-Philip Roth, The Plot Against America. First book I read by him, this an alternative history in which famous aviator and anti-Semite Charles Linbergh was elected president of the United states instead of Roosvelt in 1940. Told from the point of view of an American Jewish child growing up in a climate of increasing fear and persecution, the story is remarkably well-written and the political setting chillingly believable. The largest problem is a deus-ex-machina ending which solves rather too simply all the problems created in the story
-Denis Guedj, The Parrot's Theorem. A popularization history of mathematics thinly disguised as a thriller, in the line of what Jostein Gaarder did for philosophy in Sophie's World, but less successful. The mystery plot is too contrived and implausible too keep the attention of the reader, and the mathematics is very dumbed down (there are almost no equations). If you are a layman wishing to learn some mathematics, stick to nonfiction, like Simon Singh. Fiction can be excellent if it embodies mathematical ideas, as in some Borges stories for example, but it is a poor medium for explaining mathematics in a pedagogical way.
-Laurie M. Brown (ed.), Renormalization: from Lorentz to Landau (and beyond). Collection of essays on the historical progression of ideas on renormalization in quantum field theory, including an excellent essay by Tian Yu Cao on the "new philosophy" of effective field theory. Recommended.
-Kate Fox, Watching the English. An amusing anthropological study on the cultural customs of that strange tribe, the English. With all the rules to understand pub discussions, ironic humour, awkward introductions, obsessive queuing, subtle linguistic class distinctions, and much more. A must read if you live here or are planning a visit.
-Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed. First I read by her, a story in classic SF style about two contrasting alien societies, one anarchistic and one capitalistic, with the protagonist being raised in the former and then moving to the latter. Some insightful social philosophy compensates for a somewhat slow plot. Overall I liked it and I'm likely to try more by her.
-Terry Pratchett, Darwin's Watch. Once more, this is the first book I've read by him. (Seriously!) Our universe, Roundworld, is kept in a one-foot long glass globe in the meta-universe of Discworld, where the wizards of the Unseen University have to find a way to interfere with human history to ensure that a certain Charles Darwin writes the "right" book instead of the one he has written in the present timeline, a vindication of Paley's design argument by the title of The Theology of Species. (In this alternative timeline, the true theory of evolution was not discovered until a hundred years later by one "Rev. Richard Dawkins" -Rev. because only theologians could be biologists after the success of Darwin's book. I loved that detail!) The book mixes comic fantasy with scientific popularization chapters written by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. Pratchett's style of humour reminds me of Douglas Adams', a particular kind of British humour which is engaging at first and becomes tiring after longer exposure. I have not become tired of Pratchett's yet, though, so I am likely to read some more by him. I know there is a huge literature on Discworld: any particular recommendations?
-Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation. A serious book on history of religion, to compensate for the one that follows on this list. Armstrong traces the development of religious and philosophical views in China, India, Israel and Greece in the so-called Axial Age, ranging from 900 to 200 BC, the time of Buddha, Confucius, Laozi, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Pythagoras, Socrates, and many other key figures that created ways of thinking about the universe, mankind and our ethical duties that are still living with us. Fascinating reading about a period that has interested me since I read Gore Vidal's novelistic account in Creation. The only thing that put me a bit off was Armstrong patronizingly saying that the Greeks only entered halfways in the deep spirit of the Axial Age; to my mind inventing scientific rationalism, tragedy and democracy is a much more impressive achievement than inventing ethical philosophies which, no matter how sublime and insightful, few people ever followed to a full extent. But we are all entitled to our biases, aren't we?
-Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Yes, I after all that fuss and reading reviews and reviews of reviews and commenting on them, I finally read the book. It was less substantial than it seemed by skimming through it at the bookshop, and more or less what the reviews would have lead me to expect: a sort of Atheism 101 textbook. The level is the same as your average Pharyngula comment thread: some insightful, learned or witty commentary mixed together with a lot of trite arguments, simplifications, and even childish jabs. I love the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for example, but we must admit that to use it in a (anti)theological argument is equivalent to losing all pretensions of academic seriousness. That is not to say that I decry the writing of this book: there are probably a lot of people who have been indoctrinated with dogmatic faiths for whom reading it could have a liberating effect, and the outreach of this kind of book is far larger than that which a scholarly refutation of the latest argument by Plantinga could have. I would much prefer to read the latter, but then, I became an atheist long ago already, and partly by reading, reflecting on and re-elaborating by myself arguments that were at first no better than the ones Dawkins champions. If Dawkins was only intending to write a simplified "atheistic primer for the masses" I would be less annoyed than I am when I see that he thinks his arguments can challenge the views of serious theologians. The main point at which this happens is at his famous "Ultimate 747 Argument"; I will probably dedicate a post soon to analyze it and show, contra Dawkins, that is doesn't prove that "there is almost certainly no God" -but that an argument related to it can be used to argue that there is "probably" no God, though this "probably" is much more qualified and uncertain than Dawkins'.