How did Harry Potter get down the hill? By walking. JK ROLLING. / “Main Reading Room, State Library of NSW, Sydney (NSW),” State Records NSW, no known copyright restrictions.

A Reader’s Journal /
July 2015

Dystopic villages with societal structures crafted to determine everyone’s fates, black ballerinas, disturbed millennials, an anti-Stalinist exposé and satire, and a biblical analysis of the historical intentions of Jesus.



The List

  1. The Giver Quartet / Lois Lowry
  2. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina / Misty Copeland
  3. The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now / Meg Jay
  4. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story / George Orwell
  5. How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation / John Dominic Crossan

1.

The Giver Quartet:
The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son

Lois Lowry

As a kid, who else thought the old man on the cover was Lois Lowry? / “100_0568_2,” tara_siuk, CC BY 2.0.

The Giver, really?

Why would you read that puerile storybook in your 20s?

Dear reader: In the third or fourth grade, while my friends across the hall were assigned The Giver, I was in the other class that was instead assigned some forgettable and obvious inferior book. As I grew up, I would constantly surprise people by saying I hadn’t read The Giver. Once the movie came out, the nagging grew, and I thought, why not?

Did you know that this beloved, controversial book, assigned in primary schools all over the U.S., is the first in a quartet? Since YA novels are nice, easy reads, I decided to read them all.

Painting an alternate reality from scratch, The Giver is nicely crafted for young readers. It also remains provocative for older readers.

Lowry illustrates a post-apocalyptic world wherein the highly-structured Community assigns everyone their jobs and their families. The quasi-liberal principle of Sameness is touted, and daily medications suppress feelings of love. To top it off, a single Receiver of Memory shoulders pre-apocalyptic sensations and the knowledge of human history. The Giver introduces many issues including the nature of emotions, relationships, access to knowledge, destiny, and death.

It’s not hard to see why it might behoove primary schools to assign this book. It prompts important questions of ethics like “What would you do if you were Jonas?” and “Is Sameness fair?” in reading level-appropriate prose, with a relatable young protagonist.

By far, The Giver was the best of the bunch.

The Giver is an easy read and a reminder to keep questioning what values shape our society and how we determine our individual and collective futures. In comparison, the sequels are subpar. While Lowry tries to tie the stories of the four loosely-connected protagonists together, the result is uneven: Some decisions and details are wrapped up a little too nicely, and a few plot holes are conveniently ignored.

The sequels are ignorable.

They seem like an unneeded attempt to extend the legacy of The Giver. I will say that the second book, Gathering Blue, touches more on death, authority, and fairness, and somewhat broadens the scope of issues examined. Son, the fourth book, drags on but has a fun Faustian character. As for sequels as a whole, the characters are likable enough but they lack development, and the other villages’ societies are mildly intriguing but it feels like fanciful plot embellishments.


Read The Giver if you like easy reads and like to reflect on alternate realities. Overall, the sequels don’t add much substance. If you’re simply curious, the Wikipedia articles will do.


2.

Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina

Misty Copeland

“I don’t need high heels to get taller. Look, I can just walk just like this.” / “Life In Motion,” Gilda N. Squire, CC BY-SA 4.0.

On our way to work, my mom and I took up to listening NPR/Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Often, NPR: Morning edition brings in guest speakers to talk about things like scientific discoveries or new cultural phenomena.

One day, Misty Copeland was invited to reflect on her promotion to principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theater — namely, as the first black female ballerina to achieve that honor. Just a year earlier, Copeland had written Life in Motion, a memoir describing childhood struggles she faced and tracing her rise to success.

Copeland’s story stirred questions of innate talent vs. hard work, the proper environment to cultivate a child’s gifts and abilities, and the role of luck vs. preparing one’s credentials until one gets an opportunity to demonstrate them. Professional ballerinas (and artists), the good ones at least, go to great lengths to practice and master their art. But to achieve mastery, in addition to the rigorous training, Copeland had to work through barriers like unstable family conditions, poverty, and racism. So much respect for Copeland.

At the end of the book, she expresses the wish to continue to break boundaries and inspire young black dancers by setting an example as a principal dancer, a feat she would achieve a little over a year after publication.


