Historic San Antonio

The main street in St. Paul Square

The main street in St. Paul Square

One of the first things I saw as I walked out of San Antonio Train Station was the St. Paul Square neighborhood. Of course, when I got off the train, it was dark. I came back later to take these photos.

St. Paul Colored Methodist Church

St. Paul Colored Methodist Church

It was the major African-American neighborhood in San Antonio in the late nineteenth century. It takes its name from St. Paul’s Colored Methodist Church, the oldest African-American church in San Antonio.

As I was walking towards the Alamo, I ran into this building.

A beautiful white-and-red brick building which looks partially boarded up.

I wonder what’s up with it. The stars of David in the windows imply that it was at one time a synagogue.

A mix of polenta and tomato sauce, topped with kale greens and vegan cheeze

For what it’s worth, the food I ate in San Antonio was very good. I ate at a restaurant in Southtown, and at another restaurant at the Pearl Brewery. I didn’t bring my camera to the Pearl, but it was a very cool place at night with the way they lit up the former brewery. The hotel there (at the Pearl) also looks really cool.

Speaking of hotels, I also went on the Sisters Grimm Haunted Walk. Obviously, the Alamo was included, as well as the Menger Hotel, which is supposedly the most haunted hotel in San Antonio (it’s also hosted famous people such as Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Teddy Roosvelt, and so forth). The Menger looks amazing inside – I almost wish that I had stayed there (alas, it was outside my budget – but they sometimes do offer substantial discounts, and it would be so worth it to stay there if you could get one of their special deals). Another hotel along the walk is the Holiday Inn Express which used to be the San Antonio jail. It was the site of the last legal hanging in San Antonio, which had been particularly gruesome. While it would be interesting to sleep in a former jail cell, I think I’d rather be at the Menger.

San Fernando Cathedral in the daytime

San Fernando Cathedral in the daytime

Another stop on the haunted walk, of course, was the San Fernando Cathedral, the oldest church in Texas. The guide pointed out burn marks from old Comanche attacks.

San Fernando Cathedral at night

San Fernando Cathedral at night

A lot of Texas history happened there – and now they have a laser light show where they put the illustrated history of Texas on the facade of the cathedral several nights per week. A lot of weddings happen there too – I saw a wedding when I passed by in the daytime, and another person on the tour had almost gotten married in the cathedral (she changed her mind when she found out that it would cost a thousand dollars).

We also passed by the Spanish Governor’s Residence, which was not actually used by the Spanish governor. According to the guide, it has one of the most haunted rooms in all of San Antonio – he says that he usually sees the ghosts of Mexicans who had been executed by Santa Anna during the Mexican Revolution of 1821, but other people see the woman who was murdered in this room in the 1860s.

 Here is the photo I took of this supposedly super-haunted room. Do you see any ghosts?


Here is the photo I took of this supposedly super-haunted room. Do you see any ghosts?

I have to admit that I felt a wee bit of culture shock in San Antonio.

There are signs like this in many businesses in San Antonio. Why, exactly, do you need to put a sign at the entrance of your business saying that weapons/firearms are not allowed inside? Isn't that common sense?

There are signs like this in many businesses in San Antonio. Why, exactly, do you need to put a sign at the entrance of your business saying that weapons/firearms are not allowed inside? Isn’t that common sense?

I liked Southtown. It’s an old neighborhood, it’s within walking distance of downtown, and it looks lived in. Historically, it was a neighborhood of European immigrants (German, Irish, Polish, etc.)

 I always like looking at the local community gardens and see what the local people are growing.

I always like looking at the local community gardens and see what the local people are growing.

Next to Southtown is King William, the neighborhood of beautiful Victorian houses.

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Even though San Francisco has lots of Victorian houses, most of them were built at low cost for working class people and are crowded together because there was not much space. By contrast, the Victorians of King William were built for the relatively wealthy business owners of San Antonio. Thus, they are much bigger and fancier than the typical Victorian of San Francisco.

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While I was in the neighborhood, the King William fair was going on. I got to talk to some of the local people. The people there were generally surprised to hear I was a tourist. “How did you know about this fair?” My answer was “I didn’t know about the fair, I just walked into it.”

The King William Fair, celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the King William Association

The King William Fair, celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the King William Association

I entered on of the houses, known as the Steve’s family homestead. It is a museum inside, trying to reproduce as faithfully as possible what the interior looked like in the late nineteenth century, when it was home to a German immigrant family who owned a local lumber company.

