Saturday, January 15, 2022

Melody's 2021 Reading: Cultural Differences

 Instead of taking you through the various genres of fiction I read this year (fantasy, contemporary, and some magical realism, most of it YA), I wanted to share some notes related to the winner of the Non-Fiction Bronze award, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Since reading that book, I've been keeping an eye out for narrative examples that illuminate the cultural differences discussed in Misreading Scripture. (You may also notice some tie-in with the winner of the Non-Fiction Gold award, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which investigates the origin of our western obsession with identity. Yep. That obsession, common to westerners both Christians and non-, has an origin story; it's not inherent.)

One of the main points of Misreading Scripture is that for each person, there are many cultural things that "go without saying." We don't even know that we believe them, because they feel inherent. And when something feels inherent, it's hard to get your head around something else. Novels are a way to make that easier. But first, a glossary of the cultures that have recently caught my attention.

  • Others-Focused
    • Honor/Shame Culture - A culture where you make choices based on what others will think. This sounds inherently bad to those in the west, but it's actually the culture of "Bible-times." (The authors of Misreading Scripture do an excellent breakdown of this culture by analyzing the story of David and Bathsheba through this lens.)
    • Collectivist Culture - A culture that places high value on selflessness, family, community, and cooperation.
  • Self-Focused
    • Individualist Culture - A culture that places high value on self-sufficiency, uniqueness, autonomy, and independence.
    • Guilt Culture - A culture where you make choices based on internal guilt or lack thereof (aka that Jiminy Cricket "conscience"). This sounds inherently good to those in the west, but that's because it is one of those "goes without saying" things that we've grown up with.
(I'm not an expert. You can find better and more scholarly definitions and examples on the internet.)

I want to note something important: none of these cultures are inherently bad or good, better or worse. They all come with pros and cons, and God can use any of them to build relationship with people and bring His Kingdom to earth. Just to set your mind at ease, I'll note as examples that a Christian's orthodox requirement of personal salvation is a feature of self-focused culture...and a Christian's orthodox commitment to helping the poor is a feature of others-focused culture.

Given that there is some good in these cultures, and given that they are incredibly foreign to me (how can one live a godly life without a personal sense of right/wrong?!), I've found that novels are particularly useful in examining how these cultures operate in real life, and I'd like to share a few on my 2021 reads with you in that context.

A Pho Love Story, by Loan Le, is exactly the delicious teen romance you'd expect from the title, but I found myself fascinated with the characters' coming-of-age journey. Both characters are children of immigrants, and their coming-of-age is truly about their movement from a culture where others tell you who you are (others-focused) to a culture we Americans are more familiar with, where you tell others who you are (self-focused). (Americans, if you haven't figured it out, are very into self-defined identities. Yay, individualism!)

Thorn and Theft of Sunlight, by Intisar Khanani take place within a strong honor/shame culture. I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been looking for it, but the characters frequently base what is honorable (or not) on the opinions of those they respect, instead of internal conscience. If you're trying to understand how an honor/shame culture--the culture of both the Old and New Testament--operates for good, these books are a great place to start.

Concrete Rose, by Angie Thomas, captures an others-focused culture in which the characters make their decisions based on the good of others. It's another coming-of-age story, but this time, it's not about finding out how you self-identify, it's about accepting the mentoring of those who have gone before, making them proud, and creating a future in which others will thrive.

Vow of Thieves (sequel to Dance of Thieves), by Mary E. Pearson, was a re-read for me this year, but it still counts. It provides a great example of an others-focused culture, as characters derive their motivation from familial bonds (collectivism) and vows made (honor/shame).

It's much less interesting to share with you the self-focused stories I read this year, but here are a few:
  • All the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, take place in an individualistic culture. They address questions such as, "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?"
  • Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch is all about the discovery of your true identity...after having been lied to about it for years and years.
  • The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks, places heavy significance on an individual's sense of right and wrong to influence their choices: guilt culture.
In truth, most novels I read have a self-focused perspective. That's inherent to us in the West. The American Dream is all about individualism, and so our books tend to be that way too. I'm grateful for the magic of fiction, forever allowing me to experience worlds different from my own. (Here's looking at you, Middle-Earth.)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Melody's 2021 Reading

I've been looking forward to this post all year. With each book I began, I wondered if it would merit a mention in the year-end summary. And here we are, even as I realize I didn't blog about anything else during 2021. I'm not sure how I feel about the radio silence; I had plenty of things I could have blogged about. But sharing one's opinion online is no longer the fun and fancy free experience it was in my earlier blogging days.

