‘Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?: A Memoir’ by Roz Chast

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

Absolutely brilliant. Just loved this memoir by American cartoonist Roz Chast. It’s an honest heartfelt account of her parents’ final journey into old age, disability, and death. The slow decline of her meek father and overbearing mother is described in all of the detail that anyone dealing with elderly parents will be able to relate to–bedsores, assisted living, dementia, guilt, love, memories, worry, decisions, etc.–Chast holds nothing back. As she tells her story using cartoons and family photographs, Chaz strikes the right balance between humour and pathos. It would be so helpful to anyone going through the same experience.  If you’ve read this book, be sure to see the epilogue which appeared in The New Yorker in 2016.

Epilogue in The New Yorker

Note: According to the reviews I read, the graphics of this book are not well represented in the e-book format (Kindle). Hard cover is best. I borrowed a copy from the public library.

‘The Hummingbird’ by Stephen P. Kiernan

“We live our lives on a whole planet, seeing and learning and going from place to place. But eventually there arrives a time for each of us, when our world becomes smaller: one house, one floor of that house, and near the end, one room, one little room to which our whole gigantic life has been reduced. And when that happens . . . that room becomes sacred. It is the holy, modest place in which we will perform perhaps the hardest task of our life: letting it go.”

This is a story of courage, compassion, and redemption. Deborah Birch, a seasoned hospice nurse has a difficult new patient. And when Nurse Birch is off duty she is not able to get much rest because her husband is suffering from nightmares, anxiety, and rage.

The author weaves together three different threads in this novel: death/dying, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Pearl Harbour. There are two alternating story lines, one about the Pacific in WW 2, and the other about a hospice care nurse caring for a patient and supporting her husband who just returned from his last deployment.  The author crafts a gentle yet compelling story that is easy to read and beautifully written. I will definitely be reading more by this author who is a graduate of the acclaimed University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop and has won many awards for his writing. His latest novel which came out earlier this year is called The Baker’s Secret which is about D-Day from the French perspective. And another one that looks good is The Curiosity which is a thriller about a man frozen in the Arctic for more than a century, who wakes up in the present day.

Kiernan’s writing has a ‘fresh’ feel to me and I really enjoyed it. The season I read it in was especially poignant for me because my sister was dying and I began reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It was meaningful to view the perspective of navigating the decline of old age that Gawande brings and comforting to experience the compassionate care of the hospice nurse in the novel at the same time. Hospice care is such amazing work and I gained even more respect for it in reading this book.

‘The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism’ by Naoki Higashida, K.A Yoshida, David Mitchell

When The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon was published, it was an immediate sensation because it gave such a sensitive inside look into the mind of a boy with autism. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer did the same. Both of these, though wonderful novels, are fiction. The Reason I Jump is written by a thirteen year old Japanese boy himself, using an alphabet grid. Painstakingly Naoki constructed words and sentences that resulted in a one-of-a-kind memoir, giving a rare view into how an autistic mind thinks, feels, perceives and responds.

David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, (whose Japanese wife did the translation) writes a foreword and a postscript to the book and since he is an accomplished author, probably assisted in putting it onto bestsellers lists. His commitment and passion for this topic are clearly evident and come from a heart that knows the struggle of communication. Mitchell himself suffers from the speech disorder of stammering and his son has autism.

One of the difficult things is that the actions and interactions of people with autism are so often misunderstood. And there is nothing more frustrating than being misunderstood. That is what makes this such an important and revolutionary book for anyone who wants to better understand the effort it takes for someone with autism to navigate the world.

It’s a short book, mostly in Q & A format, with questions like “Why do you line up your toy cars and blocks?” “Why do you memorize train timetables and calendars?”“Why don’t you make eye contact when you’re talking?””Do you prefer to be alone?””Is it true that you hate being touched?””What’s the worst thing about having autism?” The book also contains some beautiful stories written by Naoki which reveal his acute intellect and imagination. Most notable is that Naoki loves nature and being outside in green just makes his heart sing. Like the friend who recommended this book to me mentioned, “Is that really so surprising? Isn’t that how God made us?”

