Jen’s Library – The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story
by Diane Ackerman

I tried to read it. Really, I did. It’s rare that I will not finish a book once I’ve started, because I need to know how it ends, and flipping to the last chapter is cheating.

But I do not like Diane Ackerman’s writing, and I just couldn’t get through it. I feel bad – she’s an acclaimed writer and her books seem like books I would enjoy, but this is the second work of hers that I had to put down and walk away from in frustration.

I tried reading her Natural History of the Senses last year. It’s a fascinating topic, at least to me – a look at the five senses and how we, and other creatures, experience them. Interesting, right? A non-fiction subject right up my alley! But her writing style puts me off. It’s too flowery and poetic for me to follow comfortably in that context. Here’s a quote from the essay on smell:

Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the Poconos, when wild blueberry bushes teemed with succulent fruit and the opposite sex was as mysterious as space travel; another, hours of passion on a moonlit beach in Florida, while the night-blooming cereus drenched the air with thick curds of perfume and huge sphinx moths visited the cereus in a loud purr of wings; a third, a family dinner of pot roast, noodle pudding, and sweet potatoes, during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town, when both of one’s parents were alive. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.
by Diane Ackerman
from A Natural History of the Senses, 1990, The Mute Sense

It just totally rubs me the wrong way and I can’t explain why. It’s pretty, but I don’t enjoy reading it in an essay. Thick curds of perfume and a myrtle-mad August? Really?

I picked up The Zookeeper’s Wife at the library because the description on the book jacket sounded great. It’s about a zookeeper couple who sheltered Jews in the Warsaw Zoo during the Second World War. I want to read this story! It’s a real story and I would love to learn about this amazing couple and how they resisted the Nazis and protected so many lives! But I read the first few pages and was weighed down by the immensely poetic prose, and started to get frustrated. Only then did I take note of the author’s name, and remembered my last attempt to read her work. I kept going, thinking that maybe since this book was more novel-ish than the essays, it would eventually feel more comfortable and I could finish. Well, maybe it’s a question of being in the right mood, but this book is going back to the library unread. Sorry, Ms Ackerman, I’ll give you another try sometime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *