The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker – Book

The Dreamers by Karen Thomas Walker is a story of a viral outbreak, think ebola, only without bodily fluids. This virus hits a small college in the middle of nowhere, a tiny town, one road in-one road out. Where did the virus originate? Some said a strange haze moved through their college town one day. The town is in the middle of a drought. Is that the cause? The author suggests that letters from earlier centuries hint at a similar infection.

The virus strikes in the freshman college dorm first. Mei is a new student at Santa Lora who is finding social life difficult, but her roommate Kara connects with the other students easily. Kara is the first to feel woozy, she is the first to fall into her bed fully dressed after a night of drinking and partying, and she is also the first to die from whatever this is.

Caleb is the only person in the dorm who has the social skills to deal with Kara’s grieving parents. When the students drown their seriousness in a party that is pure escapism Caleb puts the moves on Rebecca, child of a religious family, home schooled, but finding herself a social success at school When he wakes everyone up in the morning with his screaming there is Rebecca in his bed and she has the virus.

The author tells us, “The first stage of sleep is the lightest, the brief letting go, like the skipping of a stone across the water. This is the nodding of a head in a theater. This is the dropping of a book in bed. Rebecca falls quickly into that first layer. Ten more minutes. She sinks further, just the beginning of the deep dive. This is when a sudden dream floats through her. She is at church with her parents. A baby is being baptized,”

The virus turns people into dreamers who cannot be awakened. If they are not fed through tubes and given water through IV’s they die of dreaming. It seems just a gentle virus, and few discussions of gross bodily functions trouble that dreamy quality (although such care must also be required).

I enjoyed reading The Dreamers but it left me with more questions than answers. Is it symbolic that this happens in a college town? Is it symbolic that the woods are dying from an attack by insects, that the lake is drying up from a long string of perfectly sunny days – a drought? Is it symbolic that the college administrators house the dreamers in a library?

The author takes us through the disciplines of thinkers who have dealt with dreaming, with mental time travel, with the past, present and the future – the Classics, the Psychology section, the Philosophers, the Physicists, the Linguists. Time does seem to morph for these dreamers in subtle ways.

Is it symbolic that Rebecca sleeps with a “sleeper” – a baby growing inside unknown to all, a baby whose every stage of development is described. Why does Rebecca dream that she has a boy child and then lose her sweet boy when she is delivered of a girl. She goes through the rest of her life loving her daughter but missing her son, who seemed more real in that dream state than what turns up in her actual life?

As with any virus some who fall to dreaming never wake up.

Is the small fire that begins in the forest and is quickly put out a foreshadowing of another key fire in this story?

The isolation of the college perhaps stops the virus from becoming widespread. So many volunteers show up to tend to the dreamers. In spite of protective suits and masks some get ill anyway and take their place on a cot. Some defy their suits to offer some personal gesture to a dreamer and get infected. Once you come into the village you cannot leave.

I just don’t know if this book simply takes us through an experience, the way an epidemic does, or if it has a point, a meaning, is perhaps a conceit, an extended metaphor. It strikes me as a skillful exercise in writing, immersive, beautifully realized, but, except for the baby growing in the midst of all that sleepiness in that lovely dying landscape, it seems without relevance, especially since it happens in a place almost as remote in time and place as Brigadoon. Perhaps a deeper message will dawn on me at some later moment. However Walker truly created a dreamy quality and that is skillful, like a painter who can capture transparency.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile

There, There by Tommy Orange – Book

Cover photo of There There, by Tommy Orange

The acclaim There, Thereby Tommy Orange has earned is well deserved. I would think that there is nothing quite like it in the catalogue of the literature of indigenous people. There have been successful books, both fiction and nonfiction, by Native Americans, but this has a very modern sensibility and form.

Native Americans for the most part do not occupy their ancestral lands and we all know why. Although we cannot change what our nation’s forefathers did through arrogance, their misguided assurance of their supremacy as white-skinned people, their social structure which favored populated cities surrounded by farms, and their fear of warriors who were trying to make these settlers leave for reasons we can well understand, when Tommy Orange exposes the way we have turned a multiverse of Native Americans into a single stereotype we see that we are guilty.

