Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir

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Overview

#1 New York Times Bestseller

In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and ...

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Overview

#1 New York Times Bestseller

In her first memoir, Roz Chast brings her signature wit to the topic of aging parents. Spanning the last several years of their lives and told through four-color cartoons, family photos, and documents, and a narrative as rife with laughs as it is with tears, Chast’s memoir is both comfort and comic relief for anyone experiencing the life-altering loss of elderly parents.

When it came to her elderly mother and father, Roz held to the practices of denial, avoidance, and distraction. But when Elizabeth Chast climbed a ladder to locate an old souvenir from the “crazy closet”—with predictable results—the tools that had served Roz well through her parents’ seventies, eighties, and into their early nineties could no longer be deployed.

While the particulars are Chast-ian in their idiosyncrasies—an anxious father who had relied heavily on his wife for stability as he slipped into dementia and a former assistant principal mother whose overbearing personality had sidelined Roz for decades—the themes are universal: adult children accepting a parental role; aging and unstable parents leaving a family home for an institution; dealing with uncomfortable physical intimacies; managing logistics; and hiring strangers to provide the most personal care.

An amazing portrait of two lives at their end and an only child coping as best she can, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant will show the full range of Roz Chast’s talent as cartoonist and storyteller.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alex Witchel
This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter's rescue. It veers between being laugh-out-loud funny and so devastating I had to take periodic timeouts. Cartoons, as it happens, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia, the odd dramas and grinding repetition expertly illustrated by copious exclamation points, capital letters and antic drawings. They also limit the opportunity for navel gazing and self-pity, trapping you in the surreal moments themselves.
The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani
…Ms. Chast tackles the subject of her parents, writing with a new depth and amplitude of emotion. Her account of growing up with them in Brooklyn as an only child and her efforts, decades later, to help them navigate the jagged shoals of old age and ill health, is by turns grim and absurd, deeply poignant and laugh-out-loud funny…With Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Ms. Chast reminds us how deftly the graphic novel can capture ordinary crises in ordinary American lives, how a mixture of cartoons and photographs and text can create a family portrait with all the intimacy and emotional power of a conventional prose memoir.
Publishers Weekly
★ 03/10/2014
“Something more pleasant” than the certainty of old age and death is what Chast’s parents would prefer to talk about, in this poignant and funny text-and-cartoon memoir of their final years. (In one cartoon, the Grim Reaper declares, “The Chasts are talking about me? Why, I’ll show them!”) Chast, a cartoonist who contributes frequently to the New Yorker, describes how her parents, George and Elizabeth, try her patience as she agonizes over their past and future. She brings her parents and herself to life in the form of her characteristic scratchy-lined, emotionally expressive characters, making the story both more personal and universal. Despite the subject matter, the book is frequently hilarious, highlighting the stubbornness and eccentricities (and often sheer lunacy) of the author’s parents. It’s a homage that provides cathartic “you are not alone” support to those caring for aging parents. Like Raymond Briggs’s classic Ethel and Ernest, this is a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece. (May)
From the Publisher
"By turns grim and absurd, deeply poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. Ms. Chast reminds us how deftly the graphic novel can capture ordinary crises in ordinary American lives." —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times  

"A tour de force of dark humor and illuminating pathos about her parents’ final years as only this quirky genius of pen and ink could construe them." —Elle  

"An achievement of dark humor that rings utterly true." —Washington Post  

"One of the major books of 2014 . . . Moving and bracingly candid . . . This is, in its original and unexpected way, one of the great autobiographical memoirs of our time." —Buffalo News  

"Better than any book I know, this extraordinarily honest, searing and hilarious graphic memoir captures (and helps relieve) the unbelievable stress that results when the tables turn and grown children are left taking care of their parents. . . [A] remarkable, poignant memoir." —San Francisco Chronicle  

