by Nancy Jane Moore
I just read – on the same afternoon I bought it – Mary Beard’s Women and Power: a Manifesto, two essays on women’s public voice and power. This short but powerful book demonstrates how classical ideas underlie our current cultural ideas about the place of women. Beard begins with the scene in the Odyssey where Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to shut up because women don’t speak in public. She goes on to bring other classical icons – Medusa, Athena – into a discussion of women and power and how such things are perceived.
Right after I read it, I found Julie Phillips’s delightful take on the book in Four Columns. Her review adds depth to the experience, so I recommend reading it together with the book. Here’s a teaser: “The willingness to expose that clumsy, artificial join—to be a public intellectual without glossing over the awkwardness of being female—is what distinguishes the outspoken British academic Mary Beard.”
Given that I am working on both fiction and nonfiction that deal with women and power, these thoughts are of vital importance to me right now. Given that women speaking out about abusive men is the hot topic in the U.S. right now, the subject of how women speak and how they take power are crucial to our society as well. This book provides important insights that will expand the discussion in fruitful ways.
Hidden Figures was a major highlight for me this year. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and the book is a stunning tour de force. Yes, of course it was a Hollywood feel-good movie, but in the first place, it made me feel really good. And in the second place, how many Hollywood feel-good movies have you ever seen about mathematicians, much less women mathematicians, much less African American women mathematicians? It was fun to cheer.
Margot Lee Shetterly’s book on the subject is much better than the movie (which, of course, altered the facts to fit into Hollywood ideas of storytelling). It was researched in detail – she was able to interview some of the women who worked in the space program – and beautifully written. This was history I didn’t know, even though I grew up with the space program (literally – the Johnson Space Center is about five miles from my childhood home). I’m sorry I didn’t know it as a kid, but I’m thrilled to know it now.
Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is a more sobering look at the racist history of the United States. This detailed book explains the laws – not just the practices – that segregated our cities after the Civil War. Federal law and policy required separate public housing and prohibited use of federally insured home loans in segregated neighborhoods. I knew a lot about housing policy and discrimination, but this book uncovered stuff even I was not aware of. Everyone needs to read this book and understand just how racist – legally racist – our history has been. Until we make this right, we will not solve this country’s racial divide.
One of my responses to the electoral debacle in the U.S. was to read some work on political activism. I highly recommend This Is An Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler. This history of successful resistance actions worldwide – all of them non-violent – provides us with an understanding of what will be effective.
Among other sources, the Englers’ book draws on the research of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, whose heavily researched Why Civil Resistance Works provides the data to back up the value of nonviolent civil resistance. Nonviolent activism in the 20th and 21st centuries has been significantly more successful than violent action and, in general, has had very positive outcomes when at least five percent of the population gets involved in some way. Understanding the value of this has given me something to fall back on when I look at the daily disasters out of Washington, D.C.
Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken, is a very valuable book on how to deal with climate change. This book lists one hundred things, in order of effectiveness, we can do right now to reduce the carbon in the atmosphere. One of my favorite parts of the book is that the number six and seven items taken together would be number one. Those two items are educate girls and provide family planning to women.
Much of the fiction that has most moved me this year came in the form of novellas. I’m looking forward to the conclusion of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, as the first two books – Binti and Binti: Home – were imaginative science fiction building on cultural histories new to me. Ellen Klages’s Passing Strange was also delightful, a creative fantasy built on some real San Francisco history.
Among the novels I read, Jessica Reisman’s Substrate Phantoms was particularly satisfying because of its imaginative aspects. I love science fiction that incorporates highly creative speculation into the mix.
But the universe, or rather the Solar System’s little corner of it, provided my best experience of the year: The Eclipse of the Sun. We took back roads to eastern Oregon so we could see the full eclipse, and it was worth the effort. Even when you know that the sun will be right back, there is something wonderfully disconcerting about seeing it disappear.
We watched it on a hillside in Brogan, Oregon, where the local community organization had set things up at the volunteer fire department. There were maybe fifty people there, including several with telescopes. Just about the right size for us.
I recommend getting out in nature when you can in these troubled times. We also went to Pinnacles National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore this year. Cell service is nonexistent at Pinnacles and scant at Point Reyes, so we came back from both trips to the shock of how many horrible things can happen in a few days, but for those days we were blissfully out of touch.
Nancy Jane Moore’s science fiction novel The Weave came out from Aqueduct in 2015. Her most recent story is “Chatauqua” in the Book View Café anthology, Nevertheless, She Persisted. At present she is working on a book on self defense from a feminist perspective and a novel inspired by her desire to have the adventures when reading The Three Musketeers