Reading Drought Breaks

Last year was a record breaker with 66 books read, the most since I started keeping a regular tally. But after that my reading seemed to hit a brick wall. In the first months of this year I finished a couple of books that I’d already started and I enjoyed Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy, but after that nothing has really been able to attract and keep my attention.

Until now!

Over recent weeks I’ve been watching a TV series called “Living With the Amish”, about a group of British teens given the opportunity to live with various Amish families over a six week period. It’s one of the most interesting TV shows I’ve seen for a long time.

The simplicity and lack of materialism of the Amish was very challenging. There is a lot about them that I admired, but those things also showed up how much western Christendom has fallen for consumerism and lives based on “stuff”.

Particularly telling was an incident in the final episode when a couple of Amish women were taken along to a shopping mall so that they could catch a glimpse of the world their visitors came from. One of the women told how she was made nauseous by the atmosphere of the place.

During an earlier episode of the series one of the Amish was talking to a British girl about forgiveness and told her about a shooting in an Amish school where a gunman killed several of the young students before turning the gun on himself. And that is where I come back to this year’s reading list.

LightI found One Light Still Shines a book written by Marie Monville, who was the wife of the gunman. It’s the first book this year, since The Shape of Mercy, that makes me want to continue reading. It tells of the event that changed many lives (after ending the lives of several others) and how the tragedy led to amazing expressions of God’s love and grace as a wife, a family and a community come to terms with the outcome of the devastating acts of someone they thought they knew well.

I’m only halfway through, but it’s already a very moving book that I’ve found hard to put down, but considering most of my reading is done during tea and lunch breaks at work, it’s also been a hard book to continue reading because of the emotions it stirs. More than once I’ve had to put it aside before workmates notice the welling tears.

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Prophetess by Keven Newsome

prophetessProphetess is the follow-up to Keven Newsome’s Winter, a book I reviewed here on my older blog:
http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2012/01/winter-keven-newsome.html
A lot of what I wrote there could also apply to Prophetess so I recommend a look at that earlier review.

The prophetess is Winter, the title character of the earlier novel and we meet her again as she’s returning to school for another year after she and her friends survived some horrific events the year before.

At first I found myself getting a little lost at the beginning because of a few references to characters and events I’d forgotten from the earlier book, but that initial feeling of disorientation comes with many novels that are released as a series and it would have easily been avoided if I’d chosen to reread Winter before I moved on to Prophetess. Once I’d moved past that I was soon hooked by the story.

Or maybe I should say stories, because there are two main time-lines describing different periods of Winter’s life. There is the present story where Winter tries to find and protect a fellow student who is being targeted by Xaphan the occultist adversary from the earlier book. And there is also the story of a slightly younger Winter, withdrawn into a state of depression after the death of her mother. These story threads are interwoven leaving us with mini cliff-hangers as they switch from one to the other.

With Winter I had reservations about the portrayal of prophecy and I’m not convinced that it fits a biblical view in either book, but that’s something I addressed in my earlier article and the author of the book responded with comments to give his position so I won’t cover that ground again. So putting aside that theological issue, I found the book ticked a lot of entertainment boxes without pushing God to the side.

Both Winter and Prophetess are a blend of suspense and supernatural thriller with a seasoning of horror, touching on some serious issues, like the consequences of dabbling in the occult, teen depression and the real freedom that a relationship with God can bring.

I think this is the first Christian novel I’ve read this year. If I could find more of a similar quality I’d be very happy to read more. I think it’s the equal of a lot of popular fiction, but has the added quality of taking God seriously.

Hilary Mantel’s memoir (and thoughts of my own) with just a hint of Rushdie

Hilary Mantel is a double winner of the Man Booker Prize, first for Wolf Hall and then for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. These are the first parts of a trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with Henry VIII.

I read Wolf Hall two years ago and included my impressions of the book in an article here *: http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2011/01/visiting-lady-jane-grey-and-tudor.html

Yesterday I received Bring Up the Bodies, something I’ll have to try to fit into my crowded reading schedule. But it’s another book by Mantel that I’ve been reading over the last few days, a memoir called Giving Up the Ghost.

Giving Up the GhostCompared to the last memoir I read (Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton – see note below*) this one is a small book, but it seems to contain far more than its size would suggest. I’m only 2/3 of the way into it, but there has already been a lot to keep me interested. I can identify with a few areas of her experience; from Derbyshire village life in the 1950s-60s (though she’s six years older than me); living in homes that have a “ghostly” presence; to the occasional “tip” for writers. She also has a liking for semi-colons.

The first half of the book recalls her childhood and she is able to create a cohesive narrative out of many fragments of memories.

I occasionally consider writing my own memoir (which at the most may be of interest to future generations of my family) and I can see how my account of childhood would be made up of fragments – just brief glimpses of things I did and saw; a few seconds of a movie playing in my head.

Things like an image of a holiday cottage beside a beach. At that cottage I recall lying in bed between my parents. I must have been under three years old because I was later told that my mum was pregnant with my sister at the time, and she is two years ten months younger than me. I also ecall a walk through the back garden of the cottage to get to the pebbly beach. There are other incidents of this holiday that I don’t remember myself, but I know of them through family conversations over the years. The difference between the actual memories and those recounted anecdotes is in the detail. The memories are snapshots or brief loops of “action”; while the anecdotes have a form of narrative.

In Mantel’s book the most covered part of her childhood is her primary school years and earlier. It is during this period that she gives up her belief in God after a strange unnerving experience in the garden of her home. An experience that she thinks God could have (should have) prevented – and because He didn’t, He couldn’t exist.

