The best way I can recommend Mary Tweedy’s novel JANE AND YOU is to say that it gave me the gift of tears. At the novel’s climax, I found myself crying tears of joy. These took me to a place different from the familiar emotional catharsis I get from reading. Tears are a way the body releases the tension triggered by a strong emotional experience. In the Catholic world, St. Ignatius of Loyola spoke of “the gift of tears” as a grace that comes from an overwhelming experience of the reality of God’s presence or love. Abraham Maslow spoke of “peak experiences.” Both describe my reaction during the reading of the final chapters of this book.
So yes. JANE AND YOU made me weep with joy. It was unexpected, and so very, very welcome. I cannot guarantee that you too will experience God in such a way, reading this novel, but you might. A Catholic reader can ask nothing greater from a work of fiction.
I am an incorrigible bookworm, but I have an handicap when it comes to fiction. I am almost exclusively a genre reader. I find it hard to “get into” a novel that has no “hook,” i.e., one that depicts ordinary life. I want mystery, murder, horror, the uncanny, or something/someone out of the ordinary before I will enter fully into a novel. I don’t know why. I used to apologize for it, but what’s the point in apologizing for what I want? So many books, so little time… why shouldn’t I indulge my appetite for the weird in what I read?
JANE AND YOU fits the bill, categorizing itself as a novel of magic realism. As I understand it, magic realism differs from fantasy in being rooted in real observed life rather than in a universe where magic or fantasy is codified in any kind of rules or formal structure. I would have characterized JANE AND YOU as supernatural fiction myself, in the vein of Charles Williams or Robert Hugh Benson. I love this type of fiction. I am a Catholic, and in my universe all of nature exists in tandem with supernature. Realism does not preclude the uncanny. But the supernatural also is not something that is ostentatious. A good novel, mainstream or genre, will immerse me in a world where matters of soul are the only battles that really matter. This is one such novel. But it’s not a ponderous take on the soul. It’s a lot of fun.
JANE AND YOU opens at a Catholic funeral. Jane, a woman in her fifties or sixties, has suffered the death of her husband John, who died suddenly of a heart attack. This is not Jane’s first loss. Jane and John had earlier suffered the death of their only child, their son Gerry, in a skateboard accident. When Jane loses John, she not only loses her life companion, but also the one person in the world who loved and cared about Gerry in a way that matched her own intensity of emotion and experience. She has now lost everyone in the world who meant the most to her.
On her way back from her husband’s funeral, Jane spies a strange youngish looking man sitting on a bench. His presence is not out of the ordinary, and yet his actions arrest her. He is filing his nails with studied attention. “The man having apparently examined his work proceeded to curl the digits and began calmly and delicately to rub the emery board back and forth over the offending nail. Jane looked away feeling as though she had inadvertently caught someone in the bath.” She sees him again a few mornings later when she goes running in the park. For some reason his presence throws her off guard and causes her to end her walk abruptly. The next morning, he is out there again. Is he stalking her? What does he want?
Yes, he does want something. No, it isn’t her body. JANE AND YOU is a novel about souls.
Mary Tweedy has done a righteous thing for a reader like myself, one who avoids non-genre fiction and is drawn instead to the eerie. She has framed a close observation of how death flattens out life and renders it colorless–a topic I would normally shrink from–within a page-turner about one woman’s encounter with a mysterious, possibly unearthly being–a topic to which I am naturally drawn. This is a clever way to rope in a reader who wouldn’t be drawn to a novel about a woman’s journey towards “the new normal” after her husband’s death. But the stranger is not just a MacGuffin–not just a plot device that the protagonist pursues having no importance to the narrative. Eventually, as is the case with every character in the book, he becomes in himself a catalyst for Jane’s education in comprehending the intricacies of her own Catholic faith and its relevance to the overwhelming mysteries of life and death, good and evil.
Can I remind you again that this is not a heavy read, but a lot of fun? I don’t want to spoil the book, so I won’t say too much more about the plot. It unfolds in a series of very well done set pieces. Each involves Jane with people known and unknown, all of whom she comes to recognize as souls fighting their own battles and demons with varying levels of success and failure. We get to experience different social settings: a swanky nursing facility for well-off seniors; a frenetic Los Angeles dance club for the younger crowd; a volatile meeting with members of a grief support group; a cocktail party hosted by a successful composer.
Tweedy is an assured writer, even though this is only her second novel. There were no instances in which I felt like the author intruded on her characters. Published on smashwords.com, the text is perfectly edited with none of the typos and grammatical lapses that can be found in some digitally published books.
Most of all, this is a page-turner. I literally stopped all of my work for two days while I read this book. I couldn’t figure out how the author would successfully resolve the conflict between the protagonist and the mysterious stranger. She set him up as such an intriguing character that I didn’t see what kind of reveal would be good enough to satisfy our curiosity as to what he was and where he came from. The resolution was everything I could have hoped for, and more. The author side-stepped the solutions that would have been obvious (and hence a let-down), and instead went for the spiritual jugular. And I found myself in tears, grateful that someone had so exquisitely turned the screw in a direction at once unexpected and transcendentally satisfactory.
The Green Unknown: Travels in the Khasi Hills is Patrick Rogers’ first-person account of traveling by foot in northeast India in order to document the presence and locations of a rare architectural eco-wonder known as a “living root bridge.” These are found only in northeast India. No comprehensive listing of them exists. It had been thought that they were few in number. But on previous travels in India, Rogers had heard rumors of the existence of far more root bridges than the few that had been identified and catalogued. And so he headed into the Khasi Hills alone to find them. On his first trek, besides his backpack he had only a hand-drawn map from a native to the area. On subsequent treks, he ventured further in without a map, relying on his experience and information he could obtain from Khasis that he met along the way.
I read The Green Unknown on board a cruise ship headed for the Caribbean. The Green Unknown was on my Kindle; I had also picked up a travel anthology from the ship’s library. Initially I read the two books together. But I quickly returned the anthology to the library and concentrated on the far superior Green Unknown. The anthology was written by dilettantes like myself–folks who travel in comfort to well-known locales and work their musings into anecdotal essays. It was popcorn. I love popcorn, but not when I have steak.
The Green Unknown is steak. Rogers, who hails from Newark, Delaware, USA, is not some first world dilettante but the real deal. He is a youthful explorer who ventured far out of his comfort zone and returned with something new to add to the body of knowledge of both Living Root Bridges and of northeast India. This is an area that has been under the formal rule of a variety of political powers over the centuries but in practicality has governed itself autonomously from village to village. Rogers traveled alone through the remote regions of the state of Meghalaya, visiting villages whose people continue to follow a way of life hundreds of years old. He wandered–and was welcomed–into places where ‘pale giants’ like him had rarely if ever been seen. His writing actually adds to our knowledge about a locale and way of life not well known by 99% of the world’s population–and that includes the citizens of India itself! The book is the story of his treks through the Khasi Hills.
Although he traveled somewhat on a lark, it was not without purpose. The Living Root Bridges of northeast India represent bio-architecture at its finest. Khasi and Jaintia natives of the area take the pliable roots of the Ficus elastica (rubber fig trees) and train them, shape them, and construct from them living bridges that span hard-to-traverse rivers, chasms and ridges. This allows for traffic from village to village that would otherwise require long, circuitous routes through mountainous forest terrain. The people of the Khasi hills have been doing this for centuries. They are quite surprised that their traditional means of making difficult terrain easy to traverse is an object of wonder to the world.
The Green Unknown is not quite a tale of an innocent abroad, since Patrick Rogers had traveled extensively in India before this. But the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya offered surprises at every turn. The weather was impossible, rainy for days on end and fraught with lightning and thunder storms so ferocious that they threatened to blow away the huts in which he sheltered with the villagers. Going for a swim in a beautiful natural lake under a waterfall could be deadly. The food was not standard to a western diet. And World Wide Wrestling could be found in the remotest parts of the forests! So what is this book really about? Let’s allow the author to speak for himself:
“One could characterize the book as being about heartbreaking beauty arrived at unexpectedly through weird tangents. … You may well get a little disoriented. I could make it easier on you, and portray the world into which I stumbled as simpler, and easier to mentally digest, than I know it to be, but in the end, I think the rugged, cluttered, truth of things is just more interesting.”
This book is an easy read, full of adventures in weather, eating, recreation and exploration. We meet the older Khasis who are surprised to find that their root bridges are cause for wonder, and the young Khasis eager to learn how to stimulate local economies by eco-tourism, such as the villages that host the well-known root bridges have experienced. We see photographs of breath-taking beauty, and to my delight these are all pictures of the landscape or the people, no photos of the author himself facing the camera as if to insert himself into the land. For some reason that touched me. Ego in an author is to be expected, but here there is none.
