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Nemesis Games

By James S. A. Corey

Most of you will know that I’m horribly biased about these Expanse novels, having a personal connection to the authors as well as the roots of the story. So I’ll just come out and admit that I enjoyed the hell out of this book, even though I completely understand some of the criticisms I’ve heard of it. The series is, as I understand it, planned to span either 9 or 12 volumes, depending on sales and the whims of the publisher. As the fifth book, then, Nemesis Games is pretty squarely positioned as the second-act turning point of the series, the part where all hell breaks loose—the Empire Strikes Back moment, as it were. And, yeah, that’s pretty much what happens.

The Rocinante gang, freshly back from their trip to the colony world Ilus, feel a bit of down time and go their separate ways. Thus, for the first time, each crewmember becomes a point-of-view character, which was particularly gratifying for me when it came to the Amos chapters. And, of course, the moment they split up, everything hits the fan. As we’ve come to expect from this series, there are conspiracies and terrorism and plots, and a whole lot of high-stakes action. Much of this is left a bit unresolved, but these books tend to be written in pairs, with the odd-numbered books providing the setup and the even numbers paying things off, so it only makes sense.

The main criticism I’ve heard, one that I agree with, has to do with how the female characters are handled, what their story functions are. And, yeah, it’s not great. One supporting character seems to only exist to be rescued, and the additions to one of the main characters’ backstory is disappointing in centering (as so often is the case with female characters) on her feelings about motherhood. Several of my friends were quite angry about the way women were written in this book, and I can’t blame them. I haven’t talked with the authors about this complaint, but I know both of them are thoughtful and open-minded, so I’m hopeful that things will be better in this regard in future episodes. (Thus far, there has been a pretty diverse cast of women in this series, with a broad range of personalities and motivations, so I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that this will be the case going forward.)

Even so, I’m completely on-board with this series, and, as I mentioned, I really liked this book. If you’ve been following along already, you’ve probably already read this one, and if you’re new to the series and are a fan of science fiction, I give it a high recommendation. Check it out.


Started: 6/12/2015 | Finished: 6/18/2015

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The Southern Reach Trilogy

There’s a Lovecraft short story called “The Colour Out of Space” that describes a strange series of events following the impact of a meteorite in a stretch of rural Massachussetts farmland. It being a Lovecraft story, a whole bunch of eerie stuff happens and then pretty much everyone involved goes insane. But fundamentally it was a story about alienness. Lovecraft was specifically responding to the popular science fiction of his day, in which extraterrestrials were depicted more or less like humans with slightly different morphology, and with “The Colour Out of Space” he was trying to imagine an interaction with a truly incomprehensible “other.”

Jeff VanderMeer seemed to have the same concerns in mind when he was writing his Southern Reach trilogy, which pulls in the same exceptionally creepy tone that characterizes Lovecraft’s work, but in a modern style and without all the racism. In his series, VanderMeer tells us of a stretch of coastline in what appears to be a backwater part of Florida, in which some sort of “event” in the past has created a mysterious region known only as “Area X.” In the first novel we follow the 11th expedition into Area X, an expedition that sets out knowing that every previous group that has entered has come out insane, died of cancer, or not come out at all. And with each new chapter and new novel, things get more and more strange, and the mystery becomes deeper.

It’s not the kind of story for people who want happy endings, or even much of a sense of closure. But VanderMeer is a master of establishing atmosphere, and the books are very skillfully written. I’m still not sure, having had nearly two months to think it over, exactly what happened in these books, but the experience of reading them was breathtaking.


Started: 5/28/2015 | Finished: 6/11/2015

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Kat, Incorrigible

Regular visitors to the forums on this web site will probably have already heard of this series—indeed, that’s where I heard about them. The title character, Katherine Stephenson is the youngest of three sisters, growing up in Regency-era Britain. Opinionated and feisty, Kat is often in trouble with her prim, society-minded stepmother, all the more so when Kat discovers that she has inherited her late mother’s magical powers. In a sort of Jane Austen-meets-Harry Potter story, the series follows Kat as she explores her powers, becomes initiated into a secret magical society, and saves her family (repeatedly) from all sorts of nefarious sorcery.

