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One Hundred Names for Love
Diane Ackerman

Hardcover: 322 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 4, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 9780393072419
ISBN-13: 978-0393072419
ASIN: 039307241X

Paul West and Diane Ackerman

Paul West and Diane Ackerman

The Internet Stroke Center notes that 795,000 people suffer a stroke every year. Of these, roughly 600,000 are first attacks, and 185,000 are recurrent attacks. In 2003, novelist Paul West became one of the 185,000. His second stroke, it devastated the major language centers of his brain. In an instant, the comprehensive vocabulary of one of the world’s foremost prose stylists was reduced to one syllable, a halting, “Mem … mem … mem.”

In her new memoir, One Hundred Names for Love, Diane Ackerman, Paul’s wife, recounts their quest to not only heal, but to reclaim the intimate, witty, loving chirp that had for years animated their life together. A renowned naturalist, poet, and memoirist in her own right, Ackerman does so in a manner at turns fluently devastating, stiffened with clinical spunk, and painlessly informative.

Having once been a student of Paul’s, I think I’m too close to the subject matter to offer an unbiased review. So, instead, I offer the following response.

***

I got the news almost as an aside. An old colleague, with whom I was catching up in a long-overdue phone call, asked if I’d heard about Paul. I hadn’t. “He’s not doing well,” my colleague explained. “He had another stroke and is fully functional for only a few hours a day.” Aware of Paul’s long struggles with illness, the news did not take me by surprise. But it was nonetheless disheartening.

My mind couldn’t form an image of Paul West made frail by stroke. After all, Paul was the thunderously indulgent master of my fiction and comparative literature seminars at Penn State, a man whose effulgent yet casually dressed genius cowed a comparative pea-brain like me into an attitude of short-circuited silence, one he later generously described in his memoir, Master Class, as “inspissated with thought” (look it up). Had he only known (and perhaps he did indeed suspect) how hard I was grinding my brain just to keep pace with the acrobatic bob and weave of smarty pants discourse flying around his seminar table.

I could easily, however, conjure an image of my father, who one day found himself lost before the morning mirror, razor in hand and no idea what to do with it. As with Paul, my father’s stroke was but one more measure in his fugue of cardiovascular disease and organ failure. Consequently, though his stroke was of the so-called mini variety, a “TIA,” he never quite fully recovered and in a few short years he was gone.

So educated by my father’s experience, I formed a grim prognosis for Paul. I blanched at the thought of writing him, reluctant to gum up his small daily window of clarity with a note from an old student, another bearer of sentiments I feared he would by now find annoyingly worn. Today, I wince with embarrassment admitting this—now that I understand the way in which many of Paul’s friends drifted away, unable to bear the presence of an old friend so transformed, a presence, perhaps, that served as a reminder of their own frailty.

About a year later, I was amazed (and cheered) to discover Paul had published another book, The Shadow Factory. The Shadow Factory, it turned out, was Paul’s memoir of his stroke and its aftermath. How the hell did he do it? I wondered. Now, having read Ackerman’s harrowing, touching account, I know.

One Hundred Names for Love is, to say the least, emotionally powerful. And despite the grim subject matter, it is ultimately inspiring, redemptive, and even instructive. Surprisingly, you’ll encounter passages over which you can’t help but laugh out loud. Lovers of prose might also find themselves moved to read certain passages aloud, the better to revel in Ackerman’s lyric. As usual, Ackerman’s narrative is voluptuous, with occasional forays into the matter-of-fact. And it puts you on intimate terms with the full palate of emotions. Those with a pulse will need a ready supply of tissues. The words “loved one” and “sweetheart” reappear throughout, which reminded me that a society that insists on humping around on crutches as ugly as “significant other” has nothing left but an unremarked topple into the ditch. From One Hundred Names for Love:

Feeling lost in every sense, in all my senses, I continued to pour my efforts into supporting and encouraging Paul. Even if he couldn’t grasp what I was saying, he could watch my face express love, sympathy, and comfort, hear my tone of voice and inflections—-all the more important now—-and sense how I felt. Hugs delivered voiceless words. We could still communicate through the ancient system of mirror neurons, the marvelous brain cells that allow us to watch—-or even hear or read about!—-what someone else is doing, and feel as if we’re doing it ourselves. Located in the front of the brain, they helped our ancestors imitate language, skills, tool use, and society’s subtle pantomimes. An author’s ally, they’re why art stirs us, why we’re able to outwit rivals or feel compassion, why we can watch the Winter Olympics and half undergo the strain and thrill of the athletes, why, if I write “I ran through heavy rain,” you can picture the scene in your mind’s eye and feel your legs in motion, the slippery street underfoot, rain pelting your head and shoulders. All that is possible through words, but much is still knowable without them, through facial expressions, body language, gestures, and affection. What an eerie thought after a lifetime of words.

Certainly, if anyone close to you suffers a stroke, you’ll be better armed to deal with it for having read this book. Practical as it is lyrical, One Hundred Names for Love provides important insights on coping when a loved one has suffered a stroke. It also reminds you how important it is to keep working your brain in new and changing ways: build as many different wirings and connections as possible—the work just might be a life saver if you ever find yourself wounded in this way. I recommend reading Ackerman’s One Hundred Names for Love and West’s The Shadow Factory in succession, as each forms a compelling counterpart to the other.

The video trailer for One Hundred Names for Love:

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