"Very, very, very funny, in a way that a straight-out memoir about the death of one’s elderly parents probably would not be . . . Ambitious, raw and personal as anything she has produced." —New York Times  

"Devastatingly good . . . Anyone who has had Chast’s experience will devour this book and cling to it for truth, humor, understanding, and the futile wish that it could all be different." —St. Louis Post Dispatch  

"Gut-wrenching and laugh-aloud funny. I want to recommend it to everyone I know who has elderly parents, or might have them someday." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel  

"Joins Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, William Trevor's The Old Boys, and Kingsley Amis's Ending Up in the competition for the funniest book about old age I've ever read. It is also heartbreaking." —Barnes & Noble Review  

"Revelatory… So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Chast is at the top of her candid form, delivering often funny, trenchant, and frequently painful revelations—about human behavior, about herself—on every page." —David Small, author of Stitches 

"Never has the abyss of dread and grief been plumbed to such incandescently hilarious effect. The lines between laughter and hysteria, despair and rage, love and guilt, are quavery indeed, and no one draws them more honestly, more . . . unscrimpingly, than Roz Chast." —Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home  

"Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun." —Bruce McCall, author of Bruce McCall's Zany Afternoons

From the Publisher

"Poignant and funny . . . [Chast] brings her parents and herself to life in the form of her characteristic scratchy-lined, emotionally expressive characters, making the story both more personal and universal. Despite the subject matter, the book is frequently hilarious, highlighting the stubbornness and eccentricities (and often sheer lunacy) of the author’s parents. It’s a homage that provides cathartic "you are not alone" support to those caring for aging parents . . . This is a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece." -Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Revelatory . . . Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she's done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life . . . A series of wordless drawings of her mother's final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers' appreciation of Chast and her work." - Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Chast's scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother's poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. She's especially dead-on with the unpredictable mental states of both the dying and their caregivers: placidity, denial, terror, lunacy, resignation, vindictiveness, and rage. . . Chast so skillfully exposes herself and her family on the page as to give readers both insight and entertainment on a topic nearly everyone avoids. As with her New Yorker cartoons, Chast's memoir serves up existential dilemmas along with chuckles and can help serve as a tutorial for the inevitable." - Library Journal, starred review

“If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of Roz Chast’s quavery, quietly desperate, antimacassar-bestrewn universe, look no further. This grim, sidesplitting memoir about the slow decline of her meek father and overpowering mother explains it all. Bedsores, dementia, broken hips—no details are spared, and never has the abyss of dread and grief been plumbed to such incandescently hilarious effect. The lines between laughter and hysteria, despair and rage, love and guilt, are quavery indeed, and no one draws them more honestly, more…unscrimpingly, than Roz Chast.” —Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

“Reading Roz Chast has always had the quality of eavesdropping on a person’s private mutterings-to-herself. In this memoir of a most wretched time in her life, Chast is at the top of her candid form, delivering often funny, trenchant, and frequently painful revelations — about human behavior, about herself — on every page.” —David Small, author of Stitches

“After I read this brilliant book, I urged all my friends to read it. Now I have moved on to strangers. So take this book to the cash register this instant. You won’t regret it.” —Patricia Marx, author of Starting from Happy and Him Her Him Again the End of Him
 
 “Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun.” —Bruce McCall, New Yorker cartoonist and author of Bruce McCall’s Zany Afternoons and The Last Dream-o-Rama

