A few days ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I just finished Warm Springs, by Susan Richards Shreve. It’s a memoir about the two years she spent at a recuperation facility for children with polio established in Georgia by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1920s. The waters at this Georgia spot were supposed to have healing qualities, and Shreve (a Washington, DC, writer whom I know) uses the history of FDR’s haven, as she calls it, to vividly evoke the days of polio fear and the president’s relationship to his illness and paralysis.In addition to her work in Slate, Emily Bazelon's writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, Legal Affairs, and other publications. She has worked as a freelance journalist in Israel and as a reporter in California's Bay Area. She graduated from Yale Law School and worked as a law clerk for Judge Kermit Lipez of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
The history is useful and well done, but Shreve is sharpest and most affecting when she turns her analytical skills on herself. In particular, she deftly unwinds her feelings about her mother. Their relationship was a close one. And yet Shreve’s mother left her daughter at Warm Springs on her own for the better part of two years, when she was between the ages of 11 and 13. Even after Shreve had major surgery, her mother came for only a few days. As Shreve remembers it, she put up a brave front throughout, telling her mother that she was perfectly happy staying at Warm Springs by herself for Thanksgiving, for example. Yet as an adult, Shreve probes her mother’s choices and her own apparent nonchalance. And she shows herself acting out in a variety of ways as she casted about for close connections. In the end her efforts cause disaster, when her friendship with a boy called Joey Buckley ends in a wheelchair race in which Joey breaks both his legs. Shreve loses her place at Warm Springs and gains a ticket home. And we gain this sharp account of a childhood broken, interrupted, and yet also bravely restored.
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the work of a novelist who is confident in her craft, the sort of confidence that often takes years of writing books and accumulating wisdom to acquire. In fact, it’s a first novel by a 30-something writer, Olga Grushin (another D.C. writer whom I’ve met). Grushin emigrated from Russia to the United States for college and has been here ever since. But for this book she reached back to her homeland the effect of the glasnost of her youth. Her protagonist, Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov, was once a rebel artist but traded his promise for the life of a career apparatchik. Now the regime is crumbling and he has to face up to the limitations and damage of his own choices. Grushin jumps back and forth from past to present, marking most of the transitions with a shift from the first to third person that could be a gimmick but is instead fluid and moving. She is especially good at rendering Sukhanov’s relationship with his wife. I found the book mesmerizing — the best novel I read this year — and it’s given me a new prism through which to view all things Russian.
After I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty last year, I picked up E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, to which Smith pays tribute. And that got me started on a Forster tour that just ended with Maurice, his book about homosexual love. Published in 1971, nearly 60 years after it was written, the novel is poignant and wistful, and yet Foster never loses his mordant sensibility. He’s a master, and while I sort of can’t believe I didn’t discover him a long time ago, it’s a great pleasure to be immersed in the complete works now.