Read Life in Motion if you like biographies, want to learn about the ballet world and racism, and want to think about what shapes a professional’s aptitude.


3.

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — and How to Make the Most of Them Now

Meg Jay

As of Aug. 2015, Dr. Jay’s infamous TED Talk has over 7.5 million views. You would think she would have a Wikipedia page. / “Meg Jay, clinical psychologist, at TED2013,” TED Conference, CC BY-NC 2.0.

The occasional self-help article is all right, but I start feeling desperate when I resort to looking for solutions to my quarter-life identity crises in whole books. Maybe that’s my ego perceiving people who read self-help books as dependent and weak, even though they can be helpful and people are not necessarily weak for reading them.

I gave The Defining Decade a chance because I liked Jay’s TED Talk. I liked her narrative she presented through stats and stories, and I liked the various articles she wrote. The book was also highly recommended to me by a friend, so I borrowed it for free from the public library and read away.

What I liked about The Defining Decade was Jay’s overall message: If you want to do things, do them now. What you put in now will shape what happens down the road. The future is dependent on the present. For example, she wrote on how our personalities change the most in our twenties. I suspect that this is more of a probability rather than a cut-off, and I’m sure many people have Ebeneezer Scrooge moments when they realize they’ve been an old jerk and change their ways. Regardless, it was entertaining to think about.

I also liked Facebook’s cameo appearance. Jay described how our collective presentations of an idealized, superficial version of ourselves can actually distort our perceptions of what success means at our age. For example, this is how I find out my classmates are doing Fulbright research, Teach for America, Peace Corps, traveling the world, studying for their Masters or PhDs or MBAs or JDs or MDs, or whatever else they may be up to.

However, Jay’s voice rubs me the wrong way.

And I can’t be the only one who thinks this.

I question the way she presents her “clients,” to use her term. The case studies involve millennials who, when described, are essentially helpless wrecks or over-confident fools because they’re waffling through their 20s with low standards. They’re very two-dimensional and sad.

Then Dr. Jay outlines a condescending conversation she has with this wretched folk. “I know this is why you’re hurting, and it is wrong.” Amid the dialogue, she interjects her mini-epiphanies and reflects on how right she is. Then her client realizes the error of their ways and goes on to lead a “successful” life.

Jay tries, but the perspective is still of a privileged voice frustratingly removed from the client. Her book might be less infuriating if the case studies were structured as testimonials, written by the millennials themselves, rather than presuming it was her advice that “saved their lives.”

I also didn’t like the underlying assumptions that we all should get married, have babies, and have long and stable careers, as if that were the only way to have a “successful” life. I acknowledge it’s important to make headway on these goals if you do wish to obtain them (like an engineering degree… you gotta plan that schedule in advance), and that’s an important distinction to make. But she makes no such disclaimer.

Finally, Jay ignores the systemic ills that creates clients like hers or might hinder them in their quest to find “identity capital” or something. All twenty-somethings are not the same. I don’t even know where to begin on this point, so I’ll leave it at that.


Read The Defining Decade if you’re looking for a psychologist’s perspective on how choices in your 20s influence your life’s path. Or you can save some time by watching her TED Talk for free:


4.

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story

George Orwell

Run! It’s Stal — I mean, Napoleon! Recommended music pairing: Red Alert 3 Theme — Soviet March by James Hannigan. / “Animal Farm,” Ben Templesmith, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The theme and decor of my freshman-year dorm (Gavilan) was Gavilanimal Farm. There were posters with The Rules and clothed pigs standing upright. It was terrifying if you hadn’t read the book.

Striking. Pithy, hard-hitting, ironic. This is not a cautionary tale against socialism, it is one against Stalinism and his particular brand of violent, authoritarian socialism — how power can corrupt even the most well-meaning of revolutions.

There’s so much to dissect here, I could write an entire essay (and indeed, many U.S. students are assigned to write essays on Animal Farm). I will say this: Good fiction interests us because of its complex relationship with Truth. It reflects Truth, often through a fun-house mirror where we are left to make sense of it with its contexts and our biases, and it inspires and reveals further truths. Animal Farm is one such fun-house mirror, and it holds important lessons for us today and for future generations.


