Books of Twenty Thirteen

Posted on Jan 12th, 2014
Categories: books, stuff, lists

Well another year has come and gone, which means that it is time to take stock of the books opened and read. I managed to get through 58 books in 2013, not quite as high as my record 64 the year before, but hey, who’s counting?

Anyway, here’s my list, as maintained by goodreads, organized by category. Oh and these are all affiliate links: If you object to that, don’t hold it against the books.

Programming

I spent a lot of time reading about Lispy programming languages this past year and one book really stands out: The Joy of Clojure by Michael Fogus and Chris Houser. Joy really lives up to its name: It’s a fun romp through all of the things you could, should and shouldn’t do with the very Lispy programming language Clojure. Of course I might be biased here, for two reasons: First, I have a soft spot in my head for how-to-use-this-programming-language type books. The other reason I’m biased is that I know and admire the good Mr. Fogus. If you want to know why, well then crack open this book.

The other Clojure book I read this year was Chas Emerick’s Clojure Programming. This book isn’t as much fun as Joy, but Mr Emerick has a much harder job: To explain the whole language from top to bottom. In that he does a good job and Clojure Programming is probably the best all round explanation of the language that we have.

Lisp Hackers by Vsevolod Dyomkin is an interesting series of interviews with, as the title says, Lisp hackers. I like Lisp quite a bit, but I do think this book sometimes falls into the It’s Lisp! Of course it’s great! trap. Show me, don’t tell me. Also Lispy is the Revised Report on the Algorithmic Language Scheme by Hal Abelson. This is, quite simply, one of the founding documents of modern Lisp programming. If you are at all interested in Lisp, read this.

If you haven’t come across it before, Forth is a wonderful, quirky programming language. Like many quirky things, you will either love Forth or hate it. As it happens, I love Forth and Programming Forth by Stephen Pelc is a great way to get going with that language.

I’m happy that technical publishers have mostly stopped asking authors to shoe horn every idea into design patterns. Aside from the unfortunate patterns box that Terence Parr used as a container for his ideas, Language Implementation Patterns: Techniques for Implementing Domain-Specific Languages is a well written, useful book, all about how to use ANTLR to build little languages. If you need to build a DSL in Java, I would grab this book.

There wasn’t a lot in Paul E. Ceruzzi’s Computing: A Concise History that I didn’t already know, but I do like this sort of thin, to-the-point volume. If you want to know something about the history of computers and software and don’t want to read a boring 500 page book to find out, give Mr. Ceruzzi a try.

Science And Technology

I’m an ex-mechanical engineer who has been in the programming biz for a very long time. I think that programmers without my eclectic background tend to have a very distorted idea of what “real” engineering is all about. I’ve heard coders say that our business is different from those other technical professions because we don’t just run equations all day; no, we have to deal with fuzzy requirements and people and their silly organizations. To that I say, read Henry Petroski’s An Engineer’s Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession and then tell me how different we really are.

There is a lot to like in Models. Behaving. Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life. The author, Emanuel Derman is a physicist turned Wall Street quant who tells us what models are good for and where they - or rather the people who use them - tend to fail. Unfortunately the book takes a maddenly wondering approach to its subject, so much so that towards the end I started hunting for the good parts.

I think of the next two books, Brian Clegg’s How to Build a Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel and Philip Plait’s Death from the Skies!: These Are the Ways the World Will End… as kind of a pair. Both turn up the knobs on what we know to 11 or 12 as they explore, respectively, the possibilities of time travel and the probabilities of instant, massive destruction. Next time you have a long plane ride in front of you, get one or both of these books and settle in.

I also read The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking. What can I say: It’s Stephen Freaking Hawking. As a bonus, this book is funny.

As I say, I like short, focused to-the-point books and this past year I read two science books in this vein. They where A Field Guide to Radiation by Wayne Biddle and Particle Physics: A Very Short Introduction by Frank Close. The radiation book has a problem: Outrage. Don’t read this book expecting an even handed look at the things that glow in the night. They are all evil. The particle physics books suffered from the common problem of all advanced physics books written for a lay audience. The problem is, without advanced mathematics, modern physics is indistinguishable from magic. Thus reading about modern physics without mathematics is like reading a spell book in a language you don’t understand. A book that mostly overcomes these problems is It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science by Graham Farmelo, but you have to be prepared to understand some math.

