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2015/2016 Books Read

Well, it’s been a while since I posted about books I’ve read recently, and so I made an effort this morning to try and remember what I’ve read since my last post.  I’m sure I’ve missed a good handful of books and this is a huge list so I won’t be writing much about most of them, but here goes…

Rise To Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, by Conrad Black: What a tome!  One of Conrad Black’s many book projects since his ignominious exit from the media business is this magisterial history of white people in Canada.  A history as told from the perspective of the great men who have governed and shaped Canada, it is meticulously researched, well written, filled with colourful language, and loaded with a wealth of anecdotes from his personal communications and experience.  Although it is almost comically lacking in its exclusion of the history and treatment of the First Nations, it is well worth reading.

Better, by Atul Gawande: Wonderfully named, “Better” is both about healing and making patients better as well as about the personal ambition to always improve and better oneself.  Gawande’s stories from around the world of doctors and surgeons going above and beyond to do the best for their patients are engaging and interesting and although I’m not in the same profession, I take much the same attitude towards my career as he does and love his call to arms midway through the book to take your life’s work seriously.  Although I am perfectly happy to accept being mediocre in most aspects of my life (for example, I’m a thoroughly middling soccer player), when it comes to my career I have always and continue to strive to be the best and to always go a step beyond what was previously believed to be possible.  A great quick read.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande: I read this book, another by Gawande just a few weeks after reading “Better”, and although I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good, it’s still an excellent read.  “Being Mortal” is an in-depth discussion of geriatric care in America, it’s often sorry state, and is a powerful call to action to improve our treatment and care of people in their last stages of life.

Gray Mountain, by John Grisham:  Grisham has been on a roll lately, and Gray Mountain continues his trend of great easy to read fiction that is as entertaining as it is powerful.  Gray Mountain takes place in the coal country of Virginia where Big Coal is turning ever greater profits at the expense of the health and lives of the workers that it leaves in its wake.  This is the kind of novel I only read on flights, but for what it is, it’s very good.

Rogue Lawyer, by John Grisham: A recent read for a short flight home from Calgary a few weeks ago, Rogue Lawyer is the weakest Grisham book I’ve read in a long time.  Essentially three short stories that tie together at the end, the characters are built up expertly, but the climax fizzles and the book ends just as its getting started.  Grisham is at his best when he’s driven by a moral calling and that is lacking here.

My Idea of Fun, by Will Self: Reading this book was not my idea of fun.  Sure, Will Self uses plenty of interesting language, but the story and ideas simply didn’t grab me at all.  Not recommended at all.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins:  Yet another unreliable narrator novel, The Girl on the Train was recommended to me by a bookstore operator in Toronto Pearson airport.  It was enjoyable enough, but the whole way through I felt like I was just reading Gillian Flynn Lite.  Nothing bad, okay, so-so, whatever you want to call it, it’s fine but nothing special.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz: The three novels in Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published “Millennium” trilogy were both a global phenomenon as well as a lot of fun to read, with the first and the third particularly excellent.  A decade later, David Lagercrantz was authorized to continue the series with a work of his own and well, it’s simply not as good.  Whereas Larsson’s novels were a fun mix of intrigue, hacking, sex, and some truly dark and disturbing material, this book is simply bland.  The initial set up is good enough, but it feels like Lagercrantz doesn’t know what to do with Salander once she finally appears.  I’m sure this will be popular given its pedigree, but I’d just stick with the original trilogy.

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn: I knew of Gillian Flynn already from “Gone Girl”, and in a short span of just a few weeks I read both this book as well as Dark Places on consecutive flights out of Vancouver on business.  Sharp Objects it the story of a young journalist with a history of cutting herself who returns to her hometown to investigate a series of murders.  Although Flynn’s debut work, it already showcases her trademark style, and while not fantastic, it is dark, sarcastic, and gripping right to the end.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn:  I read this only a few weeks after reading Sharp Objects, and although dealing with a completely different subject, stylistically it is unmistakably Flynn.  It’s a dark, twister, gripping tale touching on the hysteria over the 1980s supposed heavy metal Satanic cults that lead youth astray, wrong convictions, and unreliable memories.

Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges: A gift from a few of my aunts for Christmas 2014, this is a wonderful biography.  Turing was an undeniably brilliant man who lived with a complicated yet brief life.  His contribution to the theory of computability will live on forever, and although you may have become familiar with his story through the Hollywood movie, The Imitation Game, I highly recommend reading Hodges’ book as the true story is arguably even more fascinating than the Hollywood revision.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Enagement for a Complex World, by Gen. Stanley McChrystal:  Team of teams was a pleasant surprise.  I started reading it expecting that it would be another book where the whole book was the title, but McChrystal has interesting insights about what a team is (the largest group of people that together thinks that everyone else sucks), and the importance of building an organization of teams where every member of each team has a friend (someone who they could call in the middle of the night if needed) on each other team.  This book has surprisingly relevant insights for the software industry.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, by John C. Maxwell:  One of the more boring business books I’ve read.  Apparently this is a classic, but I found the advice to be largely obvious.  It’s not that it’s awful, just bland.  Go read something by Robert Greene for better anecdotes, or Jo Owen for better leadership advice.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert:  This is a fantastic pop science book that I’ve since been able to loan to a number of man-made climate change deniers and convince them to change their minds.  Kolbert walks the reader through dozens of examples of anthropocenic extinctions from recent memory that are indubitably man made.  Engaging and well written.

The Lost Elements: The Periodic Table’s Shadow Side, by Marco Fontani and Mariagrazia Costa: This book is marketed as a pop science book, but really is not at all.  The historical details that led scientists down the wrong paths to imagine elements that were not in fact elements is interesting, but this book is written more like a research paper.  It is thorough, detailed, and unfortunately dry.

The Third Reich in History and Memory, by Richard J. Evans: I love this kind of historical analysis because I think that books like this ask one of the most interesting questions.  Evans doesn’t just ask “what happened” during the Third Reich, but looks also at how historians and commentators viewed the Third Reich as it was developing, and how our thoughts about the Third Reich have evolved in the decades since it ended.  For example, at times during the 20th century, it was argued that the Third Reich was a natural outcome of the age of imperialism.   On the other hand, at times historians argued that the Third Reich subjugated the German people whereas it is now believed that the Nazis actually had the widespread popular support of the German people.  Highly recommended.

The Gap: The Science of What Separates us from Other Animals, by Thomas Suddendorf: From the dust jacket I had high hopes for this book.  What I got though was a fairly basic history of primate evolution and summary of research showing what other primates are capable of as compared to humans.  The book is well researched and well founded, but there are better alternatives out there.

The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David J. Hand: I dunno, but perhaps I’m just the wrong audience for this book.  I have an undergraduate degree in Math and Computing Science, a research based graduate degree in Computing Science, and work in the field of analytics (which requires statistical thinking).  I found this short book to be extremely obvious, but perhaps for an audience with a less mathematical background it would be useful to read.

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely: A birthday gift from an employee of mine (a message, perhaps?), Ariely walks readers through the gamut of cognitive biases that affect how we interact and behave in our lives.  Covering much the same ground as Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, but aimed at a more popular audience and written clearly and succinctly, this is worth reading for everyone.

The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama: The first of two volumes by Fukuyama charting the development of political order from prehistory to the present, this book rises above its peers by taking a global view of political development.  Most political history books focus on the Anglo-American path, regarding that as the natural end of political development, but Fukuyama casts his net wider and shows that not all countries develop alike and that long ago differences in paths to political development have led to deep seated effects in the political environments of different countries today.

The Morning After, by Chantal Hebert and Jean Lapierre: This is a great idea for a book.  Hebert and Lapierre are two well regarded and well connected journalists who travelled to meet the key players from both sides of the 1995 Quebec referendum to learn about their plans for the morning after the referendum had the voters voted “yes” instead of “no”.  Some of the politicians interviewed little, but there are many great insights to be found, such as that the unified front presented by Parizeau, Bouchard, and Dumont was essentially a facade and that even between them there was little agreement on what a “yes” vote would have meant.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon: I read this while on a recent road trip to Montana and Wyoming and was probably the perfect choice to read while exploring the declining fly over country that is America’s interior.  Gordon’s thesis is twofold: first, that America’s growth and rise in living standards was far greater in the centry following 1876 than is evident in official GDP statistics, and second, that the remarkable growth seen during that period is unlikely to ever be replicated.  Economic inequality and climate change are the two principal social issues that we have to face in the coming decades, and Gordon makes a compelling argument that we have to seek solutions to our problems outside of a belief that a magic formula would bring great economic growth that could make our problems disappear.

SPQR, by Mary Beard: SQPR is a fantastic history of Rome’s rise to its greatest period and relevant for our world today.  Beard has an original style of presenting history, writing fluently and speaking to today’s world while narrating the past.  Her central thesis is compelling: that Rome rose to greatness by continually expanding its right of citizenship, bringing the world into its fold, rather than by shutting its borders and pushing its neighbours away.

The Emperor’s Handbook, by Marcus Aurelius: A fancy name for a new translation of Aurelius’ Meditations, this book had been on my list to read for as long as I can remember.  This is obviously not as relevant to today’s problems as a modern book on leadership or life, but it is fascinating to read the inner thoughts and contemplations of an emperor living nearly two millenniums ago.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain:  I’d heard a lot about this book before I picked it up, but I’d always been skeptical of it because it sounds a lot like a book where the whole point is contained in the title.  Introverts = important.  The book turned out to be more interesting than that, and I learned about some areas of research that I was previously unfamiliar such as the work described on high reactive babies.  Nonetheless, despite many interesting anecdotes, the book is longer than it needs to be to get its point across.  One thought that I couldn’t get out of my mind as I read it: are introversion and extroversion really innate character traits or can they be learned, or perhaps even be dependent on environment or situation?  I’m not so sure that the spectrum is as black and white as Cain makes it sound.

The Mindset of Success, by Jo Owen: Jo Owen’s “How to Lead” has long been one of my favourite books on leadership and it’s one that I return to every few weeks to refresh myself on another few nuggets of insight, and this appreciation for his work led me to pick up “The Mindset of Success” last summer.  I in particular have always been drawn to Owen’s view that leadership is a practice, not an innate character trait.  More focussed and simpler in scope than his other books, Owen uses the book to dive into the mindset needed to succeed in career, life, and other endeavour.  Not quite as good as his other books, but still worthwhile.

How Not To Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg: I loved the title of this book before reading it, and after reading it I think it’s a great idea for a book.  Ellenberg does a fantastic job at explaining the value of learning mathematics and how its tools can be used to understand the world and its complexities.

Zermelo’s Axiom of Choice: Its Origins, Development, and Influence, by Gregory H. Moore:  There’s a review for this book on Amazon that calls it a “truly thrilling history” of the axiom of choice.  I really don’t know that that would ever be possible.  The Axiom of Choice is a fascinating topic of study, both because of its independence from the other axioms of ZF set theory, and because how its needed to prove many useful parts of mathematics while at the same time leading to seeming absurdities like the Banach-Tarsky paradox.  Well researched, interesting, but also very dry reading and not for a popular audience.  Note that my copy had some printing errors (misaligned pages, for example).

Fearless Symmetry, by Avner Ash and Robert Gross:  Let’s get it out of the way: this is not a book for a true layman.  Even with a thorough understanding of undergraduate mathematics and a good knowledge of some parts of graduate mathematics (not number theory, mind you), this book required effort to get through and understand.  At the same time, it was totally worth it.  Ash and Gross do a great job of building up the mathematics and especially the motivation behind the mathematics needed to understand reciprocity laws, Galois groups, and the tools that would eventually be used to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem.  Fearless Symmetry does a better job of explaining the wonder and complexity of the Galois group better than any source I’ve previously encountered.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein: This is probably Klein’s weakest work, not standing up to the greatness of her previous books.  Whereas I loved No Logo and enjoyed the Shock Doctrine, it’s not entirely clear who the intended audience is for this book.  The majority of details presented are already known by those who care, but the writing and anecdotes are too bland to appeal to those who still need to be convinced that man made climate change is the principal issue of our era.  This Changes Everything is noble, but regrettably not great.

