Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? by Roz Chast

Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT?
by Roz Chast
nonfiction 2014
finished 7/19/15

I’ve read quite a few books in my life, and Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? is one of the very best. Part way through the book, I told Tom ‘one of the top ten best books I've read.’ You may ask, how can that be? How can I so love a book that is about a very difficult subject - the aging and ultimate death of one’s parents? And about a family that is quite dysfunctional. Under the author’s name on the cover are the words ‘A Memoir.’ And it is. Not just the story of her parents' declining years, but much about herself. I was shocked when she wrote that she had not visited her parents in a long time. But then again, I know adults who stay away from visiting their folks as much as possible.
From 1990 to 2001, I had not set foot in Brooklyn ONCE. Denial, avoidance, selfishness, laziness, and the day-to-day busyness of my life (two little kids! cartoon deadlines! grocery shopping!) were all partly to blame. But really, I just didn’t want to.
She feels an ‘intense need’ to go out to Brooklyn and visit her parents two days before the Towers were hit. 

We then follow her life for eight years. They aren’t easy years, and both the author and the reader know what the outcome will be. She is unflinchingly honest about what happens and her responses. It takes a brave person to admit to herself and to the world that she wasn’t always feeling or acting that kindly toward these old people. But that is the reality. Your parents are still your parents even if they are aging and dying, and Roz’ feelings toward them, particularly her mother, haven't changed.  

I think it is very important that she wrote this book. We are all so used to hearing about children who do everything for their parents, and parents being so grateful. Those are the good stories. I think Roz’ reactions are more real, and this book can help adult children of dying parents who may hate themselves for even thinking about money, for example. The fact is that many people in this country lose their whole life savings to nursing home care. This is a huge problem and will only get worse as those people born between 1946 and 1964 get older. 

Roz Chast has a page where she suggests that at the end, there should be 
something to look forward to. 
Something more pleasure-oriented. Perhaps opium, or heroin. So you become addicted. So what? All-you-can-eat ice cream parlors for the extremely aged. Big art picture books and music. Extreme palliative care, for when you’ve had it with everything else: the x-rays, the MRI, the boring food, and the pills that don’t do anything at all. Would that be so bad?

People tend to be so sanctimonious with the aged. Everyone ‘knows’ what is best for them. Why shouldn’t they (we) do just as they damn please at the end of their lives if they are still able? Start smoking those much-missed cigarettes. Eat as many french fries as you want. Drink cocktails all day long if you want. Maybe then you could die at home of a nice, quick heart attack and save your family the intense stress. I hope I do. 

After some time, her parents leave their apartment, with only overnight bags, on a trip to check out a facility near Roz’ home. They never go back. And it is up to Roz, the only child, to go through everything. She takes photos of the fridge and the medicine cabinet and the rooms. Photos that made me shudder. It makes the author take stock of all the stuff in her own home. 

Can you imagine going through rooms like this? 

She shows us what she keeps out of all that stuff.

The title of course refers to the author’s particular situation, but isn’t it the big subject none of us really wants to face, let alone talk about? Some people are incredibly cool about it, and prepared for it. Like Tom’s mum. For as long as I can remember she has occasionally send us her information - where important papers are, names and addresses of banks, etc., where she wants to be buried. Every single thing that most of us shrink away from, she faces with steadfastness and even humor. She sent us all little metal ducks that open so each child could have a place to put some of her ashes. I’m trying to model myself after her. (I got her permission to write about this here in my letters).

I could go on and on about this brilliant, necessary book. Perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t make me sad. In fact, there were some very funny parts. When her mother's mind deteriorates, she starts telling Roz outlandish stories. These are about her mother-in-law.

I think I may move Can't we talk about something more PLEASANT? up to one of my top four, sharing the honors with Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway and something by Wodehouse. 

I know my friend Les didn't care for this book, at all, (you may read her review here) and I really understand her reasons, but I've seen too many families like Roz Chast's, and I think she has given all of them a great gift. The gift of knowing that other children feel angry, annoyed, and pretty selfish sometimes when it comes to taking care of their older parents.

There’s an interview you may listen to here.


  1. Nan, this was my first book of 2015 and I was impressed. I highly recommend following up with Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Not an easy read (due to subject matter) but very important, thought-provoking, and worthy of discussion. I'm happy my book club will be reading both books this fall.

