Book Reviews

Scott’s Last Minute Guide to Books – My Favorite Reads From 2012

I’m boring. My favorite things to give as gifts, aside from $1 lottery tickets, are books. Yea, that’s right. I said it. What sort of doofus gives people books for Christmas? This doofus. So shoot me.

A few years ago through Audible and Kindle my consumption of books was radically increased. I started keeping lists of the books I read so that I could have ready access to potential gifts for friends a family. Those lists have evolved into blog posts. Here is what I’ve written in the past:

Click here for my list from 2010.

Click here for my list from 2011.

Below, is what I finished reading in 2012. This is the first year I’ve been able to publish this this before Christmas. Yay!

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
by Charles J. Shields
I got this book at Christmas last year from my sister. Yes, an actual, physical book with real paper pages and all. I got half way through and couldn’t put it down. So then I purchased it on the Kindle. You want to know more about Vonnegut? This book delivers. It’s a fun romp through the life of one of America’s most famous authors. Tortured soul that he was. Personally I found the story about Vonnegut more interesting than most of his fiction. However, if you’re a writer, or want to be a writer, this book will give you hope. Or, it might make you want to kill yourself. Either way, sharing in the life experiences of this nut is well worth your time.

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
By Robert Coram
The other day someone asked me what my favorite book of 2012 was. I’d have to say Boyd is definitely up there. This is a book that details the professional life of Colonel John Richard Boyd, a died-in-the-wool Air Force maverick who turned everything and everyone he met inside out. Some loved him and attached themselves to his vision. Others hated him. But why do we care about this guy? The premise of this book is that Colonel Boyd was responsible for re-writing the rules of modern air combat  (aka jet fighting) and aircraft design to the extent that his “Acolytes” consider his work as important to warfare as Sun Tsu! Now those are some mighty big slippers to fill. Decide for yourself. This is a great read. But you military families or families that have a military history will recognize some of the challenges that come with loving those whose first love is their love to the service. This is also a great story about discovering what you’re good at and being brave enough to follow that path no matter what obstacles are thrown in your way. A great read my dad turned me onto.

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose
By Tony Hsieh
If you’ve ever purchased shoes from Zappos, or you’ve heard of Zappo’s unique approach to customer service, you need to check out this book. Written by one of the guys that bankrolled the company at a time when Zappos was just barely getting off the ground. This book walks you through the beginning as the company struggles to find itself. In these pages we get to see a company that has placed the customer (both internal and external customers) at the front of the product that it delivers. If you’re going to talk the talk of great customer service, then this is the book to help you walk the walk. A must read for anyone in business.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
By Ben Macintyre
Warning: reading this book will turn you into a serious paranoid–and that’s what I liked about it. I told myself that I was going to take a break from WWII books in 2012 since enduring William L. Shirer’s 3rd Reich epic (see below). But that’s just not how 2012 turned out for me.  Double Cross is a detailed account about the network of double cross spies that were responsible in large part for creating some of the biggest deceptions of the Germans during WWII. Leave it to the Brits to be so fricken cunning. Basically, take a person that has been hired by the Germans to spy on the British and turn them. Then have them feed the Nazis a healthy diet of false and real information designed to keep them from really knowing what the truth is. Totally amazing. Some of these agents were so important to the Germans that they were awarded the Iron Cross. That is to say that the Germans though the information that they were being given was so useful that they rewarded some of these spies for their work. Now that’s irony! Pigeon lovers will find something special just for you. For the birders out there I could not help but be reminded of the movie called Valiant.  The author dedicates a bit of space to the topic of carrier pigeons and the scenarios actually put into action to protect against and thwart German carrier pigeons. This is a fun read.  Takes a little bit of effort to keep all the names and code names straight in your head. James Bond eat your heart out.