Tommy Orange keeps these guilty realities sometimes in the foreground and sometimes tucked away in the background. We arrive early in his novel at the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969. What seemed like a fine symbolic gesture and a bid for active resistance against being assigned to reservations without any choice proved to be an untenable situation, in terms of supply lines, the harshness of the island itself with its dilapidated prison, and interpersonal relationships that went off the rails without strong leadership.

Orange makes it a point to tell us that it was believed that Native Americans would either hate cities or be assimilated into American cities, but then he shows us that urban areas have actually allowed Indians to keep their culture alive. I use the word Indian only because the author does. In every city there are Indian Centers and the stories, songs, and dances are keep alive and shared. If they aren’t shared person-to-person, they are shared on the internet.

“But what we are is what our ancestors did. How they survived. We are the memories we don’t remember, which live in us, which we feel, which make us sing and dance and pray the way we do, feelings from memories that flare and bloom unexpectedly in our lives like blood through a blanket from a bullet fired by a man shooting us in the back for our hair, for our heads, for a bounty, or just to get rid of us.”

At first we seem to be reading a series of essays and short stories about Orange’s characters, but we can feel the pull of some event that ties all the elements together. Opal Viola Bear Shield and Jacquie Red Feather are sisters (to understand their non-matching surnames, read the book). Around these two revolve the stories of many other characters, mostly men and young boys. Overall looms the Pow Wow planned for the Oakland Coliseum towards which everyone moves to finally meet on a single fateful day.

I would have wished for a more upbeat ending, for more hope and the promise of positive outcomes. But this book, while it invites us all to read it, may not be something all of us can understand in a soul deep way, at least not without some time and thought. The ending, along with other factors, is what makes this book literature instead of just fiction. I may not belong at the pow wow, but we all may be headed for some sort of urban apocalypse, after which life will probably still go on, for good or ill.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – NPR

Becoming by Michelle Obama – Book

“For eight years, I lived in the White House, a place with more stairs than I can count – plus elevators, a bowling alley, and an in-house florist. I slept on a bed that was made-up with Italian linens. Our meals were cooked by a team of world class chefs and delivered by professionals more highly trained than those at any five-star restaurant or hotel. Secret Service agents, with their earpieces and guns, deliberately flat expressions, stood outside our doors, doing their best to stay out of our family’s private life. We got used to it eventually, sort of – the strange grandeur of our new home and also the constant, quiet presence of others.

 The White House is where our two girls played ball in the hallways and climbed trees on the South Lawn. It’s where Barack sat up late at night poring over briefings and drafts of speeches in the Treaty Room, and where Sunny, one of our dogs, sometimes pooped on the rug. I could stand on the Truman Balcony and watch tourists posing with their selfie sticks and peering through the iron fence, trying to guess at what went on inside. There were days when I felt suffocated by the fact that our windows had to be kept shut for security, that I couldn’t get some fresh air without causing a fuss. There were other times when I’d be awestruck by the white magnolias blooming outside, the everyday bustle of government business, the majesty of a military welcome. There were days, weeks, and months, when I hated politics. And there were moments when the beauty of this country and its people so overwhelmed me that I couldn’t speak.

 Then it was done.”

This is the voice of Michelle Obama in her biography/memoir, Becoming. Her story would be a great American story if she and Barack had never occupied the White House as President and First Lady, but it becomes a public rather than a private story because that happened. It happened to these two quintessentially American people while they were still quite young. Michelle spent her childhood on Chicago’s South side which was calmer and safer than it is today. She had a childhood that rivals that of any middle class American. She had two steady, loving parents. She had a father with MS who downplayed his physical challenges and went off to his job every day. Her extended family kept in touch with each other because her father had a beloved car (the deuce and a half) and he loved to go visit family members near and far. She knew racism but her parents kept it at a distance.

Michelle’s life was so much like the life I lived with my family that it evoked times that offered more stability than many children find today. She was good in school, she learned to play piano from her stern aunt who lived downstairs. As she grew her confidence in herself grew until it took her all the way to Princeton and a prestigious downtown Chicago law firm, where a young man named Barack Obama became a summer intern, then Michelle’s beau, and eventually her husband. Michelle had no calling for politics. While Barack finished a delayed college stint, she quit her fancy firm to do things that would lift up the people who grew up around her on Chicago’s South Side, and other, even poorer, Chicago neighborhoods, by running two very successful community programs. But Barack believed that the way to help even more people led through politics and, once he began, his career path took off like a rocket aimed right at Washington, DC and the Presidency.

