Summer Book Club Week 10: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chastI am by nature a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is what will happen to me as I get old.  I have no children, and no intention of having any; I have a husband, but we’ll be getting old at more or less the same pace, if we’re lucky.  I have good friends, but no one I would expect could look after me if I got seriously ill or had my mobility permanently compromised.  I live in a part of the world where winters are so harsh that even for the able-bodied, getting up and down the street on foot is a major physical challenge for a couple of months of the year.  My financial affairs are only minimally in order; once it’s time for me to receive my small pension, I will not have a lot of stray cash lying around for luxuries like, say, a residence with in-house care.

I have worried a bit less about caring for my parents, as they are both still young and in good health and have partners considerably younger than them, but as the years pass and I see my friends’ parents become infirm, and as my parents themselves bring up things like funeral costs and end-of-life decisions, I find myself faced more and more with questions about how they will be cared for.  I hope they will live to be very old, but I never thought much about what that would mean until I read Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Chast’s parents have not just her but each other; however, they are in their nineties and are becoming less able to live without constant care.  They have never been easy or reasonable people, and as they age, and as she needs to be more responsible for them, she finds herself under almost unbearable strain.  On top of the medical emergencies and the deterioration of their mental capacities, the biggest burden is financial.  Her parents have considerable savings and she earns a comfortable living as a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, but she is still bowled over by the costs that fall on them: for example, a place in an assisted living facility starts at $7500 a month, and once they require more regular care, the price skyrockets.

Not only does she have to worry about these things, she has to wrestle with her own guilt over her inability to be an angel.  Chast sincerely wants to be the best daughter she can, but finds herself panic-stricken and resentful; time and again she steps up to the plate only to turn tail and flee back to the relative calm of her home and family, hoping that everything will be ok while she hides from the chaos. Part of this is the simple weight of the responsibilities, but part is also due to her parents themselves, especially her mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship.  And the major complication is that Chast has tried throughout her adult life to have conversations with her parents about death and money, and they have always brushed her off with the rejoinder of the title; now, when the decisions really do need to be made, they are not being any more cooperative.

While never undercutting the painful realities of this story, Chast makes them funny.  Difficult people make wonderful characters, and her parents are a handful.  To illustrate their preposterous frugality (for which she is now grateful), Chast relates an incident in a department store in which her mother creates elaborate plans to buy reduced-price pantyhose in bulk; none are her size, and the colours are ridiculous, but she could sew small ones together, or cut up big ones to make smaller pairs, and dye them.  Or she could make a vest for her husband out of them.  None of her daughter’s sane arguments will dissuade her.  The scene captures so much about their relationship and about her mother that it’s heartbreaking, but it is also fall-off-the-couch hilarious.  The book is like this from one end to the other: sobering, eviscerating, and hugely entertaining.

My strongest response at the end of this book was gratitude: I live in a country with universal paid health care, my parents are not insane, and if I’m lucky, the struggles Chast illustrates here are some years away.  The greatest gift this book gives, however, is a clear-eyed and searingly honest look at a trauma most of us will have to go through.  The fact that Chast’s humour extends not only to her parents and to the unimaginable situation they find themselves in, but also to herself, makes this one of the best graphic memoirs I’ve ever read.

*

Also read this week: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff.  Ancient Chinese tradition dictates that when Deshi’s brother dies, he needs a corpse bride to accompany him into the afterlife.  Deshi is tasked with finding one.  Thus begins this beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel.  Deshi sets off across the countryside, but soon finds that his assignment is a difficult one, and it is made no easier by the appearance of Lily, who would be a perfect corpse-bride candidate if only she were dead.  The story is great; the visuals are stunning.

Abandoned this week:

  • Megan Abbott’s The Fever.  I was laid up for most of this past week recovering from a medical intervention on my uterus.  Despite this, I did not feel averse to reading a novel about a mysterious ailment targeting sexually blossoming young women.  I did, however, feel averse to reading a novel with no sense of humour.  Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed this book.
  • Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. One complaint that workshoppers have often made about early drafts of my fiction is that these drafts contain long swaths of uninterrupted dialogue that seem mechanical in their desire to advance the plot and characters.  Joel Dicker also has this problem.  It does not seem that he had helpful workshopppers, or editors, to aid him in remedying it.  I was intrigued by the premise: a bestselling author crippled by writer’s block is called upon to investigate, and then write about, his mentor’s implication in the death of a teenage girl over thirty years ago.  I forgave the bald dialogue and ascetic but not very elegant prose for 99 pages, reminding myself all the while that this book is a translation from the French and therefore deserves my indulgence where the language is concerned.  In the end, the prospect of 539 more pages of the same defeated me.

