Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt.8: Nancy Jane Moore

The Pleasures of 2015
by Nancy Jane Moore

Every year I reach this point and panic. How did the year go by so fast? What did I accomplish? How can I ask for new books for Christmas when I haven’t even finished all the ones I got last year? And – more to the point for the current assignment – why didn’t I take notes on all the things I read and shows I saw, like I meant to do?

I’m still freaked out by the first three questions, but the Internet proves that while I didn’t put together a nice neat folder full of notes on books and movies and such, I did blog about the ones that affected me the most. So I can tell you about the works I found important in 2015, proving that the duty to blog about something once a week has its uses.

Eight books stood out for me this year, four fiction and four non-fiction. Of all of them, the most important was the one I read first, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Klein, well known for her analysis of economic concerns, does a brilliant job of showing that changing our economic system is part of the necessary process for making the environmental shifts necessary to limit the damage from climate change. She also provides some hope based on the actions of grassroots organizations across the world.

The other nonfiction I read was also compelling. Katha Pollitt’s Pro provides a thorough reminder that the right of women to control their reproductive life is at the heart of feminism and that it includes the right to abortion as well as the right to obtain and use contraception. I’m with those who consider women’s freedom from forced pregnancy (and the earlier changes that dramatically reduced the number of women who died in childbirth) to be one of the major accomplishments of the last century, right up there with the digital revolution and space exploration.

Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things made me realize that the millennial feminists are a positive force, despite the fact that they’re having to go back and fight many of the battles that should have already been won. Penny writes about today’s issues so well. I still believe writers are made, not born, but given Penny’s youth and ability as a writer, I may need to make an exception.

Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is my final non-fiction favorite. This book on autism and Asperger’s combines thorough reporting with beautiful writing to create a page-turner that explains not only the history of research and treatment – showing all the warts – but one that, based on the facts clearly explained, argues strongly for recognition that diversity in human brains is important to the human race.

I discovered the work of Elena Ferrante this year. I kept stumbling across references to it and finally got My Brilliant Friend from the library. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down – it was that good. This book does what realistic fiction often purports to do, but fails at: provides us with an unsentimental look at actual human lives. One of the many things I liked about it was Ferrante’s way of telling us only what her characters know at the time of the story, even though it is clear that more things are going on around them. I’m planning to work my way through the rest of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, though I have to set aside time as I know that once I start I will not be able to do anything else until I finish.

Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium was unquestionably the best work of science fiction I read this year. Not only are the science fictional elements fascinating and compelling and the gender issues at the book’s core appropriately mind-bending, but the writing is lyrical and accomplished.

Browsing in a bookstore is still a great way to find unexpected treasures. I happened to spot Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft while shopping in Diesel Bookstore in Oakland. I’d never heard of the author before, though she’s well-known in Mexico, and a few of her books have been translated into English. This sometimes surrealistic romp through the conflicts at the heart of the relationship between Texas and Mexico gave me a perspective on my history that I suspected existed, but didn’t really know. Boullosa is another fine writer, one who should be read more widely.

All science fiction conventions should follow the example of WisCon and FogCon and have group readings. That’s how I discovered the work of Elwin Cotman – he was reading with writers I knew at FogCon. I came to hear my friends, but it was Cotman’s collection Hard Times Blues that I brought home. He’s an author who knows how to bend reality to give us the truth about the world and, like the others who moved me this year, he does it in beautiful prose.

Maybe I’m just a nerd, but the movies that inspired me this year were all documentaries. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry gives us the powerful story of the U.S. feminist movement that flowered in the 1970s and laid the groundwork for many of the changes in our society. The movie does not duck the controversies – after all, change is rarely harmonious when it happens – but it still made me want to cheer at the end.

I had the pleasure of seeing The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution here in Oakland where the Panthers were born and with the added advantage of having several former Panthers and the director there to speak about the movie. While I knew some of this history, I learned a few surprising things. For one, two-thirds of the Panthers were women. For another, Fred Hampton, the young Panther leader who was killed in a police raid in Chicago, was reaching out to other groups and building coalition when he was murdered. One wonders how things might have been different if he had lived to lead the organization. The third documentary that moved me was made to accompany Klein’s book: This Changes Everything. The movie, with its coverage of indigenous activism, is inspiring, though of necessity less detailed than the book. Watching it enriches the experience of reading the book.

Two live performances I saw this year were by nationally known performers and are likely to be presented in other cities: Sarah Jones’s Sell/Buy/Date and Anna Deveare Smith’s Doing Time in Education. Both Jones and Smith do one-person shows in which they perform as many different people. Jones does it with fiction – this work is sufficiently near future to be considered a science fictional treatment of sex work – while Smith builds her stories based on comprehensive interviews within the communities about which she is writing. Both are consummate actors and writers and present programs that enlighten – and maybe haunt – their audiences. Catch them when you can.

The other performances that moved me were dance programs by choreographers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cid Pearlman’s Economies of Effort: 1 and Sarah Bush’s Rocked by Women used the effects of movement, accompanied by music and words, to rock my world. They will perform different programs this coming year, but I’m sure they will be equally inspiring. If you’re in the Bay Area, search them out.

And finally, on the international scale, I saw Kodo for the fourth time this year. I have been a huge fan of this Japanese troupe, which has taken taiko drumming beyond its traditional roots without losing respect for where it came from, since I first saw them. Every performance has been different, and every time I’ve seen them more and more women have performed in their shows. This particular show involved playful elements I hadn’t seen in their previous productions. They travel throughout the world, so don’t pass up the opportunity to see them if they come to town.

Nancy Jane Moore is the author most recently of The Weave, a science fiction novel recently published by Aqueduct Press. She blogs on Thursdays for Book View Café. []

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