Barack’s childhood was not as conventional as Michelle’s. He was the product of an unlikely union between a white woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya. His parents were estranged but his mother liked to travel. He spent several childhood years in Indonesia, but his real home was in Hawaii with his grandparents. He obviously also received enough loving support to grow into a very calm and confident person who ended up at Harvard, the Senate, and the White House.

This is a book that I enjoyed cover to cover. It uses no literary devices, no fiction-writing skills. It is what it is and that perfectly represents Michelle Obama; at least it seems she must be as she presents herself or she could not have written this memoir. If this were not her authentic self then she could not have written such a sweet book, and I mean sweet in the sense of offering a true taste of a good life, an American sweet spot, so far well-lived. The gracious way the Obamas lived in the White House makes them one of the great American Presidential families. I liked Michelle Robinson Obama before I read her story, and I like her even better now. The amenities of the White House, and the duties of state did not overwhelm her, but she did not take the privileges for granted either. Leaving the White House was a bittersweet experience because of the people who made their lives there so comfortable, not because she would miss the trappings of power. Barack and Michelle may be the first couple who did not arrive in the President’s house through an aristocratic American family.

Exit Strategy: Book 4: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

Exit Strategy is Book 4 in The Murderbot Diaries Series by Martha Wells and it is the last book in the series. You’re probably getting pretty sick of hearing the term murderbot by now (although there is something horrifyingly titillating about the idea) and our own murderbot has changed his look so much that he is now actually more of a Sec/Unit (Security Unit). In the world of The Murderbot Diaries, murderbots are frightening bots, taller than humans, half constructed of organics and half non-organics, wearing armor and helmets that they can darken to hide behind. They have, we guess by reading between the lines, a reputation for being almost unbeatable, although it sounds as if combatbots can take them down. Why would people create murderbots to begin with? When you read about some of the illegal things corporations get up to in The Murderbot Diaries you can see that they might need to assassinate people who know their secret evil deeds. This is what a murderbot is, essentially, an assassin, although murderbots can also be used for protection from a universe that is still full of unknown alien things.

Our Murderbot becomes what is essentially a detective, hunting down clues to solve two mysteries at once. One mystery is to unravel whether he/it did actually go off the rails and murder a whole group of miners and their security forces (bots). The other mystery is to find out why GrayCris is filing lawsuits against the very person (Dr. Mensah) who should be filing charges against GrayCris. The corporation covers its tracks and destroys negative evidence or kills anyone who could testify. The only untethered witness snoping into their affairs is Murderbot. GrayCris wants Murderbot murdered. They really want this badly. They have lots of connections and humans don’t realize how bad the corporation is. Murderbot has only the allies he meets on his travels and he is almost reduced to parts many times as he investigates.

Murderbot has also been meeting humans who are not rapacious, greedy crooks. He  works for a few groups of humans he encounters at the various transport hubs he hitches rides to. He favors transports that have bot pilots and are on runs that are empty of humans, but as soon as he gets off a transport (with his disguised appearance – yes apparently a bot can adopt a disguise) he keeps meeting these vulnerable humans who need security but who could never afford it. He’s susceptible to honest, but naïve humans and so he helps them. It has the beneficial side effect of allowing our bot to acquire currency cards. Bots don’t get paid. They do not have money. Money is always helpful to anyone, especially to a detective though.

As Murderbot disguises itself so the corporation and HubSystem cannot find it, interestingly, its appearance gets more and more human, less and less like a murderbot. A murderbot is so distinctive it could never sneak around the universe. ART on the deep space university research transport helps Murderbot make its arms and legs two inches shorter. Murderbot stops wearing the helmet and the armor. He grows his hair. He allows his mentor to instruct the med unit (a machine) to place small hairs on his “skin”, the organic parts of him. He keeps the gun ports in his arms but organic flaps cover them most of the time. He grows out his hair. He wears human clothing. And he has the ability to hack security systems so that his presence is erased. He can also hide his weaponry from security scans.

