Covers: Phosphorescence, Bright Lights Big City, You, Everything I Never Told You, The Center of Everything, The Center Cannot Hold, My Dark Places

6 Degrees of Separation: From Light to Dark

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we start with Phosphorescence by Julia Baird, an author based in Sydney, Australia. Here’s the description of the book from Goodreads:

A beautiful, intimate and inspiring investigation into how we can find and nurture within ourselves that essential quality of internal happiness – the ‘light within’ that Julia Baird calls ‘phosphorescence’ – which will sustain us even through the darkest times.

Over the last decade, we have become better at knowing what brings us contentment, well-being and joy. We know, for example, that there are a few core truths to science of happiness. We know that being kind and altruistic makes us happy, that turning off devices, talking to people, forging relationships, living with meaning and delving into the concerns of others offer our best chance at achieving happiness. But how do we retain happiness? It often slips out of our hands as quickly as we find it. So, when we are exposed to, or learn, good things, how do we continue to burn with them?

And more than that, when our world goes dark, when we’re overwhelmed by illness or heartbreak, loss or pain, how do we survive, stay alive or even bloom? In the muck and grit of a daily existence full of disappointments and a disturbing lack of control over many of the things that matter most – finite relationships, fragile health, fraying economies, a planet in peril – how do we find, nurture and carry our own inner, living light – a light to ward off the darkness?

Absorbing, achingly beautiful, inspiring and deeply moving, Julia Baird has written exactly the book we need for these times.

I’ll just say that this kind of self-help advice is not how I choose to spend my reading time. Therefore, I’m going to start with a riff on titles.

1. We find the concept of light in the novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, although I’m pretty sure the subject matter here is vastly different from Baird’s emphasis. Published in 1984, the novel follows a male character through Manhattan, fueled by wit and controlled substances. This book is best known for its use of second-person narrative. Here’s how the novel opens:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

2. Probably the other best known example of second-person narrative is You by Caroline Kepnes, which opens this way: “You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.”

3. Celeste Ng uses second-person in the title of her novel Everything I Never Told You, but the narrative is written in third person. The novel tells the story of Lydia Lee, daughter of a Chinese American family in small-town Ohio, whose parents push her to fulfill the dreams they themselves were unable to attain.

4. Everything is a huge concept, as portrayed in The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty. This novel is the coming-of-age story of adolescent Evelyn, who lives in a small apartment in the small community of Kerrville, Kansas. Over the course of the novel, Evelyn comes to realize that life in the middle of nowhere is much the same as life in the center of everything.

5. The memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey through Madness by Elyn Saks tells the story of Saks’s struggle to build a meaningful life despite having schizophrenia. She tells the poignant yet uplifting story of attending college and going on to graduate from Yale Law School, all the while battling the demons of suicidal fantasies and voices in her head. She is a professor at the University of Southern California’s law school and specializes in legal topics related to the rights and treatments of people with mental illness.

6. When writer James Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was raped, killed, and dumped off a road in a rundown Los Angeles suburb. As an adult he wrote several crime novels featuring women characters but found that writing fiction did not ease his anxiety and obsession over mistreated women. He then turned to investigating his mother’s murder with the help of homicide detective Bill Stoner. Goodreads describes the resulting book, My Dark Places (1996), as “an investigative autobiography.”

Through several jumps—between light and dark, between memoirs and novels—this has been a journey through 6 Degrees of Separation.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

4 thoughts on “6 Degrees of Separation: From Light to Dark”

  1. I recently took a re-look at “Bright Lights…: And again I loved this incident on an NYC bus:

    “Move to the rear, Queenie,” the bus driver says. “I know you know how to do that.”

    The young man walks down the aisle with burlesque movements of the hips and wrist. The bus driver turns and watches him go. When he gets all the way back, the driver picks up the Japanese umbrella he left behind. The driver waits until it is quiet and then says, “Hey, Tinker Bell. You forgot your wand.”

    Everyone watching titters and guffaws. The bus hasn’t moved.

    Tinker Bell poses at the back of the bus, narrowing his eyes and scowling. Then he smiles. He walks back up the aisle, putting everything he’s got into it. He reaches the “front and picks up the umbrella. He raises it over his head and brings it down gently on the driver’s shoulder, as if he were bestowing knighthood. He does this three times, saying, in a cheery falsetto voice, ‘Turn to shit, turn to shit, turn to shit.”

  2. So many of us riling against self-help books… yet clearly they are big business and sell really well. Maybe they get given a lot as presents!

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