A Separate Peace

Author: John Knowles

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1959

I read it: August 2015


When my friend Jim gave us a painting of a shelf of coming-of-age novels for a wedding gift, this was one of the books I’d never heard of. I found an old copy at Eat My Words, the cover of which bills it as “The best since Catcher In The Rye.”

So it is that this book too is about young men in a New England prep school, coming to terms with the transition into adulthood. What distinguishes this novel is its 1942 setting, when the senior class at Devon is getting shipped off to World War II. The protagonist, Gene, and his unique friend, Phineas, are about to enter their last full year at school before they are old enough to enlist. Or, at the end of the year, get drafted.

I plucked this one off the shelf because it was short, though I was not particularly looking forward to it. But late summer was a good time to give it a go, because of the back-to-school feeling, and it turns out the book was more enjoyable (and funny) than I had expected. There’s something about the prep school that has an allure of the romantic, because for me it exists only in books. The campus setting and isolation of the boys always make these stories seem like college tales, despite the high school age of the characters.

Throughout, the young men try to orient themselves against the flow of the outside world and find it difficult:

Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn’t imagine it—a thousand newspaper photographs and newsreels had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight—but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. … The people of the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I’m glad we took advantage of it.

This freedom was one aspect of their reality, but the pendulum also swings in the other direction and makes them constantly anxious and useless, until they “seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men.” This psychology creates cracks between the schoolyard friends, causing Gene to inflict harm and Phineas to dip into a delusion of his own making.

Time crushes down upon these unfortunate youth. The story is one of reminiscence, tinged with a wonder and regret. The narrator realizes that “there is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left” and finally philosophizes about the big picture: “It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”

The meditation on a specific wartime psyche is what gives this book value. It’s how a lot of us learn about the great events: piecemeal, through stories that each tackle a certain angle. This is another effective WWII tale that helps fill in a gap for us non-history majors.

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Posted by on November 27, 2015 in Novels


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The One and Only Ivan

Author: Katherine Applegate

Artist: Patricia Castelao

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

I read it: August 2015


As a youth I fell hard for K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I have a distinct memory of biking one of the books to my friend Adam’s house so that he could keep up with the story as well. While I haven’t gone back to flip through any of those, I remember them being fun and interesting and serious and thoughtful and a bit scary. Those books were a big part of my reading foundation.

I knew I had to snag this attractive tale by Ms. Applegate. Based on a true story, it’s about a gorilla who has lived in a cage in a dinky mall for 27 years. It’s touching and straightforward, with the requisite highs and lows. On some levels it’s like a parallel to Room, staying just this side of bleakness by focusing on the kindness of its main character, Ivan, and the other animals that live near him.

Each chapter reads like a self-contained poem, propelling the story forward while offering mini meditations on existence. There is a lot of rumination about humans and what the gorilla thinks of them:

My family tree spreads wide as well. I am a great ape, and you are a great ape, and so are chimpanzees and orangutans and bonobos, all of us distant and distrustful cousins.

Captured at a young age and raised as a sort-of human child, Ivan worries that he is still “too much gorilla and not enough human” to have a proper home in captivity. He knows he has to figure out a way to change the course of his life, so he picks up tidbits of information about the outside world. He learns from Stella, an elephant, that “a good zoo is how humans make amends.” I particularly loved this insightful take on how humans and animals interact in today’s world.

Art is another big theme. Ivan learns painting from a girl, Julia, whose dad works as a custodian at the mall. The book itself is interspersed with fitting illustrations by Patricia Castelao. It’s a product pleasing in form, pace, and visuals, and another prime example of one that transcends readership age. At the back of the book is Applegate’s Newbery Medal acceptance speech, in which she quotes Madeline L’Engle:

You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.

This book wanted to be written. All those years the author spent inside the heads of the Animorphs has paid off in poetry.

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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Novels


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We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Author: Shirley Jackson

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1962

I read it: September 2015


“I can’t help it when people are frightened; I always want to frighten them more.”

Merricat is a woman of 18 who is stuck in a perpetual adolescence—mired in the mental trauma of the age when her family died. Well, when her family was murdered. Perhaps by her sister. At the dinner table.

