Saturday, August 16, 2014

Review Double Feature - "Celie Valentine" and "Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?"

Dealing with the decline in health and acuity in a loved one is a difficult thing to process, no matter what your age.  In an unforeseen coincidence, two books I recently read both dealt with this issue, one from the point of view of a young grandchild, The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, and one from the memories of an adult daughter, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.  One is lower middle grade diary fiction and the other is a graphic memoir intended for adults.  But these books are so similar, I couldn’t help but conflate them, especially given that the fates aligned to have me read them back to back.

In Friendship Over, young Celie Valentine pores her heart out into a journal given to her by her father so that she may “work through your feelings”.  Celie’s other gift was a punching bag, for the same reason.  And Celie has feelings to get out, boy howdy.  Her best friend in the whole world, Lula, has suddenly and inexplicably stopped talking to her, and has iced her out completely.   Celie is nestled in the anger portion of her grief over the loss of her friendship, and lets loose on her diary all her frustrations, in words and pictures.  To add to her tumult, things are tense in her home because her beloved Granny has been unreachable, and her health has become suspect.  Celie doesn’t understand why her parents are worried that Granny’s “mind is slipping”.  What does that even mean?

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, on the other hand, is Roz Chast’s chronicle of the last several years of her elderly parents lives.  In their nineties, though seemingly healthy and, especially in her mother’s case, sturdy, Chast's parents bristle when she broaches the topic of their plans.  Enter the titular comment.  As her parents’ health and mental awareness  declines, Chast goes from bi-weekly visits to deliver groceries to overnight trips to the ramshackle Brooklyn apartment her family had always called home.  When it becomes clear that her parents can no longer live on their own, Chast moves them closer to her home in Connecticut to an assisted living facility, therein referred to as “The Place”, and continues to make arrangements for them and care for them until the end.

Having read the two books back to back, the contrast between the two point of views, that of a young person, and an adult, on the concepts and realities of aging, were striking.  Sternberg’s Celie, first so adamant that her Granny is absolutely fine (why wouldn’t she be?), transitions into a fierce protectiveness and take charge attitude.   She suggests that her Granny come live with her family (even if it means giving up her bed and sleeping on a saggy air mattress) before the topic had even been broached by her parents.  Friendship Over is the first in a new series, so time will tell how much this storyline will play into the series as a whole, but I can only assume Granny will continue to be a big part of Celie’s life.

Roz Chast, however, is the adult in her situation, and as an only child, the sole person responsible for her parents care and welfare.  The issue?  Chast’s relationship with her parents is hardly one you would call warm and fuzzy, especially with her domineering, obstinate and belligerent mother.  So Chast has a different mindset than Celie, one that is concerned for her parents, but also concerned with the financial cost of their care, the ethical cost of prolonging their lives, and even the mammoth task of evacuating a 70+ year partnership out of an apartment.  The tale of Roz and her parents' apartment, from processing the years and years and years of stuff, separating the wheat from the chaff, giving up on finding wheat, finally leaving the whole mess for the landlord to sort/steal/throw out the window and the subsequent reevaluation of her own collection and accumulation of stuff is one of the most hilarious moments in her memoir.  Oh, right.  Did I mention Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is supposed to be funny?  It is, and dreadfully so.  I can’t count the number of times I laughed out loud, at something that is both utterly tragic and authentic, but dead funny at the same time. I would think that Roz Chast is sharing one of the most difficult passages of her life, in the hopes that readers can laugh where she could not, in accordance to the ultimate absurdity of human life in general.

Unless one dies young, dealing with the passing of a loved one is an inevitable part of life.  Thanks to Julie Sternberg and Roz Chast, we now have two wonderful new books to help us through.

The Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine: Friendship Over by Julie Sternberg, illustratred by Johanna Wright
2014, Boyds Mills Press
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
2014, Bloomsbury USA
Library copy

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