Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Apocalypse and Aging

I might not have ever gotten around to reading Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?  When it was a finalist for the National Book Award, I added it to my Amazon cart.  But when the total bill horrified me, I took it out.

One of my Mepkin friends recommended it highly, and so when I needed to add something to a recent Amazon order to get the free shipping, that was the book I chose.

Am I the only person who makes purchasing decisions this way?  Does it say something about me?  Ah, well, a topic for another day.

Even though I knew the basic plot, I found the reading compelling.  It's a scary look into the future that many of us will face:  what to do with aging parents, and how on earth will we face our own aging when it comes.

It also reminded me of my grandparents, especially my grandmother who died at the end of 2011.  She was about the age of Chast's parents, and so reading this book was like visiting her.

Rereading Jeannine Hall Gailey's The Robot Scientist's Daughter affected me in oddly similar ways.  The poems about the nuclear-industrial complex were terrifying primarily in thinking about all the ways that technology can go wrong, and the immediate impacts to the human body.

In a way, it's similar to modern aging.  It's great that so many of us can live so long, but that very situation brings its own challenges--and horrors.  Similarly, nuclear technology has made much of modern life possible (even as I type this, I wonder if I'm correct)--but it brings about so many problems, both anticipated and not.

Her poems that describe the Knoxville/Oak Ridge/Blue Ridge Mountain areas in which she grew up sent me on a trip down memory lane much the way that Chast's book did.  I spent some high school years in Knoxville, and my grandmother's family still had a farm at the Tennessee/Virginia border when I was younger.  Reading those poems was like a trip home.

It's also a trip back through time.  Her poem "The Foxfire Books:  In Case of Emergency, Learn to Make Glass" reminded me of the Foxfire books and all those other 1970's era books which seemed to say that any of us could be self-sufficient if we had a patch of land and a chicken or two.  It's a vision which still appeals, although these days, I'm inclined to agree with my grandmother, who always snorted at my vision of returning to the land.  She would say, "Why, Kris, you don't know how hard it is to live on a farm."

She was happy to leave the farm, to live in a world where you could buy cheap blankets at Wal-Mart, and thus eliminate the need to quilt.  I, however, am still enamored of that vision of the Foxfire books. 

The books of both Gailey and Chast show that even an idyllic life can only go on so long before darker realities intrude--which leads to the next natural question:  what makes this reading so compelling.

With Gailey, it's the power of her poetry.  She makes analogies and draws comparisons and many of her juxtapositions made me gasp with surprise and delight.  Particularly incredible are her Robot Scientist Daughter poems that give the collection its name.   Each time I came to one of them in the book, I said, "Oh, cool, what will she do with this angle."

With Chast, it's the humor tinged with nostalgia.  It's like visiting all my Depression-era relatives, all of them dead, again.  One small section of the book contains photographs of items that Chast found in her parents' apartment--fascinating--like an archeology dig!  And although we know the end of the story, readers don't know the story leading up to the end, the particulars.  Chast knows how to tell a good story.

Gailey does too--and that's another interesting aspect of both of these books, the format.  Chast's book is an interesting collection of cartoons, narrative, sketches, and photographs.  Gailey tells a narrative of sorts in the form of poems.   Gailey and Chast are both working in the genre of memoir, but they're doing it in new and innovative ways.

We live in an amazing time, in terms of our reading choices.  So much to read, so many ways to have our reading materials delivered, so many interesting ways to put a book/text together because technology makes it possible--how I wish I had more time.

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