… on board the Carnival Elation cruise ship. Fixing each other with an authorial gaze, they both begin to speak at once.
“Have you seen the piss poor excuse for a ship’s library they have on this … ?”
“Can you believe what passes for a library on board this … ?”
You just know that both authors are book nerds, so this scenario rings true. Why? Because it happened just that way between me and a newly met fellow writer on board the Carnival Elation in April– both of us non-blockbusting authors, I hasten to add. Mr. Koontz and Ms. Harris, for whom I have the utmost respect, most likely wouldn’t be caught dead on a Carnival ship when they can afford a luxury line like Crystal Cruises or Regent Seven Seas or heck, even Disney whose fares are still too rich for my blood and budget. For me it’s Carnival, where you get the biggest bang for your buck.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Carnival cruise line. It’s my sea-faring venue of choice. Where else can you get room and board, singing and dancing and drinking, islands in the sun and more, all for less than you’d pay for a stay at modestly priced hotel? Cheapest vacation there is! When was the last time you and a companion found a $110 a day hotel room in a well-appointed resort with all-inclusive meals, live entertainment, dance clubs, lounges, bars, pools, fitness center, steam room, hot tub, yada yada? It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.
All except for the onboard library. Carnival ship libraries all seem to be something of an afterthought, but the Elation’s was the pits! Not the decor, just the contents. Beautiful wooden book cabinets, upholstered furniture, polished wood table and chairs … And no books. Well some books. A few. Maybe one.
I hyperbolize. But longtime cruisers know that foreign ports are only part of the joy of cruising. Ship life itself is the lure for many serial cruisers– many folks, myself included, don’t even get off the ship at familiar ports!
Cruise ships offer abundant delights for those who relish life at sea. Foodies have it all: endless buffets on Lido deck with their varied cuisine, burger spots, salad and deli bars, burritos stations, pizza joints, 24/7 soft serve ice cream; elegant sit-down dining rooms with friendly, attentive wait staff; and the for-pay steak houses and epicurean experiences that are popping up all over the place.
Gamblers have casinos and bingo. Drinkers have bars and clubs throughout the ship. Shoppers have drool-worthy stuff from fine jewelry to cruise wear to duty-free liquor. Sun worshipers have swimming, water slides, and poolside lounging. Active guests have miniature golf, ping ping, ball courts and increasingly such thrills as zip lines, climbing walls, rope courses and the like.
But bibliophiles? Pah! Book nerds at sea had best load up our Kindles and weigh down our luggage if we want to have a decent selection of beach reading. And we’re not asking for literary classics, (although I personally wouldn’t kick them off the boat.) Good solid genre paperbacks are just fine for poolside reading.
After one unsatisfactory library experience on shipboard, I got it in my head to donate some of the paperbacks spilling off my shelves and stored in my garage at home. So I called up the Carnival 1-800 number to find out how I could ship them some books. I spent a frustrating hour on the phone being passed from staff member to staff member. Amazingly, nobody could find me an authoritative answer. Yes, they would be happy to accept donations. Wait, they’ll have to ask around to find out how to do it. No, sorry, they can’t find someone to help me out. But would I like to buy my next cruise?
I sympathize. I really do. Cruise lines make no money from their libraries, and reading is the last thing many people think about when they embark on a cruise. Cruise ship personnel have a thousand priorities before stocking their libraries as they work hard to get those floating cities up and running for their paradise-seeking guests. But book lovers are a passionate population too. We are found on board every ship, just like the equally well-behaved piety nerds (yeah that’s my hand up again, sheepishly) who love rosaries on board and Mass in port. Maybe we just need to be a little more pro-active to accommodate our own cruising hobbies.
My effort to donate books ended in a question mark. Since nobody could give me a working procedure, I decided to make an experiment. My next cruise was out of New Orleans on the Elation. During my frustrating phone call I did learn that libraries come under the purview of Entertainment. I shipped a box of books cold to the Elation in dock at the New Orleans cruise port, care of the Entertainment Director.
Three months later, I boarded the Elation for my 21-day cruise. I rushed to the library right away, eager to feel that frisson of self-congratulation that comes when you do the kind of good deed where (contrary to recommendation) your right hand does know what your left is doing.
Which is how I wound up exchanging moans and gripes with a newly met fellow writer who had also made his way to the ship’s library as the cruise commenced. Nada. Nothing. My books were not there. The shelves were nearly bare. Oh, oh, oh, look! A 1995 guide to Caribbean ports. A coffee table history of DaimlerChrysler. Three well-thumbed westerns. (Yeah I took one of those.)
