Wednesday, June 26, 2013
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
Author: Nick Dybek
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
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science fiction
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.