Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Best Of Lists

Best fiction of the year:

* City of Thieves, by David Benioff
* A Woman in Jerusalem, by A. B. Yehoslua
* Lamb, by Christopher Moore

Best non-fiction of the year:

* Step by Step, by Bertie Bowman
* Inside the Jihad, by Omar Nasiri
* A Complaint Free World, by Will Bowen
* Dear Mr. President, by Pink (not a book, but still the best)

The year-end numbers are in, and a bit higher than prior years: 151 books read, of which 39 were non-fiction and 112 fiction. Based on the queue of 48 books in my "to-be-read" stack, (compared to only 28 on the stack entering 2008), it would be good for me to keep up the pace.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The sacred book of the werewolf, by Victor Pelevin

I've read some strange books and I've read many books I've not liked very much. But this may be the strangest disliked book I've read in a long time.

Why would I make such a negative statement? The book is about A Hu-li, a 2000+ year old were-fox / human female prostitute. She bedazzles clients with her magical tail (as in a fox's tail, not as in ... well, never mind). She meets a were-wolf. Or dog. But perhaps this is all really a metaphor for life in Russia today. There's lots of ponderous prose.

At this point I was going to quote from the book to make my point about the prose. But it was so distasteful, so painful, that I just can't do it. I'd tell you to find the book at a library and see for yourself, but that recommendation seems needlessly cruel.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Exit Music, by Ian Rankin

It turns out that this is the terminal novel in a series featuring the character of Scottish detective Inspector Rebus. I'd not read any prior. I found the dialog and plot lines to be very interesting. The ending was a bit open ended, which is apparently precisely the effect the author sought, but isn't the neat and tidy closure one usually finds in a mystery novel. Still, it was quite good. But I'm not motivated to read the earlier books in the series.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Angel's Tip, by Alafair Burke

I really enjoyed this mystery. You could tell there was a prior novel featuring the same main character, but Ms. Burke wasn't annoying about the links, so it didn't bug me too much. The dialog, plot line and action were all very good.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Black Flies, by Shannon Burke

This is an outstandingly great book. It grabbed me right from the start. A novel, but it reads as though it could be non-fiction. Definitely on my top-ten list for the year.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Nudge, by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein

Nudge is both highly entertaining and highly frightening. The latter because it exposes the degree to which we can be manipulated into sub-optimal personal decisions just by the way that choices are framed.

I'm not exactly sure what to do with my new-found understanding of how subtle nudges change my decisions. But I'm glad I read the book.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon

I remembered about two paragraphs into this book that I'd read it before. But it was already so much fun, I decided to keep going. That was the right choice; this is a delightful little novel.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Be the Pack Leader, by Cesar Millan

Millan is best known for his TV show "Dog Whisperer." In this, his second book, Millan gives more details and anecdotes about how to train the humans who inevitably seem the cause of dog behavior problems.

The rules are simple: remember that dogs are first of all dogs. Millan says you must train yourself to understand that your dog is first an animal. Second, a dog. Third, a particular breed (or mix) of dog (with associated behavioral tendencies). And only then, your companion.

This isn't so easy for dog owners. He points to near-empty nesters who treat their dog as a baby (and better than their kid). And to guilt ridden office workers who don't spend much time with their dog and spoil it.

Millan says the key to having a successful dog is: exercise, discipline, affection. In that order.

He looks for 45 minutes to one hour each morning of dog exercise (dog following the human, who must be the pack leader), and again in the evening (for perhaps a slightly shorter time). Millan says that just running around in a fenced yard is insufficient. This is for many reasons, including the need for the dog to have a mission - and that a directed walk, following her pack leader, provides that raison d'etre for the dog.

One of my personal take-aways from this is that dog ownership is quite different from having a pet hamster or gold fish. There's considerable work and time required. Not just for the daily walks, the animals maintenance and training. But also mental work, to think clearly about the signals you send the animal, to think clearly about how to best challenge it, train it, and keep it interested as well, physically and mentally.

Anyone for a Pleo instead?

Exposed, by Alex Kava

This mediocre mystery had the potential to be good. Some characters were well developed. Others disappeared from my attention. It felt rushed. The story line was okay, but the writing was uneven.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Killing Ground, by Jack Higgins

This paperback was passed to me by a friend who commented that there were too many characters and it was hard to follow what was going on. Now having read it, I'd say the critique was right: there were too many characters that I care nothing about, because there was zero character development of them.

On top of that, the dialogue was hackneyed. The writing was choppy. I can't find a single good thing to say about this novel.