I digress. Let's talk about books.

In 2021, I read 49 books. I almost read 50, except that on December 31, I forgot to listen to the very last podcast episode that took me through the Bible in a year. (So now I'm just that much more ahead in 2022.)

This is definitely a more balanced split between fiction and non-fiction than in 2020, though still more fiction than I thought I was reading this year. I tried to alternate back and forth, but sometimes you need a couple novels to compensate for some particularly heady foray.

My average rating on Goodreads was 4.0 (out of 5) stars. Lower than in 2020, and I felt that. I read a lot of good books this year, but it seemed like there were fewer wow moments (which we'll definitely talk about below). For reference, four stars on Goodreads means I "really liked" the book. Three stars means I "liked" it, but five stars means I "loved" it.

Non-Fiction

I have found it difficult to categorize the non-fiction I read this year, but a good way to sum it up is that I was reading to better understand myself, to better understand the world and people around me, and to better understand how we got to be where we are.

Before we talk categories, let's give awards.

Non-Fiction Bronze: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O'Brien
This book gets mentioned a lot on various podcasts, but I always assumed it would be long and with very small print. Not so! It's an engaging read and not too long, full of anecdotes and connections that I couldn't have made on my own. While it contains various cultural information that comes in useful while reading the Bible, it is less about understanding other cultures (in Biblical times, or present-day) and more focused on helping you recognize the "goes without saying" elements that form your cultural foundation...and how that affects your Biblical study. For example, western Christians are very good at remembering that the prodigal son ends up feeding pigs because of his poor choices. But our global counterparts have us beat in recalling the other reason he ends up in such a dire situation (yep, there are two causes). If you aren't aware of the "cultural blinders" you wear, you'll find yourself missing such things throughout the Bible.

Non-Fiction Silver: Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez
Another engaging read! Given that my husband is a data scientist type of person, I hear a lot about good data and bad data. You can get bad data in a myriad of ways. "Sample size" is important (100% of a group of one person is not useful information at all), but "sample representation" is also important. Bad sample representation is like going to a dog park to ask if people prefer dogs or cats. Or, in the case of Invisible Women, it's only considering the male perspective when designing something for everyone (or, worse yet, designing something for women) and ending up with the "universal male." Perez talks about everything from the introduction of safer stoves in third-world countries (only men were interviewed in the design process...even though women do more of the cooking in these regions) and everyone's favorite...crash-test dummies (to start, women and men have different skeletal frames that react differently to seat-belts and other safety features). That's just the beginning; once you read this book, you'll start to notice all the places where "male" is considered default. Given that gender is roughly a 50/50 split...you'll also start to wonder why.


Non-Fiction Gold: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, by Carl R. Trueman
Remember when I mentioned that the above books were engaging and short? I was easing you in, because this one is neither. It is incredibly boring and dry, and I had to renew it to finish (a rarity for me). Ironically, this book was written to be a more accessible version of some other dry and boring book! (Oof.) But my goodness, was Rise and Triumph absolutely fascinating. It was nothing like what I expected but instead served as something like a philosophical history, answering questions I never thought to ask, such as, "When did we begin seeing our personal desires (hopes, dreams, etc...) as our identity?" "When did we begin to care about 'finding ourselves'?" "What did Nietzche mean when he said God was dead?" "Why do we idealize rural life?" "Why is sex such a huge deal to, like, everyone these days?" I really want to re-read this one and take good notes, because there is some excellent stuff here that helps one understand exactly how we got to the place we now are as a society...without whining about it.

Alright, on to categories.


