There is only one protagonist in Ellen Meister's new novel, The Other Life, but there are two plots. Quinn Braverman is a pregnant suburban mother of a 6-year-old boy, and wife of a down-to-earth guy who owns a fleet of taxis. Quinn is also the single girlfriend of a needy shock jock who lives in a high-rise apartment in Manhattan. Growing up, she was aware that every time she made a major life decision, another life existed in which she made the opposite choice — and that there are portals between the two lives. But she doesn't slip through until something causes enough stress in her life for her to want to see what's on the other side.
Can science tell us right from wrong? Author Sam Harris argues that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. The foundation of our morality, he says, is in our conscious minds as sentient creatures, which are dependent upon the laws of nature. "The variables that can affect our states of being in this world fall, potentially, into the various bins of science — from genetics to neurobiology to psychology to sociology to economics," he tells Ira Flatow. "The truths here are not infinitely elastic. We have to discover the rudiments that allow people to trust one another in a thriving civil society, and the causes for those very obvious failures."
William Alexander can be compared to a crusader, a man on a quest for the holy grain. The acclaimed author of The $64 Tomato decided that for one year he would bake a loaf of bread a week. Not just any bread, and no croissant or dinner rolls, Alexander wanted to perfect a peasant bread he once tasted. In the course of his odyssey, he grows and grinds his own wheat, wins second place in a New York State Fair bread contest, and revises the art of bread making in a 1,300-year-old monastery in Normandy. The results and recipes are in his new book about the experience, 52 Loaves.
There are many straightforward biographies of Charles Dickens, but best-selling novelist Jane Smiley offers something a little different: a thoughtful analysis of the Victorian author whom she describes as "the first true celebrity in the modern sense." Presenting Dickens as his contemporaries would have known him — primarily through his works — she reveals how he crafted his public persona as well as his novels. Smiley also focuses on how Dickens handled the envy of other authors and the very public disintegration of his marriage — life events that, along with his essential Englishness and worldwide literary status, he shares with Shakespeare.
Writer Susan Cheever returns to the territory of American Bloomsbury, her biography of the circle of 19th century intellectuals that included Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne, this time focusing on author Louisa May Alcott, the daughter of a friend to the transcendentalists. While Cheever covers similar territory to other Alcott biographies with enthusiasm and keen perception, she includes digressions — which some critics have found self-indulgent — on how genius evolves and reflects on her own pubescent identification with Alcott's most famous literary creation, Jo March.
Charlotte Abbott edits "New in Paperback." A contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, she also leads a weekly chat on books and reading in the digital age every Friday from 4-5 p.m. ET on Twitter. Follow her at @charabbott or check out the #followreader hashtag.