Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve done a disservice to this book: I read it over the course of two months. It’s not a long book or a particularly challenging book; but things kept coming up and I didn’t get to spend as much time on it as I’d have liked.

As a practical effect, this means that I jumped from chapter to chapter with weeks between them. This is not conducive to either retention or reflection. So I am left without much to say about Mr. Jefferson or his times. And that’s almost a tragedy since, while I was physically reading it, I thought that this book offered several insights into both of those subjects.

Of course, this is far from an exhaustive volume on the subject. It’s short and Hitchens jumps around in the timeline, skipping great swaths of Jefferson’s life and cutting out many (undoubtedly important) details. Instead, Hitchens picks and chooses what he writes about to focus on Jefferson’s place in American morality and spirituality.

The issue of morality, of course, is overwhelmed by Jefferson’s feelings an actions around chattel slavery: the great moral evil of my people. Hitchens paints a picture of a Jefferson at war with himself over his own innate selfishness, his drive to be a force for good and justice, and his fear of what would happen to powerful white men like himself if the slaves were freed and able to take revenge for the cruelties they’d been subjected to.

Hitchens never draws Jefferson as an exonerated saint or a cartoon villain: instead, he shows Jefferson as a flawed human trying to deal with a complicated situation and making the wrong choices.

In contrast, Jefferson’s rational and Enlightened view of religion is much more inline with Hitchens’ own views. In discussing Jefferson’s religious activities, he does not intend to bury Jefferson and instead uses his own words as counterexamples to modern demagogues attempting to usurp Jefferson for their own causes.

And that’s largely where the book ends. It contents itself with slavery and religion (and, to a far more minor degree, Federalism and Republicanism). If you want more about Jefferson, you’ll need to find it elsewhere.

But, even if this is will be only a short stop in your Jeffersonian education, I do recommend it. The topics that Hitchens explores are important and Jefferson did a lot to shape modern America in regards to them. It’s also a well-written book: it’s charming and funny while never being dry.

I look forward to re-reading it again some day soon. Hopefully, I will find myself able to devote more attention to it then. Because I think it deserves it.

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

Knife of Dreams
Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the final Wheel of Time book to be penned solely by Robert Jordan, so it seems like it’s worth pausing to consider the series as a whole at this point before diving into Sanderson’s take on the work.

And as a whole, the series works. It’s entertaining. I’m not sure I would actually recommend it to anyone, but I don’t have to: it’s popularity recommends it for itself.

There is some interesting room for discussion. Jordan’s treatment of female characters is often remarked upon. But I think he mis-writes his women in the exact same way he mis-writes his men. I don’t think it’s misogyny so much as an ability to write rational adults. Everyone in this series is a manipulative, conniving, un-trusting and largely untrustworthy idiot. Everyone has secret plans for everyone else. Everyone is certain that they deserve special treatment above everyone else. Everyone goes out of their way to not reveal important information to everyone else. It goes on and on.

But this behavior stands out for the female characters more-so than their male counterparts because this is how shrews and bitches have been long portrayed in our society. The exact same behavior doesn’t ping for the men because men never need to prove that they aren’t all of those things.

So I think it’s too simplistic to say “Jordan can’t write women.” or even “Jordan hates women.” I think it’s closer to “Jordan can’t write anyone at all, and he never notices that his privileged position means he has to try harder for the women.” I don’t say this to excuse him, but merely to point out that his literary sins extend far beyond “She folded her arms beneath her breasts.*”

And then there’s the spanking. I don’t even know what to think about the spanking. Again, spankings (and the threat of spankings) are used by both men and women in these books; but it’s way creepier when a man suddenly throws a non-consenting woman over his knee. My own take on it pretty much stops at “Adults do not solve their personal disputes in this manner!” but if you want to read a deep-seated misogyny into it, I won’t argue with you. It’s really disturbing.

Aside from that (which is a pretty big aside!), the story feels too complicated in general. There are enough characters that I don’t really know who is who or where they are or what they’re doing anymore. I’m constantly having to look up minor characters on the Wheel of Time Wiki just to get the basic facts about them when they show up in the story.

In a previous review, I believe I complained that there were too many villains. Now there’s too many characters in general. There are also too many main plots and subplots and small plots and who knows what else. I think I have the general outline of what’s happened over the past eleven books, but I wouldn’t be able to sketch it out for anyone.

At this point, I’m enjoying the books scene-by-scene and not worrying too much about how those scenes interconnect. For everything else, there’s the wiki.

And I don’t think there was ever an actual Knife of Dreams: if there was, I completely missed it in one of the subplots. The titles of the books have all been pretty literal plot-points until now. I don’t know what that means going forward, but it feels like a sudden change. 

* Although, that’s a pretty big literary sin. He uses that construction fifteen times in this book alone.

Friday, March 16th, 2012

It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have an AppleTV. There’s no sense in writing a review of the thing since everyone should know all about it. Instead, I want to offer some of the rough impressions I’ve had after a couple hours of using it.

  • We’re incredibly used to our Playstation 3’s Bluetooth remote control. We keep forgetting to point the remote at the AppleTV. This feels archaic.
  • The new episode of Psych, which aired last night, is not available on the iTunes store. I thought things were supposed to appear the day-after. What’s the point?
  • Content-availability aside, the AppleTV seems like a phenomenal device to funnel money from us to Apple. We’re probably going to start renting movies on it: and we have a Netflix DVD account! I think we’ll also end up with several season passes of TV shows if iTunes actually has the content available next-day.
  • We knew that Hulu wouldn’t be an app on the device, but we’d expected to be able to stream it from our iPhones or iPads. Nope. Hulu doesn’t do AirPlay.
  • Pandora does do AirPlay and it’s quite nice.
  • The AppleTV doesn’t have a setting to determine if audio goes out through the HDMI port or the optical port. You get both all the time. It seems that Tim has a less complicated home theater setup than we do.
  • If the NHL offered à la carte hockey games, they’d get some money from me. But I’m not going to subscribe to their entire season lineup so they’ll just have to do without.
  • As soon as possible, I’m going to jailbreak it so it can run Plex.

It’s not a bad little box for the price and I think we’ll be happy with it. For the most part, a Roku box would have been far more appropriate for us; but AirPlay is just such a compelling feature that we decided to go with this for now. Hopefully it can be jailbroken to be almost as useful as a Roku. If not? Who knows. Maybe we’ll buy a Roku too.

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

I did everything you asked.

I pre-ordered. I signed up for Origins. I typed in that ridiculous code to enforce multiplayer only for thems what can pay. I did it all.

So why won’t you give Kate Shepherd back to me?! Who is this stranger you’ve replaced her with?! Give her back! You monsters!

What else do I have to do?! Do I have to buy a Kinect? I’ll buy a Kinect! I’ll leave the money in a brown paper envelope behind the cistern in the men’s room at the bus station. You’ll get your money.

Just give me back my Commander.

You monsters.

0-out-of-5 Stars