Posts Tagged ‘2013’

Recently Read Books: 2013

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

(roughly in the order I read them)



1. Fall of Giants, Ken Follett

I’ve always been a fan of Ken Follett. His recent plots are predictable and his characters stereotypical, but he still tells a gripping story. This is the first volume of his saga of the 20th Century. I enjoyed every word of it and look forward to the next two volumes in the series.

2. The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, by Christopher Schwarz

Schwarz is my favorite writer in the world of woodworkers. His writing is clear, his projects are interesting, and his curiosity is infectious. In this book he builds a tool chest in the same way that such chests were built 200 years ago, using mostly the same tools. There’s a lot of value in doing things the old way, and Schwarz makes this both understandable and accessible better than any other.

3. Pegasus Bridge June 6, 1944, by Stephen E. Ambrose

A great story of military heroism at the very dawn of D-Day in Normandy.

4. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

Scalzi is a great storyteller. His genre is science fiction. His work reminds me of Heinlein. In a very good way.

5. A Tale of Two Subs: An Untold Story of World War II, Two Sister Ships, and Extraordinary Heroism, by Jonathan J. McCullough

There is much insight to be gained by putting a microscope to an otherwise enormous endeavor. The author focuses tightly on the fates of two American submarines in the Pacific Theatre and reveals much about how that conflict played out. Well worth the read.

6. Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain, by Chris Stewart

The author abandons city life to buy a run-down farm in the wilds of Andalusia, and here he tells about it. He’s like a Francis Mayes for Spain. I’ve already purchased the sequel.

7. Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

A very competent biography. Many of the nuances of the geek world pass by Isaacson unnoticed, but that’s normal. There’s lots of goodness here.

8. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin

Grandin is the famously autistic scientist, author, and advocate for humane treatment of animals, particularly those destined to be eaten by humans. This book appears to be a compendium of psychological animal care wisdom for the pet owner and rancher.

9. Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

The latest in the series of Arkady Renko novels, this one is unremarkable. It could be that Renko is ready for retirement by Smith.

10. Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

Bryson, an American, after living in England for 20 years, moves back to the New World. As a parting gift, he circumnavigates England to take one last look at his foreign home, trying to wrap his head around what makes him love it so. Bryson’s writing is always very personal and very easy. What he calls out about England, both good and bad, will amuse you, as he intended.

11. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

I read this book to fill a long-empty gap in my science fiction education. Originally published in 1974, when Vietnam was a still vibrant memory, this book is clearly making a statement about that conflict by describing an endless war between the stars far off in the future. The book is dated by too many tropes of the 60s and 70s and ultimately I would have to vote it off the island.

12. A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II, by Richard Snow

This is an excellent, big picture look at the struggle for supremacy on the high seas. It’s all here, the U-boats, the baby flattops, and the code breaking. An excellent read.

13. Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

This is an excellent book, but I’m not sure that I was able to appreciate it sufficiently. I think I’m too white and too suburban to really picture Chabon’s well-sculpted characters to a proper level of realism. It’s about the daily struggle between black and white, urban and suburban, rich and poor, digital and industrial, set in Oakland, California. This is one of those very few books that I wish some sensitive auteur would make into a movie. I would really like to look into the eyes of Archy and Nat.

14. A Walk In the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trial, by Bill Bryson

This is the chronicle of the author’s attempt to hike one of the longest wilderness trails in the world. It’s amusing, interesting, and educational by turns, but never scary or boring. As usual for Bryson, it’s a very personal look at the world. I first read it a few years ago, and reread it this time almost by accident, but it’s hard to put down even on a second read.

15. The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz: A True Story of World War II, By Denis Avey with Rob Broomby

This is a genuinely remarkable tale told with gusto by a larger than life character. Denis Avey joined up to fight as a very young man and found himself driving a Bren Carrier in North Africa. The story of his eventual wounding, capture, escape, shipwreck, recapture, and emprisonment is high drama that is too crazy not to be true. He becomes a prisoner of war at a Stalag adjacent to Auschwitz where he sees Jews being treated worse even than he is. Eventually, he risks instant death to swap places with a Jewish inmate to spend time inside the death camp. Avey’s tale of how his and the inmate’s lives are changed and interwoven is epic.

16. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two, by Joseph Bruchac

Several books have been written about the Navajos code talkers. This one was written for young adults, so it is not surprising that it pays plenty of attention to how the young protagonist was treated as a boy on an Indian Reservation. Notably, his white instructors worked diligently to eradicate any last trace of his Native American heritage and culture, primarily his knowledge of the Navajo language. Speaking Navajo was grounds for severe discipline, and the young boys and girls were told that becoming assimilated and forgetting their native language was the only path to success in the world. Until, of course, war came along and the American Army needed some way to communicate via radio without letting the Japanese know what was being discussed.

17. The Accidental Taxonomist, by Heather Hedden

This one  went over my head, but if you are a taxonomist, knock yourself out.

18. UX for Lean Startups; Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design, by Laura Klein

Startups are great because you can do anything you want, including the impossible. Klein offers some good advice for how to insinuate the needs of users into the mix. Recommended.

19. Lean UX; Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience, by Jeff Gothelf with Josh Seiden

Lean is like art, in that it resides in the beholder’s eye. If you imagine lean as a tool for cutting expenses, you are a dinosaur. If you imagine lean as something that can be performed in a large company, you are a dreamer. If you imagine lean as a good blueprint for a tiny startup, then this book will benefit your thinking.