Shirley Jackson’s final novel continues to gain acclaim long after the author’s life and death. For the full assessment, I suggest reading Andrew DeYoung’s analysis on The Stake, where he describes the “constant thrum of pervasive wrongness” that haunts the pages of this book. This is a truly unique and gripping story, and you can read it in an afternoon. Autumn would be best.

We read and discussed it at my work book club, and had a wide array of opinions on what Jackson was up to. Does the book hinge entirely on the big reveal, or is that just another plot point in a sea of subtle and shrouded character actions? Is the sisters’ obsession with food a glimmer of light in an otherwise overcast world, or is it just as sinister as the other aspects of the atmosphere? How much, or how little, are the townspeople to blame for the psychologies of Merricat and Constance? Who is the best comic relief, Uncle Julian or Jonas the cat?

“I was thinking that being a demon and a ghost must be very difficult,” muses Merricat in one of her many creepy reveries. You know what else would be difficult? Being a human who can turn out a book of this caliber. There’s nothing else quite like it.

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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Novels


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I, Robot

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1950

I read it: August 2015


“There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone. Have you ever thought of it that way?

They’re a cleaner and better breed than we are.”

So says Dr. Susan Calvin around the year 2057. Born in 1982, she came up through the ranks of the organization U.S. Robots, and remained the most renowned “robopsychologist” through many iterations of the machines throughout the decades. She is interviewed by a journalist about the chronology of roboticism, and reflects on the events that shaped what it meant to live alongside robots.

Here is a long review of a short book, with summaries and thoughts on each of the nine stories that make up the essential Asimov work I, Robot.


The opening story sets the emotional core of the book and frames the primary dilemma: how much is a robot in charge of its own self? Robbie is a nursemaid robot before the laws could catch up and ban robots as house helpers. The girl he cares for, Gloria, is obsessed with her metal friend, who is more or less a loyal dog. Built like a large, mute Bender from Futurama, Robbie has personality and a sincere drive to protect. Gloria’s mother is the fearful one:

“I don’t care how clever it is. It has no soul, and no one knows what it may be thinking. A child just isn’t made to be guarded by a thing of metal.”

The story doesn’t get into specifics, it just stays focused on the bond between a human and an almost-human. To Dr. Calvin, Robbie is a memorable case study in robotics.


The second story takes place in 2015 (!) and is the first to feature hapless human duo Donovan and Powell. They have the thankless task of retrieving resources from the planet Mercury. They send one of their robots, SPD 13 (or Speedy), out into the field on a routine endeavor, but he glitches. He’s caught between the rule about obedience and the rule about self-preservation. For this is the first time in the book that we get Asimov’s famous “three laws of robotics.”

As relayed by Powell they are:

“One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

The interplay between the three laws is the core of the subsequent stories.


Donovan and Powell have a new job working with experimental robots. They create Cutie (taken from QT-1; humans just can’t resist a nickname) by putting him together from parts shipped to them. Cutie instantly latches onto logic as his defining characteristic. He quickly postulates that “a chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth, and I’ll stick till I get there.” This proves frightening as he basically constructs his own reality and the humans lose their grip on commanding him. Cutie would rather worship the great machinery at the station, because to him its power is more feasible than the idea that humans could have created him. At one point Cutie sums up the weakness of humans by highlighting their imperfection. “You are makeshift,” he states.

But Cutie’s logic is not infallible, and can’t lead him to truth. The three laws mean that he can only do what’s best for the humans in charge, which means simply doing his job extraordinarily well. This story hints at robot uprising but squashes it in the end.

Catch That Rabbit

This may be the weakest entry in the book. It once again features Donovan and Powell trying to figure out why their robot has seemingly gone off the rails. The robot is an experimental model that has subordinates, likened to a hand that controls its fingers. Things go awry and the humans are nearly in mortal danger toward the end, until they can use reason to deduce why the robots are acting the way they are. It’s further intellectual play of extrapolating the three laws into new situations.


“Liar!” breathes fresh energy into the robot dilemma. It features Susan Calvin directly, as well one of her superiors, Alfred Lanning. They have a robot on their hands, Herbie, that can read minds. They get him alone in a room at different points to test whether he really knows what he claims to know. And Herbie can indeed read minds—but is he telling it straight?

