Monday, December 31, 2007

My 2007 Reading List

Books read in 2007. Book title, author, and date completed. I read 22 books in 2007, down significantly from the previous two years.

1. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman 1-2-07

Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near really blew my mind, so I decided to see what else he had to offer. He has some unconventional ideas about diet, but he backed most of it up with scientific studies. His comments about stevia as a natural sweetner intrigued me, but I found out that it isn't without controversy. Regardless, despite his claims that he has the body of a 35-year old, externally he appears his age. I suspect the internal story is pretty similar.

2. Life After Death: The Burden of Proof by Deepak Chopra 1-11-07

This was an OK book for learning just a bit about Eastern religions, but Chopra certainly doesn't meet any burden of proof. Any supernatural claim is readily accepted and hardly challenged: remote viewing, psychic abilities, ghosts, faith-healing. He was pretty careless with some scientific facts that he quoted in the book, so I just don't trust him when he starts talking about the scientific studies that demonstrated that psychic powers are real. A million dollars says they aren't.

3. Winning by Jack Welch 1-16-07

I have always been sort of fascinated with Jack Welch. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs of all time. After reading this book, it is clear that some of the things that differentiated him - his stunning candor, for instance - are just difficult for many people. Or, a person might find themselves in a job where candor is not appreciated. Reading this book I couldn't help but wonder how many other Jack Welch's there might have been out there, who just didn't rise to the top because the specific characteristics they had were not appreciated by their management.

4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann 1-25-07

This book came highly recommended, and I was not disappointed. What a paradigm-shifter. Mann details the intricate and complex societies that existed in America prior to Colombus' arrival in 1492. There were long-lasting wars with complex dynamics, and cities to rival those of Europe at that time. Mann was also good about contrasting different viewpoints on many topics, such that the reader can weigh the evidence and make up their own mind about which explanation is more likely. This book is a great companion to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse. It supports Diamond's ideas in some areas, and disagrees in others. But it was nothing if not thought-provoking.

5. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson 3-18-2007

Having previously read Neal Stephenson's books Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I was really looking forward to this one. It came highly recommended by several readers of The Oil Drum, where I am write essays on energy issues. First of all, it's almost an understatement to call this book a tour de force. It was like Tom Clancy on steroids. I didn't know that it wasn't a science fiction book until I was well into the book. It was historical fiction, and it bounced back and forth between WWII and today. It is not for the casual reader. The book has 1,130 pages and took me over a month to finish. But if you are a reader, and you like complex plots and characters - with Stephenson's unique writing style thrown in for good measure - then you will probably enjoy this one.

6. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis 4-7-2007

I had previously read another Connie Willis book, Doomsday Book, and really enjoyed her style. This is another book involving time travel, although there are many elements involved in this story. It is lightly sci-fi, a detective story, a comedy, and a bit of romance in Victorian England. It was a fun read, although toward the end I had the sense of watching an episode of Scoobie Doo where the gang is solving the mystery. But, a book that was worth the time to read.

7. More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam 4-22-2007

I thought this book would be more informative on cutting-edge genetic enhancement research than it was. If information on biological enhancement is what you are interested in, better bets are The Singularity is Near, Gregory Stock's Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, or Lee Silver's Remaking Eden. However, this book did provide a lot of information I did not know about cutting edge mechanical implants. I really had no idea that science was so far along in fields like retinal, cochlear, and brain implants. The book could be a little slow at times, but I ultimately got a lot out of it because it opened up my mind to quite a few things I did not know.

8. Spin by Robert Charles Wilson 5-5-2007

This was a very nice piece of science fiction. It took two premises that I have spent considerable time thinking about and explored them. The first premise involves fast-forwarding the terraforming of Mars. (This concept is also explored in great depth in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy). The second premise explores the future of the earth when the sun is dying and swells to encompass the earth's orbit. Premise 2a is that this causes "end of the world" panic, which is another premise that fascinates me. The book had interesting and complex characters, and the story was engaging. My only criticism is that it did jump back and forth in time, which didn't work for me in this book. I found it distracting. Every time they jumped forward in time, I wanted to skip past so I could find out how they had come to that point.

9. The Viking by Alan Baker 5-20-2007

Most of the books I read are through recommendations, so I don't end up reading too many that I consider a waste of time. This book, however, is one that I picked out because 1). I am very interested in the Vikings, and 2). I had a gift certificate and it just did fit under the limit. While maybe not a waste of time, there are better books on Vikings. The author tended to wander off topic at times, and he quoted liberally from other works, such as Magnus Magnusson's The Vikings and Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings. In fact, he borrowed so heavily from them that his extensive quotations probably took up at least a quarter of the book. I would recommend one of the two previously mentioned books over this one, which often read like a book report on those books.

