6 Degrees of Separation Fiction

6 Degrees of Separation: From The Rock to the Institute

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 the winner of the 2021 Stella Prize, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. I had hoped to finish the book before writing this post, but, you know, life intervenes. However, I’ve read enough to know that the novel presents the stories of three women in three different time periods. The shadow of the Bass Rock looms large over each woman’s life. 

1. As I was thinking about how to start this chain, I came across a description of Long Division by Kiese Laymon, published on June 1, which Lit Hub says depicts “One Mississippi town with two engaging stories in two very different decades.” Same place, different times.

2.Three Junes, Julia Glass’s debut novel (2002), takes place in the month of June in three different years over a 10-year span. Locations vary, but the time  of year is the same, so same time, different places. This novel has been sitting on my TBR shelf for probably about 10 years.

3. A recent debut novel that I loved is The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. After receiving an MFA in writing, Johnson now studies American literature at Vanderbilt University.

4. The novel title Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has always intrigued me; someday I must read it. Its author is Lorrie Moore, who is on the English faculty of Vanderbilt University.

5. Coma by Robin Cook, a novel set in a hospital, “kickstarted a new genre–the medical thriller” (according to Goodreads) on its publication in 1977. The protagonist of this novel discovers that patients are purposely being put into a vegetative state so that their organs can be used for transplants. The bodies are stored, suspended from the ceiling, at the Jefferson Institute, an isolated, heavily guarded offsite facility.

6. The Institute (2019) by Stephen King is a more recent portrayal of such an imposing medical facility. King’s Institute is a place for kids with “special talents” such as telekinesis and telepathy.

Of all these novels, I’ve only read two (The Space Between Worlds and Coma). I think I’ll pass on The Institute, but I’ll try to get to the remaining three—as soon as I finish The Bass Rock, that is.

a totally unrelated note

balloon that reads Happy Anniversary

Reader, 50 years ago today I married Mr. Notes in the Margin. Happy golden anniversary to the best guy in the world!

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: Hurray for Siblings!

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 begin with Beezus and Ramona in memory of its author, Beverly Cleary. This 1955 novel introduces one of Cleary’s beloved characters, Ramona Quimby, through the eyes of her five-years-older sister, Beezus.

I always find writing about children’s literature difficult, probably because I’m so far removed it. Although I did enjoy reading this beloved children’s book for this month’s exercise, I’m going to have to stick to adult books for my excursion here. 

1. The obvious place to start is with the sister connection. In The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy, 18-year-old Mary Chase and her much younger sister, Hannah, hit the road for a cross-country journey after their mother dies and leaves them penniless. Suspense builds as the two chase a better life. I like the pun in the title. 

2. Another book about sisters with a pun in the title is The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman. The book narrates the stories of three sisters in the Story family. At the center of these stories lies the never-talked-about day when the oldest sister, at age 11, grabbed her 8-year-old sister out of a kidnapper’s car and jumped into the car to take her place. 

3. There are lots of books about sisters, but I think I’ve written about several of them in an earlier 6 Degrees post. So I’m going to switch things up now with a story of a brother and a sister: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet and Judith are twins, the children of Agnes and her mostly absent, never-named husband who’s away in the city writing the plays that will eventually cement his place in literary history. When Judith comes down with the deadly plague in 1596, her brother cannot bear to be separated from her. He sleeps next to her to comfort her, then sickens and dies.

4. And now we turn to brothers. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger features two brothers, 16-year-old Albert and 12-year-old Odie O’Banion, who, along with two friends, take off in a canoe after a frightful occurrence at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota. The year is 1932, and the country is still in the throes of the Great Depression. As the four companions travel down the river looking for a better life, Albert focuses all his attention on protecting his kid brother.

5. Not all brothers are as close as Albert and Odie O’Banion. In The Lost Man by Jane Harper, Nathan Bright is the oldest of three brothers. When the middle brother’s suspicious death brings Nathan back to his family’s vast cattle station in the Australian outback, he is forced to remember and re-examine the relationships between the three boys and their father in this “deeply atmospheric” novel.

6. Over the past 14 months my husband and I have nearly exhausted the movie libraries of a couple of streaming services. One of the movies we watched recently was Affliction (1997), starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, and James Coburn. The story line involves two brothers who have had very different lives after growing up with an abusive father. Intrigued by the story, I discovered that the film is based on the novel Affliction by Russell Banks. I haven’t read this novel yet but have tracked down a copy from a used book store and am awaiting its arrival.

