Tag Archives: books

Conversation and Community, by Anne Gentle

I just started reading Conversation and Community by the amazing Anne Gentle. I’m a few dozen pages in, and already recognize that I’m sitting at the feet of a guru.

I’ve been doing documentation for 15 years, roughly, making it up as I go along. I’ve done pretty well, considering, with 8 or 12 books (depending on what you count), and large portions of the Apache httpd docs to my credit, but Anne has made a science of it, and I’ve been continually impressed with the way that she wrangles groups of people into producing great content in literally a few days.

I’ll have to write more, later, once I’ve finished the book. I find that books like this tend to clarify and focus things that I’ve observed, but never taken the time to really analyze, about documentation and “customer support”.


Sword of Shannara I’ve had the rare good fortune to meet many of my favorite authors. Notably, Douglas Adams, Arthur C Clarke, and, a few weeks ago, Terry Brooks. I’ve also met Cory Doctorow, Mo Willems, Will Wheaton, Frank X Walker and a host of other authors, and each time was struck by the humanity of great people. I deeply regret that I never had an opportunity to tell Ray Bradbury how much his work means to me.

Two of the authors I’ve met have since died, and I remember meeting them – particularly Sir Arthur – as high points of my life. Shaking the hand that penned Rama was an inexpressible honor.

(Indeed, I’ve had the fortune to meet many of my heroes over the years – that’s a post for another time.)

Several weeks ago I met Terry Brooks, the author of The Sword of Shannara which, for a long time, held the title of Favorite Book Ever. That spot has since been usurped by Dandelion Wine, and I somehow think that Terry might not begrudge Ray Bradbury that spot.

Mr. Brooks was signing books at Joseph Beth Booksellers, in Lexington.

Mr. Brooks answered a *lot* of questions, and really gave them thought, and spoke to the people asking them as though they mattered. He read a *long* section from his new book, but carefully chose a section that didn’t actually give anything away. And he signed books. Boy, did he sign books. He signed everything that anyone brought. One guy brought a suitcase. I am not making this up. A suitcase which purportedly contained The Complete Works. And Mr. Brooks signed them.

When we went up to have our books signed (alas, I only took three!) he spoke with us as though we were people. He made eye contact. He wrote our names in the books, and made sure he was spelling them right.

I was so impressed that I’ve now started buying and reading all of his books that I’ve missed over the years. And, somehow, having heard him read makes the books come alive a little more. I think Sword might be creeping back up my favorite book list again.

The Masked Rider

I have finally finished reading The Masked Rider, by Rush drummer Neil Peart. It was both wonderful and disappointing.

Wonderful, because of the story that he tells, of the journey that he took across some of the hardest, as well as most beautiful, land on earth. For reasons that were apparently not even clear to himself, he biked across Cameroon with a handful of other North Americans, staying in all manner of hovels and hotels, meeting peasants and chieftains, and enduring difficult (and non-existent) roads and roadblocks. But, wow, what an experience.

Disappointing because in so many places Peart’s contempt for the portion of humanity not himself, comes through loudly. Much of the book was a tirade against his fellow travelers, or with the people around him, or with the pointlessness of West African inefficiencies. One wonders why someone would choose to bike across Cameroon if one wasn’t expecting abject poverty, terrible road conditions, and long stretches between running water. I’d love to see the marketing brochure.

Strangely, for his grim painting of the experience, I came away from it wishing that I could do it myself. Always a junkie for an experience, I would *love* to see the things that he describes, even at the expense of the physical difficulty it took to get to it. And in many of his disgusted tellings of interpersonal turmoil, I found myself siding with the person he was berating. He is *so* completely goal-oriented, that even when describing the beauty around him, he seemed to miss out on the experience he was complaining about – a bit of a paradox, I suppose.

Peart remains my favorite lyricist, writing song lyrics that actually mean something. But I have, so far, found his books frustrating – a wealthy traveler expecting the world to be a place of luxury when he arrives at his destination, and not get in his way getting there. I, on the other hand, love the journey more than the destination. For me, the experience is the thing, and actually arriving there is less interesting.

Or, to quote my favorite lyricist:

From the point of ignition
To the final drive
The point of a journey
Is not to arrive

Anything can happen…

From The Inkwell

I’m delighted to announce the publication of my newest volume of poetry, From The Inkwell, which is (almost) my complete works from 2008, minus a piece here or there that’s best kept to myself.

You can see my other volumes of poetry on My Lulu Store.

I’m hoping that this volume will sell more than the last one, which sold a grand total of three copies, including the one I bought for myself. :-)


Over the last few years, I’ve read a number of books that were suggested to me by Steven King, by reference to them in various of his books. The most memorable of these were “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Rebecca”, which were both mentioned in “Bag of Bones”.

I just finished reading “Shardik”, which is mentioned in one of the volumes “The Dark Tower” series.