In Exit Strategy  Murderbot must get Dr. Mensah away from the clutches of GrayCris who will do anything to stop her from escaping, as she happens to be on a transport hub that is home to their corporate offices. They are even more avid to capture her now that Murderbot is back and she seems to have evidence of what they have been up to. We can guess what fate will await each of them if caught. Murderbot also has to decide how much human contact he wants and what he wants to do next. If they make it. It is an action-packed wrap up. Later, Murderbot (perhaps).

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound

Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells continues the adventures of our rogue Murderbot. This is a very strange Murderbot and, as a reader, questions begin to arise. Are all murderbots unhappy with their assignment as killing machines? Do all murderbots feel guilt and have as many self-conscious thoughts as our Murderbot? Could all murderbots override their governor modules and go rogue? If so why aren’t there rogue murderbots all over the place? Did a vague memory of a mass killing that ghosts around in the wiped memory of our bot trigger it to get control of its governor module? Is our bot especially intelligent (it has a very healthy ego), or is that all learned behavior since it now controls its own memory. When we first met Murderbot all it wanted was to be left alone to watch the humans shows and series that it had downloaded. As it gets deeply embroiled in the problems real humans are having, that seem to center around one particular ruthless corporation, it has less and less time to be alone or to devote time to its entertainment feed. Is it that addiction to the entertainment feed that has increased our bot’s self-awareness, hacking talents, and problem-solving abilities?

We humans have spent lots of time thinking deep thoughts about artificial intelligence and how we will interact with robots. There are classic science fiction books about possible glitches in interfaces between humans and machines that look like humans. Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot gave us three classic rules for robot behavior.

Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”

  • robotmay not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • robotmust obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • robotmust protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Part of the fun of the Murderbot Diaries is that here is an autonomous (although fictional) robot that gives us access to its thoughts and feelings. It’s an interesting twist because we are usually exploring what we think about interacting with robots rather than what robots might think about interacting with us.

Our bot took the name Eden for a while, but at the end of the duties it took on in Book 2, after it went to see the scene of the nearly wiped mass murder in the Ganaka Pit (a mining operation) it had to avoid pursuit and rename itself. It decided to call itself Rin. When Murderbot checks through news feeds to see if he is being hunted, he learns that his new “owner”, Dr. Mensah, is having trouble with that same ruthless corporation they have run into before, a corporation that will kill to get what it wants, and kill to keep the illegal things it is doing a secret. Dr. Mensah could have been a victim of this corporation without the skills of Murderbot, but now GrayCris (the bad guys) are trying to blame everything on her and are taking her to court. Eden/Rin’s first thought is to gather some evidence that she can use to get the corporation to leave her alone. He hears about a terraforming operation at Milu which failed. The domes were supposed to fall back into the planet as they normally would, but they were purchased at the last minute by another corporation.

Since GrayCris was the company that built the terraforming domes and left so abruptly Murderbot thought that the company might have been up to something illegal once again. If he could get evidence and if he could get it to Dr. Mensah it might end her legal difficulties and allow her to go home to her peaceful community where security was unnecessary. Of course she can’t stay in her home forever since she is a research scientist, but most people do all kinds of things on other moons or planets without running afoul of a company bent on criminal activity. Murderbot is used to needing distance and a certain disconnection in order to feel comfortable around humans. Some things he experiences in Martha Wells book Rogue Protocol might help him begin to understand how a bot and a human can be friends. Murderbot Diaries are fun and easy to read, difficult to put down and  they feel like a ride on a really fast space transport.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound

Artificial Condition: Book 2: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

In Book 2 of The Murderbot Diaries(Artificial Condition) our reluctant Murderbot leaves the new friends he made in his last assignment, the leader of PreservationAux, Dr. Mensah and her colleagues. Dr. Mensah has just purchased him so he will not have to accept any more company assignments. Although Murderbot really likes and respects Dr. Mensah, he sees this as just another owner who wants to exercise control over his life. He has hacked his governor module. He has turned himself into a free (rogue) construct (an organic and non-organic entity). He is the bot who has been learning how to keep HubSystems from finding him by hacking into security systems and erasing himself. He cannot see a way that he can tolerate a bucolic life among humans. He is terribly uncomfortable around humans, who are usually equally uncomfortable around murderbots. He let these particular humans see his organic face and they now see him as almost human and they want to protect his right to autonomy, even though very few humans seem to even have a true right to autonomy in this world built by the author, Martha Wells.

