Having a bit of a reading spurt at the moment, just started 'The Subtle Knife' in a bid to get my head a bit more round Philip Pullman, thanks to Oxfam in Sherborne for that.
Novembers novels were 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time' by Mark Haddon, which picked up several literary prizes in 2002-3, and 'Long Way Down' by the ever-excellent Nick Horby. Both from the local charity shop, 'Break', on Abbey Manor.
3 thoughts from these:
1. Perspective. Both books are told from the characters point of view. In 'Curious Incident' it is a 15 year old boy with Aspergers Syndrome, who sees a dead dog in a neighbours garden and decides he will find out who's done it. In 'Long Way Down' it is 4 very different characters, who all (at the start of the book) are about to commit suicide, but meet each other at the same spot. In both books, I could hear the characters voices - Hornby's insensitive teenage girl is spot on - and it enabled you to see the world through other people's eyes, even if they were eyes you didn't really want to see through. But: does literature like this actually help us to see the world through other people's eyes, or is it just vicarious entertainment, and we emerge from the novel no more able to empathise with our neighbour than when we started?
2. Swearing. Ok I sound like a prude, and maybe I just read the wrong stuff when I was younger, but there really is a lot of swearing in both books. Yes they are trying to show what real life is like, I accept that. But there's a brutalising effect - interestingly picked up by one of Hornby's characters, a Catholic single parent, who begins by being shocked and offended by the bad language of the other 3 characters, but by the end of the book it has become like wallpaper. Do we lose something by this coarsening of language?
3. God. It was interesting to find that both books deal with spiritual issues. Hornby of course is no stranger to this: 'How to be Good' has the memorable and all too true account of it's main characters visit to an uninspiring church, in a bid to somehow connect with God. In Long Way Down, his Catholic character sees God's hand in her not managing to commit suicide, and in small things which start to make her life worth living again. Haddon's book has a chapter where the narrator explains why he doesn't believe in God, before heading back to the main narrative of his (for him) epic journey from Swindon to London. As with so much of the book, you don't know whether you're expected to agree, to understand, or just to think about it.
Several years ago I did some reasearch on Matthew Fox, originally a Catholic priest, but thrown out of his church for various misdemeanors. One of his early bits of writing was a survey of Time magazine in the US, to see how spiritual issues were treated. What he found was that the articles on the church generally dealt with issues of politics and power, but to find spiritual issues you had to go to the arts pages. Music, books, art, theatre, that was where the spiritual questions of life, death, meaning, identity, love, God, etc. were being dealt with. These things are written so deeply into us that we cannot help but come back to them again and again. And if the church isn't wrestling with these issues, then other people will.