Like Harry Potter, this series is aimed at a YA audience, and like the earlier Harry Potter novels, it’s quite a lot of fun. My only nitpick is the way in which literally every other character assumes that Kat is both helpless and either lying or wrong about what she says is going on. There’s some sense to this at the beginning of the series, but by the third book she’s repeatedly demonstrated both resourcefulness and general honesty, and her sisters’ (and parents’ and teachers’) insistence to the contrary seems a bit of a stretch. Still, I can recall feeling similarly dismissed as a tween, so perhaps it’s not too far off the mark. I’m definitely going to be keeping my copies of these books for when my own kids get older.


Started: 5/14/2015 | Finished: 5/27/2015

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What Art Is

By Arthur Danto

A while back, a fellow photographer brought up Arthur Danto and his definition of art while we were discussing some work we’d both recently seen. It was an interesting conversation, enough that I decided to explore Danto’s writings on my own. As it turned out, though, I spent most of this book frustrated and irritated.

As you might guess from the title, the central point of the essays collected in this book is Danto’s definition of art. Art, he says, is “embodied meaning.” There’s a certain looseness of language to that definition which a self-proclaimed philosopher probably ought to have worked out better—after all, embodiment as a prerequisite excludes art forms that don’t rely on physical media. That’s a bit of a quibble, though. What really bothered me was that Danto seemed similarly willing to play fast and loose with both history (the development of both art and art criticism being more evolutional than he admits) and with epistemology. Danto explicitly waves aside epistemological questions, saying that he’s concerned with what art is, not how we know what art is, but many of his arguments rely on taking for granted his own ability to understand an artist’s intentions.

In the end, though, it’s probably more than it’s worth to get upset about such an esoteric discussion. If nothing else, reading this book got me to revisit and clarify some of my own thoughts on art.


Started: 5/9/2015 | Finished: 5/14/2015

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One Year

Dear Mary,

So here we are, the last night of your first year. As I'm writing this, you are about eight feet away from me on your mom's lap. You've just finished a last little snack before bedtime, which is part of your normal routine. Unlike most nights, though, we're in a hotel room more than a thousand miles from home—your first trip to another country. It's funny for me to consider that with you, I'm going to be seeing a lot of firsts for the last time. But I'm glad that you're the one I'll see them with.

Before you were born, your mom and I thought we knew what we were doing as parents, and we thought we knew what to expect from you. But from your very first day, you have demanded to be reckoned with on your own terms. You are strong-willed and determined. You are a girl on the go. Today, for the first time, you decided to stand without holding onto anything for balance. I'm sure it's only a matter of weeks or even days before you take your first steps. None of your family is surprised about this; you have always had places to go, things you wanted to be doing, and you are not one to let anything stand in your way. It's a big world out there and often a tough one; I think your grit and drive will serve you well as you continue to grow and find your way.

You're sometimes a handful, and sometimes a sweetheart. You're goofy, like your brother and sister—you love to make people laugh. You're little for your age when it comes to height and weight, but like you might hear in stories about another adventurous soul, you're bigger on the inside.

Tomorrow is your birthday, and you are going to be surrounded by family celebrating your first year. For you, I think tomorrow is going to be no big deal, maybe just something you'll see pictures of when you get older. For me and your mom, though, it's a pretty big deal: you're one year old, and you're the one who's made our family complete.

I hope you have a great day, baby girl. I love you.


Soundtrack: "Train Tracks" by Marmoset. Used with permission.

Seven Years

Dear Jason,

Every year I write you a letter and make a video for you. In a lot of ways, what goes into these letters isn't much different from what I do every day: I think about you, what you're like, how you've grown, and how much I love you. Lately, too, I've been thinking a lot about what kind of man you will be when you're grown up, and what the world will be like when you get there. A lot happens out in the world, some of it good and some of it bad, and sometimes I worry about the problems you will face some day. But more and more I am comforted by the ways that you show me how good a person you are. You make me very proud to be your dad.