Earth Under Fire: Humanity’s Survival of the Ice Age
By LaViolette, Paul A., Ph.D.
Holy freak show Batman. I’ll tell you what I’m reminded of when I read this: Battlestar Galactica. Why? Because I think the writers of the new BSG series read this paper. Why? The notion that some super being placed that zodiac in our skies as a celestial warning of a coming galactic calamity is just too similar to what happens in the new series of Battle Star. Aren’t they following some soft of celestial road markers to find earth in BSG? Yes. I believe they are. Anyway, you uber geeks out there will get a kick out of this paper. The detail this guy goes into supporting his thesis will blow your mind. I’m totally borrowing some of this for my sci fi. Hell, Number 6 can’t have all the fun.

Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness
By Frank Brady
I’ve had this ongoing love affair with the idea of chess even though I don’t play. I know that sounds totally hypocritical  but there it is. The notion that a nation’s pride can be wrapped so completely up in the intellectual brinksmanship found in chess astounds me. While this book focuses on the amazing (and unfortunate) life of Bobby Fischer it also demonstrates the paranoia that permeated the US and the USSR during the cold war. Can you blame Bobby for feeling like men in black suits are always watching him? After reading this book you see it’s no wonder he went a bit funny. When your brain is a chessboard and your mind is filled with every major chess move from every chess master that had ever played, you’re going to be a little weird. It’s an unfortunate tale. Hard to put down. Break out the chess board and get ready to be absorbed into a world few mortals will ever experience.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
I simply loved the writing in this book. There was something so touching and connected that sets this piece off in my list of favorites. There is a feeling here. It’s hard to describe. But the book works its way into you so strongly that it becomes a part of you.  This is literature that breaks some rules and creates some new ones. Not a straight forward read. You might have to take a second look at how the narrative and some of the character backgrounds are woven together. But when you come out the other end, it  just feels really good. Those of you who think this book (and likewise the movie) are all about 911, please reconsider. 911 is just the backdrop. This is a book about the purest most persistent of human conditions: Love. It’s just a wonderful read. By the way, not sure what they put in the water at the Foer house. This guy’s younger brother wrote the amazing Moon Walking with Einstein a book I reviewed in last year’s list…and one that has totally (and positively) impacted my ability to use visualization for remembering.

Fontains of Paradise
By Arthur C. Clark
I’ve spent the last year (cough, 2 years) writing my next novel that includes a space elevator. I figured I might as well go to the king of sci fi to see what he had to say about this fantasitcal and highly unlikely method for moving people and cargo in and out of space. As it turns out, the idea is less impossible today than it was when Clarke wrote the book in 1979. A lot has changed in the world since then. I have to say, and I understand and appreciate “historic” science fiction, but sometimes I just can’t stomach it. It’s like appreciating old movies, but even some of those classics are just so terrible: Bad sets, bad acting, bad everything. I know I’m not supposed to besmirch the glory of Gone with the Wind, but jesus, I wish someone would redo that film already. I have the same reaction to old science fiction. What was the deal with making everything so mystical? I am hungry for some new science fiction, and I’m ready to put the classics on the shelf for a nice trip down amnesia lane. I appreciate the era in which Fountains of Paradise was written and how forward thinking it was. And it’s a good book. But I’m on the lookout for some modern sci fi.

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Jules Verne
Now this is a great book. I know I just spent the review railing on 1970’s era science fiction, but this is an older, less mystical romp through the earth’s underbelly–as totally unscientific and impossible as it is. Reads fast. It’s a lot of fun. Written in 1871 this is filled with good old fashioned Brittish stiff-lip, imperial austerity. When you read Verne you see his influence bubbling up all around you. I know you’ve heard of this book. But actually sitting down and reading it is a real treat. You’ll be surprised how many assumptions you have about this book, which are formed by new versions of the story being told by others. Get back to the roots with the original article.

