Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I'm moving!

Hello everyone!

Before you freak out, no, I'm not quitting this blog. I've been considering moving it for some time, receiving counsel from my ever-so-wise friends. (E.G. "Why are you still on Blogspot? That's so 2006.")

So, I'm moving to Wordpress! Be excited. I'm fully expecting sparkly, squeaky-clean themes and lots of frustrations with reformatting everything.

Blogspot has been a great host for me, and I've been here since 2010. This blog will stay up as an archive, but I feel that Wordpress will offer me a lot more flexibility and cleanliness in my posts. Plus, not every change is bad; Wordpresses are easier to find, and with the constant threat of Google changing things, I feel a little safer over there.

No fear! I will keep posting, and I'm even planning some spiffy new content. Be excited.

You can find me at A Subtle Glory. I decided to also change the name because this name seems to be hard for a lot of people to understand, and it's a little generic. Try Googling it some time; I'm about the 5000000000000 search result.

Anyway, thank you all for your visits here. It means so much to me, and please keep up with me!


Monday, June 24, 2013

When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man

Title: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man
Author: Nick Dybek
Year: 2012
Genre: Drama/suspense
Rating: 2

Thinking of the people you know the best, you think you can estimate what they'll do, what they think, who they are by the decisions they've made in the past. They might be impatient, indecisive, peacemaking, passive, aggressive, impetuous, good or just plain mischievous. But the real questions is this: can you really ever know for sure what someone might or might not become as a reflection of their choices and their desires?
With masterful storytelling and paced gravity, Nick Dybek's When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man peruses the effects of our choices and what they mean for who we are and what we might become. The smallest thing might change the course of someone's identity, but only if they want to change. The young voice of the narrator begins as reminiscent but fades to disillusioned as the story progresses.
Set in the rainy town of Loyalty Island in northeastern Washington State, the grey and misty air of a wet day in late November pervades the whole novel, despite the passage of time through the regular seasons. Cal Bollings, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, relates an incident surrounding the crab season in the 1980s when the heir of the Loyalty Island crab boats decides to break up his father's company, dooming the fisherman to unemployment. Richard Gaunt, the heir, is an interesting enigma to both Cal and the rest of the town: half crazy but strangely lucid, he is one of the few people that has left Loyalty Island for various destinations, but always returning because of some unnamed tie to the overcast land and dark waters. However, when fishing season comes around, Cal's father and the fishermen report back that Richard has gone overboard in the Alaskan oceans and drowned. Some weeks later, Cal finds out the truth and is forced to make a dreadful choice: defy his father and the men he has admired all his life, or do what might be right for the moment but will kill the island and all he has known.
The novel is told in flashback, which accounts for some of the grave maturity of Cal's voice, but is by no means dry. In some places, where the telling drops into vivid memories, we catch glimpses of what a fourteen-year-old might actually feel in this situation. Punctuated by poignant observations and proverbs, the writing is crisp and haunting, lending the book strength that the story might not have carried all of its own.
The characters themselves are striking. Cal's mother, for example, is a mystery to everyone on Loyalty Island, including his father, who goes off to fish in Alaska instead of trying to understand his wife. Even Cal is unsure of how he feels about her: love, anger, loyalty, bitterness and admiration all swirl around her at various points in the story. Richard Gaunt, one of the central figures of the story, is a beautifully developed character, not easily summarized or understood, even to an outside observer. Dybek is an incredibly intelligent observer of human nature, and When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man lives and breathes with human life.
Cal's father, too, is a mixed figure, and we spend the whole story trying to determine whether he is a hero or a villain- which, of course, is the point. Perhaps we are all good and bad, and one decision can make us good just for the moment. After all, who is so bad they cannot be redeemed, and who is so good they cannot fall?
Dybek illustrates a great understanding of human nature and the suspense to tell a riveting, moving story. This novel is heavy, but not so much so that it will drown readers. Dybek is brave enough to ask questions that he doesn't answer, leaving readers to wonder what it all meant: hard for those looking for just entertainment, but for those who have the time to wonder, this story will echo.
Because it's relatively recent, When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man is available for $10.28 in hardback from Amazon, or $9.99 on the Kindle. I was lucky enough to spot mine of the shelf of a used book shop for $2.00, so they are floating around out there, and your library might have a copy if you live in a city or a larger town. Make time for this novel, though; not a lighthearted read, but certainly valuable just for the quality of the storytelling. I would relate its tone to American Rust, which I reviewed late last year, but infinitely better done.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Left Hand of Darkness