The Steve's family homestead

The Steve’s family homestead

I also got some shelter from the rain at the Briscoe museum of western art. It is full of art depicting the American West – paintings like this:

a cowboy is riding a horse into the sunset

The museum showed the American West as the culturally diverse place it is, as opposed to the white-washed version one sees in old Hollywood movies. It has art ranging from the 18th century (Spanish) up to art made as recently as 2015.

This was a Mexican ranger outfit. It belongs to the Guerra family, and is on display at the museum with their permission. The Guerra family has been in Texas since 1748 - they have been subjects/citizens of Spain, Mexico, the Texas Republic, the United States, the Confederacy, and then the United States again.

This was a Mexican ranger outfit. It belongs to the Guerra family, and is on display at the museum with their permission. The Guerra family has been in Texas since 1748 – they have been subjects/citizens of Spain, Mexico, the Texas Republic, the United States, the Confederacy, and then the United States again.

One of the things which really struck me about San Antonio is how culturally and ethnically mixed it is. I was also impressed by the friendliness of the people. Y’all made me feel welcome, and left me with good memories of Texas.

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Dust and Rain in San Antonio

When I got off the train in San Antonio, and first walked through the streets, whenever a large vehicle passed by me, it would kick up this storm of dust which I would breathe in, unless I held my breath and hurried past it. I was wondering it I would have to deal with this during my entire stay in San Antonio.

Well, it turns out I did not. In the late morning, it started raining, and it has been raining on and off ever since. Even when it’s not raining, it’s wet enough that dust clouds are not a problem.

Instead, I had to navigate these giant puddles, some of which managed to submerge sidewalks. A few times, I had to walk in the middle of the street – where the cars are – because it was the only way to go in the direction I wanted to go. It was worse than Taoyuan City during a typhoon.

Here is one of the giant puddles - it has submerged most of the intersection.

Here is one of the giant puddles – it has submerged most of the intersection.

It turned out that the riverwalk – one of the most famous tourist attractions in San Antonio – is also one of the easiest places to navigate as a pedestrian. No need to walk around giant puddles!

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It turns out that both dust and rain/water played an important role in shaping San Antonio.

Another view of the San Antonio river

Another view of the San Antonio river

The oldest buildings in San Antonio are the missions from the Spanish era. The most famous, of course, is the Alamo.

The front of the Alamo church.

The front of the Alamo church.

Some people told me to set my expectations for the Alamo low, so I was surprised by how much there was to see there. They indicated what each of the remaining rooms had been used for during the siege, and an overview of the battle.

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Of course, there is much more to the history of the Alamo than the famous siege. For example, there was a struggle to preserve it from commercial development around the turn of the 19th/20th century. More recently, it’s been threatened with invasion by rodents. Obviously, the threat of rodents is not nearly as important or historic as the threat of Santa Anna’s army, but even so, the Alamo has a new defender.

A cat next to a musket.

The staff at the Alamo had a demonstration about the life of soldiers and militiamen in the 1830s and 1840s, but to be honest, the real star of the show, (dare I say the ‘lone’ star?) was this valiant new defender of the Alamo. The staff did say that, after this furry fighter took up residence 4-5 months ago, they have only seen a single rodent in the Alamo.

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It was originally one of the missions set up by the Spanish along the San Antonio river to turn the indigenous people into Spanish subjects – including adopting Catholicism, Spanish culture, and the Spanish way of life. Why along the San Antonio river? Because it was the only reliable source of water in the region.

Mission Conception

Mission Conception

Anyway, if you’re at all familiar with California’s Spanish missions, you know that they tend to be dozens of miles away from each other – a day’s ride away. The San Antonio missions, by contrast, are only a couple or so miles from each other. Why? Because of the threat of Comanche/Kiowa/Apache attacks.

Mission Conception

Mission Conception

Obviously, the Comanche/Kiowa/Apache people had no interest in becoming Spanish subjects, and they used the horses and weapons they gained from trade with Europeans to raid others. The indigenous people of the area, who the Spanish called the ‘Coahuitecans’, were not interested in being victims of the Comanche/Kiowa/Apache warriors, and entering the missions seemed less bad. That is why most of them entered the missions willingly. A few ran away because they had to do too much hard work in the mission. The Spanish went out to force these people back into the mission.

