Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast, 2014

It was against my parents principles to talk about death. Roz Chast

Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman. They do horror alright, but if you want something visceral—heart palpitating, shake you to the core, staring up at your ceiling at three a.m. scary—Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a must read.

Most horror happens in a realm of fantasy. Think supernatural creatures or twisted psychopaths you’d have a million in one chance of crossing paths with in real life.

In New Yorker cartoonist’s Roz Chast’s graphic novel, the villain is age.

Also, it’s not meant to be a horror story.

Specifically, it’s a memoir of her parent’s old age and eventual deaths. And for those readers lucky enough to still have their parents, Chast’s work is unnerving as it spells out in detail the cruel indignities of aging. Not just from the elderly perspective, but from the caregivers who may be torn between the needs of parents and the needs of their own children.

The sobering graphic novel touches on a part of aging few of us think about: deterioration. We dread the death but forget that it can takes years to get to that point. As each day passes there’s a loss of some kind: loss of independence, loss of control, loss of memory. And the one we aren’t supposed to talk about…loss of money. Yes, it’s quite expensive to die in the United States. Even more expensive to stay alive. Assisted living facilities, nursing homes, at home help and hospice— all these things cost money and even the most frugal savers can find themselves with a the dubious gift…living longer than expected and outliving their means.

Much like Chasts’ 2017 Going Into Town, the book is informative with the same conversational tone. CWTASMP it’s much more personal. While she recounts her parents’ death, she’s also definitely working through the complicated relationships she had with them.

I wasn’t kidding about the book being scary. Like Chast, I’m an only child.  Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about all our futures, especially when in ten years I’ll have three kids in college. This book doesn’t really do anything to allay those concerns.

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Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast, 2017

It began as a small booklet I made for my daughter before she left her home in Suburbia to attend college in Manhattan. Roz Chast

I’ve only been to New York City, Manhattan specifically, once in my life. It was a about seven months after 9/11 and even though I’d never set foot on its streets prior to that visit, I could tell the city wasn’t itself. In fact, the United States was trying to adjust to a new reality and there was this sense that we were all acting normal though we weren’t feeling it. As such, I missed out on the energy and hustle and bustle for which New York is known.

Roz Chast is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker. She’s also written and illustrated several books.

She makes it clear that this book is not meant to be guidebook. There are no detailed descriptions of places and activities, though she included plenty of hand drawn maps. It’s more like a “how to” book. How to navigate Manhattan, how to live in Manhattan and how to enjoy Manhattan. It’s also a persuasive argument about why to love Manhattan. The book is utterly charming in its sincerity.

Several pages show readers the grid that makes up most of Manhattan’s transportation system: avenues vs. streets, cross streets, the importance of Fifth Avenue, etc. There’s a chapter devoted to using the subway, complete with descriptions of the number and letter trains and the shuttle, taxis and buses needed to complete the journey.

It’s as informative and as it is entertaining. Chast has an easy to understand writing style, paired with jittery sketch-ish illustrations that help convey the meaning. Despite growing up in Brooklyn and living in Manhattan for years, she has a folksy Midwestern friendliness not usually ascribed to New Yorkers. Her teachings are done with patience and her insights are thoughtful enough to include what most New Yorkers probably take for granted. The tone is optimistic and assuring.

Though she left New York in the early nineties, Chast and the city parted on good terms and she has nothing but lovely things to say about the relationship.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, 2006

Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time. Alison Bechdel

SPOILERS

One of the instriguing aspects of the book challenge is that seemingly innocuous categories like “A book with a green spine”, which this book fits into, could have been anything. It’s such an arbitrary requirement that limits the book based on nothing more than aesthetics without placing any expectations on the content. It amazes me that I chose a work that was so affecting for no other reason that the color of the spine.

Not much about Alison Bechdel’s childhood was normal. Her educated, artistic parents settle in the small town of Beech Creek, PA (population 700) so her father, the local high school English teacher could also run the family funeral home (the titular Fun Home). They resided in a run-down gothic revival mansion though the family was not rich. Her father lived as a closeted gay man and Bechdel herself was on the verge of discovering/admitting that she was a lesbian.

Though it’s very much an autobiography, Bechdel’s groundbreaking work centers around the complicated relationship she had with her complicated father. He loomed as a shadowy figure rather than an actual living breathing human being. Though physically present, he remained emotionally detached as he grappled with conflicting forces: his repressed sexual urges and familial and social responsibilities. Trying to decipher her enigmatic father decades after his death, she recalls the good, the bad and the confounding parts of her journey from childhood to adulthood.

Bechdel is a complicated figure herself. Fascinated by images of masculinity and men’s fashion, she eschews anything girly or overtly feminine. In college, she comes out, a daunting yet liberating realization. Just months later, her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Though his death could easily have been tragic accident, she considers it suicide. It haunts Bechdel, leaving her to wonder if her announcement may have been a factor, if not the catalyst for his choice, a heavy burden for a young woman.