Title: The Left Hand of Darkness
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Year: 1969
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 2

The concept of negative space is confusing. Who ever heard of calling nothing something? And yet, in art, the first thing you learn is how to use negative space to define the positive space. In sociology, this often translates in a negative way: we define ourselves by what we're not, creating an "us" and an amorphous "them." But, reflecting back, don't we need "them" to be "us?"
In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin presents us with a conundrum of a people so foreign that they can't possible be us, but still strikingly human. 44 years later, the theme of cultural understanding in the novel still rings eerily true, with the marriage equality battle and more and more international contact every day.
Tucked neatly between several of her other science fiction Hainish novels, the story takes place on a frozen planet called Gethen, or colloquially Winter. The people of Winter are human in every way except one: they are physiologically bisexual, meaning that they are essentially androgynous but hermaphroditic and can change gender during a sexual phase of each month. While this is initially shocking to any reader– our lives are so dictated by our genders, it's nigh impossible to imagine not having one– this is essentially the point. The main protagonist of the novel, Genly Ai, is a human envoy sent to prepare the planet to join a coalition called the Ekumen. He is, however, the only human with a fixed gender on the planet, isolating him so completely that he is forced to reevaluate how he sees other life forms. In his negotiations to prepare the planet to join, he meets with insane kings, curious exiles, double-crossing diplomats and prisoners on the brink of the world.
One thing to note is Le Guin's brilliant use of the first person. Much of the time, when novelists revert to first person to tell a story, it becomes borderline autobiography, or the character at least becomes a direct reflection of the author. Not so here; Genly is a clear, strong voice, distinct from Le Guin's protagonists in her other works (such as the fabulous A Wizard of Earthsea cycle and Rocannon's World). She also departs from Genly to tell the story through the other main protagonist, Estraven, a resident of Winter, and to use "documents" to illustrate the fullness and history of Winter and its people. A full chapter about halfway through the book describes in detail the sexual functions of the people, which is incredibly helpful and interesting to readers.
Duality is the main theme of the story. Besides the obvious (switching between storytellers) we also feel the sharp rift between Genly and the rest of the world he lives in each time he interacts with a Gethenian. Surprisingly enough, Le Guin does not focus overmuch on the sexual frustration Genly feels, but instead on his feeling of isolation amid a society that does not have any definition of male or female. He makes some astute observations about human nature, now stripped of gender expectations, and it gives us a surprisingly raw view of what our nature really is.
The friendship between Genly and Estraven is another buried gem of the book. We meet Estraven in the first few pages of the story, but the relationship between the two develops in a non-linear way that keeps readers guessing up until the end. After all, Estraven could become a woman at any time, but is undeniably a man in others. In some ways, that subverts all elements of friendship that we are familiar with (especially between the sexes) but also solidifies it as a friendship between two souls.
It should be noted that Le Guin was and is one of the few women authors in science fiction. Especially in the 1960s and 70s, that field was particularly domineered by men, and her strong presence there is remarkable in and of itself. Her writing is a little more long-winded than many sci-fi readers might be used to and drags in some places, but it definitely stands on its own as a beautiful work of literature with all the complexity of a space novel.
All in all, Le Guin has created a pithy novel that still cuts to the core of multicultural understanding today, particularly between the gay and straight communities. However, it's larger than that; Genly's struggle to understand a culture both so far and so near is our own, even from block to block. We don't have to travel to other planets to find a dissimilar, misunderstood people.
The Left Hand of Darkness is not available on Kindle, but is available in mass paperback from Amazon for $8.99, or on the Barnes and Noble nook for $9.99. Even if you're not into science fiction, this is a great book to read for your own personal gain, and Le Guin is a great author to get into; she has written a host of books on a variety of subjects, and all possess her deep thought and broad ideas.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Light That Failed