When things conflict, Calvin realizes that Herbie is slowly going insane by virtue of dealing with humans. He is being told to obey directly by answering questions honestly, yet his circuitry is also telling him to prevent human harm. He reasons that to tell humans the truth in all instances, especially with personal or emotional subject matter, is to violate the first law. Hence the title of the story, and Herbie’s exclamations when put under harsh questioning from Calvin:

“Stop! Close your mind! It is full of pain and frustration and hate! I didn’t mean it, I tell you! I tried to help! I told you what you wanted to hear. I had to!”

Little Lost Robot

Another instance of Susan Calvin needing to outwit a robot, this is also another story that addresses robot insubordination. The lost robot of the title has gone missing willingly, by blending in with a stock of robots exactly like himself. Calvin devises psychological games to root him out, though the robot thinks that the superior intellect of him and his kind will keep the blinds over the eyes of the humans. There are guesses as to the motivations of the stray robot: “All normal life, consciously or otherwise, resents domination.” But if a robot life is still rule-bound to the three laws, can it truly rebel?


Poor Donovan and Powell are at it again. A gleaming new spaceship is built with a positronic brain inside to control it. At the end of a workday the two board the ship and the door closes behind them. They are at the whim of the ship as it navigates itself through interstellar distances. (Notably, these stories track the evolution of both robotic capabilities and human space travel, which allows Asimov to use these concepts in his other work.)

This story tests the limits of the first law, toying with whether or not a robot could push humans to the brink of death—or even partially beyond—as long as the humans come out okay in the bigger picture.


“Evidence” may be the most intriguing tale of the bunch. Throughout Calvin’s career at U.S. Robots, the machines have been deemed acceptable for certain uses in space, but are blocked from existing in the public and private spheres. She relates that despite the technological advances in space, the core of robotic history has to do with “what has happened to the people here on Earth in the last fifty years.” She refers to the story of a politician who is accused of being a robot.

Byerley is an ideal, humanistic candidate who is on an upward trajectory in the public eye. A bitter enemy starts a campaign to out him as a robot because “actions such as his could come only from a robot, or from a very honorable and decent human being.” Given that the latter is so rare, his campaign gains legs. He taps into the distrust and fear that humans have for highly capable robots. Certain fundamentalists are excited about the cause:

They were not a political party; they made pretense to no formal religion. Essentially they were those who had not adapted themselves to what had once been called the Atomic Age, in the days when atoms were a novelty. Actually, they were the Simple-Lifers, hungering after a life, which to those who lived it had probably appeared not so Simple, and who had not been, therefore, Simple-Lifers themselves.

Doesn’t this mindset seem all too plausible in our own world? (Asimov forecasted this story for 2032.)

The story is personal yet far-thinking, and touches on the struggle to find a logical reason why we shouldn’t let robots help govern us. As Calvin summarizes:

“If a robot can be created capable of being a civil executive, I think he’d make the best one possible. By the Laws of Robotics, he’d be incapable of harming humans, incapable of tyranny, of corruption, of stupidity, of prejudice.”

It’s a compelling argument from a compelling story. And Asimov, in his best move, leaves it up to the reader to figure out whether or not Byerley really is a robot.

The Evitable Conflict

On the heels of “Evidence,” the final story keeps us out of space yet expands the issue of robotics to a global scale. By 2044, the Regions of Earth have formed a Federation, and robots are engaged on a global scale of production. This was after the twentieth century that brought “a new cycle of wars…ideological wars…the emotions of religion applied to economic systems, rather than to extra-natural ones.” The Regions have stabilized into different—yet more or less high-functioning—areas where things are flowing smoothly thanks to the robots. However, a few reports come in that show production glitches, so an investigation is underway.

Are humans sabotaging the world economies for personal or nationalistic reasons, or is something larger at play? Perhaps the robots are taking over…but what would that mean exactly? These aren’t the evil automatons of our comic books, as Asimov goes to lengths to explain. One character describes it as such:

“The Machines are not superbrains in Sunday supplement sense,—although they are so pictured in the Sunday supplements. It is merely that in their own particular province of collecting and analyzing a nearly infinite number of data and relationships thereof, in nearly infinitesimal time, they have progressed beyond the possibility of detailed human control.”

The explanation is both mundane and fascinating. Perhaps it isn’t a stretch to imagine machines progressing beyond human control. After all, this is the stereotypical fear of anything we categorize under the “artificial intelligence” umbrella. But could it be possible to create machines so carefully wired and efficient that they take things into their own hands, not due to their own agenda but simply due to the dictates of their programming? Could they “progress beyond the possibility of detailed human control” for the purpose of serving the greater good of human society?

