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Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’ve had ample opportunity to think about race and racism in my life. Growing up with an Asian face in a mostly-white town, my otherness was something that was consistently reinforced by my classmates, whether it was the revulsion I heard about the nori in my lunch as a kindergartener or the beatings I took in high school from kids who called me a chink. By the time I reached adulthood I had a lot of opinions about race and racism, and I thought I had good reasons for them. I thought I understood these phenomena. I was wrong.

The most insidious deception that life shows us is that, having lived, we know what life is like, that we understand the world. But this is a lie. The truth is that the world is big and life is varied, and in our short, narrow existences we see only a very small part of it. Experience, the thing that is supposed to bring us wisdom, the kind of knowledge that most of us exalt above all others, is a trap. It lulls you with the supremacy of your own story, but does not and cannot show you the things to which you are blind.

Over the past year or so I have been revisiting many of my thoughts and assumptions about race (and gender and class and privilege and bias of all sorts), poking at the edges to try to find where I am limited, considering the core to try to see how strong it really is. What I’ve come to is this: the single greatest barrier to social, political, and economic justice is the essential solitude of human existence, the fact that we do not and cannot truly know the living of someone else’s life.

But if we are incapable of literally seeing through another person’s eyes, we nevertheless have the opportunity to come close by means of communication. Through writing, speech, art, one person can show herself to another, and by opening ourselves to the possibility, we have the chance at something like communion. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates does with his remarkable book Between the World and Me.

Between the World and Me is written as a letter from Coates to his son, Samori, one in which he lays out his hopes and fears for the kind of man that his son will be, and in which he tells the story of his own journey to manhood, growing up as a black boy in Baltimore. Taken solely on this level, the book is still powerful, because the impulse to teach one’s children and to be known to them, to have them see how you became the person you are and have them understand, surely this must be universal. As compelling as that narrative is, though, the true impact of this book comes from its ability to show Coates’ world to the rest of us.

Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom of Virginia Commonwealth University pointed out in one of her reviews of this book that the struggles that Coates describes, ones which I found so viscerally gripping, are ones that are hardly unfamiliar, let alone shocking, to most black people in America. In many ways, she says, this book is really written for a white audience. Or, to put it as Coates so often does: people who believe themselves to be white.

And here is the most dismaying thing about this book: that the people who would most benefit from reading it most likely will not do so. Or, reading it, will reject it. It is impossible to read this book as anything but an indictment of an America that is blind to both the historical scale of its racism and the ways in which that racism continues to be perpetuated to this day. The most natural thing to do in the face of criticism—especially unexpected criticism, or criticism that feels undeserved—is to defend oneself. I have spent so much of my life examining and re-examining myself and my beliefs, constantly digging and scratching to try to discover my own foibles, and yet often in the course of reading Between the World and Me I found myself automatically beginning to argue with Coates, to try to find the holes in his reasoning. But it was wrong of me to do that.

Partially it was wrong because much of the book is Coates describing his own life, which is to say, the things that he experienced and how they affected him; how can I meaningfully argue that he didn’t experience what he says he did? But more than that, it was wrong because the only reason I really had to argue was that it would allow me to feel good about myself. This is important: if the only time we will accept an argument is if it makes us look good, it means that we hold ourselves completely immune from criticism, encased in the armor of our own ignorance. This isn’t to say that we must accept any criticism without challenge, but I believe that it is our responsibility to always begin by asking, honestly, whether this criticism may be valid.

Coates, himself, knows this sort of reaction well enough:

But my experience in this world has been that the people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.