Title: The Light That Failed
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Year: 1890
Genre: Fiction/Classics
Rating: 1

Oh, the works that get passed over. Some of the greatest work of the greatest authors is ignored because it's missing some of the charm of their more popular works. Rudyard Kipling may be known best for The Jungle Book, Kim, and Captain Courageous, but he possessed a deeper observation of the world than just the adventures palatable to children. The Earth he lived on was full of failures, darkness, and pain, and any man given to the arts has the tools to express what he's seen.
The Light That Failed is just such a book. I originally picked it up off a corner bookshelf in an obscure bookstore in my hometown (the 1910 Art Type edition; I absolutely adore it) and only bought it for the author's name. However, after a year of trying to find time to read it and constant interruptions, I was able to immerse myself in the story and see the real beauty and skill that Kipling is famous for.
The book tells the story of two orphans, Dick and Maisie, who form a naive childhood relationship while under foster care before going out into the world. Dick goes abroad and to war, and Maisie goes to France for her education. The book skips forward about ten years, and we find Dick a talented artist who is injured in combat and sent home to London. There, in a chance meeting, he finds Maisie again, who has grown into a beautiful young woman with the same airy charm he remembers, and he renews his love for her. They are both artists, and he instructs her in a competitive way, but his unrequited love for her tortures the relationship. Then, to his horror and disbelief, Dick finds himself going blind from an old wound and must deal with the repercussions.
The primary attraction is the beautiful prose. Kipling is best known for his command of the English language, simultaneously making us snort with laughter and ponder what it means, turning us to and fro with quick but thoughtful words. Few other authors show his sense of humor in tandem with heavier thoughts. The Light That Failed is definitely of a different breed than his other works, but it is not out of character nor his style.
That being said, the symbolism is thick here. The concept of Dick being essentially castrated and removed from life by the old wounds of war is something that translated to today's soldiers (PTSD, anyone?) and Kipling's distaste for Britain's foreign involvements is clear. Of course, he takes a good-natured English stab at the French by his descriptions of the ridiculous art instructor Kami, but the serious current of concern runs beneath. Distance separates Dick from everything he loves, and even when he tries to go back, nothing is the same ever again after being exposed to the world.
The title is twofold: both literal, for his blindness, and for disappointed hopes.
Beware: this book is a tearjerker in some places. Kipling holds no details back when going down the disappointed hopes vein. He clearly believes that our efforts, no matter how much talent or time backs them, can still result in nothing when faced by the whims of the world. This fits perfectly in line with the sentiment of the time— the fin de siecle era was full of decadent and disenchanted modernist writers— but it is nonetheless upsetting to those who are looking for hope. In particular, the scene where Maisie finally visits Dick after his blindness completely takes over is moving. Kipling uses the full power of detached observance and vivid adjectives to convey how pathetically we can decline when struck by powers that we cannot understand.
In line with one of my other absolute favorite books, Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, The Light That Failed has been passed over with time. That's terrible unfortunate, because I would contend that this is a landmark in the modernist movement and one of the better novels I have read from that era. Brief, poignant, and deeply felt, Kipling has given us a moment in time that we've all felt: something is irretrievably lost.
Because it's not popular, this novel is available for as little as $3.99 on the Kindle or $9.41 in paperback from Amazon. Or, believe it or not, it's cheaper on the Barnes & Noble Nook for $1.99. Your library is likely to have a copy because it's been 113 years since this book first appeared, but I would highly recommend buying yourself a copy. This book will not take you a long time to read, but I suspect it will hang around in your thoughts for quite some time after.

