Web edition: May 6, 2011
Print edition: May 21, 2011; Vol.179 #11 (p. 30)
In this personal account of a stroke’s devastation on the brain, a nature writer chronicles her husband’s battle to recover his lost words.
One day, a clot lodged in the brain of Paul West, a professor, poet and novelist. The stroke left West, a man with a biting wit and a deep intellect, able to mutter only one syllable over and over: “Mem, mem, mem.”
Ackerman carries readers along as her husband confronts his aphasia. She describes the science — part neuroscience, part cognitive science and part intuition — of figuring out what was damaged in West’s brain and how to fix it. In one memorable scene, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, a friend of the family, comes to visit and coaxes West — who can barely speak — to sing “Happy Birthday” and “Jerusalem.”
On his road to recovery, West becomes a “king of malaprops and a geyser of neologisms,” Ackerman writes. His neural hiccups — saying “skellington” instead of skeleton, and calling a computer a “light dancing mailbox” — reveal the idiosyncrasies of the brain. Ackerman leaves the impression that the brain, and particularly one holding such vast verbal stores, has an astounding capacity to heal.
At times, the scientific descriptions lapse into generalizations and oversimplifications, losing the nuances and precision of brain research that scientists are still struggling to understand. But Ackerman’s powerful narrative, compelling subjects and imaginative, lively writing more than make up for those occasions.
W.W. Norton, 2011, 322 p., $26.95.