Mead begins this hard-to-categorize book with a description of herself as a bookish 17-year-old reading a great novel for the first time in preparation for entrance exams to Oxford: “I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it.” George Eliot’s wisdom spoke to her, as did various characters when she reread the novel over the years. Here, she tells the story of the novel, the story of Eliot as it shaped the novel, and her own story as the novel shaped her. If you haven’t read Middlemarch, Mead’s incisive discussion of it will make you want to. Her carefully researched biography of Eliot shows an author rebelling against Christianity who wrote a novel with powerful Christian themes.
In this memoir Ringer, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, describes the ballet life, favorite dances, and her struggles with an eating disorder that almost ended her dancing career. Her rekindled faith in Christ helped her develop an identity outside of dance and eventually drew her back to ballet. The book culminates with what she calls “sugar plumgate.” On opening night of The Nutcracker in 2010, when Ringer danced the Sugar Plum Fairy role, a New York Times reviewer said she “looked as though she’d eaten one sugar plum too many.” The resulting controversy gave Ringer a platform on the Today show and Oprah to use her own struggles with perfectionism and body image to help young women going through the same thing.
A move to Paris by Mah and her diplomat husband Calvin was the fulfillment of a dream. They’d been there only a short time when her husband headed to Baghdad for a year, leaving her behind in France. She spent that time traveling to 10 regions of France and immersing herself in each region’s signature dish: in Troyes, andouillette; in Brittany, crepes; in Toulouse, cassoulet; and in Burgundy, boeuf bourguignon. She takes us into kitchens and butcher shops, weaving in information about each region’s history and culture. She tracks down experts and takes readers with her as she talks, tastes, and cooks. Meanwhile, as Mah explores food and a foreign culture, she learns lessons about the kind of life she wants to live.
A homosexual supporter of legalized abortion, Solomon is an unlikely person to capture the stories of women who bore children conceived in rape—and went on to become pro-life. But he did that as part of his book about families raising extraordinary children—those conceived in rape, those born with Down syndrome, the deaf, the mentally ill, even young criminals. He draws from parents and kids compelling details. (Note: some objectionable language.) When interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program, Solomon had to defend his willingness to tell the stories of mothers who were raped and yet said their children were great blessings. Readers may disagree with Solomon’s analysis while appreciating the detailed stories he records.
Jo Baker professes to love Pride and Prejudice, crediting that affection with inspiring her to write Longbourn (Knopf, 2013), a novel focused on the servants who work at the Bennet estate. The familiar characters are extras in this novel, portrayed only as they leave rooms, exit coaches, and act dismissively toward those who serve them. The novel’s action takes place in kitchens, over washtubs, and on the fringes of parties, providing a bathroom-level view of life in early 19th-century Britain. The actual plot has little to do with Pride and Prejudice, which provides only background moments for a story that lacks Austen’s wit and worldview. Particularly disturbing is the way Baker turns Mr. Bennet into a man who fathered a son with the housekeeper, and Mrs. Bennet into a woman with an addiction to laudanum. —S.O.