  2. So, Les didn't care for it. You loved it. I decided not to read it. I could have. I had a copy. I now don't have a copy. Gave it away. Decided I had been there, done that. It was a horror, an honor, more than I could bear, a privilege, tiresome, sweet, awful, and I'm glad it's over. You know exactly what it was like for me. I told you. My parents prepared for it in many ways - which was wonderful and awesome and I knew what to do. They didn't prepare in other ways - like clearing out or sorting or getting rid of anything in their house. That part was the worst. I'd have never made without a loving, practical, unruffled, supportive husband. And daughter. When I was a bundle of nerves, they were both calm. And the counseling. A lot of it.

    I'm glad that this book was written. I suspect it will validate and speak to many people. It won't be for everyone, but that's OK. No one will make anyone else read it. Honestly, I really think everyone should be required to read Atul Gawande's book, Being Mortal. And then try this one for some humor and head nodding. Great thoughts here, Nan. You probably have no idea how much it might mean to someone who needs to hear your thoughts. :-)

  3. I would like to read this too. I was blessed when my Mother died some 20+ years ago. I didn't have to go through all this. She knew she was going to die and she took care of everything including not telling us she was dieing. It was something of a shock. I could go on and on. I see my friends dealing with these issues.

  4. Some of my friends already are (or have been) in the situation of taking care of ageing parents, and my own parents are of course not getting any younger. We talk about this in my circle of friends, and I know from their experience - and our own family's experience with my maternal grandparents - what it is like. Sometimes my grandmother managed to upset me so much I would have liked never to go there again, but I always went back, remembering what a great grandma she was when we were kids, and also how much help it was for my mother when it wasn't always her who was expected to go.
    Thank you for talking about this very interesting book. It does make me sad to hear of people who do not get along with their parents; I love mine so much and I am so grateful for them to be still around, and be near. But I know not everybody is like that, and every now and then it is good to see what it is like for others.

  5. It's interesting how each of us deal with ageing parents. My dad died young - he was only 63 - and I was a daddy's girl - I would have done anything for him. I was left with my cantankerous, very deaf mum but as an only child, she was my responsibility. We had some spectacular fallouts - I even left her on the side of the road one day after we'd had a huge row in the car on the way to the shops! (I did go back for her. . .) but we bought our big old farmhouse so that there was room for both grannies, when the time came (my MIL chose to go to live near her other son, thank God!) My mum had a small flat in the bottom of our house and lived there happily with her cat and dog, but then had a series of strokes. Fortunately, she was able to stay here up until the end, with carers coming in when she was bedridden. It was a difficult time, but one where we finally grew close. It was a huge strain, and I couldn't have managed without my supportive husband and my horse Fahly (I could go out for a ride and forget about all my worries). It was the right way for me, though I never cried a tear when she finally passed away - I think I had done my grieving whilst she was still with us, totally incapacitated, and her passing was just a total relief for all of us.

  6. Thanks for your review Nan. My parents both died when I was only in my 20s, and I have no children. But I do have friends who have gone through or are going through this kind of thing now. We can't all be perfect, but we should be truthful - and I am with you on this one. It may even take some of the guilt away from readers who felt exactly the same as the author but could not express it to anyone.

  7. Thanks for the review and recommendation! I've heard lots of good things about this book and have been half afraid to read it, because of the difficult subject matter. Good to know there's humor to balance out the serious stuff.

  8. My sister told me to read this months ago, but I couldn't get excited about a graphic novel. I guess now with a second recommendation I need to try something new! Ok , not a novel, a memoir. My iPad will not let me erase!

  9. This looks definitely like something I need to read now!! I'm off to read the other review and interview. Thank you!

  10. Thanks for your excellent review of this interesting book. As a Professional Organizer and also one who also recently went through the process of caring for a loved one and settling and clearing out the home (not that it was cluttered - just filled with life's treasures) it is nice to see a book from this perspective. This would be an excellent book for young college students in sociology and business classes to get an idea how difficult it is. In a perfect world this book would be given in a class in high school to all students along with money management called "welcome to real life".

  11. Bought, loved, laughed, cried. Threw away a drawer full of pencils. ( hey,it is a start😊 ). Would love to get to the point where your MIL is. I'm better at thinking about it than Roz's ( and mine) though. Thanks for the recommendation /reminder.

  12. I love your review. I also loved this book which was also a book read by my book club. For the first time in the nine years I've been a member, every single member (12 of us) loved this book! It was so thought-provoking and helpful. I finished the book with a big To-Do list for my husband and myself. Thanks for the great review.

    1. Wow, that is amazing about everyone liking it! Thanks for reading this, and taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me, Margot.


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