Mission Conception

Mission Conception

This is Mission Conception, the best preserved of the missions. It has never been rebuilt or restored – everything is original to the Spanish era.

Mission Conception

Mission Conception

Why has Mission Conception survived much better than other missions? One reason is that it has a better design, but another reason is that it is built on limestone/bedrock. It is right next to the quarry where they got the limestone to built the missions.

The limestone quarry next to Mission Conception

The limestone quarry next to Mission Conception

Most of the soil is clay/silt – basically, the same stuff as the dust which gave me issues in the morning. It expands when it gets wet, and contracts when it dries out. This puts a lot of stress on the foundations of buildings. But because Mission Conception is built on rock, not soil, it does not have this problem.

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

By contrast, the roof of Mission San Jose collapsed in the late nineteenth century – though much of the mission which stands today is original, parts of it (such as the roof) only date back to major restoration which took place in the first half of the 20th century.

The most famous architectural feature of Mission San Jose is the "Rose Window" which can be seen in this photo.

The most famous architectural feature of Mission San Jose is the “Rose Window” which can be seen in this photo.

The Spanish were the first people to bring agriculture to this region. Most of the year, the land is so dry that it requires irrigation for agriculture to be successful. The Spanish brought their irrigation techniques, which has a legacy going back to ancient Rome.

Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

Here is the Espada aqueduct, the only Spanish acqueduct in the United States which is still in use:

The Espada Aqueduct

The Espada Aqueduct

Below, you can see the ‘acqueia’ – the Spanish irrigation ditch – which crosses the aqueduct. These irrigation ditches are still being used to irrigate land.

The top of the Espada aqueduct

The top of the Espada aqueduct

The irrigation ditches were also used as a source of power for mills – this irrigation ditch passes through the old mill at Mission San Jose.

The old mill at Mission San Jose

The old mill at Mission San Jose

The European immigrants of later eras also made use of the San Antonio river as a source of energy to drive mills in the late nineteenth century.

Here is the remains of one of those old 19th century mills.

Here is the remains of one of those old 19th century mills.

Before San Antonio was developed, the river (and its tributary creeks) were a lush riparian environment.

The top of the Espada aqueduct

However, the San Antonio river has a tendency to flood once in a while. There was a particularly devastating flood in 1921 which caused over 50 deaths and wrecked the town. After the 1921 flood, the city government decided to alter the river to make it safer. There was talk of diverting the entire river underground, but a group of citizens opposed the plan. Instead, the riverwalk – which was mentioned earlier in this post – was created in downtown.

It would have been awesome to watch a show at this 'river' theatre - but not in the rain.

It would have been awesome to watch a show at this ‘river’ theatre – but not in the rain.

In the 1990s, they built a great diversion tunnel for the river which takes overflowing water and moves it three miles downriver. Just months after the great tunnel was completed, there was another devastating flood, and it was believed that the tunnel saved downtown San Antonio from great damage. When it’s not flooding, the tunnel can also be used to pump water upriver and keep water recirculating through the downtown riverwalk.

The outlet of the great tunnel, downriver of downtown.

The outlet of the great tunnel, downriver of downtown.

So, in summary, San Antonio is a city defined by water and fine dust/silt/clay.

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Passing El Paso

A view of a sandy mesa rising from the Arizona desert under a clear blue sky

Arizona!

I have never, ever been to Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas before today (December 1st) (and yes, this will be posted later because of internet issues).

Arizona in the morning

Arizona in the morning

The woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma in the wee hours, so that was the first I saw of the state of Arizona. I got in a little more sleep until, hours later, we arrived at Maricopa (which is about 30-40 miles away from Phoenix). That’s when the sun was rising, so I gave up on getting any more sleep.

It's a cotton field in Arizona

It’s a cotton field in Arizona

Right now, I am on the Sunset Limited, a passenger train service which has been in continuous operation since 1894. Connecting New Orleans to Los Angeles, it was the second transcontinental line built in the United States, and was in some ways a major improvement over the first transcontinental line. For example, it doesn’t have to cross the Sierra or Rocky Mountains, and it is much easier to keep running in winter.