Why does Murderbot dress up in human clothing, take off his armor and his helmet and run away from PreservationAux? At first it just seems to be panic about feelings for humans that are not a part of his programming. Murderbot looks for transports that are just being ferried around by bots. He offers to share the 35,000 entertainment feeds he has downloaded with the pilot bots and these bored bots usually go for it. But it turns out that Murderbot is also carrying around a mystery. Was he or was he not responsible for killing multiple innocent humans in a mining incident? Is he too tainted to be around humans? Will he be driven to commit more murders, especially now that he is a “rogue” murderbot? He has research to do and documents won’t provide the answers because someone has erased the incident from the records.

He makes a new friend when he hitches a ride on a university’s deep space research transport that is empty of humans right now and being shuttled by a very classy bot. Of course, Murderbot loves to act all cynical and constantly, but only internally, offers satirical observations on the bot he calls “ART”. “ART” uses the university’s medical lab to make certain adjustments in Murderbot so that it won’t be instantly recognizable by its physical configuration. When Murderbot, now known as Eden, reluctantly accepts a new mission from people so clueless that they will be killed if he doesn’t help, he also ends up getting to find out more about the incident in the Ganaka Mine Pit.

 Artificial Condition by Martha Wells offers us a great mix of mystery, corrupt humans and corporations, threats of imminent death, and humor as we follow this particular Murderbot and find the experience very relatable indeed. Who knew a bot could be such an interesting fictional character? OK, we all did, since there are other examples of robots as main characters in novels, but still this is a great addition to this small area of science fiction.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Check Midnight News

All Systems Red: Book 1: Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells – Book

All System Red: Book 1 of The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is an instant hit with me. It is a fine addition to the science fiction and artificial intelligence genres. There is a picture of our particular murderbot on the cover of the book but even the term for this class of robots is designed to instill fear. Encountering one could make you start looking back over your life in case you might be a target. Murderbots are big, they are a combination of organic and mechanical elements, which seems like a poor design for a bot that constantly encounters violence and woeful bodily injuries, injuries which can only be repaired with the help of human or tech systems. Many a murderbot ends up on a scrap heap.

But our murderbot is not happy with his assigned role in society. He (it seems like a he) has figured out how to escape the control of HubSystems by overriding his governor module. If a regular murderbot is scary, a rogue murderbot could turn your hair white if it decided that it liked killing and went on a campaign of mass murdering. But our bot discovers 35,000 entertainment modules buried in the  hub system which it can now download at will. He starts binging on series created for human entertainment and he begins to resent any time that he is asked to do the work he was designed to do.

In this first adventure Murderbot finds himself assigned by the company to a group of scientists doing research on an unnamed planet. Mysterious things begin to happen and his humans (horror of horrors) seem to want to befriend him. Martha Wells, you did a good thing, writing The Murderbot Diaries for us to enjoy. I have already moved on to Book 2. These are not long books, sort of a small tray of four tasty amuse bouche. Martha Wells won a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for best novella All Systems Red.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – Tor.com

Find me on goodreads.com as Nancy Brisson

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover – Book

Educated is a memoir by Tara Westover. There were seven children in the Westover family and they loved their father and their mother as children do. He, the father, had a powerful charisma, although his entire world view, shared passionately with his children bordered on insanity. He was ostensibly a strict Mormon, but so paranoid that his religious beliefs were completely twisted by his absolute distrust of the government and of socialism, which he saw as synonymous with government; and of what he called “the Illuminati” (all prevalent fears stoked in current conspiracy theories). In addition he was a survivalist who hoarded food, guns, fuel and who did not allow his children to go to school. The family lived on rural land at the foot of a mountain in Idaho.

Gene Westover used religious guilt, end-of-days conviction, and parental disappointment expressed in lengthy religiously-toned sermons to manipulate his children and his wife to perform dangerous work that was well beyond their strength and skills level. His children and his wife, and even he, the father sustained horrible injuries. But doctors and medicine were things he categorized as socialism and therefore “of the devil”. Tara’s mom was a herbalist, and when forced by her husband, a midwife. Everyone in the family, even if almost injured to the point of dying, was treated with externally applied herbal salves and tinctures designed to be taken internally. In a few cases family members were taken to a hospital. Still childhood in this family, even though they loved their parents, sounded like living in one of the rings in Dante’s Inferno. Even negative situations often offer some positive side effects, and, in this case, learning to deal with dangerous situations did give some of these children strength and ingenuity.

