The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Derek Powazek hosts {fray}, the famously beautiful personal storytelling site. Each Fray story ends with a direct question, such as "Who have you almost forgiven?" Readers respond with their own stories, often hauntingly frank and disarmingly candid. The main Fray stories appeal through their polish and care, while the impact of the reader stories stems from their authenticity, their sharp edges and raw candor. At its best, it's a lively mix.

In Design for Community, Powazek explores how designers can use discussion groups, email lists, and weblogs to nurture cohesive communities of dozens or hundreds of readers and writers. Some communities are larger -- slashdot, for example, is huge though hardly cohesive -- and some very large groups (amazon users, for example) have aspects of communities, but Powazek's experience suggests that, once you grow beyond a a few thousand participants, electronic communities tend to explode or collapse.

A large part of the book records interviews with community leaders -- people like Slashdot creator Rob Malda, Metafilter's Matt Haughey, Burns and Parr from jGuru. The interviews give a picture of the human side of community maintenance, the day-to-day role of hosts and moderators. Knowing how to survive a flame war without being emotionally drained, and how to nurse a community through a flame war without seeing it collapsing in ashes, is valuable. Had this book been written four years earlier, we might still have TechnoCulture.

Powazek is a designer, not a decorator, and he understands that usability can be the enemy of utility, that making something harder can sometimes make it better. He's not very interested in ethnography, and so looks more at capabilities than at usage patterns; I wish we knew more about how communities typically work, to supplement the book's success stories and anecdotes.

Design for Communities had the bad luck to appear just after then end of the dot-com era. Had he written this book three years earlier, Powazek would have sold a lot of copies to managers, investors, and frequent flyers. This useful book will be light and pleasant reading for its core audience, though right now the people who are dedicated enough to read the book would probably welcome more detail, while the suits who would be scared off by the details have moved on.

March 22, 2013 (permalink)


"Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave": the inventor of product evangelism examines how entrepreneurs and crusaders can inspire followers and avoid the swamps that sap revolutions of their momentum. This breezy, fluffy book -- the very model of a business-category best-seller -- is intriguing and occasionally informative. The central point, however, is Kawasaki himself: dynamic, irreverent, inspiring, and unstoppable.

Kawasaki's The Macintosh Way was a wonderful book, although perhaps tied too deeply in the specifics of his experience at Apple. His later Selling The Dream is really the same book, updated with a broader perspective. Still later, How To Drive Your Competitors Crazy is an upgrade with enhanced focus. This is release 4.0. But there's enough that's new to satisfy those who enjoyed earlier books, and for newcomers this might be the best of the lot.

(The rule for business books is simple: if you leave with one good action item, something you can slam into action and that has a shot at actually improving your business, the price of the book is negligible. If business folk understood this, the book review end of the publishing business would be taken a lot more seriously and, I suspect, would be managed more effectively. And, yes, I left Kawasaki with two todos)

March 1, 2002 (permalink)


Not yet published. My review is pending at Drood. Black has a knack with for people and places, and manages a very convincing Paris without any of the routine tourist sites.

February 17, 2002 (permalink)


Gaudy Night
Dorothy Sayers

The best novel of the best mystery writer of her era, Gaudy Night is a wonderfully compelling story of an outbreak of vandalism at an Oxford women's college in the 1930's.

Hammett, of course, wrote in the same period. He's a better writer; his prose is more innovative, his characters fresher, his world more real. But Hammett looks forward, sometimes far forward; the original plan for The Maltese Falcon was to present the whole affair as stream-of-conscious. Sayers looks back to Doyle and Galsworthy; indeed, when she populates the display case of the Shrewsbury College Library with a First Quarto and a signed first edition of Galsworthy's The Man of Property, we realize with a start how much the literary landscape has changed.

February 10, 2002 (permalink)


The Yellow Admiral
Patrick O'Brian

The eighteenth of O'Brian's wonderful volumes of Jack Aubrey, RN and Dr. Stephen Maturin.

This immensely popular and much-loved series should teach us not to underestimate the patience, fortitude, and taste of the general reader. O'Brian is unsparing in his use of highly technical language, and (contrast Melville) almost never interrupts himself to explain a Bentinck shroud or a roborative beverage. His narratives unfold in complex, sometimes stately patterns that make few concessions to the conventions of the page-turner and yet prove wonderfully compelling. Critical action takes place offstage as often as not. O'Brian's ear for dialect is extraodrinary; late in the series, he's working in exactly the same period as Jane Austen, but his use of grammar to convey nuance of class and character strikes me as richer and more convincingly authentic than Austen's.

January 7, 2002 (permalink)


Half Magic
Edward Eager

A classic children's tale, best read out loud. Linda read this to me over several Singapore evenings from an old, ex-library copy I found for her.

It's a delightfully-imagined family story about a suburban clan who stumbled across an Ancient Charm that delivers half of anything you wish. Eager avoids reprising Aladdin and evades the easy gimmicks, and he draws his children well and distinctly. (They get along altogether too well, but after all this is the 50s) Like The Secret Garden, this is a much darker story than you'd expect; our modern fairy tales do seem to be littered with dead parents.