Kill Decision
by Daniel Suarez
I’m discovering for myself a genre of tech thriller by authors that fully grasp technology. How sick are you of reading (or watching) anything that has technology in it that’s written by the technically ignorant? I’m not technically ignorant and I don’t want my fiction to be technically ignorant. Thank you Mr. Suarez for giving it to me hard and fast. Without apology. The first two authors that really did the tech thing right for me were Tom Clancy and a Michael Crichton. But now Daniel Suarez takes the baton as my favorite tech author. This is a writer that’s unapologetic about weaving story around solid tech. He doesn’t need to apologize for writing about stuff that’s over a lot of people’s head, because he knows who his audience is: ME! Stories are tight, and get rolling right from the beginning. Check out Deamon and Freedom by the same author. You’ll get the bug just like I did. Mr. Suarez, I’ll read anything you write. I’m so totally jealous! 😉

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
By Ben Macintyre
I really got stuck in WWII this year. Strangely enough I had no idea that the guy that wrote Double Cross wrote this book. How stupid of me not to recognize that. What a maroon I can be some times. It’s like yesterday I got on my flight home and didn’t even realize that I was in first class until I got to my seat. But I digress. This book is totally awesome. Again, we see that absolute brilliance with wich the British played their cards as they were the last line of defense against Hitler. How close history was to going the other way. Fortunately for U.S. the roots of James Bond were planted in reality. If you like 007 and want to get into some of the stories that fueled that fiction, read this book. Yes, sometimes reality is stranger (and more exciting) than fiction. How much effort has to go into a deception that involves a dead body? This book delivers.

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
by Dr. Michio Kaku
Back in 2010 I gushed over Physics of the Impossible by the same author. Now I’m gushing over Physics of the Future. What do you get when you mix a real theoretical physicists with speculation about future tech? Physics of the Future. Almost impossible to put this book down. This is a great gift for those technically inclined still in school who are seeking some guidance on what to do with their lives. Strangely, while reading this, I found myself lifted out of what was happening to and around me during the day and placed in this sort of hyperbolic reality. The TV blew up? Oh shit, well, it doesn’t matter. The future TV is going to be so much cooler. We need a new filter for the refigerator? Oh that’s no problem, in the future we’ll be able to download plans for that filter and print one out. Reading a lot of future tech can be great for your attitude, but it can drive those around you nuts while they wait for your feet to get back down to the earth. Lots of stimulating notions in here to get your synapses percolating. For instance, if scarcity can be eliminated, doesn’t that then end war?

Red Moon Rising:Sputnik and the Hidden Rivalries that Ignited the Space Age
by Matthew Brzezinski
Definitely my favorite book of the year next to Boyd (see above). I’m too young to know first hand about the impact of Sputnik but I know enough about it to know that Russia’s launch bascially turned the United States inside out with fear and jealously. I loved this book. Not only because I grew up with a father that was part of the US response to Sputnik, but because to read what the other side thought about Sputnik, namely the Russian side of the story, it’s almost too good for words. If you have any interest in the space race, get this book. You won’t be able to put it down. Strangely topical in today’s world as North Korea pushes ahead in their own space program.

The Art of Deception: Controlling the Human Element of Security
By Kevin Mitnick
If you run a company, manage IT or have anything to do with users, data or computers, you have to read this book. Written by a notorious hacker this book is the best thing I’ve ever read describing how your company can be compromised by a targeted attack. Not a technical run down of firewalls and arcane hacking techniques, this is a collection of real attacks that were engineered against the people, and data of real companies. This is about how social engineers are tricking people into coughing up passwords, source code and product plans every day. Don’t have a security policy in place at your company? Read this book. It provides the blueprint for developing one. The really important message in this book is that technology alone will not stop the attacks. The irony is that strong technology might actually undermine your security if your people and vendors are not constantly educated about what social engineers (aka con men) are able to do. If your life is digital or you are responsible for a company whose lifeblod is binary, you owe it to yourself (and the rest of us) to read this book. I hope it scares the shit out of you. It sure woke me up.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
By William L. Shirer
You might notice that this same book appears on my 2011 list as well. To be honest this thing is 72 hours of audio. I mentioned in 2011 that if you listened to this  (or read it) straight through, you’d lose your mind. I had to take a break. But I finished the book (strangely while I was on my way to Germany for Carnival). There are images in this book that I just can’t get out of my head. Murderous. Horrendous. Unbelievable. A well crafted account about a despicable time in the history of humanity. It’s an important piece to read. When brutality reigns, the stupid rule.

