Book Reviews

Scott Allen’s 2013 Reading List

This past year was like a rebirth for me. Finally after 10 years of cocooning I was out in the world, again. I think my 6 (or so) months living in near isolation in Kiev (yes, that’s Kiev, Ukraine) put the final touches on my 10,000 hours as a–whatever I am. My time living on the fringes of Russia helped me realize what I want, don’t want and, strangely, what I need–more homemade vodka is definitely on the list of needs. It was a strangely transformative year. Given all the travel, the number of books I consumed reached an all-time high. So here it is. Scott’s 2013 reading list. If you want to see my other reading lists click Book Reviews in the top navigation.

The Art of Explanation
Lee LeFever
Non-Fiction / Reference

Hopefully you’ve heard of Common Craft. These guys are the creators of some of the best explainer videos I’ve ever seen. It’s no wonder their look and feel has fully permeated television and online. Mr. LeFever’s gift with his videos is that he is able to break down complex concepts, and make those concepts readily consumable by everyday people. How do you explain Credit Card Responsibility? or Net Safety? Or Twitter? In this book LeFever gets into the nitty gritty of how to break concepts down, feel out your audience, and push information back in such a way that those interested have that “ah ha”, lightbulb spark of comprehension. When I tried to hire CommonCraft to do a video for one of my customers, they were unavailable–too busy. It’s no wonder. Thankfully Mr. LeFever found the time to write such an excellent book. I sent this one to my father. He had to do lectures to adults about his life in the aerospace business. Perhaps the title for this book might have been, “Explaining Stuff For Dummies.” Every day we have to explain something to someone. Reading this book will give you the tools for improving your audience’s comprehension, and help you reduce your ambiguity.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt
Non Fiction

This was one of the best books I read this year. In these pages are contained a slice of history that ties an ancient poem called On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura) into the very cabling of modern thought. Written by Lucretius (99 BC), the poem states that rather than the universe and those things living within it being just the play things to the gods, things called atoms make up the substance that is all around us; the very same substance that connects us all. He continues to say, humans are not at the center of the universe. There is no master plan. What SWERVE is about is in part this poem. It’s also about the book collector that re-discovered the poem January 1417, in a German monastery, and brought it back into the light. The finding of this poem fueled in part, the Renaissance–the trust that science can explain the world, not the whims of the gods. Ever since this poem was rediscovered it has been met with a mixture of awe, fear and outright contempt. A cab driver turned me on to this book. I wish I had tipped this guy more. This book is a gift.

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur — How to Publish a Book
Guy Kawasaki, Shawn Welch
Non Fiction / Reference

Guy Kawaskaki is the best selling author of Enchantment, the Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions, which in and of itself is an excellent book too. When a top selling author writes a book on how to get published, I’m going to buy it. Especially when the author is well known to be as tech, social and marketing savvy as Mr. Kawasaki. This book is like a how-to manual. I’ve been happy to give this to a number of my clients.

Flawless Execution: Use the Techniques and Systems of American’s Fighter Pilots to Perform at Your Peak and Win Battles in the Business World.
James Murphy
Non Fiction

If you’re leading a team and need a plan of attack, this is the book you need to read. In war being second rate often means you’re dead. We don’t often experience such dire straights in business, but that’s no excuse for being second rate. The main focus of this book is to “accelerate the evolution of a company into a higher species.” Sharing the same notion of quality with your team, and keeping everyone on the same page are the challenges we all face in one way or another. Anyone that has outsourced to companies in India will understand this.

