March 22, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Nonfiction – Graphic Memoir
2014 Bloomsbury USA
Finished on February 27, 2015
Rating: 2/5 (OK)



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.

#1 New York Times Bestseller
2014 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Autobiography
2014 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction
2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Winner
One of the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014

Having just read Being Mortal, Atul Gawande’s remarkable book on medicine and the end of life, I was sadly disappointed with Roz Chast’s graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I’ve only read a couple of books in this format and it takes a little getting used to reading the text and looking at the cartoons. However, that wasn’t the cause of my displeasure. I understand that Chast was trying to be completely, perhaps brutally, honest about her experience with the care of her aging parents, but I felt she was a little too candid and somewhat hurtful in the way she expressed her annoyance and frustrations toward her mother and father. Not every negative thought needed to be shared to convey how difficult it was to take care of her parents as they grew more and more unable to do so themselves. I found myself cringing every so often, putting myself in Chast’s shoes, wondering how my mother would feel if I published a book about her final years. This tell-all felt somewhat disrespectful and in poor taste.

With that said, there was a series of drawings that made me laugh out loud. I used to have an oven mitt with holes and scorch marks, dating back to at least 1992. I have since thrown it away. I do, however, own a plastic pasta serving fork that has been missing a couple of tines for many, many years. But, hey! It still works! ;)

As you can see, my attempt to take a few shots of this graphic memoir failed miserably. You can see more and read a portion of the memoir here.

Click here to listen to an interview with the author on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Final Thoughts:

Judging from a wide variety of online reviews, I see that I’m in the minority with my less than stellar rating for this graphic memoir. It quickly became quite apparent that the author did not share a close relationship with her mother and I felt bad that Chast was compelled to express her unhappiness about that relationship in a public format. The details centered around the care of aging parents (the expense, the stress, the overwhelming sense of the unknown) were helpful, not to mention eye-opening. And yet, I believe Atul Gawande was able to achieve the same effect with much more empathy and tenderness, both toward his father and other seniors, than Chast did toward her own parents. If you plan to read both books, borrow Chast's from the library and read it first. Then buy two copies of Gawande’s: one for you and one for either your parents or your children.


  1. Like you I wasn't amused by the Chast book but saddened. The Gwande book is must reading for people dealing with aging and ill people.

    1. I'm relieved to know that I'm not completely alone in my reaction to this book, Mary! I wonder how I would've felt, though, had I read it before Gawande's?

  2. I have this book and just haven't taken the time to read it yet. After hearing what you say, I'm kind of wondering whether I should read it at all. It's not that I didn't have negative emotions about my parents and caring for them and making decisions and all. Not that I didn't roll my eyes and wish some days that I could just get in the car and drive off - never to return, but geez! I wouldn't have published something like that. Maybe the difference is that I had a wonderful, patient, and every so supportive husband and daughter through it all. Don't know what I would have done with either of them. Oh, and I talked with a counselor - extensively. Maybe this was her therapy. ;-)

    1. Well, it's a very quick read, Kay. Maybe you could try a few pages and see what you think. I'd bet everyone has negative emotions about their parents at some time in their adult lives, particularly feeling the strain/burden/worry about taking care of them in their final years. I just don't see the point of the insensitivity, but this is pretty much the way memoirs, isn't it? I wonder if the dramatic images in Chast's graphic memoir increased the feeling of negativity she expressed? I agree that having a supportive and loving spouse (and children) helps, as well as counseling. I wonder how much she got from her husband...

  3. Your's is not the only review I've read that was less than stellar. Just from what you've said, this will definitely not be on my radar. There's no need to be brutal to be honest.

    1. Thanks for your input, Lisa. Always nice to know you're not the only one who isn't crazy about a popular book! :)

  4. When deciding on books for Comics in February I flipped through this one in the library and when I saw the pictures she took of her parents' home and STUFF I decided I didn't want to go there. I understand that she was likely grieving but I wondered if it was also airing dirty laundry. I'm sorry this one didn't do it for you.

    And I totally get the distraction of the pictures/words--which do you take in first? LOL! It's a mental balancing act.

    1. Yep, it did feel a bit like airing dirty laundry to me, Trish. It also made me think about cleaning out my closets and drawers! I would hate for anyone to have to go through all our crap if we were to suddenly die. {half joking here]

  5. As per usual, I loved it!

    1. I know you did. :) I enjoyed your review!


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