Adulting is about becoming a better grown-up. (And yes, I actually read the book this year: Becoming Better Grown-Ups: Rediscovering What Matters and Remembering How to Fly by Brad Montegue.) Why Do I Feel Like This?: Understand Your Difficult Emotions and Find Grace to Move Through (Peace Amadi) is actually the non-fiction runner-up this year. There are a lot of books out there about personal growth and managing emotions in a healthy way, but few of them come from a balanced Christian perspective with full acknowledgement of Jesus' authority in your life...and the benefits of growing in maturity and maybe even going to counseling. Amadi leans into both with ease and grace.

I enjoy self-help reading immensely, but sometimes the best way to get better at life is to live it. Some years, I intentionally leave self-help off the book list. Given the high percentage of self-help in 2021, I may be exploring other topics in 2022.

Current Events is really about social issues, but both the words 'social' and 'issues' feel charged these days, so I figured I'd settle for a more bland category name. It's important to me to go beyond the social media outrage of both sides, and so I chose some deep-dives. When Thoughts and Prayers Aren't Enough: A Shooting Survivor's Journey Into the Realities of Gun Violence (Taylor S. Schumann) and Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man (Emmanuel Acho) both tackle some tense subjects and are written by Christians who understand multiple sides of the issue at hand.

That said, you can't understand the present without understanding the past, and so I supplemented my exploration with History. History books, with all their lengthy detail (how dare you be so thorough), take a lot out of me, so there were only three this year. Yet they were all marvelous and enriching. I highly recommend Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (David W. Blight) and The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (John M. Barry).

Fiction

Fiction Bronze: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling
Alright, alright, I'll give a Harry Potter book an award. (We can blame it on how much mediocre fiction I read this year, and how I limit a series to one award each.) Much like how the Academy refrained from giving the Lord of the Rings films many Oscars until Return of the King (and then threw eleven at them), here is a shout-out to Rowling's final book and an acknowledgement of the series as a whole. I have a lot of criticisms of the series, as anyone who asks quickly discovers--and no, it's not that they're all witches and wizards--but it is still true to say it is a masterpiece. I really appreciated the integration of a mythos in Deathly Hallows...a new reveal of magic in an already magical world.

Fiction Silver: The Blood Mirror, by Brent Weeks
This is the fourth in the Lightbringer series, and no, it is not the kind of series where you can start in the middle. Introduced to this series by a friend, I read the entire series from start to finish this year; this is adult sci-fi/fantasy, and the books are long. (The series finale was the longest book I read the whole year.) Since The Blood Mirror was my favorite book, it gets the mention. (I've since learned that The Blood Mirror is most people's least favorite of the five-book series. I could just hair-toss and claim that I'm just "not like other girls," but I think the real reason is because The Blood Mirror is the most-character driven book in a very plot-driven series. I prefer character-driven books, but it's typically not what people reading a plot-driven series are looking for.) The Lightbringer series is an epic saga full of twists and turns taking place in a unique world full of magic, fully developed cultures, and a host of motivated characters. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling it, so I'll just say this: if you are saddened by the lack of original content out there and dying for something new, novel, and rich, look no further. Read the Lightbringer series (especially if you think Christian fiction is dead).

Fiction Gold: Thorn, by Intisar Khanani
I am a sucker for YA, and I am especially a sucker for fairy-tale retellings. Thorn is a YA retelling of The Goose Girl. You would think, given that there is already a magnificent YA retelling of The Goose Girl (The Goose Girl, by Shannon Hale), that I would have a high bar when reading another one. You would be correct, and yet Thorn still blew me away. I am so pleased to have discovered Khanani as an author; her website states that she is "writing mighty girls and diverse worlds," and that is 100% accurate in the best way. Thorn (and its sequel, Theft of Sunlight) is both gentle and gritty, both sweet and sincere. Nothing about it is a copy, and everything about it is delightful. An instant favorite for me.

I was going to write more here about how my fiction reading connected to my non-fiction reading, but it got too long and will have to be its own post.

I was going to conclude with some notes on how I manage to read so much (so they tell me) in a given year, but that also got too long and will have to be its own post.

So I'll just sign off here. If you're curious, you can see all the books I read in 2021 (with some stats) and keep up with my 2022 progress.

Also, if this inspires you, let me know! It brought me joy to learn that my 2020 post inspired someone (shout-out to H!) to read more, and it would be cool if this one does the same. :)