Like so many who have given up (or never had) belief in God, the conclusion of His non-existence was formed according to criteria of Mantel’s choosing. God didn’t fulfil her expectations, He didn’t act how she thought He should, and therefore He couldn’t be real.

Joseph AntonA similar thing came up in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where the child Rushdie concluded God couldn’t exist because He’d never live in such an ugly “house of God” as the church building near his school. And in an interview (and maybe not in the book) Rushdie also told of how (as a “moslem” child) his ability to eat a ham sandwich without being struck down by an angry God gave him further certainty of God’s non-existence.

Surprisingly, the teen years of Mantel’s story are skimmed over in comparison to her pre-teen life. It is that period of my own younger days that I remember most, and my hypothetical memoir would perhaps need a separate volume to cover it.

I have now read up to the start of her adult life; her time at university and her early marriage. And how times have changed – Mantel’s marriage being an economic necessity; home life for two being more affordable than home life for two individuals, and culturally impossible for an unmarried couple to make a home together.

Even as an engaged couple they had difficulty finding “a place together in anticipation of [their] marriage…the landlords demanded certificates …to say that [they] had really booked the priest and registrar”.

I’ve already mentioned the size difference between this memoir and Rushdie’s, but that isn’t the most significant difference. Rushdie keeps a regular journal and that practice clearly helped and shaped the book he wrote. It is largely a straight forward narrative that avoids the playful approach to language and storytelling found in his novels.  Rushdie is getting his story across,  putting right the many false impressions of the “fatwah” years presented by others.

Mantel’s book is one of reflection rather than reporting;  remembering the past from an adult’s perspective, but not just as an adult; she writes as a mature literary writer interpreting her life from a present day vantage point. 

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*I see that I had a problem with Mantel regularly using the term “he” to describe her main character in a way that made it difficult to determine exactly who was being referred to. That’s a problem I also found in Salman Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie continually referred to himself in the third person often making me unsure of whether he was referring to himself or someone else.

How Fictional can “Christian Fiction” Be (while remaining “Christian”)?

[subtitle: Can a Christian Write Non-Christian or Even Antichristian fiction?]

I’ve been writing about my early writing ambitions, the study I did and the stories I wrote. Those ambitions never came to fruition but I haven’t given up on them. However things have changed significantly since those University days. Back then there were few restraints on what I wrote – I could tackle any topic, any style and any genre without too much concern. But now I see things differently.

At that time I was going through a spiritual crisis, battling with the beliefs I’d held throughout the previous decade or more. It was a time of questioning and the pushing of boundaries, trying to come to terms with what I did or did not believe and what I SHOULD believe.

My spiritual condition could be summed up in this (paraphrased from memory) description of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “he could not worship a God in whom he could not wholly disbelieve”. To me this describes someone caught between two camps. On the one hand not certain enough of the reality of God to fully devote his life to God; on the other hand not certain enough of God’s non-existence to cast aside all restraint to live a totally God-less life.

It was several years afterwards that I emerged from that crisis with a renewed faith, a development that has consequences for any writing ambitions that I’ve retained. I feel there ARE now restraints on what I write and how I write. There are responsibilities that twenty years ago I didn’t feel were relevant. There are types of writing that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tackle, to state the obvious: pornography.

But the “restraints” go further than personal moral convictions and extend to the type of spiritual reality that a story portrays. A good friend of mine suggested that there are serious problems with any story that leaves God and the gospel of Jesus out of the equation. To my mind this doesn’t mean that every story a Christian writes (or reads) should contain specific references to these important spiritual realities, it just means that a Christian’s fictional world should remain consistent with the foundational spiritual truths they claim to embrace. The framework of a fictional world created by a Christian writer needs to have Christian realities at its core – even if that core is not specifically mentioned.

I became even more convinced of this yesterday when I read the following on the blog of a Christian author where he describes a major plot-point of his first published novel:
“…a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.
And I pretty much agree.”

Further into his article he decries what he labels “the Theology Police” (a term he “wield[s] with lotsa snark”) who would criticise his story’s premise.

I have a very serious problem with the attitude the author is conveying. He seems to suggest there is absolutely no responsibility on Christian authors to remain true to even the most basic of the spiritual truths their alleged faith upholds. As if they can cast aside foundational truths to portray an alternative spiritual worldview all for the sake of story. As if the story takes priority over truth.

I’m sure many will agree with him and disagree with me – pointing out that he is an author writing fiction, that there are no limits on what he should be able to write in his own created fictional world.

Of course any fiction writer can create whatever reality they think suits their story – but whether that fiction writer can still legitimately refer to themselves as a Christian writer, or by the more flexible label of “writer who is a Christian” is debatable. For the writer (and reader) with no strong religious conviction all of this wouldn’t be an issue. But to someone believing in a genuine spiritual battle in which there are personal eternal consequences the situation ought to be entirely different.

In the case mentioned above, the author himself recognises the problem with the scenario his novel presents: as if the “soul” of a Godly many could be imprisoned after death and need to be freed to return to God.
What kind of spiritual “reality” and God is that portraying? And does it really matter as long as it’s entertaining?
I’d say it is a false reality and a false God, and YES it does matter.

Personally I’d prefer to read a well written secular novel by a non-believing author than one written by a Christian that protrays a counterfeit spirituality and a false God.

At least with the non-Christian author I have no false expectations about what I’d be reading