Three of the five memoirs up for a National Book Critics Circle award are by Jewish women, who somehow leave out the juiciest introspection
Ackerman worries that with aphasia, he can no longer verbally play with her, building ornate castles “in the sandbox of language.” This is a huge loss for the best-selling author of An Alchemy of the Mind and A Natural History of the Senses. (Her last hit was The Zookeeper’s Wife, the World War II story of Jan Zabinski, the director of the Warsaw Zoo, and his wife, Antonia, who sheltered and saved 300 Jews, as well as Polish resisters.)
Amid details of West’s difficult recovery, Ackerman weaves in the history of their strong marriage. “We had fallen in love at Penn State, in the early 1970’s, when I was a flower-child undergraduate and he was a professor with yards of education, wavy brown hair, and a classy English accent. Somehow, though just a sophomore, I’d signed up for his graduate Contemporary British Literature course. … On our first real date, we had drinks at his house, talking nonstop until dawn—and I stayed for forty years.”
Becoming West’s caretaker, these two “word-besotted creatures” fight to fix his ravaged brain and restore his linguistic agility. “Once upon a time in the Land of Before, Paul had so many pet names for me I was a one-woman zoo. Now it was as if a mass extinction had taken place, all the totemic animals we shared had vanished,” she laments. With intensive therapy, Ackerman teaches him again the names he called her, beginning with “swan.” She lists them at the end (Celandine Hunter, Swallow Haven, Spy Elf of the Morning Hallelujahs) and eventually helps West write and publish his own account of his stroke.
Ackerman’s memoir is a polished gem, engaging, earnest, flowing with a mix of memory, medical adventure, and science. It’s not as twisted or brooding as Bartók’s, though Ackerman is the first to admit of herself and West that “When it came to literary style, we both preferred the opulent to the sparse.” Without sugar-coating the unfairness of her husband’s fate, she offers a buoyant testament to the power of words, language, and love. Yet she says surprisingly little about her childhood, her religion, her personal regrets or failures. Of her childlessness she says only, “I sometimes teased that we stayed together for the sake of the children—each was the other’s child.” Ultimately Ackerman chooses her husband’s physical weaknesses and triumphs over laying bare her own psyche.
Deb Olin Unferth’s account of the brainy boy whose bones she wanted to jump during their globe-trotting yearlong affair is more sly and cynical than the other two memoirs. Neglected by her middle-class Reform Jewish parents, who were moving from Chicago to Arizona in 1987, the lonely 17-year-old rebels by falling for George at a protest rally. She gloms onto this Christian “genius,” a philosophy major writing his thesis on liberation theology. Unferth accompanies George to Guatemala, Panama, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, looking for a revolution. Or passion. Or home. Turns out she’s an inept and spacey activist and a lousy judge of men. George proposes, but they’re off and on. Then it’s over.
Unferth, author of the acclaimed story collection Minor Robberies and the novel Vacation, parodies her younger self’s idealism in wise, funny, self-deprecating passages: “I took my dress off and walked around in my underwear. … No one seemed particularly interested, not even George, who was dehydrated … and had diarrhea. My coming-of-age-story … didn’t involve a loss of innocence or man’s inhumanity to man. It was me taking my clothes off and marching in a circle. … Somehow I knew—nothing specific, I just knew—I wasn’t who I would be. More of me was coming.”
Decades later, trying to research this book and locate George in Brazil or Mexico, Unferth hires a private eye. She learns he’s a computer programmer in Pennsylvania. Instead of mourning a loved one, or attending to their rehabilitation, at the end Unferth seems alone, holding only the death of her idealism. It’s brave to admit George liked her better with her underwear on, thus they never really consummated their connection. Yet, later, contemplating George’s proposal and flashing forward through the 24 years since they split, she adds this zinger: “It was my one and only marriage proposal, unless you count the four others, which I don’t.” Why not? On page 192 (of 208 pages) she throws in this explosive, almost-haiku: “The fourth one I married. Civil war. Nine months later I was back living my normal life alone.” End of chapter.
As Phillip Lopate says, the problem with confessional writing in this country is that authors don’t confess enough. Let’s hope these three fascinating female voices that do their tribe proud are just saving the juicy stories for their next installment.
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