How to Make Love All Night (and Drive Your Woman Wild: Male Multiple Orgasm and Other Secrets for Prolonged Lovemaking.
Barbara Keesling PhD

I’m so going to get shit for admitting I read this. That’s fine. Laugh if you want. But let me tell you…I’ve personally battle tested the information in this book, and it works. Seriously, what more do I have to say than “male multiple orgasm.” Is it possible? Yes. Men… buy this book. I’m not joking. Screw the Viagra. This book will absolutely improve your sex life. I tried the blue pill. It only made my tongue swell. Sure Viagra gets you physically able to have sex, but it does nothing for your mental game. Look, if you need a pill to get you into the mood, find a new partner, drink less, smoke less pot, or stop being such a dick. You want to put the HA back in your hammer? Run, don’t walk, and get this book. The little exercises you can WITH your partner are worth the price of admission.) LOL.. how’s that for a testimonial.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Non-Fiction / Reference

Amazon advertised this book on my Kindle, and I was very thankful they did. The whole book is like a daily affirmation on how to kick ass. I got a slight twinge of a communist thing going on within these pages, but the Ian Rand in me pushed that right out. Bottom line: own your shit. The cover shows a hatchet. How appropriate.

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within
Alan Watt
Non-Fiction / Reference

Those that know me, know that I always have a novel cooking on my desktop. I don’t mean, reading. I mean, writing. The issue with writing a novel is that you get into the brambles and hares and find yourself completely unsure how to tie it all back together. (or, cough, cough, finish the bloody thing.) Other than the Save The Cat series, the 90-Day Novel is probably one of the best keys to unlocking your novel and helping you get it down on paper. Can you write your novel in 90 days? After 4 years of futzing around with mine, I finally got it all down in 90 days. Alan Watt… I love you.

The 90-Day Rewrite The Process of Revision
Alan Watt
Non-Fiction / Reference

This is a very important follow up to the 90-day Novel. Yes, you’ve gotten the monster down on paper. But before you can fling him out to the world you need to hunker down and rewrite it. They say that writing is the process of rewriting. I agree. However, on novel scale rewriting can be akin to a slow death by a thousand cuts. How do you refine your text without destroying the spirt, or the spontaneity that you initially infused into it? Alan Watt shows the way. The Kindle version of this book seemed to have a lot of formatting errors. Errors mattered little given the gems of advice flowing out of this book. If you’re writing a novel, get both the 90-Day Novel, and the 90-Day Rewrite. Your loved ones will be so very thankful for the return of your sanity.

A Brief History of Time
Stephen Hawking

I was totally intimidated about reading this book for the longest time. How could I possibly grock a book written by one of the most brilliant physicist of our time. Even wheel chair bound, this is the guy that held the same seat Isaac Newton did at the University of Cambridge, England. Granted, prior to actually reading this book, I boned up on my physics and theoretical physics. However, what I discovered was I could have started my journey right here, in this book. A brief History of Time is an excellent primmer on where we are today, and how we got here. It covers Newton, Einstein and the quirky, quarky world of the quantum we find ourselves groping to understand today. While “The universe is governed by a set of rational laws that we can discover and understand,” what blows me away is that there is STILL no Unified Theory. We get the really, really big of Newton and Einstein. We’re getting better at understanding the really, really small of the subatomic. But no one theory of physics ties them both together! Deal with that.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Edgar Allan Poe

Dubbed the first published detective story, I have to admit this short story is one of the few things by Poe I could actually read. In most everything else, his language is so arcane that it’s tough to digest. Not so in this book. In this piece you are taken into a murder mystery before there was such a thing as forensics, or CSI. The main character’s power of observation matched to the bizarreness of the murder scene left me feeling like these were the seeds for Doyle’s Holmes and Watson characters, which were started 46 years after Murders, written in 1841. This is a short, fast read that’s thoroughly enjoyable and, of course, macabre. How’d that body get stuffed up into the fireplace?

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand
Non Fiction

One of my favorite reads from this year. The book covers the story of track star Louis Zamperini, who was shot down, and became a prisoner of war in the Pacific during World War II. This book is wonderfully written, and its graphic descriptions of Japanese treatment of Allied POWs, especially under the sadistic hand of the one called “The Bird” will get your bile boiling. The Japanese were particularly brutal to their captives. Follow Louis from being the youngest qualifier for the US Olympic Team, through getting shot down, life adrift at sea, and then his brutal incarceration until the war’s end. You think a little traffic and a shitty boss are bad? See what bad is really like with Mr. Zamperini. He was truly unbreakable.
The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter
Non Fiction

I loved this book so much I gave it to my father for Christmas. It’s being released as a movie, which was how I found out about it in the first place. If you’ve even been to Europe, you have to wonder how did the monuments, (i.e., Gericault’s Wreck of the Medusa, and the Winged Victory) survive the German invasions, allied bombardments, and the ravages of war? We’ve heard what a hard-on Hitler had for art–matched only by Napoleon’s. This book delivers a much deeper version of just how committed the Reich was to capturing the world’s art, and how a small group of dedicated soldiers (oddballs?) were in thwarting him. Could one of Hitler’s primary motivations been the absorption of the world’s treasures? Oui.