The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers, by Robert C. MartinEvery programmer should have to read this book, plain and simple.  While the latter half largely focusses on TDD, the first few chapters are essential.  So many developers enter the workforce unaware of what it truly means to be a professional programmer, what it means to write quality code, when to say yes, and when to say no.  Some people are put off by Uncle Bob’s opinionated nature, but I love this book and wish I could get all of my new developers to read it.

Just Enough Software Architecture: A Risk-Driven Approach, by George Fairbanks: Software architecture is an interesting term because on one hand, everyone in the industry knows what architecture refers to (“those parts of a system that are hard to change”), but at the same time, most people including many architects don’t know how one should go about defining architecture.  Fairbanks explains how to define architecture by identifying the risks affecting a piece of software being developed and using the right set of models to model what the architecture should be.  This is knowledge that every architect or senior developer should have.

Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management, by Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby:  This is an interesting book in that it’s essentially a series of dialogs of a new manager engaging in one on ones with a new team.  It’s a small book, but I’ve bought a copy for each of my managers to read because I think too many mangers jump into doing one on ones without really thinking about what their goals are and what they want to accomplish.

Management 3.0: Leader Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders, by Jurgen Appelo: Management 3.0 is a weird book.  It’s kind of a brain dump of all of the models and ideas that Appelo has run into in his quest to become a good Agile development manager.  It’s interesting to pass through, but not essential reading.

The Scrum Field Guide: Practical Advice for Your First Year, by Mitch Lacey: Another book on Scrum that I read while running a large software development project, this is pretty good, but I’d jump straight to Cohn’s book generally.

Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash, by Mary and Tom Poppendieck: “Lean” software development is a bit of an odd idea because it’s a set of principles and not a process.  The reason I say that it’s odd is because I don’t know that anyone could ever disagree with the principles, such as to “eliminate waste” or “build quality in”.  Perhaps the only really controversial principal is to “defer committment”.  Nonetheless, this book is a good read, and Chapter 2, on the principles of lean software development should be required reading for any software development manager.

Succeeding Using Agile: Software Development Using Scrum, by Mike Cohn: My favourite book on Scrum.  Cohn is a great author and does a great job at explaining how to practically implement Scrum and put it to use.  I wish I could get all of my scrum masters to read this.

Computability: Turing, Godel, Church, and Beyond, edited by B. Jack Copeland, Carl J. Posy, Oron Shagrir: A great collection of papers by some great minds.  A few of the papers are perhaps overly specific, but there are many of interest to anyone with an interest in the theory of computability, such as Aaronson’s paper on whether philosophers should care about computational complexity.  Recommended.

 

 

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I feel like I’ve read more than this in the past few months, including a couple works of fiction, but I can’t remember what they were.  Anyways, here’s my reading list (insofar as I can remember) in the last few months:

Enemies, by Tim Weiner: After reading Weiner’s excellent “Legacy of Ashes” (a history of the CIA) some time ago, I recently picked up his history of the FBI.  While not quite as engaging as his history of the CIA, this is still a must read.  Most people probably have no idea how much the FBI operated outside of the law, and arguably as a criminal enterprise for much of its history in the 20th century.  If you think you should always trust the government, then you need to read something like this and see how far a government agency can go, even to the point of it holding more power than a country’s elected officials.

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field, by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon:  This is a fairly short biography of both Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, the two most influential men in the development of the theory of the electromagnetic field.  It was pretty good, entertaining enough.  Definitely not a must read, but there was enough in there to keep me interested.

John Clarke, by Lisa Baile: John Clarke was an amazing British Columbian, both through his exploration of the province and his advocacy of its natural wonders and First Nations.  Although he died over a decade ago, it was only recently that a biography was written for him.  I never knew John personally, although I know many people who knew him well.  Similarly, I know Lisa only as a fellow member of the BC Mountaineering Club, and reading the book its clear that this is her first book and that she’s not a professional writer, she does a very good job of portraying all sides of John and demonstrating his deep humanity.  Nonetheless, it is a fascinating read, interspersed with anecdotes from John’s friends as well as his journals.

How Jesus Became God, by Bart Ehrman:  Ehrman has made a dent in popular culture in the past decade or so due to his books on biblical apocrypha, textual evolution, and his stature as both a premier biblical scholar (I’ve read a couple of his textbooks) and an atheist.  “How Jesus Became God” is definitely not a mainstream popular book like some of his older works, but it is accessible enough for the interested layman, and looks at the question of when exactly did Jesus’ followers come to believe that he was divine?  Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to have been during Jesus’ lifetime, nor does it appear to have been immediately after his death.  This is a remarkable question that few people have probably asked in the last two millennia.  Nonetheless, it’s worth asking, and the answers are more nuanced than you might expect.

Stress Test, by Timothy F. Geithner:  I really liked this book.  I’d already read quite a few books on the financial crisis prior to reading this one a couple months ago (such as the excellent “Too Big To Fail”, but I hadn’t read any of the books by one of the principal actors.   As Geithner himself repeats many times in this book, he was not a banker by trade, nor had he ever worked on Wall Street, yet he ended up as the Chair of the New York Federal Reserve and then served as the Treasury Secretary during Obama’s first term, and consequently was right in the middle of the efforts to resolve the crisis and its aftermath.  The book is made vastly more interesting and entertaining by Geithner’s clear perspective of himself as an outsider, a non politician (for example, he gets all his news by watching Jon Stewart’s “Daily Report”)

No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald:  Greenwald was the first reporter to report on the contents of the documents Snowden leaked from the NSA, and this short little book is his recollection of the events leading up to the disclosure as well as as summary the most important programs gleaned from the leaks.  If you’ve been following the NSA disclosures closely as reported by the Guardian or Bruce Schneier, you probably won’t learn much about the programs from this book, but for someone wanting a quick summary or just wanting to hear firsthand about how the reporting started, this is a good enough read.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty: A month or so ago someone expressed their supreme surprise that despite how much I normally read, I still hadn’t read Piketty.  Well, guess what?  I did it.  There’s been so much buzz about this book that I don’t need to say much about it.  All I’ll say is that the first third and the last third are really interesting, and could be considered a must-read.  The middle third is very dense with charts and numbers, and while important from a documentary standpoint, is less interesting to someone brave enough to trust his interpolations without seeing all the underlying data.  Regardless, his key message about the natural rise of inequality as the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth (so more and more accumulates to the wealthy) is something that everyone should hear about and ponder.