Library Journal
★ 03/15/2014
Chast (Theories of Everything) draws the Moving Sidewalk of Life with a sign: "Caution—drop-off ahead." The New Yorker cartoonist had vaguely thought that "the end" came in three stages: feeling unwell, growing weaker over a month or so in bed, and dying one night. But when her parents passed 90, she learned that "the middle [stage] was a lot more painful, humiliating, long-lasting, complicated, and hideously expensive" than she imagined. Chast's scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother's poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. She's especially dead-on with the unpredictable mental states of both the dying and their caregivers: placidity, denial, terror, lunacy, resignation, vindictiveness, and rage. VERDICT Like Joyce Farmer in Special Exits (LJ 9/15/10), Chast so skillfully exposes herself and her family on the page as to give readers both insight and entertainment on a topic nearly everyone avoids. As with her New Yorker cartoons, Chast's memoir serves up existential dilemmas along with chuckles and can help serve as a tutorial for the inevitable.—M.C.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-23
A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age. Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast (What I Hate, 2011, etc.) retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she's done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, "the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart," and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as "The Moving Sidewalk of Life" ("Caution: Drop-Off Ahead") or deals with dread and anxiety on the "Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary' tales of my childhood." The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother's final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers' appreciation of Chast and her work.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir — in at least two senses. It joins Muriel Spark's Memento Mori, William Trevor's The Old Boys, and Kingsley Amis's Ending Up in the competition for the funniest book about old age I've ever read. It is also heartbreaking. In its pages, the elements of Chast's most inspired comic work, well known particularly to readers of The New Yorker — impending calamity and aloneness — are no longer mere phantoms but are, instead, intractable, implacable reality. She, an only child, depicts in words, drawings, and ineffable mood her un-self-assured efforts to avert utter disaster as her parents descend into "the part of old age that [is] scarier, harder to talk about, and not part of this culture."

Naturally, this book begins on a doily-accoutered couch, a Chastian fixture as much existential condition as piece of furniture. There we first meet George and Elizabeth Chast, both born in 1912 and now around ninety years old, the two of them stonewalling their daughter's embarrassed attempt to discuss "things" and, well, you know, "plans." This endeavor never evolves further than the eventual relief both sides experience in finally escaping the discussion.

In their prime, so to speak, Elizabeth had been an assistant elementary school principal and George, a high school teacher. Both were children of Russian Jews who came to America at the turn of the twentieth century and grew up a few blocks from each other in tenements in East Harlem ("We had nothing!"). They met in the fifth grade and eventually married without having considered anyone else. As a couple, they are perfectly matched: George, passive, patient, gentle, and anxious, is a man who "chain-worried the way others might chain smoke. He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle, or change a lightbulb." Elizabeth is aggressive, intolerant, confident, and domineering. She writes poetry of sorts, is given to explosions of rage ("blasts from Chast"), and played the piano almost every evening during the author's unlamented childhood while young Roz and her father "would cower in admiration on the couch."

The Chasts brought up the author in a dangerous world in "deep" Brooklyn, a world in which you could get infections from mascara or dirty checkers, or go deaf from not wearing a bathing cap, or be killed by a falling flower pot. Laugh during a meal? Choke to death. Fail to dust and it "gets into the interstices of the furniture and BREAKS IT ALL APART!!!" In addition to numbering other such family- endorsed perils, Chast provides a few details about her two grandmothers that one might call diagnostic: George's mother slept crosswise at the foot of her son's bed until he married, and she covered all the floors in her apartment with newspaper. Elizabeth's mother "believed that people on TV could see her."

By the time Chast manages to get her parents, both now approaching ninety-five, into an assisted living facility (and therein lies a harrowing montage), they have been in the same apartment forty-eight years, deeply disinclined to throw anything out. Chast is confronted with the job of dealing with this monument to pack-rattery and, in tribute, provides an eloquent photo gallery of awe-inspiring vistas of accumulation and select tranches of stuff, including a battalion of her mother's handbags, a lineup of her glasses "from 'before my time," and a "Museum of old Schick shavers."

As her parents move past their ninety-fifth birthdays, their downhill slide picks up speed, taking on additional indignity and pain. Between the two of them, they have, by the end, suffered dementia, diverticulitis, fistula, incontinence, partial blindness, broken hip, bedsores, pneumonia, and the more routine afflictions of high blood pressure, general weakness, and frailty. The ancient hostility between Chast and her mother becomes more fraught after her father's death: Roz longing for some sign that her mother had loved her — this mother, now a lunatic version of her old self-centered, chilly self.