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Keep in mind that when this service started, there was no Panama Canal, so this train line made it a lot easier to move people and good between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

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At one time, the Sunset Limited went as far north as San Francisco. It (briefly) went as far southeast as Miami. After Hurricane Katrina, all service east of New Orleans was suspended (yup, even more than ten years later, they *still* haven’t restored service) so now the Sunset Limited is, as it originally was, a Los Angeles/New Orleans route.

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

The sightseeing lounge on the Sunset Limited train

When riding Amtrak, I’m only in my assigned seat when I’m trying to rest/sleep. When I’m trying to actually do something, I prefer to be in the sightseeing lounge (for example, this post was written in, you guessed it, the sightseeing lounge).

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma - she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train - more space for me!)

This was the tag above my seat on the train. The tag indicates that I am sitting at the window, which station I will get off the train, and shows that the aisle seat is currently unoccupied (this was after the woman sitting next to me got off at Yuma – she was nice, but I was still happy not to have anybody next to me on my second night in the train – more space for me!)

Amtrak has a system where each seat is marked by the passenger’s destination. This helps the crew keep track of who needs to be woken up in the middle of the night to get off at places like Yuma, which seats will become available at the next station, etc.

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

A trailer/RV park in Arizona

So, who rides Amtrak? That depends on the line. There are a lot of foreign tourists on the Coast Starlight, for example. The Sunset Limited, however, seems to mostly serve people who live somewhere along or near its route. Since that route goes through southern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and Texas, that means a lot of the passengers are Latino.

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Sure, I’m not the only tourist, though most of the tourists seem to be backpacking types. For example, I talked to a young woman who flew from Vermont to L.A. just so she could take the train back to Vermont (and stop at many cities/towns along the way). However, generally, the passengers are people who have less income/assets than typical airline passengers. Many of them live in small towns, and have to arrange rides to get to/from the train station. Amtrak passengers, obviously, aren’t the poorest people either – they can afford train tickets after all – but the ridership does tend to lean towards people from towns rather than cities, and towards people of very modest economic means.

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To give a sense of the range of the passengers’ economic situations, I’ll offer two examples. One man I talked to lives in Houston, and he had gone to Portland for a vacation and had a cruise up the Colombia River. He was clearly fairly affluent. On the other end, I played cards with a man who didn’t want to tell his whole story, but he said this much: he got on the train in Benson, Arizona, he needs to get to Atlanta, Georgia, and his train ticket will take him as far as Shreveport, Louisiana. Why Shreveport? Because he ran out of money to buy a train ticket which went any further. He figures that Shreveport is a lot closer to Atlanta than Benson, and that he’ll find a way to Atlanta. I reckon most passengers are between these two guys in terms of economic means.

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One of the pleasures of riding the train – and hanging out in the lounge – is being able to talk to people of various walks of life, whether it’s woman who lives in Mesa, Arizona who going to Houston to help her brother who needs a liver transplant and says that looking at all the desert scenery is helping her calm down, or the guy who was born in El Paso in 1931 talking about how the southwest has changed during his lifetime. and to overhear other people’s conversations. I couldn’t understand the conversations in Spanish, but just listening to the conversations in English was more than interesting enough.

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The Southwest is beautiful. There is almost always some kind of mountain in sight (at least past Maricopa), and some of the desert mesas are really lovely. Sometimes the shrubbery seems monotonous, but at other times it’s fascinating to look at. A highlight was seeing all of the saguaro cactii.

A picture of a saguaro cactus

I find it ironic that southern Arizona is greener than southern California right now.

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

Downtown Tuscon, Arizona

I got off the train for about five minutes in Tuscon.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Apparently, there was some major feud between two men, and one of them was shot and killed at Tuscon train station.

Arizona mostly is desert. However, occasionally one could see these housing developments. There are also plenty of trailer/RV parks in Arizona, particularly near the towns. Once in a while, in the middle of the desert, there would be a lone dilapidated building, or set of trailers, connected to the world outside only with a dirt road and an electric line.

A housing development in the desert.

A housing development in the desert.

Southern New Mexico basically looks like southern Arizona, but less green, and the two towns I passed through (Lourdesburg and Deming) looked more run down than the Arizona towns I saw.

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

Lourdesburg, New Mexico

The scenery entering the Rio Grande Valley / El Paso was dramatic. My photos do not capture it at its best.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

The train has to curve around cliffs to get into the Rio Grande Valley.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I'm not sure.

I think this is the Rio Grande river, but I’m not sure.