Tyler is one of the Westover children who refused to be a part of the insanity whenever he could escape his father’s notice, and he learned ways to do that fairly often. He loved books and music and cleanliness and order. He was the first of the children to go to, and finish, college.

Shawn and Luke, two of Tyler’s older brothers left home but they continued to do jobs that required physical stamina, like long distance trucking and they eventually returned home to work in the family junkyard and to build barns and silos with their dad and the other kids. Shawn had such anger in him, and he had a mean, violent streak, which could be almost lethal when mixed with skills in martial arts and a body made strong by hard work. He started out teasing his little sister Tara, but he eventually became judgmental with unpredictable outbursts of bullying, physical torture and mental abuse, frequently calling Tara, who was twelve and then thirteen, a whore. Her parents never intervened.

Fear that he would do her major harm or even kill her eventually drove Tara to listen to Tyler, who told her that even though her parents lied about the home schooling, if she can pass the ACT she can go to college. Tara had some experiences in the community outside the family domain. She’d been able to sing in the church choir and take part in some community theater. Her dad seems proud when she shines in public. She has taught herself to read and do math through algebra, but gets help from a friend to learn trigonometry. She passed the ACT on her second try and is accepted to Brigham Young University where she becomes an A student. Good fortune slowly pulls her out of the grasp of her delusional family. During her undergraduate days I continued to hold my breathe every time she used a college break to go home. Her professors helped her get into Cambridge in London, and then, for her doctoral studies, into Harvard. She did have to deal with some psychological fallout.

This is a powerful story that aroused my anger and left me at times in despair. Tara Westover makes the point that the lives of her college educated family members differ in quality to the lives of those who did not leave the family, even though Tara’s mother eventually made the family very wealthy with one of her herbal concoctions. Education opened Tara’s eyes to how little her father knew or chose to accept of actual history and how his powerful demeanor and limited world view hurt his family, who he wished to hold onto as virtual prisoners. Tara’s family disputes her version of events in the family. There are lawsuits pending.

Photo Credits: From a Google Image Search – Barnes and Noble

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – Book

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver is not the first book by this author that I have read. I have enjoyed her writing since her first book, The Bean Trees, appeared in 1988. I have also read Pigs in Heaven, Prodigal Summer, Flight Behavior, and The Poisonwood Bible (although I think I read all these books before I joined goodreads.com).

Kingsolver is an environmentalist who likes to use fiction to call attention to the havoc human excesses wreak on nature. She does it subtly, but unmistakably in very readable novels, that reflect the changing zeitgeist of the 30 years she, and we, have lived through since she started writing.

Her inspiration for Unsheltered came when she learned of a woman scientist named Mary Treat and she was given access to her notes and correspondence. Dr. Treat was a woman ahead of her time, a wife who thrived when her husband left her. She was fascinated by the plants and insects that lived in the Pine Barrens that were near her home. She filled her living room with small jars that look like terraria, but each contained a tower-building spider (small variety of tarantula).

Mary Treat wrote letters to Charles Darwin, who had recently published his Origin of the Species, a book that seemed to refute God, and set the world on fire, and he wrote back. She wrote to Dr. Asa Gray and he also answered her letters. Mary Treat is real, and a truly interesting woman. Thatcher Greenwood is also real. When he married his wife Rose, her family owned the house next door to Mary Treat. Thatcher Greenwood was hired to teach science in a high school run by a man who believed Darwin to be an abomination. The house he is living in was poorly built and is falling apart, as is his life.

A parallel story 150 years after Darwin’s book was published, gives us a family of the Trump era, living in the second incarnation of Thatcher Greenwood’s house, which was rebuilt by a second someone, equally without regard for sound building principals. A twice-unlucky house. When Willa’s family inherits the house in New Jersey from her Aunt, it is at a time when the economy is changing for everyone. Willa, a writer, loves her solid career footing but then the magazine she writes for fails. If she stays in New Jersey she will have to accept freelance writing jobs. Iano, her husband, a professor of political science cannot find a path to tenure, and in middle age is still working as an adjunct.