It was a work of will to finish it. It was plodding and heavy reading, with a very good story, but told slowly and with many lengthy pauses between anything of consequence happening. It’s the story of a religion, centering around an enormous bear, and much of it is told in artificially archaic scripture-like language.

This was something of a surprise, coming from Richard Adams, who also wrote “Watership Down”, which I greatly enjoyed both times I’ve read it.

So, on the whole, I don’t much recommend it.

Books books books books


1. Do you remember how you developed a love for reading?

I don’t remember not having a love for reading, but I can certainly remember a few things that made it stronger. Almost all of them have to do with people reading to me.

I remember sitting in Mr. Bruce’s history (supposedly) class while he read The Hobbit to us. I remember Dad reading 20,000 Leagues. I remember hours spent reading Hardy Boys books in the boarding school dorm at nap time, while someone practiced piano down the hall. There are, to this day, certain piano melodies that bring vividly to mind images of the Hardy Boys investigating dark caves and abandoned pirate ships.

2. What are some books you read as a child?

The earliest books I remember are Noddy, other stuff by Enid Blyton, Richard Scary, and Beatrix Potter. The first book I remember owning was “The Monk Who Shook The World.” The first hardback book I remember owning was “The Red Badge of Courage”, by Steven Crane. I’ve still got that.

The books I remember reading which I most wish I still had are the Lensman books by E. E. Doc Smith, which are now difficult to obtain as a complete set, having been out of print for many years, although you can find most of the books used in various conditions. I took them to a used book store and traded them for other books, which in turn were traded for other books. I used to go to the used book store in Nairobi almost every time I went downtown.

I remember reading Trumpet of the Swan and believing every word.

I remember reading ‘Salem’s Lot and being absolutely terrified but unable to put it down.

I remember a certain pretty girl in highschool who introduced me to Douglas Adams and Terry Brooks. The Shannara books were a bit of a revelation. Who knew anybody could write as grippingly as Tolkien? And Douglas Adams – well, what can one say? My signed copy of the Guide is truly a treasured possession.

I remember discovering The Colour of Magic in a book store in London, and devouring it on the plane on the way back to the US, and laughing so hard that people from several rows away were craning their necks to stare at me.

3. What is your favorite genre?

Science Fiction and Fantasy in equal measures. Although most of what I would consider my favorite books are in neither category, that’s what the bulk of my reading has been over the years.

4. Do you have a favorite novel?

Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. I read it every summer, and have done for the last ten years. Every time I read it, I find something different in it. I love this book. It’s about a boy discovering that he’s really alive, and then discovering that he’s going to die some day. It’s a wonderful celebration of life, and an exhortation to experience life while you’re alive. It’s a memory of a childhood, and it sends shivers down my back, and makes me cry, and laugh, every time I read it.

And it sends echoes all through his other books. I hear phrases in it that turn up decades later in other books. I hear ideas that he builds entire stories around 20 or 30 years afterwards. The bottles of wine in that cellar are truly the source of all of his other tales, and so I keep going back to it again and again.

I cant quite say enough about Bradbury. He’s one of those authors that people tends to dismiss as “just a sci-fi author”, and so miss out on the wealth of his writing. Like King is “just a horror author.” And Shakespeare is “just a dirty-minded bard.” And the Pacific is “just a big wet spot.”

5. Where do you usually read?

Um … is this a trick question? I read … um … where there are books.

6. When do you usually read?

Mostly when I’m awake. But sometimes I dream about it, too.

7. Do you usually have more than one book you are reading at a time?

Yes. I usually have 3 or 4 going at once – several on paper and one audio book.

8. Do you read nonfiction in a different way or place than you read fiction?

No, but I very seldom read nonfiction. The real world is far too depressing.

9. Do you buy most of the books you read, or borrow them, or check them out of the library?

Alas, buy them all. I know, I should go to the library more, but I just hate to get rid of a book after I’ve read it.

10. Do you keep most of the books you buy? If not, what do you do with them?

When I was a kid in Nairobi, I frequented the used book store. I would read a book, and when I was done with it I would take it and trade it for another. In this way, many books passed through my hands that I would now dearly love to own. The complete Lensmen series by E.E. Doc Smith. The complete works of Ray Bradbury (at least up to that time). The Dune books. The Adventure of Tom Bombadil. The Foundation and Empire series, and many many of the Asimov robot books.

There are many times when I look longingly at a book on Amazon, or some used book site, that’s priced outside of my range, that I once owned.

So … all that to say, I never get rid of a book any more. I hang on to it forever. My collection grows and grows, and every cherished book – and the not-so-cherished ones – stick around just in case I need them some day.

Yes, I have a problem. I’m ok with that.

11. If you have children, what are some of the favorite books you have shared with them? Were they some of the same ones you read as a child?