On a side note, I am not dead. I took a job back in January that requires an inordinate amount of time and have not had time to patronize the Chicago Public Library for anything other than 19th century French fiction (I'm taking a class on it— Rimbaud and Flaubert forever!). Over the summer, expect to hear a lot more from me! That's all. Thanks for reading! <3

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Devil in Massachusetts

Title: The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials
Author: Marion L. Starkey
Year: 1949
Genre: Non-fiction/history
Rating: 2

Today, we put the utmost faith in justice. We hope that the men responsible for any crime will be brought to justice; we decide before a trial is over who is guilty, and are borderline angry if the accused is acquitted. We watch thousands of hours of police shows, we are obsessed with stories of the CIA and FBI hunts, and who can help but admire Sherlock Holmes' deep dedication to finding the source of wrong in the world.
Yet, justice can sometimes be this dark, terrifying thing. In the case of the Salem Witch Trials, justice took on the face of a superstitious population hunting for something which did not truly exist, and found it in innocent people to salve its own conscience. That is the deep power of justice-- when imperfect people are the ones implementing it, can it truly be considered pure justice?
With cold logic and three centuries of insight, Marion L. Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts sets this blemish in American history against a starkly (pun, anyone?) white background, forcing us to look it in the eye for the first time and consider the humanity of the situation beyond just the facts. Told in a narrative format, she puts us inside the community which inverted on itself in 1692.
The books begins by introducing us to those infamous little girls, Abigail and Betty, who began the panic in little Salem Village. We all know the story, but seeing it firsthand (more or less) brings a greater understanding or impact to what happened all those years ago. As the girls play with the dark arts in the minister's kitchen, readers can almost hear the clock ticking to the day of reckoning.
We watch the girls accuse soul after soul, and the general confusion and moral arm race unfold across the community. For the first time, Starkey points out to us the social and legal connotations of these events, and we wonder more and more how an emerging world could allow something like this to happen eight years before the 18th century began. Not quite a hundred years later, this same state would be in the grip of the American Revolution, full of the ideas of human rights and freedom.
Strange to know that the Salem Witch Trials were a rather small event compared to the enormous witch trials and hangings in Europe at the time. Only twenty witches in total were executed, but we remember the event today like it was the greatest tragedy of that part of history; the more studious can even recite the names of those killed, while the hundreds killed in Europe lie in anonymity. Starkey explores this question: why is this event then so significant?
Obviously, as this book was written 64 years ago, the language is a bit dated. Some of the spellings and turns of phrase can evoke letters that your grandparents wrote, but taking the age into account, Starkey has written a response to history remarkably clearly and concisely. At a mere 270 pages, this is not a long read, and the crunch of information we receive makes it flow much faster than expected.
One of the most notable things about this book is its meticulous research. Obviously, documents from an obscure village in Massachusetts in 1692 are not a dime a dozen, nor are they a light weekend read. Many of the spellings vary greatly (thank budding Germanic English for that one) and others were destroyed to cover up the affair. Starkey has winnowed to the bottom of all the paperwork and brushed together the scrapings of what was real, and applied it to the world as it lived and breathed at the time. Down to the description of John Procter's face and Sarah Good's tobacco habit, she has provided us with enough information to lead us down the factual road, but fill our hands with the feelings of humanity along the way.
The Devil in Massachusetts makes history tangible. It may not take the most comprehensive look at what the trials mean, nor does it add anything exceptional to what happened, but it gives us a more complete picture of what we know.
Because this book is so old and it is more commonly a textbook than recreational reading (you know you're a nerd when you read books like this in your spare time), it's not available on the Kindle, but you can get it in paperback from Amazon for $10.66. I bet a decent library might have a copy as well, so I'd try there first. If it's not there, look in your library network, because this is definitely worth a read for any budding student of history.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Original image at
Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Year: 2004
Genre: Science fiction/short stories
Rating: 1