Throughout the book, Chast's drawings express her powerful sense of aloneness. With only a couple of exceptions, it's just Roz — her daughter appears briefly — faced, as she was as a child, with her parents' united front: dysfunctional in the past, positively pathological now. Her style — droopy, alarmed, appalled — perfectly captures her overwhelming feeling of inadequacy in the face of this drawn-out emergency. They show, graphically, how events surround her, and how taking care of parents deep in their dotage is an all-encompassing task.

Still, one might think, without really thinking, that a cartoon book about one's parents' decline and death would be a breach of good taste: disrespectful and not nice. (Can't we illustrate something more pleasant?) But no. The final chapters in both parents' lives, and their daughter's bit part in each, are extremely moving. Certainly, the drawings and text are very funny, but here more than anywhere else in Chast's work, one feels her comedy to be a form of desperate doughtiness, an attempt to foil terror, ease pity, and expiate guilt.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608198061
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 606
  • Product dimensions: 7.70 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Roz Chast

Roz Chast was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her cartoons began appearing in the New Yorker in 1978. Since then she has published hundreds of cartoons and written or illustrated more than a dozen books. This is her first memoir. She lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Biography

Roz Chast was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her cartoons began appearing in the New Yorker in 1978 - since then more than a thousand of her cartoons have appeared in the magazine, as well as in Scientific American, the Harvard Business Review, Redbook, Mother Jones, and many others. Michiko Kakutani has described her work as taking place in “a parallel universe to ours, utterly recognizable in all its banalities and weirdnesses, but slightly askew." She has written or illustrated more than a dozen books, and much of her work is collected in Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 20, 2014

    Required reading for anyone who suddenly finds herself handling

    Required reading for anyone who suddenly finds herself handling business of  frail elderly parents. Beautiful humor and loving respect.
    Thank you Roz Chast for talking about the unpleasant. This gorgeous book will grace our coffee table for years. Thinking of giving it to my sons 
    When I reach a certain age! 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 12, 2014

    Worth the read

    I heard Roz Chast on NPR talking about her book. I have a dear friend who recently had to move her mother into care, and my father-in-law is in hospice at home. My own mom died at 58,but my dad is going strong at 83. There are so many parallels and yet so many differences between my experience and Ms. Chast's, that I found a lot comfort and empathy in this book. We will all take the journey one way or another, and we will all deal with the same stuff. This was an excellent way to process and share their troubled story. I say read and enjoy while you grieve.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 27, 2014

    Good Book

    Being a baby boomer and having had parents who survived to almost ninety, this book takes a rather unfortunate subject, and makes it enlightening through humor. The author has great observational skills, which she employs to depict her aging parents circumstances as they age from the "golden" years, to the more difficult "survival" years. The book is written in a comic book style, which allows the reader to digest and enjoy a difficult subject. When you are caring for aging parents, you sometimes wonder if you are alone, but reading this book made me realize I was not. My sister read it as well, and we both agreed that this is one of the most accurate portrayals of aging that we have ever come across.

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  • Posted June 5, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Wow Roz Chast is on point with this graphic memoir that traces h

    Wow Roz Chast is on point with this graphic memoir that traces her parents elder years to  their deaths in their mid to late 90s.
    My parents are in their nineties and still living "independantly" so this is exactly what my sister and I are going thru now..amazingly acurate, informationa; and sometimes sad a must read if your in the situation!

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  • Posted May 30, 2014

    Never added to my library

    I cannot review this book because even now, about 1 week later, B&N has not added it to my library.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 24, 2014

    A great book for anyone who has mortal parents -- I read the boo

    A great book for anyone who has mortal parents -- I read the book and then read it again.  I wish she had written it two years ago when I was going through a lot of the same experiences.  And now I'm going to throw some stuff away, so my children don't have to.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2014

    Good book

    Realy goot try it

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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