The one we read and loved, we share with our kids. Narnia. Middle Earth. Trumpet of the Swan. 20,000 Leagues. We love reading with the kids, and they love it too. Kill your television. Read with your kids. Seriously. You can live without turning on your TV. We haven’t watched a TV show in 2 years, and we’re managing just fine.

12. What are you reading now?

Duma Key, by Steven King. Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Vernes. Shardik, by Richard Adams. Wicked, by … somebody. The Razor’s Edge by Maugham. The Fellowship of the Rings, by Tolkein. Anne of Green Gables. I think that might be it, but it feels like I’m forgetting something …

13. Do you keep a TBR (to be read) list?

I try to, but it tends to get jumbled all the time. Something comes up that I want to read, and it displaces other things.

14. What’s next?

Three Cups of Tea. Sacred Death, by David Snell. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Bradbury. Fields of Battle, by John Keegan. The Book Thief. No Picnic on Mount Kenya.

15. What books would you like to reread?

Something Wicked This Way Comes. Brothers Karamazov. Bleak House. The Color of Magic. Fahrenheit 451.

16. Who are your favorite authors?

Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is easily the best living author, and easily one of the best ten authors of the last hundred years. It would, I suppose, be presumptuous to say he’s in the top 20 ever, because I really haven’t read enough to be able to make that claim. But I think he is. If you haven’t read any Bradbury, you should. Start with Dandelion Wine.

He has a way of saying things that gets right to the truth of it. And he taught me to write every day, whether or not I have something to write. Bradbury writes a story every day. Naturally, most of them aren’t very good, but you have to write a lot in order to write a few things that are truly great. That’s what Bradbury said, and I take it very seriously. I have had the privilege of meeting two of my favorite authors – Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke. I would love to meet Bradbury.

Charles Dickens. Yeah, I know, folks think that Dickens is wordy – and he is. But he had the courage to write about social issues when it was unfashionable to care about the poor. And he wrote about the average man as though he was an actual human being – a fellow passenger to the grave, and not other creatures bound on other journeys – when it was convenient to think of the poor, and minorities, as something less than human. His characters are simplified, and as such are larger than life. The play Oliver, performed at Turi, was what started my love of Dickens, and it has just grown from there. I read A Christmas Carol several times a year, and the last few years I’ve done a straight-through reading aloud to a small gathering of my friends.

Others include Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, E.E.Doc Smith. Douglas Adams. Terry Brooks. Terry Pratchett. William Wordsworth. Wendell Berry. Pablo Neruda. Robert Aspirin. Steven King. It’s hardly fair to have to pick.

Writing a book

I’ve been looking for a decent tool with which to write a book, and haven’t haven’t had much luck.

Pages is nice for laying out stuff, but although it does a Table of Contents nicely, it doesn’t do indexing. I’ve been told that there are templates that do indexing, but I haven’t had any luck in finding them.

Word does indexing, of course, but it’s so amazingly difficult to add an index term that it actively discourages one to do it.

The process, by the way, is:
* Highlight term
* Click on “Insert” -> “Indexes and tables”
* Click “Mark Entry”
* Fill in the term that you wish to appear in the index.
* Click “Mark”
* Click “Close”

Simply having a shortcut key to highlight and mark, or perhaps highlight, right-click, and mark, would greatly increase the effectiveness of this process. If I don’t index while I write, I don’t index.

I could use DocBook, and probably will, but the tools for converting DocBook to anything else are SO geek-centric that I find them profoundly tiresome to use. Having to spend an entire day researching and installing and configuring in order to write content seems excessive.

And of course, I could go back to writing LaTeX. Once I get back into the swing of it, I imagine that it would be the most efficient thing to do. But the output tends to be a little on the sterile side, and it’s hard to do specific layout like image flow, sidebars, and so on – although I’m sure that a dozen people will respond and say, it’s really easy, you just follow this 12-page HowTo. Oy.

Anyways, if someone can simply point me to a Pages template, that would of course be the best of all options.

For the most part, though, it’s frustrating that one either has to be an uber-geek in order to use any of the readily-available book authoring tools, or spend a lot of money on some other tool.

Listening is cheating?

Listening is cheating?

As I mentioned on a mailing list recently:

I grew up with people reading books to me. My parents read the Narnia books to me, as I sat near a fireplace. Mr. Bruce read The Hobbit to me, as I sat in a warm afternoon classroom with the doors wide open and the African sky beckoning us to come out and play. And more recently, I have read many books to my kids as they wind down before bed.

To claim that any of these are “cheating” implies a couple things. One is, that everyone is trying to work towards some particular goal, which is ludicrous. The other is that these experiences, which significantly formed my life, my love of literature, and my own writing, are somehow impure and less than valid, which is insulting.

When folks make remarks like this, it just makes me sad for them, because it means that nobody read to them when they were kids.

Right now, I’m listening to “The Life Of Pi” on my way to and from work. It works a lot better in an Indian voice than it would if I was reading it myself.