This month’s list has taken lots of siblings on lots of journeys. Where did your 6 Degrees journey take you?

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: From “Shuggie Bain” to “This Tender Land”

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 the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by the Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart. The novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.

Goodreads describes Shuggie Bain as “an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction.” The novel features the story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain as he navigates his childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie’s father is a philandering taxi driver; his mother, Agnes, keeps up her dignity by maintaining a well-put-together exterior to cover up a turbulent internal struggle fueled by alcohol. Various readers describe the novel as gritty, bleak, depressing, and totally worthy of its Booker Prize. They also warn that the book is written in the dialect of Glasgow, which can make it difficult reading for people unfamiliar with the language.

I had the novel queued up on my Kindle but have decided to put it aside—at least for now—after taking a look at the difficult-to-read language. 

1. I recently read The Long Drop by Scottish writer Denise Mina, also set in Glasgow. This historical novel tells a story of a night of pub-crawling that contributed to the conviction of Peter Manuel, a notorious serial killer who was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1958. The long drop of the novel’s title is a method of hanging that aims to prevent the act from becoming a gruesome spectacle:

The long drop method snaps the neck between the second and third vertebrae. Done properly, death is instantaneous. It is a careful calculation of weight, height and muscle tone.

2. Philip Ashley, the narrator of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, remembers when hanging was purposefully made a gruesome public spectacle, as he tells us at the opening of the novel: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not anymore, though.” The memory of seeing, at age 7, the corpse of a convicted man left hanging as a warning to all about how a life of crime ends, comes up repeatedly throughout the novel as Philip ponders whether Rachel, the widow of Philip’s beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose, had a hand in his death.

3. Daphne du Maurier also wrote The House on the Strand. Written and set in the late 1960s, the novel features Dick Young, who accepts the offer of a vacation at the ancestral home in Cornwall of Magnus Lane, his long-time chum. There’s only one stipulation with the offer: Dick must test an experimental drug that Magnus has been developing. The drug transports Dick back to the fourteenth century, where he observes the daily lives of the people living in the area. It isn’t long before Dick is irresistibly drawn to this alternate life, which he finds much more fascinating than his own.  

4. Micaiah Johnson’s recently published debut novel, The Space Between Worlds, also features a character drawn to experience alternate lives. In a future in which travel is possible between variant versions of the same world in the multiverse, Cara searches for a place she can call home, a place where she feels she belongs.

5. In American literature, the prototype of the protagonist looking for a place to call home is the young misfit in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. His efforts take him on a raft down the Mississippi River before he decides that he’ll “light out for the territories” to get away from all the forces trying to civilize him.

6. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it also features children fleeing an oppressive situation in a canoe headed for the Mississippi River. This 2019 novel has been on my TBR shelf since it came out, and I continue to come across glowing recommendations for it.

So this journey through 6 Degrees of Separation has brought me to a resolution: I’m going to pick up This Tender Land instead of Shuggie Bain as my next read.

Where did your journey take you this month?

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

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

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: What’s in a Title?

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 Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Redhead By the Side of the Road, which Goodreads describes as the story of Micah Mortimer, “a creature of habit” who lives a “meticulously organized life.” I have not read this novel, but I have read several of Tyler’s earlier books. I always think of her as the Queen of Quirky Characters.

1. Among Anne Tyler’s novels that I have read, Back When We Were Grownups (2001) sounds like the one most similar in content to Redhead By the Side of the Road. Grownups begins with the memorable line “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.”

2. Near the end of December I read The Grownup by Gillian Flynn. It’s a very short book that was originally published as a story but was reprinted as a tiny book. I picked it up because I was scurrying to fulfill my Goodreads challenge of the number of books to read in 2020.

3. Flynn’s little book features a palm reader who sees an opportunity to milk some more money out of an apparently rich client. The client insists that her house is haunted and begs the palm reader to come and try to figure out what’s going on there. Another novel I read recently about a haunted house is Home Before Dark by Riley Sager. 

4. Writer Susan Cheever uses the same title, Home Before Dark, for her memoir of life with her famous father, John Cheever.

5. Another writer who wrote a memoir about her father is Mary Gordon, who was only seven years old when her father died. She titled her book The Shadow Man because when, as an adult, she investigated his life, she discovered that his earlier life was vastly different from the man she remembered. 

