Pleasures of Reading etc.
by Nancy Jane Moore
Here’s how big a fan grrl I am of Rebecca Solnit: I bought a copy of Harper’s in the grocery checkout lane last month because she had an essay in it. Harper’s always disappoints me – this time was no exception – but Solnit never does.
I read Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell some years back. Her description of how people rise to the occasion in disasters – and how official efforts to “restore order” often do more harm than good – resonated with me at a time when I was also reading about the biological bases for human cooperation. And her writing was beautiful.
This year I read Men Explain Things to Me and turned the corner from casual appreciator to rabid fan. Solnit has a way of saying something important from a slightly different perspective, and of doing it in exquisite sentences. Here is an example of both from her essay on Virginia Woolf, “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable”:
“The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism. Ultimately the destruction of the Earth is due in part, perhaps in large part, to a failure of the imagination or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.”
I was very surprised to find that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was not on The New York Times 2014 best-of lists – not even the 100 “notable books” one. This comprehensive explanation of the systemic inequality of wealth and income in the world today provides a core education in how the system works. Any solutions to extreme inequity that do not take into account Piketty’s formulas will likely turn out to be mere window dressing. This book is an indispensable tool for anyone looking to change the world’s economic system.
I hadn’t heard of James McBride until he won the National Book Award last year, but I was intrigued by The Good Lord Bird and gave it a try. It turned out to be an amazing book; despite the satirical tone, it ended up breaking my heart – which is probably a crucial element in any book on slavery and the Civil War.
Browsing in Oakland’s Marcus Garvey Books a few months later, I discovered McBride’s earlier novel, Song Yet Sung, and read it as well. It was just as brilliant and just as heartbreaking. In these days when historians are recognizing the effect of slavery on this country, McBride is using fiction to get at the underlying truths of that era.
On a lighter note, I finally got around to reading Madeleine E. Robins’s Sarah Tolerance novels this year. These are mysteries set in a slightly alternate world in which the Queen, rather than the Prince of Wales, acts as regent for George III. Miss Tolerance is a fallen woman skilled in swordplay who makes her living as a private investigator.
These delightful books are grounded in the conventions of regency novels while providing a most satisfactory active and independent heroine. There are three of them: Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner. Robins is at work on a fourth, and I mention it here in hopes of moving that along. I would gladly spend many more hours in the company of Miss Tolerance.
Movies often disappoint me, but I did manage to see several this year that were worth my time. Twelve Years a Slave provided another powerful take on US slavery. Obvious Child is a romantic comedy that gets women’s lives right – including the choice to have an abortion. Laura Poitras made Edward Snowden’s efforts worthwhile by putting his story on-screen in Citizenfour.
I could probably come up with a large list of Austin musicians everyone ought to know, but I’ll confine myself to one: Ruthie Foster. Her latest album, Promise of a Brand New Day, is up for a Grammy, but her old ones are also an excellent introduction to her music. The best way to hear her, though, is live: She’s one of those musicians who brings added joy when she plays for an audience.