 

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Beyond the Mountain, by Steve House: Most people in the mountaineering community know of Steve House, the man considered by Reinhold Messner to be the greatest alpine climber of the current millennium, and this book from a few years ago is his telling of his formative years, the physical and psychological burden of his climbs, and the impossible to rival bonds that can only be formed by tying yourself to another so that you both live or both die.  I found this book to be more possible to relate to than than Twight’s “Kiss or Kill”, and some of the stories and photos are just unbelievable.  Highly recommended for anyone wanting a peek into the mind of one of our age’s greatest climbers.

Mastery, by Robert Greene:  I’m a big fan of Greene’s “The 48 Laws of Power”, and although I wasn’t terribly impressed by his “The 33 Strategies of War”, when my brother recommended Greene’s latest book to me, I was eager to give it a read.  Unlike his other books, which consist of loosely tied together but largely independent collections of “laws”, along with associated descriptions, analyses, and reversals, this book attempts to build up a cohesive view of what it means to achieve “mastery”.  As always, Greene ties together a vast array of historical anecdotes to support his points and the book is always lively and entertaining, but its tone of seriousness causes it to lose some of the enjoyment of the “is he possibly serious??” reaction that came from reading the pages of his previous books.  It’s a good read, but doesn’t reach the level of greatness that was the “48 Laws of Power”

Hacker’s Delight, by Henry S. Warren Jr: This is an interesting collection of programming “hacks” in the old-school sense of the word: clever and unexpected ways of using encodings and CPU operations to accomplish things efficiently, such as finding the index of the next 1 in a series of bits or counting the number of set bits in a word.  Most programmers these days probably could care less about these things, but for the few of us plugging away on a backend calculation engine there are some worthwhile ideas in here.

Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes: What a tome! Considered by many to be the first novel, the two parts of Don Quixote took a good long while to plow through, both due to the sheer volume of text and to the fact that many sections of the book (especially in the first part) simply drag on and on.  It is telling that almost every famous event from the book takes place in the first 30 pages.  Nonetheless, for readers with enough fortitude to stick it out and make it to part 2 (originally published a decade later), you are in for a treat as Cervantes’ skill grew tremendously and he was able to craft a narrative and not just a seemingly random series of vignettes.  I read the translation by John Rutherford, and was very impressed by it, especially with regards to the translation of poems and colloquialisms.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but certainly falls into the category of book that all lovers of literature should read at some point in their lives.

Days of Fire, by Peter Baker:  With this book, Baker has put together a comprehensive, thorough, yet very readable account of the George W. Bush presidency with a special focus on his relationship with Dick Cheney.  Very even handed, reading this book one can’t help but see that Bush was faced with few easy choices, especially when surrounded by such ideological and manipulative advisors with their own personal agendas like Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and sometimes Cheney himself.  Loyal and trusting to a fault, Baker shows how Bush was blind to the hidden agendas of these individuals and only late in his presidency was he experienced and strong enough to stand up to personally take charge of the running the country in the compassionate and bipartisan manner that he had first campaigned on years earlier.  Definitely worth reading.

The Stuff of Thought, by Steven Pinker:  I’m of two minds about this book, just as it seems Pinker was when writing it.  The first third of the book is quite technical in how it breaks down the structure of phrases to discover how semantics are contained in words, while the rest of the book is an interesting, but lay-written look at the evolution of the meaning behind taboo words and phrases, jokes, figures of speech and so on.  If you read it, you’ll learn something, but most of the content is stuff that you’ve probably heard of elsewhere if you’re well read.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield:  When I was first given this book, I thought it would be a little piece of fluff meant to capitalize on Hadfield’s fame after returning to earth from his stint as commander of the international space station (ISS) (the first Canadian to do so).  However, I found it to be surprisingly enjoyable.  Hadfield is incredibly humble about his success and his tales of endless preparation, practice, hard-work, and as he says “sweating the small stuff” really resonated with me as that is exactly as I like to approach my career in software development.  It’s a small book, and a quick read, but very enjoyable.

Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum:  Applebaum’s previous book, “Gulag” was a masterpiece of historical writing and won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize.  Unsurprisingly, I’ve been keen to read her follow-up book on the establishment of communism in Eastern Europe (in particular, Germany, Hungary, and Poland) after the second world war.  It’s a very well researched and interesting book, and her thesis about how communism was able to succeed because it always made apathy a better choice on a day-to-day basis than confrontation (an ordinary person’s life was better if they pretended to support communism than to openly defy it) so that even though few people supported communism, everyone pretended and just went along with it even as their freedoms were crushed.  Nonetheless, the organization into strict topical chapters “Police”, “Politics”, “Radio”, etc means that the flow isn’t as good as it could be.  Not as good as “Gulag”, but well above average.

What is Life?, by Erwin Schrodinger:  A little collection of lectures that caught my eye in Chapters a few months ago including the titular essay “What is Life?”, this contains the great physicist Schrodinger’s efforts to shape and predict what will be found to be the underlying structures of life.  This predates the discovery of DNA by a few years, but it is fascinating to see how prescient his predictions about what chromosomes are made of (for example) would prove to be.  Highly recommended for people interested in the history of modern science.

Who Owns the Future, by Jaron Lanier:  In this book, Lanier presents his thesis about how “big data” and “siren servers” don’t properly value people’s work, and presents his own “modest proposal” on how to go about fixing it.  The problem is very clearly stated and well argued.  For example, if people translate texts and post them online, a company like Google can suck in the translations to improve their translation engine without any compensation to the person who originally did the translation, even though eventually the original translator could be put out of work by Google’s translation engine.  His proposed solution is to use two-way links to trace what data was used by models so that the people who created the data underlying the model can be compensated for the capabilities of the model when it’s used.  I realize it’s meant as a polemic and meant to get people thinking, but to start a serious conversation, I would’ve preferred more details on how he thinks this could ever possibly be done, as the cost and complexity of maintaining the lineage of all data would seem to be astronomical in comparison to the one-way hyperlinking strategy used on the web today.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson:  Another Christmas gift that I’d put off reading for a while because I wasn’t sure about how interesting it would be, once I started reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, I couldn’t put it down and finished the whole thing in one day.  Extremely well written, insightful, and frequently unflattering, and published shortly after Jobs’ death, it is easy to see why this book caused such a splash.  If you work in the tech industry, read this book.