20. Microinteractions: Designing with Details, by Dan Saffer

Saffer is a journeyman designer with much of value to say about the craft. In this book he focuses on the tiny little details that make the difference between a product we love and one we despise. There’s a lot to learn here.

21. The Chairs are Where the People Go: How to Live, Work, and Play in the City, by Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

This is one freaking strange book by an equally strange author. It’s a series of essays about, about, about stuff that’s…interesting. Your mileage may vary.

22. Evil By Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us Into Temptation, by Chris Nodder

I really like this book. Nodder looks at a very familiar subject, interaction design, from the point of view of how one would go about manipulating people to one’s advantage. Pretty much sounds like real life to me. Nodder spent years working with Donald Norman and has a lot of very interesting things to say about designing web experiences. Amusing, interesting, intriguing…what’s not to like?

23. The Feynmann Lectures on Physics, Volume 2, by Richard Feynmann

Now I know why I am not a physicist: the math is too difficult.

24. The Dock Manual; Designing, Building, Maintaining, by Max Burns

A paperback book about making small docks for pleasure boats or swimming.

25. The Ground Beneath Her Feet, by Salman Rushdie

This is an excellent novel by a world-class novelist. There’s lots of goodness in this book: big, round characters, sparkling word-play, fascinating plot twists, all wound up in allegory and innuendo. The protagonists, Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, are Indian pop stars, and this is the story of their mythical and grand lives around the world.

Rushdie gives a full measure of world-girdling narrative, rich characterization, laced with subtle and not-too-subtle humor. His language is rich, literate allusions many, and reading for the sheer pleasure is here.

26. Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, by Frederick Kaufman

There is something about the way this fellow writes that annoys me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Time after time in this book he tells a story to set up a bold point, then neglects to make the point. Maybe he assumes that I’m so smart I will have already understood what he is trying to say, but I am not.

On the other hand, the points he almost makes are really good ones, and relevant to how we can fix our broken food chain.

27. Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

This is probably the most important book I’ve read all year. Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize, is one of the most significant scientists working today, particularly if you are in the digital business. All of the cool books on how we perceive, think, and construct mental models that we have enjoyed for the last 15 years (How the Mind Works, Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics, etc) is heavily based on the work of Kahneman and his late partner Tversky. This is an easy read and I highly recommend it.

28. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A. Heinlein

It’s been so many years since I first read this as a youngster that I had forgotten the story. At its heart, the message is one found frequently in scifi: that a harsh environment trains people to be bold, desperate, and competent. I used to believe that.

29. Are You There Vodka, It’s me, Chelsea, by Chelsea Handler

A funny trifle of a book by a TV comedian. I didn’t read this for a long time because I thought it was a story of an alcoholic reforming.

30. The Big Book of Farmall Tractors, by Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Morland

The elegance and beauty of mid-century industrial modern.

31. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbary

I did not finish this book. I am not a 14-year-old girl.

32. Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith

The first Arkady Renko story is still the very best novel by Smith. It’s a gripping murder mystery set in Moscow during the Cold War. Don’t let this gem pass you by.

33. The March Up, Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, by Bing West and Ray L. Smith

A first person account of the Marines March on Baghdad by a couple of former Marines who know what they are talking about.

34. Ship Breaker, by Paulo Bacigalupi

Today, there are people who tear apart by hand giant ocean-going freighters and tankers for recycling on the shore of Southern India. Bacigalupi hypothesizes what it might be like after we’ve depleted our fossil fuels sufficiently for this to be occurring on the southern shore of the USA with American kids. As I’ve come to expect from this author, an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking book that is fun to read.

35. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods, by Belinda Martineau

The author of this book was a senior geneticist at Calgene, the company that created the first genetically modified food for direct sale to consumers. Calgene inverted the gene within the Flavr Savr tomato that would normally cause it to soften and rot. That made the tomato stay firmer longer, allowing it more time to travel and to sit on store shelves longer.

Ultimately, the book makes you realize just how deeply ignorant we are about genetically modified foods, and also how silly our cultural priorities are.

36. Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

I would say this is my favorite book of the year.

When I was in my teens I read Ewen Montague’s fascinating first-person account of “The Man Who Never Was,” the story of one of the most successful spy exploits of World War II, masterminded by the author. After Montague’s recent death, accomplished spy author, Ben Macintyre, began to probe around looking to see if there was more to the tale. Montague’s son, amused, produced a footlocker filled with classified documents that had lain untouched for 60 years in the master spy’s possession, and these formed the core source material for a newly-informed telling of the saga.

Not only does this very well-written story reveal the remarkable secret that Montague believed he took to his grave, but Macintrye tells the entire story with a veracity that can be achieved only after all the participants are dead.

There is so much good to say about this book, but above all else are the incredible pocket biographies of each of the real-life characters who plays a role in this fabulous story. Most of them are spies, and Macintyre tells their stories in turn, and each one is more astounding and fascinating than the previous. These men, and a few women, lead lives that could only be true, because you would not believe it if it were fiction. Wild adventurers, awkward geniuses, novel-writing raconteurs, bold warriors, fortune-hunters, heroes, liars, cheats, scoundrels, and syphilitic troglodytes are all here for your entertainment.

37. Thank You, Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse

This is the first Jeeves story I’ve ever read, and evidently it was the first novel-length Jeeves tale that Wodehouse wrote. Bertie Wooster, the narrator, is a foolish foil for butler Jeeves’ calm resourcefulness. A little bit long in the tooth, but it had its moments.