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
By Ray Kurzweil
If you have any interest in what the future will look like, you have to read this book. Written by one of the few people who has been fairly accurate in his predictions of how technology will evolve, this book gives you a snapshot into a plausible future of mankind. More to the point, this book describes in detail how human life will be (can be) augmented with breakthroughs in nano technology, and the point when machine processing is as powerful as human thinking. What will happen to our world when we transcend the computational power of a bug (where we are today) to the computational powerhouse that is the human mind? What will happen when human thinking can be enhanced with the efficiencies of non-biological processing? This is one of the few books I purchased on Audible as well as from Amazon as a physical book. It’s like a road map to future tech. But, when you read this, you’ll also pick up that you’re experiencing the future from a philosophical standpoint as well. I can see this book being the basis of advanced study in both tech and (dare I say) religion? I know. I used the “R” word. But if it’s possible for our minds to be ported into a computer, do we live forever? Doesn’t that then speak to the heart of existence? What happens to the notion of heaven, if people can live forever through technology?

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
By Ryan Holiday
This is another book that should put the fear of god in you. One of my clients was kind enough to give this book to me. I think she was afraid that I was one of these “manipulator” types. I’m not. I might put a spin on a story, but I don’t manipulate the truth or the customer by pushing out lies. However, that’s just me. This book should be required reading for every person of voting age. The manipulation of people and the press is nothing new. But today, there are new ways to do it; namely blogs and social media. If you feed bullshit into a blog, and that blog is the trusted resource to say CNN or FOX, then you’re manipulating the choices people make. How malleable are facts? When are facts only opinions? When I read this book my skepticism of everything that I read was further inflamed. How many decisions do we make in our world that are based on lies? What is a lie? How do you get the information you need to be a critical thinker rather than just a lemming following pseudo news? You can drive yourself crazy just thinking about it. This was definitely one of my favorite reads of 2012. I had more to say on this topic in my article Why We Cannot Blindly Trust the New Economy of Trust.

Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History’s Greatest Speakers
by James C. Humes
Brilliant! I got a hold of this book just in time. It really saved the day for me. I was able to directly use the advice given in this book to turn a speech from bad to good. Amazing. This has to be in your library if you are doing any sort of public speaking. Even if you are talking to a couple other people, reading this book will help you get your point across without losing your audience or sounding like a dick. Chock filled with real speeches but not at all boring, this book belongs in every thinking person’s library. Snap this one up and read it. You’ll be glad you did.

Steve Jobs Biography
by Walter Isaacson
Seriously, just like everyone else on the planet, of course I read this book–though I actually finished it this year. Since discovering the Mac for myself in the late 90’s I’ve been a fan of the Steve Jobs version of Apple Computer. So when he died I was worried about the future of my favorite computing platform. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to convince people that Apple is the only company that really took computing and made it human. It’s so patently obvious to me when comparing Windows and OSX. Just the fact that when I buy a new Windows machine I have to spend 1/2 a day deleting all of the shitty 3rd party software from the computer to so the thing is useable reinforces my distain for Winblowz. Why do I care? I care because I watch people every day struggling with their computers and thinking that “it’s a computer, it’s supposed to be this way.” Bull shit. It’s a computer and it’s supposed to make you happy. That’s what Steve Jobs brought to the desktop: A humanized computer. As a custom software developer I want my software to make people happy. I take a page directly out of the Apple playbook on this front. I just wish to god more developers would do the same. Life is just too short for crappy software! By the way, the author of this book Walter Isaacson also wrote
Einstein: His Life and Universe and Benjamin Franklin: An American Life two amazing books. Mr. Isaacson, your work about these incandescent lives has been greatly influential to my own. Thank you!

The Best of Philip K. Dick
What can I say? If you’re going to write scifi, you need to read scifi. PKD’s work is some of the best weirdest shit you’re going to get your hands on. This guy was a mad genius. There is a darkness about these stories that’s difficult to shake off. Really, that’s the case with everything I’ve read from PKD. If you’ve seen Blade Runner, Total Recall or a Scanner Darkly, you’re more familiar with the fantastic and involved works by this author than you thought. Here again, we find this historic science fiction depicting the world through the bleeknes of a dystopian lens. How come the technological future was so dark for so many authors? Maybe it makes me a stupid optimist, but I see the future as a bright world, not a faceless drug-induced, government-controlled, slavery run by machines or big corporations. Reading PKD gives you a good dose of how it could be. Not exactly un-useful information and well worth your time. Crazy, brilliant and disturbed.

The Moon: Resources, Future Development and Settlement
By David Schrunk, Burton Sharpe, Bonnie L. Cooper, Madhu Thangavelu
This is a textbook about the moon and how we might colonize it. Not something you want to read while sipping cocktails on the beach. But if you’re into this topic and need a nut-and-bolts examination into what’s needed, how colonies will form, what a government might look like, what technologies and industries can exist, where the best communications spots are located and how lunar lava tubes might provide excellent natural habitats for humans, then by all means park your geek on this one. This has definitely been my go-to resource for my writing about the moon.

The Wooden Horse
By Eric Williams
This book is not about the Trojan Horse. This book is about a daring escape of British prisoners from a German Stalag in WWII. Have you ever seen Hogans Heros on TV? Watched the Great Escape? This was one of the books forming the foundations of those shows. Yes, Nazis are dumber than fuck, but the people that took advantage of them had some seriously great big balls–and smarts. This is the story of one of the largest prison breaks during the war. The details and ingenuity behind the breakout are are all surfaced for your enjoyment and wonderment. Digging an escape tunnel under an exercise horse that’s placed in the yard each day? Brilliant. Hard to believe it actually happened. Written by one of the guys that was there and partook. If you like any military history, you have to check this out. Some of it is pretty funny. I particularly like that the Völkischer Beobachter served only one use: swatting flies.

Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization
By Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright
Here we go again. Another book about business. I was lead to this one via the Zappos book about happiness mentioned above. I actually have found myself really appreciating this work. I have a significant amount of distain for books and programs that try to build teams around consensus and singing koombiya around the camp fire. Blech! I’d rather attend an AA meeting. I’m happy to say this book is quite refreshing. It gets down to brass tacks with statements like “tribal culture exists in stages, going from undermining to egocentric to history making.” Basically by understanding the different stages that individuals can reach, and how to help them move from one stage to the next you can vastly improve the outcomes of your company’s efforts. After reading this, I’m a believer. I’m applying the principles from this book into the work and people that I’m managing. I’m already seeing progress.

Zero Day
by Mark Russinovich
Oh yea baby, more geek fiction! I mentioned before how I’ve discovered for myself a genre of geek fiction that makes no bones about talking tech. This book is no exception. When does terrorism move to our computers? What does that look like? Zero Day paints the picture in a terrifyingly real way. I was flying while reading part of this book and got a chill when I thought about the idea of some worm getting inside of the computer system inside the jet cruising me across the Atlantic at Mach .832. What if? What if an attack can be launched at the same time across all the disparate computer systems on which we’re so dependent? Dams, banks, nuclear reactors and yes commercial jet aircraft. This book is a reminder to us all that ignorance of how computers function is a risk to national security. We can never completely trust computers and security policies. Humans are part of the equation and we all need to be better educated about this electronic world we inhabit. We can never let our guard down. Get a healthy dose of a reality we never want to have to live through when you read this book. For more about improving our level of awareness see my notes about The Art of Deception, above.

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