Becoming by Michelle Obama – Book

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“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.

Photo Credit:  From a Google image search – Getty

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

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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: Google Image Search – Fiction Unbound

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

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Rogue Protocol: Book 3: Murderbot Diariesby 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

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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 – Book

all-systems-red Tor.com

All System Red: Book 1 of The Murderbot Diariesby 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

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Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover – Book

 

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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 passes 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 Credit: From a Google Image Search – Barnes and Noble

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Unsheltered floral KUOW

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 folds. 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 (cropped)