I also got to see Mexico for the very first time today. At one point the train is only about fifty feet away from the fence which marks the U.S.A./Mexico border. Ciudad Juarez looks quite different from El Paso even though they are right next to each other.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

This is Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. At the bottom of the picture, you can see part of the fence which marks the border between the U.S.A and Mexico.

Because the train was behind schedule, the El Paso stop was very short, but I still got out of the train for a few minutes.

El Paso Train Station

El Paso Train Station

In the evening, the train stopped in Alpine, Texas, for half and hour.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

A mural in Alpine, Texas.

Alpine is more than 4000 feet (over a thousand meters) above sea level, so it was chilly.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

The train in Alpine, Texas.

Overall, I am struck by the vastness of the southwest. It seems the train went for hours and hours through terrain with hardly any human habitation. It is a humbling experience. And it was not just me – other passengers were talking about how the land is greater than humanity, that the desert was here before us, and it will still be there after we’re gone.

One final Arizona picture.

One final Arizona picture.

Hello Los Angeles, Good Bye Los Angeles

The Pico Building in Los Angeles

The Pico Building in Los Angeles

Originally, I was planning to go to New York. For various reasons, that plan fell through. I still want to travel this winter, so I am simply going to places which are not New York.

Inside the Megabus

Inside the Megabus

I first heard about Megabus at an asexual meetup. Today (November 30) was the first time I actually got to use Megabus, from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

green hills under a partially cloudy sky

I’ve only been on Interstate 5 south of Sacramento a few times, but I am fairly certain that this is the first time I have ever seen GREEN HILLS on this route. That means that (California) winter is coming.

Most of Interstate 5 from Tracy to the Tehachapis looks like this.

Most of Interstate 5 from Tracy to the Tehachapis looks like this.

We had a rest stop in the town of Buttonwillow, near Bakersfield.

The restaurant 'A Taste of India' with 'TRY OUR VEGAN FOOD' painted on the roof

The people who painted this sign on the roof sure know how to get my attention. I think I actually ate at this restaurant in 2004.

Once I reached the Tehachapi mountains, the only green which was left was the dull green of evergreen bushes. Clearly, winter has yet to arrive to southern California.

The Tehachapi mountains rise up, with a layer of mist above them

I had forgotten just how beautiful the Tehachapi mountains are. I could not get the best of it in photos, but the photos I did take offer a clue.

another picture of the tehachapi mountains

It was interesting to see which slopes were covered with bush, which slopes were covered with grass, and which slopes had exposed geological layers.

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It has been ten years since I’ve been to Southern California, and I’ve hardly ever been to Los Angeles City at all (I’ve never stayed overnight in Los Angeles City, for example). The only time I ever went to downtown Los Angeles before it was to see a show at that Ahmanson Theater, so I did not exactly get to see much of it. Thus, most of what I know of L.A. city is the stereotype that San Francisco people have of it – a smoggy, warm city where people are stuck in gridlock all the time and are unhappy. And nobody uses public transit.

a photo of an entrance to Union Station, with a large mural above the entrance.

Thus, I was surprised to arrive at Union Station which is … bustling. And modern. And full of art.

A photo of the entrance to the platforms of L.A. Union station with people rushing around

It felt more like a train station in a major Japanese city than an American train station to me (though it is not as crowded as, say, Umeda Station in Osaka). It’s a far cry from San Francisco’s train station (which is basically a shelter attached to a bunch of train platforms, though it can get plenty crowded just before a train departure). This goes against my image of Los Angeles as a public transit backwater.

The large and historic train lobby

The large and historic train lobby

And not only is the train station modern, and busy, it’s also beautiful and historic. It’s no fair.

Union Station, as seen from the outside.

Union Station, as seen from the outside.

And as soon as I step out of the station, I head into this little area with historic buildings, including the original pueblo of Los Angeles.

photo of pueblo building at night

While I was pursuing dinner, I got to walk around downtown Los Angeles. Everything in downtown Los Angeles is big, like Los Angeles City Hall.

Los Angeles Cit Hall - look at how big it is compared to the vehicle.

Los Angeles City Hall – look at how big it is compared to the vehicle.

There were lots of buses all over the place – it was ridiculous. And they are shiny and clean, unlike the gritty buses which prowl the streets of San Francisco.

However, after a little while, I realized that there were not many people walking in the streets. And that there were a lot fewer people on the buses than what one would see in downtown San Francisco. No wonder they are so shiny.