6. Thinking of Gordon’s memoir has reminded me of a novel on my to-be-reread list, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This compelling novel, set in Barcelona in 1945, tells the story of a mysterious book and its even more mysterious author.

What’s in a title? In this case, the answer to the question is 6 degrees of separation.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: Women Healers

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.

For this first 6 Degrees of 2021, we start with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. This book is next up on my to-read list. I understand from reading about this highly praised novel that it portrays the death of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, at age 11 in the plague of 1596. 

But the book focuses not on the playwright, but on the child’s mother, Agnes, who learns from her mother about the power of plants and about understanding her own premonitions. In other words, Agnes is a witch.

1. Thinking about Agnes’s role immediately brought to mind The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. In this novel for young people an orphaned young woman, Kit Tyler, travels from Barbados to live with a relative in the Connecticut Colony in 1687. Since I grew up in Connecticut near the place where this novel is set, reading it was de rigueur when I was in elementary school. I reread it a few years ago and was pleased to realize that the portrait of Hannah, an ostracized Quaker woman whom young Kit befriends, still fulfills the standard stereotype of a witch.

2. In her nonfiction work Woman as Healer, Jeanne Achterberg examines the role of women in the Western healing traditions, from their honored position as healers in ancient cultures through the persecution of such healers as witches in the Middle Ages and then into more modern roles of women as midwives, then nurses, and now physicians.

3. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States. In 1895 she published her autobiography, Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women.

4. Just a few days ago I discovered a new book scheduled to be published by W.W. Norton later this month: The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice P Nimura. The book focuses on the life work of Elizabeth Blackwell and her younger sister, Emily Blackwell, who also became a physician.

5. At the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, the Blackwell sisters lead efforts to organize women to help care for wounded soldiers. Their efforts met with strong opposition from the United States Sanitary Commission, whose male leaders resented the women’s incursion into the traditionally male-dominated profession of physician. The novel My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira presents the difficulties a young midwife faces as she tries to train as a physician with a male doctor during the war.

6. The novel The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati, set in New York City in 1883, provides a look at how women worked to defend their right to practice and to define their role as physicians during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Anna Savard, a graduate of the Woman’s Medical School, works to protect and care for immigrant and orphaned children on the city streets and in the rudimentary orphanages.

Bonus: The second book in this series, Where the Light Enters, set in 1884, tells the story of Anna’s cousin, Sophie, an obstetrician and the orphaned daughter of free people of color.

I have very much enjoyed this exercise in exploring how women have experienced and redefined their role as healers over the centuries.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation

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 begin with a book that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year – Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. Since this book was published the year I graduated from college, I missed it when I was in its targeted age group (about 12), although I did read it 21 years ago.

1. “Didn’t you just love Rascal when you were a kid?” an acquaintance once asked me. Love it? I had never even heard of it. When I looked it up, I found out why: It was originally published in 1963, when I was already in high school. Since its target age is about 10-12, Rascal by Sterling North is another book I missed because I was already past its target age when it was published.

2. And now it’s confession time: I have never read the almost universally beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Since it was originally published in 1910, I can’t offer the excuse that I was already too old for it when it came out. Perhaps I did read it as a young child, but I have very few memories from my childhood. If I did read The Secret Garden, I have no memory of it.    

3. Memory can be a funny thing. When I was reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my young daughter, I suddenly had the experience of once before seeing the words printed on the page exactly as I was seeing them  at that time. The picture from an earlier reading telescoped in my vision and laid itself perfectly over the page I was reading. It was as if the memory and the current page were two prints developed from the same negative so that they perfectly merged into one. It was a strange experience, one that I’ve never had again in any context.

4. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink is another children’s book that features a family living on the American frontier during the U.S.’s expansion westward. The author based the book on the life and memories of her grandmother.

5. From Caddie Woodlawn we move to Emma Woodhouse, the title character of Jane Austen’s novel Emma. It’s not a children’s book, but it’s memorable to me because of it lilting opening: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . . .”

6. The Book of Ruth is by another author named Jane, Jane Hamilton. It’s Hamilton’s first novel and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for Fiction in 1989.

I hope you have enjoyed this journey from childhood to adult memorable books through 6 Degrees of Separation.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: Life Replete with Questions and Drama

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 is a wild card: We are to start with the book we’ve ended a previous chain with, and continue from there. 

I’ve decided to start with the final book from a 6 Degrees of Separation post I did over the summer: Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart.