February 4, 2002 (permalink)


Experience Design
Nathan Shedroff

A coffee-table book of new media theory, this elegant volume features gorgeous, full-bleed, edgy translucent spreads depicting the varieties of new media experience. The texts are largely captions; they avoid the simplicity of How-To, they avoid self-consciousness, but they also avoid self-awareness. The imagery is stunning, thoughtful, and inspiring. Perhaps that's the point: it's not a text, it's an experience. My first impression was that Shedroff (or his staff) had invested immense effort in the book design, but on further review this makes sense: the design is the book.

February 3, 2002 (permalink)


The Wild Party
Joseph Moncure March (Art Spiegelman, illus)

Nadine:
Mae's kid sister.
Fourteen:
No man had kissed her.
Excitement made her wild-eyed:
She was so thrilled to be there
She could have died!
She was quite pretty
And she looked older.
She only knew
What had been told her.

I'd never heard of Joseph Moncure March's The Wild Party until I stumbled across an excerpt in Singapore while checking a reference. It's a book-length poem, published in 1928, that captures Jazz-age noir weirdly, wonderfully. Spiegelman illustrated it in '94. It's quite a ride.

And she liked her lovers violent, and vicious:
Queenie was sexually ambitious.
So:
Now you know.
A fascinating woman, as they go.

You shouldn't miss this. There's a lot not to like: casual racism, anti-semitism, perhaps homophobia. No worse, I think, than Dorothy Sayers, and with the same excuse. The poem is too long. Occasionally it gets out of control, as when Mae turns into a limerick.

But the book is filled with wonderfully curdled moments.

January 25, 2002 (permalink)


Stepping Out: The Making of Chinese Entrepreneus
Chan Lwok Bun and Claire Chang See Ngoh

These oral histories of Chinese-born Singapore businessmen make interesting reading. The contrast with the values of the current business press, with its obsession with CEO porn on the one hand and with pseudo-mystic formulas (excellence/the gap/moving cheese) on the other. Most of these guys never read a business book, hired a consultant, or believed their own PR; they worked very hard, got everything they could get out of their workers, and kept trying.

Perhaps the most striking emphasis is the amount of business cooperation, even among the illiterate immigrants just off the boat. Bosses, about to lose an ambitious key employee, sometimes provided venture capital for the employee to set up a competing business: better to have a good competitor who owes you than a rival who is merely an ex-employee.

I wish there were fuller narratives and less analysis -- that the raw data were presented better, in other words, because I fear the analysis is already showing some age. But it's an interesting volume.

December 13, 2012 (permalink)


Although I know The Lord Of The Rings rather well, I found this lively volume filled with interesting insights. Shippey succeeded to Tolkien's chair of Anglo-Saxon, and reveals layers of linguistic complexity that the casual reader can easily overlook. (Nearly every character in the trilogy speaks his own language. Even the four hobbits each speak with a distinct accent; if you listen closely, because each has a slightly different social position. (Being an American, I hadn't quite understood the difference in standing between the Tooks, who are an ancient family, and the Brandybucks, who are country squires.) Shippey does a wonderful job of dissecting language and structure.

December 4, 2001 (permalink)


Abraham's Promise
Philip Jeyaretnam

Abraham Isaac, a Tamil-speaking Latin teacher, experiences the transition from Singapore's late colonial era to independence as endless loss. He faces each disaster with the stoicism of a Cato. In contrast to his boyhood friend Krishna, Isaac is essentially apolitical, but his career and marriage are destroyed nonetheless when Isaac writes an imprudent letter to the Straits Times. Neither pleasant nor polished, Abraham's Promise is nonetheless nicely done. Jeyaretnam has a knack for getting a voice right, which makes this little novel truly haunting, and if there's not much range or grace or humor here, Jeyaretnam hits his one note precisely and gets off the stage.

January 2, 2002 (permalink)


This Earth of Mankind
Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Minke, a Native student in Dutch Java at the end of the 19th century, becomes enmeshed in the affairs of a remarkable Javanese concubine and her exquisitely lovely, Indo daughter. This graceful tale of colonial treachery is deceptively engaging, a story that keeps moving even when nothing much is happening. The praise might be as loud, and the prizes less conspicuous, had the work been written by an earnest young person at Iowa, Irvine, or Edinburgh rather than a revered old political prisoner in Indonesia. But that might be our blessing, brining this sensitive work to us in a form that helps us attend.

December 30, 2001 (permalink)


Shopping for Buddhas
Jeff Greenwald

A nice Jewish boy in Kathmandu seeks enlightenment on the path of the perfect Buddha. This book was recommended to me chiefly for its concise introduction to the Hindu pantheon, as my ignorance of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma is embarrassing in Singapore. There's a lot of pedestrian writing here, and Greenwald is so eager to seem normal that he sometimes seems subnormal, but just when you are about to despair he'll uncork something lovely. And, since my pilgrimages to the American Southwest always includea quest for the perfect kachina (Coolidge Roy, meet Sidhi Raj), I feel a certain sympathy.

December 23, 2001 (permalink)


A compilation of pseudo-authentic ghost tales, told without sympathy for the the place, the people, or the ghosts. The best stories are slush-pile, the worst are summer-camp, by turns frigid and overwraught. There are dim hints of an interesting syncretic tradition here, but the hints are buried in writing that aspires to the pedestrian but rarely achieves it. Singapore is said to have an interesting tradition of ghost stories, but this isn't the place to look.

December 26, 2001 (permalink)