Their son, Zeke, is left, tragically, with a baby son, who he leaves with Willa to try for a tech startup with his college roommate. He owes $110,000 in college loans which he must pay off. Tig, their daughter, is an enigma as a member of what seems to be a whole new generation. She is a dynamic, pint-sized activist with dreadlocks who lived in Cuba for a year and took part in the Occupy movement. Tig (short for Antigone) may have the best grasp on our new shifting social landscape.

The house is what ties the two eras together and the two “evolutionary” women, Mary Treat and Antigone Tavoularis (Tig). As the house falls down around the inhabitants some find it extremely unsettling and others find it strangely freeing.

Kingsolver is a queen of dialogue, which makes her novels flow easily along, in spite of how dense the content seems after the fact. It was interesting that she never mentioned the modern folks who still deny Darwin and the sneaky tactics they often employ to make it mandatory to teach “Creationism” in 21st century schools. She may not have wanted to focus on something more political than environmental. The literary device that has us skipping back and forth over 150 years in every other chapter makes the reader look forward to getting back to the story line that will be taken up in the next chapter.

We have wandered pretty far from nature and I wonder how many of us would feel comfortable without a home base. Is there a generational divide, or will that disappear as mature responsibilities must be met? Will we have to learn to respect nature and live in greater harmony, without many of the creature comforts that we have convinced ourselves prove that we are above other living things. Will we ever be able to overcome our sense of superiority and separateness which allows us to believe that our survival trumps (sorry) theirs? Will we ever learn to feel our organic connection to every living and nonliving thing on this planet?

Engaging our thoughts is a hallmark of a skilled author. I can’t decide if the separation in time is so large that this felt more like two stories that blinked on and off like lights or if the connections are powerful enough to unify the novel. However this is a relatively insignificant flaw which was not jarring enough to ruin my enjoyment of Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Unsheltered.

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – KUOW

America: The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges – Book

Chris Hedge’s book America: The Farewell Tour begins with a chapter entitled “Decay”:

“I walked down a long service road into the remains of an abandoned lace factory. The road was pocked with holes filled with fetid water. There were saplings and weeds poking up from the cracks in the asphalt. Wooden crates, rusty machinery, broken glass, hulks of old filing cabinets and trash covered the grounds.”

His prose is personal and relatable. He is a well-respected journalist and does not ride a desk. He goes out to meet the world and provides plenty of anecdotal backup for the points he makes. He also recognizes that anecdotes need to be backed up by overviews that offer data collected by organizations who study these issues. Everything is footnoted and properly attributed as you would expect from someone who attended Colgate and Harvard (Divinity School). He has bona fides; he knows how to do research. Other chapters include: Heroin, Work, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, Freedom. However Hedges also had a thesis in mind when he began, and so the material in this book is not scientific in that sense. If you know what you want to find in advance it can affect what you observe.

The city that is home to the abandoned lace factory is Scranton, PA which leads into the challenges faced by the city leaders who find their city on the edge of bankruptcy. His point is that the lace factory  is emblematic, “is America”, as is the city of Scranton.

Chris Hedges tells us, in his tale of American decay, that he is a socialist. He quotes Karl Marx, a Communist. He says Karl Marx knew:

“that the reigning ideologies—think corporate capitalism with its belief in deindustrialization, deregulation, privatization of public assets, austerity, slashing of social service programs, and huge reductions in government spending—were created to serve the interests of the economic elites.”

However, he adds

“The acceleration of deindustrialization by the 1970’s created a crisis that forced the ruling class to devise a new political paradigm…This paradigm, trumpeted by a compliant media shifted its focus from the common good to race, crime, and law and order. It told those undergoing profound economic and political change that their suffering stemmed not from corporate greed, but from a threat to national integrity. The old consensus that buttressed the programs of the New Deal and the welfare state was attacked as enabling criminal black youth, welfare queens, and social parasites. The parasites were to blame. This opened the door to authoritarian populism.”

Hedges believes we are “witness-[ing] the denouement of capitalism”. He goes on to paint a pretty grim picture of America, a snapshot of our less than stellar moment in time here at the beginning of the 21stcentury. Addiction destroys individuals but it also is a symptom of rot in a culture. The kinds of work and the way work in America has changed has caused a decline in worker’s pride in their work, in their prosperity, and is turning us into corporate serfs. Lots of evidence is offered for these contentions.

