1) The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and why it Matters, by Diane Coyle. Coyle is a Harvard PhD and an accomplished writer. This is an evenhanded and up to date overview of modern economics. There is good coverage of behavioral economics, limitations of rationality, heterodox ideas, Schumpeter, creative destruction, etc. Here's an excerpt from an Amazon review that I agree with:
Once in a while an interesting economics book will come along, but invariably by someone proselytizing for his own particular take on the policy issues of the day, or eager to teach you the bizarre behavior of the neoclassical rational actor. I have longed for a solid description of what's been happening in the field recently by a competent economist without a policy bone to pick. At last I would have something to offer my friends and family so they could actually answer the oft-repeated question "What do economists actually have to say about the issues of the day when they're not simply expressing their personal political views, or those of their employers?" Coyle's book [is] the rare example of such a book.
People are generally ignorant of modern science and they know it. They are even more ignorant of the basic principles of economics, but they think they know more than they do. Therefore, they despise and fear economists, who are easily pilloried as other-worldly academics who throw around big equations but couldn't meet a payroll or punch a time clock if their professional future depended on it. Conservatives and liberals alike cherish basic principles of economics that are as stupid and inane as intelligent design and flat-earth-ism. We need a dozen more books like this excellent contribution by Diane Coyle.
Coyle covers the history and theory of economic growth, the sources and potential cures for world poverty, the nature and source of happiness and its relationship with income and wealth, the economics of adverse selection and moral hazard, rent-seeking and the politics of state intervention, evolutionary economics, behavioral economics, and the new, analytical institutional economics.
2) Books by Israeli author Etgar Keret. I've been reading The Nimrod Flipout and The Busdriver Who Wanted to be God. Keret writes brilliant, very short stories, sometimes with a magical realist twist, sometimes straight up. There is black comedy and absurdity and occasional deep insight.
Keret interview with Leonard Lopate:
A great quote from an LA Weekly interview:
“I write about the violence that I grew up with,” Keret says matter-of-factly. “In a country where, for three years out of their lives, everybody who is 18 lives in a reality where he may kill people or see people get killed next to him, he may do things Americans would never do. I didn’t serve in the occupied territories, but people who do know that if you knock on a door and it doesn’t open, you kick it open. You can play the guitar, read Nietzsche, become a very good dentist, but you’ll still do it. And once you cross that line, it’s very difficult to uncross it. When your girlfriend won’t talk to you and locks the door, you will still know how to kick it open.”
An off color story (you've been warned): an old friend of mine, who is now a well-known physicist, used to frequent the singles bars in LA. One night he met a not so bright girl and went back to her apartment. He put her through a long and rather rigorous set of activities. Afterwards, he mentioned that she was his first lover and that he had been a virgin. At first she was overcome, why me? I feel so special! Then, she asked, but how did you know so much? Where did you learn to do all those things? Books, he replied.