05 December, 2023

ZSA Loves: The Books We Loved in 2023

by Erez Zukerman

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I read a lot. Like many readers, I start more books than I finish. That’s because I’m always looking for books that aren’t just good — I want the great ones. The ones I keep thinking about long after reading, the ones that change the way I think about other things. And I’m not the only reader in the team: Several of us have recommendations to share.

ZSA Loves could have easily been all about books, and books alone. But instead, I decided to collect all of our book recommendations in one single post for the year. Below you’ll find five fiction and four non-fiction books I loved this year, as well as three recommendations from Robin and one from Aled.

Also: There’s something about writing a book review that invites a certain degree of bloviation. I didn’t want that for this post — this ain’t no Kirkus affair. We’ll keep these mini-reviews short and sweet, just a few lines per book. Blink and you’ll miss it. Oh, and of course, no links.

Okay, let’s go!

From Erez

Fiction

Demon Copperhead

Barbara Kingsolver, 2022

This book kicks. It’s about opioids, poverty, and the Appalachian mountains. The only other book I’ve read about this region of the US is Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods, so this was a very different perspective. I know it sounds kind of grim when I say it’s about opioids and poverty, and it definitely is an emotional roller coaster with some hard moments. But at the center of the story there’s a kid with a big heart and lots of resilience. The story takes you to some pretty dark places, but comes back out into the light. The ending does feel a tiny bit Hollywood, but to be honest, I needed a Hollywood ending here so I’m not complaining.

Loved the writing style, too. A distinct voice, its own English.

The Mountain In The Sea

Ray Nalyer, 2022

This is great near-future Sci Fi. Yes, it’s a little dystopian but that’s par for the course when it comes to near-future speculative fiction (think Kim Stanley Robinson). This isn’t Stanley Robinson but feels almost as deep in terms of world building. If you squint a little, much of this seems plausible.

Without getting too political, it was also interesting to read a book that isn’t US-centric — in fact, North America hardly plays a role here at all. At first the international cast of characters felt a little forced, like the author was making a point — but as I got more into the story it started making sense and contributing to the plot.

At its core, this is a book about capitalism, ecology, and personal agency. Great themes to explore. And yes, of course there’s AI in the mix.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Gabrielle Zevin, 2022

Games! Or rather, game development. Years ago I read the great (and non-fictional) Masters of Doom, and this definitely rhymes in some ways. Of course I’m going to love a book about programmers - but this really was quite broad. It also tackled the gender bias and sexism in the industry in a way that felt deft and nuanced.

Another thing I enjoyed about Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is how it deals with friendship of the non-romantic sort. It also had a lot to say about following up after creating a hit product: How do you think about the next thing you’re going to make, how do you not lose your way. Just a lot to chew on, and quite fun.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Agatha Christie, 1926

Agatha Christie! This was my first-ever Poirot book, and it’s just the quintessential whodunnit. I got it for free from the excellent Standard Ebooks project (which, full disclosure, ZSA supports - and so should you).

Written today, the prose would read quaint and try-hard. But this was written in 1926 and reads as such. It’s cozy and light and just generally fun. I can’t say I guessed who the killer was — the end did get me, but the way there is what made the book fun. It’s a lovely read for when you’re all snuggled up.

East of Eden

John Steinbeck, 1952

Yes, I made an effort to read some classics this year - and there’s a reason this is a classic. A “multi-generational family saga” — but this describes what the book is about (and sounds a little boring when you put it that way). The real magic of this enduring classic is not the what (subject matter) but the how (incredible storytelling).

The way Steinbeck builds out his characters over time, the things they go through, the time we get to spend with each one along the way. I felt like I got to know these people. I think I want to watch the James Dean movie, too.

Redshirts

John Scalzi, 2012

So Scalzi starts with a premise that sounds a little dumb, basically a parody of how in every Star Trek away mission one of the lower-ranking characters (who typically wear a red uniform) dies. It’s funny at first, but then actually gets quite good. That’s really the main thing that surprised me — that it doesn’t stay in the “fanfic gag” territory and actually ends up saying something. The characters are flat, but even that’s a part of it and feels intentional.

Non-Fiction

Thinking In Bets

Annie Duke, 2018

Life is poker, not chess. Some of our decisions work out, and others don’t. Why is that, and how can we make better decisions? The two keys things I got out of this book:

  • The concept of “resulting”: We tend to evaluate the quality of a decision by the outcome we get. But that’s false! Sometimes we make a bad decision and just get lucky. Other times we carefully consider everything we know and make a deliberate decision, and things just don’t work out. Making a good decision is about process and thinking, not about direct results every time — because there are almost always things we can’t control.
  • Thinking and talking in confidence intervals: By forcing myself to say I’m “70% sure” of something, I get a more accurate representation of reality. It’s easier for me to change my mind and learn new things. It’s a powerful mental habit.

The Power of Writing It Down

Allison Fallon, 2021

Fallon runs writing workshops, but you don’t need a workshop to get something out of this book. It’s an inspiring read answering the question “why write”. This is aimed at people who want to publish their life stories, something I have no interest in - and yet, I got a lot out of it. It makes journaling accessible. Two specific things:

  • Make space. Physically clearing clutter can help us think. I struggle with this. There’s power in an orderly, relatively empty space. If we create this space and then sit in it, good things happen.
  • Writing is an invitation to discharge pent-up energy. When we look at the blank page, there’s some drama there. Writing allows us to rise above the experiences of our lives, to look at them from a distance.

