This month, my plan was to write about two new books, both by white men with the first name John. I wouldn’t usually choose titles with such homogeneity.
When I select books, it’s because I think they’ll add to who I am by exposing me to who I am not, and these were no exception to that practice. I like to read and write about experiences different from my own. This is why I’ve written about novels concerning gay South Asian women afraid to come out to their families, and men negotiating the inherent “us and them” of military life in Iraq, and the ingenuity of impoverished Americans facing a fictional second American civil war.
We decide how much to stretch our minds by what we ask them to do. Empathizing with the many book-bound friends a reader makes in their lifetime does this. The books I’d chosen for this month’s column seemed to achieve this — at first. But then, I was involuntarily schooled in another method of growth.
I awoke thirty-four days ago to a voicemail from my mother-in-law: One sobbing sentence, telling David, my husband, that his only brother was “gone.” He’d died in his sleep. Our life slowed with the shock.
“It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day,” Annie Dillard writes of a congregation of eclipse-viewers, in her essay, “Total Eclipse.” Dr. Ofelia Zepeda’s poem, “Riding the Earth,” reverses the gaze; instead of people come together looking out at the heavens, the heavens watch a woman who “felt the earth move again”:
She sees herself with her long hair floating,
floating in the atmosphere of stardust
She rides her planet the way a child rides a toy.
Her company is the boy who takes the sun on its daily journey
and the man in the moon smiles as she passes by.
This jovial companionship of woman and earth and the astronomical “boy” and “man” elicit much the same feeling as Dava Sobel’s telling of the women of the early Harvard Observatory, in her 2016 book, The Glass Universe.Through absorbing storytelling and a persistent knack for remaining in her subjects’ present, Sobel carries readers through the many multinational and often female efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s to understand the skies.
Sobel shows, without having to explicitly argue it, that progress happens as a series of many meaningful, small steps taken by a multitude and distilled over time, and that better, more complete work is done when carried out by a diverse group. Universe is a joyful book because, like “Riding the Earth,” it describes a moment in which women held positions of power and importance as though it were the most natural thing for them to do so. Rather than a tale of struggle, this is one of comradery, of men fighting for the recognition of their female peers, of collaboration and assistance.
In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Julia Fierro writes: “Weakness or, to be more specific, showing or admitting to weakness, seemed both un-Italian and un-American.” Fierro is writing here about the impact of Zoloft on her life, and more specifically, her writing career. Before Zoloft, her anxiety and OCD made it impossible to create. Since, she’s written two books.
She hits on something deeper than her personal experience with that line. Afraid of appearing weak, she hid her struggle. All of us do this. We hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the consequences (anticipated or actual) of not fitting in with the American ideals of strength, individuality, and self-reliance.
This is certainly true for the characters in Fierro’s second novel, TheGypsy Moth Summer, out this month from St. Martins. With this book, Fierro encapsulates the life cycle of Avalon Island’s inhabitants, and shows that every person hides their secret self, their quiet worries, the voices they hear. Rife with thinly-veiled racism and class struggles, the tensions on Avalon come to a head as gypsy moths take over.
Fierro sees the world, she says, “through a very intense filter.” She describes her first book, Cutting Teeth, this way: “Modern parenting in the over-saturated information age.” The adults in this book about family, privilege, and paranoia are intense. They are each the center of a very small world, working to mask their weakness.