Think about the lengths to which we all go to be able to think of ourselves as good people. Listen to the parents’ voices in Nikole Hannah-Jones’s revelatory recent episode of This American Life . “This is not a race issue,” one mother shouts. But if it is not a race issue, then what is it? The word “racist” has become so evil in our minds, so tied to images of lynch mobs and burning crosses, of the slaveholder’s whip and of fire hoses turned on peaceful protesters, that most people will twist and contort themselves to avoid having that label applied to themselves. But what is the difference between racism and something that just “happens” to be functionally identical to racism, to have the exact same outcome as racism? There is no difference, and we are all complicit. As Coates puts it:

Very few Americans will directly proclaim that they are in favor of black people being left to the streets. But a very large number of Americans will do all they can to preserve the Dream.

That last phrase, “the Dream,” is something to which Coates refers over and over again throughout Between the World and Me. In America, of course, when we speak of dreams it’s hard not to think of the “American Dream,” the aspiration to be found in the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger. But Coates isn’t talking about goals or the future. When he speaks of a Dream, he’s talking about a fantasy which does not reflect reality. Something in which we can only live by keeping ourselves insensate to the waking world.

It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all of the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

The Dream is safety. It is the belief that hard work always pays off. That any of us pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, unhelped and unbeholden to anyone who came before or after. That we are the unconquerable masters of our fates, captains of our souls. “People who believe they are white” can live in this Dream; people who are told they are black may not.

(I wondered, at times, whether Coates would think I believe myself white. I do not, nor do white people, and yet I grew up believing I could get ahead by my own efforts. I believed so because I was told so by the adults in my life, some of whom had, in their youths, had their livelihoods confiscated and their bodies imprisoned by a government that assumed they must be enemy sympathizers. Do I believe myself white? No, but who is to say that one day people who look like me won’t do so? As Gene Demby wrote last year for NPR’s Code Switch blog, the definition of “white” at one time didn’t include Jews or Italians or Germans or Irish. Perhaps some day it will include Asians.)

Coates offers no easy answers, no happy endings. He rejects comforting platitudes and myths. He refuses to speak about abstractions like rights or souls; racism is not merely wrong because of ideals, but because of the effect it has on the body. The body is fragile and breakable, and most importantly, it is singular. He implores his son to remember that each of us has only one life, and when it ends, a universe ends:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance—no matter how improved—as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children. Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about his world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. That is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.

Ultimately, though he finds nobility in the struggle to understand, to see, to live both unencumbered and unshielded by any Dream, Coates cannot offer his son any hope that through their own efforts, black people might achieve equality. For that to happen, the Dreamers would have to awaken to the real world, to reckon with the true scope of what racism has wrought in this country, what it continues to create. Each of us has to choose to open our eyes, to be willing to challenge our assumptions, to confess our sins, and then translate that awareness into action. I don’t know how to make the world a better place, what policies must be enacted or what reparations might be made. But if, as I suspect, it is blindness that keeps us from acting, then one place to start might be to read this book.


Started: 7/30/2015 | Finished: 8/10/2015

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Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution

By John Paul Stevens

Over the course of my life I have spent quite a lot of time thinking and arguing about various social and political topics, most of the latter having taken place online. The people I’ve talked to about these issues have ranged from writers to lawyers to business owners to artists, and of course a whole bunch of laypeople like myself. But I’ve never really gotten the chance to discuss anything like gun control or free speech or gay marriage with anyone who actually works with policy, so when I heard that former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens had written a book proposing six ways the US Constitution ought to be amended, I immediately put it on my list. I hoped that this book would be a measured, insightful, rational discussion of the issues it addressed, and in that I was not disappointed.

In this slim, very accessible volume, Stevens addresses the death penalty, gun control, campaign finance, gerrymandering, sovereign immunity, and the “anti-commandeering rule.” Most of those topics were familiar to me, though the latter two were not. In any event, I suppose it should come as little surprise that when one of the more liberal justices of my lifetime writes a political treatise, I would find myself agreeing with most of it. And yet, there we are. Even where I found myself less sure—the “anti-commandeering rule” is one, for example, that has on the one hand been used to support racist and homophobic state laws, but has also allowed states a certain amount of leeway in determining their own drug policy—Stevens’ arguments were well laid-out and persuasive, and showed a deep understanding of both the historical and current contexts of the issues.

