Books I’ve read in 2015

I read a bunch of books this year – a lot of them really good, some of them less so. Here are some of the more notable ones in a few categories, and a short paragraph about my thoughts on them. I already have a bunch of good ones lined up to read in 2016, but I’d love to hear about any you read (and liked) this year!

History

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson

This was a really interesting book about the sinking of the Lusitania. It approaches the story from three angles: 1) The personal lives of many of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated vessel, 2) all of the things that had to go wrong in order for it to be in position to be sunk, and 3) how engaged Winston Churchill and the Admiralty were in getting the United States to enter World War I, and how disengaged Woodrow Wilson may have been (being more focused on a love interest). Ultimately, there were a number of missed opportunities and a myriad of different ways the Lusitania could have made its voyage safely, and the author seems to question whether the British government at least allowed – if not helped it – to be sunk. The book is gripping and well-researched. 5/5


The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism
by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals – written by the same author – is one of my favorite books, so I was excited to read Bully Pulpit this year. This book is interesting, but it is a long read that felt tedious at times. The journalism parts were interesting and were a good introduction to 20th century muckraking, but also made the book less focused. The interactions between Taft and Roosevelt were fun to read and some there are some parallels in the politics of Roosevelt fracturing the Republican Party (Tea Party, anyone?) to ultimately make this worth reading, but this 750 page (admittedly well-researched) behemoth felt unfocused and slow to me. 3/5

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette
by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice is a fascinating tale of a young and competent captain, eager to be the first person to visit the North Pole for his young country, an ill-fated voyage that is doomed to fail due to poor understanding of the geography of the time but wouldn’t have ended so disastrously if it had not been for a few small events, and the survival of men pushed to limits we can only imagine. This book definitely starts out a little slow with the backstory, but eventually pulls you in as you travel with the men of the Jeannette and eagerly read to find their fate. 4/5


The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger
by Marc Levinson

I never realized how huge container ships were until I was walking near the Oakland-San Francisco bay bridge and saw one of them heading through the bay. This book does a decent job of covering what at first might seem like a dry topic, but was really an interesting dive into a somewhat hidden aspect of our daily lives. It does a good job of showing how the container became dominant, how that affected global trade, and how the system works in general. Some downsides: it got bogged down in a lot of figures that would have communicated the point much better as graphs, it ignored some technical details of how things worked, and it introduces a central character (McLean), but doesn’t get enough detail of his life to satisfy you as a reader. Still, a really good (and relatively quick) read. 4/5

Business

Predictive Analytics, Revised and Updated: The Power to Predict Who Will Click, Buy, Lie, or Die
by Eric Siegel

The latter half of 2015 at my job was spent building a system for analytics, something I already have experience in but wouldn’t consider myself an expert. This book was a reasonably good introduction into the types of things analytics can tell us or help us figure out. It doesn’t really get into the “how” very much or give you really any direction as to where you should turn to find out more about the “how”, but it does at least whet your appetite a bit and give you some ideas. It is a good book for a really high-level look at analytics. 3/5


The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
by Ben Horowitz

This is largely based on a bunch of blog posts by Ben, and the organization suffers from it. It still, however, is a good book that offers some valuable insights into running a startup and leadership in general. Ben is pretty candid about when and how he screwed up, and is open about the hard parts of running a business. It is also a fun look back at the early days of Netscape and the internet in general, which I’m always a sucker for. The rap lyrics to start every chapter were a bit weird. 4/5

Technology

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon
by Kim Zetter

Reverse-engineering, Capture-the-Flag competitions, and computer security in general are big hobbies of mine, so I was really excited to read this book. It covers the Stuxnet virus, which was a clever hack (all but certainly built by the United States and Israel) to cause Iran’s nuclear fuel production equipment to fail, causing setbacks to the program. This is a well-researched book that was interesting enough to keep me up late several nights trying to get to the end of it. This also raises a number of questions – how safe is our infrastructure from attacks like this? What are the ethics of virtual weapons? Highly recommended. 5/5


Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe
by George Dyson

The title is somewhat misleading – this isn’t a book about Alan Turing, but rather John von Neumann and the development of the computer in the first few decades after World War II. The history in this thoroughly researched book is amazing, and I really enjoyed learning more about von Neumann and other pioneers of the computing industry. It is, however, somewhat of a dry read. Software developers will probably still find the many stories about the early days of our profession to be fascinating. I’d recommend this book to computer enthusiasts and developers, but probably people who don’t have an inherent interest in the field. 3/5

Hadoop: The Definitive Guide
by Tom White

Hadoop, Sqoop, Spark, YARN, HDFS, HBase, Pig, ZooKeeper… So many weird names, so many things to learn. As someone who has been trying to come up to speed on the Hadoop ecosystem this year, this has been an incredible resource. It isn’t something you are likely to read straight-through (except for the first handful of chapters), but it has been an invaluable resource for the core parts of the Hadoop ecosystem and a good high-level overview of other parts of it. 5/5

Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr

I don’t read enough fiction, but my wife got me this book that I’d had my eye on for a while. It is about two young children on opposite sides of World War II and how their world’s intersect. One is a blind French girl, the other is a curious and gifted, but naive German boy. The book is beautifully written, if not a little wordy at times. It is a good story and the author is talented, but I found the back-and-forth short chapters to be jarring. There were some historical inaccuracies that were distracting, and the ending felt rushed and, frankly, unsatisfying. Still a good read, and it has won a Pulitzer Prize. 4/5

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