‘Commonwealth’ by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is one of my favourite authors but this one was a little disappointing. I loved the writing, Patchet is a master at non-cliché insights, but the crazy blended family was a bit hard to keep track of and I didn’t connect with the characters as much as usual with a Patchett novel. The novel was enjoyable enough, it just didn’t grab my attention as well as Bel Canto or State of Wonder did. It did have one of the best opening lines of a book ever…”“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” I read an interview with Patchett about this book and she gave one of the best definitions of fiction I’ve ever heard: “None of it happened, and all of it’s true.” From the same interview, she said that her father was dying and actually passed away while she was writing this novel, and as I reflect on that, the parts in the story when Franny’s father was dying were the most poignant and most beautifully written–now that makes sense.

“One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.

Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them.”

‘Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat’ by Bee Wilson

“The food we cook is not only an assemblage of ingredients. It is the product of technologies, past and present.”

Food writer Bee Wilson does a really great job of looking at the history of how we cook and eat; it’s a look at kitchen utensils and cooking methods that we now take for granted. The modern kitchen and its contents evolved over time around the cooking practices of their day and were dependent on a number of factors that we are most likely unaware of. With artful sketches by Annabel Lee gracing each chapter, Wilson looks into things like pots and pans, knives, fire, measurement, refrigeration, and things as simple as the humble wooden spoon, the indispensable chopping knife, and the clever vegetable peeler. The history is fascinating and Wilson’s writing style is engaging. She has done her homework and relays the information in an entertaining manner.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys cooking and is interested in how we as humans have evolved in our domesticity (also makes me think of Bill Bryson’s book At Home). Even though it contains not a single recipe, it does provide inspiration and a new respect for being in the kitchen and cooking even a simple meal.

‘The Walk’ by Richard Paul Evans

Wow. Loved this book. Gobbled it up on the weekend and am heading for the library to pick up the next episodes in the season,….oops, I mean books in the series; there are five all together, this is the first, but they are quick reads. This is not hugely literary fiction, but very relaxing reading…like watching a TV series on Netflix. My plan is to “binge read” through the upcoming camping trip!

I love unsentimental pilgrimage adventures. It’s such a brilliantly simple premise for a novel and always so full of promise. If you liked Rachel Joyce’s Harold Fry or Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, or anything by Bill Bryson, you’ll love this one.

Alan Christoffersen has just lost the love of his life, his wife McKale. As if that weren’t enough, he also has lost his ad agency, his business partner, his house, his cars…everything really. On a whim (and as an alternative to swallowing two bottles of his wife’s left over pills) he decides the thing to do is to walk to Key West, Florida which is the furthest possible point from where he lives in Seattle, Washington. He packs up and sets off. This book has short snappy chapters. It is inspirational, humorous, and uplifting, despite the serious reasons for the journey. Feel free to walk along!

Series Book List

‘Requiem’ by Frances Itani

 21,000 Japanese-Canadians  were rounded up and placed in internment camps during World War 2. This work of historical fiction reads like a memoir. Themes of loss and grief in one man are woven together seamlessly with stories of those who suffered unjustly at the hands of government forces. I remember reading about similar American history in Snow Falling on Cedars, and was myself unaware that this had happened in Canada as well. Probably the most famous novel about this history was written by Joy Kagawa in a novel called Obasan.

This is a quiet novel, evocative, lyrical and beautifully written. Though there is not much plot, there is movement as Bin Okuma, after losing his wife and struggling with his art work, travels across the country with his beloved dog Basil, hunting down ghosts of his childhood. He travels to meet his First Father to uncover some mysteries of the past. The book is a historical account of the tremendous injustices of this shameful racism, but it is not without redemptive themes of love and art and hope. It is a story well told and very readable. Although I found it a bit plodding and slow at times, I also found parts of it fascinating and I am glad that I stuck with it. It will be a book that is not easily forgotten and is a good choice for book clubs.

Just as I finished this novel I ran into a quote okintsugi.jpgn Facebook which couldn’t have been more well timed and appropriate. The topic of the quote refers to an ancient Japanese practice called kintsugi. “When the Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.” (Billie Mobayed) There is a crack in everything. As Leonard Cohen says, that’s how the light gets in. Shattered pieces can learn to mend; brokenness creates a unique history that can become beautiful when it becomes strong again.

There are a lot of music references in this novel. For your convenience, here is a handy playlist.

Itani’s novel is this year’s choice for One Book, One Mississauga. It’s a city-wide library program where residents are encouraged to read one book over the summer, and then participate in events in the fall where the book will be discussed in more detail. It will be the biggest book club in the city!

Note: Itani’s husband lived the history in this novel. Here is an article about him.