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Thursday, May 21st, 2009

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9:56p
Back to reviewing?
Yes, I have been slipping further behind in my book reviewing, I know, with 16 books in the stack to be reviewed. As those of you who have been reading my sparse postings in my blog know, my company is falling apart, although I'm still putting significant hours in working from home, I'm having to start looking for a job (in this lovely economy), and The Wife just got laid off. I'm doing 18 hour days, and not making up any ground ... sooooo, the book reviews keep not getting written. I'm in a state tonight where I just couldn't do another networking letter, nor start on a work project, so I'm hoping I can knock down a few titles before I pass out at the keyboard.

Anyway, this is a brand new book, having turned up just a couple of weeks back at the dollar store ... F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century by Mark Levine is, as one might guess from the sub-title, a recounting of a devastating weather disaster that happened in northern Alabama in April, 1974. The book is a bit confusing, however, as it was written in 2007, about a storm that happened 33 years earlier, so one might think that the author had some connection to the events. However, the author was born in New York City, grew up in Canada, would have been about 9 years old at the time of the storm, and is primarily known for his poetry. What brought him to this subject? The only clue I can find is that this is "a Miramax book", and might have been penned as a companion book to a movie project.

The fact that Levine is not a "regular" nonfiction writer comes through in the back-and-forth telling of the tale, generally alternating chapters of reporting on what was happening in the US during April 1974, a bit of history on meteorological research (focusing on Dr. Tetsuya Fujita, whose last name graces the tornado intensity scale he developed, hence the "F5" of the title), and "personal stories" of various people caught up in the disaster that hit Limestone County, AL. Unfortunately, this does not "meld" very well, and is more like having had 3 separate books pulled apart and then collated (well, except for the Fujita parts, as he is pretty much "background" info until the very end) chronologically.

The most fascinating part of this, to me at least, was the description of how the weather ended up building up such a ferocious storm front (there were 148 twisters hitting in 24 hours over a dozen states in a broad band ranging from Chicago to Atlanta), which would have been the core of a very interesting book on meteorology, perhaps coupled with the historical background on the science (but at that point it would be a book about Dr. Fujita). However the "soul" of the book deals with the reconstructed stories of a few dozen people, in various family and professional groupings, and how the storm impacted their lives. The problem is, as these stories were told in isolated vignettes, it became hard as the book went on to really tell apart the people, and sort out their back stories. A lot of them died, many were mutilated, some are still alive today, but by the end of the book they all just sort of blend into "people affected by the storm".

Again, my guess is that this book was part of a movie project, and that (given that there is no mention of a movie in it) Miramax opted to just put out the book at some point. As a free-standing work, however, it's highly uneven and difficult to really "get into". This is not to say that it's not interesting in its various parts, just that the level of engagement is pretty low.

As noted above, I got this at the dollar store (with a sticker that indicated that it had been through Target's inventory at some point), so it's likely available in the aftermarket. Oddly (as if sometimes the case with what I find at the dollar store), Amazon seems to have it at their standard discount from cover, and even the new/used guys are asking nearly $3 for a "new" copy (plus shipping, of course). It's not a bad book, and if you're interested in violent weather, a bit of science history, or following folks around in the midst of a disaster, this could be something you'd want to pick up.


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11:19p
Another of these ...
OK, maybe it's the color scheme, but every time I pick up a "for Dummies" book I get that nasty guilt thing that all English Majors get when coming in contact with a Cliffs Notes volume! I generally reserve these for situations where I've learned something sometime in the past, and have forgotten most of it (be the subject wine or Visual Basic) via disuse, yet know that I knew it and just need to have those synapses cleaned up and firing again.

Manny Hernandez's Ning for Dummies is rather a different situation in that it's pretty much the only reference for the Ning social-networking platform (on which I'm developing various sites for friends/clients), and I needed this as a short-cut to get around some of the steeper learning curves involved!

Of course, there are challenges to reviewing a "how-to" book that take me out of my standard non-fiction "comfort zone", and especially in that I told the author (via Twitter communications) that I would be reviewing his book ... so I'm likely to be trying to stay more on-topic here than one might expect if this was not the case.

Now, as noted, I have been involved in working with Ning sites for the past 6-9 months, being part of a team that produced a half a dozen projects based on the platform, so I probably have much more familiarity with it than most people coming to the book. However, I was not the "tech lead" on any but the ones that I'm personally working on, so the "crunchier" bits were always lurking just behind the curtain. That said, my initial impression of Ning for Dummies was that it was pretty much three books, one for total beginners, one for mid-level users, and one for folks (like me) who wanted or needed to "get under the hood". I didn't start sticking in slips of paper (for bookmarks) until Chapter 12, towards the end of part 3 (out of 6) so a bit over half the book was "stuff I knew" (albeit there were things laid out in a clearer manner than I'd ever encountered them), and a bit less than half of the book dealing with stuff that I'd either not figured out yet, or hadn't had to deal with (such as the parts of "marketing" the site within the Ning universe).

One substantial problem the book has can hardly be laid at the feet of the author, however, as this comes from the rapid pace of development that Ning has been going through. I follow several Ning feeds on Twitter, and there are new developments coming out weekly, so as new as this is, it's going to be very quickly outdated!

There are currently over a million Ning-based sites out there, ranging from the huge (half a million members on rapper 50¢'s site) to the tiny ... and with this book, I'm pretty sure that anybody with basic web-sense (and a smattering of HTML) could add another one in a couple of hours if they were so inclined. The first third of the book is very basic, and walks the reader step-by-step through what they need to do to start up a Ning-platform site.

The second third of the book pretty much bridges between the intro and expert levels, with a lot of very useful "now you do this" instructions that clarify a lot of things which are not particularly intuitive. Then, of course, there are the "under the hood" parts, as well as bits about getting people to join up (I was referring to a section in here just this afternoon to get over a problem that had come up on one site).

Since this is brand new, you're not likely to get any price break on it (aside from Amazon's 34% discount), but if you're wanting to do a Ning site, and don't have patience to try to dig through the less-than-stellar instructions that Ning has to offer, Ning for Dummies will help!


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