MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH by Rebecca Mead.

New York: Crown Publishers. 2014. Hardcover $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-307-98476-0.

This book is on our “new” shelf in the library, purchased by my predecessor (who, I might add, has great taste in books).

George Eliot and her work have fascinated me for years. I’m not as familiar with her work as I am of many other classic authors, although my grandmother gave me a collection of her work published in Boston by Estes and Laurant in 1887. I’m the most familiar with THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, which was part of a large, complex literature paper I wrote in high school called “Lost Girls.”

MIDDLEMARCH was an influential book for Rebecca Mead, something she read and re-read at different stages in her life. Her revisitation of the text and her pursuit of what was behind the text is an absorbing book that gives us insight not just into Marian Evans (aka George Eliot) and her unconventional (at the time) but deeply satisfying relationship with George Lewes, but on why the book continues to resonate today.

Ms. Mead goes beyond some of the rather sniffy biographies of Eliot, questioning the intents and agendas of those who’ve written about Eliot and her family, friends, lovers. That’s part of what makes this book so satisfying — there are elements of both literary detection and psychological exploration on the wider social context, rather than simply accepting what someone else wrote as “truth”. It may have been that individual’s truth, but that’s different than “the” truth about an issue. She draws on biographies, letters, diaries — and her own experience of visiting important places in Eliot’s life and work.

Her personal experience of reading and re-reading the book and wanting more speaks to those of us who connect to books and are fascinated at the way life infuses work and work infuses life. Every writer has a different formula, and sometimes that formula is different from book to book. But when a book resonates, a reader wants to find those connections, and intimately experience what the author felt when writing the book. Some of that will always remain conjecture — even actors cannot fully “be” another individual, although they can inhabit that persona and communicate it.

At the beginning of spring, I decided that I was going to read my way through my grandmother’s editions of George Eliot, to get a new perspective on the works as an adult, and to gain a deeper understanding. I read several biographies of the woman, and got interested in some of her correspondence with one of my personal heroines and inspirations, Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book came along at the right time for me, because it reaffirms my desire to read and/or re-read all of Eliot’s work, and to continue playing with the idea that began germinating about a piece (most likely a play) having to do with Eliot, Stowe, and Charlotte Bronte.

Mead’s journey with MIDDLEMARCH not only illuminated the book (and Eliot) for me, but furthers my inspiration to continue working on a piece connected to Eliot. Which further demonstrates how Eliot’s work continues to resonate, and why she remains of value as both woman and writer.

You can find this book at Marstons Mills Public Library, in Marstons Mills, MA, or order it through the CLAMS network or Interlibrary Loan System. Or, of course, you can buy a copy. I initially checked it out as part of getting to know the library’s collection, but I’m definitely investing in my own copy.

First and Last Books of the Year
by Devon Ellington

I always make a big deal about the first and last book of every year. I started doing this in my teens — I’m not really sure why. Choosing whatever book I wanted as the last book of a year, and choosing the first book to read in a new year feels meaningful to me.

Often, I will note on the flyleaf, where I write my name and the year I bought/read the book, if it is “the” book for December 31 or January 1.

The year I lived in Seattle, where I was so unhappy, I chose the “last” book of the year that still has significance in my life: Gail Fairfield’s CHOICE CENTERED TAROT. It’s one of the best tarot books out there (along with Janina Renee’s EVERY DAY TAROT and Rachel Pollock’s books on the Major and Minor Arcanas). That book not only had significance in the way I ended/started my year, but in the direction my life would take from that unhappiness.

I was wandering around Pike Place Market on New Year’s Eve, trying to talk myself out of being entirely miserable and hopeless. I don’t remember the name of the store in which I found it, but I remember seeing the title and the cover and feeling the significance: I wanted more choices. That particular book was a catalyst for me.

Both the last book of 2013 and the first book of 2014 were fiction, and both were gifts from a friend. The last book I read in 2013 was Val McDermid’s CROSS AND BURN, a breath-taking crime novel that doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook easily. My first book of 2014 was Robert Galbraith’s THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, another crime novel, and another one I enjoyed very much. (Of course, we now know that Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for JK Rowling, giving her the freedom to try something new — it worked).

My second-to-last novel was Kim Edwards’s THE LAKE OF DREAMS — very different from the above, and quite lovely. She’s best-known for THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, which I have not yet read, but now intend so to do. She doesn’t follow formula; she follows the growth of her characters. It was interesting to read this, as a writer, and see how being a literary fiction writer instead of a genre writer gave her a freedom with the organic character development she would not have otherwise had. Her protagonist, in particular, would have been forced into different choices by the genre if she’d been limited by genre. It showed the best of the freedom of the possibilities of literary fiction, without any of the pretensions.

I also started reading, on the first of January, ADAM BEDE, by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). A Victorian novelist who broke convention by living with her lover, this book is set in the late 1700s. I’d decided that I wanted to re-read Eliot over the winter, and catch up on the novels of hers I hadn’t previously read — I’ve only read THE MILL ON THE FLOSS and MIDDLEMARCH. So I read a biography of Eliot, and now I’m starting to read her novels in the order written. I’m fortunate because my grandmother gave me a complete set of Eliot novels published in 1887. I am turning the pages carefully, reading them slowly, savoring them.

A few paragraphs in the Eliot novel set me on a research course for what I think will be a new play. It’s amazing how the smallest anecdote can set off a spark of creativity.

First and last — significant, tone-setters for the year, even if we don’t see the patterns for awhile.

What was your final book of 2013? What will be your first book of 2014?