Have you read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, or any of the other books I attempted this week?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

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14 responses

  1. Good morning! Sorry to have missed you last week. Kitchen remodels and whatnot. I shelved both my reading and my blog life…

    I finished Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell:

    http://butlerbin2013.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/reading-life-eleanor-park/

    I’m 50 pages into Looking for Alaska by John Green and really liking it. He’s so talented. I aspire to be more like him all around.

    I love Abbott! I’ll trust your word for now. I have too many other books by her to check out before that one.

    Your read this week has me already sampling. Some people I love dearly are going through this with their parents and I hope this book can be a gift to comfort them. Thank you so much for sharing it!

    • BB: I am on a waiting list for Looking for Alaska at the library; from all I’ve heard, it’s terrific. And don’t take my word on The Fever; as I say, I was compromised, and critics have raved about it.

  2. An excerpt from Chast’s book appeared in The New Yorker magazine (unless MY memory is starting to fail me). I found it hilarious – painfully so because my brother and I dealt with our aging parents (who lived in a different state), then my father’s death and my mother’s mental decline which necessitated moving her into an assisted living facility. Two days ago my mother, who is now 86, thought she was in the army. You literally have to be able to laugh or you’d just cry and Roz Chast captures this craziness. It also gets you thinking about how you’d like to spend Act 3 of your life.

    • AJ: Yes, the book has been excerpted all over and the response after it was published was rhapsodic. In fact, I went to my local graphic novel store to buy it about a month ago and was told that the print run had sold out in a whirlwind and they had no idea when they’d get more! I can only imagine how it would resonate with me if I’d gone through something similar. If you haven’t read the whole book, I would very much recommend it.

  3. Wow. It sounds like I am going to have to get hold of at least 5 copies of Chast’s graphic novel for my siblings and friends crowded in the same aging parental boat!

    On another note: Has anyone read Ingrid Winterbach’s The Happenstance?

  4. I’m putting this one on my ‘to read’ list. Just found out my Mom is ill and has to have major surgery…I’ll be going to CB later in August to accompany her through it. I’m sure I’ll need a laugh or two. Thanks for sharing!

    P. S. I’m presently reading Jian Gomeshi’s autobiography, 1982. So far, so good.

    • Oh no – I’m so sorry to hear about your mother! I hope it all goes well and she gets better quick. Warning: this book is very funny, but it’s VERY real and might be anxiety-provoking. That said, I suspect that someone who is going through these things and read it might feel a lot less alone. Good luck! I’ll be thinking of you.

  5. You are reading so much more than I am–I love to get titles for my to-read list. Both of my parents have died in the last two years, but I think I want to read Chast’s memoir to help put past experience into perspective. This week I am reading memoirs as well: Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty: A Friendship and Lisa Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. Very compelling. I hope to write about them on my blog when I finish them My most fun read recently has been No Rest for the Dead, a murder mystery collectively written by 26 best selling murder mystery authors. It was a good little mystery, but I especially liked the experimental nature of this collaboration. Here is the link to my review on my blog: http://learnmoreeveryday.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/no-rest-for-the-dead-one-mystery-many-authors/

    • Patti: I teach AOAF in my memoir class; in recent year, students have told me they find it boring, so I may reconsider next time, but I think it’s a beautiful book. I love Truth and Beauty even more, but I’m not sure about teaching it – do you think students will appreciate it if they haven’t read AOAF or know who Lucy Grealy is?

      • I mainly teach first year freshmen writing, sometimes developmental students as well. I had not thought about using either of these books in a class, but I would think they would be accessible and engaging for students in a class such as yours. I stumbled into T&B and bought it for my Kindle because I had enjoyed State of Wonder and figured, good another book by AP. It was while reading it that I realized it was a memoir. I became fascinated by LG and decided to read AOAF. I do think the connection between these two authors, these two friends enhances reading both memoirs. I am not sure if AOAF on its own would be as engaging. I know I am wanting to seek out the essay that generated her fuller book. Would that essay be enough to add texture and depth to reading T&B? Maybe. I’ll keep your questions in mind as I finish reading AOAF. I finished T&B last night–and mourned with AP. A powerful read!

  6. What did I miss? what is AOAF? I doubt it is AOAF: American Overseas Air Freight

    But you captured Chast’s book perfectly. Yes, humor is the only way through it–life in general. I enjoy your blog.

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