1. Another novel with a title ending with a question mark is Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? by G.M. Ford. This is the first book in Ford’s Leo Waterman series set in Seattle. Waterman is a P.I. who often enlists his homeless buddies to gather intel for him. They’re the best sleuths because people mostly just ignore street people.

Side Note: I have a database that contains all the books I’ve read since (and including) 1991. That’s more than 1,750 books, and I was surprised to find that only six titles end with a question mark. I’m sure there’s an interesting story in that fact, but I’ll save it for another time.

2. Whenever I come across homeless people in a novel, I remember how incensed I was with Jan Karon’s portrayal of them in her 1994 novel At Home in Mitford. The homeless people very considerately set up camp in a secluded area far from the center of town and only very occasionally come into town to Dumpster dive for something to eat. The town’s residents therefore don’t have to see them (some residents are even surprised to hear about the existence of the homeless) and acknowledge that life in Mitford is not idyllic for everyone. 

3. Liz Moore’s recent novel Long Bright River offers a more credible picture of society’s impoverished citizens. Set in present-day Philadelphia, the book centers around two sisters, Mickey, a police officer, and Kacey, an addict living on the street. Mickey has had chances for promotion but prefers to keep covering her regular beat so she can keep an eye on her sister as well as the other addicts she has gotten to know. While other police officers have become hardened over the lives and deaths of these people, Mickey always treats them with respect. (This is the best novel I’ve read this year. I highly recommend it.)

4. A different dynamic binds the two sisters in The Better Liar by Tanen Jones. Leslie hasn’t seen her younger sister, Robin, since Robin left home 10 years ago, at age 16. But when the women’s father’s will stipulates that both women must show up, together, at his lawyer’s office to receive their inheritance, Leslie—who really needs the money—goes in search of her sister.

5. Family inheritances can often get messy, as evidenced in Penmarric, Susan Howatch’s intergenerational saga about a family estate on the coast of Cornwall. Widowed grandmothers and mothers, spinster sisters, and illegitimate sons don’t fare well in a system that favors the oldest son. 

6. An old family house in Cornwell also provides the setting for Daphne du Maurier’s novel The House on the Strand. When Dick Young’s friend Magnus lends him the house for the summer, Dick agrees to be a test subject for a new drug Magnus is developing. The drug sends Dick back 300 years, to possibilities he finds more enticing than his present life.

And so have we have traveled from a question mark in the present to questionable possibilities in the past, and from Seattle to Cornwall, with lots of human drama in between.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: Ghosts!

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 The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, an appropriate choice for the Halloween season because it features ghosts.

Or does it? 

The most salient feature of James’s novella is its ambiguity. Are the ghosts the governess sees real, or are they the product of some psychological projection such as fear, prurience, desire, or repressed sexuality? About 10 years after the book’s publication James wrote that he purposely made the story so ambiguous because a shadowy picture of evil allows readers to fill in the picture with the details that frighten them the most.

Because the ghost story is pregnant with possibilities, it has a long literary history.

The American literary ghosts I love most aren’t psychological shadows—they are solid enough to slam doors. But they’re not horror movie monsters either. They’re conflicted beings with messages more complicated than the expected “avenge me” spiel; they want us to think about what it means to be a human in the world.

Amy Shearn

Here are six ghost stories that illustrate the variety of ways authors have chosen to present their ghosts. The final one is English rather than American, but it’s such a giant of the ghost-story canon that I couldn’t leave it out.

1. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James clearly follows the ghost story’s gothic origins in its use of a building where ghosts prowl. When Carly Kirk sets out to explore the disappearance of her aunt while working at the Sun Down Motel 35 years earlier, she comes up against a classic struggle of good vs. evil when two ghosts face off in a confrontation of apocalyptic proportions.

2. Sometimes a ghost gets to narrate its own story, as does Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. After being murdered at age 14, she watches from her own personal version of heaven as the police investigate the crime and as her family and friends adjust to life without her. (This book is nowhere near as ghastly as the short description might make it sound. It’s done with great sensitivity and insight.) 

3. A ghost as narrator also appears, although only sporadically, in Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake. Based on the unsolved murder of a Black woman in the 1960s in Baltimore, Lippman creates a picture of the seething social and racial tensions in the city at that time. The murdered woman is not the central figure in the story, but her ghost appears periodically to help explain the zeitgeist of the era.