This book is terrible. How is it a publisher actually produces this sort of tripe? I don't believe in burning books, ever. But if I really needed some kindling, this one would be a candidate.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Warriors, by Mark Olsen

I expected this to be an action - suspense, spy novel, so I was surprised to learn it was a paranormal / Christian faith oriented spy novel. Which would normally lead me to just put it down, but instead I stuck with it and I am glad that I did. The book wasn't overly preachy and the plot line, character development and action were pretty good.

The Fire, by Katherine Neville

I tried, I really did. In spite of the scene jumping from place to place and time to time. In spite of the convoluted writing, the unsympathetic characters, the complexity and the tired writing style. But after 156 pages I gave in. I just can't bother to keep reading this; the thought of another 250 pages of this tripe is simply too much to bear.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, by Charles Morris

This is a must-read book for anyone who wants to understand the reasons behind the current financial mess. Here's a long quote that on its own explains quite a bit:

"Suppose you own a portfolio of high-yield bonds with a below-investment-grade rating." [That is, junk with bad collateral, just like sub-prime mortgages with a high expectation of failure to pay.]

"To construct the CDO [collateralized debt obligation], you put the portfolio into a trust and create a family of bonds with different claims to the portfolio's cash flows. The top-tier bonds, which might by 80 percent of the total, get first dibs on all cash flows. Since those bonds are almost certain to be fully paid, they get a top credit rating, and conservative investors, like pension funds, are happy to take them off your hands."

"The rest of the bonds are queued up in the payments 'waterfall,' with each successive layer bearing greater risk, paying higher yields, and getting lower ratings."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

First Daughter, by Eric Van Lustbader

This ended up an entertaining mystery, but it was a bouncy road. There is an undercurrent of an outgoing administration controlled by a right wing and also insane President, an uprising of organized atheism (that must be like herding cats), and the occasional encounter with a hallucinated dead loved one.

So all in all, a good read, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find this one.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rough Weather, by Robert B. Parker

Parker's Spenser mystery novels have a tone all their own, and never before have disappointed. But this one goes over the edge.

The plot is sub-par. The premise is unusually weak, as logic holes abound. Did I mention the crummy plot?

Dedicated Spenser readers will want to add this to their collection on principle; casual observers should just avoid it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Goliath Bone, by Mickey Spillane and Max Collins

This standard issue Mike Hammer (1950's style hard-boiled NY private investigator) novel was completed after Spillane's death by Collins, based on Spillane's notes for the novel. It attempts to be a 21st century "I, the Jury" and comes close.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O'Brien

The hero is a child growing up in a dysfunctional post-World War II Hollywood family. The novel is amusing and captivating.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Extreme Measures, by Vince Flynn

I'm conflicted over this novel. One the one hand, it is a good and exciting spy story. On the other, it is a polemic for the use of torture (at least the President G. W. Bush style) on alleged terrorists.

Either way, it isn't particularly credible. But still an overall fun to read book, if you go for this sort of thing.

Ritual, by Mo Hayder

A bit slow moving and slightly convoluted. It held my attention, but only by a thin thread.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, by Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin & Robert B. Cialdini

I was not persuaded.

The advice is a mix of common sense and not.

An okay library book; relieved I didn't purchase it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Good Fight, by Harry Reid

If you read biographies or political commentary, then read this book.

This is Senator Harry Reid's (Democrat, Nevada) autobiography and commentary.

I'll excerpt from page 285, where Sen. Reid writes about President George W. Bush:

"He has been bad for America and for the world. And he will leave severe, long-term damage in his wake.

In addition to getting us entangled in a needless war, in the wrong country, under false pretenses, and in addition to giving up the fight against the true culprits of 9/11 to get us into that war, and in addition to compromising our moral standing in the world, the Bush administration's blithe disregard for the Constitution and for the balance of powers written therein has led us to have a government that sanctions torture and spies on its own people without cause. In perhaps the most troubling development of all, his government has devised a theory of executive power that is so thoroughly unconstitutional and so un-American that it may take years after Bush and Cheney are finally gone to fully expurge its effects from our national affairs. Here I speak of the so-called 'unitary executive' theory espoused by this White House, which holds, essentially, in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, that if the President does it, that means it's not illegal."
Sen. Reid's recollections of his life are interesting. His commentary on the state of affairs in the United States is horribly depressing, which is to say, accurate.

To quote him one more time: "January 2009, the twenty-first century truly begins."

Let's hope so.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

No One Lives Forever, by Jordan Dane

The only positive thing I can say about his book is that it is forcing me to completely re-evaluate how I buy airplane novels. I simply must change my approach. I have to read a novel on the plane, because I get fidgety otherwise, because it is often too difficult to open a laptop to work effectively, and because I don't like airplane movies (on the occasion that they are shown). But this last run of books just has me down.

