The Caves of Steel

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1954

I read it: August 2016


What is Greg Graffin doing on the cover of this book? Apparently starring as the main robot in this science fiction detective story.

The caves of the title are simply Earth’s cities, fully enclosed and delicately sustained by an infinity of intricacies that make modern life possible in this future scenario. The population of the planet is massive, and some humans have already colonized other worlds. (They are dubbed “Spacers” and are generally looked down upon by regular Earth folk.) Of those who remain on the home planet, some are splintering into “Medievalists” who are generally afraid of the forward trajectory, much like the “Simple-Lifers” from Asimov’s story “Evidence.” Specifically, the Medievalists have a growing hatred for robots.

While all robots are vaguely humanoid, only the Spacers have refined a model to the point of being passable as human. They send in their prime specimen with a mouthful of a name, R. Daneel Olivaw, to partner up with an NYC detective, Elijah Baley. These two are tasked with solving the murder of a top Spacer researcher and inventor, which has stoked the distrust between the two communities and their respective philosophies. Baley has a working man’s skepticism of robots himself, and is uneasy with his new partner, who he can’t even believe is a robot at first:

He had expected a creature with a skin of a hard and glossy plastic, nearly dead white in color. He had expected an expression fixed at an unreal level of inane good humor. He had expected jerky, faintly uncertain motions.

R. Daneel was none of it.

I instantly pictured Jude Law’s robot from the movie A.I., though I haven’t seen it for ages. That straightforward, slightly detached humanness seemed to sum up everything about R. Daneel Olivaw. And since this is a detective story, Baley pokes and prods into every possible angle until he finally learns how to work alongside his new robot mate. He gets several things wrong, and in that way comes across as believably human. The fun is between the daily banter of the partners. For every standard “Damn this job, anyway.” there’s a “Not on your life. Not on whatever it is you call your life.” The emotional side of their line of work is contrasted against the limits of the robot’s understanding of human motivations and abstract concepts of justice.

The detective story is decent and the futuristic world nicely drawn, and feels coherent to a modern reader. But as is always the case with Asimov, the book is mainly an exchange of ideas. It’s about culture clash, the possibilities of technology, and the massive influence of economies. For example, in this book we get a direct explanation for the humanoid form of robots. It’s probably something Asimov was already working out during I, Robot, but he gives it a home here. First, he explains the basic expense of creating one positronic brain which is fitted into each robot, and how you wouldn’t be able to afford to put one of these into each and every machine you need around a farm. Then Baley asks, “Why should a robot have a head and four limbs? Why should he look more or less like a man?”

“Because the human form is the most successful generalized form in all nature. We are not a specialized animal, except for our nervous systems and a few odd items. If you want a design capable of doing a great many widely various things, all fairly well, you could do no better than to imitate the human form. Besides that, our entire technology is based on the human form. An automobile, for instance, has its controls so made as to be grasped and manipulated most easily by human hands and feet of a certain size and shape, attached to the body by limbs of a certain length and joints of a certain type. Even such simple objects as chairs and tables and knives and forks are designed to meet the requirements of human measurements and manner of working. It is easier to have robots imitate the human shape than to redesign radically the very philosophy of our tools.”

There you have it: the single explanation needed for all stories that have ever used a humanoid robot. They don’t call him the master for nothing (yes, I’ve stressed the point before, but it’s just a requirement of an Asimov review it seems). In The Caves of Steel, explanations like these intersect with other fully plausible aspects of the author’s world(s)-building, such as English becoming “the final potpourri that was current over all the continents, and, with some modification, on the Outer Worlds as well” and tensions mounting because “when the population reaches eight billion, semistarvation becomes too much like the real thing.” For the modern reader, the mystery lies not in the whodunit, but in the question of whether or not we are reading about our own future fates.

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Posted by on August 19, 2016 in Novels


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Wise Blood

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1952

I read it: July 2016

wise blood

Here’s a strange little tale about a drifting young man who just can’t shake that good old-time religion. Hazel Motes has a war wound, and that’s about all he does have to show. His family is gone when he returns from the war, and his only tie to them seems to be a chiffarobe in the abandoned house. To stave off future looters, he leaves a note about how no one is to touch it, then he makes for a new town. His parents are dead, for reasons unspecified.

Hazel’s move to a biggish population makes him insignificant in the grand scheme, and this is apparently the exact thing he cannot stand. You can piece together that he must have been raised strictly religious, but his new passion is asserting his atheism. He quickly finds himself in a bind: he wants to sin to be able to show his rebellion, but his new stance does not allow sin to even exist. Hazel, you see, is religious to the core and just can’t face the fact.