4. A ghostly narrator introduces The Better Liar by Tanen Jones with this dramatic statement: “Like most of the dead, I want to be remembered.” Leslie hasn’t seen her younger sister, Robin, since Robin ran away from home 10 years earlier, at age 16. But the women’s father has stipulated in his will that the two women must appear together, in person, at his attorney’s office to receive their inheritance. Leslie, who really needs the money, sets out in search of Robin, whom she finds in a rooming house, dead from a drug overdose. But Leslie really needs that inheritance money . . .

5. C.J. Tudor uses three types of ghosts in The Other People. Driving home through rush-hour traffic one night, Gabe sees his daughter, Izzy, looking out the back window of the car in front of him. She mouths the word “Daddy,” but Gabe loses the car in the traffic. He never sees Izzy again. Gabe quits his job, buys a camper, and spends the next three years driving up and down the same stretch of highway where he last saw his daughter. Haunted by the vision of his missing daughter, Gabe himself haunts the highway and the rest areas along his route. Meanwhile, Fran and her young daughter are on the run along the same highway. Fran’s daughter, Alice, periodically falls into sessions of deep sleep during which she sees a vision of a young girl in a while dress. This is one truly haunted novel, perfect for Halloween season.

6. Sometimes what haunts a story is not some other-worldly presence, but a palpable absence. Such is the case in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, in which a second wife feels compelled to live up to the reputation of her predecessor. 

After many different types of ghosts, we’re back again to a novel chillingly haunted by the ghost of possibility. Perhaps that’s why The Turn of the Screw and Rebecca are two of the best known ghost stories in Western literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation Fiction

6 Degrees of Separation: Women’s Voices

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 begin with Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, published May 19, 2000. According to Goodreads, Sittenfeld’s novel examines this question: “What if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton?”

I have not read this book and am not likely to, because Hillary Rodham Clinton is still alive and well, and more than capable of examining and explicating her own life choices. Whether she does so publicly or privately should be her own choice. I find the whole premise of Rodham presumptuous, distasteful, even offensive. 

However, I appreciate fiction that sets out to give voice to unheard women whose lives have been largely overlooked by the writers of history (most of whom have always been men). Here are six novels that do just that.

1. The first novel I remember reading consciously as the effort to give voice to historically suppressed women is The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. The novel tells the story of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob, who is mentioned only tangentially in the narration about the famous patriarch and his many sons in the Book of Genesis. In telling of Dinah’s interactions with Jacob’s four wives, Diamant imagines what the life of women’s society inside the red tent might have been like during biblical times.

2. Greek and Roman mythology feature many stories of women, both divine and mortal, at the mercy of men. In Circe (2018) Madeline Miller tells the story of one such woman, the daughter of mighty sun god Helios. When Circe turns to the mortal world for companionship, she discovers and perfects her powers of witchcraft while interacting with several mythological mortals, including Homer’s Odysseus. Chosen by Book of the Month subscribers as Book of the Year for 2018 and nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019), the novel is “a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world” (from the dust jacket).

3. In The Silence of the Girls (2018) Pat Barker gives voice to Briseis as a representative of the thousands of women behind the scenes of the ancient war between the Greeks and the Trojans. First taken as a spoil of war by Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, Briseis soon becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon, the Greek leader. Barker “brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations” (Goodreads).

4. In Galileo’s Daughter (2000) Dava Sobel turns to the historical figure of Galileo’s oldest child, Sister Marie Celeste, who was the scientist’s main confidante and supporter through his contentious relationship with the Catholic Church. Sobel has translated Marie Celeste’s remaining letters to her father and used them as a basis for this book, the subtitle of which is “A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love.”

5. In 1903 Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new house for them. During the construction of the house Mamah and Frank fell in love, although each was married, with children. The two plunged into a life together that scandalized Chicago society. But Mamah Cheney remained merely a footnote to the life of the eminent architect until Nancy Horan brought her imaginatively to life in her 2007 novel Loving Frank

6. While kernels of history provided the sources for the previous books, Sena Jeter Naslund found the inspiration for her novel Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer (1999) in an earlier work of fiction. A brief mention in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick lead her to imagine a woman whose own life could stand beside that of the relentless Captain Ahab. Amazon calls this book “an enthralling and compellingly readable saga, spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. At once a family drama, a romantic adventure, and a portrait of a real and loving marriage, Ahab’s Wife gives new perspective on the American experience.”

All these works of historical fiction demonstrate how writers can use their art to give voice to people who have been glossed over by history. I would prefer that novelists use their talents in this vein and leave still-living people to own their own stories.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown