Best Books of 2013

I came across the year of writing challenge in my Feedly today and realized I haven't written anything for a long time. Time flies when you're having fun...

So to ease back into it I thought I'd summarize my favorite books of last year. One interesting plus of being a Kindle junkie is that you can see all the books you bought and when you bought them. So I give you a literary year in review.

January

Mingming and the Tonic of Wildness

How do you get through Minnesota winter without losing it? One way is to read motivational material for the next sailing season. Roger Taylor is one of my heroes. He sails single-handed into the Arctic for weeks at a time with the goal of getting as close to the North Pole as possible. He does it in a tiny boat he modified himself which exemplifies my motto "Functional is Beautiful". If you wonder what would on Earth would prompt one to do this sort of thing, this book is for you.

May

Paradise Lot

There are few things more repugnant than a suburban lawn. Grass and some shrubs. Boring. Worse than the tedium of looking at them is the tedium of maintaining them. Not to mention the environmental disaster that they entail. Damn, I hate lawns. Yes, I have one. Why? Because like many asinine things in our culture it's hard to imagine an alternative, let alone achieve one. It's just what it is.

This book shows one alternative. Take a couple of gardening nuts, give them a crappy suburban lot and see what they can do with it. Hint: it involves turning it into a lush "oasis" which provides them with a good percentage of their food supply.

This book, along with the permaculture design course I completed in 2013 have definitely inspired some "food, not lawn" projects coming this spring.

July

Pressure Cooker Perfection

Whoever invented the pressure cooker deserves a Nobel Prize. I originally got into them because you can cook in them on a rocking boat and they can't spill. Now if I'm cooking at home, odds are about 90% I'll be using one. They are fast, produce yummy meals, make it damn near impossible to have dry, tough, meat and they're easy to clean. Pressure cooker FTW!

The America's Test Kitchen folks put together some solid recipes and also recommend the best cookers. You can pretty much pick any single random recipe in here and it'll be worth the price of the book. My favorites are Ropa Vieja and my modified version of their Weeknight Chili.

August

Devil Said Bang

I had to throw a fun one in here. The Sandman Slim series is like the Cinnabon of books. Given the whole premise (guy goes to hell, and comes back to Earth as hitman for the Devil) of the series I'm still in shock that I ever even gave it a shot. I blame it on tbray. Kadrey creates some ridiculous, yet memorable characters and plots and his dialogue will have you laughing out loud (at least if you have a moderately twisted sense of humor). This is not the first book in the series, but I started before 2013. Start with Sandman Slim and be prepared to keep going. Whenever I'm burnt on non-fiction, this is my goto series. I've only got one left, so hopefully he's writing another one.

September

The Gervais Principle

Venkatesh Rao is one of those authors who hurts my brain, but I keep coming back for more. I originally discovered him via Tempo and then started following his blogs Tempo and RibbonFarm. This e-book is an edited synopsis of a blog series on office politics and why bureaucracies are the way they are. If you work in a big company and have frequent WTF? moments, the Gervais Principle helps explain why. Also be sure to check out the companion volume Be Slightly Evil. The price is right.

October

How to Fail at Almost Anything and Still Win Big

If I had to pick a favorite from 2013, this would be it. Consider it the ultimate "anti-self-help" book. Over the years, I have read lots of self-help, rah-rah increase your productivity books and have gotten about two things from all of them collectively: Jack and Squat. And Jack just left town. (Yes, that was an Army of Darkness reference. Get your own blog.)

I took away three immediately practical things from this book, all of which have already caused me to make changes (which is ultimately why you read this sort of book, right?). I will now enumerate them in order of excellence with no description forcing you to read it. You'll thank me later.

  1. The Energy Metric
  2. Goals Are for Losers
  3. Passion is Bullshit

I'll have more to say about #3 in a future post. And there's more than three. Particularly inspiring was his story about how he self-diagnosed and overcame an extremely rare and debilitating condition (spasmodic vocal dystonia).

November

You can tell it got cold early this year, because November wins the volume prize.

Heat

Heat is the story of a writer (Bill Buford), also an avid hobbyist cook, who invited Mario Batali to a dinner party he was hosting. From this introduction he was able to finagle a gig as "kitchen bitch" working for free in Mario's restaurant. From there, he retraces Mario's path to mastery by going to Italy and apprenticing with the country's most authentic traditional butcher. If you love to cook, love to eat, are or have been a Food Network couch potato, or have ever worked in hospitality you'll probably dig this one. Having worked in some kitchens, it took me back to the Characters that inhabit that world, what the human liver is capable of and the kind of things that get said when there's not an HR department.

The Listening Book

One for the musicians. This book is one of the prequels for the Ultimate Tome of Musical Power (which I would have included directly here, but I bought it in 2012 and probably won't finish until 2020). Mathieu gives anecdotes and exercises for how to notice and connect to the sounds and music in everyday life. Particularly resonant to me were the Life Drummer (beat on everything!) exercises and the descriptions of the Tone Deaf Choir where he and some other friends helped supposedly tone-deaf (no one is) people learn to sing in tune. Moving and uplifting stuff.

Modernist Cuisine at Home

I learned of Modernist Cuisine from the most-excellent 4-Hour Chef, but was turned off by the price and arty/effete seeming food. I ran across the home version while waiting for The Boy to find the latest Percy Jackson at the bookstore and was pleasantly surprised. A whole section of the book is devoted to pressure-cookers (win! - see July). Another section is devoted to sous-vide, which I was interested in but hadn't tried. And the clincher - a whole chapter devoted to carnitas. Sold!

It's expensive, but makes a fantastic coffee table book. So you can leave the spendy bit on the coffee table intact, it comes with a separate binder with all the recipes (no pictures) on waterproof paper. Very nice touch that.

Since getting it, I've achieved several of my cooking aspirations. Firstly, my carnitas are now better than any I've gotten in restaurants - worth the price right there. I've also made cooler sous-vide steak, my own stock, and my own vinaigrette. Things left to make: bacon mayo and many others.

December

Caesar's Messiah

For those with open minds and a heretical bent, here's one that has confirmation bias written all over it.

What better ironic way for a Grinch to celebrate Christmas than reading about how Christianity was fabricated by a Roman dynasty to defuse the perennial Jewish rebellions they had to quell.

Some of you have already stopped reading. For those who haven't, consider:

  • that there is little to no historical evidence of Jesus existence.
  • the only contemporary historian documenting events of Jesus' life was Josephus
  • Josephus was employed by the Flavian dynasty
  • the Flavians fought several wars with Jewish rebels
  • history is written by the winners
  • Roman culture was polytheistic
  • Roman Emperors considered themselves deities
  • cultures conquered by Rome were allowed to keep their religion provided they also allowed worship of Caesar/Emperor in their temples
  • most cultures of the time were polytheistic, so this generally worked well for the Romans
  • Judaism was strictly monotheistic and would not tolerate this

What to do if you're an emperor? Read the book and judge for yourself. Whether or not you're compelled by the reasoning, you'll learn something about the times, power, and human nature in general.

Well, that does it for my list. If you check them out or have recommendations of your own, leave a comment. Happy New Year!

Jeremy Ulstad

Dad, IT Architect, Hack Musician, Sailor

Minneapolis, Minnesota http://jeremyulstad.com