In just the past week, two different families have commented to me and your mom about how polite and mature you are. And it's true: sometimes life gets frustrating, but you are really good at talking things out, and you care a lot about doing the right thing. This year you became a big brother for the second time, and you are so good at taking care of your new baby sister. You play with her and you talk to her. You're just a great brother, to both of your sisters.

Another big step for you was earning your junior black belt, after two whole years persevering and learning in your karate class. I've gotten to come visit your class more often this year, and I love to see how good you are at focusing and improving your skills.

But most of all, I love that you're fun and funny. After we went and saw Inside Out, I've liked to say that you live on Goofball Island. In fact, just as I was writing this letter to you, you came and joked around with me about boogers, and also tried to tickle me. (Your mom doesn't like the booger jokes as much, but that's OK. This can be our thing.) I like that you're playful and enthusiastic, and I hope that never changes.

Tomorrow is your birthday, and I'm taking the whole day off work so I can spend it with you. It's going to be a great day, I know it. Happy birthday, pal.


Soundtrack: "Baby Is Unseen" by Beachcomber. Used with permission.

At Two Months

The thing that strikes me the most about this picture is not how much different she looked then, nor how much the same she looks now. It's not the way she still sometimes sleeps with her arms raised and hands in little fists. It's not even the swiftness with which the past eight, nearly nine months have passed. All of those things do cross my mind when I look at this picture, but mostly what amazes me is seeing her at 6:10 in the morning, sleeping soundly enough for me to take her picture—or even enter the room—without waking her.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me how beautiful my mother is, often using the word “exotic” in their description of her. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot with Asian women, but with my mom’s high cheekbones, narrow nose, and eyelids that are somewhere between single and double, it’s hard to place her racially. Most often people assume she’s some sort of Native American. In fact, according to family legend, her great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee woman, but no one ever mistook her mostly-English father for an Indian.

My mother grew up—as I did not—in a town with a strong Japanese-American community, but this was not often a comfort to her. When she was young, she’s told me, the Japanese kids rejected her for being too white, and the white kids rejected her because she looked like a Mexican. And, of course, the Mexican kids knew she wasn’t one of them, either. She told me once when I was in college that it had been a relief to her that my brother and I would be more than half-Japanese. “At least you’d know what you are,” she said.

*

I’ve been trying to write this post for months now. In that time, first the Internet exploded over Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair photo, then about Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity. I had been mulling over questions about race, gender, identity, and social constructs, and suddenly it seemed like all of Twitter was either asking the same questions or taking those questions apart and hanging the askers out to dry as either racist or transphobic or both. The more prudent part of me thought it might be a good idea to stay quiet and listen. So that’s what I did. I listened and read, a lot.

I listened to Gene Demby and Steve Inskeep talk about whether Rachel Dolezal’s story should change how we think about race. I read pieces from Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker and Jonathan Blanks in The Washington Post about blackness and race and appropriation and America. I learned that “transracial” is a word with a 40-year history in the adoption community, and that people in that community—such as Martha Crawford and Lisa Marie Rollins—object to the word being misused and appropriated by people wanting to make a joke out of it.

The question that has been asked hundreds of times over—and later derided and ridiculed and called out for its biases—is, “If Caitlyn Jenner can be a woman, why can’t Rachel Dolezal be black?”

It’s a flawed question for a lot of reasons, as so many people have pointed out. Inherent in a question like that is a comparison between a person who transitioned to an authentic expression of the gender she feels inside—that is, the gender she is—and a person who pretended to be a race she isn’t in order to gain something. Many people quite reasonably found the analogy between the transgender experience and Dolezal’s cynical falsehood insulting, even irresponsible.