Each panel is highly detailed and dense with visual information, like still frames shot in deep focus. She doesn’t shy away from nudity or sexual situations which can be jarring—especially if you’re reading it in the waiting room of your kids’ orthodontist’s office. Being allowed so much access into someone’s life feels voyeuristic at times, mostly because Bechdel’s experience is so specific I couldn’t even pretend to relate though I certainly sympathize.

Overlaying her childhood on top of the literature that was so important to both her and her father she draws comparisons to tragic figures like Daedalus and Gatsby as well as authors like Camus and Joyce. It’s as if she’s analyzing him against the field of literature rather than psychology. Of course, with complicated questions and subjects, there’s never easy answers. Fun Home doesn’t pretend to offer any. Bechdel simply shares her thoughts, opinions and musings about her unique childhood.

Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi, 2005


…Okay! I’m going to tell you this story. But you have to promise never to repeat it to anyone! Marjane Satrapi

In Persopolis, Satrapi shared her childhood with the reader. In Embroideries, she’s a young woman, sitting at the grown-up table with the women in her family as they share their stories about men, relationships and sex. Told in her irreverent voice and illustrated with her bold black and white strokes, Satrapi captures the casual conversations of these friends as they share secrets.

Through memories and insights revealed by Satrapi’s relatives and friends, the reader learns about a rarely considered topic, the sex lives of Iranian women. Each woman has her own story, ranging from humorous to heartbreaking, from predictable to scandalous. They talk about affairs and arranged marriages, human anatomy and reconstructive surgeries.

Some of the women have had fulfilling experiences, some not so much. One woman, Parvine, shares her horror story of being married at thirteen to a sixty-nine-year old general. Luckily, she escaped on her wedding night. Azzi, a desolate young woman, admits that her husband married her for the wedding gifts and asked for a divorce soon after consummating the marriage.

The conversation isn’t just about sex. The title is slang for hymenoplasty, a surgical procedure to “restore” virginity. This leads to other topics like Iran’s unfair obsession with female virginity or the expectation placed on women to keep themselves attractive even if it requires surgeries like butt lifts, breast augmentation, nose jobs and the titular embroidery.

Through it all the women retain their humor. There are serious differences between the way Iran and the west view and legislate sex.  That grown women could face serious social repercussions for being sexually active is ridiculous but that certainly isn’t unique to Iran. Even in the United States, virginity is considered a character trait rather than a temporary state. Women are shamed for engaging in sexual activities. Hell, women are shamed for rape by people who don’t understand consent. Yet, for Iranian women, there seems to be this looming entity, intangible and abstract. Sex comes with more serious repercussions. There’s a cost for sexuality that there isn’t here in the United States.

This review was difficult for me to write. The book itself is filled with brutal honesty and acerbic humor. It was a joy to hear from an oft-ignored demographic. I guess my hesitation comes from my ignorance about Iran and the social constructs in which these women live. I feel like the stupid American discovering a society that’s been there for centuries and staring slack-jawed at the realization that Iranian women are just like me in many ways. I’ll admit that they have more freedoms than I realized. They’ve found ways to retain their sense of selves in a system that tries to keep them invisible.

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi, 2006

Spoilers

You don’t remember me?
Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi’s work, honest and visceral, usually focuses on politics and society’s impact herself and those she loves. In the autobiographical Persepolis she reflects on the way the Islamic Revolution changed the course of her childhood. In Embroideries she studies the damaging repercussions unfair societal expectations have on Iranian women’s sexuality.

In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi steps away from the spotlight and shines it on her great uncle Nasser Ali Khan. Primarily, the last eight days of his life.

Tehran, 1958. In a fit of rage, Nasser’s wife, Nahid, destroys his beloved tar, a stringed musical instrument similar to a sitar. He fails to find one that fits him as well as his original. Realizing that his days of creating music are over, he takes to his bed and waits to die.

Of course, no one believes that a young healthy man could simply retire to bed and die. His friends and relatives visit, attempting to cheer him up, unaware of the seriousness of his mental state. As he lies in bed, he reflects on his past, his choices and his contributions to the world. Towards the end of his life he sees terrifying visions of the Angel of Death, but still longs to die.

On the surface, Nasser comes across as punitive and melodramatic. He rebukes Nahid’s apologetic offering of his favorite food, chicken with plums. He stubbornly rejects friends and family’s attempt to remind him of the good parts of his life. He seems like a sullen teenager sulking in his room. In fact, Chicken with Plums major weakness is the unlikable main character.