Read Animal Farm if you want your mind blown. I also recommend Orwell’s original preface on freedom of the press.

Orwell’s Animal Farm near Bak Kut Teh shop,” Kevin Lim, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

5.

How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation

John Dominic Crossan

Holy shit! This is in the Bible? / “The Last Judgment,” Stefan Lochner, public domain.

What a mouthful of a title, huh? In my experience, those who grow up practicing Catholicism express the grandeur and drama of the Church in other ways. Maybe when you try to cover it up, it seeps out through another crack, like a leaky pot. ANYWAY…

In hindsight, it might have helped if I had read Crossan’s earlier books before going on to this one. I’ve been meaning to read his The Historical Jesus and Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, but I saw that this book had just been published this year so I couldn’t resist. I decided to borrow it from the library (see a theme?).

Because the ideas Crossan tackles are humongous, I opt to try to summarize the main points instead of critiquing him.

The premise is that the Bible seems contradictory. On one hand, Jesus rides to Jerusalem peacefully on a donkey; on the other, Christ slaughters a beast while mounted on a violent warhorse. What should we believe as readers? Should we pick to believe that God is always one way or the other, or should we be content with that old platitude about how “God works in mysterious ways”?

Crossan’s solution is to analyze the Bible through a matrix of contextual history. He examines a handful of key stories and themes in the Bible through this matrix, from creation and original sin in Genesis, to land distribution, law and retribution, slavery, and what a covenant is. Here’s one example:

Jesus the Christ of the Sermon on the Mount preferred loving enemies and praying for persecutors while Jesus the Christ of the book of Revelation preferred killing enemies and slaughtering persecutors.

Is Jesus inconsistent? Does Jesus just have massive mood swings?

Here’s one of the book’s central claims:

The nonviolent Jesus is the Christian Bible’s assertion, acceptance, and affirmation of the radicality of God while the violent Jesus is its corresponding subversion, rejection, and negation in favor of the normalcy of civilization.

His preferred metaphor

The heartbeat of the Christian Bible is a recurrent cardiac cycle in which the asserted radicality of God’s nonviolent distributive justice is subverted by the normalcy of civilization’s retributive justice.

Radicality of God: God’s ideal vision for us as humanity

Normalcy of Civilization: Human civilization messing up that vision with greed and power

Throughout the Bible, Crossan posits, is this rhythmic “heartbeat” of the assertion of the Radicality of God (via the nonviolent Jesus) and the subversion by the Normalcy of Civilization (via the violent Jesus).

In other words,

[The Bible] contains both the assertion of God’s radical dream for our world and our world’s very successful attempt to replace the divine dream with a human nightmare.
…The struggle is not between divine good and human evil but between, on one hand, God’s radical dream for an Earth distributed fairly and nonviolently among all its peoples and, on the other hand, civilization’s normal dream for me keeping mine, getting yours, and having more and more, forever.
The tension is not between the Good Book and the bad world that is outside the book. It is between the Good Book and the bad world that are both within the book.

Do I find Crossan’s argument compelling? Yes, perhaps. The book’s argument makes sense to me, and Crossan paints his narrative with intriguing metaphors.

Although, I don’t feel like I had enough background to make an informed critique. This is only the second book on biblical analysis I’ve read, the first being Marcus J. Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time I read 5 or 6 years ago. Needless to say, I have much to learn, and I’m going to start by reading Crossan’s earlier works, as well as Peter J. Gomes’s The Good Book, recommended to me by a friend who actually understands this stuff.


Read How to Read the Bible if you’re interested in biblical scholarship. It can a tougher read if you’re not used to the rigor of academic writing in this field, but the organization of sections and the repetition of themes will help guide you along the way.

If you read it for leisure reading (like I did), you may, like me, have up ending to remain ignorant of large swathes of ideas you aren’t familiar with, but that’s okay. I still got something out of the book (I think).


Books I’m reading for next time

  1. The Hundred-Year Flood / Matthew Salesses
  2. To Kill A Mockingbird / Harper Lee
  3. The New Prophets of Capital / Nicole Aschoff
  4. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Second Edition / Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic
  5. The New Jim Crow / Michelle Alexander

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