Articles of life that we barely understand are sometimes the most beautiful. Those great mysteries that we realize can never be solved attract us over and over throughout our lives, preying on the backs of our minds, nagging, wondering. How is it that we cannot put them out of our minds? We know they have no answers, and never did, but some little part of human nature says that we cannot help ourselves. It’s better to wonder and never know than to be forever incurious.
Cloud Atlas is that balance of curiosity and answer, like echoes down a long canyon, leaving us to wonder if there really is a source at the other end. Woven artfully through difficulty and oppression, all of the characters of the book are victims of some heinous thing, but all heroes by their own spirit. Even if their stories end ingloriously, the meaning still stands, and that fact is the whole point.
            Summarizing David Mitchell’s abstract work is a bit like trying to make a Da Vinci out of cat’s cradle. So many different pieces pull against one another and seem separate, but are still knots on the same rope. We follow, more or less, a stream of consciousness on its path through six different lives, watching and guessing how they impact and change one another through the upheavals of time. From earthy, grounded Adam Ewing on the Pacific in the late 19th century to an unspecified, post-Apocalyptic Hawaii, Mitchell leads us along his twisted storyline of broken lives, and we wonder what anything means for the first 300 pages. And then, like a ball that’s made its weary way to the top of the hill, we slowly unwind to the bottom in a rush of emotions and revelations that both end our wondering and launch it into a new stratosphere.
            Mitchell is not only a literary master, but also clearly an outright genius. The organization and ingenuity it took to engineer the crisscrossing, complex, interlocked lives chronicled in Cloud Atlas would make the average novelist dizzy, let alone the invention of the unique structure. Formatted like a series of short stories, we are cut off at crucial moments and left to wonder for unnervingly long page numbers. For instance, we part ways with Adam Ewing after 39 pages and don’t meet him again until 475. If Mitchell were an average writer, we would hardly care for any of his characters by the time we see them again, but thankfully, he is not.
            Mitchell is renowned on both sides of the pond for his vivid imagery and evocative characterization, much stemming from this novel. With remarkably few lines, he attaches us so firmly to a person that never existed and never could (e.g. clone Sonmi-451, an artificially grown human that becomes sentient).
            Another feat of writing is the center segment, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ and Everythin’ After.” Written in a pidgin English style that evokes Brer Rabbit, Mitchell flexes his imaginative and technical muscles, detailing a world completely foreign to us in language difficult for us to understand. Somehow, it comes out clear and endearing, and that alone earns him a star.
            Another star comes for the sheer beauty of the ending. Many modern authors have lost the ability to move their readers by the sheer beauty of their prose, but Mitchell clearly feels deeply about the written word and the power it can bestow. He uses the last, poignant moment to reflect on what it is we are, summarizing the novel in one way and in another dispersing it.
            In essence, Cloud Atlas tells the story of what we mean to one another. Just as there is no way to accurately summarize a life, there is no way to summarize them all. We study, we learn, we pull meaning out of the past and apply it to the present, but each second creating a past that will only be changed in the future. The truth of history is what we make of it; the truth of the human experience is what we are.
            Mitchell delivers us this observation in an airy package full of printed sounds, black and white colors, and souls wrapped in words.  Something undefined fills the karma that he implies—that no matter if we live alone, feel alone, and die alone, as long as we are alive, we are never truly alone.
            Cloud Atlas is available on the Kindle for $11.99, or in paperback from Amazon for $12.98. This is not your average light weekend reading, nor is it pure entertainment—no, this book requires your attention and consideration as the pages turn. It was recently made into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, and I have not seen it yet, but I cannot fathom how the screenplay runs. I’ll have to watch it just for pure curiosity as to how it flows.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Dark Lord of Derkholm