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Summer Reading 2013

Well, well, well, in the past few months in addition to enjoying the great weather we had this summer, I had the opportunity to read a number of books.  I feel like I read more than what’s listed below, but I can’t think of what it is I’m missing.  Anyhow, here goes:

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami:  Although Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, Haruki Murakami was among the people considered most likely to win and when I was passed this book it seemed like an appropriate time to try out some modern Japanese literature.  Told from the simultaneous perspectives of two individuals, Aomame and Tengo Kawana, the book reminded me of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” in how everything is in the end tied together.  Although Murakami spend a bit too much time dwelling on the minute details of each situation for my liking, I found the first half of “1Q84” to be quite magically and extraordinarily well written.  Unfortunately, the later parts of the book swerved a bit too much into the mumbo jumbo of an invented mythology and the plot’s resolution was quite unrewarding.  I can highly recommend this book for its first few hundred pages, but I can see many people getting bogged down later on and struggling to make it through to the end.

A Dance With Dragons, by George R.R. Martin: After the disappointment of “A Feast For Crows”, the plodding 4th book in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, the series was badly in need of a kick to get the story moving again, and in this regard, “A Dance With Dragons” largely delivers.  As always, Martin’s writing is fantastic, and unlike the previous book it focusses largely on characters that the reader actually cares about, such as Jon, Tyrion, and Daenerys (much of the book takes place at the same time as the previous book but from different viewpoints)  There are still long sections that should probably have been excised or simply summarized by other characters in order to keep things moving quicker, but at least by the end of the book all of the necessary characters have been moved into place so that the series can start moving again.  I’m optimistic after reading this that the 6th book in the series will be a return to the greatness that was the first three.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, by Stephen Jay Gould: What a large book!  I started on this one a couple years ago after finishing Gould’s fabulous “The Richness of Life” and wanting to dig a bit deeper into the theory and controversies in modern evolutionary theory and only got back into it to finish reading it this summer with a few quiet days up on Hornby Island.  Most definitely not for the casual science reader, this tome features massive chapters (> 200 pages often), a horrendously nested structure, entertaining and insightful diversions relating evolutionary theory to all sorts of matters in the outside world, hundreds of invented words probably never seen elsewhere, and a level of thoroughness in its covering of the history and development of the so called “modern consensus” as well as of the debates and controversies that continue in the development of modern evolutionary theory.  Not for the faint of heart, but if you manage to plow through it, I guarantee you’ll learn more about evolutionary theory than you ever knew there was to know.

Rumsfeld’s Rules, by Donald Rumsfeld: Donald Rumsfeld isn’t a man who gets a lot of respect these days in many quarters due to how close he’s linked to the Iraq War and his infamous statement that “we know” where the WMDs were prior to the 2003 invasion.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to dispute his professional accomplishments, as both the youngest and the oldest Secretary of Defence in history, the CEO of two fortune 500 companies (including those responsible for Aspartame and Tamiflu), serving as the US ambassador to NATO, elected to congress four times, and serving as President Ford’s chief of staff.  Throughout his career, he collected quotations and sayings that were occasionally distributed to his staff and colleagues, and this little book is an organized collection of these sayings along with his thoughts and anecdotes relating them to his career and to management and leadership in general.  It’s a quick read but one I’d recommend, especially for his thoughts on the design and outcomes of the planning process.

Wild, by Sheryl Strayed: Apparently this is a popular book right now, because as I was reading it on the ferry this summer I noticed at least two other people reading it.  This is the tale of an aimless young woman who’s ruined her marriage and spent time dabbling in drugs but then gets the idea that to find herself she should through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Washington State, despite having never hiked before in her life.  The book is well written and very human, showing the follies and triumphs of someone who heads out without any idea of what she’s getting into, but somehow makes it work nonetheless.  I can’t see this being a classic or remembered 10 years from now, but in the moment, it’s an enjoyable read.

Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg:  Another quick read on our short Hornby Island vacation this year, Sandberg’s book is meant as a call-to-arms of sorts for women to step up and fully engage in their career.  Too often women don’t “lean in” and put themselves in the situation to rise up and become leaders.  Obviously I’m not a woman, but from my observations in my career, I can’t help but agree with Sandberg’s central claims and would encourage all women entering professional careers to give this book a read.

The Confession, by John Grisham: Ahh, John Grisham.  I keep reading his books because they’re entertaining and consumable fully in short time periods.  I read this on my last day up at Hornby Island this year, and actually found it to be my favourite Grisham novel of the ones I’ve read in the past few years.  This novel is Grisham setting out to demonstrate the evils of the death penalty through the pending execution of Donté Drumm, and innocent man, and for the most part he succeeds.  As someone who is opposed to the death penalty on principle, I can only hope that enough American’s pick this up in their supermarket checkout lines to force them to think through what it means to have the state kill a man.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson:  Prior to reading this book a few weeks ago, I’d already seen both the Swedish and American movie adaptations, but I actually found the novel to be more enjoyable than either movie.  Larsson’s writing is simple and concise, and keeps the tightly wound plot moving along quickly, always leaving the reader wanting to read just a little more.  The two main characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, are interesting and well developed, although everyone else is developed only to the minimum required to advance the plot.  Larsson has a propensity to spend a bit too much time delving into trivial details such as which version of Palm Pilot is used by Lisbeth or what was made for breakfast, but nonetheless, it’s easy to see why this book kicked off the Millennium trilogy phenomenon a few years ago.