I sought out Guest Services but they had no luck tracking down what happened to the box I shipped. Their best guess was that since I shipped it to the ship itself rather than to corporate headquarters in Florida –where, I learned for the first time, one mails letters and packages to ship’s staff — it simply got lost in transit.
I’m sure nobody cares about this but me but dang it I’m not giving up! In two weeks we’re taking a five days cruise to the Bahamas out of Jacksonville on board … you guessed it … the Carnival Elation. Since it’s a short trip I can pack a bare minimum of clothing and load up a whole duffel bag with paperback beach books. And I will! This time I will put them on the shelves myself, as is the custom when one finishes a book brought from home and wants to pas it on. I am including some of my favorites:
Dean Koontz’ complete Frankenstein series, with his final Odd Thomas title (Saint Odd) thrown in for giggles
the complete Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris with a few Aurora Teagarden mysteries to boot. Fans of Sookie Stackhouse need to meet her other protagonists, especially Harper and Tolliver
Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Helen Macinnes representing the classic mystery and suspense
Hunter S Thompson in his later years, just because. I did find his son’s memoirs about life with HST in another ship’s library, so there’s that in their favor. Growing up as Hunter S Thompson’s son was not an easy gig.
A nicely annotated copy of Hamlet because … The Bard! And ghosts! Murder and vengeance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Two of the Madeleine L’Engle Austin family series.
Peter Kreeft’s Jesus Shock for some light but pithy Catholic wisdom
This time, Dean Koontz and Charlaine Harris will walk into a library! Along with some other of my favorite summertime friends. ————————————————————————————-
 “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken”, a phrase that has fallen into common parlance, was the title of a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Seth, c.f. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_a_Good_Life,_If_You_Don%27t_Weaken
It is an inescapable duty for a southern Catholic to admire Flannery O’Connor, and so of course I do. Yet her fiction is not easy to love. As with Shakespeare, the weight of the need to apprehend and appreciate a work beyond the usual pleasures of storytelling sits oppressively on the soul. It’s a responsibility to read mindfully. Sometimes you just want potato chips. You can’t read Flannery while your watching network tv and tuning out commercials.
Her non-fiction is another kettle of fish altogether. It’s always fun to read what writers have to say when they’re thinking about writing, or writing about thinking, or just trying to figure out their lives. Reading Flannery O’Connor: A Prayer Journal, I am comforted to discover that her journey of faith traverses a landscape familiar to my own. Early on, she wrestles with the fear that she’s no good as a writer. She realizes that her desire to write is after all a collaboration with God, and not just a whim to go after willy-nilly. As she experiences writer’s block, she fears that the God Who gave her the gift of words has taken it away. We realize that even for a unique genius like Flannery O’Connor, the vocation of the Christian writer meshes ambition and humility in an uneasy partnership/antagonism.
She also worries about how she is incorporating religion into her stories, a prescient fear when you think about how her work was received by many critics.
“Dear God, tonight … you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story– just like the typewriter was mine. Please let the story, dear God, in its revisions, be made too clear for any false & low interpretation because in it, I am not trying to disparage anyone’s religion although when it was coming out, I didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do or what it was going to mean.”
Does any writer really know what he or she was trying to do or what the story means, even after it is finished? Like the child to which it is so often compared, a story bears the marks of its parentage but is a unique and living creature all its own.
To what story was Flannery referring above? She was twenty-one when she wrote that– I’m not sure she had published any stories yet at that point. She wrote her prayer journal in Iowa City where she was attending writers’ workshops. Reading this worry of hers early on about how she wrote religion into her fiction was enlightening. She knows she might go too far and not only be misunderstood but worse:
“Please don’t let me have to scrap the story because it turns out to mean more wrong than right– or any wrong. I want it to mean that the good in man sometimes shows through his commercialism but that is not the fault of commercialism that it does. Perhaps the idea would be that good can show through even something that is cheap.”
Reading her prayer journal puts it into my head to try her stories again. Dang wouldn’t you know it I have none at hand.
She’s hilariously extreme in her address of God, finishing up her thoughts on this story she’s working on:
“Anyway it all brings me to thanksgiving, the third thing to include in prayer. When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already & I haven’t been particularly grateful.”‘
 O’Connor, Flannery, A Prayer Journal, edited by W.A. Sessions, p.11
 Ibid, p.12