On a first lady’s other love; what dogs, and dying, teach us
ELEANOR AND HICK: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady
By Susan Quinn
Penguin Press, 416 pp., $30
As one former first lady attempts to return to the White House as president, it’s an interesting time to contemplate the life and work of our longest-serving, most consequential (and certainly most written-about) first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt herself wrote three memoirs, six other books, and a quarter-century’s worth of nearly daily newspaper columns; books about her and her husband are nearly too many to count. In “Eleanor and Hick,” Susan Quinn focuses on Eleanor’s relationship with Lorena Hickok, a former reporter who for years lived part-time in the White House, traveled with Roosevelt, and exchanged with her thousands of ardent letters that have left historians divided about the exact nature of their intimacy. Quinn wisely avoids trying to convince anyone of what Roosevelt and Hick did together in bed; the book never denies sex or sexuality, but its aim is to reveal the full lives of “two women who loved each other intensely and deeply.”
Hick fell for Roosevelt during the 1932 presidential campaign, lobbying her boss to assign her to cover the reserved, independent future first lady. “THE DAME HAS ENORMOUS DIGNITY,” she wired her boss, “SHE’S A PERSON.” Hick felt bad for Roosevelt’s predicament — she dreaded losing her privacy to the political role she was forced into — and the sympathy that made her an excellent reporter now allowed Eleanor to come to trust her. Hick resigned her Associated Press post to work for FDR’s administration, where she traveled the country, chronicling the devastation wrought by the Great Depression. Eleanor joined her on the road or in her relatively private Greenwich Village apartment, where their social circle was mostly women, most happily coupled. Quinn writes about both women with great sensitivity, from the childhood wounds they both bore to their influence on one another as writers and social activists. Meticulously researched, engagingly written, and emotionally resonant, this is a welcome addition to the Roosevelt book shelf.
BEING A DOG: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell
By Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner, 336 pp., $27
Just why did Alexandra Horowitz, a professor and reasonably sane adult human, find herself kneeling on a New York city sidewalk, sniffing the low metal fence around a tree for signs of dog urine? She was trying to understand the world the way dogs do, through their sense of smell, which is both stronger than ours and much more integral to the way they move through the world. As the head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, it’s Horowitz’s job to explore the canine mind — but try explaining that to her disapproving fellow homo sapiens, who “took a wide berth” around her. Luckily for Horowitz and her readers, a willingness to look slightly ridiculous is a great asset for both those who own dogs and those who write about them.
In this welcome addition to her 2009 bestseller “Inside of a Dog,” Horowitz here narrows in on the most important of a dog’s senses — which just happens to be the one we value the least. “Smell,” she writes, “is reliably the sense that people suggest they would be most willing to lose.” Many scientists believe we physically evolved away from scent and toward sight, Horowitz adds. Of course, without a sense of smell dogs would be lost — their ways of communicating with others and ability to navigate the world would be cruelly diminished. After immersing herself in the world of olfactory research, Horowitz wonders whether we ought to try harder to reclaim some of our lost sensory skills. “The great pleasure in having spent the last years thinking about smelling is that my world has changed color,” she writes. Becoming more doglike, not surprisingly, can make anyone’s life a little more vivid.
By Kerry Egan
Riverhead, 224 pp., $24
What can we learn about life from being close to death? “I don’t know if listening to other people’s life stories as they die can make you wise,” Kerry Egan writes, “but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.” Egan, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who lives in South Carolina, works as a hospice chaplain, supporting the spirits of those who are dying. In this book, she compassionately describes and distills what she has learned in their service.
Egan prays with patients who wish to, but most of the work she describes has less to do with organized religion than with individual life stories. “The meaning of our lives cannot be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues,” Egan writes. “If God is love, and I believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love.” Most dying people want to talk about their families, she finds, because “[t]he first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.”