The Girl who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson:  The second novel in the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is even faster paced than the first, although with characters such as a Russian spy turned gangster and a 6’6″ henchman with a congenital lack of ability to feel pain it veers into the melodramatic.  Regardless, I actually preferred this novel to the first one as it seems that Larsson was more comfortable with his main characters and writing style when writing this novel and it’s a very enjoyable mile-a-minute read.  (Note: I watched the Swedish adaptation of this novel after reading it, and the movie is quite mediocre)

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Stieg Larsson:  The final novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, this is my favourite in the series.  Less fantastical than the second, but more tightly plotted and even more human than the first, this novel shows of the simple power of Larsson’s language.  Yes, he continues to veer into polemics about the state of this and that in Sweden, but for me that only added to the charm.  It’s rumoured that Larsson left at least one uncompleted additional novel in the Millennium series, but this book wraps up the events of the first three so naturally that it’s hard to see where a 4th or 5th book could go.  Recommended.

The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth: First published as Forsyth’s debut novel in 1971, “The Day of the Jackal” reportedly caused quite a stir when it was released, and with a cover quip that claims that the novel is “unputdownable”, I decided to give this classic thriller a chance.  The story of an Englishman who is hired to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, and the efforts of the excellent detective Mr. Lebel, Dan Brown this is not.  Instead, Forsyth gives us a slow burn, with the detail and tension increasing right until the climax at the end.  The novel shows its age somewhat both in structure and language, but nonetheless is in the upper tier of modern thrillers.

 

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Suffering from an undiagnosed illness and kept away from the mountains this spring I’ve had the opportunity to read a good number of books in addition to wasting too many hours playing DOTA 2.  Here are some micro reviews:

God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens: A Christmas gift from a relative, the late Hitchens’ tear down of religion (all religion, not just Christianity, mind you) was my first reading after plowing through the first four A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) books.  Written in classic polemic style, it is concise, easy to read, and absolutely one sided.  Even-handed this is not.  Yet that is the point of a polemic: to make the case that your argument is so strong that there is no other argument to consider, no valid opposing point of view.  Although his vitriol is tiring on occasion, that his arguments should be considered by believers and atheists alike cannot be denied.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo:  Most laymen with an interest in modern physics or its development are familiar with many of Paul Dirac’s results and innovations: the Dirac equation, the Dirac delta function, bra-ket notation, the prediction of the anti-electron (positron), and so on, and yet most of us have little awareness or understanding of Dirac’s life and personality.  In this book, Farmelo does a great job showing Dirac’s troubled upbringing, struggles to succeed as a young adult, supreme awkardness in his personal relationships (hence “The Strangest Man”), fame and triumphs in his 20s and 30s, and acolyte of the quest for truth in mathematics through his later years.  The book is occasionally dense, and sometimes a little dry, and probably couldn’t be enjoyed without a prior interest in Paul Dirac, but for those interested in the early development of quantum theory this is a great book.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: According to the front cover, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker prize, but I respectfully disagree as to its quality.  A fairly long tale told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell set in the middle years of King Henry VIII’s reign, a complex web of relationships is developed, but little empathy is developed and the plot plods along ultimately going almost nowhere.  For a more interesting yarn involving the same characters (and more!) I would suggest instead watching Showtime’s TV series “The Tudors”.

CUDA Programming: A Developer’s Guide to Parallel Programming with GPUs, by Shane Cook: In my real life as the lead developer for a high-performance in-memory database and analytic engine, I’m frequently asked whether any of our calculations could be optimized by running them on GPUs instead of CPUs.  Consequently, I used my time on a recent trip to Texas to read Shane Cook’s introductory book on programming GPUs with CUDA and found it to be very enlightening.  Nothing can compete with raw experience, but for a quick head start on developing with CUDA (only for nVidia GPUs), this book does a really good job at explaining the necessary concepts and developing examples to show fof the various capabilities and pitfalls of GPU programming.  A few more examples of converting real world algorithms to work on GPUs would have been appreciated, but there’s always trial and error in Visual Studio to figure that out…

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle: I’ve struggled these past few months to come to grips with a long lasting illness, and at times felt a need to seek help working through things. Through this process, I was recommended two books by Eckhart Tolle, and read this one first.  Written in question and answer format, the book is structured as a long conversation between the reader and Tolle himself, working to guide the reader to understand the importance of “now”, and how “now” is the only thing that ever is.  Regardless of what happens or what has happened, you are living “now” and all that is not “now” needs to be dealt with rationally and minimally.  Personally I found this book very helpful, and that’s pretty much all that can be said about it.  Some people would probably find it fluffy and just a bunch of mumbo jumbo, as would I have a year ago, but if you’re struggling to come to terms with something in life, this book is a powerful kick in the pants to get mentally back on track.

A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle: Unlike “The Power of Now”, Tolle’s “A New Earth” is much less focussed on becoming mindful about “now” and living focussed solely on your current being, and instead focusses on the matter of ego and how it affects oneself as well as humanity in general.  The points he makes are interesting and seem quite valid, but for me this book lacked the poignancy and power of his previous book.  Furthermore, a few sections veer just a little too close to “mumbo jumbo” when he starts discussing things beyond the self.  Not bad, but not great either in my mind.

Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day, by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan:  One of the constants of popular Himalayan mountaineering literature is that it’s told from the perspective of the visitors: the North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans who visit the Himalaya each year to climb and conquer its mighty peaks.  Nonetheless, there are few expeditions to the Himalaya that don’t have Sherpas or other high altitude porters (HAPs) assisting them all the way from the valleys to high camps, and often all the way to the summit.  These Sherpa climbers support expeditions, save lives, and die on the mountains just like white people do, and it is their story that Zuckerman and Padoan bring to life in this book.  A remarkably quick read, requiring only a few hours, their book vividly tells the story of climbers like Chhiring Sherpa from their upbringing in tiny villages to their involvement in the tragedy that unfolded on K2 in August 2008.  Well written and brief, this book fills its niche well and we can hope that more stories in the future share the perspective of the local climbers and guides and not just the visitors with the money to pay for the expeditions.

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ice_and_fire_box_setI’ve been watching Game of Thrones since it started airing on TV, and despite not having read the books, I found both seasons to be exceptionally well made and engaging.  Furthermore, they led me to want to read the books that they’re based on.  I originally wondered whether it would be enjoyable to read the first two books of George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series given that I already knew the plots from the show, but I’m pleased to report that even knowing the plots, they were both a fantastic read.  Following these two, I proceeded on to the next two books as well (I had been loaned a paperback box set), and my thoughts follow below.

The first two books in the series, “A Game of Thrones”, and “A Clash of Kings” stand out as amongst the best fantasy writing put to paper.  Told from the perspectives of a large host of characters, one can’t help but be enamoured by the stories of Ned Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and many others.  The third, “A Storm of Swords” is excellent as well, although perhaps a slight notch in quality below the first two.  The saga is epic in scope, and the world that Martin creates is as realistic and complete as I have ever seen.  In these first books, the characters are deep and act in manners consistent with their personalities, and the story progresses in broad arcs all while maintaining the human focus on the focal characters.  Truly fantastic.

The series begins to run into trouble, however, with the fourth novel, “A Feast For Crows”.  When originally writing the novel, Martin realized that he had too much material to fit into a single book, and rather than split the novel into two parts chronologically, he split the novel by character viewpoint.  On one hand, this isn’t much of a problem, as most of the characters are far enough apart from each other at this point in the saga that their storylines only interact tangentially, but on the other, this means that most of the characters I cared the most about have been left to have their stories told in a future book.  Furthermore, as the novel (and in theory its companion as well) is meant to fill in a time gap before the story is meant to progress, very little actually happens.  The language is rich, the imagery vivid, the dialogue witty, but as far as advancing the story, it’s essentially fluff and filler.

I still look forward to reading the fifth novel in the series, “A Dance With Dragons”, much as I look forward to watching future seasons of the show on TV, and much as I plan on reading the remaining books in the series in the future.  Nonetheless, I can only hope that Martin is able to get the storyline progressing once again so that he’s able to recapture the magic of the first three parts of his wonderful tale.  None of these novels is a quick read as the books have an average length of over 1000 pages each, densely written.  That said, I recommend reading the series to everyone with a taste for fiction and adventure.

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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, by John Darwin:  One of the better non-fiction books I’ve read recently, the scope of Unfinished Empire is vast and this is both its greatest strength and weakness.  Readable throughout, this is the most comprehensive book I’ve encountered detailing the origins, expansion, and eventual decline of the British Empire.  Darwin makes very clear that aside from the late-developing notion that free trade is good, the Empire did not originate from a singular ideology, nor did it it expand in a particularly planned or controlled manner.  Instead, the diversity of the Empire, in demography, governance, and development, was as varied as the geography itself, and this is the source of the main problem with this book.  Given the diversity of the Empire and the constraints of documenting the entire history of the expansion and decline of the Empire into a single book, the reader has little chance to get a good feel for any particular aspect or part of the Empire.  Perhaps this only goes to prove Darwin’s thesis regarding the chaotic and organic development of the Empire, but it left me wanting more at the end, unsure of how much I really had learned.

Double Entry: How the Merchants of Venice Created Modern Finance, by Jane Gleeson-White:  At a glance, the title of this book makes it sound like you, the reader, will learn two things: what double-entry bookkeeping is, and how it forms the underpinnings of modern finance.  However, after reading this book, I can attest that the reader is unlikely to walk away with a strong grasp of either.  Interesting enough is the descriptive phrase that comes to mind thinking of this book.  It’s reasonably well written, and some parts of the book are excellent, such as its biography of Luca Pacioli.  However, overall it cannot be described as better than average, and a potential reader is probably better off reading the relevant topic pages on wikipedia.

Information Security: Principles and Practice, by Mark Stamp: This excellent book should be mandatory reading for all software developers.  Despite already having a strong background in cryptography, the first part of the book on Crypto was largely review, but there were still many interesting nuggets of information for me, especially regarding Cryptanalytic techniques, as the depth of material covered goes far beyond the level covered by most introductory security textbooks.  Similarly, the remaining sections on Access Control, Protocols, and Software were well written and enlightening.  This is the best book I’ve read so far covering information security in general, and as I mentioned before, would highly recommend that it be read by all software developers.

Applied Cryptanalysis: Breaking Ciphers in the Real World, by Mark Stamp and Richard M. Low:  Much more technical and in-depth than the book previously reviewed, it can be thought of as building on the cryptographic topics in the prior book.  Perhaps a quarter to a third of this book overlaps with the previous in that it takes its time to describe all of the cryptographic techniques analysed, but the remaining two-thirds of the text consists of an in-depth description of state-of-the-art cryptanalytic techniques to attack, and sometimes break, the algorithms described.  I personally found the book very interesting to read, and would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a good overview of the subject matter, although it goes far beyond the depth that most computing scientists or software developers would care to know.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje:  Despite his fame and reputation for books such as The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, I’d never read one of Michael Ondaatje’s books.  Luckily, one of my aunt’s gave me a copy of The Cat’s Table for my birthday last week and so I finally had the pleasure of reading one of his works.  The writing in The Cat’s Table is impeccable.  Ondaatje’s writing is simultaneously simple and vivid, concise yet colourful.  As each page quickly went by I was enthralled by his language and by how well he conveys the joys and amazement of a child coming of age.  Unfortunately, the plot itself is good, but not great, and this will likely lead to this book not being as remembered in the future compared as his other works (I’m assuming).  Nonetheless, The Cat’s Table is a quick, very enjoyable, and extremely well written read.

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Summer Reading

Here are some pocket reviews of a few other books I’ve read in the past few months:

Shantaram: Of all the books I’ve read this year, Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram stands out far above the others, and as I read it a few months ago, I’m shocked to notice that I haven’t mentioned it before.  A truly remarkable book in all regards, it is a semi-autobiographical novel of Lin, a young Australian convict and former drug addict who flees to India and is forced to build a new life in Bombay.  Starting in the slums, and rising through the criminal underworld, Lin is a character of extraordinary depth, and Roberts is a writer with extraordinary insight and pathos.  Almost all of the characters are unforgettable, and the detailed description of the motivation and sensation of heroin abuse about 80% of the way through the novel is among the most harrowing pieces of writing I’ve ever read.  Highly recommended.

The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings:  I’ve read a few of Bart Ehrman’s popular nonfiction books in the past, and decided to try and gain a deeper knowledge of the early evolution of Christianity by reading through his introductory textbook on the early Christian writings.  If you’re interested in the subject, this is an excellent book to read through.  The writing is clear and engaging throughout despite its textbook nature.  Reading this wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but I found it to be both entertaining and eye opening.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High:  Business / Life-Skills books like this are really hit and miss, and the vast majority really don’t have much more to say than to find 200 pages of ways to re-state the book’s title.  Fortunately, this book rises above that level.  It is a quick read, and although there are few meaningless flow charts in it, I generally found it enjoyable and worthwhile.  The conversation tools presented are well thought out and elucidated, and it’s clear that the authors spent a lot of time thinking about the essence of making an effective conversation and thinking about how to present their thoughts.  Not an absolute must read, but absolutely worthwhile for some food for thought.

Great Expectations:  I’ve loaded a few more Dickens novels onto my Kindle lately, and by chance the first of these that I happened to open was Great Expectations.  Great Expectations is one of his more famous novels, although critical opinions of it greatly vary.  Personally, I found it to be decent, but inferior to some of the other Dickens novels I’ve read, such as A Tale of Two Cities.  For whatever reason, I just didn’t find Pip to be a very engaging protagonist.  So often he was too dense to understand what was plain in front of him, and similarly too many of the other characters failed to gain my sympathy.  Still, this is a Dickens novel and even a mediocre novel of his is better than most other novels out there.  Like his other novels, Great Expectations features a long and deeply wound plot, but unlike his other novels that I’ve read, for much of the novel, I simply failed to care strongly about how things wound up.  Decent, but not great.

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Spring Reading

During our vacation in Italy and Germany, and a long weekend at the Eskelinens’ place on Anderson Lake I had the opportunity to read a number of books, of various degrees of quality.  A few pocket reviews:

The White Spider, by Heinrich Harrer: I picked this up in an Interlaken bookshop for something to read on the last days of our European vacation, and it was for the most part a very enjoyable read.  Its primary attraction for most people will be its account of the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger (Harrer was a member of the first ascent party, also the author of Seven Years in Tibet), and his account is excellent.  The remainder of the book consists of reports and analysis of earlier and later attempts on the Eiger’s north face, and although perhaps a bit too much time is spent on disputes that seem inconsequential in retrospect, the book remains gripping throughout, and you’ll walk away with great respect for the men who subject themselves to such a dangerous persuit.  3/5.

The Litigators, by John Grisham:  Another book picked up in Interlaken to pass the time on the train to Frankfurt, the Litigators was thoroughly mediocre.  I don’t know if Grisham’s ability to come up with a good story has diminished over time or if I’ve simply read enough of his books that they all feel the same, but nothing about the book stood out.  It was a quick read, and helped pass the time, but unless you also have a long train ride to sit through, there isn’t much reason to read this book. 2/5.

The Associate, by John Grisham:  Up at Anderson Lake I picked up yet another Grisham book from the shelf, and like the Litigators, it was a quick read, but didn’t stand out at all.  Shockingly, some of the same phrases from the Litigators turned up in this book too, such as the “Rocket Docket”.  Read it if you have a few hours to pass and don’t want to have to think.  2/5.

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis:  I read Davis’ detailed telling of Mallory’s expeditions to Everest in the week or so prior to our Italy vacation, and it is a fantastic book.  He delves deep into the men of each expedition, as well as into the hardships and triumphs they endured.  It won’t ever be known for certain whether Mallory succeeded in summiting Everest (Davis believes that he did not), but that question misses the point of this book, which is to look at the big picture around the expeditions and then to look at how the particulars of the men involved fit into that image.  To this point, Davis succeeds without any doubt.  5/5.

The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna – The World’s Deadliest Peak, by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts: Ed Viesturs is the only American to have summited all of the world’s fourteen 8000m peaks, and The Will to Climb is his third book.  Whereas his first book featured his personal accounts of climbing all of the 8000m peaks, and his second book focussed on climbing K2, this book combines accounts of his attempts and eventual success on Annapurna with retellings of the history of mountaineering on Annapurna.  Although much of the detail of his climb can be found in his prior work, the tales of “obsession and commitment” of the men and women who sought to climb a mountain that has claimed one life for every two that have reached summit are engaging and enlightening.  3/5.

The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy:  Working through each presidency from Eisenhower to the present, this book documents the relationships that each president has forged with his living predecessors.  As each president has found, the other members of the “President’s Club” are arguably the only people on earth who can understand their pressures and troubles, and the relationships that have developed between them have frequently been deeply personal, unobstructed by the divisions of party lines.  The detailed analysis and elucidation of their relationships presents the reader with a fascinating look into the psyche of each president, and for this, the book can be highly recommended.  4/5.

 

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I read Charles Mann‘s fantastic book 1491 a few months ago, and was greatly impressed by its description of the deep cultural diversity of the American peoples and civilizations before their first encounters with European explorers.  From this experience, I was excited to have the opportunity recently to read his follow up work, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. While not at the same level of quality as 1491, it is still an eminently worthwhile read.

The two concepts key to 1493 are the “Columbian Exchange” (the extensive worldwide trade networks that quickly grew following the discovery of the New World) and the “Homogenocene” (the era of history in which humanity has connected the biological world).  Through a series of in-depth looks into examples of these concepts, from how Spanish silver became the currency of the Chinese economy, to how the importation of potatoes from South America to Europe helped end centuries of malnutrition among Europe’s peasants, Mann uncovers interesting insights into how rapidly the discovery of the new world affected humanity around the world.

Unfortunately for Mann there are so many examples of the Columbian Exchange possible that it is impossible to cover them all.  In the end, I was left feeling like I’d learned about a number of interesting and insightful examples of the exchange but didn’t feel like I’d learned much that substantially deepened either my understanding of the modern world or of humanity itself.  It is in this way that 1493 fails to live up to the standard of 1491.  In no way does that imply that this isn’t a book worth reading.  It simply means that this book can only be considered interesting rather than essential.

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