A great many people also pointed out that Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity allowed her to take all of the benefits of blackness without having had to suffer the negative consequences that actual black people deal with every day. Growing up white, Dolezal would never have had to deal with increased police scrutiny, the threat of racist violence, or the entrenched structural racism that keeps millions of black people impoverished and disenfranchised even today. Here things get a bit more complicated, because as valid as this criticism appears to me, it’s uncomfortably similar to some of the so-called “trans-exclusive radical feminist” arguments that some people use against the acceptance of trans women—trans women, these people say, benefited from the privileges of a patriarchal society while they presented as male, and therefore it is unfair for them to be accepted as women. Many TERF statements also come back to the idea of falsehood, that trans women aren’t “real” women, merely men pretending to be something they’re not. To me, the arguments against racial appropriation feel valid, while the arguments against gender transition feel bigoted, but I can’t fully articulate why. Needless to say, the idea of having to “pay your dues” in order to be accepted is incredibly problematic, or at least it seems so to me.

Eventually we come down to a question that I’ve been watching play out over and over again on Twitter over the past week: is it possible to be born the wrong race?

*

We hadn’t been to Michi’s in a long time, but my brother and I had a hankering for sushi and when we arrived at our usual place only to find it closed, I thought of the restaurant we’d always gone to when I was little, so my dad took us there instead. It was pretty quiet when we stepped in—a lot of the customers had left when Shogun had opened on Main Street, leaving just the die-hards and the old-timers. There were just a few other guys at the sushi bar, Japanese-American like us, and from the looks of them, they were probably regulars.

The three of us sat and ordered, and soon enough the food arrived. We had just started eating when one of the men at the bar turned to my dad and said, “What’s the matter, Dean? Did you forget how to use hashi?” My dad didn’t look up or make eye contact, didn’t respond to the taunt at all, just put down the fork he’d been using to eat his salad and sipped at his miso soup instead. We ate in uncomfortable silence, and eventually the other man left.

*

Is it possible to be born the wrong race? What does that even mean, really?

The problem with a question like that is that race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are not the same things. These are all social constructs to some degree, but the way they are determined isn’t the same. Some are based on some form of heritage, whether genetic or cultural. Some are entirely political, based on law or place of birth or external classifications. They’re not the same. Still, it’s unsatisfying to simply point out that they’re different, because they’re not entirely separate either.

Identity is a complicated phenomenon, and part of what makes it so is that it’s not just personal; it is also in large part shaped by and in reaction to the way we are treated by others. Community is a huge factor in how we define ourselves, both the communities in which we participate and are accepted, as well as those from which we are excluded. And, right or wrong, the way you look does influence the way others perceive and interact with you. That, in turn, has implications for how you receive and participate in culture, which parts you are able and allowed to access. It affects how you think about yourself. It certainly has affected how I think about myself.

*

The first of my grandmother’s grandparents to come to America arrived in San Francisco in 1892. The last of them got to Hawaii around 1900 or 1901—the records aren’t clear, and much of the family history was lost during the Internment. My grandmother, herself, was born in 1928 in the same town as her parents, her children, and all of her grandchildren, including me.

By the Japanese method of counting, my grandmother is sansei, or third-generation American. She’s proud of her heritage, and more than any other person, she has been the one that taught me what it means to be Japanese. Foods and customs, of course, and songs and children’s games. Being respectful and humble, obedient of your elders and of the laws, and, most of all, being part of a close-knit family.

But being sansei had its connotations, even back before the war. “Us third-generation kids were always the dummies in Japanese school,” she told me once, “compared to the nisei kids, because they all spoke Japanese at home and we didn’t.”

*

When people ask me what I am—which has happened for my whole life, and will, I’m sure, continue to happen—I tell them that I’m three-quarters Japanese. I imagine that most people, hearing this, will interpret it to mean that I identify with my Asian ancestry. In truth, though, what it means is that in my whole life I have met exactly one person who is like me in terms of race, and that is my brother.

I don’t know what race and culture mean to other people. I don’t know if anyone ever feels comfortable or at home. What I do know is that I don’t belong. The condescension at the Japanese market when I need help reading a label, the side-eye from the community-college language teacher when I call myself nihonjin instead of amerikajin, the insistence that I’m a “twinky” or “banana”—that is, yellow on the outside, white on the inside—these have had no less impact on my perception of myself than the wrinkled noses at the nori in my lunch in elementary school, the angry shouts to go back where I came from in middle school, being beaten and spit on in high school by people calling me a chink.