Asimov’s speculations about human-robot relationships are not an us-versus-them proposition, but a realistic inquiry into our actual future.


Posted by on November 6, 2015 in Short stories


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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Author: Jack Finney

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1955, 1978 (revised edition)

I read it: October 2015


“It’s like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” This phrase floated around pop culture enough that I was able to get a sense of its meaning, yet it essentially remained unmoored for me. I had a vague sense of what “pod people” were but really didn’t know whether this was a book, or movie, or radio play, or what. Turns out it’s a book, and also three (four?) movies.

A classic of small-town paranoia, the story features Miles, a divorced doctor whose patients and personal friends make strange claims that their loved ones aren’t who they think they are. His town seems to develop a “contagious neurosis” as more cases pop up. Miles gathers with people he trusts, including love interest Becky, to try to logically unravel the mystery.

“It isn’t as easy to go crazy as you might think,” says one character, and much of the book is about the internal struggle to reckon with a new reality. A strange body in a basement that seems to mimic a human living in the same house is the piece of hard evidence that really sends things swirling. Miles and the others sway back and forth between emotionally believing the outrageous while intellectually denying it, or intellectually believing at least the possibility while emotionally being repulsed by the idea.

I had hoped that the story would evoke what it feels like to stand in an open doorway on a cool fall night, looking out at a peaceful street as evening sweeps in. It does do that, but there’s a more specific attraction to the story: the frantic what-if of imagining yourself as part of this small group uncovering something insane. Because of the nature of the threat (undefinable yet distressingly present) the authorities are not a valid option. Someone notes, “We musn’t make a mistake here. … If we guess wrong, something terrible is going to happen.” There is a crystal clear thrill to being at the nexus of something so huge, and the best parts of the book are about the protagonist having coffee in the middle of the night, or being unable to decide where to sleep, or constantly wondering if he should check on his gal (the women come off as too weepy, though this weakness flips on its head in an inspired plot point toward the end).

This is not your aliens with tasers story, with flashing spaceships descending from the heavens and people flooding the streets in terror. It’s simply a biological issue, a study in what happens when populations collide. The characters’ choices here are refreshingly realistic, with a minimum of heroics and a keen mix of existential survivalism. My favorite part is the opening paragraph, which outlines why it’s okay that stories about individuals come without the backdrop of an airtight mythology:

I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t, anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I’ve been right in the thick of it. Now if you don’t like that kind of story, I’m sorry, and you’d better not read it. All I can do is tell what I know.

Has any alien ever really known what made it invade a new place and subjugate others? Has any victim ever really been able, in the moment, to articulate the grand narrative of what is happening to them? The urge to expand, the instinct to resist, the drive to be alive…these are full enough dramas that have no extra time to spend on a “why.”

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Posted by on October 30, 2015 in Novels


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Something Wicked This Way Comes

Author: Ray Bradbury

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1962

I read it: October 2015


“Such are the autumn people. Beware of them.”

Every October, we all want to be autumn people. We want to feel ourselves slipping into another season, to give meaning to the changing world around us. We want to tether ourselves back through time to when a chill on the air could scare us a little. We create costumes as adults to snatch at that feeling of what it was like to dress up as kids. We want to test the thin curtain and slowly reach our fingertips toward the other side—yet pull them back again just in time and tuck ourselves into heat and full bellies and soft light.

In Bradbury’s stellar novel, October is a circus tent that lays over the entire story. Thirteen-year-olds Jim and Will are fascinated by the dark carnival that arrives in a field on the edge of town, and are soon swept up in the subtle horrors of the freaks and their show. The strange troupe is led by the formidable Illustrated Man, whose living tattoos swirl and squirm across his body.

The boys run back and forth between their safe beds and the dangerous, attractive wonder of the carnival. They also stop off at the library, where Jim’s dad works as an introspective janitor who spends more time than he needs to among dusty books. The point-of-view bleeds through these central characters in a way that would annoy me in most books, but the highly poetic prose has me forgiving the jumps. A chapter may start out with something like:

Midnight then and the town clocks chiming on toward one and two and then three in the deep morning and the peals of the great clocks shaking dust off old toys in high attics and shedding silver off old mirrors in yet higher attics and stirring up dreams about clocks in all the beds where children slept.