Powerful stuff.

The Simple Six

Clinton Dobbins, 2018

After reading John Ratey’s Spark a few years ago, I got into a running habit. This has been working well for me, but this year I realized I really have to do some resistance training, too. There’s a lot of hype around resistance training, and this little book cuts through it. It won’t make you a bodybuilder — but it’s good functional fitness. I’ve been doing these five exercises (the sixth is “walking” which is also important) for the better part of a year now. I just have a pull-up bar and a couple of kettlebells. You don’t need a lot of gear and it’s a sustainable program almost anyone can do regardless of their current level of fitness.

Math Games with Bad Drawings

Ben Orlin, 2022

I liked this book so much, I got it as an ebook and then as a hardcover (it’s big!). It’s a great example of learning through play. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with just pens, paper, and dice. To me, this is way up there with Sid Sackson’s Gamut of Games. The drawings, by the way, are great: In the hard cover they’re in color, and they’re very helpful for understanding the different games.

I played many games out of this book, with my favorites being Ultimate Tic Tac Toe and Sequencium.

Discipline Is Destiny

Ryan Holiday, 2022

I first got this as an ebook and found it important and inspiring. So much so, I ended up buying the hardcover as well. And then I decided I wanted to listen to it - so I bought the audiobook as well (on Libro.fm which Robin recommended here).

So yes, I bought this book three separate times, and I have zero regrets. I read some of Holiday’s other books (Ego is The Enemy, Courage is Calling) and this one’s the best, by far. The message is powerful and comforting while still offering a level of nuance. Yes, it’s a pep talk — and sometimes I need a pep talk. I find myself re-reading parts of this book regularly.

From Robin

The Will to Change

bell hooks, 2003

I consume most of my books as audio, but I also enjoy podcasts, so books face some competition during my listening time. I didn’t get through as many books this year as I would have liked, and many of the ones I did get through were just okay, but The Will to Change was not one of those. There is much discussion of the often undeserved advantages men gain, but many men are also tangibly affected in negative ways by our systems, and bell hooks explains this with incredible compassion and understanding.

This book is the missing link to understanding feminism holistically. I heartily recommend it to anyone, but especially people raised to value traditional masculinity, whether from the perspective of a man or woman. As I listened to it, I could not stop thinking about how much it would have changed my life if I head read it when I was younger.

Disfigured

Amanda Leduc, 2020

Disfigured was illuminating both as someone who enjoys narrative and someone whose work intersects with varying levels of disability at times. It examines the ways physical disability, or even really just physical differences, are connected with cultural assumptions, often unfairly.

How many villains have scars, are overweight, or have some other notable physical difference that sets them apart? Physical otherness is not evil, yet many of our fundamental stories imply exactly that. Recognizing this and being accommodating for all kinds of abilities leads to a better world for everyone.

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe, 1849

For my final recommendation, something a little more “fun”. I’ve always liked Poe even before I was truly aware of him as an author. I remember choosing his poem The Haunted Palace somewhat at random for a school project, just because I liked the way it read. Much of Poe’s work is short, so it’s easy to read piecemeal if you don’t have time to sit down with a longer book.

Poe is a master of melancholy. Most of his writing has a sadness to it, but in a particularly contemplative and almost reverent way. Early this year, I was in the mood to revisit his collection. A few of my favorites are The Masque Of The Red Death, The Pit And The Pendulum, and, for something slightly different, The Murders In The Rue Morgue, which is the origin of detective stories like those of Sherlock Holmes. If you find yourself inside on a rainy or snowy day, read some Poe.

From Aled

Drunk on All Your Strange New Words

Eddie Robson, 2022

An excellent sci-fi locked-room murder mystery story. While the basic plot stays close to the genre archetypes, the supporting world-building keeps things fresh and thrilling.

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire

Colleen Morton Busch, 2011

A thrilling account of the 2008 wildfire that threatened the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and the five Zen Buddhist monks who risked their lives by staying to protect it.

I found the book interesting because Zen teaches the impermanence of things, and so the motivations of the monks to put themselves into harms way to save the center was for me the core of the story.

My Effin’ Life

Geddy Lee, 2023

The autobiography of Rush vocalist and bassist, Geddy Lee. Rush was one of the bands I was into as a teenager and after reading his excellent book on collecting bass guitars I’d been looking forward to his next book.

The book begins with his Jewish parent’s horrific ordeal during WW2 before covering his teenage years playing music in Toronto bars and his 40+ years as a member of Rush. The text is candid and covers the band’s beginning and ending, with all the highs and lows in between. It also provides a snapshot of the difficulties of family life and maintaining relationships as a working musician.

The book left me with a mix of emotions. Horror at what his parents endured. Sadness that the band is at this point in time is effectively done. Joyful nostalgia at being reminded of all the albums I enjoyed listening to and a sense that I’d witnessed a period of time that would never be repeated.

I enjoyed the book so much I read all 500+ pages in one afternoon and evening, a rarity these days.

From You

Whew, what a whirlwind tour of the books of the year! Now, your turn: I hope to update this post over time to include some mini-reviews from you.

If you read something great in 2023, email me (contact@zsa.io) with a little mini-review in the style above.

Thank you for reading!

Erez Zukerman

Erez Zukerman

Erez Zukerman is the CEO and Co-Founder of ZSA Technology Labs.

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