10. Don't Tell Mom I Work on the Rigs: She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Whorehouse by Paul Carter 6-14-2007

Funny at times, and very sobering at times, this book gives a depiction of what it is like to work on the oil rigs. I can say, after reading this book, that I will never work in Nigeria (although I had pretty much already decided that).

11. A Beautiful Mind : A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr. by Sylvia Nassar 6-16-2007

This is a great book on so many levels. A history of some of the great mathematicians and unsolved problems in mathematics, a story of genius, mental illness, and triumph. Nash's wife Alicia has a tenacity that just boggles the mind. I often felt sorry for the trials she went through with the schizophrenia of her husband, and later son. She is a strong, strong woman. I also found myself thinking of Nash as someone who was an incredible jerk with one of the biggest egos I have ever seen, to wondering whether the mental illness was connected to these personality quirks. Everyone should read this book.

12. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb 10-30-2007

This was a great book, and a real paradigm-shifter. Taleb is a very good writer, and caused me to think about things I hadn't thought about before. When a book does that, I really appreciate it. But my gosh he is full of himself. That was the only thing that put me off a bit. I work with someone like that, and I can't stand to be in the same room with him. Frequently denigrating other people to lift himself above them. Not necessary. Taleb has no need to do that, and it was very distracting.

13. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card 11-4-2007

Card is just a superb writer. I bought this book 5 years ago, but just got around to reading it. I won't wait so long to read Xenocide, which I purchased at the same time. The creative biological ecosystem that Card creates in this book is very impressive. I am amazed the people can just imagine this kind of stuff.

14. Building High-Performance Teams by Debbie D. DuFrene 11-8-07

This book was a bit different than what I was expecting. It is true to the title, but I guess I expected something more. I was looking for more of a general management book, and this was not it.

15. The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success by Steven Stein 11-18-07

Some useful information, but also a lot of pop-psychology.

16. Mars Plus by Frederik Pohl 11-25-07

Having read Pohl's Gateway, I had high hopes for this book. But I found it disappointing. I was hoping for a sort of cyborgs help colonize Mars. But Mars had very little to do with the actual storyline. I also didn't find the characters all that interesting.

17. Beyond Heaven's River by Greg Bear 12-1-07

Again, I had high hopes for this one based on Bear's previous books. But a year from now, I won't even remember what this one was about. I also thought the ending was very abrupt and left several storylines hanging.

18. Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson 12-6-07

Not a bad book. I found it sort of like Robinson's Mars Trilogy. The writing is excellent and technically detailed, but sometimes I find it losing my attention.

19. Time Machines: The Greatest Time Travel Stories Ever Written edited by Bill Adler 12-15-07

I don't usually like short stories, but I love books about time travel. This one has some classic stories in there, and some of the all-time great authors. It was a good book to read while traveling, because I could just read a story here and there as I had time.

20. Jubal Sackett by Louis Lamour 12-18-07

When I was in the 2nd grade, the first "real" book I ever read was Lamour's The First Fast Draw. I was hooked on his writing, and proceeded to read practically every book he had written (which my Dad had in his bookshelf) by the end of the 3rd grade. When I was home for Christmas, I pulled an old favorite off of the shelf - a book in the Sackett series that I loved so much as a kid. It's a good book if you like Westerns, or tales about the early settlement of the U.S. It helps, though, to have read previous Sackett books so you know who is who.

21. Quantico by Greg Bear 12-26-07

I kept having to remind myself that I wasn't reading Tom Clancy. This reads very much like a Tom Clancy book. While Bear is famous for his science fiction, this was definitely a change of pace for him. I enjoyed the book (as much as you can enjoy a book about biological warfare using anthrax).

22. The Vegetable & Herb Expert by D.G. Hessayon 12-30-07

I got this book for Christmas. I intend to get back into gardening as quickly as I can (it has been hard due to all the moves) and this was a good book, but written entirely from a UK perspective. Some of the specific advice won't be valid when I move back to the U.S. It was also kind of funny to see things like jalapenos, sweet potatoes, and okra, both of which will grow like weeds in the U.S., referred to as "shop vegetables" (i.e., won't grow well in the U.K.)

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

My 2006 Favorites

Below are the best books I read in 2006. Not that a lot of the books that I read weren't good, but these really stood out.

First, from Ray Kurzweil:

This book just blew my mind. I thought he was overly optimistic with his premises, but the potential future he paints is mind-boggling.

Next, from Peter Ward:

Ward is a great story teller. This is a book depicting mass extinctions throughout history, and lays out the evidence for the current mass extinction that is underway.

Next, by J. Storrs Hall:

This was another in the vein of "Singularity." This potential future is just amazing to contemplate.

Finally, a classic by Joe Haldeman:

I have wanted to read this one for years, but I never ran across it. I am glad that I finally did this past year. Haldeman has quite the gift for science fiction.

I will be starting a new job overseas in a few weeks, and hopefully can pick my reading right back up after the move.