The most thought provoking science book that I read in 2013 is The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence by Paul Davies. The silence referred to in the title is the one that we keep hearing when we listen for messages from the aliens. We know that there are a huge number of stars just in our galaxy. So where is everybody? We now know that planets are relatively common. So where is everybody? We think that life arises pretty automatically, given the right conditions. So where is everybody? Interesting, fun book.

Fiction

The first couple of novels that I read in 2013 where a continuation of a series that I started in late 2012. They were The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest both by Stieg Larsson. If you have a reasonably high tolerance for reading about violence and various socially unacceptable but all too common behaviors, well these are really good books. Be sure to start with the first one though.

On a more fun note, I’ve been reading my way through the collected works of Jack McDevitt. The blurbs on McDevitt’s books describe him as the twenty first century version of Asimov or Clarke and for once the blurbs are right. Even better, McDevitt’s books are full of real people, with actual personalities instead of types into which they are cast. McDevitt has too longish series going. There’s the Academy series, which is about a not-too-far-in-the-future world where interstellar travel is routine if not exactly easy. These include Odyssey (The Academy, #5) and Starhawk (The Academy, #7).

The other McDevitt series is about Alex Benedict, a futuristic Indiana Jones character who is always on the look out for a good ancient artifact. Except that Benedict lives so far in the future that a lot of his ancient artifacts are actually from our future. This year I added Seeker, The Devil’s Eye, and Echo to the list of Benedict adventures that I throughly enjoyed.

I also finished Ben Bova’s Mars trilogy with Mars Life. I like Bova’s novels because they are as much about the people as they are about spaceships and aliens. Sadly the characters in Mars Life are just a bit boring.

I also read We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: and Other Classic Stories by Philip K. Dick. We Can Remember It for You Wholesale is the story on which the films Total Recall are based. As is true with a lot of Dick’s writing – except for Blade Runner – the story is much better than the movie.

On the other hand, I enjoyed the film version of Patrick O’Brian’s book The Far Side of the World much, much more than I liked the book itself. I will say that the other books in this series are much better, especially Master and Commander.

The closest thing I came to reading a bit of classical literature in 2013 was The Big Sleep. This is Raymond Chandler’s unveiling of detective Philip Marlowe. If you like that noir type thing, this is your book. I also read Mario Puzo’s Omerta. Puzo is the guy who wrote the Godfather. Omerta is very much in the same vein, but what can I say, it’s no Godfather.

Finally, I also cleaned up some unfinished business in 2013. When my son was much younger, we read our way together through the Series of Unfortunate Events books, all twelve of them. Except that there were 13 books in the series – the last one hadn’t been published at the time. By the time it was published my son had moved on. I have to say this was not my favorite young adult series, but darn it, I had suffered through twelve volumes of this thing and I had to finish. So this year I did finished Lemony Snicket’s monumental saga by reading The End (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #13). Unfortunately.

History

One of my colleagues is Japanese and I’ve actually been to Japan a bunch of times and until this year I knew next to nothing about the history of the place. I fixed this – if only a little — by reading Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Goto-Jones. This book is exactly what the title says it is, and fairly enjoyable at that.

Ben Hellwarth tells a fascinating story in Sealab: America’s Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor. Sealab was a sort of space station under the sea. It was also one of those shoe string projects that had brilliant successes until the string broke and people started dying.

I usually like books like Sherrilyn Kenyon’s The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages. It’s not that I’m planning to write a historical romance or even dress up at a Rennisance Fair. No, I like writers’ guides because a) they are generally written by people who can write and b) they exist to boil a topic down to easily understandable facts. Unfortunately, The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages fails on both scores. Boring and full of endless lists. A much better example of the genre is Books, Crooks and Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure by Leslie Budewitz. This is the book to pick up if you ever wondered just how accurate those endless TV courtroom scenes are. Spoiler alert: Not very.

I read three books about the US Civil War this year, and by far the best was The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner. Reading this careful examination of how Lincoln’s thinking on slavery evolved over the decades goes a long way towards making the greatest US President more human. I also liked This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War by James M. McPherson. which is a thoughtful exploration of the issues behind and the fighting of the war. Glenn Tucker’s High Tide at Gettysburg was just a bit too much of the second by second and then he smoked his second cigar of the day kind of history.

