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?

Summer Book Club Week 9: Asterios Polyp

This week’s Book Club post is a quick one, as I am recovering from minor surgery and would rather be reading than writing.

Asterios-polyp-bookcoverLast week, commenter Kathleen recommended the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli; I immediately grabbed it from the shelf of my local library and read it in an afternoon.  I have a feeling it will be following me around for the rest of my life.  It is much, much smarter than me, so I feel ill qualified to comment on it.  It’s the story of a “paper architect” (none of his buildings have ever been constructed) whose life has slowly come apart and who is trying to put it back together by leaving everything behind and starting again as a pseudo-car-mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  The book floats between past and present, dream and reality, narrative and abstract philosophical musing.  Loved it.  If you like graphic novels, I think you will love it too.

I hope have more books to tell you about, and more energy to write about them, next week.  In the meantime, what are you reading?

Summer Book Club Week 8: The Saga Series, Vol. 1

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.

sagaBrian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man is my favourite graphic novel series; in 2010, one of the installments made my list of top books of the year.  If you like graphic novels at all, even if you’re not a fan of the superhero/dystopia/apocalypse genres, you need to read Y; I’ll wait here while you go do that.

I’ve been meaning to read more of Vaughan’s work, but have feared disappointment.  Recently, some podcast or other mentioned the Saga series (by Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples), and this inspired me to order Volume One from the library.

I was not encouraged by the first panel, a close-up of a woman’s sweating face as she says, “Am I shitting?  It feels like I’m shitting!”  However, the next page shows that we are in media puerperio: our heroine, Hazel, is being born, and the face is that of her mother; Hazel’s father is the sole assistant to the delivery.

They aren’t alone for long.  Hazel’s parents are star-crossed in a more-literal-than-usual sense: they are from opposite sides of an intergalactic war, and they met when one was guarding the other in prison.  Their escape, and the discovery that they’ve borne a child, has sparked the outrage of everyone in charge, and soon battalions from their home planets, princes with TV monitors for heads, and the scariest bounty hunters you’ve ever seen (one complete with a sidekick  in the form of a giant cat who knows when you’re lying and says so) are involved.  Hazel’s parents are no longer their own first priority: their main concern now is keeping their baby alive, and fortunately, they seem have the physical, magical and tactical skills to do so, along with the requisite all-conquering love.

Like Y: TLM, Volume 1 of Saga is funny, smart, sexy and action-packed.  I don’t usually care for “comic book serial” style graphic novels (as opposed to “sensitive literary fiction/memoir” style graphic novels, which I love).  I’m not crazy about fantasy, science fiction, or action/adventure stories, no matter what the form.  Yet as soon as I finished Volume 1 of Saga, I went straight to my library’s website and ordered Volume 2.  This is good storytelling.  Even though Hazel’s just a few days old, I love her, and can’t wait to find out what happens to her, and to everyone else who loves her too.

*

Also read this week:

  • Oishinbo A La Carte: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi by Tetsu Kariya (story) and Akira Hanasaki (art).  This was also a podcast recommendation, by one of my favourite podcasters: Glen Weldon of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.  The Oishinbo  series is a fictional tale about a journalist, Yamaoka Shiro, who has been tasked with developing the “Ultimate Menu” for his newspaper’s 100th anniversary.  This volume is a series of stories about his pan-Japanese search for the absolute best fish dishes.  He is accompanied by his assistant/love interest, and he frequently clashes with his main competitor in the world of food expertise, who also happens to be his father.  It’s a great premise, the individual stories that make up the volume are fun, and it made me both nostalgic for the years I spent living in Japan (and eating Japanese food) and intrigued by how little I still know about the country and its culture.  That said, the characters are, for lack of a better term, cartoonish: I haven’t done a lot of manga reading, but I recognized the types – sour but attractive anti-hero, demure yet steely lady-love, overbearing bullying father figure – a little too easily.  I closed the volume feeling no need to follow these characters further, so I won’t be ordering the rest of the series.
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling).  I resisted this book for the first 200 pages, but, despite my summer vow to drop anything that didn’t grip me after 50, I felt an obligation to go on, and was eventually glad I had.  (I had much the same experience with the Harry Potter series, so maybe it’s not surprising.)  I was then a bit disappointed by the ending, but despite all that, I plan to follow P. I. Cormoran Strike and his assistant and sidekick Robin (yes, really) through the rest of the series. Robert Galbraith/J. K. Rowling can be irritating, not least when she insists on unnecessary phonetic renderings of dialect, renderings that seem appropriate in a fantasy world full of multi-ethnic wizard children, but less so in today’s real London (transcriptions like “lotta”, “outta” and “forra” change nothing for the ear and serve only to suggest class and cultural background in ways that make me suspicious of whoever’s writing.)  Nevertheless, our hero is a human-sized Hagrid, his sidekick is a real-world Hermione, and I am therefore charmed.