The story gathers a rather small cast that includes several con artist preachers, such as the blind (but not really) Asa, and the annoyingly fascinating Enoch Emery. Enoch is several steps down on the intellectual rung from Hazel, and wears his emotions (such as his conflicted feelings about his father) on his sleeve. He also has the vague spiritual gift, which is one of his only retorts to Hazel, who is unrelentingly mean to him.

“You act like you think you got wiser blood than anybody else, but you ain’t! I’m the one has it. Not you. Me.”

So Enoch sort of has a higher purpose but he can’t grasp what it is, while Hazel becomes a preacher just as wily as the rest:

“I preach the Church Without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”

As the novel goes on, you can see how it might benefit from the English class treatment. There is a lot of margin space just waiting for notes, as well as the presumably intentional references, such as the names. Hazel goes by “Haze” and his last name has the connotation of “mote,” both of which reiterate the theme of searching and blindness, as well as the direct line from Matthew 7:3. Hazel is figuratively blind to the fact that he holds a faith that he can’t shed. For example, when he buys a car he feels absolutely certain he can take it anywhere. He pulls one over on himself by having more faith in his rustbucket than the actual car salesman has. The vehicle lets him down, though he does pull off a final tragic act with it.

The finale of the book pivots strangely to illustrate Hazel’s most desperate act: trying to become the most extreme—and therefore righteous—type of anti-believer that he can be. The last chapter is not narrated from his perspective, but rather from that of his landlady, Mrs. Flood (another Biblical nod?). She’s fascinated by his monklike ways, and can’t make heads or tails of it in her down-to-earth world. It’s a mystery whether or not Hazel himself has a grasp on things.

This has been mostly a summary review, because I can’t quite figure out how to feel about the book. I think it may have come across as a bit more insightful had I read it shortly after I got into my own atheism phase. Or perhaps a historical framework would help in knowing whether or not any of the characters would have seemed radical when this book was published. As is, I still think it would fit best in a classroom setting. As a book on the bus, it’s more a quick curiosity than anything else. There’s a film of haze over it all.

Music corner: My knowledge of the existence of this book was 100% based on the reference from Kurt Vile’s “I’m an Outlaw.” One of his twangier tunes, it features the phrase “wise blood” and being “on the brink of self-implosion,” which I suppose is as good a way of any as describing ol’ Haze Motes.



Posted by on August 12, 2016 in Novels


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The Good Divide

Author: Kali VanBaale

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2016

I read it: June 2016


“It’s a difficult life to live so close to what you cannot have,” an old woman tells young Jean Gillman, shortly before the woman dies in a freak accident. And so death and disappointment attach themselves to Jean as she attaches herself to a small Wisconsin dairy farm and its surrounding community.

Jean learns the lessons of practicality when she settles into the life of a farmer’s wife after escaping her widowed father’s growing depression and dwindling funds. She marries the dependable Jim, but it’s not Jim she wants—it’s his brother, Tommy. Over the course of a decade, Jean watches as Tommy falls for not one but two women who are not her. Tommy lives right across the road, so they all work on the same farm and have all the same acquaintances from church gatherings and Fourth of July potlucks. Jean constantly struggles (and often fails) to accept her place in life, to heed one of her late mother’s many adages: “You cut your coat according to your cloth.”

The novel is a window into a certain time in American midwestern life, when communities swirled around the latest gossip and modern technologies worked their way into the farmsteads. The quainter aspects, like a frightened character whispering that she’s “in a family way,” are side by side with the stark realities of suffering, such as dealing with an unplanned pregnancy or covering up habitual self-mutilation.

The dramas are domestic and believable, and the book’s structure works its way toward revealing traumatic events that have shaped Jean and the people she came to call family. Only the prologue and epilogue are told in first-person by an aging version of the central woman, providing a satisfying symmetry to her journey. I wouldn’t call it one of triumph or even redemption. Just a journey of living, somehow, despite all the world tilting against her.

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Posted by on August 5, 2016 in Novels


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The Importance of Being Little

Author: Erika Christakis

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups

Published: 2016

I read it: June 2016


This review was originally published on Levi & Laura.

One afternoon while my wife was at home pregnant with his baby brother, I was at the park with my son. He was a few months shy of turning two and hadn’t yet discovered his first favorite word (“car”). I was lounging on a swing and he was playing in the sand when my hat fell off and landed between us. Instinctually I asked, “Hey, could you grab my hat?” He instantly saw it, picked it up, and handed it to me in the most casual way possible. He could have been two, twelve, or twenty-two in that moment. That’s when I realized he understood a lot more than I had previously given him credit for, and that our relationship had its own shape and subtleties.

As babies become toddlers and toddlers become kids, where does the instruction and the learning begin? Of course, learning is happening all the time, and while we think we can make a clean divide between daycare (keep the kids supervised) and school (“teach” the kids in the same way they will be “taught” for the next couple decades) these things are really more muddled and overlapping than we are comfortable with, with preschool smack in the middle. To refocus our conceptions of learning, Erika Christakis emphasizes two things that need a close look: the relationship of children with their adults—whether parents, caregivers, or teachers—and the environments they spend time in.

“The environment is the curriculum” is the mantra of this book. In an ideal preschool scenario, it’s this:

When the preschool classroom environment is carefully constructed to serve as the laboratory for learning, young children learn what we set out to teach them, but they also learn—and this is critical—the whole wealth of things we haven’t set out to teach them explicitly. In today’s world of exponentially expanding facts, this flexibility is essential.

Christakis has a lot to say about our obsession with top-down instruction and measuring the progress of each individual child, which although more visible in the elementary grades has been getting pushed earlier and earlier, all the way down into the preschool classrooms.

One of the problems is that so many preschool classrooms are almost physical carbon copies of their elementary school cousins. For example, it’s rare to see multiple points of elevation in today’s preschools—a loft that can turn into a space ship or castle tower or other place from which a child can feel tall and powerful. Those were standard preschool features in the shabbiest, most tired church basement a generation ago, but they now seem like archaeological relics.

She claims that there is very little logic to treating small kids as students instead of, well, kids. As a potential remedy, she throws a lot of support behind the benefits of true play.

Play is the fundamental building block of human cognition, emotional health, and social behavior. Play improves memory and helps children learn to do mathematical problems in their heads, take turns, regulate their impulses, and speak with greater complexity. All mammals play, and the higher-order mammals, such as dolphins, chimps, bears, and elephants, play more than other mammals. Evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray describes play as an evolutionary mechanism to develop survival skills “for animals that depend least on rigid instinct for survival, and most on learning.”

And because a lot of learning happens at home, where most kids spend their time (even those who are in daycare full-time during their parents’ workweek), Christakis weaves in her thoughts about how parents can fill in the gaps. She is a clear advocate of modern parenting in general, brushing off the stereotype of helicopter moms and dads:

Whenever I hear contemporary parents criticized for their phobic vigilance, as if they were expressing an irritating personality tic or goofy parenting fad, I want to forgive them, and even laud them, for their (as it turns out) entirely rational expectation that their child should survive to adulthood! Child death is about as socially unacceptable as a human phenomenon could be. The victory over childhood mortality is possibly the most important piece of the story of how children have become so precious to us, and we must keep it in mind as we consider the many ways that modernity has not only changed childhood but even, fundamentally, enabled it.

And while optimistic that we have a healthy amount of focus on our kids, she wonders whether we parents have to retrain ourselves to be both available yet willing to step aside at times. She presents a model of how to generate meaningful play:

Parents need to think of themselves as solar panels or wind farms, pieces of passive but highly effective infrastructure standing at the ready for those sunny or windy days when natural energy can be channeled. It’s a different kind of scaffolding than driving a child to a piano lesson every Monday afternoon because, by definition, this kind of practice has to be opportunistic. But chance favors the prepared mind.

To bring it back to the classroom, the author describes some of the progressive schools that, although perhaps going a bit overboard in their goals to be different, do come much closer to a kid-centered ideal. These types of places get misinterpreted at best.

Small islands of imaginative childhood can still be found in the resurgent interest in Waldorf schools, for example, or in nature-based kindergartens. But those experiences are in danger of being seen as quaint affectations for the children of wealthy oddballs, not the normal, universal features of early childhood.

Christakis consistently points out that what should be measured are the schools and the teachers. If these are refined then we can expect the kids to just be kids and learning can come more smoothly (and enjoyably). In tandem with promoting true play and meaningful engagement, she despises the idea that if our young children are falling behind then the solution must be more rigid instruction, wherein worksheets become a barrier, not a connecting tool, between teacher and student. She warns that “this is a workforce problem, once again masquerading as an instructional imperative, and parents ought to push back hard against this kind of confidence game.”

Outside of the home and classroom, I was delighted to hear the author advocate for the “one great remaining cultural institution where the commitment to a holistic learning environment still prevails, unafflicted by the hand-wringing that has infected so many other areas of American child rearing.” She is speaking of the general-interest summer camp, “rich learning laboratories” in which “social and emotional skills are especially prized.”All my experiences as a camp counselor have emphasized how learning, play, growth, and self-knowledge can beautifully (and quite naturally) coalesce. To spread this environment is a crucial goal to work toward.

There is a lot to absorb in this intriguing book. Christakis remains passionate yet balanced, honing her personal stories of motherhood with her professional work as a teacher and academic, calling things what they are while trying to outline the steep yet necessary challenges before us. She sums up her thesis yet again at the end, in case a small clip is all we are able to remember:

It’s the learning environment that needs the continual quality assessment, and it’s the environment, not the preschoolers inhabiting it, that needs correcting if found wanting. The environment is the curriculum. Fix that, and we can leave young children to thrive.

Our kids are individuals, but individuals alone can’t bear the burden of navigating their lives. The right support and guidance must be scaled up into our institutions until personal growth becomes the inevitable side effect of a logical, playful, noncompetitive, and emotionally rich environment. And it can start in the simple places, between the swing and sand on an unplanned day at the park.

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Posted by on July 29, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject


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The Outsiders

Author: S.E. Hinton

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1967

I read it: June 2016 (re-read)

the outsiders

“Soda’s enough, and I’d have him until I got out of school. I don’t care about Darry. But I was still lying and I knew it. I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.”

Ponyboy’s story is one long attempt to understand his brothers and how he relates to them. With their parents dead, Darry is the oldest and fears for the safety of his two younger brothers, as well as the peripheral members of the Greaser crowd. The emotional core of the book is the tight connection between these young men, including of course the tragic Johnny Cade. The swift authenticity of the dialogue houses growing-up-too-fast insights, such as the conversations between Pony and Sherry Valance, one of the Socs:

“Did you ever hear of having more than you wanted? So that you couldn’t want anything else and then started looking for something else to want? It seems like we’re always searching for something to satisfy us, and never finding it. Maybe if we could lose our cool we could.”

“That’s why we’re separated,” I said. “It’s not money, it’s feeling—you don’t feel anything and we feel too violently.”

It’s the time of drive-ins, dime novels, and switchblade knives, apparently taking place in Tulsa, Okalahoma, though this is never stated in the novel. The clarity of the era and genuine feel of its characters make it an item of Americana, as surely a classic as To Kill A Mockingbird. And like that book, it has an economy of plot to make any writer jealous. It also has the neat trick of being a long essay written by Ponyboy himself, to the point where the last line of the book is the same as the first.

Everything about this book is basically perfect, but we are also obligated to point out the activities of the author herself. Hinton started this book as a teenager, and it was published when she was eighteen. IT WAS PUBLISHED WHEN SHE WAS EIGHTEEN. Let’s all bow down in a moment of reverence to this successor of Mary Shelley’s claim. The Outsiders is a book that touches transcendence both on its own merits and through the realities of how it came to be.

Movie corner: A fun one to revisit, the movie is as brisk and sweet and sad as the book. It focuses more on the triangle of Pony, Johnny, and Dally (Matt Dillon) than on the complex relationship between Pony and his brothers. In fact, Sodapop (Rob Lowe) shows up for pretty much only one scene, as does the Tom Cruise pal. The main reason to watch is to tally these young stars along with Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Diane Lane.

Music corner: There’s an old Get Up Kids song called “Stay Gold, Ponyboy” which is probably enjoyable only to those who have nostalgia for it. Then there’s the much newer and better First Aid Kit song “Stay Gold” from the album of that name (curiously, one of several albums with “gold” in the title that all came out within a year). I’m sure there are plenty of other references in songs I haven’t heard.

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Posted by on July 22, 2016 in Novels


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The Good Lord Bird

Author: James McBride

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2013

I read it: June 2016

good lord

I knew next to nothing about the abolitionist John Brown, but this book has given me a good sense in the historical fiction fashion. A rowdy and righteous character, he’s one of the more fascinating characters of the American West, at least in James McBride’s interpretation. The protagonist, “Onion,” has this to say about Brown, or “the Old Man”:

The Old Man weren’t normal. For one thing, he rarely ate, and he seemed to sleep mostly atop his horse. He was old compared to his men, wrinkled and wiry, but nearly as strong as every one of them except Fred. He marched for hours without stopping, his shoes full of holes, and was overall gruff and hard generally. … He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, “thees” and “thous” and “takest” and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed, including my Pa, but with a bigger purpose, ’cause he knowed more words. Only when he got hot did the Old Man quote the Bible exact to the letter, and then it was trouble, for it meant someone was about to walk to the quit line. He was a lot to deal with, Old Brown.