A Wrinkle in Time
Madeline L’Engle

I can see why this book is on so many recommended reading lists for kids. It actually touches on a number of issues among them being the Theory of Relativity and the philosophies of the ancient Greeks. There is this strange “Charlie going to Candy Mountain” thing that happens in this book, meshed with a thick, saccharin slice of Christian speak. However, the book is still a delight to read. Sort of in the Harry Potter vein of group of kids getting in trouble and working their way back. The characters are interesting, and if I were going to read a book to a kid, this would be one of my picks. Lots of little, intellectual threads flow off. Feed this to a curious mind, and see where the questions lead.

Galileo: A Life
James Reston
Non Fiction

Yes, we’ve all read the Cliffs Notes about Galileo, but when was the last time you got a chance to really get inside the life, the politics, and the shit-storm stirred up by this man’s curiosity? Oh, it’s funny today as we sit watching Angels and Demons, but the heart this book clearly illustrates how desperately truth had to fight against politicized, entrenched, anti-intellectual religion. Galileo’s own quote “Convincing the reasonable is easy. Convincing idiots takes more work,” sums up how tenacious ignorance can be. Oh, and just for the record, Galileo did NOT invent the telescope; perfected it, yes. Invented it. Nope. The dutch get the credit for that. A little dry, but if you’re wanting to get into the heart of Sidereus Nuncius, (the Starry Messenger) this is the book for you.

On The Road
jack Kerouac

You’ve likely heard of this book before. This is the book that kicked off the whole “beat generation.” So amazing to read this book today and dig on the power it had on 50’s and 60’s society. Read this with an open mind. It’s a lot nicer than the Naked Lunch, heroine-addled Burroughs book, which makes you want to puke. This is totally different. In fact, you can actually BE on a road trip and play this on the car stereo w/out worrying about super violating your passengers’ sensibilities. I saw on Netflix that this was out as a movie. Haven’t seen it yet. Start with the book. Get to the root of a generations that changed the nation.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams

I always placed this book in the super dorky, Dr. Demento crowd of freaks that I never really wanted to be a part of. I mean, sure, I was the dork-of-one that got his pizza spit on by Troy Phillips, yea you heard me Troy…but the crew that was into this, at least I thought they were, beyond me in their embracing of dorkville. Reaching 44 I realize that these were my peeps. I was just too much of a dick to realize it. I read Hitchhikers as audio. I nearly crashed by bicycle at least 3 times listing to it. A very freekin’ funny story. I know I’m a late bloomer to the whole Douglass Adams thing. We all owe a world of thanks to this literary and comic nut job. If you haven’t read this book, break a seal, prepare for invasion, poor yourself a sugary cup of absinthe, and let your inner dork roam wild. I still haven’t fully recovered.

Weird Life: The Search for Life That Is Very, Very Different from Our Own
David Toomey
Non Fiction

What is the definition of life? Before I read this book, I hadn’t really thought to pin down the answer to this question. The basic idea is that carbon and water form life. But Toomey reveals a hidden universe of lifeforms “Extremophiles” that don’t follow the standard rules of life. From microbes living in the nuclear water of Chernoble, to the bacteria converting sulfur into food at the volcanic vents. Then he goes on to talk about Weird life; life in the mulitverse, which theoretically is possible. “The fact is that no one knows exactly the number of species that reside on our planet at present. But a conservative guess is 3.6 million.” WFT? Really? Some estimates are as high as 100 billion. That diversity in number, they very fact there is a question about this number seems, to me, quite mind blowing. Here is a glance into the Encyclopedia of Life.