Considering that most of Stevens’ positions were ones I already held, I can’t say that reading this book changed my life or opened my eyes in any particularly large way. And I’m not sure, either, whether someone on the other end of the political spectrum would find his arguments as compelling as I did. Even so, I think this book is worth reading if only to see an example of political discourse as it should be: thoughtful, calm, and rational.


Started: 7/26/2016 | Finished: 7/29/2015

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The Shadow Campaigns

Between Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels and Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series (and possibly also Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), I seem to have developed quite a taste for so-called “flintlock fantasy.” Muskets and magic? Yes, please. So then Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series is right up my alley.

The first book, The Thousand Names, follows Winter Ihernglass and Marcus d’Ivoire in a sort of Sharpe’s Eagle-meets-epic fantasy military tale. Winter is a young woman who has masqueraded as a man in order to join the army as a ranker, only to find herself thrust into command when her inexperienced officer near gets her platoon killed. Marcus is the regiment’s captain, competent but no genius as a battlefield commander, and both he and Winter are sorely tested when their backwater assignment erupts in a native rebellion. A new commander, Janus bet Vhalnich, has been sent to take over and quell the uprising, and though he turns out to be unbeatable on the field, as Winter and Marcus follow Vhalnich, they are drawn into a world of dark magic and secret cabals.

The first and third books are largely war novels, with a heavy focus on infantry battles and tactics, while the second is more of a political thriller. Throughout, there’s a lot of interesting character work, particularly with Winter and her relationship with the men under her command. As you might guess, gender roles are explicitly at the foreground, with Winter proving a capable leader and Marcus being her old-fashioned, “women and children first” foil. The supporting cast is quite good as well, and the world-building is neither too heavy nor too thin.

The first three books in the series are already on shelves, with two more books due out in 2016 and 2017. I can’t wait.


Started: 7/10/15 | Finished: 7/25/15

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Uprooted

By Naomi Novik

As regular readers may know, I’ve quite enjoyed Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, and when I heard about her newest standalone novel it piqued my interest. And from the first few lines it held that interest:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

Agnieszka is a strong-willed but almost preternaturally clumsy young woman from the village of Dvernik, which sits just outside the edge of a dark, enchanted Wood which constantly threatens to expand and swallow the village. The village is protected by a wizard known as the Dragon, who in return requires the village to send him, once every ten years, a seventeen-year-old girl who will move to his tower and be his servant. A decade later she is given a purse of silver and sent on her way, to be replaced by the next girl. Agnieska grows up knowing that she will be seventeen in the year of the Dragon, but also knowing that the Dragon will surely take her beautiful, graceful friend Kasia instead. Only that isn’t how it works out; when the Dragon does come, he chooses Agnieszka, and beyond being merely his servant, she becomes his apprentice.

The story fans out from there, moving from a light, fairly comic beginning to a harrowing climax, finally coming to a warm, lyrical close. All of these descriptions are things that can be applied to different types of fairy tale, from the modern, Disney-style take to the more traditional, darker, Old-World style, and Novik draws from all of those, blending them into a very satisfying story. In her author’s bio, Novik describes herself as a first-generation American raised on Polish fairy tales, and there’s a definite Eastern European flavor to this story, from the names and places to the general tone. It’s markedly different from the Napoleonic-era Britan-with-dragons she presented in Temeraire, but while both settings are enchanting, this one feels more personal.

It’s nice, too, to see a modern writer taking on the fairy tale genre but doing so in a way that explicitly challenges the problematic gender tropes we’re all so used to. There’s a clear parallel to Beauty and the Beast, for example, but without all of the weird Stockholm Syndrome that somehow everyone seems to find so romantic. It was quite refreshing in that respect.

I ended up staying up pretty late to finish this one in four days, and was happy to have done so. If you enjoy high fantasy and modern fairy tales, I’d say it’s well worth your time.