Fast forward about a century and you will hit Jeffrey T. Richelson’s The Wizards Of Langley: Inside The Cia’s Directorate Of Science And Technology with a loud thud. Full of spies and spy gadgets, this should have been my kind of book. Sadly I had to struggle to get through it: It turns out that inter-departmental spats do not a good story make, even if those departments are building secret agent gadgets. I was also bored reasonably stiff by John Keegan’s Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda for many of the same reasons. Look, if you can’t pull a good story out of the Napoleonic wars, you should just throw in the musket.

By contrast, Stephen Ambrose can tell a story and the story he tells in The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II is all about brave men fighting and dying as they try to save the world. Imagine what Ambrose could have done with Napoleon.

Having established my macho creds with all these spy and war books, I’ll freely admit that I like Downton Abbey. I could tell you that it’s all about enjoying an accurate early 20th century period piece. I could tell you that, but the ugly truth is I got sucked into a PBS/BBC soap opera. Still it was fun to read The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes, which talked about the social and historical background of the TV series.

Finally, if you would like an object lesson in how misguided our current war on drugs is, have a look at Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America by Edward Samuel Behr. Funny how questions that seem difficult when posed in terms of current events become crystal clear when looked at in hindsight. Prohibition was stupid in the 1920s. I’ll wait while you extrapolate.

Writing and Other Communicating

Two things came together this fall to explain the next bunch of books: First I caught the nasty cold that was going around. Second, I began to think about doing some indy publishing. Since I can’t think of a better way to learn to make a book than to consult someone who has already done it, I picked up Publishing E-Books For Dummies, as well as The Indie Author Guide: Self-Publishing Strategies Anyone Can Use not to mention How to Write for Kindle: A Non-Fiction Book in 72-Hours or Less I like the first two better than the third: Honestly the 72 Hour book read a bit like it had been written in a week.

I’m also interested in story telling, the kind where you stand up in front of a bunch of people and, well, tell a story. It turns out that people who write comic books are also interested in story telling. Comic books also have some of the same limits as in-person verbal story telling, most notably very limited bandwidth. This is why I picked up Create Your Own Graphic Novel Using Digital Techniques by Mike Chinn. Interesting and fun book even if you aren’t that into or interested in creating comics.

I also read How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia. This is a much less fun but still useful book about being a productive writer. Bottom line: write every day. Worth reading.

Finally there was The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. Equal parts good public speaking advice, part hero worship. The first bit is very helpful, the second less so.

Thinking About Thinking

I spent the early part of 2013 tinkering with a talk about insight and inspiration in programming. Here is one of the early versions of that talk. It’s a complex and fuzzy topic and so I read a bunch of books. Among them were two Malcolm Gladwell tomes Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success. I have mixed feeling about the good Mr. Gladwell’s books. They are fun and well written, but they also tend to set off my this story is just a little too tidy to be true alarms.

I also read Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt as well as Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I found both of these books interesting, but if I had to pick one I’d be thinking fast and slow instead of pragmatically.

Politics and Current Events

A Detailed Analysis of the Constitution by Edward F. Cooke is a step by step guide to the US Constitution. Full of unexpected tidbits. Here’s an example: Which amendment prevents states from infringing on free speech? Hint: It’s not the one you think.

The next couple of books are a bit outside of my typical realm: For one thing, I’m just not that interested in campaign driven literature, even from politicians I like. I also find it hard to get into detailed historical analysis of religious figures. Still I did read Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream and Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Why? Because in both cases I’d heard people making the most extraordinary claims about the crazy and evil stuff contained in these books. Strangely, neither claimant had actually read the book they were criticizing. Having read them both, I now have a pretty firm idea of where the crazy is to be found.

The last book in this category is Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal by Eric Schlosser. This book will prevent you from enjoying another McDonald’s french fry again. Ever. Caveat lector.

In a Category All Their Own

Finally we have the odd-ball books that don’t fit anywhere else. Take for example Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1950’s by Paula Reed. Fun book with lots of pictures and not so many words, on a topic I know essentially nothing about. Well, I know a little now that I’ve read this book.

Also full of pictures is Saatchi’s Brutal Simplicity of Thought: How It Changed the World. I won’t even try to describe this one. Not a lot there, mostly just inspiration, but worth the half hour or so that it took me to go through it.

I’ve saved the best for last: David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water is a very short book, actually the text of a commencement speech. But there is more insight about the human condition in each page of this book than in most 600 page novels. Skip all 57 of the other books I’ve mentioned in this article, but read this one.

So there you have it: 12 months and 58 books. I’d write more, but I have this urge to go read a book.

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