Sadism is real, but, thankfully does not crop up often in my little world but Hedges goes to speak with the people who provide such experiences, and with other sex workers. This information is very graphic and I confess that I sometimes had to skip the details and seek out the conclusions Hedges arrived at. We need to understand the male domination in our culture and the abuse of women and if just reading about this aspect of American culture takes you to a dark place, you can imagine what it does to women (and exploited men) who feel this is the only way they can make a living. Hate and Gambling are further signs of the decay we see all around us in America. The chapter on Freedom begins with a discussion of incarceration as a tool of the capitalist elite to control populations with the most reason to resist or revolt. Also included is the Native American movement to block tar sand pipelines in South Dakota and the use of military might against people who were peacefully protesting.

I never read Chris Hedges before except for an old article in the Christian Science Monitorbecause I believed that our politics were very different but after reading this book I think we have more in common than not. However, I cannot blame problems on “isms”. The ways we organize economies are neither inherently good nor bad. Capitalism is not bad, but capitalists certainly can be. We have seen enough of unregulated capitalism to know that it gives full scope to the greediest, meanest impulses that reside in all of us very flawed humans.

Clearly though, the same weaknesses can be found in Communism and Socialism, because the defects are in us. We know that our natures are full of paradoxes. We all have a best self and a worst self and lots of degrees in between. We can rationalize that our worst behavior is beneficial with shocking ease. Communism, which lifted up those who had been oppressed, did solve the problems of inequality for a tiny minute (everyone was poor), except the Soviet Union got hung up on issues of purity and they began to purge anyone whose ideology was not pure enough. This is a trend we are finding in America right now, without the gulags (or, are our prisons our gulags).

This is where I differ from Mr. Hedges. I don’t think simply switching to socialism will magically save our democracy from decay and ruin. I do agree that what we have in America right now is nothing like the democracy/republic our forefathers foresaw.

“Our capitalist elites have used propaganda, money, and the marginalizing of their critics to erase the first three of philosopher John Locke’s elements of the perfect state: liberty, equality, and freedom.”…”Liberty and freedom in the corporate state mean the liberty and freedom of corporations and the rich to exploit and pillage without government interference or regulatory oversight.”

Hedges finds Republicans and Democrats equally guilty of turning America into a corporate state. I see the Democrats as more likely to feel some shame about this, and I also think that Democrats have not had many opportunities to introduce meaningful reforms because their power has been limited by a pretty successful Republican power grab. Hedges has some recommendations for strategies that we the people can employ to wrest back power from the corporations and the elite but he admits it will not be easy.

“All of the movements that opened up the democratic space in America—the abolitionists, the suffragists, the labor movement, the communists, the socialists, the anarchists, and the civil rights movement—developed a critical mass that forced the centers of power to respond. The platitudes about justice, equality, and democracy are just that. Only when ruling elites become worried about survival do they react. Appealing to the better nature of the powerful is useless. They don’t have one.”

I can agree with many of the progressive policies that Hedges supports although I do not call these programs socialist. The elites label these ideas as socialist to stigmatize them.

“…mechanisms that could ameliorate this crisis—affordable housing; well-paying jobs; safe, well-staffed, and well-funded schools and colleges that do not charge tuition; expanded mental health facilities; good public transportation; the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure; demilitarized police forces; universal government-funded health care; an end to predatory loans and practices of big banks; and a campaign to pay reparations to African Americans and end racial segregation.”

In a democracy we the people are meant to determine how our tax dollars are divvied up. If we want the federal government to manage utilities because it is fairer and more convenient and offers greater equality of access, then that is a democratic decision to use a socialist strategy for economic reasons. In other areas we might find that regulated capitalism works best, or it might make sense to make room for communal arrangements, or to even employ bartering if that suits the situation.

It is impossible to cover all that is in this book in a short commentary, but it is a deep dive into the maladies affecting America, which the Trump presidency did not cause, although the transparent looting of America by the Trump family and friends makes the direction we are headed much easier to predict. In America: The Farewell Tour, Chris Hedges focuses on capitalism as the real culprit in the decline of the quality most of us find in our lives in modern America and it is not just about money, but much, much more. This one is well worth reading and you should not let political prejudices stop you.