing.
    Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon. Introductory survey of famous correspondences, arranged by topic ("love," "friendship," "prison," e.g.). You get more of Mallon than the writers here, but that's OK because the point is to present a range of human experience quickly and point you to the complete correspondences many of which should be available on interlibrary loan.
    Middle East Diary: 1917-1956 by Col. Richard Meinertzhagen. Meinertzhagen was a British army officer posted to the Middle East in the years following World War I. He came to support Jewish aspirations for a national state, which was official British policy but slow to be enacted because of what he saw as anti-Semitism in high places. (The casual anti-Semitism Meinertzhagen describes in European leaders helps to explain how the Nazi Holocaust was possible.) He met with Nazi leaders several times to try to persuade them to allow Jewish emigration; he's brave enough to show his initially naive views about Hitler. Eventually, he cheers the founding of the State of Israel, and rails against the dying of the light of the British Empire.
    Political Thought in Medieval Times by John B. Morrall. Brief overview of medieval European political thought, focusing on the latter part of the period (1100s-1400s). Morrall effectively sketches the institutional structures of Christendom, the major controversies, and the ideas of some of the leading thinkers.
    The Long Road to Gettysburg by Jim Murphy. Detailed description of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War, brief enough to be accessible to younger readers. Most of the material is taken from eyewitness accounts by two soldiers: Thomas Galway, a Union soldier from Cleveland, Ohio, and John Dooley, a Confederate soldier from Richmond, Virginia.
    Worlds of Difference: European Discourses of Toleration, c. 1100-c. 1550 by Cary J. Nederman. Expert on medieval political thought challenges the notion that the Middle Ages were an unbroken story of repression, killing non-conformists and subjugating minorities in the name of the One True Church. There was a lot of that, of course, but Nederman identifies a number of prominent writers, many of them within the Church, who argued for state autonomy from religious power, tolerance of non-Christian peoples, and/or strength from diversity. Interesting set of arguments from a distant and very different time.
    Preaching in London by Joseph Fort Newton. Newton was called from the Little Brick Church in Cedar Rapids (where is/was that?) to City Temple, where he served from 1917-1920. His main concern was to help heal relations between Americans and Britons, and to overcome prejudices each held about the other. I suppose such prejudices still exist, but we get on pretty well now, so it makes for a strange read.
    Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time by Michael Perry. It's hard to overstate how much I like this book. Perry returns to his tiny Wisconsin town after 12 years' absence, and reintegrates by becoming an EMT and joining the volunteer fire department. This connection ties him closer to the place he loves through people he loves. A natural for my course on place. (I hope my students agree.) Chapter 7, "My People," is one of the most amazing essays I've ever read. He starts by saying he feels at home in places, but not necessarily with people, but his joint venture with his fellow volunteers gives him a home in what is essentially their world not his.
    Climate Wars: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Eleventh-Hour Fight to Save the Earth by Eric Pooley.Detailed if depressing history of the 2009 climate bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate due to a filibuster. Pooley, a reporter for Bloomberg News, explores the activists supporting climate legislation, the policy entrepreneurs within government, and the opposing interests who successfully blocked action. The book tries to end on a hopeful note, but the question lingers whether any complex policy issue can be addressed in the current political environment where simple-and- appealing almost always wins, no matter how foolish and inaccurate.    
    The Magic Thief, The Magic Thief: Lost, and The Magic Thief: Found by Sarah Prineas. Series of books about a street boy who becomes a magician's apprentice in a city where the "magic level" is mysteriously disappearing. Amusing meld of medieval, modern technology, mystical and scientific thinking. Oh, and good stories, too.
    Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution by Jack N. Rakove. One of the best accounts of the Constitutional Convention I've read, Rakove (history, Stanford) presents Convention and post-Convention debates on a number of issues. He concludes that deriving the intent of the Framers on specific questions of law is rarely easy, and it's not at all clear that we should anyhow. Useful corrective to contemporary politicos who attempt to appropriate the Framers to their own goals.
    The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe by Chet Raymo. Massachusetts physics professor describes his one-mile walk from home to office, along a path through an undeveloped area of his town--what might be called a micro-place. Along with local history, each new section he encounters brings new observation, scientific description, and reflection. He is optimistic about both the impact of human development and "the Arcadian ideal of humans living in harmony with tamed nature."
    Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.  A bit over the top, but great escapist literature for a long cold winter.  Ivanhoe is an English Saxon living in the troubled era of King Richard, Robin Hood, and that bunch.  Much jousting.  One of the most memorable characters is Rebecca, a young Jewish woman who battles religious bigotry and male domination with aplomb.
    Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Young Eunice Park finds herself in a relationship with Lenny Abramov, an older, homely schlemiel. She struggles with the security the relationship provides as opposed to her attraction to bolder, handsomer men--Lenny's entrepreneur boss and an ex-Army political activist--against the backdrop of a dystopian America consumed by technology, an authoritarian government, consumerism, and the desperation of the poor.
    Trotsky's Diary in Exile, 1935 by Leon Trotsky. Exiled Soviet leader, near the end of his life, languishes in France and then Norway, while hunted by the evil Stalin. Mostly descriptions of his misery along with obscure commentary on contemporary politics.