Book Review: Facing life’s challenges

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Biographies and autobiographies come in many formats. Take, for example, the recent works by Madeleine May Kunin and Ken Krimstein. While Kunin writes prose and poetry to tell of her personal experience with aging in “Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties” (Green Writers Press), Krimstein uses the graphic format to focus on major events in the life of Hannah Arendt in “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth” (Bloomsbury Publishers).
Kunin is best known for her political achievements: she was the first woman elected governor of Vermont, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland and a U.S. deputy secretary of education. Her new work talks about her latest challenge: aging, particularly how it has affected her and her husband. While doing so, she also looks back on earlier parts of her life: her parents’ escape from Europe and the difficulties she faced as a woman running for office and as a government official. Interspersed with her recollections are poems, which offer a different angle to her thoughts. 
The most affecting section deals with the changes that come with aging. Kunin and her husband decide to downsize, but she finds it extremely difficult to decide what to discard and what to keep. Some objects that no one wants come with memories of her late relatives, for example, the two sets of silver tea services, one that belonged to her mother and the other to her aunt. Since her extended family was scattered after World War II, Kunin’s idea of home is found in the objects that surround her. Yet, when other boxes are distributed – whether to the synagogue, goodwill or friends and relatives – she feels relieved and lighter.
Harder to face, though, are her husband’s health problems. This is a second marriage for Kunin, one that occurred when she thought she would never again marry. Her love shines through the sections she writes about him, and that love helps make their relationship continue when he is confined to a wheelchair and then when they can no longer share living space. Kunin also writes about her own fears of physical and mental losses. Yet, she remains open to the joys – large and small – that are still possible.
“Coming of Age” is a slender work, less than 200 pages. However, Kunin fills it with warm memories and hopes for the future – even as she realistically looks at what life may bring during her remaining years.
While Kunin’s work looks of her own life, Krimstein tries to imagine the inner life of Arendt, particularly her philosophical search for truth. The author creates a work that feels more memoir than biography by writing as if Arendt herself was speaking. He portrays her escapes from the Nazis during World War II, her relationship to other philosophers, her controversial work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and her relationship to Martin Heidegger, a Nazi sympathizer who was once her lover.
The work is an interesting mix. Some sections focus on action, particularly those that tell of Arendt’s escapes from the Nazis. The majority of the work, though, offers a look at her thoughts and relationships to other philosophers. These sections are filled with conversation, whether between Arendt, her fellow students and their teachers, or, even more interesting, when Arendt discusses ideas with herself. Krimstein emphasizes how her attempt to discover a solid philosophical idea of truth formed the core of her life’s work – at least, until she came to a realization that there was something more important on which to focus.
“The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt” tries to recreate the times in which Arendt lived, something difficult to do in graphic format. She met so many people – from actors to musicians to writers and scholars – that it’s impossible for Krigstein to offer much detail about most of them. What information he does offer appears in footnotes – very small footnotes that were difficult to read, although they were worth looking at for the author’s editorial comments. Krigstein’s drawings are black and white with some green shading; their backgrounds are vague, showing few details of the places where Arendt lived or worked. People’s faces are also not always complete, which emphasizes her interest in abstract thought, rather than the individuals she met. While it’s nearly impossible to explain Arendt’s philosophy in this format, Krigstein’s introduction to her work was intriguing. He also makes readers feel that they’ve gained some insight into a complex, fascinating person.