Oh, about this book. The less I say the better.

Dark Matter, by Cameron Cruise

Oh my, I'm in a slump. I seem to be drawn to the "paperbacks suitable only for airplane trips where there's nothing else to read and you're desperate" section of the bookstore.

Okay, this wasn't all bad: it was readable, and I didn't have to skip over boring spots more than a couple of times.

Did I mention: a mystery that includes a very heavy dose of para-normal? Sigh.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Scorpion's Gate, by Richard A. Clarke

Mr. Clarke is no doubt better at his day job than he is as a fiction writer. While the plot lines were plausible and the scenarios gave him an opportunity to work out some of his opinions, the writing was too mumbled to be very enjoyable. I blame this on the editor. Not a bad book, just a bumpy one. I had to skip over many pages of turgid writing to get through it. But it got me through a flight just fine...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Swan Peak, by James Lee Burke

Do I seem like a cranky or over-demanding reader to you? I didn't think so. Yet I don't seem to have found any good novels recently. This one did not break that streak.

It is sluggish, uninteresting, silly, not credible, did I mention not particularly interesting?


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Third Degree, by Greg Iles

Once again, I found myself at an airport bookstore. I'd had enough time before the flight to deal with email, and besides, my seat wasn't going to be conducive to opening a laptop. This book - barely - got me through the flight.

And that's the most positive thing I can say about it. The only other comment that comes to mind is, "yuck."

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Ghost War, by Alex Berenson

Another fast paced, highly entertaining thriller from the author of The Faithful Spy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Janson Directive, by Robert Ludlum

I bought this at an airport bookstore when I learned my flight was delayed. The best thing I can say about it is that it took the delay and most of the flight to read, thus giving me something to do.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Last Patriot, by Brad Thor

The thunderingly uninteresting and possibly religiously bigoted patriot would have been a more appropriate title for this poor excuse for a thriller.

I had to skip several pages of turgid writing to make my way through this to the end.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Back of the Napkin, by Dan Roam

The notion of this book is to explain how to use simple pictures to solve problems and communicate ideas.

It is a compelling idea, especially because so many business presentations are a boring collection of bullet points (text). A problem exacerbated by poor presentation technique in which the speaker reads the text to the audience. Yawn.

So beyond the use of images as a problem solving technique, I was interested in the use of images as a showing / explaining / selling technique. The book covers both topics well.

But it isn't simple. Or at least not easy. The SQVID notion, for example, is clear: if you want to show a topic, consider if its visualization should be Simple (vs elaborate), Quality (vs quantity), Vision (vs execution), Individual (vs comparative), and Change (vs as-is).

Bottom line: some great ideas for brainstorming, approaching complex problem solving and presenting things. But I will have to have this book at my side as a guide to walk through the techniques for at least the first few times I do this. And I'm not sure that, under the pressure of deadlines, I'll have the fortitude to look at the guidance instead of just pushing forward, seat of pants, to a delivery.

We'll see.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Step by Step, by Bertie Bowman

I heard about this book from an NPR broadcast. It is outstanding reading. I highly recommend it: very well written, interesting, and with several strong messages that will, I expect, benefit any reader.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Wolfman, by Nicholas Pekearo

This was a fabulous book: well written, great and unusual plot, wonderful characters. Sad that Mr. Pekearo perished in the line of duty in his role as an auxiliary NYPD officer.

Kildar (2), by John Ringo

I liked the prior book for Saturday morning procrastinating chores by reading something silly, so tried this one. It is identical, stylistically, to it's predecessor.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Marching Season, by Daniel Silva

Silva's books are all suspenseful, interesting and well written. This is one of his earlier novels, that I'd not read before. It was true to form.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kildar, by John Ringo

This is junk fiction - that is to say, extremely easy reading, no complexity whatsoever. A step above drivel, but hardly literature.

Perfect then for a quick Saturday read.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Breaking Dawn, by Stephanie Meyer

Well finally, the last in the series. Perhaps the best written of Meyer's books, it mostly felt good to get it over with and end the sequence.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hold Tight, by Harlan Coben

This was a great travel (i.e., airplane) book because it is a true page turner, and the time just flew by (so to speak).

My only criticism is there were an awful lot of characters to keep in mind, I almost needed to build a mind-map of them and their interconnections.

Breach of Duty, by J. A. Jance

This paperback kept my attention throughout a flight; what more can I ask? Well, for just slightly more exciting writing. Jance has her followers, and maybe I'm overly demanding. There's just a bit too much explanation of everything.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Inside the Jihad: A Spy's Story, by Omar Nasiri

This is an outstandingly great autobiography. It not only held my interest, it gave a sense of the Muslim perspective on world events, a perspective that seems absent in much of Western news coverage (not to mention, international policy).

I recommend it highly.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Plague Ship, by Clive Cussler

This was a workmanlike, but somewhat clumsy action / suspense novel. Not particularly great, not even particularly well written - I guess I'd say it was written well enough to satisfy a check-list of requirements for the genre. It lacked real excitement, real believability.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Resolution, by Robert Parker

I can't remember the last time I read a western; the only reason I read this one is that I like all of Robert B. Parker's mysteries and figured I'd give it a shot.

I liked it. Interestingly, I could see that the dialog, the pattern of interaction between the two heroes, matched the Spenser mystery novels very closely.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds

I often borrow library books based on positive reviews in magazines. That's how I came upon this book in spite of it being in a genre I don't particularly avoid: sci-fi. It took the first 150 pages or so to get used to, but a solid plot and interesting characters make a book of any genre enjoyable.

This was pretty good.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Gerson Therapy, by Charlotte Gerson and Morton Walker

I'm not certain if I'd put The Gerson Therapy up with The China Study in terms of pure research substantiation, but for certain if I or a loved one faced cancer I'd want to use the Gerson approach, if only because there's virtually no downside (other than that of delaying more standard techniques such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy).

In a nutshell, the therapy is: organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables, no meat or dairy products, 13 glasses of fresh squeezed juices daily, and coffee enemas.

Bet I got your attention on that last one, didn't I?

The sad thing is, that's the only way they want you to have coffee. You can't drink it. While it's tempting to imagine a dialog like:

"I want to drink coffee."
"Not going to happen." "
But I really want it." "
Up your butt with it then!"

The reality is that there's - at least a level of - scientific explanation and research behind the choice of coffee as a detoxifying enema.

Interestingly, they don't advocate drinking water either. But then again, with 13 glasses of fruit juice a day (one per hour), how thirsty can you get?

This book is really targeted at folks who already have a cancer issue. (So, thankfully, I'll keep imbibing my coffee the old fashioned way, in my mug.) I don't know how real it is. The claims are that it would successfully treat the cancers that killed my dad, and the work behind it was already well established when he was ill in 1984 - just as today, not accepted by the medical establishment. Since that same medical establishment didn't do much good for him anyways, it would have been nice to have heard this option from someone then. The message - to me, at least - is clear: take responsibility for your own care, and don't blindly trust physicians, pharmaceutical firms, hospitals nor insurance businesses to put your health and life as a priority.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell

This is not an easy book to read, but it may be the most important one I've read.

But first, let me diverge from the book.

I'm not really a conspiracy theorist, and I am not against big business at all (I work for a big business, I read the Wall Street Journal daily, and I invest in a variety of businesses - including pharmaceutical firms). And even so, I find it quite easy to believe that the US government is not sincerely advancing our health, that drug firms dominate current medical research and thinking (through their sponsorship of research, advertisements in medical journals which lead to a financial dependence relationship, and through repetition of commonly accepted wisdom to generations of physicians).

As a proof point, consider the US food pyramid. Most folks imagine that this represents the US government's guidance to all Americans for the healthiest possible diet. Far from true. The food pyramid is provided by the USDA (Department of Agriculture), whose mission is to increase the business of agriculture. The pyramid doesn't come from the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) or the NIH (National Institutes of Health) - although it isn't clear these folks would do any better given their own biases towards drugs, radiation and surgery.

So what's the metric of success for the USDA, authors of the pyramid? Increased economic value - financial success - of America's agriculture industry. Which means, by the way, meat, poultry, and dairy producers. So guess what? The pyramid features meat, poultry and dairy.

Now I'll get off my soapbox and back to the book. With this background, though, you can see why I found The China Study so believable: the fact that mainstream medicine doesn't align with Campbell's work means nothing to me.

Importantly, Campbell's research shows that genetics aren't the final answer. Even if one has a hereditary genetic predisposition to cancer, a diet avoiding animal proteins and dairy can be the dominant factor in the disease, and prevent it. This important statement, that our genes are not our fate, is also the thesis of the extremely well respected Dr. Dean Ornish; see, for example, his three minute video at TED talks.

(Dr. Ornish is a UT Austin grad, summa cum laude, who went on to Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Mass General Hospital. He's one of the very few forward thinking physicians whose credentials are so superb and whose research is so impecable that the medical establishment can't just blow him off.)

So what's the bottom line: avoid animal proteins. Eat fruits and vegetables and some fish if you'd like. Avoid milk, cheese and dairy products.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Last Oracle, by James Rollins

This unappealing, uninteresting novel reads like a script for a (very unappealing) made-for-TV movie. There's virtually no character development and the plot is ridiculous and incredible.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Five Tibetans, by Christopher Kilham

The same gentleman who gave me the Walker books also gave me this little gem, after a spontaneous demonstration of his own flexibility - and watching someone in his late 60s bending and stretching like a rubber band was pretty inspiring. So I thought I'd give this book a shot.

Clear, credible and simple (although, at least on my first time trying the poses, not so easy).

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aligned Thinking, by Jim Steffen

I ran into Dr. Jim Steffen at an ECM user group event in New York City a few weeks ago. We chatted a bit about his book and my experience with my book and publisher. Much to my delight, returning from a business trip to my office a couple of weeks later I found that Jim graciously sent me a copy of his book.

Well, it's taken me some time to get to it, but I finally had some time this evening to read Aligned Thinking. I don't want to give too many details about the content here, because the style with which Jim conveys the approach works so well. Suffice it to say that Aligned Thinking provides a set of organizing and reframing techniques to help one achieve improved productivity, efficiency and - perhaps most important - attitude.

In particular for me the notion of reframing what I do in terms of my primary desires and associated necessary conditions was helpful.

The problem with a book like this is that - no matter how clear the messages, how obvious they may seem (after you've read them) - putting the techniques into practice requires commitment and effort. That is probably why Jim has a successful coaching practice, including an interesting and unusual concept of virtual coaching; more info at his web site.

Become Younger, by N. W. Walker

This is the last of the set of Walker's books I was given. To be clear, just because I poke fun at some of Walker's ravings doesn't mean I ignore the root messages, or don't appreciate the chance to read his work. There are just so many soft-balls to hit that I have a difficult time resisting!

There's nothing new to say about this one. It either was the basis for many of Walker's other books, or a compilation of sorts. One thing for sure: Walker does know how to stay on message. Fresh and raw fruits and vegetables. He likes them juiced. More information about my colon that I ever wanted to know.

Pure & Simple Natural Weight Control, by Normal Walker

I've decided to finish reading all the Walker books in one fell swoop, because they're just too odd to pace myself though. Having already established that Dr. Walker is - well, let's just say eccentric - I try to just chuckle about the weirder things he writes and take away items of value.

The notions of this book are consistent (and somewhat redundant with; you can even see the copy and paste sharing of passages from other books) with Walker's fundamental theme: stick to a plant based, raw diet and life will be good.

I was devastated, however, to read that "Beer is probably the most destructive liquid which we can put into our system." [Page 54.] Might have to ignore that claim, lumping it with the goofiness of suggesting that soy meat substitutes be avoided because "...the protein-digestive juices are alerted to care for concentrated proteins, as the mind vicariously enjoys the flavor of meat. ... The result is the indigestibility of the food with repercussions of toxemia as the end product." [Pages 60, 61.]

Oh boy.

I also notice that in this book, Walker has claimed not only his usual DSc degree, but also a PhD. No, it isn't polite to snipe. But really...

Bottom line: hey, how can you argue against eating fresh fruits and vegetables?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fresh Vegetable and Fruit Juices, by N. W. Walker

As mentioned previously, I was recently given a number of books on health. Which, with two down, I'm about to refer to as "quirky books on health."

This book makes pretty good sense, and, to net it out translates to a strong advocacy of carrot juice.

Like Walker's other book, there are some credibility concerns. Maybe it's just my engineering-style view of information, or my natural cynicism, but Walker's definition of enzymes is a good example for my squeamishness (page 3):

"...enzymes are not 'substances.' Enzymes are an intangible magnetic Cosmic Energy of Life Principle (not a substance) which is intimately involved in the action and activity of every atom in the human body, in vegetation, and in every form of life."

Okay then.

So there I was, imagining that enzymes are molecules that increase the rate of chemical reaction by lowering their activation energy. In other words, enzymes are catalysts for biological reactions.

Well, maybe that's what Walker meant.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What's Wrong With What We Eat, by Mark Bittman

In this TED talk, Mark Bittman (a food writer) describes the prevalent approach to food in the US as a direct result of agri-business (and its effective lobbying / control of US agencies), and ascribes to it a level of danger equivalent to the atom bomb. Not so much, interestingly, because of the negative effects of the US diet on our health (although he does discuss that too), but primarily because of its impact on global warming and water supply.

This is a talk worth watching.