Clocks: this is, above all, a book about time. Time is the currency of the villains here—they can take or give it at a cost. They seek to pick off those who look too far forward or too far behind, those too lonely inside their minds. “Unconnected fools, that’s the harvest the carnival comes smiling after with its threshing machine.” A nasty carousel and a terrifying hall of mirrors are two of the main weapons at play.

Wrapped up in the broader aches of passing time, this is also a story about fatherhood. Will’s father, Charles, is a wonderfully intriguing character who spends a lot of his page time trying to figure out his son and his place in his son’s life. Only in analyzing his family’s part in the grand tapestry can he help the boys in their “common cause against the night.” Many of his philosophical musings are some of the best bits about parenting and life that I’ve ever come across. I need to remember to read it all again around age 50.

Further, this book is a love letter to literature. It takes a line from Macbeth for its title, and brings to life the creepy yet comforting feeling of a huge library at night. (This isn’t one you should read on a Kindle. The musty smell of a yellowed paperback is a must for this experience.) I hadn’t realized this was the scary carnival book to begin and end all scary carnival books. It’s great tracing the influence on Stephen King, be it the twisted shop owner in Needful Things or the recurring-every-few-decades universal evil of It. And while Bradbury’s novel may seem restrained in its lack of overt violence, it still pierces.

Because it all comes back to time. The tragic dance, everyone together “all being here tonight on this wild world running around a big sun which fell through a bigger space falling through yet vaster immensities of space, maybe toward and maybe away from Something.” Could there possibly be anything more frightening than the vast black, once you really turn to face it?

Such is the lure of October. We can dance on the edge of oblivion, at least through story. We can look back at our best and worst selves. Do we dress as the ghoul or the gladiator? The witch or the wise man? What is our season? Charles claims that “most of us are half-and-half. The August noon in us works to stave off the November chills. We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.”

Music corner: There is no healthier playlist than an October playlist. Artists can’t resist writing songs about ghosts, monsters, and the sway of night. One album that I’ve played on repeat every fall for the past few years is Negotiations by The Helio Sequence. With song titles like “October,” “Hall of Mirrors,” and “Harvester of Souls,” it’s a fitting collection of pleasant tunes tinged with melancholy. I’ve also dipped back into an album from my late teens that did fall so well: AFI’s Sing the Sorrow. The whole thing is solid if you can vibe with the emo theatricality of it all, but there is a sort of secret track that especially finds a vein. It’s a drawn out poem spoken by a child, then man, then elder. The words are partially obscured by keys and you can feel the dusty breeze kick up around your ankles as you stand at the edge of a haunted fairgrounds. And wait for the mouth of time.


Posted by on October 23, 2015 in Novels


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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Author: Karen Russell

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2006

I read it: September 2015


Having read the rest of Russell’s books and finally circled back to her first story collection, it’s fun to see a couple seeds being planted. The most obvious is the lead story, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” which was expanded upon to become the novel Swamplandia! The story is a satisfying little nugget that gave me good memories of the longer book. And then there’s “Z.Z.’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers,” which seems to tread some of the same ground as her novella Sleep Donation. Even “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” sets the stage for characters homesteading across the plains, an idea which Russell revisited in the story “Proving Up” from Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

The ten stories in this collection deserve to be grouped together; most of them take place in a strange swampy island community that is sticky and tangible. Some even share peripheral characters. Russell can put you straight into the head of any colorful dreamer she chooses, until you feel the sand and sweat between the sentences. She conjures phrases like “It’s a wordless sound, a wild sound, this animal pain that can’t be haltered and led to meaning” or “She’d talk like that her whole life, I thought with a gloomy satisfaction, each word winced out like an apology for itself.” How does she do that?

The shared setting of the bulk of the stories has me confused about one thing. Why does “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which rests in the final slot, get to be the title of the book? This is one that doesn’t take place by the waterside. It does have a great title, and highlights the animal obsession of the author, but it seems like “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” would have been a similarly catchy title. Perhaps Russell knew that story would get its own spotlight down the line.

Anyway, this book and Vampires are excellent little showcases for strange and piercing modern short stories.


Posted by on October 16, 2015 in Short stories


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