Have you read the Saga series, the Oishinbo series, or The Cuckoo’s Calling?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 1: Rutu Modan’s The Property

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.

a50f6e32da351bI recently finished The Property, the latest book by Rutu Modan, the graphic novelist responsible for one of my other favourite books, Exit Wounds. I love graphic novels, but they are sometimes self-indulgent and demanding.  Modan’s books take difficult subject matter and make it often funny, sometimes oddly sweet, and always powerful.  Modan’s art is meticulous, delicate and bright; I tend to barrel through graphic novels because I’m visually lazy, but with Modan’s work I have to slow down and savour and smile.  This book feels like a dense, multi-coloured jewel.

Mica insists on accompanying her grandmother Regina to Warsaw, where a mysterious family property is located and maybe is waiting to be reclaimed.  It’s soon clear, though, that Mica doesn’t know what she’s gotten herself into, and that her understanding of her trip, her family and her grandmother’s past is partial at best.  Regina is ornery and secretive, Mica is long-suffering and a bit stubborn herself, and along the way they meet a number of characters whose motives are suspect but who might be friends.  Romance, both past and present, is an important part of  both women’s stories, but their relationship with one another is what matters most: if Mica didn’t love her grandmother, her life would be a lot easier, but what are you going to do?

I devoured this book in an evening, and now have to go back and read Exit Wounds again.  Have you read either, or any of Modan’s other work?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

My Top 10 Books of 2010

I encourage you all to make your own lists, either in the comments below or on your own blog (please post the link in the comments) because of course I don’t already have enough unread books in my house.

Note: These books were not necessarily published in 2010, but they were part of my 2010 experience.

1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really don’t care about the ins and outs of the music industry, but this novel made me care.  It also made me believe that a PowerPoint presentation can be as poignant and funny as a short story.  Without question, the best book I read all year.  Down side: I’m not sure there’s any point in my writing fiction ever again.

2. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

A bunch of people working at, or linked to, an English-language newspaper in Rome.  Similar in structure to Jennifer Egan’s book in that it seems at first to be a series of disconnected stories, but it’s not.  Even the characters who seem the least lovable are completely absorbing.  Also: funny.

3. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

I cried at the end of this one.  Works best if you have recently read or watched Sense and Sensibility, but I expect it would be a joy ride regardless.  Sent me running for Schine’s earlier works, none of which really did it for me, but I’m waiting on tenterhooks for her next one.

4. The Likeness by Tana French

I am not usually a mystery reader.  Exceptions include P. D. James and Kate Atkinson.  I am totally chuffed about finding Tana French.  I finished The Likeness just last night and, although it was well past my bedtime, I reread the last page four times because I didn’t want it to end.  In short: detective is called to the scene of a murder.  The victim looks exactly, but exactly, like her.  Beautiful, heart-gripping chaos ensues.  French has a new book out this year and it’s garnered her a lot of new attention – I wish I were one of the cool people who had discovered her earlier.

5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Enough has been said about this book.  My two cents: believe the hype.  It’s that good.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

Follows a “couple” – they sleep together in college and remain friends – by dropping in on them on the same day every year.  Very funny, often painful, at times a bit lumpy but worth it.

7. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is a bit of a cheat – I listened to this on audiobook last year, but read it for the first time this summer so I could teach it.  One of the most enjoyable memoirs I’ve ever read – easy, funny, moving, perfect for the classroom.  Walls renders her horrifying childhood and her impossibly selfish parents without a drop of pathos or self-pity.  Hard to believe such terrible memories could have produced such a wonderful and touching romp.

8. Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum

Linked short-stories about a middle-school teacher.  I don’t know if I loved it because I’m a teacher, but it seems I’m not the only one – Jonathan Franzen and Michael Cunningham both give it raving blurbs.  I don’t read a lot of short-story collections these days, but this one feels almost like a novel, like a string of perfectly irregular jewels.

9. Y: The Last Man: Book 4 by Brian K. Vaughan et al.

I am a graphic novel lover.  I’m not so much into the post-apocalyptic sci-fi vein, but the Y: The Last Man series is my favorite graphic novel series ever.  A young man named Yorick, and his male monkey Ampersand, are the only male animals left on earth after a mysterious plague.  They set off to find Yorick’s girlfriend.  Problems: they don’t know where she is, and being a man in this manless world is … complicated.  Stephen King calls it “the best graphic novel I’ve ever read,” if that matters.

10. The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow

This beautiful little book, styled like a note/sketchbook, is aimed at tween girls, and I wish I’d read it when I was one, but it just came out this year.  Lydia and Julie are not popular, but they have a plan to become popular, and this book is an illustrated log of their progress.  As you can imagine, their plan takes unexpected turns and even puts their friendship in jeopardy.  The two girls are enchanting, the pictures are delicious, and reading it made for an afternoon that I would have very much appreciated when I was twelve years old and unhappy with who I was.  Give it to a girl you know; it might change her forever, but at the very least, she’ll have a good time.

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