Original image at
Title: The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Year: 1998
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 1

Everyone has one of those silly books that they're incredibly attached to. Something about it just stirs your heart, and even if the language is simple and the concepts basic, you laugh every time and read it again and again. For many people, these books are those like the Harry Potter series; for others, it's The Enchanted Wood.
The Dark Lord of Derkholm is mine. And it's not because I read it when I was very young; in fact, I picked it up off a neglected bottom shelf at my small town library when I was 15 because it happened to be next to Howl's Moving Castle, which I was reading in preparation for the animated film. Something about it snagged my attention, and I proceeded to read it twice before I had to return it. I ordered my own weatherbeaten paperback and have read it at least twice a year since.
Diana Wynne Jones, who has a knack for bringing a sense of humor to the genre of fantasy, has created a world with charm, wonder, and intrigue. Derk, a homely wizard who creates unique animals (e.g. daylight owls, pigs that fly, and intelligent griffins) finds himself pegged to play the role of the Dark Lord for the Pilgrim Parties, tours that annually come through Derk's world and make a proper mess of everything. Derk and his people are contractually bound to play along, pretending that their fairly well-developed world is a medieval waste living in fear of the Sauron-like Dark Lord, and the Pilgrim Parties each think that their role in their tour is to kill him and liberate the world. However, as Derk scrambles to put his life aside to perform the role, other wizards work behind the scenes to end the Pilgrim Parties forever.
We meet dozens of hilarious, colorful characters, such as Derk's family, which is composed of his wife, son, and daughter, and five griffins he has mixed with human cells "to make them people," as one of them explains. Each one behaves just like a peevish human teenager, and Derk's relationship with each of them is heartfelt. By the end of the story, we've nearly forgotten that they're griffins. Jones also presents ordinary domestic stresses to the story, weaving them neatly in with the magic of the world, creating a believable family with believable problems.
Oftentimes, fantasy writers are so caught up with creating their worlds and developing the science, characters, and plot, they lose their voices as storytellers and become mere documentarians. Jones skilfully paints her world with so many joyful details, kingdoms, and stories that we are dazzled from the beginning; add her dry, subtle sense of humor, and you have a masterpiece. She masterfully satirizes the fantasy genre while adding an unforgettable piece to it.
Derk is, of course, the man around which the entire novel whirls, but Jones easily transports us to and fro across the world to catch up the most important pieces of the story without losing us along the way. Communicating stress in a novel can be a dangerous thing (you don't want your readers to become too stressed themselves to keep reading) but Jones does it playfully, yet strongly enough to induce her audience to pitying our favorite wizard. Derk is just a harassed, unfortunate man, and yet a symbol of strength and steadfastness; just what a father should be. And yet, everything goes wrong.
Jones's main point in the story is to remind us how very little we are in control once we give ourselves away. Sometimes, giving up control can be a good thing, like submitting to those we love; however, sometimes it can be so easy to just give in to those who want control, and for the sake of those we love, we cannot stop watching for what is best for our world. The end does not justify the means; collateral damage is necessary, but people's feelings must always be considered.
Maybe this novel doesn't change the earth, but it worms its way into your heart, never to be forgotten. With lighthearted love for that world, readers of every age can enjoy The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its manifold virtues. At any rate, it's worlds better than your average R.A. Salvatore novel. All of Diana Wynne Jones's novels satirize fantasy, but this one does it best.
The novel has no conclusive ending, but in the mood of the story, we don't miss it. Life goes on. Its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, was published in 2010; I have yet to read it, but be sure I'll get around to it.
Because this novel is quite old now, it's available in most book stores, or on the Kindle for $6.64. Or, if you want a printed copy, it's available at Barnes and Noble in paperback for $7.99, which I recommend. Pick up one from your library if you can, but if not, it's worth the purchase. It's pretty bloodless and devoid of serious swearing, so kids can enjoy it. That is, once their parents are done with it.