The mangled Bible quoting is fantastic fun, the kind of speculative past language that may or may not have existed out on the plains of the day. It feels authentic and outlandish, and the sharp conversations combine with a rollicking plot to really push the book along. Old Man Brown overshadows most everything, except for a middle section in which Onion is separated from him. Onion’s main deal is that he is a former slave captured away and enlisted in Brown’s army, but mistaken for a girl. He uses this to his advantage to avoid fighting for the most part. He also reflects on the complexities and paradoxes of his situation, such as how poor he is living as an outlaw:

That’s the thing about working under Old John Brown, and if I’m tellin’ a lie I hope I drop down a corpse after I tell it: I was starving fooling with him. I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels.

He also speculates on Brown’s fervent mission to bring the freedom fight directly out in the open, in which the famous troublemaker “reckoned every colored wanted to fight for his freedom. It never occurred to him that they would feel any other way.” While the whites are out arguing over slavery through the lenses of land and money and culture, many of the slaves can only look out for themselves and try not to take a position, which of course baffles Brown. And even though this isn’t meant to be a strictly academic text, McBride hints at even more historical shades of gray in describing the opinions on various types of slave holders, some of which were worse than others:

Slave traders was generally despised. Even Pro Slavers didn’t favor them much, for men who traded cash for blood wasn’t considered working people, but more like thieves or traders in souls and your basic superstitious pioneer didn’t take to them types.

Further along the interesting historical paths we encounter layered portrayals of Frederick Douglass (“There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person, of which I reckon they figured there was only one in the world, Mr. Douglass.”) and Harriet Tubman (“The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.”) The book’s action leads up to Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, another educational episode.

But even aside from the facts the book is based on, it’s just a damn fine Western novel. There are gunfights and shady characters, long hours on the trail and dank saloons, a  general atmosphere of distrust mixed with the desperate and righteous causes of the adventurers. It’s consistently funny (“That fool was ugly enough to make you think the Lord put him together with His eyes closed, guessing.”) and always circling back to its tentpole figure (“The Old Man had more bad luck than any man I ever knowed, and that can’t help but make a person likable and interesting.”). As you can see, it’s also endlessly quotable.

A direct descendant of Huck Finn, Onion is just young enough to be wide-eyed at the world and not yet worn down by all the death around him. His river is not the Mississippi but the early streams of a national revolution, and he tells it like he sees it. The book may be only one author’s interpretation of a time, but its grand success is putting the reader there so effectively and enjoyably. American summer reads don’t come much more satisfying than this one.



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Posted by on July 15, 2016 in Novels


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Forest of Memory

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

Type: Fiction, short story

Published: 2016

I read it: May 2016


This review was originally published on The Stake.

What happens when every instant can be recorded and transmitted? The most sought-after items become those previously found at antique stores. And what happens when connectivity ceases and you are thrown back into a purely sensory world? Memory becomes the dim, shifting forest that our ancestors knew.

Trim in length as it may be, science fiction institution Tor has published the standalone short story Forest of Memory from Hugo winner Mary Robinette Kowal. It centers on Katya, who bikes through a picturesque slice of Oregon to purchase a typewriter and a dictionary for the purposes of reselling them to wealthy clients. These affectionate nods to the physicality of the written word underline the form of the story, which is itself an item created and sold by Katya because of the uniqueness of its content. You see, Katya’s expertise is Authenticities and Captures. When she is unexpectedly captured on her ride home, she becomes a potential authenticity when she goes offline for three days. But there is no objective evidence to support her narrative.

In this world, three days offline is its own form of being “missing,” of coming unhooked from the safety of society. Kowal does not try to present Katya as a pathetic example of modern internet addiction, but rather just a regular citizen getting by 100 or so years in the future. When her AI ceases to talk into her ear it’s jarring, but the main reason she freaks out is because the loss of connection coincides with an armed man in the woods who won’t let her leave.

Katya learns that this man, whom she simply dubs “Johnny,” is also in the service of employers. He has downed a couple deer on the trail, though apparently not for killing purposes. He immobilizes her and offers no information, and the most Katya can piece together is that Johnny’s mission with the deer seems to correlate with the fact of her being off the grid, which is unheard of. She is forced to reflect on her bodily sensations and the fear of realizing she is one person, alone, with only her brain and no answers.

No answers: that’s what you have to be okay with by the last page. But isn’t that the case with so much great speculative fiction? There are hints at answers, and some fascinating questions. This little slice of sci-fi is the perfect accompaniment to a camping trip on an unplugged weekend. Peruse it in the midst of our subtle world in which not every tree is recorded, and when you look away you can’t be fully certain which trees were even there at all.


Posted by on July 8, 2016 in Short stories


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