Started: 7/2/2015 | Finished: 7/6/2015

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The Skull Throne

By Peter V. Brett

I’ve been following this series since a coworker dropped a copy of The Warded Man on my desk back in 2010, and I’ve enjoyed each installment since then. The Skull Throne picks up where the last one left off, with Arlen and Jardir having just faced off in single combat. Both men end up surviving their duel, and grudgingly come together to look for a way to infiltrate the Core, to find a way to finally end the demon threat. Meanwhile, the Krasian occupation of the greenlands continues, and Jardir’s sons seek to push further and capture Fort Lakton. There’s intrigue culminating in a coup attempt, a lot of battles as the Krasians clash with the greenlanders, and both fight against the corelings. Enough is shaken up in this book that I can honestly say I’m not sure how things are going to end.

One thing that’s interesting to me is that as long as I’ve been reading this series, I never really thought very much about the gender or racial portrayals in it, even though they’re not particularly difficult to notice. I did think about it this time, but I wasn’t really sure where to come down on either. The Krasians, for example, are pretty clearly patterned on Muslim Arabs, while the greenlanders are the typical Europeans that you see in most fantasy novels. The differences between the two cultures sets up a lot of the conflict in the series as a whole, but rather than casting the Krasians solely as the antagonists, or as monolithic, Brett seems to go out of his way to show a certain amount of diversity in the different Krasian characters, as well as giving complex backstories to the central Krasians, Jardir and Inevera, and making their motivations understandable, even while their methods are not excusable. Too, the greenland cultures aren’t shown in particularly good light, either; the entrenched class structures and sexism of feudal societies also form a backdrop for some of the central character tensions. I’d be tempted to say that Brett seems to deal with the cultural stuff fairly well in that regard, but I can’t help wondering if he’s trading too much in certain stereotypes in his portrayals.

Similarly, there seem to be a number of strong female characters, with a pretty diverse range of backgrounds and personalities. On the other hand, a lot of the agency that women in this world effect comes through their sexuality, or their skill at healing, or working behind the scenes. There is a lot of stuff that made me uncomfortable in terms of specific women being portrayed as desiring a certain type of subservience to their husbands, but then much of that also explicitly gets commented on by other characters. I really wasn’t sure what it all amounted to. These types of questions are something that come up a lot with genre fiction and particularly with fantasy, working as it does with a pseudo-historical milieu, and while Brett certainly doesn’t seem to be any worse than average for fantasy writers, that’s not a particuarly high bar, and I’m not really sure he does a lot better. But I’d love to hear from other people of color and from women to get their reactions.

All that said, I’m still planning to pick up the last book, which will likely be out some time in 2018. I’m not sure how it will all wrap up, but I look forward to finding out.


Started: 6/28/2015 | Finished: 7/1/2015

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The Martian

By Andy Weir

It’s been really interesting to me to see the different reactions to this book from the people I know who have read it. A few (mostly writers and professional critics) have found it fair but a bit workmanlike in its prose, others (mostly male engineers) have proclaimed it the best book they’ve read in years, while others (mostly women) have found it infuriatingly sexist. As for me, I pretty much get where everyone is coming from. The prose isn’t great but it’s adequate. The engineering aspects are very well-handled, and it works pretty well as a survival story. I wouldn’t call it “great” by any stretch, but I get why my male co-workers were so thrilled by it—any group of people who are used to being underrepresented in media are going to enjoy seeing themselves cast as heroes. And although I wasn’t personally moved to anger by the sexism in this story, I did find it irritating and definitely a drag on what could have been a fun, science-y, Castaway-in-space story. I will say, I was a little surprised at just how much in the minority I seem to be in my opinion; browsing through the responses on Goodreads, it seems like just about everybody loved it. I guess you’ll just have to make up your own mind about it.


Started: 6/19/2015 | Finished: 6/26/2015

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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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