This month has a lovely pas de deux of ballerina memoirs, and if you’re anything like me, the books will have you scrolling through YouTube pages for famous ballet sequences to really get a feel for what these dancers are writing about. My personal experience with ballet ended around age six when running around with a tutu on my head and pretending to be a lion stopped being cute. But I have always had a deep respect for the men and women in the ballet profession, bodies stretched to the breaking point, half their day spent surrounded by mirrors. I am better suited to a job where the most difficult physical requirement is grabbing that book from the top shelf.
Copeland, Misty. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. Touchstone. Mar. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781476737980. $24.99. ebk. ISBN 9781476738000. MEMOIR
The ballet world, replete with “Balanchine” bodies—tall, thin, and white—may not seem like a place for a dancer who is five-foot, two-inches, curvy (by ballet standards), and black. But Copeland, despite her late start to ballet at age 13, became the third African American soloist in the history of the American Ballet Theater. Her memoir describes her childhood flitting around to the houses of her mother’s different boyfriends until the coach on her drill team encourages her to try a ballet class at the local Boys and Girls Club. It is here that her ballet teacher, Cindy, discovers her unique talent, eventually battling for custody of Copeland so she can coach her more closely, and realize her full potential as a dancer. She is a prodigy and does not let the reader forget that: putting on her first pair of pointe shoes in two months and dancing professionally in a little over a year. VERDICT Instead of rags to riches, Copeland goes from baggy shorts to leotards as she navigates the whitewashed world of ballet.
Millburn, Joshua Fields & Ryan Nicodemus. Everything that Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists. Asymmetrical. 2014. 232p. ISBN 9781938793189. pap. $16.99. MEMOIR
Joshua Fields Milburn, one half of the duo behind theminimalists.com, documented his journey into this alternative lifestyle, with surprisingly amusing endnotes written by his best friend and fellow minimalist Ryan Nicodemus peppered throughout. After the death of his mother and the dissolution of his marriage, Milburn starts eschewing material objects in pursuit of something deeper and more substantial. He gets rid of all but his most necessary possessions, leaves his six-figure corporate job in favor of writing full time, and eventually moves to Montana. These dramatic life changes inspire Nicodemus to do something similar. He packs up every single thing he owns into boxes and covers large items with a sheet. Slowly, he unpacks only the things he uses over the next 21 days. At the end, he either donates or throws away anything that is still packed. VERDICT Milburn and Nicodemus are antihoarders, and will inspire readers to take stock of their earthly possessions and question what is truly necessary to live a good life.
Peppe, Helen. Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir. Da Capo. Feb. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9780306822728. $22.99. ebk. ISBN 9780306822735. MEMOIR
Peppe’s narrative is an unsentimental depiction of her life growing up as the youngest of nine children on a Maine farm. Frequently found on the outskirts of her siblings’ inner circle of mischief, she assumes the role of watchdog, warning her siblings when their clandestine cigarette smoking, drinking, or sex in the hayloft is about to be discovered. Meanwhile, to her parents’ dismay, she becomes a vegetarian as she cannot adjust to an environment where animals are raised to be slaughtered for sustenance without batting an eye. VERDICT For fans of Jeannette Walls, this is the story of a family on a farm struggling to stay together as they constantly teeter on the edge of poverty.
Ringer, Jenifer. Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet. Viking. Feb. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780670026494. $26.95. ebk. ISBN 9780698151505. MEMOIR
For Ringer, success seemed to come easily. At age 12, she enrolled in the prestigious Washington School of Ballet and, following that, the elite School of American Ballet in New York City. By age 18, she was dancing professionally and living in her own apartment. But just as everything started to fall into place, the pressures from working in a profession that relies so heavily on the way a dancer looks began to chip away at her. When a reviewer for the New York Times is critical of Ringer’s size in a review of The Nutcracker, her disordered eating habits become more severe, eventually getting her fired from the company. It is at this point that Ringer calls on her faith in God to bring her back to center and wade through the self-doubt that often envelops her. VERDICT Ringer’s candid description of the compulsive eating disorder that almost made her give up ballet is not only one of perseverance but also of faith: she relies on her trust in God’s plan to see her through.
Williams, Kayla. Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War. Norton. Feb. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9780393239362; ebk. ISBN 9780393242928. MEMOIR
Williams, whose previous memoir is Love My Rifle More Than You, is a combat veteran who served in Iraq along with her husband, Brian. This follow-up belongs to the both of them as it describes their reentry into civilian life. After their return, they did not receive proper support from either the Army or Veteran Affairs as they struggled to deal with both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the effects of a traumatic brain injury Brian sustained while on active duty in Iraq. Even after Brian points a gun at her, she stays true to the soldier’s creed, considers him a fallen comrade, and will not leave him. Adding insult to injury is her experience as a female veteran, frequently passed over in the eyes of civilians as they assume women are not in combat. An appendix is included with a list of resources for service members, veterans, and wounded warriors. Williams’s story will enlighten civilians about the inadequacy of health care offered to those who have served. VERDICT Essential reading for all veterans struggling with PTSD or brain injuries who feel like there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel. [See Prepub Alert, 9/1/13.]
Laks, Ellie & Nomi Isak. My Gentle Barn: Creating a Sanctuary Where Animals Heal and Children Learn To Hope. Harmony. Mar. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780385347662. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780385347679. MEMOIR
At the heart of a good memoir is personality. Laks’s warmth and passion radiate from this account of her life in animal rescue. Attuned to animals from a young age, she grew to fulfill her dream of creating a sanctuary for abused animals that also helps at-risk youth. Her thoughts and feelings draw you in and make you want to find out what happens next both in Ellie’s and the animals’ lives. The softhearted can feel safe in reading it, as the book features happy endings of rescue and rehabilitation. The larger message about persevering to follow one’s dream, and the fulfillment of a life of service, is inspiring. Additionally, the author’s achievements after troubled early years provide a satisfying arc to her story. Laks brings a light touch to advocacy, even avoiding discussion of factory farming, where the vast majority of animal suffering occurs. It seems she believes that by opening our hearts to individual animals in her gentle barn, she will inspire us to carry our compassion beyond its walls. VERDICT Memoir fans and animal lovers will find this title to be a page-turner.—Leslie Patterson, Chicago P.L.