There are also plenty of big buildings in downtown San Francisco, but they are a lot more crowded together, which makes walking around them a lot more practical. By contrast, the big buildings of downtown L.A. seems to luxuriate in ample space. That certain makes trying to get around downtown on foot more difficult.

This almost looks like it could be in San Francisco (the giveaway that this is not San Francisco is the width of the street).

This almost looks like it could be in San Francisco (the giveaway that this is not San Francisco is the width of the street).

After dinner, I decided to swing through “Little Tokyo” on the way back to the train station.

Nothing says "Little Tokyo" like a Zen rock garden with a Christmas tree.

Nothing says “Little Tokyo” like a Zen rock garden with a Christmas tree.

It was more like San Francisco than any other place I have ever seen in Southern California (not that I know Southern California much at all – I spent a month in one town in Los Angeles County when I was 15, but I haven’t seen much else).

a picture of a Shingon Buddhist temple

When I first saw this temple, I recognized immediately that it was a Shingon Buddhist Temple. I have, after all, seen quite a few of them in Japan.

I was more interested in this former temple, which is now part of the Japanese American National Museum.

I was more interested in this former temple, which is now part of the Japanese American National Museum.

Little Tokyo has the same kinds of shops one finds in Japantown in San Francisco. I’ve heard that some of the shops in Little Tokyo are a bit better than those in (San Francisco) Japantown, but I did not investigate for myself.

Back to Union Train Station!

Back to Union Train Station!

As I am writing this, I am already leaving Los Angeles (though this is going to be posted at a later time because of the unreliable wifi). I was only in L.A. for 4-5 hours, and now I am on a train which is going towards LA. As in, the NOLA kind of LA.

the entrance hall of Los Angeles Union Station

Reviewing Asexual Fiction from Dreamspinner Press

I took advantage of a sale at Dreamspinner Press to pick up some works of fiction with asexual characters. Last month, I reviewed titles from their Harmony Ink Imprint. This month, I’m review titles from their main imprint.

Here’s the catch – Dreamspinner Press, in its main imprint, only publishes M/M and M/M/M+ romance. This is unlike Harmony Ink Press accepts all kinds of LGBTQ+ stories, not just M/M+, and not just romance.

A lot of asexual readers, for various reasons, are really into ‘M/M’ stories. I am not one of them. I have no objection to M/M, and I can enjoy an M/M story on the same terms that I would enjoy an M/F story, but a story being M/M is not a draw for me.

Actually, M/M does have a disadvantage when it comes to appealing to me – the lack of prominent female characters. All else being equal, I enjoy stories which prominently feature female characters more than stories which don’t. It’s not because I’m trying to be politically correct – I just naturally prefer reading about female characters. M/M, by definition, tends not to feature characters. M/F, by definition, does feature at least one female character, which means that M/F has a slight advantage over M/M for me. F/F, of course, has an even greater advantage.

However, there are M/M stories out there that I like. I want there to be more (good) asexual representation in all fiction, and if the M/M genre is doing it better than other genres, then add oil to keep M/M burning!

These are the stories I will review at some point this month:

“Pretty Sally Couldn’t Marry Albert” by Jefferson Parrish
Model Citizen by Lissa Kasey
How to Be a Normal Person by T.J. Klune
Of Monsters and Men by Caitlin Ricci
Candy Land by Lissa Kasey

I did not buy every Dreamspinner story with an asexual character. Here are reviews of the ones with asexual characters which I haven’t bought (and thus will not review):

Ace by Jack Byrne – review #1 (positive) and review #2 (negative)
Taking the Long Way by Max MacGowen – review #1 (positive) and review #2 (positive)
Coffee Cake by Michaela Gray (review at Just Love)

What Am I Looking for in ‘Asexual Fiction’?

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog lately, you are aware that I have been posting a lot of reviews of ‘asexual fiction – you can get links to all of the reviews here and here (except this one, which isn’t on any list yet). This is way more asexual fiction than I have ever read before.

First of all, the explosion of asexual fiction in the past two years (2015/2016) blows my mind. I am pretty sure there is at least 10x more novels featuring explicitly asexual characters now than back when I started this blog in 2012.

For a long time, I would have been really happy with just a character coming out and saying ‘by the way, I am asexual’ without incorporating asexuality into the story in any deeper way. Part of this was just that there was just so little representation in fiction that I was ready to take what I could get (as long as it was not toxic).

Even now, I think I would still be happy for a character to come out and say ‘by the way, I am asexual’ if it is in a story which I do not expect to feature asexuality at all. Asexual representation is still so thin that, when I am not fiction specifically for asexual content, the chances of me finding it in the fiction I’m reading are slim. Thus, it’s a pleasant surprise (again, assuming it’s not handled in a bad way).

However, when I am reading something specifically because it is ‘asexual’ fiction, and then I find that asexuality is only once or twice and does not have much bearing on the story, I find it a bit disappointing. If it led me to read a good story I otherwise would not have given a chance, it is still a net positive, and I do want more “by the way, I’m asexual” stories to exist. It’s just not what I’m looking for in ‘asexual’ fiction.

I think my standards for ‘good’ asexual representation have gone higher. Even as recently as two or three years ago, I would evaluate how a story presents asexuality much less critically than I would now. That is partially because, now, I have read quite a bit of asexual fiction, so I’m not exactly starving for asexual content in fiction like I was before. It’s also an effect of having been involved in asexual blogging for years, which makes me think much more critically about asexual topics than I would have otherwise.

Does that mean I’m looking for stories which would hit a ’10’ on the asexuality content scale? Well, I would like to read such a story, since I have never read any original fiction which would hit a ’10’ on the scale and I’m curious. But curiosity aside, that’s not what I’m really looking for either.

I think, when I read something marked ‘asexual fiction’, I’m hoping for a story which is in the mid-rage of the asexual content scale – 4 to 6. I want stories which contain meaningful reflection on what being asexual is like, while still having a plot which is to a large extent being driven by something else.

Review: “Bender” by Gene Gant

The cover of "Bender" by Gene Gant

This is part of my series of reviews of fiction published by Harmony Ink Press featuring asexual characters. You can find the introduction here. I originally was not going to review this, but then there was another Dreamspinner sale, so I decided to pick this one up too.

What Is This Story About?

Mace Danner, a teenager from Chicago, is a freshman in college who moonlights as a BDSM submissive rentboy. He has never liked sex – he never wanted sex with his ex-girlfriend who is going to school in San Francisco. But he feels like he deserves to be punished because he feels that he is responsible for his brother’s death. He avoids his dorm mates, but some of them have a clue anyway. Some of them want to help, but don’t know how. But one dorm mate has much more malicious intentions…

What Sexual and/or Violent Content Does This Story Have, If Any?

There are multiple sex scenes, both consensual and non-consensual. As far as violence, there is false imprisonment, gang rape, whipping, choking, beating people up, somebody falling out of a window and dying, and … I am probably forgetting something, but I think that’s enough to offer a general picture.

Tell Me More About This Novel.

I am going to be upfront: I don’t know what it’s like to be a prostitute, to engage in BDSM, to experience gang-rape, or to have my brother die to save me (I don’t even have a brother). Therefore, I am going to say this:

IF ANYTHING I WRITE IN THIS REVIEW SEEMS LIKE IT IS INVALIDATING AN EXPERIENCE YOU’VE HAD AS AN ASEXUAL PERSON, YOUR EXPERIENCE IS VALID, AND I AM AN IGNORANT PERSON ON THE INTERNET

I have read about asexual people who have experienced sexual abuse who then went ahead and had lots of sex as a form of self-harm. That aspect of this story is plausible to me. Also, since it’s stated in the story that Mace really does need money, that makes him going out to be a submissive rent-boy even more believable.

What really made me think “Deus Angst Machina” was when it was revealed that Mace’s brother got killed by preventing Mace from getting killed by a drunken exploit. Okay, I get it, there had to be a reason why Mace believes that he’s responsible for his brother’s death so he will go out and get himself punished, but … it felt too contrived to me.

And when Mace stops being a rentboy (I don’t think that’s too much a spoiler, since I’m not stating how/why he stopped, or whether he goes back to being a rentboy) the financial issue is ignored. If Mace did not have any financial need, and if being a rentboy had been strictly a means of self-harm, that would have been one thing, but since the story did say that he needed the money, it ought to have either explained a) how he got another way to meet his financial needs or b) show the consequences of not having enough money.

This is a nitpick which almost nobody will care about, but since I am from San Francisco, I have to comment on this part:

She laughs. “I just reached Fisherman’s Wharf. I’m about to meet Carter for lunch, so I’ll have to hang up.

Why is somebody who is from San Francisco going to Fisherman’s Wharf? Does she have a job there? Because otherwise, it does not make much sense. Unless one has to go to Fisherman’s Wharf for work or if one is entertaining out-of-town guests who really want to see Fisherman’s Wharf, there is basically no reason to go there. It’s overpriced tourist-trappy food, which makes little sense for a college student, and it’s not even near any of the universities. If the writer wanted to drop in a famous San Francisco location, Haight Street would work much better because a) restaurant prices in Haight Street are low enough that locals, not just tourists, will eat there and b) it is near a university, and a lot of students hang out there. In short, this reference to “Fisherman’s Wharf” tells me that the writer doesn’t know much about San Francisco.

So, Asexuality?

On the asexuality content scale (1 = ‘By the way, I’m asexual’ and asexuality is never mentioned again, 10 = a story all about asexuality and little else) I would rate this story as a 4.

Mace is asexual. However, I generally felt that the point of making Mace asexual was not to illuminate the experience of asexual people, but rather to pile on the suffering he experiences, both by making him lonely, and to make the sexual experiences he has even more unpleasant. Oh, and it also gave a non-asexual person a chance to comfort him by explaining asexuality to him.

On top of that, this story is an example of “I want to have sex even though I don’t like sex because I want to give my partner pleasure”.

Neither the “non-asexual explains asexuality to asexual character” or “I want to have sex to please my partner even though I don’t like sex” tropes are intrinsically bad. They can be done well. However, I felt that they way they are used in this story is distasteful.

So what do I think could have been improved? First of all, pointing out that there is such a thing as the asexual community would have been an improvement. It would have also been good if the story made it clear that having close and loving relationships without sex is an option so that, even if it is not the option that Mace ultimately chooses. Having an asexual character be the one to pull Mace out of his problems would have also resolved some of the issues I have with this story (and it would have meant there was another asexual character in the story, which would be a bonus).

Yes, I know the guy who Mace has consensual sex with is freaked out about having sex with Mace since Mace clearly is not turned on and he knows that Mace uses sex as a form of self-harm, and that he only goes ahead and has sex with Mace after Mace asks him to do it multiple times. That means he is someone who does not want to commit sexual abuse. However, even though it is consensual, I am still bothered by the way this sexual relationship is portrayed.

But really, I felt it was distasteful because it seemed that it’s purpose was to satisfy a hurt/comfort fantasy for non-asexual people, not to speak to asexual readers. I’m not going to begrudge people who are really into hurt/comfort, but I wish they either left asexuality out of it, or dealt with asexuality in a way which was not “non-asexual person rescues helpful asexual and asexual is so grateful that they have sex JUST SO THAT non-asexual rescuer will feel pleasure”.

Clearly, I disagree with this reviewer:

In the end, Bender is a powerful novella that gives the reader a glimpse into what it is to be asexual and find a lover who is willing to understand your needs, and often hold back their own.

Given how many kinds of asexual people there are out there, there is probably someone who is like Mace, but … he is really not representative, and since the story does not mention other kinds of asexual people, or that most asexual people would rather not have sex with partners just so that their partners will feel pleasure, I think the story promotes attitudes which pressure asexual people to have sex they don’t want. Also, why are there so many stories about asexuals who have sex with their partners because they want to give their partners pleasure, but not so many stories about non-asexual people who will stop having sex or work out a non-monogamy arrangement so that they make their asexual partners feel comfortable? For more information about this, read this class tumblr post about asexuality in fanfic.

However, I admit that I also hope that some asexual people who are more knowledgeable about these types of experiences will read this story, and offer their opinions (self-care comes first of course – please don’t read this story if you don’t think you can handle its content). It’s possible that I am overreacting, and if asexual people who have experienced sexual abuse and/or like to have sex to give their partners pleasure say that this story accurately represents them, well, they would know better than me.

Was This Written by an Asexual?

I don’t know.

Hey Sara, Do You Like This Novel?

No, I don’t. It was an unsatisfying experience.

Where Can I Get This Novel?

I got it from the Dreamspinner Store. One may also get it from the Harmony Ink Store (note: the Dreamspinner Store often has sales, the Harmony Ink Store not so much), and from various eBook retailers.