However, as one digs deeper and applies 2019 understanding to 1958 actions, we know this isn’t about the tar. From his early childhood, unhappiness has been like a heavy wool coat draped around Nasser’s shoulders. The final act that pushes him over the edge isn’t just a slight, it’s the belief that the happiest times of his life meant nothing to the person who means the most to him. It’s the death of any chance at happiness. Having withstood the initial crushing disappointment year earlier, Nasser’s life has been little more than biding his time until death.

Drawn in Satrapi’s signature harsh black and white and told in her cheeky voice, Chicken With Plums imagines Nasser’s final week as he makes peace with his choice. She doesn’t paint him as a saint or hero, just a man who had his reasons.

The Complete Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2004

Persepolis

We can only feel sorry for ourselves when our misfortunes are still supportable. Once this limit is crossed, the only way to bear the unbearable is to laugh at it. Marjane Satrapi

Originally written in French and translated (2018 Reading Challenge) into several languages, Marjane Satrapi’s recounts life from childhood to young adulthood during Iran’s Islamic Revolution. As a Bildungsroman, a type of memoir focusing on one’s years of educational or spiritual growth (I learned that skimming the Wikipedia article for Persepolis) she not only discusses the historical events, but what it meant to her as a child and how it impacted her young adulthood.

Satrapi’s story begins just before the Revolution. She lives the best of both worlds. Her father’s job as a government engineer offers a life of privilege and security. Her Uncle Anoosh, a revolutionary, is a source of awe and inspiration giving her cache among her politically aware school mates. Her parents encourage her education and political awakening even as an oppressive force looms in the distance.

The new regime quickly chips away at the people’s freedoms—requiring the veil, segregating schools by gender, jailing and executing those who speak out against the fundamentalists—and erodes Satrapi’s childhood. Eventually, her parents send her to Austria for her safety and well-being. Upon her return years later, she finds she is a foreigner in her own homeland.  She writes, “I was a westerner in Iran, an Iranian in the West. I had no identity.”

Satrapi’s stark images—black and white, no greys—fit the tone and content of her life’s view perfectly. Like most young people, she believes the world should function according to her limited viewpoint. It’s her way or it’s wrong.

She portrays moments of despair—sacrifice, separation and death are companions to war—yet the story never gets maudlin. In fact, like most survivors, she finds humor in the absurdity of her rapidly changing world. She doesn’t dwell too long on the gory details, but she doesn’t shield the reader from them either. War and oppression are not pretty, and life doesn’t go back to normal. The book is surprisingly uplifting in many ways. As the society in which she dwells gets crushed under the weight of a new normal, Satrapi, her parents and grandmother really stay the same. The rebellious fire may have to be hidden, but it still burns.

Danger is Everywhere, David O’Doherty and Chris Judge, 2014

danger

Watch out for the page 9 scorpion.

Humor is subjective, based on the skill of the author and the tastes of the reader. For the Laugh Out Loud book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge) I felt a bit of pressure. Do I literally need to laugh out loud? Do chuckles count? Should I give myself a page number limit, like if I haven’t laughed out loud by page 15 I have to start a new book? I wasn’t sure how literally I should take this challenge.

And then I realized, I was already reading a book that made me laugh out loud sincerely and consistently. The only problem… it’s a kid’s book. I read and reread the challenge, and nothing said it couldn’t target the primary school demographic. It’s only criteria seemed to be making me laugh out loud. And, bonus, it tied in perfectly with the anxiety I felt about the challenge.

“Danger is Everywhere”, a manual to help potential dangerologists learn to recognize everyday threaths, is presented by the very nervous and hyper-aware Docter (yes, with an e) Noel Zone, the world’s foremost expert in dangerology (a subject he invented himself). He prides himself on seeing the threat in everyday life like bike riding or sleeping in a bed or toilet sharks and shares his wisdom with us PODs (Pupils of Dangerology).

Complete with helpful abbreviations like T-COD (Tiny Cape of Dangerology) and POWDMB (Pointing Out Where Danger Might Be) Dr. Noel Zone sheds light on the unknown dangers lurking in our everyday lives. Like the piano walrus and mailbox octopi. But the book isn’t just about POWDMBing. It offers helpful solutions. Did you know if you find yourself face to face with a polar bear the best thing to do is not run or play dead, but rather amaze him with a card trick?

At the end of the book there’s the DETBAFOD (Dangerology Examination To Become a Full-On Dangerologist) that, when passed, will bestow the reader the title of Full on Dangerologist (Level 1).

Like all great kids’ books, it has high levels of absurdity and goofiness. While it’s written as a handbook, the format feels a lot like the slew of “diaries” out there for tweens like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries. As a graphic novel, there are tons of illustrations so even reluctant readers might find the 240 pages at least tolerable if not enjoyable. And best of all, it’s a great read for the entire family, something that doesn’t always happen in the world of kids’ lit. Believe me, I’ve sat through some eye-rollingly bad kids books. When one can make everyone dissolve into laughter, it’s a winner.