My mother likes to tell a story from my kindergarten year, perhaps the moment I learned about race. I had come home upset, asking why the other kids made slanty eyes at me. She tried to explain that I looked different from them, comparing my features and theirs in our class photo. “No, I don’t. I look like that,” I insisted, pointing to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. “I look like that, and I look like that, and I look like that.” I pointed to them all.

It is exhausting, feeling defensive both when white people complain about minorities and when people of color complain about white people. Feeling uncomfortable even calling myself a “person of color” when I’ve never been harassed by police or kept down by government policies; when my wife, my step-parents, and almost all of my friends are white; when I listen to white music, read white books, watch white television and movies. To constantly be questioning what parts of my heritage are mine to claim, and which I must accept being beyond my reach. To know that, even now, I will always feel on the outside of any group, no matter how much welcome they extend to me, because part of me will never believe someone won’t take it back, the way someone always did when I tried to be white or Asian.

Was Rachel Dolezal entitled to take the identity she took? I don’t know her history, her culture, her circumstances, but I feel in my heart that what she did was wrong. And it frustrates me because it has provided so much opportunity for other people to dismiss and mock the alienation I have always felt.

Was I born the wrong race? No, I was born the way I am, and the way I look is part of how I feel. I wouldn’t want to claim whiteness even if I were allowed to, not if it meant turning my back on being Japanese. I’m both, even if in so many ways I’m neither.

I don’t know if inclusion and representation are important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know if the pain and isolation I’ve felt ought to matter to anyone but me. But if the past few weeks have taught me anything, if I’ve learned anything in all the responses I’ve read to this stupid, messy racial controversy, it’s that I’m not the only one who feels the way I do. I don’t know if I have a community of my own, but I am not alone. And if you recognize any of my experiences in your own, you’re not alone either.

Lookout

On clear days when I was a child, I'd look up from the playground at my school, or out the window of my mom's car, toward the top of Snively's Ridge along the south edge of the valley. There in the distance, I'd see something, though I wasn't sure what—in fact, it was so small against the line of hills that sometimes in between glimpses I thought I'd only imagined it. But, no, the next time I looked, there it was: a little white dot up on top of the hill. I imagined some sort of tower, a lonely castle fortress where some distant king looked out across his domain.

I came to find out when I was a little older that it was a fire lookout, which didn't really dampen the romantic nature of my imaginings, just changed their focus a bit. I thought of some vigilant park ranger up there by himself, watching, watching, watching, to keep everyone safe.

For years and years I looked up at that little tower and wondered what it looked like up close, but I never got closer than four or five miles away. The trail up the ridge was too steep, too long, and I was too much an indoor child. This past February on a trip back to visit Juliette's parents I finally decided to make the climb, and in the early chill of a Thursday morning, found myself trudging up a narrow, rocky trail in Garland Park. It took me the better part of two hours to hike the three miles or so from the parking lot by the river, and in the end I discovered that the tower itself is set back on another hill behind the ridge, called Pinyon Peak. There's no public access, and so the closest I could get was still a few hundred yards off.

So, I took this picture, then turned to look out across the land around me. There was a little breeze, cool against my skin damp with sweat from the climb, and no sound but a bit of birdsong, some leaves rustling in the wind, and the sound of my own breathing. The sky was clear, just a few wispy clouds making ribbons in the sky to the southeast. I could see east past the Village, southwest to the Highlands, and to the northwest all the way to Monterey and Seaside.

I stood there a while and looked and breathed. Eventually I started back down, as I had promised to meet up with everyone that afternoon and still had a bunch of places to find and photograph. I didn't reach the goal I had in mind for that morning, but what I got was enough. I'll get there some day.

Please

Child, I love you very much. I love your energy, your inquisitiveness, and your impish little smile. I love that you are motivated, that you go after what you want, and I hope that you stay that way when you are older.

But please, at 2:30 in the morning, this is the only thing I ever want to see you doing.

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