A Spell for Chameleon
by Piers Anthony
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Xanth was the first series of books that caught my attention as a child, and I have Piers Anthony to thank for my love of reading today. I read nearly twenty of the books before moving on to more advanced fantasy series. What is most remarkable about all of that to me, however, is that I don’t remember once thinking how horrifically sexist the books are!
It’s hard to talk about the magic of Xanth and the great and interesting talents of its people because the book is overwhelmed with things like a mock rape trial, observations about the uselessness, deception, and irrelevancy of women, and downright shameful reduction of women’s role in society and men’s lives as objects. I am not a vocal advocate for women’s issues, and I’m very often turned off by liberation or empowerment propaganda, but in the face of outright misogynistic vitriol I cannot help but take a stand. It is one thing to discuss the differences of the sexes, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and even allow for some socio-historical context to influence the characters in a fantasy setting; but Piers Anthony goes way beyond that at every turn. The book somehow makes a claim to be about the worth of a person being judged by doing the right and just thing even when faced with unjust situations. Yet it takes a pause in the very beginning of the main character’s adventure to have a completely pointless aside where in the guise of a legal proceeding he dismisses the entire concept of date rape as being ridiculous. He outright claims that a beautiful and smart woman must be inherently evil, and that it is only natural for a man to want a woman of both intelligence and beauty, but not at the same time. These things overshadow every aspect of the fantasy story being told. I can’t even begin to talk about the story’s tales of companionship, illusion, history, or growth. They all take a back seat to one man’s disgusting vision.
As my own son grows, I had planned on offering up this series to him at an early age in hopes of capturing his interest in reading. You can be sure that won’t be happening. No boy should grow up thinking these kinds of thoughts about women. No good and just actions can come of it.
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Practical Vim: Edit Text at the Speed of Thought
by Drew Neil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was hands down one of the very best technical books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Drew Neil has found a way to organize the book into a tip format without making it lose focus or seem endlessly unimaginative. Rather, by organizing the tips into themes, he gives the editor itself structure where before there was only the grey void of endless features.
I was an intermediate vim user before this book. It was my primary editor, and I used navigation keys and some basic yank and put operations regularly. I knew how to jump to lines, zip between words, and some mediocre regular expressions. After having read this book, I don’t bother opening up gvim or macvim anymore. I’m so comfortable working without the mouse, I prefer to keep myself in the console all the time. My speed has increased dramatically, as has my confidence. I participated in vimgolf for the first time just last week.
If you are a vim user with a strong basic understanding, this book is for you. Don’t pick it up if you are brand new to the editor, though. Complete the vimtutor first and give it some time to sink in.
Wouldn’t you know it… Just this short review was incredibly painful to write since I’m not using my favorite text editor. What a snob I’ve become!
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Hymnal for Dirty Girls
by Rebekah Matthews
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I had to take a few days to think about how I should review this book. I received it in a Goodreads Giveaway, which I entered based almost entirely on the cover design and title. I knew nothing of the subject matter or format and that would have greatly affected my desire to pick it up in the first place.
Next, I should be clear that my rating is, and must be, true to my own experience in reading the book. It does not necessarily depict the independent value or quality of the writing, the impact of the themes or subjects, or any other fancy writing concepts. On Goodreads, two stars means, “It was ok,” and that is exactly how I felt after reading it. I suspect that those who pick this book up based on its content with an honest desire and interest in it will find the book much more enjoyable.
The format is also very hard to critique. This is a collection of extremely short stories. Some are no more than a single scene. It felt, at times, like the author was sharing a bunch of writing experiments with us. I can’t very well critique them on lack of character development or anything like that because that’s not the form of writing we’re dealing with. For what they are, they are very well written. In a few stories the use of the second person perspective is a bit annoying and feels like the type of gimmick I’d expect from a college-level writing class.
There are a few moments of clear inspired writing in here, which is commendable. My overall impression was that of a small art exhibit in a big city, which spends more effort on being different and niche than on the craft itself.
The jacket notes mention that Ms. Matthews is currently writing a novel. I’d be interested in reading that to see how she handles the larger work and the many aspects of writing that come with it.
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A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
by Bill Bryson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book started out very strong for me. I loved the author’s voice and his subject matter. I read the first half of the book in one sitting, but then upon taking it up again, I faltered. I didn’t feel a strong appeal in going back, and I really didn’t feel like it was important to finish. There is a bit of a parallel there between my reading and Bryson’s hiking, I suppose. It was a good trip down memory lane, recalling my own adventures on the trail. It was interesting to read about some of the history as well. In the end, though, the story just didn’t have that spark that kept me asking, “what happens next?”
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Last night at exactly 5:14:39 UTC, the latest NASA project touched down on the surface of Mars. The Curiosity rover is a mobile science lab that will travel the planet looking for signs of previous life. It’s a big mission and has already begun to capture the imagination of the world.
If we (notice how I include myself in this effort) manage to find evidence of extraterrestrial life, it will represent the single greatest scientific discovery in the history of mankind. There’s no exaggeration there. It will be the biggest news ever. We’re not talking about intelligent life, here, obviously. They’re not even looking for living things themselves yet. This search is all about finding the building-blocks that support life. That, if found, will be enough to warrant this a huge success.
But lets take a moment to allow ourselves to wonder, to dream, and to be inspired. It’s not a popular thing these days when we celebrate cynicism and doubt, but I guarantee it won’t hurt. What would tomorrow feel like if we knew, not just suspected, that we weren’t the only life in the solar system, let alone the universe. For some, I imagine, it will bring a moment of profound perspective, much like the Total Perspective Vortex of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For others it will probably be a platform for pride, obviously (to them) verifying whatever belief they espouse. For all, it will bring a change; and, I’d hope, it will bring us together.
In the meantime, I want to congratulate NASA and thank them. It gives me incredible consolation to remember that despite our problems in this country and in this world, we can bring together the amazing talents and minds of that team and give them the necessary resources to work wonders. We need people like that. We need faith that such things can happen. And we need their contributions if we are ever to hope to spread our wings beyond this tiny blue dot.