Two phrasemakers and longtime married partners had to relearn a shared, intimate conversation post-stroke as Ackerman narrates in her touching latest work. Paul West, Ackerman's 75-year-old British husband (she is 18 years younger), was a retired English professor and the author of 50-plus books, survivor of diabetes and a pacemaker, when he was struck by a massive stroke that left "a small wasteland" in his brain, especially in the key language areas. For literary minds like West and Ackerman, his inability to formulate language (reduced to repeating numbly the sounds "mem, mem, mem" in anger and confusion) was a shock to them both: "o be so godlike, and yet so fragile," his wife writes in despair. Her memoir of this terrible time, first in the hospital, then at home, records the small victories in his speech making and numerous frustrating setbacks; she even took it upon herself to make up humorous but challenging exercises for him to do, Mad Libs–style. Contrary to the bleak prognosis, West gradually made progress, while their journey makes for goofy, pun-happy reading, a little like overhearing lovers coo to each other. (Apr.)
“Starred Review. Writing with her signature empathy, curiosity, brilliance, and mirth, Ackerman chronicles West’s heroic battle to reclaim words and mobility and her tailoring of West’s speech therapy to match his spectacular vocabulary and unique intelligence. A master of vivid metaphors and multifaceted narratives.... A gorgeously engrossing, affecting, sweetly funny, and mind-opening love story of crisis, determination, creativity, and repair.”
“An intimate, richly documented, and beautiful memoir …. [A] double portrait of two remarkable people.”
“Combine the brilliant sensibility of a poet and essayist with the compelling articulation of her mindful wisdom, and intense devotion, and voilayou have the powerful journey into the many ways love can inspire healing after profound brain damage. This gem of a book will captivate the many of us who have a relative or friend stricken by strokeand will be of practical help to doctors and scientists as well as concerned family members. One Hundred Names for Love reminds us that healing is possible and that lives can be rebuilt from the inside out.”
“Ackerman's best writing and best book to date.”
Since Ackerman is a master of both poetry and the scientific essay, she would seem well suited to telling this story. More urgently, she's an integral part of it. After suffering a severe stroke, her smart, literate husband, Paul West, could utter only the syllable mem. Traditional therapy didn't help. What did help was Ackerman's determination, as she applied her knowledge of the brain, appreciation of language, and intimate understanding of her husband to the task of healing him; together, they hammered out the path that led West back to words. A book about love and caring and the magic of communication; perfect for book clubs.
From prolific poet and essayist Ackerman (Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day, 2009, etc.), a sensitive memoir about how her relationship with her husband, novelist Paul West, evolved in the aftermath of his stroke.
In one tragic moment, the author watched her husband go from a man with perhaps "one of the largest working vocabularies on earth" to one who could only utter one syllable: "mem." With most of the language centers in West's brain crippled, the prognosis for improvement was grim. Undaunted, Ackerman sought standard language-relearning therapies for her husband, which met with frustratingly limited success. Then she tried more unconventional approaches that encouraged West to express himself through circumlocution and creative wordplay. The author understood that her husband needed to be "cajoled, tempted, led out, absorbed in chatting about everyday things, and surrounded by people who talked slowly to him but normally to one another." As West regained greater linguistic fluency, Ackerman encouraged him to dictate his stroke experiences to her. This project—which was later published in 2008 asThe Shadow Factory—offered her husband a way to link the person he had become with the person he had been. It also allowed a glimpse into the extraordinary inner world West had developed as a result of his illness. Soon after the stroke, he claimed to hear three distinct "voices" belonging to, respectively, a BBC announcer, a "tongue-tied aphasic" and a "language-loving scribe with American turns of phrase." Though initially doomed by doctors to a vegetative existence, West eventually recovered enough to resume his writing and lead a limited, though relatively normal life.
Ackerman's book is important for the guidance and hope it offers to stroke victims and their families, and it's also a satisfying, tender and humane celebration of love between two literary elites.
As in her previous work…Ackerman weds exquisite writing with profound insights, this time into speech and imagination…I will confess I was deeply affected by One Hundred Names for Love. Ackerman and West's is an extraordinary love story, and that a devastating stroke intervened has made it only more moving. Since we are all mortal, none of us will experience love without also experiencing loss. This book has done what no other has for me in recent years: it has renewed my faith in the redemptive power of love, the need to give and get it unstintingly, to hold nothing back, settle for nothing less, because when flesh and being and even life fall away, love endures. This book is proof.
The New York Times
At once sobering and encouraging, it's a tale of perseverance and accommodation, and an ode to playfulness and the brain's plasticity.
The Washington Post