The Footprints of God
Greg Iles

The notion of being able to port your consciousness into a computer, was discussed at length in Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near”. Footprints takes that notion and brings it to life in a bit of fiction that’s tremendously readable, and technically accurate. When I was first told about this book, I thought it was going to be some religious flibbertigibbet about seashores, footprints and sand. I was wrong. However, when you consider the possibility of being able to upload your consciousness into the body of a machine, real questions about the soul, god and the nature of man surface quickly. What sort of new opportunity for good (or evil) will emerge when man is finally able to separate his consciousness from his human form? Is that even possible? Theoretically, we have to allow that it is possible. What happens when the power of human intellect combines with the massively parallel of machine? Books like this experiment with those ideas in tantalizing, and sometimes frightening ways. Good tech fiction. Nice read for the beach.

A Beautiful Mind
Sylvia Nasar

The movie does no justice to this book. In fact, I hated the movie thinking this John Nash guy was just some sort of crackpot that invented a world inside his head. So not true. the Nobel Prize winning John Nash had an amazing gift, which he brought to a world known as Game Theory. When you read this book, you not only get to experience this man’s amazing (and painful) life, but you also get to elevate your understanding of some of the most esoteric math principles I’ve ever encountered. How abou the notion that when two people come together to make a bargain, the outcome can be extrapolated mathematically. Sounds crazy? Look up Nash Equilibrium. Nash was a ground breaker. If you are interested in economics, game theory, or “the forces that govern chance inside complex systems, this book ought to whet your whistle. If you’ve seen War Games, and remember what the WOPR wrought, you’re already a little familiar with what Nash was all about. Not a healthy mind, but a beautiful one, no less.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Charles C. Mann

Howard Zinnn, eat your heart out. The author of A People’s History of the United States should find this to be an interesting romp through a native’s people destruction by an invading force. All you bleeding-heart sorry saps need to get your heads on straight. This is how it was. This is how it will always be. Scarcity drives economy, war, violence and genocide. There is no getting around that. Europeans showed up in the new world and their diseases destroyed the indigenous populations. I suffer no white guilt about that. I can do that and still have a non-Disneyfied understanding of the conquest. tTere were people here before Europeans showed up and started building Best Buys. The New World provided a foothold for those suffering in Europe. Those who were here before succumbed to a fact of history: less advanced societies are devoured by more advanced societies. Them’s the breaks, Tonto.

Chaos: Making a New Science
James Gleick

The science of chaos, how nature flows, the mathematics of turbulence, fractal geometry is a field of study that has brought those separated by their specialization in physicists, biology, and mathematicians together because of the “universal behavior of complexity.” A butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park and the weather changes in San Diego. Wasn’t that Malcom’s quote in Jurassic Park? Put the booze away, and be prepared to get your gray matter on. This is not a book for the faint of heart. However, it’s endlessly fascinating. You will need to keep ALL your synapse firing to get through this one. Don’t be alarmed as you get ass deep in what some say is 20th century’s third great revolution. What were the other two? relativity and quantum mechanics.

Art of War
Niccolo Machiavelli

The only book published during Machiavelli’s lifetime, this piece draws from key military strategists such as Cesare Borgia, Cyrus the Great, Phillip of Macedon, and Tullus Hostilius in a way that isn’t just a compendium of military thought, but an analysis of what works and what doesn’t. I’m always a little annoyed at the “conversational” (Socratic) way books like this are written. (i.e., three men are in a garden debating the virtues of war, standing armies and militia.) But once you settle in and get used to it, it can work. The audio is a little easier to listen to than reading the book, though I purchased both so I could take Kindle notes. Often times we evoke the Machiavelli name in business when pointing to a boss or a co-worker that’s a real ass hat. The more of Machiavelli I read, the less I invoke his name at work. Machiavelli was noted both for his military work as well as his philosophical work. He lived during a very dangerous time. No manager’s, writer’s, or hopeful dreamer’s bookshelf is complete without a dose of Machiavelli.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
Richard P. Feynman

Another one of my favorite reads from this year. If you haven’t heard of Fynman, please allow me to introduce you to the the man that is like the Mr. Rogers of Physics. This is a collection of essays by the famed theoretical physicist. These essays are immensely engaging, and include pieces on “What is Science” as well as his “Minority Report”, which was the report he gave on the Shuttle Challenger inquiry and his findings that it was the O Rings that failed. If you’re an educator, or just immensely curious about the world, get this book.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Annalee Newitz

Over the history of the planet earth, some 76% to 95% of all species have, here and there, been wiped out. The dinosaurs bit it 65 million years ago. 185 million years before that there was another extinction event that scientists call the Great Dying. In all there have been 5 mass extinctions caused by ice ages, invasive species, Gamma Ray Bursts from space, and asteroids. That’s not to mention the bloody swaths of human lives wiped out through famine, war, fire, natural disaster and douche-bag politics. Whether it comes from above, below or within, the natural course of things is that there will be another extinction event, a 6th Extinction. This is not necessarily a prepper’s guide to surviving the end of the world. But the table of contents alone gives you a peek into the goldmine of information found inside: from the “History of Mass Extinctions,” to “Lessons from Survivors” to “How to Build a Death-Proof City.” It’s a fascinating, all be it, at times disturbing bit of writing. This is the book that spurred me on to becoming so gung ho about pushing for off-earth settlements. We can’t rely on just this one rock to save us. We gotta scatter, adapt and remember.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War
Max Brooks

Undoubtly you heard about this over-budget movie produced by Brad Pitt. While I really enjoyed the movie, I have to say the book was far, far better. Yes. It’s about zombies. Yes, I recognize how fucking stupid it is to talk about zombies. It’s like talking about real vampires. However, what might interest you is that Mr. Brooks, Mel Brooks’ son, has been invited to give lectures at the highest levels of government as a result of this book. Why would that be? Is it because the government really is working on some super plague that might break free from the Hive and infest us with Walking Dead? (Well, if that brings Milla Jovovich to my front door, so be it.) Strangely, this piece works because it is so real. Zombies aside, what happens when any number of global killers or pandemics burn through the fabric holding society together? How prepared can any nation be in the face of absolute destruction? The movie focused on one (maybe two) vignettes from the book. The book gets more detailed (and very realistic) about what individuals, groups and governments might do in the face of the zombie apocalypse. I will say that the movie did a fabulous job of depicting the fearsomeness of the zombies as they hoarded their speeding piles over the walls of Jerusalem. Zombie fans and doomsday Preppers alike, add this to your survival bookshelf.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde

This is a disturbing work. But it’s written so beautifully that you can’t help but keep reading it, even though you’re peering through half-parted fingers. So far Picture is the only piece from Oscar Wilde I’ve read. I remain concerned that a beautiful, Scottsdale artist named Atalanta recommended this book to me as a “must read” within minutes of our meeting. For I must say, of whom did I remind her? Am I the man in the portrait? Am I the artist that pained it? This is a spooky story about the capriciousness of man’s morality, especially when he’s faced with a new an absolute power. The language of this piece has all the Downton Abbey-ness to it that lovers of the Victorian era crave. This book in an amazing evaluation of what makes life, beauty, honor, kindess and evil. One of the few books on my list that I greatly insist everyone reads. My version is scrawled with dozens of notes. If the world is ending, be sure to grab this book.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m combining two books into this one review. The BBC has a show called Sherlock. Robert Downy Jr. did Sherlock Holmes. What both of these programs have in common is they do Holmes right. OMG, Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes? He only topped it by being Kahn. Anyway… Forget whatever you’ve seen in those terrible 60’s and 70’s hyper theatrical attempts to capture the Homes character. That was all crap. We had to get a better understanding of the individual that’s driven more by Aspergers than by the presumption of proper manners. What astounds me is that reading the original Doyle texts reveals that he knew more about creating a character that operates like House as we have today. This is the genius of the Sherlock stories. If you like the new show, or the movie, or even House, I believe you’ll find a good home to curl up with on those rainy afternoons when television just won’t do. Btw, did you know that ACD was overwhelmed with hate mail when he “killed” Holmes? Now how delicious is that?

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